Sport 5: Spring 1990
Bill Pearson — Beginnings and Endings
I would stand on the bar of the front gate and watch the main road. Up at the cutting there was a glimpse of passing trains or perhaps, like a revelation needing to be explained, four railwaymen propelling themselves urgently on a push-pull jigger. There were horses pulling drays, the infrequent car, and once even a traction engine chuffing and clanking like a train down the road. There might be someone going up to the hospital or to the grocer's shop and there might be old men from the Old People's Home. My brother told me how to make one of them wild. You had to call out, 'Do you think it will rain today, Mr Moseley?' I couldn't see why that would make anyone wild but one day he came slowly on the other side of the road, wearing a cap, and when I called out he bent slowly and picked up a stone and threw it at me. I didn't understand why my mother was angry with me or what was wrong about it. It wasn't like swearing. I once heard my father come out with a shocking flow of profanity. My mother said I shouldn't listen but how could I help listening? Only my father wouldn't go to heaven. Later, when I was going to school, a teacher punished me for playing up when she was out of the room. She was a Catholic (in Greymouth you always knew who was Catholic and who wasn't) and a girl and I ran out into the middle of the circle of tables and kissed. Miss Moore had a way when she punished the boys of putting them across her knees and pushing up the legs of their pants until she was slapping bare buttocks. I smarted at the injustice all afternoon and when I got home I carefully printed out my private hoard of swear words and one I made up. My feeling of boldness at the time (I was six) seemed to be connected with the new pants I was wearing that Mum had run up on the sewing machine with flour-bag lining. They had no pockets, so when I sat up on the form for tea I had to sit on my list and my sister as she got down from the table snitched it from under me and said, 'You awful boy!' I was expecting another thunderclap of punishment but my sister, who understood rebellion, simply put it in the stove. I always wanted to be a good boy but in ways that only I knew I had persistent intimations that I wasn't.page 4
My mother was a patient woman, gentle and persevering, who hated violence and cruelty. She said she didn't want any of us to be getting into fights with other boys, she said you should turn the other cheek and always do as you would be done by. She said there wouldn't be wars if people would only remember to act like that. One afternoon she made us miss school and took us to the pictures at the Opera House. It was a silent version of Uncle Tom's Cabin; she said it ought to be part of everybody's education.
The first book I cherished was an atlas of the world. It was brand new, bought at a bookshop, not at back doors second-hand from mothers of kids who had been in the class the year before. The colours and shapes fascinated me; there was surprise and permanence in the ragged shape of Scotland where three of my grandparents had come from, and the more-or-less symmetry of Australia which I wanted to copy. I was already familiar with the shape of New Zealand from the A.M.P. calendar on the kitchen wall, with Greymouth near the tip of the nose of the profile of a human face that was made by the railway-line between Inangahua Junction and Rolleston. In the patches of red that made stepping-stones across the world, the Empire on which the sun would never set, New Zealand was so far from England but reassuringly red. One Saturday I did do an enlargement of Australia on a sheet of thick brown paper saved from a parcel and took it to my teacher. I expected some commendation but all I remember was a quizzical look and I never heard of it again. Months later I saw my map on the wall of another teacher's classroom with bits of wool and wheat stuck on it. We had a history book called Our Nation's Story that alternated between England and New Zealand: the ancient Britons and then the ancient Maoris; the Angles, Saxons and Jutes and then the navigators Abel Tasman and Captain Cook, a kind man who had been killed by ungrateful Polynesians. It did not occur to us that we could have been anything but benefactors to the Maoris, but a more pressing puzzle often came to my mind. As I looked out of the school window to the bush on the hills behind Greymouth, if they could be seen under rain, I would wonder at the fact that of all parts of the English-speaking world my home was this particular place on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand, six weeks by sea from England where the King lived and so much of our history had happened.
At first it wasn't easy to imagine a time when I hadn't existed, but from the talk of my parents that time of dreaming took on a pattern of page 5mysterious events and places. There was a time when the Prince of Wales had come to the town. There was Dunedin where my father came from and Scotland which he had left as a baby in arms. His mother still lived in Dunedin and wrote me those letters saved up for me to read when I was older and then made me wriggle: 'My very own dearest wee Willie ...'telling me always to obey the Lord Jesus who loved little children like me. There had been the Black Flu, always spoken of in ominous tones, and there had been the War. My uncle Tom in Canterbury went to that, but my father didn't, and Mr Chettle who was always giving hidings to his kids. Mum said he was bad-tempered because he had a plate in his head, a mystery I gave up trying to understand. Mr Lorking the headmaster had been to the War, he was a swarthy man with a firm loud voice and a strong arm with the strap; we didn't dare be slow to obey him. He told us boys that when we grew up if there was another war we were to do everything we could to prevent it but that if we couldn't we were to join up and fight for our country. And part of the dream-time were Rakaia and Dorie the place my grandfather had given the name to and the land for the school, where my mother had won those red and gold cards in the chiffonier drawer, from old A. & P. shows, first prize for scones, first prize for sponge-cake, second for gooseberry jam, highly commended ... Her grandfather (I was to learn much later) was an agricultural labourer and fisherman drowned in the seas west of Rossshire, a tenant in an impoverished community of tenants living on a lip of land under the forbidding brow of Liathach at the head of an arm of the Atlantic called Loch Torridon. Her father came out in 1862 with not much more than his chest and his Gaelic bible and worked sixteen years as a shepherd for a Scottish land company on land that only a few years before was the territory of the Ngai-Tahu; he bought enough land to enable him to marry (at 39) raise a family and live comfortably as a small farmer. He married a sister of a large family of brothers from County Wexford who set up as farming contractors and became farmers themselves. They said he could do the sword dance at eighty. The only grandparent I ever saw, he was remote and forbidding to a boy of six; almost ninety, his full beard still a dark grey, and staring fiercely through me: 'Now come over here and don't annoy your grandfather.'
