Open letters, Tim Beaglehole

Dear Peggy: Letters to Margaret Garland from her New Zealand Friends
Peter and Dianne Beatson (ed)
Sociology Department, Massey University
$35.00
ISBN 0 95836254 8

Peggy Garland came out to Wellington in 1947 with a young family and an unsatisfactory, if attractive, husband who was often away from home. While he eventually left her and returned to England, Peggy came to play an active role in Wellington’s cultural and social life, broadcasting, sculpting, writing, and lecturing. She was a forthright woman of wide sympathies, a patient listener to the young, and soon had a growing circle of friends. When she left New Zealand in 1961 and returned to England, she stayed in touch by letter. This correspondence, together with an unpublished memoir and diaries describing her return trips to New Zealand, is now in the Alexander Turnbull Library, and it is from these papers that Peter and Dianne Beatson have compiled this book. Peggy’s handwriting was virtually indecipherable (the memoir and diaries fortunately had been typed), and it was this as much as anything that accounts for the volume being letters to Peggy.

The memoir of Wellington in the 1950s evokes a decade with more intellectual and cultural life than it is often credited with. Peggy was enthused with the promise of the new Communist regime in China which she visited in 1952 and for which she, and many others, held out great hopes. She was among the first to protest at the injustice of excluding Maori players from the 1949 All Black tour of South Africa – a country where she had lived for most of the 1920s. At home it was a time of devoted parenting of her youngest son, the intellectually handicapped Philip. There are a number of letters from this period but the interest really begins when she has left New Zealand, and friends report on what has been happening.

Does the volume work? I read the letters with enjoyment, but I knew the writers and was in Wellington during those years. I suspect a reader without that knowledge would at times be baffled (and possibly bored).  The decision not to annotate at all is puzzling. The letters are spread too thinly to give any sort of picture of the times. A few appear to have been included more for the position the writer held than for the significance of the contents. The general reader could well have been spared accounts of children and grandchildren (do they really want to know that my dear mother at one stage seemed to despair of my getting married?).

The letters also vary greatly in interest. I found John Esau unreadably tedious. Evelyn Page; on the other hand, leaps from the page large as life. If the test of a great letter-writer is to get oneself down on paper rather than – or perhaps as well as – report on the deeds and misdeeds of others, Eve passes with flying colours. Ormond Wilson, the most devoted and frequent correspondent, comes across as a more impressive mind than I had remembered, throwing his weight around and organising others as always, but a thinking man (though tantalising us with his comments on Bill Sutch).

What we have is less a picture of the times than a record of friendships among an interesting circle of people, of changing values as the writers grow older, of a measure of disillusionment (or increasing wisdom?) and the moving and inescapable evidence of a generation aging and gradually disappearing. Had the book been more explicitly conceived in this way; the objectives narrowed and, possibly, the number of letter writers reduced, it could, I suspect, have been a greater success.

Tim Beaglehole was a history teacher and administrator at Victoria University of Wellington.

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