Monday, May 25, 2020

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“EVERY NOW AND THEN I HAVE ANOTHER CHILD” by Diane Brown (Otago University Press,  $NZ29:95); “THE SONG OF GLOBULE” by Stephen Oliver (Greywacke Press, no price given); “NO TRAVELLER RETURNS – the selected poems of RUTH FRANCE”, edited with an introduction by Robert McLean (Cold Hub Press, $NZ27:50)

            As I have done so often before, I begin with an obvious apology. Apart from all being collections of poetry, the three books I am considering on this post have very little in common. Each has a different focus, a different style and a different purpose – and they are gathered together here only because I have recently read them.

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Rimbaud was certainly onto something when he said “Je est un autre”. As soon as pen meets paper or finger reaches keyboard, a poet is creating a fiction even if writing in the first-person. Any sort of autobiography is selective, smooths down (or jazzes up) reality, and ignores things that don’t fit the writer’s design. Yet at the same time, all poets reveal something of themselves in the poems they write.

These are all commonplace truisms. But I am trying to suggest delicately how difficult it is to review poetry written, confessional-style, in the first-person. Back in October 2015, I reviewed on this blog Diane Brown’s Taking My Mother to the Opera, her poetic account of her childhood and her relationship with her parents as they grew old, written in the first-person. Every now and then I have another child is also confessional, first-person and about the narrator’s life. But here is the problem. Ignoring the clearly surreal and dreamlike sections of this collection, much of the narrator’s CV matches publicly-known details of the poet Diane Brown’s life. So are we to read Every now and then I have another child as straight autobiography, and then busy ourselves psychoanalysing it and drawing conclusions about the poet’s state of mind? Or are we to see it more as a kind of fantasia, mixing autobiographical details with what is consciously fiction?

In this review, I’ll take the latter option and refer to the narrator as Joanna, the name she is given in Every now and then I have another child. This collection is the length of a short novel (approximately 150 pages), although its nine long sections do not make a sequential narrative. The tale often curls back upon itself, and there are spaces for rumination and reflection. But the essential situation is clear enough.

Joanna has two adult sons, but “every now and then”, although she is well past menopause, she wonders what it would be like to have a daughter. The poem “After the Facts” (p.95) begins: “In this dream I am plotting a child, planting the seed / in my lover’s mind, then remember I can’t recall the date / I last bled, five years ago at least. My stomach is swollen / but without craving or nausea. Menopause, not pregnancy…” In fact she imagines giving birth to and nursing and carrying a daughter, who invades her dreams. But there are many things in her past that trouble her. Her mother deserted her when she was very young, so she also wonders what it would be like to have a mother. Joanna feels deeply the lack of a mother’s support and approval, noting she is “Secretly praying every book of mine, every child might / flush her out to the surface. Imagining her appearing / at the hospital or my book launch, swanning in, all dolled up, / the same age as when she left, exclaiming, ‘My daughter, / I’m so proud of you.’ ” (“Ways of processing” p.140). And Joanna never had a sister, lamenting in  “Selected Fragments” (p.88): “I wanted a sister, but my mother said / I was her lovely only”. No daughter, no mother, no sister – Joanna, now of mature age, suffers from a lack of female intimacy in her moulding as a person. She has also been through a divorce and there is an ex-lover to think about.

Much of this is in the key of regret, lost opportunities and “if only…” and “it might have been…”. But then there is the surreal element. Early in the piece, a Doppelganger called Anna begins to butt into Joanna’s life. Is she Joanna’s imagined sister? Or (as she sometimes appears) is she a vision of what Joanna’s life would have been had she continued with the apparently disorderly life she led whan she was a young adult? She could be the part of Joanna that wants to shout out tactless things at a funeral or behave like a spoilt child. The Doppelganger Anna is Joanna with the “Jo” removed, as is noted at one point; so Anna takes over parts of the narrative to criticise or ridicule things Joanna says and thinks. Sometimes she is bad conscience, and sometimes she is evil angel. Late in the piece, one of Joanna’s writing students is apparently murdered. Was this done by the evil Anna? (And if so, isn’t she in fact the dark side of Joanna herself?) A genial young cop called Dave comes to quiz Joanna about it.

It is clear that the title Every now and then I have another child refers to the whole process of writing fiction and imagining characters. The non-existent baby daughter sometimes soliloquises. So does the imagined Anna. So does the picture of a boy whom Joanna sees on a wall – an alternative version of Joanna’s sons, perhaps. So does Detective Dave. Each is the poet’s “child” after all. The narrative arc is not random. There is a sort of cathartic ending and things that allow Joanna’s spirit to settle a bit (or, as the current cliché puts it, “reach closure”) but this ending is for the reader to discover and not for me to reveal.

As you will have noted, Joanna (like Diane Brown) runs a writing class and this brings many comments both on the writing process itself and on her attitudes towards her students – not always complimentary. In fact, she can be quite satirical about writing classes and hip academe and its attitudes. In “Maintaining the Mask”, she recalls being a panelist at a literary event, and describes the other panelists as “Younger, well published with permanent jobs in universities / … I surmise I’m the token speaker outside their circle. / ‘I taught here’, I say to the audience, ‘night school, when anyone / could attend, before creative writing classes became an industry / and kudos for institutions. / A long line of students anxious for a piece of paper to hang / on the wall to prove they can write. And everyone denying / anything therapeutic about it.’ ” (p.16)

Of course it’s hard not to equate these lines with Diane Brown’s own frank views of academic hauteur… but then again, there’s that danger of confusing the narrator with the poet. Maybe Joanna is, in toto, another of the poet’s “children”.

So how do I sum up this very capacious poetic excursion? Parts of it are funny intentionally. Parts are rather raw and unhappy. Despite the final catharsis, there is much unresolved regret here. I did not enjoy all of it, because I felt many of the reflections repeated themselves. But I did keep reading – and that is the effect of a good book, isn’t it?

