We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
THREE RE-ISSUED BOOKS: “WE WILL NOT CEASE” by Archibald Baxter - with a new introduction by Kevin P. Clements (Otago University Press, $NZ30); “MAN ALONE” by John Mulgan – edited and with a new introduction by Peter Whiteford (Victoria University Press, $NZ30); “SIX BY SIX – Short Stories by New Zealand’s Best Writers” – a reprint edited by Bill Manhire in 1989 (Victoria University Press, $NZ40)
This fortnight’s “Something New” section is essentially a cheat. The texts of the three books considered here have been in print for many years, all three of them have been widely read and circulated, two of them are often regarded as New Zealand “classics”, and I’ve read all three of them in earlier issues.
So why claim that they are “Something New”?
Because two of them have extensive new introductions, one of which explains it is restoring elements of the text that were excluded from earlier editions. And because their publishers were kind enough to send me these new editions for review, so here I am.
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I first read Archibald Baxter’s We Will Not Cease very many years ago when I was immersed in the poetry of his son James K. Baxter. In fact it was one of those books that was read by any alert New Zealand student who was concerned with matters of war and peace. It had the reputation of being the classic New Zealand statement of uncompromising pacifism. Some New Zealand politicians and polemicists have claimed to be “anti-war”, as in demonstrations against the Vietnam war. But often “anti-war” meant being opposed only to particular wars without embracing pacifism as a general principle. In a very obvious example, socialist leaders like Peter Fraser and Bob Semple were prepared to go to jail rather than fight in the First World War, but by the time of the Second World War they were respectable Labour cabinet ministers who supported conscription and a punitive attitude towards conscientious objectors. War against Kaiser bad. War against Hitler good. Archibald Baxter was not cut from that cloth. As a non-denominational Christian with socialist sympathies, he was opposed to violence and warfare in any circumstances and in the furthering of any cause.
This new edition of We Will Not Cease has two Forewords and a Preface. The new Foreword, written this year, is by Kevin P. Clements, director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago. It gives a detailed account of Archibald Baxter’s experiences in the First World War and then concentrates on Baxter’s moral worth and the inspiring example he set. The second Foreword, written by the late Michael King, is from a 2003 edition and gives a general biography of Archibald Baxter. And the Preface was written by Archibald Baxter himself for a 1968 re-issue of a book that had long been out of print since it was first published in 1939. 1968 was two years before he died in 1970, in his 89th year. We Will Not Cease was originally written in 1937, or at least dictated by Baxter to his wife Millicent, at a time when they were both living in England.
The opening words of Baxter’s text set out his basic belief: “Many years before the war of 1914-18, I had reached the point of view that war – all war – was wrong, futile, and destructive alike to victor and vanquished.” The same conclusion had been reached by Baxter’s three brothers who, like him, declared their pacifism when conscription was introduced in New Zealand in 1916. (For details of this see Loveridge and Watson’s The Home Front and other works by Steven Loveridge on this blog). But laws concerning conscientious objectors were far harsher in New Zealand than in Britain, Australia or the United States. COs had to belong to a stated religious group to be exempted from conscription. Baxter and his brothers were Christians, but belonged to no church. Therefore they weren’t exempted. Archibald Baxter himself was first imprisoned in a New Zealand jail where there were severe punishments for COs and some outright cruelty. Then, as one of fourteen pacifists, Baxter was loaded onto the troopship Waitemata in 1917 and shipped off to England. There were attempts to force the pacifists into military uniforms. Heavy punishment continued at Sling Camp on Salisbury Plain, but it was far harsher when they were sent over to Flanders on the Western Front and went to “Mud Camp” near Ypres. There they were, along with other punishments, subjected to Field Punishment Number 1 – that is, being left for hours on end tied to a post in such an uncomfortable position that their limbs ached, their feet swelled and they often passed out. On one occasion, this torture was administered during a snowstorm, freezing as well as torturing the prisoners. Pacifists were also sent into the trenches to share soldiers’ experiences of being fired at or having shells explode around them.
At some point, most of the pacifists eventually caved in and agreed to become stretcher-bearers or do other non-combatant duties under military orders. Only Archibald Baxter and the socialist Mark Briggs never gave in. Finally, in an attempt to discredit him, Baxter was confined to a psychiatric hospital in England, where the treatment was often brutal. It took a very long time for New Zealand authorities to agree with British authorities and have him returned home to New Zealand.
