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.

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