Monday, October 31, 2016

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For five years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“DAYLIGHT SECOND” by Kelly Ana Morey (Harper-Collins, $36:99)

            Not too long ago, we had one of those pseudo-controversies about why New Zealand readers seem to shun New Zealand fiction, even though more New Zealand fiction is being published now than ever before. At least some people weighed in with the thought that too often inaccessibly highbrow novels are the ones that get critical praise, while more accessible novels are passed over and don’t get the publicity they deserve.

I could easily shoot holes in this argument. But perhaps it does point to the fact that well-written, popular, non-“literary” New Zealand novels are thinner on the ground than they should be.

This is one of the many reasons why I praise Kelly Ana Morey’s Daylight Second. It’s the sort of well-written popular novel that should win a very large readership. To judge by Morey’s own comment in her Acknowledgements (on the last page of the book), she is a recovering postmodernist who has rediscovered the virtues of more traditional and straightforward narrative. At any rate, she says the first draft of this novel was a “rambling post-modern version” which was then, over four years, beaten into the accessibly readable shape it now has.

Long story short – “daylight second” is apparently a racing term applied when there is at least a whole horse’s length between the winning horse and the next horse past the post. Appropriately, Daylight Second is a novel about a horse that often won races in these terms - the big New Zealand-bred chestnut gelding Phar Lap, which won the Melbourne Cup in 1930, became an Australian legend, died in mysterious circumstances in America, and has been much mythologised ever since.

The novel is fiction, of course, with the private lives of the human characters as much the product of the author’s speculation as of verifiable fact. But the main details of the horse’s career are according to history. Here’s this very large horse, born in Timaru in 1925, taken to Oz by his New Zealand trainer Harry Telford, but not much favoured by his American owner David Davis, who considers him an awkward, over-large beast and at first wants to sell him. Only when Phar Lap starts winning big time, and outpacing all other horses in the field, does Davis revise his opinion. In the meantime Harry Telford has carefully nurtured and paced and trained the horse, with the young stable boy or “strapper” Tommy Woodcock grooming and feeding and looking after Phar Lap and becoming the horse’s closest companion. Tommy Woodcock gives the name Bobbie to each successive horse he grooms, so Phar Lap is often called Bobbie throughout the novel.

There is a context of the courtships and marriages of both Harry and Tommy. Harry marries Vi, who is half his age, and domestic scenes show her scraping to feed them when her husband hasn’t yet begun to make money out of the horse. Young Tommy courts young Emma – very chastely, of course: this is the early 1930s. This courtship allows for some boarding-house humour and side-drama (would you believe a Russian musician bilked by a shady actress?) and a little incidental romance. But the bigger context is the Depression – which strikes about a third of the way through the novel. Wins are not always a sure thing for Phar Lap (on a couple of occasions he’s pipped at the post). But as he wins again and again, this big and apparently graceless horse becomes the public’s favourite – the outsider upon which Depression-hit people can pin their dreams as a consolation for their own economic hardships.

Sometimes Phar Lap is out of sorts, sometimes the track is too heavy, but the victories pile up, climaxing in the Melbourne Cup win (“the Holy Grail of Australasian racing” p.126) despite the odds. While Phar Lap is primarily an Australian story, Kelly Ana Morey makes sure she emphasises the New Zealand connection. The horse and his trainer were both from New Zealand. Phar Lap visited New Zealand en route to America. Nightmarch, the horse that won the Melbourne Cup the year before Phar Lap, was also a New Zealand-bred horse sired by the same stallion as Phar Lap etc.

There are many major pitfalls that Kelly Ana Morey skilfully sidesteps in writing this novel. One of them is sentimentality. Of course there is a strong bond between man and horse, and at one point Harry Telford’s brother Hugh notices how well Tommy Woodcock gets on with “Bobbie”:

He [Hugh] has noticed that Tommy and Bobbie seem to be constantly in a silent conversation that each of them can not only hear but understand completely. Men like Tommy are rare in racing, and in the wider world of horses. Hugh can tell that Tommy genuinely likes horses and is utterly aware of what a horse is thinking and how they will respond.” (p.115)

Out of context, this could create the impression that the novel anthropomorphises the horse in the maudlin fashion of, say, Black Beauty. But Kelly Ana Morey is far too canny for that. While Tommy – and the various jockeys who ride the horse – is very good at gauging Phar Lap’s moods and understanding why the horse behaves as he does on the track, the novel never suggests that the horse is anything other than a horse. He is certainly not capable of thinking like a human being. There’s a little warning of this commonsensical approach early in the novel where Morey is describing two other horses on a training canter:

Treacle [is] matching Missy stride for stride when the fiery little mare missteps, shattering her front off-side cannon bone. Within five minutes she’s been put out of her misery with a single bullet between her eyes. Her carcass is picked up by the local hunt for the hounds. The following day Treacle will gallop with another fast chestnut mare and barely notice the difference in his running mate, proving that there is nothing, except maybe a cat, that is less sentimental than a horse.” (p.15)

In addition to this, Morey does not paper over the nastier things that go on in stables. In Chapter 4, there is a graphic and blood-soaked account of the yearling colt Phar Lap being gelded (i.e. castrated). In Chapter 6 there is an equally detailed scene of Tommy Woodcock scraping away the scabs and pus when the young horse is infected with “mud fever”. Nope. This isn’t a sanitised horsie book like the kiddie’s classic National Velvet. This is a grown-up’s book about a real horse.

