Title: Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947

Author: Charles Brasch

Publication details: Oxford University Press, 1980, Wellington

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Alan Roddick

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947

Chapter Three — Bankton and Manono — 10

page 43

Chapter Three
Bankton and Manono

one result of our journey to Australia was to make my father's earlier life real to me as it had not been before. He existed, then, in his own right, independently of me. He had lived a life of his own before I Was born, for thirty-five years, and indeed he still led a partly separate life, at the office, at the Club, when playing golf. This helped to account for the fact that the Australian relatives he had so often told us about appeared very different from my expectations; I should never see them, even those I liked most, through his eyes.

My way of seeing things was formed in the family circle in Dunedin, where my natural inclinations were confirmed and strengthened. His had been formed elsewhere, chiefly, so far as I can tell, in his student days in Melbourne, among our Australian relations and his own sporting friends. While Manono attitudes, if I may call them that, must have swayed him for a while, I think he was outgrowing their influence, which had come, clearly, through Mother and my aunts; for now only Grandfather was left at Manono. My father's interests were changing, or perhaps some of his less well-rooted interests were dying out for want of nourishment, of stimulus. His temperament was not in doubt; he was energetic, self-confident, rather impatient, and not in the least introspective.

He and I were certainly very different by nature. Our temperaments might have been thought complementary; but my father wished me to be like him in all things, only, with my greater opportunities, much more successful. A photograph taken when I was four or five, evidently before Mother's death, points to the contrast between us. In holiday clothes, somewhere out of doors, he is holding me on his shoulder; he stands upright with lifted page 44face, handsome, smiling, still confidently youthful in appearance (he was then about forty); but I, clutching him with one hand, and trying to stand up straight as I have been ordered, stare with affrighted look wide-eyed and shock-haired, spreading the fingers of my other, stretched-out hand in a speaking gesture of uncertainty and apprehension.

I was as lacking in self-confidence as my father abounded in it. I can find no obvious reason for the difference. He lost his mother early, but was twice as old as I when I lost mine. No loving relatives surrounded him; he grew up, somewhat isolated in New Plymouth, the second of a family of four boys, the youngest two of whom were adopted by aunts after their mother's death; and later he seems to have fallen out with his father. But he had no asthma or other serious illness to contend with as a child, so that he got a better start physically. He used to tell me that after leaving home he enjoyed no advantages such as mine, and had to make his own way in the world; an experience which clearly strengthened his assurance. At all events, not waiting to see how I would turn out, he wanted, he expected me, to be like him. It was an understandable but not very reasonable expectation. I was born to disappoint it.

I think our difference perplexed and disconcerted him. It angered him too from time to time. It was I who was different, and clearly I was in the wrong. By way of consolation, Lel made up for some of my deficiencies — or it looked as if she would make up. She was more cheerful and easy-going than I, sturdier, more adventurous, with more of the boy in her then, and readier to be his companion. Yet she was only a girl, and girls are second best.

He read to us, and then with us, when we were small; fairy tales, legends, stories. One book I think he enjoyed was Brer Rabbit, in a handsome green-bound edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham, but I could never get over a distaste for the dialect. The animal books I liked best were Ernest Thompson Seton's, and above all one called Monarch the Big Bear of Tallach. Some of my favourite early books I read to myself or with Grandmother; I associate them with Manono; but while Grandfather sang to us and to all his grandchildren, I cannot recall his reading. At Manono I found or was given a book of stories about Dietrich page 45of Bern that I thought beautiful and romantic. Grimm's tales seemed to me usually rather frightening with their violence and cruelty; Hans Andersen's wonderfully touching, but painfully sad — the pathetic story of the Mermaid with her afflicted feet, the little poor boy out in the snow gazing in through lighted windows at the Christmas feast. The book I loved above all others — I think it was Grandmother's gift - was Selma Lagerlöf's The Wonderful Adventures of Nils and its sequel, the story of a boy who rides over the length and breadth of Sweden on the backs of the wild geese. They are blown out across the Baltic in storm, they attend a great dance of cranes, they meet storks, herons, owls, crows, ravens, sheep, hares, squirrels, rats, foxes, and all manner of sea birds; with them I came to know the conformation of the whole country, my ears rang with its beautiful strange names, I learned its weathers and seasons, its animal and human inhabitants, its legends. I do not remember a more deeply poetical book.

