Monday, December 7, 2020

Something New

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

“ESCAPE PATH LIGHTING” by John Newton (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ30); “FANCY DANCING – New and Selected Poems 2004-2020” by Bernadette Hall (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ30); “WOW” by Bill Manhire (Victoria University of Wellington Press,  $NZ25); “NOUNS, VERBS, ETC.” by Fiona Farrell(Otago University Press, $NZ35)


            John Newton, literary historian and poet, has produced that very rare thing, a novel in verse. The back-cover blurb calls it “a throwaway epic, a romp, a curmudgeonly manifesto.”  Yes, I suppose it is all these things, and certainly not to be taken too seriously in every part of its being. Its eighteen chapters are a jumbled tale with a large cast of characters, dutifully listed at the beginning in two pages as “Dramatis Personae”.

            The setting is Rock Oyster Island. I spent some time speculating on what the inspiration for this island was. It’s a ferry-ride from a major city, so could it be Waiheke Island or Little Barrier Island or some island further south with which an Aucklander like me is not acquainted? Anyway, its inhabitants are a mixture of the middle-aged wealthy and what would once have been called “alternative life-stylers”.

When they gather at a store on the island John Newton says they are there “to hang out / and gossip, to smoke weed and strum ukuleles, / to play petanque in the parking lot. / … Hipsters pretend to be / tightrope walkers and generally ‘make sport’ for / their neighbours. Olive enthusiasts / pretend to be farmers, propping themselves / against dusty utilities, grousing, / wrinkling their crows’ feet, masticating grass.” (pp.42-43) There is a cohort of “prosperous late middle-lifers” (p.48) and those who attend a poetry reading are described as “Air-kissing socialites and high-fiving / hipsters, dope fiends and oliver growers.” (p.164). You get the idea – people who think they are not the norm but are actually living their own sort of conformity. Lots of drug use, lots of sex, lots of pseudo-philosophising. I won’t use the antiquated term “hippie” because Newton never does. And besides, moneyed hipsters are more powerful than hippies ever were.

            Now what’s the main narrative thread in this verse novel?

            It has to do with a poet called Arthur Bardruin (okay – obvious moniker, and also the ironical anagram that ARD Fairburn made for himself “ARF Bardruin”) who has escaped to the island because his modus vivendi has been condemned by “Continence Police”. Arthur swims ashore naked. Later in the tale, Arthur gate-crashes a dance naked. Arthur links up with Marigold, “herbalist” and seller of weed and other stuff. Marigold takes Arthur Bardruin on a fishing expedition and there’s a moment of cunnilingus before the priapic action. (You don’t expect me to quote this do you? Look it up for yourself on pp.104-105). Again I think you get the idea. Arthur seems to represent an older concept of the poet as inspired, rhapsodic, and often sex-driven, bard. Think Dylan Thomas or J.K.Baxter or some of the Beats. Or maybe think ARD Fairburn or Denis Glover. Arthur Bardruin writes “wreathed / in a thick fog of weed and cigar smoke, / stripped to the waist and dripping sweat, / he’s driving the poor old Smith Corona / like a coalkminer wrestling a pneumatic / drill.” (p.88) This is an older-school poet, folks – even the heavy typewriter tells you so – and for God’s sake, he’s writing his verse in what amounts to a boatshed as Dylan Thomas did.

            Arthur is encouraged to write his great epic, which he calls “Escape Path Lighting – A South Sea Fantasia”. But when he has finished it Joe Bravo, the retired “scholar” who encouraged him to get on with it, advises Arthur Bardruin that he likes his poem but “I’m / just an old man tending his cactuses. Gone / in the taste buds. / Truly – if it were up to me – your transports, / your side-spin, your middle-aged priapism…/ mate, you’re speaking my language here! But / nobody else is, you see, that’s the problem; it’s / called history, Arthur; you can’t argue with it.” (p.128) Which is the rub. When a great poetry reading is organised, it’s the creative-writing-school students, their academic promoters and the mongers of new poetic clichés who dominate… and Arthur Bardruin resigns himself to giving poetry up and just living a life of the senses without writing about it.

