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The Spike Victoria University College Review 1944

We New Zealanders

page 28

We New Zealanders

Fairburn's Stuff is generally worth reading, and I read whatever comes my way, mostly with gratitude. But this may be described as second-rate Fairburn. So I am not altogether grateful. It is not the conviction that I have paid two shillings for a sixpenny pamphlet that worries me so much as the feeling that Fairburn has not given of his best. Indeed, perhaps Fairburn himself is visited by an uneasy suspicion that he has defrauded me, because his last sentence calls his essay inadequate and rather scrappy. He is right: in fewer than sixty pages he deals with—or touches on—our complaceny, our liquor laws, our cultural problems, our mediocrity, Mr. Leslie Lefeaux, our architecture, democracy, public schools, our sexual morality, abortion, and religion, suburbs, the uses of public corporations and co-operative groups, state socialism and private enterprise, the reform of parliament, immigration, erosion, censorship of the cinema, our book-reviews, our divorce-law good and bad manners, social security, rehabilitation and conscientious objectors. There may be a few other things stuck in the cracks.

Well, you may say, all that isn't bad for two bob, in days when you get nothing for nothing, and damn little for sixpence. The trouble is that though I agree with most of what Fairburn savs, and hope that the little book will shock the people who can be usefully shocked, some of it is bad. Take this:

'I think the very least we can do for the returned men is to see that they are made comfortable, and given the very fullest opportunities in re-establishing themselves. Those who need looking after should gel the very best treatment we can give them. There is an old saying to the effect that "when the wrong is righted, God is forgotten and the soldier slighted." We have a powerful obligation to see that our soldiers are not slighted.'

Now that seems to me simply not worth saying. It's the sort of thing any member of parliament might say, and with about the same elegance. But unless in Auckland, where Fairburn lives, they're very peculiar people (and it is true that the observation that this is so has been made), I can't see that the public conscience needs stirring-particularly with the R.S.A. around. There, however, you have it: Fairburn who ought to write us a really solid and weighty essay (I don't mean dull), with every stroke telling, just gets scrappy. It's his own word.

Of course it's a fundamentally serious essay. Fairburn is a fundamentally serious person, with a sense of social responsibility—better still, with a sense of responsibility towards New Zealand. 'As a New Zealander' he is distressed by many things that happen here, impatient of the dullness and mediocrity we not only tolerate but encourage, revolted by the falseness and pretentiousness of many aspects of our social life, bored by its insipidity, alarmed at our sloth and lack of courage. As a New Zealander he gets off his bike and savs in good round terms that 'We New Zealanders are one of the dullest, most stupidly conservative, most unenterprising races on this planet. By a long course of self-hypnotism extending over several decades we have persuaded ourselves of the opposite —that we are bold, enterprising, intelligent people, unhampered by the shackles of the past. The sooner we realise what damned nonsense this is, the better for us.' And again, 'Compared with New Zealand, England is an unconventional sort of place .... The Englih people have a sense of freedom, a breadth of outlook, and a taste for variety that make New Zealanders look like domestic animals by comparison.' (All the same, thinks Fairburn. the sexual morality of our young people isn't at all bad. and he is not giving a Presbyterian definition.)

Well, such things as those can't be said too often —at street corners or leaning up against the bar, or wherever you best get and give intellectual stimulation, or, at least, conduct your public rows. If they make people re-examine their premises, well and good. But as serious argument, in a fundamentally serious essay, they won't do. Dull, mediocre, stupid, false, pretentious, conservative, un page 29 enterprising the mass of New Zealanders may be; but so are the mass of the English, or French, or Spaniards, or any other people. Who are the English people that Fairburn is thinking of? Of course if you go to the right little gang, in London or Oxford or Cambridge or elsewhere, you'll get freedom and breadth of outlook and a taste for variety—but so you will if you go to the right little gang in New Zealand; and I doubt it the gang is proportionately much bigger in England than it is here. Fairburn has been in England; I take it he has read some other newspaper than the Manchester Guardian, some other periodical than the New Statesman. I take it that he has read some English novels. Does he think the English social satirists—or the French—invented their subject matter? Has New Zealand alone attained the distinction of creating a bourgeoisie? Come, come, Fairburn. And then you say, 'The depression did a great deal to cure us of sentimental illusions about England.' It appears that we still have them.

Fairburn's comparisons really won't do. Nor will his recommendation for the improvement of parliament—a house of representatives of wide general culture plus a second chamber of economic experts. One gets the impression that he has not learnt to think in terms of politics—by which I don't mean like a politician. The same for his recommendation for film censorship—a board of 'writers and educationists, with an intelligent secretariat to do the spade work.' There's a case for censorship in the abstract; but, Fairburn knows, or ought to know, the writers and educationists who would be appointed to the work! When we have a board of censors that includes Fairburn and G.M., I know we'll be living in the City of God. And if New Zealand is one-tenth as mediocre, stupid, false, pretentious, conservative and unenterprising as Fairburn says it is, the City of God is a fair way off. I don't think it is quite as mediocre, stupid, false, pretentious, conservative and unenterprising as that; but there is, I think, a certain divergence between the immediate aims of Fairburn on the one hand and Peter Fraser and Bishop Liston on the other.

Still, Fairburn is on the side of the angels—my sort of angels. Some angels rush in where fools fear to tread. Fairburn is good on public buildings and abortion and large families and social security and national culture and other things. After wrecking the show he warns us against too many negations. 'We must be more interested in affimations if we wish to live as men should live.' That is well said, though of course there are times when the first duty of man is negation. The Everlasting Nay can be as creative as the Everlasting Yea; and much more so than the Everlasting acquiescence which is so much our New Zealand bane. We are all too prone to cease from mental fight a good while before we have built Jerusalem in any portion of this green and pleasant land—or even before we have done anything about some of the bits of it that are less green and pleasant. Of course we mean well—Fairburn might have said that about us. Even our acquiescence has good intentions.

One of the things we need is Fairburn chucking his weight about, but in a weightier way than this. We need Fairburn the pamphleteer, but the pamphleteer at his best. We need Fairburn the poet and the artist as well. We need those particular affirmations because they are affirmations of values in the only sense that such affirmations can valid—by the action of creation. There is no virtue in affirmation as such. We need affirmations of life, not affirmations of death. We need a tradition, but a continuous and lively tradition, a serious tradition because it is dealing with serious things, continuous because it is rooted in a continuous life. Continuous does not mean static. We need a tradition that is made up of values critically thought over and continually reaffirmed in changing ways to meet the changes of our life. That involves the artist of whatever sort. A tradition that is really worth while is continuously creative, continuously self-critical, affirmative and denunciatory by turns. Fairburn's real job is helping us with that tradition—the something uniquely and indigenously New Zealand which must be ours if our life on these islands is to be worth much more than a tin of fish. He has got 'We New Zealanders' off his chest. Now its time for a new book of poetry, from the same chest.