Monday, July 1, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“SHIRLEY SMITH – AN EXAMINED LIFE” by Sarah Gaitanos (Victoria University Press, $NZ40); “WORDY” by Simon Schama (Simon and Schuster, $NZ39:99)
As every first-year Philosophy student will know, Socrates is supposed to have said at his trial that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” In this sense, an “examined” life is one in which each of us asks fundamental questions about life, considers and analyses carefully our own motives and values, and does not accept things uncritically.
Sarah Gaitanos’ lengthy and well-researched biography of Shirley Smith is subtitled “An Examined Life”. Does this mean that Shirley Smith was a person who “examined” her life by asking fundamental questions, considering and analysing carefully her own motives and values, and not accepting things uncritically? Perhaps this meaning was what Sarah Gaitanos intended. But the further I read into this book, the more I wondered if it was really the author who “examined” Shirley Smith’s life carefully and, like a conscientious lawyer conducting a cross-examination, turned up things she might originally have neither expected nor wanted to find. For, to use the popular slang term, this book is one of the most “conflicted” biographies I’ve ever read. The author seems to have set out to write in unmitigated praise of Shirley Smith, but she ends up presenting us with many caveats about her, especially with regard to one major issue.
The intended praise is declared right from the start, when the author’s Introduction begins “Shirley Smith was one of the most remarkable New Zealanders of the twentieth century, a woman whose lifelong commitment to social justice, legal reform, gender equality and community service left a profound legacy.” (p.11)
Born in 1916, Shirley Smith was of Scots Presbyterian descent and inherited a strong sense of public duty from a father who had basically become agnostic. There was a sad aspect to her childhood. Her mother died when she was a tot and her father was often absent, so there were childhood anxieties when she was farmed out a bit; and then deep resentment when her father remarried. But her dislike of her stepmother was strictly a childhood thing. She gradually came to admire her stepmother for her patience and care.
In many respects her upbringing was a very privileged one. Her father David Smith, was a highly-respected lawyer and later judge on New Zealand’s Supreme Court and Chancellor of the University of New Zealand. Despite their different political views (David Smith was a very conservative man), Shirley was in some ways Daddy’s girl to the very end, consulting him on legal matters even when he was very old. He outlived Shirley’s husband. Young Shirley had private schooling, which she hated, though it is amusing to learn that she first heard about Communism when she was chosen randomly to be the “Communist” candidate at one of her school’s mock-elections. Her brains won her a place at Oxford in 1935, where she diligently studied Classics, failing to get a First largely because she contracted TB, but she was able to recuperate in an expensive sanatorium in Switzerland. She was a young lecturer in Classics at Auckland University College in 1943-44, but she saw Auckland’s Classics Department as a hateful male stronghold and she later depicted Professor E. M. Blaiklock as plotting against her. After Auckland, she briefly taught Classics at Victoria University of Wellington. This biography includes details of her visits to Greece and Crete.
Her poltical views were formed early. At Oxford in the 1930s, she was first a pacifist, and supported the League of Nations union, as most students then did. At first she found Communists an unbearable, scruffy group, but she was attracted to them when they smartened up their act and took over the University Labour Club. She welcomed the idea of the Popular Front and joined the Communist Party at the time of the Spanish Civil War. Having lost her religion (her study of Lucretius helped) she joined the secular religion. “Being a comrade was like belonging to a religious sect” Sarah Gaitanos rmarks on p.104. It is clear that the author does not share Shirley’s youthful Communist idealism and notes Shirley’s naivete (shared by many others) about the realities of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 (see p.133). But Shirley Smith can be forgiven much in that she was, after all, a youngster in her early twenties, a time when when most of us are easily enthused. Even so, she did return to New Zealand as a courier to local CP members, delivering the Party line that the war against Hitler was just an imperialist and capitalist fraud not worth fighting. She remained a card-carrying member of the Party until 1945 – however, the evidence here is ambiguous, as when she went to renew her membership in 1945, “they told her she’d be more use to the Party as a non-card member” (p.196) She remained in contact with CPNZ leaders and continued to defend Stalin until the events of 1956. Thereafter, she definitely left the Party – at the same time as Elsie Locke and others – but continued to support what could loosely be called left-wing causes.
