Monday, December 2, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“SHAME AND THE CAPTIVES” by Tom Keneally (Vintage Books / Random House $NZ39:99)
I must be getting old. I can recall when Thomas Keneally novels came out with the name “Thomas” on them. Now, apparently, he has re-branded himself as “Tom”.
I remember the racy fun his earliest novels gave me in the 1970s. Those first ones that reflected, ironically and half-affectionately, his Australian Catholic background and years as a seminarian (The Place at Whitton, Three Cheers for the Paraclete). That weird surrealist fantasy A Dutiful Daughter. Then the ones in which he hit his forte with reconstructions of history from the relatively recent past – The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (mistreatment of Aborigines in 19th century Australia); Gossip from the Forest (skulduggery surrounding the signing of the armistice at the end of the First World War); A Victim of the Aurora (early 20th century polar exploration); Season in Purgatory (Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia in the Second World War) and later the Booker Prize winner Schindler’s Ark, better known by its American (and film) title as Schindler’s List. But the last Keneally novel I read was The Playmaker, written in the late 1980s in time for the 200th anniversary of the first British settlement of Australia, and a very effective evocation of the early penal colony.
I know the man has been prolific (30 novels and nearly 20 works of non-fiction, according to the list given in his latest novel), but I wondered if his work would still engage me as much as it used to do.
So, for the first time in about twenty years, I picked up a new Keneally novel, Shame and the Captives. It is clearly in line of descent with the old Keneally, being an historical novel of the recent past. But it is somehow more mellow, more reflective, more philosophical and ruminative than the old one-two historical punching you used to get in something as bitterly satirical as Gossip from the Forest.
Shame and the Captives is based on the “Cowra outbreak”. In historical fact, this took place in August 1944, about 18 months after the “Featherston riot” in New Zealand (which Vincent O’Sullivan commemorated in his play Shuriken). It was a mass breakout by Japanese prisoners from a POW camp in rural New South Wales. 545 Japanese servicemen attempted to escape. 231 of them were killed as they rushed the wire and tried to overwhelm the garrison guarding them. Four Australian soldiers were also killed. About 300 Japanese disappeared into the bush, but they all either surrendered or were rounded up within the next couple of weeks, and were returned to captivity. The Australians noted that many Japanese committed suicide at the time of the outbreak, or begged to be killed when they were re-captured. There was no question that the camp had been run humanely and according to the Geneva Convention. The breakout was not provoked by any mistreatment of the prisoners. But even at the time, the Australians understood that the Japanese military code of honour said that it was shameful to be a captive and that death was preferable to imprisonment. Many of the Japanese, realizing that the war had gone against them, were hoping to be shot by their captors rather than be returned to post-war Japan and face scorn for having been captured.
As far as the external events of the outbreak are concerned, Keneally’s novel follows them very closely, right down to the fate of the two squaddies who tried to man the camp’s machine-gun against the rioting Japanese. There is very, very careful scene-setting, with the novel moving at a leisurely pace and divided into two parts, Spring 1943 and Autumn 1944. Yet while the externals of the story are historical, the inner worlds of the characters depend on the novelist’s imagination and intuition. All characters have fictitious names and the small town of Cowra has been retitled Gawell. Keneally is painfully careful in his preface (“Where the Tale Comes From”) to separate his imagined characters from their historical counterparts, especially as the novel implies some serious character defects in senior officers guarding the compound.
The novel is as much concerned with the mentality of Australians as with that of the prisoners. Indeed the title Shame and the Captives has more than one meaning. It is clear that the Australian characters are as imprisoned by their circumstances as the Japanese. In effect, they too are captives and they feel various shames.
