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Monday, April 17, 2017

Something New



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


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“BREAKING RANKS – Three Interrupted Lives” by James McNeish (Harper-Collins, $NZ 35)



The late James McNeish (Sir James McNeish when he died at the age of 85 last November) was always a mythmaker – a writer drawn to larger-than-life characters and determined to make us see them in epic terms. Thus were his novels about James Mackenzie, New Zealand sheep-rustler and explorer, or Jack Lovelock, New Zealand Olympian. Thus were his non-fiction works about Danilo Dolci, the Sicilian anti-Mafia crusader, and Paddy Costello, whom (in his book The Sixth Man), he was rather over-eager to absolve of charges of spying. The myth-making faculty was, for my tastes, more palatable in McNeish’s fiction than in his non-fiction, into which he often had the bad habit of smuggling novelistic techniques such as imagined conversations and attempts (often not backed with evidence) to reconstruct his subjects’ states of mind. In what I regard as one of his worst books, Dance of the Peacocks, he presumed to depict a whole generation of New Zealand expatriate intellectuals, and in the process indulged in so many generalisations and simplifications that my patience snapped. On the other hand, and to be quite perverse, I still have a sneaking regard for his never-republished book The Mask of Sanity, though (if you don’t already know) you’ll have to use your own initiative to look up what it’s about, as it concerns a controversy into which I do not wish to delve here.

In fairness to McNeish, he did always write clear and readable prose; he always came across as an enthusiastic (and likeable) chap; and he was generous in the (larger-then-life) way he depicted friends and acquaintances. For evidence of this, look up on this blog the review of his partial autobiography Touchstones – A Memoir, a very enjoyable book which I tackled four years ago.

All of these things are relevant to McNeish’s last book Breaking Ranks, now being published posthumously. It is a collection of three “short lives” or, if you prefer, long essays, about three people associated with New Zealand, and it again shows McNeish in ripe mythicizer mode.

In his brief introduction, McNeish is at pains to tell us that these are three separate lives and that he is not going to force them to adhere to a pattern the way a novelist might…. but almost at once he then tells us that all three represent a streak of “anarchy” in the New Zealand character. “All three men defy convention in a way that goes beyond mere dissent. A streak of subversion lingers.” (p.2) So he is forcing them into a pattern of interpretation after all, and surely the very title Breaking Ranks also tells us this. [I guess, too, that the title has a literal referent – all three men had experience of wartime military service.]

McNeish’s subjects are Dr John Saxby, an English psychotherapist who settled in New Zealand; Brigadier Reginald Miles, a New Zealand soldier (artillery officer); and Judge Peter Mahon, convenor and presider of the Erebus enquiry. Two of these men committed suicide, which adds piquancy to their stories. The death of the third, McNeish implies, was hastened by stress placed on him by the legal and political Establishment. A brief epilogue by McNeish’s legal pal Bernard Brown endorses McNeish’s judgments.

McNeish awards each “life” about eighty pages.

Let’s look at them in turn.

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Dr John Saxby was a personal friend of James McNeish and his wife Helen, and therefore the New Zealand part of his life is presented in more intimate personal detail than are the other two “lives” in this book. Much that McNeish learns or knows about Saxby’s earlier life comes from chats he had, in London pubs and after Saxby’s death, with guys who had known the young Saxby. Oxford-educated, John Saxby had military experience as a parachutist. Then he turned to psychotherapy and in this capacity he arrived in New Zealand in the 1960s. He found work at the Tokanui psychiatric facility, which McNeish describes thus:

The hospital was home to almost a thousand souls, from the feeble-minded to the acutely demented, some referred on from a reformatory prison – Wikeria – which was just up the road. There was still physical restraint; electro-convulsive shock treatment was still used; inquisitive news reporters had no trouble in finding patients they described as ‘bewildered and frightened’. That was one reality. Another was of a self-contained village with its own bakery and laundry, which had been providing jobs for entire families for generations. Another was that 60 per cent of the patient population was voluntary. Still another was the absence of qualified psychiatrists, a reflection of the fact that very few clinical psychiatrists existed in the country at all.” [p.28]

McNeish presents Saxby as a man who worked as much by intuition as by medical science, who really tried to get to know his mentally-afflicted charges well and who was averse to medication and the use of drugs as anything other than a desperate last resort. Saxby’s hippie-ish home and domestic arrangements are described and there is a long anecdote about Saxby rescuing, and redirecting the life of, a suicidal student who later flourished.

