Monday, May 20, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“WEST ISLAND – Five twentieth-century New Zealanders in Australia”, by Stephanie Johnson (Otago University Press, $NZ39:95)
Beginning as a poet, Stephanie Johnson is now a very well-established New Zealand novelist, having published eleven novels, one of which (The Shag Incident) won her New Zealand’s highest literary award. (On this blog, look up Stephanie Johnson to find reviews of her novels The Open World, The Writing Class, The Writer’s Festival, and a very brief note on her earlier novel Belief.) West Island is, I believe, her first full-length work of non-fiction. I’ll cut to the chase before I analyse this book. West Island is a well-researched, engaging, accessible, very enjoyable piece of cultural history, written with both wit and understanding and showing a great deal of mature wisdom. I loved it in the same way I loved Peter Hoar’s (very, very different) The World’s Din, because both books shine a light on parts of our shared past that have been sorely neglected.
As many Kiwis will know, “West Island” is a jocular New Zealand way of referring to Australia, our big neighbour across the Tasman – the type of jocularity that covers a sort of inferiority complex about being the much smaller and junior partner of the Anzac connection.
Stephanie Johnson examines the lives of five people who were born and raised in New Zealand, but who settled in Australia in the first half of the twentieth century and made their reputations there. They are the painter Roland Wakelin, the novelist and political activist Jean Devanny, the poet and playwright Douglas Stewart, the party girl (and author of trash fiction) Dulcie Deamer, and the loudmouth journalist Eric Baume. In examining them, Stephanie Johnson is also examining the whole attitude of New Zealanders to Australians and of Australians to New Zealanders.
In a sort of post-modern impulse Johnson, a sixth-generation New Zealander of English ancestry, brings herself into the story, giving details on her own family and personal connections with Australia.
A section called “Out in the World” reflects on how young New Zealanders of her generation, including herself, reacted to their first landing in Australia. This section is also a very interesting self-reflection. An older and mellower Johnson is as much repelled from, as amused by, her own youthful behaviour when she went through various relationships and adherence to once-fashionable causes before marrying an Aussie and having three children. In a coda called “A Comedy Really” she tells a personal story – both very funny and very sad – about how different from New Zealand Australia seems to Kiwi visitors. She often notes the more overtly racist and macho culture of Australia. Nevertheless, it was in Australia that her first collection of short stories was published – and more recently she has written, under a pseudonym, two novels with Australian settings specifically to woo the Aussie market.
In her Afterword, she says that before Otago University Press took up West Island, it had been rejected by two commercial publishers. “ ‘It’s a New Zealand book’, said the Australian publisher. ‘It’s an Australian book’, said the New Zealand equivalent. Australians don’t want to read about New Zealanders, said the Australian. Vice versa, said the New Zealander.” (p.257) One of her chief contentions is that New Zealand writers, critics and general public tend to ignore, or be unaware of, New Zealanders who made it big in Oz – either they don’t know about them at all or they assume that they are Australians (just as the Australians do). Of course she does note contentions over which side of the Tasman should take credit for Phar Lap and the pavlova (and she could have mentioned how delighted New Zealanders were not to take credit for Joh Bjelke-Petersen). But she is referring to “invisible” New Zealanders. Another of her contentions is that Australia and New Zealand used to be closer culturally than they are now. Often Oz was the first stop for ambitious young New Zealanders who wanted to see and work in the wide world. Now ambitious young New Zealanders are more likely to catch a plane to New York or London. Once upon a time there were closer literary links. New Zealand writers sought first to have their work accepted by Australian publications such as the old Bulletin. Now they’re more likely to seek New Zealand publishers first.
After a prelude in which she draws a vivid, fictitious picture of all five of her subjects attending an event in Sydney in the 1940s; and after a preface; Johnson organises her book by giving accounts of the New Zealand formation of the five, and then circles back for longer chapters on how each fared in Australia.
