Encounters: The Creation of New Zealand. A History, by Paul Moon (Penguin, 2013), 432 pp., $55; Changing Times: NZ since 1945, by Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow (Auckland University Press, 2013), 520 pp., $50; The Mighty Totara: The life and times of Norman Kirk, by David Grant (Random House, 2014), 512 pp., $50; Peace, Power and Politics: How New Zealand became nuclear free, by Maire Leadbeater (Otago University Press, 2013), 344 pp., $55; John Key: Portrait of a Prime Minister, by John Roughan (Penguin, 2014), 256 pp., $38.
Among New Zealand’s standard repertoire of icons, emblems, people and place-names – the potent symbols of nation-making – a handful reoccur in context after context, cultural survey after cultural survey, book after book. The best-known general histories, from W.H. Oliver’s The Story of New Zealand (1960) to Keith Sinclair’s A History of New Zealand (1991) to Michael King’s The Penguin History of New Zealand (2003) tell the New Zealand story as a drama, or as a sequence of melodramas: short-term conflicts followed by short-term resolutions. The general tenor of these volumes presents history as semi-fiction, agreeable myths, endorseable legends; thus they serve to highlight that all such narratives have their blind spots, their favouritisms, their banged-on-about obsessions, their honed agendas. One reason Michael King’s populist The Penguin History of New Zealand proved a best-seller was that it carefully rang the changes on agreed national myths so as to reinforce or endorse them rather than challenge or revise them.
By contrast, Paul Moon’s Encounters: The creation of New Zealand. A History picks apart some of the cultural tokens that previous historians have so glibly and so assertively used as viable currency. And if other general histories, such as Ranginui Walker’s Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: Struggles without end (1990) and Chris Trotter’s No Left Turn (2007) are partisan and explicit in the way they load their emphases, at least they are lucid in accounting for this. Changing Times: New Zealand since 1945, by Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow, promulgates a feel-good, post-modern nationalism encapsulated in an anodyne delivery that maintains the standard mythic – or invented tradition – narrative without formally declaring its biases, as if it constitutes a ‘balanced and neutral’ account.
Moon’s ‘history’, which he accurately describes as ‘an idiosyncratic scrapbook of national memories’, stutters and stumbles as it leaps from topic to topic, but its energy and enthusiasm and its honest grappling with the ineffable mumbo-jumbo of that abstract entity ‘national identity’ make it consistently engaging and highly readable.
The Carlyon and Morrow tome, if not quite a tomb that enshrines the recent past, certainly seems to have been assembled by members of that oh-so-lucky latte-swilling class referred to on the book’s back cover as a chronological digest of social ‘turbulence’, now thankfully all behind us, or so it would seem.
Moon’s book is a kind of mythography in the manner of Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory (1995) and Paul Carter’s The Road to Botany Bay: An exploration of landscape and history (1988), where landscape is always a form of allegory, used to bind people together: you need to understand these stories in order to belong. What’s interesting here is the process by which what arises as dissent or in opposition gradually becomes perceived wisdom – until it doesn’t again.
So, there are terms which signify sacrosanct traumatic events – ‘Wahine’, ‘Erebus’, ‘Pike River’ – standing in for an echo-chamber of shared reminiscences which the tribally attuned ear has learned to separate from the white noise of the quotidian. Likewise, historical touchstones such as ‘Plunket’, ‘Erewhon’ and ‘Tutira’ are examined by Moon. Tutira, for instance, is the title of William Herbert Guthrie Smith’s large 1926 book about a Hawke’s Bay sheep station. His direct and detailed descriptions of local farming have been shaped into a work of literary merit, and constitute an emblem of landscape nationalism, which Moon counterpoints with the ‘man in a landscape’ figure in John Mulgan’s Man Alone novel of 1939.
In this way, Moon’s book is a familiar litany: a round-up of the usual suspects in any consideration of New Zealand nationalism, who, in a less benign environment, say colonial Africa, may have become nationalist martyrs – and perhaps, to an extent, some of them were. R.A.K. Mason, A.R.D. Fairburn and Frank Sargeson are singled out as prime explicators in the construction of a national identity, while Allen Curnow’s 1942 poem ‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’ remains, as usual, central to the process of inventing ‘a collective memory’, with its incantatory homage to explorers ‘going … in the Name of God/ Into the nameless waters of the world’.
Curnow’s poem is an assertion of settler culture of course, reformatted for perilous times, but Moon is also careful to point out how the ‘rustic fantasies’ promised by the advertising for Wakefield settlements of the nineteenth century in practice meant hard toil; and that failure, poverty and misery were edited out of the triumphalist official narrative promoting New Zealand as a ‘brighter Britain’ offering escape from the ‘degeneration of Europe’.
