Journals, 1938–1945, by Charles Brasch, transcribed by Margaret Scott, annotated by Andrew Parsloe, with an introductory essay by Rachel Barrowman, (University of Otago Press, 2013), 646 pp., $60
Some 530 pages of this compact-sized but thick hardback consist of Charles Brasch’s complete journals from July 1938 – when he passed through the United States on his way back to England after a 6-month visit to New Zealand – to 10 December 1945, when he shipped out from Liverpool on the Themistocles to settle permanently in New Zealand. In between comes the whole earth-shaking panorama of World War II, inescapably the dominating context and mise-en-scène of the volume. Before considering the contents of the journals I will briefly describe the scholarly apparatus which has been assembled to support the entries and which greatly assists the reader’s reception of them.
Following a Foreword by Librarian Sharon Dell, of Hocken Collections (where the original journals are deposited), a note of acknowledgment from Margaret Scott – who undertook the immense labour of transcribing from Brasch’s minuscule but admirably legible hand-writing – describes the journals as the ‘intimate conversation’ of a ‘highly intelligent, sensitive and literate person’ for whom ‘communication with others was not easy’. She rightly emphasises Brasch’s frankness both about himself and the myriad people he encounters in daily life.
A headnote to Abbreviations explains that people mentioned in the journals, often by first names only, are linked by a tiny superscript number each time their name occurs to an extensive Dramatis Personae occupying more than 60 pages, which gives biographical details for nearly 300 relatives, friends, colleagues, writers and artists, people in the news and casual encounters. Though extremely private, Brasch was also surprisingly gregarious. These entries, by Andrew Parsloe, a retired Dunedin librarian, are a major piece of scholarship in themselves and are an essential tool for keeping track of Brasch’s extensive acquaintance. Each entry lists all pages on which a particular person is mentioned, though the absence of a subject index means that topics not tied to persons – for example: poetry, pacifism, homosexuality, air raids etc. – are less easy to locate, which is unfortunate. An extensive chronology partly compensates for this absence by occasionally noting important entries on topics such as those mentioned above. A family tree is helpful given the number and complexity of Brasch’s relatives; there is also a Select Bibliography. Rachel Barrowman’s able 12-page essay is a general introduction to Brasch, rather than to this volume of the journals in particular.
Charles Brasch’s reputation is largely a New Zealand affair; his books were published here (and not elsewhere) and he is less well known outside this country than, say, Curnow, Baxter or Frame, among near contemporaries. To New Zealanders, Brasch’s primary audience, the most obviously relevant part of his life happened after his return to this country in 1946 to establish Landfall (which he edited, 1947–66), and his intimate involvement with several generations of writers, artists and intellectuals up and down the country who contributed to the periodical. For this reason publication of later volumes of the journals, should this eventuate, is bound to be of absorbing interest to anyone concerned with New Zealand in the middle decades of the last century. But is that the case with the present volume, concerned as it is with the minutiae of Brasch’s daily life in England during the war years? The answer to this question has to be a resounding yes, for a number of reasons.
First, biographical: Brasch spent almost a third of his life (1927–45, from the age of 17 to the age of 36), away from New Zealand, and if we are interested in him biographically we need to know what he was up to in the war years which corresponded to his early thirties. He was in Honolulu en route to New Zealand when war broke out in 1939 and made a conscious and brave decision to return to England and spend the war years there. As it happens, there are no journal entries between February 1939 and January 1940 so we cannot learn the process by which he arrived at this decision.
Anyone interested in Brasch will be fascinated by his wrestling with the rights and wrongs of pacifism, and with issues of sexuality (less of this than might be expected, perhaps), and whether to stay in England after the war or return to New Zealand. Other topics which loom significantly through the Journals are the painful matter of his sister Lesley’s early death; his involvement with the Abbey School and his difficult relations with its founder, Lissie (Mrs Lister-Kaye); his closest male friendships with John Crockett and Colin Roberts; his long, and ultimately rather futile, engagement with ‘Englishing’ the book of Alfred Cianchi – an Italian scientist, inventor and visionary; his time spent with pacifist communities in Cornwall and Gloucestershire; his activities as a fire watcher during the Blitz; the necessarily vague references to his secret job – mainly involving code-breaking – at the Foreign Office; his close involvement, including touring, with the Adelphi and Compass Players and his efforts to write theatre scripts for them; his ongoing, unwavering pursuit of the vocation of poet. These are some biographical threads which recur often.
Secondly, although Brasch is fully engaged with English life in its many aspects, there is also much ‘New Zealand’ content in these journals. Brasch was obsessed with his memories of New Zealand, the people he knew, the life (natural, social, cultural, political) that existed there and whether he should embrace or repudiate it. Many of his friends in England are expatriate New Zealanders, such as D’Arcy Cresswell, James Courage, Robin Hyde, Jack Bennett, Bettina Hamilton, the de Beers and other relatives – all of whom matter greatly to him. Others, brought to England by the war, become part of his circle, including his relative Tim Thompson, a merchant seaman, and Denis Glover, who regularly stayed with Brasch when on leave from the Navy. He is also constantly in touch with relatives and friends back home such as his father and grandfather, Ursula Bethell, Rodney Kennedy, Toss Woollaston, Allen Curnow and others. He keenly follows the whereabouts and fate of friends such as Ian Milner, John Mulgan and James Bertram. The question of his personal relations with New Zealand – should he go or should he stay – is never far from his mind. New Zealanders will find plenty to keep them interested in all this.
Thirdly, there is an inherent fascination for readers in living through World War II day by day, month by month, year by year with the same sensitive and intelligent observer, responding immediately to the defeats and disasters on the continent, the air raids on London, the plight of the Jews in Europe, the stirring events in Russia, North Africa and Italy, the alarming V1 raids, the tedium and restrictions of civilian experience as the war grinds on, the gradual emergence of hope as the war news at last turns positive. To experience the whole complex spectacle of the war from the singular perspective of one poet and civil servant in London is quite fascinating.
Finally, I have chosen a few randomly selected topics to convey something of the flavour of Brasch’s journal writing. As mentioned above there is surprisingly little about sexuality in the journals. On one occasion he discusses his feelings for a woman he has been corresponding with:
Today suddenly I found myself wishing to be in love with her … But there’s nothing that shows it. Certainly Freda is simpatico; I can talk to her readily: & I think she feels the same towards me. But more than that? It is never women who attract me physically: & I do not think she does … (265–66)
The most extensive discussion of homosexuality (a word which appears seldom) comes from conversation with James Courage, himself homosexual. They discuss the possibility of a novel of homosexual love (such as Courage would eventually write), and reflect on whether the love in poems by Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Sappho is homosexual or not:
Would it be possible to write love-poetry of this kind, & could I? Jim suggested. I doubted it. But … the idea came to me of a series of poems about homosexual love, the Römische Elegian [Goethe] being my example: to be as open as they are, & to deal with the subject from different angles, in different moods. I was filled with excitement & made a few notes; but could I ever carry out such a project? (241–42)
Nothing further is heard of this project. One further passage on sexuality, non-specific as to gender, dates from November 1942:
[I]t would not be possible, so far as I know myself at present, for me to sleep with someone I did not love. It is not that I am without lust; the body dominates much of my seeing & my thought … but my lust remains without an object if strong physical affinity, first, does not draw me towards someone … (351)
And, to end, a few passages relating to meetings with Denis Glover between 1942 and 1944 which brought to a head Brasch’s recurrent preoccupation about whether or not to return to New Zealand, and ultimately decisively shaped his future. 28 March 1942:
[I] said to Denis that after the war I would have to settle down & get a job, & felt that perhaps I ought to go back to NZ. He thought too that I should; mentioned the case of abler men, Beaglehole for one, who stayed on from a sense of duty though partly wasted in NZ. The question of what I am to do after the war has been haunting me for some months now … (325)
Brasch even toyed with the idea of becoming a printer and seeking employment at the Caxton Press. But within months their discussions had segued into the more promising direction of a new periodical. It is interesting to read how close their initial discussions came to Landfall as it finally emerged. 3 May 1943:
Yesterday we discussed the possibility of a review – quarterly or thereabouts – in NZ, aiming at the standards of the Dublin Review & the Criterion. Denis favourable … I outlined my ideas that it should be carried on by a small group, preferably close friends … that it should pay for contributions, which is the only way of getting a high standard … that it must be distinctly of NZ without being parochial … It should attempt to explore, in Holcroft’s phrase, ‘the local nature of reality’. (384–85)
Although Brasch and Glover got on well, in some ways it was an attraction of opposites; entries after meetings with Glover often focussed on their differences. On 9 August 1943 he reports a conversation with Jack Bennett (after lunching with Glover):
That night Jack and I discussed NZ and Denis at length: the inadequacy of the attitude & aims, the lack of ideals, of Denis and his circle, which is typical of so many intelligent NZers – Curnow, Mason, Fairburn all show this lack: & their lives & aims, as I see them through Denis’s eyes when he talks about Chch & Curnow, are of a spiritual barrenness which terrifies me. On the other hand they have great realism, honesty & energy: yet these are not enough. Then I told Jack about Miss Bethell’s circle, who are not circumscribed in this way – Toss, Rodney, George Gabites & the rest; & they are no less genuinely of NZ. (403)
Some of Brasch’s journal writing is attractively vigorous as in this description of 8 November 1943:
Denis turned up last night; his first leave since Jack was here. When he first arrives from sea he is like a whale coming to the surface – blows, rolls about uncouthly, churning up the sea, & takes a day or two to settle down. (417)
On 26 August 1944, Brasch finally booked a passage to New Zealand, and wrote:
I am resolved to go & stay, or try to, & start the periodical which is now much in my mind. The resolution has formed almost of itself, like a crystal in a dark cave. Denis’s approval, Miss Bethell’s exhortations, have hastened the process, together with my own perception that I have nothing to do here but may have much to do there. (498)
These fragments are just a taste of the riches to be found in these absorbing pages.
PETER SIMPSON is an Auckland-based writer, reviewer, editor and cultural critic. The author of a number of books and the former Managing Editor of Holloway Press, he has contributed reviews, articles and catalogue essays on many New Zealand artists and writers to a wide variety of publications.