10 Questions with Paul Diamond


Q1: This book has been a long quest for you. When did you first get become interested in the Charles Mackay story?

Downfall began in 2004 when I was working at Radio New Zealand. My colleague Prue Langbein suggested we work together on a feature about the ‘Whanganui Affair’. We began researching, in Whanganui and Wellington, but did not finish the documentary before I left radio to work as an oral historian at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. At that time the Chief Historian was Bronwyn Dalley, originally from Whanganui, with an interest in the history of crime and sexuality. She encouraged me to keep working on the story and see where it led.


Q2: Why was it important that it be told? 

One of the reasons Downfall took a long time to finish was that it is about a hidden history. Charles Mackay was punished because of his homosexuality — something condemned, but also invisible a century ago. I’m pleased that queer people younger than me will be able to know about this different, more repressive time in our history. As we say each year on Anzac Day, kei wareware, lest we forget — if you believe in cycles of history, we may need to remain vigilant.


Q3: Were there some ‘a-ha!’ moments as you went about your research?

It took a lot of work to find Mackay’s will, which he made in London but ended up in Berlin. With help from many people, including Mackay’s family, I was allowed to see this at a Berlin court. The will opened up the story of what Mackay was doing in London — where he was living, his advertising career, and introduced me to people he knew, including a Coldstream Guardsman. The guardsmen were famous for soliciting for sex in St James’s Park, where I knew Mackay loved spending his evenings.


Q4: What was the impact of being able to research the story in Berlin?

Mackay’s death was a big story and a diplomatic incident, so there was a lot of material in the archives. Some of the papers were in a different script which stopped being taught in German schools in the 1940s, and I had to have this transcribed before it could be translated. This was worth the effort — scrappy notes in one file were statements taken by Berlin police as they reconstructed Mackay’s movements before he was shot. Reading the young housemaid in Mackay’s pension describing delivering his morning coffee and hearing him typing as she cleaned the adjoining room brought the story to life. I was also lucky to rent a flat overlooking where Mackay’s pension had been, and experience living in the same part of Berlin.


Q5: You must now have a keen sense of the sort of man Mackay was. What impresses you about him?

Even if you didn’t like Charles Mackay, he’d have been difficult to ignore. Extremely bright and articulate, he had a strong, charismatic personality, and extraordinary energy. It was a gift when Prue Langbein and I found a collection of censored letters in Mackay’s prison inmate file. Like the newspaper stories Mackay sent back from Berlin, the letters are a chance to hear his voice, which was entertaining and engaging.


Q6: And what of his blackmailer, D’Arcy Cresswell? What is the sense you have of his life?

I found Cresswell much harder to figure out than Mackay. Determined to be the next great poet of his generation, his poetry was hard work. Cresswell’s prose on the other hand, is amazing and still very readable. His dedication to a writing life made a big impression on Frank Sargeson and other New Zealand writers.


Q7: Is it possible to understand how the citizens of Whanganui tried to obliterate him after the trial?

I wonder if there’d be anything these days which was so bad that we’d try to eliminate all traces of a person from the record. As part of my research I discovered references suggesting that others may have been involved in the 1920 scandal, and that Mackay took the blame. This could help explain why the town reacted the way it did.


Q8: But is it hard to forgive? 

Deliberate obfuscation is hard to forgive. A book about the history of Whanganui street names made up a story rather than acknowledge why Mackay Street was renamed Jellicoe Street after the shooting in 1920. As an historian, I find that hard to accept.


Q9: Proud of this book? 

I’m very proud and relieved to have finally finished Downfall. Anyone who comes across the story of the shooting in 1920 is intrigued, but there is much more to it than the sensation of a mayor shooting his blackmailer. It is satisfying to finally have a book putting the ‘Whanganui Affair’ into context.


Q10: What do you hope readers will take from this book? 

A friend who read a draft emailed that she was left with ‘a very satisfied feeling, as if I have been taken for a tour around the Wanganui Sensation and shown behind it and underneath it and what it looks like from every possible viewpoint.’ I also think Downfall will be an eye opener for readers, especially those younger than me, to learn more about a time when homosexuality was hidden and shameful.