A Life of J. C. Beaglehole: New Zealand Scholar
5 — London, 1928–29
Jobs, A Great Preoccupation of research students, come into John's letters almost from the time of his arrival in London. On first meeting with de Kiewiet, they talked about prospects in South Africa: 'Capetown University wouldn't be a bad place for a job … they have a good library & a good staff there; & a good orchestra in the town, & according to de K have a good deal of intellectual stir & a pretty vigorous native culture; while the lucky blighters are only 17 days from England.'1 He talked with Newton:
He reckoned that 2ndary school teaching in England wasn't a bad business, & gave you time for research; but I am not to [sic] keen on kid-whacking. Also that the Colonial Education Service was a good thing; it would probably be in Africa somewhere, looking after the education of little niggers – organising, not teaching, except native teachers. Rise to about £1200, retiring at end of 20 yrs on £600 yr. And of course a cove would have the opportunity of getting well browned up & wearing dinky white clothes & a sun helmet, or shorts; but somehow I don't think it's my line. He told me to write to Hight & see if he can tell me anything about N.Z. prospects … Of course, once in N.Z. you're dead so far as history is concerned. On most other things except books & tramping, as far as that goes.2
John was not alone in his view of New Zealand. A letter from Professor Hunter gave a very gloomy view of the University of New Zealand – 'In this country we might be ready for a university in 2000 A.D.' – and went on to say that the 'object of the Travelling Scholarships was to make a New Zealander … realise that there were other people on the globe. If they are forced by economic circumstances to come back to N.Z. that is bad luck; if they come back by choice it is a clear indication that the scholarship was wrongly awarded. The atmosphere here is stifling.'3
The question was hopelessly tangled for John, not only by his page 117relationship with Elsie, his worry about his mother's health and his feelings about New Zealand, but also by his growing confidence in what he could achieve, given the opportunity. To be praised by a group of friends and by Harold Laski, people whom he admired and respected, was for him a largely new experience.
In April 1927 Elsie wrote that she and Averil Lysaght had decided to come to England in twelve months' time and planned to stay for six months. John replied enthusiastically. The news made him feel 'ever so much happier', and they should, he thought, get married straight away and have a honeymoon in Cornwall.4 A letter or two later there was another plan: 'I really think a week or so of summer on the Thames would be a very fine honeymoon for us, even if we are not able to get married.'5 His letters to Elsie in the following months were more settled and much happier than they had been through his first 'awful, endless' winter. There were still crises but he largely took them in his stride. Averil Lysaght changed her mind about making the trip. However, a friend of Elsie's, Kathleen McKay, another banker's daughter, took Averil's place. John had never met her and wondered whether she would approve of him. Any uncertainty produced a fever of apprehension. 'I think I must still be in love with you from the terrific ferment your news threw me into', he wrote to Elsie about the changes of plan;6 and he worried that being so dependent on letters they were getting a bit out of touch with each other. 'It will be a terrific relief when you get here, & we can see how things really do stand … I wish to blazes you were going to arrive tomorrow. There are too many complications in this life & apparently it is no use trying to work them out by letter.'7 In November came the news that Kathleen had pulled out. Elsie was in doubt as to whether she should still make the trip. Her parents would be far from happy if she travelled alone. John cabled at once urging her still to come. Elsie cabled back to say that she would stick to her plan to arrive at the beginning of June and, subsequently, Kathleen was able to come after all.
While John was in Paris staying with Harry Espiner in August they had talked about the future. John wrote to Elsie at that time:
I am going to look into the possibility of going to the States for a year … I am getting more & more reluctant to go back to N.Z. permanently, as every other person I know here hates the idea of going back to exile in their native countries. I am seriously thinking of trying for a job in Canada, or in the States for a while; the only thing is that I hate leaving my Mother for good & dragging you away from your people. But going back to N.Z. as an assistant [lecturer] with no prospect of anything else page 118seems the last thing on earth … what's the point of going back to N.Z. & committing intellectual suicide.8
In his letter to Elsie after her cabled confirmation that she was coming, he wrote five pages once again reviewing the job situation.
I am coming to the conclusion that what I am cut out for is a writer & a teacher. I can teach history, of a sort, in N.Z. if I have a job in a university, though not as it ought to be taught, crippled as they are at V.U.C. both by the shocking lack of books & the shocking presence of F.P. But I am primarily cut out for a writer; & I want if possible to write on history. Well what can I possibly do in that way in N.Z.… If I go back to N.Z. permanently I shall never write a line worth a damn …9
And then, inescapably, he is drawn back to his mother. 'I am worried in a ghastly way about her sometimes. If she were well & strong I could propose staying away 10 years with a light heart.' He compared himself with de Kiewiet: 'Dicky is all right, as he has had the good fortune never to be on good terms with his parents; but whatever I do I'm afraid I am going to be thoroughly miserable.'10 And his mother was far from well. From July 1927 very high blood pressure forced her to spend most of her time in bed and there were times when she could not write. John's cousin Joan, who had just finished her nursing training, came in to look after her. His father enclosed an extra note with his letter of 4 December (his parents always read each other's letters so they would not repeat the news) to say that his mother's condition was causing much anxiety and that Dr Bennett thought John should be told. A fortnight later, another special note reported that his mother was very much better. After Christmas she was able to be wheeled out into the garden on fine days. At New Year the doctor said it was possible she could go on satisfactorily for years. 'As things are now', John's father wrote, 'there is no reason for your turning anything down.'11
Before John received his father's first note, things had come to a head when, through Newton, he was offered a lectureship for two years at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, in South Africa. He was attracted by it; he had heard it was the best university in South Africa after Capetown and thought he 'might be able to hop into F.P.'s job after it'.12 The catch was that it began in July. He would have a 'hell of a rush' to finish his thesis and Elsie was now due to arrive just when he would have to leave. Newton urged him to accept. Laski was away and could not be consulted. Duncan told him to accept. Helen and McGrath thought it was 'worth a gamble' to stay in London. De Kiewiet 'didn't know what to say'. John turned page 119it down, mainly, it would seem, because of Elsie.* His parents were concerned that it was on their account and wrote to say that he must do whatever was best for his career, as long as he kept up his letters to them. The decision having already been made, the news of his mother's improvement cheered him. Then, as though that good news drew his thoughts back to New Zealand, he wrote to Elsie:
I understand you wondering about the hills & the sea & living in a place like London. I have been pretty homesick myself lately for the hills & the harbour; you know for some things I desperately want to go back to N.Z., although in other ways the thought gets on my nerves … however I slang N.Z., I do love it too, & love it desperately … If only it wasn't so far away from everything.13
Meanwhile his thesis was progressing. In January he typed out the third draft of his introduction, sent a copy of it to his parents, and reported that he had almost finished writing his first chapter.14 Laski read the introduction and was enthusiastic:
No sooner do I put my head in the door than he shouts 'Beaglehole, that's a simply corking piece of work!' And that was only a beginning! And then he says Have you seen the new edition of Keith? (i.e. Responsible Govt in the Dominions, standard work, 3 vols, new edition 2 vols, very expensive) Yes, I says. Have you got it? Have you got the old edition? (No, No) 'Well, how would you like my old edition? – I've just got the new one' Little Johnnie goggles as if he'd been offered the keys of heaven, but at last manages to make strangled sounds of gratification. Would Laski put his name in it? Yes, give me your pen. – 'J.C.B. Amico Amicus H.J.L. 6.2.28' Well! what do you think of that from the greatest man in the world? … Fair dinkum, that was about the brightest spot of my stay in London so far.15
This letter to Elsie was written the same day: John was bubbling with excitement, and for once his punctuation, generally meticulous, was out of control.
