Monday, May 25, 2015

Something New

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

“CALLS TO ARMS – New Zealand Society and Commitment to the Great War” by Steven Loveridge (Victoria University Press, $NZ40)

This is probably a very bad way to begin a book review, but I am going to begin it this way anyway.
For me, it is a delight to read a new book, which endorses and confirms something I have long believed.
From the perspective of 2015, we all know (or think we know) that the First World War was bloody, murderous, wasteful of human life, waged on all sides for very mixed motives and, in short, what 1066 and All That would call “a Bad Thing”. The First World War has virtually become the paradigm of the pointless war, and it is the war to which novelists and film-makers still resort when they want to connect the words “futility” and “war”.
But out of this knowledge (or what we think is knowledge) there has grown a set of assumptions, which simply do not hold up to real historical scrutiny. It is assumed that no general population in any belligerent nation could have possibly wished to enter into such a war, and that therefore populations must have been coerced and propagandised by powerful, self-interested political forces into participating. It is further assumed that the post-war pacifist and anti-war representations of the war (from All Quiet on the Western Front onwards) represent what the mass of people were really thinking during the war. Emphasis is laid on those war poets who conveyed the “pity of war”, and on Christian or socialist or humanitarian pacifists, as if their views mirrored those of society at large. So what amounts to a great conspiracy theory has developed. Hapless and unsuspecting soldier boys are pushed off to war by cunning and manipulative politicians. Mr Fat and capitalist war profiteers rub their hands in glee as the lads get killed. And all this against the real wishes of the population.
Now let’s clearly separate a couple of concepts here. Looking back on the war from a century later, it is perfectly valid for us to say that it was wasteful, futile and so forth. It is perfectly understandable that we will laud those pacifists whose views we now endorse. But it is simply unhistorical to assume that the mass of society in any belligerent country was not in favour of the war. Let’s remember that people whom we admire in history are often people who went against what were once massively popular beliefs and assumptions, and therefore against what the mass of society thought. That, after all, is why we often think of them as heroes. Let’s also remember that to see populations as only being coerced and propagandised into war is to rob those populations of what is now commonly called “agency”. So roll on those conspiracy theories, which see people in the past as mere dupes for not believing what we believe.
Steven Loveridge’s admirable Calls to Arms – New Zealand Society and Commitment to the Great War is a systematic study of what Loveridge (borrowing a phrase from F. Scott Fitzgerald) often calls the “sentimental equipment” of New Zealanders before and during the First World War. Lamenting the lack of real social histories of New Zealand one hundred years ago, Loveridge’s Introduction politely rejects the notion that New Zealanders were manipulated into support for the war by Machiavellian politicians, as was suggested by Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s profoundly silly and unbalanced book The Great Wrong War [look it up on the index at right]. Rather, says Loveridge, New Zealanders’ general support for the war grew from widespread attitudes and values that were well-entrenched in New Zealand society before a shot was fired. Inter alia, Loveridge’s Introduction notes that Military Boards, which accepted or rejected men’s petitions not to go to war, were run by representatives of local communities, not by the nation’s central government. They very much reflected popular opinion. Likewise, there were three times as many volunteers as conscripts in New Zealand’s armed forces, even after conscription was introduced in 1916. Were they all duped, deceived and propagandised into going? If we assume this, we of course assume that they were infinitely stupider than we are.
In the six chapters that follow, Loveridge examines six levels of New Zealand’s commitment to the war.
First, he refutes the “nationalist” interpretation of the war that has been overplayed by some historians. Unpalatable though it may seem to us now, most New Zealanders in 1914 still thought of themselves as British. They did not have to be persuaded into supporting Britain’s war. A very large part of the non-Maori population then was British by birth, and those who were not were either the children or grandchildren of British immigrants. Britain was still “Home” for many. Trade ties and cultural ties with Britain were dominant. There was still a widespread desire for an “imperial parliament” in London that would represent all the colonies and dominions of the British Empire. Of course there was the widespread belief among New Zealanders that they were more egalitarian than those snooty, class-bound “homeys”; and that New Zealand was what James Belich has called a “Better Britain”. This has often been mistaken for an emergent nationalism (see any work by the late Keith Sinclair for this attitude). This essentially British self-identification was not universal, just as approval of the war was not universal. There were indeed members of the labour movement, Maori separatists, pacifists, Irish nationalists and others who were not fully committed to the war. But the dominant fact is that they were a very small minority in comparison with the mass of the population, no matter how much we may now endorse their attitudes. As for one of the major myths of the war – the Gallipoli myth – Loveridge remarks:“… the conception of the First World War as New Zealand’s national ‘coming of age’ story, marking a distinct break from pre-war habits and arrangements, has serious limitations. To begin with, it is a rerun of earlier ideas of awakening national consciousness…” (p.65). He goes on to note similar claims made for Dominion Day, the 1905 All Blacks tour of Britain, participation in the Boer War, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee etc. New Zealand did not suddenly become an independent nation in outlook because of the First World War any more than it became divorced from overwhelmingly British sentiment.