I remember sitting on the floor listening to my mother singing expressively at the piano ('Oh mah babby, mah curly-headed babby. . .') and on our walls there were her paintings of romantic seascapes and landscapes, maybe in moonlight, done before she was married. She was 26 when she married, my father (like hers) 39. In his album there were page 6pages of photographs of an earlier fiancee but (so my mother told me) she broke it off when he failed to call one weekend when he was in town. As one who was sure of his priorities he was aggrieved because he had been helping his parents move house. But my mother (who by then had been put upon by his) said she admired the girl's spirit. He started work at twelve, working for the railways, was in sole charge of his first rural station at sixteen, and when he married was a clerk at Greymouth station. Somewhere in his career he had made some technical blunder for which he got a blister and a long-term blockage to promotion. He made two resolutions for the sake of his children: he wouldn't let them join the public service, and since his own school education had been disrupted by his mother's restless shifting from house to house, he would stay in one place once his children started school. He played the flute, practising uncertainly for concerts of the local Orchestral Society and he liked to listen to light classics on the wireless when we got one. In his long bachelorhood his hobby was photography; we used as a stool a leatherclad cube which rattled with the broken glass negatives inside it. He was an elder of the Presbyterian Church and a Mason (riding the goat, my mother called it) secretary to his lodge and to one or two other organisations. My brothers and sister had music lessons, the cornet, the piano, the violin. I was looking forward to learning the piano and was certain that unlike them I wouldn't have to be driven to practise. But his forty years service were up and he had to retire and couldn't afford it. In fact during my life he spent more years in retirement than working. For the next few years it was to be a text frequently invoked: We can't afford it.
I recognised Dunedin on the blackboard the moment the teacher had finished printing it. In the primers I used to ask for a Standard One journal to take home to read after tea. One day the teacher, in exasperation at trying to find an issue that I hadn't read, gave me a Standard Six journal with big words about the landing at Anzac Cove and a picture of the ships at Suvla Bay. It was too difficult for me and my mother was angry with the teacher.
I wrote my first book when I was eight, a miscellany of essays, verse and fiction, in a penny notebook of 32 ruled pages, with its own brand name, the Forward Note Book. The title I gave it was A Little Book of Spiders, changed later to A Little Book of Things. We had a lively teacher that year, a tall vigorous woman whose name changed during the year because she married. She must have given a lesson memorable enough to inspire my first piece in the book, an account of the varieties of spiders, page 7of which the one that excited me most was the one that didn't bother making webs but just ran to the tops of trees to catch birds and devour them on the spot. It lived in Australia or America or Africa or Canada. I don't think I made it up. But the next story was my own invention, 'The Spiders' Party', a black morality about a spider that won the confidence of two others by inviting them to a series of parties and then captured them and also their mother when she came to look for them, but was forestalled by their father who nipped him and threw him into the river where, not being a water spider, he drowned. Later in my book there is a chapter on the Maori discovery of New Zealand and others on Tasman and Cook, with careful maps of New Zealand, of England and Holland, and of the Pacific islands, the home countries of the discoverers.
My brother knocked up a desk for me out of apple-cases and I can see myself using the backs of my father's notices of lodge meetings to write sermons. At this time (I was ten) I was religious and went to morning church as well as afternoon Sunday school because the minister put on a sermon for children and invited us to answer questions. I can remember too using my father's second-hand Remington to two-finger a sanctimonious story suggested by a notorious kidnapping of the time, of the baby of the aviator Charles Lindbergh. In my story, which never got beyond an opening, Mrs Lindbergh piously expresses faith that the Lord will see that her baby is returned. We didn't yet know that the baby would be killed but I suspect that my fascination with the affair had something to do with the fact that my young brother's arrival without warning when I was five had disturbed me more than I was prepared to acknowledge.
