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Victoria University College an Essay towards a History

VIII — The Thirties

page 209

The Thirties

Before that question can be answered, one must consider the nature of the decade that was now at hand. The decade that had just gone began with an uneasy peace but had its days of hope; this one began with depression and ended with war. As the community suffered, so did the college; and as its students reacted with a lively intelligence to the ills of the world around them, it suffered also from the community. Once again academic freedom was called in question; one again, on both sides, there were bitter words. In the more cheerful air that came with a change of government and with the slow lifting of the depression, the college also shared; and again, reacting as it had done year by year to the pressure of the outside events which it could not control, it did what it could, without heroics, in a war which seemed to make ineluctable demands. Beneath a good deal of froth, the decade was a serious one. ‘All our traditions are in the melting-pot’, men were accustomed to say, in those weary or hopeful years; and indeed, from time to time there seemed to be a boiling-up of mores, of the customs as well as the relations of society, which resulted in the production of what the conservative chose to regard as scum. The college too was a crucible, page 210 beneath which the fire of ideas was perhaps a little hotter than it was outside. But the fire was no mere crackling of thorns; there was something fundamental about a great deal of the discussion that went on in those days, a sense that lives were at stake; a sense, which had never been so deep before, that the college was part of the world, and that students would suffer with the world, and that there was no escape. There was by turns an exasperation and rage, a tenseness and a solemnity, which would have seemed strange to the optimistic versifiers and footballers of the foundation years, could they have been undergraduates again.

Yet, of course, there was not always the sense of disaster. There was laughter, and argument about unimportant things, there were the skits as well as the impassioned harangues of college journalism, clubs continually sprang anew, the weary and the cynical were matched by the fresh and idealistic, there was the regular foundation of lectures and examinations, the output of degrees, the triumphs as well as the despairs of college life. Amid a world that seemed dedicated to the breaking up of civilized relationships, young men and women continued to dance and to read, to contemplate the objects of their admiration and to fall in love. The decade is a very tangled one indeed.


The depression hit the college in obvious ways. The government whose unhappy task it was to fight off ruin was ill equipped for its struggle in knowledge or in imagination. To economize was its simple creed; the National Expenditure Act was the legislative expression of that creed. Education was an expense which might well be limited, for it gave no immediate and material return; Ministers of Education were appointed not because they were interested in education, but because they were ‘strong men’. The teachers' training colleges were page 211 closed, and the university colleges lost students and students' fees. Statutory grants were reduced, so that Victoria, with £11,750 in 1930 and an additional grant for the chair of education, by 1932 was brought down to £7,350, no longer statutory but subject to annual vote; bursaries were heavily reduced, students found it difficult to pay fees, and there was the hostel débâcle.

More than anything else, in some ways, was there disappointment in the hostel. William Weir's bequest was magnificent, and the government subsidy it carried made it dazzling. So the plans drawn up were on a generous scale.1 But this was reckoning without the subsidizer; the government had hurried to amend the University Act to limit the amount of its subsidies, even then it refrained from actually making a payment, and after the depression's onset refused to pay anything at all. It never paid anything. Meanwhile a large and massive system of foundations had been laid, Plans were modified considerably, a whole block was abandoned, then another re-designing became necessary in the alarm caused by the Napier earthquake, and when Weir House was finally opened in March 1933, it was, though a large building, not the hostel that had been dreamed of. Certainly, it accommodated ninety students in what seemed to the outsider a high degree of elegance, with warden and matron to watch over them; but it was clear that this admirable institution had by no means solved a problem. Its waiting list was all too long. Inmates did not wish to leave, and a certain proportion of the elders had to be dismissed each year to make room for others; a procedure which—the expelled gentlemen argued, with scandalized solemnity—gravely imperiled the ‘traditions of the House’ by removing all those of seniority, light and leading. It was sad, but it was equitable, and the need for hostels, before many years had passed, page 212 was greater than ever before. On the surplus foundations were built bungalows for the maids; notwithstanding which the college found, in due course, that it could not escape the Servant Problem. How difficult it was, one way and another, to run a school of learning! Nevertheless, with all the difficulties, Weir House gave the college something it needed; for a minority, at least, there could be the experience of a corporate life.

