The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
John A. Lee
John A. Lee. Let us begin with John A. Lee. Denis Glover has remarked that "it is a common fate among reformers to find that their own efforts leave them high and dry, like a boat when the waters have departed elsewhere".11 In this sense, Children of the Poor, John Lee's first novel (written 1931, published 1934) has been stranded by the passage of time. No one but the social historian is likely to be able to recapture the sense of explosive revelation which this novel' brought to its first readers. With its sequel, The Hunted, 1936, it has a bitter, angry power, and is carried along on a stream of emotional over-writing which the times seemed then to warrant. Anger does not make for the classical virtues of discipline and artistic restraint.
These two novels have an autobiographical base. In the New Zealand Listener in September 1960, John Lee wrote, "In the nineties I went to get a plateful and a jug of soup from a soup kitchen . . .page 51
In 1900 thousands of us wore patched and re-patched breeks . . . In my teens I went on the swag to find work . . . " 12 Lee was born in Dunedin in 1891, of a Scottish father and a Romany mother. A ward of the State in his teens, he escaped from industrial school, did casual work on farms and roads, and went swagging from one end of the islands to the other. During World War I he served with the New Zealand forces in France, and was awarded the D.C.M. at Messines. He was M.P. for Auckland East 1922-8, for Grey Lynn 1931-43, and before his expulsion from the Labour Party in 1940 was one of its leading members.
Children of the Poor tells of the stunted childhood of Albany Porcello in the Dunedin of the 1890s, of mean streets and depressed classes, of crude injustice and naked poverty, and of how the "unco guid" look from the worm's-eye view. The motive behind its composition is clear from the dedication, which runs:
"To daughters of the poor. To errant brats and guttersnipes. To eaters of left-overs, the wearers of cast-offs. To slaves of the wash-tub and scrub-brush, whose children, nevertheless, go to hell. To teachers who adopt, through compulsion or desire, the method of the barrack square. To juvenile culprits fleeing from the inescapable hand of the law, sometimes called justice . . . THIS STORY OF THE GUTTER."
Lee expands this story on page nine. "This is a story of the gutter. The gutter is not of Paris, of London, of New York, alone. The social gutter is of every clime and race, of village as well as of town, of the New World as well as of the Old."
The violent attacks made on the book on its publication were of course directed at this frankness and exposure of social need, which seemed all the more dangerous in the later depression when radicalism was deeply feared. "It enjoyed," writes E. H. McCormick, "a succes de scandale which placed undue emphasis on questions of little relevance to criticism; whether it was a good novel or a bad novel by literary standards was the one question that, for the most part, remained unasked ..."
It is time now to ask it. Matters to consider include the technical skill (or lack of it) in the handling of the first-person narration, methods of exposition, the use of the author's direct address to readers, and the emotional tone and control of the writing. John Lee was an excellent journalist—is there too much of effervescence in his style? Do the apostrophes to the reader effect their purpose? Or is it a case of "methinks the hero doth protest too much"? Has the book any unity beyond that given by the presence of Albany throughout? Are not the dice too loaded against the boy? (e.g. his experience of parsons and chaplains). Bernard Shaw's comment, "The book is a whopper", is probably as much an expression of Socialist approval as a tribute to Lee's artistic success.page 52
The Hunted. The sequel, The Hunted, is a much better novel. Albany is sent to a training school, where the mindless severity of the discipline bites into his soul—as into the reader's. His attempts to escape, his long freedom and final recapture, are memorably given. There is a savage little vignette of some godly business skinflints (the unco guid again). Society and circumstances hunt the boy down, and though the book ends with his release it offers no hope that he will not again get tangled in the net. The Hunted is often emotionally violent, but Albany is not sentimentalised. The force of the story lies in its unrelenting pursuit of this one theme; this time fewer explanatory digressions clog the movement. The book has fire and conviction, and some brilliantly told episodes. In New Zealand, John Lee's pair of books were the first social-purpose novels at the workers' level. For all their technical errors, they have considerable power.
Lee's Civilian into Soldier, 1937, is a full-length novel of World War I. Its New Zealand hero John Guy goes through the army horrors, from the prophylactic measures designed "to make vice safe for democracy" to the London prostitutes and the rat-eaten corpses of Flanders. Lee has also written successful light sketches of swagger days (Shining with the Shiner), and in 1943 tried the thriller genre in The Yanks are Coming, set in wartime Auckland.