The Expatriates by Martin Edmond (Bridget Williams Books, 2017), 328 pp., $49.99
People – such as the four men discussed in this book – get passionate about many different things, but what matters most to everyone is life itself – our own lives and those of others – and that’s where biography comes in. Once the genre is in, it stays in, despite the frequent battering it gets from brilliant critical minds. It’s true that biography is neither science nor literature, and yet neither could exist if people didn’t live first; that’s fundamental. Writers like James McNeish and Martin Edmond dive deeply into that underlying reality and report to the rest of us about what they have found. As I read them both I am sometimes troubled by a lack of rigorous scholarship that would characterise comparable kinds of non-fiction, and by the uncertainty of creativity that is also characteristic of biography, but when I have finished reading and have set the book aside, I am filled with gratitude for the enrichment of life that such writing gives its readers.
When McNeish’s own life was in decline he realised that he could not complete all the tasks he had set himself. He had been producing a series of New Zealand biographical studies that were widely read and appreciated. He invited Edmond to his apartment on The Terrace in Wellington and showed him a pile of folders containing notes for future projects. Edmond spent a few days making his decisions and then departed with four of the folders. After a long journey of his own, filled with reading and interviews, he produced a book of four ‘lives’ and has published it as The Expatriates. The title would be more modest and more accurate without the definite article, but it indicates what the four men had in common – they were New Zealanders who spent most of their lives outside New Zealand. Apart from that, they were diverse in character and interests; this may not help lend unity to the book but it gives us what we are looking for – the passion of the lived life.
Edmond begins with Harold Williams (1876–1928) for chronological reasons, but fortuitously this restless traveller and investigator also illustrates most clearly the concern for common humanity underlying all the idiosyncrasy that drives the biographical project. In his studies of human diversity, as a journalist and independent scholar Williams was aided by a remarkable linguistic ability as well as by his moral and physical courage. He is said to have acquired skills in some sixty languages from all continents – though such numbers are always open to question because of uncertainty in distinguishing languages from their dialects and neighbours. More significant is that Williams was able to speak with innumerable people in their own tongues – from Leo Tolstoy, whom he visited in his Russian home, to Polynesian villagers.
As a child and a young man Williams moved around New Zealand a great deal. He failed to obtain a university degree (because of maths) and worked as a teacher and as an ‘almost manic’ pacifistic Methodist preacher and promising journalist. Everywhere he went he had a foreign grammar in his pocket and he picked up languages, for example, on the Northland gum fields as easily as in his later travels abroad. Love did not treat him well, and he decided to go to Germany to study languages, supported by influential people who believed in him. With his pockets almost empty, he studied Sanskrit, the classics and Slavonic languages in Berlin, and wrote a dissertation on the grammar of Ilocano. Personally, he was liked by almost everyone.
His financial fortunes changed when friends proposed him as Russian correspondent for The Times, and over many years he lived mainly, but by no means exclusively, as a journalist in Russia. He was a constant traveller. Martin Edmond skilfully interweaves his travels with historical events, and indeed, Williams seemed to have been consistently on the spot when revolutions and other upheavals occurred, retaining a broad understanding of the changing world and talking with leaders and ‘ordinary people’ of all kinds. Whether in Berlin, Moscow, Petersburg, Constantinople or Paris, he shared his life with journalists and intellectuals of many kinds and nations. His partner was a brilliant Russian woman whose life deserves attention for its own sake.
Edmond fills this outline with a wealth of vivid, often surprising details. Harold Williams never lost his uncomplicated belief in Christianity, acquired from his father, and on his deathbed in London he was received into the Russian Orthodox Church.
The lives and achievements of journalists and linguists, however distinguished, are rarely remembered widely in later years. Academics fare only a little better, although the best are still read long after their prime. Of Edmond’s four protagonists, the best-known today is probably the great historian of ancient Rome, Sir Ronald Syme (1903–1989). His parents were from the provincial elite – his father a Taranaki barrister, his mother ‘a society girl from Auckland’ – which seems to echo in the title of one of his books, Colonial Elites, Roman, Spain and the Americas (1958), and he never lost his sense of New Zealandness as he rose to the highest ranks of British and European scholarship.
Syme’s masterpiece is generally acknowledged to be The Roman Revolution (1939), perhaps the best twentieth-century account of the shift from Republic to Empire after the death of Julius Caesar. The date of publication is significant, since Syme gained insights into Roman history from observing the rise of fascism in Europe. However, he saw himself as a narrative historian, basing his work on an account of events rather than political theory. He followed the method of prosopography – a kind of group biography tracing the influence on events of families and personal inter-relationships – which again might have evolved from his childhood awareness of the power of elites. The strengths of his work are inseparable from its weaknesses, since his book defines itself from its own historical position as much as from the history it discusses.
He was also an admirer of the Roman narrative historian Tacitus, and his next major work was a two-volume study of Tacitus (1958), including the most thorough examination of sources and background ever conducted. Syme shared his enthusiasm for Tacitus with the eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon, with whom he liked to compare himself. He followed his Tacitus studies with an equally authoritative account of Sallust in 1964.
Edmond’s own narrative makes it clear that Syme was a man of passion rather than a secluded academic. To some extent he was an outsider, as colonials tend to be, and his loves and friendships were often outside the academy. This did not prevent him from enjoying a very distinguished career in Oxbridge and British institutions. He achieved a comfortable retirement in Wolfson College, continuing to produce outstanding books. His private life also had its interesting aspects and is examined no less sympathetically than his public career in Martin Edmond’s colourful account.
The public image of John Platts-Mills (1906–2001) might be described as less ‘respectable’ than that of Ronald Syme – or simply as radically left-wing. His beginnings were no less brilliant, with a first-class degree in law from Victoria University and a Rhodes Scholarship. He travelled to Britain with his friend, the historian Andrew Sharp. According to Edmond he was not a scholar, but he shone as a public speaker and debater, and he was more interested and more able in the practical business of criminal law. He also campaigned for trade union and human rights throughout the Commonwealth. He excelled in rowing and boxing as well as playing hockey, lacrosse and water-polo.
In a distinguished career as a defence lawyer, Platts-Mills spoke on behalf of the Kray brothers and other notorious criminals. When war broke out he joined the air force but was told shortly afterwards that ‘his services were no longer required’, presumably because he was said to have communist sympathies. Indeed, he spoke often on behalf of the Soviet Union. In 1945 he became a Labour MP in the British parliament, but was ejected from the party in 1950 for supporting the Italian Socialist Party. To the end of his life he worked and supported ‘ordinary chaps’, dying at 95 surrounded by family.
Martin Edmond’s fourth biographical sketch provides another contrast. Joseph Burney (Joe) Trapp (1925–2005) was an antiquarian, librarian and university professor who joined the Warburg Institute and ultimately succeeded Ernst Gombrich as its director. His story is quieter but no less remarkable than that of the others.
This is a densely written, richly informative book and would have benefitted from the inclusion of an index. I also often missed the precision of footnotes to the many quotations and references. Narrative ‘Notes on Sources’ are not a substitute for that. But Martin Edmond is to be thanked for introducing us to (or reminding us of) some remarkable personalities, whose New Zealand characteristics continually emerged in their colourful and distinguished careers in Europe.
NELSON WATTIE is a Wellington-based writer, editor and translator. His most recent work is Karl Wolfskehl Poetry and Exile: Letters from New Zealand 1938–1948.