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A pity the Monty Python people turned the words “and now for something
completely different” into a comic catch-phrase, because I really would like to use those words now. Stephen Oliver’s The Song of Globule is a very different sort of poetry from the colloquial-confessional of Diane Brown. Stephen Oliver is a prolific poet (this is his twenty-first collection) who bills himself as “Australasian” – New Zealand-born, but resident in Australia for twenty years and now back in New Zealand. I first became aware of his work when I reviewed his collection Intercolonial, specifically about “Australasian” connections, in Poetry New Zealand back in 2014. More recently, there was his collection Luxembourg (reviewed on this blog), which I nominated as one of the year’s best collections of poetry in my “Poetry Picks” round-up for 2018 in the now defunct New Zealand Listener. Stephen Oliver can write colloquially, but he brings to his work a wide knowledge of classical and canonical literature and a respect for traditional poetic forms. Let us say that he is sometimes downright erudite.

The Song of Globule comprises 80 sonnets – real sonnets in full 14-line form, all with rhyme-schemes ( well, sort of – the rhyme schemes can be erratic), and nearly all of them following the Shakespearean rather than the Petrarchan structure, and so ending with a rhyming couplet. Mind you, many of the concluding couplets are internal rhymes or para-rhymes, and a few sonnets (Numbers 37 and 47, for example) do not have a concluding rhyme at all, unless you can see a way that “chick” rhymes with “hip”; or “soothsayers” with “bartenders”.

An end-note (also printed in the blurb) tells us that these 80 sonnets “pursue the oneiric preoccupations of a young female protagonist in Sydney who, if not suffering from multiple personality disorder, is certainly a fantasist”. So they present a floating consciousness in a sort of dream state. We soon work out that the young woman in question comes from a comfortable middle-class background (father a chartered accountant on Sydney’s fashionable North Shore), but that she longs for grunge, freedom, in a word, bohemia; and she goes roving in the wilds of Sydney seeking her thrills and kicks. “Her face, friendly as – in the mirror’s clutch, / hungered for a grip on life, love and lies. / Just one more girl in search of some hero.”(Sonnet 6, p.8). But, from the beginning of her ramblings, she knows that there can be huge disappointments. “Life doesn’t give a rat’s arse how we feel. / We nose-balance our hopes much like a seal; / dreams may be free but some turn out crappy. / So Globule learnt that life is a mixed dish.” (Sonnet 2, p.4). This hardens her shell and leads her to a dangerous insouciance: “If life proved to be nothing but a farce, / on balance – she didn’t give a rat’s arse.” (Sonnet 28, p.30).

To jump to assessment, some of these sonnets are gems. See Stephen Oliver’s skill by comparing Sonnets 15 and 16 (pp.17 and 18) where two different moods are evoked by the same stimulae. In Sonnet 15, Globule is bored by the sight of a kiddies’ playground; then in Sonnet 16 we get the joy children feel there: “Each hour is a newly dug treasure hoard / that rolls on like an endless ball of string.” Sonnet 24 (p.26) gives an effectively creepy sense of the young woman’s friendless solitude, while Sonnet 30 (p.32) is a psychologically accurate rendering of the way people often save their public dignity, and sense of self-worth, by pretending that they have not been hurt by others (in this case, the young woman knows she has been discarded by lovers). As for Sonnet 50 (p.52), it shadows perfectly the protagonist’s youthful lack of care: “Globule resided in the here and now, / a handful of dreams, a few basic skills; / she saw herself living inside a cave. / The sun sank on the hillock of her hip.”

There is, however, one major obstacle that might come between the reader and the text. The Song of Globule is so specifically about Sydney, that to appreciate it fully one would have to know Sydney well. Many of the copious end-notes tell us about Sydney, its arcania, the locations which some sonnets describe and (often) the poet’s regret that recent property development has destroyed much of Sydney’s old bohemia. But all this explanation simply reminded me how much I, as a non-Sydney-sider, do not know that metropolis.

Stephen Oliver strains the consciousness of his bohemian wandering young woman by, late in the day, having sonnets about women who represent martyrdom (Sophie Scholl) or who combine fervent religious belief with sensuality (Mary Magdalene, Thecla). Then, for 15 sonnets (Sonnets 64 to 78), he gives his rendering and re-phrasing of Ovid’s Heroides (but in a metre that Ovid would never have known). In these sonnets, women from Greek legend address, and rebuke, men from Greek legend. Penelope regrets how long it is taking Odysseus to get home, and wonders if he has taken up with some floozie; Phaedra still hungers for the erotic love of her stepson Hippolytus; Ariadne rebukes Theseus for abandoning her after she has shown him how to get through the labyrinth; and of course Medea gives a piece of her mind to Jason etc. etc. You get the message here – men can be deceiving bastards who leave women in the lurch.  With one of these vignettes I would, however, take issue. In Sonnet 70 (p.72) “Dido to Aeneas”, the spurned queen of Carthage calls out the self-righteous Trojan wanderer who has sailed away. But her billingsgate is redundant. Read the Aeneid, Book 6, and you discover that the silence of Dido’s ghost, when Aeneas encounters her in the underworld, says more than any rant could. When Dido’s ghost turns wordlessly away from Aeneas, you already have possibly the greatest dismissal of a faithless lover in all literature. Rant is redundant.

I do note that the last two sonnets of The Song of Globule bump us back into the more mundane world of a lost soul in Sydney; and I do understand that these classical tales of abandonment could relate to Globule’s desolation. But I do think the 15 Heroides sonnets are not quite in synch with the rest of the text, and may have been conceived by the poet separately from The Song of Globule.  (Indeed Sonnets 64 to 78 had earlier been published on their own). Even so, I enjoyed Oliver’s concatenation of the demotic, the surreal and the classical, and I enjoyed The Song of Globule for all its skill and the intellectual games it plays.

Personal, petty footnote: The blurb of The Song of Globule features comments from three people endorsing Stephen Oliver’s work. One is a gentleman who now bills himself as “Nicholas Reid of Canberra” to distinguish himself from me. I’ve mentioned this confusion between the two of us before when, seven years ago, I posted on this blog Who is this Ghost who Walks Beside Me? However, I categorically refuse to now start billing myself as “Nicholas Reid of Auckland”. I had the name first, dammit.

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In his introduction to No Traveller Returns – the selected poems of Ruth France, the poet and editor Robert McLean really throws down the gauntlet. He points out that Monte Holcroft once referred to Ruth France (1913-1968) as “among the finest minds of her generation”. But, says McLean, it would be hard to claim that many of our current New Zealand poets have fine minds. Indeed those who “read deeply of contemporary essayists, philosophers, and historians eschew poetry because there seems to them no exercise of intellect in it.” What McLean champions is the type of poetry that he himself and only a handful of his peers now write – poetry which deals directly with philosophical concepts, makes use of traditional forms of structure and metre, draws on a real knowledge of canonical literature and the Classics, assumes that the readership consists of informed adults, and is not merely loose, confessional observations.

