In the summer of 2013 I received a letter from James McNeish. He said he had a proposition to put to me—but I would have to come to Wellington, New Zealand, to find out what it was. I’m not an especially busy person at the best of times but just then I was about to submit the dissertation for my doctorate; and also to begin tutoring a course at the University of Western Sydney. When did the semester begin: the last week of February? I looked at the calendar. Maybe someone else could take my first week of tutorials if the trans-Tasman trip spilled over into the beginning of term? I called the course convener and explained the situation. She said it was fine. She said go. ‘Writing Ecologies’ is the name of the course she, with another, devised and teaches. Whatever James was proposing would fit—conceptually at least. It would be a writing ecology.
I first encountered James in 2006 at the Going West Festival in Titirangi. We were both guests there and by some chance staying in the same place. Owen Marshall might have been there as well. Anyway, when I met James, he seemed cross. It was breakfast time and he was wearing a woollen suit and a loosely knotted red tie. Why haven’t we met before? he asked. I didn’t know the answer to that, and didn’t really know why it should even have been a question. It just seemed like happenstance. James had by then written both Dance of the Peacocks and its sequel, The Sixth Man; the book he was representing, which he sent me a copy of afterwards, was the second volume of a three part memoir: An Albatross Too Many. The inscription upon the fly leaf reads: After a delayed meeting. So there was a puzzle to solve.
I’d become aware of McNeish the writer many years before, in Auckland in the early 1970s. There was an enthusiasm for his novel, Mackenzie. Michael Volkerling, who was my sister’s boyfriend, as well as being editor of, I think, the Post Primary Teachers Association Journal, asked me to review it for the publication. I still have the inscribed hardback copy he and my sister gave to me but, although I read and loved the book, I didn’t know how to write about it and no review ever eventuated. I remember the foolscap page with the title and a single typed sentence at the top and then no more. I was too young, too unconfident. I told this story to James over breakfast. He made a face. An American publisher, he said, rejected that book because he felt it lacked ‘narrative drive’. Then he laughed. It didn’t occur to him that I wasn’t trying for ‘narrative drive’.
He was good and easy to talk to but I hadn’t properly kept up with his work; so it was perplexing to find that he knew mine. Over the course of the conversations we had at the festival, and the letters we began to exchange afterwards, I realised he saw me as a kindred spirit. He seemed to have identified tendencies in the way I write that are also apparent in what he has written. He never said this; but it was almost as if he saw me as an heir. I am conscious of the temerity in even making such a suggestion. After all, James has an international reputation whereas mine is confined to pockets of the antipodes; his work covers a far wider thematic range than mine ever has; and he has as many novels as he does works of non-fiction in his oeuvre. Whereas, if you except a few raggedy poems and some dubious screenplays, I’ve written nothing but essays.
For reasons I don’t recall our correspondence lapsed and wasn’t revived until New Zealand Books asked me to review Touchstones, James’ third volume of memoir. Therein I picked up something that still resonates. I think I was born slow, he wrote. I was an innocent. This for a writer can be a tremendous asset. My greatest training, it turned out, was that I was untrained; impressionable and trusting by nature, I was capable of being moved. I retained, in other words, the power to be shocked. I too am an untrained writer, a kind of innocent; I had to learn to write by doing so: perhaps that was the basis of our putative kinship? It was after my review of Touchstones was published that James wrote to me again, enclosing what I’m calling ‘the summons’. He had a proposition to put to me. What could it be?
The morning after I arrived in Wellington I rang James from Roseneath. He said come over. I went down Grass Street, by my mother’s old house at number 22 (it looked neglected), past my grandparent’s former flat, where my parents lived after they were married, through the scintillations of light coming off the sea at Oriental Bay and on into the city. Wellington is to me a conundrum. My first city, if not my last. Past, present and future are so mixed here that I am unable to say what is actual, as opposed to what may be imagined or remembered. This could be a life condition. I walked down Courtenay Place, Manners Street, into Willis Street. Ghosts thick on the pavements; future ghosts, ghosts of the living, gone ghosts. From the arcade on Lambton Quay I took the elevator to the James Cook hotel and exited onto The Terrace, where the McNeishs lived in two small flats in a modest building.
Mindful of the complexities of his entrances, James met me in the foyer and ushered me up to the eighth floor. His wife, Helen, lived in a different apartment, looking a different way, on a different floor: a sensible arrangement, though it did involve them in quite a lot of daily to-ing and fro-ing. They took coffee together, or lunch, or afternoon tea. One evening I had dinner with them in Helen’s place, which seemed actually to be situated in some European city, Prague perhaps. I remember, the first time I met her, Helen looking hard at me and saying: So, you are after some treasure? She was implying, I think, that I was a gold-digger, that I might have in mind some sort of exploitation of James’ eminence—and innocence. But when I explained how it appeared to me, she relaxed, became gracious and kind. I had passed the test.
