Monday, November 12, 2018

Something New


We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“NOWHERE NEARER” by Alice Miller (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99) ; “THE FAREWELL TOURIST” by Alison Glenny (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50); “VIEW FROM THE SOUTH” by Owen Marshall -  photographs by Grahame Sydney (Vintage, $40)

            Nowhere Nearer is the second collection by Alice Miller, a New Zealand poet now living in Berlin. Four years ago on this blog I reviewed her debut volume The Limits, and admitted my bafflement with much of her meaning, finding it sometimes almost wilfully opaque. But I did grasp that much of it implied angst over 20th century catastrophes.

I would not describe Nowhere Nearer as obscure in its meaning. True, one or two poems do seem to hint, somewhat vaguely, at emotional matters in the poet’s private life. But in the main, Miller’s ideas and references are crystal clear. Nowhere Nearer is dominated by a sense of the ineluctability of time and death; and our inability to escape from the past and the cultures that have shaped us. If I were to choose lines that sum up the volume’s mood, they would be from the poem “How to Forget”, which references Freud  and declares “of all the crowds to listen to / it’s the dead who know most” and later remarks “It is astonishing to be / alive, we say, which means / it is astonishing to be here / among these future dead.

This collection leans heavily on European High Culture and ancient European mythology. Consider the imagery you find here – many poems are haunted by old Vienna or by palatial ruins, be they Christian or pagan (see the poem “Palace”). Dante enters Hell in one poem, as does Orpheus in another. Yet another (“Boy”) is like a grim retelling of the story of Icarus. The river Lethe and James Joyce’s Buck Mulligan make an appearance and the poem “The Fall” crams in Chekhov’s three sisters longing for Moscow and Flaubert and Tolstoy and others.

For all this cultural richness, though, the tone is generally bleak and grim. The opening poem “Saving” tells us “some of the moments we cling to most / are the futures we never let happen.” This is a formula for life-long regret. The second poem “Out of this World” (whence comes the volume’s title) tells us that beginnings are never endings and we never reach our destinations. “Observatory” suggests time is eternal repetition – the eternel retour in which there is no progress. “How to Remember”, with an odd form of extreme Cartesian rationalism, sees Vienna as an unreal city created by the mind: “We borrowed stage sets we can shift, paint, switch, / but now we will never see the main event. / What we really see will always disappoint us. / Reality does what it likes”. As for the poem “Europe”, it suggests the whole weight of history crushes us even as we are trying to live the moment. “As the Crow Flies the Sun Rips Day Open” tells us “We’ve bought a history we do not want / and we must watch it every day / until the minutes crack.” In “The Hold I Have” death is a certainty. In “Epilogue” love is an illusion

In pointing out the collection’s dark and unrelenting vision, am I being negative about it? Certainly not. I think Alice Miller is doing the bracing work of a latter-day Schopenhauer, telling us that life, as we subjectively experience it, is so grim that we simply have to develop the intellectual resilience to deal with it.

I am wondering to what extent Miller, giving a broad panoramic view of history and concentrating on Europe, has been influenced by the example of Auden?

“Eva Braun in Linz” quotes specifically from Auden’s “September 1, 1939”. It is a hauntingly horrible poem, not just about Hitler’s girlfriend [and, at the last moment, wife], but also about the persistence of sinister memories concerning things that would otherwise be seen as harmless. I believe Auden’s world view invades other poems. In  “St Peter”, Miller suggests resignation before the facts of history and our helplessness to do anything about them. This line of thought puts me in mind of the lines that end Auden’s “Spain, 1937” : “History to the defeated / May say alas but cannot help or pardon.” Even the poem referencing Icarus could take something from Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts.

There are some puzzles for me in Nowhere Nearer. “Fourteen Mistakes” is partly straightforward mentions of things that highlight the strangeness of attempting to attune to other places; but also partly impenetrable surreal images. It baffles me. “My Girl in California”, however, shows great craftsmanship in its insistent staccato rhythms and its tight focus.

Allow me to finish with a paradox. The poem “The Roof” appears to diagnose the malaise of the modern world as rootlessness; as the lack of a secure sense of home. Yet for me Miller’s most accessible and most accomplished poem in this collection is “The Sound”, in which she fuses together, in description of a real New Zealand place, both Polynesian and European mythology. Despite the volume’s intimations of stasis and ineluctability, this does actually suggest a way ahead in the melding of things that seemed immutable. This is a bit more positive than Schopenhauer ever was.

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“There comes Poe with his raven like Barnaby Rudge, / Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge wrote James Russell Lowell in 1848. It was the perfect response to Edgar Allan Poe, a writer who could hit the poetic and narrative heights but who, regrettably, was also prone to overstatement, bathos and crude melodrama. A real mixture of genius and fudge.

I have never before felt so inclined to invoke Lowell’s jingle as I do after reading Alison Glenny’s debut collection The Farewell Tourist. The best of it is brilliant – evocative of time and place, startling in its imagery, and as very chilly as the poet intends it to be. But the worst of it? Oh dear… let me leave that for later in this notice, so that I can first tell you how accomplished a writer Glenny is capable of being.

