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Monday, August 22, 2016

Something New


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

“THE NOTORIOUS CAPTAIN HAYES” by Joan Druett (Harper-Collins, $36:99)

Whenever I hear the words “pirate” or “buccaneer”, the historian in me at once starts a fight with my imagination.
Of course the first thing that comes to mind is the swashbuckling image perfected by old Hollywood, with the likes of Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power duelling dashingly on a sound-stage version of a ship’s deck, posing in the crow’s nest, or swinging from the rigging with knife in teeth and cutlass in hand. Or else I click into images of the fictitious Long John Silver going “Arrr, Jim lad!” as he hunts for buried treasure. Names like Captain Kidd and “Blackbeard” (Ned Teach) spring to mind. But a millisecond later, my reason tells me that the Treasure Island and Hollywood versions of piracy are as far removed from historical reality as Hollywood’s Wild West is. Read any reliable history of 17th and 18th century piracy and you find little but sordid criminality with not a dashing swashbuckler in sight. Kidd and Teach (real historical figures) were their era’s version of drive-by shooters, ram-raiders, conmen and the like – that is, criminals who happened to be in sailing ships which now look irrationally romantic to us. Only imagination has turned them into adventurous heroes.
 Joan Druett has by now produced seventeen works of non-fiction (many well-received) and eight works of fiction (not so well received). Her speciality is popular historical versions of maritime events in the Pacific in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I greatly enjoyed her best-received book Tupaia: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator when it came out in 2011 and later won New Zealand’s top book award for non-fiction. (My review of Tupaia appeared in Landfall #223, May 2012). With her latest book The Notorious Captain Hayes, however, she has her work cut out for her.
There was a time – quite a few decades ago now – when the American “Bully” Hayes was presented in Australia and New Zealand as some sort of roguish buccaneer of the Pacific: the equivalent of the romanticised versions of Kidd, “Blackbeard” and others. His (mostly fictional) adventures appeared in sensational newspaper articles and penny-dreadfuls. But the cruel fact is that he is largely forgotten now, even as romanticised legend. Conscientiously, Druett works to set the record straight about the historical Hayes, and to debunk the legend. Her book is subtitled The Remarkable True Story of William ‘Bully’ Hayes, Pirate of the Pacific. But this means debunking what nobody now “bunks” (if there is such a usage). So the book is really telling us earnestly not to believe what popular culture has already forgotten.
Trawling through archives for shipping records, private letters, official communiques and yellowing newspaper reports, Druett quizzes all dates and conflicting accounts to question whatever romantic notions about Hayes may linger in a very few elderly minds.
The story she comes up with goes something like this:
Williams Henry Hayes was born in the USA in either 1828 or 1829 (nobody is sure) and died in 1877, so he didn’t reach the age of fifty and was young and agile enough to have done many of the things he was reported as having done. He appears to have served briefly in the US navy as a teenager, but headed for the Pacific and by his mid-20s was captain of his own commands. Chapters in this book are mostly titled after the names of his successive commands. In the 1850s he was engaged in the tea-trade to Australia, but was also involved in the grubby business of taking payment and then dumping on shore, far from their desired destination, Chinese who had come to join in the Australian gold-rushes. He began the practice of buying goods on credit from trusting traders, and then sailing off without paying. He cheated creditors in this way after lingering in Oz for the first South Australian regatta. It was this habit which led to a newspaper in Honolulu, in 1859, printing an article about him headed “The History of a Consummate Scoundrel”. This was where his notoriety began. In later years the article was often reprinted by other newspapers. But please note that it was simply confidence-trickery that set off the negative reputation of “Bully” Hayes – not anything resembling piracy in the accepted sense.
But later (the story is told in Chapter 6), Hayes was in command of a ship that sank in mid-ocean. Before it went down, Hayes had a raft built for some of the crew. However, he left them to their own devices while he and a smaller group rowed off in the ship’s one lifeboat. It was sheer luck that his abandoned crew were rescued by another ship. His reputation for callousness became even blacker and the article from the Honolulu newspaper was now reprinted by the Sydney press. True to his methods, Hayes undertook to transport a cargo to the East Indies, but when he reached his destination he sold it off for his own profit, without remunerating the owners, and absconded.
His connection with New Zealand was brief. He became manager of a woebegone family theatrical troupe, the Buckinghams, whom he brought to Otago in the hopes of attracting large paying audiences during the Otago gold-rush. Although he was already married to a woman whom he had abandoned, Hayes set himself up in a hotel with one of the Buckingham women. The theatrical troupe didn’t make much of a go of it, and Hayes performed his usual manoeuvre of absconding with unpaid debts. There was an incident where a yacht sank, drowning some of the Buckinghams, but not Hayes. Hayes was suspected of arranging these deaths, but nothing was proven. Nevertheless, his reputation sank lower. When Hayes attempted to abscond from Nelson leaving merchants out of pocket, he was caught and briefly imprisoned while his ship was seized and auctioned off. Nevertheless he acquired another ship and abducted a naïve teenage girl from Picton before he was intercepted and forced to give the girl up. Hayes’ final farewell from New Zealand was so rancorous that he ever afterwards avoided the port of Auckland, where merchants had become wise to his tricks.
