Monday, April 25, 2022

Something New

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

“HOUSE & CONTENTS” by Gregory O’Brien (Auckland University Press, $NZ 29:99); “SUPER MODEL MINORITY” by Chris Tse (Auckland University Press, $NZ 24:99); “FORMICA” by Maggie Rainey-Smith (The Cuba Press, $NZ 25)


            Gregory O’Brien is both poet and visual artist, the two roles having equal importance in his work. Like his Beauties of the Octagonal Pool (reviewed on this blog in 2012),  his new collection House & Contents is as much visual images as words. And like his Always Song in the Water (reviewed on this blog in 2019), which was his prose text accompanied by other artists’ images, House & Contents looks at landscape, urban dwellings and sometimes the sea with a strongly spiritual perspective. What we might consider inanimate things do live. The world O’Brien sees is always alive.

In some concluding notes to this new collection, O’Brien separates himself from purely topical or polemic statements, declaring that poetry “can’t simply reflect its times – it has to radiate on its own terms, within and beyond that darkness [of modern times]”. He also notes “I’ve used drawings or paintings to illuminate poetry. And I’ve used poetry to converse with, and maybe shed light upon, painted images. This book gathers together these two endeavours in a co-equal arrangement. While the words and paintings echo and overlap, and occasionally coincide, the paintings are not illustrations…” The artworks displayed in this new collection were produced between 2014 and 2020. They are in what has become O’Brien’s distinctive style, representative but not photographic, images painted with broad, dark outlines of shapes, enfolding bright colours with much use of burnt sienna. Landscapes and seascapes often involve mountains, sometimes including men and women (and horses); sometimes including text. In one case (“The Uses of Fondness”) the text almost dominates the image with brief anecdotes. Collectively, the images create a mood – in this world but not entirely of this world,

And what of the poetry? The title of the poem “House and Contents” is a phrase found in insurance policies, but references those uncertainties in life that make insurance necessary. It begins as a prose account of enduring an earthquake in Wellington, but in its gently ironic way, it comments on what we do and don’t value during such experiences. Continuations of this prose statement are scattered though the collection, time of day being duly noted in each case, and with aftershocks suggesting the unstable element in which we live. The scene of this fragmented statement shifts from Wellington to Christchurch to Chile and other earthquake-struck locations. O’Brien finds an odd music in earthquakes, where lower tremors produce sounds like “an acoustic effect. A variation upon J. S. Bach. A well-tempered something”. This device – a prose statement threaded through the text - is like the bass accompaniment to a song, an undercurrent of uneasiness even when O’Brien is rejoicing in the natural world.

There is an element of whimsy in some of O’Brien’s poems. I confess to getting lost in the short takes corralled together as “Sixteen Things”. They are mildly satirical, but it’s hard to see the referents of some of them. “Two burning cars one afternoon” seems a jocular expression of an odd mishap, but its last stanza suggests tragedy. Two poems about the Styx stream in Otago, which  flows into the Taieri River, take the stream’s name literally and become a descent into the underworld. Sometimes O’Brien draws on family memories (an epitaph for his father and his beliefs; memories of being asthmatic in childhood; a visit to cousins in Cork in Ireland) and sometimes on travel (visits to Valparaiso; a hat store in Santiago) and in considering wild nature, he sometimes hits on an ecological theme (a reflection on nature and exotic plants in New Zealand called “The Spaniards of Italian Creek”; poems on Captain Cook and early scientific explorations).

And the poems in which O’Brien excels?

The collection’s opening poem “Mihi” begins with the lines “The birds and animals of our mother’s land greet / the birds and animals of your land” and continues in similar vein. It could be referring literally to the poet’s late mother but becomes a mother image of the land itself and how its realities are perceived differently by different generations.

“A genealogy” is a sequence of related poems which tells us “We are injured; we hurt / easily – our genes / decided that…” explaining how he became a poet, but also warns us that there are “the minutiae of us: / genes, cells, chromosomes, DNA / rattling like heirlooms on an unstable / mantelpiece”. He speculates on whether there is an order in the way we grow and develop as individuals or a species; or whether human development is random. Determinism or free will are balanced carefully here… with references to Irish relatives.

Then (O’Brien’s greatest work in this collection I think) there are poems that give personality to things. In “House” the house is seen as an extension of the human body – in a way anthropomorphised, but anchored in the reality that houses are, after all, created by us. Similarly a personality is granted to what is non-human in “Ode to the water molecule”. Best of all in this line is “Conversation with a mid-Canterbury braided river” – a tour de force and a very beautiful poem. The river’s personality is not human, but it reflects and in doing so it reflects us. It is a sustained piece of imaginative observation.

O’Brien’s world is often numinous embracing the magic of seeing what is inanimate as living and sharing the universe. It dances.

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Chris Tse’s Super Model Minority is a very different proposition. Much of it is written directly in the first person, sometimes confessional and sometimes raw polemic and protest. A publicity sheet I was sent describes it as “spirited and confronting”. Back in 2014 there appeared New Zealand-born Chinese Chris Tse’s How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes (reviewed on this blog in  2014), in which he dramatized his Chinese forebears and related stories of Pakeha prejudice towards Chinese in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Later he produced a collection (which I have not sighted) called He’s so MASC, apparently concerned with his coming out as gay. Super Model Minority combines the two dominating themes – racism and sexuality.

A proem called “Utopia? BIG MOOD!” declares that history repeats itself in dismal ways every time we head for a Utopian future, but it’s all still worth the struggle. And struggles takes up much of the three sections into which this collection is organised.

