Great New Zealand Argument by Various Artists

Fretful Sleepers

by BILL PEARSON, Landfall, 1952

Bill Pearson's Fretful Sleepers: A Sketch of New Zealand Behaviour and its Implications for the Artist has had a kind of academic cult status ever since its original publication in Landfall in 1952. In his introduction to the 1974 collection Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays, from which this version of the title essay has been retyped, Pearson notes that it had been "clandestinely photocopied" for teaching use. It provides a sometimes stinging insight into both contemporary and enduring elements of New Zealand's collective identity.

The essay is published with the permission of Donald Stenhouse. It is preceded by a biographical note by Paul Millar, a senior lecturer at Victoria University, who is currently researching and writing a biography of Bill Pearson, assisted by an award from Copyright Licensing Limited.


William Harrison (Bill) Pearson was born on 18 January 1922 in Greymouth, where his father was the Stationmaster. He attended Greymouth Main School and Greymouth Technical High School. In a society dominated by the New Zealand working man it wasn’t an easy childhood or adolescence for a boy who was unusually sensitive and preferred intellectual pursuits to sports. His mother died when he was sixteen, but with his father’s support he went on to study at Canterbury University College (1939), Dunedin Training College and the University of Otago (1940-1941). February to July 1942 was a particularly crucial six-month period during which he was a Probationary Assistant teacher at Blackball School, Grey Valley. This experience later provided the setting and many of the characters for his acclaimed social realist novel Coal Flat (1963).

When he was called up to fight in the Second World War, his pacifist beliefs saw him serving initially as an assistant in the New Zealand Dental Corps. Eventually he decided that it was ‘less hypocritical to go off to war and be killed than fix other men’s teeth so they could be killed’. Accordingly, in 1945, he accepted a posting to the Infantry’s 15th Reinforcement, bound for Egypt. He arrived in Egypt to find the war ended, and so volunteered to join the British Commonwealth Occupation ‘J Force’ in Japan. Demobilised in July 1946, he returned to Canterbury University College, graduating M.A. in English in 1948. In 1949, under a scholarship scheme for returned servicemen, he enrolled as a doctoral candidate at Kings College, University of London, receiving his PhD in 1952.

This brief sketch of Bill Pearson’s background is helpful in fully appreciating the impulse behind the writing of ‘Fretful Sleepers’. While Pearson’s brief note at the essay’s conclusion locates him in ‘London, 1952’, this is only an accurate guide to the point at which the essay was ready for publication. In fact ‘Fretful Sleepers’ was begun, and largely completed, during the captivating summer of the preceding year—1951. Pearson, then aged 29, and in his second year of Doctoral studies was, for the first time in his life, free of all sustained contact with other New Zealanders. It was a liberation of sorts that provided space for him to think about his relationship with his home-land and its people. The essay is a recognition of the fact that for the first time in his life the option of ‘escaping’ New Zealand seemed both viable and desirable. As Pearson explained it:

…after two springs in London with such pleasures as open-air Shakespeare in the long summer evenings, Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake, French films at the Everyman, the New Statesman at any bookstall on the day of publication, the distinct procession of seasons and flowers, the generally expansive mood of those post-war years and the freedom from all the kiwi obsessions, I began to have doubts about wanting to return home at all. ('Beginnings and Endings.' Sport 5: 3-21 Spring 1990.)

And yet he did return home, in 1954, to a successful academic career at the University of Auckland, from where he retired in 1986 as an Associate Professor. Why was this, when 1950s London appeared so attractive to an individual of artistic and intellectual inclinations? It was a problem, Pearson explained, that ‘drove me to look into myself and analyse what was different in my personal experience of New Zealanders and the English and in my own outlook and habits of thought from those of the English, and so I wrote 'Fretful Sleepers', at the end of which I knew that I would go back to New Zealand’ (‘Beginnings and Endings’).

‘Fretful Sleepers’ is not, as it has been so often read, an attack on New Zealand as a nation of philistines. Certainly there are elements of that, just as there are aspects of the essay that now seem dated. Yet the substance of the essay’s criticism of New Zealanders represents Pearson’s own, often brutal, self-awareness, and many of his conclusions and observations are remarkable for their political and social relevance in present-day New Zealand. Pearson recalls that he began writing the essay,

…aware of the difference between English and New Zealand assumptions and habits of thought, and in particular my own. My constant reference point, if I didn’t have some anecdote or memory to fall back on, was my own thinking or habits of thought. And it was based not just on recent years in New Zealand, but on the time I spent in the forces where you were alongside the ordinary working bloke all the time, and you were quite used to the mores and ethos, and assumptions, and the very distinct ideas of what was permissable and what wasn’t permissible…. It was that I was analysing. (Alex Calder, 'An interview with Bill Pearson', Landfall 47: 51-77; April 1993)

It is in this context that ‘Fretful Sleepers’ needs to be understood: as Pearson’s active engagement with his own feelings about his country, backed up by a commitment to return there and make a meaningful contribution to it.

[I realised] I wanted to go back to New Zealand, that was where I belonged. So that people who see this as a kind of complaint or whinge are misinterpreting it. I think I was really trying to describe what our habits and assumptions were, but there was an implied plea and protest. A plea that there should be much greater variety and tolerance and sensitivity. (Calder, 'An interview with Bill Pearson')

Fretful Sleepers: A Sketch of New Zealand Behaviour and its Implications for the Artist

Bill Pearson
This essay was first published in Landfall, September 1952; reprinted with corrections in Landfall Country, ed. Charles Brasch (Caxton Press, 1960); and further revised for Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays (Heinemann Educational Books, 1974)

In this article I have to steer between two dangers, each represented by previous assessments of ‘the New Zealand character’. The first is to use the first person plural as in Oliver Duff’s New Zealand Now. When I read it my impression was that I’d been listening to a rotarian, the two of us puffing pipes by the fire, picking our noses, having a man-to-man talk over the whisky fumes. Like a conversation I overheard at New Zealand House: two middle-aged women: ‘Everybody like the New Zealanders. Oh yes, wherever you go, we’re very popular.’ The other said, six times at three-second intervals: ‘Ye-es’, then, ‘M’m, I suppose we are, when you come to think of it … Yes.’ Mr Fairburn in We New Zealanders tickled and teased us in odd places without anyone feeling the worse for it. The other danger is to use a deadly or hostile third person plural as if we were the object of an anthropologist’s research, as D’Arcy Cresswell did. Anna Kavan (‘New Zealand: Answer to an Inquiry’, Horizon, September 1943) tried hard to understand us; she was penetrating but she saw us from the outside looking on and a slight hysteria blinded her too. In this article I shall veer, saying we when I praise, they when I blame. The real difficulty, though, is to distinguish between what accidental or temporary adaptations, whether these are general, whether they belong to the West Coast where I grew up, whether I am only projecting my own faults. If I do this I am sticking my neck out and will take the consequences. Again I shall have to keep clear class backgrounds – whether I am talking of miners, clerks or businessmen. But since New Zealand is as homogenous in its patterns of conduct as (I think) any other country, this is less important. By the time anyone has read this article, he will have objected a dozen times that I am not talking of New Zealanders but of men: these virtues and failings you will find the whole world over. That is true, but I am trying to sketch a character faithful in its emphases. To abstract what might be peculiar to New Zealanders would be to talk of a fiction.


It is a funny place to start – but writing away from New Zealand, I have no check on far-fetched deductions but a subjective one: what it felt like to grow up at home. When I was seven my mother told me if I was ever playing on the hill or in the paddocks at the bottom I was to watch out for miners’ shafts hidden under long grass and blackberries. I was awed, partly at the prospect of disappearing, as it seemed, without hope of recovery, twelve feet into the earth, but as well at the blandness with which a responsible adult could tolerate the continuance of such dangers. I felt they should have done something about it. Who is they? It could be argued that to me as a child they simply meant adults; and at that time I did impute infallibility to adults. But it is not only in me: they crops up again and again unnoticed in the talk of New Zealanders, a convenient fiction that covers a gap in their thought or illustrates a dimly-felt need – for what? Whenever you pin down the they, you will find it is in one case the borough council, in another ‘the government’, in another the drainage board; but the speaker will have to think before he can identify them: he will probably say ‘the authorities’ or ‘the powers that be’. They is the symbol for authority, protective an unquestioned and only noticed when something goes wrong.

The New Zealander delegates authority, then forgets it. He has shrugged off responsibility and wants to be left alone. There is no one more docile in the face of authority. He pleads rationalizations, ‘doesn’t want to make a fuss’ or ‘make a fool of himself’, but generally he does what he is told, partly because everyone else is doing it, partly because he wants to be sociable and co-operate in a wishfully untroubled world. Only when things go visibly wrong does he recall his right to question the authority and change it. When he complains half his bitterness is that he has been made to complain because he hates complaint and can’t complain with dignity. Anyone who questions too often is a ‘moaner’, yet in new Zealand the moaner is common. Things never run so smoothly as the New Zealander pretends. So he is suspicious of politics – the anti-conscription campaign and the Stockholm peace petition were suspect not out of fear of communism but because the man who tries to stop the drive to war is reminding everyone of the moral responsibility he gave away with his vote.

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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.