Letters – Issue 29

War diaries

I would like to clarify certain aspects of my Angel in God’s Office as reviewed in your June issue.

Immediately after the war we returned girls accepted what was expected of us — to “settle down”, as was the phrase, support our husbands, have babies and forget that we had ever had a life of our own. When we met we recalled light-hearted episodes, just as the returned men did and still do.

The thought of being in Gaylene Preston’s “War Stories” film was quite terrifying to me and initially I declined to be a participant. Later I changed my mind, recognising that what Gaylene was doing was important in our country’s history and also that I was too old now to care what anyone thought of what I said as long as it was true.

Your reviewer states that “we are told diaries were impossible to write”. Assuming she means by men at war, for security reasons serving soldiers were of course limited in this way. Employed at two NZEF administrative headquarters in Italy and not in the front line, I kept extensive diaries, filling four foolscap-sized books of 200 pages each. Sections of these were used as a basis of my contribution to the film.

In writing my book I sat at my word processor turning the pages and took from them what I wanted. I included dialogue to make it more readable and less indigestible than many autobiographies I have read. In making decisions as to what to include and what to omit, the answer was to omit almost everything and almost everyone. Therefore I concentrated on what the most important events in the experience of serving overseas in wartime had been for me and the people who were most important within that experience. My reactions to the experiences and the effect they had on my emotions are fully recorded day by day in my diary.

Although I still have my four hand-written volumes, after the war I typed out all of these and had them bound, and on each page today are photographs relative to the date, some of these of sorely-affected Italians, an aspect of which I was very much aware and write of in my book. There are also opera programmes, words of songs we sang, letters and poems from all sorts of people, excerpts from German papers, hand-written messages from our GOC, General W G Stevens, Christmas Day menus, the Thanksgiving Service, etc

My book is no memoir, as your reviewer says it should be described. With such a diary I had no need to rely on memory, although those times are imprinted indelibly on my mind and always will be because the circumstances were so major and so catastrophic. And if I smiled at times as I sat at my word processor writing with the typewritten tome on my knee, just as often I wept.

In passing, I wonder why the book was reviewed under the heading “Biography”, which it isn’t, and not under “War”, which is what it is about. Your reviewer says that what I wrote about most convincingly was not about the war by about myself. Of course I wrote about myself, one New Zealand girl as she played her part serving in a war. Those four word “serving in a war” should not be overlooked. Indeed, they were the very reason for writing the book at all.

Neva Clarke McKenna


Pulling punches

Hey, fair’s fair! We appreciate the fact that NZ Books is active in generating literary debate and pulls no punches in the ring and we are more than ready to face up to fair criticism.

However it was disappointing to see that in her review of Takahe, Lydia Wevers, clearly overwhelmed by a flood of seven back issues, emerged, sodden and gasping for breath, to rattle off a hasty review which in  fact contained substantial errors.

Her sweep began with Takahe 23, published spring 1995, and ended with 29, published January 1997. (We are actually now up to 31 and proud of lasting the distance!)

Apart from spending an inordinate amount of time on our subscription form, which may be a rather oddly worded document but has certainly never claimed to be a poem, a short story or a cultural esssay and thus deserving of a critic’s full attention, Wevers complains of our failure to integrate poems and prose, failing to notice that we started this as long ago as Takahe 27.

She also refers to Sarah Arnold as editor, meaning presumably Sandra Arnold who retired from that job three years ago, and lists Jim Norcliffe as an editor when the dear man resigned and ran off to Brunei two years ago just to escape such a fate. The names of current editors and other members of our collective are printed on the first page so these errors are a bit ominous. Did the critic not even make it that far in her reading?

Surely it would have been better to have handled one recent edition accurately as being of contemporary interest rather than grabbing a fistful of ancient history. Our mission remains that of encouraging and publishing new writers. How good it would have been to have had an insightful response to the actual work within our covers, both the written and the visual, rather than a skim read which got stuck in the cosmetics of production.

Bernadette Hall
Poetry Editor: Takahe

Editor’s note: The errors are regretted. The intention of such a review is to assess the periodicals and their contribution to literary publishing, rather than a detailed assessment of the work published by the periodicals, though of course some reference to that work is relevant and included.


Not so superior

“Formidable scholarship and no damned nonsense”, says Nicholas Reid, of Jessie Munro’s The Story of Suzanne Aubert. Well, I missed one piece of nonsense, which poked fun at the Daughters’ black riding breeches, their “Aubert jeans”, (though aubergines aren’t on the list of vegetables grown at Hiruharama). The term certainly isn’t as common as the Dominican gulls of Rangitoto, but survived into the 1950s, for example at Hata Paora, Feilding, and has resurfaced in the limerick:

You should try, for a cheerier Kyrie, a
Trip to the nuns up at Peria.
Their aubergines make them curvier
And, praise be, when they serve yer,
They’re much less mother-f…ing superior.

J H Bentley
Waihi Beach


C K Stead

The June issue of New Zealand Books contains a tiny enigmatic statement tucked away at the bottom of the page that “Legal considerations have discouraged us from reviewing Villa Vittoria by C K Stead”.

Are these “legal considerations’ to do with Villa Vittoria itself? Or with previous interactions between the journal and Stead?

And your readers are told that these considerations have “discouraged” you from reviewing the novel — not “prevented”.

Are we not entitled to a little more information?

Geoff Walker
Publishing Director, Penguin Books (NZ) Ltd


C K Stead’s Villa Vittoria has been safely reviewed by most other relevant organs in the country. Surely it is possible for New Zealand Books to find a reviewer capable of writing a fair and penetrating review of a book by one of this country’s leading writers without falling into personal innuendo.

Jenny Jones

Editor’s note: Both letters have been abridged. There is no personal innuendo. This correspondence is closed.

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