Re-reading this book after so many years, I note some things I missed the first time. The conversations that Baxter records (with fellow pacifists or with army officers trying to make him mend his ways) come across as too stiff and formal to be verbatim, often sounding like polite debating exchanges. But then Baxter was recalling them over 20 years after the event, and probably giving just the gist of such exchanges. Then there is the fact, which I had forgotten, that Baxter goes out of his way to show how often serving soldiers and jail-wardens understood the pacifists’ position, didn’t harass them and gave them some support. There were the brutal martinets, but there were also the soldiers who shared rations with them when they weren’t being fed, talked with them in a friendly manner and even called out sergeants and officers who pushed them too hard. When some were given Field Punishment Number 1 during a snowstorm, it was a visiting officer who was outraged by such treatment and ordered them to be taken down and given shelter.
Does reading this book persuade me to be a pacifist? No, but I do admire Baxter’s courage and I do know that some wars are not worth fighting. It’s interesting to note that even in the Second World War, New Zealand continued to have far harsher punishments for conscientious objectors than other Allied countries (except for the Soviet Union). See some understanding of this in The Prison Diary of A.C.Barrington on this blog. It is NOT true that the example of Baxter, Briggs and others led to a growing anti-militarist attitude in New Zealand. Anti-militarism took a long time to develop in New Zealand and was stimulated by factors unconnected to Baxter’s narrative. Even so, We Will Not Cease remains an essential historical document.
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If Archibald Baxter’s We Will Not Cease was once regarded as the classic New Zealand pacifist text, then John Mulgan’s Man Alone was once regarded as the New Zealand novel everyone had to read. I must admit to being a heretic on this one. Valuable though it is, I do not think Man Alone is the one unmissable seminal New Zealand novel, and I know I’m not alone in this opinion. Six years ago on this blog, guest reviewer David Eggleton, writing about Robin Hyde’s “Starkie” books – Passport to Hell and Nor the Years Condemn - came close to saying that Hyde’s books deserve the palm, are far more forceful, and present a far more authentic view of New Zealand, than Mulgan’s novel. (See especially Eggleton’s closing paragraphs.) As for myself, in my former life as a high-school teacher, I often gave Year 11 pupils (5th Formers) Man Alone as a text to study. I read it many times and I did the standard teacher thing of using the novel as a history lesson rather than a literary text, pointing out to the class how New Zealand had changed since the days when barges and coastal vessels were often the main means of getting from one New Zealand region to another; how farms in some parts of the country were then being broken in for the first time; how casual labourers then survived; how the well-fed 1920s turned into the hungry 1930s; how most Maori then lived in rural areas; and of course what the Great Depression was like, especially in Mulgan’s vivid description of the Auckland riot. In case you haven’t noticed it, this is very much the way high-school teachers carry on when they discuss novels – ignoring such matters as style and the novel’s literary qualities. As I recall, I never presented Man Alone in the co-educational school where I taught – only in the boys’ school I moved on to. And on the whole the boys liked it. Simple story. Not too complicated. Written in easy, almost Hemingwayesque, language. And, of course, about a single bloke who was a bit of a hard case. Some of the boys could easily relate to this figure, even if they weren’t hard cases themselves.
VUP’s new edition of Man Alone is edited and with a foreword by Peter Whiteford. The back-cover blurb says Man Alone is “one of the foundations of New Zealand literature” and Peter Whiteford’s Foreword says it became “a literary landmark, an iconic work, or a classic of New Zealand literature”.
Whiteford spends most of his Foreword on two topics.
First, the title of the novel “Man Alone”. Whiteford gives in detail the argument, already posited by other critics, that Mulgan’s original title “Talking of War”, would have been better as the novel is about the effect of war. The protagonist Johnson is a veteran of the First World War whose experiences of war have shaped him, the story is set in “the peace” between the two world wars, and it begins and ends with Johnson involved in yet another war, the Spanish Civil War. Yet I can see why the original publishers wanted to change the title. “Talking of War” would be very misleading to the overwhelming majority of potential readers, leading them to think the novel was literally set in a war. On top of which I believe the title “Man Alone” represents more honestly what the novel is about. Despite for some time having a pal in Scotty, Johnson is, for whatever reason, essentially a taciturn loner, his one sexual encounter is brief and ends badly and his months in the Rangipo Desert and the bush are mainly solitary.
