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An Exit Interview with Simon Wilson, Editor of Metro 2010-2015

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You’re addicted to journalese… You need to throw away the phrasebook…  I’m not even sure what that means… You need to front up to this too… It’s a weak ending.”

A few choice phrases from the first feedback I ever received from Simon Wilson. Six points, 700 words, very detailed, very clear. It was in response to the first feature I ever wrote for him or Metro, and it crushed me.

I’d written for a number of people and publications by then, and edited one. I thought I was a handy enough writer. But I was wrong. Or at least this story was. And while I hated reading what Simon wrote, by the time I was done first feeling terrible, then acting on his words, I knew my story was better. Much better.

In time I grew to love writing for Simon. The challenge of it, knowing how hard he sweated every word. And, soon enough, the collegiality. His Metro felt like it was composed by a kind of weird, nerdy gang. Not so much the staff – there were few of them, even in 2011 – but the entire crew of freelancers who made the thing happen. We got together for drinks periodically – organised, like everything, by Catherine McGregor – and it was a rush to be around them.

A bigger rush was getting the magazine every month. The features were always good, and often excellent. But it was less about them than what was around them. Most editors – myself very much included – have a tendency to let the magazine’s furniture, its regular columns and reviews and all that, become tired. We let things slide we shouldn’t, because we like the writer personally, or it’s too much hassle to deal with them, or some other terrible reason.

Simon never did that. He could be brutal, but always in the service of something greater. He was a good feature writer, a better critic and wrote some of the most powerful and well-argued editorials around. But it was his vision for the magazine which impressed me most. He worked like a dog to make Metro the best magazine it could be. The best features, the best satire, the best restaurant reviews. He always strove to put the right people on the right topics. And even when he did the stuff people would use to dismiss Metro – schools, cafés, suburbs etc – if you actually read the copy and the data, it was rigorous and thought-provoking. 

Getting all those things right is hard, and doing it consistently harder. It was a feat of human will, which I both admired and found deeply intimidating.

And now he’s stepping down. It bummed me out when I heard. And I felt like his time deserved marking in some way. I didn’t have time to write a proper feature on him, and he probably didn’t need one. I can give you a précis of his life in a paragraph:

Born and raised in Wellington. Edited books. Worked for The Listener’s Wellington bureau (!). Had two sons with his wife, noted film and television producer Philippa Campbell. Edited Consumer for a decade. Moved to Auckland – a city he had long thought a shithole – to edit Cuisine. Was bullied and cowed by its publishers, and eventually forced out. Freelanced for Metro, then became a staff writer.

Then, in 2010, he became its editor. A cranky, sometimes difficult editor. But, to my mind, a great one. On a drizzly Friday night a few weeks back we met up at Odettes. We had a couple of drinks and spoke for a long time about his time driving Metro. This is a very long and lightly edited transcript of the meat of that conversation.

How was the magazine perceived when it emerged?

Metro was very exciting because it was long form journalism and it got stuck into social issues. It was all about the journalism. That was fantastic . It was also appalling, because it was a celebration of the tits-and-teeth, brash, chase-the-money-and-fuck-the-rest-of-them-Auckland. But it emerged in the ‘80s and just boomed. It was a part of that. It was a zeitgeist publication. So you have, in Metro, the unfortunate experiment of National Women’s. You had Jan Corbett’s extraordinary investigation of the Mongrel Mob pack rape at Ambury Farm Park. You had a lot of social issues writing about South Auckland. You had a mass of society that makes up Auckland, really good stuff. But you also had: aren’t we having a lot of fun in the Viaduct? You look back in the ‘80s issues at the celebration of Colin Reynolds and the Chase Corporation, who built tacky buildings in our main centres. And in fact when the crash came, left holes in the ground which lasted for years after.

It is interesting that it could contain both those elements.

Yeah, and it did. And it has kind of thrived on the dichotomy between the two. Seriously good journalism, but also the vulgarity of it. It mercilessly took the piss out of it – I mean, Felicity Ferret was merciless in the way in which they satirised it, but they were nevertheless part of it. The satire was fond.

So when you came into Metro, six staff writers, a completely different animal to the one you lead. Describe the dynamic within the magazine through that period.

It meant that you had a busy and engaged working life with colleagues who were all determined to do great work. So it is exciting. It was terrific. Basically people got on.

