Monday, October 26, 2020

Something New

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

“MAP FOR THE HEART – Ida Valley Essays” by Jillian Sullivan (Otago University Press, $NZ35); ”BILL & SHIRLEY – A Memoir” (Massey University Press, $NZ35)

Late autumn, and once again it’s time for the firewood we gathered through summer – jaunts across the paddock to the old willows, cracked and split in storms, for the branches they delivered on top of fence lines and into the damp gullies. Fire crackles and brightens the room at night, though in Auckland perhaps, warm still rules. Here the wind presses up to the windows, whoos and blusters around the house. The clouds foretell a time soon to come when snow will lie on the hills and rocks and, if the wind is from the north, on my boots on the verandah and the twigs for the fire.”(p.19)

These are the opening words of the opening essay, “Becoming Something Other” in Map for the Heart, Jillian Sullivan’s collection of eighteen essays and a poem. At once it tells us where we are. This is the cold south of New Zealand – in fact the Ida Valley in Central Otago - because “in Auckland perhaps” it’s still warm. We also know at once that the essays will have much evocation of landscape and weather, and it is an isolated and perhaps low-tech way of life that is observed. After all, it’s a crackling fire that “brightens the room”. And maybe there will be some self-consciously elevated vocabulary. Clouds “foretell” the coming of snow – they don’t warn of it.

I admit that I am a newcomer to the work of Jillian Sullivan. Poet, teacher of creative writing, essayist and author of chilldren’s novels, Jillian Sullivan has already written extensively about the part of New Zealand she chose to settle in.

In these essays she writes candidly about four things.

Some essays are confessional autobiography, concerning her family circumstances and the life she now chooses to live. In the opening essay “Becoming Something Other”  she touches briefly on the breakup of her marriage and other personal troubles that gradually persuaded her that she needed to radically alter her life. “Between Lands” talks of visiting a granddaughter in Auckland and remembering her own earlier days in the North Island. “Running Barefoot”, the most personal of all her essays, is a kind of apologia for her life – her parents’ breakup, her being a solo mum with four children after her own marriage breakup, and how all this has shaped both her and her children’s lives and made her see the world in a new way, so that she eventually found her “true life” as a writer. While mainly about her strawbale house and her life in the Ida Valley, the essay “A Privileged Job” notes how she supplemented the benefit she received by working in a country hospital. “The Art and the Adventure of Subsistence” gives another view of trying to live on a benefit,  and finally discovering that all the bureaucracy involved got in the way of her writing.

Then there are the essays about the strawbale house she now inhabits in the remote Ida Valley and her commitment to the use of “vernacular” materials in the construction of houses – that is, materials provided by nature and drawn from the locality of the house. (In 2016, Sullivan wrote A Way Home, a whole book about her strawbale house.) In the essay “A Roof Over Our Heads”, she declares “We desire shelter, protection from the elements. But a shelter can stifle our awareness of where we live – the sky, the terrain, the weather, the plants, animals and birds that live alongside us in their own place. Our place – that something that watches over us, lasts beyond us and participates in our moments.” (p.54)  The opening essay “Becoming Something Other” describes her domicile made of natural and accessible components – mud, straw, clay and lime – and she expands upon these themes in the essays “In the Midst of My True Life” “The Primitive Hut” and even “Lifting Walls”, about building a mudbrick wall with the help of her friend Graeme Male. While all this suggests a “getting back to nature” outlook, it does not mean the abandonment of available modern technology – Jillian Sullivan writes on a laptop, after all.

More important than either autobiography and commitment to simple nature-formed housing, however, are the essays that focus on the environment, nature and the natural world inasmuch as they can be perceived or saved by us. These are her most impassioned essays, revealing a very committed environmentalist. The essay “Ancient Land” is her lament about those who wish to “use” and monetise Central Otago, rather than allowing it to flourish as a natural environment. (Her tone here reminds me very much of the environmentalist poetry of Richard Reeve , in which he ridicules the impulse to “call in” land to make it “useful”.) Jillian Sullivan is a member of the Central Otago Environmental Society along with Brian Turner, Michael Harlow and other literary luminaries. She speaks of her vegetarianism and the way indigenous small plants – including indigenous grasses – are being muscled out by invasive species. The essay “The Hawkdun Range” becomes a reflection on the ancientness of what was sea-bed millions of years ago and makes it clear that some plants we barely notice are essential to biodoversity. She writes of human intervention that has led to ecological disruption – as in overgrazing. “Growing Closer” takes Goethe’s theories of becoming aware of nature, not just by observing and noting characteristics of plants and animals, but by cultivating feeling – and hence becoming more aware of animals’ sentience. As she narrates in “What if a River Wants to Sing?”, she joined a party of freshwater ecologists and a hydrologist, to explore the length of the Manuherekia River (which feeds into the Clutha) to note all habitats en route that were in danger of being destroyed by irrigation schemes,  fertiliser etc.

Inevitably, thoughts on the environment overlap with a sort of social critique. You cannot discuss the impact of human beings on the land without discussing the human beings, and here Sullivan’s tone is not always accusatory. In “Love, Loss and the Fraser Basin”, a long walk becomes a reflection on injustices done to 19th century workers, such as gold-stampers and others underpaid for their labour and exploited in various ways. In this she perceives the foundation of New Zealand’s economic and social structure: “What I’m looking at here is a history of subjugation. I begin to see that the foundations of our society and culture were laid within a framework that saw wealth as taking precedence over the rights of others, land included.” (p.109). Similarly,“Blackstone Hill” considers the human past of the land she now identifies with. She does not look at (Pakeha) pioneers negatively, knowing they had to make their way in their own time by the means they had to hand. This is not one of those smug exercises in assuming that people in the past were wilfully ignorant of their environment, but it is still a reasoned view of their imprint on the land. Speaking of people who are dead and gone, it is fitting that the last essay in the collection, “Across the Whited Fields” is focused on a graveyard and a consideration of the dead, especially a much-abused young woman who tried to make her way in the community but died of an overdose.

It is quite clear from these essays that Jillian Sullivan is friends, not only with fellow writers and environmentalists in Central Otago, but also with farmers, whose industry and needs she understands. Her environmentalism does not come with a prejudice against farming, but an awareness of some of the negative environmental impacts of farming.

You will note that, as is my wont, I have so far neatly noted the contents of this collection of essays without making any critical comment upon it. So here are a few personal reflections.

I identified with some of the moments when Sullivan had to teach herself about local botany. In “The Hawkdun Range”, she remarks “But I don’t know the names of the plants on the mountains where I live. I walk through their beauty in a state of ignorance” (p.37) May I say that I know the feeling? When I’ve taken bush walks or guided tourists around Tiritiri Matangi, I’ve often had to rack my brains to remember the names of certain plants.

In parts of Map for the Heart, I found a kind of Thoreauvian echo – the outlook of a town-and-city dweller who has decided on a more isolated life. In “A Roof Over Our Heads”, Sullivan writes “Mud walls surrounded me, and as the firelight and candle flames flickered over them, creating small shadows and gleams of light, I had the distinct feeling of being inside a living, breathing structure.” (p.54). This reminds me strongly of the moment in Walden (reviewed on this blog) where Thoreau, looking at shadows in his rafters, remarks Should not every apartment in which man dwells be lofty enough to create some obscurity overhead, where flickering shadows may play at evening about the rafters?

