Monday, April 17, 2023

Something New

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

A LACK OF GOOD SONS” by Jake Arthur ( Te Herenga Waka press, $NZ25) ; “LETTER TO ‘OUMUAMUA” by James Norcliffe  (Otago University Press, $NZ25)

Jake Arthur’s A Lack of Good Sons is a very impressive debut, with its fifty poems touching on many psychological states, and its imagery hard and appealing. Arthur can convey solid physical reality with precise observation in poems like “Hockey” where we are presented with the hardness of wood and the sweat as women play; or the note-by-note reportage in “He in the harp” as a harpist plays, each plucking of the strings dramatised. But more often, Arthur’s tone is one of chronic mental discomfort. The dominant persona is somebody uncomfortable in his skin, ill-adjusted to the world,  constantly trying to work out who he is and very aware of the smallness, and perhaps insignificance, of humankind in the vastness of the universe. We cannot assume, however, that this is all, or even mostly, confessional poetry. Jake Arthur writes with many different voices, many different characters, even if most speak in the first-person. For example, it is quite specifically a woman who is speaking in the poem “Eclose.”

Yet it is this tone of discomfort and maladjustment that dominates.

Often Arthur confronts the burdensome weight of childhood and early experience. His opening poem “Jim Nevis” is apparently a disturbing childhood memory – almost, but not quite, traumatic – with the boy disturbed by the sight of a naked man in a neighbouring field, exposing himself and possibly triggering the young boy’s awareness of his own sexuality. “Doze” is also an unnerving child memory, hearing adult things while he is in bed. An adolescent memory in “Young Waverer” has the narrator partially schooled in sex by his older brother. And there is awkward adolescence in “Hair” with its self-conscious: “I was the school pariah and ate my lunch with the weeping willow”. “Lads” deals with a late adolescent-early adulthood experience of having to witness the rough, brawling, pub-going lives of jocks. The very confronting poem “Duelo a garrotazos” begins “I killed my father / in a meadow turned to mud / by our brawl and blood”. Is this the wish-fulfilment fantasy of an unhappy son?

Moving into adulthood come the poems about alienation. “Space”, a sequence of poems ostensibly set in the Christmas season, dwells on the vastness of things, loneliness and the sense of being insignificant. “Damage Limitation” is really a poem about the sense of guilt and how one copes with it while modifying behaviour and keeping a low profile. “The Great H-Goat” is a description of a witches’ sabbath, but as so often in this poet’s work there is the self-consciousness of being watched and judged. It can only be read sanely as metaphor. There is a very strong sense in so many poems of a lack of confidence and self-deprecation, as in “Peregrination” which begins “I cavorted through the Gobi Desert / I fell in love with a camel in Saudi / I poured pints in Karkow. / If anecdotes are life, I have lived. / Otherwise, I’ve urgently wasted my time.” Thus too in “You and the view” where “I ask myself if I am a boring person. / Sometimes I think I may never again / have an interesting thing to say.” Even a poem like “Fatal familial insomnia” – concerning prions (mis-formed proteins that cause some neurological diseases) – ends up with people separated and facing their own existential crises. “Call time” has the speaker’s tastes being broken down as he becomes physically disgusted with coffee. As for “The stones”, it which ends with the words “Beware of the mind, / that it reasons unreasonably, / that the stream may run empty / and flow with rocks and stones”. Human consciousness dissolves into the inanimate.  “Spear” gives us the full disjunction of mind and body… with homoerotic overtones. In so many of these poems there is that sense of not having found an endurable place in the world.

In this vein, Jake Arthur’s master-work is “Bare Choirs”. It takes the image of the mast of a sailing ship and frames it as lonely for the branches and foliage that has been stripped from it… and also upset to be thrust among alien things. Do trees have consciousness? Probably not. But this is still a powerful image of something ripped out of its natural environment. All of which adds up to a metaphor of human alienation.

By this stage in my analysis of A Lack of Good Sons, you may think that I am presenting the poet as a chronic depressive. Not so. His humour (in the modern sense) is also on display. The very best example is “Grizzly, adj.”, a poem about a bear and its natural, impulsive life set against the pedantic cogitations of human beings. There is a kind of melancholy whimsy in “King of collisions”; while “Encounter” is a wry parody of narratives about abduction by extra-terrestrials. Note, too, that there is a strong strain of satire. “Springer Motors, 1976” takes on slick salesmanship, cars, and their inevitable obsolescence. And “So says Ophelia” mixes the language of Shakespeare’s character with modernity, signalling the shift of mores over the centuries.

In Arthur’s poetry there are many mythological and classic tropes. I Congratulate the poet for not cluttering up his collection with explanatory notes. If you read the poem “So says Chiron”, you have to know that Chiron was the centaur who tutored Achilles – Jake Arthur is not going to tell you. Underneath this poem, there is yet again a tone of loneliness, a fear of growing up , a sense of being insignificant in the vastness of things. As Achilles grows, Chiron gives this concluding advice: “There’s going to be a moment when / you remember how we used to play, / and it’ll feel as remote from you as the spheres. / Best stay here with me.” Further interest in Greek mythology (the poet had a doctorate in Renaissance literature and translation) is found in “The Fates” in which he presents the three mythical sisters as straightforwardly as any poet could. And – similar in inspiration, but not ancient mythology – “Bluejackets” sounds like an ancient seafaring tale. Two nightmarish poems are inspired by  paintings of Goya: “Saturn devouring his son” and “Asmodea”.

The mental discontents suggested in this collection come from a whole and well-explored tradition.

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

Back in 2019 I reviewed on this blog the seasoned poet James  Norcliffe’s collection Deadpan . Among many other positive things I said about Deadpan, I noted that unlike some poets, when Norcliffe divides his collection into separate sections, the sections actually mean something. And the same is true of his latest collection – his eleventh – Letter to ‘Oumuamua. Read this work carefully and, with some few exceptions, you will find that each of this collection’s five sections has its own focus, its own tone, even if Norcliffe is consistently humane in his viewpoint and always ready to present humour and levity in the midst of more serious reflections. He is a humanist in the true sense of the word – one who examines human beings without assuming that he himself is exempt from human follies and weaknesses.

