A Life of J. C. Beaglehole: New Zealand Scholar
3 — Victoria University College, 1919–26
Victoria University College, 1919–26
In his History of Victoria University College John describes the bright hopes and dreams which he found there in the first postwar years, when more and more soldiers returned and numbers rose again from the low of 320 in 1917 to 671 in 1920 and 750 three years later; when the first building was finally completed with its northern and southern wings in place, the northern one containing the great library two storeys high with the memorial window to those members of the college who had lost their lives in the war; when new staff were appointed and the government grant was increased. At first, indeed, there seemed no bounds to what was possible:
… when three empires had gone like wrecks in a dissolving dream, and the intoxicating vision of Education, as the maker of all things new, stood before the eyes of youth and age alike. So optimistic was mankind, in that brief day. Mr H.G. Wells wrote his history, and there at the end of it was Life, standing upon the earth as upon a footstool, stretching out its realm amid the stars. If some of the other prophets were less ecstatic, they could all somehow be assimilated; for faith and scepticism, Wells and Gilbert Murray and Bertrand Russell and J.B. Bury, the League of Nations and the Russian Revolution and the New Psychology, somehow everything seemed capable of being sorted into a general plan, if only human beings would consent to be tolerant, and progressive, and liberal, and rational, if only they would think about social reform and abandon secret diplomacy, and read Areopagitica and Mr Russell on Free Thought and Official Propaganda.
But the vision blurred, optimism faded as the years passed. The continuation of John's paragraph describes a changing mood in the college during his years as a student:
… it could not last; people, in New Zealand as elsewhere, would not do these obvious things. The student was afflicted by persons, even among his fellow students, who betrayed a strange reluctance to be interested page 59in everything, and to wish to reform everything, to try everything in the light of reason and convict most of it. When these unfortunate and exasperating persons were sceptical, they were sceptical the wrong way round. They had, most of them, never heard of Bertrand Russell; and when they were told about him, they generally concluded that he should be in gaol. In spite of the wreck of empires, in spite of Education, and of the New Psychology, and of the New History, and of the obvious manifestations of the reasonable mind, it became apparent that a new world was not going to be born.1
John enrolled for a BA and in his first year, 1919, chose to study English, French and Latin. He did not distinguish himself. In the college examinations he was one of twenty-seven given a Class II in English; eight were in Class I, thirty in Class III. Latin and French saw the same result, with a drop to Class III for the French oral.2 Passing the college examinations was the prerequisite for sitting the university examinations (the University of New Zealand, based on the model of London University, examined but did no teaching; that was done within the four constituent institutions) and in the university examinations John's results were similar, with French rather worse.3 His classes were unlikely to have been very stimulating. Twenty years later he wrote an affectionate portrait of Hugh Mackenzie, the professor of English;4 genial, expansive, boundlessly hospitable, the rationalist foe of the Bible-in-Schools League, as comfortable in the pulpit of the Unitarian Church as in the lecture room, infinitely kind and tolerant but, alas, no scholar. Eric McCormick, in a letter to John, was harsher: 'what a disaster that monument of granite was to literature and literary scholarship for more than a generation!'5 Nor is it easy to imagine a lively course based on Seecombe's Age of Johnson, Skeat's Primer of English Etymology and Lounsbury's History of the English Language. French was taught by a temporary lecturer. Edwin Boyd-Wilson, appointed as professor the following year, arrived too late for John's French but in time to introduce him to tramping. John Rankine Brown, professor of classics, was a dedicated teacher and scholar, greatly admired by some of his students, but with his shyness and innate caution he failed to fire John's imagination.6
The courses in each subject were at two levels, pass and advanced, and an advanced subject required at least two year's study after it had been completed at the pass grade. In his second year John began the advanced course in English and added the pass courses in mental and moral philosophy and in history. Again he achieved Class II for English and for ethics, while in psychology (which together with page 60ethics comprised the course in mental and moral philosophy) he was given Class III. Thomas Hunter, the professor of mental and moral philosophy, was to be an important figure in John's life, but his impact was outside the lecture room. For the history course, covering the development of the great powers in the nineteenth century (Hawksworth, The Last Century in Europe) and the outlines of English history from 1272 to 1509 (Oman, History of England), he was one of four in a class of fifty-one awarded Class I.7 More important, in that year he read H.G. Wells's Outline of History, 'that first electrifying edition', originally published (and read) in twenty-five instalments8 ('finished 18.1.21', John noted9). In tracing the rise and fall of nations, Wells 'summoned up the whole human past as an argument for his vision of the future'.10The destructive forces unleashed by the war threatened mankind with disaster; only the emergence of a world consciousness and a world state held out a hope of salvation. Wells, as the prophet of righteousness, had produced 'an epic that began with the Creation and ended with a vision of the New Jerusalem'.11 There were those who willingly pointed out all the errors that Wells had made, but after Hawksworth and Oman and F.P. Wilson's lectures it must have been heady stuff.
