Great New Zealand Argument by Various Artists


No Fretful Sleeper

by Paul Millar

In November 2004 Bill Pearson’s trenchant essay ‘Fretful Sleepers’ was posted on Public Address as part of Russell’s Great New Zealand Argument series. As I was then researching Pearson’s life for my biography No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson, I wrote a brief preface to the essay. But looking back I find my comments significantly lacking in detail and insight because in late 2004 I wasn’t fully aware how intensely private and complex was the life Bill Pearson had been forced to lead as a closeted homosexual. Only as I wrote the biography did I come to a full understanding of the extent to which the forced concealment of something as fundamental as Pearson’s sexuality impinged on every aspect of his life, particularly his writing.

The following extract from chapter sixteen of No Fretful Sleeper is therefore much closer to what I would write now for the Great New Zealand Argument series. The time is the early 1950s and the setting is London, where Pearson is completing his doctoral dissertation and beginning his novel Coal Flat. Never before or since would he enjoy such freedom to express himself as an intellectual, a writer, a political activist and a homosexual. But even as he revelled in London life his happiness and sense of well-being was tinged with regret because he had already decided it couldn’t last.


from No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson, Chapter 16 (with minor changes from the published version)

It had always been Pearson’s intention to return to New Zealand — ‘I just knew that I belonged to New Zealand and wouldn’t settle in England’.i So he gave himself a definite time frame, the completion of Coal Flat: ‘[W]hen I finish the novel I must return,’ he told Charles Brasch.ii ‘One knows one’s own people, subtleties of facial expression, tone of voice, gesture: who do I know here? I have been embarrassed in the company of half-a-dozen East Londoners, say, not catching the underlying motives of their talk — their patterns of gentle ridicule, friendly scorn of what really attracts them — feeling whatever I said would be out of key.’ As time wore on, he worried that he was already ‘out of touch with the NZ idiom’ and that this seemed to be silencing him: ‘One loses the desire to say anything here.’iii For all his fear of New Zealand’s ‘deadness after London’, it seemed vital to return for the sake of his writing: ‘The danger here is of drying up . . . the best solution for the New Zealand writer is to busy himself in the country, or involve himself in some activity, where he can get strength and depth in his writing.’iv

But by 1951 Pearson could see that London had ambushed him; he hadn’t expected to be so happy in the heart of the British Empire. The belief he had arrived with, that there was no problem of the New Zealand creative artist, was shaken by his enjoyment of the English summer, and by the pleasure he took in London life with its ‘sense of greater variety, and less fear and more freedom in talk than at home’.v He began to treasure those qualities enjoyed to date: largeness, diversity, anonymity, a manageable type of sexual freedom, an endless procession of art, theatre and dance, access to the cultures of Europe. It was this developing enjoyment of London that had prompted him to write to Charles Brasch in December 1950 (the first letter since his grumpy notice of departure over a year earlier) asking whether he would be interested in an idea he had had in his head ‘for some time of writing an essay or article criticising, arraigning and evaluating the “NZ Character” such as one may abstract from the behaviour and acts of New Zealanders. I don’t know if I could do it without carrying myself away into a kind of rhetoric.’vi He went on to ask whether Brasch thought his desire to remain in London was an attempt to ‘shirk a responsibility? Is it fear of “freeing” myself from ties of custom, social mores? I don’t know if you can really decide me, but I’d like your advice.’vii

Brasch, with long years of experience living covertly as a homosexual, understood that Pearson was asking him how he had managed to survive in New Zealand’s puritan bell jar. ‘I still feel the pressure to conform very strongly,’ he answered. ‘As you can guess, I am quite outside the pale — I’ve never had any illusions about that; it means isolation.’viii Brasch’s honesty was due in part to Pearson’s confession of his real fear that if he were to be true to himself, and live as his sexuality dictated, he would become the butt of the same sorts of jokes that Margaret Bennett had told him of, directed at Frank Sargeson:ix

. . . the neighbours, I daresay, don’t speak, but find him good material for keeping visitors amused, pointing him out thru the curtains. On the other hand the intellectuals — tho they are prepared, as students to use him, call round with half a dozen bottles, and brag afterwards of what F. & I said — treat him as someone to be avoided, the object of shaded jokes, remarks, askance at parties.