* Thirty years later when I, in the early stages of my PhD research at Cambridge, was offered a short-term job at Liverpool University John's advice was to turn it down and to 'work like hell on the thesis'. 'I know the difficulties of making a decision', he wrote to me, 'I was offered a job for 2 or 3 years myself in S. Africa when I was doing my thesis, but I think I did the right thing in turning it down.' (JCB to THB, 30 May 1958.)
by a great stroke of luck [we] got in to the Poets' corner … among the nobs. It was a quite simple but very impressive affair, & any cove ought to be glad to die to have such pall-bearers.* A fine looking bloke is Galsworthy, likewise Ramsay MacDonald; Baldwin short & ugly – perhaps I should say excessively homely; Low gets him well in the Evening Standard. But Shaw looks as impressive as anybody I've seen. Barrie a wee little cove … The Abbey was full & the choir & organ first-rate; one of my favourite Bach preludes on the organ but played too fast. I stood, of all places to stand at the burial of Hardy, under the bust of Longfellow.19
John sent his father cuttings from the papers and a copy of the printed funeral service, 'not over-well printed'. A little later Asquith died: 'This makes three good deaths recently – Hardy, Haig & Asquith. Duncan wants to see a great philosopher go now, after these three, & says plaintively, Why not Hobhouse? But I say firmly, No, my boy, let's get rid of the politicians while the going's good. I'm voting for Balfour.'20
The 'Institute gang', John reported, had been having a fair amount of fun. They had a birthday party for two of them, 'a considerable rough-house at times' and he 'nearly broke the piano'. For a change from Bertorelli's, where they generally fed, they tried a Chinese restaurant and 'had a wonderful blow-out for two bob apiece'. In early March the crocuses and daffodils were out in the squares and John vowed he must get through Mansfield Park and 'settle Jane before the spring is properly with us'.21 His next letter reported that he had got to the end of volume two: 'I must say she does pick on appalling people to write about; & the tragedy of the business is that you can't stop reading about them'.22
* The pall-bearers were Gosse, Galsworthy, Shaw, Barrie, Kipling, Housman, Baldwin, MacDonald and a representative each from Oxford and Cambridge.
John had planned a week in Cambridge but, when McGrath put it off until the next term, Helen suggested that he should go with her to the Cotswolds for a week. They took their research notes, found rooms in houses at the opposite ends of the village of Painswick, worked at their theses in the mornings, met for meals, and walked and explored in the afternoons, even when it snowed. They visited Gloucester to see the cathedral and discovered a second-hand shop with the 'biggest mess' of books John had seen in his life. Helen found a first edition of Tennyson's In Memoriam inscribed by the author, which she bought for 1s 6d. John was deeply frustrated by finding odd volumes of various works he coveted but not a single thing complete. The day before returning to London they went to Tewkesbury to see the abbey, which confirmed John's predilection for Norman architecture. They each bought brass candlesticks and John lamented that brass and pewter were becoming fashionable. From Painswick he wrote a long and enthusiastic letter to Elsie (she would receive it at one of the Australian ports on her way to England): the village was beautiful, it was in a beautiful part of the country, he was with a particularly charming girl, but what he really wanted, he wrote, was for Elsie to be toasting her toes at the fire next to where he was writing.23 With this letter he enclosed his poem 'In the Cotswolds', which begins
Yes it is beautiful, this old, old land:
These houses root their being in the earth …
but goes on to conclude
A wind strikes – and my opened eyes are blind
With gazing on an unseen distant place;
My deaf ears hear Orongo-rongo's stones –
Bloom bursts on wind-swept hills within my mind.
John's father was appalled that he and a 'young lady should go off together into the country like that … Are all the conventions of age-long respectability being broken down … My dear boy, you should be careful!'24 By the time John read this, Elsie was in England and, for once, he largely let the comment pass.
The postponed trip to Cambridge took place at the end of April. John had intended to work at the branch Record Office and to write some more of his thesis, but for four days out of the six the weather was wonderful, Cambridge at the height of spring was irresistible, and he did not do a stroke of work. After looking at 'Lord knows how many colleges', all that remained in his mind was a 'confused page 122vision of quadrangles & courts, fellows' gardens, huge lawns, grey stone, bricks, punts, & the ceiling of King's College Chapel'.25 Clare College, where McGrath was now a research student, John judged to have the most perfect and harmonious buildings of any, as well as 'fine gates & a wonderful avenue & one of the best bridges in the place'. The Cambridge trees were marvellous, they turned 'a flat fen into a paradise'.26 His mind went back to Wellington:
If I were a millionaire I should certainly buy up all that is left of the Hutt Valley, & build a residential university there, in small colleges on the quadrangle system. But it would be co-educational, with men & women in the same buildings; & heads of colleges indiscriminately male or female, & there wouldn't be any proctors, & very few rules; so the place would probably be put down by the government, & the boys & girls returned to Dick Seddon's atrocity at Salamanca.27
McGrath had fallen on his feet at Clare. He had already designed a letterhead for the college stationery with a woodcut of the college coat of arms, and had just agreed to do some typographical ornaments for the university press. His illustrated diary of his summer trip to Spain was to be published in the Architectural Review, 28 and he was helping edit the Clare College magazine ('the best got-up thing of the kind' that John had ever seen), for which he both wrote and made woodcuts. 'I wish' John wrote, 'I only had half his capacity', but noted that McGrath had yet to make a start on his thesis. McGrath published poems by both John and Ian Henning in the magazine. John's, 'Molecular Theory', was also published (with a woodcut by McGrath) in another Cambridge magazine, the Venture, edited by the young art historian Anthony Blunt, later to achieve notoriety as one of the 'Cambridge spies'.
Noiseless, unnursed, the country rose
Is born, and quietly it goes:
The unheard bright anemone
Blooms for the eye alone to see.
Never a sigh, never a groan
Utters this unmarked casual stone,
There breaks no breath from this dull wood
To hear, I know, nor ever should.
Yet do I know that stone, wood, flowerpage 123
Travail and sicken every hour –
Deep, deep about the hidden core
A thousand systems meet at war.
A thousand suns are brought to birth
And shattered in the very earth
Beneath my feet; without a sound
Pulses the long-tormented ground.
And yet, I think, could I but hear
Once, suddenly, with quickened ear,
Might I not start, as saw my eye
A petal fall, to catch a cry?
John used the poem and woodcut for his Christmas card for 1928.
'McGrath's Laski' (John's words) was Mansfield Forbes, a Fellow of Clare and one of the creators, along with Arthur Quiller-Couch and I.A. Richards (recruited by Forbes), of the new English tripos which, for the first time enabled Cambridge students to do a whole degree in English. Forbes himself had graduated in history; his academic interests were idiosyncratic, his lectures exciting, quirky and unpredictable.
One of his most influential courses was on romanticism, defined very widely, from William Blake to Joseph Conrad. His lectures were liable to turn into seminars, or Forbes would not turn up for two or three weeks, after which he materialized to talk enchantingly about a poem, following its ramifications into music, painting and especially architecture, his first love. Forbes did not like formal supervisions, but many testified to his readiness to talk in all sorts of places.29
Forbes welcomed McGrath's friends. He had splendid rooms, full of books and paintings and drawings, on a corner of the college building. On one side he looked out on the great back lawn of King's, on the other across the Cam and Clare bridge to the Clare Fellows' Garden and the trees along the Backs. It was 'as desirable a life as you could wish for', John wrote, 'bar matrimony, if your wishes run that way' (only bachelor fellows lived in college). Forbes invited him to a dinner at high table ('one of the speediest meals I ever went through') and to a breakfast to meet a man who ran a school 'on very modern lines'. The schoolmaster* seemed 'a very sound cove' but was 'balmy [sic] on libido & introverts & extraverts', which was, in John's view, all very nice but not the simple explanation of the universe that it appeared to be to its expounder. Like Laski, Forbes provided John with a model of a university teacher quite unlike anyone he had experienced at Victoria.
* Theodore James Faithful, 1885–?, author of Bisexuality: An Essay on Extraversion and Introversion (London: John Bale and Sons, 1927), and other works on social credit, sex education, psychology, and socialism.
John discovered the Fitzwilliam Museum, inspected the bookshops pretty systematically and bought a few books 'including a folio Hobbes 1750, for 30/- & a ditto work of James I for 21/-. A bloke must have some folios for a foundation to his library.' He went to see Charlie Chaplin in Shoulder Arms and with McGrath to a production of The Devil's Disciple. They cycled to Ely to inspect the cathedral, 'a very mixed sort of Cathedral, but a fine Norman nave',30 and the following day, his last in Cambridge, he went and lay in the hot sun in the Grantchester meadows by the river and dreamed of the perfect university. 'What a place we could have in N.Z. if we loosened the purse strings & only tried!' – this was to his parents; to Elsie he wrote that he had been 'thinking continually' about her.31
Elsie and Kathleen were due to arrive in England on 4 June. John said very little to his parents about the prospect save that 'it will be pleasant to see them again',32 but his anxiety is revealed in a letter to Challis Hooper:
The emotions in this young breast quite defy exposition; the only thing I can do is to pray (or at least to hope desperately) that the first sight of each other will clear up all difficulties … It will be 22 months since we said good-bye, she in despair, I in confidence; & we have been spending about the last year wondering how much we have unconsciously moved apart. You certainly can't tell much from letters. Would it be better for both of us if I decided to fall in love with my very intimate friend H. – & persuaded H. to fall in love with me (which might be difficult) – who has so very many tastes & inclinations in common with me, as well as being a historian working on the same period? … It's all very distracting I can tell you, to a bloke who ought to have but a single mind, & that centred not upon 20th century women, whether N.Z. or American, but upon the 18th & 19th century British Empire – a quite important subject, though one not quite so palpitating.33
Elsie and Kathleen moved into a room in 21 Brunswick Square and John had a break from the thesis ('Australian land instructions', with which he was getting 'fed up to the teeth') to show them around London. They went to Kew and to the zoo, neither of which he had been to before; to Hampton Court; to the opera (Carmen and Verdi's Otello); to his first revue, Clowns in Clover; to a second revue, Many Happy Returns; to the Victoria and Albert Museum, again his first visit, though it was to become one of his favourite haunts in London. Galsworthy's Justice he reported to be 'actor proof, always able to get its effect', but Stravinsky's Apollo Musagetes at the Russian Ballet he found an 'extremely poor thing'.34 His most page 125startling piece of news (to his parents) was that he had, at Barker's sale, bought two new suits for £12 5s. This can have been due only to Elsie's influence.* To regain his composure, he went to the Tate Gallery to look at the modern French paintings. Early in July, with no fixed plans, the three left for a holiday in France.
