Monday, March 20, 2023

Something New

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

HOW TO GET FIRED - Stories” by Evana Belich (Penguin-Random House, $NZ37); “STRANGE SALLY DIAMOND” by Liz Nugent (Penguin-Random House, $NZ37)

            I have rarely come across a debut collection of short stories that is as knowing, even-handed, satirical, perceptive and compassionate all at once as Evana Belich’s How to Get Fired. Sharon Came’s Peninsula came close, but to get the same quality of literary skill you’d have to turn to an old master like Vincent O’Sullivan. The sixteen stories that make up  How to Get Fired are in many different voices. Only five are written in the first-person – Evana Belich uses the confessional style with caution – but even the eleven stories in the third-person allow for a great degree of internality with the unspoken thoughts of characters revealed. In one story, “Moses and the Wax Bars”, the third-person narration is disrupted by what amounts to a long first-person anecdote.  Like Sharon Came – and like Charlotte Grimshaw in her collections of short stories – Belich sometime links stories loosely together. Major characters in one story pop up in the background of other stories. A certain Josh Paley in mentioned in more than one story as a sort of glamour figure and celebrity. A company called Pacific Wave Plastics turns up in a number of stories, but featuring different people as main characters. And so on with many other examples, as well as the dove-tailing of a number of stories.

            Although there are moments of levity and fun, it is interesting to find so many stories about regret, becoming old, facing the possibility of being fired or being deemed as redundant. More often than not, the protagonists are women. Five themes dominate this collection. Belich is interested in the relationship and comradeship of women; the regrets and frustrations women suffer; the status of men in domestic situations or in positions of power; issues involving society at large; and industrial and employment situations. The blurb tells me that Evana Belich was “a trade union official, a mediator and an employment relations adviser” and doubtless some of her stories have their roots in real-life situations. However it’s rather clinical to categorise Evana Belich’s stories in this way. Her stories are not advocacy for a cause, even when her sympathies are clear. They are nuanced studies of people, often with an awareness that there can be more than one valid viewpoint in a debate.


            To begin with the stories most involved with comradeship between women. The story “What She Had” has a lesbian couple who have broken up. But one of them, Emma, is rather fragile, has a breakdown and needs to be comforted by the other, Vic. Vic soothes her with stories of how she acquired cats after the Christchurch earthquake; but in her thoughts she turns the shattered city into a symbol of her own desolation and her loss in an earlier love affair which ended so badly that she has never since found a satisfactory partner. Here the comradeship is clear, but with a degree of alienation. In contrast “Connie-Only Specials” – apparently set in the U.S.A.- concerns two women workmates,  police officers who are protecting celebrities from stalkers. There’s the fear of redundancy as the older woman feels she will lose her position, yet the story shows her worth in an unexpected way. Though the contrast between the women is clear (one more experienced in her work than the other) the two of them work well together and on the whole the story is optimistic.


            Of course the five categories I set out overlap. Stories about women cooperating can also involve women’s frustrations and regrets. “Episode 4” is the monologue of an ageing woman alienated from her children, remembering her flawed marriage and hiding herself in the fantasies of TV serials. “Auntie Lou” is a story of regret and envy with a sour punchline – an ageing married woman now regretting all the chances she didn’t take and annoyed at the attention her husband gives to their nieces. The most extreme case is “Christmas with Chess”, where the frustration boils over. Having missed many opportunities in life, a middle-aged woman is stuck with having to look after her elderly mother. Her angst is rubbed in by the occasion described, at a Christmas gathering, with relations and their children bustling around. By the way, Belich at no time suggests that the married-with-children state is ideal. It is flawed and can be fractious. But the mental isolation of the protagonist is severe.


            If women sometimes suffer, it is often because of men. Let me make it clear that Belich is no practitioner of misandry and does show much even-handedness in dealing with either sex. But there are malign men in this collection. “Five Daughters”, set in the lunchroom of a factory, has two more worldly-wise women try to persuade a naïve younger woman that it would be a bad idea to pursue an affair with their married boss. Obviously the mature-aged boss has power and the implication is clearly that he has sexually exploited women before. The worst case of male behaviour is “Me and My Girls”. It reads like a perverted Walter Mitty story – a man fantasises about sex, which he is no longer getting from his ex-wife, and has homicidal thoughts about killing movie actors who get all the girls after whom, in his fantasy world, he lusts. And yet in the story “Moses and the Wax Bars” Belich show great narrative skill in allowing us to understand a man’s pain (he realises that he’ll never reach the ambitions he craves) even though we know his values are very questionable ones.

The stories addressing social issues segue into the stories of industrial and employment situations. “Housewarming” could be categorised as yet another story of a woman’s regret; but it comes closest to commentary on a current social problem – in this case the total unaffordability of houses in New Zealand cities, especially Auckland. In “Motivational Story”  a saleswoman tries to train a younger woman in the art of selling plastic shelving; but the younger woman is undergoing an internal crisis as she wonders whether sheer materialism leaves space for any real human values. Does she really want to follow such a soulless occupation and is the money worth it? Though the very pragmatic saleswoman is telling the tale, it is very nuanced as we hear both sides of the situation – the necessity to work, even if it is soul-destroying, and the desire to be freed of it. Like “Housewarming”, “Peach Season” is a story of social resonance - the fight which working staff have in getting management to instal reasonable air-conditioning. The main main focus is on how tricky (and sometimes under-handed) negotiations can be. “One in a Million” picks up with the same dispute as in “Peach Season”, only in this case Belich  inserts a subtle awareness of how some unionists can indulge in as much jockeying for favour, prestige and status as employers can. The titular story “How to Get Fired” (the last story in the collection) provides a sort of victory to an employee. A woman working in an aged-care facility is bullied by her boss. Knowing she is about to be fired, she at least has the consolation of uttering a sturdy come-back.

