A Glorious Morning, Comrade by Maurice Gee, 1975

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by Maurice Gee, 1975

The last four stories in Maurice Gee's collection A Glorious Morning, Comrade (1975) concern old men. All of them are Gee's attempts to portray his own grandfather, a charismatic figure he finally captured in the novel Plumb, the first of a trilogy. When asked why so many of his stories deal with older people, Gee replied:

Perhaps it comes from an interest in the architecture of the old life. There's the fullness, on the one hand, of experience, and the narrowing down of time on the other. So as one increases and fills out the other is decreasing. You've got a huge imbalance…. Also there's the possibility that it's easy to write about old people, in the sense that so many of them have strongly marked traits and quirks. There's a good deal to latch on to, in a physical way—and in a mental way too. Things so often come out of their minds in a marvellously graspable shape."

Gee's world is based on power relationships and on a deep mistrust between the sexes. This is a mistrust that some might argue to be typical of New Zealand society—at least in its earlier, colonial period—in which sexual relationships are constrained by personal limitations or public disapproval, men are territorial and underdeveloped emotionally, and women are managing and possessive. "A Glorious Morning, Comrade" is the last in the eponymous collection. In Critical Essays on the New Zealand Short Story (1982) Lauris Edmond notes that this story seems to celebrate "that spark of absurd but indestructible energy" in the character Pitt-Rimmer that helps him rise above a petty provincial society. Yet a closer reading shows him, to some extent at least, to be a symptom of the very society he scorns.

Pitt-Rimmer is a bored old man, probably in his late 80s. He has had a distinguished career as a judge, but unlike many retired men he seems not to need the reflection of past glories for a sense of self-worth. He gets that by despising his two daughters, although, unlike King Lear, he conceals his scorn, "pitying their innocence." Because the story is told completely from Pitt-Rimmer's point of view, the reader tends to sympathize with him and his sarcastic judgments of his daughters, their conventional friends, and life in general. His views have that "marvellously graspable shape" that Gee mentions as a quality of older people. There is a refreshing iconoclasm, for example, in Pitt-Rimmer's summation of Gallipoli, the great Anzac expedition, as "a very great piece of nonsense." Having been a judge in a small town, Pitt-Rimmer has the lowdown on many of the people, particularly women, he meets, and he enjoys excoriating them for their middle-class pretensions and hypocrisy. For example, he reminds himself that the mother of the three Bailey girls "broke their hearts by choosing to live in an old people's home."

He will not give his own daughters the satisfaction of getting out of their lives. On the contrary, he will make life as difficult as possible for them by playing a game of escaping. He maneuvers himself through the town like a chessman. Indeed, he is proud of the fact that he prefers chess to the far less intellectual game of bridge, at which his daughters excel, and he considers himself the equal of Capablanca. It is only when we see him in scenes of dialogue that another light is cast on him. In these scenes Gee opens up his character to other judgments, especially to the idea that he is a cantankerous, bullying, opinionated old man who uses his age and infirmity to get his own way. When he slyly informs Maisie that her mother had had an affair with his own son-in-law, we see in action someone using his insider knowledge to wield power—always over women—for the sheer pleasure of it. He reveals his misogyny when he confesses to a little boy, "The conspiracy starts at the cradle." His malice reaches its nadir when he tries a final, physical assault on Christine Hunt, but when that does not work, he draws on his memory of her court case to give a malicious schoolboy snigger about her "frillies."

At this point Gee brilliantly moves the reader back to sympathy for Pitt-Rimmer. He has become hopelessly dependent on his daughters. His curling "into a ball to defeat the cold" is a pitiful image that evokes the totally dependent fetus in the womb. At his moment of greatest triumph he is at his most vulnerable, becoming weary, cold, and dizzy. He asks desperately for his daughters. Pitt-Rimmer's "little victory" by running away and beating his old record is a "life line" to save him from a deep sense of depression and loss. He hints at this existential despair when he says, "I walk on the pipe, Mercy. If I'd fallen off you would never have been born." When he is eventually found and taken home, we begin to sense that he is held captive by these overly protective sisters, who insist on mothering their able father. The very first line sounds this sadistic note, with the ironically misnamed Mercy (misnamed, Pitt-Rimmer later points out, by his wife and not by him) tying her father's scarf "in a mean granny knot." She and her sister are mean, and they exacerbate the familial difference between them and their father by talking to him patronizingly like a baby ("daddums") and by describing their card-playing friends as the "girls." As in King Lear, there is also a power struggle between the two women. Mercy, the one who stole her sister's husband, is destined to lord it over Barbie. As Pitt-Rimmer observes, "Barbie will be the invalid when I'm dead."

His annotations in a library book continue to win our sympathy for Pitt-Rimmer. They show a man intellectually starved ("He corrected one split infinitive") by small-minded people in a small town. He also is physically starved; he underlines the mention of breasts and writes at the end of the book, "Help! I have not had a piece of meat for twenty years." This is the final of his italicized missives and the only one actually to be written down. To follow this italicized series within the story is to chart Pitt-Rimmer's slippage from confidence to lonely desperation. He eventually has no audience except the next borrower of his public library book.

Gee brilliantly and obliquely captures the various facets of old age: the demeaning incontinence, the frustration of a lively mind in an enfeebled body, the frank desire for physical pleasure in a society that presumes age is good only for vegetables and naps, and the inevitable petty-mindedness that comes from being looked after. The unstinting realism of Gee's portrayal of Pitt-Rimmer makes the reader accept even more readily his eventual superiority and admire the way he manages to "walk the pipe," to balance the "huge imbalance" of old age, to stand on the "rim" of the "pit" of mediocrity when everything—society, family, body—conspire to force him to slide meekly into second childhood and mere oblivion.

—David Dowling