Stamping one’s mark, Edmund Bohan

The Governors: New Zealand’s Governors and Governors-General
Gavin McLean
Otago University Press, $59.95,
ISBN 1877372250

Amassing Treasures for All Times: Sir George Grey, Colonial Bookman and Collector
Donald Jackson Kerr
Otago University Press, $59.95,
ISBN 1877372218

Gavin McLean’s book is, in every sense, a grand work in scope, intention, appearance and achievement, and it must be rated as one of the most satisfying books released in New Zealand last year. It is certainly a major addition to our political, constitutional and social historiography. It is also a comprehensive and quite fascinating biographical record of men and women who occasionally have had a greater impact on New Zealand social life than politicians, and about whom almost every New Zealander is likely to have some opinion, informed or not.

My own interest in the early governors – specifically Grey, Browne, Bowen and Normanby – began exactly 50 years ago when I started researching and writing about our 19th-century politics and politicians. I admit to being still more interested in them than in any of their successors, with whom my contact has been minimal. My moderate republicanism has been sustained by intellectual conviction rather than any visceral dislike of monarchies inherited from Irish and Highland Scots forebears, but I got much youthful amusement from socially ambitious friends’ agonising about whether or not they would be invited to governors’ balls. Generally though, I took little interest in gubernatorial comings and goings – though back then it was not easy to ignore them. I recall vividly Freyberg’s curiously high-pitched voice calling goodbye as he left Christchurch Boys’ High’s assembly hall; Lord Cobham attended with formal vice-regal ceremony one of my early professional oratorio performances (personally significant because it was the first time I sang with the New Zealand National Orchestra); and Alex McLintock and I ritually drank Norrie’s health with Old Grouse in Bellamy’s (reputed to be the only bar in the country allowed to stock Sir Willoughby’s favourite malt in those days of ferocious import restrictions) when I presented my monthly research reports to him at Parliament. My 25 years in Britain passed in innocent ignorance about the new generation of governors-general, and since my return I have not shaken a vice-regal hand or exchanged words – although I enjoyed Dame Cath’s garden party for artists involved in the 1992 International Festival of the Arts, oblivious of the background ructions between Dame Cath and her staff about the request on our invitations for “neat dress” (see p329).

McLean provides characteristically lively pen-portraits and summarises the careers of each of the men and women who have filled a frequently scorned office: from George Gipps, the Governor of New South Wales who never set foot here, to Sylvia Cartwright and (glancingly) Anand Satyanand. All is as skilfully written as one might wish, and the author’s invariably good-natured judgements are as balanced and fair as is possible with any group of historical characters. Some have been mildly and amiably eccentric but not many seem to have been either engaging or of particular ability. Few seem more admirable in retrospect than Lord Ranfurly, and the account of his handling of the Gilbertian dispute about precedence between Chief Justice Stout and Premier Seddon – each at his most absurd – is a gem.

More significantly, however, this is an illuminating history of an institution and its place in the changing society over which it has officially presided, and its progress is neatly signposted by the headings for each of its six parts: “Soldiers and Engineers of Empire (1840-89)”; “Vice Regal Ceremonial (1860s-1970s)”; “Holiday Jobs or Outdoor Relief for the Aristocracy? (1889-1920)”; “A New Imperial System (1917-31)”; “Whisky and Soda Warriors (1920-72)”; and “Home-Grown (1972)”. There is much interesting information on the frequently difficult relationships between governors and politicians, and there are good appendices on office-holders, titles and honours, and home life in Government House.

It will probably be “Introduction, performing the functions of a stamp?” and “Conclusion: Stocktakes and discussions …” (in which McLean analyses the office and discusses its future) that will provoke most thought and (dare we hope) rational discussion. What, he asks, are we? Are we already, as Helen Clark believes, a “de facto republic, as is Australia”; Geoffrey Palmer’s “disguised republic”; or Andrew Ladley’s “de facto localised monarchy”? Perhaps, as McLean observes, “the point is less one of terminological precision than of acknowledging the patriation or localisation of an office that New Zealanders (and outsiders) increasingly, if unreflectively, regard as the head of state.”

