Letters — Issue 88

 

London flat

Sue McCauley’s review of Fiona Kidman’s Beside the Dark Pool (NZB Spring 2009) slides over the chapter on the London flat purchase with vague dark nods of acceptance and approval and without questioning the facts. For me, Kidman’s account (p161) of Minister Michael Bassett eagerly on the brink of authorising the purchase of the island house for writers (accessible by rowboat or, as Fiona suggests, “motorboat”) and only deterred (“reddening a little”) by noble Fiona pointing out that she cannot speak for all writers and there must first be “consultation” – this is not just fiction; it is fantasy. And if it were true, why the subsequent fuss when the consultation (which certainly did occur) produced a result Fiona didn’t like or want? Either one end of her story, or the other, has to be untrue; or her behaviour has to have been inconsistent and contradictory.

I hope anyone interested in this sad exemplary tale will read both her account (pp159-173) and mine (pp323-4 and 325-9 of Book Self). Even if at the end of that reading you believed every word of hers (difficult, I think), you would still be left with the stark fact that without her efforts, and the efforts of those she rallied behind her, New Zealand writers could still be in possession of a flat in London, now worth at least half a million pounds sterling. That is why in Book Self I reported observing her, on a recent occasion in Paris, not, as she says, “with contempt” but simply with wonder that she had been honoured “for services to New Zealand literature”.

C K Stead
Auckland

(abridged)

 

Weighing the evidence

In NZB Spring 2009 there were two responses to my review of Paul Moon’s This Horrid Practice: one of them (from the author) claimed that the review was unfairly harsh; the other suggested that the review did not go far enough.

According to Moon, I stated that his “book used no Maori records of cannibalism”. He must have misread the review. I said that “Moon’s evidential sources are almost entirely reports and eye-witness accounts from Europeans and Pakeha.” This is a fair and accurate description of the book. On the other hand, Moon exaggerates when he claims that “the book is laden with direct quotations from many Maori … giving their statements on cannibalism.” These quotations are rarely direct; they are generally hearsay reported by 19th century explorers, adventurers and colonists. No matter how “meticulous” he is, Moon’s “high probative standards” cannot make those intermediaries disappear or transcend their acts of translation (linguistic or cultural).

I don’t know whether to agree with Paul Morris’ suggestion that Moon is engaged in wilful misrepresentation of Obeyesekere for polemical and rhetorical purposes. It is true that Moon’s work is tinted by his antipathy to some contemporary theory, and that he enjoys setting up a straw man. But, in this book, Moon displays a strong moral prejudice against cannibalism, which may also have coloured his treatment of Obeyesekere.

Moon has suggested that I had “made up my mind about the book well before reading it”. Actually, his book received a careful and unprejudiced reading. Any lack of warm enthusiasm in my review may have had something to do with the qualities of the book itself.

Andrew Fieldsend
Wellington

(abridged)

 

Limestone overture

Although Ruth Nichol has written an appreciative review of Fiona Farrell’s Limestone (NZB Spring 2009), she struggled with the novel’s highly original opening chapter. As with any overture, chapter one provides subtle foreshadowing.

Unlike the insecurity inherent in volcanic landforms, the ancient reef of limestone on which the narrator/character was raised stretches like a long bone “running the length of a narrow island”. She is preoccupied by the resilience and durability of both limestone and bone. What need is she addressing, the reader wonders, in seeking out limestone edifices and caverns throughout the world, while noting the way they are inscribed by traces of human life from past ages?

In the context of “millions upon millions of years”, the significance of human error is diminished. Concentration on a vast geological time-frame and appreciation of natural wonders could be a way of dealing with remorse and suffering, the nature of which may be revealed in the chapters to come. Focus on the life of a stoical character can be anticipated, one who seeks solace in “the beauty that lies in the accumulated detail of small insignificant lives”.

Judith Dell Panney
Ashhurst

 

By the book

Hilary Stace’s review (NZB Spring 2009) of John E Martin’s Parliament’s Library: 150 Years is as enthusiastic a gallop through this new book as was the book itself’s canter through its subject. But the calibre of New Zealand Books surely calls for a rather sharper assessment – does this book really record the full story of the Parliamentary Library? Objectively, it does not: and, given its school-jubilee-type genesis, that is perhaps not surprising.

Much seems to have been based on in-house GAL sources, giving an “inside looking out” perspective. Fuller use of 1980s files from both the SSC and the National Library might have revealed more about the often-thwarted efforts to achieve the intended benefits of the National Library’s 1965 founding statute and to clear away distractions from a first-class parliamentary information service. At various times through the twentieth century the GAL was considered for a parent role of the state-owned Turnbull Library, the National Archives, and the Country Library Service (CLS) – and in each case this option was rejected by the decision-makers. Unease about the capabilities of the GAL in the 1930s even had it and the new CLS both housed in Parliament Buildings but with the heads of each still reporting separately to the Clerk of the House. All this deserves rather more scrutiny by the historian. Where Martin does focus, the result is good history; his recognition of the modernising achievements of the rather too self-effacing David McIntosh (Chief Librarian 1971-72) is well overdue.

Alan Smith
(Deputy National Librarian 1982-89

(abridged)

 

Reproof

As a sometime proof-reader I was a bit alarmed to see in NZB Spring 2009 that in my review of the Ann Shelton catalogue the references to the Rotoroa rehab centre central to her project had been changed to “Rotorua”. I also noted in Sue McCauley’s review of the Kidman memoir that the writer Lauris Edmond had been multiplied to “Edmonds” twice. Dear, dear.

Peter Ireland
Auckland

 

Request

It’s great when one of our writers achieves some measure of prominence overseas. Poet and printer Alan Loney’s work, both of the pen and of the press, has actually given him a higher profile in Australia and North America than at home. I am undertaking research for a biography of Alan and his place in New Zealand’s wider book culture and would very much like to hear from anyone with anecdotes, information, or letters that could assist. Of course confidence is assured if necessary.

Paul Thompson
Wellington 

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