A Life of J. C. Beaglehole: New Zealand Scholar
7 — 'Unemployed and Odd Jobs', 1933–35
'Unemployed and Odd Jobs', 1933–35
John described his occupation during the next three years (in Who's Who in New Zealand) as 'unemployed and odd jobs'. While that was literally true, it was at the same time a period of great achievement and, in spite of some financial difficulty and disappointment over jobs, considerable personal satisfaction. He read widely; he completed his short history of New Zealand, wrote the greater part of his work on the University of New Zealand, and published a lot of verse. Domestically it was a very happy period. John greatly enjoyed his young sons, while Elsie established the pattern of running the home and family in a way that gave him sustained support for his scholarly activities.
On arriving from Auckland they once again stayed with Elsie's parents in the Hutt while they looked for somewhere to live. In January 1933 John poured out his feelings in a letter to Norman Richmond:
I feel that my friends, cobbers & comrades-in-arms are now in Akld. rather than anywhere else so far as N.Z. is concerned, & I do not like being cut off from them … what I mean to say is that I hate leaving you all, blast you! That you are the best cobber I have in this loathly country … or perhaps anywhere else … Damn it all, this outpouring must be the effect of reading Lawrence's Letters. I thought that after being sacked & having looked at houses – shacks – heaps of wood & corrugated iron – bloody bungalows – for three weeks I was incapable of further emotion. But apparently I was the victim of my own misjudgment.1
They had decided to stay in Wellington, John explained, for two reasons. One was a 'certain duty' to their parents, and the other that, failing a job, he planned to 'read history systematically for the first time in my life' and to 'revise and boil down' his PhD thesis for publication, 'when if ever publishers publish again', for both of which the General Assembly Library and his father's books would page 188be useful. He had started reading seventeenth-century English history and thought he 'could cheerfully stay there for the rest of the year'.2 It would give him the opportunity to read his folio volumes of Clarendon's History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, 2000 pages in all, which he had bought in London. Elsie was anxious to get settled (she was expecting a second child); he more interested in 'writing about Bach'.3 He was referring to his poem 'Considerations on Certain Music of J.S. Bach', which he had just completed.
In the middle of February they moved into a small house at 82 Marsden Street, Lower Hutt. They had hoped not to have to pay more than twenty-five shillings a week, but had to stretch to thirty shillings. It was on the flat below the Holmes's house on the Western Hutt hills, and a few minutes' walk to the railway station for the Wellington train. The small garden, with room for a good plot for vegetables, extended back to the stopbank which ran along the Hutt river. The river had pools with just enough water for a bathe, and the river bed was a good source of firewood.
John kept up a lively correspondence with Norman Richmond that was to continue for several years and to embrace a remarkable range of subjects. They continued to plan WEA courses; Richmond agreed to pay John £40 (£2 a lecture) for writing lectures for the next stage of the European civilisation course. They reported on books read, on people, on further developments at Auckland University College and Victoria's fall from grace, on politics, poetry, babies and birth control, the prospects for jobs and for revolution, and the virtues of the film star Jessie Matthews. They took a particular delight in what they saw as pompous inanities in the speeches of the Governor-General, Lord Bledisloe.
They continued what was clearly an on-going discussion of Marxist ideas and Soviet Russia. Governments in the capitalist world seemed unable to take any effective steps to ameliorate the impact of the depression; Hitler's rise to power was destroying the bright hopes once held for the Weimar Republic. However misplaced in the long run, a belief that the Soviet Union might represent a new kind of society attracted many who despaired at the failures of the established politicians. The intemperate reaction to any whiff of communism by those in positions of power gave the ideology an attraction it would possibly otherwise never have had.
Richmond was readier than John to accept the ideas of Marxism and Leninism.4 He read more in the field, and lectured both on Marxist ideas and on the Soviet Union. For John, Richmond was page 189more a stimulus than an influence. An acute observer of human failings and human folly, John remained sceptical about all-embracing answers. 'I object intellectually to anybody swallowing anything whole even Lenin', he wrote to Richmond, reporting on his reaction to John Strachey's The Coming Struggle for Power, in which he thought the last section, on communism, the weakest part of the book.5 His view at this time comes out clearly in his letters to Richmond:6
… remember that revolutions must become fashionable to succeed … [yet] I must admit that people like M[iddleton] Murry make me want to be a die-hard Tory, a blood & iron man, a keen hard ruthless captain (or even brigadier general) of finance, a Sacco Vanzetti slayer & a shooter-down of strikers. Have you read M. Dobb's Soviet Russia & the World? He has some good stuff in that. The thing that holds me up is the question of liberty, & he has a few pertinent words to say about that. But as things are, you have the state claiming as complete an allegiance in the U.S.S.R. as in England or N.Z. And by now I am a convinced political pluralist. Of course the withering-away of the state wd. solve that question all right, but damn it! is the state really going to wither away? That's what I want to know. Anyhow when the revolution comes I don't think I'll carry opposition to it so far as to be shot for a reactionary, though I may be despised for a Laodicean*.7
… what the hell do Marxian economics matter anyway? I mean as Marxian economics? The class-struggle seems to me the essential point. I found when I woke up the morning after Hitler began slogging the other side that I had definitely turned Communist – at least I had all the sensations of a painful intellectual struggle, & that seemed to be the cause. Can you be a Communist without swallowing the whole bag of tricks? Need you spout the jargon like my young brother [Ernest] in the States? The trouble is I want to be a Communist & a Laodicean at the same time. So I dare say I'll face the firing squad yet. All right; but when I die note that my last words will be 'Comrades, I die in the faith of Voltaire & Bertrand Russell &' – the volley crashes.8If the bourgeoisie jails me first, & I am asked what turned me Communist, I answer from the dock succinctly, 'Sir George Fowlds & Hitler'. My God! aren't the newspapers awful to read these days? My heart bleeds over poor old Germany. It's one damn thing after another. Here's the chief theoretical point about Com[mun]ism that sticks mepage 190up at present – assuming that I swallow the personal liberty camel as being no worse a beast than ours & perhaps a better one: here's the sequence – dictatorship of proletariat, withering-away of state, perfect socialism. Yes, but if history is 'dynamic', why stop there, or how can you stop there. If you stop even in theory, doesn't that make the process meaningless. Is the world to remain permanently without classes? Do dynamics become statics? It may be argued that the contingency not having arisen, the point is of academic interest only – but then I'm interested in points of academic interest. For all I know the great communist theoreticians may have settled it – ask [R. A. K.] Mason will you? It doesn't seem to be altogether negligible.9
* Laodicean: 'Having the fault for which the Church in Laodicea is reproached in Rev.iii. 15, 16: hence "lukewarm neither cold nor hot", indifferent in religion, politics, etc.' (Oxford English Dictionary.)
In many ways John seems to have been more absorbed by D.H. Lawrence's letters, which he and Elsie were both reading, than any of the volumes on Marxist theory. You must certainly read the letters, he told Richmond. 'But', he went on to confide:
I really can't make out what he [Lawrence] was after, even with the help of Aldous Huxley's introduction … But they certainly bear out what H. Nicolson said of him in those broadcast articles – a new faith after the 19th cent. scepticism of Huxley & the rest. But what the devil is the new faith? No use asking you, for you like me are quite 19th century. Why have a new faith anyhow? Won't it do more harm than good? You can't put machinery up against faith & say there's the antithesis. I wish to God I knew what L. was driving at. You can analyse up to a certain point, instinct, etc., but then you, or at least I, come up against a blank wall. These favourite words of his, darkness, the blood, dark sex, & so on, mean nothing to me except in a vague emotional way. But we don't want vague emotion. Anyhow what is the matter with conscious sex in daylight? It is all wrong, according to L. Still I like him a damn sight better than most people I have met or heard of. Guts.10
John had sent his poem 'Considerations on Certain Music of J.S. Bach' to Richmond (to whom it was dedicated 'as by right') in January 1933, with the qualification that it probably had not reached its final form, but he 'couldn't wait for the tinkering of months before sending it'. 'Perhaps it is no damn good at all', he added, 'perhaps it is merely the lingering after effect of the S. School …'11 To Kathleen McKay he expressed some of the same doubt: 'It is mainly about Bach – about 150 lines, some good, some bad'.12Richmond liked it, though John agreed with his comment that 'I don't say quite the things you wd. say if you had the ability; but then neither do I say quite the things I wd. say if I had the ability'.13
The poem opens:page 191
Meditating in silence after the last note
I consider old John Sebastian
cantor and capellmeister, official writer
of Leipzig anthems, player in court bands,
chief of the sons of God, by his music divine
in his own right beyond the Lutheran God.
