Monday, 11 November 2013

'I think I am becoming a New Zealander': Letters of J.C. Beaglehole

On Thursday evening we launched 'I think I am becoming a New Zealander': Letters of J.C. Beaglehole, chosen and edited by Tim Beaglehole, at the Alexander Turnbull Library. David Mackay has kindly given us his launch speech to use here.

Author Tim Beaglehole hands over J.C. Beaglehole's letters to Chris Szekely, Chief Librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library


I first want to congratulate VUP on what has been a stellar year and even a pretty impressive week with three book launches.  This in particular is a publication of which the Press can be proud.  It is a fine production that is handsomely designed with a page layout and type face which echoes that of the Cook Journals themselves. With his passion for typography and printing I believe that JCB, would have been very pleased with the result.

Some of the letters on display at the Alexander Turnbull Library

In August 1970 I was a research assistant in London when I received a aerogramme from JCB asking me to find a letter from Canon Douglas, the first editor of Cook’s second and third voyage journals.  The letter, dated 4 January 1770, was in the Egerton collection in the Manuscripts Room of the BM and I copied it out, did a fair impression of Cook’s signature at the end, and posted it to Wellington.

I received a thank you note a couple of months later with the following: “Your copy of the letter was admirable, & your forgery of Cook’s signature not bad at all.  With a little practice & the right ink and paper you should be able to make quite a useful supplement to your lecturer’s salary.  Yes, please will you get the BM to send me a photo-copy, as I have all the others, & as I may as well give a complete set to the Turnbull, to which I turn over all my rubbish”.

Now there are a few of things I wish to say about this.  First it is a pleasure and a privilege to be asked to launch this fine book in the institution in which John spent so much time, to which he was so affectionately attached and where much of his rubbish is now stored.

Second, having seen in these letters how frantically busy he was in the five years before his death, and how many demands there were on his time, I am amazed that he was still able to find the time to read prospective journal articles for a PhD student and give distant advice on publishing as he did for me. But there were also many others.

Third, his suggestion that I might consider secondary employment as a forger is typical of the good-natured irony that populates the letters to colleagues and friends. It was a little less worrying than the suggestion made to me five years earlier by one of his VUW colleagues when I was a wine waiter at Tim and Helen’s engagement party. If all else failed, said the colleague, I at least had a career to fall back on. As I was doing a third year paper with that particular staff member this was more ominous than JCB’s suggested career option that had higher income potential & seemed more skilled.  I didn’t actually fail but it was a near run thing. Imagine my pleasure then, almost 50 years later to find JCB’s observation on this colleague in a letter to London:  “…some of the things he did in examining would make your hair stand on end…”.

JCB’s letter also brings me to the medium itself. Today of course all such communication would be by email or Facebook and – the historian’s nightmare  - many fewer would survive.  Who neatly sorts and files their emails today? The likelihood is that we would have to go to the NSA or some such body and say, “You remember that email I sent to Tim Beaglehole in 2005?  Could you send me a copy?”

These letters highlight other losses. Some to me were on aerogrammes but others were not. His wife Elsie, presumably aware of the pressure on his precious time while he was in London in 1950, urged him to write on letterforms, the precursor of aerogrammes. However this was generally too confining. It restricted the flow of prose; imposing an economy that intruded on both style and narrative. Most of the letters in this collection, especially those to friends are generous, expansive, covering a great array of subjects of mutual interest. How many of us today write emails, let alone letters to friends, that range over such a broad range of topics? Emails also cripple our prose into inelegant forms and reduce the scope and depth of our conversations.

By contrast these letters are, of course, wonderful works of prose. While the letter structures don’t suggest planning, or drafts, or an eye to posterity, they are to a degree self-conscious and JCB’s literary tastes clearly informed the style.  As you would expect, the particular tone varied according to the recipient and changed a little over time.  There is a sort of deliberate “boys own” quality in letters to his mother when he was a student in London in the twenties.  With longstanding women friends, such as Kathleen McKay and Helen Wallis, there is a kind of flirtatious style. Rich ironies and a mock baroque form is characteristic in letters to old friends such Ian Henning and his WEA colleague Norman Richmond. 