On the way to Southampton to catch the boat to St Malo, they broke the journey at Winchester, making a pilgrimage to Jane Austen's tomb and house. John wrote a short note to his mother enclosing a postcard of the house.35 There was no time to look at Southampton but, John wrote, he 'got quite an agreeable thrill from being for a whole 24 hours in Hampshire, the land of one branch of my ancestors',36 one of very few such comments in all his letters. As with his trip the summer before, he wrote a detailed account in his letters home: on food and wine and the price of everything, on French sanitation, on historic towns and cathedrals and the awful flood of development along the coast of Brittany and Normandy. He discovered omelettes and rhapsodised about cheese: 'when I think what N.Z. is & what it might be, even in such a matter as the production of cheese, I blush for the divine process'.37 From St Malo they went to Dinan, then Mont St Michel, 'a wonderful place, now organised with the greatest energy & efficiency for fleecing the tourist', and on to Constances and Bayeux. John found the tapestry very interesting and far better than he expected, 'full of life and colour'. The weather was holding out miraculously. 'Beer good.' After Bayeux came Caen. The end of the letter John wrote from Caen is very characteristic:
In the evening of our Bayeux day we came on to Caen. For noise & dirt this is the equal of any French town I have been in, & beats anything in any other country – until you have been in France you have no conception what noise & dirt can be. There go a collection of dogs barking uproariously now, an engine has just shrieked, a tram clangs, in a minute a motor lorry will hurtle up the hill & then a sporting car with the throttle out, here comes a train with appropriate piercing whine, & soon there will be a street row; let alone the perpetual motor horns, used with enthusiasm & persistency on every possible occasion. We went down to the sea again this afternoon, for a final bathe before turning completely inland; it was by steam tram, & a filthier & slower mode of conveyance I have never tried. A most extraordinary race. There go the dogs again, & a loose cycle rattling over cobbles. Caen has somepage 126fine churches, the Abbaye aux Hommes & the Abbaye aux Femmes, founded by Wm the Conqueror & Matilda his wife, to appease the papal wrath at their having married within the forbidden degrees, as the guide-books repeat ad nauseam … The abbeys are mostly fine plain Norman work, the men's very dignified, the women's full of delicate & beautiful sobriety, which manages to make its impression even over the efforts of the Micks to ruin it. Really these Micks do not deserve to have fine churches – they have a positive genius for vulgarity which can be equalled by few non-conformist sects, however half-witted. And the way those two abbeys are built in! Compare the English cathedrals! – the C of E may be only fit for the dust-bin, but at least it has some dignity in its dissolution. But the Catholics go wallowing in the desecration of beauty to the world's end. – St. Pierre's has some fine Renaissance work, & there are some good secular buildings scattered about the town. There is a good river also, up which I rowed the party last night; we disembarked & had rolls & cream cheese & cakes & grapes & wine under a haystack – a meal of the premiere classe for about 9d each. Then rowed down again in the sunset. A great country, apart from the disadvantages retailed above.38
* 'The news', his father wrote, 'just about knocked us out'. (DEB to JCB, 2 September 1928.)
'Elsie sends you her love', he added, 'she thinks you might be interested to learn that she has had her hair cut.'
After Caen it was Lisieux, centre of the cult of the recently beatified Saint Thérèse (John was fascinated and ironic), and then Rouen, which he had visited the year before. The stained glass seemed 'even more miraculous' and the town 'even more pleasant'.39 What was more, the place they stayed in had a marvellous supply of running water, hot and cold, in all the rooms; as against that, everything else sanitary in the house was out of order. They continued to Paris and stayed for over two weeks, meeting up with Henning, 'busting away on his thesis', and with de Kiewiet, who had recently moved there on a University of London grant, was already 'correcting Henning's French for him' and 'willing to give anybody advice on anything within the country'. They explored the sights and the weather continued to be 'unbelievably brilliant … [it was] the most extraordinary thing about the trip'. The second most extraordinary thing, in John's view, was an exhibition of modern painting. 'You, who have only seen reproductions, really don't know what modern art is capable of. I endeavour invariably to preserve an open mind; but this left me weak.' He does not report who was exhibiting except for the Wellington sculptor Margaret Butler, who was showing two heads: 'have you ever heard of her? not bad'.40
Henning joined them for a visit to Chartres, where John found the windows in the cathedral 'almost as perfect as anything could page 127be', though he added that he did not think they had 'any individual window to touch two or three of those at Rouen'.41 While Elsie and Kathleen were entertained by well-off relations, John joined Henning and de Kiewiet to visit Malmaison, one of Napoleon's country houses, which had become a museum of Napoleon: 'a fearful place! What an utter vulgarian he was! The more I see of palaces & emperors the more I despise them.' Fontainebleau was similarly condemned: 'the woods there are fine, the palace is another museum of junk of all periods'. Why does royalty 'reach such abysmal depths of vulgarity?' Between the expeditions they went to museums, to bookshops, up the tower of Notre-Dame to see the gargoyles, to the theatre and films – Chaplin in The Gold Rush again, a Buster Keaton comedy, and a new French film of Edgar Allan Poe's Fall of the House of Usher, which John warmly recommended to his parents: 'the best and most interesting film' he had seen since The Gold Rush came out.
In their last week in Paris John spent another day in the Louvre, inspecting 'Chinese gold-lacquered boxes, pottery, & French pictures'.42 Outside the Louvre they ran into Helen Allen with her rich and talkative aunt ('she said she always had a great admiration for us in Australia because of the way we treated our women; & I agreed; yes, we were pretty good to the girls') and they were taken back for a lavish afternoon tea at the Hotel Palais d'Orsay. 'A pity we can't muster a wealthy aunt somewhere in our family', John wrote.43 There was an expedition to Versailles and a final gathering at Henning's. Henning wrote to McGrath with an account of the party:
we celebrated Beagle's departure in sparkling wine and vodka. All went well until the time came for going, I put on the lights at the top of the stairs and Beagle tottered down and tried to get out. It was half past twelve and the concièrge must have been fast asleep. Soon the staircase began reverberating with Beagle's sonorous and stentorian roar: 'Le cordon, s'il vous plâit'. By the time the sound got to the top of the staircase it was a bit blurred, I didn't know whether to put it down to the Vodkas Beagle had had or to the Vodkas I had had, or just to the distance. Anyhow it was blurred, The roar died down by a quarter to one, and I heard some disconsolate feet pattering along the flags in Cherche-Midi and round the corner into Abbé Grégoire.44
Elsie and Kathleen went on to Belgium, John back to London.