Roland Wakelin came from a relatively prosperous Wairarapa family. Dulcie Deamer came from an affluent but eccentric family in Featherston. Douglas Stewart was from Eltham in Taranaki, and his family was also well-off. Eric Baume was from Auckland and his family were very rich. All four headed for Australia in their early twenties. The exception was Jean Devanny. Not only was she (the eighth of ten children) from a hard-scrabble working class family, but she did not leave for Oz until she was 35, by which time she had already written and had publshed five novels, one of which (The Butcher Shop) had earned her great notoriety by being banned. Johnson sees her as a courageous working class woman and activist, but does note (a subject she returns to later) both the casual racism of some of her work and her sexual obsessions. Commenting on a passage in one of Devanny’s New Zealand novels, she remarks “her fascination with sex was boiling over” and adds “the young woman who wrote this, it seems to me, is in the grip of unrelieved horniness.” (p.84)
In both the New Zealand and the Australian chapters about his life, Johnson expresses – it seems justifiably – a very low opinion of Eric Baume. From the 1930s to the late 1950s, he got to edit newspapers in Australia, acted as a war correspondent and ran a number of hugely-popular radio shows. But his populist and racist views, his personal abuse of other people, his gambling and many unsavoury habits mar his record. Johnson calls him “a self-mythologiser, a teller of tall tales who despite (or perhaps because of) his training as a journalist never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” (p.91) She adds that he was “perhaps not a son of New Zealand whom we’d like to reclaim.” (p.172)
Her views on Dulcie Deamer are more benign. Like Eric Baume, Dulcie Deamer wrote some trash fiction, but her main concern was partying. To free herself to live a flashy life in Sydney from the 1920s to the 1940s, she dumped her children on other people. “A true narcissist”, Johnson calls her. (p.136) Deamer was the “Queen of the Bohemians” who regularly appeared in gossip columns and other people’s memoirs as the woman who would year after year come to Arts Balls wearing a leopard skin and doing the splits. Gentle reader, most of what we learn about her sounds to me like the tiresome tomfoolery of a self-obsessed “character” who wants to be noticed. It is hard to see what she ever achieved, although Johnson gamely connects her with the sexual liberation of her age. For some time she was associated with another NZ expat, the “Witch of King’s Cross” Rosaleen Norton, who traded in black magic and the occult and (apparently) sex orgies. Norton’s paintings were once considered shocking and obscene, but as Johnson remarks, they now look “like bad record covers from the 70s”. (p.144). (I know this is an accurate assessment as I looked them up on line.) There is an interesting addendum to Dulcie Deamer’s unedifying life however – and it has to do with how her daughter (raised by her grandmother) turned out. In character and seriousness, the daughter proved to be the complete opposite of the frivolous mother.
Thus for the negligible ones, well-known though they were in Oz.
Roland Wakelin, Jean Devanny and Douglas Stewart deserve – and get – far more serious treatment, and it is in dealing with them that Stephanie Johnson’s good nature, common sense and tolerance shine.
It is quite clear that Wakelin and Stewart were essentially conservative figures, both of them stable and dedicated family men living quiet domestic lives. Wakelin supported his family by working as a commercial artist between painting the things he really wanted to paint. Johnson notes that families of artists often have to struggle with an artist who is insolvent, drinks or takes to drugs. But “Roland Wakelin was never that kind of artist. He was temperate, gentle, generous and reliable. Many of his students adored him and he made friends for life.” (p.124) Similarly, the long chapter on Douglas Stewart shows the poet, playwright and editor to have become a mellow older man who had acquired both a sense of humour and much perspective on his own work and the work of others. Johnson does not “talk up” either of these men. Wakelin may have been a modernist painter in terms of his own era, but his work now seems staid and almost conventional. Stewart began as conventionally romantic in his verse, and when he wrote poems of his New Zealand childhood, it was almost in the English Georgian vein. His later verse plays (for radio) are often declamatory and also of his age. Even so, Stephanie Johnson does not belittle either of these men and she takes their artistic intentions seriously.
By contrast, Jean Devanny was sexually over-active, a firebrand, sometime Communist, zealous feminist, agitator and rowdy ideologue. Johnson is fully aware that while some of her novels stand the test of time, many are potboilers and she was always falling into the trap of going didactic. Johnson also chronicles the way Devanny’s idealism about Communism was often up against the boorish and macho behaviour of male Communists. Nevertheless Johnson judges Devanny as an “extraordinary, brilliant, highly sexed, maddening, ferocious, inexhaustible woman” and declares that of the five people in this book “she is the one I would most like to have met.” (p.213) Again, for all Devanny’s naïvete and the flaws in her writing, Johnson takes her political and artistic aspirations seriously.
There is an interesting theme that Johnson picks up in considering some of her selected ex-New Zealand Australians. It is the matter of how the writers in this bunch depicted Maori. She compares the racial element in an abominable novel by Eric Baume with Ruth Park’s 1951 novel The Witch’s Thorn; and notes that while some of Park’s comments on Maori might now make us cringe, nevertheless Park had the honourable intention of depicting Maori sympathetically and her novel has to be read in the context of its time. It is foolish to apply to it standards that did not then exist. From this Johnson argues that it is as foolish now to forbid non-Maori to write about Maori (in fear of being accused of “cultural appropriation”) as it once was for Pakeha to write demeaningly of Maori.