To Averil Lysaght, who assisted with the zoological annotations on the journals, deep sighs of tolerance and restraint are apparent in every line. Averil was a fellow Victoria College student who moved to London in the 1930’s. While an able scientist she was also delightfully batty and in particular had an extensive demonology of scoundrel academics who had pilfered, plundered and plagiarised their way to success on the shoulders of more virtuous and honourable scholars. Any associate with such villains was to be condemned and JCB often had to plot a difficult path.

One’s reaction to the letters in this volume will be shaped by the degree of proximity to their author. Family, those who knew him, those who know him only through his works or those who know nothing about him at all will take different things from the book. I am sure that reviewers who fall into the latter category will be astounded by the range of his contacts, the scope of his activities and the quite extraordinary contribution to New Zealand cultural and intellectual life over more than 4 decades. I predict that they will also be entranced by experiencing a literary form that has all but died out.

I must say that as someone who knew him only as a student as I read the letters I often had the slightly uneasy feeling of intruding into the private life of a person I only knew at a distance – almost as though I had broken the appropriate level of formality separating student and teacher. I believe we will all read these letters in different ways and find different little things to fascinate. As an historian aware of the high benchmark that the Cook Journals set into terms of scholarly research editing and annotation, I was fascinated to see the agonising and painstaking work that went into decisions about some of the smallest details of annotation, citation and punctuation.  The letters to RA Skelton in the 1950’s document the effort that went in to getting the first volume right, since it set the form the others would follow.

I’m not sure how large the corpus of letters was from which Tim had to make his selection. It wouldn’t be in his character to leave out any decent gossip or the occasional barbed jab at this idiot or that. It is a finely edited, discriminating edition with great insight into NZ cultural life, nationality, family life in mid-decades of last century and work on the great life task. It stands as a proper companion volume to the 2006 biography but also as one person’s perspective on mid-C20th New Zealand.

The sur-title of the book opens up another dimension. In a letter to Ida Leeson on 18 November 1946 he wrote, “I don’t know how to put this without a terrific lot of explanation, but I think I am becoming a New Zealander.” This appears to be in response to an attempt to get JCB to move to a chair at ANU. It marked a turning point and subsequent attempts to lure him away to Chairs overseas were unsuccessful.  Given his attachment to England, his difficulties in finding or holding a permanent position in NZ in the early 1930’s, his outrage at civil liberties abuses in the 1920’s, 1930s and 1940’s, not to mention some acts of cultural and architectural vandalism this was a fascinating decision.

He did give some explanations to Ida Leeson. By 1946 he was more optimistic about where NZ was heading in terms of art, culture and even government policy. It seemed to have a better idea of its place in the world following the war and was evolving a sustainable and consistent foreign policy. In other letters, love of the NZ landscape and other attachments became clear.

Was there also a sense that, angry, indignant or disgusted though he may have been at some aspects of life here, he had by this time – in modern management terms – begun to own the problems or feel some sort of shame or embarrassment about them?  There were also things in England that angered him, but it was possible to distance himself from these as being the responsibility of others. Would he in England have bothered to write to newspapers about censorship and civil liberties, to the Vice Chancellor of a university about an ugly wall outside Robert Stout building or have devoted so much time to tasks such as saving old St Pauls from the ravages of an Archbishop?

These letters are a rich resource, covering an extraordinary range of topics. The  history of NZ Universities and of Victoria University of Wellington; the evolution of Historical Branch; the significant impact of the WEA on NZ cultural and intellectual life. (I particularly enjoyed the rebellion in  a class in Hampden in Otago in 1930 when one attendee said he wasn’t interested in political science or fascism and why couldn’t they have some lectures on Galsworthy instead, so they had a vote). There are many glimpses of family life and I enjoyed the nice image of Tim strolling down Karori Rd with pet white rats draped all over him. There is a significant amount of material on art, music, literature and architecture.

The concern for civil liberties is also strong and the letters portray the official fears for the left in the 20s, 30’s and 40’s. The analogy with disease is striking. The threat was contagious and literature, lectures, film and even art were the vectors. If one couldn’t understand it that made it doubly insidious and was a sure sign of seditious intention. After a showing at the Film Society of The Russian Road to Life in 1932, the Police turned up the next morning to get a full list of members from the Society secretary. JCB thought it a great joke.