Such courageous difference risks humiliation, but what was the price of conformity? Pearson knew it would be ‘difficult to avoid some conforming in N.Z. if only out of self-protection: if you refuse to compromise you find yourself fighting and preoccupied with a battle no one takes seriously, you become a joke or boycotted’.x Brasch’s reply was soothing and pragmatic: ‘[I]t’s no use just fighting things in N.Z.; one must get on with one’s work as quietly and normally as possible, accepting other people’s view of one and looking for the best in them while rejecting whatever’s false in their outlook. Damned difficult; but life is long, and one’s business is to survive, as man and artist.’xi

Pearson never really arrived at the calm acceptance of other people’s negative views of him achieved by Brasch, and although he survived as a man when he returned to New Zealand, he perished as an artist. Only in the final dozen years of his life did he reach the point where hiding his sexuality seem ridiculous and he began, in a quiet but determined fashion, to come out as a gay man. One of the most creative pieces of writing in many years — his 1990 autobiographical essay ‘Beginnings and Endings’ for Fergus Barrowman’s literary journal Sport, with its coded allusions to his homosexuality — was a product of this period of increasing disclosure.xii. For most of his life he remained fiercely proud and instinctively defensive — it always galled him that although he considered himself as good as the next person, in homophobic New Zealand a single misstep was all it took to become an object of derision. The fact he even cared what others thought was equally galling, and he detested his own thin skin and habits of defensiveness, the more so as he frequently acted according to their dictates. Too often when relationships became threateningly intimate he placed self-deprivation and personal pain before the risk of humiliation, acting against his own interests to pre-empt situations developing that might leave him exposed and vulnerable to ridicule or rejection. More than once an important relationship foundered because he backed away from it at the point of commitment.

Pearson’s April 1951 letter to Brasch thus supplies the crucial context for appreciating ‘Fretful Sleepers’ — namely that it originated as his cri de coeur against the mainstream whose values sentenced him to the solitary confinement of the closet. However his fellow New Zealanders might receive the essay, Pearson wrote it with one reality at the forefront of his mind, that discrimination against homosexuals occurred at every level of New Zealand society, and in seeking to express his sexuality there ‘[he] wouldn’t have anything like the opportunities that [he] had in London’.xiii The thought repulsed him that on returning home he might feel compelled to repeat in some form ‘all the routines I went through in my adolescence, especially when I started at training college . . . that craving for protection, wanting to get myself a reputation that would protect me, like I did all the proper things that young men did’. His experience of alienation provided ‘the basis of [his] criticism of the New Zealand mores and ethos’. While conceding that a lot of the essay ‘of course was self-criticism, in that I thought of myself as a New Zealander’, there was the deeper reality that ‘[my] thinking and feeling as a New Zealander was imposed on me, and was foreign to my sexuality . . . the pressures towards conformity force you into certain falsities of thinking and feeling’.

Because many New Zealand intellectuals were no less condemnatory of homosexuals than the men drinking at the bar in Coal Flat amusing themselves at the expense of Pansy Henderson, Pearson was no less critical of intellectual pretensions than of small-town attitudes. When he expressed to Brasch his resentment at the deception New Zealand life required of him (‘What I hate is the drive to conformity, the fear of being different’),xiv Brasch perceived immediately that this plaint was also a rehearsal of an argument — ‘a sketch for an essay on N.Z. mores’ — and wrote encouragingly: ‘I would indeed like to see that when it’s written.’xv But when Pearson’s first, handwritten, draft of ‘Fretful Sleepers’ reached Brasch, he was taken aback by its length — ‘it’s not 8–9000 words, but nearer 15000’ — and read it ‘in waves of rising and falling interest’.xvi He concluded that it should be printed, although in its early draft it ‘does seem a bit long-winded and repetitive’. ‘I’d much rather wait until your return,’ he told Pearson, ‘only you can tighten up this version.’