Second, Loveridge does not accept the view that anti-“alien” thought, and specifically wartime anti-German thought, was a creation of powerful propagandists during the war. There was a long-standing tradition, encouraged by “biological racism”, of New Zealanders framing anyone who was “non-British” as alien. Most often these common racist attitudes were directed against Asians and particularly Chinese, but even Australians could be judged as “non-British” when they behaved in ways that New Zealanders saw as loutish. Apparently, according to popular New Zealand mythology, Australians were not as “British” as New Zealanders were. At certain times, there had been the tendency to see Germans in a favourable light, as the North European, Saxon, Protestant cousins of the English, industrious and hard-working unlike those barbarous Southern European Catholics. But well before the First World War, New Zealanders were already seeing Germans in a more negative light as Germany became a trade rival and naval rival to Mother England. Apart from the fact of genuine German atrocities during the war (the ones that Eldred-Grigg pretends didn’t happen), it was no “top-down” manufacturing of stereotypes that led to anti-German feeling in New Zealand between 1914 and 1918. Loveridge notes:
One of the foremost attributes of wartime constructions of Germans is the tendency to present the subject in monolithic terms. Total war had broken out in an age when the notion of ‘racial character’ was a conventional idea. Thus the war was frequently framed as one against a people, race or nation – rather than a regime, army or ideology. Whilst Kaiser and Prussian militarism became focal points of condemnation, and were sometimes tagged as being at the heart of German bellicosity, there was often little effort made to distinguish them from wider German civilisation.” (pp. 86-87)
Loveridge also gives interesting examples of the forces of authority (MPs, police etc.) trying to restrain popular outbursts of anti-German hysteria, such as the smashing of the windows of shops owned by people with German names. Again, we deplore this sort of racism, but it is ahistorical to pretend that it was not the popular attitude, or that it was imposed from above.
Third, Loveridge considers New Zealand’s military ethos. Well before 1914, there was already the attitude that a hardy soldiery represented the best qualities of New Zealand manhood. Such images were not manufactured from above during the First World War. At least since the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s, there had developed the view that the “colonial” soldier was hardier and more enduring and more self-reliant and athletic than the British “Home” variety. There were indeed some anti-militarist views aired when New Zealand’s Defence Forces were professionalised in 1909, but then anti-militarists were often those who preferred the idea of a trained and armed civilian militia – they were not necessarily anti-military. And all the while, quasi-military groupings (such as the Boy Scouts), military parades and displays and “sham fights” were very popular. Despite socialists calls for equality of sacrifice and the “conscription of wealth” as well as the conscription of men, the inauguration of conscription in 1916 was a popular measure.
Fourth, the persecution of “slackers” and “shirkers” during the First World War, cruel as we now judge it, was in line with general popular sentiment. Well before the war, there were pseudo-scientific fears about “racial degeneracy” advancing as New Zealand became more urbanised and fewer New Zealanders were in any sense “pioneers”. (By 1911, New Zealand’s town population for the first time exceeded its rural population.) Young men who were not athletic or not of a military cast of mind were easily regarded as lacking the correct racial credentials. The burgeoning (and ultimately sinister) eugenics movement played a big part in promoting such ideas. And (embarrassing though it may seem to some feminists now), so did first-wave feminism, which often endorsed the idea of breeding healthy and war-fit young men. Be it noted that this discourse began long before the First World War and continued long after the war was over in the ethos of Health Camps and the quasi-military nurturing of young children by timetabled feeding a la Truby King. We are appalled by the mistreatment of Conscientious Objectors during the First World War, which Loveridge duly recounts in detail, and we are outraged by the thought of women following non-combatant young men around and forcing white feathers upon them. We are heartened to learn (as Loveridge again documents) that even at the time many people were disgusted by such actions. Even so, as Loveridge’s extensive documentation shows: “harsh sentiments towards objectors were by no means an exceptional feature of the New Zealand government – again, a historiographical focus upon top-down manipulation masks more pervasive forces and patterns”. (p.166) To put it crudely, simply (and unpalatably), most New Zealanders fully approved of harsh treatment for COs and the vilification of “slackers”.
Fifth, Loveridge argues that it was not the First World War that changed the status of New Zealand women; and also that women were as fully complicit in pro-war sentiment as men were. First-wave feminism (gaining the suffrage; gaining first entry into universities and the professions) was in full swing well before the First World War. A detailed statistical survey, quoted by Loveridge, shows that the proportion of women in the workforce did not suddenly grow during the war, despite the absence on overseas war service of so many working men. Women’s participation in the workforce increased gradually during the war and as a continuum with the level of increase both before and after the war. More to the point, even first-wave feminists implicitly accepted the notion of women as being especially equipped for motherhood, as purifiers of the social order, and as mothers of healthy war-ready young men. Women were often to the fore in pro-conscription agitation, in campaigning for the early closing of pubs as an “economy” measure and in harassing “shirkers”. It took a zealous New Zealand woman to found the foreigner-harassing Anti-German League. Another woman-related matter is the way propaganda often presented an idealised image of mothers encouraging young men to go off to war, and being especially solicitous of their wellbeing. Yet, as Loveridge argues, this image too was very much in line with popular sentiment. It was not created by cynical propagandists. After all, the overwhelming majority of actively-serving soldiers were single young men for whom a mother was still the single most important woman in life.
