A Life of J. C. Beaglehole: New Zealand Scholar
10 — Public Life, Books, Music and Art 1936–50
Public Life, Books, Music and Art 1936–50
In WritingNew Zealand: A Short History John revealed an interest in the ways in which life in New Zealand was shaped not simply by the nature of expanding British capitalism but also by the isolation and hostility of the land. It was an interest he shared with a number of the poets of the time, especially Charles Brasch and Allen Curnow. Curnow prefaced his book Not in Narrow Seas (1939), an exploration of this theme, with four brief extracts from John's Short History, among them, tellingly: 'in the midst of converging cables, shipping and wireless communication, it has remained always isolated; and in that verdant isolation perhaps lies the remote secret – if there is one – of the national life'. John favourably reviewed the collection in the Press, 'a warm and welcoming notice by a man whose intellect one deeply respected', Curnow was later to describe it.1 His next collection, Island and Time (1941), again showed John's influence. In his notes Curnow 'mentions The Exploration of the Pacific, but the Short History is also evident'.2 John, for his part, once again reviewed the volume warmly, as deserving 'the attention of everybody interested in poetry, or the poet's mind, or the mind of our country':
He does in fact show us the spectacle of a poet and a highly intelligent man approaching and rendering New Zealand and the history of New Zealand really imaginatively, with strength and with pity. Nothing like his 'Unhistoric Story' or 'A Victim' or 'House and Land' has, as far as I know, ever been done here before. And it is not perhaps too lavish praise to suggest that as Mr Curnow finds himself we may find ourselves.3
In his study of New Zealand literary culture in those years Lawrence Jones argues that the writers he focuses on – Curnow, Brasch, Glover and Fairburn, with Mason and Cresswell lighting the way – were attacking the familiar myths that New Zealanders lived by: pioneering families building a pastoral arcadia while sustained by the values of an idealised Britain. In its place the poets were page 306constructing an 'anti-myth' with a number of elements: the relation to the land, to history, to the Maori, to England, to puritanism. It was, in its way, their contribution to the centennial. That anti-myth, Jones writes, 'was aimed at removing a false consciousness, to clear the slate for a true consciousness on which a genuine New Zealand culture could be built'.4 John echoed their aim in his 'Centennial Meditations' in Spike when he wrote that a genuine 'national culture' could 'only come from the free intelligence working on its environment and its history'.5 The poets did not get very far on just what that 'national culture' might be – though Glover was clearly at one with John in holding that decent printing was part of it – as they recognised more clearly what they were against than what they would put in its place. 'Probably necessarily', Jones writes, 'their expressed sense of any positive hopes was less specific and usually metaphorical'.6 For John it was very different. We have seen his response when Heenan sought his ideas on the future role of the Centennial Branch. While he did not often talk in terms of 'national culture', in the late 1930s and the 1940s he not only established a place as a critic in the arts but, adding to his activities in the Historical Branch, he was directly involved in a number of initiatives to do with books, reading, music and the visual arts that he believed would make New Zealand a better place to be. It was, perhaps, not surprising that, when in 1949–50 he revisited England for the first time since he had left in 1929, he came to realise that he was first and foremost a New Zealander.
* Bart Fortune and the International Bookshop were the subject of correspondence between the British Security Service and the New Zealand Police. The director of the British service (Colonel Sir Vernon Kell) wrote (26 April 1938) that 'A new shop is to be established which will be "generally progressive but non-sectarian", and will work in conjunction with an organisation called the Wellington Left Book Society', and he named John as one of its sponsors (along with a number of other 'prominent lefts'). The New Zealand Commissioner of Police, D.H. Cummings, in reply (21 June 1938) suggested that it was 'the intention of the Communist Party to conceal their identity with the shop in bringing it before the public', an odd suggestion because, even if they had wanted to conceal their identity, most of them were well known to the non-Party Left. (J.C. Beaglehole File. New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Papers.)
The society's aims, less overtly political and distinctly high-minded, were adopted at the meeting on the motion of John and Walter Scott, who was greatly influenced by the Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis:
Recognising the difficulty of training and preserving a sound judgement of literature and art in a world in which so much of it has been debased for profit, the members of the Society look to their Bookshop to help them and the public generally to this end; they regard it as a means of developing the critical intelligence that the understanding and treatment of human conditions today so urgently need.9
From the beginning, the Wellington shop would have less of a political emphasis than those in Auckland and Christchurch, though the balance was always controversial. In part this reflected differences among the three cities; the Wellington society had a higher proportion of academics, civil servants and professional people among its members and the majority of them were to show a greater interest in books than in political pamphlets.
The first meeting elected a management committee that included John, and when the committee met it made him president. He had already designed them a letterhead. A possible manager was in the offing. A young Londoner employed in the Westminster Bank, Roy Parsons, and his wife Nan, both members of the Fabian Society, had been attracted by what they had heard of New Zealand under the Labour government and were thinking of migrating to start a progressive bookshop. Roy was interested in the Wellington position. Indeed, Nan had already arrived in Wellington, where John and Elsie were among the first people she met.10 A.G.B. Fisher, then in page 308London, and Victor Gollancz were asked to report on Roy Parsons's suitability for the position. Fisher cabled 'Not bad', Gollancz 'Parsons suitable', and on that advice he was offered the job. He arrived at the end of May 1939; the shop (named Modern Books) opened shortly afterwards in the Dominion Farmers' Institute building in Featherston Street. Just over a year later it moved to Woodward Street.
An immediate difficulty facing the society was the government's restrictions on overseas funds. Responding to a letter from John asking for an import licence for £1000, Walter Nash had written, characteristically, 'as long as there are funds there will be no restriction on the issue of licences for books and medicine – both essential to the mind and body'.11 The difficulties continued for some years, however, even though John met Nash several times to put the society's case. A second problem was the continuing lack of agreement about the shop's purpose. In July the committee, after discussion, had reiterated that 'it was necessary to preserve a balance between stocks appealing more especially to people of purely intellectual interests and those people whose interests lay primarily in left wing political publications'.12 That did not settle the matter. The non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, signed in August 1939, put an end to the Popular Front, and the controversy came to focus on the newly appointed manager. John reported on the shop's first six months in a letter to Richmond:
… we tried to mobilise both the Left & the intelligent book-buyer (I don't mean what that says); we sell both Lenin & Eric Gill's 25 Nudes & poetry & books on Cézanne etc & Left pamphlets & so on. I am president of the committee, on the score of being acceptable to both wings of our supporters – both a literary man & of approved political views! We're not doing badly on the whole, in spite of import licences (if we can't get one for 1940 we're sunk) & the war. I don't worry about the finance – I mean I worry about it but I make no attempt to understand it; my chief duty is to try & keep people sweet to & about one another & it isn't always easy … Our greatest current controversy is whether [Parsons] is the right bloke or not; & discussions which are supposed to be extremely confidential & in committee have a way of getting broadcast all over the place. God knows how – or at least I think I know how as well, but not so certainly as to stage a show-down. But I find some people extremely irritating in the virulence of their instinctive dislikes … Certainly … Parsons is a New Statesman sort of bloke rather than a die-hard Moscovian – & that is hard for some people to follow.13
The shop, however, made a good start. Christmas trade boomed. page 309They tried to build a stock of good children's books. The first book tokens were introduced to New Zealand – an elegant design by John with decorations from sixteenth-century French woodcuts. The society had a social committee chaired by Elizabeth (Gran) McGowan, a working-class stalwart who had joined the Communist Party in 1936, and the shop was the venue for meetings and lectures on literary and political topics.
John later confessed that he had become president of the management committee on the understanding that he was to be 'only a presiding officer; but [I] soon found I had to work damn hard, & have done so ever since', he wrote two years later. 'In fact we all have except the Left Wing/C.P. boys, who have talked a hell of a lot but done damn all beyond that. There are times when one becomes heartily sick of the C.P. – & even understands Mr Peter Fraser's feeling about it.'14 The most talkative member of the left wing was R.F. Griffin, a publisher's representative and a communist since the 1920s, who had been expelled several times by the Party: 'a loquacious Irishman with strongly held opinions – turbulent, thorny but talented'.15 He was a member of the management committee from 1938 to 1944. Fortune and Sutch both resigned from the committee within the shop's first year, but at the annual meeting in October 1940 they led the attack: 'after Dr Sutch, Dr Finlay [Martyn Finlay, later a Labour member of parliament], Mr Southworth and Mr Fortune had spoken criticising the bookshop and the management of the Society a motion was carried that future speakers be limited to 3 minutes'.16
John gave Richmond a long account of these happenings – 'the story of how I lost the confidence of the Left Wing, & part of the story of Uncle Scrim & of Bill Sutch & all sorts of other things' – though he added he could never tell it properly in less than 140 pages, and even then 'it would be but a bare & brief summary, so much are lengthy & analytical character sketches called for'.
… before very long we had two parties, the anti-Parsons, who regarded themselves as the sole representatives & patrons of the workers (Griffin, Sutch etc) – & the not exactly pro-Parsons, but pro-square deal, pro-original purpose of the shop, intelligent books in general & not just C.P. pamphlets & little Lenin Library. In other words I, for one, was not content just to be a stooge. The storm burst at the Annual General Meeting last year [October 1940] when the Left having insisted that all others were reactionaries, packed the meeting & had a lovely time getting their hatreds off their chest. Scrim was put up for the committee but didn't get on. I was accused of speaking in favour of censorship, page 310because I had said that in a war I was afraid we must regard censorship as inevitable, & I was accused of organising a ticket & so forth. I got on to the committee again, & we had the devil's own job to keep Parsons from resigning (he is an excellent man on the financial side, by the way). However I was to be tolerated no longer as president; one Finlay, a new member, was immediately made president, & when he resigned on becoming Nordmeyer's private sec., Scrim came on & was made president, at once also. Well, the amusing thing is that Scrim has been a very good president of committee, has adopted precisely the attitude I always adopted in general (glaring differences of detail of course) & has been far more crudely rude to C.P. ideas than I ever thought of being.17
The wartime censorship, introduced by regulations on 1 September 1939, was not only a bone of contention in the society but a real practical difficulty in running the shop. The Controller of Censorship, who came under the prime minister, took a wide view of what was 'antagonistic to British ideals and of a subversive nature',18 and customs officials detained a large amount of material. At first booksellers were not told what had been withheld and had no way of knowing why orders had not arrived. In July 1940 importers were told that books and periodicals deemed subversive would not be delivered and must not be purchased under import licences but at the same time they were refused a list of the proscribed works. Parcels were piling up in censorship offices. Walter Nash took charge and established an ad hoc and invisible advisory committee that included Alister McIntosh and John Reid (by now a private secretary to Nash). The committee's recommendations led to the immediate release of a number of publications, including the New Statesman and Nation and New Republic. From the booksellers' point of view, however, the situation remained exasperating. They repeatedly asked to be told what titles were proscribed; the censorship authorities, 'showing much skill in dodging questions',19 avoided giving an answer.
