Monday, September 27, 2021

Something New

 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.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a book published four or more years ago. 

“CHILDREN OF THE SUN – A Narrative of ‘Decadence’ in England after 1918” by Martin Green (first published 1976).

Back in 2020, I introduced to this blog the concept of the “intellectual bestseller” while reviewing John Ralston Saul’s bloated and over-praised ramble Voltaire’s Bastards. I defined an “intellectual bestseller” as a non-fiction book which argues earnestly and intelligently a serious case and gets favourable reviews in highbrow publications; but which often tries the patience of readers and hence, after first purchase and the perusal of just a few chapters, is often left on the shelf largely unread.

I believe that when it was first published, Martin Green’s Children of the Sun caused a little stir and had the makings of an intellectual bestseller. But its lustre faded very quickly. It’s interesting to note that it was first published in America in 1976, but its publication in Britain was held up for one year as it was scutinised by its British publishers for any passages that could be seen as libellous. The few articles I’ve read about it in subsequent years tend to be hostile to Green’s theses such as they are. Perhaps this belated review will show why.

Martin Green is intent on giving us a portrait of a certain class of Englishmen in the 1920s and 1930s whom he designates as either “dandies” or “dandy-aesthetes”. By these he means privileged young men, usually from so-called “public” schools like Eton, who went on to Oxbridge and who dominated much of England’s literary world for a couple of decades. In a pompous, over-long and pseudo-anthropological note at the end of the book (pp. 501-508 in the 1977 English edition I have in front of me) he at last gets around to explaining to us what he means by “children of the sun”. He tells us that “Sonnenkinder” was a term invented by German anthropologists in the late 19th century when they referred to ancient societies in which heroic sons rebelled against their fathers and became attached to mother figures or mother goddesses like Demeter.

This Martin Green sees as the paradigm of Oxbridge’s dandies.

After the First World War, they rebelled against their fathers’ values of Kiplingesque patriotism, empire and duty, refused to “play the game”, identified with the softer life of aestheticism, and often eschewed marriage and adult responsibilities. Mentally, they remained coddled schoolboys. In his text, Green refers frequently to a “revolt against the world of maturity and responsibility.” Says Green “Oxford was not a place of study, but of exhuberant, anarchic, fantasising hedonism.” (p.200) Furthermore “The undergraduates – those of the right style – got treated by the dons like avatars of Adonis or Orpheus.” (p.201) He refers in detail to a cult of masculine beauty, only occasionally using the term “homosexual” although many of the individuals he discusses were homosexual. Yet for all their “rebellion” against their fathers, these young men enjoyed all the privileges their fathers had bequeathed them, most of them went on to assume their fathers’ roles in fashionable society, and most of them ultimately became conservative or reactionary in their views. In other words, these “rebels” remained loyal to their social class. Green sees Bloomsbury as simply an intellectual variant of the same mindset – Bloomsberries produced much real intellectual writing but no real scrutiny of their own privileges.

In his opening chapters, Martin Green confronts us with what he appears to think are hard-and-fast categories. The “dandy-aesthetes” at Oxbridge were Pierrot figures, self-absorbed, idling about, developing “other-absorption” only as aesthetes and more likely to be homosexual. The “rogue-rebels” at Oxbridge were Harlequin figures, often athletes and getting involved in politics, often at odds with their fathers but readily becoming establishment figures and more likely to be heterosexual. (Green gives Oswald Mosley was one such “rogue-rebel”). As for the “naifs”, they were the ones who, like children, were always looking for a grown-up or authority figure to lead them – explaining why many of these pampered boobies became (temporarily) Communists in the 1930s. For all of them, Green notes the ongoing influence of French and other European “decadents” (Proust, Cocteau, Diaghilev etc.). The trouble with Green’s categories, however, is that they are in fact very imprecise, and often overlapping. This becomes more obvious later in the book when he has to backtrack on some of his first declarations.

His technique is to follow the fortunes of two of Oxbridge’s more overt aesthetes, Brian Howard (who loved to dress in drag) and Harold Acton. As it happens, each had one American parent, and each came from decadent, promiscuous families of the sort who feature in Henry James’ novels. So we follow the careers of Howard and Acton as they go through Eton (1918-22), Oxford (1922-25) and London (1925-32). And, let’s be quite frank about this, much of Green’s text becomes sheer gossip.

