A Roderick Finlayson Reader edited by Roger Hickin (Cold Hub Press, 2020), 252pp, $42.50; Roderick Finlayson: A Man from Another World a biography by Roger Hickin (Cold Hub Press, 2022), 288pp, $42.50
Roderick Finlayson was described by the poet Kevin Ireland in a poem as ‘a saintly, smiling man’, who ‘often troubled our consciences’, although he was ‘sometimes wrong’. In these two books, A Roderick Finlayson Reader and Roderick Finlayson: A Man from Another World, the indefatigable publisher, biographer and literary resurrectionist Roger Hickin makes it clear he does not support the argument placing Finlayson on the wrong side of history, and as an anachronism. Finlayson, Hicken argues, was not only from another time, he was ahead of his time, for society has moved to recognising and embracing mātauranga Māori, Māori indigenous knowledge, as ecologically sound in an age of climate change and global warming.
Roderick Finlayson was born in Auckland in 1904 and he died in Auckland in 1992. The covers of both books, companion volumes, show him in black and white photographs looking a bit like a craggy old tuatara who has seen it all, an enduring witness to the passing parade of life in twentieth-century New Zealand. For Finlayson, writing was a holy vocation and his mission in life was to provide a corrective or alternative to the officially sanctioned narrative of progress and prosperity in the best of all possible worlds.
A Reader, a miscellany of stories, essays, memoirs, poems and letters—a kind of selected neglected—establishes Finlayson as a polemicist, a social crusader, a humourist, a social realist and a didactic fictioneer, with an ability to turn a phrase as neatly as a farmer’s plough turns the soil. His letters to editors of a variety of national publications and newspapers over the decades offer proof positive that his sympathies—and his animus—remained consistent from his youth, ‘concerning the suppression of the Mau (independence) movement in Samoa, the injustices and terrorism by the British in Ireland and the wrongs suffered by the Māori yesterday and today’.
In other letters he rails against the Vietnam War, the Springbok tours backed by the apartheid regime in South Africa, and environmental pollution. In 1978, he wrote to the editor of the NZ Listener: ‘Māori friends of mine … explained that now all the surrounding countryside around their ancestral village was Pākehā land … poisonous run-off from the large-holdings and industrial wastes poured into nearby streams had ruined the food supply …’
Finlayson, then, was a romantic, a bolshie figure, a kind of proto-hippie whose ideal was the agrarian-based community that ‘respected nature’ and followed ‘the values of the peasant economy as practised by the pioneers’. Doubtless he would have voted for the Green Party today.
Finlayson was brought up in a household of women—his mother, his aunt, his grandmother, his great-grandmother—after his father, a problem gambler, absconded to California. Theirs was a large house, with many visitors, and the family reasonably prosperous and property-owning. Rents from these properties helped support the aspirant writer when he began to eke out a living as a freelance journalist and fiction writer early in the 1930s, after working at various jobs in the 1920s.
Essentially, Finlayson was formed by and belongs to the era of the heroic proletarian writer, alienated from crass commercialism and the capitalist profit motive by idealism. He made common cause with a number of other New Zealand writers of a similar persuasion in the 1930s. Hickin includes a number of Finlayson’s reminiscences of these figures in A Reader, such as a profile of poet R.A.K. Mason in which Finlayson extols Mason’s ‘fire and compassion’, his ‘cry for justice’, his ‘hatred of humbug and hypocrisy’. Finlayson also recalls his first meeting with Frank Sargeson, in the mid-1930s in Sargeson’s bach at Takapuna: ‘dressed in khaki shirt and shorts … he reminded me of a boy scout.’
Finlayson, with his semi-socialist beliefs and anti-Establishment views and his commitment to a home-grown literature, was part of the literary movement that sprang up principally around little magazines and small press publications during the years of the Great Depression. A roll call of the figures associated with this movement would include Allen Curnow, Denis Glover, A.R.D. Fairburn, Robin Hyde, Charles Brasch, and the publishers Bob Lowry and Ron Holloway. It was basically a loose association of like-minded literary radicals and rebels that encouraged manifesto-makers, pamphleteers and experimenters. But it also needed an inspirational figurehead, and Allen Curnow identified the somewhat cranky poet and contrarian D’Arcy Cresswell, recently returned from England, as the movement’s guru. Cresswell, who saw himself as one ‘anointed to the ways of bardic prophecy’ in the manner of Percy Bysshe Shelley, became around this time a mentor to Roderick Finlayson also, serving as a kind of creative writing teacher and encouraging him to produce more short stories and fiction.