There are moments in this collection where I agree with Jillian Sullivan’s agenda, but might take issue with her underlying assumptions. Take this passage from the essay “What if a River Wants to Sing?”: I have seen how humans stand apart from the natural world and say: this is not us but for us. To say the river has rights and needs, to say the river deserves our responsibility to further generations, to say the river is one being from mountain torrent to the wide, luminous stretch between shingled banks, is to go against those who have the voice of power, against those who say we need ‘the courage to dam the rivers.’ I have lost my faith with those in power…”(p.165) Very well, I accept the need to clean up rivers and respect the natural environment, but I reject the anthropomorphism. To assert a river has “rights and needs” is to give it a consciousness and a personhood it does not have; and such anthropomorphism often leads to a downgrading of respect for real human beings. Clean up the river but don’t assume it is a person.

Enough of my grumpiness. Reading much description and evocation of place can clog the mind. It is hard to form mental patterns from the profusion of precise and specific details of the landscape that Sullivan gives. Perhaps for this reason, I warmed most to one of the longest essays in the book “Cycling With Bartali: a Year in the valley”, because it gives a narrative covering a year when Sullivan and her cycling partner explored and rode up and down the hills of the Ida Valley. This means the essay is enlivened by the interaction of the two cyclists in their conversations as the seasons turn and conditions change. There are conversations and interaction with other people in the valley too. The valley is realised for us in more than evocation and description only.


Footnote: Two very small matters which have nothing to do with the high quality of Jillian Sullivan’s essays. By a small editorial glitch, the page numbers given on the table of contents do not quite correspond to the pages on which each essay begins. Also – and others might disagree with me – I find the term “village” rather quaint and forced when describing small New Zealand settlements; but apparently that’s the term some people use in Central Otago.

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

            If I were to write a memoir of my family, how would I approach it? To the best of my knowledge, there have been no great scandals connected with my family, but there have been the arguments and clashes of personality that every family experiences. Even so, I think I would write with great tact and caution.

Keith Ovenden often writes with tact and caution in Bill & Shirley – a memoir, especially when it comes to controversial matters. And sometimes he glosses over, or strains to put a particular construction on, things that he finds unpalatable. Ovenden, now in his late 70s, is the son-in-law of the late Bill (William Ball) Sutch and Shirley Smith. His wife Helen Sutch is the only child of the Sutches. Bill and Shirley were, in effect, family to Ovenden. As Ovenden says, he knew Sutch  personally only in the last four years of his life; but he knew Shirley Smith as his mother-in-law and as the grandmother of his and Helen’s children for decades before her death in 2007. He admires Sutch as the outspoken economist, civil servant and author of many books, who advanced to being Permanent Secretary of Industries and Commerce under various governments. He finds much to admire in Shirley Smith’s many careers too. But he had a bumpy start with both his parents-in-law.

Ovenden stresses that Bill & Shirley – a memoir is a memoir and not a biography. Titled “Between memoir & biography”, an overlong and rather pompous essay near the end of the book tells us the difference between the two genres, separating this work from such productions as Ovenden’s biography of Dan Davin. So Bill & Shirley is Ovenden’s memories and a personal view of his experience and interactions with Bill Sutch and Shirley Smith.

Or is it?

For there is a very big elephant in the room.  Ovenden says he had considered writing this memoir for some decades. Last year there appeared Sarah Gaitanos’ detailed biography Shirley Smith – An Examined Life (reviewed on this blog 1 July 2019). There is no bibliography in Bill & Shirley, but there are a number of end-notes. It is interesting to see, in both text and end-notes, how scrupulously Ovenden avoids naming or referring in any way to Gaitanos’ book, which reaches radically different conclusions about the Sutches and  “the Sutch case” from Ovenden’s conclusions. Even if he considered writing it for years, was Ovenden finally spurred to produce Bill & Shirley now as a riposte to Gaitanos? This is pure, undocumented speculation on my part, but much of Bill & Shirley reads like damage control.

Three chapters, called “The Lion and the Weasel”, deal with Bill Sutch and three chapters, called “If only, if only…” deal with Shirley Smith.