James’ place too was exotic, though I couldn’t figure out precisely where to locate it. Somewhere between London and Berlin? Or further south? Anyway, it is a privilege and an honour to visit an admired writer’s working space and I was avid for looking and remembering; by the same token, it seems indiscreet, if not plain rude, to go on too much about it. Suffice to say that it was sparse, orderly, comfortable and with an almost indefinable sense of intrigue: as if mysteries were enacted here. A scent / as indecipherable as Moscow. On that first morning James sat me down at a small wooden table and repaired to the kitchen to clean up after a spill. Some milk had boiled over and he wanted to make sure he soaked it all up before it went rancid. Then he made coffee, set out a plate of biscuits, and sat down opposite me at that little table. It was time for the proposition to be put.
What he said was this: he had amassed a great deal of material during his research for Dance of the Peacocks and The Sixth Man; this was material he would not be using in any further writing projects; would I like to look through his files to see if there was anything therein of interest to me? I said: absolutely; and he smiled, whether from relief or something more knowing I couldn’t tell. How long did I have? he wondered. I thought three days. That should be ample, he murmured. Ample. He suggested I spend those three days in his apartment, reading through files with which he would supply me; and then, if anything occurred to me, we could take it from there. I’ll be in and out, mostly out, he said. I won’t disturb you.
He was good as his word. James was one of those writers who do their work early in the morning and have the rest of the day free for other things. When, after walking across the city and taking the lift, I arrived a bit after nine each morning, he would already have completed his writing for the day. Not that he ever said anything much about it; nor did he say, or only in passing, and then enigmatically, what he was working on. A book about a German wrestler. Something he thought of calling, after the Sebastian Faulks’ book, The Fatal New Zealander. He was, as he said he would be, mostly out; but we usually lunched together. Fine, tasty lunches. Sometimes Helen joined us for coffee. Mostly I was alone with his files behind glowing rattan blinds that masked windows looking north and east over Port Nicholson.
The files were things of beauty. They partook of my description of the apartment, above: sparse, orderly with a strong sense of mystery and intrigue. They were like intelligence files assembled by a consummate spy-master. Many entries were typed on A4 paper using the courier font; some were just a sentence or two; others pages long. They might have been the fruit of a conversation, or an interview; they might have been notes to self or notes derived from reading. There were documents, photocopied from disparate sources. Some personal letters. A few photographs or copies of same. And reports gathered on James’ behalf by other researchers. These were loosely arranged as dossiers on various individuals, most of whom I had not encountered before. Each morning there was a new pile set out for me to read.
I suspect that the dossiers were the outcome of a long period of focussed inquiry going as far back perhaps as the research for James’ 1986 book on Jack Lovelock. It was a remark of James Bertram’s that set McNeish onto Lovelock: Bertram, who knew him at Oxford, called Lovelock a young god under strain. Lovelock was a Rhodes scholar and James seems to have become interested in finding out the fate of other Rhodes scholars; and, more generally, what happened to talented New Zealanders who, for some reason or other, ended up spending most of their lives overseas. James, who had himself spent long periods living abroad, and a longer period living in a very remote part of the country, glossed his avowed interest in these figures as a means of coming to a closer understanding of what might be called the national character. Who are New Zealanders really and what are the influences, the factors, that have made us so?
I don’t particularly share this interest in ‘national character’ per se but I am fascinated by character. Over the three days I spent in James’ apartment, four of the people in his rogue’s gallery lodged themselves, as it were, in my mind. At the same time, I began to see a chronological structure in which I could, severally and together, place them. On that last afternoon, which may have been a Thursday, with the light of the westering sun streaming obliquely through the rattan blinds, glimpses of the blue harbour in the distance, I put my plan to James. This is what I would like to do, I said, these are the figures I would like to write about, this is the use I would like to put to the gift you have offered me. This is the shape I would like to make.
If he was surprised he didn’t let on. If he had, in some sense, in his own mind anticipated this was the way I might want to go, he didn’t admit to that either. He was scrupulous and non-committal, though never unenthusiastic; and remained so for the duration of my writing of the book; which I completed, in draft form, just a few weeks ago. I felt like an operative going into the field in order to add something to the extant intelligence upon a particular subject; and that he was my controller. I felt like I had a mission that was both inchoate and yet of some importance. I sensed the dire impossibility, and the risk, of failure. I also felt I had the freedom to succeed, or not, on my own terms. I said I would put my proposal down on paper and send it to him to read. This is what I sent: