Monday, July 6, 2020

Something New

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

“THE MIRROR STEAMED OVER – Love and Pop in London, 1962” by Anthony Byrt (Auckland University Press,  $NZ45)

It is probably true that books about art should be reviewed by people who have expertise in art, so I begin this review with one clear warning. I admire, appreciate, and could call myself an informed amateur of, much art; but I am no expert, and I am certainly not an expert on either 1950s Abstract Expressionism or 1960s Pop Art. In reading Anthony Byrt’s The Mirror Steamed Over, however, I do not believe that this puts me at too much of a disadvantage. Although he is deeply immersed in his subject, Byrt writes in an excellent, limpid prose, totally devoid of the mandarin-speak that befouls many of the publications on art that I have encountered. Byrt is not in the business of mystifying his readers. He is in the business of celebrating his subject and enlightening a large readership, including both experts and non-experts, who are interested in art.

So I begin by giving my verdict on this book. Byrt’s prose is exemplary, clear and vivid. Although his story takes us down many side paths, he does not lose his esssential narrative thread. Byrt has consulted many archives and sources. The odd comment here and there suggests he is either a friend of, or confidant of, one of his central characters, Billy Apple; and he has conducted interviews with him. But his prose is not weighted down by the research. To put it simply, this book reads well, and I spent two very happy days reading it closely and with great pleasure.

At its core, The Mirror Steamed Over is a celebration of the making of two artists with, perhaps, a slightly deflating coda.

Aucklander Barrie Bates went on a scholarship to art school in England – the Royal College of Art (RCA) -  to study graphic design. This book deals with his work and interactions with others there in the early 1960s until, on 22 November 1962, Bates rebranded himself as “Billy Apple” and has remained Billy Apple ever since. A very minor confusion is caused in some sentences where Anthony Byrt says “Apple” has told him something about “Bates”, as if they were two separate people; but for clarity in this review I will refer to the book’s hero as Barrie Bates.

At the RCA, Bates associated most closely with two people – David Hockney, a student of painting and therefore in different classes from Barrie Bates’ graphic design classes; and Ann Quin, who was not a student but had an administrative role at the RCA . Why were Bates and Hockney attracted to each other? Sometimes Byrt suggests that Bates the New Zealander and Hockney the Northerner had in common the status of being outsiders among the London crowd that made up most RCA students. There is some delicate to-ing and fro-ing early in this book as to whether Bates was sexually attracted to the openly-gay Hockney. Ann Quin, Bates’ sometime lover, teased Bates about this. But, for all the journeys Bates and Hockney made together, their friendship was apparently not sexual and apparently Bates/Apple does not regard himself as gay.

In much of Byrt’s narrative we get a chronicle of student rebelliousness and misbehaviour. Bates was almost expelled from the RCA a number of times for his violation of regulations. Both Bates and Hockney failed their diplomas at RCA, mainly because both of them baulked at the General Studies papers they were required to do, but which they both saw as a distraction from their art. Later, however, the books were cooked so that Hockney could get his diploma, because he was already the RCA’s most visible and praised artist and it would have been embarrassing to fail him.

The third character in this tale is Ann Quin the experimental novelist who, despite her talent, was mentally unstable and eventually suicidal. She ghost-wrote Bates’ “thesis” for a part of the course he wished to avoid. She also provides this book with its otherwise opaque title The Mirror Steamed Over. As is explained late in the text (p.175 to be precise) Ann Quin’s first published novel Berg has a man who recreates himself as his own double, a sort of mirror image, which steams over when he sees connections with his former self. This Byrt interprets as a metaphor for Barrie Bates re-making himself as Billy Apple, his own mirror image. Byrt also discusses the apple in relation to Adam and Eve and how much apples had figured in Bates’ work up to this point as symbols of both temptation and sensual pleasure. Personally, though Byrt doesn’t consider it, I can’t help wondering how much Bates’ choice of moniker might have also been related to the Big Apple – the New York he so often visited, sometimes with Hockney. Both became acquainted with New York’s jazz and drug cultures. Hockney hit the gay bars while Bates hit Madison Avenue to learn advertising agencies’ latest graphic techniques.

So much for the purely biographical details, which are only part of Byrt’s design.

In his Prologue, Byrt declares: “Beyond the surface effects and pop potentials of mass consumerism, both [Hockney] and Bates intuited a much larger cultural revolution underway, namely, that the liberated individual, acting in his or her self-interest – sexually, creatively, politically, economically – was becoming the new unit around which British and American society would be organised.” (p.9)

Byrt is very concerned to see this moment, the early 1960s, as a real turning point in art, but he situates it in the context of wider social change. Homosexuality was becoming more acceptable and was nearer to being decriminalised in Britain, so Byrt gives us details on the Wolfenden Report and its consequences. This relates very much to the flamboyance of Hockney and the themes he chose to present in his work. Censorship was loosening up, so there is an account of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial and the phenomenon of porn publishers in the USA fighting censorship in the courts - a fight which, over half a cantury later, doesn’t look all that beneficial, given the subsequent growth of porn, and its inherent misogyny, to a multi-billion dollar industry. The advent of hip minority-audience plays and movies, seen by both Bates and Hockney, leads Byrt to dissect in some detail the play (and film) The Connection and the film Pull My Daisy (amusingly Byrt has to apologise for the sexism of the latter – much avant-garde material of the time now looks distinctly arriere-garde).

