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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 8. 27 April 1972

Who Killed Cock Robin

page 4

Who Killed Cock Robin

Now that the dust has settled on the trial of Arthur Thomas, now that the various retrial committees have been reduced to important mumbling by the decision of the Court of Appeal, the time seems ripe to ask some questions which have not hitherto surfaced. The question which has been to the forefront during this entire affair i.e. is Thomas innocent or guilty no longer has much meaning. It is true that much of the evidence was circumstantial and that some aspects of the case remain puzzling, but it seems fairly clear to my mind that Arthur Thomas did indeed take a gun and shoot Jeanette and Harvey Crewe in their Pukekawa house. There the law rests because it is not required to enquire further. Having established that to its own satisfaction it has no more to say. And yet the feeling persists that Arthur Thomas is innocent. Such believers, however, fail to ask the right questions. The important question is not innocent or guilty but: Guilty in what sense? It is not my contention that Arthur Thomas was innocent, but rather that he was, in a very real sense, an innocent. His role should be seen as that of the guilty victim. A victim of some very unpleasant social elements rampant in New Zealand, and particularly rural small town New Zealand, and particularly rural small town Zealand, If one seeks for that which has been hidden away it is in this area that one should seek, not in the area of law.

There is a curious historical instance of the same phenomenon in the case of Stanley Graham, a farmer of Koiterangi near Hokitika, who, on 8th October 1941, killed four policemen at his home and then took to the bush. Police, soldiers and homeguardsmen were called in for what was to become New Zealand's most spectacular manhunt. Two more men were killed before Graham, on the twelfth day, was shot by a policeman as he came in to surrender. The case caught the imagination of the country, news items about it took precedence over war news (and remember that this was a bad time for the Allies) and there are quite a number of folk songs in his praise.

Now before my song is finished
There's something I'd like to say
I wish we had a million like poor
old Stan today.
The Japs would not be game to come
within our shores
And we could live in quietness
for now and evermore.

Had Graham not been shot then he too, like Arthur Thomas, would have languished in gaol, for there is no doubt that he took a gun and shot some people, and the law is most specific that that is a crime. Or more likely, in those less enlightened days, he would have been hanged by the neck until dead. For the law is required to take no great regard of the broader circumstances of the crime, although it must bear in mind their narrower aspects. In this case we should remember that Graham had been goaded beyond endurance by the senseless exercise of bureaucratic power in pursuit of a commandeer of his farm produce on behalf of the war effort, when he had already been soured by the hardships of his difficult life. Thus he was subjected to pressures which no human being should ever be asked to bear, so that it is no wonder his control snapped, and that he took a gun and shot dead the punitive representives of the power which oppressed him. Few, it appeared at the time would blame him. If one seeks further parallels one should look perhaps into the celebrated case of George Wilder.

The analogy between such cases and the case of Arthur Thomas is plain, although the pressures are different. In the case of Thomas they revolve around the wellknown, but largely unmentionalbe, nature of life in smalltown New Zealand, a diverse chamber of horrors which Arthur Thomas was obliged to inhabit in all its bitter manifestations.

It's difficult to categorise the nature of rural smalltown life in this country because so little systematic study has been done on it. Some of its aspects are no doubt amusing. I am thinking, for instance, of Peter Cape's Down the Hall on Saturday Night. Some of its aspects have a darker side and one of the few studies which has thrown any light into a corner of this world is the study of childrearing patterns in New Zealand undertaken by the Ritchies. What clearly emerged from their study is that rural small town parents are under much greater pressure to conform to what is the preconception of a child to be proud of, a child which is 'sociable and nice', and these parents were far more inclined to be punitive in forcing on the child the sort of behaviour that the neighbours expected. This became more pronounced the lower one went in the pecking order, so that Maori mothers (and no matter what pious utterances we might choose to make to the contrary, Maoris, particularly in rural areas, are regarded as falling towards the bottom of the status heap) were under very great pressure indeed. All of which may not seem to have much to do with Arthur Thomas but which seems, to my mind, to point a moral. That is that small communities have their sanctioned ways and the lower one falls in the pecking order the more people there are above oneself who are granted the right by society to be censorious of your behavior. It is not a right that the community expects to go rusty from disuse. The local wealthy farmers in the district, the local doctor, the bank manager cum stock and station agent and a few others lord it, and the rest, particularly the poor farmers and the labourers and sharemilkers suffer. I know a girl who lived for a while in a rural town in the Waikato and she told me that it reminded her of nothing so much as what she'd read of a medieval feudal village. Those at the top made the rules and got the privileges, they ruled with a rod of moral iron, and woe betide anyone below who stepped out of line. The comparison with a medieval peasant community is apt and it should be recalled that medieval history is replete with peasant uprisings, and individual 'outrages' against the manor house. More of that anon. In the community described to me too, it the jus primae noctis did not actually operate it might just as well have.

