Self-portrait with encounters, Martin Edmond

Touchstones: A Memoir
James McNeish
Vintage, $30.00,
ISBN 9781869799328

The first book I was ever asked to review, way back in the early 1970s, was James McNeish’s Mackenzie – a work as idiosyncratic, obdurate and strange as the man it is about. Alas, I was not equal to the task and never completed the review … although I still have the hardback copy I was given. Mackenzie (1970) was McNeish’s third book and, arguably, the one that made his reputation in New Zealand; but it was his second book, Fire under the Ashes: A Life of Danilo Dolci, that earned him international renown, and not just in the English-speaking world.

While the writing of Mackenzie is alluded to in passing several times in this unusual book (all McNeish books are unusual), the circumstances of the composition of Fire under the Ashes are rehearsed in some detail in part one, People, of the two-part work. This is because Dolci is the subject of the third of nine character sketches McNeish writes as a means of tracing the way in which, as a young man, he learned how to become a writer. His mentors, his guides, his touchstones.

They are a disparate group of individuals, and their mini-biographies, taken together, make for a fascinating read: a night editor at the New Zealand Herald; Joan Littlewood, the director of London’s Theatre Workshop – something “not seen since Shakespeare’s time, a genuine popular theatre”; Dolci, “the Sicilian Ghandi”; another Sicilian, Totò, the accountant in a salt mine; a third, Santu, an illiterate village leather worker; Jack Dillon, a radio producer at the BBC; the inimitable Denis Glover; McNeish’s Czech wife Helen; and Sheila, the wife of round-the-world sailor Francis Chichester, whom McNeish met on board the Oriana during his return to New Zealand.

These encounters, which arose out of McNeish’s work as a roving collector of folk music from remote parts of Europe; or, more generally, from his habit of inquiring, indefatigably, into the circumstances in which, randomly, he finds himself, cover the period of about 10 years, roughly the 1960s, he spent away from New Zealand. This part of the book also includes a number of brief, elegant character sketches of people he met along the way: including, for example, the writer Norman Lewis, with whom McNeish has some affinities; the poet Louis MacNeice, for whom he was once mistaken; and Janet Frame on Waiheke.

Part two, subtitled Place, is the story of how he came to settle in his home country and about the place in which, like a human godwit, he came to rest: Te Maika, a sandspit on the west coast of the North Island, near Kawhia, where obscure family connections, with attendant complexities, finally allowed him to buy a house in which he lived – with frequent flights overseas – for a decade and a half.

This second section, while discrete, in some respects also makes, after As for the Godwits (1977) and An Albatross Too Many (1988), a third and (perhaps) final instalment of a trilogy of McNeish’s writing about his remote home. But in this version we are told rather more about the origins of the McNeish clan and their intricate connection with Tainui people who are tangata whenua of that part of the country. The inciting incident in this tale, like something out of a Greek myth, is a wrestling match between the original McNeish and a Maori opponent, after which the sister of the defeated man offers herself as a wife to the victorious Scot.

This telling is done in characteristically oblique fashion, as the unravelling of a mystery that the author must himself accomplish if he wants to know what actually happened; but this is not a straightforward assignment. For one of the enticing things about McNeish as a writer is, precisely, his ambivalence as to whether he really does want to know all; along with a suspicion that such knowledge may not finally be possible: his innate scepticism, mixed with an insatiable curiosity, makes an unlikely thriller out of his inquiry into the most ordinary of circumstances.

One of these circumstances, perhaps not so ordinary, is the story of a piece of land McNeish inherited from his aunt, which a local farmer and relative, Ginger Mick, wants to buy; the ultimate fate of this land, and the means by which McNeish arrives at his decision, provides one of the narrative drivers of the second half of the book.

However the emotional focus of this section, and ultimately, through the framing device of a prologue and a postscript, of the work as a whole, is McNeish’s father Arthur: a conundrum to the son, an enigma he does not so much solve as present. McNeish senior was “a self-educated man who felt strongly about his family and the family of nations”; he was also a compulsive writer and storyteller, particularly with respect to his own time overseas in WWI, in Mesopotamia and parts east, including those theatres of war in our own time, the countries called Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan … unlike Alexander, Arthur went all the way to India, from which he returned with a small brass talismanic figure of a goddess.

“I never solved the mystery of why he married my mother,” McNeish writes on the second to last page of the book. In the same way, he never quite resolves the question of his father’s relationship with his taha Maori; the photo of him, the last in a book illustrated with many fine photographs, shows a sweet-faced old kaumatua who might, perhaps, have preceded his son at Te Maika; might indeed have honeymooned there; but lived his life as a Pakeha. Another mystery, then.

McNeish’s tact, his modesty, his indirection with respect to his Maori ancestry are exemplary in an age where such allegiances are often surrounded with pretension, bad faith, political correctness and plain hokum; this is neither a pose nor an example of faux naivety. He is genuinely perplexed, it seems, as to the extent of his affiliation, and this is bodied forth most persuasively in his relationship, or not, with the spirit, or spirits, who inhabit Te Maika: equivocal presences who may in fact have led him back there.

In his author’s note, McNeish suggests that Touchstones is a self-portrait; if so it is one that presents the self mostly in terms of others: the nine mentors of the first part and the wonderful array of characters, locals and/or family members in the second reflect shards of the author’s personality in such a way that it is up to readers to assemble the actual portrait for themselves. It is, therefore, portraiture not as vanity or self-aggrandisement, but as an act of great generosity. I think I was born slow,he writes:

I was an innocent … This for a writer can be a tremendous asset. My greatest training, it turned out, was that I was untrained; impressionable and trusting by nature, I was capable of being moved. I retained, in other words, the power to be shocked.

The book I read immediately before Touchstones was Albert and Emily (2008) – apparently Doris Lessing’s last. Like Touchstones, Albert and Emily is a work in two parts, a diptych which places a fiction side by side with a memoir; and, again like McNeish’s book, Lessing’s focuses upon the incommensurability of personal origins, the impossible demand that we understand what cannot finally be understood. “There is nothing,”wrote William Maxwell, “so difficult to arrive at as the nature and personality of one’s parents.”

McNeish is a more careful writer than Lessing, who often seems in such a hurry to set down her thoughts that she cannot be bothered with stylistic precision. But they are alike in the manner in which they are prepared to leave gaps in their understanding, to let the writing remain as a weave of words over chaos, for their sentences to carry a light that may illumine, but will not banish, darkness. They are alike, too, in the way that they allow their lived, not literary, experience to be the guide to their work.

This is James McNeish’s 26th book and the voice in which it is written – compassionate, humorous, knowledgeable, sane, wise – has been distilled out of a lifetime of action and commitment, an engagement with the real world, a conviction that writing isn’t something that exists for itself but as a tool with which we can make change happen. Such voices are rare and now, more than ever, we need them – as much as we need the very air we breathe.


Martin Edmond is a Sydney writer and reviewer. 


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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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