In stories of corporate work, Belich sometimes moves to hard satire, especially when it comes to the jargon corporations often use to give a bogus gravity to their plans, especially shown in the story “The Consolidation Phase” (In my opinion the best story in the this book and the one begging to be anthologised the next time somebody edits another collection of “best New Zealand stories”). At one of those corporate meetings, the boss talks about “consolidation”, by which, it is implied, he means down-sizing and possibly laying-off some people. After his spiel, the story’s protagonist has to come up with the acceptable corporate jargon, while his mind is distracted by domestic problems and by his team’s talk of their personal woes. The juxtaposition of corporate-speak and everyday speech is one of the story’s strengths. The other is the fine balance between the protagonist’s having to play the game and his internal struggle with his real desire to set it all aside. “The Consolidation Phase”  neatly dovetails with the next story. In “The Consolidation Phase” , one character declares that he saw people living in vans on a beach, apparently carefree and not running after prestige or promotion. He says he really wants to live that way. In “Parked Up” we get the riposte. It deals with people who really are living in vans on a beach-front, and we are given a lively account of them – a collection of people are delineated. (It is almost as if this is a distant descendant of Katherine Mansfield’s “At the Bay”.) But the point is, in this case, that the apparently feckless life is far from ideal and quite different from the daydreams of a corporate man. No paradise.

I hope this survey has not left the impression that Belich looks only at the grim or depressing things in life. Nor is she an activist advocating for social issues. Her stories are written with nuance, with an awareness that the same situation can legitimately be interpreted in different ways, and with the knowledge that both women and men are capable of bullying, seeking status or being hurt. She also leaves us guessing in some cases how we should interpret characters. In  “Five Daughters”, the narrator, generally presented as a thoughtful person, could be an unreliable narrator – or maybe just a snob – when, referring to fellow-workers drinking from coffee machine, she declares “I myself always drank tea made with actual tea leaves. English Breakfast. I enjoyed it and also felt my choice of beverage set me apart from the ordinary run of office coffee-drinkers. It was a sign of something, I felt. Of standards which would endure. Of a life beyond the office and the coffee machine…”

            Let me also note that in “Episode 4”,  Belich delivers a devastating truth about New Zealand even if it comes from the jaded view of a malcontent: “This is what happens when people live overseas for too long. They dream about back home and it’s all pohutukawa trees and barbecues. Everything is happening at the beach. Kids are throwing themselves off wharves into the blue water, their little backs curling inti ball mid-air, when the truth is that it’s all supermarket carparks and drizzle and wet flax like it’s always been. They think there’s nothing but whanau get-togethers even when they don’t actually have any whanau.” How horribly true. 


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


            Turning from Evana Belich’s short stories, I come to a very different sort of book from a very different author.

            Irish novelist Liz Nugent writes crime stories and has so far produced four popular novels, all of which were bestsellers and all of which involved grotesque situations. Strange Sally Diamond is her fifth, and it seems well on the way to being another major bestseller. It comes with pages of endorsements by critics, other crime writers and celebrity people in show biz, including a few New Zealanders because, while most of the story is set in rural Ireland, much is set in New Zealand. Liz Nugent took a road trip through New Zealand before Covid hit and was able to depict this country accurately.

            Strange Sally Diamond is essentially a yarn and as I’ve often said, there’s nothing wrong with a good yarn. It is designed to keep the pages turning.

            Living with just her father in a remote house, home-schooled and adept at the piano, Sally Diamond, in her forties, really is strange. She takes things literally. Her father once told her flippantly that when he dies, she should just throw him out with the rubbish. So when he dies, she literally does that. She drags his corpse over to the incinerator, dumps him in it, pours petrol over him and sets him alight. Of course this is a very illegal way of disposing of a body, and in no time the Garda (Irish police) are bringing a criminal case against her.

            But Sally is strange.

            Her literal way of taking things seems at first to be autism. In fact, it turns out to be PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – brought about by barbaric treatment she suffered as a small child. Sally cannot remember the first seven years of her life. She has blocked them out. It transpires that her parents – now both dead – were foster-parents who took her in, treated her compassionately and protected her from the world after she and her birth-mother had been rescued from a paedophile. He had chained Sally’s mother up in his home and sexually abused her for years, Sally being the outcome. Sally and her mother were rescued, but the abuser scarpered before anyone could arrest him, and there’s the possibility that he is still lurking somewhere is the world after all these years.

            Fear not, gentle reader. I have not spoiled the novel for you. I assure you that this little synopsis covers no more than the set-up of the novel, at most the first 60-or-so pages of a novel that is 360 pages long. There are many twists and turns, as there are in all good thrillers. There are people who may be Sally’s friends and supporters or who may be exploiting her. There are a number of deaths along the way and there is quite a bit set in rural New Zealand. But that’s as much plot I will give. I know it’s a crime to spoil the surprises a novel presents, especially when it’s a page-turner. The whole purpose of a page-turner is to keep readers guessing and wondering what will happen next. And of course Sally herself, with her unique, literal, off-centre way of looking at the world, is engaging. If, then, you like page turners, this is the book for you. Liz Nugent has a fruitful imagination, keeps the yarn spinning, and had me happily following every twist until the end.