At the society's annual meeting in 1940, at which John battled so royally, the incoming committee was instructed to work with trade unions and other bodies to mobilise opinion against the censorship. Parsons drafted a statement on the difficulties and anomalies in the system and suggested that the level of censorship in New Zealand should never exceed that in force in England. In forwarding a copy of this to Nash on 21 November,20 John explained that the committee had preferred to 'go a bit more quietly for a start' and that the letter had 'been sent to a few Labour M.P.'s, four or five in all I think (none of the wild men) in the hope that the matter may be brought page 311up in caucus in a reasonable way'.* There was little change. Even after Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 and the Soviet Union's entry into the war as an ally (and the New Zealand Communist Party's reversal of its opposition to the war), works on communism or Soviet Russia were still treated with suspicion, as Peter Fraser remained wary of anything which might stir up 'undesirable feeling in the community when unity was all important'.21 As the war moved on the forbidden list was shortened, and by the end of 1943 its contents were made known, in confidence, to 'responsible persons'. John, who had never liked censorship, recognised that there were circumstances in which it was inevitable but wanted it limited as far as possible and open to 'reasonable' discussion.
John felt that the annual meeting at the end of 1941 was similar to that held a year earlier:
Another nasty annual meeting last month; but as there was nothing for the Left to complain about, they invented things & refused to accept the committee's recommendation for a dividend (we had a profit of nearly £150). Bill Sutch acts as their main mouthpiece now – he is getting pretty intolerable, with an almost pathological need to talk. He has made a mess of his own job, P[eter] F[raser] hates & distrusts him (the feeling is returned) & yet he is too Lucifer-proud to take anything else. Awful psychological maladjustment which has become too too apparent. I just crawl on to the committee this time at the bottom of the list; meeting again packed & a C.P. ticket – the argument being that if Beaglehole organises a ticket & packs a meeting the workers have got to do it too in self-defence. And nothing will convince them that I am not a sinister sort of Algie-plus, going around organising this & that & generally behaving as a bloody reactionary. C.P. arguments against the shop – it sells too much poetry, art, expensive books, high-brow books, Virginia Woolf & such-like tripe, it's too pansy, Parsons is rude to the workers, he deliberately refuses to sell pamphlets, it isn't enthusiastic in the workers' cause, its site (Woodward St) is too near the Wgton Club. But every now & again will come a sort of startling unpremeditated admission that it's very well run, that it's sold far more left-wing stuff than the Christchurch shop with all its millions of pamphlets, that it really is not in league with the censor, & so on. Taking it all in all, we really have lived up pretty well to our United Front ambitions – & that is the root of the trouble. For a while the C.P. made things very difficult for us with the Govt – some fool reported to the Party last year that they had captured ourpage 312committee, the police of course got hold of the report, we had our import licence cut by more than half, & I had the devil of a job straightening things out again with Walter Nash. I didn't know the reason of course – I only found that out a few weeks ago. The conclusion I have come to is that the C.P. people are damned hard to work with – & that is putting it pretty mildly. But my God they can gas – particularly if they don't know what they're gassing about; & the atmosphere of petty & gratuitous intrigue in which they live seems to make it impossible for them to conceive that everybody else isn't doing the same.22
* Nash thanked him for his courtesy in writing, welcomed the views of 'informed critics', but accepted 'the necessity of censorship in war-time however distasteful it may be to us as individuals'. (Walter Nash to JCB, 6 December 1940.)
Through all of this John showed remarkable patience. Roy Parsons, however, had finally had enough. He wrote to R.H. Griffin in June 1942 in reply to criticisms about an alleged lack of left-wing pamphlets. Having dealt with the specific complaints, he continued: 'your ceaseless criticism during the three years … has accomplished the not inconsiderable task of killing my enthusiasm for the shop and the Society. There may be those who do their best work under the spur of unremitting attack, though I doubt it'.23 Later in the year he left the job to join the air force, where he spent the next three years. John stayed on the committee for one more year, becoming president again briefly when Scrim was called up, and continued loyally to support the shop. Parsons, on being demobilised, resigned from Modern Books in February 1946 and started his own shop, first upstairs at 288 Lambton Quay and a year later back in Woodward Street (Modern Books in the meantime having moved to Manners Street). John gave him unstinting support. Nan Parsons later recalled Elsie scrubbing the floor of the Woodward Street shop before they moved in, and John and Roy Parsons on a trestle painting the high ceiling.24
The Progressive Publishing Society, or PPS, grew out of moves to coordinate the work of the cooperative bookshops, each of which had independently published a small number of works.25 The new society got under way in 1941; John feared that the same divisions were going to take place as they had already seen over the bookshop: 'The first wrangle has been over a pamphlet of Sewell's – "full of historical generalisations, & they're all wrong" said Mr Griffin of the C.P. to me; the publishing soc. doesn't exist to publish that sort of thing, only fit for the intellectuals. Luckily I've kept out of that.'26 He did not keep out completely. He went to a number of the conferences of representatives of the three cooperative shops, and in 1944 the society established a typographical panel that he chaired. It does not seem to have been very active. That year the society brought out its most substantial publication, Islands of Danger, a popular account by Ernest Beaglehole of the time he and Pam had page 313spent on an ethnological study of Pukapuka, an atoll in the northern Cook Islands. John spent many hours preparing the manuscript for publication27 (he retained an older brother's critical view of Ernest's prose style) and arranged both the typography and design of the book, which was printed by Whitcombe and Tombs in Christchurch. John, rather charitably, described the PPS style as 'straightforward and workmanlike and decent'.28
From an early stage he was concerned that the publishing society should be kept quite separate from the cooperative book society: 'if once things get really mixed we shall be in for a hell of a time'. 'Our first duty to our members, I think, is to make sure that the future of Modern Books will not be imperilled. Of course I am a member of the publishing society and I want that to go ahead – but it must go ahead under its own steam.'29 His caution was justified. The publishing society, always undercapitalised, went into liquidation after three years and the three book societies were responsible for its debts. In that time the society had published sixty-five works, including the popular New Zealand New Writing – much criticised by some members for its lack of social content and summarily dismissed by Denis Glover: 'I begin to suspect that we do right to take a proper pride in our footballers'.30
One might have thought that John had had enough of publishing but in 1945, after a thirty-year campaign by Sir James Hight of Canterbury College, the Senate of the University of New Zealand agreed to take 'initial exploratory steps' towards establishing a university press by voting £500 for preliminary expenses and appointing a provisional board that included John. The following June he reported to Janet on a meeting of the board: 'I threw my weight around somewhat scornfully & disgustedly & intolerantly for about three hours, & as a result had to miss two lectures. But at least I got them to consider low & mundane things like money & time & punctuation & editing. Apparently the idea now is that I am to see to all these things, plus typography …'31 The following year the senate made a grant of £7500 for working capital, John succeeded Hight as chairman, and the power to act was essentially in his hands, together with those of Ian Gordon, who was at that time vice-chancellor of the University of New Zealand as well as professor of English at Victoria. 'It's the only way the damned affair will get anywhere',32 John commented. For the following fifteen years the press was sustained by their enthusiasm and John's hard work, supported by the registrar of the university, who acted as secretary. The first book to appear was P.S. Ardern's First Readings in Old page 314English – 'God what a thing it was to do',33 John wrote – followed by Ian Gordon's English Prose Technique. Both texts for university classes, they sold well and went to second editions.
In the first years John actively canvassed the idea of setting up 'a real university press' with its own printing house. He asked Harry Tombs, the printer and publisher, who had a long interest in the arts and was by then in his seventies, if he might be interested in selling his business. Lance Davison came up from Christchurch to cast a critical eye over the works and machinery with John, who clearly had the idea of bringing Davison into some kind of partnership as manager of the printing works. While the plant was 'better than [Davison] expected',34 Tombs was very vague about financial details. Davison decided against leaving Whitcombe and Tombs, and Harry Tombs's offer to sell, when it came, included a provision that he should be kept on as manager for three years. 'Quite inadvisable', John noted on the letter, and nothing came of the idea. The university press remained, as J.E. Traue was to describe it, 'from beginning to end an unwanted child'.35 After the initial capital there was no continuing grant; with no staff, office or sales organisation, it remained 'a part-time enthusiasm'.36 During its sixteen years of existence thirteen books were published, with over 24,000 copies printed and almost 20,000 sold. Notable among them were Eric McCormick's The Expatriate: A Study of Frances Hodgkins and New Zealand (1954) and Keith Sinclair's The Origins of the Maori Wars (1957). The major undertaking was The Buttermakers' Manual by F.H. McDowall of Massey Agricultural College, already accepted when John took over the press and finally appearing in 1953. The Manual incurred 57 per cent of the total costs of the board's operation and produced 56 per cent of its receipts; the author contributed a substantial portion of the costs himself. Its production in two volumes with 1590 pages of text plus notes and appendices nearly drove John to distraction, and telephone calls from Dr McDowall for a time seemed a constant part of family life. The ever-rising costs of printing and binding and the problems of distribution continued to plague the press, but by what John called 'a policy of worried caution' it managed to keep its original capital intact and when, after several years of progressive devolution the University of New Zealand was finally dissolved into its constituents in 1961, the press disappeared with it and the board returned £8500 to the new University Grants Committee.
