The writing of John A Lee

The writing of John A Lee

John A. Lee, who lost his left arm in the First World War, strikes a light-hearted pose in 1936, when he was a parliamentary under-secretary in the first Labour government.

Child of the poor

A charismatic ex-soldier, orator and propagandist, John A. Lee was a dynamic figure in the Labour Party from the 1920s until 1940, when he was expelled for attacking the leadership of M.J. Savage. Lee had a parallel career as a writer and later a bookseller. His best-known novel, the largely autobiographical Children of the poor (1934), was described as a ‘sensational book on vice, poverty, misery'.

Lee was born in Dunedin in 1891. His family's desperate poverty was described in Children of the poor and in his mother Mary Lee's posthumously published autobiography, The not so poor (1992). After leaving school, he drifted into petty crime and in 1906 was convicted of theft for a second time. The magistrate declared him ‘incorrigible' and sent him to Burnham Industrial School. Lee subsequently took to the roads, tramping much of the country and working in a variety of unskilled jobs. During these years he chanced on Upton Sinclair's socialist novel The jungle and devoured the works of Jack London. After being arrested twice – for smuggling liquor into the King Country, and for breaking and entering – he was sentenced to 12 months in Mount Eden prison.

In 1916 Lee enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, serving with distinction in the Wellington Infantry Regiment. Known as 'Bolshie Lee' for his socialist views, he wrote regular items from the front for Clutha Mackenzie's Chronicles of the NZEF. In June 1917 he was awarded a DCM for single-handedly capturing a German machine-gun post at Messines, Belgium. The following March he was wounded and had his left forearm amputated.

Lee joined the Labour Party on his return to New Zealand, and served as MP for Auckland East (1922-8) and Grey Lynn (1931-43). Although bitterly disappointed not to gain a place in Savage's first Cabinet, from 1936 to 1939 he was Under-Secretary to the Minister of Finance and responsible for the successful introduction of Labour's landmark state housing programme.

The 1930s also saw him achieve fame as a novelist and writer on socialism. Lee wrote his first novel, Children of the poor, in response to the despair of the Depression and the Queen Street riots of April 1932. Focusing on the book's frank portrayal of crime and immorality, the New Zealand Truth greeted its publication with the headline, 'Sister's degradation for starving family: a sensational book on vice, poverty, misery'. Although the book was published anonymously, excellent reviews and widespread interest prompted Lee to include his name on reprints. It was soon followed by The hunted (1936), the story of his Burnham days, and Civilian into soldier (1937).

In 1938 Lee published Socialism in New Zealand, which championed socialism as New Zealand's only political tradition. Now one of Labour's best-known figures, he was increasingly critical of the orthodox, cautious approach of Savage, Peter Fraser and Walter Nash. In 1940 he was expelled from the party for attacking the terminally ill Savage in an article in the left-wing journal Tomorrow. Lee's political career was destroyed. He founded the Democratic Labour Party but was never re-elected to Parliament. He continued to disseminate left-wing views through John A. Lee's Weekly (1940-8) and other journals, and from 1950 became a successful Auckland bookseller.

Outliving his enemies, Lee continued to fight old battles. He found a new lease of life as a writer in the 1960s. Simple on a soap-box, his version of the events of the 1930s, was published in 1963. Rhetoric at the red dawn (1965), Political notebooks (1973) and The John A. Lee diaries 1936-1940 (1981) provide a fascinating – if highly subjective – view of Labour's rise in the 1920s and 1930s. For mine is the kingdom (1975) was a scurrilous 'biography' of ‘booze baron’ Sir Ernest Davis. Next to Simple on a soap-box, the best of Lee's non-fiction works was the openly autobiographical Delinquent days (1967), a sequel of sorts to The hunted.

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