            And if a yarn is what you like then that is all you need to know.

            BUT (Oh dear! You knew that word was coming) in afterthought I do pull back from a few things. Let’s just say - without being specific -  that there are big holes in the plot and many improbabilities, especially one character getting away with things in a most unlikely way. And let us question the mode of narration. Sally tells most of the novel in the first person. She is joined later by another character speaking in the first person. Both seem to be unbelievably perceptive, quite at odds with their formation and all the trials they’ve been through, and neatly feeding us all the details we need to know. Not much verisimilitude here.

            But it’s still a damn good yarn.


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.     

“THE DAUGHTER OF TIME” by “Josephine Tey” (first published 1951)

Often on this blog I write detailed accounts of a novel and then, at the end and as a footnote, I make some brief comments on film or television versions that have been made from the novel. Book precedes film or TV series. But this time I reverse the process. Film precedes book.

I am writing about Josephine Tey’s 1951 novel The Daughter of Time because some months back I saw, and enjoyed,  the film The Lost King. If you haven’t seen it, the film  concerns the amateur archaeologist Philippa Langley (played by Sally Hawkins) who was convinced that the corpse of King Richard III – who died at the battle of Bosworth in 1485 - lay buried under a car-park in Leicester. After facing much scepticism from professional archaeologists, the research she had done became more and more convincing until, in 2012, the University of Leicester helped to fund the exhumation of the body. They dug up the car-park and soon unearthed the skeleton of a medieval man who had one very slightly deformed shoulder (not exactly a hideous hunchback, as Richard III has often been depicted). After two years of testing the DNA of the bones, their antiquity and the bloodlines to which they belonged, it was determined that this really was the skeleton of Richard III. In 2014 Richard was interred, with great ceremony, in Leicester cathedral.

This is an outline of Philippa Langley’s story. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of every detail of the film. (Did Philippa Langley literally have visions of, and talk with, Richard III? I doubt it.) What is clear, however, is that Philippa Langley was a member of the Richard III Society, which was founded in 1924 with the purpose of rehabilitating Richard III and proving that he was a wise and capable king, and not the bloodthirsty monster and murderer of two young princes, as depicted in Shakespeare’s barn-storming play. The Richard III Society publishes a journal, The Ricardian, to advance their cause. They were far from the first to question the received image of Richard III. Back in 1906, the historian Clement Markham wrote a sympathetic biography of Richard III in which he point by point refuted the charges that had been made against the king.

But (drumroll here, please) we at last get to the core of this review. It was Josephine Tey’s 1951 novel The Daughter of Time  - partly inspired by Clement - that really popularised pro-Richard sentiment. It was a huge bestseller and it has been reprinted many times in the last 70 years. In 1955, only four years after the novel was published, Laurence Olivier produced and starred in his film version of Shakespeare’s Richard III, but he felt bound to include an opening statement saying that Shakespeare’s version of Richard was probably fiction, but it would be “dry matter indeed” if the film (and play) had stuck to the historical facts. I speculate that Olivier added this statement in awareness of what was already Tey’s widely-read book. 

A few words about “Josephine Tey” (1896-1952). She was a Scotswoman, her real name being Elizabeth Macintosh. She used two separate pseudonyms when she wrote plays and novels. As a playwright, she called herself “Gordon Daviot” and she scored a big hit in the early 1930s with her historical play Richard of Bordeaux, but it seems that most of her many other plays were flops. As a writer of detective stories, she called herself “Josephine Tey”. She was notoriously a very private person, never married and is not known to have had any intimate partner. She died of cancer when she was 55 and The Daughter of Time was her last detective story. Josephine Tey was one those women who dominated the writing of detective stories in Britain between the 1920s and the 1950s (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham etc.). Like the other “crime queens” of the time, she built her detective stories around an idealised version of a male police inspector or private sleuth. Only Agatha Christie sometimes had a female detective (in Miss Marple). Josephine Tey’s hero figure was Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, about whom she wrote six novels.

So at last to The Daughter of Time. (Don’t be impatient please. I felt bound to give you all this necessary back-story.) It is quite a short novel even as detective stories go. I first read it years ago when I was a teenager, and recently re-read it in the wake of seeing The Lost King. The title refers to the old idea, often articulated over the centuries, that in the end the truth will come out because truth is “the daughter of time”.

Plot (such as it is) goes thus : Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant is confined to hospital after sustaining an injury. He is bored. The books well-meaning people give to him to pass the time annoy him (Josephine Tey spends some paragraphs having fun ridiculing the type of genre novels that were popular in her day.) His good friend the actress Marta Hallard decides to cheer him up by bringing him something different. She brings him pictures of people from history and asks him to read the character of each, as Inspector Grant prides himself on being able to read people’s character by studying faces. One image he regards as benign turns out to be a painting of Richard III. Inspector Grant is astounded. Surely somebody with such a pleasing face could not be the evil, tyrannical murderer of the two young princes in the Tower as depicted in Bill Shakespeare’s play! He wants to look more closely into this case, at first reading various history books, noting their inconsistencies. Then he gets the help of a nice young American chap, Brent Carradine, who happens to be researching history in the British Museum. Carradine becomes Inspector Grant’s leg-man, ferreting out ancient documents from the time of the Plantagenets and the Tudors. Thus, bit by bit, they make the case for Richard III.

