Page 1: Biography
Cross, Ian Robert
Novelist, editor, journalist, administrator
This biography, written by Ian Richards, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.
Ian Cross was a distinguished novelist, journalist, editor, broadcaster and administrator, best-known as the author of The God boy (1957), one of the finest and most enduringly popular New Zealand novels of the twentieth century. It was published in the same year as debut novels by Janet Frame, M.K. Joseph and Ruth France, prompting critics to declare that the New Zealand novel had finally arrived. Unable to make a living as a creative writer, he worked in public relations until he was appointed editor of the New Zealand Listener in 1973. In 1977 he became chairman of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, the body which administered state radio and television, his most important and influential public position.
Born in Masterton on 6 November 1925, Ian Robert Cross was the youngest of Mary Helen Glentworth and John Lionel Cross’s five children. John Cross lost his farm through bankruptcy, and during Ian’s early childhood he managed a farm at Tiraumea, Wairarapa. When Ian was about five the family shifted to Castlecliff, Whanganui, where John worked as a butcher.
The Crosses were a Catholic family, and Ian was taught by nuns at St Vincent’s Convent School, just across the road from the family’s home. He was under firm religious instruction until the age of 12, and an altar boy in the local church. A sensitive child, he was a voracious reader of books from the local library and good at English and essay writing at school. Although he was comfortable in rural environments, his parents did not think he was cut out to be a farmer. John Cross returned to farm work in the late 1930s, and Ian finished his primary schooling at Ngaturi Primary School at Mangamahu, inland from Whanganui. He subsequently attended Wanganui Technical College as a boarder on a two-year agricultural course and claimed that, at the age of 15, he suddenly lost his religious faith. He failed the agricultural course and decided to become a dairy farmer, but in 1943 his parents encouraged him to go to Wellington to live with one of his older sisters, who found him work as a copy boy on the Dominion newspaper.
Early journalism career and South America
Cross eventually became a reporter on the Dominion. He was now 190 centimetres (6 feet 3 inches) tall and somewhat gangly. He boarded at the YMCA and enjoyed the challenges of the job. He suffered a brief period of nervous exhaustion, but soon recovered on the family farm and returned to reporting, boarding at Dominion subeditor Russell Bond’s house in Highbury.
In 1947, seeking youthful adventure away from dull New Zealand, Cross sailed to Brazil with a journalist friend, Keith Berry, hoping to find work with international news agencies seeking English-speaking journalists. The pair spent an adventurous year working on banana plantations in Panama and Costa Rica, witnessing revolutions in both countries, before eventually securing newspaper work in Panama. In 1948 Cross left Berry to travel through Central America, Mexico and the United States, then returned to New Zealand. Arriving back in Wellington in 1949, he felt a strong sense of homecoming and of being a New Zealander. These feelings were to stay with him.
Cross soon became a reporter on the short-lived Southern Cross, a newspaper launched by the Labour Party to provide a left-wing alternative to the conservative press. In 1951 he returned to the Dominion, where he was eventually promoted to chief reporter. At around this time he met Tui Tunnicliffe, a woman one year his junior, at a party, and on 3 March 1952 they were married in Wellington. Their first child, the eldest of four boys, was born the following year. Around this time Cross campaigned in the Dominion’s pages to improve conditions for the animals at Wellington Zoo. He then applied for an Associate Fellowship in Journalism at Harvard University, which was funded by a one-year scholarship sponsored by the Nieman Foundation. In 1954 he and his wife and son sailed to New York and took up residence in Boston.
The God boy and creative writing career
Cross attended Harvard in the 1954–5 academic year. He went to lectures by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr and took an English literature course under Theodore Morrison. The English course required Cross to write regularly, and Morrison encouraged him to try his hand at fiction. Cross was also influenced by a television performance by James Dean, based on the Sherwood Anderson short story ‘I’m a Fool’, using simple vernacular language. Cross began experimenting with writing autobiographically influenced fiction in a vernacular idiom.
