Legacies of war

Among the platoons of books being published about World War I, a new anthology stands out by presenting a much broader picture of New Zealand’s involvement in war.

From left: Harry Ricketts and Gavin McLean.
From left: Harry Ricketts and Gavin McLean.

The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing, edited by Victoria English professor Harry Ricketts and Wellington historian Gavin McLean, spans the different hostilities New Zealand has been involved in, from first encounters between Māori and Europeans to the nineteenth century New Zealand wars, and from the two world wars to present day conflicts.

Harry says the emphasis is as much on writing as on war. Consequently, the book concentrates on published rather than unpublished work, and features poetry and extracts from plays, novels, short stories and young adult fiction, as well as historical accounts. “It’s got an extremely broad sweep. The idea was to juxtapose historical accounts with literary representations to create an almost kaleidoscopic version of events.”

Many of New Zealand’s most famous writers such as Maurice Gee, Janet Frame, Witi Ihimaera, Margaret Mahy, Allen Curnow, Katherine Mansfield, Dan Davin, Robin Hyde, James K. Baxter and Hone Tuwhare are included in the book.

“Where we could we wanted to use the work of well-known writers because, although they are often not thought of as ‘war writers’, they tend to be the ones who have written best about war.”

Many of the authors have a strong connection to Victoria University. “Some of the historians—such as James Belich, Jock Phillips and Chris Pugsley—have taught or done research at Victoria. A songwriter we’ve featured, Harold Gretton, was a student here in the 1930s.”

Another writer and poet, Les Cleveland, who fought in World War II, was for many years a much-admired lecturer in the Political Science department. “He wrote a fascinating book called Dark Laughter: War in Song and Popular Culture, about the songs sung by the troops and how these acted as a kind of psychological defence mechanism, turning the horrors of war into a ribald comedy and carnival grotesque. We have included several slices of this more irreverent material.”

Find out more about The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing.