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Jacket 16 — March 2002   |   # 16  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   | to New Zealand Contents list     

New Zealand feature

Mark Pirie

Alan Brunton as Publisher: A Personal Recollection

and two poems

This piece is 1,600 words or about four printed pages long.

I met Alan Brunton (1946–2002) just the one time. But the memory stuck with me. He was an immediate presence.

The day we met was the day before Christmas in 2001. He was in town to buy presents for his family and so agreed to meet me to discuss my manuscript that he had intended to put out through his Bumper Books imprint. I was feeling pretty awful that day, getting nowhere with a girl I over-liked, and so was not in the best of moods. But meeting Alan helped restore some purpose to the day.

Here we were in the Old Bailey pub on Lambton Quay, one of the high spots of Central Wellington close to the District Court, and Alan was there buying me a glass of wine and toasting to our success as publishers. He treated me with respect, had good things to say about HeadworX and JAAM and although we had previously only corresponded between our respective Wellington suburbs of Island Bay and Thorndon, there was a mutual friendliness between us.

He then proceeded to run through my manuscript, Swing and Other Stories, and quickly and impressively arranged the contents of my story collection, offering his editorial advice with his usual knowledgeable flair. He’d had some editing experience with little magazines but seemed to trust his instinct like any good publisher does. I was amazed at his thoroughness with the job and his suggestions were good. I kept all the notes he’d made on the manuscript and found them to be invaluable at the final typesetting stage.

Sadly, Alan died before the book came out. I searched for a new publisher and luckily Michael O’Leary (of Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, another literary small press) agreed to put it out. But true to Alan, I kept his editorial arrangement intact and feel even now he strengthened the book in his own and highly unique way. I will always be grateful to Alan for his input on my book.

So, then, to my impressions of Alan as a publisher and his contribution to publishing in New Zealand? I first came across Bumper Books (the house started by Alan and Gordon Spittle) in the ’90s when I was a student. Bumper was a self-confessed rock’n’roll type publishing label. Modelled on houses like The Beatles’ Apple. He had published a book of Gordon’s on Beat parties and another one by Martin Edmond, Chemical Evolution, along with his own informative and lively essay, Years Ago Today — Language and Performance: 1969. And I also knew that Bumper had just started publishing song lyrics by Charlotte Yates, Bill Direen and Barrie Saunders. All of these books I issued from the Dunedin Public Library.

I admired Bumper’s productivity and energy. Every year Bumper seemed to pump out the titles on limited finances and even more limited support from the bookshops. Clearly though Alan was succeeding in getting into print some rare and important books. This success spurred on my beginnings with HeadworX. Seeing a fellow small press publisher at work meant that I had some idea of where I could go as a young publisher. Bumper then became an early influence and inspiration for my work with HeadworX.

Looking back at our early productions, HeadworX and Bumper both started out through humble means, printing within tight financial constraints but publishing with our professionalism and editing skills intact. Early HeadworX productions (digitally printed) compare favorably with Bumper. The aesthetics behind the early books were far below what the bigger publishers could muster but retained a certain sincerity and faithfulness to our intentions, staying true to the artists’ work in any way possible. In this case that meant producing the work in anti-commercial format.

And there was that hands-on approach. Alan confessed to me in a JAAM interview how his early productions came about, usually with some driving involved to various parts of Wellington:

The first books we got photocopied, the covers offset, and then we folded and glued them together. At one point, we were driving out to Naenae, to the lamination place and then to Petone for the gluing. One garage after another, we were a garage brand.

However, Alan’s productions soon moved up a gear or two in the early Noughties. Alan found a designer, Grant Sutherland, and he produced some very up-market looking publications that Alan was very pleased with, in particular Martin Edmond’s Fenua Imi, which Alan sent to me in the mail as soon as it was printed.

As to how Alan found his manuscripts (also from the JAAM interview):

AB: I ask charming people at parties, ‘Do you have an idea for an essay or a script?’ As for poetry, I like wisdom to be attached, something thought-provoking; with swing, too. It’s not hard to get published in New Zealand. So many books ... so much production, most of it unadventurous. Bumper is meant to get something started, tossing ideas like small change into the fountain of possibilities; then move on, head out for the de-territory. I like to publish what I like to read.

