From revolutionary Spain to 1940s Auckland
brief #34 goes to the printers today, after a good deal of massaging from the sure hands of Muzzlehatch. As I mentioned the other day, this issue has the theme of War, and runs to a whopping 182 pages. As well as work by stalwarts of the avant-writing scene in New Zild like Jack Ross and Olivia Macassey, brief #34 features a critique of Vincent O'Sullivan's war poetry by Don Franks, the Wellington-based Marxist, trade union activist, and rest home rocker, a memoir of life in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force by Muzzlehatch's grandfather, and three previously unpublished poems by the late and much-lamented Leicester Kyle.
For me, one of the highlights of brief #34 is a never-before-seen story by Greville Texidor, who must surely rank as one of the most enigmatic and tragic figures in New Zealand literary history. Some have disputed whether Texidor can even be considered part of New Zealand literature: born in England, she lived here for only eight years in the 1940s, after she and her German anarchist husband Werner Droescher had fled the victory of fascism in Spain. Droescher and Texidor had fought Franco together on the Aragon Front, first as members of the semi-Trotskyist POUM and later as part of an anarchist militia. The pair were arrested when they retreated from Spain to the democratic paradise that was Chamberlain's Britain, and were eventually forced to emigrate to New Zealand.
Although she and Droescher settled on Auckland's North Shore, which was then a sort of watering hole for Bohemian artists and writers, Texidor tended to regard New Zealand as another, larger prison, and was not unhappy to leave the country in 1948. During her short time here she managed to impress and influence a number of much better known writers, including Frank Sargeson and Maurice Duggan. When the poet, printer, and notoriously obnoxious drunk Dennis Glover began to taunt her about the triumph of Franco, Texidor impressed him in a different way: she took a steak knife and held it to his throat until bystanders could overpower her.
The previously unpublished Texidor story in brief #34 is called 'San Toni', and it comes with a thorough introduction by Evelyn Hulse. Here are some excerpts from Hulse's text:
In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say a Lot, published by Victoria University Press in 1987, includes all of Greville Texidor’s published fiction and six unpublished manuscripts, a total of fourteen stories. Kendrick Smithyman edited the book and provided an introduction which summarised the early life and recollections of Texidor, but pointed out that firm facts are few. VUP rejected six unpublished stories written by Texidor. ‘San Toni,’ which I will now discuss, is more closely based on her experiences in Spain than the other stories published in the book.
It is Werner Droescher’s ms, Odyssee eines Lehrers, in the manuscript collection at the University of Auckland Library, that enables us to reconstruct the events of the ‘San Toni’ years in Spain which inspired Texidor to write the story later in New Zealand.
Droescher left Germany in 1933 and arrived at Tossa, where he became a tutor. Texidor, thirty years old at the time, was one of his students. During 1934 and 1935 she formed a liaison with Droescher who said in his ms, that ‘the affair ran its course.’
Just as Droescher was preparing to leave to study fulltime at the university in Barcelona, he was surprised by the outbreak of civil war in Spain in the summer of 1936. He joined the Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista (POUM) militia in Barcelona.
On 24 November 1936, Texidor was legally divorced . Droescher tells us in his ms that ‘Texidor and Droescher married in a wartime ceremony anarchist style as compañero and compañera.’ The international validity of this marriage was extremely doubtful. In 1936 Droescher became a part of the Anarchist Centurias and was sent to the front line at Zaida. Texidor became a militia woman, discovered Droescher’s position after ‘considerable meanderings’ and joined his group. They were sent to Barcelona to join a greater militia, and moved again in the direction of Huesco to the northern sector of the Aragon Front...
They participated in the invasion of Almudeva that began in August 1936. Droescher tells in his ms ‘that at one point with their centuria, Texidor and he moved forward until almost to the barbed wire entanglement belonging to the Fascists, and came under rifle, machine gun and artillery fire. The communists had moved forward and not backed their action.’ Luckily the bombs missed their position. They camped over for the winter with new weapons.
