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New Zealand Now

3 — Appeal to Facts

page 27

Appeal to Facts

The New Zealander we have followed through the last twenty pages is the New Zealander nobody knows. He is accredited by authority, weighed, taped, and tagged, but if he had stamps on his fingers and brands on his toes we would still not recognise him as a countryman if we met him on the highway. Statistical man is what we have called him, a robot. You do not eat with him, drink with him, talk with him, marry him, quarrel with him, or put him into parliament. Nor does he interest himself in any way in you—collect your rent or build your house or make your clothes or send you an income-tax demand. No one ever heard him sing or laugh or preach or pray, for science has left him without brains or bowels, dumb, blind, deaf, and completely inert. But you keep your weather eye on him. Before you add cubits to your stature or flowers to your family tree you remove yourself from the company of those who know him too intimately. In this chapter therefore we try to avoid questions to page 28which an answer can be given in figures. We discuss, not those measurable things for which statisticians can draw a graph, but intangible and imponderable things, tendencies, probabilities, and appearances that elude or defy tabulation.

Nor is it the relatively simple problem of judging the tree by its fruit. We have to decide what flowers and fruit the tree may bear when its roots have driven deeper into the soil. The men and women we know, the people we think we are, though they may yield to statisticians in the mass, are as intractable one by one, as moody, and generally as unpredictable, as our weather. They do one thing in the North Island, another thing in the South Island, different things on two sides of a mountain in the same island. Just as the same plant in our bush may be a tree in one place and a shrub in another, or completely change its leaf habit when it reaches a certain height from the ground, so people of the same stock may be found radical or conservative according to the direction of the winds and the depth of the soil, or conservative in New Zealand after being radical in England; or vice versa. When Professor Stapledon visited New Zealand a few years ago he noticed that many immigrant grasses had become 'wilder' than the natives, so that only experts could now say confidently which were indigenous and which exotic. The human stock is not going 'wild' quite so rapidly, but it is showing variations. If the people of New page 29Zealand had to be flattened down into a single generalisation, and the generalisation squeezed into a phrase, we might have to say still that we are Britain transplanted, by contrast with Australia, which is beginning to be Britain re-born. But that is one of the many compressions which conceal the truth. It may be with difficulty that we are becoming ourselves, but we have ceased to be anybody else. There has, for example, been a less rapid assimilation of those British immigrants who have arrived during the last twenty-five years, not because they are different material from those who came earlier but because we are different from our parents and grandparents. When the soil is loose and open there is easy absorption of rain. When a crust has formed a good deal of rain has to fall to soften it, and in the meantime a good deal runs away. We know that a proportion, not large but noticeable, of those who came here between 1920 and 1930 returned disgruntled, and although one reason for the exodus was the fact that it was easily possible—many pioneers would also have changed their minds if the chance had come—another was the difficulty of breaking through our hardening crust.

The question is: what are we beginning to be beneath that crust? We know of course that we are addicted to sport, and that the noise of our rejoicing fills the land. We may even admit that we rejoice a little too heartily, play too intensely, and take our page 30pleasures too purposefully. The philosopher's remark to the boy who beat him at billiards, 'You play well, young man, far too well', would in fact worry us if we had any faith in philosophers. But when we remember that the alternative to kicking a football might easily be kicking one another, and that countries which neglect racehorses usually neglect liberty too, we think one race-meeting a day and two or three hundred football matches a week a reasonable price to pay for democracy.

We know too that we are law-abiding, for although we pass laws that we do not obey, and obey some that we do not enact, the faces of our policemen are clear enough proof that their vigils are relatively peaceful and their dreams untroubled. But there are some signs that we like legal argument—that we obey when we must but question when we can. The number of people who have been in Court either as complainants or as defendants is certainly high; but this means, not so much that we are litigious as that justice is prompt, sure, and relatively cheap. People who do not go to law may go with a brick behind a hedge, take to mud-slinging, or even to the gun rack. One of the signs that anarchy has had no appeal for us is the almost complete absence from our story of appeals to the 'unwritten law'. Even when settlement outran the machinery of order, as it did in the goldfields and occasionally in the bush, direct action for personal injury was rare enough to be a sensation remembered page 31for two generations. Yet thousands of miners came here from California at a time when anarchy was the rule.

Related to this respect for reason, and perhaps arising out of it, is our readiness everywhere to confer. We have an almost universal belief that talking does no harm if it does no good, so spend large sums of money and an incredible amount of time on religious, political, social, and economic conferences, which we no sooner bring to an end than we arrange to call them again. Historians may see in all these meetings a perpetuation of the folkmoots of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors and a proof that democracy never dies. It is at least a fact that the fundamental idea in both cases is that assembly is the beginning of wisdom; and to the extent to which the habit is not British it is American, which makes us safe both ways.

