Monday, September 18, 2023

Something New

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

A CANOE BEFORE THE WIND” by Vitale Lafaele (Harper-Collins, $NZ39.99): “SECRETS OF THE LAND” by Kate Mahony  (Cloud Ink Press, $NZ29:99); “INDEPENDENCE SQUARE” by Martin Cruz Smith (Simon & Schuster, $NZ 38)


            I’m going to admit freely that I am usually not a fan of “inspirational” books, written to encourage people to keep on striving to fulfil their hopes. Often such books are simplistic and become preachy and condescending. But I’m going to make an exception for Soifua Vitale Joseph Fatutoa Lafaele’s autobiography Canoe Before the Wind. Certainly it’s inspirational but it is also a very interesting story in its own right and charts a man’s whole life experience.

Born in 1960, Vitale Lafaele came with his family from Samoa to New Zealand when he was two. They settled in Grey Lynn. This was at a time when Samoans were welcomed to work in New Zealand’s expanding industries. They were a hard-working family, mother and father both employed in a number of jobs. Vitale Lafaele, being the oldest child, had to do most of the home chores as well as looking after the younger siblings when they came. He himself earned money for the family by delivering newspapers and finding other work. The family spoke Samoan at home, so young Lafaele took some time learning English and he was occasionally teased or bullied about this at school. He played rugby union but preferred rugby league, did a milk run and worked in a grocery, passing on his earnings to his parents.

This was an era of both economic instability and much racism. In 1975, when Lafaele was just 15, there were the notorious Dawn Raids when Prime Minister Robert Muldoon decided to clamp down on “overstayers”, meaning people who had outlived their work-visas. Polynesians were targeted. Though Lafaele’s family were legally in New Zealand, there was a communal fear as the Dawn Raids happened. Says Lafaele  I was scared of being sent back to Samoa because I had no memories of the place – my entire life was here is Auckland. If our family had got sent back, I would have found myself sitting in some plantation thinking, ‘What is this place?’… New Zealanders were the ones who had overstayed in our country for almost 50 years, but even though we’d been invited here when our people were needed to work in the factories, we were now the overstayers. It just didn’t make sense.” (pp.34-35)

Lafaele became a prefect at his school, but he did not do well academically. In fact he failed the old School Certificate examination twice. He says truthfully “I think many Polynesian youth, myself included, suffered and continue to struggle to this day, due – in part – to the combination of Samoan culture and the underlying effects of poverty. Chores and caring for the younger siblings took priority over homework and after-school tuition. The sense of academic failure and the burdens of home life often manifested in rebellious attitudes towards schooling.” (p.44) He left school without any qualifications. He got a good job in a warehouse, but was sometimes intimidated there by patched Maori guys [once or twice he has to mention that there were often tensions between Maori and Pasifika people]. Nevertheless he becomes a practiced storeman and is soon found to be good at looking after accounts. He meets and cohabits with a nice Palagi woman, Annette, and after some years they marry. His father dies when he is only 47.

Lafaele is alert to the environment about him. He notes: “Around then [the 1980s], Auckland was starting to go through a real transition period. There were still Pacific families living in the inner city but the gentrification had already started and they began to be pushed out of Ponsonby and Grey Lynn towards South Auckland. I didn’t really notice it at the time because I was so busy with my life. It wasn’t until some of the houses around my parents’ place started to be sold to Palagi families that I saw the change was happening.” (pp.64-65)

He knows he can do better than staying a storeman and wonders if he can join the police – but, having no qualifications, he is rejected four times. So he decides he’ll have a go at joining the S.A.S., the Special Air Service, New Zealand’s elite army combat group. Again after some rejection, he is accepted for training; but the training is very gruelling, testing the body and requiring focus and endurance. He turns out to be a very capable soldier, is inducted into the S.A.S. and gets on well with his military mates. But there is a problem. The S.A.S. is supposed to engage in either combat or peace-keeping missions. But in his whole time in the S.I.S., there is no war to fight, no combat to engage in. Life on New Zealand military bases becomes very boring, he finds he is drinking too much, and he decides to quit. After five years in the S.A.S. he is accepted into police college and trains diligently. He does very well, passes muster, and graduates as an officer.

And it is in the police force that he makes his career, first working for two years in the burglary squad in Auckland’s inner suburb Newmarket. He applies to join the C.I.B. the Crime Investigation Branch, goes to Wellington to train, and becomes a police sergeant. In his first years in this role, he works in the “wild west” of Auckland, the Henderson area which was at that time still largely rural [now it’s wall-to-wall suburb]. He notes: “A lot of the serious crime in the city happened in West Auckland and South Auckland. On the North Shore, there wasn’t much and in Auckland City there was the run-of-the-mill disorderly conduct and fights in bars. In West Auckland, on top of the alcohol-fuelled violence and domestic assaults, we also had a lot of pot and a lot of homebake, which was when people used codeine to produce morphine when they couldn’t get heroin. The set-up was a lot like the clan labs for meth now, where people were cooking up black-market pharmaceuticals at home.” (p.136) There are some confrontations with gangs and he admits (p.137) that, pre-Taser and pepper spray, police had to learn how to fight gangs with batons as weapons. As a police officer he has to deal with many different types of crime, examining murder scenes and autopsies. He is part of the “Operation Park”, finding and arresting New Zealand’s most notorious serial rapist.

Despite having never taken an academic course, he enrols for a Business Study degree. The pressures of his professional work mean that it takes him some years to complete the degree, but complete it he does. He becomes a senior police sergeant and for a while is in charge of witness protection. He also champions the “Closing the Gaps” programme aimed at raising Maori and Pasifika educational level and also bringing more Pasifika and Maori into the police force. Now a senior officer in charge of a large force, he is for a while commander of the Auckland Armed Offenders Squad. At different times he is part of three well-publicised operations. In one, he has to use explosives to break open a barrier and rescue three hostages threatened by an armed criminal. He was part of the force monitoring the notorious affair in Urewera where it was assumed [wrongly] that there was a terrorist group about to unleash havoc. And he was in charge of the group who rescued a little girl kidnapped by a criminal who thought he could extort a big ransom out of a wealthy family. Now a senior member of the police force, Lafaele is for some time the private secretary of the Commissioner of Police. For a while he supervises Beach Haven, the most crime-ridden area of Auckland’s North Shore, and then he is in charge of Counties Manukau South where he promotes a more community-based form of policing.

In all this he does not forget his Samoan origins. He says: “In 2002, I went back to Samoa and had the chiefly Soifua title bestowed on me by my mum’s village, Falealupo. Soifua is a tulafale, or orator title.” (p.194) He does have some criticisms of Samoa. There is some police corruption, such as police asking people for a bribe rather than giving them a ticket for a driving infringement. (p.195). He is also critical of the custom many Samoans follow of sending money back from New Zealand to Samoa, which puts great stress on donors who are often struggling to support their own families. (pp.195-196)

But at the age of 53, he has a series of strokes. Reluctantly, he has to retire from the police force, implying that he was not adequately compensated. Taking care of his health, and often making use of the gym, he keeps in trim as much as he can. He becomes a member of the Institute of Directors, putting his knowledge of Business Studies to good use. He now goes on the lecture circuit, has done a TED talk, and is of course proud of his children and grandchildren.

