A Life of J. C. Beaglehole: New Zealand Scholar
14 — The Price of Eminence
The Price of Eminence
In This Final Chapter, John the public figure, and the growing recognition he received both in New Zealand and internationally, is set alongside the private man: the loyalties, the quirky humour, the idiosyncrasies and passions that endeared him to so many. The 1960s was a time of new and increasing family involvement. Following his marriage in 1962, my brother Giles and his wife Jenny settled in Feilding. It was conveniently close to Ormond and Rosamond Wilson at Mount Lees, and John and Elsie often combined visits to both families. In 1966 my brother Robin and I both married. John relished his role as father-in-law, and even more that of grandfather. He had always had a remarkable way with small children, who were devoted to him, but was less at ease, at least with his own, when they grew older. There were exceptions to this. For three months in the middle of 1958 the Einhorn daughters, Barbara (sixteen) and Jule (twelve) had stayed at Messines Road while their parents made their first return visit to the much-changed Germany they had left twenty years before. In the two preceding years John and Elsie, their own sons away, had had the student sons of friends to board. Elsie had found them good company, John barely noticed their presence. With Barbara and Jule it was another matter, and he was delighted to be distracted. 'My daughters continue to grow in beauty & knowledge', he told Janet.1 It was when they left that he hung the print of Gainsborough's daughters – 'as we have lost our flesh & blood daughters, we have to have 18th century ones'.2
In 1960 Elsie's health was the cause of some alarm. About July she developed what eventually turned out to be rheumatoid arthritis. She was bed-bound for some weeks and in considerable pain, unalleviated by various treatments. The illness came as a particular blow to one who not only had never been ill but also had always been physically active, tramping every week with her women friends, and for many page 462years attending the classes of Gisa Taglicht, the Viennese refugee and teacher of rhythmical dance and gymnastics. I was due to return from Cambridge at the end of the year and, although John and Elsie were putting a brave face on it, my aunt wrote to warn me that the chances of recovery seemed slight. She also reported on the devoted care John was giving. To me, urging me not to worry, he put it more lightly: he could 'cope with the washing-up & the bed-making, & all the ladies are rallying around'.3 He seized the opportunity of Elsie being 'safely out of the way … to clean up the kettle & the electric kettle & a saucepan or two', which hardly enhanced her equanimity.4 Fortunately, a new 'wonder drug', cortisone, arrived and had almost miraculous results. When I got home at Christmas Elsie had taken charge again; had I not been told, I would never have suspected that she had been so ill, though it was months before the last pain and discomfort disappeared.
John was pleased with what I had achieved at Cambridge. Typically for someone who was better at telling you these things on paper than face to face, he wrote to tell me this before I left, in case he went 'under a bus' before I got back.5 He thought that I should return to New Zealand – 'you can lead a pretty full life in Nz now' – and was pleased when I was appointed to a lectureship at Victoria. It did not seem to occur to either of us that having a father and son in the relatively small history department might not always be a comfortable situation. As it turned out, I believe we both enjoyed our six years as colleagues, and I learned a great deal from him. He did give me one piece of advice when I got home: 'You've got your PhD, now it's time you got down to some real reading – you'd better start with Henry James!' For his part, he embarked, once again, on Paradise Lost and was 'impressed as never before with what a cold-blooded calculating priggish bastard God is … But how wonderful to be pompous & priggish in Miltonic blank verse. Ah well, don't let's read it for the story, just for the style.'6 Having finished, he felt he had to read 'other stuff' on Milton, including E.M.W. Tilyard's The Miltonic Setting.
