Three interrupted lives
James McNeish’s final book, Breaking Ranks: Three Interrupted Lives, is about three men who defied authority and paid for it. One is a doctor, another a soldier and then there’s the judge, each at the top of their profession. Their incredible lives reads like the stuff of fiction, but they share a common fate, dying prematurely when they had much more to give.
Reginald Miles was a veteran and hero of World War 1 and 2, who died in mysterious circumstances passed off as suicide. John Saxby, a rebel pioneer of mental health treatment in New Zealand, saw his life’s work undone by the state. And, Peter Mahon, one of the finest legal minds of his time, brought down by the state after his damning indictment of Air New Zealand after the Erebus disaster.
But more than simply being victims of official denial, Saxby, Miles and Mahon also shared a kind of wilfulness and anarchic spirit that almost guaranteed their fates. It is this common factor that McNeish examines and argues is part of a wider New Zealand psyche.
‘Three lives then, three pioneers, innovators and visionaries who die before their time. These are quite separate stories. Yet they are not random’ said McNeish. ‘They are part of a pattern which seems to illustrate a hidden element in New Zealand psyche; an affliction; an aspect of our makeup which I believe permeates the collective New Zealand identity. I mean the element of anarchy.’
It is possible McNeish saw similarities in his own philosophies and those of the men he writes about in Breaking Ranks. While he was without doubt one of New Zealand’s finest writers he never quite fitted in. As fellow author David Hill observed when writing his obituary for the NZ Herald, McNeish was ‘…an outsider, happy—proud "to stand apart". He believed you had to do so to retain your perspective and integrity in a small country.’
Unlike the men he writes about, however, McNeish lived a long life, productive to the end. He died aged 85 on 11 November 2015, just days after handing in the final manuscript to his publisher.
Sir James McNeish wrote nine novels, 14 works of non fiction, four plays and numerous essays and articles. Many of his books became classics: Lovelock (nominated for the Booker Prize), Dance of the Peacocks and his psychological investigation of the Bain murders, The Mask of Sanity (1997). Over the years, he was awarded most of the major New Zealand writing prizes and fellowships, and was a made a Knight Companion in 2010 for services to literature.
Breaking Ranks: Three Interrupted Lives By James McNeish