Alice, for example, living with her father-in-law (a local farmer), is married to a man who is a POW in Austria. At first she thinks her own kindly behaviour to Axis prisoners in Australia is some sort of guarantee that her husband will be treated well. The same is true of the POW camp’s Major Suttor, whose son has been captured by the Japanese. He is constantly worried that any reported mistreatment of his inmates will be visited upon his son. Shame visits Major Suttor in an odd way. He earns his living writing radio soap operas about an idealised Australian family. He is aware of how different his scripts are from objective reality and of how much he has surrendered to slick commercialism, after having started out as a serious novelist. His superior Colonel Abercare has the shame of an adulterous affair in his past, which has poisoned his relationship with his wife. (The wife’s being a Catholic allows Keneally to revisit some of his Catholic background in scenes with the local priest). And where sexual shame is concerned, there is the major matter of Alice indulging in an affair with the Italian POW Giancarlo who has (like other Italian POWs) been allowed out of the prison to work as a farm labourer. What is interesting here is the way Keneally shows the wife as, in effect, exploiting the Italian who, for all his sexual attractiveness, is not in a position to resist (or complain) about her advances. Sexual hunger - given the absence of Alice’s husband - is part of the situation, but on a more subtle level it is clear that Alice, the “free” woman, has succumbed to the temptation of having power over somebody. It is implied that Giancarlo comes to feel more imprisoned by her attentions than he felt when he was behind the wire.
Keneally’s characters are rounded. They are not caricatures. He does not overdo references to racist attitudes of the times, or to the exaggerated fears that the outbreak generated, although these are referenced.
To dump all my criticisms in one spot, however, I do note the odd lapse into melodrama, and a few moments of somewhat stagey dialogue, as when Colonel Abercare’s aggrieved wife says:
“I should abominate the betrayal, Ewen….And by God I do! But there’s the damage to my vanity too – to my standing. It compounds everything. It shouldn’t, since these are fatuous opinions. But they’ve left their mark. It’s the pressure of them, all around, from every direction.” (p.119)
I could also wag my finger at the rather too-neat way (in terms of articulating the novel’s themes) that Alice is eventually dismissed from the story.
With regard to the novel’s exploration of the Japanese prisoners’ shame, Keneally dramatizes the fanaticism in the Japanese military code in the person of the fighter pilot Tengen, who incites his fellow inmates to strive for honourable death in their attempted “escape”. But Keneally’s interpretation of the outbreak is not monocausal. There are also the frustrations of homo-eroticism in an all-male prison environment, where physical violence between prisoners often masks sexual attraction. Tengen has a “utilitarian affair” (p.146) with a female impersonator. Wrestling contests become the site of dominance displays, with the winner taking as his reward the sexual submission of the defeated. And there is a very strange undertow to Tengen’s desire for mass self-immolation. Deep down, he is aware that the world is changing and the warrior code is already in the process of being rejected by many Japanese. There is at least one Christian among the Japanese prisoners, who rejects suicide on principle. More cuttingly, there is Tengen’s comrade Aoki, who says:
“even I feel the world beyond here is changing, and that under their flesh men’s opinions might be changing too. In this matter, I can speak only for myself. I can address only my own obligation. A coerced sacrifice isn’t worth a lot here. A voluntary one is a different matter.” (p.233)
This may be part of what is really haunting the more fanatical warrior Tengen – the unwilling acknowledgement that, having encountered the non-Japanese world, the warrior code of sacrifice at any cost is becoming faintly ridiculous. When they are rounded up, many escapees feel “stuck unexpectedly again with the chronic disorder of survival”. (p.308) They would rather be dead. Even so, as Shame and the Captives tells it, there is a certain “enforced ceremony” to the outbreak, as if the escapees are trying to convince themselves of values which they are really beginning to question.
This is a well-conducted mainstream novel, with a psychologically-convincing cast of characters and a strong sense of historical reality.
He may be more reflective than of yore, but Keneally stills knows how to tell a story for grown-ups.
“BUSSY D’AMBOIS” by George Chapman (first performed c.1603; first published 1607; revised version published posthumously 1641)
Way back in the early 1970s, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, I was doing a postgrad degree in English and I took a paper on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama (excluding Shakespeare, of whom we got a fair whack at all levels anyway). I remember enjoying Marlowe’s mighty line and Jonson’s scrupulous plotting; the worm-gnawing horrors of Webster seeing the skull beneath the skin; the lip-smacking decadence of Ford; the forced pathos of Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy; the snarling of Tourneur’s revengers and the genuine oddity of Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling [if indeed Middleton and Rowley wrote it – apparently scholars have recently reassigned the play to other people, just as they have stripped Tourneur of his plays].
