Monday, July 19, 2021

Something New

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

“THE HOME FRONT – New Zealand Society and the war effort, 1914-1919” by Steven Loveridge and James Watson (Massey University Press, $NZ65)


            On this blog, “Something New” usually deals with books that are fresh off the press. The Home Front - New Zealand Society and the war effort, 1914-1919 is an exception. This scholarly and very detailed book is one volume of the series researched and written for the First World War Centenary History Programme, and published by Massey University Press. Collectively, the series constitutes a new history of New Zealand’s part in the First World War, drawing on newly-available sources and superseding the inadequate 4-volume “official history” that was published in the 1920s. Along with other volumes in the series, The Home Front - New Zealand Society and the war effort, 1914-1919 was published at the end of 2019.

So why am I now reviewing The Home Front 20 months after publication? Two reasons (a.) I was asked to; but more important (b.) because this book and others in the series were largely overlooked by the popular press and general-interest magazines, or at best noticed only briefly. The only real reviews appeared in specialist and academic publications.

First, a few bibliographic features. The Home Front is a handsome, beribboned hardback. Its 440 large pages of text are followed by 63 double-columned pages of endnotes, scrupulously documenting sources. The index runs to 18 triple-columned pages of fine print. The text is well-illustrated, and one could easily get lost in the many images of New Zealanders in New Zealand over one hundred years ago; but images have the great merit of illustrating topics being discussed on adjacent pages.

The Home Front is more-or-less structured in chronological order. Its Introduction gives a very general history of New Zealand up to 1914, but emphasising the fact that while New Zealand was gaining more autonomy, New Zealanders were still very attached to Britain and very supportive of British preparations for war. Thence successive chapters work their way from the outbreak of war in 1914 to armistice and aftermath, 1918-19. Steven Loveridge and James Watson are not mere chroniclers, however. What emerges are some dominant themes in their account of life in New Zealand during the war.


One major theme is the gradual change of attitudes towards the war from the optimism of the first two years of war to the stress and desperation of the last two years, and especially in 1918.

On the whole, there was widespread public support for New Zealand’s participation in the war in 1914. It was commonly assumed that the combined forces of France, Britain and Russia would easily defeat Germany and its allies and the war would be over in a matter of months at most. There were only a few dissenters from this view. But the authors note that even in 1914 “…beneath all this congregating, cheering, singing and marching… were more complex intellectual and emotional reactions. Generally, the significant contrast was between those who saw the war as a great adventure and those who saw it a a terrible duty.” (p.52)

Initial idealism turned to scepticism. In 1915, most accepted the newspapers’ patriotic version of the botched and poorly-planned Gallipoli campaign as a matter of “splendid gallantry”. In a memorial speech, prime minister William Ferguson Massey described it as “heroic self-sacrifice and endurance….one of the finest and most memorable feats of arms ever accomplshed by men of the British race.” (p.184) Then harder reality hit, with casualty lists in newspapers and the return of wounded soldiers with less upbeat tales to tell. By 1916 “romantic conceptions of combat were viciously challenged by newspapers reproducing frontline correspondence, which could include graphic accounts.” (p.155). For many, the process of grieving began at this point, feeding into the cult of Anzac Day.

So the depressing news continued as the war dragged on. The authors note how society was under stress in the last two years of the war when “… the dynamics of social commitment were shifting. Most wartime societies demonstrated remarkable unity over the first two years of the war. From then on, most became keenly aware that unity and commitment could no longer be taken for granted as protracted mobilisation frayed societies’ moral and material bonds.” (p.263)

The February Revolution in Russia in 1917 at first suggested that this huge ally would now have a real democray. Given that France and Britain were puportedly waging a war on behalf of democracy, it had been a source of embarrassment that one of the Allies was a non-democratic autocracy. Then came the Bolshevik coup in November 1917, Russia withdrew from the war and the Brest-Litovsk Treaty meant that Germany had more than achieved its aims on the Eastern Front. There was the cheer of the United States having joined the Allies. Even so, Germany’s last major offensive in the West seemed to be making huge gains and the war continued to be a meat-grinder until the armistice. And to provide an especially sour end to the war, the influenza pandemic struck the country, killing an estimated 8573 New Zealanders in two months – nearly half the number of soldiers who had been killed in four years of war.

Another major focus of The Home Front is the changing political structure of New Zealand during the war. There were debates in parliament over holding elections in wartime. Bill Massey’s Reform Party won by a whisker of the popular vote in the election of December 1914 and lost many seats. This meant that, in August 1915, it was almost inevitable that  Reform and Sir Joseph Ward’s Liberal Party formed a coalition government for the duration of the war. After much bargaining, the Liberals were able secure an equal number of places in the cabinet with Reform. Massey and Ward became, in effect, a double act, making long visits to Britain and to soldiers on the Western Front and being out of the country for many months. Incidentally, Loveridge and Watson squelch the legend that these two political leaders were greeted sourly and with jeers on their last visit to the front in 1918. At the same time, having been shuffled and re-shuffled in a number of attempts to form a viable political party, the new Labour Party at last gained some traction in parliament, even if some of its leaders were opposed to New Zealand’s participation in the war, or at least opposed to conscription (Harry Holland, Paddy Webb, Peter Fraser et al.)

Apart from the obvious matter of supporting Britain, New Zealand’s ultimate war aims were poorly articulated. Early in the war, the New Zealand government was determined to take from Germany control of Samoa. This it did, with many negative results in later years. Like Australia, New Zealand also wanted to block further expansion of Japan into the Pacific – even though Japan was then an ally and had on one occasion deployed a warship to escort New Zealand troopships. Only at war’s end, when the treaties were being signed, were New Zealand diplomats shocked to discover how different New Zealand’s war aims were from Britain’s (see page 400).

The government in those years was preoccupied with organisation for war for which the Minister of Defence James Allen assumed great responsibility and had to make many hard, and sometimes unpopular, decisions. At first, there were plans for munitions to be manufactured in New Zealand; but this proved to be impracticable and New Zealand remained dependent on Britain for weapons, bullets, field-guns, shells etc. Uniforms could be made in New Zealand; but early in the war there were some scandals when tailors and textile factories produced inferior garments or outsourced what they claimed to be producing.

Most fractious were debates over conscription.

At first, New Zealand forces relied on voluntary enlistment, which meant mass recruitment in the more optimistic early years of the war. Loveridge and Watson note that those who enlisted were young. The mean age of early recruits was 25.9 years and they were “largely men with few responsibilities to hold them back and with sociological, temperamental, and potentially economic enticements to go. From the beginning, men in manual work, often casual, remained the backbone of enlistments.” (p.81) With the war dragging on and fewer voluntary recruits stepping forward, conscription loomed But it ran up against the question that the labour movement often posed – if there was to be conscription of men, why wasn’t there also conscription of wealth? Shouldn’t profiteers and the wealthy be taxed to support the war effort? In other words, why wasn’t there what socialists called equality of sacrifice. Over in Australia, two referenda had rejected conscription, which was never imposed there. In New Zealand, the labour movement was split. Some industrial workers supported conscription in the belief that it would mean “more cockies’ sons” would have to go to war. Returned soldiers were also more likely to support conscription, in the belief that without more men volunteering, they themselves might be sent to the front again. After much controversy and debate, conscription was imposed in late 1916. There was still much anti-conscription agitation, and many men who had been balloted simply failed to turn up for registration. Yet this didn’t necessarily mean a sudden lack of commitment. Even in 1917-18, when the war still seemed to be going badly, 20,000 New Zealand men enlisted voluntarily. This did not mean New Zealand was able to raise a second division, which Britain had requested, but it did mean that there was still a large cohort willing to fight.

            How the war developed had major effects on another matter emphasised by Loveridge and Watson, viz. the effects of war on New Zealand’s economy. There were many debates over the rising prices for food, especially in a country that was economically based on primary produce. There were regular rumours about profiteering speculators, some of them substantiated. Most important, there was the gradual imposition of the “commandeer” economy whereby the government intervened more than it had before, including filing with companies orders for war necessities. For farmers, there was an economic boom in 1915 because of massive government spending and Britain’s need for food. But by 1917, German unrestricted submarine warfare meant that much New Zealand produce bound for Britain didn’t reach its market and many British goods didn’t reach New Zealand. Hence those who had profited in primary produce now faced a slump. By 1916, New Zealand had already burned through a two-million pound loan from Britain, and the matter of taxation became a major controversy: “The Liberals tended to favour progressive taxation, especially on the war-related profits of wealthier farmers, which vexed Reform. Conversely, the possibility of more extensive income tax or higher customs duties, which would further raise the cost of living, made Liberals anxious about potential losses of their working class support.” (pp.245-246)

            Changing attitudes to the war, government manouevring, war aims, conscription and the economy are major themes in The Home Front, but this study also considers in detail the general ethos of New Zealand society. In one sense, this is the portrait of a very narrow-minded, even vindictive, (Pakeha) society. Certainly there were strong suspicions about people of non-British origin, especially “enemy aliens”. Hence the mania for expunging Germanic-sounding names of streets, businesses and locations and replacing them with English-sounding names.  Rowdy crowds sometimes smashed up German-owned businesses and some German nationals were interned at places like Somes Island. Croats (then commonly called “Dalmatians”) were regularly assumed to sympathise with the enemy as they were offically from part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. They loudly protested their loyalty to New Zealand. Conscientious objectors were treated badly, as were those who spoke out against the war. Maori who claimed to support the enemy were dealt with harshly – hence the armed police raid on the community of Rua Kenana, who was jailed. Maori who opposed conscription were suspect, especially Waikato Maori and their most forceful spokesperson Te Puea Herangi (sometimes knwn as Princess Te Puea). Irish Catholics were under suspicion too, especially in the wake of Ireland’s Easter Rising in 1916, seen by some as a treacherous blow against beleaguered Britain in wartime. This fed into the intense and rowdy sectarianism of the last two years of the war, when the demagogic preacher Howard Elliott was able to stir up resentment against Catholics and set up his Protestant Political Association, with the aim of preventing Catholics from taking public office. The PPA was, briefly, a mass movement, but it faded away rapidly after the war. Indeed there was a rapid cooling of many passions after the war.

If much of this sounds reprehensible, however, the authors make it clear that even during the war, in both the press and on public platforms, there was much reasonable push-back against extremer anti-foreigner suspicion and sectarianism. On the whole, more moderate voices prevailed.

As in Britain and elsewhere, the war did much to change the public status of women. More New Zealand women moved into factory work and out of domestic service. Yet given that New Zealand women – enfranchised since 1893 – had already been moving steadily into paid employment, the war did not alter their status as drastically as it did in other countries.

There is no question that New Zealand made a huge sacrifice in its war effort. One tenth of the population was under arms – about 100,000 men out of a total population that was only about one million. The New Zealand Division was the most-regularly reinforced on the Western Front. New Zealand forces suffered 59,483 casualties, of whom about 18,000 were killed. Despite one legend, it is not true that per capita New Zealand suffered the greatest loss of life in the First World War. The authors note (on p.412) that 1.6 % New Zealanders were killed, a little more than Britain’s 1.5%; but the score was 2.5% for Austria-Hungary; 3% for Germany; 3.5% for France; and an horrendous 25% for Serbia .

Yet despite everything, for those who remained in New Zealand, this country was an easier berth than most combatant countries. There was greater political stability than in most allied nations. There was a secure food supply despite rising prices; rationing was not imposed ; and the country was far from any battlefront. Also, although it has been denigrated by some revisionist historians, the rehabilitation of returned soldiers was largely successful.

