Title: Home

Author: Bill Pearson

In: Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays

Publication details: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

Keywords: Literature

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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays


page 159


This piece was written for radio and was broadcast on the National Programme, 18 May 1972, and abridged in the New Zealand Listener, 12 June 1972.

There was one day three years ago when I crossed from Australia, from the brisk blue mornings of Canberra, with rosellas flashing and the loud calls of peewit and pardalote and magpie and currawong, to the seagulls and sparrows of the Manukau, to the showers and lead-pencil skies of Auckland in May. And walking down seedy old Symonds Street, in spite of the bland temperature, the rain and the grey I had a sense of being home such as I had not felt in all the bright and dust and heat and cold of the Monaro. So that when I am asked (as the N.Z.B.C. has asked me) why I live in New Zealand, the answer is that I was born here and it is only at home that I feel at home. I have enjoyed living in London and Australia but in those communities I was a guest; to use Maori terms, here I am tangata whenua, a native, and I hope I have turangawaewae, my native earth beneath me and the right to stand forward and speak.

I was born in 1922. I was 13 when the Savage government came in, dramatically marking the end of the lean years. For me, the new economic security of the early years of Labour opened possibilities like university which my parents couldn't have afforded earlier; and it released us all from the harsh old doctrine of work and thrift that had ruled the country for so long. The spending on libraries let in new ideas on education and psychology and politics as well as the imaginative literature of the twenties and thirties. It was possible to see our home experience in the light of the freshest thinking from outside. We also had a glimpse of an independent national policy, we could take pride in our health services and education and old Maori grievances were listened to.

I recall this past only to measure the present. Because with the new prosperity came the trend that has taken over and turned us into a very different society. I mean the lust to acquire the possessions the advertisers are always wheedling us to buy. If I wanted to point to two opposite page 160 poles in pakeha society—not the only ones—I would point to the comfortably-off blue-rinsed widow in her home unit, busy with her rituals of ownership, stoking her rubbish tin with the righteous wastes of her modest consumption vaguely disturbed that the world outside is not as it was when she went to school—comfortable for old ladies and kept in order by white Anglo-Saxon military alliances and occasional wars which we always won. At the opposite pole I would point to the demonstrator in his dirty jeans, his head in the cloud of his own hair, with a contempt for the value most of us set on possessions and status. He too is concerned to see his country's behaviour in the light of what is happening in the world and, so far as the world is aware of us, it is he who will retrieve the reputation of his country.

Which is not high. Look at our international position. Twenty years ago in England I wanted to tell people I was a New Zealander; in recent years I have waited till I am asked. In the one area where our help could be of real service, the South Pacific, we have given, but too stingily to win the goodwill that would follow if we were generous. We have taken part in a most callous gang attack on the people of Indo-China, their crops and soil and water, their very sources of life; and we did it for the sake of American protection and a bigger share of the American market. At the same time our envoys have been running around the capitals of Europe like beggars saying, Please be sorry for us; expecting Europeans to forego their economic advantage for the sake of our comfort. Wouldn't it be better to turn our smallness to advantage and develop a policy of neutrality and self-reliance?

At home the large rewards go to the aggressive and the quick off the mark, to the selfish and the lucky. We have given power to men who measure the value of an activity by the profit it turns in, who undervalue education and have let our health service run down, who are still filching from Maoris the last of their land if it can be turned to profit. If we let them they will turn our landscape into private parks for millionaires and industrial waste heaps. Other countries are finding there can be a terrible price for concentrating on production and consumption, on exports and markets. We are fortunate in what we still have the opportunity of avoiding the extremes of pollution and biological disturbance that have been reached overseas.

But our most important domestic concern is race relations. One of the prides of Auckland, some would say its best one, is its large Polynesian population, not only Maoris from all the tribes of the North Island, but immigrants from the diverse villages of Western Samoa, from Niue and Tonga and the Tokelau atolls, from Rarotonga and Mauke and Mangaia and Aitutaki and Pukapuka and Manihiki. I dwell on these names to suggest the cultural diversity whose value we don't appreciate; not simply a diversity of language and song and mime and dance, but of ways of relating to one another, of the ceremonials of welcome and mourning, of page 161 codes of giving and receiving. In their readiness to smile and love, in their sense of what things are important in living, Polynesians know a great deal that we have forgotten or perhaps never learnt.

