The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 5 (August 1, 1935)
Forty Years After
Forty Years After.
There is a dramatic little sequel to the story of this comradeship in the rough and perilous lands of South New Zealand. Young Baker entered on exploration work in the Mackenzie Country and later about Lake Wanaka. He did not see Butler again, apparently, before the scholar-sheepfarmer returned to England. In 1902, after he had retired from official duty under the Lands and Survey Department, he and his wife and daughter made a tour of Europe. One evening in Rome, when they were at dinner in their hotel (as Baker related in his reminiscences), his daughter called his attention to an old gentleman sitting near the head of the table who looked, she said, “like a philosopher.” Baker did not recognise him at first, but he knew that the old man had been in his life at one time or another. Presently he took a seat next to the “philosopher,” whose voice he thought he knew, and he asked him if he had ever been in New Zealand.
“Oh, yes,” the other said, “about forty years ago I was there.”
“Then, perhaps,” said Baker, “you are Sam Butler?”
“By God!” exclaimed Butler, “you are John Baker.”
And then the two of them talked until after midnight. Baker and his family were leaving Rome in the morning, and the friends never met again. Butler was on his way to Sicily to complete a book, and he became ill there and died soon afterwards in England.
So ended too soon the reunion of the comrades who had shared when in the prime of their young vigorous lives the adventures and dangers and camp life incident to travel in a great lone land.
Butler's primitive homestead, a low squat “cob” cottage, with clay-compacted walls of rubble stone, was still standing at Mesopotamia a few years ago, and Professor Speight, of Canterbury University College, took an excellent photograph of it, and this is reproduced in the Baker autobiography. That type of dwelling is frequently seen in the backblocks of Canterbury and Otago, where timber was unprocurable in the pioneer days.
“Erewhon,” with its blending of romance and a topsy-turvey outlook on sociological and political problems, is the most known and the most-quoted Butler book. But “The Way of All Flesh,” which appeared so much later—it was not published until the year after his death—is in my view the greatest of his books. Yet it should be read first, in order to understand something of the spirit of revolt against the accepted conventions and the smothering influence of the orthodox church atmosphere in which he had been reared. New Zealand did not hold him for many years; but he spent his happiest days here, and the character of the wide, free land in which he worked uplifted and liberated his spirit.