And that is the whole plot: a chap doing research and building up a theory from a hospital bed.  

The fun, of course, is in seeing how the case is made. At first Inspector Grant recalls Richard III as “Crouchback. The monster of Nursery stories. The destroyer of innocence. A synonym for villainy.” (Chapter 2) Then he begins to see how this image of the man was fabricated by the followers of the usurping Tudor, Henry VII. The supposedly authoritative first book about Richard III was said to be written by the illustrious Thomas More (Grant sometimes refers to him sarcastically as “the sainted More”). But More was only a very young child when Richard was killed, and was not an eyewitness to events. Thinks Grant “That More had a critical mind and an admirable integrity did not make his story acceptable evidence.” (Chapter 7). More was brought up in the house of Bishop John Morton (raised to Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry VII). Morton was an ally of Henry Tudor, helped him plot against Richard III, was a completely unreliable source and had a strong interest in depicting Richard III as a monster. (And it is likely that the book attributed to Thomas More was actually a copy of a book by Morton.)  In effect, the book was Tudor propaganda, designed to justify Henry VII’s taking the throne when, in fact, Henry had virtually no legitimate claim to the throne. (Josephine Tey give us some complex genealogical details to prove that there were many people with more legitimate claims to the throne than Henry.)

What was supposedly the most heinous of Richard III’s crimes, and the one that has been most publicised, was the murder in the Tower of the two young princes, the children of Edward IV. But when Henry VII took the throne, he presented to parliament an indictment of Richard’s crimes. Nowhere did the indictment mention the death of the two young princes which, if it had happened as Tudor propaganda said, would have been the main charge against Richard. The likelihood is that the two young princes died of natural causes. In the first years of his reign, Henry VII set about systematically eliminating (i.e. having executed) people of royal descent who had more claim to the throne than Henry himself had. He, rather than Richard, was the regicidal murderer.

Inspector Grant’s researches also point out the number of contemporary documents in which people lamented the death of Richard as the loss of a gracious and just king.

There is more to it than this, but these are the main points made by Inspector Grant’s researches.

The Daughter of Time is a diverting read, but its attraction is the working out of a puzzle. I am surprised that in 1990 it was voted the greatest mystery novel of all time by the Crime Writer’s Association, as the plot as such is so simple (and with a villain – Henry Tudor – so early identified). There are no real twists. Once Inspector Grant decides that Richard III was a good king, we simply have the evidence to prove it. On the whole I think Josephine Tey was right. Richard was maligned to suit Tudor propaganda purposes. We can’t really blame Bill Shakespeare for writing his lurid (and entertaining) version of Richard III. After all, the Tudors were still on the throne when he wrote his play, the negative view of Richard III was the only one available, and a jobbing playwright could be severely punished if he wrote something denigrating the ruling dynasty.

I have only three small quarrels to make with The Daughter of Time. Being written 70 years ago, it has a few of those outdated condescending assumptions about working people, as in the slightly caricatured staff of the hospital in which Inspector Grant is lying. I do not believe that Inspector Grant could intuit how good or bad somebody was merely by looking at a face. (Indeed I think of Bill Shakespeare’s line in Macbeth : “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”) And of course some of the genealogical explanations will try more people than this reader only.

            Be all that as may be, The Daughter of Time set the pattern for pro-Richard III novels, the most prominent probably being Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s 1971 novel We Speak No Treason.


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.  

                                     THERE WAS NO GOLDEN TIME

            How disappointed I was in the 1980s when I made my first real visit back to Panmure, the east Auckland suburb where I grew up as a child! I already knew that the huge macrocarpa, which used to tower over the small Anglican Selwyn church, had already been chopped down. I knew that Pakuranga, on the other side of the Tamaki estuary, had become endless suburbia where once it had been endless green fields. I knew that the shopping centre had expanded, but I wasn’t prepared for how much it had expanded and how many familiar businesses were no longer there. This was not the way it was when I was a boy, in the good old times.


            But before my time, the suburb area wasn’t what it had been when an old wooden church still dominated the rise from Panmure, which led to the Tamaki estuary. The church, dated from the 1850s. It had been demolished and replaced by a brick church. At about the same time, a new bridge was built over the Tamaki estuary, replacing an unstable old bridge. And people a little older than me saw that, in the 1950s, as the good old times.


            But there were others who said the good old times were the 1940s, when shops began to be built in Panmure  to cope with the many state houses that were being built in Tamaki, adjacent to Panmure, and when a carnival was arranged in 1948 to celebrate the centennial of the foundation of Panmure.


            And what about a handful of very, very old people, who could still remember when the old concrete bridge was built in 1916? Would they have thought of that as the good old times?


            And before them, at the end of the nineteenth century, surely there would have been people remembering the rope-pull ferry that was the only way to cross the Tamaki estuary, and when there were Irish Fencibles and when wealthy English settlers attempted fox-hunting in the wilderness of Pakuranga. They would have lamented those good old times.


            And perhaps, in the middle of the nineteenth century, there were elderly Maori who lamented the days when there was no Pakeha settlement and Maungarei had not yet been renamed Mount Wellington and the iwi cultivated gardens on the banks of the estuary.


