The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Ordinary Jokers. In quite a different class is M. Escott's Showdown, 1936, a laconic first-person narration, in a colloquial style, of events set in the Waikato district. David Hawkes, a New Zealand farmer, is in love with an English society girl, and problems inevitably arise. The book manages to convey a sense of ordinary living among ordinary folk, has a local tang, and made a stir at the time.
Better still in this way, and remarkably original, is the work of F. S. Anthony, a naval ex-serviceman journalist and farmer who died in 1927. He was so little known in his lifetime that his name does not appear in E. H. McCormick's Literature and Art in New Zealand, 1940, though he merits a page to himself in the later Survey of 1959.
Anthony's first book, Follow the Call, 1936, is the love story of a soldier settler living on a fifty-acre farm near Eltham. Mark, who tells the tale, has a keen tongue, and an amused worm's-eye view of farming life. There are good scenes on the land, and comic characters such as old Treadwell the district scandalmonger. The Taranaki rain, the ruinous cowshed, the leaky whare, 'flu, lumbago, an adequate heroine, local dances, and motor bike adventures add up to a pleasant enough novel.
Me and Gus, 1938, offers the same material and some of the same characters. It is of course barely fiction, for "Gus Tomlins" and Frank Anthony lived opposite each other on "Mossy Road", while Ned Wilson, Farmer Dan, Arty Wilcox, the Stead boys, and the rest, are recognisable local personalities. These sketches first appeared in the Weekly News and other papers.
Twenty-six years after his death, F. S. Anthony enjoyed a revival at the hands of Francis Jackson, who adapted his writings both published and unpublished for broadcasting, and printed them in 1951, with additional volumes in 1952 and 1955. Unfortunately, both the novel and the 1938 Me and Gus are out of print, so that it is not easy for readers today to appreciate Anthony as he really was. Funny as the revived Me and Gus of 1951 may be, the 1938 volume is the authentic version. Francis Jackson has pepped it up, pruning away descriptive matter or recasting it in dialogue, over-emphasising for -dramatic effect, and in general revising for the quick laughs of a radio programme. Where the current modern text seems merely farcical, it will usually be found that the original is better.page 47
Both in novel and in sketches, F. S. Anthony is an interpreter of our local scene. His broad humour, his easy rendering of cow-cocky vernacular, and his dramatic evocation of typically masculine dilemmas are most refreshing. He has created for us in Gus Tomlins a recognisable persona, a comic reversal of the solid, competent, do-it-yourself New Zealander who constitutes the popular image of a good Kiwi. Gus is a character to be remembered in New Zealand fiction.
It has to be admitted however that F. S. Anthony's stories are very near to life; Barry Crump's A Good Keen Man, 1960, or David McLeod's The Tall Tussock, 1959, are somewhat comparable. However, in getting the "ordinary joker" on to paper in the mid-1920s, Anthony "was well ahead of Frank Sargeson or Robin Hyde, and deserves credit for it.
Another Taranaki writer of the thirties is John Brodie, who wrote as John Guthrie. The Little Country, 1935, is a cheeky satirical piece. It strives too much for its crackle, and needs a binding central idea to redeem it from episodic impressionism, but it is lively, and challenges some of our assumptions. John Guthrie draws from a journalist's life—as Alan Mulgan did—but with sufficient heightening to make a memorable caricature. Examples of his highlights are the Tern Jubilee, the meeting of the Cod's End Borough Council, the Auckbourne Harbour controversy, and the unhappy fate of the reporter who commented on the smell of the local freezing works.
And what a good title—The Little Country. Guthrie was trying, he said, to show us "our faults as well as our fun". One character testifies, "We've been too busy getting somewhere, like most young countries, to know where we have been going. We've got no national consciousness, partly because we've practically no native songs and little native literature . . . Mentally we're still the nurslings of Britain . . . there's something that stunts our writing in this kinship ..." There were many who said these things in the thirties. That a character in a novel is moved selfconsciously to discuss the subject is a measure both of its importance to writers at the time, and of their lack of technical skill in handling it.
John Guthrie's next novel, logically enough, ventured into history, trying to discover "where we have been going". But So They Began, 1936, is shallow, recapitulating all the cliches of our pioneer fiction. A Maori marriage, the Maori Wars, the search for gold with Gentleman Jack, a remittance man of aristocratic origin, a wicked wooer, a Paul Revere ride, and final wedding bells, do not add up to a historical novel. The book handles its information clumsily, dragging Selwyn, Butler, and Seddon across the tracks of the story. The best things are the incidental sardonic comments on small town life.
After this Guthrie moved to England, where he made a successful career as journalist and editor. During the 1940s he wrote several novels with English backgrounds, none of them notable. In 1952 he page 48 returned to the New Zealand setting with two novels, Paradise Bay, and The Seekers. Paradise Bay is another satirical sketch of New Plymouth, which had already served him well. But his long residence overseas had cut him off from the original impulse. The fun is forced, and the character drawing has degenerated into a series of Dickensian eccentricities, while the basic seriousness which gave point to his earlier novel has gone. A display of verbal smartness does not hide the thinness of his material.
The Seekers is a very poor novel indeed, and might well be taken as an example of How Not To Do It. It embodies the worst features of our bad Maori fiction of the 1890s. Everything in it is derivative, flashy, and spurious. I suspect that Guthrie was deliberately angling for a Hollywood offer. He fully deserved what he got. The place which he has in our fiction of the thirties is his by virtue chiefly of his best book, The Little Country.