Monday, June 21, 2021

Something New

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

“WHAT FIRE” by Alice Miller (Pavilion – University of Liverpool Press, $NZ37); “REJOICE INSTEAD – The Collected Poems of Peter Hooper” (Cold Hub Press, $NZ42:50)


            If you look up Nowhere Nearer on this blog, you will find reviews of Alice Miller's two earlier collections of poetry, The Limits and Nowhere Nearer. What now interests me about these two collections is how different they are from each other. The poet’s voice and preoccupations had changed. The Limits adopted a style that was almost cryptic, sometimes impenetrable, relying very much on imagery verging on the surreal. One suspected that it encoded many personal things that were not immediately comprehensible to the reader. By contrast, Nowhere Nearer often dealt with public issues, reflecting on the inevitablility of death and the march of time, but also considering the loss of certain cultures and the rootlessness which had become what I described as “the malaise of the modern world”. In this second collection, Alice Miller often referred to what could be called High European Culture as well as Classical mythology. Given the severe and stoical tone of some of her work, I referred to Miller as “a latter-day Schopenhauer”. I am delighted to learn that she was not offended by this sobriquet. Need I add that I found her work enriching and enlightening?

            Alice Miller is an expatriate New Zealander now based in Berlin, some of whose work has been published in German. Her third collection What Fire is a development and extension of many of the themes and ideas she expressed in Nowhere Nearer

By and large, it is a very bleak world that is delineated in her verse, but it is not a series of counsels to despair. There are gleams of optimism and hope for human beings, even if they have to be grasped quickly before they vanish. Schopenhauer is modified by good sense and sometimes by love.

In this collection, Miller often situates her poems in specific landscapes. There is occasionally a tendency to Cartesian rationalism as in a poem like “After the Catastrophe”, which raises the possibility that life isn’t real. But most of her landscapes are based on hard empirical observation, even if this is a platform for ideas. One of her most delicately crafted poems “What Becomes Her” has a second-person “you” walking by the Berlin river Spree trying to read the angst in other people and in herself. The cold landscape of fjords is mentioned in a number of poems, while “After the Internet” presents a sort of apocalyptic vision of ruined land and both “The Lighthouse” and “Taillight” suggest a decaying world which one has to endure. A nightmarish fantasia, not exactly a real landscape, dominates the title poem “What Fire”, which appears to have overtones of “night and fog” (Nacht und Nebel) in the most sinister sense that would resonate with one based in Germany. This is the type of densely-considered poem deserving the type of detailed exegesis that cannot be given in a general review of this sort. It is certainly one of the poet’s best.

A strong streak of determinism marks one of Miller’s best river poems “The Fork of Five Rivers”. It pairs Samuel Butler, on his South Island sheep station Mesopotamia, with the river Spree and other rivers. But  We each have our own    scheduled      future, drowning. / We each have our own paradise inside
 / waiting to drown us       from the inside out.” In similar deterministic tone, “Awake” declares that “the woods are all / 
the same woods, no divergent twig, no path
 / that wasn’t pre-written into existence by a programme
 / you’ve seen so many times before you could recite
 / each oak, each branch.”

Where, ultimately, does determinism take us? To death, obviously, and death is one of Miller’s major concerns. The opening poem “Seams” considers a life’s journey as a planned trip and ends “What song / 
will you sing as the light leaves,  / as the mask’s lowered over your eyes?” Here the dominant image for life is a journey by plane over countries seen only briefly. The same image recurs in “New Wings”, “Orbit” and other poems. “Das Gift” and “Extinction” sound out decay and death. Death is “The Goddess of Death”, referencing Maori mythology respectfully and yet, in its profuse closing detail, also managing to be grotesquely funny. “New Valkyrie” has the female warriors of Norse myth gathering corpses from battlefields. In this collection, it is women who are most frequently related to the concept of death. “Exit” begins with the words “Do we begin in death? What kind of building / is a womb, to live inside, / breach the only way through?”

But then there are poems that relate to women in other ways. “Mutter” tells us that women grow into being their own mothers. “Volumnia”, which derives from Plutarch’s and Shakespeare’s life of Coriolanus,  refers to a mother producing a warlike and destructive son. (Incidentally the epigraph of  What Fire  are words spoken by Volumnia to Coriolanus I am hush’d until our city be a-fire, And then I’ll speak a little. “) And then there is the obvious fact that women interact with men, not always happily. “Held Under” concerns over-controlling men. Both “What We Find” and “The River” appear, in their allusive way, to be about a marriage or relationship breaking up. Not that misandrony is suggested when “Vanishing Point” declares “I wake up / with you and the world seems new” though the poem does then go on to say how odd this impulse is when the word is doomed. [For the record, I cannot help noting that in the acknowlegements the poet gives thanks to the man she loves.]

Having noted this, however, the dominant note of this collection is fearful, hesitant and uncertain of the future of human beings.“The Miracle” tries to find something unique in human beings as opposed to other animals, but is still waiting for such uniqueness. Most wrenching of all is the confessional poem “Sunday”, where there is a strong, and irrational, sense of guilt as she feels helpless to do anything about her friend’s cancer, and is not sure that poetry will be of any help.

I think in this review I have given a fair outline of Alice Miller’s preoccupations and philosophical ideas. Decay, determinism, death, the possible mitigation of life by love, and the importance of observation. But this does not really communicate to you the aesthetic quality of her verse. The philosophy is grim, it’s daunting, it’s challenging, sometimes it’s even depressing. But it’s clear, it’s forthright, it’s undisguised, it shows fortitude in the face of inevitable death and decay. It’s a brave voice clearly expressing itself.

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

Rejoice Instead – the Collected Poems of Peter Hooper is an exercise in restoring the memory of a poet who was in danger of being completely forgotten. As Pat White, the editor of this collection, tells us in his Introduction, the poetry of Peter Hooper (1919-1991) appeared first in slim volumes that are now hard to find.  Some of his verse appeared in anthologies in the 1970s and 1980s but then he faded from view. Hooper was fastidious in writing and re-writing his poetry, and many poems lay unpublished when he died. Though Hooper was born on the South Island’s West Coast, his mother was English and when he was a child she often read to him the work of English Romantics. Romantic, or more precisely the post-Victorian form of modified Romanticism better known as Georgianism, was the greatest influence on Hooper’s early work.  He was a late starter and did not produce publishable poetry in earnest until the early 1960s, when he was in his forties and after he had spent time in England. Only gradually did he shuck off the English influence and begin to write about specifically New Zealand landscapes. In his case, this meant the landscape of Greymouth and the West Coast where he spent most of his life. Even so, his style remained very much that of early Modernism. He was loyal to simple verse structures and rejected post-modernism. As White notes, he did make friends with some artists and poets and was much admired by Colin McCahon. His poems inspired some of McCahon’s painting. But, though he worked as a school-teacher, his life tended to be solitary. Pat White makes a case for Peter Hooper as an early conservationist, and there certainly is a strong thematic thread in his work of respect for the natural wilderness. However, it is only in a few poems that Hooper becomes polemical. He is mainly concerned with interpeting the quality of landscape rather than preaching about it.

