Touchstones: Memories of People and Place, by James McNeish (Random House, 2012), 295 pp., $30.
The publicity material and preliminaries of James McNeish’s recent book Touchstones hedge about its origins and purpose. He is the reluctant author, according to an interview in the New Zealand Herald (August 1, 2012). The book is the idea of other people, namely his publisher and his wife; he, in fact does not like ‘writing about myself’.
McNeish is not writing ‘orthodox memoirs’, only ‘a relevant character sketch’ of himself, he states in his Author’s Note. An epigraph borrowed from Mark Twain warns the reader not to expect any motive, moral or plot. On the following page is a dictionary definition of ‘Touchstone’ as ‘Criterion. A standard of judgement’.
McNeish traces in Part One, which is entitled ‘People’, the intellectual and emotional education he gained in his early career from contact with nine people, each of their names the title of a chapter. These mentors are presented in snapshots, their presence brief and sometimes fragmentary. Some of these reminiscences are memorable, but quite often there is a sense the author is straining for significance. The pattern manufactured from a compound called ‘touchstone’ is stamped upon the raw material of a memoir.
Gradually, and especially in Part Two, which is entitled ‘Place’, McNeish begins to do something he says he learned from Danilo Dolci in Sicily, namely ‘to follow an idea working alone, in the hope that a … design might emerge’. He has several ideas when he returns to New Zealand in the late 1960s to base himself for the next fifteen years on a headland of Kawhia Harbour. Memories of family origins and tensions start to interweave in Touchstones with the immediacy of direct speech lifted from old diaries. At this point I no longer veered from engagement to irritation, but became engrossed.
Though McNeish admits to having dealt with some episodes in previous books, particularly As for the Godwits (1977) and AnAlbatross Too Many (1998), it came as a surprise when I dipped into them to see how much they relate to the second part of Touchstones. Short passages are lifted from both books and absorbed, rather than spliced, into Touchstones, which evolves into McNeish’s most recent and richest distillation of the time spent at Te Maika (given the name Te Kuaka in Godwits and Albatross). The related texts of Godwits, Albatross and Touchstoneswould surely fit well into a single volume to reveal, created by the shifting perspectives of McNeish’s memory, a unique cultural panorama.
McNeish generously allows his wife to speak for both of them about:
‘what she calls the Te Maika magic, even if it were only a matter of seconds … “those thirty or forty seconds while you waited for the meths to burn so you could light the kerosene without burning down the house”. This pause, a tiny pocket of enforced idleness occurring several times a day … was for her … a liberation from the pressures of modern living.’
There is sometimes a meditative air to the book by this stage, a conjuring of a luminous landscape.
Though McNeish ‘used to trust [his] memory’ before he became a writer, he no longer does: ‘Some people have exact memories … A writer’s memory is not like that. It creates its own truth’. McNeish exploits his memory in a lean and vigorous style, although there are cliché-like collocations, particularly in the first half, such as sepulchral gloom, thin pickings, far-flung corners and vanishing breed. There are also ill-digested bits; he includes one reminiscence only because he ‘cannot at the moment think of a reason not to’. Though McNeish’s reminiscences at times form a jarring collage, yet this often mirrors the twists of memory and psychology. A gnomic diary entry about brushing off a would-be fan in the stairwell of Broadcasting House in Wellington does not seem to fit, but in hindsight is perhaps McNeish’s oblique admission of being an ‘ornery’ kind of character, a wilful outsider.
As well as being sceptical of memory, McNeish is wary of belief: ‘We believe what we want to believe and hang on to our illusion’ he concludes towards the end of the book, while midway he hazards this ‘standard of judgement’: ‘We are, I believe, what we do’. That is a practical kind of belief.
Two people are at the heart of McNeish’s life – his wife Helen, and his father. By the end, the book has developed into a love-letter to these two. The prologue and postscript deal solely with memories of McNeish’s octogenarian father and speculations on his formative influences.
‘When I began this book, I had no intention of writing about my father … Yet somehow his modest, unemotional figure has asserted itself and become a presence in the narrative.’
McNeish made a discovery after his father’s death that explained his dismay at his son’s choice of a writing career: a pile of manuscripts, including rejection slips. McNeish comments poignantly: ‘nothing imaginative he had written was ever published’.
His parents were anglophiles; England was ‘Home’. His mother ‘was not, or not quite, a snob’: ‘Among the nobs of Remuera we were the genteelist of the genteel poor’. Though McNeish’s father’s ‘ways were English’ and he had ‘grown up in a pakeha world’ he was of Maori descent: ‘His father was half-caste and he but a quarter. I was merely an eighth’. After interrogating memory for clues to his parents’ characters and motives, and thus to some degree his own, McNeish admits that he has ‘never solved the mystery of why [my father] married my mother … allowing her to alienate him from his Maori past’.
When living at Te Maika, McNeish grapples with the Maori aspect of his heritage:
‘My only real contact with local iwi was through the land at Albatross Point and even here I felt a sense of embarrassment, of not belonging, as if the farm we’d inherited wasn’t strictly ours.’
He is a double outsider, being one overseas but also back ‘home’; it is not surprising he has written elsewhere on the expatriate theme, for example Dance of the Peacocks: New Zealanders in exile in the time of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung(2003).
The octogenarian author ends his book with a sentence about his parents, which reads like a revelation: ‘She was always the one I admired, but he was the one I loved’.
The outsider tentatively belongs.
DENIS HAROLD is a researcher and editor and lives near Dunedin.