He was twice married, had eighteen children … he was
twice married, had eighteen children; mark that
my soul: the genius philoprogenitive,
historical instance for once; was, too,
a model of conjugal stability; prayed
piously; quarrelled with his churchwardens;
taught Latin. Colossal! – and lived to sixty-five,
producing and teaching all those small Bachs –
must have lost count of children and anthems alike!
Regularity did it; punctual
to the Sunday Bach with his anthems; punctual
I suppose with his offspring: man must work,
his days are numbered, the old cantor must produce.
And his works were good – his Wilhelm Friedemann,
young Johann Christian and the rest, good musicians,
and his anthems that outlasted them all.
So I consider in front of the clavier
old John Sebastian tempered so well,
playing his forty-eight preludes and fugues, sublime
manifesto: more final than that later one
of communist Marx. The fugue that I played –
it closed on a cadence like the hours of his life,
when the old man lay dictating that last
choral-prelude, last elaboration of faith
and dying humbleness before his God.
Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthen sein – troubled those words
but how transfigured, in trust glorified.
And yet consider that annoyed fierce cantor's face
of his portrait, the just indignation
of a virtuous man affronted with a false note,
with a choir attacking at a wrong angle
some Sanctus or Kyrie; John Sebastian,
master, I much prefer your Forty-eight;
your face for the excellent Leipzig musicians –
out of strength sweetness: give me the honey! …
That prelude flowed like a spring of consolation
in a hard southern land; come, my fingers,
over the page, forget the multiplied children,
that severe Leipzig physiognomy,
court bands, conjugal stability and Latin;
page 192 to it again – to the tenderness, sad
beauty, to the firm exquisite line, the lovely
pulsation and triumph of order: turn,
this next is John Sebastian himself, cantor,
his soul and mind; then to our fifth French Suite.
The poem was in five parts. John saw the first as the prelude and the second as a fugue – 'so far as I was thinking of any particular prelude & fugue, I was thinking of the 6th in Bk 1; one of the first I ever got to know'. The third section, the gigue, 'is the 5th Fr. suite one'. John was least happy with this: it 'seems to me the weakest part & very weak at that'. In the fugue and the gigue he sought most directly to find a kind of verbal metaphor for the music, and they are less successful than the first and last two parts, where his historical imagination is more immediately involved. In the fourth part, 'J.S.B. Loquitur Vor deinen Thron tret' ich', Bach, old and blind, praises God for his mercy in giving him 'great power/among all men to sing unto his greatness'. The poem ends with the 'great gates' of heaven opening for Bach to meet his God. John 'wrote the last section first, & then the first, & then thought well why not a whole blooming suite?'14
'Considerations' was followed by another longish poem, 'Decline of the West', which John sent to R.A.K. Mason to be published in Phoenix.15 He thought it had one or two good lines, but admitted in advance 'that its heredity is by T.S. Eliot out of Spengler'.16 The admission is hardly needed and the poem seems strangely lacking in personal emotion, oddly unrelated to experience. It is perhaps significant that John was unsure whether to call it 'Decline of the West' or 'Decay of Capitalist Civilisation'. He thought it was 'rather good', but admitted to Richmond that people 'who deign to read it at all regard it merely as an academic exercise'.17 It was reprinted the following year in Art in New Zealand18 as the first section of a longer poem, 'Meditations on Historic Change'. Although John claimed that the longer poem finished 'on a note of bright optimism and the forecasting of the transformation of society on a Planned Basis' he confessed that he found it 'not either Very Original or Very Good'.19 Only in the last section, in which he contemplates his sleeping son Robin, thinks of him in a line of fathers and sons and foresees him growing to build 'the thing that's yet undone', does the poem really engage the reader.20
Since returning from London John had written a considerable quantity of verse. By the end of the 1920s he had shed the Georgian style of his early years and, influenced by his wide reading of page 193recent English poetry, had moved to a studied engagement with the modernist style; echoes of Bridges and Hopkins gave way to Eliot and the later Yeats. He was far from happy with Quentin Pope's choice from his poems for the much-vilified anthology Kowhai Gold, published in 1930,* a group which reflected his earlier work. What he felt about Quentin's dedication of the volume to him is not recorded.
Norman Richmond's wife Larry (with whom John was never very comfortable), a daughter of Arnold Wall, professor of English at Canterbury College, approved of 'Considerations'; John's other verse she thought 'ingenious but derivative'. John did not defend himself: 'Alas! I thought, she has summed me up in one, & all my works & mind; sometimes I admit it, I am ingenious, but Oh God in heaven how constantly derivative! I have the perfect academic qualifications in fact, & yet academe eludes me. Extraordinary fate!'21 He conceded too readily and too much.
Roger Robinson, in The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, writes that John's poems 'are characteristically metaphysical, meditations on often commonplace experiences like riding a bicycle, listening to music or visiting a cathedral or museum, which turn the poet's mind to the universal, the meaning and processes of life'.22 His poem 'Lighting My Pipe'23 opens in a matter-of-fact way:
Lighting my pipe in the road this late afternoon
I see the sombre evening close round the houses…
Twenty lines later his thoughts are far from the wet road and falling darkness:
… suddenly I think, as I fling down my match
and the rain thickens, and I look at the near trees
black-clustering, of men my remote ancestors,
shaggy and ape-like forms, gathered in winter's cold
crouched close in a rough circle, while the terrible
primeval all-embracing forest gathered night,
holding out famished hands to the new-found magic
wonder of warmth and light burning red among them
sending contentment or strange-felt uneasiness
page 194 on those scarce-dawned minds, while inarticulate sound
* In Eric McCormick's view, '[Rupert] Brooke was in effect the chief contributor to that ignoble collection'. (E.H. McCormick, An Absurd Ambition: Autobiographical Writings, edited by Dennis McEldowney (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1996), p.41.)
murmured around the group with comforting assent.
And still they crouched and gazed, fascinated beyond
all knowledge: as I a moment gaze, and then walk on.
John was, in a sense, a classic colonial modernist, asking 'What does it mean that I am here?' And 'here' not only in the immediate physical sense but also in relation to the whole Western intellectual and cultural tradition. Written in an 'intellectual-contemplative mould',24 his verse sometimes lacked spontaneity; it could be laboured and show an odd mismatch between language and subject, and even a clash of language within a poem. The most successful poems are those where his personal feelings are involved as well as the intellect; as when he was writing about Bach rather than the decline of the West, for example, or the poems 'You were standing' (1932) and 'After Dinner' (1933), which both express the love and delight he felt at becoming a father. 'After Dinner' begins:
'You funny little rough!' she said. There was
poetry in that, I thought. Smilingly
she stood and gazed at him, laughing himself.
He was sitting in his chair, fast gripping
his crust, looking upward with ecstasy
of inborn merriment, the little sinner,
as if the world were only cause for laughter …
During the 1930s John's verse was widely published, in Art in New Zealand, Phoenix, Rata and the weekly journal Tomorrow. He was included in every anthology for three decades: Alexander and Currie's Treasury (1926), Pope's Kowhai Gold (1930), Marris's Best Poems (annual volumes during the 1930s), Curnow's Book of New Zealand Verse (1945) – though Curnow seemed unable to work him into the argument of his influential 'Introduction') – through to Chapman and Bennett's Anthology (1956). 'You were standing' was included in Lauris Edmond's 2001 anthology New Zealand Love Poems. On a number of occasions John considered bringing together a collection of his verse for publication. This finally happened in 1938 with the Caxton Press's Words for Music, a slim volume of fourteen pages which included 'Considerations on Certain Music of J.S. Bach' and five other poems written between 1926 and 1937 on musical subjects.
Robin Hyde judged John to be 'one of the finest verse-writers in New Zealand';25 in 1935 Denis Glover ranked him together with Fairburn, Mason and Curnow as 'younger writers … who page 195have been influenced by a new freshness in English poetry';26 and a reviewer of Verse Alive, a 1936 Caxton Press anthology of verse first published in Tomorrow, wrote that he stood 'head and shoulders … above any other practising New Zealand poet'.27 Later judgement would suggest a more modest place; at his best an able poet but not in the front rank. Allen Curnow, writing at the same time and subject to the same modernist influences, mastered these to forge his own distinctive voice. This was something John failed to do. From the late 1930s the flow of verse almost ceased, though he continued to buy and read poetry. The practice of writing poetry, however, and the ruminative spirit that characterised much of his best work, helped to shape the prose of his mature years. The love of language and fascination with words, the concern with balance and with rhythm, which underlay his insistence that reading aloud was a vital step in the craft of writing, mark the essential link between the verse and his later prose works.