At Eton, Acton and Howard affected a dandy style of dress and writing and influenced others, although not all their schoolboy contemporaries approved of them (Cyril Connolly, Eric Blair i.e. “George Orwell”). At Oxford they had some influence  on middle-class lads who were on the fringes of aestheticism (Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman) and like all aesthetes of the era, their style was often influenced by the Sitwells. Then it comes to London and – guess what? – once out of Oxbridge, the two major dandies failed to make any big splash in the world. Howard and Acton became “bright young men” among the “bright young things”, their showy antics putting them in the gossip columns for some years. But in real achievement, they are soon outstripped by upper-middle-class sloggers like Evelyn Waugh. Martin Green  gives thus a slightly ambiguous tribute to Waugh: “He was the most important because of the close link of friendship that… bound Harold Acton and him, because of the historical testimony he bore in various of his books to the dandies’ achievement, but above all because he was the man of the greatest intelligence and force to get involved in the dandy enterprise. It was in his life and work that the dandy idea achieved its greatest moral and imaginative substance.” (p.214) One can sense a whiff of disapproval here on Green’s part, and in the chapter on London he has the habit of throwing wilfully in all directions the term “dandy”. Cecil Beaton is a dandy. So are the Mitford Girls and all Nancy Mitford’s novels. Fair enough. But is Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm really a work of dandyism? I thought it was a cheerful pisstake of a worn-out genre. The fact is, Green falls into giving us synopses of people’s lives, drifting away from anything like a coherent argument, and only drawing us back to his central theme by inserting the word “dandy”.

As the 1930s and 1940s moved on, the game changed a bit. As Green tells it, many “dandies” took up Leftism but remained dandies, merely dabbling in and playing at politics as a new fashion. Thus he damns Harold Acton’s journalistic reports on China. Thus he views Brian Howard’s intermittent columns in the New Statesman and the Communism of old Etonian Esmond Romilly. Thus he sees the “naif” comrades W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender. And speaking of “naifs” looking for a father figure, thus he describes the Oxbridge traitors Burgess and McLean (Children of the Sun was published just three years before another aesthete, Anthony Blunt, was publicly revealed to be a Soviet spy.) Kim Philby was more of a “rogue-rebel”. When he comes to the Second World War, Green can find only one ex-Oxbridge-dandy who fully commits himself to the war, while the others scarper off to safe places. This is Evelyn Waugh who, truth to tell, was always more a satirist of dandyism than a participant.  (For Waugh’s war service, see on this blog comments on his  Sword of Honour  trilogy.)

So what does Green see as the great salvation from the “decadent” British dandyism of the 1920s and 1930s? 

He sees it as the commonsense backlash against aestheticism of George Orwell’s journalism, which looked at cold current realities in books like Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia and The Road to Wigan Pier. And unlike the “dandies” who embraced Communism, Orwell saw through Stalinism. Rather more questionably, Martin Green also praises the critic F.R.Leavis as one of the saviours of English literature and intellectual life. He declares: “With Orwell’s first publications, and those of F.R. Leavis, which were roughly contemporaneous, the effective resistance to dandyism began… these two men mobilised the best consciousness of their contemporaries, the best intellectual and moral forces, in support of maturity and responsibility of taste and temperament.” (p.286) And he declares “Leavis gradually came into more and more of his vocation as the expounder of all that heritage of maturity and responsibility that modern literature and modern England had turned away from.” (p.289) [Note Green’s favourite phrase here – he is really calling the aesthetes spoilt, irresponsible children.]

But almost as soon as he has praised Leavis and his publication Scrutiny, Green has to acknowledge the negative side of Leavis-ism. After the Scrutiny people condemned the novels of P.G.Wodehouse and the detective stories of Dorothy L.Sayers, Green notes “we see how clearly Scrutiny understood the plan of the cultural battlefield, recognising how the detective novel and the humorous novel were in those days the allies of the serious dandy writers.” (p.359) Yet he does fairly note that, in assessing Picasso, surrealism, the ballet and the works of James Joyce, the Scrutiny people’s  tone tends to become priggish and their manouevring clumsy” (p.360) as they try to keep in touch with modern art while clearly disapproving of it. In fact later on, it is clear to him that Leavisites rapidly became severe, self-righteous killjoys. For them: “To read was not to enjoy or to learn but to judge – and on behalf of the whole culture. As a method, this was both provincial and conservative, although not merely that.” (p.442) So, one wonders, how beneficial was Leavis-ism to the English body intellectual? Didn’t it just impose another snobbish intellectual hierarchy?

