Monday, October 12, 2020

Something New

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

“A RODERICK FINLAYSON READER” edited by Roger Hickin (Cold Hub Press,  $NZ42:50); “BUG WEEK and other stories” by Airini Beautrais (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ35); “THIS IS NOT A PIPE” by Tara Black (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ28)

            It is a great pleasure to read A Roderick Finlayson Reader, Roger Hickin’s intelligently-curated selection of the work of Roderick David Finlayson (1904-1992). Even though he was generally esteemed as one of New Zealand’s best prose writers (especially of short stories) from the 1930s to the 1950s, Finlayson has been neglected, sidelined and rarely re-published in recent years. As O.E. Middleton noted, Finlayson’s death in 1992 was passed over in almost complete silence by the press and other media. In 2012, Auckland University Press’s doorstopper Anthology of New Zealand Literature, which purported to be representative of N Z lit. (though obviously deficient in many ways), managed to exclude Finlayson completely.

            Why this neglect? Some would sheet it home to Finlayson’s chosen subject matter, and some to his style. Born in the inner Auckland suburb of Ponsonby (then a working-class suburb – only much later gentrified), Finlayson was of Scottish descent and worked as an architect’s assistant. But in his thirties he found his real metier as a writer of short stories. He had a mission. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was virtually the only Pakeha writer of fiction who took an interest in Maori and wrote positively about them. At that time, the great majority of Maori were rural, the big move to the cities had not yet happened, and so inevitably Finlayson wrote about Maori in small country settings, living lives that to Finlayson seemed simpler and more authentic than the lives led by Pakeha in cities.

And this is where Finlayson gets criticsed for his subject matter, now that Maori have found their own literary voices.

Despite his constant protests against the theft of Maori land; despite his positive depiction of Maori characters; despite his awareness that New Zealand would never be healthy until Pakeha accepted and respected the Maori view of the world; Finlayson is now criticsed for what are seen as caricatures and idealisation of Maori life, especially as the urban lives most Maori now lead have increasingly less in common with the rural lives of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Was his vision of Maori a naïve one? More than one Maori writer has criticised him for what they see as unreal and patronising. They also object to the type of simplified speech Maori characters utter in his stories. Others have attested that Finlayson caught accurately patterns of rural Maori speech as spoken in the 1930s, as he chose to live much of his life among Maori.

As for Finlayson’s style, even his admirers have to admit that he can very easily become didactic.

But taking all the criiticisms on board, it is still invigorating to make your way through the stories Roger Hickin has selected here from Finlayson’s early collections Brown Man’s Burden (1938), Sweet Beulah Land (1941) and the episodic novel Tidal Creek (1948). Certainly you can find Finlayson occasionally using now-forbidden terms such as “half-caste”. Certainly there are preachy moments. But a story like “Sweet Beulah Land” itself, even if the characterisation is elementary, is still a withering satire on the way the Crown can easily buy up “communal [Maori] land” for its own purposes. “The Wedding Gift” and “”Tiki-Tiki” are a touch melodramatic, but “The Totara Tree” (probably Finlayson’s best-known story because it was anthologised by Dan Davin) is still both funny and a real protest. Be it noted, too, that Finlayson does not confine to Maori his vision of salvation coming from an affinity with the land and the ways of nature. One of the selections given here from Tidal Creek, “The Chattanooga and the Dead Sheep”, has a Pakeha kid staying on a farm with an old relative in a story which becomes a lesson on the superiority of traditional farming ways over new-fangled, industrialised farming.

Many of the stories selected from later in Finlayson’s career concern the Celtic (Irish and Scots) people he knew in the Ponsonby of his youth, where tribal tensions among Pakeha are observed, often with affectionate wit.

Published late in Finlayson’s career (in 1976) and included in this selection is the novella – nearly 60 pages long -  Frankie and Lena. It was much admired by Frank Sargeson and is in some respects the acid test of how positively you respond to Finlayson’s fiction. In the rural New Zealand of what appears to be the 1930s, Lena, a young pubescent girl, latches on to the peripatetic old casual farm worker and tramp Frankie. Frankie doesn’t want her to tag along with him. He knows the country people will think he is a sexual deviant who has taken her to sexually abuse her. He is especially worried as he has a police record related to sexual activity. Still the girl tags along with him, and they get to like each other, even if Frankie is terrified of what the consequences may be for him. As it happens, an angry posse is indeed in pursuit of them through bush and farmland. It has a tragic ending.

