A Life of J. C. Beaglehole: New Zealand Scholar
8 — Victoria University College, — Family and Friends, 1936–49
Victoria University College,
Family and Friends, 1936–49
With the years of uncertainty at an end, John and Elsie looked forward to getting a home of their own for the growing family while John, admittedly with mixed feelings at first, could look to a secure future at Victoria. The house they bought in Karori John lived in for the rest of his life. Fred Wood and he were to create a history department probably unmatched in quality for its size in New Zealand and Australia in the 1940s and 50s, and John became almost at once a figure of note and of influence in the college community and beyond. Within a short time he was drawn into the planning for the New Zealand centennial, and within the Centennial Branch and subsequently the Historical Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs he, together with Joe Heenan, the departmental head, formed a kind of embryonic ministry of culture. Here, in a very practical way, he developed his interest in typography and book production, making a major contribution to the standard of commercial printing in this country and becoming so interested that at one time he even wondered whether he should not consider becoming the Government Printer. Increasingly, he was recognised in the community as a critic with a concern for the quality of life in his country, a man of considered views who was not afraid to express them. As early as 1938 William Downie Stewart, the scholarly Dunedin lawyer and politician and former Minister of Finance, wrote to him: 'I judge from letters I get from some of the younger generation that you are exercising an influence that is greater than you may be aware of'.1 In the postwar years we can see him as an intellectual mentor not only to government departments but to a growing number of public and private institutions and to young New Zealanders engaged in the creative and performing arts.page 223
For the first time a new job did not mean immediately packing and finding somewhere new to live, and while the family remained in Marsden Street there was always the possibility of a lift home in Walter Nash's ministerial car when he and John had been at the same meeting. With the prospect of a third child in August 1936, however, the cottage there came to seem decidedly small. John and Elsie considered building and talked to Cedric Firth about plans. Firth had trained as an architect at Auckland University College and then travelled in Europe during 1931–32, where he visited new public housing schemes and absorbed modernist ideas. On his return to New Zealand he spent some time in Auckland, where John and Elsie first met him, before moving to Wellington, where he contributed both to the Labour paper, the Standard, and to Tomorrow. At John's suggestion, he was writing a series of articles for Tomorrow on the problems of working-class housing.2 Firth's plan for their house was 'about as plain and simple as anything could be without vanishing into string and brown paper';3 most of the rooms were small but the cost, with a section, looked to be about £2000. It seemed an awful lot and, with great reluctance, they abandoned the plan. The alternative was to buy a house. They heard of one in Karori, 'on the old side' but very roomy.4 The owner asked £1550, they offered £1400 and the offer was accepted.* In the same week, on 24 August, another son, Giles Cawte, was born. 'Poor Girl', John reported to Kathleen McKay, 'she [Elsie] wanted a Girl, & so did I. But we go forward to met the Future bravely, nerved proudly with the thought that the Empire … needs all her Sons, & that the Revolution needs a lot more.'5
The house, one of the earliest in Macdonald Street (later given the name Messines Road after the south Belgian town taken by the New Zealand Division at the cost of high casualties during the First World War) had been built in 1901–2 for Robert Hayes, a clerk in the Post Office, who eventually became Secretary of the Treasury, and his wife Ellen. A roomy villa typical of its time, it had had a large sitting room added about fifteen years later. Some years after Hayes's death his widow decided to sell the house. When the Beagleholes moved in in November there was a lot of work to be done. John reported to Richmond:
* I have always understood that my grandfather, Elsie's father, paid for the house but I can find no written confirmation of this. John wrote to Richmond, 'It is [Elsie's] house, & I am merely providing the furniture' (Jcb to Richmond, 29 December 1936). The certificate of title does show that on purchase the house was transferred from Ellen Hayes to Elsie.
We had a lot of inside painting & papering done & a concrete yard laid down for the kids & odd verandas & outhouses knocked down & the maid's room converted into a wash-house … & though the bathroom is too small the sitting-room is about 21x21. And of course it is all in a Very Nice Locality. We can get anything on tick anywhere in town by just mentioning that we live in Messines Road.6
Cedric Firth gave advice and designed a wall of cupboards for the kitchen. Bookshelves began to creep up the walls of John's study. The Van Gogh and Cézanne prints were hung in the dining room. It was hardly Finella – there was very little money and Cedric was a more austere modernist than Raymond McGrath – but it was 'really thoroughly satisfactory'.7 The verdict was prophetic. Over the next thirty-five years the house remained at the heart of John and Elsie's life; for family, students and a growing circle of friends John and Elsie and 6 Messines Road seemed inextricably linked. John's study became the hub of his working life; it was there that he wrote, there that he read late into the evening.
The garden too needed a lot of work. It was surrounded by overgrown hedges; three pines in front of the house were whittled away over the years. John bought a pair of hedge clippers and a stepladder and each year spent several weekends in early summer cutting the hedges. Apart from this and lawn mowing (until we boys took that task over), the garden was largely Elsie's domain and she looked after it with a skill and enthusiasm inherited from her father.
John quickly settled comfortably into his study, although it was on the southern side of the house and always a cold room. Here, with his books around him and the little bust of Voltaire bought in Paris on one of the shelves, he worked at his desk or read in the armchair next to it. The year 1936 was very full. John wrote to Richmond:
We seem to have been in a jam from one end of the year to another, with the result that during 1937 I absolutely decline to write any books, build, buy, rent, or demolish any houses, have any babies, run any printing-works, make any promises, carry out any contracts, give any interviews, pack or unpack any books, apply for any jobs, stain any floors … reform any universities, save any student's soul. What shall you do then? you ask … I shall read the Left Book Club books, & Mehring's Marx, & Laski's two last books, & Paradise Lost, & play Bach, & look at prints of Cézanne, & lie in the sun, & occasionally deliver a lecture … I think I might continue my study of Voltaire too. Or, I don't know, I might go to Spain & shoot a few fascists. Or go to Austria & lay my services at the feet of the Dook of Windsor.8
The constitutional crisis caused by the decision of the new King, Edward VIII, to abdicate from the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson had led John to discover, with some interest, that instinctively he 'was a Royalist, & to hell with Parliament'. He could hardly support the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Alister McIntosh took the same view but Hunter, 'after meditating over the matter for some days, decided that two divorces were a bit too much'.9
To celebrate the end of the teaching year, John read the novels of Thomas Love Peacock: 'very amusing, sort of ancestor of Aldous Huxley in manner … long conversations & a good deal of omniscience'. He had also just finished Geoffrey Faber's Oxford Apostles, which he judged 'very good … [it] gives a more reasonable account of Newman & all that gang than anything else I have read. Incredible people! Incredible controversies! Incredible agonies of soul!'10
Completing his book on the University of New Zealand had had to compete with the new job. By July John had finished a first draft and was 'adding bits' and 'putting in the style'.11 The manuscript went to Beeby, who has described what followed:
I had the temerity to edit his draft, and never did editor learn more from the edited. From him I got my first insight into the techniques and standards of educational research at their most scrupulous … I felt more assurance on the writing of English prose than I did on historical scholarship, and we argued endlessly, and sometimes vehemently, on the structure of a sentence or the precise meaning of a word or phrase. In our more heated moments the difference between a comma and a colon could threaten a friendship …12
As director of the fledgling Council for Educational Research, Beeby also had a diplomatic eye, while John, 'where a pompous bubble could be pricked by an apt phrase … would fight to the death to retain it, no matter who might take offence'. Beeby checked even the page proofs of John's index.