Yet so many of the Polynesian faces one sees on the streets in Auckland are hard and unfriendly, nagged by time payment or the fear of unemployment or the coldness of pakeha or palagi neighbours or landlords. It would be sentimental to expect all the virtues of the rural family village to survive the shift to a working-class suburb in an industrial city. But it is a great pity that Polynesians should be made to live as we do, behind walls and within the code of behaviour that the blue-rinsed widow approves, expected to be quiet and not have too many visitors. Because what we are likely to see as Maoris and Islanders are urbanised is a replica of ourselves; not as we see ourselves, but as they do, as we have treated them. And it may not be a good likeness; it could be a terrible one. We have already had warning from the violence of some of the first generation to grow up in the city, those adolescents who could find no better way of asserting an identity than gang violence. It is encouraging that in a recent example that was given a lot of publicity, a Maori gang from South Auckland, we did not fall back on the authoritarian streak that lies in us or on the hysteria with which we legislated against narcotics. In this case reason prevailed: a number of urban Maori leaders talked to the youths and looked for the causes, the Minister of Maori Affairs went to one of their functions. It is something that gives me pride in my country that a potentially destructive force has been converted to constructive social work in the suburb in which it developed. Where else in the world could an apparently anti-social gang be enlisted to raise funds for a church boarding school? But we have to be prepared to spend money on more profound and imaginative measures than this, because there are other gangs and will be more. And spending money on education and social work means rearranging our priorities.

In our relations with Maoris there is a much deeper issue that takes me back to the point I started with. What right have I to claim turangawaewae in this country? We have to face up to history. For several centuries it was Europeans who moved in on the rest of the world, invading, defeating, annexing, settling. In a post-colonial world we are likely to see an extension of readjustment to those parts where the original people were outnumbered and reduced to a politically ineffective minority. We are likely to see a reassertion of ancestral claims, some demand for re-negotiation of the mutual rights of descendants of the occupiers and the occupied. New Zealand will not escape this process, though it has a great advantage in that Maoris were not denied political rights. But there will not be interracial stability until we pakehas have recognised the unjustness of our position—that we are living here by virtue of the violence and fraud that our ancestors practised on those whose land it was, and the descendants of those Maoris will not be put off by the argument that their ancestors page 162 were content with a few axes and blankets or muskets or even several hundred thousand pounds paid in later compensation.

We might have avoided this if we had treated Maoris as partners and not wards, had allowed them to use their own initiative and co-operated with them in meeting their needs and aspirations. But Maoris are now putting our professions of good will to the test. We have rested our belief in our happy race relations on two lies that we tell our children at school. The first is that in practice we honour the Treaty of Waitangi; the second is the myth that the Maoris themselves were preceded by an extinct people called Morioris—we have known for years that it is not true, but we preserve it as a way of projecting onto Maoris our own uneasiness about our right to be here.

In this context we can see that the young activists who call themselves Tamatoa, the young fighters, are helping us to see the truth. They may not have the whole of the truth and there are Maoris who do not agree with them. But Maoris are better than we are at talking things out and reaching unanimity. We have to recognise that most Maoris are agreed in wanting for their people a recognised and valued place in a society that allows room for their language and their own ways of behaving and feeling.

So that if I were asked to make up an honours list of those to whom a future generation will owe most, it would not include many whose names get into the front page headlines; it would include rather a great many people I will never meet and whose names I don't know. It would include those who volunteer their time and energy for peace and civil liberties or the human dignity of prisoners or to save the landscape and our flora and fauna; it would include those who turned out on the streets for peace in Vietnam, who have campaigned to save Lake Manapouri, and teachers who have upheld the values of their profession. But especially it would include those who are contributing to racial harmony: Maoris and Islanders who have accepted the challenge of maintaining something of their way of life while they raise families in a new environments; pakeha students who have been helping Polynesian children with their homework; Maori academics who have worked hard to develop community self-reliance in the new outer suburbs of West Auckland; teachers who have raised the performance of Maori pupils; pakeha women members of the Maori Women's Welfare League, members of organisations called Hart and Care.

Outside the arts and literature our national distinctions are fewer than we think. But those in which I take pride are first, the presence of so many Polynesians whose different values and aspirations provide a continual and fruitful criticism of our own; and second, the good proportion of pakehas who care about good race relations.