Monday, July 9, 2018

Something New


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

“CHARLES BRASCH  - JOURNALS 1958-1973” Selected with an Introduction and Notes by Peter Simpson (Otago University Press, $NZ59:95); “BIG WEATHER – Poems of Wellington” Selected by Gregory O’Brien and Louise St John (Vintage – Penguin – Random House $NZ30) ; “PEOPLE FROM THE PIT STAND UP” by Sam Duckor Jones (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

In reviewing the third volume of Charles Brasch’s journals, covering the years from 1958 to his death in 1973, I find myself having to say some of the same things I said when reviewing the first two volumes (find comment on them via this link Charles Brasch Journals 1938-1957). Volume Three, selected and edited by Peter Simpson, is in the same hardback format as its two companion volumes and weighs in at nearly 700 pages. There are 34 pages of chronology preceding Simpson’s introduction and, before the index at the back, nearly 50 pages of very useful Dramatis Personae, giving notes on all the people who are most frequently mentioned.

Once again, Simpson’s extensive Introduction orients us accurately to what is to follow so, shamelessly, I shall summarise it.

Charles Brasch was only 63 when died but he was already worrying about his impending end when he was still just out of his forties. This may have had much to do with his unsettled sense that he had made no satisfactory lasting union with anybody, and time was drawing on. At the age of 49, he fell in love with Andrew Packard, a talented marine biologist in his 20s, who had an Oxford background. Brasch was attracted in part by Packard’s Englishness. But like Harry Scott, Brasch’s earlier object of desire, Packard was heterosexual, and soon disappeared to a life of research in Italy, leaving Brasch to think wistfully of him. They met amicably much later and Brasch wrote a cycle of poems about him (“In Your Presence”) in his collection Ambulando. Meanwhile Harry Scott died, his wife Margaret was widowed with three children, and – extraordinarily - Brasch considered becoming Margaret’s lover. More extraordinarily still, Margaret Scott accepted his advances and they were lovers for some time until the sexual attraction wore off. There is the implication that Brasch’s loving her was some sort of substitute for loving Harry. [Incidentally Margaret Scott – who had a hand in producing the first volume of Brasch’s journals - died in 2014, which presumably makes it easier to now make public these intimate details.]

It is possible that Brasch was sexually active after his affair with Margaret Scott was over, but it is clear that he never again felt the sort of love for one man that he had experienced with Harry Scott and Andrew Packard. He did have a strong friendship with the neurotic and mentally unstable Russian Jew Nicholas Zissermann and his mother “Moli” (Hilde), but the friendship was a tubulent one. The son was a talented poet and translator, but he had frequent outbursts of rage and he abused his mother.

Outside these intimate connections, Brasch was acquainted, via Landfall, with nearly all the literati then living in New Zealand. Simpson chronicles Brasch’s various views on New Zealand writers – which, in the privacy of his journal, could be harsh and tender by turns. The relationship with Andrew Packard seems to have kick-started his stalled poetry-writing again, so that he produced two collections in the 1960s Ambulando (1964) and Not Far Off (1969), with its title referring to death. Brasch planned and wrote much of a long poem about himself, Andrew Packard and the Scotts. It was called “Birds of Passage”; but Brasch seems never to have finished it and it is now lost. Peter Simpson remarks: “Intimate emotional engagement with another – in a word, being in love – was for CB the greatest spur to fresh composition, as he discovered yet again when to his surprise he became sexually involved with Margaret Scott some eighteen months after Harry’s death.” (p.74)

Outside literature, Brasch’s main interest was appreciating (and collecting) paintings. He admired Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon for their earlier rather than later productions. Doris Lusk and Rita Angus were more his thing, but he at least tried hard to like the abstract art of others. The Frances Hodgkins Fellowship for artists depended in part on his patronage, just as did the Burns Fellowship for writers.

With regard to Landfall, Brasch was growing weary of the task of being editor. There was increasing criticism of the quasi-academic tone of the publication, with the likes of Louis Johnson and Wellingtonians saying it was too harsh on young talent and too pone to farm out reviewing to junior university lecturers. Brash seriously considered giving up as editor in 1961, and began agonising over who should replace him. Mac Jackson and Vincent O’Sullivan were considered. Brasch stayed on until 1966, when Robin Dudding was chosen.  (The always-malicious Frank Sargeson described Dudding to Brasch as “a nice fellow but only just not illiterate.”) Brasch deliberately left Dudding alone as Dudding set about editing Landfall, knowing that he couldn’t play the periodical’s eminence grise.  But, like others, he felt he had to do something when Dudding was fired from the publication in 1972. Hence, in his last two years, Brasch and others supported Dudding’s periodical Islands, when Landfall, post-Dudding, seemed to be losing its way.  [NB For more information on this, see Adam Dudding’s book My Father’s Island, reviewed on this blog in October 2016].

After a painful and prolonged illness, Charles Brasch died in 1973 of Hodgkin’s disease (cancer of the lymphatic system).

Thus much for Peter Simpson’s detailed and informative introduction.

In making my own coments on this journal, I begin with the obvious statement that between 1958 and 1973, New Zealand was in some ways a very different country from New Zealand now. It is extraordinary that, as we are reminded in Brasch’s entry for 1 September 1959, the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (precursor of New Zealand on Air) would allow no mention of the “No Maoris, No Tour” protests that were attempting to stop a racially-selected All Blacks team from touring South Africa. That sort of censorship of a major news story would now be regarded as both reprehensible and ridiculous. We should also note that a journal is a journal – it is filled with contradictions and changes of opinion, because, written day by day, it tends to judge things in the short term. We cannot reasonably expect Brasch’s opinions to be firm and unchanging. All reasonable people change their views on things over time. We should also be prepared for discreet bitcheries, as a private diary is the place where they can be expressed.

