Dancing with facts

Broadcaster and documentary maker Justin Gregory reflects on James McNeish’s “portrait” of John Mulgan.

In 1994, James McNeish wrote, narrated and produced a feature-length radio programme on a man he described as perhaps the “darkest” of New Zealand’s “dark horses”: writer, publisher and soldier John Mulgan. McNeish called the programme A Man with Two Countries, adding the subtitle A Portrait of John Mulgan (1911-1945). The programme was broadcast on Radio New Zealand’s National Radio in April that year.

McNeish followed the course of Mulgan’s life, with some chronological reordering for narrative power. He previewed his subject’s death, and then went back to the beginning: birth, childhood, student days at Auckland College and Oxford, adult life as a husband and father, as publisher and author, and finally the military career. McNeish concluded with Mulgan’s suicide in 1945 in a Cairo hotel room. 

McNeish used well-established documentary techniques to tell this story, including scripted inserts, interviews with Mulgan’s friends and family, excerpts from letters, books and official reports. Actors read the roles of Mulgan and others. Music was used to evoke period and mood. He was telling a story, painting his portrait of Mulgan. Comes the question; was it an accurate likeness?

In 1994, McNeish was telling a story that, while it had not often been heard, the legend and myth had already begun developing. More recently, Dean Parker and Noel Shepherd have added to the mystique, by each publishing works of fiction in which Mulgan is a character. Shepherd’s Mulgan is a novella focalised through Mulgan, covering the last two years of his life. Intriguingly, Parker’s novel, Johnson, continues the life of the hero of Mulgan’s only novel, Man Alone. Mulgan himself appears as minor character during Johnson’s time in WWII Greece, gloomily (and drunkenly) weighing up the worth of life, politics and his own literary output.

After the broadcast, McNeish lodged two copies of his script with the Alexander Turnbull Collection in Wellington. One, with handwritten notes, pasted-over sections and a sense of being well-used, is clearly the studio-working version and in places differs markedly from the broadcast itself. The second copy is nearly pristine, with few handwritten notes and is an exact transcript of the radio programme. Together, they tell a fascinating story of rewrites, additions, subtractions and some deft dancing with facts. McNeish employs three techniques to make the facts work for him: he simply exaggerates them; he represents them more dramatically; and he ignores what doesn’t fit.

Early on, McNeish outlines Mulgan’s reaction to the 1932 Auckland riots, a crucial event, according to him, in Mulgan’s failure to be nominated for a Rhodes scholarship. In an editorial written for a student newspaper, and almost certainly read by university authorities, Mulgan surprisingly sided with the rioters. “Such radicalism,” says McNeish, with relish, “sent shock waves through the university. It was bound to cost Mulgan a Rhodes.”

In the first copy, the word “radicalism” is handwritten over the original word, “candour”. In the second, “radicalism” remains. McNeish has raised the stakes. Mulgan must have been “radical” in order to lose his chance of the prestigious scholarship. Earlier, McNeish asserts that Mulgan’s half-Irish heritage may have explained his “awkward, not to say unusual, political commitment”. McNeish doesn’t elaborate on why an Irish heritage would explain a left-wing political stance. It seems a statement unsupported by fact. Mulgan’s father Alan had Irish heritage, but was both a Protestant and a noted Anglophile, often to the exasperation of his son. At the very start of the programme, McNeish says Mulgan’s father called England “home”.

McNeish’s second technique is to extract the answers he needs from his interviewees. Mulgan’s widow Gabrielle tells McNeish that, while her husband almost never spoke to her about New Zealand, she would listen while he discussed it with others. “Are you telling me he was guarded?” asks McNeish, abruptly. “Yes, I think probably I am, I think probably I am,” replies Gabrielle.  She later says: “I never thought of him as melancholy”, followed by an obvious edit in the tape. Clearly McNeish has asked her exactly that question, and not gotten the response he wanted. He tries again. “There was a melancholy streak?” “Yes there was, yes there was,” she responds, almost eagerly. The prosecution here is leading the witness.

McNeish’s third technique is to blur the historical timeline. Three examples stand out. “The year was 1937,” he says, foreshadowing the war with Germany, and querying why Mulgan enlisted in the British Army, unlike his fellow Oxford Kiwis who joined the New Zealanders. When he asks Gabrielle Mulgan, she sighs and says: “I don’t know why.” The chronology and connections here are false ones. Mulgan joined up a full two years before the war began. He had a home and a job in Oxford, and the regiment he joined belonged to the county he lived in. It makes sense that to prepare for a war that had not yet begun, he would choose a way that least disrupted his life. His New Zealand Oxford contemporaries who joined up did so after war had begun and at least one of them, Dan Davin, joined the British Army before later transferring.

The second example is McNeish’s use of Mulgan’s “I am a man with two countries” remark, from a letter he wrote to his wife during the war. McNeish claims it was written “shortly” before Mulgan’s death in 1945. In the working copy of his script, he has crossed out his original lines which said the letter was “written in 1942, two years before he died”. This is a conscious and blatant rewriting of the timeline in order to make a neat, dramatic point.

Finally, McNeish claims that Mulgan’s memoir Report on Experience “was written at great speed, almost as if he knew he hadn’t long to live.” In fact, the memoir was first begun in 1944. McNeish is clearly suggesting Mulgan was already contemplating suicide: pure speculation. His get-out clause in the radio programme lies in the subtitle: A Portrait of John Mulgan. Clearly, it is not really a documentary, but, in McNeish’s words, “something else”, allowing him a latitude that really should only have been available to Parker or Shepherd. 

Telling the story of someone’s life, of course, requires more than just arranging facts. The story can certainly be mostly about those facts the author finds of greatest interest, which can then be deployed to support a particular argument, or hunch. But those facts need to be correct. Fudging them, or simply ignoring them, makes a story untrustworthy. A Man with Two Countries: A Portrait of John Mulgan is an imaginative work of fiction, only somewhat loosely based on a real story. 

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