At the same time, McNeish presents Saxby as a man who was always tempting fate, as if he were somehow testing himself or gambling with death, thus:

John had a wild side. On a bush or mountain walk where the ways diverged, he would choose not merely the ‘road not taken’ in the Robert Frost sense, but the most difficult path he could find. He liked to shave the odds. When he was building his house, he insisted on digging the septic tank himself, although he had a bad back and could afford to hire a labourer. His back went into spasm and he got stuck in the hole. He had to be winched out.”  (pp. 42-43)

Saxby and his wife were ardent opponents of the Springbok Tour of 1981, and were among those who risked violence by invading the playing field at Hamilton before a test match. For this, they received much hate mail and some threats from rugby enthusiasts, and there was a time when their home was protected from attack by gang-members who camped out in their chicken coop. These circumstances give McNeish the opportunity to once again sound his theme about New Zealand “anarchy” and non-conformity:

New Zealand is a country that has grave doubts about where it belongs in the world; consequently it has difficulty in defining its national character or pyche. One of the elements that helps define us, I believe, is a hidden outlaw that leads us on occasion to question authority and poke our head above the parapet. Call it dissent, subversion. Or anarchy.” (pp.53-54)

But over much of Saxby’s life there hangs the shadow of the noose:

John spoke of his intention to commit suicide not just to close friends and colleagues. He spoke of the genetics of depression and its application to completed suicides; he foretold the method which in his case might be best. ‘Yes,’ he said matter-of-factly to a staff nurse… when called to a hanging, ‘that’s the way I’d like to go.’ ” (p.76)

For McNeish, Saxby was an innovative man who brightened up psychiatric practice in New Zealand with his use psychodrama, open group discussions and a generally more humane approach to patients. McNeish also credits him with discovering (partly through the influence of his Maori colleague and sometime boss Henry Bennett) Maori social approaches to human wholeness. We are therefore invited to admire Saxby as a rebel against New Zealand conventions. An “anarchist”. But despite McNeish’s enthusiastic account, there peeps through all this a dreadful hollowness to the man, as if he were not sure of the ground he stood on; not grounded in a reliable reality. The man who dabbles in this and that – as, by McNeish’s own account, Saxby did – knows not where he stands.

At this point, I am sorely (and arrogantly) tempted to make generalisations about the number of people working in psychiatric health who lose their own bearings. But this would not allow me to pinpoint a “cause” of Saxby’s suicide. I do wonder about the effect of battlefield trauma on Saxby-the-parachutist (he took part in Britain’s ridiculous Suez campaign in 1956). McNeish speaks of Saxby being worn out by the struggle to maintain humane approaches to psychiatric care in an age of economic “rationalisation”, when funding was diminishing, staff was being cut and facilities like Tokanui were under threat. A martyr to neo-liberalism, in other words.

Be this as it may, we seem to be dealing with a man who already had a strong death wish, and whose immediate circumstances at the time of his suicide were a rationale rather than a reason.

I am less inclined to see John Saxby in heroic “rebel” mode than James McNeish is.



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The second patient on McNeish’s psychoanalytic couch, Brigadier Reginald Miles, is rather harder for him to capture on the wing because he is an historical figure whom McNeish never met or knew. Like John Mulgan, Reg Miles was an educated soldier who committed suicide in the later stages of the Second World War.

