Michele Hewitson Interview: Dick Scott

By Michele Hewitson

Dick Scott, historian and former journalist and communist, relaxes in his art-packed sunroom in Mt Eden. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Dick Scott, historian and former journalist and communist, relaxes in his art-packed sunroom in Mt Eden. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Dick Scott, the historian, former journalist and communist - "I left the commies 50 years ago!" - did a generous and, according to him, uncharacteristically good deed this week: He donated a Don Binney painting to the Christchurch quake recovery.

The painting, Kotare over the Ratana Church, went for $270,000 at auction. He has no connections to Christchurch, or to anyone in Christchurch.

He said, and this was a funny thing to say, "I'm not generally generous."

Why did he do it? I have no idea, and I suspect he doesn't really, either. He says he's owned the painting for 50 years, that he has a lot of other art, and that the money raised from the sale of the painting would do more good than a painting could, sitting on his wall.

Still. That's a lot of money. He can't be rich, surely. Despite having left the commies 50 years ago, he has remained an old lefty, and New Zealand historians don't make millions from their books.

He gave me his address: a very nice street in Mt Eden, which is, to his chagrin, in the Epsom electorate. He doesn't approve of the sitting MP, which would come as a surprise to nobody. He said, "beaudy!" when I said I'd turn up at 10am. You don't hear too many people say "beaudy!" these days.

When I arrived at his house I thought: Not bad for an old commie. It is an enormous old villa and looks rather grand from the street, but he lives with his second wife, Sue, out the back in a sort of add-on he bought as a prefab and then added-on to some more by putting on a second storey.

He came to the door wearing rust-red corduroy trousers and green woollen gloves; he took one off to shake hands.

He said, "Oh, I'm not poor, you know. I wouldn't say rich, but I've never been into wild extravagances." He owns the big, grand villa, which is divided into two, and let. Why doesn't he live in it? "It's got a certain grandiosity that's not in my field."

The add-on he shares with Sue has a certain magpie's nest charm but it's a bit shabby in just the way you'd expect of the house of someone not given to wild extravagances.

He has a lot of what he calls "that sort of stuff".

That sort of stuff is everywhere and includes more very good art. The Fomison is in a family trust.

He has four children: three with his first wife (a son, Mark, is a journalist; a daughter, Rosie, is a writer) and one with his second. I asked whether his kids were annoyed with him for giving away the Binney, because you'd think they might be, and he said: "Oh, no, I don't think so. Not that they've confessed."

Anyway, he has plenty more stuff to leave them: bits of rock and shells and, well, just that sort of stuff that magpie collectors surround themselves with.

He has had rather a good time this week playing at being some sort of miserly curmudgeon. He said: "I'm not normally terribly generous. But I thought it's about time I splashed out and made up for all my meanness."

So what came over him? "Ha, ha. Well, I give a little, but it wasn't the usual thing to splash out."

Then he said, "Only last week I gave somebody $200!" Actually, he has a list of causes, somewhere in the nest, of those he gives to. He remembered one: Oxfam. He says he gives them $60 a month, "or something. And it's been like that for years and they've been suggesting that that's not as much as it used to be, and I've got bored with that. It stays at $60". So he was just playing at being a miserable bugger? "Oh, yeah. That was probably exaggerated. To be fair to myself!"

He is not beyond telling people who ask him for money (this happens on a regular basis, he says) to "bugger off".

Who knows why he wanted to give an impression of being a miserable sod when now he doesn't. All I can come up with is that he has a mischievous streak.

He has certainly enjoyed the coverage his Binney gesture generated. He said, sounding rather startled, that the auction gleaned a lot of publicity, and, obviously - because what a very kind thing to do - acclaim for him, for his generosity.

He says acclaim is something he's never sought, and that he certainly never wrote his books for that reason.

Most authors hope their work will be well received but he says, "I've only written for a purpose, not to write. I'm not that concerned with the writing." He says he doesn't write at all now and he certainly doesn't miss it. His purpose in writing the books was, he said airily: "Oh, some political object."

So he wrote because he wanted a platform for his politics, but these now seem to matter very little to him. He says he is now "a social democrat", but he never goes to political meetings.

