Letters — Issue 49

Not letting the facts interfere

Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s review of Southern Capital was the most spiteful, vindictive and unprofessional review I have seen for a very long time. We learn that Eldred-Grigg actively dislikes the University of Canterbury’s History Department, and that he believes the topics dealt with should reflect population proportions. In fact one might almost distil his objections into saying that the ideal book,for Eldred-Grigg, would have dealt with gay Asians who were brought up in Shirley.

Eldred-Grigg’s attack on Jim Gardner is as gratuitous as it is offensive. It is quite possible to disagree with Jim Gardner’s approach to historical study (I have done it myself) without descending to personal abuse. In any case, since Jim is a historian of rural society  and did not contribute to this volume, the relevance of Eldred-Grigg’s now quarter-century-old grievance is doubtful in a review of an urban history.

Eldred-Grigg also professes to welcome vigorous engagement with his own historical writings, but the content of his review belies this apparent willingness to engage in debate. In my own reasonably extensive work on rich settlers in Canterbury and Otago, I have comprehensively criticised Eldred-Grigg’s approach. My chapter on the elite in Southern Capital reflected this other work and yet I find Eldred-Grigg totally omits reference to this chapter. He also does not mention, presumably in the interests of his own private vendetta, my other chapter on Christchurch radicals – a chapter which with its shades of red would have perhaps undermined his portrayal of the book as shades of grey. He further ignores the contribution by my colleague Greg Ryan on sport in Christchurch, which gives the lie to his claim that vast areas of social life are left untouched.

In this review Eldred-Grigg demonstrates the old maxim: never let the facts interfere with a good story. It is a mystery to me why New Zealand Books, as a supposedly serious literary journal, published such a diatribe.

 

Jim McAloon
Senior Lecturer in History
Lincoln University

 

Apples and pears

Redmer Yska’s review of Sarah Campion’s book I Live Here Now (June 2001) reminded me of the first review of a New Zealand book I ever read. It was in Landfall in about 1953, and concerned a novel by James Courage (I have forgotten its title), which followed the fortunes of a wealthy North Canterbury landowning family.

The review took Courage to task for writing about the squattocracy instead of devoting his attention to the “real” New Zealand: the land of working people, unions, and the waterfront lockout. It did not seem to occur to the reviewer that it was equally valid for Courage to write about the world he himself knew and understood.

Yska’s review falls into the same trap. In castigating Campion for failing to understand the real character of the grim 1950s, he condemns her work for what it is not, and fails to recognise what it is. Yska’s own book on the 1950s may well illuminate many social issues of the time, but this in no way invalidates Campion’s very different achievement. Campion was not a social historian; she was an essayist, in the rich tradition of Charles Lamb and Lytton Strachey. Her tools were style and irony. In the scheme of things, therefore, it appears pretty pointless to condemn an apple for not being a pear.

When Rachel Scott first showed us Campion’s articles, we were surprised and delighted that such pieces could have been written and published – and in Home & Building, for goodness sake – in the middle of the drab and uniform decade that Yska’s review so exhaustively describes. Although writing in the classical British tradition that one might expect, given her background, Campion was far ahead of her time in the subjects she chose for her essays. Rachel Scott is to be congratulated for resurrecting important work that might otherwise have completely disappeared.

Yska should have been writing his reviews in the early 19th century. He could then have castigated Jane Austen for failing to write about the Industrial Revolution.

I feel proud to have published I Live Here Now. This is the first time in 30 years that I have written in response to a review of one of our books.

David Elworthy
Shoal Bay Press
Christchurch

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