She returns to this theme in the main chapter on Douglas Stewart. After she has been discussing his romanticised stories and plays relating to Maori, she says truly: “Top-ranking New Zealand writers of that period had no cultural anxieties regarding the creation of Maori characters. In contemporary [i.e. present-day] New Zealand, non-Maori writers are discouraged from writing about Maori. This is understandable, given the sometimes painful errors made by Pakeha writers, but has resulted in the peculiar phenomenon of a raft of books over a period of decades that completely ignore the very presence of Maori. If there were to be a world-wide apocalypse and all that is left for future readers are literary works from the late twentieth / early twenty-first century New Zealand, survivors could suspect us of an extreme, institutionalised racism – the opposite, in fact, of what we are trying to do.’ (p.235) In effect, good intentions have made Maori virtually invisible in books written by Pakeha.
Much as I like Johnson’s good sense and good humour, there are a few things I would quibble with. I think in her preface (called “Why?”), she overdoes the idea of Pakeha New Zealanders not feeling at home in New Zealand and longing to live in their ancestral countries. Also, there are moments when she goes dyspeptic. Comparing the Australian literary culture with the New Zealand literary culture, she writes: “Even now there is a sense, when one lives and works in New Zealand, of existing in a parallel universe. Books are published and fade away; they are not often championed by fellow writers…. Nothing has much impact unless it wins a prize overseas, no matter how unreadable the book.” (pp.221-222) That last phrase makes me wonder whom she could possibly have been thinking of…
On the other hand, she has passages of robust wisdom. Opening the chapter on Eric Baum, she writes: “Go out into the street in New Zealand or Australia, and ask anyone under 30 about the significance of the year 1939 and chances are he/she won’t know. In universities around the world history departments are shrinking. The subject is less and less popular even in high school, suffering the twin effects of the market imperative for vocation-driven courses and a narcisistic desire of the so-called ‘selfie’ generation. History is boring because someone else did it.” (p.153) Having taught history at both secondary and tertiary levels, all I can say to this, shaking my head wearily, is “Quite!”
Personal note: I have to admit that, while I was conversant with Jean Devanny’s work, I had never read anything of Douglas Stewart’s before I read West Island. But searching my overstuffed bookshelves, I found the following publications that include work by Stewart
(a.) A copy of Best Poems of New Zealand 1935, a small book with rusting staples holding it together, edited by C.A.Marris, the conservative editor whom young upstart larrikins like Denis Glover and A.R.D. Fairburn ridiculed richly. But dear reader, note that as well as including verse by forgotten nobodies, the little book does also have poems by A.R.D. Fairburn himself, Robin Hyde and John Mulgan. And two by Douglas Stewart, one of which (‘Mending the Bridge”) isn’t half bad.
(b.) A copy of A Book of Australian and New Zealand Verse, (OUP), 4th edition 1950, the New Zealand section being edited by another conservative figure, Alan Mulgan. Although he had already been resident in Australia for over a decade, Douglas Stewart is in the New Zealand section, and is represented by what look like three pieces of rhapsodic juvenilia.
(c.) Dan Davin’s well-known 1953 anthology New Zealand Short Stories (OUP), which includes Douglas Stewart’s short story The Whare. This, as Stephanie Johnson reports, was the story that apparently infuriated the young Witi Ihimaera for what he saw as outrageous stereotypes of Maori as indigent, dirty and lazy. Most interesting, however, is
(d.) Stewart’s poetry collection The White Cry, published in London in 1939 when he was 26. I read (correction – I made myself read) my way through it. There is a reference in one poem to “toi-toi plumes”, a poem about gorse, one line that says “Maoris” have lost their land, a poem about godwits and the long poem called “Triumph” which, says the young author’s note, is based on a Maori legend – but you wouldn’t know it unless you were told. For the fact is, these poems are written in a thoroughly English idiom with references to larks and eagles and English fauna and flora. Some of these things might have been acclimatised to New Zealand, but unless you were advised otherwise, you would still assume that these poems were written in the Home Counties. The title poem “The White Cry” is an image of the Lamb of God against the wood of a moss-covered tree. There is nothing as easy as ridiculing the poetic conventions of an earlier age, but the poems in this book are simply unrevivable. I turn, however, to
(e.) Harry Heseltine’s The Penguin Book of Australian Verse (1972) and find Douglas Stewart represented by nine poems robustly and unmistakable Australian in flavour and references. Based on this admittedly very limited sampling of the man’s work, I conclude that Douglas Stewart went from being a hesitant and immature young New Zealand poet to being a confident Australian poet – and it is probably just that he is best remembered as the editor of the literary pages of the Bulletin, and a long-time editor for Angus and Robertson.