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A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950

'A Land of Dreadful Silence'

'A Land of Dreadful Silence'

Tomorrow described itself as 'a paper concerned with the social and cultural life of the people'.29 It did not set out to formulate a consistent critique of New Zealand culture, yet, appearing in what was virtually an intellectual vacuum, the establishment of the magazine in itself constitutes a cultural statement.

page 36

The overriding editorial principle on which Tomorrow was founded was independence. It described itself as 'an honest and disinterested attempt to provide a medium for the unfettered discussion of vital topics ... free from the dictation of money-power and sectional interests.'30 It was to be an 'open forum' for debate, free from commercial interests, the influence of the international (i.e. British) conservative press, and from any political affiliation or editorial position.

Tomorrow runs no comic supplement, no free insurance scheme, no guide to the turf, no advice to investors. It is free alike from the policy dictated by interest (self-interest), from the pomposities of the Chambers of Commerce and the choice journalism that promotes the sales of pills and potions.31

Its editors would not have missed the irony in its being published from a room on the top floor of a sharebroker's building. There would be no editorial column; Frederick Sinclaire's 'Notes By The Way' which opened each issue 'express[ed] no collective opinions or official policy.'32 Readers of the specimen issue were reassured that this paper had 'no dogma to thrust down the throats of our readers'. . . 'We have no propaganda but that of criticism'.33

It was an innocent ideal. It was easy enough to defend the paper against the view, probably widely held, that it was affiliated to either the Communist or Labour parties. A National MP, for example, referred to it during a debate in the House as 'a Labour journal'.34 When it was similarly described as a party publication by a correspondent in the Otago Daily Times the editors of Tomorrow replied, in real or feigned indignation: 'Tomorrow is not issued by the Christ-church branch of the official Labour Party . . . .——Our cover notice reads: A journal

free from party or interest. This is in large enough type and should strike even a moron.'35 But as early as July 1935 they were forced to acknowledge the difficulty of maintaining the appearance of political neutrality in a time which demanded that one take sides: in the 24 July issue they noted the 'left wing tendencies' the magazine had developed 'of its own accord'.36 The 'no editorial' policy was finally abandoned in April 1937 with the explanation that: 'Sooner or later everyone will be forced to take sides, and the failure of the paper to give its opinion has been an obvious weakness.'37 As the international political situation became more pressing, from the end of 1938, the proportion of cultural material in the paper declined. It was Tomorrows increasingly firm and outspoken left-wing position, particularly over the Spanish Civil War, which led Frederick Sinclaire, who was in Rhodes' assessment 'an uncompromising liberal',38 and by this time implacably not a Marxist, to finally withdraw from the editorial group and cease his contributions to the paper in mid 1937. (His authorship of the regular 'Notes By The Way' had ceased by October 1935.)

Nevertheless, Tomorrow continued to espouse its open forum policy of page 37 accepting articles expressive of any political opinion, provided they were well-written and not defamatory. But it was never, in fact, able to solicit contributions from the political right. It was a journal of the intellectual left, and despite disingenuous claims to the contrary its content betrayed a definite political stance. Reporting of international events followed on the whole the Popular Front line. The editors' own broadly socialist outlooks were also revealed by the paper's liberal use of quotations from local and overseas newspapers and journals. Short excerpts printed in the column 'Rubbish Shot Here' which filled the back cover of the early issues, and in several later variations on this theme, lampooned the New Zealand and international capitalist press and local political figures, while the virtues of socialism and accomplishments of the Soviet Union were lauded in 'Hush! Hush! Such Things Are Not In The Newspapers'. Quotations from George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Maxim Gorki and other writers of liberal or left credentials were sprinkled liberally through Tomorrows pages as space fillers and indications of the paper's philosophical outlook.

On the domestic political scene it established itself early on as a left-wing critic of the Labour government (once it had adapted after the 1935 election to being no longer in the role of 'a slinger against Goliath'39 ). Its initial attitude of critical approval of Labour during the party's first term of office was abandoned for public support during the 1938 election. This was a pragmatic rather than ideological position which the paper felt itself obliged to defend: 'What did our critics expect us to do? Were we to sit on the fence, in this, perhaps the greatest political crisis in our history, lisping the innocuous platitudes of those who dodge their responsibilities?'40 But after the immediate crisis had passed Tomorrow became increasingly outspoken in its criticism of Labour's lack of commitment to socialism and of its undemocratic party organisation and practice of government. (It was, as we shall see, this critical stance in relation to the Labour government which led finally to the paper's demise.)

More pragmatic considerations forced the abandonment of Tomorrows financial independence when it began accepting advertising. It could still rightfully claim to be independent from 'moneyed interests', as it received no patronage from businesses or individuals.41 Its political conscience may also have been partially salved by the fact that the majority of the advertisements it carried were for socialist organisations, not 'pills and potions'. The cooperative bookshops, the Left Book Club and various left-wing publications regularly advertised in Tomorrow, along with New Zealand Railways and the State Fire Insurance Office, and Ballantyne's department store. The dilemma faced by Tomorrow, of reconciling its political ideals with economic reality, was an experience common to all of the left-wing cultural organisations discussed in this book.

