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McNeish, James
Author photo: Bruce Foster
Writer's File

James McNeish

McNeish, James
Author photo: Bruce Foster
In brief
Sir James McNeish was a well-known novelist, biographer and playwright. He received critical attention in New Zealand and overseas; many of his works have appeared in London and New York. His novels include Mackenzie (1970) and Lovelock (1986), nominated for the 1986 Booker Prize. His non-fiction encompasses social history, memoir, and psychological studies, in works such as The Mask of Sanity: the Bain Murders (1997), and Dance of the Peacocks: New Zealanders in Exile in the Time of Hitler and Mao Tse-tung (2003) which has become a standard work in the literature of expatriatism.
  • Primary publisher
    Penguin Random House, Steele Roberts, Quartet Books (UK)
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McNeish, James (1931–2016), born in Auckland, is a novelist, playwright, journalist, broadcaster and biographer.

He has travelled widely and his work reflects his knowledge of many lands. In 1958 he went to the UK as a deckhand on a Norwegian freighter. Travelling around Europe, he recorded folk music in twenty-one countries. He worked with Joan Littlewood in the Theatre Royal in the East End of London, and her spirit of socially committed drama left an impression not only on his plays but also on his novels. As a freelance journalist he also worked for the BBC, the Guardian and the Observer. In New Zealand, too, he has been a prolific writer for radio and newspapers.

For four years he lived and worked with Danilo Dolci, a courageous non-violent opponent of the Mafia, sometimes called ‘the Gandhi of Sicily’. Out of this experience came Fire under the Ashes (1965), McNeish’s clear, remarkably objective biographical account of Dolci.

His first book, Tavern in the Town (1957), is an almost formless series of anecdotes about New Zealand pubs, extensively researched and often of some historical interest, but with no acknowledgment of sources so that verification is difficult and reliability uncertain.

Mackenzie (1970) is an ambitious novel based on the life of a legendary sheep-stealer who discovered a huge rich pasture in central Otago. Its strength lies less in the heroic portrayal of the protagonist, however, than in its study of the tensions and ambitions in small-town and rural settler communities. There is a suggestion of a symbolic or mystical perception, somewhat obscured by an imprecision of style. The novel was followed by a non-fiction book on the same subject, The Mackenzie Affair (1972), which retells the novel’s tale twice more. The first part professes to be a historical account of Mackenzie, but is full of unauthenticated dialogue, so that it reads like fiction. The second part is a commentary on the legend, trying to separate fact from myth.

Much more successful was The Glass Zoo (1976), where McNeish revealed that he had remarkable narrative powers, carefully constructing a suspenseful tale which is part mystery story but also the account of a highly gifted child in an educational system which demands conformity—namely the British comprehensive school. The New Zealand teacher who narrates the story is also an outsider to the system, and the failure of both teacher and pupil to accept or to cope with the egalitarian ethos—well-meaning, but oppressive to unusual individuals—is sensitively narrated. McNeish showed strength and commitment in writing of such social issues. He combined his skill in analysing small communities with a touch of fantasy in the novel Joy (1982). It has many felicities in characterisation and humour, though some found its ultimate point unclear. Is it a study of small-town morality? A satire? An idyll? A Kafkaesque fantasy? The plot centres around an epidemic, which might or might not be real, and a doctor who initially seems threatening and dictatorial but later turns out to be an ideal of selflessness.

The next novel, Lovelock (1986), is another documentary fiction, telling the story of another legendary figure, the famous athlete who won a major event at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The effort to make fiction of this rather than write a biography is not totally successful. Lovelock tells his tale in the first person, but his enigmatic character stands in the way of inner conviction and the strain on credibility is intolerable when he has to narrate his own death. Here again the inner perspective is comparatively unsuccessful, though the novel has gone through three editions and has influenced other versions of the story of Jack Lovelock. (See also Sport.)

All of McNeish’s special sympathies and skills are, however, combined in Penelope’s Island (1990), a novel set in New Caledonia at the time of political upheavals in the 1970s–80s. As in The Glass Zoo, the key to success lies in the perfect choice of narrative voice: Penelope is a foreigner, but married to a Caldoche, a native New Caledonian of French ancestry. This places her well within the political tensions, but with the perceptions of an outsider, and by following her responses the reader is drawn into the political events just as she is. The use of the setting with its tropical vegetation and enervating climate finally succeeds on both naturalistic and symbolic levels. After three decades of imaginative industry, McNeish achieved an inspired work of fiction.

McNeish’s non-fiction includes As for the Godwits (1977), describing life in the remote and tiny community of Te Kuaka on a promontory overlooking the Tasman Sea. Tales of birds and fishermen are accompanied by very evocative photographs (by James and Heather McNeish) of treeless landscapes, weatherbeaten faces and shy Māori children. In 1980 James and Heather combined their efforts again to produce Belonging, oral history in which the interviewer’s voice has been deleted so that a virtual monologue results. The interviewees were immigrants to Israel from all parts of the world. A similar technique had been used by McNeish to produce the texts which accompany Brian Brake’s photographs in Art of the Pacific (1979)—some of the material from this book has been incorporated into Penelope’s Island. McNeish also wrote the texts to Marti Friedlander’s photographs in Larks in Paradise (1974), a vision of a ‘dull’ New Zealand with portraits of people standing unsmiling in urban or rural settings.

