Monday, February 20, 2023

Something New

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

“A PRIVATE SPY – The Letters of John le Carre” edited by Tim Cornwell (Penguin – Viking; distributed by Penguin/ Random House, $NZ40)

How do we remember John le Carre (1931-2020) who died of cancer shortly before his ninetieth birthday? Born David Cornwell, he never explained why he had adopted the particular le Carre pseudonym, although he did at first need some cover to disguise his connections with espionage. Following in the footsteps of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, le Carre was the novelist who definitively punctured the idea that espionage was glamorous -  a great antidote to the James Bond fantasies of Ian Fleming. In his breakthrough novel (his third) The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, he gave a very disillusioned view of the Cold War and the sordid deals spying involved on both sides of the Iron Curtain, even while being aware of the malign nature of the USSR. His Smiley books created the same mood. In later life, however, he became annoyed that people still referred to him as a Cold War writer when his writing career continued for forty years after the USSR had collapsed. He protested that, in many of the 27 novels he wrote,  he had moved on to writing about other things in other locations, even if they still involved spying and treachery, as in The Little Drummer Girl (Israeli and Palestinian tensions in the Middle East), The Tailor of Panama (set in Central America) and The Constant Gardiner (set in Africa and concerning the negative influence of “big pharma” [pharmaceutical corporations]). Even so, he will be remembered mainly for sophisticated spy plots, many of which are as well known for the films and television serials that were made of them as for the original novels.

A Private Spy – The Letters of John le Carre was researched, selected and edited by le Carre’s son Tim Cornwell, but Tim died just before the book was published, leaving his three brothers to write a tribute to him, which appears as a sort of preface. It is, to say the least, a very bulky book – 632 pages of letters followed by over 70 pages of index, notes and chronology. And of course, although David Cornwell was known to friends and family as David Cornwell, his son deliberately calls him John le Carre throughout so as not to confuse readers. In his Introduction, Tim Cornwell tactfully notes what sort of letters will not be found here – “it contains only a smattering of letters to his lovers, of whom there were quite a few throughout his life” (p.xvi)

To put it bluntly, it requires stamina to work one’s way through a large collection of letters like this. There are very many letters about and to people he met or befriended in countries where he researched material for his novels (Middle East, Germany, Russia, Panama, South-East Asia). There are many bland, polite missives going into detail with publishers, literary agents and film producers which are really in the nature of business letters. Sometimes he takes to flattering people (especially fellow writers who have written positively about his work) as when, in 1986, he effusively thanks American novelist Philip Roth for calling his novel A Perfect Spythe best English novel since the war” (pp.267-268) There is also the occasional annoyance when we hear only le Carre’s side of an argument or discussion. Le Carre might have been a formidable stylist in his novels, but there is very little humour in his correspondence. Perhaps the funniest things in the book are his uproarious account of his dinner with Margaret and Dennis Thatcher (pp.283-284); and a rare example of raucous wit when he was cheering up the actor Stephen Fry, who had had what amounted to a nervous breakdown (pp.407-409).

One thing hangs heavily over his life, and which is featured in many letters to friends and family members. It is the unhappy childhood he and his siblings endured. Their father was, quite simply, both a bully and a criminal. Ronald (“Ronnie”) Cornwell was a confidence trickster (jailed a number of times) who had even done deals with the likes of the Krays and Rachmann as well as being involved in arms dealing (see pp.598-600). Tired of being beaten up by him, and perhaps having passed onto to her a sexually-transmitted disease, Ronnie’s wife walked out on him when le Carre was only five. Only much later in adult life did le Carre re-connect with his birth mother. The one consolation in the Cornwell children’s lives was that Ronnie then married Jean, who proved to be a good and caring stepmother and with whom le Carre kept in touch for the rest of his life. In his last years, le Carre wrote a heartfelt letter to his brother Tony on the childhood that had traumatised both of them (pp.482-484).

Yet, while rebelling from his father, le Carre had some of Ronnie’s traits, including a disorderly sex life. Le Carre married Ann in 1953 when he was 22. They had three sons and stayed married for 27 years until they divorced in 1971. In the early sections of this collection, there are many love letters that were sent to Ann when they were courting. In 1972, le Carre married Jane. They had one son and stayed married for over 40 years, until le Carre’s death in 2020. Jane died two months after him. But, especially in his middle years, le Carre was a philanderer. It is awkward to read in this collection, sitting side-by-side, first a letter le Carre wrote to the Scottish novelist James Kennaway, offering him sober advice on writing; and then the same week sending a love letter to Kennaway’s wife, with whom he was having an affair. (The affair was fictionalised in le Carre’s novel The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, which is often regarded as his worst)

Then, of course, there was le Carre’s own experience of espionage. While a student at Oxford, he was recruited by MI5 to spy on, and pass on details about, Communist students. Nearly 60 years later, in 2006, he had a lively correspondence (pp.445-446 and pp. 475-476) with Stanley Mitchell, one of the Communist students upon whom he had reported. Mitchell was still angry about this betrayal, with le Carre replying that Mitchell had been a naïve young man who should have seen what a negative force Communism was.

            Le Carre went from Oxford to the Foreign Office in 1958, acting as a diplomat but in fact being an agent of MI5. Later he switched to MI6, but he stopped working there, and became a full-time writer in 1963 when his cover was blown during the publicity his first bestseller The Spy Who Came in From the Cold attracted. For a man who had such a detailed and intimate understanding of how espionage worked, and whose literary reputation was built on that knowledge, he had in fact a very short career in the security services – a mere five years. In one of his many editorial notes, Tim Cornwell says that when le Carre joined the Foreign Office and spy system “Le Carre served at a time of dark betrayals with the public exposure of Foreign Office spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, and the Soviet double agents George Blake and Kim Philby, spanning his years of intelligence from 1948 to 1963… The problem with le Carre, one MI6 colleague observed, was that he had never experienced a successful operation in the service.” (p.87) Hence, perhaps, his depressing view of espionage. In 1966, le Carre he wrote an open letter (pp.152-155) to the editor of Literaturnaya Gazeta, the Soviet literary journal, after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was criticised by the Soviet publication (and of course banned in the USSR), pointing out that his books revealed moral bankruptcy on both sides of the Cold War.

