The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 3 (June 1, 1938.)
Waitomo From Without
America is the land of the digest, despite the alleged prevalence of dyspepsia in that exhilarating country. One such digest came the way of the present writer, and it caused him to think. This particular tabloid was named “Globe.” One imagines it was written for the instruction of those who partake of tours in the luxury liners.
“Globe” consists of a string of cameos, each cameo a rhapsody in this rosary that would encircle the earth like Puck's girdle. Someone had gone ashore from a luxury liner at Auckland, and had “done” his New Zealand in the space of a few days. In reading the impressions of this writer one was reminded of a story by Ian Hay. It told of a young Scottish student who went to Edinburgh, and thought, until he came upon the mystical word “Exit,” that the entire city of Edinburgh was comprised in the Railway Station. His appraisal of New Zealand was entitled “Glow-worm Glories,” and induced a doubt in one's mind if this teller of a traveller's tale ever found the way out of the pleasurable labyrinth prescribed for him by the beneficent powers under whose governship the tour was made… It is a truism that your visitor knows more of the advertised attractions of a country than the natives of the place. Like all truisms it is vulnerable.
One is, of course, edified to learn what were Mr. Bernard Shaw's impressions of the Waitomo Caves and what were those of Mr. A. P. Herbert. Such men stamp their own individuality on any impressions they may register.
Mr. Malcolm Macdonald and Dr. Hugh Dalton have both told the New Zealander something about this country from the point of view of a Labour statesman on holiday. Some day Mr. Wells, who, one is told, always greets Miss Nelle Scanlan with “Hallo, New Zealand mutton,” when he meets the New Zealand novelist at a foregathering of the P. E. N. club, will, perhaps, visit New Zealand, and then we shall see what he shall see. As one who has never seen the Waitomo Caves the present writer would record his satisfaction on reading the account proffered by Mr. Alan Mulgan in a recent number of the “Railways Magazine.” This is, we are aware, the work of a man who was not likely to make the mistake which the Scottish student made. Mr. Mulgan knows his way out of Waitomo. He knows his way to places of delight that do not come within the scope of the personally conducted tour. What do they know of New Zealand who only Waitomo know? It is the wont of the New Zealander to bewail the lack of indigenous New Zealand literature. At the same time he is often distrustful of books just because they are produced locally…. The old bogey of commercialism rears its head. We are snobbish in matters of the intellect if in nothing else, and some of us still think a little less of Millais for having painted “Bubbles” for Messrs. Pears, or of Mrs. Humphry Ward for having written “Canadian Born” for the Canadian Pacific Railway. There are, of course, guidebooks and guide-books.
Someone, no doubt, has covered the ground between Godstow and Tring in Buckinghamshire, which Robert Louis Stevenson covered when he took that autumnal walk, and lay the night at Wendover—or was it Great Mis-senden? But that same painstaking, topographer who followed in Stevenson's wake could not have given us “An Autumn Effect.“… A country cannot be written about too much by men and women who are poets and essayists by temperament. The gentleman who wrote “Glow-worm Glories” gave no evidence in that lucubration, at all events, of being either.
It seems that New Zealanders, or some of them, are becoming self- page 30 conscious concerning the literature of their country. “Lo here,” say some, and genuflect in the direction of the Katherine Mansfield Memorial in Fitzherbert Terrace. “Lo, there!” others proclaim with a sweeping gesture as the Christchurch express, which contains them, roars past those long defiles of birches beyond which in the blue distance lies the Samuel Butler country.
We associate the word “Literature” with a season of quietude, with a space wherein it is vouchsafed to one to turn over in the mind the very being of an author's style. The style is the man, wrote Georges Buffon, the naturalist, and whether he was right or whether he was wrong it is unquestionable that such names as Nathaniel Hawthorn, Richard Jefferies and Walter Pater do induce in the mind something akin to a fragrance. I have no doubt that there are many writing in New Zealand to-day who are capable of imparting the authentic pleasure which Hawthorn, Jefferies and Pater each in their several ways impart. Only we are deterred from enjoyment of them by that hard-boiled convention which, paradoxically enough, leads to a cleavage between those who over-praise and those who over-detract.
It may be asked “What has all this to do with the glow-worms?” Mr. Mulgan quotes Shelley in the course of his article on the “Waitomo Caves..” There is a pregnant phrase in the poem from which he quotes, to wit the “Ode to the Skylark”:
Chorus hymeneal Or thiumphal chaunt
Matched with thine would be all But an empty vaunt,
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.
The hidden want of which we may be aware in a guide-book will elude definition, for no two readers agree precisely as to literary values. It may suffice for one that a scene is described as “colourful” or “mystic.” These two hard-worked epithets may arouse the purist to faint protest, or to something not quite so faint… It may suffice for some that the Waitomo phenomena be summed up succinctly in the simple monosyllable.
“Gee!” which has much to commend it… Perhaps if the gentleman who wrote for “Globe” had appended “Gee!” to his alliterative title, and left it at that one would have saluted him as the one man who has ever dealt with the subject adequately. None-the-less, one is very glad to have Mr. Mulgan as one's representative at the perpetual festival of the glowworm.