Glenny has visited the Antarctic and done postgratuate Antarctic Studies, and from this develop her major themes and trains of imagery. The wonderful first section of this collection is called “The Magnetic Process”. Its nineteen pages consist of nineteen paragraphs (or prose poems if you prefer) which are like a series of surrealist paintings – Magritte or some such.  A man and a woman are connected with images drawn from the “heroic age” of polar exploration (Amundsen and Scott are referenced in the notes at the back). She appears to be at home, imagining the freezing polar wastes. He appears to be on the ice itself, although their specific locations are sometimes ambiguous. Details can be almost photographic realism – but then surrealism depends on the exact and realistic depiction of impossible things. She loses a notebook he gave her. As a child he played with a telescope.  He loads material for exploration. Explorers eat the emergency stew called hoosh. Fragile photographic plates are smashed accidentally. Yet we also have her dreams and his dreams blurring the edges of reality.  In the first section of this sequence, their fingers touch and produce sparks. He whips up a magnetic storm around her. The music of a piano merges with geology.  She takes a fossilised glossopteris to the doctor’s. She is at home imagining the ice shelves. His sense of perception gets disoriented.

To get the flavour of this, I quote in full the two sections of “The Magnetic Process” to which I kept coming back.

First, Section VII:  “He called it the little observatory. The instrument, he explained, was for measuring the electrical state of the atmosphere. The wooden box, with the latch that was too small to be opened by a mittened hand. Later, the photographer disappeared into a bag with only his arms showing. Darkness was necessary, he explained, if you wanted to capture light.” It is a literal narrative, not a dream, but note how it captures reality from an odd angle. It is not only the paradox in the concluding sentence that does this, but also the phrase about the photographer disappearing into a bag. Of course, with the cumbersome photographic equipment of the early 20th century, photographers literally went under a hood when they took their pictures. But “disappearing into a bag” slyly suggests the distance between objective detail and its photographic depiction. The photographer disappears into his own representation.

Second, Section XII: “Some afternoons a fog rolled down the hallway. On others, the staircase groaned with moisture. A finger laid carelessly on a bannister dislodged a ledge of rime. She lifted the hem of her dress to avoid the damp in the passageway, wore knitted gloves in the kitchen. She was lying in the bath when the glacier pushed through the wall. She sank deeper into the water to escape the chill that settled on her shoulders Trying to ignore the white haze, to lose herself between the pages of her book.” This is an episode of finely-crafted imagination. In reading it, we at first say that the chilly house triggers in the woman’s mind images of the frozen south. But once the glacier pushes through the wall, our attention turns to the fragility of human habitations themselves. This really is surrealism, like Magritte’s painting “Time Transfixed” (an image of a steam train emerging from a fireplace).

I hope I’ve said enough to show what is really admirable in this collection.

But what about the “two-fifths sheer fudge”? Well, it comes after “The Magnetic Process” is over. The rest of the volume comprises a couple of pages giving modified dictionary definitions of the words “Drift” and “Erasure”, there are “erasure” statements of a gnomic quality, and a long section (fully 21 pages) of “footnotes” to non-existent texts i.e. two thirds of  each page is blank, with only the footnotes on display. Yes, I get the drift of them (Yup! I can make bad puns too), especially as they connect with the line I’ve quoted above about a woman trying to “lose herself between the pages of her book.” Yes, I can see that if you read the “footnotes” in sequence, they do imply a sort of narrative dependent on the grand lacuna that sits above them on the page. Yes, I can see that the almost-blank white pages inevitably resemble snow covered wastes, if you’re cued to see them that way. Yes, I understand Bill Manhire’s comment quoted on the back cover, when he awarded this book the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award – “the text is not written primarily for the ear… [it] takes full advantage of the white pages on which the words appear.” So it’s an objet d’art as much as a verbal text. But even when I have taken all this on board, the final 46 pages of this production still has the effect of Writing School game-playing. In the short run, footnotes-without-text is an amusing concept. In the long run, it is tiresome preciosity.

Pushing against the boundaries of what poetry might be” is how the opening words of the blurb describe this book. I would say that after the first twenty pages, it ceases to be poetry at all.

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From the much-honoured novelist, short-story writer and poet Owen Marshall comes not a collected poems but a selected poems. In this respect View From the South is kin to Cilla McQueen’s Poeta and Vincent O’Sullivan’s Being Here (both reviewed on this blog). These are poems which the poet himself has selected as being the best from his three collections so far, but with some previously unpublished poems added. As his introductory note makes clear, the accompanying photographs by his friend the painter Grahame Sydney are an essential part of the collection’s effect. Indeed, were I in the business of art criticism, I would comment as much upon the photographs as upon the poems – all those images of lonely South Island roads and hills and snow on trees and an abandoned car and a pier battered by the sea and corrugated iron. They really do complement the poems and I spent much time gazing at them whenever I paused in reading the text.

