Monday, October 29, 2012

Something New

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

“FAR FROM ‘HOME’ -  The English in New Zealand” edited by Lyndon Fraser and Angela McCarthy (Otago University Press, $NZ45)

            At all times since New Zealand was first settled by Pakeha, the largest single group of immigrants has been the English. But the very dominance of the English strain in New Zealand has made it virtually invisible. If such a large portion of the population are of English descent, then English-derived customs and habits of thought are taken as the New Zealand norm, and therefore not worthy of special study. Irish-, Scottish- and other-derived customs and habits of thought are seen as deviations from this norm, and therefore of greater historical interest. The English strain is merely part of the landscape.

            Recently in our universities there has been an upsurge of interest in our Celtic forebears. History departments offer courses and papers in Irish and Scottish studies, and many academics have contributed to these studies, including Lyndon Fraser and Angela McCarthy. Fair enough. Older – and now superseded – history books tended to be very Anglo-centric in the judgements they made, often conveying uncritically ideas about English skills as colonisers and settlers in the Wakefield and Canterbury myths. But perhaps the pendulum has swung a little too far. Perhaps papers and monographs on West Coast Irish and Dunedin Scots have begun to give the impression that these were the only interesting nineteenth century immigrants to New Zealand. Maybe the time is right to say something, with real documentation, about specifically English immigrants and their experience.

            This, at any rate, appears to be the impulse behind  Far From ‘Home’, a collection of eight academic essays by various hands. From different perspectives, the essays look at the Englishness of immigrants between 1840 and the early twentieth century with, in some cases, briefer afterthoughts on the situation since then. In their introduction the editors make it plain that Far From ‘Home’ can hardly be the last word on the topic. Among these essays there is, for example, no systematic study of the religion that the English brought with them, unlike the way migrant studies of the Scots or Irish inevitably discuss their Presbyterianism and Catholicism.

            As I see it, the eight essays divide into two types – those that give the necessary documentation on English migration in general; and those that offer some quirky or individual perspective.

            Take the “necessary” essays first.

            Stephen Constantines contribution “In Search of the English and Englishness” is the inevitable demographic study making clear that of British emigrants to any part of the old empire, the majority were always English rather than Scots or Irish, but that majority was never as great a proportion of the total as the majority of English was in Britain itself. For example, by 1901, and judging from their points of departure, British immigrants to New Zealand were 54% English,  23% Scots,  21% Irish and 1% Welsh. In Britain itself, the English made up 74% of the total population, the Irish and Scots about 11% each, and the Welsh 5%. Even if the English were the largest group, therefore, New Zealand was proportionately more Scots and Irish than Britain itself was. To compound this fact, Constantine also notes that many immigrants listed as “English” in demographic records were people of Irish and Scots parentage who had settled in England only a short time before emigrating to New Zealand.

            Constantine’s study is empire-wide, and in discussing reasons for emigration it balances up need (pauperism; poverty etc.) with inducements (the imperial power’s desire to stock colonies with the British-born). In the matter of the ruling class in colonies (governors, premiers etc.) Constantine concludes that there were more English-born than Irish-born or Scots-born, but again English dominance was not as overwhelming as it was in Britain itself. Most intriguingly, however, Constantine considers the difficulties of defining “Englishness” in this empire-wide context. It is reasonable to see the Anglican church as English, but professing Anglicans were a minority in all major British dominions, and were never the majority that the English-born were. Many English people were, after all, Methodists, Baptists etc. Likewise, the playing of certain games (rugby, cricket) and social class are useless as demographic markers of “Englishness”. Judiciously, Constantine concludes:

            “Englishness, like other expressions of national identity in most peacetime circumstances, was usually a ‘soft’ force. It rarely predominated over a sense of self, prompted social behaviour, defined social interactions, determined a particular church allegiance, or constrained cultural interactions with others from the United Kingdom….there was not, in any case, a singular English identity, but many.” (Pg.38)

            Marjory Harper’s Everything is English” deals in detail with how English immigrants were recruited, what areas of England they came from, and the preconceptions they had about New Zealand (fear of “cannibal islands” etc.). She considers such matters as how disappointed many were when prospects in New Zealand were oversold to them. In her conclusion she notes there was not one uniform system of emigration from England and she speaks of “the consistently contentious status of agency activity, manifested in internal jealousies, external rivalries and the complaints of disappointed immigrants.” (Pg.59)

            The contribution of  Lachlan PatersonPakeha or English?” raises the obvious question of whether the indigenous people saw any difference between the various strands of British immigrants. Ingarangi (England) and Ingarihi (English) tended to be used by Maori as synonyms for “Britain” and “British”. Drawing extensively on both Maori-language and English-language nineteenth century newspapers, Paterson argues that Maori also tended to see “English” and “Pakeha” as synonymous. Because the English were numerically the largest immigrant group from Britain, it was predominantly their culture which became the Pakeha norm in Maori eyes.

