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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays

[Fretful Sleepers: Introduction]

page 1

In this article I have to steer between two dangers, each represented by previous assessments of 'the New Zealand character'. The first is to use the first person plural as in Oliver Duff's New Zealand Now. When I read it my impression was that I'd been listening to a rotarian, the two of us puffing pipes by a fire, picking our noses, having a man-to-man talk over the whisky fumes. Like a conversation I overheard at New Zealand House: two middle-aged women: 'Everybody likes the New Zealanders. Oh yes, wherever you go, we're very popular.' The other said, six times at three-second intervals: 'Ye-es', then, 'M'm, I suppose we are, when you come to think of it. . . . Yes.' Mr Fairburn in We New Zealanders tickled and teased us in odd places without anyone feeling the worse for it. The other danger is to use a deadly or hostile third person plural as if we were the object of an anthropologist's research, as D'Arcy Cresswell did. Anna Kavan ('New Zealand: Answer to an Inquiry', Horizon, September 1943) tried hard to understand us; she was penetrating but she saw us from the outside looking on and a slight hysteria blinded her too. In this article I shall veer, saying we when I praise, they when I blame. The real difficulty, though, is to distinguish between what are permanent or emergent traits in New Zealanders, and what accidental or temporary adaptations, whether these are general, whether they belong to the West Coast where I grew up, whether I am only projecting my own faults. If I do this I am sticking my neck out and will take the consequences. Again I shall have to keep clear class backgrounds—whether I am talking of miners, clerks or businessmen. But since New Zealand is as homogeneous in its patterns of conduct as (I think) any other country, this is less important. By the time anyone has read this article, he will have objected a dozen times that I am not talking of New Zealanders but of men: these virtues and failings you will find the whole world over. That page 2 is true, but I am trying to sketch a character faithful in its emphases. To abstract what might be peculiar to New Zealanders would be to talk of a fiction.