Behind the grin, Harry Ricketts

Long Journey to the Border: A Life of John Mulgan
Vincent O’Sullivan
Penguin, $49.95,

He grins out from the front cover of Vincent O’Sullivan’s engrossing biography Long Journey to the Border: A Life of John Mulgan. It’s that famous photograph, taken in Greece in 1944; Mulgan looks healthy, self-possessed, even nonchalant, in his beret and rumpled combat gear. He also looks tough, like someone who knows how to take care of himself.

Before reading O’Sullivan, I only knew the usual bits and pieces about Mulgan. There was some story about a missed Rhodes scholarship, but Mulgan somehow went to Oxford anyway, and subsequently secured a job with Oxford University Press. He fought with the Greek Resistance movement and no one quite knows why he committed suicide in Cairo with the end of the war in sight and apparently everything to live for. As for the work, I’d dutifully ploughed through Man Alone, unenthused by its conscientiously bleak view of life, not to mention the refrigerated prose. I much preferred Report on Experience, the posthumously published account of his stint with the Greek partisans.

O’Sullivan makes you appreciate, among other things, that Mulgan’s career was a pretty glittering one. He was a top all-round student at Auckland University in the late 1920s and early 30s, edited Craccum, was a member of the Student Executive, boxed, played rugby, tramped, and wrote poems – all this in addition to doing well at English, History and Greek. O’Sullivan offers a crisp summary of student life in those Depression years:

Strict sexual mores were the order of the day. Few couples went steady, ‘friends’ usually being a more appropriate word than partners. Alcohol meant beer and nothing else, and in mixed company little enough of that. University dances, which usually finished on the dot of twelve o’clock, were strictly monitored for both drink and impropriety … But women and men smoked almost anywhere they liked, outside lectures and the library …. There was little swearing; good manners were taken for granted; most of the male students wore ties; and the females had a sharp eye for inexpensive fashion.


If the life sounds restrained, perhaps a bit drab, it also sounds singularly lacking in the acute pressures from which almost all students at New Zealand universities now routinely suffer.

The Rhodes scholarship story turns out to be quite complicated. Mulgan was put forward in his second year and given strong encouragement by Lord Bledisloe’s selection committee that a further bid the following year would very likely be successful. But the next year, although again one of the student executive’s two nominees, the Auckland University professorial board did not support Mulgan’s candidature – much to the astonishment of Bledisloe, who tried and failed to bring Mulgan back into the frame, and the committee ended up making no appointment that year. O’Sullivan concludes that it all came down to politics. Though never a hard-line radical, Mulgan was always on the side of the working class, the underdog. What he saw of the Queen Street riots quickened his left-wing sympathies, and it was apparently his editorial comments in Craccum and more generally around the university which turned the markedly conservative Professorial Board against him.

Mulgan seems to have taken this unexpected set-back in his stride, and went on to Oxford in any case (thanks to significant financial help from his family), achieving a First in English. As at Auckland, he worked hard and played hard. He was lucky enough to be tutored by the poet Edmund Blunden, whom he initially thought “‘a strange, dark little man – very shy and hesitant in his speech’”, but later came to like and admire. Most of his closest Oxford friendships were with New Zealanders – the journalist Geoffrey Cox, the scholarly Jack Bennett, the serious left-wingers Ian Milner and Jim Bertram. Mulgan kept other New Zealand connections open by writing pieces on the European situation for the Auckland Star, by going to Geneva as part of a New Zealand delegation to the League of Nations, and – probably trickiest of all – by acting as his father’s literary agent-cum-editor. When Alan Mulgan complained that his son had actually rewritten parts of his novel Spur of Morning, Mulgan (in O’Sullivan’s words) “refused to be either fussed or abject” and claimed that he had simply been trying to improve Alan’s book, which he almost certainly did.

