Title: John Guthrie

Author: Bill Pearson

In: Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays

Publication details: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

Keywords: Literature

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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays

John Guthrie

page 37

John Guthrie

This essay was first published in Landfall, September 1954, as a review of John Guthrie's Paradise Bay and The Seekers (Werner Laurie).

In 1935 The Little Country did what no New Zealand novel has done since, ranged satirically about our society. With verve, good humour and the cheek of a journalist it took us into a newspaper office, courts, borough council and dairy farmers' meetings, even a tangi. Mr Guthrie is good on meetings. But the breadth was out of proportion to the depth. Characterisation was superficial and the plot was unrelated to characters. For example, the young man who runs away from home thinking he has killed his father is essentially unchanged by the experience. Mr Guthrie set out to 'show our faults as well as our fun'; he complained that we hadn't produced any works of art, we were a lot of sobersides, too bent on making money; we didn't know enough of Life, Laughter, Romance. It was a criticism of the group he knew best, suburban and small-town professional and business people. By his long apologetic preface Mr Guthrie made it clear that we weren't to take the criticism too seriously; he was really only pulling our legs; he finally summed us up as 'Non angeli, sed Angli'.

So They Began (1938) was a mildly iconoclastic account of pioneering in New Plymouth; with pioneers just as delightfully irrational and impulsively childish as—come, let's face it—ourselves. In this novel the verve turns to glibness ('The sea was the colour of pearl, very still and softly radiant, as if God had just been walking on the waters.'). The fun turns into scouting for gags like in a vaudeville script. It is worth while quoting:

'What do you mean by kissing that girl of mine?' he demanded.

'Did she complain?' asked Amory.

'That's just the trouble. She didn't.'

'If there's anything of that sort to be done round here,' said the page 38 Englishman, 'I'll do it. You're older than I am, but I'm afraid I shall have to black your eyes for you.'

'You can't,' said Amory. 'I have to see the Governor to-night.'

'I can't help that. What else can I do?'

'Black her's instead.'

'By George, that's an idea . . . I'd never thought of that.'

This involves a very cheap attitude to humanity; the men-only poses of the New Plymouth bourgeoisie must be anathema to a humanist, and a great novelist must be a humanist. Sometimes Mr Guthrie is plain hypocritical: an agnostic with a great respect for the conscientious Christian, he has Richard deterred from murder or mayhem by a vision of Christ; soon after he gets his revenge inadvertently and breaks loudly into singing, 'Yes, Jesus loves me!' Or consider the tongue-in-cheek smirk behind this account of gold-fever:

'Pick, pick, pick! What did God think about it all? "Gnaw, mouse," laughed God, "till you reach the larder."

And when he got there the cupboard was bare . . .

Lord, if it was . . . ! What if God was a great cat playing with the little mouse . . . run . . . so far . . . ah, back . . . caught . . . run . . . so far . . . He always finished you off in the end! Dear God, let me only find the gold first, and I'll give up drinking and lying and running with women. Please, Pussy, let me just find the cheese.'

The author's verve has become irresponsibility; he is like a comedian who imagines that he can increase the sympathy of his audience by playing tricks on them. Richard believes he has been forced to eat the flesh of his sweetheart's brother. 'Tears came into his eyes. He saw himself alone, unloved, outcast, the victim of a tragic fate.' And so on for a long paragraph. 'The fact is, in his own particular way, he was enjoying himself immensely.' It is the author who is enjoying himself, sniggering like a boy who has broken wind in church. The cheapness is inhuman; it is one thing to make fun of artificial conventions, it is another to play tricks with permanent and fundamental human sympathies. When a dwarf falls down a mine shaft and is hoisted up unconscious the author is less concerned with his condition than the odd impropriety of Richard's comment, 'The poor little basket's broken!' Only, of course, he isn't dead. An Evelyn Waugh would have Richard really eating human flesh, the young man a murderer, the dwarf dead. Mr Guthrie is too kindly-natured to be a satirist, too cheap to be a humanist. The boy who broke wind in church ends up by taking round the collection plate.