And how is it different now?

We do it with a couple of people now and contributing writers. It is different. It is really different.

One of the hardest things about Metro now for the editor is there is no one to talk to. I mean, there are people to talk to but I don’t have peers. Graham Adams has been my peer in terms of having the experience as a journalist, he is our sub editor. He has been there a long time and has lots of institutional knowledge, knows about the world, knows about what we write about.

He is the guy who has been able to say “don’t do it” to me, the only person who has ever said that before I’ve done it. An incredibly important role. He is ill and on long-term sick leave. So I’m on my own. I’ve been on my own for some time, since Catherine left. It is really difficult to be making the kinds of decisions you have to make running a magazine like Metro, all the time, when there is no one you can ask about it or talk to about it.

The difficulty is as much kind of emotional as professional, right? Obviously there is a rigour and so on, but I feel like this – and I don’t want to project onto you here – but a publication like Metro demands that you take risks and occupy unpopular positions and it is very hard to know which are sound when you’re alone. You have to test them.

You want to be able to back your own judgment. But to do that in a meaningful way, you have to be able to test your judgment as often as you can, and preferably with people who don’t necessarily agree with you, but do understand what the context of the discussion is. And know enough of the history of the issue, the magazine and the market. Who share an understanding of why the magazine is what it is. It is not really very valuable talking about those things with people who think the magazine should be something completely different.

You feel you don’t have many of those, now?

No. I do from time to time go and talk to Virginia Larson at North & South, or whoever, but she is a busy woman. And of course they are also a competitive title.

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Let’s return to the start of your term. Describe the magazine as you found it.

So it had gone back to being a smaller size, and that hadn’t worked in terms of circulation or led to a jump in advertising support. That move hadn’t really been quite the solver of the problems that had been expected.

Who was left as staff? I had a staff writer. I had Frances [Morton]. Then she went away and I replaced her with Nicola Shepheard. And each time a position got carved away, we all said to each other well at least it can’t be any smaller.

How naïve.

And actually it could be. There are 3.5 staff here now. 3.5 can always be made smaller!

So the sense as it was sort of aging and shrinking. How did that feel for you within the magazine?

It is always disappointing to lose staff. It is disappointing for the staff, it is disappointing for the critical mass of what you were as a publication that you can no longer do. And it is disappointing for the way it closes down opportunities. So there are things that Metro used to be able to do when it had a writing staff, like assign someone to sit in a courtroom to cover a trial. People like crime writing, they like trials. We wouldn’t put a freelancer into a courtroom because it is a four week trial, you can’t pay them. So there are stories we aren’t able to do anymore.

When you have got a staff you can expect that all of them will be following some long term stories, which may or may not come to fruition, but they’ve got to have a bunch of them. They’ve got to have a slate and you expect that they are doing that. It doesn’t matter that they won’t all come to fruition, because some of the others will. Whereas freelancers, you go I’m going to assign you to do this and the journalist is probably going to produce the story even if they shouldn’t, because that is the only way they’re going to get paid. They can’t go back and say there is nothing here.

It feels like you are describing a fantasy world that I can’t even imagine existing, and yet this is only sort of six or seven years ago.

Yeah!

So you come into the role. Were you excited about it?

Oh yeah. As I said, I had not been sitting there wanting to be editor, but I had been an editor for most of my professional life. I had lots of ideas about what to do, and stuff I wanted to do. Although the resources were diminished from when I had started there, and were to diminish again, there is still stuff you can do. There is still lots of stuff you can do. It is obvious: you look at Metro, it is obvious there are still stories to write and stories that can be written and they are worth writing.

What was, what was your vision for the magazine upon coming in?

I used to say to people that what made Metro successful was that it was a zeitgeist magazine. What is the zeitgeist of Auckland? I had been in the city 11 years. When I arrived, there wasn’t one. Not that anyone could really see, anyway. And when I started doing Metro there wasn’t. But creation of the super city, combined with the rise of the modern restaurant world – which is not an Auckland phenomenon, it is a western world phenomenon – based on the informal bistro style eating. That combined with a confidence amongst architects and urban planners, and various other factors has meant that there has been this kind of critical mass of new thinking about what the city might be. Len Brown was very good at being the cheerleader for that. It has kind of passed him by now, but he was.

