Obituary — Sir James McNeish

“Half a stranger at home”

Professor Paul Morris reflects on the work of Sir James McNeish (1931–2016)

As a writer and a man, Jim McNeish was drawn to human life beyond the physical and social borders of the settled middle class. His obsessions were with those driven towards and away from violence; youthful achievement, sporting and academic, and the lives that subsequently unfolded; the communist cadres of the last century; and, in particular, with the tragic, sometimes premature deaths of highly talented, singular individuals. He was highly critical of what he considered the conventionality and bigotry of New Zealand society, and the damaging ways in which it enforces conformity, thwarting choices and opportunities and, yet, this same milieu produces outstanding singular individuals who flourished, albeit mostly elsewhere, and were then faced with the lifelong decision whether to remain in exile or return “home” to New Zealand. McNeish was unpersuadable that this national “blandness” had much improved in recent decades.

These themes were extensively explored in a number of his books, most notably in Dance of the Peacocks (2003) and The Sixth Man (2007). The first of these focuses on the intersecting lives of five such singular New Zealanders at Oxford during the 1930s, four of whom chose to remain in exile. The latter study follows the accomplished Paddy Costello, portraying him as the sixth New Zealand peacock, rather than the sixth member of the Soviet spy ring recruited at Cambridge, a rumour that seemingly ended his promising diplomatic career. McNeish develops a narrative of emerging New Zealand cultural and literary identity as seen through the prism of the lives of these selected expatriates and their experience of politics, class, war, and the impending end of empire; men who, while identifying strongly as New Zealanders, only thrived far beyond these shores.

McNeish came to develop a narrative style all his own, framed by his prodigious research blended with his creative, and often plausible, psychological reconstructions that sought to reveal deeply hidden drives and motivations. To fully appreciate his sophisticated documentary fiction, or enhanced fictionalised fact, or creative non-fiction, you often need to read his works and their subsequent published repetitions. So that, after putting down his 1970 historical novel, Mackenzie, you must read his The Mackenzie Affair (1972), which revisits the “fictional” narrative as history, but then also includes a concluding essay that promises to finally distinguish myth from fact. The same is true of Lovelock (1986/2009): version one was an imagined first-person account of the athlete’s training leading to his victory in the 1936 Olympics, but later versions also include McNeish’s own journals of his research on the runner while he was in Berlin in 1983, and an essay reflecting on the possible psychological factors accounting for Lovelock’s untimely death in New York. More recently in Seelenbinder (2016), his account of another 1936 Olympic athlete is interspersed with his research notes on the wrestler, conducted decades later in Berlin. McNeish appears compelled to intimately share the writerly process with his readers, as he consciously weaves fact and fiction while vivifying his protagonists for us. This overt method allows us to appreciate his narrative decisions, as well as his clearly flagged imagined reconstructions.

McNeish reported on the 1994 Bain family murder trial as a newspaper journalist and later wrote The Mask of Sanity (1997) about the fatal consequences of this New Zealand family’s dysfunctionality. He contended that the trial had failed to identify any motive for the killings and he set out to do so in his psychological profiles of the Bain family members, interviews with wider family and acquaintances, and reconstruction of events. He concluded that the court had come to the right decision and that the surviving son was indeed guilty of the murder of his entire family, and that he had uncovered in the family dynamics the motive concealed behind “the mask of sanity”.

McNeish’s autobiographical Touchstones (2012) successfully conveys his profound ambivalence about being a New Zealander or, as he put it always, being “half a stranger at home”. I suspect that this being and not being at home is shared by many and was, as he insisted, the source of his acute cultural critique and appreciation of this particular New Zealand experience as simultaneously insider and outsider. His final days were spent completing his last book Breaking Ranks between oxygen draughts. This is a study of three New Zealanders (physician, judge and soldier), who take a stand against social convention and pay the price for doing so. He continued to be fascinated by a conformist New Zealand that generates individuals who challenge that very conformity, but felt that under the weight of this conformity we need to be constantly reminded of the necessity of resistance. With the death of this accomplished New Zealand writer, our last modernist, we have lost a singular voice, a natural storyteller, a cultural critic, whose provocation to us all is to break ranks, as we challenge established authority and conventional wisdom.

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