A tribute to Stephen Stratford, who died suddenly at his Cambridge home last weekend

When I went to work at the Listener in 1980, it might have been a far more daunting change from what some journalists regarded as the cushioned perks of academe, if it hadn’t been for the congenial and gifted team under the paper’s legendary editor, Tony Reid. And there, the quietest among those in the sub-editors’ desks, sat the young Stephen Stratford. From a first hesitant query about a wonky sentence, there grew a friendship over the next 40 years.

Getting to know “SS”, as he always was in our emails, could be a bit like walking through a pine plantation, a figure suddenly so plainly there, but not quite the same as the one who had just flickered from view, when he next appeared. So at ease with friends, so good at ‘reading the room’, so sharp in his quick assessments, he was also what we like to label as ‘intensely private’. As one of his daughters said, the suddenness of his death, while reading a copy of Gramophone, spared him that public-privacy of a hospital ward, which he would have loathed. Yet he seemed so at home in the swirl of the journalistic and publishing and literary worlds, and the always diverting zoo of its inhabitants – so long as an escape route wasn’t out of the question. No surprise that he brings to mind Jonathan Swift’s saying how he loved Tom, Dick and Harry, but couldn’t abide the mob.

In this awful business of a vivid living man becoming a sequence of memories, fragments stand in for so much more. For me, these run from Stephen’s casual erudition, his professional standards, his courtesy, through to his sense of fairness, his contempt for posturing, his warmth, his wit. He attended, to the point of it becoming a vocation, to how language worked, to why writing mattered, and his interests in the other arts were wide. One of his books was about architecture. His interest in music ran from pop and the most obscure bands, to the higher reaches of ‘serious’ contemporary. I remember what it meant to him to meet Ross Harris, a composer he much admired.

At Stephen’s centre, I think, was a constant curiosity, an openness to anything of interest, and there were no rigid boundaries as to where that might be. He kept up – amazingly so, to me – with fashions, current waves, fine-grained cultural tremors and fads, but with sceptical, wary intelligence. He was at his best when he was writing about them. He was custom-built for both understanding and standing at an angle to Auckland’s burgeoning delight in itself during the 1980s and 90s. As he wrote of his eight years as deputy-editor with the smart-to-the-minute Metro, ­and its far from self-effacing editor, “Every morning I looked forward to going to work, and that was because of Warwick [Roger] mostly. He could be a total prick at times, but he was brilliant. I’ll take a brilliant prick over a competent dullard any day.”

It was a brave thing to do, and a financial risk that didn’t pay off, when he set up Quote Unquote. It was a rare beast in New Zealand publishing, an attempt to haul grown-up commentary and discussion from the crush between our iconic Siamese twins, Solemnity and Best to be Careful. Of course it rankled with some. A light touch wasn’t always welcome in the place of a Sunday School wallop. When CK Stead pronounced it “essentially a literary gossip column”, Stephen deftly turned the intended thunderbolt into his quasi-endorsing masthead. After the magazine folded, his online column was an irregular delight. I knew one fairly repellent woman editor in the UK who was an avid fan. It was the kind of compliment that could make his day. But living on what came to hand had its challenges.  As he summed it up: “The great thing about being a freelancer in the New Zealand book publishing industry is that one is always optimistic. There is always something to look forward to.  ‘I haven’t been paid today,’ one thinks, ‘but surely I will be paid tomorrow.’ Tomorrow never comes, but that does not impair the optimism.”

It’s an easy thing for a reader to forget, as a book is taken up or put down, or a new journal is flipped through, that what is important for the moment is a fragment of that ever-reconfiguring  ‘floating world’ that sustains the whole business of what we choose to read, or not. There’s a vast network that runs from the piece of paper in a writer’s hand, to the armies editing, assessing, reviewing, dispensing government support and contested funding; to the dozens of skills and jobs and financial enterprises covered by that vague enough grab-bag word, ‘publishing’. A book, an article, a published one-liner, is a community affair from the first tap on a computer to the last gasp of a remainder sale. Take that great edifice away, and a nation literally is on the way to crumbling. Stephen touched more strands in that living web than anyone who springs to mind. His working life was spent in helping to sustain it at numerous points, public and private. As a writer, I’m in his debt for invaluable editing. Several of my books were better than they would have been without his advising eye, the years of tact and knowledge he brought with him. There are dozens of authors I know who would say the same. Writers like the novelist Kelly Ana Morey, who thanks him for the faith that set her off.

Am I starting to sound a touch like a rant in a bookshop? I don’t mind if I do. There are things worth waving a flag for – ‘Stephen Stratford and What He Gave Us’. The man as he was so stays in mind, the friend – the wise confidante, the witty conversationalist, generous in what he admired, coming down hard on what he didn’t. I found it better to shy off politics when we met up. The modernist scholar and CEO, Sarah Sandley, got it in one, when she recalled that typical moment of anticipation when he leans forward above his glass, his pause for attention, the hesitancy that is a hint away from a stammer, as he then begins to enlighten one on what few so far knew. Gossip too could be an art form.

A friend indeed, as generous with his dead colleagues as with the living. What he wrote of Hodder and Stoughton’s once Auckland editor, Bert Hingley, rings now as if crafted to himself: “It’s not just the bravery, the commitment to his authors, the commitment to production values, not just the conversation, not just the commitment to lunches. But what a combination!”

A small consolation, perhaps, but a good thing for his wife Sarah Fraser, and his daughters Madeleine and Sophia to know. There are many out there you may never have heard of, who share these bad times. Whose lives Stephen enhanced.

Vincent O'ullivan is the only living author to have won national book awards for poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. His biography of Ralph Hotere was awarded the best book of non-fiction at the 2021 Ockham...

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