My own general impressions of how things move in these journals goes something like this:

Already in 1958, Brasch is death-haunted. The funerals of old friends and acquaintances begin to pile up, even though he is only in middle age. He is already working on his memoirs, provisionally called  Finestra (he would eventually call them Indirections). Landfall is already beginning to worry him, as in the entry for 3 August 1958 where is is furious at Louis Johnson for criticising the periodical.

In 1959 there is much angst about the death of Harry Scott and the status of his widow. As he did for nearly all his life, Brasch sniffs around the fringes of religion, and, while never being attracted to it himself, takes a serious interest in Catholicism - not just by associating with the converts James K. Baxter and Bill Oliver, but by reading Teilhard de Chardin and discussing things with his close friend Deirdre Airey (a doctor who was the Catholic-convert daughter of the left-wing professor Willis Airey).

1962 sees Brasch working with Ruth Dallas to put together the anthology Landfall Country. He also makes an extensive trip to Europe and to a literary conference in Australia. In England, he finds Benjamin Britten’s opera Albert Herring artificial; and the “satire” in the revue Beyond the Fringe phoney and forced. He also encounters the pale and weak expatriate New Zealand novelist James Courage, who died the following year.  By 1963 there is much glad-handing with young male academics from Auckland, some of whom Brasch sees as promising literary lights. (Alas, most of them became merely older academics.) In 1963 there are many pages of notes towards his autobiography and in 1964 there is a trip to India; and in Otago many mountains are viewed and many hikes taken. There is another trip to Europe and England; and by 1969 and 1970 an increasing number of entries on art. Brasch is intensely interested in the works of Brent Wong, Michael Smither, Colin McCahon and Ralph Hotere, although he never wholeheartedly endorses the work of any of them. There are now far more thoughts now on death and on the writing of Indirections. In June 1972,  he is both bemused and amused by the younger male poets at a poetry festival in Rotterdam. Death is creeping in. There are many entries on his slow and sometimes painful physical decline.

On 2 January 1973 he writes: “Has this pain come to stay? Does it mean to take up permanent residence in my back, chest, stomach? Sometimes I think so, & prepare to domesticate it, try to live with it. As if I had no choice. And indeed what choice has one? This is not a matter of free will. But I resist.”

By Easter Sunday (22 April) 1973 He is writing: “every day is the same, the utter weariness of this heavy, dull ache that reduces me to an animal; I can only drag one foot after the other about the house. And the nights get worse & longer…”

But he keeps slogging away at literary work. In the very last entry in the journal (6 May 1973), he says he has written “seven or eight little poems since turning on the light this morning”. He died a fortnight later.

Thus for my own very general impressions of these 700 pages.

There are some particular features that stand out for me. First, there are Brasch’s reactions to specific people and how those reactions change. To give one example: in 1964, Brasch initiated a strong friendship with Moli Zissermann and her disorderly son Nicholas. One gets the impression that Moli was a strong-willed person with a strong personality, and the little boy in Brasch tends to tag along without challenging her assertive statements about literature and writers. But his views of Nicholas Zissermann swing as wildly as Nicholas Zissermann’s own manic moods. On 10 August 1966, Brasch can write “Nicholas is a vampire, sucking the life out of his family.” Whereas on 5 May 1970 he writes “It is Nicholas Zissermann’s presence that makes Otago a university.”

I am also struck by the general absence of comments on world or New Zealand politics. There are some exceptions. On I January 1965, Brasch meets Rewi Alley, who makes a generally good impression on him. However “much that he says is persuasive. But his sources of information are clearly limited; & whereas we don’t believe everything we read in the press & hear on the air, he seems to believe everything he reads & hears in China & nothing that he hears & reads outside…. What he said about Tibet & about India was ludicrously one-sided, but we listened politely and did not take him up.” In the main, though, we find very little on politics and world affairs, even in the turbulent year 1968. Is this a matter of how the journals have been edited, or is it proof of how much of a detached aesthete Brasch was?

            What will be most important for many readers (correction – what is most important for me) is the evidence of Brasch’s literary tastes, usually expressed in pithy and brief comments where he reacts to books he has just read.

In the privacy of his diary he can say many frank things about fellow-New Zealand writers which he would not make public. From 1958 to 1972, he expresses many and varied opinions about James K Baxter, which, if read one after the other, would seem very self-contradictory. He is increasingly alienated from the work of Allen Curnow and irked by its obscurity. On 17 March 1958 he writes: “I used to admire Allen Curnow for his ability, when he worked for so long on the Press, to keep journalism & literature distinct & allow no trace of the former to infect  his poetry or critical prose. Now I wonder if the increasing difficulty of his poetry is not due in part to the effort to keep all journalism out of it, so that he has made it as different & as pure as possible, to the extent even of banishing prose meaning from it entirely.”

On 12 February 1961, Brasch writes that Curnow’s Introduction to his new Penguin Anthology of New Zealand Poetry “is the wrong kind of introduction; it explains & over-explains…. It is Allen preaching again; the gospel according to A.C.”