Finally, Loveridge considers the cult of grief – the way war was connected with the religious ideas of duty, service and sacrifice. Again, these ideas were already in the mainstream of New Zealand’s “sentimental equipment” – they were not invented by official wartime publicity. The honouring of wartime duty, service and sacrifice is seen in the 452 popularly and publicly-funded war memorials that were erected in New Zealand after the war was over. Sometimes there were local controversies over what form these memorials should take. Should there, for example, be a “utilitarian” memorial bridge or public building rather than an “ornamental” memorial cenotaph or monument around which mourners could gather on ANZAC Day? In the great majority of cases, local communities chose the latter option. The desire to have a dedicated focus for genuine grief was widespread. Loveridge notes later attempts to pretend that these popular memorials were imposed from above (quoting a gem of dollar-book Freudian smugness, sourced to Chris Maclean and Jock Phillips’ 1990 book The Sorrow and the Pride: New Zealand War Memorials). Writes Loveridge:
Grand manipulation has been… nominated in explaining the shape these ornamental memorials took and the political, and apparently ‘highly phallic’, character of these monuments has been deconstructed. For instance it has been claimed that New Zealand’s war memorials were ‘deliberate and often controversial acts of propaganda and social control’ erected by certain ‘especially influential’ social groups who acted ‘with definite ideological purposes in mind’. ” (p.201)
Again, what amounts to a conspiracy theory has been imposed on history, and the real popular attitudes of the time have been either patronised or ignored.
As you will have deduced from all of the foregoing, I approve thoroughly of Steven Loveridge’s well-argued attempt to set the historical record straight. I emphasise that in showing how New Zealanders, men and women, by and large thought of themselves as British, willingly entered into the First World War, approved of coercive actions against German nationals, approved of hostility towards conscientious objectors and “slackers”, and shared a sense of war as duty and sacrifice – Loveridge is in no way arguing that these are values we should now be prepared to support. He is saying that these attitudes are the historical reality of 1914-18. We should not allow our knowledge of this historical reality to be buried under the Oh! What a Lovely War! or Blackadder Goes Forth versions of the First World War, which, as Loveridge says in his introduction, have become the most commonly accepted versions of the war to those who do not know what history is. As he says eloquently of his book in his Conclusion:
This interpretation of New Zealand society at war straddles the line between academic exercise and cultural commentary. The prevailing contemporary sense of the conflict seems firmly wedded to a mythology of the war grounded in futility, horror, pity and regret. It could fairly be said that this mythology can be traced to events and emotions at the time, that it captures some fundamental realities of the War/wars, and that it often serves the benign purpose of spurring contemplation of the human costs of conflict. An unfortunate consequence of this mythology, however, is that historical realities are distorted and significant context is cropped. In particular, the mythology diminishes our recognition and comprehension of the hope, idealism, resolve and fury New Zealand society poured into its war effort. Indeed many raised within the tradition of the Great War as tragic poetry may be shocked at the assertion that there was a prevalent commitment to the war and that this support can be broadly understood as indicative of conventional social values and attitudes – rather than being pathologised as ‘jingoism’, ‘hysteria’ or grand manipulation.” (p.247)
I’m so glad somebody has said all this.

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. 

 “A CHILD OF THE JAGO” by Arthur Morrison (first published 1896); and “THE HOLE IN THE WALL” by Arthur Morrison (first published 1902)

            I’m always intrigued by the term “minor classic”. What exactly does it mean? Does it mean a book that is a classic, but somehow not in the top league of classics? Or does it mean a book that retains its power after many a long year, but tends to be known only to a small and restricted group of readers? I’ve never been sure.
            If we go for the latter definition, then Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago is certainly a minor classic. There were many fictional and documentary depictions of the poorest and most unruly of London’s working class (or – often enough – unemployed class) in the nineteenth century. They range from Dickens  (Oliver Twist to Our Mutual Friend) to George Gissing (especially his grinding and intentionally awful The Nether World, published in 1889) to Jack London’s dyspeptic documentary The People of the Abyss, published in 1903 [look up my take on it via the index at right]. But of all 19th century English proletarian works, the one that strikes the most perfect balance between righteous reforming outrage, and real insight and empathy with the poor, is Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago. I regard this as the best English “slum” novel I’ve ever encountered, and the one that deserves a much wider audience.
            A few words about the author, as is my wont on this blog. Arthur Morrison (1863-1945) came from a humble “respectably poor” East End London family background (his father was an engine fitter). He made his way into journalism after a false start in the civil service, worked hard on a number of daily papers, and broke into fiction with short story collections about East End life. He also invented a detective called Martin Hewitt, featured in many short stories, who functioned as a kind of proletarian response to Sherlock Holmes. As far as I can work out from the few sources I’ve been able to access, Morrison’s literary life was largely confined to the 1890s and 1900s, well before the First World War. Thereafter he seems to have passed from public view and devoted himself to Oriental and especially Japanese art, about which he wrote a number of specialist books. The novels A Child of the Jago and The Hole in the Wall are apparently the two of his works that have been republished most often, and probably more than all his other works combined.
            Published in 1896, when Morrison was in his early thirties, A Child of the Jago has much documentary realism, but would not live as the minor classic it is if it were only documentary. Morrison’s narrative skill and care with characterisation make it a true novel.