John had found his subject. Although it meant spending two more years (four years in all) to complete the BA degree, he decided against continuing in English and in 1921 started the two-year advanced course in history. Two papers covered 'the general course of the history of Europe from the beginning of the sixteenth century with special reference to great movements and international relations'; a third paper 'the outlines of the development of the British Colonial Empire and Colonial Policy', of which at least a fifth was to be devoted to the history of New Zealand.12 The college placed him in Class I each year, and in the final university examination, for which the examiner was Professor A.J. Grant of Leeds University in England, he was given marks of seventy, eighty-five, eighty-five. The five papers needed for his MA in history, which he completed in 1924, still concentrated heavily on British and European history. That year the first two papers were on England and on Europe in the period 1715–63. The third was on the history of the great powers, including the United States and Japan, since 1815, 'with special reference to the main lines of social and political development, colonisation and international relations'. This paper, the prescription noted, 'shall always contain one or two questions on the history of New Zealand'. The fourth paper was on the history of political ideas up to Mill, page 61Comte and Collectivism (Marx was not included). Finally, there was an essay or 'a brief thesis embodying the results obtained … in some investigation into the history of New Zealand'. The textbooks listed were: Phillips, Modern Europe; Grant Robertson, England under the Hanoverians; Graham, English Political Philosophy; Dunning, Political Theories; and Hassall, The Balance of Power. The college Calendar promised lectures only on English and European history, 'at times to be arranged'. John was awarded first-class honours (the examiner was again Professor Grant) with marks of seventy-five, seventy-seven, seventy-five, fifty, and eighty for the thesis.
In his thesis on Captain Hobson and the New Zealand Company, John sought to cut through the uncritical and widely accepted view of the Company's role in the early days of colonisation and to make a careful study of its bitter relations with the Governor. The thesis was based on printed sources: British Parliamentary Papers, the New Zealand Gazette and other published papers and books of the time. John recognised the limitations of research that did not draw on the records of the Colonial Office in London, but as an introduction to historical research, in which he was making his way with little or no guidance, the thesis served him well, and it pleased his examiner. Equally important, it introduced him to the Alexander Turnbull Library. Nearly fifty years later he recalled the dazzled awe with which he first laid eyes on the library's collections, and had 'the magical, the transforming experience of laying hands on my first historical manuscript, the brief diary kept by Colonel Wakefield on his passage to New Zealand in the Tory. It did not cast a flood of light on anything; but it was a manuscript, it was enchantment'.13He wrote an article about the diary, with copious quotations, for W.J. McEldowney's short-lived journal of 'public affairs, art and literature', the New Nation.14
When he came to write the history of Victoria University College, a work of considerable tact as well as affection, John said remarkably little about F.P. Wilson, who had taught him history. Wilson had been a foundation student at Victoria, the mainstay of the tennis team, and was described on his graduation (in the New Zealand Free Lance) as 'the sort of chap who is absolutely indispensable at a dance, or anywhere where organisation or social sweetness are usable'.15 John would have met him in his first year at Victoria. F.P. was chairman and conductor of the college Glee Club, which he had founded; that year John was the club pianist.16 In 1909, after a period of primary school teaching, Wilson had been appointed to lecture, mainly to commerce students, on history, economics, page 62physical and commercial geography, economic history, currency and banking. With the arrival of more staff, the range of his teaching was narrowed and directed more towards students in arts than those in commerce. In 1921 a chair in history was founded, to which he was appointed: 'the genial F.P. – now with his subject at last released from the danger of mere subordination in a school of economics and commerce'.17 How double-edged that word 'genial' can come to seem! History students could rely on 'regurgitating dictation–speed lectures';18 John was not the only one in those years to be awarded first-class honours by the external examiners, but intellectual excitement was not something one experienced in the lecture room.
He was reading widely. He kept a record of the books he read between 1920 and 1923 and they cover an astonishing range. In 1922, the year he completed his BA, the list ran:
Jefferies The Open Air The Story of my Heart Life on the Fields W. James Immortality Thoreau etc. In Praise of Walking R. Rolland Musicians of To-day J.N. Forkel Bach J.L. Roxburgh The Poetic Procession G.L. Dickinson Essay on India, China, & Japan Religion, a Forecast & a Criticism Religion & Immortality Graham Wallas Our Social Heritage Morley Notes on Politics & History Conrad Lord Jim A Personal Record R. Rolland Some Musicians of Former Days Strachey Eminent Victorians W.P. Eaton The Idyl of Twin Fires Trevelyan Recreations of an Historian Willa Cather Youth & the Bright Medusa Stevenson Master of Ballantrae H.G. Wells Washington & the Hope of Peace J.H. Freidel Training for Librarianship Sir F. Bridge Twelve Good Musicians W. McFee An Ocean Tramp Conrad Under Western Eyes J.D.M. Rorke A Musical Pilgrim's Progress P.A. Scholes Book of the Great Musicians Seeley Expansion of Englandpage 63 J.R. Elder Age of Maritime Discovery P.G. Wodehouse Piccadilly Jim L. Housman Possession Ramsay Muir The Making of British