The real tragedy of his affair.

Absolutely. It is. He helped create what he called the liveable city, in a really rather tacky, cliché way, but the new city – the city of possibility for all its citizens. Actually that is too generous, because not everyone who is part of the modern city thinks about all its citizens. There is a sense of confidence and pride in this new city. I very deliberately said Metro is going to be a cheerleader for that – and a critic of it as well. So we are going to be part of it, we are going to be fully engaged with it. That is going to be our purpose. I mean, I have been lucky that that happened at the time I became editor, but also I was always very determined that that is what we would do. That would be the purpose of the magazine. So that is what we’ve done.

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What would you kind of define as some of the key moments in your tenure?

The single most important piece of journalism that I published has nothing to do with that at all, and that is Jon Stevenson’s investigative report into the SIS in Afghanistan. I told my boss that we had this story and it was going to be extremely embarrassing for the government –  though I didn’t tell them that we were going to publish it without talking to them, because they [the Government] would try and close us down. But when I told [the publisher] about the story and what it was, he took a deep breath and he said, ‘we’ve got to do it’.

I feel like I remember there being criticism of your publishing that story. That it was too far from Metro’s remit.

Yes, there was a bit of that. I published it in 2011. At that stage I defined Metro as a magazine for Aucklanders. It was different from being a magazine about Auckland. It is now a magazine about Auckland.

And that is something that you have come around to?

That is something that we have decided in the company that we would focus. Particularly when the Listener came into the company, there were three current affairs titles, so what is the difference between them all. That is one of the differences, Metro is a city magazine therefore it is about the city.

What else will gives you satisfaction about your time as editor?

I am really proud of a whole lot of things actually. Just off the top of my head, and I’ll forget some of them – Metro is a pioneer in digital activity in large media companies in this company, which is what we’ve done with the brand. We are outstandingly successful on Twitter and also very successful in other social media. No one else is doing what we’re doing with the Metro tag getting the tone right. Everyone else is just doing publicity for themselves and we’ve actually got it right. Catherine worked out how to do it, naturally I copied her and learnt from her and I can still do it. I am really proud of that – 20,000 followers on Twitter.

I am really proud of the way in which I built the restaurant awards up from being a casual thing that was really second fiddle to Cuisine to being much more important than theirs now.

I am very proud of the fact that most of our photography is commissioned by us, so we support talented photographers and we also run more original illustrations than probably every other magazine in the country put together, just about. I am really proud of that.

I am really proud that people keep saying to me that the magazine is a great read cover to cover – it is not an accident, you work hard to make that happen. I have churned a lot of voices in the five years I’ve been editor, and I would keep churning if I was staying as editor. A lot of people have got a year or two years in them. They have been really fun and really sharp and then they’ve run out of things to say. That, I think, has worked for us.

And we gave a voice to Braunias and I think we got some of Braunias’ best work of recent years out of him.

So how did that come about? He had just quite acrimoniously split from the Sunday Star-Times.

That was the thing, I obviously had a staff position at that stage and we had Donna on staff too.

They were so well balanced. They balanced the magazine beautifully, those two.

True.

I would like you to talk about the pair of them. I sort of feel like that is the sweet spot of your Metro.

So I inherited Donna and I thought she was fantastic. Donna herself always used to say I’m just not a writer like you or Steve, but Donna actually writes very well. I like to think she became a better writer. She didn’t become a better journalist, she was the great journalist we learnt from and bow at her feet – and I mean that really. But in terms of the quality of her work, she went ‘I’m writing Metro and Metro has got a high standard and I have to do that. And so she did. I mean, Donna’s first paragraphs beat everybody’s, they are fantastic.

Tell me about how you recruited Steve.

Steve, I can’t remember, he must have approached me. I said ‘Steve, I can’t afford you’, because he has got a certain minimum fee. I don’t know whether he has still got it, but he had it then. I remember at 10 o’clock at night, standing outside Murder Burger on Ponsonby Road, talking to Steve on my cellphone, doing the deal with him. I said ‘we’ve only got this much money, so I can’t employ you’, and he went ‘well let’s work out how many days a week or how many hours a week that is going to mean’. So that is the deal we did. We would be employing that much of Steve Braunias. And he is so prolific that we got more than a full time writer out of him. Same with Donna.

