Monday, January 28, 2013

Something New

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

“DIPLOMATIC LADIES – NEW ZEALAND’S UNSUNG ENVOYS” by Joanna Woods (Otago University Press, $NZ49:99)
“A WOMAN’S PLACE” compiled by Redmer Yska (Penguin, $NZ24:99)

I admit to approaching this very interesting book with some diffidence. I was almost put off by the front cover of Diplomatic Ladies. It has, against a pink background, the smiling photograph of a fashionably-dressed 1950s diplomat’s wife. In conjunction with that ambiguous word “ladies”, the image and design at once suggest something light, frivolous, gossipy and a little silly. Not my cup of tea. But I long since learned not to judge books by their covers, and I discovered that Diplomatic Ladies is not these things.

Well, not only these things.

Researched and written by a New Zealand diplomat’s wife, Diplomatic Ladies is an informal history of the wives and female partners of New Zealand diplomats, drawing on archives, interviews and the author’s own observations. As the subtitle, “New Zealand’s Unsung Envoys”, suggests, Joanna Woods has a high opinion of the women who have partnered men in New Zealand’s embassies, high commissions and special missions. In her introduction she declares:

As hostesses to prime ministers and princes, and witnesses to revolutions and war, diplomatic wives can … find themselves in the front line of international politics. Yet their role has been ignored by historians and their stories have never been told. The realisation that unless somebody wrote them down, many of these stories would be lost, was a powerful incentive to write this book.” (Pg.12)

She also implies some ambiguity in her attitude to the diplomatic service itself:

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has had no hand in writing this book, but in the interests of New Zealand’s external relations, I have tried to avoid any comments that might give offence to other nations. On the other hand, I have not minced words on the downside of a career in diplomacy – or of the perils of living on ‘the cocktail party circuit’ ”. (Pg.12)

Though there are some continuing themes in this book, most of what follows resolves itself into individual stories.

            The first chapter is a corker – the much-told story of the scandal that engulfed the daughter of William and Maud Pember Reeves. Here were the Pember Reeveses in London, officially representing New Zealand trade in an age before New Zealand had its own diplomatic service (all our foreign policy was then decided by London). Maud was busy promoting women’s suffrage. William was joining Maud in making big noises at the Fabian Society. Such progressive forward-thinking gradualist socialist people they were. And of course they laughingly criticised the puritanical social customs of the day. And of course they loved rubbing shoulders with the likes of H.G.Wells. And of course they thought it was good for their brilliant young daughter Amber to rub shoulders with him too. But – oh dear! oh woe! – how different their attitudes became when H.G.Wells, advocate of “free love”, got Amber pregnant. This was much to the chagrin of Wells’ wife Jane, who quite clearly didn’t share her husband’s enthusiasm for “open” marriages. Shock. Horror. Outrage. Apart from telling us what a self-justifying humbug H.G.Wells could be, this narrative continues to be a very funny example of intellectuals who never think through the consequences of their own attitudes; or who imagine that radical ideas are excellent for other people, but that they themselves are somehow exempt. Never construct a system of morality unless you are willing to be bound by it yourself, I say.

            Dare one comment, however, that Maud Pember Reeves, the “diplomatic lady” in question, isn’t really the central figure in the story?

            Jumping forward over thirty years, Joanna Woods then tells us in Chapter 2 of a very different couple, Charles and Jean Boswell, New Zealand’s first representatives in the Soviet Union after New Zealand’s own diplomatic service was set up in 1943. Again, this is an amusing chapter, although in a very different way from the first. It is clear that the ambassador and his wife were surrounded at the embassy by other and younger New Zealanders, who were more starry-eyed about Stalin and Communism than the Boswells were. (Among them was the duplicitous and dishonest Paddy Costello who - pace James McNeish’s over-generous book about him, The Sixth Man  - Joanna Woods seems inclined to think really was a Soviet spy.) Jean Boswell took her revenge, when she returned to New Zealand, by penning a series of newspaper articles about what life in the Soviet Union was really like – drab, pinched, poor, dictatorial and definitely unfree. Okay, so the articles were part of the earlier phases of the Cold War; but for accuracy they have stood the test of time far better than anything Costello and his buddies wrote on the subject. Comparing this chapter with Chapter 11, one is relieved to see that later generations of young New Zealand diplomats posted to Moscow were a lot more sceptical of the Soviet system than the gullible Costello generation had been.