It was a beautiful index, with not an idea missed or a word wasted, and I was full of admiration till I came to 'O'. There I found an entry, 'Ostler, H.H., improper costume of, 161'. It had a spicy flavour, and would have been acceptable if the man in question had been a nonentity long since dead. But he happened to be a distinguished member of the Bench, the Hon. Mr. Justice Ostler. The sartorial incident had occurred in 1902, when Ostler, a law student of independent vein, had appeared for his examinations clad in 'a sweater or white football jersey', and had been told by the supervisor that it was not proper attire for a University page 226occasion. After the third day on which the young rebel defied his authority, the supervisor reported the offence to the Senate, which had a solemn debate on 'the improper costume of H. H. Ostler'. John was tilting at the Senate for wasting its time on trifles, and not at the learned judge, and could see no point whatever in my objection. After days of intermittent argument I had my way, and … the item now reads, 'Ostler, H.H., inappropriate costume of'.13
Peace was made, friendship maintained, and Beeby judged the finished work, which appeared early in 1937, 'a magnificent piece of scholarship, which established the NZCER's scholarly reputation with even the most critical of academics'.14
John, however, wondered why he had devoted two years of his life to the history of an institution for which he had so little respect. The subtitle, he concluded, 'should undoubtedly be A Study in Futility'.15 It was a story of provincial discord and parochial rivalry, but a story in which, he admitted, 'in spite of myself, I got interested'.16 'Though one tends to rise from the study of our University with exasperation ever renewed', he wrote in the preface, 'there have been men, there have been ideas, within the University, for whom and for which one can record only unqualified respect'.17 More significantly, he had sought to portray the university's development in relation to its environment:
There have been examining universities, and federal universities, and colonial universities, and quarrelsome universities, before; but nothing, in all respects, quite like this. For New Zealand, as the naturalist has so often assured us, is a museum of rare and astonishing things. And our University: is that not too, for the curious student, both rare and astonishing? … The environment, in its uniqueness, conditions the institution, its product; and no study of an educational institution, above all, can be highly fruitful, that does not recognise this premise. A history of this University, therefore, is a study not altogether of education, though the bounds of education are wide; it is also a study of colonial history, a study of political science, a portrait of the colonial mind … If the student and the teacher, for whom the University allegedly exists, seem to get surprisingly little notice, that is in the nature of the case. They are none the less in the background, a cloud of embarrassing witnesses, acquiescent, puzzled, confounded, impatient, obstreperous; waiting – can it be? – for a true epoch to be marked in the University's life; and the historian must, at least, not be unaware of their existence …
John began with the premise that a university, simply stated, 'is an association of teachers and students, with this characteristic, that the teachers do not cease to be students'.18 In contrast, the University page 227of New Zealand was primarily an examining body; teaching was the responsibility of the affiliated colleges. With wit, scholarship and at times a biting irony, he explored the disastrous effects of this division – already spelled out by two royal commissions as well as by Hunter, T.H. Laby (the first professor of physics at Victoria University College) and other members of the university reform movement in the years before the First World War. John quoted Thomas Huxley's devastating observation on the dangers of the examination system for students: 'They work to pass, not to know; and outraged Science takes her revenge. They do pass, and they don't know.'19 Unfortunately, the voices of those who believed that a university was significant primarily for the standard of its teaching were drowned by those who elevated its examining to a pre-eminent place. The result, John suggested, was that its mission 'has not been to facilitate the diffusion of that culture which its founders sincerely desired to see spread from one end of the colony to the other; but to provide cheap professional schools for the supply of duly certificated lawyers, doctors, bank-clerks, dentists and teachers'.20 The history of the university explained both the genesis of that mission and the price paid for failing to advance beyond it:
Professional competence … if it has any meaning beyond acquaintance with the baldest tricks of a trade, is allied with an indispensable closeness to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. To 'teach' law without everrenewed scrutiny of the origins of law, the roots of justice, is no teaching … to 'teach' medicine or engineering or history without returning continually to the laborious and galleried mine of research is to run to meet frustration. And the man or woman who comes from the university – in turn to teach or practise – with no realisation of this primary and fundamental thing … may flourish, with pride or cynicism, a certificate; but has a competence the limits of which are severe and inelastic. This primary and fundamental thing also it has been the business of New Zealand, in effect, to deny. Our country has been primitive; it has been rough and ready; it has had – but too long – the pioneering willingness to make do. It has sought and ensu[r]ed mediocrity with unusual success.21
The book was enthusiastically reviewed: an 'eagerly awaited work' and a 'model of how history should be written';22 'a remarkable and delightful book';23 'witty and inspiring'.24 Von Zedlitz, in one of the few signed reviews, praised it warmly, 'few more intelligent books have been written'.25 Arthur Sewell, the lively and radical professor of English at Auckland, found John's conclusions 'exhilarating – if only for the fact that one can enjoy on every page the thought of the particular person who is bound to disagree with him'26 and wrote page 228that John's 'final word … should be inscribed in a prominent place in every University College in the Dominion':
As the court of justice should be no respecter of persons, so the university should be no respecter of ideas; as we do not seek to intimidate the majesty of the law, so we should recoil with equal repugnance from the intimidation of the intellect. For the intellect is by nature critical, and only in the free functioning of intelligence is there hope either for the university or for the world.27
In contrast to the sparkling essay on New Zealand, the 'historical study' of the university was a more substantial and scholarly work. Grounded in the records (which John found 'like our colonial records generally … in a shameful state of chaos'28), it reflected not only 'his matchless capacity for transforming a mountain of arid documents into readable prose'29 but also a critical engagement with the idea of the university which had begun in his student days, when it found expression in Spike. The writing has worn well and, even if we can no longer share Arthur Sewell's particular exhilaration, the cogency of argument, the wit and the lively portraits of the protagonists such as Tancred (the Canterbury politician and first Chancellor of the University of New Zealand), and Robert Stout have lost none of their force.
* Jcb A School of Political Studies, (Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1938). At a time when almost all public servants were first appointed straight from school and very few had a university education of any sort, John argued for an education for a selected group 'that will be not merely technical but, in the intellectual sense, liberal and humane … [the public servant] needs to be acquainted not merely with office-files and the peculiar mode of prose-composition they breed, but with literature … he should know Paradise Lost and Hamlet; he should know James Joyce and Eliot and D.H. Lawrence, and later men even than these'. Downie Stewart, to whom John sent a copy of his lecture, was unconvinced: 'you will say I am an antiquated fogey suffering from induration of the mental arteries if there are any but please explain why public servants must study James Joyce, Lawrence & Elliott [sic] – I always regarded these first two as pathological sex maniacs & no brilliance of style seems to warrant asking a lady public servant to study Ulysses where the talk is between girls in a brothel &c. if I remember – & will she have to study Lady Chatterley's Lover?' (Downie Stewart to Jcb, 22 July 1938.)
* Leslie Hearnshaw, who lectured in psychology at Victoria from 1939 to 1947, when he returned to Britain to take up the chair at Liverpool University, wrote of Victoria at this time (in an unpublished memoir, kindly shown to me by his son, Professor John Hearnshaw): 'With one or two exceptions I don't think that most of my colleagues at Victoria University College could be regarded as more than very moderately distinguished academically.' John he judged as 'unquestionably the most eminent member of the staff academically'. The Hearnshaws found 'numerous compensations in the friendly and close-knit community of Victoria', however.
* Over thirty years later one history student could still remember the questions that John had suggested he should ask the consul (and that Hunter had tried to persuade the newspapers not to mention the incident). (J.W. Davidson to Emb, 9 November 1971.)
† At this time Reo Fortune was associate professor of anthropology and sociology at the American Lingnan University in Canton, where he and his second wife, Eileen Pope, were visited by Robin Hyde in March–April 1938. (Derek Challis and Gloria Rawlinson, The Book of Iris: A Life of Robin Hyde (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2002), pp.548–9.)
In January 1938 John and Elsie went to Sydney and Canberra for a brief visit. It was a chance to stay with Duncan and his wife, who had a 'nice spot of hillside' at Chatswood 'where Dunc devotes himself to the cultivation of the native bush with national enthusiasm',39 and the Lascelles Wilsons, to catch up with Kathleen McKay and with friends of Duncan's whom they had met on their way back to New Zealand in 1929. John visited the Mitchell Library to look at Cook material (he was already corresponding with the Argonaut Press in London on a proposal that he should edit the journals for them). They drove to Canberra in the Wilsons' car for the two-day summer school of the Australian Institute of Political Science. Canberra was still tiny, with about 8000 inhabitants, but John thought the site 'really marvellous' and was deeply impressed that the federal government cut the residents' hedges for them – a 'great place'.40 We have no record of the proceedings of the summer school but John again had a chance to look at Cook material: the holograph copy of his Endeavour journal in the national library, which had been bought in 1923 for £5000. 'I was left alone in the strong-room with keys & Cook's own original Endeavour journal … & told to help myself, as it were.'41 Back in Sydney, they went with Kathleen to inspect Cook's landing place at Kurnell. John would not have minded staying for a few months and starting work then, but it was to be ten years before he was able to make that start.
To many students in the late 1930s and early war years, John seemed to embody Victoria's radical tradition. It was there in his teaching: 'He talked with irony and humour but with an undertone of involvement and of passion. He was an older man who shared our indignation with the stupidity and corruption of the mediocre and powerful – though he expressed it more moderately – and who cared about the causes we had at heart.'42 The involvement went beyond the classroom. Salient and Spike both sought his views on matters as diverse as modern jazz, Salient itself, and the New Zealand centennial. He featured as a character, 'Dr Weevilbole – the eternal historian', in the student extravaganza 'Centennial Scandals'. When a student international relations club was formed amid the rising world tensions of July 1939 he and Fred Wood took an active part in its discussions.
The two of them shared an interest in international affairs and the evolution of the British Commonwealth. Wood's centennial survey, New Zealand in the World, was a pioneering study that was to be followed (in 1958) by his masterly volume in the official war history,page 232The New Zealand People at War: Political and External Affairs. Both men were members of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs (Nziia), which had been established in 1934 by a group of prominent people including Downie Stewart and Walter Nash, notable among their parliamentary colleagues for their interest in world affairs. Downie Stewart became the first chairman, Alister McIntosh (a member of the General Assembly Library staff and a close friend of both John and Wood) the first secretary-treasurer. In its membership the Nziia overlapped that of two existing bodies: the Institute of Pacific Relations (Ipr) and Round Table groups. The New Zealand branch of the Ipr, founded in 1926 with J.B. Condliffe and Nash among its original members, was absorbed by the Nziia. Round Table groups had been originally organised in Britain and the dominions by Lionel Curtis in 1910. Fred Wood became a member of the Wellington group. All three bodies had affiliations with their parent organisations: the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and Round Table in London, the Ipr in Honolulu. Membership of the Nziia branches was small but included prominent professional and business men and women as well as academics, journalists and public servants.43
In its early years the Nziia had been a rather conservative body, but by the late 1930s it was clearly changing:
Can you … picture me as a member of the I.I.A. [John wrote to Richmond in December 1939] discoursing on war aims & the desirability of all-round revolution to a select audience including Alan Mulgan & C.H. Weston in the front row, with H.F. von Haast in the chair?* … But the I.I.A. in W'gton has worse blokes than me in it – Sutch & young Milner & that bunch. By the way, Mulgan is going very red – in private life, not as talks-director – it is a fair treat to hear him hailing the revolution & talking about state-action & the sins of Chamberlainism. Apparently his son's letters from England have switched over that humane heart. I got an awful shock when I first heard him give utterance on the subject. As if the milkman had left four pints of beer in the morning.44
* Mulgan, the father of John Mulgan, had in 1935 left his position as chief leader-writer of the Auckland Star and moved to Wellington to the newly created position of supervisor of talks for the New Zealand Broadcasting Board. Weston was a prominent Wellington lawyer, a stalwart of the Rsa and Judge Advocate-General, who served for three years as president of the National Party following its formation in 1936. Von Haast, too, was a pillar of the Wellington legal community who became best known for his biography of his father, The Life and Times of Sir Julius von Haast.
Contemporary New Zealand: A Survey of Domestic and Foreign Policy, published by the institute as a set of background papers for the British Commonwealth Relations Conference held in Sydney in September 1938, nicely illustrates the change. Nearly half the volume was written by Alister McIntosh and W.B. Sutch, while among the contributors to other chapters, in addition to John, were von Haast and the ardent imperialist Frank Milner, rector of Waitaki Boys' High School. John's opening chapter in the volume, 'New Zealand in the Commonwealth: An Attempt at Objectivity', raised some eyebrows: it was 'by far the most provocative of the sections', one reviewer wrote, adding that while the tone of the Survey was on the whole judicious, in that first chapter 'the judicial atmosphere is charged with a certain archness, which some will find stimulating and others, possibly, a little flashy'.45 In seeking to assess the advantages and disadvantages to New Zealand of its association with the British Commonwealth, John had sought to cut through the 'generalities which have been in recent decades the stock-in-trade of politicians, leader-writers, and other dealers in optimistic superficiality'. He could be sharp on the views of the 'average New Zealander':
British foreign policy [in the early 20th century] … was British foreign policy, and therefore right, and New Zealand sealed its approval with the gift of a battleship. Nor did the war seriously affect this devotion. It was rather, in spite of the cost, an opportunity for congratulations all round. The lion-cub had rushed to the side of its dam. The empire had stood the strain. Mr Massey had sat, and [Augustus] John had painted. And after all, the war had been won – at least, New Zealand thought so in 1918 and for some years afterwards.46
Flashy? Not really – a little sardonic, even caustic, perhaps, and certainly distasteful to 'dealers in optimistic superficiality'.
