If I'm Remembering Anything: John Mulgan and Stanley Palmer
It’s a story that got Stanley Palmer interested in John Mulgan.
His 90-year-old informant reckoned he met a man in a pub just after World War II who’d been a sergeant in the New Zealand Division.
He was in Maadi camp near Cairo one evening when a lieutenant colonel in the British Army came up and talked to him.
That was unusual in itself.
The officer introduced himself as John Mulgan, said he had a child in New Zealand he had never seen, and that he was transferring to the New Zealand Army the next day.
They made arrangements to meet again, and the next afternoon the sergeant went over to Mulgan’s hotel, only to find the place swarming with military police who told him to clear off.
“This old communist guy reckons they did Mulgan in. But I can’t see the purpose of it, except it’s almost as if the New Zealand government was against him coming back,” says Palmer.
“The other thing that could have happened is that MI6 wanted to kill someone who was staying in that hotel and killed the wrong person.
“There was no way it was suicide. He was in bad physical shape but you would be after the war.”
Suicide was indeed the verdict of the second or two inquiries, although some doubt that.
“I was really interested but I’m not interested any longer because I think he bloody died, didn’t he, and what a waste,” Palmer says.
As the old man Crawley says in Man Alone when Johnson confesses to killing a man and fleeing over the Kaimanawa Ranges, “That’s a bloody interesting story.”
The death of Mulgan and what he might have become are two of the great mysteries of New Zealand literature.
His reputation is based on Man Alone, a novel about an Englishman who comes to New Zealand after serving in World War I, and Report on Experience, a long essay drawing on Mulgan’s war service, especially his work among Greek partisans.
They’re both significant works in the attempt to define a New Zealand identity.
Report has recently been republished with the addition of anti-British material left out of earlier editions.
“I started reading Report, and then one sentence grabbed me,” Palmer says.
It was where the expatriate Mulgan, thinking back to the New Zealand of his youth, says: “If I am remembering anything, it is not only of people that I care for and remember and hope some day to see again, but also of places and a particular memory of scent and light and sound that is the tide coming in at early morning at Manganese Point, or the surf at evening by Whatipu, or a bush river in flood somewhere north of Karamea.”
Palmer went back to those places and sketched in the form and mass and rhythm of the landscape.
Back in his Mt Eden studio he turned his hatched lines into long paintings, pulling his memory of light and space onto the canvas.
“I’m knocked out by his style. It’s so simple,” Palmer says.
“Listen to this from Man Alone: ‘The tide was coming over the mud-reaches pushing a line of foam with it and the mud-holes cracking open as it came. The air was soft wand warm with a scent of pine and fern and warm mangrove mud. Only the moths and mosquitoes drawn to the lamp were a nuisance.’
“I’m sure he’s talking about the pub at Parua Bay on the Whangarei Heads.
“Mulgan was interested in places that weren’t the normal romantic places. Why Whatipu in the evening? Why north of Karamea? There’s a bit in Man Alone where this fellow Crawley talks of looking for gold on the West Coast: ‘It rains down there and the sandflies. You’d go a long way before you’d find a dirtier looking bit of country than up the back of Karamea.’”
At 75 Palmer has outlasted his critics, outlasted fashion, and created his own ways of describing the New Zealand landscape, and his own techniques, especially in his printmaking.
He has used literature before, including a series of West Coast paintings that started from a quote from Bill Pearson’s Coal Flat: ‘Past dark trees, first the cemetery, then the town.’
He couldn’t find quotes as apt for the rest of the series, so made the rest up, earning what for him sums up his critics.
“The review said ‘the quotes were amazing, pity about the artworks.’”
Palmer says as the youngest child of a World War I soldier, he can understand the world described by Mulgan.
“All my brothers and sisters lived exactly the same. I even went to work on a farm when I was 18, like Man Alone, so I know about all these things and I can identify with them.”
They say the past is a different country, but Palmer doesn’t want his work to be nostalgic. “Melancholic perhaps.”
WHAT AND WHO: If I’m Remembering Anything – Remembering John Mulgan 1911-1945 by Stanley Palmer
WHERE AND WHEN: Melanie Roger Gallery, Jervois Rd, until July 30.