The bubbling cultural cauldron of the early 1960s, and the figures who influenced Bates and Hockney, also mean pages on Marshall McLuhan and his perceptions on advertising, media, and the global village; R.D. Laing with his now-largely-discredited diagnosis that mental illness was caused by the traditional family structure; and Norman Mailer with his hipster and “White Negro” schtick. Mercifully Byrt also gives us James Baldwin’s stinging riposte to Mailer, which argued that in many ways Mailer was in thrall to the very racial stereotypes he claimed to refute.

Then there was the American artist Larry Rivers. Byrt sees American Abstract Expressionism (the school of de Kooning, Jackson Pollock etc.) as having become an oppressive norm by the end of the 1950s. A younger generation of artists was looking for ways to break with it. Larry Rivers, promoted by his acolyte Frank O’Hara, seemed to show the way with his return to a sort of representationalism. This had a strong influence on Hockney, whose work became more representational. In his own way, Bates was equally impressed by Larry Rivers.

But the painter Hockney and the graphic designer Bates began to diverge in theory and in practice. Despite failing to get his diploma, Bates was “the RCA’s graphic design star – the young man learning how to make image, text and typography work together to maximum effect.” (p.53) Putting together image, text and typography was the stock-in-trade of advertising, but Bates used advertising’s techniques to become a conceptual artist. Text, typography and chosen image could undercut, or make ironical comment on, commercial advertising. Yet here there was a problem. How much did Bates’ conceptual art really move from being advertising itself? How much was it just another form of advertising?

At this time there was much McLuhanesque critique of the (American) advertising industry, with British artists like Derek Boshier attempting to push back against it. As Hockney embraced representationalism, some of his artwork at this time implicitly criticised Bates for surrendering to pure commercialism. One of Hockney’s student paintings depicted Madison Avenue spewing out the words “Lie$, Lie$, Lie$”. Says Byrt: “The moralising tone in his drawing for Bates – lies, lies, lies – was clearly part of a wider concern Hockney had about art’s commodification and the impact of advertising and consumerism on society, but also about his own potential to get lost in the attractions and promises of American life.” (pp.109-110)

Hockney was at least aware that he himself was in danger of being absorbed into superficial American culture. The two students bonded in many playful ways, including at one point both bleaching their hair. But Byrt remarks: “The hair bleaching had been a point of connection between the two men, but it was also arguably the last meaningful one. Both were beginning to manifest new ideas of what an artist could be, but in opposite ways. Bates now relentlessly driven by ideas and looking towards new technologies and the future; Hockney more interested in grappling with, and conquering, the shadows of art history.” (p.118)

So the scene is set for what will be Hockney’s best-known representational works of muscular young men leaping into Californian swimming pools; and Billy Apple’s brash advertising-influenced designs selling… something. Perhaps selling himself. Among other ways in which Larry Rivers influenced Bates was, says Byrt,  “a contrarian attitude to art world orthodoxies; the sense that you didn’t have to love your subject matter to make great art from it; a committed individualism ; and a capacity for personal branding and self-mythologising.” (p.148) Much of The Mirror Steamed Over is the story of artists learning that they had to have a public profile to get noticed. This seems to be part of their “performivity”.

We are also told that “the emergence of Billy Apple was unquestionably informed by Bates’s experiences on Madison Avenue: his deep awareness of the power of branding on the way we perceive and desire products, and the notion that the best visiual expression of an idea is often the most stripped down. Apple became all three – the brand, the product and the idea – starkly realised, with no embellishment, just a shock of blonde hair and the eyebrows to match.” (p.207)

So Billy Apple became a saleable commodity, first in Pop Art, then in Conceptual Art.

Do I have any quarrels with The Mirror Steamed Over? As a piece of writing, certainly not. It is an engaging, informative, lively and well-written book. My mild quibble would only be with the author’s determination to see Bates and Hockney as at the centre of a major cultural change. They might have been symptomatic of the way the 1960s were developing, but they were not major driving forces of cultural shift.

And what of that “slightly deflating coda” that I mentioned early in this review? On p.225 of The Mirror Steamed Over, there is, in effect, an admission, too long for me to quote in full, that Bates’ and Hockney’s views, in the early 1960s, of the way society was developing, did not come to pass. Byrt asserts that in the 1960s “the sexual revolution” and psychotherapy took “new and monstrous forms” and that there was the rise of a “new, conservative individualism” which would become neoliberalism and the era of Reagan, Thatcher, Roger Douglas etc. To put it more bluntly, the art movements that Hockney and Apple came to represent were not the dawn of a new, enduring perspective or consciousness. And after all, if you bang on about “the liberated individual, acting in his or her self-interest – sexually, creatively, politically, economically”, then what can you expect as an outcome but the “me” generation, self-absorption and neoliberalism? Doing your own thing easily morphs into not giving a stuff about society at large. There’s the added problem that what was once the avant-garde and rebellious often ends as pure Establishment. David Hockney, the student rebel breaking taboos, is now David Hockney, Californian resident, loaded with civic honours, and with his paintings selling for millions. (One of his works went for $US90 million at auction).

Art has always been in some way enmeshed with commerce, and The Mirror Steamed Over obviously cannot avoid the implications of this fact. Anthony Byrt deals with it honestly.

Minor footnote: The Mirror Steamed Over has a generous selection of (mainly) black-and-white photographs of the youthful Barrie Bates and the youthful David Hockney and some of their respective works. I ached to see more images of the many works which Byrt discusses in detail. But perhaps I am asking too much here, having been spoilt by recently reading my way through Peter Simpson’s well-illustrated Colin McCahon volumes.