We had a lecturer who liked to remind us that bloodstained Jacobean carve-ups resembled Hollywood films noirs of the 1940s, complete with husband-betraying femmes fatales, hitmen, piles of corpses and cheap theatrical tricks to keep the audience buzzing. The Changeling was his piece de resistance with its plot of a hitman getting it on with the murderous woman who has employed him. Think Double Indemnity and you’re in the right ballpark. This play also allowed the lecturer to indulge in some obvious Existentialist comments, Existentialism then still being trendy in Academe. In the play, one character says to another “Thou art the deed’s creature”. The concept of character being formed by action is, apparently, the essence of Existentialism. I would have thought it was also the essence of platitude, but what do I know?
Anyway, in my later memories of this course, there was something that really puzzled me. One of the plays we studied was George Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois. I remember finding Chapman’s language difficult, but oddly memorable in places. So much so, indeed, that, years later, I could still remember almost word-for-word the opening soliloquy of the title character.
Bussy D’Ambois, an impoverished French nobleman, steps forward and gives vent to this speech:
Fortune, not Reason, rules the state of things,
Reward goes backwards, Honour on his head,
Who is not poor is monstrous; only Need
Gives form and worth to every human seed.
As cedars beaten with continual storms,
So great men flourish; and do imitate
Unskilful statuaries, who suppose
(In forming a Colossus) if they make him
Straddle enough, strut, and look big, and gape,
Their work is goodly: so men merely great
In their affected gravity of voice,
Sourness of countenance, manners cruelty,
Authority, wealth, and all the spawn of Fortune,
Think they bear all the Kingdom’s worth before them;
Yet differ not from those colossic statues,
Which, with heroic forms without o're-spread,
Within are nought but mortar, flint and lead.
Man is a torch borne in the wind; a dream
But of a shadow, summ'd with all his substance;
And as great seamen using all their wealth
And skills in Neptune’s deep invisible paths,
In tall ships richly built and ribb’d with brass,
To put a girdle round about the world,
When they have done it (coming near their haven)
Are fain to give a warning piece, and call
A poor staid fisherman, that never past
His country’s sight, to waft and guide them in:
So when we wander furthest through the waves
Of glassy Glory, and the gulfs of State,
Topt with all titles, spreading all our reaches,
As if each private arm would sphere the earth,
We must to virtue for her guide resort,
Or we shall shipwrack in our safest port.
On its own, this speech still strikes me as being almost as good as much that Bill Shakespeare did in the same line, setting up the theme of a man who relies on his personal “virtue” (i.e. will-power and strength) as his only moral compass. But here’s what puzzled me. Why did I hardly remember anything about the rest of the play? (Apart from an angry husband’s accusation to his wife “The chainshot of thy lust is yet aloft,/ and it must murder; ‘tis thine own dear twin”, which our lecturer again insisted on linking to Existentialism.) And why was Chapman, who clearly had great verbal skills, virtually unknown in modern performance? Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson are always on the boards. Webster, Tourneur and Middleton and Rowley get a fair number of revivals. (In the last couple of decades, I have seen on stage here in Auckland productions of The Duchess of Malfi, The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Changeling). I believe that even Beaumont and Fletcher are performed every so often. But Chapman? I’d be happy to be corrected by somebody who knows more about these things than I do, but I have never heard of a modern stage performance of Chapman. Why is this?
In an idle time a few months ago, and burning to answer these questions, I sat down and re-read Bussy D’Ambois for the first time in nearly 40 years. And I think I found the answer to my questions.
Let me say a few words about George Chapman (c.1560-1634). He was a good poet and it is not his fault that he wasn’t as good as his contemporaries Shakespeare and Donne (how many poets are?). He has the misfortune to be remembered now only in relation to other people. There used to be the theory that he was the “rival poet” mentioned in Shakespeare’s sonnets, but modern scholarship seems to have debunked this. However, Shakespeare and Chapman did know each other’s plays and there are a few little textual points where the one seems to be imitating the other. In his own day, Chapman was famous for completing Marlowe’s long poem Hero and Leander after Marlowe was murdered. Apart from that, he is mainly remembered now because John Keats wrote a sonnet about him two centuries later, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, praising Chapman’s translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Chapman version of the latter sits, as yet unread, on my shelf. Chapman wrote comedies, but [again in his own day] was better known for a series of four or five “tragedies” drawn from very recent French history. The first and (according to general repute) best of them was Bussy D’Ambois, first performed in 1603 or 1604. The man upon whom it is loosely based, the French aristocrat and brawler at the court of King Henry III of France, Louis de Bussy d’Amboise, was murdered at the age of 30 in 1579, so Chapman was dramatizing events from a mere 25 years previously.
