Monday, November 23, 2015

Something New

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

“THE PENGUIN BOOK OF NEW ZEALAND WAR WRITING” Edited by Harry Ricketts and Gavin McLean (Penguin-Random House, $NZ65)

            “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea,” Samuel Johnson remarked famously about 250 years ago.
            The remark has been rebutted or deplored numerous times by those who wish to emphasise the ways of peace, and those who regard dreams of soldiership as a sign of barbarism. Nevertheless, I think Dr Johnson was onto something. There is, somewhere in the psyche of most males, a respect for warriors and a vague dream of being a soldier, even if it goes no deeper than memories of childhood games about leading the charge or capturing the pillbox single-handedly.
And New Zealand, for all its social liberalism, is one of the countries where the dream most persists, especially as for New Zealanders, wars are adventures that take place overseas. In New Zealand itself there has been no war, in any real sense of the word, for about 150 years. Given that Anzac Day is our most respected holiday, given that the All Blacks are national heroes for playing a game that is ritualised warfare, given that memorials to war-dead appear prominently in every New Zealand town and city, it is harder to get away from martial imagery in New Zealand than it is to get away from the sea.
I’m reviewing a very good anthology, The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing, and I have taken over a month picking my way through it and considering it. That’s because all the time I’m measuring it against my own knowledge of wars in which New Zealanders have been involved, and of people I know who have been to war or have at least been in the forces. I am a most unwarlike person – bespectacled, over-weight, addicted to sedentary pleasures and to reading far too many books. Not soldier material and over-age anyway. The family I come from is not notably martial either. But my father was in uniform in the Second World War, like thousands of other New Zealand conscripts; one of my elder brothers did a 20-year hitch in the RNZAF, and another was a career soldier who became part of the top brass [see the posting Goodbye Soldier]. As I said, it’s hard to get away from this military stuff in New Zealand, even if the only shot I ever fired was when I was a teenager and my soldier brother took it into his head, one afternoon, to teach me to shoot. One fierce recoil of his rifle, bruising my shoulder, was enough to persuade him of my incompetence and to abandon his lesson.
Like most New Zealand males, then, I am no soldier, but I am still very interested in the stuff soldiers do.
The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing was edited by Gavin McLean, senior historian at the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, and Harry Ricketts, Professor of English, poet and editor (whose father was, I believe, a career soldier). In his introduction, Harry Ricketts quite rightly points out the persistence of the myth of the New Zealand soldier as a laconic, modest, resourceful, practical joker. Ricketts notes that, before the great OE became possible for most people, being a New Zealand soldier, engaged in foreign wars, always had an element of tourism attached to it. He is sceptical of the “chauvinistic” (p.10) glorification of Kiwi nationalism expressed in Maurice Shadbolt’s play Once on Chunuk Bair. But he does endorse the more temperate version of Kiwi nationalism, which Ormond Burton attached to Gallipoli. In short, Ricketts establishes quickly both his respect for soldiers and his distaste for exaggerated versions of their exploits. Regarding the editorial process, Rickett’s introduction tells us “ ‘Material of sufficient quality’ has throughout been the guiding principle for our selection (though personal taste and ignorance inevitably play their part.” This, he declares, means the book is an anthology of “ ‘war writing’ and the emphasis is quite as much on ‘writing’ as on ‘war’ ”. (p.13) In prose, poetry, playscript and news story, as much space is given to the home-front reflections of non-combatants and to general reactions to war as to combat zone reportage and fictions.
Sensibly, the anthology runs chronologically, not according to when things were written but according to which wars and conflicts the writing references. Contemporary reports rub shoulders with much later fictional or historical accounts of the same events. Doubtless there were many armed conflicts in New Zealand before Pakeha touched the country, but there was nobody to write anything down about them. Therefore, stretching the meaning of “war” somewhat, the first selections in The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing are three separate versions of Abel Tasman’s lethal encounter with Maori in 1642 and James Cook’s ditto in 1769. Nearly 500 big pages later, and before a closing section of general “Reflections” on war, the last conflicts referenced are in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a selection from Marianne Elliott’s Zen Under Fire [see posting thereupon]. Between lie sections on nineteenth century wars between Maori and Pakeha; “imperial” wars, meaning the Boer War and the First World War (subdivided into Home Front, Gallipoli and Western Front); the Second World War (subdivided many ways); and “The Cold War and After” – meaning Korea, Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some of the selections are familiar acquaintances – they are the type of thing that could not decently be left out of an anthology like this. Thus, from the First World War, Archibald Baxter’s wrenching account of “Field Punishment Number One” from his pacifist classic We Will Not Cease, and a generous selection from Robyn Hyde’s first “Starkie” book Passport to Hell and that delightful passage about rats gnawing corpses from John A. Lee’s Civilian Into Soldier. Or from the Second World War, Jim Henderson’s account, from Gunner Inglorious, of being treated surprisingly well by German doctors and medics after he was shot up; and a selection from Dan Davin’s rather chaotic novel For the Rest of Our Lives; and John Mulgan describing German reprisals against Greek partisans in Report on Experience. A generous slice of Vincent O’Sullivan’s Shuriken is reproduced, as well as Rowley Habib’s tough, coarse and effective poem on the Maori Battalion “The Raw Men”, and (pre-Second World War) dispatches from Robin Hyde in war-torn China and Geoffrey Cox at the siege of Madrid in the Spanish Civil War.
There are some selections that might be said to reinforce the received view of the New Zealand soldier, such a Jock Phillips’ account, from A Man’s Country, of Kiwi soldiers in the Boer War building their own legend of hardiness and refusing to be subservient to those snooty Pommy officers. There are others which are purely heroic in tone. In the whole anthology, the selection which reports heroics most admiringly and uncritically must be Alan Mitchell’s (1945) account of 23-year-old James Ward winning his VC by crawling out on the wing of a bomber in flight to put out a dangerous fire.
If there are many things that are familiar here, there are also more obscure things that the anthologists have done well to resurrect – among the best, Donald Lea’s First World War squib “Gold Stripe”, which as poetry might be dated barrack-room stuff, but which is much more honest about the nagging pettiness of a soldier’s life than later and more stridently “anti-war” poetry ever was. Another “find” is Alice Webb’s short-story “The Patriot” (written in 1925), with its vivid account of a young man setting off for war with naïve enthusiasm.
As a general comment, it has to be said that the selected writers’ attitudes towards war become darker and more critical the nearer the anthology approaches our own times. The selections referencing the Korean War, for example, begin with three anti-war poems: Hone Tuwhare’s “No Ordinary Sun” and Keith Sinclair’s “The Bomb is Made”, both protesting against nuclear weapons, and James K. Baxter’s rude (but bloody funny) “Harry Fat and Uncle Sam”, protesting New Zealand’s being embraced by the United States. Nobody is gung-ho writing about the Vietnam War, and many of the passages about the Home Front in the Second World War are dispiriting and drab – Frank Sargeson’s typically misogynistic story “The Hole That Jack Dug”, Greville Texidor’s sad tale “Anyone Home?” about the impossibility of a returned serviceman easily resuming domestic life, and the memories of a conscientious objector Walter Lawry.  (On the other hand, Kevin Ireland’s Home Front piece is a boisterous and comic childhood memory of adult lunacy in Devonport.)
The best feature of the anthology’s arrangement is the way it lets us compare different versions of the same events, by looking at passages that sit side by side. This often leads to side-thoughts on the way history judges events that once seemed above reproach. For example, I find James Cowan’s (1911) account of the death of Von Tempsky in the New Zealand Wars to be a far from vivid piece of writing than Maurice Shadbolt’s fictionalised version of the same event written nearly eighty years later. And, coming back to what is referenced pointedly in the Introduction, Shadbolt’s romanticised version of Gallipoli in Once on Chunuk Bair sits beside Ormond Burton’s sober account of the campaign in The Silent Division. The anthologists say that Shadbolt “perfectly met the nation-building needs of the 1980s [but his] mythologising patently required a considerable amount of historical distortion, omission, and plain wish fulfilment…[which]… has recently started to come under sharper scrutiny.” (p.147)
By contrast, Ormond’s account gives us [in Ormond’s words] “Scorching heat, swarms of venomous flies, hosts of never-ending lice, thirst, the pervading stench of the unburied dead, and then a new experience – the frightful monotony of war. A dangerous life is not necessarily an exciting one.” An unheroic, matter-of-fact endurance rather than a nationalistic hurrah.
I assume this is enough to convince you that this is a capacious and worthwhile anthology.
Now for a few niggles – and they are only niggles. Why is R. A. K. Mason’s “Sonnet to MacArthur’s Eyes” slotted into the Second World War Home Front section? I can only assume that this was some sort of mistake, as the poem is a protest poem about the Korean War. I am further surprised that the “musket wars” of the 1810s and 1820s are hardly represented. Granted that there may not be much contemporaneous writing about them, they have nevertheless been raked over by many historians and I believe they produced at least some quotable passages. I am aware that Guthrie Wilson is no longer highly regarded, but I still find it odd that his Second World War novel Brave Company (concerning New Zealanders fighting in Italy) goes unrepresented. In its day (the early 1950s) it was very highly regarded – I pull my battered old Corgi paperback copy off the shelf and find the blurb has novelist Eric Linklater declaring it  superior to All Quiet on the Western Front, forsooth. I am pleased to see the selection from Jack Elworthy’s book Greece Crete Stalag Dachau [see post thereupon], but think it a pity that it is not one of his very unheroic passages about the retreat through Greece. Finally, I believe M.K.Joseph’s I’ll Soldier No More [unrepresented] says more about military life than his admittedly intriguing A Soldier’s Tale, and I wonder if the latter was chosen to justify reproducing “Dichtung und Wahrheit”, Allen Curnow’s petulant and vindictive poem about it. [My own view on this matter – if Curnow didn’t like Joseph’s novel, he could have trotted the few paces down to his colleague’s office and had a friendly chat about it, rather than spilling his guts in print – Mike Joseph wasn’t the sort of guy who would have belted him one.]
But you see what I am doing, don’t you? I’m now telling what I would have chosen if I had been the anthologist. Not a very nice game. A few years back, when a large but very imperfect anthology of New Zealand writing was produced, many reviewers chipped in to point out all the writers who should have been included. One of the anthologists retorted that they were producing an anthology, not a telephone directory. A fair enough retort I suppose, even if defensive. So I will desist with my niggles at this point and reaffirm that The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing delivers the promised goods.

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