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

            Yes, the heading of this “Something Old” posting is arrogant and egotistical. How dare I say that my posting will tell you “everything you need to know” about the novels of Dan Davin? Surely there have now been one biography of Davin  (Keith Ovenden's A Fighting Withdrawal) and numerous detailed articles and critiques in theses and in publish-or-perish academic journals, ready to tell you what to think about Dan Davin’s work??! Davin may not be the most prominent figure in New Zealand literature, but he features in all literary histories of this country. So there must be more to his novels than is revealed in what amount to the short reviews that make up this posting?
            To which I respond – no there isn’t. Everything that need be said about Davin’s novels can be said quite concisely if one’s aim is to direct readers towards either reading them or passing them by. My “reviews” here are enough to indicate the quality of Davin’s novels, and no more need be said about them, outside reading the novels themselves…
Recently I read and reviewed in this blog Janet Wilson’s scholarly edition of all Dan Davin’s short stories, published as TheGorse Blooms Pale – Dan Davin’s Southland Stories and  The General and the Nightingale – Dan Davin’s War Stories. I read them during the lock-down, and it occurred to me that I had five of Davin’s novels sitting on my shelves, only two of which I had ever read – and that was some years ago. So whistling up from the New Zealand Library Service the last two of Davin’s seven novels, I proceeded to read my way methodically through all seven of them, in order of their publication. Such things did one do to while away the time in lock-down. This posting and next posting I present you with my conclusions.

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            It is now hard to read with a straight face Dan Davin’s first novel, Cliffs of Fall (published in 1945). It is so over-written, so badly structured, and so callow in its conception that it is impossible to believe it was written by a mature 32-year-old man who had just gone through four years (1940-44) of war in the New Zealand Division, seeing battle, serving as an intelligence officer, and already having written a number of mature and forceful short stories. But in reality it was not written by such a man. Davin had begun writing the novel a couple of years before the war, while he was still a student at Oxford. Its title was originally going to be The Mills of God. He had really finished it before his miltary service began. But only in 1945 was it accepted by a publisher.
It reads like what it is – the novel of a student who has read much modernist fiction and is trying hard to show us so.
            Mark Burke, university student, is part of a Southland Catholic-Irish family (like Davin). He has got his girlfriend Marta pregnant. He says he is engaged to her, but he does not want a wife and children so soon as he thinks it will hold back his career. If he had his way, Marta would have an abortion, illegal though that then was – but she has already had an abortion after an earlier liaison and she now dearly wants to have his child. What is he to do? Of course he cannot tell all this to his pious and religious family when he goes back to their farm. So his mind boils and bubbles and he decides the only thing to do is to kill Marta. It ends, in highly melodramatic fashion, with both a murder and a suicide.
If written in a more credible style, this story might have passed muster. But, very self-consciously, the young author wants to impress us with his erudition. The novel’s title, and the titles of its four parts, are all quotations from a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which is printed in full at the beginning. The vocabulary is recherche and the grammar contorted on page after page. Davin ends up producing stilted and incredible conversations between characters, sounding like formal debates rather than exchanges between real people. Mark converses with his Marxist friend Bob Mooney and neatly sorts out his idea that Marxism is just another form of religion. Mark converses with his puritanical brother Joe, and kills any idea of religion being any help. Mark converses with his bohemian musician friend Peter and understands the need to rebel from social norms while trying to avoid self pity.
And all the time there are the over-written, prolix, laboured thoughts of Mark himself as he justifies his decision to murder Marta, referring to his own intellectual superiority like an undergraduate Nietzsche or a cut-price Raskolnikov. Young Davin strives throughout for gravitas, but ends with bathos in a sequence of nightmarish phantasmagoria, quite out of character with the rest of the novel, in which Mark Burke’s conscience haunts him.
I have to add that, despite its relative brevity, much of Cliffs of Fall reads like padding.
Quite simply, it is a dreadful novel.