The story of their flight and the posse’s pursuit is convincing and suspenseful, with Finlayson making it credible by his close observation of rural Kiwi habits. The (understated) sexual tension in the story is also convincing. Clearly Finlayson aims to make a statement about intolerance and the way small-minded communities cannot deal with people who are “different”. There is, however, a little heavy didacticism in the (often stilted) conversations where Frankie lectures Lena on how people often turn to hating, how they often lack mental freedom, and how Maori land has been stolen. So it is an excellent story with some stylistic flaws.

After the stories and the novella, this selection gives us a manifesto Finlayson wrote, and then his sketches of people he knew and his correspondence with the press.

The manifesto is Our Life in This Land, published in 1940 to coincide with the centenary of the Treaty of Waitangi. With the deepest of respect for Finlayson’s good intentions, I found it hard to interpret Our Life in This Land as anything other than a utopian diatribe, wherein Finlayson damns the increasing industrialisation of New Zealand and urges us to go back to the land. But his tone is messianic, his terms are vague, and his endorsement of war to purge us from “decadence” is just a little scary.

The sketches of people he knew on the literary scene (Walter D’Arcy Cresswell, Frank Sargeson, R.A.K.Mason, O.E.Middleton et al.) are delightful, and made me feel compusively nostalgic for an Auckland that was already vanishing before I was born  - I mean Auckland when the North Shore was still largely farmland and it was an adventure to take the ferry up to Castor Bay.

As for his letters to the press, Finlayson is always on the side of the angels, condemning the government’s heavy-handed approach to the Bastion Point occupation; ticking off the government and NZRU for endorsing a rugby tour to apartheid South Africa, and always reminding fellow Pakeha of their ignorance of Maori culture. As for his letters to the Catholic church press (Finlayson converted to Catholicism in middle age), Finlayson ticks off his co-religionists for failing to take seriously enough encyclicals that called for social justice.

I hope that, for any flaws there may be in Finlayson’s writing, I have made it clear that A Roderick Finlayson Reader is a very welcome book and a very good representation of the man’s work.

Personal footnote: I met a very old Roderick Finlayson once only. As I have mentioned a number of times before on this blog, for the first 22 years of my life, I was a next-door neighbour of the craft printer Ronald Holloway, whose Griffin Press published most of Finlayson’s early work. That is why I have on my shelves first editions of Brown Man’s Burden, Sweet Beulah Land, the novel The Schooner Came to Atia and others of Finlayson’s work, some of them signed by the author. In 1988, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Brown Man’s Burden, Ron and Kay Holloway published hitherto uncollected stories by Finlayson under the title In Georgina’s Shady Garden. They threw a launch party, to which I was invited, at their home on a beautful Sunday afternoon – a very chummy family affair . When he spoke, thanking the publishers, I remember Roderick Finlayson as a stately old gentleman with no pretensions and a shy, reserved way of speaking. Later, in August 1992, I remember driving Ron Holloway to and from the Requiem Mass he had arranged for Finlayson in the University of Auckland’s Maclaurin Chapel. That is all the contact I had with the man. I am bound to add that my late mother, who was of the same generation as Finlayson (eight years younger, to be precise) read In Georgina’s Shady Garden and deemed the stories to be “rather old-fashioned”. This was a common judgement on Finlayson’s stories at that time.


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Now for a completely different short-story writer from a very different generation of New Zealanders.

I already knew Airini Beautrais as a very accomplished poet, especially with her outstanding collection Flow  published in 2017. Bug Week and other stories is her first collection of short stories, and it is a very impressive piece of work. I will not say that all thirteen stories are of the same quality. There are a few moments that do not quite work. But the sum effect of reading Bug Week is still exhilarating, chastening and shocking by turns.

