Monday, August 18, 2014

Something New


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

“HUNTING ELEPHANTS” by Peter Bland (Steele Roberts, $19:99); “THE LONELY NUDE” by Emily Dobson (Victoria University Press, $25)

Early in 2013 I had the pleasure and privilege of reviewing on this blog Peter Bland’s Collected Poems 1956-2011 [look it up on the index at right], and I took the opportunity then to say a number of things about Bland’s place in NZ Lit and culture – the co-founder of Downstage Theatre; the ebullient actor and director; the Pom who came to New Zealand in the 1950s, returned to England and came back to New Zealand a number of times before finally settling here permanently; and above all the man who observed New Zealand closely, but without joining the “nationalist” poetic fashions of his early days in this country.
Bland’s poetry showed that he knew what life was like in New Zealand alright - but he had enough detachment to see it in the greater cosmopolitan frame. Reviewing Bland’s last separate collection Coming Ashore for the
Listener, I noted that Bland’s themes were consistent ones, but he was now more aware of his age.
This is even more true of his latest collection Hunting Elephants, fifty pages of pithy poems. I love a man who, now at the age of 80, can still wield imagery like a scalpel, can be surreal and playful, can be wistful without self-pity even if he has quite clearly heard the chimes at midnight. This is a book filled with references to a possible paradise, with memories, with dreams, and even with the odd tentative speculation that there might actually be something beyond death.
In many of these poems I detect a “gander without a goose” (to adapt James K. Baxter’s phrase) as Peter Bland recalls his late wife Beryl, to whom he dedicates one sequence of poems. There is “a moon worn out with loneliness  (in the poem ‘The outer courts of paradise’). There is a dreamy desire to ride elephants to paradise (‘Hunting elephants’) and the triptych to Beryl where he wishes he could “leave the road ahead / to look after itself / and loll like caliphs / in our noonday bed.” (‘Afterlife’). He still hums tunes that “she” taught him to hum “a lifetime ago” (‘Ripe Pears’). He hankers after “my co-pilot, my loyal companion” in “the house that is a lonely spaceship” (‘Spaceship’). He meets his wife in a dream (in the prose poem ‘There you are’).
So being a widower, and an old widower, looms large in the Bland-osphere. But old age itself, and its consolations as well as its weaknesses, is as much Bland’s territory.
There are poems about being a ‘Homebody’ and the pleasure of doing nothing and a poem about watching ‘Porn’ (poor old beggar) and a dream about Baxter where “I remember how / it was always sex / or the sacred / that brought him / /to his knees.” (‘Discovering Jim Baxter…’) and about getting used to living in a silent house with memories (‘Holding It Together’) and a prose poem called ‘Locality’ about how Dominion Road can itself be constructed as a poem. He also reflects that, at an older age, daydreams are things that can only be imagined, not lived (‘Idylls’). I wonder if the ‘Scarecrow’ (“wearing Mum’s old hat”) is a portrait of the poet as inanimate object, growing older and more battered as he moves from scene to scene.
When he comes to poems about art, Bland is concerned with the artist’s intention and his technique – questioning both, whether it be Cezanne seeing nature as the same in its changeability (‘Cezanne’s Apples’) or a still-life teasing the viewing by its absences (‘An infinite meantime’)
Five poems feature the familiar Mr Maui, but the one called ‘Mr Maui among the archetypes’ turns him to Bland’s new purpose of celebrating or lamenting or regarding quizzically the phenomenon of being old; for among the archetypes “My / favourite’s an old man / trying to be holy / while surrounded by devils / and naked nymphs. You have / to laugh, he’s so far / past it…
It occurs to me that in this sad excuse for a review, I have banged away at the poet’s age. I wouldn’t deny that this is an old man’s book, but I do not mean that in a negative and demeaning sense. I am not saying that Bland is producing the same old same old – only that the poet knows his own most fruitful subject matter. And I also note that Bland is still capable of springing surprises that seem quite out of character. Consider in this volume his version of Villon’s ‘L’Epitaphe’. The original is a ballade in three stately stanzas with an Envoi at the end. Bland (who works mainly in free verse or prose poems) transforms it into 12 couplets, colloquial and spare and yet still giving that medieval starkness in its account of the hanged awaiting God’s judgment. He calls it ‘Ballad of the hanged men’ and it is one of the best things in the book.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
 
