Downfall: The destruction of Charles Mackay by Paul Diamond (Massey University Press, 2022), 327pp, $45
Triumphantly juxtaposing Edwardian Whanganui and Weimar Berlin in granular detail by retailing the life experiences of an apparently minor historical figure requires considerable skill. Paul Diamond’s Downfall: The destruction of Charles Mackay is the absorbing study of one man and his peregrinations through these two vastly different territories: one repressed and provincial, the other hedonistic and metropolitan.
Diamond’s book could easily be referred to as a work of ‘psychogeography’, to use the term coined by members of the Situationist International in France. In 1955, in his Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, Guy Debord defined psychogeography as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. In his 1961 film, A Critique of Separation, Guy Debord stated: ‘The sectors of a city … are decipherable, but the personal meaning they have for us is incommunicable, as is the secrecy of private life in general, regarding which we possess nothing but pitiful documents’.
Diamond has pored over city street plans, plans of particular buildings and many photographs, as well as the ‘pitiful documents’ of other archival material such as personal letters, oral histories and newspaper clippings, in his explorations of Whanganui and Berlin, and joined up both places through the saga of Charles Mackay. The book, then, is the product of a search for traces of an individual who ends up being seen at an angle, or several angles. Mackay was Mayor of Whanganui (or Wanganui as it was then known) until a homosexual scandal in 1920 saw him charged with attempted murder, found guilty and imprisoned. After six years in various New Zealand jails, his self-imposed exile in Britain and Continental Europe ultimately led to him working as a reporter, assisting the celebrated Daily Mail journalist, Sefton Delmar, amid the cultural and political turmoil of the short-lived Weimar Republic (1918–1933). His abrupt death occurred during a street riot in May 1929, when he was accidentally shot by Berlin police in the ongoing chaos of what became known as ‘Bloody May’.
Diamond plots Mackay’s life and movements through Whanganui and Berlin as a pairing of strangely luminous moments in their history, contrasting private life against political drama. His research into New Zealand’s secretive and constrained homosexual culture of the early twentieth century is revealingly contrasted with Berlin’s international notoriety as a mecca for diverse gender expression. Remarkably, Mackay himself is exposed as a nexus of various forces whose connections and conjunctions are still resounding a century later.
Mackay was Whanganui’s mayor from 1906 until 1920. His tenure, which took in the early years of the Art Deco movement in New Zealand, included numerous farsighted and enduring achievements: the Dublin Street Bridge, improved roading, an electric tramways system (the first outside New Zealand’s larger cities) and the Sarjeant Gallery. He was a lawyer, interested in the arts, who married into a prominent Whanganui family, with a daughter and a son, but he had already sought covert treatment for his homosexual impulses.
His laudable civic career came to its end in a flurry of gunshots in a first-floor Ridgeway Street law office. A returned serviceman, D’Arcy Cresswell, was found severely wounded, and Mackay was charged with attempted murder. The details soon emerged. On his first visit to the city in May 1920, Cresswell had been introduced to the mayor through a cousin. Shared meals and private meetings ensued in rapid succession, culminating in a tour through the new art gallery and a visit to Mackay’s office where Mackay allegedly made ‘a certain disgusting suggestion’ to Cresswell.
Cresswell reacted with vehemence, rejecting the idea, and insisted the mayor resign from his public position or he would expose him. The discussion continued over subsequent meetings between the pair as Mackay pleaded on behalf of his family, his income and his civic career. Finally, on Saturday, 15 May 1920, an argument culminated with Cresswell demanding another signed confession, whereupon Mackay shot him with a pistol. It was not a fatal wound.
There are many obscurities and discrepancies about the events surrounding the shooting. Diamond explores them in forensic detail. Who was the mysterious ‘cousin’ that Cresswell was seeing in Whanganui? He was someone whose name is not known and who gave no written statement to police, despite his role as initial facilitator and his crucial knowledge of the events. It is not even certain the police interviewed him.
