Telling it like it was (perhaps), David Hill

A Life’s Sentences
Gordon McLauchlan
Penguin, $39.95,
ISBN 0143019163

Sorry, I’m a Stranger Here Myself
Peter Bland
Vintage, $29.95,
ISBN 1869416325

Both these books call themselves/are called memoirs. I’ve never liked the word; I find a back-of-hand-to-brow affectation in it. (You write a lumpen autobiography; I, deah boy, write a memoir.) I also find an evasiveness. A memoir is an arrangement of memory, a work where art takes precedence over accuracy. Will Rogers said it: “When you put down the good things you ought to have done, and leave out the bad things you did do – that’s Memoirs.”

There. I enjoyed saying that. And dammit, I enjoyed these two … two memoirs, even if they did rearrange my and Rogers’ preconceptions.

A pause here to acknowledge Gordon McLauchlan’s contribution to the New Zealand literary scene. He’s worked hard for our writers and books. He’s stirred up government and public. He’s done far more than his share, as president of the New Zealand Society of Authors and in other roles. Paul Holmes recently called him a fool, so McLauchlan is clearly an excellent chap.

His book is a professional and personal life in episodes with biggish chunks comprising smallish chunks that jerk between decades and destinations. (McLauchlan, you feel confident, knows how to use “comprise” and “compose”.) It begins with orthodox rites of male passage: throwing fireworks through train windows; farewelling Mum at the station; first job and first sheilas. It flicks you through McLauchlan’s work with the Manawatu Evening Standard and its “ridiculous” editor; Te Aroha (“God, I hated that town”); the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation; The Weekly News; the Press Association; Napier’s Daily Telegraph; The Journal of Agriculture; Air New Zealand; TVNZ …. This guy is indeed Mr Media.

He’s also Mr Opinion. He has views on everything, including Jesus Christ – “probably  a political radical”. There’s the women’s movement, in which women “spectacularly lost the fight against being defined as sex objects”. The information explosion, where “[w]ords have become tyrannical, clouting the mind incessantly but discordantly.” Politicians, with a high contempt level for Sid Holland, Walter Nash, Bill Birch. I approve of every terse word he writes about women’s weeklies, euphemisms and American television sentimentalism.

I approve less of his columnist’s compulsion to generalise from sometimes meagre specifics, to inflate into the absolute. Shades of grey, Gordon; shades of grey. But he frequently phrases things with pleasing pungency: “when someone says he is a party animal, I think poor bugger.” Remember him also on Auckland’s version of musical chairs, and the distinctive timbre of rich men’s voices.

He has some intriguing trade tips. Scratching your cheek unbecomingly is a good technique when eavesdropping. Avoid “virtually … rather … [and] somewhat”. Maybe try a notebook, commonplace book and reading diary, as the author does. It sometimes starts to read like Journalism 101. McLauchlan makes such points succinctly, but they stand around uncertainly (I almost wrote “rather uncertainly”) in the context of the book.

He avoids much score-settling, though he’s justifiably huffy when a poet leads away the novelist he’s talking to, with the comment that she’d spent too long with the journalist. He harrumphs about Holmes. He disliked the “sneering insolence” of the young Baxter, and admires the “wondrously celebrity-proof” Maurice Gee.

He scatters generally apt names and references, from Frederick Forsyth to Oscar Wilde, Margaret Mahy to Murray Mexted. I liked his use of Kurt Vonnegut’s division of writers into swoopers and bashers. The proper use and preservation of words preoccupies him. He frets about the insidious effect of emails; the way electronic communications mean fewer resources for biographers. He quotes his own book reviews and columns. Fair enough. He’s still proud of his 1976 The Passionless People, and piqued that “literary mandarins” ignored it. Fair enough again.

McLauchlan’s more literary passages swell towards being florid, and have a strange thriftiness with commas:

I discovered that in those small towns we all walked down narrow streets eking out astringent lives … . Was human nature allotted by evolution a certain quantity of nervous energy to fight dangers and where danger didn’t lurk this energy squeezed itself out in a consuming wariness, on intimations of danger, on phantasms of fear?

 

He’s best when he doesn’t try too hard, when his demotic, incipiently bolshie voice comes through: “In the years BT (before television) people who wanted entertainment had to entertain themselves; although the truth is most didn’t bother and remained petrified by sloth.” The same sinewy straightforwardness comes through whenever he writes about his parents, a stoical, vital couple who form one of the leitmotifs of the book. He admires them the same way he admires other “straight and brave” people in his stories.

