Following his graduation from Auckland University in 1933 the Christchurch-born Mulgan took up residence at Merton College, Oxford. In 1935 he began working at the Clarendon Press. A keen observer and commentator on European politics, he also became a New Zealand government observer at the League of Nations in Geneva in 1936.
He and his close friend Geoffrey Cox also began contributing regular articles on foreign affairs for the Auckland Star. But it is as the author of Man alone (1939) for which Mulgan is perhaps best known.
The title for Man alone came from a remark in Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Most copies of Man alone had been destroyed during the London blitz. As a result Mulgan’s literary prowess remained largely unknown to many New Zealanders at the time of his death in April 1945.
This changed following the New Zealand reprint of 1949. Man alone spoke ‘for the generation that grew up between the wars’ while at the same time exploring Mulgan’s own sense of 'feeling of being between two worlds'. It became a New Zealand literary classic.
Its central character, Johnson, an English survivor of the First World War, came to Auckland during the Depression. After being caught up in the Depression riots he turned his hand to farming, firstly in the ‘grim northern Waikato’ and then in the central North Island. There, he had an affair with his boss’ Māori wife. Following the accidental killing of his boss, he then survived an epic crossing of the Kaimanawa Ranges as he sought to leave the country and set out for the Spanish Civil War.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War Mulgan enlisted in the British army, serving with distinction. His work with Greek partisans during the German occupation between 1943 and 1944 saw him awarded the Military Cross.
Mulgan became increasingly disillusioned with the chaos resulting from war as demonstrated by the civil war which had erupted in Greece but also from what he saw as the failure of socialism. In late 1944 he had unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a transfer to the 2nd New Zealand Division, highlighting what some saw as ‘the central tragedy’ of his life – ‘that he never discovered where "home" was.’ Shortly before his death he completed the manuscript of his memoir, Report on experience, which he posted to his wife in New Zealand.
Adapted by Steve Watters from the DNZB biography by Paul Day