Monday, July 24, 2023

Something New

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

DEEP COLOUR” by Diana Bridge (Otago University Press, $NZ25); “AS THE TREES HAVE GROWN” by Stephanie de Montalk (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $NZ25); “JAMES K. BAXTER – THE SELECTED POEMS” Edited by John Weir (THWUP $NZ 40)

            Three years ago, I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Diana Bridge’s seventh collection of poetry Two or More Islands . I at once admired the way she used mythological and literary references which showed real erudition on her part, and how she could make meaningful statements about the present age from them. I concluded my (regrettably brief) review with the statement “I can only give superlatives to this sane and satisfying collection


            Diana Bridge’s latest (eighth) collection Deep Colour opens with the eponymous poem “Deep Colour”. Beginning as a reflection on fish deep down in an aquarium, it morphs into a consideration of time and loss where “Day after day / the past waits for the present to fall / into its hands. One truth will soon displace / another; I am left with this. A life gathers its themes, / some of which it may never weave.” Time and transience are relentless and what is to come is never really fulfilled. And given that these are major themes in this collection, there is much alternation between the present and the past.


The first section of this collection focuses on present life, but present life which is often looking back. “In memoriam” is two elegies for a dead friend, “A split sky” and “Moving through leaves”. Two poems recall raising an infant, “Freestanding” being essentially about a child beginning to walk; and “Singapore shapes” depicting an infant becoming used to the shapes in the world. Some poems are written in the third person but (at least to this reader) seem to be close to confessional (“She spends time with objects” and “Her sort of order”). Bridge is very interested in shapes, texture, colours – an aesthetic appreciation of physical reality. It is no surprise, then, that she is very concerned with visual art. “He has put away pointers” is a reflection on a painting by Pissarro but, like “Deep Colour”, is becomes a study in the colours and the moods (or emotions) they incite. In examining another painting, “A butterfly floats in the paint”, there are references to the famous butterfly dream of an ancient Chinese sage. Bridge is, as later poems prove, deeply interested in Asian culture.  Perhaps her most rebellious poem is “Singing robes” where she refuses to tie physical reality to abstract ideas. Giving an almost geometric account of things seen in early spring, the poem concludes “Must you tie it all to something? If I were Wordsworth, / I would think you must, for fear that spring be wasted.” But spring is never wasted if one simply admires and appreciates spring without dissecting or explaining it. Goodbye Wordsworthian cloudy transcendentalism.

Given this aesthetic attitude to physical reality, the collection’s second section, called “Utamaro’s Objects” comprises poems inspired by the 18th century Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro and his depictions of the natural world. The sequence “Songs of the garden” evokes the artist’s images of flowers and plants, but more often images of small creatures such as insects, butterflies and skinks. We are in a walled Japanese garden, but because we are following Kitagawa Utamaro’s images, we are observing nature at second hand. These poems are delicate, like the small creatures, and inevitably conjure up images of antique Japanese brush-work

Digging into the even deeper past, the third section, “Fifteen Poems on Things: Translations” takes us back to poems by the Chinese poet Xie Tiao (fl.460-494 AD). Bridge’s translations, like any translations, can never replicate exactly the original poems. There is no way that two very different languages can be synchronised, especially when the languages are separated by 1600 years. Even so, Bridge’s translations are a tour de force. Though the inspiration is an ancient one, we are drawn more directly into nature. The opening poem, “the wind” is an exquisite piece of work, characterising the wind in terms of the things it moves “Gently intermittent, it draws the red bud from its case; / Its thick mass spread, green cocklebur is stirred. / Drooping willows bend and then rise up; / young duckweed comes together, to disperse. / In the corridor, long sleeves are blown about…” Thus in the following poems in the sequence “the bamboo” “the rose bush” “the rushes” [which references a song by a Chinese empress], although as the sequence moves on, its observations are more about human reactions to the world of nature, and becomes much more concerned with human behaviour, as in the lament of a courtesan separated from her lover.

The final fifteen poems of this collection revert to the present time and the poet’s own voice, first delving into the impact of Hamlet in “Compared to silence” which wanders along the paths of human perception and asks if it is words or tones of music that create out moods, beliefs, understanding. Sometimes perhaps silence (“the rest is silence”) is better than articulation. Equally concerned with poetry, “The critic at sunset” – inspired by something Clive James wrote - examines inspiration as experienced by the poet. I am interested that two of Bridge’s longer poems are intriguingly ambiguous in their meaning. “Empty your head” views colonialism and the European taking of [in this case] Australia while being in tension with the importance of discovery and advanced science – almost implying that discovery, de-mystifying legends about the Earth, was inevitable. “Irish Girls”, drawing on accounts of immigrant Irish girls incarcerated in Seacliff Hospital in the late 19th century, presents us with a contest between the hard reality of the girls’ experience and the bush which, as depicted here, seems like a compensating refuge for the girls.

None of this analysis of the collection ignores that fact that Diana Bridge is capable of pure pastoral.  Expression of seasons are dominant in “Canterbury contrapuntal” and “Walking during lockdown”; while “Accommodations” comes close to saying that nature follows art.

Diana Bridge’s poems are not to be read quickly and superficially. They require of the reader concentration and much re-reading. I confess [reluctantly] that I was sometimes daunted by the copious end-notes telling me the inspiration of many poems. But I again see Bridge’s work as  essential reading for anybody who wants to take the pulse of current poetry. A collection to be read and re-read.

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To put it mildly, Stephanie de Montalk’s poetry is radically different from the poetry of Diane Bridge. While Bridge prefers stately, packed stanzas, de Montalk prefers lean, narrow lines (three or four or five words per line). While Bridge is very reflective and very concerned with time and art, de Montalk is more impulsive and brisk and immersed in nature. But don’t assume that her world view is frivolous. Besides, it’s good to remember the dictum that comparisons are odious. Bridge is Bridge; de Montalk is de Montalk.

As the trees have grown is de Montalk’s fifth collection of poetry. The title As the trees have grown comes from a poem buried well into the text called “You will touch down” which declares that “[I] find that as / the trees have grown / so, too, the boxy / twin-engine congregations / of kereru – air ferries / of the species - / and the delicate nests / of titipounamu…” – really a simple declaration that the seasons turn and growth continues… and much honour to de Montalk for singling out the wonderful, bulky kereru as a harbinger of healthy avian existence and the titipounamu [“rifleman”] as the tiny but resilient creature it is.