The things that Sarah Gaitanos would most like to concentrate on – indeed the things that probably propelled her to write this biography – are the achievements of Shirley Smith’s professional career, and her wide activist interests. At 35, she began to train as a lawyer. At 40 she was called to the bar. She had her own practice by the time she was 44. She fought against the “boy’s club” aspect of the legal profession at that time, and was particularly incensed by the laddish drink culture at men-only graduation parties, from which women were barred. She took on many matrimonial cases but also went into criminal law and was the first woman barrister in New Zealand to take a criminal case on her own and win it. Certainly she was a feminist, but following her own form of feminism, which meant standing on the same footing as men, not opposing them. For this reason she was, surprisingly, opposed to the formation of a Women Lawyers Society, which she saw as merely segregating the sexes in the profession. (p.431)
She was involved in Stepping Stones, a humane organisation seeking to help mental patients readjust to the wider community. She was a stalwart of Civil Liberties and also, in the 1950s, of the “Peace Council” which (pp.216-17) was controlled by the Soviet Communist Party. She was an organiser of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, though by the time of her involvement she had come to hate its CP supporters. She was in the movement opposing New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War, she opposed capital punishment and she lobbied for Homosexual Law Reform
What made her reputation most, though, was her honourable representation of clients who might have suffered from prejudice in a law court. She represented members of the Black Power gang – or at least she did until one of her assistants told them off for never paying the fees for their defence. In 1980 she became the go-to lawyer for the Porirua Mongrel Mob. She argued her cases through a fine knowledge of the law, rarely making emotional appeals, and she won many, but not all; and knowing (as all defence lawyers do) that sometimes her clients were guilty as charged. She also, repeatedly, made dogged defences of a mentally incapable man in a number of cases, at one point attempting to take his case to the Privy Council. Here the author suggests (p.407) that “Shirley’s ego was clearly a driving force” in taking this case so far and overstating her case, and she notes that Shirley Smith omitted to mention it in her own memoirs.
Shirley Smith died in 2007 at the age of 91.
This is an interesting and varied life, and well worth celebrating.
BUT while the author wants to present Shirley Smith as an important and notable person in her own right, a pioneer and role-model for New Zealand professional women, she inevitably has to address the fact that Shirley Smith was also the wife of Bill Sutch. And (though she kept the name Smith throughout her life) it was as Bill Sutch’s wife that she was best known to the wider public. He was a much-admired, outspoken and controversial economist, civil servant and author of polemical books, who advanced to being Permanent Secretary of Industries and Commerce under various governments.
The portrait that Sarah Gaitanos gives of their marriage is a very fraught one.
Shirley Smith was a well-conducted and virginal young lady as a student, though two men proposed marriage to her. (In the light of later events, it is ironical that one of them was Martyn Finlay). When finally she met and fell in love with Bill (William Ball) Sutch, he was already married and also having an affair with the woman who would later become Martyn Finlay’s wife (pp.145-46). Shirley and Bill began cohabiting before he was divorced. She looked forward to marriage as making them respectable, but he saw it otherwise – despite his radical views on many things , he told her that she was not to put him “under compulsion” and he was “to do as he pleased” in their marriage. But Shirley later recalled that it “never occurred to me at the time… that he would put me under compulsion and I would suffer.” (p.165)
Put simply, Sutch was a very controlling man, a bit of a psychological bully, who wanted to direct every aspect of his wife’s life. She rejoiced when their daughter Helen was born and looked forward to having more children, but he forbade it. (p.189) There follow many pages showing Shirley’s continuing admiration for Bill’s intellectual skills; but also his continuing domineering attitude towards her. She decided to study law in 1952 partly because she felt drained by doing little but the domestic round. Bill Sutch reacted as if it were eccentric of her to seek a career of her own (pp.208-09). Doubtless this was a common attitude among men at that time; but his vehemence and frequent belittling of her were extreme. While holding down a full-time job, she still had to do the housework and he regarded her legal practice as a mere hobby (p.295). Apparently Bill continued to have many affairs during their marriage (p.240). He also tended to cut her out of things that were the concern of both of them. Shirley was very annoyed that the modernist house designed for them by Ernst Plischke was so often called the “Sutch House” when it was actually built on a legacy bequeathed to her by her grandmother.
It has to be noted here that there were controlling aspects to both husband and wife. Despite her professional commitments, Shirley Smith was a diligent and caring mother to her daughter, Helen. Like her mother, Helen won entrance to Oxford and proceeded to have a distinguished career of her own. However Shirley appears to have monitored Helen’s boyfriends beyond the point of diligence. (p.257) Both Bill and Shirley opposed Helen’s marriage to Keith Ovenden and treated him in a hostile way. There is the bizarre detail that this caused such stress to Helen and Keith that “to get through [fractious family gatherings] Helen and Keith took Valium. And they took it to get through their wedding.” (p.280) Only when Helen and Keith gave Shirley a second grandchild did she forgive them for being married. (p.349)
As well as suffering from Bill’s domineerings ways, Shirley was also distressed by things she discovered about him only after his death. One was a relatively trivial thing, nevertheless characteristic of Bill Sutch’s habitual economy with the truth. Even since Bill and Shirley first met, he had told her the heroic tale of his epic visit to the Soviet Union in 1932, when he had climbed mountains and tramped around lands within the Arctic Circle like a hardy explorer. It turned out, as Shirley discovered after his death, that he had spent a total of two weeks in the USSR, saw the Arctic Circle only from the deck of a passenger liner, and travelled to a few places by ‘plane.
Much more distressing for her to discover was that Bill, the doctrinaire socialist, had speculated on properties and acquired a large portfolio of them without ever telling her about either his transactions or his wealth. These stories were first made public by Truth, the populist right-wing newspaper, seeking to hit back at Sutch after his trial. But to Shirley’s angst, the stories all turned out to be true. (And, incidentally, quashing another conspiracy story popular among Bill’s defenders, as the Ombudsman later reported, Truth had not been tipped off by the SIS when it ran the expose – they had found the evidence by searching public records.) Bill had also never told Shirley about arrangements he had made for property and holidays in the Bahamas. Most distressing of all, Shirley discovered that Bill had been a massive tax evader, and she was told by legal counsel that if this had been known in his lifetime, he would have been prosecuted. It was this last discovery which, according to Gaitanos, seems finally to have disillusioned her about her late husband (p.354).
I am forced to reflect that if Bill Sutch kept so much from his wife, it is likely that he was even more secretive with her on other, even more important, matters. I say this because, when it came to Sutch’s trial for espionage in 1974, Shirley stood staunchly by him and for a long time refused to believe that there could be any merit in the charges against him.
In her introduction, Gaitanos says tactfully: “I recount the events from Shirley’s point of view, or from a perspective that shows her involvement, perceptions and the psychological toll it had on her. How much did she know? I have gone as far as my sources allow me. There may well be sources I haven’t seen that go further, but those I have are revealing and in some respects troubling.” ( p.14) This statement encodes much – not least Gaitanos’ scepticism about Sutch’s innocence. Gaitanos also notes (p.17) that she did not have access to Bill Sutch’s papers, which have been promised to Sutch’s designated biographer Rosslyn Noonan. Her implication is that if she did have such access, she would probably discover more about Sutch’s covert activities.
In her characterisation of Sutch’s pro-Communist leanings, Gaitanos is not only relying on the revelations of Mitrokhin Archive, which were made public (in 2014) seven years after Shirley’s death. Gaitanos says that Sutch was recruited by Soviet intelligence as early as 1950 (pp.192-193). She follows in his career evidence of his Communist sympathies. Shirley was disillusioned and made a definitive break from the CP in 1956, first when Khruschev’s “Secret Speech” on Stalin’s crimes was made public, and finally in the same year when the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising. (pp.226-227) But Bill insisted at first that the “Secret Speech” was a fraud and later made excuses for the invasion of Hungary. Similarly, in 1968 he belittled the “Prague Spring” and insisted that the future lay with the Communist Party (p.271).
Bill Sutch was arrested in September 1974 after the SIS had observed him having a clandestine meeting with Dimitri Razgovorov, the “rezident” (i.e. KGB man) of Russia’s Embassy in Wellington. When confronted, Sutch at first lied and claimed there had been no such meeting. His lawyer Mike Bungay made sure that Sutch never had to be called as a witness in the trial, because (as Bungay knew) a good cross-examination would have revealed that Sutch had in fact had many clandestine meetings with Razgovorov.
A brief review of Shirley Smith – An Examined Life on Radio New Zealand said that Gaitanos does not reach conclusions about the Sutch case. I do not agree. Gaitanos comes as close as she possibly can to telling us (a.) that Sutch was guilty as charged; and (b.) that Shirley Smith gradually came to understand this, but found it hard to face the truth. She spun many tales to herself in an attempt to exonerate her husband. Says Gaitanos, “She appeared to hold two paradoxical views, that he both was and wasn’t the victim of lies and conspiracy.” (p.331). There were times when I thought these parts of the book could be renamed The Woman Who Deceived Herself – and then I think that it would be hard for any dedicated wife to believe the worst of her husband, and Shirley’s reaction was no more than could be expected.
Gaitanos is also clearly disgusted by the manouevres and dishonesty of many of Sutch’s defenders, who were too ready to believe that the whole affair was just a right-wing conspiracy to discredit an important, respected left-wing civil servant; or (more bizarrely) that it was a joint conspiracy of the SIS and the KGB. Many of the manouevres of Bungay’s defence were also very questionable, including what came very close to “jury tampering” to get the verdict they wanted. In the light of this, it is hard to take seriously the defence of Sutch which Maurice Shadbolt penned for the New Zealand Listener just after Sutch was acquitted; and one has to dismiss Brian Easton’s bland statement (in his 2001 book The Nationbuilders) that “a jury of twelve ordinary New Zealanders” acquitted Sutch and that there, presumably, the matter should end.
In 1980, five years after Sutch’s death, the Ombudsman produced a report on the Sutch case (the key clauses are reproduced on pp.355-57), which Shirley and others hoped would show that the SIS had behaved unethically. To their chagrin, the Ombudsman not only exonerated the SIS of any wrongdoing, but pointed out that the SIS should have been even more vigilant as Sutch’s reporting to the KGB man had clearly been going on for a long time before the SIS put him under watch. The strongest possibility (only a possibility, of course) is that, in the meeting when he was arrested, Sutch had delivered to his KGB contact a list of “targets” (or “prospects”) in the civil service whom the KGB could recruit as “assets” like Sutch himself.
Even more damaging to the legend of Sutch, the victim of persecution, is the fact that Shirley Smith gradually realised her husband had not been put on trial unjustly, but was probably guilty of more than he was accused of. It was Attorney-General Martyn Finlay who ruled that Sutch had a case to answer. The trial is said by some to have hastened Sutch’s death. No doubt it did put great strain on him, but he was already a sick man before he was arrested. Bill Sutch had had a heart attack in 1968. One year after his trial, he died of cancer of the liver, which had been growing in him for years. It was not the trial that killed him.
Given that this is a biography of Shirley Smith, and not of her husband, I am sorry to have lingered so long over this matter, but Sarah Gaitanos does as much lingering as I have done. The point is, Bill Sutch and his trial eventually hijack much of the book. But enough is here to tell us that Shirley Smith’s life was, in its own right, worth celebrating.
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Even if written by a master of the craft, a collection of essays will always be a mixed bag – some hits, some misses. It will especially be a mixed bag if most of the essays were originally written as occasional pieces for newspapers and magazines. The demands of topicality, and the demands of being courteous to people being interviewed, will somehow compromise even the most skillful essayist.
Simon Schama, author of 15 well-received books on history and art, television presenter, essayist and journalist, is certainly a skillful writer and essayist. In the early days of this blog, seven years ago, I recall reviewing with pleasure his seminal book Landscape and Memory. Wordy is Schama’s third collection of essays, and it covers many topics. It is divided into five general sections, to wit – essays on memories; essays on art and art critics; essays on music, theatre and film; essays on history and politics; and essays on food and cookery – with one eccentric coda about an antiquarian search for lost treasures. The book’s subtitle is “Sounding off on high art, low appetite and the power of memory”.
Obviously this is a man of broad interests.
I endorse completely his opening essay in which he explains the title Wordy by expressing his preference for verbose, tumbling prose as written by Rabelais, Dickens and their like, who rejoiced in the exuberance of language – in other words, being “wordy”. Here, too, he notes that the great majority of these essays were written as articles in the Financial Times, with a few appearing in the New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar. At which point, the worm enters the apple, because at least some of this book is simply jobbing journalism.
But let me first outline the really good stuff.
