Monday, December 4, 2017
SPECIAL NOTICE TO READERS: CONSTRAINTS ON MY TIME, PLUS MY RECENT VISUAL IMPAIRMENT, MEAN THAT I HAVE DECIDED HENCEFORTH TO PRODUCE THESE BLOG POSTINGS FORTNIGHTLY RATHER THAN WEEKLY.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“HOARD” by Fleur Adcock (Victoria University Press, $NZ 25); “仁 SURRENDER” by Janet Charman (Otago University Press, NZ$27:50); “ORDINARY TIME” by Anna Livesey (Victoria University Press, $NZ 25); “FLOODS ANOTHER CHAMBER” by James Brown (Victoria University Press, $NZ 25)
I begin this post with an apology.
Recently I had to suspend producing Reid’s Reader for some months due to illness (hospitalisation and then weeks of recuperation). In that time, publishers continued to send me books to review, so that a formidable pile had accumulated by the time I got back to this work. The greatest casualty were collections of poetry which, as you know, get very little notice in the media outside specialist publications and websites.
So my apology is, that in catching up with four recent collections of poetry in this one posting, I am going to have to deal with them more briefly and rather summarily than I would otherwise do. Beg pardon.
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Fleur Adcock (born 1934) may be our best-known living literary expatriate. England has been her home since 1963, but she has made a number of return visits here in recent years. A prolific poet, her last volume The Land Ballot (reviewed on this blog) concerned her family background in rural New Zealand. The publisher’s blurb for Hoard tells us helpfully that this book is made up of things that didn’t fit the themes of the poet’s last two collections. I will not call it a pot-pourri, because its four sections do each have a common theme. But it is clear that these are things which, on their own, wouldn’t have made a complete book. Not that it worries me. I find that too many new collections of poetry tend to be “concept albums”. I prefer the older style of collection where we read each poem as an individual entity, even if thus we often work out a poet’s general preoccupations.
So to Hoard.
The first section comprises poems about Adcock’s younger life, from schooldays to young adulthood. Thus to poems about learning Latin declensions at school; the degeneration of her handwriting since she was a child; her use of typewriters (which she has now spurned for computers); witnessing a Caesarean delivery when she was a young woman (at the sight of which she apparently fainted); three rather bitter poems about her short marriage to Barry Crump; and poems about getting used to working and raising a son in England. Adcock’s imagery can be as sharp as cut metal, as in her very opening poem about coin-collecting as a child. One ancient worn coin, she writes, has been “sucked in the mouth of history / for so long that its outer edges / are smoothed away, gone down time’s gullet / with a slow wince of dissolving copper.”
In the second section, the focus is history before the author’s time. This includes forebears, as in “Aunt Jane’s Husband” (a brutal poem about conjugal sex, presumably in the 19th century) and two poems on family tales that were passed on by mothers. But more arresting are two longer poems – or cycles of shorter poems – about the very left-wing British Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, famous in the 1930s and 1940s for being a bit of a firebrand, leading the Jarrow march against unemployment, organising shelter in London during the Blitz and later being Minister of Education. Adcock clearly admires her as a feminist figure from an earlier age, and goes very protective in poems on Wilkinson’s private life, including one which condemns the rumour that Wilkinson eventually committed suicide.
Thus much for the past. The last two sections of Hoard deal with Adcock’s impressions of England now and of New Zealand now.
Her poems about English landscape are indeed very English, like the sequence “A Spinney” about foliage around her English home. Take the section “Horse-Chestnut” which I quote in full: “The squirrels want me to grow a forest. / They plant acorns on my lawn; / I haul them out by the stems, like minims. / / They plant a conker. A green hand shoots up, / and lo, I’ve stabled it in a pot: / a fistful of sticky buds for next spring”. It couldn’t be anywhere but England. Nor could the poem about foxes roving in the suburbs by moonlight. One poem is an extended intellectual game. This is “Albatross”, ostensibly about Coleridge gaining his inspiration for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but segueing into a lament for birds strangled by plastic out in our modern oceans.
I hate using this term, because I have often used it for poems by older people, but Adcock’s tone is often elegaic. In England bookshops are disappearing as books get sold on line; people suggest (in the poem poem “Real Estate”) that she should sell the old-fashioned home she loves and buy a flat (she refuses). In “Pacifiers” she mocks young people clutching their phones in the way her generation used to suck on cigarettes. Fings Ain’t Wot They Used Ta Be.
When, in the last section, she gets to modern New Zealand (observations based on a trip here in 2015), I feared at first that her tone would be dismissive. In “Helensville”, she declares “small-town New Zealand’s doing its thing / of channelling the 1930s.” In a way the funniest poem in the collection is the regretful “Blue Stars” in which Adcock declares “my New Zealand nationality / is a part-time thing – a bit of nostalgia” and goes on to discourse on New Zealand’s lack of indigenous flowers, and hence our need to import exotics which, annoyingly, often run wild. But her general take on modern EnZed is more rueful than dismissive, for in the remaining poems, old age attempts to reconstruct what Mercer and Drury and Thames and Raglan and (especially) Wellington were like when she was young.
It is like a ghost visiting old haunts and wondering at the impertinence that has made them change.
I hope it goes without saying that Adcock’s poems here, even if very retrospective, display the best elements of the modernist tradition in which she developed. The poems are accessible, clear, not given to rhetoric and – dammit – often great fun.
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Now in her mid-60s, Janet Charman (born 1954) isn’t as senior a poet as Fleur Adcock, but she is firmly established with seven well-received collections behind her. I remember reviewing with pleasure her At the White Coast (2012) in Poetry New Zealand #46 (March 2013). It was a loose, autobiographical collection, written in very free verse, of her OE experiences when working in England in the 1980s.
Her new collection 仁 Surrender is also autobiographical and it is mainly composed of free verse; but its final section “101 Snapshots” consists of 101 pithy statements written in (very loose) haiku form – at least each is three lines, even if they do not adhere to traditional haiku syllabics. As she states in her Acknowledgements, this collection sprang from a writing residency in Hong Kong in 2009 and a guest readership at a literary event in Taipei in 2014; therefore much of it is also an outsider’s response to Chinese culture. No wonder the ghost of Robin Hyde makes an appearance. The poem “仁” explains the Chinese character仁 in her title (apparently pronounced “ren”), which once stood for specificially masculine human qualities but which now stands for a general range of human characteristics, including compassion. This seems to connect with the many and diffuse allusions Charman’s poetry makes here to gender and sexual identity.