As one would expect, Green damns some works of the late 1940s and early 1950s as dandyism – Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the memoirs of Osbert Sitwell and all of Edith Sitwell’s later work, the plays of Christopher Fry, not to mention the travel books and art books of Harold Acton. These he sees as the desperate reaction of dandies to the new socialist welfare state, the years of austerity and the increasing dominance of American culture. So he welcomes the “angry young men” of the 1950s – Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, John Braine, John Wain, John Osborne, even Colin Wilson (God knows why the last-named should ever be seen as a credible intellectual). These, he claims, were the sensible, sane, responsible voices of the middle classes, as opposed to their elders, the precious upper-crust snobs and dandies. But alas, alas, Martin Green is forced to admit that even by the early 1960s, his vision of these newcomers exploded as, one by one, the “angries” themselves became crustily conservative and reactionary. (For a good example of this, see on this blog my review of John Osborne and his autobiographies.)   Oh, will dandyism never end!?

It is interesting to note that in a 23-page appendix called “Confessions and Conclusions” (pp.475-497), Green tells us that he was a grammar school boy who won a scholarship to Cambridge and always felt uncomfortable with upper-class twits in the university environment. Hard not to conclude that such feelings were the origin of this book. He also basically admits (here comes the back-pedalling) that many of the categories he devised and many of the dichotomies he promoted were not as straightforward as he had thought they were.

So how do I sum up this messy and very self-contradictory book?

It certainly has a sliver of truth to it. Yes, there were pretentious cliques of upper-crust aesthetes in 1920s Oxbridge, with a very “camp” sensibility, many of whom took trivia to be high art. Yes, the “bright young things” were snobbish and condescending in most of their publicity-seeking stunts. Yes, all this set the fashion in some of Britain’s literary life for a while. But in the end, all Green has to say is that fashions changed and they continue to change. Even those who Green sees as presenting a more honest and penetrating view of England and its literature became passe. Worse, as a number of critics have pointed out, Green gets some of his facts wrong, assumes that some of his named “characters” were intimate friends when they weren’t, and underestimates the better works of people he condemns. Is Edith Stwell’s poetry really inferior to Philip Larkin’s (given that they wrote in very different idioms)? Does The Lady’s Not for Burning mean less to us now than Look Back in Anger does? And, though Green does point out the limits of Leavisite criticism, doesn’t he himself often become the reproving self-important killjoy, underestimating the genuinely funny things that the likes of Waugh and Wodehouse wrote?

One of the worst decisions Green took was to structure the book around the careers of Brian Howard and Harold Acton, as if they were cut from the same cloth.

Brian Howard was, in the end, a sybaritic idler whose life developed as nothing much. After Oxbridge he did a little work in journalism, sank to low-rank clerking jobs during the Second World War, lived off his parents’ money as much as he could, took to alcohol and drugs and eventually committed suicide in 1958 after his current male lover had died of a drug overdose. The golden boy of student days had vanished into an embittered middle-aged man with not even his looks to commend him.

By contrast, Harold Acton worked hard at his writing. He had published 28 books on travel, on fine art, on aesthetics and on antiquities. Doubtless Martin Green would condemn Acton’s books as dandyish, twee and precious. Perhaps they were, but nobody can say that Acton wasn’t industrious. Acton (by this stage Sir Harold Acton) was still around when Green researched and published Children of the Sun. Indeed Acton granted Green an interview, an account of which Green places near the beginning of his book. But when the book came out, Acton objected to being paired with the foolish and self-destructive Brian Howard who, long before his death, had been disowned as a sour-tempered cadging sneak by most of his erstwhile Oxbridge pals, including Acton and Waugh.

The after-history of Children of the Sun is interesting. The buzz it caused on its first release in America was echoed in this part of the world. I recall seeing a local newspaper review proclaiming that the book showed up all those horrible upper class snobs who had sabotaged the General Strike of 1926. As in America, it was assumed to be a book of sober historical research. You will still find on Amazon those thumb-nail “reviews”, written by semi-literates, that take Children of the Sun to be a serious history book. But academe does not endorse it. Yes, it is filled with interesting gossip and scandal and some legitimate take-downs of bad and dated writing. But its central “thesis” is so wobbly, vague and ill-defined that it is little more than the author’s dyspeptic take on the writing and ways of people who are now all dead. 



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.                                                      


                                            PACIFIST OR JUST "ANTI-WAR"?

As you might have noticed, I’ve just been reading a reissue of Archibald Baxter’s We Will Not Cease, often regarded as the most influential statement of pacifism ever to have been made by a New Zealander. And inevitably, writing as a non-pacifist, it set me thinking about what real pacifism is. To be genuinely a pacifist, one has to believe that physical force is wrong under all circumstances and in the advancement of all causes. This means that violence can never be used. I admire people like Archibald Baxter and Mark Briggs who were really capable of living out this belief and who went through considerable suffering because of it. It took great courage. But I am still not persuaded to be a pacifist.


