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Obituary: Geoffrey Dutton

GEOFFREY DUTTON was one of the most prolific, versatile and talented writers in the literary history of Australia.

His contribution to Australian letters was probably unrivalled in his generation - a remarkable output of nine collections of poetry, eight novels (three for children), and critical studies, biographies of Australian writers and explorers as well as of the American poet, Walt Whitman, travel books and works of art appreciation: over 40 publications in all including, in 1994, a disarmingly frank autobiography, Out in the Open.

As well he wrote hundreds of essays, articles and reviews for literary journals and newspapers: he was a superb critic, penetrating and incisive in his judgements. He was a formidable force as a literary catalyst, founding some of his country's best-known literary journals, as an editor for Penguin Australia and later co-founder of the publisher, Sun Books.

He was an enthusiastic advocate of government funding of the arts and mainly responsible for the establishment of the now internationally famous Adelaide Festival of the Arts. He was awarded the high distinction of Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1976.

Dutton was born in 1922 into a patrician and pioneering South Australian family whose English forebears had founded the state's first sheep stud farm in 1838 - a magnificent property named "Anlaby" to the north of Adelaide. He was educated at the Geelong Grammar School and the University of Adelaide, where he read English under J.I.M. Stewart (of later "Michael Innes" fame). He interrupted his studies to enlist with the RAAF, where he became a flying instructor.

After the Second World War, Dutton, like his father and brother before him, entered Magdalen College, Oxford. He was unimpressed with post-war Britain, of which he later wrote: "the climate was vile, the dinginess and overcrowding depressing and, worst of all, despite hopes raised by the comradeship of war, the class system was entrenched as strongly as it had ever been". But he greatly enjoyed his three years at Oxford, where a college contemporary was Kenneth Tynan and his tutors J.A.W. Bennett, whom he greatly admired, and C.S. Lewis, whom he did not. "He was like a jolly thick-lipped, red-faced butcher, only that he was not really jolly. You felt with Lewis that if you dropped dead as you went out through the door after the tutorial he would not notice."

After Oxford he toured Europe and returned to Adelaide where, before embarking on a full-time writing career, he lectured in English for a few years at the university.

There was an elegance in Dutton's writing that matched his personality. An entertaining conversationalist and raconteur, he had a wide circle of friends including leading local and overseas writers and artists such as Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd. For over 20 years he was an intimate of the Nobel prizewinning novelist Patrick White, notorious for his abrupt termination of friendships. Dutton suffered the same fate when White took exception to something Dutton had written about his work in a local journal. "I've had enough of Duttonry," he wrote tersely.

Happier was Dutton's friendship with the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whom he arranged to visit the Adelaide Festival in 1966 and again for a visit in 1973 when Dutton took the poet on an outback trip. "He had an enormous capacity for drink," Dutton recalled, "and he developed a taste for Australian champagne."

Dutton had many of Yevtushenko's poems translated and published and they corresponded for many years.

Another visiting poet whose company Dutton enjoyed was Laurie Lee. The similarity of their poetry was a bond between them - lyrical themes of love and an appreciation of the countryside. "Laurie had a crumpled look and an amiable manner and obviously enjoyed the opportunity to get away from the cities. He thought the lyric was still alive and well in Australia because we were all close to the country even if we lived in the city - there was something of the bush in or near every Australian city."

A period in the United States in 1963 as a visiting professor of English at Kansas State University and the American experience led Dutton ardently to embrace the cause of republicanism. On his return he wrote and lectured forthrightly that Australia would not achieve its potential unless it became a republic, enraging a then largely pro-monarch establishment. Nevertheless Dutton attracted a considerable following and in 1990 became an influential member of the Australian Republican Movement, comprising many leading citizens urging the creation of an Australian republic by 2001.

Dutton married twice: in 1944 the well-known enamellist Ninette Trott, by whom he had two sons and a daughter, and in 1985 the writer Robin Lucas.

Geoffrey Dutton's tall, slim figure with his mop of grey hair and his quizzical and always benign expression was usually discernible in any gathering of writers at festivals, seminars and the like. His zest for life, his friendly personality, his enthusiasm for writing and his readiness to offer help and advice to young writers, will be remembered by all who knew him.

Geoffrey Piers Henry Dutton, writer: born Anlaby, South Australia 2 August 1922; AO 1976; married 1944 Ninette Trott (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1985), 1985 Robin Lucas; died Canberra 17 September 1998.