Now let me say a few words about his play and its plot. Bussy D’Ambois is lured to the court of King Henry III by the king’s brother “Monsieur”, who has his eye on the throne. “Monsieur” wants a band of trusties to surround him as he makes his own bid for power, and he knows Bussy’s reputation as a swordsman. But once at court, Bussy proves too choleric for his own good. He takes offence at remarks made by three courtiers and, with two of his mates, challenges them to a duel. Five of the six men wind up dead, Bussy having personally killed all three of the opposing faction after they had first killed his two mates.
More dangerously for himself, however, he has an affair with Tamyra, wife of the Count of Montsurry. By this stage he has alienated his patron “Monsieur”, so “Monsieur” allies with Montsurry and the Duke of Guise to corner and punish Bussy. First “Monsieur” tips off Montsurry about his wife’s adultery. Montsurry has his wife tortured to reveal who her lover is, and then has her write a letter in her own blood luring Bussy to a tryst. Despite being warned (the conjuring-up of soothsaying spirits comes into the play) Bussy walks into the ambush that is prepared for him, because his pride and “virtue” will not let him run away from danger. He is duly murdered. In his dying speech he declares:
Here, like a Roman statue, I will stand
Till death hath made me marble. O my fame
Live in despite of murther!
This is a play that could have been a good study in hubris and vainglory. Like Coriolanus (“Alone I did it!”), Bussy is the model of the ego-driven man of violence whose dignity resides in his complete self-assurance. In some ways splendid (roll on Rostand’s unhistorical version of Cyrano de Bergerac) but in some ways very scary (roll on Nietzsche’s self-ordained supermen), he is big only because he is surrounded by nastier, smaller and more calculating people.
Yet the play never reaches great tragic heights, even though Chapman clearly sees Bussy as a hero. There is one extraordinary feature of the play. The historical events to which it alludes took place right in the middle of France’s Wars of Religion. The historical Bussy was murdered a mere seven years after the St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre, in which Bussy had been one of the Catholic bravos who set upon and murdered Protestant Huguenots. In Protestant England, the French situation was always ripe for pro-Protestant anti-Catholic propaganda, such as Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris. Yet in Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois, there is virtually no reference to the religious situation at all. Possibly the friar who conveys Bussy to his adulterous mistress could be seen as a pandar, and later the same friar conjures up spirits – with a pagan prayer – to help Bussy understand what he is walking into. Maybe a Protestant London audience would see this as confirming all their suspicions of devious Catholic clergy; and yet – amazingly – Chapman depicts the friar in a positive light, and the friar dies sympathetically, properly disgusted by Montsurry’s use of torture. Dare I suggest that, by reading recent French history, Chapman was more aware than most of his English contemporaries of how ambiguous the religious situation in France really was – how many policy-plays, betrayals and acts of volence there were on both the Catholic and the Protestant sides. He could not present France in simplistic black-and-white propagandistic terms, so he ignored the religious situation altogether and focused his play solely on the matter of power.
So – at last – why does this play not live as theatre, when it has such a strong story and such tragic potential?
There are some good theatrical moments – coups de theatre, as the French would say. The reported account of Bussy’s heroic duel. The scene where the friar leads Bussy up, through an under-stage trapdoor, to Tamyra’s room. The torture of Tamyra by her husband in which she piteously pleads that her husband could not treat her so, and that some evil spirit must have taken his place (“husband, oh, help me, husband!”). The friar conjuring up the spirits so that he and Bussy can see “Monsieur”, Guise and Montsurry plotting. And, of course, the final cutting-down of Bussy by ambush.
But, dammit, the play just doesn’t work. Coming back to it after all these years, I am more alert to its failure. The failure is in the language. Too often, Chapman stops the action so that characters can deliver themselves of sententious thoughts. I am not talking here of soliloquies, arising from characters’ circumstances, as in Shakespeare, Jonson et al. I am talking of set-piece speeches, which Chapman has forced into characters’ mouths for our edification. Consider this exchange (Act Two, Scene One) between King Henry III and the Duc de Guise, which is really just an excuse for the king’s set-piece speech on envy:
Guise: Neither is worth their envy.
