New freedoms and old heritages, Shelagh Duckham Cox

Finding Connections
P J Kavanagh,
Hutchinson (distrib Random Century, Auckland), 1990, $42.95

Over half a century ago Karl Mannheim wrote in Ideology and Utopia of the western intelligentsia as a uniquely privileged caste. Intellectuals, he said, were fortunate enough to be able to find a way of prising themselves loose from their own society. They alone could become unenmeshed in its prejudices, unmarked by its bigotry, freed from its narrowness. Adventuring from one place and state of thought to another, these people could seek out their counterparts and liberate themselves through a progressive accumulation of intellectual and moral exchange. Mannheim created a seductive vision of an ideal of perpetual migration; to stay at home is to be unlucky and culture-bound. The more people venture forth the more they develop their human potential.

These days most of the successful and highly educated belong to a kind of jet-set associated with their working lives and beneath the impetus continually to go elsewhere there lies, I suspect, a view of the world not far removed from Mannheim’s. To-ing and fro-ing is a part of the life of any professional who wants to be taken seriously in New Zealand. In a land of settlers, with the vast upheaval of Pakeha immigration never more than five generations back, an inner readiness to uproot is endemic anyway. Mannheim’s vision has become reality for the privileged few.

But new freedoms have a nasty habit of being more complicated than they first appear. It has taken time for the people Mannheim called the unattached intelligentsia to begin to discover the price they pay for the power to detach themselves. Students get overseas scholarships and fall in love while they are away. Academics go to the best job that’s offering and find when they want to go home that their children have put down roots in a new land. The home that stays so steady and unchanging in the expatriate’s imagination doesn’t stay that way in fact: parents die, siblings change, friends move on. The diaspora of intimates means that primary bonds are not only stretched to their limits but they also change their nature. A sense of belonging becomes a prize to be gained.

The search for that prize means finding connections. Most Pakehas, living in a new country, look for a sense of connection to the old world. Patrick Kavanagh starts from the other end. From Britain he travelled to Australia and New Zealand to trace his emigrant forbears and their descendants. His great-grandfather went to Tasmania in the 1840s and moved on to the Auckland area in the 1860s, his grandfather spent his life in New Zealand and his father lived here till he went to Britain as a student. His father was Ted Kavanagh who gave up his medical studies, wrote the hugely popular wartime radio comedy ITMA and took refuge in jokes when his son asked him about his New Zealand background. Patrick Kavanagh himself came to Australasia in 1988 when he was in his 50s. His book is a chronicle of the journey he took to find out about his links with these people.

The tricky disconnections hanging loose in the attic of his mind, as he puts it, led Kavanagh to start by travelling from Gloucestershire to Carlow in Ireland. There, he says, in the place where his forefathers had been just about forever, he felt unusually at home. As the ‘wild Irishman’ who had never been to Ireland (his persona at his English school), he had already leapfrogged in imagination over the unknown Australasian part of his heritage and into his Irish legacy. In satisfyingly real form he found in Carlow the connections his inventive powers had already half made for him. He discovered his family went back to the Catholic clerical aristocracy and felt in the air around him the spontaneous side of his nature – friendly, ardent, instinctively religious, bucking authority. An incident from the town’s past helped him see himself more clearly. The Rising of 1798, of peasants against landlords, Catholics against expropriating Protestants, poor people armed with pikes against authority armed with muskets, evoked a response which he saw in terms of the conflicting aspects of his personality. He was metaphorically on both sides of the Rising, his Englishness seeking order and the imposition of authority, his Irishness passionately rebelling.

Kavanagh’s self-discoveries in Carlow are taut with the tension of opposites and rounded with acceptance of them. Early in the book the shape of the Australasian journey he is about to make is foreshadowed: it will consolidate a nature already, in Mannheim’s sense, creatively detached from a single limiting world-view, already enlarged enough to integrate opposing influences. And it will fill the gaps left by three generations of migration away from home.

His Australasian journey is to find connections. There are moments when his imagination is kindled as it was in Carlow, when he is – in his own superb phrase – still warm with old roots. But mostly his methods don’t work. Once he gets to this end of the world he makes untenable generalisations about national characteristics using snippets of experience; he comes to strange conclusions, for instance, about the way Pakeha, Maori and Islanders get on with one another. He gets sidetracked into secondhand history and writes at length about the convict settlement of Tasmania though his great-grandparents weren’t convicts. Genealogical research is obviously a trial to him and, when he does at last come up with new facts about his forbears and his newly discovered extended family of New Zealanders, they seem to lack significance for him.

He’s disappointed in New Zealand: ‘I realised I had half hoped for a place of freshness and innocence retained, of bronzed young people from the New World who might be able to cleanse and revitalise the Old’. Instead he finds the country a blank, its people inheritors of an emigration of greed for land, and pervading everything the absence of metaphysical man. He laughs at himself a little but only a little when he describes sitting in a pub in Ponsonby in his tweeds reading a book a priest has lent him called God Became Man and retreating when a Tongan offers to go and get his sister for him. He makes extraordinary discoveries about his father and his father’s brother while he’s here, but he doesn’t appear to be any more affected by them than by the other links he finds in a land he sees as disenchanted.

Kavanagh’s journey has not been planned to risk up-ending the central Irish-English image he established at the outset. New Zealand, like Tasmania, is a place en route from the Patrick Kavanagh who left Carlow in 1841 to the Patrick Kavanagh of nearly a century and half later. The later Kavanagh says he feels he belongs nowhere but gives the impression of having found his sense of place before he sets off.

In short perceptive bursts Kavanagh writes about his own disconnections and his failure to find the connections he expected. But he doesn’t get inside the complexities that his quest was bound to throw up. He remains a Mannheimian figure, unattached, belonging nowhere in belonging both to Ireland and England. Coming to the antipodes, he expected to complete the picture of his heritage by filling in the three generations before his own. It turned out to be much more complicated than that. But Kavanagh refuses to be disconcerted. He spares himself the uncomfortable knowledge of New Zealand as a real country that has formed his father and grandfather before him. He distances himself from muddled and scattered family connections in a place and amongst people he doesn’t much like. He comes here as an Irishman who has always lived in England, and that’s how he leaves this country and how he writes his book.


Shelagh Duckham Cox is a sociologist and writer.


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