            I will not annoy you by synopsising every one of this book’s 21 chapters, but I do note that these first two chapters set a high standard.

            Some chapters are very domestic in their focus. The account (Chapter 3) of Eileen Powles, wife of our High Commissioner in Samoa (before Samoan independence in 1962) does say a few things about the appalling reputation New Zealand had to live down in Samoa, after its colonialist mistreatments of Samoans. But it mainly concentrates on Eileen Powles’ refurbishing of the large, run-down residency, and her interest in organising Samoan women’s committees. Eileen’s husband was knighted, says Joanna Woods, “but Eileen received no such personal honours. Her reward was her husband’s happiness and the privilege of being the mistress of Vailima”. (Pg.53) This suggests values different from those of our age, as does the rather defensive chapter (Chapter 7) on the formidable ambassador’s wife Marguerite Scott, with her drafted code of conduct that offended younger, more feminist women in embassies in the 1970s. Scott was as shocked at her daughter’s extra-marital pregnancy as the Pember Reeveses had been in a similar situation sixty years earlier.

Just as domestic is the chapter (Chapter 6) which reproduces the letters of Moira Simcock, wife of the Third Secretary in Delhi, who wrote to “Dear Mama” on the difficulties of giving birth to, and bringing up, three small boys in our Indian embassy. The chapter (Chapter 10) on Janine and Don Hunn in Tonga does make wry comment on a failed New Zealand attempt to boost the Samoan economy, but is more concerned with how the good diplomatic wife dealt with the Tongan king and royal court.

Some chapters take me into a world I find more than a little alienating. To read (Chapter 4) of Lyn Corner, the art-collecting wife of Frank Corner, is like being at one of those tedious Wellington parties where awfully liberal people lead awfully privileged lives with government or academic connections. I have the same impression reading (Chapter 9) about the art-works of diplomatic wife Piera McArthur, even if I quite like her stuff, some of which I regularly see hanging in the home of a friend. The tale (Chapter 8) of Jane, daughter of Our Man in Canada Dean Eyre, and her friendship with Pierre Trudeau, is no more than a mildly amusing anecdote.

On the other hand, there are chapters where Woods conveys some of the dangers that can be part of the diplomatic life. In Chapter 5, there is the account of Alison Howell (wife of the Third Secretary) in Saigon at the time of the Tet Offensive. Chapter 12, about a diplomatic couple in New Guinea, may concentrate on the wife’s difficulties in running a household, but it also shows how fraught life could be amidst the “raskols” of Port Moresby. Joanna Woods gives own account (Chapter 14) of her time as wife to our ambassador to Iran in 1980s, when the war with Iraq was on and bombs were raining down. Barbara Hill, wife of Second Secretary at the New Zealand High Commission in Fiji, went through Rabuka coups in the 1980s (Chapter 17).   Chapter 21 concerns a diplomatic spouse in New York at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

Perhaps inevitable in an account of small diplomatic circles, there is some juicy gossip. The sex life of New Zealand diplomat Paul Edmonds gets a going-over at pp.76-77. The whole of Chapter 19 is devoted to the National Party mediocrity John Collinge who, purely out of political cronyism, was made High Commissioner in London in the 1990s, deserted one mistress for another, and managed not to be present when the two women fought publicly over him in a London courtroom. More serious in intent is Chapter 20, about homosexuals in the diplomatic service and the relatively recent extension to same-sex partners of allowances that were once reserved for spouses. As background to this, Woods discusses the career, in the 1940s and 1950s, of Alister McIntosh, the closet homosexual who essentially founded New Zealand’s diplomatic service (Woods cautiously raises possibility that he didn’t tell his wife-of-convenience of his other sexual activities. Certainly he treated her badly).

