50 Years of NZ Book Awards: Maurice Gee

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Book Awards in New Zealand. Our national prize has had different sponsors and incarnations over the years: it’s now the Ockham NZ Book Awards, held each May on the Tuesday of the Auckland Writers Festival.

Over the years many of our brightest and best writers, and classic books, have been recognised in the awards. Many of these authors are part of the Academy of New Zealand Literature. We’re celebrating their work this year by publishing excerpts from one of their award-winning books, along with notes from the authors on writing those books. Here’s to fifty more years of great books and our constellation of writers.

 


 

                

 

Plumb by Maurice Gee (Penguin Books NZ) | Winner of the 1979 Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards

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Maurice Gee writes:

It’s more than forty years since I wrote Plumb and I’m not sure now where some of the things in the book come from. But I am sure about the chapters reproduced here. They describe George Plumb’s trial for seditious utterance during The First World War and they follow closely the trial of my grandfather James Chapple in 1918 on the same charge. Like Plumb James Chapple was a clergyman and, like Plumb, a fierce controversialist in politics and religion. His trial was reported in detail in newspapers at the time, but he received a sentence of eleven months imprisonment not Plumb’s fourteen. (I gave Plumb a bonus.) About 60% of the three chapters is my work and 40% taken from newspapers and my grandfather’s writings. He published books of essays and lectures and two of the lectures had titles used in the novel: ‘Julius Caesar or Jesus Christ’ and The Glorious Bolsheviks of Russia’. I don’t look on this as stealing, or if it is then I’d have to say that lifting things from here and there is legitimate for fiction writers. But we mustn’t pinch from each other, just be ‘influenced’, with perhaps a word or phrase ‘borrowed’ if nothing else will fit.

Plumb’s trial is one of the key events in the novel. Others have their source in James Chapple’s religious, political and family life, all dramatised within the life of the book. The chapters presented here show Plumb at his opinionated and irascrible best – or worst if you choose – but they underline his courage and his fierce desire for what he would have called human betterment. Put simply, he, and my grandfather too, wanted to do good.

 


Extract from Plumb by Maurice Gee (Penguin Books NZ)

 

59

It took the police two weeks to prepare their charges. I had time for lectures in Nelson and Blenheim. But when I came back I was summonsed. There were two charges, both of seditious utterance. I appeared in the Christchurch Magistrates Court at the beginning of March.

On the morning of my trial I dressed in my warmest clothes and stoutest shoes. Edie put half a dozen handkerchiefs and a pair of woollen gloves in my pockets and I chose a small volume of Emerson’s essays. I said goodbye to the children and told them they must work hard at school. Then I set out. Felicity came with me. Edie was not well enough.

I had wished to defend myself, but when I showed my friends the statement I meant to read they were horrified. John Jepson and Andrew had hurried up from Thorpe. Even Andrew was horrified. They might have airy notions about love, but about the justice of courts they were realistic. What I needed was a smart lawyer. They made me retain John Willis. And John would not even let me on the stand.

That was a wrong decision. I see it now. My statement had been carefully thought out. I speak very well. In speaking I’m a professional. I would not have moved the magistrate—a little Oliver—but there was an audience in court that day and it went to waste. I might have planted a seed. And a seed can grow into a forest tree. I look at the statement today: Appendix 2 in The Growing Point of Truth. It begins with a short history of sedition, from Jesus to Mazzini and Kossuth. Today’s seditionmonger, I said, is tomorrow’s political hero. And I showed how the lawbreaker may be more important to society than the lawmaker. Then I went on to the charges, and spoke of “the patriotic poison” in our schools and the need to teach loyalty towards the whole human family. I explained why I wished for no victor in the war and why praying for victory is a blasphemy. I tabulated New Zealand’s war profits and showed who is the real victor. I explained my attitude towards war loans. And I described the sort of revolution I wished to see in my country. Then I made a more personal statement (or would have made it). I explained my decision to come back to New Zealand. New Zealand had a destiny, this destiny drew me back, for it was bound inextricably to my own. I made my “utterances” at the command of God and my conscience. My conscience would not let me hate seventy million Germans at the State command. Nor would it let me be silent. I spoke for myself but I did not stand alone. For “God standeth in the shadow keeping watch above his own,” (Lowell). And although my lectures had cost me this agony—public trial—I regretted nothing. I had simply obeyed a call to duty, duty to my country and to mankind. “The truth,” I said, “is my burden and not sedition.”

But all this sat in my pocket, unused. John Willis conducted my defence on technicalities.

The case was brought under the War Regulations, section 4, which defined what was seditious or had a seditious tendency. The first charge stated that on February 14, in a lecture entitled “Julius Caesar or Jesus Christ”, I said:

“You are under the heels of the War Lords. We have not enough population in our country, yet we are lusting after the annexation of Samoa. The patriotic poison is in our schools. The children are taught to salute the flag and sing the National Anthem. I am hoping with a fervent hope that in this war there will be no victor. To pray about a war is blasphemy. A woman goes down the valley of death to bring a child into the world; she nurses it, sends it to school, sees it through the sixth standard; then comes a call to arms, and it goes away to war. What for? To die for its country? No! To die for the profiteer.”

The second charge stated that on February 15, in a lecture entitled “The Glorious Bolsheviks of Russia”, I said:

“Russia wanted war, England wanted war, the upper class in New Zealand wanted war. Never has there been such a wonderful five days as the five days of the Russian Revolution. The old Russia has gone and the new Russia has come in. I hope before I die to see a similar movement in New Zealand. I hope the day will come in New Zealand when these war loans will be repudiated. I hope not a penny of the war loan will be repaid. You do not authorize them.”

These were my seditious utterances. I pleaded not guilty.

 

60

The prosecutor was a man called Malcolm. He was a matter-of-fact, a dry-as-dust sort of man, but I heard a detestation in his voice once or twice in the morning. We anti-war folk were looked on as worse than murderers.

The clerk read the first charge. Then Malcolm set the scene: hall, chairman, sponsoring body (the Labour Representation Council), the audience of one hundred and fifty persons. Dry stuff. But then he showed some passion. “There can be no question that these words uttered by the accused are seditious. The only question can be, were they used? They were. That we shall prove. And we shall claim they were uttered not under momentary excitement, not in the heat of argument, but coolly and deliberately by an educated man brought to the town of Thorpe and speaking in a public lecture designed as part of an organized propaganda.”

He called a Senior-Sergeant of Police, Sampson by name: one of the men who had taken notes at the meeting. He was a burly man, slow-speaking, slow-moving, and even I could see an excellent witness. If in those rites of Justice we can look on the magistrate as the Godhead, then Sampson and Malcolm had the role of serving priests. And Sampson was the senior. Malcolm handed neutral objects to him and Sampson sanctified them. Thus:

“How long did the accused speak?”

“I timed the speech. He spoke for an hour and twenty-two minutes.”

“Was there any response from the audience?”

“There was frequent applause. There were shouts of ‘Bravo’ and ‘Hear, hear’.”

“Did you take notes of the words of the accused?”

“I did.”

“Now Sergeant, are you a shorthand writer?”

“No, sir. I take a fast longhand note.”

“Are the words charged in the information the only notes you took?”

“No, sir. Prior to those words I took the following.” (He opened his notebook.) “If Jesus Christ was now on earth he would be tried for sedition. The churches are the recruiting agent for the world’s greatest tragedies. Some of the clergy are now known as the black militia. We are weeding out the best of our manhood and leaving the weeds. Where is this going to land us?”

I leaned across to John Willis and told him the sergeant was not being strictly truthful. These words were not consecutive. They came from different parts of my talk, like the words in the charges. John nodded. He had seen it. And when he rose to question Sampson he began on that line. I saw very soon it made up the substance of our defence. I was unhappy at that. I persisted in thinking this trial was part of an argument and my job was to persuade. There was the box. I should be in it, delivering my message. John kept stolidly on, though he must have felt my disapproval pressing on his spine. In court he dropped his uncertainties, hid the dark side of his nature, and came out the honest legal tradesman. It was a good piece of acting. But I was too angry to admire him for it.

“Do you agree, Sergeant,” he asked, “that Mr Plumb is a fairly rapid speaker?”