Since these two novels Mr Guthrie has lived in England and his later writing has been affected by his war service and his expatriation. The Man in our Lives (Nelson, 1946) is a trivial, episodic sentimental memoir of a father, a lesser Life with Father. It might have had some value had page 39 the memories been set in their real country: transferred to England they are meaningless. The father is a blustering minor tyrant, effectively managed by an indulgent wife and family. In this book Mr Guthrie begins to repeat himself; it is usually a fault of a first novel to state the obvious; it is also the risk of long expatriation, at least if you work within terms of realism. '"Look at her," father said, turning round. "She's miles away." He meant mentally. "She's dreaming."' Just in case you didn't get it the first time.

In his three post-war novels with English setting Mr Guthrie is a much chastened writer; he doesn't clown, he is witty. And there are some things a man has to take seriously, damn it all; the sexual relations of hero and heroine, for example. England is in difficult straits; leisure has quite disappeared; we've got to hold firm to every scrap of tradition and culture and religion that we've got. More of the characters are serious; the heroes are pallid, ill-defined and have a habit of thinking in quotation marks all sorts of occasional comments on London and the world that would have been better made, if at all, by the author himself. At least these three novels are economical.

In Journey by Twilight (1949) the theme is, according to the dust-jacket, that no man is an island. Any Guthrie reader will know that when the hero goes to his office after strangling his wife because he thought she had kissed her father too passionately, he only thinks he has strangled her, and she pops up in a later chapter. He does poison himself but there is no sense of tragedy. There is some social comment: a small Edwardian gentleman of a publisher about to sell out to a parvenu, power-hungry mogul, backs out because the mogul finances Mosley's Unity Party. Is This What I Wanted? (1950) is a serious attempt, within the limits of the outlook of a salaried sleeper on the fringes of London, to cope with the problem of the threat of war. Hammer, editor of a national daily, afraid that the Labour Government will go too far, has a great inspiration to bring the classes together with the mateyness he knew in a prisoner-of-war camp. Every night at Hammersmith members of his inexclusive club drink and listen to Victorian music-hall compered by a prominent rightwing trade union leader. The impending war is unpopular; coastal artillery is trained on the Welsh mining valleys; war comes, the miners strike and are shelled. Cabinet forbids publication of the news of the strike; Hammer defies the order but his second-in-command Leighton countermands his instructions; all is saved, the miners return to work, and England goes to war—very philosophically and without hope of winning, with everyone sitting round as if at a picnic, on Hampstead Heath, waiting for the end. It is an admission of spiritual bankruptcy. Leighton, who loses interest in women the moment he seduces them, is meant to be a symbol of twentieth century man and presumably war is his judgment. There is some social analysis in this novel, but Mr Guthrie's political insight reflects that of The Times. For example, it isn't typical of communists page 40 to have a chip on the shoulder, they don't work singly like the one in this book, they would only be amused by the Victorian music-hall, let alone want to break it up, getting the razors out. In Journey by Twilight the fascist-communist clash is presumably based on the 1949 Sunday night street-fights in Hackney, between Mosleyites and anti-fascist ex-servicemen. Neither the ex-servicemen nor communists would try to silence a fascist speaker by mobbing his platform, trampling a little girl to death and shrugging it off as inevitable. A social analyst has no right to take his characters at second hand.

A chapter of Merry-Go-Round (1950) was written every time the 'most adorable of playfellows' to whom it is dedicated refused a certain request. It bears little sign of the passion. It is a slight farce about an organization like the British Council; its best humour is unconscious—a League for the Propagation of Basic English to which twelve non-English-speaking nations belong; a Czech prison governor who is so worried by a letter to The Times about two English prisoners that he transfers them to Moscow, just like that.

