John Dyson was an author and magazine journalist with a strong sense of adventure and a dedication to scrupulous research. From his boyhood in New Zealand he had a passion for the sea; he produced his first book, on yachting, while still in his teens, and went on to write many more with nautical themes.
Perhaps the most notable was based on a reconstruction of Columbus’s voyage in the caravel Nina in 1492, which also resulted in two documentaries, for NBC and the BBC’s Timewatch. Dyson had met a professor and navigation expert in Cadiz who had a theory that the Columbus log was scrambled in order to put competitors off the scent when they were trying to reach gold on the other side of the Atlantic. He had worked out that the navigation details in the original log did not make nautical sense. So Dyson instigated the building of a replica of the Nina, hired 20 Spanish nautical students and sailed her across to the West Indies, following the unscrambled diaries. The voyage was as authentic as possible. Everyone wore rough tunics of the kind the 1492 crew would have worn, there were no electrics on board, and the cooking was done on an open fire on deck, with live chickens and rabbits destined for the cooking pot. The resulting book went into many editions.
John Dyson was born in 1943, the son of a policeman of Dutch origin who had come to New Zealand via Java, and who built his own house just outside Auckland, where his five children enjoyed an idyllic outdoor childhood. This fostered a strong sense of independence, so much so that John, the oldest child and only boy, left home at 16 for a seven-month tour of Europe. Back in New Zealand, he joined the Auckland Star as a reporter, and at the age of 20 hitched a ride as a crew member of an American sailing yacht to Hong Kong where he got a job as armed forces reporter for the South China Morning Post, which sent him all over south-east Asia on assignment. Moving on to Britain, he was taken on as a reporter by the Manchester Evening News, then by the Daily Mail’s Manchester office. Sent to Leeds to cover a beauty contest for stable girls, he met Kate (surname), a young reporter for the Yorkshire Post, with whom he was to enjoy 45 years of happy marriage.
After a yacht journey through France to the Mediterranean, Dyson spotted an advertisement in an English newspaper used to wrap fruit in a Marseilles market. It was for a journalist on a magazine shortly to be launched by the Automobile Association, called Drive. Dyson worked there for XX years, thinking up some of its most successful stories and campaigns, such as the first ever Plant a Tree Day. Some of the results can still be seen by the M4 near Slough.
During this period Dyson wrote also many books. For the AA Book of the Seaside he travelled round virtually the entire coast of Britain to research it, while for The Hot Arctic he spent several months in the Arctic Circle and in the book discussed the many threats to the region that have since become commonplace. Next came South Seas Dream, which did for the Pacific what his previous book had done for the Arctic. He returned to New Zealand to write “Sink the Rainbow Warrior”, about the French secret service’s blowing up the Greenpeace flagship. The book was serialised in the Observer.
Dyson then joined Reader’s Digest, the world’s best-selling magazine, working as a roving reporter for its European Editorial Office, which sent him all over the globe to write stories for its many worldwide editions. He wrote more than 200 stories for the Digest, which could involve weeks or even months of research even before the story was written to satisfy the magazine’s notorious fact-checkers, who rarely found much wrong with Dyson’s reports. He was greatly valued by his editors for his initiative, professionalism and endless fund of ideas. He specialised in adventure stories (or “dramas in real life” in Digest-speak), maritime yarns and environmental investigations. While a great lover of nature and wild places, Dyson was also something of a climate change sceptic, for instance writing a demolition of the case for wind farms long before they became a national issue.
He would often quietly help people after completing a story. On a recent assignment in Athens, he met the destitute survivors from a capsized refugee boat who had lost their papers and been beaten up by anti-immigrant thugs. Dyson arranged for the shipping company which owned the boat that had rescued them to take them to Holland where work could be found.
Dyson was a tall, handsome man who was devoted to his family. Having longed to own a boat all his life, he finally found the vessel of his dreams, a 31-foot ketch called Sovrana, which he enjoyed taking out at every opportunity. He is survived by his wife Kate and four children.
John Dyson, author and journalist, was born on March 12, 1943. He died of cancer on May 6, 2012.
By Robert Low