Monday, August 29, 2016

Something New

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

“MISTER HAMILTON” by John Dickson  (Auckland University Press, $24:99);  “NOTHING FOR IT BUT TO SING” by Michael Harlow (Otago University Press, $25).

John Dickson is a poet who takes his time. Now aged 72, he has produced only three slim volumes in the last thirty years. His third collection Mister Hamilton is, says the blurb, his first publication in 18 years. Dickson self-confesses in the poem “Wasp”: “These days, I’m mellow, and far less moral. / I’ve published two slim volumes, and spend all / my time working on the next.”

How to judge this cautious, careful and rather severe poet?

He writes much about his Southland, Invercargill and Dunedin background, often with a tone of disenchanted nostalgia. The opening words of “Plainsong” go:

For many years I lived in Southland.

In fact, I am from Southland.

Some people say my speech is slow

I say it’s deliberate, just

This poem is really about the persistence of memory and childhood, no matter how much one thinks one is past them. “A Short History of rock and roll in Southland” is a melange of teen memories, farm memories and early fumbling sex. Similarly “Do you want to replace the existing Austen-Seven?” is a memory of a first grope in the same milieu. There are scary mountain poems about the tunnels in the power plant on Lake Manapouri and the crushing weight sensed in a tunnel at Doubtful Sound. The five-part “Postcards from Dunedin” seems at first a purely evocative pictorial survey, but ends as a sly critique of the city’s old unco’ dour Calvinism. So the deep South Island scene looms large. But it is seen in retrospect, at a distance and in old age. Presumably the volume is called Mister Hamilton because Dickson was once Writer in Residence at the University of Waikato, when this volume was gestating.

New Zealand’s Deep South was not the only formative influence on John Dickson. He loves his jazz. “Piano time with Monk” is essentially a take-down of the type of jazz-fan who can deconstruct Thelonious Monk without ever really understanding the music. And there is a thin and lean poem called “The fingers of Django Reinhardt” celebrating the French-Gypsy jazz guitarist’s virtuosity even with his maimed hand. I approve of this poem. Anyone who is an admirer of Django must have something good going for him. [See my post Django is God from nearly four years back].

There are some poems that, it seems to me, misfire and go a little glib. “Spinster” and “Two small girls visit ChristChurch Cathedral” are respectively an easy shot at a lonely woman and a piece of obvious out-of-the-mouths-of-babes irony. The “found” poem “Grace Jones” could have been left unfound. “The sound of cash” is a jaded review of The Sound of Music with one or two funny lines.

On the other hand, John Dickson can do excellent poetic documentary, as in the old timer’s first-personal confession “Pensioner” or the emotionally raw “Poem for my father” and “Gravity” (on death of his father). There is also the polished love sonnet “Fourteen lines for Jen”.

And he has the persistence to attempt longer poems. In the 6-and-a-half pages of “The persistence of Football results on Bealey Ave”, he mixes hoon imagery with satiric ridicule of “late postmodern capital…. Enjoying all the freedoms / of our now goebbelised world” and briefly daydreams of  “the promised / worker’s state where we could go on / dreaming of holidays by the Siberian Sea / wearing neither shoes nor coats / while treadmilling a central committee’s / never ending five year plan.” But the daydream is only a daydream and whatever the Hard Left once offered has lost its lustre. For all its verbal exuberance this is essentially a poem of despair.

 “Something Else” is a longish prose poem which faces High Art (Brueghel) against immediately transmuted anguish of Kurdish parents under bombing and says something (but perhaps not much) about the anguished onlooker

Of the longer poems, and even if he’s given it a sardonic title, “Sixties relic surveys his lawn” comes off best, because its apparently disconnected free-form thoughts (of one who mows his tiny lawn) come across as a real expansion of the suburban mind.

Having presented you with a taste of the contents, I conclude with a poem, which I give in full – a very good and succinct variation on the theme that youth never understands while age can only regret. It’s called “My Coat”:

The gabardine overcoat was a gift from my father.

I can’t remember the occasion it was given,

my leaving home, my twenty-first.

What I do remember though is this:

the gabardine overcoat was charcoal black

and lined with silk. And it fitted me

like no other overcoat I’ve owned,

except, it wasn’t then the sort of overcoat

I wanted to wear.”

