Has there ever been anyone in New Zealand literature, present company excepted, more loathed, as loathed, or even anywhere near as loathed, as that bitter silver-spoonfed flâneur D’Arcy Cresswell (1896-1960)? He has a unique claim as an author who was loathed during his lifetime, loathed immediately after his death, and enduringly loathed down the ages, with a new, resounding blast of loathsomeness directed at him in Paul Diamond’s book Downfall, shortlisted for the nonfiction prize at this year’s Ockham book awards. Cresswell wrote awful poetry. He delivered boring speeches on the wireless. He is chiefly or only remembered for an act of staggering treachery: blackmailing the mayor of Whanganui, who responded by shooting Cresswell with every intent to kill. The 1920 shooting and its aftermath is the subject of Diamond’s book. Charles Mackay, the Whanganui mayor, jailed for attempted murder, is seen as the hero of a tragedy; Cresswell, his victim, is touched at the end of a very long bargepole, as something that crawled out from beneath a rock in Timaru, where he was born to wealthy landowners. It appears his parents loathed him, too.

The book is a record of colonial privilege, a kind of white mischief, all ruling-class Pākehā all the time, with only two signs of Māori life – we are told Mackay wore a greenstone tiki, and his ex-wife is pictured in a deeply racist portrait at her luxury estate being waited on by a Māori houseboy. She sits beneath a parasol, surrounded by an abundance of the fat of the land – baskets of grapes, tomatoes, apples – while her attendant of colour stands with a three-tiered dessert tray. Incredible. But the social structure that absorbs Diamond is neither race or class: his book is a study of New Zealand’s moral climate, in particular the ugly, state-sanctioned fear of homosexuality. Downfall is queer history. Mackay and Cresswell were queer although not exclusively so. Both were married with children, not necessarily as closets; Mackay’s sexuality seems wide-ranging. In his divorce proceedings, he stated that “on or about December 30th 1919 I committed adultery with a lady whose name I decline to state”. Diamond concludes his book with a rousing call to celebrate the Mayor as a gay martyr who went about his life with courage and grace: “Charles Mackay’s story is one of resistance — of refusing to settle, of continually challenging norms, of being knocked down and getting up again.”

Deeply racist setting of Charles Mackay’s ex-wife Isobel Duncan and an unnamed boy in the garden at Totarapuka in the 1920s. Whanganui Regional Museum Photographic Collection, 2008.60.679

It’s a strange and compelling book. Strange, in the sense that it’s full of holes. The worst thing that can happen to a journalist in their pursuit of a story is ending up with nothing or little to go on. Diamond, too, has nothing or little to go on in quite crucial instances, namely the shooting. He resorts to that old friend of all frustrated journalists: perhapsing. A word search of Downfall reveals 48 uses of “perhaps”. And so the motive for the 1920 shooting is all very perhaps this and perhaps that. It remains a mystery, a riddle.

The actual crime, like all violent crimes, was brief and to the point. The mayor wanted Cresswell dead. He failed. Cresswell wanted the mayor cancelled. He succeeded.

Mackay met Cresswell in 1920. They looked at a statue of male nudes (a copy of The Wrestlers) at the Sarjeant Gallery. They went back to the mayor’s office, where Mackay opened a drawer and showed him photos of nude women. Diamond, in a state of excited perhapsness: “Mackay showing Cresswell photos of naked women is a strange segue from viewing a statue of naked men wrestling, but this was not an untypical way of discovering if someone was gay in an era when men were having sex with each other before any modern notion of a gay identity had emerged. If mistaken, the man with the photos could say, ‘Ah well, I fuck them all.’ The photos could also be used to arouse the other man, which would fit a scenario of offering sex for money. The photos also suggest that Mackay might have thought he had a chance of seducing Cresswell.”

They met four times. Cresswell expressed his disgust for Mackay and continually demanded that he offer his resignation as Mayor, effective immediately. Why? What did it matter to Cresswell, a chronic chaser of cock his whole sexy life? How come he was driven to cancel Mackay, ruin him? Diamond: “It is not impossible that Cresswell was trying, out of self-loathing, to deny his own homosexuality by punishing another homosexual…Perhaps Cresswell was being blackmailed by people who threatened to reveal his homosexuality unless he agreed to blackmail the mayor”, etc.