First comes the section called Super Model Minority. Its opening poem “Wish list – Permadeath” begins “I wish I didn’t feel compelled to write about racism, but there it is / patrolling my everyday thoughts like a mall cop drunk with power”. It continues suggesting how wearying it is to confront endlessly the same problems. It is followed by “Version control” and “Karaoke for the end of the world” which add homophobes to the roll. And then into “Super model minority – Flashback”, a title which at the very least is ironic, for the racial minority is revealed when “It has been decades since I claimed my place but they still insist I drape my motherland’s loose threads around my neck” and the poem becomes a long lament at, and anger at, the fact that his ethnicity and queerness mean he is too often still not seen on equal terms as a fellow citizen. “I’m sorry I’m a Chris Tse” carries the sage statement “There is no reason you can’t / crave both a very specific future and / a past you wish you could call your own”, a statement anchoring him in both history and the present moment. “Mike & Karl & Duncan & Martin” makes fun of white men who proclaim their miseries while he himself feels “strapped to a torture rack because no one trusts a gaysian / with a Kiwi accent and a creative writing degree”.

Much of this is directly satirical, but there is a welcome ambiguity in a poem like “The Magician – Notes on Distraction”. It could be interpreted as charting a coping mechanism by ignoring hard reality OR it could be an account of how reality is blocked out or ignored, especially as the following poem is called “In Denial”.

While the first section is often angry, rebellious and exasperated, the second section Vexillology – in more stately, calmer and reflective – indeed sometimes a little ponderous. These poems are built around the colours of the LGBT Pride flag, going poem by poem through the usual colours, and then some. Pink is sexuality, red is life and courage, orange is healing and so on through yellow, green, turquoise, indigo and violet, each signifying as moods and self-identification of the queer.

Finally there is the section called Poetry to make boys cry which draws very much on adolescence, parents’ and relations’ reactions to his emerging gayness, clubbing and fumbled affairs. That, at least, is how this section first declares itself, but Tse is aware that self-pity can be destructive, and his perspective widens as poems like “Geometric Growth” strike a philosophic vein in looking at the consolations of art and the ability to see things in perspective; and “Portrait of a Life” declares “There’s something at the end of every road, even if you can’t see it with the naked eye: it’s knowing that one man’s fortune is another man’s motivational poster. As much as I’d like to build something permanent I know I have only so much to give away.” “Photogenesis” deals with almost metaphysical concerns – what about the past that controls us? What about after we die? And in the end it might be enough to “look up at a sky blushing red and / see possibility – to not worry how the end will reveal itself.” There is a sort of conciliation there, after the storm all passion spent. But not quite, for the after-effect of this collection is still mainly anger and protest.

Many poems in this collection are packed with so many images and concepts of discontent and critique that they cannot – and should not – be synopsised. A snowstorm of imagery beats at the same themes. Super Model Minority should be read one poem at a time as to read it at one sitting is both exhausting and overwhelming. It is very angry and funny and anarchic and sorrowful at the same time, perhaps wishing for a Utopia which will always be unobtainable.

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And I have to repeat myself by saying that Maggie Rainey-Smith’s Formica is a very different proposition from the two collections you have just been reading about. Its 42 poems are written by a woman of an earlier generation and in large part dwell on domestic things, personal feelings and the world of the past, even when it is contrasting the past with the present. Although she has written in other genres (as novelist and essayist), this is Maggie Rainey-Smith’s first collection of poetry. She composes mostly in neatly-structured stanzas, presenting us with only one prose poem.

Her opening poem “Jogging” situates her thus: “I’m invisible typing / my life into the baby boomer abyss / privileged by association a post-war / baby” and “it seems my voice is now irrelevant / the story done and dusted years ago”. This signals her awareness of the dismissiveness, not to say contempt, that younger generations in New Zealand sometimes have for older generations (as in the inane parliamentary taunt “Okay boomer”) no matter how many interesting stories and observations older people have to offer. But Maggie Rainey-Smith is defiant in asserting the interest and importance of her life. In the earlier poems of Formica she discusses such vanished childhood things from the 1950s as watching a mother prepare home cooking; listening to radio serials; going to the matinee movies; children’s fears of what they rudely called a “loony-bin”;  young women having children out of wedlock and then adopting them out, with families and the community disguising the fact; old-time courtship in a fairground; the awareness of the recent world war and how it affected her soldier father; having to visit the “murder house” for rotten teeth to be fixed; in adolescence the shame and surreptitiousness of learning about, and learning to cope with, menstruation; first sexual gropings; and the tedium of training as a typist, which then was regarded as an appropriate career for a young woman.

There is some nostalgia here, but as you can see, this is not a nostalgia-fest.

Even so, the poet defends the dignity of people in the past who by and large lived by the accepted mores of their time. The title poem “Formica” is a survey of what would now be regarded as obsolete, unfashionable home appliances and fixtures as they were in  the 1950s. With all their shortcomings they had a status and the family built legends and anecdotes around them. But says Rainey-Smith “now my middle / – class bookclub / friends laugh / the very idea / of kitchenware / for Mother’s Day”. Women now being presented with kitchenware as a present might regard this as a unsubtle hint to get back into the kitchen. This ignores how much labour-saving devices were welcomed by women some decades back, and how they made their domestic work easier. Perhaps the poet, now in old age, still feels some affection for her home appliances as in the poem “Ode to my Kenwood”.

Rainey-Smith sometimes corrals together poems on similar themes. Two poems reference Katherine Mansfield. Beginning with “That summer”  there are three sequential poems about suicide: first the unawareness of the girls that something tragic has happened; then an account of the suicide itself; and finally the unsatisfactory “wake” and the aftermath of a suicide.  When she does bring poems together like this, she puts them in conversation with each other. “Autumn and Anzac” gives us, with apparent disapproval, the boozy, lachrymose destructiveness of 1950s Anzac Day commemorations, something which would now be condemned as pointless macho displays. But the very next poem “Seventy years on” deals sombrely with the loss of Crete in the war, the carnage and her father’s capture and years as a POW. Distasteful or not, there are reasons why men of that generation got drunk and cried over lost friends.