            Also made clear as one reads these letters, one understands how many of le Carre’s fictitious characters were based closely on real people. Vivian Green was an Anglican parson who had taught him at school, mentored him at Oxford and officiated at le Carre’s first wedding. His manners, demeanour, coolness, relatability and logic were, as le Carre openly told people, the basis for Smiley in four of his novels. Even as a young man, le Carre could be very frank with Green. When, after Oxford, he spent five terms teaching at Eton, he wrote to Green about the flaws of the ruling classes and their sons. At Eton “the thing that sticks in my throat more and more… is the ‘Herrenvolk’ doctrine that is encouraged in the boys by the ruling body of masters, the free use of comparisons with the ‘oik’ classes etc., and the 19th century conviction of the efficacy in every sense of the ‘gunboat doctrine’…” (p.75) Another real person turned into a fictitious character was le Carre’s actress sister Charlotte, who had the habit of taking up radical causes. She became the main character of his novel The Little Drummer Girl, which centred on a woman who got out of her depth in pursuing some of her causes (see p.283). The novel later had the misfortune to be made into an appallingly mis-cast film. Then there were two or three of his nastier minor characters who were based on his father (who once threatened le Carre with a suit for defamation).

It is interesting to learn that for somebody who wrote prolifically (27 novels and a mountain of letters) le Carre never used a typewriter or word-processor and wrote everything by hand – with a secretary to neatly type up all his novels. (Eventually this task fell to his second wife). Letters were sent hand-written but they were always first drafted. Le Carre was also a very good caricaturist and many of his satirical drawings were appended to his letters. Some are reproduced in this collection.  Even more interestingly, le Carre claimed that he himself was a very slow reader – and not just in old age. Writing to Al Alvarez in 2009, he admits “I read extremely slowly and am probably a late onset dyslexic. Over a single year, I complete the reading of very few books, most of them either classics or non-fiction. I haven’t read a thriller for decades, and know next to nothing of my contemporary writers, or their work. I have a distaste for the ‘literary scene’ ”(p.506) Much later, to the American activist Daniel Ellsberg he writes. “When will I read your books? Slowly and carefully over time. I read at a snail’s pace, am absurdly dyslexic; probably I read at speaking speed, which is how I try to write…” (p.609) Despite this, he was still able in very old age to hand out good advice to aspiring novelists. Take these very wise words he wrote to a correspondent about writing in 2020, the last year of his life “… about finishing. It’s everything. If you can’t see the final frame of your novel when you enter it, don’t go there is my experience. How many first chapters have I not been sent, with the question ‘can I write?’ Answer, show me you last chapter & maybe you can.” (p.630)

Clearly le Carre had some favourite correspondents outside his family. They included the actor Alec Guinness, the critic Al Alvarez, his mentor Vivian Green, his long-time friend John Calley, the playwright Tom Stoppard and the intelligence agent Dick Franks. Many times he wrote to Alec Guinness saying he was the best embodiment of his master spy Smiley in the long television series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (pp.213-214 and 217-218), although later he thought Gary Oldman made a better Smiley in the film version.

One important correspondent, but not a person to whom he wrote regularly, was Graham Greene. Le Carre was fully aware that Greene was one of his main inspirations as a writer, a man with a similar disillusioned attitude towards spying and a strong nose for sites of political conflict.  In 1963, le Carre wrote to a friend that his The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was “a sort of Quiet American story set in Berlin” (p.123) Graham Greene boosted le Carre’s novel by providing a blurb in which he called the novel “the best spy story I have ever read”. In 1966 le Carre wrote letters to Greene praising his novel The Comedians (p.158). While researching South-East Asia to provide background to a novel, le Carre wrote to Greene praising the accuracy of his South-East Asia setting in The Quiet American (pp.191-192)… but the editor notes that Graham Greene privately said that le Carre’s novels were increasingly becoming too long for the stories they told (p.192). Le Carre wrote (p.219 ff.) to the Observer, objecting stridently to Clive James’ reviews of his novels because James had said in public what Graham Greene said only in private – that le Carre’s novels were unnecessarily drawn out.

            Le Carre admitted that his novel The Tailor of Panama was in part inspired by Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, as both books turned in part on agents building careers by producing  for their employers fabricated information. In 1991, he wrote a generous obituary on Greene and wrote a letter to Nicholas Shakespeare (pp.302-304) expressing similar respect. But later (quoted p.304) he wrote more frankly to the same correspondent “As a young writer, I looked up at Greene as a role model, and nothing in my writing life has made me happier than the supremely generous support he gave to my early work. As a diplomat in Bonn, I blushed for him when he stood on the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall and made some unhappy comment about preferring it there. I thought his anti-Americanism too much. I thought him daft about the possible marriage of Communism and Christianity, and dafter still in his defence of Kim Philby” (p.304). Years later (in 2010) he wrote a similar critique of Greene in a letter to a history professor: “I knew Greene a bit & was in awe of him, but I never really believed in his Catholic convictions. As a literary tool, they work to a point, but God is best denied in fiction – Camus & Co – and morality left to struggle without him. Does anyone remember that Greene stood the wrong side of the Berlin Wall & said he’d rather be there than here? He who lived in Antibes and fell in love with Central American dictators? Novelists on the whole make pretty daft politicians, but Greene was in a class of his own…”(p.519)

            How do I personally judge this contest? I think Greene’s novels will last longer than le Carre’s, if only because they are more various in subject matter. I also agree (with both Greene and Clive James) that some of le Carre’s novels wear out their welcome by sheer length. On the other hand, I agree with le Carre that some of Greene’s political judgements were naïve and foolish. He did have a utopian view of the good Communism could achieve, he did have the habit of lauding left-wing dictators and he refused to see the harm Kim Philby had done. (Like le Carre, Greene had served in Britain’s spy service and knew Philby personally.) My impression is that, seeing the many flaws of Britain and America, Greene over-reacted and thought there was a brilliantly better society existing elsewhere. There wasn’t. [For the record, you can find elsewhere on this blog a number of critiques of Greene if you look up Graham Greene in the index at right. Also, in my account of Greene’s early 1930s travel book Journey Without Maps  you will find an early warning of Greene’s proclivity to praise mercenaries and dictators whom he wrongly thought were doing some good.]

            If le Carre didn’t do humour very well, he could certainly do anger and scorn, especially on political matters. A Private Spy – The Letters of John le Carre charts such anger.