A chronologically-ordered set of stories can’t help showing how attitudes have changed in some ways. In the chapter on Marguerite Scott, Joanna Woods notes:

 “To the young women of the ‘70s, the notion that a wife’s social position depended entirely on the rank of her husband and that she had a ‘duty’ to engage in representational activities was like a red rag to a bull.” (Pg.105)

Chapter 13, wryly called “The Abolition of Slavery”, concerns the way diplomatic wives were, by the 1970s, gradually gaining the right to have paid employment of their own, rather than being unpaid entertainers and hostesses. This change is reflected in Chapter 16 concerning Jill Caughley, wife of a diplomat, with her own career as a Red Cross medico in stressful places like Cambodia and Afghanistan. Indeed, Caughley’s diplomat husband is hardly mentioned in the chapter. In Chapter 18, it is the woman, Michele Wood, who is the diplomat in Iraq with her husband Geoff trailing after her at the time Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

There are some tart observations. Woods would appear to be (in Chapter 15) as ambiguous about Ed Hillary’s “Official Companion” in Nepal – who later became Hillary’s second wife  - as were some of the other diplomatic wives. The “Official Companion” was awarded a QSM for doing things other diplomatic women did as a matter of course. In Chapter 18, as Joanna Woods tells it, David Lange is seen engaging in an awful piece of tactless bluster as he slagged off diplomatic staff in Iraq. Then there is that issue of some senior diplomatic postings going, as rewards, to past-it politicians. Relating to the appointment of Dean Eyre to Canada, Woods says:

 “To those who had spent long years learning their trade, the government’s practice of rewarding political cronies with top-level posts was little short of an insult, especially as such appointments were often used to dispose of those who were past their sell-by date.”  (Pg.117)

Only on the last two pages does Woods address the proposed government budget-trimming, which would abolish all allowances to spouses and partners (and in effect make diplomacy an attractive career only to the single, the unloved and the unlovable).

I cannot categorise Diplomatic Ladies easily as entertainment or serious history – it has elements of both and at least some of its contents are more whimsical than others. It does not make me like diplomatic circles as much as Woods obviously does. In at least some of the chapters there is the sense of a twittery and self-important in-group. But it is by turns interesting and entertaining; it had enough interest to keep me reading; and it is not to be judged only by its cover.

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Much more obviously than Diplomatic Ladies, a commentary on the changed status of women is the whole purpose of A Woman’s Place. Redmer Yska’s little compilation is meant to elicit 50% nostalgia and 50% chortles of disbelief. It is made up of a selection of New Zealand advertisements aimed at women, editorials concerning women and advice about women dished out by agony aunts from the 1940s to the 1960s. Most of the contents are extracted from the old NZ Truth, but with a few things from Wellington newspapers and old “home economics” guides.

So we snigger at ads for Colmans Mustard or Kruschen Salts or Palmolive Soap in which women are depicted as silly housewives, waiting for gifts from hubby or having their whole world-view altered by a clean oven top or rejoicing that their sponge-cake won the prize at the local fair. So patronising. So sexist. So funny. The copywriters’ words are doggedly non-PC by current standards, as are the quaint images. The expectations for women in 1963 are not those of 2013.

And yet…. And yet…. Incorrigible spoilsport that I am, I start asking whether the advertisements here resurrected are any more unrealistic or demeaning than the advertisements of our own age. Surely, in 2063, there will be as much chortling over 2013 ads selling products with images of super-models and brainless bimbos as there is now chortling over images of 1963’s brainless housewife. Ads wouldn’t work at all if they didn’t actually appeal to their market. Therefore, presumably, the lady who stressed over having the right brand of tea to give her neighbours was a social reality half a century ago. And advertisers have never been out to better the world. They simply want to move goods.

