Obituary: Sir James McNeish, 1931-2016, intrepid writer who looked at NZ with a cool eye

James McNeish had the face of a "Renaissance prince", one fellow scribe once suggested.
ANDREW GORRIE/FAIRFAX NZ

James McNeish had the face of a "Renaissance prince", one fellow scribe once suggested.

Sir James Henry Peter McNeish, writer: b Auckland, October 23, 1931; m Felicity Wily (diss), 1d; Helen Schnitzer (2); d Wellington, November 11, 2016, aged 85.

Sir James McNeish was a prolific journalist, broadcaster, novelist, playwright and biographer whose diverse work matched his adventurous life.

From helping an anti-mafia campaigner in 1960s Sicily, to reimagining the life and death of the champion New Zealand runner Jack Lovelock, to coolly appraising the Bain family murders, McNeish devoted himself to a wide and vital range of subjects.

Sir James McNeish with wife Helen. The pair were married in the Kawhia Post Office shortly after her arrival in New ...
FAIRFAX NZ

Sir James McNeish with wife Helen. The pair were married in the Kawhia Post Office shortly after her arrival in New Zealand in 1968.

Like many of the writers and artists of his era, he had an ambivalent relationship to New Zealand, leaving often, sometimes wondering why he had returned, and always possessing something of the outsider's status.

The distinction was reinforced by his striking appearance: McNeish had a mane of shoulder-length hair, and a long face that one fellow writer described as belonging on a "Renaissance prince".

But he believed passionately in his craft, and left a body of work unusual in New Zealand writing. He came to believe, he wrote in his 2012 memoir Touchstones, "that writing is not something one does for amusement or even primarily for a living; that a book is not a toy or a plaything but rather something that can become a motive force or an instrument for action."

Sir James McNeish after being made a Knight Companion of the NZ Order Of Merit, right, pictured with Sir Raymond Avery.
KENT BLECHYNDEN

Sir James McNeish after being made a Knight Companion of the NZ Order Of Merit, right, pictured with Sir Raymond Avery.

McNeish was born in Papakura on the outskirts of Auckland – "Ed Hillary's town" – to a concert violinist mother and a postmaster father, who had served in World War I and had nurtured his own, unfulfilled hopes of becoming a writer. In time, the family moved to upmarket Remuera, and McNeish attended Auckland Grammar School and Auckland University.

He began working for the New Zealand Herald in the 1950s, but found himself unsuited to the job, especially given his admitted tendency to embellish his work.

With dreams of writing a hit play in London, he took a job as a deckhand on a Norwegian freighter to get to Europe. He found work with the pioneering British theatre-maker Joan Littlewood, then in broadcasting with the BBC. (Before his training there, he remembered, "like many New Zealanders, I was an ummer. I gabbled. I could not deliver a connected sentence.")

James McNeish, right, receives his Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in 2011 from former Arts Minister ...

James McNeish, right, receives his Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in 2011 from former Arts Minister Christopher Finlayson.

He took a special interest in rare folk music traditions in remote pockets of Europe, travelling to 21 countries and sending his field recordings back to the BBC. This habit, along with a Herald night editor's description of seeing purple cauliflowers there, led him to Sicily, where he found untapped musical riches.

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"I recorded nubile maidens and grandmothers, lute-playing barbers, the songs of salt miners, the ballads of travelling minstrels, village festas – and once, after taping a town band playing mazurkas, was sent for by the mayor, who asked if I could arrange on returning to New Zealand for the entire village to emigrate."

It was music, too, which led him to Danilo Dolci, the non-violence campaigner sometimes dubbed the "Gandhi of Sicily", who was in the midst of a series of fasts and protests aimed at breaking the corruption and torpor of the poor island's mafia-controlled institutions.

McNeish believed that to truly know oneself, a person had to either live in a community or in isolation for part of ...
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ

McNeish believed that to truly know oneself, a person had to either live in a community or in isolation for part of their life.

On meeting Dolci, a noted piano player, McNeish asked to hear him play. The Italian declined, and McNeish instead found himself helping out with the cause – and ultimately writing a biography of the campaigner, Fire Under the Ashes. McNeish considered Dolci, a writer himself, a pioneer of "creative nonfiction" years before the path-breaking work of such authors as Truman Capote.

"He invented a way of storytelling based on interviews with witnesses who cried out and cried scandal, producing a literary masterpiece full of coincidences that no novelist would have dreamed of making up. To those of us working with him at the time, he was a kind of sorcerer."

While he was in Sicily, his first marriage, to Felicity Wily, broke down, and she returned to New Zealand with their daughter.

He met his second wife, Helen, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, in a London flat. Among her charms, he wrote, "I couldn't understand how someone who had not spoken a word of English until the age of fifteen could be so much more fluent in the language and literature than I was."

McNeish returned to New Zealand twice in the 1960s. He fled quickly the first time – among the things, he later told the poet Denis Glover, that always made him want to pack his bags were "the New Zealand accent, the New Zealand pie cart, most of the main streets of the North Island, and God Defend New Zealand."

The second time around, he headed for a remote peninsula near Kawhia called Te Maika, and a bach gifted to him by his "Maori aunt" Jean, where he kindled a connection with his Maori whakapapa. Helen joined him there, they were married in the Kawhia post office, and they spent the next decade or so coming and going from the peninsula, which is accessible only by boat.

"To know oneself one has to live for a time either as part of a community or, at the other extreme, in isolation," he wrote. "I've been lucky enough to have both: the one with Dolci's band of workers in Sicily, the other on this island of Te Maika."

Still, McNeish continued to travel and work in journalism, partly to earn a living and partly because he needed to go to places with an edge, he told one interviewer.

"It's very dangerous to go to sleep, which is why I find permanent residence in New Zealand dangerous."

He spent time in Israel, and became a vocal supporter of the country, founding a trust to send young New Zealanders to work on kibbutzim (Israeli cooperative farms) in the 1970s. 

He won a series of prestigious and lucrative residencies and awards, beginning with the Katherine Mansfield Menton fellowship in 1973, through to a Berlin residency in 2009 and the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in 2011.

His 1986 work Lovelock, a fictionalised diary of the 1936 Olympic gold-medal winner, was well-received. (In response to complaints about his inventions, he said the story was " historically questionable but essentially true"). 

His 1997 book, The Mask of Sanity, plunged him into the middle of furious national debate about the 1994 Bain family murders. McNeish concluded that David Bain, then in prison for the murders but now acquitted, was indeed guilty.

"It may be he has blotted everything out, but he still did it," he told The Evening Post that year, by which time he and Helen had moved to Wellington.

Later, across two books, he profiled New Zealand intellectuals and Rhodes scholars making their way in Britain – work that the critic and McNeish's near-contemporary CK Stead calls his best and "important contributions to our intellectual, political and literary history".

McNeish continued writing into his final years. He delivered his last manuscript, for Breaking Ranks, a book about "three New Zealanders who defied convention and stood up for what they believed in", to his publisher a few days before he died.

 - The Dominion Post

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