Though they don’t sit side-by-side in the text, “The Saturday Matinee” can be paired with “A musical OE”. Both touch on the growth of American cultural influence. “The Saturday Matinee” tells us of the Hollywood fantasies that bewitched New Zealand adolescents in the 1950s and 1960s until they went blinking out into the sunshine. “A musical OE” tells us of the emotional effect of American pop music, with the poet cleverly winding into it fragments of songs.

Later in this collection, Rainey-Smith begins to focus on being old and how memories of earlier days are curated. There is “He can cook” on how mores have changed (how many men did the cooking in the 1950s?) plus the funniness of sex in old age. There is “Menopause” and there is “Fresh” about falling and breaking a wrist, a common occurrence for elderly people. “Swiss Ball” rather awkwardly shows what it is like to be fifty and realising that all the other women in the gym are younger than you are. (Regrettably an element of self-praise mars this poem.) “Learnings” contrasts memories of harsh schooling in the 1950s with the enlightened way she has taught adult ESOL to adults (not a fair comparison I’d say). Then there are poems noting her role as a grandmother as in “Lockdown villanelle”, “Halmoni at the park” and “Turning thirteen”.

            As for the preservation of memory, “Where were you” is a poem about her childhood and adolescent experiences in Richmond, again calling on a later generation to understand the ethos of an earlier era. And of course there is a kind of revision in the book’s sole prose poem “Changing course” about the inevitable disillusion of visiting a childhood and adolescent haunt and finding how it is changed beyond recognition. It ends “All my secret roads are gone and our river’s changed course”, which is naturally a definition of her life.

As envoi to this collection, she gives us “Who am I?”, a life assessment running through all her experience and a robust self-assertion. Perhaps we could say this is critical retrospection rather than nostalgia.

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.     

“LAWRENCE OF ARABIA – A Biographical Enquiry” by Richard Aldington (First published 1955)


[NB All page numbers in this review come from the original 1955 edition of this book.]

            In my last “Something Old” posting, I examined T. E. Lawrence (self-styled “Lawrence of Arabia”) in his own words by reading carefully his flatulent and pompous book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It is the essential text if one wishes to understand this much-mythologised man. But the next-most-important book about Lawrence was published twenty years after Lawrence’s death. This was Richard Aldington’s Lawrence of Arabia – A Biographical Enquiry, which appeared in 1955. After two or three decades of books that praised Lawrence uncritically, Aldington’s was the first to debunk Lawrence methodically. Some years ago I wrote on this blog about Aldington’s 1920s novel Death of a Hero, and I pointed out that Aldington was a man of extremes, or as I put it, that he tended to write as if he were shouting at us. Richard Aldington (1892-1962 – born Edward Godfree Aldington) either loved and totally endorsed things, or he condemned and completely rejected things. There was no middle ground and no attempt to weigh up the pros and cons about people. His book on T. E. Lawrence does not concede any good whatsoever to the man. With similar absolutism, his biography of the other Lawrence, D. H. Lawrence, Portrait of a Genius But… idolises D. H. Lawrence, ridicules all his critics, and is in effect hagiography.


When Lawrence of Arabia – A Biographical Enquiry first appeared in 1955, it caused a rowdy controversy and was widely condemned by those who thought that Aldington was maligning a national hero. Certainly Aldington overstates his case, and on one particular, he expresses ideas that now seem very questionable. Even so, many of the things he says, then regarded as almost posthumous libel, have been confirmed by later researchers. The broad outlines of his critique are now widely accepted by all but patriotic mythologisers. In effect, his dyspeptic book was a necessary debunking which laid the foundations for more balanced views of Lawrence.

The major accusation Aldington aims at Lawrence is that Lawrence was a chronic liar. Aldington was the first to publicly note (what was still scandalous to many people in the 1950s) that Lawrence was an “illegitimate” child as were his siblings. His father was a minor aristocrat who deserted his wife and cohabited with a governess, Lawrence’s mother. This, as Aldington interprets it, gave Lawrence a life-long sense of shame so that he always had difficulty in making friends and was always looking for a father figure. While he was genuinely a talented child, he invented exaggerated stories and made up many which were accepted as the truth by more gullible biographers such as Robert Graves, who wrote one of the earlier hagiographies of Lawrence. Graves believed Lawrence’s nonsensical claim to have read all 50,000 books in the Oxford Union Library when he was a student. Lawrence was always vague when it came to dates and had the habit of saying he did something “before I was ten” which was easily turned into a marker of precocity. For example he claimed he had learnt Latin fluently before he was 4, claimed to have invented the type of bicycle he rode and exaggerated the mileage he covered in a cycle tour of France, all of which claims were untrue. Aldington goes on to prove that when Lawrence was a trainee archaeologist under the eminent Leonard Woolley, he exaggerated the extent to which he had travelled in Egypt and the Middle East. He had little real knowledge of the Arabian hinterland until he was engaged by the military.

In Aldington’s eyes these were, however, less important than the lies he told about his war service. First, says Aldington, Lawrence did not invent the “Arab strategy” of fomenting an Arab revolt to harass the Ottoman forces. He was given a job at the British bureau in Cairo and was privy to a number of strategic plans which he later claimed were his own. It was his superior Sir Ronald Storrs who concocted the idea of stirring up Hashemites. In May 1916, the Sykes-Picot agreement – the secret plan for Britain and France to carve up the Middle East at war’s end -  was already concluded before Lawrence was in any way connected with an Arab revolt. [Remember, all Lawrence’s activities in the desert were confined to 1917-18.] Says Aldington “preliminaries, which led to the rebellion, occurred before Lawrence even reached Cairo, as did Hussein’s refusal to endorse the Holy War. In other words, the rebellion of Sharif Hussein against the Turkish government would certainly have occurred if Lawrence had never existed.”  (Part 2, Chapter 2 p.146). Here, however, Aldington is overstating his case, as in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence himself does note that others had already thought of the “Arab strategy” before he was involved.