With Nils I set The Just So Stories and The Jungle Books; in these too I lived my life, and with them constructed a world for my imagination to dwell in. Sweden and India: no other countries were more real to me in childhood; but while the reality of Sweden faded, becoming dreamlike, that of India was fed from other sources, and grew. I was never able to see Greece in the same way as a real country peopled by living beings; Greek stories, for me, were set at one remove from the real by their generality; which may have been the fault of the tellings in which they came to me. I remember finding Bulfinch's Age of Fable, a little later, almost unreadable, dust in the mouth.

The first poetry I remember clearly is The Child's Garden of Verses. The note it struck for me is that of 'Dark brown is the river, Golden is the sand …'. I thought it well enough, but could not get past its doggy, faintly lachrymose quality. I found more poetry, if less of the poetical, in Sir Henry Newbolt's ballads. Uncle Harold had been fond of them; loving ships, he had built an elaborate model battleship in the workshop at Manono where it lay admired for years until Grandfather gave it to my cousin Tim, his second grandson, who alone loved it worthily. Pictures of ships decorated both the workshop and Uncle Harold's small bedroom, where I usually slept at Manono; page 46there remembering him I read his Newbolt, my images of the long-ships and the quarter-gunner, of The Fighting Téméraire, of San Stefario, of Drake's drum, of all the admirals, mingling with those in his pictures — the Roman sentry at Pompeii, the soldiers and their pikes in Velasquez's Surrender at Breda.

I liked the Norse legends we read with my father, and the Greek mythology too, but did not much warm to either. He was particular that we should get to know classical legends well, he was convinced as a lawyer of the importance of Latin, without which, he held, it was impossible to understand English, and he wanted me to start learning it early. For from the beginning, I suspect, he hoped and expected that I would follow him in the law.

A little later he started to read serious poetry with us. This counted almost as a school lesson, for poets were teachers, and Browning, the serious poet par excellence, had some hard lessons to teach. I do not know when the Browning cult reached Australia and New Zealand, but my father had been caught up in it during his student days early in the nineties, through some of his more thoughtful Melbourne friends, particularly Fred Eggleston and his wife Lulu Henriques, life-long friends. F. W. Eggleston came from a narrow nonconformist background and was largely self-educated; a serious-minded, hard-working, highly intelligent man who became an eminent barrister, a high court judge, went as Australian ambassador to China, was knighted, and wrote the well-known Reflections of an Australian Liberal. Poetry appealed to such men more for intellectual than sensuous and imaginative qualities. While my father respected Tennyson (who was Poet Laureate, who was Lord Tennyson), he did not feel great interest in him, too much of Tennyson's work being merely verbal and poetical. But the Felses and de Beers and some of their Dunedin friends loved not only these two but Arnold and Swinburne and Francis Thompson as well. The girls had copies of their own; the family bookcases included a surprising number of copies of works by all these poets, in a variety of editions.

In Browning the force and quality of the poetry was strengthened, for them, by the interest of the subject matter, loving Italy as they did. They had visited some of the scenes of Browning's page 47work and life — Casa Guidi, Asolo, St Praxed's Church; they had spoken to an old nurse of the Browning family at the Palazzo Rezzonico in Venice. So my father met the cult again when he returned to New Zealand and was drawn into the Manono circle. He took part in the regular readings at which Browning was expounded, the puzzles unravelled, rough places made smooth, and the philosophy set forth to be admired. I doubt if he had much feeling for poetry as such, but like his contemporaries he held thinkers and teachers in respect, while his legal training may have helped him to understand difficult texts and make them clear to others. But he was not as successful with us as in theory he ought to have been.