McLean sees these strengths in the poetry of Ruth France who, dead now for over half a century, certainly belongs to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”.  France wrote two well-received, but now largely forgotten, novels; and she produced two collections of poetry, Unwilling Pilgrim (1955) and The Halting Place (1961), in both cases using the pseudonym “Paul Henderson”. A third collection, No Traveller Returns, was left in manuscript at the time of her death. On the whole, she has been overlooked by anthologists, including what McLean calls “a recent book about New Zealand women poets”.  No Traveller Returns – the selected poems of Ruth France contains selections from all three of her collections, with the poems from the third collection No Traveller Returns being published here for the first time. McLean and Cold Hub Press are making an admirable effort to restore to the canon work by poets that has been neglected or overlooked (including the hitherto uncollected poems of R.A.K.Mason). Thus this welcome selection.

Ruth France’s poetry deals with the physical world, with South Island or Wellington landscapes and seascapes apprehended and described in detail. But the physical details of nature are nearly always the occasion for abstract thought. One of her best poems, “After Flood”, ceases to be about the described flood itself and becomes a reflection on human fallibility and the tendency to take for granted our fragile, constructed circumstances. “The Young Legend” may apparently celebrate early seafarers around our coasts, but really asks how we can attach inherited European images and mythology to New Zealand (or to put it biblically, “how can we sing our songs in a strange land”?). “Mouth of the Waimakariri” does convey awe at the river’s collision with the sea, but the situation is rationalised as philosophy where “Wind / Is cold reason, parting grass, re-sifting sand, / Plunging trees through the sky, breaking the sun / Till light and matter are fragments, and reason / Cries which is the one truth?” In effect, the objective scene before the poet becomes a symbol of the workings of the human mind.

Ruth France looks at floods, clouds, New Year bonfies, or the mouth of a great river, but none of these is a Ding-an-Sich. Each is a cue to some process of thought. Without exception, all of France’s poems require close reading and re-reading.

What I detect in France’s work is a mind not fully at ease with the physical world. She rationally registers nature’s awe and beauty, but she does not submit to it emotionally. All the while, there is the ever-questioning mind of the rationalist (in the Platonic and Cartesian sense), which says that the senses may be cheats and that each emprical observation is subjective and probably unreliable (see the poems “Object Lesson” and “Road Map”).  Empiricist she is not, for all her powers of observation. Yet there are times when the rational mind is not enough, and she aches for a more emotional approach (see especially the poem “How Shall I”). The repeated theme of the toll of time does make much that she writes pessimistic. All must end. Yet in longer, more discursive poems such as “New Year Bonfire”, “Ghost Ships” and “The New Journey”, there are sparks of hope.

Keen eyes might notice that the only poems I have cited so far come from France’s first collection Unwilling Pilgrim. But the traits I detect therein are consistent with her later work. From her second collection The Halting Place comes a strong statement of her philosophical rationalism in “I Think of Those” where “The mind in its lonely prison forfeits today / As well as its yesterdays…” We are all imprisoned in our minds. A halcyon scene of summer collapses into the threat of winter in the collection’s title poem “The Halting Place”. In the hitherto unpublished No Traveller Returns, the title poem tells us that we cannot revisit the past any more than we can step into the same river twice. Even more severely, “The Letter” seems to despair of the possibility of real communication between people. Given that she sees the mind’s interaction with the physical world as the only ontological (and epistemological) reality, Ruth France has great difficulty dealing with death. Her attempts to make something uplifting find her, willy-nilly, stumbling into religious imagery. “When All the Flames” collapses into incoherence when she tries to wed Biblical imagery with a death-ending view of evolution and a critique of masculinity. “On the Death of a Young Girl” denies, but still strains after, an idea of immortality.

I hope I am not overstating this case. In emphasising that Ruth France is an epistemological rationalist, that she feels a great barrier between herself and the physical world, and that she is often pessimisitic, I am not saying that these are the only keys in which she plays. Nor am I suggesting that her perspective is one I dismiss. It often makes for exemplary poetry. I note that in her second collection The Halting Place, there is more sense of other people rather than just her isolated ego. In “Always, on Waking”, her boat-building husband is seen as being part of her protection against the outer storm. The hitherto unpublished “While Trying to Study Phonetics on a Spring Morning” crosses into the Baudelairian country of “Correspondances” with its empirical construct that all the senses relate to, and feed upon, one another. And lest any reader imagines that France is a forbidding stylist with contorted ratiocination, I would point out the beautiful, straightforward clarity of “Elegy”, a long, unadorned account of a boy’s death by drowning; and the wonderful “Three Bulls”, noted by McLean in his introduction, where a simple childhood memory moves seamlessly into the idea of the power of mythology.

McLean has not ‘talked up” France’s work in his introduction, however. She really is a poet who deserves to be rediscovered.

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.

“KIM” by Rudyard Kipling (first published as a serial in American and British magazines 1900-01; first published in book form 1901)


         I have never read the works of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) with close, critical attention. Of course I had the Just So Stories read to me when I was a child and later I read them to my own children. Of course, as a child, I read the two Jungle Books (and have seen the exploits of Mowgli distorted in various films, including the Disney cartoon version). But I know about Captains Courageous only from films (Spencer Tracy dying nobly to Freddie Bartholemew’s tears) and I never read the novel. As an adult I have occasionally enjoyed Kipling’s verse  - especially the robust poems with historical settings - and some of his short stories, including the novella The Man Who Would Be King. Equally often, though, the poems and short stories have repelled me when Kipling goes all jingo with the clear assumption that the British Empire must be the greatest achievement in human organisation. This was the barrier which made me, as an adult, shun reading his full-length novels. I had the clear impression that whatever he had to say would be badly dated and sometimes repugnant.

But recently I decided to give his best-known novel a go.

When academics want to boost Kipling’s reputation and restore him to the canon, they often choose as his masterpiece Kim (in very much the way that academic boosters of H.G.Wells choose Tono-Bungay). It was the last of the four full-length novels Kipling wrote, and the one to which he seems to have given most thought.

But there is a problem here. Is this picaresque panorama of India really a novel for the adult reader? Or is it better interpreted as an adventure story for older children?

Kim is certainly picaresque. Kimball O’Hara, or “Kim”, neglected orphan son of a negligent Irish soldier in the British Army, is a fleet-footed 12- or 13-year-old who is the “Little Friend of all the World” in the bazaars and backstreets of Lahore – possibly as a thief, certainly as a trickster and as somebody with keen wits, great cunning, and the abilty to charm his way into people’s good graces. To put it in modern jargon, he is a “street smart” kid. Kim has grown up more Indian than British, with Indian views of the world and awareness of all the various customs and religions that surround him. Wanting to move on, he chooses to join the Tibetan Teshoo Lama, who is searching for a sacred river where his soul will be be cleansed. Kim becomes the lama’s “chela”, or disciple, and the two of them head off down the Main Trunk Road on their journey. But the first big jolt is Kim’s finding the Irish regiment (the fictitious “Mavericks”) to which his father belonged. He has papers to prove this connection. So young Kim is dragooned into a Western (British) education, going to school and being groomed for service in the  British Raj.

This is the central tension in the novel – between Kim’s Indian identity and the British identity that he is being taught. On the one hand, there is the paternal Colonel Creighton who at first wants to make a soldier of him, but then understands that the boy can be put to better use. On the other hand, there is the Tibetan lama, a kind of substitute father and the only character whom Kim ever says he loves. Frequently, by his schooling and by his British mentors, Kim is separated from the lama; but he always finds ways of reconnecting with him, and the lama’s search for Buddhist spiritual enlightenment runs parallel with Kim’s search for his own identity. What exactly is he?  Sometimes in the novel, when his mixed identity confuses him, he asserts his uniqueness or individuality by saying “But I am Kim, Kim, Kim!

People they meet in the story give a panorama of India, almost a survey of “types”. There is the Pathan horse-dealer, a Muslim (or “Mohammedan” as Kipling would say) Mahbub Ali. There is the seller of gems and odd goods Lurgan. There is the Bengali Hurree Babu, perhaps the character who comes closest to caricature, with his desire to be an F.R.S. (Fellow of the Royal Society) and his almost subserviant attitude to his British masters, as if Kipling is mocking those Indians who aspire to be British. There is the prostitute (discreetly identified as such) who helps disguise Kim for purposes of the plot. And, late in the novel, there is the curious episode of the Woman of Shamlegh, deserted by a British soldier who said he would return to her, but never did.

This is one major point to note about the novel. While Kipling is often busy describing bazaars and market places and the Great Trunk Road, and schools and barracks and the Himalayas, he is not blind to the faults of the subcontinent’s British overlords. Kipling was mainly brought up in India and spent much of his life there. There are autobiographical elements in Kim – especially when Kipling describes British schools and institutions which he knew. Some supporting characters are based loosely on real people. Any postcolonial criticism we may have of the novel must be tempered by the fact it was written by a man who knew India well, and who was capable of satirising some aspects of the British Raj.

Kim’s encounter with formal Western education comes across as a boy having his head stuffed with useless and irrelevant information. Then there is the big matter of religion. Kipling comments: “All India is full of holy men stammering gospels in strange tongues; shaken and consumed in the fires of their own zeal; dreamers, babblers and visionaries; as it has been from the beginning and will continue to the end.” (Chapter 2) This could seem, in isolation, a Westerner’s dismissive view of the mainly Hindu population. And yet Western religion is treated even more ironically. When the regiment’s boisterous, and somewhat bullying, Anglican chaplain Mr Bennett first meets Kim, Kipling remarks : “Bennett looked at him with the triple-ringed uninterest of the creed that lumps nine-tenths of the world under the title ‘heathen’ ”. (Chapter 5) Later, there is some farcical to-ing and fro-ing between Mr Bennett and the Catholic chaplain Father Victor about where Kim should be schooled (it’s an Irish regiment, so of course it also has a Catholic chaplain). As it happens, Father Victor wins out and Kim goes to the Catholic St Xavier’s school. Ultimately, in the novel’s closing, Kipling endorses the lama’s spiritual quest, no matter how naïve the Tibetan sage may sometimes appear. The “river” the lama sought is a vision of the Great Soul that unites all things. This Buddhist concept is presented with a respect that, in this novel, is nowhere given to Christianity.

And yet, in the character of Kim himself, there is still this tension between mysticism and pragmatism. When Kim, as “chela”, is trying to learn the lama’s Buddhist sense of detachment from wordly things, Kipling remarks : “Obediently, then, with bowed head and brown finger alert to follow the pointer, did the chela study; but when they came to the Human World, busy and profitless just above the Hells, his mind was distracted; for by the roadside trundled the very Wheel itself, eating, drinking, trading, marrying, and quarrelling – all warmly alive.” (Chapter 12) The “Wheel”, the lama’s Buddhist concept of pointlessly repetitive human life which does not reach a higher plane, is trumped by the immediacy of sounds and smells and colours to which both the Hindu and Western parts of Kim respond.

Kim is riddled with suggestions that its protagonist inhabits simultaneously two separate worlds. As a typical example, there is this moment where the boy, having run away from school, is as easily able to accommodate himself to the street urchin’s life as to the school dormitory:  “Kim lay behind the little knot of Mahbub’s followers, almost under the wheels of a horse-truck, a borrowed blanket for covering. Now a bed among brickbats and ballast-refuse on a damp night, between overcrowded horses and unwashen Baltis, would not appeal to many white boys; but Kim was utterly happy. Change of scene, service, and surroundings were the breath of his little nostrils, and thinking of the neat white cots of St. Xavier’s, all arow under the punkah gave him joy as keen as the repetition of the multplication-table in English.” (Chapter 8)

At which point, I have to come to what is, for me, the great stumbling block in appreciating this novel. In the end, such sequential narrative as this picaresque work has, is still a hymn to British imperialism. During his years of schooling, and up to the time he is 16 or 17, Kim is being discreetly trained as a British informant or spy, much valued because the little scamp can readily disguise himself and blend in with Indian crowds. This is the thread which holds the “plot”, such as it is, together. When Kim is still too young to know why, Colonel Creighton tells him : “Yes, you must learn how to make pictures of roads and mountains and rivers – to carry these pictures in thy eye till a suitable time comes to set them on paper…” (Chapter 7) He is being taught to memorise topography, landscapes and the movements of anti-British forces, which in this case means Russians attempting to infiltrate Afghanistan. (Small details suggest the novel is set in the early1890s, just before Britain fought another Afghan War.) We learn early that the horse-dealer Mahbub Ali is an asset of the British, passing on military information to Colonel Creighton. Mahbub Ali is also Kim’s chief mentor, telling him about the “Great Game” that is being played between the British Empire and the Russian Empire. There is the memory game (apparently now often known as “Kim’s game”) in which the seller-of-gems Lurgan trains Kim, to sharpen his powers of observation and make himself immune to the mesmerism which enemy spies might practise on him. And the climax of all this comes when Kim saves Mahbub Ali from Russian spies in the Himalayas and foils the Russians in their devilish plans.

To this you have to add the moments where Kipling puts into the mouths of Indian characters sentiments that would be most congenial to British readers of his day. A sabre-carrying Indian soldier describes thus the causes of the so-called “Indian Mutiny”, which had happened little more than thirty years before the time the novel is set: “The Gods, who sent it for a plague, alone know. A madness ate into all the Army, and they turned against their officers. That was the first evil, but not past remedy if they had then held their hands. But they chose to kill the Sahibs’ wives and children. Then came the Sahibs from over the sea and called them to most strict account.” (Chapter 3). Such statements, supposedly coming from an Indian, neatly absolve the British of all blame in this upheaval.

From my perspective, all this compromises the novel’s generally large-hearted and sympathetic view of the Indian peoples. They are jolly decent fellows but they are still there is serve Britain’s strategic and imperial interests. To read Kim and then read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is to understand how far ahead of Kipling Conrad was in seeing the negative side of imperialism, and as a result Conrad’s work still reads as more modern in mentality than Kipling’s.

Then there are those other questions I raised early in this notice: Is Kim really a novel for the adult reader? Or is it better interpreted as an adventure story for older children?

As an adventure story, it moves at a very slow pace, dwelling at length on the characters whom Kim and the lama encounter and reminding us only every so often  of Kim’s training in espionage. When it comes, the climactic foiling of the Russian spies – the whole purpose of Kim’s training - is dealt with very briefly, confined to Chapter 13 and almost as a throwaway. Couple this with much elevated or recherche vocabulary, and with Kipling’s habit of using the obsolete second-person singular (“thou”, “thee”, “thy”, “thine”) in conveying the speech of Indians, and I think most modern adolescents and children would have a very hard time reading Kim, much as it may still sometimes be given as a present by indulgent parents or aunts and uncles. Extract the “plot” and you have an adventure story such as could be filmed – if one dared to ignore current views on imperialism. But an extracted plot is not the novel itself. It is, of course, quite possible that Edwardian children, over a century ago, embraced Kim heartily. But as a book for older children, its time seems to me to be quite over. And I haven’t even noted all the irony that would fly over the heads of children, not to mention Kipling’s endearing habit of alluding, circumlocutiously, to foul language (clearly meant to be effing and blinding) without actually using it.

As for adult readers, I think they would relish much of Kipling’s prose, powers of description and sly humour. But they would still read Kim largely as a period piece.

My own punchline is that Kim is doubtless the most compassionate and knowing novel about India that could be written by a committed British imperialist.

Random Footnotes: Before I get torn apart by dedicated Kipling-ites, I will note three things: (i) I am aware that Kim is still immensely popular with adult readers, and makes it into various of those awful “Hundred Best Books of the 20th Century” lists that you still come across – including ones compiled by the Guardian, Modern Books etc. (ii) I am also aware that, with reservations, some modern Indian writers have praised it, while still seeing it as a very British imperial view of things. (iii) Yes, it has been filmed a number of times – a Hollywood version in 1950, a British TV version in 1984 and – believe it or not – a German version more recently. I have not seen any of these films, but apparently all three played up the “adventure” (what I called the “extracted plot”). Certainly in the 1950 one, but also in one of the later ones, nearly all major roles were played by Westerners under brown “Indian” make-up. Would you believe Errol Flynn as Mahbub Ali in the 1950 version? And Peter O’Toole as the lama in the 1984 version? Strewth.

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.


The thing about lock-down is how polite everybody is when you go for a walk around the neighbourhood. Either you step off the pavement or they step off the pavement to keep up social distancing and then you wave or smile at one other as if you were friends, not total strangers.

The thing about lock-down is how you sometimes talk even to these total strangers, if only a few words. “Nice dog,” you say, whether it’s a greyhound or a boxer or an Afghan hound that is being taken on a lead by a pooch-fancier. Yes, I’ve seen all of these and many other breeds on my lock-down walks and I’ve passed such compliments even though I’ve never been a dog-owner.

The thing about lock-down is seeing people do mildly eccentric things. I walk up a cul-de-sac and find three people seated at a folding table on one side of the road and four people seated at a folding-table on the other side of the road, both parties drinking in the early evening light and chatting to one another across the road – having a party while preserving their bubbles. I walk between them, up the middle of the road, because they are blocking both pavements. As I pass, I say I am their travelling entertainment and crack a number of obvious jokes. One is emboldened to do such things when there is the sense that we are, as the cliché says, “all in it together”. They seem to appreciate the banter.

The thing about lock-down is sometimes choosing to take walks in the dead of night, at 4 or 5 a.m., so that there is no chance of bumping into any other human being. Then familiar houses and streets take on a new complexion – not sinister but romantic somehow, like the lights in the city across the harbour. How few houses have any lights on. How many have security lights that flash on as you pass. I am sustained by the moon and the stars on clear nights. I am sustained by the jazz that comes through my ear-phones from Spotify. Jean-Luc Ponty sawing away on his jazz violin – in the darkness of the streets that could be unfamiliar, I could be in a back alley of Paris.

The thing about lock-down is stopping at the top of a hill on a pre-dawn walk and seeing the first faint herald of the sun while listening on ear-plugs to the Last Post as relayed by Radio New Zealand. It is Anzac Day, and people have come out to their front lawns in pyjamas to honout the fact.

The thing about lock-down is seeing buses going past on schedule with nobody aboard but the driver. Why do they bother?

The thing about lock-down is standing in a supermarket queue, trying hard to keep one-and-a-half metres away from other customers fore and aft, and wondering how efficacious the routine is anyway.

The thing about lock-down is hearing more birds in the neighbourhood, more tuis singing in the trees, more owls hooting. There are so few cars to block them out or chase them away. The primary school over our back fence has been empty for weeks. On Skype of course, a friend tells me that this shows how good the shut-down is in helping the natural ecology, clearing the polluted skies, making the waterways run clean. Think of all the birds you can now hear, he says. Yes, but I’d still like to be able to hear the kids playing and laughing in the school next door.

The thing about lock-down is knowing that your own position is a reasonably comfortable one. You can work on-line. So can the three members of your family who live with you. But you are uneasily aware of those thousands of toilers who work with real physical things and cannot work from home and whose lives are now being wrecked.

The thing about lock-down is bonding even more closely with your family, but knowing this just cannot go on forever. You crave to go out somewhere more interesting than yet another walk around the neighbourhood.

The thing about lock-down is you hope it will end.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Something New

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

“THE GORSE BLOOMS PALE – DAN DAVIN’s Southland Stories” Edited by Janet Wilson (Otago University Press,  $NZ45); “THE GENERAL AND THE NIGHTINGALE – DAN DAVIN’s War Stories” Edited by Janet Wilson (Otago University Press,  $NZ45)

Here’s a problem for me. Should I be including these two collections of short stories in the “Something New” section of this blog? After all, the great majority of the stories presented here have long been available in print, and their author died thirty years ago. What’s more, the first of these two books, The Gorse Blooms Pale – Dan Davin’s Southland Stories, edited by Janet Wilson, was first published in 2007 and has now (in 2020) been reprinted. The second book The General and the Nightingale – Dan Davin’s War Stories, also edited by Janet Wilson, has now (in 2020) been published for the first time.

            Yet there is value in seeing these two collections as new books rather than old. There is the new form of their presentation – the long scholarly introduction that Janet Wilson gives to each volume and her detailed apparatus criticus. In both volumes, Wilson has arranged the stories in a different order from their appearance in earlier collections. For example, only some of the stories from Davin’s collection The Gorse Blooms Pale (published in 1947) are in The Gorse Blooms Pale – Dan Davin’s Southland Stories, the rest being now placed in The General and the Nightingale – Dan Davin’s War Stories. Wilson’s editions also include some previously uncollected stories as well as one or two that were never published even in magazines. So let’s consider these as two new books and worthy of close reading, especially as together they comprise all Dan Davin’s short fiction.

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            First, The Gorse Blooms Pale – Dan Davin’s Southland Stories. It includes a selection of stories from The Gorse Blooms Pale (1947), a selection of stories from Davin’s next collection Breathing Spaces (1975) and six previously uncollected stories.

            Janet Wilson’s long (26-page) introduction  gives a detailed biographical account of Dan Davin (1913-1990), son of Irish-Catholic parents, who grew up in a large family in Southland (mainly Invercargill) in the 1920s and early 1930s. His father was a railwayman who also tended a small farm. In his first collection of stories, Davin fictionalised his family as the Connolly family and himself as young Mick Connolly. Later Davin attended a school in Auckland for one year, studied at the University of Otago in Dunedin, won a scholarship to Oxford, excelled as a scholar in Classics, had extensive military experience in the Second World War, but spent the rest of his life in England as an academic publisher and (apart from a few brief visits) never return to New Zealand. He had left New Zealand in 1936 when he was 23. It is interesting to reflect that nearly all his Southland stories were written when he was far away from New Zealand, on the other side of the world. Janet Wilson repeatedly tells us that he is part of “diasporic” writing. Like James Joyce, he wrote obsessively about the country where he was born, but hardly ever wrote about the country where he spent most of his life.

Wilson’s style of editing is very fastidious. Every story has many end-notes, sometimes advising us of the meaning of now-dated slang or Irish words, but for the Southland ones more commonly connecting every road, address, hill, farm, stream, school or public business to their originals in Gore, Invercargill or Dunedin. She thus more firmly advises us how much of Davin’s short fiction is really thinly-disguised autobiography based on observation of real places and people. I should add that it might be better to read the introduction after reading the stories themselves, as Janet Wilson does analyse many of them and in the process imposes an interpretation on some of them.

So to the stories. After all, they the main reason that I have – with much appreciation – read my way through these two volumes, sometimes remembering stories I read years ago in earlier editions, but just as often coming across stories that were new to me.

First, The Gorse Blooms Pale – Dan Davin’s Southland Stories. They are very much depictions of a lost world and part of their interest is their documentary details. We are in a very different society from the present when, coming from the family’s milking shed, a little boy has to deliver milk in cans to neighbours on a cold, windy night; and it is made clear that the customers he visits come from different social classes and some look down on him and his family (“Milk Round”). We are frequently made aware of chronic poverty in the semi-rural setting,  as in a story focusing on a poor old woman who comes regularly to the Connolly home to wheedle and cadge for food (“The Basket”). Many stories remind us of the social divide between (often working-class) Irish Catholics and their (sometimes middle-class) Protestant neighbours.

However, Davin is not only documenting a way of life. The stories about Mick Connolly also chart a pattern of growing-up and maturation. The young Mick early feels a form of alienation when he is annoyed with his family and has typical death-bed fantasies (in “The Vigil”). He learns about death and the grimmer side of farm life when he and his brothers discover baby rabbits dead in the snow (“Late Snow”). He also witnesses his father killing a new-born bull, of no use to dairying (“Growing Up”). Cruelty, an awareness of death and a sense of personal betrayal combine in one of the better-known stories “Death of a Dog”, where Mick’s father kills the boys’ favourite dog Jack, on the pretext that the dog has taken to biting people.

There is a considerable change of tone in a story of Dunedin university-student life, where a student feels both triumph and apprehension at losing his virginity, and finds a that Presbyterian professor’s interpretation of the poet Catullus is at odds with his own erotic impulses (“That Golden Time”). Indeed, there is a different stylistic approach in the later stories from the original The Gorse Blooms Pale. The earlier stories are spare and not over-written (although I did detect a nudge of purple prose in the description of a vegetable garden in “The Basket”). But in the later  stories there is a tendency to overstate a moral or to add a twist ending. “A Happy New Year” contrasts convincingly two separate celebrations going on simultaneously – the refined party in the house and the rough rouseabouts’ booze-up out the back. With its complex cast of characters and clear indication of class tensions, this could have been one of Davin’s greatest stories – but it comes down with the clunk of a twist ending that seems to have strayed from another story. So too in “A Meeting Halfway”, which sets up the credible situation of a refined wife at odds with her coarser-grained husband, and then crunches melodramatically into a shock ending

The childhood stories from Davin’s later collection Breathing Spaces (1975) are less clearly focused. With just a slight tweak, some of them would resemble the type of country yarns found in Frank S. Antony’s Me and Gus. Little Mick Connolly (i.e. Dan Davin) and his brothers play at parachuting off the roof in “Roof of the World”. Two gangs of kids play at war and stage fights in “Goosey’s Gallic War” -  but, dammit, the story is stymied by a cutesie punchline about reconciling with your enemies. Mick and his brother cut down a tree their father didn’t want them to cut down (“The Tree”). You see the potential these stories had for pure knockabout? But then Davin always has a sort of moral undertone and often implicit social commentary. “Presents” seems a careless anecdote but implies the family’s poverty. On the whole, these stories from Breathing Spaces suggest an author much further removed from his childhood than he was when he wrote The Gorse Blooms Pale and now more prone to categorising his youthful experience and drawing neat lessons from it. Nevertheless, one story of adolescence remains one of Davin’s best. “The Quiet One” presents a teenager who tags along with two more experienced youths, looking for girls on a Saturday night in Invercargill. He feels mainly a sense of inadequacy until, on his own, he encounters a loner whose own erotic adventure has come to a grisly end.  This really is a story about growing-up.

“A Return” and “First Flight”, both written in first person, read like straight autobiography or reportage of Davin’s brief return to Invercargill in 1948.

Of the six previously uncollected stories included in The Gorse Blooms Pale – Dan Davin’s Southland Stories, one is an early piece Davin wrote as a student (“Prometheus”) but four were first publshed in the NZ Listener and another New Zealand magazine in the 1970s and 1980s. All are written in the first-person and all, regrettably, are prone to preaching an obvious moral with the use of simple symbolism. A damaged fighter pilot nurses a damaged bird in “The Albatross” and likens his solitariness to the bird’s. In “Black Diamond”, Davin pairs the black diamond insignia of the New Zealand Division in the Western Desert with the black diamond coal that the boys stole from a railway yard when he was a kid. “Gardens of Exile”, concerning racial prejudice against Chinese market gardeners in old Southland,  morphs into a homily on tolerance and good race relations. Wilson’s introduction says of these hitherto unpublished stories that “Distance from his homeland becomes a cipher for a more universal sense of alienation.” (p.34). Possibly so, but I am more aware of distance and the passing years making the older expatriate writer simplify and schematise the society he had earlier depicted more vividly.

There is one aspect of Davin’s outlook that deserves special mention. As Janet Wilson notes, Davin left behind his Catholic upbringing in early manhood, and was a confirmed agnostic. She says “In these stories Davin charts the development of an essentially secular outlook predicated on harsh moral realism.” (p.19) But there is no strident anti-religion polemic in these stories. It is more an assumed undertone. In the opening story of this collection “The Apostate”, little Mick Connolly becomes  disillusioned with God because he can’t get his lost pencil back even though he prayed for it. In “First Flight”, recounting his brief return journey to New Zealand in 1948, Davin gives his father a polite excuse for not going to mass, which his old father accepts agreeably enough. The story “Saturday Night”  does suggest puritanical hypocrisy when a friend of Mrs Connolly deplores a saucy film which she has obviously enjoyed, but this seems to reflect the general puritanism of society at that time. The story which most directly protests at the behaviour of religious figures is the never-previously-published one that closes this collection, “Failed Exorcism”, and even this is a relatively mild account of a Marist Brother humiliating young Davin and his brothers in front of a class. Davin’s dislike of church and dogma is often implied, but it is rarely as dramatised in detail as it is in some of Davin's novels.

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Now turning to the second of these two books, published this year for the first time in this format, The General and the Nightingale – Dan Davin’s War Stories.  Once again Janet Wilson’s endnotes to each story are both copious and scrupulous. This time, however, she does not deal with slang so much as with showing non-military people where and when during the Second World War each story takes place, and how each story draws closely on the diaries Davin kept while on service. As in the earlier volume, this shows us how most of Davin’s short fiction is lightly disguised autobiography. Wilson calls the stories “fictionalised accounts rather than imaginative fiction” (p.17) She also notes that while other New Zealanders who have served as soldiers have written fictional versions of their experiences after the war is over (John A. Lee for example, or M.K.Joseph), Davin was unique is writing some of his stories when the war was still in progress. There is a very extensive glossary, originally devised by Davin himself and now enlarged, explaining place names, designations of military units and, of course, Kiwi soldiers’ slang. Though it is not discussed in this edition, I find it interesting that the title story “The General and the Nightingale” was obviously one of Davin’s own favourites. At any rate, it was one of his two stories (the other one was “Saturday Night”) which he chose to include in the much-reprinted Oxford University Press anthology New Zealand Short Stories which Davin edited in 1953.

This time, before it discusses indivdual stories, Wilson’s introduction focuses on Davin’s life just before and during the Second World War. At Oxford, he had won a First in Greats (Classics) in 1939 and might have looked forward to an academic career; but in 1940 he volunteered for officer training with a British regiment. He had himself transferred to the New Zealand Division (the “Div” or  2NZEF), with which he stayed for the rest of the war, first as a platoon commander. He saw action in the retreat through Greece and then in Crete. He was wounded and evacuated to convalesce in Cairo. Then he was transferred to Military Intelligence (as many intelligent Oxbridge-educated chaps were) where he served with Paddy Costello, Angus Ross, Geoffrey Cox and others who, like Davin himself, feature under fictionalised names in some of his stories. This group of Intelligence officers were always in close contact with their general Bernard Freyberg, who also features in stories, though usually just as “the General”. Davin was not a man to idolise people, but he liked Freyberg and the title story is really a celebration of the chief officer’s sang froid under fire. It is clear that Davin, who had been away from New Zealand for four years before his war service, was glad to find himself from 1940 to 1944 in the company of New Zealanders whom he respected and admired.