Lawrence, says Aldington, was a self-mythologiser, and notes “Whatever Lawrence’s part in the 1914 war it can probably never be estimated exactly because so much of the evidence rests on his own testimony. Lawrence has recorded that Lord Allenby could not determine how much of him was ‘genuine performer’ and how much ‘charlatan’ and Lord Wavell comments that Allenby never solved the problem; but he ‘always suspected a strong streak of the charlatan in Lawrence’. Lloyd George more vaguely hints a similar opinion.” (Part 1, Chapter 7 p.110) Lawrence’s first major engagement was leading a small Arab column up to capture the coastal town of Wejh. It was supposed to be a combined operation with the British Navy; but Lawrence dawdled and the town had been captured by the navy alone before he arrived. [I did note in my review of Seven Pillars of Wisdom that Lawrence himself records this event, but he makes up elaborate excuses for his non-engagement.] Lawrence did blow up Turkish railway lines but exaggerated how many; and besides, says Aldington, French and British engineers had already been doing this for two years before Lawrence appeared on the scene. Aldington notes that the D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order) which Lawrence was awarded in 1918 was awarded on the basis of his own uncorroborated report concerning a very small engagement. Lawrence made his name for capturing Aqaba [Akaba] which had a very small garrison and Lawrence did not lead this attack but followed Feisal. [Again I think Aldington overstates – in Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence admits that Aqaba was barely defended.] To dismiss the romantic notion that Lawrence’s war exploits were somehow the key to the Allies’ victory in the Middle East, Aldington frequently (and correctly) reminds us in detail that for most of the First World War, the bulk of the Turkish Army was occupied by its campaigns in the Dardanelles and the Caucasus; and most of the Allies’ success in Palestine and Syria was thanks to General Allenby’s regular British Army. Lawrence’s exploits had little or no impact on overall strategy.

Aldington was the first to spell out explicitly that Lawrence was homosexual by orientation – a truth that would upset few people now but that was blasphemy in the 1950s. Says Aldington, the adolescent water-boy Dahoum, known as Sheik Ahmed was “probably the great love of Lawrence’s life” (Part 1, Chapter 5, p.80) and most likely the mysterious “S.A.” to whom Seven Pillars of Wisdom is dedicated. The boy was about 15 years old, which raises the unpleasant possibility of paedophilia on Lawrence’s part. Aldington charts Lawrence’s homosexuality by many indicators, such as his inability to relate to women and his silly boyish pranks like putting up ridiculous “decorations” in order to mock a fellow archaeologist who had just got married (Part 1, Chapter 6 p.90). The only woman he seems to have liked in adulthood was George Bernard Shaw’s wife, who was more of a mother-figure. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence sometimes openly declares his preference for male company and shunning women. It amazes me that anyone should have found Aldington’s revelations shocking in the 1950s, inasmuch as all the evidence is there for the reading in Seven Pillars of Wisdom itself. I can only assume that many of those who were shocked had never read what Lawrence himself had published.

Aldington says (correctly) that it was Lawrence himself who promoted and curated his own legend. While claiming to shun publicity and to be embarrassed by the fame he won after the war, Lawrence was in fact the chief deviser of his fame. Aldington dwells on this at length. The first person to promote the “legend” of Lawrence was the American journalist Lowell Thomas who photographed and filmed Lawrence in 1918 and who, after the war, gave popular lectures about Lawrence’s exploits. Aldington notes:Mr Thomas showed a remarkable complaisance in playing up to Lawrence’s peculiar quirk of craving for notoriety while wishing the world to believe he hated it. How was it possible to reconcile with this contempt for vulgar publicity the undeniable fact that Lawrence was willingly one of the most photographed men of his time, and was always offering himself as a model to painters and sculptors?” Lowell Thomas later admitted that he had made up a “cock-and-bull story” that he had “tricked” Lawrence into being photographed. Lawrence was always ready to pose for his lens. (Part 3, Chapter 3 p.292)

 [Portrait of Lowell Thomas in 1918]

Further, says Aldington: “Having put into circulation… embellished stories through the credulity of one or more friends and profited by the renown as an extraordinary person they brought him, he would repudiate them sometimes… or complain that he was persecuted by publicity. His curious duplicity in this respect went so far that he persuaded Lowell Thomas and [Robert] Graves to publish statements freeing him from responsibility for the statements and stories he had given them.” Later he repudiated Lowell Thomas and pretended to have hardly known him. (Part 1, Chapter 7 p.107). And “While trying to preserve a reputation for shrinking modesty, [Lawrence] circulated through his friends exaggerated or wholly invented stories always to his advantage, stories which eventually got into print and now form the principle basis of his reputation, and in almost every case they were stories which could only have originated with himself.” (Part 2, Chapter 3 p.160)

Aldington remarks ironically: “There is one achievement which nobody can deny Lawrence, and that was his capacity to convince others that he was a remarkable man. Of course he was, but what was chiefly ‘remarkable’ was his capacity for self-advertisement. He was a soldier among writers and a writer among soldiers. He succeeded in impressing such eminent and different persons as Sir Winston Churchill, Mr E. M. Forster and Sir Lewis Namier. Unquestionably Lawrence was a determined and ambitious man, guerrilla fighter, and possibly administrator; but an immense legend was fabricated, largely by himself, from materials of uncertain substance.” (Part 3, Chapter 7 p.349) Aldington frequently refers to “The Lawrence Bureau”, meaning those who boosted Lawrence’s self-made legend.

