Monday, August 25, 2014

Something New

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

“GREECE CRETE STALAG DACHAU – A New Zealand Soldier’s Encounters with Hitler’s Army” by Jack Elworthy (Awa Press, $40); “TO FIGHT ALONGSIDE FRIENDS – The First World War Diaries of Charlie May” Edited by Gerry Harrison (Harper-Collins, $36:99)

I am both pleased and enlightened to read a straightforward first-person narrative by a soldier, who gives an unvarnished and far from glamourized account of his experiences in the Second World War. Jack Elworthy wrote a rough version of what is now called Greece Crete Stalag Dachau some years before his death in 1999. Parts of his narrative were broadcast on Radio New Zealand, but only now has his daughter Jo Elworthy managed to edit her father’s writings into a publishable book.
Jack Elworthy’s war career is quite easily summarised, and fairly signalled by that title Greece Crete Stalag Dachau.
Elworthy was a professional soldier in New Zealand’s small army in the 1930s. When war broke out in 1939 he was sent overseas as a warrant officer. In early 1941, Elworthy was part of the British, Australian and New Zealand force sent to prop up Greece ahead of a possible German invasion. The Germans duly invaded. The Allied force went into full retreat. Most managed to be evacuated to the island of Crete. Again the Germans invaded. Again the Allies retreated. Only a minority were able to get away to Egypt. Elworthy was captured and spent nearly four years surviving various German POW camps, first on Crete then (after arduous forced marches and journeys in box-cars) in Germany. When he was liberated by the Americans in 1945, his professional pride made him want to contribute to the final Allied victory before he was returned home to New Zealand. He managed to talk an American officer into allowing him to join the American “Thunderbird” division, and for the last few months of the war he was, in effect, a uniformed American soldier. It was his American division which liberated Dachau concentration camp. Elworthy had some postwar adventures in Europe, and had to negotiate repatriation committees, before he finally made it back to New Zealand in 1947, seven years after he had last seen his wife and young son. He speaks of the extreme dificulties of readjusting to domestic life in New Zealand. He retired from the army in 1956.
That is a crude summary of a book which is never cluttered with superfluous detail.
Some of the things Elworthy records came as great surprises to me. It had never before occurred to me that when British and Commonwealth troops were sent from England to fight in Egypt, Greece or Crete, they had first of all to sail on troopships all the way around the continent of Africa, reaching Egypt via the Red Sea. Now it seems so obvious – they were avoiding U-Boats and the like in the Mediterranean. I was also amazed to learn that when the Allied forces first landed in Athens, Germany was not yet at war with Greece, a German consulate flying the swastika flag was still operating there, and German consulate staff freely strolled up and down the quays making notes on the equipment, size and strength of the disembarking Allied forces – all of which information was doubtless later of great help to the Nazi forces when they invaded.
Those were two pieces of factual information that struck me, but more than anything, the attitudes and personal observations of the author make this book worthwhile. As a New Zealander who had never been overseas before the war, Elworthy was both surprised and shocked at the class-bound and hierarchical nature of English society when he went through advanced training in England. As a typical anecdote, he notes:
Every so often we would be reminded how different England was from New Zealand. There was a street in Charing, about 200 yards long, running up a hill and serving a lot of new houses. It was signposted as a private road and the people living there had placed a sign at the entrance saying ‘Tradesmen’s vehicles are NOT permitted in this street’. The butcher, baker, milkman and coalman had to park their vans and carry everything up the hill to the houses. Although a German invasion was a real possibility, the people from this street petitioned the War Office and demanded that all troops around Charing stay clear of the vicinity as the noise of the vehicles passing by disturbed them. In one incident one of my drivers who was towing a truck was approached by a resident, who pointed out that he was encroaching on a private road. The resident took extreme exception to the number of times my driver called him a ‘so-and-so bastard’ in the ensuing conversation. He assured us that he had never before in his life been addressed in such a manner and we would hear from his solicitors. We never did, of course, but we felt if this was England it was a pity we hadn’t known before we came over to fight and defend it.” (p.23)
These are not the words of a larrikin soldier with no respect for order or rank, but of an egalitarian Kiwi. Elworthy was a very responsible soldier and knew how necessary rank and order were in warfare. For this very reason, you can sense his rage at the total disorganised messes that the retreat through Greece and (even more) the retreat across the Cretan mountains became. Soldiers panicked.  Soldiers threw away necessary kit when they still had a fighting chance. On Crete, says Elworthy, “As I walked I picked up bits of kit that had been thrown away; soon I had collected all the clothing I needed to replace what I had lost or had thrown away when we were evacuating from Greece.” (p.69)
He is shocked at officers who don’t do their duty or desert their men, soldiers who rapidly turn to looting and theft, men who steal the identity of others in order to be first on the evacuation boats, and so on. Always, there is the anger of the professional at the shambles being made by men who should have known better. He does not dwell on it, but it is clear that he would like to say harsh words about Freyberg and his senior staff who flew off as soon as the Allied surrender on Crete was announced, and thus left the bulk of their men to the Germans.