For much of this collection, we are reading what could be taken for loose diary jottings, or at least poems worked up therefrom. We open with the poet settling into an alien hotel room and adjusting to jet-lag (“your time 3am. / my time my own”). As the settings are polyglot writers’ gatherings, many poems reference words being translated or mistranslated in literary texts; how sexually-explicit moments of some texts are received; personalities met; questions asked by students; and the otherness of Hong Kong (or Taipei). In a number of poems she mentions taking Panadol for headaches or backaches and this seems to say something about the hectic nature of literary conferences, especially when there are students to lecture or be quizzed by.
In the long multi-part poem “where people are” the poet declares “i am actually a left margin justified crazy person / who agitating at her map in a crowded concourse / will talk to herself”. In this poem, there is the sense of disorientation in an alien environment and perhaps the disintegration of the self with a long series of statements beginning “i am”. Breathless, composed in short bursts over 17 pages, “where people are” touches on attraction of woman to woman mixed with cultural clash, much reference to the female body (especially genitalia) and the idea that poetry should undermine and liberate a closed or too-rigid a socety, which in this case is China.
Sometimes a poem is simply about the feeling sparked by something seen. In the poem “Wo de tian a!” a visit to an exhibition of dresses arouses jouissance in the poet. Sometimes a visit to a particular location fires up a series of reflections so diverse that it is hard to grasp a unifying theme, as in the very discursive poem “Nan Lian Garden” about a visit to a public garden. “They say you’re Japanese” agonises about cultural assimilation, while “it’s late” is a very personal memory concerning the father of the poet’s children who was unable to give up smoking before cancer already had him. While there is much effervescence and fizz in these poems, some become sombrely preachy. “The Anthology of Women’s Poetry” reads like a literary polemic that might have worked better as an essay. “on the sliding rack” is a rather flat protest poem about how a contaminated milk scandal was handled.
The publisher’s blurb for this volume speaks of “privileged constraints” upon the participants at the Honk Kong gathering. And certainly, in quite another sense, a mood of privilege inflects some of these poems. You are in a privileged environment if you write a poem about swapping your own books with other participants. Or if you write “Banquet” about how to dress at a literary dinner to make the right impression. Or if you write a ten-page poem “some notes on shopping and present giving” on what a bother it is finding and buying the appropriate things to give as presents to other participants. Yet of course Janet Charman is savvy enough to undercut this with self-deprecation and irony, which tell us that she isn’t that self-obsessed. In the poem “of our lucky eight” she remarks “Hong Kong doesn’t seem that foreign to me / though i know after these cocooned weeks / i might be kidding myself”. The whole of this particular poem is, in fact, about the embarrassment of having to hold the fort when some members of the performing literary troupe have deserted her.
Janet Charman’s poems here never did less than hold my attention. But after their sometimes rambling discursiveness, I found that I enjoyed most the pithy epigrams of the final (loose) haiku section.
Such gems as “trampoline / the stepchild’s / sitting room”
Or “listen / that’s a hungry cry / turn up the music”
Or “they’ll know / while Earth burned / we fiddled with our nature poems”
Or “leaf raking the trees tell me / everything / about winter”
Or even “those amber those carnelian wrist beads / cheap beyond belief / live ammunition from the faraway market”
As I did when I reviewed At the White Coast, I could at this point rebuke Charman for her rather precious habit of avoiding capital letters, especially in her use of “i” for the first person singular. In the new collection there is a poem “a writing exercise”, about answering students’ questions on her work. It has a very defensive section on her avoidance of capital letters which equates “I” with male phollocentrality and “i” with the hitherto suppressed female. Ho-de-hum. Interesting, coincidentally, that the poem notes Fleur Adcock is not enthused by Janet Charman’s typographical tic either. But then if I get too reproving about this issue, I will sound like the “teacherly reviewer” Charman rebukes in one of her haiku.
Besides, I don’t want to end on a sour note after enjoying most of this collection.
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Anna Livesey is of a younger generation than either Fleur Adcock or Janet Charman, but the “corporate strategist”, as the blurb describes her, is no newcomer either. Ordinary Time is her third collection.
As there are one or two religious references in this (short) collection of poems, I am sure the poet is aware that “ordinary time” is the term used by the church for those weeks of the year that are not taken up with the big seasons of Lent, Easter, Advent and Christmas – in other words, the times when life chugs on as life, away from the big public events.
Life chugs on as (domestic) life in these poems, which are candid, personal and – at first – focus on the poet’s experience as the mother of a newborn baby girl and a two-year-old toddler boy. The big world can chug on outside as Anna Livesey looks clearly at her early motherhood. The opening (title) poem at once tells us that she just brought her new baby home from hospital. The poem “Eleven Days” says the umbilical cord has gone (“The rotten flesh-stump that joined us / has fallen off”). The most gynaecologically-explicit poem is “Privacy” in which, as she is having a Caesarean section, she thinks of her mother – and wishes to have “the dark privacy of the womb restored”. In the poem “America”, she compares her two children with the remembered skittering of fireflies, seen in America… and then rebukes herself for doing so. She does not wish to surrender to the fey or make her language pretentious and pretty. Some poems compare the newborn with the toddler, and there are great insights into toddler behaviour. Any young parent can relate to the lines in the poem “Winter Gardens”: “I watch my two-year-old and think: / I want to bite my hand in rage when I’m given the wrong cup; / shuffle away from strangers, shaking with disgust / at their forgiveness / their unknowledge of myself.” Yes, toddlers’ tantrums can make us want to throw tantrums too.
The poems are realistic about babies and young children but not hard, not cynical. The closeness, warmth and cuddliness of young motherhood is here too.
There’s a subtle shift in the second section of this collection. Motherhood is still the focus, but it widens to take in the poet’s relationship with her own mother and grandmother, as well as shared experience with other women. The past and the present are united. “Artificial Intelligence” is a poem dense with meaning, connecting mourning for the death of her mother with the child growing in the womb and, later, with post-partum depression – a “cycle of life” poem which manages to be neither sententious nor trite. The prose poem “Drowned Church” (I refuse to synopsise it) is a wonderful essay in literal symbolism. “Bay Leaves” comes closest to being Anna Livesey’s manifesto and explanation of poetic technique when she avers: “In my first book I was desperate not to be confessional. / My poems reached out of myself, pushed myself away. / Now that my mother is dead and my children are born / I seem to have nothing else to speak of.” As for the poem “Reading Books About the War” – it is a really bizarre prose poem, its four sections almost like four separable stand-up-comic gigs.