My father took out a subscription to the Christchurch evening paper the Star-Sun. It came over to Greymouth on the night goods train and was delivered in the morning in competition with the Argus, which although its news might be fresher, was Labour and in my parents' view, only a rag. About the same time, with the new prosperity, my mother started buying the Australian Woman's Mirror. Not concerned that I was impersonating an adult and a woman as well, I used an anecdote of my mother's for a par in the Mirror which appeared on the page headed 'Between Ourselves'. From about thirteen I was writing for Aunt Hilda's page in the Star-Sun. I was a solitary boy and never cared for team sports or male competitiveness and of course team captains didn't want someone who had as little confidence in his physical prowess as 1 had, so I never had difficulty getting through school without playing sport, and it didn't cause me much worry whether I met the canons of masculine page 8distinction that prevailed at the time. I am not sure how or why I began a long interest in native plants and birds, with the help of a commercial teacher who was a source of knowledge of local history and an advocate of forest conservation. I got into the habit of spending my Saturday afternoons wandering in the bush, observing the birds that could be seen at lower levels, taking home seedlings for a native garden I was cultivating. I was able to identify all the trees and shrubs I came across in the bush at the back of Cottle's Hill at Karoro, with the further help of two books I had won in story competitions, Laing and Blackwell's Plants of New Zealand and an illustrated book of birds of the forest published by the Forest and Bird Protection Society of which I became a member. A consequence of my interest was a haughty disdain for exotics. Although I knew a few English trees, it wasn't till years later when I went to England that I could recognise an elm or birch or beech, though I was very familiar with the trees called birch and beech in the Westland bush.
The bush at Karoro had already made way for Rugby Park and the lower slopes of the hill were destined to be cleared and subdivided. The first of my stories for the Star-Sun was a conservationist fable about a kindly man who bought as a refuge for the birds an area of bush that was under threat of the axe. The second, published when I was fourteen, involved a discontented young kowhai, impatient to get out of the bush, who persuaded a kind man to transplant him but after seasons of frosts and winds was glad to get back home again. I gave this story a title I had seen in a photograph of the Miners' Hall at Runanga, 'Unity is Strength'.
When I was fourteen I found a weekend job selling chocolate and icecreams at the Regent Theatre. We saw the films free and over two years I must have seen a hundred or more films, nearly all from Hollywood. They were films that I was to learn to see within a few years as escapist and falsely heroic or sentimental, but I think I absorbed from them a sense of narrative, of a story that has a beginning, a middle and end and can be comprehended as a whole, that I was to think of as unimportant for a while but later to rediscover and give emphasis to in the only novel I wrote. I used to take a short cut to town by way of the railway line that crossed Sawyers Creek and ran past an extensive kowhai grove and a smaller scrap of bush that had not quite escaped the axe but was regenerating. I was sure by this time that I was going to be a writer of fiction and the problem was to find in my own experience material that would match what I read in Dickens. On a rainy day I would imagine the mud beach where the tidal creek slid into Karoro Lagoon as the marshes from which Magwitch emerged, scaring Pip in Great Expectations; I page 9would try to visualise the prison hulks on the water. But I despaired of finding characters to equal Miss Havisham or Mrs Gamp. I played with the idea of caricatures of my father who was making me, at that age, irritated or ashamed of him. He was becoming isolated in his own family. If his recourse to the bamboo stick in the bathroom wasn't that frequent he didn't know how else to respond if his authority was defied and we had all been estranged by subdual. Partly it was that we caught on to our mother's mood of disappointment in her marriage but mostly because we held him to blame, as Mum's women friends did, for being as helpless as we.all were in the misfortune that beset her. She developed what they then called disseminated sclerosis, became partly paralysed on one side and could only get around by using a stick or leaning against the wall. We did some of the housework, a woman came in weekly to clean, the coal stove was replaced by gas. But she continued with the cooking. The theory was that she was to call for help when she wanted a saucepan lifted or carried but in practice she did it herself and she had several falls. Once she scalded herself making jam. I took on the family wash and some of the cooking. Later she broke her leg and went into hospital.
There was one story that Aunt Hilda didn't print, it wasn't even acknowledged. It was called 'The Scrap' and referred to that little piece of regenerating bush I used to pass on my way along the railway line. In my story there was a war and Mussolini's planes bombed the town (as they had recently bombed Abyssinia). The town was evacuated and left to sink to the ground and quietly revert to bush, so that the scrap came into its own again. A conservationist triumph, but I doubt if I recognised myself how defeatist it was, not at all the wholesome children's story that Aunt Hilda said my first story was.
In the sixth form we had a textbook that analysed the novel into six aspects: plot, character, setting, craftsmanship, movement and philosophy. I was able to illustrate them all to the teacher's satisfaction from Martin Chuzzlewit. But I still needed a key to the craft of writing from my own experience and thoughts. If I looked for it in modern writers, Priestley's The Good Companions was alien, and though I recognised the authoritative tone of Lawrence's The Prussian Officer when I discovered it in an anthology of stories, it was too far removed from experience I had known. I intended to read Galsworthy.
Over the space of two days three things happened that were important to me: I was dux of the school, my mother died, and I learned that I hadn't been accepted for training college. After Mum was buried, the problem was what to do. My father took me to see the Labour M.P., James page 10O'Brien, though I doubt if he had ever voted for him. I remember his parting piece of advice. He said that if I ever got into a scrap I was first of all to do everything I could to stop it but if I found I couldn't I was to get stuck in and fight like hell. But I couldn't see that that would get me into training college. My father thought university was beyond his means, but the Anglican vicar's wife who had a son at university could show that it cost little more than books and board. In Christchurch I found a part-time job (doing housework for a couple of teachers' wives) but for that year of dependence lived in fear of failure in the exams. Nevertheless it was the expansive atmosphere of those years of Labour's second term of office that brought university within my reach. Even in 1938, when I was in the sixth form, a neighbour stopped me on the street, a working man, and asked me wasn't it time I had a job. That year I turned down an offer from the local evening paper but I couldn't have afforded to in the climate of three years earlier. At the end of the year at university I was accepted for training college.
Besides being dux I had won a prize donated by the two local newspapers for knowledge of current topics and someone intelligent had chosen Yeats's Oxford Book of Modern Verse and Mikhail Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don. I suspect it was the excellent geography master who livened our sixth form year with a reading of Shaw's Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and a new book on the economic geography of the Soviet Union. When Mum died some friends invited me to stay with them in Blackball, the locale of my novel. It wasn't my first stay in a coal-miner's household, but what was new was being with people who spoke with admiration for the Soviet Union.
Throughout these years I developed from my reading a revulsion against the horror and futility of the First World War, and there was the pressing sense that another war of worse horror was coming. I looked on nationalism as a dangerous passion. During that last year before the outbreak of war I had a dream of Chamberlain and Roosevelt with truncheons and dressed as policemen beating up Hitler. I had discovered James Joyce: 'brutish to the breakbone' my dream said, which I thought clever and gave me confidence because it came unsought. But I polished it: 'brutish to the crackdome' . . . I was yet to learn that one of the women we used to call penguins that I could have passed on the footpaths of Greymouth on any day, the Sisters of Mercy whose clothes had once alarmed us, was James Joyce's sister.
At the end of that last year of dependence I wrote a 25,000 word piece of fiction, a hardly disguised autobiography of my first sixteen years. I page 11didn't even change my name. There were three sections: Home, Heart, and School; it is clumsily written and quite often I use the wrong word. But there isn't any self-pity, not too much apologia, no posturing; it was an attempt at honesty and a farewell to childhood. I didn't read it again till recently and found it surprisingly painful to be reminded of the shames and hurts that memory had tidied away. I followed this with a shorter, more accomplished treatment of the same material, beginning with a section in baby talk, modelled on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but after a few episodes I ran out of interest, and reading it recently left me quite cold.
So in the summer when young men were whistling Stardust and Deep Purple and the war hadn't got really serious, I presented myself at Dunedin Training College, late and panting because I hadn't moved quickly enough when the bus pulled up at the Octagon. In those two years I changed my views more rapidly than at any other time. I arrived a conventional church-going small-town conformist, I left an agnostic left-wing pacifist. My literary aims also changed radically.
The seeds had been sown the year before at Canterbury University. The students' paper Canta was iconoclastic, Winston Rhodes was repeatedly dislodging preconceptions. One day in a lecture he casually referred to Virginia Woolf as the greatest living English novelist. I had never heard of her. Archie Stockwell recommended Queenie Leavis's Fiction and the Reading Public, and I discovered five novelists whose work I didn't know and conscientiously set out to make up for my ignorance: Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, T.F. Powys and E.M. Forster. Mrs Leavis persuaded me I needn't read Galsworthy or Arnold Bennett. I read her select five with reverence and with an eye to what I might pick up for my own writing. In Archie Dunningham's Dunedin Public Library I haunted the shelf of new fiction. I took home Finnegans Wake, intrigued by its strangeness but unable to understand for more than a short stretch or two. I decided to adopt as my style the new 'stream of consciousness' as they called it, and saw it as the long-sought key to writing from my own experience. Virginia Woolf had shown that one could use the thoughts and impressions of one's own mind and make from them rhythmical, sprightly sentences, without having to stand over experience, comment, obtrude, moralise, as Dickens did. I went through a phase (already out of fashion in England if I had known) of dismissing Dickens as a sentimental caricaturist. Some day I would walk into the Caxton Press in Christchurch and surprise them with a novel in solemn page 12stream of consciousness. I was encouraged by the discovery that a young Australian had just published a novel in that mode. I often looked into that novel at the shelf, but if I did take it home I must have found that I didn't understand it, because when I read Happy Valley many years later I didn't recognise more than I had learned from the dust jacket in 1940. For me interior monologue removed the demand on the writer to be too knowledgeable, it located experience in one person's mind set in a flux of time. Virginia Woolf's style seemed so usable for commonplace experience here and now in New Zealand. The sea off St Kilda, for example, quietly sparkling on a summer morning, or the progression of shadows in the folds of the foothills, the cropped and scruffy turf and the pocks and ledges of the hillside I was climbing at the end of exams, the shuddering of reflections on a West Coast lake recomposing after a launch had passed. For shadows and reflections, skies and sea, time and change. It didn't have to be all rural experience. For the training college annual magazine, at the end of the reports of the sports clubs, I wrote a Woolfish piece set in a city dancehall.