All of the stories in this new edition have been published before, some in Davin’s original The Gorse Blooms Pale (1947), some in Breathing Spaces (1975), and nearly all of them in a compendium of his war stories which Davin called The Salamander and the Fire (1986). However, the stories are not presented here in the order in which they were first published. They are presented in the order of the historical events they recall. Thus the first of the 20 stories, “Below the Heavens”, takes place in April 1941, during the retreat through Greece, when Davin was first under fire. The last story, “Not Substantial Things”, is set in Italy in June 1944 when the shooting war in Europe is nearly over for New Zealanders and the author is reflecting on what the post-war will be like. In between we go through nearly every phase of the war that Davin experienced.

Janet Wilson remarks that the stories Davin wrote during the war are often terse and brief, whereas those he wrote in the 1970s and 1980s tend to be longer, more detailed and more analytic. As a generalisation this is true. Certainly the very first war stories Davin had published (in magazines early in the war) are both impressionistic sketches – “Under the Bridge” about terrified Cretan civilians trying to find shelter during a bombing raid; and “Danger’s Flower” about Kiwi soldiers in Crete going through the same sort of torment. But apart from style, I think there is another distinction between the war stories Davin wrote in the 1940s and those he wrote in later years.

The later stories tend to be a little more critical of officers and a little more ready to note the shortcomings of some New Zealand soldiers.

Take this sequence of four stories, all first published in the 1970s and 1980s and all dealing with the Italian campaign – mainly the battles around Monte Cassino. “North of the Sangro” has an overconfident young intelligence officer thinking he can encourage Germans to desert after he had interrogated just one prisoner – but his plan ends in farce. “Psychological Warfare at Cassino” is one of Davin’s very best stories, at once sad and funny and with a carefully layered sense of what “psychological wafare” means. It ridicules mercilessly an American OSS officer who has a foolish plan to demoralise the determined German troops they are facing. But, while it is told with good humour, we are also made aware of the jockeying for favour among the New Zealand intelligence officers. “Cassino Casualty” is a study in “battle fatigue”, or PTSD as we would now say, showing how a competent and brave New Zealand soldier is on the point of burning himself out and mentally destroying himself. “When Mum Died” is a less succesful story, told in the first-person by a batman who had just received the news that his mother has died. Davin has this working-class narrator speak in what seems a forced and stylised slang which does not quite convince. Even so, the batman’s understated grief is compared with an officer mourning the death of a dog.  I’m aware that Davin was sensitive about dogs, as in his Southland story “Death of a Dog”; and elsewhere in The General and the Nightingale – Dan Davin’s War Stories there is the story “The Dog and the Dead”, set just after the second battle of El Alamein, which has a soldier deciding to shoot a dog howling for its dead master. Even so, in “When Mum Died” the death of a dog is clearly a small thing compared with the death of a mother.

Other stories written in the 1970s and 1980s have a negative tone about some officers and men.”The Persian’s Grave” (Athens, May 1941) has a soldier, left behind after the British evacuation of Greece, getting drunk and accidentally giving away the Greek family who are hiding him from the Germans – although he does redeem himself a little at the end. “East is West” (the chaotic retreat to Egypt late in 1941) has an arrogant officer foolishly forcing his driver to go through a minefield. “Coming and Going” (the Western Desert 1942) presents a commander committing suicide after he has deserted his troops in battle. And while it is mainly a semi-humorous sketch of an awkward situation, “Finders and Losers’ touches on the matter of soldiers’ infidelity to their wives faraway in New Zealand, and wives’ infidelity to to their faraway soldier husbands.

None of this is to suggest that Davin was squeamish in the war stories he wrote in the 1940s. “Bourbons”, first published in 1945, is a very unflattering portrait of complacent and snobbish British officers. “Unwrung Withers” has a British orator in Palestine ostensibly expressing solidarity with the Jewish people and their aspirations while in private revealing his casual anti-semitism. “In Transit” shows a generous Maori soldier in Italy feeling pity for poor ragged Italian children who are refugees, and giving them anything he can to help… while at the same time American MPs beat with batons Italians who linger around railway station and exploit impoverished Italian women for sex. But note that the main targets of Davin’s scorn in these earlier stories are mainly British and American, not New Zealanders.

The only story, written in the 1940s, that dramatises something reprehensible about New Zealand soldiers is “Liberation”. A pregnant and starving young Italian woman offers her body in exchange for food. At first the Kiwis give her food generously, without understanding what her offer is. But when they do understand what she is offering, some take her up on it. Possibly, but only possibly, there is also a tiny undertone of disapproval in the closing story, “Not Substantial Things” (published in 1947), where three Kiwis “liberate” a small Italian town long after the Germans have retreated, get drunk on vino, and one of them (based on Davin himself) makes a bombastic speech to the gathered populace. But, apart from its very elegaic ending, most of this a represented as uproarious nonsense.

Even if he was an uncommon soldier in some ways (how many other soldiers would while away their time during the second batlle of El Alamein by reading the Aeneid in the original Latin?), Davin was obviously at home with his fellow New Zealanders. To read these stories in one collection is to sense that for four years, the “Div” was a substitute for the Irish-Catholic family whom he had left behind in New Zealand and whom he only very rarely ever saw again. He had left his religion in New Zealand too. In The General and the Nightingale – Dan Davin’s War Stories, there are only two stories that address his staunch agnosticism. One, “Jaundiced”, is simply the sketch of a Catholic chaplain whom  Davin didn’t like, presented as a fellow who spouts useless cliches. The sketch contains one paragraph questioning the role of all military chaplains. The other, a much more nuanced story, is “Mortal”, which questions and rejects a Catholic chaplain’s assumption that men will always turn to God in the face of crisis and death. There is an interesting ambiguity to this story. The chaplain is dedicated to his task and no fool, even if Davin rejects what he is offering. More interesting, the fictitious chaplain is based on the real Catholc priest Father “Ted” Forsman, who remained a lifelong friend of Davin’s and had been through the same North African campaigns as Davin. Perhaps it was part of Davin’s bonding with his own “tribe” even if he had no use for its received ideas.

Oops. I’m slipping into cheap psychological analysis here. Maybe Davin just liked this particular bloke.

I hope in all this long assessment that I have made it clear what an enriching experience it was to read, over a couple of weeks, all of Dan Davin’s short fiction in these two handsomely-produced volumes. The definitive edition I would say.