India Nationalism & Internationalism The Expansion of Europe Acton Nationality P.G. Wodehouse A Gentleman of Leisure H.G. Egerton Origins & Growth of Br. Empire A.C. Brock The Ultimate Belief C.H. Herford etc Germany in the 19th century J.H. Robinson The Mind in the Making P.G. Wodehouse Something Fresh F.S. Marvin The Century of Hope L. Binyon The New World J.M. Murry The Things We Are F. Greenslet Walter Pater C. Beard Reformation of 16th Century Belloc The French Revolution E.B. Bax The French Revolution P.G. Wodehouse The Coming of Bill Conrad One Day More A.P. Newton The Old Empire & the New J.H. Robinson Readings in Eur. History vol II Z. Kendrick Pyne Palestrina Eileen Duggan Poems Sir A. Lyall Warren Hastings L.P. Smith More Trivia H.M. Walbrook G. & S. Opera E. Thomas Collected Poems Acton Lectures on Modern History Bolton King Life of Mazzini P.G. Wodehouse Indiscretions of Archie Girl on the Boat Jill the Reckless Barrie Courage Bridges France under Richelieu & Colbert Egerton British Foreign Policy in Europe Sydney Herbert Nationality its Problems Modern Europe B. Russell Free Thought & Official Propaganda C.F. Warwick Robespierre & the French Revolution C.H. Currey British Colonial Policy 1783–1915 Raleigh (W.) R.L. Stevenson Cocteau (Jean) Cock and Harlequin Nicholls (Marjorie) 'Gathered Leaves'page 64 Fisher (Herbert) Napoleon King James I Counter blaste to Tobacco Collier (James) Life of Sir George Grey W.P. Reeves New Zealand Barry (W.) The Papacy & Modern Times Postgate Revolution 1789–1906 Lipson Europe in the 19th Century Rashdall etc. The Theory of the State Strachey Books & Characters de la Mare The Veil P.G.W. Uneasy Money Guedalla The Second Empire Conrad Chance Drinkwater Abraham Lincoln Oliver Cromwell C.H. Brooks Practice of Auto-Suggestion Bennett Mr. Prohack de la Mare The Return James Stephens The Crock of Gold Mary Sturgeon Michael Field (about ½) Mulgan Three Plays of N.Z. Goldring James Elroy Flecker J. Stephens The Charwoman's Daughter Housman Last Poem M. Beerbohm A Christmas Garland J.W. Hinton César Franck
He was also deep in the Athenaeum and the Times Literary Supplement, both in the college library.19
If John's reading was the most important element in his intellectual development, student life gave him a broader education. He made new friends, published verse and prose in Spike, the college review, and was for three years its editor (1922–24). He was an enthusiastic member of the Free Discussions Club. He developed as a writer and his MA thesis gave him that first real taste of historical research. He became a tramper, and he fell in love with a fellow tramper.
John met two students in his classes in his first year with whom he became good friends. Max Bickerton was a grandson of A.W. Bickerton,20 the eccentric foundation professor at Canterbury College. He had been at school in Christchurch with C.E. Beeby, who described their friendship as one of 'bickering intimacy'21 – a stimulating relationship for the young. Intellectual, quirky and, like John, from a home with books, Bickerton was also sceptical of all accepted dogmas and an unshakable atheist. He became a student of Hunter's, interested in psychology, and graduated with page 65an MA in 1923. John clearly found him interesting and admired his outspokenness.
Harry Espiner was quite different. A returned soldier, badly handicapped by injuries from the war, he was very serious about his studies (in French and Latin) but also greatly enjoyed his fellow students. John had one memory of him, 'standing at the top of the Dixon Street steps, gazing at the lights of the town, casting some salutary pessimism into the mind of extreme idealist youth'.22 But it was a gentle admonition, half humorous, where he might be seen to have earned the right to bitter indignation. His sympathetic open-mindedness attracted John, who had found another listener; he won John's admiration as well as his affection. After he graduated with an MA in 1922, Espiner went to France, where, eking out a small war pension, he worked for his doctorate. John was to stay with him in Paris in 1927.
At the end of 1920 John went with a group of friends to stay in a house they had been lent in the Akatarawa valley, thirty-five miles north of Wellington. His brief notes, 'Certain Memoranda made by me, J.C. Beaglehole …', reveal much of John at nineteen as well as recording his first meeting with C.E. Beeby (Beeb), to whom Bickerton introduced him.
Thursday 30th [December]. Great Adventure – went up bush – Glorious – cathedral dome – tapestry of moss – ferns and mosses in limitless variety – moss-curtains – enormous tree – scene for As You Like It – smoke shafts and columns – sunlight filtered through trees – early pioneers – fences – mill-busted – whitewood – Beeby's coaxing of the fire – description of climb & getting wind up – broad prospect – valley – river etc.
This reads like the jottings of an aspiring poet, but we learn more. On New Year's Day: 'Loafed. Discovered bathing-pool. Glorious day … Bathed and read Prometheus Unbound. Climbed hill on other side of road. Sunset exquisite.' The next day the party walked to the Waikanae Saddle: 'Argued on war, ethics, art & morality, novelists, modern novels, C.O.s, education, professors, Bickerton, words. Had tea & talked about R. Bridges, W. Watson, modern poetry, Edith Howes, songs, education. Glorious sunset.'
The rest of the party left the following day but John got ten days' work navvying in a road gang, clearing slips and digging drains. He shared a tent with a man, 'about 56–60', 'deaf as a post' and very taciturn at first, though he mellowed after three days. Others in the gang proved more congenial. At the end of the first day John counted twenty-seven blisters, but by the fourth he was enjoying the page 66work: 'Jan 7th. 4th day of toil. Enjoyed myself immensely today. Boiling hot, Building up road, making drain, & breaking down bank. Got some butter at last, thank God! – getting a bit sick of bread & con.[densed] milk. Finished Prometheus last night. Letter from Mummy, wh. I started to answer.'
