Cheerful, funny and popular, Trevor Richards

Man for All Seasons: The Life and Times of Ken Douglas 
David Grant
Random House, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869793890


In Man for All Seasons: The Life and Times of Ken Douglas we have as the central character a trade unionist who has been highly controversial for most of a long and very publicly conducted adult life. Douglas was a major national figure, and for much of the second half of the 20th century his utterances and actions impacted on the economy and the social fabric of the country. This is a person who helped shape who we are today.

What one thinks of a book can often be determined by one’s expectations. This is probably more so in the case of biographies of the living than of many other genres. Readers of Man for All Seasons may therefore need to manage their expectations carefully. Like others perhaps, I picked up the book foolishly hoping that there might be a well-argued, reasoned assessment of the impact Douglas had on the last 50 years of 20th-century New Zealand. That, unsurprisingly, was missing.

One of the major problems faced by Grant, and any other biographer writing about a subject, especially a “political” one, who is still alive, is that there is no accumulated historical perspective. When Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was asked in the early 1970s what he thought had been the impact of the French Revolution on western civilisation, his celebrated response was “too soon to tell”. And he was right.

Those wanting a sensible historical assessment of Douglas’s role in New Zealand history might have to wait a bit. In the meantime, there are plenty of stories and enough observations in this book for the readers themselves to start thinking about Douglas’s role in history.

The scope of Man For All Seasons is extensive. The story begins midway through the 19th century, tracing Douglas’s working class family roots back to his great-grandparents. Douglas isn’t born until page 55. There are 30 pages on his early childhood and more than 100 pages before Douglas, at the age of 21, begins his trade union career. In these early chapters, there are a number of very sad stories, too many early deaths and much drinking, smoking and gambling. There are also sweet family tales. “Family legend”, for example, suggests that Ned Kelly had been one of the boyfriends of Douglas’s maternal great-grandmother.

I find discussions about families that embrace four generations potentially confusing. Am I the only reader who would have appreciated a family tree here?

Douglas spent five years at Wellington College. One of his school mates recalls “every boy either knew him, wanted to know him, or liked to tell others how much they liked him. Part of his popularity was because he was always so cheerful and funny.”

Popular – but with School Certificate still out of his grasp. Douglas left college in October 1953, a month shy of his 18th birthday. The family could not afford to keep him at school. He was sacked from his first job, sticking up for one of his mates. His early working life was not without incident, and the chapters covering this period are colourful, capturing well the mood of the times.

Douglas’s life as a trade unionist is detailed. It is the backbone of the book. These sections are not, unfortunately, the most engaging part of the biography. I found myself on too many occasions scribbling in the margins “too much detail!” I am not sure how many of those without an interest/involvement in the trade union movement will make it through every page of these chapters.

Ken Douglas the communist – Red Ken (chapter seven) – gives the book one of its best chapters. Douglas joined the New Zealand Communist Party in 1960, at the age of 24, at a time when for many there were more Reds than dust under the nation’s beds. When he became president of the Wellington Drivers’ Union in 1959, Douglas was a firm anti-communist. It was the New Zealand Rugby Football Union that changed all of that. The union’s acquiescence to South Africa’s insistence that the All Black tour of the republic in 1960 had to be “all white” shocked Douglas.

In 1989 he reflected that the appeal of communism had been emotional, not intellectual. It “was the emotive appeal, the search for a sharing, caring society … It really centred around this question of our relationship with colour – the rights of blacks and Maori.” The only political party opposed to the 1960 tour was the Communist Party. He joined. Philosophical understanding came later.

Nineteen-ninety-one was a bleak year for him. It saw the anti-union Employment Contracts Act come into force and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, “whose break up,” Grant writes, “swept away in one fell swoop the nourishment that had been his intellectual bedrock”. “The only thing which put 1991 into perspective,” Douglas comments, “was the top of Mt Cook falling off.”

The battles with politicians from both National and Labour – in particular, Prime Ministers Muldoon and Bolger, Minister of Finance Roger Douglas and Labour Minister Bill Birch – are extensively and faithfully recorded. There is much discussion over the 1979 Remuneration Act, Muldoon’s wage/price freeze and “the most devastating anti-union legislation the country had ever seen” – the 1991 Employment Contracts Act.

But amid the battles, there is also humour: FOL President Jim Knox’s and Labour Minister Jim Bolger’s 1981 spat at the International Labour Organisation conference in Geneva, and Bill Andersen’s needling of Muldoon on early Monday morning Auckland-Wellington flights are added reminders of the way we were.

Since his retirement in 1999 from the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, Douglas has been a member of various boards: Air New Zealand, New Zealand Post, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union and Healthcare. He has been elected to the Porirua City Council and to the Capital and Coast District Health Board. He is a keen golfer. All these aspects of his life are discussed. The text is ably assisted by a generous 32 pages of photos and cartoons.

Launching Grant’s biography of Douglas in September, New Zealand Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand recalled Oscar Wilde’s (actually Dr Arbuthnot’s) aphorism, “Biography has added a New Terror to death.” In this case, neither applies. Ken Douglas is alive, and in this biography there should be no terror. This is not an “authorised” work, but it is largely uncritical. The author had “unfettered” access to his subject. Negative voices are few and far between.

Douglas comes out of these pages, on the whole, very well. His daughter Jane describes her father as an honest and passionate man who wore his heart on his sleeve, a person with love, hate, anger and joy in equal measure. That is more or less the Douglas that Grant paints. Grant’s research is impressive. Historians of the future will be indebted to him. The manner, however, in which Douglas’s story unfolds is another matter.

In the introduction, Grant writes that his editor “expertly tiptoed through the script with gentle precision rather than the stomp of heavy jackboots”. This reader would have preferred that heavier boots had been worn. In the space of a few pages, Grant can slip into multiple use of the same phrase. In the book’s first chapter, for example, “died tragically” is particularly overworked.

At times, the flow of the narrative is interrupted by material that should have been omitted, or at least moved to the endnotes. On page 345, for example, we have two-thirds of a page listing Rosanne Meo’s CV post her relationship with Douglas. Relevance?

There is also a tendency to repetition. We are told more than once, for example, that Douglas made a point of keeping his politics out of union affairs. No author likes to see their editor removing words, sentences and paragraphs, but this book would have benefited had the editor involved the pencil more often. A sterner edit might not have made the prose sing, but it would have improved the flow.

Stylistic considerations to one side, this is an important book. Perhaps its greatest contribution will prove to be subliminal. Between its covers, Grant has given us a great deal of material which will start a process by which durable assessments of Ken Douglas’s place in New Zealand history can eventually be made.


Trevor Richards is a Paris-based reviewer. 

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category