Druett tells us (Chapter 12) that as Hayes’ notoriety spread, the legends began to be fabricated. There was the first of many false reports of his death when newspapers spread the story that he had been killed in a duel. His name was confused with that of a completely different Captain Hayes who had been accused of gun-running to Maori during the New Zealand Wars. Later, a fabulous (and patently untrue) tale was spun about his importing Chinese coolies into Australia and tricking another ship into landing then ashore, so that he didn’t have to pay the poll tax that was then levied on all Chinese.
It seems clear, though, that as his public reputation fell, his activities really did become more sordid and violent. By the late 1860s he was involved in “blackbirding” – that is, the practice of luring onto his ships (by promise of payment or sheer fraud) Pacific Islanders who were then taken to work, for a pittance, on distant plantations run by Europeans. In many respects, the practice of “blackbirding” was just one step up from slavery. This was realised by British officials, who often sent out naval ships to intercept “blackbirders”. But as Druett explains: “Consular agents were often ambivalent about the business, as they were planters themselves, or dealt with planters in a trading capacity, and were always conscious of the need for cheap labour.” (p.164) One astute Samoan chief, Mauga Manuma, took Hayes on when Hayes inveigled aboard his latest command Samoan men and women whom he was going to take to work in Fiji. On his own cognizance, Mauga Manuma arrested Hayes and appealed to European authorities to put Hayes on trial. Hayes was imprisoned for some months, but both the British and the American consuls were too hesitant and spineless to take decisive action, and as they dithered Hayes was able to abscond again.
In the final chapters of The Notorious Captain Hayes, the sordid stories pile up. Hayes was able to make off with the ship of a rival shyster called Ben Pease (Druett unravels a bundle of myths related to this). Hayes took to robbing islanders and traders at gunpoint to get his hands on valuable cargoes of copra and coconut oil. He had been married twice and had had one long-term mistress, but as he neared 50, his tastes ran more to under-age island girls. Stories of his raping pre-pubescent Polynesian girls seem well attested.
The circumstances of his death in 1877 have never been verified, but he appears to have died in a violent argument with one of his crew, who smashed his skull in with an iron bar.
There are a number of indications in The Notorious Captain Hayes that “Bully” Hayes could be a charmer (essential to the arts of a conman). He was at various times able to persuade respectable people like traders, missionaries and consular officials of his good intentions. Perhaps this accounts for what was to me one of the ongoing mysteries of this book: How was Hayes so often able to raise the capital to buy his successive ships? Often he did so just after having been declared bankrupt or having been caught out in some fraud. He must have been very plausible until his very last years, by which time most people had learned not to trust him.
There are some very interesting episodes in this book. To my tastes, the most intriguing are in Chapter 8, dealing with Hayes’ Otago sojourn. It contains semi-farcical accounts of the rivalry between the hotel Hayes has purchased and the one his former colleagues the Buckinghams had purchased. Apparently the Buckinghams entertained their rough gold-seeking audiences with a farce based on Hayes’ misdeeds. The coarseness of old colonial entertainments is handily evoked.
Regrettably, though, much of this book is a dry recital of undramatised facts – names, dates, ships and scrupulous comparisons between sensationalised fictions about Hayes and what the archives reveal. It is easy to lose track of which ship is which, and whom Hayes is bilking at any given time. Sometimes information seems off the point. (Why does Chapter 4 give us a long account of what happened to the ship “Orestes” after Hayes had ceased to have anything to do with it?).
In the debunking line, the very last chapter, entitled “The Manufacture of a Modern Buccaneer”, is the most informative as Druett ticks off, for their inaccuracy, racy fictions about Hayes such as Rold Boldrewood’s A Modern Buccaneer (1894) and Louis Brecke’s Bully Hayes, Buccaneer (1913) and some of the output of the prolific Aussie hack Frank Clune. As for the Errol Flynn-ish knife-in-teeth roguish buccaneering image, it really appears only once in this book, where Druett is describing (p.20) Hayes’ youthful service in the imperial Chinese navy and his reputed capture in Hong Kong of the American pirate Eli Bloggs.
Otherwise, this is mainly a dispiriting, and sometimes confusing, account of an unpleasant criminal who happened to exist in the days of sail.
The irresponsible part of my mind keeps repeating that famous line spoken by a newspaperman in John Ford’s movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance : “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” As an historian, I of course regard this creed as reprehensible. Facts are sacred and Joan Druett is acting like a good historian in winkling out the facts. But I understand how the story of the unpleasant “Bully” Hayes might have been a livelier read if it had been treated as pure legend.