            In 1977, le Carre wrote a rather tart response to a Swedish correspondent who asked his opinion of the Nobel Prize. Le Carre replied “It is very kind of you to seek my opinion on the Nobel Prize in Literature, but I must tell you honestly that I have never given the subject a moment’s thought, except perhaps to reflect that, like the Olympic Games, a great concept has been ruined by political greed.” (p.202)

            Le Carre could be very contentious – when Salman Rushdie was under threat of fatwa because of his book The Satanic Verses, le Carre criticised Rushdie for allowing a reprint of the book to be released when, in some countries, people who had read and/or published it been murdered by Islamacist fanatics (pp.295-297). Possibly the angriest letter he ever wrote concerned his novel The Constant Gardiner. In that novel he criticised pharmaceutical corporations which used people in Third World countries as unsuspecting guinea pigs in trials of some drugs. A member of the pharmaceutical giant Novartis wrote to him wanting him to debate him under their rules. He roundly (and angrily) both decline their challenge and called them out. (pp.452-454) In 2002, he joined protesters in a march condemning Tony Blair for committing Britain to the USA’s invasion of Iraq (p.459) and later wrote to Nicholas Shakespeare, describing Blair thus : “Look at Blair! How did we spawn the mendacious little show-off? This child, playing grown-up games, & fucking up the world in his Noddy car….” (p.480). Later he wrote to a German journalist “My response to the political scene is vehement: I hate Brexit, hate Trump, fear the rise of white fascism everywhere and take the threat seriously indeed; the craving for conflict is everywhere among our pseudo dictators.” (p.572). In 2020 wrote to Swedish author Pierre Schori “ Britain is again in the hands of far-right Trumpists, as every small new event indicates. Journalists suspected of unsound sympathies are excluded from official press briefings, which now take place, not in the people’s parliament, but at No. 10 on Johnson’s home ground. Cowardice & bullying go hand-in-hand, & Johnson is a practitioner of both. The Democrats in America are making prize asses of themselves, Putin is appointing himself Ruler for Life, so we look like having a pretty awful decade…” (p.607)

            Despite his very Englishness, and his love of the Cornwall where he settled for much of his writing life, le Carre dreaded becoming identified too intimately with the “Establishment”. His son Tim says in his introduction (p.xxviii) “My father accepted major awards from France, Germany and Sweden, but declined any honour from the British state.” In 1981 he declined a C.B.E. which had been offered to him by Margaret Thatcher, writing to an official friend “I didn’t feel I could take it. I don’t quite know why: the guilts, a peculiar modesty, a feeling I wanted to stay out of the citadel. Certainly not pique or false pride so far as I know. Secretly, I think, a feeling I hadn’t earned it.” (p.239) He later turned down a knighthood. Finally, in the last year of his life, he was so angry about Brexit, and the new form of English chauvinism, that he cancelled his British passport and took out Irish citizenship (to which he was entitled because one of his grandmothers was Irish). In this book’s section of photographs, there’s a shot of the elderly writer cheerfully wrapping himself in the Irish tricolour.

            I finished reading this long collection of letters with very contradictory feelings about le Carre. A very good novelist for sure, but sometimes overshooting the mark and spinning out his stories too long. A master at debunking the world of espionage while at the same time understanding that there were rights and wrongs in the Cold War. Sometimes a cranky man, but usually in good causes. Sometimes fickle in his married life, but striking gold with his second wife who was as devoted to literature as he was. As to whether his novels will stand the test of time – I’m not sure. Possibly the very topicality of them will make them of more interest to historians than to general readers of the future. For the moment, however, they are still worth reading.

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.   





First published in 2014, Springtime is a short novella, easily read at one sitting. It is subtitled “A Ghost Story”, but it is very much in the tradition of some of Henry James’ stories – especially The Turn of the Screw. Is there really a ghost or is the ghost a figment of a disturbed person’s imagination? Bear in mind that Michelle de Kretser pondered much on Henry James in her earlier novel The Lost Dog and also had some Jamesian references in Questions of Travel.

            Frances has moved from Melbourne to Sydney. Frances is in her twenties. Her partner Charlie has left his wife and young son Luke to be with her. Charlie is quite a few years older that Frances. Frances is not really capable of dealing with young Luke when he pays them a visit. Frances sometimes hears odd noises on her phone and wonders if they are malign messages from Charlie’s ex-wife. Frances is unnerved by her situation.

            When Frances takes her dog Rod on walks around their Sydney suburb, she sees through the trees a strange woman who seems not real. The strange woman appears to her only when Frances is alone on a path. Is this a ghost? Frances is further unnerved. I offer no spoiler, but I can say that the novel’s conclusion gives us a definite verdict.

            This novella is really about adjustment to a new environment. Sydney is very different from Melbourne. Frances is an intellectual (researching a book on 18th century French portraits) and so is Charlie. Intellectuals are notoriously bitchy and there is a party scene of unpleasant intellectual one-up-man-ship, further intimidating Frances. Melburnians often regard themselves a superior to uncouth Sydneysiders. And then there is the more intense heat.

            As always, Michelle de Kretser’s powers of precise observation are excellent, a time and place are conjured up vividly and Frances’ situation is credible. Even so, Springtime is very much a minor work by de Kretser and in retrospect the “ghost” element is redundant – a bit of a trick.

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Here is a warning to anybody who wishes to read the novels of Michelle de Kretser. Do not start with  The Life to Come (first published in 2017) or it may deter you from reading her other work. This is definitely NOT to say that The Life to Come is an inferior piece of work. Far from it. But in terms of structure, it is a very difficult work. Characters we at first think are going to be the novel’s main protagonists are shoved aside as new characters are introduced. The novel is not a linear narrative. There are flashbacks and flash-forwards and sometimes we discover a young person has suddenly transformed into an old person. It takes a long time to see how the opening chapters are in fact related to the later chapters. Indeed I went through a phase of wondering whether The Life to Come was really a set of long short stories, loosely connected, rather than a novel. And yet, in its final and most compelling long chapter, it is all knitted together like a puzzle finally solved. In short, this is a novel that requires close attention of the reader.

What does that title The Life to Come mean? I’m sure de Kretser is aware that the phrase has often been used in religious services to mean life after death, or the promise of heaven. But that is not what it means in this novel. The “life to come” is the life that characters expect to be living some day: their aspirations and hope for success, always looking forward rather than living the moment. But such hopes are often delusory as is the case with at least some of the characters. Ultimately there is disappointment for those who have too high an opinion of themselves. Possibly – as is at least implied in the closing chapter – the best “life to come” is simply living everyday life without expecting reward or great public applause.

Many in de Kretser’s cast are novelists and the condition of being a novelist is one of her major concerns. So too – as so often – is her interest in the state of being an immigrant or refugee in a new country. In the opening chapter is Ash, a Sinhalese Sri-Lankan living in Sydney, working towards being an academic, and meeting the completely alien when he visits that dead heart of Australia’s hinterland and the type of farmers who work there. For a time he cohabits with the Australian Cassie. At one point Cassie remarks “postmodernly tutored… ‘Isn’t history just a set of competing stories?’ ” to which Ash replies laconically    Not really”. (p. 52) His understanding that there are hard realities in history is rooted in the fact that, as a child in Sri Lanka, he saw the riots between Sinhalese and Tamil and the concerted killing of Tamil. It was not just a story. In fact in many ways, de Kretser takes on the current modish dogmas of academe. Cassie is studying Australian literature. Cassie’s tutor criticises the fiction of Shirley Hazzard because “one of Hazzard’s stories sinned in implying that a former colony’s efforts to modernise might entail painful consequences for its citizens…” (p.59) Michelle de Kretser knows damned well that modernising a former colony always does have some “painful consequences”. [Incidentally, de Kretser is an expert on the work of Shirley Hazzard and has written a book about her.]