But the text is the thing, and straightforward in its declarations it can be. As an Aucklander I have to forgive Marshall for his opening “South Island Prayer” where he says he does not want to die “rotting in the heat” of Auckland but wants to die “with the old Southerly Buster” on the larger, less-populated island which he has long regarded as his home (Marshall was born in Te Kuiti). Marshall may not have planned it this way, but he is part of a tradition of South Island poets who rhapsodise over the southern landscape – Mary Ursula Bethell, young Curnow, young Baxter, and (more satirically and critically) David Eggleton and Richard Reeve.

In the opening section (“Nature and Place”) of the four sections into which Marshall divides his selection, the images are South Island ones of wind and clouds at dusk and mallards and paradise ducks and stone walls and above all vast uninhabited space. There are brief references to overseas excursions and to the poet’s Welsh forebears, but the big island is his heartland. Quite a bit of admiration and nostalgia for (Pakeha) pioneers is packed into this. Consider the last lines of the poem “Clyde”, where “For me the pleasure is to find / an old schist wall behind the shops, rusty / iron links to which the horses were / tethered a hundred years before. I see / them standing patiently behind stone / buildings while their owners show gold / at the bank, then settle at the boozer / with greater satisfaction than any of us / gathered in the chill of this modern day.”

On the whole, Marshall is comfortable in his chosen island environment. He is at home. As far as I can see there is little – if any - anxiety about colonialism or postcolonialism in Marshall’s world and I think I am right in saying that there is no reference whatsoever to Maori culture. “Storm Over Mount Peel” may take place in South Canterbury, but its images are of raiding Vikings and Valkyrie riding the wind. Perhaps this is a South Island thing – again speaking as an Aucklander, I am aware of how less Maori presence there is in the South Island than in the North, and how easier it is for Pakeha of Canterbury or Otago to ignore such of it as there is. In surveying “History and Arts” (third section), Marshall deals with Norsemen, Greeks, Romans, the dogs sensibly eaten by Roald Amundsen’s Antarctic expedition and the original elephant known as Jumbo. New Zealand itself is not a place to reflect on historical tragedy.

When Marshall moves into his second section (“Family and Friends”) he reflects on old loves from adolescence and regrets from that time of life (later in the collection there’s a poem about listening nostalgically to Roy Orbison) ; taking a daily walk; attending funerals; being a grandfather; observing a grandchild’s first artless reactions to a movie and other things that suggest a mature, well-balanced mind enjoying the simple things in life. The words “subvert” and “subversive” are used far too often and too easily in current criticism, but I happily declare that Marshall’s “In Praise of Oddity” is a genuinely subversive poem, celebrating the eccentricity and non-conformity of ordinary people. One of the highlights of this collection.

So to the last section, “Heart and Mind”, where the poems are largely metaphysical. Marshall clearly has some nostalgia for the certainties and simplicity of his childhood Christianity (see the poem “Eary Christianity”), but he is unsure about God, dethroning him in one poem for the concept of Time itself. He aches a little for something definitive, feeling “The scratching behind an opaque, sightless / sky, like a dog left desolate” (opening lines of “Something More”). Seeing man as the centre of things is no substitute for the dethroned God: “Dismiss the arrogant assumption that everything / is fashioned for our benefit and understanding. / The incongruities, random beauty and horror / of existence have purposes beyond ourselves” (opening lines of “The World is not Made for Us”). So the vague ache is still there, partly compensated for by absorption in nature itself. But only partly compensated.

Marshall’s diction is sometimes mildly forced and slightly old-fashioned, as if from mid-20th century poetry. He likes (good for him!) to write in neat verse paragraphs. When he chooses to be, he is adept at rhyming couplets (in poems like “Paddock Nights” and “Simple Rhyme Chimes”) and he does an extensive Haiku sequence. He is most gifted, however, in the simple, straightforward literal statement which proves to have great resonance beyond itself. It is refreshing to read poetry that does not read like a test in acrostics, and I enjoyed greatly reading my way through this collection.

I’ll conclude by noting some personal favourites.

A moment in the book that makes me say “Snap!” is when Marshall’s observation of aggressive and pesky birds matches my own. This is from the poem “Birdstrike”: “Civic entitlement / is mine, but magpies enforce / archaic rules of trespass and I / don’t linger to debate with such / steely black-and-white resolve.”

“Book Launch” is a poem that will chill the heart of anyone who has had a book launched, because of the dead cold accuracy of its observations.

And finally, bravo for “The Slam-Dunk Poet” which, from a sensibly conservative perspective, takes down that awful competitiveness that plagues younger practitioners of verse.

Irrelevant and silly footnote: I know it’s aesthetically interesting, but I’m not sure why the dust jacket of View from the South covers only two-thirds of the hard cover beneath it.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“THE BIG SLEEP” by Raymond Chandler (first published in 1939)

            Detective stories are one thing. I’m happy to read good ones when I get the opportunity (see the posting on Simenon’s Maigret novels). But private eye novels are something else. Detective stories have a beginning, middle and end – problem, investigation, solution – and appeal to the idea of strict reason. Not only are private eye stories limited to a particular era and place – basically big-city USA between the 1920s and 1960s – but, even if they do have elements of detection and mystery-solving, they rely on intuition, atmosphere and surprise rather than orderly investigation. So private eye stories are really a hybrid of the detective story and the straight thriller.