The Trip had been a great success in a number of ways. 'It was', John wrote in October to Challis Hooper, 'invaluable for getting in page 128touch with E. again, which as you can imagine, was not too easy at first. But we are pretty well settled in mind now, & as soon as a job comes along, you may look for developments.'45 The difficulty was that after Grahamstown there were no more offers. John had applied for a Rockefeller Fellowship, £300 a year for two years, which he believed would be enough to marry on. It would provide the opportunity to start on a biography of Sir James Stephen, the under-secretary at the Colonial Office (and grandfather of Virginia Woolf), in whom John had become increasingly interested as he worked on his thesis. He was encouraged to apply for the fellowship by Laski and J.R.M. Butler, the Cambridge historian and British representative of the Rockefeller Foundation. At the end of May he heard that he had been unsuccessful. 'Everybody is pretty disgusted', he wrote to his parents, 'but I have wasted no sleep on it.'46 McGrath wrote: 'If sincere wishes could have achieved anything you should already have skipped over half the continent in a Honeymoon Chariot drawn by seven Rockefeller horses'.47 John's later comment to Challis has the ring of truth: 'That Rockefeller refusal was a cruel blow, you know – the hardest to date in my life. It meant a complete overturning in my plans for E & everything. I didn't realise it bang off, but it becomes solider & solider every day now … Of course I am merely one of 1½ million odd unemployed in this country, & I can at least thank my stars I'm not a coalminer.'48
Butler suggested that he apply for a studentship at Trinity College, Cambridge. A 'quaint plunge into mediaevalism it would be at the age of 27 after NZ & London',49 John wrote to his parents, but he applied nonetheless. Laski heard of a job at Manitoba in Canada and John applied for that too. He was offered neither. McGrath wrote sympathetically about the Cambridge outcome, adding that he did not take seriously John's 'NZ and extinction', and went on: 'You see I am optimistic about the world even though Dunkie has been with me for a week.'50 John considered a Commonwealth Fellowship to the United States, but they could be held only by single scholars, and this 'put them out of the question'.51 He applied for the position of librarian at Rhodes House, Oxford. They appointed Vincent Harlow, an Oxford man, with two books already published by the Oxford University Press, who was eventually to become Beit Professor of British Commonwealth history at Oxford. There seemed a possibility at Manchester – 'But who wants to go to Manchester?'52 Newton went out to India to advise the government of the Punjab; perhaps he would come back knowing of something there. Nothing.page break page break
David Ernest Beaglehole with some of his books.
Uncle Joe (right) as a guide on the Milford Track.
John with curls.
Thomas Hunter, about 1920.
Photographer unknown, Victoria University of Wellington.
26 August 1926. John is seen off by his father as he sails for Sydney on the Maheno.
John at Neustadt in the Black Forest, July 1927.
In November a lectureship in Auckland was advertised. 'If I come back I should like to come back to Wellington; at least it has some hills.'53 However, he applied, and was turned down.
In Wellington, his father reported, efforts were being made to raise money to revive the Unitarian Church. What about John becoming minister? 'I wouldn't give them 2d', John responded. 'I have come to the conclusion that the feather bed for falling Xians joke about sums it all up; & I am on the floor … I'm not likely to be standing in the queue for the job, even if I am turned down on all sides over here.'54 Nor were his parents' suggestions that he might write historical novels or humorous sketches for Punch any better received. In January 1929 he wrote: 'there are some reasons why I should be very glad to go back to N.Z.; but it looks at present as if I shall have to go wherever I can get a job. If there is nothing doing at all I suppose I shall have to utilise my free passage home & trust to luck. That is about how things stand at present.'55
He had hoped that he might be helped in his quest for a job by the publication of his MA thesis on Captain Hobson. Laski had read the thesis during John's first year in London, been impressed with it, and suggested sending it to Professor S.B. Fay at Smith College in Massachusetts, who published a series of historical works for which it was just the right length. John spent three days bringing the references up to 'the requirements of modern historical research'. 'If that silly ass F.P. knew 1/10 of what he ought to know I should have been saved all this mucking about & probably got a good many more marks from old Grant for the thing.'56 De Kiewiet was puzzled by what John considered some pretty good jokes in it ('he doesn't go too much on humour'). John sent it off before leaving on his first European trip and heard in November that Fay would publish it provided John was willing to cut out a few sentences which seemed to Fay 'perhaps of a facetious nature & not quite appropriate'.57 John had the dual satisfaction of having it accepted and being able to vilify Fay for his literary judgement: 'I told [him] to fire away with his dirty work', he reported to his parents.58 The arrival of proofs, in February 1928, produced a further burst of indignation: Fay had messed around with his first and last paragraphs, which John said he had 'worked over like a slave'.59 After consulting Laski, John 'made a new beginning & end & substituted them for Fay's, wrote him a nice letter ordering 40 copies, & left the rest to luck'.60 The thirty copies in addition to his ten free ones cost him $15 and there was a further $10 for the author's corrections to the galley proofs and the dedication:page 130
Victoria University College
Wellington, New Zealand
written in its shadow
In the preface he thanked Duncan and Harry Ross for 'their violent but salutary criticism'.
John received his first copy of the book when he was in Paris. Copies were sent to a number of papers in New Zealand and John waited impatiently for reviews. The first, and one of very few to appear, was in the New Zealand Worker of 10 October 1928. It was by Harold Miller, a graduate of Victoria and Rhodes Scholar in 1920, who had just returned to Victoria to succeed Horace Ward as librarian. Miller suggested that John, whose natural sympathies, he was sure, lay with Hobson and the missionaries, had been too kind to the New Zealand Company, which, in Miller's view, had 'swindled its emigrants right and left and left them a legacy of ill-will in the native mind that finally led to war'. Miller picked gaps where he wanted more information, but concluded (having begun with a favourable reference to John's writings in the Spike): 'From the man who can write like this in [a] master's thesis we can clearly look for much in the future'. Looking back in the year 2000, W.H. Oliver found the book, with its limitations of focus ('Can we easily contemplate a book on the events of the early 1840s in which the Treaty was not relevant?') and its racial prejudice, still 'quite a good piece of historical writing'.61
In the meanwhile there was a PhD thesis to be finished (John's prediction, at the time he got back from Paris in August, was that it should be done about October, 'except for typing & indexing & adding on appendices, & all the other boring God-forsaken jobs') and the excitement of a third year in London. The house in Brunswick Square had changed hands. The room which John and Duncan had shared on the top floor had been subdivided; 'sacrilege' in John's view but 'the things they will do here to knock an extra bob out of a house are appalling'.62 Duncan had moved to a room in Gordon Square but John stayed on in a room on the first floor, still overlooking the square but a long way from the bathroom. Once more he sent home a plan of how he had arranged the room. Over the mantelpiece he had a painting by McGrath (chosen when John was in Cambridge), below the painting 'I have got my Innsbruck medal from last year, flanked by 1 pair brass candlesticks & two pewter mugs; which I felt a sudden impulse to break off this letter page 131after page 3 & polish, which I did … they look very classy now, quite a high-brow mantelpiece.'63 The impulse to polish pewter never left him.
There were changes too in John's circle of friends. As well as de Kiewiet leaving for Paris and Berlin, Harry Ross had gone to South Africa, to the job at Grahamstown that John had turned down. Helen Allen, who had completed her thesis, went back to the States for a month, calling at Toronto to see Adelaide MacDonald, and looking for a possible job. At the end of the year she was in Florence for a month, and while she was away Elsie had her flat in London. When Helen returned she spent more time in Paris and then went to Cambridge for the summer to prepare to teach at Vassar, the notable women's college on the Hudson River north of New York, to which she had been appointed. Duncan was spending some of his time doing WEA teaching in Kent but he and John still met frequently. Newton was off in India, and while he was away the seminar was taken by J.A. Williamson, the history master at Westminster School. Williamson was a great proponent of the view that British history could be fully understood only within its wider imperial context. He had already published a lot and John knew his A Short History of British Expansion, having bought a copy in 1922, its year of publication. Williamson, who was to become best known for his work on Drake and the Cabots, was in John's view 'about the best bloke in England at the colonial history game'.64 Williamson, for his part, quickly came to respect John's ability.
John's youngest brother Ernest was following in his footsteps. A student of Hunter's, he had completed an MA with first-class honours in 1928, and his master's thesis on propaganda already revealed what was to be his distinctive form of applied social psychology.65 Ernest too was awarded a postgraduate travelling scholarship and a free passage. He decided to work for a PhD at the London School of Economics, and John met him at the Tilbury docks on his arrival in London on 21 September. That evening he wrote to his parents with a full account of the meeting: 'He looks healthy enough though wearing a very low cap that appals even me … I have got him parked here, in 21, for a day or two, while he looks round for a room & generally gets his bearings, & have taken him down to the Food Reform Restaurant, so you may rest in peace.'66 Ernest, for his part, reported on John, writing most freely to his Uncle Joe:
Jack met me at Tilbury – just the same as ever. Rather untidily dressed, collar not matching shirt, long hair, ragged tie etc, but otherwise he has not changed at all. In fact, I think he has thrown off a lot of his old page 132reserve. Probably because now he has more or less entirely got over all his stammering – speaks slowly of course still, with a certain amount of hesitation, but anyone who did not know him would merely think that he was a meditative person who had difficulty in translating his thoughts into words – not in speaking at all. Having thus conquered his stammering, he launches out quite brightly & we have great times round at B[runswick] Sq[uare].67
John's stammer had clearly improved while he was in London. 'It doesn't worry me a great deal now, except when I get excited or very tired',68 he wrote to Elsie not long before she arrived. He had just started seeing a 'voice-specialist cove', who had told him that three months would make a lot of difference.* Ernest's report suggests the treatment was a success. The irony was that some months later, when John applied for the lectureship at Auckland, F.P. Wilson's comments on his stutter appear to have been a reason for his non-appointment.69
Kathleen left to return to New Zealand, and then go to Australia, in the middle of October. John's misgivings before her arrival had quite disappeared; they had become close and lasting friends. She took gifts from John for his family; for his father a plaster cast of a medallion of Erasmus in the British Museum that he had arranged to have made. Elsie followed Ernest into cheaper lodgings, still in Brunswick Square, a few doors away from number 21, and the three of them saw a lot of one another. Elsie and Ernest knew each other well from the Victoria Tramping Club. John was to claim he found the advent of Ernest 'not altogether an unmixed blessing. He nearly drove me mad for a time', he wrote to Challis, 'till he settled down & began to pick up some friends of his own',70 but there seems to have been some brotherly exaggeration in the comment. They went out to Virginia Water and walked five or six miles; once again to Kew Gardens – 'Kew leaves any of these foreign parks … miles behind';71 and to Welwyn Garden City to join Lorrie Richardson for a day's tramp – 'charming country England in its autumn dress', John wrote, 'copper & red & gold'.72 There were concerts and plays. John clearly enjoyed being mentor and guide.