Corporate life, on whatever basis, was all the more valuable in these years of strain, when the student was so much inclined to feel himself on the defensive. There was, it must be admitted, at this period a strain even in the relations between the Professorial Board and the students, somewhat different from the happy ease of twenty years before. Of all gulfs, the gulf between the generations is hardest to bridge; and in the college, though the successive generations of students remained young, catching their tone either unconsciously or with eager awareness from the changing world, the senior members of the staff were beginning, as the years fled by, to lose their elasticity of mind and sympathies. How could it be otherwise? The Council also was unsympathetic to too much youthful ebullience, for ebullience tended to be radical, and as depression threw up its natural rebellion, the conservatism of age became more manifest. Could, the anti-authoritarian, the liberal and humane, was chairman of the Board over the most difficult of these years, and it was due to him, probably, that the strain was rendered tolerable. But even Could at times felt caught in forces very hard to withstand. The strain between students and Board was not continuous, differences was not deliberate, but often enough a puzzled irritation was there, the attempt to understand and remedy difference had to be deliberate. Why did members of the staff not take part in the social life of the college, the complaint was apt to arise, why did professors not know students, why was the page 213 ‘student point of view’ ignored? Why, the answer was apt to be made, were students so very prone to bad taste, why so reckless in bringing on their heads, in a time so anxious, the criticism of respectable citizens? The time changed, and circumstances changed, and the gulf became narrower again; but it is not a thing to be ignored in the life of any community. When for instance, in 1931, the Executive of the Students' Association sent a deputation to the government, on behalf of the students of the other three colleges as well as their own, to protest against the reduction in bursaries, neither the Board nor the Council would co-operate. Doubtless they felt it would be unwise to harass the government (the University was fighting the point), but to the young it seemed that their elders had weakly desisted, and left public action to the Association. On the other hand when the young became bitter over the fees they had to pay, they were not always careful to verify the justice of their complaints.

It was in 1933 that dissension exploded most forcefully both within the college and in the press; in a manner reminiscent of Mr Parr's absurd activities in the 1920's, but immensely complicated by the added stresses of this new time. It is necessary to recall clearly the nature of the time. In 1932 and 1933 the depression was at its worst, and the mind of the country was not normal. Parliament was alarmist, the public was upset; riots had taken place or were threatened, unemployment was vainly met by relief works and mayors' funds, by soup-kitchens and private beneficence; an outbreak of pamphleteering and the importation of ‘revolutionary’literature was met by repressive legislation of the most foolish nature; public servants and teachers were thrown into a state almost of panic by the threat of dismissal for any ‘public statement’ by which any one of them might have ‘sought to bring page 214 the government of New Zealand into disrepute’.2 The university colleges were all, to some degree, affected by the excitement, though it was in Auckland that the greatest clamour was heard about the defences of academic freedom. In Wellington the issues were by no means so clearly defined, and they were bedeviled by stupidities on most sides of the many-sided argument. Over the college, it must be admitted, brooded a sort of fear: if there was another cut in the grant, would there be another cut in salaries?–or would departments be closed down, and which would be the first to go?–or would the last appointed be the first dismissed? Likely candidates for destruction began to be eyed with something of the interest bestowed, in an open boat, upon cabin-boys destined to provide the next meal for starving mariners, and anxiously did the cabin-boys search the horizon for a rescuing sail. Outside the college the foe that was feared was, of course, ‘communism’, though it may be asserted that relatively few people cared to find out what ‘communism’ was; and in the general alarm even persons trained in an older tradition of liberalism were liable to lose touch with reality. The more they lost touch, the more they conceded to the communist case. It is not surprising that a small number of able and critically-minded students (the really able critics are always few in number) were attracted by the seeming rigour of communist of the dialectic which they saw around them. They were vigorous speakers and writers, even if they did find it difficult to refrain from the jargon of the Faith. They naturally had a number of sympathizers, and just as naturally a large number of opponents, among their fellow students. They were not, on the whole, ‘tactful’; but there are worse things in young men page 215 than lack of tact. They represented at this time the social conscience that the college had always had, more alive and more urgent simply because the demands of life on the reformer were more urgent.

