War and Class: The Diary of Jack McCullough (review)

Kerry Taylor in LHP Newsletter 46 reviews War and Class: The Diary of Jack McCullough edited by Melanie Nolan. Palmerston North: Dunmore Publishing, 2009. 408p.

Jack McCullough was for a time quite literally the personification of the New Zealand working class. During the period 1907 to 1921 he was the Worker’s Representative on the Arbitration Court, and charged with putting forward a worker’s perspective in the deliberations of the all too powerful court. In this context McCullough met the great and the good, and the not so good, from the full range of camps within the complex and fluid New Zealand industrial relations scene. In January 1908 he began to record his interactions, thoughts and experiences in a diary. This volume, edited by LHP stalwart Melanie Nolan, is the first published version of that diary. It provides a unique lens on a period that saw many defining events in New Zealand history including: the syndicalist upsurge of the Red Feds, the horrors of World War I, and in 1916 the consolidation of many labour factions into the New Zealand Labour Party.

Melanie Nolan has been linked to, and made use of, the McCullough diaries for more years than I imagine she wishes to recall. Her 1985 MA thesis from Canterbury University explored McCullough’s work on the Arbitration Court, and is still one of the best studies of this period. She wrote the entry on McCullough for the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, and later she told the story of the wider McCullough clan in her innovative study Kin: A collective biography of a working class family (2005). Each of these publications drew on the McCullough diaries.

With this volume we now have available to the general reader a judicious selection from the 250,000 word handwritten manuscript located in the Canterbury Museum. More than that, we have considerable added value from the editor in the form of informative footnotes on the individuals, organisations and events noted by the diarist. These notes are a testament to the rich world that McCullough inhabited, and also Nolan’s impressively deep knowledge of New Zealand labour history.

This book is best approached by the tried and true reading method of ‘grazing’. Few will read it from cover to cover, and while this is perhaps how it should be read, diaries by their very nature seldom have a unifying argument that needs systematic reading, so grazing does not do the subject a disservice. The index helps the reader to dip into McCullough’s interactions with the key figures of the labour movement and politics more generally. Much interesting material is brought to light on well known labour activists, and also on lesser known figures from the past. Via the index one can also look for comment on categories of workers and various organisations. All indexes have limitations, and for me there could have been more attention to geographical place, as one of the features of McCullough’s work was constant travel throughout the country. Living in Palmerston North, I always look for references to the history of this place. The index provides a sole reference to the Palmerston North Trades Council, even though there are numerous other references to this fair city in the text itself. Perhaps the geographical terrain of the labour movement could have been highlighted more systematically.

The other weakness of the index is with regard to the realms of social and cultural practice. Having stumbled across horse racing I thought we may have had such leisure activity indexed, but there is no reference to the Addington Trots. It is revealing that in November 1912 McCullough, having spent some time in his vegetable garden, later went to the Trots. Even more interesting is his guilt at investing £4 for no return! The entry records: ‘I am disgusted with my self at my weakness, or is it at my greed. Returned home very tired & went to bed early’ (p235). The tiredness may well have resulted from the earlier gardening, but it is also associated with moral self-criticism over gambling. There are rich insights here into the mindset of a central figure in the New Zealand labour movement; few published sources provide this. We learn that he liked opera and football, read extensively and eclectically, and spent a lot of time in the vege patch. Yet as is so often the case in our labour history the more formal business of the labour movement, and the experiences of work itself, are more closely indexed than the life and leisure of the working class. This is understandable and all indexes have to set limits, yet there is rich material on all aspects of the class experience in the diary, which could have been made more accessible.

The introduction to the diary is very useful in setting McCullough’s pacifism in context. His anti-conscription activity was extensive, yet he very consciously stopped short of potential charges of sedition, concluding, with some feelings of guilt, that it was for younger activists to challenge the state more directly. The introduction also sets the context of McCullough’s arbitration activity very well. What is strangely missing, except for a very brief timeline, is a discussion of the broader life of McCullough. Perhaps the editor considered this had been well enough recorded in the publications mentioned above. But to make this a more successful stand-alone publication more biographical detail on McCullough’s life would have been useful.

Melanie Nolan is to be congratulated for the production of this volume. Many historians will find it a useful source to have readily available. It will also be a rewarding volume to have beside the fire as winter sets in; I predict hours and hours of pleasure for readers as they graze through the text. Having said that I for one await with anticipation a full biography of Jack McCullough, he deserves one and so do we! In the interim, this is a tantalising insight into a rich and rewarding life.