Donna’s contract says she is going to write eight features a year or something. Something like that – something ridiculous. Donna wrote a feature article, at least, for North & South and Metro every month–  and took full part in the production process.

Braunias is even more prolific. Incredibly prolific and dedicated. Braunias has never written anything he wasn’t incredibly proud of. He would not dream of it – if he puts his name on it, it is great work. He works it carefully. He is the best reader that we have – easily. He is a sharp and generous reader of other people’s work, so that is why he is so good with those students. I’ve watched him do it – he is incredibly generous and sharp about what they need to do. His headline writing, his pull quote writing, his intro writing – unsurpassed.

Braunias hates working in the office, so he never came in – or rarely came in. Every second issue he would come in and read through everything, and that would be great. He hates systems, he hates authority, he hates being told what to do – never accepted an assignment, such a pain in the neck! A staff writer has to be assigned to things, that is what you have staff writers from.

Donna was the opposite. Donna would always do whatever you asked her to do. And yet at the same time she had stories on the go. I wanted award-winning stories out of both of them all the time, and it is really hard when you are Donna Chisholm, doing investigative journalism – you cannot just pull award winning investigative stories out of thin air. They take months and years, and there is only a certain number of them anyway. And that is different from Braunias, because Braunias writes colour. He is incredibly observant and it’s really fascinating to see how he analyses people and things and places. But it is colour.

It is his own mind, really.

Braunias can produce another award-winning piece of writing anytime he likes. Donna has to find the story.

That is not really to slight either of them.

No, I don’t mean that as a criticism of either of them. The complementarity of those two was fantastic. Having those two, and also having Delaney Tabron as a really gifted art director was also a very valuable thing.

That was all at the same time?

Yeah. That is right. But that was good – and Catherine, of course, on the digital side and doing what she was doing. I mean Catherine’s Metro time was impeccable.

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So you had that, I guess it felt like a golden period for the magazine, that sort of Delaney, Catherine, Steve, Donna – were you conscious at the time that you had hit sometime of a rhythm?

Yeah.

Did it feel like, in very quick succession, that some of the key components of that got taken away from you.

Well it all kind of happened at once. Yeah, it was the middle of that year. Delaney had just resigned, and the rest was about budget. We had to reduce our budget by a third. You know, you do these things because you want the magazine to survive and prosper. It is not because there is just some nasty wicked witch going, ‘I’m just going to take money off you’. It is about, we are going to keep Metro going. It is it going to be valuable to the company – because it has to be, or they won’t keep it going. But it was brutal. When you have already lost so much – I mean, Braunias and Donna were both part time. But so prolific.

Were you involved in that decision?

I was asked to come up with a way to find the savings and some suggestions were made and I accepted some of them and came up with alternatives for others myself. It was left to me to work out how to do it, but yeah. But there was no way around fundamentally abolishing the staff positions. If there was another way to do it I would have done it, for sure. Absolutely for sure.

I can’t imagine that anyone would willingly part with those people.

No, exactly. Exactly.

Particularly after the run you had had. Forget about awards and sales or anything else, you just know when a magazine is hot and Metro was hot then.

And of course the pressure was on me to produce good work, but I didn’t have to be the only leading writer.

Yeah. Talk about how it felt losing them and how you have managed to cope without them.

Well, one of the things that happens in this business is that when journalists get made redundant they don’t necessarily stay in the business.  All the good writers who have been made redundant in this country in the last 30 years, very few of them are still available. So you have to keep finding new people.

I have worked harder than I used to have to to find those new people. I spend an awful lot of my time just trying to add numbers up to make them work. That is part of what I’m not going to miss. I’m not going to miss being the person who says, I can only pay you this much.

There are good writers out there. I mean one of the things I’m extremely proud of actually is that two years ago I wrote a piece asking why writers in New Zealand didn’t do more actual non-fiction writing. Stop tweeting and do some work.

Let’s talk about that piece, I read it and I sort of nodded furiously. You put it online and suddenly – woosh. And there were thinkpieces and all the rest of it. Firstly, what first of all motivated you to write it, and secondly just describe your response to the response.

OK, what motivated me to write it was my personal conviction about being a New Zealander is that we can do anything here. Because it is actually easier than it is anywhere else. You can get published, you can get supported.

