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New Zealand Now

7 — Things to Come

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Things to Come

The History of prophecy is full of warnings. Daniel was thrown to the lions; John the Baptist, with less luck, to Salome. Even Isaiah, though he prophesied for sixty years, had to console himself in the end with the thought that the righteous would one day glut their eyes on the carcases of their enemies. And although some of these dangers have passed, some remain. Whoever talks of the future takes risks; of any future; for the future has of course not happened, and to say how it will happen is to challenge Time to do what it has always done to those who try to pierce its veil. As soon as we try to look ahead in New Zealand we realise also that we must look from two positions. New Zealand is developing a dual mind. It has always been two countries climatically, and it is beginning to be two politically and socially. Even its economic development, though it is the function of business to build bridges and break down barriers, is not a harmonious story or a record of cheerful co-operation. The North page 110Island takes its bread from the South Island because it must. The South Island sends north for fruit. But each resents the other's monopoly and obstructs when it can. It would be rash to say that time will remove these jealousies, and that they are in any case of no importance. They are important enough to continue, to be active, to influence politics, and even to have some effect on law, for as soon as you admit the principle of local protection in your legislation you invite appeals to the courts and questions about the Constitution. Civil war is not visible on any possible horizon, but a mild degree of civil strife will continue as long as the North Island gets little or no frost and the South Island relatively little rain. For there is the further difficulty that the North Island is twice as strong as the South Island politically, an insult without an injury, since a bushel of wheat means infinitely more in our economy than a plate of lemons, and the South Island is still impregnable economically. It is easy to exaggerate these differences but dangerous to ignore them, since they are in the nature of things, and it is also in the nature of things for the human animal to be jealous and unreasonable. As long as grass grows all the year round in one island and only two-thirds of the year in the other, as long as wheat is allergic to continuous rain and lemons to frost, as long as an acre of land in one island exchanges for only half an acre in the other, Cook Strait will be a barrier rather than a bridge.

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In the meantime two-thirds of the population have moved to the North Island, and since they have moved impartially from both Canterbury and Otago the North Island is becoming a national melting pot into which the South Island is throwing its provincial and racial jealousies. But in proportion as we move to the north we move deeper into the shadow of the bush, mentally as well as economically. It is not just playing with words to say that the bush has been pressing on our minds for a hundred years as well as obstructing our arms and our legs. Holcroft has shown in The Deepening Stream what the 'primeval shadow' of the forest means to a poet, but we are all poets some of the time, all superstitious and subject to irrational fears. Australia, which is older than New Zealand and somewhat more articulate, has always been conscious of the shadow lying across its mountain gorges and spreading along its rivers to the sea. But in Australia the bush is incidental. Here it is fundamental. In Australia the sun strikes through the forest ceiling and throws spangles of light on the floor. Here the ceiling is impenetrable and the floor always damp. It is impossible to believe that we have lived for a century with that shadow all about us and not felt it as a menace. If the migration north continues we shall lose some angularities and take on some softness; cease being Englishmen, Scotsmen, and Irishmen, and become New Zealanders. But the further north you go in New Zealand the nearer you get to Polynesia.

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It is also possible that the drift north will be a tide flowing south again when irrigation puts Marlborough, Canterbury, and Central Otago back into grass and world forces dam our rivers and harness even our lakes. For it has happened to us through Hitler as the Scots laird told Dr Johnson it had happened to kings through Cromwell: we have discovered that we have a joint in our necks. We may in time forget, but our reaction for a generation or two will be a struggle to grow a second neck in some safer part of our anatomy. How soon the change will be achieved will depend on how fast population flows our way when the war is over, but the second neck will be in the South Island, and will grow out of water and coal power and the fear of isolation. Meanwhile we are drawing closer to Australia and closer to India and the East, and realise that we shall have to short-circuit our external economy and broaden the base of our security at home. 'Back to the land' is already a voice in the wilderness. Those who are on the land now have only to rationalise their methods and their machines to glut all the channels by which raw produce can flow from the soil. We shall of course when our soldiers return invite some thousands of them to be farmers, but we shall remember that when we provided 'land for heroes' twenty-five years ago one hero stayed and another left, and another was ordered off. Heroism has a poor chance against interest, labour, taxes, rates, and the losses due to lack of experience. page 113Even romance can seldom hold out against the memory of easier, more familiar, and generally more secure ways of earning a living. So the farmer-soldier who has a second string to his bow sooner or later pulls that string. He returns to his trade or his profession or his office or his shop or his school and leaves on the land those heroes only who like it so much that even the mortgagee cannot drive them off, and those others who have only worse places to go to. We must expect, being human, that the story of 1918 will be repeated in whole or in part, but we may also believe without being too credulous that our disappointment will have a lower curve.