I read my way methodically through the well-presented 220 pages of these collected poems, lamenting only one thing. The table of contents lists Hooper’s poems chonologically, under the titles of the original “slim volumes” in which they appeared. The poems that follow also appear in chronological order of first publication, but for some reason the titles of the original “slim volumes” do not appear in the body of the text.  Even so, I was able to walk through Hooper’s work from early 1960s to early 1990s, seeing how his preoccupations (slowly) changed.

In Hooper’s very first publication “A Map of Morning” (1964) the poem “Walking in Summer Wind” announces very clearly where Hooper was going to go, declaring “And I remember / Whitman would wrestle with brotherly trees / who gave no quarter / answering strength with strength / knowing what the wise and children have always known / earth has no limits to her joy. There is a rejoicing in nature, Whitmanesque but also Wordsworthian in inspiration but (despite the free forms Hooper often employs) Georgian in effect, with much use of words like “benison”, “woe”, “embrace”, “Songs innumerable” and their ilk. And be it noted that nearly all of the poems in this, his first collection, are set on the other side of the world from New Zealand – Reigate, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, London, Daffodils and Oak Trees, Perugia, Provence, Japanese prints and poems honouring authors of his era such as “Reading Zhivago” and “For Patrick White”. But even in this, there are stabs at current realities. “Farnborough 1961”, for exmple, set at the show-place for Britain’s military aircraft, sees the planes as merely bearers of death. A pacifist tendency is implied.

Hooper’s second collection “Journey Towards an Elegy” (1969) may include a poem in memoriam of T.S.Eliot, and it may still often use traditional poetic forms – the perfectly rhymed sonnet “The Drudge” or the neatly crossed rhymes of both “Of Love and Time” and “Hoeing Beans”. But, as Pat White’s Introduction has clearly signalled, the scene has changed completely and is now definitely situated on the West Coast of the South Island. References to the West Coast abound – Stockton, Larrikins Flat, Blackball Creek, much wind from the sea, dense bush and trees, coprosma berries, and of course rain, as well as manly pursuits like chopping wood and hoeing beans. The most tragic work is coal-mining where (says the poem “Jimmy”) “the black hills have no cry / for death by stone dust razoring the lung”. Life is pinched and disappointing for some, as in the poem “Retired” about a disappointed retired schoolteacher. The title poem “Journey Towards an Elegy” is one of Hooper’s very best – commemorating his visit to the grave in Italy where lay his brother Tony, killed in the Second World War. The hard message it gives is that graves are not as potent as our memories of the dead; and “Journey Towards an Elegy” also emphasises the sense of distance and separation from home a visit to Europe means for a New Zealander. It is in this collection that Hooper produces a sort of poetic manifesto with “Poetry is for Peasants” claiming “Only when the feet and hands / know the earth / in agony and joy / can the mind be nourished / on beautiful words”. This is a call to life experience rather than intellectual concepts as the force of poetry. The concluding sequence “Notes in the Margin” show a radical change in style, Hooper now being terse, speaking more colloquially and stripping away much of the elevated vocabulary that was seen in his earlier work. The very short collection “The Mind of Bones” (1971) leaps very far indeed from Hooper’s first collection – now all poems are lean and short and referencing the present moment with garden reflections on sparrows and one inspired by reading Baxter’s “Jerusalem Sonnets”.

“Fragments III: Earth Marriage” (1972)  begins with the prose essay “Earth Light” where Hooper begins by praising the unique quality of light on the West Coast and tells us how he has grown into the landscape. He notes that his poems often present isolated human figures but that does not mean that people on the West Coast are unaware of the greater world. He now does sound a clear conservationist view when he declares his continued loyalty to Thoreau (later in this collections comes the poem “Homage to Thoreau”)  and speaks of “the earth-mother, whom modern man has so tragically rejected”. And finally, after listing his favourite poets, he despairs of the type of academic criticism that over-analyses poems. The sequence “Pencilled by the rain” yields the distressing but truthful lines “Here at the world’s end / we’re not exempt / from the harvest of folly. / At our roots / burn Europe’s poisons. You’ll find / no primal innocence beneath the fern.” Hooper builds beautiful but melancholy images of bird-life on the Coast, but is sure that “I wander the ways of a squandered country” mitigated only by the thought that “there’s not much time for cleverness / but a little maybe for love”. There is a moral robustness to this – a sense that no landscape is fully free of corruption.  But in the same collection, poems like “Three Pines by the Hohomu” lay bare Hooper’s stylistic weaknesses – a tendency to Whitmanesque overstatement and bombast in such lines “I am become a part / of earth, of the river that flows forever, / I share the endurance of her centuries / in the roots of the pines….” Etc. The “Profiles in Monochrome” (1974) are vignettes of people who lived on the Coast either before the poet’s time or when he was a child. Some of the “profiles” are dispiriting, but collectively, they build up a convincing picture of a certain sort of community.       What appeared in “Selected Poems” (1977) is still dominated by landscape but Hooper’s tone is more regretful, melancholy and dwelling on loss. There is a sense that human beings are destructive intruders, as in “Cloudfaring” where “I know without rancour / that the islands of the blest / were always mirage, / that our feet have only / the clay tracks word / in the rough pastures / below our sombre hill.” Certainly two poems about the ill health and death of his mother “Huia Villa” are pained elegy and “Rain Over Westland’emphasises one of the less pleasant features of the region. Naturally there is a strong sense of loss in elegy for Muriel, one of the few poems suggesting the poet’s sexuality