            And so we could track the good old days back and back and back to Eve and Adam, for the “good old times” were always an illusion, perpetuated only because nostalgia allows us to expunge the negative things from the past. We remember the genuinely good things from the past and delete the rest.


            All these are well-worn truisms. I apologise to you for stating the dead obvious. Yet I do connect one unrealistic current trend with the illusion of there being “good old days”. Not too long ago, I read in a New Zealand magazine about an artist who was upset that the broad valley in which he lived was being spoiled by development. His views were being marred by new houses in sight, power lines etc.  It’s understandable that somebody will be upset by losing a great view; but lying beneath this sentiment there is often a refusal to accept that other people also have a right to settle in an area (unless it’s a national park of course); that populations grow; and that landscapes change. Often refusal to accept these facts is related to the snobbery of the well-to-do. “This is MY valley and I don’t like hoi-polloi butting in on it.” Regrettably, too, these sentiments are also sometimes connected with the conservation movement. A desire to keep as much landscape as pristine as possible can mean ignoring the necessity for housing, amenities and general infrastructure. In these circumstances, longing for “the good old days” is simply a fantasy.


Footnote : For the record, on this blog I have broached a very similar topic before, under the title Babbling of Green Fields . Elsewhere, comparing Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris with Rene Clair’s earlier film Les Belles de Nuit, I noted how both films played on the idea of people constantly deluded with the thought that past times were better times.


Further footnote: In the 1950s, the British poet Charles Causley decided to take a crack at the poet John Betjeman, who was often going on about how wonderful and beautiful the artefacts and art of the Victorian age were. Causley’s poem is called “Betjeman 1984”. It wickedly mimics Betjeman’s style, having him living in the dystopia of 1984, ending with him saying “Lord, but how much beauty was there / Back in 1955.” Causley’s point was that Betjeman and others of his ilk praised, as beautiful, things that were merely old. Of course the point in blunted now that Causley’s poem itself is nearly 70 years old and there are doubtless old duffers now who imagine that time was wonderful. Causley’s poem can be found in many collections of satirical verse.


Monday, March 6, 2023

Something New

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

FEAR – New Zealand’s hostile underworld of extremists” by Byron C. Clark (Harper-Collins, $NZ34:99); “A FIRE IN THE BELLY OF HINEAMARU – A Collection of Narratives about Te Tai Tokerau Tupuna” by Melinda Webber and Te Kapua O’Connor (Auckland University Press, $NZ59:99); “ENCOUNTERING CHINA – New Zealanders and the People’s Republic” Edited by Duncan Campbell and Brian Moloughney (Massey University Press, $NZ39:99)

Like every country under the sun, New Zealand has always had its quota of nutters who promote ridiculous ideas, conspiracy theories and various forms of xenophobia. During, and for some years after, the First World War, there was the Protestant Political Association which believed there was a sinister Catholic plot to take over the country. They had quite some traction in the 1920s, until saner Protestants told them to shut up and the movement fizzled out. During the Great Depression and up to the Second World War, a small minority of New Zealanders admired totalitarian states. A (very) few wrote pamphlets praising Mussolini or Hitler (in my own researches, I have discovered only one backcountry Kiwi pamphleteer who was a rabid Nazi). A larger cohort – but still very much a minority – sang the praises of Stalin’s Russia, in the very age of Soviet purges, show-trials, engineered famines and other atrocities. Rabid nuttery eased off during more prosperous times, like the 1950s and early 1960s, though of course there were passionate political debates.

But now, in the early 21st century, small extremist groups are flourishing in New Zealand, often gaining the attention of thousands. Why should this be so? The main culprits appear to be the internet, mis-named “social media” and alternative broadcast channels which promote both misinformation and disinformation  - untruths told out of ignorance and untruths maliciously fabricated.

Byron C. Clark’s book is a systematic survey of extremist (or in some cases simply daffy) right-wing groups that there are now in New Zealand. The book is titled Fear, not because we should all be quaking in fear, but because such groups promote fear or are themselves fearful of things their imaginations have conjured up. Fear appears to have been written in the shadow of the occupation, in early 2022, of parliament grounds by protestors unified by their hatred of vaccination and mandated restrictions in the Covid 19 crisis. But, as well as the anti-vaxxers, there were many participants promoting other extreme right-wing causes. This event is the climax of Clark’s book in Chapter 22 called “The River of Filth” – a phrase used by an MP to describe the disgusting things said by the protesters.

In his opening chapter, Clark suggests that the believers in conspiracy theories etc. became a larger group thanks, in part, to New Zealand’s troubled economy: The teenagers of the mid-2000s were becoming adults but with the traditional signals of adulthood, such as home ownership and secure employment, now largely unattainable…. Large numbers of millennial men lacked the upwards mobility that would see them gaining those markers of masculine success…” (p.12) So, argues Clark, more frustrated young men retreated into the “fantasy world” of video games and then podcasts promoting extremist ideas.