Anyway, slightly smug though the concept is, and dead easy as an object of satire, A Woman’s Place is an amusing bedside book for that last chuckle before lights out. 

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.

“SONIA” by Stephen McKenna (first published in 1917)

            Here I go into one of my maddening recherché moments. I have just been looking at two books about women, including one about women as they were once depicted by male advertising copywriters. This leads me to consider a novel by a male that conceives of a woman in most unrealistic terms.

            Is the novel worth your rushing out and finding?


            Why then am I dealing with it?

Because the historian in me likes finding novels that so perfectly represent the prejudices of the age in which they were written.

            Stephen McKenna’s Sonia was written and first published during the First World War. High-brow British reviewers praised it and for a time McKenna was regarded as an important figure in modern Eng Lit. I even have on my shelves a couple of “surveys” of early 20th century Eng Lit that mention him respectfully. His books continued to be re-printed for quite a few years, including this one and its sequel – which I haven’t read – Sonia Married. I myself read Sonia in a battered Penguin paperback printed in 1949. Then, inevitably, McKenna slipped out of view and is now quite justifiably forgotten, even though he lived a long life (1888-1967) and apparently churned out nearly 50 novels.

            To show why this should be so, let me ask you to sit, like good children, cross-legged on the carpet in front of me while I give you the novel’s plot.

            It goes like this.

            Ostensibly it is the story of the social butterfly Sonia Dainton, who breaks men’s hearts in the years just before the First World War. In fact, however, this eponymous character is peripheral to much of the novel’s action. The real centre of vitality is David O’Rane, illegitimate son of an Irish peer.

            Narrated in the first person by one George Oakleigh, the novel begins at the public school Melton. A couple of years younger than Oakleigh and his friend Lord Jim Loring, David O’Rane comes as an outsider speaking an odd mixture of Irish and American idioms; but he becomes a school legend with his formidable energy and scholarship.

            Running through the 1890s and 1900s, the novel takes the main characters to Oxford and then to parliament. Jim Loring becomes an ultra-Conservative member of the House of Lords; George Oakleigh, an opponent of the Boer War, becomes a Liberal. David O’Rane has fallen in love with Sonia Dainton, but her parents, seeing her as too young, break off the match.

            O’Rane travels the world and we hear of his daring exploits – supporting Hungarian nationalists in the Austrian Empire; making a fortune in oil with desperadoes in Mexico etc. The narrator gives us great slabs of social commentary about frivolous high society as it contrasts with real social questions on the eve of the Great War. Meanwhile Sonia – who really has an important role only from about halfway through the novel – continues to break men’s hearts. She makes and then breaks an engagement with Jim Loring, because her parents disapprove of Jim’s being a Catholic.

            O’Rane returns to England, filled with energy for reform. He is briefly a Conservative (!) member of parliament. When war at last threatens in 1914, Sonia happens to be travelling in Germany. Posing as an American businessman, O’Rane daringly travels to Germany and rescues her. But she does not immediately submit to him.

            The narrator Oakleigh has been anti-imperialist and even edited a pacifist paper called Peace; but as soon a war breaks out he and O’Rane vigorously support recruiting drives. Jim Loring is conveniently killed in the first year of the war, so he is no longer a rival for Sonia’s heart. David O’Rane is blinded and then crucified with bayonets by German soldiers. He survives and returns to England where he takes a post as schoolmaster at his old public school Melton. Humbled by O’Rane’s experiences, Sonia at last submits to him and they are married. The novel ends with O’Rane preaching the need for a better world.

            Okay, synopses are not the way to criticise novels, but this one may at least help you to get your bearings and you probably already have an inkling of why this novel is now as dead as mutton.

