Reading Charles Brasch in Oxford

Charles Brasch Landfall New Zealand Oxford McCahon Angus
Colin McCahon, The Virgin and Child Compared (1948). Copyright Colin McCahon Estate. Collection of Hocken Library, Dunedin. Charles Brasch Bequest (1973).

Charles Brasch’s contribution to the birth and growth of New Zealand culture was immense, and is still in many ways under-appreciated or unaccounted for. He was the founding editor of Landfall, the quarterly journal started in March 1947 that showed New Zealanders as well as the world what was unique about the writing, art and music produced in the country—we all know that much. He wrote poems himself, he collected the art of all New Zealand’s mid twentieth-century modernists (and then donated them all to the Hocken Library in Dunedin). He journaled fastidiously, which now, after Peter Simpson’s tireless work, gives us an account of the growth of our culture. But Brasch’s manner of philanthropy was the very best kind: he was always behind the scenes, providing money at just the right time and place where it was needed to support an artist, to publish a book or to start a fellowship. I say “but” about his philanthropy because that now means we will likely never know of or trace the extent of his contributions. Even his diary did not hear of his benevolence.

It has seemed to me then a little ungrateful that Brasch’s Wikipedia page points out, in the very first paragraph, that he gained an “ignominious third” in his Modern History course at Oxford in the late 1920s. I cannot think of any other public figure in New Zealand or elsewhere for whom undergraduate grades feature so prominently in their public biography. Brasch, however, was adamant, as he pointed out in his memoirs published posthumously: “I had not come to Oxford to get a degree”. And judging by his Oxford reading, he got from his time here exactly what he needed.

“One of the very few things I could remember of my first term was lying on my sofa through long damp grey days and reading Katherine Mansfield’s Journal, which seemed (in recollection) to set the mood of the whole term. In fact I devoured the Journal in two days… In that same term, I think, I began to read Plato…”

And just a few years later that undergraduate truant reading would serve Brasch well in one of his life’s most important moments. Sitting by his grandfather Willi Fels’ bedside during his last days—Fels, his maternal grandfather who essentially raised him and was the only one to support him in the decision to become a poet—Brasch read aloud to him the Phaedo, the recollection of Socrates’ death, excluding only those paragraphs he couldn’t bear to read. It was those paragraphs he couldn’t bear to read that were then read aloud, decades later, at Brasch’s own funeral.

His reading was immense, but unfocussed. In addition to the above we know that Wilde and Pound, Brooke and Graves were particularly important during his Oxford years. Brasch published just one poem during his undergraduate years, right before he graduated and went down to London; but this didn’t stop him paying Basil Blackwell a nervous, and unsuccessful, visit about the possibility of publishing a book. His calling to poetry at times seems driven more by an aesthetic sensibility than an inborn talent. Certainly he was not anywhere near the talent of Auden, who was at Oxford at the same time, or Baxter, whose superior talent Brasch immediately recognised and supported (he never seems to have been a jealous writer; maybe this fact explains the limits of his critical success).

Brasch suggests it was partly Plato, partly a flirtation with Buddhism, and partly the lives of other writers (their vegetarian diets) that meant “notions of purity obsessed me… By fits and starts I made several ineffectual bids towards purity. The purity I believed I longed for failed to distinguish properly between what goes in at the mouth and what comes out of the heart.” Brasch, of course, as one of the inheritors to the Hallensteins clothing empire, had the means for an aesthetic life—a life of lavishness and luxury, if he so wanted. But notions of the ascetic are always strongest in those for whom it is a choice rather than a necessity. “Fortunately,” Brasch goes on in his memoirs, “my will was weak and my senses strong, so that I did not fall into puritanism, but continued in a cloud of contradictions, not knowing what I wanted except that I wanted to write poetry. Of these inner cross-currents I spoke to no one.”

The inner cross-currents of which he spoke to no one could be seen as those  tides that shaped his life. His sexuality and love life, for one thing (always tortured), but also more immediately, in his post-Oxford years, that of his vocation. Though he thought of himself always as a poet, his life and posthumous reputation seem to rest on his role as “literary editor” and “arts patron”, as Wikipedia, ever reflecting the public sense, puts it. Or, as he put it, reflecting on his most tortured period and the reaction of his father: “Was I going to be a drifter, sticking at nothing? an idler? a dilettante? I could not explain adequately, because I had not the courage or conviction to avow my secret hopes.”

Landfall certainly dominated his days, to the extent that friends at times advised him to give up the editorship if he was to keep writing poetry. The myriad tasks and constant letter-writing kept this man of leisure busy, or at least busier than Baxter, and then again we find him organising shows of McCahon’s work in Christchurch, for instance, without telling either his diary or Colin. We come up again against Brasch’s old-world decorum, more than just the result of an Oxford education of the late 20s—a fundamental drive to do for others (for a nation) what his means allowed him to, all without any desire for or expectation of credit or recognition.

Fortunately for us, even if we can’t know of all Brasch’s deeds, we can find the products of them—most significantly, in Dunedin, the city that was for him always home. The Hocken Library of the University of Otago possesses one of the best art collections in the country, in large part thanks to Brasch (gifts and bequests tend to snowball as more people see the stature of an institution through what has previously been donated). Rita Angus’ View from Tinakori Road  is there; so too is McCahon’s The Virgin and Child Compared, to name just two personal favourites of over 450 artworks. His personal library of over 7,500 volumes also lives at the Hocken, and so far under-explored is Brasch’s collection of international art and prints that were separated from the main bequest and given to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

As I sit here in Oxford, “through long damp grey days”, reading Brasch’s journals and memoirs, Dunedin comes into focus. Dunedin, and all the places and people Brasch visited and wrote of. They become centre and I am living at the margins, unable to see or read or connect with that which is most important to me (except for those few books that, thankfully, the Bodleian happens to stock). Distance indeed looks our way, as that famous line of Brasch’s poem, “In These Islands“, tells us.

