Monday, June 25, 2012

The meaning of Ewen Macdonald

Dozens of murder trials are staged in New Zealand every year; most of them are reported dutifully rather than excitedly by our media, and fail to fill the small public galleries of our High Courts. Every now and them, though, a case comes along which claims the front pages of newspapers for months, packs a public gallery day after day, and demands obsessive discussion in pubs and supermarket aisles around the country.

The trial of Ewen Macdonald for the murder of his brother-in-law Scott Guy has transfixed Kiwis since it opened more than a fortnight ago. Every day our newspapers and televisions have broadcast new revelations about Macdonald's difficult relationship with Guy, the principal heir to the Manawatu dairy farm both men managed. We have learned that Macdonald and various farmhands grumbled for years about Guy's autocratic ways and abbreviated working days, and have read reports about family conferences and dinners which ended in tears and recriminations, as Guy's sister became the conduit for her husband's grievances and grudges. We have heard Macdonald admit that he vandalised the new home Guy and his family were about to move in to, in a vain attempt to drive his brother-in-law off the farm, and we have heard the police accuse him of ambushing and gunning down his enemy in the pre-dawn darkness on a corner of the farm two years ago.

But all the obvious interest in the current murder trial - all the front page stories and extended reports on television and conversations in pubs and supermarket aisles - has been coupled with a curious reticence. There has been a great deal of description of the conflict between Guy and Macdonald, but very little discussion about what it might mean. Of course, the trial of Macdonald is still underway, and commentators are thus prohibited from offering opinions on whether or not the man is a murderer. But the struggle between Guy and Macdonald is a matter of record, and Macdonald has admitted the attack on Guy's home.

It seems to me that Ewen Macdonald is a disturbing figure for many Kiwis, because he is at the same time sympathetic and repugnant. We empathise with the stories of him working alone on the farm for hours, after his brother-in-law had decided that the rain was too hard or that he had to go off to some social event. We take note when we read a farmhand describe Macdonald as the best boss he ever had. We gasp when we learn that Scott Guy had turned up to a family meeting and announced that he expected to inherit all of the farm, simply because he was the first of the sons born to his parents. We understand Macdonald's view of himself as a second-class member of the family.

At the same time, though, Macdonald's attempt to drive Scott Guy and his young family away from the Manawatu appalls us. After Macdonald took an axe to the Guys' new house and covered it with obscene graffiti the community around Feilding was alarmed. Scott Guy's wife Kylee feared that a violent lunatic might have her family in his sights.

But Ewen Macdonald was not a lunatic: his attack on the Guys' home showed cool calculation, and was part of a strategy designed to make him the sole manager of the Guy family farm. The other offences Macdonald has admitted, like the theft of deer and the burning of a derelict house on another part of the farm, show the same careful thought. If Macdonald had committed some crime against Scott Guy on the spur of the moment - if, for example, he had thrown a punch after being provoked by Guy's arrogance or laziness - then we might be ready to forgive him. But his cool cruelty is hard to excuse.

While I read about Ewen Macdonald I keep thinking of Edmund, one of the most complex characters in King Lear. Edmund is the second and illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, a powerful intimate of Lear. Because of the circumstances of his birth, Edmund has never been the equal of Edgar, Gloucester's first-born, legitimate son. He knows that he will inherit nothing from his father, who refers to him as a 'whoreson' and ignores his intelligence and determination.

Edmund decides to reject the customs of his society in favour of the 'laws of cunning and strength', and begins a campaign to usurp both his brother and his father. Edmund falsely accuses Edgar of attempted murder, so that the hitherto favoured son is forced to flee Lear's court into the countryside, and disguise himself as a wandering madman. After forming an alliance with Lear's similarly cunning daughters Regan and Gonerill and seizing state power, Edmund is defeated, and repents of his sins
Many literary historians have linked Edmund's story to changes that were taking place in English and European society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As the feudal order of the Middle Ages, with its set social hierarchies and obsession with genealogy, was challenged by the appearance of Protestantism and capitalism, which encouraged more individualistic views of the world, ambitious and talented men like Edmund were prepared to challenge those who would once, by virtue of birth, have been considered their superiors.

Shakespeare's genius meant that he could make Edmund a character who is neither wholly unlikeable nor particularly admirable. When we hear the Earl of Gloucester express his contempt for his 'whoreson' in the opening scene of King Lear we feel sympathy for Edmund; after we see Edmund framing Edgar and persecuting his father, though, we understand that he has confused justice with vengeance and vaingloriousness.

It is worth noting something of the economic and social background to the struggle between Scott Guy and Ewen Macdonald. Like Shakespeare's Europe, contemporary New Zealand is a place where old social roles are being upset by economic change. The neo-liberal 'reforms' which saw deindustrialisation and the the erosion of the public sector in the 1980s and '90s have greatly increased economic inequality and social mobility in our countryside as well as our towns.

