Torn up and homesick, Joanne Drayton

A Good Mail: Letters of John Mulgan
Peter Whiteford (ed)
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9780864736932


Journey to Oxford 
John Mulgan (Peter Whiteford ed)
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780864738196


The end of John Mulgan’s life in Cairo, on the evening of Anzac Day in 1945, will remain one of New Zealand’s mysteries. At 33 years of age, his promising, even luminescent career as a writer finished without a final chapter to establish its irrefutable genius. The cause of his death was an overdose of morphine. For a time it seemed a puzzling, wasteful end to the life of a prodigy – an academic and athlete, who graduated with a BA in New Zealand in 1933 and was awarded a first from Merton College Oxford in 1935. After working as a commissioning editor at Clarendon Press, Mulgan went on to serve with distinction in WII. He joined the Oxford and Buckingham Light Infantry; moved to the 4th Battalion of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. In 1943 he accepted a dangerous posting with the British Force 133 (an undercover unit assisting Greek partisans’ sabotage of German occupying forces) and was negotiating a transfer to the 2nd New Zealand Division when he died on 26 April 1945.

In a short life concentrated initially on academic reading lists, then constrained by the busy world of British publishing and finally focused on one theatre of war after another – Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Greece – Mulgan produced some of the most influential writing in New Zealand’s literary canon. His reputation rests on just two books: the novel Man Alone published in London in 1939, and a memoir, Report on Experience, produced posthumously in 1947. It was Man Alone that would most powerfully capture the imagination of New Zealanders. When Mulgan died in Egypt, he had little idea of the work’s potential impact at home because so few copies escaped the Blitz. It was only after it was reprinted in 1949 that its resonance with readers began to be felt.

At the heart of Mulgan’s story is enigma. Why did such a promising life end so tragically soon and how could the first novel of an unpublished author have such a defining effect on the literature of a nation?

At long last Mulgan provides some of the answers for himself in A Good Mail: Letters of John Mulgan and his unfinished Journey to Oxford, both edited by Peter Whiteford and published last year to celebrate the centenary of Mulgan’s birth. These intelligently edited, powerful publications bring into sharper focus the complexities of Mulgan’s life and are a sensitively drawn, fittingly contextualised tribute to a remarkable career. In the introduction to A Good Mail, Whiteford explains the special task of letters:

The role of the biographer is to amass evidence from a disparate range of sources, to sift and evaluate [and] interpret … letters function in a way that is very different: removed now from the immediate circumstances of their first communication, and read together rather than piecemeal across many years, they may be seen … as offering a kind of partial and un-premeditated autobiography.

Full of entertaining anecdotes and an overzealous recording of minutiae, these letters contain the gems and brilliant reflections of a clever mind. And it is their lack of premeditation, or at least the seemingly natural way in which his observations occur, that makes the letters seem so startling. Their enduring power probably also resides, for most New Zealanders, in the poignancy of knowing what happened to Mulgan.

The letters offer us a compelling exploration of identity. They come from a man alone with his thoughts, writing to his parents and later his wife Gabrielle and son Richard about a life divided between two worlds and two homes. Deeply embedded in his memory are images of New Zealand, of tramping trips as a student “into the unknown”. To his mother Marguerita, he wrote in January 1931: “we are leaving early tomorrow to climb Mt. Arthur & then on across the table land to Takaka. It is all bush country only there are tracks & an old prospector lives away in the middle of it somewhere.” New Zealand was for him a primordial place of unexplored potential that produced real and resilient people out of the sheer struggle to survive.

But New Zealand could not give Mulgan the education or the opportunities he wanted, so he left. “I felt very torn up and homesick when I left you all and the ship started heading down the harbour,” he wrote his mother in October 1933. On his arrival in England, he was immediately struck by the differences: “I haven’t been able to make much of London yet but one has only to look at the people to realise it’s a foreign land. Trains full of men in bowler hats – faces all the same – long streets of brick houses – the women all dressed very well and their complexions strike one at once.” At Merton College, Oxford, he became enmeshed in a community that he found both fascinating and repellent. The cloistered academic life was privileged and intellectually challenging (he went to meetings to hear philosopher Bertrand Russell and Marxist Harold Laski), but it was also full of affectation and intellectual snobbery. Away from New Zealand and an outsider in Oxford, Mulgan viewed both Homes from a distance.

While at Merton he negotiated with his father Alan’s publishers and edited his father’s manuscripts, self-consciously aware of the generational divide. To his father he wrote:

I am struck by the difference in our points of view. I can feel your sincerity when you write but as a modern I would say that it isn’t true as a description of life, what I mean is that people don’t marry and live happily ever after … it’s a succession of little incidents and worries and re-actions.

These letters are a succession of “little incidents … worries and re-actions” that vividly convey a world about to change dramatically. The political backdrop to his correspondence was Europe dangerously polarising with the canvas of peace soon to be irreparably torn. Mulgan left Merton to take up a coveted position with Clarendon Press. Despite his success, as a freelance journalist while a student and now as a commissioning-editor-in-training, Mulgan is modest if not self-effacing about his literary achievements. It was during this ominous, but also busy, buoyant period of his life that he married Angela Gabrielle Wanklyn in July 1937 and wrote Man Alone. In 1938 he volunteered for the Territorial Army and when war was declared in 1939, he reported immediately to his regiment.

Half the correspondence contained in this collection of Mulgan’s letters belongs to the war years, and these are grouped into letters “at home” and “abroad”. Whiteford is right when he identifies “a conspicuous avoidance of sentimentality” in the letters to Gabrielle, who eventually returned with their young son to New Zealand. Although Mulgan does demonstrate a “genuine tenderness”, there is an ever-present and curious restraint throughout his correspondence. His final letter to his commanding officer, Dolbey, however, answers much. It ends: “In a short and not very productive life, I remember with fleeting pride that I managed to live in friendship with a lot of different and differing Greeks and I hope a little of this won’t have been entirely wasted. Again with apologies.”

Mulgan’s unfinished Journey to Oxford contains much of the matter-of-fact, melancholic blandness which makes his writing understated yet still compelling. It communicates a yearning for his birthplace, but also a very real awareness of the cost of colonial life in New Zealand: “The men become broken and old and the women worn and unthinking … they have gone on fighting a new and untamed country.” Mulgan saw human effort in New Zealand as the struggle in a war between the natural and cultural worlds.

Journey to Oxford records Mulgan’s sea voyage to England and his early experiences at Merton College. It communicates in a more deliberate way his sense of ambivalence towards Britain: “For strangers like myself it was more difficult to define feelings. We hear so much of England where I live, of sentiment, patriotic or unreal, that my own generation has reacted against it.” However, Mulgan was a man of letters born in a country where “we venerated the strong, silent men who played football boldly, drank their beer well, and said nothing”. Whiteford could have offered more critical reflection and commentary about Mulgan. However, he was a complex man whose personality and opinions, thanks to White-ford’s publications, have been further illuminated by this “un-premeditated autobiography” of letters and his own literary voice in Journey to Oxford.


Joanne Drayton’s biography The Search for Anne Perry has just been published by HarperCollins.


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