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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays



Now the New Zealander, especially of the middle class, has a two-faced attitude to social climbing. We all dimly hope to rise, yet we are afraid of rising above the common level. We become righteously indignant when anyone tries to impose on us by reason of money or birth. 'Who does he think he is, Lord Muck?' Think of the sneers we have for the clipped polite speech of the English middle class—which we confuse with the speech of aristocracy—or for the visiting English aristocrat, the giggles of young girls at his manner, the cold shoulder of the worker. We can only stand it when he speaks from a platform: we fear direct human contact; he is the occasion of Rotarian oratory, a column in the press, but we are awkward in his presence as if our weaknesses were exposed. Because our vaunted pride in being as good as he is, is in fact a sense of inferiority. That is why so many New Zealanders, when they come to England, try to get to a royal garden party and conduct themselves like teen-agers in the presence of a film-star. Being middle-class we fear and sneer at royalty and aristocracy, yet we hanker after them because an aristocrat's goodwill confers security on our self-esteem. But on the other hand we feel superior to some workers, especially those of the strong left-wing unions—miners, watersiders and freezing workers; and, as tourists, to foreign menials, workers and peasants we adopt attitudes we wouldn't dare at home. I have heard New Zealanders in London say 'Cockney' and 'Irishman' in the same tone of voice as adults in my boyhood used to say 'night-man'. Generally the sense of inferiority makes us all the more determined to enforce the level: it is fear of social climbing that brings the dread conformity all artists in New Zealand have to contend with. This too is at back of our two-faced attitude to England. It is a boast to be going to England; but not to come back is desertion, like crashing your way into another class. We like to be told we are the Dominion most like England, yet an English educated accent makes us feel we are being imposed on. If it crops up in someone's talk that he has been to England his listener will at once suspect that he only page 6 raised the subject as an occasion of mentioning his travels. We sneer at English customs, yet from every visiting Englishman we exact words of praise and are offended if he criticizes us. We crave for commendation from those we feel inferior to. Remember how flattered we used to be to read those digest articles about New Zealand the Social Laboratory, the experiment watched by the whole world?

Most readers will remember the time they left their home towns to go to university, how when they went back in vacations (if they didn't fall prey to the temptation and feel superior) they looked double-hard at everyone they passed to avoid unconsciously snubbing anyone they knew. The word would get around, X is conceited, thinks himself someone just because he's at university—'Why, I can remember in the slump he didn't have shoes to his feet.' The home-town folk look for this and are disappointed if you don't give them the chance to condemn you because you are already different: you are at university. 'Being different' in New Zealand means 'trying to be superior'. I know of no other country where this is so. A friend of mine working as a builder's hand got along well with his workmates till the secret came out that he'd had a year at university. Defensive sneers met him after that, whenever he disagreed on anything: 'Don't think that just because you've been to 'varsity. . . . ' I worked a fortnight at a garage: the foreman couldn't resist telling the men I had an M.A. in English and dared me to 'improve their English.'* (He was a militant atheist and took pleasure in the offence given—to whom?—by their habitual swearing.) He wasn't serious, but a sprayer took me aside and solemnly warned me that if I had any ideas like that I was due to come a big thud.

There is no place in normal New Zealand society for the man who is different! The boy whose misfortune it is to be sent to a snob school like Christ's College or Wanganui Collegiate where a special dialect is taught, is immunized for life from contact with working men. He will always shy from them because he will sense their contempt for his speech. Even if by effort he makes permanent friendship with any of them he will always be apologized for: 'Course he talks la-di-da, but he's a real white joker once you get to know him.' It is not only difference suggesting social superiority the New Zealander fears, it is any variation from the norm. The man with a cleft palate, with a stutter, with short sight, will suffer. There will always be jokes behind his back; he will find it hard to make honest contact with other men because once he has been isolated, most men will talk to him only with tongue in cheek, humouring him at best, saving up a report for the boys in the bar. Even educated people feel they have to shout when they talk to foreigners, a habit as insulting as anticipating a stammerer. An Italian has trucked in a West Coast mine for twenty years: he is still alone, no girl would marry him, the fear of

* Many readers will be tempted to think I only mention this to advertise the degree.

page 7 his broken English and the contempt for his pleading eyes have been handed down from his first workmates, so that ropeboys just starting can feel cocky pride in shouting: 'Good day, you fucking rotten Skypoo bastard!' When I was a lad in Greymouth there was an inefficient teacher with holes in his socks, he hadn't much control over his class; the word got around and soon not only children but parents would point him out and laugh at him. There was a policeman, too, who had come off the worse in an argument with some local roughs: it seems he was hesitant, and he had a horse face. Soon the whole town was lusting after the chase, every few days there was a latest anecdote of indignity provoked by young bloods who had set out to ambush him and whet their wits on his helplessness. He couldn't go on his beat but someone whistled 'Horsey, keep your tail up'. In a month or two they shifted him, and the day he left someone rang up the railway station and ordered a horsebox. You can gain a reputation in New Zealand in a few backroom mumbles; you don't lose it in a lifetime.

The boycott is not always malicious: the tormentors need not know they hurt. The motive force is usually fear. It's not a pleasant thought; but it is true how afraid we all are of 'public opinion', 'what people will say'. Because always censoring and supervising our every act is the jury in the bar, the jury over the teacups, the jury in the editorial column. The jury makes weaklings of us all: we may kick against it, challenge it like D'Arcy Cresswell; if so we finish preoccupied with our act of defiance. Most of us give in, play the coward, and knowing it we become the puny little men leaning over the bar, pontificating in new juries, in the same way as this year's pullets pecked by old hens grow into next year's hens to peck the new batch of pullets.*

Some papers and organizations seem to exist for no other purpose than to enforce conformity: think of the Auckland Observer, some (though certainly not all) of the editorial policies of Truth, the public pronouncements of the executive of the R.S.A., the observations on public morals from the Women's Institute. Now that the Sedition Bill is law, it is an open question whether the jury habit will prove too strong for Mr Holland by criticizing the government in spite of the law, or whether (as I fear is more likely) it will co-operate with the law by making advance judgments on those people likely to be the victims of this law.

* The jury mentality is in our use of should. Ignoring the distinction between shall and will (which is observed in England but not New Zealand), should in England expresses probability: the English say I should go where we say I'd go. In New Zealand should expresses moral obligation, the same as the English ought to. Yet in New Zealand there is a new use coming into habit: you should meaning there's an opportunity for you to, as in you should put the rent up. It is symptom of an increasing attitude of unprincipled opportunism. Can means may in New Zealand. In the past this has meant no power without permission. It might be reversed and come to mean power is permission, might is right.