Then there are all the unpublished poems with which Hooper’s writing career ended. With the unpublished “Poems From a Study,” he begins to take up the habit of writing in the third person as “the Old Man”, who takes ovet the unpublished  “Stones of Longacres”. While Hooper’s preoccupations are as they had been for decades, the vocabulary is different. Some locutions still linger from his earlier quasi-Georgian style, but you wouldn’t get words like “sheepshit” and “pisses” in his earlier work.. The language now is more raw and colloquial as in a very short poem like “Thumbs” which begins “He knows it’s winter / cold winds over the paddocks / when his thumbs / split at the corners / a thread of cotton / slices the cut  / to instant torture.” Other poems suggest the roughness of rural life in a style some distance from dithyrambs on birds, winds and trees. “Poets and Paddocks”, one of his longer poems, attempts to fuse his academic past with rural realities. But there is rejoicing in the what is almost an epigram “Old Man in a Garden” which reads in full “Up to my knees / grass in the gully / over my head / a tui scold in the kowhai / I should worry / I rejoice instead” . Not only does this brief poem give this Collected Poems its name, and not only is it quoted in full on the back cover, but it gives a fitting note of serenity and acceptance to one who has so often brooded on the past and isolation and elegies. You accept your lot in the land where you stand, for all its defects, and you rejoice in the beauties nature gives. The closing essay “A Window upon Mountains” reaffirms Hooper’s Thoreauvian view of nature as a window to the soul and resonates most loudly with current conservationist thinking.

How do I assess this resurrected poet from the past? I do not think Peter Hooper will ever be remembered in the same way as Curnow, Baxter and other much-anthologised poets of his era. But I hesitate to use that damning term “minor poet”. Though his canvas is narrow, his interests few and early expressed, and his style often of a past age, he is a thoughtful poet who at his best conveys strongly the sense of a particular time and place. He observes nature carefully and expresses it vividly. Certainly a poet dserving a place in the New Zealand canon.

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.   

            “QUITE A GOOD TIME TO BE BORN: Becoming a Writer, 1935-1975” by David Lodge (first published 2015); “WRITER”S LUCK”|: A Memoir, 1976-1991” by David Lodge (first published 2018)



            Often it is sheer serendipity that sets you reading the works of a particular author.

Some months ago, my wife and I were going to the wedding of a nephew, to be celebrated just outside Featherston. For us, this meant a drive from Auckland to the Wairarapa. Quite a long haul at the best of times, but lengthened by the fact that, when we were south of Taupo, we found that the Desert Road was closed because of an accident – so we had to drive around the western side of the mountains in the central plateau, adding a couple of hours to our journey. Fortunately, we were entertained the whole way. We’d borrowed from the local library a 13-CD set of the actor David Timson reading the first volume of the autobiography of English novelist David Lodge (born 1935). It’s called  Quite a Good Time to Be Born, subtitled “Becoming a Writer, 1935-1975” (first published in 2015). This kept us listening from Auckland to Wairarapa and most of the way back from Wairarapa to Auckland.

Perhaps you share my view of autobiographies. Nine times out of ten, the most interesting, revealing and intriguing parts of an autobiography concern the childhood, youth and young adulthood of the author – that is, the years of formation before a public persona is established. Thus it was with Quite a Good Time to Be Born.

David Lodge gives a vivid account of being the son of a musician, brought up in a lower-middle-class household in Brockley on the fringes of London. He remembers precisely the type of schools he went to, and the time, during the Second World War, when it was all air-raids and bomb-shelters and evacuation. Of course throughout his autobiography, he tells us what experiences fed into the novels that he later wrote. So these childhood experiences of wartime became the basis of part of his novel Out of the Shelter. After both his schooldays and his first university degrees were over, it being the period of the Cold War when all Western countries wanted to ensure their Youth was Fit to Fight, Lodge had to do two years of compulsory national (military) service. This meant two dull and soul-destroying years in a tank regiment… out of which he later produced the novel Ginger, You’re Barmy.

The most formative thing in his earlier years, however, was that he was raised a Catholic. His parents he presents as tolerant and broad-minded people, but still committed to their religion, and of course young David’s schooldays were spent in Catholic schools. He gives a bad report to only one school – a primary school which he briefly attended as a tot, run by rather severely disciplinarian nuns. For the rest of his schools, they were run on strict lines as all grammar schools then were, but he recalls with affection most of the priests and religious brothers who taught him, and remembers one Irish lay teacher who really set him on the path of loving literature and writing. He is very precise and detailed about how Catholic life was in the pre-Vatican II period, with long fasts undertaken, confession regularly attended, pilgrimages taken by groups of Catholic university students, consciousness of sin and a firm sense of Heaven and Hell.

Again, most of this he relates in a good-natured way, and tells how he became a critic by writing a thesis on British Catholic novelists. But his attitudes (if not the church’s) gradually changed once he was married and had to deal with the church’s ban on artificial contraception. His wife Mary was also a practising Catholic and the couple struggled with the church’s ruling. This tension fed into his novels The British Museum is Falling Down and especially How Far Can You Go?, both of which dealt with this part of Catholic life in terms of comedy. David and Mary were to have three children, the youngest of whom had Down’s Syndrome. Lodge apologises for using the outmoded and offensive term “Mongolism”, but that was the term that was still routinely used in the 1960s. Against the advice of people who suggested their Down’s Syndrome son should be put into a special hospital, the Lodges embraced him as one of the family and were glad they did.

Lodge in recent years has said that he has basically withdrawn from the church – but despite satirising the severe strictures surrounding sexual activity that were the norm in his youth, he also says that the old rules of courtship and sexual activity being confined to marriage were, in the long run, saner than much that has followed the “sexual revolution”.

These earlier sections of Quite a Good Time to Be Born are the most relatable. Once Lodge gets into his first years as a lecturer and then a professor of English Literature, the narrative becomes a little less engaging. Lodge spent the whole of his professorial career at the University of Birmingham, juggling his teaching activities with being both a prolific novelist and a prolific critic. He also paid a number of long visits to the USA as a visiting professor at Berkeley in California. Inevitably there are anecdotes of the colleagues he worked with, friendships, departmental clashes over courses and the type of things one expects in an account of a campus. Many names of academics – some of them well-known as critics – are mentioned. Lodge eventually wrote three campus novels  and was often mistaken for his contemporary and friend Malcolm Bradbury, who also wrote campus novels. Lodge’s first campus novel Changing Places was published the same year (1975) as Malcolm Bradbury’s more  bitter campus novel The History Man and critics praised both novels in the same terms.

Even when he is dealing with his academic contemporaries, however, Lodge is usually good-humoured. There are, at most, one or two people of whom he writes negative things. At least in this first volume of his autobiography, Lodge seems to be somebody who actively likes human beings, rejoices in other people’s achievements, and regards his own successes as a piece of luck for which he himself is not necessarily responsible. And yet, as Quite a Good Time to Be Born reaches its later chapters, we feel more and more heavily the effect of a mere chronicle, as if Lodge is dutifully ticking off events in his life rather than saying anything illuminating about them. The vivid nature of the childhood and early-manhood chapters has evaporated.


