Keyhole history, Barry Gustafson

After Me Came the Berlin Wall: Lies, Spies and Journalism
Mervyn Cull
David Ling, $29.99,
ISBN 9781877378096

Final Approaches: A Memoir
Gerald Hensley
Auckland University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 1869403789

Memoirs are not autobiographies intended to be comprehensive accounts of the author’s life, and reflections on that writer’s inner motivation, values and opinions. Although they do tell us some things about an author’s life and are usually recounted chronologically, memoirs are a participant observer’s recollections of events and people with whom he or she was associated and are often drafted as a series of discrete essays. They are what Gerald Hensley has termed “keyhole history, with the narrow field of vision which comes from recording only one person’s point of view”.

Mervyn Cull, a journalist who spent most of his career with the New Zealand Herald, and Hensley, one of New Zealand’s most distinguished public servants, have written two very readable if somewhat cryptically entitled memoirs. Both, and particularly Hensley’s, combine intrinsically fascinating glimpses of personal and family history with equally compelling descriptions, impressions, anecdotes and insightful analyses of places, persons, institutions and events, not only in New Zealand but also in Britain, the Soviet Union, China, the United States, Africa, South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, at various times over the last half of the 20th century.

Cull and Hensley love words and know how to use them accurately and effectively. Both men have elegant writing styles, albeit Cull prefers a short and simple sentence and paragraph structure suited to newspaper articles and editorials. The narrative in both books is colourful, vigorous and precise, and is punctuated by frequent flashes of dry, whimsical humour. Both writers are good storytellers and, although both books are episodic and can be read chapter by chapter, I found them addictive and pressed on reading both over a couple of days.

There is a considerable difference in the content of the two books. Cull’s is much the lighter read. It consists of 34 short, well-crafted essays, which have, however, very little depth and do not go much beyond initial impressions. Most draw on his experiences working as a journalist and leader writer at the Herald and as an English-language specialist with China’s Xinhua international news agency in Beijing; visiting the Soviet Union on a number of occasions, and socialising with their diplomats, some of whom undoubtedly were spies, in New Zealand; and spending a short time as Prime Minister David Lange’s chief press secretary.

He also refers to several New Zealanders who may have spied for the Soviet Union, but gives no evidence to substantiate the allegations. Towards the end there are three chapters that, although interesting in themselves, have absolutely nothing to do with the title or what has gone before. They deal with Cull’s retirement to rural Northland, and the content is indicated by the chapter headings: “Aghast at a Gate”; “Hawks and Chooks and Clucking Dogs”; and “Ten Paces to the Box Office”.

In nine chapters, Hensley recalls the major periods of his working life: first as a young diplomat in Samoa at the time it was becoming independent of New Zealand. He then went to the United Nations and New York during the turbulent early 1960s, when many new nations were becoming members of the UN, the Cold War was heating up in Cuba and Vietnam, and President Kennedy was assassinated. Next, he moved to London and the Commonwealth Secretariat, and turmoil in Africa and Asia.

Returning to the United States, he was in the New Zealand Embassy in Washington DC during the Nixon era, the withdrawal from Vietnam and the recognition of the People’s Republic of China. Back in New Zealand, he headed the Asia division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in this chapter has some interesting things to say about Norman Kirk, including his death. Hensley then became high commissioner to Singapore and Sri Lanka, before serving as head of the Prime Minister’s Department.

All these chapters are beautifully written, with a mix of high diplomacy and world events, on the one hand, and of domestic crisis and eye for human idiosyncrasy, on the other. Despite the long period covered and the diversity of topics, there is a logical coherence to Hensley’s book that is not found in the eclectic and more superficial recollections of Cull, and this reader found Hensley’s memoir not only more entertaining than Cull’s, but also much more intellectually demanding and stimulating.