Now what do we take away from this? First, there is the fact of a man who flunked out of secondary school without any qualifications but who still had the ambition and drive to become a respected senior member of an important profession. From storeman to S.A.S. man to police officer to sergeant to senior sergeant to police commander of areas, he worked his way up step by step by sheer hard work. Second, that he came from a family with a strong work ethic and a strong sense of the importance of education. There is no doubt that many Samoans who settled in New Zealand were impoverished and faced barriers of prejudice, but they knew the power of work. And there was also the fact that the family looked after themselves – a strong sense of the family itself as community. No I’m not presenting Canoe Before the Wind as a great work of literature. It isn’t. But it does tell a good story – even an inspiring one.

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

Raised in Australia, the journalist Imogen Maguire has broken up with her boyfriend and is getting tired of her bullying editor. So when a stranger approaches her in the streets of Melbourne, and tells her she absolutely must go to New Zealand to see her grandfather, she decides to do just that, even if she thought her grandfather was long dead. Thus opens Kate Mahony’s Secrets of the Land, and from the very beginning we are aware that something weird is happening. The stranger who meets her seems to disappear before her eyes.

So what does Imogen find in Taranaki where he grumpy grandfather Jack lives? She finds Jack inhabits an awfully run-down little house surrounded by the sedgy fields in which he raises his cattle and his prize bull. She finds that the locals are basically decent people once you get to know them, especially the local cop and an elderly Maori man, Tamati Rangihau. But she also finds that some horrible unknown people seem to be trying to run old Jack off his land by terrorising him. His hedges are set on fire. In the middle of the night his cattle are let loose and sent running down the road. Could this be the work of the awful Barker clan, the family who own huge rural holdings, dominate the local council and boast about being of pioneer pedigree since their ancestors “acquired” the land after the 1860s Taranaki war? There’s an important point to note here. The intimidating Barkers are presumably of English descent. But Imogen and her grandfather are of Irish descent… and, according to common lore, many Irish are gifted with second sight. In other words, they read omens and sometimes see - and even converse with – ghosts. Yes, this novel has ghosts and apparitions taken seriously, especially as Maori and Irish characters seem to take the other world seriously, and Maori make a nearby swamp absolutely tapu. Something evil must have happened there. Sceptical at first, Imogen is gradually persuaded to believe in the revenants and in the visions and dreams she intermittently experiences.

Kate Mahony (of Irish descent, for sure) structures her novel in three alternating time scales. In the (almost present) chapters, Imogen tells her story in the first person. In the 1860s chapters, the Irish soldier Michael also talks in the first person as he narrates what happened when he and his mate Denis fought in the British forces against Taranaki iwi. The British soldiers were involved in some atrocities – the type of thing ghosts never forget. And in the 1950s and 1970s chapters, Imogen’s Irish mother Aoife experiences how it was when racism was more rampant in New Zealand. Kate Mahony has cleverly made her Imogen an Australian, allowing her to find out gradually basic historical events (such as the destruction of Parihaka) which most New Zealanders would not have to have explained to them. There are some references to Irish soldiers in the 1860s wars having misgivings about what they were doing – weren’t they helping the British to steal Maori land in the same way that the English stole Irish land over the centuries? Voicing these misgivings are based on historical fact.

There are some moments when matter-of-fact Kiwi characters seems oddly paired with ghostly apparitions etc. but Secrets of the Land  holds together as a good yarn for a readership with a romantic view of things.

[Personal note: My wife is by descent 100% Irish – but I assure you she’s never seen a ghost and isn’t troubled by oracular dreams.]

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

            A personal confession: Way back in the early 1980s I read and greatly enjoyed the American author Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. It had the novelty of being a detective story set in what was then still the Soviet Union. The hero-detective was an police officer in Moscow called Arkady Renko who investigated crimes honestly and diligently, despite all the official corruption that surrounded him. By the way, Arkady Renko is a Ukrainian name, but at that time Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. Gorky Park was erudite, written with literary finesse, depicted much credible detail of Russian life, and became a massive bestseller. It was made into quite a good movie in 1983.

            And that, I thought, was that. What I didn’t know – because I didn’t keep up with his output - was that Martin Cruz Smith is a prolific writer. He churns them out. He has written 17 other detective and thriller novels, some under pseudonyms, that do not concern Arkady Renko… and he has now written fully ten novels that do star Arkady Renko. His latest is Independence Square.

Set in what is now Putin’s Russia, but a year or so before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Independence Square has Arkady Renko asked by a gangster-oligarch to find his daughter Karina, who has mysteriously gone missing. Karina was a member of Forum, a protest movement seeking real democracy. They are much harassed, threatened and sometimes killed by “patriotic” bikie gangs and the Federal Security Service – Putin’s equivalent of the KGB. So off goes Arkady in his investigations which take him to Kyiv in Ukraine, now independent; and Sevastapol in Crimea, snatched back into Russia by Putin. Along the way there is Arkady’s worry about encroaching Parkinson’s Disease, which is slowing him up a little and showing his age. There are also double-crosses by people who at first seem to be friends; evidence of the Tatar people – the original occupants of Crimea – being persecuted and driven out by Russian invaders; casual assassinations and one really big assassination towards the end; and a great big heroic escape to top it all off. Obviously I’m not spoiling things by giving you more details. Surprise and revelation of friends-turning-out-to-be-enemies are the sauce of thrillers like this and should not be disclosed by snotty reviewers.

Verdict? I don’t find here the literary finesse that I found all those years ago in Gorky Park. Maybe Martin Cruz Smith’s writing coarsened as his Arkady Renko became a formula over 40-plus years. I note that much of the action is carried in conversations, which could almost be taken for a movie script. That said though, it works well as your basic detective-thriller and it should attract a large audience.

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.   

“A CLERGYMAN’S DAUGHTER” by George Orwell (first published in 1935)


Last posting I examined George Orwell’s first novel Burmese Days, beginning my plan to examine, in the sequence in which they were written, all of Orwell’s novels. Later I will deal with Orwell’s three works of non-fiction. Introducing Orwell’s second novel, however, I’m a little abashed. Published in 1935, just a year after Burmese Days was first published in America, A Clergyman’s Daughter is widely regarded as the weakest and most poorly-structured of Orwell’s novels. It is certainly the least read. Orwell himself came to dislike it and (checking this out from Bernard Crick’s biography George Orwell – A Life) I discover that in later years he insisted that it should not be re-published or translated into other languages. Of course his wish was ignored after he was dead.

As ever, I begin with a very simplified synopsis. Dorothy Hare, aged 28, is the daughter and sole child of the Rector, Rev. Charles Hare, (really just a vicar) of St. Athelstan, an Anglican church in Knype Hill a small, gossipy and impoverished town in East Anglia. Rev. Charles Hare is a widower and a self-absorbed, selfish, penny-pinching man who does little more than conduct his religious services. He expects his daughter to do nearly all the housework, to provide all the food and prepare all the meals and in fact to do all the pastoral duties that he himself should be doing. In effect he exploits her and treats her like a servant. She has to spend her time conducting the Girl Guides or Mothers’ Union, preparing festivals for the children of the parish, making pastoral visits to the sick, encouraging parishioners to come to Communion services and other deeds of mercy. Dorothy is profoundly religious, pious to the point of mortifying her flesh by shoving pins into her arm to punish herself for thinking inappropriate thoughts. Oddly though (and somewhat implausibly) the person with whom she can most easily converse in the small town is a rakish, bohemian older man, Mr Warburton, who is an atheist and who frequently spars with her about religion.

But when Mr Warburton attempts to seduce her, she runs home and then has a sort of (vaguely explained) mental breakdown. Suffering from amnesia, she walks away from home and never stops walking. When she becomes more-or-less conscious again, she doesn’t know who she is, where she is, and where she has come from. She falls in with a group of three Cockneys  (two young men and one young woman) who are on their way to Kent for a season of hop-picking. They accept her because she has a little money. So she spends a number of weeks toiling away in the hop fields and learning, painfully, how difficult it is to do hard physical work. At this time, somebody gets a sensationalist newspaper which headlines a story about a rector’s daughter disappearing, spiced up with salacious stories about her possible sex-life. But she does not recognise this as being herself and none of her fellow hop-pickers get the connection either. Things go wrong (I won’t go into the details), the three other workers in her group disappear and she’s left alone. She suddenly (rather too conveniently) remembers who she is and where she came from as well as understanding that the salacious newspaper story was supposedly about her.

Taking her very meagre pay, she does not go home but heads for London. She is still ashamed by the gutter-press version of her life that has been published. Therefore she feels she cannot look her father in the face, let alone face the villagers. When she writes to her father for help he doesn’t reply. In wildest London, with little money in her purse, Dorothy has to take cheap lodgings in a filthy and unsanitary boarding house, infested with prostitutes. She sees at first hand what poverty is like in the slums. She tries to get a job as a housekeeper or maidservant, but her educated middle-class voice means potential employers don’t want her as they expect servants to be their inferiors. Penniless, she joins tramps and other vagrants seeking warmth by swarming together in Trafalgar Square at night. All this time she is, step by step, losing her religious faith when confronted with daily misery.

This can’t go on. A distant relative gets in touch with her in London, looks after her for a while, and then finds a job for her as a school-mistress in a marginal part of London. The school is a private school run by (a very Dickensian character) a Mrs Creevy, widow, mean, miserly and paying the lowest possible wage, as well as almost starving Dorothy with very frugal meals. But at least it is a job. Dorothy is the sole teacher of 21 girls aged from tots to teenagers. Dorothy has no experience as a teacher, but she soon realises that what the girls have so far been taught has been very limited. She suddenly finds that she has a natural talent for educating children, livens up the lessons and even introduces the girls to Macbeth which the girls enjoy… but their lower-middle-class and largely puritan Nonconformist parents object to such teaching and are outraged that in one lesson she has used the term “womb” (“Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped” – said in Macbeth). Young girls should not be told about wombs!! All the parents want are “practical” lessons – handwriting and arithmetic – and none of this fancy literature stuff. Dorothy has to revert to teaching pointless nonsense… until she is dismissed by Mrs. Creevy when she finds somebody who will accept an even smaller wage.

But there is a deus ex machina in the (incredibly unlikely) form of Mr. Warburton, who meets Dorothy and escorts her back to her home, grumpy rector and all. Her good name has been restored when the rumours of her sexual encounters (which, being a virginal woman, she never had) have been completely discredited. They were all fed to a journalist by the town's notoriously unreliable gossip. En route to her home, Warburton once again tries to seduce her, but she again rejects him. The atheist Warburton discusses religion with Dorothy. Again they spar verbally, but while Dorothy has now discarded religious belief, she still has a strong attachment to “faith” in the sense of having a purpose in life and understanding that there is some goodness in the world. For her, goodness means doing good deeds and helping people… and so she returns to the same sort of life she began with – doing her rounds and bringing comfort to parishioners.

Before I get to the very obvious flaws in this novel, I’ll point out what does work. Far and away the most interesting and persuasive chapters are the opening ones set in the rectory and parish. They take up about a third of the novel. The coldness of the rectory, the nearly empty church with only a tiny group of worshippers, the bullying and sheer meanness of the rector to his daughter, and the rivalry in the small town between different denominations (there is an ongoing row between “Anglo-Catholics” – those Anglicans who wanted to follow Catholic ritual – and Anglicans who are appalled by the Catholic influence) – all this comes close to a portrait of a church that is actually dying a slow death. In a way, Dorothy’s initial piety is heroic, even if some of her self-mortification is extreme. But the rector’s snobbery, looking down on his lower-class parishioners, is unforgivable and barely Christian.  In his backstory we are told “He had been born in 1871, the younger son of the younger son of a baronet, and had gone into the Church for the outmoded reason that the Church is the traditional profession for younger sons. His first cure had been in a large, slummy parish in East London – a nasty, hooliganish place it had been, and he looked back on it with loathing. Even in those days the lower class (as he made a point of calling them) was getting decidedly out of hand.” (Chapter I, Part 2) We are also told that, by his dry sermons and quarrels with parishioners, “In twenty-three years he had succeeded in reducing the congregation from six hundred to under two hundred.”    (Chapter I, Part 2) [Rude comment by this reviewer – Nowadays that would be quite a sizeable Anglican congregation. A recent survey – in 2022 - said that in England now, the average Anglican church is attended by two people weekly.] Dorothy’s round is also presented convincingly:  ‘Visiting’, because of the distance she had to bicycle from house to house, took up nearly half of Dorothy’s days. Every day of her life, except on Sundays, she made from half a dozen to a dozen visits at parishioners’ cottages. She penetrated into cramped interiors and sat on lumpy, dust-diffusing chairs gossiping with overworked, blowsy housewives; she spent hurried half-hours giving a hand with the mending and the ironing, and read chapters from the Gospels, and readjusted bandages on ‘bad legs’, and condoled with sufferers from morning sickness; she played ride-a-cock-horse with sour smelling children who grimed the bosom of her dress with their sticky little fingers; she gave advice about ailing aspidistras, and suggested names for babies, and drank ‘nice cups of tea’ innumerable – for the working woman always wanted her ‘nice cup of tea’, out of the teapot endlessly stewing.   (Chapter I, Part 4)

It is at least credible that Dorothy, devout and virginal, shows a deep aversion to men when the rake Mr. Warburton first makes an attempt to seduce her “What he had done upset her. Even now her heart was knocking and fluttering uncomfortably. I can’t bear that sort of thing! She repeated to herself seven times over. And unfortunately that was no more than the literal truth; she really could not bear it. To be kissed or fondled by a man – to feel heavy male arms about her and thick male lips bearing down on her own – was terrifying and repulsive to her. Even in memory or imagination it made her wince. It was her special secret, the especial, incurable disability that she carried through life.” (Chapter I, Part 6) It is also credible that Dorothy is idealistic enough to believe, at the horrible Mrs. Creevy’s dismal school, that she will be able to really enthuse the girls with a new way of teaching them: “She felt quite differently towards her job from that moment onwards. A felling of loyalty and affection had sprung up into her heart. This school was her school, she would work for it and be proud of it, and make every effort to turn it from a place of bondage to a place human and decent. Probably it was very little that she could do. She was so inexperience and unfitted for her job that she must educate herself before she could even begin to educate anybody else. Still, she would do her best; she would do whatever willingness and energy could do to rescue these children from the horrible darkness in which they had been kept.”   (Chapter 4, Part 2). I add that the school sequences are the second most readable sections of the novel.