Walking this evening past Brasch’s old rooms with their views out onto the Elm trees of St. Giles, it came clearly to me how a culture is built, how it moves forward, how it communicates more and more life. It gains life and communicates it because of the individuals who decide there isn’t enough of it, and who decide to devote their lives to creating more of it. It is simple, in retrospect; but looking forwards, for the young man flunking Oxford with an ignominious third, it must have looked like the most difficult thing in the world.


 

More on Charles Brasch:

Charles Brasch. Indirections: A Memoir. Oxford University Press, 1980.

Charles Brasch. Journals. 3 volumes, published by Otago University Press.

Charles Brasch. The Universal Dance: A selection from the critical prose writings. Otago University Press, 1981.

Charles Brasch. Present Company: Reflections on the Arts. Blackwood & Janet Paul Ltd, 1966.

James Bertram. Charles Brasch. Oxford University Press, 1977.

Sarah Quigley. A World Elsewhere: a critical and biographical study of the European influence on the life and work of Charles Brasch. DPhil (PhD) thesis at the University of Oxford. (One copy available at Oxford’s Weston library; I couldn’t find an online version).

Donald Kerr (editor). Enduring Legacy: Charles Brasch, Patron, Poet, Collector. Otago University Press, 2003.

Journey to Oxford

My own departure from New Zealand was aided by the departure of those before me, those who departed and felt a departure to be worth writing about. That’s how a country builds itself, how it makes itself a country worth writing about when one leaves: one writes and gives meaning to all those who come and go thereafter. 

I departed, or ‘journeyed away’ if I’m to use the terms of those before me, and as I did so I thought of Mulgan’s departure: his teary goodbyes at the wharf, his hours to contemplate the Southern sun setting for the last time for who knows how long (he was never to see it again), and then weeks to contemplate the spirit of the place he was saying goodbye to. By the time Mulgan crossed the equator and weeks later arrived in Oxford he had digested us and spat us back out again. We, a people for whom “loveliness too often goes often unnoticed”. Perhaps he sat in the University Parks on an early autumn afternoon and felt that if he didn’t start the tradition then nobody would. 

I sit in the University Parks on a late summer’s afternoon, and though I want to write about the journey to Oxford I find that there simply wasn’t enough of a journey to write about. Arrivals and departures are as mundane as remembering which day to put the rubbish out, and journeys are for luxury goods companies desperate to sell suitcases. Mine was a “trip” here, a trip like the hundreds I’ve done already (if I hold my boarding passes, which I’ve kept since I was fifteen, the stack is as thick as my thigh), and to want it to have been a journey is to simply be crassly literary about it: it doesn’t change the mundanity of any part of the process.

And yet for all the talk of distance these days being less tyrannical, a New Zealander in Oxford is still a New Zealander a long way from home. A New Zealander in Oxford is still one who thought our borders too small; he or she still thought the long trip and the goodbyes to be worthwhile. My arrival here is in so many ways a failure, because as much as the polite thing to say is that New Zealand’s universities are perfectly good, the fact is that one still leaves for Oxford if given the chance. I know of no one who has turned the chance down. 

“Must we continue to consider him as a “post-graduate scholar”, fleeing to the other end of the earth for salvation, driven back only by circumstance to a state where he feels damned?”, John Beaglehole asked upon his return to New Zealand just a few years before Mulgan’s departure. My arrival here is, if not a national failure, then a personal one, because it answers Beaglehole in the affirmative: yes, we must still consider him or her so. The life of the province is rich but it is not yet rich enough; the country communicates life but it does not yet have enough of it. Meanwhile, New Zealanders in Oxford laugh at the British but vow never to return to those “Antipodes” (the British term for isles quaint but not worth knowing about). Beijing, a few of them mention. 

Days after arriving I went to the Sackler, Oxford’s art library, and asked for a book on McCahon (it did not take long for me to miss those hills). Your search returned no results. Rita Angus, then—no results. Perhaps I would re-read Mulgan from a new vantage point, but it wasn’t to be, for I am not a member of Balliol, the only college library to hold a copy, and I did not feel like making an appointment with the college library to “view” the book. See, it is still either there or here, here or there. While home I relish revelling in the culture that is ours, but regret that there is not enough culture that is ours merely by humanity, rather than nationality. Here, the opposite: humanity is just a short walk to the library away, but the Bodleian does not yet know how to categorise New Zealanders’ humanity (in fact, our books are simply not sold here). 

I left intending and planning to return, but a part of me is preternaturally scared that something will prevent it: something like a job. If I am to write, from here I could write to the world—from home I would write to ourselves. If I am to start a business, from here I start one facing outwards first and inwards second, whereas from home it is inwards first and outwards hopefully. Still it is for us a choice, whereas the mark of sufficient cultural life is to eradicate the need for a choice. It is true that “Should I stay or should I go” is still our national song, but for how long? For how long must we keep singing that song? 

 


(I asked someone close to me for their thoughts on this essay, and the reply was that, ironically, an essay such as this would never be read overseas either, precisely because it deals with New Zealand. Of course, I think that is true: which means that we must keep singing that song for at least another generation or two).

Here is John Mulgan’s fragmentary essay on his own journey to Oxford that sparked these reflections, edited by Victoria University of Wellington professor Peter Whiteford who himself journeyed to Oxford (but did, to our benefit, return).