Retreating from success, Julia Millen

After the Fireworks: A Life of David Ballantyne
Bryan Reid
Auckland University Press, $44.99,
ISBN 1869403274

David Ballantyne’s life in many ways represents the Kiwi dream. Boy from cash-strapped, part-Maori, provincial family, with minimal schooling, through talent and hard work becomes a successful journalist, television scriptwriter and novelist. Frank Sargeson described Ballantyne in 1944 as “one of our great hopes”, a prophecy fulfilled when Ballantyne’s first novel burst “like a display of springtime fireworks” onto the New Zealand literary scene. Yet in 1970 Ballantyne called himself a “writer who never really made it”, and 18 years after his death, he is remembered – if at all – only for two novels, The Cunninghams (1948) and Sydney Bridge Upside Down (1968).

Comment has been made in recent years on the grey dullness, the puritanical conformity of New Zealand life in the early to mid-20th century: partly the effects of the depression (no money) and the war (no boys, no toys). Perhaps also this impression comes from society’s portrayal in the more literary novels of the period, including that of Ballantyne. In sharp contrast is Ballantyne’s journalistic career and private life as recounted by lifelong friend Bryan Reid: they started as cadet reporters at the Auckland Star on the same day in 1943.

Born in 1924, the oldest of five Ballantyne children, Dave, according to his aunt “got all the brains”, not to mention huge talent and ambition. What with the economic depression and his father’s illness, the budding writer grew up in a financially disadvantaged family. On the plus side Dave enjoyed the benefits of the sunny East Coast climate with easy access to the beach. When Ballantyne senior died, the family moved to Auckland. Dave was forced to leave school without “matric” but with a reasonable standard of literacy; he was published at age 12 in a regional newspaper. Initially, he failed to get work on a newspaper, instead doing a series of menial, low-paid jobs, which fuelled his socialist leanings and provided copy. His early writing appeared in various popular, left-wing outlets (film reviews for The People’s Voice) and one or two literary journals.

Called up at 18, Dave’s army service was cut short by ill health. A pity in a way – though not emphasised in the biography. Military service provided Kiwi survivors among the slightly older writers with rich material: consider Dan Davin, Guthrie Wilson, M K Joseph, Gordon Slatter, Errol Braithwaite. Ballantyne instead belongs emotionally with the younger generation of “serious” writers who flourished after WWII: Bill Pearson, Ian Cross, Noel Hilliard, Janet Frame, O E Middleton, Kendrick Smithyman.

Wartime New Zealand was suffering a massive labour shortage, and Ballantyne eventually succeeded in getting work on the Auckland Star. Bryan Reid provides fascinating insider’s memories of the cub reporters’ apprenticeship. He also records Ballantyne’s ambition, rapid advancement and adaptation to the lifestyle, especially the pub culture. At the same time Reid noted that his fellow cadet was reading widely (Ballantyne admired Jane Austen but deplored the “shadow of Katherine Mansfield” in New Zealand literature), writing short stories and working on a novel.

Ballantyne befriended the old maverick politician and writer John A Lee, and as his short fiction became better known met other Auckland writers, finding a soul mate and drinking buddy in Maurice Duggan. Regarding Sargeson, for his part Dave thought (rightly) that Sargeson was middle class. He admired the contemporary American writers and began corresponding with James T Farrell.

In a bid for financial independence, Ballantyne applied for assistance from the State Literary Fund (supported by unpublished excerpts of The Cunninghams). This brought direct confrontation with the New Zealand establishment. Chairman Pat Lawlor expressed the committee’s reservations about the novel’s sexual frankness, bordering on “pornography” and, in the view of Ballantyne, attempted to thwart payment of the £100 grant.

The Cunninghams was finally published in 1950 to considerable critical acclaim, especially in the US, and won the Hubert Church Award (prize five guineas). Sales were modest, however, and New Zealand reviewers tended to damn with faint praise. The author for the most part dismissed and distrusted their comments, especially those of academics. Professor Robert Chapman’s review in Landfall was “pontifical crap”.