The weather seemed to get hotter. 'This is the sort of weather that takes it out of a bloke', John wrote after spending a day 'mainly quarrying metal & wheeling it to road … Dog tired & went to bed early.' But he was warming to the hills and the bush. After a scrub burn-off in the valley there was a 'most peculiar & magnificent' sunset, 'the sun a blood-red circle in the midst of a slowly-moving mass of exquisitely coloured clouds' above the ranks of bush-covered hills. 'A birch tree with the sun behind it had the most exquisitely delicate silhouette effect; but the whole thing was indescribable, except for Corot or Conrad or a Japanese artist perhaps. The bush grows more & more beautiful every day – one could live for ever in it & not get tired of it.'
Letters from his mother, two aunts and three friends, however, left him looking forward very eagerly to getting home. On his last day, 14 January, he got his pay sheet for £6 10s and a testimonial, and noted, 'Sorry to be leaving, but glad to be going home'. 'Going home' meant walking over the hill to catch a train. He started at 6.20 in the morning; halfway up the hill it began to rain, 'phrases for pomes began to run in my head', the rain stopped but began again. He arrived at Waikanae, soaked to the skin, at a quarter past ten to discover the morning train had left five minutes earlier. So he walked on to Paekakariki (which he had originally planned before the rain started), getting soaked through once more, and reached there about 2 p.m., having covered twenty-five miles. His Jackson relations were staying out there so he joined them, borrowed some dry clothes from his uncle, and travelled back with them in the train the next day.
Spike, or, to Give it its full title of those years, The Spike or Victoria College Review, went back to Victoria's early days. It appeared twice a year and in the 1920s gave a lively picture of life in the college. Besides the predictable notes on student clubs and accounts of tournaments, graduation ceremonies, capping balls and extravaganzas, there was general college news, social and political criticism characteristic of the time and the work of aspiring writers in prose and verse – it was a great age for verse. John had three page 67poems printed in his first year and two the following year, then in 1921 he became a subeditor and began to spread his wings. For 'A Lament', a rather overwrought mixture of verse and prose on the pine trees being cut to allow the building of the new wings on the original college building ('How they are fallen, fallen, those mighty ones, those pine trees …'), he was awarded the first prize of one guinea for the most original contribution to Spike that year. There were other poems, one a sonnet published with the title 'Written During a (?) Lecture', but recorded in his notebook as 'written during a history lecture'. It suggested his thoughts were miles away.
The verse of John's student days was typical of the time. Echoes of Bridges and Hopkins and rather too much 'poetic' language for later taste make the sentiments seem very conventional. As with the less successful examples of his later verse, he often failed to find a distinctive voice. He tried the big, formal piece with his 'Ode On the Unveiling of the Memorial Window, Good Friday, April 18th 1924: Mortalitate relicta vivunt immortalitate induti'. It has not worn well. In contrast, the much less ambitious poem 'To H.G.S.' (H.G. Sturt, his Whitcombe and Tombs friend who had died not long before) is still moving in its simple directness:
I remember the time I had dinner with you –
How you talked and you laughed, though dying even then;
And I remember the night (it rained like this) when
I was told you were really dying, and it was true …
How I rang up the hospital and found you were dead.23
Early in his Victoria days John got to know C.Q. (Quentin) Pope, another contributor to Spike. Pope was actively involved in the life of the college although he did not graduate – indeed, it is uncertain whether he was ever enrolled.24 He shared John's interests in literature, in buying books – especially well-printed ones – and in writing, and had published verse in Australian and New Zealand magazines, including Spike, since 1917. He became a journalist on the Dominion and, for John, a useful source of free reviewers' tickets to concerts and theatre, as well as something of a foil for his wit in a number of his Spike pieces. It tells us something about college life at the time that Pope could be so involved in it, that staff members could be actively involved in student clubs and that, through his association with Spike, John got to know two former editors, F.A. de la Mare and Marjory Hannah (born Nicholls). De la Mare, a Hamilton lawyer, faithfully read every number of Spike page 68and wrote to John with questions and comments. John was to get to know him much better in 1931 when he and Elsie were living in Hamilton. Marjory Nicholls25 had entered Victoria in 1909 and, although she too never graduated, she was prominent in student affairs for a number of years and edited Spike in 1912. In 1920 she had married John Hannah, a Scottish businessman working in Ceylon, but he died of fever shortly after the wedding and Marjory returned to Wellington. For a time she taught at Wellington Girls' College (where her pupils included the young Robin Hyde), she continued to be actively involved in theatre (it was a family interest; her father, H.E. Nicholls, had been the leading member of the play-reading circle to which John's parents had belonged), and she published verse. The literary side of John found her very congenial and they became good friends.
John was in his element editing Spike. In his history of the college he wrote (clearly referring to himself as editor):
Spike, which was all for greater intellectual integrity and widespread denunciation ('The social condition of Wellington, if we only realized it, is ghastly'), and the editorials of which gave by copious quotation a pretty accurate index of the editor's current and dangerous reading – Spike lampooned the Minister [of Education] with vigour, joy and a proud sense of public duty.26
He went on to recall a squib of his, 'A Vision of Judgment',27 which for its treatment of the minister 'enjoyed some passing celebrity'.