Wisdom of course implies some skimming and some maturing of the brew. If fermentation were enough, the wisest communities would be those with the biggest halls and the cheapest travelling facilities. But big meetings depend for their success on multitudes of little meetings, and since these in their turn depend on the ideas assimilated by ordinary individuals, it is necessary to ask where those ideas come from in New Zealand at the present time. Ultimately of course they come from some thinker's brain, but they reach ordinary brains by two or three well defined routes, and of these the daily newspaper still carries page 32the heaviest traffic. Radio provides news and entertainment but not yet, in New Zealand, ideas. The newspapers on the other hand are more influential than they have ever been before, since radio, as a state monopoly, is under a controversial ban, and there is widespread distrust of academic minds. Thought necessarily rules in the end however the seed reaches the soil, but cleverness is not always wisdom, and unusual cleverness is nearly always an impediment to the flow of wisdom by a direct channel from the intellectual to the uninformed. If the freest channel of communication in New Zealand is therefore the newspaper, that is because newspapers break down the heady stuff of thought without revealing, and often without knowing, where it originally came from. Nor is mistrust of intellectuals a new phenomenon in New Zealand. It runs right through our political history, and is clearly marked in the history of education and religion. William Massey inspired more confidence than Francis Bell; Joseph Ward more than John Findlay; Richard Seddon more than Pember Reeves; the dullest of his contemporaries more than Captain George Grey.* It is doubtful if it could ever be said of any nation that it has been collectively intellectual, but it has never been possible to say it of any British community. And in that respect we are more British than the British. We follow our instincts,

* There are of course overseas parallels. Washington inspired more confidence than Jefferson, Botha more than Smuts.

page 33trust our emotions, mistrust theory. So we mistrust, and even fear, men who march to strange music.

And just as we fear the man who hears voices that our own ears do not register, we mistrust the man, wherever he comes from, who uses a strange tongue. Aliens are still 'foreigners' to nine New Zealanders out of ten, and eight out of the nine are uneasy about them. It was unmistakable last year that although it was a blow to our hopes it was not a shock to our minds when France capitulated. Our faith in our ally had been the faith of the father of the afflicted child who cried out in his misery: 'Lord I believe; help Thou mine unbelief'. We thought we believed, and tried to, but the moment the blow came we knew that we did not. So it is with alien refugees. We want to be hospitable, but we find it difficult. Our charity consents to their appeals, but seldom our reason. And in this respect too we are the sons of our fathers for twenty generations. When an Englishman goes to the Continent he wonders why the people remain so foreign. Coleridge is said to have given public thanks to God, at the close of a lecture, that he had been protected from all knowledge of the French language. But we shall misunderstand this suspicion if we fail to realise that it rests (very dangerously of course) on our reverence for trustworthiness. We may be rogues, liars, humbugs, and opportunists as individuals, and especially as private individuals, and still be able to enjoy our meals. But trustworthiness is still the page 34supreme public virtue. We worship stability, and when men or things are not what they seem the ground rocks. So we reject adventurers, keep ourselves free of political scandals, and boast, and believe, that graft is impossible whatever government holds the cash box. It has in fact been suggested that the general absence of masked balls in New Zealand is the result, partly of our Puritanism, but chiefly of our hatred of the unknown.

Although New Zealand is not the only country in which public men realise that the appearance of evil is almost as bad as evil itself, we have taken the lesson deeply to heart. Cobbett attributed the popularity of one of the Prime Ministers of his day to his habit of going to church every Sunday with a large gilt prayer-book under one arm, his wife on the other, and a brood of children at his heels. But if we learnt that lesson from England, we learnt it easily. For it is a complete misconception of the situation to suppose that when a candidate for parliament is careful to have his wife on the platform with him he is remembering that women vote. He is remembering that we are respectable, observe and value the conventions, and place no virtue higher than domesticity. Women did not have votes in Cobbett's day. Children have no votes to-day. But Perceval the Prime Minister knew that marriage was the rock on which the social virtues rested, the institution that made society stable and generally kept it kind and clean; and we know it page 35in New Zealand. We know more: we realise that an uprooted society scarcely a hundred years old depends far more on such influences than societies with their roots centuries deep in religion and tradition. Our wives mount the platform with us, and accompany us on all our campaigns, first because they want to, second because in a country with a universal franchise they have a right to, but chiefly because an overwhelming majority of men and women feel that it is better that the background of a candidate's life should be known, and very much better that it should be a stable background of generally approved design.

So it is with religion. When you enter a church you do not get the impression that zeal for God's house is eating us up. Congregations are small, collections very small, and a majority of those present are not young. Though there has been a noticeable change in all these respects during the war, only a blind man could suppose that most New Zealanders go to church. The proportion who regularly go is smaller than it has ever been in our history. But religious is as religious does. We still go to church to get married. We go to get buried. We have our children christened. We swear by God and the Bible. We turn back to religion in sorrow and in trouble—as anyone will see who watches the growth of congregations during war, examines the origins of religious movements outside the churches, follows the public notices in the newspapers, or listens to the page 36multitude of counsellors on the war itself. Even if war had not come, religion would have kept our waggon hitched to a star. It would have gone on building churches and schools and hospitals and orphanages, maintaining through all its lapses and failures the dignity of man, preaching (and generally practising) charity. For although the pace had slackened, there was no indication at all that the impulse was coming to an end. Religion was the only force still strong enough to take bread on the way to our mouths, shillings on the way to our pockets, indulgences woven into the very fabric of our lives, and convert them into brick and stone and good works. Forces that work miracles before our eyes are not social, political, or economic. They are however Christians of great confidence who see in the Oxford Group movement and national days of prayer, in the practical Christianity of Rotary, or in public calls to national repentance, signs of a wholesale return to faith, and who believe that we shall again see the day when an unbeliever will be pointed out in the street.*