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 SECRET AGENT” by Joseph Conrad (first published in 1907)
 
Long ago on this blog [see the posting on Joseph Conrad’s Victory] I confessed that, as a young student, I went through a phase of believing that Joseph Conrad was the World’s Greatest Novelist, before I got over the foolish habit of applying that designation to anyone. I recalled the Conrad books I had read and I retailed one favourite anecdote: I was so absorbed in Conrad’s The Secret Agent that I spent a whole day in the university caff, reading it compulsively and missing a number of lectures in the process. The novel was both exciting and intellectually satisfying.
I recently reacquainted myself with this tight, depressing and brilliant book, and re-affirmed my youthful impressions of it.
As all lit. guides will tell you, the Pole Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski (1857-1924) had English as his third language after Polish and French (both of which he spoke better than he spoke English); yet remaking himself as Joseph Conrad, he was able to become a master of English prose. And of deep irony. Again, as any lit. guide will tell you, The Secret Agent may be subtitled “A Simple Tale” but it is far from simple and it is saturated in irony.
And yet at least one of its strengths is the fact that its central plot is indeed simple and has some elements of the suspense thriller.
Under cover of being a respectable lower-middle-class businessman, Adolf Verloc plays a double game. He is both a police informant, who infiltrates anarchist groups, and an agent provocateur, employed by a foreign (presumably Russian) embassy. Mr Verloc has married the younger Winnie, apparently providing domestic stability and security to her and her feeble-minded little brother Stephen (Stevie). They run a shady newsagents and stationery shop (there are hints that they sell smut under the counter). When Verloc visits his foreign controller Vladimir at the embassy, Vladimir tells Verloc he wants him to create an “anarchist” outrage that will cause the British police to come down hard on foreign political agitators and justify the promotion of stricter laws against terrorists at a forthcoming international conference. Vladimir suggests Verloc attack Greenwich Observatory, as science is now the holy cow of the middle classes more than art, culture or religion. After gaining the necessary explosives from an anarchist contact, “the Professor”, Verloc entrusts them to the unknowing young Stevie and tells him where to leave them. But in the neighbourhood of the Greenwich Observatory, Stevie is blown up and killed by what Verloc has given him. When Winnie learns of this, she is rapidly disabused of her notion that Verloc really cares for her or her brother. She kills Verloc and flees, knowing she could hang for murder. In her flight she is apparently given comfort and moral support by the anarchist Alexander Ossipon, who in fact deserts her as soon as he is able, taking all her money. In a postscript we learn that Winnie commits suicide after the desertion. So Stevie, Verloc and Winnie are all dead by novel’s end and the illusion of domestic security is literally blown up, leaving police, anarchists and agents provocateurs to continue their tawdry dance.
The germ of the novel was the so-called “Greenwich Bomb Outrage” of 1894, when the anarchist Matrial Bourdin was blown up by own bomb. He had apparently been urged on by brother-in-law, who was an agent provocateur. It is possible to historicise The Secret Agent by placing it in the context of early 20th century British fears of anarchism and foreign political activists, fuelled by the many anarchist “outrages” that had occurred in continental Europe. (See my posts on Donald Rumbelow’s TheHoundsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street and  G.K.Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.)
            Yet while the novel was inspired by events and fears of its own time, and while it does have elements of the thriller or detective story, it is by no means as simple as the dull-witted synopsis with which I have presented you. Conrad, in his third-person eye-of-God narration, does not relate events in chronological order, and often forces us to piece together what has happened. The first three chapters systematically present Verloc and his shabby milieu – Verloc and his home; Verloc and his relations with the foreign embassy; Verloc among the anarchists. In Chapter 4 we learn, in a conversation between Ossipon and “the Professor”, that somebody has blown himself up at the observatory. This leads to chapters in which various levels of police are seen at work and more of the Verlocs’ domestic life is revealed. But it is only in Chapter 9, when Verloc admits the truth to Winnie, that we know for certain that Stevie was the victim. In effect, the novel doubles back on itself.
As well as defying chronology, Conrad lingers long over analyses of characters’ motives and descriptions of their surroundings. He literally slows time down. In Chapter 11, Winnie’s killing of Verloc, with a carving knife, is played in agonising slow motion. More than one critic has noted that an anarchist attack on the Greenwich Observatory is, in effect, an attack on rationality and the orderly processing of time. Conrad’s use of symbolism is not as oppressive in this novel as it is in Victory, but chronology and its symbolic destruction as a contrast of reason and unreason (orderly society and anarchy) is certainly implied. For the record, there seems more symbolism in the hat Verloc always wears – even indoors. It is the outward sign of his comfortable bourgeois status – and of course it falls off his head the moment he is killed. And who could miss the irony of a household implement like a carving knife being used as a murder weapon?
Where is the major irony of this novel? It is most overtly the irony of outcomes confounding intentions. Winnie marries for domestic security and in the belief that Verloc will be like a father to feeble-minded Stevie. Verloc’s actions destroy both the boy and the household. Anarchists believe they will overthrow or unsettle authoritarian governments – but their outrages are exactly what authoritarian governments want, to justify greater repression. The foreign embassy official wants to create a big outrage – but the matter resolves itself as a grubby little domestic murder. The police want to avoid the creation of anarchist martyrs by hushing the matter up - but in combatting such a movement as anarchism, they often step outside due process of law. They are, in effect, corrupted by anarchism and end up undermining the very values they claim to uphold.
