Amidst the bric-à-brac, Harvey McQueen

Writing a New Country:  A collection of essays presented to E H McCormick in his 88th year
James Ross, Linda Gill and Stuart McRae (eds),
privately published, James Ross, 495 Richmond Rd, Grey Lynn, Auckland

Of Pavlova, Poetry and Paradigms: Essays in honour of Harry Orsman
Laurie Bauer and Christine Franzen (eds),
Victoria University Press, $34.95

Books of essays in honour of someone or other are like a garage sale. You never know what you will find amidst all the bric-à-brac. Friends, colleagues and students can be sycophantic or obsequious. Or they can use the opportunity to polish some inspiration or develop some idea associated with the recipient. Hobby-horses can be ridden to death or make every post a winning post. But the form is a well-respected device to pay tribute to a writer (most collections seem to be in honour of male writers) who has lived long and has contributed to the scene.

Eric McCormick and Harry Orsman merit such recognition. These two collections are as different as Auckland cheese from Wellington chalk, reflecting the style and interests of the two literary, scholarly establishments.

The essays about or to McCormick reflect the efforts of the Queen City’s scholars for much of the later half of the century to define (and thereby construct) the New Zealand identity. Along with Keith Sinclair and Allen Curnow, McCormick played a major part in this process. It is fitting therefore that these tributes to him should be entitled Writing a New Country.

His judgments in Letters and Art in New Zealand (1940) helped set the canon that later writers, artists and scholars have expanded or argued against. In his essay Maurice Shadbolt says this particular book ‘is more than cultural history. It has the excitement, the sweep, of an epic’. Sinclair says it ‘introduced many people to the novel idea that we had a literature and art’. McCormick helped build the reputation of expatriate Frances Hodgkins. Having studied under F R Leavis, he didn’t stay in Cambridge but came back to work in the Hocken, then in Wellington as archivist and centennial editor before settling in ‘the bach’ in Green Bay, Auckland from where the books have flowed regularly. The clarification and concentration of his prose has been a model and an example to successive generations. Not for him the jingoistic jargon of so many nationalists and critics. He literally helped write New Zealand.

The 15 contributors provide a blend of personal anecdote and recollection with the ideological debate about our identity. Now any national identity is an invented fiction. Those who have created this invention have a vested interest in its continued existence. In time a new generation will challenge this account. This book of essays doesn’t do that. Fitting for the purpose for which they are writing, the contributors are content to explore within the parameters set by the established canon which McCormick helped form.

Part of this approach reflects the generosity of McCormick himself. Graeme Lay writes about his encouragement and defence of writers when they have been mauled by an academic reviewer. ‘Eric has no counterpart in today’s academia.’

To have achieved such a reputation in the New Zealand literary and editing world is quite a feat. McCormick has also achieved it in the visual arts. Although he has lived nearly all his life in a country where ‘nowhere is far from the sea’ his ‘Inland eye’, (his very early years were spent in Taihape), stressed topography and its influence upon our art and culture. As in literature, his construction is being challenged. R D J Collins, Michael Dunn, Luit Bierenga and Leonard Bell, while paying due homage, all hint at this in their thought-provoking essays. But what stands is his achievement in creating that construction.

In the game of which 10 New Zealand books would you take to a desert island, McCormick’s Omai, Pacific Envoy is one of the first that I would pack. According to Shadbolt, Dan Davin said that McCormick had the ability to be our best novelist. He certainly is one of our better biographers, restoring or rescuing reputations. Bell’s concluding paragraph to his essay on ‘Picturing Omai’ illustrates the complexity of McCormick’s contribution to New Zealand culture.

[He] organised the wealth of material he had unearthed about Omai and his visit to Britain in a manner that approaches more a novel than a conventional explicatory history. Rather than presuming or attempting to define or ‘capture’ single, discrete person, his narrative suggests more a fundamental and inevitable uncertainty about the person behind the multiple representations and images was; that it is not possible ever to know that person. A formulation of the novelist, Marcel Proust, could have provided an apt prefatory quotation or subtitle for Omai: ‘our social personality is created by the thoughts of other people’.

 

Lexicography is less controversial than landscape. Unless one is a lexicographer. Harry Orsman’s discourse is rarely apologetic. Likewise the essays in the book dedicated to him.

The world is their field. Unlike the McCormick essays which are focused on aspects of the New Zealand identity, the 27 contributors ‑ friends, colleagues and former students ‑ in Of Pavlova, Poetry and Paradigms deal with aspects of language (mainly English) past and present, global and kiwi. The study of words is its own reward. But that study sheds light on cultural construction and slipshod thinking. Language is not the concrete thing it appears on first sight/ site. But the denizens nurtured by the Capital City are less interested in the location of New Zealand in the world as in its elocution to it.

This is a much more esoteric book. But it is also eclectic and I found many paragraphs and points to savour, ponder, or argue with. One essay I particularly relished, David Norton’s ‘The Wicked Bible and the Lexicographer’. As Norton says ‘lewd-minded treatment of the Bible is perennial and the righteous have always feared it’.

The Bible shaped generations of English speakers. This account of its translations, misreadings and expurgations is both funny and sad: funny in that like modern satirists taking the micky out of today’s leading cultural events, so have done to the Good Book writers conscious or unconscious down the ages; and sad, in that in the name of religion scholars have felt squeamishly obliged to make changes, for example ‘her young one that cometh out from between her own feete’ (Deuteronomy 28:57) to ‘her young one, her own offspring’.

This essay is preceded by one called ‘He-Man Beings, Poetesses and Tramps: Sexist Language in New Zealand’, by Janet Holmes. She says ‘this paper is written to express appreciation for Harry Orsman’s sense of humour and open-mindedness, as well as his linguistic and lexicographical erudition’. It is an apt summary of Orsman who has been a reader in English at Victoria University since 1960. His Dictionary of New Zealand English, 40 years in gestation, will be appearing shortly.

Befitting Orsman’s interests, Holmes and Norton’s papers rub shoulders with ‘a neglected middle English lyric’, swear words, Samuel Butler’s notebooks, Congreve’s rewriting, ‘word-spinning and tale-weaving’, Genesis B, Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, the language of Ronald Hugh Morrieson, dialects, medieval symbolism, the use of Maori in the later nineteenth-century press, computers, the language of New Zealand First World War diaries, Alistair Campbell’s origins, Welsh translations and several others.

Bill Ramson’s essay on the first recorded use of words common to Australia and New Zealand, (using information supplied by Orsman), helps balance the myth that on the west side of the Tasman the language is more colourful. Shanty (NZ 1848, Aus 1863); rouseabout (NZ 1861, Aus 1881); straggler (NZ 1860, Aus 1897); yachtie (NZ 1943, Aus 1951) while pavlova squeaks home, (NZ 1927, Aus 1929). And of course they use the term Rogernomics over there now. It could be that we were first to record usage because we were merely the more literate society. Lexicography has nothing, and everything, to do with such cultural constructs as inter-country rivalry.

As the alliterative title would suggest, there are poems. The one by Bill Manhire, Isabella, is a gem. Pointless to say they are about language, all poems are about language. But these are pointedly so. Lauris Edmond explores cross-cultural dialogue while Vincent O’Sullivan dedicates a poem to Orsman:

All our lingo sung or mumbled,
Foreign import, local bloom,
Twitch or kahikatea
Rooted here, at home,
Take lexicographic purchase
In Harry’s tome.

 

Harry’s tome when it appears will I am sure be another book to pack for that desert island jaunt.

 

Harvey McQueen is an educationalist. His Education is Change will be published in autumn 1994.

 

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