Pearson didn’t want to wait until he was back in New Zealand to see his essay published, and he felt little inclination to rework the piece — ‘I’ve worked off my obsessions and don’t feel like any radical revision’.xvii He still felt keenly Brasch’s rejection three years earlier of his Holcroft article. But rework it he did, albeit grudgingly, and airmailed it on the 2nd of January 1952, expressing concern that ‘at the rate legislation is moving in NZ, it may soon be illegal — some of the tilts at Mr Holland you may even now have to cut’.xviii Brasch sent the sheaf of pages off to his own typist, and was delighted with the outcome:xix

I got your ms typed and have just finished reading it through, and I must say I am considerably impressed — more so I think than at the first reading . . . it now reads as a continuously developing argument . . . An excellent piece of work . . . I was struck several times by your admirable clarity and forcefulness and some very good longish yet simple sentences . . . The essay will take up very nearly half of LF . . . the only priority to you is Sargeson’s short novel, which will occupy most of one number . . . I’m afraid you will have to wait for September.

Pearson was pleased to have earned Brasch’s approval and only mildly frustrated by the delay: ‘I hope . . . Frank finds some urgent revisions to his novel before June,’ he joked in reply.xx In April he remarked to Brasch that he had thought of some minor ‘crystallisations’ to his argument, but none were that important and he was content to ‘leave the sleepers to nod until they are doused coldly in September’.xxi When the essay appeared, he wrote at once to tell Brasch how pleased he was ‘with the setting out’ and to express a hope that ‘it will stimulate some thought’.xxii ‘I don’t doubt that there will be a great deal of argument, and that I will be criticised,’ he concluded happily. It was therefore a matter of some small regret that although ‘Fretful Sleepers’ caused a stir amongst readers of Landfall, few of these seemed personally affronted by anything Pearson argued. Indeed, most readers appeared to welcome it as if it referred to anyone but them.

The main effect of the essay was to kick open a number of doors Pearson had been knocking upon, and admit him to the inner circle of New Zealand’s left-wing commentators. From being simply a promising writer of fiction, he had become with a single essay a leading voice of social criticism.

Paul Millar's No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson is published by Auckland University Press.

Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas About Ourselves, is published by Activity Press, and can be purchased from the Public Address Store.

With the kind permission of Donald Stenhouse 'Fretful Sleepers' is available to read here as part of the Great New Zealand Argument series

Calder, ‘An Interview with Bill Pearson’, p. 56.
WHP to CB, 12/04/51.
WHP to CB, 16/10/51.
WHP to CB, 2/07/51.
WHP to CB, 12/04/51.
WHP to CB, 17/12/50.
WHP to CB, 12/04/51.
CB to WHP, 17/06/51.
WHP to CB, 12/04/51.
WHP to CB, 2/07/51.
CB to WHP, 21/07/51.
See ‘Beginnings and Endings’, Sport, No. 5, Spring 1990, pp. 3–21.
WHP, interview with JPH, 23/04/01.
WHP to CB, 12/04/51.
CB to WHP, 17/06/51.
CB to WHP, 21/07/51.
WHP to CB, 29/07/51.
WHP to CB, 2/01/52.
CB to WHP, 1/02/52.
WHP to CB, 14/02/52.
WHP to CB, 6/04/52.
WHP to CB, 18/10/52.

My Imaginary Journey

by Fairburn 1

If Rex Fairburn had been writing now he would surely have been a blogger. Not one whose work fell easily on the "left" or the "right", but assuredly one who would not shrink from a good argument.

"He always wanted a scrap …" wrote Denis Glover and Geoffrey Fairburn on the jacket of The Woman Problem and other prose. "Right or wrong, he would argue the hind leg off a cow and bite a camel's bum. What he has to say is not so much to convince us that that his is the only thinking … as to make us think about these things for ourselves."

Fairburn's politics were neither consistent or wholly rational - his dalliance with Social Credit saw to that - but they were forthright. As the New Zealand Book Council profile declares:

"Fairburn’s targets are those individuals and institutions that encourage the worship of false idols - capitalist greed, puritanical repression, social status and power, hypocrisy and the cult of the respectable."

Some of his work - notably the gamely-argued tosh of The Woman Problem - would be considered "politically incorrect" now, and readers may divine a modern resonance in My Imaginary Journey's "female dictator", Madame Onions.