Elworthy judges the Germans by their soldiership. Once captured, he is surprised at how well he and fellow prisoners are treated by German front-line troops. But the horrors begin once they are in the hands of camp-guards and others in Germany whom Elworthy sees as, at best, second-rate soldiers not fit for combat duty and therefore taking out their aggression and frustration on prisoners. As for the prisoners – they are not a band of brothers loyal to one another. Even allowing for the stool pigeons and spies among them, there are criminal gangs of prisoners who make it their business to intimidate other prisoners, steal their rations, get the lighter work duties and so on.
In both the retreat sections (I won’t call them combat sections – Elworthy never had the chance to shoot at enemy soldiers) and the prison sections, the chief impression made is one of squalor. This is a war of forced marches, exhaustion, low rations, hunger, disease, lice – and the annoyance of a professional soldier who is prevented by circumstances from doing his job properly. Much that appears in this book would not have been acceptable to wartime censors, at a time when a more heroic interpretation of the war was necessary for purposes of public morale.
Elworthy is both alert to, and duly outraged by, violations of the Geneva Convention. But he is apparently not too upset that his American comrades, on liberating Dachau, lined up a number of the SS guards and shot them out of hand. In the circumstances his attitude is understandable.
This paperback is a very good piece of book production from Awa Press. The book’s
three generous sections of photographs have the advantage (not always found in photographic sections) of presenting only images that are relevant to the tone and matter of the author’s narrative. The first image is of young Jack Elworthy with his wife and baby son. The last is of old Jack Elworthy on the day of his retirement in the 1950s. In between, probably the most endearing image is one of Elworthy, in the last months of the war, standing in American uniform at the right end of a line-up of his American buddies. It’s funny how he manages to look both one of them and out of place at the same time.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
To Fight Alongside Friends, a handsome hardback, is a very different first-person document of war.
These are the diaries of a British officer in the First World War. Charlie May was born in Dunedin in New Zealand, but having lived in England for some time, he joined an English “Pals” battalion. “Pals” battalions were one means of making volunteering more attractive as England built up its “New” Army to add to its very small professional army. Friends from a certain locality were allowed to volunteer together and serve in the same units – hence the book’s title To Fight Alongside Friends. The downside (not dealt with in this book) is that if “Pals” units were hit hard in battle, a specific locality back in Blighty could find itself deprived of most of its young manhood. Charlie May was a captain in the 22nd Manchester Service battalion.
Front line officers were forbidden, by King’s Regulations, to keep diaries for the obvious reason that, if they were captured or killed, such diaries could fall into the hands of the enemy and be gleaned for military information. Charlie May, however, ignored regulations. He had spent some time as a journalist before enlisting and had a compulsion to write and record things.  He kept his diary in seven small notebooks which survived his death and were sent back to his family.
The first entry is in November 1915 before he had embarked for France. The last is early on the morning of 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. This day has become iconic as the day when the British Army suffered more casualties (dead or wounded) than on any other day in its history. Among common soldiers, with a less fastidious vocabulary than Charlie May, it became known as “the big f**k-up”. Charlie May was killed on that day. In his last entry, before going over the top, he writes in a spirit of exultation, as if he is about to be part of a great military achievement.
Of course there is a cruel irony in this ending and, for this reader at least, there is unintended irony throughout the book. May’s attitudes are, by and large, conventionally patriotic ones, very much in tune with the times. He hates the enemy and sees Germany as being entirely responsible for the war, writing on 13 January 1916: “Curse the Kaiser, say I, and all similar tyrants who bring war and misery and devastation upon the world?” (p.69). He is mildly amused by those near the front, such as the padre, who do not have a military spirit and who are not like the common soldiery. “Parson Wood came in to tea,” he writes on 13 April 1916, “He is a somewhat dolorous person but means well, works harder and is I fully believe a most Christian man. He thinks us a sad lot of rogues and I have no doubt is justified according to his lights.” (p.153)
When he looks in the face of horror, he still sees it in the light of enemy barbarity and the gallantry of his fellow English soldiers. Consider his vocabulary in the following entry, from 3 June 1916. May has just returned to the front line from leave, and sees the bodies of dead comrades hanging over German barbed wire on the other side of No Man’s Land. The German is a very devil, whereas the dead English soldiers have made the “Supreme Sacrifice”. The entry reads thus:
We are in the line again, but it is a sad incoming. Poor Street, Cansino and one other unidentified can be plainly seen tangled in a heap among the German wire, right under their parapet. A Boche sentry is mounted over them and keeps popping his head up every now and then to have a look at them. I saw him first through the telescope and the sudden apparition of his great face caused me to think him a fiend of hell gloating over his victims. The poor fellows are quite dead. It is evident now that Cansino, hearing Street was in difficulties, went to help him and was killed in the attempt. It is one more case of the Supreme Sacrifice. The boy did well.” (p.190)
Where is the irony in this? Simply in subsequent history, which has made Charlie May’s sincere convictions and worldview seem woefully antique. We simply cannot look at war now as he did.
I do not think that To Fight Alongside Friends is a book to give startling new insights into the First World War, nor even to give us a vivid sense of what happened to one soldier. But as the expression of attitudes that once powered millions of men, it is an interesting historical document.