I don't know that I don't envy Ern his first year in London – I should like to keep on having first years for about five years, discovering fresh things every time – after a while, though you keep on discovering fresh thingspage 133they haven't the same shock … you just take them for granted, unless they bowl you over completely, like the Turkish pottery in the V. & A. Let alone the Chinese.73
* The name of the specialist is not recorded. Family lore has it that it was the same man who treated the Duke of York, the future George VI.
They visited the house in Hampstead where John Keats had lived and saw the mulberry tree under which the poet was said to have written his 'Ode to a Nightingale', then went on to visit Kenwood, the house (built at the time James Cook was setting out on his first voyage) lately given to the nation by Lord Iveagh. John found it 'superb': 'Adam, brought up to date with bathrooms & new oak flooring. You can't get away from it – civilised domestic architecture is a supreme joy. Only the library there was spoilt by over-colouring – & these show libraries never seem to have enough books in them.'74 Their interest in domestic architecture took John and Elsie to furniture exhibitions at Heal's in Tottenham Court Road and at Waring and Gillows, as well as to the Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia. They saw elegant rooms and furniture, 'but when you come to the libraries what do you see? Beautiful furniture – wonderful writing desks, exquisitely wrought firescreens, but where are the bookshelves? … after you'd carried a few arm-fulls upstairs & come home once or twice on Saturdays you'd wonder where in blazes you were going to put your books.'75 The net result of these visits, John confided to Challis, was to make him and Elsie thoroughly dissatisfied, 'disgusted perhaps', with any house or furniture they would ever possibly be able to afford. The idea of having McGrath design them a house seemed more and more of a dream. With premonition, John wrote: 'we have practically decided to make our own furniture out of kerosene & fruit cases, with which many satisfactory modern effects could be obtained … Ah! to be rich & furnish a house in England! … At least', he added, 'I shall have my books'.76
His book buying continued. While ransacking the shops for something suitable for his father's birthday (he was looking for a 'decent copy' of Erasmus's Colloquies that he could not find and had to settle for a copy of Robert Bridges's latest essay 'just by way of something to go on with'), he saw a
very good folio Clarendon 3 vols History £1.1.0 1 vol life 15/- … The cove said he would let me have the 4 vols for 30/- & I am seriously considering it … if I go back to N.Z. & don't take them I shall be sorry some day … Yes, I think it would be a sin to let them go at that price. I could have a lot of fun polishing up the covers with Meltonian Cream too – it would do for a change from cleaning the pewter.77page 134
He bought them. The 'autumn publishing season being now in full blast', he wrote in his next letter, 'it is perfect torture to me to go into a bookshop'.78
John's Scholarship had been £200 a year for two years. Now, in his third year, money was running very short. The final scholarship payment of £25 was to be made on completion of his thesis, though he reckoned at least £18 of this would go on the typing. Inspired perhaps by Laski's stories, John enquired from Bumpus's what they would pay him for a first edition of de la Mare's Songs of Childhood which he had bought for ninepence at McKay's on Lambton Quay in 1919. Bumpus's offered him 30 guineas for it.
I said I'd think about it … If I could only find ½ doz things like this, I could finance myself for another year. Daddy will no doubt point out that £31.9.3 is unearned increment & is therefore morally the perquisite of the state; I reply however that on the contrary it is the natural reward of the capitalist, & of his foresight, wisdom & hard-earned knowledge …79
Finally he decided to auction the book at Hodgson's – 'auction it', McGrath had written, and 'put on a reserve of £40'80 – and it fetched £40 10s, of which John got about £35.81 He took Elsie and Ernest to Lyons and shouted them a 2d cup of coffee each to celebrate, and then bought eleven books in the next two days, though several were remainders and only 1s 3d and 2s each. John finally accepted his father's offer of a loan, and was sent £50. In letters John referred to unnamed friends 'who would be delighted to let me have a loan for a few months or longer', but with no job in sight he felt unable to accept. What he did have, he believed, would keep him going in London for a further six months.82 When, just before Christmas, he heard that he had not got the job in Auckland, Ernest had the impression that he was relieved and that he would just hang on until his cash gave out in the hope that a job would turn up, and that if one did not he would use his free passage to return to New Zealand.83
Most of November 1928 was spent in revising his thesis, 'a cruel job'84 – which left him feeling 'in a considerable state of disgust with the British Empire historically considered, & the American elections, & the price of books & the way everything happens at once & so forth'.85 In the United States Herbert Hoover had defeated Governor Al Smith of New York for the presidency. 'A terrible business', John wrote.86 The American professor of economics at the LSE reckoned page 135it was 'the blackest day in American history since the Fugitive Slave Law'. It was widely believed that an anti-Catholic vote had cost Smith the election. John's father demurred, and in a later letter John spelled out his critical view: Hoover was put up by the Republican Party – 'the biggest organisation of graft, big & dirty business, intolerance, sinister power, & filthy politics in the world … would you rather have a country governed by a Mick of genius & fair honesty, or by a mob of Baptist oil-kings & fundamentalist farmers'.87 The New Zealand election later in November, when the Coates government met its surprise defeat at the hands of the Liberals, led by Joseph Ward, and Labour lost its position as the official opposition, was greeted more equably: 'it won't do the Labour birds much harm to climb up slowly, as long as they're not too slow about it. I should like to see Peter Fraser as Minister of Education for a bit – Thank God Wright's out of it now any how. That will make it a bit easier to come back to N.Z. if necessary.'88
The thesis was finished on Saturday 8 December, at midnight – 'at least, I finished it all except a quotation I wanted from Burke as whipped cream to top off the fruit salad with; which I couldn't find'.89 He started to read 'all Burke through systematically' and found the quotation three days later. There was still a bit of tinkering to do and some final revision but, he was able to say, 'to all intents & purposes the thing is finished, bar the bibliography, & most of it is either typed or being typed'. Six typists were involved, including de Kiewiet, who did one chapter. John himself was to type the preface, table of contents, bibliography and index. Elsie was proofreading and Helen Allen doing all the indexing she could before setting off to Florence with her aunt. The thesis having been completed, John varied between 'thinking it a cut above ordinary doctoral theses & thinking it unutterable rot'.90 He hoped he would now have time to 'see life a bit'.