They were balanced by almost as many grades of reformer as existed in New Zealand, rationalist or Christian, and certainly students, with a capping procession to collect money for unemployed relief, a special extravaganza performance for the same purpose, and concert parties at relief camps, bore their part in the ordinary well-doing of the time. It was perhaps those efforts that enabled the mayor to say, at Capping 1932 (gaining an approval unusual for a mayor), that undergraduates represented the eternal spirit of unrest, and were thereby a foundation for progress; but other citizens had less tolerance for the eternal spirit of unrest. It was in that year that the Board also began to show anxiety;3 it refused to allow the Free Discussions Club to debate the proposition that communism would give a better social order, unless the invitation to one of the outside speakers, a member of the Communist party, were cancelled; it ruled furthermore that no club should invite outside speakers to the college unless the list had first been submitted to the Board and approved. This caused indignation, but it was not till the following year that everybody was involved in struggle—student, with student, students with Board and with Council, students and Board and Council with the press, the gutter-press, and correspondents of the press. Never had there been such dissension; never did the official representatives of the college cut a less happy figure.4

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The year began, in April, with the passing by the Debating Society of the motion (on the Oxford model) ‘That this House will not fight for King and Country’. That was bound to cause a stir. Then a number of students took part in breaking a strike of ships' stewards—a proceeding that could hardly endear them as a class to the Labour movement. In May the Free Discussions Club began to publish a small, extremely radical stenciled, paper, student, which left little unattacked except the ‘cause of mankind’. (‘Varsity remains aloof from life, but its falseness is part of the great falseness that we see in life all around us.’) After two numbers, further publication was prohibited by the Executive on the score of blatant inaccuracy of statement, and when the editors defiantly issued a third the club was disaffiliated from the Students'Association. The ‘Welfare League’ was still in existence, and still attacking the college, and it was now joined by a quite suitable brother in arms, the weekly New Zealand Truth, the unrestrained eloquence of which was crowned by an article entitled ‘Twisted Teaching’–an elaboration of the theme that if students were disloyal, seditious, and depraved, they must have been guided into iniquity by their teachers. The Debating Society went on to discuss birth control, which in the contemporary world was being discussed a good deal. Then the league and its comrade found, in addition to the support of the usual newspaper correspondents, an ally in a Canon James, a page 217 rather foolish person with an ecclesiastical talent for overstatement, whom for some reason—perhaps his official connection with the pro-cathedral—the college proceeded to take seriously. ‘The opinion is widely held… plastic minds… deepest and most sacred convictions of the greatest part of the people of New Zealand… parents… apprehension… haunting dread … accepted moral standards’–this masterpiece of shop-soiled phraseology concluded with the desire that the authorities of the college would ‘assure us’ that the trust committed to their hands was honoured, and that abuse of it would not go unchecked. Even Could was alarmed. James was invited to make specific complaints to the Board. The Council, which had once defied the whole country, and was now the scene of a gratuitous attack upon Hunter by one of its own number, resolved to set up a committee of enquiry. The indignation of some members of the staff was ignored. The committee regretted debates on ‘sexual and religious subjects’, asserted that the religious faith of students was immune form assault and that disloyalty was under supervision; pointed proudly to the positions of honour occupied by old students in the Church, the Judiciary, Commerce and every other useful phase of activity; and remarked, of the ‘very small number [of Students] whose conduct and beliefs are in conflict with the great majority of the community’, that their influence must, and would, be restrained within reasonable bounds. The Council would welcome any assistance offered to enable it to fulfill its responsibilities; it concluded with reaffirming its confidence in the professors and lecturers. It is an ignoble document, but it is one the faithful historian cannot pass over. The Board forbade debates on religion, and ordered the omission of sex from all public discussion. Kirk alone had his say in the Evening Post on ‘Twisted Teaching’. That courteous man knew when and how to smite.