I think he helped me with poems like 'A Grammarian's Funeral', 'The Last Ride Together', 'The Statue and the Bust', and I went on to read many of the shorter poems for myself, and got to know them well; but when he set us to read longer more thorny pieces such as 'La Saisiaz' and 'Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau', and insisted that we had to understand them, there was a failure of communication. I could not follow either the poems or his explanations, and I wonder if he too was not baffled although he would not admit it. I don't think we ever finished 'La Saisiaz', and I recall no more readings of poetry after that; we read to ourselves, and perhaps my father felt, with relief, that he had done all that could be expected of him. I fancy he read some of Masefield's earlier verse tales about the same time, early in the twenties, and may have recommended them to us; but his reading of poetry and his interest in it came to an end there and I cannot remember his going back to it — not until he forced himself out of a sense of duty to read my own pieces later on.

For some years he lectured, on Torts, in the Law Faculty of the University of Otago, as young lawyers did to supplement their incomes. He also lectured for the w.e.a., whose aims he supported, and served on its Dunedin committee. He went to several courses of night-classes himself, on subjects that aroused his interest from time to time, such as gardening, astronomy and others. He had acquired the habit early when studying accountancy after completing his law degree. For many years he worked at the Supreme Court Library until midnight or after page 48on several nights of the week. He won a good reputation as a barrister as well as solicitor, his advice was sought by other lawyers and by large firms, he took part in a number of important cases, in which he was usually successful. He was considered to have a great knowledge of the law — too much on some occasions, because he could see both sides of an argument. Yet I think he never had quite the flair and panache of a somewhat older Dunedin barrister, Saul Solomon, who became a k.c. and whom he greatly admired; as a barrister he was perhaps in the second rather than the first rank. He was appointed Honorary Solicitor to the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce, a position he took pride in and held until he gave up practice; and when he first went to England he was asked to take an appeal case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council where he appeared with an English k.c. They won the appeal.

These professional and public interests, with his own active nature, led him more and more into the general life of the town. Once he was persuaded to stand for the City Council, but failed to get in and did not repeat the attempt; I do not know whether he was more disappointed or relieved. However, he was too sociable and too successful in other ways to be put out for long. Handsome, well-built and lean, with a compact, well-made head and features, he carried himself with assurance and never lost his figure, although his hair went white early he wore it, in later years, very short, New Zealand fashion; and since he always dressed with quiet care in good taste (he had one whole big drawer full of ties, more than I have ever seen before or since), often wearing a flower in the lapel of his jacket, he made a distinguished figure in a community where most people, men and women, disguised themselves as sacks or bags. Before his marriage he used to shine in Dunedin society, such as it was, and after the war (he had been rejected for war service because of bad eyesight) he began to go more into society again. He had been a good athlete in his student days, had run well and rowed in winning eights at Melbourne University, one of them a victorious inter-colonial crew; when I was a boy, I remember his coaching a Dunedin crew which won all its races. He was a good golfer and now played regularly every week-end, and, later, one afternoon during the week as well; he won the Otago open page 49championship once, went for several years to play in the New Zealand championships in Christchurch and elsewhere, and continued to play until a few weeks before he died at the age of eighty-two.

All these activities took him farther and farther away from the central interests of Manono. Not that the Felses had led a narrow life. My mother and my aunts walked, rode, played tennis, danced, swam, boated; but they combined these with a consistent love of music and books and the arts and certain crafts as well. Emily had learned book-binding as a girl and bound a number of volumes with taste in the style of the day; she played the piano well and for years there was always music on the fine Steinway grand in the drawing-room when she was at Manono; Kate played too, there and in Amberley. All the women of the family sewed, crocheted, embroidered as a matter of course, covering chairs and making rugs as well as cushion covers and table cloths and runners, and clothes. Most of them sketched and painted in water-colour, notably Grandmother, Emily, and Dora de Beer; as a matter of course they took sketching block and colours on every picnic. Mother and Emily at one time took lessons from Frances Hodgkins, but Emily could remember no details fifty years later. They could also cook with the best, as they did at Karitane and on other holidays, although my grandparents always kept a cook and one or two housemaids.