It was clear that Mulgan was a coming man and he was headhunted by the eminent Sisam and Chapman for Oxford University Press. There he quickly made his mark and was involved in two of the more controversial poetry anthologies ever published: Yeats’s The Oxford Book of Modern Verse and Auden’s The Oxford Book of Light Verse. Yeats famously excluded Wilfred Owen’s poems on the peculiar grounds that “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry”, and, among other odd decisions, Auden included “Danny Deever”, Kipling’s chilling ballad about a regimental hanging. Mulgan’s editorial role in both cases was predictably modest, given two such strong personalities, but his bosses were impressed by his competence and powers of diplomacy. He described Yeats to his father as “‘a nice dreamy old man’” and Auden as “‘extraordinarily attractive both to look at and to talk to’”.

Soon afterwards Mulgan edited a topical poetry anthology himself, Poems for Freedom, which drew on seven centuries of dissident voices and was published by Gollancz. And then of course there was his one novel Man Alone. O’Sullivan gives this (and Report on Experience) the kind of thoughtful and insightful attention you’d expect. He points out the significance of the hero’s name, “whose first syllable effortlessly linked character to author, even before one recalled that Johnson was also Mulgan’s grandparents’ name.” He trenchantly argues that Mulgan’s title (borrowed from Hemingway’s To Have and to Have Not) has been “remarkably misread” in New Zealand, the phrase becoming

[a] glib response to what is supposed to define an aspect of national maleness … It is as though the novel is assumed to celebrate Johnson’s raw struggle with land and society, and that Mulgan proposed that experience as admirably defining.


Not so, claims O’Sullivan, the novel makes the simple moral point “that without a sense of community individuals disintegrate, or survive as solitaries …. Man Alone celebrates little but survival.” Mulgan himself was typically unsentimental, coming to see the book as “quite honest but very bitter and flat and rather dull. Only half of life really, like beer without the alcohol.”

When war broke out in 1939, Mulgan (by now married and with a son) was still at the Press, but seriously flirting with the idea of a move either to Canada as a journalist or to New York working for the New Zealand government. Instead he enlisted straightaway and, like several of the poets in WWI, found that while army life could at times be monotonous and rule-bound, it did wonderfully simplify things. He also found he was very good at soldiering, and, after seeing action at El Alamein and more than a year of taking “spectacular risks” with Force 133 in Greece, he eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Then only days before the end of the war, he took that massive overdose of morphine and was found dead in his Cairo hotel.

So much for the outer man. What of the inner life? As biographers go, O’Sullivan positions himself towards the novelist end of the spectrum. He prefers to show rather than tell, to offer the evidence without too much authorial intrusion. With such an approach, there’s always a nice balance to be struck between allowing the reader to make up their own mind about a particular remark, anecdote, episode and trying to suggest how it does or doesn’t seem to fit with larger patterns of the subject’s outlook and behaviour. Here that balance is well maintained.

O’Sullivan is adroit in his placement and juxtaposition of others’ views of Mulgan. For instance, Susan Morris’ memory of Mulgan’s charismatic appeal as a student – “‘he had a light about him … you’d take a second look at him always’” – is immediately complemented and deepened by Jim Bertram’s comment on Mulgan’s “‘quiet, laconic manner’”: “’I always felt that he reacted against his father’s affable loquacity and easy fund of sentiment by affecting an almost Icelandic flair for understatement.’” Such moments work accumulatively, building up a composite portrait of someone who was never easy to read by his outward signs.

Mulgan, it is strongly implied and sometimes stated, was a secret depressive, prone to melancholy, a hoarder of his sorrows. We see it more clearly in the regular references to Mulgan’s favourite reading matter: Housman, Hemingway, Boswell and Gibbon – a reasonably sombre quartet. We see it more clearly in the carefully integrated quotations from Mulgan’s clipped letters home: “‘London is all right if you’re feeling cheerful, and I am all right now.’” And again on a postcard: “‘Life’s so damn transitory.’” O’Sullivan quietly adumbrates a repeated cycle of “feeling low, if not actually depressed”, often coming on with the start of winter. At times though he is more direct, speculating, for instance, about the driven quality in Mulgan and positing a “shadow play of sorts behind both the glamour and the hard work”:

So much had to be done, so much more to be taken on, as though to prove, and prove once again. That one had a duty to push one’s limits? That busyness in itself was an assurance that life went well?


O’Sullivan doesn’t push the point, but it’s hard not to think that women were a significant part of Mulgan’s problem, whether as symptom or cause. He emerges, in that old-fashioned phrase, as a “man’s man” (ie homo-social rather than homosexual). He was certainly attractive to women (the possibility is raised of various affairs both before and after his marriage), but he doesn’t seem to have been much good at intimacy. There’s a deeply wary streak, a distrust of clever women, which O’Sullivan doesn’t flaunt but equally doesn’t conceal. So we learn that Mulgan found Robert Graves’s niece “‘nice’” but “‘too intelligent to be good company’”. Announcing the news of his marriage to Gabrielle in 1937, he told his parents: “‘I hope this won’t worry you – I feel quite happy about it myself.’” The “quite happy” there gives a momentary jolt: he clearly means “entirely happy” but the other qualifying sense (“happy up to a point”) can’t help intruding. Wince-makingly to a modern reader, he thought Gabrielle “‘as intelligent as a woman ought to be’”.

Not long after war broke out, he packed her and their son Richard off to Canada, then (when that didn’t work out) on to New Zealand. While this undoubtedly put their safety first, it didn’t necessarily consult their happiness. O’Sullivan mentions the “hard yet compassionate realism” with which Mulgan related to his men in the army, and this kind of “realism” also seems to have typified his dealings with the world – including his marriage, which can’t have made him an easy husband. O’Sullivan quotes one particularly chilly slice of “realism” from a 9 February 1941 letter to Gabrielle, who was then in or en route to New Zealand. In the
passage, Mulgan seems both to be encouraging his wife to take up with another man and to suggest that he really wouldn’t mind if she did:

“I think what Richard needs will be men around the place. I think it’s very important, don’t know whether you could find an acting father in my absence – I should be a lousy father anyway. Do you want one? It seems sad for you to live alone, easier for men, they live for the most part quite happily in this sort of communal life that we have now, like a grown-up – not very grown-up – boarding school. It suits some of them so well that you can see they’ll never want to go back to domestic life.”


At which point you have to wonder whether Mulgan wasn’t also dropping a reasonably heavy hint about his own preferences.

O’Sullivan’s treatment of Mulgan’s “love life” is characteristic of his treatment of Mulgan as a whole. There is throughout an implicit tactful sympathy for his subject (and his privacy), and that’s an honourable position for a biographer to adopt. It does mean, however, that Mulgan tends to be spared O’Sullivan’s trademark dry humour, which is redirected elsewhere. For instance, Mulgan’s father took his own youthful poems rather earnestly – not so the reader after O’Sullivan’s quip that “when it came to ‘serious verse’, one might say [Alan Mulgan] was your man.” And a rather different light is thrown on the young Allen Curnow, then a theology student at St John’s, when we catch him helping himself to “a pocketful” of Egyptian cigarettes at Jim Bertram’s 21st. Later on, the elderly Curnow’s somewhat dismissive recollection of Mulgan as “‘rather a conventional boy’” is neatly countered by Mulgan’s deadpan remark nearly 70 years earlier that “‘everything of [Curnow’s] is taken seriously except his Poetry and his Religion.’” Just occasionally the asides take on a darker, almost Johnsonian tone, reminiscent of some of the poems in O’Sullivan’s last three collections: the comment, for example, that Mulgan was “without the touchy egotism that at times seems primarily to define writers as much as academics”.

It is logical, given O’Sullivan’s general approach, that he should end fairly abruptly with the suicide, and eschew any sustained speculation about why the 33-year-old Mulgan took his life when he did. It’s true that we have already been given plenty with which to construct our own hypotheses – his burn-out after all that guerrilla warfare, the cyclical depression exacerbated by the atebrin taken to treat malaria, his despair at the utter shambles the Allies were making of liberated Greece, his marital situation and so on. All the same I’d like to have read O’Sullivan’s views on how behind the grin Mulgan didn’t turn out to be so tough and self-possessed after all.


Harry Ricketts is working on a composite biography of a dozen WW1 poets and is co-editor of New Zealand Books.


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