-->

Monday, September 13, 2021

Something New

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

“ALL TITO’S CHILDREN” by Tim Grgec (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “UNSEASONED CAMPAIGNER”  by Janet Newman (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50); “AUP NEW POETS 8” – by Lily Holloway, Tru Paraha and Modi Deng  (Auckland University Press, $NZ29:99)

 
 

 

The horror of a closed, controlled society is not knowing, and not being allowed to know, the real things happening in the world. This is true of all totalitarian states (fascist or communist) where censorship rules and propaganda is the only permitted form of “news”. In such states, whispered rumour is rife, legends grow and nightmares accumulate. This appears to me to be one of the dominant themes of Tim Grgec’s debut poetry collection All Tito’s Children. After the Second World War, Josip Broz “Tito”, former Partisan leader, Prime Minister, then President (for life) of Yugoslavia, was greatly admired in the West as a communist who stood up to Stalin, kept his country non-aligned and seemed to favour a (limited) market economy… and yet he was a dictator and Yugoslavia did have a ubiquitous secret police. For most, it was an oppressive place.

Tim Grgec’s grandparents fled to New Zealand from Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1950s. All Tito’s Children in many respects reflects his grandparents’ experiences in Yugoslavia in childhood and adolescence. At a superficial glance, All Tito’s Children seems a loose bricolage or mosaic of brief prose statements, real quotations from official documents, fictitious quotations from official documents and short lyrics. But read more carefully, its seven discrete sections follow a strong narrative thread, bringing us nearer to the young peoples’ disillusion and will to escape. The young people in question are sister and brother Elizabeta and Stjepan, so presumably they are not a direct portrait of the poet’s grandparents.

We first have the voice of power in the section “The Quarrel With Stalin” where Tito separates definitively from Stalin and the Soviet Union, advising Stalin to stop sending assassins into his country, and Stalin retaliates by having all mention of Tito removed from Soviet publications. Meanwhile in “Elizabeta”, we hear the voice of a young girl in a small village where the image of Tito is pervasive:  In every sitting room, above the Madonna, / a picture of our brave, handsome leader: / Tito in military uniform, / to keep our actual fears away.” (pg. 19) Here, at village level, the dark rumours circulate. Not knowing which is which, Elizabeta resorts to playing games about what is, and what is not, the truth. There is the strong rumour, believed by many, that the real Tito is usually replaced, on public occasions, by a body-double: “We whispered stories like these around the village, even though they were forbidden. Tito’s name crossed many lips and, after many years, the pictures of him over every blackboard grew real pairs of eyes.” (p.23) The notion of Tito’s “double” could be read as the difference between the real Tito and Tito as understood by the general population.

In “Emergence from the Fog” Tito’s mythic and unreal status is mocked by the poet when he has the dictator broadcast the words: “I address you, my friends, in a voice that might be my own, or perhaps that of someone before me.” (p.31) Laws against emigration are passed, turning the country into more of a prison, while credulous citizens approach the dictator as if he is the arbiter of science.  One petitioner claims to have invented a perpetual motion machine. Paranoia and myth coalesce.  In “Stjepan”, the young villager hears his paternal uncle tells stories of war, but the details of which war are left unclear  - is the uncle referring to partisanship in the Second World War, or to much earlier wars?  Memories of war easily become legends, and there have been wars in the Balkans since time immemorial. But there is brutality in the aftermath of war. Perhaps the poet assumes that readers have sufficient prior knowledge to understand what is going on in “The Company We Keep”, where former Partisan leader Tito interviews the former Chetnik general Mihailovic. We have to know that the latter is about to be led off to a show trial and execution. Bogus official documents are presented as well as a miscellany of books that Tito is supposed to have checked out from a library – but then this could simply be the common pretence among dictators that they are men of great culture.