As a reader who knows virtually nothing about horses, and who has never attended a race meeting in my life, I encountered many unfamiliar equestrian terms and traditions in Daylight Second, but they never bothered me because Morey always put them in a context that makes them understandable. Typical is the diet Tommy feeds “Bobbie” before a major race meet:

At St Alban’s Tommy is pouring small feed of crushed oats and lucerne chaff with a handful of Epsom salts and a measure of Fowler’s tonic into Bobbie’s feed bin. Even though the hay-net is empty and it’s any hours until Bobbie races, Tommy doesn’t refill it. None of Harry’s horses get hay on race mornings or even much of a feed as he believes it slows a horse down….” (p.211)

Likewise, I was unfamiliar with the whole process of handicapping strong racehorses by adding weights to them, and the particular quirks of bookies. Just as she does not sentimentalise the horse, neither does Morey prettify the fairly sordid manoeuvres of the racing fraternity when they fear their profits are going to be damaged by an outsider:

The Victoria Racing Club has publicly stated that Phar Lap will be the ruination of Australian racing if he isn’t stopped, even though it is the Depression, not Par Lap, that has shrunk the starting fields and race-day attendance. In truth, slowing Phar Lap down has very little to do with saving Australian racing – it’s pure self-interest by a small group of men who don’t like being beaten by someone like Harry Telford.” (p.259)

There is an episode where Tommy Woodcock protects the horse from a drive-by gunshot attack on Phar Lap, obviously arranged by bookies to change the odds before the big race.

What I find most admirable in Morey’s narrative approach, however, is her refusal to endorse any of the conspiracy legends about how Phar Lap died after winning a big race in Agua Caliente, Tijuana, Mexico. It’s a mystery and appropriately remains a mystery followed by one or two plausible theories.

I hope I have made it clear that Daylight Second is exactly what it sets out to be – not a work of profound literature, but a good, galloping, engaging work of popular fiction, told throughout in the immediate present tense and bound to find a large audience. Mission accomplished.

Redundant footnote: My unforgiving historian’s eye noted two very minor historical inaccuracies in this novel. No – there never were any newsreels of stockbrokers jumping to their death in 1929 when the Depression struck (p.132). This is a popular, but disproven, fiction. No, no movie studio would ever have suggested that Phar Lap could become a movie star “just like Trigger” (p.331) because the cowboy star Roy Roger’s famous horse Trigger wasn’t even born until a couple of years after Phar Lap’s death. But these matters are so trivial that they have no bearing on this novel’s success.

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.

“MRS DALLOWAY” by Virginia Woolf (first published in 1925)