            The big cock, big action, big statement poet is gone. What is “escape path lighting” after all but what is needed when a plane is crashing? Maybe this whole poetic tale is about the crashing of poetry – or at least of a certain type of poetry. I note that in his “Acknowledgements”, Newton lists poems and poets he has quoted in Escape Path Lighting. Dare I say that he has a preference for the traditional and the Modernists? And in one sense this tale could be a lament for the death of such poetry.

            Or maybe I’m dead wrong. Maybe Newton is ridiculing the old-style bard and saying that his demise is inevitable. Judge for yourself. Newton is a literary scholar who is on the path to dissecting the whole of 20th century New Zealand literary history (I enjoyed reviewing on “Landfall-Review-on-Line”, 1 December 2017, his Hard Frost on New Zealand Modernists, the first part of a proposed trilogy.) Maybe he sees Arthur Bardruin as a fossil.

            But I’ve cheated so far in this review, for while the Arthur Bardruin story is this verse novel’s backbone, there are many other narrative threads. Most prominent is the parallel tale of the sometime musician Frank Hortune (another clinker name – he used to prostitute himself literally and by writing advertising jingles). When he was in Australia in the 1980s, Frank Hortune got “Scads of money. Heaps / of blow – I got myself completely fucked up.” (p.81). He’s been addicted to sex and to every drug from cocaine to meth. Now he’s in therapy with a Lacanian psychoanalyst. There’s a heap of satire here. At one point the cynical, rich architect Simon Richwhite (will these clinker names never end?) lectures Frank on how psychoanalysis is just another scam like the way Simon strings along clients by getting them to pay great fees for architectural designs that will never be built. The analysand is hooked on the unattainable perfection of himself while money is extracted from him. Richwhite is clearly a crass customer, but this could well be Newton’s view of Lacanian analysis as seen in what transpires.

            By now you are asking – “But what about the poetry?” Patience please, I’m getting there . There is much descriptive lyricism, especially when Newton is giving portraits of the many characters and their surroundings. There are some moments of what I can only call reverse lyricism, as when a character called Bridget O’Dwyer “rolls down the windows to drink in / the breeze; the smell of the mudflats, of seagrass / and cockles, ti-tree and diesel and garbage / and cabbage trees in bloom. Why does it / claim her, this skanky old swamp, with its / muddy life scuttling and gurgling / and farting?” (p.17) There are also moments when characters say what we’ve often thought, as when Bardruin’s squeeze Marigold notices “Lately, rainbow lorikeets / have been coming each morning to the blossoming / flax – interlopers, the purists tell her, but honestly, can you have too much / colour?” (p.22) But there are also long prosey stretches, especially when Frank Hortune, in a number of chapters, is pouring out his confessions to his shrink. I’m terribly sorry to use a cliché – especially one so often rebuked by current literary theorists – but so much of this really does read like “chopped prose”, with no music or rhythm therein. Perhaps at such moments, remind yourself that it is a novel after all, even if a verse one.

            Enjoy it for its fecundity of images, its unbuttoned activity, and its satire thrown in about twenty different directions.

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            With ten earlier collections of poetry to her credit and public honours given to her, Otago-raised, North Canterbury-resident Bernadette Hall is now a well established figure in New Zealand poetry. Fancy Dancing – New and Selected Poetry 2004-2020 is by no means a survey of all her writing career, but it gives a good retrospective of what she has been up to in the last two decades. The first four sections of this book present selections of her work between 2007 and 2016.

            The poems selected from Ponies (2007) reflect on landscapes, of course – and especially those of Antarctica which she visited as part of an “Artists in Antarctica” programme. There are some poems of childhood and elegies for a niece who was killed in a terror attack in London. Selections from The Lustre Jug (2009) present poems inspired by a visit to her ancestors’ homeland, Ireland, and by art works. The opening poem in the selection from The Lustre Jug, “Rathcoola rain”, delights me with Bernadette Hall’s skill in piling simile upon simile to describe rainfall: “The rain is like mice scrabbling on the ceiling. / It’s like the crackling of plastic, / the first licking of flames in a handful of wood shavings, / the complicit turning of pages in hundreds of Mass books.” The selection from Life and Customs (2013) (already reviewed on this blog 11 November 2013 ) gives more attention to childhood and to New Zealand landscape with a greater awareness of the Maori presence. Re-reading these poems I revise an earlier opinion and see “The day Death turned up on the beach” as one of Hall’s best. From Maukatere, floating mountain (2016) we are given  evocations of a misty local mountain with the presence of ancestral ghosts in Maori lore.

