Hard-edged social realism, Vincent O’Sullivan

The Shining City
Stevan Eldred-Grigg,
Penguin, Auckland, 1991, $24.95

Once upon a time there was the working class. It lived in wretched houses, did boring jobs, spoke with a consistently vulgar vitality, and as a sort of class badge, said ‘we was’ instead of ‘we were’. And if mum had a mouth like a berserk buzz-saw there was, presumably, a heart of gold in her somewhere, even if no-one ever saw a glint of it. All that was before the affluent society and a novel ago, in Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s Oracles and Miracles. Part of the nostalgia for below-stairs, working-class forebears was that the rich were equally in uniform. They talked posh. They lived in baronial mansions. They condescended something dreadful. And although they stuck to each other with a kind of genetic cement, occasionally they married down, which is perhaps the oldest move of romance. One of them did that at the end of Oracles and Miracles. Roddie Carrel, of the vastly-acred Trecarrel estate, married his girlfriend, Fag, for love. They were last seen doing rather well in trade, a Labour-voting, hard-working scion of the gentry, with his busy, intelligent, but already neurotic young wife.

Something happened to them between that novel and this which is never explained. But Fag has reverted to type, become a grubby housewife, had too many children, still reads Voltaire on the side, but talks as working-class women are meant to, with untidy grammar and vigorously basic metaphor. One of her sons is handsome and clever and sexually predatory from his teens. One of his cousins, through his paternal aunt, is even more clever, not as handsome, and gay from his teens. This novel, set once more in Christchurch, that shining city of the plains, is concerned primarily with sex, and how to get more of it; with money, and how to keep most of it; and with local class gradations which seem to dominate Christchurch far more than they do any other New Zealand city.

I didn’t actually count, but there are probably more acts of sex of various kinds in this novel than there are cups of tea in Jane Austen’s Emma. Male genitalia loom so large one has difficulty in remembering the faces in front of them. But the effect is curiously unerotic, even when British royalty makes a quick guest appearance. This is possibly because, à la Christchurch again, the kind of young people Eldred-Grigg attends to find it so difficult to separate sex from money, pleasure from social position. Did the Bank move for you, darling? is a question one waits to hear. But beyond the couplings and uncouplings of this sexual shunting yard, young gay Christopher, and young mostly straight Ashley, also pass through several political phases and emotional dilemmas before leaving the country on university scholarships. Several of their friends and erstwhile lovers leave on scholarships as well, or on family money, although any serious intellectual commitment, apart perhaps from Christopher’s, has really to be taken on trust. Possibly this is meant to show that to those who have much, even more shall be given ‑which of course would not surprise either the characters or their author.

As always with Eldred-Grigg, there is a clear political slant, an instinctive siding with the underprivileged, yet a certainty that the rich continue to come out on top. It is an instinct which fuels his desire to write hard-edged social realism. What happens, however, is that realism is tailored to make certain lines of emphasis more apparent than they might otherwise be. Hence workers have to he made more obviously working-class, and the privileged that bit more stereotyped in their arrogance and their views. Eldred-Grigg’s observations may be no less astute, and no less just. But it does mean that his depictions are parodic, that he moves into a genre which is no longer realism, and where, because two-dimensional clarity is thought preferable to three-dimensional subtlety, there is not much room for discernible irony. When young Christopher, for example, who has always had a hankering for down-market Sydenham, moves into that working-class suburb, and renovates what was, unknown to him, his aunt Fag’s childhood home, the situation is richer in ironic possibilities than is ever attempted. Or how much self-awareness is there when the young Marxist explains his taste in men? ‘I wanted guys who had never been near Cashmere or Fendalton, but nor did I want louts or labourers. I wanted tradesmen, skilled workers, clerical workers, the better kind of working man.’ You see what I mean in saying this is neither realism nor satire. It is opting for the broad stroke that remains content to be simply that. Oh for a little touch of Forster in the night!

But Eldred-Grigg survives these reservations in one important respect. Whatever the strengths of New Zealand writing, it has never concerned itself much with exactly what class means in a society that so often still pretends it doesn’t have any. In looking so closely at class in Christchurch and Canterbury, Eldred-Grigg is offering what is most clearly apparent to an outsider in that strangely insulated society, and most solemnly observed by those on the inside. And there are few New Zealand writers so firmly committed to a particular place, I’ve no doubt he shall come back to it again, with even more vivid scenes of provincial life.


A longer version of this review was broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in September 1991.



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