Part of this calculated legend-building was the way Lawrence presented  Seven Pillars of Wisdom to the world in its first publication in 1926. He deliberately created a mystique around the book by withholding it and then first issuing it only in limited editions.

Then there is the demonstrable streak of sadism and masochism in Lawrence. He ordered what amounted to a war crime when he approved the killing of prisoners as his partisans took the village of Tafas. Post-war, Lawrence attempted to hide in the ranks, first in the Tank Corps then in the RAF, using different aliases – Ross and Shaw. As a ranker, Lawrence took to flagellation, routinely instructing a lower ranker to whip him. Aldington sees all this as both masochism and a continuing attempt to atone for his bastardy. Lawrence’s post-war verbal interventions in the Middle East were disastrous, and to the very end of his life (his motorcycle crash in 1935) he often made grandiose claims about having been offered, but turning down, high positions in state – all of which claims were pure fantasy.

So far, strident and sometimes dogmatic as Aldington may be, nearly everything he has asserted has been corroborated by subsequent researchers. But now we come to the major flaw in Aldington’s book. Lawrence, says Aldington, was first and foremost a British agent serving British interests. This is demonstrably true. However Aldington, very much a Francophile, regards the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement as a right and proper post-war plan for the Middle East. Britain would take over Palestine and the Arab lands (and oil fields) to the east; France would take over Lebanon and Syria. This secret deal is seen by us now as an abhorrent piece of imperialist colonialism. Aldington argues that the British constantly tried to undermine the agreement and take Syria for themselves. As Aldington interprets it, Lawrence’s idea was to promote Feisal as the leader of his “revolt” so that he could be set up as a British stooge to “rule” Syria rather than the French. (He gives much persuasive evidence that the speeches Lawrence claimed to have given at the Paris Peace Conference, supporting the Arab cause, were never given.) He makes it clear that when Lawrence rode with his Arab skirmishers into Damascus, the British army had already cleared the way and Lawrence’s main aim was to forestall the French. (Part 2, Chapter 6 p.239) Indeed the Arab “victories” in 1918 consisted mainly of taking over towns that the Turks and their German allies had already abandoned under pressure of the British advances. The ostensible aim of Lawrence and the “Arabs” was to claim as many towns as possible so that they could make them part of a future Arab state. Yet at the same time (made quite clear in Seven Pillars of Wisdom), as a person who knew the working of the Foreign Office and the British Cairo Bureau, Lawrence was fully aware that the Arabs could never achieve this as he knew all about the Sykes-Picot agreement. Says Aldington “while some of the sympathy expressed [by Lawrence] for ‘Arab freedom’ was doubtless sincere, these ‘causes’ were in the main camouflage for the more realistic purpose of excluding the French as far as possible from the Middle East and establishing British influence throughout the area.” (Part 2, Chapter 6 p.244)

On the whole, this appears to be true. The only flaw in Aldington’s argument is that he assumes the Sykes-Picot deal was itself an honourable agreement.

And in the end, like Aldington, we do have to ask what good Lawrence ultimately achieved. Personally, I see his exploits as the First World War’s equivalent of the Second World War’s “Dam Buster” raid. As reported it was a stirring story, the Dam Busters captured the (British) public’s imagination and were a boost to morale. But in hard reality their raid achieved very little. Smashed German dams were repaired in double-quick time and the raid had virtually no impact on German war production. Lawrence’s Arab “revolt” achieved little, did not produce a united Arab state, and left behind a legacy of tension and repeated conflict in the Middle East. Aldington doesn’t make the comparison I have just made, but he does remark “Perhaps one reason why the public has preferred to listen to romantic tales of ‘Arabian knights’ instead of looking for the facts, is that the romance may be enjoyed without effort while the facts are so complex and minute, not to say tedious, that all but enthusiasts are apt to grow discouraged.” (Part 2, Chapter 2 p.141). As one who had served on the Western Front, Aldington was contemptuous of what he saw as “side-shows”. He remarks: “One cannot help asking if the Arab war (“a side-show of a sideshow”) was militarily worth either its cost or its damaging political consequences? Obviously those in control thought so at the same time or they would not have authorised it. Yet Allenby seems to have had his doubts, since in October, 1917, he sent for Lawrence and demanded to know what was the purpose of blowing up trains? Were they not simply a melodramatic advertisement for Feisal’s political ambitions? Indeed the whole objection to the ‘Arab war’ as expounded by Lawrence… is simply that it was a political demonstration, that militarily its aid was negligible, while time and again it failed to achieve what Lawrence promised.” (Part 2, Chapter 5 pp.197-198)

As I have already noted, despite Aldington’s dogmatism and refusal to recognise any good qualities in Lawrence, most that he reported turned out to be perfectly true and has never been credibly refuted. Hence I regard Aldington’s Lawrence of Arabia – A Biographical Enquiry as the second-most-important book about Lawrence after Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It was the book that set the way for more balanced biographies that acknowledged the many faults, failings and lies of Lawrence which had been overlooked by earlier  hagiographers.

One final point: one feels more sympathy for the fractious Aldington when one learns of the circumstances in which Lawrence of Arabia – A Biographical Enquiry was first presented to the public. Aldington suffered from a concerted campaign of abuse. I quote here from Wikipedia’s entry on Aldington:

Prior to the publication of Aldington's book, its contents became known in London's literary community. A group Aldington and some subsequent authors referred to as "The Lawrence Bureau", led by Basil Liddell-Hart, tried energetically, starting in 1954, to have the book suppressed. That effort having failed, Liddell-Hart prepared and distributed hundreds of copies of Aldington's 'Lawrence': His Charges--and Treatment of the Evidence, a 7-page single-spaced document, This worked: Aldington's book received many extremely negative and even abusive reviews, with strong evidence that some reviewers had read Liddell's rebuttal but not Aldington's book.”


