Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing - Edited by Harry Ricketts and Gavin McLean

"I have known old eyes that have seen many more aspects of warfare than this man has seen - "
RAK Mason - 'Sonnet to MacArthur's Eyes' (1950)

For a little place, god forsake, at the bottom of the f''ing world we punch above weights when it comes to recording our selves in the theatre of war.  Agincourt, Battle of Britain, all of it - pah!  We were there, we did, and better than the rest huh?  A small country at the bottom of the world, we've managed to keep ourselves remarkably busy on the war front, even when travelling thousands of kilometres to find one.  We were idiots.  Lovers of Empire. Brainwashed fools.  We still trade commerce for sense.  Every time the world call, we go.  We are there first, before any one else.  We declared war on Hitler even before Chamberlain did.  This book is a chronicle of all the stupid, idiotic things we did, because we wanted to be counted when it would have been better to quietly wait it out.  The British F'ing Empire.  The reason we are all here.  Our origins.  And our near destruction.  This book documents all that.  The betrayals at Gallipoli and every other WWI battle.  The bullshit that spurred on every man to fight and the crappy justification for it.  All those who tried to escape Britain, they brought it with them and then tried to impose their crappy world on the local indigenous people.  The earliest chapters, written mostly from a British perspective document this.  New Zealand nearly lost an entire generation of men, thanks to the stupidity of its leaders.  Brits came here to avoid the pressures of Victorian Empire.  To escape the world.  But the baggage they brought trapped up all.  The Penguin Book of War Writing, edited by Harry Ricketts and Gavin McLean is a chronicle of a country trying to find itself whilst being drawn by the apron strings of Britain back into her dirty kitchen .
So not surprisingly all this activity has been well reflected in the literature, both fictionally and in factual accounts. Famous-in-New Zealand names fill these chronologically-ordered pages--Poets like Allen Curnow, James K Baxter and novelists like Robin Hyde, Maurice Shadbolt and John Mulgan, ll warned against the perils of war but were forced to fight the Germans or experience the loss of loved ones and friends.  . 

Then, of course, there are also the historians, such as Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Ian McGibbon and Christopher Pugsley - all remind us of the tragedies our families went through. They study it and report like it's something to be gazed at in a glass jar

New Zealand's history, starting in the earliest days is a history of conflict.  Even the New Zealand Wars of the 1850's - 80's It is a rich tapestry of experience and reflection which weaves a complex picture that evokes a similarly complex response from the reader because there is much here that is unfamiliar, as well as the well-known.

Because of the astonishing variety of warlike experiences that New Zealanders have been through and because we have mainly gone looking for them rather than having had them imposed upon us, by invasion, for example, the range of literary responses is equally broad. It is this range which is so aptly captured here and why it is a collection best put down and pondered before being picked up again and digested some more.

Then there is the ultimate fiction of peace in our time, which would render the contents of this book as these historical curiosities.  But realistically, this is not the case. 

The editors say it is the quality of the writing, above all, which has determined this selection, thus accounting for the presence of the likes of Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame and Margaret Mahy-luminaries not usually regarded as "war" writers.  I have to wonder what they meant by 'quality'.  Never once is there any postcards or diaries saying what the men on the front, or the soldiers at the trenches really thought.  They all write as if there's some sort of glorious outcome.  But reality: This one ignores the real truth.  We were betrayed. 

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