You get to know bits about McLauchlan as you read this energetic, honest book. You find his passion – I mean the word – for writing and reading; his combativeness and generosity; his commonsense and benign conservatism. You don’t end up knowing the man; he’d probably and legitimately challenge whether that expression means anything, anyway. This is a scrapbook in words, a cv with explanations. A memoir, I guess.

You get the scrapbook structure again, along with another clever, cutesy title, from Peter Bland (and what an inappropriate surname that is). His narrative is 53 short – we’re talking 150-500 words – segments. No 2 is German fighters and poached eggs in WWII. In No 6, he misses a pike and the King’s train. In No 15, he tosses a coin and helps his best mate Bogs lose his virginity. No 40, the New Zealand Secret Service invites him to be their man in Asia. No 53, he sees Antonioni’s Blowup, and knows he has to go back to swinging London. Knows too exactly how to end with a wait-for-Vol-II line.

You can’t help wondering if some of the segments are also figments. His recall of events when he was six, and of his dead Dad’s grotesquely disintegrating suit when he’s a teenager is suspiciously total. A few episodes are too slapstick or too snug. But they’re all emphatically readable. They cover just the first 35 years of Bland’s life, so wait, there’s more. There’s also plenty right here, and even in summary, it springs along.

He’s brought up in the UK by relatives while tarty mother and absentee father (ref title) live unattached lives: “Some accumulated sense that a life of constant movement and change is fairly normal has stayed with me since.” So has a sense of pratfall; his father plans a killing buying electrical goods cheap on the Continent, but fails to realise they won’t fit British appliances. He’s taught by a vampire and a nubile Frenchwoman.

Poetry starts when he moves from Newbolt and Noyes to Eliot. During National Service, he adds Yeats, MacNeice, Auden. He decides for pretty woodenly-phrased reasons to come to New Zealand, where he lusts after a marching girl. At Victoria University, he studies under James Bertram, meets Baxter, Doyle, Fairburn, gets his wife-to-be pregnant.

From then on, the book settles to a more intense, grainy account of marriage and poetry. For long periods, the former is an ordeal to be trudged through. There’s no money; neighbours are neurotic; Plunket nurses are chill; it’s “an environment where the pains of birth had a stronger lesson to teach than its joys.” Bland messes things up, and knows it.

On writing, he’s cautious and perceptive. He finds it ironic that the nationalism being urged in our poetry in the 1950s came at a time when so many European immigrants were making such a contribution. He welcomes “the new colloquialism” towards the start of the 1960s. He has astute things to say about individual poems – Robin Hyde’s “The Beaches” – and his own first collection (“I played the moralist in a boringly superior manner, but some of the imagery was okay”).

If you’re after literary gossip about coitus in the bath or punch-ups at parties, it’s here, but subdued. So is the treatment of his acting, which starts when he meets Martyn Sanderson and joins the new Downstage. You feel he’s saving this for the next instalment. In the meantime, stars include Wellington, which “in the 1950s could be a remarkably cosmopolitan city”, and Bland’s mother-in-law. You have to read about mater; Bland’s impulse towards carnage is finely balanced by his urge towards compassion.

Like McLauchlan’s, Bland’s best voice is an unobtrusively crafted, carefully chatty one. His accounts of his parents’ arid deaths are near-perfect examples of understatement. He could have brought the same understatement to a few episodes where generalisations flap their hands awkwardly. And to those which seem determined to point out the title.

I haven’t forgotten the poems. Thirty-plus of them from the 1950s and 60s are at the back of the book. They’re wry, often domestic- or child-initiated, agreeably surrealist, acerbic or affectionate towards Hutt Valley, Pukerua Bay, Wellington where “We hang / Our houses out like washing”. I’d have liked more of them placed through the main narrative.

So – two books of engagement and disengagement. Two accounts where a lot of explanation still leaves the writers elusive, and where you learn rather (whoops) less about New Zealand writers than you might expect. Two differing displays of competence and craft.

 

David Hill’s latest young adult novel, Coming Back, is published by Mallinson Rendel. He is 2005 recipient of the Children’s Literature Foundation of New Zealand’s Margaret Mahy Lecture Award for his contribution to children’s literature.

 

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction and Review
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