War’s place in our hearts

by Matthew Wright / 08 October, 2015
Leading literary figures add weight to a book of war writing that is so much more than a military history.
Scene from World War I: Kiwi soldiers taking a breather from trench digging on Gallipoli.

The title of this compilation of our military authors, editor Harry Ricketts tells us, promises quality writing. That’s a bold assertion – particularly given the dire literary calibre of some recent war writing in New Zealand. But it is one Ricketts and co-­editor Gavin McLean have largely achieved in their Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing.

Their scope covers our war history from pre-colonial days to the New Zealand Wars of the mid-19th century through to our world-spanning adventures of the 20th.

Among the many featured authors are Robin Hyde, Maurice Shadbolt, Katherine Mansfield, John Mulgan, Geoffrey Cox, Frank Sargeson, Allen Curnow, Ormond Burton, Janet Frame and James K Baxter – an effective roll call of our literary greats.

The fact that such writers responded to New Zealand’s war experience, often as it unfolded, raises questions about the place war has in our history and in our hearts and minds as a nation.

And this, of course, is the real purpose of this book: to explore not our war history but ourselves, through the writings of some of our best-known literary figures.

The chapters covering the “home front” in both world wars, along with Archibald Baxter’s poignant account of life as a conscientious objector, underscore the fact that these wars were socially shaping for more than just the soldiers.

The meaning also shifted with the change of generations through the 20th century; and that, too, has been well covered. Wisely, the editors avoid the World War I of Sassoonian-style “war poets”, but they do give Burton’s views an airing.

Possibly the only exception to the overall quality of the selection is the short extract from the two-volume official history of the Korean War, which is pure public-service plod at its most uninspired.

A concluding chapter – “Reflections” – draws together the way various authors have viewed the meanings of our wars.

I have a couple of minor gripes. The slip-jacket is brittle and rips easily. Mine was damaged in transit and tore again even with cautious handling. But that’s also where the title is printed – without it, the book is anonymous. Quirkiness is a virtue in today’s world of faltering hard-copy sales. But a cover so fragile seems something of a let-down for a $65 volume.

War Writing NZThe editors have also added interpolations reflecting later information – notably the “Gallipoli numbers” question, which flared this year in behind-the-scenes debate in the military-historical community.
Most authors use the best information available at the time or cite official data for good reason. To query that in light of later data or questions – which in the case of Gallipoli have not yet been properly framed – risks doing those authors an injustice.

This does not, of course, reduce the value and importance of this title. It is a masterful compilation that is so much more than just a military history.

It also stands as a significant tribute to New Zealand’s general literary landscape.

THE PENGUIN BOOK OF NEW ZEALAND WAR WRITING, edited by Harry Ricketts and Gavin McLean (Penguin, $65).

Matthew Wright has written extensively on New Zealand’s military and general history, and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


Polina – movie review
76492 2017-07-20 00:00:00Z Movies

Polina – movie review

by Russell Baillie

A young dancer turns her back on the Bolshoi Ballet to study modern moves in Polina.

Read more
New Zealand International Film Festival: Metro's top picks of what to see
76536 2017-07-20 00:00:00Z Movies

New Zealand International Film Festival: Metro's t…

by David Larsen

Whether you plan to see just a few of the movies in the film festival or dozens, you’ve got some decisions to make and Metro is here to help.

Read more
K Road's wahine tattooists: How they made their mark
76538 2017-07-20 00:00:00Z Arts

K Road's wahine tattooists: How they made their ma…

by Courtney Sina Meredith

From a lush studio on Karangahape Road, three women practise the art of tattooing.

Read more
How artist couple Liz Maw and Andrew McLeod work and live together
76594 2017-07-20 00:00:00Z Arts

How artist couple Liz Maw and Andrew McLeod work a…

by Julie Hill

Painters Liz Maw and Andrew McLeod share their personal and professional lives and are about to exhibit together

Read more
Why the creative duo behind TUR Studio is creating garments the old way
76619 2017-07-19 15:46:53Z Style

Why the creative duo behind TUR Studio is creating…

by Bianca Zander

The creative duo behind Auckland's TÜR Studio lives life as if the industrial revolution never happened.

Read more
Five fun spots perfect for a group outing
76580 2017-07-19 14:20:28Z Auckland Eats

Five fun spots perfect for a group outing

by Paperboy

Break the monotony of winter with a party at one of these five fun Auckland spots

Read more
What to see at the NZ International Film Festival
76576 2017-07-19 13:31:34Z Movies

What to see at the NZ International Film Festival

by Paperboy

Film buffs Caroline Montague and Alexander Bisley pick apart the NZ International Film Festival programme.

Read more
Three Auckland food pop-ups you won't want to miss
76571 2017-07-19 13:04:40Z Auckland Eats

Three Auckland food pop-ups you won't want to miss…

by Paperboy

Merediths, Culprit and Orphans Kitchen take on guest chefs and unusual ingredients at three pop-up events.

Read more