            And then come the 30 pages of New Poems, followed by some prose reflections on fellow writers and friends of Hall. 

            Reading the first seven of these new poems, and especially “The Perfumes of Arabia”, “Actaeon”, “The Seafarer” and “I give thee the sun as guarantee”, I felt a sort of Ezra Pound influence. Most of them are first-person statements related to – and often quoting from and adapting – ancient texts. The Classics (i.e. of Greece and Rome) are frequent points of reference and sources of imagery for Hall, and these poems are like the insertion of self into the ancient, giving personal experience a mythical resonance.

            Which brings me to the 25 sonnets collectively called “Fancy Dancing”. Bernadette Hall stays with the 14-line sonnet form, but makes it (unrhymed) blank verse and does not go for strict rhythm. These free sonnets are the most engaging, most varied and most interesting poems in this whole collection. They represent first-person experience but it is wound into myth and Phaedra is a recurring figure. Scenes shift freely, there is much reference to dreams and to what are apparently symbolic representations of events in the poet’s life. Often, in reading these vigorous poems, I found myself most engaged by the images rather than the structure or the train of thought. What a pleasure to find, in a sonnet about an art exhibition (Sonnet v.), the intrusion of a hungry dog: “Sally, the black Labrador, / is the first art critic to arrive. She lollops down / the corridor gulping up the crackers”... but then isn’t that what all culture-vultures do at art exhibitions, metaphorically speaking? Sonnet vi is a bracing piece on both the callouness of historical judgement and the need not to be too soft and vulnerable – certainly one of Hall’s best.

            I do admit to puzzling over the meaning of some sonnets, especially when the first-person voice addresses a younger woman and appears to be exploring intimate things. I suspect that Sonnet x is about a miscarriage, but I can’t be sure. When Hall revisits Ireland in her verse (Sonnet xiv) the tone is as daunting as it is celebratory for “The people are bulky and cautious. At the Sign / of Peace they avert their eyes, they touch their fingers / to your fingers in a way that shows they are terrified… / ... I crossed the border, North to South, in a bus. / The soldier who checked my papers had eyes as hard / as stone…” But then there is the serene and cleansing sonnet (Sonnet xvii) in which it is found that a quiet walk on the beach not only calms the spirit but puts in perspective the muddle of writing poetry. And in a Wellington poem (Sonnet xix), there is the blustering, confident figure of “the crazy lady, how she strides / down Cuba Mall in full combat gear, / her face streaked with charcoal, how she barges / through the casual crowd, the coffee drinkers, / the eaters of sweet biscuits. ‘All clear,’ she shouts, / ‘I’ve got it sorted, you may all stand down.’ ” She is worth the price of the book.

            Incidentally, the text is illustrated with the non-representational art works of Robyn Webster.

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            Are nursery rhymes the most profound poems in the world? They use a simple vocabulary. You rarely have to look up a strange word. Yet they create a fantastical world of their own and, as with all fantasies, not everything is good in this world. Ogres, monsters and evildoers live there as well as golden lads and lasses – “here comes the chopper to chop off your head” as well as “Little Boy Blue”.

            Arguing along these lines, there’s quite a bit of nursery rhyme to the poems of Bill Manhire – and I do not mean this in any derogatory sense. Simple vocab, few recherche words and the creation of an alternative world, which isn’t necessarily a pleasant one. At least so it is in much of Manhire’s latest collection Wow.