The third section is more generally reflective, moving from the poet’s immediate family circle to reveries of a friend in rural America and a poem set on a New York fire escape. The final poem in the book (“Trimester One”) seems to be about an abortion, but could equally be about something imagined. It is unusually opaque for this poet, who is on the whole clarity itself.
When poems are as personal and intimate as many of these are, making judgments upon them can seem uncomfortably like making judgments on the poet herself. I hope I am not guilty of that here. As a male, I recognised and understood many of the joys and anxieties of young parenthood that resonate in this collection.
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In its issue of 25 November, the NZ Listener produced a list of ten volumes of New Zealand poetry, published in 2017, that were worth reading. Fully eight of the volumes were by women, one was an anthology edited by a woman and a man, and only one of the ten volumes (David Howard’s The Ones Who Keep Quiet – reviewed on this blog) was by a man. Let me confess that reviewing new volumes of New Zealand poetry sometimes seems like a journey through female confessionalism, so much do women poets now dominate the scene. And note how this posting replicates the process. Having looked at three volumes by women, I now give you the token male. Not that James Brown himself (born 1966) can be regarded as marginalised, given that Floods Another Chamber is his sixth collection and given that he is at the heart of the poetic establishment, now running Vic’s poetry-writing courses, having edited Sport etc.
I won’t waste my or your time by trying to explain why this volume is divided into three sections. The arrangement seems to be purely arbitrary. Also, I remember in a review years ago coming up with an ingenious explanation as to why a certain volume was divided into sections, only to be told later by the poet in question that he had arranged his collection that way simply to “give readers a break”. So maybe that’s all that’s happening with the organisation of Floods Another Chamber.
In Floods Another Chamber, James Brown shows that he can write poems in many different forms. Let me list some of them. There’s the alphabetical poem (“The A to Z of Cycling”) where each of 26 lines begins with a new letter of the alphabet. There’s the mock nursery-rhyme (“Peculiar Julia”, “Shrinking Violet”). There’s that standard of the writing school class, the Wallace Stevens-style “thirteen-ways-of-looking-at” poem (“Eight Angles on the Manawatu River”). There are prose anecdotes lineated (“The Real Humpties”, “How I Met My Wife”). There are modified haiku (“Snogging in Wordsworth’s Bedroom” “Sad Dads” “Tautology Explained”). There are list poems (like the lists of cliché-ic things people say about beds in “Beds R Us”; or like “Agile Workshop”, a collection of clichés spoken in workshops and presentations). There’s the “I-can-write-groovy-sex” poem (“Erotic Snowdome”). And there’s the “found” poem (“Come on Lance”, which Brown would have transcribed only because the cyclist Lance Armstrong proved to be a drug cheat; and “Fine with Afterlife”, reproduced implicitly to mock a poorly-devised theatre poster). Towards the end of the book, there are a clutch of poems built around the repetition of the same grammatical structures.
Far from making me admire the virtuosity of the poet, I find here only a box of tried-and-true tricks, like forms recommended to students in a poetry-writing seminar. There is something airless about most of the collection, as if the poet is not so much connecting with what he is ostensibly writing about as seeing what genre strategies he can devise.
Some poems work as satire, such as the hit at real estate agents in “Attitude”; or what could equally be either social satire on dead-end jobs or an elegy for lost and wasted youth (“The AM Sound” – this being the poem that gives this volume its title with the line “your despair floods another chamber”). Very occasionally, too, there is a poem where the poet seems emotionally invested in his material, like “Piano Tune”, a sad little thing about a bird caught in a piano. In many ways it’s a pity that the very best poem in the volume appears so early. This is “Social Experiment”, a genuinely witty poem about New Zealand’s (dying?) obsession with rugby – yet with the poet self-deprecating enough not to be elevated by his own superiority in not being a fan.
Yet, along with the stylistic games, there’s a deadening sardonic tone to so much of what the poet writes. James Brown is over-eager to tell us that he is too sophisticated to be impressed by things that might impress us lesser mortal. We move into the land of condescension. “Emu” and “Beyond Red Rocks” are presumably memories of tramping and/or cycling trips in the wilderness… but remember, it’s not fashionable to say you admire or are in awe of the scenery on such expeditions, so both poems are hip memoranda about me, me, me. “Janet and John go to the Book Launch” is written with deadpan irony (mimicking the style of old primary school readers), but with an unpleasant undercurrent of contempt for the people who attend such things as book launches. “The Pitfalls of Poetry” and “Unstressed / Stressed” are attacks on older forms of poetry – or are they Larkinian irony? (As in Larkin’s “books are a load of crap.”)
Unless you are cocooned in sterile literary theory, you will be aware that (always and in every form of publication, despite denials) there is a huge element of subjectivity in all reviewing and criticism. Everything I have said about Floods Another Chamber boils down to the fact that I did not enjoy this collection, did not engage with it and found much of it to be predictable game-playing. Others may have a different reaction and they are most welcome to it. We none of us want to discourage people from writing poetry, after all.
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.
“HEART OF DARKNESS” by Joseph Conrad (first published in three parts in Blackwood’s Magazine, 1899; slightly revised when republished in book form in Youth – A Narrative; and Two Other Stories, 1902)
The tale of my relationship with Joseph Conrad’s works is now wearisome to your eyes, as I have already alluded to it three times on this blog (see posts on Under Western Eyes, The Secret Agent and Victory). I will therefore not repeat it.
But I will say that when I first read the novella Heart of Darkness as an Honours student, nearly 45 years ago, the storm over Joseph Conrad’s supposed racism had not yet broken. Of course as students we discussed what the novella had to say about Europe and Africa and imperialism and colonialism, but we never called the work “racist”. We understood that the author, writing over seventy years before our time, sometimes used racial epithets that would no longer be acceptable. We understood that he of course depicted things from a European point of view. But as to the matter the work being “racist” – this never occurred to us.