He was a man who in 1947 spurned Frank Sargeson's offer to arrange a stipend from the Labour government's State Literary Fund ("I'd take money from a friend, if the circumstances were right. But not from the State, not in the form of a pension anyway, because that allows the State to get a foot inside my door …") but in 1951 lamented that "I find it impossible to insulate myself against the infections of the market place, to evade the sooty hand of commerce …"

My Imaginary Journey was first delivered as a radio broadcast for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service on October 5, 1953, at a time when Fairburn was working (unencumbered by any formal qualification) as Lecturer in History and Theory of the Fine Arts at the Auckland University College in what would now be known as Elam. In it, he pokes at our smugness; both that of Sid Holland's mainstream New Zealand in 1953, and of the cultural establishment he worked alongside at the time.

This will be the first of a series of works by Fairburn to be published on Public Address in 2006.

The text here is taken from The Woman Problem and other prose, 1967 (Blackwood & Janet Paul Ltd; ed. Denis Glover and Geoffrey Fairburn) and is used with the kind permission of Dinah Holman and Janis Fairburn, literary executors of the Fairburn Estate.

The audio recording has been kindly made available by Sound Archives Nga Taonga Korero and was converted to MP3 by Richard Hulse at Radio New Zealand. Special thanks are due to Rachel Lord and Blair Parkes for their help.


IT WAS ONLY by the merest accident that I came to pay a visit to Autarkia, that paragon of twentieth-century states. At the time I was on my way home from a world tour. I had made a pile of money out of the publication of a book of poems - so much money, indeed, that after buying a new car and a string of race-horses, and making handsome presents to all my friends, I found I had enough left not only to pay my income tax, but also to take me on an extended tour abroad. By the time I left for home again my book of poems was in its fourth edition, the money was simply rolling in, and my bank account was threatening to burst at the seams: so I found I could indulge myself further by chartering a special plane to take me on the last lap of my Journey.

Unfortunately - or rather, as it turned out, very fortunately - a series of minor mishaps overtook us. First, my pilot dropped the bubble out of his spirit-level: and while he was fumbling for it on the floor of the plane, he lost his sense of direction. As a precaution, he had taken a pair of compasses on the trip: but these were of no use at all. On the contrary, they led to a further complication-for we found ourselves describing circles over a strange piece of territory, which neither of us could at first identify. In the end it came to a forced landing.

It wasn't long before I realised that we were in Autarkia. Apart from the slight worry at having lost our way, I wasn't at all displeased with this. Like the rest of you, I had heard so many rumours about this country that I was, in fact, delighted to have the chance of satisfying my curiosity. Autarkia is, as you all know, reputed to be the last word in modernity. For that reason it is, of course, practically a closed book to those who have not been there: since all the publicity and information services-including, I need hardly say, literature and the arts-are under direct control by the Government, it is quite impossible to discover by docu¬mentary evidence what conditions there are really like. And since it is almost impossible to get permission to enter the country, little is known by outsiders about the manners and customs of the Autarkians - except that it seems to be generally agreed that their customs officials have no manners at all.

The truth is - as you will know from your digest reading - that Autarkia has already come close to realising the dream of every twentieth-century state - that of cutting itself off completely from the rest of the world. It has succeeded, for instance, in reducing trade with outside countries to the absolute minimum. Almost all the things it needs are by this time produced internally-synthetic bananas, rice and cotton grown by hydroponics, wines with French-sounding names, chemical coffee and cocoa, plastic bicycles, woollen clothes made from seaweed, artificial beefsteak made from sawdust - I could name you a hundred such commodities. In point of fact, Autarkia imports only one commodity. Having an exceptionally cold climate, it obtains heat from the Sahara Desert: blocks of heat are frozen and then shipped in refrigerated space to Autarkia, in order to provide much-needed warmth for the inhabitants. Being a completely up-to-date and progressive state, Autarkia makes no attempt to pay in full for these imports of heat. It merely pays the interest on the debt incurred - and, in order to do this, it has developed an export trade in dried heads. In normal times of political tension these are provided in sufficient quantity by unsuccessful politicians. In periods of relative quiet, an auxiliary supply is obtained from members of the academic staffs of the universities-this, indeed, being the more economical source, since there is in such cases no need to go to the expense of drying the heads, nature and culture between them having already completed that process.