I have never believed the idea that the book is essentially about solidarity. It is well known that the brief “Part Two” (the last twenty pages of the novel) was added hastily when the original publishers asked Mulgan to bulk the novel up a bit. It is only here – quite in contrast with the rest of the novel – that Johnson really gets involved in collective matters, even if he did once march with the unemployed. In fact I suspect Mulgan’s two-page “Introduction”, where Johnson has “just come out of Spain”, was also part of this hasty patch-up - but this is one matter that can’t be proven as no manuscript of the novel now exists. I say this in the knowledge that Vincent O’Sullivan’s authoritative biography of John Mulgan, Long Journey to the Border, suggests that Johnson’s story is the story of a man, embittered by the failed economic system of 1930s New Zealand, and learning that cooperation with others is the only remedy. Even if this is so, Johnson is still the loner for most of the novel and “Man Alone” is still the better title.
The other matter that Peter Whiteford dwells on is the matter of the text itself, and how it has had to be edited closely because there were many literals and unnecessary “corrections” in earlier editions. These he has set right, with discreet footnotes on each page where a correction has had to be made. However, as Whiteford says himself “The majority of the changes consist of quite minor alterations of wording, but they do have a subtle impact where they occur.” (p.14) Not enough, however, to change the general impact of the novel we already know.
As a scholar, Whiteford lists and cites a number of texts and critiques of Man Alone. I’m interested to note that there are two well-known critiques he does not cite. One is the 4-page evisceration of the novel which Jock Phillips undertook in his condemnation of the hard-case New Zealand bloke A Man’s Country (published 1987; very slightly revised in 1996). Phillips damns Man Alone as an extended exercise in misogyny with its dismissive and patronising attitude towards women, who are presented as dangerous and devious. He calls the novel a work of “appalling chauvinism” and (a bit more plausibly) is annoyed by the “quite extraordinary identification of mateship with international socialism”. [ For what it’s worth, Phillips blows his top in the same way, and with more justification, when he comes to Frank Sargeson.] The other un-noted text was Alex Calder’s The Settler’s Plot (2011 – inadequately reviewed on this blog) with its 22-page essay on Man Alone arguing (with far more subtlety than I am suggesting here) that two of Mulgan’s major inspirations were Western films and cowboy songs.
I don’t believe Man Alone is New Zealand’s first major novel, but it’s still an important book reflecting honestly some aspects of a New Zealand that was. Without fishing for compliments, Mulgan himself professed to be unimpressed with what he had written. He called the novel “honest but dull”. Peter Whiteford refutes this judgement at the end of his Foreword, but I think there is some truth to it, even if Mulgan was being hard on himself. And I agree with a suggestion made recently to me that Mulgan’s wide-ranging story presents a more comprehensive version of New Zealand in the 1930s than the over-praised sketches of Frank Sargeson. Maybe it’s not the best, but it’s still worth reading
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I’ll spend the least time on the bulkiest of these three re-issues, all 560 pages of it - Six By Six – Short Stories by New Zealand’s Best Writers. I’m being brief because, as the original editor Bill Manhire says in his short “note”, this collection is “a reissue, not a revision”. Six by Six is the fourth printing of a book that has been around since 1989, and it comes complete with Manhire’s original 1989 Introduction and the original 36 stories (six stories by each of six authors). Neatly, the authors are three women (Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, Patricia Grace) and three men (Frank Sargeson, Maurice Duggan, Owen Marshall).
Another reason I’m being brief is that I’ve read all these stories before in various collections. But this time I did enjoy myself by re-reading one story by each author. Katherine Mansfield’s “The Woman at the Store” remains one of her most frightening tales. Frank Sargeson’s “The Hole That Jack Dug” is a subtle exercise in blokey misogyny and coded gayness. Maurice Duggan’s “In Youth is Pleasure” reproduces a chilling account of verbal abuse in an old-style classroom. Janet Frame’s sketch “You Are Now Entering the Human Heart” shows how wrong well-intentioned demonstrations can go. Patricia Grace’s longish story “Valley” demonstrates, as Manhire correctly notes of this author, a real sense of family and community. Owen Marshall’s “Kenneth’s Friend” presents, in a rather dour way, the consequences of humiliation.
It will always be problematic to declare who are the “Best” writers in New Zealand. (You can see my less-than-worshipful view of Frank Sargeson in the posting Frank Sargeson’s Stories on this blog.) In days of yore, I helped secondary school pupils dissect works by four of these authors, including Maurice Duggan, and I regret that “Towards the Mountains” was not one of the stories Manhire chose to represent him. It was an interesting tale of suppressed sexual tension and it went down well with the senior forms. No real complaints though. This is still a great collection and good primer on New Zealand stories.