            A Child of the Jago covers approximately ten years in the life of its eponymous character, Dicky Perrott. He is about seven or eight when we first meet him (though so lean and undernourished that Morrison tells us he could be taken for five). By novel’s end he is a young man of seventeen or eighteen. This novel is not a chronicle, however. Its action divides into three periods of Dicky Perrott’s young life, each separated by four or five years.
Dicky’s father Josh Perrott is an out-of-work plasterer who really lives by crime – petty theft, pilfering, occasional burglary. When times are especially hard, Dicky’s mother Hannah Perrott has to take in piecework, which pays starvation wages – sewing up sacks and bags for a few halfpennies per five hundred. Compared with most of their neighbours, who don’t even pretend to have legitimate employment, the Perrotts are almost respectable. In fact their semi-respectability puts them under suspicion. An ironical passage about Hannah Perrott tells us that she was “ no favourite in the neighbourhood at any time. For one thing, her husband did not carry the cosh. Then she was an alien who had never entirely fallen into Jago ways: she had soon grown sluttish and dirty, but she was never drunk, she never quarrelled, she did not gossip freely. Also her husband beat her but rarely, and then not with a chair nor a poker. Justly irritated by such superiorities as these, the women of the Jago were ill-disposed to brook another: which was, that Hannah Perrott had been married in church.” (Chapter 5)
In the Jago live what antique sociologists called “the criminal classes” and, with an equally patronising tone, Marxists called the Lumpenproletariat. Socially, “the Jagos” are the lowest of the low of the East End. Early in the novel a genuinely respectable working class family called the Ropers – with father in honest work – move into rooms near the Perrott family. “The Jagos” are so outraged at the Ropers’ respectability, moderate habits, failure to engage in crime and the tidiness of their rooms that, instinctively seeing them as snobs, they gang together, threaten to pillage the Ropers’ rooms, and drive them from the neighbourhood. After all, “anything savouring of moderate cleanliness was resented in the Jago as an assumption of superiority.” (Chapter 5)
The novel opens with a brilliant descriptive passage of the Jago’s inhabitants attempting, on a hot summer night, to sleep outdoors on the pavements, to escape the sweltering flea-infested and rat-infested hovels that they inhabit. They really are hovels and slums. A later scene in the novel has the floor collapsing, with loss of life, under revellers in a sordid tavern. Their environment dominates “the Jagos”. This is a world where children and the weak are routinely mugged, beaten up and robbed, for “whosoever was too young, too old or too weak to fight for it must keep what he had well hidden in the Jago.” (Chapter 10) There are also regular tribal brawls between people from different neighbouring streets.
The arc of the story has young Dicky drawn into becoming a thief, partly corrupted and groomed for the role by a weaselling receiver of stolen goods called Aaron Weech (he is more-or-less Fagin to Dicky’s Oliver Twist, but this is a tale with no Dickensian caricature or sentimentality). At first, Dicky has a spark of conscience. He attempts to atone for the ill he has done to another boy by stealing something to repay him. A sturdily “muscular Christian” Anglican pastor, the Reverend Henry Sturt, sees the potential in Dicky and steers him towards honest employment as a shop boy. For a brief time Dicky seems set on the path to a better life. But Aaron Weech, fearing that Dicky might inform on his “fencing” to the police, deliberately sabotages Dicky’s honest employment, throwing Dicky back into a life of petty crime. And while this is going on, things get worse for Dicky’s father. Josh Perrott is involved in a burglary, is sentenced to a long stretch in jail, and comes out intent on revenge on the man who informed on him.
I will not synopsise further, save to say that that it ends wretchedly for the main characters – probably a more uncompromisingly tragic ending than any other Victorian slum novel. One thing that still startles is the frank and non-euphemised nature of this novel. Violence is both frequent and graphic. There is no finger-wagging reproof directed at the character of “Pigeony Poll”, who is clearly a whore. She is simply part of the scene, providing one of the expected services in the Jago.
It’s important to note that there is a clever structure and real narrative drive to this novel. Of course there is inbuilt suspense in two sequences of burglary (one involving murder). Of course the documentary revelations are part of what keeps one turning the pages. But Arthur Morrison knows how to dovetail and connect what could in other hands be a mere parade of events – the way, for example, he uses recurring episodes involving a stolen music box and a stolen clock to mark the development of Dicky’s character and his sympathies.
The role of the Reverend Henry Sturt is interesting. As a figure of some authority (but not enough to totally transform lives) he sometimes acts like an unofficial keeper of the peace, as when he prevents the pillage of the Ropers’ quarters. But he is not naïve or unrealistic about the prospects of his parishioners. In fact he keeps his ear to the ground and knows exactly what criminal activities they have been up to. I am mindful that, ten years after this novel was published, George Bernard Shaw made fun of the more gullible members of the Salvation Army, in his play Major Barbara (1906), showing cunning Cockney lowlife characters weaselling favours out of them by pretending to be great sinners who had been “saved”. In Chapter 14 of A Child of the Jago, Morrison shows that the Reverend Sturt is fully wise to such tricks and never takes at his word any wretch who pretends to have suddenly seen the light. His sermons are practical advice and reproof. He repeatedly tries to set youngsters like Dicky straight. But he is under no illusions about his success rate.