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



Well, that was my response to hearing David Timson read Quite a Good Time to Be Born. Despite my misgivings about the later parts of the memoir, I was impressed enough, when I got back to Auckland, to whistle up from the national library service a copy of David Lodge’s second tome of autobiography, Writer’s Luck, mainly covering the years when, after after 27 years teaching in the University of Birmingham’s English Department, and after having established himself as a novelist with many publications, he decided to become a full-time writer.

Alas, this second volume is a very dull tome indeed. In his opening chapter, Lodge informs us laboriously of his further drawing away from Catholicism and the brief period when he sank into the nebulous “Sea of Faith” movement. Much later (p.234) he has a kind of epiphany and decides that he does believe in God but is an agnostic in that he embraces no particular religion. He compares notes with (Catholic convert) novelist Muriel Spark and (lapsed Catholic) novelist Anthony Burgess. Even more laboriously, he lectures us on structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstructionism, subjects of his academic books. He says that in 1976, when he produced Modes of Modern Writing, he came to the conclusion that the jargon of post-modernism was becoming impenetrable and tended to “mystify rather than enlighten” (To which, with the utmost crudity, I can only say “No shit, Sherlock”.) He chronicles how all his children did at school, what holidays they spent together (often in Ireland), and how his Down’s Syndrome son was accommodated. He tells us about visits to his ailing aunt in Hawaii. He also tells us how, out of pure curiosity, he saw a porn film while in France, and he touches gingerly on the fact that, while he himself is monogamous and no philanderer, he has nevertheless put sexually-explicit episodes into some of his novels, to the bemusement of some critics.

Very rapidly, though, Writer’s Luck lapses into accounts of more academic conferences attended (both before and after Lodge ceased to be an active academic) and the worthies who were there, with many familiar names being dropped. This always leads Lodge into telling us how everything fed into his series of “campus novels”. One gets the distinct impressions (a.) that most conferences he attended were more often socialising than serious academic discourse, being subsidised beanfeasts for the participants; and (b.) that whatever he has to say in his autobiographies about such conferences, he says much better in his novels. The lists of names, venues, dates and schedules are simply boring.

Once he is a full-time writer, we are inundated with the minute details of his dealings with publishers, what sort of dust-jackets his novels had, what sort of typography they had (no kidding), how his books were received and reviewed and how he fared with the Booker Prize (he was twice short-listed but never won). Obviously some of these details are necessary in the autobiography of a writer, but Lodge is very sensitive about the negative reviews he sometimes got, and often consoles himself by telling us of positive reviews that balanced them. (Okay, he never won the Booker, but Penelope Mortimer loved How Far Can You Go? and it won the Whitbread Prize, so there!). Then, once some of his novels are adapted for television, we get minute details of how he influenced or responded to each adaptation.

There are some amusing admissions. After telling us how he and other eminent academics supported a young theorist who wanted to push a “poststructuralist” view of literature, he later admits (p.124) that such an approach “became a kind of orthodoxy which ambitious young scholars felt obliged to embrace and apply to literature in a jargon-heavy discourse of tortuous obscurity.” Probably to the outrage of some New Zealand readers (but to my own covert snickers) he notes that he did read Keri Hulme’s Booker-Prize-winning The Bone People to the end, but when a friend told him that he had tried to read it three times and never finished it, Lodge “shared his opinion of its literary merit.” (p.239) He gives an amusing account of a disastrous conference on literary theory that was held in Glasgow, which had the audience turning rebellious at its patent elitism and obscurantism. Literary theory does tend to wilful mystification, after all.

The most painful episode came when he chaired and was a member of the panel judging the Booker Prize (in 1982). He favoured Martin Amis’s London Fields to get the gong, but was outmanouevred by two woman on the panel who insisted that only “ideologically correct” books should win prizes, and Amis’ novel was about an amoral, misogynistic, opportunist. I think few members of panels judging literary work ever break silence about how awards are given, and I applaud Lodge’s openness on this matter. More honest reports (on the questionable reasons some books win awards and others don’t) would help to break down the notion that book awards are always given on merit. I should add that (p.373) Lodge admits in the later part of his novel-writing career that his work lost favour, gained fewer positive reviews, and attracted a smaller readership than his earlier novels had. But he consoles himself with the fact that recently his novels, in French translation, have won great favour in France. Currently, novels by David Lodge are read by a much larger audience in France than in England.

My chief impression of Writer’s Luck was of an account being rendered – probably worked up conscientiously from diaries – by an author who is now in his eighties. Stealing somebody else’s words, allow me to quote, with approval, from Anthony Quinn’s review of Writer’s Luck in the Guardian in January 2018 (you may find it easily on line):

This book presents a writer who simply has no clue as to what he should leave out, or how to compress a narrative for the sake of pace…. The wonder is that Lodge, an award-winning novelist, literary critic and professor, has such an eye for the untelling anecdote, the irrelevant detail. The warning signs are there early on when he methodically records his children’s O and A-level results, class of degree, as if he is writing a round-robin Christmas card to some distant acquaintance.”

Quite so. Lodge is now in his mid-80s and Writer’s Luck reads like an attempt to say the last word on everything he had done.

Dull. Dull. Dull.


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

And yet, having read some of Lodge’s novels in the past, reading this two-volume autobiography did pique my interest in Lodge’s work. So over the summer season I decided to read all his novels. I will torture you with my findings on them over the next three “Something Old” postings.

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.

                                           A STATE IS NOT A NATION

Like so many things in life, it began as serendipity. I was fooling around on Youtube before we were to switch to Netflix and continue watching the Danish political drama series Borgen that we were enjoying. But by pure accident I found on Youtube the whole of a debate held, before a very large audience, in London in 2019 on the moot that “Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism”.  We were intrigued and we watched it.

Arguing for the moot were the British journalist Melanie Phillips and the Israeli politician and member of the Knesset Einat Wilf . Arguing against the moot were the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe and the Al Jazeera journalist Madhi Hasan.

The arguments of both sides were ones that I have often heard.

Phillips and Wilf argued that Anti-Zionism was just a code word for Anti-Semitism; that those who proclaimed solidarity with Palestinians were the same people who chanted anti-Jewish slogans; that Israel was a legitimately constituted sovereign state, the only fully-functioning democracy in the Middle East and besides (and apparently most important for these two speakers) that Israel was the natural home of Jews, whose ownership of the land stretched back thousands of years. Zionism was not colonialism. It was just a movement to bring Jews back to where they rightly belonged.

