New Zealand Now
Public Servant.—If he had gone into politics he would have ended on the Treasury benches; perhaps in the centre seat. Instead he went into administration. He is a public servant, so capable that it is difficult to understand why business did not steal him, so loyal that you will never discover his party. Perhaps he has no party; perhaps the people are his party, the State, all parliaments that try to do what they were elected to do, all governments that govern and don't fumble. You will never know. He is a public servant, and public servants keep their mouths shut. They hear everything and say nothing—not through fear of the consequences, because in New Zealand to-day public servants are also citizens, but because discretion is their job and their tradition. In his case public service is not page 94merely his job but his vocation and his life. Although you wonder why he has been allowed to remain, you cannot imagine who could tempt him away or in what other world he could live. Because he does live. He does not just work and draw his salary. His salary is in fact not big. By commercial standards it is absurdly small. But if it were 50 per cent higher or 20 per cent lower you would still not think of it as a rod by which to measure him. Neither would he. He eats and drinks and wears out clothes and pays interest and rent like other people, but if you offered him the choice between riches and his job, he would retain the keys of his office. Idleness would be misery to him, independence meaningless. Independence of what, he would ask you, and go back to his work without waiting for your answer. But don't suppose that work for him means dictating letters and signing them, interviewing ministers or other high officials, directing a staff, thinking a little and planning a little and nothing else. It means all those things and nearly everything else that you can imagine an able, well-educated, and well-read New Zealand Irishman doing who lives near to the government and to all the other enterprising people, professional and lay, who hover about governments. He could do well in the courts as a barrister; he could edit a newspaper; he could represent New Zealand in a foreign capital; he could write a sensational book of personal and political memoirs; he could organise a health campaign, page 95conduct a race-meeting, pick a team for the Olympic Games. And because he is all these things and many more—a student of New Zealand literature, a cyclopaedia of New Zealand sport, an admirer of good printing, and the radiator of good-fellowship—his days are as full as days can usefully be if busy-ness is not to be muddle. There is no muddle and there is no irrelevance. Everything that he does, nearly everything that he reads, and most of the things he says and makes others say, are grist for the official mill, which is never forgotten, and can't be, since he and it are one. For we end where we began. He is a public servant. With his energy, ability, and bold imagination, he could have had half a dozen careers and made half a dozen reputations. But he entered the public service. He remained in the public service. He is the public service, in the sense that he is the perfect answer to those who fear bureaucracy and the dismay of those who love it.
To call him representative would be rash. To forget that he is here, that Westland bred him, Wellington educated him, the public service developed him, and government after government has used him, would be what shepherds call keeping a dog and doing our own barking. But if democracy gets the rulers it deserves, how did we qualify for him?
Teacher.—There is a legend that our schools seventy years ago were places of violence and terror, and that page 96the only teacher our grandparents knew was the rod. But it is doubtful if the rod was ever so potent, so feared, or so long remembered as the moral precept. Most of us have forgotten our floggings, but we do not forget our moral alarms. We wrote morality in our copy-books. We read it on school and bedroom walls. We got it in church and Sunday-school. We might even, if we were lucky, get it to eat. It is certainly the case that confectioners and pastry-cooks knew how to serve it up in sugar, so that the reward of virtue might be a 'conversation' lolly carrying a text, or a biscuit endorsed with the Lord's Prayer.* School was of course a place of terror when the two methods were combined, and automatic. The teacher who hit at sight and nagged without ceasing was emotionally and probably mentally deranged, but some apparently relentless task-drivers were just missionaries eaten up with zeal. There was never a more humble, devout, self-tormenting teacher in New Zealand than John Stenhouse of Lawrence, but when he entered a class room he looked so grim that frivolity went out like a candle. I like to think, however, that he yielded to one temptation—that what first interested him in New Zealand was gold, and that what brought him to his tremendous decision to emigrate was a page 97sudden attack of gold fever. No one will ever know. What we do know is that he arrived in Dunedin when the gold fever was at its height and was caught in the rush that was carrying everybody to Gabriel's Gully. There he stopped, and there he stayed, and there seventy-seven years later he stays still; but when the administrative history of New Zealand is written his shadow will lie heavy on the second half century.
Farmer.—I could not get him to agree that his position was unusual or unfortunate. If he was poor after fifty years of work and worry that was the fate of farmers; and had to be. Farming was a calling and not a job; a privileged calling. For obviously the farming population was always limited. You couldn't page 100increase the number of acres. You could only subdivide them further or make a further use of some that you now neglected. The number of farmers of all kinds was only one in ten of the total population, and it was his firm conviction that it would never be much more. For it was just madness to go about urging a return to the land. The land was not short of farmers: farmers were short of land. And as time went on science would intensify the problem. Two men would produce what three produced now, with less effort, and at a lower cost to the consumer. In the meantime farming was tough. Whether you kept cows or pigs, sheep, bees, or hens, whether you drove a tractor or swung a shovel and a hoe, you would not find it easy to increase your holding, to balance your budget, to bath and shave every day, read the newspaper regularly, get bankers to take off their hats to you, or go to bed with the birds. And if you were ever so cranky as to get mixed up in politics you would put your neck in a noose and the loose end of the rope into the hands of your enemies.