In the collection’s opening poem “Heartfelt” the human body is compared with landscape. The murmur of the heart is like a waltz or fox-trot in the process of having cardiac problems examined. The six poems that immediately follow “Heartfelt” reference medical situations and hospital procedures, though gradually sliding into images of animals, trees and the farmyard, almost as if these are the disoriented thoughts of the patient, under anaesthetics, either undergoing or awaiting surgery, hallucinatory but vivid, like the best surrealism. Things are vivid and clearly delineated even if the poet [or poet’s narrator] is disoriented. A reader can only assume that these are poems born of the poet’s own experience.

The second section of the collection opens with an outright embrace of the weather and wind with the poem “Allurement” which reads in full “Last weekend the wind / brought cobalt skies, / bright hills and cicadas / louder than you’re likely / to remember them. / The cats slept in fresh grass, / leaves swirled / on the lower lawn, / and all day there was / a deep, white light / and everything / with an edge to it. ” Many different moods are struck in this section. The poem “Papaver somniferum”  wherein, says the narrator “I searched for Aunti Emma”, which makes sense of this only when an end-note advises us that “Aunti Emma” is a street name for opium – and the poem is in part about searching for the stuff in a hostile natural environment. There is a strong strain of fatalism in de Montalk’s world-view. The offbeat “Amor fati” considers the stoic embrace of fate, exampled in the life of a peripatetic trout. “Events” is also fatalist philosophy

De Montalk opens her third section with the Stoa (location in ancient Greece where stoicism was taught) and moves into poems relating what appear to be about a particular location as the weather and winds and seasons work around it, either benignly or intimidatingly. Here de Montalk comes closest to a Romantic concept of a force rolling through all things., while “Park Life” is purely objective observation of birds.

We then, in the fourth section, move into what is apparently nostalgia, taking us to the northern reaches of the North Island as remembered from childhood. The poem “The far north” begins “Does the sea still sing in summer, / blue between the dusty hills / and northern sky, cloudless / and cicada strong on the gravel / road to Paihia…? ” suggesting that the poet has long since been far from the far north (de Montalk is based in Wellington). “At Waitangi” is about her brother, as a youngster, catching fish. And yet “Tide line” comes back to the subjective views of a patient still in hospital – the “far north” is something being conjured up in a semi-conscious state. “Ground report” watches the demolition of an admired tree, but rather than lamenting, the poem takes the stoical position that things will be as they will be and that a smaller tree nearby may one day be as towering as the demolished giant. Fate rules again.

One of the longest poems in the collection “Time-distant” is an account of pilgrims going to Lourdes, presumably to be healed of afflictions. This bring us back to the matter of affliction and healing as seen in the collection’s earlier poems about hospital existence; but “Time-distant” appears not to be something de Montalk has herself witnessed. The very title “Time-distant” says this is something that happened in the distant past – and indeed an end-note tells us that de Montalk’s poem is drawing on the novel Lourdes by Emile Zola, a sceptical and anti-clerical account of the Lourdes phenomenon. In the circumstances, and given Zola’s fiercely anti-religious attitude, what de Montalk produces is relatively neutral about the phenomenon.

The longest poem, closing the volume, is “Sleave of care”. Its title is drawn from a phrase in Macbeth but, as de Montalk says in her end-notes, the discursive poem has nothing to do with Shakespeare. Instead, it is an elaborate account of a garden and estate in Ukraine which was originally created by Polish nobles. The poem is apparently based on the poet’s visit to this place, and is aware of trees and foliage now changing the face of what was once a place of pleasure in “Polish Ukraine”. Tempus fugit. Time changes all, but the working of nature is still fascinating and beguiling.

I do not find de Montalk’s largely que sera sera fatalist philosophy oppressive. It gives her the freedom to look at past, present and [possible] future impartially and it certainly keeps her in a position to look at things – even unpleasant ones like hospitalisation – with a truthful eye and an acute sense of physical reality, even when the mind is disoriented.

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John Weir is a priest and academic and John Weir is a poet (see a review of his SparksAmong the Stubble on this blog). But John Weir is probably best known for his friendship with James K. Baxter and, over the half-century since Baxter died, for curating and keeping in the public mind the work of Baxter. Weir has edited Baxter’s Collected Poems (1979) and then much later Baxter’s Complete Poems (2022) as well as the four volumes of James K. Baxter : Complete Prose (2015) which is reviewed in detail on this blog. There is no doubt that Baxter was one of New Zealand’s greatest – and most quotable – poets, appealing to many people. I remember as a teenager reading with great pleasure Baxter’s early collection (published in 1953) The Fallen House, the first book of poetry I read by my own choice rather than being told to do so by a teacher. Of course, for many reasons, Baxter was also a controversial person, very questionable in his private life and very performative in his public life (see on this blog The Baxter Problem). 

Now we have James K. Baxter: The Selected Poems edited by John Weir and oddly enough it is very welcome. The Collected and Complete poems of Baxter were very bulky tomes, sometimes difficult to hold or move around. The Selected Poems are of a more reasonable width and bulk. Over its 310 pages of poetry, Weir divides Baxter’s poetry into four sections – “The Early Years: Dunedin and Christchurch 1945-1949” ; “The Wellington Years and a Visit to India 1950-1965” ; “Return to Dunedin 1966-1968” ; and finally “The Jerusalem Years 1969-1972”. This sequence allows us, if we choose to read from beginning to end, to see how Baxter’s poetry shifted in style and content.