            The obvious defects first. The narrator, for all the events in which he is supposedly involved, gives the impression of being a passive observer, far less vital or interesting than O’Rane and others. There are many creaking flaws in the choice of first-person voice, with Oakleigh most improbably able to report in detail intimate conversations between O’Rane and Sonia. Later, there is the awkward device of Oakleigh receiving letters from his nephew, just so that we can be told how brilliantly the blinded O’Rane does as a humble schoolmaster. No, this is not the conscious “unreliable narrator” technique with which much better novelists like Joseph Conrad were then experimenting. It is simply McKenna’s clumsiness.

            Why was this once regarded as acceptable high-brow writing? It gives a seemingly authentic view of public school, university, parliament, social whirl and marriage market. Its tone is apparently detached, apparently world-weary (the novelist was aged about 30) and with much discussion of foreign policy, politicking and government plans. All serious stuff for the intellectual reader of 1917.

            And why is it now so dead? Because all of its observations are really in the service of a dated, class-ridden, essentially snobbish world view. Sonia does not transcend its age. It simply legitimizes what were, I suspect, the standard views of public-school-and-Oxbridge-educated chaps like the author. Any apparent criticism of society and its rulers is rapidly turned into an argument in favour of the status quo. The narrator may have edited a pacifist journal, but as soon as war breaks out it’s obvious to him that British civilization (the peak of all civilization, dammit!) must prevail to ensure a just peace. At one point, the folk-fiction of an army of Russian soldiers passing secretly through Britain is justly ridiculed. But the equally untruthful propaganda story of German troops crucifying Allied soldiers is made a major plot point. [Check the index at left for my review of James Hayward’s Myths and Legends of the First World War to find out more about this nonsense]. Very well. McKenna was writing while the war was still being fought, and it would be unfair to criticise him for not seeing it with the historical perspective that we now have. Even so, his eagerness to latch onto a lurid propaganda tale says something about his prejudices and preconceptions.

            If you couple the novel’s earlier Oxbridge aestheticism and disdain for London society with its later support for the war, you can quite clearly hear the strains of Rupert Brooke’s delight at “swimmers into cleanness leaping”. Note, too, a very minor strain of anti-Semitism in the novel’s caricature of the German-Jewish London merchant Adolf Eicksteinn.

            But the key figure in this piece of conservative special pleading is David O’Rane. He comes across very much the way the sympathetic German officer does in Powell and Pressburger’s famous Second World War propaganda film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. He is the voice from “the other side”, who most conveniently reinforces “our” view of things. Note that David O’Rane (“Raney”) is the illegitimate son of a peer. (This must have been a sensational plot device at the time. Compton MacKenzie’s Sinister Street, much superior to Sonia as a novel and published four years earlier, also has a hero, Michael Fane, who is an aristo’s bastard.)

O’Rane’s status makes him an outsider, while at the same time reassuring readers that his blood is blue. O’Rane’s Irish and American idiom drops away before the sterling public-school classical education to which he is exposed. Offstage, he mingles with the lowest and most desperate of society and he is determined to bring about social reform. But he does it in the ranks of the Conservative Party. At one point, sheer emotion causes him to weep at the goodness of British civilization, the most democratic in the world, in allowing a penniless chap such as he (a peer’s son) to make something of himself. Presumably in 1917, the dramatized opinions of such a get-up-and-go (!), self-made (!!), mutilated-by-Germans (!!!) “outsider” would have promoted the war effort. Given that the daydream figure of O’Rane is far more engaging than the vapid Sonia, one wonders if he was not the real object of the (never-married) author’s admiration.

            Now let me be a total cad. After all the supercilious mud I have thrown, I actually enjoyed reading this novel, because it is so neatly a product of its age and no other. As always in such circumstances, it gave me the sense – at once comforting and chastening – that all bestsellers are thus. They encapsulate the views and play up the prejudices that people in a particular age wish were true. Thus I happily visualise readers of 2103 digging out forgotten bestsellers of 2013 and chortling over their unexamined prejudices, just as I am chortling over Sonia.
Wikipedia informs me that Sonia was the tenth best-selling book in the United States in 1918. The nine best-selling books ahead of it are all equally forgotten now. There are good reasons for this.