The leader of the Labour Party, Harry Holland, wishing to have the 'Vision', wrote to the editor for 'a couple of copies of your bright little paper'. The horrified editor, who regarded Spike as an Organ of Opinion, could only reply with noble dignity that his 'bright little paper' was already sold out but would no doubt be obtainable in the General Assembly Library.28
John had a fluent pen, a sardonic wit and a taste for controversy. As a writer he also had an impressive range. The news of the death of Joseph Conrad led to a perceptive and deeply felt article29 reflecting his close reading of the novels. Very different, but possibly owing something to his reading of Charles Lamb, was a polished essay on 'Piracy as a Profession for Young Gentlemen'.30 (He did have a footnote to the title: 'There is no valid reason of course, why any refined young woman should not adopt it as her life work as well.') He began with a reference to Tom Sawyer contemplating life as a pirate, and ended, characteristically, with a view of the future:page 69
There are two ways of earning a living in these modern days. One is by piracy and one is by capitalism; and no young man of brains and breeding would willingly become a capitalist. So peradventure in the not far-distant future it may be granted to us to rub shoulders with swarthy seamen on the Quay, with gold rings in their ears and blood on their cutlasses; it may be our portion to hear gaudy parrots swear in Spanish and catch the glint of pieces of eight and moidores as the sailors gamble on the street outside the Duke of Edinburgh …
we may, some fine morning as we stand on the hills that fringe our noble harbour, see the Black Flag unfurl itself in the sun below and hear faintly the distant song of the sailors as they warp their ship out into the bay. And as we turn proudly down the path to our quiet home we will know that we have solved our unemployment problem and are a nation. We shall have found our soul.
In his first editorial John commented on the nature of university education, and it was a subject to which he returned frequently. In 1925 there was a royal commission on university education in New Zealand (the Reichel-Tate commission). John wrote to its chairman on behalf of the Free Discussions Club (he was secretary that year), asking that it should emphasise the vital importance of academic freedom:
Of all the attributes of a University, freedom, it seems to us, is of the most vital importance. If in any sense the University is to lead the community in thought or ideals, it is imperative that within its confines (as indeed without) there should be the utmost possible measure of liberty – liberty of association, of discussion, of teaching, of study. The only limit to this liberty that we can regard as valid is that of academic discipline.31
It was not to be the last time he expressed such a view. When the commission reported John gave it a favourable review in Spike.32Quoting the commission's view that, while the university in New Zealand offered 'unrivalled facilities for gaining University degrees … it is less successful in providing University education', he added that it was 'melancholy to see one's own worst criticisms endorsed – a sad triumph, a sorrowful vindication'.
Of real University teaching [John continued] there is at present, we all admit, practically none; of research (the tremendous importance of which for a University is stressed at length) we know nothing but the name; but will the Government even think of standing the expense for providing for all this? in paying an adequate staff a decent wage; in giving it the chance to do more than grind the feeblest elements of science and arts into inadequate skulls; will it, above all, give professors and page 70lecturers the freedom of teaching, which is the point perhaps of most vital importance in the whole report?
John was not optimistic.
The Free Discussions Club filled the pages of Spike with accounts of its 'long grapplings with Truth'. While the Debating Society had a higher public profile – it was going through one of its great periods at that time – John by temperament was not a debater; his stutter would have made it very difficult. Only once was his participation noted. He was much more in his element in the Free Discussions Club.
Every year [Professor] Hunter opened the season with denunciations of some branch of obscurantism, a Hunter more and more indignant as the evening wore on; the modern press and democracy, Anglo-Catholicism, the part of Woman in Modern Progress, academic slavery in America (what a furore was caused by Upton Sinclair's The Goose Step) – all were pulled to pieces.33
In 1921 Hunter led off on imperialism and the self-determination of peoples; there followed the Rev. Wyndham Heathcote on the church and social reform (his views gave evidence of 'deep and original thought', Spike reported), a discussion on the role of women and an investigation of 'the so-called Achievements of Bolshevism' led by W.A. Sheat ('little originality of thought was displayed'). Later evenings were devoted to the white man and his rivals, and to spiritualism.34 The pattern continued. The club had its visitors: the Rev. Dr Gibb, of St John's Presbyterian Church, tireless in the causes of disarmament and world peace; Walter Nash, Wellington bookseller and aspiring Labour politician, on unemployment; A.P. Harper of the thoroughly conservative Welfare League warning of the insidious progress of the revolutionary movement in Britain; Harry Holland, who 'laboured valorously to wreck our patriotism'.35 Besides Hunter, I.L.G. (Ivan) Sutherland became a regular attender following his return from Glasgow, where he had gained his PhD, and his appointment as Hunter's assistant lecturer. He provided psychological explanations for the world's problems.36 At this time John did not warm to him, finding him too pious, but that was to change greatly later on.
