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Telling a life story is a tricky business. Recounting one's own life in memoirs or an autobiography is even tricker.
The autobiographer who has a public reputation to protect is exposed to the charge of self-interest. People often wonder: "Is what is written here a pre-emptive strike to fend off future unfavourable interpretations of this person's life?"
If the author is an egotist, he is particularly suspect. After all, he, better than anyone else, will know just where he wants the flattery to be applied and proceed to lay it on with a trowel.
But whatever one's motives in writing about oneself, the exercise does not necessarily come off in the way intended.
Consider the two Victorian greats, Anthony Trollope and Rudyard Kipling.
In his memoirs, Something about Myself, Kipling was so guarded that he told us pretty well nothing about himself. But through what he left out, this brilliant, intense writer unconsciously betrayed the angst-ridden demons that lurked behind a steely imperialist front.
Trollope, on the other hand, in his posthumously published autobiography, admitted he had deliberately left certain things out. His personal foibles for instance. His delight in pretty women, his enthusiasm for cards, his pleasure "in a cup of wine".
"Of what matter," he asked, "is that to any reader?" And over the years we shout back in reply: "It matters a great deal. Tell us more!" But he didn't.
Instead, he spoke of himself as a craftsman, working methodically day by day to finance a costly lifestyle for himself and his family. Then he confirmed in the minds of dewy-eyed critics that he was a thorough going materialist by listing the 40 books he had written, marking beside each, down to the last penny, how much it had earned for him.
This revelation of how professional writers work would win for Trollope almost universal approval from authors today. But it did his reputation no good in the late 19th century. Many thought he had shown himself to be no true genius but a writing machine.
A danger for those about to pen their reminiscences, particularly writers of advanced years, is that they may be tempted to act as posthumous avengers. The politician, John A. Lee, was a prime example.
This stormy petrel of the Labour movement had the advantage of living on until virtually all of his contemporaries had died. Raking over old coals he was able to give fresh life to his own contentious version of the events because the only people who could have possibly refuted his claims would have had to rise from their graves to do so.
In recent years historians such as Sir Keith Sinclair, Professor Bill Oliver and Michael King have given accounts of their authorial lives. And now another writer Dick Scott has joined the club, by presenting us with Dick Scott: A Radical Writer's Life.
Scott is a writer with solid credentials. On the back cover of his book he is described as "arguably New Zealand's foremost popular historian". Won over by the ambiguity of the qualifier "popular", I am prepared to agree.
Scott has written more than a dozen books of uniformly high standard. Because some of these have sold in their tens of thousands, he has reached a remarkably wide readership.
Certain of these books are outstanding. Ask that Mountain and Seven Lives on Salt River automatically come to mind. Even the commissioned works such as In Old Mount Albert , and Fire on the Clay are by no means potboilers. Students gratefully turn to them as standard works of reference. And by outlining in his autobiography the genesis and development of his publications, Scott greatly increases their usefulness.
However, I suspect most readers will get more enjoyment from the personal details of the life of this self-confessed radical. Scott became, while still in his 20s, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, a trade union activist and a significant left-wing journalist. This memoir tells of a life at the heart of the struggle between the Holland Government and the waterside-worker unions, culminating in the industrial showdown of 1951.
In 1953 Scott left the Communist Party disenchanted, it seems, not with its ideology but with its uninspiring leadership. But this new departure coincided, he tells us, with a growing feeling of "repugnance of racism", a distrust of colonialism and a belief in equality for women.
These politically correct causes have apparently been closest to his heart in the years since. It is interesting how, in the second half of the 20th century, many renegade communists such as Scott happily became part of the grouping that the French call the "angelic left". There, once again, they could position themselves on the moral high ground where they could look down on their opponents not just as politically mistaken but as morally degraded. Maybe this has come about, as Doris Lessing has pointed out, because political correctness "is the heritage of communism ... the natural continuum from the party line".
A word for those who will use, as one hopes they will, these recollections as a historical source — they are coloured by Scott's fervent political beliefs. Episodes such as the 1951 wharf lockout, Fintan Patrick Walsh's enduring vendetta with Scott and his underground colleague Max Bollinger and Scott's expulsion from the 1954 Federation of Labour conference are recalled with a passionate intensity that suggests they took place yesterday.
But they are at times an unreliable foundation for any objective assessment of what really happened. Keith Sinclair's Walter Nash , and Graeme Hunt's more recent, masterly Black Prince, The Biography of Fintan Patrick Walsh paint an entirely different picture.
Reading Scott's book reminded me of the story about scientist Leo Szilard, who explained why he kept a diary. The diary, he said, was not for publication, just "a record of the facts for God". When it was pointed out that God might already know the facts, Szilard replied: "Yes, but he doesn't know this version of the facts." This is Dick Scott's version of the facts. And it is well worth reading.
* Emeritus Professor Russell Stone is an Aucklander writer and historian
Published by: Reed