Montague Harry Holcroft (registered at birth as Joyce Harry) was born on 14 May 1902 in Rangiora, where his father, Harry Cooper Holcroft, a salesman, was about to buy a grocery shop. His mother, Harriet Emily Soanes, came from a large and well-established Christchurch family. Monte was the second of three brothers. He attended Rangiora School and, after the family moved to Christchurch in 1910, Elmwood School. In 1916 he started at Christchurch Boys’ High School, but the next year, after his father’s grocery failed, he left to work as office boy and then invoice clerk at Aulsebrook’s biscuit factory. His mother died soon after.
In 1919 Holcroft set off in search of wider experience. After two years’ working as a farmhand in South Otago, Canterbury and the Thames valley, he crossed to Sydney with a close friend, Ernest (Mark) Lund. There he found work as a clerk with Mort’s Dock and Engineering Company, and at Paddington, two days before his 21st birthday, he married Eileen McLean, a dressmaker. They were to have one son.
Always an omnivorous reader who had ‘scribbled furiously and without direction’, Holcroft began to write more purposefully, and soon had his first short story published in the monthly Australia. Further stories and miscellaneous journalism appeared in the Bulletin and other Australian magazines and newspapers. After leaving Mort’s Dock early in 1924, he had an assortment of rural and city jobs interspersed with bursts of writing full time, including attempts at longer fiction. Unable to make a satisfactory living, however, and with his marriage at an end, in 1926 Holcroft returned to Rangiora. Here he wrote a novel, which was eventually accepted for publication in London as Beyond the breakers. In March 1927 he joined the failing Christchurch Weekly Press as sub-editor, but the paper folded in October 1928. With another novel ready for publication and a third under way, Holcroft sailed for Britain in November.
A bleak period followed. The market for popular magazine fiction was declining and the competition for publication overwhelming; London was cold and aloof; and the reception of the romantic melodramas Beyond the breakers and his second novel, The flameless fire (1929), was indifferent. Interludes in France and Tunisia proved stimulating but expensive. In January 1930 Holcroft returned to Christchurch. He renewed a friendship with Aralia (Ray) Jaslie Seldon Dale; they were married in Wellington on 7 July 1931, soon after his divorce. They were to have two children.
With Ray’s support, and assistance from both their families, Holcroft had been able to resume writing; one of several novels completed, Brazilian daughter, was published almost immediately. But the rejection of most of his fiction was discouraging, and he began to write longer pieces reflecting on his explorations and discoveries in literature, history and philosophy. These became a regular feature of John Schroder’s Saturday literary page in the Press and earned Holcroft a growing reputation as a thinker (a selection, published in 1945 as Timeless world, won the inaugural Hubert Church Memorial Award for Prose in 1946). This led to an invitation at the end of 1936 to join the Southland Times (edited by Reg Lund, Mark’s brother) as leader writer. In 1942, when Lund went overseas on active service, Holcroft became acting editor as well, and in 1946 he was appointed editor.
The demands of daily journalism soon caused him to abandon fiction, but he began a long accumulating essay, The deepening stream, in which he drew on his own hard experience to investigate the problems of creative expression in a young and materialist culture. This won first prize in the essay section of the 1940 New Zealand Centennial Literary Competitions. Its ideas were developed in The waiting hills (1943) and Encircling seas (1946; winner of the second Hubert Church Award in 1947). Holcroft was attempting to gauge the influence of the physical as well as the social environment on creativity, and to make wider spiritual connections. No one else was writing on such themes, which may explain a certain opacity; but many of his ideas about the land have since been echoed by environmentalists.
Eventually, the constraints of provincial journalism began to chafe unbearably, and in May 1948 Holcroft resigned from the Southland Times to resume writing. He was a founder member of the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO, and UNESCO commissions took him to Paris and Beirut later that year. In April 1949, as free-lance work was dwindling, he was offered the editorship of the New Zealand Listener. This position, reluctantly accepted but held for the next 18½ years, was the culmination of Holcroft’s professional life.