The fourth time they met was at Mackay’s offices on Ridgeway Street. Mackay reached into another drawer – who can guess the contents of mayoral drawers? – and took out a revolver. He shot Cresswell at close range. It missed his heart and hit his right lung. Cresswell dictated a police statement from his hospital bed. It was exhibit B when Mackay went to court. It’s actually quite opaque about anything Mackay said or did, other than showing Cresswell the nude photos, but there is this coded message: “He told me he was suffering from a complaint that made it impossible for him to control his passions.” Diamond’s best work in Downfall is providing context; he details a repressed, seething time when to be gay was to be seen as “suffering from a complaint”.

Mackay was charged with attempted murder. He pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 15 years. Mackay Street in Whanganui was renamed Jellicoe Street. He was expunged in other ways from the civic record. Diamond’s book acts as a rescue mission, and credits him with the vision of building the Sarjeant Gallery – it had only been open for eight months when Mackay showed Cresswell the statue of The Wrestlers

Among the most compelling sections of the book is when Diamond writes of Mackay’s life after he was released, exiled in London and Berlin. Ex-mayor, ex-husband, ex-con, ex-inmate of the repressed New Zealand way of life, he reinvented himself, and was maybe living his best life. But he missed his children and you can only guess at his grief of having absolutely no contact with the girls after the scandal. “I haven’t even had a photo of them,” he wrote from prison in 1922. His daughters (Elizabeth was a ravishing beauty, as photographed in Downfall) reverted to their mother’s maiden name. Still, he wasn’t short of company. Diamond, on Mackay’s years in Berlin: “Christopher Isherwood learnt enough German to proposition men for sex, and Mackay perhaps managed to do the same.” Diamond also notes, “There was a huge number of male prostitutes, as many as 22,000, according to one estimate.” Perhaps he fucked all of them.

Two of the estranged daughters of Charles Mackay. who took their mother’s maiden name after their father was imprisoned:  Josephine (left) and Elizabeth Duncan. Whanganui Regional Museum Photographic Collection, 2008-60-177-a

Mackay came to a bad end – shot by a police sniper during a riot – but history has no ending. Diamond resurrects the mayor as someone resilient, liberated, independent. “Perhaps,” he writes, perhapsing for the 48th time in the book’s final, resounding line, “this is what connects his story with the story of gay liberation: the determined push by queer people throughout history to live their lives, on their own terms.”

It’s a beautiful story. As for the beast Cresswell, Diamond gives him the short shrift of a chapter tucked away near the end of his book. It’s as though Cresswell is once again shot at close-range; he falls to the floor of the pages. Diamond purses his lips and recites the ways Cresswell failed as a human being. He expected recognition for a genius that was entirely absent. He abandoned his wife and child. He went to London and found a patron who paid for his voyage back to New Zealand just so he could get rid of him. (A ship’s doctor finally removed the bullet lodged in his back, fired at him by Mackay.) He returned to London and looked forward to collecting the pension but died in front of a gas heater at 64.

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A few years ago I attended a public lecture at Oxford University by the chief obituary writer (!) of the Daily Telegraph. He gave a talk on the history and textures of his strange art, or profession, and had the audience in stitches when he read out passages from obituaries published in the Telegraph in the Victorian 19th Century. Yes, he said, it was true that Victorians had a terrible fear of sex; but they had no fear of death, and their obituaries operated on the principle that once you’re gone, you’re gone, and what was said about you couldn’t hurt you when your bones lay in the grave. And so he read out passages of breathtaking character assassination. All venality was laid bare, every misstep, no sin too small – it was not so much warts and all as warts and warts and more warts, and we howled with laughter. It was obituary writing as something deeply transgressive. It existed to speak ill of the dead.

Something of that Victorian spirit, its bracing honesty, lingers in an extraordinary outpouring of malice published in the December 1960 edition of Landfall on the occasion of Cresswell’s death. Charles Brasch, as Landfall‘s editor, and as a homosexual author trying to survive in the moral gulags of mid-20th century New Zealand, perhaps (!) intended it as a tribute. He had got to know Cresswell and always had a touching loyalty to old friends. He commissioned seven writers to mark Creswell’s passing, and coverlined it, “D’Arcy Cresswell, by his friends.”