He tends to be even more dismissive of New Zealand writers of prose whom he thinks do not measure up. In 1958, he is offhandedly disparaging about Ian Cross’s The God Boy. Bruce Mason’s The Pohutukawa Tree he damns with faint praise in an entry for 31 March 1963: “The play is a crude and stagey one, yet it says something worth hearing, & says it effectively in its melodramatic way.” On 1 June 1963 he is of two minds about Bill Pearson’s Coal Flat. He opines that it is “the most interesting NZ novel yet written, the richest in content” but then adds “it fails to sustain its promise” in the second half. [To which I can only add “Quite!”.] On 26 June 1966, he calls Ngaio Marsh’s autobiography Black Beech and Honey Dewa sad empty book because at bottom it has nothing to say.

Of one author in particular, he is consistently negative. On 6 November 1959, he reacts badly to Maurice Shadbolt’s short stories The New Zealanders and says “M.S. is not an artist, but a very clever literary journalist.” Over five years later (17 April 1965), he reads and, in part, enjoys Shadbolt’s novel Among the Cinders while noting “But some of it is dreadfully pasteboard, some scenes designed for Hollywood, and there are pages that try to out-Crump Crump.” [Perhaps Brasch was fortunate not to live to see the woefully limp New Zealand movie that was made from this novel in the 1980s.] And six years after that (24 March 1971), he reads Shadbolt’s This Summer’s Dolphin seeing it as “very competent; but conceived as a job, an advertiser’s assignment. It has good passages… but these are offset by the vulgar commonplace of other parts, which are a journalist’s ‘story’.”

I quote these passages on Shadbolt simply because I take malicious delight in agreeing with them.

When it comes to established authors from outside New Zealand, Brasch has both his enthusiasms and his dislikes. In 1958 he thinks J.D.Salinger might be the salvation of American literature (nope – he wasn’t)  and he loves Dr Zhivago (although later, on 21 April 1959, he says it is not as good as War and Peace). On 8 January 1959 he notes the death of Edwin Muir and says he respects him more than any other modern poet. “I haven’t felt nearer to any other modern writer; nor have I felt greater respect for any other…” On the other hand, on 22 May and 4 June 1972, he finds Harold Pinter’s play The Caretakerempty & boring” and Tom Stoppard’s play Jumperspretentious kitsch”. (He might have been right about the latter).

In 1961 it is surprising to find him getting on well with Patrick White when White makes a brief visit to New Zealand  - after all, you can see his damning comments on White’s work in Volume 2 of these journals (see entry for 3 February 1957) where he dispaprages White’s The Tree of Man. Brasch goes back on the attack on 27 January 1965 where he declares White’s novel Vossis not a good book; Patrick White although very talented is a bad writer. Does he write such books because he is using his talent, or because he is driven? If the first, he’s a bad man; if the second, he is mad.”

I snickered in agreement with Brasch’s remarks (3 February 1965) on the first part of Jean-Paul Sartre’s autobiography Words: “so tiresomely clever a piece of word-spinning, so self-satisfied for all the self-disgust of its self-absorption (‘I loathe my childhood’), so cold, with a kind of calculatingness in its attitude towards other people, mother & grandfather & relatives.” But Brasch does say the book gets better in its second part.

I also roared my approval when, coming late to the novels of Henry James, Brasch declares on 20 March 1961 that “I feel sure of nothing in [James’] The Ambassadors except my ‘sense of moving in a maze of mystic, closed allusions’ (as Strether feels in chapter XV). After struggling through the first hundred pages I was caught up here and there but also exasperated again & again.” I say I approve of this statement because, as an Honours student, I hated trying to struggle through the wilful obscurities, evasions and convoluted syntax of Late Period James (“James the Old Pretender” - see my comments on various more readable novels by the chap at this link Henry James). The Ambassadors was the very novel that drove me to such exasperation that I threw it aside without finishing it.

So you see, like a true critic, I have cherry-picked these literary glosses of Brasch simply because I agree with them and think that often (but not always) Brasch showed fine sense in his reading.

But alas, I now have to come to the offputtingly Mandarin side of Charles Brasch (or “patrician hauteur” as I called it when reviewing Volumes 1 and 2). Brasch seems generally to be antagonistic to the popular art of film. He is not a complete cinephobe. On 17 March 1967, and unusually for him, he is quite positive about the the film version of Dr Zhivago and he later goes to see it a second time. But (3 April 1963) he objects to seeing opera on film because he argues that it should be seen on stage (which may be fine and dandy if you have a “private income” and are able to scuttle off to La Scala or Covent Garden to see your opera). He rips apart Peter Ustinov’s quite serviceable film version of Billy Budd (18 January 1964). On the other hand, he may have a point when he characterises Antonioni’s La Notte as “a pretentious, empty, long-winded film, very boring” (1 February 1964).

            Musical classics do not always meet his very refined standards, as when he remarks (12 October 1970): “I can’t like Brahms, except rarely. Most of his music has a deeply unaesthetic, unmusical quality that repels me – non-music in a non-style; at times coarsely literal & flat-footed.” As for the audiences for musical classics – well dearie me, some of them are simply not of his class. On 4 September 1967, after a concert performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, he observes “Tremendous enthusiasm at the end, epecially from the Promenaders, some of it uncritical perhaps…”

The patrician side of him is most painfully in evidence when (28 March 1965)  he visits relatives and writes: “They are open & spontaneous, they have no airs & graces; I am repelled by the rough slangy speech they use invariably – June & the children even more noticeably than Uncle Reg; June never says ‘yes’, always ‘yeop’ or ‘yeo’ (one syllable); Uncle Reg never talks about his ‘friends’, always about his ‘pals’ ”. I have this mental image of Charles Brasch raising a lorgnette to his eyes and glaring reprovingly at these inferior specimens.