When the novel switches from Sydney to Paris, we get a different cast, centring on Celeste, an elderly translator of books, living a single life, never quite admitting (or acting out) her lesbianism and always vaguely hoping to make a married woman her partner. Again, there are culture-clash problems. Celeste’s mother was French but Celeste was raised in West Australia. In Paris, Celeste and her mother have seen the ethnic tension of the early 1960s when Algerians were targeted and harassed by French police.

Then, taking a very large part of the novel, there is the ambitious Australian novelist Pippa Reynolds. Pippa marries a guy called Matt, whose parents are Polish. Matt’s mother Eva is not only Catholic – very alien to Pippa – but is also intensely concerned about the welfare of refugees, especially in an Australian political climate that does not welcome refugees. But Pippa, often very critical of other people, wonders if Eva’s compassion for refugees is just a sham and a pose – a way of scoring points with liberal friends. There are such people, after all. Yet there is much ambiguity here. Eva is domineering, but Pippa is far too ready to judge other people. Could it be that Eva is truly compassionate while Pippa simply lacks charity? The situation can be read either way. In another context, Pippa, in the closing chapters, encounters a Sri-Lankan woman Christabel, and Christabel’s Anglo-Sri-Lankan friend known as “Bunty”, again with many misunderstanding between ethnicities.

So, with Australian and Sri-Lankan; French-Australian and Algerian; Australian and Pole, here are many situations of culture-clash, bafflement, misdirected ideas and misunderstanding – played out in Australia and France.

Yet just as important is de Kretser’s focus on the nature of novelists and by implication the nature of truth-telling and the distortion of the truth. To put it simply, de Kretser takes a very critical view of novelists, even if she herself is dedicated to the profession. There are, for example, novels, barely comprehensible, that appear to be designed for an intellectual, and somewhat snobbish, coterie – a form of chic. In Celeste’s trade as a translator, “she translated books for a small New York press that published obscure European fiction, novels devoid of spirited heroines, novels that offered no clear message nor any flashing sign as to how that should be understood… sometimes they were even Swiss.” (p. 96) There is, too, in the novel’s last chapter, a scornful, semi-comic account of a Readers and Writers Festival in Sydney, which takes apart both the performance tricks of the starring novelists and the vapid nature of the audience.

Pippa Reynolds is the epitome of an ambitious young novelist and apparently quite successful. But she desperately wants to be admired, is constantly posting tweets promoting herself, and is extremely competitive to the point of being abrasive. There is a hint here and there that she is intensely insecure since her parents’ marriage disintegrated when she was a child. More cuttingly, de Kretser suggests that she is essentially a voyeur, taking other peoples’ lives and using them as material for her novels often in a very cruel way, describing habits that real acquaintances have, using conversations jotted down after going to dinner parties with real people and so forth. In effect, using people. This comes to a head in the last (and best) chapter when Christabel confronts Pippa whom she had trustingly believed was her friend.

… But isn’t this what all novelists do somehow? And is de Kretser in fact criticising herself? The critique is valid but the irony is there to read.

I can’t close without noting that there are many meals described in this novel, be they domestic scenes or at literary or diplomatic junkets. They always seem to say something about ethnicity and Westerners’ taste for what is “exotic”… but also meals often reveal different ethnicities taste and suggest what often puts peoples at odds. A fascinating form of sociology.

Despite my opening caveats, the novel finally holds together.

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Published in 2021, Scary Monsters is really two separable short novels, each approximately 150 pages long. You have to turn the book upside down when you finish one and wish to get on with the other, because one is printed this-way-up and the other is printed that-way-up, if you understand what I mean. Each has a different "front cover". Even if she has clear preoccupations and concerns, I would never accuse de Kretser of being didactic, but Scary Monsters conveys specific messages more overtly than most of her works do. In case you were wondering what this book’s “scary monsters” are, they are conveniently defined in the blurb, to wit “racism, misogyny and ageism”, trends which figure in both these short novels. Both of the two novels are narrated in the first-person, one by Lyle and the other by Lili. By pure chance, I began by reading the “Lyle” novel first.

The setting is Australia, but a very dystopian Australia in the near future. Immigrants and refugees are treated very badly. The country has absolutely no climate policy. Some parts of the continent are now labelled PFZs – Permanent Fire Zones – as huge bush-fires are always out of hand. And the government clamps down on all forms of dissent. At one point Lyle, who works for a government department, has to ask questions to weed out potential subversives – questions such as “Is anyone in your community leafleting farmers about sustainable crops or tree-planting or animal rights?... Anyone speaking out against Proud Nazis? Anyone advocating for Aboriginal rights or women’s refuges or a universal basic income?” (p.85) Lyle fears the possible repercussions for his family as his son Sydney is an ardent Greenie, and his daughter Mel [presumably short for Melbourne], when she talks furtively with liberal friends, finds it’s desirable to say she’s a New Zealander because New Zealand is less racist than Australia and “being Australian is so like shameful. Everyone just assumes you’re a racist, Islamophobic climate vandal and coffee snob.” (p.77)

            Which brings us to another issue. In this Australia, Islam has been outlawed. Lyle’s heritage is Muslim, but he and his family have to renounce their former religion and take on non-Muslim names. Former Muslims now have names like Ikea, Porsche, Chanel, Fanta and Prada, suggesting that the accepted religion is consumerism. And, to be approved by his employers, Lyle has to play such charming computer games as Whack-a-Mullah. As an immigrant, Lyle notes “Immigration breaks people. We try to reconstitute ourselves in our new countries, but pieces of us have disappeared. Immigrants are people with missing pieces.” (p.15) He can never be an Australian in terms that would fully appease the government. What’s more “Every newcomer to this country fears repatriation. Even those born here aren’t exempt if their parents or grandparents weren’t – one immigrant in four is enough.” (p.50)

            The “scary monster” of racism is clear to see, but what of the misogyny and ageism? Lyle’s wife Chanel is a buxom woman, but she is told to have breast-reduction surgery before she will be accepted as a suitable company executive. Then there is Lyle’s elderly in-law Ivy, an eccentric who was once an ardent Communist but is used to luxury. When she is not ignored or ridiculed (more misogyny), she is being coaxed into submitting to euthanasia, as the nice, kind government has passed an Amendment making it easier to put old people down (extreme ageism), obviously to get rid of the non-earning, pension-granted elderly. To gussy it up, the moment of killing is called a Joyful Occasion.