Case in point – possibly the best-known of all private eye novels, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. It is widely acknowledged that Chandler (1888-1959) constructed his first novels by pasting together and then modifying short stories he had previously written for pulp magazines such as Black Mask. Thus was The Big Sleep composed. No wonder, then, that much of the action is not entirely logical – but then if logic is your thing, you would not be reading a private eye novel. A mystery appears to be solved when another mystery is piled upon it. People are murdered for reasons that are not entirely clear. A man walks through a door with a gun, utters threats and often has nothing further to do with the story. So it continues. The atmosphere of either menace or seediness. The sock on the jaw. The gunshot. The private eye grimly pursuing his goal in a corrupt world.

Remember how The Big Sleep starts. General Sternwood hires Philip Marlowe to
deal with a bookseller called Arthur Geiger, who is attempting to blackmail his younger daughter Carmen. Marlowe follows the guy, and learns he runs a pornography lending library. But then Geiger is killed and Carmen is drugged and found unconscious and naked in front of a camera, from which the film has been stolen. This in turn (after many more encounters, slugs on the jaw etc.) leads Marlowe to discover who had it in for Geiger – a guy and his mistress who wanted to take over the porn business.

But having cracked this case, and even though he is not asked to, Marlowe goes on to investigate the other matter that is troubling the Sternwood household – the disappearance of the no-good husband of General Sternwood’s elder daughter Vivian.

Contrary to popular myth, there is ultimately a clear explanation as to all the whodunits and whydunits, and the story has a fine sense of completeness. General Sternwood’s older daughter Vivian – and a whole raft of dubious characters – are covering up for the murderous actions of General Sternwood’s young, nymphomaniacal and epileptic, daughter Carmen. The only unexplained element is the death of a very minor character (a chauffeur).

At the same time, there are two major elements of fudging. First, the reason General Sternwood hires Philip Marlowe in the first place is very trivial (he wants Marlowe to follow up a basically unthreatening, half-hearted attempt at extortion). It is hard to see why this would in itself keep Marlowe on the case, without having the convention that Marlowe (like the reader) simply wants to get to the bottom of things out of sheer curiosity. Second, between setting up the mystery and its resolution, many characters are introduced for the momentary thrill of the confrontation or the action scene and in fact have nothing to do with the ongoing plot.

It is hard to read whole sections of this novel now without hearing the voices of Humphrey Bogart and others from the Hollywood movie version which Howard Hawks directed in 1946. The slang and situations are to some extent as in the movie version, though elements of the story are far beyond what the Hayes Code would have permitted in those days. A pornography ring (regarded with proper horror and disgust by Philip Marlowe) figures in the novel, as does the nymphomaniacal younger daughter Carmen hurling herself naked into Marlowe’s bed as bait. And, in the novel,  Marlowe’s relationship with the older daughter Vivian (or for that matter with any woman) does not develop even as far as the tough guy romanticism between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the movie. In fact there is no love interest at all in the novel, and Vivian is almost as venal a person as Carmen.

On watching Howard Hawks’ movie a week or so after reading the novel, I was surprised to find how closely it followed the novel in terms of situations and general plot. But the part of General Sternwood’s elder daughter had been built up to make a starring role for Lauren Bacall. Also, because of the Hayes Code and the lack of explicit mention of pornography, it would have been hard for an unsophisticated audience to work out who was being blackmailed by whom, and why.

Raymond Chandler’s first-person narrator Philip Marlowe is a blank upon whom we write – we learn nothing of his background – which may be one reason why we can so easily project the movie image of Bogart onto him. It is ironical that on two separate occasions (in a story set in Los Angeles and Hollywood), Marlowe complains that tough guys are now learning their speech and mannerisms from the movies.

There are some interesting cultural notes: “Fags” and “fairies” are regarded with contempt and disdain; Marlowe works for small money and does not expect anything more; the rackets which are busted are mainly small scale; and while some police are depicted as corrupt, Marlowe still sees himself as being more-or-less on the side of the police and is easy in their company. “Loogan” [meaning a guy with a gun] was a new one on me, and “That’s how people get false teeth” was a typical response to a sneering remark.

The 1946 movie may have been a tad coy and euphemistic. On the other hand, some months after reading the novel I hired a DVD of the ridiculous (1978) British-made remake, starring an over-aged Robert Mitchum as Marlowe. (In his heyday he would have been great in the role, but he was simply past it.) The remake was able to have all the explicit plot points that were pre-censored out of the earlier version, yet it was a much duller film, lacking urgency and nerve. A miscast Candy Clarke played the nymphomaniacal young daughter, and the stuff concerning pornography now looked very silly, for all its explicitness.