I could find many other instances where the hoi-polloi are rebuked for their lack of refinement. Yet if I tar Brasch as sometimes effete, over-refined and ill at ease among the mass of his fellow countrypeople, I have to applaud the times when he recognises bullshit for what it is. Consider this, from 25 March 1966, where Brasch reacts to a pretentious radio review of a book by a minor poet:

“[The reviewer] spoke what I can only call jargon; his subject seemed to be something quite esoteric, which I could not recognise as poetry; he did not sound pretentious exactly because clearly he wasn’t posing, but it was as if poetry was some fanciful game having nothing to do with life, feeling, passion, one’s understanding of the world & men: a parlour game. When I could understand him, he seemed to be talking nonsense, to be reading into [the] poems both technical skill & meaning which are simply not there…” To this forthright and doubtless accurate comment, I can only add that Brasch was lucky not to live on into the 1980s and 1990s, the age of High Baroque Post-Modernist Criticism, a verbal barricade designed to repel all but a handful of initiated academics from ever reading or enjoying literature.

In the end what is the essential personality that I find revealed in these journals? Even when writing only to himself, Brasch often strives after gravitas, as in this volume’s very opening entry (5 January 1958): “There is no original state of things. No pristine purity from which all change is for the worse. All things have momentary stability, but if observed for long enough they can be seen changing; their nature is to change: change is of their nature. I’ve always found it hard to understand & accept this; always longed for a supposed or imagined stability & perfection.”

Or is this sort of entry really written for himself?

When I read the following entry (28 March 1959) I ask - ‘For whom is it really written?’ It sounds like a soliloquy for an unwritten play, or perhaps notes towards a poem. The writer is dramatising himself for display:

How long & empty the evenings as I sit & read & fight off the drowsiness that besets me, gazing now & then at my two photographs side by side: Andrew has his eyes on me, Harry & Margaret look just to one side. Ghostly – I sit & wait & listen for a photograph to come to life; for his step outside, his voice, then he – How long can I bear it? For life, I suppose; since it is life while it lasts.”

The same note is struck in this entry from 22 September 1961: “Since I have always doubted my own identity, my real existence, perhaps the fierce hunger that bursts out in me from time to time for fame as a poet, the craving to be remembered, may spring not solely from mere egoism but from a need to prove to myself & other people the fact that I do really exist – or did exist once. A poor substitute for life itself, truly.”

I doubt not Brasch’s sincerity, but there is a painful self-consciousness here, an over-analysis of self which slips into idle and vague philosophical speculation. It would be cruel to dismiss it as the writings of one who has much time on his hands, but it does seem to reflect the thwarted romantic in Brasch, the man who was not only shy of people but who never made a lasting and satidfactory relationship with somebody he loved. Penning these things for posterity is his substitute for really relating to live human beings.

Where I find myself liking Brasch most is on the simplest level – as one who had a strong aesthetic response to nature, ultimately Wordsworthian in inspiration. From beginning to end in this volume we find him apostrophising the night sky, as in

(17 January 1960) “A mild half-clouded night, the moon drifting through the cloud, Orion above & a few other stars” etc. Or, nine years later, as in (20 July 1969) “A circle of pale haze round the horned quarter-moon, which is lying on its back, a little tilted, more than a halfway down the west. Venus swims in attendance just outside the circle, which dims her. Other stars are pale too; not very many. Will men really land on the moon this night? I must hope so, now they have got so near.”

            As an Aucklander, I admit my personal bias in liking this side of Brasch. After all, it leads him, as a Dunedinite, to make the following most generous assessment of Auckland (8 August 1960); “How Auckland invites one to relax, to expand, to flow outwards & lose oneself in the Gulf, among the vaporous islands, in the great skies. There are no supporting disciplining forms here; Rangitoto magnificently relaxed, is the only great presence. I love the ease & expansiveness of the place, the diffused whitish light, the blue of water & sky, the voluptuous pure clouds, rich trees & their rich shade.” I also concur with his remark (16 December 1970) as he is driven by Deirdre Airey and observes of landscape just out of Auckland:  “the motorway south through country that I always find surprisingly more English than any other part of NZ” Yes – I’ve often had the same notion when it hit places like Pokeno and Pukekohe and see them resembling nothing so much as the original landscape illustrations out of The Hobbit.

            I conclude this overlong and opinionated review (Oy mate! – Show me one review that isn’t opinionated!) by congratulating Peter Simpson for having, like Kit Smart, “determined, dared and done” this formdable task of editing and annotating.

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I enjoyed reading my way through the new edition of the anthology Big Weather. Gregory O’Brien originally edited the selection with Louise St John (who died in 2009). It was first published in 2000 and expanded in 2010. The brief introduction is regrettably a little gushy, telling us that poetry now thrives in Wellington because of the wonderful Victoria University writing programme and book shops etc, although it fails to note the obvious ongoing fact that Wellington has per capita more literati because it is the centre of government, and hence has more civil servants, bureaucrats, heads of companies and other consumers of high culture than other national centres. In other words, it’s Bourgeoisie Central.

Okay, I’m an Aucklander so I’m being a little snarky here, folks, but it is the truth.

Enough of these fightin’ words. The poems are the thing and this is a really enjoyable collection. Taking a (micro) geographical approach, the anthology has five sections, titled Central City; Harbour and Sea; Suburbs; Parks, Bush and Beyond; and [new to this edition] a final section of poems written in the early 21st century. Other than in this last section, the poems are not in chronological order. Surely the oldest poem in the book must be the Aussie Henry Lawson’s “The Windy Hills o’ Wellington”, from the 1890s. Another real oldie would be Katherine Mansfield’s prose fantasia “Vignette”, though it’s pushing it to class this as a poem.

As I’ve said before on this blog, for me the most iconic Wellington poem, included in this collection, remains Baxter’s “Wellington”, dating from the 1950s, with its last line about the “radio masts’ huge harp of the wind’s grief.” As an Aucklander, I always think of this when I drive into the city of Wellington. As an Aucklander, I should also note that I spent a year living in Wellington and enjoyed the experience, although of course Wellington is not a true city, but a collection of discrete villages hidden in hills.

From whatever generation they arise, a great number of poems here emphasise the wind and the hills and the shut-in-ness of Wellington, but on the whole, the older ones exalt and Wordsworthise (David McKee Wright, Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan, even Louis Johnson in his “Song of the Hutt Valley”) while the more recent ones are more socially conscious and either get down to the seedy side of life or comment ironically on domestic and city situations. Very good to read poems from the generation of Kirsten McDougall and Airini Beautrais (the woman who wrote the best collection of poetry to be published in New Zealand last year, Flow) and good to see the tradition of honouring place in verse still being followed.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

This is an idiosyncrasy of mine, but I think it is valid. If a poet expresses an admiration for Frank O’Hara, then I am immediately on my guard. Call it prejudice if you like, but the American Frank O’Hara has become the patron saint of the slap-it-all-down-in-any-order-so-long-as-it-fills-the-page boys. Coming at the fag end of the Beat era (1950s-60s), his was the Beat aesthetic of “first thought, best thought” pushed to banality. No wonder a plethora of pub poets follow in his wobbly footsteps, ‘cos it’s so easy to do the disjointed diary stuff.

Sam Duckor Jones’ People From the Pit Stand Up begins with an epigraph from Frank O’Hara. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. The blurb describes this debut collection as  “wonderfully fresh, funny, dishevilled” (the last term has validity), and according to one pre-reviewer it is “gorgeous and contrary”.

Um, “contrary” to what?

We are told that Sam Duckor Jones is a sculptor and his metier is certainly reflected in his verse. The long (25-page) sequence “Blood Work” concerns, in part, the making a ceramic man which seems halfway between the Golem and Frankenstein’s monster, but is also an object of desire; so the sequence has heavy homoerotic undertones. Art. Embrace. Kneading. Desire for love from an invented image of oneself. Yet, as a sequence, it is hopelessly fragmented. At best some interesting imagery can be retrieved, but the form is simply confusing and incoherent in the real sense of the word. It does not cohere together. 

Various shorter poems deal with Auckland and sculpture and the male sex. We plunge deeper into the oily pool of sexual confusion in a two-part poem called “How Female-Admirer Dream Narratives Run Rampant Through the Gay Collective Unconsciousness” and in various poems we enter the milieu of  “hand jobs” and  “late night hook-ups” and gay references from a guy who apparently has a preference for rough trade.

But what is “contrary” here? If the term denotes satire or dissatisfaction with society, all I see is the dreaded sneer, as in the title sequence “People From the Pit Stand Up” with its first section’s closing line “People do live here & have full & active lives” (at which we are all meant to snigger) and later in the same sequence “There’s a flash cheese shop in this town         So between getting pissed & stealing shit try a           truffle oil brie.” Yes folks, getting pissed and stealing shit makes us the brave bohemians.

You will notice in the line I have quoted the arbitrary – and essentially meaningless – breaks between words, frequently found in this volume with such lines as  “tomb           stones      ar         rive     in           south     er    ly     sets.” The breaks do not in any way correspond to how anyone would read these lines or any individual word therein. They have nothing to do with pauses for breath. What purpose do they therefore serve? If Sam Duckor Jones is a visual artist (sculptor – and there are some line drawings by him in the text), then I suppose the argument would be that this is poetry as a visual medium, in this case visualising separate tombstones, but      it      all     t       oo           otf      en        se         ems     a      g                     ag             to       p            ad      out      the     te                             xt.          

Might I add that my comments reflect no animosity to the poet, whom I do not know, nor to the life he apparently leads. There is even the possibility that some people will respond favourably to this volume. I am a very broad-minded person after all.

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.