It’s worth stopping and considering carefully the four poems that open Norcliffe’s eleventh collection. Corralled together under the title “Four Letters”, each of these four opening poems is framed as a direct address. The title poem is addressed to ‘Oumuamua, an object that passed over Earth and that some astronomers think could have been an extra-terrestrial vehicle checking Earth out. Norcliffe’s response to this possible interstellar visitor is to describe human beings in benign terms even if we sometimes go wrong. The poem ends “I’m not saying come back, dear ‘Oumuamua, we know what / we’re doing. We’re not all bad. We just can’t help ourselves.” And that sets the tone for Norcliffe’s whole outlook. Human beings are not all bad, but can’t help doing bad or foolish things. So we are flawed. Following comes “Dear Valued Customer” which is essentially satire, with the request for a wonderful morning being replied to in formal business language. The same goes for “Dear Contributor” which is a most eloquent rejection slip sent by a publisher to an inept aspiring contributor. Again, humanity is gently chastised. And for relief, and reminding us that we are not the only creatures who inhabit this planet, there is “Dear Kereru”, which is sheer fun in its description of the elegant bird, while at the same time putting us human creatures into perspective.

From this we know that Norcliffe is immersed in how we human beings think and perceive, how we react to the other creatures on Earth, how we often go wrong, how we age and decay and - as a corollary – how our flaws are often embedded in our past and our memories of the past.

The second section “The Museum of Unnatural History” takes on the more serious problem of human perception. After a poem about mishearing or misinterpreting events in a train, there is the psychological reflection “Art and Confusion” in which a visitor is both alienated and confused in what is apparently the lobby of a picture theatre. Is the visitor taking in what is really there or is he only misled by fiction? Says the text “You are in, you suddenly realise, a scene from a movie, a scene that must feature in a poster somewhere and you look around the walls again.” This can be read a number of ways. Is it simply the feeling of awkwardness one gets when one is on display in a public place, making sure to put on politeness and manners which are, in effect, putting on a performance? Or is it a genuine crisis of mind? The fruitful conundrum makes this one of Northcliff’s best poems.

Not surprisingly, given the fragility of human thought and body, there follow a clutch of poems with intimations of mortality and the misuse of the body. “Pink Aspirin for the Heart” makes black comedy when old age thickens arteries. “Then Dr Salk”, on the polio vaccines of the 1950s, slyly satirises the anti-vaxxers of our own times. “Rage” is a coded account of death and the end of rage. “#A.M.” and “Insomnia” are both about sleeplessness and all the thoughts that beset you in old age, often filling you with regret. And spilling out from reflections on human mortality where follow poems with bleak imagery in presenting the physical world. ‘The Museum of Unnatural History” gives a bleak and wintry image of a decaying urban scene, urban scenes always being unnatural. “Looking for Novels set in Vienna” and “Scandinavian Noir” and “We Come Easily to the Language of Horror” are like imagined nightmares. In a way, so is “The Search Party”, where one searcher gets lost in the mountains and finds himself unsure about the aim of the search party is anyway. This image of being lost and directionless chimes with the psychological state presented in “Art and Confusion”.

Although this second section closes with a jeu d’esprit, “Hoopsa Boyaboy Hoopsa” - a light and witty poem written to celebrate Venice, Vivaldi and the four seasons – Norcliffe’s mood is summed up in another of his very best poems “Penguin Modern Classics”, winding together age, solitariness, the meaning of literature and the possibility of misunderstanding. A single or solitary person observes and reads; there is here a subtle critique of the art of reading. When texts talk back to the solitary reader, they say, in the closing words “You must forgive us for reminding you / of this. We cannot help being dog-eared, / fly-spotted and ever so lightly foxed / as you are, dear reader, as you are, even as / the fire goes out and the coffee grows cold.” Chimes at midnight for the bibliophile.

How different Norcliffe’s preoccupations are in the third section “Really Hot Soup”! Having already noted the fact that we share the Earth with other creatures, Northcliffe looks at the state of the planet we inhabit. “Living in the Entropics”, “Lambton Quay” and “Ocean View”, even if partially jocular, all refer to rising tides and climate change. “Really Hot Soup” discusses directly human impact on climate and the earth warming, as does “Living in the Goldilocks Zone”, serious even despite its semi-ironical tone. As for “Kotuku” , the poet voice feels “swirling like guilt” as he reflects on the human degradation of nature while contemplating the innocent purity of a white heron.

It's odd to point out that “The Coal Range” – another of Northcliffe’s very best – is at once about memory and a sort of nostalgia, but also, given its coal-mining setting, an example of environmental degradation. It has a (presumably West Coast) New Zealand setting but its family are Scots immigrants. In describing a miner’s home of perhaps a century ago and its routines (starting the fire; getting breakfast) it is at once a severely realist poem relaying family memories while at the same time avoiding sentimentality for “Sentiment sweetens distance, as drop scones, ANZAC / biscuits and peanut brownies sweeten the sour / pervading presence of damp coal, smoke and tea-tree.”

The fourth section “The Unnatural World” ramps up concern for the creatures that share our world, with poems (some written in jolly rhymes) of a one-legged blackbird and another about an arrogant brawling cat. “Duck Mousse for Breakfast” allows an apparently idyllic morning breakfast scene to fade into a sharp reflection on humanity’s cruelty to animals. But “The Goldfish” and “Rabbits” and “Mr Fizz” have a more ironical approach to animals.

            The final Section “The Granity Museum” draws Northcliffe into his childhood roots. “The Granity Museum” itself is a wistful recall to his childhood in the West Coast mining town, always vulnerable to the sea and land slips in the rain-battered region. “While the rain fell / and the surf roared / my childhood / swept away.” It is as hard and bitter environment, as the one depicted in “The Coal Range”. Hardness of the West Coast is also found in “Deacon Brodie” where the poet reveals the precarious lives of his mining uncles, their lungs permanently contaminated with coal dust. “Vertigo” is a very effective poem, poised between nostalgia for the coast and resignation to its loss.

            Ah yes. We close with old age knocking. “Reflux” is… a poem about mountaineers caught out by burpy belching reflux. Old age? Certainly. “The Body in the Bed” – one of Norcliffe’s most cleverly devised and thought-out poems – conveys the sense of how two people – presumably old people -  when they interact in effect make up a third entity… in this case a couple in bed.  “Life After the Diamond Harbour Ferry” is this collection’s fitting envoi or farewell – life nearing its end in the image of a ferry crossing water. Charon will take them soon.

            James Norcliffe can write in formal stanzas, but often prefers free verse or prose poems. Letter to ‘Oumuamua is a formidable piece of work. If I were an anthologist, I would consider earnestly putting in an anthology Norcliffe’s “Art and Confusion”, “Penguin Modern Classics”,  “The Coal Range”,  “The Granity Museum” and “The Body in the Bed”, all displaying the skills of a very perceptive poet.


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 ERN MALLEY AFFAIR” by Michael Heyward (first published 1993) 

            I feel a little nervous writing about the “Ern Malley affair”. It blew up 80 years ago in 1943-44. Michael Heyward’s book The Ern Malley Affair – which I regard as definitive - was first published 50 years later, in 1993. And here I am 30 years on, in 2023, raking over an 80-year-old controversy which has probably been discussed and quarrelled over more times than any other literary event in Australian history. Surely regular readers of this blog will be literate enough to already know about it? Surely there is nothing further to be said about it? But, as a regular reader and reviewer of poetry, I do have a personal stake in raising the matter yet again.

            To summarise the affair as chronicled by Michael Heyward in his scrupulously researched and detailed book: In 1943, 22-year-old Max Harris was one of the editors of an avant-garde Australian literary magazine called Angry Penguins. Like most niche literary publications, it was funded by wealthy patrons, John and Sunday Reed (who lived in a menage a trois with the artist Sidney Nolan). Max Harris, product of a posh private school, was regarded as – and regarded himself as – an enfant terrible. Rebelling against traditional and conservative poetry, Australia’s “bush ballad” tradition etc., Harris championed modernism, surrealism and the “New Apocalypse” style, which he saw as an advanced form of surrealism. The politics of Angry Penguins were very left wing, but anti-Marxist. Harris’s outlook was essentially anarchist.

                                                       [Max Harris at his desk]

            One day, Harris received a fascinating letter. A working-class woman, Ethel Malley, wrote that her brother Ern Malley (Ernest Lalor Malley), who had spent his life in proletarian toil, had recently died. Going through his things, she had been surprised to find a collection of poetry Ern had written. Ethel did not know he wrote poetry and did not know much about poetry. She was not sure if they were of any merit; so she was sending them to Angry Penguins for assessment.

Max Harris was both astounded and overjoyed. The poems – a sequence called “The Darkening Ecliptic” – were clearly a work of poetic genius. They displayed all Harris’s aesthetic – they were modernist, in places surreal, apocalyptic in their moments of despair or self-analysis, erudite in some of their literary allusions, and clearly an antidote to the conservatism that still dominated much of the Australian literary scene. And, perhaps also stoking Harris’s enthusiasm, they were the work of a working-class man, not a bourgeois mandarin. Harris excitedly shared the poems with his circle. John and Sunday Reed and Sidney Nolan were as excited by the poems as Harris was. Most of Harris’s circle were impressed, though one friend, the visiting English literary critic J. I. M. Stewart, was a little more sceptical. Even so, in 1944 Harris published the poems in a special edition of Angry Penguins, lauding the late Ern Malley as a great Australian poet. Extra copies were printed to be sent to the UK and USA – Harris really believed that American and British critics would also applaud and acknowledge a great Australian modernist poet. Some readers were enthused.

And then the bottom fell out.

Harris hadn’t taken the care to check out the address from which Ethel Malley had written. He hired a private detective to confirm the address… and found that no such person as Ethel Malley lived anywhere near the given address. Doubts began as readers of Angry Penguins took in “The Darkening Ecliptic”. It was suspected that the poems had been written under a pseudonym by other established Australian avant garde poets rather than by the elusive and unknown Ern Malley. Various names were mooted and for a while it was even suggested that Max Harris had himself written the poems. Finally the truth came out. There was no such person as Ern Malley. The poems had been written as a literary hoax by two young men – just a few years older than Max Harris – James McAuley and Harold Stewart both of whom, like Harris, had been through university and had once embraced rebellion and the avant garde before they got sick of them. (By the way, among other things, McAuley was an accomplished jazz pianist.) To put it simply, they knew modernism from the inside, now rejected it, and were perfectly capable of creating a mocking pastiche of modernist  - and surrealist - poetry.

Lieutenant McAuley and Corporal Stewart were both in the army at the time [the Second World War was in progress, remember?] and stationed at the same base. One afternoon, they thought it would be a lark to write nonsense that might be accepted as a serious literary work by the type of people who edited Angry Penguins. While throwing in some credible-sounding lines (McAuley later called it “seeding” the work), McAuley and Stewart spent an afternoon scribbling down, at random, canonical quotations, shavings from Shakespeare, recherche words from the Oxford dictionary and basically meaningless statements, sometimes covered in moods of fashionable young-man angst. They arranged things so that the poems would become sillier and sillier as the sequence progressed. They also threw in clues that Ern Malley did not really exist, which their readers should have picked up if they had only been more alert. McAuley and Stewart wrote the poems together, tossing idiotic or pretentious phrases at each other and throwing them in the mix. Ethel Malley’s covering letter, however, was mainly the work of Stewart, who carefully and skilfully made her voice that of a working-class woman with little formal education. Some have speculated that it was this letter which led Harris to think he was reading something authentic.

                                        [James McAuley in wartime military uniform]

McAuley and Stewart said they achieved their task in one hurried afternoon. Some people have questioned this, given the length of “The Darkening Ecliptic” (it runs to twenty packed pages as presented at the back of Michael Heyward’s book).  But the two poets stood by their story. Once revealed, McAuley and Stewart wrote a public statement saying that the works were a “serious literary experiment” and that they were seeking to find out if devotees of modernism could “tell the real product [poetry] from consciously and deliberately concocted nonsense”. They ended their [long and detailed] statement saying that the works of “Ern Malley” were “utterly devoid of literary merit as poetry”. In their own terms they had effectively landed a big custard pie in the face of every pretentious modernist poet.

One thing greatly annoyed them. They let a few friends in on their hoax, and one of them (a journalist) made it publicly known who had really written “Ern Malley”. For the hoaxers, this revelation came too early.  McAuley and Stewart were hoping that the Ern Malley poems would reach, and be endorsed by, the British art-and-literary critic Herbert Read, who was then regarded as England’s high priest of both surrealism and modernism. If they could fool Herbert Read, they would have (as they saw it) discredited the centre of modernism. Alas, Herbert Read did not see the poems until the hoax had been revealed. However, he wrote a sympathetic letter to Max Harris saying that, had he not known how the poems were really devised, he too might have been taken in by them. 

                                                                  [Harold Stewart]

Now that is the central account of the Ern Malley hoax – but it is the aftermath and later interpretations that are really the interesting part of the story. The year after the Ern Malley poems appeared in print, Max Harris had to face an action brought by the police for publishing obscenity in the Ern Malley poems. Harris was put in the awkward position of having to defend, in court, as justifiable literary tropes what their authors had called “utterly devoid of literary merit as poetry”. McAuley and Stewart did not face trial as they had not published the Ern Malley poems – and they didn’t claim copyright for them either.