To get quickly past the ones I think don’t quite work: The story “The turtle”, concerning tensions between two teenage girls, deflates before reaching a real point. “The baddest Toroa in town” might have worked better as a poetic concept, with its talking albatross lecturing a pub audience on how they are degrading the sea by over-fishing. And the final shock in “A pair of hands” is a little incongruous, although it may theoretically suggest that the under-experienced couple who are the protagonists are at last forced to understand that siinster things can happen in their boring small town. In an otherwise good story [see below] there is also a moment where I think that the author goes OTT and lays it on too thick.

But that is the sum of my complaints.

I come a little late to reviewing this collection, and I have already read what some other pundits have had to say. Most emphasise that the author is a feminist and some imply that what she is setting out here is a critique of male “entitlement” and the threatening and bullying nature of males. But this grossly simplifies what Beautrais is up to. She is certainly writing from a woman’s perspective (of course), but her take on the interaction of men and women is more nuanced than sheer diatribe and she is far more skilful than a mere fictionalising polemicist.

To make some obvious points, “Living the Dream” has a male narrator and  essentially conveys his complete disillusion with the “alternative” lifestyle he has been living. In “The girl who shaved the moose”, the main male character, a schoolteacher dealing with the misbehaviour of some of his pupils, is presented in a positive light as a sympathetic person. As for “Sin City”, told in the first person by a man, the morality is more ambiguous. The narrator is clearly disgusted with the decadent lives of Auckland professionals having orgiastic wife-swapping parties etc. but his own sexual impulses are confused and tend to nihilism and the inability to engage with others. This is not so much a condemnation of maleness as an analysis of a state of mind.

There are also stories in which men behave badly, but Beautrais makes it clear that the women in their lives have faults of their own. The main male character in “Billy the Poet Pirate” is a serial seducer of younger and perhaps more gullible women who are taken in by his hip-bohemian ways. He is a poseur and a creep. But then the woman who narrates the story is clearly a very unreliable narrator. She claims to be more sophisticated than her girlfriend, who has fallen for the poseur. But she herself falls for the poseur’s come-on lines and ends up in his bed. Is she self-deluded? Only years later do the narrator and her friend get the episode into perspective. Self-delusion also seems to be part of “Psycho Ex”. A man has acted callously. He has ditched a woman after a five-year relationship and married somebody else. But once again, this tale is told by the woman who has turned into an obsessive stalker of her former partner. Her inability to let go is not presented as a virtue. I should also note that the woman who narrates the title story “Bug Week” has an affair with a man while her husband is away with the kids, but then settles for domestic security when it doesn’t work out. She may be bored, but she is not presented as a victim of male dupicity.

In fact, it is only in the last three stories in this collection (perhaps Beautrais was saving them up for us?) that men really do get the sharp end of the stick. “Trashing the Flowers” is set in a Women’s Refuge and focuses on a woman who has been subjected to sexual and other physical abuse by her husband. “The Teashop” concerns a tired and ageing dominatrix who wants to marry a reliable, if boring, man and get away from prostitution. Her back-story tells us that she was sexually abused by an academic when she was a student and has been mistreated regularly by men ever since. And it is at one point in this story that the author goes OTT, with an episode where a man who has saved the ill-treated woman from drowning then asks her for a crass sexual favour. Men are pigs in all situations, this seems to suggest.  Most crushing of all is “Quiet Death” where a dead woman has an out-of-body experience and watches a male doctor sexually violate her cancer-ridden corpse. This is described in explicit biological detail. The story then morphs into a condemnation of traditional male art, so often depicting the violation of women.

So the critique of male “entitlement” really is here, but it does not take up the whole of Bug Week and other stories and other perspectives are presented.

Which brings me to what I think is this collection’s crowning jewel – and I am a little abashed to make this choice as I see that in an earlier review than this one, Owen Marshall has already declared it to be Beautrais’ best. This is the story “A summer of scents” – a complete surprise both because it is not set in New Zealand and it is not primarily about tensions between the sexes. The story is set in post-Communist East Berlin with a cast of German characters. It is a “slow-burn” story, carefully setting up its large cast of characters and their confined lives in ageing apartment block, before it hits a strong narrative nerve. In a way I would call it a distant descendant of something like Katherine Mansfield’s “At the Bay”, where a society is depicted by a series of vignettes of individual characters. Not that Beautrais doesn’t point us in a clear direction and to a clear conclusion. The character studies are the foundations of a stunning, but logical, outcome.