Henry: Less than either
Will make the gall of envy overflow;
She feeds on outcast entrails like a kite:
In which foul heap, if any ill lies hid,
She sticks her beak into it, shakes it up,
And hurls it all abroad, that all may view it.
Corruption is her nutriment; but touch her
With any precious ointment, and you kill her.
Where she finds any filth in men, she feasts,
And with her black throat bruits it through the world
Being sound and healthful; but if she but taste
The slenderest pittance of commended virtue,
She surfeits of it, and is like a fly
That passes all the body’s soundest parts,
And dwells upon the sores; or if her squint eye
Have power to find none there, she forges some:
She makes that crooked ever which is strait;
Calls valour giddiness, justice tyranny:
A wise man may shun her, she not her self;
Whither soever she flies from her harms,
She bears her foe still clasped in her own arms:
And therefore, cousin Guise, let us avoid her.
The length of this speech is totally disproportionate to the dramatic situation that called it forth. Or again, consider the moment (Act Three, Scene One) where Bussy preaches his Machiavellian values when Tamyra has just expressed misgivings about their adulterous sin:
Sin is a coward, madam, and insults
But on our weakness, in his truest valour:
And so our ignorance tames us, that we let
His shadows fright us: and like empty clouds
In which our faulty apprehensions forge
The forms of dragons, lions, elephants,
When they hold no proportion, the sly charmes
Of the witch policy makes him like a monster
Kept only to show men for servile money:
That false hag often paints him in her cloth
Ten times more monstrous than he is in troth.
(Chapman’s reference to cloud-shapes here has led some to suggest he knew the “very like a whale” scene in Hamlet).
In both cases, Chapman can’t refrain from launching into over-long metaphors and similes, developed in more detail than the dramatic situation requires. And, alas, this applies even to what should have been some of the play’s best moments. In Act Four Scene Two, Bussy is quarrelling with “Monsieur”. All the dramatic situation requires him to say is something like “I don’t care what a big shot you become. If you treated me that way I’d still belt you one”. But Chapman being Chapman, he can’t resist getting Bussy to say:
Were your King brother in you; all your powers
(Stretch’d in the arms of great men and their bawds)
Set close down by you; all your stormy laws
Spouted with lawyers’ mouths, and gushing blood,
Like to so many torrents; all your glories
Making you terrible, like enchanted flames,
Fed with bare cockscombs and with crooked hams,
All your prerogatives, your shames, and tortures,
All daring heaven and opening hell about you—
Were I the man ye wrong'd so and provok'd,
(Though ne'er so much beneath you) like a box tree
I would out of the roughness of my root
Ram hardness in my lowness, and, like death
Mounted on earthquakes, I would trot through all
Honours and horrors, through foul and fair,
And from your whole strength toss you into the air.
Shakespeare would have tossed this off as a neat one-liner. (Something like his magnificently scornful “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.” in Othello). I’m not saying Chapman was totally incapable of pithy expression. There’s a great line in III i of Bussy D’Ambois where Montsurry describes Bussy as “Fortune’s proud mushroom shot up in a night.” But even so, Chapman suffers badly from that loquacious, pedantic, stiff circumlocution, which I think was called the Euphuistic style.
When I came back to this play after all these years, I looked up John Dryden’s opinion of it [given in an epistle dedicatory which Dryden affixed to one of his own plays in 1681]. Dryden says:
“I have sometimes wondered in the reading what has become of those glaring colours which amazed me in Bussy D’Ambois upon the theatre; but when I had taken up what I supposed a fallen star, I found I had been cozened with a jelly; nothing but a cold dull mass, which glittered no longer than it was shooting; a dwarfish thought, dressed up in gigantic words, repetition in abundance, looseness of expression, and gross hyperboles; the sense of one line expanded prodigiously into ten; and to sum up all, incorrect English, and a hideous mingle of false poetry and true nonsense; or, at best, a scantling of wit, which lay gasping for life, and groaning beneath a heap of rubbish. A famous modern poet used to sacrifice every year a Statius to Virgil’s manes; and I have indignation enough to burn a D’Ambois annually to the memory of Jonson.”