* Powles had studied law and been a prominent debater in his student years at Victoria College.
When the Survey was reprinted the following year, Fred Wood added a chapter 'N.Z. in Crisis' which brought the story up to the outbreak of war.
In 1943, on Hunter's suggestion, the College arranged five public lectures on the Statute of Westminster. John gave two and Fred Wood, Leslie Lipson and R.O. McGechan, professor of law, one each. The statute had been passed by the British parliament in 1931, with the advice and consent of the dominions, in order to remove the legal obstacles to their equality of status with Great Britain as defined in the Balfour Declaration of 1926. It could have no effect on New Zealand, however, until the New Zealand parliament itself passed legislation adopting it as part of its own constitutional law. This it had failed to do. For practical purposes this failure to ratify did not make very much difference as to what the country did or did not do except that it was unable to exercise extraterritorial powers – for example, in the Pacific. At times it became the focus for political debate that owed less to the statute's legal provisions than to political point scoring between those who thought they had all the autonomy they wanted and those who wanted the New Zealand parliament to have full legislative power internally and extraterritorially. For John and Wood, New Zealand's reluctance to ratify the Statute of Westminster seemed symptomatic of a national unwillingness to stand on our own feet, evident in the continued use of the word 'Home' for England. New Zealand, John had written in Contemporary New Zealand:
is a 'Dominion' in spite of itself, it has not pursued, with passionate experimentation, the idea of equal nationhood; in the imperial family it is the daughter-nation, that preferred not to smoke and drink with its emancipated sisters, that shuddered a little and drew its garments somewhat closer when Canada and South Africa began to saunter on the boulevards of the world …48
For Fraser in the war years, there was the fear that ratification would be interpreted as disloyalty to the mother country. But it is difficult now to understand the strong feelings that the statute provoked.
The course of the war raised crucial questions about the deployment and control of New Zealand forces. Especially after the disastrous 1941 campaigns in Greece and Crete, Fraser was determined to have a voice in these decisions. He was equally determined that New Zealand should have a voice in the direction of the Pacific war and in the political decisions that would shape the page 235postwar world. The role he played at this time did much to clarify the concept of dominion status in wartime. The logic of Fraser's leadership pointed to what he later described as 'independence plus'* for New Zealand – that is, in stature as well as status – but, although there was talk of the statute being ratified in 1943 (hence the lectures), it finally happened only in 1947, after Fraser had taken his place among world statesmen at the founding of the United Nations Organisation in 1945 at San Francisco.
While it is not clear whether the lectures, published by the college in 1944, had much public impact, Peter Munz has written of John and Fred Wood at this time, when the postwar aims of the Allies embodied in the Atlantic Charter, the Australia–New Zealand agreement of 1944 and the United Nations Charter seemed to hold out so much promise: 'the two men created an atmosphere in which we were all persuaded that nationhood and independence, self-government, responsible government and an independent foreign policy were all linked together as part of the great battle for freedom which was being waged for social justice in every country and against Nazism and fascism in the international field.'49 One could argue with some justice that John and Wood were among those who helped change New Zealand attitudes in a way that meant that New Zealanders could move on from the question of their country's international status to other issues. John, with his slightly mocking self-perception, recognised that he could 'go on a bit' about the statute. 'Could we work in a mention of the Statute of Westminster?' he enquired of his niece Mary when she sought advice on an English essay, or, 'Why not start with Who has not heard of the Statute of Westminster?'
John Voted for theLabour Party in elections. He had got to know both Walter Nash and Peter Fraser but he was not a member of the party and tended to view all politicians with a critical eye. He had not really believed that Labour would transform New Zealand politics and New Zealand society, but he was still disappointed with many aspects of its performance in office.
* He was referring to Indian independence in the Commonwealth.
Politics. If I can bring myself to write on the subject … Melancholy outlook. Do you still see Tomorrow? Walter [Nash] very bitter about its criticism of the Govt. & especially about an article by Jack Lee published in its last number† – & about Jack Lee that ambitious & turbulent man himself. It looks as if we're not far off a split, I mean an overt snorter historic split big enough to swallow an army – or the Labour Govt. The Govt. won't do anything socialist, can't think ahead (except Walter who like Downie Stewart sees only horrific consequences), spends all its time placating its own opponents (who won't be placated) & either ignoring or blackguarding its supporters. Semple's exhibitionism is getting beyond all bounds. He is now running a campaign against left-wing ('Communist') influences in his best style of gutter-eloquence … this fatal Macdonaldism that attacks Labour in office! Meanwhile Savage appears to be, ill or well, now just a bloody nuisance, & ill certainly touches the depths of fatuity; & Peter Fraser, who might pull things together, is over in England pledging our last shilling & drop of blood to Chamberlain … Gawd, if the Party only had a Coates somewhere in the cabinet instead of all these nitwits; if only Nash could transcend his function as a bottle-neck; if only they could use a bloke like Jack Lee; if only they would ditch H.G.R. Mason & ½ dozen others; etc; etc; there might be a bit of hope in life.50
Within months Savage was dead and Fraser was prime minister.
* At the beginning of 1938 Norman Richmond moved to Australia to head the Queensland Wea. It was not a happy move. The following year, despite a positive report on the organisation from a state government commission of inquiry, government funding was terminated and the University of Queensland withdrew its support. Richmond was appointed to a fulltime position at the university, but his best work was over and during the war years he suffered the first attacks of the depressive illness that was to haunt him thereafter. The correspondence with John changed (though not the affection between them); letters became infrequent, though when John wrote it was sometimes at considerable length: 'Beaglehole & Family Annual Report', he headed his letter of 10 December 1939.
† This was Lee's barely veiled attack on Savage, 'Psycho-Pathology in Politics', Tomorrow, 6 December 1939.
We ask members of the Government to read these Regulations, & our analysis of them, carefully & in cold blood. They are inequitable. They are, in the highest as in the lowest sense, inexpedient. They are wrong in principle. Reluctant as we are to oppose a Government of men with whom we are in such general sympathy, we do regard it as our duty to oppose with all our resources of argument, & all possible vigour, regulations which seem to us the denial of everything for which the Government has hitherto stood, for which its members have individually suffered, & for their defence of which we have admired them in the past. We cannot concede that circumstances have changed so much as to warrant this change.
Fraser met with the deputation on 17 May. Nothing was changed.
In 1941 the government finally succeeded in breaking an impasse with the medical profession and passing a bill to implement the general medical benefit promised in the Social Security Act. Richmond had asked John for information on the new benefit; John was unable to find anything useful as the government publicity was 'appallingly bad':
It makes me sigh for the days of Dick Campbell & the pamphlets he wrote for Coates. There wasn't even a handbill distributed to say what page 238it was all about; & out of all the mess of misrepresentation & lying on either side … I'm damned if I could make out a sensible statement for you, or find a single honest analysis of either the govt's case or the doctors'. I'm opposed to the B.M.A.* of course, but it is very hard to sympathise with the govt. Indeed when you work it out, there are precious few Good Things this Govt hasn't gone about the wrong way … The final struggle over the bill, by the way, resolved itself into one between Peter Fraser & the B.M.A. on the one hand, & the Labour Party on the other, & P.F. managed to get amendments that made the doctors purr over him like a lot of over-fed cats … as time marches on P.F. is less & less highly thought of by the workers & the intelligentsia. And not very popular with the others either I should think …54
Much later, in a brief but eloquent biographical article for The Dictionary of National Biography 1941–1950, John gave a more favourable picture of Fraser, and especially of his role as leader of New Zealand at war and in the early postwar years, saying that he was 'first-rate in a crisis'. John also brought out the complexity of his character, his capacity to exasperate as well as to inspire.
Messines Road was proving a very good base for the family. The pattern of life that John and Elsie established there changed only slowly over the coming years. It was an informal age; doors were not locked, friends dropped in. Social life by and large was local, and visits were generally made on foot or by public transport. Relations and old friends were not far away and new friends were found both in the college and outside.
* The British Medical Association (New Zealand Branch), possibly the toughest union in the country.
Elsie's father and Edith had moved from the Western Hutt hills to Eastbourne, where the family visited them regularly, often crossing the harbour on the ferry, the Cobar. We continued to do this even after Elsie bought a car, a Vauxhall 10, because very shortly the war came and with it petrol rationing. From Eastbourne we walked and picnicked around the coast towards Pencarrow, or over the hill into the bush-filled valley known as Butterfly Creek.
Cedric Firth and his wife Bobbie (their marriage on 7 January 1938 had been celebrated with a party at Messines Road, 'a hogshead of beer … going down with remarkable celerity'56) were nearby in Vera Street, in a house Cedric had designed and built in 1941 to put his own ideas on low-cost, good-quality social housing into practice. Next door were Arthur Ward (by then in the Dairy Board's head office), his wife Jean and their growing family, in a house for which Cedric, a year after his own, had produced a more refined design. A little further away, but still (in those years) in Karori, were Tom and Sylvia Smith. Tom had left school at twelve to look after the family farm when his father drowned while fishing from a Northland beach. Later, after completing a master of commerce degree at Canterbury College, he had come to Wellington to a position in the public service and was one of the first students to gain the Diploma in Public Administration at Victoria. Sylvia, as outgoing as Tom was laconic, was English and had been a postgraduate student at the Institute of Historical Studies not long after John had left London. She had written a thesis on international rivalry in Samoa and come out to Wellington to teach at Marsden School (where Edith Holmes had page 240taught), and she and Tom had met in the Tararua Tramping Club. For a few of the war years she was a part-time assistant lecturer in the history department at Victoria. Nearby, in Kelburn, were Jim Campbell, lecturer in mathematics and a remarkable teacher, and his wife Margaret. Jim, like John, was one of the new generation of Victoria staff with a postgraduate qualification, in his case a PhD from Edinburgh University; he also resembled John in his addiction to his pipe. He was to share his expertise in statistics with Arthur Ward, to be applied in research on breeding in the dairy industry. Margaret played the viola; music was the interest the Beaglehole 'crowd' almost all shared.
