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In Memoriam - Anthony Phillip Mann (August 1942 – September 2022)

Phillip Mann and I were born in England, but we both firmly believed that it was far more important to emphasise that actually we were born in Yorkshire. You can take the man out of Yorkshire but you can never take Yorkshire out of the man. Each of us travelled widely, and eventually we settled in New Zealand, which is about as far away from Yorkshire as you can get, but neither of us ever forgot our roots. It was always a bond between us. There’s a saying that we sometimes smirked over together. I’ll translate it from the dialect for the sake of clarity:

Yorkshire born
And Yorkshire bred
Strong in the arm
And thick in the head

The first three lines describe Phillip perfectly. The last line, of course, is a terrible calumny. Phillip was one of the cleverest men I knew. He was a subtle and insightful person with a deep understanding of the human condition. I am proud to have known him.

He studied English and Drama at Manchester University. The theatre was always his passion and wherever he travelled in the world he would always make a point of involving himself with local theatrical groups. He was a skilful director who coaxed incredible performances out of his actors.

In the late 1960s, during the so-called Cultural Revolution in China, Phillip got a job as a sub-editor with the New China News Agency. He lived and worked in Beijing. I’m not sure how he got the position in the first place, or how he managed to hold on to it during those turbulent and frightening times. But he told me that he greatly enjoyed living in China and his exposure to classical Chinese theatre and to the drama that came out of the revolution itself had a great influence on his own theatrical career. He left China and came to live in New Zealand in 1970. I asked him why he had left China. "One day I realised that my children were more fluent in Mandarin than they were in English," he said rather drily, though with a twinkle in his eye. "Clearly it was time to move on."

He wrote his first novel The Eye of the Queen while he was living and working in China. He sent the manuscript to the English publisher Gollancz. He knew nobody at Gollancz and nobody at Gollancz knew him. But they were the people who published the science fiction novels that Phillip had read and hugely enjoyed when he was growing up, so he took a chance. Rather to his surprise they selected his manuscript from the slushpile and it was published to great critical acclaim. And the rest, as they say, is history.

He went on to write many other novels and soon gained a reputation for inventing some of the most ingenious and convincing aliens ever to appear between the covers of a science fiction novel. I asked him about this once, and he told me that he based his aliens on the strange, creepy creatures he found lurking in rock pools on the Yorkshire beaches where he spent much of his childhood. He had a deep understanding of the ecology of the sea, gained partly from observation and partly from reading about it.  "If I hadn’t loved the theatre so much," he once told me, "I could easily have become a marine biologist."

His alien inventiveness reached its peak with The Disestablishment of Paradise (2013). This novel developed and described a whole alien ecology. The native flora on the planet that humans call Paradise are so interconnected and interwoven that the planet itself is perhaps best thought of as a living entity, an embodiment of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. This gestalt of life quickly evolves to combat the humans who seek to exploit it, to such an extent that eventually, from the human point of view anyway, it ceases to be of use and the planet must be disestablished. This was Phillip’s most ambitious novel and it was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award, a juried award presented to the book deemed to be the best Science Fiction novel published in the UK during the previous calendar year.

As a result of this nomination, in 2018 Phillip was asked to contribute a story to 2001, An Odyssey in Words which was an anthology dedicated to the memory of Arthur C. Clarke. All the stories were written by the award nominees. There was just one inflexible rule – each story had to be exactly 2001 words long, no more and no less. This was, of course, a reference to the Clarke/Kubrick novel/film 2001 – A Space Odyssey. Phillip claimed that writing to such an exacting requirement was one of the hardest tasks he had ever been faced with. His story was called I Saw Three Ships. It was a Christmas story written around the birth and death dates of Clarke’s life. Phillip re-wrote the story five times before he finally managed to hit the magic number.

For many years Phillip ran a Drama Studies course at Victoria University of Wellington. He was always thrilled and quietly proud when any of his students went on from there to greater things, as several of them did. There are New Zealand actors who are now household names all over the world whose successful careers owe a lot to Phillip’s inspirational teaching skills.

He retired from teaching in 1998 and, declaring himself fed up with cold winter weather,  he spent the next few years commuting between New Zealand and France, chasing summer up and down the world.

In the 2017 New Year Honours List, Phillip was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature and drama.

I met Phillip for the first time shortly after I reviewed The Eye of the Queen for a Wellington newspaper. He was pleased with my review and over the years we spent many, many happy hours together discussing art and literature in general, and science fiction in particular. He showed me the manuscripts of some of the novels that came after The Eye of the Queen and asked for my opinion. Sometimes he changed what he had written as a result of what I said and sometimes he didn’t, but he always listened very carefully to what I had to say.

In one novel, the protagonist is in hospital, recovering from injuries. Bored, and in search of some way of passing the time, he decides to count the number of tiles covering the wall that he can see from his bed. But he quickly gets fed up with just straightforward counting. So he counts the number of tiles running vertically up the wall and the number of tiles running horizontally. Then he multiples the two figures together to get the total number of tiles. Being the super pedant that I am, I checked the arithmetic that Phillip recorded on the page and I discovered that he’d made a mistake in the multiplication and the total was wrong! Naturally, by the time the novel was finally published, Phillip had made very, very sure to correct the arithmetic…

Phillip absolutely loved that little anecdote and he told it time and time again, laughing hugely at his own mistake. That was the Phillip I knew – humble and always willing to laugh at himself, but at the same time he was very erudite, widely read, skilful, sensitive, a wonderful novelist, a brilliant director and teacher, a man full to the brim with fun.

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