First let me state clearly it’s not because one of my brothers (now deceased) was a career army officer and another spent twenty years in the air force. Two more of my brothers were committed peaceniks who took part in anti-war demos etc. Brothers can remain on cordial terms even if they have different views and I wasn’t swung radically in either direction.

The crudest, but most compelling, argument against pacifism I first encountered was when I was a teenager and read Hilaire Belloc’s aphorism: “Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight / But roaring Bill, who killed him, thought it right.” (Please don’t bother telling me that Belloc was a bit of an anti-Semite. I already know that.) Pacifism would be fine in a world where everyone had the same commitment to peace. But that is not the world we live in. Some people really are belligerent and violent and – as history has shown again and again – whole nations can be persuaded to go to war, even on the flimsiest of pretexts. There are a lot of “roaring Bills” around, and they are not conducive to sweet reason or any other non-violent form of pacification.

And, of course, when there is violence – or mass violence – many people are hurt. The pacifist would argue that by being a pacifist he or she is setting an example which others will come to follow. But when violence is released, it cannot be controlled by doing nothing. The most committed pacifist might be willing to bear, unflinchingly, blows, torture and even death. But, by natural and wholly justifiable instinct, the overwhelming majority of people would not. And in a real situation of war or massive civil upheaval, when real people are being hurt, applied violence is often the only option to halt a conflict, and is the only way of protecting the innocent. (Your city is being bombed? Oh well, let it be bombed. We don’t want to use force to stop the bombing, do we?) In a way, I am repeating one of those bullying questions that military boards threw at conscientious objectors in the First World War such as “What would you do if you saw an enemy soldier raping your sister?” Lytton Strachey’s smug reply was "I should try to interpose my body". Not only was this a “camp” joke (understood as such by Strachey’s Bloomsbury pals who snickered over it) but it was also a rather inane response. To “interpose your body”, passively and without retaliating in such a violent situation, would probably mean the violent soldier would first kill you and then rape your sister. If you were genuinely a pacifist – one who eschews violence in all cases – you would not be able to protect innocents and non-combatants who were under attack.

Strachey’s flippant comment looks in the direction of “passive resistance” or “passive non-cooperation” or civil disobedience. To overcome injustice, to (metaphorically) fight against evil, all you have to do is (in Jesus’ phrase) “turn the other cheek”, go limp, and by your moral example shame the rest of society into changing their ways and overcoming injustice. We are often given the example of Mahatma Gandhi’s “satyagraha” or “soul force”, passive resistance in seeking India’s independence, of Martin Luther King’s non-violent marches into the South, or of Parihaka. But there’s a huge proviso hanging over such enterprises. Civil disobedience and passive resistance work only in societies where there is some rule of law and a press or mass media uncensored enough to report sit-downs, marches and other peaceful dissent. “Satyagraha” worked because in both Britain and India the press was able to report such dissent and help build up sympathy and agreement with Gandhi’s cause. Many in England (especially in the working classes) were on Gandhi’s side. Likewise in America there was already a growing Civil Rights movement and television cameras to report to the nation what happened when King’s marchers faced “Bull” Connor’s dogs and water cannons. In both cases, the pacifistic tactics would have meant little and had very little impact if they weren’t able to be made public. (My own researches tell me that there was only one newspaper in 19th century New Zealand that supported Te Whiti’s enterprise, and that was a newspaper with very limited reach. Parihaka was of course destroyed.) Take away some openness in a society, and pacifist tactics of civil disobedience have very little effect. Try Satyagraha in a fascist, communist or otherwise tyrannical or totalitarian state and see how you fare. Pacifistic demonstrators will be shot, their actions will not be reported, and their memory will be expunged. The massacre in Tiananmen Square didn’t happen, according to official People’s Republic of China teaching. It was merely a fabrication made up by subversive Western journalists.

On all these matters, I am reminded irresistibly of an exchange of polemical poems you will find in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse edited by Philip Larkin. In the middle of the Second World War the pacifist poet Alex Comfort wrote, under a pseudonym, a long broadside ridiculing the old imperialist Winston Churchill and his rhetoric of “blood, sweat and tears”, ridiculing the propaganda techniques encouraging the nation to support the war, and lamenting the way the nation had become militarised. In reply George Orwell, who was no great admirer of imperialist Churchill, wrote an equally long broadside, called “From one non-combatant to another” pointing out why exactly the war was being fought and what sort of enemy was being engaged. Brutally but truthfully Orwell said the choice was “Blood, Toil and Sweat or ‘Kiss the Nazi’s bum’ ”. Quite.

