Letters — Issue 39

Memorialising an institution

Maurice Goldsmith’s review of my book, Heathen in Godzone: Seventy Years of Rationalism in New Zealand (March 1999 issue), makes some valid points. He is quite right, for instance, to point out that several important questions remain unasked in this book. The failure to ask these questions, he concludes, makes the book “a memorialising of the institution rather than a history of an intellectual movement in New Zealand”.

Again, Mr Goldsmith is correct. The point he ignores, however, is that Heathen in Godzone is only claiming to be a memorialising of an institution. I state in the Preface that “[t]his book is not an intellectual history, but the history of an association, and of the people who have constituted that association.” I go on to claim that there is a need for this bald narrative account before any intellectual history of Rationalism can be attempted.

Had Mr Goldsmith noted my comments here and gone on to say that they were inadequate as the foundation for the history of an institution, or that the book would have been better served by an analysis of the intellectual history involved, then a reasonable criticism would have been made. As it stands, Mr Goldsmith’s review condemns the book for failing to be something it clearly states it is not.

Bill Cooke
Auckland

 

Getting the Governors right

Tom Brooking’s review of my book Hobson – Governor of New Zealand (June 1999 issue) seems to have missed the point about this biography, while exposing much about his own methodological peculiarities. My intention was not to produce a sanitised, politically correct account of Hobson’s governorship. This was one of the main reasons why I avoided the plethora of recent texts on the Treaty that Brooking insists are so important. After all, Hobson did not have the benefit of these texts during his rule.

My approach in dealing with Hobson’s rule was to consider the events and issues he encountered from his perspective – as though sitting behind his desk. Thus,  while Brooking berates me for allegedly being naïve about the threat of the New Zealand Company to Hobson’s authority, the Governor’s own feelings on this danger were very real, and ought not to be discounted simply because of the benefit of hindsight.

Similarly, in reference to my supposedly rushed treatment of the Treaty of Waitangi (I devoted a mere 40 pages to events surrounding its signing), it is important to recognise that historians should be able to couch events in their appropriate historical context, and avoid crafting their accounts according to some current political preference.

As Brooking may have observed, there was a heavy emphasis on primary sources throughout this biography. This produced a book on Hobson that was not merely an amalgam of other books but a reconstruction based on the available documentary evidence from the period. While this may not be glamorous enough for some reviewers, it results in a more faithful representation of the subject of the biography.

Paul Moon
Auckland

 

How delightfully easy it is for academic reviewers to write other people’s books for them after the event! What a shame that Tom Brooking disapproves of the rapid narrative drive and “old-fashioned” nature of my biography of Sir George Grey – To Be A Hero, reviewed in the June 1999 issue!

My commission was to write a book, limited to about 120,000 words for reasons of accessibility and pricing. I also had a strict deadline. Unlike James Rutherford back in the fifties, I could not afford to spend twelve years on the task even if I had wanted to. I met my deadline as a professional writer must, and in doing so I actually neglected none of the aspects that Tom rather carelessly chides me for omitting. I simply chose not to confuse my essential narrative by straying down paths that I suggest ought to become the territory of younger academics with dreams to fulfil and time on their hands. I made choices about structure and emphasis, and choice – I must remind Tom – is a fundamental of both art and life. I do not apologise for the choices I made, any more than I imagine Rutherford did when, in a vastly different era of publishing, he chose to linger over his over-long, repetitious and often stylistically ponderous series of interconnected theses on Grey the Colonial Governor.  He, I think, wrote for an exclusively academic readership. I, certainly, did not. I also happen to consider narrative to be of the utmost importance; and I am neither ashamed nor apologetic about being labelled “old-fashioned”, although I am curious (but only very mildly) to know what Tom means by the expression.

Also, I must strenuously protest about Tom’s condemnation of what he coyly terms my “gossipy, even salacious, speculations” on Grey’s marriage. If he confuses my strictly factual account with “salacious gossip” I can only shake my head sadly at his incomprehension and unworldliness. I think I was, indeed, rather brusque with the generations of gossipers about Grey. If Tom can’t see the importance of that tragically disastrous marriage to the slow disintegration of Grey’s personality and its subsequent effect on his public behaviour, I suggest he seek enlightenment from some of the more worldly members of his circle.