As a playwright McNeish is best known for The Rocking Cave, first produced at the Mercury Theatre, Auckland, in 1973 and published in 1981. Here he again exercises his talent for portraying a small community, this time a rigidly puritanical Presbyterian town in the 1860s, where an unmarried mother must suffer harsh treatment. Echoes of the hard-headed small town in Mackenzie are noticeable, and it is in creating a vision of such communities that McNeish has had his greatest successes. A study of a controversial murder case and trial, The Mask of Sanity: The Bain Murders, was published in 1997.


Amendments to Companion Entry

James McNeish worked with Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Workshop in the London east end, not the Theatre Royal.

James McNeish's wife, and co-photographer of As for the Godwits, is Helen, not Heather, McNeish.

Mackenzie's discovery of pasture was in South Canterbury, not Otago.


James McNeish has continued to produce literary works to critical acclaim. McNeish was the 1973 recipient of the Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship, now known as the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship. One of New Zealand's most long-standing and prestigious literary awards, the fellowship is offered annually to enable a New Zealand writer to work in Menton, France. He was also the 1983 Writer in Residence to Berlin under the DAAD Kunstler program, and was selected for the 1999 British National Library Research Fellowship.

Not mentioned in McNeish's Oxford Companion entry are three plays: The Mouse Man (1975), Eighteen Ninety-Five (1975) and Thursday Bloody Thursday (1998). He has produced further literary works, including Conversations in Israel (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1980); Joy (Hodder and Stoughton, 1982); Walking on my Feet: A.R.D. Fairburn, 1904-1957: a Kind of Biography (Collins, 1983); Ahnungslos in Berlin, also published as The Man from Nowhere & Other Prose (Godwit, 1991); My Name is Paradiso (David Ling, 1995); and Mr Halliday and the Circus Master (David Ling, 1996). In 1998 he published An Albatross Too Many (David Ling, 1998), a sequel to his memoir As For the Godwits.

Dance of the Peacocks
(Penguin, 2003) is the story of five New Zealanders who went to Oxford in the 1930s, encountered war and revolution, and found they could not return home in a time of political ferment and social upheaval. "Dance of the Peacocks: New Zealanders at large in the time of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung" was on show in the National Library Gallery, Wellington in 2003-2004.

The Sixth Man: the extraordinary life of Paddy Costello
(Penguin, 2007) is a biography of New Zealand's 'most brilliant linguist and ablest foreign envoy'. The title derives from Dance of the Peacocks where Costello appears as a sixth figure. Francis Beckett for The Guardian described The Sixth Man as a 'thoughtful, intelligent, very readable biography of a man whom it would have been exciting to know'.

Lovelock: A Novel (Penguin, 2009) is the fifth printing of this work, and is an expanded edition of the New Zealand classic which first appeared in London in 1986. The new edition is published together with the author's "Berlin Diary", McNeish's 1983 journal written while researching the novel, and an afterword which contains a sobering commentary on Lovelock's death. A reviewer for The Times said of Lovelock, 'James McNeish has injected a little art into the arid world of sports writing ... A marvellous crux of fiction and reality’. The 1986 edition of the biography was nominated for the 1986 Booker Prize.

McNeish was selected for the 2009 Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers' Residency.

The Crime of Huey Dunstan (Random House, 2010) was described by David Hill for NZ Herald as 'a story which hinges on dramatic, provocative issues of recovered memory. As usual, McNeish doesn't hesitate to buck current trends. Also as usual, he's produced a thoughtful story in which you watch a clear, cultivated mind at work.'

McNeish received a 2010 Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement, and was appointed Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature at the 2011 New Year Honours. He was a President of Honour of the New Zealand Society of Authors, 2012–2013.

Seelenbinder (Steele Roberts) was published in 2016. Part-fact, part-fiction, the novel explores the Olympic wrestler's role as a communist and part of the anti-Nazi Resistance in 1930's Germany, as he used the cover of the German national wrestling team to distribute dissident, anti-war material. Martin Edmond described the novel as ‘scintillating, suspenseful and revelatory in its disclosure of the malign mix between politics and sport which marked the ’36 Olympics.’ Matthias Metzler for Booksellers NZ reflected that, 'McNeish has crafted a book that is not only valuable in its exploration of the past, but also serves as an interesting tale to be told, and a unique look into the mind of an author.'

James McNeish submitted his final manuscript, Breaking Ranks, to HarperCollins in November 2016. The novel tells the true story of three New Zealanders; a doctor, a soldier and a judge, who defy conventions in standing up for what they believe in, and pay the price for doing so.

James McNeish passed away on 15 November 2016, days after the completion of Breaking Ranks. The novel is expected to be published in April 2017.