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Last Words on Three Lives

Book Review
Breaking Ranks: Three Interrupted Lives, by James McNeish (Harper Collins, $35)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan

breakingranks-001James McNeish, well known author of novels, non-fiction and drama, sent his publishers the final manuscript of this book a few weeks before he died in 2016.  In it, he tells the stories of psychiatrist John Saxby, soldier Reginald Miles and Judge Peter Mahon, described by McNeish as “three men who defied authority and paid for it”.  He says the chapters are not biographies: “at most they are sketches”.

While Mahon is well known for his damning report on the Erebus air disaster, in which he claimed he was presented with an “Orchestrated litany of lies”, Brigadier Miles, and especially John Saxby, are less well known.  They both apparently committed suicide, though what drove them to it is not entirely clear. Whether Mahon’s premature death was hastened by the reaction to his criticism of Air New Zealand and of his subsequent release of a book to justify his conduct, is a matter of conjecture.

The chapter on John Saxby is somewhat discursive. Saxby was clearly an intriguing character, personally known to McNeish. He had migrated from the UK in the late 1960s to a position as a psychiatrist at Tokanui psychiatric hospital where he introduced new ideas such as group therapy and rose to be superintendent in the 1980s.  He resigned a few years later in protest at the restructuring and changes in government policy arising from the 1987 Mental Health Act.  These eventually led to a large number of redundancies at Tokanui, and his disillusionment.

The chapter on Brigadier Miles focuses on his contribution to two world wars, especially the desert campaign of World War II when he was commander of the Royal Artillery in the second NZEF.  Anyone knowledgeable about military history would appreciate McNeish’s detailed account of aspects of this campaign but it would have been enhanced by a map.  General Freyberg was an admirer of Miles though they subsequently fell out. While their noisy argument is well documented, what it was about is not. Meanwhile Miles had been taken prisoner as, contrary to Freyberg’s policy, he had joined in the fighting alongside his troops.  He was taken to Italy from where he escaped to Switzerland and from there travelled to Spain, a fascinating story.  Days later, while plans were being made to get him to England, he committed suicide, apparently believing he had betrayed his country. This tale has shades of John Mulgan’s story in Dance of the Peacocks, another of McNeish’s biographical works.

The chapter on Peter Mahon appealed to me the most, as I still remember hearing on the radio that the plane was lost and then, hours later, that the wreckage had been found.  It was a national tragedy that in due course led to Mahon being appointed Commissioner of the royal commission of inquiry and to the shifting of blame from the dead pilots to the company itself.  McNeish provides interesting background on Mahon and his selection as sole commissioner. I had forgotten the intense criticism Mahon faced afterwards for not giving those he accused the chance to defend themselves , and the subsequent court cases that went against him.

In all three chapters, McNeish sometimes blurs the line between fact and fiction. He openly admits that a conversation between Saxby and Henry Bennett (superintendent of Tokanui) is his invention and ascribes motives to his protagonists which may well have been accurate, but are not supported by historical evidence.  Nevertheless, the book is a good read and an interesting finale to a productive literary life.