You will, I know, wish me to say a word or two about what happened to my pilot and myself after we had made our forced landing. We found ourselves on a broad expanse of turf, which must have contained several hundred acres. I at once recognised this as a golf-course. I was puzzled by its flatness, and found out later that the Autarkians have made golf, their national game, completely rational. Every fairway was as level as a billiard table-there were no bunkers to obstruct play-the greens were funnel-shaped to facilitate holing out-in fact, everything had been done that you can possibly think of to make the game accurate and scientific. Of course, only those who are in good odour with the Government are allowed to use these links. Those who are not in favour - the majority - are compelled to play three times a week on a huge expanse of dune country nearby, with nothing but loose sand from end to end of it.

Soon after landing, we were taken in charge by two officials dressed like Beefeaters, wearing gas-respirators, and were conveyed twenty miles or so by car to Sisyphus, the capital city. I know that it is customary for travellers abroad to discuss the transport arrangements, the alcoholic amenities, the quality of the soap in hotel bathrooms, and other vital matters. I do not intend to weary you with a detailed account of what happened to us during our brief stay in Autarkia. That would be altogether too tedious. My time will be much better occupied in describing to you the tremendous advances this nation has made in the techniques of civilised living.

Perhaps the greatest triumph to have been achieved so far in this astonishing country is that women have by this time completely got the upper hand. No male is permitted to own property, propose marriage, run a bank account, give up his seat to a woman in a jet-propelled bus, go fishing on Sunday, smoke tobacco, choose his own library books, sit about in braces, or do any of the other things traditionally associated with masculine privilege. It is ten years since the vote was taken away from men. Incidentally, democracy has been carried to new heights by the adoption, some two years ago, of the principle of votes for animals. There was talk at the time of restoring voting privileges to men, as a logical extension of the new policy, but it came to nothing, chiefly because the vote itself has come to mean little or nothing in Autarkia. The work of Government is all done by a permanent and hereditary bureaucracy, consisting mostly of women, under the direct personal command of Madame Onions, the female Dictator - who is known affectionately to her subjects as 'The Strong Woman'. We had the pleasure of meeting Madame Onions. It was quite an experience.

There is still, by the way, a Parliament, but the Members are no longer put to the bother of speaking or voting. Each has a gramophone record, prepared by the Department of Propaganda and Education, which is played whenever it is his turn to speak; and all decisions are made by Madame Onions. This saves a great deal of disagreement and obstruction, and makes for smooth, stream-lined running of the country's affairs.

There is one thing in particular about which the Autarkians cannot be accused of half-heartedness, and that is soil erosion. Whereas we are content to leave this to the casual activities of amateurs, in Autarkia the State organises and superintends soil erosion on a gigantic scale, and entirely systematically. Water is pumped into huge dams on the tops of hills, and sluiced down the valleys. This is in accord with the increasing national campaign to get rid of dirt. Behind it lies, however, the further intention of preventing the illicit production of food. The food industry is a State monopoly, the profits from which pay the wages, salaries and bonuses of the large army of bureaucrats. The State has its own forests, from which sawdust is obtained, and food of all kinds is manufactured from this. We were astonished to be told, after our first dinner in Autarkia - a seven-course meal - that every item on the menu, from soup to ice-cream and cheese-straws, was manufactured out of State sawdust. It is, by the way, quite illegal for private people to plant, or to own, trees. The penalties are extremely severe, and there is very little bootlegging in food, even during the famine period of the year, which usually lasts from early winter until later autumn. Senior bureaucrats - and their guests - are of course exempted from famine.

I must tell you that Autarkia has brilliantly solved another twentieth-century problem - that of city traffic. This has been done by the simple method of banning pedestrians from the streets. It is necessary to obtain a licence to become a pedestrian-the fee is a substantial one-and one is only allowed to walk on the footpaths-and then only if one does so in a respectful manner, raising one's hat politely to every car and truck that passes. Trespassing on the roadway is a serious offence: to knock down a motor-car or a truck is a hanging matter.