When Marghanita Laski called Paradise Bay a potential New Zealand—at least—classic', she showed how little she knew of writing in New Zealand. If, as Mr Alan Mulgan claims, there is Delight in this novel, delight must be a very pallid state. It is no more than a pleasant tale of New Plymouth centennial celebrations and jiggery-pokery on the stock-market, with an ambitious youth at the centre. Somehow it does not convey the 'feel' of New Zealand; the outlook is from London and New Plymouth comes through as a far-off colony. Mr Guthrie is again betrayed by the attitudes of the small-town businessman. It is right to make fun of the shock of the town's best citizenry when the newly-found descendant of the town's founder turns out to be illegitimate and Maori; but the author has no right to laugh up his sleeve as if the Maori woman was something comical in herself. And the author develops a soft spot for Bertie Dryden, the only outstanding character in the book; what if he was a swindler? he knew a thing or two, old Bertie and it was only those Aucklanders he diddled. Richenda may appear as if she's going to have a baby, but this is John Guthrie, it'll only be a disease. The author seems to stand in awe of the ruthless ambition of Colin Dryden set on medical school and where else but Harley Street, as if this was something sacred: the small-town businessman always does respect the successful. The minor characters are walking quirks: you could invent thousands of characters this way: think of a mannerism give it a proper name and put it through its paces. Like the lady in So They Began whose only conversation was about her eggs, like Lady Laurel of Merry-Go-Round who is always saying 'Halloo!', like Mr and Mrs Truscott who will argue every time they come on, over the pronunciation of a word; she will say that he's deep and he's the whitest man she ever knew. Uncle Henry is not a character so much as a vaudeville joke: ordered a long voyage as a rest page 41 cure and unable to afford it, he buys a season ticket and plies all day to and from Devonport, writing letters about his travels. One pities Richenda the heroine (staying with her author husband in a Park Lane hotel) who had to wait for what must be all of fifteen years before he would treat her 'as if . . . as if [she] were a bad woman'.

Almost all of Mr Guthrie's books begin with apologetic notes. The Seekers acknowledges Elsdon Best and pays tribute to the Maoris as a race. On the first page we learn that they sweated in terror at nights because they believed devils walked abroad. This is a strange and rather grandiose little epic, a minor Green Dolphin Country, and I found it wordy, repetitive and boring. Mr Guthrie states and restates the obvious till it irritates; one has the feeling that he forced this novel, that his inspiration ran dry and he was always trying to pick up the threads; on p.229 Marian makes four separate statements that imply that her husband and her baby are her only interests. This is Mr Guthrie's only humourless book. The characterization is now almost completely derivative; a good Maori chief who wants to stop intertribal war but dare not; a wily tohunga; maid Marian pure and vivacious and practical too, the ideal pioneer's bride; Wayne, tall, muscular, purposeful but so devoid of definition that one supplies it in the image of Errol Flynn or Alan Ladd; a servile office tyrant straight from Dickens; a dastardly father who changes from a man opposed to his daughter's marriage into a grotesque from Victorian melodrama who immures her with a discarded mistress in a derelict Mayfair house where a sinister doctor is slowly poisoning her . . . But lo! Prince Charming arrives in a carriage and whisks her off to New Zealand. There she finds time often to swim far out to sea 'like a boy', to get up before her husband and spend a few hours painting bush scenes, to play Beethoven, convert the good chief to Christianity, cook, clean and sew for husband and baby. The Maoris attack; Marian puts on her best ball dress to inspire the men; the pakehas must win—but no, Mr Guthrie breaks the rules and they are burnt, except the baby. (Presumably the film company will adjust this.) Whatever interest Mr Guthrie has in this theme that was in So They Began, the white child brought up by Maoris, he gives it no significance.

Mr Guthrie is a born story-teller without profundity. If he had stayed home he might have become a very entertaining novelist or journalist. Since he writes now as if continually clearing his way through a fog, one wonders if the sophistications and pressures of London have left his mind so punch-drunk that he no longer knows what values he can expect his readers to share, or what he believes at all. He gives the impression of struggling to convince himself that he believes the Edwardian assumptions about the British heritage and destiny, on which no doubt he was reared. Perhaps that is why he strains so hard to define sentiments that turn out after all to be trite. If The Seekers was not written simply to attract a film offer, one suspects that it was written to answer a question page 42 the author himself could not take seriously, something like this: What mystic force impelled these white adventurers to desert the comforts of the mother country, to seek new lands and carve new fortunes out of these strange, wild, hostile, beautiful islands, to build anew without hope of reward in their time? Where lies the secret of our greatness? If so, it seems that the answer has convinced Mr Guthrie no more than the question.

The Little Country and Paradise Bay will always have a modest place in New Zealand writing. The rest of Mr Guthrie's work vanishes in the yearly output of English novels.