In his introduction John Weir remarks that Baxter was “by any standards, a remarkably prolific poet” (p.xv). This is putting it modestly. About 3,000 surviving poems were written by Baxter. Weir gives a concise biography of the man. Baxter had written over 600 poems before he was 18, when his first collection was published. Until he kicked the habit in the late 1950s, when he was about 30, Baxter was a slave to alcoholism. Weir traces handily Baxter’s genesis and evolution as a poet – moving from a leaning on the Romantics and French Decadents to a greater alertness to the New Zealand scene and a more colloquial style until he was “called” to Jerusalem in the late 1960s and died in 1972 aged 46. Weir makes one painful but necessary statement: “[Baxter] was… a willing partner in a number of sexual liaisons. While most of these were consensual, there were at least two which can be classified as rape. While the revelation of this fact has quite properly caused severe damage to his reputation as a man, it should also be said that, despite his preoccupation with sex and despite the serious offences he committed, he also gave direction and compassionate assistance to two hundreds of people, young and old.” (p.xx) I speculate – and with the greatest respect – that Weir would, in his life as a priest, have heard many unpleasant confessions in the confessional, but this particular revelation would probably have been the most upsetting for him. Baxter was a guru with feet of clay.

Weir claims Baxter “bequeathed to New Zealanders a blueprint for social reconstruction based on Christian and Maori cultural values and a body of poetry and prose that was remarkable for its range and for the sense of a life lived here, in Aotearoa New Zealand.” (p.xxi) Well… maybe, though it is hard to see Baxter’s polemics as amounting to a blueprint.

Here, though is the very best thing about James K. Baxter: The Selected Poems. Weir says this selection based on “what I consider to be the best and most recognisable poems Baxter wrote” and hence it is in the tradition of “Best Poems” (p.xxi)

Reader – I will not lie to you. I have not read the Selected Poems from beginning to end, if only because I have already read nearly all Baxter’s verse in other publications. But I did spend a week or so dipping in and out of these selected poems, enjoying old favourites from the first poem, teenager Baxter’s concise “High Country Weather”, to the very last poem, Baxter’s ranting “Ode to Auckland” with its notorious opening line “Auckland, you great arsehole”. Yes, at his worst, Baxter could turn to rant. I revelled again in the early stuff “The Fallen House”, “The Bay” and “Wild Bees”, and that great colloquial elegy “Lament for Barney Flanagan”. I paused at “Howrah Bridge”, which I think was a turning point in Baxter’s work; and I once again felt very ambiguous about “Thoughts of a Remuera Housewife”, which now seems a rather smug and self-satisfied piece of work (Jimmy Baxter showing he’s not one of the bourgeoisie). Then there were the great poems identified with place like “At Brighton Bay”, “Winter River” and the comical protests like “A Small Ode to Mixed Flatting”. And finally the pared-back poems of “Jerusalem Sonnets” and “Autumn Testament”, Baxter controlling himself and getting a focus.

So much to read here. So much to admire. Essential reading for sure. And portable.


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 HEART OF A DOG” by Mikhail Bulgakov (Written in 1925. Banned in Russia until 1987. English translation by Michael Glenny published in 1968.)     

It starts with a hungry dog, a mutt, who’s just had boiling water sloshed over him by a man chasing him away from a restaurant. Poor mutt! He has to wander through the streets of Moscow searching in rubbish bins for scraps to eat. He’s abused. He’s kicked.  He’s starving. You can see his ribs sticking out. And what makes it worse is that we hear his thoughts told to us in the first person. Animals can think and animals can feel, can’t they? But salvation comes. A doctor called Philip Philipovich Preobrezhensky takes pity on the dog, names the dog Sharik (apparently a generic Russian name for a well-fed pooch), and takes him back to his capacious apartment where he gets his servants Zina and Darya to look after the dog and feed the dog well. He has landed in paradise. After a few weeks he is a plump, well-fed, pampered dog.  What pleasure for the dog! What luck! How nice human beings can be…

                                                [Bulgakov in his younger years]

Thus begins Mikhail Bulgakov’s third-most-famous novel after The Master and Margarita and The White Guard, both of which have been reviewed on this blog. The Heart of a Dog is quite short – call it either a short novel or a longish novella. Bulgakov wrote it in 1925 after The White Guard  but years before he started writing The Master and Margarita. The novella was not allowed to be published and the OGPU confiscated Bulgakov’s manuscript. But surprisingly Leon Trotsky arranged for it to be returned to Bulgakov. For years, The Heart of a Dog was circulated in samizdat (clandestine, dissident publication) but was allowed to be published openly in Russia only in 1987, when the USSR was on its last legs. Like other works by Bulgakov, it immediately became popular in Russia and has been filmed, turned into a stage play and even presented as an opera. Meanwhile, the English translation by Michael Glenny was published in 1968.

To proceed with the narrative…  Dr. Preobrezhensky isn’t really looking after Sharik the dog for charity. His aim is medical research with the dog as his guinea pig. Using parts of a man who has recently died, Preobrezhensky anaesthetises Sharik and grafts onto the dog human pituitary glands and human testicles, the aim being to trigger rejuvenation. Believe me, the three or four pages describing the operation are shockingly explicit and liable to make the stomach churn. This is where the novella is most like science-fiction, the man-made monster. Think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or even think Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But at the same time, be aware of two things. First, Bulgakov was, as it has been proven, basing Preobrezhensky on two Russian surgeons who really did experiment in grafting animal glands onto people. Second, at the time Bulgakov was writing there was a notorious Russian charlatan, Serge Voronoff, who made his living in Western Europe by persuading jaded, wealthy older men and women that they could be rejuvenated by “monkey glands”. In the 1920s and early 1930s “monkey glands” became all the rage with people who had more money than sense, before the practice was thoroughly debunked.

But as it turns out,  Preobrezhensky’s operation doesn’t rejuvenate the dog.  Instead [as the text says] it creates the “total humanisation” of the dog. First Sharik begins to gurgle sounds that are vaguely like human speech. Then he begins articulating the filthiest words he’s heard shouted in his doggie days on the thoroughfares and mean streets of Moscow. Soon he starts walking on his two back legs, and day by day he looks more and more humanoid, even if a very strange specimen. But what sort of creature is he? He is combative and extremely sarcastic, even to the doctor who brought him into being. Much of what Sharik does is pure mischief, such as chasing cats, destroying stuffed animals in Preobrezhensky’s flat, and even at once point causing the apartment to be flooded. [This is a little like a foretaste of the havoc created by the Devil and his henchmen in The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov revelled in depicting chaotic slapstick]. What is more upsetting for  Preobrezhensky and his lodger the Dr Ivan Arnoldovich Bormenthal is that, purely to be provocative, Sharik sides with the “block management committee” which is constantly nagging Preobrezhensky about how he has more rooms in his apartment than other people in the block have. Shvonder, doctrinaire Communist head of the nagging committee, wants Sharik to be registered as a human being. Shvonder approves of Sharik adopting a typically utilitarian industry-related Communist name, Poligraph Poligraphovich. Shvonder gets Sharik a job killing cats to make cheap cat-skin coats for the proletariat. Sharik swears at Preobrezhensky and Bormenthal, disturbing their peace. Sharik eats like a slob. Sharik goes so far as seducing a young woman who is shamed and humiliated on discovering that she has slept with a dog. In short, Sharik has become the perfect Bolshevik yahoo. How can Preobrezhensky and Bormenthal relieve themselves of this nuisance? Perhaps the only way will be to turn Sharik back into a dog…

The Heart of a Dog is clearly a satirical blast at the Soviet regime and its attempts to radically transform people, in effect creating a new sort of human being. In Bulgakov’s view Sharik is the type of human being the regime is really producing – uncouth, foul-mouthed, rowdy, aggressive, destructive slobs. Bulgakov is also ridiculing eugenics – the pseudo-science that sought to create “perfect” human beings. As in his later novel The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov declares that humanity cannot be perfected in the way utopian and totalitarian regimes claim. The many flaws of human beings will always come to the fore. The novella also emphasises what is sordid in Moscow 1925. There is that unending problem of insufficient housing, with people crammed into community apartment buildings and angry arguments over who will get the flat with the most space - and with fanatical Communists patrolling the apartment buildings and butting into people’s private affairs.

Yet The Heart of a Dog is very ambiguous in its satire, for if it satirises Communism and the Soviet regime, it also blasts the snobbery of middle-class professionals who still pine for the ancien regime. Dr. Preobrezhensky clings to his large, comfy flat. In a supposedly classless society, Preobrezhensky has privileges that the mass of Mucovites do not have. When threatened by the “management committee” with having his apartment made smaller, he is able to ring a higher-up bureaucrat who over-rides the committee. And he is quite open in his contempt for the lower classes. When the block committee argue with Preobrezhensky, they say “You just hate the proletariat.” Preobrezhensky replies boldly “You’re right. I don’t like the proletariat.” [Chapter 2] When Preobrezhensky rebukes Bormenthal  he says “never read Soviet newspapers before dinner… don’t read any at all. Do you know I once made thirty tests in my clinic. And what do you think? The patients who never read newspapers felt excellent. Those whom I specially made read Pravda all lost weight.” (Chapter 3). He curses the Soviet regime and its proletariat saying they are “two hundred years behind the rest of Europe and who so far can’t even manage to do up their own fly-buttons properly.” (Chapter 3) And he frequently complains about the lack of culture in his social inferiors.

While admiring Bulgakov’s two-fisted attack on an oppressive regime, I do see The Heart of a Dog as satire in the tradition of Juvenal and Swift – punching angrily in all directions fuelled by spleen and angst.

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. 


What a messy, nasty, dispiriting thing democracy is! There are always disputes going on. There are political parties endlessly condemning one another. People keep coming up with strange and upsetting ideas which challenge or belittle settled ways of thinking. Controversy rules. Every week polls are presented on television and social media telling us which party is ahead, predicting which is likely to win the next election, and then the next week giving a completely different prediction. Citizens are overwhelmed by information from so many different sources. On air and in print, this pundit condemns or ridicules that pundit. Crime is freely reported – indeed emphasised in the news. You get the sense that the most heinous, sadistic crimes happen every week, perhaps even every day. There are scandals in high places, freely and frequently reported. The nation is always in a state of flux and uncertainty. There are protests and riots on the street. This year’s plan to improve things is cancelled by next year’s plan. Nothing is settled. Nothing can be relied on for long. Democracy is a mess.

How much more soothing it is to live in a country where everything is settled and there is no dissent. How attractive a totalitarian state is. There are no rowdy and prolonged campaigns before elections. Candidates are nominated and chosen by the Party and once they are in parliament they all speak with one voice. No controversies are aired. Nobody wakes up each morning wondering who is in office, who is in charge. We know that the Great Helmsman, the General Secretary, the Supreme Leader is in charge and so he will always be. Should the Great Helmsman be challenged by a treacherous person in his government, the traitor will be publicly shamed and executed without the regime being harmed. And when the Great Helmsman eventually dies, another Great Helmsman will appear. No upsetting or challenging books are published. No upsetting exposes are aired. Our leaders know what they are doing and who are we to criticise them? In our totalitarian state, planes never crash, disasters don’t occur, dissent never happens, there are no public protests, there are no scandals in government, everything is harmonious. Why? Because none of these things are ever shown or reported in the state-controlled media and therefore these events don’t exist. And at the same time the state-controlled media are always happy to broadcast images of rioting, disorder and disaster in those degenerate democratic countries. Life is settled. Life is predictable. And if we know there are hardships, there is nothing we can do about it. So we might as well get on with our work, enjoy the football matches, sports events, parades and spectacles the regime arranges, read the books the regime allows, watch the films exulting our great patriotic heroes and our country’s achievements and enjoy life as much as we can. What more can anyone want?

Is this written in irony? Only partly. The reality is that many countries have never really known what democracy is, and an undisputed “great leader” of some sort is the only recognised form of national authority, like a form of feudalism. If food and housing and work are available, who needs quarrelsome debates messing up the way things are?

In democratic counties, some of the more naïve believe that such a state is utopia.


Monday, July 10, 2023

Something New

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

SECRET HISTORY – State Surveillance in New Zealand, 1900-1956” by Richard S. Hill and Steven Loveridge (Auckland University Press, [hardback] $NZ79:99)

            I’ll begin this review of Secret History - State Surveillance in New Zealand, 1900-1956 with a very dry and matter-of-fact of description. This is the first volume of a planned two volumes. The second volume, yet to be published, will take the story from 1956 to the present. Secret History is written by two distinguished and experienced historians. Emeritus Professor Richard S. Hill is noted for his three-volume history of policing in New Zealand  and his two volumes dealing with the interaction of Maori and the Crown. Steven Loveridge is noted for his Calls to Arms , an account of New Zealanders’ response to the First World War; his editing of the collection of essays New ZealandSociety in War 1914-1918 ; and his co-authorship [with James Watson] of The Home Front – New Zealand Society and the War Effort [all reviewed on this blog]. Secret History is a scholarly work carefully noting all its sources. The 287 large and closely-printed pages are followed by 70 pages of end-notes, 30 pages of bibliography and sources and 19 double-column pages of index. Appreciate this as a very serious and informed work. 

Like any worthwhile work concerning history, it has a number of important themes. First, it concerns itself with the way policing became involved in surveillance and spying on the activities of New Zealanders; and how its organisation evolved. But second, and perhaps as important, it concerns itself with how ethical or unethical such surveillance was. Hill and Loveridge clearly have their views on these matters.  The front-cover blurb tells us that Secret Historyexplores a hidden and intriguing dimension of New Zealand history, one which sits uneasily with cherished national notions of an exceptionally fair and open society”. The same string is plucked 280-pages later when the “Concluding Remarks” declare “The history of surveillance over civil society sits uneasily with both the national foundational ideals and the dominant self-image which emerged over time...many of the methods of surveillance jarred with New Zealand’s sense of itself.” [pp.282-28] In brief, many New Zealanders regarded police surveillance, and especially the surveillance of people’s beliefs and the parties to which they belonged, as little more than butting unnecessarily into other people’s business. Though frequently critical of official surveillance, however, the authors concede that “while assigned members of the New Zealand Police Force (NZPF) were the major surveillers in our period, with the ability to arrest and prosecute, their work was a far cry from that of the security police of totalitarian, authoritarian or other regimes whose powers or practices have extended to torture or killing.” [Introduction, p.5]


            Secret History in arranged chronologically, working step by step through the decades of the first half of the 20th century. The opening chapter, called “Surveilling Colonial New Zealand”, takes us quickly through police practice in the mid- and late-19th century, when police were mostly concerned with the possibility of Maori uprisings, but when very few people were regarded as “subversive” and a threat to the nation. Police were largely recruited from rural (and therefore conservative) families. The Liberal government was in power in the 1890s with a programme that appealed to urban and industrial workers. But ironically it was in this decade that more left radical movements began to challenge the government and the arbitration system to resolve industrial disputes. Only in the 1890s was a specific police detective force created, and thenceforth surveillance was in the hands of the NZPF (New Zealand Police Force).

            Chapters Two and Three take us from 1900 to 1918, the end of the First World War. Only in the 1910s were New Zealand detectives professionalised according to British models.  It was clear that “… even if New Zealand had technically ceased to be a colony in 1907, [the task of New Zealand police] formed part of an Empire-wide effort to ward off challenges to British hegemony.”(Chapter 2, p.37). Thus began fear of subversion by other states – Russia, China, Japan and particularly Germany, with its interests in the Pacific (especially Samoa) and its formidable fleet now challenging Britain’s fleet. Even before war broke out, there were rumours of alien spies at work in New Zealand.

Yet far more prominent in the minds of the “political police” [as this text calls them] were the radical industrial unions and the Red Feds (Federation of Labour) as well as agitators like the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies”). When Bill Massey’s “Reform” party took over in 1912, it set out to break the unions and police stepped up surveillance of radicals and unionists who called for strikes. Notoriously, in 1912 a major strike in the mining town of Waihi was broken when a large force of police escorted non-union workers (“scabs” according to the strikers) into the town. Worse, police may have encouraged the strike-breakers to attack the union’s headquarters. At any rate, police didn’t intervene when the strike-breakers smashed up the building and in the fight one unionist was killed, Fred Evans, the only striker killed in an industrial confrontation in New Zealand’s history. “Under the umbrella of police autonomy… the state accommodated extra-legal policing methods, including those used by the  political detectives and other watchers. Such methods were most especially used in times of crises in defence of the realm, and their potential use underpinned the decision to engineer a decisive showdown with militant labour in 1913.” (Chapter 2, pp.60-61). In the major waterfront strikes in 1913, police swore in mounted deputies (mainly farmers) to break strikers demonstrations. The deputies became known as “Massey’s Cossacks” and an example of police endorsing violence to resolve an industrial dispute.

As war neared, police stepped up surveillance of pacifists and spent much time tracking down young men who had dodged compulsory military training. Intelligence sections were set up by the armed forces, including the novel use of wireless, and there were fears of German spies and saboteurs. By 1914 all foreign tourists were monitored by the police and a number of citizens of German descent were incarcerated. There was a widespread assumption that a major threat to the country overrode the customary police procedures. Very few people protested at surveillance and censorship. Even large scale “postal censorship [police opening private mail] occasioned little dissent” [Chapter 3, p.91] as the general New Zealand consensus was that these things were necessary in wartime conditions. For the first time, films were censored and, in the name of “efficiency”, pubs had to close at 6 p.m. (a law that remained in place for the next fifty years). Publications that questioned how the war was being fought were either prosecuted, shut-down or raided, as happened to the left-leaning newspaper the Maoriland Worker. The police were very busy. In the interest of religious harmony, towards the end of the war the police also monitored the activities of the Protestant Political Association which promoted propaganda against the Catholic church.

Chapters 4 and 5 are linked together under the title “Latent Cold War, 1919-1939”, as there was a strong antagonism towards the Soviet state almost as soon as it was formed. In the 1920s, the military had to yield back to the police the power to gather and analyse intelligence relating to foreign powers. In each of New Zealand’s four main cities (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin) there was stationed “a detective with a virtually full-time commitment to political surveillance.” [Chapter 4, p.108] Regarded as radical and disruptive, the New Zealand Labour Party had been shadowed by the police as soon as it was founded in 1916. But “the Labour Party was moving in a distinctively reformist direction and in 1922 affirmed that ‘Labour did not support revolution’ ” [Chapter 4, p.98] By the late 1920s, the Labour Party embraced liberal democracy, regularly denounced Communism and expelled members who promoted Communist ideology. Police turned their attention to the Ratana movement and to Irish sympathisers with Sinn Fein [seen as helping to break up the British Empire]. But more than other groups, the New Zealand Communist Party, founded in 1921, was being watched by the police. Increasingly informers were recruited to infiltrate Communist meetings and in some cases informers took positions in the Communist executive. Yet the number of active Communists in New Zealand was greatly overestimated by the police. On the files in the late 1920s “1660 names were recorded as Communists at a time when CPNZ membership totalled a mere 99.” [Chapter 4, p.125].

