The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1931
A Bouquet for Victoria
A Bouquet for Victoria
Where you have a democracy, there form is at a discount. It is no doubt because New Zealanders exist under the world's consummation of the democratic idea, that one will almost vainly overhaul their culture and their institutions to find an effectual formal sense. Theirs is the sensitiveness of the Englishman, unsaddled with any aesthetic frivolity, who, landed among these Southern winds and hills, regretted they were not England, applied stolid determination to liking them and settled gracefully down with axe and plum-pudding and lumber-tip to improve them as a makeshift forever. Such devastating advance-guardism in things that did not matter could well be made up for by seeing to it that the collective mental weather-vane rusted up to the registering of age-old winds in things that did. And New Zealand's culture, when it is not snoozing, tramps up a futile hill and down a futile dale, like a strayed biped with a lost Nirvana to make before evening and just on the verge before blundering on the brain-wave that may have its boots on the wrong feet. Perhaps not quite on the verge: worried feet are not so much of an occasion for being illumined with the practical possibilities of form, especially when the brain is persuaded that it is not the brain and that, even if it were, it would be a nuisance.
The foreigner, arriving in New Zealand's capital, is impressed with the nonentity of the part played by the University in the community. In at least one of the colleges there is no serious corporate inclination to play a part at all. The old ogre-doctrine of the aloofness and spectatordom of the University has muffled all initiative and sapped the strongest root of energy, with resulting inadequacy. On the one hand, a serving- up of water-tight technicalities with no closer link with life or the life of the community than the examination; on the other a somewhat sulky and petulant theatrical atmosphere of hotbeds for potential successful judges.
The result is that the community is impatient of the University and looks upon it as at worst a traditional nuisance. It would be hard to find another city than Wellington where the University is regarded with the same fixture of indifference and distrust. An important cause of this attitude is a lack of adaptation to the cultural needs of the community, and this is largely due to the cumbersomeness of the geographic constitution of the University. There is no centre where the consciousness of the need for reform can effectively ferment and be formulated; and when this consciousness does arise, the machinery that has to be set in motion creaks so, that it is rarely that anything can come of it. The result is that the University of New Zealand is endeavouring to scrape along on methods that should never have been tolerable since the time when old women wire burnt for dealings with Beelzebub and which would, however, have been barely so fifty years ago. But this aspect of the matter will have to be left to the gods—or to conquest from abroad: little short of these would rattle such a torpor.
At Victoria, another series of omissions has aggravated the apathy of the public, with accompanying unsuccess; and these are locally reparable. But the realisation of the need requires a sense of form, and of atmosphere, which, after all, rests on integrated, applied and self-applying form. Professor von Zedlitz, in his recent address to the incipient Literary Society, touched a quick spot when he mentioned the value of snuff-boxes and armchairs and coal-fires. But atmosphere has its uses beyond Literary Societies: it may even be applied to Universities. Victoria wistfully regards itself as a martyred Cinderella among Colleges; it wonders that every opportunity is seized to prune its grants, that it has always been deprived of adequate accommodation in which to formulate and unify the University life it should expect to be able to offer its members; it regrets that among those that have lived for some part of their lives in the shadow of its walls there has been hardly one to show his gratitude, and that the list of bequests has almost to be opened. But wistfulness and wonderment and regret do not reach the point of action; and form and atmosphere must be applied before they will apply themselves.
Cinderella knew all about form; and the fairy prince turned up and rose to the occasion. How can one lament that one's pocket-money is small if one has accepted one's portion as Fate and has page 18 never attempted to show how one could manage a larger contribution if it came one's way? Victoria might well be chipped of a deal of modesty for the future; its estimation of the part it could play in the scheme of things could be multiplied by a hundred and still fall short of the mark. The assistance due to it (in its own opinion) would increase proportionately. A heavy dose of megalomania would not come amiss; and, in spite of depressions, when it comes to dollars the thinking is in millions. Approach the Prime Minister for a couple of million for works to be carried out and In will be probably at first surprised; in the end he will no doubt beat the request down to a couple of hundred thousand: in decency he could do no more. Better than nothing, and no worse than being just tolerated in a groove of inactivity by public opinion.
Even things that could be done, unbalanced budgets and all, are often omitted. Examination results are scarcely spectacular enough to impress outsiders; more tangibility is needed; first, efficiently organised attractive housing and appointments, in place of the medieval monastic spell of the mortification of the flesh. What is there about the general get-up of Victoria to inspire the visitor with a yearning to lavish his millions in the cultural cause through its medium? How can you expect purpose, or culture at all, to issue from an atmosphere of customs-office walls, gaol corridors, heatless heaters, condemned boathouse gymnasiums and time-honoured rubbish- heaps? How can intellectual clubs thrive when they have degenerated into extension lectures it is a martyrdom to be present at, rather on account of the accommodation? How can sports flourish when the University is not in the midst of playing-fields and training facilities? How can the staff efficiently carry out its functions when it spends its time in a term-long commercial traveller's frenzy of lectures; or when part of it is housed in stables that a self-respecting horse would shy at? Put even Ialdabaoth to deliver himself in such an atmosphere and he would hold neither his self-respect nor his efficiency for more than a moment and a half.
One speaks of Universities: the present state of things may do well enough as an atmosphere for the landing of degrees; a floorless barn would do; and the symbol would mirror the result. But as a symbol and medium for something else one could expect more. Yet things are not only as they are; they are taken for granted; there's the comedy. It is hard for one born into the passive centuries of English tradition to realise that a new land must create its own atmosphere; he generally puts up a shack and expects to see collect around it the glow of Piccadilly or of Westminster. But in new countries the snowball of atmospheres needs a handsome start in formal materiality. This would be possible, if one were not Anglo-Saxon, at the trouble of clearing a few trees. But one is. Not that it's a reason for giving tip hope; it may not be physically impossible for us to develop a sense of form and to realise the importance of atmosphere. A little less of the ability to sight diamonds through roughness might do the trick; and a little more awareness of the inadvisability of one's gutter. After all, the stars intrigue only when you think you can't get them. And you do: so here's for the stars.