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While the Council was thus deplorably engaged, spike was in preparation. It appeared in October, the month of the surrender to James and of the Board's manifesto on discussion and debate. It was an intelligent and ably edited number, to which students were later to look back as an example of excellent liveliness and fairness in the presentation of radically opposed points of view. It had a good deal to say about freedom of thought and expression, even to the severe censuring of the Students' Association Executive. That would not have mattered. It contained also an extremely able examination of the methods of the Law faculty of the college, entitled; Untwisted Teaching'.5 That mattered very much indeed to Professor Admission, who had no truck with the modern sociological approach to his science. It contained also two articles which a legal person on the Council stated were seditious. No other legal person has ever appeared to agree with him, but the Board again took alarm. Spike was banned. Whether the alarm would have been so great, whether the ban would have been imposed if the outcries of Adamson had been less agitated, is a question that may be discussed; for when the withdrawn Spike was re-issued, not merely had the ‘seditious’ articles disappeared, but also ‘Untwisted teaching’. The Students' Association called a special general meeting to protest; the Board replied to the Executive's letter that it had merely banned sedition; the Council, that ‘both the tone and substance of the letter are, in the opinion of the Council, such as to show that supervision and control of student activities are required’. This was a snub very difficult to forgive. Graduates came to the support of students in an informal meeting of the Court of convocation, which demanded the resignation of Council members elected by it; which gentlemen of course did not resign. Within two years the Council, in making an appointment to the staff, was to show itself moved by a political bias page 219 which men had proudly thought alien to this college; and the fact that it nevertheless made an excellent appointment cannot exonerate it. Fortune, whose blind favours have so often passed Victoria by, has also on occasion been kind.


One turns with relief to other matters. Stout died in 1930, seven years after his retirement from the Council of the college he had done so much to bring into existence, and four years after founding a scholarship to celebrate his golden wedding. he gave the college books as well as money, and he gave it what may perhaps be called affection as well as advice. Whatever one may think of his educational career, that queer amalgam of wisdom, disinterested labour and clever and stubborn folly, one is not to think that he made enemies—how could be, when his attitude to the younger men he fought was one of almost paternal, as it was of gladly-remembered, benevolence? Stout was exasperating, but he was kind; and it is fitting that his portrait should have been hung in the Library in 1932, blessing, as it were, the workers there, in his chancellor's robes, and with that simple, that deceptively simple, smile. Other portraits followed in 1934, the subscription paintings of three of the first four professors, with a re-modelled, a stream-lined Maclaurin added by American bounty; with still another Ode, much reminiscent and good-humoured oratory, and a Spike full of college history. Then in 1935 the fine portrait of von Zedlitz joined them, the gift of one of his old students, happy in its symbolism, signal in its accomplishment; which he himself gazed at and mocked as the ‘simian sensualist’.6 In the following year the man whom college men and women had never ceased to call professor was made by the Council professor emeritus, a tribute which there was none page 220 who would not applaud; for the affection felt for Von had deepened into something like veneration.

The decade saw a good deal of going and coming; by its end the professoriate had become in large part notably young again. In 1935 there were three changes. Miles, mathematics lecturer since 1926, succeeded shy and learned Sommerville– Miles with his astonishingly wide reading and his steady refusal ever to be stampeded; ‘F.P.’, retiring to cultivate his garden, gave place in history to the judicious Wood, full of zeal for the tutorial system; and Cornish becoming solicitor-general, his place was taken by the brilliant Williams, whose young researches had cast light even into the Statue of Frauds. Then, at the end of 1936, Mackenzie retired. It seemed the end of an epoch; for, though Brown was left, he was left as a survivor, debating how soon he should leave the scene, and with his service prolonged almost ten years more only through the exigency of another war. Mackenzie was never more reminiscent, never more genial, than in those valedictory speeches of his, with the inevitable quips at Brown. Not for fundamental scholarships, not for fundamental reforms, not for any defiance of petty tyranny would he be remembered, but for fundamental humanity, tolerance, simplicity, generosity of spirit. He could not be said to leave at peace with the world—the old man had a battle to fight, he was going to assail the superannuation system as once he had assailed the Bible-in-Schools League. But, alas! he did not live long enough; only for three years more did his friendly visiting bulk climb the college stairs, and then the watch chain, the black clerical hat, the smile of greeting were gone. In the English department arrived another Scot from Edinburgh, one of Grierson's young men, the spirited, the critical and active Gordon. Within another two years, after a great deal of discussion on the relation of the University to the public service, the government had granted a sum for a department of poli- page 221 tical science and public administration. Was Victoria at last to take the place which Stout's vision had assigned to it so long ago? At least a band of public service bursars were to come to it, for special training; and young Leslie Lipson, of whom the Master of Balliol spoke so very admiringly, spangled over with Oxford honours, was given the chair. There were new lecturers too, in most departments, in the second half of the decade, able—some of them extremely able—men. And in 1938, almost twenty years after the need had been first seen (by Stout, of course) the part-time office of Principal was instituted, an academic head of the college more permanent than an overworked chairman of the Professorial Board. The chairmen, from Maclaurin to Miles, had most of them given no inconsiderable service, but for a college with a thousand students even a principalship that was only part-time was something of a makeshift. To the new office, inevitably, Hunter was appointed. That startling event of the following year, his knighthood in the Order of the British Empire, could not add to his distinction in the eyes of those amid whom he worked, it took some getting used to; but certainly, it was felt, no man had deserved better of the Commonwealth.

That knighthood itself had significance. This was the first time that academic persons7 In New Zealand, outside the Medical School, had been so honoured, and it was indicative of the real regard which government was at last showing for university. With Peter Fraser as Minister (the same seditious fellow whose presence on the Debating Society's platform had caused that anguish in his predecessor Parr, and to whom Hunter had taken literary comfort in the Terrace Goal),8 and page 222 with depression lightening, the effort was no longer to see how little could be spent on education, but how much. Staffing became easier, hearts became lighter. The previous government, in the election year, had materially raised the college vote, and in 1936, the first year of Labour rule, immediately it went up to over £14,000. In 1937 a grant for new buildings was announced—the Administration block and the large Biology building which would be Kirk's memorial even without the bronze relief and plaque affixed to its walls, and that £50,000 was followed by the annual £2000 for political science. More than in the twenties, it seemed, a great age lay ahead of the college; and then came the war.


Student numbers, which had been growing, with one or two minor setbacks, ever since 1919, fell drastically in 1933, with a corresponding rise in the number of those who were ‘exempted’ and working on their own.9 The fall was temporary and it certainly, as we have seen, meant no cessation in student liveliness; though this student generation, like every other, flagellated itself for its lack of college spirit and looked back longingly on a legendary more heroic past. The opening of the decade found the Students' Association, or rather its Executive, wrestling with the constitutional problem. Certain reformers were not satisfied with the mode of election to the Executive—a democracy of eight hundred which elected its leaders at annual general meetings was indeed causing difficulties—and an ingenious system was thought out for a college of electors based on the clubs. The college of electors having been incorporated in the constitution, it was decided to redraft page 223 the constitution entirely; then women students found they were suffering under a gross injustice, with only three votes as against the thirty-one of the men; the college was riven by factions, and after a series of stormy meetings the new electoral system was thrown out in favour of general ballot over a period of days. Then the Executive was charged with spending too lavishly on sporting clubs; it was, ran one pathetic assertion, ‘turning the college into a species of Community Club for the cultivation of bone and muscle. I am a voice crying in a wilderness of goal-posts, hockey balls, tennis racquets and bone-heads’. Such things are the incidents of democracy, and they tend to right themselves when criticism is lively and incessant. There were more difficult problems facing the Executive, some of them temporary, some which seemed almost permanent. In 1932 the Association took over the running of the cafeteria, no easy business; in the same year a Permanent Building Committee was set up, to foster the idea of a Students' Union building more adequate to growing needs than the simple unpretentious Gym, which had had to serve so many different purposes, and which was now, as its overworked timbers began to give out, the subject of some natural if unmerited contempt. That involved the fostering of a fund, and extravaganza profits were set aside year by year as a nucleus—and unfortunate nucleus, however large it grew; for the longer the Association had to wait for a building, the higher the cost of a building soared.