Mother continued after her marriage to read seriously with her sisters and their friends. I do not know what part my father took in this. But he was now losing all such interests, since no one remained to share them. He and Grandfather, being temperamentally very different, felt little natural sympathy for one another; although only fifteen years divided them (my father was nine years older than Mother), and many common interests brought them together, they were worlds apart, and growing more distant.

The men he met in the course of his work and at the club, whom he golfed and played bridge with, had, most of them, few if any intellectual interests. They were successful practical men; company directors and managers, station owners, lawyers, accountants, stockbrokers, engineers, doctors and dentists, even a few professors. It was practical men whom he consistently held page 50up to me as examples, practical pursuits he pointed to as the useful ones in life, and success in them as the way of winning respect and establishing one's position in the community. He insisted on this the more strongly as he suspected that I was likely to think otherwise and might be disinclined for the sort of life he advocated.

With practical life, in his eyes, went the playing of games, the running boxing rowing golfing and the rest that he had enjoyed and wanted to see me take up. He gave the impression of believing that one made friends only by playing games, that the game was not played entirely for its own sake. Games, in his circle, were an expression of social solidarity, and he played partly because he wanted to be accepted in Dunedin society; it was important to him as a lawyer, and a Jewish one at that, that he should be accepted. He took me to caddy for him at golf now and then, which did not interest me; he made me take boxing lessons at which I was timid, fumbling and ineffective. He told me about his own sporting prowess when young, about his friends and associates, his hardships and exploits, about the various sorts of men he met and the necessity of being a good mixer; and he would go on to talk about how he studied law, his cases, his work with other lawyers, the judges before whom he had pleaded, and all the varied interest of law as a profession.

There was no refuge at home, so I turned more and more to Manono, both for what I missed at home, and for support in my own life. It happened that the one of Grandfather's housekeepers who stayed with him longest, during my schooldays and after (she had gone to school with my aunts and counted as an old friend), was both a person and a lady, so that she helped to preserve something of the old atmosphere of the house, for me if not for my aunts. Miss Moodie was fond of us, liked our friends, and entered into our high spirits and nonsense, as Carty was unable to do because she never got off the ground, and my father because he nearly always disapproved of our friends. And Grandfather had not changed, nor the house, nor the garden.

Grandfather was the most constant figure in my life, its rock and centre. His character was fixed and seemed to me not to change page 51at all from my childhood until I was middle-aged, although he grew more silent with increasing age and loneliness. His interests, many-sided, were settled and permanent, like his affections. And my relationship with him was more firmly fixed, more deeply rooted, than with anyone else. He was always there, predictable, responsive, to be counted on. He did not change, or go away, or die.

The sympathy and understanding that grew up between Grandfather and me remained unbroken. If I angered him and disappointed him, his love did not fail; at bottom, he never questioned me. In consequence, I always trusted him, even when we disagreed and fell out. Tacitly he granted those he loved the right to disagree, to go their own way, to be themselves; he might regret the course of behaviour, deplore the action, but he still respected the person. So at least I felt in my case. He bore no grudges, he did not keep trying to get at me, he accepted me, finally, as I was. There was peace between us. There was no such peace between my father and me.

As I grew up, I came to share some of Grandfather's interests. A healthy strong sanguine methodical man of regular habits and great energy of mind and body, he followed so many interests that I learned about them only gradually. Every fine morning before breakfast (which had always to be ready exactly on time) he walked round the garden, to enjoy the air and the view and to watch the growth of innumerable plants, shrubs and trees, which he loved to point out to anybody who would accompany him. He was at his happiest when carrying a young grandchild in his arms and talking or singing. He sang old German songs that he had learned as a boy; the one I remember best, from his singing it so often to Tim as he stepped out along a garden path, is the famous

Auf der Teutoburger Walde,
Zim, zim, zerim-zim-zim,

the song about the defeat of the Romans by Arminius to which the Nazis later gave such a sinister twist.