Purely for my own convenience, I’ll deal with the Shirey Smith chapters first. Ovenden notes Shirley’s privileged upbringing and her commendable academic career, studying at Oxford and being a lecturer in Classics before, some years later, becoming a highly-esteemed lawyer who took up many social causes. Ovenden notes her feminism, driven by the desirability of equality between the sexes. Says Ovenden: “It was this sense of equality that dominated her understanding of feminism. She had no truck with the radical cutting-up-men mobsters. The point was to achieve equality and to ensure that men could enjoy it too. She detested discrimination.” (p.107) She joined the Communist Party when she was a student at Oxford, but eventually gave it up in the 1950s. Ovenden makes an ambiguous statement about this when discussing the memories Shirley shared with him in later years: “In the deep crevasses of these recollections I detected Shirley re-examining her commitment to communism as an intellectual choice she now understood to be unrelated to her social upbringing, but each a form of hypocrsiy, and each feeding off the other to leave her embarrassed and ashamed of both.” (p.123) I wish readers well in trying to unpick the full meaning of this tangled sentence.

Much of what Ovenden writes about Shirley sounds like a polite euology, such as might have been delivered at a funeral. He does, however, have to deal with the fact that in her later years, she had many regrets, which is why this section is called “If only, if only…”.

He suggests that in old age, Shirley regretted three things.

One was her oppostion to Helen’s marriage to Ovenden, when Ovenden first came into the Sutch family orbit. Shirley’s reasons for disapproving so much of the young Ovenden are not clear, but Ovenden confirms some bizarre details that have already been made public in the Gaitanos book – that when Helen Sutch and Keith Ovenden were courting and newly married, they regularly took tranquillisers (Ovenden is not sure whether it was lithium or valium) to calm them down when they went to fractious family dinners with Bill and Shirley. In later years, Shirley regretted her hostility to Ovenden as she gradually befriended him. Another regret had to do with some unpleasant dealings Shirley had with her brother over property they shared. And she seems to have also regrettted her youthful enthusiasm for Communism.

However, it appears that, years after Bill Sutch died, Shirley also reassessed her relationship with Bill and, now being aware of a number of untruths Bill had told,  may even have come to believe that he was guilty as charged in the matter of his trial for espionage when, in 1974, he had possibly passed on information to Dimitri Razgovorov, the “rezident” (i.e. KGB man) at the Russian Embassy. This, at any rate, is the conclusion reached in Sarah Gaitaonos’ biography of Shirley. Ovenden, however, chooses to smoothly glide over this when, in what I can only interpret as a slap back at the unmentioned Gaitanos, he declares that only prejudiced people of ill will would draw such a conclusion from things Shirley wrote and said late in life. “It could be made to fit their case,” asserts Ovenden. “At the end of her life, they might say, she had seen [Bill] for what he was. What they might also be saying… is that she was taken for a fool.” (p.140). I’m taking a shrewd guess here as to whom the pronoun “they” might be designating. This really is damage control at its slippery-est.

Turning to the three chapters on Bill Sutch, Ovenden declares in his preface  It is not my purpose, as others have felt free to do, to root among his remains” (p.12). But root among the remains he does to make his case. While praising Sutch in detail for his eminent career, many achievements as a senior civil servant and many influential published works, Ovenden does frankly deal with the negative side of the man. This includes Sutch’s huge ego, his tendency to speak in monologues rather than actually engaging people in conversation, domineering aspects of his relationship with Shirley and, sometimes, his economy with the truth. On p.42, Ovenden affirms (as Gaitanos did) that Sutch for years spun a yarn about having trekked his way across the Soviet Union when he was a young man. This proved to be a lie. But, calling this untruth a “brag”, rather than really calling Sutch to account for his foolish dishonesty, Ovenden uses Endnote 20 (p.191) to massage this into “proof” that Sutch could never have been recruited by NKVD (KGB) agents in the 1930s as some have suspected.