Certainly Dryden goes a little over the top here (and there are always those querulous critics who want to remind us that Dryden’s own plays aren’t so hot in the prolix sententiousness department). But where Bussy D’Ambois is concerned, I can’t help agreeing with him when he speaks of “a dwarfish thought, dressed up in gigantic words” and of “the sense of one line expanded prodigiously into ten ”. Chapman’s play is wordy and ranty and its speeches over-long and sometimes pompous, filled with redundant examples and similitudes.
A poet who is remembered after 400 years deserves some credit, and Chapman really does have his moments. But I think I now know why he no longer holds the stage. Shakespeare, Jonson and Marlowe wrote plays. Regrettably, Chapman wrote long sermons and lectures linked by dramatic situations.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
CRITICS GET IT WRONG TOO
At the beginning of November I attended and participated in the poetry conference in Hawkes Bay that was organised by Bill Sutton. Many things of interest were said and read by the visiting poets and panellists. Nobody would ever be so crass as to call a session something like “Whither Poetry?”, but that was more-or-less the theme of one panel. Speakers told us about the world of poetry slams and rap and performance poetry and on-line publishing and poetry discussion groups and what have you.
Always in such discussions, I find, there is an anxiety that we should keep up to date with the latest thing lest we be thought retrograde, out-of-date and unimaginative. Trouble is, what is currently popular is often ephemeral. And I have this abiding sense that the poetry most worth the time is the poetry that is meaningful when it is seen (and properly considered) on the printed page. Yes, by all means have poetry that performs well and can be read publicly. But slams and rap (and pub poetry) are essentially invitations to sounds without sense – what will grab an audience and win applause in the listening moment, but lacks any real depth or resonance.
Anyway, in such retrograde and old-fashioned thoughts, I was pleased to hear Harry Ricketts tell an anecdote on the ephemerality of literary fashion. Referring to his own book Strange Meetings – The Poets of the Great War (which I recall reviewing for the Star-Times when it came out in 2010), Ricketts reminded us that when the First World War was actually being fought, the poet who had the highest popular reputation, sold the most copies, and was seen as reflecting most truthfully the experiences of soldiers, was a chap called Robert Nichols. At that time, virtually nobody had heard of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who are now canonised as the most meaningful English-language poets of the conflict. Yet Robert Nichols is quite forgotten now and with very good reason – his poetry is very forgettable.
The message was quite clear. In literature, what is currently popular is not necessarily what endures or what is worth emulating, analysing and responding to. Don’t be caught in the web of fashion. I’m fairly sure that in telling this anecdote, Ricketts was in part responding to the fashion for rap, slams and so on, but perhaps you would have to ask him if this was indeed the case.
While endorsing the message, I would add one very important rider: It isn’t only popular fashion that gets it wrong in artistic and literary matters. Often, it is the critical establishment.
It is easy to compile lists of yesterday’s bestsellers that are now either forgotten or regarded with some embarrassment. But, if you have access to journals of criticism (academic or otherwise) it is just as easy to find critiques by respected intellectuals which talk up works that have long since dropped out of the canon.
Allow me to switch genres and cannibalise myself. My first book was a series of analyses of New Zealand movies which were produced in the first ten years of the “revived” new Zealand film industry – A Decade of New Zealand Film (John McIndoe publishers, Dunedin, 1985). In the preface I remarked on how wrong some older and respected books of film criticism had got it when they made comments of the films of their own day. In particular I referenced “the 1940s edition of Paul Rotha’s and Richard Griffith’s classic of (British) film criticism The Film Till Now” noting that in it “many Hollywood greats, which have in fact stood the test of time, are written off as mere frivolous entertainments; while many earnest, preachy, liberal-humanist social dramas, long since forgotten, are praised as models of cinematic art.”
Something is not a classic because you have seen a favourable review of it in a respected publication. I myself have written a very favourable critique of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries for the very respected Landfall. (That is why I have not referenced it on this blog). I think it is an outstandingly good, imaginative and well-crafted novel. But I would not call it a classic. Or at least – not yet. Time alone sorts out what is and what is not a classic. In novels as in film and poetry, even the endorsement of the best critics does not make something of enduring worth.
Monday, November 25, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“TRAGEDY AT PIKE RIVER MINE” by Rebecca Macfie (Awa Press $NZ40)
People often talk about where they were at the time some tragedy broke. Where were you when JFK was assassinated? Where were you when the Erebus flight went missing? That sort of thing.