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

I confess I had a rough time negotiating Mister Hamilton – perhaps I was simply not in synch with the poet. The imagery often seemed contrived. The aged hipster tone sometimes grated against the Hard Left nostalgia.

On the other hand, Michael Harlow’s Nothing For It But to Sing easily captured and then moulded my own moods. Michael Harlow, wildly prolific (so far 10 books of poetry to his credit), is a very different sort of poet from Dickson. He is reflective without being complacent, assured in his use of form (ah! real poetry!), and subtle as a warmed knife in his imagery. I basked in this volume, then went back and read it again more carefully, blushing at the ironies I had missed first time around.

One dominant note is struck in the title poem, which opens the collection. Its three stanzas are framed as advice to a severely depressed man, directing on him how to readjust to the world in small ways. Immediately the second poem in the book, “Short talk on spring with fantails”, strikes another note. It begins “That far but always near place of feeling, / we called childhood. When we grew up / and discovered that it was still there / inside us, still the green song.” It continues as a discourse on pure and simple joys – even when we are, as adults, self-conscious about them.

At first I thought these opening two poems were announcing the volume’s balanced seesaw. Here the bruised psychological condition that needs tending with sane advice. There, the impulse to pure and celebratory joy. Perhaps the poems that followed would go either this way or that?

On the one hand there is suicide (“Forgetting to remember”) and lives lived by superficial appearances (“The family at last”) and the limitations of psycho-therapy cast as gypsy fortune-telling (“Her words”) and the loneliness of the ego-self (“The night-watch, making the rounds”) and sheer nightmares which might have therapeutic value (“Aftershock”) and the difficulty entailed in transcending the ego and finding love in another (“Not in the stars”) and the agnostic’s insomnia of doubt (“No full stops in heaven”) and the lonely woman who wakes from nightmares (“The invitation”). [Why, oh why, when I read such things do I immediately think of Auden’s line “in the burrows of the Nightmare, where Justice naked is”?) And let us say that the six poems following “Post mortem on promises” (p.33) are all like mythologised psychological confessions of regret, loneliness and loss.

On the other there is at least the value and pleasure of old-world courtesy (“Short talk on hats”) and the joy and desire of love despite human imperfection (“Let’s do it”).

But the sad poetic psychodramas do dominate, so that generally joy is a therapeutic thing or the last resort in healing a broken soul, rather than das Ding an sich. You resort to joy – you do not surrender to it. Yet how desperately you want the noumenon, which you can never grasp. What else is John Cage’s composition of silence but such an endeavour? (See the poem “Take five: composition for words and music”.)

Nothing For It But to Sing indeed!

I have, of course, classified and schematised Harlow’s work far more than it deserves, but I think I have conveyed accurately this volume’s guiding mood. Fitting to the psychotherapeutic approach (think “Oedipus complex” etc.) There is in this poetry a strain of imagery taken from classical mythology. Of course it is found in “Hidden things”, which is “after Cavafy”; and as one would expect with such a mindset, one plumbs the fathoms of one’s being by “Arriving at Delphi” and one dreams of being translated into a constellation like a classical hero (“This is your birthday”). There are also psychodrama poems set in a non-specific, almost fairy-tale world, which aches with archetypes (“The holiness of attention”).

Beyond the psychodramas, there are well-crafted poems of philosophical enquiry. “Nor love’s fault nor time’s” is a beautiful balancing of the transitory nature of love and its real joys. “Reflections in the wider world” is a multi-part poem which at first seems a light threnody on love, but which becomes more a discourse on the clash of words with the world – the problem of verbal representation. “The company of mapmakers” could be read as a critique of our tendency to take representations for reality (“In word-struck / lines of optic infatuation you are mapping / the territory to make the invisible, visible.”)

Have I made it clear, then, that this is a volume of thought as much as feeling?

Though in its directness it is not typical of this collection, I close by quoting in full “The late news” – a terse and laconic poem about the death of a child, where Harlow deploys no psycho-mythology:

This little boy

with his new number-one

haircut, his heart full of surprise,

clutching his end-of-the-year report card

to his chest, crossing High Street

for the last time – without looking

both ways

His black and white dog,

her snappy tail on fast forward

waiting for him, ears pricked,

on the other side, the cars

streaming by

Mother at the upstairs

open window, ironing

the family clothes, humming

a familiar tune for company,

just before raising her head

to look down into the street

of the dead

Later, on the late news

someone, a bystander looking

for some lost words – that kid

he said. Not a chance.