At the Beginning of March 1933, F.P. Wilson had become ill with pleurisy and John was hired by Victoria to do his teaching. He was paid £40 a month and hoped, before Wilson's return, to make enough to pay the year's rent. The college staff were welcoming but he was 'overwhelmed with advice' to hold his tongue on the state of the world until he had a permanent job there and 'then to let it wag as freely as it will', advice which he tried to follow but found hard when lecturing on the revolutionary spirit in the nineteenth century.28 The job was frustrating. No one knew when Wilson was likely to come back and John could not plan anything more than a week ahead. When Wilson finally returned at the beginning of July, John was rather sore at having to get out.
I was born on 28 April and provisionally named Tim, which met with universal hostility. After protracted deliberation (at the end of May John suggested to Norman Richmond that I should be Timothy Norman Lenin Marx John Sebastian29) I was finally registered in late June as Timothy Holmes. John and Elsie had hoped for a daughter, to be called Jane after John's mother. Nevertheless, John reported me to be fairly satisfactory, 'if we smother up the unfortunate matter of his sex in a judicious blanket of silence'.30 Within weeks I was showing 'all the signs of developing into a man of sterling character'.31
Life in the Hutt had its pleasures. In spite of their limited means John and Elsie seem to have been very happy and clearly enjoyed page 196their growing family. John's brother Keith (working as an electrical engineer for the Railways), Fronnie and their two small children were living nearby.* John Reid, a young lawyer who was assisting Walter Nash in his campaign for the Hutt seat in parliament, and his wife Aileen, also with two small children, became close friends and the three couples met often, at times to play ping-pong or indulge John's enthusiasm for quoit tennis. Elsie's parents were welcoming and generous in lending their car for outings and in helping feed a hungry family, sometimes sending down a pudding to Marsden Street, or having John and Elsie or the whole family to their house. In July Ernest Beaglehole and his wife Pam were briefly back in New Zealand from Yale, before going to the Bishop Museum in Hawai'i to work with Peter Buck. John was still rather ambivalent about his young brother; he found it difficult not to envy Ernest's success in finding both publisher† and employment. 'He is a Very Superior bloke …' he told Richmond, 'Both [Ernest and Pam] are intense American university communists as far as I can gather, with all the lingo & no doubts of their own correctness'.32 Friends from earlier days at Victoria reappeared. Ivan Sutherland (a source of coffee beans and oranges, both of which he imported from the Cook Islands), Alister McIntosh (after his return from Carnegie-funded library studies in the United States), Dick Campbell (now private secretary to Gordon Coates, the Minister of Finance in the coalition government) and others were regular visitors and kept John and Elsie in touch with what was going on. Sutherland brought out the painter Christopher Perkins (down from Rotorua to see his pictures hung in an exhibition), who turned out to be an enthusiast for Bach. So he returned a day or two later for an evening of talk and John playing. It was a memorable meeting, but the Perkins family were to leave New Zealand to return to England at the end of 1934.
* Keith saw little hope of advancement in the Railways during the depression years, and the following year the family left for England where he was to have a successful career working for English Electric.
The trouble began in April when the Debating Society (following Oxford's lead) passed a motion 'That this house will not fight for King and Country'. The next month the Free Discussions Club issued Student, 'a poorly cyclostyled, militantly left-wing'35 paper, its first number edited by Bart Fortune (Reo's brother), the second and third by Gordon Watson. After two numbers the Students' Association executive banned the paper on the grounds of the blatant inaccuracy of much of its content; when a third was issued, the club was disaffiliated from the Students' Association. The professorial board reprimanded the editor and the college council approved the measures taken against the publication. All of this coincided with a public attack on the college by the New Zealand Welfare League for allowing teaching that was against the Empire, against British ideals, against religion, against the family, against 'nearly everything our civilisation is based upon'. The league's attack, while unsigned, reflected the views of its secretary, A.P. Harper, a great mountaineer and explorer, but a man 'whose dicta on education and politics', John thought, 'come as near imbecility as anything uttered in this unfortunate country'.36 The league was supported, in the correspondence columns of the Evening Post, by Canon Percival James, 'a rather foolish person with an ecclesiastical talent for overstatement',37 who enlarged on the 'haunting dread' that Victoria College inspired in a great number of parents for the effect it could have on the immature minds of their children. The canon demanded that the college give an assurance that it accepted an obligation to ensure that the conscientious convictions of decent youth would not be outraged.38 Other correspondents joined in. John wrote opposing any such assurance: 'Does Canon James imagine that education comes essentially from anything else but the clash of conviction on conviction, and meditation over the results?' The Welfare League he dismissed more summarily:
As for the New Zealand Welfare League, that dubious institution, whose cause Canon James has adopted, and in whose extraordinary page 198asseverations the present controversy began, one need waste no words on it; for it has lived so long on the borderlands of defamation and libel that to introduce it further to the geography of truth would serve no good purpose.39
John was rather pleased with that sentence, and pleased also that for the first time he had had a letter published 'verbatim & in full by one of the great metropolitan dailies of this country; a fact which I think entitles me to couple with my name the concept of Success'.40
In face of the attack, the college wavered. Professor Gould, chairman of the board, invited James and others to make their complaints specific and to name the staff involved. The invitation was not taken up. After an acrimonious discussion, in which one of its members, the Hon. Robert McCallum, was said to have named Hunter as one of those staff from whom students were getting their opinions, the council set up a committee of inquiry. Their report, a revised version of one from the board, which the council thought too critical of the college's critics, represented, in John's view, 'a pattern of abasement, an exemplar of flunkeyism, a model of treachery to the most elementary principles of university life'.41 The 'most noisome, crawling bits' of the report were, he understood, the work of Arthur Fair KC, the solicitor-general.42 The report expressed regret that debates on sexual and religious subjects had taken place (the board moved quickly to forbid further debates on these topics), asserted that the religious faith of students was immune from assault and that disloyalty was under supervision, and went on to assure the public that 'the very small number [of students] whose conduct and beliefs are in conflict with the great majority of the community attract attention entirely out of proportion to their influence in the college. Their influence must, and will, be restrained within reasonable bounds.' The report concluded with an expression of confidence in the academic staff. That too riled John: all 'thoroughly, utterly, completely and damnably respectable'.43 Fifteen years later, when he wrote his history of the college, he dismissed the report briefly: 'It is an ignoble document, but it is one the faithful historian cannot pass over.'44
Before that matter had run its course, there was further excitement when Spike appeared in September. A member of the council, Justice Ostler (who had himself edited Spike in its early days), took strong exception to three articles; two he saw as seditious, the third because it very persuasively attacked the law teaching in the college. The editor, and writer of the law article, was I.D. Campbell, later to be a colleague of John's as professor of law at Victoria and deputy page 199vice-chancellor. The board directed that the magazine should be withdrawn. It was later reissued with the three offending articles removed. John reported to Richmond that Ostler had behaved diabolically, he 'nearly had the poor devil of an editor sacked from his job, telling his boss he was a Communist – which was quite untrue'.45
All of this left John in a fury. He wondered if one could any longer trust Hunter; he 'has gone the politician altogether … all very excited over the Akld. row; but when it comes to a show-down down here, his stock remark is the one about "choosing our own battle-ground" – with the result that he's never in the scrap at all'. John thought the tactics of those behind Student 'were rotten, & that young Watson wants to be booted out of the college just to prove that it is a bourgeois institution (& it always amazes me how eager the communists are to prove the obvious)'.46 His strongest views were kept for the council: 'there was a mad race between the Council, Prof. Board & Students' Assn. to see who could be the most thoroughly & nastily reactionary. Things seemed very even for a time, & then the Council drew away in a burst of quite remarkable speed & finished (if it really has finished) with the rest nowhere.'47 'Your Victoria College', he wrote to de la Mare, '& my Victoria College exist no longer … they have knuckled down to all the demands of the Rev. Canon Percival James, that muck-raking notoriety-seeker, & of Mr A.P. Harper, of the Welfare League, & boast about the number of parsons Victoria College has given to the world! Well, it's about the only thing they can boast of now.'48John felt deeply frustrated and would have liked 'to flay the swine alive',49 but he looked to F.P. Wilson's retirement as probably his only chance for a job: 'here I now pin all my hopes, however distant they may be'.50
When the Temporary work at Victoria came to an end, John revised and added to his 'little history' of New Zealand. 'With revision it has turned into a little essay in Marxian interpretation', he told Richmond, 'though the holy Name is only mentioned once, & then without praise'.51 He sold the 'serial rights' for £20 ('privately thanking God, because I wd. have taken £10'52) to National Opinion, the journal of the New Zealand Legion. It was published as 'Youthful Nation: History of New Zealand' in sixteen fortnightly parts beginning on 19 October 1933.53 The legion was a conservative political movement, born of the Depression, which page 200opposed party politics and made vague appeals to patriotism and old-fashioned individualism. In John's view it was 'developing in a way more futile than sinister … the moneyed men who were financing it at the start, Beauchamp etc., have withdrawn their support,* & it's hard up. Besides it temporises with things like socialism, & Campbell Begg [its leader] is a friend of Walter Nash'.54 Its membership peaked at about 20,000 in late 1933; twelve months later it was finished. National Opinion was not consistently right-wing (it carried, among other things, complaints about censorship, and contributions by W.B. Sutch55) but John thought selling the essay to it 'one of the best jokes of modern times'.56 Harry Tombs had turned it down for publication but John still had hopes he might find a publisher in Britain.