Ilan Pappe disputed all this. Yes, he said, there were some who conflated Anti-Zionism with a hatred of Jews, but as a Jew himself he opposed Zionism and he was not a “self-hating Jew”. He pointed out that many Jews, even in the modern state of Israel, were opposed to the nationalist ideology of Zionism, and that appeals to very ancient history as a basis for Jewish ownership were very weak. For well over a thousand years, the great majority of people living in what is now the state of Israel were Palestinian Arabs with Jews a very tiny majority. The modern state of Israel was built in large part by forcibly driving out these Palestinians. Madhi Hasan said he was fully aware of anti-semites hiding behind the banner of Anti-Zionism, but he too pointed out the many Jewish thinkers, religious groups and political societies who opposed Zionism. If you voted for the moot that “Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism”, then you would be including these people too, and that would be a patent absurdity.

Much more was said, in a more nuanced form than I have been able to report here. All four speakers spoke forcefully, even passionately, although Einat Wilf’s contribution sounded most like the formulaic rhetoric that the politician had used often before.

Who won? My answer would be nobody, as nobody was really convinced to alter opinions on the basis of what had been said. In “debates” like this, most of the audience have already made up their minds on the moot before they enter the hall where the debate is held. There was a “vote” at the end and the moot was rejected, but then the level of applause after each speaker showed that the majority of the audience rejected the moot from the get–go.

You may have your own opinion on whether Anti-Zionism is always the same as Anti-Semitism. Personally I am not going to argue the case. But I will assert one important thing. I believe every sovereign state should be open to reasonable criticism and therefore every government should be open to reasonable criticism. But state and government are not the same as the people and the nation. If I were to criticise the actions and decisions of Israel’s state and government, it would not mean that I was criticisng the whole Israeli population and it would certainly not mean that I was anti-semitic.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this belief, but not with regard to the state of Israel.

My dentist is Chinese. My doctor is Chinese. My home city of Auckland has a growing population of Chinese. I frequently interact happily with Chinese people. I am not xenophobic or Sinophobic.

But I am no fan of the current Chinese state and government.

I have never claimed to be an expert on China. (See on this post my account of a very brief visit to Shanghai Confessionsof a Heartless Capitalist Exploiter). But I do know that the state of the so-called People’s Republic of China is economically more-or-less capitalist, but is politically a one-party totalitarian state with constant surveillance of its citizens,  state-controlled media, absolutely no freedom to dissent and no respect for human rights. This totalitarian state is also essentially an imperialist state. It has swallowed up Tibet, forced birth control and abortions upon Tibetan women to severely limit the indigenous Tibetan population, and flooded Tibet with Han Chinese settlers. It is currently using the same inhumane and coercive tactics against Muslim Uyghurs in its western provinces. Having long-since discarded destructive Maoist ideas of economy, it has prospered materially – at least for many Han Chinese and - despite its concerns about a drastically declining birth-rate -  is clearly going into expansionist mode with ever stronger threats against Taiwan which it claims as its own. And of course it has crushed what remained of democracy in Hong Kong, which was supposed, by mutual agreement, to have a special and separate relationship with China. Those dissidents who have fought to retain democracy in Hong Kong are ethnic Chinese.

So in criticising, and in some areas condemning, the decisions and actions of the state and government of China, am I Sinophobic? Obviously not, because the government and state of China are not the people and nation of China. A state is not a nation or a people. Criticising reasonably a state or government does not make one racist, xenophobic, anti-semitic, Sino-phobic or any other form of racial bigotry.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Something New

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

“FROM THE CENTRE – A Writer’s Life” by Patricia Grace (Penguin Books, $NZ40); “KATE EDGER – The Life of a Pioneering Feminist” by Diana Morrow (Otago University Press, $NZ40) 



            Since she first began writing for publication, Patricia Grace has produced seven novels, five collections of short stories (plus two omnibus editions of them), seven books for children and a work of non-fiction. She was the first Maori woman to have a collection of short stories published, and she has, for half a century now, been a major voice in Maori cultural and literary matters as well as winning many literary awards. But putting it that way is a little limiting. Patricia Grace is a major voice in New Zealand cultural and literary matters, read by a wide public.

            What is her appeal? Much of it has to do with her insistence on dealing with ordinary people in ordinary real-life situations – unpretentious people facing problems that a wide readership can recognise. She emphasises this a number of times in From the Centre – A Writer’s Life. Many of her plots for novels or short-stories have their origins in things that happened to her extended family, things she has heard talked about and things she has experienced. Then there is her style. Her novels are concise. She often describes landscapes and seascapes lyrically, but her prose is colloquial and matter-of-fact – no nonsense and always getting to the point of things.

            And of course, she has an important overriding theme – the lives of Maori in the present age.

            From the Centre – A Writer’s Life is as much about Patricia Grace’s formation as a person as it is about her career as a writer. The first fourteen chapters – nearly half the book – deal with her childhood and adolescent years. She begins by introducing her turangawaewae, a much-loved home at stony-shored Hongoeka Bay, some of which is owned by her iwi Ngati Toa, though it has often been threatened by plans for government takeover.

Patricia Grace’s father was Maori but her mother was Irish Catholic, and the family followed her mother’s religion. When she won scholarships she went to Catholic primary and secondary schools, where she was taught by nuns. When she met and was wooed by Kerehi Waiariki Grace (whom she affectionately calls Dick) they were married at St Mary of the Angels in Wellington. On the whole, the education she got served her well, even if some of the schools’ culture was daunting. She remarks:

            Through our schooling, managed and controlled as it was by engendering fear of sin, hell, the Almighty and the strap, we were given as good and full an education as our teachers knew how. Repressive as it was, I wanted to be there, loved learning and having the textbooks in front of me. The nuns devoted themselves to our learning. No area of the curriculum was neglected.” (p.97)

Later, she speaks of the encouragement the nuns gave her about her writing.

Often it was awkward for her to be the only Maori in a classroom of Pakeha or in a sports team (as a schoolgirl she was very athletic). She tells anecdotes of a priest calling her “a bad influence” for no reason at all, and of a Pakeha man who, as she now understands, was trying to make sexual advances when she was a young teenager. These events threw her into deep depression. But at school, the prejudices she dealt with came from fellow schoolgirls, not from teachers. She was once attacked by two Pakeha girls while walking home from school. The nuns smartly sorted out a gang of catty girls who wouldn’t invite her to a birthday party.