You know today is the longest

day of the year, and it’s

going to last forever

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. 

“DIANA OF THE CROSSWAYS” by George Meredith (first published in 1885)

            As I’ve stated before on this blog, there was a time when for some reason I read my way through all the novels of George Meredith (1828-1909). At first I was puzzled. Why was he once esteemed as one of the greatest Victorian novelists? And why has he subsequently dropped out of the canon, to the point where he now tends to be read only by specialists and thesis-writers? There are periodic attempts by enthusiasts to bring him back into popularity, but they are always unsuccessful.
            It didn’t take me long to understand why this eclipse happened. With some honourable exceptions, Meredith’s novels are too self-consciously intellectual in a way that has dated badly. Meredith often deals with issues that would once have seemed innovative and daring, but that no longer hold the interest. Worse, he tends to confine himself to a very limited social milieu (basically upper-class intellectuals) and to write in a convoluted prose style, too addicted to sentences running on in complex and impenetrable subordinate clauses.
            And yet I greatly admire and enjoy his first real novel, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (see post thereupon), written before his worst mannerisms set in; and his incisive political novel Beauchamp’s Career (ditto); and there are things to be said for his poetry (see posting George Meredith as Poet); although I have already chastised what was once seen as one of his two greatest novels The Egoist.
            Diana of the Crossways was once his other most esteemed novel, and I am now going to chastise it by first giving you one of my dreaded synopses and them donning my black cap to pass judgment.
            Short synopsis: A talented and beautiful young woman, separated from her jealous husband, fails to find happiness with a rising politician, but is eventually won by a plodding, faithful admirer.
            Real synopsis: The daughter of the late Dan Merion, Diana Antonia Merion is an adornment of the Anglo-Irish social scene. This is established in the early chapters in which, aged only 19, she is the cynosure of a ball in Dublin, vocally admired by the old soldier Lord Larrian and the Irishman Sullivan Smith. Crossing back to England, young Diana wishes to regain possession of the family seat, the Crossways, which is tenanted by the Warwicks. Is it the stately house or the man which leads her to become betrothed, and then married, to 34-year-old Augustus Warwick?
            Whatever the case, the marriage is not a success. Augustus Warwick becomes ridiculously jealous and possessive, and the marriage breaks down when he absurdly accuses her of infidelity on the basis of her platonic friendship with the aged Lord Dannisborough.
            All this is sympathetically observed by Thomas Redworth and by Diana’s best friend Emma Dunstane, who lives at her own mansion, Copley, with her husband Captain Sir Lukin Dunstane. [The good captain is once so overcome with Diana’s beauty that he can’t forebear to kiss her!]
            Now separated from her husband, and having to make her own way in the world, Diana travels to Italy and begins to make a living in journalism and as the writer of popular novels.
She returns to London. She is in the unusual situation of being married-but-single; not available for the marriage market, and not fully respectable either. Says Meredith: “The men and women of her circle derisively, unanimously, disbelieved in an innocence that forfeited reputation.” (Chapter 29) However, she becomes friendly with a number of young men, and is still admired, especially by the Honourable Percy Dacier, a young relative of old Lord Dannisborough. Percy is a rising politician – apparently a Liberal. [In the background, very dimly recorded by Meredith, there seem to be Liberal manoeuvres to outbid the Irish Land league in the Liberals’ Irish policy – and it is here that Meredith uses some rather twee and patronising imagery to suggest Diana’s impulsive Irishness and Percy Dacier’s rational Englishness.] The friendship between Diana and Percy develops apace, as does Diana’s writing. But the relationship eventually shipwrecks when Diana hears some confidential political information from Percy, and passes it on to the editor of the Times, who splashes it through his paper. Although by this stage Diana’s husband has died (conveniently offstage) and Diana is free to marry, Percy now turns his back on her and marries a socialite.
            Diana has failed with two men. She retreats into herself, protected in part by her maid Danvers. But finally she returns to the world and accepts as her husband the faithful Tom Redworth, who has admired her throughout the course of the action.
(In making this synopsis, by the way, I have deliberately left out other admirers of Diana such as one Arthur Rhodes and the diarist Henry Wilmers, who is the narrative voice of the novel’s pompous opening chapter.)
