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Bill Oliver, 1925–2015

Historian and editor Bill Oliver, complete with pipe (pic: Massey University)

Historian and editor Bill Oliver, complete with pipe (pic: Massey University)

It’s sad to record the passing on 16 September of William Hosking Oliver, one of the pioneers of the teaching of New Zealand history in New Zealand universities, and the founding editor of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (now part of Te Ara).

Bill was born in Feilding and attended school there and in Dannevirke. He was proud of his Cornish ancestors and his roots in middle New Zealand. He studied at Victoria University College in Wellington, where he came under the spell of History Professor Fred Wood. He went off to complete a doctorate at Oxford University (on British Millennialists) before returning to teach at Canterbury and Massey universities.
It was at Massey that Bill established the first course that focused on New Zealand history, and he published a pioneering history, The story of New Zealand (Faber and Faber), almost simultaneously with Keith Sinclair’s History of New Zealand
(Penguin). Sinclair’s book came to be reprinted many times, and Bill’s was not, possibly because of its more discursive and essayistic style, cast in elegant prose and avoiding the Great Men and Great Events school of historiography. It still reads beautifully.

Oliver and Sinclair were longtime colleagues and friends, both poets and essayists as well as historians of New Zealand. They mingled with other writers and artists in their youth, and fruitfully sparred with each other on DNZB committees.

In the early 1980s Bill Oliver took on the role of founding editor of a new dictionary of national biography for New Zealand. He was determined as ever to make this, usually the most nationalistic of historical monuments, as representative of the actual makeup of the country as possible. This was a difficult challenge, especially in the selection of biographies for inclusion in the first volume, which covered the years in which the islands were discovered by Europeans, the British colony founded and settlement begun. The historians and other interested parties whom Bill consulted and formed into working parties had definite views and firm ideas about who was to be ‘in’ and who was not. Bill’s democratic plan was to include many Māori and many more women than were usually encountered in such compilations. This didn’t leave as much room for the pale patriarchal people and many noses were put out of joint. Bill stuck to his principles and a unique and memorable collection of lives enriched New Zealand’s historiography.

Alongside this achievement was the publication of a parallel volume of Māori-language lives of Māori people. This bicultural initiative was another pioneering achievement, assisted and continued by Bill’s successor as general editor, Claudia Orange.

One of the distinguishing features of Bill’s editorship was his guiding hand in matters of structural editing and style. Staff were treated to Bill’s handwritten comments on their editing, in terms of the balance and structure of a life as well as in identifying detailed (in Bill’s hand, always ‘detailled’ – he never could spell that word) points of fact and nuances, drawing on his immense knowledge of New Zealand history and the primary sources of information. These comments were expressed in economic and graceful prose. (Bill’s editorial principles and practices have been outlined in a previous post to this blog).

Bill was awarded a CBE for this achievement, and the project was fortunate to have his ongoing interest and attention, as he continued to provide advice and detailled [sic!] commentary for all future volumes of the DNZB after his retirement.

I suspect that all who worked alongside Bill (not ‘for’ him – he seldom pulled rank) will count it among the most satisfying, stimulating and rewarding periods in their lives.

In recent years Bill’s activities have been compromised by ill health, though his mind and interest have remained active. Few people, and certainly not Bill himself, had anticipated he would live to such a ripe old age, but those who have had the pleasure of his company will cherish the memory of the gentle and wise man who was happy to discuss all manner of contemporary subjects, and also to share the details of a long and full life. He’d had to give up most of his ‘vices’ over the years, but his memories of them were animated and cheerful. Recently he told me about his time manpowered into the broadcasting service at the end of the Second World War, and chortled over the jazz records he ‘borrowed’ from the service and took home to enliven student parties. He’d been reading to me from Rachel Barrowman’s recent biography of Maurice Gee, enlivened by erudite and amusing commentary. I’m going to miss his quiet charm and wise conversation. Nice that he’s left an enduring legacy and a cohort of friends and colleagues to celebrate knowing him.

Matters of style

The first section of W. H. Oliver's notes on editorial style, typewritten for DNZB staff around 1986

The first section of W. H. Oliver's notes on editorial style, typewritten for DNZB staff around 1986 (click to see a larger version)

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography General Editor W. H. Oliver must have compiled these notes, reproduced in full below, for DNZB staff on his typewriter about 1986. It was shortly before I (and Nancy Swarbrick, now Te Ara’s senior editor) joined the team that worked on the five-volume magnum opus, which was published between 1990 and 2000, along with its Māori-language companion, Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau. These notes have remained my guiding principles in setting the editorial style for Te Ara, of which the DNZB is now part.

The section on style is a succinct statement of the principles that have guided us, and also demonstrates Bill Oliver’s own limpid and delectable way with words.

Although the notes were written for the particular circumstances of the new and ground-breaking project, they capture the essence of how to deal with multiple authors on a collaborative project of reference and authority, as well as being a delightful piece of prose in their own right.

Bill Oliver is a poet as well as a distinguished historian. You can read more about him in Te Ara …

Bill Oliver, seen here as a young academic with pipe (click for image credit)

Bill Oliver, seen here as a young academic with pipe (click for image credit)

Editorial Principles and Practices

1. Principles

(a) Unless a major rewrite is necessary, preserve and if possible enhance the characteristics of the original, so that it does not lose the ‘signature’ of the writer.

(b) Look always for economy, but avoid over-compression leading to dense, congested and knotty prose (like this!).

(c) Be on guard against the omission of aspects of a life which, perhaps, bore the writer, or are not germane to his/her thesis, but which deserve a place in a reference work.

(d) Note, for further discussion, instances where a writer ignores fairly acceptable views with which he/she does not agree.

(e) Keep in mind the possibility that the originally assigned length may have been too great or too small, and note arguments for either expansion or contraction.

(f) When, as will be generally the case, the received length exceeds the assigned length, begin with the assumption that the assigned length was about right, and edit towards that length.

2. More on Length

Note at the outset the disparity between assigned and received lengths. If the received length is the greater, consider this as a prima facie case for reduction, and look for very strong arguments before concluding that the assigned length was inadequate. If the two are about the same, still look for chances to economise. If the received length is shorter, take care to look for significant omissions. In all cases, keep in mind the possibility that the assigned length was too generous.

3. Matters of Substance

(a) Ensure that the opening paragraph has a ‘thumb-nail sketch’: character, major items of life-data, note of occupation/activity/significance, main period and region.

(b) Be severe on over-elaborate detail – e.g. office-holding, particulars of military engagements, business interests and connections, electoral fortunes, family connections.

(c) Precis over-long passages on parts of career outside New Zealand.

(d) Note absence of physical description and indication of personality where (e. g. in longer essays on eminent subjects) it would be reasonable to expect it.

(e) Note when quotations, matters of fact not common knowledge, unusual opinions, lack a footnote reference.

4. Matters of Style

(a) Note, and consider the necessity of, phrases which weaken a statement and allow the writer to avoid making up his/her mind. Very often such a phrase as “It may have been the case that he/she believed…. ” should simply read “He/she believed…”

(b) Eliminate, except in unusual cases, phrases which relate to evidence rather than conclusions. Most of the time “There is some evidence to suggest that he/she believed….” should become “He/she believed….” (or at most “probably he/she believed…”.)

(c) Names of sources, authorities, other historians etc should never (well, hardly ever) be cited in the text. If a writer will not endorse a viewpoint, then he/she should not put it forward. If conflicting views are being rehearsed, they should be set out as simply as possible, without ascription.

(d) Eliminate all throat clearing openings to sentences – “In this connection….” “It should be noted that….” “As was shown earlier…. ” There is hardly ever a good reason for using words like “Furthermore”, “Moreover” and so on.

(e) Passages of deep-breathing will quite frequently be found. These are limbering-up exercises, quite useful to the writer in getting ready to say something, but of no use to the reader.

(f) Eliminate phrases in which historians are nodding and winking to each other , and making allusions which the general reader will find baffling e. g. “King Charles’s head”, “crossing the Rubicon”, “road to Damascus”, “noblest Roman of them all” – i.e. pretty well everything that is a disguised quotation, usually from the Bible or Shakespeare.

(g) Regard all adjectives with an element of suspicion, and pairs of adjectives with acute suspicion. E. g. “Grey’s characteristic honesty”, or “Grey was an honest and straightforward man”.

5. Golden Rule

Remember always that writers are expected to write an entry in a reference book, not an article in a learned journal, or a thesis, or a full length book, and that they will often be far more used to these leisurely genres than to a brief essay.

WHO [W. H. Oliver]

Working with Jock

Jock at Massey University, Palmerston North, at the launch of The Settled Landscape theme

Jock at Massey University, Palmerston North, at the launch of The Settled Landscape theme

As the time comes to wish Jock Phillips well for a long and fruitful retirement, we can reflect on some of the special qualities he has brought to the leadership of the Te Ara project.

It’s particularly wonderful to see his delight in the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in non-fiction, coming as it does when the focus is on Jock’s recent work for Te Ara. Jock wrote 43 entries for the online encyclopedia. That’s about 200,000 words, the equivalent of a very substantial, heavily illustrated volume. Not to mention that over the same period he also produced books, essays, interviews and blog posts, and wrote hundreds, possibly thousands, of captions, and read every single one of the over 3 million words in Te Ara – most of them more than once.

To me the outstanding qualities of Jock’s leadership have been his energy and his commitment. He has been totally engrossed in every aspect of the work, and his delight in the discovery of new material, new insights and new ways to tell a story has been generously shared with the team, at meetings, at morning tea gatherings and at social events.

The other truly notable quality of Jock’s leadership is his consultative way of working. He’s not short of ideas or the drive with which to progress them, but he insists on testing his ideas and assumptions with others, whether they be the acknowledged experts in their field, iwi and whānau with a duty of kaitiakitanga, or, equally importantly, his colleagues in the Te Ara team who will have to live and work with the consequences of decisions.

And this intelligence, incisiveness, creativity and energy comes with generosity, empathy and humility. Within reason. The man is profoundly human: witness his willingness to change his mind and to admit when he has made a decision he regrets, his recalcitrance on matters of progressive house style, and his appalling sense of humour.

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