Among the younger members of the club, R.M. Campbell and Reo Fortune stood out. Dick Campbell was president of the Students' Association and a star of the Debating Society, with a mercurial mind and an unstoppable tongue. Even then he seemed to know everyone of importance and the answers to all questions. He also page 71seemed destined for power and influence in the future. It was harder to imagine what Reo Fortune was destined for. John described him at the time: 'a hardy atheist of 21, the most insufferably dogmatic person I ever met in my life (I hope I never meet any more so) … He is a philosophy student who believes in freedom of speech & shouting down opposition; but a very friendly lad withal.'37 Reo became subeditor of Spike, for which he too wrote passable verse, and was a tramper until he left for Cambridge and the study of anthropology.*
After John's response to the bush during his Akatarawa trip, it was hardly surprising that he was a founding member of the college Tramping Club. The taste for walking considerable distances was a family one, exemplified especially by Uncle Joe. John's parents walked with their young family over many of the Wellington hills and around the shoreline of the harbour. The Tramping Club was started in 1921 by Edwin J. Boyd-Wilson (more generally known as Prof), the new professor of French and a man of terrifying energies both in the classroom and outdoors: 'he built, he gardened, he slew deer and goats and fish, he had been a passionate footballer, the Tararuas were his second home … In the bush, some timid scholars felt, it was possible to regard him with less fear than in the lecture room.'38
For John, at first, tramping had to compete with harriers on Saturdays and being church organist on Sundays. He and his brothers Keith and Geoffrey had joined the Olympic Harrier Club in 1920. Their cousin Dick Osborne was already a member, as well as John's student friend Ken Griffen and a number of other Victoria College athletes. John proved a useful long-distance runner (he won the Wilson Memorial Cup for a three-mile race) and when I was young we sometimes persuaded him to show us the medals he had won and had carefully kept. Keith was a better runner and became club captain. Eventually, tramping won out. What it meant to John becomes clear in his history of the college.
… of all the clubs of that day, the one most touched with morning was the Tramping Club. The first Sunday afternoon excursions faded into insignificance beside the first September week-end expedition to page 72the Orongorongo, when fifty students straggled over to that watery magnificent valley, and a less number arrived at the top of Mount Matthews; and that gentle walk itself became nothing in comparison with snow-clad or tempest-smitten Tararuas, the exploration of lost spurs and brown-running stony rivers. Cold words cannot register that glory. There were cold words, such as those on a Labour Day week-end: 'some fifty miles of walking … over every type of country-road, bush-track, trackless bush, and river-bed … two crossings of the Rimutakas; the first by Matthews Saddle … interesting enough, but not to be compared with the second traverse, made by map and compass near Bau-Bau trig. Ours was probably the first party since the early surveyors to cross these bushy ridges; certainly, no woman had gone through there before.' But the college women went, in their 'gym-frills', or, dresses relegated to swags, in stout and well-tried bloomers. How was the elegance of the Tararua Club despised! There were tough days that became legendary with the participants: the descent of the long ridge from Alpha to Renata and to the Waiotauru stream, the mist and the rain and the supple-jack, eight miles in a twelve-hour day; crawling against the wind in Palliser Bay; the start at two in the morning, the first steep pull after breakfast. But oh the stars at two in the morning, the deeps of the bush, the sun in the river-valleys, the sweep of the eye from the hill-tops. Fathers might uneasily feel the weight of swags, but they were repulsed with contempt. Mothers might hesitate – it was a generation ago; but it was all right, Professor Boyd Wilson was to be the chaperon; their daughters tramped … The poets went tramping, and the trampers became poets; for a while Spike was redolent of manuka and wet fern and the sun on hot hills. No one, unfortunately, kept statistics of rivers crossed, or of the billies of tea that Boyd Wilson boiled.39
The club extended John's circle of friends. Among them were Jack Yeates and Lorrie Richardson, science students who were both to precede John in going to England and postgraduate study; Bill Joliffe, who went on to Edinburgh to study forestry and returned to the New Zealand Forest Service; Jack Tattersall, who became a lawyer in Napier; and Harold Holt, who was to have a successful career in the family timber business. The ebullient Bob Martin-Smith they all foresaw as a future Labour politician; instead, he made his career in adult education.
It was in the Tramping Club, too, that John got to know Elsie Holmes. Her background was very different from his. Her father, Robert Arthur Holmes, had left London while still in his teens for Adelaide, where he began a career in the Union Bank and married Mary Lucille Lamb. They were a very active couple. Mary was an extremely good tennis player who in her youth had partnered the page 73great Australian player Norman Brooks in mixed doubles; later she showed the same ability as a golfer. Robert rowed competitively as a young man, and on a trip home to England had taken Mary on a holiday rowing down the Thames and camping each night. Later he turned to trout fishing. Their first two children, Edith and Charles, were born in Adelaide but, before Elsie was born (on 15 January 1900), they had come to Wellington, where in 1911 Robert became the New Zealand manager of the bank. After Elsie there was another son, Peter, to whom she was always very close.
The family belonged in that Wellington world vividly recorded by Katherine Mansfield. Katherine's father, Harold Beauchamp, was, like Robert, in banking. Charlie Holmes was a school-friend of Katherine's brother Leslie; Edith a friend of one of her sisters. The Holmes, too, had a holiday bach at 'the bay'. Elsie went to Miss Baber's school in Fitzherbert Terrace (formerly Miss Swainson's school and later Marsden) and was dux. By then Robert had retired from the bank and in 1919 he and Mary and the two daughters went on a trip to England and Europe. Charlie, who had served in the war, was working for Dalgety's, the stock and station agents, and had recently married. Peter was left as a boarder at Waitaki Boys' High School, which he loathed. In England the Holmeses took a house at Richmond and Elsie met numerous relations. For the winter of 1919–20 they moved to Cannes in the south of France and in the spring travelled to the Italian lakes and to Venice. Robert had planned to retire in England but, once there, he formed the view that the weather was not what it had been when he was a boy; the party returned to New Zealand at the end of 1920. Just over a year later Robert bought a house above the Western Hutt Road with a large garden where he could indulge his passion for roses.