One can still read the book itself as good dirty fun.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I’m in a mood too lazy to go searching for the quotation itself, but I believe it was some such Victorian sage as Walter Bagehot who said that monarchy survived only if a deep veil were drawn across it. Its power would be weakened if ever the general populace could look too closely at the intimate lives of monarchs and their larger families.

In other words, monarchies work by mystique.

The plebs and even the bourgeoisie don’t know how much questionable diplomacy and how many grubby rivalries, extra-marital affairs and sexual liaisons go on in palaces and royal courts. They turn a blind eye to common practices such as a king’s keeping mistresses, although some such royal affairs do become public property (Madame de Pompadour, Nell Gwynne etc). Therefore the hoi-polloi can imagine, comfortingly, that royalty and aristocracy are “our betters”, and that whatever may happen politically and in elected assemblies, there is still stability and time-honoured norms where kings and queens reign.

There were no mass media when Henry VIII was divorcing or chopping off the heads of his wives, and most of the populace was illiterate anyway, so the doings of the king were far away from the peasantry and burghers. Still living in an age of limited public information, Charles II was getting to be known as “Old Rowley” (after a well-endowed stud stallion at Newmarket) for his extramarital gallivanting and his fathering of many bastards on many mistresses; but this was regarded indulgently by the (small) “political classes”, because his wife was barren and could not give him an heir. Queen Victoria’s fat, useless and sybaritic son Edward VII had mistresses and was a notorious habitue of Parisian brothels – but the conventions and self-censorship of the press were such that the word did not get out.

But what happens when the veil is drawn aside? Pre-radio and pre-television newspapers were relatively restrained in what they said on matters of royalty. When radio came, it could still be heavily censored if it were a public corporation under the government’s direction. Thus, in the 1930s, the BBC told the public nothing about the asinine Edward VIII’s intention to marry his American mistress until questions were asked in parliament about why American magazines, which freely reported the affair, were being censored when they came into Britain.

By and large, this protocol lasted until television had really taken over as the main mass medium.

Now, of course, there is hardly any veil over the British monarchy. Tabloids, broadsheeets, television and the ‘net tell us all anyone would want to know about the personal lives of royalty. So the affairs, divorces, bitcheries and other matters of the Queen’s children and grandchildren make it into glossies, gossip sheets and this week’s “satire” show. There are still successful sycophantic scribblers known as “royal watchers” to write hagiographic biographies of the Queen herself for the readers of the Woman’s Weekly who like such things. But for the rest of us, the mystique is well and truly gone in a welter of conspiracy theories about how Lady (“Queen of Hearts”) Di really died, what was happening when Charlie was doing three-in-a-bed, which vindictive ex-spouse of which royal prince was not invited to the latest royal wedding etc.etc.etc.

So the veil has gone, the mystique has gone and the royal family (or “royals” if you copy dimwit speech) are revealed to be what Amercans would call “just plain folks” and simply “celebrities” on the same level as soap-opera stars, Hollywood players, and sportspeople. They appear to the public in the same contexts, after all. (Kim Kardashian Page 5; Kate Middleton and spouse Page 6 etc.)

If Bagehot was right, this should spell the decline in monarchy, n’est-ce pas?

But what we are now seeing is a great campaign of re-branding. Shows like The Crown ostensibly reveal all the soiled linen of modern British royalty, but in fact subtly glamourise the Windsors and leave the Queen herself inviolate. We are told that this is a process of “democratising”, making royalty more relevant to younger generations. The cameras follow around William and Kate, Harry and Meghan, showing what decent and sociable people they are, diligently producing further heirs and happily relating to the populace. Doubtless they are very nice people and their popularity is real.

But there is still something missing.

Lacking the (public) gravitas of earlier generations of royalty, will their popularity be any substitutes for the old, carefully-crafted and protected mystique? I think not, but as a form of public entertainment, if not a particularly enlightened one, I think British royalty will be around for quite a while yet.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Something New


We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“VIETNAM – AN EPIC TRAGEDY 1945-1975” by Max Hastings (Harper Collins, $NZ39:95)

In one of the photographic sections of Max Hastings’ Vietnam – An Epic Tragedy 1945-75, there is a page labelled “Three images that crippled the US cause in Vietnam”. The images appear in nearly every documentary film or book about the Vietnam War and they have burnt their way into the memories of the couple of generations.

A Buddhist monk immolates himself in protest at both the war and the lack of Buddhist voices in the South Vietnamese government. 

A South Vietnamese police chief summarily shoots a Vietcong after the Tet Offensive. 

A naked little girl and other children run down a road, crying after being hit by napalm. 

All three images were so powerful and so horrible that they intensified protest against the American prosecution of the war and they still dominate the way the war is popularly interpreted. This, our guts tell us, was a brutal and pointless war which achieved nothing.

It is quite possible that this judgment is valid, but three images alone, no matter how powerful, cannot possibly tell the whole truth about a war – and especially the whole truth about a war that was fought, on and off, over thirty years from the first French attempt to re-assert colonial rule in 1945 to the final collapse of South Vietnam in 1975.