            The “Lyle” novel is obviously a work of raw protest against current trends in Australian society, but it has a singular subtlety. Remember Lyle, a covert Muslim, works for a government department which is part of the mechanism of his own intimidation. He conforms to the very policies that dehumanise him. This may suggest to us that he is craven. But I suggest de Kretser is warning us, in comfy democratic countries, that it is too easy to condemn “collaborators”. What other options do people have if they want to survive under a totalitarian regime?

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            Flipping the book over, I find the “Lili” novel to be totally different in tone from the “Lyle” novel, even if similar issues are raised. Far from dealing with a dystopian future, the “Lili” novel is set in the past – the early 1980s – in France. Bear in mind that in the early 1980s, when she was in her twenties, de Kretser took a Master degree in Paris. It is hard to avoid the idea that at least some of “Lili” is built on her youthful memories of France, even if the tale is fiction. Indeed some of it reads as nostalgic, light-hearted and amusing student matters, even if there is a large downside to the story.

The narrator Lili has gone to Montpellier to teach English. She is an Australian, though some of her forebears were Armenian and many came from an (unspecified) Asian country – very much the situation of the Sri Lankan Australian Michelle de Kretser. Lili aspires to be an independent, fearless, feminist intellectual, modelling herself on Simone de Beauvoir; but in fact she is timid and tortured with a sense of loneliness. She makes friends with a much more confident young women called Minna who has a boyfriend called Nick. Minna is progressive. Minna condemns racism. Minna expresses daring left-wing views… except that at the same time Minna likes the most chic clothes, the best restaurants, and the latest fashion. Much of Lili’s experience is discovering who or what exactly Minna really is. She comes to realize that free-wheeling, confident  Minna actually has family money resources and relies very much on her boyfriend Nick’s work. At a point where Lili is disillusioned with Minna, she thinks scornfully “Dependent women and bread-winning men: the Bold, Intelligent Woman had relied on a conventional script.” (p.56).  Another thing nags at her. Has Minna befriended her solely because she [Lili] is “ethnic” and therefore it is chic for Minna to be able to show off, to her liberal friends, her brown-skinned friend? In Lili’s mind “There was the thought of rich Minna versus poor Lili. There was the thought of white Minna versus brown Lili.” (p.57) In conversation with another young woman, Lili remarks of Minna “Saving brown people is a principle with her… It’s the reason she’s friends with me.” (pp.104-105)

De Kretser has presented similar purely-performative anti-racists elsewhere in her oeuvre [notably in The Life to Come]; but she does not stoop to caricature, for in later sections of the “Lili” novel, we learn that Minna has her own problems and is not a totally unsympathetic character.

The matter of racism is raised in the interaction of Lili and Minna; but it is also in the environment of 1980s France, where there are still tensions with, and prohibitions against, immigrants – especially Algerians. There are still painful memories of the Second World War, when French collaborators helped send French Jews to the death camps. And (referring to Albert Camus’ Algerian-set novel L’Etranger), Lili comes to wonder if some esteemed French literature isn’t also racist. She thinks: “All round the world, young people are studying a really brilliant novel about the murder of an Arab. They would say, If the most celebrated postwar French novel, venerated in France, is about the murder of an Arab, what might be the consequences of that? They would say, Why didn’t the Arab have a name? Then all the sentences would coalesce into a shiny purple headline: CE N’EST PAS NORMAL.” (pp.97-98)

Of the three “scary monsters”, ageism is largely absent from the “Lili” novel; but misogyny is rampant in the form of men who try to hit on young foreign women – especially Lili’s devious landlord M. Laval.

Given that she is dealing with young and rather callow main characters, de Kretser punctures their naïve optimism a little. The “Lili” novel ends with young people rejoicing that a Socialist (Mitterand) government has just won an election. Utopia and radical change seem to be dawning… except we, older, wiser and many decades later, know this is not going to happen.

Footnote: Even before the 1980s, when the “Lili” novel was set, there were already critics who pointed out the quasi-racist element of Camus’ L’Etranger. I refer to Conor Cruise O’Brien’s monograph on Albert Camus, published in the Fontana Modern Masters series in 1970, which still sits on my shelf. To add an egotistical anecdote, in 1971 or thereabouts, we freshers studying French at the University of Auckland had to read L’Etranger. One of the attractions of the novel, at least to freshers, was that it was short. In a tutorial, I dared to ask the lecturer why Mersault shot the Arab. In reply, the lecturer launched into a tirade about how you only had to live is Algeria to know how sneaky these Arabs are… Ouch!

A general assessment: So, having read all but one of Michelle de Kretser’s fictions, how do I assess her work? Obviously, she has some dominant ideas and themes. Drawing often on experience, she is interested in migrants and refugees and how they mix, or do not mix, into Western society. She is aware of widespread xenophobia in Australia, often linking her stories to current or historical facts or events. But she sharpens her satirical pen most often for liberals who claim to support new migrants, but who remain condescending towards foreign customs and ways of life. She is also very concerned with the matter of time, ageing and maturation. It is interesting that so many of her fictions rely on memories of a childhood or parental past. This is always in the interest of seeing how and why people grow up the way they do, and how distant events can have long-lasting consequences. Growing up also means interrogating sexual behaviour. Misogyny is one of her repeated targets. As an Australian citizen of long standing, de Kretser also can’t help considering the matter of colonisation – not only in Australia’s past, but also in the colonisation of Sri Lanka (and in one novel, India). But neatly setting out dominant “themes” like this does not really give the measure of the author. More than anything, de Kretser has an advanced skill in observation – she can describe people, customs, fashions, and especially places in such a precise way that they are presented to the eye, ear, nose and touch. And, while some of her characters earn our sympathy, she never indulges in sentimentality. Even migrants and refugees who are victimised are whole characters – they are not saints.

Is Michelle de Kretser a great novelist? It’s too early to say. While admiring and following many of her narratives, I also found some things that read in a confusing way. I’ll leave it to history to assess her work.

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.  

                                            SACRED OR SECULAR?

Pardon me if I begin with a personal anecdote.

Some years ago, I was at a university capping ceremony in which one of my daughters was about to be capped for an advanced degree. As was often the case, an eminent person had been chosen to give an opening speech, intended to inspire the proud graduands to benefit society with their new-won skills and knowledge. It happened that the invited speaker was a learned Pasifika scholar and clergyman. The core of his speech was that life could not be lived well without God; and one’s endeavours would be fruitless without God. In effect, he delivered a sermon.

As I recall it, the speaker was politely clapped and there was no protest or interjection at this very Christian speech, even if the occasion was a secular one – after all, most graduands tend to regard capping speeches as something to be politely endured and/or ignored as they wait for their big moment of having their degrees publicly confirmed. But I couldn’t help entertaining an heretical thought. Would the reaction have been different if the speech had been given by a Pakeha bishop or a Rabbi, each expressing support for specific religious teachings? How much was the speech accepted politely as a courtesy to Pasifika and Polynesian culture in general?

