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Susannah and Robbie at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 2002. (Photo: Supplied)
Susannah and Robbie at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 2002. (Photo: Supplied)

BooksFebruary 14, 2023

A very bookish love story

Susannah and Robbie at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 2002. (Photo: Supplied)
Susannah and Robbie at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 2002. (Photo: Supplied)

Publisher Robbie Burton’s Bushline is a memoir of life, love and adventures in the natural world – and in publishing. In this excerpt, Robbie goes to the Frankfurt book fair and meets the love of his life.

I flew into Frankfurt on Tuesday morning after a 40-hour haul from Nelson. Leaving my suitcase at the apartment, I went straight to the International Hall at the fair to set up my books on the New Zealand stand. Two women were unpacking books alongside me. Pauline was one of the owners of an educational publishing company from Christchurch; with her was her friend Susannah, a Kiwi living in London who had come over to keep her company and to help for the week. They were friendly and funny, and I thought Susannah the most beautiful name.

Most of the New Zealand publishers were staying in the same apartments in the centre of the city, and that night we all gathered for a drink in Pauline and Susannah’s apartment. I made sure I sat next to Susannah so we could talk. My interest was already primed and I was taking notice of everything. I’d clocked her name tag earlier in the day. “You’re not related to Janet Roddick, by any chance?” I asked. Janet Roddick was the singer in The Six Volts, a Wellington band whose eclectic and riveting performances in the 1980s had always seemed to me to be the height of contemporary sophistication. I’d had one of their posters on my wall for years. “She’s my sister, and she’s married to David, the bass player,” Susannah said.

She explained she had come to Europe primarily to go cycle touring. By the time she’d described assembling her bike in the arrivals hall at Heathrow, then pedalling off around England and Scotland, followed by Europe, all on her own, she really had my attention. I’m a sucker for the self-reliance and independence you so often find in Kiwi women. There was a little transistor radio on the table, along with a copy of both the Guardian and the most recent Vanity Fair. As a devoted radio listener, I couldn’t help asking, “Why the radio?” The answer: “Really interested in current affairs.”

Another day passed at the fair, talking with her whenever I got the chance. By now I was seriously being drawn in, so I was gutted to discover Pauline and Susannah had to go out for dinner with some clients. I moped about, had dinner with another colleague, and arrived back at my apartment around 8pm, ready for a sleeping pill and bed. But tucked under the door, written on a scrap of paper torn from Tuesday’s Guardian, was a note: 

Hi Robbie
I didn’t go to Pauline’s do. Let me know if you’d like to have a cup of tea.
Susannah (#31)
PS. It’d be BYO pot

The pot reference was to the fact that our all apartments had kitchenettes but there was no kitchen equipment in any of them. I’d gone on the hunt and bought a pot and a mug off a street stall in the Zeil so I could make myself a cup of tea.

Susannah’s note woke me up immediately, and I raced up the stairs, pot in hand, trying to quell my nerves. Talking non-stop, we had a cup of tea, then moved downstairs to a bar next to the building’s entrance to wait for Pauline, who did not have a key. We sat side by side on a bench seat, drinking Pilsner and talking with intoxicating intensity into each other’s lives. Despite a sleeping pill, I slept badly that night, my already fragile body clock assaulted by a mélange of jetlag and infatuation. I was falling hard for Susannah.

She too had a long, sleepless night, and later told me why. “I knew I would never, ever find another man like you. But I had just landed a fantastic job, against stiff competition, as the policy advisor to the CEO of the largest local authority in Britain, and was due to start next week. I wasn’t ready to leave London, and if I did, what on earth would I do in Nelson? How could I possibly make a life there? I knew what was happening was huge, with monstrous repercussions. In the morning, I talked about it with Pauline. Her advice was ‘I’ve never regretted following my heart’. And so I did.”

Susannah and Robbie at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 2002. (Photo: Supplied)

On Friday afternoon, Pauline, playing fairy godmother, engineered a chance to talk to me alone, feeling me out as to how I felt about Susannah. When I made that clear, she urged me to act – immediately. It was very sweet, and I remain forever grateful for her making doubly sure that the moment was not lost. There were drinks on the New Zealand stand that night, a small party we all felt obliged to attend. I tried hard to be interested in the small talk, but as soon as I could I took Susannah aside, and we walked away into the deserted aisles of the International Hall. 

