Obituary: Professor Donald McKenzie

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DONALD MCKENZIE, one of the most stimulating and influential of university teachers of his generation, was as much at home in his adopted England as his native New Zealand.

He was born in Timaru, a small town about a hundred miles south of Christchurch, in South Island. The family's means were modest. In due course, they moved to Palmerston North, in North Island, and then to Wellington. By chance, at the age of about 14, he read King Lear. He was profoundly affected. To hear him read passages from that play even near the end of his life, and to witness his dramatic and interpretative energies, was to begin to understand how much English drama meant to him.

But school came to an end when Don was 16, and he joined the Post Office as an apprentice, assigned to the Public Relations Department. There he struck up a friendship with the artist Don Peebles, who showed him how to understand art, and introduced him to a wider appreciation of the theatre. The Post Office encouraged him to enroll part-time in what was then still Victoria University College, to read English. The Wellington Shakespeare Society fostered his growing love of theatre, and here he met his first wife. He thought of a career in journalism and (this was the era of McCarthyism in America) came under some suspicion for his interest in Russian.

After taking his MA, he was appointed by Ian Gordon to a junior post in the English Department. A year later, he won a Leverhulme scholarship to come to Cambridge as a research student, with wife and small son. These were lonely days, and he recalled with especial affection the care given to him by Bruce Dickins at Corpus Christi College and by Muriel Bradbrook in the English Faculty. His subject was the working conditions of printers' compositors during a period that would comfortably contain Shakepeare's adult life. However, this proved disappointing, and when after some months his supervisor Philip Gaskell drew attention to the virtually unused archives of the Cambridge University Press from the 1690s and early 18th century, he seized on them with gratitude.

It remained a source of wonder to him that the English Faculty condoned a thesis so much of which was economic history. Money from New Zealand was only sufficient for three years in all, and so he completed his newly framed PhD thesis in the remaining two.

It was no frugal and hasty apology. With its wealth of documentation and informed attention to the relationship between the finished books and the records of their production, he brought the printing house to life, disproved many old theories and assumptions about why books look as they do, and laid the foundation for much of the rest of his career. The resulting two volumes, The Cambridge University Press 1696-1712: a bibliographical study, published in 1966, remain the locus classicus on the daily running of an early printing house.

He returned to New Zealand, making use of the slow sea voyage to work away at his typewriter. Appointed to a more senior post at Victoria, where in 1969 he became Professor of English Language and Literature, for the next several years he moved between New Zealand and England, longing to be amongst the archives and libraries of England, but once there always aching to return home. With the help of microfilms of the relevant manuscripts, and slow ships, he brought together a series of surveys of apprentices of the London Stationers' Company from the 17th and 18th centuries (published in three volumes, 1961-78), and so gave new impetus to the prosopography of the British book trade.

In Wellington, in 1962 he established the Wai-te-ata Press, persuading Cambridge University Press to lend one of its oldest hand presses and begging much of the equipment from printing houses in and around Wellington as they gradually closed down or were re-equipped. His list soon included Alistair Campbell, Iain Lonie, Peter Bland and others, some of the best writers in New Zealand at a time when it was difficult to get such work published.

With Douglas Lilburn, he established a series of scores by New Zealand composers. He became the founding Director of Downstage, the first professional theatre company in New Zealand; he took an active interest in avant-garde film; and, ever an idealist, he even thought (not for long) of politics.

Above all, he threw himself into teaching, with a vigour and intensity that earned him generations of grateful students. Whether in class, in an unscripted lecture, or on a more formal occasion, his energies and ability to hold an audience became legendary: one person describes his "hurling" his lectures at his hearers. By the time he was in his fifties, his mane of hair had turned white, adding further to a sense of occasion.

Nor did his care of students end there. The innumerable demands for references continued long after his retirement, and he wrote scrupulously, with meticulous reflection on the nuances of individuals' strengths. At heart, recalling his youth, he remained often uncertain of himself; and it required a conscious effort not to be wounded by criticism that he believed mistaken. But, for his students, and for his more general audiences, the day was won by his conviction, the logical structure of his thought and writing, and his intellectual, oratorical and theatrical strategies.

