Monday, February 17, 2014

Something New

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

“CHANGING TIMES – NEW ZEALAND SINCE 1945” by Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow (Auckland University Press, $NZ45)

            I will reverse my usual habit and begin by passing judgment on a book before I get down to analysing it. If you are a casual visitor to this blog, this will save you time, as it is one of my abiding sins to waffle on a bit before I get to the point about some books.
Despite its dull title (“Changing Times?” Times are always changing), Jenny Carlyon’s and Diana Morrow’s survey of the last 70-odd years of New Zealand history, is a comprehensive, sober, detailed, well-researched and accessible book. Its 410 pages of text are followed by 100 pages of bibliography, endnotes and index. It has six sections of varied and interesting archival photographs. The authors’ opinions are balanced and fair and are backed up with statistical details. This is not a work for scholars so much as for the general public, as the frequent use of quotations from newspapers and popular magazines will confirm. Nevertheless, its standards are high and the authors have researched widely and judiciously. I would be happy to put this book in the hands of anybody who wants to know what has been going on in New Zealand in the last six or seven decades.
There now. That is my honest overall impression of this bulky volume, which I dawdled through happily over a couple of weeks. If Auckland University Press wish to quote from the preceding paragraph for publicity purposes, they are most welcome to do so.
 Now for some of those problems which always nag at me when I read general broad-scope histories like this one.
Unless their work is to become mere chronicle, historians have to have some controlling ideas when they set out to examine fifty-plus years in a nation’s life. Often those ideas are teleological – all the past is pressed into the service of explaining why the present is as it is. The past is perceived as being more about its (present) outcomes than about what it meant to people at the time. When it comes to this teleological approach, there are currently two very potent ideas about New Zealand. I would prefer to call them our myths.
Myth Number One: New Zealand before the 1960s was a narrow-minded, conformist, monocultural, puritanical society; an offshore farm for Britain afraid of differences, condescending towards Maori, suspicious of foreign cultures, and fixated on rugby, racing, beer, royal tours and the knitting patterns in the Woman’s Weekly. The government controlled too much and censorship was tight. Read your Sargeson. Read Bill Pearson’s Fretful Sleepers. But then along came the Maori Renaissance, and along came respect for the Treaty, and along came feminism and gay lib and 10 o’clock closing and weekend shopping and an independent nuke-free foreign policy and Polynesian and Asian immigrants and multi-channel TV and the internet and a liberalized market economy free of the old controls. So we’re now a vibrant, open, multicultural, gender-equitable, creative society. Hooray for us.
Myth Number Two: New Zealand used to be an egalitarian society, which believed in a fair go for the ordinary joker and sheila. There was no significant unemployment. The welfare state was accepted across the political spectrum. Education and health were free and there were few major political upsets (apart from that little business about the wharves in 1951). People were happy and felt secure. But along came neo-liberalism with the 4th Labour Government and its Rogernomics and a new sort of greedy, grasping individualism was born. Gone was security. Gone was egalitarianism. Instead, we entered a state of widespread unemployment, a widening gap between the rich and the poor, the failure of any major political party to speak up for working people and a crass materialism. The old consensus was broken, communities were destroyed and society was atomized. Woe for us.
Both myths have evidence to support them. Both can be validated. Put them together and you have the contradictory paradox that history so often is. Mixed causes, mixed results and outcomes that often cancel one another out.
I simplify somewhat, but these are the two myths (“discourses” if you’re in the business of pleasing academics) that dominate current debate about recent New Zealand history and certainly dominate “broad-scope” history books. Look at Jamie Belich’s double-decker history Making Peoples (1996) and Paradise Reforged (2001) and you basically get qualified approval for Myth Number One. Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand (2003) is somewhere in the same ball-park. New Zealand becomes more assertively itself and look how it now glows! (I will not sully this blog by taking Paul Moon’s cherry-picked New Zealand in the Twentieth Century [2011] seriously as a history book.) By contrast, an angry polemic like the left-wing journalist Chris Trotter’s No Left Turn (2007) endorses most vigorously Myth Number Two. [Look it up on this blog’s index].
So where do Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow stand in relation to these two myths? Of course they have to acknowledge both of them, and they do chronicle how divisive the whole neo-liberal “reform” era was. They are drawn to say:
New Zealand has become a more socially divided country with greater extremes of poverty and wealth. As individualism has grown, so too have conflict, division and social and economic inequality.” (p.343)
Even so, this 70-odd-year history is made more in the triumphalist mould of celebrating the way New Zealand society has changed. Chapters 5 to 9 have a largely ra-ra tone as they work through New Zealand’s more independent foreign policy, the growth of outspoken protest and the lessening of censorship, changed sexual morality and the role of women and so on. The technique is more-or-less chronological, but with individual chapters organised around a particular theme.