As the historian Miles Fairburn showed in his classic book The Ideal Society and Its Enemies, nineteenth and early twentieth century Pakeha New Zealand was a fragmented, fluid society, where settlers who had fled the class systems of the Old World ranged from place in search of economic self-sufficiency. Many ended up running small dairy or sheep farms, and for much of the twentieth century young Kiwis with an independent spirit and a love of the countryside continued to dream of owning their own farm. For many decades the dairy sector, in particular, was dominated by small-scale farming operations. The term 'cow cocky' came to stand for the man who owned fifty or so acres of land, ran a small herd on it, and used the facilities of the local dairy co-op to get his produce to distant markets and make a living.

In recent decades, though, dairy farms have been getting larger and larger, and therefore more and more expensive to run. The dairy co-ops of old have coalesced into a multinational company preoccupied with its own expansion outside the country, and indifferent to the needs of small farmers. Foreign investors have lined up to buy 'superfarms' created by the merger of more modest blocks of land. Men and women who might once have been 'cow cockies' now work for salaries or wages on  land they will never own.

In the past, the conflict between Ewen Macdonald and Scott Guy would easily have been resolved. With the help of his parents-in-law, Macdonald would have left the Manawatu, bought a modest block of land in the King Country or the Hawkes Bay hills, and become his own master. He could have built his own farm up over decades, as Scott Guy's parents were able to do.

With the small, start-up farm virtually a thing of the past, though, Macdonald felt compelled to hold his ground in the Manawatu. He knew that walking away from the Guy farm would mean losing any chance of running his own farm, and spending the rest of his life working for a salary. Scott Guy's long-suffering parents tried hard to satisfy the ambitions of their son and son-in-law, even though it meant draining the revenue of their farm to pay for two managers with overlapping responsibilities. By attacking Scott Guy's new home, Ewen Macdonald tried to resolve the contradiction which was making his life so difficult. By driving the first-born son off the Guy farm, he would reward himself for his years of hard work and bring peace to the troubled property. Like Edmund, though, Macdonald used methods which were incompatible with his ends. His sense of injustice led him to acts of cruelty.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]


Blogger Sandra said...

Love it Maps. Your analysis, not the actual events of course. The whole thing does have a Shakespearean tragedy aspect to it. I do still hate all this shaping of small details into a soap opera and then passing it of for news though. I wonder when something meaningful will ever be on the five o'clock National Radio news again.

9:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I do share your general disquiet about changes to the rural economy, farm ownership and progression as forced by the Dairy Boom, I would note that the NZ courts have long had to mediate over matters related to the ownership or division of family farms.

Farms have long been a huge, hard to divide or administer asset that has an added sting of deep emotional attachment. The only that has changed in this regard as the values have risen.

In my family alone we have had at least three high court cases going back 50 years over such questions (different people, farms)!

3:30 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Edit as per above, as did not make much sense in para 2, sentence 2.

"The only thing that has changed in this regard is the value of the farms "

3:37 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

no excuse for vandalism

9:48 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and who is the real idler?

blogegrs a4re idlers

9:48 am  
Anonymous Bored said...

Nice column, thoroughly enjoyed BUT lets not forget one thing: the jury has not delivered a verdict yet.

2:08 pm  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

An admirable application of Shakespeare to the fields of the Manawatu, Scott. Personally, I see the whole legal drama as veering more in the direction of Ronald Hugh Morrieson!

3:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Similarly, Fred Dagg on Hamlet

4:50 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you for that analysis and clarification! I have been wondering at the saturation coverage the whole trial is getting in the media. (Maybe because of class issues? This is not a murder amongst your standard 'low-life, beneficiary druggies' etc..

3:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

also...isn't macdonald part-maori...

2:49 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks for the comments folks! I've been offline for the week so haven't been able to participate in the discourse here...

4:55 pm  
Anonymous Keri Hulme said...

evidence for your comment?

8:03 pm  
Blogger Saige Vendome England said...

This is an insightful, well-considered article and the link to Edmund is solid. The tensions around land-ownership too often cause a tragedy.

I was personally connected to a situation in which an older son had a younger brother (by one year) and it was that younger who looked set to inherit. The situation culminated in a suicide. I often thought it would have been so much better if the older brother had just walked out rather than taking and losing his own life. It would have been better if he had had no sense of entitlement and instead forged a new life devoid of an inheritance.

n ownership obsession - however fair and right it may seem - can drive a person into vengeance/madness. It is hard though for the players to walk away especially given the patriarchal codes of competition and measures of success inherent in such situations.

That it seems like a soap opera or play is precisely because of the fact that most stories are, as Grace Paley once said, about blood and money. Blood being the relationships that connect us for good and bad and money being the component that drives the tension and madness.

3:43 pm  

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