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Review: CHARLES BRASCH. JOURNALS, 1945-1957

CHARLES BRASCH. JOURNALS, 1945-1957, Selected with an introduction and notes by Peter Simpson

Otago University Press, 2017.

ISBN: 978 1 927322 28 4, 686 pp, NZ$ 59.95; £35.50

Review by Fleur Adcock

When Charles Brasch returned to New Zealand at the end of 1945 (abandoning a brief temptation to live in England), it was with the intention of founding a literary and cultural quarterly magazine. Landfall, as it was eventually to be called, brought a new focus to literature and the arts in the country he had decided to commit himself to.

His home was in Dunedin but he commuted regularly to Christchurch to see the magazine through the press, and frequently visited the North Island. These journals (of which somewhat more than half are here included) present an exemplary lesson on how to build up a stable of potential contributors; we see Brasch travelling around New Zealand making contact with writers of poetry, fiction, essays, reviews and articles (some already known to him, some not), as well as artists and painters whose work he might feature in the magazine: Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, Louise Henderson. He was discovering his tribe. Meeting the composer Douglas Lilburn, for example, who like him had decided to make his career in NZ rather than abroad, he felt him to be “single-minded & of a high solitary purpose… I thought I divined a kindred spirit.” Then, after hearing Lilburn's trio performed at a concert, "I had to hide tears of terrified joy.”

Many of the people he met were poets. He gives minutely detailed descriptions of those who interest him, particularly the men; he falls for the good looks of some (Alistair Campbell's Polynesian beauty disturbed him for quite some time) and is fascinated by the unusual features of others – he is so struck by the peculiar shape of CK Stead's lower jaw that he adds a little sketch. He finds Curnow "older, more set than I looked for… very much the type of an English intellectual, wearing glasses & a tweed jacket, smoking a pipe. He did not attract me". James K Baxter is given the full treatment: "He looks scarcely more than 17, in the freshness & roundness of his face… quite unselfconscious with a warm frank smile & very clear eyes. He stoops, or rather holds his head forward between his shoulders… I thought how incongruous a pair he & I made – he with his clear-eyed simplicity, & I with the complicated mesh of my guilt’. Baxter’s wife Jacquie he calls at first "an exceedingly plain part-Maori girl", but he soon comes to recognise her admirable maturity and good sense.

A running theme throughout the first few years of Landfall is the problem of Denis Glover and the drink. Glover, publisher at the Caxton Press, was a poet, former naval war hero, and expert printer; Brasch admired his elegant printing skills and was inclined to be tolerant because of their old friendship, but every now and then he reports that Denis had "gone off on a blind", or appeared several days later "slightly exalted with drink but clear-headed", to carry on as if nothing had happened. Sometimes Denis (a married man) was spotted with a "mistress", or brought one into the office. Deadlines were missed; petty cash melted away; his fellow directors decided to liquidate the company, in order to get rid of him, after which he was at first employed for wages, covering only the hours that he worked, but later moved to the rival Pegasus Press and spread mild havoc there before leaving Christchurch altogether. At one point he grew a large red beard.

I suspect that my pleasure in reading this book is greatly enhanced by the fact that I knew so many of the people it mentions, including Brasch himself and a number of other poets (Glover and his partner Khura were our close neighbours and regular visitors when I lived in Wellington a little later, Denis's cheerfully booming voice terrifying my small son), but even readers unfamiliar with the personalities are very likely to have read their books and poetry, heard their music or seen their paintings in galleries. Brasch’s frank private comments provide an entertaining series of footnotes on how they struck him.

Another strand of the journals, important to their author if not of lasting cultural significance, is his love for the mountain landscape of the South Island; he spent weeks every summer tramping with James Bertram and other friends, and experienced moments of his most transcendent joy on these expeditions, which evoke some of his best writing. At one point he flew to Queenstown as the only passenger in a tiny four-seater plane: "I felt a kind of lawless delight in crossing the mountains so, in defiance of roads, & seeing the structure of the land laid out below me.” Other holidays he spent with his cousins or, hating every dutiful minute, with his sadly incompatible father (cause of much unfilial guilt), who died in 1956 with Charles at his bedside.

Then there’s his emotional life, which for such an outwardly prim, reticent man turns out to be very emotional indeed, even if much of it takes place inside his head. He agonises for many months and many pages over whether or not he should marry a young widow called Rose Archdall, but eventually the turbulence settles down into a calm friendship, as he realises that his truest feelings are still for his close but heterosexual friend Harry Scott. A number of the pages that have been sliced out of the notebooks containing the journals very probably referred to this unrequited passion, but powerful hints remain here and there: "But I was possessed by Harry, my heart burning with pain and joy that I do not know the meaning of; and love ran out of me like a river."

It was to be Harry Scott's widow Margaret, a devoted friend of Charles Brasch, who eventually transcribed these journals by the man who played such a transformative role in New Zealand’s cultural life.

Fleur Adcock is a New Zealand-born poet and editor who has lived most of her life in England. She has received distinguished recognition from both countries – the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry in 2006 and the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2008. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has received an OBE. Her most recent volume of poetry, Hoard, was published by Bloodaxe Books, in the UK (ISBN 978 17803 73966) with a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and by Victoria University Press in New Zealand (ISBN 978 17765 61674).

For further detail of the occasion of the launch of Hoard, see TALKS on www.nzstudies.com