With success eluding them they decided to set relief work in motion. Droescher said in his ms that he travelled to England as ‘Texidor’s fiancé’. In around August 1937 the Droeschers helped with the propaganda for the Help for Spain committees. In December they returned to Spain to function as liaison officers for the English Aid Committee, which had association with the Quaker’s relief scheme.
In 1938 they worked in a new sphere of refugee aid. Droescher’s first job was with the Quaker relief scheme office, helping with the distribution of provisions for youth groups. Then he was asked to prepare the first refugee centre for children from Madrid who were relocated in Gerona Province in the Hinterland of Barcelona. This organisation in charge was now the Paris-based Communist Front.
Droescher tells in his ms. how he found Can-Toni: Gros at this time. ‘This was a holiday area about 1000 metres high in the mountains, east of Vich, which consisted of a tiny village, two big holiday villas and a colony of holiday bungalows.’ The Spanish authorities provided beds and furniture, and bread was delivered from the neighbouring bigger town of Esquirol. Possibly this is the setting for Texidor’s story, ‘San Toni’, although the mountain setting of Can-Toni: Gros is higher than the village in the story. Is this why Texidor tried to rewrite another version of the story later with the new title, ‘The Village’, but abandoned it?
Droescher and Texidor supervised 120 children from Madrid aged from three to fifteen years of age. The youngest group appealed to Texidor’s motherly instincts, and she took them under her wing. They organised the provisions which were delivered in abundant quantities by lorry directly from France. They performed the duties of house-father and house-mother from morning to evening. Other teachers, gardeners and helpers lived out.
Near the end of 1938 a stubborn communist delegate came from Paris to inspect the group. The Paris committee did not like non-communists representing their movement, and the communists were also particularly prominent in the Spanish Government at the time. Droescher and Texidor were dismissed.
Back in Barcelona there were regular bomb attacks. The Droeschers could no longer count on the protection of the Anarcho-Syndicalists, political friends, who were almost powerless. They had mistakenly believed that the way was ready for a new social order in Spain. They now wanted to escape. Texidor had been exhausted by the Spanish debacle. She was evacuated to England by warship and regained her British Nationality. She was reunited with her daughter, Cristina, who had been staying with Mrs. Foster, Texidor’s mother.
As 1938 wore on Droescher was to follow Texidor, but when he reached France he was returned to Germany, because of his German nationality. He taught language in Hamburg at a Berlitz school, and did military service in Hanover, specialising in intelligence and communication. He was finally allowed to proceed to London just before the outbreak of WWII. Droescher had an offer from New York to teach at a Berlitz school. Rosamund told Roth that Droescher never had a real invitation to go to America, but used the New York offer as a pretext to get out of Germany. In early 1939 the Droeschers worked as helpers in the reception camp for ‘The Movement for the Care of Jewish Children from Germany,’ which Quakers created in the neighbourhoods of Ipswich and Margate. They had to learn all the rules for the kosher preparation of food.
On 3 September 1939, the day WWII was declared, Droescher became a suspect in British eyes; he had fought for the republicans in Spain, worked for the Communist organisation at Can-Toni: Gros and he had done military training in Germany. He was interned at Seaton in Devon. Texidor had become a German National as a consequence of marrying a German. She was interned in Holloway prison. A lengthy process was curtailed when Texidor’s friends attempted to liberate them, which was successful. The Quakers again helped.
Droescher lost his chance to go to New York and considered Mexico too unstable as civil war broke out. Eventually, with Texidor having relatives in New Zealand, they thought of migrating to these shores. Droescher said in his ms that they were required to marry in an orthodox fashion and Cristina had to have her birth nationality verified. They were assisted to New Zealand by a Quaker organisation as refugees from Fascist Spain and Nazi Germany. Mrs. Foster preceded them. She obtained permission from the government for the Droeschers to enter the country.
They arrived at Auckland on 10 May 1940, the day Holland and Belgium were overrun. Sargeson met the Droeschers in May 1941 at Takapuna. Not long after they were officially declared aliens and deported to Paparoa in the North. They moved to an inland farm owned by an unworldly, eighty-five-year-old Quaker, Josiah Hames, who became their sponsor.