What was the purpose of Cresswell’s ‘exposure’ of the mayor? Was it circumstantial, the result of reactive moral outrage? Cresswell was primarily homosexual and had an active sexual life and would continue to have one. Were there public forces in Whanganui opposed to the mayor who found their strangely willing cat’s paw in Cresswell? Was the Whanganui branch of the RSA upset at Mackay’s actions around the visit of the Prince of Wales and the ongoing activities of the progressive mayor? Was Cresswell employed—or even induced—to do the ‘dirty work’? What were his personal motives? (Cresswell, always a controversial if not perverse figure, would later go on to establish himself as a flamboyant minor poet of uncertain talent, who hobnobbed with some of the Bloomsbury set in London, and who also became a somewhat dogmatic advocate for literary nationalism, earning the endorsement of Allen Curnow.)
Diamond canvases the circumstances around Mackay’s and Cresswell’s interactions as best can be done a century later without direct witnesses by using surviving hard evidence. The writing of Downfall took a decade, and the fruits of this careful detective work are everywhere evident, nowhere more so than in Diamond’s patient exploration of the intricacies of these few days in May 1920, long obscured by social attitudes, family shame, civic pride and fear of personal exposure. So the book is more than just an exercise in social history, it’s almost an exorcism, as the author moves to uncover various truths. Diamond explores the environment itself and reveals the historical riverine townscape as a kind of claustrophobic moodscape in all its reality.
In true Situationist tradition, he surveys Whanganui’s broad avenues and parks, the architecture and civic planning. He chases ghosts by looking at what has survived. Pacing the surviving rooms, Diamond searches for bullet holes and examines Mackay’s few remaining personal possessions, those remnants that had escaped family disposal. It is a progress through varied ambiences, linked by the phantom movements and the diverse motives of a long-gone time. Diamond’s book is as much about Whanganui during and after the Great War as it is about one of its prominent citizens.
Even so, Whanganui is only one part of Downfall. The time Mackay spent in various New Zealand prisons after his apprehension and sentencing is examined, and Diamond documents the penal conditions of the 1920s and their effects on the former mayor, using the files held by Archives New Zealand/Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga. There are personal letters from his prison cell, Mackay’s official complaints, his punishments, and psychological assessments by individuals who were not necessarily neutral. The comparisons with Oscar Wilde are neatly sketched.
Mackay also found himself disbarred from practising law and declared bankrupt. His wife divorced him—with his assent—and changed her surname and that of their children. After six years of imprisonment, he boarded a boat on his first day of freedom and left New Zealand forever.
Mackay’s destination was London, although this city ultimately became a mere interregnum as he recovered from his arduous prison sentence. He met other expatriate New Zealanders there, including the homosexual New Zealand writer Hector Bolitho, who recorded their meetings in his autobiographical writings with oblique references to their shared proclivities. Mackay’s wanderings then took him to Berlin, where he lived for five-and-a-half crowded months, beginning in November 1928. He taught English and worked as a stringer for British newspapers. Diamond follows in his footsteps and even uncovers his report of the Rhinelander’s Costume Ball in Cologne, written anonymously by ‘a New Zealander in Berlin’ and published in the Manawatu Standard. Mackay found the city immediately agreeable and he extended his residency.
Berlin was Babylon, wicked and neon-lit, Europe’s leading artistic centre at the time, feverish in its intensity, still gripped by the consequences of losing the War. It features in Alfred Döblin’s innovative and montage-like 1929 novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, as well as in early works of Christopher Isherwood, such as Goodbye to Berlin. The many important movies made in the city during the Weimar Republic era include Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, Pabst’s 1929 Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) and von Sternberg’s 1930 Der Blaue Engel (Blue Angel). Both the Bauhaus art movement (radical styles in architecture, design, photography) and German Expressionist painting (libidinal works by Max Beckman and Otto Dix) were at their peak in Germany’s capital city. For the former mayor of Whanganui, taking the pulse of its urbanity, the city must have been a dizzying experience.
