Mulgan, John

Mulgan, John

In Brief

John Mulgan was born in Christchurch to an intellectual and musical family. Author of the classic New Zealand novel, Man Alone, he spoke for the generation that grew up between the wars, engaging with aspects of New Zealand life more imaginatively than any writer since Mansfield. An athlete, scholar and serviceman in various World War II campaigns, Mulgan was part of the English academic establishment, yet staunchly opposed right-wing European politics and British foreign and social policies. He also rejected purely intellectual values and was drawn to a life of classless social exchange and simple domesticity.


Mulgan, John (1911–45), was born in Christchurch, where his father, the poet, critic and essayist Alan Mulgan worked on the Press, and his mother Marguerite (Pickmere), one of the first women graduates of Auckland University College, was active in intellectual and musical life. Most of Mulgan’s boyhood and adolescence was spent in Auckland, apart from one year in 1926 as a boarder at Wellington College, when his parents visited Britain, and Alan wrote Home, a celebration of the heart of Empire.

Mulgan was good at sport as well as academic work, and from Auckland GS he went on to Auckland University College, where his main subjects were English and Greek. Active in student journalism, he ran foul of the college authorities in a freedom of speech controversy, and his views moved decidedly to the Left after the Auckland riots—facts which undoubtedly contributed to his not being nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship in 1932. As a student too he first revealed what would become an increasing reservation about academics and intellectuals, refusing to contribute to the self-consciously progressive Phoenix, edited by his friend James Bertram, and submitting his rather Dowsonian and vaguely melancholy poems to the less elitist Kiwi. But his preference already was for a straightforward, functional prose.

Towards the end of 1933, on money borrowed by his father and that John paid back over several years, he entered Merton College, Oxford, and two years later took a first class degree in English. At the invitation of Kenneth Sisam, himself an Auckland graduate, and now an eminent scholar and secretary to Oxford University Press, Mulgan joined the Clarendon Press, and quickly learned the skills and routines of publishing. In 1936, with his close friend Geoffrey Cox, he began a fortnightly newspaper column, ‘Behind the Cables’, which was run in the Auckland Star, and provided an alert, informed commentary on current European politics. That same year he shared a house with two other New Zealand friends, the medievalist Jack Bennett, and Ian Milner, an ardent Soviet supporter. Although repelled by right-wing European politics and British foreign and social policies, Mulgan’s leftist views remained elusive of party and doctrine. His emphasis on the individual, on modern alienation rather than political panacea, is at the core of the novel he began soon after his marriage in 1937 to a young Oxford woman, Gabrielle Wanklyn.

Mulgan took the title of Man Alone from a remark in Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, ‘a man alone ain’t got no bloody fucking chance’. This is the story of Johnson, an English survivor of the World War 1 trenches, who comes to Auckland during the Depression, is caught up in rioting, farms first in the grim northern Waikato and then in the centre of the North Island. After an affair with his boss’s Māori wife, and the accidental killing of the boss, he survives an epic crossing of the Kaimanawa Ranges, to leave the country and set out for the Spanish war.

Man Alone has become a classic of New Zealand fiction. It is a set text in most New Zealand courses in universities, and is often grossly misrepresented as a kind of celebration of the Kiwi bloke going it alone, getting offside with the law and women, and making a fist of it on his own terms. It also has been glibly accused of misogyny and racism. For all its local emphases and colour, the novel must be read in the context of post-war Europe, as it takes a hard look at the reality of ‘ordinary’ life, without the self-congratulatory assurances common to both British and New Zealand conservatism. The starkness of the novel is also a philosophical one. Such values as emerge are what the individual manages to put together as the historical moment allows—fiction as existentialism, before such a term became modish. At the same time as he was working on the novel, Mulgan edited for Victor Gollancz Poems of Freedom, an anthology of poets who ‘were unafraid’, and whom W.H. Auden, in his Introduction, valued not for their wisdom, but for raising their voices against oppression.

