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James McNeish Biography

Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Auckland, New Zealand, 1931. Education: University of Auckland, B.A. 1952. Military Service: Territorial Service Army of New Zealand, World War II. Career: Journalist and arts editor, New Zealand Herald, Auckland, New Zealand, 1950-58; teacher, London, England, 1960-62; freelance radio broadcaster and radio documentary producer, 1962—. Lives in New Zealand. Agent: Vivienne Schuster, John Farquharson Ltd., 162 Regent Street, London W1R 5TB, England.



Mackenzie. Auckland, New Zealand, Hodder & Stoughton, 1970.

The Mackenzie Affair. Auckland, New Zealand, Hodder & Stoughton, 1972.

The Glass Zoo. New York, St. Martin's, 1976.

Joy. Auckland, New Zealand, Hodder & Stoughton, 1982.

Lovelock. Auckland, New Zealand, Hodder & Stoughton, 1986.

Penelope's Island. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1990.

My Name Is Paradiso. Auckland, New Zealand, David Ling, 1995.

Mr. Halliday and the Circus Master. N.p. 1996.


Tavern in the Town. Wellington, New Zealand, A.H. and A.W. Reed, 1957.

Fire under the Ashes (biography of Danilo Dolci). Auckland, New Zealand, Hodder & Stoughton, 1965.

Larks in a Paradise: New Zealand Portraits (text), photographs by Marti Friedlander. Auckland, New Zealand, Collins, 1974.

As for the Godwits (autobiographical diary), with photographs by James and Helen McNeish. Auckland, New Zealand, Hodder & Stoughton, 1977.

Art of the Pacific (text), photos by Brian Brake, commentary by David Simmons. New York, H. N. Abrams/Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, 1979.

Belonging: Conversations in Israel (with research by Helen McNeish). New York, Holt, 1980.

Walking on My Feet (biography, with wife, Helen McNeish). Collins & World, 1983.

Ahnungslos in Berlin (diary). Berlin, Literarisches Colloquium, 1986. Contributor, Salute to New Zealand, edited by Michael King. Lansdowne Press, 1990.

The Man from Nowhere and Other Prose (with photographs by Helen McNeish, James McNeish, and Marti Friedlander). Auckland, New Zealand, Godwit, 1991.

The Mask of Sanity: The Bain Murders (Helen McNeish, photographic editor). Auckland, New Zealand, David Ling, 1997.

An Albatross Too Many: A Sequel to As for the Godwits. Auckland, New Zealand, David Ling, 1998.


Critical Studies:

As for the Godwits by James McNeish, with photographs by James and Helen McNeish, Auckland, New Zealand, Hodder & Stoughton, 1977; An Albatross Too Many: A Sequel to As for the Godwits by James McNeish, Auckland, New Zealand, David Ling, 1998.

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New Zealand author James McNeish is nothing if not prolific. Since the publication of his first book, Tavern in the Town, McNeish has gone on to publish over a dozen more works, countless articles, and has been translated into seven languages. Nominated in 1986 for the Booker-McConnell Prize for Literature for Lovelock, McNeish has twice been awarded the New Zealand Scholarship in Letters. In 1999 McNeish won the prestigious British National Library Research Fellowship, allowing him to research the lives and friendships of five prominent New Zealanders who attended Oxford University in the 1930s—four as Rhodes scholars—and who, minus one, chose not to return to their birthplace. This project—currently titled Wandering Scholars—and its concern with how the limitations or opportunities of a given historical moment shape the individual and define their choices, is indicative of much of McNeish's writing.

McNeish began as a writer of non-fiction, progressing to novels, then plays. This transition seems natural when one considers the subject of his second book, Fire under the Ashes, an account of the Sicilian former architect turned anti-Mafia reformer and outspoken social critic, Danilo Dolci. McNeish's factual account of this activist intellectual and his reform activities segues neatly into his imagining of the nineteenth-century New Zealand figure, James Mackenzie. In Mackenzie McNeish creates a vibrant figure that embodies both the emerging nation's desire for expansion and success, as well as the possibility for spiritual reform and equity as imagined by an individual. In James Mackenzie, McNeish realized the potential for a creative treatment of a mythologized man not available to him with the living Dolci. Furthermore, through Mackenzie, McNeish was able to explore a theme close to him: the mythic power and specificity of the New Zealand landscape, and the cultures that inhabit it. First documented in Tavern in the Town through the assembling of legends, myths, and anecdotes, in Mackenzie McNeish considers the dark, less picturesque side of the nation and the experiences of its settlers as they battle the inhospitable weather and attempt to colonize and displace indigenous Maori peoples. This sensitive rendering of New Zealand's mercurial landscape was no doubt influenced by McNeish's own 1967 inhabitation of a sandspit in the Tasman Sea, something he chronicles in As for the Godwits.

In all of his writing McNeish has continued to be fascinated by the image of an individual negotiating or even battling the elements, whether environmental, social, or cultural, while seeking some greater meaning or truth. In his acclaimed fictional "autobiography" of Dr. Jack Lovelock, a Rhodes scholar considered the "first modern athlete" and noted for his achievements in the 1936 Olympics, McNeish takes as his subject a man battling his own limits, and challenging the possibilities of the human body. As the world celebrates Lovelock's numerous accomplishments, however, his interior life is shrouded in mystery, culminating in his bizarre death at the age of thirty-nine. That McNeish imagines Lovelock as ultimately engaged in a quest that can only be properly understood by the individual himself, is central to his preoccupation with exceptional individuals. It is apparent in his factual and fictional treatment of Dolci, Lovelock, and Mackenzie. Equally apparent is McNeish's fascination with the exceptional individual's search as a moral measure of the politics of his time and place. In My Name Is Paradiso the son of a New Zealand British officer who was "lost" in World War II visits 1960s Sicily in an attempt to discover the truth of his father's death. Instead, he is shocked by his experience of a violent and immoral 1960s Sicily, the same Sicily condemned by Dolci. Likewise, in the novels Joy, Penelope's Island, and Mr. Halliday and the Circus Master, oppressive political forces are explored through individuals whose own beliefs are often at odds with governmental agendas.

McNeish's thematic preoccupations have remained consistent over the last forty-odd years, as has his desire to revisit specific events in a variety of forms. Just as Lovelock led to the Wandering Scholars, and Fire under the Ashes to My Name Is Paradiso, so too did McNeish return to Mackenzie in The Mackenzie Affair, and As for the Godwits in An Albatross Too Many, where he questions the govern-ment's proposals for the remote Te Kuaka. Recently he expanded his quest to understand the individual with a book on the high profile New Zealand Bain family murders. The Mask of Sanity: The Bain Murders draws on McNeish's skill as a creator of psychologically complex fictional or historical figures to contemplate the actions of convicted killer David Bain. In The Mask of Sanity, however, the quest is not Bain's but McNeish's, as he struggles to imagine and reconcile possible motives for the five-person murder. A departure from his other works, where the protagonists generally confront the moral implications of their acts and those of the world around them, McNeish's consideration of an exceptional figure with no apparent rationale for his acts signals a new thematic preoccupation to be watched for in future works.

Jennifer Harris

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Barbara Barbieri McGrath (1953–) Biography - Personal to Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) Biography