From this opening gambit, Clark moves systematically through the many movements and attempted political parties (all of which came to naught) that could be called right-wing extremist.  There was (Chapter 2) the disinformation spread about Muslims in New Zealand that could have inspired the Christchurch mosque massacre.  There was (Chapter 3) Action Zealandia, born out of the Dominion Movement, which called for white dominance and limited non-European immigration; and that linked up with the anti-vaxxers. As Clark notes, these movements had little impact. And yet there was (Chapters 3 and 4) the “Tube full of Hate”, the growing power of Youtube to lead lonely and young men to have their minds turned. Clark tells some anecdotes of how he and others were stalked by devotees of such disinformation when he attempted to discredit rationally what they had come to believe. Some Pentecostal churches, and Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church (Chapter 7) stirred up ideas about the country being overtaken by Muslims; and were also among those opposed to vaccination for Covid 19. Clark is very sceptical (Chapter 8) about the New Conservative Party, seeing their policies as extremist. He dwells in Chapter 9 on the QAnon fantasy and other conspiracy theories promoted by Facebook algorithms. [Much of his data here is based on American, rather than New Zealand, sources.]. Advance New Zealand and Billy Te Kahika’s New Zealand Public Party (Chapter 10) were anti-vaccination. So too was Voices For Freedom (Chapter 11) and there was much anti-Chinese sentiment, given that the pandemic had originated there. Meanwhile the Outdoors Party (Chapter 12) was angry that many of their hunting outdoors pursuits were limited during the first wave of the pandemic. Clark wonders why so many Maori and Pasifika people were sucked into conspiracy theories. He points the finger (Chapter 13) at Apua Television’s Talanoa Sa’o broadcasts, which opposed both transgenderism and the government’s Covid response. Similarly (Chapter 14) he chastises Counterspin Media. Then there are the self-designated “sovereign citizens” (Chapter 15) who claim to be above the law and exempt from any prosecution should they commit crimes or misdemeanours; and the farmers (Chapter 16) who had legitimate grievances about water rights but whose movement was hijacked by extremists. At this point Clark moves into what could be called more niche specimens of extremism. There is (Chapter 17) the Hindu supremacist movement Hindutva which, taking its lead from India’s current prime-minister Modi, believes that all the millions of Muslims in India should be expelled. There are followers of Hindutva in New Zealand who have the same attitude to Muslims in New Zealand. There are (Chapter 19) nostalgic “Rhodesian” and South African settlers in New Zealand (quite a few of them) who still pine for a white supremacist regime. And Chapter 21 dives into the type of (violent and bigoted) science fiction and fantasies hard right people write; and makes reference to disinformation, coming from Putin’s Russia, that has been embraced by extremist groups.

Clark has researched closely, often enlightening us about movements and cliques of which most New Zealanders have never heard except, perhaps, in the most vague terms. Certainly there is much hate tied up in the groups and organisations Clark discusses and often there is an undercurrent of hard-core racism.

But there are one or two small matters that I would question.

Admittedly this is a book specifically about right-wing extremists; but only in one small statement does Clark admit that there are also left-wing extremists in this world., including in New Zealand. Clark accepts without question the definition of America’s Antifa as a “decentralised network of individuals who oppose fascism, racism and other related ideologies…” (quotation cited on pp. 74-75). Given that Antifa activists, hiding behind masks, themselves indulge in violence and vandalism, this is altogether too benign a definition. In spite of extremists’ exaggerations, China really does pose a threat to democracies in the Pacific – a threat which has been acknowledged even by our centre-left government. Chapter 18 is called “A Brief History of White New Zealand” and does indeed deal with the long-standing concept of white supremacy in New Zealand, but given its brevity it is inevitably hurried and lacking much nuance. It’s pushing it in Chapter 6, called “The Far Right and Catholicism” to imagine some sort of Catholic extremist front. The only evidence is a small group of Catholic traditionalists who have largely been disowned by the church. Then there is Chapter 20, titled “Women and the Alt-Right”. It concerns in part women who want to take up traditional roles as homemakers and mothers. In itself, this aspiration is not an extremist one, and yet it is observable that women who choose such a path are, nowadays, often held up to ridicule or abuse as if they are letting down the feminist side.

In making these comments I am not endorsing any extremist right-wing ideology, but I am noting that there are perfectly legitimate grievances that lead people away from what could be called the mainstream of thought. 

Finally, I have to add that in an interview he had with Kim Hill on Radio NZ National, Saturday 4 February 2023, I heard Byron Clark, who acknowledged that he had once been part of the extreme-left, claim that the extreme-left had essentially good aims; and he at least implied that the extreme-left had not been as destructive as the extreme-right. This is complete nonsense and suggests a lack of historical knowledge on Clark’s part. The extreme-left (Communism, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism etc.) has imposed as much misery on the human race as the extreme-right (Fascism, Nazism, ultra-nationalism etc.). The fact is that extreme-left and extreme-right are mirror images of each other; and in all cases when they have gained power and become ruling states, they have created the same sort of state -  one-party state, strict surveillance of the population, no opposition allowed, dissidents severely punished, state-controlled press and all media, no respect for human rights and of course genocidal aspirations (hello Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot etc.). No extremist ideology is superior to another. All are destructive.

Disconcerting Footnote: After the appalling Christchurch massacre, there was an outpouring of sympathy for New Zealand’s Muslim community. Many Muslim spokespersons were heard on television and radio. With a shudder I remember one Muslim speaker, addressing a crowd in Auckland, saying that part of the hatred for Muslims was the fault of “Jewish businessmen”. As I recall it, this item was shown once, and once only, on Television New Zealand. It remains with me as a reminder that even those who are attacked by bigots can sometimes themselves be bigots.