When we come to “Elizabeta’s Tiny Seeds”, we reach a final disillusion with the Yugoslav state. Elizabeta is now adult enough to be aware of the constrictions of peasant life and the state’s control: “A tiny seed of doubt. How disatisfaction and stillness for years thicken one another. Probably I would’ve gone back to life in the fields, the same rows of dirt in the beating sun, if he [Tito] had not forgotten us here on the Hungarian border.” (p.79) So at last to “Escape”, but it is not a wholly joyful thing. Bells do not ring. There are sorrows and regrets and a sense of guilt to be leaving the land partisans fought for and “bakas” (grandmothers) revered. Tradition has a very strong pull. So there are very mixed feelings when at last Elizabeta reaches Lyall Bay in New Zealand in 1959.

            Despite its very specific setting in history, All Tito’s Children is neither history lesson nor polemic. It conveys a mood of fear, bafflement, confused loyalties, and in the end the deep melancholy brought on by a necessary exile.

 

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

 


I’ll begin by brushing away a prejudice of my own. From my experience of reading new New Zealand poetry over the last few decades, I am always wary when I am sent for review a collection of poetry which focuses on rural life and nature. Too often, I have found, such collections rapidly become polemics about environmental decay and conservation matters. While these are worthy concerns, they often encourage cliché and a somewhat self-righteous tone.

Janet Newman’s Unseasoned Campaigner focuses on rural life and nature, but nowhere is it polemicaI. Newman’s version of New Zealand rural life is hard and true. The 62 poems that make up Unseasoned Campaigner are compassionate without being sentimental, thoughtful without becoming preachy, aware of environmental decay without making it an obsession, based on a very close knowledge and understanding of what farming entails and enriched with vivid imagery. Newman comes from a farming family and is herself (as the blurb tells me) a farmer of beef cattle in Horowhenua. When she describes, she describes what she knows intimately. I have to add that she is clearly a scrupulous craftswoman and critic of her own work. Though Unseasoned Campaigner is her first published collection, she has clearly been working at it for some years. I remember, nearly a decade ago, accepting some of her poems when I was guest-editing Poetry New Zealand in its old format.

Unseasoned Campaigner is divided into three sections, and unlike other collections, the three discrete sections signal three distinct themes.

The first section “How Now?”, addresses farm life directly, and the very opening poem,  “Drenching”, is perfectly balanced in style and meaning. She feels for the cattle and understands they have bovine emotional responses … but we send them to be killed and that is the way it should be. In “Calf Sale”, written in the first-person, she is at first inclined to feel superior to (and possibly more humane than) the “veal man” who will take calves to be slaughtered at once  - but then she says “Although I have no reason to / I feel superior driving my calves / to paddocks of plump grass / nursing their plain orphan hunger.” This is a poet who, unlike many, does not except herself from daily realities. She has memories of naming cows when she was a child (“How now?”); she describes a half-castrated, but still testosterone-driven steer being loaded for the slaughter house (“The rig”); she imaginatively pairs landslides created by rain with the gloop of a recipe being mixed (“Sponge and slate”). She is also aware of the way human intervention can have negative effects. The triptych “Good Intentions” charts three unintended consequences – making land barren by stripping it of unwanted foliage; over-feeding a young calf so that it dies; and accidentally running over an admired hawk. Death in one form or another fills the countryside. One could say the theme of unintended consequences if also found in “Ode to Mycoplasma Bovis”, about a stud bull passing on a destructive gene to hundreds of artificially-inseminated cows. Title sequence “Unseasoned Campaigner” personifies each season as a driving force demanding the farmer’s care. Though she loves her warm connection with a farm dog, she does not idealise the dog. After all, it does hunt and kill (in the poems “The huntaway” and “Suddenly rabbit”).

            In all of this, the most impressive quality of Newman’s poetry is the precisely observed physical detail of farm and rural life, such as a townie could not express. Such precision is found in the image of wool dropping away under shears (in “The shearer”) and in her two “Meat processing plant poems” which are simply deadpan descriptions of the work and the place without any polemic attached. The five-part sequence “Drought, Horowhenua” is one of her best for carefully-observed detail when, while surveying parched land, she asks “How do the pines / retain their dizzy black, the conifers / their rowdy yellow in this / hollowing heat / intense as migraine? / Even the rushes / and Scotch thistles cling / to colour, though the dunes / are gaunt, ghostly…” Drive through a drought-struck region and check the truth of this.