If Peter Bland is a poet in very late career, Emily Dobson is still almost a starter. The Lonely Nude is her second collection.
Is it because I am male that I found the poem which appeals most to me in this volume to be ‘Construction man’? It reads, in its entirety:

I’d like to be
on a roof today too,
like you –
construction man –

with a white hard hat,
a hammer
and a measuring tape.”

What do I like about this simple and effective poem?
Its desire for certainty and its sense of a solidity, which I find to contrast with much of the content of The Lonely Nude. Also its sense of weighing and measuring the visible world.
In different sections, Emily Dobson touches on her experience as a nude model for art students, her travels in Mexico and the United States, the seasons and her eventual return home where (to quote another poem – ‘The fig at home’ – in its entirety):
The fig at home
always dropped its fruit
too soon
With all the wealth of sensual experience her travels would presumably entail, however, Dobson writes in such a spare style that her brief poems become almost cryptic. What is being said? I am not sure. There is a kind of detachment from physical reality. In this, I am not wilfully misrepresenting this collection. Breaking a long habit, I quote the VUP blurb, which tells me that “even as she travels into the world, [she] feels increasingly disconnected from it”. Quite so. The only literary comparison that comes readily to hand for me are those passages of Mrs Dalloway where Virginia Woolf has her main character look at London and suddenly find it insubstantial, incorporeal, as if it is floating and not solid reality. The style is so cerebrotonic that it washes physicality out.
I am sure this is a genuine worldview for many people, but (except in the odd moment of detachment) it is not one that I can share easily.
It is, however, quite wrong to judge literature solely in terms of one’s sympathy for its worldview. There is an audience for Dobson’s pithiness and floating, incorporeal consciousness.

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. 

 “EVELYN NESBIT AND STANFORD WHITE (Love and Death in the Gilded Age)” by Michael Macdonald Mooney (first published 1976) 
 
