Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 14. 1967.
Report on Experience, by John Mulgan. Published by Blackwood and Janet Paul New Zealand price $1.80. Reviewed by Kevin Martin.
Report on Experience is a brief autobiographical account of the period from 1930 to 1945, including the depression in New Zealand, Oxford in the late thirties, the desert campaign of World War II, and partisan activities in Greece. Mulgan sent the manuscript to his wife shortly before his death in Greece in 1945.
It is a very subjective account, more a record of his thoughts about events than about the actual events. This makes the book more interesting to read because a narrative of the depression and the war would be boring anyway, and because we get a more direct impression of Mulgan's personality than in his novel. Man Alone.
His tone, a British sensibility and sense of humour tinged with irony, is a forerunner of that of the "new English gentleman," the compromise between British tradition and modern society to be found in Kingsley Amis or Simon Raven, Mulgan, however, possibly because of his closeness to the war. is more idealistic, and his symathy for his subject shuts out the harsh satire of the fifties.
Instead, he has a softer irony, applied to New Zealanders ("They never tried to glory in their lack of culture, but I don't think they really minded not having any"), and Oxford radicals ("Communism in England was a parlour game as we played it"); but when he turns to the war his English attitudes become plainer.
With some comments on their amateurism, he turns to their morality ("it is difficult to take the English into a war except on some good, moral, and inescapable pretext"), their morale, and their ability to "win the last battle." Still he didn't stop thinking when he started fighting, and this sort of statement is usually qualified. The last part, about Greece, is the best in the book; his sympathy seems to lie easier on the Greek partisan than on the British soldier.
His style is pleasing to read. It is relaxed and natural, never strained, and often neatly used:
"At all events the pendulum moved up again, and carried with it Hitler, Mr. Roosevelt, Stanly Baldwin, and many another. Passengers dropped by the way were the Negus of Abyssinia, several million Chinese, and the Spanish people. I am told on good authority that beer and horseracing remained in favour in New Zealand."
He says in the letter to his wife that this is only "the form of a book" and that "it isn't as well said or as clearly written as it might be." But there are only two or three slips of style, and its brevity is a point for, not against it. It is enjoyable to read a book by a New Zealander who could be sane and clear-headed in his writing, and who is more convincing than most others.