A massive piece of work (nearly 700 pages before endnotes, index and very long bibliography) Max Hastings’ Vietnam, An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 has the virtues of both good history and the best journalism. Hastings gives in detail the major military campaigns of this thirty-year conflict, showing more consideration for tactics, strategy and material facts than many slimmer accounts have done. But he is also aware of the political manoeuvring, the changes in alliances, and the social cost as well as the huge body count. (70,000 French died in their Vietnamese war; the total of American dead in their long engagement was 58,000; and in the whole thirty years of conflict, between 2 million and 4 million Vietnamese died.) As well as consulting all the material in his formidable bibliography, the journalist side of Hastings allows him to draw on many years of interviews with North and South Vietnamese soldiers and politicians, former NLF people (National Liberation Front = “Vietcong”), French colonials, American policy-makers and spooks, and other journalists. While the superstructure is solid history, the book is also heavy with vivid anecdotes and reminiscences.

In broadest outline, the story Hastings tells is a familiar one. From the mid-nineteenth century, French colonial rule of Indochina was generally abysmal. After the Second World War, the French tried for ten years to rebuild their old colonial empire. From 1945 to 1954, during the High Cold War, this doomed enterprise was largely paid for by American money. Finally came the debacle of Dienbienphu in 1954, then partition, to which the North Vietnamese communist government agreed, thinking that it would be a temporary arrangement until the French left. There was relative peace in the late 1950s, as the North Vietnamese had not yet embraced a “forward” policy; but by the early 1960s, conflict intensified. 16,000 American “advisers” were in Vietnam when JFK died. Within a couple of years, the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” gave President Johnson, seeking to show that he was “tough on communism”, the excuse to escalate the war and put boots on the ground . American marines landed at Danang in 1965 and the war intensified as thousands of Americans were now rotated through the country.

The general drift of Hastings’ narrative is that once the US committed infantry, they came to seem an army of occupation by many Vietnamese who would otherwise have been anti-communist. “Many harsh things may justly be said about what communist fighters did in Vietnam,” writes Hastings, “ but their footprint on the ground was light as a feather by comparison with that made by the boots of the American military. The very presence of affluent Westerners, armed or unarmed, uniformed or otherwise, could not fail to exercise a polluting influence on a predominantly rural and impoverished Asian society.” (p.118)

 American attempts to build up a credible South Vietnamese army (ARVN) had very mixed results. Too many ARVN personnel were not really interested in fighting and (justifiably or otherwise) they were often viewed with contempt by American servicemen – exacerbating existing racial tensions. American support for a succession of compliant South Vietnamese leaders led to great moral corruption. Despite the many atrocities carried out by the insurgent Vietcong in the south, largely uncommitted peasantry became alienated from successive leaders in Saigon. Says Hastings:

While the country retained peerless natural beauties, much of it was polluted by the war, in a fashion evidenced by its seventy-seven orphanages and two hundred thousand child delinquents. Some farmers, weary of seeing their paddy fields wrecked by the passage of military vehicles, abandoned growing rice, sustaining the drift to the cities. A permanent chemical pall hung over Saigon and its adjoining military suburbs… Almost every street was rutted and potholed by neglect, excesses of climate and traffic, the last increased from 1967 onwards by a tsunami of Honda mopeds. Piles of cement and rubbish were as ubiquitous as security chicanes, barbed wire and belching black truck diesel smoke.” (p.359) Hastings gives equally unflattering views on the moral corruption of the American forces, the huge use of drugs by servicemen, frequent “fragging” of officers by disgruntled grunts, prostitution on a massive scale in the cities, and other effects of the American presence.

Meanwhile antiwar movements grew in the West. The US leadership’s strategy was too often dominated by considerations of what the American electorate could bear, or what would win a president favour as the next election loomed. So the war stumbled on through Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon until American disengagement and the collapse of the South in the face of North Vietnam’s armies. Despite romanticised versions sometimes heard on the Left, it was not a guerrilla campaign that defeated the South, but a North Vietnamese army equipped with masses of materiel supplied by China and the Soviet Union.

That is the book if seen only as an historical chronicle, but Hastings has particular themes which I can only summarise thus:

First there is the contrast beween a cohesive North Vietnamese communist government, which had the clear, simple and comprehensible policy of uniting the country; and a wavering South Vietnamese government, which did not have the confidence of its people, never worked out any coherent social policies and rapidly came to be seen as a mere tool of the US. Hastings is fully aware of the brutality of the North (of which more later), but he makes painfully clear the “revolving door” aspect of leadership in the South, as Americans nudged a succession of unimpressive men though South Vietnam’s presidential palace. There was undeniable American collusion in the assassination, in 1963, of the South Vietnamese leader Diem and then the dreary succession of “Big” Mihn, then Nguyen Khahn, then Nguyen Cao Ky, and finally Nguyen Van Thieu, none of whom had a democratic mandate and none of whom made any policies that might gain them popular support. Only Thieu deserves some credit for his calm demeanour, although even that cracked as the war neared its end.