The garden formed the setting for all his activities, and in itself focused a number of them. In front were three lawns, one falling away below the terrace on which the house stood, then page 52levelling out to form a hollow flat central lawn flanked by two large oak-trees (planted in 1869, it was said, to commemorate the Duke of Edinburgh's visit) and shaded by ash and chestnut at the far end; and lower still another lawn not quite flat. To the north-west side of the two upper lawns, along London Street, grew a thicket of trees and ferns; to the south-east, beside the top lawn, another small thicket with a fernery and then a glasshouse, and vegetable garden and flower beds near the middle and lower lawns.

I see it as Grandfather's consistent aim, always, to acclimatize in the new country which as a young man he had chosen for his own the best ideas and products of older countries, especially of Europe, and above all of classical Italy and Greece. He brought back seeds and plants from many lands he had visited, those two particularly. Cyclamen, the white and the mauve, from the slopes of Etna and from the Dolomites, grew well at Manono, and since he delighted to make presents of plants to friends and visitors, they were transplanted to many another garden. The acanthus flourished too, and asphodel and white wood-anemones (Shelley's wind-flower); azaleas in a sheltered bed below the far end of the middle lawn, with scyllas, chianadoxa, cyclamen and other bulbs among them. From the barren hills between Ceuta and Tetuan, when Emily was with him in 1936 or 1937, he brought back the seeds of a large white rock-rose with black centre, perhaps the first in New Zealand; Emily grew it later in Queenstown. In the thicket near the house, between the side garden and the front path, contained by a hedge of syringa and including a cabbage tree, native fuchsia, barberry and other bushes, grew an olive which I believe came from the grove planted on One Tree Hill, Auckland, by Sir John Logan Campbell; it grew tall and rather straggling and did not bear — probably the Dunedin sun was not strong enough to ripen its fruit; yet there it had rooted and flourished, grey-leafed, the tree of Athene.

Near it in the side garden stood marble copies of Roman statues, white but weather-stained, a huntress Diana, a head of Juno, an Apollo, each on a fluted stone pedestal. Like the pair of marble lions, copies of some Italian original, which stood one at each side of the steps leading from the top to the middle lawn, page 53and the life-size figure nearby of a girl standing and reading, with a honeysuckle bower behind her, they had been brought back from Italy by Bendix Hallenstein for his garden across the road. Two decorated terracotta urns stood in the middle of flower beds on the upper lawn. At the edge of the lower lawn, against a low forsythia hedge, Grandfather had set a row of columns retrieved from, I think, the old Colonial Bank when it was pulled down. From the narrow flower bed in front of them he had trained clematis up the columns and along the wooden slats laid from column to column on top. Standing on the lower lawn with your back to London Street, and looking between the columns, you saw across the bottom garden and the houses beyond it the blue harbour and green Peninsula, and if you half closed your eyes on a day of bright sunshine you might fancy yourself, Grandfather thought, in a classical landscape gazing down to an inlet of the Aegean.

But the garden was a thoroughly New Zealand one, containing a good collection of native alpines and rock plants which Grandfather had collected on the hills round Dunedin, in Central and Western Otago and in many other parts of the country, and had planted beside gentians, edelweiss saxifrages, aconites, anemones, and bulbs and herbs from the Swiss and Austrian alps. He had collected too a number of North Island trees and shrubs, at that time rareties in Dunedin, which he watched over with loving care — a kauri, a whau, a puriri, a toro, a tawa and others. Indeed he amassed plants from everywhere, by gift and exchange as well as buying and collecting, so that the garden had an air of drawing on half the world and linking continents and civilizations.