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Some footnotes:

(1.)It is a dismal fact that many – perhaps most – people now form their views on what they believe is History from fictionalised films and television series rather than from reliable history books. I’m sure that more people think they know about Lawrence from having seen David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia rather than from doing some serious reading. The problem is that, spectacular and entertaining though the film is, it is also in great part fiction. It is filled with characters who didn’t exist in reality (mainly amalgams of three or four distinct real people). The character clearly based on Lowell Thomas is given the fictitious name “Jackson Bentley” perhaps because the real Lowell Thomas was still alive when the film was made (Thomas died at a ripe old age in 1981). Most offensive to modern eyes, nearly all the Arab and Turkish characters are played by European actors in dark make-up (Alec Guinness, Jose Ferrer etc.). And of course beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed, tall .young Peter O’Toole (6 feet, 2 inches) looks nothing like short, horsey-faced T. E. Lawrence (5 feet, 5 inches). As romanticisation it was very successful.


(2.)Books about Lawrence are still being churned out every few years. Checking a bibliography, I would say that there is now a level-pegging of romanticised, hagiographic books about Lawrence and harder-headed books debunking him. If you are so inclined, you can read uncritical rubbish like Alistair MacLean’s Lawrence of Arabia (which, admittedly, was aimed at juveniles) or Jeremy Wilson’s respectful Lawrence of Arabia – The Authorised Biography (published 1990), which is very much what its full title says. Following in the footsteps of Aldington, however, you can also read Philip Knightley and Colin Simpson’s The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia (published 1969) which judges that Lawrence was “a friend to the Arabs only insofar as they served Britain’s purpose”. Desmond Stewart makes a similar case in his T. E. Lawrence (published 1977). In reviewing Stewart’s book, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper concluded that Lawrence was a fraud, a charlatan and “a giant humbug”. [Okay, this was the same Hugh Trevor-Roper who five years later endorsed  - and then regretted endorsing - the fake “Hitler Diaries”, but on Lawrence he was correct.]

(3.)Just a few years back, the generally-reliable commentator Rory Stewart produced a two-part BBC documentary called Lawrence of Arabia and his Legacy. His basic argument was that Lawrence genuinely believed he could create a united Arab state, but he was out-manoeuvred by the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Treaty of Versailles. Frankly, this ignores all the evidence that Lawrence was fully aware of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and its consequences before he engaged with the Arabs. However, Rory Stewart returns to sanity when he describes Seven Pillars of Wisdom thus: “In a sense [Lawrence’s] prose is the weakest part.  He is obsessed with a kind of slushy, late 19th century decadent poetry.” Rory Stewart also notes Lawrence’s predilection for using unnecessarily recherche words. Quite so.

(4.)Against Aldington’s wishes, his book was first publicised gleefully in France as Lawrence le Menteur (Lawrence the Liar). A rather crude title, for sure, but basically truthful.



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.  



            I’ll play for you a scene in which I’ve often been an actor.

I am driving to the supermarket for essential shopping.  Most often, I’m the one who provisions the house. The route takes me up a long rise. As I drive up the rise, I see a car coming down the rise, heading straight for me. If we both keep on the courses we are following, we will collide. Thankfully, while still driving uphill,  I am able to manoeuvre nearer to the kerb and the other driver is able to manoeuvre nearer the opposite kerb. We pass each other without incident.

But why had we been on a collision course in the first place?

Because, on a relatively narrow suburban street, there are cars parked on both sides. The useable road is diminished to about one-and-a-half lanes. Drivers approaching each other from opposite directions can pass in safety only if they are fortunate enough to find a few metres where cars are not parked. If there were no such spaces then, logically, one driver would either have to stop in a vacant space to let the other pass; or in an extreme case have to back up. I always have to dodge approaching cars as I drive up the rise, so I’ve come to call this game suburban dodgems.

How did it come about that we have to play this game?

I live in a suburb which was laid out when it was assumed that all cars would be parked in private driveways or home garages (“car ports” if you want to be pretentious). There might be the occasional visitor to a house who parked on the road, but not so many as to block it. Only on major arterial routes was it considered necessary to make streets wider. But, where once there were only one-family houses, there now is much “in-fill” property, and many two- or three- storey apartment buildings – not urban high-rise, but nevertheless making for denser population and more vehicles needing to park somewhere. Solution – they park on the road.

I’m not going to launch into a Green utopian dream of banning cars and insisting everybody ride bicycles. As cities are now set out, and as many thousands of people have to drive a long way to their places of employment, such a dream is simply not practicable. Cities would have to be completely re-designed (and flatter!) to make pedal-power a universal choice, so please do not tell me about the joys of Amsterdam or Christchurch. But I am saying that there should be more and much better public transport which takes passengers to more locations than our current public transport does. This would eliminate the need for so many private cars. And I am saying that when they are built, all future suburban apartment blocks and in-fills should include, by law, off-road parking space.

Otherwise we’ll keep playing suburban dodgems until we collide.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Something New

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

“HOME THEATRE” by Anthony Lapwood (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $NZ30) ; “ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS AND POLICY IN AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND” Edited by Maria Bargh and Julie MacArthur (Auckland University Press, $NZ89:99)


There’s a major problem when it comes to reviewing collections of short stories – the reviewer is often tempted to give a string of synopses covering every story, but without making it clear what the overall tone and worth of the collection is. As you may know from some earlier postings on this blog, I’ve often been guilty of doing this.

I can easily avoid the problem by telling you straight away that Anthony Lapwood’s debut collection is at once outstandingly good and often tinged with a sense of melancholy. Rather than dragging you title by title through the whole collection, I’ll begin by looking in detail at what I think is Lapwood’s very finest and most accomplished tale.

