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Mulgan, Alan Edward


Journalist, writer, broadcaster

This biography, written by Lawrence Jones, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Alan Edward Mulgan was born on 18 May 1881 at George Vesey Stewart's Irish Protestant settlement in Katikati, in the Bay of Plenty. He was the son of Frances Maria Johnston and her husband, Edward Ker Mulgan, a farmer who was later a journalist, newspaper editor and teacher, and who eventually became a chief inspector of schools. Both sides of the family were involved in the foundation of the settlement: the Johnstons remained important members but in 1879 Alan's paternal grandfather moved to Auckland and in 1890 his father obtained a teaching position there. Alan attended Katikati School, Parnell School, and then Auckland College and Grammar School from 1892 to 1899 on a Rawlings Scholarship.

In January 1900, having missed out on a university scholarship, Mulgan became a reporter for the Auckland Star. Although not a student, he was active at Auckland University College, helping to edit the Collegian, publishing verse in the Kiwi, and writing a capping play. He remained with the Star until 1904, when he became sub-editor with the Press in Christchurch. On 9 April 1907 at Auckland he married Marguerita (Rita) Blomfield Pickmere, an honours graduate in English and Latin from Auckland University College. They had three children: Dorothea (later Dorothea Turner), John and David, all of whom were to write books.

Alan Mulgan returned to the Auckland Star in 1916 as chief leader writer, remaining there until 1935. He was also a columnist (under the pen-name 'Cyrano') and literary editor. He presided over a literary page that, while conservative, published work by some of the foremost writers of the next generation, including Robin Hyde and A. R. D. Fairburn. From 1924 to 1935 he was foundation lecturer in journalism at Auckland University College. In 1926 he travelled to England for the first time; the experience resulted in his most popular book, Home: a New Zealander's adventure (1927). Mulgan was a prolific writer of books and was active in the New Zealand Centre of PEN from its foundation in 1934, serving as president from 1940 to 1942.

In 1935 Mulgan accepted the newly created position of supervisor of talks for the New Zealand Broadcasting Board (later the National Broadcasting Service), and he and his wife went to live in Wellington, settling in York Bay in 1937. These years saw the new Labour government's expansion of state broadcasting under James Shelley. Working with radio stations throughout the country, Mulgan wrote talks (mainly on literature and the arts) and found and instructed speakers.

Recognisable by his shock of white hair in later years, Alan Mulgan was a memorable individual. Friends and associates recalled his excitable nature, which exacerbated a speech impediment, and a tendency to forget the ash on his cigarette. His outlook combined volatile feeling with gentleness. In 1946 he retired from the Broadcasting Service, and was appointed an OBE in 1947. He remained active as a writer, reviewer, freelance journalist (he wrote regular Saturday features for the Dominion), and occasional broadcaster until his death in Lower Hutt on 29 August 1962. He was survived by his wife, daughter and younger son.

Mulgan contributed to New Zealand's cultural development on several fronts. As a journalist at the Auckland Star for nearly 20 years, he helped to set the tone of one of the country's most influential and forward-looking newspapers. As foundation lecturer in journalism he was a key figure in the development of the profession. And in his position as the first supervisor of talks he helped to establish radio as a means of nurturing the nation's intellectual life.

As a writer, Mulgan began modestly with a school civics textbook, The New Zealand citizen, co-authored with his father in 1914, and went on to publish almost 20 books in a variety of genres, including drama, poetry, fiction, autobiography, literary criticism, anthology, travel, essays and history. He never wrote a book as important as his son John's Man alone, but he did produce some significant publications. Both The New Zealand citizen and Māori and Pākehā: a history of New Zealand (written with A. W. Shrimpton, 1922) are representative of the type of idealistic and imperialistic historical writing then in vogue. His one-act play, The daughter (1922), a pioneer work of dramatic realism, is one of the best of its era. The novel Spur of morning (1934), although flawed, is of interest for its authentic presentation of New Zealand at the turn of the century. His best poems, such as 'Dead timber', 'Soldier settlement', 'Success', and parts of Golden wedding (1932), are important as social documents and effective as poetry. The making of a New Zealander (1958), while too reticent and prosaic to be an effective literary autobiography, helps to define the spirit of an age.

In his satiric pamphlet Short reflection on the present state of literature in this country (1935), Denis Glover named Mulgan as one of a triumvirate, with Charles Marris and J. H. E. Schroder, representing the conservative literary establishment opposed by the new group of writers associated with the literary magazine Phoenix and the Caxton Press. This is an over-simplification. It is true that Mulgan's literary tastes tended towards conservative Georgianism in poetry and the genteel tradition in fiction, and he never fully accepted the rise of critical realism. Yet in his own work he usually avoided the sentimentality and melodrama typical of many writers of his generation. He inherited the optimistic faith in progress and democracy of turn-of-the-century liberalism, but as Spur of morning and The making of a New Zealander show, he was increasingly aware that progress was not a law of nature and that history could be tragic.

While Mulgan retained all his life the enthusiastic pro-English tendencies of his Katikati upbringing, he became increasingly convinced of the need to create an indigenous New Zealand culture, building on and yet differentiated from English traditions. Spur of morning dramatises this tension in its two differing heroes, Mark Bryan, the extroverted New Zealand nationalist, and Philip Armitage, the introverted Anglophile. The making of a New Zealander further traces the gradual synthesis of Mulgan's feelings for England with his growing love of New Zealand landscape, history and society. Standing between the Victorian and colonial values of his father's contemporaries and the 'modern' nationalistic ideals of his son's, articulating and attempting to reconcile the oppositions, Mulgan was an important transitional figure in New Zealand culture.

How to cite this page:

Lawrence Jones. 'Mulgan, Alan Edward', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4m67/mulgan-alan-edward (accessed 15 July 2024)