The University of New Zealand was dissolved on 1 January 1962, a long overdue demise, and on the same day Victoria and the other constituent colleges became independent universities. John, who had found little good to say of it in his 1937 history of the university, now farewelled 'our too-aged academic relative … superfluous, useless' without regret, though he conceded that in its page 463last years it had 'used its resources to support real scholarship'.7 Its passing brought an end to the University of New Zealand Press. John had hoped that the new universities might cooperate to establish a common publishing house, but the will was not there, and eventually most of them, including Victoria, established presses of their own. Independence meant that Victoria for the first time awarded its own degrees, and he designed the new degree certificates, twenty-six different kinds of them, and 'all left far too late'. He did, however, enjoy designing an invitation card for four lectures by a visiting British writer on art, Sir Herbert Read.8 He became a member of the research committee of the new University Grants Committee, as he was of Victoria's research committee. There was very little money to be distributed, but on the arts side, with which he was particularly concerned, the problem was not money but a failure of staff to apply for it. He had for some time held the view that what was needed in the universities was 'a lot more application & hard work' as well as money.9
When John and Elsie were in New York on their way to London later in 1962, John received a letter offering him the Beit Chair in Commonwealth History at Oxford in succession to Vincent Harlow. He suspected, rightly, that Bill Williams had had a hand in this and wrote to him the same day. 'The offer puts me on top of the world & simultaneously bowls me over', he said, but he had 'a devil of a lot of commitments to NZ' and he thought he was too old to take the chair on. 'My principal interest now is in finishing Cook & doing a biography & maybe one or two odds and ends … & by the time I am 80 it will be time to die.'10 Three weeks later he confessed to Janet that, while he found the offer rather hard to turn down, he realised that most of the time he forgot all about it, so he could only conclude he was not really interested.11 It was not, however, quite as simple as that. He told Fred Wood that it was only after 'an uneasy time of cogitation' that he refused it,12 and he assured Bill Williams that he 'really did think seriously about it' and hoped to God that he had done the right thing.13 Four years later, when Oxford awarded him an honorary doctorate, John again suspected the Williams hand – '& if I suspect with justice, well, all I can say is, you seem determined to take my breath away … No, I could say more, but if I do so you may suspect me of unmanly sentimentality.'14
Had anyone in 1929 suggested to John that thirty-three years later he would turn down a chair at Oxford he would, surely, have been incredulous. It is a measure of how far his feelings about New Zealand and the kind of life that could be lived there had changed.page 464It was not that he had come to feel, as a conscious New Zealander, that he should necessarily do so – his cultural heritage and the world of scholarship of which he was part made him feel comfortable, if not quite at home, in Britain. The offer was attractive in many ways and he considered it carefully. He was clearly ambivalent about what to do, and uppermost in his mind was concern about finishing the work on Cook, together with what he summed up as 'family and friends'. This is a clear instance of how his letters, with their different emphases to different people, can pose problems for his biographer, and of the care with which those letters, especially where they are to only one recipient, must be read as evidence of what he was thinking.
In 1963 the Victoria history department persuaded him to teach a third-year history course, a teaching load he had not carried since 1947 except for an honours course in 1954. Student numbers had begun to increase dramatically in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and qualified staff were extraordinarily difficult to get and to retain. Looking back, however, I am appalled at the almost cavalier way we added to his work. Yet this gave a new generation of students the chance to hear him on responsible government – the intention had been a fairly broad course on the evolution of the Commonwealth but John, as always, concentrated on what really interested him and got back to some of his favourite historians, Helen Taft Manning on British colonial policy and Chester Martin on responsible government in Canada. He enjoyed meeting students again, often joining the weekly staff/student coffee meetings held at that time, but startled some of them (as well as some colleagues) with the range of his marking, using the full scale when staff were increasingly clustering marks between 45 and 70 per cent.
That same year Victoria University decided that he should be made Professor of British Commonwealth History. John had been very comfortable with the position, and title, of Senior Research Fellow and been paid a professorial salary, but the move was clearly intended as a compliment – 'my colleagues decided that I was a Great Man, & that all Great Men must be Professors, & they got Freddy Wood to turn on the diplomacy', was how he explained it to Bill Williams15 – so he said yes. For the department it had the added advantage of giving it a second established professorial position. In putting the proposal to the university council, Ian Campbell, the acting vice-chancellor, described the title as more 'consistent with the dignity of the University' and fitting for 'an historian of world eminence'.16 John suspected he had made a mistake in agreeing to it;page 465he was sure that he had when told that he would be expected to attend meetings of the professorial board. When the history department moved into the ninth floor of the new Rankine Brown building in June 1966, John left the Hunter building after thirty years. He did not make a great deal of use of the new room, although it had the advantage of having a wall big enough to hang one of the finest pieces of tapa cloth he had brought back from Tonga.
Teaching and the professorial board did little to curb his active interest in what was going on in the wider community. In July 1963 the Wellington Centre Gallery stepped in to show a retrospective exhibition of paintings by Woollaston and McCahon organised by the Auckland City Gallery, after the National Gallery had declined to take it. Because of the number of paintings it had to be shown half at a time in successive weeks. John was enthusiastic about both painters:
Some McCahons very good indeed, I think; a terrific crucifixion; some very good but by Cézanne & Picasso. But certainly he can be very very good. And some of Toss's earlier work comes up marvellously, increases in effect every time I see it. And as Fred Page said, opening the show, it is a crying scandal that neither is in the Nat. Gallery. And how on earth to get them in?17
He tried to do this soon after, when I bought my first McCahon painting from the Ikon Gallery in Auckland and arranged with them to send down a series of eight landscape panels that was also in the exhibition, Landscape Theme and Variations: series A. John and I took them to the National Gallery and he unsuccessfully urged that they be bought: it proved 'too big a pill to swallow'.18 It was not long after this that he resigned from the board.