There were other factors as well. As Isherwood wrote of himself using the third-person: ‘To Christopher, Berlin meant boys.’ All the pensions in which Mackay lived, Diamond notes, were located near the city’s gay area—then, as now—in Schöneberg. Diamond describes Berlin’s exuberant sexual life fulsomely, showcasing its social life of balls, bars, publications and manners. There were the gemütlichkeit boy-bars, like Isherwood’s ‘Cosy Corner’. Some nightclubs and cabarets were entirely focused on gay or lesbian custom. Transvestitism was a fairly common manifestation of daily life, as well as featuring frequently in movies. Sex work was often a simple way of increasing income for all genders in a relatively tolerant society. How Mackay approached the rainbow diversity of Berlin’s sexual life is mostly unknown, although there seem to be hints in his newspaper stories.
Written in May 1929 and published a few days after his death under his own name in the New Zealand Herald, the Dominion and the Whanganui Herald, one of Mackay’s final stories was a perceptive and entertaining account of his meetings with several young male German workers—soldiers, students and tailor’s assistants—where he canvasses their opinions on a variety of matters and morals; and draws conclusions. Whatever purpose was behind his acquaintance with them, no detail escaped Mackay’s observation. Diamond quotes from this article liberally, but it deserves to have been reprinted in full, even as an appendix.
In this despatch, Mackay emphasises the political tensions of the country. ‘Young Germany’, he writes wryly and possibly with innuendo, ‘is liable to go off at half-cock.’ Then, somewhat surprisingly, in a piece written in 1929, he outlines a complete history of future German expansionism under Hitler and the Nazi Party: the incorporation of all surrounding territories that could be considered Germanic (Czechoslovakia, Austria, etc), the ‘overlordship of all countries further east including Poland’, and the reestablishment of German influence in Russia and the exploitation of resources there. There is even talk of settling accounts with France over Alsace-Lorraine and regaining ‘Charlemagne’s Empire’.
Diamond does not pause to sufficiently emphasise the prescience of Mackay’s words. There were few people who spoke with such foresight about German intentions at the time, let alone outlining the future Führer’s strategy and ambitions with precision. It is more than ‘pretty accurate’. It is chillingly exact.
The circumstances of Mackay’s death during a confrontation involving the Berlin police and Communists present as many complications, as did the accounts of the meetings, the shooting and the wounding of Cresswell in Whanganui a decade earlier. Again, with his own pacing of the locations, then with the aid of surviving photographs, maps and statements, Diamond clarifies Mackay’s movements at the police barricades on that particular Berlin night.
The city’s police force made numerous separate statements about the fatal shooting of a foreign correspondent, and these are situated and compared. The incident was also mentioned in both Australian and New Zealand newspapers, but ultimately, the conclusion has to be it was an event where one man was at the wrong place at the wrong time—a phrase that could easily be used as a summary for all of Mackay’s life from the perspective of the future.
Diamond’s account and examination of McKay’s biography and downfall is always sturdily functional, piling on the detail. Whether flair and polish should be demanded of a historical account is debatable, although, as every barrister knows, it is certainly a factor in the art of persuasion. Diamond works from the collection and weight of his evidence to make his case. This is double-edged; he certainly has the material, but sometimes its bright glimpses and vivid perceptions are lost in the mass of particulars.
Chronology and arrangement inevitably present issues for every factual and biographical writer. Diamond has solved it by dashing and darting between time periods and individual lives, but the success of this method is questionable. When his decisions obscure the narrative, as they sometimes do, then this is cause for complaint. Some of the important features of D’Arcy Cresswell’s actions are revealed much later in the book than seems logical. Cresswell is a crucial player, the prime mover, an agent of chaos. His true perfidy, requiring the highlighting of particular facts of his life, personality and background, needed to be explored earlier.
Yet despite these reservations about the way the narrative unfolds, Downfall remains a crucial resource for any future examination of Mackay’s life and, too, for any historical study of the evolution of New Zealand social and sexual attitudes. As a historical psychogeography of Whanganui, Diamond’s work is original and essential, but by expanding his subject to Berlin, Downfall has more than purely parochial interest. It is a book of international importance.
DAVID HERKT is an Auckland-based writer and former TV producer. His literary and journalistic work has been widely published. He has been a winner of the Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition and his TV productions have gained two Media and Television Awards: Best Documentary Series and Best Children’s Programme.