Scoop Review of Books

Dance of the Rams’ Penises

Touchstones: Memories of People and Place
by James McNeish. Vintage, $30.

Reviewed by Richard Thomson

In his memoir Touchstones James McNeish starts by picaresquely evading autobiography, while deploying his considerable storytelling abilities in the service of steely control over how much of himself he will reveal.

’Godstrewth, Jamie,’ his father bursts out, in an immediate and marvellous manoeuvre of distraction. It turns out Dad’s been staring at a ram’s penis ‘of the most enormous proportions’.

So, having established a comparative subtext of paternal disappointment, our hero sets out for Europe at the end of the 1950s aboard a Norwegian freighter. A series of adventures follows, which allow McNeish to create character sketches of the people he met and who helped to make ‘me what I am, as a writer’. He is I think correct to assume that they are all – despite or because of their narrative function as yet more rams’ penises – vastly more intriguing than the callow youth from Remuera.

Joan Littlewood was a south London cockney who sought to create ‘a genuine popular theatre of the highest quality’. She persuades McNeish against acting and playwriting. In Sicily, Danilo Dolci organised mass fasts in support of social justice and against the mafia, and built an organisation of idealistic young volunteers. McNeish’s first success as a writer was Dolci’s biography. But perhaps the strangest encounter of all is with Santu, who lived six doors down in Cammarata, Sicily, where McNeish was covertly researching ‘moral backwardness’ for a Swedish moral philosopher while using the cover of collecting folk music recordings for the BBC. Santu, he says, unwittingly ‘taught me to question what I had grown up with’.

All this, though, is a lengthy prelude to the much more interesting and rewarding story of what happened when McNeish came back, with his central European wife Helen, and moved onto a headland of family land overlooking the mouth of Kawhia Harbour on the North Island’s west coast.

His Māori aunt Jean has left him a house and, away to the south, a wild piece of coastal land with a troubled history and title.

Because this is a reminiscence, there’s some expectation that the author will provide overt guidance for the reader to interpret what is going on. Yet on the whole it never quite happens. It’s a brave decision, perhaps, to leave his younger self marooned in the past of his misunderstandings, and it gives the story an appealing and robust immediacy. As I was reading I couldn’t help suspecting that it might be another trick. That late-1960s McNeish was assuredly not the same one who was remembering and writing in 2011, but who the latter might be – well, it was hard to say.

But actually, I think that may be part of what McNeish is trying to tell us. (Despite the epigraph from Huckleberry Finn: ‘Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted . . .’ etc.) We might be just starting to understand the events of 50 years ago, but it’s far too soon to be able to do the same for the present.

Aunt Jean is sister to McNeish’s Pākehā father: that is the puzzle this book sets out to recognise, if not to solve. You feel, at the end, that what McNeish really wanted to do was put his lifetime of writing and researching to work to account for his father – and that this book exists by way of saying that it simply couldn’t be done. McNeish is baffled, too, by his parents’ marriage – she loved music, he was tone deaf; she was ‘not, or not quite, a snob’, he was a Māori-Pākeha-soldier-postmaster.

‘She was always the one I admired, but he was the one I loved,’ he says. There is a strong hint of metaphor here, a sense that you could substitute ‘England’ and ‘New Zealand’, respectively, for those two, and that it would tell you something about a great many New Zealand men of McNeish’s generation.
Not many of them, though, have such good stories to tell, nor the means to tell them.