With Christmas coming there were again Matriculation history papers to mark: 'those bloody papers kept me cloistered for a month, with the exception of Xmas Day, when I cut the number corrected down to 10, & spent the rest of the day gorging & sleeping'.57 This brought a cheque for £56 13s 8d: 'I must say … we have not had half so black a year as we anticipated. In fact in one way or another I made upwards of £250'. He had to add a note to his letter: 'E points out, that to be exact, it was £218'. Elsie always had a rather better head for money. Without her modest allowance from her father, life would have been difficult indeed. The lectures on Western civilisation, which Richmond had commissioned the year before, had been postponed for a year so there was still the prospect of £2 a lecture: 'I am rapidly becoming unemployable & really don't want to do any work at all', he wrote to Richmond, 'only read books I have been hankering to read for years; but your letter is so pitiful, & my sense of duty to wife & family so profound that I suppose I must sacrifice myself.'58 Richmond's formal offer, when it came, was accepted by Elsie, 'on account of the rate at which Tim is wearing out his trousers'.59 The Wellington WEA also employed John for £75 to look after its correspondence courses, with up to £25 more for travelling expenses when visiting groups outside Wellington, and he agreed to give eight lectures at Lower Hutt on 'Social and political science' for £16.
* John did hear that Beauchamp 'was very scared lest the preliminary finance he gave [the New Zealand Legion] would do him out of re-appointment to the board of the Bank of N.Z. by the govt, & wrote to both Coates & Forbes to say he had nothing to do with it'. (JCB to DEB, 16 November 1933.)
the Hawera group-leader is also Adjutant of the N.Z. Division of the League of Frontiersmen, a great admirer of [Bledisloe], & treasures a letter from Bled's private sec. Curiously enough, he is also quite convinced of the rottenness of our newspapers, & of the capitalist system, & appears to be an efficient W.E.A. secretary! There were some other funny birds too – A Russian Jew at Levin who made some £thousands in N. York & lost it all poultry farming in N.Z.… This bloody Douglas credit is still a menace though. People solemnly discuss whether they'll 'have a W.E.A. group or a Douglas credit study circle this year', & so on.60
Later, he had a week in Hawke's Bay. He was able to stay with Elsie's brother Peter, who was farming near Hastings, to meet with Harold Holt and see over the Holt family timber business, and to go to a rugby match – 'an odd game, but not without its sporadic excitement'.61 Quite possibly it was the only rugby match he ever saw. The Wellington WEA, in John's view, could not compare with that in Auckland in either the way it was run or the quality of the material it provided to students. 'God preserve me from being a permanent tutor-organiser for the Wellington district'.62
Early in 1934 he reported to Richmond that the focus of his reading was now the nineteenth century: 'I'd like to devote about three years (for a start) to the study of England in the 19th century'.
When I was marking papers I read, & re-read in parts, [Morley's] Politics History & Oracles on Man & Govt in the collected ed.… just to keep myself in touch with some sort of balance & sanity. I like the way he tears up Maine & Lecky, their lucubrations on democracy – it's very thorough. But doesn't it all seem simple & idyllic & remote from the problems of democracy circa 1934? I think I could be a really good Liberal, no Radical, of the late Gladstonian era. However no doubt the simplicity is chiefly apparent to us, & the conscientious Radical had to do a certain amount of soul-searching even in those days. But contrast Maine for an antagonist with Lenin – or Hitler … my God! those do seem halcyon days. I am reading his Recollections now: or rather I have finished one volume & have the other ready for when I have got through a Life of Blake [by Mona Wilson] now in progress, a Xmas present from my Missus.63
Three weeks later it was John Stuart Mill's letters. 'Some good stuff … But the more I read of the Great Victorians the more I realise how deep Marx went'.64 The breadth of John's reading, recorded in page 202his letters, is more impressive than its focus. At this time he was also reading Donne's poetry, E.M. Forster's Howards End and his life of Lowes Dickinson. A little later it was Croce on history: 'he is a tough nut to crack. The second half of his book is easier & more interesting, being more about history & less about the identity of history & philosophy'.65 He generally read for several hours after the evening meal, often going to bed well after midnight, and he was never an early riser.
The Auckland History chair had been advertised in August 1933 and John had applied.66 He did not expect to be appointed and applied 'as a strategical move, hoping to be highly placed by the English committee, which would give me a push somewhere else'.67 Professor Newton was a member of this committee, which advised the college on the applicants. 'Unaccountably', Sinclair puts it, John was not included in the shortlist of four,68 though there is no evidence that he ever knew this. Did his application reach the English committee? He had heard from de Kiewiet that Newton had asked him to apply, and he had no doubt that de Kiewiet would get the job. De Kiewiet's appointment was announced in the middle of November and John, greatly amused, reported to Richmond that he 'is quick-tempered, obstinate as a mule, & can out-bluff twenty O'Sheas'.69 His delight increased when he heard that Isobel Airey (whose husband had also applied) was at a public luncheon in Auckland and sitting next to Sir George Fowlds:
Sir G. tactfully waxes enthusiastic about this man de Kiewiet – marvelous record, wonderful scholar, nobody in N.Z. to touch him etc. So Mrs A., getting her own back, fixes him with her most charming eye, & says with deathly sweetness, 'Yes, indeed, not only is he a great friend of Dr B's but seems to share his ideas & outlook exactly.' Poor old Sir G. turns quite white & doesn't say another word.70
De Kiewiet turned the job down. John was not the only one who had warned him about Auckland,71 and it may well be that he was hoping an offer from Auckland could be used to increase his salary at Iowa.72 The chair went to James Rutherford, a young Englishman with a doctorate from Michigan, who had published one short paper. John wrote: 'I should feel very insulted to have been passed over in his favour if I had stood any chance on grounds other than qualifications'.73 Sinclair, a little ingenuously, found it 'difficult to see' why Rutherford was ranked ahead.74page 203
Early in 1934 the history chair at Adelaide was also advertised when W.K. Hancock, whose book on Australia John had read and admired, left after a short stay to go to Birmingham. John applied, but without 'even a sneaking hope' of getting it. 'We just apply for jobs these days on the principle of here's a job, let's apply for it. It doesn't do any harm or cost over-much … & it gives a minor interest to life'.75 His application was unsuccessful. There was also a job in Tasmania but, as he wrote to Richmond, 'we draw the line at Tasmania, having still some money in the bank'.76
In June 1934 came the news that F.P. Wilson had given notice that he would retire the following January. John refused to believe it until he actually saw it 'in print & irrevocable'.77 He wrote that 'I shall be annoyed, but certainly not surprised, if I don't get it'.78 As the closing date, 31 August, approached and he organised testimonials for his application, however, it became difficult to think of much else. He asked von Zedlitz if he could 'stick his name down as a referee'.* Von Zedlitz agreed but left John with a 'very empty feeling in the stomach' by saying that he thought his chances were pretty thin, as 'The Council is much more concerned about what Canon P. James or the Welfare League might possibly say than anything else'.79 As September stretched into October, John and Elsie went from waves of optimism to troughs of pessimism. There was a pleasant distraction when the first copies of The Exploration of the Pacific finally arrived – and wry irritation that it was Elsie's father who picked up an elementary mistake in Spanish geography. A further worry was Elsie's mother, with whom John had come to have the best of relations. She had had an operation for cancer and, while she was back home and taking a lively interest in the family, the outlook was not cheerful.
On Friday, 26 October John sent his father, who was staying with John's brother Geoffrey and Theo in Hamilton, a telegram:
Job not announced but definitely have no hope confidential
* The testimonials he submitted, which strongly supported his application, were from Newton, Laski, Williamson, Allan Fisher and a joint one, covering his work in Hamilton and Auckland, signed by W.H. Cocker (an Auckland lawyer closely associated with the WEA, later a long-serving president of the Auckland University College Council and then chancellor), de la Mare and Richmond.
A council committee of three – Phineas Levi, the council chairman; Gould, chairman of the professorial board; and Hunter, the second board member on the council – considered the applications for three chairs: history, mathematics and law. For the first they recommended unanimously that John should be appointed. F.L.W. Wood, a young Australian with a BA from Sydney University and an Oxford MA, who had been lecturing at Sydney since 1930, was ranked second, the rest nowhere.
Gould told me before the [council] meeting that they had picked me [John wrote to Norman], thought there wd. be some opposition because of the Auckland business from swine like McCallum etc, but couldn't see how the recommendation could fail to get through, Hunter told Sutherland it was all right for me, & the expectation down here was so general that I would get it that that bloody fool & little swine Cornish the Sol Gen. even told Coates that a Communist had got the history chair at V.U.C. Luckily Dick Campbell was there & when Coates said 'I didn't know Beaglehole was a Communist' Cornish was settled. He's a damn sight worse than [Arthur] Fair, & I didn't think that was possible.
Council met Thursday night. I cdn't get Gould that night, but next morning he cd. hardly speak, he was so overwhelmed … Hunter, who seems to have come very well out of this particular business & to have fought for me like a tiger, told Sutherland he cd. have vomited. Three chairs to be filled, History, maths, law. Cttee's recommendations challenged in each case but maths & law got through easily enough …
As soon as my name was mentioned two members brought up the Akld business & were squashed by Ostler & Atkinson. But if they brought it up they voted against me & so did others who hadn't the guts to mention it. The struggle then started. Wood had a very long & extraordinarily detailed testimonial from his boss S.H. Roberts … praising him to the skies – even saying he had invented a new system of marking papers! And that was what the majority grabbed & hung on to. Hunter got busy on the Pioneer Histories – B [eaglehole] asked specially to collaborate with all these distinguished knights & professors – yes, they said, but – look at this chap's testimonial, he's invented a new system etc. And so on … I gather in fact that although they didn't page 205so much want Wood as be determined they wdn't have me Wood was strong enough to be an arguable alternative – if my books were ignored, plus the facts that they didn't know me, hadn't read my testimonials properly, & ignored Gould & Hunter, who were the only ones who did know me & who had considered all the applications thoroughly, & were also the only ones who knew anything about univ. teaching … And they were determined not to have me because of the Akld fuss – though they had no idea what the fuss was about – except that I had 'advanced views'. Ostler pointed out that Wood's views might be as 'advanced' as Beaglehole's; but that possibility was brushed aside.*, 82
Since John's time as assistant lecturer, ten years before, the idea of succeeding Wilson in the chair had never been far from his mind. If he had taken the job at Rhodes University in 1928 and applied from there it is very hard to imagine him being turned down. Unlike in Auckland two years before, when the excitement seemed to buoy him up and he still had something to look forward to, this was a devastating blow. 'I had some minutes of complete & dreadful breakdown on Friday & two days' utter depression; now I have a normal depression & a tendency to lose my temper on the slightest provocation, so that I have to hold on to it consciously all the while, which is a damn nuisance. Elsie is magnificent.'83 Ivan Sutherland and other friends did what they could to soften the blow, and von Zedlitz wrote in sympathy:
2 NovI have just heard the lamentable & horrifying action of V.U.C. Council. I am more disgusted than surprised – have known McCallum for years, an odious drunken swine. The rest are just spineless, only 2 or 3 have honest convictions. I hear Hunter & Gould did their best. I don't knowpage 206what to say to you about it, I have suffered too & know what it feels like. That sort of thing creates a revulsion of feeling & may serve you yet, if only a chance opens again. Alas, all our sympathy & indignation won't help you now. No answer. I'm only letting off impotent rage.84
* Some time later (6 March 1935) John reported to Richmond that he had worked out how council members voted:
For B For W Hunter McCallum (odious drunken swine) Levi Huggins (City Council – retired builder, I think) Gould O'Leary (lawyer, keen on testimonials) Ostler Bakewell (v. aged) Parkinson Cresswell (b[loody] f[ool]) Valentine (b. f. probably, Harrop's father-in-law) Atkinson (Oxford man, so's W.)
John was almost, but not quite, correct. In the critical vote, to amend the committee's report by placing Wood first, those who favoured Wood were as John listed, with the addition of Duncan Stout (son of Sir Robert Stout and later a long-serving chairman of the council and Chancellor of the university), who had moved the amendment, while Huggins is not recorded as voting. The chairman, Levi, did not vote on the amendment. (Minutes of the meeting of the Victoria University Council, 25 October 1934.)
On 5 November the matter was raised in parliament, during an appropriation debate,85 by M.J. Savage, the leader of the Labour opposition, Walter Nash and Harry Atmore, the independent member for Nelson. Savage put the issue succinctly: 'Dr. Beaglehole is recognised as one with outstanding qualifications; and, because he is alleged to have advanced ideas,* the recommendation of the committee, the members of which have also a good grasp of the subjects they are handling, is vetoed by others who are less qualified to form an opinion.' He asked the government to look into the matter and see that justice was done, arguing that 'men with advanced ideas are the very men we are looking for'. Nash followed with a fuller account of John's career: as a young New Zealander he had extended his experience and gained his doctorate in Britain and then returned, 'as he should do, to give us the benefit and the knowledge of the experience he has gained overseas'. He had been denied that opportunity. Atmore added the information that the English committee advising on the applicants from Britain 'informed our committee that in Dr Beaglehole there was a more brilliant applicant in New Zealand than any applicant' they were considering. 'But this distinguished young New Zealander may have given utterance to some new thought, which in some quarters in New Zealand, is the unpardonable sin.' The explanation for Victoria's decision, Atmore suggested, was that John had a testimonial from Laski, and 'that made him suspect' in the eyes of the council. In reply, Gordon Coates agreed that Beaglehole was 'very able and a very excellent lecturer on history', but while he would 'be glad to see that the questions raised … are passed on to the proper quarter' he did not see how the government could act to adjust the matter.
* 'Query: What are "advanced ideas"?' (JCB to DEB, 7 November 1934.)
The decision stood. John had lamented that Gould, 'the typical Liberal … sees nothing to be done … but to fold the hands & regret the nature of mankind', but John conceded that he too could not see how anything could be done.88 Rumour and conjecture on why the council had acted as it did and whether it had been subject to outside pressure continued. In the days after the parliamentary debate John drafted a letter to the chairman of the college council – feeling free by then to refer to matters which had been discussed in committee because they had become so widely a matter of public knowledge – in which he set down some of the reports he had heard. Some time before the council met, he wrote, the director of education, who had no formal connection with the college, had stated that John 'had not a hope' for the chair, and immediately after the council meeting the Department of Education, and the minister, knew all the details of the discussion that had taken place in committee and its result. John understood that Fair, the former council member and Solicitor-General, now a judge, had warned councillors against appointing him on the grounds that he had seen files which proved John's unfitness to occupy the post. Further, McCallum had been heard in Parliament Buildings expressing great satisfaction at having 'blocked Beaglehole', and the circumstances of the appointment appeared to have been generally known to members of the government parties in parliament for some time before the Labour members raised it in the House. Information such as this, John suggested, called for some investigation, 'if only as a means of restoring the confidence of university circles in the Council itself'.
John went on to point out the extremely difficult position in which he was placed, subject to hurtful and even slanderous charges with no opportunity of defence against them and no means of redress if they happened to be made public. As to 'advanced views' – which involved, he suspected, views on social and political reform but he could not be sure – he wrote that
as an historian I have considerable admiration for the principles of freedom and toleration and general human decency that are said to lie at the root of British ideals of social organisation. On the one or two occasions when I have sought publicity (with little success) for any controversial words of mine, it has been solely to give expression to such ideals; and to be the recipient of considerable abuse and enmity for doing page 208so has, I admit, surprised me. I can only assert again now, in agreement with these ideals, that I do not know that such general orthodoxy should make me either fit or unfit to occupy an academic chair.
Finally he adverted to his personal situation: 'It may possibly be a cause of pride and joy to certain councillors to have "blocked Beaglehole"; but to me, with my whole academic career at stake, and as it seems at the moment, ruined, and with the future of my dependants gravely jeopardised, the transaction does not appear in quite so entertaining a light.' The letter, of which there is a typescript carbon copy in John's papers, is undated but refers to the parliamentary statements 'on Monday last'. The copy has corrections in ink in John's hand, and corrections and comments in pencil in two other hands, one of them Ivan Sutherland's – Sutherland noted that the report of Fair's intervention 'definitely cannot be used'. John wrote in the letter that he was sending copies to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of New Zealand (Hunter) and the chairman of the professorial board (Gould), but we do not know whether any copies, with or without amendments, were sent.