'Though as an organ of the University of New Zealand', John wrote in his final report,37 the press 'has not captured the approval of the separate universities … it has not wasted the money of the page 315University'. He regretted that the universities had no interest in keeping the press going as a collaborative venture, choosing rather to enter into publication ventures separately. In the circumstances in which it worked, Dennis McEldowney considered the press's achievement impressive. 'Its list was small but uniformly high in quality; the typography … distinguished. Its weakness was in distribution.'38 The achievement was almost entirely John's work.
John's interest in books led to his involvement with the newly formed New Zealand Library School. This had started its teaching in 1946 under the directorship of Mary Parsons, the much-travelled American who had come to Wellington to establish the United States Information Service Library, having previously taught in library schools in France and America.39 John and Elsie had got to know her well, and John gave a number of lectures on the history of the book, on printing, illustration and publishing. He reported to Janet: 'I've done four of my six lectures to the Library School. Are they worth while? I don't know. The kids sit there as dumb as a lot of new students in Stage I'.40 Mary Parsons left in 1948 when she retired home to the United States (where she had a house designed by Plischke built at Ann Arbor in 1955–5641), but John continued with the lectures for a number of years.
In a Talk Given in 1968 John recalled the beginning of the Chamber Music Society,42 how it followed from the decision of the pianist Dorothy Davies, cellist Marie Vanderwart and violinist Erica Schorss, towards the end of the war, to play together in public, 'consistently, seriously, regularly, and not to let their public down'. John, in Fred Turnovsky's words 'their guiding spirit and promoter',43 was one of those who managed the recitals (and, needless to say, designed the programmes), which were held in Nimmo's hall, a rather cramped upstairs space (long since gone) in Willis Street.
The performers never got much out of it, in cash, [John recalled in his talk] beyond a pound or two each, and then only because, somehow, we got amusement tax waived. They said they had fun, as well as the agony of conscientious performers … and on the last night of the last season we ever had, someone said to me, look don't you think it would be a good idea if we could get other musicians in New Zealand into this sort of thing, and get various groups co-ordinated, and start a chamber music society with subscribers?
Fred Wood organised a gathering on 9 November 1944 in the studio of Spencer Digby, a well-known photographer and great record page 316collector, a temporary committee was chosen and four months later, on 6 March, a meeting was held to form the Wellington Chamber Music Society. Two thousand invitations had been designed, printed and sent out, and about 180 enthusiastic people filled Nimmo's hall. The evening began with music; the Broadcasting Service quartet (Vincent Aspey, leader, with May Hyam, Frank Hoffey and Molly Wright), having been given special permission to appear out of the studio for possibly the first time, played quartets by Dvorák and Haydn. John moved the motion to form the society, and it was seconded by E.C.(Ted) Simpson. The subscription, fixed at one guinea per person, was intended to cover six concerts – 3s 6d for each one. John had thought they might get 200 or 250 subscribers, but within the year the society had grown to over 600, filling the Town Hall Concert Chamber, and there was a waiting list for membership.
The first committee was chaired by Simpson, managing director of Kodak, a mild man who was passionate about the arts; he had lectured on art for the WEA for many years and had a remarkable collection of both records and books on art – of which John was deeply envious. John was a member of the committee, along with Spencer Digby, C.R. Straubel, a journalist who later worked in publishing for Whitcombe and Tombs, W.B. (Walter) Harris, a member of the Education Department and a pioneer in the use of films and film strips in education, and Fred Turnovsky, the young refugee from Czechoslovakia who was to become the driving force of the newly formed society, with R.C.G. Weston as secretary. The committee was notable for the work its members shouldered. They divided among themselves all the tasks involved in planning and managing the concerts, and early committee meetings, generally held at either Ted Simpson's or 6 Messines Road, could go on well after midnight. John designed the programmes until he resigned from the committee in 1949 when he left for London on sabbatical leave. He also acted as doorkeeper for the concerts, which proved unexpectedly hazardous. At the annual general meeting held in February 1946, at the beginning of the society's second year, after a member had commented that Wellington audiences were 'diabolically dilatory' and recommended that latecomers should not be admitted until the end of the first item, John 'spoke of the difficulty of keeping the door closed during playing. He had actually had the skin torn off his knuckles when acting as doorkeeper'.44 When he resigned from the committee, the secretary wrote to him: 'We have valued especially the high standard you have always set in supervising the Society's page 317printing. Mention was also made at the meeting of the loss which will be immediately apparent to a great many members of the chief guardian of the portal at the Concert Chamber'.45
The first concert, on 1 May 1945, was given by Maurice Clare, the distinguished English violinist who was at that time living in Christchurch, and pianist Frederick Page, 'already noted for his espousal of new music, a passion which [had] brought him into deadly conflict with the more conservative musical forces of Christchurch'.46 On the committee's recommendation they included in their programme Douglas Lilburn's sonata for violin and piano in C major. The first season was inevitably somewhat ad hoc as the committee explored the availability of performers, sought to reach agreement on fees (the £75 paid to Maurice Clare, while justified for him in the committee's view, created difficulties when they sought to negotiate much lower sums with other players), and reached agreement on programmes. Some groups had firm views on what they would, or could, play; the committee considered that it should make those decisions and seems to have succeeded in making what John Thomson described as 'musically intelligent and individual programmes'.47 Looking ahead to the second year, John suggested to the committee that they should consider a programme devoted wholly to a particular composer; it might be 'worthwhile sounding out Mr Douglas Lilburn as to what he contemplated in chamber music and get a line on anything he might compose in the next few months … he felt it desirable that the Society should encourage the composition of music as well as performance'.48
Some difficulties were hard to resolve. In those immediate postwar years there was scarcely one good piano available in any public hall in the whole of New Zealand, and this remained so for many years. The Town Hall Concert Chamber was the only venue for the concerts; it had the feel of a rather unloved and shabby school hall, and the lack of soundproofing between it and the Town Hall itself was especially trying when concerts coincided with professional wrestling, then in its heyday and filling the Town Hall with large and enthusiastic crowds. But despite the difficulties the society flourished.
The sensation of 1946, the society's second year, was the pianist Lili Kraus. Born and trained in Hungary, in the 1930s 'she won an international reputation as a soloist for the lucidity and stylishness of her Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven'.49 During the war she was interned by the Japanese in Java, and following the end of hostilities she made her way to New Zealand via Australia, arriving with her page 318husband, Dr Otto Mandl, and their two children, in June 1946. James Bertram has described her 'magnetic appeal to war-worn New Zealanders'.50 She won applause for the quality of her playing, but the impact she made drew as much on her exuberant and exotic style, fiery temperament and effortless self-promotion, which led A.R.D. Fairburn to write to John suggesting that he should join those poets, the hard-boiled Denis Glover among them, who were saluting her in verse.* John thought he had better hear her play first. A little later he did, at Dorothy Davies's studio, and was favourably impressed: 'she really can play, it's true, but whether she calls for a book of verse I'm not convinced yet. We'll see'. And he continued, 'Fred Page says when he heard her play Schubert, she smeared the first movement all over with sex'.51 Whatever the final verdict, Lili Kraus clearly came at a good time both for herself and for New Zealand music. The following year there was further excitement with a tour by the Boyd Neel String Orchestra from Britain. John was bowled over: 'They are miraculous. I've never heard string-playing like it, & you could tell after two notes of God Save the King what it was going to be like … I finished up completely exhausted, I didn't have a clap, or a stamp, or a bravo left.'52 The Chamber Music Society's third season, John Thomson wrote, was 'artistically successful beyond measure'.53
* Poems to Kraus by Bertram, Curnow, Fairburn and Glover were published in the second number of Landfall, June 1947.
… the Hon F. Jones [Minister of Broadcasting], the fool, was there, & Shelley. All about our efforts to keep Andersen Tyrer from being appointed conductor of the National Orchestra. Peter was visibly shaken, but I'm afraid the thing has gone too far to be stopped. Dammit I really haven't got time for this sort of thing, but people seem to expect me to do it. It was funny, Jones started to make a personal attack on me and Peter leapt to my defence like a knight errant to the side of Beauty; & Jones bade me a most effusive farewell.56
John had been willing enough to take part in the agitation, but was less happy to be 'pushed into the forefront of battle'.57 The controversy brought him into direct conflict with Heenan: 'I believe Joe is very wrath with me, & has referred to "Beaglehole & his gang going around stirring up trouble" – in other words spiking one of his plans'. Not only was Tyrer one of his centennial stars, but he had also 'been of use' to Heenan in helping his musician son, Ashley, and 'Joe thinks that Tyrer is a great man'.58 And yet John felt he had to do something. 'There seem to be so few people with the guts to say Here come off it Peter to his face.'59 There is no evidence that he gave any thought to the fact that he was a part-time employee in Heenan's department.
The battle was lost. Fraser, backed by Heenan and Shelley, could not be moved. Tyrer was not only to conduct the orchestra, but to organise it as well, auditioning and selecting players, and choosing programmes. The orchestra met for the first time for a week in October 1946 after which they dispersed, to reassemble in February 1947 to prepare for their much-heralded first concert in the Wellington Town Hall on 6 March. John was asked to review their performance for the Listener.page 320
Apart from all the ballyhoo and build-up we may, I think, be pleased. And one wants to be a Builder and not a Wrecker. But probably the time has come for a little cold – well, temperate – appraisal, rather than build-up; it may be, indeed, that they also build who only raise objections. The great occasion is past. The National Orchestra of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service has given its first concert…
He suggested that it was the duty of the critic 'to examine with coolness, and what knowledge he has', and that the orchestra should be able to stand any amount of criticism: it should 'be so constituted that controversy is its stimulant and attack its challenge'. He continued:
In the light of which preamble, let us consider the Sixth of March. The orchestra really did very well indeed …
It could have done a great deal better still, I feel, if the programme had been better chosen. I suggest very modestly to Mr. Tyrer that it was badly chosen. Dvorak's Carnival, Brahms's Second Symphony, Enesco's second Rumanian Rhapsody, Butterworth's Shropshire Lad Rhapsody, Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel, the Prelude and Liebestrod from Tristan, plus some other quite gratuitous encores – what can you make of that as an exercise in programme-building? The romanticism is all too thickly spread. Wouldn't a Haydn Symphony or an early Beethoven, have been better than the Brahms; and would it have been any less popular?
