The gang of five, W H Oliver

Dance of the peacocks: New Zealanders in exile in the time of Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse-tung
James McNeish
Vintage, $34.95,
ISBN 1869415647

This is an engaging and readable book. James McNeish tells a multitude of stories about a number of New Zealanders who spent much or most or all of their adult lives overseas – many more than the group of five specified in the introduction. Their stories tell us about their responses to the circumstances which shaped them – their families, upbringing, friendships, countries of origin and adoption, experiences of war and peace. They were intellectuals whose talents enabled them to work in many countries and many professions and gave them opportunities for adventure and advancement. Most never quite lost a New Zealand connection. A few, in a sense, did not really leave; wherever they lived and whatever else they did, Davin, Mulgan and Brasch constantly had New Zealand on their minds.

Dance of the peacocks is almost wholly concerned with the expatriates as individuals and hardly at all with the ways in which their lives might illustrate the history of their country. The author chose to write it that way and he does so very well. He constructs a supple and intricate narrative that winds its way from one character to another, from one grouping to another and through a complex series of events. After being given so much, it might seem churlish to ask for something more – to wish that the author had drawn back and reflected a little on the significance of the stories he tells.

The habit of leaving the country and seeking satisfaction elsewhere has been a persistent feature of New Zealand life since the beginning of colonisation. McNeish’s use of the word “exile” to characterise an episode in this history, both in the subtitle and throughout the book, seems to me inappropriate. (Nor can I see anything but an inflationary device in dragging Hitler et al into the subtitle.) Exile is a fate inflicted upon people and self-exile a way of avoiding some pending misfortune. It is hardly an apt word for people who went overseas and stayed there of their own free will. Probably they saw New Zealand as drably unrewarding and Britain as full of colour and of opportunities. That is not a matter of exile but of expatriation.

There is little room for anything of this kind here, even though it is a lengthy book. People, it is said, were “exiled by their scholarship” and their “fight for recognition, out of the great loneliness of being a New Zealander”. “Alienation”, we are told, “was the New Zealand condition” – perhaps these days, one could read “human” for “New Zealand”? A warden of Rhodes House, after a brief visit, says that “returning Rhodes Scholars from New Zealand are not wanted”. Jack Bennett considers that few returned to New Zealand because “there was nothing there”. Davin notes that in the 1940s “there was no choice but expatriation” because New Zealand, unlike the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa, had no “academic base”.

I am not sure what McNeish means by “the great loneliness”; it is a plangent phrase but it cries out for elaboration. “Exiled by scholarship” is more accessible; young New Zealanders have always acquired skills here which could best be fulfilled elsewhere. But that is no more than half the story; it matters as much that they did in fact gain those skills here. What was it about education in Eltham which set Ronald Syme on his distinguished path – or Rutherford in Nelson and Hodgkins in Dunedin?

McNeish’s own comments prompt useful questions, but the remarks he quotes are less helpful. Were the Rhodes Scholars not wanted, or did they not want to come back except at too high a price? Bennett’s comment is particularly shallow. There might have been little scope for his kind of English studies but that is not quite the same as “nothing”. Davin, for his part, seems not to have noticed that those countries blessed with “an academic base” were then, and remain, amongst the world’s busiest expatriate-producers.

And, to fill out the context a little more – at the risk of reviewing a book the author did not write – these are countries, like New Zealand, to which people did in fact constantly return, sometimes after lengthy intervals. There are many people, just as talented and sometimes more so, who returned during and after the time of McNeish’s “exiles”, and greatly to our advantage – Harold Miller, John Beaglehole, Fred Wood (ex-Australia), William Morrell, Keith Sinclair, Angus Ross, Neville Phillips and Peter Munz, in the field of history alone. Expatriation, let alone exile, is not and has not been the common destiny of New Zealand intellectuals. Those who stayed away did so for their own reasons and to serve their own interests; expatriation and return are each determined by circumstance, opportunity and, above all, choice.

The decision to go and often to stay is influenced (“determined” would be too strong a word) by what people perceive as the limitations of life in New Zealand, limitations arising from such factors as distance, isolation, immaturity – the country’s “unfinished” character. Such pressures were felt as especially powerful around the time the people in this book left for the other hemisphere; they are still to be reckoned with. The Encyclopedia of New Zealand of 1966 contains a 30-page entry on “Expatriates” consisting of an essay by Ngaio Marsh and dozens of brief biographies of people living in almost every country from China to Peru. There has been a tendency to dismiss this entry as colonial cringe, arising from a need to find reassurance in the success of our boys (more than our girls) overseas. That may be so, but the entry also reminds us that expatriation was a major characteristic of New Zealand life; it is not done with yet.


Of the five men around whose lives this book is built only one, James Bertram, came back for good. Another, John Mulgan, probably would not have returned had he not committed suicide. Two died full of years in their adopted countries, Dan Davin and Ian Milner. And the fifth, Geoffrey Cox, enjoys (or did at the time of writing) a ripe old age in Gloucestershire. Four were Rhodes Scholars and Mulgan, arguably, should have been one; all went to Oxford. These characteristics are used to identify a “group”; it might be thought a somewhat contrived construction, but it works well enough as a centre around which to assemble the experiences of the expatriate host.

The group might just as well (or better) have been one of eight rather than five, so extensively do Jack Bennett, Charles Brasch and Paddy Costello figure in the book. Many more appear at some length and in quite important ways; in the third part of the book they threaten to take over. Here we find the “New Zealand mafia”, which played quite a part in Oxford English teaching and research – Kenneth Sisam, Norman Davis, Robert Burchfield and Don McKenzie, with Pip Ardern as the man who, unlucky enough to return to New Zealand, early in the century, started it all off. The group of five has been left well behind and of the additional three only Bennett was a member. More, the stories spread beyond the “mafia”; Ronald Syme is prominently there; Jon Stallworthy and J B Trapp appear from time to time. It is all a bit haphazard – and at the same time most entertaining. I suspect that McNeish gathered so many stories in the course of his strenuous (and rewarding) labours in two hemispheres, in libraries and archives and through interviews, that he could not bear to leave them out.

These labours have produced a readable and at times an absorbing book, full of colour, character and incident. From a multitude of episodes I would note, as especially poignant, the accounts of the last few years of three of the group – Davin coping with his self-inflicted wounds, including the knowledge that they were self–inflicted; Bertram contriving to continue with dignity and self-possession a life from which, we are encouraged to believe, he felt that the meaning had departed; Milner, perhaps the most admirable, bearing the pains of calumny and persecution and keeping his diverse loyalties intact. As one would expect, McNeish writes confidently about their motives, ambitions and inner states of mind; he puts to use his skills as novelist as well as his labours as historian. He has drawn upon many sources, published works, unpublished letters, diaries and memoirs, transcripts of interviews.

There is an abundance of references to these sources, but McNeish limits their usefulness by following a wretched convention in setting them out. The endnotes are attached to a phrase from the text or a quotation and listed under page numbers. These tag-phrases, in some of the instances I have checked, may come from mid-paragraph or mid-sentence or even mid-quotation. That is one difficulty; the other is that one does not know as one reads a page which items are accorded a supporting reference. There is a simpler more efficient way of giving references and that is by using numbers and attaching the information to them, either as footnotes or endnotes.


Most of the people McNeish writes about are treated with sympathy and perception. But I cannot say this of two I knew quite well. Charles Brasch is more than once referred to as “timid” (together with other belittling phrases such as “maiden aunt”); surely no-one who knew him, at least from the 1940s on, would agree with that judgement. The word “timid” occurs twice in what appears to be a quotation which may refer to his Waitaki days. It reads like a bit of doggerel: “Charles was timid/Jack was forgetful/James had aplomb/But Ian had God.” There is nothing in the references to identify it; if it is not a quotation, one wonders what sort of game the author is playing.

James Bertram is treated with greater respect. But there is one curious passage in which, through quotations from the unpublished typescript which became Capes of China slide away, his sexual initiation is described, first during the rail journey across Siberia and then (more successfully) in China. McNeish comments: “Some puritanical editor, surveying Bertram’s original manuscript, appears to have emasculated him.” But that kind of self-exposure in a published book is the last thing one would expect from such a private man. If there was such an editor, it would surely have been Bertram himself.

There are quite a few errors, some small and some not so small; taken together they suggest a less than thorough acquaintance with New Zealand history and habits. Pip Ardern was not entirely unrecognised and had a book published by the New Zealand University Press (as well as one by Cambridge); there were many fewer than 800 English students at Victoria in 1947; first year New Zealand students were “freshers”, not “freshmen”; Otago was not a “University College”; Brasch did not return to England “primarily” to teach in a school; the “average New Zealander” was not, at least in my recollection, “anti-Soviet” in 1943 (Stalin was still a hero); New Zealand universities did not appoint to “assistant-professorships” (there was no such rank); Landfall was not so named to “commemorate” Brasch’s return to New Zealand but after a Curnow poem. Finally, though not a New Zealand matter, G D H Cole was never a head of house in Oxford.

Further, McNeish is over-anxious to believe that he is rescuing his heroes from undeserved obscurity. I doubt very much if Mac Cooper is “a forgotten New Zealand export” (he was featured in a New Zealand portrait gallery exhibition only a few years ago); Sisam was hardly “quite unknown”, at least to those concerned with English literature; for quite a number, I am certain, Davin was not “invisible and forgotten” by about 1950 and did not need to be saved from a “literary limbo” by Bertram’s book in 1983. None, of course, are household names, but that is hardly to be expected. It is, surely, the case that they enjoyed the repute and respect, within New Zealand, that their abilities and activities merited. We are not exactly dealing with the likes of Colin Meads and Ed Hillary here.

These defects do no more than detract a little from the value of the book. It remains a tribute to the author’s energy and skill and also to his sympathy and enthusiasm for the people whose lives he has successfully put into a fresh perspective. That it may prompt argument and dissent, as it has in this review, is a tribute to its quality.


W H Oliver is a retired Wellington historian who more than once sought to become an expatriate and is glad that he did not succeed in doing so.


Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category