            I recently re-read Mrs Dalloway, one of the better-known novels of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and it brought back an odd memory.
Quite a few years ago, when I was about to teach the novel to a small class of seniors at a girls’ high school, I undertook to write a synopsis of it. This soon proved to be a hopeless task.
            With most other novels you can follow a “plot” of external action, and observe a developing story, which in some sense will have a beginning, middle and end. Of such are synopses made. But Mrs Dalloway, by a high priestess of literary modernism, has no such structure. Though told in the third person, it is a series of momentary observations, moods and memories, each sparked by some sensory impression of sight, sound or smell. It is stream-of-consciousness and yet it is not wholly stream-of-consciousness, because it runs according to the demands of the clock. The “action” (mainly internal or mental) begins in mid-morning and ends in the small hours of the following day, as a small group of characters wander about, and occasionally (but only occasionally) interact, mainly in the tone-ier parts of London.
            There are regular references to what time of day it is. And sometimes, time is “stopped” so that we can have a panoramic view of how a number of minds are reacting to the same event, such as the exploding of a car tyre heard early in the novel.
            I know this is very reductionist, and does not convey how the novel actually reads, but I can produce a coherent account of Mrs Dalloway only by explaining a few things. Mrs Clarissa Dalloway is a society hostess, the wife of the Tory MP Richard Dalloway. In the one June day of the novel’s “action”, Mrs Dalloway is going about her business organising a dinner party, and eventually hosting the party. Mrs Dalloway is usually, but not exclusively, the novel’s centre of consciousness. Being in the third person, the novel switches from mind to mind in a series of internal monologues, and in a few paragraphs here and a few paragraphs there, we sometimes see and feel what even very minor characters see and feel. But we are often in the consciousness of Mrs Dalloway’s friend Peter Walsh, who was once amorously attracted to her and who unsuccessfully proposed to her. Peter Walsh moves in the same social circles as Mrs Dalloway and is in the throes of getting a divorce in order to marry a younger woman. Peter Walsh therefore spends some of his day consulting lawyers. The novel’s third major centres of consciousness are really quite unrelated to the first two. They are the shell-shocked, depressive and clearly mentally unbalanced former soldier Septimus Warren Smith, and his foreign wife Lucrezia (“Rezia”). The only way Septimus Warren Smith comes into Mrs Dalloway’s orbit is when they both happen to be in the same street where a car tyre explodes, and Virginia Woolf therefore has an excuse to switch from Clarissa Dalloway’s mind to the minds of Septimus and Rezia as she gives us a panorama of reactions. While Mrs Dalloway’s day ends late in the night as her dinner party comes to an end, Septimus Warren Smith’s life ends when he commits suicide by jumping out a window as the clock is striking 6pm.
Now that is the “plot” of the novel as it has been neatly levelled out and explained by me. But the impact of the novel relies on floating from moment to moment of sensory experience, related to memory, in more-or-less chronological order. There are, through the novel, repeated emphases on the time of day, often signalled by the “leaden circles” of tolling Big Ben. And repeatedly in her imagery Virginia Woolf comes back to waves moving relentlessly towards the shore – a well-worn image of the ineluctability of time.
So my ham-fisted synopsis went something thus:
Between 9 and 11 am Mrs Dalloway wanders through St James Park and Bond Street, consults the florist and briefly meets some friends. A car tyre explodes. Many people project themselves onto the elegance of the car, including Septimus and Rezia. Many people also react to an aeroplane doing sky-writing.
Between 11am and midday Mrs Dalloway is at home, pondering on ageing and on the dress she will wear. In her mind she replays much of her youth, including her very close affection for the bohemian Sally Seton, whom she once kissed. (Sally Seton is now married to Lord Rosseter and has a large brood of children). Peter Walsh visits and explains his divorce situation. There are tears and memories. Clarissa Dalloway thinks of the past. Peter Walsh wanders off down Whitehall, Trafalgar Square and the Haymarket, idling before seeing lawyers and pondering on the past. He considers Clarissa Dalloway in detail. How has she become so conventional? He falls asleep in Regent’s Park, still pondering…. And as it happens Septimus and Rezia are also in Regent’s Park, about to see an “alienist” Sir William Bradshaw about Septimus’s psychological problems.
Between midday and 1:30pm Septimus and Rezia consult the alienist (we are given his class-conscious views, and those of his wife, about his clients). Sir William suggests rest in the country as a cure, really meaning that Septimus will be confined to a psychiatric hospital against his will. This leaves both Septimus and Rezia rather depressed as they wander back down Harley Street
Between 1:30pm and 3pm…at which time we cut back to Mrs Dalloway’s social set. Clarissa’s husband Richard Dalloway meets the pompous court official Hugh Whitbread at Lady Bruton’s luncheon. They gossip. Later they wander off to a jeweller’s and a florist’s to buy a necklace and flowers for their wives. Then Richard returns to Westminster.
Between 3pm and 6 pm. Mrs Dalloway receives her husband’s flowers, rests, thinks about the social purpose of her dinner parties as the servants are out buying the requisites. Meanwhile her adolescent daughter Elizabeth goes out to tea and shopping with her severe German teacher Miss Kilman, who later goes to pray in Westminster Abbey. (Being agnostic, Mrs Dalloway disapproves of all religion.) As Elizabeth walks home, pondering the mysteries of the clouds, the city and looming womanhood, we cut to Septimus and Rezia. Septimus seems briefly to have recovered his good spirits, but he panics when he thinks Rezia has deserted him and he fears incarceration in a mental institution. He jumps to his death.
Between 6pm and 3am the next morning. Peter Walsh happens to see the ambulance taking Septimus’s corpse away. He reflects on the difference between mature womanly Clarissa Dalloway, and the young woman he is about to marry. He proceeds to the Dalloways’ party and we have an evening of all the main mentioned characters in Clarissa Dalloway’s life (plus the prime minister) interacting and thinking about one another and making judgments on one another as Clarissa circulates and thinks. She particularly thinks about how time has passed and people have aged. When the alienist Sir William Bradshaw turns up, he mentions the “young man’s” suicide. At first shocked, Clarissa briefly thinks of suicide as something noble. Perhaps the young man has saved himself from the pain of ageing and regret? The novel ends as the party breaks up, with Peter Walsh and the former Sally Seton talking deprecatingly of their younger and more callow selves, but with Richard Dalloway admiring the budding womanhood of his daughter Elizabeth and Peter still recognising the power and presence of Clarissa Dalloway.
You can see at once, can’t you, what an appalling betrayal and travesty of this novel such a chronological synopsis is? While accurate as far as external details are concerned, it manages to miss how much the novel relies on the present scene to whisk characters back into memory and thus flesh out who or what they are. In a famous essay on modern fiction, Virginia Woolf said that life as it is really lived was not “a neat row of gig lamps”, that is, experienced as a linear progression, but was rather like a “halo”, where we experience each lived moment for the memories and associations it brings to mind. The present moment is always pregnant with the past.
In the desperate game (played by most critics) of finding “themes” in Woolf’s work, there is always this matter of the passing of time, ageing and the inevitability of death. Certainly it is there in Mrs Dalloway with the wistful “halo” of Clarissa Dalloway’s past relationships with Sally Seton and Peter Walsh inflecting her present experience.
This, I think, is most central to the novel – and “like as the waves make unto the pebbl’d shore” so does Time rush in imagery of waves in Woolf’s later novels The Waves and To The Lighthouse. But there are those who would see Mrs Dalloway more as a commentary of the place of women and on society’s strict social conventions. Is Clarissa Dalloway a thwarted lesbian in an undesired marriage? (Her most blissful memory is of kissing Sally Seton). For that matter, is Septimus Warren Smith a thwarted homosexual? In his hallucinations he obsesses about his comrade Evans, who was killed in the war and with whom he seems to have been closer than he is to his wife. And is Clarissa in fact the type of an intelligent society woman who knows her life is void of real meaning, and is confined to such trivial social arrangements as holding dinner parties? The novel appeared first in embryonic form in a number of short stories, which only later grew into a novel. It seems that at first Woolf’s intention was to have Clarissa Dalloway commit suicide, but she sidewound this despairing idea into the character of Septimus. Which, of course, raises the whole question of Virginia Woolf’s own chronic manic depression and eventual suicide. At its very least, the novel does express a very tentative and fragile mental state. But I prefer to not go down that path, which leads us into literary biography rather than a balanced view of this particular novel…. and which also underestimates the novelist’s self-awareness.
Time. Sexual identity. The role of women. Mental affliction and suicide. You see how easy it is to squeeze “themes” out of a novel and claim that they are both its impact and its purpose.
But though I see these things lurking here, in the end I believe none of them really characterises what the novel is as you are reading it. It is a series of descriptive evocations caught on the wing and linked to memory. It moves from moment to memory by means of image and as such is more of an extended prose-poem than a novel. As a prose-poem I greatly enjoy much of it – the streets and sights of this very limited and salubrious part of London as apprehended by very fine minds.
And yet… and yet…and yet. At a certain point in reading this novel I find exasperation setting in. I am sympathetic to Virginia Woolf as a person and a writer. The nerves. The manic-depressive hell. The suicide. The general unhappiness. And yet also the intelligence and briskness to write her clear and commonsensical Common Reader essays on modern writers, usually hitting the button in her judgments.
But the worm in the bud is the matter of social class.  Woolf may have believed she was reproducing the thoughts and sensations of “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day”, signalling that Clarissa Dalloway is not meant to be seen as a great intellectual. But the term “ordinary” can be used here only if one ignores the fact that Woolf’s protagonist belongs to a very small, unrepresentative, privileged group of upper-middle-class mandarins. Bloomsbury, in other words – the people who so often flattered themselves into believing that they were the enemies of convention, yet who would not in any way question the bases of their own privileges. And one of their privileges was to have the leisure to refine and stroke and over-analyse their feelings. This is the same reaction I often experience when reading Henry James. I am not barbarian enough to miss what is interesting about both writers, but I think the over-elaboration of a tender sensibility is pushed to extremes by Virginia Woolf. In the end, we ask, what is being protected in all Clarissa Dalloway’s anxiety about ageing or frankly mingling with others? Isn’t it an obsession with protecting an unsullied ego – the self being more important than interactions with others? Mrs Dalloway is one day in London just as James Joyce’s Ulysses is one day in Dublin, and for this reason the two novels have sometimes been compared. But it is interesting that – fellow Modernists though they were – Virginia Woolf loathed James Joyce’s novel and accused it of being crude and vulgar and clearly the work of somebody who wasn’t out of the top social drawer. There’s that matter of social class once again.
The Irish writer Sean O’Faolain once wrote that “Mrs Woolf’s meaning is constantly lost in the folds of her sensibility.” I think I understand what he means. You feel that nowhere does Virginia Woolf bite down on Clarissa Dalloway’s experience or make a stand of some sort or even make it coherent. Some regard this as a virtue in her writing – a refusal to point morals or polemicise. But after all the novel’s delicacy of sensibility, after all our sympathy for unhappy Virginia Woolf as a person, after all the evocativeness of the novel’s prose-poem, in the end there is something vapid and insubstantial about Mrs Dalloway.
Shell-shocked ex-soldier kills himself while MP’s wife delicately fingers her feelings, regrets the past and hosts a dinner party. Ah me!