A little later he was embroiled in another controversy, mentioned in chapter thirteen. The government wanted to reform the handling of censorship, 'with a new definition of indecency to give literature a chance'. While applauding the determination of John Robson, the Secretary for Justice, (with the support of his minister) to give the system 'some measure of rationality & publicity', John drafted a statement for the Council for Civil Liberties, 'not wholly favourable to the bill' in all its details. The Dominion printed this but the Evening Post, which 'had been shrieking about the sacred duty of the Press to give the public the facts', failed to do so.19 He had barely put down his pen before, two months later, he and Walter Scott were in action again for the Council for Civil Liberties, with a letter John called 'a stinker' to the Listener complaining about the Broadcasting Corporation and the government's handling of page 466election broadcasts.20 In retrospect, his energy seems staggering. Not only was he concerned with these public issues, which involved lengthy meetings and painstaking drafting, but he was trying to finish work on a great mass of galley proofs for the third volume of Cook (finally posted at the end of November). The Waimate Mission House was taking 'an awful lot of discussion' at the trust (with three days in the Bay of Islands in September). He lamented to Janet: 'I saw a couple of new books on Paradise Lost in the library yesterday, but decided I had too much to do to bring them home & read them'. Indeed, he had hardly read anything for some time, 'except snippets' in Roy Parsons' bookshop, and it took him about six weeks to read a Penguin book on polar exploration.21
During 1964 and 1965 there was prolonged controversy over the future of the Alexander Turnbull Library following the government's decision to make it a part of a new national library.22 The argument was fought largely, in Rachel Barrowman's words, 'between those who held to a nostalgic image of the library as the "quiet sequestered retreat" of the scholar-bibliophile, and those who saw its future as part of a properly funded (and properly housed) national library, with resources to sustain academic scholarship'.23 When John signed a letter to the Dominion in March 1965 (along with some other university academic staff) supporting the proposal – 'Only a national collection, with obligations to the whole of society, can afford to devote itself to building a complete record of our own Western civilisation'24 – he told Janet that he hardly dared to set foot in the library, as feelings were running very high. He had little time for most of those who argued against the national library proposal, being well aware that most of the library's major users (himself and his colleague Joan Stevens prominent among them) shared his view. In October he wrote a further letter in which he appealed for realism and for 'co-ordination of our resources for the sake of scholarship'.25 The Evening Post gave it headlines, cut out only a few sentences, and 'perhaps improved it'.26 It was an indication of the respect which his opinion now commanded. Whatever fears he might have had, his relationship with the Turnbull remained as close and as congenial as ever.
In the midst of this, his brother Ernest died. He had had major heart surgery some months earlier but his death, on 23 October 1965, was sudden and unexpected. He was only fifty-nine. Pam, Ernest's wife, insisted that the cremation should take place with no ceremonial observance whatever, but for John that was 'overdoing bareness'. 'Brotherly feeling asserted itself', and he slipped into the page 467crematorium '& put a single sprig of Lady Haddington on the coffin & said Ave atque Vale.* Dreadful sentimentality, I admit. And then left'.27 He had never quite worked out what he felt about Ernest, who, he thought, 'made a thing about cutting away all sentiment, & I was never sure how much that was a pose, or how seriously to take it'.28 A worse blow came less than six months later when his brother Keith died in London of a heart attack. Keith had spent nearly three months in New Zealand on a business visit just over two years earlier, staying with John and Elsie for part of the time and seeing a lot of them and their friends. John had always greatly loved his brother, and always hoped that when Keith retired he would return to New Zealand or, if not that, when John retired he and Elsie would be able to spend a lot of time with Keith in England. That dream was dashed, and John grieved deeply. The news came just days before he and Elsie left for London on 1 May for the conferment of the Oxford degree. They stayed in Keith's flat in Hampstead, '& while it's a bit harrowing sometimes to be in contact with all Keith's things', John wrote to his nephew Peter, 'it is also a bit consoling, & here is so much visual evidence of what a civilized and humane man he was'.29 During this time in London he sought to comfort and cheer his niece Betty, a characteristic means being a series of postcards with messages that, like Edward Lear's, gave nonsense formal expression. † The affection could not be disguised.
* 'Hail and farewell'.
† An example: on a card with a medieval painting of the animals leaving the ark, sent to his niece Betty (13 July 1966), he wrote: 'I send you this, Enchanting Niece, because although you are no doubt well acquainted with the manner in which the Animals entered the confines of the Ark, you may not know how they left it; & indeed few people are really up to this rather important subject. It has tended to escape proper study. But here you see a flood of light cast on the incident, & one of the dark passages of history revealed with startling clarity. I am glad to see, myself, what is obviously a pair of mermaids sporting in the still abundant waters, because that proves the existence of these interesting creatures, a matter so much doubted in our sceptical time. Do not doubt too much, O Enchanting Niece: have faith, & All shall be revealed to thee, perhaps by thine Uncle, perhaps by some other of the Prophets of God.'