Then, in the mid-1970s, the distinguished Nigerian author Chinua Achebe delivered a lecture (the first of many, in fact) decrying Heart of Darkness as “racist” and even calling Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist”. This was not, said Achebe, only because the novella denigrated Africans – though Achebe did object to the number of times the word “nigger” was used. Rather, it was because it privileged a European viewpoint and reduced Africans to (largely) mute characters in the background. Yes, said Achebe, Conrad did see colonialism and imperialism as destructive forces, but he saw them as morally destroying Europeans. What is the story, after all, but a journey to meet a white man who has (probably) gone insane and been corrupted by his imperialist role? But surely, said Achebe, this was a small thing compared with what imperialists were doing to those Africans whom Conrad did not allow to speak for themselves.
It is now impossible for Heart of Darkness to be discussed without its “racism” being mentioned, even by those critics who defend it from the charge.
So, 45 years after first reading it, I sat down to read Heart of Darkness again last month, although this time with the specific purpose of testing how “racist” it was.
Let me therefore set aside some of those things that often arise in discusssions of this work.
I’m not discussing Conrad’s framing device and the narrative voice he chooses – sure, it’s told by Charlie Marlow whom we could see as the archtypal “unreliable narrator” if we so pleased. But as we are told that, when he tells his story, Marlow sits “in the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes” and “in the pose of a meditating Buddha” (i.e. he is meant to be seen as a teaching sage); and as his story reflects much of what Conrad experienced in the Congo in 1890; I see little point in interpreting Marlow’s viewpoint as being all that different from the author’s own viewpoint.
Nor will I set about commenting on Conrad’s lushly descriptive, allusive, evocative prose (which hostile critics see as evasive and indulging in “blur words”). By being non-specific about so much, Conrad creates an air of mystery and bafflement – this, I think, is intended to impress upon (European) readers the alienness and otherness of Africa. We are entering the “heart of darkness”. But, before I am reminded of something so obvious, I am aware that the novel’s symbolism makes the heart of darkness the (universal) human heart and the terms “dark” and “darkness” (repeated and repeated throughout the work) are applied as much to Europe and Europeans as to Africa and Africans.
Finally, I am not going to unload upon you one of my verbose plot summaries. You already know the story’s simple outline. The experienced sailor Marlow takes a position with a (presumably Belgian) company which trades in ivory and other African riches. He undertakes to captain a steamer up an African river (presumably in the Congo) to make contact with the legendary trader Kurtz, who has been incommunicado for too long. Marlow travels from a Company Station (i.e. trading post) to a Central Station to (Kurtz’s) Inner Station, allowing some critics to see this as replicating a journey to the underworld, or Hell. En route he meets and interacts with a number of (European) characters. For all Marlow’s commentary – and the very occasional interruptions of those who are supposedly listening to him - this is essentially the linear story of a journey. What I think is often overlooked is the extent to which it is a story of disillusion. Marlow expects to find adventure and the prestige of “exploration” in his journey. Instead he finds himself working for a sordid and exploitative company. Marlow expects to captain efficiently the river steamer. Instead, somebody else has managed to wreck it in the river shallows, and it takes months for Marlow to salvage it and get it river-worthy once again. Then there is the disppointment – or at least bafflement – of finally meeting the fabled Kurtz. What I believe is the novel’s anti-climax is prepared by the voice of the young Russian who, in the novel’s third section, tells Marlow much about Kurtz before Marlow meets Kurtz.
But setting aside style, narrative voice and plot, let me draw up the balance sheet of racism.
To pick up Achebe’s point, I counted the word “nigger” being used ten times in the text, usually in a context that does not imply contempt but simply casual (European) colloquialism of the day. I noted that in the novella’s second section, it would be very easy to take great offence at the episode when Marlow’s steamer is caught in the fog, and is being attacked with arrows and spears from the shore. Marlow notes that some of his African crew are cannibals, one of whom suggests that they should deal with the attackers by eating them. This is the only time an African character speaks in the novella, except when the “manager’s boy” reports “Mistah Kurtz – he dead” (the line later appropriated by T.S.Eliot). Africans are usually displayed as exotica – the stately and gaudily-dressed woman at Kurtz’s station – or as savages – the dancing and whooping and shouting primitives on the river-bank – or as a source of menace – the dark or unseen eyes peering through the foliage at the passing steamer. Then there is the matter of Kurtz being worshipped by Africans as a god on “a high seat among the devils of the land” and of his presiding “at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites which … were offered up to… Mr Kurtz himself.” What are these “unspeakable rites”? This is one of those moments where Conrad goes allusive and vague – but he seems to be referring to either cannibalism or human sacrifice (or both). The fact that Kurtz participates in this could suggest that his madness or degeneracy comes from his having “gone native”. This concept is reinforced then Marlow later observes Kurtz crawling on all fours and observes that “the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness” and the pounding of drums and a fire’s flames awakened in Kurtz “forgotten and brutal instincts” which “beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations”. In other words he, a European, has reverted to being a barbarous African.
Given all this, it is easy to see Achebe’s point.
Yet there is the fact that Conrad is merciless in dealing with his European characters even if, unlike the African ones, they get to speak. And (amazingly for a book written in 1899), Heart of Darkness is a novel that attacks the concept of empire-building. Very early in the story, Marlow says “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking of it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much.” Marlow is very sceptical of the European idea that imperialism was a “civilising mission”. When his aunt talks about the company Marlow is going to serve “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways”, Marlow “ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.” In other words, the “civilising mission” was the fig-leaf imperialism wore to cover its real purpose of grabbing resources and wealth. On his sea voyage to Africa, Marlow contrasts Africans paddling a canoe with a French warship. The “black fellows” had “bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there.” By contrast, the French warship is shooting desultorily into a shore settlement of Africans. “In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.” The clear implication is that the Africans belong there, but the Europeans don’t (and their mission is probably futile anyway). Encountering thereafter Africans in a chain-gang (effectively having been enslaved by Europeans), Marlow speaks of his realization that he is becoming acquainted with “a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly” (i.e. the European mission in Africa). There is the encounter with a suicidal Swede. There is the fastidious clerk in his neat, pressed clothes. Both are completely incongruous in Africa. A group of Europeans who call themselves the Eldorado Exploring Expedition are “reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage” with “no more moral purpose… than there is in burglars breaking into a safe”.