Even if they are verbose and sometimes repetitive, the steps towards Dorothy’s loss of faith are also credible. In a sequence where Dorothy goes to church on Sunday only because Mrs. Creevy thinks it’s a sign of genteelness, we are told “There was never a moment when the power of worship returned to her. Indeed the whole concept of worship was meaningless to her now; her faith had vanished , utterly and irrevocably. It is a mysterious thing, the loss of faith – as mysterious as faith itself. Like faith, it is ultimately not rooted to logic; it is a change in the climate of the mind. But however little the church services might mean to her, she did not regret the hours she had spent in church. On the contrary, she looked forward to her Sunday mornings as blessed interludes of peace…” Chapter 4, Part 5) When she is on her journey back home, she explains her faith to the mocking Warburton “My faith. Oh, you know what I mean! A few months ago, all of a sudden, it seemed as if my whole mind had changed. Everything that I believed in till then – everything – seemed suddenly meaningless and almost silly. God – what I’d meant by God -  immortal life, Heaven and Hell – everything. It had all gone. And it wasn’t that I’d reasoned in out; it just happened to me. It was like when you’re a child, and one day, for no particular reason, you stop believing in fairies. I just couldn’t go on believing in it any longer.”  (Chapter 5, Part 1) And yet later, on her own, she reasons “Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before. And given only faith, how can anything else matter? How can anything dismay you if only there is some purpose in the world which you can serve, and which, while serving it, you can understand? You whole life is illumined by the sense of purpose. There is no weariness in your heart, no doubts, no feeling of futility… Ever act is significant, every moment sanctified, woven by faith as into a pattern, a fabric of never-ending joy.”  (Chapter 5, Part 2) This kind of agnostic faith is, Orwell implies in much of the novel, what many people cling to once they have lost religious faith.

But then the problems of the novel stack up.

First, Dorothy seems pushed about without any will of her own. Apart from her deciding to go to London after the hop-fields, she really makes no personal decisions. Things happen to her and people tell her what to do. She is a puppet at the author’s will. Then there is the sheer improbability of much of the novel – the mental breakdown causing her to suffer amnesia; the convenient largesse of Warburton in taking her home; the very convenient quick expunging of the evil repute that the gutter-press had made of her. The book is very episodic and not fully coherent. Rectory; hop-picking; poverty in London; nasty private school -  they are barely connected to one another and may as well be four separate stories. Picaresque in the extreme.

Worse, though, is the frequency with which Orwell forgets he is writing a novel and instead turns to being the journalist or polemicist. He is, after all, criticising four things -  : a redundant church many of whose ministers are not really believers but who stay the course for form’s sake; the hard lives of rural workers [hop-pickers in this case]; the extreme poverty in London and other British cities in the [then current] Depression years; and the extreme inadequacy of private schools. In the hop-picking section, he ignores his characters for about twelve pages in order to lecture us on how hops are harvested, how the workers are treated, what sort of people they are etc.  In the section concerning the private school he tells us “There are, by the way, vast numbers of private schools in England. Second-rate, third-rate and fourth-rate… they exist by the dozen and the score in every London suburb and every provincial town. At any given moment there are somewhere in the neighbourhood of ten thousand of them, of which less than a thousand are subject to Government inspection. And though some of them are better than others… there is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is, they have ultimately no purpose except to make money…” [and so on and so on] (Chapter 4, Part 4)

And if being improbable, episodic and polemic aren’t enough, there is one stylistic sequence in A Clergyman’s Daughter that is positively jarring. This is the sequence where Dorothy seems to have a fugue while freezing at night with the other vagrants in Trafalgar Square. Suddenly we are given a cacophony of voices, some coherent and some incoherent, as multiple people talk over one another. It is presented as a playscript. Is it external, objective reality? Or is it the subjective product of Dorothy’s hunger and lack of sleep? Either way, it is stylistically at odds with the rest of the novel – a “show-off” piece, and very clearly, as many have noted, cribbing the “Circe” section of James Joyce’s Ulysses. (George Orwell had read Ulysses as all the biographies attest.) It simply does not belong in this novel.

Just as a footnote, I notice that occasionally Orwell uses a few terms that would now be regarded as racist. In his description of Gypsies among the hop-pickers in Kent, he remarks they were  friendly enough, and they flattered you grossly when they wanted to get anything out of you; yet they were sly, with the impenetrable slyness of savages. In their oafish, Oriental faces there was a look as if some wild but sluggish animal – a look of dense stupidity existing side by side with untameable cunning.” (Chapter 2, Part 3) in the Trafalgar Square sequence (Chapter 3, Part 1), he has a Jew in the crowd whom he characterises as “the Kike”. Autres temps, autres moeurs etc. and I'm not going to chastise Orwell for using words that were commonly accepted in England in the 1930s but that are not acceptable now.

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

I am now going to skip one of Orwell’s novels not because I’m lazy but because I  reviewed it ten years ago on this blog where you can find it. I am referring to Keep the Aspidistra Flying, first published in 1936. To me it is ultimately one of Orwell’s happiest novels and one that I most enjoyed reading. One thing is very interesting to note however. All of Orwell’s first three novels concern main characters rebelling, but in the end surrendering to the status quo and either submitting or destroying themselves. John Flory in Burmese Days comes to hate British Imperialism but instead of openly fighting it he commits suicide. Dorothy Hare in A Clergyman’s Daughter runs away [sort of] from her home and parochial duties, but in the end, and after all her adventures, she returns home and resumes her duties. Gordan Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying tries to escape life as a copywriter for an advertising firm, spends some time as a bohemian trying to write poetry, but runs back to the advertising game once he needs the money to support a family. Often Orwell seems to be saying it’s better to continue with the life you have rather than pining after fresh fields.


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.


As I write these words we have a general election looming. And when a general election is looming, all political parties start making promises to the electorate. Te Parti Maori, New Zealand First, Act, Greens, Labour, National – all of them are telling listeners, readers and viewers what wonderful things they will do for us. Even tiny fringe groups try having their say – the Freedoms Party (Brian Tamaki’s lot) and TOP (too nebulous to even categorise).

As the promises keep rolling in, my gorge rises. It is, as always, a lolly scramble. It reveals the very worst and narcissistic side of every candidate. Those candidates with the money behind them (always from the bigger parties) rush to pose for the TV lenses with factory workers, farmers, nurses, businesspeople, shopkeepers, random people in the street – all the while trying to present themselves as plain folks who are just concerned for plain folks. Why, for the cameras they even eat sausage rolls or share yoghurt with schoolchildren! One major party announces its economic plans and its proposed budget. The other major party denounces it, tears it apart, and proposes its own economic plans and budget. There follows a tit-for-tat to no particular purpose.

Let’s narrow it down to this country’s two major parties. The National Party knows that being tough on crime is always something that appeals to a large part of the electorate. So they go hard on crime in all their propaganda. Labour, which has now been in office for two terms, has tended to downplay the issue of crime or claim that it’s just “fear mongering” and the statistics are exaggerated. But suddenly Labour announces a plan to recruit and put on the streets more police. Or (note I’m being impartial here folks) Labour announces plans for reforming parts of our education system – especially at the primary and secondary levels. So National suddenly announces its plan to reform the way reading is taught in junior classes.

See what I mean by tit-for-tat?

Quite apart from this, there are two issues that are rarely discussed openly. Any party that is already in office should be very cautious in electoral campaigning. After all, a party in office has already had time to activate policies. If the party suddenly starts touting new policies as an election is nearing, the obvious question is “Why did you suddenly think up these policies when you already had three [or six] years to announce them?” The onus will always be on the party in office to prove that it is not simply bribing voters.

Second problem is this. No government really owns money. Money that can be allocated by the government is money that has been raised in taxes. In other words, it is the public whose money is being spent. This is true even of money which a government has acquired as a loan from an international fund – ultimately it is the public [taxes] that has to pay back such loans. So when, leading up to an election, a party announces some attractive policy, it is usually failing to explain what taxes would be needed to implement the policy. 

Case in point: A party suggests that dental care will be free for all up to the age of 30. Now do you think dentists will say “Jolly good. We’ll do the work for free!”? Nope. It means new taxes - and plenty of them - will have to be devised to compensate [or pay] dentists. And if there isn’t enough in the [publicly-paid] kitty to cover this, then either new taxes will have to be raised or other taxes will have to be curtailed – meaning that some other existing policy will have to be underfunded. Again showing I'm strictly not partisan in this, I note another party imagines it will conjure up money by allowing foreigners to buy houses in New Zealand, and then tax the buyers. What this obviously means is the the price of houses (already vastly inflated) will shoot up even further, making houses more unaffordable to New Zealanders than they already are - and the harvest brought by taxing foreign buyers will not cover the expense the policy will cost.

Ideally, every political party should, by law, have to explain in detail, in their canvassing, how much each policy will cost in terms of taxation. But for some strange reason, no political party will ever embrace such a policy.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Something New

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

AT THE POINT OF SEEING” by Megan Kitching (Otago University Press, $NZ25) ; “SAGA” by Hannah Mettner (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $NZ25) ; “MIDDLE YOUTH” by Morgan Bach ( Te Herenga Waka University Press, $NZ25); "VINES" [a literary journal}



            Megan Kitching’s debut collection At the Point of Seeing is one of those productions that gives you hope for poetry. The blurb tells us that Megan Kitching gained her PhD in England with a study on how new scientific discoveries in the 18th century affected poetry. This has apparently had an impact on her own poetry. While she expresses herself from a completely modern perspective, she nevertheless writes with a precision about nature – and especially about flora and fauna - drawn from both personal observation and her learning.


One of her opening poems “When Water Was a Galaxy” concerns watching mandarin fish [or gold fish] skimming along under lily pads with “twists of amber flame”, this being in the Wintergarden. The poem has the spontaneity of a child but the acute observation of an adult, and in this poem, as in many others, we stay in an artificial environment. So too in  the closely curated vestiges of nature in encased specimens in “Memorial Museum” where “Each in its niche, tucked, / all in place yet all depending / on the specimens, case by case, / washed up or plundered, prised / apart from their lives, / then husked into drawers you can slide / to hoist the streaming seas / for inspection.” Another artificial environment is found in the domestication and familiarity of plants in the poem “Houseplants.”


I am surmising [I could be wrong] that, pulling up weeds on the roadside in ”Botanising” is drawn from a childhood memory, and first awakening to knowledge of the variety of small plants there are. This leads into a five-part sequence labelled [probably ironically] “Weeds”. It gives an account of certain flora, and how they have fared under the impact of human beings, from the consumption of puha to the strangulation of kelp by oil slips. “Verona by the Leith” concerns an outdoor production of Romeo and Juliet, a picnic on the grass in Dunedin, but with the reminder that all is staged “by the weeds, roots and leaves”. Nature endures even in artificial settings.


A different sort of nature is addressed in “Cold Fusion” which concerns surfers, but with the clear suggestion that the sea controls the surfers. The surfers do not control the sea.  Nature wins. Even “The Artist’s Site”, wherein a woman creates an image, her image mimics geological nature. Only rarely does Megan Kitching anthropomorphise, as in “Round Hill” where she directly addresses the hill as the moods of the day change its presentation. In “The Beings”, yew trees “speak up dark and choral” and elsewhere “Willows” communicate like people.  There is awareness of the very long geological history of boulders and coast lines (see “Mammoths” and “Headland”). There are many poems involving walking alone and looking at nature, but sometimes suggesting a loneliness of the heart, capped by one of her best, “Between Together and Alone”.


Having noted all this, though, it’s important to understand that Kitching is not fixated on the one theme of nature. Not that all her poetry clings to the arms of nature. “Retracing” refers to human relationships as a couple walk on a beach, he walking away from her, she falling behind, and yet he turning and realising that they need each other. Look at one of her overtly urbane poems, “On Hume’s Table”, and you find the 18th century philosopher wrestling with the problems of empiricism and rationalism… or at least so I read it. “Armrest” refers to the discomfort of rest homes. Then there are everyday human mishaps, as in “Walking is Controlled Falling” addressing the phenomenon of slipping on icy roads or pavements in winter. The nearest Kitching comes to true satire is “Appropriation”, wherein the image of an elephant, cheaply mass-produced, becomes more and more grotesque with each printing until it barely resembles an elephant at all. We often hear the chastising phrase “cultural appropriation”, but here we have animal appropriation. And what comes nearest to a protest poem is “Dark Skies”, lamenting the way night skies are now such that in cities we can no longer see the stars.


Creating a different sort of poetry, we have what I would call vignettes – short poems that capture a precise moment, as in “Mornington” a beautiful vignette of rain falling in the suburbs; “Hiatus” the moment the sun rises; and “On Kamau Taurua” a moment of sunset and dusk beautifully captured, with an old-style opening that declares “The sun subsides, the island falls / away beneath the cliff path, twilight / wicking from tidal sands that run / dreaming and vast towards night’s stars.” As for “Crematorium”, it is a grim vignette of a daunting moment.


While human interaction does not dominate this collection it can put the soul into a non-human animal. In this respect “A Bee Against a Window” is a poem in a league of its own, with its precise observation and the steady beat of the poem as a bee climbs laboriously  up a window:  The bee knows no sides / only sunwards until it tires…/…the bee will forget / with what patience it now / gnaws towards a day / upon the rim of summer.”


By this collection, we are enlightened and drawn closer to the species who share the Earth with us.


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



There are some very great merits to Hannah Mettner’s collection Saga. It is clear in what it is saying, straightforward and candid, with none of the obfuscation and in-speak that plagues so many recent collections of poetry. Mettner says what she means, sometimes in anger and protest, sometimes in regret and very occasionally in nostalgia. The cover design is of an intrauterine contraceptive device and the collection is dedicated “for the hags” so one immediately expects the poems to have a strong feminist strain. Often we have to assume Mettner is being confessional and relating her own life’s story, and this being the case she is bisexual having (in her own account) had both female and male lovers. Much of her poetry is written in prose form (“prose poems” is the old name) and much of it is confronting


Mettner’s opening poem “Saga” includes the lines “In the language of this country, I learn to say / that my ancestors came from the fjords. / A place I’ve never visited, but imagine to be / exactly the right temperature for my fickle / body.” And later in the same poem she adds “I learn / too that I belong to the ‘crying side’ of the family / and that the mythos of the non-crying side / circles like wolves round a fire, coming in close / to tear the limb from a sleeping cousin before / loping back into the night. My aunt reports / that we used to be Vikings…”. Clearly this opening poem is a declaration of both her descent and her rejection of much of it, an aloofness about the past. There is also often a certain violence in her imagery as in “Autobiography of a Riot Grrl” where “I walk out, swinging the axe. / I unbutton myself / for bed and find the tough heart of a man clenched / beneath the hot silk / of my skin.” But she goes on to suggest total uncertainty about where she’s going.

Mettner produces some strong satire. The long discursive poem “Birth Control” seems more of a rage than anything against the Vatican and Catholic church. Oddly though, part of  “Praying the gay away” expresses some nostalgia for a church she was part of as a child. Another overt protest is the longish sequence “Beep Test” dealing with the way people are pushed into positions of employment, bullied, categorised and monitored like kids in a school PE lesson.


            Many of her poems read like prose arguments with herself or with the world in general, as in “La boheme” about  the most heartfelt misery of living in a non-insulated flat in the winter. Or “Hold-up at the Sleepbank”, a fantasia of unwanted dreams. Other prose poems read as short, thoughtful essays such as “Libraries like icebergs”. Mettner is apparently made uncomfortable by the thought of ageing – odd for somebody who is only 33 – as shown in “Hags”, about no longer having the stamina of a party-girl, and in “Side hustle as an alchemist” about seeking ways of being [or acting] younger. Looking back, however, can also lead to nostalgia for childhood and it is certainly there in “Grandiflora” about visiting grandparents when she was a child.


The explicitly lesbian poems include “Love poems with gratuitous sex”,; “Breakup poem at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki” and “The well of loneliness”. Very many poems condemn male behaviour as in “Three times a cat lady” about men in the Middle Ages condemning women as witches; or in “Anita” wherein false versions of women are presented in advertising. And there is the occasional outburst of misandry as in “Bad man kink” which concludes “I imagine holding you down / face-first in the water / between my legs”. Rage indeed.


But after the anger, the polemic and the satire, what I find dominant is a constant sense of disappointment in life. “If not nuclear” concerns the difficulties of being a teenager and having a baby. Old lovers are disappointing (“Sea Horses”). Positive forecasts of the future never live up to their hype (”Though experiment in the future”). And there is anger at the world our parents have left (“Who doesn’t love miniature horses”) which comes close the familiar “generational theft” trope. “The world” sums up this orb in largely negative terms


Oddly enough, I enjoyed many of these poems no matter how dyspeptic and angry they often are. It’s like listening to a garrulous gate-crasher at a party who bundles you up in a corner and insists on telling you her woes and troubles and hates… and when you leave the party you realise she was the most engaging speaker there.


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


            If Hannah Mettner expresses herself in a loud, confronting way, Morgan Bach works with more subtlety in Middle Youth. Her poems are often lean, are never prose poems, and are frequently allusive. Yet in terms of sexuality, the two poets have much in common. For the record Mettner writes enthusiastically about Bach for the blurb of Bach’s collection; and Bach writes enthusiastically about Mettner for the blurb of Mettner’s collection. A neat arrangement.

Bach herself structures her collection in three phases. First comes “Alone, lonely or single” apparently based on lonely travels. Through many careful stanzas, “the pomegranate” is essentially a imagist poem – a series of images painting a [presumably Hispanic] town… and suggesting the solitude of the tourist. Thus too in “red lake” where “This country’s edge [is] invisible as a trip line / or culture – a snag, a sudden immersion” recognising the alienness of another country and its culture to the traveller or tourist. There is in Bach’s imagery much awareness of clouds, moons, the less tangible parts of nature, the things that are out of reach. There is a  tentativeness of expression and a great sense of loneliness as in the poem “terrific” with its final stanza declaring “What I’m scared of is the pain of absence, / of nothing to fill my lungs. The space / outside that thin layer enclosing life. / T he dark matters, untouchable, / the unknowable life in it. / How it might rise through our bodies / the higher we climb. I keep / waiting for the plague.” This is literally a statement about climbing into the thin air of mountains, but the solitary observer and climber immediately suggests, once again, loneliness. Other people seem hostile as in “because I”, which basically says nobody believes her or can be trusted.  Even the poem “Pluto”, literally about the former “planet” which has now been demoted, denotes isolation, lack of status – in a word, loneliness. Here, then, is a poet and narrator who is somehow isolated from the world and ill at ease with others.

Sexual encounters are sometimes noted discreetly as in “blood moon” and examined more explicitly in “oracle” where “my sexuality / is that I would have made / a good oracle / I would take / or leave you after / cryptic truth…”. In other words, like the oracle at Delphi she could be ambiguous about her sexuality. Even more explicit are “moderate fantasy threat” and “magpies” where “I like my lovers to tell me facts, / science, history, things I don’t yet know, / so that when I’m alone listening to podcasts / in the bath has the same effect as company”. People become data - experiences to be filed away in the mind. Yet, for all the suggestions about sexual encounters , she comes back to isolation, loneliness, a difficulty in connecting seriously with others, as in  “date line” where “You walk through churches you don’t believe in / with your body / you don’t believe in. / You come back because / you had been exquisitely lonely / here, once before / and unresolved / loneliness is an unresolved / triumph and failure”.


The second section is called “middle youth” and in the title poem “middle youth”, the poet declares herself to be 40. I think in this context “middle youth” means something like the early part of middle-age… and perhaps hoping that one will not yet be seen as middle-aged. There seem, in this longish poem, to be many regrets, one being seeing other people with children and “the gallery / is dimming the lights / for closing / the paintings getting harder / to see – no children”. Later we have “If you have children, you are expecting / someone to outlive you. / I can’t quite look at this even as the minutes / call its past tense into existence.” There are more expectations of loneliness in “carousel” where “orange blossom, an olfactory / loneliness on the brittle street”.

In “after Sissinghurst” (the home of bisexual Vita Sackville-West and her bisexual husband Harold Nicolson) Bach praises “the perfect English garden” as “a camouflage, an expression of those who would be / ostracised.” And “pasture” begins as anthropomorphising the landscape as seen from a train where “the hills, folded tight as bundled cloth, / appear lit from within when the sun breaks / over the eastern range. /… / So bare, like the intimate places of other bodies.” But when she moves to the “scrubby bush” she likens it to “a woman just past ‘her peak’, / feeling the prickly freedom of not giving a fuck, / glows with that new power – of those who have been put / out to pasture in the minds of men, who in all our lifetimes / have been the one to decide” and so to a closing stanza condemning men.

In the poem “blood and sand” she declares “I’ve tried to love in the way / we are conditioned to believe / essential to human experience - / a measure of fulness, inherent goodness, / marking a person of sufficient quality. / But what are human qualities anyway? And where / should I find them in myself? The top shelf / of my personality, the shaker that / no longer quite seals.” No lover quite measures her.

Her sexuality, then, is expressed as a certain coldness which finds it hard to cope with sustained intimacy. And this coldness, this loneliness, is echoed when she takes on the universe in “cosmos”, a five-part sequence giving a particular view of the universe collapsing, when there looms the coldness of nothingness.


Finally comes To proceed within a trap. The sequence of poems that bears this name deploys many images of the cosmos, most often tending to see people as isolated or overborne by the vastness of it, or overborne by men as in the poem which begins “The world is full of great men / making it completely unliveable for the rest of us” and, according to the poet, it is men who make the economic system and destroy the earth. The unlive-ability is summed up in “health and safety”, which suggests massive degradation of the earth.

Only in one poem does Bach have a severe attack of nostalgia with “sweet spot”, wherein she remembers the naivete of childhood happily unaware of the real world around them.

Middle Youth is more a collection of sorrow and hesitation than of exuberance and joy, but it is carefully crafted and does open up to us a certain perspective that is rarely revealed. An interesting collection.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

For most New Zealand readers, poetry and short stories are presented to us by university presses and other established publishers. But it is a pleasure to know that there are independent publications far from the major cities. So I am delighted to note here the existence of Vines,  which announces itself as "the Hawke's Bay literary and arts journal". Vines was inaugurated by Erice Fairbrother with Jeremy Roberts as poetry editor (you may find on this blog a review of his book about travelling in Indnesia The Dark Cracks of Kemang). Vines is now into its fifth number, 40 pages long, the length of an average collection of poetry - but it carries poetry, short stories, reportage and reprodutions of art works. Mary-Anne Scott's foreword quite understandably references the huge damage done to the Hawke's Bay region by Cyclone Gabrielle as do some of the poetry contributions. Erice Fairbrother sums up impressively the effects of the cyclone.Tim Saunders (author of Under a Big Sky) gives us an intriguing take on the way some farmers think in his story The Hare and the Hawk. Some poems and art-works are contributed by pupils at a primary school and at a secondary school. There is a book review and a somewhat surreal multilingual story about a personal crack-up. A heady mixture.