As in many other democratic countries, we have a rather odd dichotomy in New Zealand. Officially, public events are secular, but “secular” is a very contested term. Does secularism mean neutrality (and silence) when it comes to matters of religion, so that believers (of all denominations and religions) and non-believers are on an equal footing? Or does secularism mean hostility towards religion, which is frequently the case with people who style themselves as secularists, as often seen in Australia’s Secular Lobby? We have seen some of these tensions in recent initiatives to change the nature of the prayer that has, for many decades, been read out by the Speaker of the House at the opening of a new session of parliament.

At the beginning of December (2022) there was a local controversy pitting the religious and the secular. Craig Jepson, the newly-elected mayor of Kaipara, refused to allow a Maori councillor to open the council’s first meeting with a Karakia (variously defined as a prayer or liturgical chant). Jepson asserted that the meeting was a secular one and therefore it was no place for religious expression of any sort. This caused outrage for many in the local community, especially as there is a large Maori population in the Kaipara area. A petition was raised against Jepson, there was a large – and peaceful – protest march in Dargaville, and the Race Relations Commissioner expressed his concern over Jepson’s action. At time of writing these comments,  Jepson (a Pakeha) has not retracted his assertion, but has suggested that there could be a roster allowing councillors of different persuasions to open meetings with a reflection.

At this point, I have to declare my bias and say where I am situated in this dispute. Jepson’s intervention and the halting of the Karakia were recorded and shown on national television. Jepson’s action struck me as boorish, inept and bullying. No matter how strongly he felt about it, he could have let the Karakia finish before expressing his opinion. I also have to add that on the whole, I’m on the side of a formal opening prayer of some sort to begin council deliberations.

But here’s my awkward question. How many of those who criticised Jepson publicly are themselves not religious believers? I’m guessing (and only guessing) that many Pakeha who criticised Jepson would not have supported an opening prayer to a council meeting if it were not Maori. The difference is that in this case a Karakia is seen as a vital part of a certain ethnicity – something to be treasured as a people’s heritage. In other words, at least some non-religious Pakeha (again I’m merely speculating) would have said public prayer is okay for one ethnicity but not for another. And just possibly there is something patronising in such a stance. It’s as if we are being told that the prayers of one group are to be cherished while the prayers of another are to be regarded with contempt.


Monday, February 6, 2023

Something New

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

“EDDA MUSSOLINI – The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe” by Caroline Moorehead (Chatto & Windus; distributed by Penguin/ Random House, $NZ40); “SELLING BRITISHNESS – Commodity Culture, the Dominions, and Empire” by Felicity Barnes (Auckland University Press, NZ$49:99)

            Caroline Moorehead is a very capable historian, journalist and biographer who has written about many and varied lives. Her three most recent books have focused on people in Fascist Italy. A Bold and Dangerous Family dealt with an anti-Fascist partisan family and A House in the Mountains looked at the Italian partisan women fighting both Fascists and Nazi invaders in the civil war in northern Italy during the last phases of the Second World War. In both books, however, historical context loomed as large as biographical detail  (see my review of The House in the Mountains below). In effect, while highlighting particular people, Caroline Moorehead was really giving us a general history as much as, or even more than, biography.


            Edda Mussolini – The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe follows very much the same path. It certainly gives us the woman’s life but it is also a complete history of Fascist Italy from go to woe (and I really do mean woe), with Edda herself often side-lined. To get past one small quibble which does not mar a very good book, was Edda Mussolini reallythe most dangerous woman in Europe”? The phrase was coined in 1939 in an obscure Egyptian magazine called Images, which went on to say that she “rules her father [Benito Mussolini] with an iron fist”. (p.235) By 1939, Edda Mussolini was well-known for her informal diplomatic missions,  buttering up English, French and German diplomats to woo them into accepting her father’s actions. Also in 1939, the American Time magazine put Edda Mussolini on its front cover, its journalist describing her as “Gaunt, pale faced… outstanding in ability, personality and intelligence… one of Europe’s most successful intriguers and string-pullers…” (p.212) But was she the most dangerous woman in Europe? I think others of the time might also have claimed that sobriquet. (Start with Ilsa Koch and keep looking.)

            So much for my one quibble.

            Edda Mussolini was born in 1910. At the time her father was a gifted and rabble-rousing journalist and a dedicated Socialist. It was the First World War, and his approval of soldiers and military authority, that made him turn against Socialism and create the Fascist Party. Edda was the eldest of Rachele and Benito Mussolini’s children. When she was a child “Journalists, constantly following the family’s every move, spoke of her grace and charm. In reality she was awkward, prickly and combative, with an excellent memory and a habit of caricaturing her own defects, hiding her skills and virtues as if she were ashamed on them…” (p.54) Eventually, the Mussolinis would have five children, but even from her earliest years, Edda was aware that her father had many mistresses and a number of bastard children; and frequently her father bellowed and fought with her mother. Edda was 12 when her father staged his so-called “March on Rome” and then bullied the king into making him prime-minister. There followed four or five years in the 1920s as Mussolini moved on to creating a totalitarian, one-party state. Only when things had more-or-less settled down for the regime (at the time of the Concordat with the Vatican in 1929) did Mussolini bring his family to live with him in Rome.

Despite the family’s long separation, and despite the fights she sometimes had with her father, young Edda still tended to idolise him. Her parents curated the boyfriends she was able to socialise with, and presented her with various potential suitors whom she rejected. Finally, in 1930 when she was 19, she married Count Galeazzo Ciano in a spectacularly-staged wedding. Ciano was 27. The two of them were supposed to be role-models for Fascist youth. “Edda was to stand for everything that was best about Fascist womanhood, while Ciano carved out the path of the ‘new Italian man’. Whether either of them wanted this role, or were suited to it, no one paused to consider.” (p.77)

As it happened, the private lives were very different from the public image. The couple were posted to Shanghai where Ciano worked as a diplomat, was successful in getting Chang Kai-Shek to adopt Fascist ideas and was able to sell Italian warplanes to the Chinese Nationalists, at a time when Japan had invaded Manchuria. Despite her youth, Edda proved to be a very capable society and diplomatic hostess. But Galeazzo Ciano was as much of a philanderer as Mussolini was and Edda was constantly outraged by stories of his affairs with Chinese women.

Called back to Italy, Ciano became the head of the regime’s propaganda department. These years, the early 1930s, were the heyday of Italian Fascism. On the whole, the Italian people accepted the regime, despite the covert brutality meted out to dissenters;  and Mussolini was wooed by democratic countries – especially England and France – as a possible bulwark against both Communism and the rising power of Nazism. It is often forgotten that Mussolini at first pitted himself against Hitler. In 1934 he sent divisions up to the Austrian border, effectively preventing Hitler from taking over Austria.

