Cheery beery male bohemia, Julia Millen

The Bookmen’s Dominion: Cultural Life in New Zealand 1920-1950
Chris Hilliard
Auckland University Press, $34.99,
ISBN 1869403622

Pat Lawlor’s “bookmen” or “frothblowers” were middle-aged men identifiable and, in a way, isolated not by such things as flamboyant attire, but by their work: journalism, scholarly research, librarianship or publishing. In pre-1950s, sport-dominated New Zealand, while some forms of writing were tolerated, respectable men did not generally admit to “scribbling” poetry, painting in oils or doing anything remotely artistic. Lawlor’s “cheery, beery, male bohemia” provides Chris Hilliard with a splendid cast of eccentrics to focus on. Lawlor and mates like Alan Mulgan and O N Gillespie indulged in such pursuits as collectively writing an – unpublished – detective novel entitled Murder by Eleven (featured in Maurice Gee’s The Scornful Moon).

Hilliard explores Lawlor’s efforts on a wider front to establish a lively “bookish” culture in New Zealand. Active in the founding of PEN (now New Zealand Society of Authors [PEN NZ Inc]), he initiated the 1936 Authors’ Week, setting up a 16-man committee chaired by Sir Harold Beauchamp (partly because he was Katherine Mansfield’s father). In such activities, Lawlor’s “bookmen” operated as a cultural power base influencing the course of New Zealand writing, in part distinguished by amateurishness, a prissy puritanical morality, Victorian taste in poetry, and patronage of women writers. Fairburn, Curnow and Glover, along with others of the younger generation of writers, regarded New Zealand literature under the Lawlor regime as “precious, flowery, sentimental, socially naive and out of date”. In their eyes, the “bookmen” were “dead wood that needed to be cleared away” before the young male “nationalist” writers could start building a “genuine New Zealand literature”. Novelist David Ballantyne, who experienced Lawlor as an obstructive gatekeeper controlling access to the State Literary Fund, agreed with Sargeson and Curnow that when the power wielded by the “bookmen” was broken, it was not only inevitable but long overdue.

New Zealand historical writing, as Hilliard details, though not part of Lawlor’s sphere of influence, was in an equally parlous state: relegated to gifted and dedicated amateurs like James Cowan, Johannes Andersen and Lindsay Buick. Hilliard shows that some of what passed as New Zealand history, and was written within a university setting, was mere retelling of frontier tales. He notes that some amateur historians were educated men like Horace Fildes, who had retired very early. He could have added that, during the 1930s depression, early retirement was enforced by government regulation. It happened to my own grandfather, a former inspector of native schools with an MA degree, who from retirement at age 56 spent his time translating and recording Maori oral history. As Hilliard shows, a fully academic approach to history only came about with the younger academics, notably Beaglehole and Sinclair.

Hilliard has written what amounts to a homage to Pat Lawlor as a key figure in New Zealand literature, whose contribution has not been adequately acknowledged. He reinforces his case by showing Lawlor’s promotion of women writers. As can be seen by the membership of the Authors’ Week committee, women had no real power in the world of books and had to reckon with Lawlor’s influence. While Hilliard correctly states that Lawlor presided over the first meeting of the Women Writers’ and Artists’ Society in 1932, he was not the founder.

The history of that society, edited by Margaret Hayward and Joy Cowley, shows that it was a young journalist named Nellie Donovan who was the founder and driving force throughout its nearly 60-year history. In floating the organisation, she enlisted big names like Eileen Duggan and Jane Mander to add prestige, and by involving Lawlor she ensured credibility and newspaper coverage. How disappointing that Hilliard not only fails to mention Nellie Donovan but, by including a full-page photograph of Nellie Coad (first president but a figurehead), distorts the true picture.

The photographs in Hilliard’s work are particularly splendid and make a valuable adjunct to the book, but in some cases serve as window-dressing and even tokenism. Included is a full-page picture of Nelle Scanlan, mentioned only very briefly, and one of prophet Rua Kenana who has no place in the text. These editorial subtleties may indicate to the discerning reader that Hilliard has his own partiality, but they should not detract from the value of the work. Taken as a whole, it is a well-researched, lively and altogether fascinating study, which provides insight into New Zealand’s cultural life in the early-to-mid 20th century.


Julia Millen is a Wellington writer and biographer of Ronald Hugh Morrieson and Guthrie Wilson. 


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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