Written from memory, a long way from home, and in the midst of a war, Robin Hyde’s 'The Singers of Loneliness' is a something of a letter in a bottle. This impassioned assessment of New Zealand literature - an account of “what has been saved, what thrown away, and what is still possible and urgent” - made its debut in August 1938 in an unlikely venue: a small internationalist magazine out of Shanghai called the T’ien Hsia Monthly.
Why T’ien Hsia? Why Shanghai? In January of 1938, Robin Hyde had set off on her long-awaited journey to England. The original plan was to sail from Auckland to Hong Kong, and then travel overland to the mother country via the Orient Express. But while waiting in Hong Kong for her Russian visa, Hyde decided to travel to Shanghai, and from there ventured into the interior of China. The country was being overrun by the Japanese, and Hyde felt compelled to stay and write about what she saw.
Stay she did, for the next six months. In Shanghai she met Rewi Alley; in Hong Kong she met the New Zealander James Bertram, who had traveled with the Eighth Route Army. With their help she made contact with local newspapers and magazines, and travelled to the front - the first white woman journalist to do so - on a pass signed by Chiang Kai Shek. She was volunteering in a hospital in Hsuchowfu when the city fell to the Japanese.
During much of this period, as far as New Zealand was concerned, she was missing and presumed dead. Hyde’s letters written at the time suggest that she, too, feared she would not survive. She eventually walked her way to safety, stumbling along the Lunghai railway line for more than 50 miles. Her successful escape was all the more impressive given that she was lame in one knee to begin with, badly battered after a vicious encounter with Japanese soldiers, temporarily blinded in one eye, and severely undernourished and ill, not to mention unable to speak Chinese beyond a handful of words. All the way, she carried her suitcase full of writing.
After recuperating briefly in a hospital, Hyde continued her journey to England, where she published her book about China (Dragon Rampant) and worked to raise awareness of the plight of China. She had hoped to return to New Zealand; she had also hoped, once peace was restored to China, to take up a visiting lectureship at Wuhan University, the university on whose steps she begins 'The Singers of Loneliness'. Instead, in ill health and despair, she committed suicide in London on the eve of the war in Europe, in August 1939.
'The Singers of Loneliness' is equal parts celebration, indictment, and call to action. New Zealand of the 1930s is a place “where little local history and no knowledge of the Maori language is taught in schools, though in certain advanced university courses a knowledge of Icelandic is requisite.” The writers of her generation, Hyde argues, suffered from this official ignorance. They grew up “loving every inch of the terrain, feeling it grow into mind and bones, but knowing little of its story or cultural past except what, unconsciously hungry for some background, we were able to invent.” And yet hers was the generation that became, as she famously put it, no longer “for ever England”: “We became, for as long as we have a country, New Zealand.”
The article was rediscovered in the 1980s, and republished by Gillian Boddy and Jacqueline Matthews in their excellent 1991 anthology of Hyde’s journalism, Disputed Ground. Here now, as one installment of the Great New Zealand Argument, Hyde’s letter in a bottle makes its way from Shanghai to New Zealand and back out into the world.
The Singers of Loneliness
Tien Hsia Monthly, August 1938
Published under the auspices of the Sun Yat-sen Institute for the Advancement of Culture and Education
Coming down the steps of Wuhan University, whose blue-tiled roofs, ornamented with crouching stone hounds, glittered over the horse chestnut trees, I talked with a Chinese Professor of Literature whose friend, a notable young poet, had translated Katherine Mansfield’s works into Chinese.
‘For most of us, K.M. is New Zealand, and New Zealand is K.M.,’ wrote Max Kenyon, well-known English critic. But though Katherine Mansfield was the most famous and best-beloved writer of the Antipodes, there have been others. There must, unless New Zealand is to remain a locked treasure-chest, be many more. So far, (momentarily leaving Katherine Mansfield out of the question) three generalizations about New Zealand letters can be made. Pioneer New Zealanders were in contact with an immense wealth of native myth and poetry, which had never been written down. Though most of this was grossly wasted, a little has been saved and used, or is still available for writers of the future. Secondly, after a long period when the literary life of the country seemed so benumbed that its expressions were purely childish, prose writers like Elsdon Best, Jane Mander and William Satchell, poets like Eileen Duggan, R.A.K. Mason and others of genuine merit arose and produced work recognized as good. Thirdly, the world depression had several disastrous effects on the underpopulated country of New Zealand, which lives mainly by export of its primary produce, and is still in a quarter-developed condition: but its stimulating effect on the thought and culture of rebellious young minds, in a silent country which at last learned to be articulate, was probably worth all the hardship involved. No New Zealand writer regrets the depression.