And there are curiosities here. We will all find our own. Perhaps it is the historian in me but Why oh Why in October 1929 in a letter written to his father on the SS Osterley in the English Channel on his way home to NZ, did he start using roman numerals for the months in the dating of letters? This form seemed to be confined to family and friends and it was last used in December 1941 in a letter to his old friend Norman Richmond. Was there significance in its targeted use? Tim may know. Was this some homage to writers he admired – Horace Walpole, Henry James or Harold Lasky?  I haven’t had time to find out. Is there some semiotic puzzle here to be unravelled? And did the tradition died out altogether in 1941? After December 1941 dates are absolutely standardised in form – 7 November 2013 – with one exception. In a letter to Janet Paul in 1967 – a more rushed letter than was characteristic - the date reads “1 November Oh God! 1967”.

This brings me to another curiosity and perhaps again it is one which an historian might be drawn to: the salutations and valedictions in letters. Perhaps spending any time in England with its finer appreciation of form and class creates this sensibility.  My own supervisor in London – a former spitfire pilot during the war and one who indulged – in JCB’s words – in “that Namierite tripe”, always addressed me as Mackay, up until that exact point when I passed my oral examination after which I became David. 

How much more formal it all must have been in London shortly after the First World War. But if you are studying the eighteenth century, and your hero signs himself – as Cook did in that letter I referred to at the beginning “I am with great esteem Dr Sr your humble Servt/ Jams Cook”, is this an occupational hazard or something bound to create ambivalence?

Let’s briefly look at a few and I will begin with the valedictions. “With love”; just “Jack”; “with much love”; “with love to all” (all to the family).  Yours sincerely”; “Yours faithfully”; “We are Sir, Yours faithfully, JC Beaglehole, N.M Richmond”, to the Auckland Star and  Herald; or “I am, etc., J.C. Beaglehole” to the Evening Post.

So far, so good. But then what do we make of  J.C. McBeaglehole” to R.M. Campbell; “Yours in the Lord”, to Campbell in 1927; ‘With a married man’s love Yours in the Lord, JCB”, to Kathleen McKay in 1930; “Yours in His benediction” to Ian Henning in 1932, and these last from an agnostic who disappointed his future in-laws by insisting on marriage in a Registry Office.

Then “J.C. Beaglehole MA. (NZ) Ph.D.(Lond) Senior Lecturer in History, Victoria University College” to niece Mary on her 21st. I’ll return to this one. “Yours (in the English fashion) ever, John Beaglehole”; “Best wishes: indeed very best wishes”, to Helen Wallis; and again “I salute you, with much love,” to whom also signed one letter “Le Comte de Beaglehole”. These are partly I am sure the colonial gently knocking the formalities of the old society.

With the salutations something else begins to creep in.;  My Dear Mummy”; “Dear Daddy”; “My Dear Elsie”; Dear one”.  So far so good. – family again  Then “Honoured Sir” to friend F.A. de la Mare; “My dear, my charming Miss McKay”, to Kathleen Mackay in 1934: “Dear delinquent”, to Helen Wallis in 1963.  All these are jocular if inventive addresses to friends. 

That letter to his niece Mary in January 1948 has another element:  My dear Neece Nie Nei (crossed out); My dear (crossed out); and eventually, My deer Neece.  Of course there is fun in this but also the slight uncertainty about how an uncle should address a niece of that age.  In the changed society after the Second World War what were the appropriate modes of address and relationships to people?

Twenty years later this uncertainty broadens. In a letter from London to Tim and Helen in June 1966 he writes, ‘”I have been reading the Observer & finding it more & more impossible to understand anything about anything…”.  A little later to Mary Boyd, “(England) is no less of a madhouse, & the whole world totally incomprehensible”. In June 1968 to Janet Paul; “I am tempted to say God what a world it is….”.

The last letter of 7 April 1971 is to the artist Bill Sutton, commissioned by the University to do a portrait of JCB on receiving the OM.  He was a very reluctant sitter, thinking the whole enterprise unnecessary. The salutation goes:

“ Dear Bill
      Mr Sutton
      Bill Sutton

and the first line reads, “God knows how I am supposed to address people in the present state of  civilization in N.Z.” In the more ordered world of James Cook, “Your humble obedient servant” would have done just fine.

It gives me great pleasure to launch this book, to congratulate Tim and Fergus again and advise you all to buy it. I hope you will enjoy it, as I did.

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