“I’m falling in love with you,” I told her. She took my hand and we gathered each other up while a bored barman watched on, polishing his large German beer glasses. I couldn’t have cared less. It had only taken three and a half days to reach this place from which we each privately sensed there was no return. In retrospect, it is the certainty we both felt so quickly that still astounds me. Up until meeting Susannah, getting into another committed relationship was the last thing I’d wanted – the freedom to rebuild my life in my own way seemed like the only chance to rescue something from my middle years – and over the previous two years I’d given any hint of romantic commitment from the opposite sex a hard swerve.

But this was something different, a tumbling avalanche of emotion and intuition telling me to take notice, and I knew, absolutely, this was not an opportunity to let slip away. Fate had been kind in getting me to Frankfurt, but it was also on my side in the days following the Book Fair. Fortuitously, I had arranged to go to stay with my nephew Jake in London afterwards. This meant Susannah and I could continue our wild ride for a few more days. We flew separately to London on the Sunday. I went to Jake’s on Sunday night and, like an awkward teenager, confessed I had met a girl, and our prearranged plans for me to stay so he could take his old uncle out on the town might have to be postponed. He dined out on that for years.

Susannah came over to Golders Green, where Jake lived, on Monday after work. She stayed that night, and at 5am we crept out of the apartment, parting at the train station, she to go home to Nunhead, and I to Luton to catch a flight to Amsterdam for the day. I was in the middle of a complex project to publish a book on Colin McCahon, a co-production with the Stedelijk Art Museum. The touring show was up, and I needed to check the proofs of the book that I had brought with me from New Zealand against the actual paintings. It was a strange, high-powered interlude to find myself in one of the more important contemporary art museums in the world, gazing in a dislocated way at imagery of Muriwai Beach, Farewell Spit, and Pangatōtara in the Motueka Valley. The next morning, I said goodbye to Jake and his partner Renee, and taxied across London to Susannah’s house. She had thrown a sickie in the afternoon, and we had a glorious 36 hours together. 

The next day remains one of the happiest of my life, catching a double-decker into the city, and then strolling along the Thames to the Tate Modern. There was a vast Anish Kapoor sculpture in the Turbine Hall, one of the most extraordinary works of art I have ever seen, ludicrously epic in scale, its sensibility perfectly aligned with my emotional state. Later on in the afternoon, we sat on a bench seat in the cafe at the top of the building, leaning close against each other, gazing across the London skyline, the dome of St Paul pushing into the middle of the vista. I felt a visceral contentment that was absolute, a whole-body experience I had never known before. In the evening we lay in bed and talked late into the night about how we could make it work for us both. Given I owned a house, had a complicated and long-term commitment to the publishing company back in New Zealand, and Susannah was not intending to live permanently in the UK, it seemed that the most practical option would be for her to come home. Susannah decided she would resign immediately (which she duly did on the first morning of her new role), and return to live with me in Nelson at Christmas.

Bushline by Robbie Burton

My flight back to New Zealand left early the next morning. We sat on the stairs whispering in the dark, waiting for the cab to Heathrow. And then all too quickly I was watching Susannah out the back window of the cab as she waved from the middle of her road of terrace houses. It was both crushingly sad and beautiful to see her disappear into the gloom. Much is made of how crazily people behave when they first fall in love, blinded by dopamine-induced, euphoric madness, ignoring all kinds of practical or sensible signposts. And undeniably what we decided to do – to cast ourselves, hand in hand, off a cliff within a week of meeting each other – was bold, if not verging on unhinged. Both of us had much at stake, and not just emotionally. Susannah would have to cut short her overseas experience and abandon her career, while the precious still-fragile space I had started to reclaim for my own life had just disappeared.

But we were not 20-year-olds and wet behind the ears. I was hyper aware of what would make a relationship work for me, and also of what would destroy it, and I had deliberately been keeping a scorecard, certainly in the first few days. The obvious stuff was easy: she was smart, funny and independent, interested in the world, practical, and cute as hell. She even had great taste in clothes. But beyond that, I sensed the footing necessary for an enduring bond was there, solid enough to build something lasting. Crucially, we could communicate easily, and I detected that Susannah took this seriously too, and understood its centrality. But just as importantly, I uncovered in her a set of values about how people should treat each other, a concern for social justice and a commitment to playing an active part in her community. This meant everything to me, because out of that comes respect, the big beating heart of any relationship I really care about.