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Davin’s next novel, For the Rest of Our Lives (first published 1947) is a Great Leap Forward in comparison with the lamentable Cliffs of Fall. Despite the frequent and long ruminations of some of its main characters, its conversations are at least recognisable as real conversations and its style is a consistent grim realism, with fantasia popping up only briefly when the main character has bad dreams. Not that it is a masterpiece. I believe it is the longest novel Davin ever wrote (nearly 400 large pages of small print in the Nicholson and Watson first edition which I read) and it is certainly repetitious, with the same ideas being stated and restated in the main characters’ thoughts.
For the Rest of Our Lives is Davin’s war novel, and like nearly all his short stories (both the Southland ones and the war ones) it is lightly-disguised autobiography, most of its events being worked up from those parts of Davin’s copious diaries that were written in Cairo and North Africa when Davin was an intelligence officer with 2NZEF (New Zealand Division). The narrative covers the period between 1941 and late 1942, that is, from the siege of Tobruk through the successful second battle of El Alamein and ending when Rommel has been defeated and pursued to Tunisia.
All the main characters are reconstructions of Davin himself and his circle, with just a few fictitious characteristics added. Frank Fahey emerges as the protagonist, and it is not only his alliterative name that identifies him as Dan Davin. The fictitious Fahey comes from a New Zealand Irish-Catholic family, has rejected their religion, has studied Classics, has been through the retreat from Greece, has been wounded in Crete, convalesced in Egypt, is transferred to military intelligence work, and often feels an odd sort of guilt that he is not still in the front lines. All this is Davin, but unlike Davin the fictitious Fahey has also gone through a divorce. Other characters include Tony Brandon, who shares a flat with Fahey in Cairo. Apparently he has some characteristics of the intelligence officer and journalist Geoffrey Cox.
A third member of  Fahey’s circle is the intelligence officer Tom O’Dwyer, who has also rejected an Irish-Catholic upbringing and is now an ardent Communist, spreading the Marxist gospel whenever he can, to the mild bemusement of both Frank Fahey and Tony Brandon. One stand-alone chapter, true to Davin’s own confirmed agnosticism, has O’Dwyer out-arguing a Catholic chaplain (there’s also an amusing sequence where two soldiers toss coins on a bet as to whether God exists or not). Elements of Tom O’Dwyer, especially the Marxism, seem borrowed from Davin’s fellow intelligence officer Paddy Costello, though some things are pure fiction. Costello never fought in the Spanish Civil War as the fictitous Tom O’Dwyer did. It’s noteworthy that in For the Rest of Our Lives, most of the ordinary Kiwi soldiers (as opposed to the officers) are left-wing in their views, seeing Stalin and the Red Army as great heroes as they push back Nazi forces and fight the Battle of Stalingrad. Most of them are also particularly contemptuous of “pongos”, British officers and “base wallahs”, admire Rommel’s skill, and are painfully aware that, until late in the day, the Germans are better equipped, especially in the tank department.
A book could be written (and probably has) linking all the novels characters to their real-life originals, from “the General” (obviously Freyberg) to the homosexual officer who is court-martialed for his activities and commits suicide (based on somebody Davin knew). One deserves a special mention. Davin really disliked the English novelist Olivia Manning , whom he knew in Cairo. Many other people disliked her too. She was apparently a snob, very condescending, and prone to complaining about everything. She appears to be caricatured in the novel’s very minor character of Blanche Scott.  (The ghost of Olivia Manning may have the last laugh, however – her Fortunes of War series has been far more widely read and re-published than any of Davin’s works have).
            The events of For the Rest of Our Lives move between life in wartime Cairo and soldiers’ experiences in the desert. There is much drinking of whisky. There is much mess-room camaraderie and gossip. There are many sexual adventures for all three of the main characters, much rumination on women and on the nature of love, and an awareness that any relationships made in wartime will probably be temporary things, regardless of the passions that are spent. I won’t bore you by pointing out which women are paired with which officers.
            Given that it was published so soon after the war, this novel would surely have shocked at least some New Zealand readers. It is not only the sequence where a soldier, whose legs have been blown off, begs to be killed. It is not only the unvarnished and particularly nasty battle sequences, which have so many bloated and fragmented corpses, so much close-quarters fighting, and more bayoneting than I realised took place in the Second World War. It is also the unapologetic way soldiers’ everyday thoughts and experiences, away from the battlefield, are chronicled. There is much cynicism about the higher-ups’ war aims. Resort to brothels is frequent as is drunken brawling. Wives or sweethearts are lied to in letters home. There are particularly vicious episodes like the one where three Kiwi soldiers get drunk, all have sex with the same raddled old whore, and then one of them beats her up and takes back the money they have given her. To this you may add the very unflattering way Davin depicts the “Big Flap” (the panic among Allied officers when it was feared that Rommel would reach Cairo).
            In 1947, this would have upset many who were still thinking in terms of their returning heroes and their honoured dead. Davin has conveyed one important thing, however. For all their crudity and violence, the troops were still fighting a justifiable war, still risking their lives and still protecting complacent civilians who are all too often unaware of what they are up against. This is part of what makes his Frank Fahey still identify with the troops and regret that he is no longer with them but is now doing intelligence work back at base.
            In spite of all this, For the Rest of Our Lives does not stand up as a classic. Its characters are dragged along by historical events and do not develop in any meaningful way. Its ideas are too often repeated. There is a rawness to it that suggests it concerns things the author has not had time to fully digest. An end-note to the first edition says that it was written between September 1944 and November 1945, that is, mainly while the war was still bring waged, even if it was no longer in North Africa. The author, in effect, was still thinking as a participant in the war, and what he presents is reportage. The novel can be read, and still ought to be read, for its documentary details and its chronicling of a particular New Zealand experience. But that is all.
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            When I read Dan Davin’s third novel Roads from Home (first published in 1949), I felt that I had at last struck gold. This could very well be Davin’s best novel. Its setting is Southland and its characters are Irish-Catholic immigrants and their children, as in so many of Davin’s semi-autobiographical short stories. The Hogan family represent the same culture that the Davin family lived. There are some details that are autobiographical. The father Jack Hogan is a railwayman, as Davin’s father was, and the family live on the rural edge of Invercargill and attend mass at the Catholic basilica, as the Davin family did. However, many of the troubles the Hogan family face are purely fictitious.
            Older son John Hogan, who is also a railwayman, is married to Elsie, a girl from a Protestant family. (A brief scene, in which Elsie’s father objects to the marriage, shows that Southland Presbyterians clung to their tribal religion as fervently as Southland Catholics did). Elsie, however, seems to have had an affair with a rakish opportunist called Andy, and there are doubts about the paternity of Elsie’s and John’s infant son. The drawn-out tension in the marriage leads to tragedy.
            Meanwhile Jack and Norah Hogan’s younger son Ned has been nagged by his pious mother into training for the priesthood at the Mosgiel seminary. He has had a nervous breakdown and has come back home to think things over. It is his sensibility, and his growing doubts about his religious upbringing, that dominate much of the novel.
Set in about 1930, Roads from Home depicts a small community hit badly by the economic depression. Some characters are on poorly-paid relief work and some live in fear of becoming unemployed. There are other strictures on people’s lives. Apparently Invercargill was “dry” and, when they aren’t drinking at home, men maintain the booze culture by drinking furtively (“sly-grogging”) in a closed and shuttered hotel at night. Puritan customs are condemned; but the booze culture destroys some people. The Hogan family’s uncle Tim is clearly an alcoholic, often trying pathetic strategies to be given the price of a drink.
For Ned and John Hogan, however, the biggest stricture is their inherited Irish-Catholicism. Ceremonies are always being performed. The family rosary. Doing one’s “Easter duty” by first going to confession. Funerals. A special “mission” in which a Redemptorist priest instils guilt, preaching that the congregation’s sinfulness has wounded Christ. True to much Irish-Catholic culture the women – and especially Norah Hogan – are most fervent in their religion, while the men (who often think of the failings of the priest) are more sceptical, but conform for the sake of domestic peace.
Roads from Home has its flaws, not least the extremely melodramatic way in which John Hogan’s marriage is concluded (Davin is often accused of winding up otherwise plausible plots with melodrama). Neverthless, it depicts convincingly a whole social group, and this time we are able to share the thoughts of most of the major characters – Norah, Jack, John, Elsie and Ned; even if the little brother Paddy, who is clearly growing up indifferent to the things that trouble his brothers, is seen from the outside only. Even better, Davin deals in a very nuanced way with the family’s inherited culture. Ned (and by implication Davin) may be rejecting the family’s religion, but there are moments when he is also aware that it has sustained and strengthened his parents and his forebears during hard times in Ireland (see especially his thoughts at a funeral at Part 2, Chapter 6). And though his mother instils guilt in him for no longer wishing to be a priest, there are also times when he feels filial love for her and recognises her strength as a woman.
It is a very wrenching thing to find a road from home.