Droescher lived at first with the Hames family. Then he found a very primitive cottage for Texidor, Cristina and himself, which had no electricity and only a scanty provision for water. The living conditions improved when Mrs Foster leased another cottage with electricity and lived with them. In a stream nearby they could bathe, wash clothes and catch eels. In 1997 I saw this location. An acute feeling of isolation remains. I could picture an alien forced to live in such quiet, lonely farming conditions finding it distasteful.
In 1944 Texidor published a story, ‘An Annual Affair,’ in which she intended to show readers the ‘petty-hate’ she felt for Northland. Later she showed Sargeson, when writing of Spain, that she was relaxed and loved that country. She wrote the Spanish story ‘Santa Cristina’ in 1944 and it is believed ‘San Toni’ was written near that time also.
In 1997 I wrote to Margaret Skelton who lived from 1938-58 at Pahi close to Paparoa. She wrote of the conditions that Texidor would have found. She suggested that anyone with the life experience of Texidor, who had lived in civilised countries such as Britain and Spain, and travelled to New York and Paris, would have found this farming area ‘dreadful and primitive.’ Skelton was used to the appalling conditions. Colonial settlers before Texidor had not found New Zealand congenial when attempting to establish themselves. ‘House and Land’, Allen Curnow’s poem about uneasy settlers in an alien land, gives some idea of the pressures arising from isolation and loneliness. These were the conditions which Texidor wrote about first in Paparoa and for the following seven years in New Zealand...
In August 1941 Sargeson met the Droeschers in Paparoa when returning from a doctor’s visit up North. He stayed the night and returned to the North Shore the next day. He did not judge Texidor any sort of writer as yet. Even later, Sargeson wrote in ‘Greville Texidor 1902 – 1964’, the article he eventually published about her in Landfall, Texidor ‘was unable to establish with this country relations which in any way resembled a love-affair, she substituted literary endeavour for the many-sided involvement in living which had characterised her in a more congenial environment.’
Texidor was never free from the suspicion associated with her alien status. In late December 1941, after seven months in Northland, authorities granted permission to the Droeschers to return to urban life on the North Shore. Texidor brought her stories to Sargeson and was impelled to learn how to practise writing. He was so devoted to literature that the role of guide and supporter came naturally. He wished to be a trusted advisor and had the willingness to help. He urged excellence. Sargeson claimed in his autobiography, Sargeson, that ‘without my encouragement, my suggestions and proddings, not to say occasional scornings and even condemnations, Greville Texidor would never have become a name to add to the list of distinguished literary people to have visited our country’.
Sargeson also wrote in ‘Greville Texidor 1902 – 1964’ about many aspects of Texidor’s ability to write. He praised her accurate observation, pictorial design, visual imagination, her background of landscape, her remarkably comprehensive point of view and how she crammed in everything.
The unified plot in the ‘San Toni’ story concerns the actions of the protagonist, as ‘he’ desires to walk down the mountains to the village. He is pitted against fate, determined to attain his goal. Suspense is expertly maintained. When he reaches the village, which (for him) is grounded in the past, the story broadens into a series of flashbacks. The reversal comes when he decides to stay a memory from his days of glory and sets out to return.
Many aspects of Texidor’s life run parallel to the life of the protagonist in ‘San Toni’. ‘He’ has an abstract background from the Spanish Civil War days : Texidor participated in the war. ‘He’ walked the mountains alone: She knew the Spanish mountains, having had an affair with Droescher in the hinterland of Barcelona and been a house-mother near the mountains of Can Toni : Gros. ‘He’ had emotional involvement with Nurria: Texidor with Droescher. The village is ‘a backward little place,’ reminding Texidor of Paparoa, a petty-hell in a farming community where she was an alien, isolated and lonely.
Texidor’s talent shows in her use of language. Texidor has composed fine fluid descriptions of the mountain scenery, cramming in every aspect. The imagery is sharp, Uncle Josep’s face is ‘the colour of an old potato.’ ‘A cloud touched the sun, then passed over the hills like an eraser wiping out the colours of life.’ Alternatively, the rather disconcerting sentence: ‘Deep in the distance little sheep were weaving like maggots in the mild green.’