The facts of lives, Bryan Gilling

Set in a Long Place: A Life from North to South
Maurice Andrew
Hazard Press, $29.95,
ISBN 1877161586
 
Sorry to Bother You, Doctor
Shirley Ferguson
Cape Catley, $27.95,
ISBN 0908561806

Bridging the Centuries
Valerie Cowan
Cape Catley, $24.95,
ISBN 0908561784

These three books each represent a different type of autobiography, the first reflective and attempting engagement with broader themes, the second telling disconnected anecdotes from within the author’s life, and the third a simple collection of brief recollections from five individuals.

Maurice Andrew was a longstanding professor of Old Testament Studies at Knox College in Dunedin. His lengthy autobiography, Set in a Long Place, is detailed and carefully constructed, employing a theme of “length” – of both the land and of days – to thread through the narrative.

The son of a Salvation Army officer turned Presbyterian minister, Andrew recounts his childhood in various places down pre-World War Two rural New Zealand, his teenage and young adult years in Dunedin, postgraduate study in Germany, followed by his clerical career in New Zealand and Germany and academic development from lecturer in German in Nigeria and Palmerston North to theological studies in Dunedin.

That concept of length is not purely topographical or chronological, although he does use it in those ways to place himself in New Zealand “from North to South”, and in enjoying “length of days” in terms of quantity. It also has qualitative dimensions for him. When describing the difficulties and strangeness of Germany in the 1950s, he feels these enriched him: “The strangest dimensions are those that make the days longest.” While in parish ministry and facing ministering to potential suicides, he found it difficult to make his days long enough to face such unpleasantness. And living long in the land equates to a sense of belonging.

The book is replete with biblical allusions which I fear may go unappreciated in this post-Christian age (there are numerous small passages of untranslated German also) and I can imagine that some will find the use of biblical phrases positively intrusive. That is not to say that he is bible-bashing. Indeed, I looked in vain for a substantial statement or explanation of his personal theology. He is certainly “liberal”, challenging accepted and sloppy thinking about the biblical texts and their application, yet his work was deeply embedded in them. Still, there is little sense of a vocation or passionate commitment. Simply, in the middle of a paper round, the teenager knew he wanted to be a minister; that is all. Nor does Andrew bare anything of his devotional life: this is a thoroughly academic presentation.

He was clearly strongly influenced by international scholarship and experiences, particularly those emanating from Germany (where he also met his wife-to-be). Studying at Otago, and then Knox, he had numerous teachers with a non-New Zealand outlook and background. He gained his doctorate from Heidelberg, studying under Gerhard von Rad, one of the 20th century’s leading biblical scholars. He tried to teach and apply his new-found knowledge at University College, Ibadan, in the midst of the Nigerian civil war, and returned to New Zealand to lecture in German at Massey. Consistently, he reflected on experiences gained on his travels and both compared them with his New Zealand experience and used them to enrich his contemplation of the Old Testament.

Yet this is a self-consciously New Zealand book. Andrew devotes nearly two-thirds of the book to his growing up and education through the length of this country, providing vignettes of both cityscapes and rural life that resonate with this reader’s experience several decades later. Throughout his times overseas he was forever linking up with other Kiwis.

Professionally, he is concerned to develop a New Zealand theology, a subject on which he has published, using New Zealand materials as a source (such as locally written hymns, or distinctive architecture) – but found his work criticised as written by someone who had spent too much time reading German. In this quest, he has faced an uphill battle. Many Christians would prefer to stress the universality of their religion’s theology; others wish not to be unique but to identify with more powerful cultures, particularly British (earlier) and American (more recently). He writes appreciatively of those who challenge notions of what it is to be a New Zealander. His international experiences convinced him that New Zealand Pakeha are actually sui generis (they are certainly not Europeans) and, despite his education and language training, he was a stranger in any country other than this.

This is a leisurely work but one which sometimes made me feel that either the life’s story or the themes and insights derived from it should have been more strongly drawn out. Andrew has a keen (preacher’s?) eye for significance in all aspects of life, aided by his all-too-rare, lifelong habit of keeping a journal, and much of what he has written will ring bells for New Zealanders of the baby boom period and before – those, that is, who are not overwhelmed by the detail.

2

One difficulty facing the autobiographer is the issue of why anyone should pay them any attention: why would people want to read about this life in particular? A second is the danger of visible self-importance: doesn’t the very committing of the act seem rather like self-aggrandisement and puffery? One answer to the second problem is to try to make nothing of one’s life, to set down just “the facts” and let the reader make of it what they will. This is largely the approach taken by Shirley Ferguson in Sorry to Bother You, Doctor and especially Valerie Cowan in Bridging the Centuries.

Ferguson’s memoirs of a medical practice in Titahi Bay are full of anecdotes about her patients, their various ailments and her own editorialising on the causes and consequences of these (I hope those are not their real names and that the actual people cannot be identified from the extensive details). Ferguson does aim to move above the trivial by running two themes through the stories: “the overriding importance of two things; loving and caring for children, particularly in the first two years of life, and education”. To the lack of these two elements, combined with the incidence of poverty, she ascribes the blame for most social problems, past, present and probably future. No doubt these factors are important, but they can hardly be saddled with sole responsibility.

The publisher believes that Sorry to Bother You, Doctor is a triumphant celebration of “the goodheartedness, the stoicism and humility of ordinary New Zealanders” as demonstrated in murmuring a self-effacing “Sorry to bother you, doctor” in their time of need. Frankly, this genial deference to the medical profession seems rather hard to sustain in light of Ferguson’s own self-evaluation and the irreverence of some of her patients, and more broadly since the likes of the Cartwright report into cervical cancer treatment in the 1980s. Nor do I think it is how Ferguson herself would have epitomised her work since her subjects, often unlovely and certainly seldom triumphant, struggle and frequently succumb to the hard knocks.

It is harder to discern any theme in Bridging the Centuries, beyond the simple fact that the three women and two men interviewed lived through the entire 20th century. This makes them simply a kind of freak show, unless longevity is of itself virtuous and admirable. Their stories are presented “in their own words”, although clearly extensive editing has taken place.

Cowan says of their physical artefacts that “their junk is rescued from rubbish tips and lovingly restored”, and she has done just this with their memories. Yet all we are left with is perhaps a warm feeling towards those who have coped with living for such a length of days (in Andrew’s phrase). Their lives are not put in any sort of context, nor is any suggestion made as to how we should respond to the reminiscences. They are “ordinary” people, not “important” according to standards by which historians might judge such things. Cowan does not help; we are left simply to ponder the living conditions endured by our grandparents and make our own comparisons with modern expectations and realities. Her publisher merely encourages readers to wonder what each subject might have done given today’s opportunities. I wonder, too, whether all elderly are this resilient, genial and clear-minded; Ferguson’s stories suggest not.

Cowan’s and Ferguson’s books are weak at answering our first question of significance: why such lives deserve publication and why others should read them. One assumes readers are meant to be entertained by the parade of characters and sad cases, or inspired by tales of triumph over adversity. If these lives are supposed to be case studies, we remain without the synthesis. Or perhaps they are two post-modern collections about which nothing much can be said and no conclusions drawn. Each reader for themselves.

 

Bryan Gilling is a Wellington historian.

 

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Posted in Autobiography, Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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