Let's go back to the actual performance. It was more notable for hearty goodwill than for refinement. Mr Tyrer has trained his team to play pretty well together, they attack well; and that is something considering the circumstances – considering the fact that some of these people have never heard an orchestra before, let alone played in one, or probably in any concerted music at all… There was a lack of balance … In the middle of the row, downstairs, close to the front, the brass nearly lifted us out of our seats. The trumpets really had no need to anticipate the day of judgment. The horns rather exploded at the beginning of the Brahms, but it looks as though they will work up a good tone. Thanks largely, it seems to the Air Force Band, the woodwind section is both adequate and potentially very good, and it gave us some very nice bits of playing when left to itself. The strings have so far worked up a fair measure of precision but little delicacy. The general uproar in the early part of the concert left me wondering whether the whole orchestra, or any considerable part of it, could produce a piano at all; but the strings managed to show promise of this in the first bars of the fast movement of the Brahms; and it is to be hoped that in time Mr. Tyrer will get his people to whisper as well as to shout. They let go with the utmost enthusiasm … but how much more thrilling, how magical, the perfectly controlled whisper, the really angelical syllabling!
After strongly criticising the playing of encores, an 'abuse of time and tolerance' (equally his view at chamber music concerts), John concluded:
Well, that's how one person at least reacted to the show. I've tried to be honest. The very fact that the orchestra is at last in existence and giving concerts is important. For bringing it into existence the Government deserves all our thanks. Whether its existence is going to be of profound importance is a question to which an answer is not possible just now. The answer will depend partly on us – on our ability to give it support continuously, but critically … To crab for the sake of crabbing at this moment would be both churlish and silly. Mr. Tyrer, as a conductor, has been the subject of considerable controversy; I must confess that for me (and I am pretty certain for the players also) some of the emphatic patterns he wove in the air were devoid of significance. But it would be both churlish and silly also to deny him credit for bringing the orchestra as a combination to the point it has reached. What I wonder now is how much further it is going to go? How much better is it going to be? In a year or two we will know more about that.
Looking back twenty years later, Owen Jensen judged John's review 'well-informed, thoughtful, and certainly … honest', and written 'perceptively and intelligently'.60 At the time it was followed by an outburst of bitter controversy. John was taken aback. The review had been a Sunday's work which he had not wanted to do:
And now the orchestra is up in arms, & my name stinks … Do you know that the orchestra held a meeting & decided that none of them would play for the CMS [Chamber Music Society] until I resigned from it* (or from the Committee? – it's all very confused). And I thought I'd done a fairly reasonable piece of work that couldn't possibly hurt anybody's feelings. But no – I have even received an anonymous communication – a copy of a little book entitled 'How to listen to the Orchestra' with an inscription 'With the compliments of one of the brass players (?) … Why do you think people are so fantastically absurd … ? Or am I the fantastically absurd person, just for trying to be reasonable?61
* The first programme of the year was 'scuppered by … some b-s of string players who won't play because of my article. Can you beat it? We really are in an awful crisis.' Dorothy Davies saved the day by stepping in at short notice. (JCB to JEP, 16 April 1947.)
What I do assert is that it is difficult to read Dr. Beaglehole's article as written in good faith. Not all his capacity to handle the language as an artist in words can conceal the venom of chagrin in what he says. It is his own fault if those who know the history of the Orchestra believe that he is still smarting under the defeat he and those associated with him suffered in their campaign against the appointment of Andersen Tyrer to organise the Orchestra and be its first conductor.63
Three weeks after Finlay's article and Heenan's letter appeared the Listener's billboards announced A Critic Replies to His Critics. In his reply John wrote that he had 'in reality paid the orchestra the highest compliment in my power, and treated it seriously'.64 Having noted that he and Finlay seemed to 'occupy a good deal of common ground', he considered Finlay's criticisms tougher than his own:
Dr. Finlay … is a critic who may well be feared. If I had said about the bassoons what he said about them I should probably be lying a cold assassinated corpse by now; but I wouldn't have the courage. It reminds me of that excellent proverb that one man can steal a horse while another can't look over a fence. I peer gingerly over the fence, to the accompaniment of roars of indignation; while Dr. Finlay, in the most charming and deprecatory fashion imaginable, to general applause, walks off with the noble animal – slinging a brick at me on the way.
John's final words were a heartfelt plea to Heenan:
One correspondent I cannot leave unnoticed in the crowd is Mr. J.W. Heenan. Mr. Heenan makes the serious charge against me that I have page 323written not in good faith but with the 'venom of chagrin'. I feel some embarrassment. There are few men for whom I have a higher admiration than for Mr. Heenan; there is no man whose judgment in many things I respect more; there is no other man to whom in many things I owe so much; there is no man with whom I should be more unwilling to enter into public controversy. To Mr. Heenan therefore I can only say, borrowing those words of despair which Oliver Cromwell addressed to the Kirk of Scotland, 'I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken'.
Heenan's letter had also drawn a response from Ormond Wilson, the Labour MP for Palmerston North, later to become a close friend of John's when they were both on the Historic Places Trust. He found it alarming that Heenan, unable to confute John, had chosen to slander him. 'The real question', he wrote, 'is whether Dr. Beaglehole's article is correct or not. This is the question Mr. Heenan runs away from'.65 A careful reading of John's review shows that what he criticised mostly were aspects of the performance directly under the control of Tyrer: the programme and what might be termed 'the interpretation'.66 Nowhere did he directly criticise the actual quality of playing of orchestra members. Yet, if such an emphasis might be seen as giving grounds for Heenan's comment, a concert later in that first year, when guest conductor Eugene Goosens drew a performance from the orchestra quite unlike anything achieved before, seemed to bear out John's analysis. Before the year was over a number of the players, too, were growing increasingly unhappy, and John heard that 'there is a great anti-Tyrer revolutionary movement going on in the orchestra, & … they are all saying By gosh, Beaglehole was right'.67 Alex Lindsay, who later formed his own string orchestra modelled on that of Boyd Neel, and who contributed significantly to New Zealand's musical life, was one of a number who left at that time and made no secret of the fact that it was because of Tyrer. Nor have later judgements been particularly kind. Owen Jensen, in his history of the orchestra, writes of Tyrer: 'He was not, by any means, a first-rate conductor … his knowledge of the orchestral repertoire was limited. His tastes, too, leaned towards the flamboyant, and there was an element of vulgarity in his interpretive approach. Nor was his ear for the niceties of orchestral tone the most sensitive.'68 Fred Page needed fewer words: 'a fearsomely bad conductor'.69
This was not the only occasion on which John, writing in the Listener, was caught up in controversy. The first had been two years earlier with a review-article, 'Lots of Poetry'.70 Faced with C.A. Marris's anthology, Lyric Poems 1928-42 he was critical, page 324characterising the work as 'poetic', 'palpitant', 'lavender scented': 'we get the "grey waters of oblivion" and that sort of thing'. Poems by the Labour MP Clyde Carr was dismissed in similar terms: 'like Mr Marris's lyricists … [Carr] is well in touch with God' and 'is appallingly sentimental and completely uncritical of his own words'. In contrast, John praised three recent Caxton Press volumes: Basil Dowling's Signs and Wonders, Denis Glover's The Wind and the Sand and James K. Baxter's Beyond the Palisade. Two weeks after his review appeared, the correspondence began. Allen Curnow, while conceding that the critical judgements were 'fairly well-considered', took issue with the tone of the review, 'the mess of facetious by-play, the knowing winks, the girlish mincings'. The editor, Oliver Duff, would have none of Curnow's criticism, suggesting that a 'very slight capacity to take himself less seriously would have saved our correspondent from such solemn nonsense'. Curnow was back a fortnight later, chastising Duff and taking further issue with John for 'the passages in which … [he] discusses himself, not the books, and the references to God' which, Curnow claimed, might be taken to rule out all devotional poetry. Others wrote of John's 'savage tearing to pieces and throwing to the winds' of the Marris volume, or suggested some political bias in his comments on Clyde Carr. Gordon Ingham, however, congratulated the editor on 'the most refreshingly candid book review', and one of the last letters printed, in the fourth week of the controversy, said the review was 'lively, provocative, and a pleasure to read'. John replied to his critics, claiming that he did not understand Curnow's assumption that he was 'guying' poetry, adding that he liked Curnow's poetry and concluding, not without irony, 'I have, I trust, rigidly excluded any note of levity or inelegance from these remarks'.71
Some years later he again obtained a lively response with a critical review of T.S. Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.72 This time the onslaught on John was largely deflected on to his young colleague Peter Munz, who had written a full-blooded attack on Eliot's views in a letter of support for John. Nor did the correspondence have quite the heat of another at the same time over the merits of a prize-winning Royal Ode by the writer Ruth France. John never hesitated to say what he thought; perhaps, however, there was an element of truth in what some of his critics claimed. The terms in which he expressed those thoughts – partly because of the imaginative fluency of his writing – could provoke those accustomed to more solemn discussion.