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. 

“AMELIA” by Henry Fielding (written 1749-51; first published late 1751, but dated 1752)

            As I’ve remarked already a number of times on this blog [look up the three entries for Henry Fielding on the index at right], time was I took it into my head to read my way methodically through the works of the 18th century master Henry Fielding. Of his three full-length novels I admitted that Tom Jones was clearly the masterpiece (and I might one day get around to proving that on this blog), but that I found Joseph Andrews the most entertaining.  Then there was the problem of Fielding’s Amelia.
Published late in 1751 and his last major work (Fielding was only 47 when he died in 1754), Amelia has never enjoyed the same popularity as either Tom Jones or Joseph Andrews. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever turned it into a film, musical or television series, as has happened with the other two. Why should this be so? Reading this particular novel was in part a quest to answer that question. In the two-volume Everyman’s edition that sits on my shelf, it runs to a little over 600 pages, but severely simplifying, and cutting out some short sub-plots, I was able to make a summary of its story, which goes as follows:
Amelia Harris was slightly disfigured in the face in an accident, but the surgeon’s skill cured her and she is a great beauty. Against her mother’s wishes, she elopes with and marries the army officer Captain William Booth. When her mother dies, the will disinherits Amelia. When Booth is sent on service to Gibraltar, he is wounded and discharged on half-pay.
Booth is basically decent but feckless. He never makes enough to support his growing family. The novel is the tale of how his virtuous and loving wife Amelia constantly gets him out of the scrapes into which he falls by his own weaknesses. Booth is always in debt. He is bailed out of debtor’s prison by Miss Fanny Matthews, who has seduced him and hopes to make him her lover. But he returns – feeling guilty – to his wife.
Amelia and Booth are indebted to the apparently kindly Mrs Ellison, who finds them lodgings. But we know that Mrs Ellison actually acts as pimp for an unnamed nobleman who wants to seduce Amelia. Others are of the same mind, such as Booth’s apparent friend Colonel Bob James. Colonel James’ brother-in-law Colonel Bath has high and pugnacious views of honour, which lead him into duelling and fights. Booth is tempted into brawling and duelling too, as he is tempted into gambling. At one stage he reduces his family to penury by gambling away money he had been given to pay debts.
Attempts to corrupt Amelia’s virtue are frequent, often accompanied by the argument that by prostituting herself she would be able to liquidate her husband’s many debts.
There are, however, positive characters in the tale. The sergeant Atkinson, who rescues Booth on a numbers of occasions, is a model of propriety. He later marries the virtuous widow Mrs Bennet, who first alerts Amelia to Mrs Ellison’s treachery. Then there is a righteous clergyman Dr Harrison, who was originally Booth’s rival for Amelia’s hand, but who becomes the family’s chief guardian and protector.
It is Dr Harrison who provides the novel’s happy ending. He hears the dying confession of a shyster who had connived with the corrupt lawyer Murphy to forge old Mrs Harris’s will, disinheriting Amelia. The matter is made public, and Amelia becomes a wealthy woman, at last gaining her inheritance, restoring her family to comfort and implicitly causing her husband to reform. But not before the virtuous Amelia has had ample opportunity to show that she would have stuck by her husband even if he had remained a feckless pauper.
            There are two matters which may add to our knowledge of what Fielding thought he was up to in writing Amelia, but which do not necessarily enhance our appreciation of this novel.
First, there is the novel’s autobiographical matter. It is generally believed that Amelia
herself is Fielding’s affectionate and posthumous portrait of his first wife, Charlotte, who had died five or six years before the novel was written. In memory, Fielding sees her as a paragon of virtue. Likewise, Captain William Booth is Fielding’s portrait of his younger self, learning virtue from his wife  - not that the specific events of Booth’s life really echo those of the younger Fielding’s life (although Fielding, in his mid forties when he wrote Amelia, was enough of a sexual scamp to have impregnated his second wife, Mary, before he married her).
Second, there is the fact that Fielding, seeing himself as writing an “epic” of virtue, consciously modelled the structure of Amelia on the structure of Vergil’s Aeneid. The Aeneid has twelve books, and so does Amelia. Events in the novel are supposed to be recognised by the alert, classically-educated reader, as echoing events in Vergil’s epic. Booth is the wanderer in danger of being drawn from the path of virtue, just as Aeneas is. In Book Four of the Aeneid, Aeneas is tempted from his heroic destiny by the seductions of Dido, Queen of Carthage; just as in Book Four of Amelia, Captain William Booth is seduced from virtue by Fanny Matthews. There are many other such parallels. Would, however, one reader in a hundred recognize these parallels now if there were not annotated editions to tell them? My own view is that the classical allusions add little to the story and its unfolding. It is interesting to note that when the novel was first published, many of Fielding’s contemporaries regarded his ‘epic’ ambition with contempt and there were pamphlets written attacking the novel and pamphlets by Fielding defending it.
So how did I react to this least favourite of Fielding’s longer novels?
Its twelve books make awkward reading. There is not a great deal of forward momentum to the plot. It is early established that Booth is feckless and in debt, and that Amelia is virtuous and self-sacrificing. The various attempts on her sexual virtue are repetitive and often seem contrived merely to spin matters out. I wonder if some of this has to do with the difficulty of dramatizing married love? The loving couple, in finding each other, have already acted out the great drama of their lives, and whatever else happens to them doesn’t shift this bedrock. Hence we have events, but no real movement in character. Right up to Book 12, Amelia is virtuous and Booth’s spirit is willing while his flesh is weak. They do not change until the deus ex machina of Amelia’s coming into wealth, with the promise that henceforth Booth will mend his ways. Regrettably, I am left feeling that in terms of character, there has been little real development. I am also left feeling that Booth has not really changed in any way, except that he is now the husband of a wealthy woman.
There is, too, that problem of “virtue rewarded”. This as what Fielding objected to in Richardson’s Pamela – the idea that apparent “virtue” can be prudential, and practised for the sake of bringing material reward. Of course Fielding is at pains to show that Amelia remains faithful to her husband, and resists material corruption, even when they are reduced to poverty. She is sorely tried, as when she hears of his gambling losses after she has pawned their belongings to pay off debts, or when Colonel James sends a letter hinting that Booth is having an affair with Miss Matthews. However, Fielding contrives a happy-ever-after ending, very similar to Tom Jones’ discovery that he has an inheritance and has been cheated by Blifil. Doesn’t this mean that Fielding rewards Amelia’s virtue just as Richardson rewarded Pamela’s? The real challenge would have been to show Amelia staying, life-long, virtuous and faithful in continuing poverty. One’s hackles do rise a bit, too, at just how foolish and spineless Booth is.
            For a modern reader, perhaps with a more gender equitable view of marriage, there is another problem about character. Not only is Amelia’s virtue repeatedly assailed by devious libertines, but Amelia is determined to keep news of such attempts from her husband. Only occasionally is Booth aware that other men wish to seduce his wife. Why, I kept wondering, couldn’t Amelia honestly tell her husband what the problem was? Doesn’t this show a curious lack of true partnership in their marriage? Perhaps it goes along with Amelia’s habit of affectionately addressing her husband as “child”. Isn’t this virtuous wife in fact indulging her rather foolish husband, and letting him ignore the nastier side of life? Weighting much of this novel, I have the sense that Fielding is in part answering the criticism that Tom Jones was a charter for fornicators and loose young men. It is almost as if this is the novel written about an older Sophie Western, whose preservation of her virtue is not matched by her husband’s preservation of his virtue. Booth is the man led by his senses seen critically, whereas Tom Jones is the man led by his senses seen uncritically.