As it happens, I can remember exactly where I was when the Pike River mining disaster happened, on 19 November 2010. I am not a journalist, but I happened to be in a bar in Auckland with a bunch of journos who were celebrating a sort of very early pre-Christmas party. Being journos they were jocular and jokey and getting a little raucous. But halfway through the fun, one of their colleagues came in and said he’d just heard a radio report that about 30 miners had died in a mine explosion in the South Island. The conversation slowed down. The jokes died. There was incredulity. The journalists knew a big story when they heard it. There were questions about where the hell this Pike River place was anyway.
The mood became very sombre.
Somebody ran off to get more information. When he came back, the story was confirmed. The party broke up early as the news people rushed off to find out more, to get their marching orders from editors and to file stories. Only a few of us were left, shaking our heads and wondering how this sort of thing could happen in this day and age when Health and Safety was supposed to be over everything.
And that, really, is what much of the country has been wondering for the last three years.
How could a modern coalmine, monitored by the best modern equipment, subject to laws about safety, and touted as the economic salvation of the West Coast, kill 29 miners in one single day?
Listener journalist Rebecca Macfie’s Tragedy at Pike River Mine answers all these questions and raises some more. In her Prologue, Macfie gives a vignette of the miners Russell Smith and Dan Rockhouse staggering out of the blighted mine, having been able to make it the surface only because they were nearest to the sole exit. They waited for some sign of miners following them, but there were none. Their 29 colleagues were dead and burnt, although it took days for families and relatives to understand this, especially as company spokespeople kept holding out false hopes.
Macfie lays her cards on the table in her opening Author’s Note:
“Pike had understated its most critical risk – methane gas – and had repeatedly failed to meet its own grandiose forecasts. Far from being the showcase of modern mining it had branded itself as, the project had lurched from one major setback to the next throughout its short history. It seemed that virtually everything that could have gone wrong in the development of the mine had gone wrong; and then, with coal extraction barely started, it exploded. I formed the view that the disaster was not an ‘accident’, but rather a corporate failure of the worst order.” (p.2)
In effect, Tragedy at Pike River Mine tells us that the disaster was the outcome of very bad decisions by management, of wilful ignoring of safety precautions, and of a rush to put profits over people.
The mine was constructed on the basis of insufficient geological surveys. Repeatedly, responsible geologists (like Canterbury’s Jane Newman) had said the project was not viable, that too few boreholes had been drilled to sample terrain, and that the coal seam under the Paparoa Mountains was gassy and dangerous. But the project was “talked up” by its promoters in a rush to cash in on the maximum world prices that were then being paid for coking coal. Once actual work began on the site, it was clear that the terrain was far more perilous than the Pike River Company’s own selective and superficial geological reports had suggested:
“It was obvious from the moment that the first round of explosives was detonated in September 2006 that the ground conditions were terrible. Rather than the hard, self-supporting rock that had been anticipated, it was, as [a contractor] describes it, ‘rotten’ – broken, crumbly and wet…” (p.66)
Setbacks in developing the mine meant more loans and borrowing, to the tune of many millions of dollars. This is turn promoted a mentality, which said that the project couldn’t be allowed to fail, even though the prospect of mining coal successfully was repeatedly postponed:
“The mishaps and misadventures of Pike River Coal Ltd were pushing the price tag on the project higher and higher, and shunting the prospect of revenue from coal sales further and further into the future.” (p.83)
It took two years of work, from 2006 to 2008, before coal was actually struck. There were frequent gas ignitions sparked by drilling equipment and not adequately reported by a company eager to present itself as a model of ‘best practice”. Warnings of inadequate safety features were routinely ignored. Among other things, the mine was constructed as a single-entry mine, meaning there was no alternative exit for miners in case of cave-in, explosion or other accident. There was never sufficient ventilation for the dispersal of methane gas. The first (and only) ventilation shaft collapsed before the mine was in production. It was rebuilt, but was a cause for concern expressed by Trevor Watts (manager of the Mines Rescue Service) who noted that, in the event of a major gas ignition:
“any smoke and fumes in the mine would travel straight up the ventilation shaft, the very route the workers would be trying to use to escape. It would be like trying to escape a house fire by climbing out the chimney. And in any case the ladder could take only eight people at a time, yet there might be as many as sixty people underground on any given day.” (p.113)
Elsewhere Rebecca Macfie reports:
“Everyone at the mine knew the 111-metre shaft was an exhausting and demanding climb – exceptionally difficult for a fit man, and almost certainly impossible for any worker wearing breathing apparatus while fleeing an emergency.” (p.158)
One conscientious shift supervisor, Dene Murphy:
“worried constantly about gas, and about the fact Pike had never appointed a manager whose sole duty was overseeing the mine’s ventilation. In Queensland and New South Wales, mines were legally obliged to have a dedicated ventilation engineer, but in New Zealand the law was silent on the matter. Even though Pike’s own internal documents stipulated that it would have a permanent ventilation engineer, such a person was never appointed.” (p.124)
Hanging over many of these gross breaches of good safety standards is the shadow of a general deregulation of workplaces, when successive New Zealand governments rushed to build a monetarist economy in which profits and business success came before the welfare of the workforce.