So from these modernist novelists, and from Forster's Aspects of the Novel, I developed a credo of fiction that would manage without more than the lightest sketch of a plot, that would concern itself with momentary impressions and moods, conveyed sensitively by a writer who kept in the background. Anything that drew attention to the writer's presence or threatened the illusion of immediacy was forbidden. So were coincidence and happy endings. The ultimate appeal was to Life. I hadn't yet tried to write a novel.
But I conscientiously sought experience. Over the next seven or eight years I worked for short spells as a railway surfaceman, tram conductor, night porter at a city hotel, hand on a gold dredge, trucker in a coal-mine, tar-sealer, rough painter for the public works, and seaman. Once in the middle of the night at Arthurs Pass or Otira I surprised the man who goes along the train tapping wheels (I was thinking of the brakeman who appears on the freight trains that Fainey McCreary rode in The 42nd Parallel) when I resolutely engaged him in a conversation about his work. I think I believed that sort of experience, in which I felt myself to be particularly lacking, to be of more value to me than other kinds.
I had two iconoclastic friends in my second year at college, whose worldliness would puncture my idealism. One of them, a graduate, had been editor of Canta when I was at Canterbury; he had the courage to go to gaol for his pacifist objection to military service. The other was married. He thought Virginia Woolf pretentious. 'Thomas Wolfe's your page 13man!' But when I caught up with Look Homeward, Angel and The Web and the Rock, they weren't for me. My friend was also keen on Damon Runyon and I affected to see virtue there. But the American writer for whom 1 developed a passion no less keen than for Virginia Woolf was John Dos Passos, who seemed to me to have his eye calmly on the object, to describe (as Joyce said) what they said and what they did. I was very much aware, in those days of Leavis and Denys Thompson, of the misuse of language in advertising and propaganda, especially the war propaganda we were daily assailed with. I was very much aware of my own weakness for sentimentality and wish-fulfilment fantasy, the throbbing pulse that used to come at moments of recognition or reunion or reconciliation in those pretentious Warner Brothers films at the Regent Theatre in Greymouth, with maybe the Celestial Choir uplifting me against my will. Or the weakness I had, until I was introduced to Duke Ellington and hot jazz, for the popular songs of the day. Fantasy and selfindulgence were to be rejected and to discover reality was not only a duty but a challenge.
We had a lecturer in English, Elsie Barrowclough, who could talk about Eliot and Joyce even if she didn't care for them, and I was overjoyed once when I questioned our art lecturer, Gordon Tovey, in his use of 'literary' to mean 'fussy, with too much detail'. I said the literary could bring out the essence of things and his reply showed that he was familiar with Dos Passos. But the English II course at Otago University left me cold. After the Canterbury teachers the Otago staff seemed remote and unadventurous. The professor told us in his Scots accent that the course was confined to literature that had been tried and trued by the test of time. But I couldn't see that seventeenth century poetry or the Voyages of Ohthere had any bearing on my current problems.
In my undifferentiated embrace of the iconoclasm of the English twenties and thirties, I accepted the new liberalism in child education and was a ready convert to the ideas of A.S. Neill who seemed a champion of the oppressed, children who had been driven to rebellion by myopic adults. I was enthusiastic about my 'sections', spells of teaching experience in schools, but didn't know how to cope with a truculent class in North East Valley who had a teacher they didn't like. One of my sections I took at the Children's Library under the guidance of Dorothy Neal White and developed an enthusiasm for the new wave of children's books like Ferdinand the Bull (the bull who would rather smell flowers than fight) or Babar the Elephant and Emil and the Detectives. In our cyclostyled literary magazine Venture I wrote an appreciation of page 14a children's book by Gertrude Stein, The World is Round.
My immediate and pressing problem was to bring myself to publicly acknowledge my objection to killing for my country. At Arthur's Pass, crossing to the Coast one May holiday, I recognised my problem when I heard a Canterbury university student speaking to her companion about a brother or friend: 'He's going to go, and write about it afterwards—oppose war that way.' But that struck me as an evasion. I knew I would go to gaol if I refused to go into the army, but reading Koestler had prepared me for that. Yet I didn't have the courage to face the complete ostracism that I assumed would follow an outright refusal of service. My objections were not religious and listening to a session of the board that heard objectors' appeals had convinced me of their intolerance of objections based on humanitarian grounds. And I wasn't convinced that for me complete objection was right. Accusing myself of cowardice for compromising I decided to object only to combatant service. Even so I was aware of inconsistency in my position. Wouldn't serving in the Medical Corps make it easier for others to do the killing? And now that Russia was in the war didn't I want to see the Nazis defeated?
Blackball was more tolerant of a conchie teacher than a sheepfarmers' town would have been. I won my point: an army notice arrived directing me to report to the Medical Corps at Rakaia Military Camp. But it had been sent to a Dunedin address and reached me too late. I went immediately to the army office in Greymouth. The headmaster, who didn't like me, thought he had got rid of me and wired the Education Board for a replacement. The sergeant in the army office was brother of an old schoolmate and sent me back to Blackball with assurances that he would sort it out. He eventually phoned me and cleared it with me first that I would go into the Dental Corps as a dental orderly, an unexpectedly unglorious outcome of my objection. The Dental Corps operated in all three services and for the next two or three years I was at army camps and air force stations, for sixteen months at a flying-boat base in Fiji. When I got the chance I liked talking to Americans, I saw them through the eyes of their writers, and I was angry at the xenophobic hostility so many Kiwi servicemen felt for them.
In the army I re-thought my position and concluded I could no longer logically object to combatant service. So I made no objection when I was unexpectedly transferred to the infantry, and was a member of the last reinforcement to go to Egypt and Italy, and of the first party to go to Japan as part of the occupation force. At Ma'adi I saw a sergeant practicing with page 15a flame-thrower and I asked myself, Would I be capable of using a weapon like that? For a cause that I believed in? But having thrown away the principle I couldn't come up with any answer that made me easy.
My five months in Blackball made a lasting impression and in the army I often thought of writing about it, perhaps one of those studies that see all the parts in relation to the whole, taking in geography, history, economic and social relations, in the style that I had admired in Lewis Mumford's books on technology and cities. Some years later I was to teach in the Canterbury sheepfarming town of Oxford, the model of H.C.D. Somerset's Littledene, but when I read Littledene it wasn't the sort of study of a small town that I had in mind.
Occasionally I would be moved to shut myself in the dental surgery on a Sunday and try a story. There was a satirical piece about a campaign by the government to persuade the troops to pay back their wages to win the war with. A cynical piece about a world-weary young idealist turned nihilist who throws himself over Highcliff, down into the heaving bullkelp, but has to get drunk first and in fact slips anyway. And a long travel diary of a journey around the main island of Fiji, part of which Ian Gordon used in New Zealand New Writing. I found I trusted myself better at sensitive observation than at sheer invention.
At some time in those years I came across the second piece of writing by a fellow New Zealander that I remember wanting to think about: the serial version of That Summer in Penguin New Writing. (The first was Man Alone.) I recognised the authoritative tone of a writer who can be trusted, but that colloquial style was not one I wanted to imitate. I at last found one or two novels by Faulkner, so often mentioned in literary discussion but so difficult to find in army libraries. The tragic novels of Thomas Hardy claimed me for a while. But the most exciting discovery, another literary passion as intense as for Woolf and Dos Passos, was Graham Greene, for his disenchanted knowledge of the world, his compassion, his faith and hope, and particularly for the narrative impetus, the desire to get on with the story. I would search the shelves of army libraries in the hope of finding a Greene that I hadn't read and was overjoyed if I did. I came to admire structure in a novel, for the first time since reading Dickens. I was later to see that plot could be more than a necessary frame: in works that moved me like Wuthering Heights or King Lear or Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde the structure was part of the meaning.
It was in an army hospital in Japan that I had an unmistakable visitation from the muse. The war was finished and the New Zealand medical team moved out, and we patients were left to the culture shock page 16of being immediately taken over by Australians. One night some Australian soldiers were casually reminiscing; one of them recalled an incident of rough justice at a camp at Flemington racecourse, when a soldier caught stealing from his mates was escorted to the top of a grandstand and told to jump. The cruelty nagged me, as if I were the victim. I felt I had to make my protest in a story. But of course I had never set foot on Australia, so instead I worked it out in a setting I knew, among kiwi soldiers in Italy. I lay awake chain-smoking most of the night, the staccato phrases came with rightness and clarity, and in the morning I only had to pull up my bed-tray and write the story from memory as if it was a letter home. Charles Brasch printed the story in an early Landfall. Not long later, out of hospital now, the first germ of Coal Flat came to me in the night, with far less certainty. It was to be about a sensitive young teacher, a follower of A.S. Neill faced with a problem child in an unsympathetic mining town, a man who has hardly admitted to himself that he is homosexual. He is falsely accused of a sexual offence against the boy and goes to gaol. Later I changed the outcome: he is cleared of the charge but in the course of his defence he has revealed enough about himself to make his return to the community more difficult than before. It was to be a very subjective novel full of anxiety and guilt. There were to be devices taken from Dos Passos: Camera's Eye sections in interior monologue and maybe, if that wouldn't be too pretentious, Newsreel sections made up of headlines and news-clips. I made a beginning in third person narrative in a style like Graham Greene. Over the next two or three years, back in New Zealand, teaching at a North Canterbury school or finishing a degree at Canterbury University, I kept planning this novel, arranging characters and plot. I accused myself of selfindulgence setting a novel in a mining town and leaving out the union. The conception changed and developed with my own changes in outlook through the fifties.
