James McNeish & Vincent O’Sullivan (2004)

Janet Wilson, ed.: WLWE: World Literature Written in English 39 (2) (2002-3)

A Low Dishonest Decade

James McNeish. Dance of the Peacocks: New Zealanders in Exile in the Time of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung. Auckland: Vintage, 2003. ISBN 1-86941-564-7 / Vincent O’Sullivan. Long Journey to the Border: a Life of John Mulgan. Auckland: Penguin (NZ) Ltd., 2003. ISBN 0-14-301871-X.

James McNeish: Dance of the Peacocks (2003)

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade …
– W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”

The Thirties, that “low dishonest decade,” has long had a place in cultural iconography: soup-kitchens, hunger-marchers, the Comintern, pinko poets, Spain … Now it seems that New Zealand must have its own float in the big parade. Our collective national pride in Katherine Mansfield, sole Kiwi representative at the Bloomsbury feast, has always seemed a little irrational. It remains, however, dear to our hearts. The authors of these two books (and a flock of similar volumes which have appeared over the last year or so: Rachel Barrowman’s biography of R. A. K. Mason, Gloria Rawlinson and Derek Challis’s Book of Iris, Michele Leggott’s edition of Robin Hyde’s poems) are gambling that the same could become true of that grim and terrible “bit in between” the two wars:
‘I couldn’t tell you about the war,’ Johnson said. ‘It wasn’t a lot different from anything else. I could tell you worse things about the peace.”

‘What was the peace?’

‘That was the bit in between.’

‘Worse things?’

‘Truer things.’
– John Mulgan, Man Alone (1939)

James McNeish’s Dance of the Peacocks takes great delight in setting the scene in suitably archetypal terms:
… in the beginning, when the New Zealand group [of James Bertram, Charles Brasch, and Ian Milner] formed, they did feel that they were destined in some way to kindle a light amid dark times. In this, ironically, they were inspired by a great reactionary, Frank Milner ... the headmaster at Waitaki, where it all began. [13]

Well, where else could it begin but at (the closest New Zealand equivalent to) public school? “The best reason I have for opposing Fascism is that at school I lived in a Fascist state,” is the famous Auden quote from Graham Greene’s anthology The Old School (1934). This one too came complete with cold baths, sexual repression and cross-country runs. What’s more, it was presided over by “The Man,” Milner, Empire loyalist and “silver-tongued orator from the South Seas” [21] as he became known during his later propaganda tours in America (cf. the headmaster’s speech in Auden’s The Orators, 1931). What more natural than that his son Ian should become a kind of Kim Philby manqué, falsely accused of being a communist spy, but in any case doomed to live out his later life in the salt mines of Czechoslovakian higher education? (cf. Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, 1984).

“Dramatise, dramatise, dramatise …” was Henry James’s sole piece of advice for writers (just as “be kind” was his only rule of conduct). McNeish has certainly taken the counsel to heart. He plays for all it’s worth each discrete scene in the drama of the New Zealand Rhodes scholars departing for England and (eventually) war. One wonder, at times, if the protagonists would recognise themselves in these fit, bronzed ideals: James Bertram as a taciturn Peter Fleming, traversing the wastes of far Tartary, Geoffrey Cox as Hitchcockian Foreign Correspondent, at home in every capital, Charles Brasch as bumbling, gentle Spenderian poet-editor, Dan Davin as – well, there the analogy breaks down. There’s really no accounting for the curious mixture of artist, warrior, scholar and drunk which added up to Dan Davin.

The result, I should emphasise immediately, is amusing, fascinating, timely – as rattling a good yarn as any of Graham Greene’s entertainments (The Third Man, The Confidential Agent). But is it serious, is it good art? Well, does it have to be? The Thirties made a speciality of the ramshackle and impromptu, and the mixed-genre nature of McNeish’s book pays tribute to that. His training as a novelist stands him in good stead as he carries his story on past the war, past the cold war even, into the dismal wastes of the decades after. Somehow he makes sure that the drama never flags (though of course it gets sadder as his heroes age, as their ranks begin to thin …).

If serious and sober-sided is what you’re after, it’s time to turn to Long Journey to the Border. Vincent O’Sullivan has composed a very accomplished example of the old-fashioned, four-square critical biography of a man of letters. Here is Mulgan complete (insofar as he’s left much behind for us to judge him by). John Mulgan was the Hemingway-esque enigma of our little play. His disenchanted suicide at the age of 34 left us with only one Report on Experience to set beside Death in the Afternoon (or The Green Hills of Africa), but at least there’s Man Alone to compete with Men without Women (or, more to the point, To Have and Have Not). O’Sullivan is careful to remind us of the passage in the latter where Hemingway’s dying hero breathes out the line: “No matter how a man alone ain’t got no bloody chance.” [192]

So why did he do it? Why did John Mulgan kill himself, with a young wife and child waiting for him in far-off New Zealand (sent all the way there on his insistence)? With his glittering prize of a job still waiting for him at Oxford University Press? With (surely) more books to be written, more deeds of derring-do to be done?
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death” probably brings us as close to the answer as we’re ever likely to get. Certainly O’Sullivan has little to offer on the subject. He gives the dates, the settings, the dramatis personae, but he fails to explain … anything, so far as I can see. Maybe that’s not his job; maybe I expected too much, but, while I enjoyed both of these books very much, I’m afraid I’m forced finally to award the palm to McNeish’s swashbuckling yarn. His ambition in taking on so unwieldy and complex a task as a group biography would seem to merit due recognition to start with, but it’s hard to think of a book since Kenner’s The Pound Era which could rival this one for thorough scholarship combined with entertainment value. It’s certainly superior to either Samuel Hynes’ The Auden Generation or Humphrey Carpenter’s The Brideshead Generation. So far as I’m concerned, sheer brio and audacity have swept all before them. If a better New Zealand biography comes out this decade I’d like to see it.

Vincent O'Sullivan: Long Journey to the Border (2003)


WLWE: World Literature Written in English (UK) 39 (2) (2002-3): 143-46.

[1140 wds]

WLWE: World Literature Written in English 39 (2) (2002-3)

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