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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays



But that is the dream, and the dream never comes off. The New Zealander does not always blame God or nature or human nature: he generally imputes the evil to 'some chaps'. Men are in two classes, the 'white jokers' and the 'bastards'. When it's all boiled down there aren't many in the world you can trust. The untrustworthy are the people one doesn't have direct contact with—the watersiders, for example, seen through the page 21 polemic of Mr Holland's radio turns and the daily press—or foreigners: a foreign tongue sets a New Zealander's nerves on edge, he feels the speaker is deliberately taunting his incomprehension. Even people who speak English with an accent are watched, like yanks and 'pongos'. The New Zealander lost among strangers is as trusting as a provincial asking his way in a big city, yet of people he doesn't see or speak to, or of minorities, he is as suspicious as anyone in the world. Wilfrid Meynell mentions a New Zealand major of World War I who told him that British statesmen of the nineteenth century were far too trusting when it came to dealing with foreigners. (Wilfrid Meynell, Who Goes There, London, 1916). At the fall of France an aunt of mine said, 'It only goes to show you can't trust foreigners.' So there's no one satisfies a New Zealander but a New Zealander. The New Zealand way of life is unquestionable and what is not like it is 'mad'. Europe is backward and uncivilized in his eyes, they haven't the same comforts and their art and architecture is of course 'antique' and 'educational' but it's out-of-date. On a 3ZB radio quiz one man, asked his opinion on the Greek treatment of women, said, 'Well, that was in the olden days. The Greeks weren't civilized.' Asia is worse than Europe. There are only two countries in the world we may emulate— the U.S. and Britain, and perhaps the 'white' Dominions. The attitude is not only provincial, it is bourgeois. It is the arrogance of the American labelling other peoples 'gooks' and 'wops': the New Zealand soldier had his 'Wogs' and 'Ites' and 'Teds', at home there are the 'Chinks' and 'Ikes' and 'Dallies' and even the 'Horis'. It is the smallness of mind of the man brought up to believe his own customs infallible and people who don't observe them worthless.

But middle class attitudes don't play so hard on the worker as they do on farmers and small tradesmen and clerks and civil servants. The worker has questioned the assumption that each man is his own economic responsibility, though he will hold no brief for the 'cadger'; but he has no other measurement of success than material comfort. Now I'm not pleading 'spiritual needs': I accept the right of men to material goods. What is wrong is the closing of mind to everything not tangible or immediate. The worker's object for his son is to see he gets a good job: what doesn't lead to it is a waste of effort. (So he often doesn't approve of higher education for his daughters.) To have a trade or a training for a profession is the aim of 'schooling': a humanist concept of the bringing out of innate abilities is beyond him, so is a socialist concept of developing one's capacities with the aim of serving society or any concept of converting matter and energy for the benefit of his grandchildren. The world is the world: his world is Ashburton or Waimihia, he wants to set his boy right in the system he knows: he has no wish either to change the system or to make his boy bigger than the place Waimihia will allow him. Life is a race: education (as the editor of this journal said) is an obstacle race; the modest aim is to be in the running, and the decent thing is to slow down the pace. page 22 The competition is not so fierce that all energy should minister to it: if you're in the running you're in the good company of the majority, the thing is not to be left behind. The worker does not resent the businessman's devotion to his bank-balance, only that he should perform it without decent moderation.

So the New Zealander's idea of social reality is the way things are. 'Times' change, but that is a matter of fashions of clothing, architecture and popular music. Any talk of changing the status quo meets with resistance. The government can do it by quiet legislation without anyone noticing the implications of a new law, because the government is part of the status quo and bigger than anyone who may object. It is when an individual talks of change the New Zealander resents and resists the discomfort of being forced to think up reasons for defending the existing order. Any man who thinks or reads beyond the immediate requirements of getting a good job is a fool—'wet', 'gormless', 'dilberry', etc. Baiting him is the good sport of the enterprising wag: in New Zealand (but not so much overseas) little minds in the army used to whet themselves on men who read books with big words, to the entertainment of the hut. A method (used even among training college students) is to pick up another man's book, to read aloud a sentence without attempt at comprehension as if to demonstrate that the words meant nothing but were the mutually flattering cult-lingo of a class of intellectuals pretending to be better than the ordinary chap. It is common for some people to accuse people who go to symphonic concerts of not understanding the music and going out of snobbery. They have some ground for their idea because the idea has produced the habit: an aunt of mine went to the Old Vic plays in 1948, to see the film stars, but confessed the plays were 'awfully dry'—she didn't know what they were about, but that was only to be expected because they were 'educational'. For good-humoured baiting recall the attacks on anti-conscription speakers in Nelson in 1949: most spectators would describe this as a 'bit of fun'.