Ovenden assumes, without proof, that the SIS (New Zealand’s security service) leaked negative information about Sutch to the right-wing populist newspaper Truth when Sutch’s trial (and acquittal) were over (p.50). Again, of course, he scrupulously declines to engage with Sarah Gaitanos’ very different account of this matter. As for Sutch’s repeated meetings with the Soviet Rezident, Ovenden says that Sutch “had been naïve” (p.53) and goes on to spin the suggestion that Sutch’s meetings with Razgovorov could not have been clandestine because Sutch noted them in his diary and met Razgovorov in the street and out in the open. (I wonder, wouldn’t they have been more conspicuous if they had met in a pub or café?)

It is in his second chapter on Sutch that Ovenden is at pains to nail in his argument that Sutch was merely “naïve” in his actions. He goes on to discuss Sutch’s mental deterioration and lack of judgement in his later years. He surmises that Sutch might have had some sort of breakdown (not that Ovenden uses that word) when he discovered, late in life, that his sister was a lesbian; and not only that, but that she had had an affair with a woman with whom Bill Sutch himself had had an affair. (Discreetly, but nevertheless perceptibly, Ovenden suggests that Sutch was a philanderer).

The third chapter on Sutch is about his trial in which, following the advice of his defence team, Sutch declined to take the stand, which was his right. He therefore never faced a searching cross-examination on his actions. In this third chapter, Ovenden shows what a good debater he could be – but if a debater is in a tight corner, a handy skill is to deflect attention away from the matter on hand. Like an octopus squirting its ink, Ovenden deflects attention away from the material facts of the Sutch case by rhetorical trickery. First (pp.68-70) he launches into a tirade on how spy services achieved nothing during the Cold War (and therefore, presumably, even if Sutch did “spy” in any way, it didn’t really matter). Then (pp.74-77) he tells us how unreliable the Mitrokhin archives are, and of dubious provenance, in order to dismiss a negative piece of evidence about Sutch. He moves on (pp.77-81) to telling us once again how unreliable all information given by spies is. Finally (p.83) he presumes to psychoanalyse those who saw Sutch and his activities in a negative way. He asserts “the reasons for Bill’s value to a certain kind of opinion as ‘spy’ seem to me psychological. Here he can serve as a relief valve for that sense of semi-educated bourgeois propriety that, stuffed with rectitude and right thinking, impervious to the nuance and ambiguity of others’ circumstances, fuels its daily life with the stale fodder of received opinion.” So please note, people are obviously not up to Ovenden’s high standards if they think there was something at least very fishy in Sutch’s (repeated) meetings with a KGB man. Such people are merely “semi-educated” and have “bourgeois” propriety and thrive on “received opinion”… so let us ignore the hard facts of the case.

All of this, I believe, is what experienced debaters call “poisoning the well”. Without actually addressing the matter on hand, you set up a barricade of assumptions and innuendo to create a prejudice against any contrary evidence or views.

Yet in considering this there is a major factor which I neither deny nor belittle. Keith Ovenden is, after all, married to Bill Sutch’s daughter, and I am sure that having the Sutch trial raked over again and again must be distressing for the couple. Says Ovenden: “No one has suffered more from this than Helen, my wife of all these years, who knew of her father’s love and has responded to it with poised and eloquent loyalty throughout her life” (p.87) It is both understandable and commendable that Ovenden stands by his wife and is attentive to her feelings. But understandable feelings do not get us any nearer to the truth of the Sutch case.

In her biography of Shirley, Sarah Gaitanos notes that Bill Sutch’s papers have been promised to, and are embargoed by, Sutch’s designated biographer Rosslyn Noonan. Perhaps one day Noonan will produce a book about Bill Sutch which plausibly exonerates him of all charges. Meanwhile, Keith Ovenden’s Bill & Shirley – a memoir is not a book that achieves this goal.

Or maybe I’m only saying that because I’m semi-educated, bourgeois and filled with received opinion.

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