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New Zealand Now

1 — A Look Round

page 1

A Look Round

If a Wild Irishman is grown in a hothouse it loses its spines and develops soft leaves. If the experiment is continued for some time, with the moisture nicely adjusted to the heat, the changes brought about are so marked that the plant ceases to be recognisable by those who are not specialists. It does not of course grow into a thistle or a fig tree, produce tomatoes, or clusters of grapes. What it is it remains generically, but only the seeing eye and the knowing mind avoid confusing it with something else. Must it not be so, mutatis mutandis, with ourselves? Must New Zealanders not be what New Zealand has made them in a hundred years out of the Englishmen, Scotsmen, and Irishmen they were to begin with, and must they not in a thousand years carry still further marks of our soil, climate, position, and shape? If there is a principle running through the observations in this survey, or a theory distorting the observations, it is that physical man is an animal all the time, and spiritual man a product of his environment some of the time, page 2however stubbornly he may resist. It would be rash to suggest in the middle of the present war that the future of a country is settled before it is occupied, and the future of millions of human beings before they are bom; but it would be rasher still to put the story the other way round and say that what a nation is it remains, whatever soils nourish it or suns warm it or winds and rains beat on it.

New Zealanders will never be Negroes or Mongolians. They will never grow the wings of angels or the tails of apes. In no stretch of time that our minds can span shall we grow to seven feet or shrink to four, lose our hair, or be left with only rudimentary legs. What we are physically we shall in general remain. But we shall not remain unchanged. Nor have we remained unchanged thus far. The changes of a century are faint. To see them we have sometimes to be a little reckless. But how much more reckless must we be to see no changes at all. A Somerset farmer Z's his S's and 'oops' his 'ups'. He drinks cider and breeds long-horned cows. When you meet him at the market he may be wearing a calfskin waistcoat, and if you are talking to him when the Squire passes he will probably stop and touch his hat. All these things he was doing a hundred years ago. But if he left Taunton a hundred years ago and came to Taranaki you may be disappointed if you call on him now expecting a horn of cider. You will certainly be disappointed if you go looking for the calfskin page 3waistcoat and the long-horned cows, and however important you are he will not doff his cap to you. Even his Z's may not perform for you unless you argue with him and get him excited, and they will retire as soon as he calms down, for he is now just a Taranaki farmer who milks Jerseys, gossips with other farmers at the factory, and talks top-dressing and guaranteed prices. He is a New Zealander. His father was a New Zealander. His grandfather was well on the way to becoming a New Zealander before he died.

These are of course trivial external things by which no true man is judged. The most pallid personality is more than his clothes and his cows and his speech and his manners and his drink. But a New Zealand man is a man you meet in New Zealand, a man who lives in New Zealand, a man whom New Zealand 'bore, shaped, and made aware'.

Until a few years ago, when the vicious habit died, a meeting between a New Zealander and an Englishman on New Zealand soil, or between an Englishman and a New Zealander on English soil, was almost impossible without secret stock-taking, with complacency on both sides and a good deal of Pharisaic satisfaction afterwards. So far apart had they drifted in a single century. Even to-day, when they stand closer together than ever in their history, jealousies forgotten and pettiness purged away in a common woe, little external things—a voice, an accent, the sound of a vowel—can be momentarily disturbing on page 4both sides; no longer an irritation; no longer an excuse for criticism; but a memory flitting through the mind of past differences and a reminder of the duty to forget. Perhaps the responsibility in both cases rests with Providence. A contemporary of Voltaire's, and in his day almost as big a figure, said after a visit to England that even Nature had her affectations. Forests, farms, harbours, rivers, enormous cities, and inexhaustible mines, all in a country of pocket-edition size whose position made it unassailable. But if Nature 'shows off' a little in England, she struts through New Zealand an unblushing exhibitionist. In no other country of comparable size has she abandoned herself quite so wantonly. And since the more you change an Englishman the more he is the same fellow, Nature may have gone to his head, which is our head, a second time.

