Tuesday, November 5, 2019

'From the Bottom Up': Review of Dead Letters


Review of Dead Letters by Emma Jean Kelly and Matariki Roche from the LHP Bulletin 76, August 2019.

This incredible book almost makes you wish that Thomas Pynchon’s secret underground (and fictional) postal service from his novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) actually existed. In Pynchon’s alternate universe, the letters of the colourful characters that feature in Jared Davidson’s Dead Letters could have been received by lovers, mates, friends and comrades. But the irony, not lost on Davidson, is that without a censorship which operated extensively during wartime, and after, and the state’s interception of these letters, we never would have met the Andersons, dairy farmers writing Bolshevik poetry, the pigeon thought to be carrying secrets, or Marie Weitzl, one of the "only Germans among the worms."

The censorship and surveillance of British mail had deep roots, going back to the seventeenth century. In the twentieth century a number of British citizens complained to the authorities when they learned that their mail was being read by the Chief Censor. Some believed as British subjects in New Zealand this should not be able to happen, and that it would not happen if they were at 'home.' In general however, people appeared to trust that their mail would reach its destination without being tampered with – and this is itself an interesting aspect of the thinking of the populace at that time, where war regulations allowed the government enormous powers to interfere in the lives of private citizens, whether that be to insist they fight in the First World War, to regulate their relationships or to ensure they did no damage to the apparatus of the state. And despite this, there is a feeling of uncovering treasure in this book. Davidson clearly feels that charge of electricity as he uncovers each new gem from the archive of censored letters which were never delivered. As an archivist himself, Davidson has an intimate knowledge of the materials kept in the government records system, and he has a talent for bringing these dead letters to life.

Many of those surveilled were aware that censorship was in practice, and tried various ways to evade the authorities. Invisible inks were made illegal at this time, but Davidson describes baking soda being used as a homemade version of invisible writing material. The postal service was the only way for these people to communicate with loved ones and colleagues. It is difficult perhaps for many people to imagine only one way to communicate with friends who were not in your immediate vicinity; and that your relationships could be directly impacted upon by the state which chooses to censor and surveil its citizens.

For example, Davidson describes the story of Hjelmar Dannevill, naturopath and supposed cross­dresser, who was interned on Somes/Matiu Island as an enemy alien. It was accusations from a society primed to scapegoat, coupled with letters from society women in which their affection for her is clearly stated, that led to her incarceration. Her internment on Somes/Matiu Island lasted only two months before she suffered a breakdown of some description. Prior to this she was a doctor at the Lahmann Home, Miramar, a naturopathic and holistic centre opened by Prime Minister Massey himself two years before the outbreak of war. A fear of lesbianism and independent women was intense at the time, as Davidson writes:

"Not long after Hjelmar’s arrest, such a stance was taken to the extreme in Britain when MP Noel Billing claimed that Germany possessed a ‘Black Book’ of forty­-seven thousand English men and women’ involved in lesbianism and other so­-called deviant acts. According to Billing, the British Empire was about to collapse from within – one blackmail at a time. Billing argued that 'in lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of State were threatened' (174)."

Davidson is an extraordinary researcher; he has found out everything he can about each of the subjects he focuses on in the book. Each chapter covers a particular letter, or set of letters, and then describes and examines the life of that person as an individual, but extrapolates to wider movements and practices of the time. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies as they were commonly known), the Federation of Labour (Red Feds), German socialists, working-­class unionists, Irish Nationalists and anarchist booksellers all feature in this book, which seeks to tell the story ‘from the bottom up’ of working peoples’ experience of censorship.

This is a work with a careful feminist methodology. Davidson ensures that women’s experience of war, of work, of family life and politics is not just nodded to but focussed upon through the stories of Hjelmar, Marie Weitzel, a farmer, mother and activist, and Laura Anderson, a middle class and educated woman who chooses to live and work as a farmer in Swanson with her husband who is prone to utopian visions. It is Laura’s letter to a cousin which opens the chapter on her and her husband’s lives. Davidson asks:

"What did Laura make of Carl’s revelations? How did it affect their relationship? It’s clear she was a loyal scribe, for it was Laura who wrote out reams of Carl’s poetry into bound volumes that survive to this day…Was she playing her role as a faithful wife, as was expected of her, or was Laura a fellow traveller – and not just in the communist sense? (234)"

One of the most charming things about this serious and wide ranging volume is the small detail which Davidson includes. For example, the fact that to this day the track to Carl and Laura’s farm in Swanson is still called ‘Anderson’s Track’, or that he and his family cleaned the grave of Auckland watersider, Berthold Charles Richard Matzke, who was interned and died at Featherston Camp, because he and his wife Florence had no offspring of their own to maintain it for them.

Davidson offers an opportunity to consider the past, how the state has and does surveil its citizens, what that means for working class people in the past and the future, but also creates the space for us to consider what else might be in the archives, just waiting for the right person to bring the past to life. This is labour history at its best, joyful and also respectful of those whose lives are revealed here. Davidson contacted families to ensure they were aware of his project, and in some cases they were able to see letters he had found which they never knew existed. Some offered him articles and other pieces of information he would not have otherwise seen. And some even came to the book launch on 7 March 2019 at Unity Books in Wellington; there can be no better endorsement for a flaxroots history than the families of those described being there to support the author of such a rich and fascinating volume.

After the terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques on the 15 March 2019, some of the very questions raised by this book regarding letters written one hundred years ago are still present and pertinent. New Zealanders were sending about 6 million letters per week during the period 1914­-1920 – an extraordinary amount compared to today, yet Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and other social media platforms as well as more traditional email formats will be proportional in ensuring many millions of communications each year. But who decides which letters, topics or people are surveilled and who are not? At the Wellington Vigil held for Christchurch on 17 March 2019 at the Basin Reserve in Wellington, a speaker pointed out that the Linwood Mosque congregation had been surveilled by the New Zealand Government for twenty years while white supremacists were not. While in the early twentieth century it was Irish Nationalist, Māori, unionist, working class and opinionated women who were being surveilled. If the censorship of white supremacists with dreams of racial purity and murderous tendencies were a priority at the time, perhaps the history of the twentieth century may have been quite different.

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