It was shared too with new friends made from among the refugees from Nazi Germany. Joachim and Gertrud Kahn were two of the first John and Elsie met. 'Poor blighter,' John wrote to Richmond, 'he is a Harvard as well as a German univ man, who quotes Greek as well as Latin French German & English, & now he has to help his father-in-law in some dud chemical factory at Miramar.'* He also sang very well and was an accomplished actor. They all seemed to speak three languages and 'make us feel very inferior & uncultured & raw, damn them'.57 The architect Ernst Plischke, who arrived in Wellington from Vienna with his wife Anna in May 1939, designed a house for the Kahns in Ngaio in 1941. It was remarkable for its time: flat-roofed, with some walls largely of glass and a big glass sliding door.58 The large living room was on two levels; the raised dining area was wonderful for parties, serving as a stage for charades and other theatrical performances. Plischke, who became one of the foremost early exponents of modernism in New Zealand,59 designed a set of dining chairs for John and Elsie in 1948, but their structural integrity did not match the elegance of their appearance.
* The factory proved far from dud. As Ados, it became a leading manufacturer of adhesives. After the war, Joachim Kahn became a lecturer in political science at Victoria College. He returned to Germany in the early 1950s, but Gertrud and their son Claude remained in Wellington.
Marie Vanderwart was another to arrive in Wellington in 1939. She had grown up in Berlin, where she studied the cello, but finding work as a musician was frustrated by the anti-Jewish restrictions. Her fiancé, Alfons Blaschke, a pacifist who escaped to England just before being conscripted into the German army, planned to join her in New Zealand but was foiled by the outbreak of war and restrictions placed on aliens. It was to be seven years before she was able to return to England to join him. She was rescued from a position as a domestic servant by a Karori couple, May and Walt Long, who took her into their home and gave her the family support she desperately missed. In one way, perhaps, Marie was more fortunate than others, such as Peter Jacoby or Joachim Kahn, who for years were unable to get work which matched their professional training. She found eager listeners. It was music that brought her together with John and Elsie; she played for them and their friends in the sitting room, and introduced John to the Bach cello suites. With his encouragement, she formed a trio with Dorothy Davies and Erica Schorss. They too played at 6 Messines Road and then in a number of recitals in Nimmo's small concert hall in Willis Street (with any profits going to the Patriotic Fund). From this beginning, in 1945, grew the Wellington Chamber Music Society.
Helmut and Ester Einhorn also arrived in 1939 but did not meet John and Elsie until a little later. Helmut was an accomplished architect who, after serving in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, was to make his career in the Government Architect's office. He designed a house for his family which, in striking contrast to its neighbours on a steep Karori hillside, was modernist in style; the furnishings, a mixture of antiques and pieces designed by Helmut himself, had 'a definite intellectual European flair'.60 John and Elsie admired his design sense. Ester won renown for her coffee and bread rolls and, with Ilse Jacoby, became one of the group of women that Elsie led out walking on the Wellington coast and hills every Wednesday for over three decades. Barbara and Jule Einhorn, both born in New Zealand, became the daughters John and Elsie had always hoped for.
At a time when New Zealand society was remarkably homogeneous (and the Maori population still largely rural), such page 242newcomers were to make a striking contribution to intellectual and cultural life. Yet they were met with suspicion and even hostility. New Zealand was not generous in making a place for refugees. John and Elsie, in contrast, were warmly welcoming and the friendships they made at this time were long lasting.
The sitting room at 6 Messines Road was the scene of some memorable parties. Elsie would make a fruit cup with cider – they were an abstemious as well as a hard-up crowd in the 1940s,* though after the war a little gin was sometimes added – and they had a weakness for charades. Certain scenes were always remembered: Beeb as Eros in Piccadilly Circus, perched on a stool and clutching a coat hanger, though what word he was acting out is long forgotten. On a later occasion, after I had taken up the sitting-room carpet for a school class party, Elsie, with a marked lack of cooperation from John, decided to have a dance and, what was more, that the men should be in dinner suits. Afterwards John conceded it had been a great success: 'There wasn't too much formal dancing. I managed a vertiginous waltz with E[lsie], and fended off grimly the other ladies, even the ones I loved best, like Ilse Jacoby; but after supper the fun started & we had some riotous special performances & ballets'.61 John himself was the highlight, leaping in through the window from the verandah, clad in long pink underpants and a wreath of roses to dance the pas de deux from the Spectre of the Rose with the young wife of his cousin Alan Monaghan.
* Although the foundations of New Zealand viticulture went back to the 1890s, wine of any quality at a reasonable price was not readily available and not widely drunk at this time. Arthur Ward was one of the first of John and Elsie's crowd to buy locally produced wine; with his Dairy Board connections he got it from the Department of Agriculture's experimental vineyard and winery at Te Kauwhata. John and Elsie did not drink wine regularly until the 1960s, beginning with the ubiquitous McWilliams Bakano.
In January 1939 we had a holiday in Queen Charlotte Sound with Tom and Sylvia Smith and their two children. We had a one-roomed bach and tents in Cherry Bay, a tiny bay which we had to ourselves. There was a dinghy to row and Tom led us in fishing. I caught a large snapper (alas, now rarely there for five-year-old fishermen). John got to see Ship Cove at last. The Cook monument on the foreshore, he confessed on his return to Wellington, had not been as bad as he expected, though some attention to details ('lettering very bad') would be worthwhile. If we must have monuments, he concluded, 'we should do our best to avoid converting our historic sites into third-rate grave-yards [with lettering] in what might be called the Karori-tombstone style'. It was held to be impossible to make any changes while members of the original memorial committee were still living.62 The following summer John 'did a bit of Cook looking round' when the family had a holiday in Hawke's Bay at Mangakuri, a wonderful open beach with abundant crayfish among the rocks. He and Elsie, having abandoned me and my brothers with farming friends, then drove up the coast towards East Cape, discovering Anaura Bay, and then Waipiro Bay on Elsie's birthday, both superb beaches. The weather was very hot; Maori on horseback flourished; most places seemed to have ice cream.63 There were no more such holidays until the war and petrol rationing came to an end.
In 1939 Elsie's brother Peter bought a farm in Wairarapa just north of Featherston, and for a number of years we went to the farm every holiday. If Elsie turned off the car engine and coasted down all the hills, we could just get there on the petrol she had carefully saved; Peter squeezed a bit from his more generous farmer's ration to see us home. Peter's marriage had broken up, and we went to the farm partly to provide more of a home for his son Mike when he was on holiday from boarding school. Furthermore, at a time when labour was difficult to get and Peter was working enormously hard breaking in a farm that had become very run down, we could help a little with some of the work.
For John, it was a new experience, a side of New Zealand that he had not known at first hand. Although he always made sure of a plentiful supply of books, he took a hand in clearing water races and working the sheep for dipping, and he designed a name plate for the front gate – Kowhai Flat – and the stencil for the wool bales. He went to the races for the first and only time, the New Year meeting page 244at the Tauherenikau course,* and on the strength of its name put some money on a horse rather improbably called Voltaire, but it finished well back in the field. The Tauherenikau river marked one boundary of the farm and most summers we found a good swimming hole. John cultivated a suntan; he was always passionate about getting into the sun and at home on sunny days he would lie outside in his shorts for a spell after lunch. Beaglehole friends and relations visited and often stayed at the farm. When the eminent American historian Alan Nevins visited New Zealand, after the United States had come into the war, Joe Heenan (who looked after official visitors) sent him up to the farm in a government car to spend the day with John (later John travelled with him to the South Island). An English representative of the Oxford University Press made a similar visit. After Peter remarried in 1944, our visits continued but were less regular. Peter let us use a one-roomed shack with a little wood stove and we usually put up a couple of tents. As long as the weather was fine all went well, but I suspect John missed the comfortable reading chair in his study where he had his half-hour snooze after lunch on days unsuitable for sunbathing.
At the heart of John's life was his position at Victoria, his teaching and the history department. He soon found, however, that Tommy Hunter (from 1938 part-time principal of the college and the following year, Sir Thomas Hunter Kbe) had 'taken to consulting me on odd occasions'.64 One such occasion, some years later, was when he was primarily responsible for the appointment of Frederick Page as lecturer in music. He redesigned the college Calendar for 1939, and was increasingly drawn on for typographical advice with college printing. He played the Town Hall organ for graduation ceremonies. The effective partnership which he and Fred Wood quickly formed only deepened as the years passed. They had much in common in their liberalism, their tolerance, their regard for other people as well as for each other, and notwithstanding their very different postgraduate studies – Wood an Oxford BA following his Sydney degree, and John a University of London PhD – in their methods of teaching.
* There was some feeling in the country that racing should not be allowed while the war was on. After Japan entered the war, midweek meetings were stopped but meetings on public holidays continued. (Nancy M. Taylor, The Home Front, vol.1 (Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1986), pp.306–9, 321–2.)
The structure of the history courses they had inherited – prescribed by the University of New Zealand and difficult to alter – had changed somewhat since John's time as a student. Three stages – History I, II and III – required to major in history for a bachelor's degree had taken the place of the pass and advanced stages, though their content continued to be largely British and European history, together with the expansion of Europe. The three stages each included a paper on European history and a paper on the expansion of Europe in the same period. For History I the period was 1815–1914, for History II 1494–1715, and for History III 1715–1815. 'The outlines of the history of Australia and New Zealand' were included in the second paper for History I. The books listed in the college Calendar were very much the standard texts of the time. For History I they included Grant and Temperley on Europe in the Nineteenth Century, Moon's Imperialism and World Politics, the first volume of J.A. Williamson's A Short History of British Expansion, Muir's Expansion of Europe, and Condliffe and Airey's short text on New Zealand. In 1937 John's New Zealand: A Short History and Reeves's The Long White Cloud were added to the list. For three years in the late 1930s some choice was given in the second and third years – in 1937, for example, the second History III paper was either the expansion of Europe or Burke and his times. This was not continued, but Wood and John seem never to have accepted the prescription as the straitjacket that it might have appeared to be.