Because you can do anything here, a lot of people should be aiming higher. There is a bit too much of ‘I’ll be able to get away with this’, and there is a downside of being able to do anything here, which is quite a number of people – and I’m thinking of the writer world, particularly tinged with academia – they think I might be wasting my time, if they were required to write for more popular media, like Metro.

When you say tinged with academia? You mean infected by it or employed by it?

Both actually. People who want to write things that look as if they’ve got a PhD or people who do have a PhD and want to prove that it was worth them getting a PhD. It all has its place, but I don’t have a very high opinion of a lot of that writing. It is writing I find boring and I find an awful lot of it makes a great to do over things that, in journalism, we quickly take for granted and move on to stuff that is more interesting.

So you wrote the piece…

I wrote the piece because I wanted people to think, actually you can get published and you can get published well in this country if you apply yourself to it. And it caused a storm, and the storm came from different sorts of people. There were people who clearly, the subtext of what they were saying was: ‘you are not talking about real writing, because we are the guardians of the real writing’. And there were also people, of course, whose personal experience was that they had been rejected by me or someone else. So they didn’t see that they could get published because obviously my view, or another editor’s view, was that they weren’t as good as they thought they were.

Or that they needed to try harder or keep trying.

Yeah, or that. And in amongst it though, there were also people who went – and it is still happening – a succession of people going ‘I read that piece you wrote and can I write this for you’. Some of them I’ve published and some of them I’m never going to publish.

But it put Metro in the middle of a debate – or it created a debate and put us in the middle of it – about longform writing, which is great. Which I am really pleased about.

That leads into something I wanted to touch on, which is your style of editing. I remember the first time you – rightly – rejected one of my own features, I was borderline catatonic. Because I’d never really been edited before. Not like that. It was not the last time either – basically every time it happened I went into the same state. The only difference was it would last progressively shorter periods of time. Because I could lean back on the experience of having gotten through it before. I don’t know whether that was because I was soft or inexperienced, and I don’t know whether you were aware of the effect those emails could have.

Those emails I write are quite brutal.

They are very long, they’re very precise.

And I don’t beat about the bush. I don’t soften it. I’m not very good at softening it. But I also know they work.

I feel like I’m a relatively resilient person and I felt like I was near – I think near my edge at times. Fuck it was good for me, though, it was good for me. It was the best thing.

I published a piece not so long ago by a writer. It first came in, and I thought ‘this is sort of interesting’. I went back and said ‘this is sort of interesting, but I thought it was going to be funny and I thought it was going to be a metaphorical quality to the writing, so what you were writing about was actually writing about something bigger than that. But most of all, I thought it was going to be a really entertaining story and it is just sort of interesting’.

And it turned out the writer had decided not to actually write the real story, it was more personal. And then at that point they went, ‘fuck OK’, and produced the real story. It was a fantastic piece of work. I am actually very proud of the fact – I didn’t spot exactly what was missing but I spotted that it was wrong and I thought I’m not going to let it go, I’ll go back.

Assess the state of the craft of editing in New Zealand right now?

I think there is clearly good editing that happens but there is an awful lot of stuff that I read where I think nobody really worked this properly. Why are those first paragraphs still there? There are some signs or tells in writing, one is first paragraphs where a writer is really just clearing their throat and warming up. A good editor will just get rid of them. Too many stories have those things.

Just the general overwriting, the writing could be tighter. You notice in all those things. And the searching for a larger purpose too, without making it blindingly clumsily obvious. And that is a function of time. It is the best time to do it now. And it is a function of formula publishing, we’re all being pushed towards. I mean, the thing about Metro is there is an established architecture with the magazine – but I fuck with it all the time because if something is better and deserves more space it will get it. And vice versa.

It may be that I do it too much. Maybe I do. But I can’t stop fiddling and I can’t stop going, let’s just craft this one. And maybe I don’t get the balance right, I mean that maybe a weakness in me as an editor. People want more consistency than I give them.

I find it disconcerting at times. But I think you are right, because there is a kind of a period where people get complacent, particularly given some of the other structural factors that you mentioned – around volume that journalists are required to put out to create a living nowadays. So there is a period where they are just thrilled to be writing for Metro, and then a period where it is just another gig. And at that point you kind of do have to shuffle them on and put someone else in there instead.