            Often, the world depicted is a world in decay and a place for lamentation. The opening poem “Huia” (p.13) is about the extinction of a bird (written in a simple rhymed form which makes me wonder if it was one of the poems Manhire first submitted to the School Journal). The theme of extinction continues in the next offering “Untitled” (p.14). The world that Manhire presents can be a threatened and decaying world. There is a house in decay and in a desolate place in “Letter from the New Place” (p.21) It is a world of regrets and farewells. In “Woodwork” (p.24), children are making a coffin for their teacher. “Discontinued Product” (p.61) seems to use the conceit of a toy, robotic mannikin running out of power as an image of disintegrating human memory and culture. One of Manhire’s longer and more discursive poems “Warm Ocean” (p.26) could be read as an apocalyptic piece about global warming, but it does have its fairy tale ogre when “The huge man carries his tiny candle / he stumbles forward picking people up / then yes tossing them aside / his hand is huge, all handle…” The forces of nature can be anthropomorphised, as in “The Sky” (p.76). The mood of many of these poems is not horror or despair, but a kind of pervasive, moody melancholy.

            As you would expect in a postmodernist work, there are a number of sour ironies. “Noah” (p.37) ends up eating the animals in the ark. “The Lazy Poet” (p.52) lies around getting nowhere. Naturally there are literary jokes – note the discreet riffing on Wordsworth and Tennyson in “The Armchair Traveller” (p.16). And there’s “Reverse Ovid” (p.83), which presents in backwards form what could otherwise be one of the Roman poet’s metamorphoses.

            While such things can be diverting, there is a downside to this collection. Take what can only be read as pointless anecdotes, not carrying the charge of irony they were presumably meant to ignite. There is, for example, “Breakfast” (p.41), which I quote here in its entirety: “I had no trouble with anything / till he started making the toast.” To which I can only reply “And…?” Or something considerably cruder. So little depends on a toaster not glazed with rain or anything else. For further pointless anecdotes, see “Earthquake Practice” (p.48), being more faux irony; and see the random collection of cryptic statements called “Isolation Notes” (p.44), which leave one (i.e. me) wondering whether they mean anything at all. Call them tired hipster graffiti. As he showed in the The Stories of Bill Manhire (reviewed on this blog 30 November 2015), Manhire can too easily take the linguistic turn by playing word games and self-consciously showing his cleverness by asking us whether we understand that he is writing a text. (Answer – yes, we already knew that… so no point in asking). “The Deerculler’s Wife” (p.54) and “The Smile” (p.79) are examples of this particular literary rabbit hole. More coherent, but also concerned with language itself, is the title poem “Wow” (p.80) which suggests that in the end, articulated speech is little more than the extension of a baby’s cry. After such productions, I found it a relief to read poems like “The Sailor” (p.70) and “Exhibition” (p.72) which, despite some fantastication, at least seem to address real people in specific times and places.

            I do not want to attach a glib, summary punchline to this notice of Wow. It is a varied and variable work and you can understand my verdict on it by what I have already said. The court is adjourned.

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            Fiona Farrell writes in many genres – fiction, non-fiction and poetry  - but I have known her mainly for her non-poetic work. On this blog you will find reviews of her 2009 novel Limestone; her 2011 non-fiction  essays The Broken Book, inspired in part by the Christchurch earthquakes; and her 2016 The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, a polemical reaction to the post-earthquake re-building of Christchurch. It should be noted, however, that 21 poems are interspersed among the prose of The Broken Book.

            Subtitled “Selected Poems”, Nouns, verbs, etc. gathers together what Farrell considers the best of the four collections of poetry she wrote over 25 years, Cutting Out (1987), The Inhabited Initial (1999), The Pop-Up Book of Invasions (2007) and the poems from The Broken Book (2011). However she also gathers together 27 hitherto “uncollected” poems. Some of these have appeared in magazines, and some are presented here for the first time.  In her preface, Farrell discusses some of the autobiographical circumstances that led her to write certain types of poetry. In passing this involves noting that, once upon a time, poetry written in New Zealand was overwhelmingly written by men. There’s a feminist undercurent to much that she writes. More essential to this volume, she also notes that the “uncollected” poems “are not presented in the order in which they were written, but loosely as they seemed to echo one another or share a common theme.”

            So I’ll discuss the four sections of “uncollected” poems first.

            The first eight uncollected poems hover around the themes of sexual love and/or marriage and its perils. Interestingly, Farrell here sometimes uses what could be called fairy-tale or medieval imagery. “The Castle” begins like a ballad, but its fable of three knights wooing a maiden develops more along the lines of a Freudian dream, with knights and wooing symbolic of modern sexual realities. The same is true of “The Bird” where images of falconry are signalling the nature of dependence or dominance in erotic pairings.

