Arachne: A Literary Journal. No. 1
Impressions of a Unesco Conference. M. H. Holcroft. The Caxton Press, 9/6.
If the author of this book were not Mr. Holcroft and the publishers not the Caxton Press it would hardly deserve very serious notice: it would be taken for what it is, a series of journalistic articles dressed up in book form and published at a price which the contents do not justify. It is interesting enough if you do not expect too much; but it is unworthy of its author and its publisher.
Mr. Holcroft has given us here some impressions of the Beirut conference of Unesco which he attended as a New Zealand delegate. His book constantly provokes the question, 'What is Unesco all about?' and there would have been little point in his writing it if he had not intended to tell us. But what he notes as the attitude of the New Zealand delegates, who 'seemed to feel that the aims and purposes of Unesco could be taken for granted,' has somehow crept into the book and made this account of those aims and purposes nebulous. Unesco's work may be difficult to describe; one can only say that apparently it was too difficult for Mr. Holcroft. I for one after reading the book carefully remain as doubtful as before of Unesco's value: is it really more than another large vague body of 'officials' radiating good will into thin air? 'The world's resources in knowledge are being pooled, very slowly, for the common good,' Mr. Holcroft assures us. Perhaps, perhaps not. Mr. Holcroft deals so largely in generalities that we are not left much the wiser.
I understand that the Education Department has ordered a great many copies of the book. If this is the kind of work used to induct New Zealand children into international affairs it is time to protest. Lebanon will not help them to understand Unesco: it is more likely to make them think it a talking shop beyond their comprehension—or beneath their contempt. Mr. Holcroft retails solemnly so many trivialities (e.g. the passages about Eileen, pp. 12-3, 42-3, and most of the chapter called 'Important People') that it is hard to take him seriously; he is constantly, to use his own words, 'soaring on woolly wings to the higher regions of platitude.' His writing was never notable for clarity. The great value of his trilogy of essays about New Zealand lay in certain imaginative perceptions of which he had a firm if not always a precise grasp, and in their social criticism. The philosophical superstructure which he built up on those perceptions was of the shakiest—his thought never seemed thoroughly tested or his terminology scrutinized; the obtuse, padded style could not, one felt, permit of clear thinking. Tnis book has all his earlier faults of writing without any of those fine intuitions to which his contemplation of the New Zealand scene led him. If it is given to school children it should be given to them as an object lesson in the inflation of language: 'A feeling of agitation began to flow along the New Zealand tables from the Mexican delegates . . .' (p. 51); of administration, 'Like all activities of mind, however, it moves towards an intense and spontaneous proliferation' (p. 73); 'Yet a conference may supply guidance in hard tasks, and out of common experience and resources may come an impulse that will be like the spreading of light above a shaded landscape' (p. 19); 'It was a day for speeches of more than usual amplitude' (p.page 37
84). There are many such examples; Mr. Holcroft is remorselessly platitudinous, alarmingly given to reflections like this: 'There is a compulsion for good as well as for evil; and I think sometimes that efforts which seem to be wasted when the cause is lost are preserved in an essential way in the real world that exists outside time' (p. 61). With the fluffy thinking that such passages point to goes a dullness of response to things seen and heard; the travel impressions have no sharpness of detail; except for the philosophizing, anybody might have written them.
Perhaps Mr. Holcroft was tired during the conference or when he wrote these pages about it, but that is no excuse for publishing them as a book. 'It is widely believed,' he writes, 'that we are a humourless people.' The belief will be greatly strengthened if this book goes abroad. It is infinitely regrettable that a man of his gifts and in his position should be contcnt to put his name to such inferior work.