Cinematic footnote: Mrs Dalloway has appeared twice on the screen, once respectably and once risibly.
In 1997 Marleen Gorris directed a perfectly decent film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway starring Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Dalloway, Rupert Graves as Septimus Warren Smith, Michael Kitchen as Peter Walsh and various familiar English worthies in lesser roles. It was scripted by Eileen Atkins, so both director and scriptwriter were women lest anyone carp at men meddling with a feminist classic. The film followed the outward events of the novel quite closely – but there’s the rub. Despite the use of flashbacks, there was no way the film could capture the novel’s inwardness. This meant that it became the same sort of period piece as the various films that were made from the novels of E.M.Forster – giving the audience the chance to enjoy the period clothes and settings and attitudes. It was what my years of film-reviewing lead me to think of as a perfect “opening-night-of-the-international-film-festival” film. On opening night, the international film festival usually chooses something safe, respectable and half-commercial, like the adaptation of a literary classic, to appeal to the (usually elderly) mainstream audience. I believe it was on a festival opening night that I saw Mrs Dalloway.
In 2002 there appeared the godawful cut-and-paste film The Hours, directed by Stephen Daldry, based on an opportunist (and therefore Pulitzer Prize-winning) novel by Michael Cunningham and purporting to chart the changes in sexual attitudes of women by telling three stories set in three widely-separated decades of the 20th century. The “modern” story had overtones of Mrs Dalloway while the 1920s story concerned Leonard and Virginia Woolf with Nicole Kidman wearing a prosthetic nose to look very vaguely like Virginia Woolf. The film was so pretentious and bad that a lot of critics loved it and it won an Academy Award for Nicole Kidman.