            The next ten uncollected poems appear to be grouped around the idea of New Zealand landscape and nature with a conservationist tone. The prose-poem “Once”, for example, presents a kind of imagined Kiwi paradise, while “Eel” is an exact account of an eel’s migratory path. Among these poems, however, there is one that made my wife laugh out loud when I read it out to her, so much did she recognise the reality that it expresses. This is “The Thread”, which basically tells us that a mother who has freed herself from household cares and is seeking a freer life will still instinctively respond to any child who calls for help. The next four uncollected ones focus on the men in women’s lives – brother, husbands fathers – but the last five uncollecteds plunge into large public affairs. After “The old woman’s story”, which appears to be a rebuke to men who “mansplain” or appropriate women’s stories as their own, we are confronted with “Terror”, a poetic critique of the so-called war on terror; and “Instructions for the Consumption of your Humanitarian Food Package”, which calls out American military behaviour in Afghanistan. These are straightfoward protest poems. But the cycle of poems “Myth and Legend” is more oblique in its protest. In one of her long explanatory endnotes, Farrells notes that “Myth and Legend” is a work still in progress. It appears to be working towards a condemnation of commercial materialism imposing itself on a colonised country, but perhaps we will have to wait for the finished form of this work to see where Farrell is going.

            Of the selections from Farrell’s four earlier collections, I will be brief as they have already been available to the public for some years. To give a handful of generalisations, Farrell is most often concerned with three things – the condition of women, ancestral history and language itself. It is understandable that Cutting Out (1987) combines childhood memories with imagery of sex and childbirth as experienced by women. But there is also a cycle of poems, “Passengers”, dealing with impoverished, and sometimes abused, Irishwomen who arrived as unuspported immigrants in 19th century Dunedin. This is the first of many nods that Farrell has made to her own Irish ancestry. The Inhabited Initial (1999) gives a whole medieval alphabet of short poems, echoing the large, illustrated capital letters that appeared in illuminated manuscripts. Digging deeper into language and its origins is the cycle “Words, War and Water” which goes back to a description of language in ancient (Hittite) times. (Confession – I would have found parts of this poem quite impenetrable if it were not for Farrell’s endnotes.) The Pop-Up Book of Invasions (2007) deals in part with ancient Irish history. “Genealogy”, one of Farrell’s rawest poems, is a rebuke to those who ridiculed the poverty of Irish emigants driven from home by famine. Most remarkable is “The Lament of the Nun of Beare”, in fact a loose tranlation of an ancient Irish song, which Farrell brings off with great aplomb in traditional rhyming form and neat stanzas. This poem nests together an ancient time and a woman’s specific perspective of things. And of course the selections from The Broken Book (2011) deal with the big public event of the Christchurch earthquakes -  sometimes in satire, like “Panegyric”, which ridicules a politician (a very well-known one I think) who claims to be rebuilding the city; and sometimes in implicit lament like “The poem that is like a city”.

            Read all together, this is an outstanding retrospective.

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.

“ROUGH ISLAND STORY” by Hugh McGraw (first published in 1954)

I’m going to write about a novel you have never heard of and which you will probably never read. It is no classic and after some research (i.e. fiddling around on the internet) I can find no evidence that it was ever reprinted after its first publication in 1954. Yet, having seen it advertised on various “rare books” websites, I sincerely hope that it has its little band of admirers. If so, then I am not alone.

Let me clarify the anonymity (or obscurity) which now cloaks Rough Island Story. Of its author Hugh McGraw (full name, Hugh Patrick McGraw) I can discover nothing, except that at one time he was a prolific, and possibly popular, novelist. Opposite the title page of Rough Island Story, eight other novels by him are listed, and a ninth is noted on the dust jacket. I also discovered (internet again) the extraordinary fact that one of his novels, The Man in Control, was prosecuted for obscenity because it had a scene which implied a lesbian relationship. Given that, even in 1953, it was acquitted of the charge, I can only assume that the scene must have been one that would now be regarded as totally inoffensive. Another discovery was that John Betjeman reviewed Rough Island Story for the Daily Telegraph, but I have not been able to find the review on line. And that is absolutely everything I know about Hugh McGraw.