What great friends! There are two kind-hearted reminiscences, by Anthony Alpers, who credits him for his insightful editing of his monumental biography of Katherine Mansfield (Diamond would appreciate this: Alpers notes that in response to an instance in his manuscript “of a speculative comment covering a lack of information”, Cresswell scribbled in the margins, “More of your wonderful perhapses”), and Roderick Finlayson presents a kind of poignant short story about the time he and Cresswell went haymaking (“His hands were raw and bloody after those hours of wielding the fork.”)

The other writers pen their Cresswell memoirs as though exclaiming, “Do we have to?” A classmate at Christ’s College remembers him as “a social embarrassment”. There is a veiled reference to the 1920 scandal in Whanganui by another old friend, who wonders, ” How much of D’Arcy’s make-up must we ascribe to his physical misadventures, twice shot through the body?” A later friend lists “his selfishness and bigotry, his squabbles…his intrigues, his sordid affairs”. Denis Glover writes, “It is impossible to think of him other than affectionately, as one does of the porcupine when it is not in one’s own native woods….He was a man I always looked forward immensely to seeing, and was glad to see the last of….His tetchiness, scratchiness, jealousy and pettiness…”

The worst of the lot is founding editor of the Listener, and Alan Duff’s grandfather, Oliver Duff. You feel like reaching into the pages to take him outside and box his fucking ears. Duff comes on like some all-seeing, all-courtly Jehovah, reluctantly compelled to tell the truth about just how low mankind can go. Picking up his trumpet, he parps, “I  recall his follies more vividly than I remember his virtues, his personal weaknesses better than I recall his literary achievements, his artistic posturing’s better than his aesthetic integrity…We are all bigger boys in our dreams than the world ever realizes; all prone to talk of greater things than we ever achieve; all vain; all selfish; all self-indulgent; all self-pampered, self-pitying, self-deceived, and self-destroyed. But D’ Arcy Cresswell wallowed deeper in those marshes than anyone else I ever tried to work with…. He very often ranted and strutted….I do not know, and I have never known, how big or how small he really was. I know how small he could appear, how perverse he could be, how egotistical and demanding, how vain and foolish and unstable and disappointing. I know that he died unfulfilled.”

God almighty. What sounded hilarious in a grand old hall in Oxford University – some unworthy dead Briton, put down like a dog – doesn’t read like a comedy classic in the pages of a literary journal, when a New Zealander (from blameless Timaru!) has his reputation laid to waste. Such is the fate of New Zealand literature’s greatest wretch.

But it takes one to know one; and, wretchedly, I have been rather selective in the passages from the 1960 issue of Landfall. They also said nice things about Cresswell. Not overly so, and often lacking in grace, but at least they acknowledged he had some virtues. Denis Glover writes of first meeting him, “Here was a live poet, scintillating, swashbuckling, brilliantly dogmatic, sensitively offended when palpably proved wrong. He moved like a cavalier among us roundheads and blockheads, and he accepted our homage.” (He adds, “I hurried home to read again his published verses, and, puzzled, found them as flat, as mannered, as irritating, as before.”) Paul Diamond’s book Downfall, too, takes Cresswell off the cross now and then. He allows that he could at least write a decent sentence, and references approving remarks made by our best contemporary literary historian, John Newton, about some of Cresswell’s writing. I liked this half-sentence, about New Zealand women “debasing their stomachs with sickly and factitious foods”, but it confirms the observation made by his friends that Cresswell was a misogynist.

History never ends…It’s a very good thing that Diamond goes beyond the 1920 scandal and gives us the second, happier act of Charles Mackay’s life – the Berlin years, and those 22,000 rent boys – and reveals him as someone whose story “is one of resistance”. Downfall is a kind of morality play. It redeems Mackay. Will D’Arcy Cresswell ever find redemption?

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This charming man:  Walter D’Arcy Cresswell, photographed for his passport in 1921. Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-5543-07

Thee are bits and pieces about his life that reveal someone whose own story was one of resistance, and considerable bravery. He had fought in World War I and – for the first time but not the last – narrowly avoided death. Diamond writes in Downfall, “In early 1916, while serving in France, he was wounded by shrapnel and diagnosed with shell shock. After convalescing in hospital, he was discharged in August 1916 from the British Expeditionary Force on the grounds of a nervous breakdown.”