However, it is at this point in her narrative that Caroline Moorehead gives a detailed panorama of Fascist high society – the massive corruption practised by Fascist grandees; the personal fiefdoms created by local Fascist leaders;  the extravagant public displays eating away at the nation’s wealth; the rivalries and bitcheries between tradition aristocrats and newly-powerful Fascisti, played out in fashionable salons; the coordination of all social movements into Fascist control, including the suppression of Catholic youth movements. In the newspapers and magazines , Edda and Ciano were presented as the regime’s glamour couple, but by this stage both of them were having adulterous affairs (even if all three children that Edda eventually had were fathered by Ciano).

The mood changed in the mid-1930s, and in effect began the long disintegration of the Fascist regime. Early in 1935, Edda went to London to sound out whether or not Britain would really oppose Mussolini’s intention to invade Abyssinia (Ethiopia). She was welcomed in chic circles and basically understood that while Britain might half-heartedly pronounce sanctions against Italy, Britain would undertake no military action. So Italian warships were able to pass through the  Suez Canal (still largely controlled by the British) and be part of the brutal invasion of Abyssinia in which both Ciano and some of Mussolini’s sons took part. The next year, Mussolini was sending troops to help Franco in the Spanish Civil War and by this stage the British and French were aware that Mussolini was now drifting into Hitler’s orbit. So to the so-called “Pact of Steel”, the forming of the Axis. Mussolini was flattered to help broker the Munich Agreement in 1938, where the British and French weakly caved in and allowed Hitler to take over the Sudetenland. But Mussolini was quickly made aware that he was now bound to Hitler and the very-much-weaker partner of the Axis. Hitler didn’t bother to forewarn him that he was about to take over the rest of Czechoslovakia, annex Austria and make a pact with Stalin which allowed him to invade Poland and in effect  set off the Second World War.

And what was Edda doing in these years? Often she was a go-between with Nazi Germany. Just as often she was, like her husband, living a frivolous life, regularly holidaying in Capri, socialising and (one of her worst vices) gambling for great sums and usually losing. And yet she could rouse herself to worthwhile action when she put her mind to it. Later, when Italy was drawn into the war, she trained as a nurse and was apparently a very effective one in military hospitals.

Little point in my going into detail of the Fascist regime’s brutal decline, even though it is chronicled diligently by Caroline Moorehead. Mussolini committed Italy to the war in mid-1940, hoping to gain territory from Nazi-dominated France. He didn’t get what he wanted. Trying to build an empire, he endorsed the Italian attacks on Albania and then on Greece. For Italy, both campaigns were disastrous. In North Africa, Italian forces were defeated by the British and [literally] thousands of Italian soldiers became prisoners of war. Germany took over Greece and the North African campaign. Hatred for Mussolini grew in Italy, now under regular bombardment from Allied planes. In July 1943, the Italian king and the Fascist grand council voted to depose Mussolini and make terms with the Allies. Result? Germany now invaded Italy, treating it as an enemy state, followed by the long campaign as American, British and Commonwealth troops fought their way up Italy against stiff German opposition. And finally there was the brutal civil war (partisans versus Fascists and Nazis) that was waged in Northern Italy. For much of a year, Mussolini, who had been whisked away by German commandos, was able to “rule” a tiny Nazi-supported “republic” in the north. He had Count Ciano executed as a “traitor” for having been one of those who voted for his deposition. Finally Mussolini and his most recent mistress Clara Petacci were intercepted by partisans, shot dead and, with other prominent Fascists, hanged upside-down in a piazza in Milan.

If there is any moment in this whole lamentable tale where Edda becomes a sympathetic character, it is in the months when she set aside her annoyance at her husband’s infidelity, dedicated herself to him, and repeatedly begged her father not to have Ciano executed. Mussolini turned down her requests. You also have to give her points for looking after her three children – she was canny enough to have them sent to Switzerland, where she escaped to join them in the last months of the war. In these matters, for all her faults, she was a forgiving wife and a caring mother – not that she can be absolved of all the intrigues, plotting and devious deals she had made, in a very bad cause, over the years. She and her children survived that war (as did Mussolini’s wife Rachelle) and lived on in post-Fascist Italy.

When I sum up Edda Mussolini, I see some of the same features as her father – considerable intelligence, powers of persuasion, many skills, but little moral compass (except in her last days) a huge ego and much delusion working in a very bad cause. She might have often fought with her father, but she was very much her father’s daughter.

The most ambiguous person in this history, however, is Galeazzo Ciano. Despite his playboy ways and serial infidelity, he had the intelligence to see what was wrong with the regime and its ambitions. When made foreign minister, he had to meet the leading Nazis and he was unimpressed by them: “Unlike Edda, Ciano did not warm to the senior Nazis whom he met. He took an instant dislike to Ribbentrop, soon to be the German Foreign Minister, calling him a fool; he dismissed Goring as a ‘fat, vulgar ox’, capable, but interested chiefly in money and decorations; and he was wary of the ‘small, olive skinned’ cripple Goebbels, who lacked, Ciano said, the ‘stupid frankness of is colleagues’. To his mind, it was clear that Hitler was bloodthirsty and a bit mad. Germany, he concluded, was in the ‘hands of men of very inferior quality whom we must exploit.’” (p.161) Regrettably, while his summary of Nazi leaders might have been accurate, he failed to see the real danger they threatened and misunderstood that they would soon be dominating Mussolini. Ciano cannot be forgiven for promoting the disastrous campaigns against Albania and Greece; but he did have his lucid and commendable moments. In the first half of 1940, when Mussolini was dithering over whether Italy should join the war, Ciano was trying to persuade him that war would be disastrous for Italy. In those months, Ciano even gave a speech in the Fascist general assembly, praising the Poles for standing up to Hitler’s aggression. And of course, in 1943 Ciano was one of those who realised that Mussolini had to go and capitulation to the Allies was the best course. There is also the fact that Ciano’s voluminous diaries, complete with denunciation of Fascist party leaders, were saved and hidden by Edda, much to the joy of later historians who have read them as invaluable records of the regime.

Once again, we have in Ciano a man of intelligence and some moral standards, but too often swayed by the glamour of power, too addicted to a sybaritic way of life, and too often ignoring his own better judgement. In the end, what a sad waste of real talent.

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

For the record, I include here my brief review of Caroline Moorehead’s A House in the Mountains. The review appeared in the NZ Listener on 18 January 2020.