Under this, however, there is the more pervasive irony of a systematic exposure of characters’ delusions and the false assumptions under which they operate. In a famous passage (in Chapter 8) we are told of Verloc that “he was indolent with that indolence which is so often the secret of good natures”. Conrad the Pole is using this word “indolence” with utter precision. It does not mean idleness or laziness. It means the desire to avoid pain and bother – in other words, not to be troubled by things and therefore not to look honestly at oneself. We are repeatedly told that Verloc believes Winnie “loves him for himself”. But obviously she does not know what and who he really is: and when she finds out, she kills him. Far from matching Verloc’s illusion (always a favourite word in Conrad), Winnie has married Verloc for security, not out of love. This is the “marriage-as-long-term-prostitution” that anarchists often spoke of. Yet Winnie is as morally dead as Verloc is. In the same passage where we hear of Verloc’s indolence, we are told that Winnie believes “things don’t bear much looking into”. In short, she does not wish to look honestly at her own motives.
The novel shows that the rampant self-interest and “indolence” that are true of the Verlocs are also true of the police. The Assistant-Commissioner of Police knows that an anarchist called Michaelis has been involved in the Greenwich outrage, yet he deliberately turns any investigation away from Michaelis because Michaelis has society connections that the Assistant-Commissioner does not wish to disrupt. Chief-Inspector Heat, the man at first put in charge of the case, wants to divert suspicion from Verloc because, most unethically, he has not revealed to his superiors that Verloc is his chief informant among the anarchists and it is upon Verloc that Heat’s reputation really rests. Conrad suggests what later history would call fascist tendencies in these high-ranking police officers. The Assistant-Commissioner is a former colonial administrator who yearns for legitimised violence against his inferiors. Chief-Inspector Heat talks of being allowed to shoot down anarchists like mad dogs.
If Conrad is merciless toward bourgeois morality and the upholders of authority, his gaze on anarchists is often even more devastating. Anarchists declare that they despise bourgeois materialism and merely “use” it to advance their anarchistic cause. But in this novel they are obviously as wedded to it as their ostensible foes. Alexander Ossipon, failed medical student, enjoys the power of swaying audience with oratory, but he preserves his own comfort by affairs with various affluent women. His final approach to Winnie is fuelled by his desire for her shop and bank account. More tellingly, Ossipon is a devotee of the eugenics theories of Lombroso, and sees people in terms of inherited deficiencies and mental diseases – which is hardly a theory on which to base egalitarian anarchism. Symbolically fat Michaelis, the “ticket-of-leave” social evolutionist, lives by sponging off the wealthy who are shallow enough to see anarchism as an amusing fad. We are introduced in Karl Yundt to the type of anarchist who believes in “the propaganda of the deed” – that is, direct terrorist action. But his destructive impulse is apparently fuelled by the fear of impotence and could be classified as a form of masturbation. And then there is the anarchist explosives expert “the Professor”, characterised in the novel’s closing phrase as “a pest in a street full of men”. He is the fanatically cold technician, mainly interested in creating a perfect detonator. There is something both silly and grotesque in the squeeze-bulb explosive he carries in his pocket (it sounds like a squirting flower), but this doesn’t make him any less sinister. “The Professor” has perversely “pure” motives in his rage for social chaos, but they have nothing to do with the betterment of humanity which anarchism claims to represent.
Does Conrad set anything positive to set against the self-deluded bourgeoisie, the self-deluded upholders of the law and the self-deluded anarchists? Not really. Young and murdered Stevie, feeble-minded and in need of protection, could have been developed as the kind of visionary “idiot boy” that Wordsworth imagined (and that Golding more-or-less created in the figure of Simon in Lord of the Flies). But this is what Conrad resolutely does not do. Stevie may be morally innocent, but he also has a pent-up rage (demonstrated in events early in the novel) and his feeble-mindedness renders him dangerous. If The Secret Agent attacks the myth of the noble revolutionary, it also attacks the myth of the holy innocent. There are no Prince Myshkins in Joseph Conrad’s worldview.
 So we come to this awful question. On the evidence of this novel, was Joseph Conrad a moral nihilist? Law and established society are corrupt and delusional as are their militant opponents. As he does elsewhere, Conrad’s feeble faith hinges on “necessary illusions”. The unavoidable imperfections of society can be softened only by “fidelity” – meaning a form of humanism showing respect for others and occasionally requiring heroism to maintain. But this is not what Conrad stresses in The Secret Agent, and we are left disturbed at the way the novel knocks our own complacency.
There are only two moments in this novel where I think Conrad runs a little off his narrow-gauge track.
Consider that slow-motion murder scene in Chapter 11, where Verloc (in what is presumably a split-second of “objective” time) watches Winnie stab him and is able to think of how he could evade death. Conrad writes:
The knife was already planted in his breast. It met no resistance on its way. Hazard has such accuracies. Into that plunging blow, delivered over the side of the couch, Mrs Verloc put all the inheritance of her immemorial and obscure descent, the simple ferocity of the age of caverns, and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms.”
Two things trouble me about this paragraph. Less damagingly, the last long sentence appears to show Conrad buying into the Lombrosian eugenics ideas of degeneracy that the anarchist Ossipon embraces. Winnie’s “immemorial and obscure descent” damns her. More damagingly, there is the sentence “Hazard has such accuracies”. When I read this as a student, and as I re-read it now, this seems a quick and necessary papering-over of the implausibility of Winnie killing her husband with one blind blow of the knife.
The other matter is one which the critic E.M.W. Tillyard pointed out many years ago. In the final pages, Ossipon carries around a newspaper clipping about the unknown woman (clearly Winnie) who has killed herself by jumping off a cross-Channel ferry. Ossipon is clearly haunted by Winnie’s death. But given what the novel has already told us about Ossipon, this is psychologically wrong. The exploitative Ossipon we already know would have no such tender feelings.
Setting aside these two blips, I would agree with the view that The Secret Agent was Conrad’s last great novel – and very possibly his greatest. Thereafter his literary decline began. Behind him were the great Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness and Nostromo. Ahead of him were, at best, the pretty good Under Western Eyes (also about anarchists and politics), the confused Victory and the okay adventure The Rover, but not much else to shout about. Dark, satirical and totally disabused, The Secret Agent is at his pinnacle.