Or you change how they’re doing it. You look at someone like David Slack. I put David in for my first issue, really pleased to do it, and he’s still writing for us in every issue – and I’m really thrilled about that – but we have been through at least three different iterations of what it is he writes, because the idea runs out of puff. And the obituary that we’re doing now may run out of puff, because there are so many people you can kill off who people care about.

And some of them have died more than once. [editor’s note: Slack has pointed out I am wrong here. Apologies]

That is right. That is not a criticism of him, it is just an indication that you’ve got keep your eye on it and you have to be careful about it. We don’t live in a big enough country to have that many people. Even if we did, the size of the Cabinet is still the size of the Cabinet, and half of them no one cares about.

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What now for Metro?

The magazine is in good shape, financially and in terms of its journalism. I’m proud of both those things, and I expect them to continue. The company likes what Metro is and has appointed a new editor (Susannah Walker) to continue the tradition. Which is very pleasing. Making those cuts was hard, but we have a strong magazine with a strong future as a result. It’s going brilliantly online, too. We hit our online budget for the year in June. And we just won “best current affairs magazine” at the MPA awards. I can’t tell you how proud I am of all that.

Tell me what you’ll miss about editing Metro.

What I love about being editor is having the ability to place what I do and the people around me in that larger purpose that I talked about before, that city’s zeitgeist, that part of making the place really worth living in. And that is not because it is tough on the waterfront – it is because of the advocacy we do on South Auckland schools that are all part of it. I am really going to miss having that controlling role in all that.

I am going to miss being a curator of writers and talent, because I think I’m a good editor. Brutal perhaps, but I think I’m good at it, and I think I get work out of people that they didn’t think they were capable of and I’m part of that. And I like doing it.

I am not going to miss a whole lot of system stuff that comes with a modern publishing company these days that the editor has to deal with.

There is another part of what I won’t miss. Metro has to change. Metro has to do a whole lot of stuff in terms of its brand profile that are around some events. Some of the events that I think it should do, I really would love to be involved with, some of them I don’t want to be. Then in the digital area, and in various other ways, in terms of the content we have been very light on fashion and shopping and all those things, that are actually an important part of life in the city. And Metro magazine should actually cover them off properly.

And I’ve just not been that interested in them so they have drifted and they need to be invigorated and done properly. I don’t think that is wrong to do all those things, I think they should be done, I just don’t want to spend my life doing it.

So that is one of the key reasons for me why I’m pretty relaxed about not being editor. The job has to be done by the new editor – good luck to them, they can do it. I’d rather go and sit in a council meeting and think how incredibly frustrating all those stupid people are – but write a good story about it.

Are you excited about that, that ability to write properly. I feel like you wrote incredibly well under trying circumstances, but it’s horrible writing and editing.

The story I wrote on the port, I was working on that story in April. I could not find the time to finish it. The whole story changed because the events changed. I had to rethink it. I’m really looking forward to be able to do a story like that without thinking ‘when am I going to find the time to finish this?’

The most impressive thing to me was your work ethic. There were no phoned in parts of Metro. You transparently worked these monumental hours and cared deeply about everything in the magazine. What toll did that sort of take?

Why am I like that? A part of it is that I started my journalism career at The Listener, which is a very high place to start. The ethic there was that everything must be really good, so there was no sense that something might be just a TV review, say, so it doesn’t matter as much. Diana Wichtel wrote the TV reviews, and still does, and they were among the best parts of the magazine, right back then.That idea that just because it is popular culture it doesn’t mean you’ve got a different standard in play. I have always found really attractive. I have always thought that. I have tried to kind of make that real.

I also got to be editor of Metro at a time when my kids were grown up and I didn’t need to be at home in the evening so much. So the circumstances of my life were OK. And I got to be editor at a time where it was ‘OK, this is now – this is it. This a good job which is going to be who you are.’ I have always felt that. It defined who I am and what I can do.


Simon Wilson portrait by Jane Ussher. Simon’s last issue of Metro is out September 24, with “work by some of our best newer writers including Aimie Cronin and Naomi Arnold, and a kind of stake-in-the-ground story by me on Auckland property. It’s got one of the best food features we’ve done in ages – the battle of the burgers – my favorite obituary by David Slack yet, and, celebrating a unique strength of the mag, it’s a special illustrated issue, with work by 20 NZ illustrators. We’ve also got some new online features to accompany it.”

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