Let me say a word about the economic foundations of Autarkia. Of the heavy industries, the chief one is horse-racing. Here again, gigantic strides have been made towards complete rationalisation. The most startling instance of progress is that the horses have been got rid of. The members of the racing public sit in front of television screens watching horse-racing scenes taken from old movie-reels, and laying their bets by telephone. The placings are decided by drawing names out of a hat. This new system is extremely successful. There are no dull moments. Every race is packed with thrills, and may be watched in comfort from an arm-chair, or even a bed. The laws of chance apply fully, and quite fairly, and guarantee plenty of excitement in return for the money one loses. An additional advantage gained from doing without horses is that the oats saved are turned into fertiliser, which is used in the State forests, thus helping to increase the supply of sawdust for food.

And now let me tell you something about the education system of Autarkia. Common sense, and a feeling of responsibility to the nation, have at long last triumphed over the older policy directed at 'helping human beings to realise themselves' - as sentimentalists used to express it. There is no nonsense about the education system of Autarkia. Every child is now trained rigorously in some functional occupation that will serve the ends of State policy, and is allowed to do nothing else. 'If we are to hold our place in the modern world,' said the Minister of Propaganda and Education recently, 'we must make every citizen a cog: a happy, smiling, singing, contented cog-in the smooth-running machine of the State. Only thus can we succeed in preserving those traditional liberties which are more precious than life itself.' In these words we find the key-note of the Autarkian education system. Even the higher education has been remodelled completely along these lines. In the universities there are chairs of riveting, ice-cream making, boot-clicking, paint-spraying, handle-turning, and dozens of other useful activities. Classical studies, literature, philosophy, and other forms of mental thumb-twiddling which used to be called, with unconscious irony, 'the humanities', are now banned as subversive activities. The Autarkians have a genuine love of progress, and are busy building a happier world.

Speaking of their schools, I must not forget to mention one most remarkable instance of the way in which they have forged ahead-and that is in the matter of sex-education, which they take very seriously indeed. In all primary schools there are regular classes for the teachers, where they are provided by the pupils with the very latest knowledge.

I would have you know that in Autarkia the arts are not neglected. The Autarkian Government has a high sense of the importance of tradition and culture, and fully appreciates the role that art and literature have to play in the drama of history and the evolution of the human spirit. Every senior bureaucrat has two specially-chosen writers attached to his staff: their duty is to gather materials and write his biography. Similarly, he has on his staff an artist, whose function it is to paint his portrait at frequent intervals, so that posterity may have a complete record of the personalities associated with the glory of the Autarkian regime. For both writers and artists the expression of private thoughts is, of course, strictly forbidden, as being contrary to the principles governing the Autarkian way of life. The Un-Autarkian Activities Committee constantly supervises the conduct of artists and writers, and quickly checks any tendencies towards irresponsible personal expression.

If you ask me to give you a concise notion of the social and political ideals underlying Autarkian life, I can sum them up in one word - the word Freedom. The Autarkian attitude towards Freedom can be described only as one of worship.

This spiritual goal is like a great light shining above the pathway of life, leading them onward towards ever better and brighter things. The national motto, inscribed on every public building and on every banner, is, indeed, 'Freedom Through Conformity'. Freedom, they explain, is the end, and Conformity the means. On this principle the political philosophy of the Autarkian state is based.

I feel, personally, that it was a very great privilege to have been given the opportunity of inspecting at close hand this latest and most promising chapter in human history unfolding itself before my very eyes. And I must say that certain rumours I had heard previously about the inhospitable reception given to visitors turned out to be entirely unfounded - at any rate, in the experience of my pilot and myself. Wherever we went we were showered with bundles of most illuminating propaganda material-pamphlets, posters, reports, even full-length history-books. We formed many friendships. And when we came to leave that happy country we were sorrowful indeed. At our final interview with Madame Onions we wept unrestrainedly.

