David Herkt reviews Downfall for Kete


An excellent review of Paul Diamond’s Downfall: The destruction of Charles Mackay has appeared on Kete. David Herkt writes:

‘The death of a New Zealand freelance journalist, Charles Mackay, during a street fight between German police and Communist protestors in Weimar Berlin in May 1929 seemed to be a case of a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mackay was killed by police gunfire as he worked on a darkened street after being warned to stay away from the confusion.

Authorities would produce three differing statements about how Mackay met his end but this would not be the only mystery in Mackay’s life. In 1920, the same Charles Mackay, then six-term Mayor of Whanganui, had been arrested for shooting the 24-year-old returned serviceman, D’Arcy Cresswell, in Mackay’s own legal office in the centre of the city. The evidence and short discussions following a guilty plea involved revelations of the mayor’s homosexuality, hints of blackmail, and, to the attentive, possible machinations of civic politics.

Mackay had been Whanganui’s mayor from 1906 until 1920. His enduring achievements would include the Dublin Street Bridge, improved roading, an electric tramways system, and – of still-continuing cultural importance to the city — the Sarjeant Gallery. This laudable civic career came to a close in a flurry of gunshots in a Ridgeway Street office. Cresswell was found severely wounded and Mackay was charged with attempted murder.

Historian and writer, Paul Diamond has been working on Downfall: The destruction of Charles Mackay since 2004. His investigations have included visits to Berlin, reviews of court transcripts, family interviews, and invaluable photo research. Diamond is not afraid of the mysteries he discovers — and the Mackay case has many unanswered questions. Remaining obscurities reveal as much as resolved facts.

Mackay pleaded guilty to the charge of attempted murder but there were still oddities about the incident, including the air of truncated prosecution. Cresswell did not attend although his unsigned hospital statement was crucial. He described coming to Whanganui to stay with “a cousin” but had dinner alone with the mayor that first night, a man who he had never met before. After going to the Hawera Races, Cresswell again dined with the mayor, this time with his cousin in attendance.

Cresswell was invited the following afternoon to a private viewing with Mackay of the just-opened Sarjeant Gallery. After the viewing, Cresswell went to Mackay’s office where, allegedly, the mayor revealed “a certain disgusting feature” in his sexual character. Cresswell erupted furiously telling him to resign his position and demanding a letter stating this fact. The pair would meet twice more as Mackay pleaded for his family and wrote an explanatory letter to the mysterious cousin which was posted. Then, on their final meeting, a short struggle developed. Mackay shot Cresswell with a revolver and tried to press the gun into his hand.

The name of the cousin remains unknown and the police never contacted him. The Mayor’s confessional resignation letter was never produced. Cresswell stated that he led the mayor on to confirm his “dirty intentions” but how he knew that mayor was homosexual is obscure. Was it related to Cresswell’s own homosexuality? Why Cresswell had such a monomaniac interest in the resignation of the mayor also remains unknown.

Mackay was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment but was released in May 1926 after serving just over six. He was on a boat to Australia with his sister the very next morning, going onto London and finally Berlin.

Diamond explains this knot of human action lucidly while providing geographical and social background, especially focussing on the homosexual historical context. Mackay’s life is set against the changing sexual attitudes of the era. From closeted Whanganui to Weimar Berlin with its nightclubs and sexual tolerance tells its own story and Diamond carefully uncovers it.

Downfall is clearly and transparently written. Diamond, however, is not a stylist. His language, while always serviceable, does not quite entrance. It is declarative prose, efficient and necessarily linear, but style has other resources that engage and delight. The evidence of Diamond’s dogged archival work is clear and admirable. The book has been beautifully produced by Massey University Press with many photographs, maps, and images of archival materials which enhance the written content.

Diamond ranges about his subject providing detailed accounts of persons and places. This is a necessity in Mackay’s biography where, for example, the mayor’s actions around RSA involvement in a Whanganui civic reception hosting the visiting Prince of Wales might well have been a critical factor which ignited the sexual scandal — or it could simply be an imposition of speculation, years after the event. Mackay’s less-than-complete knowledge of the German language could explain his clumsy response to a police order during a confusing riot. Cresswell’s own homosexuality is fully explored.

While Downfall might sometimes draw a long bow in connecting diverse incidents, Diamond’s breadth of knowledge also creates a full picture of an era and a man. Mackay might have been a provincial mayor with an unauthorised sexual life but his history tells a crucial New Zealand story. The lives of gay men in the past are notoriously hard to reveal. Much is hidden, more was never openly said. Diamond has honoured his subject.’