It is time we decided; but such weighty matters need calm heads and cool tempers. Far too much of what passes for debate has been little more than dim-witted and even abusive exchanges between fuming diehard royalists and equally childish Kiwi nationalist egalitarians. Similarly, too many public occasions have been marred either by royalist grovelling (of which Sidney Holland was the master) or by studied rudeness from those whose contempt for the royal family over-rides the simplest conventions of common courtesy; and public courtesy has been a distinguishing characteristic of modern royalty (even including the obnoxious Edward VIII) and of all our governors and governors-general except Charles II’s unfortunate descendant, Sir Robert FitzRoy.

McLean is one of our most admirable and usefully prolific historians. Some of his racily expressed opinions might be rash (Stafford’s counterclaims against the British Government were not, in fact, as “ridiculous” as he believes), but that need never be any cause for condemnation. On the contrary. Such outbursts enliven one’s reading and stimulate debate. His accumulated knowledge is vast and his scholarship generally impeccable, so it is all the more surprising that he describes that solemn intellectual and – to many of his contemporaries – almost saintly philosopher, Judge Christopher Richmond, as an “anti-Greyite parliamentarian” in 1877. Richmond happily abandoned parliament for the Supreme Court and, later, Appeal benches in 1862. But that is a small enough blemish in a massive work that deserves every word of praise that will undoubtedly be heaped upon it. The Governors is a very fine achievement.

Of all the governors and governors-general McLean describes, it is perhaps Sir George Grey who remains the most interesting: the great enigma, maybe the most complex – even unknowable – public personality in our history. He had a genuine and powerful sense of history and was demonstrably more intelligent than his predecessors – and most of his successors until very modern times. Unlike almost all of them, he was a genuine intellectual – one of that distinctive host of 19th century savants and enthusiasts who studied languages, indigenous peoples, philosophy, history and as many branches of science as they had time to immerse themselves in; and his lifelong addiction to accumulating books and manuscripts reflected those interests.

From youth until his sad final years, Grey was an almost obsessive seeker after knowledge; and for all his paranoia and ruthlessness towards those who crossed him throughout his controversial official and political careers, he did possess imagination and a real and powerful sense of destiny. It was his personal tragedy (and sometimes New Zealand’s) that his ideals and visions were often too egocentric in their origin and too wild in their attempted attainment to have the success they intrinsically deserved.

Grey suffered appalling ill-health for most of his life and was a depressive who, in times of extreme stress, shut himself in his study for days on end and refused to communicate with anyone – even his adored niece and adopted daughter Annie and her children whom he loved so much. He was undoubtedly at his happiest and most serene with his books and medieval manuscripts, and Donald Jackson Kerr has meticulously chronicled his purchases and celebrated his magnanimous gifts of the massive and justly celebrated collections that have so enriched the Auckland and Cape Town public libraries.

Amassing Treasures For All Times is the product of Kerr’s own consuming and admirable passion for books and bibliophiles, and his transparently unconditional affection for Grey. It contains almost all that one might ever wish to know about 19th-century European and British book collection in general, and therein lie its faults as well as its virtues. It will undoubtedly be of immense use to Grey’s future biographers (I wish I’d had it available when I was writing my biography of him 10 years ago), but it is not, unfortunately, by any means a gripping read: Kerr’s curiously self-conscious and mannered prose rules that out. There is too much repetition, and it would certainly have been improved by sterner editing.  However, it is packed with facts – some more significant and interesting than others – and will best be used as a source book for dipping into. But I’m delighted that we have it at last.

 

Edmund Bohan is working on a new biography of Sir Donald McLean (1820-77); his latest historical novel, Taonga, will appear soon from Hazard Press.

 

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