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New Book by Martin Edmond - 'The Expatriates'

New Book by Martin Edmond - The Expatriates

Martin Edmond’s deft and illuminating new book, The Expatriates, is a compelling history of four extraordinary New Zealanders. Their inclinations, expertise and circumstances led them to lives and careers in Europe, where for the most part they remained. They left behind indelible imprints in their respective fields of endeavour.

Each has a unique story, expertly excavated and relayed by Edmond (with a head start from material passed on by the late James McNeish), around which the four narratives unfold. But it is the context of their origins in New Zealand, and the contrasting worlds in which they made their respective ways, that make this new BWB offering more than the sum of its parts.

The narratives of their lives also tell wider stories: about early patterns of European immigration to New Zealand, and about the educational establishment, the churches, working lives, and the social movements of the early twentieth century. As their lives unfold against, and are often intertwined with, history in the wider world, there is an implicit connection between the two.

Harold Williams, the stammering failed Methodist minister and life-long Christian socialist, was a prodigious linguist who had mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, Italian and Te Reo by the age of 11. A circuitous career path found him working as a journalist in Russia before, during and after the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. He crossed paths, and sometimes words, with Lenin, Trotsky, prime ministers, novelists – Tolstoy for example – and more minor, but nonetheless important, players in the unfolding dramas of the time.

Ronald Syme, hailing from small-town Taranaki, was a scholar and another gifted linguist. His dedication to the classics led him to an academic career as a classicist and historian at Oxford – sometimes controversial, at other times provocative, yet always indisputably brilliant, with an intriguing war history, a knighthood and the highest of honours in his adopted country.

John Platts-Mills, the boy from Karori, became a left-wing politician and lawyer in Britain, eventually a Queen’s Counsel, whose case histories traversed the worlds of criminal justice and international left-wing politics. He dined or imbibed with figures as diverse and contradictory as Ronnie Kray and Nikita Khrushchev.

And finally Joe Trapp, equally humble of origin, but also a gifted, though self-deprecatingly modest, scholar. His life’s work in librarianship mirrored those of the others in this volume, as Edmond puts it, in their “struggle to maintain the continuity of culture’’. Trapp’s story here mostly unfolds through his association with the Warburg Institute in London, an organisation dedicated to the survival of antiquity and “its influence on culture in all its forms’’.

These four New Zealanders, a journalist, a scholar, a lawyer and a librarian – curt descriptors that barely hint at their wider fields of endeavour and influence – shared certain characteristics: origins in remote New Zealand, fierce intellects, passionate dedication to freedom of ideas and speech, egalitarianism, and the energetic non-conformist perspective of outsiders. From rural origins on the periphery of “empire’’, their works and experience took them to the very heart of it.

As Edmond remarks in his foreword, The Expatriates is “in essence about the attempts made by these four individuals to maintain those connections between past and present which are the sole means we have to make for ourselves a future."

About the Author

Martin Edmond was born in Ōhakune and grew up in small North Island towns. After university study, and seven years touring internationally with Red Mole theatre, he moved to Sydney, where he continues to live and write. In 2013 he received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Non-Fiction; and in 2015 was awarded the Michael King Writer’s Fellowship. This book is the outcome of that fellowship


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