On the much-suffering shoulders of the Executive fell also the management of relations with Board and Council at this singularly difficult time. If it now and again made a false step it may, with the passage of years, be forgiven. It was dealing, not with a quite isolated fragment of humanity, but with a piece of the uneasy world. Students were an unfortunate section of New Zealand society, in that suffering from the same strains, undergoing the same changes of mores as that page 224 society in that world, at that time, they were yet coherent enough and prominent enough as a group for their disturbances, their utterances, or their failings to attract an undue measure of attention and of rage. When society at large is (or should be) in a guilty mood, or is merely passing through a period of dislocation, nothing is so excellently useful as a scapegoat. And there, all too visible on its hill, was the Sabbath-desecrating, the seditious, the immoral animal, at the thought of which (according to Canon Percival James) parents shuddered; at the noise of which politicians trembled; at the sight of which policeman were warned to be ready. Indeed students as a group drank more than they used to, and drank more publicly, and in the depression period a lack of moderation on the outskirts of college dances forced the Executive to take a stern stand, and caused the Board to employ a ‘Commissionaire’ to patrol cars in the grounds. Was the phenomenon peculiar to students? More unfortunate, because it lasted longer, was the descent in taste that marked a new sort of capping programme, the annual Cappicade–a programme which could be sold in thousands, and so contribute to that justification of all endeavour, however, came during the later war years; and again is a mark not so much of a peculiar student depravity, as of the onset of the vast forces that were bestriding the world. The Verbal wit of Glibert had gone with the musical phrase of Sullivan. There is an erosion of manners as well as of hillsides; and the college, to some extent, was bound to suffer.10 Extravaganzas themselves were sometimes excellent—or rather, to define truth more exactly, excellent in parts; the Board itself congratulated the Association on Redmond Phillips' Murder in the Common page 225 Room, which went to some trouble to guy the professoriate; but though the extravaganza went on, in 1937 Cappicade was censured and the procession banned for an indefinite future.

Clubs continued to be born, to sink into oblivion, to be reincarnated. In the middle of the decade there were about thirty of them. Club notes in Spike had to be given a general preface on ‘Sport in Review’. A Harrier Club was added to the other agencies of bodily exhaustion in 1932, and basketball began about the same time. There was a Literary Society, which died and was succeeded by the Phoenix Club, more ambitious in its devotion to all the arts; a Commerce Society was started to ‘safeguard the interests’ of students in the Commerce Faculty and to secure the reintroduction of accountancy lectures, which had lapsed; there were a Photographic Club and a Biological Society and a Chemical Society; a Fencing Club and a Labour Club and a Historical Association. Tramping and debating flourished, drama had its best days. Religious faith had its surges and relapses; the S.C.M., reflecting, at some distance, the general religious movement of western Protestantism, had become exceedingly liberal in its basis, it hardly ever mentioned a missionary; it had become, the charge was made, a Slightly Christian Movement, a mere ‘ethical debating society’. Perhaps here was the reason for the foundation of the Evangelical Union, an odd body to find in this college, a small, naively fundamentalist group of earnest souls whose emotions needed some more thorough-going catharsis than was given by ethical debates. But ethical debates were coming to an end; the neo-Lutheranism of the theologian Karl Barth was seeping into student religion; ‘Zarathustra’ appealed for an organization (the Free Discussions Club, he argued, being moribund) to combat the propaganda spread by the S.C.M.; the ‘Oxford group’ movement had its temporary effect; ‘the present craze is Christianity’, noted Spike in 1936.

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Spike continued to be a mirror of college life, but it was now not alone. Spike the critic had it own critics; it was ‘a pathetic periodical published by apathetic people’, charged one of them. Amid the continuous machine-gun rattle of argument, with the occasional heavy explosions, Spike, appearing but twice a year, was getting behindhand, it was even liable to be irrelevant; and the decision was taken to publish it from 1931 merely as an annual, of more specifically literary content. The throb and bustle of life was to go into a new monthly, Smad (Sapientia Magis Auro Desideranda), which in 1935 became a fortnightly, assuming a newspaper form, with an imposing list of editors and reporters, and equally imposing headlines. It proclaimed (though it did not define) the ‘natural rights of university students’; it was all for the pitiless light of publicity; it took to task, as occasion demanded, students—in the mass, in groups, or singly—the Board, or the Council; it was in fact very much what the first editors of Spike would have produced if they had been undergraduates in 1930 and not 1902. Its early numbers were highly diverting; they contained some really brilliant satirical writing, and some satire that had to be apologized for, by Executive or editors—did not Spike have to learn what a razor-edge one trod above the gulf of libel? Sometimes it jeered at, sometimes it pleaded for, Spike; and in 1937 Spike turned upon it, as a squib whose damp day was done. Smad (the charges have some truth) had become parochial, immature, feeble in diction, it had sunk to the standard of a form magazine in a secondary school, it was irregular in issue and in distribution; ‘if it cannot be reformed it must be abandoned’. Smad was abandoned and the weekly Salient was started. Salient was not going to be parochial. ‘The spirit of the times demanded’, said Salient's first number, in March 1938, ‘that any suggestion of Olympian grandeur or academic isolation from the affairs of the world should be dropped and should be replaced by a policy which aims firstly page 227 to link the University more closely to the realities of the world; and secondly, to comment upon rather than report in narrative style the activities of the college clubs’, Students were qualified to hold political views, ran the editorial dogma, and a number of able editorials expressed those views without mincing matters. Spike, reviewing the first year, admired: the paper had dealt intelligently, if not always impartially, with current controversy; let it beware of elique control and develop as a journal that would record and mould opinion both within and without the University.


Hang on to our ideals, urged Salient, and we shall achieve something. If we fail to play our part in achieving the ideal, ‘then the University is not fulfilling its function in the community and we, as University students, are grossly abusing our opportunities and privileged’. And indeed, from about 1934 the note of most serious college thought, whether it issued in journalism or not, was a note of urgency. There was plenty of ‘apathy’; there was plently of conformity with ordinary confused public opinion; there was plenty of opposition to the radical, the too-logical, the too-social (the strike-breakers of 1933 are not to be forgotten). There were still simple people who believed only in class-tests and football. The defects of some of the Weir House inmates were astringently criticized in the 1935 Spike, ‘as mainly an easily predictable result of building a palace where full-time students can break their contacts with the world outside and batten light-heartedly behind the cloisters.’ It was a result easily predictable, of course, only after the event, and the cloister'd vice, or fugitive virtue, was not peculiar to Weir. There, as a matter of fact, the ills of the world got a good deal of discussion. Discussion at large became more and more social, and social discussion more and more political. How could it be else? The very title of Salient, page 228 where so much of this discussion received a point, was characteristic of those days of the United Front, the Left Book Club, and the intellectual deference of Democracy—it was to stand out as the projection of the free mind, a fortification of the spirit. It had its japing moments, its bursts of aesthetic intoxication (the Russian Ballet came, or the B Minor Mass was played on the Carnegie gramophone), its rambling controversies; but what its editors wanted it to be one of them put into the verse:

Send out, Salient, the swift satiric point,
To smart the sluggard mind awake,
While Freedom anywhere in bonds is pent
No compromise with falseness make.
Those freed today tomorrow forth must leap
Some further outpost there to take and keep.

Discussion, discussion, social and political discussion. How could a ‘literary’ pattern be imposed on Spike? College poets were social poets, they were up-to-date on their Spender and Auden. The Free Discussion Club, after its misadventures of 1933, tried a policy of college speakers, smaller meetings but keener discussion instead of polite questions to a lecturer. It could not last, there was the Italian consul to hear on Abyssinia, the Germen consul to hear on the Nazi theme, famous meetings which went on far into the night and sent the consuls away displeased (the German consul walked out); and there were other meetings continued up Kelburn Parade or down the Terrace. Then, in 1937, the club simply disappeared and could not be revived. The student mind, it seems, was being almost canalized, by sheer force of events. The Debating Society, always active, was more and more political, and when it debated the Labour government in 1936 Gordon Coates and Jack Lee faced a crowded and noisy gymnasium. The S.C.M. had a study circle on communism. There were Appeals, for Chinese University Relief, for Children in Spain, there were lessons drawn and morals pointed. There was, it is true, little page 229 originality. The expression of what was called ‘student solidarity’ depended very much on what was done in the universities of England, and in New Zealand there were parallel happenings in the other colleges. But of what use was originality? By the mid-decade the period of ‘communist extremism’ —if that minority movement may give its name to a period—was over, leaving behind it the Labour Club which had been founded in 1934, despite the usual opposition, and which was itself mainly notable for starting the Victoria University College Anti-War Movement. This movement had its origin in a lecture by A.D. Monro on modern chemical warfare; the inaugural meeting was addressed by representatives of Free Discussions Club, Labour Club, Debating Society and S.C.M., sent a resolution to the Minister of Finance opposing the government's ‘war preparations’, decided on a manifesto, and pamphlets were collected. Within the movement, for a while, all shades of opinion came together, from communist to Christian pacifist, in the attempt to argue out some common attitude. It was difficult, even apart from the determined activities of the opposition. The idea of a New Zealand students'‘Peace Ballot’ was taken up with enthusiasm, and a questionnaire on the individual attitude to war and military service duly circulated. In 1936 the Debating Society again had a majority disinclined to fight for king and country.