What are we, as early 21st century readers, meant to make of this?
Sticking out like a bloody spear is the novel’s symbolism. Diana is the goddess who hunts – an exquisite ideal for the men who pursue. From the diminutive of her middle name Antonia, she is known as “Tony” by her best friend Emma Dunstane, and the novel calls her “Tony” whenever she expresses her sensual side.  So modern women, says the late Victorian novelist, are both practical idealists and have sensual needs. Ah yes, dear Victorian readers, but modern women are different from their mothers and grandmothers. Which direction will this modern woman take? Please note that she lives at the Crossways…
Meredith puts into Lukin Dunstane’s mouth praise for Diana which shows the combination of brains and sex that attracts men: “A woman like Diana Warwick might keep a fellow straight, because she’s all round you; she’s man and woman in brains; and legged like a deer, and breasted like a swan, and a regular sheaf of arrows in her eyes.” (Chapter 26)
Symbolism and the intentions of the nomenclature are overt in this novel. Consciously and deliberately, Meredith is writing about the “problem” of the single and divorced woman. Such a daring thing to do in 1885. Of course he, as a sympathetic male liberal, identifies with Diana and her plight. Indeed he seems to identify with her to the point of telling us that she writes novels very similar to the ones he writes. We are told that Diana’s first novel was a fantasy called The Princess Egeia (Meredith’s first novel was a fantasy, The Shaving of Shagpat). Diana writes a political novel The Young Minister of State (i.e. Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career). She writes a novel about a singer The Cantatrice (Meredith wrote two novels about a singer Sandra Belloni and Vittoria). Diana writes a novel about an indecisive man The Man of Two Minds (i.e. Meredith’s The Egoist). This is a case of “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” pushed to absurd extremes and it is hard to see the point of it, except to create a big in-joke.
Those elements that might once have made the book seem “modern” are now particularly faded. Here is a novel which glances at politics, yet does so in a comforting and complacent way as it puts those restless and irrational Irish at a distance. Its advocacy of divorce is tepid to say the least. But the chief problem in Diana herself. We are frequently told she is witty, but rarely hear her being witty. She is observed from a distance. After the tedious opening chapter in which the diarist Henry Wilmers gives his impressions of her, we only hear about her first marriage and its failure as it is reported to Emma Dunstane and her husband. This seems to be a “set-up” on Meredith’s part. It is necessary to his plot that Diana be estranged from her first husband, but Meredith doesn’t want to take on the hard work of showing how her marriage broke down by making it psychologically credible.
Why was this novel Meredith’s first big popular success? I suspect because it gave an idealised image of a “pure” woman unsullied by sex, and it has a happy ending in which the plodder Tom Redworth (with whom most male readers could identify) wins out. (“I taught this old watch-dog of a heart to keep guard and bury the bones you tossed him”, says faithful Fido Tom Redworth in the last chapter.) And yet it seems to deal with serious and grown-ups issues of the day which are now of only historical interest to us – the Irish Question; highbrow Victorian novels; the “problem” of divorce and the role of the “single-married” woman; a woman having a career; “Whither the destiny of Woman?” etc. etc. [These latter issues are enough to have had it re-published as a Virago Modern Classic.] Though I certainly think Meredith has more going for him, I can’t help comparing this novel with a forgotten bestseller I once analysed on this blog – Stephen McKenna’s Sonia (1917), which gave its readers the illusion that they were dealing with serious, grown-up themes while in fact doing very little to challenge their prejudices.
As a subjective reaction, I found Diana of the Crossways a tedious piece of work. Does the term “vapid” apply? Or maybe “tepid”? Among Meredith’s novels I would rank it alongside Rhoda Fleming and The Egoist for dullness in the way it overanalyses events rather than providing a robust narrative. I found myself frequently losing interest and had to force myself to read it to the end. Only two sections caught my fancy – one being Tom Redworth’s ride to the Crossways in an early chapter, an episode which takes on an appropriately eerie quality; and the other being some of the political machinations in the plot concerning Percy Dacier. Otherwise I found both characters and situations thin, contrived and unconvincing. And is it prejudiced of me to be always suspicious of books which rhapsodise over country homes (Crossways, Copley etc.)?