Obviously this is a novel that deplores the degradation of people in such slum conditions. In general terms, as an expose, it could be called reformist. Yet there is an odd undercurrent to the novel. Morrison is also aware that the people who live in the Jago have their own codes, to which they stick. It may be no more than the “honour among thieves”, but it gives their wretched society some sort of cohesion. For example:
To rob another was reasonable and legitimate, and to avoid being robbed, so far as might be, was natural and proper. But to accuse anybody of a theft was unsportsmanlike, a foul outrage, a shameful abuse, a thing unpardonable. You might rob a man, bash a man, even kill a man; but to ‘take away his character’ – even when he had none – was to draw down the execrations of the whole Jago; while to assail the pure fame of the place – to ‘give the street a bad name’ – this was to bring the Jago howling and bashing about your ears.” (Chapter 10)
This may say no more than that informing (to the police) is despised. Nobody is allowed to “nark” or “peach”. Later, however, we have the wretches getting up a collection so that Josh Perrott can have a defence counsel when he is tried for burglary, and the whore Pigeony Poll looks after the Perrott children when both Perrott parents are involved in the trial. There is some sort of morality at work here.
Even more interestingly, one of the novel’s big set-pieces is a long bare-knuckle fight between Josh Perrott and the toughest neighbourhood thug Billy Leary (Chapter 14). It is sordid. It is graphic in its violence. Yet, as the mobs howls for their favourites, it also allows us to share their feral joy.
Thus the novel as I have experienced it, without calling upon any critics or commentators for help. Now, however, a little background and cogitation. I discover that “the Jago” is a fictitious name, which Arthur Morrison gave to the real fifteen acres of filth that were the Old Nichol area of Shoreditch and Spitalfields.  Morrison carefully researched this area because he had been directed to, by a Reverend A. Osbourne Jay, who was the model for the Reverend Henry Sturt.
I am also aware now that there has been some controversy about how pessimistic this novel is. In the end, is Morrison saying that the slum-dwellers are incapable of improvement and are doomed, by their inherited customs and social conditioning, to be no more than a destructive criminal force? Indeed, is there a hint of that destructive Nietzschean idea that some people are sub-human? In one scene, as the Reverend Sturt and a doctor emerge from a birth in a slum dwelling (Chapter 28), they appear to agree that some people should not be allowed to “breed” like rats. This malign idea was to dominate much of the eugenics movement in the early 20th century. Apparently the real Reverend A. Osbourne Jay came to the conclusion, after years of slum work, that the “criminal classes” were so beyond repair that the only solution was to deport the lot to a big penal colony. O dear!
Yet, while some of these ideas might have been congenial to Arthur Morrison (and I am only speculating that they were), they in no way blunt the force of this novel, or make us any less aware that its characters are human beings.

Informative footnote: This isn’t the major focus of A Child of the Jago, and it certainly will not get in the way of your appreciation, but there are passages of this concise and vigorous novel which use authentic but antique Cockney slang and thieves’ cant. Some of this would now be quite impenetrable to us if the context didn’t usually make the meaning clear. “Click”, we soon understand, means petty theft. To be “rotted” is to be caught out in a lie. A “bust” is a burglary. Some of the slang is both cynical and imaginative. In the big fight scene between Josh Perrott and Billy Leary (Chapter 14), we learn that to be “in chancery” means to be held helplessly in a headlock by a rival pugilist, who is then able to pummel and pulp your face with repeated blows. This suggests that Dickens’ view of the Court of Chancery, expressed in Bleak House, was one that that percolated down to the masses. It was the institution that held people helpless while they were ruined. There’s another Dickensian echo when we are told (Chapter 24) that the art of “fencing”, as currently practised, originated with the Cockney Jew Ikey Solomons. He was the criminal, way back in the 1820s, who was the model for Dickens’ Fagin. Then there is the passage where Morrison tells us that a burglary victim is a criminal, but that he does not do the obvious crimes that can be detected:  He did no vulgar thievery: he never screwed a chat, nor claimed a peter, nor worked the mace.” (Chapter 24) Other passages of the novel suggest to be that “screw a chat” means committing burglary and “working the mace” means mugging, but I could be wrong about these. And I still don’t know what “claiming a peter” means. So there are probably moments in A Child of the Jago where you might scratch your head before the narrative carries you on.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

            Coming from Arthur Morrison’s best-known work, A Child of the Jago, to his second-best-known work, The Hole in the Wall, is to come to a very different sort of novel, even if some of its concerns are the same.
Like A Child of the Jago, The Hole in the Wall is set among Cockney “criminal” classes who live in squalid circumstances and regard giving information to the police as the worst of crimes. It is also a novel with a number of murders and some other graphic violence. One lethal fight, in which a man is blinded by having lime rubbed into his eyes, is as chilling and feral as the bare-knuckle fight in A Child of the Jago. Yet The Hole in the Wall is more like a conventional thriller than A Child of the Jago, and it appears to be set some decades before the time it was written – probably the 1870s – so that it has none of the urgency of an expose. The dust-jacket of a 1972 reprint of it, which I have been reading, describes the novel as “a masterpiece of terror”. This is a silly overstatement. It is more an intriguing crime story, with some good suspense sequences.