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.


This is a little note about a little matter which can still jangle in the consciousness of people my age.

Recently I watched on Youtube a good half-hour documentary in which David Pilgrim, an African-American, showed us around a  “Jim Crow Museum” he has created somewhere in the American South. His exhibits consist of authentic images and cartoons and advertising posters and toys, popular from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, which caricatured blacks as inferior, comic, grotesque or bogeymen. Nigger minstrels, little black Sambos, coons, shuffling buffoons. Soap advertisements which promised to turn blacks white. Moneyboxes with mechanical hands that placed kiddies’ coins into the grotesque mouth of a grotesque caricatured Negro face. Public signs warning “niggers” not to trespass. Plus photographs of lynchings, photographs of public signs declaring “For Whites Only” or “For Coloureds Only”.

Pilgrim’s museum does have a display on the Ku Klux Klan, but as Pilgrim explained, he does not wish to emphasise extremist white supremacist groups. Such an emphasis could lead some white visitors to believe that segregation was supported and reinforced only by an extremist fringe; whereas the whole point of his museum is to show the everyday acceptance, by the white population, of images that promoted racial prejudice and a sense of natural superiority over black people.

He also explained (and showed) that a tour of his museum always ends in a room, its walls decorated with images of civil rights activists (black and white), where visitors can sit down and discuss the impact of what they have seen.

It seemed to me a model of educational enlightenment.

While I was watching, however, a few things jangled in my mind.

When I was a kid, I can remember that a few children I knew had cuddly-toy golliwogs. One kid had one of those gross caricature moneyboxes, but even then (the late 1950s), these were regarded in New Zealand as being in very poor taste and we never had such articles in our house.

So watching David Pilgrim’s exposition, I could feel myself to be insulated from his concerns. Gross racial caricatures happened in America. They did not happen here.

But then I remembered a song and a phrase.

At primary school we sometimes sang “Old Zip Coon” (it has the same tune as “Turkey in the Straw”). To us (and I am fairly sure to our teachers), the name meant nothing. It was simply a song about a man with a funny name. “There was a man with a double chin / Who had great skill on the violin / He played in time and he played in tune / But he couldn’t play anything but Old Zip Coon”. I may be wrong, but I believe the insulting racist term “coon” was not widely used in this country. Only much, much later did I learn that the song was from old “nigger minstrel” shows in which white men performed in blackface. The song was intended to ridicule black men who presumed to dress fashionably and act as dandies. Ouch!

Then there was the phrase.

Because we heard it used jocularly on American TV shows in the early 1960s, we would sometimes say “Get your cotton-picking hands off my stuff” and the like. Again ouch! In this case, however, our mother explained why we shouldn’t use the phrase and we stopped doing so.

We were raised to think of racial prejudice as a great evil. But even so, we sometimes echoed innocently what was grossly bigoted.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For five years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE BROKEN DECADE – Prosperity, Depression and Recovery in New Zealand 1928-39” by Malcolm McKinnon (Otago University Press, $49:95)