There was more room for change and flexibility in the Ma and honours course, although it included one compulsory paper on the constitutional history of modern Britain. In teaching this, Wood always found it difficult to resist edging into questions of social history. Students could then choose their other four papers from a wide range of subjects, including the 'Great Powers' from 1815 to 1914, with special reference to international relations; colonisation and colonial policies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; a period of political ideas; and a special topic for the year, such as puritanism or the causes of the Great War. In some years, as a substitute for one of the papers, students could elect to write a three-hour essay in the final examinations on a subject chosen from a list previously provided by the supervisor – an attractive choice for part-time students interested in the nature or philosophy of history or historiography, and an option that was linked to some of the discussions at coffee evenings. In addition there was a thesis, which until 1949 was required to be completed in the same year as the papers. The 1945 Victoria Calendar, under Ma and honours,page 246noted that a short course would be given at the beginning of the session with special reference to thesis work. This was the first formal mention of John's 'footnotes' course, which he had been teaching more informally in a wider historiographical context for some years.
In dividing the teaching, Wood generally took the British and European courses, John those on the expansion of Europe and colonial history. But this was not always the case. For example, John always taught the political ideas course for Ma and at times taught on eighteenth-century France and Britain. Neither he nor Wood seem to have been too constrained in their teaching by the formal detail of the syllabus, though they did have to prepare their students for examinations based on it. Neither attempted to cover everything in their lectures or read from a prepared text or handed out lecture notes. Both talked about topics that interested them and were happy to recommend reading for parts of the course they were not covering in lectures.
As a lecturer, John was something of an acquired taste and many first-year students were baffled by what they heard. He spoke as if he were thinking out what he was saying in the lecture room, often burrowing into detail and unravelling the arguments of individual historians. There were pauses – one was never quite sure whether it was for further reflection or a lingering effect of his earlier stutter – but when he was really wound up the words would flow easily in a style uncannily close to his written prose. For some students, his critical and analytical approach could be unsettling. He described and illustrated the difficulty in a letter to Downie Stewart:
I talk about E.G. Wakefield. I say 'Now I want you to put behind you the usual schoolroom dogmas about Wakefield as an unblemished saint who saved the British Empire from the twin devils of the Colonial Office & the French, & consider him simply as a man who played an important part in history; & as a man who had certain grave defects as well as certain virtues. His historical importance was determined by his defects as well as his virtues.' Immediately an awful hush falls over the class, the most conversational back-benchers look pained, & some one bursts out 'But how can you say that Wakefield was such a complete scoundrel when he saved the British Empire?' And then I carefully explain again that Wakefield was not a complete scoundrel & that I didn't say so, & that he didn't save the British Empire or even New Zealand. It seems to me that my job is not to talk like Mr Frank Milner, but to try to understand & explain the British Empire as an historical phenomenon. Somehow that sort of approach seems blasphemous.65
His style was appreciated increasingly by students as they progressed through to stage III and honours. J.W. Davidson, a student in the late 30s, gives a picture of John teaching, thinking his way through an argument or an historical situation, 'thinking because the question he was discussing was of absorbing interest to him, and it was important to try and get the answer right'.66 Davidson came to judge him to be, while not a good lecturer in the formal sense, the 'most influential teacher' he ever had. His lectures, another student recalled, were 'working illustrations of thinking historically. A sentence marked in a book, a few points jotted down on a half sheet of notepaper, a sharp question or a comment were sufficient to launch him into a masterly unravelling of complicated problems.'67 He very quickly made it clear that he was not impressed with copious note taking: 'there would be a long pause and he would make a comment such as "a comma or a full stop Miss or Mr So-and-So?"'68 At the same time you were expected to remember what he had discussed. 'Now what was I talking about in the last lecture?' he was inclined to ask at the start of the next one. It could be quite intimidating. What he taught owed less to the prescription than to his own intellectual curiosity – indeed, he could be thoroughly cavalier about the prescription. He would lecture on what interested him; if students wished to know more he could suggest a book or two.
* Corner's study of this period of American history, 'as immigrants strove to establish themselves in a new country, maintain life, set up democratic systems of government to serve their needs, move the frontier westward and settle a continent', gave him an admiration for America and Americans that 'remained strong enough to withstand the questionings provoked by later nineteenth and twentieth century developments' and, in his view, became part of his mindset throughout his career.
The English eighteenth century was a period that came to fascinate John greatly. He hated its wars, he neglected its politics and diplomacy, and was never a follower of Namier, but he loved its music and architecture, its painting and its literature, men such as the Adam brothers, Capability Brown and Horace Walpole. Even in the early 1940s he was beginning to explore its scientific and philosophical thinking, the background to the voyages of exploration – A.N. Whitehead's Science and the Modern World caught his attention at this time. But it was far from being an exclusive interest. He was excited by an honours special topic on English puritanism that he taught in 1943 – R.H. Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism was a book he always admired, not least for its prose. His lectures in 1942 on the eighteenth century as an age of form and enlightenment made the greatest impression on Mary Boyd, later a colleague of his in both the Historical Branch and the Victoria history department. Once again it was a new course in the sense that he was grappling with what he was currently reading and relating it to what he already knew; he could go on teaching the same course without losing his critical engagement with the questions it raised. Some of his greatest scorn was reserved for colleagues in other departments whose lectures were written out like chapters in a textbook, especially for the professor of economics who even wrote in the jokes.
When I did history honours in 1954, John was called on to teach the paper on American history in place of Winston Monk, his colleague who had just died in an air crash. He had read Arthur M. Schlesinger Jnr's The Age of Jackson not long before and we argued about Schlesinger's revisionist views on the relationship between the frontier and democracy. Another book he had discovered was Walter Prescott Webb's The Great Plains, a pioneering study of the impact of the environment on human settlement, both Indian and European. Webb wrote about transportation, barbed-wire fencing and the Colt revolver, about the search for water and making new laws to govern rights to that water. It was very different from most of the history books we had read. Again, the books John suggested were those with an argument, an introduction and a conclusion, to be read in full and considered critically. He also suggested page 249autobiography and novels that might increase our understanding of American life: Hamlin Garland's A Son of the Middle Border, O.E. Rölvaag's Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie (first published in Norwegian) and Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs. It was exciting stuff. He never taught a separate course on maritime exploration, though he was a great admirer of Samuel Eliot Morison's Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus.
He did not believe in exhaustive reading lists and was averse to anything he saw as 'spoon feeding'. He would suggest a 'boiled down' list of books and some broad but thought-provoking essay topics and encourage students to follow their interests, to use the library, to read and to go on reading. 'God bless you if you have read all these books', he wrote at the bottom of one student's essay.70
* John actually occupied two different rooms in the same part of the Hunter building, moving in 1948 into the room that Ernest Beaglehole had been occupying when Ernest moved into Hunter's room, on being appointed professor of psychology following Hunter's retirement and the division of his chair in mental and moral philosophy into the two chairs of philosophy and psychology. For a brief period before he retired John moved with the history department into the top floor of the newly opened Rankine Brown building.
On these occasions he was always very sceptical about abstract arguments and his artistic sensitivity made him uneasy in face of the cold logic of theory. I think that he also disliked theory because he considered metaphysics part of obscurantism, but to the present day I have never been able to decide whether the irony with which he treats abstraction is due to cold contempt or bemused puzzlement.73
With honours students and those starting on theses he 'was a brilliant expositor of the intricacies of research and writing, one who insisted on accuracy and lucidity, not out of pedantry but because error or ambiguity could lead us away from the truth we were seeking'.74 While a stickler for the niceties of footnotes and bibliography, and for systematic note-taking – preferably on cards five inches by three as recommended by Sidney and Beatrice Webb (advice greatly at variance with his own habit of making notes on whatever paper came to hand, often used envelopes) – he made it clear that the historian also needed other qualities, 'the mingled endowments of the scientific detective, the poet, and the navvy'.75 He was fond of quoting Tawney: 'What the historian needs is a stout pair of boots'* – though in his own case it would be rather a 'well-found vessel'. He saw the exploration of place as a vital complement to the documentary record in establishing what happened, as well as being a spur to the historical imagination.
Discussion went far beyond the classroom. Honours classes spilled over into coffee evenings in John's study to which young graduates, interesting visitors and an occasional a third-year student were invited. If Wood was there, he and John would spark each other off. Both invited senior students to their homes, introducing them to a world of manners, ideas, books, music and art very different from their provincial homes in Taranaki or Hawke's Bay. Frank Corner remembers:
John Beaglehole would include us in an evening of discussion and argument with some eminent visiting professor from the United States.page 251On some occasions he would play Bach's preludes and fugues, share his delight in newly acquired paintings of John Weeks or Woollaston, or pewter plates, or great examples of typography, or would introduce us to the works of E.M. Forster, or Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set.76
* The Tawney quote is as I recollect hearing it from John. Ross Terrill gives it as the 'historian needs … not more documents but stronger boots'. (Ross Terrill, R.H. Tawney and His Times: Socialism as Fellowship (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), p.7.)