For every man was your enemy (he went on after a pause) who thought he understood you and didn't. The people in the towns thought that farmers lay awake at nights listening to the wheat falling out of the ears in a nor' wester. They did not realise that if farmers worried over the things God did to them they would go mad. They worried over the things they did to themselves, the things they should have done and page 101didn't—the broken gate when they heard the horses in the garden, the sheep they had not put into the shed when they heard rain on the roof during shearing, the stacks they had not weighted against the wind, the creeks they had not cleaned before the floods came, the cows they had not culled, the bulls they had used, and the rams they had felt too poor to feed to the dogs. Farming was like war or navigation—you did what you could, but if it ever happened that you had done all that you could your mind stayed above the battle.
And it was just preposterous nonsense to think that you could, or should, accumulate money. In fifty years (he smiled to think that this was his jubilee) he had made almost no progress at all. His graph had been horizontal for twenty years, risen sharply for three years, fallen again, risen once more and stayed high for five or six years, but now would stay flat to the end. Why should he worry? Farming had always been his choice as well as his fate. He had perhaps hoped when he began—he could hardly now remember—that he would make money quickly and retire; but if folly like that ever possessed him, it was as far away now as other adolescent absurdities we don't talk about. Every day of his life had been a happier day than if he had spent it in any other occupation. How could that be expressed in money?
And how (he threw out as a final challenge) would land ever be occupied and worked if his story was page 102not the common one? "Would his sons follow him unless they wanted to—to-day when they saw clerks and carpenters working five days a week and wandering off every week-end with girls? One of his sons probably would not follow him, or not follow him far, for wheels and cogs were his hobby, and this would never be a mechanised farm. The other had been so glad to leave school that the farm already had him; but to encourage him he had given him some stud ewes. The reward of farming was farming, interest in the crops and stock, and joy in the job. But where was the hardship? Only a certain number of farmers were required. Only a certain amount of land was available for profitable production. Only a certain amount could ever be paid by the consumer for his bread and milk and butter and meat and cheese. The farmer could not have it both ways. If he chose the joys of farming he had no right to the compensation paid to those sentenced by fate to unnatural lives.
I looked up to see if he was laughing. He was quite serious. But he laughed when I asked how many votes he would get if he stood for parliament. Then he asked me: How many eggs would a hen lay if she knew what was in an omelette?
Policeman.—Partly because he was big and strong, and partly because he was Irish; partly because his initials were P. C.; partly because he had always been respectable; partly because society in twenty-six page 103years had found nothing better for him to do than shearing, swagging, harvesting, and ditching, he wrote a letter one day asking to be taken into the Police Force. But that was forty years ago. They took him in, they kept him in, and now with something like real sorrow they were letting him out again. The mayor sat on one side of him, the old doctor on the other side. Half the town was packed in the hall in front of him. It was good-bye. But as one after another rose to praise him his face cried out for mercy. He had arrested them, he had prosecuted them, he had broken up their parties, spied on them, collected evidence against them, warned them, threatened them; once or twice, to save them from something worse, used physical violence against them—and there they all sat smiling and clapping and thumping their feet and shouting the most fervent 'hear-hears'. And then suddenly the last speaker sat down, the clapping was over, and he was himself on his feet—trembling, speechless, and all at once crying. The doctor, who was equal to most emergencies, was a moment too late with the 'jolly good fellow' chorus, and before we reached the cheering the Sergeant was back in his chair sobbing helplessly.
That was five years ago. To-day he is seventy-one—lonely because he has outlived his wife and his daughter, shy because it was only the official part of him that was ever confident, courteous because there was never any rudeness in him from birth, and compage 104pletely bewildered because people go on smiling at him, seeking his company, dragging him into their offices and homes, and running after him if they catch a glimpse of him in another town.