I find it interesting that only six of these thirteen stories are told in first person. Beautrais avoids breathless confessionalism and when she wishes to stand back (writing in the third person) and make a cool assessment of a situation, she can do so. Men will sometimes feel chastened and there is sometimes what an eminent New Zealand literary figure once designated as a “yuk factor” in some of the stories of Bug Week and other stories, but this is still an impressive collection.

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Beth has a pole through her arms. This is not a metaphor” it says on the back-cover blurb of Tara Black’s debut graphic novel This is Not a Pipe. And the statement is repeated on the opening page.

Beth, a graphic artist,  has a pole through her two arms which holds those two arms stiffly apart. This limits Beth’s dexterity and manual manipulation. Beth works in a telecommunications company where she can at least punch keys and has a good pal who supports her. But more important, Beth lives with (or is married to?) Kenneth, who stays at home writing (while she is out earning) and creating a new religion based on the idea of narrative as the creative force of the universe. Beth tells her story through images. Kenneth tells his story through text, coming up with more and more ideas on what narrative is and raising philosophical concepts. Beth creates by experience. Kenneth creates by rationcination. Empricism and feeling here; rationalism and calculation there? Maybe I’m simplifying. Anyway, Beth also helps Kenneth out by drawing panels of little googly characters, with bulbous noses, who discuss Kenneth’s concepts.

Did I mention that Kenneth is just a teensy bit domineering and (bespectacled, bearded, bald) looks just like your concept of a self-important male intellectual? Did I mention that Beth gets upset when her cat disappears? Did I mention that little creatures come of our Beth’s pierced arms and create little balloons? No, I didn’t mention these things because I am controlling the narrative you are reading and This is Not a Pipe is really about the nature of narrative and how it is created. And how writers and artists can add or withold things as they please.

Please, please, please remember that This is Not a Pipe is a graphic novel and so much of its flavour and impact come from Tara Black’s simple, but often surreal, images in which Beth is so clearly the main character even if Kenneth thinks he is.

But let’s back up a bit and dissect that title - This is Not a Pipe. Okay, we all know it’s the surrealist Rene Magritte’s famous caption to his painting of a pipe, clearly asserting that a painting is a painting, and not the thing it symbolically represents. A painting is paint, canvas and brush-strokes, it is not a pipe or any other three-dimensional object. So what is Tara Black doing with this for a title? Is she asserting that her graphic novel is only representation, not physical reality? Is she declaring an affinity for surrealism? Is she distancing herself from any identification with her created characters? Maybe all of these things and maybe none.

And what about that opening statement concerning the pole through Beth’s arms – “This is not a metaphor”? Really? I find it very hard to read This is Not a Pipe without seeing metaphor all over the place. The pole through Beth’s arms is a metaphor for the restrictions and limitations on Beth’s life, especially when she, a graphic artist, has to go out to earn while her man is at home doodling with ideas. The commitment of Beth and Kenneth to each other is clear, but the barriers put up by the pole also work as metaphor for the tensions and strains in their relationship, especially when Kenneth assumes a sort of superiority. Those little balloon things that come out of Beth’s arms, are they not the creative ideas that keep flying away from her in her constrained situation?

You see, I can tag everything here as metaphor or symbolism… or I can draw back and say it’s simply about a woman who literally has a pole separating her arms… And Metamorphosis is simply about a man literally turned into an insect… And surrealist paintings are literally about steam engines coming through fireplaces and elephants with legs like stilts…

The fact is I and you (hypocrite lecteuse, ma semblable, ma soeur) always somehow interpret what we see and read. Part of the creative process is making such interpretations. So please feel free to interpret as you will, metaphorically or otherwise.

This is Not a Pipe is a very interesting text and display. Perhaps the ambiguities in what it all means are part of its power.

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.


