Great New Zealand Argument by Various Artists

Fretful Sleepers

by Fretful Sleepers

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This is closely connected with another implication of my awe at my mother’s warning: a middle-class conception of a universe well-plumbed and shockproof, where there aren’t shafts for boys to fall into. That is at bottom of the ideal world of the New Zealander, one that ‘runs by clockwork’. You get up at a regular hour, go to work, you marry and have a family, a house and a garden, and you live on an even keel till you draw a pension and they bury you decently. The New Zealand way of life is ordained, but who ordains it?

God? But few New Zealanders care about him: they don’t doubt he is there, he must be; a New Zealander who never says ‘Christ’ except unconsciously as an expletive will jump to confute an atheist. God is at the controls but he doesn’t need the New Zealander’s recognition. God disposes, man reposes. The universe is well-oiled and if you stick to your tracks you’ll have a good journey in this life. After that? Well, if you’ve lived a respectable New Zealand life, what sort of God would he be to complain? We’ll mostly end up in heaven, seemingly in one endless family reunion talking over old times. Of course this is a bourgeois eschatology: it is more explicit in the attitude of elderly, comfortable suburban womenfolk. But I think it applies to the public assumptions of more New Zealanders than go to church. Now when the well-oiled universe grinds, there wells a vague resentment: when life turns up a vigorous uncomfortable side, there is rebellion. The New Zealand woman feels disgust at seeing an epileptic fit: she talks of cancer as if it was, like v.d. or the illnesses of Erewhon, a reprehensible disease. Why? Because there isn’t the corresponding balance of a known cure. It looks as if the Creator forgot something. The patient isn’t to blame; has God played fair? So again of violent or tragic death. Someone must be to blame; these things don’t happen without purpose … : someone left a switch on, the driver had ‘had drink’; and if not, then it shouldn’t have been allowed – God is to blame. Under trial the New Zealand church-going woman is huffy: ‘You’re not the sort of God I was brought up to believe in.’ She probably stops going to church, just to show him.

But, failing God, when the wrong affects more than one the solution is ‘the government.’ Even the champions of private enterprise expect government compensation when the crops fail. No people is easier material for governing. Though ‘Hitler’ and ‘dictator’ are common as terms of abuse (usually applied to a foreman who puts production before sociability) there is a lurking respect for the dictator because he has all the authority and gets things done without argument and compromise. When the Upper House went no one cared. It was only workers of the big unions, and the watersiders themselves, who were concerned at Mr Holland’s emergency regulations, and a few intellectuals. Fascism has long been a danger potential in New Zealand. Of course fascism doesn’t just occur: it is a deliberate strategy used by money-makers threatened with social discontent. But in countries nominally democratic, fascists have first to prepare the ground. In New Zealand the ground is already prepared, in these conditions: a docile sleepy electorate, veneration of war-heroes, willingness to persecute those who don’t conform, gullibility in the face of headlines and radio peptalks. (Footnote 1)

New Zealanders may well wake up one day to find a military dictator riding them and wonder how he got there. If the National Party was more astute it would have a V.C. as its party leader. You can’t inherit freedom; yet most of our institutions are inherited and there is no common understanding that they were born of struggle. Even if the Upper House answered no need in New Zealand conditions, it is a check to power removed. Again there is a popular respect for summary justice. In Auckland during the war there were rumours that American soldiers sentenced to death by court-martial were taken to sea on launches, shot and dropped overboard. Whether the rumours were true or not, I don’t know: what disturbs is the undertone of admiration with which they were repeated. The Yanks, one was told, didn’t fuck around. There was a very real danger that the emergency organization of volunteers willing to assist police and provide scab labour in the 1951 dispute might have turned into a minor local Ku Klux Klan.

Not that New Zealanders would long tolerate a one-man government that hurt. I say that so long as the autocrat, like Peron, manipulated the sentiments of the people and governed broadly in the interests of the most powerful class, few would raise moral questions about the principle of dictatorship. Mr Holland, governing by radio, without a parliament, seems to have emerged from the waterfront dispute more popular than ever. The reason why the New Zealander is willing to invest his responsibility in a strong, benevolent ruler is that he himself is afraid of responsibility. He especially fears any position that raises him above ‘the boys’. How many of us refused stripes in the army, just out of that fear. In the war, an airman turned police constable explained to me that he only joined the force to get out of going overseas and anyway he was indulgent to servicemen, looked after them when they were drunk rather than run them in. You may object, well he did join the force rather than risk his life. What I mean is that he felt no shame in owning to cowardice, but had to apologize for taking a job of potential hostility to his mates. Infantrymen who joined the Provost Corps would explain that really it was a good thing if chaps like them were M.P.’s because they would be easier on the boys than ‘some other bastards’ would be. They had to explain their decision as being in the interests of the boys they felt they had deserted. Possibly the boys aren’t convinced and don’t co-operate: the n.c.o. or provost becomes guilty and bitter and all the harder on them. Of course in civilian life there are other inducements to raising oneself – money, the demands of wife and family: these are accepted by society in its contrary idea that a man has to get ahead, look after himself. But the man who has raised himself, say from miner to deputy, or hand to foreman, is faintly haunted so long as he works with the men once equal to him. Off duty he probably takes care to drink with them; at work he will establish himself by confiding in the older hands who knew him before he rose, and being tough on the newer ones, who no doubt are ‘a different stamp of material altogether, don’t know what work is, most of them’.

II

Now the New Zealander, especially of the middle class, has a two-faced attitude to social climbing. We all dimly hope to rise, yet we are afraid of rising above the common level. We become righteously indignant when anyone tries to impose on us by reason of money or birth. ‘who does he think he is, Lord Muck?’ Think of the sneers we have for the clipped polite speech of the English middle class – which we confuse with the speech of aristocracy – or for the visiting English aristocrat, the giggles of young girls at his manner, the cold shoulder of the worker. We can only stand it when he speaks from a platform: we fear direct human contact; he is the occasion of Rotarian oratory, a column in the press, be we are awkward in his presence as if our weaknesses were exposed. Because our vaunted pride is being as good as he is, is in fact a sense of inferiority. That is why so many New Zealanders, when they come to England, try to get to a royal garden party and conduct themselves like teen-agers in the presence of a film-star. Being middle-class we fear and sneer at royalty and aristocracy, yet we hanker after them because an aristocrat’s goodwill confers security on our self-esteem. But on the other hand we feel superior to some workers, especially those of the strong left-wing unions – miners, watersiders and freezing workers; and, as tourists, to foreign menials, workers and peasants we adopt attitudes we wouldn’t dare at home. I have heard New Zealanders in London say ‘Cockney’ and ‘Irishman’ in the same tone of voice as adults in my boyhood used to say ‘night-man’. Generally the sense of inferiority makes us all the more determined to enforce the level: it is fear of social climbing that brings the dread conformity all artists in New Zealand have to contend with. This too is at back of our two-faced attitude to England. It is a boast to be going to England; but not to come back is desertion, like crashing your way into another class. We like to be told we are the Dominion most like England, yet an English educated accent makes us feel we are being imposed on. If it crops up in someone’s talk that he has been to England his listener will at once suspect that he only raised the subject as an occasion of mentioning his travels. We sneer at English customs, yet from every visiting Englishman we exact words of praise and are offended if he criticizes us. We crave for commendation from those we feel inferior to. Remember how flattered we used to be to read those digest articles about New Zealand the Social Laboratory, the experiment watched by the whole world?

Most readers will remember the time they left their home towns to go to university, how when they went back in vacations (if they didn’t fall prey to the temptation and feel superior) they looked double-hard at everyone they passed to avoid unconsciously snubbing anyone they knew. The word would get around, X is conceited, thinks himself someone just because he’s at university – ‘Why, I can remember in the slump he didn’t have shoes on his feet.’ The home-town folk look for this and are disappointed if you don’t give them the chance to condemn you because you are already different: you are at university. ‘Being different’ in New Zealand means ‘trying to be superior’. I know of no other country where this is so. A friend of min working as a builder’s hand got along well with his workmates till the secret came out that he’d had a year at university. Defensive sneers met him after that, whenever he disagreed on anything: ‘Don’t think that just because you’ve been to ‘varsity … ‘ I worked a fortnight at a garage: the foreman couldn’t resist telling the men I had an M.A. in English and dared me to ‘improve their English.’ (Footnote 2) (He was a militant atheist and took pleasure at the offence given – to whom? – by their habitual swearing.) He wasn’t serious, but a sprayer took me aside and solemnly warned me that if I had any ideas like that I was due to come a big thud.

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1. The Australians were far from docile in their reaction to the proposed anti-communist bill. It seems we are the most fertile testing-ground for legislation dreamt up not by the National Party but foreign diplomats: reactionary legislation is following the same pattern in four ‘White Dominions’. We always were a social laboratory.

2. Many readers will be tempted to think I only mention this to advertise the degree.

3. The jury mentality is in our sense of should. Ignoring the distinction between shall and will (which is observed in England but not New Zealand), should in England expresses probability: the English say I should go where we say I’d go. In New Zealand should</> expresses moral obligation, the same as the English ought to. Yet in New Zealand there is a new use coming into habit: you should meaning there’s an opportunity for you to, as in you should put the rent up. It is a symptom of an increasing attitude of unprincipled opportunism. Can means may in New Zealand. In the past this has meant no power without permission. It might be reversed and come to mean power is permission, might is right.

4. Mr Sargeson wrote in Landfall (March 1951): ‘I, who think of myself as so very much a New Zealander, cannot find anything in myself to compare with her poise, her complete lack of pretence, her quick sympathy for all behaviour which proceeds from inner necessity, her superb indifference to personal criticism, her ability to resist every shoddy and commercial influence.’ He laid open the fundamental weakness of the New Zealand character the chameleon-like lack of integrity. I don’t mean honesty. I mean lack of a whole and unifying principle in one’s make-up to which one has to be loyal or lose one’s self esteem.

5. Strangely enough there has been less of this nostalgia about England. Some English customs and dialects are more foreign to us than Irish or Scots. Is it because the English settlers brought their class distinctions and prejudices with them, so didn’t knit into a group?

6. That the sounds have lost meaning is evident in a passage of Guthrie Wilson’s Brave Company where in a soldier’s thoughts, the word ‘Christ’ is interchangeable with one of the Anglo-Saxon unprintables, and the invocation is more protest than prayer.

7. The English intellectual for example, thinks with detached disciplined reasoning. His education has involved a strict mental discipline that is not in favour with New Zealand education pundits – either the writers of the late periodical Education or the ‘correct use of the full-stop’ inspectors. But we approach problems by a subtle adjustment of moral and emotional reactions, either puritan or snobbish, either moral favour and moral disapproval, cheer and sneer, clapping and boozing; or humility and superciliousness, crawling and snubbing. But since I can only draw on my own mental habits for example I’d better shut up.