Patricia Grace is aware of her Irish heritage and her Irish aunties, but she is Maori by culture, custom and inheritance. One disability she freely notes. When she went to teachers’ training college, she “began to feel the disadvantage of not speaking te reo” herself (p.154), unlike Maori students who came from more rural areas. Even if she has been a major advocate for the teaching of te reo, and has insisted that her books for children be published in Maori language editions, she admits that even at her present age “my ability in the Maori language is limited.” (p.287)

Outside school and formal education, the most influential things in her childhood were her love of reading, encouraged by her father even when he was away at war with the Maori Battalion, and the free and unsupervised games she enjoyed, cycling, swimming, fishing, sliding down mudslides and generally benefitting from the health of an outdoor life, even if the familiy were sometimes in straitened circumstances.

Oddly enough, the most joyful sections of From the Centre – A Writer’s Life are not about writing, but about her teaching experience when she and her husband taught in small schools up in far Northland. The schools were badly underfunded and lacking in resources, but there were fewer pupils in each class and it was possible to get to know each pupil well. Later she (and her children) were to find that larger urban schools were more impersonal and alienating.

Patricia Grace was to have seven children and they are obviously important in her story. With teaching and raising a family, it was not until her late 30s that she began to write in earnest.  Her attitude to readers and reviewers is a robust one. When she is asked who her intended audience is, she replies:

I am the first audience. I write for me and I must be the sole judge and take full responsibility for what comes about. The second audience, the one unknown to me, is whoever will read. Once I’ve finished a book or a story, my job is done. Reviews, analyses, critiques, theses are not written for me. They come after the event. What follows – the reading, discussion, dissection, opinion – is part of the next life of the book, that is, if it is to have an afterlife. I should say, though, that if Maori readers did not relate to my writing, or if they rejected it, I would not do it.” (p.200)

From the Centre gives accounts of the genesis of each of her novels, but she does not discuss them in any laborious detail, being mainly interested in how her ideas first came to her.

However, dominating the later chapters are accounts of her activism and her promotion of Maori language and culture. She was instrumental in a project to establish a wharenui and marae complex at Hongoeka Bay and was delighted that it was the younger people, rather than the elders, who insisted that they be built in traditional Maori style. She took part in the Foreshore and Seabed controversy. More than once, she was among those who rebuffed attempts to have her turangewaewae either taken over by government or falling into the hands of property developers. She petitioned the Education Department about readers that perpetuated racial stereotypes. She was forthright in preventing Maori land from being swallowed by the new Kapiti Coast motorway. All this speaks of a vigorous and committed life. The sad part is where she ends, mourning the death, by brain tumor, of her husband of 55 years.

From the Centre is a readable, accessible and very sympathetic memoir by an author proud of her achievements but modest in her expression.


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

Diana Morrow’s Kate Edger – The Life of a Pioneering Feminist is about a woman quite unlike the one depicted in Patricia Grace’s autobiography - a woman not only of a different temperament and upbringing, but most crucially of a different era.

Kate Milligan Edger (apparently the name is pronounced Edgar) was born in 1857 and died in 1935, so her world view was forged in the nineteenth century. She is chiefly remembered as the first woman in New Zealand to earn a university degree at a time when universities were largely the province of men only. She was awarded a BA in 1877.  It was once believed that she was the first woman in the British Empire to receive a university degree, but Diana Morrow notes that a woman in Canada was awarded a BSc in 1875. Kate Edger went on to be a strong advocate for women’s enfranchisement, to have a distinguished career in education and to support many worthy and progressive social causes. But at the same time, many of her values were of a different age, and some of the causes she supported would be anathema to later second- or third-wave feminists.

Her father was a nonconformist preacher (i.e. a Protestant who was not part of the Church of England) who wavered between being Baptist or Congregationalist but who was usually the latter. He came to New Zealand as part of an idealistic scheme for co-operative farming, but it came to nothing and he moved to Auckland to be a full-time preacher. In social matters he was radical but he also followed very strict (nonconformist) Christian principles, which included an abhorrence of liquor. Kate, the fourth of his five children, lifelong had the same outlook. As Diana Morrow remarks fairly: “More than any other issue, opposition to the ‘demon drink’ has shaped popular perceptions of nonconformists as joyless, repressive Puritans. Certainly, some were self-righteous and dauntingly strait-laced, but others, like the Edgers, fostered public entertainments and cultural pursuits, partly to prove they could be enjoyed without alcohol but also out of conviction that these activities enhanced the quality of both life and religion.” (pp.37-38)

As Morrow also notes, New Zealand was ahead of most countries in opening adavanced education to (Pakeha) women on an equal footing with men. Brought up in a culturally-advanced home, Kate excelled in music and in mathematics. She had no difficulty in getting a place at Auckland University College and there was no controversy about her being awarded a degree. Quite the contrary. She was applauded in the press and fellow feminists promoted her as public proof that women were not intellectually inferior to men (an idea which had been embraced even by the likes of Charles Darwin).

Between 1878 and 1920, over three-quarters of New Zealand women graduates went on to be school-teachers. Kate Edger followed this path, taking up a position at Christchurch Girls High School. She made such an impression that at the age of only 26 she applied successfully to become the first principal of Nelson Girls College. She established an advanced curriculum for her students, who would study the arts and sciences just as boys did and would compete for the same scholarships.

But here we come to a set of values that does not chime well with the values of the early 21st century. Even though she believed in enfranchisement and advanced education for women, Kate Edger also believed in the domestic ideal of women most completely fulfilling their destiny as good wives and mothers. In Diana Morrow’s words: “Her graduates would be high-minded and earnest women, selflessly devoted to their husbands and children but also concerned to extend their elevating moral influence and values into wider society. Unlike frivolous middle-class women selfishly devoted to fashions and worldly materialism, her pupils would ideally become Christians with a social conscience, active on behalf of worthy causes and helping those in need. They would be self-disciplined and hard-working, able to fulfil their own potential while benefitting others.” (pp.83-84) Women were the best upholders of seemliness and morality in the home. Therefore “If women were well suited to guard the morality of their own children, it was only one step to further assert that their natural abilities as nurturers and protectors of the young could be used to serve other people’s children.” (p.81)

Kate Edger observed this ideal herself, so that when she married the Congregationalist minister William Albert Evans in 1890, she gave up her teaching profession, moved to Wellington with her husband, and set about raising a family, eventually having three sons. And of course she was henceforth known as Kate Evans. Yet there were years when, writing for the press and doing work for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) she actually earned more than her husband and was the family breadwinner.