Underlying John's critical writing in these years, including his page 325review of the orchestra and the further note on the orchestra he wrote for Landfall the following year,73 was a consistent evaluative stance. 'New Zealand', he had written in 1946, 'has reached a stage when one of its principal needs is a fine and disinterested critical integrity',74 and he developed this further in a review of the 1946 Second Yearbook of the Arts in New Zealand:
… to realize its greatest potential value, [the book] needs to be firmly grounded on a set of clearly thought out critical convictions; those critical convictions should be explicit as well as implicit, frank and all-pervading, quite willing to damn as well as exalt, and to damn with force and comprehension … If the arts in New Zealand are to flourish in an adult way, then we desperately need criticism as a working partner of creation – as a partner working hard.75
To Janet he wrote, 'We'll just have to keep banging away in NZ until criticism is accepted as a normal part of life … God knows how long it will take'.76
Not Long After They moved to the Hutt from Auckland, John and Elsie had got to know the Wellington painter T.A. McCormack. McCormack was born in Napier and began his career there, but in the 1930s and 40s he was hardly known outside Wellington. New Zealand in the 1930s was still divided into communities of astonishing parochialism in their activities in the arts, a condition that changed only very slowly. To see McCormack's work in Wellington, other than the small number of paintings included in shows of the somewhat mistitled New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, one visited the painter at his studio in Hill Street, where he would 'cautiously bring out [paintings] one at a time to place on an easel. If he found the viewer unresponsive and uninformed, he would not continue.'77 John was responsive. In 'A note on T.A. McCormack', published in Art in New Zealand in June 1936, he singled him out as 'one of the two really good and original artists in New Zealand' and compared his sincerity and seriousness with Cézanne's, 'the same devotion to the technical problem of the realisation of the idea'. He concluded, characteristically: 'I wish some rich man who wants to do the country a service would present half-a-dozen of these pictures to the National Gallery; and I wish he would give me the job of selecting them'. He and Elsie bought a painting of the Hutt river, the first of a number of McCormack's they acquired, and the beginning of their collection of New Zealand art.page 326
During the 1940s John and Elsie got to know well Sam Williams, a New Zealander who had trained and worked in London as a stage designer, and his English wife Liza, who had come to New Zealand hoping to make careers here. They built a house in Karori, designed by Cedric Firth, and having shared interests in the arts, and young families, John and Elsie saw a lot of them. Sam Williams had considerable talent; he both designed and played a leading part in Maria Dronke's 1947 production of T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral in St Paul's Cathedral Church, a high point in the postwar renaissance of amateur drama in Wellington. But there was no living in the work he could get at that time; the family returned to London in 1948, where their home at 4 Markham Square in Chelsea became something of a base for Beagleholes in future years.
* In a letter to Woollaston, on 31 March 1942, John told him that he had already bought a postal order to pay him for a painting when he received Woollaston's letter suggesting he had set too high a price: 'Personally I think that most NZ artists that I have struck ask too much for their pictures (not all); but I also think that this one is worth its price to me, & looking at it again last night after getting your letter I agreed with myself. I don't want to do violence to your conscience; but on the other hand I don't want to do violence to my own. Couldn't you smother yours in paint for further pictures? I suppose I have got to let you have the last word, as you will no doubt take it in any case; but you would really leave me much happier if you let the price be. I enclose the postal order on the assumption that you will.' (Toss Woollaston Papers. CA 457/2, box 2. MONZPT.) Edith Knitting was the only Woollaston John and Elsie owned until much later, so it seems very likely that it was the painting in question. In the same letter John asked Woollaston if he would provide work for the picture rental scheme being started by Modern Books.
Another public library exhibition, of original drawings that had appeared in the School Journal, John hailed as representing 'the first major and consistent effort in this country to link illustrations to the printed word … and very often the effort has been brilliantly successful'.81 He did not mention the close association he had with School Publications* under the able leadership of Thelma Maurais, giving advice on typography, writing school bulletins and encouraging the use of New Zealand artists as illustrators, including Russell Clark, Yvonne Bendall, Juliet Peter, Nancy Bolton, Mervyn Taylor, Sam Williams, George Woods and many others. Mervyn Taylor (always called Merv) was for two years (during 1944–46) on the staff of School Publications as illustrator and art editor. It was during this time that he found he liked working on wood rather than on metal (he had trained originally as a jewellery engraver) and he developed his skill at making wood engravings for illustrating the School Journal and other school publications. He looked to John for advice – one of his questions was what should he charge for his prints?82 – criticism and moral support. When Taylor resigned and became once more a freelance 'artist-designer', John continued to support him, Taylor frequently walked over to Messines Road from his Karori home in Hatton Street, where he had his studio, to talk. In the next dozen years he engraved more than two hundred wood blocks and made his name, publishing a collection of his work, Engravings on Wood, in 1957.
* The School Publications Branch of the Education Department, at this time an almost autonomous branch of the department.
Wellington was beginning to get more places where paintings could be seen, and McGregor Wright's (run by John's cousin Dick Osborne) could still come up with something interesting. They had a show of Raymond McIntyre's work in 1946; John had not known of him before and was very enthusiastic, lamenting only that the Auckland City Art Gallery had got the best three in the show, the National Gallery being hopelessly slow to act.84 The French Maid coffee shop had exhibitions; Gordon Walters had four shows there during the 1940s before he went overseas. In June 1947 an exhibition by Sam Cairncross created a stir. 'Plenty of stiff duds', John wrote to Janet, 'but some corker things, brilliant colours, laid on with a trowel. He seems to be a natural genius …'85 The wife of the French ambassador took Cairncross up enthusiastically and arranged a scholarship for him to go to Paris. The Victoria staff common room committee bought the first painting in its collection. Two years later Helen Hitchings opened her dealer gallery with pottery and furniture (designed by Ernst Plischke) as well as paintings and drawings. It was a short-lived but courageous venture. There was, John wrote, 'a sort of creative air in the Hitchings gallery, not phoney'.86
A sign of the slow recovery of British publishers from the grey austerity of wartime production came with the Penguin series Modern Painters, offering (for the time) good quality colour reproduction at a low price, and including Frances Hodgkins among its subjects. John bought the slim volumes as they appeared. Early in 1946 there was more excitement:
… I walked into Modern Books just as Jean [the manager] was unpacking some parcels from Faber. She showed the stuff to me. I'll take those I said. I don't know what the price will be, she said. I don't care what the price is, I said. The Faber Gallery!!! Degas, Blake, Florentine Paintings … I nearly went mad with excitement – so much so that when I got home in the evening I displayed them in the most page 329brazen way … the Degas is really exciting, & I am living in a fever of expectation for the number entitled Homage to Venus to appear.87
Even if by the late 1940s John found he could not continue as late in the evenings as he once had, he was still reading as widely as ever. He began 1946, for example, by reading on holiday at the farm Hamlin Garland's Son of the Middle Border, Marie Kimball's Jefferson, the Road to Glory, Norman Douglas's Together ('very amusing'), Una Pope-Hennessey's Charles Dickens, half of Collingwood's Autobiography and Perry Miller's The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century.89 Back home he read Joan Bennett on Virginia Woolf (which made him want to reread both Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen), Douglas Cotterall's Some Notes on Bookbinding and George Dyson's The Progress of Music. Later in the year he noted Sassoon's Siegfried's Journey, The Odyssey in the new Penguin translation, and David Matthew's Acton the Formative Years; he had been 'going through Shakespeare's sonnets again', reading 'Donne and others' in Grierson's Metaphysical Poets, and a bit of Christina Rossetti. It was at the end of that year that he finally started on Proust; he read three volumes while the family was on holiday in the Bay of Many Coves in Queen Charlotte Sound – the weather was not good – finished volume six in mid-February and completed the last volume in December. Many books John read right through, sometimes making notes and listing page references in pencil on the endpaper inside the back cover. He was also a practised 'dipper' into books. Sorting out his father's library gave great scope for this. He and Ernest both chose books they wanted (more bookshelves had to be added at Messines Road) and 2000 volumes were given to the Victoria College library in memory of David Ernest and Jane Beaglehole. John brought home the complete edition of George Moore, but his George Moore days were probably over. He did read some novels by Mark Rutherford: 'the morality of people, as well as the theology, is so interesting. A good observer of small local snobberies too … I can see how he was important for my father. I find him fascinating.'90
Once the Victoria College jubilee celebrations, in 1949, were over, John and Elsie turned to preparing to get away on sabbatical leave. Leaving the country was much more complicated than it is page 330today; in those days before Paye the Inland Revenue Department had to be satisfied that one's tax payments were up to date, and there was a complicated process for getting the overseas funds needed for the trip. Amid everything else, John was running late with a chapter on the Commonwealth which he had been asked to write for the New Cambridge Modern History. There were several farewell parties. The departure date from Auckland kept being postponed, but they finally sailed on 25 July. The ship, M.V. Condesa, of the Houlder Line, was about 10,000 tons; it carried refrigerated cargo and 24 passengers.
The voyage to England on the Condesa through the Panama canal took five weeks. John kept a journal to send home to the family, a record of deck games, meals and the foibles of the other passengers. He completed the chapter he was working on for the New Cambridge Modern History. They looked forward to the refuelling call at Curaçao, with the prospect of buying the local liqueur and nylon stockings (still unobtainable in New Zealand's persisting postwar austerity) but arrived in the late afternoon, after the shops in Willemstadt had closed, and left again in the early hours of the following morning. On 29 August they docked at Liverpool. John and Elsie stayed for three days with the Hearnshaws (with whom they had become good friends while Leslie was lecturing in psychology at Victoria, before he returned to the chair at Liverpool in late 1947), then going on to Keith and Fronnie Beaglehole's at Baildon, just outside Bradford, on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. They had seen Keith when he visited New Zealand on a business trip at the beginning of 1947, but it was fifteen years since they had seen the rest of the family. John's relations with his sister-in-law were prickly (fortunately, she and Elsie always got on well) but he fell for his niece and nephew, Betty and Peter. After ten days in London (staying with Averil Lysaght in her tiny house near King's Cross), during which he met a number of the Hakluyt Society people and made a start on looking at Cook material, John flew to Paris for the fourth Unesco general conference, at which he was one of the New Zealand delegates. Elsie joined him there a little later.