I'm all right. No, I'm not all right. I'm not too bad. No that makes me seem far worse than I am. Well, today was a pretty cold day, & I find that I don't like cold days at all … What I have the utmost difficulty in doing is taking those pink pills, indoral, oxygen things, regularly, & I keep on forgetting. But I'm all right, more or less, irritated, but all right. According to the doctor, the blood finds another way round in time, & I wish to God it would get a move on.31
Towards the end of 1966 he and Elsie had a week 'up north', on Historic Places Trust business. They went first to Mercury Bay on the Coromandel; the spot where Cook had observed the transit of Mercury and where the trust wanted a reserve was threatened by a planned subdivision. From there they went to Northland for the opening of the Waimate Mission House. It had 'come off wonderfully well', John considered, and 'with that & St Paul's saved I suppose we can say the year has had its bright spots'.32
I was away on leave at Harvard at that time, and in his Christmas letter to me and my wife, Helen, John reported that he was 'reading here & there' to refresh his mind before he started on Cook's life.
I started off with Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta, which is a staggering thing, & then did Rousseau's Confessions, & now I have Vienna [by Ilsa Barea] on hand, & Painter's two vols. on Proust in prospect, which I bought in London; oh, & before Rousseau was another Boswell volume remaindered in London, & Pottle's Boswell The Earlier Years. I don't know that I shouldn't let Cook go, & spend the rest of my life reading. I might even read some history. I shan't be able to do One Boy's Wellington,* anyhow, until I've finished Cook; I've often thought of it, there are lots of people it would be fun to write about. But crumbs, Daughter-in-law, reading's much easier work than writing.33
* I had sent John a copy of the American historian Samuel Eliot Morison's wonderful memoir of his early years, One Boy's Boston 1887-1907 (Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1962) with the comment 'what about one boy's Wellington?'
He got to the George Painter biography of Proust a few weeks later:
I'm not certain that it's as good as they say – 'one of the great biographies' & all that, it's not as good as my life of Cook – but it's pretty good, it keeps on sounding after you've put it down, & when a book keeps on sounding, one really oughtn't to read anything else for a week or two. For extraordinariness Proust really takes the prize. The endless staggering varieties of life on this earth. There is too much to learn about human nature. And what an extraordinary society he lived in. I ought to read his own novel all over again … Now I'm reading Harold Nicolson's Diaries & Letters – another extraordinary fellow, though not in the same region of extraordinariness as Proust …34
The beginning of 1967 brought another time-consuming and not very palatable task. Retirement, which otherwise meant little or no difference to the pattern of his life, did mean that he had to clear out his room at the university. Even though his study at home had always been his main base, this was not easy. 'The paper! The odds & ends! A frightful process. I much prefer a straightforward job like cleaning pewter or the copper candlesticks.'35 And then there were painful decisions on the books; he would have looked at each one carefully, perhaps flicked through it to find a passage he remembered, before putting it down. Some he recognised that he was unlikely to look at again – 'most of that political theory/science stuff' – though he thought he would certainly hang on to some of it for old time's sake. 'The more I look at it the less inclined I am to part with it, but I'll have to part from it some day. Some of these books meant a lot to me once. On the other hand, I'll never read Lenin's Collected no it's Selected Works now.'36 It stayed, and he partly solved the wider problem by putting a number of cartons of books in my study at the university for me to find when I returned from leave, and giving others away to colleagues. The tapa cloth remained in place for Mary Boyd, who took over the room.