            Among many other merits, The Home Front - New Zealand Society and the war effort, 1914-1919 is always aware of the historical era it is addressing – in other words, aware of how people saw things a century ago as opposed to how we see them now. The very last words of book acknowledge that after 1945, and with the decline of British power and changed social attitudes “One result is a modern gulf in understanding the New Zealand society of 1914-18, its commitment to defend what was, but no longer is, and its involvement in what was now sometimes deemed to be ‘someone else’s war’ ” (p.440) Reading this, one immediately thinks of smug and ahistorical books like Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s The Great Wrong War [reviewed on this blog] which basically berated our ancestors for not having exactly the same outlook and values as we have in the early 21st century. The Home Front concerns history as it was. Not as we would like it to have been.


Footnote: Steven Loveridge is an expert on New Zealand’s role in the First World War. Already reviewed in this blog are his Calls to Arms (2015) on New Zealand’s organisation and preparedness for the war; and the volume of essays which he edited New Zealand Society at War 1914-1918 (2017).


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.   



This is the second in a three-part series covering all the novels of David Lodge, following on from All You Need to Know About the Novels of David Lodge – Part One, which appeared in the last posting.


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How Far Can You Go? (first published 1980) was marketed in America under the title Souls and Bodies. It was for many years David Lodge’s best-selling novel. In some respects it is a protest novel – but only in some respects. How Far CanYou Go? is what I would call a “panoramic” work, cutting between a large cast of characters and told in the omniscient third-person. It concerns a group of English Catholics, following them for about 25 years years from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s. In the process it gives an account of how the Catholic church changed radically in those years. In 1951, the nine major named characters are university students who attend (Latin-language) mass regularly, believe in the concepts of Hell and possible damnation, receive communion, go to confession and especially take seriously the church’s teaching on chastity, sexual morality and the sanctity of marriage. Most (but not all) of them look forward to marrying and raising families. To give you their names once and once only, they are glamorous and pious Angela, after whom many boys pant; hearty and lusty Polly; plain and sour Ruth; Miles who has converted from Protestantism and takes liturgy very seriously; Michael who is sexually-obsessed and aches for consummation; Dennis who has an awful crush on Angela; Adrian who can’t quite bring himself to admit he is homosexual; plain, commonsense Edward; and the highly-neurotic Irish girl Violet. All are staunch practising Catholics. Their student group is shepherded by Fr. Austin Brierly.

But the 1960s come along, and everything changes. First there is the Vatican Council, which modernises the liturgy, calls into doubt many long-observed practices and allows more radical theologians to redefine central beliefs. And at the same time in society at large there is the so-called “sexual revolution”, fuelled by easily-available contraception. In 1968, in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, the pope reaffirms the church’s ban on artificial birth-control. So this is the “protest” element of the novel. Through the stories of his main characters, Lodge chronicles the anxieties of Catholics who attempt to play by the church’s official rules, using the “natural” rhythm method of birth control but having children anyway. Lodge is calling out the  church’s ruling and suggesting what psychological and physical harm it did to many people. This, I surmise, may be what made this novel a bestseller, especially among Catholics. In the character of Fr. Austin Brierly we also see the turn to heterodox forms of worship and a certain degree of gimmickry in new liturgies.

Lodge’s style might possibly be called postmodern. The omniscient narrator sometimes butts in to explain how he is constructing this novel. In Chapter 3, Lodge explicitly refers to his own earlier novel The British Museum is Falling Down. In Chapter 4 he cheerfully breaks off his narrative to give a general journalistic overview of Catholic reaction to Humanae Vitae, and then apologises to readers for having held up the story. I have to assume that he has based some of his characters on people he knew, and on his own experience. One main character, for example, has a Down’s Sydrome child, as do Lodge and his wife.

Yet there is an odd undercurrent to this novel. The title How Far Can You Go? is the question Catholic schoolboys once used to tease priests, when they were discussing the appropriate courting of the opposite sex. But, as some of his characters have affairs, turn adulterous and embrace fashionable theologies, or – in the case of a nun – can’t find certainty when they embrace modish causes, Lodge implies that it is possible to go too far in the post-Vatican II church. It is quite obvious, for example, that Lodge finds some new forms of liturgy fatuous, and the assumptions of some “progressive” Catholics either naïve or self-serving. Some of the styles they embraced now seem more ludicrous – and more irrelevant – than the old pre-Vatican II church, such as the short-lived “Charismatic Renewal”. In fact, under all their adjustment to new ways, the novel’s main characters have an underlying sense of loss and a desire for certainties that have been discarded. Lodge’s protest is real, but I do sense a certain nostalgia for the church as it was, for all its imperfections.



Small World (first published in 1984), sometimes subtitled “An Academic Romance”, was the second of Lodge’s “campus novels” following on from Changing Places. It was shortlisted for (but did not win) the Booker Prize. While Changing Places focuses on the difference between American and British universities, Small World deals with the phenomenon of international academic conferences. The title clearly has a double meaning. It’s a small world when academics can hop on international flights and be in exotic venues in a matter of hours. But the conferences themselves are usually a “small world” of the same academics competing for awards or tenure or publication or prestige; sharing gossip; trying to undermine one another; arguing over their pet theories and, of course, holidaying at their universities’ expense and having extrcurricular sexual encounters. Longer than most of Lodge’s novels, Small World has a large cast of characters, some of whom (such as Philip Swallow and Morris Zapp) reappear from Changing Places. Much of it plays as broad farce.