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.

 “BURMESE DAYS” by George Orwell (first published in the USA 1934; first published in the UK 1935)

            Recently on this blog I reviewed Anna Funder’s polemic Wifedom in which, while admiring George Orwell’s literary work, she condemned him for having been [in her interpretation] a misogynist and a very flawed man who exploited his first wife cruelly. It should be noted that Funder was not the first woman to take Orwell to task in this way. Back in [appropriately] 1984, there was published Daphne Patai’s The Orwell Mystique – A Study in Male Ideology which, wife or no wife, argued that Orwell was simply incapable of relating reasonably to women. For good measure Patai also characterised Orwell as essentially an elitist who really despised the working classes.

            Reading Funder’s book, I started thinking about Orwell’s five novels, one novella and three book-length works of non-fiction. Over the years I have read most of them, as well as many of his essays and reportage. But Funder’s book encouraged me to go back and re-read them, which I haven’t done for years. So in the next few postings, I will be handling Orwell’s novels and book-length non-fictions one by one, in the order that they were published, starting with his first novel Burmese Days.

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


[Eric Blair after his return from Burma)

            Eric Blair (only later did he adopt the pseudonym George Orwell), fresh from school years, joined the Indian Imperial Police and at the age of 19 he was posted to Burma. Burma was then regarded as part of the Britain’s Indian Empire. Orwell worked there as a police officer for just over five years, 1922 to 1927. On the whole (I am judging this from Bernard Crick’s biography George Orwell, A Life) Orwell in Burma acted as a British policeman was then supposed to act. He got on well enough with his police colleagues although he was regarded as a bit of a loner. But, says Crick, Orwell “came to reject imperialism while in Burma, but probably not at once, only gradually.” The same verdict is made in another biography I have on my shelf D.J.Taylor’s Orwell – the Life. Returning to Europe, Orwell spent a number of years working on what eventually became Burmese Days. The novel is set in 1926, which would have been when Orwell had become disenchanted with British imperialism. Orwell  offered the novel to a number of English publishers who liked it, but who decided not to publish it because they feared they might face libel cases. The fictional Burmese town Orwell created, Kyauktada, seemed altogether too much like a real town in which Orwell had worked, Katha. Some of its real (British) inhabitants might complain. Indeed a couple called in the novel the Lackersteens seemed to be based closely on a real couple, the Limouzins. That is why Burmese Days was first published in the USA in 1934, and only a year later, in 1935, was it published in Britain.

(Eric Blair [Orwell), third from left in back row, with fellow Imperial Burma police) 

            As a swift and simplified synopsis, John Flory [in some editions he is called James Flory] is a timber merchant in Burma. He frequently leaves his home to go into the jungle supervising Burmese gangs felling and shipping teak and other hard wood. John Flory is in his mid-thirties, is morose, chronically unhappy and completely disillusioned with both his work and with Burma. He has lived in Kyauktada for fifteen years and is near the end of his tether. He finds it almost impossible to relate with his fellow colonialists. Like so many British settlers, he keep a Burmese mistress, or concubine, Ma Hla May, strictly for his sexual pleasure and for no other reason. Whenever he’s tired of her, he kicks her out. He also has a Burmese man-servant who serves him his whisky which he drinks copiously, often nursing a hangover. The local Club [for white people only] is filled with British officials and police constantly demanding they be regarded as superior to the Burmese and all other Asians. Flory goes there to drink, but hates the membership. Apart from his dog Flo, his only real friend is the Indian doctor Veraswami, whom he often visits for a chat and a drink. But here’s a key to the plot. Dr. Veraswami would like to become a member of the Club. Flory champions Veraswami’s membership to the Club. The pukka sahibs are appalled and reject the suggestion vehemently. What Flory at first doesn’t know (but we know from the opening chapter) is that a corrupt Burmese magistrate, U Po Kyin, is deliberately concocting nasty rumours about Dr. Veraswami in order to discredit him… because U Po Kyin himself wants to gain the prestige of being the first Asian to be accepted into the Club. U Po Kyin goes so far as to – in poison-pen letters – suggest that Dr. Veraswami is a rabid Burmese Nationalist (i.e. opponent of British rule) and is planning a local uprising… and to make this credible U Po Kyin will himself surreptitiously stir up such an uprising. But when the “uprising” happens, it fizzles out quickly with little effect.

            Amidst all his morbid ennui, and in his ignorance of U Po Kyin’s full plans, John Flory suddenly finds a new interest to invigorate him and make life a bit worth living. A pretty young Englishwoman called Elizabeth, aged twenty, arrives to stay with her uncle and aunt, the profoundly snobbish Lackersteens. Though she doesn’t admit it, she comes from a poor background but she plays at being well-bred, even aristocratic, and her chief motive is finding an acceptable, preferably wealthy, husband. Flory “saves” her from a water buffalo [in fact quite a harmless beast], they strike up a friendship, and in no time Flory is dreaming about marrying her. At first she takes no particular interest in him – and being an English gel, she is appalled by Burmese customs and doubly appalled when Flory takes her to a Burmese festival of dancing with its erotic undertones…. But she is impressed with Flory when he takes her on a shooting expedition and they bag many birds and one tiger (with Burmese coolies doing the hard work of bringing the tiger in range). To her, he seems a he-man. For a while Flory is sure that he will be able to marry her. He even unceremoniously kicks his concubine Ma Hla May out of his house for good, paying her off with less than she expects. Alas, Elizabeth grows cold on Flory when she learns that he had a Burmese mistress. Worse, Flory has a rival who appears in the form of an arrogant young British official, obsessed with playing polo, called Lieutenant Verrall. (His name seems a deliberate pun on “virile” in contrast with Flory). Elizabeth drops Flory completely and spends her time with Verrall… when he isn’t galloping around on his polo pony. She hopes to marry Verrall, especially as she now wishes to get away from her uncle who sexually harasses her.

            I won’t go into all the details (you’ve had almost enough of them already) but later, after an obnoxious British bigot called Ellis, another timber merchant, has blinded a young Burmese in an angry outburst, there is a genuine local uprising. Angry Burmese surround and besiege the Club, with nearly all the British members trapped inside. Flory has been scorned up to this point because of his friendship with Dr. Veraswami. But Flory now becomes a hero when he swims down the river and takes command of the armed police, getting them to disperse the angry mob. Suddenly he is in favour. Better still, not too much later the caddish Verrall takes the train to Mandalay without so much as a goodbye to Elizabeth. Once again, Flory believes he has a chance to woo Elizabeth… but he is definitively crushed when the whole British community attends their six-weekly church service. When the vicar is in full swing, the church door is thrown open, and in the hearing of the whole congregation the discarded concubine Ma Hla May loudly and vulgarly denounces Flory for leaving her, for not paying her, for mistreating her. She even rips open her clothes to suggest the physical damage he has done to her. She has of course been put up to it by the conniving U Po Kyin. And that is the end of woebegone Flory’s reputation. There can be no wooing of Elizabeth. He can have no comfort, no love, no peace.

He goes back to his bungalow, shoots his pet dog and then blows his brains out.