The Oxford honorary degree was followed by further public recognition. The same year John was awarded the Linnaeus Medal by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and was made a corresponding member of the Royal Historical Society. In 1967 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand (the first historian to be thus recognised). A year later his own university followed with an honorary doctor of literature. John had his doubts about it all. 'I think these honours spawn one another. And all these letters after one's name, it's very embarrassing … [and] very bad for a person like me'. He thought he would like 'just one big honour page 470that swallowed up all the others … like J.C. Beaglehole O.M. or J.C. Beaglehole, Grand Master of the Legion of Honour'.37
Elsie and John had always been extraordinarily hospitable in having people to stay, family and other relatives, New Zealand friends, and visitors from overseas. They both enjoyed it, and Elsie showed great skill in ensuring as far as possible that John was not too distracted from his work. When he was caught up in work, however, he could be reluctant to go out: 'now the cursed invitations to cocktails start coming in. Why should we go to the American embassy and shake hands with Mr Louis Armstrong & then gas to the usual mob of Nz rs? … However it may be nice to have dinner with the Director of the British Museum, at least I shall be able to tell him that I know his institution well.'38 In July and August 1967 David Quinn was a British Council visitor to New Zealand giving lectures at the universities (John had pulled the strings to have him appointed), and he and Alison stayed at Messines Road. Three months later Alan Villiers, square-rigged sailor and writer, stayed with them. A noisy, practical man, he and John were very dissimilar but each had a warm admiration of the other. 'I warm to him more & more', John wrote, '& he is a most racy conversationalist'.39 The Australian historian, Sir Keith Hancock, was another of their guests. We took him out to walk on the Wellington coast at Makara, and I remember him talking to John about the work on Cook and asking him if he ever 'heard his men talking'. The reply was an enigmatic 'almost'. John and Elsie met frequently with their immediate circle of friends – the Jacobys, Einhorns, Sylvia and Tom Smith, Margaret and Jim Campbell – for meals in one another's homes, for tramping days on the Wellington coast or hills, in Wairarapa, or for holidays further afield. In these years, with their sons off their hands, and partly because of the Historic Places Trust, they saw much more of New Zealand than they had in earlier times. Elsie organised the trips and did all the driving.
Their wider circle of friends in many ways reflected the character of Wellington as a centre of government, education and the arts. It included many colleagues from Victoria, drawn from a wide range of disciplines. In government there was Alister McIntosh, head of the Department of External Affairs, and his wife, Doris; C.E. Beeby, Director of Education, and Beatrice; Dick Powles, who, having returned from Western Samoa and served a term as New Zealand High Commissioner to India, was appointed New Zealand's first Ombudsman in 1962. Other friends representing New Zealand, the Reids and the Corners among them, they kept up with both page 471in Wellington and on the other side of the world. Arthur and Jean Ward (Arthur was now the head of the New Zealand Dairy Board) and Cedric and Bobbie Firth lived close by. In spite of John's view of cocktail parties, they met, and liked, many overseas diplomats posted to Wellington. As John began to slow down as a walker, some of the annual tramps were dropped; other traditions remained, like the after-Christmas family gathering at the McIntoshes' retreat at Te Marua, north of Wellington, where we might do some tree-cutting before a picnic lunch and Mac and John really got down to what was going on in government and the wider world. Every summer there would be a day with tennis or croquet at Bob and Elsie Monro's place (he taught chemistry at Victoria) at Golden Gate on the Porirua Harbour. Here, when my brothers and I were young, Elsie had sometimes taken us to spend a night in the bunkhouse, the one-roomed bach on the very edge of the water below the Monros' house on the hill. A more recent institution was the Wilsons' New Year 'tennis party' at Mount Lees, with Beagleholes, Turnovskys and others, generally including Walter Nash and, after his wife's death, his sister. As the rest of the party shed most of their clothes for tennis or swimming, Walter remained very respectable in a formal suit. Rosamond organised and played tennis and provided copious food; Ormond talked and showed off his garden and bush walk.
Music was flourishing in Wellington. Under John Hopkins as conductor from 1958 to 1963, the National Orchestra reached new heights; the Chamber Music Society was now part of a thriving national federation with many outstanding concerts by overseas and local groups; the opera and ballet companies were making a brave start. John and Elsie went as often as they could. The music department at Victoria, under Fred Page, had established its Thursday lunchtime concerts, remarkable both for their quality and for the programmes performed, which included contemporary work by the young New Zealand composers Douglas Lilburn and David Farquhar; John was a regular attender. In addition to music, Downstage, Wellington's first professional theatre company, which started in 1964, offered a wide range of productions, from Shakespeare to Beckett to the Wellington playwright Bruce Mason. In its early years it was run as a theatre/café and John and Elsie went regularly with friends for a meal followed by the play. Their recent experience of theatre in London gave them a point of comparison and they were often impressed. John judged the Hamlet (at the end of 1967) 'quite superb': 'I've never seen a Hamlet as good. Tim Eliott as H. Peter Bland Claudius. Everybody very good except Polonius,page 472& that's a damned hard part – harder to make good than Hamlet, I think. Ophelia … not too good to start with, then heart-breaking when mad.'40
As soon as John returned from his trip to Dusky Sound in March 1968, he had to write a speech for the annual meeting of the Chamber Music Federation. In it he looked back to his early years, capturing vividly the musical life both in Wellington and in his own family at that time.41 But writing it was one more demand on his time:
Why do I never foresee the horrible inconvenience of these things? Well, I do, but some awfully nice bloke rings up, & I think it won't be so bad this time; & then when the time comes it is just as bad. But then the sudden things are just as bad, like Walter Scott ringing up on Sunday night about Mr Muldoon & my having to sit down at once & compose a statement on Mr Muldoon for the C. of Civil Liberties & copy it out twice for the Dominion & the Press Association, while Walter waited to take it down in his car … There is always some fool like Muldoon popping up to make it necessary to start the fight all over again.42
At this time he was rereading Jane Austen, as enthusiastic as ever. 'I don't know why people keep on writing novels. It would be much simpler if we just had J.A., & could keep on reading them. J.A. & Paradise Lost & two or three plays of Shakespeare & Cook's Journals'.43 At the beginning of the following year, however, he had moved on to Dickens, first Martin Chuzzlewit ('in some ways a dreadful book'44) and then Our Mutual Friend, which he found much better ('a good book, very Victorian but very good'45). After that he turned to the Bible, to the Book of Job. 'I got on to Job because he seemed a conveniently short book while I wondered what long book I'd tackle next – another Dickens? – & also because I thought my prose style might be improved for the Royal Soc, England; & you know the prose style is really very good, if only you knew what it meant half the time.'46
If it was the Royal Society and their invitation to give a lecture that led him to think of his prose style, their lecture was only one of a number, together with articles and appearances, for which he was called on as the Cook bicentennial was celebrated in England, New Zealand and Australia. He had had to stop work on the biography about the beginning of 1969 to work on the lectures for the Royal Society and the Society for Nautical Research in England, as well as a lecture for the Australian Academy of Science's Cook Bicentenary Symposium, which he was taking part in on his way to England. The Times wanted an article on Cook 47 (published just after he and Elsie arrived in London on 28 May) and before they left Wellington page 473John had written to the Evening Post suggesting that New Zealand's memorial for the bicentennial might include a work by the sculptor Henry Moore, to 'celebrate the greatest Yorkshireman of the 18th century by calling to our aid the greatest Yorkshireman of the 20th century – who is also the greatest living sculptor'.48 The suggestion was not taken up. While he was away John wrote on Cook for the New Zealand Listener49 and also a foreword for Neil and Charles Begg's bicentennial book, James Cook and New Zealand.
On arriving home at the beginning of October, John was almost immediately involved in Cook events. On 9 October celebrations at Gisborne marked Cook's first landing. Back in Wellington John had to listen to a lecture, for a change; it was by Basil Greenhill, the Director of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, who had been brought out for the celebrations. At the end of October he recorded a broadcast on 'Cook the sailor and his ships', which he then turned into an illustrated lecture given to an almost full Concert Chamber in Wellington on 4 November (this material he used again for lectures in Australia a few months later). Five days after that he was at Mercury Bay for the unveiling of a plaque recording Cook's visit and gave a masterly short address* with an account of Cook's stay in the bay. This was the occasion when he described his and Elsie's first visit to Mercury Bay over thirty years before and his haunting feeling of a ship just outside his vision, of the sound of words just beyond the reach of his ear, and (an echo of his reply to Keith Hancock's question) how he 'almost heard the voices of eighteenth century sailors'. As for the memorial, he confessed that he was rather reluctant to unveil it. 'My idea of a memorial to Cook is a place left as nearly as possible as he found it – so that you can, when conditions are favourable, almost feel his presence. I am not, altogether, in favour of progress, development, more and more people living in more and more houses … There is something very satisfactory about a waste of sandhills.' After he had made his speech, he told Janet, 'all the little boys & girls clustered round & wanted my autograph' – 'there was', he decided, 'no further summit to climb'.50 Returning from Mercury Bay, at Tauranga he met with the Town Clerk to discuss the future of 'Ewelme', an historic missionary home, for the Historic Places Trust.
* James Cook and Mercury Bay (Wellington: Wai-te-ata Press, 1971), 11pp.
* This was 'Cook the Writer', delivered as the sixth George Arnold Wood Memorial Lecture at the University of Sydney on 15 April 1970. Wood, the father of Fred Wood, was appointed professor of history at Sydney in 1891 at the age of twenty-five and held the chair until his death in 1928, thirty-seven years later. John had agreed to revise Wood's book, The Discovery of Australia, first published in 1922, and this new edition was published in 1969.
† After the dinner had been arranged, the Dominion, on 1 January 1970, announced John as 'Man of the Year'. I suspect that those behind the dinner were thinking more of the absence of any government move to honour John's achievement.
The Order of Merit, founded by King Edward VII in 1902 and limited to twenty-four members at any one time, is intended to recognise men and women of the greatest distinction. For a scientist it is seen as superior even to the Nobel Prize. The award is made directly by the sovereign; governments are not involved in the process of nomination.* John had always, in a joking way, said it was the only honour worth a kettle of fish. After all, it had included among its members Henry James, Bertrand Russell and E.M. Forster, not to mention Winston Churchill, Thomas Hardy and G.M. Trevelyan. The only previous New Zealander to be awarded it was the great scientist Ernest Rutherford.†
Two weeks later John and Elsie flew to Australia for a hectic three weeks. Just how hectic it was is suggested by John's account to Janet:
* The New Zealand Cabinet was apparently told that the award was going to be made and some members were unhappy about it, John still being viewed with displeasure, apparently, by conservative governments. I was told this by John Daniels, former director of the Historic Places Trust, who was told by W.J. Scott (not the same W.J. Scott who worked with John for civil liberties), who had been a member of the government until the election at the end of 1969. Scott then succeeded Ormond Wilson as chairman of the trust. He and John viewed each other with a measure of suspicion at first, which quickly turned to respect.
† Since John's award a third New Zealander has been made a member of the order: Sir Ronald Syme, the great historian of Rome. Syme, who studied at both Victoria and Auckland University Colleges, went on to Oxford, where he remained for the whole of his distinguished career.
Itinerary; Melbourne, dinner, lecture, shown over Art Gallery by bubbling-over E. Westbrook; Sydney, hon D.Litt, dinner, Wood Mem. Lecture, in costume, God was it hot but I laid aside the hat; Brisbane, dinner, lecture, & v. good cooking at hotel; Townsville, new univ & Queen & dinner as univ becomes independent, some Vice-Chancellor sings my praises; Cooktown, Endeavour River & all that, extremely interesting … saw reefs from air at low tide on flight back; Townsville again, lecture; Brisbane again for a night … by train to Grafton Nsw to stay weekend with Richardsons late Vuw … back to Sydney by air … tonight lecture again, & tomorrow Tuesday fly to Bathurst, lecture, then to Canberra, back to airport on Saturday, fly home.
I am still well & hearty.54
After Australia he was able at last to make progress on the biography. He was 'beginning to think' he had a reasonable chance of finishing it if he could be left alone for the rest of the year.55 But he was not. He accepted invitations to talk to the New Zealand Booksellers Jubilee Conference,56 and to give a jubilee address at the Turnbull Library on 30 June.57 In the latter, which was largely autobiographical and almost nostalgic in tone, he looked back with affection to his childhood in that Hopper Street home where books 'were as much part of the intimate family environment as my mother's brown scones or the round piano stool that went up and down, so that when you got tired of practising you could twirl round and round on it'. He drew on his memories of literary life in colonial Wellington, of the Turnbull Library during the years in which he had known it – almost inseparable from his own scholarly career. He was apologetic at having no certainties to offer, no grand plan for the future. But no one listening could have missed the sense that libraries, and especially the Alexander Turnbull Library, have a unique role to play in a community aspiring to some sort of civilised existence. A little later the University Tramping Club celebrated its fiftieth anniversary; John was asked to write something on the early days for the jubilee publication, but found it hard and suggested they reprint his account of that far-off trip through the Urewera in 1925, which had been published in Rata.58 By the end of March 1971 the draft of the biography was finished. He realised that he had to rewrite the first chapter entirely (its scale did not match the rest of the book, which had grown in the writing), and feared that when he came to look at it he would have to do the same for 'a good deal of the rest'. Somewhat gloomily, he told Ruth Ross, that 'maybe in another year I'll have finished it. I dunno. Perhaps I should retire from everything else.'59 After the first chapter, however, remarkably page 477little revision was needed and most of the changes he made were matters of style.
Early in 1970 Janet Paul moved to Wellington. After Blackwood Paul died in February 1965 she had endeavoured to keep their publishing business going, but Blackwood had provided the business acumen; without that, and lacking capital, she found the task impossible. Her move brought to an end the remarkable series of letters that John had written over the preceding twenty-five years. One can only conjecture how he felt. Writing had enabled a kind of communion – 'inter-assured of the mind' was the quote from Donne that he came back to time after time – which would be almost impossible to sustain when their meetings became a part of everyday social life. Without the letters, we no longer have the lively accounts of what he was up to. The last in the collection was written after her move, when he was away in Christchurch, having his portrait painted by W.A. Sutton. Victoria University had commissioned it to mark the award of the Order of Merit; John had been reluctant to lose the time but liked Sutton and, as the painting progressed, thought it should turn out 'fairly well'. 'A pity the OM has to go in,' he told Janet, 'but I'll bet it is the first portrait in which the OM & a pipe have appeared together'.60
His pocket diaries, in which he recorded engagements, show that the round of activities continued as ever. The Historic Places Trust ate up a lot of time; in August 1970 there was a three-day regional conference in Auckland, and there were now meetings as well of the Old St Paul's Advisory Committee. The same month he heard the Labour party leader, Norman Kirk, talk to a meeting of the Institute of International Affairs on New Zealand's place in the world, the next month it was Sir Con O'Neill, on the British negotiations (in which he had led the British team) to join the European Union. The Council for Civil Liberties met regularly. There were concerts, lectures and art exhibitions to go to. Friends and family were regularly invited for meals, grandchildren looked after, new ones admired. There are many occasions noted when he and Elsie were invited out by friends. There are also more frequent appointments with his heart specialist. At this time too there was fresh anxiety about Elsie's health; she was in hospital twice for brief periods in 1971, but quickly restored to her customary fitness (she was to outlive John by twenty-five years). On 23 September 1971 John went to the opening of an exhibition of paintings from the university collection, held at the National Gallery. It was a wonderful reminder of what had grown from those first purchases by the staff common room twenty-five years before. page 478On 9 October he and Elsie went to a New Zealand Opera Company performance of Aida. John slept badly that night, and died of a heart attack the next morning.
Of John's Lasting Stature as a scholar there can be little doubt; his edition of the journals and the biography of Cook represent one of the great achievements of twentieth-century historical scholarship.61 If its foundation was the meticulous study of the historical sources, he brought to it a creative imagination that was part of the wider man, a lively human being, deeply involved with his fellow men and women. In part, this is reflected in his reading, both in its range, and in his critical – though not solemn – approach to what he read. He never lost that passionate belief, inherited from his parents, of books being a key to civilised existence, a belief which for him went beyond their contents to their physical being. But his engagement with his fellow men and women, as we have seen, took him far beyond his book-lined study. Making his career in New Zealand, rather than being (as he once feared) a fate to be dreaded, enabled him with his scholarly achievement and his wide-ranging interests to combine an involvement with the wider world and an intimate identification with a small society. If the responsibilities at times threatened to distract from his main work, he used the opportunities he was given to live a remarkable life full of rich accomplishment.
This achievement owed much to what has been characterised as his 'disciplined imperturbability',62 which one might also characterise as an extraordinary capacity to concentrate on the job at hand. If this suggests a cloistered scholar, it would be to miss an essential part of his being. Fred Wood wrote of his 'warm human qualities – compassion, sensitivity, a basic humility combined with spiritual toughness, and a rare quality of humour, which can sometimes see round the corners of an argument and help reach the heart of men and problems',63 while Eric McCormick described him as 'a man of profound, even passionate loyalty.… a lively human being, deeply caught up with his fellow men'. 'Just as in our anti-heroic age', McCormick continued, 'Beaglehole the writer gave monumental form to his hero, so in his personal relations he reminted the unfashionable terms – "loyalty", "piety", "duty" – and supplied them with fresh meaning.'64 If that sounds grand, there was, indeed, something grand about his willingness to stand up with sharpness and tenacity for what he believed was right. He never lost his capacity for righteous indignation. But those same page 479qualities found a more discreet and intimate expression in the vagaries of everyday life, in his relations with family, students, fellow scholars and friends. He was as interested in people as in the world of ideas and, showing what Fred Wood called 'his genial skill in human situations', always found time to discuss their plans or their problems. In quoting generously from his letters, I have hoped to illustrate the warmth and sparkle of his mind, the resolute disinclination to confine himself to the main point when there is so much else in life that deserves a comment. There were his cheerful preambles on the phone before getting around to the business of the day, the imagination he brought to a message on a postcard, or the inscription on one of his publications, the verses he wrote for anniversaries and farewells to friends, the twitch of his mouth preceding a genially barbed observation, the thoughtfulness for friends in need. He found no conflict between speaking the truth as he saw it and a simple courtesy to other people.
John was a modest man. He was never quite convinced that his scholarship fully deserved the praise it received, always felt that his prose needed one more critical revision, never quite understood why his advice was sought so often and on such a range of matters. Whatever it was that for the moment engaged him received his concentrated attention. He had a meticulous eye and took pains to get things right, whether a footnote to Cook, the design of a title page or boiling the billy on a family tramp. There was something reminiscent of Cook in this (and his shipmates suffered their share of exasperation), the patient tenacity that underlay his greatest work. Looking back on his life, John was struck by how fortunate he had been, and in this there is a large measure of truth. He was fortunate in his parents, in the friends of his student years and later; he was remarkably fortunate in having Elsie as his partner for over forty years and for the loving support and family life she gave him; fortunate to have worked with Heenan, to have had Fred Wood as a colleague, to have had the chance to edit Cook and Banks … I could go on. However, it was not simply luck. One must also recognise how far he was the maker of that good fortune, 'the fierce integrity with which he sought out knowledge, down to the most minute detail, and faced truth as he found it',65 and recall the spirit with which he had faced misfortune and the passionate dedication he brought to the opportunities he was given.