            Brief synopsis: the mother of the young boy Stephen Kemp has just died. Stephen’s father is a seaman who is away on the long voyage. So Stephen is taken in by his old grandfather, the former seaman Nathaniel Kemp (usually known as Captain Kemp). Grandfather owns a squalid pub in Wapping, called The Hole in the Wall, right on the banks of the Thames. At one point we learn that it has a room which leans right out over the river, in which there is a trapdoor ready for all manner of dirty work.
            Grandfather Nathaniel is tough and wiry. He can break a man’s wrist as soon as grab it. Rough customers in his pub know his word is law. Most of his customers are sailors, whores, bargemen and the traders on the river. He is kind and grandfatherly to young Stephen and says he is trying to get enough money to buy the boy a good education. But we soon realise (even if the boy doesn’t) that Nathaniel Kemp’s main business is “fencing” stolen goods, although he does it in a cunning way that will not implicate himself should the police come sniffing.
            At the heart of this story is a maritime insurance fraud, which has lethal consequences, and the rivalry of sinister characters to get their hands on ill-gotten loot that has found its way into The Hole in the Wall. This is where the murders come into the story – stabbings, bodies dropped mysteriously into the dark river waters at night, and so on. But I refrain from being more specific about the plot as it is a good thriller and its surprises about characters and their motivation are essential to its effect. I can say that the sinister characters include Blind George, a blind waterfront fiddler with one milky and sightless rolling eye, a complete thug called Dan Ogle, and various weaselish hangers-on, who collectively frighten the wits out of the boy Stephen. I can also say that the eventual fate of the pub is so over-the-top that it might have come out of an old Hollywood movie.
            Major points of development are the way Nathaniel Kemp’s character and real priorities are slowly revealed to us, and the battle between his better nature and his criminal tendencies. Another is the odd relationship between boy and father-substitute “fence” grandfather, as the boy gradually realizes what sort of world he is living in. In some respects, this means The Hole in the Wall has something in common with two Victorian boys’ favourites, Stevenson’s Treasure Island (father-substitute pirate and boy) and J. Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet (father-substitute smuggler and boy).
            But there is what I regard as a major stylistic flaw in the novel. About half the chapters are narrated, in the first person, by the boy Stephen, and the rest are told in the omniscient third-person voice. When Stephen narrates, we are apparently meant to see the irony of a kid not understanding some of the obviously criminal stuff going on in front of him. But this cannot be sustained, as so much of the plot concerns things that Stephen cannot possibly witness. So we switch to the third person. I do not know anything about how Arthur Morrison wrote the novel, but I do wonder if he originally intended to have Stephen narrate it all, and then discovered that this voice could not be sustained without some logical impossibilities. At the very least, the switch in voices is very disconcerting, and the irony of Stephen’s incomprehension is overplayed and becomes rather strained.
I should note, by the way, that while both the Hole in the Wall and A Child of the Jago are novels with a child as the central character, neither could be called a book for children.
One final point. The Hole in the Wall does have much Cockney slang, but it is not as impenetrable as parts of its predecessor. Two bright things that struck me as I read it. In an early scene, a silly relative is attempting to say something sententious at the funeral of Stephen’s mother. She says “In the midst of life we’re in the middle of it.” Genius! Then there’s the crim who describes a thick fog as “a blind man’s holiday”. Quite.

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.


Here is real anarchy – the only sort of anarchy I can applaud.
Groucho and his brothers take over the captain’s bridge. Groucho sends orders for the captain’s lunch down the primitive speaking tube. Let us never forget that this is a passenger liner and many lives depend upon the captain’s word as spoken from the bridge. What matters is that Groucho ordering lunch is Groucho serving himself. His inner anarchist. To hell with social order. The anarchist who defies the righteous protocols of running a liner. Elsewhere in the same film (Monkey Business, 1931), the brothers take over a barbershop and snip off the whiskers of a moustachioed client who has come for a shave. And Harpo runs from the ship security men, who are looking for stowaways, and takes over and sabotages a Punch-and Judy show. And the great climax (before the film descends to routine farce) where all four brothers (yes, poor Zeppo was still part of the act then) attempt to pass through customs by pretending to be Maurice Chevalier. So bureaucratic immigration authority is defied as well as shipboard authority.
I confess to knowing the Marx Brother from my earliest youth, even though I was born twenty years after they made their most inventive films. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when I was a child and when television had only begun to have an impact on New Zealand, the cinemas on Queen Street in Auckland would still play, as holiday treats, films made in the 1930s. Double bills of Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers. It was at such screenings that, indulged by either my father or my eldest brother, I first saw Laurel and Hardy in Bonnie Scotland persuading the rest of their platoon that they were the only soldiers in step – surely their best ever sight gag. Or Laurel and Hardy negotiating a maze in A Chump at Oxford.
But more to my juvenile taste were the Marx Brothers, sabotaging an opera in A Night at the Opera or cheating each other furiously in the less successful (and, in retrospect, somewhat tackier) A Day at the Races. That scene where cunning Chico gets gullible Groucho to buy all the code books before placing a bet.
Those were the big budget films they made when they moved to M.G.M.
It was only as a young adult, via television and (later) videotape and DVD, that I discovered that their most inventive films were the cheaper, more ramshackle, more anarchistic ones they had made at Paramount before they shifted to M.G.M.
So I constantly play in my head my favourite pieces of anarchy from these films. The scene in the really primitive early talkie The Cocoanuts (1929) where shyster hotel manager Groucho persuades his employees that they don’t need wages because they don’t want to be “wage slaves”. Groucho making his entrance in Animal Crackers (1930) as “Captain Spaulding”, with a song that ridicules all mythology about Great White Hunters and Great White Explorers. The scene in Horse Feathers (1932) where Groucho introduces himself as head of a university in a song (“Whatever It is, I’m against it!”) which has him pulling the whiskers of learned professors. Harpo and Chico in the same film, first escaping from the gangsters who have fixed the outcome of a football match, then proceeding to ruin the football match. Harpo getting into a speakeasy in mime-talk. Groucho rudely parodying An American Tragedy when he takes a young woman out in a canoe. And in their masterpiece Duck Soup (1933) all the stuff that ridicules war and militarism, and the sublime scene where Harpo and Chico, as spies, report to their spymaster and give him double-talk about “spy stuff”. Not to mention Harpo wrecking the roadside stall of the lemonade-seller.
And all the time, the rude and opportunistic courting of Margaret Dumont by the impudent Groucho.
I can pluck some anarchism from their later films, and some joy from the linguistic games that people like S.J. Perelman and George S. Kaufman dropped into their screenplays – like the scene in A Night at the Opera where Groucho and Chico discuss a contract (“You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause!”). But even though some of their later films turned up as Saturday matinees at our local fleahouse when I was a kid (Room Service, The Big Store), they did not have the real anarchistic pizzazz of the earlier films. Indeed some of the later films were really sorry stuff.
Now why have I burdened you with this nostalgic recall?
I have one of my brilliant ideas coming on.
When Groucho, Harpo, Chico and (in the early films only) Zeppo thumbed their noses at stuffed shirts, authority, cops, immigration officials, university professors, cultural highbrows at the opera, the military, patriotism and other sitting ducks as targets for rude satire, they were living in a world in which such things were respected and even revered. Indeed, for all their mockery, the Marx Brothers really reinforced such respect by telling us that these things were important. Their clowning was in the nature of a medieval Feast of Fools where all manner of rude things could be said about authority on the full understanding that such authority really counted. The Marx Brothers let us visit Cloud-Cuckoo Land for a moment and blow off steam at those targets that sometimes made us grumble, but whose necessity we did not challenge.
And this seems to me far from the current brand of “satire” which is essentially destructive and in which every bright spark has a one-liner to belittle or demean.
I’m saying the fantastical anarchy of the Marx Brothers let us pretend to be children for a happy while, before we returned to reality and remembered how much responsibility and authority guide us. Hear the sneer of the stand-up comic addressing a hip audience, and you are far from the world of the Marxes who smashed authority only because they knew they were cocooned and protected by it.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Something New

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

“THE WRITERS’ FESTIVAL” by Stephanie Johnson (Penguin-Random House, $NZ37:99)

Two years ago I reviewed on this blog Stephanie Johnson’s The Writing Class [look it up on the index at right – or look up “Stephanie Johnson” for all of her novels which I’ve reviewed on this blog]. That was her novel about students being guided through a Creative Writing course by the likeable old leftie tutor Merle Carbury. I noted then that Stephanie Johnson, being a teacher of creative writing as well as a novelist, had every right to tackle such a topic. But I also noted that, if you were so inclined, you could see the novel as a very good argument against creative writing courses, given that many plot-points and comments were so unflattering on the subject.
I would be very ungenerous if I said that The Writers’ Festival is a very good argument against readers’ and writers’ festivals. Stephanie Johnson has had a hand in setting up and organizing Auckland’s Readers’ and Writers’ Festival, and this novel is as much an informed insider’s view as the earlier one was. It is very jolly, enjoyable and readable, but there is much here to make you very sceptical of the whole concept of literary festivals. I doubt, however, if Stephanie Johnson really means to knock them – only to make some organizing committees squirm a little.
The Writers’ Festival is not exactly a “sequel” to The Writing Class. You need not have read the earlier novel to enjoy this one. But there is some carry-over of characters.
Merle Carbury and her even more nostalgic and left-wing sometime husband Brendan return for duty, as does Gareth Heap, the writing tutor who, in the earlier novel, had an affair with one of his students, the mercurial and rather sex-obsessed Jacinta. She left her affluent husband for Gareth. In The Writers’ Festival they have split up, Jacinta is still unpublished and still trolling for varied sexual experience, while Gareth has the task of being one of the judges for a prestigious literary prize to be presented at the festival. If The Writing Class had a chronological structure leading up to students having their creative writing manuscripts assessed, The Writers’ Festival has a chronological structure, counting from January to June, leading up to the staging of the festival.
