Monday, February 19, 2018

Something New

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

“PASSANT – A Journey to Elsewhere” by Alistair Paterson (Austin Macauley Publishers $NZ40)

I have this firm belief that reviewers should always declare an interest when they set out to review a book. Otherwise we end up with the risible situation (frequent enough in some New Zealand periodicals) of academics reviewing works by academic colleagues and friends, but without declaring their interest and relationship. So let me say up front that I regard Alistair Paterson as a friend – not a close one, but a friend nevertheless. Though he is some decades older than me, he has occasionally mentored me in the writing of poetry, and I four times acted as guest editor on Poetry New Zealand during the very long period when he was editor-in-chief.

So now you know that Alistair Paterson, prolific poet, short-story-writer and anthologist, and holder of the OBE for his services to literature, is somebody whom I know and like. And that is all that need be said on the matter.

If you are the sort of person who craves short and pithy judgments, I will add that I very much enjoyed reading Passant: A Journey to Elsewhere, Paterson’s memoir of his childhood and adolescence. I might have some misgivings about the way it concludes, and I do admit that it sometimes repeats points it has already made, but in its expansiveness (it runs to 300 substantial pages) it is lively, engaging and enlightening about the way things were in New Zealand eighty-odd years ago.

If you read it very, very selectively, you could see it as an idyll of a past New Zealand and lament for the loss of its simplicities and certainties. Alistair Paterson was born in 1929 in Nelson, together with his (fraternal, not identical) twin brother Charlie. At no point does Paterson suggest that the Nelson of his youth was a perfect society. He notes the snobbery and pretensions of the small city’s wealthier citizens and their tendency towards a peculiar sort of South British jingoism, epitomised in Empire Day. He notes how grown-ups sometimes clung possessively to local heroes, as when he heard them talking about an illustrious person they called “Ernie” (Ernest Rutherford). He is certainly not complimentary about his secondary schooling. Even so, many of the things he did as a child and young teenager suggest the carefree possibilities of an earlier era. Going to the movies. Enjoying Guy Fawkes night. Swimming or sailing in the Maitai River. Listening to early radio in an age when a mass audience enjoyed (of all things) wrestling commentaries involving Lofty Blomfield. The boy is only ten when the Second World War begins, and he tries (in an apolitical way) to understand what it’s all about.

From the adolescent years there are some good self-contained anecdotes, such as the twin brothers labouring to build what turned out to be a useless canoe. Or participating in yacht races. Or young Alistair, with a damaged wrist, painfully rowing two visiting GIs to the local wharf. Or how he and a schoolmate accidentally started a scrub-fire (easily put out by the fire-brigade, thankfully) when they were told to burn off some gorse. There are also some retrospective ironies. Given that the adult Alistair Paterson was for twenty years a naval officer, it is ironical that he got seasick the first time he went on a deep-sea vessel (crossing Cook Strait to Wellington to attend the 1940 centenniel exhibition).

Paterson early strikes a note of loss when he remarks: “On occasional visits to Nelson I’ve driven past what’s left of the flats I knew so well and looked out towards the sea and the boulder bank, hoping to see children playing there. Their absence means that children have lost something of that earlier intimacy with the natural world which my brother and I experienced – and which the wider community might have lost as well.” (p.25)

Another very selective reading could see Passant: A Journey to Elsewhere as chronicling the genesis of the author as creative writer, with its remarks on the boy’s reading habits and first efforts at writing. The books he read as a child suggest robust tastes. He notes how much, as a youngster, he enjoyed Richmal Crompton’s anarchistic, anti-authority schoolboy “William” books; and how he was intrigued by the ingenuity of the novels of Alexandre Dumas. In retrospect, he appreciates the value of reciting poetry in his primary school class, under the instruction of an elocution-trained teacher. At the time, however, his first real introduction to poetry gave him false expectations about how poetry is written: “I found myself trying to compose verses line by line in my head, and, failing miserably, came to believe poetry was written by people of special ability and great genius in far countries.” (p.189)