In his real condemnations of European imperialism, there are some moments that are very ambiguous. In one sequence, Marlow refers to one of his African crewmen as an “improved specimen” who had been trained to tend a boiler by Europeans, but who as like “a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs. A few months of training had done for that really fine chap”. The clear meaning here is that it would have been better for Europeans to leave this man alone and let him lead his African life – but Achebe pounces on this description and (perhaps correctly) sees it as showing a dismissive and condescending view of Africans, as well as underestimating Africans’ understanding of new technology.
Yet Conrad frequently equates European and African. When Marlow describes an area that has been depopulated when Africans fled before European invaders, he reflects “Well, if a lot of mysterious niggers armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to travelling on the road between Deal and Gravesend, catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads for them, I fancy every farm and cottage thereabouts would get empty very soon”. And on the very next page Marlow remarks on the sound of drums in the night, “a sound weird, appealing, suggestive and wild – and perhaps with as profound a meaning as the sound of bells in a Christian country.”
This brings us to one of the overarching images in the novel – the reminder, at both beginning and end, that England (and by extension all of Europe) was once one of the “dark places in the world” too. The River Thames, where Marlow tells his story, is like the River Congo. Marlow spends some pages reflecting on the Roman conquerors who once had to deal with “savages” in what is now England. The clear implication is that Africans now are going through the same experience of imperialism that Europeans once went through, and the “heart of darkness” is the universal human condition and not a geographical place in Africa. There is a cycle in history of depraved violence, conquest and empire-making to which all human races are prone. Perhaps it is his realisation of this universal human condition that leads Kurtz to his final cry “The horror! The horror!” He himself has never been morally or intellectually superior to the Africans who worshipped him. To “Exterminate all the brutes” (as he earlier advocated) would be to exterminate himself.
In its universalism, this idea is profoundly anti-racist. Conrad’s novella undermines the moral rationale upon which, when he was writing, European imperialism was still based. He rubs this point in with the coda to the novel, in which Marlow lies to Kurtz’s fiancee back in Europe, in effect telling her that Kurtz died a noble death. He gives her an illusion to cherish… like the illusions of racial superiority that provide a rationale for imperialism. It is only by such illusions that Europeans can think imperialism is a just and righteous thing.
And yet, after having argued all this, I cannot entirely negate Achebe’s argument. For Achebe would say that, even by seeing Africans as only now going through what Europeans went through thousands of years ago, Conrad is still promoting a myth of cultural superiority and therefore seeing Africans as more primitive. And there are all those demeaning depictions of Africans in the novel to deal with.
I cannot easily resolve this argument. As a work of literature, I still believe Heart of Darkness is profound, saying much about how we can be deluded, and how fragile our hold on a moral life is. I would fear that any student who was taught that Conrad is merely a “racist” would therefore be discouraged from reading his works, and would miss out on one of the most seminal of early-modernist writers. My thought here is very similar to a view John Newton expressed in Hard Frost (published in 2017), his survey of New Zealand nationalist writers in the 1930s: “It is entirely too easy to reduce nationalist writing to those attitudes and assumptions that we no longer find sympathetic, and then to sheet home those values to individual authors as if this somehow exempted us from reading these writers thoughtfully.” (pp.25-26). I do not believe we are exempted from reading Heart of Darkness thoughtfully. I believe Heart of Darkness is much, much more than an exercise in xenophobia. But like all great works of literature, it requires close reading and should stimulate vigorous discussion.
Cinematic footnote: Heart of Darkness has never been filmed successfully, and the reason is obvious. So much depends on the voice of the narrator and his vocabulary. And the novella is essentially a series of encounters, leading to Marlow’s meeting with Kurtz, rather than a plot in the conventional sense. It is well-known that, hoping to make a splash when he first came to Hollywood, the 25-year-old Orson Welles planned to film Heart of Darkness and a screenplay was developed – but the project was abandoned and Welles went on to make his splash with Citizen Kane instead. It is also well-known that John Milius’ screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) took Heart of Darkness as one of its chief models. Its story, set in the Vietnam War, has Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) travelling up a river to meet – and assassinate - Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Other than the odd allusion, though, it is not Conrad. Nicholas Roeg, in 1993, made a TV movie out of Heart of Darkness, with Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovitch as Kurtz, but it has been little seen and was generally panned by critics.
Rather odd footnote: There have been many other novels that have echoed Heart of Darkness’s despairing view of Western interventions in sub-Saharan Africa, but the most recent novel to do so must be Paul Theroux’s The Lower River (first published in 2012) wherein an American in his 60s, having cut ties with family and friends, decides to travel back to Malawi, where he was happy as a young Peace Corps teacher in the 1960s (as was Paul Theroux). He fondly remembers the optimism of the remote village in which he worked, the sense of real progress in the school that he helped run, and the confident 1960s hope that Africa was developing peacefully into modern – and hopefully democratic - states. Instead, after forty years, he finds corrupt bribe-driven government, a derelict school, a population reverting to the most authoritarian tribalism, villages of abandoned and feral chidren whose parents have died of AIDS, a collapse of infrastructure and a people more dependent on handouts from Westerners than they were in the days of imperial and colonial rule. I will not go into the details of Theroux’s plot (which is a hair-raising one to say the least). But, while no subscriber to Arcadian dreams of blissful primitivism, one of Theroux’s implicit themes is that it might have been better if Westerners had never intervened in sub-Saharan Africa in the first place. Perhaps that is part of what Conrad is saying in Heart of Darkness, too.
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.
“BOTH / AND” NOT “EITHER / OR”
There’s a type of argument that I have become tired of hearing, especially on radio but also in certain quarters of the internet.
It’s the type of argument that assumes things are mutually exclusive when they are in fact complementary.
I give two examples.
I tune in to a speech on prisons and incarceration. The speaker is earnestly arguing that we should not have prisons as places of punishment, but that we should have better education to prevent criminality and better rehabilitation schemes.
Of course I applaud fully education and rehabilitation schemes and I would oppose no plans to extend them. But this is the fatal either/or dichotomy. While we are rehabilitating young criminals, or educating young people who are in danger of becoming criminals, what do we do about the hardened criminals and multiple offenders who are already at odds with society? Unpleasant though it may be to contemplate, there are people who are beyond rehabilitation. The reality is that there will still have to be some punitive incarceration (unless you want to bring back capital punishment). It is a case of both/and, not either/or.