My long-term aim was to be a country teacher, but only as a base from which to write fiction. I didn't even think of full-time writing and I looked on newspaper journalism as death to original invention. The real New Zealand, it seemed, was in the country and more than once I felt remiss when I went in from Oxford to Christchurch for the weekend rather than to Rangiora for the A. & P. show or up to Lees Valley for allday dog trials. Experience it might be, but I knew I would be bored. When the opportunity came to study in England I was in two minds because an academic career seemed no less a sentence of death to creative ability. Friends told me I belonged here and I decided to take up the scholarship page 17but come back and take up country teaching again. I remember talking about this with Maurice Duggan in London, who argued that New Zealand was becoming more urbanised and urban settings would become more common. And after two springs in London with such pleasures as open-air Shakespeare in the long summer evenings, Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake, French films at the Everyman, the New Statesman at any bookstall on the day of publication, the distinct procession of seasons and flowers, the generally expansive mood of those post-war years and the freedom from all the kiwi obsessions, I began to have doubts about wanting to return home at all. The problem drove me to look into myself and analyse what was different in my personal experience of New Zealanders and the English and in my own outlook and habits of thought from those of the English, and so I wrote 'Fretful Sleepers', at the end of which I knew that I would go back to New Zealand. That essay cleared the way for my novel, which I dutifully put off until such time as I would have finished my doctoral thesis. But I did relax one summer and write two sections in which I felt the lightness of spirit breathing from old readings of those writers who had fired me years before. But it was my own style, or styles.
When I handed in the thesis there were three chapters of the novel already written. I stayed home and wrote full-time until my savings ran out. I covered ground quickly. In two months I had written half the novel or more but I had to earn, and found work as a supply teacher for the London County Council relieving for absent teachers in inner-city schools. I was now planning an optimistic ending. The undeclared deviant hero was to be won to honest normality, but during a severe revision, one summer vacation, I dropped the homosexual theme entirely. It was something I couldn't handle without trying to write a kind of novel I didn't want to write.
I read Darkness at Noon in 1941; after that I couldn't idealise communism or imagine that human nature might improve in a communist society. But I still looked for simple answers and even seriously thought about, before turning against it, a book called The Machiavellians by James Burnham who put forward arguments, with which the world would soon become all too familiar, that in the cause of anti-communism no tactic was to be considered morally objectionable. Greene started me on a sentimental and fashionable interest in Catholicism. For me it was nostalgia for certainties no longer available, and I had to recognise that in fact I didn't believe the doctrine. I was reading St Teresa for my thesis page 18(on nineteenth century English Catholic poets) and her experiences of rapture seemed remarkable but of little relevance to our time (though in one draft of my novel I tried to give them to Miss Dane who went into a convent). But the event that brought me back to the mid-twentieth century was the outbreak of the Korean War which shook my faith in the United States government's concern for peace and made me fear thatwe would have to choose between two evils. I had no doubt that American foreign policy was a greater danger to the world than that of the communist countries who needed peace and whose internal policies carried the possibility of revision, especially now that China had become communist. But I was saved the impossible choice by the birth of the peace movement which raised the hope that people all over the world might put pressure on their governments to agree to live together. I began to read the Daily Worker as well as the Times. I lost contact with contemporary new fiction, especially American. It is common to see the fifties through the eyes of the Beats as a decade of suburban complacency but for me they were a time of constant political involvement. For the whole time that I was engaged in writing and revising my novel I was also signing petitions, attending meetings, sitting on committees, marching or demonstrating against the Korean War and the atrocities with napalm and flame-throwers that Wilfred Burchett was reporting from North Korea, against the cold war and violent children's comics, against apartheid and McCarthyism and the execution of the Rosenbergs; and for peaceful coexistence and nuclear disarmament. I addressed envelopes for the Authors' World Peace Appeal, of which a number of prominent writers were signatories, I belonged to and edited the house organ for a group of Australians and New Zealanders concerned for civil liberties in their own countries, I wrote the London notes for Bob Lowry's Here and Now, I agreed to go to North Korea with a students' delegation that was in the end cancelled. I was a member of Teachers for Peace, the Hampstead Peace Council, and I went as New Zealand delegate to a congress of the World Peace Council at Budapest in June 1953. At the end of the decade I was involved in the Auckland equivalent of C.N.D., collected signatures against an All Black visit to South Africa and was an internal rapporteur at a conference of Maori leaders.