Cinematic footnote: Once, years ago, I saw an indifferent British television adaptation of The Secret Agent (and another of Under Western Eyes). I have just learnt that this year (2016), in the climate of fear about domestic terrorism, the BBC has just made a new three-part serial of The Secret Agent starring Toby Jones as Verloc. But to the best of my knowledge, there have been only two film versions of the novel made for the cinema. One was not very faithful to the plot, but was a very good film in its own right. The other was faithful to the plot, and was a deathly dull film.
First the good one. Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage, made in 1936, was based on Conrad’s The Secret Agent. (Confusingly, as all students of Hitchcock know, the man’s next film was called The Secret Agent, but was based on Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories). I have watched Sabotage (which was retitled The Woman Alone for American release) a number of times. Sabotage updates the story to the (1930s) present. Instead of running a seedy little shop, the Verlocs run a seedy little East End cinema. The American actress Sylvia Sidney – she of the eyes that always seemed on the verge of brimming with tears – played Winnie Verloc. Oskar Homolka played Verloc – two very good performances. The film contrived to provide a happy ending for Winnie and there is no ambiguity in the character of the nice detective (played by John Loder) who
investigates the case. He is a shining hero. Young Stevie is simply a carefree young boy – not a mental defective. But there are two outstanding sequences. One is when Winnie, acting as usher in the cinema, has just heard the news of Stevie’s death. She is fighting back tears, but she is also joining an audience in watching a Walt Disney Silly Symphony cartoon, and she can’t help laughing at the same time. This is far more wrenching for us viewers than straight hysterics would have been. The other is the sequence where Winnie stabs Verloc – an early example of the virtuosic cutting that could allow Hitchcock to dramatise something very nasty without literally showing it. Literary purists would be correct in saying that there is not much Conrad here, but the film does capture a pinched, grubby, seediness that is true to the tone of the novel (and apparently true to Hitchcock’s own childhood – his dad was an East End greengrocer.).
Now the deathly dull one. In 1996, the distinguished playwright Christopher Hampton was able to get an A-grade cast for a version of The Secret Agent, which he both wrote and directed. I thought the American Patricia Arquette, with her pale and moon-ish face, was well cast as Winnie and Bob Hoskins was okay as Verloc (perhaps not quite complacent enough). As Ossipon, I could take or leave Gerard Depardieu and I thought Christian Bale (already in his twenties) was too old to play Stevie. The film went back to the original period setting of the novel and was quite scrupulous in following Conrad’s narrative. And it was tedious beyond belief. It bombed at the box office and was universally panned by critics. What went wrong? After one viewing only, I conclude that while being faithful to the plot, it missed completely the tone. Conrad’s pervasive irony, conveyed in the novel by the omniscient author-narrator, simply cannot be dramatized. We are left with a sad and melodramatic domestic tale. One point of oddity – one actor’s name was kept out of all publicity related to this film and did not appear in the credits. This was the (late) comedian Robin Williams who played, efficiently enough, “the Professor”. I assume Williams was attempting to expand his dramatic range. But I also assume that the producers wanted his presence in the film to be a surprise and perhaps didn’t want to mislead viewers into thinking that the film was a comedy.

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.  

DOES LENGTH MAKE SOAP OPERA UNAVOIDABLE?