            As for the perspective of English immigrants themselves, David Pearson’sArcadia Reinvented?” differs from other essays in this book by being based on the twentieth century experience of living witnesses. Drawing on 82 long interviews with English immigrants who arrived between 1953 and 2007, Pearson attempts to reconstruct their attitudes and reasons for coming to New Zealand, and their attitudes towards both New Zealand and Britain after they had put down roots here. He sees some differences in attitudes between pre-1980s and post-1980s migrants.

            Thus far for the sensible, inevitable and “necessary” essays in a collection of this sort – an essay on demographics; an essay on how English immigrants were recruited; an essay on Maori understanding of immigrants; and an essay on English immigrants’ self-understanding. As source material they are valuable, but I admit to finding the remaining essays in the book – namely those that take a more unexpected aspect of the English influence – to be more readable and entertaining.

            Greg Ryan’s essay “ ‘Burton ale’, London Porter and Kentish Hops” concerns the production of beer and beer-drinking habits in New Zealand. Most beer consumed here was imported from England until the mid-19th century. Ryan recounts such bizarre tales as brewers of inferior local beer in Dunedin seeking out empty bottles from England so that they could palm off their inferior local product as the real English thing. From his account it is clear that New Zealand-brewed beers were regarded as much inferior to imported English varieties right into early 20th century and only gradually was a distinctive New Zealand beer standard established.

            Angela McCarthy’sMigration and Ethnicity among English Migrants in New Zealand Asylums” notes that while the English made up the largest group of  inmates, they were not as over-represented in New Zealand psychiatric institutions as the Irish were. Her speculation on why this should have been so suggests how the “scientific racism” of superintendents’ notes on patients did not apply to English patients, whose ethnicity was not commented upon. In other words, English aberrations and eccentricities could be accepted as “normal”. Irish (and other ethnic) eccentricities and aberrations would be regarded as dangerous mental ailments.

            Lyndon Fraser’sMemory, Mourning and Melancholy” concerns English attitudes to death and funerary customs as revealed in New Zealand cemeteries and other records. It is more diffuse and, dare I say it, more entertaining than some more tightly-structured essays in this volume. Fraser says much of his material comes from records in the more “English” settlements of Canterbury and Nelson, but he also quotes extensively from English imaginative literature. He considers the extent to which middle-class and upper-class funerals had been commercialised and become ostentatious in the nineteenth century, in a way that was often ridiculed by writers like Dickens and Emily Bronte; and that was later frowned upon in New Zealand.

            He considers the frequency of child mortality (“Death tracked birth like a bloodhound in the nineteenth century and, as the Christchurch registers show, exacted a terrible toll on infants and young children.” Pg.115 ). To his immense credit, Fraser enters into the spirit of the age he is writing about, and deals respectfully with the words of comfort – which can seem sentimental to us – which grieving parents had engraved on the tombstones of children. He also notes the real comforts of religion which nineteenth century mourners were given. In nineteenth-century New Zealand there was the habit, inherited from England, of carving up municipal cemeteries into denominational plots.
            There is a bizarre side to Fraser’s chapter when he deals with funerary portraits, trinkets, mementi mori and other keepsakes of the dead. Even more bizarre are his comments on the dangers of burial at sea for immigrants en route to New Zealand (sharks were likely to feed on “buried” corpses descending through the briny).

            If this chapter has a weakness, as far as the overall theme of the volume is concerned, it is a failure to point up the Englishness of it all by showing how these English mortuary practices differed from those of the Irish and the Scots.

            The final essay, Janet Wilson’sThe ‘New Chum’ ”, examines “Writings of the English Diaspora in New Zealand 1860-1914”. It marches through that New Zealand-English poetry which is no longer esteemed (Alfred Domett attempting to transpose Victorianisms into heroic epic by the use of Maori names); and that which is still esteemed (Blanche Baughan). It does the same with novels and prose from Butler’s Erewhon, and the works of Lady Barker to Satchell’s The Greenstone Door. In each case, Wilson considers how much these writers expressed a certain dislocation in adjusting to a radically different climate and landscape, and how much they attempted to depict New Zealand according to established English literary norms.

