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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays


page 8


In public morality the New Zealander's guiding principle is: Do others do it? I doubt if a New Zealander has any other moral referee than public opinion: crimes he has been in youth educated against he will lose distaste for as soon as the wind changes. This is noticeable when a lot of New Zealanders go to another country of people with inferior standards of material comfort, as in a war. With our troops the home-grown moral standards were valid only among themselves: Egyptians and Italians were fair butt for a cruel, predatory and jocularly cynical approach. There is a legend, true I think, that when a Kiwi was beaten up in a brothel area, every Kiwi in Cairo assembled to riot his way through the Sharia-el-Birkeh and there wasn't a piece of furniture left whole in the district. Soldiers in search of more innocent sport would throw chairs at the orchestra in cheap cabarets; the sport of the A.S.C. was to up-end fruit-stalls with the tails of their trucks. The black market was, in Italy and Japan, accepted as a normal means of living without drawing on one's paybook. Of course British troops did these things and Australians, I believe, were worse, and of course such conduct is as old as the Vikings and older. Yet there is a special quality in the ease with which the New Zealander violates his home-town respectability, and admits it to be an expedient for getting by without trouble. A less violent example illustrates this: March 1950, in St Stephen's Hall in the Houses of Parliament, Westminster. Three old ladies from Dunedin waiting to be admitted to the gallery, because they wanted to hear Mr Churchill. A Swedish woman was the first to get a pass: she had been there before them, but they hadn't seen her. 'A foreigner! A foreigner getting into the British House of Commons before a British subject! A British policeman putting a foreigner before the British! Mr Churchill would give a lot to know about this!' 'She probably greased bis palm or something.' 'Some of them are so low they'd stoop to anything.' The one who had said this called the policeman and tried to slip him, unobtrusively, a florin, 'just to get yourself some cigarettes or something'. The policeman protested loudly that it wasn't necessary, she flushed and prattled about cigarettes, possibly telling herself that of course she wouldn't stoop to foreign policy, and in the end he took the money, and they got in no sooner. The suspicion that a rival or enemy had done something she claimed to disapprove of was a challenge to do the same thing, to beat the rival at her own game. This is a dangerous mental habit and will help Mr Holland tremendously in his campaign to convince us that if you don't kill communists they will kill you.

We boast when under alcoholic liberation we violate our professed code of morals. Think of the animal comeback in the remark, common among New Zealand troops, usually said with a touch of flattery: 'He's a nice chap, he'd shit anywhere.' When a well-bred girl greets a man friend: 'Don't you speak to me!' she seems to imply that they both know page 9 that he's a rake and it's a secret to be proud of: of course, he isn't, but the idea is that the best people are rogues at heart, or rather, secret rogues are the nicest people to know. Among young people greetings like 'Hophead', 'Ram', 'Burglar', 'Sheik', 'Stopout', are accepted as flattery: 'burglar' I heard only in the army. We are in other ways as hypocritical. We claim to be social democrats at heart—or did two years ago—but we have a great respect for the man who can get away with it. In public we condemn the profiteer, in private we connive and rather admire him and envy him his opportunities. It is because we know our public sentiments are recognized to be subject to private reservation that we don't hesitate to do what we have condemned when we get the chance. So in public we always say the right thing, to which we are not committed. Any platform statement in New Zealand is suspect: the orator is only emptying his lungs to fill an occasion. When the Prime Minister spoke from the B.B.C. in January 1951, all he could produce was a tissue of naive clichés which here seemed odd because they weren't the British clichés. He was on his best behaviour, like a soldier sending home greetings on a Sunday-morning broadcast. (In fact Mr Holland did end with a message to all at some address or other.) Politicians and editors say one thing without expecting to be taken at their word: Mr Holland was reported in the London evening Star as saying: 'Britain will get all the meat we can send, even if we have to give it away, though that of course has never been suggested and is in fact quite out of the question.' He was simply saying the decent thing, only he corrected himself in case he should be taken at his word. So with us all: we profess decent neighbourly democratic ideas, but in practice we undermine them. And we feel no hypocrisy because we know everyone else does the same. It is usually the man who tries to live up to his word who is called hypocrite.

An English schoolmistress left New Zealand in 1948: she told reporters she was disgusted at the lack of morality in New Zealanders. Since we usually see morality as restraint on lust, most of us wondered what she meant. I think it was this: that few of us have the guts, at the challenge, to uphold any moral principle (except in sexual conduct) when it is flouted by a party of a greater number than ourselves. Think how easily the Rugby Union capitulated when the South Africans refused to have Maoris. (Though we pride ourselves that of course we have no colour bar, no one protested at first except some trade unions which were, most people assumed, just being trouble-makers; but when General Kippen-berger spoke up, everyone sat up and listened because he was a war hero.) We proclaim the sanctity of property, yet we enjoy small thefts (say raiding a hotel meat-safe outside a country dance-hall): what group of New Zealanders could resist broaching an unguarded keg? We legislate to protect our forests and birds: we raid the bush for ponga fronds and lycopodium to decorate dance-halls, we knock down pigeons with stones page 10 and forestall protest with a sneer. We are the most puritan country in the world, yet we love a dirty story.*

If others do it, it is right; yet we spend half our energy disapproving the conduct of others. There is no emotion we feel so at home in as moral indignation. There is nothing unites us so much as having someone else to condemn; in fact we feel we are being sociable, doing our neighbour a good turn when we agree with him in condemning a third party. The talk of the housewife watching and reporting the conduct of her neighbours is an obverse assertion of her own virtue, a projection of the guilt she feels at having in herself motives to the conduct she condemns, a constant vigil over, and scratching of, her own emotions. If it is argued that villagers in every country are gossips I say they are not always malicious. There is not the same readiness to defame or ascribe disreputable motives. I know a Tyneside village where people talk small-talk about other people but their interest is kindly; as a New Zealander I found this unusual. So from fear of disapproval we don't want to do anything we couldn't freely admit to our friends. There is no emotion or sentiment we will allow ourselves unless it has sanction and precedent. When the man-in-the-pub speaks of his feelings he reduces them to a common denominator; he avoids distinction and definition in expression; tragedy is 'tough luck', disappointment 'a bit of a bastard'; another person's anger is usually falsified in some whimsical phrase, perhaps borrowed from another community—'took a dim view', 'did his scone', 'molte dispiace', 'went off the beam', 'off the deep end'. We fear precision and definition in most activities except engineering, sport and military drill. Even educated people fear to speak French with correct attention to nasals and fine vowels: they usually compromise with a 'near-enough-for-me' jargon unintelligible either to Frenchman or New Zealander, a compromise that contains its own apology: the man who does speak it correctly is thought to be 'putting on side'. For the writer who tries to follow faithfully the contours of New Zealand thought this means Mr Sargeson's tortuous account of the feelings of the little man, apologetic that he has feelings at all since they move him and emotion that takes him from identity with the crowd is something he distrusts. The New Zealander is afraid of voicing any confident thought or unsanctioned emotion. It is a common experience among youths presented with an unusual incident, when one, surer than the others, says 'I thought it was like. . . .' and with glad surprise the others declare, 'That's page 11 what I thought too!' Each would have kept his thought to himself, distrusting it, but is reassured to find that after all he is more like the others than he thought. The New Zealander suspects anyone who is sure with words, he thinks it is either glibness or showing off. (Could we take kindly to a Christopher Fry?) Once in a hotel lavatory an art student and I were talking of Peter Mclntyre's drawings when a little man piped up that he was a returned man from the first war and he knew that we knew what we were talking about but there was no need to let the whole lavatory know it. We explained that the place had been empty when we entered, we hadn't seen him come in, and we left with his blessing. I can't speak for others: I know I hate talking anything but gossip in a bus or train or in the pictures: otherwise you sense the rest of the bus listening united in one unspoken sneer at half-cock. The New Zealander fears ideas that don't result in increased crop-yield or money or home comforts. The wise man never mentions his learning, after the same pattern as the popular ideal of the returned soldier who never mentions his battles.

* Mr Sargeson wrote in Landfall (March 1951): 'I, who think of myself as so very much a New Zealander, cannot find anything in myself to compare with her poise, her complete lack of pretence, her quick sympathy for all behaviour which proceeds from inner necessity, her superb indifference to personal criticism, her ability to resist every shoddy and commercial influence.' He laid open the fundamental weakness of the New Zealand character the chameleon-like lack of integrity. I don't mean honesty. I mean lack of a whole and unifying principle in one's make-up to which one has to be loyal or lose one's self esteem.