Eccentric footnote: There is an interesting metaphor used in Chapter 5 where Diana is lamenting the way the new-fangled railways are carving up and defacing rural England. She says: “This mania for cutting up the land does really cause me to pity those who are to follow us. They will not see the England we have seen. It will be patched and scored, disfigured… a sort of barbarous Maori visage – England in a New Zealand mask. You may call it the sentimental view. In this case, I am decidedly sentimental: I love my country. I do love quiet, rural England.

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. 


Believe me, I do not like launching into yet another think-piece criticising the sports–worshipping mentality. On this blog I have already talked about the foolish jingoistic nationalism that enters into any international sports competitions, the ill will they often generate, and the delusion that competitive sports somehow make for a more fit country. (See my earlier posts Not My Religion and Hans Off and Other Nonsense.)

But the Rio Olympics force me to revisit some of these issues. Here’s an expensive international competition staged in a city wracked with poverty. Huge facilities siphon money away from necessary social programmes and the slum-dwellers quite rightly ask why they should be burdened with even more debt and why their lives should be ignored for the sake of what is in effect a huge Potemkin village.

I ask some overwhelming questions too: What is the purpose of the Olympics anyway? And is there any way they can be made into something honest?

From 1896, when the modern Olympics were devised, their propagandists have told us that they are a festival of international peace and cooperation. The best athletes in the world get together to show off their skills in an atmosphere of mutual goodwill. This has, of course, always been a lie. From the very beginning, the modern Olympics have been pre-eminently displays of national chauvinism. The example of the Berlin Olympics hosted in Nazi Germany in 1936 used to be cited as an aberration. A dictator was hijacking the Olympics to make nationalist (and racist) propaganda. But nationalist display is the essence of the modern Olympics and 1936 was no aberration. All that parading of flags and tallying of medals. All that jockeying to become host city. The boycotts, as when the West boycotted the Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and African countries boycotted the Olympics after New Zealand insisted on playing a minority tribal sport with old South Africa. The obscenity of the defunct little statelet of Communist East Germany ramping up its medal count by drugging its athletes up to the eyeballs and filling women with testosterone. The Soviet (and continuing Russian) pretence that their athletes are “sports students” when they are to all intents and purposes state-funded full-time professional athletes. (Speaking of which, the old concept of “amateur” status has long since gone by the board everywhere.)

International goodwill is not promoted by the Olympics. It is regularly undermined.

Further to old East Germany’s pharmaceutical victories, it has been national chauvinism more than anything else, which has regularly fuelled drug cheating. “It is not the winning, but the taking part” ???? Bollocks. For nationalist purposes, winning rather than good sportsmanship is the prime goal, and winning means the systematic poisoning of athletes. Once there was an age of relative innocence, when the great public assumed that medical assistance given to competing athletes was simply humanitarian. But much of the pharmacopoeia presented to runners and jumpers and discus-throwers before the Second World War consisted of drugs that would now be regarded as illegal. Jack Lovelock was injected in the knee with a “pain-killer” before his winning 1936 dash. The injection administered would now probably count as drug-cheating.

To give you some context. New Zealand’s Valerie Adams (formerly Valerie Vili) has an impeccable record as an honest, drug-free athlete who has played by the rules. In the women’s shot put she has been twice an Olympic gold medallist (and since Rio a silver medallist as well). Once she was temporarily deprived of a gold medal when it was first awarded to a woman who was later proven to be a drug cheat. But it has been shown that the best-ever distance thrown by Valerie Adams (21.24 metres) wouldn’t even place her in the top twenty compared with (Russian, Chinese and East German) women shot-putters in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. The reality was that gold medals were routinely won by then-undetected chemical substances.

I had assumed that the more efficient detection of illegal drugs would gradually eliminate this sort of imposture – but a biologist informs me that the next big thing will not be drug-cheating but gene therapy. Gene-splicing will enable doctors to create unbeatable athletes from the cradle (or the womb, or conception), so that the notion of “the best” competing will again be determined by things other than what happens in training.

