Monday, November 12, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“NEW ZEALAND’S LONDON -  A Colony and its Metropolis” by Felicity Barnes (Auckland University Press, $NZ49:99)

            I recognise a trend when I spot one, and it would be very hard not to spot a major trend currently in full flight in New Zealand historiography and literary history.

            Up until the mid-twentieth century New Zealand’s (Pakeha) culture was subserviently colonial. Britain was the Mother Country. Indeed it was still called “Home”, even by many of the New Zealand-born. Our history books told of a benevolent colonial power that civilized the Maori people smoothly, despite unfortunate things like the 1860s wars. Real literature was written in Britain.

            Then there was the reaction, first from imaginative writers in the 1930s (Curnow, Fairburn, Sargeson etc.), then from historians in the 1950s (Oliver, Sinclair etc.). New Zealand was now seen in “nationalist” terms as a country struggling to assert its own identity and no longer essentially British, even if (in economic terms) New Zealand still depended mainly on exports of primary produce to Britain.

            I think this was the intellectual atmosphere in which I grew up. New Zealand was routinely celebrated as a distinct and independent culture with historical links to Britain, but not essentially British itself. Histories were written to show how soon and how assertively New Zealanders thought of themselves as New Zealanders first and British only second. Social laboratory of the world. First country to give women the vote. Proven to be better soldiers than poor weedy Brits at Gallipoli. Egalitarian and not tied to British notions of class. Anyone could play rugby in New Zealand, not just the snotty boys from “public” schools, as in England.

            We were Kiwis, not Poms.

            Thus in Keith Sinclair’s A Destiny Apart (1986). Thus in Ron Palenski’s The Making if New Zealanders (2012 – look up my review via index at right).

            And, of course, part of the “nationalist” construction said that real New Zealand literature began only in the 1930s, when the colonial cultural cringe was being shucked off.

            This was more or less orthodoxy for half a century. But in the last couple of decades it’s been challenged to the point where a new orthodoxy is now establishing itself.

            Rather than showing how much New Zealanders struggled for a distinctive identity, the trend now is to show how, right up to the 1960s, New Zealanders revelled in their Britishness. Rather than a “nationalist” view of New Zealand’s past, we now have the view that New Zealand saw itself as on the periphery of the British world, with London as its true metropolis. Thus there was Jamie Belich’s “re-colonisation” thesis.  Thus Jane Stafford’s and Mark Williams’ Maoriland (2006) challenged the view that “real” New Zealand literature began in the 1930s. They saw merit in much that was written before then, even if it was often Anglo-centric. And, you might recall, just two weeks back on this blog I was considering the book of essays Far From ‘Home’, which took seriously the Englishness of immigrants to New Zealand (look up my review via index at right).

            Here, then, is the trend in plain sight – to see Pakeha New Zealanders up to the 1960s as a sub-set of Britons.

            Felicity Barnes’ New Zealand’s London is definitely a symptom of this trend, as its descriptive subtitle makes clear -   A Colony and its Metropolis.
            Across nearly 300 well-illustrated pages, New Zealand’s London chronicles the way London dominated New Zealand’s literary culture, was the most desired overseas tourist destination for New Zealanders, was regarded by New Zealanders as the touchstone of value and authority, and haunted New Zealanders’ dreams - right up to the 1960s.

            Barnes’ introduction specifically acknowledges, and then rejects, the “nationalist” school of Sinclair. She embraces Belich’s view that New Zealand was progressively “recolonised” after 1882, when refrigeration allowed primary produce (meat and dairy) to reach London. New Zealand became, in effect, London’s farming “hinterland” and felt its dependence in every aspect of its life. (As the acknowledgements show, Belich supervised the doctoral thesis from which this book was developed).

            Barnes declares:

            “New Zealand at the turn of the twentieth century no longer needed to see itself as separated from the centre by time and space, nor did it want to be defined by colonial characteristics. Instead it used London to pull off a complex manoeuvre in self-imaging. New Zealand had become technologically and socially modern, without becoming ‘industrialised’. Nor was it urban: despite the rapid rise of urban dwellers from the close of the nineteenth century, the country preferred to imagine itself as rural. But New Zealand did not entirely lack metropolitan sophistication or culture as a result. Like any other hinterland, New Zealand accessed these through the metropolis. For New Zealand, real urban life was located in London.” (Pgs.9-10)

            Following this line, Barnes’ first three chapters deal with how New Zealanders actually experienced London once they got there.

            The writings of breathless tourists like Ian Donnelly and Alan Mulgan in the 1920s and 1930s (Chapter One) suggest that literate New Zealanders were inclined to view London in terms of the cultural and literary sites they had been brought up reading about. Between the wars, visiting New Zealanders “constructed” London as they had been cued to do since childhood. The role of New Zealand House on the Strand is explored (Chapter Two). It was as much a conduit for New Zealanders wanting tickets to official events and receptions as it was an agency promoting trade and commerce.