As the subject is conferences on language and literature, Lodge once again enjoys satirising various schools of literary criticism. The (hypocritically rich and sex-addicted) Italian Marxist, Fulvia Morgana, interprets all literature as evidence of the class-war. The haughty, aged Oxbridge critic Rudyard Parkinson wants to stick with traditional modes of criticism and resents all this new-fangled French “literary theory” nonsense. Meanwhile the younger hotshots who want to get ahead up are to their necks in structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstructionism. They take their lead from older, cannier practitioners in these intellectual games such as the dogmatic German Siegfried von Turpitz and the porn-watching American post-structuralist Arthur Kingfisher. Meanwhile the under-prepared Aussie lecturer Rodney Wainwright strains and agonises over writing a paper for a conference which he has been lucky enough to be invited to. And then there is the disconsolate technocrat (who is never invited to conferences) Robin Dempsey, who believes that he will solve all questions about literature by using computers to analyse the frequency of key words in any writer’s work. Much of this is straightforward piss-taking interlarded with the fortunes of Morris Zapp and Philip Swallow in both publishing and sexual activity. Of course arch literary jokes come thick and fast.

But Lodge wants Small World to be more than a romp. His central thread of plot has the naïve young Irish academic Persse McGarrigle chasing from conference to conference his ideal woman Angelica, and never quite finding her. Note that subtitle, “An Academic Romance”, the word “romance” being used to designate Medieval and Renaissance romances which were episodic tales of quests to find some ideal (the Holy Grail or the perfect lover). So on come references to Arthurian romance and Edmund Spenser. Note the names of characters. The seductive sex-addict Fulvia Morgana is really the Arthurian temptress Morgan le Fay. Arthur Kingfisher, doyen of post-structuralists, is the Fisher King. The chaste and virginal Persse  McGarrigle is Percival (or Parsifal), the pure knight in quest of the Grail. Etcetera, etcetera, et-bloody-cetera.  Like the other literary jokes this can be very arch, especially in the denouement where all ends are tied up neatly in a fantastical, mythical way that jars with the novel’s modern milieu and frequent realism… but then the mythical stuff, via an ancient spinster scholar called (archly) Sybil Maiden, does allow Lodge to link his “romance” with T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land.

You can see from the above that I found Small World both amusing and irritating. In his autobiography, Lodge says that many were annoyed by this novel’s publication at a time when subsidies for British universities were being cut back. Some reviewers said Small World presented the false image of academic conferences as no more than time-wasting junkets. More objectionable to me, though, were the predictable slapstick parts, usually related to rough sex (Morris Zapp being caught at a most inappropriate moment in s-and-m handcuffs by the rapacious Fulvia Morgana; a publisher shagging his secretary is a basement where boxes collapse on him etc. etc.). They come across as outtakes from a bad Carry On movie. And of course when Persse  McGarrigle does eventually catch up with Angelica, his Holy Grail proves to be one night of rutting, after which the two of them go their separate ways. Not much of an outcome for a Quest, really, is it? But then perhaps Lodge was signalling that the search for real enlightenment at academic literary conferences is also a quest bound for bathetic failure.


Nice Work (published in 1988) was another of David Lodge’s “campus novels”. Like Small World is was shortlisted for (but did not win) the Booker Prize, but for what little it’s worth, it did win the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award. How ‘bout that? Philip Swallow (now head of Rummidge – i.e. Birmingham – University English Department) is a minor character in the background of the story. Interesting to note that Swallow is now afflicted with encroaching deafness, as Lodge himself later went deaf and he might have been drawing on personal experience. Morris Zapp also re-appears very late in the novel as a sort of deus ex machina.

The plot of Nice Work bears some resemblance to Changing Places, essentially concerning two characters who get to know each other’s environment. In her early 30s, Robyn Penrose is a junior lecturer in Rummidge Univerity’s Eng. Lit. Dept. She is an advocate of deconstructionism, literary theory, a little Marxism and a lot of feminism. The book she is working on concerns all those “State of England” Industrial novels that were written in the nineteenth century – Shirley, North and South, Mary Barton, Sibyl, Hard Times, Alton Locke etc. – which decried the growing gap between the middle classes and industrial workers. Ironically though, for all her theory, Robyn know very little about how industry works in the present day.

But she is assigned to a scheme intended to bring academe and industry closer together. She will “shadow” (i.e. follow that daily activities of) an industrialist who will later “shadow” her in her academic round. She is paired with no-nonsense Vic Wilcox, managing director of an engineering firm, in his forties, married and with a family of three fractious teenagers and young adults. Self-righteously Robyn sets out to “improve” the working conditions of the engineering firm while clearly not knowing how it operates or what sort of men it employs. At first Vic Wilcox resents and despises her but gradually, through their bickering, the industrialist and the academic are drawn together in a sort of sparring Beatrice-and-Benedick relationship. Yes, it does involve some sex (David Lodge can’t resist it), but does not involve love, as Robyn sticks to her feminist dogma that she is an autonomous being. She rebuffs Vic’s romantic advances. Of course Vic, later placed in the academic environment, learns at least some things about the study of literature and there is much jolly by-play with the complexities of literary theory. The novel’s “happy ending” is ridiculous  - but then this is supposed to be a comedy and Lodge would probably argue that he is consciously parodying the “happy endings” that tied up so many otherwise-serious Victorian novels, when fate stepped in to solve what were really insoluble problems.

Nice Work is very obviously set in the reign of Margaret Thatcher, with Robyn’s brother Basil and then Robyn’s erstwhile lover Charles latching on to the joys of making lotsa money on the currency market. Crass materialism reigns.  There is also the fact that universities are being defunded, there are cutbacks and many members of Rummidge University’s English Department are fearing for their jobs. This, too, was a feature of Thatcherism. Perhaps Lodge was consciously righting the false image he had presented in Small World of academe as one endless conference-attending junket. There is also, throughout the novel, the huge irony that the Marxist-feminist-deconstructionist Robyn comes from a very comfortable middle-class background and has never known any other sort of life. She never understands that her zeal to “improve” the industrial workers is really a exercise in embourgeoisement. She wants them to be like her. Vic, of working-class background, is not presented as a positive opposite to her – he has his faults – but his experience of industry has taught him more than Robyn’s theory has,

Despite its lame ending, Nice Work has a clearer focus than either Changing Places or Small World. I think it is the best of Lodge’s “campus novels”.