As a research supervisor he expected students to work with a minimum of direction and left them to contact him if they needed his help or advice. He had ideas on suitable topics but did not press them. When I came to look for an idea for my master's thesis (though this was some years after he had largely withdrawn from teaching to work on Cook), he suggested working on de Bougainville, the French explorer and contemporary of Cook. He must have viewed my knowledge of French a great deal more optimistically than I did, and I found another topic, on Maori schools. It might have been a mistake to work in a field so close to his own. Students remember him for his readiness to talk about their research – or perhaps for his way of getting them to talk about it – and 'for raising questions that led [us] along paths to see important issues and make significant judgements; he was somewhat Socratic in his approach'.77 He was both appreciative and encouraging, reading draft chapters with care and pointing out anything that was poorly written, but he expected the student to deal with it. One bit of advice he gave was to listen to what you had written, read it aloud and hear how it sounded – a practice he followed himself. Very rarely did he suggest how a passage or a chapter should be written, though he did insist that J.W. Davidson remove the final pages of his master's thesis, 'a typical indiscretion of a budding poet'.78
John had written on New Zealand history, and working in the Centennial Branch, as we shall see in the next chapter, extended and deepened his interest. Yet in 1946 he wrote: 'It is not, paradoxically perhaps, the duty of a New Zealand university to devote a major amount of its attention to the history of New Zealand.'79 He conceded that if the resources were there it should be taught, and certainly not condemned 'as too pitiful or … lacking in dignity' to be given attention. When the history department was asked to teach New Zealand history to Diploma in Public Administration students, John drew up a list of subjects for a half-year weekly seminar and taught a number of them. Masters' theses, most of which in these years he supervised, were almost all written on New Zealand topics because of the ready availability of research material, and he recognised that many of the department's graduates would find themselves teaching New Zealand history in schools. But the practical difficulty, in both John's and Fred Wood's view, was that the published literature in page 252the 1940s was inadequate to support a full undergraduate course. They also felt that it was better for students to read history written by leading scholars rather than the work being produced in New Zealand at that time.* Nor could the syllabus, until 1955† still set by the University of New Zealand, be easily changed (almost the only opportunity for looking at New Zealand was in that part of the stage one course dealing with the second British Empire and colonisation). But John's view was a much wider one. The university, he wrote, is 'the guardian of the great, the whole, tradition in civilized thought, and it is bound to see the parts in relation to the whole … the ideas by which we live have no limited ancestry'. He was not arguing that the university must teach everything, must cover all history – he hardly could, with the way he treated the formal syllabus. Indeed, suggesting a further paradox, he added: 'We might almost say that it does not matter what the university teaches, as long as it teaches in a certain way … The university's duty to its students, when history is its concern, is to teach the validity and importance of historical thinking, to preserve the integrity of historical thought.'80
When one of his graduates, about to spend two years in Oxford where her new husband was doing postgraduate research in physics, asked John's advice on how she might spend her time there – should she embark on some kind of research? – his advice was clear:
What I incline to think is, that you could have a really interesting time (& education, & all that) by getting down to a really solid course of reading on European, or English, history – or American, or all, if you like: something I wish to God I had two years for. And read the classics, Gibbon & Clarendon & Lecky, as well as the modern stuff. Or you could do something I once planned to do during the 1930's slump, only I got shunted. Take the English 17th century for a start, & read Trevelyan's England under the Stuarts for a general guide (I got as far as that) & then do Clarendon, & then read everything you can lay your hands on – there's God's plenty on the 17th century. And read all the 17th century prose & poetry & political pamphlets & so on that you can, & see all the 17th c portraits, & all the contemporary houses, big & little – which you couldn't do in Nz. And then you really would have done something,
* When the undergraduate course on New Zealand history was first offered at Victoria in 1960, taught by Mary Boyd and W.H. Oliver, Keith Sinclair's Pelican A History of New Zealand had just been published, and Oliver's The Story of New Zealand was about to appear.page 253& furnished your mind much more than by digging up something about the Nz Company. You could take in the colonies & N. England Puritanism as well, & all that. There wouldn't be too little for two years. Think about it, anyhow. And then think what a seminar you could run for us at Vuc! Anyhow, read the Verney Memoirs! & Paradise Lost.81
† The colleges were given the power to make course regulations that replaced the statutes of the University of New Zealand under the New Zealand University Amendment Act 1954 and regulations made under it.
It was a very characteristic comment, though more suggestive, perhaps, of his own interests and experience and a certain ambivalence about the value of his own PhD study than of the increasing postgraduate work developing in both New Zealand and in Britain in the postwar years.
John's period of full-time teaching lasted just over ten years. From 1948, when he was appointed to a research position to work on editing Cook, he generally taught only a little at honours level, and sometimes an undergraduate seminar as well, until his last three years before retirement, when he again taught a third-year course on the development of responsible government in the British empire. In those earlier years, especially, he had a lasting impact on many of his students. It was significant that classes were small, and with the war they grew smaller. In 1939 the college had almost 1100 students; in 1942 there were only 750 and, John recalled, 'an arts professor or lecturer, gazing out sometimes over his class, might be pardoned for thinking it contained, besides women, nothing but the halt and the blind'.82 The prewar years of conflict in Spain, Abyssinia and China and the war years were a time when few could ignore the world beyond the college walls; for a long time the future appeared, at best, grimly uncertain. The men students he knew most intimately, he reported to Richmond at the end of 1941, were not anxious to get into camp or get killed, but seemed 'to accept it as a sort of inevitability'.83 If, as it seemed, New Zealand was caught up in a worldwide struggle for civilisation, then an understanding of what that civilisation was all about was all the more important.
When the war ended the numbers immediately grew. The returning servicemen, or 'rehab students' – assisted by bursaries for full-time study and 'war concessions' that reduced the number of units required for a degree – brought a maturity to their study and a new spirit to the campus and the classroom. History numbers shot up; honours classes rose from about ten students to as many as thirty, and were filled again mainly by men, 'with sports coats and cheerful grins'.84 Additional staff were appointed. John's teaching style by this time was largely formed. He appreciated students who were thinking; they were always welcome to knock on his door. His course on 'footnotes' for thesis writers had quickly become page 254something of a legend – it was remarkable how a discussion starting with the nature of a footnote could open up the widest questions of evidence and of writing history.
What effect did teaching have on John? He clearly liked students.
They seem to have all the virtues of open-mindedness & tolerance & straight thinking that their elders on the staff so conspicuously lack; they're 'free' & unprejudiced in a way I don't remember my contemporaries as students to have been, except a very few of them – & then we were deliberately struggling to be free, on a basis of Bertrand Russell & Wells. This lot seems to have grown into it naturally … it will be interesting to see what difference if any there is post-war.85
University teachers, John held, never cease to be students. He met his pupils as men and women who, he assumed, shared his interest in history as well as a lot of other things and, while knowing he had much to teach them, he remained conscious of how much he had to learn. Those uninhibited discussions at honours classes or coffee evenings epitomised his idea of education, and help explain why 'the relationship between teacher and pupil often passed imperceptibly into enduring friendship'.86
As departmental colleagues, as well as teachers, John and Fred Wood had complementary strengths and generally saw eye to eye. In their early years, as we have seen, the curriculum and examining were matters for the University of New Zealand rather than the individual institutions. The examining would be divided up so that a staff member would be responsible for marking all the papers for a particular course regardless of where it had been taught. This gave an insight into the teaching in other colleges, and John and Wood were often critical of what they saw.* Furthermore, it led to a certain amount of sparring in which they were willing participants.
Last year in my report on Stage I [John wrote to Richmond] I made a few remarks about candidates who had been carefully fed on the right questions & Elder [at Otago] was going to bring a libel action against Freddy Wood & me. The correspondence on his lawyer's side was simply fierce & we were all looking forward to the libel action, but the University lawyers took a hand & it rather faded out in legal correspondence. A great shame. We have another huge argument on now, but this time it is Rutherford [at Auckland] & Elder insulting each other, & everybody refusing to accept Elder's marks. If only Hight [atpage 255Canterbury] wouldn't insist on pouring oil on troubled waters! but we may succeed in setting fire to the oil yet. Elder becomes more intolerable every year. Half the year we are quarrelling about setting examinations & the other half about marking them.87
* The examiners' reports were published in University of New Zealand Reports of Examiners each year.
Whether this helped their relations with the other departments is a moot point. Bob Burnett, a student at Otago in the late 30s, recalled Elder making disparaging remarks about John, but that was 'probably for [his] touch of pinkness as much as anything else'.88 Time brought retirements and new appointments, as well as a great deal more autonomy for the departments in their teaching and examining, and the relations between them were transformed.
In many ways Fred Wood was excellent at running the department: thoughtful, considerate, always ready to listen and consult, but inclined to be indecisive – as Peter Munz put it, 'Fred Wood's decisions were never made, they evolved; he was for ever "shaping up to them"'.89 He invariably consulted John, often phoning on a Sunday evening. 'God dammit', John would comment ruefully, 'why can't Freddy make up his mind?' In the long run, in spite of temperamental differences that may have inhibited close personal friendship (though in this respect the temperamental differences with Joan Wood were probably of greater significance), they were bound by a deep mutual esteem.
John published two further articles in Historical Studies during these years. Of the first, 'Some Philosophies of History',93 he noted 'These very summary and inadequately documented reflections were in the first place delivered as a lecture, and their sole virtue may be that they helped me to get my own scattered reading and thinking into some sort of order'; his judgement is not unduly harsh. He had not long before read Isaiah Berlin's Home University Library volume on Karl Marx, which he thought very good, the 'sort of book I should like to write myself; but I understand from one of the pure milk of the gospel boys at college who is very thick with the Party that it is no bloody good. He hasn't read it of course.'94 He had also been impressed by Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station, 'one of the best approaches to [Marx] I have read'.95 John's discussion of Marx is interesting in revealing where he stood after his reading of the previous ten years:
There is this to say of Marx; he realises and asserts the historical nature of any philosophy of history, including his own. As a philosophy of history it works a good deal better, I think, than any other yet recorded … And his philosophy, like those of the eighteenth century Frenchmen and of Mill, is not a closed system. It leaves room for the future. It is hardly final; class-struggle we may accept, with modifications, while having the very gravest doubts about the dialectic.
* Williams was to have a war record of exceptional distinction, becoming Montgomery's chief intelligence officer and attaining the rank of brigadier. After the war he returned to Oxford, where he became warden of Rhodes House, a Fellow of Balliol, editor of the supplements to the Dictionary of National Biography and, in time, Sir Edgar Williams.
John's Verses for my father showed the 'germ of aesthetic beliefs in typography and book design that were to be exercised two decades later'.
John's typography – Title page of The University of New Zealand, the first book John designed and the beginning of his long typographical association with the New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
John's typography – Page 28 of Introduction to New Zealand (1945). 'The design of the book more than matched the exuberance of the text.'
John's typography – Page 11 of Tasman and the Discovery of New Zealand (1944). Heenan thought it 'the best bit of book production we have yet achieved'.
One page in a scholarly correspondence. The Victoria University College letterhead was John's design.
The page in John's first draft of the biography of Cook describing Nicholas Young's sighting of New Zealand.
The second article was a review article on 'The Writing of Imperial History',96 a discussion of the American scholar Paul Knaplund's general history, The British Empire 1815-1939, and of de Kiewiet's A History of South Africa, Social and Economic. It is an impressive display of John's knowledge of the field – of a breadth to rival that of Knaplund himself – and of his measured criticism. A little later he told Downie Stewart about how he wished he could get time to
write something rather detailed on the early beginnings of responsible government. I have one or two ideas which do not seem to have been worked over by anybody else, about the constitutional & psychological background. I wish I could find out more about not so much Robert Baldwin as about his father William Warren Baldwin who seems to have hit on the idea first somewhere in the 1820s. The underlying unity of intention between the American constitution of 1787 & the Canadian constitution of 1791 is interesting too. There are quite a number of footnotes to constitutional history lying about waiting to be picked up & fitted into place.97
We are reminded of what he might have written had he found a way to stay in Britain in 1929 instead of returning to New Zealand.
