Excisions, Alan Roddick

Charles Brasch’s literary executor Alan Roddick explains the afterlife of Brasch’s journals

In the Autumn 2019 issue of New Zealand Review of Books Pukapuka Aotearoa, a review by Douglas Lloyd Jenkins contained, in passing, the following assertions: 

In defence of local biographers, gay men and, in particular, 20th-century ones, seldom make co-operative subjects. Those who had the courage to leave honest accounts of their lives have too often suffered at the hands of homophobic executors. Pages mysteriously torn from the diaries of homosexual poet Charles Brasch … being [a case] in point.

As Brasch’s literary executor, and therefore the only “executor” involved with his literary and personal papers, I feel entitled to assume that this criticism was aimed at me, but such speculations also impugn the ability of the Hocken Library to safeguard its holdings against vandalism. I have lived with Brasch estate matters for the last 46 years, but I realise that many people today may not know how such things have been handled.

Charles Brasch was not a man to rush into important decisions. He and I were friends for some 17 years, and I stayed at his house in Dunedin a number of times. The fact that he asked me in 1972 to be his literary executor tells me he had confidence in my judgement and reliability.

His will set out in detail what was to happen to various parts of his estate. Among the materials bequeathed to the Hocken Library, his papers concerned with Landfall could be freely accessible to researchers; his poems and prose writings were to be made available for his literary executor to deal with; and a large archive of personal and family papers, including his journals, were to be unavailable to any person for 30 years from his death.

When Brasch died in May 1973, his books and papers were removed from his house by Michael Hitchings, the Hocken Librarian, and Stuart Strachan, Hocken Archivist, and his journals were immediately locked away under the 30-year embargo required by the will.

From May 2003, Brasch’s journals became available for inspection. They were written in diary-sized notebooks, each one small enough to be carried in the breast-pocket of his jacket. Their pages were densely filled with his tiny handwriting and were hard to read without magnification. The journals are held in the Hocken archives; every reader must sign in to request an item; and the Hocken staff issues one journal at a time, to be read only in a designated glass-walled reading-room under continual supervision by library staff. 

I no longer recall when I first handled Brasch’s journals in the Hocken Library or became aware that excisions had been made in some journals. Peter Simpson, in his introduction to the second volume of the Charles Brasch Journals, has argued that Brasch himself was likely to have made the excisions, and I agree with him: who else but their writer knew those crowded pages so intimately?  

It is relevant to note here that the Hocken Library holds only two Brasch journals prior to 1938, those labelled “1931-32” and “Russia, August-September 1934”. Given that he appears to have kept a journal for most of his life, it would seem probable that Brasch also destroyed an unknown number of other journals, after consulting them as he wrote his autobiographical memoir Indirections. This, too, would have been consistent with everything we know of him as a very private person who preserved his right to decide what he wanted to tell us, and what was none of our business. 

But Brasch must have the last word here, and I thank Peter Simpson for alerting me to these sentences from the journal for 1963, dated 11 August: 

There have been times when I wanted to lay my soul bare, expose my whole life, to friends or on paper. But not now. I see now that so much is not worth knowing; and I no longer wish to speak about certain matters, which don’t concern other people. 

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