In many ways, Paradise News (published 1991) is a reversion to Lodge’s very first novel The Picturegoers. In The Picturegoers, Lodge suggested that movie-going was a substitute for religion, offering new images to worship. Over thirty years later, in Paradise News, he suggests that tourism (and sex) are the new religions. In Paradise News, a pop anthopologist called Sheldrake articulates this thesis specifically (even if Lodge gently pokes fun at him for his modishness). Tourists taken in jumbo jets to exotic places are the new pilgrims. Tourist traps to which the tour guides take them are the new shrines. Holiday snaps and home-movies are the relics taken home to authenticate that one has been to the exotic place. And, of course, tourist advertising tells tourists that their destination will be very “paradise”.

The setting is Hawaii, where everything is hyperbolically described as Paradise.

The protagonist is 44-year-old Bernard Walsh, an Englishman of Irish descent from Lodge’s Rummidge (i.e. Birmingham). He comes to Hawaii on a farewell visit to his aged Aunt Ursula, who is cancer-ridden and has a short time to live. Bernard is an ex-priest who lectures in theology but is now deeply agnostic and has cast aside any  religious belief. Ironically, Aunt Ursula was long ago expelled from her Irish Catholic family for marrying a divorced American who has now deserted her; but in her old age, she has returned fervently to the Catholic faith. In terms of religion, Bernard and Ursula have changed places. There is much rich comedy in this story, especially related to Bernard’s outspoken and cantankerous old Irish father (Ursula’s brother) whom he’s brought along with him.

On the matter of tourism, Lodge chroncles the real tackiness and commercialised bad taste behind the over-hyped attractions of Hawaii, and he has a supporting cast of (English) tourists who represent different “types” – the man who always complains; the kids who are bored; the young married couple who can’t enjoy the holiday because they’ve fallen out; the man obsessed with recording everything in home movies; the two young women who are looking for Mr Right. They reveal themselves in the type of postcards and letters they send home.

But the real theme is healing. As soon as Yolande, an (available, almost divorced) American woman, walks into the story and strikes up a friendship with Bernard, you know exactly where Paradise News is going. Ex-priest Bernard longs for a woman and his one chance to have one had gone nowhere. Now there is Yolande, sympathetic, sexually experienced and ready to tutor him. So for Bernard part of the happy ending is ecstatic sex and companionship as (yawn) it is in a number of Lodge’s novels. The other healing comes from the reconciliation of Ursula and Bernard’s Dad, and from Bernard’s renewed understanding of the value of religious ritual as consolation, even if he remains firmly a non-believer. There’s also the too-neat sudden appearance of a whacking great legacy to cure everybody’s woes. Lodge really does strain to make plausible happy endings (see review of his Therapy below).

A number of things weight this novel down. It is rather awkward when, exactly half-way through, Bernard gives a long first-person account of his formation as a priest and then his disillusionment with his role. And in the very last chapter there’s a long sequence where Bernard explains his beliefs to his students; and then Yolande sends a long letter chronicling the beauty of Aunt Ursula’s religious funeral. The exposition here is too explicit and obvious, though it does reveal Lodge’s own ambiguity – he is an agnostic who nevertheless has some nostalgic affection for the church he put behind him. And, be it movies, tourism or sex, Lodge does suggest that some sort of religious yearning beyond oneself is an essential and enduring part of the human character. “The God-like hole in our consciousness” etc.



Lodge’s Therapy (first published in 1995) was hailed by some reviewers as a comic masterpiece and does have some very funny set-pieces – but somehow (for this reader at least) it goes badly off the boil before it ends, perhaps because it trundles on longer than most Lodge novels do. This is the novel in which Lodge tackles late middle-age and the awful looming fact of physical decline. Lodge was 60 when the novel was published and his protagonist is about the same age.

58-year-old Laurence Passmore – generally known as Tubby – is a successful and affluent scriptwriter for a TV sitcom; but all the savour is going out of his life. He can still get an erection but he finds it impossible to have an orgasm when he makes love to his wife Sally. Even more worrying, he has a persistent pain in his knee which conventional medicine cannot cure. So Tubby worries and wonders and becomes a ripe neurotic as he looks for cures – psychotherapy of course, but also acupuncture, aromatherapy and a quest for satisfying sex. This takes him on a priapically-driven journey, usually leading to comic disaster. He suspects his wife of having a lover (comic disaster in London). He tries to turn a platonic friend into his mistress (comic disaster in awful holiday in Tenerife). He fails to get it on with a Hollywood bimbo whose passes he turned down years before (comic disaster in LA). Then he discovers the works of Kierkegaard, with whom he becomes obsessed. He believes studying Kierkegaard’s existentialism is giving him an accurate account of his own neuroses and will help him mend his marriage. Whereupon his wife Sally walks out on him.

Up to this point the novel is picaresque fun-and-tumbles and frequently a sharp satire on modish remedies for psychological problems. But as so often, Lodge plays some neat post-modern games. The story is told in the first-person by Tubby Passmore in the form of his diary entries over a number of months, and the narrator’s pr
ofession as scriptwriter makes him (like Lodge) conscious of how he is using language. Every so often, he will stop his narrative to look up the meaning and origin of a word he has just used, questioning the validity of what he has just written. The novel gives us a section of other characters’ observations on Tubby, ostensibly displaying an “objective” view of his life and obsessions. These voices often sound forced and artificial… which proves to be the case as they all turn out to be Tubby’s inventions of what other people are thinking about him. We can never really trust the narrator of a novel, can we?