Interesting Footnote: At time of writing this post, I am aware that Otago University Press is going to release its own take on right-wing extremism in New Zealand. OUP’s book is Histories of Hate: The Radical Right in Aotearoa New Zealand, being essays brought together by three editors. Originally set for an earlier release date, its release was postponed. I wonder if this was because Otago University Press didn’t want it to clash with Byron C. Clark’s book on the same topic? Just a speculation.


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            Speaking as a Pakeha, I have rarely encountered a book as informative and enlightening about Maori history and traditional lore as Melinda Webber’s and Te Kapua O’Connor’s A Fire in the Belly of Heneamaru, subtitled “A Collection of Narratives about Te Tai Tokerau”. To remind you if you have forgotten, Te Tai Tokerau  embraces all iwi and hapu between the furthest north of Te Ika a Maui (the North Island) and Tamaki Makaurau (Auckland), so this is not a narrative of all Maori iwi, but it is a great primer in Maori origins and in Maori first interactions with European (mainly British) colonists. With many te reo texts, names and maxims cited, Melinda Webber and Te Kapua O’Connor nevertheless write in English, but published at the same time as this text, there is a Maori language version translated by Quinton Hita.

            The title A Fire in the Belly of Heneamaru refers to the founding mother Hineamaru’s fierce spirit. The book is introduced in a preface as a bilingual celebration of 24 tupuna (ancestors) as relayed and reported in whakapapa, korero, waiata and pepeha – genealogy, conversation or discussion, song and self-introduction or oratory.  Webber and O’Connor divide their work into eight categories and allow three biographies in each, so there are 24 narratives.

            First come Peace Makers and Mediators, being those who reconciled hapu and iwi after conflict or war. The authors thoughtfully acknowledge that many peace makers had often previously been belligerent warriors. They note, for example “Te Ruki Kawiti was a Rangatira who exemplified the complex interplay between peace and war, in that he espoused peace in some situations and was actively involved in war in others” (p.24)

            Then there are the Agriculturists and Entrepreneurs. Here the authors give a very clear account of traditional Maori skills in horticulture, raising and harvesting crops and knowing how and where to plant with the greatest advantage. It then morphs into histories of Maori in the early period of British colonisation, where they quickly understood and accepted new farming techniques, and adopted new crops, many becoming adept at milling flour. In this section, it is interesting to find Hongi Hika celebrated most as a shrewd negotiator who used missionaries and British officials, much to the advantage of his own iwi, but who also developed new farming methods and knew how to trade. But a closing paragraph does remind us that he also bought muskets: “This was to completely change warfare in Aotearoa and have a dramatic effect on the political power and influence of many Nga’pui hapu.” (p.51)

            Pioneers and Innovators concerns, almost exclusively, the strategies of warfare such as the art of evading a larger and menacing force and being able to take cover on either higher ground or in impenetrable forest. The climax of such arts came in the wars with British troops, who may have had superiority in numbers and firearms, but who often lacked the skill of overcoming a new and complex sort of Maori pa, and who were often unaware of the Maori skill in tactical withdrawal.

            In Political Leaders and Change Makers we are very much made aware of the authority and leadership skill of rangatira, especially when they were trying diplomatically to adjust to new norms while keeping their communities intact. After the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, Rangatira tried diligently to make British officials adhere to their promise that they would protect iwi and their rights. But conflict came. Of Te Kawua the authors remark “despite… [the] expectation that land would be shared between the two groups  [Maori and British settlers] it soon became apparent that the Crown was securing exclusive rights to land for British settlers”. (p.77) This led to Te Kawau’s less conciliar approach and was linked to the disputed taking of Orakei. It is interesting that in this narrative, we hear much of Hone Heke’s clashes and skills in warfare; but we are also told of his wife Hariata Rongo, who assisted him in writing the letters he sent. Apart from mythical or semi-mythical figures, she is the only woman who has an important role in this narrative.

            The last four sections of this book all reach back many centuries to pre-European times, and deal with origins and Maori arrivals. Thus Strategists and Tacticians deals with strategies of war used before colonisation. Audacious and Inventive Thinkers deals with the origins of certain groups and mythology (it opens with the audacity of Maui in stealing fire from the goddess Mahuika). Explorers and Discoverers deals with the very first probings and settlements in Aotearoa, determining where specific iwi and hapu would live (about this, the authors play very fair, noting that there are often alternative versions of many of these stories). Finally, bringing us back to the very beginnings of things, Navigators and Voyagers discusses the voyages from “Hawaiki” which, as the authors note, is not only a disputed term but is also as much a spiritual concept as a specific place.

            Much of this (exposing my ignorance) is a revelation to me. I cannot remember a book which so forcefully and clearly expressed a Maori interpretation of the past since I read Ranginui Walker’s Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou (Struggle Without End) back in the 1990s – but of course his purpose was to chronicle, and criticise, the whole interaction of Maori and Pakeha since colonisation began. The purpose of A Fire in the Belly of Heneamaru is quite different. It celebrates only one group of the Maori people, but in doing so it clarifies much about how things began and what repercussions there were. There should be copies in every New Zealand high school library.

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 I’m a little bit behind the beat in considering Encountering China subtitled “New Zealanders and the People’s Republic”. It was published in December 2022, which was the fiftieth anniversary of New Zealand and China establishing formal diplomatic relations. To make it tidy, editors Duncan Campbell and Brian Moloughney chose to celebrate the anniversary with an anthology of 50 essays written by New Zealanders, all of whom had visited China for greater or lesser times. Most of the contributors are Pakeha New Zealanders, but some are Maori and some are of Chinese descent or immigrants from China.

