What’s been lost, Louise O’Brien

The Silence Beyond: Selected Writings
Michael King (introduction by Rachael King)
Penguin, $42.00,
ISBN 9780143565567


The Passionless People Revisited
Gordon McLauchlan
David Bateman, $30.00,
ISBN 9781869537906


The Silence Beyond is a new and posthumous selection of rare and unseen pieces by historian and biographer Michael King, famously anointed ”the people’s historian” by the New Zealand Listener, in reference both to his subject matter and to the appreciative audience for which it was intended.

The 18 chapters offer a selection of speeches, talks, eulogies, and magazine and journal articles, seven of them previously unpublished and others currently either unavailable or out of print. Often informally conversational in tone and highly personal in subject, they have been chosen – according to Rachael King’s regrettably brief introduction – in order to showcase her father’s sense of fun and mischief. It’s thus an engaging book, and King is charming company. Introspective, emotionally and intellectually engaged with a variety of issues and a range of interesting people, he comes across as personable, compassionate and eminently likeable. It’s easy to read The Silence Beyond as a version of the memoir which King was planning at the time of his death.

In the nature of such collections, the book is something of a patchwork of diverse ideas and concerns, sometimes overlapping, sometimes disconnected from each other, making full sense within the context of the previous works to which these pieces both explicitly and implicitly refer. As such, The Silence Beyond certainly adds to King’s published body of work, but is neither a substitute for it, especially representative of it, nor even an ideal introduction. The arrangement is neither chronological nor thematic, but – perhaps also in the nature of such collections, and in the motivations of their collectors – what unifies the book is a pervasive sense of loss.

Many of the pieces are eulogies or reminiscences of friends, now deceased: a moving account of James K Baxter’s tangi at Jerusalem; an article following Janet Frame’s death, as well as King’s speech at her memorial service; an account of the last days of Nannie Taua in “The Kuia’s Dying Day”; memories of Dan and Winnie Davin; King’s eulogy at Robin Morrison’s funeral. These offer an insider’s view of friends who are also national figures of cultural and historical significance, but they have the unfortunate side-effect of associating King with a bygone era, consigning him to the past.

That the implicit referent of the book is always the death of King and his wife Maria (in a car accident in 2004 just a few weeks after the death of Janet Frame) is only reinforced by those pieces in which he discusses the origins and development of his belief system. And, as the introduction acknowledges, though the book’s title actually refers to the ancestral silence which cloaked King’s own family history, it certainly invites a reference to the afterlife in general, and King’s in particular. It’s a context which is awkward alongside King’s otherwise persuasive assertion that the possibility of human immortality exists in the continuity of ideas, through the power of the arts and literature, to subsequent generations.

It’s interesting that the man who emerges from the collection is sited more in a literary context than in the historical one which might be more predictable. Not only are the friends and colleagues who appear here often writers of fiction, but King’s writing is liberally seasoned with literary references and poetic allusions. He attributes his love of literature to a religious upbringing centred on the liturgy of the word, a word ritualised and saturated in historical, cultural and symbolic meanings. His subsequent and lifelong appreciation of the beauty and the power of language, his advocacy of good writing – whatever the subject – is a theme which permeates the collection as well as being always evident in King’s own very fluent and often moving prose.

That the explanation of his present love of literature is to be found in the circumstances and context of his past, that the present is rooted in its origins, is one of the central tenets of his work. In “The Silence Beyond”, King uses personal history, including his own, to shed light on larger patterns and wider truths. History ‒ whether national, cultural, or individual ‒ is always essentially personal for King, encompassing as it does families and feelings, memories and deeply held convictions. His own father’s implacable refusal to discuss his troubled ancestry ‒ “I don’t want to go ratting round in the rubbish now” ‒ is the basis for the book’s opening chapter, previously unpublished in deference to those feelings, evoking the “compassionate truth” which led to some criticism of King’s biography of Janet Frame.