Max Harris was convicted and fined five pounds [not exactly a severe penalty]. As Michael Heyward says, McAuley and Stewart were “embarrassed and appalled by the actions of the police… the conviction was widely condemned by writers, artists and civil libertarians, including some who thought poorly of Harris and Angry Penguins”. Reading Heyward’s account of the trial (Chapter 9), it is quite clear that the police witness was trying desperately to find smut where there was none. Indeed, he comes across as an incompetent Mr. Plod. Heyward notes that the whole trial was played out in prim, puritanical Adelaide, and Harris might have been treated more leniently if he had published in more open-minded Sydney or Melbourne.

In the long run, the whole affair destroyed what had seemed to be Harris’s promising literary career. For some years he held out as a modernist and wrote a couple of collections of verse; but by the mid-1950s he had given up not only modernism but poetry and the high literary scene altogether. He became a columnist for the Murdoch press, now producing the type of slick, populist commentary that he had once despised. He even took part in staged performances with actors playing Ethel and Ern Malley, as if the whole affair had actually been jolly good fun. He had become the cultural philistine he used to condemn. Indeed some Australians see the Ern Malley affair as having kicked off a new phase in Australian philistinism. It was now easier for hostile critics and columnists and ordinary blokes to condemn arty types as charlatans – I mean, didn’t the Ern Malley affair prove that these cultural snobs would swallow any old rubbish?

But this was only one reaction. The other was the strategy used by some to defend “The Darkening Ecliptic” as genuine and meaningful poetry. Being very fair and balanced in his assessment, Michael Heyward gives the details of both sides of the case. In Chapter 5, Heyward analyses “The Darkening Ecliptic” thoroughly, as if it were a serious composition, but he makes us aware of all the tricks McAuley and Stewart used to trap their victim and notes how often they dropped hints that they were creating a non-existent poet. He also notes that there was a certain degree of cruelty in the hoaxers’ approach. The “seeding” of coherent lines meant that some parts were genuine poetry in McAuley’s and Stewart’s terms. Indeed the opening poem used lines that McAuley had written in earnest in an unpublished poem some years previously; and there were lines (such as the sequence’s most quoted lines “I am still / the black swan of trespass on alien waters”) that had a certain resonance. In Chapter 9 Heyward also takes eight pages suggesting that in some ways the hoax backfired as the Ern Malley poems really could be read as a coherent sequence, forming a kind of narrative.

This leads to what has become the standard defence of Ern Malley. Almost as soon as the hoax was revealed, Max Harris’s patron and fellow editor John Reed devised their riposte. It was “that McAuley and Stewart, released from inhibition by their extraordinary method of composition, wrote much better than they knew” (Chapter 7, p.190). In one form or another, this has been the standard (and dare I say rather face-saving) way that “The Darkening Ecliptic” has been championed ever since. McAuley and Stewart, liberated from the conservative constraints of pre-modernist verse, had unconsciously created great poems. Buoyed by this defence, some Australian poets, artists and readers embraced the Ern Malley poems, which were reprinted a number of times. Sidney Nolan defiantly painted a series of Ern Malley images. In fact “Ern Malley” has been elevated into a sort of Australian literary folk hero, with its true authors being ignored, and a number of fictionalised novels have recounted his exploits. Over the years, the original Angry Penguins defence has morphed into theories about the “intentional fallacy” (what the writer intends to convey isn’t the same as what the writer actually produces). And, even more contentious, the “death of the author” theory (the actual writer is only one small part of a text’s entity – how the text is received and interpreted by readers is a more dominant part of creativity)… so therefore, to hell with what McAuley and Stewart had to say about their own work.

BUT, even-handed as ever, Michael Heyward (Chapter 10, p.291) defuses this defence thus: “The Angry Penguins theory – that the hoaxers, liberated from inhibitions operating in their ‘serious’ poetry, were in touch with previously untapped sources of creativity in the unconscious – has appealed to many but does not account for the nature of the verse. Ern Malley is hardly a good test of the irrational unconscious in action since much of the time he makes conscious and rational reference to his own status as a surrealist hoax… the fact that the poems ‘didn’t make sense’ was evidence that the hoaxers ‘knew what they were about’. Ern Malley can’t really prove anything about free association as a viable ‘method’ for writing poetry, since his dream-like visions are hardly ‘free’ of the satire that interrupts them.” Heyward goes on to say that there is some merit in the Ern Malley poems, underestimated by “his” detractors but overvalued by “his” supporters.

At this point I have to make it clear that I do not for one moment think McAuley’s and Stewart’s calculated jest “proved” the unworthiness of all modernist writing. Of course not. Ern Malley did not cancel The Wasteland, Ezra Pound’s Cantos or (sorry folks) the most joyful and witty of modernists Marianne Moore. Modernism was an important literary movement -  a broad church with many canonical writers therein. But McAuley and Stewart did effectively flush out pretentious people who claimed to see more merit and meaning than there really was to see. This was the real legacy of Ern Malley. And, as a side note, Michael Heyward says that even before the Ern Malley hoax appeared, enthusiasm for both surrealism and modernism was already waning in Australian literary circles.

Having said that, I also note the very defensive and patronising way that McAuley and Stewart are often depicted by people still smarting at the hoax. I pluck off my shelf the Australian academic Lyn McCredden’s monograph on James McAuley (in the Oxford Australian Writers series, published 1992) which is generally a positive account of the poet’s work. But she still can’t refrain, in her introduction, from calling the hoax the “notorious Ern Malley” hoax. Why “notorious”? Off another shelf I dig a frivolous book called Museum of Hoaxes by Alex Boese (published in 2002) – a light anthology of stories about hoaxes, con-men and tricksters. When he gets to his one page on Ern Malley, Alex Boese says it was “the cynical creation of two Australian poets, Harold Stewart and James McAuley”. Why “cynical”? Then there is C. K. Stead’s article (originally a review of Michael Heyward’s book in London Magazine in 1995, and reprinted in his collection Book Self in 2008). It is called “The Hoaxers Hoaxed” and it leans to the tired theory that McAuley and Stewart wrote better than they consciously knew. What’s patronising here is the refusal to accept that McAuley and Stewart wrote their hoax in full awareness of what they were doing, alert to the style they were pastiche-ing, and knowing full-well what sort of response they would incite. As they had truthfully asserted, their hoax was “consciously and deliberately concocted nonsense”.  They were not hoaxed.