How did I get to read this novel? When I was about 14, in the mid-1960s, my mother took Rough Island Story off my father’s bookshelves, and said it was just the thing a boy of my age might enjoy. She was right. I did. And I had a vague memory of what it was about as I kept the same copy on my own bookshelves.

Recently, to see if my positive memories of it stood up, I re-read it. Once again, I enjoyed it, but in a very different way.

The novel is told in the first-person by James Fitzsimmonds, generally known as Fitz. He is an engineer who has been commissioned to study the feasibility of situating a power-pylon on a small island in the middle of a small lake. But, as it happens, he knew both the lake and the island when he was a young teenager. So as he returns to his old haunts, the novel is the adult Fitz narrating the things that happened to him when he was 13, which was about 40 years previously. The recalled story takes place in the 1910s, a year or two before the First World War.

Young Fitz, as his adult self recalls, was basically a good kid, but allergic to some of his school teachers. He regularly played truant, and even when he was at school, he nearly always managed to absent himself from the classes of a particularly nasty mathematics teacher. For this he was, of course, often punished by his severe, disciplinarian father. Middle-class and English, Fitz’s main delight was simply messing about with a pair of boisterous Irish kids, the brothers Neil and Tim Mahoney, who were always good at exploring unvisited areas of the neighbourhood, playing rough games, putting thmeselves into mildly dangerous situations, and trespassing on closed properties if they looked interesting. The Mahoneys weren’t unlettered yokels – they learnt their school lessons more assiduously than Fitz did – but they had a greater sense of adventure. Fitz often followed where they led – even, in one case, where it came to some wanton vandalism.

Crux of the story has Fitz wandering on his own into an abandoned estate and “discovering” the small island in the middle of the small lake. He invites the Mahoneys to share in his discovery. The three of them are soon building rafts to get to the island, then running around on the island and speculating about what the little “fort” on the island is. It is covered in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Fitz fervently believes it is built over a hoard of buried treasure, and sets to work trying to find out what the hieroglyphics mean.

At which point you doubtless think this novel must be no more than jolly japes with boisterous young schoolboys, as in the old Richmal Crompton “Just William” books and their ilk. Not so. For, all the time, we are aware that it is an adult telling the story, and telling it in a sophisticated vocabulary well beyond a 13-year-old’s reach. Indeed, Rough Island Story is of that rare genre – a novel about childen written for adults. This creates a strain of irony. We understand, for example, that what the young Fitz takes to be an ancient monument, covering buried treasure, is really a cheap “folly” some wealthy person has recently constructed on the island. And the lake itself is little more than a large pond at the bottom of some rich family’s lawn. The adult perspective also means that young Fitz’s feelings and misconceptions are analysed with a sort of reasoned amusement.

Most of the novel cuts between Fitz’s misdemeanours at school, including the consequences he constantly dreads; and the various adventures of the three boys, who know they are trespassing, but can’t resist the lure of the island. Obviously they all know Huckleberry Finn, because they refer to it when it comes to making a raft. But a little English pond, on a private estate next to English suburbia, is not the mighty Mississippi and that gives us another thread of irony.

At about two-thirds through the novel, however, a more defined “plot” emerges. I will not go into it in detail, but it has to do with a little aristocratic girl called Miranda (as Fitz notes, an appropriate name for somebody connected with an island), a kidnapping, and Fitz and the Mahoney boys foiling the villains. Though well handled and written with an adult sensibility this is, frankly, Boys’ Own Paper wish-fulfilment stuff. And yet Hugh McGraw is very clever in giving it a slightly sour postscript, in which the adult Fitz reflects on what has become of his friends, and of Miranda, in later years, when notions of heroic adventure have long since evaporated.