            Among the more tedious elements of the novel are the frequent allusions to specific eighteenth century social evils which are of little relevance to us - sponging houses (where bailiffs imprisoned debtors and then extorted money out of them); fashionable society which recognises only wealth and rank (though that one isn’t necessarily a time-specific observation); and the foolish sort of “honour” and duelling – personified in Colonel Bath – which takes offence at trifles and seems most connected with military men. There is an interpolated chapter in Book Five about the poor state of the medical profession that attends to Amelia’s sick children. In Book Eight there is a tedious satirical passage where Booth converses with a hack writer who produces hack works by subscription to cover his debts. This appears to be Fielding’s critique of the state of letters in his day. It is, however, at least moderately interesting to see Fielding indulging some of his peeves. If, in Book One, Booth is accosted in jail by a hypocritical freethinker and a Methodist pickpocket, it is clearly because Fielding had little time for either freethinkers or Methodists. And there are moments of sordid frankness of the sort that would not have appeared, a century later, in Victorian novels. In prison is “a man committed for certain odious, unmanlike practices, not fit to be named”. (Book One, Chapter Four) – meaning, presumably, homosexual activity. In Book Seven, the virtuous Mrs Bennet relates how she contracted a sexually transmitted disease.
            Another problem with this novel is its over-use of anterior narrative. At least a quarter of the novel consists of characters telling us about their past – Booth and Miss Matthews in the first three books, and Mrs Bennet in Book Seven. Yes, this too is an echo of the Aeneid (Aeneas tells Dido about the fall of Troy etc.), but it is no more palatable because of that. Fielding too often resorts to telling us that “words could not do justice” to a certain emotional scene that he can’t be bothered dramatising. This goes along with his habit of allowing Amelia to faint rather too often in moments of tension.
Then there is the cumbersome figure of Dr Harrison. He is meant to be the novel’s moral mouthpiece, and is one of Fielding’s good, virtuous Anglican clergymen. Booth describes him thus:
Nothing, however, can be imagined more agreeable than the life that the doctor leads in his homely house, which he calls his earthly paradise. All his parishioners, whom he treats as his children, regard him as their common father. Once in a week he constantly visits every house in the parish, examines commends, and rebukes, as he finds occasion. This is practised likewise by his curate in his absence; and so good an effect is produced by their care, that no quarrels ever proceed either to blows or law-suits; no beggar is to be found in the whole parish; nor did I ever hear a very profane oath all the time I lived in it.” (Book Three, Chapter Twelve)
Alas, Dr Harrison is also a pious bore. As a Don Quixote figure, the virtuous Rev Abraham Adams is dotty, amusing and a great comic character in Joseph Andrews; but Dr Harrison’s laboured, over-long sermons are irritating rather than enlightening and his Hellenic and Latinate joking over the classics is an affectation when he matches wits with Mrs Bennet and others. (Although such joking does allow Fielding to include more references to the Aeneid.)
            I have made a rather thorough job here of thrashing a novel. It is rather cruel of me, for there are moments of interest. The best has to be Booth’s experience of guilt when he first gets out of prison and realizes what deception he has practised on Amelia in his adultery with Miss Matthews. At that point in the novel, I had the fleeting hope that this would be a novel of close psychological observation and developing character. It turned out to be largely a delusive hope, alas.
Yet I would be dishonest if I did not admit that moments in the novel made me admire Fielding in better form than most of the novel displayed.
I can agree with at least some of his moralising, as in his defence of free will:
To retrieve the ill consequences of a foolish conduct, and by struggling manfully with distress to subdue it, is one of the noblest efforts of wisdom and virtue. Whoever, therefore, calls such a man fortunate is guilty of no less impropriety in speech than he would be who should call the statuary or the poet fortunate who carved a Venus or who writ an Iliad” (Book One, Chapter One)
Booth’s passionate declarations of his love for Amelia are such that one suspects Fielding of practising a complicated irony, showing that such self-dramatising can be superficial, as evidenced by Booth’s infidelities. Here is Booth recreating his reaction to Amelia early in their courtship, complete with Amelia’s trademark fainting:
             Her manner, look, voice, everything was inimitable; such sweetness, softness, innocence, modesty! – Upon my soul, if ever man could boast of his resolution, I think I might now, that I abstained from falling prostrate at her feet and adoring her. However, I triumphed; pride, I believe, triumphed, or perhaps love got the better of love…. I then fell on my knees before her; and, forcing her hand, cried out, O, my Amelia! I can bear no longer. You are the only mistress of my affections; you are the deity I adore. In this style I ran on for above two or three minutes, what it is impossible to repeat, till a torrent of contending passions, together with the surprise, overpowered her gentle spirits and she fainted away in my arms”. (Book Two, Chapter Two)
Certainly Fielding is being ironical when he “defends” Booth’s adultery with Miss Matthews:
We desire, therefore, the good-natured and candid reader to be pleased to weigh attentively the several unlucky circumstances that concurred so critically, that Fortune seemed to have used her utmost endeavours to snare poor Booth’s constancy. Let the reader set before his eyes a fine young woman, in a manner, a first love, conferring obligations and using every art to soften, to allure, to win, and to inflame; let him consider the time and place; let him remember that Booth was a young fellow in the highest vigour of life; and lastly, let him add one single circumstance, that the parties were alone together, and then, if he will not acquit the defendant, he must be convicted, for I have nothing more to say in his defence.” (Book Four, Chapter One)
Yet I do not think he is being ironical at all when he discourses on the power of sexual attraction and how it can overwhelm the best of moral resolutions:
And yet… my young readers… flatter not yourselves that fire will not scorch as well as warm, and the longer we stay within its reach the more we shall burn. The admiration of a beautiful woman, though the wife of our dearest friend, may at first perhaps be innocent, but let us not flatter ourselves it will always remain so; desire is sure to succeed; and wishes, hopes, desires, with a long train of mischiefs, tread close at our heels. In affairs of this kind we may most properly apply the well-known remark of nemo repente fuit turpissimus. It fares, indeed, with us on this occasion as with the unwary traveller in some parts of Arabia the desert, whom the treacherous sands imperceptibly betray until he is overwhelmed and lost. In both cases the only safety is by withdrawing our feet the very first moment we see them sliding.” (Book Six, Chapter One)
I would also endorse the following as a truthful observation:
Few men, I believe, think better of others than of themselves; nor do they easily allow the existence of any virtue of which they perceive no traces in their own minds; for which reason I have observed, that it is extremely difficult to persuade a rogue that you are an honest man; nor would you ever succeed in the attempt by the strongest evidence, was it not for the comfortable conclusion which the rogue draws, that he who proves himself to be honest proves himself to be a fool at the same time.” (Book Eight, Chapter Eight)
And what of all those encomia on Amelia’s moral greatness? Fielding was a man who sought domestic comfort and stability from a wife, while making apologies for male adventuring. He could now easily be attacked for the “double standard” in marriage. The following is in effect the icon of what Fielding sees as attractive in Amelia, coming across like a Victorian print of the good little wife. Amelia is preparing Booth’s favourite supper just before the shocking scene in which she gets the note saying he may be dallying with Miss Matthews:
 As soon as the clock struck seven the good creature went down into the kitchen, and began to exercise her talents in cookery, of which she was a great mistress, as she was of every economical office from the highest to the lowest; and as no woman could outshine her in a drawing-room, so none could make the drawing-room itself shine brighter than Amelia. And, if I may speak a bold truth, I question whether it be possible to view this fine creature in a more amiable light than when she was dressing her husband’s supper, with her little children playing about her.” (Book Eleven, Chapter Eight)
Just before she learns that she will come into an inheritance, Amelia is asked by her husband whether she would be happy in a life in which they have to toil for their living. She  replies:
 I am sure I could be happy in it…. And why not I as well as a thousand others, who have not the happiness of such a husband to make life delicious? Why should I complain of my hard fate while so many who are much poorer than I enjoy theirs? Am I of a superior rank of being to the wife of the honest labourer? Am I not partaker of one common nature with her?” (Book Twelve, Chapter Eight)
These are noble sentiments, but they do raise the possibility that there is something so saint-like in Amelia that she is almost impossible for any woman (or man) to identify with. Along with the novel’s other defects, this may be one reason why Amelia has never been as popular as Fielding’s other two long 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.

Why, dear friend, do you take up particular positions on matters of moment in your own times?
I hope sincerely it is because you have thought long and hard about them, weighed up the available evidence, considered both the moral and the material consequences, and perhaps done a little original research, always being duly sceptical of some sources of information.
Well alright – I don’t “sincerely” hope all this, but I do at least hope it.
I know I have opinions on matters of moment about which I am no expert. You cannot research fully everything of importance, and sometimes you have to rely on the opinions of people who sound most credible. So I have often ignored my own advice. But if I were to express publicly strong views on matters of moment (as opposed to sounding off in private conversation), then I would try to base my views on evidence, rational arguments, due consideration of material and moral consequences and so forth.
I would NOT base my arguments on the idea that more people seem to be adopting an idea, so therefore I’d better jump on the bandwagon.
What has brought on this fairly obvious rant?
A week ago [at time of writing], Kim Hill gave generous air-time to an advocate of the
decriminalisation in New Zealand of the possession and trade in marijuana.
In fairness to Hill, she did ask her interviewee challenging questions about some of his views, although she failed to adequately challenge him on others, so that much of the broadcast became a mere platform for his advocacy.
In fairness to the interviewee, he did have a few cogent arguments about the consequences of criminalisation, although in other areas he struck me as hopelessly naïve. Repeatedly, he kept saying that all social ill consequences of widespread, legal use of marijuana would be neutralised by educational programmes on kiddies’ TV. To this I say a hearty and ironical “Yeah, right.” At one point, clearly trying to appeal to middle-of-the-road listeners, he said the police were the “real heroes” of the current situation because they rarely arrested people for mere use of marijuana. This clashed with his later assertion that many people were languishing in jail only because they had used to stuff. When Kim Hill pointed out the discrepancy, he became defensive and bellicose. Often I sensed the middle-class recreational user of weed who wasn’t all that concerned for the social damage done to kids in working-class and economically depressed situations. To point out (as I have heard many others do) that perfectly legal alcohol already does much damage to society is, of course, no argument in favour of other drugs. The notion that decriminalisation of marijuana will lead to a society in which drugs are used responsibly by all is simply nonsense.
But, as I have said with my usual impeccable fairness, he did make some reasonable arguments and I am not taking up a partisan position on the issue. Maybe decriminalisation with be for the good and maybe not. I don’t profess to know.
What alienated me from the advocate, however, was how often he appealed to the legislative decisions made in other countries. As if it were his trump card, he kept saying that New Zealand would “look very stupid” if it didn’t decriminalise marijuana because a growing number of US states had done so, and we don’t want to be out of step, do we?
This I regard as a particularly banal non-argument. It’s what I have previously referred to as the “20 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong” argument, referring to some advertising guff I saw when I was a kid. “You have to like this guy’s music because lots of other people do,” the ad was implicitly saying. “You have to decriminalise marijuana because Americans and some Europeans are doing so,” said the advocate implicitly.
Again, I am bound to report that Kim Hill challenged him by pointing out that often we have, as New Zealanders, expressed our pride in NOT doing what the USA does (being nuclear-free etc.). Again, the advocate became somewhat defensive at this point.
And again he lost nearly all credibility with me. “You’ll look silly if you don’t”. “Everybody else is doing it, so you’d better do it.” Etc. Etc. These are the arguments for a mob mentality. On issues of social concern, it’s often important to remain in the minority or even stand on your own. That is called moral courage. The alternative is mindless conformity.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Something New