Next there is the matter of great deception as practised by American leadership. Nobody now can credibly doubt that the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, justifying American intervention, was largely a fiction used by Johnson to boost his popularity before an election. Hastings says his advisers (especially Robert McNamara) did not correct exaggerated misinformation about the incident and “allowed him to elevate into a major drama a brush at sea that could easily and should rightfully have been dismissed as trivial.” (pp.190-191) When the American government realised that the ground war was unwinnable, they stepped up a massive bombing campaign in the hope, not of gaining any military advantage, but of forcing North Vietnam to negotiate. By 1972, when Nixon and Kissinger bargained with North Vietnam over how American troops would be withdrawn, they were basically saving face, claiming to have left behind a South Vietnamese army capable of defending itself. They knew full well that they were deserting an ally, but hoped the North Vietnamese would agree to delay any major offensive for a suitable amount of time, so that the withdrawal could seem honourable.

So far, this account will have many readers nodding their heads and claiming that they already understood all this. But Hastings also emphasises other matters that will damage some people’s received image of the war. He notes the extent to which, from 1954 onwards, the war was a civil war, not just an affair of imperialists against national liberation. There really was strong anti-communist feeling among millions of Vietnamese. Apprehension about the type of state a communist regime would impose was not confined only to Americans and a few privileged lackeys. One million Vietnamese fled from the north and Ho Chi Minh’s government after the Geneva agreement partitioned the country in 1954. In the American phase of the long conflict, over 100,000 defected to the South from the North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong. The North at first expected a massive uprising in the South, led by the Vietcong, to overthrow the government of the South – but the attempt at such a concerted uprising (the Tet Offensive) failed, as the mass of peasants were as indifferent to the communist cause as they were to the Saigon government. As Hastings shows in his final chapters, despite their well-founded reputation for often lacking the will to fight, the ARVN, no longer supported by American troops, fought many battles as the NVA invaded in 1975, and was able to prevail in some. This suggests that many of those ARVN soldiers did not want a communist victory. Finally, despite what some mythology says, not all those who fled (or wanted to flee) in 1975 were bar girls and secret police. Thousands of Vietnamese knew exactly what a communist government would entail.

Hastings does not short-change in relating American atrocities – the burning of hamlets to no purpose; the killing, on mere suspicion, of thousands who were non-combatants; and scandals like the My Lai massacre of 1969. Where he differs from other chroniclers, however, is his readiness to point out the equal, and probably much greater, ruthlessness of both the North Vietnamese leadership and the Vietcong .

The merits of rival causes are never absolutes,” he tells us on the very first page of his introduction,  “… Only simpletons of the political right and left dare to suggest that in Vietnam either side possessed a monopoly of virtue.” (pp.xix – xx)

In the late 1950s, after the French had been ousted, North Vietnam’s communist government did not have a “forward” policy towards the South. It was partly exhausted by the war with the French, and partly still expecting an uprising in the South. In this time, despite all the deficiencies of the rule of Diem, the South prospered and was able to feed itself, while collectivisation in the North caused mass famines. Says Hastings:

While today the failure of collectivisation is apparent in every society where it has been tried, in the twentieth century it was probably historically inescapable that impoverished rural societies, China and Vietnam notable among them, should attempt inplementation of the theories of Marx and Lenin, in order to discover for themselves their unworkability. The human cost was appalling – but so was that of the American attempt to prevent such an experiment by force of arms.” (p.229)

The benign image of “Uncle” Ho Chi Minh belied the reality of a single-minded Stalinist who believed in mass “re-education” for those who did not comply with his state, mass imprisonment for dissenters and total state-controlled censorhip. Yet he did realise that his country was in no condition to pursue all-out war. For most of the war with the Americans, Ho was sidelined by the more bellicose Le Duan and Le Duc Tho and he became little more than a propaganda figurehead. Says Hastings:

Le Duan was the principal personality driving renewal of the unification struggle: it is hard to exaggerate his personal role in what followed. As for his politburo comrades, it seems legitimate to speculate that some favoured war in the South as a means of escaping acknowledgement of the failure of their policies at home; of instilling a new sense of purpose in Ho Chi Minh’s threadbare people. It was their good fortune that the ‘imperialist’ foe, indispensible to such a regime as their own, had harnessed its fortunes to Ngo Dihn Diem, a dead donkey if ever there was one. The war that now gained momentum was such as neither side deserved to win.” (p.108)

All of which brings me to the last major issue with which Hastings deals. This is the major matter of perception. A totalitarian regime, such as Ho Chi Minh’s, has strict and unquestioned control of all mass media, and certainly does not allow news photographers and cameramen to rove relatively freely, reporting what they will. In this respect, as Hastings notes a number of times, we of the television age have a completely unblanced view of where much of the war’s brutality lay. Further, he remarks: “Relative American openness contrasted with the communist commitment to secrecy, in my view constitutes a claim upon a fragment of moral high ground. The egregious error committed by US statesmen and commanders are not that of lying to the world, but rather of lying to themselves.” (p.xxiii) In the terrorisation of peasants, summary executions of those who did not support them, and lack of scruples about forcible mass “re-education”, the communist forces probably exceeded the Americans and ARVNs in brutality. But no cameras were watching them. And what (Western) cameras did see of them was often misleading. By all military measures, the great Tet Offensive was a disaster for the communists, basically destroying the Vietcong and showing the there was no possibility of a mass communist uprising in the South. Hastings notes:

