Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 1. 1967.
Letters — 'Its A Difficult World, David'
'Its A Difficult World, David'
In 1966, the Mew Zealand poet, James K. Baxter spoke at the Arts Festival at Massey. He gave some of his ideas for an art-loving NZ. He saw a land perverted by boarding schools, caught in the grip of an art-destroying compulsory education system, where art could scarce survive the shifting conformity the country demanded. He spoke of bull fights instead of flower festivals, of African immigrants, of homosexual reform. He caused a stir when he spoke and again when Salient published his remarks. But student David M. Roughan took Mr. Baxter to task. He saw no advance in Mr. Baxter's plan — only, 'the ideas of a frustrated, dirty, old man.' Now, James K. Baxter replies ...
Sir — Since your correspondent, David M. Roughan, has expressed some vigorous opinions about my Arts Festival Talk. I would like to reply in kind.
Mr. Roughan: It cheered me up to see your letter. Writers, like other men. are prone to be vain and I hoped some fish would rise to the bait I had swung backwards and forwards over the creek. You have not disappointed me.
I am glad that you owe a debt of gratitude to the boarding schools. There seem to be three main groups of people going through the schools— those who move happily up the ladder, absorbing knowledge like a sponge; those who just coast along; and those who feel as if they are serving a long term in jail.
Apparently you belong to the first group; I happen to belong to the third—and I have noticed that a majority of the artists I have met seem to have belonged to this third group. In advocating non-compulsory education, I was speaking then not on your behalf (you are happy about your education) but on behalf of the submerged third group from whom most of our artists come.
I am not in favour, incidentally—you seem to have got my ideas back to front in this matter—of compulsory homosexuality. Frequently our segregated boarding schools do mean that a number of boys and girls become homos who aren't naturally given that way. That annoys me. I'm surprised that it doesn't annoy you. too.
Broadly, I am against coercion or persecution. If some day you go to a party and happen to hit the sack with a girl who looks and acts 19 and is actually 15. and face a charge of carnal knowledge, you'll get my point about the age of consent; and if some day some friend whom you respect and like gets a five-year prison sentence for doing what is (though admittedly unchaste) a natural thing for him to do. you'll get my point about the need to change our archaic laws on homosexuality. I'm not suggesting that you or he might not be well advised to keep your flies buttoned. I am suggesting strongly that our laws are cruel and unrealistic.
Yes, David. I do know some funny artists, as well as some funny policemen. The point is, though, that artists are not in a position of public authority that allows them to bent up old drunks in the cells, rape call girls, and arrest homosexuals while being homosexuals themselves.
It is the officious and excessive power of the police I object to. The last time I visited a friend in clink. he was not in good shape—he had taken one hell of a beating from the cops the day before. I have strong objection to the neo-facist segment among the police having any more control than is strictly necessary over your private life or mine.
Finally, in a public talk I generally find it best to introduce some humour and hyperbole, even when the matters about which I am talking mean a good deal to me. A somewhat humorous approach to sexual matters seems to me the sanest — it's what you strike in factories and on the wharf, though unfortunately not so often among clerks, magistrates, policemen. MPs and mothers of 12.
This may be what you mean when you suggest I could be a frustrated, dirty old man. Sex is often sad: it is also often funny. Probably you and I both get frustrated at times: I have never known anyone well who wasn't. But God preserve me from becoming a clean old man. I'd be writing sermons then instead of poems.
Sometimes. David, I feel we are all living in a large concrete shithouse with a label Godzone Country above the entrance—inside it people often suffer abominably without anyone else giving a damn about it. Maybe you reel different about it. Maybe you are a natural optimist. But I hope now and then (when things are not going sweetly for you and your friends on or off the promotion ladder) that you may consider whether my view has some element of truth in it.
Don't you ever feel that a good deal of what happens to you in the centre of Higher Learning you frequent at present happens in a kind of death trance? I felt that death trance settling on me at Palmerston. with the Mayor on one side of me and the Chancellor on the other: and being a man as well as a writer, I was glad to be able to do something to break it. And after the talk. I found that a surprising number of people of all ages and all three sexes had been thinking roughly along the same lines in private but not before allowed the notions to crystallize.
The points I made were not merely private. Consider our honoured Prime Minister, that wooden Noddy figure who has been wandering around the world for some time making blues right and left in his relation to Africans. Asians and Yanks and has recently made blues at home In his handling of industrial disputes and security measures. Surely if he were less a conformist, less a typical Kiwi whose view of Asian matters includes a vast amount of paranoid fantasy, and whose view of life at home is based on the worship of the pound note, he would be less of an absolute drongo and more use to you and me and the human race.
Absolute emotional stupidity is not a legal crime: out. by God. it can make life pretty unendurable for one's relatives, friends and neighbours! Wouldn't you rather see a decadently humanitarian and art-minded bloke (Who might in his youth some time have had a whiff of marihuana) handling our affairs at home and abroad ? But. of course, he wouldn't have the job on: and if he did, he wouldn't get the vote.
So we're stuck with Kiwi Keith, who barks in tune with his master. LBJ. It's a difficult world to live in. you must admit. David.
James K. Baxter.