I think it was Thoreau who said that the occasional failures of rich men restored his faith in God. When I find it necessary to bolster up my faith in ordinary men I think of Sergeant C.— never smart enough, or pushing enough, or confident enough to rise, or wish to rise higher, but so kind, so sincere, so modest, so helpful that he became a kind of touchstone of decency for a whole community, and yet remained so efficient that the town for twenty years was under-policed. If he did not smile at you, you began to wonder what you had done. If he did smile it was such a shy smile, so humble, and yet so warm, that you wanted to run after him and shake his hand. But in place of the smile there could be a pained and anxious look, and then you knew that you were a transgressor—that you had been driving furiously, or cycling without a light, or emerging too often after hours, or working on Anzac Day to the scandal of your neighbours, or beating your wife, or neglecting to clean your chimney. And you wondered how he knew—as a boy wonders how his father knows about the stolen apples or the secret cigarette. Fathers do know, and Sergeant C. knew. Having no son of his own he had adopted the whole community, and through all the years of my acquaintance with him page 105our welfare was his first concern. I am sure that he was always a most punctilious filler-in of forms, an officer without black marks. It would follow from the simplicity of him, the modesty, and the loyalty. Who was he to disobey orders, any order, whoever gave it? But I am equally sure that he did none of those things to please his superiors or to gain promotion, although it was his nature to please everybody if he could. But duty came before pleasure, and the welfare of the two or three thousand people for whose public conduct he felt himself responsible came before any thought of the consequences to himself. For he was not one of those guardians of the law who think that they guard it best by exposing and punishing every breach. If you ended in Court you were incorrigible. You would have been warned. Long before you were warned you would have been advised. Long before that, probably, you would have been made to feel off-side. There must be scores of men, and even a few women, in that district to-day who never read the Court news without realising that they had kept out of the dock by the grace of God and Sergeant C. For it is the nature of man to err; especially in youth; especially in country towns. It is his nature to pass through stages of insolence, of rowdiness, of exhibitionism, of animalism; to mock at reproof, and to play the petty gangster. It is his nature as he grows older to contract debts, to incur and then neglect social obligations, to abuse privileges, page 106to lose his temper, develop dangerous appetites, quarrel with his neighbours, ill-use his animals, travel too fast, light unauthorised fires, let his dogs stray, or his sheep, or his cattle, or his affections, or his tongue; and so for a hundred possible reasons any year, and almost any week, he becomes a subject of private annoyance or public complaint. If the Sergeant had been quick to mark iniquity, which of us would have stood; but he was our father and our friend. He was paid to guard the law, and he conscientiously earned his money. But he knew that a foolish farmer sleeping off his excesses in his own bed was a better proof of police efficiency than ten foolish fellows in Court; that a youth hurrying away with a flea in his ear was better justice than a Borstal sentence; that runaway girls and prodigal boys can be brought safely home again; and that a secret but genuine fright may be a better teacher than a public fine. But if nothing would stop us short of arrest, if we were fools, louts, ingrates, or deliberate outlaws, too stupid to learn or too insolent to listen, the smile would fade and the face suddenly fill with thunder. It was not Sergeant C. we were challenging then, but the law and the State—the decencies of life and all those who valued them. But when the storm passed no wrack of malice or meanness remained behind—unless of course you resisted still. For then you were a bad one, and with all his charity he had none to spare for rogues. What good man has?page 107
Soldier.—If you had met him in the street you would not have looked back. If you had been picked up by his car or had picked him up in yours you might have thought afterwards, if he returned to your mind at all, that modesty is still a fragrant flower. He never wore a face of destiny, or of mystery, or of impending great events. His closest friends detected, once they began to realise what was going on inside, that he was becoming a little quieter and occasionally abstracted and abrupt; but the moody and obsessed are always with us, and they assumed that his devil would die. He was a small-town lawyer within big-town range, and clients therefore could not be neglected. He had a wife and a young family, and life for him began at home. It is in fact certain that his wife and children were always half his story. The other half was conscience and romance. War was madness and had some day to be ended, but marching feet were music. A patrol moving off at dusk or dawn tightened his muscles and took all his words away. So drill was never tedious, routine never meaningless. When war broke out in 1914 he was only seventeen. His brother went away, but he had to wait two years. The day he reached the trenches in 1916 his brother was killed. A year later he was severely wounded himself. It was the end of one war for him, and the beginning of another. He returned to New Zealand convinced that the struggle was not over, and felt sick inside when he saw us throwing away our page 108rifles and our uniforms. He joined a territorial regiment, and endured in silence the taunts of the ignorant and the defection of the careless. No one was so ridiculous in those days, so derided and so despised, as the man who ventured out in uniform. At last the strength of the battalion was about half the normal strength of a company. Nothing was possible but shadow drill, carried out by skeleton units. But he did not give up. He held on to the few men who still paraded, and countered his own depression by reading and hard study. They would be wanted some day, all of them, and if the call came suddenly and there was no foundation to build on there would be a catastrophe. Long before Munich he was an authority on all the campaigns that have changed the world since Napoleon, and more familiar with Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal, and Scipio Africanus than most readers of war books are with Foch, Haig, and Joffre. Military history was a passion, but it was also a preparation, and when the day came that he had so long brooded over, he just put on his uniform and walked into camp. It is the opinion of some who knew him well that he ate better, slept better, and worked better every day afterwards. The conflict inside was over. The awakening outside had begun. Three days before he left Egypt for Greece he sent a friend this message: 'We have not wasted our time. We are ready. My men will do their whole duty. I need no other inspiration.'
* When I was seven or eight years old I stayed for a few days with a German-Norwegian family working on the goldfields. At night I slept in a bed recessed in the wall, and on the opposite wall was a huge white lolly—it still seems to me that it was as big as a saucer—carrying the Lord's Prayer in pink letters. The temptation was strong, and about the third night too strong, but although I was sure that God would punish me, I cannot now remember that He did.