John's involvement with Unesco had begun in 1947, a year after its first general conference, when Heenan nominated him to represent Internal Affairs on the New Zealand interim committee, chaired by C.E. Beeby, who also had led the New Zealand delegation to the first conference in Paris. For eighteen months from the middle of 1948, Beeby was on leave from his job as Director of Education in New Zealand while he served as Unesco's Assistant Director-page 331General with the task of establishing a new international education secretariat to implement the organisation's education programmes. New Zealand's National Commission for Unesco (which grew out of the interim committee) had pushed for John to go to the third conference, held in Beirut, but the government, keen to save money, looked around for people already overseas 'quite irrespective of whether they know anything about it or not'.91 Now he and James Shelley, who had just returned to Britain after retiring as Director of Broadcasting, filled the bill. The arrangement was far from ideal. A delegation of two was too small; it was the first conference for them both, and in John's view some continuity in the membership of delegations was desirable if they were to play an effective role.92 Nor did he have much time for Shelley: 'a two man delegation with Shelley as one of the delegates – impossible! There were times when I despaired.'93 It was very hard work. He was elected chairman of the procedure committee, which proved very interesting as it grappled with the question of whether Spanish should be adopted as a working language by Unesco, carrying on an argument that had been in full flood at Beirut. With passions still running high, John judged it a 'great achievement' to have had the subject discussed in an atmosphere of moderate calm.
The conference members also devoted three evenings to a series of addresses on the question: what are the duties of the state in regard to education, science, and culture for the purpose of ensuring a better understanding between peoples, and what practical steps should it take in order to discharge these duties? Initially twenty-six speakers were listed and, when it became known that a number of them had prepared speeches of up to an hour in length, alarm set in and the list was reduced to three speakers each night who were given twenty minutes each, with provision for others to make short statements. 'Surprisingly enough', John wrote in his report, 'this experiment in international co-operation was not entirely unsuccessful',94 and it attracted widespread public interest. The expectations held for Unesco were still remarkably optimistic. Among the speakers were Georges Bidault, the French Prime Minister; Bertrand Russell; the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr; Jean Piaget, the Swiss educationist: and John himself. John thought that a New Zealand audience would have found the most interesting contributions to be those of Russell, 'for amusement', and Piaget and the Australian, Professor Stout, 'for instruction'. 'One or two other contributions, no doubt, would have struck it with blank amazement'.
The speeches were recorded and extracts from those of John page 332and Bertrand Russell were sent to America for broadcasting. John's speech, opening with a felicitous tribute to the civilised virtues of Paris, continued with a measure of scepticism: 'I am going to ask myself as many … awkward questions as possible. I do not really know what will be the outcome'.95
… are the main things we need for better understanding more education and more science, or, more accurately, better understanding of education and science? And should I now proceed to ask what is education and what is science? Heaven forbid. I must pass on. But before I pass on I suppose I should add that the notion of better understanding between peoples carries with it the feeling that thereby international peace and security are visibly strengthened. That is the feeling, at any rate, on which Unesco is founded. From what we know of human psychology, the feeling has something to recommend it; exactly how much I do not know.
In the end he came to echo Voltaire's Candide: 'as well as being world travellers (at least in the spirit), we should cultivate our own gardens … education has for one of its main purposes the strengthening of a society's own individuality. That is the best gift we can give to the international family', and 'if the state educates well, understanding between peoples will look after itself'. It was a conclusion to which he returned some months later when he was asked by the BBC Third Programme to talk on the question: 'Is International Understanding Possible?' Again he questioned what exactly was meant by international understanding and just what the relationship was between it and world peace, whether 'the amount of understanding between peoples which is humanly possible is ever going to be of much account for the mutual relations of those people?'96 He very much doubted it. A multiplicity of well-educated minds might, however, at least provide for 'sensible judgment when the necessity for judgment arises', but what is 'really important for us all … is to get on with the life of our own community, and to make that as rich and strong, as intellectually alive and emotionally satisfying as possible'. 'As a New Zealander', he said,
I want New Zealanders to work out something of their own, however long it takes us. I do not, of course, want any more politically sovereign states, each yelping passionately about its immortal and idiotic rights: that is a different matter. In the end I think about the best thing any of our people can do for the family of nations is to make as good a job of ourselves as we can.
It was a belief to which, over the preceding decade, he had become deeply committed.page 333
Whereas John had thought that London was looking 'dirty & down at heel'97 – though a lot of refurbishment was under way – Paris, or at least the part he saw, 'was just as good as new, all trees & fountains & hurtling traffic & some wonderful food'. He walked up the Champs Elysées every morning to the conference and back 'under the twinkling lights at night' and decided there could not be another street like it in the world. One Sunday Beeby drove them down to Chartres to see the cathedral again, and another Sunday through wonderful woods to the Chateau of Chantilly and the little old town of Senlis. John wished that his sons
could see some of the streets, both in Paris & in the small towns & villages, or some of the village squares; what makes the difference from New Zealand, apart from age, is that everything is not merely well designed but in such good proportion with everything else. But I don't think the French know how to design a small house standing on its own. Something big – a large house or a small chateau – yes, but the isolated small house is generally horrible.98
Both he and Elsie got some excitement out of the social events that went with the conference and the champagne which flowed freely. There was a Chopin centennial concert and a wonderful party late one night in the sculpture galleries of the Louvre, when the lights would suddenly go out and an individual statue be breathtakingly floodlit. The film star Myrna Loy was a member of the United States delegation as a special adviser on films: 'I don't ask you to believe this', John wrote to Richmond, 'but I drank champagne, as well as conversed, with Myrna Loy. Nice Person. People kept on introducing me to her, & finally she was driven to say that she knew me.'99 He managed to find time to go with Elsie to see the permanent exhibition of the Impressionists, 'the Degas pictures especially beautiful', and a big centennial exhibition of Gauguin, which was a 'real knock out'.100 At the end of three weeks' hard work, they flew back to London. There was still the report on the conference to be written. Shelley left it almost entirely to John, writing only four of the thirty-eight pages. 'The man is completely useless', John told Janet.101, *
He got back to work on Cook but there was also time for some travelling. They went down to Cornwall to stay with J.A.
* John had never had much time for James Shelley, but Shelley's biographer suggests that at this time, after the death of his wife and his retirement, he was depressed and missing the sort of public recognition he relished in New Zealand. (Ian Carter, Gadfly: The Life and Times of James Shelley, (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1993), pp.251-5)
Williamson, who was living at Looe – it was John's first visit to his ancestral county – and spent a week walking in the Cotswolds with Keith and Fronnie. England was ruined for walking, in John's view, as all the roads were now tar-sealed. They fell in love with Bath. They had a weekend in Cambridge, which moved him to several enthusiastic letters:
you should have stood on King's bridge with me [he wrote to his niece Mary] & seen Clare bridge all weathered silver white shining in the cold autumn sun with the great copper beech behind it lifting into the air & all the greens & browns & russets behind that receding into the distance; & you should have been in King's Chapel yesterday evening with us at Evensong, with the long lines of candles burning yellowy bright & brighter as the day turned to dusk & the lovely white fan-vaulting dissolved into mist… And the pure voices of the angelic choirboys …102
The Fitzwilliam Gallery he thought the most perfect he had ever seen. His enjoyment at being back in England and France was such that, inevitably, his mind returned once again to the question of where he really felt at home.
Did I tell you [he wrote to Janet] about the floodlit Winged Victory at the Louvre party? – never have I had an aesthetic sensation like it … that & the west front of Chartres Cathedral, the very texture of the stone, & the Sanctus of the B minor Mass in Southwark Cathedral, have been the three things. No, there are others to add to them … Oh dear you know I could write a book just like Alan Mulgan's* all about the Right Things. The fact is, that so many of the Right Things are the right things, there's no way of getting away from it … And yet with it all … I haven't been permanently captured – anyhow yet. My heart kept on rising within me at Cambridge, at times leaping, but what I want to do is to get an art gallery, however small, at Victoria College, to do something to the library there, to build something of some sort in NZ. I want to go back to places, to Bath, to the Fitzwilliam, to afternoon tea with the Master of St John's – but after twenty years am I a New Zealander? I dunno. Perhaps I am.103
* Mulgan's Home: A New Zealander's Adventure, published in 1927, was generally reviled by the younger generation as hopelessly sentimental and pro-English.
Bill could understand the suicide, but not the poison – 'I should have thought he was a revolver man'. Other chaps committed suicide under the same conditions – left too long in the same place, under awful conditions of mental stretching & strain, until their last nervous reserves were used up, there seemed no possible solution for anything, personal or political, & absolutely no hope for the world, & no way out but death.105
For Elsie's final weekend Keith and Fronnie came down to London and they went to see Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft in The Heiress. Her flight back to New Zealand was hair-raising, with the plane twice having to turn back with engine faults, but was redeemed by breaks in New York, staying with Cedric and Bobbie Firth (Cedric was then working for the United Nations) and San Francisco, where she stayed with the New Zealand geologist Frank Turner, who was teaching at Berkeley, and his wife Esmé, whom they had got to know during their year in Dunedin.
For the rest of his time away John wrote home every week, generally to Elsie and sometimes to 'My dear Wife and Children'. Like his family letters from London twenty years earlier, they were a great mixture: family badinage (this time generally at the expense of his sons, whose spelling, especially, caused some anguish, while the possibility that they might add to the growing misuse of 'disinterested' in place of 'uninterested' led him to threaten not to come home at all), reports on concerts and plays and other outings, people met and, occasionally, work on Cook and Banks. 'I am getting on with checking Captain Cook's journal now,' he wrote just before Christmas, 'working quite hard though you mayn't believe it. I should really have gone to Chelsea to hear the Boyd Neel Orch. last night, but I did Cook instead, indeed I don't think I'll hear another concert till tomorrow night'.106 A week later he wrote, 'I am getting fonder & fonder of Capt Cook & grudge every hour spent away from him. So he may prove a preservative from dissipation'.107 A sign of the times and the extraordinary restrictions of the New Zealand system of import controls was just how much time he and Elsie had to give to getting approval to buy a car 'on export' and have it sent out (cars were almost impossible to obtain in New Zealand at that page 336time), to deciding on curtain fabric for the sitting room, a carpet and two comfortable chairs from Heal's and an automatic washing-machine.