            Once again, as with my postings on the novels of Dan Davin, I confront you with an incredibly arrogant and smug heading. How dare I claim that the few and brief things I have to say about the work of Angus Wilson (1913-1991) can sum up the man’s literary career? This can’t possibly be “all you need to know” about him. But please hear me out. Angus Wilson, apart from being (as all-knowing Wikipedia tells us) one of Britain’s first “openly gay writers”, was also highly-esteemed by British literati in his heyday, the 1950s and early 1960s. He was knighted for his writing, he became President of the Royal Society of Literature and his biography was written by the notable novelist Margaret Drabble. You have already seen on this blog my comments on his novels Hemlock and After and The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot. But Wilson’s stock appears to have fallen and he is no longer exactly required reading, even by the literati.

            Part of what I do when I write these “Something Old” sections is to sound out whether older works still deserve the praise they once received. Are they living texts, meaningful to us now; or do they reflect tastes that can’t be revived? Wilson seems to me a good case for such inspection, and “all you need to know” is whether it would be profitable for you to read his work or not.

This week, I am considering his three collections of short stories. Before he wrote any novels, Angus Wilson first made his name as a writer of short stories, many of which were originally published in highbrow magazines like Horizon

His first collection was The Wrong Set published in 1949. The stories are densely written, often witty, giving fine details of setting and environments and usually satirising pretentious people and class snobbery and cultural snobbery – and yet often partaking of that snobbery themselves, so with a certain degree of bitchery. I will not irritate you by synopsising all the stories, as I have sometimes done, to deadening effect, when dealing with other collections of short stories (see my dismally pedestrian posting on D.H.Lawrence’s The Prussian Officer and England, My England).

Instead, let me just take note  of the subject matter of successive stories in The Wrong Set – a subservient Oxford don is married to a sarcastic, alcoholic wife, and the relationship leads him to a nervous breakdown. An uncomfortable family reunion in South Africa [in the 1920s] has English visitors patronising the colonials but the South African’s displaying their tight Calvinism (one of Wilson’s parents was South African, and Wilson spent a few of his childhood years there). A New Year’s Eve dance has upper-class characters mingling with their employees, the servants, but mutual contempt really underlies the festivities. The new director of a provincial art gallery outmanouvres, and patronises, his subordinates at a board meeting. The snobbish daughter of an invalided old father is painfully aware of her “shabby genteel” status and  easily takes offence when her social station is pointed out. A self-satisfied provincial family see themselves as non-conforming bohemians, but they really lead a smug, affluent life. A self-righteous woman of professedly liberal views turns her back on her brother when he returns after a spell in prison because his presence “poisons her”. In the south of France [in the 1930s] a young gigolo breaks with the older woman whom he has been servicing. 

You can see in all these scenarios some level of class tension and exposed pretensions of one sort or another (intellectual superiority, false claims to liberal views, apparent generosity which is really a mask for self-interest). However, Wilson rarely strays from the middle and upper-middle classes (the lower orders are at best the walk-on parts). The title story “The Wrong Set”, set during the government of Clement Attlee,  concerns a snobbish, anti-semitic, bibulous woman who plays piano in a sleazy nightclub and who wants to detach her nephew from “the wrong set” with whom he socialises – meaning Jews and left-wingers or “Reds”. The story’s obvious irony is that the “set” with which she herself associates is nothing to be admired.

            Possibly more naïve members of the reading public in 1949 would not have noticed the homosexual overtones in two or three of these stories. The story “Et Dona Ferentes”  has a family hiding in literature and reading rather than facing life itself, apparently because they do not wish to notice the reality of their parents’ marriage – for it is implied (if you are quick enough to notice it) that father makes a pass at a visiting Swedish boy and is really living only the charade of being heterosexual. The story “Mother’s Sense of Fun” concerns a sensitive young man trying to break away from an overwhelming, domineering mother who is moulding his sexuality. Most obviously the story “Raspberry Jam” concerns a litle boy who likes to dress up and paint his face. His bullying father fears he will become a “sissy”. The little boy finds solace by escaping from his strict family and socialising with two eccentric old women – but the tale ends with shocking violence – indeed, with an image that is sometimes cited as the most brutal in all Wilson’s work. While the social milieu reminds me of the covertly camp stories of Osbert Sitwell, the story’s intention is to suggest the brutal suppresion of a gay sensibility. Interestingly, in an interview with the Paris Review in 1957, Wilson said this was the first short story he ever wrote. He was obviously getting off his chest much that had been bottled up since childhood..