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein affair, I read on line a polemic about how we should deal with the sexual predation of women. The woman who writes it says that what is needed is a massive re-education of men and boys. En route to making her case, she ridicules programmes that aim to make girls and women safe by teaching them self-defence, caution in their behaviour and care around the men they associate with. This, she says, is laying the onus on women while restricting their freedom. Since males are the offenders, males alone should have their behaviour modified and limited.
And again I hear that dire either/or thinking rather than both/and.
Sure, educate men and boys to behave with respect around women (you might fruitfully begin by removing all the pornography available on line). But if you are a young woman, is it not prudent to know how to look after yourself, be aware of (sexual) dangers you might face and know how to avoid them? Yep – not dressing like a hooker and not getting drunk around men you hardly know might be good advice too. Or is such common sense an example of oppressive patriarchal stereotyping?
I could extend my both/and argument by referring to the matter of government welfare and private charity, but I have already made my case that these are complementary, in my post The Guv’mentOrda.
Beware the unbalanced argument that needlessly speaks in terms of mutual exclusivity.
Monday, November 20, 2017
SPECIAL NOTICE TO READERS: CONSTRAINTS ON MY TIME, PLUS MY RECENT VISUAL IMPAIRMENT, MEAN THAT I HAVE DECIDED HENCEFORTH TO PRODUCE THESE BLOG POSTINGS FORTNIGHTLY RATHER THAN WEEKLY.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“PHONEY WARS – NEW ZEALAND SOCIETY IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR” by Stevan Eldred-Grigg (with Hugh Eldred-Grigg) (Otago University Press, $NZ 49:95)
Over a decade ago, when I was studying theology, one lecturer told us how we could become immortal. It had nothing to do with religion or a possible afterlife. It had to do with scholarship. The trick was this: you write an article for a scholarly journal in which you make an outrageous or downright silly case, with which you know every other scholar will disagree. You can then be sure that every time another scholar writes on the same topic, he or she will have to spend some time refuting your hypothesis, even if only in footnotes. So your name will appear in thousands of articles and books. Scholarly immortality!
I wonder if Stevan Eldred-Grigg had the same objective in mind in writing Phoney Wars? Eldred-Grigg’s latest book (co-authored with Hugh Eldred-Grigg) presents much factual and documentary detail, but it is more polemic than history and it argues its case stridently. As Eldred-Grigg surely knows, many (most?) historians will disgree with his case. It is that it would have been better for New Zealand never to have joined the Allies in fighting the Second World War. Just as stridently, Eldred-Grigg argued in his earlier book The Great Wrong War (reviewed on this blog) that New Zealand was wrong to be involved in the First World War. As I said in my review of The Great Wrong War, it is relatively easy to be negative about the First World War because, to most people, it appears to be just the clash of greedy, rival empires. But, for most people, the Allies in the Second World War had the admirable aim of destroying Nazism and Japanese militarism, and it is far more difficult to denigrate or satirise their role. Like it or not, the Second World War is still (as I said in another posting) popularly seen as The One True Good War.
How does Eldred-Grigg make his case? In his introduction, he asserts: “Ultimately there was no compelling reason for New Zealand to involve itself in the war. As a small state ocupying a position of zero strategic significance, its contribution to a war waged between great powers was negligible.” (p.12)
As he is winding up the book, he asks rhetorically “Why had the dominion been fighting?” and declares: “The Labour government never made anything other than vague statements about why. Cabinet chose to declare war on several states, and the declaration of war was given the rubber stamp by the National Party. Yet no group of politicians or state officials ever sat down to draw up a list of goals to be won for the dominion by going into the struggle. New Zealand had no ‘war aims’ to use the jargon of diplomacy, other than the very woolly one of helping the motherland and other states fight Japan, Italy and Germany. And why had the motherland been fighting? A lot of sonorous phrases were spoken, but in many ways the British government went to war in order to follow its old policy of stopping any one state from being overwhelmingly strong in Europe.” (pp.328-329)
The tone of his argument rarely changes in the 300-plus pages between these two statements. Eldred-Grigg never concedes that defeating an expansionist totalitarian state might have been a good aim in itself. Even more damagingly, he rarely acknowledges that (alien though it may be to us later generations) majority popular New Zealand sentiment at that time did see this country as an extension of Britain, and saw nothing “woolly” in helping a “motherland”.
No, it isn’t how we think in the early 21st century, but it was a persuasive motive in 1939.
After his introduction, Eldred-Grigg (Chapter 1) gives a once–over-lightly of New Zealand’s foreign and domestic policies in the 1930s, presenting the country as ruled by conservative interests with the dominant media being conservative newspapers, despite the popularity of the Labour government’s social democratic welfare policies. He makes much of the evils of empires and colonialism, especially as New Zealand was involved in ruling Pacific islands that would have preferred to be independent. This sets him up for a long argument in Chapter 5 that the Allies were massively hypocritical to claim to be defending “freedom” and “democracy” when they themselves (the British, French, Dutch and Americans) kept control – often by force – of large empires.
Moving on to the first phase of the war, September 1939 to June 1940, (Chapter 2) Eldred-Grigg argues that it was not to New Zealand’s economic advantage to go to war. We could, he claims, have found trading partners other than war-beset Britain. Britain was itself a repressive country and we were in effect supporting their repressive empire. (He lingers over the unpopularity of Commonwealth troops – including New Zealanders – with Egytian nationalists.) And then there were all those dreadful things the government did in the way of wartime censorship and cracking down on pacifists.
When the war really gets going in Europe, June 1940 to December 1941, (Chapter 3), Eldred-Grigg says that it was simply not our war but, as his chapter title puts it, “A War Far Away”, and therefore of no concern to us. After some debates and misgivings over the matter, the Labour government and most unions agreed to conscription. Much of what Eldred-Grigg says in this chapter about the inconveniences of rationing, the attempts to conscript wealth as well as men, and the opposition National Party’s failure to persuade the Labour government to form a waritme coalition, are the standard fare in history books concerning this period.