At Christmas John went again to Baildon, staying a week to see a bit more of Keith, but taking some work with him. He and Fronnie 'were going all out to be on [their] best behaviour to each other; polite, not to say cordial, the whole time'.108 He went on from there for a wet and grey day and a half in Whitby, the tiny Yorkshire port inextricably linked with James Cook's life and career (his first visit), exploring the town and the museum and talking to the local historian. The weather deterred him from hiring a car to explore Cook's villages and instead he went on to Durham about which he had mixed impressions. 'A good deal of it looks like hell now, though there are some very pleasant … streets, Georgian brick & earlier' and the cathedral 'stood up magnificently'. The hotel the taxi took him to was said to have been built in 1630; the bed was absolutely first-rate, 'snowy clean, but everything else grimy, & smuts coming in the window all the while, even the hot water ran brown, food awful'.109 In a second-hand shop he found three large pewter plates, 'chargers rather than plates', which were to find a home on the sitting room bookshelves in Messines Road.
John and Elsie's twentieth wedding anniversary occurred on 17 February. Elsie wrote that she was prepared to take on another twenty years if John was (this was squeezed in at the end of two pages on no remittance licences for cars and carpets, and how much money there was to spend).110 John had settled on exactly the same message for the cable he sent her, while in the letter he posted a few days earlier he wrote that, as it would no doubt be read by all sorts of people, he had decided to merely say 'thank you again, & remark that the original scene, as well as a good many others bearing on the subject, is still vividly painted before my eyes. It is a pity that a marriage that started off so well should have to proceed in company with three such rough types as we have to live with.'111 The comments of each were characteristic; the letters between them during these months reflect a warm and settled relationship, a shared involvement with family and friends and with all that was going on. On the wedding anniversary Janet happened to be staying at Messines Road on her way back to Hamilton from a trip to visit family in the South Island. She wrote to John: 'I did enjoy my two days with Elsie – we talked & talked & talked & looked at all the things she had brought back. I still think it curious, odd – comical that after everything E. is the one woman with whom I feel most completely at ease & happy.'112page 337
John was getting a great deal of enjoyment from outings with his niece Betty. She was in London training to be a ballet dancer, and most of his letters recounted an outing with her and the amusement she gave him:
I have rung up Betty, & after due consideration we have decided, or rather I have decided, because she never decides anything, being helplessly immobile between the alternatives, to go to the Wigmore Hall this afternoon & hear Beethoven's three Rasumovsky quartets, rather than to the Albert Hall to hear a lot of Sibelius. It is certainly difficult to choose sometimes, so I generally go on the principle of specialising in chamber music; & Betty on whether it is easier to get tea after the Albert Hall or after the Wigmore Hall. Last Sunday we didn't do any concerts, & the movies didn't start till about 4.30, so we had a good afternoon at [the] French landscape [exhibition] instead, & then coffee and meringue (for her) at Forte's, & then dinner at Golders Green, & then she stooped to darning two or three socks for me. She also brought along a few pieces of birthday cake to eat with the wine & coffee & Benedictine I so kindly provided for an after dinner snack.113
A number of his former students also turned up in London and John took a particular delight in showing them his favourite Bloomsbury squares and the British Museum, as often as not with a meal at what had become his almost habitual Swiss restaurant, the Maison Suisse at St Giles Circus. By the end of February he had exhausted all the Cook work he could do at home and 'could afford to be social' in the evenings.
He was booked to return home on the Akaroa, due to leave in late April, and packed a great deal into the weeks he had left. The Williamsons had moved from Looe to Chichester. He went down to stay with them, was very taken with the town and had a good walk with Williamson, ten miles through woods and over the Downs. The next day they went to Portsmouth to see the Victory and he was impressed with the remarkable job that had been done to restore the vessel to exactly as it had been at Trafalgar in 1805. 'We talked about Cook in the evenings', John wrote, '& lamented the decay of our civilization & the growth of bureaucracy at every opportunity & on every subject, whether the price of milk, civic & domestic architecture or second-hand bookshops in Charing Cross Road.'114 They had remarkably little in common when it came to politics but a great deal in their historical interests. John's admiration for Williamson went back to his student days when he first discovered his Short History of British Expansion (a book that John observed would have been more popular if it had been decently printed), page 338and while he might have been sharply critical of Williamson's deep conservatism he invariably showed him an affectionate respect.
On 24 March Harold Laski died suddenly. John had talked to him on the phone some time earlier, receiving a welcome 'like a long-lost brother'.115 He had seen him briefly in January, when he found him looking 'terribly older',116 and had been promised a dinner invitation after the general election. Laski, as the party's chairman, campaigned hard for Labour, which was returned with a greatly reduced majority. Shortly after, he caught flu; exhausted, 'he just seems to have gone phut', John wrote, 'as he was bound to some day, without any reserves'.117 He was fifty-six. John was very depressed, and disappointed by the Times obituary, which he considered was 'without any understanding of the man at all'. Had he been in New Zealand, he said, he would have written an article for the Listener. Two and a half years later, his feelings about Laski were still very close when he reviewed the Holmes–Laski Letters, edited by Mark DeWolfe Howe, and Kingsley Martin's biographical memoir of Laski for Roy Parsons's publication Parsons Packet.118
John went down to Chessington in Surrey to see the Ordnance Survey people and discuss historical atlas production, and to Dover to see a paper-mill. He spent a day at the Monotype works and found them 'very distressed at the determined conservatism of the [New Zealand] Govt Printer, who keeps on ordering the type they prefer to forget about. So I said I would do what I could.'119 He visited Oxford again to see the Oxford University Press; he got a good reception from the University Printer and saw all over the works – a staff of six working on typographical design alone. He went back to Cambridge for a weekend, going to the wedding of one of his students in the chapel of Trinity College, and visiting Ely, before calling on the Cambridge University Press on the Monday. At Easter he was again at Baildon with Keith and Fronnie.
A few days later he met Raymond McGrath and his wife and son. They had crossed from Ireland and were driving through to pick up the ferry at Newhaven on a trip to Europe. He stayed with them at a little village called Alfriston, in a fold of the Downs about ten miles from Lewes, 'in a 15th century pub, all oak beams & wonderful views from the windows of gardens & fields & village street, & drank half a bottle of Irish whisky, & chin-wagged pretty late'. He thought Raymond more 'aged in appearance than any of us' but healthy and cheerful, the son a 'long gangling oaf' much the same as his own.120 The McGraths went off the next morning and John went on to Rye and Winchelsea and was carried away. 'Gosh, I wish page 339you had been there', he wrote to Elsie, 'I've never seen such places, & now I don't know whether to retire to Bath or Rye or Winchelsea or the Bay of Islands'.
Rye seems to have been restored a good deal, but very intelligently … it's half really beautiful ½-timbering & ½ Georgian & plaster; there's a suburban bit or two, but really very little, I never saw so much good blue & white china in windows, private as well as shop – & you were obviously supposed to look at it, so I did. Henry James lived there for about 18 years in a Georgian house which caught a bomb, but the National Trust is doing it up. A big parish church, wonderfully weathered stone, at the top of the little hill, & a little churchyard full of daffodils & crab-apple among the tombstones. And all around the Romney marshes, where the sheep come from, with the river Rother winding through it … Winchelsea is a much smaller place, not much more than a big quadrangle of churchyard with a double row of houses round it, & almost all perfect, only one short row (& that in the background) of fake half timbering. It is on a little hill like Rye, you look from one to the other over the meadows, & the farm-lands wash up to Winchelsea like a sea round an island. Rooks cawing away like mad, rushing backwards & forwards to their nests. Big trees still bare but little ones all in leaf. More old stone gone beautiful colours, & good brick … Really quite staggeringly beautiful.121
In the middle of April the shopping was coming to a head: 'I have spent so much on household goods', John wrote to Elsie, 'that any books I may have bought look the merest chicken-feed, a candle-flame in the sun, a push-bike by the side of a Rolls-Royce'.122 Cedric Firth, now in London for twelve months after finishing his job in New York, was a willing accomplice: 'he goes round saying Damn it, I'll only be here once, why not buy it & damn the expense'. He was talking of buying a 1680 pewter plate. John had come to much the same view: 'If we can't have one of those Regency houses in Alexander Place,* or Mrs Piozzi's in Bath, well we'd better try & make the house in Messines Road as good as possible & damn the expense'. So he and Firth looked at carpets and furniture and dinner sets and wondered if they should start a contemporary art society in Wellington and how could they get exhibitions of prints, and carpets and rugs, and pewter.
If only I could go round buying the things that I see that are really good, [John lamented] & not worry about the things that we desperately need,page 340life would be much simpler. E.g. I have now seen a set of six completely beautiful & strong high-quality Swedish glasses & decanter; but if I brought out those you would go right through the roof & never come down again & your children would be left motherless. Let alone me being wifeless.123
* John had not long before discovered, and been very taken with this group of Regency houses just off Thurloe Place, close to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
On Elsie's instructions he was also buying some clothes. 'I bought a new pair of shoes, after having scrutinised a good many … They were called Aquatite. Will these really keep out the water? I said to the bloke. He was quite shocked. Oh, they won't keep out water, he said, they'll keep out the damp. But nobody else's shoes will keep out water, they say, they're all quite frankly & cheerfully defeatist about it.'124
In almost every letter John reports on concerts. His greatest excitement was hearing the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in London for two Bach concerts, the best string playing he had ever heard.125 When there was a break in the concerts he went to see Michael Redgrave in Hamlet, and to Love's Labour's Lost. It was all reminiscent of his first stay in London. What was different were the lunches at the Athenaeum and the Reform Club and dinners at High Table.
