The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Alan Mulgan. Alan Mulgan is well known as journalist, broadcaster, essayist and poet; he wrote one novel, Spur of Morning, 1934, which was reprinted following the interest roused by the publication of his autobiography, The Making of a New Zealander, 1958. It is not his best work. Like so many of the novels written here before World War II, it exhibits faults which suggest that the creative experiments of Henry James, Conrad, Hemingway, Joyce, or Virginia Woolf had passed quite unremarked at our end of the world. Mulgan's material is not moulded into shape under the pressure of an idea or an emotion, but is presented flatly at the level of fictionalised journalism. While there is considerable historical interest in the period of page 41 time covered, the persons, episodes, and dialogue do not take on any body of their own.
Watch, for instance, the author's way of conveying to us those details of the past which we must know. No attempt is made to focus our awareness of them from any consistent point of view; they are handed out baldly in the remorseless past perfect tense of a history book. (On page twelve, in thirty-two lines, that tense, "had married, had played", occurs ten times.) Occasionally a character steps out of the pages to expound in what is clearly the author's voice, as on pages 12-14, 189-90, 256-9. Technical clumsiness of this kind was, as we have seen, typical of the novels of those days, and Spur of Morning is by no means the worst example.
The story tells of Mark Bryan, red-haired and rebellious from his Sixth Form days in "Eden" (Auckland), who becomes a reporter, then a Liberal-Labour politician, in the era before World War I. By bringing in several couples whose social position and home life is different from Mark's, Alan Mulgan widens the scope of what he can describe. Mark falls unexpectedly in love with Sylvia Feldon, daughter of a rich South Island squatter, conservative and would-be English to the core. Thus the love story attempts to dramatise the two threads which hold the book together, the liberal-conservative struggle, and the division of colonial loyalties. There is a lot about "colonials" and "English snobs"; somehow, freedom, democracy, football, and New Zealandism are ranged against capitalism, a class system, and being British.
A number of the portraits in the novel are recognisable; Braxton must surely be a glance at Seddon, while the student Alice Somers, who makes a single appearance on page sixty, is a well known popular novelist. The anecdote related on page forty-nine is also related on page seventy-five in The Making of a New Zealander. This fidelity to actual experience gives the novel some historical and social interest: otherwise, it is unsuccessful. But its perusal remains a most useful critical exercise.