In my Introduction I confidently predicted that my own, the fifth Grey biography, would by no means be the last. I eagerly anticipate what Tom and younger academics produce to supplement and flesh out the narrative I have provided for this generation of New Zealanders – too many of whom seem to judge Grey solely by an appalling but long-remembered TV series and too few of whom have any clear and accurate sense of our history.  Mercifully, some outside Tom’s charmed circle have been busy for some time. For example, Donald Kerr of the Special Collections, Auckland Public Library, is well advanced on a major study of Grey the bibliophile.

[abridged]

Edmund Bohan
Christchurch

 

I was surprised at Tom Brooking’s reviews of the Grey and Hobson biographies. I too have read these works but was drawn to very different conclusions.

Edmund Bohan’s biography of Grey is written in a robust fashion, revealing more about the personality of this enigmatic Governor than any previous biography. Moreover, Bohan is a master of the deft phrase, and succeeds in conveying the essence of his subject’s character as well as the environment in which he operated.

Moon’s biography of Grey, in contrast, is a truly classical piece – rigorously researched, and written in an elegant yet compelling style. It opens up the gritty nature of political life in early colonial New Zealand in a way that at times is almost palpable.

Perhaps Mr Brooking was seeking to find some current political angle in these books, and if so, this would explain his disappointment. Both Bohan and Moon are to be congratulated on their efforts to convey the 19th-century world of New Zealand into the present.

Michael Cooke
Auckland

 

Whose Magpies?

In the June 1999 issue of New Zealand Books, C K Stead notes in his review of the recent Denis Glover biography that Gordon Ogilvie thinks Louis Johnson‘s “Magpies Among Pines” alludes to Glover’s “The Magpies”. Stead considers Ogilvie’s reading of the Johnson poem an error. However, in James K Baxter’s The Fire and the Anvil: notes on modern poetry, a similar comparison is made between the two poems. In “Symbolism in New Zealand Poetry”, Baxter suggests that “[I]t may be that the phrase ‘new, ironic ballad’ echoes Glover’s poem, ‘The Magpie’ [sic], in which the song of the magpie provides an anvil chorus to social, economic, and personal disaster. Like Glover, Johnson presents a situation in symbolic terms and does not argue about it.” This suggests that Ogilvie could be justified in thinking that Johnson’s “Magpie and Pines” (which Stead incorrectly titles “Magpies Among Pines”) could indeed be an allusion to the Glover poem.

Mark Pirie
Dunedin

 

Degrees of transformation

John McCrystal’s review of my novel To Each His Own  (June 1999 issue) strikes out across “difficult”, even “perilous” “terrain” where the long plains of autobiography lift into the slippery slopes of fiction. This terrain has been heavily traversed just lately, for which the girlish have been ill-prepared.

Metaphor aside, those who venture over such terrain need to be sure they carry the right mental equipment. Are they reading fiction, the stuff that supposedly comes just from the imagination, as Frame coyly prefers; or disguised autobiography in which only the names have been changed to protect the innocent? André Brink has said, “Writing is a dialogue with the self, and with the forces that shape the self, from the closest and most intimate relationships to the deepest social and cultural ones”. This defines the autobiography that is always the source, but which must be transformed by the imagination if it is to be fiction. Is discussion of any particular work really about the degree of transformation and, if so, how does anyone other than the author really know? And does it matter anyway?  Knowing something of the “forces” that have shaped my “self” may help a reader or critic understand the sources but this is only moderately useful in understanding the “dialogue” Brink speaks of. To go too far beyond the terrain of a presented text runs the risk of wandering into thickets of assumption, gossip and innuendo and seriously distracts from an accurate reading.

I have no quarrel with John McCrystal’s review but would point out that I did not go to Berlin in 1987 to “study German explorers” and my stepfather crewed on Halifaxes not Lancasters. Small details one may think, but indicative of the perils that can arise from any attempt to transpose directly an author’s biography into his fiction. There is great intellectual peril in assuming, for example, that my stepfather is like the Jack of my novel or – as the sticky-beaks want to know – that the “closest and most intimate relationship” between Martin and Uschi developed the way it did in autobiographical “reality”. In case anyone has missed it (though McCrystal has not), the novel attempts to explore political and philosophical themes that have long been of deep interest to me, through the medium of personal relationships. This is one transformation, at least, that validates the book as fiction. The only parts of the novel that can be described unreservedly as autobiographical description are every single physical location.