To this I add the obvious fact that Olympic-level sports do not promote healthy lives. “Flo Jo” (Florence Joyner), America’s four-time gold medallist at the 1988 and 1989 Olympics, was touted as the fastest woman in the world and a role-model for young athletes. She was dead at the age of 39. Illegal use of drugs to enhance performance was suspected but never proven. At the very least, speaking as an overweight, un-athletic 64-year-old, I can say that her sports career did not make her life longer or healthier.

I have ticked off national chauvinism, drug-cheating, bad sportsmanship, competitiveness and the promotion of unhealthiness as the routine blights of the Olympics movement. Add to this the relatively recent addition of the crass showbiz razzmatazz that is now the Olympics opening ceremony; and the way that any city foolish enough to host the Olympics is certain to face a huge and unrecoverable bill. As a cultural phenomenon, the Olympics now have very little to offer the world.

So what is to be done?

My suggestions are radical ones.

(A.) Finally decide on three or four cities in the world which will, in turn, ALWAYS host the Olympics, with necessary facilities and accommodation for visitors paid for by international levy so as not to burden these host cities with unsustainable debt. That will put an end to the bidding for host status and all the international ill will that goes with it.

(B.) Remove all flags, national uniforms and national insignia. Individual athletes (track-and-field etc.) will compete in plain numbered uniforms. Obviously team sports will require team uniforms, but these will not be national ones. They will be a range of standard Olympic uniforms. [“But how will teams be picked if not on a national basis?” you ask. Fair question – the aim here is to turn down national feeling. Utterly abolishing it may be impossible.]

(C.) When athletes win, there will be no acknowledgement of their nationality. They will be honoured as the individual athletes they are. Nationality will presumably have to be acknowledged for teams, but there will be no tally of medals won by different nations. Media outlets that make up such lists will be permanently banned from the games. Of course such tallies with inevitably be made by someone – but as I said, the aim is to turn down national feeling, not accomplish the impossible.

(D.) All athletes without exception (i.e. including members of teams) will be tested for illegal drugs, by an international panel, every day for two weeks before the games begin; and again immediately after any event in which they are placed first, second or third. This will mean that no placings will be announced until after the results have been published of such post-event testing. With the new threat of gene-tampering, all athletes with have to provide authenticated certification of all medical procedures they have undergone.

(E.) Among other things, this will mean ending the podium ceremony (invented only in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics) where too often people are awarded medals they have not deserved.

(F.) And finally, abolish the irrelevant opening ceremony. It has nothing to do with sportsmanship. The focus of the games with be on athletic and sporting achievement; not on showbiz.

Of course it is highly unlikely that any of my proposals come to pass. But until they (or something very like them) are implemented, the Olympics will continue to be the tacky, chauvinistic, expensive, dishonest breeders of international ill will that they currently are.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Something New

 [NOTICE TO READERS: For five years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE NOTORIOUS CAPTAIN HAYES” by Joan Druett (Harper-Collins, $36:99)