“MANSIONS OF MISERY – A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison” by Jerry White (first published in 2016)

            Please allow me to cheat. When I write this “Something Old” section of my blog, I usually deal (as the heading above says) with books four or more years old. But I am breaking this rule as I want to deal with a book published only two years ago, and which therefore cannot be called brand-new.
            Why am I doing this?
Because the subject intrigues me.
Some time ago on this blog, I wrote a lengthy piece on Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, his novel set in London’s old Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. The prison had already been decommissioned at the time Dickens was writing but, bizarre though the concept of debtors’ prisons now seems to us, they loomed large in Dickens’ imagination as his scapegrace father John Dickens had served time in the Marshalsea. In fact debtors’ prisons appear briefly in other of Dickens’ novels as well, with episodes set in the Fleet prison in The Pickwick Papers and in a fictitious debtors’ prison in David Copperfield.
            Jerry White’s Mansions of Misery is a brisk and engaging history of the Marshalsea, and of course Dickens is one of its stars, in part because it is only through Dickens that most people now have even heard of the Marshalsea. Fittingly, the cover design of Mansions of Misery features an illustration from Little Dorrit.
Jerry White is a popular historian who has written three general histories of London in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, as well as insitutional histories. After he wrote Mansions of Misery, he produced a book about London’s most notorious slum. Trained as a civil servant, White spent years as Public Health Inspector for Islington Council. This got him interested in the less savoury (and less sanitary) aspects of London’s history, and the books followed.
To orient us to his subject, White tells us in his Preface that Dickens-inspired popular imagination assumes the Marshalsea was always populated by “shabby-genteel lower-middle classes” who had got into debt through trade. But this was not always the clientele of the prison. In past ages, he says, debt was a very personal matter as there were no mechanisms to show how credit-worthy somebody was. Because of the scarcity of specie (coins – especially small change) it was easy to get into debt, and credit was almost universal. Many of those who got into debt were first locked in bailiffs’ sponging-houses before they were sent to debtors’ prison; and often it was a matter of months before a case concerning debt came to court. Therefore, the mere threat of imprisonment could be an effective tool in making careless debtors suddenly come up with the money that was owed. But – especially in the 18th century – there were often fraudulent means of getting people sent to prison. “Pettifoggers” were back-street “hedge” attorneys, who worked out of one-room offices, with at most one clerk to assist them. They would deliberately rack up fees to plunge their clients deep into debt, and then threaten imprisonment to extort a large payout. Bailiffs were known for their dodgy ways, and often incited poor people to arraign others for very small debts, in order to drum up custom.
According to White, nobody knows when the Marshalsea Prison was founded, but it was already in existence in the Middle Ages, as it was stormed by Wat Tyler’s men in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. White focuses, however, on the 18th and early 19th centuries, by which time the prison was (almost) exclusively for debtors. From the early 18th century, there is the tale of the Italian musician John Grano, who tried to liven the prison up with entertainments while he was serving a sixteen-month sentence. Even in Grano’s times, there were the beginnings of agitation to have debt reclassified as an offence not punishable by imprisonment.
In spite of this fledgling reformism, however, the prison was often a place of great cruelty, no more so that in the 1720s and 1730s when a sadist called William Acton (a butcher by trade) became the prison governor. Acton was not a paid government official. Like many prison governors in those times, he lived off money paid to him by prisoners. For a big commission, he could rent out well-furnished rooms to prisoners with wealthy connections, who might be able to pay him by borrowing money from their relatives (and therefore, of course, getting deeper in debt). Those who did not take up Acton’s offer knew that the alternative was consignment to one of the unsanitary “common wards” or even to a dungeon which, at that time, was still furnished with implements of torture.  Prisoners were routinely chained to the wall, with heavy shackles, if they refused to pay up.
By starvation and torture, Acton was directly responsible for the deaths of five men. Outraged relatives of the deceased saw to it that he was tried for murder five times – but he managed to get acquitted at each of the five trials because he was able to suborn witnesses to speak on his behalf. All of his witnesses were prisoners under his authority, who knew how badly things would go for them if they spoke against him.
It was at about this time that a prison reform committee was set up, with the prime intention of cleaning up the Marshalsea. Regrettably it didn’t get far, as it had been set up by Tories at a time when a Whig government was in office – an early example of political partisanship overriding humane reform. But at least the implements of torture were now removed from the prison and Acton was moved elsewhere.
For all that, the prison was still a hellhole. Political prisoners were imprisoned there at the time of the two Jacobite Rebellions, and they were of course treated harshly.
Gradually only, it became possible for debtors to be  discharged if they came to some sort of agreement with their creditors. A number of Insolvent Debtors’ Acts were passed, recognising the condition of bankruptcy and limiting the grounds on which a debtor could be incarcerated. The length of time for which debtors could be imprisoned was decreased. Even so, Jerry White finds evidence of one (anonymous) debtor who served an 18 years sentence in the Marshalsea in the early nineteenth century. As White says, he could very well have been the model for Dickens’ William Dorrit, “the father of the Marshalsea” in Little Dorrit.
The old Marshalsea Prison was closed in 1811, when a new, smaller prison opened on the same site. It was here that the 12-year-old Dickens visited his imprisoned father. Being of more modest size, the new prison lacked the large courtyards in which prisoners had congregated. The prison governor was no longer a “farmer” of commissions, but a salaried civil servant. However “turnkeys” (“screws” in modern parlance) were still able to rent out rooms to prisoners with wealthy connections. Jerry White spends some time chronicling the wild conviviality of the prison in its last years. Prisoners were allowed to order in beer from local pubs, large-scale parties and banquets often took place, and prostitutes were frequently allowed in to serve the male prisoners’ needs. And at the same time, whole families of insolvents were raised there.
Finally imprisonment for debt ceased. The Marshalsea took in no more prisoners after January 1842, and the prison was finally shut in December of the same year.
For readers like me, who were drawn to this book by Little Dorrit, perhaps the most fruitful chapter is the last, in which Jerry White considers the “legend” of the Marshalsea, and why so many authors were drawn to the theme of imprisonment for debt. He instances Daniel Defoe, Tobias Smollett (especially in his novel Roderick Random), Samuel Richardson (in Clarissa), Henry Fielding (in Amelia) and many others who devised episodes set in either the Fleet or the Marshalsea. White surmises first, that in the 18th and early 19th century, many authors themselves lived precariously, earned little income and were often in debt. They therefore understood the milieu at first hand. Second, that because debtors’ prisons snared such a wide cross-section of society, with all classes represented, they presented novelists with a microcosm of society. Dickens turned this idea around in Little Dorrit, with his theme that it was not society that was represented in prison. It was prison that was represented in all of society

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.