The evidence does not enable us to say beyond question that there was outside pressure on the college council, and that the council made its decision as a result of that pressure – councils are never immune from making inexplicable decisions. Three months later John heard that some council members were assuring people 'that the matter was decided purely on testimonials – which wd. only make them fools instead of knaves'.89 It does appear, however, that there had been political pressure and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it had had some effect. It was widely believed to be so at the time and Dick Campbell, from his vantage point in Coates's office and with an acute ear for what was going on, had absolutely no doubt.90 However one explains the decision, it was a very low point in Victoria's history.
The immediate result for John was that once again he had to take on Matriculation marking. The rates of pay had gone down; he earned only £31 for a month's work, whereas the first Christmas he was back in New Zealand it had been £75.91 He also accepted another year's work with the Wellington WEA. More important, C.E. Beeby became foundation director of the newly created New Zealand Council for Educational Research (a further example of the beneficence of the Carnegie Corporation of New York) at the end of 1934. At John's suggestion,92 Beeby contracted him 'with some trifling financial assistance from the Council',93 to work full-time on the council's first and, in Beeby's view, 'arguably … finest' major page 209publication. Proposed as a study of the working of the University of New Zealand, what was intended as an historical introduction to the book grew to 400 pages and was to be published in 1937 as The University of New Zealand: An Historical Study. John and Beeby (always known as Beeb) had last met, briefly, in London. Now a warm friendship developed between the two men and their wives.
The hunt for a job continued. John wrote to Professor Roberts in Sydney to see whether he was looking for someone to take Wood's place, but Roberts replied that when appointing lecturers they considered only their own graduates. J.A. Williamson wrote from London sympathising about Victoria – 'Even if your views were of the luridest scarlet that is your own affair and ought not to make any difference in an academic appointment' – but went on to say that 'I wish I could see a chance of a job for you here, but in truth there is not one, apart from the precarious venture of journalism'.94
A long letter to Richmond in February, however, suggests that John had largely recovered his spirits. They had had plenty of visitors: Anschutz and Rutherford down from Auckland, the Billings to stay a night on their way from Dunedin to England. Lascelles Wilson came and stayed for four or five days, a time 'which might approximately be described as wild but profitable – we make all our visitors who bathe bring back wood for us from the river, & by developing a healthy spirit of competition between Lascelles & Arthur Ward (not to speak of a certain amount of wise & able teamwork), I got the wood-pile to hitherto unimagined proportions.'95 One weekend in February Ivan Sutherland took John out to a bach he rented at Golden Gate on the Paremata harbour. They lay in the sun and bathed and were taken for a sail by Ivan's landlord: 'I thus realised one of the great ambitions of my life – I have never been out in a sailing boat before. The water went past & the breeze freshened & the boom came over & we ducked & it was all very romantic.'96 Sutherland was at this time warden of Weir House and the matron, who had a very tender spot for him, had sent him off with enough food 'for an army for a week'. They did not even start on the chicken, and Sutherland insisted that John take it home. He and Elsie ate it to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary, together with some 'personally selected' Adams Bruce chocolates – by choosing your own selection you could concentrate on 'the booze-filled kind'.
Once the marking was finished John got back to reading – 'Did you ever read Clayhanger? Magnificent thing'. He discovered G.M. Young and his essay 'Portrait of an Age':
… who is he? Very good on Evangelicalism & Utilitarianism. And was page 210it he who told me of the man who said 'What we want is less chastity & more delicacy', or who was it. I also learn that James Mill once got into trouble for poking pamphlets on contraception through area railings in London. A long struggle, isn't it? Also I am on Jane Austen's Letters, which I like. I should like to have known her.97
Young's essay always remained high on his list of recommended reading. A little later he was rereading Milton's Paradise Lost. At this time also he was 'wading through' the sonatas of Beethoven, as a change from 'the greater Bach', but he had some doubt as to whether he found the romantic temperament really congenial – 'too many superfluous notes'.98
John met Fred Wood soon after he arrived to take up the history chair. Wood had known of the circumstances behind his selection and had wondered whether he should accept the appointment. He confirmed to John that he had talked to his vice-chancellor in Sydney about it and had taken the job only after being told that John would not be appointed under any circumstances whatsoever.99 The meeting with Wood cannot have been easy. For a time John's gloom returned, but in May he wrote to Bill Airey:
I like Wood as a person considerably – which is another blow to me; because … I haven't even the satisfaction of making nasty remarks about him behind his back. I have no idea what he is like as historian or teacher, but I shd. think he could hardly help impressing students, or the best of them, favourably … He has a nice lot of books … inherited from his father, Arnold Wood, who was prof. at Sydney. Oh, another reason why he disarms me is that he shares my enthusiasms for Erasmus, Milton etc. Cd. anything be more irritating? His wife is rather rushing things & putting her foot in it accordingly …100
Hunter's first impression of Wood was 'a nice chap but not nearly as strong a personality as J.C.B.',101 but Ostler's comment to the council that Wood's views might be just as advanced as Beaglehole's, was justified. 'It was the college's good luck that they did not get what they expected'; Wood, who while at Oxford had taken an active part in the British general strike of 1926, matched John in his dedication to social justice.102
Meanwhile, The Exploration of the Pacific was being very well received and widely reviewed. 'I had a column review in the Sunday Times', John wrote to Richmond, 'which causes even me, with an insatiable lust for applause & capacity for swallowing it, to blush.'103 The British Sunday Times reviewer wrote:
Dr. Beaglehole, as a New Zealander, takes the history of Pacific page 211exploration seriously; no man who had not put heart and soul into his work could have written so brilliantly. To skim lightly yet vividly over 260 years of international exploration in the greatest ocean, so as to leave the reader with a sense of fulfilment, from blank ignorance to complete knowledge, is an astonishing feat.104
The book was a history of the European exploration of the Pacific. This was the editors' decision and reflected the prevailing Eurocentric view of history. John, at that time, had read little about the earlier Polynesian voyages and discoveries. Having set the scene for his account with a discussion of the idea of the Terra Australis Incognita, the great southern continent, the search for which underlay Pacific exploration until almost the end of the eighteenth century, he went on to trace the narratives of the various voyages from Magellan to Cook. The book was praised for the breadth of its scholarship, for John's remarkable gift of bringing his characters alive – 'from the narrative gradually emerges a splendid gallery of portraits as the character of the discoverers is revealed in their actions or etched in a few incisive phrases'105 – and for his vivid picture of the horrendous difficulties of maritime exploration. Ships were small and often ill-found; until Cook's time there was no adequate method of establishing longitude, and scurvy was a constant threat. The Sydney Morning Herald reviewer commented: 'We are gripped and held fascinated by shipwreck and mutiny, by alternate fraternising and fighting with the natives, by old-world tragedies of cruelty and treachery, sickness and starvation.'106 The New York Times reviewer wrote that the book proved that 'sound and thoroughgoing scholarship and notable writing ability know neither latitude nor longitude'107 – though we should note that this was the only historical publication in a field other than New Zealand history by an historian working in New Zealand between the wars. Edward Thompson, in the Spectator, on the other hand, suggested that as a New Zealander John was writing 'out of familiarity with the seas and lands where his voyagers pass, which books can never give and which the writer who has it need never obtrude'.108 Thompson's suggestion cannot be sustained, as John had virtually no first-hand knowledge of the Pacific and at that time had yet to visit Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound.* Rather, the book represented a triumph of scholarly work on the published sources and of the historical imagination.
* The previous September John had made a WEA visit to Marlborough and wrote to his father (18 September 1934): 'Now I want to get a launch & spend a good holiday in the Sounds & follow up Cook. I wanted to get to Ship Cove but there was no launch going.'
Nearly a third of the book is given to the three chapters on Cook's three voyages. Some memorable phrases emerge: 'The study of Cook is the illumination of all discovery';109 'To dogma he opposed experience; to the largeness of faith the hesitations of the enforced sceptic; to enthusiasm he presented the cool passion of unsatisfied enquiry';110 'He was the genius of the matter-of-fact'.111 John's portrait of Cook concluded:
To measure the stature of Cook … one needs no recourse to legend or controversy; to compare his voyages, not in the mass of their result but individually, with the achievement of other men who were deemed with justice to have made contribution to geography, is its adequate realisation. Chance might enable the most ignorant man to discover islands, said La Pérouse, but it belonged only to great men to leave nothing more to be done regarding the coast they had found. Yet one thinks of Cook, not only as he who would be in the eyes of that immortal Frenchman 'the first of navigators', or as the scientist for whose safety the governments of France and America and Spain took such honourable thought, but also as the tall smiling figure who on the beach at Ship Cove, in Queen Charlotte's Sound, threw trifles for naked Maori urchins to scramble for, laughing and fearless, till his pockets were empty. For the rest, the map of the Pacific is his ample panegyric.112
The portrait was, perhaps, a little more effusive than it was to be later and some shadows were missing, but John's Cook of The Exploration 'was to shape appreciations [of Cook] for the next forty years'.113 A. & C. Black brought out new editions of the book in 1947 and 1966; the third edition was published in the United States by the Stanford University Press and was kept in print until the end of the century.