He was far from happy with Elsie's decision at the beginning of 1921 to enrol at Victoria College. It was not what he wanted for a daughter of his. But she was not attracted by a life of tennis parties and bridge; she had her father's determination and forthright manner, and she got her way. He was upset again when she started tramping, later joined in this by her close friend Averil Lysaght (who was to become an equally close friend of John's) – how far Robert was mollified by Boyd-Wilson's presence as chaperon we do not know. Nor do we know what Elsie's mother thought about it. Elsie completed her BA in French in three years and graduated in May 1924. At the same ceremony John received his MA and his brother Keith his BSc. In 1924 she attended the MA classes in French, but she had been badly advised and did not have one of the prerequisites page 74for gaining the degree, and so did not sit the final exams.
Elsie and John's relationship appears to have developed during 1924. The June number of Spike had an article (signed 'Viator' but written by John), 'The Truth about Tramping', which with great gusto purported to put right the previous 'extravagant eulogies' of the club's activities. There was also a touch of self-mockery:
… there's those two bards, R.F.F[ortune] and J.C.B., who appear – heaven knows how! – with such monotonous persistency in the pages of the Spike. They must be young and innocent. I doubt, from a perusal of their lines, if they have ever been on a tramp. There's that thing of J.C.B.'s called 'Tramping Song' … what does he say, in the midst of lines about tuis, rata, clouds, white roads, and all the conventional poetic appurtenances? –
'And praise we now the Tramping Girl, etc., etc., etc., … and bright she trims the cheerful evening fire.'
Absolute typical Rot! Who ever heard of a girl messing round with the fire at all? They sit on a good dry log and eat. That's about the extent of their participation in the festivities.
The article continued with an account of a poor fresher, lured out on a tramp by a charming girl (clearly Elsie), and the miseries he faced.
John provoked the reaction he hoped for. The next number of Spike carried an editorial statement (by John) saying what a lying wretch the writer had been. The statement about women had given greatest offence – a 'gratuitous and scurrilous attack of the most unprincipled and debasing kind on the fair name of women'. 'Not only do they on occasion tend the fire', the editor claimed to have discovered,
but they cut bread and butter it (insufficiently to be sure) – they fetch water – they supply chocolate – they make tea – they deal out stew – they mix milk – they put up tents – they collect bedding – they scrape out porridge pots – their merry laughter and constant flow of wit is the life and soul of an expedition …
It was good fun, and was also intended to interest Elsie. There was a social gulf between Hopper Street and the Western Hutt Road, of which they were both conscious, and which at times seems to have left John more than usually uncertain in courtship. Gentle – or not so gentle – mockery could alternate with abject expressions of his unworthiness of her. At least on paper, however, he was never inarticulate.
For Christmas that year he gave Elsie a pocket edition of page 75Housman's A Shropshire Lad. Many years later she wrote that this was his first present to her. That Christmas too they were both members of the college party which tramped through the Urewera from Waikaremoana over the range to Ruatahuna (the linking road was not yet through) and down the Whakatane river to Ruatoki. For the time it was adventurous; the New Zealand Free Lance carried an account of the tramp,40 and noted the 'remarkable feature of the trip is that several ladies were members of the party, and manfully carried their swags throughout'.
They went by train to Napier and the following day, Christmas Day, they continued to Waikaremoana by service car. After spending two wet days walking and boating at Waikaremoana they crossed the lake by launch to the mouth of the Hopuruahine river and the tramp began. From there the track, twenty-five miles over the range to Te Wai-iti and on to Ruatahuna, followed very closely the route later taken by the road. They camped near the Ruatahuna schoolhouse. Next morning they first visited Mataatua with its meeting house, Te Whai a Te Motu, built for Te Kooti; the building and its carvings had taken eighteen years to complete and had opened in 1888. They looked at it with excitement, John later commented, 'like men who saw the last flames of a dying fire – but that was before we heard of the Maori Renaissance and an art revived'.41
Then, in spite of warnings from the local Maori that the river was in flood, they started down the Whakatane. It was over forty miles, with four days of very tough tramping – rain every night and countless river crossings – before they emerged at Ruatoki. The Maori they met were hospitable, baking fresh bread for them and selling them wild pork. At Ohaua, on the second night, a venerable kaumatua, Te Kotahitanga, who had campaigned with Te Kooti, showed them his ancient breech-loader and told them about old battles. His stories were translated by a Maori who had settled there more recently. They arrived at the inevitable impossible ford and had a steep climb to avoid it. 'It is a painful memory, that hill', John later wrote, 'bracken probably grows that way on hills that trampers scale in Hell; it was above our heads and there was no track'.42 New Year's Eve they camped just above Putere; a sentimental night, John remembered, with stars. The next day they reached the metalled road that took them on to Ruatoki. The storekeeper told them that Elsie and the other four were the first Pakeha women to have tramped through the Urewera – Elsie, with very fair hair, seems to have made a particular impression on the Maori they met. It was a memorable experience – the wild cherries were never forgotten. Six years later page 76John wrote about it for C.A. Marris's Rata New Zealand Annual, 43a nostalgic piece, and a plea for preserving in the Urewera 'some last lost refuge for the spirit of [New Zealand's] native beauty'.