Do I have to convince you that I like reading books?
I hope not.
Every day, I devote some time to serious reading. I read what has just been published and what was published long ago, in order to maintain a sense of perspective about newly-published books that are currently being praised or (in some cases) over-praised. Hence the “Something New” and “Something Old” sections of this blog. I cannot bring myself to think that someone who does not read frequently and deeply is fully civilised. When I am in a new city, or even in the out-of-the-way parts of my own city, I often have a habit of checking out second-hand bookshops. My house is filled with books – far, far too many of them probably – many of which I have yet to read. Catching up with things that have sat unread on my shelves for years is another motive for cranking out “Something Old” essays. On the floor of my study, with its crammed bookshelves, sit piles of yet-to-be-read review copies of new books, through which I try to work my way systematically.
So I am no enemy of literacy or the joys of reading, okay?
But recently, and especially on Facebook, I have noticed a worrying trend. There are more and more incitements to read, written by people who are apparently worried that the habit of reading itself is dying. This is never specifically stated, but it is an implicit subtext. Some of these incitements are relatively harmless posts on ways to get your children reading – an admirable objective, although even here there is the assumption that in your household children won’t be reading anyway. (So get off your arses and read regularly to your young children, nitwits!) And coupled with this, there is often another assumption that reading is, in and of itself, a virtue rather than a pleasure, a pastime or a means of enlightenment. Let me make it clear, bibliophile though I am, that I have never suffered the delusion that I am morally superior to the woman who hardly ever reads a book but prefers dressmaking or netball as pastimes. Being literate and informed and “fully civilised” are not the same as being morally good.
Obviously some of the posts about reading, which I am now seeing on Facebook, are motivated by self-interest. A high proportion of them are put up by publishing companies – usually marginal and “independent” ones – and by groups such as the New Zealand Society of Authors (of which I am a member…. or perhaps once was a member. I might have let my membership lapse). When it comes to reading, such groups and companies have “skin in the game” as it were.
More annoyingly, many of the literacy-propaganda postings have a hectoring tone. I have now had my fill of posts with titles such as “100 Books You Must Read Before You Die” or “Twenty Notoriously Underrated Writers You Should be Reading”. Note those bullying verbs “must” and “should”. Who says I must or should read any of these things? As I have been at pains to explain in this post, I am already reading as widely and as much as I can. To feel a sense of obligation to read everything recommended by such bloggers would be asking too much. To quote the title of one of my earlier postings (which I am heavily cannibalising in this one) You Can’t Read Everything. Besides, I am fully capable of discovering underrated authors for myself, without having to follow somebody else’s doubtless partial list. And I already know that whatever list of the “underrated” or the “great” that somebody else can produce, I can produce an alternative list of my own.
It seems to me that underlying much of this nervous on-line anxiety to promote books and reading, there is a looming awareness that novels and printed prose in general are no longer the main forms of cultural communication. Dedicated though I am to reading, devoted though I am to great and compendious novels, I accept that those who choose to read, complete and unabridged, Ulysses or Moby Dick are a tiny proportion of the educated part of the population, and an even tinier proportion of the total population. The same goes – only more so – for the readers of modern poetry.
And from here on it will always be so.
Drop the anxiety, on-line posters. Accept that we are a minority compared with all the television, Sky, Netflix, download and Youtube watchers, and be happy with our minority status.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Something New


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

“ROTOROA” by Amy Head (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

            Five years ago I had the pleasure of reviewing on this blog Amy Head’s first book, the collection of short stories Tough. I praised it for its  “solid representation of place” but also for its awareness of history and the author’s sincere attempt to get the “feel” of a past age. The stories in Tough were all set on New Zealand’s West Coast, some in the present, some in the nineteenth century, and some linking the two distinct eras. Amy Head was clearly a writer who took the trouble to research the times she wrote about, especially when it came to matters of physical detail.

            These same virtues are present in Amy Head’s second book, the novel Rotoroa, which takes its title from the island in the Hauraki Gulf where, from

1911 to 2005, the Salvation Army ran a detoxification and rehabilitation centre for alcoholic men. (For some of that time there was a similar centre for women on the nearby island of Pakatoa). The setting is the late 1950s and Amy Head is as interested in the time as in the place. To a great extent, her three main characters, who do not really met each other until we are nearly halfway through the novel, represent three different responses to that era.

