Great New Zealand Argument by Various Artists

Fretful Sleepers

by BILL PEARSON, Landfall, 1952

First ←Previous Page 6 of 10 Next→ Last

In the New Zealand metaphysic reality is something unpleasant and ugly and though we protect our women and children from it, we know in the long run it is unavoidable. We talk with prim shame of ‘the facts of life’: the Creator has been indecent. We disapprove of the profit motive since it takes men from identity with the crowd, but we think it can’t be avoided. Young men have envied returned soldiers because they ‘saw life in the raw’. It is significant that the weekly that features the uglier side of the news, calls itself Truth. (I know the name came from John Norton’s Sydney Truth and that there are papers of the same name all over the world, but most of them are out to preach the ‘truth’ of a political sect.) People condemned the novels of John A. Lee out of Puritanism but they did not doubt that he was lifting the screen from the indecent truth. The New Zealander suspects the idealist because he is giving a hopeful glamour to ‘reality’. The only philosophy one could logically base on the New Zealand premise is a tempered cynicism, often called ‘realism’.

The New Zealander’s fear of experience not immediate and not contributing to the accumulation of money or the satisfaction of blunted appetites, occurs daily when he reads the newspaper: he glances across the headlines of foreign news and it would have to be a declaration of war before he would pause. ‘As usual, nothing in it,’ he says and reads the Local and General and the sports page. In a small town his wife will go through the classified ads. to detect, from the phone number, who it is that’s wanting to sell that sewing-machine or take a boarder. Yet we all read the paper, in order to be in touch with what everyone else reads. If a New Zealander goes to an exhibition or a museum he withholds his interest, grudgingly stumps around every stand for fear of missing something, but comes away saying with relief, ‘There’s fuck-all to see.’ It was with a great sense of concession to duty that many solders went once to the pyramids or gaped around the Vatican Museum, hardly pausing and went away, a duty done: ‘Well now I can say I’ve seen it’ and repaired to their beer.

(For writers an interesting corollary to a New Zealander’s ‘realism’ is his response to the forceful use of words. I said he suspected clever, confident or intellectual use of words; but he admires a vigorous phraseology that caresses the rawness of ‘reality’ and its underlying oddity or sneer. A mechanic talking of a man baching while his wife was away, said: ‘Oh, that’s the cunt we found wrastlin his way out o’ the jam tins.’ Another, caught by a knock on his door while he was changing, his trousers round his ankles, his shirt over his head, said: ‘You had me hobbled and blindfolded at the same time.’ Osman Middleton knows how to exploit this vigour of language, even if he does give it an American twist.)

Now the reason for the New Zealander’s fear of hypocrisy and his tempered cynicism is that he fear that if he professes to be, know, feel, or understand more than his neighbour, he is guilty of pretensions to social climbing. He is out to be no better than the next man. Thus a Catholic in New Zealand will resent even the most deferential discussion, in a public place, of his faith. He is trained to a loyalty higher than the almighty norm, yet he is loyal out of a stubbornness in the face of his own guilt at belonging to what he feels is in some ways an underground movement. Calling for his beer after Sunday mass he will not say where he has been and it is bad taste if you mention it. On the other hand the perpetual undercurrent, among Protestants and other unbelievers, of slanders and rumour of a Catholic conspiracy to catch all Protestant young men by marriage, comes from a fear of an institution whose doctrines are not readily inspectable and impeachable, in terms of ‘reality’, at the bar. The preoccupation with social climbing betrays a personal insecurity. How much of the gossip of New Zealanders is concerned solely with real or imagined slights given by their neighbours: ‘sensitive’ in New Zealand mean susceptible to personal offence.


Somewhere at the back of the outlook of the New Zealander is a dream, a dream of security in equality. Everybody acts the same, receives the same amount of the world’s goods, everyone moves in the same direction. Everyone has simple tastes, explainable desires which can be satisfied with proportionately simple effort. No one has any grievance and accidents don’t happen. It is a version of a human dream, which I believe one half of the world is on the right road to bringing off as nearly as can be under the conditions of existence. The special quality of the New Zealander’s version is that the evil is to disagree or be different. The chaos of existence is to be legislated into shape; the varieties of human quality and personality are to be levelled into conformity with the legislation. It is the development of individual talent that destroys the conformity: some men are left resenting their lack of another man’s talent, so he must not use it, it is an unfair advantage. If life is (as the New Zealander assumes) a race, it is to be run by handicap. If nature can’t be controlled then man must be: social boycott must keep the talented man in his place. Now I am bound to be told that this is part of the socialist dream, but I don’t see it. It is as different from socialist equality as fascism is from communism. I see it as the human dream of security perverted by the fears of the middle class hiving off from the threats of communism, the coloured races and the bland terror of infinite space; trying to give their customs a universal validity flouted by life, time and the multiplicity of planets. They huddle to reassure themselves that their habits are beyond question, and difference and unconformity question them. It is a dream, too, of the middle class wanting to compensate for the daily routine of competition: life is cruel, business forces you to shoddy tricks, but in our dream let us relax and be jolly good fellows. The New Zealander enacts his dream in certain social functions – the few drinks with the boys, the Masonic meeting, the smoke concert, the stage party. The fake solidarity and bonhomie, the boozy brotherliness and slobbery back-slapping are part of the dream: each man knows he has in some way sinned against society: this is his devotion, he is proving that at heart he’s a decent chap. The more money he has the more likely he is to be vulgar, just to show that he really is no better than anyone else. In the army some officers used to pride themselves on taking off their pips and drinking with the other ranks. Christmas Eve is the occasion of a ritual. Everyone is out to show how nice he can be when he is drunk: don’t they say a chap’s real nature comes out when he’s drunk? It is a festival of holy conformity, of sameness and glozing over differences. Thus in certain men’s clubs, the Orphans’ and Savage Clubs and Buffalo Lodges, religion and politics are taboo: they are unfortunate things that cause differences. You find people in New Zealand who make it a principle never to discuss them, and few can without embarrassment when there is likelihood of difference. When I was at Dunedin Training College the principal temporarily banned debates on sex, religion and politics: he said he had a duty to the students’ parents to see that they left the college without any disturbance to the beliefs they entered with.

The goal of the dream seems to be, like a Dickens happy ending, a kind of inertia. Think of the week-end torpor of the suburbs. Where is everyone? Well, we know they are at football, at the races, on the beaches, or in back gardens. Yet these activities are half-hearted. The farmer brooding against a gate, having his Sunday afternoon snooze on the front verandah, the soldier or airman on fatigues downing tools as soon as the corporal has gone, the mechanic having a smoke while the foreman is away, are expressing a common reluctance to spend labour to a purpose not evident. Paradoxically the farmer’s wife with her continuous day of hard work can’t enjoy a sit-down when she gets one; she has to pick up some knitting or darning: work has become a drug to her as lassitude is a drug for most New Zealanders. Why? Why this desire to ‘pass time’? Time passes you. If you want to fill in time you must be waiting for something and sometimes I wonder if it isn’t death the New Zealander waits for. But being human we are afraid of death. At least it shows a craving for narcosis, a dissatisfaction with life, with one’s own resources, to want to pass time as if it was a football, or the buck that gets passed in government offices. If death is too decisive there’s sleep: how many servicemen off duty put in hours on their bunks? Somebody may again impute this laziness to socialist pampering: ‘Now when I was a lad … ‘ I can hear the platitudes Professor Algie thinks up from the comfort of his seat on the night express. But the local inertia is not a fear of work, it is an idea that each of us should do no more work than the next man, and in doubt it’s better to do a little less than a little more. This idea is capitalist. Dr Lauwerys of Unesco in 1946 warned us we’d never get success from socialist legislation so long as every man’s private ambition was to be a little rentier – to make enough money to employ someone else to do his share in work that would profit him. The ambition is a coveting of other men’s riches without the will to work for them, a willingness to get the same by a short cut like the black market or an art union: the mentality of the running-board of the middle class; and there is no bigger Tory than a spiv. But even the New Zealander who is turning over money fast is only passing time. The New Zealander’s ideal state is half-consciousness; his idea activity is reunion, physically expressed in the old boys’ reunion or the football dinner, spiritually it is immersion in an inert blubbery Oversoul like Mr Holcroft’s collective mind.


First ←Previous Page 6 of 10 Next→ Last

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.