I am aware that I have not told you very much about our day-to-day experiences during our fortnight's stay in Autarkia. I am very much afraid that any curiosity you may have about these matters must wait until some other occasion, when we can talk more privately. I gave a solemn promise to the Minister of Propaganda and Education that on our return home we should not fall into the heresy of personal expression. I hope, however, that I have managed to convey to you something of the infectious enthusiasm, the forward-looking optimism, of the Autarkian people. I am convinced that future generations of humanity, looking back on the murk and darkness of the early twentieth century, will agree that it was Autarkia that led the van of progress, and showed mankind the pathway to brighter and happier things.

Nuclear Weapons Are Morally Indefensible (the Track)

by David Lange

The file on this page, 'Nuclear Weapons Are Morally Indefensible', is a derivative work incorporating audio from the recording of David Lange's speech in the 1985 Oxford Union debate, arguing in favour of the motion that "Nuclear Weapons Are Morally Indefensible."

The speech is used with the permission of David Lange, Margaret Pope and Television New Zealand. The music was composed and produced by Andrew B. White, aka Tomorrowpeople.

The record is a 192Kbit/s MP3 and is 8.93MB in size.

Creative Commons - Some Rights ReservedThis recording is copyrighted by Andrew B. White and may be freely distributed, played and broadcast in line with the attribution/non-commercial/share-alike Creative Commons Licence 2.5. See for further information on licensing.

Information Entrepreneurs

by Russell Brown

First ←Previous Page 2 of 2 Next→ Last

We saw an even more striking change in the relationship between the community and the media with last year’s Indian Ocean tsunami and this year’s terrorist bombings in London. Personal accounts of the tsunami – in blogs and emails – formed such an important part of the coverage that the British National Library moved to harvest and preserve them.

In London on July 7, the major London newspapers appealed for eyewitness accounts as soon as the news broke, and published them on receipt. To a remarkable degree, people seemed to know what was required of them: their accounts were concise and relevant.

Blog traffic worldwide was estimated to have jumped 30% on July 7. As it had done in the wake of the tsunami, Wikipedia spawned a page for the bombings as the news broke. That page became a resource of breadth and depth - and, most remarkably, it probably kept abreast of events better than any single media organisation. That is how much things have changed: an encyclopaedia does breaking new better than the news media.

By the end of that day, the BBC had received 30 mobile phone videos of events and more than 300 digital images from the public. Its head of news talked of a “gear shift” in the broadcaster’s relationship with its audience.

The BBC, which I think is leading the way now, just as it exemplified the vision of Lord Reith in another era, has acknowledged that relationship in another way: BBC Backstage. This is a part of its website, where the BBC says: perhaps you know a better way to harness our information than we do.

Programmers are given full access to the BBC site’s feeds to use in new ways. Among the most useful hacks have been blends of the news feed and the equally open geographical mapping service provided by Google. (Those without programming skills are invited to simply contribute ideas for things they’ like to see.)

Similarly, in drawing up a schedule for release of material under its Creative Archive policy, the BBC asked the public what they would like to see first. It turned out to be nature and science programmes.

And further, the first release under the Creative Archive project is explicitly intended for derivative use: a series of clips for VJs who mix live video images to accompany music.

Can libraries accommodate this kind of shift? They have, many times. When libraries as we know them first appeared in classical Greece, only a select few could see the books, and they were never allowed to wander among the stacks. The Romans established libraries as public facilities. But for many centuries, books were far too expensive to be actually allowed out the door. They were literally chained to the shelves.

As Robin Hyde noted in 'The Singers of Loneliness', her lyrical observation of an emerging culture, in the 1930s, many New Zealand libraries did not permit the copying of manuscripts - by anyone. This would seem indefensible now.

At this point, I should declare an interest: the group blog site I run, Public Address, attracts between five and six thousand visits a day. I think our authors all make a useful contribution to the national conversation, and that some of what is said there will become part of our cultural history.

Last year, I introduced a new feature to Public Address: a "historical blog" called Great New Zealand Argument. I had become aware that there was great writing of argument that had direct relevance to the kinds of contemporary issues debated daily on our website. I wanted that writing to be seen.

