by Nicholas Lyon Gresson
When does a family history and memoir became a troubling exposé, or even a settling of scores? Nicholas Gresson’s lengthy book on his extended family, and his own journey around the difficult dynamics of his parents’ life, is certainly a troubling one. While the book is centred around his father’s suicide and mother’s character flaws, the aspects of his own history become secondary.
The Gresson family has a long association with the law, and the male side has provided generations of judicial figures. This is certainly worthy of an historical examination, but Nick Gresson doesn’t follow them into the law; even though he seems to have a fascination with aspects of it, it’s as a layman. The first part of the book also discusses other family members, especially a distaff side for which he holds a lot of affection. This is mostly based in the affluent Fendalton area of Christchurch.
Indeed, having some historical knowledge of Canterbury, if not the social dynamics of Christchurch city, makes it easier to follow the early parts of the book. Young Nick’s school days are interesting, as part of the social elite, including at Christ’s College. Then, with his father’s move to Auckland, after becoming a High Court judge, Gresson was able to escape the social conventions of Christchurch education. But he doesn’t head to university to study law, and, after a brief stint at the Fisher & Paykel firm, goes on the O.E. to London. Yet, once again he doesn’t stay on the career path, and in the mid 1960s he becomes a sailor on the other side of the Atlantic, on German registered ships.
The part of the book which follows his shipping days from New York down to various South American ports, and back, is probably the most interesting subject matter in the book. Certainly there are many adventures, and narrow escapes, and there are also numerous sexual liaisons with women in each port. In fact, there is a certain matter-of-factness, or brevity in this description, which may have helped in the rest of the book. But for all his travels in South America, and time spent on Thursday Island, off the Queensland coast, there are still the troubling letters from home.
It is in 1967 that Gresson finally returns home, and to Auckland, where he finds his father worn down by his mother’s invective and carping criticism. On page 450 Gresson refers to his mother’s ‘social character’, which is apparently based on something called the ‘ton principle’. This seems to be a set of attributes borrowed from the English elite, and creates some very judgemental attitudes and pointed criticisms. Maybe this explains part of what living in 1950s Fendalton was like. But other people growing up in Christchurch were also subject to puritanical and judgemental treatment that affected their later lives. The Gresson family life just became toxic, but Nick not only exposes the emotional cruelty of his mother, he goes on to implicate his sister as carrying on the strain.
Nick’s father Terence was the defence lawyer in the infamous Parker-Hulme murder trial in Christchurch. And Nick continues to hold a fascination with such trials, even trying to track down Juliet Hulme, in her new identity, when visiting Scotland on holiday. Perhaps his most interesting intervention was in the Arthur Allan Thomas case, when he helped track down a useful witness, as well as holding up a sign in support of Thomas while walking across the North Island. He claims the interviews that he conducted, and were sent to the Prime Minister, were influential in the royal commission being set up to exonerate Thomas. But it was actually his sister’s husband, a prominent Queens Counsel, who would be more directly involved in the review of the legal case. So the book remains a very lengthy and detailed of someone close to the action, but essentially a prodigal son.
Author: Nicholas Lyon Gresson
Publisher: Quentin Wilson Publishing