However, in establishing Pākehā settlement creation myths – where the landscape is a palimpsest inscribed with British place-names that seek to obliterate the place-names of previous Māori settlement – there is a sense of the author toeing a masculinist party line, with scant reference to the women artists who helped forge nationalist myths. Katherine Mansfield gets mentioned though, and Rita Angus is a chief emblem-maker, along with Colin McCahon:
In art, painted landscapes of the country slowly emptied of people. In the 1850s they had been brimming with hopeful settlers … but by the twentieth century they are nearly all deserted … when people do appear they are isolated, solitary, thus helping reinforce the myth of ‘nostalgic loneliness’.
While this observation is shrewd and telling to a degree, his follow-up argument, that artists from Augustus Earle to Colin McCahon depict the landscape as pert, quivering, expectant, virginal – is curious: a kitsch cliché about rapacity derived from a library-bound Freudian reading that undermines rather than unpacks the myth he is explicating or excavating.
Moon’s omission of Ursula Bethell, Eileen Duggan, Blanche Baughan, Ruth Dallas and others in favour of their male counterparts tends to suggest that either he is uncomfortable with feminist revisionism, or else oblivious to it. The recent resurrection of Robin Hyde as a leading feminist martyr-figure, with attendant cultural meanings, is also something that goes unremarked on here.
But he does explore key tokens of biculturalism in a generous fashion, albeit occasionally as a series of landmarks if from a momentarily stopped vehicle on its way elsewhere, as in his consideration of Whakarewarewa as ‘a contrived colonial Māori tourist village’ that is essentially ‘commodity-driven’. In his role as cultural cartographer, he explains the role of rivers as symbols of fertility in Māori culture, and ventures into rainforests in search of the kauri. His description of the Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa village as a tourist icon chimes, too, with his description of nineteenth-century encounters with Māori that situate them within the authorised historical imagination of the Western coloniser: they were ‘an ancient fabled race of the sort already encompassed by European literature and history’. For more incisive, more profound, accounts of early encounters and their mythic significance, though, you need to go to the books of Anne Salmond and others.
Ultimately, there’s a delicate religiosity to Paul Moon’s unfolded narrative, as if a catechising spirituality – whose keynote was sounded in the journals of Samuel Marsden in 1814, where he described Aotearoa as ‘a dark and benighted land’ – is the thread that ties together the best explanations of the New Zealand story. The concept of pristine wilderness may be ‘a human artifice’, a ‘projection of human longing’, but Moon paradoxically continues to endorse as well Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s notion that our most potent myths serve to establish ‘the moral atmosphere of a country’.
Historians Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow begin their fact-packed chronicle Changing Times with a quote from Bill Pearson’s famous 1952 Landfall essay ‘Fretful Sleepers’: ‘The New Zealand way of life is ordained, but who ordains it?’ This is the peg from which they hang their entire argument: it’s been a long and sometimes forced march from the extreme conformism of a monolithic, essentially monocultural society to an almost bewildering ethnic, economic and social diversity. The sleepers have awoken.
This then is something of a triumphalist baby-boomer narrative. While their assertion that there has been a series of transforming revolutions with beneficent outcomes is something that they are at pains to depict in a detached and evidence-based manner, their choice of anecdotes, vignettes and even ‘facts’ inevitably colours the telling to show the various protagonists and antagonists in different shades: thus, not quite ‘neutral’.
Paul Moon’s book invokes a sense of ancestor worship, with its roll call of assorted nationalists and identity-makers. Likewise, a comparable list of mid-twentieth century New Zealand nationalists – Alan Mulgan, Charles Brasch, Allen Curnow, Ruth Dallas – are also championed as cultural pioneers in Changing Times. Here, too, New Zealand was once a land of ‘harsh realities’, of ‘mean cities’ and ‘mortgaged farms’, where ‘settlers had to struggle to find their way in an often barren landscap’. So far, so familiar, but evidence that this trope might have been overturned – or transformed – by the end of the twentieth century is not sustained in this telling because, instead of following on through themes, there is just the steady juxtaposition of incident after incident. Are cities less mean, and farms less mortgaged? Is reality less harsh, now? Photographs sometimes surface from the riverine flow of event after event to serve as poetic summaries – encapsulations of change – as in the black-and-white pictorialist image of cattle drovers on a summery day. The caption tells us: ‘An idyllic rural scene in the Gisborne region in 1952. The handsome farmhouse in the middle distance was burned down by Ruatorian Rastafarians in the late 1980s.’