Whereas Cull mentions people, places and events without, in most cases, developing them, Hensley does describe and assess. This is illustrated by how the two authors handle the enigmatic figure of Lange, whom both men worked for. Hensley, who had served Muldoon as head of the Prime Minister’s Department from 1980-84, occupied the same position from 1984-87 in the Lange administration. Cull was asked by Lange to be his chief press secretary, but left the post after only a year at the end of 1988. Both men decided the appointment had been a mistake, because, as Cull recalls, his “chemistry, it seemed, was incompatible with Mr Lange’s, or vice versa.”

Cull’s main chapter on Lange is very short and deals largely with the author’s recognition of his political naivety and impotence amidst the unpleasant environment created by the break-up of the working relationship between Lange and Roger Douglas. He does make one generalisation, however, that merited further discussion, which Cull unfortunately avoids, namely his final assessment that, despite Lange’s

charisma, his exceptional qualities of oratory, mind and wit …hundreds of thousands of ordinary New Zealanders would best remember him as presiding over a government that destroyed their sense of security in education, employment, health, retirement and other fields.

 

Readers will find Hensley’s chapter entitled “The Elusive David Lange” much more substantial, satisfying and provocative. Hensley makes very astute and beautifully worded observations and tells with gentle wit some absolutely lovely stories about Lange. Impressed by the Prime Minister’s “quickness of mind”, oratorical skill and sense of humour, Hensley was nevertheless ambivalent about other aspects of his personality, including his dislike of confrontation and his obsessive need for approval. Most observers would agree with Hensley that Lange “presided over his government rather than directing it”, and was, at least initially, “a warm backer of the Douglas reforms, soon termed Rogernomics, but as a public presenter rather than a detailed participant.”

Hensley’s accounts of the aborted visit of the nuclear-capable USS Buchanan, which effectively ended ANZUS; the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior and its aftermath; and Lange’s speech at Yale calling on New Zealand to withdraw formally from ANZUS, even though none of his colleagues or advisers knew he was going to do so, add to Lange’s own recollections published shortly before he died. Hensley’s summary of Lange as prime minister is a sad one: he was “a sort of political poltergeist, a restless and perhaps unhappy spirit round whom strange things happened … . He became a ghost in his own administration … a sad and exhausted man.”

Hensley’s essay on “The Last Years of Muldoon” is also full of telling observation, fascinating anecdotes and shrewd analysis. It starts with the abortive 1980 plot by the Prime Minister’s colleagues to replace him with his deputy, Brian Talboys, and ends with the devaluation crisis following the 1984 election, where Hensley does not put the full blame for the débâcle on Muldoon. In keeping with Hensley’s primary preoccupation with New Zealand foreign policy, the chapter on Muldoon looks at a number of such issues, notably the free trade (CER) agreement with Australia, the Springbok tour of 1981, and Muldoon’s crusade to reform the international monetary system.

Hensley found much to admire about Muldoon, who “had the most formidable willpower of the 10 prime ministers for whom I worked”, although he was certainly “no charmer”, but he concluded that, like Lange, Muldoon was a flawed personality.

He makes a number of perspicacious comparisons between Muldoon and Lange, such as Lange’s tendency, when he perceived a threat, to use ridicule and “get in first, not with a counter-punch like his predecessor, but with a put-down, a diversion or a distraction”. Or, when Lange complained to Hensley on one occasion about how difficult it had been in Cabinet that day when the Prime Minister had found himself in a minority of one, Hensley reflected wryly that he had “previously worked for a prime minister who regarded being in a minority of one as a comfortable working majority”.

Cull’s essays, like yesterday’s newspaper articles and editorials, which they closely resemble, are interesting and entertaining at the time of reading but they are also ephemeral and soon forgotten. Not so Hensley’s Final Approaches, which is one of the most significant memoirs written by a New Zealander and one of the most enjoyable and witty books I have read in some time. It is, as are all memoirs, egocentric, but, while not claiming to be comprehensive, is also a revealing account and assessment of New Zealand’s changing world over the last half of the 20th century and of two of its most interesting leaders during that time, Muldoon and Lange.

 

Barry Gustafson is an Auckland historian who is currently finishing a biography of Keith Holyoake.

 

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