On returning to New Zealand, Cross had difficulty settling back into life at the Dominion, and in the evenings he began writing the novel that would become The God boy. The story was inspired by memories of his Whanganui childhood, of nearly drowning at age eight, and of a trial he covered for the Dominion in 1944 in which a 13-year-old boy, charged with killing his mother, wept in court and was unable to supply any motive. In his novel Cross changed the killer from the child to the mother, but had the child assume the burden of guilt. The story is narrated by 13-year-old Jimmy Sullivan, who describes in vivid detail three crucial days in the breakdown of his parents’ marriage two years earlier, and the eventual murder of his father by his mother. Jimmy’s insistence that he is tough, and that he does not really care about what happened, betrays just how damaged he has been by the experience. This is reinforced by his descriptions of the rituals he carried out to assuage his sense of guilt when his parents argued, and by his outbursts of delinquent behaviour. Throughout the novel the Catholic Church, and society at large, are implicitly criticised for their failure to help Jimmy, despite his claim that he just wants to be good.
Cross sent The God boy to the publishers Harcourt, Brace in New York. It was accepted, and at around the same time he won the Atlantic Monthly short story prize. He resigned from the Dominion in 1956 and found work as a public relations assistant to Sam Barnett, the head of the Justice Department.
When The God boy was published by Harcourt, Brace in 1957, the New York Times literary critic, Orville Prescott, gave it a lengthy and laudatory review. At the time, however, books could only be imported into New Zealand from Britain, meaning Cross’s novel was famous but virtually unobtainable in New Zealand until, almost a year after its success in America, copies produced by the British publisher André Deutsch began to arrive. It was first published in New Zealand in 1972.
Cross quickly wrote a second novel, The backward sex, which was rejected by Harcourt, Brace but published in 1960 by André Deutsch. The book describes the seduction of 17-year-old Robbie Henderson by an older divorcee, Mrs Ranier, and the young man’s growth towards adulthood. It was not as well-received by reviewers as The God boy. Cross then took up the inaugural Robert Burns Fellowship in Literature at the University of Otago in 1959, moving to Dunedin with his wife and two children for a year of full-time writing. His short story ‘Love affair’ was published in the Atlantic Monthly in January and he began work on After Anzac Day, which he hoped would be ‘the great New Zealand novel’.1 However, at a PEN Writers Conference in September, Cross was shocked to be berated by short-story writer Maurice Duggan for having ridden to success on the backs of other New Zealand writers. Although his Burns year was productive, Cross found himself questioning whether he could support a family on the limited income of a creative writer in a small country. When the fellowship was over, he finished After Anzac Day in a rush. An ambitious novel set around the 1951 waterfront dispute, and involving four major characters of various ages and backgrounds, the book was not able to overcome its flaws. It was published by André Deutsch in 1961.
Public relations and early broadcasting career
In 1961 Cross set his creative writing career aside, despairing at the lack of an appreciative local audience and uncertain of ever making a living from his work. He became public relations manager for the carpet manufacturer Feltex, which enabled him to get a mortgage on a house in Wellington. He worked for Feltex for 11 years, while remaining involved with the creative arts. He wrote a regular column for the Dominion in which he insisted that New Zealand should support and encourage its creative people; the work they created, however flawed, ‘was the only means by which a lethargic colonial people could begin to possess a self-sufficient mental and spiritual life of their own’.2 From the late 1960s he chaired a special subcommittee of the writers’ organisation PEN, which advocated for the creation of a fund to pay New Zealand writers for income lost through their books being lent by public libraries. Cross secured the support of leader of the opposition Norman Kirk and, a year after Kirk became prime minister in 1972, the New Zealand Authors’ Fund was established, among the first such schemes in the world.
Cross reviewed television programmes in the Dominion, and came to view the medium as a means by which New Zealanders lost sight of their own unique identity through submersion in the cultural products of other countries. He soon transitioned from commentator to participant, helping, from 1964 to 1972, to present Column comment, a seven-minute weekly television programme which critically examined what the newspapers were saying. He also appeared on the current affairs programme Compass (1966–67). Cross set up and arranged funding for the annual Feltex Television Awards, to encourage the production of New Zealand television programmes.
His administrative skills were put to use through his membership of the Indecent Publications Tribunal (1964–7), the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council (1967–72), and presidency of PEN NZ (1968–72) and the National Commission for UNESCO (1969–72). In 1971 his drama, City of no, was broadcast on television.