Although the ideal which Tomorrow so fervendy espoused was illusory, nevertheless it is the ideal which is important. The aim of providing an page 38
Kennaway, The Great Katipo, Tomorrow, specimen issue, January 1934

Kennaway, The Great Katipo, Tomorrow, specimen issue, January 1934

independent, open forum for debate stemmed in part from Henderson's desire to emulate Orage's New Age, but it was also a reflection and a critique of Tomorrows own immediate cultural context. It was inspired in the first instance by a strongly-held contempt for the New Zealand daily press, which was seen by the founders of Tomorrow as a servant of international capitalism and a deadening influence on New Zealand culture. Henderson's vision of the press depicted in his cartoon 'The Great Katipo' in the specimen issue, and redrawn in many page 39 different guises in later issues, was both the principal motivation behind his instigation of Tomorrow and the dominant theme of the introductory issue. In his 'Notes By The Way' Frederick Sinclaire complained of the newspaper industry:

Pretending to be free and disinterested, it is in fact controlled in the interests of propaganda which is anti-social in its aim and unscrupulous in its methods. It has monopolised the main highways of publicity, and guards them for the exclusive use of its owners and their satellites . . .

'Inevitably', continued Henderson, 'the press works against thought and individuality, towards a foolish dead level of acceptance with its cheap mouth to mouth expression. Even more than other institutions, it justifies the charge that our culture has failed.'42 J. A. Brailsford, Southland director of the WEA, summed up the primary purpose of Tomorrow in more moderate tone in an article entitled 'Do We Get The Truth About World Affairs?':

Many feel there is a tremendous need for free critical reviews of world affairs, written in New Zealand from the New Zealand point of view. Tomorrow' aims to give one such review. It will not claim to speak with divine omniscience. But it will speak with freedom.43

Henderson's disparaging view of the nature and function of the capitalist press was extended by other writers in Tomorrow into a wider criticism of the conservatism and provincialism of New Zealand culture, made most insistently by Sinclaire and Rhodes. Along with the monopolising influence of the newspaper industry Sinclaire identified the harshness of censorship and the 'extremely nervous' attitude of the New Zealand Broadcasting Board towards anything even faintly controversial (in this instance a talk on Marxism, the text of which was printed in Tomorrow) as responsible for 'what may be called the New Zealand mind—so morbidly sensitive to hostile criticism, so nervously respectable, so deferential to outside opinion, so lacking in independence—in a word, so provincial.'44 'We inhabit a land of dreadful silence', he charged, and in an article criticising the Broadcasting Board apologised lest, in doing so, he had 'transgressed some little edict which prohibits audible grumbling'.45 Broadcasting received considerable discussion in Tomorrow, and most of it was critical. An article entitled 'Let's Be Dull' characterised the tone of the YA stations as 'Solidity and Dullness' and described the recently-established New Zealand Listeners 'the perfect instrument for giving a deaf mute a picture of what the YA stations are really like.'46

Like Sinclaire, Rhodes perceived the absence of a single 'serious critical journal in this country' as symptomatic of a deeper cultural malaise: a 'lack of mental and aesthetic vitality'.47 New Zealanders are 'a race of hedgers and tight- page 40 rope walkers', he observed; 'we are, as a nation, as uncritical as can well be imagined. What we need is a Department of National Criticism which would see to it. . . that we are trained to criticise our national institutions and public policy.'48 His advice was for New Zealand to indulge in a little 'classical swearing' (a phrase he takes from G. K. Chesterton, writing of William Cobbett), which translates as a willingness to deal honesdy and provocatively, in both literature and journalism, with the significant social and political issues of the day.49

29 Tomorrow, 23 Nov. 1938 (v.5, n.2), pp.37-8

30 Ibid., 17 Oct. 1934 (v.i, n.14), p.10

31 Ibid., 10 Nov. 1937 (v.4, n.1), p.6

32 F.S., 'Notes By The Way', ibid., 11 July 1934  (v.1, n.1), p.1

33 F.S., 'Notes By The Way', ibid., specimen issue [Jan. 1934], p.3, 'Notes By The Way', 7 Nov. 1934 (v.1, n.17), p.2

34 New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, v. 248, 1937, p.63

35 Tomorrow, 25 May 1938 (v.4, n.15), p.450

36 Ibid., 24 July 1935 (v.1, n.39), p.7

37 Ibid., 14 Apr. 1937 (v.3, n.12), p.356

38 Rhodes, Frederick Sinclaire, p.117

39 Tomorrow, 4 Dec. 1935 (v.2, n.6), p.1

40 Ibid., 23 Nov. 1938 (v.5, n.2), p.37

41 There may have been the odd exception in the latter case. Cutler suggests that Labour MP Ormond Wilson gave occasional support to Tomorrow. Cutler, 'Intellectual Sprouts', p.32, citing D. Trussell, Fairburn. Auckland: Auckland University Press/Oxford University Press, 1984, p.176

42 F.S., 'Notes By The Way', Tomorrow, specimen issue, p.1; K. Henderson, 'The Press', ibid., p.6

43 Ibid., pp.10, 12

44 F.S., 'Notes By The Way', ibid., 11 July 1934 (v.1, n.1), p.2, specimen issue, p.2

45 Ibid.

46 K.Jensen, 'Let's Be Dull', ibid., 2 Aug. 1939 (v.5, n.20), p.618

47 Rhodes, 'On Swearing', p.12; 'The Cult ofCulture', ibid., 25 July 1934 (v.1, n.3), p.12

48 'On Swearing', p.12

49 'On Learning to Read', ibid., 19 Sept. 1934 (v.1, n.11), p.13