Weakest, I think, is the way the novel resolves itself. I won’t go into the details, but it involves Tubby becoming deeply nostalgic about his first, innocent teenage crush on a girl forty years previously (and incidentally allowing Lodge once again to work in some details of his own childhood near London). In effect he tries to “go home again” and reconstruct that first love. How this thread of plot works out is upbeat – which is only fair in a novel that sets out to be comic – but also improbable and, as a denouement, rather glib. I really can’t imagine a person as self-obssessed  as Tubby ever being “cured” in the way Lodge allows him to be. Bits of travelogue also overwhelm the last sections of the novel.

Let’s say its an almost successful comic novel.

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 RANDOM MISCELLANY OF TRIVIAL GRUMBLES



On Wednesday 30 June I was watching the 6 o’clock news on TV ONE as is my wont. There was an item about how many people in New Zealand had yet been vaccinated against the Corona Virus or Covid 19 or whatever you currently call it. Of course I always feel a little smug watching such items, as my wife and I have already had the two jabs. But as I watched this brief item I was shown not one, not two, not three, not four , but fully FIVE juicy close-ups of hypodermics being plunged into arms.

 Now I’m not scared of being injected in a good cause (not that I ever enjoy the needle going into my gums at the dentist’s), and I wasn’t at all bothered by the two jabs I took against the virus. Among other things, my wife and I are two of the lucky ones who suffered no side effects.

But I am worried by those five close-ups.

Not so long ago, arms receiving the needle were never shown in movies, let alone on TV. Then within, I think, the last decade, suddenly it became obilgatory to have those juicy close–ups of flesh being thus pierced. And it’s never a pleasant sight, even for a non-needle-phobic such as I. It always looks brutal and upsetting. Part of me says it’s akin to the “if it bleeds it leads” sensationalist tendency of TV news. Ya godda show ‘em something violent to keep ‘em watching.

But another part of me says, if this news item were made in the interest of making more people take the vaccine, then it probably had a negative effect. Five close-ups of arms being pierced by needles, and quite a few needle-averse viewers will have decided that vaccination was clearly not for them.


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Knowing my form, at this point in one of my “Something Thoughtfuls” you expect me to segue into a long discourse on various other matters related to the topic dealt with above. But I’m not going to give you such. This fortnight’s “Something Thoughtful” is strictly and deliberately a random miscellany of trivial grumbles.

First let me deal with the nouns and verbs. I am still not reconciled to the use of the noun “impact” as a verb. Thus, instead of saying, correctly, “What impact [noun] did it have on them?” it now seems routine to say “How did it impact [pseudo verb] them?” Granted that “impact” has long been a very limited intransitive verb (as in “impacted wisdom teeth”), this is to use it  illiterately as a transitive verb. There are even more extreme examples of this ungrammatical noun-to-verb metamorphosis. “Summit” is a noun and nothing but a noun. But where once it might have been asked of a mountaineer “Did she reach the summit?” [noun] we now get the barbaric “Did she summit?” [pseudo verb] This is on the same level of idiocy as schoolchildren saying “Our team will verse them”, because they have so often seen notice boards scheduling this team versus that team. Worse, it’s on the same level as those who say “abolishment” or “evolvement” or "denouncement" when they mean “abolition” or “evolution” or "denunciation". Or to sink to the lowest depths of Hell, it is like people who say “the 1800s” when they mean “the nineteenth century” or who do not know the difference between “uninterested” and “disinterested”, or  the difference between “on his behalf” and “on his part”.

I will not waste time on orthography. Some people are simply bad spellers. But when I am dictator for life with unlimited powers, I will send to labour camps those Millennials and Generation XY and Z-ers, who do not know how to spell “eh” as in “Bad spelling is pretty awful, eh?” Instead, these benighted semi-literates render the particle as “ay” or “aye” apparently unaware that “aye” is properly pronounced as in “Aye, aye captain!

And should I say something about pronunciation? The battles here are really lost already. “Data” now tends to be pronounced only American-style (“DAY-ta” rather than “DAH-ta”) and I’ve even come across New Zealand students who are puzzled by the pronunciation of “lieutenant” as “LEFF-tenant” because they’ve only ever heard the American “LOO-tenant”. (My solution would be - go back to pronouncing this French word the way the French do, but somehow I think my suggestion won’t catch on.)

If I’m being picky here, there is one mispronunciation that still worries me. This is the loss of “women”. It appears that women no longer exist. I know this because radio and TV commentators now routinely say such things as “Forty woman have protested against this bill” or “Eighteen woman competed in the marathon”. Time was, this mispronunciation was one of those things that was corrected in primary schools. Now it has become the norm among semi-educated newscasters. Not too long ago feminists insisted on spelling the plural of “woman” as “wimmin” as in “Wimmin’s Spaces” etc. I used to think this was a silly affectation, but now I find much merit in it.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Something New

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

“PRAGUE IN MY BONES – A Memoir” by Jindra Tichy (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $NZ45); “SHOULD WE STAY OR SHOULD WE GO” by Lionel Shriver (The Borough Press – distrbuted by Harper-Collins Press, $NZ32:99)


            I wish I could like Jindra Tichy’s Prague in My Bones much more than I do. As this memoir makes clear to us, Jindra Tichy is a formidably intelligent woman  who has had to endure much in her life, but who has managed to keep a sane and temperate view of things. Prague in My Bones condemns much, but nowhere does it succumb to self-pity. The net effect is of serenity won after storm.

            A Czech born in 1937, Jindra as a young child lived through the five brutal years of Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Liberation from this was brief. The coup of 1948 condemned the country to forty years of Communist rule which, in its early years with purges and show trials, was as brutal as the Nazi years. The “Prague Spring” of 1968 promised an improvement in life, but this was shut down by the Soviet invasion and permanent settlement of 200,000 Soviet troops in the country. It was before the borders were completely closed that Jindra, her husband Pavel and their young son Peter managed, separately, to flee to England. Both Jindra and Pavel were academics who had lectured in philosophy at Prague’s prestigious Charles University. After a few years in England, they migrated to New Zealand where first Pavel, and then Jindra, took teaching positions at the University if Otago.