Why New Zealand rural society has taken on this black perspective is a subject for exploration by the novelist as well as the social scientist, and it is an avenue well explored. Indeed, John Mulgan took it as the major theme of 'Man Alone! In that book there is one character, an old old tramp, who sums up New Zealand very well - protesting Christianity, talking brotherhood, but keeping his own to himself. This is an attitude which has grown out of the savagery of the land and its resistance to cultivation, and the cupidity of men in their lust to possess. That it stunts and depresses the quality of life in rural New Zealand there can be little doubt.

This then is the broad context within which Arthur Thomas was called upon to be a human being. He was not, from accounts, a wealthy man; he fell towards the lower part of the rural pecking order. And within this context he had the misfortune to fall in love with the woman who later became Jeanette Crewe. It's common in a stultifying environment to find that human beings are a little gauche emotionally, and when Arthur Thomas fell he fell hard. It must have come as a blow to him to learn that the later Jeanette Crewe was not for the likes of him. For it seems that Jeanette's background was a wealthy one. Evidence at the trial made some play with her relationship with Thomas before and after an overseas trip. In rural New Zealand. The Overseas Trip is a traditional activity of the female scions of wealthier families. It helps to fill the time between the end of school and the beginning of marriage. She returned from her trip to discover that Arthur Thomas was as keen for her as ever, and she made it clear to him that his attentions to her must cease. One can imagine the subtle insinuations, the growing realisation on the part of Thomas that what he was really being told was that he was not in Jeanette's class, that she was prepared to accept his gifts, yes, but that after all she really preferred the somewhat wealthier Harvey Crewe. It's likely that the pain of unrequited love faded as Thomas met and eventually married his wife Vivien, leaving only a tiny scar, but the slur of being judged by the community an unsuitable match for Jeanette Crewe because his status was wanting, would remain an open sore, festering until the day he took a gun and went and shot two people he saw as the stormcentre of his torment. Like Stanley Graham he was subjected to pressure which no human being should be asked to bear. In similar vein throughout history people oppressed by an overbearing elite have taken desperate measures because they could no longer live with the indignity of their position. Robin Hood remains a popular figure.

And there is another factor present in the Thomas case. Someone fed the Crewe baby. People and vehicles were seen subsequent to the killing at the Crewe house, and these from the descriptions given by witnesses could in no way be associated with Thomas This is puzzling but in the light of what I have said it becomes more coherent and it is a safe presumption to make that others besides Thomas knew what was up. Rural communities are tightly knit. They are so effective in the imposition of sancitons upon one another precisely because of this; everyone has a fair idea of what everyone else is doing. That other people with knowledge of the murders did not report to the police seems to demonstrate that they did not wish the murderer caught, which in its turn suggests that they knew and understood the full nature of the situation.

Now most of what I've been saying is supposition. I have presupposed, for instance that Thomas did commit the crime, and there is a school of thought that thinks he did not. I have presupposed in suggestion some of his most deepest and private feelings, and only he can ever know those, and I have presupposed the answers to certain questions which remain lurking and elusive in the evidence at the trial, because the questions which might have elicited these facts were not asked. And there is the real tragedy of it. Justice is blind and it remains so because it is administered by men who have, most of their lives, been successful, who have never felt the bitter taste of defeat or public approbrium in their mouths No-one has ever told them that they do not measure up, that they are not good, enough. And so they have no feeling for the cruel and stinging rebuke which tells you that despite your best efforts you are less than somebody in the judgement of your peers. In the face of such ignorance of a whole slice of human experience it is small wonder that the crucial questions were never asked at the trial of Arthur Thomas. Who killed cock robin? I said the sparrow, with my bow and arrow, I killed cock robin. And there the law rests. But any child will tell you that the tale does not end there. There was considerably more to the death of cock robin than would ever be suggested by the mere presence of a sparrow and a bow and arrow.

Tony Simpson