I often read two or three books at the same time. I’m doing that now. Oliver lent me Gerald Hensley’s Beyond the Battlefield. It’s an account of the war-time leadership in New Zealand in geopolitical terms and New Zealand’s positioning pre-war, during the hostilities and after its end with emphasis upon the formation of the United Nations.
Gerald was finishing his history doctorate in my masters year at Canterbury. He went on to a distinguished career as a diplomat and public servant. He deserves great credit for the nature of the Samoan and Cook Islands governments. But his unflinching support for the ANZUS alliance meant clashes with David Lange.
Hensley’s admiration for Fraser and Nash is obvious but he is not blind to their faults. I did not realise how much disagreement, indeed animosity, with Australia existed at the time. Hensley knew both Berendsen and McIntosh, the chief advisers, well and quotes from their personal anecdotes.
It’s good stuff but reflects the man – dry, informative, factual, interesting, but not gripping. So for light relief I turn to Caroline Alexander’s Mrs Chippy’s Last Expedition. Shackleton’s planned crossing of Antarctica beginning in 1914 is one of humanity’s great adventure stories, a heroic tale of fortitude and courage.
His ship Endurance was caught in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. The men had to over-winter in it. Along with the men were dogs and a cat which belonged to the carpenter, Mrs Chippy. Alexander has written a tongue in cheek diary compiled by Mrs Chippy. It’s a good read.
Mrs Chippy has the roam of the ship. Its scorn of the dogs is obvious. It sees itself as the confident of the ‘Boss’. Not only does it catch mice, it is pampered pet of the men, getting tit-bits galore. Mrs Chippy misunderstands nearly all the situations it find itself in. Hurley’s photographs enhance the tale.
This reader knows what’s ahead. Ice begins to crush the ship. It has to be abandoned. Everything not essential has to be jettisoned – and that includes the cat. They manhandled two lifeboats across the ice and eventually all 28 men reached Elephant Island. Shackleton knew no one would come looking for them there. Six men made an incredible voyage, over 750 miles across the south Atlantic aiming for landfall at the small island of South Georgia. If they’d missed it would be curtains for everybody. They made it.
They still had to cross the high mountains to reach the Norwegian whaling station on the north side. They did this. Eventually they rescued all the men on Elephant Island. All had survived the three months wait. .
The other book I’m reading is Lauris Edmond’s posthumous poetry volume Late Songs. It is one of the most powerful small collections I own. ‘My song is of the generations, it echoes/ the old dialogue of the years; it is the tribal/ chorus that no one may sing alone.’
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