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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays



There are worse mortifications of self, as severe as a Jesuit's, the denial of real sensibilities and emotions for the sake of the almighty norm. An old man working on a gold dredge, who had lived in this part of the page 15 Grey Valley all his life, pointed out to me an unusual colour effect of sun on bush on the hills. The foreman overheard and said to him: 'Garn! What's wrong with you.' Even two people alone have seldom the confidence to admit their relations: two friends parting will affect insensibility to each other's loss: intimacy a New Zealander can hardly bear and often innocently reacts against it, does penance for it, by arraigning his confidant before the public bar: intimacy is disloyalty to the rest of the gang. Even lovers tend to shirk sensitive contact: in the small town when it's known that Tom Peters and Daisy Hill are going together, they have a role to play and they play it in public and concentrate on the practical arrangements for the wedding. In town and country lovers strike poses before each other; they have no precedent for intimate contact apart from deceptive American films and True Romances. Their married relations are often clumsy and vegetable: paradoxically their intimacies are often performed in front of friends: when a wife says, before her husband, 'When I was ill he had to do the housework. Course he moaned like anything. But I never take any notice of him,' she is caressing him. Feeling lively they may indulge in half-hearted bedroom pursuit and tackle; enjoying it they will call each other 'mad' and they will not talk of it between themselves. Their private lives and loves develop best in shared suffering—illness, loss of job, eviction, death of a child: so far as they have private joys they live them with a faint sense of guilt, of disloyalty to friends and neighbours. The New Zealander more often grins than smiles.

His most common facial expression is a sneer. He has made the grade by doing violence to himself, by sneering at his impulses and sensibilities, so he can't help keeping that sneer always at hand ready for emergency. From his experience he senses all the pitfalls that threaten the youngster patterning himself after the almighty norm, so he is ready to warn other comers. 'Don't go that way, mate.' What is that way? Perhaps he said something about a sunset or the Alps—that way is effeminacy: perhaps he said something about peace—that way is 'being Bolshy': perhaps he took offence too readily at an imagined slight—that way is being 'antisocial'. The sneer is the protection of the ideal, the superego—or should one say, the infra-ego?—of the average chap. Let me describe him. He is manly—that is he is tough and not too talkative. He seldom shows emotion except anger and resentment: he drinks his beer fast but prides himself that, even full of beer, his reserve won't change. He can spend a rewarding evening drinking after hours, talking football and racehorses: he can't tell you why he drinks—for the company, he'll say; but why does he drink so fast? For fear of being thought slow to pay his round. Why then does he show no pleasure in drinking? Because his principle is moderation, not in the amount he drinks, but in his reaction to it. Before the 1948 referendum on drinking hours, a Dominion Breweries advertisement neatly expressed it: 'A good citizen is moderate in his thinking and in his actions. . . . Be moderate.' Why have I settled on his page 16 drinking habits and stuck there? Because it is in the pub—and in his football club and on the racecourse—that an important part of his life is lived. His private life, at home, is in the vegetable garden and the workshop. For the rest, his home life is a perpetual requisition of jobs to be done, of watching what he says in front of the children: he has to go to the public house to have privacy. It is one place where his doings don't become the property of his wife's woman friends. It isn't only wowserism that keeps women out of the bars: when a woman enters a bar (except on the West Coast at Christmas) the men stop in their talk like surprised culprits. The bar is their stronghold and they want a place where they can swear loudly and boast without being held to their word.

Think of the unreality of our conduct before women and children. It is improper to use certain words in front of women: among youths if you don't use those words you are 'a bit wet', but if a woman comes near, unknown to you, and you still use any of them, the youths snigger, the men get prim and you blush and the woman—well, they say if she's a lady, she'll pretend not to hear, but she won't forget and she'll think the less of you for it. It is a funny country where the propriety of occasion for uttering a few sounds which have commonly lost all meaning can cause so much casuistry, guilt and apology.* In front of children we may not even mention beer: we morass ourselves in all sorts of subterfuges to pass the thought over the kids' heads. In the country, people in public positions, like parsons, teachers and senior civil servants have to sneak away to drink, to the scandal of the womenfolk, and the welcome of the men in the bar who are reassured by this deference of respectability to the pricks of the palate. The youth leering off to his first booze-up drinks as if he has been initiated into the mysteries of manhood. But some fathers can't be bothered with this hypocrisy: they swear and drink at home and their children grow up knowing the hypocrisy of others who are models before their children and only relax in the bar. These children come to see everything that comes from a parson or teacher, from a public platform or editorial column as hypocrisy: anything 'educational' is a hypocrisy pardonable as a means to social or economic climbing: religion they see as an organized racket. So they close their minds to all ideas of tolerance, justice, charity, consideration for others. They may in practice live according to these ideas, so far as social behaviour already observes them; but, except from the immunizing distance of a pulpit or platform, the articulation of these ideas irritates them. Anything that threatens instruction or 'improvement', selfconsciousness, imaginative effort, resolution or self-control—it may be the New Testament or Marx, Shakespeare or John Gilpin, symphonic music, a foreign film, an Anzac page 17 Day speech or a verse in an autograph-book—they know it's 'all bull-shit'. Both to these children brought up swearing and seeing the old man drink and to those who know he does on the sly, reality boils down to a narrow materialism. There is one security in life—money, and the man who denies that he will not at least consider using any means to successfully chasing it is a hypocrite. For the young the purpose of money is to minister to physical sensations like the exultation of a fight, the sex act, or the passage of Monteith's down the uvula. Experience not a means to these ends is a waste of time. Of course young men grow out of these desires, but when they have so narrowed their ideas of valid conduct, what lies ahead but the New Zealand way of life, dumb and numb, null and dull, labouring out their days with irritating responsibilities to the newer and ultimate realities —wife and family and house and back garden, and the nagging unrecognized dissatisfactions that a Saturday afternoon in the pub after the football might yet appease? We retire early in New Zealand, settle down before we are thirty to a lonq quiet family life as uneventful as we cam make it. We have our brief flutter among the bottles and in the dance-halls in our late teens and early twenties, and though the old women click their tongues, we know it is our right. A mother seldom lets her daughter marry her first boy friend, no matter how deeply they love, because 'she's only young once and she ought to have her fling. Time enough later to think of settling down.' Because once she settles down she isn't supposed to enjoy herself any more.

In the New Zealand metaphysic reality is something unpleasant and ugly and though we protect our women and children from it, we know in the long run it is unavoidable. We talk with prim shame of 'the facts of life': the Creator has been indecent. We disapprove of the profit motive since it takes men from identity with the crowd, but we think it can't be avoided. Young men have envied returned soldiers because they 'saw life in the raw'. It is significant that the weekly that features the uglier side of the news, calls itself Truth. (I know the name came from John Norton's Sydney Truth and that there are papers of the same name all over the world, but most of them are out to preach the 'truth' of a political sect.) People condemned the novels of John A. Lee out of puritanism but they did not doubt that he was lifting the screen from the indecent truth. The New Zealander suspects the idealist because he is giving a hopeful glamour to 'reality'. The only philosophy one could logically base on the New Zealand premiss is a tempered cynicism, often called 'realism'.

The New Zealander's fear of experience not immediate and not contributing to the accumulation of money or the satisfaction of blunted appetites, occurs daily when he reads the newspaper: he glances across the headlines of foreign news and it would have to be a declaration of war before he would pause. 'As usual, nothing in it,' he says and reads the Local and General and the sports page. In a small town his wife will go through the classified ads. to detect, from the phone number, page 18 who it is that's wanting to sell that sewing-machine or take a boarder. Yet we all read the paper, in order to be in touch with what everyone else reads. If a New Zealander goes to an exhibition or a museum he withholds his interest, grudgingly stumps around every stand for fear of missing something, but comes away saying with relief, 'There's fuck-all to see.' It was with a great sense of concession to duty that many soldiers went once to the pyramids or gaped around the Vatican Museum, hardly pausing, and went away, a duty done: 'Well now I can say I've seen it' and repaired to their beer.

(For writers an interesting corollary to a New Zealander's 'realism' is his response to the forceful use of words. I said he suspected clever, confident or intellectual use of words; but he admires a vigorous phraseology that caresses the rawness of 'reality' and its underlying oddity or sneer. A mechanic talking of a man baching while his wife was away, said: 'Oh, that's the cunt we found wrastlin his way out o' the jam tins.' Another, caught by a knock on his door while he was changing, his trousers round his ankles, his shirt over his head, said: 'You had me hobbled and blindfolded at the same time.' Osman Middleton knows how to exploit this vigour of language, even if he does give it an American twist.)

Now the reason for the New Zealander's fear of hypocrisy and his tempered cynicism is that he fears that if he professes to be, know, feel, or understand more than his neighbour, he is guilty of pretensions to social climbing. He is out to be no better than the next man. Thus a Catholic in New Zealand will resent even the most deferential discussion, in a public place, of his faith. He is trained to a loyalty higher than the almighty norm, yet he is loyal out of a stubbornness in the face of his own guilt at belonging to what he feels is in some ways an underground movement. Calling for his beer after Sunday mass he will not say where he has been and it is bad taste if you mention it. On the other hand the perpetual undercurrent, among Protestants and other unbelievers, of slanders and rumour of a Catholic conspiracy to catch all Protestant young men by marriage, comes from a fear of an institution whose doctrines are not readily inspectable and impeachable, in terms of 'reality', at the bar. The preoccupation with social climbing betrays a personal insecurity. How much of the gossip of New Zealanders is concerned solely with real or imagined slights given by their neighbours: 'sensitive' in New Zealand means susceptible to personal offence.

* That the sounds have lost meaning is evident in a passage of Guthrie Wilson's Brave Company where in a soldier's thoughts, the word 'Christ' is interchangeable with one of the Anglo-Saxon unprintables, and the invocation is more protest than prayer.