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Fully seven years passed between the publication of Roads From Home and the appeaance of Davin’s next novel The Sullen Bell, first published in 1956. In the interim, Davin was preoccupied with researching and writing the volume of New Zealand’s official war history concerning the Battle of Crete. The Sullen Bell is a competent novel with a (largely) credible narrative, but it is also probably Davin’s most dispiriting and depressing work. It concerns various New Zealanders living in post-war London in the early 1950s. London is still a city with bombed-out buildings, still suffering from rationing, with spivs on the make, elements of a black market, and much sordor, especially in the scenes set in Soho. The word “seedy” would come to mind, if Graham Greene hadn’t made it a cliché.
The overall tone of the novel is disillusion and regret after the hopes raised by the end of the war. It reads like a long hangover. Sally McGovern teaches in a London elementary school. She is still grieving for her fiancee Bill, who died in the war, and she still wears his ring. Former army officer Hugh Egan has never got over the fact that his depressive wife Alison committed suicide when he was with her, on leave in New Zealand. The lawyer Maurice Brace is a doctrinaire Marxist, so concerned with the Party and with his cases that he neglects his wife Clare, who wants a child and a real family. Maurice comes from “Anglican snob” Canterbury stock. Clare is an ex-Catholic. As in Cliffs of Fall and For the Rest of Our Lives, Davin gently suggests that Marxism is a new, dogmatic religion like the one he had rejected. There are many time-specific details. Maurice’s latest case is defending a man accused of giving away secrets relating to nuclear weapons (“atom spies” were big news in the late 1940s and early 1950s).
All these characters have lost something. All are New Zealanders who had hoped that London would be more than what it is. Occasionally some of them think back to life in New Zealand, but then recoil with the thought that going back home would be going somewhere small and parochial. They are ceasing to be New Zealanders, but they are not English either.
And there’s the shadow of the war and what it has done to people. A character called Gus is still ashamed of having been captured and becoming a POW. Bob remembers his wife’s infidelity when he was away fighting, and how she died of a septic abortion. The doctor Philip Hamilton got nowhere in his profession and is now an abortionist, dope-peddler and blackmailer. Looming larger than any of them is Dave Macnamara, Hugh Egan’s subordinate in the war. He is both a serial seducer of women, and a man of violence. The impulsiveness and physical courage that made him a good soldier also make him a delinquent in peacetime.
Inevitably, there is some Davin autobiography is this. Hugh Egan is researching and writing a history of the Battle of Crete, which kind of gives the game away, but which also allows Hugh Egan to have a conversation about the nature of history with another historian called Grogan. (Also, as in two or three of Davin’s short stories, there’s a flashback about the shooting of a farm dog in New Zealand).
The main problem with The Sullen Bell is that it ambles on for two-thirds of its length with many vignettes of its various characters (including quite a few I haven’t mentioned), but without much momentum. It is clogged with detail and seems to be going nowhere. Only in the last third does it gain some urgency with a murder, a marriage and two troubled people coming to a commonsensical solution regarding their situation. I wouldn’t exactly accuse this of being melodrama, but it is similar to the abrupt way John Hogan’s marriage is wrapped up in Roads From Home.

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Next posting, I will give you my views on Davin’s last three novels, No Remittance, Not Here Not Now and Brides of Price.

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.