Playing up his “rebel” theme, McNeish sets up his story by beginning with an argument that Reginald Miles apparently had in North Africa with his superior officer Bernard Freyberg. Freyberg and others regarded the artillery officer as a possible successor to his command, but Miles disobeyed orders when his artillery positions were about to be overrun by the Afrika Korps. He picked up a rifle and joined the rankers in shooting at the approaching Germans. He was taken prisoner, escaped from a fortified Italian POW camp into neutral Switzerland, made it across occupied France into neutral Spain and seemed on the road to rejoining Allied forces, but then mysteriously committed suicide.

Having filled us in on this, McNeish then doubles back and proceeds to give us Miles’ life history.

As a very young man, the New Zealander Miles was one of the very first graduates of Duntroon military college in Australia. In the First World War, he served as a gunner at Gallipoli and was invalided out with wounds. He was decorated. He served at the last battles at Ypres (Passchendaele). Again he was decorated, but this time after having disobeyed orders and joining infantrymen in repelling German infantry so that he could prevent the capture of his battery – the same sort of bolshie disobedience he displayed in the later war.

Between the wars, when in a peacetime army, Miles was regarded as erratic in some of his behaviour, especially when on training courses in England:

 “In England he sounds a bit wild. ‘What is to be done with Miles?’ reads one report. ‘Is he to be sent back to his own country?’ The answer was a resounding ‘yes’. He seems to have shone in everything but ‘tact’. Sensitive to slights, he doesn’t take kindly to being put upon. In other ways, like logistics, he is obviously something of a wizard, and back in New Zealand on the eve of the Second World War, he is far and away the best artillery man for the top job.” (pp.147-148)

McNeish’s principal depiction of Miles is as the smiling, genial “happy warrior”, who was never so at home as when facing the challenges of battle. He seems to have been a solicitous husband and attractive to women. His first wife died of TB in 1938, and a few years later he re-married, this time to a woman considerably younger than himself.

But again McNeish suggests there was an element of death wish under Miles’ cheerful bravado – Thanatos trumping Eros. He was reckless and looking for a friendly bullet. McNeish describes Miles at the battle of Belhamed (near Tobruk) thus:

At Belhamed, Reg Miles courts death in a similar manner. He is quivering with fury at Freyberg and the British for forcing him to sacrifice his beloved guns and gunners. Yet he has no choice. And so: ‘Bugger you. I’m going to be with them at the end.’ This…may be partly self-dramatisation. But underneath, as with [Siegfried] Sassoon [and other First World War figures whom McNeish has just been discussing] Miles had, I believe, a genuine wish for death.” (p.168)

When he was a POW in Italy, Brigadier Miles appeared to other inmates (such as James Hargest, who also escaped) to be very depressed about something he had done in battle, but McNeish is never quite able to identify what it was. Then comes the suicide. Miles seems very happy when he escapes across France with the help of the French Resistance, and walks into northern Spain, where he is interned and interrogated at Figueras. But he hangs himself in his hotel room. MacNeish says that in a final letter Miles wrote to his young wife “there is the clear implication that Miles, under interrogation, thought he had betrayed his friends and compromised the underground escape network; that he had done wrong and that he later blamed himself.” (p.198) Yet, if Miles really did imply this, then he was wrong, as the resistance network that facilitated his escape continued to operate successfully until the war was over.

So what drove Miles to the rope?

McNeish flounders about a bit, speculating – inconclusively – that Miles might have been tortured or drugged by unsympathetic interrogators before he killed himself. (This was the guess of Miles’ young widow.) It is of course odd that a man should commit suicide when he is on the point of regaining freedom and rejoining his command. Nevertheless, even after reading McNeish’s account, I think there might be a simpler answer – sheer fatigue and weariness with the whole process of war. Miles’ only son (he also had three daughters) had already been killed in the war. Miles himself had been wounded a number of times and was not in the best of health. His experience of escape had taken it all out of him, and he was often depressed about either real or imagined shortcomings in his own military behaviour. So he ended his life.

Once again, I am not entirely convinced that this man was a “rebel” or an exemplar of New Zealand “anarchy”. He was a New Zealand soldier who sometimes showed the mild insubordination towards superiors for which New Zealand soldiers were well known. He twice disobeyed commands, but in ways that enhanced rather than diminished his reputation.  He does not fit McNeish’s overarching myth.



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Of the three “lives” in this book, the third is the most straightforward, and requires the least explanation from me. That is because the main story of Peter Mahon is so well known to most adult New Zealanders. As in the case of Reginald Miles, James McNeish never met Peter Mahon, and the sources of his account are mainly books and reports which are already part of the public record.

Peter Mahon was appointed to oversee the commission of enquiry into the November 1979 crash into Mt Erebus, with the loss of 257 lives, of the Air New Zealand plane which took sightseeing passengers over the Antarctic. The Chief Inspector of Air Accidents, Ron Chippendale of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, produced a hasty report which blamed the disaster solely on pilot error. There were public mutterings about the superficiality of Chippendale’s report and the way it rather too neatly absolved Air New Zealand and its executives of any blame. Under Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, a commission of enquiry was set up.

Muldoon, as Minister of Finance, represented the government as a major shareholder in Air New Zealand and wanted the commission’s report to endorse the finding of pilot error. In McNeish’s word (p.224) Muldoon made a “mistake” in appointing Mahon to head the commission. On the advice of senior legal friends and drinking buddies, Muldoon believed that Judge Peter Mahon would safely toe the line, save the reputation of Air New Zealand, and conclude as the Chippendale Report had.

Instead, after months of hearings from many witnesses, Mahon concluded that the disaster was the fault of poor Air New Zealand management. Faulty coordinates, fed into Air New Zealand computers before the flight took off, allowed the two pilots to believe that their aircraft was 27 miles away from where it actually was. They were flying into a mountain  - in “white out” conditions - when coordinates told them they were flying across the flat surface of McMurdo Sound. This was not pilot error. It was systemic management error. Worse, in the course of his hearings, Mahon had good reason to believe that Air New Zealand had deliberately destroyed much incriminating evidence of their negligence, and that Air New Zealand spokespeople had been briefed to give false evidence. Hence Mahon’s concluding words about “an orchestrated litany of lies”, a phrase still readily remembered by most New Zealanders.

Air New Zealand counterattacked, once Mahon’s report was made public, by claiming that an investigating commissioner had no legal right to attribute blame like this. On that basis, they took the matter to the Court of Appeal where the judge Owen Woodhouse endorsed their complaint – thus creating the false impression that Air New Zealand had been vindicated. Muldoon chose not to table Mahon’s report in parliament. The matter went to the Privy Council in London, but that august body, with many weasel words, chose to rebuke Mahon’s report as overstepping its brief, while never exactly showing that Mahon had been wrong in his conclusions.

Mahon resigned from the bench and – in McNeish’s account – was now shunned by his senior legal colleagues who thought he had let the side down by not supporting the political and legal Establishment. In his retirement, Mahon wrote a book giving his own view of the whole controversy, Verdict on Erebus, which now seems the most balanced account but which violated the legal convention that judges and commissioners should not continue litigating in print once a case has been judged.

Mahon died at the age of 62. He did have heart problems, but McNeish implies that the stress of being ostracised by the Establishment hastened his death. He concludes:

In his stand for truth and justice against the craven reactionaries of the Establishment, [Mahon] may have set a marker leaving New Zealand a more grown-up place where dissent was recognised and, for the first time, becoming cherished.” (p.279)

This may possibly be so, although each age finds its own way to quash real dissent and my own view is that New Zealand now has a new, but equally rigid, set of shibboleths. Further, I believe that throughout this book, McNeish commits the same mistake as Bill Pearson did all those years ago in his overrated essay Fretful Sleepers. He exaggerates the repressive nature of New Zealand society (“Compared with which country?” I always want to ask), and is therefore able to present mildly offbeat people as “rebels” or “anarchists”.

Having said this, I also find Breaking Ranks an enjoyable and easy read presided over by a master myth-maker.

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