            Wilson’s judgements are very much those of the current lit-crit “revisionism” (as in Stafford and Williams’ Maoriland) which refuses to see authentic New Zealand literature as beginning only in the 1930s, and which sees much literary merit in those colonial perspectives that were once regarded as passé. In other words, Wilson does not accept the “nationalist” idea of New Zealand literature which saw it as becoming more “authentic” the further it got from the colonial era. She posits that our literature will always to some extent be connected with that of Britain and ends with comments on the  (New Zealand-born, English-resident) Fleur Adcock; and (English-born, New Zealand-resident) Peter Bland.

            As you can see from these extensive comments, I have retreated into my common trick of summarising this book’s contents without passing too much judgement upon them. Of course Far From ‘Home’ will be a great source-book for researchers and other historians. Of course not all the essays are written with the same panache and style.

            Only two other comments need be made.

            First, I am still a little uneasy about the use of the term “diaspora” (“scattering” or “dispersal”), which is justified in the editor’s introduction and which is most clearly explained in Janet Wilson’s essay, where she says “migration” suggests going from one culture to another whereas “diaspora” suggests taking your culture with you and trying to implant it. Very well. I accept that in this sense the term can be justified of English emigrants. Nevertheless, ‘diaspora’ is still most commonly used for forced migration (as in the Jewish diaspora after the destruction of the second temple; or the Irish diaspora after the famine). I think it remains an inappropriate term for an English migration that was largely voluntary. To overuse the word is to drain it of any real meaning.

            Second, while some essays in this book do raise the problem of defining “Englishness”, I am not satisfied that all essays really tell us how distinctive English immigration to New Zealand was from Scots or Irish migration. As with the matter of English religious practice, this could mean that there is much more study yet to be done on this topic.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "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 five or more years ago.

“THE LAKE” by George Moore (first published 1905; revised 1921)
            Fifteen or twenty years ago, I had one of my odder excursions in reading. For some reason I began to read my way systematically through the works of  three late- nineteenth/early-twentieth century authors, each of whom once had a considerable reputation; but each of whom has subsequently fallen into relative obscurity. By coincidence (and not because I was trying to make some satirical point) each of them happened to be called George. There was the fastidious, over-intellectual George Meredith. There was the desperate, struggling realist George Gissing (whom in the end I judged to be the most sympathetic of the three). And there was George Moore.

            I ended up reading nearly all the works of all three.

            I’ve written about Meredith and Gissing before on this blog [look ‘em up on the index at right], but I have not yet ventured into Moore-land.

            He was a very contradictory and annoying person, was George Moore (1852-1933). Of Irish Catholic background and education, he nevertheless had the attitudes, instincts and habits of thought of the Protestant Anglo-Irish gentry. He certainly wrote some novels and stories about Ireland (A Drama in Muslin, The Untilled Field). In some ways his most accessible production is his gossipy, and often very bitchy, three-volume memoir of Irish and Dublin literary life Hail and Farewell, the separate volumes being entitled Ave!, Salve! and Vale!  But George Moore was really more at home in Paris, where he’d trained as a painter and absorbed the influence of Zola; and in London, where he lived for the last twenty or so years of his life. One of his first major novels A Mummer’s Wife, was a Zolaesque account of alcoholism among a travelling acting company. It has an English setting. The novel that is often considered his best, Esther Waters, is set among raffish bookies and touts at English race-tracks. Anyone reading these two would assume the author was an Englishman, not an Irishman. To compound the confusion, when Moore’s memoirs of his Paris days, Confessions of a Young Man, were translated into French, their title became Confessions d’un jeune Anglais.

            Yet in the novel I choose as this week’s “Something Old”, The Lake, Moore deals with a very specifically Irish theme and situation.

            Like Henry James, Moore had the unlovely habit of attempting to re-write and bring out new editions of his works after they had already been published. As somebody said, he was always “looking for the perfect literary style”. This meant the last years of his life were spent tinkering with his own texts and sending out pompous newsletters to friends. As you will note from the heading, The Lake was first published in 1905, but was revised for a later edition in 1921, and it is only in this edition that I know it.