The next Christmas tramp was to the South Island, to the Waimakariri River with its magnificent beech forests on the river flats and the slopes above them, and encircling snow-covered peaks. Christmas Day was spent in the train from Christchurch to Arthur's Pass. John, with Jack Tattersall, Bob Martin-Smith and Harold Holt, climbed a then-unnamed peak of about 7000 feet near Mount Armstrong. John and Elsie and two others climbed another peak, probably Mount Davie, which was somewhat higher. This was possibly the first ascent since it was climbed in 1913 by A.P. Harper and his party.44 John and Elsie had been to Ruapehu, and they climbed Egmont (Taranaki) with Averil Lysaght not long after the Urewera trip, but they were trampers rather than climbers. The Waimakariri trip did not seem to have been remembered with the same enthusiasm as the Urewera. At the time, however, John knew he would be leaving for England later in the year, and his poem 'Waimakariri (January 6th, 1926)'45 reflects some of his feelings at this prospect:
This is the last time I shall stand and see
The stars above this valley and its stream –
The last time – and this stream, these stars for me
Henceforth will be distant as any dream.
. . . .
I see afar in darkness whitely stand
The unscaled peaks, the passes we have trod –
These are the ancient dwellers of this land,
Snowed, silent, and remote, each like a god.
After this night I shall not see them more
Like this, nor tread their snows, nor feel their cold,
Yet will they stand, I know, and lift their hoar
Summits toward the stars even as of old.
The stars! the stars! immutable they reign –
Thick in the eyes' full circle throb and burn
Their million fires that stab the heavenly plain –
O frozen peaks! O stars! grant me return!
At the Beginning of 1924 John had been appointed an assistant lecturer in history at Victoria University College on £200 a year. page 77Examining was paid separately and could bring in another £50 or so. He saved all he could and was full of plans for travelling overseas and for a future with Elsie. He wrote to her at length whenever she was out of Wellington:
It's a ghastly game this saving; & if I didn't see a prospect of Cornwall for you & me I would give it best & plunge on books & records & travelling & trust to luck about getting home. Never mind, Miss Holmes, there's a good time coming in a year or two, & don't you forget it! Meanwhile the boy swots & even intends to start marking papers this afternoon, & smokes recklessly (as many as two pipes a day sometimes) & writes letters to you & poems about you & wishes for a letter from you every day & wishes to God you were back. And when he isn't doing any of these things he gazes at the rain & if it isn't raining he wonders how soon it'll start again … I have written quite a long poem about you saying what a fine person you are, but after the way you gloat I have a jolly good mind to throw it away or dedicate it to Florence or Lydia or Muriel Clouston or someone. It is in 48 lines, some of which are not so bad as the others, but I am stuck for an adjective of two syllables with the accent on the first in the last line which annoys me very much – indeed reduces me to frenzy at regular intervals. If I can think of anything in any way satisfactory I will send it up to you, for I must show it to someone or burst, & be patted on the head like a dog bringing in a dead rat he has found & you're the only person I can show it to.46
That letter ended with the news that he had applied that day, 25 August 1925, for a postgraduate travelling scholarship. He hoped to go to London University to work for a PhD, with a thesis on the New Zealand Company, in which he would follow up the work he had already done for his MA. The application was successful, and John was further awarded one of the small number of free return passages the shipping lines offered each year to scholarship winners going to Britain. The officers of the Unitarian Church wrote a warm note of congratulations: 'especially gratified … because of your long association with the Church as Organist and Member of Committee'.47 Sir Robert Stout followed up with a testimonial: 'a man of high character and great industry'.48 John did not keep papers at all systematically, but he did keep both of these.
The final months passed quickly. There was an Easter tramp on Ruapehu in which Elsie's brothers Charlie and Peter were included. John wrote a review for Spike of Jean Devanny's novel The Butcher Shop.49 He did not care for it – 'not a great novel; it is not even a good novel; it is, in fact, in some respects an inconceivably bad novel' – but he cared even less for the action of the New Zealand Board of Censors in banning it as indecent, and he attacked the very idea page 78of censorship in a 'modern country'. He faithfully attended the Free Discussions Club until he left. Finally, the Students' Association gave him a farewell, presented him with a college blazer, and F.P. Wilson 'expressed his regrets at losing so keen a student and lecturer'.50 The night before he sailed, at twenty to one, he wrote a note to Elsie to say that he loved her and that he still had to finish his packing.
As John made Clear in Spike, he often saw Victoria University College in a critical light (though it was not the only thing he saw that way), but in later years his time there as a student and assistant lecturer took on something of a golden glow. I do not think he ever enthused about the teaching at that time and research was virtually unheard of. He remained something of a sceptic about formal courses and lectures, but he always recognised that education could be gained in many ways. Ten years later, when he published his history of the University of New Zealand, he wrote that, if such a work were to have a dedication, it would be 'to those at Victoria University College, mainly my fellow students, who … first taught me something of the meaning of a university; and particularly to' (and he gave just the initials) Thomas Hunter, Max Bickerton, Dick Campbell, Reo Fortune, Bob Martin-Smith, Elsie Holmes, Averil Lysaght, Lorrie Richardson, and to the memory of Harry Espiner.