            Barnes recounts the paradoxical “tourist” experience of New Zealand soldiers in London during the First World War. White “colonial” soldiers, she shows, were more highly regarded, and more protected, than coloured soldiers from India. But there was much official anxiety about Australian, Canadian and New Zealand troops succumbing to London’s thriving prostitution and vice. The result was a host of official and semi-official initiatives to keep those soldiers on leave busy with guided tours of museums, churches, monuments and so forth. Barnes sees this as the origin of self-consciously ‘cultural’ tourism, which only later became affordable to the mass of New Zealand civilians.

            Countering the Gallipoli myth of the First World War as a promoter of  New Zealand “nationalism”, she notes that most New Zealand soldiers served on the Western Front. London was the obvious magnet of their leave-time, so the war had the effect of binding Kiwis even more closely to the metropolis.

            Barnes is at her most paradoxical in the third chapter, where she opines that as a very young colony in its earliest days of Pakeha settlement, New Zealand was “old” in the sense of being technologically more backward than England was. But as New Zealand farming developed according to the best scientific methods, British farming began to look “old” to New Zealanders. Visiting England thus became a way of touching “quaint” ancestral roots. New Zealanders came to know English plumbing and English standards of hygiene as inferior to their New Zealand equivalents, but they still idealised rural England as they had been taught to by prints of the paintings of Constable and others. They were “portable icons” (Pg.77) for both city-dwellers and colonials imagining an impossible pastoral past.

            Barnes considers in detail (Chapter 4) those interwar New Zealand writers who made it to London, whether they stayed there (like Katherine Mansfield), or became toadies of the social pages (like Hector Bolitho) or were impressed by the metropolis in spite of themselves (like Mander, Sargeson, Fairburn and Ngaio Marsh). As she remarks:

            “White colonial writers were not, as postcolonialists might describe them, mimics of the centre acting as ventriloquists of a culture that did not belong to them. Instead they were active participants in this culture they felt was theirs too. This is a challenge to the theoretical assumptions of postcolonialism, but it offers interesting possibilities for metropolitan literary histories. For example, colonial writers may have had their part to play in the democratisation of literary culture, a feature of cultural life in the interwar metropolis.” (Pg.121)

            By this last remark, she means that colonials finding their way into London literary circles were at one with the more middle-class and working-class British writers who were now gaining entrĂ©e there.

            The chapters on New Zealand’s place in London international exhibitions and in marketing campaigns both emphasise that New Zealand officials consciously set out to differentiate New Zealand from the “non-white” parts of the British Empire. They wished to present New Zealand as ultra-British. New Zealand dairy products and meat were “Produced by Britons for British Homes”.

            In her last three chapters, Barnes moves away from New Zealanders in London and considers the impact London had on New Zealanders in New Zealand itself. Sometimes the modish Gramsci-an term “hegemony” crops up as she relates how, right up to the mid-twentieth century, New Zealand publishing and the distribution of magazines in New Zealand were both dominated by English companies and distributors. Cable meant direct links to Britain for New Zealand newspapers so that “news was read in metropolitan time”. There was the odd fact that when Hollywood began to produce movies with British settings, they emphasised exactly those same cultural icons that had been put together by New Zealanders for their idealised version of what London was. England was the white cliffs of Dover, Big Ben, St Paul’s cathedral etc. When the Luftwaffe Blitzed London in the Second World War, New Zealanders read reports that played up the damage to those very sites with which New Zealanders were most familiar.

            The book fades out with considerations of the “reach” of British travelogues on New Zealand, and of the way New Zealand television schedules until the 1970s privileged British programmes over American ones.

            Let me say quite simply that this book makes a very good case for New Zealand’s, up until the 1960s, being a cultural colony of Britain and seeing London as its capital rather than Wellington.

            Its main deficiency, as I see it, is a certain repetitiveness in the chapters about the British marketing of New Zealand produce. They rather labour a simple point in their exhaustive documentation, as if the spirit of the academic thesis has not quite been purged from this book. I am also surprised that Barnes does not consider in more detail the phenomenon of young post-Second World War New Zealanders (and Australians) doing their OE in London. Surely there were many survivors of this phenomenon who could have been interviewed? I think I’m right in saying that the name Earl’s Court isn’t once invoked. The thesis on which this book is based had a terminus ad quem of 1940, but then the book goes beyond this in its account of New Zealand TV schedules, so the young OE Kiwis could easily have fitted both its theme and its time-frame.

            New Zealand’s London is an excellent example of the “periphery” view of an earlier New Zealand. If I have not made plain the reading interest of its host of anecdotes and illustrations, it is simply that I have not had the time or space to cite them all.

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