            As I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog, revisionism is the life-blood of the academic study of History and so it should be. As we move in time further away from historical events, we rightly see them in a different perspective and are more aware of their long-term consequences. New history books have to be written. As relevant new documents and other evidence come to light, received opinions on a given era must be challenged. New history books have to be written. When memoirs and works of fiction have created a “legend” or popular image about a certain period, it is right for historians to lay before us the best available factual evidence. New history books have to be written. Of course some history books are unnecessary (especially many “popularisations”, which tend merely to re-hash more scholarly works). But the task of “rewriting history” is exactly what good historians should be undertaking.
Malcolm McKinnon (formerly of Victoria University of Wellington) is a good, thorough and conscientious historian. The 512 closely-printed pages of his The Broken Decade consist of 420 pages of densely-reasoned and documented text followed by 92 pages of substantiating notes. I must also add that as a physical object, this is one of the heaviest books I have ever encountered, being all printed on thick glossy pages, perhaps the better to accommodate the illustrations and graphs. This is not a light read in any sense of the term.
Nowhere does McKinnon pronounce himself to be a revisionist, but it is clear from his introduction that he is less than satisfied with those books that have so far been written about New Zealand’s experience of economic depression in the 1930s.
He name-checks various popular books on the subject, but makes special mention of Tony Simpson’s “oral history” The Sugarbag Years, basically a collection of recorded interviews with people who had lived through the 1930s. McKinnon says of The Sugarbag Years that it is “the study that more than any other… cited by contemporary New Zealanders when ‘the Depression of the 1930s’ is mentioned. He continues by remarking that The Broken Decade “does not replace [The Sugarbag Years]; it is more in the nature of a conversation with it.” (p.8) Nevertheless, McKinnon is uncomfortable with the legend, which “treats the Depression as a conflict between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, in which the ‘little guy’ finally wins, or appears to. The win draws a line not just under the Depression but under the era of conservative or ‘not very liberal’ governments since 1906, when Seddon died.” (p.19) According to this legend, the election of the Labour government in 1935 spelled the end of old-fashioned laissez-faire liberalism and the acceptance of collectivist government intervention.
In fact, argues McKinnon, in his 1928-30 government, the old Liberal Sir Joseph Ward’s  “combination of state-directed expansion and wage-earner and other kinds of sectional welfare was a potent mix that Labour replicated – even if it did not acknowledge this – when it gained power in 1935.” (p.22) Labour may have restored and then expanded some of the benefits that were established in the 1920s, culminating in the Social Security Act of 1938, “although in practice it was the full employment of the workforce… that was central to its strategy and that relied on public works and house-building as in the 1920s.” (p.26)
            Therefore McKinnon’s basic argument is that the agony of the Depression in New Zealand was not a case of hidebound conservative politicians (in the United-Reform Coalition) refusing to find a way out of the Slump. Much of Labour policy had been pioneered before, especially by Ward. Labour did not represent progress so much as attempt to regain former prosperity and re-work familiar remedies.
            McKinnon returns to the clear articulation of this general thesis in his final chapter (Chapter 11), where he considers the “legacy” of New Zealand’s Depression, and once again untangles (pp.396-401) the standard received views before considering (pp.401 ff.) more recent scholarship, which has modified the legend of years of universal misery. As he notes:
The ‘sugarbagging’ of the Depression gave a particular contour to the memory of it. It was not inaccurate but it was partial, in the sense that it shaded out the experiences of hundreds of thousands of people who were affected by the Depression but were not as damaged by it as those who lost jobs, houses or livelihood.” (p.401)
None of this is to claim was there was not huge hardship in unemployment, evictions, widespread poverty, niggardly sustenance and relief work. But there are persistent myths, which McKinnon proceeds to disprove, such as the one that New Zealand relief workers were harnessed like horses to drag harrows or that there were “slave” camps. Farmers did walk off the land with mortgages they were unable to pay, but as McKinnon shows, the peak of this happened in the 1920s before the Depression struck. Child labour was common on farms, but then it was common from 1919 to 1939, both before and after the Depression.
Thus much for the “bookends” of this very substantial book – its clear revisionism and the idea of continuity that McKinnon wishes to stress. McKinnon is further insistent in his introduction that the experience of the Depression was not all of a piece – it went in phases.
And it is with these that the bulk of the book deals – ten chapters which chart the changes in emphases, mood and political choices in the years 1928-39. As a warning to his readers, McKinnon makes it clear that The Broken Decade deliberately focuses, not on the experiences of individuals, but on politics and finance. This is not an anecdotal account of hardships.
It plays thus:
First there was (Chapter 1) the “Indian summer” of the 15 months (1928-30) of Sir Joseph Ward’s premiership and his efficient dealing with benefits and also with growth-geared economy. Even by the middle of 1930 (when the Slump was already felt in the rest of world), effects in New Zealand still seemed relatively minor. It was simply like a replay of the minor downturn in the mid-1920s, and George Forbes’ first budget dealt with it in those terms. Then (Chapter 2) came the real bite of full economic depression in 1930-32. When Ward was prime minister, his United Party government was kept in power with the support of Labour votes. 
Now that Forbes was prime minister and pursuing austerity policies, Labour moved away as Reform and United got closer. Even so, Labour still supported deflation and the need to balance the budget. Gordon Coates (Reform) and Forbes (United) moved to a “fusion”, without their respective parties actually uniting. This meant that before the 1931 election, Labour became the official opposition. But the election of 1931 cemented the Reform-United Coalition’s position and consensus was now moving towards the view that raising loans was not the best way to run an economy in times when the loans would be impossible to repay.
By 1932 (Chapter 3), New Zealanders were puzzled that the austerity policies of the Coalition took so long to rein in rents and interest rates as well as wages and salaries… but now the Coalition moved into cutting pensions, education votes and existing benefits. When it came to taking the teeth out of the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act, Labour was most vociferous in opposing. Says McKinnon:
All three political parties endorsed austerity, although Labour was completely at odds with the others over how to deal with it; the battleground was that of obligations and entitlements rather than expansion or austerity. Different segments of opinion within Reform and United were also often at odds with each other, for instance over the extent to which contractual obligations, such as pensions, could be diluted.” (p.107)
            But while austerity and balancing the books were orthodoxy for all parties, there was (Chapter 3) a parallel crisis going on with unemployment in 1930-32. The long attempt to avoid outright and general payment of a dole meant various schemes for paid relief work. The new system of funding relief work, by special taxation levy, had been endorsed by Labour in late 1920s, before the slump hit. Unemployment figures were rising in 1931, and McKinnon comments “In retrospect it seems remarkable that the difficult circumstances through 1931 did not lead to outbursts on the scale of those that took place in 1932. There was certainly no lack of evidence of hard times or troubled lives.” (p.123)
Why was the public reaction so muted? McKinnon speaks of the “cushion” provided by people’s savings, which were used up by 1932, and also what he cites Margaret Tennant as calling “the informal side of the welfare economy” (p.129) – that is, there were quite a number of caring bosses who provided for workers at their own expense; there was much practical welfare provided by churches; and local councils and hospital boards decided to keep the social peace as much as possible by making as generous provision for the unemployed as they could. Hence demonstrations of the unemployed in 1931 would attract a few hundred people rather than the thousands that they attracted in 1932. But employment continued to rise. And most government schemes to alleviate it involved rural work, though the great majority of the unemployed were in the main cities. The Labour party and the trade unions focused on ensuring that wages and conditions were maintained for the employed, knowing that many employers could use the threat of unemployment to lower wages.