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.

            I assure you that I am not in senility yet, I do not inhabit a bath-chair or walk with a walking frame and I am no advocate of cribbage, whist, mahjong or backgammon.
I do not spend my evenings playing antiquated board-games or card-games while waiting for the radio to play an old-time favourite.

            But, at the risk of seeming to confess to old-fogeyism, I admit that I do sometimes play Scrabble.

And I am beginning to have a problem with it.

            For me, Scrabble is a good combination of luck and skill.

The luck part is obvious enough. What tiles you get when you pull them, unseen, out of the bag. What spaces are available for your next word. Such luck sometimes allows people with limited vocabularies to win while the lexically-gifted go down to defeat. At least, that is my excuse when one of my children beats me.

The skill part should also be obvious. The more words you know and the better you can spell, then the more likely you are to fill out spaces advantageously. The more you focus on what is available on the board, rather than making up “perfect” words (out of your allotted seven letters) which you cannot place anywhere, then the more expeditiously you will play. Naturally there is also skill (one of the most essential in the game) in “blocking” – that is, deliberately placing words so as to deny your opponents high-scoring spaces, such as the triple-word score.

So, even though it is partly luck, Scrabble is still a good civilized game.

Set me down with intelligent players, and an Oxford dictionary near at hand to settle disputed spellings, and I am happy. Acronyms, proper names, most abbreviations, most slang, and those foreign words that have not really been assimilated into English are, of course, forbidden. To taste, and depending on whom you are playing, you can decide at the beginning of a game if American spellings are acceptable (“honor” instead of “honour” etc.). But you do have the right to shoot anybody who offers such barbarisms as “thru”.

But here is the problem.

Some years ago, semi-literates began producing things called “Scrabble dictionaries”. They list all the words which, says another set of busybodies, are acceptable in Scrabble according to the game’s international ruling body – that is, the body which makes the rules for those sad people who actually engage in public Scrabble competitions.

Such “Scrabble dictionaries” list many words that are simply not words at all, or that are neologisms of such recent coining as to still be in the slang category. They also include acronyms many of which, naturally, defy the basic rule of English that the letter “Q” must always be followed by the letter “U”. Should I be confronted with a player who justifies a non-word on that basis that “it’s in the Scrabble dictionary”, I make a mental note not to play with that person again.

Now it is bad enough that such unreliable publications are taken as authoritative. But it is twice as bad when, instead of using a dictionary simply to settle disputed spelling, a player uses a dictionary to find out if a word exists, or to find out if his/her tiles could actually form a word. Again, I have once or twice encountered the grisly spectacle of a game halting while a person of limited competence thumbs through a Scrabble dictionary in search of something vaguely resembling a word, and then putting the said nonsense word on the board.

If the game is a game of skill, then the skill comes largely from a player’s competence with words. If a player has to look up a (dubious) dictionary to find out whether words exist, then that player is declaring he/she does not have enough competence to be playing the game in the first place. It is like looking up the answers in a quiz.

I mention all this because recently I heard a radio item about somebody’s proposal that the whole scoring system of Scrabble (especially the value assigned to letters) be overhauled. The argument was that, for example, the value assigned to “Q” should be decreased because there are now “many words” in which “Q” is not followed by “U”.

Actually, there aren’t.

There are only the dubious coinings of the semi-literate Scrabble dictionaries.

What this all means is obvious enough.

The game is being corrupted by the illiteracy of its players.

Should the value of letters be revised, I will insist on playing only with unrevised boards and tiles, sticking with their original values. Should I be asked to approve slang, abbreviation, proper noun or too-recent neologism, I will become physically violent. And the only dictionary I will allow at my table when I play will be the Oxford, solely for the purpose of checking disputed spellings.

If a word is not in that, then it does not exist.