But social and economic forces may of course co-operate with religious forces and pay tribute to them. It is interesting to observe the connection in

* I was told this story by the late John Hardcastle of Timaru, whose father had a farm near the Rangitata. He was sent as a boy to get a horse shod, and when he reached the smithy saw a stranger leading a horse away and the blacksmith standing at the door watching. As soon as the stranger was out of hearing the blacksmith said: 'See 'im? 'E don't believe in Gawd!' The stranger's name was Samuel Butler.

page 37New Zealand between the miracle-working force of faith in God and the stabilising force of faith in ancient institutions. Superficial observers call us a radical community, and point out the obvious signs—socialism, here or on the way; the political and legal enfranchisement of women; working men on the Treasury benches; education, health, and security legislation; and a hundred other breaks with tradition. But the appeal to the past is still strong. We cling tenaciously to what we have. When we part with customs, privileges, or restraints, we cast lingering looks behind. The most influential newspapers are sober in dress and expression, printed in the morning, and firmly based on property and the flag. The Right wing of Labour dominates the Left wing. The broadcasting services are the most cautious in the world. Labour Day is certainly a national holiday; but saints' days are still observed by banks, and in Nelson they also observe the first Monday in August (though few know why, and some suppose that it celebrates, as it certainly facilitates, the first planting of potatoes). Nor is it quite without significance that the most memorable things in our art galleries (with some landscape exceptions) are portraits of pioneers. Just as we judge Scotland by Raeburn our children will judge us by Nicoll's portraits of 'old faithfuls' who set our feet in the paths that they cleared for us to follow.

Nor will the impression gained be a very violent travesty of the truth. We are just about as sober as page 38those faces suggest. The visitor who detected 'a knell in the Englishman's voice', if he had lived long enough to visit New Zealand, would have detected an elegiac note in ours. We are not Puritan enough to take our pleasures sadly, but we take them very seriously, and are not naturally gay. We have little wit, and we have produced few public or private humorists. It is one of the paradoxes of Nature that a climate so sunny as ours is by comparison with Britain's has put less brightness into our faces and far less liveliness into our speech than has been produced by the smoke and overcrowding of London and Manchester. Our soldiers noticed in the mud of Flanders that most of the jokes came from Cockney regiments and most of the growling from their own trenches, or from those occupied by Australians. To say that we are melancholy would be giving us a more positive quality of gloom than the facts justify, and to say that we are dull would be a libel. But we are certainly not vivacious; and while our silence must not be confused with moroseness, it is marked enough to suggest that we are aesthetically inarticulate. We have no bush or tussock literature: musterers and swaggers but no Henry Lawson; roaring camps but no Bret Harte. We have never had a 'Banjo' Paterson. Nothing like the Sydney Bulletin has ever been possible; nor has it ever been possible for the Bulletin to move, mould, or rally us from Sydney. We are a sober, diligent, Puritan community in which the page 39seeds of irreverence sprout slowly. And we live of course in a small country, doing everything on a small scale. The man who drains the swamp and breaks in the tussocks, milks his cows and shears his sheep, is certainly a subject for poetry. He may inspire the greatest poetry in the world. But he is not a spectacular figure in the meantime. We do not stop to look at him, start talking about him, point him out to others, and break into song about him. Nor shall we as long as he is as busy as he must be and we remain as busy as we think we ought to be. We have, and at present can have, no leisured class. Even when we make enough money to feel justified in taking our ease we do not know how to be at ease. The retired farmer, like the retired business man and the superannuated public servant, looks round for committees to sit on, stands for parliament or a local body, plays bowls until he is in the competition class, or exhibits fowls or flowers. Poetry of course will out in the end. When the heat becomes intense enough we shall see the smoke. But at present our feet are in the furrow and our eyes on the ground. We don't cry out because we are not excited, and we are not excited because we have passed out of the pioneer period, have never known any life but the life we lead, and are neither depressed nor exhilarated by steady, healthy, all-the-year-round labour. For we live exactly half-way between the Equator and the Pole. Physically we neither bake nor freeze, and because there is no page 40hibernation period, no sudden arrest to the activities of man or beast, our mental temperature is as carefully conditioned as the air about our bodies. After all the wit of Ireland may be a defence against the rain, the liveliness of the Cockney his adaptation to a dismal environment. But season in and season out we go on with our work, not talkers or chatterers, and not unqualified admirers of those who are. If we are a little dumb, a little lacking in grace and poise, may the answer not be Latitude Forty-five South?