Now how did my recent re-reading of this novel differ from my early-teenage reading of it? Basically, I did not then notice all the time-specific details of the novel, and how much it reflected a world that had disappeared long before the novel was published. This is not simply a matter of topical events being noted in passing (the Crippen case and the wonders of telegraphy). Not only is the boys’ school Fitz attends very disciplinarian (boys – including Fitz – are regularly caned); but boys are expected to be buttoned up in Norfolk jackets.  As “holiday tasks”, 13-year-olds must read and summarise the likes of Scott’s Kenilworth and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (assuming higher standards of literacy in the middle-classes back then). The middle-class families of both Fitz and the Mahoneys have at least one servant or resident cook. There is much mention of the fact that the Mahoney boys are Catholic, and therefore regular church-goers, which is clearly something alien and a little puzzling to the narrator. Motor-cars and aeroplanes (so called) are clearly the most fantastic of novelities. Most telling, however, is the fact that the world of young Fitz is an incredibly class-bound world, with strictly-observed shibboleths relating to how one receives guests and how one deports oneself properly at the dinner table. That the little girl Miranda is an aristocrat brings out much fawning, not from the unselfconscious boys, but from the middle-class adults. And late in the story it is mentioned, as if it were the most routine thing in the world, that a man is not prosecuted for an obvious crime because he has aristocratic connections.

When I read Rough Island Story as a 14-year-old, I rushed past all this, simply following the novel as an entertaining story. Now I see in it elements resonant of other books (the hidden lake and island are almost like the “lost domain” in Le Grand Meaulnes). I am also aware that, in the early 1950s, there was a spate of books which narrated childhood experiences in adult terms – L.P.Hartley’s The Go-Between, for example, or the New Zealand book that imitated it, James Courage’s The Young Have Secrets. But, unlike those other books, Rough Island Story is not exploring sexual tensions or the desire of pubescent boys to know what adults are up to.

I do not wish to talk this novel up as a “lost classic”. It is no such thing. There is no profundity and little subtlety of character. It is no more nor less than a good story, well-told in clear prose, with a slight touch of irony as an adult voice, with an adult vocabulary, narrates the experiences of a thirteen-year-old boy. After half-a-century, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it again as a piece of pure escapism. Even if James Fitzsimmonds’ life had little in common with mine, Rough Island Story took me back to being a kid once again.

I’m allowed to enjoy this feeling sometimes, you know. 

Typically pompous footnote, for which I am notorious: Being an incorrigible pedant, I caught Hugh McGraw out on one tiny detail. Rough Island Story is set before the First World War. Fitz refers to the deepest part of the “lake” as “the Maracot Deep”, a reference to Arthur Conan-Doyle’s underseas science-fiction story The Maracot Deep. Trouble is, Doyle’s story was first published in 1928, years after young Fitz’s adventures are supposed to have taken place.

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.


            Pardon me if I begin with some political truisms. (A.) Democracy, under whatsoever constitution,  is a very flawed system, but it’s still the best we’ve got. (B.) There are no such things as Utopias. Ideal societies are always fictional. Any attempts to construct ideal societies in the real world always lead to disaster, usually in the form of oppressively-controlled totalitarian states. (C.) Following on from this, only the very gullible believe that a change of government, in a democratic system, will suddenly lead to a harmonious society in which all social problems are solved. In the politics of democracy, the beat goes on. Discussion, argument and opposing opinions will continue to be aired, sometimes in strident and angry form. I might also add that, in democratic societies, we rarely vote for the clearly-good against the clearly-bad. We usually vote for the bad against the worse, or the mediocre against the pitiful.


            I say all these familiar and demonstrably true things in the wake of the latest American presidential election. At time of writing, Donald Trump is the lame-duck president, still playing games of pretending he lost because the election was rigged. But his conviction in these protests is now waning. I assume (or hope) that by the time you read this he will have conceded. Alas, a little ghost whispers in my ear that, in the very unlikely event this election really was rigged, it would not be the first time in American history. No sane historian now would disagree that there was much documented voter fraud in the election of John F.Kennedy in 1960, and possibly such fraud won Kennedy the presidency, given that his winning margin over his rival Richard Nixon was miniscule.

            Be all that as it may, Joe Biden has clearly won the election of 2020.

            And now is everything going to change and will a new broom sweep America clean?


