Reading The Expatriates reminded me of my high school years and how I loved history because I had a teacher who made the subject come alive. Martin Edmond has that same talent and I found myself getting caught up in the stories he tells of four New Zealanders who achieved fame in Europe.
Some of the material Edmond based his book on came from the late James McNeish.
Although this book is closer to a textbook than anything else, Edmond writes well, apart from an annoying habit of referring alternately to people by their first and last names, which can be confusing.
The four profiled are Harold Williams, journalist and linguist; Ronald Syme, spy, libertarian, and historian of ancient Rome; John Platts-Mills, radical lawyer (he once defended notorious gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray) and political activist; and Joseph Burney Trapp, librarian, scholar and protector of culture.
The most interesting to me – and possibly Edmond too, as he devotes the largest section of the book to him – was Harold Williams.
The son of a Methodist preacher, Williams became fascinated by foreign languages and mastered a large number. After moving overseas he worked as a correspondent for various publications and reported on conflicts and politics, moving in exalted circles due to his incredible command of languages.
Williams lived and worked in Russia during the turbulent years of Lenin, Trotsky and Rasputin. He married a Russian woman, Ariadna Tyrkova, and devoted much of his life to researching and recording Russia’s history.
Each man has a fascinating life story, and in the case of Platts-Mills, an equally fascinating family. His mother was one of the few female registered doctors in New Zealand in the early 1900s. I’m hoping Edmond may turn his attention to writing a similar book about New Zealand women who achieved fame overseas last century.
This book is a great tribute to four men who went on to make a success of things overseas, and a great reminder that New Zealand has always produced brilliant and revolutionary people.
Reviewed by Faye Lougher
by Martin Edmond
Published by Bridget Williams Books