It is in this context that McKinnon cites many instances of personal distress, with stories and personal testimony as wrenching as anything found in The Sugarbag Years.
Gordon Coates’ immediate plan was to defuse tensions in the cities by moving unemployed men (especially unmarried men) to public works camps in the country. But there was much dissent about this, the heat was raised, and now there really were serious riots and disturbances in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, and Auckland, with the largest being the major (and much mythologised) riot in Auckland in April 1932. However (Chapter 4) despite common legend, the riots and disturbances in Auckland and elsewhere did not lead to a period of prolonged alarm. After a few weeks of panic the “special” constables were stood down, although local ordinances still banned outdoors meetings. Few unemployed men were willing to take up the option of going to public work camps. Then there was the matter of women not being properly represented in the statistics of unemployment; and of evictions especially from State Advances houses, even though in April 1932, the government had reduced rents by 20%. The peak of unemployment was April 1933. Thereafter there was a slow decline as the economy picked up. In all this there was the special problem of youth unemployment, partly because of the “extreme reluctance of unions, in the weakened labour market, to encourage youth competition with adult workers.” (p.189)
As McKinnon is always ready to remind us, all New Zealand’s hardships took place within the context of the government attempting to find financial solutions to the effects of the slump; trying to find better prices for New Zealand exports; trying to stimulate the economy to create real employment and trying to find the hard cash that could pay for needed welfare. In 1932-33 (Chapter 5, entitled “How to Raise Prices”), after the Ottawa conference, there was the prospect of “reflating” (i.e. slightly inflating) currency in the hope of profiting more from exports to Britain. The National Expenditure Commission released a report in September 1931 advocated huge cuts to education and all social services and a drastic reduction in the number of hospital boards. Labour raged against in in parliament, with Labour leader Harry Holland calling it “An utterly valueless document to the country… the commissioners attacked the human being from the cradle to the grave.” (p.202). But McKinnon points out that all parliamentary political parties repudiated the report. However, spending on public works was drastically reduced. It had been 4.8 million pounds in 1931-32 but was only 1.7 million pound in 1932-33. Public works in effect became a relief agency and its workers were paid relief rates. By this stage in the depression there were many plans for monetary reform, only some of which were Douglas Social Credit. Keynesianism was now beginning to have an influence on some New Zealand economic thinking. McKinnon notes that once again Labour was often in agreement with the (otherwise conservative) Farmers’ Union on these matters.
The main discussion within the governing parties was about what to do with the exchange rate. After a major tussle in the cabinet between Downie Stewart and Gordon Coates, the government raised the exchange rate in its first inflationary move.
(Chapter 6) This move was popular at first with rural New Zealand, but was fiercely criticised by both business and labour, with their separate fears of rising prices or rising wages. The ephemeral New Zealand Legion, with its vague ideas, was strongly anti-Keynesian.
In 1933 there was further agitation against married men being drafted into rural public works camps. McKinnon refutes the claim made the Keith Sinclair (cited p.239) that “few people outside the Labour Party lent an ear to Keynes’ plea for increased government expenditure”. Many other groups were now adopting Keynesian ideas. However, Labour was now (for the first time) articulating its own fiscal policy in it electioneering document “Labour Has A Plan” (1933). McKinnon sums up the Reform-United coalitions conservative, but prudent, fiscal policy thus:
It remained wedded to financing unemployment relief through the tax system, avoiding either borrowing or ‘inflationary’ credit expansion. The exchange rate aside, lower interest rates remained its favoured means of stimulating economic activity and employment by the private sector. Its objections to the measures proposed by its critics were not unfounded.” (p.253)
By late 1933 (Chapter 7) there seemed to be a rise in commodity prices, but this tended to be confined to the agricultural sector; and there was still a failure to adjust credit rating appropriately. When it came to credit matters and radical ideas of currency reform, Major Douglas’s visit to New Zealand in 1934 was a flop and the Social Credit movement peaked and went into decline as an influence on major political parties. By this stage, Labour found common cause with smaller businesses and consumers and was now clearly in favour of only a limited degree of government control of private businesses. The Reserve Bank at last opened August 1934
By this stage (1933-34, Chapter 8) it was clear that the consensus of all parliamentary political parties was moving towards acceptance of what would come to be known as the “welfare state”, with expanded benefits and national health insurance, especially as these measures had already been carried in some Australian states, in Britain and in the New Deal in the USA. As unemployment lessened, there were still polemical struggles concerning the unemployed, especially in the matter of sustenance (rather than relief work). These pitted the Unemployed Workers’ Movement (UWM), controlled by the tiny and electorally insignificant Communist Party, against the more practical Labour-oriented Unemployed Workers Association (UWA). But parallel with agitation concerning the unemployed, there was unrest among the employed, calling for the restoration of cut wages and the restoration of compulsory arbitration in industrial disputes. In itself this was evidence that the worst of the depression was over. Gordon Coates’ budgets of 1934-35 began to restore cuts as economic situation improved.
Making a general statement about the hardships of New Zealanders in the Depression, Malcolm McKinnon remarks:
The plight of the poor and deprived was all the more pronounced because the Depression had not had a marked impact on the health and wellbeing of the population as a whole. Significant indicators of deprivation – infant mortality, maternal mortality, the incidence of tuberculosis, child malnutrition – did not rise in the early 1930s.” (p.315)
Nor did the annual number of suicides rise; but there was an increased mortality rate of women from septic abortions, and the higher rate of Maori infant mortality continued to cause concern, as it had done in the 1920s.
By mid-1935, with the election looming, the Coalition government scrambled to outbid Labour and most pre-Depression pensions and benefits were restored to their full rates.
And so at last to the 1935 election (Chapter 9). McKinnon plunges us into the thick of it by reminding us in minute detail of how the election campaigns were actually fought, rather than simply cutting to the Labour victory. As he notes in detail, it is often forgotten that in 1935, both the Coalition and Labour feared the possible “spoiler” effect of the newly-formed Democrat Party. Labour and the Coalition were afraid that the Democrats would do what the United Party had done in 1928, and damage two established parties enough to gain the treasury benches. In the effect, the Democrats fizzled into nothingness in the election itself, but both Labour and the Coalition campaigned against them.
McKinnon is also insistent that the main issues of the election were about economics, not about social welfare:
While the first Labour government is remembered, more than anything, for legislating for social security in 1938, social welfare was the least contested field of the 1935 election campaign. This reflected both the extent of absorption in and debate and argument over money and finance on the one hand, and a consensus among political parties on health and social insurance on the other – with persistent debate about how it should be financed.” (pp.330-331)
Labour’s policies in the 1935 campaign were unclear and its fiscal stance not too far from orthodoxy. Like the Coalition, Labour was gearing for a recovery economy.
In considering how Labour performed in office 1935-39 (Chapter 10), McKinnon argues that in practice Labour’s programme was one of restoration as were its fiscal policies. Much depended on a reversion to more borrowing from London (as under the Ward government), signalled by the finance minister Walter Nash’s visits there. However, the Labour government did enhance nearly all benefits or pensions.

