Story: Non-fiction

Page 5. Men in non-fiction

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The strong silent type

In 1942 John Mulgan, feeling out of sorts with his English regiment, met a column of Anzacs in the North African desert. The New Zealanders ‘remained quiet and aloof and self-contained’, he wrote. ‘They had confidence in themselves ... like a football team in a more deadly game, coherent, practical, successful’.1 Mulgan’s Report on experience (1947) is the story of his own difficult war behind enemy lines in Greece, but it also celebrates a style of masculinity that New Zealand continued to praise in the conduct of All Black heroes and iconic figures such as Edmund Hillary.

Thousands of volumes have been written by or about supposedly taciturn, good kiwi blokes. Mountaineer John Pascoe’s Unclimbed New Zealand (1939), Denis Glover’s Hot water sailor (1962) and Jim Henderson’s Gunner inglorious (1945) are among the best in this tradition. All feature a nonchalant self-deprecating humour, especially when life and limb are threatened. A similar quality is found in the political memoirs of the fine raconteur John A. Lee, in Simple on a soapbox (1963) and Rhetoric at the red dawn (1965).

Geometry in the trenches

Alexander Aitken, badly wounded, and stuck in no-man’s land, owed his life to his mathematical brain. He noticed ‘a regularity, a periodicity, in a particular type of explosion … shells from a 5.9 or 4.1 howitzer were coming closer every two minutes, apparently in a straight line … I visualized the German gunners lowering their howitzers by a fraction of angle each time; I reckoned that in about ten minutes one of these shells would fall near my crater, possibly on it’2.

First World War non-fiction

Of the First World War memoirs, Alexander Aitken’s Gallipoli to the Somme (1963) is unusual in that it records horrors through the sensibility of a brilliant mathematician who could recall rifle serial numbers as easily as the names of his men. Archibald Baxter’s We will not cease (1939) is the story of a conscientious objector sent to the front where he endured bouts of field punishment designed to break his spirit.

According to John A. Lee, the most important book about that war was written by a 30-year-old woman who had had no obvious experience of it: Robin Hyde’s Passport to hell (1936) is a documentary novel about a soldier as conspicuous for gallantry as for reckless insubordination. In this book, as in her other non-fiction writings, we see that Hyde, in common with the nation’s wives, sweethearts and children, had a deep knowledge of those silent traumatised men who returned from the war.

Later perspectives

Decades later, Jock Phillips’s A man’s country? (1987) was a highly influential analysis that highlighted the evasions and gaps in earlier writings by and about men.

  1. John Mulgan, Report on experience. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010, p. 49. Back
  2. Alexander Aitken, Gallipoli to the Somme. London: Oxford University Press, 1963, p.171. Back
How to cite this page:

Alex Calder, 'Non-fiction - Men in non-fiction', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 February 2018)

Story by Alex Calder, published 22 Oct 2014