Not standard fare, however, is his chapter (Chapter 4) dealing with the Pacific war, December 1941 to December 1942. Eldred-Grigg strains hard to present a tolerant and forbearing Japanese government goaded into war by American and British trade practices and embargoes. When Japan signed on to an alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, “Wellington made the mistake… of thinking that the alliance meant Japan was getting ready to go to war against the British Commonwealth.” (p.181) Goodness! How naïve of Wellington! Eldred-Grigg keeps reminding us that the Guomindang government of China was not a democracy (and therefore, presumably, we should feel less sympathy for the Chinese when they came under Japanese attack); and he ridicules the New Zealand government for now having to rely on United States naval assstance as opposed to the British naval assistance they thought they could rely on. New Zealand fears of Japanese invasion were, in Eldred-Grigg’s telling, absurd because Japan was so far away. Besides, weren’t New Zealanders (and other Allies) nasty racists in the demeaning images of Japanese whicch they used in wartime propaganda?
In his Introduction, Eldred-Grigg has said “The war, contrary to the propaganda of the time and to subsequent memory, did not unite New Zealanders: it divided them.” (p.13) In Chapter 5 and the following chapter, he is determined to “prove” it. He presents all the privations of war (rationing, blackouts, digging air-raid shelters) as intolerable impositions, and he plays up the many complaints that New Zealanders made. I would interpret this as the functioning of a healthy, open democracy, which still had much room for free speech despite censorship; but Eldred-Grigg interprets it as signs of incipient class warfare. As for the “invasion” of American troops, Eldred-Grigg focuses on disorder, sexual misconduct, the “Battle of Manners Street” and other brawls between Kiwis and Americans, having decided that any evidence of more affable relationships between allies is not worth reporting.
Comes Chapter 5, dealing with the last two years of the war, (January 1943 to September 1945) and Eldred-Grigg claims this was another “phoney war” as it was by now only a matter of time before the Axis powers were defeated. New Zealand civilians were only playing at supporting the war. There was much discontent. This time, he concentrates on the reluctance of most soldiers to return to active service after they had been given three months furlough at home; and the limited ways in which the government made use of women in the workforce.
Finally, in his summing-up (Chapter 6), Eldred-Grigg basically damns the Allies for using nuclear weapons to end the war; says the outcome of the war was simply to create the Cold War between the USA and USSR; damns Britain and France and the Netherlands – now assisted by the USA – for trying to hang on to their colonial empires when they had said they were fighting for democracy; and again asserts that New Zealand would have better remained neutral.
As I was at pains to say in my opening paragraphs, there is much factual and documentary detail in this book, but there is also no doubt that it is very partial information and suborned to the purposes of polemic.
I will simply walk through a number of examples of Eldred-Grigg’s very loaded arguments. Consider this suggestion: “New Zealand could have followed the example of Ireland and proclaimed neutrality. A neutral policy would have had strong advantages. The country would have been saved from much of the waste, misery and loss of war. Also the policy could have been changed when the tides of war went one way or the other, making neutrality a more or less prudent course to steer.” (p.66) There is little point in comparing New Zealand with Ireland in this matter. In 1939, fewer than 20 years had passed since British troops were engaged in trying to put down Ireland’s fight for independence. The mood and disposition of the Irish people were very different from the mood and disposition of New Zealanders – even New Zealanders of Irish descent, despite Eldred-Grigg’s claims to the contrary. (Incidentally, Eldred-Grigg frequently errs by referring to Ireland as a “republic” in the Second World War. Although it asserted its independence in a new constitution of 1937, it did not officially style itself a Republic until 1949.)
Then there are many lapses into improbable speculation. Eldred-Grigg says New Zealand’s Labour government was partly coerced into declaring war by fear of a conservative backlash. He claims: “The Labour government, by choosing neutrality, would have had to work hard to cope with protests and lobbying by conservatives within New Zealand. The National Party might perhaps have sponsored a political coup, backed openly by the governor-general and secretly by London. Motor cavalcades might have rumbled through city streets bearing troops – young middle-class men willing to do the job of putting down the working class as their fathers or grandfathers had done so thoroughly in the days of ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ ”. (p.66) The “would have” and “might haves” in the above statement mark this as speculative fantasy.
As in much polemic concerning the (Western European and American) Allies, there is much tacit whitewashing of the role of the Soviet Union. From Winston Churchill down, nobody has ever doubted that the bulk of Hitler’s armies were destroyed on the Eastern Front in battles that carried off more millions of Soviet lives than the combined death rolls of all other Allies combined. But this doesn’t excuse such statements (with regard to the initial invasion of Poland) as “Moscow… stood aside after signing a non-aggression pact with Berlin.” (p.61) Not true. In accordance with the pact (really an alliance, since Uncle Joe continued to supply Adolf with war material for the next two years), Germany and Russia divided Poland between them and held joint victory parades. Later, when he gets to Operation Barbarossa (p.156), Eldred-Grigg manages to say nothing about the enfeeblement of the Red Army due to Stalin’s massive purges, and hence the initial catastrophic defeats the Soviets suffered. With regard to New Zealand, there is little mention of the CPNZ’s sudden conversion from being anti-war, and seeing the war as a mere tussle between “bourgeois democracies”, to being a militantly pro-war party once the USSR was attacked.
When he is busy belittling the idea that, at the declaration of war in 1939, democracies were pitted against the Nazi dictatorship, Eldred-Grigg remarks: “A … glaring weakness in the theory was that the target was only one dictatorship. One-party police states were thick on the ground in Europe. Why was war not declared on Portugal or Latvia or Hungary?” (p.74) But this is not a rhetorical question, even if the author thinks it is. Portugal, Latvia and Hungary (which did later join the Axis) were not, in 1939, following an aggressive expansionist war policy. Germany was.
Eldred-Grigg notes that the New Zealand press played up the courage and resilience of Londoners under the Blitz. He then goes on: “Nobody told the households of the dominion that German civilians were also coping pluckily. Air raids after several months were killing far more civilians in Germany than in Britain, yet the news media in the dominion stayed eerily silent about their suffering.” (p.122) Later he reminds us that by the end of the war, for every one British citizen killed in German air raids, 12 German civilians were killed in Allied air raids. (p.232) I do not doubt his statistics here and, at this distance from the Second World War, it is perfectly right to account carefully for all civilian deaths. Nevertheless, Eldred-Grigg is himself “eerily silent” about such matters as Nazi behaviour towards civilian populations in the countries they occupied. Like his presentation of Germany as a peaceful, progressive nation in The Great Wrong War, this is a case of over-compensation for the received Hollywood image of a clear-cut morally-uncomplicated war.
On a number of occasions, I find Eldred-Grigg indulging in the easy retrospective game of being wise-after-the-event. Take the following glib summing up of the wartime situation in New Zealand: “Austerity clothing and rationing helped spread thinning resources more fairly, but in many ways the government was sabotaging the economy. Digging air-raid shelters was a waste of scarce labour; so was ‘directing’ workers into ‘essential’ industry, driving citizens away from their workaday tasks into the Emergency Precautions Scheme and drilling men in the Home Guard. Blackouts hindered production and trade. Rationing and manpowering caused economic inefficiency. The costs of ‘total war’ were heavy. The costs were unnecessary, too, because the enemy was not on its way.” (pp.205-206)
The last sentence here takes no account of what were reasonable fears and precautions at the time. Over eighty years later, it is easy for us to make generalisations about an enemy power’s strengths and intentions because we have many years of researched and documented sources behind us. But these were unavailable at the time. A tone of smugness creeps in when inverted commas are placed around the word “essential”, as if we would be more acute at judging what were and were not essential things in the same circumstances.
Then there is this fatuous advice given to ghosts: “New Zealand should have been doing its best to diversify from rather than to back up its trade with Britain. Alternative markets were not easy to find, admittedly, but neither the government nor exporters did a lot to look for those markets, even though they saw that waging war was wrecking the British economy… Imperial loyalty led many people to say that the dominion should stick with Britain in spite of its new poverty. Other allies, though, were seeking their own advantage. Why not New Zealand?” (p.334) Note the throwaway clause “alternative markets were not easy to find, admittedly.” (And if that were so, how much more difficult would they be to find in the middle of a war?) Note also the implicit cynicism – this country is getting battered so, for our own advantage only, let’s look for another to trade with.
Speaking of cynicism, note the unsubtle tranference of guilt in the following statement: “Killing, sickening or maiming the workforce is an odd way to safeguard an economy, yet that was what happened when the dominion declared war on the Axis. A total of 12,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen died during the fighting. New Zealand killed a higher percentage of its troops than any other country in the British Commonwealth. Patriots took pride in that death rate, thinking it evidence of bravery, but the tally might instead be seen as proof that the policy of going to war had gone badly wrong.” (p.338) Yes, folks, that devious Labour government of Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser deliberately lined up 12,000 New Zealand soldiers, sailors and airmen and shot them. The deaths were entirely their fault.
In a famous critique of the way Edward Gibbon dealt dismissively with Christian martyrs in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Cardinal John Henry Newman said “You cannot argue with a sneer.” His point was a good one. Even when the facts of a history book are verifiable, it is the author’s tone of voice that conveys much of a book’s meaning. Eldred-Grigg’s (very selective use of) facts and contemporary documents is often informative, but equally often the tone of voice is pure sneer.
I am no particular admirer of British monarchy, and would be quite happy if New Zealand were a republic, but I know Eldred-Grigg is deep into sneer mode when he refers to Edward VIII only as “Edward Windsor, figurehead king of New Zealand” (p.48) or when he sniffs “American claims to democracy – loud to the point of braying – were in some ways hollow.” (p.52) Then there is his habit of minimising the importance of any military campaign in which New Zealanders were involved, as in “The key war, for the [Japanese] governing groups, was the war in Asia. The ‘Pacific War’, as the Americans called it, was always a sideshow for Tokyo.” (p.216)
The North African and Italian campaigns are also referred to as “sideshows”. We are agreed that by far the greatest pummelling the Wehrmacht took was administered by the Red Army. Even so, one would have to be very ignorant indeed of the strategy of the Second World War not to understand why the Pacific War, North Africa and Italy were important.
“All military effort by the dominion was more or less meaningless,” pontificates Eldred-Grigg “… the Axis would have lost the war anyway, whatever the dominion did or did not do.” (pp.363-364) Such a statement begs more questions than I could number. Like Stevan Eldred-Grigg, I was born long after the Second World War, and I have no desire to sound like some boozy old RSA member, exaggerating his wartime feats. But in this sort of statement, Eldred-Grigg knows he is waving a red rag at many old bulls. Is it in moments like this that he is bidding for immortality and hoping that a barrage of angry rejoinders will allow his publishers to say that this unbalanced book is “controversial”?
You have now heard enough of this sort of thing from me, so I will refrain from deconstructing Eldred-Grigg’s use of the word “phoney” in both his title and in two chapter headings. But as Eldred-Grigg indulges in counter-factual history (i.e. speculating “what if?”) in his closing chapter, I think I should be allowed to do the same.
Eldred-Grigg asks why New Zealand couldn’t have had a “Holyoakean” reaction to the outbreak of the Second World War. He means, why couldn’t Savage and Fraser have reacted the way Keith Holyoake did to the Vietnam War? Faced with the demands of a powerful ally (the USA) for New Zealand to get involved in Vietnam, Holyoake managed cleverly to ingratiate himself with the ally while sending only a very small volunteer force overseas and never contemplating conscription. Ignoring the fact that the circumstances of the two wars were very different, and that public opinion in New Zealand had moved on and was very different in the 1960s from what it had been in the 1940s, Eldred-Grigg thinks he has a point to make.
Eldred-Grigg belittles the Atlantic Charter in which Roosevelt and Churchill declared their war aims to be the promotion of peace and democracy. Says Eldred-Grigg: “While many – perhaps even most – citizens thought the charter noble, it was only words.” (p.167) He then goes on to condemn the duplicity of Britain, France and others for attempting to hold on to colonial empires by force once the Second World War was over. Britain disposed of India promptly, but fought in Kenya and Malaya. France fought losing wars in Algeria and Indo-China. Both were involved in the foolish 1956 adventure in Egypt. The Dutch tried, and failed, to hold on to the “Dutch East Indies” (Indonesia). So Eldred-Grigg’s point is valid, right?
Not really. He has stopped his historical clock too soon. In fewer than 20 years after the Second World War, mass opinion in the West had turned against the idea of holding on to colonial empires; and governments were no longer using the rhetoric of empire that they had still used in the 1940s.
Okay, so here’s my counter-factual.
Let’s say that statements like the Atlantic Charter were never made. Let’s say that (like their enemies) these two allies had spurned support for democracy. How much would public opinion not have been stirred, in later years, to move away from support for imperialism? This is at least as good a “what if?” as Eldred-Grigg’s. By which I mean it’s at least as bad a one.