Kate and William Evans were members of the Christian Socialist organisation which called itself the Foreward Movement. They lobbied for the Society for the Protection of Women and Children, directed against domestic violence, and for equality before the law in marriage, including women’s property rights. They campaigned for the criminalisation of incest. They wanted prison reform which would focus on rehabilitation and education of prisoners rather than punishment. In sexual matters they decried the “double standard” where prostitutes were convicted while their male customers faced no sanction. Few people would now disagree with these goals. But at the same time, they were strong advocates of “purity”, a moral cleansing and spiritual awakening of the individual. And this would include the abolition of alcoholic drinks.

The WCTU was the strongest lobby in New Zealand for women’s suffrage, but its underlying assumption was that women were naturally more “pure” and moral than men, and that therefore women would vote for candidates who opposed the liquor trade. This assumption would now be condemned by feminists as a species of “essentalism” – the idea that men and women are essentially different in mind and impulses. And Kate went further than the WCTU, which openly advocated only for restrictions on the sale of liquor. She joined the more extreme New Zealand Alliance for the Abolition of the Liquor Trade, which openly wanted complete prohibition. Says Diana Morrow: “Advocates like Kate firmly believed that this one reform would cure all of society’s economic, social and spiritual ills. For both the WCTU and the New Zealand Alliance, the goal was nothing less than prohibition of everything to do with alcohol, from making to selling to importing. It was a black and white matter to drink or not to drink. Individuals could choose good over evil by giving up drink or stand idly by and watch it exploit and degrade their fellow human beings.” (p.141)

As history shows, this assessment of how society’s ills could be cured was well wide of the mark.

In later life, some of Kate’s ideas fell behind the standards that were beginning to be adopted in New Zealand. Though she rejected Dr Frederic Truby King’s eugenic ideas about “improving the race”, she supported his new Plunket Society “for the promotion of health for women and children”. In an era when more and more young women were choosing to study commercial courses to qualify them for employment, she was still promoting so-called “Domestic Science” in schools to train girls to first be good wives and mothers. She was appalled by the lack of “purity” in Ettie Rout’s campaign, during the First World War, to defeat sexually-transmitted diseases by distributing prophylactic kits to serving New Zealand soldiers. She was even more appalled in the 1920s when Marie Stopes’ books about contraception were widely circulated. But she did embrace one cause that would still be applauded. After the First World War, she drew more closely to pacifism and became a great supporter of the League of Nations Society, believing that war could be abolished by negotiations in an international council.

Kate Evans remained a respected figure in her old age, noted for her personal charity, but she had some sorrows before she died at the age of 78. Her husband had died in 1921. In the years of the Depression she knew that women were the first to be thrown out of work and greater social hardships returned. Making matters worse, one of her sons turned out to be a gambler, frittering away most of the funds she thought he had invested for her. She died respected and honoured, but already seen as somebody from a past time.

How do I assess this biography? It is clearly written. It notices carefully where Kate Edger’s commitments lay and how she acted them out. It also considers how different her values were from those that are most widely accepted now. But often, the woman and her life become smothered in the author’s explanations of the many causes she supported. Kate Edger herself becomes peripheral to accounts of how first-wave feminists in general saw things, or what the purpose of the WCTU was. Perhaps this shows the difficulty of making dramatic a life that was calm, clear of purpose, and unruffled by personal crises.

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 book published four or more years ago.

“BY THE IONIAN SEA” by George Gissing (first published in 1901)


There are two topics that I have tackled a number of times on this blog. One is the nature of travel books and the other is the work of the late nineteenth-century realist novelist George Gissing (1857-1903).

With regard to the nature of travel books, I really said my piece in the posting On the Beaten Track some nine years ago. My basic contention was the obvious one that a worthwhile travel book has to be more than a description of places – a function that has now been usurped by television, photography and guide-books. It must be more in the nature of an extended autobiographical essay, dealing with personal encounters, human interactions and various travel-related topics (social, historical, political etc.) that engage the author. I maintained this view in my postings on older travel books like Henry Fielding’s Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, A.W.Kinglake’s Eothen, and Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps; and more recent ones like Ben Stubbs’ Ticketto Paradise, Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express and The Last Train to Zona Verde, and Robert Carver’s The Accursed Mountains.

And how is travel related to George Gissing? On this blog I have often made postings on his novels, usually stories of the grinding poverty of the working classes, or stories of the lower middle-classes desperately trying to maintain their position. Thus The Nether World, New Grub Street (probably his best-known novel, about hack writers), Born in Exile, The Odd Women, Will Warburton and The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. The last-named, probably Gissing’s second-best-known work, is a fantasia of the type of life George Gissing, always short of money, wished he had been able to lead. He depicts his alter ego as a man of leisure, living in the countryside, reading beloved literary texts, taking long walks and aestheticising over nature. How Gissing wished he could have led that life! And how he wished he could have continued with his classical studies, which had been broken off when his tertiary education was abruptly terminated. At the time of his death he was writing, but had not completed, Veranilda, a novel set in classical antiquity.

Which at last, to your relief, brings me to my reason for placing travel books and George Gissing in this one posting.


            Even by the standards of our day, George Gissing’s one-and-only travel book By the Ionian Sea, subtitled “Notes of a Ramble in Southern Italy”, is a very brief work – about 140 pages of large print in the copy I read. It is an account of Gissing’s weeks in 1897, when he wandered about in Calabria and nearby areas, the “toe” and “instep” of the boot of Italy. Gissing had already visited more northern parts of Italy, but this was his one and only plunge into the deep south. After sailing from Naples, he landed at Paola on the west coast of Calabria, visited Aspromonte, travelled up to Taranto on the north of the Gulf of Taranto and moved back south to Cortone, where he suffered a horrible malarial fever, after which he went to the salubrious mountain town of Catanzaro, to Squillae on the smaller Gulf of Squillae, and eventually embarked for home from Reggio di Calabria.

