A rare breed, Michael Morrissey

The literary politician. Sounds faintly implausible? Like a ballerina plumber or a crocheting bricklayer? I am referring of course to the politician who writes poems, novels or plays rather than the politician who is a mere apologist, pamphleteer or self biographer (the latter are now as common as unpruned privet bushes).

Believe it or not Politicus Literatus does exist, or, rather, used to exist, for the “beast” was more evident in the nineteenth century ‑ when it was no shame for a man to draft legislation as well as verse ‑ than in our own more utilitarian age.

One of the earliest examples of the genus was C C Bowen (1830‑1917) who became the colony’s first Minister of Justice in 1874. Bowen’s rise was meteoric ‑ he was provincial inspector of police at 22, provincial treasurer at 24 and minister at 34. His somewhat less scintillating rise as a poet had one fruit, Poems (1861). In his introduction to the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960), Allen Curnow described Bowen’s longest poem, “The Argonauts”, as “too diffuse and spiritless” and therefore included “Moonlight in New Zealand”, which successfully comingles anxieties about death and a sombre lyricism about the moon:

But, thou pale moonlight, thou hast naught to tell

Of past or present or of future life.

Thou pointest ever to the cold damp grave,

Or to the bones that bleach beneath the sea.


Alfred Domett (1811‑1871), New Zealand’s only Prime Minister‑poet, (though not, alas, its only author PM) is remembered as the author of New Zealand’s sole traditional verse epic, Ranolf and Amohia: a SouthSea Daydream. Ranolf’s reaction on glimpsing our national flightless bird is rendered thus:

Some furry three‑legged thing ‑ no tail ‑ no head ‑

Fixed to the ground ‑ a tripod! ‑ how amazed

Was he to find when serpent‑like it raised

Long neck and bill, and swiftly running fled,

‘Twas nothing but that wing‑less, tail‑less bird

Boring for worms ‑ less feathered, too, than furred ‑

The kiwi ‑ strange brown‑speckled would‑be beast,

Which the pair hunted half the day at least…

Let us hope that Domett was more gifted at politicking than poetry. While his eminent poet friend wrote in praise of this tedious epic in a private letter, Curnow sardonically comments that the praise was “in (perhaps significantly) very general terms”.

Thomas Bracken (1843‑98), an Irish‑born champion of the underdog and twice a parliamentary seat holder, will always be honoured as the author of “God Defend New Zealand”. Though the most popular poet of the nineteenth century, his “National Anthem” is the only work by which he is remembered today. His other famous poem, “Not Understood”, was also widely known among New Zealanders long after his death.

Edward Tregear (1846‑1931) was Secretary of Labour in the Seddon Liberal Government of the 1990s and worked with William Pember Reeves toward a more enlightened attitude concerning workers and employment. While never a great poet, his best work has a haunting, melancholic reflectiveness:

Swift from the central deeps the lightning flew

Piercing the heart of Darkness like a spear,

Hot blasts of steam and vapour thunder’d through

The lurid blackness of the atmosphere.

A million years have passed, and left strange quiet here.

Reeves (1857‑1932) was a New Zealand‑born Renaissance type ‑ statesman and sportsman, journalist and poet. Elected to Parliament in 1887, he became first Minister of Justice and Education, then of Labour. In 1894 he introduced the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act which provided a liberal and socialist basis for worker and employer relations. Though principally remembered for his classic historical meditation on New Zealand, The Long White Cloud, Reeves published four volumes of verse. One of his most notable poems is “A Colonist in his Garden”, in which the narrator ponders the option of turning back “To England, life and art”, while residing among “the vista where the blue / And white‑capped mountains close the view”. Curnow ironically noted that by the time of writing these lines Reeves had already turned his back on New Zealand.

