Reviewing the reviewer
I am writing in response to the review of my book The Ambush, which appeared in the August issue of your magazine. Laurence Jenkins accuses me of “the clumsy telling of a not-very-interesting story”. Let’s take a look at his review. He states that the Nicaraguan girl was raped and murdered by Sandinistas, when it is perfectly clear on p77 that the atrocity was committed by the Contra forces, the opposing side. One wonders whether he understood my book at all. Was this error “clumsy reviewing” or sheer mischievousness?
He says certain characters are “thinly disguised copies of Maugham and Greene creations.” Well, that’s news to me. I’ve read no Maugham and little Greene, and I own books by neither. My characters might not be the greatest creations in New Zealand literature but they come from my own imagination and observations both here in Mexico and in Nicaragua, during the civil war there. I was not trying to “emulate” any “models”, but simply tell a straightforward anti-war story in a slice-of-life format.
Your reviewer says Quentin Symes is “improbably named”. Why so? I chose Quentin because it suggests the more thoughtful side of the man’s character and Symes to represent the more practical, down-to-earth side of him. Quentin also word-associates with “Question”, because he was, after all, a rather enigmatic character. The full name, to me, is no more improbable than “Laurence Jenkins”, which has the same structure – a not very common first name and a very ordinary surname.
Propagating the myth
I am concerned that you should have published a review that so badly misrepresents a book as does Russell Walden’s review of Ian Lochhead’s A Dream of Spires: Benjamin Mountfort and the Gothic Revival (August issue). I write to complain not about the factual inaccuracies in the review (inexcusable as they are) but about the propagation of a myth that has gravely distorted the study of New Zealand architecture.
The myth is that the only authentically New Zealand buildings are the simple wooden cottages and churches built by the country’s pioneers, and the later buildings inspired by or derived from these cottages and churches: the houses, primarily, of New Zealand modernism. The myth is explicit in Walden’s assertion that Mountfort’s own best buildings are his small, unpretentious, timber churches in which “everything is conditioned by the need for reduction to the barest essentials”.
It is simply absurd to say that the “real” Mountfort was the architect who designed simple country churches. The proper approach (which Lochhead took) is to look at all the buildings Mountfort designed and not try to remove from his oeuvre, or write out of New Zealand’s architectural history, buildings that do not conform to the restrictive point of view of the champions of modernism. New Zealand’s architectural history is much more varied and complex than allowed by a belief that its only interesting feature is the development of a recognisably indigenous style. New Zealand’s 19th century architects built architecturally sophisticated cities, and to pretend they didn’t is to miss the main plot.
Also disquieting in Walden’s review is his misrepresentation of Lochhead’s intentions. I read A Dream of Spires without ever detecting that Lochhead was attempting, as Walden alleges, “to convert us to the idea that … Mountfort is New Zealand’s finest colonial architect”. The purpose of studying architectural history is not to judge between architects. The false assumption that Lochhead was promoting Mountfort to belittle Thatcher leads Walden to make the snide, and offensive, comment that “clearly Lochhead does not know the serene quality of Thatcher’s work”.
My own conclusion, after reading Walden’s review, is that he does not know the sublimity of Mountfort’s Provincial Government Buildings, the originality of his Trinity Church, or the majesty of his Great Hall.