Reading against the chronological drive of the telling – history presented as always in flux – it’s possible to perceive that Changing Times is as preoccupied with the icons of identity as Moon’s Encounters. In the 1950s artists crafted local identity, but by the late 1960s the vanguard was being driven by sociological factions: the gay liberation front, the women’s liberation front, Ngā Tamatoa, anti-war protestors, anti-nuclear protestors. Naturally there was opposition, stereotyped here as older, rural, conservative New Zealand, led by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, and they rallied around sport, seizing onto rugby as a cultural emblem.
After the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1990, rugby re-emerged as the supreme national symbol of identity. Meanwhile, the anti-Establishment protests of the 1970s had mostly been absorbed through the Lange government’s enlightened legislation of the 1980s, so, for example, to be anti-nuclear was to be a New Zealander. The National Party under Jim Bolger won the 1990 election partly by supporting the ban on visiting nuclear warships and by opposing nuclear testing in the South Pacific.
In their implicit approval of the transformations initiated by the left-wing ‘revolutionaries’ of the 1970s, Carlyon and Morrow willy-nilly include the right-wing revolutionaries of the 1980s, led by Roger Douglas, Michael Bassett and Richard Prebble. The free-market economic belief system becomes, however, not a symbol of national unity and identity, but of class division and smouldering discontent – except that the dissension lacks the focused groundswell energies of the transformative Seventies. Instead, what they call diversity has diffused and splintered and factionalised the politics of identity.
Changing Times endorses the contention in Encounters that ‘the myth of New Zealand as the archetype of a contented rural economy reached its apogee in the Keith Holyoake years (1960–1972)’, but both books are really offering a tired truism about that era. A more nuanced narrative calls for another sort of book, to wit: The Mighty Totara: The life and times of Norman Kirk, by David Grant, a thrilling account of ‘the last of New Zealand’s working class Prime Ministers’: a statement which is true if you accept ‘working class’ as having a period-specific socio-economic meaning. The thrills are first of all in the personal story, which Grant lays out clearly: the many familial, educational, economic and social obstacles that Norman Kirk had to overcome.
Here we see the cultural ‘monolith’ that Carlyon and Morrow talk about as actually richly layered and textured, certainly different from the sense of diversity they attribute to contemporary New Zealand, but fascinatingly alive. Kirk encounters various kinds of perverse rejection – from his parents, from his school, from his employers – and in a way responds perversely, but also magnificently, to what to us may seem rather weird and arbitrary objections to his attempts to better himself.
In a way, Kirk is a classic over-compensator and over-achiever, damaging his health, in the end fatally, in his attempts to beat the essentially Puritan conventions – narrow, small-minded, mean-spirited – that apparently wrapped the country when he was growing up, like ‘The Grey Death’, as Frank Sargeson put it. By his own strenuous exertions, punishingly flogging himself on in every walk of life to which he applied himself, Norman Kirk wangled his way to the top, a huge, shambling, baggy-suited phenomenon: the Kiwi Everyman writ large. Grant avoids hagiography by being careful to also establish Kirk’s numerous character flaws and failings.
Essentially self-taught, a quick learner and gregarious, Kirk intuitively felt the winds of ‘change’, and he was the man of the hour in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the Carlyon-Morrow slogan ‘changing times’ had the most relevance, like a banner across the sky. However, as Barry Gustafson’s 2007 biography of Keith Holyoake, Kiwi Keith, tells us, Holyoake had anticipated many of Kirk’s ideas and arguably deliberately resigned as Prime Minister in 1972 to make it easier for Kirk to become the nation’s leader. The difference between them in outlook – or perhaps in personality – was not as wide as that between Holyoake and his eventual successor as National party leader, Robert Muldoon.
At this point, the biography becomes thrilling all over again, with Grant revealing Kirk as a gifted visionary through his actions and his advocacy during his 21 months as Prime Minister 1972–73, abruptly terminated by his sudden death in office after years of erratic health. As Grant points out, the motivation behind Kirk’s political career was the determination that the deprivations he suffered would not be inflicted on other generations of New Zealanders.
Kirk was himself a conservative Christian on issues such as abortion and homosexual law reform; nevertheless he encouraged debate, prepared to conduct a broad church approach. The Kirk government initiated, amongst other things, the Accident Compensation Corporation, the Domestic Purposes Benefit and the Waitangi Tribunal. Kirk himself is perhaps best remembered now as the architect of a new Pacific regionalism, or as co-architect along with Gough Whitlam and Pacific Island leaders. He criticised US policy and was instrumental in withdrawing New Zealand troops from Vietnam. He made world headlines for dispatching a New Zealand navy frigate to Mururoa Atoll in protest at French nuclear testing, much to the displeasure not only of France and the United States, but also Britain.