ALL broad-scope histories that I know become more cautious in their statements the nearer they approach the present time. It is much harder to categorise and generalise about the present than it is about the past. (This should, of course, remind us that most of the generalisations we make about the past are simplifications missing out much nuance.) Wisely, Carlyon and Morrow choose to fade out on a chapter, “A Plaited Rope”, concerning patterns of immigration to New Zealand in recent decades and the huge impact this has had on the country’s ethnic composition. (Auckland is now about 20% Asian – the country as a whole is now 9% Asian). Such a chapter can rely more on hard statistical data than a chapter on political trends would, and is therefore more likely to contain durable statements. They then proceed to a somewhat disappointing coda (“The ‘Earthly Paradise’ Transformed”) which tries to draw conclusions from the whole history they have controlled, but ends lamely with the cliché of quoting Allen Curnow’s line about “Something different, / Something nobody counted on.”
So much for the book’s mythology.
Now for an awkward fact about all broad-scope histories, including Changing Times. Whether your thing is trade unions or patterns of lesbian relationships or architecture or international diplomacy, if you have a good knowledge of some specialized area of history you will always feel that the broad-scope book treats it superficially. Even in 2014, with the growing “No Religion” response in the census, the majority of New Zealanders still declare adherence to some form of religion. Yet Changing Times – in common with most general histories of New Zealand – skips over this one with hardly a mention. There’s a very general statement about the churches on Page 158 with reference to Lloyd Geering’s trial for heresy by the Presbyterian Church. Thereafter references to the churches are made only in relation to whether they did or did not support various secular causes. So much for the inner spiritual life of New Zealanders. Surprisingly, too, the references to literature and the arts are rather cursory. Whenever they are mentioned, it is a quick once-over-lightly which looks as if it has been cribbed from literary textbooks rather than from the authors’ own reading of the literature in question. Even more surprising, we get very little about how the mass media (especially television) changed New Zealanders’ lives. In fine, the authors are very good on politics and “issues” and material facts of life in New Zealand, but are rather shakier on how New Zealanders have thought and created.
Or am I simply, and perhaps over-emphatically, saying that one book cannot be expected to cover everything?
I am amused by the odd slip (Betty Friedan apparently wrote a book called The Feminist Mystique, according to Page 213) and by the odd outbreak of primness (on Page 166, the author’s quote only the bowdlerized version of a provocative statement made by the young Tim Shadbolt). I think there are some paradoxes the authors could have examined more closely – such as the way anti-Vietnam War protests were at once “anti-American”, yet very closely modeled on American protests, showing the pervasiveness of the new dominant culture. I would also challenge some specific statements, such as the remark on Page 110 (in the context of a “nationalist” school of New Zealand architecture) that “The need to emphasise a separate identity diminished as that identity grew increasingly secure”. Really? How secure is New Zealand’s “national” identity even now, when the making of an expensive, derivative and purely Hollywood-esque cycle of fantasy films is regarded as some sort of national achievement?
But what a cur I would be if I did not also salute the author’s shrewdness over a number of matters.
In New Zealand as in America and elsewhere, youth pop culture became… commercialised and conformist in its non-conformity.” (p.156)
“[Bill Sutch] had several le Carre-esque rendezvous with a Russian diplomat in unlikely locations.” (p.181)
Many Maori perceived multiculturalism as a means of sidestepping their special status as tangata whenua under the banner of unified racial diversity.” (p.261)
“[David Lange’s] personal identification with the anti-nuclear cause… helped to ease his government’s monetarist path.” (p.291)
Might I also add that the two women who wrote this book are remarkably even-handed (in Chapter 7) about the way the New Zealand “women’s movement” self-destructed in its split between reformists and radical-lesbian separatists? There is no glossing of the fact that the movement involved as much vituperation and nasty invective as any oppressive phallocentric patriarchal bunch of chauvinists has ever displayed. The authors are also to be commended for pinpointing the 1967 amendment to the Maori Affairs Act as the moment when Maori radicalism really took off.
I have my own myths about New Zealand just as you have yours. I’m old enough to remember most of the decades that this book covers, and of course I see many things in a perspective different from the retrospective one offered in this book. (I still laugh wryly over how the 4th Labour government conned much of the electorate into believing they were merely “corporatising” government-owned enterprises when in fact they were preparing to privatise them and flog them off.) I also experience the common Schadenfreude that history books provide of realizing how moth-eaten and tawdry many passionately-held positions really were.
I quarrel with bits of Changing Times, but it’s still a handy overview, well-documented and worth reading.


  1. Good review, I'm looking forward to this but I think you've teased out the two main competing myths of post-war New Zealand. I think culturally it has much in common with other Anglo places. Dominic Sandbrook and David Kynaston for example have explored in some detail the question of whether the 1950s in Britain were really so 'stultifying'. My fear is that particular story is very backward looking, a judgemental view based on current values and quite whiggish - haven't we progressed to such a wonderful tolerant individualistic society now!

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Bevan. I find that both myths simplify and flatten things out, as all myths do. Certainy the notion of a stultifying, puritanical past is one that washes out much variety from the 1950s and earlier, and I am tired of the self-congratulatory tone that usually follows the statement of this myth.