In the aftermath of Tet, morale slumped among the NVA and Vietcong, who acknowledged a military defeat that had cost them twenty thousand dead. Hanoi’s official history concedes ‘the battlefield had temporarily turned in favour of the enemy… Our posture and strength were seriously weakened.’ By the communists’ own estimates, exposure to US firepower had cost some guerrilla units 60-70 per cent of their strength.” (p.413)

And yet television news showed the West images of Saigon under attack, Vietcong breaking into the grounds of the US embassy, and firefights going on across the city. The impression was created that the South had suffered a dreadful reverse and was already defeated. It was at this time that terrible images showed a police chief summarily executing a Vietcong by a pistol shot to the head. As Hastings explains (p.403), the Vietcong in question had personally killed an ARVN officer, his wife, his six children and his 80-year-old mother – but there was no camera around to see these acts.

Hastings is definitely NOT making the case, still heard from some American hawks, that “the media lost the war for us”. As a long-time journalist himself, he applauds the skill and often courage of journalists who penetrated official lies and brought the truth about the darkest elements of the war to public attention. But he is aware that only one side’s crimes were thus exposed, and that even Western journalists of high repute were prone to accepting uncritically official North Vietnamese propaganda. The wastefulness and inaccuracy of many US air strikes in North Vietnam are beyond dispute, but they had far greater effect than was admitted in the handouts from Hanoi that Harrison Salisbury quoted as objective fact in the New York Times. (p.323)

I spent three whole days reading Vietnam – An Epic Tragedy 1945-75 with the same sort of horrible fascination that I read Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy [his massive study of the whole course of the Russian Revolution - and the best single-volume account on the subject] or Laurence Rees’ The Holocaust – a New History. It is shocking, often depressing, and compulsive reading. It will, naturally, cause annoyance to those who wish to see the war in more simplistic terms, whether they are unreconstructed American “hawks” or romantic leftists with sanitised ideas of “Uncle Ho” and how the Vietcong went about its business. I have now looked on a number of websites and seen the diversity of reactions. On the Guardian website alone, you can find one review by Martin Wollacott that fully endorses this book’s panoramic view; and another very grumpy review by Jonathan Steele claiming (inaccurately, I believe) that the book’s main purpose is to “exonerate the US military.”

In other words, it’s a book nuanced enough to force readers to do some thinking.

Footnote: Unlike other (American or British) chroniclers of the Vietnam War, Hastings acknowledges that the US had a few (a very few) allies. He notes the presence of Australian troops and remarks: “They towed in their wake the New Zealand government, which was convinced that no good could come out of the war, but felt obliged to follow the lead of its much larger neighbour.”(p.239)  Later he gives ten pages to “Aussies and Kiwis” (pp.460-470) although all his informants and interviewees for this section appear to have been Australian. His comments on New Zealanders are only generic ones. Perhaps this is fair as, at any time, there were over 4,500 Aussies in Vietnam and only about 500 New Zealanders.

            This has a personal element for me. One of my elder brothers, Piers, a career army officer, (see my eulogy for him here Goodbye Soldier) fresh out of military college, served for a year-and-a-half in Vietnam, I believe mainly with a New Zealand artillery battery at Bien Hoa. It was interesting to me, as a youngster, to see how his attitudes to the war changed. When he first returned to New Zeland, he was still idealistic about the war, being convinced that a rigged “election” held by one of South Vietnam’s leaders was a real sign of democracy. He said “I saw farmers and peasants and middle-class people and prostitutes voting at the booths.” But only a few years later, now out of Vietnam and learning how the war was going, he was much more cynical and said “If the politicians want a bloody war, they can have one.” Still later, as a senior officer, he was, like many other former combatants, an honoured guest in unified Vietnam, and was shown respectfully around battlefields (including Dienbienphu, Keh Sahn and sites further south) by Vietnamese officers who were perfectly happy to discuss their own, and their emeny’s, strengths and weaknesses in tactics and strategy. Like communist China, communist Vietnam welcomes tourists and their Western currencies and has accepted much private enterpise, having ditched dogmatic collectivisation while remaining a one-party stat.

By the way, Max Hastings points out that most US infantry served at most six months with a company before being shifted to staff roles and then sent home. He comments caustically: “Maybe two thirds of the men who came home calling themselves veterans – entitled to wear the medal and talk about their PTSD troubles – had been exposed to no greater risk than a man might get from ill-judged sex or ‘bad shit’ drugs.” (p.249) This crack has caused great offence among some American reviewers, but it squares with my brother’s tales of Aussies and Kiwis doing 18-month stretches in the field while Americans were rotated through active service at a much faster rate.