In 1987, he retired from Wellington. Always seeking to find 30 hours in every 24, he accepted an invitation from Oxford to a fellowship at Pembroke College and the English Faculty's readership in historical bibliography. The teaching was postgraduate, and he relished it, stretching the definition of bibliography so as to bring out innate enthusiasms.

It was the same in departmental meetings and in committees in Wellington, Oxford and London, where he served for a while on the Advisory Committee of the British Library. In the last few years, he would sometimes acknowledge that the zeal that he threw into his arguments, and the passion with which he conducted his discussions, could be physically dangerous to his health. Some arguments he lost. In many others, sometimes seeing matters with more vision or from a different viewpoint (there was a certain advantage in being an outsider in England) he would turn a room, and be proved right.

Not surprisingly, international honours mounted up: a corresponding fellowship of the British Academy in 1980, the Gold Medal of the (London) Bibliographical Society in 1988, an Honorary Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Humanities in 1988. His honorary doctorate from Victoria in 1997 gave him especial pleasure, albeit muted by current government policies for higher education. He successfully resisted suggestions that he should move either to Canberra or Virginia. In 1976 he delivered the Sandars lectures at Cambridge on the late-17th-century book trade, and in 1988 he delivered the Lyell lectures at Oxford.

When, in 1985, Mrs Catherine Devas founded the Panizzi Lectures at the British Library, he was the natural first choice. His subject, "Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts", was for him something of a departure, in that (among other things) he had to come to terms with aspects of French critical theory that he found unsatisfactory. Characteristically, he was still writing and adjusting almost to the moment he went on stage. In a generation already sceptical of some of the more rigid theories of textual bibliography, he sought to expand the authority of his subject. Bibliography, "the discipline that studies texts as recorded forms", "allows us to describe not only the technical but the social processes of their transmission": in these quite specific ways, it accounts for non-book texts, their physical forms, textual versions, technical transmission, institutional control, their perceived meanings, and social effects. It accounts for a history of the book and, indeed, of all printed forms.

He had tested the principles first on early drama, and especially on early editions of William Congreve, and had further tested them on, amongst other "texts", the film of Citizen Kane. The lectures (published in 1986) have since proved to be a turning-point in their subject. They brought new friends and invitations from continental Europe, and have since been translated into French and Italian.

No less vitally, he followed up questions raised in the lectures to explore the relationships between oral and written texts, returning here to one of the most difficult of all issues in New Zealand history: the Treaty of Waitangi, "signed" in 1840 between a non-literate people and the representatives of Queen Victoria. For years, he had been a leading advocate of the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, and in 1985 the library co-published his further work on this subject as Oral Culture, Literacy and Print in Early New Zealand.

From Oxford, aided by colleagues across the country, he planned the multi- volume Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, of which the first volume will appear later this year. For Oxford University Press, he worked towards a major edition of Congreve, that he has left all but completed.

His marriage to Christine Ferdinand, of Magdalen College, brought a further range of interests, and more travel. At long last, he accomplished a wish to see the old court theatre at Drottningholm in Sweden. Like others, they went round in a tourist group, and it was this white-headed professor from Oxford who pushed forward so as to have the first turn on the thunder machine - the closest he could get to the theatre in the time, if not the city, of Congreve.

Formally, he retired from Oxford in 1996. His last years were dogged by heart problems, but that did not necessarily stem his energies. A prolonged visit to New Zealand last Christmas enabled him to put many of his affairs there into order, and to see some old friends. But his dreams were never to be fulfilled of retiring for part of the year to his small house overlooking Cook Strait and as far out of Wellington as he could get while still having access to the Victoria computer. Instead, he collapsed in an Oxford library, hard at work on someone else's behalf, generous to the end.

Donald Francis McKenzie, bibliographer and teacher: born Timaru, New Zealand 5 June 1931; Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge 1960-66; Professor of English Language and Literature, Victoria University of Wellington 1969-87 (Emeritus); Sandars Reader in Bibliography, Cambridge University 1975-76; President, Bibliographical Society 1982-83; FBA 1986; Reader in Textual Criticism, Oxford University 1986-89, Lyell Reader in Bibliography 1987-88, Professor of Bibliography and Textual Criticism 1989-96 (Emeritus); Fellow, Pembroke College, Oxford 1986-96; married 1951 Dora Haig (one son; marriage dissolved), 1994 Christine Ferdinand; died Oxford 22 March 1999.