John Mansfield Thomson: Notes towards a Biography
ed Margaret Clark with Jim Collinge and Martin Lodge
Steele Roberts, $39.95,
Those of us who crossed paths with John Mansfield Thomson, and there are legions, inevitably came away from any encounter with the man feeling mysteriously enriched in some way. The contributors to this really unclassifiable collection of encomium essays, letters and brief homilies, have in common the message that their subject was rather other-worldly, and that a light that for many years burned brilliantly has gone out, and we’re all the poorer for it.
Margaret Clark must be thanked for stirring up Thomson’s admirers, acolytes, assistants and close friends, and producing what may be the closest thing possible to a biography of a man whose eclectic contributions to the cultural life of Europe and Australasia put him in a category all by himself. Like many valuable people, Thomson would not be forced into any mould, and this very individuality would be impossible to capture in a conventional biography. So, possibly, reading the words of his friends and admirers is the only way those who weren’t fortunate enough to fall within that circle of light will ever know what the fuss was about.
Margaret Clark was aided in this labour of love by Jim Collinge, who directed the Stout Centre for Research at Victoria University in the late 1980s, and by Martin Lodge, composer and also one of those acolytes I referred to above. This formidable team has seamlessly arranged a body of words about their friend and mentor by some of the most respected and famous names in music and letters in New Zealand and in Europe. The list is staggering. Some wrote reams, some only a few heartfelt words.
The most unusual in form is by “Asclepius” and titled “Oriflamme”. Six pages of print contain five vertical lines each of a poem chronicling a life, with many classical references and much high-flown, if ironic, language. It concludes with a curious reference to Grimm.
The finest contribution by far is from Peter Phillips, the very able conductor and founder of the choral group The Tallis Scholars and now proprietor of The Musical Times, one of the oldest and best music journals in the world. Theirs was a loving and very close bond which began in Phillips’ youth. He says he adopted John as his “father” though he was aware at the time that his older friend was in love with him. The keen insights into what motivated the older “gent” and the affectionate way Phillips describes their on-again-off-again friendship make possible the sharpest portrait in this book.
Phillips doesn’t shy away from highlighting the difficult aspects of John’s extremely complex character but is able to reconcile them with the loving and generous side. He cites the “seismic upheavals that so disconcerted everybody and constantly threatened to make enemies of his friends” and John’s other more endearing qualities such as his “sensitivity of a child towards mood”. Their own friendship suffered a hiatus of 20 years, broken only when Phillips sent John a book he’d written, whereupon the gates to reconciliation were cautiously opened but soon flung wide, and once back in the charmed circle, Phillips stayed.
John’s musicological mantle was an unofficial one, because his real interest was in design and print, his fields of expertise. But he, like so many other super-intelligent people (Margaret Mead, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell) who would otherwise have been called dilettantes, achieved a high reputation – in his case as performer, historian, art collector, editor, publisher and writer in addition to gaining the respect and devotion of musical scholars and performers alike. All this was accomplished as the by-product of an inquisitive and active mind, completely independent of, and sometimes in spite of, the tight milieu of academe, and chiefly because the owner of that mind always ignored any obstacles in his path. Roger Hollinrake, living in Oxford in 1971, when John arrived on the British musical scene to stay, puts it this way:
John’s progress – indeed his very survival – had always been a source of wonder. Viewed from outside, his position was extremely precarious … Lacking – even avoiding – a conventional role, he improvised a way for himself with remarkable facility, adhering less to a premeditated strategy than to the workings of a responsive and seemingly infallible intuition.
The composer Benjamin Britten was, in his world, very Thomson-like. An outsider because of his music and his sexuality, Britten saw in Thomson a kindred spirit. The story of their brief and, for both, rather tragic association is told by Hollinrake and others in the collection. It was down to John to retrieve a manuscript at auction that the great man wanted. Unfortunately, no ceiling was put on what could be spent, and Britten was aghast at the price. Not a major obstacle to friendship, but Britten had cut people from his circle for far less, and so Thomson fell forever from grace.
A happier note is struck by Jennifer Shennan in discussing John’s impish sense of fun manifested in his skill as a caricaturist and his admiration for the master of the art, Hogarth. The works on which John’s reputation as a writer and musicologist turn – A Distant Music: the Life and Times of Alfred Hill 1870 – 1960 (1980),The Biographical Dictionary of New Zealand Composers (1990), and The Oxford History of New Zealand Music (1991) – overshadow his Musical Delights, a cavalcade of cartoon and caricature (1984), which The Times called “one of the [year’s] best books of humour”. Shennan relates how she came across a copy in London on a sale table, could only see the title, grabbed it up thinking “John would love this” only to discover on closer examination that he had written it himself.
One name is conspicuously and unfortunately absent from the list of contributors, and that is Lauris Edmond’s. It was through Lauris that I actually came to know John, and her devotion to him in his last days was moving. Photographs of the two together are sprinkled through this volume (the photographs included are almost as valuable a memoir of JMT as anything in the text), and hers would have been an appreciative and informative account of her own slant on her friend. Sadly, by the time this project was born, Lauris was gone.
The book is, even without her help, one of the most satisfying things of this sort I’ve ever come across. I shall return to it time and again to reinforce my own memories of the divine, elegant and unique experience of knowing such a person. It could, as far as I am concerned, have had the title JMT rules, ok.
Laurence Jenkins is an arts columnist and reviewer living in the Far North.