            Bear in mind that, as in the election of 2016, there was no landslide. The predicted “blue wave” of Democrats did not happen, and Biden won by a whisker. Put simply, nearly as many Americans voted for Trump as voted for Biden. The country remains politically polarised and there are noisy extremist movements, small in numbers but still capable of doing much damage, on the fringes of both the Right and the Left. On this side, Proud Boys, white supremacists and unreconstructed Confederates. On that side the left-fascist Antifa movement and the parts of the Black-Lives-Matter movement that normalise rioting and looting. The great mass of Americans don’t approve of either tendency, but these movements still make the evening news and still influence how people vote.

            For me personally, it’s a matter of wonder that a country as large as the USA was incapable of finding better and more capable candidates for the presidency. Donald Trump has his own unshakeable fan-base, but is seen by most of the world as crass, crude, unsubtle, unprincipled and an opportunist with authoritarian tendencies. But who did the Democrats dig up to oppose him? Joe Biden is a tired old political hack of no particular distinction whose one claim to fame is that he was the (powerless) vice-president of Barack Obama – and when it came to campaigning, Biden’s shortcomings as a speaker were so obvious that (breaking long-observed conventions) Obama came out of retirement to cover for him at many rallies. Biden was chosen by the Democrat party because his name was recognisable and because he was clearly a compromise. They had to balance the party’s more radical wing (“progressive” is the buzz-word that is often used) with somebody bland and staid. So they cooked up the ticket of recognisable, dull Biden to woo more conservative voters; and more leftish woman Kamala Harris to get the feminist and ethnic vote. The ticket didn’t really enthuse many, but it was enough to pull the Democrats over the line with voters who were more anti-Trump than they were pro-Biden-Harris. I won’t linger long on the fact that, during the primaries and when vying for her own nomination as candidate for the presidency, Kamala Harris was loud in denouncing Joe Biden as a sexual predator on the basis of accusations made against him. Presumably she has now forgotten these denunciations and complacent media are not going to remind anyone of them.


             Some people have entertained the scenario that Biden, ageing and frail, is merely a gap-stop president, who will conveniently fade away (or die), smoothing the way for Kamala Harris as the First Woman President. I don’t know how plausible this idea is. But in the event that it comes to pass, I would be happy to see a woman as US president – for the same reason I have given before. Having a woman president would rapidly take away the mystique that, for some people, still surrounds the idea of women as world leaders. It would soon be discovered that a woman in office would make the same sort of decisions made by men in office. And the beat would go on.

            There is one thing about the US election that greatly heartens me. For the last four years, American late-night TV comedians - Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Jimmy Kimmel and the smug and self-important Bill Maher – have served a steady diet of anti-Trump commentary and foolery, swamping any other topics appropriate for satirical comment. For many months we have watched, regularly, Stephen Colbert’s monologues. At first we found them funny. Trump was, after all, a ripe target for ridicule. But after about the nine-thousandth anti-Trump joke we found  Colbert’s comments predictable and as boring as campaign slogans. Now, with Trump out of office, Colbert might find other targets to hit. Who knows? He might even find fault with the incoming executive.

            American elections are the business of Americans, but they do influence those of us who are citizens of other countries.

So here are two comments which will allow me to close this ramble:

            (1.) The American electoral system is absurd as democracies go, and badly in need of an overhaul. Of course there needs to be local and state representation – but the election of the head-of-state should be by direct vote, not entangled in protocols related to the so-called “electoral college”. I am not being superior about this – essentially America’s very flawed system of electing presidents is the same as the old “first-past-the-post” electoral system we used to have. The country is divided into electorates and the winner is the one who can win the majority of electorates. In New Zealand once, as in the USA still, governments were legitimately and legally formed by parties which had won more electorates, but less of the overall “popular” vote, than the losing party. If American presidential elections were by direct vote, there would be none of the nonsense of candidates fighting it out in “battleground states” and appealing to regional voters rather than appealing to the nation at large.

            (2.) I don’t believe there is such a thing as too much democracy, but the American electoral cycle is far too long and messy, what with presidential elections, mid-term congressional elections and then all the primaries in which political parties pick their candidates for the presidency. It means that the country chokes on politics. Solution: abolish the mid-terms, have the whole congress renewed in elections held at the same time as presidential elections, and simplify and abridge primaries. Allow them, say, three months max. for them to sort of who they want as POTUS. Just a thought.