Down-to-earth, to the point, but with a good sense of humour. That’s how Alan worked, but underlying it all was a serious intention. And Alan made his intentions clear inside each book that he produced. Bumper Books were publishing ‘experimental texts & investigative cultural studies charting moments when definitions changed’.

In the end I think Alan did make an important contribution and a lasting impression on small press publishing in the ’90s. Besides Alan’s own weighty list of publications: Moonshine, Ecstasy and Fq, we have Alan to thank for re-collecting the notorious Brian Bell, supporting Martin Edmond’s fine essay ability, anthologizing writing about Island Bay (Alan’s favourite), restoring Australian-based poet Mark Young’s place in our literary history and nurturing new talent like Jack Ross and Anna Hoffmann. As well, Alan and Gordon were among the first to print New Zealand song lyrics in book form.

It’s an impressive list in such a short space of time and a testament to Alan’s energy and belief in alternative and experimental texts seeing the light of day. As Alan said in a questionnaire response to Michael O’Leary about his reasons for publishing, his vision was ‘to control the means of production, to exorcise the demon of editorial censure, to prolong the infantile dream of liberty . . . ’

The Bumper list certainly does that. Further, it has opened the way for other small presses like HeadworX to continue that dream.


O’Leary, Michael, Alternative Small Press Publishing in New Zealand, Wellington: Original Books, 2002.

Pirie, Mark, ‘Alan Brunton Gets Jaamed: An Interview with Alan Brunton’, JAAM 16 (2001), 66–76.

Two poems

The Day A.B. Died

(For Alan, on the wild-side)

It is 9.40 a.m. in Wellington,
the other side of the world
a long way from Holland,
and Kim’s back-on-Air
doing her damnedest to brighten the Saturday
but the news is all I hear.

I go about my day
do my usual chores, thinking I have left
something, lost something but where? ...

I drive through town,
return some books;
it rains and I think I will buy
One-nil by Neil Finn;
Brazil play Germany tomorrow.

And I’m driving along the Quay
where he bought me a drink the day
before Xmas, toasting our lasting
success as ‘publishers’. He gave me some
good advice about punching
at fog, and we talked of Lou Reed
and I did my do-do do-da-do impression
badly, while he sat
complaining a lot about the ‘No. 1 Kiwi’ song ‘Nature’
was it rigged??!
and then, as he left, he walked off with a smile
both us thinking it
might last forever...


For Brian Bell (1929–2000)

‘...every person who bought him a drink and was
amused by his antics, every person, including myself
who allowed him to be a scapegoat, to be society’s
eccentric, is responsible for the way he was.’
— Patricia Reesby

Sometimes Berhampore seems a long way away
from Thorndon. And yet I just read there
the other night. No literary types, mind.
No worries there. Just your genuine

community group, with a fine old bloke
who sang us a folk tune to end the night.
Beautiful. You would’ve liked it. (If your
‘Poetry Marathon’ is anything to go by.)

Baxter called you a ‘satirist and a weird
essayist’ but Alan’s book on you
gives us more than that.* Here are
fragments of a life too ill spent to mean

much to most. And yet your predicament
could’ve been ours. So many pick up
the pen to write with a belief
their words can change things,

can alter someone’s life, or just
simply entertain, or maybe cause a smile.
Now, I suppose, many will see you as a failure,
but you are of course a writer just as much as those

more published, more celebrated than you.
Your friend Baxter’s now an Ikon in this country,
and some of your friends still survive you.
Let me light a cigarette for you,

raise a beer and toast in the direction of Kapiti.
Campbell’s still going, yet the old laughter of the ’50s
has long since died. Wellington is changing by the hour:
corporations now rule, the cant of the marketplace

is all we can find. Soon idlers like you will become
the fossils of our past. They’re cleaning up your town, Brian.
Better watch out! But, you know, when I finally find
a place, I’ll still remember to invite writers like you.

* the brian bell reader, Bumper Books, 2001

Photo of Mark PirieMark Pirie was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1974. He is the Managing Editor for HeadworX, a small press publisher of poetry/fiction. His poems have been published in India, New Zealand, Australia, Croatia, the US and the UK. In 1998 University of Otago Press published his anthology of ‘Generation X’ writing, The NeXt Wave. He is an editor of JAAM (New Zealand), the contributing New Zealand editor for papertiger, and serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Antipodes (USA). Salt Publishing, Cambridge, England, has just published his new and selected poems, Gallery: A Selection.

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