Most complex of the three – or at least the one whom the author depicts in most detail – is the teenager Lorna Vardy, only child of parents who live in Takapuna before that suburb became more exclusively for the very wealthy. (In the background of the story, the Auckland Harbour Bridge is still being built, so for practical purposes, Takapuna was then far from central Auckland). Lorna’s parents are impressed by the politeness and good grooming of two young American Mormon missionaries who come knocking on their door. They convert to the Mormon faith. But one of the young men gets 15-year-old Lorna pregnant before scarpering off back to the USA. Lorna suffers the common fate of a pregnant teenager at that time. While her parents discreetly move house (to then-semi-rural Albany) to avoid potential scandal, Lorna goes to give birth at a home for unmarried mothers, where we get such sad details as:

The girls had each been given a ring binder to file homecraft lessons in – patterns and recipes, diagrams of nappy folding and hygiene guidelines – even if most of them didn’t need to know how to raise a baby yet because they wouldn’t be raising theirs.” (p.50)

Of course Lorna is pressured to adopt her baby out, with unexpected results which Amy Head prepares carefully and which I will therefore not reveal here. Lorna is aware that she hasn’t lived up to society’s expectations and she has a hard time framing answers to prying questions which older people ask. As she thinks at one point: “It was easy to fail at the normality tests.” (p.75) She has her soulful and questing side – perhaps the idealism of her youth – and when people from the Salvation Army show her some kindness, she decides that they offer her the purpose she needs in life. She joins up. All of which, in due course, leads her to a period working on Rotoroa island and to a relationship with a rather colourless Salvation Army man.

Given almost as much space as young Lorna is the novel’s second major character, very different from Lorna in part because she is a real person. This is the journalist and travel writer Elsie K. Morton – known throughout the novel by her real first name, Katherine – who was a regular feature writer in the New Zealand Herald and other publications. Morton was a conservative, religious person, as fond of quoting scripture as were the Salvation Army people whom she visits on Rotoroa. It was Katherine’s practice every year to produce a feature article on the excellent work the Sallies were doing in drawing alcoholic men back from self-destruction. Morton is mainly depicted positively, but often she sounds unwittingly patronising. Her genteel manners do not quite mesh with the desperate men whom she meets.

Clearly Morton (who was nearing 70 at the time the novel is set) and the teenager Lorna represent two different generations of women. Morton is a stickler for well-defined righteousness and theological exactitude. For example, she mentally takes issue with one of the “steps” which Alcoholics Anonymous encourages its clients to follow, because it is not orthodox enough. At the same time, she is compassionate enough to intuit that isolating damaged men on an island is not necessarily the best way to cure them:

Katherine had found herself objecting to the third step, which called on members to turn themselves over to God as they understood him. She felt they were being encouraged to create God in their own image. It all tired and saddened her, was the truth of it, the compromises people were called on to make. There was always the strain of making do, and it would be foolish to think the patients didn’t feel every shortcut as evidence of their insignificance. They needed to be connected to the outside world. They ought to be able to receive visitors.” (p.147)

By contrast young Lorna is beginning to hear a different music in the times and to relate to a different set of values. She feels a kick seeing a short of Bill Haley singing “Rock Around the Clock”. She finds herself dancing to “Blue Suede Shoes” at the Olde Pirate Shippe on Takapuna Beach. This is different from her parents’ music:

‘One, two, three o’clock…’ She sang quietly to herself while squeezing the toothpaste on. The Thursday night hit parade. The rich pause and crackle of dust when the needle was placed on a record. Get ready, it said. Something was about to start. The crooners were kissing at the start of their songs and married at the end. ‘Will we have rainbows?’ Doris Day sang in ‘Que Sera Sera.’ No one got married in rock and roll. Side-tap, side-tap, back-forward. Dancing to Cotton-Eyed Joe’s ‘Big Beat Ball’ with her door closed. Stopping for Elvis Presley’s voice, sobby and unwholesome, in ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.” (p.84)

As for the novel’s third main character, it would be unfair to call him a cipher, but he is not given as much space as either Lorna or Katherine. This is the rock-bottom alcoholic Jim Brooks, who has apparently made life hell for his wife and three kids as he drinks himself silly, goes from job to job, and ends up on Rotoroa. Jim is more clearly a “case” than a character, but Amy Head is not dismissive of him, even if his natural habitat is the feckless, boozing, macho culture of the pub. From early on, you sense the essential loneliness of this man, with his inability to relate properly to others and with his mind gradually stripped down by the drink, as he tries to sleep on Rotoroa:

He might be the only one awake on the island. Just this burrow of light he had carved  out, and then nothing until Waiheke: corridors vacant, lumps in beds, chapel pews empty, snuffles and bumps in the barns. Only mice a possums, rats and cats scuttling crabs still active, and him.” (p.44)

I have seen one thumbnail “review” of this novel which says that it depicts “the 1950s, as rigid social codes in New Zealand are beginning to evolve and come unstuck.” This is true up to a point. In putting together the old-time boozing joker, the rather prim, well-meaning older lady and the teenager who feels hemmed in by society’s expectations, Amy Head is indeed making comment on New Zealand as it was 60-odd years ago. But her views are not as glib as this thumbnail “review” might suggest. Every age is in the process of turning into another, and Head nowhere encourages us to think that Lorna’s yearnings will necessarily be satisfied by the mores of the approaching 1960s. On top of this, and without revealing the mechanics of the plot, by novel’s end the older, conservative woman has come to understand an aspect of alcoholism that she had never previously considered, and has revised her values in a more humane direction. This is not presented to us in the form of a crude sermon or a too-obvious epiphany, but gradually and as credibly as such things can happen in life. We are not left to think that only the young turn in the direction of change for the better.

As in Amy Head’s first book, physical detail indicative of period is precise and well-observed (I enjoyed the quick reference to recovered alcoholic James K. Baxter reading Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven”) and Rotoroa has been thought through carefully.