Though published as the official journal of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, the Listener had achieved a sturdy independence under its founding editor, Oliver Duff. It covered a wide range of topics besides local radio services. Mindful of his failure to support himself as a writer, Holcroft saw an opportunity to foster the arts. He published as much short fiction and poetry (of mixed quality) as he could, and devoted considerable space to book reviews, especially of New Zealand work. He made the selection himself, giving him a position of unparalleled influence, and over the years earned the ire as well as the appreciation of writers. The resulting controversies were well ventilated in the magazine’s correspondence columns, as were most other issues of the day. Holcroft was hurt by the 1964 furore involving Louis Johnson, James K. Baxter and others over his editorial defence of the New Zealand Literary Fund’s refusal to make a grant to New Zealand Poetry Yearbook on the grounds of obscenity. But, acutely aware of the Listener ’s importance as a national forum, Holcroft strove for balance and fairness in representing correspondents’ views, even when attacked personally (though he was unable to resist occasional waspish footnote comments).
The editorials, signed MHH, are the best-remembered feature of the Holcroft Listener. At a time when most New Zealand journalism betrayed a narrow conformism, Holcroft not only opened up the range of topics considered acceptable for public debate, but applied to them a depth of understanding and tolerance born of his wide reading and reflection. He engaged with issues by examining their context, and invited his readers to reflect as well as react. His editorials on especially sensitive subjects, such as capital punishment or the 1956 Suez crisis, are reported to have attracted attention at the highest political levels. But he also allowed himself to treat less weighty matters, such as the joys of pyjamas and the uses of string, with appropriately whimsical gravitas. Two collections were published: The eye of the lizard (1960) and Graceless islanders (1970).
Holcroft had managerial as well as literary skills, and knew precisely how far to take the editorial freedoms vouchsafed him. His tenacity in defending these against bureaucratic intrusion and commercial assault, coupled with a liberal temper that infused the whole magazine, confirmed the Listener as a unique institution at the centre of New Zealand’s cultural life and a valuable record of that life. His own frank account of how this was done, Reluctant editor (written shortly after his retirement at the end of 1967), may have reflected an unspoken desire to entrench his achievement; it was endorsed by his return for a year as acting editor after his erratic successor, Alexander MacLeod, was dismissed in July 1972. The Holcroft aura seems to have inhibited or baffled his successors.
One reason for his reluctance to take up the Listener editorship was the move to Wellington, which meant the end of his second marriage, as Ray refused to go with him. He soon developed a relationship with Lorna Mildred Lund (née Taylor), the wife of his friend Mark. In 1958, shortly after Holcroft was divorced, she joined him at his asbestos cottage in Paekakariki, and they married in Christchurch on 14 September 1962, as soon as she was free. Lorna was the great love of his life (though she claimed it was the Listener), and her death in 1986 prompted him to write the most personal of all his 30 published books, The grieving time (1989). This strong impulse to autobiography is characteristic of all Holcroft’s writing, but especially of the books he produced in retirement. The social forces at work on New Zealand through the twentieth century were critically analysed in Carapace (1979), a ‘roadside view’ of the destructive influence of the motor car; in two volumes of autobiography (1984 and 1986); and in his last published book, The village transformed (1990). Early in 1992 Holcroft quit the white bungalow near Sanson which he and Lorna had shared since 1973 and moved south again. He died from cancer at Rangiora on 24 September 1993, with a book on his medical experiences partly completed.
In many ways Monte Holcroft was a man outside his time. Dismayed by both the events and the pace of change in this most ‘torn about and convulsed’ of centuries, he stood steadfast for civilised and humane values, for justice tempered by compassion – except in the face of folly, venality, dogmatism or oppression. His personal manner – polite, self-effacing and deceptively mild – reflected those values. Holcroft was tenacious in holding to what he believed was right or necessary, and when opportunity came he was ready to grasp it, even at the expense of those around him. He found his true vocation in editorship and his true literary form in the essay. Public recognition came with an OBE in 1970 and – more satisfying for a man whose formal education stopped halfway through the fourth form – an honorary doctorate of literature from Victoria University in 1976.