There is another matter related to pacifism which concerns me. This is a certain sort of pseudo-pacifism which passes itself off as pacifism. It involves people who are “anti-war”, but are ardently opposed to a war only so long as the war in question is one of which they disapprove.

To give the two classic cases from New Zealand.

In the First World War, some prominent members of the recently-formed Labour Party were completely opposed to conscription, spoke out against the war, and even served prison terms for their beliefs. In the Second World War, some of the very same men were now cabinet ministers in the Labour government, supervising conscription and enforcing strict penalties for conscientious objectors. In fairness, these men had never said they were pacifists (indeed, in their younger days some of them had been fairly revolutionary in their views). They were opposed to the First World War because they saw it as a mere struggle between capitalist and imperial powers which penalised the working classes. The Second World War was a different matter. But they were still “anti-war” only in one particular circumstance.

More devious was New Zealand’s relatively insignificant Communist Party. When Britain and France sold out the Czechs at Munich in 1938, the communists loudly protested that these capitalist governments had not stood up to Hitler. But then Hitler and Stalin made a “non-aggression pact” (i.e. an alliance) in 1939. So when war broke out, the communists suddenly became anti-war. To their own party members, they said the war with Hitler was merely a squabble between capitalist nations. To society at large they claimed to be pacifists opposed to the horrors of war. (A distorted account of these manoeuvres may be found in Elsie Locke’s not-entirely-truthful book Peace People.) But then – guess what – in 1941 Adolf double-crossed his good buddy Joe and invaded the Soviet Union. Suddenly the communists (not just in New Zealand but in all countries that had a CP) made a quick volte-face and became ardent proponents of war. There never was any real pacifism in the communist movement, but so-called “peace movements”, sponsored by the USSR, persisted through the 1950s, always very selective about the causes they wanted to be “peaceful” about and always advancing the cause of Soviet foreign policy.

“Anti-war”, then, is not true pacifism. In some senses, it is simply tactical.

And yet I would readily agree with the idea that some wars are not worth fighting.

There was much “anti-war” feeling during the Vietnam war, and I am old enough to remember being in the quad of the University of Auckland’s Student Union and hearing fiery debates on the subject. In one case, I remember a student challenging a platform speaker opposed to American and New Zealand involvement and arguing that leaders of both countries were “warmongers”. The student shouted “Aren’t the Vietcong warmongers too?” To which the platform speaker shouted back “You don’t know the difference between a people’s revolutionary war of liberation and an imperialist war.” And oddly enough, I agreed with her answer even if I thought her views were simplistic. Whether she realised it or not, she was actually taking the “just war” position.

Some wars are justifiable. Others aren’t.

Over the centuries, the “just war” theory has gone through many modifications and has been supported in various forms by religious, agnostic and atheist ethicists and philosophers in many cultures. It has of course been hard for religious thinkers to accept this theory, given that the founders of most religions were seen as advocates of peace. It is quite clear, for example, that for the first three centuries of their existence, Christians were devotedly pacifist, refusing to serve in Roman armies and taking very seriously the statement from the Sermon on the Mount “blessed are the peace-makers”. Jesus’ teachings were against violence, even if he did physically attack the money-lenders in the temple and he did make that ambiguous statement, argued over ever since, “I did not come to bring peace but the sword” (Matt.10:34). But then Christians became the largest body of people in Europe, kings and emperors were now Christian, and things changed. War was already, and continued to be, a reality. How to justify it. Thus, from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas and on to non-Christian ethicists, the “just war” theory developed. Despite all the modifications it has had over the centuries, it still seems to me the most robust approach to war. As I now understand it, the theory says wars should only be waged in self-defence, to forestall a tyrant who is about to attack, to punish a guilty enemy (rather dodgy that one) and only if the war can be won. No point whatsoever to wage war with a power that will inevitably crush you.

Is this a perfect solution to the problem of war? No. But it’s the best we can hope for in an imperfect world.

Perhaps by this stage, if you are a real pacifist and not merely “anti-war”, you will imagine that I am a blood-thirsty warmonger revelling in chaos, bloodshed and mass destruction. Nope. I am a non-military person, I have never wanted to be a serviceman of any sort and I have never borne arms (as well as now being too old to do so anyway.) If you think that negotiation and diplomacy are a better way to settle international conflicts, I am on board… but with the reminder that negotiation and diplomacy do not always work. If you think it is good to have a society that is not heavily militarised, I am again on board… unless you really are involved in a war. If you are involved in “peace studies” no problem… but in your teaching please recount history truthfully and not merely as a prop for your ideology.

Like you, I like the idea of a war-less, conflict-less, violence-free world. But I live in this world. So I am still not a pacifist.

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.


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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.


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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.