Those nine days, spread between Frankfurt and London, have proved to be the most significant axis in my life. I look back on that surreal window with enormous gratitude, not just for the dumb luck that saw our paths cross but as much for the boldness we found in ourselves to not let this chance meeting wither in the drought of indecision.

As the plane arced over Greenland en route to the Pacific, I resolved I would not be coy or secretive about falling in love. Graham picked me up at Nelson Airport, and as we drove past the golf course I blurted out what had happened. He was incredulous, and then wildly enthusiastic – a reaction that was to be repeated many times over the next few months. Our culture is obsessed with the romantic start to any relationship, and the jungle drums in Nelson went into overdrive.

Susannah and I fell into an intense period of long-distance communication, with conversations on the phone every day, usually in the early evening for me, sitting on the couch watching the last light evaporating off Tasman Bay, and Susannah in her terrace house in the dull autumnal descent of South London. We also wrote endless emails. I kept these for many years, but in the end they were discarded, their cheesiness just too excruciating. At the time, I hung on every word, dying for the ping on the Mac that signalled the arrival of another email. This period of not being together was, I suspect, very valuable, as all we could do was talk and write. We did not have to deal with any of the practical realities of co-habitating, or the overheated distraction of lust, so our only option was to get to know each other.

On holiday in the Ida Valley, Central Otago: Robbie, Will, Ed and Susannah. (Photo: Supplied)

On Boxing Day nine weeks later I was pacing around the arrivals hall at Christchurch Airport, as nervous as I have ever been. This was it. Would she be as I remembered her? How would it all work? But then she appeared, in a cute blue T-shirt, and I melted. I had struggled to find somewhere for us to stay immediately after Christmas, but the remote and slightly down-at-heel Lake Ōhau Lodge had a room, and we had three nights there. We laugh about it now, but after a perfect first day driving up to Aoraki/Mount Cook and wandering around in the Hooker Valley, Susannah got food poisoning from a bag of cherries I’d bought. She spent the second night throwing up, and then the third day recovering, while I hung around marooned in our room. It was not quite the romantic interlude we’d hoped for. We had agreed we should jump straight into Susannah’s family Christmas gathering, and so drove over the Lindis Pass and down through Central to Dunedin. Her parents, Alan and Pat, had retired to Broad Bay on the Otago Peninsula, and Susannah’s sister Janet and brother-in-law David, with their twin girls Poppy and Jean, were there for a few weeks. 

It was nerve-wracking meeting them all. Naturally, they were wondering what on earth had possessed their daughter and sister to abandon her life in London, and what kind of man was responsible for this erratic behaviour, but they hid their concerns, and I was made very welcome. It’s a cliché that you don’t get to choose the family of your partner. It was quickly apparent I’d been exceedingly lucky. Alan and Pat are bookish intellectuals, extremely decent, liberal and humane, and I felt comfortable with them from the start. Janet and David also soon became an important part of our family life. Their bohemian roots, their values and take on life were familiar and appealing. They were funny, too, and I was taken with their twin girls, spirited three-year-olds at the time. I remember thinking that these were people who I would like to have as close friends, regardless of whether or not they were family. That is a gift, should you ever be so lucky. 

The scariest part of making our new life together was going back to Nelson. Bringing Susannah back to my small hometown, and my still-new house on the Port Hills, seemed fraught and risky – my oft-repeated line is that it felt like acting out a tableau from the nineteenth century, my bringing a pioneer bride out to the colonies, her leaving behind the bustling civilisation of Europe to start a new life on the frontier. And indeed, it did have plenty of challenges, with no job and few prospects for Susannah, her instant immersion into my extended family, and a low base in terms of my own network of friends. But we were still in the first flush of early love, and that carried us through. The only person each of us really wanted to be with was the other.

Bushline by Robbie Burton (Potton & Burton, $40) is available to purchase from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

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