If New Zealand was a tightly buttoned-up, insecure and provincial society in the interwar years, one regulated by genteel wowsers, and one whose approved literature favoured what Denis Glover called ‘the daisied path of pallid good taste’, it had another side: one more bohemian and free-spirited. Rather reminiscent of a swagman in the old-time, on-the-road tradition, D’Arcy Cresswell was emblematic of the respectable-society-refuseniks, and for New Zealand literature he fulfilled the need for a mystical and oracular prophet. In 1972, Finlayson was commissioned to produce a critical monograph of D’Arcy Cresswell for the World Authors series, published by Twayne Publishers of New York.
But Finlayson’s reminiscences of Cresswell provided in A Reader present not so much an heroic figurehead as a comical daydreamer, hopeless at practical tasks such as farm labouring: ‘Once in fine weather I spent a week or two with D’Arcy looking for work in the hay fields around Auckland … we didn’t find much … D’Arcy kept waking me up to look at the stars while he quoted Homer.’
Hickin identifies Finlayson’s two main literary legacies as, first, his comic rural writing, exemplified by the sketches and episodes in his novel Tidal Creek (1948) and, second, his stories of rural Māori in the collections Brown Man’s Burden (1938) and Sweet Beulah Land (1942), which essentially are about how institutionalised land theft created a caste of the dispossessed from which attendant tragedies followed.
Tidal Creek features Uncle Ted, an eccentric, smallholdings farmer clinging to the old ways, as seen through the eyes of his young nephew Jake. This structure allows Finlayson to mine a vein of rich vernacular comedy that links him in New Zealand with such writers as Frank S. Anthony, Ronald Hugh Morrieson, Barry Crump and Frank Sargeson, and overseas with Steele Rudd, Henry Lawson and John Steinbeck. Finlayson’s Uncle Ted, with his good-natured naivety and spectacular drollery, more than holds his own in this company, and one wishes Hickin had selected more examples of Finlayson’s comic riffs, as opposed to the examples of dated didacticism and subsumed social critique.
Finlayson’s gift for satire and ironic understatement is also exercised in stories about Māori rural life in the 1920s and 1930s, but with mixed results today, as perceptions, attitudes and realities have shifted. Finlayson captures a sense of the authoritarian orthodoxies back then, which turned a blind eye to Māori land appropriation and exploitation, but often his Māori protagonists now seem like overdetermined signifiers; they are fatalistic, doomed characters, their lives warped by the Pākehā justice system and a generalised, state-endorsed racism.
As a child, then a teenager, then a young man, Finlayson regularly visited a small Māori coastal community in the Bay of Plenty each summer and was accepted as part of Hone Ngawhika’s family. Tagging along to ‘the smug little town of Tauranga’ on a day trip, Roddie witnessed racism as the family were refused service or treated as second-class citizens at various establishments: ‘it was very different if we went to Whakatane (sic), but even there the movie theatre was segregated.’
In the Māori resurgence of the 1970s, Finlayson’s stories were criticised by Māori novelist Patricia Grace, and others, for the way his Māori characters speak, as it turns them into caricatures. Finlayson rebutted this, claiming he was faithfully representing the slangy lingo of the day, a kind of creole or pidgin, forced on tangata whenua who were actively discouraged from speaking their own language.
If Finlayson’s renditions of Māori voices of those days are a little too jarring in their realism—this was back-blocks speech as opposed to that ‘of those educated at such schools as Te Aute, St Stephens, Queen Victoria’—they also serve as reminders of oppressions past. The traumas of colonisation enacted on the landscape—the draining of swamps, the burning of bushland—a kind of holocaust were also enacted on people, on the way they spoke, and traces remain, as a form of resistance, in some communities today.
Finlayson, brought up as Irish Protestant, converted to Catholicism in 1947 and thereafter took to describing himself as ‘a Christian communist’. He believed not only in the necessity of fighting social evils but also in the possibility of redemptive grace. His Māori stories are allegories: they often end badly for his protagonists because that was part of the consequences of the great Pākehā land grab.
DAVID EGGLETON is a writer and poet living in Ōtepoti Dunedin.