Ballantyne completed several more full-length manuscripts (now residing in the Turnbull Library) but for 15 years, apart from short fiction, remained unpublished. He maintained with some justification that New Zealand publishers were prejudiced against him and that his material was misunderstood: “No New Zealander has written about the people that I write about.”  A dilemma faced by Ballantyne was that while New Zealand publishers thought his writing “crude” and influenced by Americans, the Americans saw his colloquial style as “foreign”. The drought was broken by The Last Pioneer in 1963. Regarded as more amusing than The Cunninghams, it was neither a commercial nor critical success.

After meeting Ballantyne in 1944, Sargeson remarked prophetically: “God bless him and save him – particularly from journalists and journalism”, presumably implying that the daily grind of reporting on council meetings and boxing matches would sap his creative energy. And,
according to Reid, Ballantyne was torn between journalism (providing income, discipline and camaraderie) and the financially unrewarding task of writing fiction. “To hell with trying to live on writing,” he complained in 1949, while five years later Ballantyne was perversely irritated at speedily landing a job in Fleet Street: “I’d rather hoped I’d be pushed out of journalism.”

Hungry for literary success, recognition and financial independence, Ballantyne’s ambitions never included settling down in middle-class suburbia. Money was a perennial issue mainly because Ballantyne was a serious, even “problem”, drinker. Though he was image-conscious and well-dressed, Dave never owned nor drove a car, and it was only under pressure from Vivienne, his long-suffering and devoted wife, that the Ballantynes eventually bought a house. Even then Dave refused to waste money on fittings – too middle class. Reid does not record whether he ever owned a lawnmower – the ultimate symbol of Kiwi suburbia.

As Reid points out, Ballantyne remained loyal to his working-class origins. And compared with the realistic but overpoweringly drab lifestyle of his best-known fictional characters, that of David Ballantyne is revealed almost unconsciously by Reid as colourful, bohemian and enviable. Journalism was a tough, vigorous world which, along with inevitable routine drudgery, contained creativity, variety and excitement; off-duty it encompassed the largely male New Zealand culture of convivial pub sessions and rowdy parties.

Reid is less expansive when it comes to assessment of literary influences and legacy. It would seem that Ballantyne’s book sales were modest, financial gain minimal. The question of popular acclaim and contemporary analysis is an aspect of Ballantyne’s novels which is touched on but could have been explored in greater depth. Reid notes C K Stead’s 1979 article deploring the neglect of Ballantyne (though The Cunninghams was reprinted and is now regarded as a classic), but fails to follow up and ask the question, why?

It would have been rewarding to make more of the relationship with Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Reid mentions wild weekend sessions with Morrieson in Hawera and comments on the two writers’ shared provincial background and fondness for liquor. He could have added that Sydney Bridge Upside Down appears also to owe a debt to Morrieson whose The Scarecrow, published five years earlier, was described by critics as “Gothic”. Ballantyne claimed in a letter that Sydney Bridge Upside Down, the major novel of his late period, was “meant to be a Gothic joke”. What it lacks, however, is the bizarre humour and direct appeal of the Morrieson novel.

Ballantyne’s life was messy – like that of most people – and it’s the biographer’s task to give it shape and coherence. Reid’s insightful “life” is marred by occasional loss of narrative flow and balance in the welter of detail, laboured wordiness in such journalese phrases as “among those present”, “he was assigned to”, and sexism: the young woman in Sydney Bridge Upside Down is described as a nymphomaniac, while a Sue McCauley review is “silly”. From a biographical viewpoint, Reid is most interesting when assessing an aspect of Ballantyne’s character described as “retreating when success seems imminent”. In that period there was something fundamentally “unKiwi” about “showing off”, “skiting”, and striving for recognition – a New Zealand character trait which seems to have completely and remarkably disappeared.

Notable in this regard, according to Reid, is Ballantyne’s return to New Zealand in the midst of a successful career in London. Yet if he had not, would he have written the later novels?  I’m thankful that Reid has resurrected this remarkable but little-known Kiwi author in such a thorough and absorbing way, and especially for revealing another side of New Zealand life in the 1940s and 1950s. The freewheeling, hard-drinking habits of the old-style newspaper reporters, in this fanatically health-conscious era, may appear self-destructive but also immensely enjoyable. Though in the end it was the smoking not the drinking that killed Ballantyne in 1986. He died of lung cancer at the age of 61.


 Julia Millen is a Wellington writer and reviewer.


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