I will not analyse in detail the second section of this collection “Tender”. It is a wonderful thing – a poetic portrait of Newman’s father in all his moods. He was, one understands, a hardy bloke, a tough farmer, but a man of odd tendernesses. This poetic portrait takes him through the things he said to his daughter when she was a child to his memories, and enduring pains, after having served in the Second World war to becoming a widower, to his own death. Clearly daughter loved father but father was obviously of a different generation from daughter and took for granted things she did not take for granted. His reaction to animals and their welfare appears to have been a bit less nuanced than her own. Even so, the image that emerges is of a hard-working man, a relable man, and somebody who really knew how the raw country works.

As for the third section “Ruahine”, this is the mature woman, now remembering her father but growing beyond him and reflecting more on the land than on the farm work, considering the wild birds, the kahikatea forests that are no longer there and the natural behaviour of birds and other animals beyond the farmer’s control.

And always, always the specificity of detail – in other words, the poems of somebody who knows, body and soul, what she’s talking about. What a great collection this is.

 

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

 


It is obviously a worthwhile enterprise to encourage and promote young poets as Auckland University Press’s eighth “New Poets” publication does. Even so, Anna Jackson appears to overdo it in her Foreword where she not only tells us how to react  to these poems and insists that the three young poets’ chief impulses are “Romantic”, but also makes such hyperbolic claims as “all [these poets] write with an intoxicating sense of the world’s beauty, its depth and distances.” Um… no they don’t.

Each of the three young women whose work is represented here has her own style and own preoccupations and often those preoccupations are not in any way connected to the “beauty” of the world.

 

Lily Holloway, self-described “queer” writer in her early twenties, writes poems of unspecified desire, but with much imagery of night, moonlight, and being a child or a young woman. Much concerns either what it is like to be about 22 years old or what it was like to be thirteen and younger. Her collection is called “a child in that alcove”. This is like a personality half-formed, balanced between childish impulses and mature loves. Holloway’s poetry is specifically grounded in Auckland urban settings. Always eschewing capital letters, Holloway sometimes  produces unpunctuated blocks of prose poems, as in her listing of repugnant, nightmarish images in  “you are my night terror i hope i am yours”. Personality, not fully formed, is also depicted as being in the process of disintegration. “departures”, consisting of largely-blank pages, purports to be drawing on a satire by Juvenal, but it erases so much (yes, erasing parts of given texts is currently a modish writing school exercise) that it is simply incoherent. There’s a great talent here waiting to be fully articulated.

 

Tru Paraha’s work is presented in an unusual typeface, mimicking an older form of presenting typed manuscripts. Her collection is titled “in my darkling universe” and it is an apt title inasmuch as Paraha does not deal with a specific setting but with a universal – indeed a cosmic – imagery, found in her explosive opening poem “spin”. Her Maori and Pacific heritage are important to her. Two of her poems draw on works by Hone Tuwhare and Alistair Campbell. Author notes tell me she is a choreographer and this would appear to be echoed in the way some of her work is set out like a pattern of dance moves. In effect, her work appeals as much to the eye as to the ear. Some of her typographical tricks don’t quite come off, however. I cannot see the purpose of driving words together in a solid block in her offering “wheniwasacannibal” unless if was intended to baffle the reader for a moment. Letshavemoreclarityinaddressingreaders.

 

            Modi Deng’s poetry is poised, finely balanced and – greatest virtue of all – coherent. Her imagery is cosmopolitan. Here she is in London. Here she is watching the rain in New Zealand. Here (as a pianist) she is performing in Beijing. She draws up European culture. She draws upon Chinese culture. There are no outbursts of either extreme joy or extreme anger but a restrained, and therefore far more powerful, depiction of emotions – far more powerful than incoherent “list” poems or tricks with typography. In short, a real poet already in full maturity of expression.

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.   

THREE NOVELS SET IN ROMAN BRITAIN by Rosemary Sutcliff (“The Eagle of the Ninth” first published in 1954, “The Silver Branch” first published in 1957 and “The Lantern Bearers” first published in 1959)

 


            On this blog, back in 2016, I introduced comments on C.S.Lewis’s Narnia Books by listing many of the titles of books for children and adolescents which I had read to my larger-than-average family when they were growing up. Among these books, I mentioned in passing those of Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992).

From the 1950s to the 1980s, Sutcliff was regarded in Britain as the best writer of historical fiction for adolescents, much admired and winning a number of literary awards.  She was prolific in her chosen genre, pouring out something more than a novel a year over 40 years. She did write some non-fiction and a few novels for adults, including Sword at Sunset, one of the more plausible reconstructions of the man who might have been the model for the tales that grew into the legends of King Arthur. I recall reading Sword at Sunset for my own pleasure some years back. But her forte was books for adolescents, with historical settings. Although she did write sometimes about other eras, she was most interested in Roman Britain and the early Middle Ages. Rosemary Sutcliff had some literary rivals. Henry Treece was probably her equal in his tales of vikings and saga-heroes. Geoffrey Trease (of a slightly earlier generation) was pretty good, but a little plodding in his narratives and inclined to be preachy. Far below her level was Ronald Welch, whose juvenile historical novels tended to be exercises in English jingoism concerning the patriotic Carey family  (how the Black Prince beat the Froggies at Crecy; how Marlborough beat the Froggies at Blenheim etc. etc.). To my chagrin, one of my sons – when he was a kid, of course – thought Ronald Welch was great, and I wasn’t going to argue with him.

But Rosemary Sutcliff reigned supreme.

In the days when I read to my children, I remember reading such Rosemary Sutcliff books as Warrior Scarlet (set in the Bronze Age) and Knight’s Fee (set in Norman England). But the book that stayed most in my mind was the book that is still her best-known, even if it was produced quite early in her literary career. This was The Eagle of the Ninth, first published in 1954. The Eagle of the Ninth is now known as the first part of what is billed as a “trilogy”, but it is a very loose trilogy and the two novels which followed, The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers, are set in different historical times and have different casts of characters. They can each be read as a self-contained narrative. What they have in common is their setting in Roman Britain.

As it happens, I did not read these two “sequels” to my bairns in the days when we squeezed together onto the couch for the evening’s reading. So recently I decided to read all three of them.


The Eagle of the Ninth lived up to my memory of it. It is set in Britain in about 130 AD. Marcus Flavius Aquila is an idealistic young military officer. He is obsessed with the memory of his father, who was an officer in the Ninth Legion, which, thirteen or fourteen years earlier, marched off to fight the barbarous Caledonians and was never seen again. The legion was apparently wiped out and ceased to exist.  The eagle standard borne before the legion was a symbol of the legion’s honour, but it too was lost. After being wounded and lamed in a battle with barbaric Britons, young Marcus is discharged from the army. He hears rumours that somewhere in wild Caledonia, a tribe has taken the lost eagle and worships it as a sort of fetish. Marcus believes that if he can retrieve the eagle, the Ninth Legion might be reconstructed and its lost honour atoned. So he sets out on a mission to recapture the eagle.

The Eagle of the Ninth is, in effect, a simple quest story, all the better for its simplicity. To an adult reader Marcus’s adventures in the wild north, accompanied by his faithful Briton ex-gladiator “body slave” Esca, are a little too easy. Marcus’s “cover” for inquisitive northern barbarians is that he is a healer, bearing salves for the sick. Very conveniently for the plot, he has the skill to act as a sort of doctor. Sutcliff glosses over such matters as how Marcus and his companion provision themselves in their long journey, and the wearisomeness of the whole dangerous trek. There are fortuitous encounters with friendly people who help them on their way, such as the huntsman who was once in the lost legion. How Marcus and Esca repossess the battered eagle (essentially an episode of robbing it from a barbarian sanctuary) is, at best, very implausible. But the dash back to the safety of the recently-constructed Hadrian’s Wall, with angry, robbed barabarians on their tail, makes for some rousing chapters.

I could be a spoilsport about this novel, pointing out its improbabilities and its unhistorical premise. (Few historians now believe the real Ninth Legion was wiped out in a disastrous battle in Caledonia; it was probably just transferred to another part of the Roman Empire, leaving Britons to wonder where it had gone.) But then I recall that The Eagle of the Ninth was, like most of Rosemary Sutcliff’s output, written for teenagers and in that genre it works very well. There are those lush descriptions of the landscape and countryside that were among Sutcliff’s trademarks. There is a romantic story woven into the quest narrative – Marcus’s chaste love for the Briton girl Cottia, from the Iceni people, who is being brought up in the Roman fashion under a different name. This could signal nothing but a happy ending – except that Sutcliff has the skill to bring in a mildly downbeat element. After his heroic quest, the (battered) remnants of the retrieved eagle do not lead to a renewal of the Ninth Legion, and Marcus realises that heroic endeavours do not necessarily lead to wished-for outcomes.

I admire the way Sutcliff expects her adolescent readers to be patient as the novel’s premise is set up slowly in the opening chapters. Indeed I do wonder if today’s adolescent readers would stay the course, in an age when there has to be much action from the very opening to keep them reading – especially in current fantasy novels which do not pretend to have an historical basis. I admire, too, the way Sutcliff brings into the story Marcus’s’ adherence to the military cult of Mithras, popular with Roman soldiers at this time, suggesting that honourable actions can arise from belief systems that are now defunct. The Eagle of the Ninth stands up very well, with Marcus’ journey having the freshness and optimism of David Balfour setting out for the House of Shaws. 


The second novel of this loose “trilogy”, The Silver Branch (first published in 1957) is set in the late third century, approximately the decade between 286 and 296 AD and therefore nearly two hundred years after the events of The Eagle of the Ninth. However the main character is a descendant of Marcus and his kin, signalled by his possession of a signet ring with an emerald inlay, which has been passed down as a family heirloom. There is also, late in The Silver Branch, the brief appearance of the battered eagle of the Ninth Legion, used as a rallying standard for patriotic Romanised Britons.

The events of The Silver Branch take place specifically at the time when there is the brief existence of a separate “empire” which had broken away from Rome, even if its leaders were of Roman culture. The commander of one Roman fleet, Carausius, had set himself up as “emperor” of the breakaway Gaulish Empire, consisting of northern Gaul and Britain. This empire lasted for a short time. The Roman general Constantius (who was junior “Caesar” to the Roman emperor) rapidly took over northern Gaul and restored it to Rome. For some years Carausius held on to Britain alone, of which he styled himself “emperor”. But he was assassinated by one of his chief officials, Allectus, who took over as “emperor” of Britain. And then at last, with some help from local Romanised Britons, Constantius invaded Britain, overthrew Allectus, and the separate “empire” ceased to exist as Roman power was restored.

This is the factual historical context into which Rosemary Sutcliff inserts her story. Reading The Silver Branch after reading The Eagle of the Ninth I felt a little let down, and still regard it as the weakest novel in the “trilogy”. In the first place, there is much more labororious scene-setting and explanation of the historical situation than there is in the earlier novel. And in the second place, there is what seems to be the repetition of a formula. Once again, like Marcus and Esca in The Eagle of the Ninth, there are two sworn companions on a quest. Tiberius Lucianus Justinius, known as Justin, is a medical officer in the army of Carausius. He speaks with a stutter. His cousin Flavius is a centurion. Most improbably, Justin and Flavius overhear dastardly plans being hatched against Carausius, whom they admire. Even more improbably, they become friends with Britain’s “emperor” and pass on their news to him. To protect them from any conspiracy, Carausius sends them both out of the way to work at Hadrian’s Wall. But Carausius is murdered and now Justin and Flavius are wanted men as Allectus takes over.

Throughout this novel, Rosemary Sutcliff’s characterisation presents Carausius as a true British patriot. Indeed, when Carausius speaks of the importance of “sea power” to protect his British “empire” from both Rome and Saxon “Sea Wolf” raiders, we can’t help feeling that Sutcliff is projecting onto these ancient times a patriotic image of a much later British Empire. Allectus, the poisoner, is presented as a totally untrustworthy villain, in league with the barbarous raiding Saxons who plague the Saxon Shore. The raw facts of history do not really let us know what sort of personalities Carausius and Allectus had, so these characterisations are very much Sutcliff’s invention. In the event, Justin and Flavius, after much ducking and hiding from Allectus’s villainous and homicidal partisans, throw in their lot with Constantius as one who can restore order and just governorship to Britain. Justin and Flavius lead a tatterdemalion “legion” of their own, recruited from Romanised Britons, to support Constantius’s professional legions and all ends well.


Surprisingly, however, I found the third novel of the “trilogy”, The Lantern Bearers (first published in 1959) to be a great return to form. Indeed, of the three, it is the one that comes closest to being a novel for adults (even if it did win the Carnegie Medal for best children’s book on a British subject). I am inclined to call it the best novel by Sutcliff that I have read. Part of its strength is the very complexity of its story – which has a large cast of characters – and Sutcliff’s clever dramatisation of the blending of many different peoples and cultures. There is also a slightly more honest presentation of adult relationships than appears in the first two novels.

The time is now the early fifth century, a little after Rome has been sacked (in 410 AD) and the Western Roman Empire is imploding. Rome finally abandons Britain, withdrawing its legions and leaving Roman civilians in Britain and Romanised Britons to fend for themselves. In short The Lantern Bearers, is set in the period that historians now call “Sub-Roman” Britain. Protagonist is the decurion (master of cavalry) Aquila, who has disobeyed orders and remained behind as he watches the last of the legions sail away. Of course he bears the emerald signet ring and is a descendant of the main characters in the earlier novels.

Aquila wants to protect and preserve Roman civilisation in Britain, but the barbarians are knocking at the gate. The (historical) Briton cheftain Vortigern – depicted by Sutcliff as spineless and gullible – has given in to the Saxon invaders led by Hengest and Horsa, and granted them great swathes of land in east and south Britannia (the origins of Norfolk, Suffolk and Wessex). Vortigern has abandoned his Briton wife and married Rowena, the bewitching and deceptive Saxon princess (so characterised by Sutcliff). But of course the Saxons have no intention of remaining confined to the lands Vortigern has granted them. They raid deeper and deeper into British territory. The Picts and Caledonian barbarians are ever threatening the north as what remains of Hadrian’s Wall decays and is unmanned. In the west, Scots raiders (i.e. Irish Celts from Hibernia) threaten the coasts of Cymru (i.e. Wales). How then can civilised Roman society survive in Britain? Please note that Sutcliff does assume that Roman culture is the superior brand, and (as in The Silver Branch), there is an undertone suggesting that she is really thinking in terms of patriotic Britishers of her own age.

In one Saxon raid, our hero Aquila’s sister Flavia is abducted by the Saxons and Aquila himself is enslaved by the Saxons’ allies the Jutes. He is taken to Jutland and labours for some years with a “thrall-ring” (a heavy collar) around his neck, signifying his slave status. After he manages to escape from this, he becomes one of those who bring together Romanised Britons and the Britons of Cymru to push back the Saxons, under the leadership of the civilised warrior Ambrosius. The climax is a great and bloody battle with the Saxons. Hengest’s Saxon warriors are defeated, but, as Aquila himself and others realise, the victory is not decisive. The Saxons will continue to advance. Into this, Rosemary Sutcliff inserts the minor character of a brash and brave young Celtic cavalry leader called Artorius (or Artor), who is obviously the origin and inspiration of Arthurian legend.