There is unfortunately no representative New Zealander, or it would be sufficient to follow him for a few days and record his comings and goings. We never meet a man in the street so clearly the pattern and model of us all that we at once say 'There he is!' and see others as variations on him or as specimens who have not bred true to type. But we are not left without any sign at all. We do not often mistake a New Zealander for an Australian, a New Zealander born here for one who has come here, or a native of Otago for a man born in Canterbury or Hawke's Bay. In a hundred years we have fallen into a pattern, faint page 5yet and with broken lines, but recognisable. And if the New Zealander himself eluded us we would know his speech, his coat or his trousers, his boots or his hat. For it could almost be expressed as a generalisation that he cannot combine a and o. South of the Equator no one can unless his skin is brown, and no one yet has explained why. Nor is it easy in New Zealand to forget that the terminal syllables of Sunday and Sydney are different. We can with much practice learn to swallow both, but our struggles write New Zealand all over us. Whether it is climate, geology, and the resulting anatomical changes, or just habit and inherited British stubbornness, it is for science and not these pages to say, but he is a very unnatural New Zealander who does not proclaim himself the moment he opens his mouth. And the signs are almost as marked when we consider New Zealand's clothes. Here we have something less fundamental than speech, but again not entirely independent of anatomy. We are looking at something that has been influenced profoundly by climate, superficially by occupation; that reflects our distance from the fashion centres of the world; and to some extent our distance from the thought centres. New Zealand is a windy country. It is a country that produces great quantities of flesh-forming foods and strong appetites to eat them. Compared with Australia it is wet and cold. Add its mountains and its steep hills, and you are beginning to see why it page 6produces men and women whose bones are well covered with flesh, whose joints through thickness are a little stiff, whose gait is step by step rather than swinging and free, and whose clothes tend therefore to be put on rather than to hang on, to enclose the body rather than to drape it, to keep it warm rather than to give it grace. It must also be remembered that New Zealand has always been Puritan. It was established in the fear of God. Five out of six of its first generation were reared on the Bible. Even where belief has gone tradition still remains, and one of the deepest-rooted traditions of people with white skins is the shamefulness of the flesh. Our bodies are God's handiwork, the temples He has built for our souls; but they are like our New Zealand marble—they will not stand exposure to the weather. Naked we came but covered we go, here and away from here. But as we are not able to cover ourselves completely we weather in places and the weathering shows. We have rough skins where the wind strikes us—not dry, like the skins of Australians, but coarse in texture like the skins of sailors. The degree of this weathering varies with the individual, but the proof of it is the fact that the soft, smooth, waxen skins of some English districts, where it rains but does not blow, are here almost completely unknown. The wind is in fact such a constant menace that we carry the signs even in our eyes, which visitors say we do not open. It is not just a half closing of the lids, as in Australia, to keep page 7out the light, but a puckering up of the surrounding muscles in an effort at adjustment that never ceases. So the calm, bland, wide-eyed gaze of some European countries is seldom seen here. The weather is changing us, and will change us still further, even though a steadily increasing proportion spend a third of their time indoors. It is even conceivable that if we could be completely isolated for millions of years we might be as far physically from our European ancestors as our bush is from a European forest.

But we must not dwell too long on these external things, or see them only. If we do that we shall justify the visitor to Milford Sound who remembers nothing but the sandflies, who can't find Captain Cook at Mercury Bay until he has first found the missing plug of the bath, and who saw nothing when he came to Wellington a few years ago but Mt Cook jail. The story of a country is like the story of a man: the valet knows a part of it and the hero-worshippers a part, but the truth is not with one or the other. New Zealand to some people is a land of so many physical wonders that they would sell it bag and baggage to tourists. To others it is a place where the farmer wastes his manure sacks and leaves costly implements standing most of the year in the weather; where the broken wire you see this year is still broken next year; where mummified rabbits hang in rows by the roadside, pigs stand to their bellies in muck, and the cows in winter (as a malicious veterinary surgeon said from page 8the public platform) wear covers not to keep them warm but to hide their bones. That surgeon does not now practise in the district in which he made that remark, since we are a sensitive people, and do not give prizes for candour. But such a picture of our country, though it would be a foul libel on farmers who have some claims to be the most efficient in the world, would be no more misleading, and very little more irritating, than a picture of New Zealand in which every cow was a prize-winner at a show, every draught-horse a lesson for the Scottish Clydesdale Society, and every fence as straight and tight as those lining most of our railways. The stories we are afraid to tell in full are usually not very full. We are afraid of them because the sordidness and meanness bulk so much more prominently than the decency and generosity. But the story of New Zealand could be told in full if any book were big enough to hold it, and as much as can be put into one small volume can be put there plainly. It is a unique story politically, first because it was colonisation conducted to a previously worked out plan, and in the second place because the colonists, although they soon scrapped the plan, remained so faithful to the spirit of it that the third and fourth generations still speak of a country they have never seen as Home; a strange story economically, because in a hundred years no strong business bonds have been established with any country but that one which lies farthest away; and a page 9reassuring story socially, because privilege has passed from layer to layer through the whole mass without any appreciable disturbance. But those stories have been told. We are concerned with the story that does not get into books: the story the winds are telling, and the sun; the sheep and the cows and the rabbits; the Wild Irishman in the hot-house and the red stag in the bush; the sparrows in the wheat and the grubs in the grass; the soldier on the battle-front and the pacifist in jail; the preacher at the street corner and the crowd in front of the totalisator—the story everybody is telling and nobody acknowledges, because nobody hears it, or stops to listen for it, or thinks it significant, or cares much if it is. It is the story of the New Zealand that everybody knows and nobody, the New Zealand that lies all about us, a place on the map, a lump of earth, a conglomeration of mountains, rivers, valleys, hills, and lakes, a collection of islands, a millon-and-a-half people, a political unit, a British Dominion, a country at war, a community transforming itself socially, a white man's land, a brown man's land, a land lying so far from the controlling centres of the world that no one but its own people can take it seriously; but our land and our life. And if the story must be told plainly it must also be told typically. We must not concentrate on the unusual, as advertisers do, or present only the fault in Cordelia and not Cordelia herself. It is easy to find unusual things and unusual people. The day I was page 10asked to write this book I attended a conference to discuss the whole series: their size, contents, authors, subjects, and general style. We were a professor, a lecturer, a librarian, and two or three government servants with the Under-Secretary of the Department in the chair. Somehow an argument started about the place in our literature held by Tutira, and in the middle of it the telephone rang at the Chairman's elbow. What he was asked I have never known, but this was his answer:

'Two-eleven … What! Two-seven? Rot, man! He never got near it.'

Nothing else.

We returned to Tutira, wandered on to Katherine Mansfield, and were listening to an exposition by the Chairman of the laws of copyright when the telephone rang again.

First the Chairman said 'Damn!' Then he picked up the receiver, listened for perhaps fifteen seconds, and answered at once:

'No, Mac, two fillies only. She never left a colt.'

The next moment he was back on copyright, without a sign of mental disturbance or any indication at all that he thought the situation unusual.

Was that a typical New Zealander?

Or was the farmer typical who joined me that day for lunch? As we sat waiting for our soup in a public dining room he asked me, I can't now remember why, if I had noticed in the newspapers that the King page 11and Queen read the Bible every day. I had not noticed it, and said so, but added that I was not surprised. He clearly was surprised, and even excited. He was in fact explaining how important it was when the soup arrived and brought us back to the table. Mechanically I offered him bread, salt, pepper, everything that I thought he might want. But he did not begin. He waited, I now realise, to make sure that I too was ready, then without a trace of self-consciousness, bowed his head, closed his eyes, and in a firm clear voice asked God to add a blessing.

We parted after lunch and I did not see him again, but I thought when the evening paper arrived that he should also have prayed for protection. He was spending the night in the city, and if he turned, as he probably did, to the advertisement pages to see what to do in the evening, he must have seen an invitation in big print and double columns to go to a certain picture-theatre to 'Meet the Girls', who were 'Great' and 'Gay' and 'recommended more especially for adults'. If he escaped the girls he perhaps fell among the prophets, since the next advertisement, also a double-column display, announced that the 'voice of prophecy was speaking again' and that the fourth of the 'greatest series of prophetic lectures ever given in Wellington' would be heard in the Blank Theatre, where the doors would open at seven, and nothing worse would follow than a 'free-will offering'. If that did not get him there was the announcement in the page 12next eight inches that 'handsome Joe Corbett, under 30 years old, 6 feet in height and 17 stone in weight', who was 'tough as well as pretty' and had defeated such men as Ali Baba, Ed Don George, and Gus Sonnenberg, would open the wrestling season by 'trying conclusions' with 'popular Dick Raines', who had not only beaten Ali Baba but 'drawn with Bronco Nagurski'. And if by reason of strength he survived the girls, the prophets, and the he-men, the politicians probably got him, since the remaining four-inch double space on the page contained an 'Important Announcement' by a new political organisation of a meeting to be held in the Town Hall, and a warning that 'Members and Friends of the Movement' who had 'not yet applied for their tickets', with 'supporters for whom tickets could not be issued for the last meeting owing to lack of accommodation', must make Immediate application at Room —, Floor —, in — Building.

It was a dangerous world, I thought, for rural fundamentalists, and when I left the city myself by harbour-ferry I wondered which of my two hundred fellow-passengers really represented New Zealand. I have since watched most of them twice a day for many months, and I am wondering yet. Some talk all the way (forty-five minutes) and some read. Some knit and some play cards. Some trim, paint, and polish their nails. Some gaze into mirrors and some into space. Some read newspapers and some books, for page 13few find the sea sufficient, or the sky, or can endure their own company for three-quarters of an hour. "We are lawyers, labourers, school-teachers, factory-workers—women as well as men; bank-clerks, typists, shop-girls, public servants. Occasionally we have a minister of religion with us and once at least I saw a Minister of the Crown. But have we a New Zealander? Is there one among us so typical of all that New Zealand comes and goes with him? Not one of them is New Zealand, but all are, and if we are to get a picture of them we shall have to avoid standing too close to the big trees that hide the wood.