The impact of the Depression changed the scene considerably. With a [then] record number of people unemployed, there was much civil unrest and, in the early 1930s, there were riots in the main cities. An extreme right-wing movement sprung up, but it quickly faded away. The “police were especially concerned that militant activists, especially Communists, might be able to utilise social distress to attack the authorities and the economic system they protected – one which, in times of crisis especially, seemed to belie the New Zealand mythscape of fairness and equality of opportunity. … this had led, in the immediate post-war years, to a discrete political police operation being established at Police Headquarters  and in the detective offices, together with a secret filing system to underpin their work.” [Chapter 5, p.146]. The “political police’s” “intelligence system that had been consolidated in the 1920s continued without fundamental change in the following decade, but its level of scrutiny intensified in line with the rapidly expanding threatscape perceived by the authorities. In particular, the widespread suffering caused by the Depression was viewed as a recruiting tool for the CPNZ.” [Chapter 5, p.160] The police often assumed that Communists were uniquely behind such movements as the Unemployed Workers’ Movement, and it is true that in the 1930s more people were attracted to Communism during what appeared to be the collapse of Capitalism – but even then, Communism attracted only a very few New Zealanders. The police were also able to influence university councils and suggest who could or could not be appointed to a position on the basis of how radical a candidate might be – a situation which caused much scandal as a number of very capable academics were denied the posts they were most fitted for.

A coalition government tried to balance the books and was wary of anything that looked radical. Things changed with the election of the Labour Party in 1935, but there were some ironies here. First, a number of front-bench Labour MPs, now respectable ministers with portfolios, had been fiery radicals at the time of intense industrial strife twenty years previously – the very people who had been spied upon and sometimes jailed by the police. Second, the new government’s attitude to Communists was now as hostile to Communism as the previous and more conservative government had been. Former Red-Feds were now eager to squelch Communists and they had Fintan Patrick Walsh (a former Communist) in charge of the trade-unions and able to strong-arm unions into not striking when a strike seemed imminent.

As the Second World War approached,  German clubs (including one with Nazi leanings) were observed and/or shut down.

So we come to Chapter 6 labelled “Total War 1939-1945”. Penalties for pacifists were as hard as they had been in the First World War, anti-war tracts were banned and a number of enemy aliens were interned on Somes Island and elsewhere. Once again, many eyebrows were raised by the fact that some members of the war cabinet had themselves been anti-war and anti-conscription in the earlier war. In the first two years of the war, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany had their “Non-Aggression Pact” (in effect an alliance) and in those two years the Communists attempted to present the war as a fight between capitalist countries having nothing to do with the proletariat. Surprisingly the New Zealand Communist Party itself was not banned but it was closely scrutinised and largely went underground. In 1941 the situation changed. Hitler’s armies invaded Russia and suddenly Russia became an ally… but [dare I say, even if the authors don’t] the government remained justifiably wary of the CPNZ which could so easily change its allegiances. So, in the last three years of the war, such causes as the Society for Closer Relations with Russia were closely watched and reported on by the police. It was at this time that the Communist Party acquired its largest-ever membership, thanks in part to the prestige of the Red Army’s successes that were reported – though CPNZ membership rapidly faded away once the war was over.

Arising in the war, there was “the struggle between two models of security intelligence: the ethos of police-based surveillance versus a military-style operation falling outside the criminal justice system…” [Chapter 6, p.211] An attempt was made to produce an intelligence bureau as a completely separate agency from the police… but the attempt ended in farce. This story has often been told. Briefly, an arrogant English army officer called Kenneth Folkes was recruited to create a Security Intelligence Bureau (SIB) to deal with foreign spies and saboteurs and to monitor signals coming from enemy forces. The police were annoyed that they had been supplanted in this work. Alas, Kenneth Folkes proved to have little spycraft of his own and to be supremely gullible. Sydney Ross, a con-man just out of jail, managed to persuade Folkes that he had discovered a huge network of fifth-columnists and he alone would be able to contact them and report on them. Folkes gave Ross the money and wherewithal to carry out his investigations… and Ross merrily lived a life of ease while concocting nonsensical reports for Folkes. When this time-wasting was finally revealed, Folkes lost all credibility and crawled back to England while the SIB was dissolved and intelligence gathering went back to the police and armed forces.

            Although the authors clearly criticise much of the surveillance that was actioned during the war, they do make this important concession: The general constraints on freedom, and the authorities’ acts of repression through 1939-45, cannot of course be examined outside the context of total war and a cause which almost all New Zealanders regarded as necessary in view of the nature of the Axis powers. Thus, when hints of covert surveillance measures occasionally surfaced, they seemed to be at least tacitly approved by the great majority of the population. Had most people been asked, they would no doubt have agreed with the government that severe measures in the short term were necessary in the long-term interests of the sought-after ideal society.” [Chapter 6, p.211]

            Finally we reach Chapter 7, labelled “Early Cold War, 1945-56”. In those eleven years of the Cold War, New Zealand became as much influenced by the United States as by the United Kingdom. The Korean War and Britain’s “emergency” in Malaya were both focused on pushing back Communist forces, and this was the era of McCarthyism in the U.S.A. In late 1949, with a conservative National government elected, the “political police” within the general police force, were centralised and formalised as the Special Branch. In 1951, an Official Secrets Act was passed.  Prime Minister Sid Holland  took a very aggressive attitude to trade unions and refused to bargain in 1951 when there was a major lockout on the wharves. Instead, Holland called in the army to unload goods from waiting ships, and then brought in non-union workers. Once again, though the most charismatic union man, Jock Barnes, was not a Communist, it was Communists who were held to account by the government. Disturbed by much official surveillance, a New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties was set up in 1952. Sophisticated intelligence made it clear that there really were Soviet spies in New Zealand – especially in the Russian embassy – and suspicion fell on some civil servants with leftist leanings.  Suspicion also fell on some eminent people like Paddy Costello and Bill Sutch. One memoirist labelled this era as “a New Zealand McCarthyism” (quoted in Chapter 7, p. 274). Finally in 1956, the cabinet minister John Marshall pushed for the idea of a security service separated from the police force and partly modelled on American and British lines. Sid Holland gradually warmed to the idea and Brigadier Bill Gilbert was sent off to train in intelligence-craft with Britain’s MI5. The Security Service was set up and in 1957 the Special Branch was dissolved. For the first time, surveillance and the gathering of foreign intelligence was no longer in the hands of the police.