There is a moral standard which I reasoned my way to quite a number of years ago. It goes like this “A crime against humanity is a crime against humanity, regardless of who commits it.” This may sound like a trite and obvious truism, but it is amazing how many people do not hold to this standard. I am wearily used to hearing people loudly denouncing or protesting against one major atrocity somewhere in the world, while justifying (or ignoring) another. Usually this is a matter of political bias, played along a Left-Right axis. “Your” atrocities (the atrocities of regimes of which you approve) are to be condemned as crimes against humanity. “My” atrocities (the atrocities of regimes of which I approve) are to be ignored or condoned or somehow justified on the grounds of necessity. I put up a posting on this matter some years ago, called Your Atrocitiesor Mine?

Not exactly the same topic, but closely allied to it, is what it’s now fashionable to call “whataboutery”, more fomally known as the “Tu Quoque” or “you too” argument. The term “whataboutery” is not as new as you might think . It was first used in the 1950s, when Americans pointed out that if the old Soviet Union were condemned for its totalitarianism and failure to respect human rights, somebody would be bound to pipe up “Well what about the United States where blacks get lynched?” The sturdy old Tu Quoque was often pulled out during the Cold War.

Now it takes such forms as “Vladimir Putin is a demagogue looking to make himself dictator for life.” “Well what about Donald Trump?


American policing disproportionately punishes blacks.” “Well what about the concentration camps the Chinese are building for Muslims?

In one sense this is often just the pot calling the kettle black. The Tu Quoque argument is an attempt to justify evil deeds by pointing to evil deeds of which your opponent is either ignorant or of which your opponent tacitly approves. But looked at rationally, it is always a flawed argument. After all, it admits, implicitly, that what you are attempting to defend is as bad as what you are drawing attention to. You are saying, in effect, that B is justified because A is as bad as B.

Schoolground wisdom says that two wrongs don’t make a right. Tu Quoque merely says one thing is bad and here is another thing that’s bad.

So let’s condemn both.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Something New

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

“UPTURNED” by Kay McKenzie Cooke (The Cuba Press,  $NZ25); “FRAGMENTS FROM AN INFINITE CATALOGUE” by John Tane Christeller (The Cuba Press,  $NZ30); “HOW TO BE OLD” by Rachel McAlpine (The Cuba Press,  $NZ25); “THE WANDERER” by Ron Riddell (HeadworX, $NZ25); “THREE POETS – A HEADWORX ANTHOLOGY” by Marion Rego, Alex Jeune and Margaret Jeune (HeadworX, $NZ@%)

There’s a section in Kay McKenzie Cooke’s new collection Upturned where the poet writes about her visits to Berlin and the alienness of that city. The language is different. She has difficulty communicating with Germans in a bakery (the poem “Tough light”). Her little bilingual granddaughter shows more confidence in German than in English (“Foxes or squirrels”). In a stately sequence called “Baltic Coast in autumn” she is aware that the very rhythm of that northern sea is different from the rhythm of the seas about New Zealand – “a wide and flat ocean, no breakers, / any wildness held / behind horizon lines, / contained by distance, / a motionless tideline.” Yet with strangers and with German-domiciled members of her family, there is still a warm fellow-feeling.

But this excursion into the great land called Overseas is the only section of Upturned where Kay McKenzie Cooke is an alien. For most of this collection she is very much at home, dedicating some poems specifically to places in the great New Zealand South -  Gore, Balclutha, the Maniototo and locations in or around Dunedin like Caversham, St. Kilda and Mount Cargill, where the winds whistle up from the Antarctic.

Cooke is more concerned with (modified) nature than with the city, but her landscape poems are not idyllic dreams. Many are situated in the present world where the bangs of hunters’ guns and the noise of traffic are heard (“Inlet”, “Bucklands Crossing”). There is also the strong pull of the past in her poetry, and the influence of whakapapa, with poems honouring her late parents, her great-great-grandmother, her great-grandmother and a much-loved Maori grandfather Reg Lee “our grandad / who always wore a hat, / cut the kindling, kept a good garden, / shovelled coal into the fire.” The past also means childhood, where sitting at a grandmother’s table gives comfort when a southern storm is brewing outside (“Two tables”); or where children at primary school, seated at their teacher’s feet, make local interpretations of the songs from faraway that they are singing (“On a mat at the bottom of the world”). Not that childood is entirely innocent, especially when sibling rivalry creeps in (“Being there”).

As a reviewer of poetry-collections, I have the very bad habit of nominating poems as favourites – even suggesting that some future anthologist might embrace them. But I can’t resist indulging the habit.

In Upturned, two poems grabbed me for their fine quality and acute observation.

“Monkey Island shadows” is a joyful and detailed recall to a family mussel-collecting excursion on the shore facing Foveaux Strait, where “all the gathered mussels are clattering in a tin drum / over an open fire, shells opening into grins, / and flounder too from nets our uncles hauled in”. Such abundance! – and maybe a reminder that such days are now gone.

“Full pardon” is a poem celebrating summer, but even as she celebrates, Cook insinuates subtly an awareness of transcience and the brevity of the warmer season.

Perhaps I shouldn’t single out two poems this way. Upturned is a fine and well-crafted collection – the product of a mature and thoughtful mind.

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Kay McKenzie Cooke is Ngai Tahu and Pakeha. John Tane Christeller is a New Zealander of Kiwi and German-Jewish descent. This may seem an odd way to begin a notice about his debut collection of poetry Fragments from an Infinite Catalogue, but ethnicity is relevant because, the blurb tells us, Christeller has learnt te reo and this collection contains some poems in the Maori language, not all of which are presented with English-language equivalents. I do not profess to be able to comment on the poems in Maori only.

