Story: Ballantyne, David Watt

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Ballantyne, David Watt

1924–1986

Journalist, novelist, short-story writer

This biography was written by Christodoulos E. G. Moisa and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

David Watt Ballantyne was born on 14 June 1924 in Auckland, the son of David Watt Ballantyne, a foreman carpenter, and his wife, Iris Joyce Foley, a grand-daughter of Jane Foley (Heni Te Kiri Karamu), who gave water to wounded British soldiers after the battle of Gate Pa (Pukehinahina). He grew up in Rotorua and Hicks Bay and attended secondary school in Gisborne, leaving at 15 after his father’s death.

Ballantyne wrote from an early age; his first published piece appeared in the New Zealand Rationalist in 1942. After a short period in the army (he was discharged due to pneumonia) and an equally brief attempt at studying medicine, he joined the Auckland Star as a cub reporter. In 1947 he moved to Wellington, where he worked on the Southern Cross and met historian Dick Scott, who became a close friend. In the meantime he had written his first novel, The Cunninghams, which, with the assistance of the American novelist James T. Farrell, was published in New York in 1948. This grim autobiographical novel was favourably reviewed in the New Zealand Listener, and in America made the ‘And bear in mind’ list of the New York Times Book Review. In New Zealand a year later it won him the Hubert Church Memorial Award for Prose. That year he returned to the Auckland Star, where he worked as a reporter and film critic and met Vivienne Jean Margaret Heise. They were married in Auckland on 16 October 1950. They had one son.

In 1954 Ballantyne moved to London, and after he found work as a reporter and features writer his family joined him. He won the Associated Television prize in 1961 for his plays Night of the leopard and Passing through, which screened on British television. Both were based on short stories later published in And the glory in 1963, the same year his second novel, The last pioneer, was published. A documentary, Frances Hodgkins, was also televised. He was contracted by the publishing firm Purnell and Sons in 1964 to edit its new English encyclopaedia. As the project would take a year to set up he became the editor of Finding Out, a children’s magazine. A compilation of articles from this was published in 1965 as Around the world: looking at other lands. He resigned when it became apparent that he was not going to edit the encyclopaedia after all and took a job at the Evening Standard in 1965. In London he met Dan Davin and his circle of writers, interviewed (among many others) Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock, and rubbed shoulders with Kim Philby, who worked for the Observer.

Irritated by commuting, and missing his mother and brothers, Ballantyne returned with his family to New Zealand in 1966. He was re-employed by the Auckland Star as a feature writer and literary editor, and wrote a column, ‘Viewpoint’, from 1966 to 1977. In the year of his return to New Zealand Whitcombe and Tombs published A friend of the family and two years later Sydney bridge upside down.

Ballantyne then collapsed into alcoholism for almost 10 years. The reasons for this may include the disappointment that despite his talent he had not gained much recognition as a writer or financial security for his family. This difficult period was drawn on in his post-alcoholic period to write his next novel, The talkback man, published in 1978. Here he again found his social conscience and with wry humour and pathos used the fad for talkback radio to comment on New Zealand’s changing society as it struggled to cope with economic recession. His last novel was The penfriend, published in 1980. During the 1970s he and his wife, Vivienne, undertook the care of their grandson.

Although he never joined a political party, Ballantyne wrote film reviews for the communist newspaper People’s Voice under the pseudonym he also used for the New Zealand Rationalist, Tom Joad, a character from John Steinbeck’s The grapes of wrath. He supported young and upcoming writers by reviewing their work in his Saturday literary page in the Auckland Star. His determination to give people a fair go ensured that the page was never dominated by the Auckland literary establishment. He also supported other writers through his membership of the New Zealand Literary Fund Advisory Committee and chairmanship of the Auckland branch of the PEN New Zealand Centre (1979–82).

Other than the time allowed by the New Zealand scholarship in letters he received in 1968, he very rarely wrote as a novelist full time. Outside work he snatched time for his writing from that which he should have spent with his family. Put into this context his achievements were considerable. In The Cunninghams and Sydney bridge upside down he created two New Zealand literary classics. Critical essays by C. K. Stead in 1979, Patrick Evans in 1981 and Lawrence Jones in 1998 recognised the importance of Ballantyne’s writing in New Zealand literary history.

David Ballantyne was a tall, lean, bespectacled, twinkle-eyed man with swept-back hair, who was almost always seen smoking a cigarette. His personality was honest, frank and open. Not long before his death he told a friend that success came too early to him. He died at his home in Ponsonby on 24 February 1986, survived by his son and his wife, Vivienne, who became a successful painter.