Our first post was the transcript of David Lange's 1985 Oxford Union debate speech. It turned out to be the first published transcript of this iconic speech. It was read 10,000 times in its first week and a half online. It took only three days for it to rise to the top of Google rankings for the relevant search strings. No one had to make that so: it happened because that is how Google works.

The second work posted was Bill Pearson's 'Fretful Sleepers' - an essay accorded great significance in the study of New Zealand literature, but out of print and unavailable to the public. Five thousand people read that in a week: more than had accessed it via the Turnbull Library in a decade.

This year, that historical blog became a book: 'Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas about ourselves'. Just before I travelled to Wellington, we - I formed a publishing company too - agreed that it should go into a second printing, meaning it has covered its costs. I should note that the book has sold well despite nearly everything in it having already been made available on the Internet.

I have been able to offer compensation in cash or kind to those who took the original leap of faith and let me put their work online. Indeed, perhaps the nicest thing about the project was being able to buy old Bob Gormack a good bottle of whisky for a poem even he had forgotten he had written! The book has also afforded me the pleasure of meeting one of its contributors: the former head of the Turnbull, Jim Traue. It has also been a delight to make the acquaintance of the Turnbull’s Philip Rainer.

I am not an expert on New Zealand literature, or any literature. I am an ignoramus. But I know what I like and I am motivated, and there is value in that. As, effectively, a modern pamphleteer, I am excited by the knowledge that the original Turnbull bequest includes more than 6000 pamphlets.

I was recently able to bring this part of the project to a kind of closure when I liberated the Lange speech itself. And I say "liberated" advisedly. I was only able to gain "listening access" to the recording from Sound Archives, in order to transcribe it. I negotiated for months to try and get the recording released online, with the approval of Mr Lange. But, the day before he died, I got the final word from Radio New Zealand. I could use the recording, but not make it available in any form that could actually be downloaded.

This wasn't good enough for me: not only would it have an adverse bearing on quality, it also precluded derivative uses. I quite liked the idea of those ringing words being sampled and worked into a dance record. And so, might I say, did David Lange. Eventually, a last-minute plea to TVNZ bore fruit. The recording can be downloaded by anyone, and 3000 people have. It is linked to, along with the transcript, from Wikipedia and the website of the Economist. And that dance record is in the works. Finally, I fulfilled the expectation of actuality.

I must emphasise that I don't blame any individual for the difficulties of the process. Archive organisations need policies - and on a more practical level, funding - for this kind of project. It's my fervent hope that in the next few years, both the policies and the funding will be forthcoming.

It is truly exciting to see the National Content Strategy take shape. And if I could have one wish, it is that the strategy will admit New Zealanders. The blessing and the curse of libraries and archives is their sheer breadth. Having decided to disseminate, what to disseminate first?

The answer, at least in part, is to disseminate what people want. I imagine a modest, simple fund to digitise works on request from the public. Perhaps someone wants a work to illustrate an argument, to enhance a Wikipedia entry, or simply for the pleasure of making it available. Once it is published, like those old RFCs, it can never be unpublished.

My point is this: that the keepers of knowledge can either operate a command economy, with five-year plans, or they can let in the information entrepreneurs. They can be the benevolent dictators who started it all.

I would hope that it will soon be possible for motivated individuals to make their own paths through our great common heritage; for our great archives to be adorned and enhanced with Wikis, web projects and blogs. That our online encyclopaedias can harness the power of community. And that there will be a flowering so broad and so fast-growing that it will be hard to count its blooms.

And if it does prove hard to draw all this activity together? You may anticipate my answer: start a blog.

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Nuclear Weapons are Morally Indefensible (Audio)

by DAVID LANGE, Oxford Union debate, 1985

This audio recording of David Lange's speech arguing the proposition that "Nuclear Weapons are Morally Indefensible" in the 1985 Oxford Union debate is used with the kind permission of Television New Zealand.

A full transcript of the speech appears online here and is published in Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas about ourselves, with an accompanying commentary by Margaret Pope, the author of the original speech notes.

Thanks are due to Karajoz Coffee Company for covering costs associated with this project, and CactusLab for their technical assistance and bandwidth.

EDIT:  An hour of the debate, including the principal speeches, is now available on YouTube: