Steve Braunias pays tribute to the Listener, closed yesterday in the wake of Covid-19’s devastation of the economy.

This piece to mark the end of the Listener is exactly how I started writing for the Listener: late at night, with instant coffee, in a state of shock. The shock then was that the Listener – the smartest magazine in the country, a magazine with so much heritage and intellectual status that it scarcely existed as a magazine but more as a state of mind, a magazine that shone like an oasis of cool, sparkling water in an oasis of the boring desert of New Zealand journalism  – had asked me to write something for publication. I was 25. I was even more of a nobody than I am now. The shock then was great, exciting, terrifying. The shock now is awful, numb, terrifying. Its owners have closed it down. Scrapped, thrown onto a rapidly growing mound of trash in the new world order of Covid-19.

Its offices in 1986 were on Bowen Street near Parliament. Deputy editor Helen Paske phoned and asked if I would come in for a chat. I said I thought that could be arranged. I worked three days a week at a rug and cushion warehouse on Willis St; in my mind I thought of myself as a young executive, because of the row of pens in my the top pocket of my long blue coat with deep pockets. In fact I worked as a junior storeman. The only executive decision I made was whether or not to accept the senior storeman’s constant offer of going out into the loading bay with him to smoke dope. We spent a lot of time in the loading bay. The rest of the week was devoted to unemployment, which I took seriously and looked on as a likely career path.

Now and then I wrote things for a music magazine that was freely available in record stores. It was called Tom. It stood for The Other Magazine. The title was my idea – it didn’t make any sense, which has always been one of my gifts – and something I wrote in it had attracted the attention of Helen Paske. She thought it couldn’t hurt to test out whether I could write for the Listener. Mind, blown; I duly turned up at Bowen Street, and lingered before opening the glass doors into the magazine’s offices. They were the most beautiful glass doors I had ever seen. White frosted lettering spelled out the name of the magazine, and although I may be misremembering things I think there was also a frosted outline of a swan.

Helen Paske was a brisk, clever, very energetic woman with short dark hair and thin arms. She talked a lot, dazzlingly, and smoked, elegantly, tapping her ash onto a glass ashtray on her desk. I sat on the edge of a red velvet couch. When I left, assigned to cover a protest march due to take place on Parliament, she gave me a block of typing paper – special typing paper, with blue borders set a few centimetres from the margin. “Write,” she instructed, “within the borders.”  

I said, “But what do I write?”

She said, “What you think is good.”

I liked her advice very much, attended the march, came home, and when it got dark I started typing my story within the blue borders. I wrote from 8pm to 8am and this became my habit all that year when I worked on Listener assignments; time went fast, and so did the instant coffee, as I hammered on the keys and placed the pages of A4 on the carpet, cutting out paragraphs with a pair of scissors and Sellotaping them on different pages, sometimes intentionally and sometimes just to see what that looked like and if it led to an idea for another way of ordering the narrative. Such was life at 2am, 3am, 4am in a large house on The Terrace. The gothic lettering on the stucco front wall read VALHALLA, and it was rumoured that the even larger house next door had once been the residence of a Prime Minister who kept his demented son in the basement. A half-crazy girl with beautiful red hair lived there with a talented painter. She’d phone up and arrange to meet at the VALHALLA wall after dark, and kiss. “I hear you typing late at night sometimes,” she said.

In the mornings I would walk the length of the Terrace to Bowen Street with pages of A4 inside an envelope, pause before opening the glass doors possibly frosted with a swan, and sit on the red velvet couch while Helen Paske read the story and laughed. Elated, dreamy, a bit tired, I’d walk to Willis St and put on my long blue coat to wrap carpets and smoke in the loading bay. I lived my life on the outside of the blue borders, money went as far as toasted sandwiches and filter coffee at The Hob on Cuba St, everything felt either romantic or anxious, but I wrote for the Listener, that shining light of wit and prose and thought, which published incredible things week in, week out from 1939 to 2020 (the political columns by Denis Welch, illustrated by Trace Hogdson; political columns by Tom Scott, illustrated by Tom Scott; short stories by Janet Frame, the infamous “Jewel’s Darl” by Anne Kennedy; poems by Lauris Edmond, Bill Manhire; photographs by Jane Ussher, John Reynolds, Elspeth Collier; excellent sub-editing by Alison Mudford, Tom McWilliams; comic strips by Graham Kirk, Murray Ball; journalism by Tony Reid, Monte Holcroft, Karen Jackman, Geoff Chapple, Diana Wichtel, Margo White, Philip Matthews, Finlay Macdonald, Ranginui Walker, RWH, Bradford!, Lois Daish, Bruce Ansley, Michael King, Pamela Stirling, Mark Cubey, Sue McTagget, Vernon Wright, Gordon Campbell, Alistair Bone, Rebecca Macfie, a ton of other brilliant writers) and where I later worked as deputy editor in an office in which I sometimes slept off hangovers on the red velvet couch, as proud and thrilled to write for it then as I was in 1986, to be a small part of its amazing history, to work for the best magazine there ever was.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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