He is less complimentary about his adolescent years at Nelson College, seeing the teachers as being concerned more with the college’s prestige than with sympathetic teaching. The cane was applied often and there was a dismissive attitude towards pupils (like Paterson) who were not leading athletes or sportsmen. One English teacher told him to give up writing poetry because it was “unhealthy”. Nevertheless, Nelson College did give him the opportunity to be a violinist in the school orchestra; and it did give him the company of other students who were interested in modern poetry, like the one who introduced him to the work of T.S.Eliot.

But attempts to see this memoir as either nostalgic idyll or Kunstlerroman are thwarted by two things, which take up a great part of Passant: A Journey to Elsewhere. First, there is the matter of young Alistair Paterson’s long illness and hospitalisation; then there is the matter of what would now be called the dysfunctional family to which he belonged. To be clear, neither young Alistair nor his brothers were in any way physically mistreated. Their parents were on the whole very considerate people. But the circumstances of the family created severe stresses for the growing boys. At first, Paterson suggests some reluctance to narrate these things. Having noted how a journalist once scorned another person’s childhood memoirs as self-indulgence, Paterson says: “As a result, I wonder why I’m writing about my childhood and whether an account of a dysfunctional family in one’s early years is of any value or worth the trouble.” (p.65)

Briefly put, Paterson’s parents separated in unusual circumstances. After they were first married, they lived with Alistair’s paternal grandparents, the Patersons. But shortly after Alistair and Charlie were born, the older Patersons proved so over-controlling and unsympathetic to the twins’ mother that she moved back to live with her own parents, the Whites. Alistair and Charlie were thus brought up by their mother in their maternal grandparents’ house on Weka Street. But they made weekly visits to their father at his parents’ house on Nile Street East. And, despite their parents’ separation, their father made regular visits to their mother so that, to their surprise, young Alistair and Charlie were  presented with a new baby brother some years after their parents had ceased to live under the same roof. This unusual arrangement built up in young Alistair a sense of shame that his family was not “normal”, like the two-parent families of other boys he knew.  He got on well with his placid, pipe-smoking maternal grandfather, who sometimes did eccentric things, like stealing a neighbour’s dinghy and taking young Alistair for a row on the twilit estuary. But this did not offset the stress of the family situation, exacerbated by overhearing, and not understanding, angry adult conversations about somebody called Betty Sharp, or being aware of the way older generations of the Paterson family spun endless rumours about the financial dealings of a great-grandfather and who might possibly owe great wealth to whom.

One of Alistair’s Paterson aunts, Aunt Elspeth, was anxious about any member of the family marrying and having children. She closely interrogated young Alistair when he started getting serious about girls. The awful truth that Alistair Paterson only understood as an adult was that his great-grandfather Paterson had gone insane with “paralysis of the brain” and was for much of his life locked up in what was then forthrightly called a madhouse. Many of the stresses, tensions and anxieties which older generations passed on to Alistair and his brothers sprang from this fact. (By the way, in this particular matter I am revealing nothing that the back-cover blurb of the book does not reveal.)

All this was one cause of the boy’s chronic unhappiness. But perhaps worse was the matter of his long periods of illness, beginning when he was about eight. At first he suffered from abdominal pains and severe fatigue and underwent an operation on his kidneys. He was diagnosed as having an abcess on his kidneys and possible septicaemia (“blood poisoning”). Then came the complication of osteomyelitis. In all, Alistair underwent four operations and was kept in the children’s ward for nearly two years (22 months). In this long incarceration, the boy longed to be outdoors again, and was briefly driven to small acts of rebellion from the hospital’s severe regime, such as refusing to eat the sago pudding that he was regularly offered. After eventually leaving hospital, there were the difficulties of having to get used to walking again, reconnecting with school again, having a broken wrist and having to learn to write again.

The account of his time as a patient overlaps with with memories of his reading habits. Physical trauma meant he temporarily lost the ability to read and had to re-train himself in the deciphering of words. As all bright children do, he compared the books he liked to the conditions of his own life. Of the influence of The Count of Monte Cristo, he says: “I didn’t realise it at the time, but I probably found this part of the book [where the hero at last uncovers fabulous wealth] exciting and wonderful because it was the climax of Edmond Dantes’ successful escape from imprisonment and the beginning of his reinstatement as a person able to live life on his own terms. It was a metaphor, a fictitious representation of treasure and escape parallelling what children in hospital wish for and can do little to achieve.” (pp.118-119) And of The Three Musketeers he says: “It wasn’t the flamboyance and the devil-may-care attitude of the characters, but at a deeper and subconscious level, the contrast between their freedom of action and my immobility that appealed.” (p.125)

Passant: A Journey to Elsewhere is an affectionate account of a past time, a book on the author’s youthful literary consciousness, and a memoir of a broken family and long illness. Irrational as it may seem, one dominant note is the sense of guilt the boy came to feel. As children so often do, he took upon himself the burden of responsibility for things over which he had no control. In reading this book, I find such words as “shame” and “embarrassment” recurring frequently. To give a few examples -

When, as infants, Alistair’s twin brother walks before he can, and gets applause for it, Alistair is left “sitting on the hall floor lost and alone with feelings of shame and failure and a sudden awareness that success brought rewards” (p.9)

Of the psychological burden of the dysfunctional family we are told: “I knew my brother Charlie and I were responsible for the seemingly unbridgeable schism between the two families we belonged to, that somehow our being born had disrupted their lives and caused irremediable damage.” (p.135)

When the boy is in the hospital after two operations, the adult memoirist remarks “… each of us felt an element of shame at being in the hospital and ‘being a nuisance’, ‘making things difficult’ for the people who looked after us and parents who had to leave whatever it was they might have been doing in order to come and visit us. Somehow it was our fault that we were there and in my case particularly so on account of all the shame Charlie and I had brought to the two branches of the family.” (pp.84-85)

When he returns to school after long hospitalisation, he notes: “embarrassment at not being part of a real family was always present as was the fear that some of the children we went to school with or who lived near Weka Street and knew about us would notice we were there and talk about us.” (p.168)

He learns to play the violin and for once his stern teacher compliments him on his playing. But instead of feeling pleased, the boy feels he has violated the code of “fitting in”: “I felt embarrassed. The sound I’d produced was what I thought of as a kind of pretentiousness and exhibitionism that could be put down to saying, ‘Look at me, listen to me, listen to what I’m doing’. Charlie would have seen it that way and said something about it if he’d heard what I was doing which fortunately he didn’t…. Keeping quiet and avoiding being noticed was our usual way of behaving…” (p.178)

Trying to fit once more into school, he notes: “Unfortunately I wasn’t able to use my damaged arm to write with and was forced to do what I could with my left. The result was an untidy scrawl that elicited sneers and derision from some of the boys who saw what a mess I was making of it. I felt ashamed and embarrassed in the same way I did at people who knew I’d been ill and hadn’t yet fully recovered, and I was doubly ashamed and embarrassed because even when I got back to using my right arm, my handwriting was still clumsy and awkward and has remained that way ever since.” (p.206)

I understand that this book’s subtitle, “A Journey to Elsewhere”, has a double meaning. Simply by growing up, the boy and adolescent is journeying to adulthood. But equally, we as readers are journeying to the other country that was a past New Zealand. In those terms, this memoir works very well and has the ring of authenticity.

Footnote: As for my misgivings about how it concludes – which I mentioned at the head of this review – I am referring to the way Alistair Paterson ends with much documentation, in the form of letters, of his great-grandfather’s mental condition. While this is in some ways the “key” to the anxieties that ran through his family, it still seems a clumsy way to close what is otherwise an engaging and sincere book.

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