Whenever I hear the words “pirate” or “buccaneer”, the historian in me at once starts a fight with my imagination.
Of course the first thing that comes to mind is the swashbuckling image perfected by old Hollywood, with the likes of Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power duelling dashingly on a sound-stage version of a ship’s deck, posing in the crow’s nest, or swinging from the rigging with knife in teeth and cutlass in hand. Or else I click into images of the fictitious Long John Silver going “Arrr, Jim lad!” as he hunts for buried treasure. Names like Captain Kidd and “Blackbeard” (Ned Teach) spring to mind. But a millisecond later, my reason tells me that the Treasure Island and Hollywood versions of piracy are as far removed from historical reality as Hollywood’s Wild West is. Read any reliable history of 17th and 18th century piracy and you find little but sordid criminality with not a dashing swashbuckler in sight. Kidd and Teach (real historical figures) were their era’s version of drive-by shooters, ram-raiders, conmen and the like – that is, criminals who happened to be in sailing ships which now look irrationally romantic to us. Only imagination has turned them into adventurous heroes.
 Joan Druett has by now produced seventeen works of non-fiction (many well-received) and eight works of fiction (not so well received). Her speciality is popular historical versions of maritime events in the Pacific in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I greatly enjoyed her best-received book Tupaia: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator when it came out in 2011 and later won New Zealand’s top book award for non-fiction. (My review of Tupaia appeared in Landfall #223, May 2012). With her latest book The Notorious Captain Hayes, however, she has her work cut out for her.
There was a time – quite a few decades ago now – when the American “Bully” Hayes was presented in Australia and New Zealand as some sort of roguish buccaneer of the Pacific: the equivalent of the romanticised versions of Kidd, “Blackbeard” and others. His (mostly fictional) adventures appeared in sensational newspaper articles and penny-dreadfuls. But the cruel fact is that he is largely forgotten now, even as romanticised legend. Conscientiously, Druett works to set the record straight about the historical Hayes, and to debunk the legend. Her book is subtitled The Remarkable True Story of William ‘Bully’ Hayes, Pirate of the Pacific. But this means debunking what nobody now “bunks” (if there is such a usage). So the book is really telling us earnestly not to believe what popular culture has already forgotten.
Trawling through archives for shipping records, private letters, official communiques and yellowing newspaper reports, Druett quizzes all dates and conflicting accounts to question whatever romantic notions about Hayes may linger in a very few elderly minds.
The story she comes up with goes something like this:
Williams Henry Hayes was born in the USA in either 1828 or 1829 (nobody is sure) and died in 1877, so he didn’t reach the age of fifty and was young and agile enough to have done many of the things he was reported as having done. He appears to have served briefly in the US navy as a teenager, but headed for the Pacific and by his mid-20s was captain of his own commands. Chapters in this book are mostly titled after the names of his successive commands. In the 1850s he was engaged in the tea-trade to Australia, but was also involved in the grubby business of taking payment and then dumping on shore, far from their desired destination, Chinese who had come to join in the Australian gold-rushes. He began the practice of buying goods on credit from trusting traders, and then sailing off without paying. He cheated creditors in this way after lingering in Oz for the first South Australian regatta. It was this habit which led to a newspaper in Honolulu, in 1859, printing an article about him headed “The History of a Consummate Scoundrel”. This was where his notoriety began. In later years the article was often reprinted by other newspapers. But please note that it was simply confidence-trickery that set off the negative reputation of “Bully” Hayes – not anything resembling piracy in the accepted sense.
But later (the story is told in Chapter 6), Hayes was in command of a ship that sank in mid-ocean. Before it went down, Hayes had a raft built for some of the crew. However, he left them to their own devices while he and a smaller group rowed off in the ship’s one lifeboat. It was sheer luck that his abandoned crew were rescued by another ship. His reputation for callousness became even blacker and the article from the Honolulu newspaper was now reprinted by the Sydney press. True to his methods, Hayes undertook to transport a cargo to the East Indies, but when he reached his destination he sold it off for his own profit, without remunerating the owners, and absconded.
His connection with New Zealand was brief. He became manager of a woebegone family theatrical troupe, the Buckinghams, whom he brought to Otago in the hopes of attracting large paying audiences during the Otago gold-rush. Although he was already married to a woman whom he had abandoned, Hayes set himself up in a hotel with one of the Buckingham women. The theatrical troupe didn’t make much of a go of it, and Hayes performed his usual manoeuvre of absconding with unpaid debts. There was an incident where a yacht sank, drowning some of the Buckinghams, but not Hayes. Hayes was suspected of arranging these deaths, but nothing was proven. Nevertheless, his reputation sank lower. When Hayes attempted to abscond from Nelson leaving merchants out of pocket, he was caught and briefly imprisoned while his ship was seized and auctioned off. Nevertheless he acquired another ship and abducted a naïve teenage girl from Picton before he was intercepted and forced to give the girl up. Hayes’ final farewell from New Zealand was so rancorous that he ever afterwards avoided the port of Auckland, where merchants had become wise to his tricks.