Julius Vogel (1835‑99), who was Prime Minister twice in the 1870s and famous (if not notorious) as a great borrower, wrote one novel, Anno Domini 2000, or, Woman’s Destiny, a ponderous but remarkably prophetic work. The uncharming Mr Fish (who got a lot of bad press in suffrage year for opposing women’s franchise) scathingly declared hi Parliament that Vogel’s book, “pictured to us countesses and duchesses ‑ for we are going to have that sort of people ‑ going into governments with men. We are also told in this book that we are to have cruisers flying about in the air at the rate of 50 miles an hour and dropping down on their opponents in the most extraordinary manner that ever man or woman could conceive. It is the book of a dreamer, and I can only say, with reference to the man who has taken such a part in the history of this colony, that his brain must he getting rather soft that he could write such rubbish.” Poor Mr Fish ‑ he certainly could never have anticipated helicopters, stealth bombers or Helen Clark.

Towering over all literary politicians is possibly the last ‑ at least to date ‑ John A Lee (1891-1982). A gargantuan figure, Lee was a rebel firebrand who was evicted from the Labour Party in 1940 but stayed in Parliament as an independent for another three years. He had already written three novels, the most famous of which was Children of the Poor (1934), greatly praised by Bernard Shaw. He wrote seven more novels, the most recent of which was The Politician (1987).

He also wrote many memoirs of a political and get‑even-with‑old‑opponents nature which make juicy reading. One notable anecdote related to how, despite Sir Ernest Davis’s wealth and swish limo, the more handsome John won the favour of a young woman over the influential businessman. Lee had the advantage of a long and active life and this enabled him fully to explore the two seldom cojoined careers of novelist and politician. I remember Lee attending a PEN function in his eighties and he still cut a robust figure, his orator’s booming voice clearly audible over the buzz of fifty or so lesser mortals.

In more recent times we can observe the intriguing phenomenon of the man of letters who has tried his hand at politics ‑ an allied but distinguishable category from the literary politician. The most outstanding example was Sir Keith Sinclair, poet and historian, who ran for the Eden seat in 1969 and won it by 35 votes only to be narrowly defeated when the special votes were counted. Perhaps his defeat was a blessing in disguise. As Eden has been one of the most swinging seats in the country, the professor’s income may also have swung with the political tide.

Peter Simpson, a senior lecturer in English literature, who had been a staunch campaigner for the Labour Party for many years, decided to stand when Ann Hercus resigned her Lyttelton seat in 1987. He won the nomination and the seat but lost it in 1990 by 68 votes, leaving him without a job. Simpson knew there was no job security in politics but opted to take a calculated risk. “No one,” he says, “could have anticipated the stockmarket crash or the resignation of David Lange which sent the Labour Party into a tailspin from which it has never recovered.” Being an MP was very challenging and exhausting ‑ frequently Simpson would clock up 80 or more hours a week. The thousands of pages of correspondence and submissions that must be read over demand a highly honed skill in deciding what is relevant. “You develop a passionate relationship with your rubbish tin,” says Simpson. Simpson, now an associate Professor of English, says he will keep his options open henceforth.

The most recent captain in these tricky waters was Auckland poet Alister Paterson who campaigned in the new Henderson seat for the Alliance. Polls before the election showed Paterson gaining ground on both National and Labour candidates but Labour won.

Paterson has always been interested in politics and had already gained political experience at grassroots by serving on a large number of committees of a variety of organisations. “As a writer, I had a social conscience,” Paterson says. “I have always been disturbed by the monetarist policies which express a blind and unsubstantiated belief that if some segments of society are rich then others will somehow benefit. I believe a writer should stand up and fight ‑ and be political. If you’re not political then you have opted out of society. Any good writing is subversive and tells unpalatable truths ‑ which is being political.” He is “considering” the possibility of future political activity.

And what of women literary politicians? To date, none. But who knows? Let us, in delicious fantasy at least, imagine Anne French running for Parliament (she would make an excellent Minister of Defence), Marilyn Waring writing a novel, (reminiscent of Iris Murdoch perhaps), or Helen Clark penning a Petrarchan sonnet. It can only thicken the broth and make more tasty the stew…

And for the future? Keep your eyes on that Thomas Bracken of the radio without pictures, Sam Hunt. Should he stand for Parliament, there is little doubt he would romp in. Watch this space.

Michael Morrisey is a shortstory writer, poet and critic.

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