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