But to get some idea of what has been saved, what thrown away, and what is still possible and urgent, one must go back to times a little before organized pioneer expeditions, like Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s, set out from London. Individuals ‘came to a country’ which while certainly not flowing with milk and honey, was still quick with the sap of a native Polynesian mythology and poesy, so vitally a part of pre-Europeanised Maori life that it is unjust to dismiss it as a crude primitive culture. The first intelligent and educated white men to frequent New Zealand, before the Treaty of Waitangi (signed in 1840) claimed it as a British possession, did not make this mistake. By far the most entertaining historical and semi-autobiographical book written by any New Zealander is still F.E. Maning’s Old New Zealand; by a Pakeha Maori. The author knew enough to treat the Maoris as equals, and draw on their tremendous mine of cultural and human knowledge. A Pakeha Maori (Pakeha – literal translation ‘pale driftwood’, common meaning ‘a white man’) is one who has fraternized with the Maoris until accepted as one of them – and usually trying, of course, to be one-and-a-half of them. The Maoris don’t mind; Maori names were invariably conferred upon early white settlers, inter-marriage was free and frequent, and less than a generation ago, a law had to be passed preventing Maoris from adopting little white children, and enriching them at the expense of their own. The real aristocracy of the far north are still the descendants of white saw-millers and traders who settled in kauri country along the northern rivers and Maori ladies, often of high blood and wealthy inheritance.
So when the Treaty came to be signed, after debate in a great beflagged marquee crowded with white dignitaries and tall chieftains in great cloaks of shining feathers, snowy dogskin or tasselled flax, nephrite ornaments or pierced mako-shark teeth dangling from their ears, the conclave was interrupted by a huge red-bearded Irishman, who in fluent Maori advised the chiefs to think better of it, and throw the white man out. This was F.E. Maning: he had nothing against the white man, as such, but believed that the Maoris were being optimistic. But no man’s hand can press back the tide, and so a day began to die, and another day to dawn.
Maning, who lived in a golden-glowing house of heart-of-kauri, far to the north, was not the only one of his kind. Over a decade before, Edward Markham left a journal recording his ten months’ stay among Maoris of the Hokianga and Bay of Islands districts (‘the Hell of the Pacific’). If published, (it has never reached the press) this would be an entertaining and valuable record. But in New Zealand, where little local history and no knowledge of the Maori language is taught in schools, though in certain advanced university courses a knowledge of Icelandic is a requisite, there are walls of glass-locked library cupboards between the seeker, and a knowledge of those days one hundred years ago. If one discovers anything, it is by accident or through persistence. Wonderful old Maori fairytales – real fairytales, with their mingled grotesquerie and illogicality, their no-beginning and no-ending, flowing on in the mind of the race – are sandwiched between reports of early Agricultural Shows, and pamphlets on chicken-rearing. The tales have, of course, been transcribed, for the Maori had no written culture, though the all-important genealogical tree was sometimes marked on whalebone, and a big Maori building panelled with dyed flax and carved in the old way, with eyes of paua shell squinting down over its carved red-ochred spirals, tells an important tribal story in every detail of workmanship. But the Maoris were never stingy with their legends, and men of some vision took them down, as they fell from the lips of old men dreaming in the sun. Also the Maori system of chant-memorising, taught by the tohungas (priests) to selected students, was deeply ingrained, and is still a true key, though a rusty one. But I see mouldering away, unread, unknown, Willoughby Shortland’s fairytale transcripts, side by side with Markham’s journal, and the remarkable sketchbook of Gilfillan, a pioneer artist whose pencil sketches of Maori life are probably the best in existence, though the Maoris repaid him by putting the red flower of fire to his thatch, nearly killing him, murdering his wife and all but one of his children. In some of the best Antipodean libraries, it is forbidden even to quote from Mss.; which is commonly regarded as conservatism, but which to me seems a crime against our rudimentary culture.
It is important, none the less, to know that about the time when England was starving John Keats like a dying rat, Maoris were maintaining poets and poetesses (there is a considerable degree of sex equality), as rare tribal possessions, even loaning them out to friendly tribes. And very bloody-minded most of these poets, who spurred tribes on to battle or recounted the victories of famous chiefs, commonly were. Battles bore such names as ‘The Fall of the Hawks’, ‘The Gathering of Many Canoes’; a chief’s canoe was Te Waikiekie, or ‘Waters Kiss-Kiss’; the two main islands, Te-Ika-a-Maui (the fish of Maui, an ancestor god) and Te Wahe Pounamu (the Place of Greenstone, or Maori jade). Rocks, mountains, forests, lakes, were alive with diversified chanted or whispered legend and song, known to every child. Te Taniwha, the water-dragon, could be good or evil; te maeroro, the inhuman ogre, hunted in the bush; usually gentle were the turehu or piti-pae-arehe, white Maori fairies, who did no worse than steal the shadows of ornaments or weapons, and who taught the Maoris net-making. The crimson seaweed washing out under the keel of your boat near Whangarei Heads is, of course, the hair of Manaia’s daughter, and anyone will tell you how Manaia, his wife and his dog all sit turned to rocks, seen at high tide. The Maori sentinel on the high, slenderly spiked stockade chanted over sleepers and moonlit whares (huts) his time-old formula of assurance. And behind this carved and ochred façade of big and little Maori gods, which I can only describe as a mingling of ancestor-worship and animism, well coloured up by legendry, was the single religion of Io, the sacred Breath of Being – a far from despicable deity.