Nosing out the story, Lawrence Patchett

Breaking Ranks: Three Interrupted Lives
James McNeish
HarperCollins, $35.00,
ISBN 9781775540908

Partway through Breaking Ranks: Three Interrupted Lives, James McNeish stops his narrative to admit his own bias. “At this point,” he writes, “I had better come clean and declare my own interest.” His declaration relates to his account of Peter Mahon, the judge who led the inquiry into the 1979 Erebus disaster. Yet it applies to his approach to the other figures of Breaking Ranks, too: the psychiatrist John Saxby and the decorated soldier Reginald Miles.

In writing about these men, McNeish has made a conscious decision to write from a biased point of view. He’ll write their life stories “from the inside” and in their own words. “I make no apology,” he says about Mahon, “for taking sides.” It’s a warning that we shouldn’t view these stories as some kind of objective history or biography. It’s one of the strengths of Breaking Ranks, and part of what makes this my favourite of all McNeish’s books.

At this point, I should declare a bias of my own. I have something of a complex relationship with McNeish’s works. I studied some of them during my PhD, focusing on his novel and non-fiction on the Olympic runner, Lovelock. I admired his instinct for story, and was intrigued by his experiments in writing about real lives in fiction. He was also encouraging to me and other new writers.

At the same time, I was aware of the mythicising impulse in his writing. McNeish considered that New Zealand was “short on myths” – referring to Pākehā society, I think – and many of his works, both in fiction and non-fiction, seemed to respond to this shortfall. The mythic project weighed heavily on his work about Lovelock, including the novel and its treatment of the real person at its centre. It led him to interpretations of the evidence I sometimes found unconvincing. His contention that the novel “essentially corresponds to Jack Lovelock’s real life” merely exacerbated the problem. The open statement of agenda in Breaking Ranks eases such tensions. Instead of forcing a claim of authority on the reader, the author invites us to share in his interaction with these real people and the evidence they left behind. “There are several ‘truths’, ” he states, before going on to offer the one he’s chosen, and what it’s based on (although this is not the kind of book where you’ll always know what source is being used at what moment; it’s a creative non-fiction treatment, without extensive footnotes or academic-style citation).

The first figure he interacts with is the closest to him. John Saxby was a psychiatrist, poet, and personal friend. McNeish puts him at the vanguard of a therapeutic approach to mental health, helping his Tokanui institution to continue its move away from a model where patients were heavily medicated and locked away. McNeish marshals his sources expertly to show Saxby’s clinical talent, primarily through first-hand accounts or dramatised scenes. One sequence charts his treatment of a young man who was profoundly affected by schizophrenia. Saxby ponders the other man’s predicament for a long time before dashing down solutions on the back of an envelope. Later, he invites the young man’s political ideas, brings his own dog in to see him, even calls him years afterwards in Sydney, post-recovery. “I don’t think there can be many others like him,” the former patient says. “He gave me my life back.”

We also get a close sense of what it must have been like to have such a complex and sometimes worrying spirit as a friend. McNeish deploys effectively an interview with Trevor Mallard, who joined Saxby in anti-tour protests in 1981, but was spooked by his preparedness to use explosive weapons. The anxiety comes closer as he endures reforms at his beloved Tokanui, which are discussed in tandem with Saxby’s long-held interest in suicide. McNeish stages an unnerving scene in which he and his wife field a seemingly purposeless phone call, with Saxby talking away absently. It’s only in hindsight that they realise their friend was calling to say goodbye.

McNeish seems to imply that at least some of the responsibility for Saxby’s suicide should be laid at the feet of those who reformed the mental health system, changing and then closing down places like Tokanui. It’s one of a number of evolutions in New Zealand society we see as backdrop to these three lives, and to an extent this is one of the book’s attractions. The long and scene-based section on the ’81 tour is entirely compelling, not least because it plays out Saxby’s view that the conflict in the provinces was more personal and brutal, evidenced by his wife’s two black eyes after the Hamilton game, where she was punched by another woman.

Less successful are the sections where McNeish moves away from such scenes and his sources to theorise on the national character and its “streak of anarchy” or, later, the pettymindedness of the establishment and its “mandarins”. Partly, this is down to my preference for showing over telling. But, I suspect, it’s also partly a generational thing: the fact that I don’t share the view that New Zealand has “grave doubts about where it belongs in the world”, nor the same interest in defining the national psyche. Other readers might have a different view.

Perhaps due to a greater distance from the material, McNeish’s version of Brigadier Reginald Miles’s life is more linear and streamlined, and the effect is compelling in a different way. Building on sources that include Miles’s writings and his own research into artillery techniques, McNeish presents a perspective on WWI that I found refreshing, giving the gunner’s outlook instead of the infantryman’s: “Bad tummy all night. Must have got a mouthful of gas. Gunners affected can’t even pick up their aiming points. Carrying out harassing fire nightly.” McNeish is always effective when cleaving closely to his sources in this way, giving us a close sense of the human at the centre of it all. Yet he adds context via other viewpoints, noting that such actions earned Miles a Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross, and that some writers on military history consider him moody in a way that was problematic for morale. It’s a complex character we see.

Later, in WWII, there is a riveting sequence in which Miles escapes from a prisoner of war camp. Exploring the uncertainty over what happened next, McNeish again displays an interest that recurs in a number of his works: the manner and meaning of the death of his subject. But, again, he doesn’t insist on a particular version. Miles’s wife has one long-researched and painfully felt theory, and his wartime friend another. McNeish allows for both, concluding that “The answer, I suspect, is that we shall never know.”

In crafting his sympathetic portrait of Mahon, McNeish negotiates a morass of legal material on the Erebus disaster and its aftermath, much of it written by Mahon himself in his original findings and his later book on the inquiry process, Verdict on Erebus. The open acknowledgment of his agenda – his undertaking to favour Mahon’s viewpoint – strengthens McNeish’s version, rather than undermines it. It allows the reader to share in the judge’s growing suspicion that something is not right, that through the inquiry what he’s listening to is “an orchestrated litany of lies”. My favourite moments are the scenes in which the impact is given in raw human terms. One example is when Mahon goes duck-shooting with his son on the eve of his report’s release and, with the shotgun broken over his arm, he lights a cigarette and says, “Tomorrow … all hell’s going to break loose.” Or, when an old legal colleague and wartime friend, assisted by him many times, snubs him on the street, apparently too offended by the whole affair to even look at him.

Recently, a friend of mine remarked how skilled McNeish must have been at getting people to talk to him. Breaking Ranks displays this talent all over the place. Some of the most unsettling and intimate moments come from people who’ve given their own words to McNeish, responding to his search for story. Like the nurse who worked with Saxby and described his “uncanny power” to re-diagnose and motivate people: “‘Tell me,’ he’d say to a depressive who had ended up in the wrong ward, ‘what on earth brings you here?’” It’s the kind of ability that McNeish built a full-time career on, producing more than 20 books and a contribution to New Zealand literature that is quite unlike anyone else’s. Finding sources. Assembling them in his unique way. Nosing out the story.

Lawrence Patchett explored ideas about authenticity in biographical fiction as part of a PhD in creative writing at Victoria University of Wellington.

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