When John McCrystal writes that the novel is “a journey into very perilous terrain indeed”, I assume that he means, at least partly, the territory of sexual politics.  In this context, a senior male writer told me once that he felt there were “certain things one shouldn’t write about”. And there is an evident tradition of Pakeha male heterosexual writers treading carefully in the area of sexuality, with the same kind of guilty pusillanimity that is found in the area of race relations.  We remain uptight at whichever end of the century we place ourselves and greet the millennium with a new conservatism of which feminist conformism is a pillar.

This conservative state is exemplified by the recent Montana fiction short-list that showed a safe preference for rieslings or chardonnays rather than the full-bodied cabernets on offer, let alone the odd shiraz. In this climate, I may have indeed journeyed into perilous terrain but this is, as every explorer knows, the only kind of journey worth attempting.

Philip Temple
Dunedin

 

Prominence or eminence?

I am both perplexed and dismayed by some of the comments made by Miles Fairburn in his review of Volume IV of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in the June 1999 issue, especially by the version he gives of the Dictionary’s selection criteria and practices. I had a good deal to do with the formulation of these criteria; they were set out in the introduction to the first volume and have been followed throughout the series. Your reviewer has radically misrepresented them and his criticisms are likely to mislead your readers.

Early in his review he notes the Editor’s statement that readers may find some of the people they are looking for in the previous or in the forthcoming volume. Had he acted upon this advice in compiling his lengthy list of people who have been “excluded”, he would have found three-fifths of them in Volume III. In all, around three-quarters of them are either in that volume or will be in Volume V; one of those he names was alive at the time the volume was prepared and is still alive. The claims of the remaining half dozen are at best debatable and in some cases slight.

On the basis of this fictitious list of  “excluded” people, he charges the Dictionary with “cutting down space that otherwise could have been allotted to important people”. This statement surely implies that they have been left out of the Dictionary as a whole. After all, your reviewer does not argue, as he might more reasonably have done, that these people should be in this volume and not in another.  He appears, rather, to be unaware that a large majority of them are to be found in the preceding volume.

Their placement in the earlier volume is a consequence of the way the “floruit” principle has (in fact but not as misrepresented in this review) been applied by the DNZB. It has not employed, in this volume or in any other, what your reviewer calls “the ‘highest point of the career’ rule” in deciding when individuals “flourished”. Nothing in the Editor’s introduction justifies this formulation – and as your reviewer puts this phrase in quotation marks, he seems to suggest that he is quoting her words. The rules and criteria that obtain for the whole series were set out in the introduction to the first volume. Its opening sentence notes that “flourished … here means ‘first made a mark’”. Your reviewer has invited your readers to believe that it has been used in a way which, if it were true, would have lent some credibility to his erroneous assertion that important people have been excluded.

His charge that the Dictionary has practised what he calls “positive discrimination” is based upon this fictitious account of alleged exclusions. In the introduction to the first volume it is stated that “As well as for eminence on a national scale, the people in this dictionary have been chosen for their standing within less extensive milieux, for their representativeness and for the balance their presence will give to the volume as a whole.” There is no need for him to “suspect” anything in the nature of a covert anti-elitist conspiracy; the programme has been clear at the outset.

That programme has indeed led to a more numerous presence of the kinds of people, including Maori and women, who have traditionally been treated in earlier publications of this kind in a way that one might fairly characterise as “negative discrimination”. But it has been done by broadening the range of criteria upon which people were selected, not by replacing elitist with egalitarian criteria, as your reviewer supposes. Positive discrimination implies the exclusion of some people to create space for others; this has not occurred.

In the Introduction to the first volume it was recognised that national biographical dictionaries are essentially “elitist” in character (though the word was not used). It was decided, however, to look for “eminence” not only on a nation-wide scale but also within localities, groups and activities. Significantly, your reviewer uses the term “prominence” to make his point; this is not at all the same thing as “eminence”. To make this point more clearly: James Cox, the labourer upon whom he wrote so well in Volume III, was not in the least “prominent” during his lifetime, but your reviewer’s research discovered and demonstrated his “eminence”. In general, his “nonentities” will be found to have a comparable eminence within their particular contexts. A good example of such a context, one that will here serve a double purpose, is nursing, a profession in which eminence was more readily achievable by women than in teaching.

These basic errors misrepresent the volume under review and do a disservice to your readers. The list of the “excluded” does not show that some (of importance) have been left out so that others (of no importance) may be let in. The accusation of  “positive discrimination” is groundless. Your reviewer – it is saddening to have to say it of so notable
an historian – has not taken the trouble to be adequately
informed.

W H Oliver
(Formerly General Editor, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography)
Wellington

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