The longest story in Home Theatre, “Provided with Eyes, Thou Departest” comes in at just under 50 pages, approaching the length of a novella. It has at once the broad perspective of a novel and the tightness of a short story. Bryce, an unhappy and disillusioned high-school teacher of Biology, is in a state of prolonged grief after the death of his wife. Lapwood does not simply state this fact, but dramatizes Bryce’s grief in terms of the disturbing dreams he has. Not quite nightmarish but deeply upsetting, they convey sheer desolation and the sense of loss; and Lapwood has the skill to weave them seamlessly in and out of the narrative. “Provided with Eyes, Thou Departest” gives a very vivid sense of the high-school, its staffroom gossip and pecking order, and all the irritations of both staff and schoolboys that exacerbate Bryce’s condition. The tale does not leave Bryce in isolation – the physical education teacher, the woman who seems to take a concerned interest in Bryce, the music teacher and the peremptory principal are all clearly characterised. The physical tattiness of both the school environment and Bryce’s urban apartment weigh us down like a bad conscience. Above all this, there is the psychological trauma – almost a nervous breakdown – brought on by Bryce’s awareness that he is gradually forgetting who and what his wife was; and with such thoughts come a crushing sense of loneliness, guilt and alienation from the world. With its fine attention to detail (clearly the fruit of close observation) this story really is a story, a narrative that moves on to unexpected events which are there for the reader to find. I do not think this is merely a good story. With its empathy, precision, tight structure and rich characterisation, it is a great story.

On the strength of “Provided with Eyes, Thou Departest” alone, Lapwood establishes himself as one of our best storytellers. But in saying this, I am not dismissing the other twelve stories that make up Home Theatre. There is much to savour and ponder in them too.

The whole collection has specifically Wellington settings. Most stories are linked in one way or another to a run-down Wellington apartment block  - the “home theatre” of the title - where at least some characters live. Most of them are people in straitened circumstances, people who have come down in the world, people who are desperate and can support themselves only in such a seedy low-rent building. You will note that there are some recurring characters who have a greater or lesser role in some stories. An astronomer from the Carter Observatory, called Ashton, appears a number of times. Some of the shorter stories are more-or-less realistic accounts of people in the apartment – the slacker who wants to work so long as it doesn’t require effort (“Jobs for Dreamers”); the single mother battling with an infestation of ants (“They Always Come for the Sweet Things”); the woman stuck in the apartment building’s clunky old lift (“It’s Been a Long Time”); the nagging that can go on between tenants in an apartment block (“Being Neighbourly”). But, as part of the blurb says, this is a “genre-bending collection”. Lapwood jumps into fantasy as often as he offers hard realism – but his fantasy is not gratuitous. These stories say as much about the human condition as the realist ones do.

Time travel is one element of fantasy, thrust at us in the opening story “The Source of Lightning” in which a time-traveller from the future (self-styled “chrononaut”) is stuck in a time loop in present day Wellington, having to play the same day over and over. This is not a mere riff on Groundhog Day. In fact its ethos is more like the classic film version of Frankenstein, in which repeated images of lightning suggest an energising, vivifying force. Lightning gives light as in the beginning of all things… and this train of thought links the story to another, “The Universe for Beginners”, a non-fantasy story in which a broken family visits an observatory where an exhibition on the Big Bang and Black Holes suggests a symbolic connection with the beginning and outcome of this broken family. Pushing further into fantasy, Lapwood’s eeriest story “The Ether of 1939” is set in a 1930s radio factory which is in what will one day become the tatty apartment block we have already visited. Lapwood is clearly aware of popular pseudo-scientific theories some people still held in the 1930s about radio waves interfering with the “ether”, or even being a medium connecting us with ghosts or the afterlife. That was how miraculous radio seemed to some at the time. But as in “The Source of Lightning” and “The Universe for Beginners”, this is not frivolous. In depicting a man and his environment in 1939, then connecting him with the first story in this collection, Lapwood is making implicit commentary on how mores have changed over more than 80 years.

One element in a number of stories is the homosexual condition. It is suggested in the opening story “The Source of Lightning”. It is understated in the not-quite-fully gay relationship of two young men in “Journey to the Edge”. There is a minor sub-plot about homosexual schoolteachers in “Provided with Eyes, Thou Departest”. But most importantly there is “The Ether of 1939” where a homosexual man in 1939 hears magically, through his radio, voices from the 21st century suggesting how different attitudes towards gay men will be in the future.

And then there are even more perplexing ideas on how we communicate, or don’t communicate, with each other; and how uncertain our perception is. “The Difficult Art of Bargaining” has a deeply-unreliable narrator and suggests a degree of self-deception as much as deception practised on others. “A Spare Room”, one of Lapwood’s most-carefully-structured stories, really shows the total lack of communication between two people who think they are discussing the same issue – on the one side of the desk, the woman asking if she can have a larger apartment; and on the other side of the desk the bureaucrat whose mind is on other things.  As for the story which closes this collection, “Blue Horse Overdrive”, it brings us to territory where the  physical touches upon the psychological. Has the narrator, a rock singer, experienced some sort of hallucination, or has he simply seen objective reality? There is a fruitful ambiguity to this story, where the might of state-of-the-art medical practices (MRI brain scans) are pitted against subjective experience.

Despite my best efforts, I see I’ve lapsed into marching you through every title in the book. Sorry. Pensive, thoughtful and often melancholy as many of these stories are, Anthony Lapwood has created a whole world in this collection, with credible and believable characters even when presented in fantasy, with much room for thought, with close observation of human nature and with a fine sense of structure. An outstanding collection in every respect.

 *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *  


It sounds like something out of Monty Python to say “and now for something completely different”, but it’s quite a leap to move from a collection of short stories to a textbook for undergraduates on a specialised subject. But here I am moving from Anthony Lapwood’s Home Theatre to Environmental Politics and Policy in Aotearoa New Zealand edited by Maria Bargh and Julie MacArthur. Why did I read this academic work? Because I am interested in environmental matters in terms of sustainability, conservation and the preservation of endangered species. I’m very grateful to Auckland University Press for sending me a copy.