It shows great skill on Sutcliff’s part to so clearly delineate the different cultures involved in all this. As to the element which comes closest to an adult perspective we, for the first time in this “trilogy”, are given some consideration of the interaction of the sexes. Aquila meets with his abducted sister Flavia after many years. She is now married to the Saxon warrior who (in effect, although it is not spelled out) raped her and she is raising their child. When Aquila suggests she abandon barbarian husband and child and escape with him, she turns him down. By abduction (and implied rape), peoples and cultures blend. Roman Aquila himself marries Ness, a Briton woman, purely with the political aim of consolidating his diverse forces. Ness despises Aquila and Aquila despises Ness – until they realise that they are bound to stay together. By political manoeuvres, peoples and cultures blend. Incidentally, note that the Celts of Cymru and the Romans and Romanised Britons are, in this novel, beginning to be Christians, represented most by a hermit with whom Aquila at one stage takes refuge – but their Christianity still has a place for many pre-Christian beliefs and customs.

I am in danger of “talking up” The Lantern Bearers too much. It is certainly more sophisticated than the two earlier novels and more “adult”, but is is still essentially written for adolescents. In that genre, however, it is a very fine piece of work.

A Couple of Footnotes:

(A.) As all detailed references to Rosemary Sutcliff make clear, the author was stricken with a debilitating disease when she was a child, and spent most of her life in a wheelchair. She never married, had no children and no “significant other”. It would be debased Freudianism to suggest that she wrote about far off times and peoples as an escape from her constricted life – after all, there have been plenty of other very good writers of historical novels who faced no such physical limitations. Look up, for example, my posting on The Historical Fiction of Alfred Duggan, who was writing [for adults] at the same time as Sutcliff. Nevertheless, I do notice how Sutcliff has the tendency to have heroes who are somehow stricken – the lamed Marcus in The Eagle of the Ninth; the stuttering Justin in The Silver Branch and (stretching a point) the collared and enslaved Aquila in The Lantern Bearers. Maybe, just maybe,  they are conscious echoes of her own physical limitations.

            (B.) The Eagle of the Ninth is undoubtedly Rosemary Sutcliff’s best-known novel. It has twice been dramatised for British television, in both cases following Sutcliff’s plot closely and in the awareness that this was a story written for teenagers, not an adult story. However in 2011, there was a film adaptation given the title The Eagle. While more-or-less following Sutcliff’s plot, it introduced scenes of extreme violence quite out of keeping with Sutcliff’s general tone. On the whole, the critics roasted it – with good reason.

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. 

 

                                                 CRYING FOR A POLITICIAN

I’m not somebody who is easily moved to tears (apart from family tragedies and bereavements, of course). I remain particularly un-tearful when it comes to films and politicians. But I can remember two occasions when I was a teenager and I blubbed. One was when I was fifteen and, as I said on this blog some years back, I teared up watching the film The Informer . The other was a year or so later, in 1968, when I was sixteen.

It happened like this.

Being the youngest of the family, I was the only one of my siblings who still lived with my parents, all the others having moved on into adult life. One evening I was alone at home as my parents were out at, I think, a play. The news came through that Bobby Kennedy had been killed – shot dead by an as-yet unidentified gunman at a hotel where he was addressing a rally. What? After JFK and Martin Luther King yet another one struck down! It was unbelievable. It was horrible. I burst into tears.

My parents came home a few hours later. I must have still looked pretty upset.

“You don’t look very happy. What’s the problem?” said my father.

“Haven’t you heard the news?” I said.

They hadn’t.

“Bobby Kennedy’s been assassinated,” I said.

Dad sank into a chair.

I can’t remember him saying anything other than “Oh God. Americans!!” but I think he also said some choice things about trigger-happy American gun nuts.

And that, I assure you, was the only time I cried over a politician. Ever.

I don’t think that, as a teenager, I was too naïve, but there were a lot of things I didn’t know. As far as I then understood, Robert Francis Kennedy was on the side of right, a supporter of the civil rights movement, an advocate for the Mexican farmworkers in California who were being exploited by their employers, a decent man in his family life. He had recently announced that he was going to run for president, because Lyndon Johnson had announced he wasn’t going to run for another term. To me, he seemed like the perfect candidate.

