Awa Press have quite rightly pointed out to me that I did indeed give them permission to quote some of my words on the preceding Radio New Zealand series of talks as a blurb for their The Transit Of Venus (NZB, Autumn 2008).
So I’m happy to turn my provisional apology into an unreserved apology. And I’m very happy to keep recommending the book.
Balance before vitriol
I have read some poisonous reviews in my time, fortunately not involving my books. Trevor Richards’ review of Spies and Revolutionaries (NZB, Autumn 2008) is a notable exception. It was toxic in the extreme. I am not at all surprised that Richards, an old leftie, should condemn my book. What is a surprise is that he should review the book in a publicly funded publication without disclosing a personal interest or, to put it bluntly, a personal agenda.
I do not know Richards, except by repute. What I have witnessed via the columns of New Zealand Books is anything but pleasant. Richards failed to tell readers he was a founder and former chairman of the Halt All Racist Tours organisation (HART) or that his former wife, Bryony Hales, was listed in the book as a “radical” (the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service’s description in 1981, not mine) or that many of his friends were also included in the book. Such disclosure is the minimum readers might have expected from a reviewer in such an august publication. They would then have been free to assess the review for what it was – a longwinded rant from the left.
Richards accuses me of confusing dissent with subversion and lining up people as “cardboard figures to be shot down”. That is far from the truth. No one could describe Fintan Patrick Walsh, whose biography I wrote (Black Prince, 2004), as such or apply that description to the nest of New Zealand’s better-known spies, Ian Milner, Paddy Costello and Dr Bill Sutch. These people, by their actions, invited investigative attention and, courtesy of Spies and Revolutionaries, they got it.
The New Zealand SIS and its predecessors did not always get things right. There were probably people named as subversives who fitted more closely with Richards’ description of political dissenters – but not many. If you chose to join the Communist Party of New Zealand in 1921 it was because you did not believe in Western democracy and sought to undermine it. The workers’ revolution was the way to go.
By the late 1920s the CPNZ decided that a proletarian rising was a non-starter and that its interests would be better served by its members joining the Labour Party (something Labour strenuously rejected) or gaining posts in important trade unions such as those representing miners, seamen, watersiders and carpenters.
These communists were, quite rightly, viewed by the authorities as a threat to the democratic order but at least they were open about their Communist Party affiliations. The same cannot be said of Milner, Costello and Sutch or, indeed, university fellow travellers like Dr Bill Airey and Dr Winston Rhodes.
How any Marxist could, by the late 1930s, be committed to establishing a Soviet-style “democracy” downunder is beyond me. Had they not read or heard of Stalin’s mass terror, murder, purges and show trials? The fact that many communist groups – Maoist and Soviet – survived in New Zealand until the 1980s is amazing. What is even more so is Richards’ unwillingness to accept that, at times, they posed a threat to the state.