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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 20, No. 9. June 27, 1957

Victoria Story (5) — 1933: Year of the Blue Pencil

page 3

Victoria Story (5)

1933: Year of the Blue Pencil

The Weitzel ease kept storms brewing at VUC throughout the wenties and the thirties opened with a fresh outburst on the same question: Had students, or had they not, the right to think what they pleased and say what they thought?

The Slump, which hit New Zealand more heavily than almost any other country in the world, had a deep effect on VUC. The Government reneged on its promised subsidy for Weir House. The echoes of the shameful dismissal of Dr. Beaglehole from the staff of Auckland University College set VUC staff members into tantrums of protest or scurrying to their burrows according to character. And the social implications of unemployment, academic freedom, and Government [unclear: "retrenchment"], were vigorously debated in the Clubs.

One name inextricably bound up with this period of the College's history is that of the late Gordon Watson—now commemorated by a very generous scholarship bequeathed to the University in his honour by a relative.

Watson was one of the rare all rounders who, as a brilliant scholar, an energetic tramper, a witty writer of extravs., a good poet, and a very likeable person, exercised a tremendous influence on fellow-students during his years at the College. A committed Marxist from his teens. Watson led a group of radicals in the free Discussions Club and later in the Labour Club, who struck terror into the hearts of downtown respectability.

Their stencilled journal "The Student" was produced chiefly as a challenge to the current official student paper, the monthly "Smad", which they felt to be too pussy-footing towards the tremendous issues of the day.

Commencing publication in the fateful year 1933, "The Student" discussed the rights and wrongs of students scabbing in the seamen's trike, of acting as "specials" to use violence against demonstrations of the unemployed, and of joining the forces to help the predatory policies of British capitalism.

There was panic among the'"patriots". 'Truth"—in one article accusing the staff of the College, entitled "Twisted Teaching, and another indicting the whole intellectual strata of the country under the heading "New Zealand Universities Hotbeds of Revolution" (with flames depicted issuing from the letters)—rushed to the attack, seconded by a series of statements by the New Zealand Welfare League ("anti-British conspiracy"), and several sermons by Canon Perceval James, of St. Paul's ("anarchic propagandists . . . flagrant violation of accepted moral standards"). Everything was thrown into the soup—including a recent visit to the College by that "agitator" Walter Nash, and a debate [unclear: ca] birth control.

A frightened Stud. Ass. Exec, ordered 'The Student'" to suspend publication after two issues—so the third was sold on Kclburn Parade, outside the Exec's jurisdiction. A petrified College Council ordered an enquiry into certain student activities—out of which emanated a "Report" which has been justly described as "an ignoble document".

The sponsors of 'The Student" thumbed their noses at their detractors, and boldly took issue with those who had accused them of being "anti-British". Editor Gordon Watson broke into the letter column of the "Evening Post" thus: "The Welfare League reserves the title of 'British' exclusively for those who blackguard the word by their support of reaction and suppression. Is it 'British' to bomb defenceless native villagers from the air? Is it 'British' to increase expenditure on armaments while cutting down to a bare minimum the money spent on education and health services? Is it 'British' to baton down men who are only asking for bread and a job?"

Then—bang! Respectability received its second shock for the year when the 1933 edition of VUC's (then) annual "Spike" appeared. Its editorial attacked both the College Council and the Students' Executive for their pusillanimous retreat before the assault on independent thought. There was also a very able (and amply justified) criticism of the teaching methods of the College's Law Faculty, published over the initials 'I.D.C ." (What are the initials of the present Dean of the Faculty?) And there were two articles which some anonymous lawyer told someone on the College Council were "seditious" and "indecent" respectively.

The Professorial Board, taking its cue from the Council, panicked. "Spike 1933" was banned. In reply to protests from the Stud. Ass., the Board insisted it was only banning what was "unlawful", and that when the offending matter had been removed, an "approved" edition of the magazine would be permuted to appear. But when the "approved" edition appeared, not only the two "unlawful" articles, but also I.D.C.'s impudent questioning of the Law pundits had been exorcized.

Rival cries of "Academic Freedom!" and "Subversion!" rent the air. The University community was torn asunder. On one side were arrayed a special general meeting of students and another of graduates: on the other side the Prof. Board and the College Council. But there were vociferous dissenting minorities in both camps.

The leavening of enlightenment at VUC suffered a temporary setback. But those harbingers of tomorrow saw their struggle as only part of a wider conflict going on all the world over. It was, after all the same year that saw the clouds of black reaction descend on Berlin, with all the implications that held for the future of mankind. And the Free Discussions Club, not even foreseeing the death of Gordon Watson himself and so many of Victoria's finest sons in the bloody struggle that was to come, no doubt felt they had won some sort of victory when, during a deputation to the German Consul in protest against the Reichstag Fire Trial frame-up, the swastika ensign over the building was mysteriously hauled down and replaced by a plain red flag!


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