Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 1. 28 February 1972
Mike Bassett is a serious and gloomy man. I met him once at Wellington airport and that was how he seemed to me then. It's an — impression which the publication of this book on the '51 lockout has done nothing to dispel. All the facts are there, in serried ranks, one after the other; the whole thing is carefully spelled out. But a spelling lesson, a catalogue of facts, is no excuse for a failure to write these facts in uncrabbed prose. The book is simply dreary. A character in a short story by Noel Hilliard says to a friend after being dragged along to a Communist Party meeting: "Christ, do you want to put roe off the revolution?" The same might be said of this book by a weary reader.
Dr. Bassett might well argue, of course, that his task is not to encourage the revolution. Indeed, as he has been a Labour Party candidate several times 1 would say that his intention is anything but that. In the words of the old IWW song: 'I am a good strong Labour man/ I want a revolution/ And the quickest way to bring one on Is talking constitution.' He would probably say that he is an historian and it is his task to simply say what happened. If so then he has failed more seriously. A good historian almost approaches the role of the novelist in that it is his task not only to say what happened. But to express the feeling of how it was when these events took place. Someone who does that very well is Dr. W.B. Sutch -who suffers a natty remark at the hands of Dr. Bassett on p214 Ten tch Dr. Bassett, jealousy will get you nowhere — one of our few historians who manages to capture the spirit of the times with which he is dealing. If one fails to do that one ceases to be an his-torian and becomes a maker of almanacs, or at best an archivist.
The great lockout of 51 was a stirring event and no adult who lived through it will forget the tension and foreboding Which it engendered. Dr. Bassett has managed to capture very little of this feeling Why he should have failed in this way I'm not really sure, but his failure seems to be based on the limitation he has placed upon himself in the nature of his sources. Although there is a big literature of illegal pamphlets available he rarely quotes from them. He is concerned far more with the doings and statements of politicians and union leaders, who no, matter how important their actions may have been on consecutive days, were largely puppets in the hands of events which made nonsense of their efforts to control them. The lockout is not a tale of the doings of official personages but is far more the record of men and women who felt and thought in certain ways on both sides — the union members and the police, women and children and farmers and journalists and soldiers who the events affected directly and who had the whole fabric of their daily life shattered by these events. How did a journalist feel knowing that he could not publish a record of something which he had seen? What was is like for a women to know that there was no money coming in and the children still had to be fed and clothed? How does a child feel at school when his classmates sneer at him because his father is one of the hated 'wharfies'? What do soldiers think about when they have to hump butter to the taunts of locked out men only a few hundred yards away? Dr. Bassett sometimes poses these questions but he does not tell us the answers. Of course, the difficulty of trying to answer them is that the answers aren't written down anywhere. You have to come out of your library to find them Dr. Bassett should, as a member of the labour movement, be close to the very live and colourful oral tradition, surrounding the '51. It is a great working class event like 1890 or 1913, and one needs only to go into any pub frequented by wharfies" to hear innumerable anecdotes and tales about it. Such stories are the yeast of history Without them Dr. Bassetts book is a sorry lump of unleavened dough.
If one wants the facts on the '51 lockout they are here; if one wants the feeling of the time it is absent — and this gap makes Confrontation '51 a flawed book.