Yes, I have refined literary tastes and often take up these “Something Old” spots with erudite comments on English and French literary classics. But the fact is that my mind does sometimes take a holiday, and then I am inclined to read detective novels or books of popular history or (if I can find suitable ones) factual reconstructions of real murder cases.
Fossicking through a second-hand bookshop some years ago, I came across this good example of the latter category.
The story of Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White became fodder for reams of sensational reports in American newspapers a little over one hundred years ago. White’s murder was dubbed “The Crime of the Century” by people who didn’t seem to notice that the century had barely begun when the murder took place. It was dramatized and turned into movies a number of times. In the 1950s, Hollywood produced a heavily bowdlerised version of the story under the title The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (it really is a dire and boring film – I saw it on late night television many years ago). Later the story became part of E. L. Doctorow’s bestselling panoramic novel Ragtime (published in 1975). Doctorow’s novel renewed interest in the case, which was probably what cued the New York journalist Michael Macdonald Mooney to write this factual reconstruction the following year.
Basically, it goes as follows:
In 1901 and 1902, the 16-year-old model and showgirl Evelyn Nesbit had an affair with the 48-year-old architect Stanford White, one of New York’s most esteemed citizens. Evelyn seems to have entered into the affair willingly although later – to pacify the husband she had married – she claimed to have been coerced. Stanford White, a wealthy man, paid all her bills and showed her a good time. Mind you, Evelyn Nesbit concurrently had an affair with the young actor John Barrymore, and she appears to have had a couple of abortions as a result of these dalliances. (Michael Macdonald Mooney speaks ironically of Evelyn “having her appendix out” twice.)
After the affair was over, Evelyn latched on to the millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw and went to Europe with him. Thaw was mentally unbalanced, a sadist, pervert and sometime drug-addict. He (literally) whipped Evelyn a number of times and she considered getting police protection from him. But he was rich, the lure of his money was strong, and she married him.
After they were married, Harry Thaw became obsessed with Evelyn’s former relationship with Stanford White. Already unbalanced, he was driven to frenzy by rumours of orgies in which she had participated. Evelyn and Harry made a pact that they would refer to Stanford White in conversation only as “the Beast”. Eventually, in June 1906, Thaw walked up to White’s table, during the performance of a musical comedy on the roof of Madison Square Garden (which White had designed), and shot White dead. At the time of the murder, Evelyn was 21, Thaw 35 and White 53.
Because White was such a prominent citizen, the press had a field day with the trials that followed (in 1907 and 1908). The defence counsel, in an effort to prove that Thaw had been provoked into temporary insanity, managed to have read into the record accounts of White’s orgies and frequent affairs with young actresses – not because White was on trial, but in order to “prove” that Thaw would easily have become deranged hearing these stories from his young wife.
After two trials, Thaw was acquitted on the grounds of insanity, and ordered to be confined to a lunatic asylum. But with the power of his family’s money behind him, he was able to evade permanent incarceration, and went on to a life of spending the family fortune while travelling to and from Europe and indulging his own sadistic sexual kinks. In the 1920s he was arrested again and incarcerated for hiring and whipping a young man. Thaw died in 1947.
Evelyn Nesbit calculated that by standing by her husband during his trial for murder, and giving evidence in support of his testimony, she would get a big payout from Thaw’s mother – especially as she was able to produce a young son whom she said was Thaw’s. In court, she played most fetchingly the role of the innocent and violated young wife. But Thaw’s mother had no sympathy for her and the big payout never came. Reduced once again to being a jobbing showgirl, Evelyn hit the road for a number of years having moderate success in revues and as a vaudeville dancer, with her notoriety helping to sell tickets. For a short time, she acted in (silent) films. But by the 1920s her looks were going, the case was forgotten and she went through a period of heroin addiction. She ran speakeasies. She managed tatty burlesque clubs. In the 1950s she received a small payment for being “technical advisor” on the heavily fictionalised film version of the case The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. She died in 1967, aged 81.
As told by Mooney, Thaw was a certifiable lunatic and Evelyn a totally venal little trollop who knew how to arouse men’s jealousy when it suited her. Everything she did was for money (including marrying a rich man whom she already knew to be sadistic and unhinged), though she did know how to play the injured innocent for courtroom consumption. And she did look beautiful (“the face of an angel and the soul of a snake” according to one contemporary).
Male ideas of feminine beauty do change (the very idea of males speculating about feminine beauty still arouses the wrath of some feminists, who raise cries about the “male gaze”). As a purely subjective and totally chauvinistic comment, however, I would say that surviving photographs of young Evelyn Nesbit show a woman whom most men would still regard as very attractive. Her looks are not “period” looks. Coming from an impoverished background, with her mother often encouraging her to seek wealthy men as sugar daddies, her face and body were her chief assets and she can be forgiven for exploiting them – but then the same can be said of many prostitutes.
As the subtitle of this book - Love and Death in the Gilded Age - makes plain, Michael Macdonald Mooney wants to invest this murder case with heavy historical and sociological significance. This, I have often noted, is the way juicy murder cases are often treated in up-market publications. (You may verify this by looking at the glossy pages of the New Yorker every so often when it does a feature on some celebrity murder – or for that matter the glossy pages of New Zealand’s own Metro when it chooses to comment on humbler murders.) Up-market magazines don’t want to admit, as the more honest tabloids do, that the chief reason for dishing up intimate details of a murder case is sheer prurience.
Anyway, in his quest for sociological significance, Mooney intersperses the narrative of the three central participants in the case with long accounts of Stanford White’s illustrious career as an architect, the careers of his illustrious friends and colleagues (especially the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens) and the changing social patterns of the city of New York in the very early 20th century. Mooney wants us to see White as a great genius with boundless energies, but frankly White’s enthusiasms in this book often come across as undiscriminating and naïve.
As Mooney interprets it, the story of Nesbit, White and Thaw is a paradigm of the shifts in tastes and values in New York. White, with his jewel-like “classical’ architecture is seen as allied to the city’s “old” wealth, with its Episcopalian and Abolitionist sense of social responsibility – the 5th Avenue world of the Astors and the Vanderbilts. By contrast the Thaws, industrial Pennsylvanian millionaires, and the showgirls of Broadway represent the new money-oriented razzmatazz, with mass-circulation newspapers fuelling the idea of achieving fame without either social responsibility or tasteful poise. “New” money, in Mooney’s view, was what won out. Nearly all of the buildings White designed have long since been demolished by developers to make way for skyscrapers.
However, the dichotomy which Mooney draws between “old” and “new” money strikes me as altogether too neat, and it does lead him into some awful overwriting. For myself, I wish he had stuck with more honest prurience.