It also has to be noted that much of the later animus against Stewart and (particularly) McAuley had nothing to do with the Ern Malley affair itself. Both men broke away from modernism and the avant garde. Both men saw a world that was decaying and lacking firm and understandable moral direction. Both men, leaving their wilder student days behind them, put their faith in religion, but in very different ways. Harold Stewart became a devout Buddhist and, some years after the war, relocated to Japan where he found peace and wrote many haiku and meditative poetry of Buddhist inspiration. James McAuley had been a rabble-rousing left-winger when he was a student and an enemy of religion. But a few years later he converted to Catholicism (an unforgivable crime in the eyes of some literary pundits) and adopted very conservative attitudes. In the Cold War, McAuley promoted the DLP (Democratic Labour Party), the very Catholic-dominated party that broke away from the Australian Labour Party which it saw as being manipulated by Communist unionists, and in effect prevented the Labour Party from taking office for a number of decades. McAuley also helped found the conservative literary journal Quadrant, continued writing poetry in the neo-classical style, and, as an academic, advised his students not to waste their time reading modernist poems. (Regrettably I cannot locate the exact comment, but I recall hearing Clive James saying wittily “James McAuley didn’t have to tell students not to read T.S.Eliot. Most students would find ways of not reading Eliot on their own.”)

And after all this explanation, I now have to refer to the statement in my opening paragraph. Why do I “have a personal stake” in raising the Ern Malley case again?

I am not so arrogant as to assume that I am the great expert in New Zealand poetry. There are others more capable than I in assessing New Zealand poetry. But, as a reviewer of poetry on a number of platforms, I am confident that I read, assess and think hard about more New Zealand poetry than even the majority of poetry-readers do. I revel in the amount of very good poetry is now being written. But quite often I come across poetry that is stubbornly opaque, obscure in its meaning, lacking clarity and in some cases apparently written for a small in-group. In fact, after reading and re-reading such texts, I have come to the conclusion that they have no real meaning at all. This emphatically does not mean that I am opposed to modern styles, or that I am pining for poems to be written in iambic pentameters, rhyming couplets and so forth. Often attempts to revive earlier forms of poetry result in sheer doggerel. I am also aware that (as has always been the case) there is much challenging poetry that requires great concentration of the reader, but that is meaningful. I am not suggesting that all poetry should be clear and simple as a nursery rhyme (which, by the way, is a very skilled poetic form).  But when I come across wilfully opaque poems, I think of Ern Malley and how easily the gullible, moved by what is currently fashionable, can mistake nonsense for profundity.

Something Thoughtful

 Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.  

                            I WOULD HAVE BEEN A HERO

Most mornings, often before sunrise, I take an hour-long walk as my “constitutional” – a way of keeping fit when I know most of my day will consist of me sitting on my backside either reading or writing. As I walk I’m usually listening to a podcast through my ear plugs. The other day I was listening to an episode of the excellent BBC “A Short History of…” series. The episode was about the life and death of Vincent van Gogh. Of course it had to deal with the artist’s sad mental decline in his last years and his suicidal tendencies (first the ear-cutting self-mutilation, then shooting himself in the chest.) But one of the saddest details was the bullying behaviour directed at him by local adolescents. At the very time van Gogh, already weak with sickness, was painting his iconic crows-in-a-cornfield painting, a group of young yokel thugs surrounded him, stole his straw hat and filled it with a dead rat, knocked over his easel, splattered him with his own paint, filled his drinking bottle with salt and ran away laughing.

Now none of us would do that, would we? Wouldn’t we recognise this was a great genius at work – a man whose paintings would be cherished by the whole world? Wouldn’t we have rushed in to chase the bullies away? Wouldn’t we have righted his easel, gathered his paints together and filled his bottle with something drinkable?

And the answer is – probably not.

We’re very good at inserting ourselves into the past and patting ourselves on the back for the great and righteous things we would have done. But in this case, the fact is that van Gogh was known as an artist only by a very few people at the time. Most of his paintings couldn’t find buyers, or were sold for a pittance. And if you had lived in the village where he spent his last days, you would probably have seen him as a raggedy, eccentric nuisance of no particular account. Like the Pharisees and lawyers, you would probably have passed him by on the other side of the road. And so, in all probability, would I.

You might have seen James Cameron’s historically inaccurate, largely fictitious and very soppy 1997 film Titanic. There’s a scene where Kate Winslet’s character is showing off to her stuffy fiancé some of the art works she’s bought in Europe – paintings by little-known people like Picasso – and saying how great they are. Her stuffy fiancé scoffs and says such artists will be forgotten in a few years. .. and in no time the Kate Winslet character is stomping off to shag with a proletarian steerage passenger. Well of course we would have set the stuffy fiancé right, wouldn’t we, given that the artists in question are now canonical…

Alright, you know what I’m going to say.

In 1912, most people, including the super-wealthy who travelled in the best berths in the Titanic (even the ones who wanted to shag a bit of rough) would not have even heard of Picasso and if they had heard of him and his ilk they would have thought he was a passing fad for drunkards in bistros. And so would you. To include this (of course fictitious ) scene in his film, James Cameron was patting his audience of the back and encouraging them to think how much more sophisticated they were than the philistines of 1912.

I could give many more examples but I’ll aim my shot at the most obvious one. In Occupied Europe in the Second World War, you would have bravely fought in the Resistance, wouldn’t you? I mean, when you think of those days, you are appalled by the fact that so few did just that. You feel superior to them, don’t you? How cowardly they must have been! I’ve heard these sentiments voiced by university students in seminars.

What self-delusion! Only a very few would or could risk life and limb (and their families) up against a totalitarian regime. Most simply kept their heads down – as you would have done – and hoped those terrible times would just pass. There’s a reason why we regard the Resistants as heroes. It’s because, in the circumstances, they stood out from the mass of people so there were very few of them.

Of course you can think of the barbarism of defunct medical practices, and wonder why people once permitted them – the use of blood-letting in the 18th and 19th centuries as a universal remedy; the craze in the 1920’s for using “monkey glands” to revive vitality, and in the same era the consumption of radium-inflected water for the same reason; the lobotomies that were still practised in psychiatric hospitals up to the 1950s and 1960s. How disgusting and inhumane they were! And yet, at the time, the mass of people saw these as perfectly respectable and scientific practices. Do you really think that you, at the time, would have seen them in any other way?

