Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Strange Things in Strange Places

It’s so quiet here at work. What with the University presently being inhabited with a small number of staff and a smaller number of students, one could hear the proverbial pin drop. With that in mind, plus having some spare time over my lunch break, I thought that I might write a book review to start off the New Year.

Book Review: ‘Tomorrow Comes the Song: A Life of Peter Fraser’ by Michael Bassett with Michael King

It strange what you find sometimes in the most unexpected places and I certainly did not expect to find this biography of Labour’s second (and war-time) Prime Minister, Peter Fraser in the Oamaru Warehouse during the Christmas break. But, there it was, nicely nestled between the romantic fiction, the DIY guides, the cook books and the fitness and exercise books as part of the Warehouse’s post Christmas ‘Big Red’ Book Sale.

I must admit that my opinion of Peter Fraser has been somewhat jaundiced due to my considerable exposure to the Lee mythology in my misspend youth and my copious reading since of New Zealand history and social science. However, ever eager to learn more about Fraser, I brought the book for the princely sum of $9.95.

I’m given to understand that originally the book was to be written by Michael King. However, due to King’s increasing illness at the time, he was unable to complete the research and drafting with the result that Michael Bassett took over the research and wrote the drafts.

Firstly, I need to be honest and state that I don’t like Michael Bassett. However, that being said, I respected his work as an historian. I own several of his earlier books on Third Party Politics and the Third Labour Government (written while he still subscribed to social democratic views and opinions) and found them useful and reasonably well written.

But, I am disappointed in this book. While, the book does develop Fraser as a fuller person based on his experiences and achievements, it does not measure up to Barry Gustafson’s 1986 biography of Michael Joseph Savage, 'From the Cradle to the Grave' nor to Erik Olssen’s 1977 biography of John A Lee.

Actually, it told me no more about Fraser’s ability and characteristics than I already knew. The book confirmed Fraser as a dour and somewhat puritanical person, who disliked risqué humour, disapproved of sex outside of marriage and was a teetotaller. However, I also knew that he was a hardworking, intelligent and able MP, Minister and Prime Minster who quickly adapted to being placed in new and demanding situations, such as becoming Prime Minister in 1940 on the death of Savage at the beginning of World War Two.

The book also glossed over other ‘disquieting’ aspects of Fraser's personality. It does not dwell on the authoritarian and dictatorial traits that he constantly exhibited when dealing with his Labour Party colleagues, it makes only passing reference to Fraser’s somewhat Machiavellian role in the 1930s antagonisms between John A Lee and Savage. Lastly, it eulogises the relationship between Fraser and Fintan Patrick Walsh (the nearest that New Zealand ever had to a corrupt Jimmy Hoffa type Union Leader), which allowed both of them to virtually ‘rule’ the Labour movement through fear and strong arm tactics during the 1940s.

(I’m always reminded of two comments made about Fraser during this period by Labour MP’s in relation to his dominance over both the Labour Party and the Government. The first was the observation ‘that when Peter Fraser smiled, it was like moonlight flickering over tombstones.’ The second was ‘that if Fraser asked how the wife and kids were then you were serious trouble,’ which related to Fraser’s habit of starting conversions with pleasantries about family life before grilling and deriding an unfortunate MP).

Then, there is the issue of Bassett’s apparent loathing toward Michael Joseph Savage (Labour’s First Prime Minister), who Bassett portrays as a person of exceptionally limited ability and intellect, who loved adoration to the extent that he allowed his colleagues, namely Fraser, to take the blame for misjudgements and unpopular decisions and seldom showed them any loyalty. The problem with this description is, as Gustafson makes clear in his biography of Savage, that it is simply not accurate. However, Bassett is even more scathing about Robert (Bob) Semple, who he describes as a ‘vainglorious windbag.’

Bassett also obviously feels the need to justify his increasingly right wing behaviour and political outlook, especially as a Minister in ‘that Labour Government’ during the 1980s, as littered throughout the book are ‘snide’ comments in relation to the foolishness of the economic and social policies of the First Labour Government. Obviously, it was a novel experience for Bassett to learn about politicians who actually thought that people needed to be listened to, respected and treated with honesty – the First Labour Government actually delivered on its manifesto commitments. (Sorry, that was my snide comment).

Lastly, there is the sentence structure and proof reading. Like most people, I’ve sped through sentence construction, misspelling the occasional word and placing commas in places where they should not be placed. However, there are a number of sentences which I was forced to reread several times as they were simply not comprehensible on the first reading.

It is a solid book, nonetheless, which presents Fraser more as a person and demonstrates his considerable abilities. However, it could have done with the added panache (and balance) of an historian like King.


At Wednesday, January 11, 2006, Blogger maps said...

Interesting - I haven't read the book yet myself.

I'm interested in the Lee-Fraser thing as well, especially as it relates to the economic crisis that developed around 1938, because of the inflation and debt Labour's increses in spending were creating.

Lee's suggestion that Labour simply write off its debts to the UK seemed to contrast with Nash's trip to London, cap in hand to borrow money, and Labour's apparent promise to limit new spending (ie refrain from any radical new policies) and back the UK to the hilt in any new war.

This division seemed to reflect itself in differences over wartime policy, too - ie over whether the NZ Divison should be brought home.

Does Bassett's book shed much light on this stuff? How serious a threat does he think Lee was?

At Thursday, January 12, 2006, Blogger Comrade_Tweek said...

Hi Maps, to answer your question, not really.

The events leading up to and the actual 1938 Exchange crisis(which were what prompted Lee to write the infamous ‘Lee Letter’ which was a strident criticism of Nash)are covered far more fully in Olssen’s book on Lee and Gustafson’s book on Savage or Sinclair’s book on Nash.

As a result of the crisis, Nash was forced to implement exchange controls, which had been Labour Party Policy since 1931 and were supported by the majority of the Labour caucus. Exchange controls had been bitterly opposed by Nash who was acting on the advice of the Reserve Bank and the Governor of the Bank of England. Again, Bassett does not really deal with this.

There is a far more fuller account of the war and Fraser’s decision to maintain the bulk of NZ’s armed forces in Europe. Indeed, this makes up sizable section of the book.

As for Lee, Bassett really skips over the first years of the First Labour Government (1935 - 40) in 1 and a half chapters. He does consider Lee a threat - though a short lived and incoherent one. He refers to Lee and the ‘mosquito’ caucus somewhat disparagingly as the ‘credit men’ and is personally scathing of a number of them such as Dr DG McMillan.

Let’s just say that I expected more.


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