Druett tells us (Chapter 12) that as Hayes’ notoriety spread, the legends began to be fabricated. There was the first of many false reports of his death when newspapers spread the story that he had been killed in a duel. His name was confused with that of a completely different Captain Hayes who had been accused of gun-running to Maori during the New Zealand Wars. Later, a fabulous (and patently untrue) tale was spun about his importing Chinese coolies into Australia and tricking another ship into landing then ashore, so that he didn’t have to pay the poll tax that was then levied on all Chinese.
It seems clear, though, that as his public reputation fell, his activities really did become more sordid and violent. By the late 1860s he was involved in “blackbirding” – that is, the practice of luring onto his ships (by promise of payment or sheer fraud) Pacific Islanders who were then taken to work, for a pittance, on distant plantations run by Europeans. In many respects, the practice of “blackbirding” was just one step up from slavery. This was realised by British officials, who often sent out naval ships to intercept “blackbirders”. But as Druett explains: “Consular agents were often ambivalent about the business, as they were planters themselves, or dealt with planters in a trading capacity, and were always conscious of the need for cheap labour.” (p.164) One astute Samoan chief, Mauga Manuma, took Hayes on when Hayes inveigled aboard his latest command Samoan men and women whom he was going to take to work in Fiji. On his own cognizance, Mauga Manuma arrested Hayes and appealed to European authorities to put Hayes on trial. Hayes was imprisoned for some months, but both the British and the American consuls were too hesitant and spineless to take decisive action, and as they dithered Hayes was able to abscond again.
In the final chapters of The Notorious Captain Hayes, the sordid stories pile up. Hayes was able to make off with the ship of a rival shyster called Ben Pease (Druett unravels a bundle of myths related to this). Hayes took to robbing islanders and traders at gunpoint to get his hands on valuable cargoes of copra and coconut oil. He had been married twice and had had one long-term mistress, but as he neared 50, his tastes ran more to under-age island girls. Stories of his raping pre-pubescent Polynesian girls seem well attested.
The circumstances of his death in 1877 have never been verified, but he appears to have died in a violent argument with one of his crew, who smashed his skull in with an iron bar.
There are a number of indications in The Notorious Captain Hayes that “Bully” Hayes could be a charmer (essential to the arts of a conman). He was at various times able to persuade respectable people like traders, missionaries and consular officials of his good intentions. Perhaps this accounts for what was to me one of the ongoing mysteries of this book: How was Hayes so often able to raise the capital to buy his successive ships? Often he did so just after having been declared bankrupt or having been caught out in some fraud. He must have been very plausible until his very last years, by which time most people had learned not to trust him.
There are some very interesting episodes in this book. To my tastes, the most intriguing are in Chapter 8, dealing with Hayes’ Otago sojourn. It contains semi-farcical accounts of the rivalry between the hotel Hayes has purchased and the one his former colleagues the Buckinghams had purchased. Apparently the Buckinghams entertained their rough gold-seeking audiences with a farce based on Hayes’ misdeeds. The coarseness of old colonial entertainments is handily evoked.
Regrettably, though, much of this book is a dry recital of undramatised facts – names, dates, ships and scrupulous comparisons between sensationalised fictions about Hayes and what the archives reveal. It is easy to lose track of which ship is which, and whom Hayes is bilking at any given time. Sometimes information seems off the point. (Why does Chapter 4 give us a long account of what happened to the ship “Orestes” after Hayes had ceased to have anything to do with it?).
In the debunking line, the very last chapter, entitled “The Manufacture of a Modern Buccaneer”, is the most informative as Druett ticks off, for their inaccuracy, racy fictions about Hayes such as Rold Boldrewood’s A Modern Buccaneer (1894) and Louis Brecke’s Bully Hayes, Buccaneer (1913) and some of the output of the prolific Aussie hack Frank Clune. As for the Errol Flynn-ish knife-in-teeth roguish buccaneering image, it really appears only once in this book, where Druett is describing (p.20) Hayes’ youthful service in the imperial Chinese navy and his reputed capture in Hong Kong of the American pirate Eli Bloggs.
Otherwise, this is mainly a dispiriting, and sometimes confusing, account of an unpleasant criminal who happened to exist in the days of sail.
The irresponsible part of my mind keeps repeating that famous line spoken by a newspaperman in John Ford’s movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance : “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” As an historian, I of course regard this creed as reprehensible. Facts are sacred and Joan Druett is acting like a good historian in winkling out the facts. But I understand how the story of the unpleasant “Bully” Hayes might have been a livelier read if it had been treated as pure legend.