The house gave the same impression. I remember it best from the time after Grandfather had given his Maori collection to the Otago Museum and the cases in the hall contained in its place Indian and Malayan armour, Tibetan silver and bronze jugs, bowls, prayer wheels and the like, and early printed books, Venetian and Dutch. Facing them across a Persian rug with a rose bower design, the tree of life, on the opposite wall hung a portrait of Captain Cook, and a photograph of the Capitoline Zeus — I used to think Grandfather resembled him; on a pedestal between the doors to the dining-room and the pantry was a page 54marble copy of a seated Mercury. In the sitting-room, which was the living-room, Italian majolica dishes, blue and white Spode ware, an early Bellarmine jug or two, some German glass, stood on top of the tall bookcases with glass doors which occupied part of every wall; in the embrasure of the front window, two shallow wall cases held Japanese netsuke and incense bottles. In the drawing-room china cabinets held early Wedgwood pieces and Sèvres and Meissen and Coalport cups and saucers, ivories, bronze classical figurines, small Chinese and Japanese wooden figures, silver snuff boxes, glass scent bottles and other such small objects; on top of one cabinet stood a cast of the famous beautiful winged head of Hypnos.

Grandfather was a born connoisseur and collector. He collected also Classical and English coins, plaques and medallions, stamps (especially New Zealand ones); but his Maori collection was the most notable of all. He was never a slave to his collections. His interests ranged far beyond them. To start with, he was an assiduous capable businessman who travelled the country from end to end on the affairs of Hallenstein Brothers and the d.i.c. (both of which his father-in-law had founded and of which he was respectively managing director and chairman of directors for many years). He met businessmen, museum people, collectors, Maori scholars, botanists, and public figures and private friends everywhere. He belonged to the League of Nations Association, the Classical Association, the Royal Society of New Zealand, and attended their meetings, and once or twice read a paper to the second. He subscribed to and read regularly the Round Table, the New Statesman (surprisingly), the Journal of the Polynesian Society, and I think also Pacific Affairs and the Illustrated London News, the last for its reports of archaeological finds. He read widely, history, archaeology, biography, travel, botany and books on the material he collected; especially works about Italy and the Renaissance and about the classical world, and translations of the classics — Gibbon, Macaulay, Mommsen, Ranke, Gregorovius, Burckhardt; classical writers from Herodotus and Thucydides to Livy, Caesar, Tacitus, Suetonius and Boethius; and most of the nineteenth-century writers on those subjects such as Carlyle, Prescott, Symonds, Finlay, Bury, Zimmern, Jane Harrison, Schliemann; Gilbert Murray's translations and most page 55of his other books; Jowett's Plato; The Golden Bough and other books of Frazer's; Butcher and Lang, and Lang, Leaf and Myers; Buschor and Beazley; Campbell's Aeschylus and Jebb's Sophocles, translations of Pindar, the Greek Anthology, the philosophers and moralists including Plotinus. All these and many other books that I forget were in-the house. And Grandfather had read them; he bought his books to read, not for show; he made notes about his reading; his memory was excellent. He read out of deep interest, to enjoy, to know and to understand.

He had caught early an enthusiasm for the classical world which remained with him for life. Schliemann's life and discoveries had always excited him and he shared something of the vision which prompted those discoveries. He saw the Greek world, I think, the world especially of Homer and the tragedians, and the Stoics perhaps too, as clearer and more beautiful, simpler, nobler, and also wiser, than any since; he seemed to look to it for wisdom which should enlighten and guide our dark, complex, tormented age. In the nineteenth century, men had seemed to put behind them at long last so much of the evil of history; breaking from the political tyrannies, the social and religious conventions, the economic slavery, the ghettos and slums and prisons of Europe, they had carried with them to the new worlds of America, Australia, New Zealand, Europe's ancient culture, its accumulated wisdom, its tolerance and liberalism, which should take root and flower more freely in fresh soil, unencumbered by the trammels and shadows and prejudices of the past. It was in this spirit partly that he came to New Zealand; this is what he hoped of life in New Zealand.

The inexplicable, senseless war which broke out in 1914 frustrated if it did not kill these hopes, and made them far more difficult of attainment by splitting in two, separating British and German, his single comprehensive European allegiance. From that position the apparent simplicity and unity of the Greek world, especially if it was a unity in multiplicity, appeared all the more sane, wise, and attractive. Grandfather was no philosopher. Nor was he deeply introspective. But as a humane and thoughtful man increasingly troubled by the divisions and doubts of his time, he saw that earlier world in brighter colours as the years passed.