He made a pre-Christmas visit to Trimley to see his Uncle George and cousins. His Aunt Jeanne had died some months earlier and a little later George was to remarry (John was best man) and move to a house in Richmond. John took (and read) Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, 'thus completing the corpus of [Jane Austen's] completed novels'. 'The year 1928 therefore may be accounted a notable one', he wrote to his parents. 'Finished Boswell, J.A. & govs' Insts. What other age can show such a list?'91 Now, at his father's urging, he was considering Tristram Shandy, 'while the going's good i.e. before I get a job'. The difficulty was that having time to read simply brought home to him how much there was that he wanted to read. It was at page 136this time that he recalled to Elsie an experience he had had before he left for London:
I remember once when I was at home reading a Times Litt. Supp having a curious experience – I had a feeling of utter despair & bewilderment, like being lost in a mental cyclone, at the limitless number of things to be known & books to be read, so that it seemed impossible ever to be anything but utterly ignorant or to do anything at all; & it's an experience I've never forgotten, it was so vivid. It almost frightened me physically …92
McGrath was in London just before Christmas. He, Ern and John spent an evening at Elsie's, 'entertaining & being entertained'. The next evening, with Duncan as well, they had dinner and then took a taxi to see a film with Harold Lloyd. The film was off so they saw The Gold Rush again – for John at least the third time. McGrath then left for Paris. With everyone scattered, the revelries of the previous year were not repeated. Nor was John cheered by the state of Britain:
Here's this Well of Loneliness suppressed with positively foully libellous remarks from the magistrates, God help them, & the coal business goes merrily merrily on, with not an effort to do anything fundamental to help it. So at Xmas we have a Lord Mayor's fund & give the miners dinner & then they starve again. Gosh, it makes me sick! I took along all my old clothes, & no doubt the Queen & the Prince of Wales & Stanley Baldwin have done likewise, & that's about as far as we get. What a govt! … if ever a country justified economic pessimism, it's England in 1928.93
On Christmas Day he stayed in bed until 11.30 and then went around to join Elsie (who was minding Helen Allen's flat) for a 'magnificent blow-out by way of Xmas dinner'. John provided balloons and red candles and a bottle of sauterne. Duncan joined them later for tea and a 'very bright evening'. At New Year they went out to stay at Lorrie Richardson's: 'Good walking there & an open fire … There was a fair amount of snow on the ground, & the cold bath in the morning was damnable.'94 They also went to the circus, to the Victoria and Albert Museum again, and John took Elsie to Peter Pan to celebrate her birthday. They went to some architectural lectures, to a recital by the Hewitt string quartet, and a lecture by Mrs Bertrand Russell, 'which was very interesting – Ern standing by the door & guffawing in a superior way at views put forward by members of the audience – he seems to have all the amused intolerance so characteristic of the family'.95 There was page 137an exhibition of Dutch painting at Burlington House. John 'nearly wept tears of joy on meeting again a lot of the Vermeers I saw at the Hague & at Amsterdam, let alone the shoals of Rembrandts & all the other stuff … I have gone quite dippy over Van Gogh … very bold brilliant & swirling stuff'.96 And he was doing a lot of reading, 'in which direction I am making up for lost time over the last 2 years as hard as I can go'. He had finished Clare Sheridan's Nuda Veritas (his mother, he suggested, might like to shut her eyes over a few of the pages); he was even starting to read the Bible (he had bought a copy of the new Cambridge Shorter Bible not long before) and he was immersed in H.M. Tomlinson's Gifts of Fortune – 'by jingo! He can write, that bloke!'97
The thesis was finally submitted on 1 February 1929. John offered his parents some details:
no. of pages: 726 + preface & contents pages – 7 (I mustn't forget the very classy typed title page I designed); no. of chapters: – 9, no of notes: – about 1250; weight: about 12 cwt, quantity of blood & tears & sweat involved: ∞ (that I believe is the mathematical symbol for infinity …); amount of disgust: ditto. However I managed to mention Jane Austen & quote Burke & Carlyle & Dr Johnson & Blake, so what more do you want in a thesis on colonial history?98
The same letter had news which was to shape John's future career. J.A. Williamson wanted him to do a book on Pacific exploration for a projected series on 'pioneering', 'not that I know anything about either the Pacific or exploration', John commented, though the proposal did have the advantage that he could, if necessary, do it in New Zealand using the Alexander Turnbull Library. Laski wanted him to start a book on the idea of empire. John wanted to spend a month or so on general reading, and then to have a job.
He was reading Katherine Mansfield's letters, which he had bought when they were published a few months earlier.
[I] have never been so moved by a book in my life. I had to leave off after the first volume & recover myself on Shakespeare & Sir Thos Browne. I feel I know her now better than all but one or two of my friends; but oh! how she has wrung my heart! To see her dying for 4 years & be unable to move a finger to help – frightful! It has made me want to blaspheme wholesale but what's the good? One gazes hopelessly & helplessly on utter tragedy. What a writer she was! Some of these letters are superb. And all that to come out of Karori! – as my Father said … what wouldn't I give to have spoken with her once! Well, no more humble, lovely, truth-seeking, generous spirit could one hope to meet with on earth, I think; I wish to God I could think that N.Z. realised it.page 138
She – K.M. – had exactly my feeling for N.Z.… I wish I had a bit of her feeling for words.99
The thesis submitted, John and Elsie went to Oxford for a week. John thought the town magnificent, even in winter, and if he found the 'immense expanse of red white & blue stained glass' put into the cathedral by Sir Gilbert Scott in 1870 more hideous than anything he had seen anywhere, 'the Grinling Gibbons carving in Queen's Chapel; & the linen-fold panelling in Magdalen Hall & New College Hall, & the river walks by Magdalen; & the interior of St Mary the Virgin; & the quadrangles … & the ancient little streets everywhere; & the towers & turrets & spires & bookshops make considerable amends'.100 Blackwell's he found about the best shop he had been in, but he could not find quite the right book to send to his father. They saw the exterior of the new Rhodes House, designed by Sir Herbert Baker and just being finished. It was to include the library – 'what a place for a job', John wrote regretfully.101 He and Elsie were together for a week without the intrusion of anyone who knew them and were, John told Challis, happier than they had ever been before.102
His oral examination was on 22 March. It was, John said, 'like most oral exams – more or less of a formality & more or less of an anti-climax'. The examiners said absolutely nothing about the thesis 'as a whole either by way of praise or blame – I except Miss Penson, who did say she thought it didn't have enough dates in it, to which the others chivalrously agreed. They each asked a few tiddly winking questions … & then informed me after a suitable period for mutual consultation that they had decided to recommend me to the Senate for the degree'.103 He was disappointed that they did not offer him afternoon tea. John cabled the news to his parents and was indignant when the young lady in the post office said that PhD would be charged as three words. He sent the thesis to the Oxford University Press on Laski's advice. The Press were 'very careful to guard themselves from being encouraging'.104
Henning had also finished his thesis, had landed a temporary lectureship at Sydney (in contrast with John, there was nothing he wanted more than to get home) and came to London for a last look around before leaving. 'A good cobber', John wrote.105 This led to a busy fortnight with music and theatre and films, and then John took his bicycle and rode to Welwyn Garden City to stay with Lorrie Richardson. Elsie's elder sister, Edith, had arrived in England some weeks earlier, and she and Elsie were staying in a village ten miles from Richardson's place. They met several times to go exploring page 139on foot and in the car that Edith had hired and Elsie drove. Elsie then went off for three weeks to drive Edith and her friend and fellow-teacher from Wellington, Erica Bridges, around south-west England. John rode back into London one morning to see a Russian film, Bed and Sofa, 'one of the best F[ilm] S[ociety] performances' he had been to,106 and before returning to Richardson's he typed out letters (and copies of his testimonials) to seven American universities asking about jobs. The weather was hardly propitious for cycling, with gales, heavy rain, sleet and snow, but it cleared for him to ride on to Cambridge to visit McGrath.
McGrath was away. However, Mansfield Forbes was hospitable. John stayed in Clare for two nights and dined again at high table; admirable food, he reported, but 'a very low intellectual level on the whole'.107 McGrath's life had changed. The previous August he had met and fallen for an American girl. He had reported to John at the time:
Forbes and I are in the middle of a Texan romance! Malfroy (Wellington N.Z. who knows you*) turned up the other day with a charming American girl, whom Manny singled out for his immediate blessings. So he invited them to lunch with us on the river-bank in the Fellows' Garden. I enjoyed that meal … This Texas girl is one of those unselfconsciously intimate people who are so refreshing. Seems to be a quality of American women.108
Malfroy was supplanted – 'not a bad feat over an international rugby player', McGrath judged – and Mary Crozier (or Miss Texas, as she was generally referred to) played an increasing part in McGrath's life. They were to marry in 1930. Before John arrived in Cambridge on his bicycle, Miss Texas had been 'threatened with maternal recall to Dallas' and McGrath had gone down to London to try to sort out the situation.
At about the same time as that fateful lunch took place Forbes had leased 'Finella', a late Victorian villa on Queens' Road across the river from Clare, and McGrath had been appointed as architect for its transformation. John had already heard of some of the plans:
The glass vaulted ceiling of the hall is now disturbing us. Vibration and expansion having been disposed of we are now confronted with the possibility of the ceiling resonating to some particular note and flying to pieces. We don't know whether to put in a special plant to interceptpage 140sound waves of the particular frequency or to insure the structure heavily against the deadly note. Any suggestions? Forbes latest request is that whenever the [door]bell is rung a musket will be fired at the far end of the hall followed by a dull thud and a sound of falling glass. On either side of the entrance door there's to be a mirror and also in a niche out of reach a brush and comb and lipstick. These are only a few of the modern improvements contemplated.109
And a month later: 'The latest idea for "Finella" is a mirrored glass dome 8 ft in diameter (all in one piece) for the dining room ceiling'.110 Work had started towards the end of 1928 and John inspected the house several times, twice with McGrath when he got back to Cambridge. It 'is going to be a marvellous place', John wrote, 'plugged full of new ideas in decoration & ventilation & furniture & mirrors & patent finishes'.111 Finally, he cycled back to London with a stop on the way after lunch to read in the sun for about four hours.