 It’s also important to note that Fragments from an Infinite Catalogue has to be judged as an objet d’art as much as a work of literature. The text is accompanied with 24 colourful images in a variety of styles, reproduced from Christeller’s screenprints and woodblocks. Some draw on Maori motifs (the curled red taniwha on page 73). Some are in the tradition of naturalists’ drawings (the cicada on page 46) and some combine naturalist sketch with Maori style (the owl on page 70). A young child’s drawing appears on page 29 and there is the influence of ancient Greek art on page 14. It makes for a varied and intereresting gallery.

But what of the text?

Fragments from an Infinite Catalogue is a collection of poetry, prose and brief gnomic statements. The term “fragments” is apt. Here, titled “Odyssey:19”, is the reflection of a patient Penelope in its entirety: “Trust in my fidelity and in the threads I draw, / trust in your desire and in your taut bowstring, / for two millennia or twenty years / or the lifespan of geese.” Certainly Homer inspired it. But is this a pithy aphorism in the tradition of Martial or Propertius? Or is it an isolated image? You decide.

In extreme contrast “Old Songs, Summer Songs” is a naturalistic memory of summer as experienced by the handyman Kiwi bloke a couple of generations back, and there are other poems on the New Zealand scene, on dragonflies, irises and blackberrying, some couched in nostalgic terms.

And in further extreme contrast, there is the prose statement “On a Flyleaf” about the poet’s relatives who were killed in the Holocaust; and a prose poem, “The Fence” about a fictitious journey involving James K. Baxter and Kendrick Smithyman; and the prose statement “ATTRwt Amyloidosis: An Aquatic Timeline” about respiratory tests. Herein the poet, a DSIR scientist by profession, uses precise scientic language mixed with the colloquial.

So through a section drawing on Christeller’s experience of Japan; and finally the poems relating to Maori culture. The poem “Te Poho / Fronting Up”, published in both Maori and English, calls upon Maori gods as it reconstructs the poet’s experience in undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery. In other poems, afflicted cabbage trees, a dying red beech and a stripped kawakawa are seen as images of human mortality…. And there is a prose poem in which the old man recalls his rugby-playing days on the Petone Rugby Club grounds. Almost inevitably, the last two poems in the book refer to death, the unavoidable end of old age, with their reference to piwakawaka and Cape Reinga.

What I have done here is to report on the contents of Fragments from an Infinite Catalogue without passing any sort of critical judgement upon it. I enjoyed reading many parts of this very varied collection. I enjoyed the colourful artwork. But I could find no consistent tone or thread of thought to fully engage me. A matter of pure taste.

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I’m 80 and it’s getting late / so I’m rushing at this like a bull at a gate… I could be arcane, I could be smart / I could crochet the strings of your heart / I could be subtle, I could be wise / sprinkle my lines with splendid lies / but now that I’m staring at my own demise / I don’t have time. So here’s the deal. / I’ll stop talking to myself / and talk to you.”

Thus speaks Rachel McAlpine in the “Forward” to her collection How to be Old, and it is a forthright and honest introduction. These are poems about being old, the consolations and pains of old age, the delusions younger people might have about what ageing is, and the changed status in society that old people now have.

The first section “Not a Memoir” gives us these lessons: Getting old is not something other people congratulate you on (the poem “Getting old is not like getting pregnant”). As you get older, you realise how much like your parents you have become (“Voices”). Old people are aware that they can be a burden on their younger relatives (“The burden”). And what other people think of as old can almost be the prime of life (“Templates”). Your body decays (“The body singular”). Your libido dies – but you can enjoy remembering it (“Lust”). And if you have children or grandchildren you are increasingly protective of them, believing that by rights you should die long before they do. As the poem “A family secret” says, “if that bastard Death / should cast his bloody eye their way / I will always bellow, ‘Look at me! / I’m old. Pick me. Pick me.’ ” Also, though the clock may say you are old, you don’t necessarily feel that way (“Epic”)

The second section “Boot camp for the bonus years” turns to the fact that, at least in our society, people nowadays tend to live longer and it is harder to remember a time when people died routinely in their 60s or 70s. Are you in your 80s or 90s or knocking 100?  No problem. There are plenty like you. The old are a growing part of the population. But living longer means often missing a routine of work. As “What is your job?” says “work gave you friends, a schedule, a label / a space and a fable / a reason to get out of bed / a dress code and your daily bread /and at your very core / a sense of who you are / and what you’re for.” And people put in handrails for you (“A safe home”) And you worry that make-up may not really disguise your age (“Beauty tips for older ladies”). And you know that younger people patronise you, think you have slowed down and can’t find the right word quickly enough (“Slow”).

The third section “The gentle narrative of happy” is not quite count-your-blessings territory, but it centres mainly on the quiet pleasures of ageing. As for the coda “Elsie’s Tactics”, it records the darndest things a young grand-daughter says to he grannie.

Old (elderly/ senior?) people are often accused of babbling of green fields and indulging in nostalgia. Of course Rachel McAlpine has a number of poems referencing her childhood as a member of a vicar’s large family; but this is simply a point of reference, and not her focus, which is very much in the present.