            Father Oliver Gogarty is a rural parish priest in the west of Ireland. He has become a priest partly through the influence of his two sisters, both of whom are nuns, and partly because he does not wish to follow his father into the dull life of being a country merchant. A village gossip, Mrs O’Mara, tells Father Oliver that Nora Glynn, the parish organist and schoolmistress, is pregnant. Father Oliver confirms that this is true when he confronts Miss Glynn. Imprudently, Father Oliver preaches a fiery sermon on the virtue of chastity when he knows that Nora Glynn is in his church.

            Nora flees from the parish.

            Months later, Father Oliver receives a letter from Father Michael O’Grady, a priest working in London, reproving him for his all-too-common and uncharitable course of action, and telling him how Nora and her baby are faring in London. Father Oliver is now wracked with remorse for his own intolerance. He ham-fistedly tries to make amends. At this stage, he still thinks in terms of saving Nora from her sins. When he hears that Nora has become secretary and companion to an agnostic literary gentleman, Walter Poole, who is doing sceptical research on the origins of Christianity, Father Oliver fears for Nora’s soul and wants to draw her back into the Catholic faith. More urgently, he fears that she might be Walter Poole’s mistress.

            When he discovers she is indeed Poole’s mistress, Father Oliver has a flash of insight. He at last acknowledges that the real cause of his anxiety for Nora was his own sexual attraction to her. Faced with this realization, his own sense of vocation and religious faith slowly slide away.

            He still has things that tie him to his village parish. There is the simple trust of the country people. There is the fact that he has to be moral mentor and guide to his alcoholic curate Father Moran, who looks up to him. More than once he has had to deter Father Moran from drinking bouts. Even while coming to see women as the life-force, he still has many priestly habits of thought, and sometimes lapses into seeing the hand of God in many events about him.

            But he cannot continue to live in bad faith. The question becomes – how can he disengage himself from the parish and the priesthood without destroying many people’s trust and without himself becoming an object of scorn and calumny? The answer comes from the lake, about the shores of which he often wanders, meditating. He conceals civilian garb on the far side of the lake. Under a full moon he strips off his priestly clothes and leaves them on the side of the lake near the parish. Then he swims across, naked, dons the civilian garb and flees, leaving the parishioners to believe he has drowned.

            Under another name, he makes a new life for himself as a journalist in America.

            When it comes to the novel’s ending, the symbolism of the lake is fairly obvious. It represents a sort of baptism as Oliver leaves one life and is initiated into another. (Like Fred Henry falling into a river, and later fleeing across a lake, in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms). But the lake features frequently in this novel long before the ending is reached. More often, Moore presents it as an image of the private soul, reflecting only oneself, to which one should be true in spite of the pressures of society. I’m also sure that an author so conscious of his symbolism as Moore would not have chosen to call the agnostic writer Poole by accident. Poole is the pool into which Nora sinks. The lake is the new life in which Oliver immerses himself.

            There are some oddities about the novel’s style and structure. The main event of the story (Nora’s pregnancy and Father Oliver’s intemperate denunciation of her) has happened before the novel begins. As Moore says in his introduction to the 1921 edition “the one vital event in the priest’s life happened before the story opens”. We learn about this anterior action not only via Father Oliver’s agonised thoughts, but in letters exchanged between Father Oliver, Father O’Grady and Nora herself. The novel is thus an odd combination of the epistolary and the stream-of-consciousness.

            This does not always work. Some of Oliver’s letters are written in a self-revelatory, heart-on-sleeve style that is hard to reconcile with the way he is otherwise depicted. Then there are Moore’s elisions. We are told of, but do not have dramatised, a key illness and fever into which Oliver sinks and from which he emerges with a completely new religious perspective. It is as if we have been cheated of a key step in the character’s development.

            And yet the novel as a whole works. The logic of its development is flawless, from the priest’s unthinking zealotry to his doubts to his self-understanding to his quest for a new life. Moore would not be Moore if at least part of his purpose was not only anti-Catholic polemic, but also a vague sort of pagan affirmation of Nature in all the descriptions of lake and shore and woods. There is this “pagan” note in the moment where Oliver is about to jump into the lake and “stepping from stone to stone he stood on the last one as on a pedestal, tall and grey in the moonlight – buttocks hard as a faun’s, and dimpled as a faun’s when he draws himself up before plunging after a nymph.” [Chapter 14]. Moore’s master Zola had taught him the ways of anti-clerical polemic with his novel La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret; and Moore himself later wrote his agnostic novel about Jesus, The Brook Kerith. Indeed the character of Walter Poole in The Lake could be in part a self-portrait.