The work on Cook took him to meet Rex Nan Kivell, the urbane art dealer and collector, managing director of the Redfern Gallery.126 The gallery had been a significant force in introducing to England European artists such as Bonnard, Picasso, Rouault and Vuillard, and in promoting the work of British modernists, among them Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. From the late 1920s, Nan Kivell had also built up a remarkable collection of books, manuscripts, maps, and historical and documentary art from the period of early European contact with New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific. He sent the collection to Canberra for safekeeping during the war but had photographs of it all, and John was interested in using some of the works to illustrate the Cook volumes. He described his visit to Nan Kivell's flat 'in a rather grubby street east of Portland Place':*
But there is nothing grubby about Mr Nan Kivell's flat; not very big; but he is I gather unmarried, & inherited money from an aunt, & must do pretty well out of the Redfern Gallery; so he has most of his books leather-bound; & hanging on the walls a beautiful little sketch by Manet of Berthe Morisot walking on the sands, & a Cézanne water-colour,page 341small & unfinished, & an early Van Gogh of which he is part owner, & a Matisse, & a small Italian Renaissance portrait, & a few more things like that; & a few odds & ends of Chinese pottery & Egyptian basalt, & old navigation instruments, not in the least like a museum & not too much. Plenty of coffee to drink. He had a book illustrated with engravings by David Jones I'd wanted to see for a long time, The Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, & when I admired it said Oh, I've got two or three more of those, I'll give you one. And when I said Don't be silly, you can't do that sort of thing, he said No I'd like to, I helped to publish it, they're no good to me. Then when I asked him where I could get some engravings of D[avid] Jones for M[ervyn] Taylor, who desperately wants one, said Oh come down to the gallery, I've got loads of those things left over from the wood-engraving rage of years ago, they won't sell now, take as many as you like. So now I've got a heap of Claire Leightons & Agnes Miller Parkers & Gwen Raverats … I'll have to sort them out & bestow them where they'll do most good.* He certainly is a most generous chap. Anyhow I gave him an Introd to NZ & a Dictionary of NZ Biog in return as he collects NZ stuff too … I forgot to mention his beautiful Christopher Woods.127
* He also had a country house in Wiltshire and a villa in Tangiers.
John must have been largely unaware of Nan Kivell's extraordinary life. Born in Christchurch, he began life as Reginald Nankivell. Until he escaped New Zealand by enlisting to serve in the First World War, he was a bookbinder. Once his war was over, there followed the remarkable invention by Nan Kivell himself (beginning with the name) of the personality he became: 'the archetypal outsider – illegitimate, homosexual, self-educated, an Antipodean colonial' became 'the urbane dealer and collector who threw off his modest origins to emerge as a man of wealth, a knight of the realm, a connoisseur and collector of all manner of fine, beautiful and historic objects'.128 What John did become aware of was Nan Kivell's interest in finding a permanent home for his collection and his initial thought that this might be in New Zealand. Just after this visit John wrote to Heenan blasting the timidity of New Zealand House:
The damned place needs the Heenan touch … Now, if you were High Cmer, & I one of your off-siders, we could really have some fun, besides turning Treasury pale with anguish & white with rage … the things we could do here for NZ if we had a bit of money – not merely in publicity, but in gathering things to send back – pictures, books, – well, I won't say any more; but it goes to my heart to watch the opportunities passing by.129
With Nan Kivell the motivation was not just money. He had come to feel that such a munificent act might be a means of his securing a title. When the offer of a knighthood from New Zealand, which had seemed possible in the 1953 Coronation Honours list, failed to materialise, to John's intense disappointment the way was left open for the Australians. The Australian government eventually purchased the collection for £70,000, but were rather slow with the knighthood, which was bestowed only in 1976, the year before Nan Kivell's death.
At the end of April John heard that the Akaroa's departure was delayed indefinitely because of a dock-workers' strike. A day or two later the news came that he was to go to another of Unesco's general conferences, this time in Florence, beginning in the middle of May. Parsimony, it would appear, had finally prevailed with the new National government, so that R.M. Algie, the Minister of Education, was prepared to accept John as one of the delegates. In some ways he was ready to leave and was unhappy about the delay in getting home. 'Perhaps because it is Home', he wrote to Elsie, admitting that he was 'rather anxious' to see the faces of his three boys again, although he supposed the novelty would soon wear off.130 To Heenan, he said a little more:
curiously enough I am quite eager to get back. You know I was almost afraid to come to England, I thought I'd like it too much, & would get into the most frightful psychological tangles. But now as far as I can see, I really don't want to stay, I want to get back home & get on with the job – or jobs. Whether I'll feel like that when I do get back & look around I don't know, but I'm willing to try it.131
John Flew to Rome On 16 May and caught a train from there to Florence. It was daylight and the sun shone and the country was very beautiful, 'haymaking going on all over the place … whole families out hoeing, ploughing going on till dark; olive trees, that I had always wanted to see, on the slopes, towns & castles on the hilltops, everything came true out of the books again'.132
This time the New Zealand delegation had three members: Beeby, John, and Wynne Mason from the New Zealand Embassy in Paris. During the conference they were able to recruit a young English woman as secretary. The delegation, finding itself hard put to cover the necessary meetings, reckoned that four, with a delegation secretary, was the minimum for really efficient participation.133 John clearly enjoyed working with Beeby. 'B & B arrived yesterday, still page 343co-operating', they cabled to the Education Department. The acting director thought that could not possibly be right, and passed it on as 'recuperating'.134 The conference was 'on the whole … a hardworking and even at times rather pedestrian meeting'. This they saw as a good sign. The 'lack of debate at a lofty intellectual level' could, in some measure, be seen as 'a reflection of … hard-won wisdom'.
The argument about Spanish, that had begun at the Lebanon conference, and had taxed John's chairmanship at Paris, was resumed, with the Latin Americans, most of whom were heavily in arrears in their contributions to Unesco, again making the pace: 'the Cuba bloke screaming & howling & yelling away in a dreadful harsh voice as he insists on the beauty & the music of the Spanish tongue', John reported to Elsie.135 This time, with the backing of the Middle East and China, the advocates of Spanish won the vote in the procedure committee. The New Zealand delegation had been instructed from Wellington not to oppose it, but John was 'damned' if he would vote for it and he abstained, 'much to the surprise of all our friends, & not noticeably to our increased popularity with S. America'.136 In spite of the extra cost to Unesco, there did not seem to be any argument remaining to withstand any proposal for an additional working language if it was spoken by a large number of people. John was involved with redrafting the rules of procedure and also some preambles to resolutions:
The French text is alleged to be all right, though I can't see how it can be, if it is as repetitious & nonsensical as the English. – An English professor of education from Leeds & I have been working on the English text so far, & there is an American involved too, but also a Frenchman put on for liaison with the French text; & his idea is simply to have a literal translation from the French – that being the way to perfect English prose apparently. So if he insists on that, & … the Englishman & I insist on writing English – & perhaps the American will want to write American, we shall be having a first-rate row …137
Whatever the trials of the conference, and John seems to have taken them in his stride, they were almost insignificant next to the excitement of being in Florence:
it was a bit unreal to walk into one thing and another that I'd known for thirty years or so in pictures – Donatello's St George & the Palazzo Vecchio & palazzo after palazzo & S. Maria Novella & Benvenuto Cellini's Perseus & Ghiberti's doors. And I knew I wouldn't be able to settle down till I had seen the Botticellis; so before the meeting this afternoon I went into the Uffizi & there was the Birth of Venus on one wall & Primavera facing it. I never knew there was so much gold about page 344the B. of V., or how blue the cornflowers were on the figure on the right. The Primavera badly needs cleaning, as indeed most of the pictures in the gallery do … And then as I was coming out what should I run into but a room full of Bronzinos, & there, newly cleaned & reframed, was our little Marie de Medeci,* you never saw anything lovelier – certainly the best thing in the room. In fact it's probably the thing I'd pinch if I had the chance – too many people know the Botticellis.138
He was staying in a hotel in the Piazza de Santa Maria Novella, near the railway station; the conference was held in rooms in both the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti and John explored the narrow side streets – 'they're all narrow & almost all side, as you might say'139 – as he walked to and from the meetings. The noise was remarkable. The place full of motorbikes of all sorts; he saw policemen just sitting on their stationary bikes and racing their engines at any hour of the day or night. Then there were the church bells and the usual high-spirited shouting and singing, 'with a good deal of loving Italian dwelling on the last note'.140 The traffic rules appeared to be open slather, though astonishingly no one seemed to get killed. John decided that on the whole he liked the Italians. The place was full of wonderful things to buy for presents, leather and silver and pottery and prints, but as he would be travelling home by air he resisted being carried away. There was a conference excursion to Siena to see the Palio, the ancient horse race around the square. The place was crammed with people mad with excitement, with a parade first
of groups representing all the various parishes, with the jockeys in armour riding on cart-horses with the race-horses led behind, men-at-arms & pages & standard bearers & flag-bearers & marshals & halberdiers & special champions, all clad in the most gorgeous 15th century dress, you never saw such colours or combinations, gorgeous beyond your wildest dreams.141
* John and Elsie had a number of favourite paintings of young girls – the daughters they would have loved to have.
The conference finished on 17 June, and the next day John flew back to London. The city was a bit of an anti-climax at first but he decided that Bedford Square would 'stand up to anything' he had seen in urban architecture, 'apart from single buildings like the Palazzo Vecchio, which are just individual bits of supreme genius'.142 There was time to do a little more work, and the president of the Hakluyt Society 'turned on a very good & amusing lunch … at the Athenaeum to celebrate the launching of Cook' and to farewell John.143 On the morning of 3 July he left London on the five-day journey that it then took to fly back to New Zealand.page break page breakpage break