Chance is a Fine Thing
In his preface to Chance is a Fine Thing, Philip Temple – writer, mountaineer, campaigner, explorer and historian – essays a distinction between memoir and autobiography.
The latter, he writes, while ostensibly grounded in verifiable fact, may simply be a more long-winded myth; memoir should stick to mythos. He goes on to say what his book is not: it doesn’t relate in detail the time he has spent as an adult outside New Zealand, nor is it the literary memoir he hints he may yet produce.
Instead, in a startling piece of genealogical legerdemain, he calls his book the myth of the ancestor he is becoming. This remarkable statement seems to prefigure a Temple whakapapa in his adopted country, with himself as origin and source, and is made in explicit contradistinction to those who might contest the author’s right to call himself a New Zealander. His book, then, is an account of how he came to be who he is.
It is thus appropriate that family matters are one of Temple’s central concerns here; another is his own career path, which, it turns out, is not really distinct from the family nexus: in his myth of himself, his is a movement away from the frustrated ambitions of a dominant mother towards a long delayed adulthood and, paradoxically, the achievement there of one of his mother’s thwarted dreams: to be a writer.
That movement away is where the book begins, in a church in London in the mid-1950s as the awkward, shy yet determined teenaged youngster discusses with the curate his intention to sail to the other end of the world, a ten-pound Pom, and invent another life in New Zealand. It ends with his investiture by the Governor-General, in 2004, as an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit: a triumph, like the numerous triumphs narrated in the second of the book’s five sections, as mountains are, not without strenuous effort, not without accident and risk, knocked off.
The distinction between autobiography and memoir, summarised above, seems to me incoherent, given that only long-windedness separates the two; but the focus on mythos – the interrelationship of values, structures and historical experiences of a people, usually given expression through the arts – is more interesting. Temple’s is a personal mythos: how he found a substitute for his lost family among New Zealanders. As such it is situated persuasively, if conventionally, in relation to New Zealand society in the second half of the 20th century.
When he arrives in Wellington in mid-1957 to take up a job in a firm called Technical Publications, his early attempts to make his way are narrated in a context provided by, on the one hand, Louis Johnson’s editorship of the New Zealand Poetry Yearbook of 1957-58; and, on the other, the election of the short-lived Nash Labour Government; with the masculinist rugby, racing and beer culture as a vague yet pervasive background.
He has the dubious distinction of twice becoming lost in the bush while tramping in the same period: a reprise perhaps of his childhood habit of running away from school. He later abandons poetry but has remained politically active, to the point of being one of the foremost proponents of the current electoral system in his adopted country.
His conquering of the outdoors has already been mentioned and he was, unusually for a writer, for three years an instructor at Outward Bound. He went on to become features editor on The New Zealand Listener, and writes an illuminating account of Alexander MacLeod’s post-Monte Holcroft stewardship of that magazine. However, he chooses not to discuss, or even mention, his other editorial term of duty, in the early 1970s, as associate to Leo Bensemann at Landfall.
Mythos in this sense is analogous to self-portraiture in painting. Temple’s deliberate omissions suggest a painter’s selection of background elements before which to place the portrait. He chooses politics, national identity, the natural environment, family and the writer’s life as his frames, and the result resembles a Michael Smither-like super-realist figure before one of Rita Angus’ synoptic landscapes. But self-portraiture is difficult, particularly in writing, and without the support of verifiable fact can prove very slippery indeed.
I often think, in this connection, of my own mother’s autobiography: celebrated at the time of its publication and since as a compelling account of the kind of life led by her generation of women, I can only ever find it a partial and highly contestable version of events that I experience quite differently.
Temple starts out to take a good hard look at himself, without illusion, without the fondness for self that might distort his version. He is very good on the dysfunctional family background out of which he came and also provides a satisfying revelation of certain mysteries towards the end of the book. I was a bit shocked, though, by his lack of sentiment in the (separate) resolutions of his relationships with the odd triumvirate of adults who determined his early years: his mother, his step-father, his biological dad.
He is less forthcoming about his own intimate and familial relationships, and this is a limitation of the book. Perhaps a necessary one: for who these days would write, without prejudice either way, a candid account of a failed marriage when both ex and children are still living? Nevertheless, when Temple decides, after a trivial flare-up over an absent sachet of marmalade, that his marriage of 20 years is over, I had no real idea of what kind of relationship was ending nor how it might have reached such a desperate pass. Until that moment there hadn’t been a word of complaint from, or about, either party.
Such unheralded omissions undermine the mythos he has set out to construct. The author portrays himself, perhaps inadvertently, in a zone of uncertainty, straddling an uneasy border between public man and private individual. He is open and engaging, never less than interesting, often fascinating, in his accounts of his public life; but the private man is revealed only occasionally and never in full.
There are other problems: despite his intention not to write about the time he has spent overseas, he does give a bare summary of his extraordinary exploits early in his career as a mountaineer and scientist (in West Papua, at Heard Island and elsewhere in the Pacific); and his long, late-life love affair with the city of Berlin is sketched also without much detail being offered. I regretted these absences.
One reason for such circumspection may be that Temple is a professional writer and has survived, indeed flourished, freelance for about 40 years. This outstanding achievement has, I suspect, led to a canny husbanding of resources. There is a 2002 memoir about the West Papua experience of the early 1960s; there are two recent novels set in Europe; those of us who want to know more are referred, implicitly, to these. Nor is he averse to quoting from his other works.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this habit but the results here are sometimes unedifying; as when he describes his experiences in Menton by reproducing some of what he calls a faux journal published in the early 1990s.
Self-portraiture in words has a way of escaping the portraitist: what he omits may come to seem more crucial than what he includes. Readers these days (I don’t think earlier times were much different) tend to want at least the illusion of full disclosure. A robust disclaimer is perhaps one way to defeat this expectation; a coy half-reveal will only disappoint.
Indeed, it may be here where autobiography and memoir part company: the former taking account of verifiable fact for the public record, the latter exploring the ambiguous contours of self and other. Philip Temple has led a remarkable life, one of courage, determination and high achievement; but he does not seem to be a natural introspect. In his preface he both admits to and absolves himself of the charge of solipsism; this might have been a fuller and more satisfying read had he, at the outset, decided that vexed question one way or the other. As it is, I was left with the disconcerting feeling that the author knows more than he is telling.
Sydney-based Martin Edmond’s Zone of the Marvellous, is reviewed on p25.