If I were really rude, I would say that Angus Wilson’s second collection of short stories Such Darling Dodos (published in 1950) should really be called The Mixture As Before. This was the ironical title W. Somerset-Maugham gave to one of his short-story collections after a reviewer had accused him of cranking out “the mixture as before” and just repeating himself. The stories in Such Darling Dodos are set in the same social milieux, often deal with similar fractious family quarrels and class feelings, and have very much the same tone of irony, envy and disgust as the stories in The Wrong Set. Again, I’ll forego synopsising stories and just present you with the topics of successive stories.

A bankrupt squire has to put up with a family of spongers waiting for the pay-out from the sale of his estate. A frumpy “old maid” with pretensions to refinement suffers the hallucination of an uncouth child plaguing her. In another story, an old woman behaves like a spoilt child, has tantrums and dies by accidental self-strangulation while dreaming of herself as a little girl. (Angus Wilson  had a penchant for stories caricaturing old, deluded and frowsty women.) After a funeral, men compiling an encyclopedia (something in which Angus Wilson was once involved) have bitchy exchanges with the widow of the deceased. In the guise of providing help and sympathy, a domineering woman, who puts on airs and pretends to be part of fashionable society, destroys her mousy sister’s domestic peace and fleeces her of her money. In a story set in wartime, called (rather obviously) “Christmas Day in the Workhouse”, hard class distinctions come to the fore when, at a Christmas dance, upper-middle-class women and lower-middle and even working-class women, all of whom have been drafted into uniform, have to mingle with one another. There are very mixed feelings, and rivalries, as a family gather around the deathbed of their mother. A broken-down officer, who pretends to gentleman status, is reduced to living in Earl’s Court (oh, the horror, my dears!) and, as they visit the zoo, tries to find ways to sponge rent-money from the lower-middle-class woman who is impressed by his gentlemanly airs.

All this sensitivity about class status in the various grades of the middle-class, all these attempts at dominance under the guise of family feeling, all this jockeying for power among colleagues in academic or art-related setting – it is all very Angus Wilson.

As in The Wrong Set, with its “Raspberry Jam”, Such Darling Dodos has a story about an alienated little boy called “Necessity’s Child”. A young schoolboy, neglected by parents who never wanted him in the first place, retreats into daydreams and telling tall stories. But this is no sentimental tale, as it could be chronicling the creation of a monster – because some of the tall stories the little boy invents are knowingly malicious ones which harm other people. The story’s title refers obviously to the old saw that “necessity is the mother of invention” – the boy feels forced to make things up when faced with possible rebukes or brow-beatings. Is the implication that the little boy is regarded as a “sissy” and is therefore the target of bullying? Does much fiction come out of feeling bullied or victimised? In short, is this the template for the making of Angus Wilson?

Surprisingly, the title story “”Such Darling Dodos” is one of the more obvious in its social critique. An aged, dandyish fop, obviously a left-over from the Bright Young Things of the 1920s, visits, in the late 1940s and after the Second World War, the home of people who held ardently “progressive” United Front ideas in the 1930s and during the war. The fop is a Catholic convert; the progressive couple are left-wing Utopians. Both, in effect, have their religions. When some students, of slightly conservative views, visit, the fop describes the progressives as “such darling dodos”, meaning likeable remnants of the past… which, dear reader, is obviously what the fop is too.


I’ve already made the gag about “the mixture as before” so I won’t repeat myself when I come to Angus Wilson’s third and final collection of short stories A Bit Off the Map (1957). A Bit Off the Map shares the same preoccupations with class as The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos. One difference is that it has fewer stories than the earlier collections, partly because some of the stories in A Bit Off the Map are longer – 30 or 40 pages, almost making them novelle. This was also Wilson’s last collection of short stories, though in later years various selections of his 1950s stories were published together under titles such as Death Dance.