I delighted in Schama’s essay on his childhood and adolescence as the son of a Jewish family living in Golders Green. And in the two book reviews that follow this particular essay, he shows his critical discernment. He praises one book about a child who was eyewitness to the horrors of Auschwitz; but he condemns a Holocaust novel for being overwritten and playing with clichés. Schama is not the man to praise books simply because they present a viewpoint with which he agrees. Good writing has to be part of the deal.
In the section on the visual arts, there is an excellent piece called “The Palace of Colour” in which Schama (who used to lecture on art history at Harvard) discusses how much pure colour – as opposed to design or “line” – influences the impact of art and our emotional reaction to it. As one who has visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam a number of times, I also found very informative his essay on that great museum’s recent restoration. His essay on the Australian art critic Robert Hughes is masterly – a great tribute to a man who spent his life reacting against the cliquishness of much of the “art world” and its obsession with fashion rather than skill. If I chose to expand this review to intolerable length, it would be from the Robert Hughes essay that I would quote. And if he is clearly not a total partisan of Hughes, Schama’s own views on the art world are sometimes similar, at least as expressed at the beginning of the essay on “The New Whitney”. I must admit, however, to getting a little lost when Schama discusses artists of whom I have never heard.
In the section on theatre and film, Schama produces a (for this reader) suprisingly illuminating piece about Patti Smith and a pretty good examination of the James Bond mythology, noting that it flourished at a time when Britain needed compensation for having lost its empire and having, in effect, become a client state of the USA. I regret, though, that in this essay he praises the common habit of British writers and movie-makers “to send up Britishness even as they affectionately rejoice in it” – which I translate as “to not really satirise it at all in any meaningful way, and to still maintain a sense of national superiority”.
Finally, the section on politics and history. The essay “Liberalism, Populism and the Fate of the World” – first given as a lecture at Cambridge last year – is a very good quick survey of the origins and effects of populism, especially the type of exclusionist ethnic populism that has been reborn in Europe. I regret only that it loses its way a little when (understandably) it turns into general rage against Donald Trump. (I also regret that some of its paragraphs are recycled in the next, very topical, piece ”Mid-Term Trump”). The final two essays in this section are appropriately nuanced – concerning the Balfour Declaration and a modern Israeli observer who is able to understand the anxieties and claims of Palestinian Arabs. A liberal-minded person Simon Schama, as a Jew, has a deep interest in Israel, but has the understanding to give a very balanced perspective.
I confess to not being interested in the essays on food, though I understand Schama’s delight in the topic.
Having noted favourably all these pieces, I now have the melancholy task of noting this collection’s duds.
There are the perishable ones, which have dated because they were once topical. The profile of the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, seems related to an exhibition on German culture that the chap was putting together – an exhibition that has come and gone. Likewise, the piece on Tacita Dawn relates to a then current art-show; and another article seems to be a promo for a TV series on “civilisation”.
There are also the mildly annoying ones, like Schama’s unforgivably chauvinistic Anglophile chest-thumpiing in the piece called “Shakespeare and History”, which accepts all the Bard’s patriotic distortions as wonderful pieces of popular history.
Worst, though, are the fan pieces. We all know that interviews which celebrities give to journalists turn out as either hit-jobs or fan pieces. There are no hit-jobs in this collection, but there are fan pieces, which read as if they would be better situated in the glossy pages of a Sunday supplement. Look at the article on the photographer Cindy Sherman. Look at Schama’s uncritical fandom in the pieces on Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Bill Clinton, Arianna Huffington and (especially) Debbie Harry. Does he really believe they are the great cultural icons that he presents them as being? Or does a journalist begin to lose access to celebrities if he is too critical? Most interesting in this format – and the one that I am most ambiguous about – is Schama’s meeting with Henry Kissinger. He clearly has reservations about some of the chap’s past policies, but he ends up in the mode of admiration, which may in fact be justified as he notes Kissinger’s skill in matters of history.
There now. As I said at the beginning, collections of essays are always a mixed bag. But this one has enough worthwhile and interesting pieces to justify the price.
Snarky footnote – As a pedant, I can’t restrain myself from noting that on Page 242 Simon Schama misattributes a quotation. He assigns the bon mot “Continental people have a sex life; the English have hot-water bottles” to Noel Coward. Actually this witticism was coined by the Hungarian Anglophile George Mikes in his little book How to be an Alien published in 1946. Thought you’d like to know.