Pike River Coal Ltd was very good at making its operation look, to uninformed outsiders, like a state-of-the-art operation, including the best safety features:
“In the control room, which was elaborately decked out with computer screens, workers were adrift in a sea of poorly performing technology. Barry McIntosh, the experienced Southland miner who had been entranced with Pike’s pristine environment and modern equipment when he first arrived in 2008, was one of those deployed to the control room, but he and his colleagues were not trained in the monitoring system they were employed to oversee. No standard operating procedures setting out the response to gas alarms had been developed. By October 2010 a document had been drafted, but it relied on controls – such as a ventilation officer, an underground text messaging service, and a gas alarm logbook – that either didn’t exist or hadn’t yet been put into effect.” (p.155)
Many left the Pike River Company before the project went into production either because of safety issues or because they knew the mine would never yield much usable coal anyway. In the weeks just before the lethal explosion:
“Pike River was awash with information foretelling catastrophe, but all those who had the power to act on the warning signs were deaf and blind to them. Vital information lay fallow on desks and in files, and pleas from men at the coalface for action and improvements went unheard and unanswered.” (p.178)
The company’s own declared policy on safety standards was not enforced, and when work crews showed their anxiety about frequent methane ignitions, they were either ignored or their written reports were (literally) thrown away.
Macfie’s book is primarily concerned with explaining why a disaster happened. Her narrative account of the explosion and its aftermath begins three-quarters of the way through her text - on Page 183 of 244 pages. She makes good on her prefatory statement that this “was not an ‘accident’, but rather a corporate failure of the worst order.” There is no conspiracy theory here. This is a story of wilful negligence by people in pursuit of profits. It is well documented. Whenever Macfie mentions a report that was filed but ignored, a warning that was shrugged off by management, she is able to source and cite it. Tragedy at Pike River Mine is the result of extensive interviews Macfie held and of her covering the various trials that have taken place since the disaster.
Some of her pen portraits are damning. The image of Gordon Ward, the accountant who pushed the project of mining at Pike River, is not a flattering one. But the book’s most nuanced portrait is of Peter Whittall, the operations manager of Pike River Coal who became the company’s most visible representative after the explosion happened. He is introduced into the book as:
“a rotund and charming Australian named Peter Whittall….[ those who chose him for the job] judged him to be a ‘stand-up guy. His experience was excellent. His understanding and approach to safety was an important part of why he got the job.’ ” (p.35)
Later he is presented thus:
“Whittall … was the undisputed boss of the project. Some… admired his decisiveness, organisation and intelligence, and found him compassionate and thoughtful towards any office staff faced with personal difficulties. Others, such as safety and training manager Neville Rockhouse, thought him a micro-manager who failed to support Rockhouse’s efforts to implement the health and safety documentation he was creating.” (p.93)
Later still, there is a strong sense of his having misled grieving relatives and the press about the scale of the tragedy, and allowing false hopes to develop in the five days when it was still thought possible to mount a rescue mission. (Pike River Mine exploded three more times after the fatal explosion of 19 November 2010).
This book is the best sort of journalism – methodical, well-researched and dispassionate. But you can feel its cold anger and by the end you’re shocked to be reminded that the company, now bankrupt, has managed to dodge paying out any compensation to the families of the lost miners.