'It is satisfactory', he had written home, 'to read some real books again, & not to be confined [to those] out of which history is manufactured in the B.M.'112 The Brook Kerith by George Moore he thought magnificent (he passed on a story he had heard from Mansfield Forbes that Freud thought The Brook Kerith 'about the greatest book in the world' and had read it twelve times) and he decided to cultivate Moore for a bit. However, he went next to Moby Dick and was impressed, though he thought The Brook Kerith had stirred him more, and between other books he finished Shaw's The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, which his mother had read some months earlier. A.N. Whitehead's Science and the Modern World he found a struggle: 'one of those confounded books which crease the brow & the soul alike of an ordinary bloke like me … I am coming to believe that history is a soft option after all'.113 He read more of Edward Thomas on rural England and Wyndham Lewis's Tarr, 'good, but about extremely peculiar people'.114 He recommended Gibbon's Autobiography, and All Quiet on the Western Front, 'tremendously powerful stuff' (just before he left London he heard from his father that New Zealand libraries had banned the book). He was 'lapping up' Graham Wallas's Human Nature in Politics and thought that, as Wallas was 'looking after Ern', his father ought to read it.
At the beginning of March John had reported to Challis on how things were going with Elsie. Their affections seemed permanently settled – with 'an occasional silent row' – but there appeared to be no prospect of getting married, and that worried John very much page 141indeed. Elsie would not marry him until he had a job and of that there seemed little hope. It was 'a sort of constant sand in the wheels of love'.115 John had already told his parents of the decision to marry,116 and at the beginning of April he drafted a letter to Elsie's parents. Elsie was away touring and John wrote to tell her what a terrible job it had been and that he was sure she would get an immediate cable saying 'Disinherited'. He described the letter:
Par.1 expresses my diffidence at writing & my pride at prospect of becoming their son-in-law. Par.2 discusses briefly (very – 8 lines) my prospects of material advancement. Par.3 expresses my happiness if your happiness would make them happy. Par.4 requests forgiveness & sympathy … I have striven to be as amiable & modest as possible, while yet preserving a spirit of manly independence & subdued cheerfulness, I trust you will approve.117
With his pen in hand, no situation left him at a loss for words.
Elsie's parents took the news pretty well,* though her mother wrote that 'luckily Dad's new roses arrived yesterday so he has something to occupy him'.118 Robert Holmes was sure he would never see his daughter again, but he put a brave face on it and cabled her £100 in addition to her usual allowance. The Holmeses were hurt that they had been told nothing earlier, though Elsie's mother said she was not surprised at the news and had been 'preparing the way with Dad', but John (who never held with formal engagements) and Elsie gave away very little to anyone. Ernest was clearly kept in the dark. At the end of March he was still writing to Uncle Joe on the 'Jack-Elsie-Helen triangle', singing the praises of both Elsie and Helen but venturing the view that it would be Elsie in the end.119 Finally, at the end of July (a week before the couple sailed for New Zealand), he wrote that 'I understand that Jack & Elsie are engaged – officially or unofficially I don't know which, & that just as soon as Jack lands a job he will get married immediately'. About Helen Allen, he added that 'she is as nice a girl as I shall ever want to meet & I will always have the impression that she was – well – that she was very keen on Jack & would have – but what matters this now?'120
* It is not clear if John's letter was sent. Mr and Mrs Holmes's letters appear to be a response to a letter from Elsie. It is possible that John's letter was posted after the one from Elsie.
His parents had sent him two guineas to mark the PhD and 30 shillings for his birthday. He had pretty much decided, he wrote, to put the money together and get the Shakespeare Head edition of Plutarch's Lives in eight volumes if he could find a decent copy. 'Those Blackwell books have very often one bad fault which most books seem to have in this machine-ridden age – the pages are folded so badly that the print frequently rides up or down hill on the page, & I am getting so pernickety that these things annoy me damnably.'124 He was also attracted by a new edition of Pepys on India paper and a new Sir Thomas Browne, though it had the same fault as the Plutarch. He cogitated for some time, almost went for the Pepys, and then in a bookseller's window in Charing Cross Road saw the two-volume Nonesuch edition of Milton's poetry. At £3 10s it seemed very cheap, less than the Plutarch at £5, and it was 'a magnificent book, a fine italic type, & with designs by Blake for illustrations, first rate most of them'.125 'It may be an extravagance for one in my financially very rocky position', he wrote, but he page 143bought it. Before he left he added the Shakespeare Head Plutarch, 'to celebrate my sojourn in & departure from England'.126
Under the terms of John's free passage, he was supposed to get back to New Zealand within three years of leaving it. Time was running out. The shipping company stretched a point and John pencilled in a booking, once again on the Osterley, leaving on 3 August. He wondered whether he should borrow more money (his father offered another £50) and hang on until Christmas, but Elsie was dead against borrowing any more, nor did John feel he really could. Ernest had the impression at this time that John was now sorry in a way that he had not taken the job at Grahamstown.127
He and Elsie went on another tramp, in Buckinghamshire and down the Thames, 'trespassing shamelessly & sleeping out in private woods'.128 The weather was magnificent, the best John had known in England. He went to his Uncle George's at Richmond several times to sit for his portrait. The first sitting was unproductive, Ernest told his father, as John ate such an excellent midday dinner that he could not keep awake in the afternoon, with the result that little could be done: 'typical of Jack, I fear – get a good meal when & where you can is his motto'.129 Ernest thought the finished portrait on the whole very good: 'Uncle George has caught him in a very characteristic attitude, meditative, face leaning on his hand, unruly hair, semi-profile'.130 George gave it to John, together with one of his watercolours.
John and Elsie saw their first 'talkie': 'an appalling thing called Fox Movietone 1929 Follies, appalling in construction, speech, song & everything else. If this is a fair sample, it looks to me as if the talkies are the worst thing that could possibly have happened to the cinema … however it must be admitted that perhaps it wasn't a fair sample.'131 There was a final visit to Cambridge, with Elsie, Duncan and Ernest, to farewell McGrath and have a last look at 'Finella'. John took an involuntary dip in the Cam when Ernest leaped suddenly on to a punt on which John was standing tentatively balancing a pole. It was a very good weekend; they left reluctantly.
John was finding it difficult to accept that he was really leaving London. In the middle of July Ernest wrote to their father:
So far there is no sign of him doing any packing – he must have at least three or four cases of books to put together, not counting his clothes & other junk, so I expect a pretty hectic time towards the end of this month. I presume it is my brotherly duty to stay in London myself to do what there is to help; one thing at least, he can't be so bad now as he used to be, what with Elsie to jog his memory – though, to be honest, page 144Elsie told me the other day that even she despairs of getting him to do things – this in reference to seeing about his passage – sometimes apparently the only alternative to continual reminders is to let him go his own pace – the trouble being, of course, that Jack's pace in doing things is often so decidedly slow that it drives most normal people into virtual hysterics.132
The same day that Ernest wrote, John was writing to Challis that he was 'thinking about packing-cases, & damning the world & pretty well all that's in it'.133
A final possibility of a job arose. A chair in history was advertised at the new university college in Singapore. They wanted applicants aged between thirty and thirty-five; this was a snag, as John had just turned twenty-eight, but he thought that it was just possible his luck would turn. The appointment was to be made through the Colonial Office and Laski said he would put in a word with Sidney Webb, the new colonial secretary. By the time John sailed there had been no decision and there was the possibility that he would be 'hauled off the boat at Colombo or Sydney or somewhere by cable'.134 He heard he had not been appointed only after he arrived back in New Zealand. Another unsuccessful applicant, even younger than John, was Fred Wood, an Australian who had graduated with first-class honours from Oxford the year before.