            What I have given you in this review is a very simplified version of a detailed and nuanced book. The question of the ethics of surveillance is raised again and again. The authors are implicitly critical of many operations carried out by the “political police”. At the same time, context has to be considered. The era in which criticised operations were carried out is not our era and the consensus of 1912 or even 1956 is not the same as the consensus of the present age. It's up to the reader to decide what can be endorsed and what can be condemned in this chronicle of surveillance.

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 MASTER AND MARGARITA” by Mikhail Bulgakov (After much censorship in Soviet Russia, first published in complete form in Paris, 1967; now published in very many translations)

The scene is Moscow in the early 1930s under the rule of Stalin. Two men are walking near the Patriarch’s Pond area of the city. One is an official member of MASSOLIT, who edits Moscow’s most prestigious – and of course state-controlled – literary journal. His name is Mikhail Berlioz – yes, the same surname as the French composer. The other is the aspiring poet Ivan Nikolayich Ponisyov. They are having an intense discussion. Ivan has just written an anti-religious poem, as the regime requires, in which he denigrates and ridicules Jesus Christ. Berlioz is chastising him because, though Ivan’s poem is appropriately anti-religious, it assumes that Jesus was a real historical figure, and the regime’s official view is the Jesus was an entirely fictitious person. But somehow, in a very mysterious way, a third person joins the conversation. By the way he talks, Berlioz and Ivan assume he is some sort of professor. His name is Woland. He first congratulates Berlioz and Ivan for both being atheists, but then begins to challenge them on their beliefs suggesting that things do not happen because human beings will them, but because of forces far beyond human control. When Berlioz once again says Jesus never existed, Woland says he did because Woland himself witnessed Yeshua’s (Jesus’) trial by Pontius Pilate… and the novel launches into a chapter giving an interesting new account of the trial of Jesus, only partly conforming with the New Testament. If you are quick on the uptake, you will soon realise that Woland is in fact the Devil himself, the master of lies.

            This is the opening scene of Mikhail Bulgakov’s most esteemed novel The Master and Margarita, and I must admit that though I first read Bulgakov’s second most-esteemed novel The White Guard [reviewed on this blog] when I was in my twenties, I have only recently got around to reading The Master and Margarita. And here I reveal my ignorance. I did already know that The Master and Margarita was regarded by some people as a kind of “cult” book, like Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, or John Kennedy Toole’s AConfederacy of Dunces But I was not aware of how huge its reach really is. Only now [thanks to Wikipedia and other on-line sources] do I discover that The Master and Margarita is now regarded by many Russians as Russia’s greatest-ever novel (eclipsing War and Peace, believe it or not). But it has also, in post-Soviet Russia, been many times made into films and a number of TV serials. It has also been dramatized, filmed and adapted for the stage in many European countries outside Russia. Many writers claim to have been inspired by the novel to write their own works. Salman Rushdie claims that The Master and Margarita inspired him to write his controversial novel The Satanic Verses. Assuming that he actually read the book, Mick Jagger said The Master and Margarita was the genesis of his “Sympathy for the Devil”. In the English language alone, there have been eight separate translations of the novel. [The one I read was by Michael Glenny, the second English language version to be published and still regarded as one of the best.]

As always, it’s necessary to give some background to this novel and Mikhail Bulgakov (born 1891, died 1940). After writing some successful plays in the 1920s, but with more having been banned by the new Soviet regime, in 1929 Bulgakov was forbidden to publish at all. In 1928, he had already begun writing an early version of what would become The Master and Margarita but he was so disheartened by the ban imposed on him that he burnt his incomplete manuscript. (A bit like a frustrated James Joyce trying to burn his manuscript of Stephen Hero which later he re-wrote as A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man.) Bulgakov wrote personally to Stalin asking that as he wasn’t allowed to work, would he be allowed to emigrate. Stalin forbade him to emigrate but allowed him to join a theatre as a stage director’s assistant. In 1932 he married his [third] wife who was the inspiration of Margarita. He took up writing The Master and Margarita again and continued working on it throughout the 1930s. He could get none of his work published. In 1939 he arranged a private reading of The Master and Margarita but his listeners feared it would cause trouble, and might cause him to be sent off to the Gulag. The book remained unpublished. Bulgakov died in 1940 of a kidney disorder. Only 26 years later in 1966, after his widow had campaigned for it to be published, was The Master and Margarita published in Russia in a very censored form with many chapters cut out and all satiric comments on the Soviet system deleted. In 1967 a full Russian version was smuggled out of Russia and published in Paris (just as The White Guard has first been published uncensored in Paris in 1927). Only in 1973, by which time it had been published in many other languages, was the unexpurgated version published in Russia, in one of those moments when Brezhnev briefly eased up on censorship.

At which point, having informed you of the context, I move back to the narrative. Once the Devil lands in Moscow, he sets about causing mischief and chaos, accompanied by his devilish henchmen Koroviev, also known as Faggot [the Russian word for Bassoon and not a sexual slur]; a gangster-ish horror called Azazello; a monstrous cat called Behemoth which can speak, shape-shift and walk on its back paws; and a witch called Hella. The Devil can foresee things. The Devil can produce things out of thin air. The Devil can befuddle and discombobulate people. The Devil causes Berlioz to be decapitated [or maybe not]. The Devil causes Ivan the poet to be locked up in a psychiatric hospital. The Devil instigates a riot in a meeting of the regime-approved MASSOLIT literary conference. In his most spectacular show, the Devil presents himself before a large audience as a Professor of Black Magic. The audience is amazed when the “professor” makes huge amounts of banknotes fall out of nowhere (men scrabble to pick them up and riot over them). The “professor” makes dresses appear, of the latest style and most chic Parisienne fashion (women in the audience throw off their clothes and fight to take the best dresses)…. But didn’t I warn you that the Devil is the father of lies? For the banknotes, once spent, turn out to be worthless and the women’s chic dresses vanish from their backs once they are in the street and they have the humiliation of walking home almost naked. There is much more trickery to come, including the tale of a man who lives far from Moscow and who, by having heard that somebody has died in an apartment, applies to take over the apartment because he will at least have a place with more than two rooms.