            When Jindra Tichy speaks of the Nazi occupation, she speaks not only of daily terror, rationing and hunger, but she also expresses great pride that her mother risked her life taking part in armed resistance. She knows the unexpected nuances of history. There’s the fact that Czech partisans had fought, and cleared Prague of Nazis, a day before the Red Army arrived; but throughout the years of Communist rule this fact was suppressed. (When I spent a week in Prague in 2018, I noticed in Wenceslas Square placards, in Czech and English, celebrating the city’s self-liberation – see one of the photos I took below). Even lesser known is the fact that the Vlasov Army, an army made up of Russians who collaborated with Hitler for their own reasons, played an honourable part in dissuading the Nazis from razing Prague to the ground when they were planning to retreat. Most surprising of all, she is frank about the brutal ethnic cleansing that took place just after the war, when the three-and-a-half million Sudeten ethnic Germans were driven out of the country. Much as she loves her homeland and its people, she is not blind to the wrongs they have done.

            Of the Communist years there can be little positive to say. In Tichy’s account, Communist dogma meant the complete destruction of what had been – before Nazi occupation – a functioning liberal democracy with a healthy market economy and a thriving industrial base. The country was systematically impoverished. People were promoted to responsible positions in industry not for their competence but for their loyalty to the Party. Similarly students were given preference in scholarships and places in universities not for their academic abilities, but according to their social class – proletarians first. Trade unions were Party-controlled and the right to strike was abolished. Freedom of expression ceased to exist and the threat of Soviet invasion was constant. In intellectual life, propaganda took over from reasoned discourse. At Charles University, courses on Marxist-Leninism had to be taught in all departments. In the philosophy department, where Pavel taught, formal logic was supplanted by dialectical materialism. As a philosopher, Jindra gives her opinion thus:  There is no philosophy of science in the works of Marx and Engels. Dialectical materialism is just gibberish, using a kind of pseudo-scientific vocabulary.” (p.113)

            The effect of this upon the Czech people was sheer ambiguity. Those who live in open societies often wonder why those in closed societies don’t more openly challenge oppressive regimes. But this train of thought shows only how little outsiders know about the working of totalitarian regimes, rather like some silly left-wing academics Jindra met in England who justified the invasion of Czechoslovakia as the USSR helping a “fraternal socialist country”. The great majority of Czechs despised the Communist regime, but to keep their jobs (or not be sent off to the local gulag) they had to play by the rules. This meant academics knowing full well that what they were compelled to teach was rubbish, and even joking about it when in safe spaces, but still teaching it as ordered. In the post-Communist years, this led to much retrospective guilt.

            Jindra Tichy’s reaction to the Prague Spring is surprising. She does not hail it as the beginning of a possible renaissance for the Czechs, but condemns it as a delusion. Speaking of Alexander Dubcek, the man who attempted to introduce “Communism with a human face” she says “I am sorry for Dubcek and what happened to him, but I bear a grudge against him because he allowed us to fantasise about this wonderful new society when he must have known that the little charade about a democratic and just society that would suddenly spring into being was just a monumental lie, and that the Soviets would never allow it – he grew up and was educated in the Soviet Union.” (p.88) Further she remarks “The invasion of 21 August 1968 taught me several valuable lessons. It showed me that socialism could not have any human face: that was just a dangerous delusion of Dubcek’s.” (p.85) Communism was in effect irredeemable, and any attempts to “reform” it led to its collapse, as happened when Gorbachev attempted to “reform” the USSR in 1989.

But her travails, and her people’s travails in Czechosolovakia are only part of this memoir. On the matter of exile  she says: “I  want to add… that the first years of exile were the toughest years in my life. To lose the country of your birth, the people you love, your mother tongue, your culture, is hard. As we know from Plato’s dialogue Crito, when Socrates is given the choice between emigration and execution, he chooses death. After years spent in exile I understand why his was probably the right choice.” (p.133)

Even so, of her and Pavel’s time in England she says: “I had fallen in love with the centuries-old traditions, with a literature that produced such a genius as Jane Austen, with the little towns and villages in Devon… but mainly, I had fallen in love with the freedom of the people, the principled government, with the rule of law, free market economics and a sensible right-wing ideology.” (p.171) She says similarly flattering things about New Zealand, where she has now lived for many years, which she found to be “a democratic and just society” and enjoyed “the goodwill of the people.” (p.237) She tells the charming story of learning English, in England, by reading and studying the novels of Jane Austen, especially Emma. She does, however, take some time adjusting to the rainy English climate and is distressed that, while Pavel gained work and completed his PhD in formal logic at an English university, she was not able to find work. In New Zealand, she once again has to get used to alien food and the fact that chilly houses are not properly insulated. Pavel becomes an associate-professor in philosophy at Otago, but she herself never makes it in the philosophy department. Instead, thanks to her fluency in Russian, she gets to teach in the Russian department, revealing her lifelong admiration of classic Russian literature despite her loathing of the old USSR. Later, her knowledge of European politics and parties allows her to specialise in teaching political science. But gradually her interests change, and she becomes a novelist in the Czech language.

It is here that, admirable life as her’s may have been, I’m bound to point out what goes wrong with this interesting memoir. There are many important areas of her life about which she is too discreet – I would even say evasive. At one point she casually mentions that it was common in Czechoslovakia for spouses to take lovers as a matter of course – or at least it was common in the circles in which she moved. She says she too had a lover… but we hear nothing more about him. She deals very cursorily with the break-up of her marriage. Only very late in the text does she admit that she and Pavel had been drawing apart for years, at which point she gives some anecdotes about how grumpy he could be to students and how he alienated many of his colleauges. Of his sad ending (possibly a suicide, but the coroner left an “open verdict”) she says very little indeed. It is understandable that such a traumatic event may have been too painful for her to dwell upon at length. Even so, it is jarring to see how abruptly she deals with it.