I have a basic mantra to which I often resort when a new movie is over-hyped. It goes “If a film is worth watching now, it will still be worth watching in four years’ time. If it is not worth watching in four years’ time, then it is not worth watching now.” This gives me a sound reason to not jump on the bandwagon and watch what is currently publicised or discussed. It also saves me a lot of money as I do not rush out to see things simply because they are new.

Of course this is a wordy apologia to lead you into this day’s sermon.

I did not see any of the US TV series Mad Men when it was broadcast on New Zealand television. For all I know, it might still be in the process of being broadcast. In the US, the series ran through 92 episodes in seven seasons between 2007 and 2015 and perhaps the later seasons are still being shown here.

But recently one of my daughters took out a subscription to Netflix for us, and through this medium I have recently been able to watch the first two seasons of Mad Men. Suits me. When it comes to television series or serials, I prefer not to be at the mercy of broadcasters for when I watch them – and should a series appeal to me, it is sometimes nice to watch two or three ad-free episodes in one evening.

From the little feedback I read when the series was being broadcast here, I gained the impression that it was a wildly satirical show sending up the ways of advertisers half a century ago. Indeed, I thought it was going to be a comedy. But this is not the case. The (New Zealand) reviews I had read were mainly written by a woman who had strongly feminist views, and hence who treated the show’s sexism to heavy satire of her own.

Mad Men is drama, not satire. Set in a Madison Avenue advertising agency, the first two seasons (the only ones I have so far seen) take place in 1960-62. From reading ahead, I understand that the following seasons – with some changes of cast – continue through the 1960s, taking account of changing fashions, mores and advertising techniques. So all seven seasons amount to a portrait of the 1960s as seen from Madison Avenue.

Central character is a self-confident and, of course, devious advertising executive called Don Draper (I will not trouble you with the actors’ names). He has a blonde beauty-queen wife in the suburbs as well as two cute kids and a shady past. We learn early on that he has both re-made and re-named himself to hide his embarrassing and humble origins. I think the scriptwriters intend this as a  big metaphor for the way all ad people disguise and distort reality, though at once credibility factors arise about how Don has been able to maintain this deception. Around Don in the ad agency office, other major characters are Peggy, apparently the innocent new office girl, but soon shown to be very much a careerist on the make; an annoying junior ad exec, employed because of his daddy's money, who is just learning the ropes and frequently makes a fool of himself with embarrassing outbursts; a sexpot, always in a red dress, who sleeps with one of the elderly senior execs and regards herself as the mentor of the girls in the typing pool; and others whom I won’t bother mentioning. You get the point. The series draws recognisable “types”.

The strength of what I have seen, however, is the series’ sense of period.

Suits, dresses, interior decoration, habits of speech, all belong to the age in which the series is set. As an avid anachronism-spotter, I have yet to spot an anachronism.

More important, Mad Men creates what I assume were the mores of the age for this particular profession and social class.

Everybody smokes unapologetically and in all circumstances – at board meetings, while typing, at parties, after making love etc. etc. – even if an early episode has admen wondering how they will market Lucky Strike when annoying doctors are beginning to talk about the health risks presented by tobacco.

Gallons of alcohol are consumed by the admen, not just at the inevitable long, liquid lunches but in the office itself. Announcements – even trivial ones – are greeted by the boys gathering round and chugging back bourbon.

Blacks appear only as lift-attendants, wash-room attendants and waiters.

And – in terms of storylines, the really big one - women in the office are only secretaries, typists and telephone operators. Here is the sexism, which made that New Zealand critic react in a way that led me to think this would be an outrageous comedy.

No women hold executive positions – though even in the only two seasons that I have watched, there are the beginnings of a whisper that this might gradually change. The male executives regard all women (who work in the open-plan part of the office) as sexually available. Models who come for photo shoots are eyed up lustfully and overtly commented upon by the boys. Senior executives take it for granted that they can make passes at all attractive women in the typing pool. Most of the executives have recruited mistresses from this available talent. Indeed, this is regarded as one of the perks of their position. And, as depicted here, most of the women understand that these are the rules of the game and try to play them to their own advantage.

The gay man in the art department of course has to stay in the closet and pretend to be one of the boys. Meanwhile, back in the suburbs, the news that a divorced woman has moved into the neighbourhood makes the fellers think that of course she is sexually available to them. And of course Don Draper’s wife is beginning to go crazy with what would later be called suburban neurosis.


I do not for one moment think that this was how everyone (even on Manhattan) thought or felt in 1960. But it is a persuasive presentation of a past age and place and its everyday morality, and this presentation is what is best in the series.

BUT (and here comes my sermon) there is always a price to pay when you turn drama into a television series that runs for many hours. (See my earlier post Even Shakespeare didn’t have to write thismuch, which was written with reference to the series Homeland.) No matter how well acted the leading roles are, no matter how convincing the mise-en-scene, and no matter how accurate the portrayal of past mores, a series of this length will inevitably become, at a certain point, soap opera. I had watched less than half the first season when I had registered everything Mad Men had to say about the advertising industry then and there. After this point, I felt I was watching unnecessary happenings in the lives of characters whose totality I already knew. It was fun to find who was sleeping with whom, who was getting caught out, who got fired, who got promoted, and to register the way a period recording was played over the end-credits of each episode when we had been left with a cliff-hanger. But this was sheer soap.