Of course much of this narrative is pure slapstick and foolery, but if you think that is all, and if you miss the satire, you are like somebody who reads Gulliver’s Travels and thinks it is just a fantasy for children. The fact is, the whole narrative so far is a satire on the Soviet system, especially under Stalin. MASSOLIT? Obviously Bulgakov is ridiculing the “official” writers who churn out propagandistic material at the state’s command. There are privileged people who go to extravagant banquets in what is supposedly a classless society. Men and women chase after the illusion of easy wealth (banknotes, chic dresses) showing them to have venality and embracing the very bourgeois values that this self-proclaimed classless country claims to have stamped out. As for the man seeking a decent-sized apartment, Bulgakov is referring to the huge housing crisis that Soviet Russia chronically suffered – there were always fights and competition to secure a reasonable-sized apartment or home. Above all, Bulgakov is suggesting that human nature, with its greed, competition, venality and competitiveness, is constant, and not something that can suddenly be wished away by a utopian, totalitarian state.

But this is only the half of it. Just a little before halfway through the 400-or-so pages of the novel, we are for the first time introduced to the Master – who is never given another name. He is an impoverished but earnest writer – the opposite of the official party-line, MASSOLIT, well-paid poet Ivan Nikolayich Ponisyov. In creating the Master, Bulgakov appears to be depicting him as a version of his much-censored self. It appears to be the Master who has been writing a novel about Pontius Pilate – hence the four or five chapters scattered through the novel which tell us of Yeshua’s [Jesus’] interrogation by Pontius Pilate, his crucifixion and his death. But this is very ambiguous. That narrative could have been historical fact… or the work of the Devil… or the author Bulgakov’s own interpretation of the past. Be this as it may, when the Master is introduced, he is consigned to the same psychiatric hospital as Ivan Nikolayich Ponisyov and converses with him.

And at last, the narrative changes in the second half of the novel when we are for the first time introduced to Margarita. She is the woman who loves the Master and wants to save him so that he can finish his work back in the very modest home that they share. She would do anything to save him. The Devil appears. She agrees to follow the Devil, even to go through Hell itself, just so long as she saves the Master. So we now have a wild, folklore-ish tale of Margarita becoming a witch; flying on a broomstick; happily smashing up the apartment where lives a cruel critic who belittled the Master’s work and prevented it from being published; visiting “Satan’s rout”, a sort of violent orgy, and meeting some of the damned in Hell. She has to degrade herself to reach her goal. But her underlying idealism, her love for the Master, saves her from damnation. Even the Devil knows this, and ultimately Pontius Pilate is released from centuries-old imprisonment, the Master is reunited with Margarita, and the two of them ascend to a sort of ideal afterlife [not exactly the heaven that is usually depicted] in which they can be together in harmony, quietly pursuing their own interests.  

Reader, as I have crudely and ineptly reported this, you may be thinking the denouement of the novel is trite. “The power of love”. “Love conquers all”. Etcetera. Believe me, the novel is far more complex that that – and more convincing. Critics have noted the many allusions to canonical works such as Goethe’s Faust wherein Gretchen (a version of Margaret, just like Margarita) saves Faust from damnation. We note that the Berlioz in the novel has the same name as the composer who wrote the opera The Damnation of Faust. The sections in which Pontius Pilate interrogates Yeshua [Jesus] echo Dostoevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. And having noted this, there is no way that The Master and Margarita can be assessed without considering the religious aspect.

Some background facts. Mikhail Bulgakov’s father was a professor of theology and both his grandfathers were Russian Orthodox priests. Bulgakov was very aware of the power of religion and was more-or-less Christian. But his Christianity was far from orthodox, a bit like William Blake’s. When you read the chapters about Pilate and Yeshua, you quickly discover that, as depicted, Yeshua is not the son of God, not part of the Trinity and does not rise from the dead after his crucifixion. Rather he is a well-meaning but perhaps feeble-minded man who harmlessly preaches peace and pacifism. Pontius Pilate is firm and capable of being cruel – but he basically believes that executing Yeshua is unjust, and allows the crucifixion to go ahead only because he is coerced into it by the power of the temple priests and the mob. He is a man under extreme stress. Judas does not suffer remorse and throw his blood money back at the priests – rather, he is a money-grubbing sneak happy to take his pay and he is in fact killed surreptitiously by Pilate’s own soldiers as Pilate so despises the man. All of which is far from the New Testament version. What Bulgakov is presenting is something near to Manichaeism – the idea that good and evil (light and darkness) are eternally in a struggle which neither will win. Goodness and evil, virtue and sin, are constants in human behaviour. Despite the chaos and deceit Woland-Satan causes, he is depicted halfway to being a sympathetic character, because he is necessary in the order of things. If there is in this novel no God to carry the banner of goodness and decency, there is Margarita to show virtue, self-sacrifice and love. That balances the ledger. Bear also in mind that Bulgakov was writing under a regime that believed in perfectionalism – that is, the totalitarian belief that coordinated effort could wipe away all inequalities and create a perfect society. “Bah, humbug!” says Bulgakov, knowing better what human beings are made of. Despite his odd version of Christianity, Bulgakov was also writing against the too-aggressive and dogmatic anti-religious propaganda of the Soviet Union. And I’m bound to add that the whole fantastical style of The Master and Margarita is a great nose-thumbing at the Soviet-approved literary school of “socialist realism”.

There is much more that could be said about this complex novel, but just one last point occurs to me. I suspect some of the “cult” readers of The Master and Margarita see it mainly as a freaky work with hedonism on display in the “Satan’s Rout” section, witches riding naked on broomsticks and other such activities. If that is the case then they have missed the point.