Farmers are born before they are made. Unless they have soil in their blood and in their bones, grass in their ancestry, and animals in their heaven, farming is an enterprise which they undertake for gain, and abandon at the first proof of loss. The dead hand of mortgage lies heavily on most of them, darkening their working hours, and returning in the watches of the night to remind them of past blunders and follies. It is an interesting example of the difficulty of killing a phrase that the popular cure for the depressed classes on the land is to increase the number of their competitors. We forget when we advocate a return to the land that the vast majority of people have not been on the land since the very beginning of history, don't want to be on it, and would not know what to do if they were. There is no need, and no excuse, for a wholesale page 114return to the land. But the fewer farmers we have the fewer there are among us feeling the succession of the seasons, the realities of sowing and reaping, of lambing and calving, and holding their minds steady in the presence both of life and of death. 'Teach me to live,' we sang as children, 'that I may dread the grave as little as my bed'. But if only ten per cent of New Zealand's people work on the land, ninety per cent miss the best teacher of that lesson and see Nature through a glass darkly.

There is little to indicate that the soldier when he returns from the war will rush about looking for a farm, but we must expect him to be a different man wherever he again comes to rest. He will not think that he has fought for nothing: he will know very clearly what he has been doing. But he will want to know that other people know also, and that their knowledge is moving them to action. He will be a more difficult problem than his father was in 1918, partly because two wars in one generation are one war too many, and partly because his wife or sweetheart will feel that she has been in the firing line with him, and will know that in every pound of explosive showered on both by the enemy there was an ounce of injustice supplied by our social system and an ounce of encouraging nonsense by our intelligentsia. For mind works under a handicap in this Ultima Thule of thought and shows painful evidence of a time-lag. We send too many of our brightest spirits abroad to page 115leave the stay-at-homes safe. So, although we are not amused when visitors tell us that our thoughts are the thoughts of London and Manchester delayed a year or two in transit, we are not sufficiendy alarmed. We soothe our irritation with the knowledge that the charge is not true, since time and distance change everybody—Carlyle when he goes from Craigenputtock to London, Livingstone when he moves from Edinburgh to Central Africa, Wakefield when he sails from Plymouth for Port Nicholson. It is not half true, or a quarter true, to call us imitators and nothing else. But it is true enough to be disturbing, and it is most disturbing when the dependence is by people old enough to have minds of their own. For it has not happened to our mental as it has happened to our material environment. We have not gone 'wild' intellectually, lost our memories, and leaped violently forward to the confusion of visitors and careless observers. I was astonished once during a walk round Coromandel Peninsula to discover that even the Maoris had ceased to know native from imported trees. Twice on the same day I was told that hakea was a native, although it is quite unlike anything else on the peninsula, and has features that New Zealand could never have evolved. But I was assured by a very intelligent Maori, educated and observant, that it had been in New Zealand longer than man himself. It seemed a surprising loss of identity in so short a time, since hakea must have been brought over by mission-page 116aries or settlers from Australia, but it was neither so surprising nor so serious as the blurring, in considerably less time, of so many of our mental signposts. The pioneers knew who they were and where they were going. Their grandchildren stand bewildered at the cross-roads, not quite sure whether to advance or retire; whether they are strayed Europeans or white Polynesians; immigrants, travellers, or natives. What would have happened if we had enjoyed a century of peace it is not possible now to say. We might have moved farther away from Britain or we might never have awakened to the fact that Britain began by neglecting us and as soon as we complained turned embarrassingly maternal. But we have seldom had peace for more than a generation at one time. The Maori wars made us feel very much abandoned at first and then very much less than masters of our own fate. The Crimean war did not touch us materially but disturbed us mentally. The war with the Boers disturbed us sufficiently to rally us to Britain's side, and since then our two wars with Germany have alarmed those even (a negligible number) who thought it no sin to dream of separation in their sleep. For a stretch of years that no one would now name even tentatively separation will seem nonsense to us. Fear, affection, admiration, and horse-sense have turned the prodigal home again, really alarmed and genuinely penitent. But the story of the prodigal does not end with his return. We must consider what happens to him when page 117he begins to feel his father's house a little quiet, a little oppressive, perhaps a little stuffy. We have glanced already at our absent soldiers. They will return. Our intellectuals, who have worked too long in a vacuum, will fall out of their glass cases into the street. Those who are running round in a circle at present like frightened sheep will find leaders who will know where to go. Let us not assume too hastily that it will be the shortest way back to London.

Whatever happens there will be an increasing awareness of the United States and of Canada, of both of which so far we have been aware only at intervals. For as long as most of us can remember both countries have supplied us with farm implements, and for as long as younger people can remember the United States has flooded us with films and motor-cars. But it has never really occupied our minds or, until quite recently, and for other reasons, stirred our emotions. Nor did it even then stir us by direct action. Our emotion, though deep and sincere now, came to us first from London, partly because London is the starting point at present of all our excitements, and partly because we have usually looked past America to Europe when we have been thinking of anything but film stars and jazz bands. But we shall not in the future look past. As long as we are a democracy we shall think of the United States and Canada as walls that tyranny cannot pass from the East and as fortresses for our defence if danger threatens from the West; page 118and as we become more conscious of America politically we shall draw closer economically. It has been a quite astonishing fact so far that the industrial penetration of the United States has created no excitement. We have seen huge assembly works established by motor-car manufacturers, bought and used the cars, worked in our thousands in the factories themselves, and thought very little about the situation although it was so obviously the arrival of a new industrial era. Our unawareness of America has in fact been almost as remarkable as our unawareness of the sea, which lies all about us, but has never penetrated our minds. Although most of us have lived all our lives within sight and sound of the sea, although the sea brought us here, and has been our only contact with our markets and our sources of supply, spiritual and material, we have not become sailors, or so far showed any marked inclination to do so. We shall change when circumstances make us change, when pressure at home or danger abroad puts the sea into our hearts and minds. But it is not there at present, and we may leave it to economists, biologists, and politicians to say what is most likely to put it there—distress at home, our amphibian ancestry, or a sudden feeling that our cargoes are not safe while other people carry them.