Not knowing about Singapore complicated leaving. Decisions about final shopping were difficult when he did not know where he was going to be. An afternoon was spent rushing about with Ernest choosing a wedding present for Ernest to give them; they finally settled on a table lamp that could be as useful in Singapore as in New Zealand. Ernest wrote to his father:
I think it nearly broke Jack's heart that he did not have £100 or so to spend in Heals the great furnishing shop. He took me in one day to show me incidentally what he would like to get. Not much of the stuff would be strictly utilitarian I fear, but it showed a pretty taste & no mistake. He must hope to have money to spend next time he is in London: that is cold consolation …135
Adelaide MacDonald, Helen Allen and de Kiewiet combined to present John with the London PhD robes. It reminded John of how much his mother had looked forward to seeing him in a red gown, but it was a generous gift. Dick Campbell gave a farewell party, with asparagus and ice cream. He had completed his thesis and was off to America. Elsie's father paid so she could also travel first class with John on the Osterley. 'I needn't say', he wrote to his father, 'what it page 145would be like without her.'136 On his last day in London John took a last bus ride along the Strand and up Ludgate Hill to see St Paul's as he had seen it the first time, and that night at one o'clock he and Elsie went down to Waterloo Bridge and gazed down the river.
We have no records of the voyage out. John wrote his father a brief letter from Sydney. There would be plenty of time to talk when he got home, he said. The trip had been 'middling to good' and he was in the best of health.137 They were having some days in Sydney, meeting Henning and his family, Jean Harvey, friends of Duncan's, and Eileen McGrath, Raymond's young sister, who was training to be a sculptor. They would be sailing from Sydney on the Makura on 20 September and would arrive in Wellington about four days later.
'It is Fatal for Youths of my temperament and tastes to come to England & Europe at the age of 25', John wrote to Challis just before he sailed for New Zealand, 'they should be set firmly to dig potatoes in the Wairarapa, with due & stringent safeguards against falling in love. Now I shall be coming back to N.Z. half-baked. Ah, well.'138 But if the last months in London had served him up some 'solid whacks of fortune', which cast a shadow over his return home, his time there had been exceedingly well spent. He had completed his PhD and he had had that 'intensive grounding in historical method and research' prescribed by Newton, which he in his turn was to pass on to his students. But the Oxford University Press decision not to publish the thesis had been a great disappointment.
John's good fortune, far outweighing the bad, was to make a group of friends who greatly enriched his life intellectually, culturally and socially. A brighter quartet than the four young men who sailed from Sydney on the Osterley is difficult to imagine; and then in London de Kiewiet, Helen Allen and Adelaide MacDonald also became a part of John's world. For the first time he had fellow students who both shared his intellectual and cultural interests and matched his academic ability. Our knowledge of John's London years is based largely on his letters home, which catch only in part their high spirits and enjoyment of life. This comes out in some surviving letters from McGrath to John, and a handful from John to Ian Henning. Their affection for one another is suggested by the way they rallied around when a thesis was being submitted, by the 'violent but salutary criticism', by the gift of the academic robes, by de Kiewiet's inscription in his second book when he sent it to John in 1937: 'To J.C.B. because we loved the same things page 146as well as one another'. Over fifty years later, de Kiewiet recalled the 'very great influence' John had had on him, 'musically and stylistically'. At eighty-two, de Kiewiet wrote that 'I still think of him quite openly, as a needed friend and a warm influence'.139 John was always to commend de Kiewiet as an historian of South Africa to his students.
Individually, they influenced John in various ways. Duncan, the radical, with his Australian working-class background, sharpened (together with Laski) John's political interests and his contempt for the political establishment. 'As for the present [British] govt', John wrote in February 1929 in a characteristic political comment, 'it seems to consist of one brilliant man, Churchill, one very likeable personality (in private life), Baldwin, one very efficient & inhuman administrator, Neville Chamberlain, & about the biggest collection of blatant or obscure fools a country was ever cursed with'. His father had feared he was comparing Britain adversely with America. John denied it, but went on:
… while there are 200 tons of soot over London in the winter, while the London & Glasgow slums flourish, while the coal-mine mess exists, while the offer of men on the dole to do some public work for their money is refused 'because of some technical difficulty', while the 'Sunday Express' & 'Lloyds' Weekly News' & 'John Blunt' & Horatio Bottomley & Birkenhead make fat livings, & while a congenital idiot like Jix remains Home Secretary, & while people sleep on the Embankment in the shadow of the Cecil Hotel, then I consider I have a legitimate right to criticise … I'm on the side of the dissatisfied. And the same thing applies mutatis mutandis to N.Z. I believe in faith & tolerance & love & geniality. And I believe in scepticism & intolerance & hate & bitterness. And don't accuse me of lack of proportion.140
He was coming to recognise the growing importance of the United States in the twentieth-century world. He was also, for the first time, meeting and getting to know individual Americans, and reading and hearing more about their country.
I'm sick of these cheap English sneers at Americans; when it comes to a choice between interesting people give me travelled colonials or Americans every time … I'm coming to the conclusion that the States is one of the most important things to study in this here world, Babbit & Elmer Gantry ridden as it may be. It may be pretty batty in some ways, but I doubt if on the whole it's worse than England or N.Z.141
Raymond McGrath extended John's knowledge of the visual arts and gave him a taste of the literary world of Cambridge. He page 147had already known about painting and printing from his reading and had some practical experience of printers from his time editing Spike, but McGrath made it all first hand, 'knowing' rather than 'knowing about'. McGrath's enthusiasm – for the Russian Ballet, for his discoveries on his travels in Spain (after which he became Don Ramón Majraz), for Scandinavian architecture, for his Miss Texas – was infectious. His talk of architecture and his work on 'Finella' opened John's eyes and contributed to one of his lasting interests.
With all of John's deep ambivalence about New Zealand, with his conviction that he must have more time away if he was to achieve what he believed he could, he was still thinking about what New Zealand might be. 'What a place we could have in N.Z. if we loosened the purse strings & only tried', as he said when visiting Cambridge. What is emerging is not just a dream born of nostalgia for home, but an idea of the positive qualities of the colonial mind. McGrath, Duncan, de Kiewiet were socially congenial; but, more, they exemplified the kind of sceptical yet civilised minds, the enthusiasm and directness, on which a new society might really be built. Other evidence is a comment on Henry Lawson: 'Did you ever read any of Henry Lawson's stuff? I have been reading While the Billy Boils lately & it is good stuff … Only colonial writing I ever read that got there; no waste words, no padding, not much description; but it couldn't have been written anywhere but in N.Z. or Australia.'142
The friendships of those years were given a particular intensity not just by the shared sense of discovering the world, but also by the recognition that, as on a sea voyage, this shared experience must come to an end. Adelaide MacDonald had gone by the end of John's first year, back to Toronto. Many years later, in 1958, she visited Wellington. They got on very well after thirty years: 'she and Elsie took to each other & the talk was full & free'.143 John met her again some years later in New York, where she had become the head of Unicef. Helen Allen went on to her position at Vassar. She left that on her marriage in 1931. She and John lost touch and never met again. De Kiewiet would have a distinguished academic career. After holding positions at the State University of Iowa from 1929 to 1941, and Cornell University from 1941 to 1951, he became president of the University of Rochester in 1951. McGrath published books on twentieth-century houses and on glass in architecture and decoration. He was design consultant for the BBC from 1930 to 1935 and responsible for some of the interior spaces in the new Broadcasting House in London.144 Later he became Principal page 148Architect at the Office of Public Works in Dublin (1948–68) and professor of architecture at the Royal Hibernian Academy. Henning and Duncan both returned to the University of Sydney, Henning eventually becoming professor of French.145 Duncan joined the department of tutorial classes (university extension), becoming acting director in 1934 and director two years later. In 1951 he was appointed professor of history and political science at the University of Adelaide. John saw a little more of Duncan than he did of de Kiewiet and McGrath. Even if they had had time, it would have been almost impossible to sustain their particular friendships through letters alone. Adelaide MacDonald and the McGraths were faithful with Christmas cards. After a brief meeting in 1950 (the first since 1929), McGrath wrote, 'In future we must do a bit better at keeping in touch/Au revoir mon cher'.146 They met only briefly in later years.
At least John was making the return voyage with Elsie, and they were determined to marry just as soon as he could get a job. But one can understand his gloom – 'We're hopelessly handicapped out there by our distance from anything'147 – in a world where distances were still measured in terms of sea travel times, where an exchange of letters between New Zealand and London took almost three months and where one worried whether PhD in a cable was charged as one word or three. The years in London had, in all sorts of ways, developed John as an historian. Newton's seminar and his idea of an intensive grounding in historical method had played a part – though John was always to be sceptical of the value of a PhD compared with a good book – but probably this was less important than the stimulation he received from his fellow students and the breadth of his reading. He had deepened his appreciation of his British and European heritage, and through his letters as much as his thesis had developed his skills as a writer. He found it hard to believe that he would be able to work as an historian in New Zealand, but in the years ahead he was proved wrong.page breakpage break