The premises of King’s work are well represented in “Being Pakeha”, “What I Believe” and “Maori and Pakeha: Which People and Culture has Primacy?”. Each of us is formed by our own pasts, and by the web of social and cultural forces in which we’re raised. Thus we find our way to answers to humanity’s enduring questions, though our answers will be different, and none is more right than another. King asserts that we should only be judged according to where we are and what we know, rather than by another’s set of beliefs or by the smug self-righteousness of some anachronistic future standard, and that these multiple truths can find accommodation with each other through reasoned debate, consensus, mutual respect and compassion, through “unfettered investigation and open disputation”.

Disputation seems the appropriate point at which to turn to Gordon McLauchlan’s new book, The Passionless People Revisited, though the back cover blurb prefers the phrase “thought-provoking and controversial”. In 1976, McLauchlan wrote The Passionless People, a scathing social commentary which examined our national character and found it sadly wanting. Surveying the modern political, social and cultural landscape, he feels no more cheerful about New Zealand in 2012: “We have lapsed into a lack of passion bordering on inertness. We live in a broken country and no one wants to fix it.”

McLauchlan was prompted to revisit and reiterate his best-known work precisely because, he says, little has changed. We are less affluent now, having been colonised by the global economy; women have made some gains, thanks to the availability of contraception; we are recently obsessed by foodie culture; and we have lost the uniformity of dress which used to keep us indistinguishable one from another. But, quoting himself often, we were “Smiling Zombies” then and we’re “Frowning Zombies” now. We are essentially still a Puritan culture, people who don’t like to make a fuss, nor like those who do (to the detriment of the political career of Hone Harawira), and our national complaisance and blandness are epitomised by our representative, in every sense, Prime Minister John Key, whose “incredible slightness of being” is “the ultimate refinement of the passionless person, smiling and waving to a failed country”.

McLauchlan notes that most New Zealanders incorrectly define passion simply as anger: Michael Laws-Untohimself is his bilious exemplar. Rather, he defines passion as being single-minded, but not obstinate, calm but utterly determined. This picture of the passionate person is expanded on by Jamie Ford, “a mental toughness coach to sporting teams and commercial organisations”: his view, endorsed by McLauchlan, is that the passionate person has “the ability and integrity to stand out from the crowd in pursuit of worthy objectives, does not give in to fear in the face of opposition, acts with moral authority and doesn’t just talk to back up his strongly held opinion but may move to action.” That’s as far as the book goes towards offering a solution to the many problems which it lays out so emphatically.

The dubious use of expert opinion is only one of the many irritants of this book and the method of its argument. Overseas examples and commentators are used to support claims about New Zealand culture, undermining the repeated claim of our unique hopelessness; indeed, much of the book’s underlying disgruntlement seems to be with contemporary culture in general, not New Zealand’s in particular. McLauchlan uses broad and undiscriminating generalisations as both premise and proof: “Puritan societies produced sad women and brutish men”; “It is symptomatic of a people who have tenuous and passive cultural values and an urge to control each other that they will fail to establish any tradition of responsible behaviour.”

To illustrate his points he constructs amalgamated characters, straw men who may be funny but are unpersuasive: Harold is the fictional “entrepreneur of meetings” who effects the death by committee of a company that actually made things; Desmond Dreery is a bureaucrat administering arts funding whose occupation is to “keep the bludging bastards at bay … while earning ten times as much a year as the best of them”. There’s no narrative structure to the prose, no cohesion or development of argument; the writing moves from one discontent to another, digressing far from the study of the national psyche which is the ostensible subject to, for instance, Pythagoras’s advice to abstain from beans, and the decline in the drinking of cocoa. Statistics are used freely, densely and without context, mingling evidence from different places, times and purposes. Those statistics are provided without footnotes, bibliography or index, the apparatus of referencing which allows and invites response and engagement. The overall effect is of being ranted at, very loudly, at close proximity, for a very long time.

Then again, perhaps Gordon McLauchlan’s right, and I just don’t like a fuss.


Louise O’Brien is a Wellington reviewer.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
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