I know (as defensive television people have often told me) that the same could be said of many long and much-admired nineteenth century novels. Aren’t there passages in Dickens, Balzac and others that could be regarded as soap opera in the sense of spinning things out for the sake of spinning them out and keeping readers hooked? Possibly true. But then they have the great consolations of prose style and either raucous or ironical wit. Mad Men is smooth, well-presented and frankly a teensy bit smug (doesn’t the whole concept depend on the assumption that we are NOW more gender-equitable and aware?). Like an advertisement, in other words. And it does indeed go on and on.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Something New


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“ACKNOWLEDGE NO FRONTIER – The Creation and Decline of New Zealand’s Provinces, 1853-76” by Andre Brett (Otago University Press, $45)

Why is it that English-speaking Canada, Australia and the United States all developed as federal systems, with separate legislatures in each state (or province), while New Zealand did not? Why is it that New Zealand’s first formal constitution did set up separate and self-legislating provinces, but these provinces were abolished a mere 23 years later? New Zealand became a unitary state. There is central government, there are local and municipal governments, but there are no provincial (or state) governments. We might occasionally wax sentimental over the old provinces, especially when provincial sports teams are battling it out. We still celebrate separate anniversary days in Auckland and Canterbury and so forth. But while there is some provincial sentiment in New Zealand, provinces were only briefly a political reality.
Like most people who have delved into New Zealand history at some time, I thought the answer was obvious. It was a matter of simple geography. In sheer geographical size, most Australian states (and all Canadian provinces) could contain all of New Zealand many times over. Their physical scale justifies provincial or state governments. While communication between one part of New Zealand and another was difficult in the earliest days of Pakeha settlement, the development of railways ironed this problem our fairly rapidly. Provinces were not needed once central government was able to deal with all legislation concerning regional development and management.
That, at any rate, was what I thought the simple answer was, but Andre Brett’s Acknowledge No Frontier suggests that this is only a small part of the answer.
Acknowledge No Frontier is a developed version of Brett’s doctoral thesis and (let’s be quite clear about this), concentrating so rigorously on the “creation and demise” of New Zealand’s provinces, it is not the easiest of reads. It is academic political and developmental history. Stated clearly in his introduction is Brett’s essential argument. He believes that the provinces faded out of public favour, and were abolished, because of their failure to open up and develop their hinterlands for settlers – a task that was readily taken over by central government.
The tale he tells goes thus:
New Zealand after 1840 was a “province” of Australia (remember Lieutenant-Governor Hobson was subordinate to the governor of New South Wales). There was a very short-lived attempt to create three “provinces” out of the North and South Islands and Stewart Island (New Ulster, New Leinster, New Munster), but this came to nothing. With the seat of government so far away in Auckland, the settlements of Wellington and Nelson in particular clamoured for provincial governments.
Under the Constitution Act in the 1850s, greatly influenced by Governor Sir George Grey, the North and South Islands were each divided into three provinces – Auckland, Taranaki and Wellington; Nelson, Canterbury and Otago. But Brett notes that at the English Colonial Office was a man with the same name as Governor Grey, but with a very different perspective:
“[Earl] Grey’s foresight that improved communication would reduce or negate the need for provinces meant that the system was founded on a weak basis as a temporary expedient. The means for provincialism’s long-term survival were not provided, even though at their birth they were to be local centres of political association.” (Chapter 2, p.47)
New Zealand’s provinces were quite unlike the separate colonies of Australia, each of which was founded with its own government, and all of which federated only in the early 20th century. In New Zealand:
The provinces were not autonomous entities within a federation; only the central government enjoyed sovereignty and provincial powers were somewhat limited. The degree of provincial self-government lagged behind Canada and that which five of the six Australian colonies soon enjoyed…” (Chapter 2, p.53)
Most importantly, provinces were barely able to handle their own finances.
Despite this, early elections to Provincial Councils were raucous and hotly contested, because in many parts of the country, the Provincial Council was considered to be nearer and more accessible than central government. [While noting this, it is also amusing to observe that in most provinces, only a few hundred men had the right to vote.]
In 1856, three years into the existence of New Zealand’s provinces, a compact was reached, allowing provinces to raise revenue from the sale of land. But this compact benefitted only the three South Island provinces, which had large reserves of pastoral land to sell. At this stage, most of the North Island was still in communal Maori ownership and the three North Island provinces had little land to sell. Worse, inept management of the provinces north of Canterbury led to local secessionist movements. Impatient settlers wanted to open up hinterlands in a way provincial governments couldn’t finance. A New Provinces Act of 1858 allowed Hawkes Bay to break from Wellington, Marlborough from Nelson and Southland from Otago. There were scuffles over when the provincial seat of government should be in Marlborough (Picton or Blenheim?) and the unimaginative name “Southland” was thrust on the southernmost province by outsiders. But just as Southlanders were expecting an era of self-controlled prosperity, gold was discovered in Otago, there was a gold-rush by-passing Southland and the little new province found itself economically dependent on the neighbour from which it had seceded. In short order, Southland faced bankruptcy.
