Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Michael Gifkins on Welby Ings

Yesterday I discovered in the recesses of our garage a long-forgotten stash of copies of the long-forgotten leftie magazine New Outlook, of which I was the editor and designer for its first two years, 1982-3. Looking at it now it wasn’t bad, especially the arts section which in a way was a precursor of Quote Unquote. Contributors to the magazine in my time included Lauris Edmond, Sandra Coney, David Robie, Dick Scott, Arthur Baysting, Peter Davis, Erik Olssen, Geoff Chapple, Marcia Russell, Pattrick Smellie, Paul Little, Russell Haley and Chris Trotter, along with photographers Gil Hanly, Bruce Connew, Mark Adams and Glenn Jowitt.

In the August-September 1983 issue Michael Gifkins reviewed Inside from the Rain (Brookfield Press), a collection of short stories by Welby Ings, who is now a professor of design at AUT. This too has been forgotten but it was, I think, the first book of fiction in New Zealand published by an out gay writer, and is therefore of historical interest. Also, I liked it. So on the founding principle of this blog that “if it isn’t on the Internet it doesn’t exist”, and because there is no other reference to the book anywhere that I can see, here is Michael’s review:
Most of the pieces in this first collection of short stories by Welby Ings rely for their effect on the twist that comes in the closing lines. There, the reader’s expectations are turned inside out. Two of the more successful stories of this kind — one about a gay young man who murders his lover’s “friend”, the other sketching with pastoral simplicity a day in the lives of a “dear old couple” who feed seagulls in the park — repay a second reading to enjoy the manner and the timing of the author’s signposting of the concluding shock.
A problem arises with other stories when the trick ending is too slight to justify what has gone before: the joke that irritates because the punchline does not bear its weight in “Nemesis” and the childhood myth recreated at over-respectful length in “The Desecration of Wilbur Wright”.
More disturbing is the way in which Ings tends to sell his material short. In “Jimmy” the confrontation between gay and redneck in a country pub inevitably calls in question reader prejudices, but the ending, by revealing that the gay is paraplegic, sentimentalises whatever understanding about his “handicap” we might have reached.
There is a sense in which the attendant publicity about the author works against these stories. Here is no expose of middle New Zealand such as a Taihape society allegedly shocked by his award-winning play Freesias might have been led to fear. When Ings is not being socially earnest (“Territory”) he is setting up easy targets and archly picking them off (“The Pigeon Social Club”, “Ram-Ram”). Moreover, the treatment of the theme of homosexuality by one who is self-confessed is uneven to the point of the reader’s feeling that he or she may be identifying with characters against the author’s intent. It is difficult to sympathise with the angst experienced so often over the treachery of bladder, and bowel; yet on the other hand we are invited to disapprove of a character’s flagrant homosexuality by the author’s narrating voice.
The distancing effect on the latter story, “Fairy” — arguably the best in the book and wickedly observed — is confusing only in the context of this particular collection. Many of the stories attempt to legitimise the self-awareness of oppressed homosexuality, only to suffer from the quick superficiality of its protective response. We are left seeking a more objective viewpoint on which to base our judgments, as is provided in “One Night Stand”, a slyly humorous put-down of a commercial traveller, dealing in lonely hearts, interestingly enough of the heterosexual kind.
Inside from the Rain is illustrated with superb pencil portraits by the author. Although these add considerably to the book’s decorative quality it is doubtful whether they resonate in any way with the stories they introduce. Production money might have been better spent on rigorous editorial intervention to sort out the many spelling and typographical errors which mar an otherwise attractive book.

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