First twerpish footnote: A quick check shows me that many other authors have had a crack at writing about the case. The most recent substantial effort is Paula Uruburu’s American Eve, published in 2008. Relying solely on what the reviews have told me, it would appear that this version sees things almost entirely from Evelyn’s point of view, characterising her first encounter with White as “rape”. But it also does what Mooney does and attempts to interpret the case in terms of its impact on culture. I watched an hour-long lecture by Uruburu on Youtube, in which the author paints Nesbit as a poor little exploited thing.

Second twerpish footnote: I’m always amazed by what you can find on Youtube. Type “Evelyn Nesbit” into the system and among other things you will find (a.) an amusing clip of a girl on a swing singing the song “Crime of the Century” from the 1990s Broadway musical version of Ragtime; (b.) a 12-minute silent film called The Unwritten Law, made in 1907 (when the case was being tried!), acted against painted backdrops and telling the story as that of an aggrieved husband who was justifiably driven to murder – not surprisingly the film was financed by Thaw’s family; (c.) most intriguing of all, a short talkie film made in the early 1930s showing the real Evelyn Nesbit, then in her mid-40s, singing in a Panama nightclub a self-referencing song called “No Man’s Woman Now”. It seems that even at that age she was still trading on her earlier notoriety.

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.

AN UNFASHIONABLE POEM

               Poets of the First World War? Very well then – unless you are well-versed in the matter, you are going to witter on about Rupert Brooke, Wilfed Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and maybe Isaac Rosenberg, aren’t you? And I grant you that these are probably the best. But sometimes I think there’s something to be said for the more forgotten man Edmund Blunden (1896-1974).
               Poor Blunden is so desperately unfashionable and unglamorous. Compared to the others he seems a plodder. You want a racy book of First World War memoirs and you probably turn to Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer or Robert Graves’ sarcastic Goodbye to All That, don’t you? You ignore Blunden’s Undertones of War, even if it’s more truthful in a documentary way than Graves was ever capable of being. You want the pathos and excitement of people who died during the war (Brooke, Owen) or survived but at least did a lot of heroic dashing (Sassoon, Graves). You ignore the fact that Blunden also won a Military Cross and faced the same dangers.
               Oh yes, there’s also that matter of sexuality – Brooke, Owen and Sassoon seem to have been predominantly homosexual. Blunden (like Graves) was heterosexual – and apparently pretty active in the field (he married three times).
               Anyway, anyone who ends up as Professor of Poetry at Oxford obviously isn’t as interesting as the more bohemian outsiders, is he?
               And if that neatly sews up Blunden’s cultural reputation, there’s the little matter of the type of poetry he wrote. I first got the full blast of anti-Blunden criticism in a Longmans anthology Poetry of the 1920s edited by one Sydney Bolt in the 1960s. A very good anthology, which still sits on my shleves, Bolt’s book gives generous space to Blunden. 14 of Blunden’s poems are presented; but Bolt insists on prefacing them with three pages basically telling us what a second-rater Blunden was, and how his poetry never transcends the Romantic pastoral school and how therefore (tut tut) Blunden’s “resources were drawn from only a single strand of the English poetic tradition”.
               All of which is, of course, absolutely true. A little Blunden does go a long way, as we do find ourselves in the world of birds trilling and brooks purling. And yet the dimissal is also very demeaning, for at his best, and even if working in a very limited tradition, Blunden could sometimes transmute his circumscribed materials into gold.
               This brings me at last to one poem by Blunden which I really like, The Scythe Struck by Lightning. Of course it is old-fashioned pastoral. Of course its scene is one which (even in the 1920s, when the poem was first published) was already passing into quaintness – a rural mower with scythe over shoulder, forsooth. And yet, in its dogged accumulation of detail, its lowering tone about the weather, its management of rhyme (only occasionally stumbling into deployment of such archaisms as “nigh”) and its final anti-climax, it does the business. And there is another issue here. To me, this poem is kin to Lord Byron’s description of the great explosion in The Siege of Corinth – a sudden, brief and catastrophic event which the poet, in effect, slows down by the profusion of detail he records.
               So, antique, dated and pre-Modernist though it may be, here is the whole of Blunden’s poem, and you are free to judge if I have misrepresented it. Enjoy:

The Scythe Struck by Lightning

A thick hot haze had choked the valley grounds 
Long since, the dogday sun had gone his rounds 
Like a dull coal half lit with sulky heat; 
And leas were iron, ponds were clay, fierce beat 
The blackening flies round moody cattle's eyes. 
Wasps on the mudbanks seemed a hornet's size 
That on the dead roach battened. The plough's increase 
Stood under a curse.  

                                              Behold, the far release! 
Old wisdom breathless at her cottage door 
"Sounds of abundance" mused, and heard the roar 
Of marshalled armies in the silent air, 
And thought Elisha stood beside her there, 
And loudly forecast ere the next nightfall 
She'd turn the looking-glasses to the wall.  

Faster than armies out of the burnt void 
The hourglass clouds innumerably deployed, 
And when the hay-folks next look up, the sky 
Sags black above them; scarce is time to fly. 
And most run for their cottages; but Ward, 
The mower for the inn beside the ford, 
And slow strides he with shouldered scythe still bare, 
While to the coverts leaps the great-eyed hare. 

As he came in the dust snatched up and whirled 
Hung high, and like a bell-rope whipped and twirled; 
The brazen light glared round, the haze resolved  
Into demoniac shapes bulged and convolved.
Well might poor ewes afar make bleatings wild, 
Though this old trusting mower sat and smiled; 
For from the hush of many days the land 
Had waked itself: and now on every hand 
Shrill swift alarm-notes, cries and counter-cries, 
Lowings and crowings came, and throbbing sighs. 
Now atom lightning brandished on the moor, 
Then out of sullen drumming came the roar 
Of thunder joining battle east and west: 
In hedge and orchard small birds durst not rest,  
Flittering like dead leaves and like wisps of straws, 
And the cuckoo called again, for without pause 
Oncoming voices in the vortex burred. 
The storm came toppling like a wave, and blurred 
In grey the trees that like black steeples towered. 
The sun's last yellow died. Then who but cowered? 
Down ruddying darkness floods the hideous flash, 
And pole to pole the cataract whirlwinds clash.  

Alone within the tavern parlour still 
Sat the gray mower, pondering Nature's will, 
And flinching not to flame or bolt, that swooped 
With a great hissing rain till terror drooped 
In weariness: and then there came a roar 
Ten-thousand-fold, he saw not, was no more 
But life bursts on him once again, and blood 
Beats droning round, and light comes in a flood.  

He stares, and sees the sashes battered awry,  
The wainscot shivered, the crocks shattered, and nigh,  
His twisted scythe, melted by its fierce foe,  
Whose Parthian shot struck down the chimney. Slow  
Old Ward lays hand to his old working-friend,  
And thanking God Whose mercy did defend  
His servant, yet must drop a tear or two  
And think of times when that old scythe was new;
And stands in silent grief, nor hears the voices 
Of many a bird that through the land rejoices, 
Nor sees through the smashed panes the seagreen sky, 
That ripens into blue, nor knows the storm is by.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Something New


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

“LOUISE NICHOLAS – MY STORY” by Louise Nicholas, with Philip Kitchin (revised edition - Random House, $39:99)

In the week that I am writing this review, the radio tells me that the police have released a report on police conduct during the investigation into the Crewe murders, which happened way back in 1970. Apparently (I’m relying on the radio here), the report confirms that police planted evidence, and that therefore police fully accept that Arthur Allan Thomas was wrongfully convicted of the murders. But it also asserts that police had good reason at the time to regard Thomas as a suspect. Reacting to this, one angry supporter of Thomas claimed that “the police still don’t get it”, and that, as Thomas has received a royal pardon, we must now consider him to be a completely innocent man, and no shadow of suspicion should be attached to him.
Far be it from me to comment on this complicated murder case, about which I know only what I have read in the newspapers. But I do have to dissent from the view that an official “pardon” removes all suspicion. A pardon can (and I am speaking in general terms here) simply be an acknowledgement that the state no longer concerns itself with a crime and is willing to forgive the person who was suspected of the crime. A pardon can even be issued to somebody who was rightfully convicted. In effect it can say “We still believe you did it, but we forgive you and we’re letting the matter go.” It isn’t a guarantee that the person being pardoned is free of all suspicion.
Why did the Thomas partisan claim otherwise? Partly, I theorise (of course I don’t know) because he, like so many people, wants to be assured that he can have absolute certainty about some matter that has been through the courts. And the more I consider how even the fairest trials are conducted, the more I come to the conclusion that absolute certainty simply isn’t possible. Please note that the standard offered to juries is that they consider a person to be innocent or guilty “beyond reasonable doubt”. Not beyond all doubt whatsoever, note, but only beyond reasonable doubt. This means that, even about a well-founded conviction or acquittal, there can be teensy-weensy, niggly-naggly doubts, upon which, of course, lawyers will play furiously.
Absolute certainty – absolute finality – about any case that comes before the courts is simply not possible. Only God knows the complete truth about anything.
So what does this have to do with the re-issue of book that first appeared seven years ago (in 2007)? Louise Nicholas, My Story is being re-issued with some revisions to the text and with a new foreword by Kim McGregor of Rape Prevention Education and a new introduction by Louise Nicholas. It is being re-issued in part as a tie-in with a television film which has just been made about Louise Nicholas. As its title says, Louise Nicholas, My Story is a story which gives a series of events as seen by one of the people involved. So it is, by its very confessional nature, a partisan work. On balance, and considering some of the circumstantial evidence involved, I did end up seeing things Louise Nicholas’s way. But the whole matter presents the usual difficulties that accompany attempts to establish the truth about historical sexual abuse claims.
Briefly, as she tells it, Nicholas’s story goes like this.
As a13-year-old, when she was still Louise Crawford, Nicholas was raped and otherwise sexually abused by one policeman. She was too embarrassed and too traumatised by the experience to tell anyone, and feared that her parents would blame her for what had happened, especially as the policemen in question was a respected member of her small community. Some years later, in Rotorua in the 1980s, when she was aged 16 and 17, she claims that she was repeatedly raped and abused by three policemen, Clint Rickards, Brad Shipton and Bob Schollum, who would visit her flat and intimidate her before coercing her into sex. On one occasion they raped her using a baton. Again, she felt that she had no recourse to justice, that her complaints would not be believed and that the police had too much public authority and respect for their word to be doubted. So she remained silent.
When she was twenty, she married Ross Nicholas, a good and supportive man, and began to raise a family. But she found, after she had had two children, that she was becoming severely depressed, the abuse she had suffered played on her mind, and for the first time she began to tell people about it. This led, in 1994, to the policeman who had first abused her coming to trial. Helping her prepare the case against him was Detective Inspector John Dewar, whom she regarded as her great ally in his attempts to find relevant evidence. But, encouraged by the researches of her co-author the journalist Philip Kitchin, she now believes that Dewar deliberately undermined her case by presenting in court hearsay evidence which would lead to the case being dismissed. Nicholas and Kitchin now believe that Dewar was corruptly protecting his police associates – and courts later came to the same conclusion. Dewar was later convicted of perverting the course of justice.