Labour won the 1938 election with a real absolute majority (they had won 46.1% of the popular vote in 1935; they won 55.8% in 1938). The 1938 Social Security Act was essentially a consolidation of all that had gone before. There was some pressure for “insulation”, meaning in effect, attempts to argue that New Zealand should become self-sufficient by boosting local industry as much as possible. By 1939 the GDP was one third higher than it had been in 1931, and the Depression was in the past. But the economy began to falter again, and the national debt grew. Nash was forced to go to London yet again in 1939 to ask for more credit.
The hard economic reality implied here is that the Labour government could well have faced the same fate at the Ward and Forbes governments, had the downturn continued. What saved the Labour government and its reputation was the outbreak of the Second World War, which called for its own austerities and made New Zealand gear up in quite a different way.
What does this detailed history (which I have deliberately dealt with in detailed fashion) add up to?
It forces us to question the received image of the Depression by showing that the governments of 1928-35 were not bumblers who did not come to grips with the crisis, but were politicians who did the best they could in the circumstances. It was Labour’s good fortune to attain power, with a huge popular mandate, at a time when economic circumstances were already on the mend. Hence Labour was able to carry through very popular welfare and other policies that had already been pioneered by the governments that preceded them. When the Labour government also faced (in its second term) an economic downturn, its attempted remedy was exactly that which the Ward government had attempted in 1928. This is why McKinnon so often uses the term “restoration”. Labour was not introducing something new. It was “restoring” the New Zealand that had existed before the Depression.
Just a few additional comments. McKinnon is to be applauded for placing the extremists of the age in their appropriate perspective. The tiny Communist Party is mentioned a number of times, especially in association with the UWM, and its vivid rhetoric is noted, but its influence on events is shown to be virtually nil. Likewise the New Zealand Legion, its importance inflated by at least one historian as “New Zealand’s fascist moment”, is shown to be an ephemeral movement with vague and waffling ideas, which quickly sank from view.
I would not be an honest reviewer if I did not note that The Broken Decade is not an easy book to read. It is data-heavy, its sentences are long and often tortured in style, and in the week I slogged through it I sometimes choked on the level of minute financial and political detail offered. In short, it is a very academic book. For this reason, its view of New Zealand’s Depression is not likely to displace soon the more familiar legends.
Even so, it does the historian’s essential job of challenging superficial views of the past.