Once again, avoiding plot summaries, I can give you the class-conscious tone of the stories by citing their general situations. Two married, social-climbing couples have a maudlin Christmas time in flat and dismal East Anglia, stressing over their social status. A pietistic, religious old biddy says something inappropriate to a woman who is dealing with a real family crisis, revealing how unsophisticated (and of the lower orders) she is. In a small village, a woman engages in nosey-parker-ism in the guise of doing philanthropc deeds for others. There are quarrels over money and status among the heirs of a megalomaniac, half-senile business magnate. In the shabby-genteel setting of a decaying house in the country, an older woman probes a younger man about his life – very, very discreetly suggesting that he is homosexual.

The title story “A Bit Off the Map” is one of the longer ones and is the most explicit in terms of its homosexual theme (i.e. very discreet by later standards). A naïve, young working-class Cockney larrakin is kept as the “mascot” of a clique of right-wing intellectuals, some of whom clearly have a sexual interest in him. The milieu so poisons the young man that when a dotty eccentric starts talking to him in a park, the larrakin assumes he is making an unwelcome pass and beats him up. Wilson obviously understands that the young man will not be convicted for this violent assault as, at the time the story was written, using violence to fend off a homosexual advance was regarded as a perfectly acceptable defence in a court of law. Wilson experiments by telling the first half of this story in the first-person voice of the Cockney kid, but the voice fails to sound authentic.

The sex in this collection’s other two novelle is heterosexual. In “More Friend than Lodger”, the wife of a publisher has an affair with a caddish author, but is able to cleverly extricate herself from the inevitable consequences. “After the Show” – one of the best stories in terms of clear narrative – has a situation that could have been devised by Guy de Maupassant. A callow 18-year-old kid is summoned to the bedside of his uncle’s young mistress, who has just attempted suicide. Of course the kid gets attached to her sentimentally but, in typically sardonic Wilsonian fashion, nothing comes of it as Wilson shows us that the mistress is, after all, just a tart on the make.

I have given you a confusing plethora of “situations” in explaining the nature of Angus Wilson’s short stories, but it is at least a reliable map to Wilson’s world and preoccupations. The England that is depicted is one that has largely vanished, as I said in my earlier review of The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot. Snobbery, social pretensions and class tensions still exist, but the map has changed considerably and most of these stories can’t help looking like antiques. Even more bothersome, Wilson often refers, without explanation, to public figures, commercial companies, slogans and acronyms which would have meant something at the time he was writing but which are fairly impenetrable to later generations.

Next posting I will deal with Angus Wilson’s novels.

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.



I’m in one of those petty moods today where I will give vent to my annoyance about something that is not world-shattering but is still annoying. I am referring to the habit some people have, through sheer ignorance, of attributing well-known quotations (or “quotes”, as the semi-literate say) to the wrong people.

I am not talking about “famous words” that were probably never said by anyone in the first place. We must be aware that in ancient times, historians would summarise some eminent person’s ideas by recording them as if they were direct speech.  Hence, outside the books that he actually wrote, what Julius Caesar is said to have said is really what some scribe or historian thought he should have said. Direct speech was given when historians were simply conveying the general gist of somebody’s ideas. Read Plutrach’s Lives some time, and see the long and detailed speeches he attributes to so many people whose words were never actually recorded in their lifetime.

Doubtless it annoys some people to learn this, but until about 200 years ago, and certainly before the age of general literacy, the famous orations said before battle, the famous eulogies and the famous speeches given in senates and parliaments – unless written down and published by the orator himself – were mainly made up by people other than the supposed speaker.  What desperate stratagems are used now in attempts to authenticate fictitious “famous words”. Item – Queen Elizabeth I probably made a speech at Tilbury, but we have only the vaguest knowledge of what she actually said. The received version we have first appeared about 20 years after her death. But, oh dear, look it up on line and see how many patriotic English historians, wanting to uphold a national myth, have endorsed the following phrases, even though they are probably apocryphal:  "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too".

Now this sort of fictitious speech is annoying enough, but what really irritates me is what is misattributed – a statement quite clearly made first by one person, but too often quoted as if it were made by another.