There is a very obvious message here. It’s easy to feel superior to the mass of people in the past and to imagine that you would have behaved more humanely, more compassionately, more heroically and with more perception than they. But you can only feel that way if you imagine that all is well in our own age, that nothing we do now is barbaric, and that people always lived in the same comfort as we do. It is, of course, the virus of presentism, where everything is judged against the standards and beliefs of the present age. And to add to reality, let us be quite certain that in 20, 50 or a hundred years, some of the assumptions and practices of our own time will be regarded as barbarous, presumptuous or just plain ignorant. Including those who presume that in a different age they would have been heroes.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Something New

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

“BIRNAM WOOD” by Eleanor Catton (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $NZ38 paperback; $NZ50 hardback)

            For reasons too tiresome to recite, I’m behind the pack in reviewing Eleanor Catton’s third novel Birnam Wood. It was published in February this year, nearly ten years after the publication of Catton’s second novel, the Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries. I was a great admirer of The Luminaries, scorned the negative reviews of it which two elderly New Zealand literary figures contributed to British newspapers, and wrote a very positive review of The Luminaries for Landfall (review can be read on this blog).  I admired Catton’s leaps of imagination, the way she introduced a plethora of vivid characters, her credible depiction of New Zealand’s West Coast as it once was, and her cunning in turning the conventions of nineteenth-century mystery novels upside-down. A mega-force of deconstruction across 800 pages. Okay, the television serial based on the novel, which Catton herself co-scripted, was a big let-down in a number of ways. But the lustre of the novel remained.

            I sincerely wish I could be as positive about Birnam Wood.

            Confession: I was so late in getting the novel that I had already read a number of reviews of Birnam Wood before it came into my hands. One or two reviewers had misgivings or reservations about it while the great majority, in both New Zealand and Britain, hailed it as another great novel, with some perhaps being awed by the fact that the author was a Booker Prize-winner. But one thing perturbed me. The most positive reviews seemed to be applauding the novel for the issues it raised, rather than for the quality and texture of the novel itself.

To orient you, Birnam Wood is set in New Zealand in 2017, the era of John Key, neoliberalism and in some cases the era of welcoming as residents very wealthy Americans who, it was (on the whole wrongly) thought, would somehow boost the economy.  Birnam Wood is the name of a sort of conservationist collective whose mission is to plant veges and flowers in unused land or in public land that is not being put to good use. In effect, they have a “moving garden”, planting things here and there, something like the “moving forest” in Bill Shakespeare’s play Macbeth - whence the novel’s title. The collective meets somewhere outside Christchurch. An American billionaire, Robert Lemoine, has bought land near the Southern Alps, adjacent to a large estate being sold by the New Zealand businessman Owen Darvish, who has recently been knighted. Robert Lemoine wants Owen Darvish’s land, but hasn’t yet closed the deal in buying it. Robert Lemoine openly tells some people that he is a survivalist, wants a bolt-hole in New Zealand to avoid Armageddon (an obsession for some Americans with more money than sense) and claims he is going to have an impregnable bunker built… but he also knows that he needs some favourable publicity.  So he latches on to a form of “green washing”, claiming to be interested in conservation. And this is where he buddies up with the Birnam Wood people. One of the collective, Mira Bunting, happens to meet Lemoine, is impressed by his conservationist talk, and persuades the collective to join her in making one of their “guerrilla” gardens on Lemoine’s property. … and in no time they are enjoying the billionaire’s largesse. But there is one former member of the Birnam Wood collective, a would-be journalist called Tony Gallo, who is very sceptical of this arrangement. We are soon made aware that Lemoine’s talk of survivalism is really a cover for something more sinister. Defying the law, he wants to covertly drill and mine in national parks for “rare-earth elements” that can go into the making of electronic devices and other Silicon Valley things.

So there’s the set-up. Evil hiss-the-villain ultra-capitalist exploitative American billionaire pitted against well-meaning but somewhat naïve conservationists…  and one heretic, Tony Gallo, who is determined to uncover the truth, in spite of all the drones that watch constantly over Lemoine’s territory and in spite of the goons that Lemoine can whistle up with their weapons and intimidating vehicles. I’m not the first to note that, stripped down to its essentials, this is a genre book, a thriller, modelled on the likes of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher yarns. After a long, slow burn there is ultimately murder and a bloodbath.

I have no doubt that Eleanor Catton undertook much research in writing Birnam Wood. She can name and describe scrupulously all the flora that engages the conservationists. She can tell us how drones work, how new communication systems can be abused, how phones can be blocked or infected with a virus – some of the tricks used by Mr Evil Lemoine when people get too nosey about his enterprise. In this good-versus-evil tale, Catton also has the finesse not to present the conservationists as angels. There are quarrels and old grudges within the Birnam Wood collective, especially between Mira and her sometime rival Shelley, and a suggestion that personality can trump idealism. Her depiction of the collective is nuanced. By contrast, the opposition (Robert Lemoine, Sir Owen Darvish and to a lesser extent Lady Darvish) are more taken for granted as destructive capitalists – flat characters with little nuance.

            So Birnam Wood touches on neo-liberalism, pirate capitalism, shady dealings among the wealthy, the environment, environmentalists, the nature of New Zealand culture, journalism and how honours (knighthoods) are doled out. All very weighty issues for sure, and liable to be regarded as a “state-of-the-nation” novel by those who judge novels for the issues raised. To paraphrase “It’s on the side of the angels, so it must be an important book”.

            At which point I dissent.

            First, even for a thriller with a bloody conclusion, there are too many improbable things driving the plot. Okay, thrillers often have gross improbabilities, but this novel aims for some form of gravitas and it thus sabotages itself. Would nearly all the members of the Birnam Wood collective really be so gullible as to fall for Lemoine’s charms after what they already know about him?  Would Tony Gallo, in one episode early in his investigation, be able to ring Sir Owen Darvish and so easily pump him for information that the businessman wants to withhold? I’m not a swine and I do not disclose endings, but I do not for one moment believe the last-minute intervention by an unlikely character in the grand, bloody finale. Of course this could be passed off as deliberate satire on thrillers, going over the top as a form of criticism, in the way that Catton up-ended Victorian mystery novels in The Luminaries. Let's all laugh at this parody of the sort of mass murder that features as the climax of so many action movies. But again, this detracts from credibility and undermines what was presumably Catton's serious intent for the whole novel.