“Yes, sir. Fairly rapid.”

“And you are not a shorthand writer?”

“No, sir.”

“But you managed to take a lengthy note?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you copy down all his words or just some?”

“Some, sir. There was no time to take them all.”

“No time? Then there are gaps in your record?”

“The notes are not consecutive, sir.”

“How long are they spread over?”

“The whole lecture. An hour and twenty-two minutes.”

“You will admit then that there are many words left out from the body of your note that might moderate or qualify its meaning?”

“No sir, I will not admit that. There are words left out. But those words do not change the meaning. The note gives the general trend of the lecture. Each sentence is a complete consecutive rendering.”

“Sergeant, when Mr Plumb said that he taught his children not to sing the National Anthem, did he add nothing to that?”

“Not that I remember, sir.”

“Did he not go on to say that he taught them to sing ‘God save the people’?”

At once a shout of “Bravo!” came from behind me (Scotch, of course) and a short burst of clapping, like a pattering of rain. The magistrate nodded sharply, and the orderly was on his feet, threatening to put the offenders out. John was cross. He looked sternly at Andrew. Then he put his question again. The Sergeant remembered my words, but the magistrate, still frowning down the court, seemed to make no note of them. John glared at Andrew. But it all struck me as a piece of comedy; and Andrew’s cry as a good honest response. Sooner that than the legal splitting of hairs.

John went on for a while; he produced qualifying remarks; had Sampson remember some; and sat down at last well pleased with himself.

Malcolm called the second policeman, Wood. He was not a shorthand writer either. He had less control of himself than Sampson and spent his time on the stand glaring at me in a cold and weighty manner I found upsetting. He was, I should guess, a good hater. Wood gave nothing to John. He admitted taking down only the words he thought seditious, but declared roundly that my other words had not altered their meaning. He had no memory of “God save the people”.

John made one good point. He asked Wood if he did not think it strange that he and Sampson had noted the same words.

“No sir, not strange at all.”

“But the words you took down and the words the Sergeant took down are identical. Down to the last full stop.”

“I didn’t see what the Sergeant took down. We were on opposite sides of the hall.”

“You didn’t copy from him later on?”

“No, I did not.”

“It’s odd then that you should have what he has.”

“No sir, not odd at all. We took down the words we thought seditious.”

“From a talk that lasted an hour and twenty minutes—some eighteen thousand words—you both took down the same fifty. And you say it’s not odd?”

“I do.”

“Coincidental, then?”

Wood made no reply, and John left it at that. Then, as Malcolm closed his case, he stood up again to defend me. He called no witnesses, but addressed the court. He did so in a stodgy manner. Eloquence would not have been acceptable to the robed individual on the bench; a man loose-lipped, dewlapped like a bulldog, and suffering a red collapse of his lower eyelids. His voice was like the creaking of a door. Appropriate, I thought, to the kind of justice that locked free speech away.

John began by admitting that the words in the information would be seditious if used consecutively. But, he said, they were not so used. The policeman had admitted it. And he submitted to the court that he had shown beyond any doubt—beyond the shadow of a doubt, he said—that they had taken their notes haphazardly and ignored the qualifying phrases I had used.

“This case,” he said, “is very different from a case of indecent language. The words in a sedition case should not be taken out of their context. What the accused said should have been rendered in full. I could of course put him on the witness stand and ask him to render it in full. But that would take up too much of the court’s time. I have shown already how all the remarks in the information were qualified. And I suggest to the court—and to my learned friend” (a lawyerly nod at Malcolm) “that the summons should have been drawn up to show where the intervals occurred between the sentences.”

The magistrate interrupted. “There should have been a row of points between the sentences. That is the proper manner.”

John was encouraged by this. He droned on like a great black bee, but it was plain to me he was trapped in the bottle of his legalistic mind. How I longed to jump to my feet and tell him and Malcolm and the magistrate what this case was all about. Words, words. A point here, a point there. “It is manifestly impossible for anyone to take down in longhand any sentence such as the one submitted by Mr Sampson. That contains fifty words and would have been uttered in less than twenty-five seconds.” The magistrate scratched with his pen. Sampson folded his hands. Somebody coughed in the body of the court. I looked round and Felicity smiled at me. Dan Peabody sat beside her. I had not known he was coming up.

The magistrate—Bradley was his name—kept his nose down. He scratched on with his noisy pen, sucking in his newborn baby’s lip. Malcolm yawned and studied his thumb-nails. Wood kept his deadly eye on me as though I were his prey. John whispered encouragement—all of it nonsense. To cut him off I took out my Emerson and started to read. “No, no,” John said, “that’ll make a bad impression on the court.”

Finally Bradley laid down his pen and folded his liver-marked hands. I had thought we would be in for some legal knitting but he had surprised me by coming straight to the point. “I have no doubt these words were used or that they are seditious. Naturally they are only part of what was said, but I accept the evidence of the police that there were no other remarks that modify to any serious extent what is reported here. The only modifying clause is the reference to ‘God save the people’, and that, it seems to me, could very well be sung as well as the National Anthem. The two are not contradictory. However, we are not concerned with that here. We are concerned with the reported utterance. And it is plainly seditious to say that children should not sing ‘God save the King’. We shall confine ourselves to that, and to the whole tendency of the words in the information. That tendency is to excite disaffection against His Majesty’s Government. I find the charge of seditious utterance proven and I direct the court to record a conviction against the defendant. However, I shall defer sentence until the hearing of the second charge.”

He nodded at the clerk. And so we went through the solemn farce again. John enlivened it a little by reading a sentence from the charge to Sampson and having him write it down. Sampson did it perfectly.

“Yes,” John said, “well you probably know it by heart.” And he read two short paragraphs from a newspaper. Sampson got down only the opening words.

“Well, sir,” he explained, “what Mr Plumb said impressed itself more forcibly on my mind.” I was pleased to hear it.

In his final speech John said it was beyond human probability that two witnesses should have noted the same few words in speeches lasting an hour and twenty minutes and an hour and three-quarters. This was the only point he had to make but he looked at it back, front, sideways, and from underneath. The magistrate played with his lip and wiped his damp fingertips on his robe. When it was his turn to speak he wasted no time. I saw he wanted to purge his court of me. He could not understand any suggestion that new Zealand should repudiate its war loans. He could hardly imagine that New Zealand should have a revolution such as was still going on in Russia. Anyone who wished such a thing must be mad. To see his infantile, his stupid eye fix itself on me, and hear his grating voice declare me mad, was more than I could bear. He spoke for greed, stupidity, cruelty, death. I tried to get my statement from my pocket, tried to climb to my feet, but John held me down by my arm and hissed at me. He was saying, I believe, that if I sat still I might get away with a fine. “Nonsense,” I said, “this man wants me locked up.”

“George, be still, be still.” And on my other side the court orderly restrained me too. So I let Bradley get on with it.

“I find the defendant guilty on both charges. And because in these troubled times a man holding beliefs such as his is too dangerous to be at large, I sentence the defendant to fourteen months’ imprisonment on each charge. The sentences will run concurrently.”

 

61

Felicity cried, “You cannot do this. Shame!” Her clear light voice was the first sound in the room as the door closed behind waddling Bradley. There was pain as well as anger in her cry. This was the point at which games stopped for her. Like Dan in Lyttleton jail, she looked into the dark. We had been until then, she and I, engaged in crusading. White chargers, gleaming swords, cannot have been far from her mind. Now she knew the truth. I leaned over the rail and held her hand. She kissed me and burst into tears. I asked Dan to take her home to Edie. He put his arms about her and led her away.

Because I was not a desperate criminal I was given time to say goodbye to my friends. They filed past and shook me by the hand. John Jepson. Andrew. Bluey Considine, who had come over from the Coast. Then men and women I did not know began to walk over. I felt the touch of many hands. Last came old Matthew Willis. “You should have got yourself a good lawyer, boy.” He told me not to worry about Edie and the children. “I’ll see they come to no harm.”

Then I was taken out and put in a van, and delivered to Lyttleton jail.

 

© Maurice Gee 1979, published in Plumb, Penguin Books.

'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell

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