But the sands were running out. There was nothing that could be called disarmingly benevolent about this world. There was nothing pacifist about Salient. The enemy was not war but Fascism, however that unlovely phenomenon might be spelt. The great success of the Dramatic Club in 1937 was Clifford Odet's Till the Day I Die. The bastions were beginning to fall in Europe, and there was an air of fatality about the months as they passed. The college year had its ordinary seasons, amusements, incidents—everybody went to hear the page 230 negro debaters from Tennessee—but when Salient wished to summarize the life of man it quoted

Time is short,
And history may say to the defeated,
But cannot help or pardon.

There was Munich; there was the silence and the tension that waited on a lecturer who had been asked, suddenly, on that most fateful night, to waive his usual subject—was it responsible government in the British Commonwealth?—and speak on the antecedents of the crisis. In July 1939 Salient was quite sure: ‘The victory of Fascism means the end or all the Pacifist stands for. We had better chose the lesser evil.’ In August it harked back to that awful struggle that had begun twenty-five years before, in a sort of last protest, the unheard, ridiculous protest of doomed youth.

For they knew they were doomed. The minds of the thoughtful students of that generation were not conditioned by Kipling or the Bab Ballads or Oscar Wilde, or by Wells and Shaw or the skeptical Bertrand Russell, or even, really, by Lenin's Selected Works; but by Spain and China and Abyssinia and Austria and Czecho-Slovakia. None of them, one of their number has said, expected to live long. They thought they knew what war was like; they had read, and talked, and made up their minds. Ten years later, in the midst of their work or at a party, or looking at their wives, they remembered that, and found they were alive.

1 The architects were W. Gray Young and Francis H. Swan. There was to be a break away from Collegiate Gothic to a style entitled ‘English Renaissance’.

2 The Finance Act, 1932, Section 59. For this period the documents and narrative given in F. A. de la Mare, Academic Freedom in New Zealand, 1932–34 (Auckland, 1935), are very useful.

3 Possibly at the direction of the Minister of Education, who seems to have warned the Chairman of the Council against allowing communists on the college premises.

4 It is sometimes argued that poets derive part of their significance from being the advance guard of human progress, aware to, and registering, the aery currents of change. Students may share this significance with them—at least they do keep ahead of the ordinary sluggish mass of the community. Cf. Smad, Vol. 3, No. 1 (March 1932): ‘This is the era of the struggle of fundamental against fundamental. The sharp line of demarcation is being drawn between mighty rival camps. On the one hand stands the believer in the Divine Creator, on the other the atheist. The Capitalist and the Communist gird themselves for the determination of the basic rights of man. The Militarist clings tenaciously to the sword that the Pacifist would hurl into the deepest ocean. It would seem that these vital issues will in our own generation come to a head…’ etc. It was of course the students' duty to give a lead. It was just this sort of thing, commonplace now, and not very rare them, that New Zealand disliked. Very few people, indeed, even among students, like a clarlon call to action.

5 Its author later joined the Law faculty himself.

6 Stout's portrait is by Mrs Tripe: the foundation professors were painted by Archibald F. Nicoll: von Zedlitz, by Christopher Perkins.

7 There were two knighthoods thus conferred. The other was upon Sir William Benham, lately Professor of Biology at the University of Otago.

8 Mr Fraser, as a member of Hunter's W.E.A. class, was technically a student of Victoria College, so that the college may, for purposes of glorification, claim the present Governor-General, Prime Minister and Chief Justice, all three, as old students.

9 Statistics of these numbers, taken over the whole course of college history, need a good deal of interpretation, but there can be no mistake over the effect of the depression. Relevant numbers (exempted students in parenthesis) are: 1919, 534(31); 1920, 680(58); 1930, 840(238); 1933, 670(344); 1936, 847(277); 1939, 1088(214).

10 10The most damaging charge against university students is not, of course, the moral one that their ‘wit’ was ‘indecent’, but the intellectual one that it was so very dull.