 Environmental Politics and Policy is a symposium of 18 detailed and referenced essays. Some of the essays are by single authors; some are co-written. There are 26 contributors in all, and it is interesting to note that women dominate – to be precise there are 19 women contributors and 7 men. Most of the authors are academics in the fields of law, Maori studies, ecological studies and politics, but some are journalists and activists in the field of conservation. Activism is encouraged. Between essays there a notes on “How to draft a submission”, “How to write a brief policy”, “How to write a press release” and of course “How to organise a protest”.

Without criticising the contents of this book, I do have to admit that reading my way through it over some weeks was a bit of a chore. It wasn’t the style in which it was written – there is not too much academic-speak, though inevitably some specialised vocabulary has to be explained. The trouble was the repetition. The same keys keep getting struck. In essay after essay we are told about the difference between Maori law and customs, and the law as set out by the government and governmental agencies. Repeatedly, too, we are told of the evils of colonialism, which brought the degradation of waterways, quality of land and habitats for indigenous species. Perhaps undergraduates, moving through the text over a whole semester, would not so readily notice the repetition. I, reading it over a few weeks, did notice.

In their introductory essay, the editors Bargh and MacArthur condemn neoliberalism, question “liberal capitalist states”, declare that the text “takes a systemic and holistic view” of the environment [that vague word “holistic” is always a problem for me] and, bowing to the Treaty of Waitangi, tell us that “biculturalism is a foundational aspect of Aotearoa, even while we recognise the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural composition of New Zealand society”. Well and good, except that there is a real tension between a bicultural concept and a multi-cultural reality. Their mode of thinking is reinforced by Professor Margaret Mutu’s essay “Environmental Ideas in Aotearoa” which is basically a primer on Maori words pertaining to legality and power, and which then becomes a polemic about the primacy of Te Tiriti o Waitangi – the Maori language version of the treaty – as the only legitimate version, and that therefore the concept of Maori sovereignty is still valid.

Continuing on the more polemical side of things, Elisabeth Ellis’s “Theorising Environmental Politics” argues that  European traditions – mainly beginning with that villain John Locke – separated nature from humanity and prioritised human needs over the whole environment. Nature itself was undervalued, and viewed as a commodity rather than a Ding an sich. Hence we should return to an indigenous way of being part of nature, and not exploiters of nature. Similar polemical arguments are found in Rod Oram’s essay “Regenerative Economics” which condemns market-driven economics and classic capitalism for ruining the environment; and in Maria Bargh and Tame Malcolm’s “Te Taiao and ‘Biodiversity’ ” which tells us that conservation and protection of species should be based on Maori criteria; and in the co-authored “Social Movements and the Environment”, where capitalism and colonialism are once again the villains and a “masculinist ideology” has driven much of the physical exploitation and degradation of the New Zealand environment. I could quote more essays in this vein, but I think you get the drift.

I’m afraid that at a certain point I find myself asking such questions as – if forms of capitalism, neoliberalism and colonialism are the great polluters, then how do you account for the huge and unchallenged environmental degradation wrought by Marxist states like the old Soviet Union and Mao’s China? I admit at once that this is the sort of Tu Quoque (or Whataboutery) argument which I have condemned before on this blog; and it may well be true that both capitalism and socialism or Marxism have an equally horrendous record in environmental matters. But at the very least I am pointing out that fingering only capitalism and neoliberalism makes for a very lop-sided critique.

And here is a further (and probably more contentious) objection. Repeatedly Environmental Politics and Policy in Aotearoa New Zealand tells us that the environment should be managed in a more pre-colonial and dominantly Maori way. Isn’t this simply an appeal to Arcadianism? Too much history has happened to rescind all the systems we now have relating to the environment. By all means clean the waterways [NB Jacinta Ruru’s essay on freshwater was apparently written before the controversy over “Three Waters” began], restore and de-pollute the wetlands, protect and ensure the proliferation of endemic species – but can you cancel that awful colonialist phenomenon of electricity (and all its generation) that lights and heats our homes? Approximately 5,000,000 people now live in New Zealand. In his essay “Farming and the Environment: The Long Legacy of Colonialism”, Hugh Campbell makes some valid points about the disappearance of forests and the polluting bovine run-off caused by farming. But when he sneers at the old “pastoral hegemony”, is he envisaging another nation-wide system to feed 5,000,000 people? To be curt, pre-colonial methods, catering for a much, much smaller population with distribution limited to small localities, wouldn’t do the trick.

In sum, Environmental Politics and Policy in Aotearoa New Zealand is an enlightening work when it deals with historical and environmental realities, but becomes strident when it pushes an ideology. Janine Hayward’s “Toitu te Whenua: Land, Peoples and Environmental Policies 1840 to 1980” is an excellent and orderly account of the impact of human beings on New Zealand since the 13th century. It looks in detail at the loss of Maori land since the beginning of Pakeha settlement and takes the story up to the foundation of the Waitangi Tribunal. Valentina Dinica’s “Theorising Environmental Policy” is a very methodical work, categorising attributes of environmental problems and categorising the “actors” (interested parties) in framing environmental policies. Dory Reeves’ “Cities and Urban Planning” discusses crisply how urban planning can be harnessed to an environmentally sustainable future. And I don’t think anyone could plausibly refute the essays I haven’t mentioned concerning climate change, the impact of fossil fuels, and the oceanic pollution of plastics.

Long story short? Given that it is aimed at undergraduates, Environmental Politics and Policy in Aotearoa New Zealand will generate much discussion. But I also hope it will generate some challenges and arguments.