            But The Lake is not crude anti-church polemic. Father Moran (despite his alcoholism), the kindly old Father O’Grady, and Father Peter (who preceded Oliver in his parish) are all shown to be good and sincere men by their lights, genuinely concerned for their parishioners. But Moore can’t resist moments where formal religion is presented as something for the ignorant peasants. Just before Oliver swims the lake, there is a raucous scene of low comedy where peasants scuffle over whether a baby should be baptised Catholic or Protestant. There is also one delightful scene of more subtle comedy where Father O’Grady visits Father Oliver from London, and the two priests circle about the problem of actually talking about Nora, when that is really what they are most interested in talking about. In this scene, Moore seems to be gently suggesting the insufficiency in celibate priests’ approaches to women.

            The Puritanism of Irish Catholicism and the drawbacks of clerical celibacy are things that Moore obviously has in his sights. But he knows the country and the situation too well to serve us stereotypes.

            The Lake is still a key Irish novel.

Two cheeky footnotes:
            (A.) Moore was acquainted with the famous Irish wit and author Oliver St.John Gogarty, and chose the name of the hero of The Lake in mockery of his friend, who otherwise had nothing in common with the hero of the novel in either temperament or outlook. I have this information from Ulick O’Connor’s biography Oliver St.John Gogarty (1964).
            (B.) There is something strange about Moore’s criticism of clerical celibacy when Moore himself never married, seems to have lived most (and possibly all) of his life celibate, and wasn’t very good at intimate personal relationships. Motes and beams, I guess.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


             Sometime last week, the evening scene was my idea of perfection.

            The sun had just set. In my upstairs study, I was seated in my work-chair, reading. My wife was seated in the armchair, reading. From the large study window – which faces north-east – I was admiring the clouds. They were not a flashy sunset spectacle, but subdued, turning cotton-wool-grey in the twilight. Serene.

            At times like these, I usually dive for William Collins’ Ode to Evening and read it like a prayer. Instead, I said out loud “When I am retired, I think I will spend a lot of time looking at the sky.

            Blasted literary allusions!

            At once I realized what had formed that thought. It was a vague memory of the last two lines of W.H.Auden’s pithy “Roman Wall Blues”:

            “When I'm a veteran with only one eye
            I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

            One thing leads to another.

            It always does.

            As night fell, I took off the shelf Auden’s Collected Shorter Poems and began reading. With delight.

            Why was I so delighted?

            Because they were so urbane. So finished. So clearly poems from an age when good poets knew about structure, and what the rules were, and when and how the rules may be broken fruitfully but how they can never be ignored. Poems by a man who, fifty and more years ago, worked in a tradition he understood but was renewing with his own voice.

            After I’d read for a while, an evil and deluded thought formed in my mind.

            It always does.

            Recently, I’ve been reading new volumes of poetry that are hot off the press. Recently, too, I’ve been reading and sorting submissions to a poetry magazine which I am guest-editing. Some are good. Some are very good. But how many of them are tosh and tat. How few poets now know anything about form and structure.

            So, says the evil and deluded thought, poetry and culture in general have degenerated. The poets of this age are not a patch on the poets of fifty and more years ago. I should know. I’ve just been reading Auden.

            Oh delusion!

            Fortunately, reason rushes in to correct this foolish thought.

            The proportion of tat and tosh to very good poetry (and culture in general) is probably no more now than it was in The Golden Age.

            The delusion is caused by the obvious fact that only the good stuff has survived and continued to a re-printed half a century or more after it first appeared.

            A poetry reviewer (or editor) in 1932 doubtless did as much whining and groaning as I do at the cliché-mongers and poetasters and talentless bastards who get into print (or try to).

            What we think of as literary culture is the tip of a publishing iceberg. Beneath the waves, where it should always stay, is the massed mediocrity that has not survived.

            Only time sorts out the worthwhile.

            All other critics should hold their breath until time has done its work.

CODA: Seeing as I’ve mentioned it, you might as well savour Roman Wall Blues for yourself. One of Mr Auden’s pithiest. One of his neatest conjunctions of the colloquial and the historical. One of…. Oh blast this critic talk! Just read it and enjoy it for yourself.

                        Roman Wall Blues

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.

Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;
There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I'm a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.