Meanwhile we are children of circumstance. If those philosophers are right who say that 'geography nudged mankind into history', our course is already page 119laid down. Sun, wind, mountains, and rain are pushing us faster than some geographers think frost, drought, and coal pushed our European ancestors. But we are doing something ourselves, and becoming something. We have reached the end of the easy living that virgin soil and unlimited elbow room made possible. In other words we have come to the end of blind living. We can no longer dig gold out of the ground with a butcher-knife as Gabriel Read did, or put a match to the bush and wait till the rain and a little fertiliser bring gold out of the ashes. We have to think, and we have to plan, and 'much is to learn and much to forget' before we can feel again that the earth is ours. And we may not be as well equipped for the new battle as our forbears were for the primitive struggle they carried on. There are many observers who think that the democracies, when the German hurricane struck them, were slipping into softness. Others have said that they were already effeminate. 'Some time between 1914 and 1940', an American newspaper said last year, 'John Bull became Britannia and Jacques Bonhomme became La Belle France'. It is a charge without much substance during a war that is killing as many women as men; but it is not quite meaningless. We take the easy road when we can, put goloshes on our boots to keep even the soles clean, and fight cold with hot-water bottles instead of with our muscles. But if everything that has been said about our recent past were true it would be profitless page 120to dwell on it. The past is dead. We stand at the beginning of a new era for the world as well as of a new century for ourselves, and pessimism's other name is cowardice.

Necessarily, too, when we peer into the future we peer into the lives of men and women now in the cradle, or unborn. We can picture their lives only to the extent to which we can see into the minds of the generation nearest to them in time—the men and women who have most recently matured. And it is not easy to gauge minds that are still fluctuating violently and nowhere yet on permanent record. What man reared last century can feel that he knows the men and women born this century? The Mediterranean proverb that it is a clever child who knows his own father tells us a good deal about the Mediterranean. But when Launcelot Gobbo turned it round in the Merchant of Venice he told us something tragic about the whole human race. A father can never know his own child however wise he is. He treads a different road and hears different voices. But when a country is only a hundred years old, cumbered about many things, and largely dumb, there are not even books, magazines, pictures, poems, and songs to tell one generation where the other is worshipping. It is impossible to know, and foolish to pretend to know, precisely what the call to war meant, for example, to New Zealand youth in 1939. We know what their answer has been in deeds, but he is a bold observer page 121who would claim to know what is still going on in their minds. Is there more or less doubt of the wisdom of their elders than there was twenty-five years ago? Every observer must be influenced by his own experiences and confused by his own uncertain memories. There was certainly a deeper scepticism in general in 1939 than there was in 1914; for the fumblers in office and the sneaking scoffers in counsel had done then-work well. But is it quite certain that the particulars of faith are now as firmly grasped as the generalities of doubt were two years ago? We must not be confused by the fact that war is no longer an adventure into which youth can rush with excitement. It would have been a horrible spectacle if our sons had come forward in any mood but sadness, touched indeed with bitterness, for it would have meant that we had communicated nothing at all to them of our own melancholy conviction that war is the last abomination short of slavery. Nor must we judge the whole by the part. The confused there must always be; the nervous; the selfish. There must always be in youth as in age a substantial proportion who think only of their own interests and feel deeply only what hurts them personally. The war facts—the acceptance of universal service and the prompt response of an overwhelming majority of those called—prove that as the crisis deepened the hesitators rallied. But we must also realise that if the degree of conscientious objection has been found to be about two per cent, the furtive, page 122devious, equivocal behaviour of perhaps five per cent more means that under absolute freedom about one New Zealander in ten or twelve would not defend his country. It is not an alarming revelation. It may even be the most encouraging story of its kind of the whole war; for although it is impossible to know what the figures are elsewhere, we do know that our unity in action is almost complete enough to be absolute. But since the problem is to know where youth is going—'news of your son, old man'—we must not shut our eyes when we see him stop and look round.

Nor must the fiend of doubt at our elbow kill our confidence in him. We brought him into a darkened world, reared him in doubt because we had no faith to give him, and just when he was beginning to find a way for himself asked him, on the word of a generation whose past words time had mocked, asked him to go out and die. Shall we blame him if, for the space between two heart-beats, he paused and looked us over?

Many things will come to New Zealand during the next hundred years and many things pass away. But liberty will not pass away while our grandchildren can spell Olympus.