Maire Leadbeater’s Peace, Power and Politics: How New Zealand became nuclear free fills in details and describes the progress of a struggle that began with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the early 1960s, following a succession of nuclear tests in the Pacific in the 1950s. The saga became a collective national memory in the 1970s, not only through the actions of the Kirk government, but also because of grassroots activism lead by David McTaggart, Owen Wilkes, Barry Mitcalfe, Nicky Hager, and many artists and writers including Maurice Shadbolt and Pat Hanly. In 1975 at an activists’ pan-Pacific conference in Suva, a comprehensive ‘Treaty for a Nuclear Free Pacific’ was drafted and adopted as a goal to work towards.
Kirk’s nemesis in parliament was Robert Muldoon; both were outstanding debaters: their sparring resembled a clash of the Titans, with Muldoon playing the role of the Dark Lord – menacing, domineering and highly articulate. He practised, as Kirk said in a televised 1973 interview with David Frost, ‘the politics of fear’.
When Muldoon was elected Prime Minister in 1973 he promptly began to undo Kirk’s independent nuclear-free stance, which he ridiculed as ‘sanctimonious humbug about a foreign moral policy’. Scrapping plans for a nuclear-free South Pacific, Muldoon expressly encouraged and even sought out visits by American nuclear-powered warships. But by such actions Muldoon helped potentiate the protest movement, which burned him in effigy.
Leadbeater’s book traces the myriad events of the late 1970s surrounding the visits of vessels such as the USS Truxton to Wellington in 1976 and the USS Pintado to Auckland in 1977. In the early 1980s the hawkish Reagan administration began to ramp up nuclear warship visits. Meanwhile, protesting spread from Peace Squadron armadas out on the water to the picketing of US spy bases located unobtrusively onshore: Black Birch, Harewood, Tangimoana.
Maire Leadbeater expands on just how intense and multifarious the protesting was: ‘Mothers’ Day for Peace’, ‘Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament’, ‘Scientists Against Nuclear Arms’, ‘Engineers for Social Responsibility’ ‘the Pramazons’, ‘the Woman’s Peace Band’ ‘Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War’, and declarations of nuclear-free town boroughs. This extraordinary moral fervour assisted the Labour Party to victory in 1984, with their ‘Don’t Vote for the Bomb Party’.
Newly elected Prime Minister David Lange, like Kirk, showed dazzling skill as a debater and, reinstating the Kirk momentum, sought to establish New Zealand as a regional moral exemplar, working for disarmament and peace with the support of his colleagues. (Helen Clark as a backbencher in the early 1970s had finessed the Labour Party’s anti-nuclear policy.) That he lost control of the economic agenda is part of the narrative told in Changing Times, while Maire Leadbeater’s chronicle concludes with Jacque Chirac’s decision to end French nuclear testing in the Pacific in the mid-1990s.
‘The relentless juggernaut of the New Right’, as Lange called the Roger Douglas faction, handed the torch of economic reform on to the National governments of the 1990s, which, directed by Finance Minister Ruth Richardson, carried on the evangelising work with redoubled fanaticism. In John Key: Portrait of a Prime Minister, author John Roughan is not so much concerned with analysis of ‘change’ as with the status quo. His biography of John Key, outlining his rapid rise, is journalistic, almost an expanded magazine article. He establishes that, so far, Key has proved himself more-or-less an unflappable pragmatist, one who understands that ‘winning an election is not just a matter of motivating your sort of people to vote, it also means giving the other side’s voters no particular motivation.’
This accords with an observation made in Changing Times, about historical differences between National and Labour: ‘National accused Labour of socialism when it introduced social welfare and vowed to reduce it, but once in power accepted and even added to it.’
Roughan’s portrait is in the end somewhat bland, almost a matter of image-grooming – Key in this depiction reveals few flaws. While the business of this government is undoubtedly business, this is not directly addressed; instead we are reminded that Key is keen to be seen as centrist and moderate. Beyond that, we shall have to wait for a weightier biography: ‘National under Key … dropped its opposition to KiwiSaver, Working for Families income supplements, interest-free student loans, the ‘Cullen Fund’ for superannuation, Kiwibank, KiwiRail and nuclear-free New Zealand.’
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall and of Landfall Review Online.