Okay – I’m older and wiser over half a century later. I know that the Kennedy clan was not always a savoury bunch. I know that patriarch Joseph Kennedy was a devious banker who pushed and almost blackmailed his way into office under Roosevelt and got to be ambassador to England. I know that matriarch Rose was gushy in her religiose displays and the “author” or an autobiography that reads like solid PR mush. As for the “Camelot” legend of JFK, it was more tinsel than gold. Remember JFK was involved in such dubious enterprises as the attempted “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba. Remember, too, that the so-called “Cuban missile crisis” was not the legendary “eyeballing the other fellow and he blinked first”. It was resolved by a quid pro quo where the Russians removed missiles from Cuba on the condition that the Americans removed missiles from Turkey. Which they did. Remember, too, that JFK was the president who ramped up American involvement in Vietnam. And despite verbally supporting the civil rights movement, JFK did nothing to legislate on the matter. The important civil rights acts had to wait for Johnson to pass them. Most damaging for the “Camelot” legend, it is clear that JFK’s marriage was a sham, despite having glamorous photogenic Jackie at his side. JFK was a serial philanderer with a sleazy sex life. This is all very depressing, isn’t it? I’ve long since come to the conclusion that the only reason JFK is remembered with reverence by some people is that he was young, good-looking, bore himself like a movie star and died tragically by an assassin’s bullet. It’s really the traumatising assassination that he’s remembered for.

And what of Bobby Kennedy? Yes, it was very questionable – sheer nepotism in fact – for him, a man with no training in the law, to be appointed by his brother as Attorney General. And yes, he did for a short time, in the 1950s, act as a partisan of Joseph McCarthy in his witch hunts. But by the late 1960s he was past all that. He had long since refuted Joe McCarthy and his ways and he really was on the side of the civil rights movement and the cause of exploited immigrant farmers. Unlike his brothers (including younger brother Ted Kennedy, who was disgraced by the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969, a mere year after Bobby’s death), Bobby was an exemplary father and husband, having eleven children with his wife Ethel – an awful lot even by my standards. I sometimes think that the most patient and sane of the extended Kennedy clan was Ethel Kennedy, a valiant woman who has lived on for years pursuing causes worth supporting.

In spite of everything, there was genuinely a lot to like about this guy Bobby Kennedy and my teenaged attitude wasn’t too far off centre.

Now why am I rattling on about all this?

Because recently my wife and I watched all three episodes of the documentary series Bobby Kennedy for President which is currently available on Netflix. Irrationally but justifiably, it stirred up in me all those feelings I had on the day Bobby was shot.

Bobby Kennedy for President made clear all the negative things I’ve already noted here, and added a few extra. It really does seem to have been a little opportunistic for Bobby Kennedy to have presented himself as the “peace candidate” who promised to withdraw the USA from the Vietnam war when there was already a candidate with the same platform. This was Eugene McCarthy, who was building up a following before Kennedy entered the race. Yet despite Eugene McCarthy’s popularity with college students, it seems highly unlikely that either the uncharismatic McCarthy, or the doubly uncharismatic Hubert Humphrey (who was eventually the Democrat party’s official candidate) would ever have been elected president. With his very relatable personality - and, yes, with the legend of his older brother putting some wind in his sails - Bobby Kennedy at least stood a chance. As for Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights and his support for the immigrant farm-workers, Bobby Kennedy for President showed that these really were causes that Kennedy supported. He was not using them as a form of self-promotion.

Only one thing about the Netflix series threw me off balance a little. This was the possibility it presented that it was not Sirhan Bishara Sirhan who killed Bobby Kennedy. This thesis was presented with some plausibility in the series’ last episode, but I don’t want to wrangle with conspiracy theories.

Anyway, goofy, toothy grin and all, Bobby Kennedy was the only politician who ever moved me to tears. In my maturity, I’ve never found another who was worth it.