The case against Rickards, Schollum and Shipton took a lot longer to make. Nicholas’s accusations against the three policemen first became public in 2004 in a front-page Dominion-Post expose, written by Kitchin. The three men were tried in 2006. By this time Schollum and Shipton had left the force, but Rickards was Assistant Police Commissioner and was just one step away from becoming the country’s highest-ranking police officer.
Rickards, Schollum and Shipton were acquitted. Enough unsavoury information came out in the trial, however, to convince many people of their guilt, and there was much public outrage when, after the acquittals, it was made public that Schollum and Shipton were already serving jail sentences for their part in the pack-rape of another woman. Of course the jury weighing up Louise Nicholas’s accusations did not know this. Louise Nicholas was now feted as somebody who had taken a stand against “rape culture” and who was now encouraging other women to come forward and voice their complaints. The court of public opinion vindicated her.
Clearly, the two authors of this book believe the acquittals of Rickards, Schollum and Shipton were a travesty of justice. The first edition of this book came out within a year of the acquittals and is in large part a response to them. But the authors are constrained to speak within the laws of libel. There’s a note at the beginning of the book telling us that some names in the narrative have been changed because of suppression orders.
Personally, I do not believe that the three defendants’ acquittals establish their innocence definitively any more than that another man’s pardon clears him of all legitimate suspicion. Quite apart from this, however, Nicholas’s (and Kitchin’s) version of events does establish the existence of a macho and abusive culture within the police force. Other women have subsequently had their complaints, about abusive sexual behaviour by police, upheld by the courts. I note, too, that a good part of the defence case for Rickards, Schollum and Shipton hinged on the matter of consent. They did not deny that they had had group sex with a teenage girl, but they claimed that the sex was consensual. Implicitly, their version (or their defence lawyers’ version) of events was that Louise Nicholas was a willing party girl who later, as a married woman, had second thoughts about her youthful behaviour and therefore claimed, falsely, that she had been coerced. She was, in this version, perjuring herself. So here we have our old friends, the difficulties that accompany attempts to establish the truth about historical sexual abuse claims. Whose word are you going to believe? Given that there can be no surviving physical evidence, whose word seems more credible?
My own judgment, based on the many witnesses to a coercive police sub-culture, based on the other convictions of Schollum and Shipton, and based on Louise Nicholas’s own testimony, is that Nicholas is telling the truth about her experience. I would have to add, however, that regardless of whether they had attained “consent”, I regard serving police officers who have group sex with a teenage girl as sleazy bastards. Maybe this moral viewpoint would disqualify me from sitting on any jury considering the case, as law courts are there only to determine what is legal, not what is morally right.
I add that, as she appears in this book, Louise Nicholas is a remarkably level-headed and non-vindictive person. Her text is peppered with words of praise for the police force in general (her brother is a police officer) and especially for those police who really have supported her claims, provided her with evidence, and have subsequently cooperated in the commission of enquiry that was set up to investigate police behaviour. In 2013 she was happy to be photographed with Police Commissioner Peter Marshall as he helped her launch a brochure giving advice to victims of sexual abuse. I am amazed, too, that her youthful experiences didn’t put her off the male sex in general, but all the evidence is that she is a devoted wife and good mother to her four children.
After discussing these serious and depressing matters, it will probably seem frivolous or pedantic of me to comment on this book as a piece of writing, but here goes anyway: Louise Nicholas, My Story is a journalist’s book, often written in journalese and using some of the familiar tricks of the trade – such as opening on the trial with the verdicts about to come in and then going into flashback mode so that some spurious suspense can be generated. Alternate chapters are written by Louise Nicholas and by Philip Kitchin as she tells of her experiences and he tells of his investigations and how the media were handled. Pardon me, but I suspect (having some inkling of how books like this are written) that her testimony has been re-worked and re-written (“ghosted” in other words) by him, so similar do the two voices sound. I’m also irked that the only photographs in the photo section are happy shots of Louise and her family or recent shots of Louise and people helping her in various rape prevention campaigns. There are no shots of the defendants at the trials, perhaps because of the suppression orders???
But given that most readers will be interested only in the subject matter and not in the style, my criticisms will probably seem of little moment – so I’ll leave them at that.