A necessary corrective
Reading Dougal McNeill’s review of Brasch’s Journals 1938-1945 has surprised me by its reminder that so much of value is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. I feel the essential Brasch has been missed.
The man I briefly knew in Dunedin at the end of his life was someone of great warmth and depth. True, these came with a personal reticence and discrimination that make many New Zealanders uneasy. And, of course, with total commitment to high culture – is there another kind that people with brains and something to think about inside them should investigate with more than sociological interest? As I read these journals, I find myself thinking how remarkable it was that one in his mid-thirties could have arrived at such depth and maturity of view in almost every comment or insight he offers. Of course in the midst of the Blitz he admired Churchill, whose greatness it was to have got it right about the radical evil of Nazism at least a decade before everyone else in political leadership had woken up to the meaning of the approaching struggle.
Brasch writes about the terrible destruction of European values in the war with passionate commitment. Long passages record his loving and carefully observed appreciation of all he saw in nature. Sensitivity like this only comes with love. Something else that comes through these pages is an intense and sympathetic involvement with other people, including difficult and eccentric pacifists with peculiar habits of whom he was remarkably tolerant and with whom he could live in Spartan disorder. At home, yes, in the high culture of several languages, he managed to work successfully and productively at Bletchley Park and in the Foreign Office in the midst of the greatest crisis Britain had ever faced.
This was no uninvolved aesthete. Brasch was someone who evoked intense loyalty in other people, throughout his life, something impossible for someone merely “spiritually precious”. These journals from the war years already provide a necessary corrective to the usual and more superficial view of some other local writers. For this reason alone we wait for the publication of the journals covering his life in New Zealand with impatience. Are there any other published journals, by anyone in any period in our short literature, to compare in depth and interest with these?
It may seem something of a liberty to suggest closer reading to an art historian as experienced as Mark Stocker, but in his autumn 2014 NZ Books review of Jill Trevelyan’s Peter McLeavey biography he states: “Peter Wells proclaims that ‘Every thinking New Zealander should have a copy of Jill Trevelyan’s Peter McLeavey on their shelves.’ ” He said no such thing. Inside the front flap of the book under review, Wells is quoted as voicing this advice in relation to Trevelyan’s earlier biography of Rita Angus. Two very different kettles of fish.