Given this situation, central government passed an amendment to its New Provinces Act, which meant that further secession from existing provinces could be authorised only by central government. That was the end of secession from existing provinces. At about the same time, central government was buying up local telegraph lines, and buying land to establish new lines, planning for a national system of speedy communication.
Then there was the major impact of the wars in the North Island in the 1860s. Taranaki province was increasingly reliant on central government (and imperial troops) to finance defence, and was virtually bankrupted as nearly all its Pakeha population crowded into New Plymouth to escape the fighting and raids. Andre Brett almost agrees with Tony Ballantyne’s verdict that the wars were “an important impetus towards the centralisation of power in New Zealand” (quoted Chapter 8, p.140), but he stresses that the real issue was the inability of the provinces to raise loans independently of central government.
As some North Island provinces faced melt-down, there were the crazy (and never-realised) plans of some people in more-settled Auckland and Otago to completely separate from New Zealand and become independent colonies of Britain, like the separate colonies of Australia. Most of this feeling was quashed in 1864, when the national capital was moved from Auckland to more central Wellington. Even so, the separate provinces continued to be inept in managing public works and the construction of railways was tardy. There was in the late 1860s the brief experiment of having Westland as a separate entity from Canterbury, but it was more in the nature of an autonomous district or large “county” rather than a real province as it had few resources from which it could raise capital. (As an interesting side-issue, Brett notes that the barrier of the Southern Alps meant that Westlanders, until the late 19th century, were more directly connected with Australia than with Christchurch, and there were many business and cultural links with Melbourne.)
In 1867, central government legislated new regulations concerning municipalities and local government, in effect undercutting provincial authority. Brett comments:
Apart from 1875, the year of abolition, 1867 was the most momentous and calamitous year for provincialism. The provinces had accrued vast debts, gaining little but frustrated citizens in the process, and the development of infrastructure had essentially stagnated. The solution to provincial indebtedness was presented in a manner that not only favoured centralism, but also blocked provincial borrowing.” (Chapter 11, p.194)
The 1860s had seen the “confiscation” and sale of vast tracts of hitherto Maori land following the wars. Came the 1870s and the Great Public Works Policy of Julius Vogel essentially spelled the end of provinces. Financed and directed by central government, public works were a national project, superseding provincial attempts at developing the hinterland. The Provincial Public Works Act of 1874 meant that “the provinces had become pensioners” (Chapter 13, p.220). Money for railways, roads and bridges came from central government.
In this climate, Vogel proposed the abolition of provincial governments. At first South Islanders (especially the people of Otago) thought insolvent North Island provinces would be abolished while South Island provinces would continue, especially as Vogel himself originally had the same idea. But in all provinces, the impetus for total abolition grew. Finally, on 31 October 1876, a mere 23 years after they were set up, the provincial governments were abolished and New Zealand became a unitary state. Provinces were henceforth mere geographical labels. Says Brett:
Localism rather than provincialism remained persistent and local identity continues to possess significance in New Zealand, but it no longer relates to sub-national political entities with legislative powers.” (Chapter 14, p.239)
I have emphasised that this is essentially conscientious, solid and stolid academic political history. The text is followed by many pages giving the demographic data on the old provinces. Andre Brett makes the occasional feint at being funky and hip. The book’s title, Acknowledge No Frontier, comes from the Split Enz number “Six Months in a Leaky Boat” and Brett cracks a joke (Chapter 3, p.71) taken from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But the data plods on. Even so, there are lively anecdotal moments. It is fun to read, in Chapter 6, of the mutual billingsgate thrown by the people of Picton and Blenheim as each group lobbied for their settlement to become the provincial capital of Marlborough. In the same chapter there is the woeful but hilarious tale of Southlanders economising by trying to build a railway with wooden rails from Invercargill to the Otago goldfields (the book reproduces a photo of the wooden rails). In Chapter 9 there is the foolish hubris of old James Busby (the pre-Treaty of Waitangi “resident” in the Bay of Islands) campaigning vigorously but fruitlessly to have Auckland separate from the rest of New Zealand as an autonomous crown colony. Acknowledge No Frontier has a number of other such readable moments.
This is by no means a picture-book, but I should acknowledge the decent range of period photographs that are reproduced. One in particular gets to me. On Page 165, there is a photograph of Nelson taken in 1868. Of course it strikes us as a raw and under-developed settler town. But what most impressed me is how very built-up it is – how many buildings there are – when this photograph was taken less than 20 years after Nelson began to be settled. Our Pakeha pioneers were at least industrious.