* At the end of 1941 John wrote to Richmond that he had a 'remote ambition' to read all the Selected Works of Marx and Engels 'but 12 volumes are a hell of a lot'. He was also thinking of starting on the twelve volumes of Proust. (Jcb to Richmond, 21 December 1941.) We hear no more of the Marx and Engels but six years later he reports finishing the last volume of Proust: 'One gets the feeling, on coming to the end, that one really must belong to a pretty exclusive set of intellectual snobs, because after all, twelve volumes are twelve volumes, especially when so much of them is devoted to the unrelenting analysis of jealousy & to the outside aspects of homosexuality.' (Jcb to Richmond, 12 January 1948.)
† Now the Victoria Room in the Hunter Building.
In the immediate sense the war did not have a great effect on him. He was one of the fortunate generation just too young to be called up in the First World War and just too old for the Second. He and Elsie were lucky and did not lose any close friends, though two of his cousins, David and Gerald Monaghan, died overseas. They were much younger than John and he had not known them well. That he was not entirely unmarked is suggested by a passage in his poem 'Draft Song for Victory: To John Mulgan and other New Zealanders', published in the Listener98 at the end of the war in Europe:
We have known
The safe, the waiting part,
We have known the dart
Of private fear; we have known
The hammer-blow on the heart.†
* The fabric proved remarkably tough. When the Staff Club moved to new accommodation in the Rankine Brown building in 1965, I was warden of Weir House, the men's hall of residence. I got hold of the old common room couches for Weir and they had several more years of life in them.
During the blackout and firewatching days he was a fire warden at the College and had to spend some nights on duty. He very briefly served in the Home Guard, but for reasons that are not recorded was exempted from further duty. A young American naval man, Ensign (later Lieutenant) W.J.L. Parker, who was deeply interested in maritime history and exploration and a book collector, found his way to John when his ship was in Wellington. After a number of visits to Messines Road he left his books there for safe keeping. 'My recollections of Wellington', he wrote at the end of the war, 'and most especially the evenings spent by your fire-side learning about New Zealand, Cook, and the Pacific islands remain the happiest by far among those of my service years'.99
The end of the war led to a period in which John was clearly unsettled. Soaring student numbers increased teaching loads even with the appointment of additional staff; his activities outside the college made increasing demands on his time; he was just emerging from a love affair that had moved him profoundly (see chapter nine); he was anxious to start work on Cook but seemed unable to make the first step. During 1946 his father's health was failing. On his 45th birthday, 13 June, John wrote sombrely: 'The only moral reflection I can get out of it is that I have a hell of a lot of work to get through in the next 25 years, & it's about time I started'.100 His father died in December. It was the final break with 49 Hopper Street, the house built for Ern and Jenny when they married just over fifty years before. It brought back memories to John of his mother and of the family when he was young. He was 'tired to death of examination papers', he wrote, and just wanted 'to sit & potter round in my father's room a long while & feel the past …'101 Auntie, too, was very ill. John hoped she would hang on until his brother Keith arrived in New Zealand, on a business trip, at the end of January.
In the middle of all this John was asked whether he would consider a job in the School of Pacific Affairs and Diplomatic Studies in Sydney 'with … a chair to follow in the National University at Canberra when they get it going … I just sort of sighed. People want me to write books & take jobs now. Ten years ago I would have rushed them …'102 Ida Leeson had been asked to write to sound him out, and John responded: 'I hope you won't mind if by way of reply I do some thinking on paper'. He said that he found the idea attractive, particularly when he was in the middle of marking examination scripts, then listed some 'buts'. He doubted page 260whether his academic interests, which he gave as Pacific exploration and Cook, development of responsible government, seventeenth-century puritanism, and American history, were what they really wanted. The combination of jobs he had in Wellington, though very demanding of time, he found fairly satisfactory; there were 'House, wife, children, friends, and all that'. Then, at greater length, came a revealing paragraph:
I don't know quite how to put this without a terrific lot of explanation, but I think I am becoming a New Zealander. That is part of the fact that a good many other people are becoming New Zealanders. Is it just that I am sinking back into a middle-aged coma and don't want to try anything new, whereas in 1929, when I came back from England, I would have given anything to get out of N.Z.? I don't know, but don't think so. I desperately need to get out of N.Z. for a while, to shake up my mind before I go completely stale; but I think I should come back. I think that in the last ten years we have proved that we can think for ourselves in N.Z., and do some interesting things; and I think that we are beginning to find that life as New Zealanders can be worth while. It seems to me that our foreign policy is worth while, and a good deal of our domestic policy, and some of our poetry and some of our art, and some of our history; and we're learning how to print books. Our university is getting a bit better, and we're just starting a University press. And I think we're going to get an archives system going. Admittedly everything is a hell of a struggle, and the dead weight of the philistines is pretty heavy, and sometimes good things break down badly. Somehow I don't feel I can say To hell with it all, and up and leave. Maybe I am taking it a bit too seriously. Maybe I just don't think the country can do without me. But I don't know. In some ways it would seem a sort of cowardice to go. I know I can help some things, and I sort of feel that I should stay on and help. Perhaps as a New Zealander born I am a bit sentimental about it; but also I am in the show, and the show is a live one, not just imitation as it used to be.
Well, that's about all I can say, and perhaps it's too much. I don't like to show a lack of enterprise, but there it is. Perhaps I'm mad. I know I'll miss a lot.103
He went on to say that, now the war was over, he really meant to get on with Cook. He was going to get lots of microfilms and do a lot of the work in New Zealand.
Having turned down Sydney, he was then pressed to apply for the political science chair at Victoria following Lipson's departure for the United States. This too had its attraction. Tom Smith had just come from the Public Service Commission to be senior lecturer, Joachim Kahn was there, there were no honours students whereas in page 261history the class had reached thirty. But 'How would it match with Cook? I ask myself … I don't, as far as I can see, seem to have any ambition working in me at all – I shd get no kick out of being called professor'.104 He decided he was really an historian rather than a political scientist and let it go.
In September 1947 he was tempted once again. The Mitchell Library, a part of the Public Library of New South Wales, had in its collection a lot of the papers of Joseph Banks, including his Endeavour journal. They wished to embark on a programme of publication of some of this material, and having advertised for an editor and received 200 applications, all of which they turned down, they invited John to accept the position with a professorial salary. He made a quick trip in early November to Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra and discussed the proposal with the trustees of the library, floating the idea of an edition of Banks and Cook sponsored jointly by them and the New Zealand government. He told them he 'certainly couldn't do [Banks] as a full-time job, but would be willing to do as they then urged, & consider a part-time arrangement, if the College would allow' him.105
Barely a month after the approach from the Mitchell Library he heard indirectly that the Hakluyt Society in London was proposing an edition of Cook's journals. Assuming that they had arranged British editors, he was shocked and disappointed* – 'I felt as if somebody had kicked me very very violently in the stomach & wouldn't stop'106 – and wrote at once to J.A. Williamson. They had not corresponded since before the war but Williamson, who had moved to Looe in Cornwall at the end of the war and was out of touch with the society of which he was a former vice-president, replied immediately. 'On the face of it the Hakluyt Soc. has committed a crime and a blunder in not coming to you to edit Cook',107 he wrote, though he was sure they must have done it 'quite unwittingly'. He got in touch with the new president, Edward Lynam. It transpired that, while planning had begun (under the great Cook collector and bibliographer Sir Maurice Holmes), editors had not yet been appointed.
* John was told of the proposal by C.R.H. Taylor, the Turnbull Library chief librarian, who was the New Zealand representative of the Hakluyt Society. Just after getting the news he called on Nan Taylor, who lived close by in Aitken Street. Almost fifty years later she still remembered how upset he had been.
The research chair took somewhat longer to finalise. The college was in no position to fund it and an additional grant from the government was needed. A new chair also had to be approved by the university senate. However, the college council was supportive and Hunter discussed it with the Prime Minister himself, who was 'all in favour'.112 The Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales approached the premier, who approached the Prime Minister of Australia, Ben Chifley, who in turn wrote to Peter Fraser asking that the New Zealand government should approve of John's services being made available on a part-time basis to work on Banks.113 But things moved very slowly: 'It seems that when the Minister of Education was approached for money he didn't see why there should be a chair, & if there was a chair why the university shouldn't pay for it out of existing funds, & anyhow all chairs should be advertised … All I ask of life is time, not chairs.'114
In May the Hakluyt Society asked John to edit the material for the third voyage as well as the first. Heenan told him that the Prime Minister was quite prepared to give the society 'all the financial backing it wants'.115 In early June he heard that the Minister of Education had agreed to a senior research fellowship, but there had been no official word when, in the middle of the month, he had a letter from Williamson with the news that the Rhodes chair in Imperial History at King's College, London, once held by A.P. Newton, was becoming vacant. Vincent Harlow, who was moving from London on being appointed to succeed Reginald Coupland in the Beit chair in Commonwealth History at Oxford, told Williamson that he believed John would be a strong candidate if he applied.116page 263What should he do? His initial reaction was not to apply, although Elsie thought that this time perhaps he should, though she did not really want to go.117 He clearly thought quite a lot about it. 'I sort of don't want to walk out on Nz. Is that only a sort of conceit on my side, a foolish unseemly persuasion that I matter?'118 He talked to Hunter, who told him 'there were things in New Zealand that only [he] could do'.119 An added complication arose as Fred Wood was 'trembling on the verge of applying' for the vacant chair in Sydney. John thought that job needed 'a man with more guts and less charm',120 but if Wood did go the Victoria chair would be vacant and there would be a wide expectation that John should succeed him. 'I don't want it', he said, 'I'd rather be a research fellow'.121 But there was still no firm news of a decision.