Writing in the third-person, but taking the opportunity to jump into each of her characters’ minds, Johnson skips from character to character. They include the gay, Indian novelist Adarsh Z. Kar, who is the hot favourite to win the literary prize Gareth is judging. The problem is that Gareth used to be Adarsh’s tutor, so there’s the question of a conflict of interest when a literary man sits in judgment on somebody he knows personally. There appears to be a mild element of ridicule in the way Johnson presents Adarsh. Is she, I wondered, taking the borax not only out of the fashion for novels which mix mythology with sex, but also out of the adulation given to ethnic writers who may not be as ethnic as they seem? Adarsh’s guilty secret is not that he is gay, but that he is culturally less Indian and more of a New Zealander than he lets on.
In reading a novel like this, where characters give their frank thoughts on various matters, it is easy to fall into the obvious trap of identifying the author with some of her characters. At the very least, it would seem, Johnson comes closest in sympathy to the festival’s Artistic Director Rae McKay and to the writing tutor Merle Carbury.
Rae has an artistic conscience, which sometimes puts her at odds with the more aggressive, pragmatic and business-minded Irishwoman Orla, who is the book festival’s commercial director. The various differences of opinion between the two are major movers of the plot. One difference is introduced early. A dissident Chinese writer, Liu Wah, has been invited to speak at the festival. Fully aware that Chinese students are a major income-earner for the university which is one of the festival’s sponsors, a Chinese diplomat threatens “downstream flow-on effects for the university” if Liu Wah is invited. So we are plunged into issues of political censorship and how festivals can be compromised by their sponsors. Rae agonises over this. Orla thinks only of the dollars.
            When Rae, who had some experience in New York, considers how she has acquired her position as festival director, she thinks of two things:
The first is that, despite predictions of the death of the book for about thirty years – almost her entire lifetime so far – the world is aglitter with book festivals. People queue to hear writers speak, to buy the written word, to luxuriate in fine minds…. The second… is antipodean cultural cringe, still alive and kicking nearly two hundred years into the postcolonial period, which makes her the girl for the job, no matter how many others applied with CVs loaded with local experience…” (p.23)
Elsewhere, she considers the problems a festival director has to deal with:
sponsorship and venue-share for the city-wide event, naming rights for a series of ongoing lectures throughout the calendar year, change of personnel at Marketing and Communications, conformation of guests and lifting of media embargo dates, …Artistic Director’s report” (p.81)
I’m sure Rae is not a self-portrait, but I’m equally sure these problems are ones the author knows intimately.
Quite in contrast is Merle, in whom Rae sometimes confides. Merle is not au fait with the new commercialisation of literature that writers’ festivals entail. Being the rumpled old leftie she is, she sometimes daydreams of a New Zealand that no longer exists:
Matariki. Maori New Year at a park with a memorial to a long-gone socialist prime minister piercing the sky behind them, the sky full of kites. That particular prime minister one of the prime creators of the myth that surrounded this country – egalitarianism, a concern for the common man and woman, the primacy of decent housing for everyone, the forty-hour week…” (p.130)
In similar vein, when her Brendan thinks of inaccurate old Pakeha pronunciations of Maori place names, he thinks it is :
The accent of mum knitting by the fire, it’s Weetbix, Dominion Breweries beer, scones and sheep dip, it’s a trusting egalitarianism that few believe in anymore. It’s watching the rugby with your mates, it’s fish and chips on the beach, barbecues on the back deck and meeting pretty girls with chainsaw voices at the pub….” (p.177)
And even Rae knows that New Zealand has changed when she reflects on the trouble she has stirred up by inviting the dissident Chinese author to the festival:
She can scarcely recall now what motivated her. An adolescent desire to challenge authority perhaps, a desire she hadn’t even had when she was an adolescent. By the time she’d gone to university in the late nineties, aspirational greed had displaced the long-reigning pinko sentiments evident in student politics since the sixties. Rae was just one of their number, voting for the conservatives.” (p.245)
There are other sighs of nostalgia in this novel, as when Gareth Heap, having decided to take a break and stop reading for a few days, because he is so sick of words on both screen and page, reflects:
He will not castigate himself with the thought that brilliant men in previous centuries never got tired of the printed word, but read their eyes out over candlelight, wrote weighty novels and sermons and entire newspapers and multiple-volume histories and thousands of letters…” (p.152)
I stress that The Writers’ Festival is largely what the author calls it in an end-note, an “entirely imaginary literary knees-up”, and therefore a romp in a farcical vein. Serious issues do turn up (such as those sponsorship and censorship matters – and the problems of trying to hide behind a pseudonym in an age where the internet means quick exposure). There is much farce and much bonking (occasionally a little too soap-opera-ish for my taste), and some stand-alone comic scenes, such as one character’s failed attempts to get back to nature, and an awful motivational workshop, of which Rae thinks:
In America these workshops are part of the culture, they fit with the self-examining, self-aggrandising ethos. Theatre meets therapy, she’d heard an older New York colleague describe it as. Grotowsky’s exercises for actors co-opted to the corporate world, where the fiction exists that everyone is capable of such stripping away of instincts for privacy and basic human dignity. All for a happy workplace. A productive business. A team in tune.” (p.196)
But under the fun, I hear a distinctly melancholy undertone. In this novel, characters under pressure sometimes behave badly, especially because they are in competition. More to the point, we are so often reminded how much a monetarist free-market philosophy has taken over even many of New Zealand’s literati, and how more solid community values have been discarded.
Perhaps this just says that good comedy requires a serious base if it is to appeal to grown-ups.