Even more alienating, however, is the structure of this memoir and the way she presents her material. There is much repetition and many such phrases as “As I said earlier…” and “As I said before…” suggesting that she did not think her way through this material from the outset. Her opening chapters give a rather laborious account of her ancestors, something that could have been presented more concisely. She is comfortably settled in New Zealand when suddenly, in Part Five (titled “Socialist Disaster”) she goes back to telling us more about the manifest evils of Communism in Czechoslovakia, about which she has already dealt at length. Granted this more-or-less leads into an account of her visit to the post-Communist Czech Republic, I still get the general impression that Prague in My Bones could have done with more professional and rigorous editing. In saying this, I am in no way criticising Jindra Tichy’s robust opinions and world view.


Footnote: In 2015, I reviewed on this blog Jindra Ticha’s first novel to be written in the English language Death and Forgiveness. While I went out of my way to show how much I was in sympathy with the author’s ideas, I also noted the flatness of its prose and the clumsiness of its structure. One thing I wrote was I know nothing of the author’s personal circumstances, and do not know how much she is dealing with issues from her own life.” But I certainly did detect a strong autobiographical note in the novel. I also wrote I too often had the sense that I was reading a memoir, giving one party’s view of a failed marriage.” This would appear to be confirmed by the little she writes about the breakup of her marriage in Prague in My Bones. Another point of interest. In Death and Forgiveness her name is given as Jindra Ticha. In Prague in My Bones it is given as Jindra Tichy. I assume this was a concession to the English language which does not have both male and female forms of surnames, as Slavic languages have. 

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            Everybody has strong opinions about Lionel Shriver, the American novelist who gave herself the name “Lionel” when she was a tomboy teenager wanting a more masculine name than the “Margaret Ann” her parents had given her. Now in her mid-60s, Shriver spends half her time in New York and half in Britain, and she has absorbed much of British culture as her latest novel Should We Stay or Should We Go reveals.

Shriver seems to court controversy and is condemned as much as she is admired. Her best-known, or most notorious, novel We Need to Talk about Kevin concerned a mother trying to cope with an evil son who commits a mass shooting of students at an American high-school, an event which has happened more than once in reality. The novel focused on the mother’s angst and the toll that raising a child had had on her when she wanted to pursue a career. But many read it as general revulsion against motherhood and having children at all. Shriver is heterosexual, married and childless by choice, and she supports the “Population Concern” group which lobbies for severe restriction of population growth. At a writers’ festival in Australia, Shriver gave a speech condemning the modish concept of “cultural appropriation” and received much flak. She was kicked off one literary judging panel for loudly opining that books should be published on literary merit, not because of the ethnicity or sexuality of the author. And, in Britain, she supported Brexit and repeatedly expressed concern over the many immigrants entering the country and radically changing its culture. Any one of these issues could – and does – start heated arguments, especially as Shriver is a regular columnist in many publications as well as a novelist.

Should We Stay or Should We Go has her wading into another controversial topic.

In the early 1990s, when they are still healthy and in their fifties, the English couple Kay and Cyril Wilkinson agree to a suicide pact. To escape the fate of Cyril’s father, who died senile and incontinent, and Kay’s mother, who is clearly sinking into Alzheimer’s, they will kill themselves when they are 80. That way, they reason, they will avoid going through the most humiliating processes of ageing and being helpless. Cyril, an ardent socialist, also says that if they and other old people were to do this, they would be freeing up beds that the NHS could give to more deserving younger patients. Aren’t senile old people just clutter anyway? Cyril is a doctor who has access to the lethal drugs they will need to carry out their plan… but when it comes to 2020, and they are now 80, Kay suddenly has misgivings about the suicide pact. She still wants to live a bit.

Dare I say that Lionel Shriver sets up this situation in her opening chapters with laboriously self-expository dialogue? But there’s lots more exposition to come, for the novel that follows is a series of alternative possible outcomes. In one scenario, their attempt to commit suicide turns into pure farce. In another, Cyril commits suicide but Kay doesn’t. In yet another, Kay commits suicide but Cyril doesn’t, and his three adult children then accuse him of murder. Or Cyril is sent to a hospital where he becomes immobile and capable of communicating only by winking.  Or Kay and Cyril live out their lives in a boring geriatric home. Or their children gang up on them and they are sent to a “home” which is more like a penitentiary where they are mistreated and from which they try to escape. Or (with Shriver jumping into science fiction) a miraculous drug is invented which reverses the ageing process and Kay and Cyril, like all other old people, become young and healthy again… but the problem is that, with nobody now dying, the world becomes grossly-overpopulated (one of Shriver’s bugbears) and besides, immortality proves to be boring. And with more science fiction, in another scenario, they take to cryogenics and are revived eons later into a world so alien that they wish they were dead. Of course there is one scenario where they live happy and fulfilled into very old age and die naturally. But that is not where Shriver is ultimately going.

By now, you should have realised that Shriver’s big topic here is (voluntary) euthanasia. As, in this novel, most of the alternatives to planned suicide are presented as horrific, you can see which side of the argument she really approves. She also has a number of incidents in which either Kay or Cyril die by accident, the intended moral being that we all die anyway, so why should euthanasia shock us? Need I say that this elides many reasoned arguments against euthanasia? Should We Stay or Should We Go is set in the era of Covid 19 and Brexit (hence the double meaning of the title). In at least one chapter, where Kay and Cyril are overcome and killed by invading non-European immigrant hordes, we basically get the type of alarmist rant that I have noticed on this blog only in Jean Raspail’s very racist The Camp of the Saints.

I wouldn’t underrate Shriver’s powers of observation in all the specific settings where her scenarios are staged. Nor would I underrate her dry wit, savage though it sometimes is. But in the end I found Should We Stay or Should We Go polemic rather than novel, giving one side only of a complex problem.