The Prime Minister, however, took a hand and on 29 July wrote to Chifley to say that Cabinet had just approved the establishment of a research fellowship, and that he understood that Victoria University College was quite prepared for John to do the work on Banks as the Australians wished.122 The title finally agreed to (there had been some discussion in the university senate over nomenclature) was Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer in Colonial History; it carried a professorial salary and John's appointment was from the beginning of October 1948. In the meantime, Wood had not gone to Sydney and John finally decided not to do anything about London.* Ian Gordon, just back from a university conference there, had told him that financially 'it would be a hell of a swop', besides which, as John wrote to Richmond, 'I'd have teaching to do, & with this new job here I've practically retired from work'.123 The establishment of the research position, as John recognised, owed a great deal to the strong support and political adroitness of Hunter and to Heenan's masterly handling of Fraser. The College, John wrote at an early stage of Hunter's successful campaign, 'has gone faster & certainly much farther than I suggested or dreamed possible, but it seems that sometimes agreeable miracles happen'.124 The debt to Heenan was acknowledged in the dedication of the first of the Hakluyt Cook volumes.
* A further complication had been when the Carnegie Corporation offered him a year in America. 'I'm damned if I know what to do. It all just makes me tired now. To get Cook & Banks & England & America & writing books & articles & univ press & I.A. sorted out is getting beyond me.' (Jcb to Jep, 15 September 1948.)
Before he could go on leave and start work on Cook in earnest, John's immediate task was to finish the history of Victoria University College he had been asked to write for its fiftieth jubilee and get it through the press as early as possible in 1949, the year of celebration. It was not a job that he had really wanted, but there did not seem to be anyone else to do it and, once he had started thinking about it, it began to get more interesting – and somewhat more of a challenge:
I can't make it a thorough formal history, with footnotes clustered thick & all that – partly because it would take too long, but mainly because I don't think it's what is wanted. I can't hope to tell the whole unvarnished critical truth – I don't have to varnish, but I must be reasonably discreet here & there, because it is a jubilee celebratory thing & we don't want too many rows, & also it mustn't be too long.125
He cross-examined people on the 'intellectual & social & moral life of students', wanting to give a picture of the changing student over fifty years, which he found 'very interesting indeed, but also a little hair-raising … when it comes to the American invasion period'.126 He began to write at the end of May, hoping to finish in three or four months. By the middle of August he was halfway through, and by the beginning of October there were only two or three chapters more to do.
It has been hard work, [he told Richmond] but amusing. As I said to Sir Thos [Hunter], it would be easier to write the history of the whole British Empire than of this place. There are too many things One Can't Say … I have just finished the Twenties, & am coming this week on to the Thirties. Joyful decades. One ends with a depression, & the other with a war. And then these Respectable Bastards have the bloody cheek to run down university students. Do you think I could use the phrase Respectable Bastards in an Official History? Maybe in a footnote.127
The final revisions to the last two chapters were completed only early in the new year. He had some doubts. 'I'm afraid [Eric McCormick] is going to find [it] facetious. I can't help it.'128 A little later, when he had almost finished the first draft:
I wish there was time to put it aside & give it a thorough re-drafting … You know I'll never write, really. I'm getting all sorts of new mannerisms ('really' is one). The other night I was reading Virginia Woolf's Common Reader (wonderful book) … When I read her essays, I wonder if anybody else has ever been able to write. Well, I can't write, I just have a certain facility in multiplying words.129
John called the finished work Victoria University College: An Essay Towards a History. It might just as aptly have been called a memoir. John's knowledge of people and events went back over the whole fifty years (had not Robert Stout written him that glowing testimonial when he left for London in 1926?); he had been taught by a number of the early members of the staff and some among them became good friends. He was remarkably successful in giving a picture of student life over the fifty years, though a careful reading shows that some of his most vivid writing is on those times when he was a member of the college, as in the striking paragraph which opens his chapter on the 20s: 'the intoxicating vision of Education, as the maker of all things new, stood before the eyes of youth and age alike' (quoted in the account of John's student years); or the account of the Tramping Club and Boyd-Wilson (again quoted earlier). But there was more than this. His account of the 'Von Zedlitz affair', written with a barely concealed emotion and almost an essay in itself, was judged by one reviewer to be 'perhaps the finest thing' that John had written.130 He gives an exhilarating account of skirmishes with cabinet ministers, city dignitaries and clerics – exhilarating at least to those who shared John's view of the world – and from this raised the question of the place Victoria and the other colleges had played in their communities. In writing about Victoria, he was again facing questions on the nature of university education which he had first written on in Spike and later in his history of the University of New Zealand.
But first and last, as Leicester Webb wrote in his review in Education, the history was 'an act of piety, a tribute rendered in affection to an institution and the men who made it'. Webb continued: 'affection is a difficult emotion to sustain over nearly 300 pages without lapsing into sentimentality. Beaglehole has succeeded (where no other New Zealand writer could have succeeded)'. A similar point was made by Eric McCormick in his review in the Listener.131 He confessed that he had not been able to share the general enthusiasm for the article John had written on the college in the Listener at the time of the celebrations in May,132 when, he suggested, John had 'appeared in the role of ardent lover celebrating the charms of his mistress, a difficult and even … embarrassing part to sustain in public … to win credence it has to be amplified, analysed, perhaps qualified'. This, he believed, John had achieved in the history where 'in 300 pages he has been able to make his devotion wholly credible', and in a 'coherent narrative in a prose that is sometimes overwrought but never undistinguished'.page 266
McCormick was more critical in a second review he wrote later, this time for Landfall.133 His major issue was 'the methods' John had used in portraying certain figures in the history. Rankine Brown (the only teacher McCormick had had at Victoria for whom he had any real respect) had been introduced by John thus: 'Brown with his suppressed emotions, his shyness, his Scots mingling of caution and ambition …' McCormick bridled, believing that this was tagging Brown with a label – 'cautious and ambitious' – that we would never be allowed to forget, the portrait being added to with 'tasteless trivialities' reminiscent of Lytton Strachey. But Strachey, McCormick said, at least had the merit of consistency. He had no heroes. In contrast, John, in portraying Hunter, was positively reverential as he 'proceeds to the election of a patron saint' for Victoria College. In portraying these two men, indeed in most of the portraits in the volume, McCormick suggested that John 'has used two distinct methods, one tending to deflate, the other to elevate, one veering towards contempt, the other towards adoration'. He then shifted his analysis to a broader field:
… we now perceive that Dr Beaglehole is not only a gifted historian but an imaginative writer of romantic disposition. And – the inspiration flashes on us – perhaps he has written the Great New Zealand Novel. Here in Victoria University College, is the saga we have yearned for – the epic of small beginnings and bitter reverses, of conflict with man and with nature, of plot and counter-plot, of cosy domestic hearth and proud vice-regal hall, of villainy dethroned and virtue finally triumphant – all founded on fact (but not too pedantically anchored thereto), all based on documents (with only the detail and the dialogue invented).
John thought the review 'pretty good', though McCormick 'is a wrong-headed cuss over some things'.134 Elsie, he reported to McCormick, 'thought it an extremely good article indeed, & high time that someone took me to pieces, as I have had quite enough praise'.135 He added that he just could not 'see this Lytton Strachey business'; none of the people who had read his drafts had suggested he had been 'unjust or flippant'. The 'trivialities' about Brown that McCormick had objected to all seemed to John 'to throw light on Brown's character', which he found 'very interesting, but by no means "great". I had a sort of affection for him myself', he continued, '& I should never have dreamed of guying him'. McCormick replied with a rather tortuous account of his state of mind when he wrote the review, but he held firm on Rankine Brown, before concluding: 'In spite of everything and without any important qualifications, I do admire you and your work … you are really the only one of page 267the lot of us who amounts to anything outside our own parish'.136 The distinction between the 'telling detail' and 'tasteless triviality' is perhaps not quite as clear as McCormick implied, but John's impressionistic portraits, however brilliant, were not always persuasive to those who did not share his views. The same point might have been made about some of those sketched in New Zealand: A Short History, and later a similar comment was made, with perhaps less justification, on his depiction of Johann Forster, the German naturalist who sailed with Cook on his second voyage.
For the Victoria jubilee John had organised Evelyn Page to paint Hunter's portrait – and raised the money for this from council members, staff and former students. It was a great success and is a fine painting, though perhaps not fully capturing the sparkle in Hunter's character. The celebrations took place in May 1949:
people have been running joyously into people all over the place whom they haven't seen for 19, or 34, or 48 years; & even I met the bloke who was business manager of the Spike when I was editor in 1922. Wonderful reunions; & the old groups of hockey players & execs & graduates & so on … have been one of the staggering successes of the week.137
In addition to the college history there was a golden jubilee number of Spike, edited by R.W. Burchfield, and a third edition of The Old Clay Patch: A Collection of Verses Written in & Around Victoria University College (the first edition had appeared in 1910), with contents ranging from Seaforth McKenzie's 1904 'Ode on the Laying of the Foundation Stone of Victoria College' to work by the young W.H. Oliver, Alistair Campbell and Hubert Witheford. Among them were seven poems by John, five of them from the early 1920s.
Oliver Duff, in one of his last editorials in the Listener before he retired after ten years as editor, warmly praised the article John had contributed for the jubilee and went on to say of him:
he is the eloquent and generous answer to his own question about the meaning of Victoria College to the community. It has focused the light in him and enriched the feeling; made him in short a truly educated man … When a University brings one first-rate mind to full capacity it brings many more to a point only a little below that, and in those two ways abundantly justifies its existence.138
And while one can perhaps understand why a critic of McCormick's temperament should have reacted as he did to the article 'A College Jubilee', as a celebratory paean it was appreciated by many readers who, moved by the occasion, found themselves agreeing with John when he wrote of the college:page 268
it has had one capacity beyond all riches – the capacity to call forth affection from a continuous stream of students … this sort of personal feeling, this odd but not fantastic warmth, this sense of life lived in common in a particular way, which has meant not merely mechanical existence, not merely teaching to a programme and learning by rote, but something that has affected the heart as well as the mind.139
For John and others there was another side to the celebrations. Von Zedlitz, a member of the staff for only fourteen years but figuring so largely in the college's history, was dying. John was grateful that he was able to give him a copy of the history and farewell him not long before the end came on 24 May. He had no doubt that 'Von' was a great man: 'great not for what he did, exactly, not for making an undue noise in the world or for imposing himself here and there, not for shouting any particular gospel at people; but great for what he was as a personality, as a man of a peculiar and persuasive quality of mind – humane, stoical, wise, of a most noble sense of honour, and always kind'.140