Mulgan remained at Oxford University Press, gradually extending his competence in economics and political thought, until September 1939, when he joined the 5th Battalion of the Oxford and Bucks. Much of the next two years he spent on officer training manoeuvres in Northern Ireland, at times close to where his great-grandfather had lived as a Church of Ireland cleric before emigrating to the Ulster settlement in Katikati sixty years before. During brief visits to London, Mulgan recorded a number of radio broadcasts, ‘Calling New Zealand’, which revealed a flair for radio journalism. Then in 1942 he was posted to the Middle East.

As second-in-command of an infantry regiment, Mulgan fought in the front line at Alamein. It was here, after nine years away from his country, he again met up with large numbers of New Zealanders. He was emotionally stirred by the meeting. ‘It was like coming home. They were mature men, these New Zealanders of the desert, quiet and shrewd and sceptical. They had none of the tired patience of the Englishman, nor that automatic discipline that never questions orders to see if they make sense. Everything that was good from that small, remote country had gone into them, sunshine and strength, good sense, patience, the versatility of practical men. And they marched into history.’

After the desert engagement, Mulgan risked severe consequences when he challenged the competence of his commanding officer. He transferred to another British battalion, served in Iraq, then in May 1943 he joined the Special Operations Executive with Force 133. A few months later he was parachuted into Northern Greece. For the next year he worked in guerrilla actions against the occupying German forces, and in the increasingly complex slide towards Greek civil war. He was the only SOE officer to directly command Greek andartes, and was awarded the Military Cross for his strikes against German communications. Ill and exhausted, Mulgan was flown to Cairo in October 1944, and soon after began work on Report on Experience, his account of his war years and his current thinking. He completed this during his months in Athens early in the new year, where he directed the British payment of compensation to Greek families who had assisted the Allies. Although he touches only lightly on his own extraordinary exploits of the previous twelve months, the essay is a brilliant, thoughtful exposition of what war means to a local people, and what peace might offer a post-war world. Since his meeting with New Zealanders in the North African campaign, Mulgan had thought much about his country, its singular merits and aspirations, and its possible future. Although his leisure reading while with the guerrillas had been Boswell and Gibbon, Mulgan came to reject purely intellectual values. He was now drawn to a more direct life of physical openness, classless social exchange and simple domestic satisfaction. He returned from Athens to Cairo in mid-April, where he wound up a number of obligations, including a report to the New Zealand Department of Foreign Affairs on the suitability of Greeks as immigrants, and made arrangements to transfer to the New Zealand Division. The day before that planned homecoming, as it were, on Anzac Day 1945, Mulgan took an overdose of morphia from his medical kit. The reasons for his suicide remain unexplained.

Mulgan has suffered in recent years from his reputation as ‘the golden boy’, the handsome and personable athlete and scholar, who seemed to succeed at whatever he turned his mind to. The praise of his contemporaries, his choosing to enter the English academic establishment, his impressive military career, and the instant ‘classic’ status of his work, inevitably have provoked the desire to question that reputation, and to deconstruct the race and gender issues of his novel. But his centrality to New Zealand literature and self-fashioning seems in little danger of being challenged. Although his reputation is based on only two texts, each is ground-breaking within local traditions. His novel’s direct narrative and spare diction cut through a prevalent sentimentality about both this country and Britain, and his style anticipated the tenor of much subsequent New Zealand fiction; while in his final ruminative essay, Mulgan engaged with aspects of New Zealand life and character more imaginatively than any writer since *Mansfield.[Author]

Mulgan’s publications were Poems of Freedom, 1938, The Emigrants: Early Travellers in the Antipodes, with Hector Bolitho, 1939; Man Alone, 1939; Report on Experience, 1947. He also edited the Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Literature, 1939, and a work completed by D.M. Davin, Introduction to English Literature, 1947. Two essential biographical and critical studies have been written by Paul W. Day: John Mulgan, New York, 1968, and the shorter John Mulgan in the OUP ‘New Zealand Writers and their Work’ series, 1974.



Long Journey to the Border (2003). Author of the classic New Zealand novel, Man Alone, John Mulgan emerges from this penetrating biography as a man who spoke for the generation that grew up between the wars. He wrote a few days before his death: 'It took me to the age of thirty to stop being frightened, not just of physical things, but fears of what people thought of me and other fairly useless considerations.'


Updated January 2017.