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Book Review

December 9, 2019 December 2019 No Comments

A Communist in the family – Searching for Rewi Alley.

The author, Elspeth Sandys, is Rewi Alley’s niece and a member of a twenty strong group of Alley’s relations on tour visiting the places where Alley worked. This book is both the story of this tour and of Alley’s life and work. The result is an impressive sixty one chapter tome, four hundred pages of small type. 

Alley served in the First World War and was subsequently balloted one of the ill fated farm blocks in the hill country behind Whanganui. After toiling there unsuccessfully for twelve years, he, along with  the other farmers walked off. He had heard much about the turmoil in China and decided to go and have a look, working his passage on a tramp steamer.

He was appalled at the poor farming methods starving peasants in North West China and decided to help. CORSO (New Zealand’s predecessor  to OXFAM) provided twenty four breeding sheep and Alley formed the  farmers into co-operative groups called Gung Ho. He was inevitably also dragged into the three way war which was raging for the control of China between the Japanese invaders, the War Lords led by Chiang Kaichek, and the  peasants led by Mao Zedong.

Alley’s adventurous life is greatly detailed, as is the tour party’s ups and downs and here lies the problem. The tour is under the auspices of the Chinese government which arranged an agenda which, while covering all the places where alley worked did not follow in Alley’s chronological footsteps.  So in being told of what happened at each place we are often taken  back or forward tens of years. This along with simultaneously being given details of the tour, and the multiple Chinese names, did require some concentration. 

The group was accompanied by a number of minders and attended many arranged displays. They were amazed at the high regard Rewi Alley is held in and the number of statues of him they saw. 

Nevertheless an excellent book giving a real insight into a person revered in China but with most of his life under a question mark in New Zealand where he was seen as a Communist. His reply was “ I am committed to the people, not Communism”.  The League of Nations’ citation credits him with saving the lives of thousands of  refugees from execution. 

Alley returned  to New Zealand four times, always to his amusement being less than covertly shadowed by the SIS. The 1973 trip was arranged by the Ministry of Foreign affairs to give talks on China. In these he urged the setting up of an Embassy in China and he is seen as the original conduit to New Zealand’s trade arrangements with China. Under the Lange Government  Rewi was awarded the OBE.

 A definitely recommended read

Mike Beckett

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