            The blurb on the back cover quotes British author Francis Spufford saying “What I admired most in Birnam Wood was the way that the rapid violence of the climax rises, all of it, out of the deep, patient, infinitely nuanced character-work that comes before. If George Eliot had written a thriller, it might have been a bit like this.” Really? I admire Spufford’s own work (see on this blog reviews of his Red Plenty and Golden Hill ) but, as well as the fatuous statement about George Eliot, Spufford is dead wrong about the characterisation. In the opening 100 or so pages of this 420-page book, the “character-work” is presented to us in laborious form introducing character by character before the wheels of the story start turning. Some authors can almost get away with this if they have the skill (consider Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo , where much of the novel chronicles who characters are before a real plot kicks in). But this novel doesn’t have such skill. I may be seen as contradicting myself – after all, one thing I enjoyed in The Luminaries was the plethora of colourful characters. But the point is that, in the earlier novel, the characters were genuinely colourful and distinctive. The characters in Birnam Wood are not and some of them are given to windy ideological orations. In the Birnam Wood’s meetings we face a long tirade by Tony Gallo which sounds like a muddled sophomoric wind-up. So too in later passages.

In general, Catton’s prose is clear and readable. Many readers will enjoy it. Even so, Birnam Wood can best be described as a thriller with pretensions

Footnote: Quite divorced from that I’ve been discussing, there is one quotable thought in Birnam Wood articulated by Shelley (on pp.243-244). As a young student book-reviewer, she quickly learned that you would never attract criticism or strife if you wrote only positive reviews. Write reviews that are honest criticism and the world falls on your head. From writing honest criticism, I know this to be true.

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.     

“PERKIN WARBECK” by John Ford (first published 1634; probably written in the 1620s)

            As I have noted before, one of my pastimes is reading Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline plays written by playwrights other than Shakespeare. So you can find postings on this blog about George Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois, the anonymous Arden of Feversham, John Marston’s The Malcontent, Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness, Philip Massinger’s The Roman Actor and John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity she’s a Whore.  As I said in an earlier posting, “the attractions of these plays for me are obvious. They are short enough to be read at a sitting or two, and no matter how convoluted, bombastic or melodramatic they (all of them) can get, they are written in a robust language that can rise to poetic heights.” But while my interest in John Ford’s Perkin Warbeck embraces these attractions, I have another reason for looking at this play. In my last “Something Old” posting, I discussed Josephine Tey’s detective novel The Daughter of Time, which set out to prove (quite convincingly) that Richard III was a much maligned king, caricatured by Tudor propaganda and turned into a monster by William Shakespeare’s enjoyable melodramatic play. As is now widely understood, the man who succeeded to (or usurped) the throne after Richard III’s death, Henry Tudor (Henry VII), was a far more murderous person than Richard. 

                                                     (Portait of John Ford)

            Henry was a very canny organiser and administrator, but in the early years of his reign, he set about diligently eliminating (i.e. having executed) anybody of royal lineage who had a stronger claim to the throne than he had. Henry’s own claim to the throne was very feeble indeed. Yet there were many pretenders to his throne. One of them was Perkin Warbeck, raised in Europe, who claimed to be Richard Duke of York, one of the “Princes in the Tower” who had, according to legend, been murdered on the orders of Richard III. Perkin Warbeck was accepted in a number of European courts as the legitimate heir to the English throne. John Ford’s play chronicles the life and death of Perkin Warbeck when he came to Britain and asserted his claim. Perkin Warbeck (or to give its full title as shown on his first publication The Chronicle History of Perkin Warbeck – A Strange Truth) was first performed in the 1620s and first published in 1634, over 130 years after the (1490s) events it depicts. John Ford was aware that chronicle history plays were rare since the time of Shakespeare. As he says in his prologue “Studies of this nature have been of late / So out of fashion, so unfollow’d…”. His prologue also tells us there is in his play no “unnecessary mirth forc’d, to endear / a multitude”. So groundlings begone, watch carefully and be serious.

            Throughout the play, King Henry VII of England is depicted as a wise and thoughtful king and it is taken for granted that Perkin Warbeck is an impostor.  In other words, this is a play with an apparently Tudor bias. John Ford took his historical detail from a history of the reign of Henry VII written by the Elizabethan (and obviously pro-Tudor) sage Francis Bacon; and from a popular history written by Thomas Gainsford. Bear in mind that even in Caroline England (the reign of the Stuart Charles I) playwrights could not write negative things about the Tudor dynasty, given that the Stuarts were related to the Tudors and it was the last Tudor monarch (the childless Elizabeth 1) who had invited a Stuart to succeed her. What is intriguing about the play, however, is how ambiguous it is in its sympathies

            To give a simplified synopsis, Perkin Warbeck himself does not appear on stage in Act One. Instead we have King Henry at his court congratulating himself on having brought to an end the civil wars (the “Wars of the Roses”) as he boastsThe rent face / And bleeding wounds of England’s slaughter’d people / Have been by us, as by the best physician, / At last both thoroughly cur’d and set in safety…” (Act One, Scene One). He is advised that Perkin Warbeck has landed in Scotland and hears how this impostor has been accepted as genuine by some people. Henry sets to work activating his spies to see who might be supporters of the pretender. Meanwhile at the Scottish court of King James IV, a courtier is hoping that he will be able to marry Lady Katherine Gordon, but he is rebuffed by the lady’s father.

            In Act Two King James of Scotland welcomes Perkin Warbeck to his court, accepting him as the true king of England as he has been endorsed by the kings of France and Bohemia. Perkin Warbeck is at once depicted as courteous, well-spoken, aristocratic - in a word, kingly. He gives a detailed account of himself (full forty lines of speech!) and later in this Act, King James declares: “How like a king ‘a looks! Lords, but observe / The confidence of his aspect. Dross cannot / Cleave to so pure a metal. Royal youth. / Plantagenet undoubted.” (Act Two, Scene Three). Some of the Scots courtiers are a little more sceptical, noting how fluent and persuasive a person Perkin Warbeck is: “[He] courts the ladies / As if his strength of language chain’d attention / By power of prerogative.” (Act Two, Scene Three). To the chagrin of the suitor who hoped to marry Lady Katherine Gordon, King James gives the lady in marriage to Perkin Warbeck, hoping thus to seal an alliance of Scotland and England. Meanwhile in England, King Henry is ferreting out people who might betray him. He sends Sir William Stanley to execution once Stanley has admitted his guilt. Hearing that King James has accepted Perkin Warbeck as king, Henry moves to secure the border with Scotland and sends an army off to quell an uprising in Cornwall. He also begins to consider ways of winning King James over to his side.

            Offstage, the Cornish uprising is easily defeated in Act Three and King Henry righteously orders the surviving ring-leaders to be executed – but the playwright also shows the king mourning for those who have been misled into rebellion. He now parleys with the Spanish ambassador, plotting a way to make peace with King James at the expense of Perkin Warbeck. As this is going on, Perkin Warbeck raises a force to invade the north of England, with the help of King James. Before he leaves for the war, he says a fond farewell to his wife Lady Katherine Gordon who, it is clear, loves him deeply. But the planned invasion does not go well. King James attempts to besiege Durham, but is quickly made aware that very few people are rallying to Perkin Warbeck’s cause. From the ramparts of Durham, the Bishop of Durham ridicules Warbeck. He says that Warbeck is of lowly birth and chastises King James for having been deceived by him: “You rend the face of peace and break a league / With a confederate king that courts your amity, / For whom too? For a vagabond, a straggler, / Not noted in the world by birth or name, / An obscure peasant, by the rage of hell / Loos’d from his chains to set great kings at strife. / What nobleman, what common man of note, / What ordinary subject hath come in, / Since first you footed in our territories, / To only feign a welcome? Children laugh at / Your proclamations, and the wiser pity / So great a potentate’s abuse by one / Who juggles merely with the fawns and youth / Of an instructed compliment.” (Act Three, Scene Four). What with this and with news of King Henry’s victory in Cornwall, King James gradually gives up the siege and begins to lose faith in Perkin Warbeck.

            So in Act Four, as Henry’s forces now invade Scotland, King James no longer includes Perkin Warbeck in his court. Warbeck laments his demotion, but still thinks that people in England will rally to him and he plans to take a force to the English west coast. King James negotiates with the Spanish emissary, who says that all of Europe wants peace between England and Scotland. King Henry has sent a message saying that his daughter Margaret can settle the bond between the two countries by marrying into Scots royalty. King James agrees to this, but even as he sends Perkin Warbeck away, he still sees Warbeck is a noble person and he does not want him harmed. He says “No blood of innocents shall buy by peace. / For Warbeck, as you nick him, came to me / Commended by the states of Christendom, / A prince, though in distress. His fair demeanour, / Lovely behaviour, unappalled spirit / Spoke him not as base in blood, however clouded.”  (Act Four, Scene Three). When Warbeck lands in England the second time, attempting to encourage his small band of supporters, he still speaks to his wife Katherine as if great numbers will rally to him: “After so many storms as wind and seas / Have threaten’d to our weather-beaten ships, / At last, sweet fairest, we are safe arriv’d / On our dear mother earth, ingrateful only / To heaven and us in yielding sustenance / To sly usurpers of our throne and right. / These general acclamations are an omen / Of happy process to their welcome lord. / They flock in troops, and from all parts with wings / of duty to lay their hearts before us.”  (Act Four, Scene Four) In the same scene he declares that there is “divinity of royal birth” that will overcome any opposition.

            The inevitable happens in Act Five. Perkin Warbeck’s small army is easily defeated by Henry VII’s much larger army, Warbeck is on the run for fear of being handed over to Henry by turncoat supporters, and Katherine is taken to Henry’s court with promises of safe conduct. When Perkin Warbeck, captured and under guard, is finally brought before King Henry, he still declares his belief that he is the true and legitimate king. After he leaves the stage, King Henry says “Was ever such an impudence in forgery? / The custom, sure, of being styl’d a king / Hath fastened in his thought that he is such…” (Act Five, Scene Two). Henry’s verdict is that Perkin Warbeck sincerely believes he is royalty because he has, since childhood, been fed on fantasies in European courts, and especially by the Duchess of Burgundy. Warbeck is put in the stocks and offered the option of having his life spared if (like another less credible pretender called Lambert Simnel) he publicly renounces his claim to the throne. Steadfast to the end, he refuses to do this, and is executed. King Henry speaks the last words of the play: “Perkin, we are inform’d, is arm’d to die. / In that we honor him. Our lords shall follow / To see the execution. And from thence / We gather this fit use: that ‘public states, / As our particular bodies, taste most good / In health when purged of corrupted blood ”(Act Five, Scene Three) Or, to put more brutally, what his closing maxim Henry says is that he, as king, has the right to put to death anyone who challenges his legitimacy to the throne.

            In very general terms, the play could be seen as championing Henry VII’s wise statecraft; his benevolence when he allows some of Warbeck’s peasant followers go free and orders that they not be pursued; the courteous way he accepts Perkin Warbeck’s wife Lady Katherine into his court; and the chance he gives Warbeck the possibility of saving his life by declaring the he is not the true king.

            Yet here the ambiguity creeps in. As a character, King Henry is basically flat and less interesting than Perkin Warbeck. He gives orders, he makes decisions, he praises himself and his moments of clemency seem perfunctory. Note, too, he has no intimate love. The eponymous character is far more interesting, far more persuasive as a speaker and there is no suggestion that he does not truly believe that he really is the legitimate king. He is not consciously a fraud. Despite John Ford’s opening statement that the play would have no “unnecessary mirth forc’d, to endear / a multitude” there is comedy in the way Warbeck’s leading advisors are always characterised as inept, stupid, often semi-coherent in the three or four scenes in which they appear, and ultimately lacking in any real courage or strategy. The clear implication is that Perkin Warbeck, a man of integrity, has been led astray by fools unworthy of him. Perkin Warbeck’s nobility, aristocratic bearing and - dare one say – glamour make him a sympathetic character.

            In spite of everything; in spite of the fact that he is about to be executed, Perkin Warbeck is still given a sort of victory by the steadfast love of his wife Katherine. In face of the mockery of one of Henry’s courtiers, Katherine asserts her profound love of her husband, and Perkin Warbeck says “Spite of tyranny / We reign in our affections, blessed woman! / Read in my destiny the wrack of honor; / Point out, in my contempt of death, to memory / Some miserable happiness, since herein, / Even when I fell, I stood enthron’d a monarch / Of one chaste wife’s troth, pure and uncorrupted. / Fair angel of perfection, immortality / Shall raise thy name up to an adoration, / Court every rich opinion of true merit, / And saint it in the calendar of virtue, / When I am turn’d into the selfsame dust / Of which I was first form’d” (Act Five, Scene Three). Earlier, Ford has presented in the play two love scenes in which Perkin Warbeck has to say a fond farewell to his loving wife. The scenes are sentimental, “pathetic” almost in the manner of a Beaumont and Fletcher play but effective. They allow us to see more intimate feeling in the pretender than there is in the cold, pragmatic Tudor King. While the play champions Henry’s right to rule, Ford is telling us that in many ways the pretender was the more noble character. You could say that Ford’s brain was with Henry VII, but his heart was with Perkin Warbeck.

            In his essay on John Ford, T.S.Eliot said that the play Perkin Warbeck was “almost flawless” and was “one of the very best historical plays outside of the works of Shakespeare.” In this case, I’m inclined to agree with Old Possum.