            Now why did he choose to visit this part of Italy in one of his very rare trips abroad? Obviously it was because of his interest in classical antiquity, and his knowledge, fired by the books of the French archaeologist and classicist Francois Lenormant, that Southern Italy was as much a part of Greek antiiquity as of Latin antiquity. Greek colonists had settled there when Rome was still just a struggling city-state and before it had acquired an empire. Ancient Romans were sometimes called the south of Italy “Magna Graecia” (“Greater Greece”) because of this connection. As Gissing says in his opening chapter:

The names of Greece and Italy draw me as no others; they make me young again, and restore the keen impression of that time when every new page of Greek or Latin was a new perception of things beautiful. The world of the Greeks and Romans is my land of romance; a quotation in either language thrills me strangely, and there are passages of Greek and Latin verse which I cannot read without a dimming of the eyes, which I cannot repeat aloud because my voice fails me. In Magna Graecia the waters of the two fountains mingle and flow together; how exquisite will be the draught!” (Chapter 1)

So in his journey, Gissing is the amateur antiquarian, sniffing out the tomb of Alaric the Goth; dreaming, when he has the fever at Cotrone, of the defeated Hannibal’s embarkation for Cathage; and breaking off the account of his own journey to give us a chapter on the Roman scholar and statesman Cassiodorus. His happiest single moment seems to be when he sees an orange orchard by full moonlight (end of Chapter 11) and imagines it to be the legendary Garden of the Hesperides which, geographically, should have been in about the same place that Gissing is visiting.

In the modern life of southern Italy, Gissing sees many things that delight him, and seem to him an affirmation that the ancient customs and ancient ways, which he admires, still persist there. Take this account of a pot market:

I was glad to come upon the pot market; in the south of Italy it is always a beautiful and interesting sight. Pottery for the commonest use among Calabrian peasants has a grace of line, a charm of colour, far beyond anything native to our most pretentious china-shops. Here still lingers a trace of the old civilization. There must be a great good in a people which has preserved this need of beauty through ages of servitude and suffering. Compare such domestic utensils – these oil-jugs and water-jars – with those in the house of an English labourer. Is it really certain that all virtues of race dwell with those who can rest amid the ugly and know it not for ugliness?” (Chapter 3) [Emphasis added]

But, for the modern reader at least, there is a problem with Gissing’s classicist approach. In looking for the ancient, Gissing often denigrates or belittles the living Italian realities of his own time. “It disappointed me that I saw no interesting costume [at Paolo]; all wore the common, colourless garb of our destroying time,” (Chapter 2) he writes of his first landing in the south, as if he expects modern Calabrians to be dressed as ancient Greeks in some sort of theatrical tableau. Of a sea wall, he writes “… it grieves one to remember that the mighty blocks built into the sea barrier came from that fallen temple.” (Chapter 7) Does he expect people, over many generations and centuries, not to have turned to their own uses the materials at hand? Many a traveller in an antique land expects that land to be a species of museum. Yet it is ironical that while Gissing makes the occasional comment on how “progress” is destroying much of the region’s ancient charms, he is as much a traveller by train as by foot.

Couple this antiquarian bias, this sense that modern Italians are simply living on the ruins of something greater than themselves, with his frequent complaints about stinky hostelries and awful, unhygienic Italian food (except in the delightful town of Cantanzaro), and you almost have the formula for the ghastly Englishman abroad, seeing these natives as merely cluttering up the classical landscape.

This impulse is, naturally, most to the fore when Gissing comes up against the locals’ Catholicism. When he reads an 1896 announcement by Pope Leo XIII of 300 days of indulgence, Gissing bursts out: “Probably he repeated a mere formula learnt by heart. I wished he could have prayed spontaneously for three hundred days of wholesome and sufficient food, and for as any years of honest, capable government in his heavily-burdened country”. (Chapter 8)

His account of his presence in a church in Catanzaro on a feast day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is almost a catalogue of Protestant distaste: “At the hour of high mass I entered the sanctuary whither all were turning their steps. It was not easy to make a way beyond the portico, but when I had slowly pressed forward through the dense crowd, I found that the musical part of the service was being performed by a lively string-band, up in a gallery. For seats there was no room; and a standing multitude filled the whole church before the altar, and the sound of gossiping voices at moments all but overcame that of the music. I know not at what point of the worship I chanced to be present; heat and intolerable odours soon drove me forth again, but I retained an impression of jollity rather than of reverence. Those screaming and twanging instruments sounded much like an invitation to the dance, and all the faces about me were radiant with cheerfulness. Just such a throng, of course, attended upon the festival of god or goddess ere the old religion was transformed. Most of the Christian anniversaries have their origin in heathendom; the names have changed, but amid the unlettered worshippers there is little change of spirit; a tradition older than they can conceive rules their piety, and gives it whatever significance it may have in their simple lives.” (Chapter 12) [Emphases added] You see, these “unlettered” and “simple” people are uncouth enough to actually enjoy their religious ceremonies and rejoice at them. They should be singing doleful hymns of lament and listening to overlong hortatory sermons, like the puritans of northern Europe. And besides, their religion is just modified paganism anyway…

But I do not wish to over-emphasise this element of Gissing’s outlook. Though he does have his moments of sneering at local “superstitions”, Gissing is probably much kinder to Italians than most of his English contemporaries would have been. In one section he remarks:

Legitimately enough one may condemn the rulers of Italy, those who take upon themselves to shape her political life, and recklessly load her with burdens insupportable. But among the simple on Italian soil a wandering stranger has no right to nurse national superiorities, to indulge a contemptuous impatience. It is the touch of tourist vulgarity. Listen to a Calabrian peasant singing as he follows his oxen along the furrow, or as he shakes the branches of his olive tree. That wailing voice amid the ancient silence, that long lament solacing ill-rewarded toil, comes from the heart of Italy herself, and wakes the memory of mankind.” (Chapter 10)

A little “purty”, perhaps, but at least showing some fellow-feeling.

Gissing does describe some of the ancient places he visits, but reading By the Ionian Sea, I was most struck by the fact that he is more concerned with anecdote than with (purple prose) descriptions of the sort that filled many travel books of his time. For example, he tells us of the local urchins who assume, because he is inspecting ruins, that he must be an architect come to fix their church, which has been damaged by an earthquake. The locals are sometimes bullied by “dazio” (excise men), which suggests some of the ongoing tension between Calabrians and the forces of the newly-unified Italian state, which really served the interests of more northern Italians and tended to see the southerners as barbarians to be tamed. Yet it was clearly the promise of scenic sights and interest in antiquities which motivated Gissing to travel to this country in the first place. There is, incidentally, no sense that Gissing has a travelling companion,. He is all alone, and the only people he speaks with are the chance acquaintances of the journey.

            A very brutal conclusion: despite its felicitous moments, this short book is also a very “slight” book, with no great moments or revelations. One almost gains the impression that Gissing wrote a travel book to order – to make sure he got the most out of his brief holiday.