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

“HUNTING ELEPHANTS” by Peter Bland (Steele Roberts, $19:99); “THE LONELY NUDE” by Emily Dobson (Victoria University Press, $25)

Early in 2013 I had the pleasure and privilege of reviewing on this blog Peter Bland’s Collected Poems 1956-2011 [look it up on the index at right], and I took the opportunity then to say a number of things about Bland’s place in NZ Lit and culture – the co-founder of Downstage Theatre; the ebullient actor and director; the Pom who came to New Zealand in the 1950s, returned to England and came back to New Zealand a number of times before finally settling here permanently; and above all the man who observed New Zealand closely, but without joining the “nationalist” poetic fashions of his early days in this country.
Bland’s poetry showed that he knew what life was like in New Zealand alright - but he had enough detachment to see it in the greater cosmopolitan frame. Reviewing Bland’s last separate collection Coming Ashore for the
Listener, I noted that Bland’s themes were consistent ones, but he was now more aware of his age.
This is even more true of his latest collection Hunting Elephants, fifty pages of pithy poems. I love a man who, now at the age of 80, can still wield imagery like a scalpel, can be surreal and playful, can be wistful without self-pity even if he has quite clearly heard the chimes at midnight. This is a book filled with references to a possible paradise, with memories, with dreams, and even with the odd tentative speculation that there might actually be something beyond death.
In many of these poems I detect a “gander without a goose” (to adapt James K. Baxter’s phrase) as Peter Bland recalls his late wife Beryl, to whom he dedicates one sequence of poems. There is “a moon worn out with loneliness  (in the poem ‘The outer courts of paradise’). There is a dreamy desire to ride elephants to paradise (‘Hunting elephants’) and the triptych to Beryl where he wishes he could “leave the road ahead / to look after itself / and loll like caliphs / in our noonday bed.” (‘Afterlife’). He still hums tunes that “she” taught him to hum “a lifetime ago” (‘Ripe Pears’). He hankers after “my co-pilot, my loyal companion” in “the house that is a lonely spaceship” (‘Spaceship’). He meets his wife in a dream (in the prose poem ‘There you are’).
So being a widower, and an old widower, looms large in the Bland-osphere. But old age itself, and its consolations as well as its weaknesses, is as much Bland’s territory.
There are poems about being a ‘Homebody’ and the pleasure of doing nothing and a poem about watching ‘Porn’ (poor old beggar) and a dream about Baxter where “I remember how / it was always sex / or the sacred / that brought him / /to his knees.” (‘Discovering Jim Baxter…’) and about getting used to living in a silent house with memories (‘Holding It Together’) and a prose poem called ‘Locality’ about how Dominion Road can itself be constructed as a poem. He also reflects that, at an older age, daydreams are things that can only be imagined, not lived (‘Idylls’). I wonder if the ‘Scarecrow’ (“wearing Mum’s old hat”) is a portrait of the poet as inanimate object, growing older and more battered as he moves from scene to scene.
When he comes to poems about art, Bland is concerned with the artist’s intention and his technique – questioning both, whether it be Cezanne seeing nature as the same in its changeability (‘Cezanne’s Apples’) or a still-life teasing the viewing by its absences (‘An infinite meantime’)
Five poems feature the familiar Mr Maui, but the one called ‘Mr Maui among the archetypes’ turns him to Bland’s new purpose of celebrating or lamenting or regarding quizzically the phenomenon of being old; for among the archetypes “My / favourite’s an old man / trying to be holy / while surrounded by devils / and naked nymphs. You have / to laugh, he’s so far / past it…
It occurs to me that in this sad excuse for a review, I have banged away at the poet’s age. I wouldn’t deny that this is an old man’s book, but I do not mean that in a negative and demeaning sense. I am not saying that Bland is producing the same old same old – only that the poet knows his own most fruitful subject matter. And I also note that Bland is still capable of springing surprises that seem quite out of character. Consider in this volume his version of Villon’s ‘L’Epitaphe’. The original is a ballade in three stately stanzas with an Envoi at the end. Bland (who works mainly in free verse or prose poems) transforms it into 12 couplets, colloquial and spare and yet still giving that medieval starkness in its account of the hanged awaiting God’s judgment. He calls it ‘Ballad of the hanged men’ and it is one of the best things in the book.

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If Peter Bland is a poet in very late career, Emily Dobson is still almost a starter. The Lonely Nude is her second collection.
Is it because I am male that I found the poem which appeals most to me in this volume to be ‘Construction man’? It reads, in its entirety:

I’d like to be
on a roof today too,
like you –
construction man –

with a white hard hat,
a hammer
and a measuring tape.”

What do I like about this simple and effective poem?
Its desire for certainty and its sense of a solidity, which I find to contrast with much of the content of The Lonely Nude. Also its sense of weighing and measuring the visible world.
In different sections, Emily Dobson touches on her experience as a nude model for art students, her travels in Mexico and the United States, the seasons and her eventual return home where (to quote another poem – ‘The fig at home’ – in its entirety):
The fig at home
always dropped its fruit
too soon
With all the wealth of sensual experience her travels would presumably entail, however, Dobson writes in such a spare style that her brief poems become almost cryptic. What is being said? I am not sure. There is a kind of detachment from physical reality. In this, I am not wilfully misrepresenting this collection. Breaking a long habit, I quote the VUP blurb, which tells me that “even as she travels into the world, [she] feels increasingly disconnected from it”. Quite so. The only literary comparison that comes readily to hand for me are those passages of Mrs Dalloway where Virginia Woolf has her main character look at London and suddenly find it insubstantial, incorporeal, as if it is floating and not solid reality. The style is so cerebrotonic that it washes physicality out.
I am sure this is a genuine worldview for many people, but (except in the odd moment of detachment) it is not one that I can share easily.
It is, however, quite wrong to judge literature solely in terms of one’s sympathy for its worldview. There is an audience for Dobson’s pithiness and floating, incorporeal consciousness.