In its opening chapters at least, Burmese Days appears to be completely anti-colonial and anti-imperial, showing how colonisers mistreated and exploited indigenous people. This is particularly true when Flory witnesses the type of talk that bursts out in the Club when he suggests Dr. Veraswami should be made a member. The thoroughly racist Ellis rants thus: “My God, I should have thought in a case like this, when it’s a question of keeping these black, stinking swine out of the only place where we can enjoy ourselves, you’d have the decency to back me up. Even if the pot-bellied greasy little sod of a nigger doctor is your best pal. I don’t care if you choose to pal up with the scum of the bazaar. If it pleases you to go to Veraswami’s house and drink whisky with all his nigger pals, that’s your look-out. Do what you like outside the Club. But, by God, it’s a different matter  when you talk of bringing niggers in here.” etc. etc. through a much longer rant (Chapter 2) In the same discussion, a slightly more congenial character nevertheless shows himself to be at best patronising about lesser breeds without the law: “Mr Macgregor stiffened at the word ‘nigger’, which is discountenanced in India. He had no prejudice against Orientals; indeed he was deeply fond of them. Provided they were given no freedom he thought them the most charming people alive. It always pained him to see them wantonly insulted.” (Chapter 2) After Flory has listened to this sort disgusting chatter “He must get out of this room quickly, before something happened inside his head and he began to smash the furniture and throw bottles at the pictures. Dull boozing witless porkers! Was it possible that they could go on week after week, year after year, year after year, repeating word for word the same evil-minded drivel, like a parody of a fifth-rate story…? Would none of them ever think of anything new to say? Oh, what a place, what people! What a civilisation is this – this godless civilisation founded on whisky, Blackwood’s [a popular magazine that carried simple short stories] and the ‘Bonzo’ pictures! God have mercy on us, for all of us are part of it.” (Chapter 2) To Dr. Veraswami, Flory says that there is “the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them… We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.” (Chapter 3) Yet, in this conversation, it is Dr. Veraswami who endorses the British regime and lauds the good it does. Could it be that Orwell is suggesting imperial subjects are corrupted by their imperial masters and lose the bearing of their own culture?

As well as suggesting imperial subjects are corrupted by their masters, it is clear that the colonialists are themselves corrupted, seeing themselves as masters beyond the law when it comes to the indigenous peoples. When, late in the novel, a European called Maxwell is killed  The unforgivable had happened – a white man had been killed. When that happens, a sort of shudder runs through the English of the East. . Eight hundred people, possibly, are murdered every year in Burma; they matter nothing; but the murder of a white man is a monstrosity, a sacrilege….” (Chapter 22) After we are given the fruitless backstory of Flory’s life, we are made aware of the roots of his loneliness.  He believed that “each year he had been lonelier and more bitter than the last. What was at the centre of his thoughts now, and what poisoned everything, was the ever bitterer hatred of the atmosphere of imperialism in which he lived… he had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism – benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as its final object. And as to the English of the East, the sahiblog, Flory had come to so hate them from living in their society, that he was quite incapable of being fair to them. For after all, the poor devils are no worse than anybody else… On the other hand, the sahiblog are not to be idealised. There is a prevalent idea that the men at the ‘outposts of Empire’ are at least able and hardworking. It is a delusion. Outside [some limited services] there is no particular need for a British official in India to do his job competently. Few of them work as hard or as intelligently as the post-master of a provincial town in England. The real work of administration is done mainly by native subordinates; and the real backbone of the despotism is not the officials but the Army…” (Chapter 5)

When he writes about colonisers and empire-builders in this vein, Orwell is very much writing in the shadow of Joseph Conrad, who in Heartof Darkness, Victory and other works suggested that colonisers often go to pieces and lose their humanity in an alien environment. One could even suggest the influence of Somerset Maugham, with all his stories of Britishers going to the dogs in the tropics. As for the novel’s narrative line, many have suggested that Burmese Days was influenced by E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India.

Another important related point is that, for all his loathing of imperialism, Flory remains essentially English. When the twittery Elizabeth turns up “by coming into his life, [she] had so changed it and renewed it that all the dirty, miserable might never have passed. Her presence had changed the whole orbit of his mind. She had brought back to him the air of England – dear England, where thought is free and one is not condemned forever to dance the danse du pukka sahib for the edification of the lower races. Where is the life that late I led? he thought. Just by existing she had made it possible for him, she had even made it natural to him, to act decently.” (Chapter 13) Decency, clean air and freedom are associated with England. And of course Flory turns to his imperial duty (saving the besieged inmates of the loathsome Club) when push comes to shove. This makes for a very ambiguous assessment of imperialism in Burma. And regrettably there are moments when Flory [or Orwell?] slips into his own racialism as when he is talking with Dr. Veraswami about the empire and he says “The British Empire is simply a device for giving trade monopolies to the English – or rather to gangs of Jews and Scotchmen..” (Chapter 3) Or when he says to Elizabeth while they’re watching Balinese dancers “It’s grotesque, it’s even ugly, with a sort of wilful ugliness. And there something sinister in it too. There’s a touch of the diabolical in all Mongols.” (Chapter 8). In addition to this, some readers might protest that the arch-villain of the novel, the conniving, corrupt magistrate U Po Kyin, is Burmese. Is this a slur on the Burmese people? Personally I think not. All Orwell is demonstrating is that there are criminal people in any ethnicity. Remember too that U Po Kyin is attempting to vilify an Indian; and U Po Kyin himself is attempting to gain status in British terms – another case of somebody warped by the British regime.

While these are the main ideas of the novel, it’s necessary to say something about its quality as a work of literature. Orwell’s depiction of steamy, sweaty, rainy Burma is convincing. We are frequently reminded of the damp, dense foliage of Burma, the downpours, the incessant heat driving the British crazy (or driving them to drink), the way it irritates people into pointless squabbles. In fact, the descriptions of place are sometimes a little laboured, a little too lush.

There is some straining at symbolism. Frequently, in his elaborate imagery, Orwell characterises people as animals, especially the members of the Club, who in effect become themselves a sort of wild jungle. John Flory has a large birthmark disfiguring one side of his face, and we are frequently told how self-conscious he is about it, how often he instinctively turns the blemished side of his face away from others. Here is the external image of a maladjusted man who doesn’t quite fit in with his peers. Indeed Flory’s birth mark has been interpreted as “the mark of Cain” – the friendless man doomed to wander the Earth alienated from others, just as Flory is alienated from the Club and does not really identify with the Burmese either.

There are some awkward jumps into melodrama. There is a point (in Chapter 15) where Flory is just about to propose marriage to Elizabeth when, at that very moment, there is an earthquake and the matter is obviously dropped. Ma Hla May’s bursting though the church door could almost belong to a shocker novelette of yore.

More than anything though, there is the strained dialogue once Flory is conversing with Elizabeth. It is stilted, formal, rather unbelievable, especially in the closing chapters where, having been disgraced, he is still begging for her love. To this I must add that Elizabeth is such a flighty, flippant, shallow person, one wonders why a presumably intelligent person like Flory is taken by her. It must be the heat, or the sheer frustration of his thwarted life. Or could I be misreading this? Perhaps Flory is so desperate, so alienated and lonely, that he is clutching the last straw when he falls for Elizabeth?

A very patronising conclusion on my part: Burmese Days as a very good first novel, not the author’s best. As literature it is very flawed, but Orwell’s assessment of tacky British imperialism is heartfelt and reasonable, even if in 1935 it may have caused angry harrumphs from retired colonels in Poona or choleric police inspectors in Rangoon. I do not quite believe in the suicide of John Flory (it simply does not have the tragic inevitability even of the suicides in Drieu La Rochelle’s Le Feu Follet or in John O’Hara’s Appointmentin Samarra) but I do believe that Orwell depicted colonised Burma accurately. It is still well worth reading over ninety years since it was written.