Edward Thompson wrote that John brought out 'the achievement of Cook as I have never seen it brought out before', but what John had recognised in writing the book was just how poorly served scholars were in the study of Cook. The printed editions of his journals were far from accurate and the journals of Joseph Banks and others who sailed with Cook remained largely unpublished and unknown, so that those biographies which had been written, as well as having other limitations, lacked scholarly foundations. The appearance of The Exploration of the Pacific seems to have sharpened John's idea of pursuing further work on Cook. Early in 1935 Dr Frederick Keppel of the Carnegie Corporation visited New Zealand, and John talked to him about the possibility of getting support to spend a year in Sydney working on the Cook material in the libraries there. 'I propose to write the standard life', he informed page 213Richmond, adding, 'it is a bit early yet to make any suggestion about presentation copies'.114
There was further excitement in August with the publication of Ivan Sutherland's 123-page pamphlet, The Maori Situation. For John this was important, as it marked probably the first real thought he had given to the place of the Maori in New Zealand. From the late 1920s Sutherland, whose lectureship, as assistant to Hunter, was in the old field of mental and moral philosophy, had become increasingly interested in Maori affairs. He formed a close relationship with Apirana Ngata, whose policies for land reform captured his imagination, and also visited Te Puea Herangi to study her land development projects in the Waikato.115 Christopher Perkins's daughter remembered Sutherland at this time as 'a lively person of great charm', but also 'an intense, emotional man, who could easily be roused to fury by injustice and bigotry'. She recalled him 'holding forth … with great passion on the plight of the poorer Maoris'.116 The spur to his pamphlet was the commission of inquiry into the administration of the Native Department that followed political attacks on the administration of Ngata's schemes. The report largely exonerated Ngata of wrongdoing but he resigned from Cabinet in 1934. The whole situation, in Sutherland's view, reflected a woeful lack of understanding between Maori and Pakeha; the pamphlet, he hoped, would do something to increase that understanding on the Pakeha side.
Something of Sutherland's intense involvement is suggested by John's gently ironic report to Richmond at the time of publication:
You must understand we have been on the highest pitch of excitement, about twice as high as Everest – or anyhow Mt. Hobson – for the last few weeks, & I have fallen into the position of literary adviser, proof-reader, publicity writer, show-card expert, & general friend rock & stay. The tension has been Awful, & the booze has flowed freely. All at S's expense. The day of publication we met in Beeby's office, & as S. insisted on driving us both down to the printers afterwards to take him out for a drink I had serious thoughts of my children's future. However all's well; & we are now engaged on various newspaper controversies of a mild nature arising out of the reviews, which have been very good on the whole.117
John added that Sutherland had 'proved a good & generous friend to us, & I have dedicated a poem to him* (not as good as the Bach one, of course)'.
* 'Chinese Plate', published as the first of 'Three Poems of Escape' in Art in New Zealand, vol.8, no.2 (December 1935).
John reviewed the pamphlet in Tomorrow and, more briefly, in Pacific Affairs.118 He was enthusiastic, but could not resist a critical crack in opening:
One had so long abandoned hope of vivid and original thought emerging from the University of New Zealand that, now that it has come to pass, one feels somewhat confounded … The Maori Situation will be taken very seriously by everyone in New Zealand with a sense of responsibility, a respect for logical and lucid argument, and an appreciation of good writing.
Sutherland had argued that there were two races in New Zealand and that it was likely there would be two for a long time to come, that the cultural inheritances of the two races were different, and that an expectation that the minority would in a short time die out or be swallowed up by the majority had not been and would not be realised. The primary reason for this, in his view, was the leadership provided from within Maori society by the Young Maori Party. The responsibility of the Pakeha was to understand what was happening; the failure of the commission of inquiry to understand properly was caused by its implicit acceptance of a rigid European set of values. This failure was shared by the Pakeha politicians. As John summed it up:
… what we have, primarily, in this book is a plea for Maori individuality, as opposed to the Europeanisers of the older generation, the philanthropists who wanted to redeem the Maori from barbarism by turning him into a white man. You can't do it. The plea seems to me to be convincing. Maori nationalism can either be worked into, or rather allowed to grow into, the general pattern of the country's life, as an enlivening and broadening factor – perhaps for later generations as a factor of seminal social importance; or it can be scorned and exacerbated.
John fully accepted Sutherland's estimate of Ngata's importance: 'one of the key men in New Zealand'. 'It seems absurd', John wrote, 'that such a man should not be returned to the position of highest executive importance in native affairs as soon as possible', and he went on to raise the problem of reconciling leadership such as Ngata's with New Zealand's party electoral system. With a general election due later that year, he suggested that such leadership should really be a non-party question: 'Has the Labour Party anyone to put in Ngata's place?'
John's growing friendship with Sutherland led him to consider the Maori and their place in New Zealand in a way that he never had before. Sutherland was to move to Christchurch in 1937, on being page 215appointed to the chair in philosophy and psychology at Canterbury University College, but he continued to be a regular visitor to the Beaglehole house, generally as he passed through Wellington on his way from Christchurch to further fieldwork with the Ngati Porou or other Maori people.
In July John heard from Sutherland that Wood had succeeded in getting a full-time lectureship in history established for the following year. He was anxious to appoint John to it, but was plagued with diffidence and found it difficult to speak to him about it. Sutherland and Hunter had to act as intermediaries. 'Apparently I can have it if I want it', John wrote, 'McCallum now being off the Council & Atkinson dead & everybody else suffering badly from conscience'. He appreciated Wood's move, but at the same time was irritated by the position he was in:
all I have said is that my economic position is such that I wd. have to apply for a hangman's job. In the meanwhile we haven't heard from Carnegie & hope that will release us from the indignity of asking for a job at V.U.C. – & Beeby has offered me £100 a year with him as long as I care to take it, if all else fails … If I could see a casual income ahead for two or three years of £400 I certainly wdn't apply – but the utmost I seem able to make is about £250.119
He fairly quickly came to the conclusion that it was best to take the job, 'unpleasant as it was to apply for it, as a possible jumping-off place for something else',120 and sent in his application at the end of August.121 The college council made the appointment on 28 November, the day after the Labour Party under Savage had swept into power in the general election. A telegram from Fred Wood was the first John heard of his appointment, and the two met shortly afterwards. 'It looks as if Wood & I will get on all right', John told Richmond, 'At least he is not a 2nd-rate schoolmaster, as Rutherford appears to be,* & has the instincts of a scholar & a gentleman. A little less gentleman might be an improvement.'122 They were to get on remarkably well for the next thirty years, to the inestimable benefit of the college and of their students.
* This may be a little unfair to Rutherford. In his early years at Auckland, at least, he worked hard to collect manuscript sources for nineteenth-century New Zealand history which he used as the basis for an MA course. He was later to publish Sir George Grey K.C.B. 1812–1898: A Study in Colonial Government (London: Cassell, 1961). His relations with his colleagues were, however, far from happy. (Chris Hilliard, 'Island Stories: The Writing of New Zealand History 1920–1940', pp.94–5.)
John 'had a lot of congratulations, generally couched in tactfully modified terms',123 including some from his WEA students. Boyd-Wilson wrote welcoming him 'as a trusty colleague coadjulator [sic]* & co-conspirator in the damnation of all duds and the glorification of all bright intellects',124 and the news gave pleasure, and must have been a great relief, to Elsie's mother, who was now very ill and losing ground. The salary was to be £457 (and the college agreed it would start at the beginning of January rather than mid-February as advertised), and John and Elsie, with a secure future for the first time, decided they should pay John's father £60 for the family piano, which they had had since their time in Hamilton.