Most of these are poems of clear statement and simple syntax, accessible to a wide audience, imagery never obscure. At her best, McAlpine is bouncy and buoyant and cheerfully ironical, putting in rhymes when it will help things jingle along, both realistic and optimistic and never maudlin. In her weaker moments, she can sound a mite admonitory, like a visiting district nurse giving good advice. But those are the weaker moments.

How to be Old succeeds in what I believe it set out to do – to appeal to a wide audience.

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Ron Riddell’s The Wanderer is a long, discursive poem of spiritual intent. The poet’s own introduction tells us that this is just the first instalment of a longer work, and a second instalment will appear in due course. It presents itself as a journey in search of the self. As the journey unfolds, titles of successive sections indicate that we are passing through towns and cities in Colombia, where the poet has spent much of his life. But some of the landscape is dream landscape of a surrealistic sort, and there is one section set specifically in New Zealand.

The desire for fulfilment, the desire for oneness with other human beings, and ultimately the desire for a soul at peace are the goals of the narrating voice. This appears to be the “wanderer” himself, although another “wanderer”, so-called, is introduced at a certain point as a sort of guide to the journeying soul. Occasionally – but only occasionally – there are specifically Christian tropes.

In the book-length poem’s structure, there is much inversion and repetition, and allusion to other texts, as in:

In my breath is my breath

the breath upon the water

the breath in every step

the step in every breath.”

And as in:

In my end there is no end:

acting out of the back streets

from the dim recesses of memory.”

There is a general sense of goodwill towards others, guided by some form of benevolent unity, expressed thus:

There is a common note that runs

through eveyone and everything

don’t miss that music

that sustains us

with its secret swell.”

And as we near the end of this first instalment of The Wanderer, there is a sense of achievement that the journey has been undertaken, even if it is not yet completed:

We’re getting near the mountain top

getting near, not giving up

getting near and reaching out.

With startled cry, with joyous shout

We spy the summit looming up.”

Short lined-meditations with much repetition often have the effect of incantation. It can become hypnotic (or lulling) and its structure means that it is probably best read aloud, like a sort of running chorus. While the intention is admirable, there is one major stylistic flaw, however, which weakens the overall effect. There are repeated images of river, mountain and road but, even if geographic indicators are given, this imagery is altogether too generic. We miss the detail of specific landscape. We miss the sense of real people being encountered and understood in a real world. The Wanderer, far from being a plausible human journey, becomes aetherial, theoretical, detached from the world in which any of us live. An ideal that is not given human flesh.

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One of the best things about Three Poets, the HeadworX anthology is that the three poets are of different ages – Marion Rego in her 80s; Margaret Jeune in her 60s; and Alex Jeune in his 30s, thus offering a spectrum of viewpoints from different generations. Yet, as both Mark Pirie’s Foreword and a biographical endnote point out, the three poets also have much in common. They have, we are told, all performed in the Kapiti “Poets to the People” readings and at other venues. I asume too that Margaret and Alex Feune are related (mother and son?). Please correct me if I’m wrong.

Published together as “Windows on Life”, Marion Rego’s verse references childhood accidents, work done for children, the love of grandchildren and the frustrations of having to exchange inanities with check-out operators. A very impressive, well-structured poem called “Choices” contrasts regimented and silent church services in the old days with more noisy and boisterous services now, and asks provocatively “What would you rather have/ A church full of quiet people / who may or may not have wanted to be there? / Or a half-empty church of people / who are there because they want to be?” In fact, the image I am getting from these poems is of a granny who really does not wish to be patronised or treated like a senile person, whether by local councils or insurance companies or well-meaning juniors. Not that this is a grumpy old lady out of touch with the world. The poems about rising sea levels show that, as does her well aimed swipe at having to uproot non-native species of plants when you don’t want to (“Native Species?”). And they are ‘poems for the people’ because they are expressed as simple declarative statements.

Alex Jeune’s poems are titled “Images of Time”. They are more terse, gnomic and philosophical than Marion Rego’s cheerful garrulity. In its entirety, the verse given as “Untitled” goes thus: “I ought to be / More than I am / I need to be / What I felt to be right / The space between / The hopes and the hoped for / The real and the ideal type.” Other examples of similar tentative existentialism are found in statements called “Compulsion”, “Credulity”, “Strength” and “The Dark Night”. However this is not the only key in which Alex Jeune plays. He can wax positively lyrical about physical realities of nature or human habitation, as in “Springtime” or in  “Petone” where “Pohutukawa blossoms red / And evening stretch across the blue suburban skies / Light pouring through this valley of green.” Perhaps this is the key in which he should play more variations.

Margaret Jeune positively embraces human society and the natural world, which makes the title of her section particularly apt – “The Natural Landscape”. She chronicles in detail a trip to Auckland (“Auckland 2019”) and to its suburb in the Waitakeres (“Titirangi”), and she rejoices in summer’s chirping insects (“Cicadas”). Regrettably, while it might work as oratory, too many of her poems are prosey and end with a piece of neat moralising which is usually a dull commonplace and with which nobody would want to argue. Thus “Time for Tolerance” (written in response to the Christchurch mosque massacre) ends telling us “New Zealand is now home to many nationalities and faiths / Perhaps it is time for tolerance of our difference / and an understanding of each other’s cultures.” This is not poetry. It is editorial.  Thus too with the endings of  “The Natural Landscape” and “Christmas Time 2019”. There’s nothing wrong with saying what everyone is already thinking, but I’m reminded of Alexander Pope’s line that poetry is “what oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d”.  These offerings need to be expressed with more flair and originality to avoid the editorial trap.