I did ask him about his past political life - he was an "undercover" communist when he was a journalist on the Labour paper, the Southern Cross. Then he joined the party, only to become quickly disillusioned by its leaders who, he says, just went to the pub all the time while he and others did all the work. You'd think he'd be a disappointed socialist, but he just says that, oh well, he had the "wrong idea" about people.

But he has very little to say about his politics, or beliefs, or his books, all of which he seems to regard as ancient history. "He hasn't re-read any of his books for "as long as I can remember ... You don't re-read old history", he said.

He seems to be utterly uninterested in his output. He talks about his books, if pushed to talk about them at all, as though they'd been written by some other chap - one he regards with scant curiosity.

Of course, it could be that he read the lot just last week and possibly even quite enjoyed them, but has forgotten. He claims he can't remember things, and that memory is a casualty of age. He seemed pretty sharp to me. "I was wondering why you were asking silly questions," he said, after he misheard a question. I'd asked if he'd ever had any right-wing friends. He heard: Had he ever had any right-wing feelings? Well, no, nobody could ever have thought that.

I think he's a bit deaf but I don't think he thinks he is. He said of an old mate of his who phoned the other day: "He must be getting old. I had difficulty hearing his voice." So, hmm. Is his memory loss selective? Wheeze, wheeze. "Yes."

I asked about Jock Barnes, the president of the Waterside Workers Union during the 1951 industrial dispute (that chap who wrote those histories wrote about this in 151 Days.) They had been mates, of a sort, but later fell out. I thought he might talk about the politics.

He said: "He had a mistress in Wellington; he was married in Auckland."

What did he think about that? "I thought it was a bit of a grubby thing. I don't think I had any sort of equivalent when I was married." He doesn't think he did! "Well, you know my memory's so pathetic! I might just have had episodic unfaithfulness." Oh, well, that's all right then, I said - for want of anything better to say, while wondering why on Earth he was telling me this. "I want to be honest with you!"

But why was he telling me?

For effect, possibly. He does say the most extraordinary things. He must have known that whoever bought the Binney would have a lot of money.

But he couldn't resist a dig. He said of the anonymous bidder that he was "an extremely rich man", in a way which left you in no doubt that he thinks very little of extremely rich men.

He said rather rude things about the buyer to me. He also told me who the buyer is. For a former journalist he seems to have scant regard for the laws of libel. Obviously I can't repeat most of what he said, but it did make me laugh. He accused the buyer of being, of all things, a landlord. He's a landlord himself.

"To a very modest scale." And, he says, he's a very nice sort of landlord because he doesn't approve of what he calls "landlordism". He used to own quite a bit more property. This might seem ever so slightly inconsistent. "That could easily be!"

He is about to turn 88. He's allowed to be inconsistent, or mischievous, or a bit of both. He is also allowed to be a bit eccentric. What, I asked, is that great big rock doing in the middle of his living room?

"That came out of the Mt Eden crater." But what is a chunk of volcanic rock set into a small wooden, very DIY-looking plinth, doing in the middle of his living room? "I got it out of the crater." Is a respected historian allowed to pinch bits of rocks out of craters? "I'll give it back when I'm dead!"

I still wanted to know why he wanted the damn thing in his house. Did I mention eccentricity? He drew my attention to a small skylight, with bars beneath it, right above the rock. He put the bars up after a burglar came in through the skylight and pinched all of his "household things" and, strange this, left the rock.

But the original idea was that he didn't want to make "a prisoner" of the rock. "I wanted it to, if it wanted to, to go up again, sometime, up through the roof. But now he can't fly because the bars are there." It could just take off, by itself? "Yes. I give a lot of things credit for energy."

That's a rather fanciful idea, for a respected historian. "Well, I don't say it won't and I don't say it will! I'm not religious. I just have my own fancies."

Was he joking? I have no idea. All I'll say is that it can have come as no great surprise to his family that their formerly curmudgeonly father woke up one day and decided to give away a painting worth more than a quarter of a million dollars. As fancies go, that's rather a fine one.

- NZ Herald

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