After Mary Holmes's death on 2 January, John and Elsie moved in with Elsie's father for three weeks. This gave Elsie's sister Edith, who had given up teaching to run the family home when her mother became ill – the expected thing for a single daughter at that time – a chance for a break. At the beginning of February John and Elsie left for a celebratory holiday; first to Hamilton for a day to see friends and then on to Auckland. They turned down an invitation to stay with the Richmonds:
We have never stayed in a hotel together in this country, & feel it would be fun for once … we (or anyhow I) have come to the point where it is necessary to spend some money, with a certain lavishness (for us) or be forever lost, spiritually. I have become positively mean in the last three years. We conclude that we must be deliberately extravagant. Hence hotel. Hence 1st class on train – anyhow as far as Hamilton. Hence parking kids out at Worser Bay with professionals. Hence general feeling of let 'er go, boys, & to hell with the overdraft! No doubt you understand the feeling. We may never do it again; but we've got to do it now.125
It was an uncharacteristic ambition for them both, and a measure of the impact of the previous few years, as a result not just of having to make do with very little money, but also of the growing concern as to whether John would ever get a university appointment, or indeed any sort of satisfactory employment at all.
we … dossed down for the night on the verandah of somebody's untenanted shack. Next morning was one of those mornings we get sometimes, absolutely pure and crystalline, the sea and the sand as pure as the air and the early sun; and I walked along the beach by the side of the sea, round the magnificent curve … up to the edge of what Cook called the Oyster river. On the other side of the stream two or three Maori figures appeared and looked at me: otherwise the whole bay, from the sea in to the hills, was empty and silent. And yet I felt something. It was nothing to do with a half-stirring breeze, or the gradually warming sun, though it was a sort of faint tingling of the mind … I don't want to use that old expression, 'the trembling of a veil', but it really was as if a veil had suddenly trembled, an invisible veil; and on the other side, just outside my vision, was a ship, and a boat rowing towards the shore; and somewhere or other, just floating beyond the reach of my ear, was the sound of words. I almost, before I turned back, caught sight of the Endeavour: I almost heard the voices of eighteenth century sailors.126
From Coromandel it was back to Hamilton, the overnight train to Wellington, and the new term at Victoria College.
* Sisam was a New Zealander, an Auckland graduate who had been a Rhodes Scholar.
The short history was topical; John's contemporary concerns shaped both the proportions of the book and its content.131 This was enough to upset some readers, and one reviewer, A.B. Chappell, in the New Zealand Herald, 132 complained at the summary dismissal of the pioneering period, with everything up to 1890 being crammed into fifty pages, less than a third of the book. Alister McIntosh, writing in Tomorrow, 133 recognised what John was doing: Dr Beaglehole's essay, he wrote, 'for essay it is rather than a book', is 'essentially an interpretation of this country's development in the light of the present phase of our political and social life'. The interpretation reflected John's view that New Zealand history since the European arrival could best be understood as an example of the expansion of British or Western capitalism. As the creature of British expansion, New Zealand was at that time inextricably linked to British markets for its produce and to British financial institutions. When the great depression hit Britain, New Zealand was lost; there was little the politicians could do.
The thesis now seems unremarkable, hardly as provocative as it was seen at the time, although it then represented something new in New Zealand historical writing. Its impact owed as much to the brilliance of the writing – 'brilliantly savage', one later scholar has put it134 – and its epigrammatic quality (though Chappell put it more sourly: the 'constant indulgence in smart quips'). Nor could the vivid sketches of political leaders be fully explained in the terms of the basic thesis. Rather, they pointed ahead to John's growing interest in what it meant to be a New Zealander. Seddon earned the fullest picture:
Inescapably genial, inexhaustibly itinerant, expansive in body and in claims, with an unrivalled capacity for identifying the workings of the Deity with the politics of New Zealand, radical with a real sympathy for the oppressed under his eyes, and imperialist with a vulgarity noisy and flamboyant, devoid of theory but shrewdly apprehensive of the concrete fact, an astute manager and a good administrator, he united within himself a whole orchestra, or, rather, brass band, of achievement; and as a performer on the big drum he was without a peer. Yet the noise did, it must be noted, signify something. If the corruption of his 'roads and bridges policy' was so open as almost to lose the savour of iniquity, if he stormed the defences of a sensitive mind with the rush of a barbarian on Rome, at least he did in some sort fairly represent the colonial mind. True, he liked his empires big. But his humanity was fundamental, if unimaginative, and in the colony itself his disregard for the rigours page 219of ceremonial was over-balanced by the passion of his unforgetful friendliness.135
The legislation produced by Seddon's governments, in John's view, called for less comment. Lacking any large philosophic basis and owing much to trial and error, it was seen by some, then and later, as an approach to 'state socialism'. John disgreed:
The intrumentality of the State was certainly exploited: the socialism, generally speaking, was a label affixed either by external observers who took an imperfect deed for a will enlarged beyond recognition, or by the astonished conservative who could express his surprise and displeasure only by the simple exercise of recrimination in terms incompletely understood.136
Other figures were dealt with more summarily. Ward: 'a good administrator … though his acquaintance with principle perhaps suffered from his willingness to close his eyes to the inevitable consequences of gambling in futures'.137 Massey: 'a laborious farmer and a laborious politician, successful in both rôles, dividing a faith as massive as himself between the Scriptures and the British Empire. Precipitate in patriotism and inaccessible to subtlety, he was the epitome and exemplar of the country he led …'138 Forbes: 'The personal integrity of Mr. Forbes was unimpeachable, but honesty has never been a compulsive rallying-cry …'139 Downie Stewart: 'wise with all the wisdom of a world that had ended'.140 And Ngata: 'one who brought something like genius to the office of Native Minister'.141 John added that 'it was evident that the lapse of a century had not lessened the need for adequate interpretation between the two races'.142
Coates clearly intrigued him: he would have had first-hand information on his work in the coalition government from Dick Campbell.* John judged him 'the most considerable figure in New Zealand politics' of the previous ten years;143 one for whom the 1935 election was 'a personal and shattering defeat, an individual judgment' as well as the judgement of 'a system'. John's summing-up was nonetheless sympathetic:
… without Seddon's popularity or bluster, or Massey's fundamentalist and competent obstinacy, more subtle, more imaginative, and morepage 220unhappy in his milieu than either; where they inherited from the past a calm and certain strength, the child of perplexity and divided worlds; torn where they were unitary; driven, like his age and unlike theirs, to ambiguity – to the expedient, but not the solution, of compulsory and painful compromise.144
* Alister McIntosh, also in a good position to observe, wrote: 'The estimate of Mr Coates and his achievements in bewildering difficulties are based on what I know to be facts and should appeal to all fairminded people as thoroughly just.' (Tomorrow, 22 July 1936.)
On whether the new Labour government would bring about fundamental changes, John did not express a view. He did describe Walter Nash as 'the party's most persuasive intellectual force', which Nash never forgot (though he always remembered it as John having said that he was the party's 'coming man'); he was to remind John of this a number of times in later years,* and he told me more than once when we met at graduation ceremonies.
Although the book was organised around recent politics, John's underlying interpretation, in his view, explained much about New Zealand's intellectual and cultural life. If he argued that the country's development was essentially 'only an episode in the expansion of Western civilization',145 he also conceded in the final chapter, where he focused on questions of identity, that it was perhaps in its isolation that one discovered the secret of 'the national life'. This argument he did not develop, simply suggesting that New Zealand 'pastures its soul impartially in fields classically English and delightfully American'.
The tenderness of place, the genius loci, in no large sense it appears, is part of the life of the European born in our country – for the Maori, the ancient conqueror, it is different – the sense of intimacy, quietude, profound and rich comfort is not yet indestructibly mingled with the thought of a native soil, an habitual and inseparable surrounding. There is glad recognition, there is love even; but there is not identity. Not enough men have died in this land. Not in letters nor in art has life crystallized and ennobled itself. But where lakes and torrents rise, where in the far gullies and on unscorched hills the bush perpetually and in silence renews its green† inviolate life, it may be that the spirit of man also will find renewal – not as a thing sought, not with travail nor born from an old despair, but quietly and unconsciously as the spring seeps from the moss, or the rimu roots itself in the mould, or the fragile clematis appears starred over unattainable slopes.146
* Perhaps the final occasion was when Nash wrote to John to thank him for his congratulations when Nash received the KCMG; he appreciated the 'generous nature of your message – which follows on the prediction made in your essay Short History of N.Z.'. (Nash to JCB, 1 September 1965.)
† The published book had a comma at this point: in the copy John had corrected before sending to Duncan, he took it out.
This reflective brooding has led John far from his political analysis; his view of New Zealand identity, as Chris Hilliard suggests, is related to those of his contemporaries – Brasch, Curnow and other writers of their generation. 'For them, "identity" resided in the future, to be anticipated with guarded hope or sometimes resignation'.147 John was later to write of the period in which he worked on the Short History: 'to be candid, I was not interested in New Zealand – except in so far as I had to be'.148 The History itself is evidence that we should not take this at face value. It may have revealed little love for New Zealand's past; it could not hide a concern for New Zealand's future. Its publication coincided with the turn for the better in John's fortunes and marked the beginning of his own intellectual and emotional discovery of New Zealand.