Balancing pathos, Janet Wilson

This Mortal Boy: A Novel
Fiona Kidman
Penguin Random House, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143771807

In This Mortal Boy (with its subtle, sad echo of Brendan Behan’s novel, Borstal Boy), Fiona Kidman gives a semi-fictional reconstruction of the highly publicised case of the “jukebox” murder that took place in Auckland in May 1955. Committed by a young Northern Irish immigrant, Albert (Paddy) Black, against Alan Jacques, another immigrant who had earlier beaten up Black, the murder went to trial, and Black received a verdict of guilty which, at that time, meant the death penalty. An appeal and the petition raised by his mother in Belfast of 12,000 signatures, failed, and Black was hanged on 5th December 1955. The death penalty had been reinstated in New Zealand by the National government in 1950, following a particularly brutal murder. Black’s was the penultimate case of execution before the Labour government commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment in 1957, and it was finally abolished in 1961 with 10 National members of parliament crossing the floor.

The murder trial still resonates in living memory, and Kidman herself, 15 at the time, remembers that details were publicised in ways that whipped up the hostility to juvenile delinquency that was being promoted by the prime minister, Sid Holland and his deputy, the Hon Jack Marshall, Attorney-General (who reinstated the death penalty, facing opposition in the novel from Hon J R Ralph Hanan, Attorney-General and Minister for Justice in 1961, a fierce abolitionist). Marshall believed that death by hanging was a lesser punishment than a lifelong sentence, but another rationale for retaining capital punishment came from Holland and his friend Oswald Mazengarb who denounced violence and sexual promiscuity, and targeted sharply dressed bodgies and widgies for their loose behaviour. The Mazengarb Report, placed in every letter-box in the land, fuelled the “moral panic” in which the trial took place. In the retrial, Black was considered as an example of what the Report condemned, as well as being a foreign “undesirable”. It did not help his cause that the deceased’s pseudonym, Johnny McBride, was taken from a novel by the American Mickey Spillane, whose thrillers about “violence, sex and degradation”, banned in New Zealand in the early 1950s, were covertly consumed in schools. Further engrained hostility to youthful lawlessness and immoral behaviour appears in Justice Finlay’s xenophobically-fuelled beliefs, reported in the Auckland Star just before the final hearing under the headline, “Grand Jury Judge says Black is not one of ours”. That his pronouncement of “an apparently deliberate stabbing” with “no opening of either provocation or self defence” may have influenced the jurors’ states of mind at such a crucial moment was raised at the appeal, but swept aside. Undoubtedly, however, the most damning proof of a predetermined, biased verdict of guilty, suggesting that Black did not have a fair trial, is that a key eyewitness, another immigrant, was not called to give evidence, though he was present when the police made their round-up. After the appeal, he provided redeeming character testimony (“a good bloke, kind-hearted”) and claimed that McBride had indeed given provocation. Instead, “good Kiwi blokes” were rounded up by the police, and collectively delivered a version of events that would ensure they were not implicated. Kidman points out in her acknowledgements that this account, written by Truth reporter Jack Young, when made known, inflamed the public conscience, triggered a wave of revulsion and, ultimately, the repeal of the death penalty.

Kidman’s sympathetic and judicious reconstruction of this tragic story from trial transcripts, interviews, extensive research in Northern Ireland, and through imaginary descriptions and conversations, marks this as a shameful episode in New Zealand’s history. Viewed from 60 years later, it is a shock to encounter the narrow-minded bigotry of the judgement on what, after all, amounted to a single, terrible miscalculation, as Kidman reminds us. In her fiction, she stresses the confusion of the 20-year-old in facing someone so belligerent and problematic as the child migrant, McBride, both immigrants nostalgic for a faraway home, at odds with others in unfamiliar surroundings and caught up in sexual tensions and rivalries. She balances pathos with sober recognition: Black’s relationship with his mother is recorded in touching detail, his care for a wounded hedgehog and singing of Irish and Scottish folk songs and ballads endear him to the reader, as does his friendship with Peter Simpson whom he met on the boat, and tender feelings for Rose, the woman in Naenae with whom the two migrants boarded, and, most of all, his affection for Bessie, the young woman whom he loved and who came to see him, pregnant, in gaol. Kidman shows how such a tragedy touches the lives of all involved: jurors, prison officers, lawyers, parents and, most of all, Black’s girlfriend, who is placed into a home for wayward women and forced to give their child up for adoption. 

In tracing Black’s fateful path to his tragic end, Kidman moves in episodic fashion between different characters, circles and their settings: Black’s working-class family in Belfast; to Upper Hutt and Naenae, Parliament House and Wellington political life; the coffee bar and pub culture of  Queen Street, Auckland; the Supreme Court and Mt Eden gaol. But it is the colourful descriptions of the excesses and concealments of New Zealand society with its vestiges of puritanism that stand out: the juror, who pees in his pants when anxious, and another juror who is exposed as a queer boy – both being thereby undermined in authority; the levelling six o’clock swill with men vomiting like “fountains of spaghetti”; and a pistol-shaped spigot pointed at out-held glasses, as seen through the incredulous eyes of the new arrivals, Albert and his friend Peter. Offsetting such scenes is the powerful summing-up of the deputy lawyer for the defence – that the vanity and recklessness of youth does not usually have to be paid for with a life, that such folly can be overcome and forgiven, that age undercuts any belief in immortality: “You have before you this mortal boy, one who has made a mistake, unintended, but a mistake nonetheless with terrible consequences. Death is forever” – and whose call for forgiveness, goodness and mercy falls on deaf ears.

This Mortal Boy is the latest in Kidman’s output of semi-fictional novels that draw on the findings of research to reconstruct historically familiar figures in the context of their era, recreating their decisions and trajectories in light of their destiny. Like Hilary Mantel, she writes with acute observation and attention to detail, getting inside the skin of her characters to establish a deeper truth about their thoughts and feelings than any official record can. Novels like The Book of Secrets (1987), the story of the Scottish preacher Norman McLeod and the founding of a community at Waipu in 1850, have earned her a name as a trenchant recorder of the nation’s “alternative” history, the forgotten moments and disturbing mysteries that emanate from extraordinary characters. Others, such as The Infinite Air (2013), the life of the famous, mysterious aviatrix, Jean Batten, and The Captive Wife (2004), the story of Betty Guard, captured for four months by Māori in 1834, focus on remarkable women. 

This Mortal Boy stands out from these novels as the protagonist is a largely inarticulate young man, but Kidman rises above the seemingly intractable account of a doomed life in her beautifully observed portrait of Albert’s mother, Kathleen, in her yearning for her son, her closeness to him as “mother’s boy” and determination to protect and help him. The painful tension caused by her grief and loss, the unbridgeable distance and adamant decision of the politicians to refuse her entry to New Zealand to make an appeal, is partly relieved by her success in gathering 12,000 signatures in her petition for clemency.

Kidman presents the parallel story of Black’s mother through memories, photographs, songs, and her vivid picture of family life – the marriage to Bert, their first-born’s death, then Albert and his younger brother – to show Albert had a home and once “belonged”. This dimension of maternal feeling, reinforced by the community support for Kathleen Black, offers compassionate humanity and love as counters to the harsh and unsympathetic handling of Black’s life by the troubled witnesses and role-bound jurors and officials among whom his last days were spent, making him all the more believable as a character who deserved a future. 

Janet Wilson is Professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the University of Northampton, UK, and co-editor of The Journal of Postcolonial Writing.

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