            Why was I so tardy in reviewing it? Because I chose to read the essays one at a time, using it a sort of bedside book, which meant I dawdled through Encountering China over a couple of months, mainly enjoying the various perspectives that the anthology presents. The anthology is divided into five sections – “Beginnings” (about New Zealanders first coming to know China); “People” (about outstanding individuals related to China); “Place” (literally about the effect of certain locations in China – and the things that happened there); “Occasion” (more-or-less about formal occasions and classroom interactions); and “Transformations” (about how people – Chinese and Westerners – have modified their perspectives of each other and are still doing so). But the fact is that the organisation of these essays into separate sections is a little arbitrary as many essays overlap essays in other sections of the book.

            All contributors to Encountering China respect Chinese culture and civilisation which is as it should be. All recount very positive and friendly interactions with Chinese citizens. Some contributions are bright and breezy pieces of journalism, such as Alison Wong’s account of negotiating her way through Shanghai. But I am interested to note that some contributors write in a very guarded way about modern China, while others are quite open in their criticisms of Chinese government and actions.

            As one might expect, the most diplomatic are the diplomats. Chris Elder’s introduction is a very balanced account of Sino-New Zealand relations, noting the benefits of our association but also noting cautiously the political difficulties; and the essay Elder also contributes is mainly a funny anecdote about Robert Muldoon’s behaviour when a formal Sino-New Zealand agreement was signed. Diplomat Nick Bridge does very much the same thing. Equally diplomatic is ambassador John McKinnon who seems mainly concerned with telling us how widely he has travelled in China. A number of entrepreneurs who trade with China are very polite in their contributions. Bo Li, a Chinese entrepreneur who has lived in New Zealand for the last 25 years, has nothing but praise for Sino-New Zealand trading. Equally positive is the Maori entrepreneur Mavis Mullins. In fact, of the diplomats and entrepreneurs, only one speaks firmly about the People’s Republic’s ambitions. This is the former New Zealand ambassador to China, Michael Powles. He writes of the friendliness and openness of the Chinese people and the surprisingly open discussions he was able to have with Chinese students about politics and human rights. But he adds “This is all very positive, but very serious questions remain: when will the treatment of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang be improved? And, in foreign relations, when will the ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ experienced and felt in Australia and even the South Pacific be reined in?” (p.73)

            Apart from the diplomats and entrepreneurs, there are some very frank comments. Jacob Edmond (who learned Chinese in China) writes a literary essay about R. A. K. Mason and Hone Tuwhare, their admiration of post-1949 China and their belief that the Communist regime gave better treatment to ethnic minorities than other countries did. Edmond justifiably admires Mason and Tuwhare as poets, but he calls out one enthusiast for China’s ethnic programmes by remarking “Wilson might not have learnt much about China, where Han chauvinism is just as pervasive and pernicious as Pakeha chauvinism, and where the Ugyhur people today suffer its ugliest consequences” (p.99). Joe Lawson is scornful of Han Chinese xenophobia. A number of contributors, especially Mary Roberts-Schirado,  contrast a certain openness in China now with the horrors of the so-called Cultural Revolution. Others, like (one of the editors) Duncan Campbell go further, reviewing both the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 crack-down on students calling for democracy, which climaxed in the Tiananmen massacre. Brenda Sabatier’s essay is about being in Beijing when the massacre happened. Brian Moloughney (the other editor) contributes an essay called “1989: Beijing Under Martial Law”. What is interesting is that when he lectures (in New Zealand) to Chinese students about the Tiananmen massacre, they are very interested to learn what they have never heard spoken of in China. (Not mentioned in this collection, it is well know that Chinese media say the massacre was mere propaganda fabricated by Western sources.) 

            I don’t want to linger too much over these political matters, as the writers of Encountering China do deal with many other matters. But the political matters are important.

            Taking up as many pages, however, are essays about Chinese individuals who have given much to the world. Tony Brown celebrates Dr. Li Lairong, a Chinese botanist with New Zealand connections. Pauline Keating profiles Dai Qing, a remarkable environmentalist who still works in China but whose publications have sometimes been banned (because her environmentalism often clashes with the regime’s determination to industrialise at any cost). There are many memories written by New Zealand teachers and lecturers about how they reacted – or coped with – teaching in China. The final section of Encountering China in particular emphasises how New Zealanders have had their views changed by their Chinese experience. There are special connections, as in Ashalyna Noa’s account of being a Samoan New Zealander in China. And there are some very sad stories, as in Kerry Taylor’s account of the New Zealand Communist leader Vic Wilcox who was feted by Chinese officials in the days before China’s entente with the West; but who was abruptly dumped and reduced to being a nonentity once the entente was forged. I have also not mentioned the fact that some contributions are poetry.

            Encountering China is a very informative and varied collection – certainly fine enough to keep me reading it essay by essay over months. Only one curiosity – was one of New Zealand’s most important commentators on China, Anne-Marie Brady, not invited to contribute? Or did she choose not to contribute? At any rate, Encountering China does not make a big thing of that very dubious figure Rewi Alley, which is to the good. (See fleeting references to both Brady and Alley on pp. 289-290).