            The big picture was complicated. Mussolini had been deposed, but German commandos spirited him away to set up a puppet “republic” in the very north of Italy. The Allies advanced slowly from the south, facing stiff opposition from German troops who had invaded the country and now treated its population as a defeated enemy. Italian hopes for a quick end to their war were dashed. And in the north, an Italian civil war was going on. Anti-Fascist partisans fought die-hard Fascists. The Fascists were supported by the SS and German regulars. The partisans were supported only half-heartedly by the Allies, who were both far away and unwilling to risk too much with costly air-drops of equipment.

            Caroline Moorehead’s A House in the Mountains deals almost exclusively with the situation in the north, especially Piedmont and the city of Turin. Here clashes between partisans and Fascists were at their fiercest. For nineteen months, from September 1943 to April 1945, this region suffered German occupation and there was more partisan activity, and more civilian deaths, than in any other part of Italy. SS and Fascist reprisals usually meant massacres, especially as the Fascists smelled defeat.

            A House in the Mountains is subtitled “The Women Who Liberated Italy from Fascism”. Moorehead’s declared purpose is to restore to historical memory those women who were an important part of the partisan movement. She tries to focus on four women in particular who were “staffetta” (runners, couriers and guides), who did propaganda work for the partisans, and who sometimes joined the male partisans in fights, raids and hold-ups. She also deals with women factory-workers who led successful strikes to improve conditions in the face of Fascist opposition; mothers who tried to protect their sons from deportation to Germany; and a nun who helped anti-Fascist prisoners to escape and avoid torture. Their actions were unquestionably heroic and their role was often crucial.

            But there is a snag here, which often defeats Moorehead’s purpose. In order to make sense of the situation, she has to give us a general survey of the different aims of diverse partisan groups – Communists, Socialists, Christian Democrats and independent bands – and the difficulties in coordinating them. In effect, Moorehead often shifts her focus away from the role of women. A House in the Mountains becomes a general history of the North Italian civil war.  There’s also the nagging fact that, until the last few months, almost as many Piedmontese supported Fascism as opposed it, and about the same proportion of women were in Fascist militias as were among the partisans.

            One interesting sidelight - this English author is particularly hard on British diplomats for their patronising attitude to Italian partisans. She paints the Americans as far more open-minded, despite their fear of partisan Communism.

She also ends on a rather dispiriting note. Post-war Italy, with its amnesties for most Fascist militias and its often-corrupt politics, was not the ideal country that the women partisans thought they were making. In real history, heroic endeavour often ends with a whimper, not a bang.

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Sometimes new books come my way a little late. Such was the case with Felicity Barnes’ Selling Britishness, subtitled “Commodity Culture, the Dominions, and Empire”, which became available in November last year. Felicity Barnes, senior lecturer in the history department on the University of Auckland, has long specialised in studies of New Zealand’s colonial connections with Britain. In 2012, her detailed book New Zealand’s London (reviewed on this blog 12 November 2012) charted the social and cultural links between New Zealand and London, especially in the years between the two world wars.  Selling Britishness deals with the same era, but in this case Barnes’ focus is on the way “dominions” – meaning Canada, Australia and New Zealand – sold their produce to Britain by framing themselves as British.

As she notes in her opening chapter, the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, in 1925, was the stimulus for marketing boards on Canada, Australia and New Zealand to begin aggressive publicity campaigns, telling Britain that they too were British and their goods were produced by Britishers. As Barnes notes, Canada, Australia and New Zealand had majority “white”  populations, whereas British colonies in Africa and Asia might have been ruled by British officials, but white populations were a minority – often a very small minority. Therefore it was harder for, say, India and South Africa to be presented as “white” lands and their marketing strategies were quite different from those of  Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There was also the fact that a considerable part of the Canadian population was French, a fact that Canadian marketers had to step delicately around.

So in chapter by chapter, Barnes chronicles scrupulously how “Britishness” was sold to Britain. There was what she calls the construction of an imaginary “community” (Chapter 2) , the pretence that the dominions were simply an extension of Britain, thus creating “consumer imperialism”. Extreme British groups like the Self-Supporting Empire League did not last long – with an aim of importing only “British” (imperial) produce – but the sentiment often underlay much dominion marketing. There was, in dominion marketing (Chapter 3) a tendency to present Canada, Australia and New Zealand as sylvan British-looking landscapes, with Canadian wheat-fields and New Zealand and Australian dairy farms and lamb or beef raising depicted like scenes in the English Home Counties or Midlands.  There was also the tendency to exclude both women and indigenous people (Native Americans, Aborigines, Maori) from marketing publicity. The preference was for images of sturdy, heroic-looking male farmers and ranchers. Racial (or racist) assumptions meant indigenes didn’t exist and “whiteness” was played up as a virtue. Promotional films (Chapter 4), lauding dominion produce, were widely screened in Britain, especially once the talkie era began; and it would appear that only New Zealand promotional films occasionally acknowledged the existence of indigenous people (Maori) in a few travelogues. Barnes gives a more detailed account of the “whiteness” selling-point in Chapter 5; and in Chapter 6 she deals with British marketers selling genuinely British goods and produce to the dominions and colonies.

This is a book dense with detail and requiring close reading. In spite of this, it has some dominant themes. In her Introduction, Barnes notes  “… the construction of ‘British’ Dominions through advertising remained a pernicious process. Just as recent research on nineteenth-century commodity racism argues for its covert role in upholding imperial power in colonial settings, so Dominion empire marketing belied the violence of its origins…. Marketing fruit grown in ‘British soil’ required the expropriation of Indigenous land, a process simultaneously masked and restaged in a benign fashion in commodity promotions. As a result, First Peoples became even more marginal in these carefully constructed commodity identities than they had become in their own lands….”     (p.12) Much later, she has a similar statement “… the EMB’s [Imperial Marketing Board’s] campaigns for the colonial empire could be considered almost as a paint-by-numbers study in Edward Said’s orientalism, with depictions of ‘backward’ colonies serving to cast the metropolis as their natural superior. But the exotic othering typical in the imagining such colonies could not be deployed for the Dominions who were determined that they had transcended the ‘colonial’ state. Instead, the Dominions became the mirror image of the dependent empire. This meant they too were racially inscribed, gendered spaces, though analyses that either naturalise Britishness or limit empire’s cultural impact to the production of colonial difference have helped to camouflage this effect. The EMB’s British farming hinterlands, just like those created by the Dominions themselves, constructed Australia, Canada, and New Zealand as white and masculine, separating them from the dependant empire and emphasising their metropolitan attributes anew.”  (p.127)

These statements are, of course, a verdict made in our present age. I am aware that essentially New Zealand remained Britain’s offshore farm right up to the 1960s – farmers often seen as the backbone of the nation; and sheep, wool and dairy products, mainly sent to Britain, being essential to our economy. In those circumstances, selling things as “British” was probably a reasonable strategy. But now the underlying assumptions of this strategy look tawdry and very questionable. Autres temps, autres moeurs.