One of the commemorative pieces in Landfall is from a friend who saw him not long after he was wounded: “In March 1916 I came home on leave from the trenches and hastened to call on the Creswell’s, somewhere in Kent. He was there, wounded and convalescent, on sick leave in soldier’s hospital blues, but very ill in mind and body. Silent and glum with not a spark of the old gaiety, he sat shrunken-up in a chair, and had little to say to me when I took him to the seaside for the day.”

A returned serviceman, a war hero; throughout his life, Cresswell was a man of action, gamely haymaking, racing around on a motorbike, and even, far from his moneyed youth, working for a living, as a nightwatchman. He recovered from his wartime injuries and trauma to set his sights on becoming a writer of genius. It was this faith, and his absolute devotion to literature, that Glover was dazzled by (“scintillating, swashbuckling”) and eneamoured him to other writers in a lively literary scene, in Auckland in the 1930s, when Cresswell rented a bach in Castor Bay and drank with Frank Sargeson, Robin Hyde, Jane Mander and others at the Queen’s Ferry in Vulcan Lane.

Hold that beer. Pause that merry scene at the bar. Look upon D’Arcy Cresswell, a popular bon vivant, laughing and talking, a determined author at a time when there was hardly a trace of New Zealand literature; light always bathes the charismatic, and he has a glow, all the better to illuminate someone so handsome that he was beautiful. His looks set him apart and so does his desire – for fame, for art, for sex.

From Downfall: “An account of his life…sourced from Cresswell’s own writings, is a litany of relationships with men.” Good for him! And a 1938 entry in the diaries of homosexual New Zealand author James Courage, who met Cresswell in London, reports the two of them going on a pub crawl, with Cresswell suggesting “we should pick up a sailor or guardsman and spend the night in mutual fornication à trois”. Splendid idea! Courage demurred. He found Cresswell “obstreperous, maudlin, and morose”. Also he drank too heavily, and asked Courage for money.

Always, Cresswell up for it; always, Cresswell in the thick of things; always, Cresswell either driving people mad or driving them away. “Cresswell’s reputation is not the one that he coveted,” writes John Newton. “He remains, however, one of New Zealand literature’s outstanding identities.”  Exquisite to look at, one of the beauties of the age, until he opened his mouth, which he never shut. He was afflicted with a disease: philosophy, forever bullshitting about the meaning of life. Paul Diamond connects Charles Mackay to narratives of gay liberation. He brings him alive. But Cresswell’s life and narrative seem just as modern, just as fixed in the present. We all know a Cresswell or composites of a Cresswell. Beautiful men, vain not just about their looks but more so their destiny, insufferable monologuists, the despair of their parents (or, worse, their children), faithless, tragics, travellers, bad news, “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time” as Kerouac raved, open to “all forms of love, of suffering, of madness” as Rimbaud raved (there are no women exemplars of this system of derangement; it’s men only), banging the doors of perception open and shut, depressed, impulsive, complicated, self-regarding  – legends in their own long lunchtimes, beset with at least one dark secret.

Cresswell’s darkest secret is why he tried to blackmail and ruin Mackay. It’s the lacuna at the heart of Downfall, this unknowingness of what compelled him to do something that was rotten to the core. “A story of mindboggling iniquity”, as John Newton puts it. Paul Diamond thinks Cresswell might have felt remorse. “According to the poet Kevin Ireland, Cresswell later told Frank Sargeson that he felt terrible about what had happened in Whanganui.”

Tantalisingly, Diamond mentions almost in passing in Downfall the remarkable fact that Cresswell wrote to Mackay in prison. Jesus! Really? To say what? To say sorry? To ask for forgiveness? To ask for money? The letter hasn’t surfaced. We are back in the vacant lot of perhapsenstance. Perhaps we’ll never know what he wrote and, equally, perhaps we’ll never know his motive in the 1920 scandal. Perhaps his role was only part of a bigger picture. Perhaps he acted out of some sense of honour. Perhaps he was just a cunt.

Downfall: The Destruction of Charles Mackay by Paul Diamond (Massey University Press, $45) is available in bookstores nationwide. It has been shortlisted for the nonfiction prize at the Ockham New Zealand national book awards in May.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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