One of the most notorious is “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (“Let them eat cake” – and yes, pedant, I am aware that “brioche” does not directly translate as “cake”, but this is the translated form in which we have received the statement). One still finds the occasional twit who attributes this to Queen Marie Antoinette, though no serious historian would now do so. The statement came from the fictitious story of a wicked princess, first used by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in a book published in 1767, long before the French Revolution and long before Marie Antoinette was queen of France. Yet, as I noted when reviewing John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards on this blog, Saul spends two pages analysing and deploring the statement in the clear belief that it was said by the queen and was therefore typical of aristocratic contempt for the lower orders. Beware the apparent polymath who has a feeble grasp of the fine details of history.

Some misattributions are less resonant than this, but still annoying. In reviewing Simon Schama’s essay collection Wordy on this blog, I noted that Schama misattributed to Noel Coward the bon mot “Continental people have a sex life; the English have hot-water bottles”. Actually this witticism was coined by the Hungarian Anglophile and humourist George Mikes in his little book How to be an Alien published in 1946. Why would Schama have made this mistake? Partly, I think, because people have the habit of assuming that something witty must have been said by the first famous witty person they can think of. You would be amazed (or perhaps not) at how many witticisms by lesser mortals have been ascribed to Samuel Johnson, Voltaire (who NEVER said “I disagree with your opinions but I will defend to the death your right to express them.”) Sydney Smith, Talleyrand, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, G.K.Chesterton, Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker or any other notable coiner of witty phrases.

And what is true of wits is also true of resonant phrases supposedly made by illustrious statespersons. In Tom Scott’s recent “biography” of Charles Upham Searching for Charlie (a book without notes to authenticate or verify sources), we are told the familiar anecdote of the Chinese statesman who, when asked what he thought were the long-term consequences of the French Revolution, replied “It is too early to tell”. Scott goes on to say the story is probably apocryphal, but he still manages to misattribute it to Mao Tse-Tung (Mao Zedong in the new style). The story has always been attributed to  Chou En-lai (Zhou Enlai). Research tells us that Chou En-lai either never said it OR it was a mistranslation and he was in fact being asked, not about the French Revolution but about the Paris riots of 1968, which were still in the news when he was being interviewed.

Elsewhere in Tom Scott’s book we are told that Winston Churchill said the man who is not a socialist at twenty has no heart, and the man who is still socialist at forty has no brain. Possibly Churchill did say this at some stage, but he would have been quoting a familiar sentiment which dates back to the nineteenth century at least. It was first found in print in a French version in the 1875 and has been attibuted to an obscure jurist called Batbie (yes, obscure people can say witty things); and of course the original witticism did not refer to “socialism” but to (French) republicanism and radicalism. Engish versions of the statement were already circulating when Churchill (born 1874) was still in the nursery. Is worth noting that there is a whole website devoted to quotations falsely attributed to Churchill.

When I was kid, TV had an American series called Slattery’s People (I’ve just checked – it lasted for two seasons, 1964-65). It was about state politics in the USA and starred Richard Crenna. Every episode began with the admonition "Democracy is a very bad form of government. But I ask you never to forget: All the others are so much worse." I have heard this intelligent idea attributed to everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to Charles de Gaulle to [inevitably] Winston Churchill. The best anyone can come up with is that it was first recorded as being said by Churchill but, as he himself admitted, he was quoting an unacknowledged source and did not use exactly those words. I didn’t say that Churchill never said anything pungent.

At this point I could descend into quotational trivia. No, John Lennon did not originate the comment that “Life is what happens when you are planning other things”. He did quote it in one of his songs, but the remark was commonplace in the 1950s when Lennon was an unknown kiddie and the earliest published source so far found is a comment by the journalist Alan Saunders in an issue of the Reader’s Digest from 1957. No, it was not a young New Zealand journalist who first said that “The nearest we will ever get to a time machine is the cinema”. This piece of wisdom was well-known long before any New Zealander got hold of it. No, as I once heard stated on an RNZ broadcast, it was not 19th century John Stuart Mill who first decribed the original state of natural man as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. The phrase was coined by 17th century Thomas Hobbes.

And so on, and so on. You see I could ramble idly about on this topic for hours. My main point is that misattributions happen because people assume resonant phrases must have been made by celebrities they have heard of, and don’t bother to check any sources.

So, in the words of Shakespeare, “That’s all folks!”