The New Zealand Listener and the broadcasting administration
In 1973 Cross abandoned his lucrative public relations career and moved fully into public service broadcasting, where he remained for the rest of his career. He spent four years as editor of the New Zealand Listener, a magazine produced by the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC). The Listener was one of the country’s most popular weekly publications, carrying current affairs and lifestyle articles, literary content, and the only advance listings for radio and television broadcasts. Cross felt that, as editor, he could contribute to fostering New Zealand culture by reviving an ailing cultural institution, which was then in difficulties following the controversial dismissal of editor Alexander MacLeod. Cross took over what he described as ‘a feather-bed for tired journalism covered by a massive eiderdown of bureaucratic inertia’.3 He reorganised the magazine’s layout and cover, introduced new sections for the arts and sport, and shifted the focus towards television and commercial broadcasting. He brought in new blood such as cartoonist and political columnist Tom Scott, feminist columnist Rosemary McLeod and cartoonist Burton Silver. His editorials informed national debates. Under his leadership, the Listener doubled its circulation and regained its status as a cultural powerhouse.
In 1977 Cross was appointed chairman of the recently created Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand (BCNZ), successor to the NZBC and the public corporation responsible for the two state television stations, the state-owned Radio New Zealand network, and the Listener. It was an extraordinarily high-profile position for the usually retiring Cross, who now appeared frequently in the newspapers and on television, but he remained cool under pressure. He took charge at a time of financial stringency and competing visions of how state broadcasting should be conducted, both within the organisation and at the political level. Cross brought a journalistic and cultural critic’s sensibility to the role, viewing himself as an advocate for the public rather than a champion for broadcasters or a servant of politicians.
In 1979 Cross initiated and oversaw the amalgamation of the administration of New Zealand’s two television channels, TV1 and TV2, in the interests of financial efficiency and complementary programming. The merger was controversial, and Cross was caught between the competing pressures of political interference, spearheaded by the country’s combative and confrontational prime minister, Robert Muldoon, and the defensive tactics of the broadcasting elite based at TV1’s Avalon studios. The newly created Television New Zealand (TVNZ) commenced transmission in February 1980. The merger significantly improved the BCNZ’s financial position, and facilitated the co-ordinated scheduling of television programmes, the transmission of regional programmes and the development of ambitious new series like Kenneth Cumberland’s Landmarks.
Cross’s tenure as BCNZ chairman was marked by a slow transition away from the old model of state dominance over broadcasting towards a more competitive environment. The government monopoly over television frequencies made him uncomfortable, and in the early 1980s he advocated the establishment of a third, privately owned television channel. He was bitterly disappointed that this initiative, and a Māori television channel, had not been realised by the time of his retirement.
Controversies over media coverage of political activities brought Cross into regular conflict with politicians across the spectrum, some of whom felt he exerted too much power over broadcasting by acting both as BCNZ board chairman and – effectively – as chief executive. Cross sensed his ability to effect positive change was coming to end when, in 1982, Muldoon peremptorily replaced four BCNZ board members, in retaliation, as Cross saw it, for the board backing Cross’s efforts to stop Muldoon stripping the television and radio listings monopoly from the Listener. The following year a commission of inquiry found that Cross had too much power, and when the fourth Labour government came to power in 1984 it demoted him to chief executive, answerable to a new chairman and board. He retired in 1986 after two years as ‘the lamest of lame ducks’, proud to have left the organisation in a strong financial position.4
In retirement, living in Raumati South and enjoying golf as recreation, Cross remained in good health and kept busy. He served as a board member for Downstage Theatre (1984–7), appeared on television as a media critic on Fourth estate in 1988, and published a memoir, The unlikely bureaucrat (1988), about his years as a broadcasting administrator. He returned to fiction with The family man, published by Vintage in 1993. The novel concerns journalist Bob Grey, a man damaged by his puritan upbringing and the suburban constraints of the 1960s. The family man was well crafted, but literary tastes had changed and the book had little impact. In 1994, Cross was made a CMG for services to broadcasting and literature.
Meanwhile The God boy, almost with a life of its own, had become a New Zealand literary classic. In 1976 Murray Reece directed an acclaimed television adaptation of the book, from a script by Ian Mune, as New Zealand’s first full-length television drama. The novel was published in a Penguin Modern Classics edition in the United Kingdom in 2003, with Cross only the second New Zealand author (after Katherine Mansfield) to achieve that distinction. Cross adapted it for the stage in 1999, and it even became an opera in 2004.
Cross frequently published his opinions in the country’s newspapers, maintaining his position as a cultural nationalist, albeit a moderate one. He spoke out against state funding for the arts, in favour of a non-commercial television channel, and expressed ambivalence about the legacy of neoliberalism. He published a second memoir, Such absolute beginners, in 2007, focusing particularly on his childhood and youth.
Ian Cross died in Paraparaumu on 2 November 2019, of pneumonia, aged 93. His wife Tui had predeceased him a month earlier.