The conference at Budapest gave me insights that could not be more than hinted at or implied in a novel that I had long decided to anchor in 1947, but more than one revision was needed before it conformed with those new impressions of the way the world was developing or the way my reception of those impressions would change before I was satisfied page 19with what I was to write. There were so many Latin American delegates, so many monks in saffron robes from South-east Asia. We learned that Indo-China was three countries with unfamiliar names and separate delegations. A delegate from Vietnam read a poem of Ho Chi Minh. Zhou Enlai addressed us. We sat under Picasso's dove and we had, or I think we had, the blessing if not the presence of Sartre. There were several writers from communist countries, only names to me—Seghers, Surkov, Ehrenburg, and many others whose reputation was confined to their own country, like the benign Hungarian peasant writer in leather leggings who, at a function for writers, asked a Mexican what he thought of a novel about Mexico he had once read by the Englishman Lawrence. There was an atmosphere of civilised exchange about the gathering.
At least at times ... An Egyptian speaker refused to shake hands with an Israeli delegate who had come up to congratulate her. The committee decided that this was one of those minor enmities that had to be tolerated in the interest of wider agreement ... A white South African clergyman said he couldn't in conscience vote for a motion that spoke of 'the people of our countries' rather than 'the majority of the people' because there were many white people in his country who would not agree with it, but a Guyanese delegate said that those people were not the people ... The freckle-faced woman from California, tall and slim, brought the house down when she enunciated, as neatly as a syllogism, the sentiments we wanted to hear but knew to be not quite true: 'the Korean people don't want them there, the American people don't want them to be there, they don't want to be there!' . . . On the wide balcony, on the afternoon of amplifiers and the huge public rally in the square, the decorated Stakhanovite steel worker, big and bald, laid a finger along his nose when he met the other American delegate, a matron with her hair in immaculate waves. She asked him angrily what that was for, he said it was for Eisenhower ... There was a conceited apparatchik, a Londoner called David Gould say, picking up the phone in his best French, abstractedly plucking cherries from a bowl (compliments of the People's Government) without noticing those who had appointments with him (an Indian delegate just got up and helped himself) who told me they would have to cut my speech to three minutes. I supposed that because they reached decisions by consensus they wanted everybody to say the same thing, especially someone from a little country like mine. It seemed odd that the leading men of the British delegation were anxious when I was invited by the Hungarian Peace Council to stay another week, and they tried very hard to persuade me not to accept.page 20
I was sometimes paired with a Burmese delegate, a shy and staid married woman, but I spent time socially with the Australians. The man I spoke to most freely was an Irish writer Peadar O'Donnell, a very humane man. I didn't know he had been going since the Troubles of 1922 or that he had been to Spain in the late thirties, but he told me he had wandered about the city for long enough to notice that working women coming from the food shops weren't happy with their ration of bread. He was sitting on a bench when a half-paralysed elderly man engaged him in conversation, a dismissed history professor who told him he looked forward to the day the Americans would liberate them. We were both shocked that he could welcome a war against his own people. We didn't know that the shiny copper statue of a fatherly Stalin on the other side of the Danube would be pulled down in three years. But when we went strolling on the Sunday morning we at least satisfied ourselves that nobody was following us and that at the cathedral the people were freely going to mass. The composition of the crowd at an eleven o'clock service, my companion said, was the same as you would see in Dublin at the same time ... It was meant as a compliment two or three weeks later, back teaching in a London school, when a woman teacher who took the Daily Worker and looked on me as an ally told me I was the spitting image of David Gould.
Home again, I distrusted the country that had re-elected the Prime Minister who had ruled with his own variant of fascism during the waterfront dispute of 1951, and I associated with left-wingers and communists. For a couple of years I edited the Peace Council's monthly Peace, advocating recognition of communist China and getting out of SEATO. I was invited to sit in on one session of a national conference of the Communist Party and one of the hierarchy wanted me to join. But the more I saw of the incessant heresy-hunting they practised in the name of self-criticism and was made party to the knowledge of who was in, who was out, and as I found myself conniving in their mental dishonesties, the more I was determined to avoid their own fate. Events saved me a showdown. When Russian troops entered Hungary in 19561 was one of those on the committee of the New Zealand Peace Council responsible for a telegram of protest to the Soviet Peace Council. In their party my several communist acquaintances took their places on one side or other of a series of expulsions and schisms that was to go on for years. When it started up I moved into the less political C.N.D., and in a mood of page 21wonder discovered I could learn a lot from Maori students and the rural communities they took me to.
I turned again to the long put aside further revision of my novel, finished and typed before I had left England. I had been unhappy with it for a long time. I discarded some facile optimism, rewrote some political episodes and re-thought the closing chapters. It was 12 years since I first conceived that story of a young idealist crushed by a materialist community. As time went on I had found the young man less interesting than the community. I had put him at an increasing distance from myself, taken away from him those problems for which I couldn't find a convincing resolution and given him hopes and beliefs in common with the community. At the end I wanted to leave him the possibility of self-fulfilment. It was a Koestler novel Arrival and Departure that gave me the idea of ending on an echo of the opening. For me the novel ends in faith and hope. I have been told that the last sentence is bleak and laconic, where a local resident looks forward to as good a summer as the Coast has ever had, but those who think so don't know that the West Coast has had some really good summers. The novel opens with one.