NICHOLAS REID is an Auckland historian, critic, poet and teacher. He has authored many books from non-fiction to poetry and also runs the weekly blog Reid’s Reader.
New Zealand in the Twentieth Century – The Nation, The People, by Paul Moon (Harper/Collins 2011) 672 pp. $49.99.
Conscientious historians worry about periodisation — that is, in historical terms, when can we say an ‘age’ or a period in a country’s history begins or ends? Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Music Makers ode may be a very bad piece of Victorian poetry, but it’s surely correct when it declares that ‘Each age is a dream that is dying/ Or one that is coming to birth’. Historical periods overlap; attempts to divide history into discrete segments are always artificial; and only hundreds of years later do historians simplify with neat labels like ‘The Middle Ages’ or ‘The Age of Enlightenment’. Yet the attempt to periodise is still an essential skill when narrative historians choose to do a ‘broad sweep’ of a century or so. There has to be at least the effort to explain why one set of circumstances and beliefs and customs gradually changes into another. In other words, history isn’t history without a grasp of causation. The alternative is a more chronological approach, where history gives way to chronicle: one unexplained, de-contextualised event after another. Regrettably, it’s this latter approach that informs Paul Moon’s New Zealand in the Twentieth Century. Doggedly, each of its ten chapters confines itself to one decade, out of which Paul Moon cherry-picks what seem to him the most noteworthy features. So what are the 1900s? They are notes on how Pakeha debased and romanticised Maori taste in fashioning Rotorua as a tourist trap; how Maori slums were worse than Pakeha ones; the eugenics of Truby King; the limited colonial taste shown in the 1907 Christchurch international exhibition; two pages on Richard Pearse; three pages about Alfred Hill and home-grown music and Charles Goldie’s paintings of Maori with their ‘dying race’ assumptions; Apirana Ngata and Te Aute College; and the burning of parliament buildings. The 1930s? An account of Auckland’s 1932 riot, heavily reliant on John Mulgan’s fictionalised version (without once mentioning Mulgan’s ambiguous role at the time of the riot itself); the Napier earthquake; the election of Labour; Jack Lovelock at the Berlin Olympics; Jean Batten’s flight; Rita Angus and Allen Curnow creating new art and poetry respectively; state housing; social security; the sociological description of ‘Littledene’; and the sinking of the Graf Spee. The 1960s? The introduction of television; the retro Good Keen Man image of Barry Crump; A.H. Reed’s prodigious feats of walking; the stir caused by Washday at the Pa; the Hunn Report; Colin McCahon; the sinking of the Wahine; Lloyd Geering being tried for heresy; the visit by the Beatles; sexual liberation and the Pill. There’s a faint sense of causation in one commendable aspect of this book. Decade by decade, Moon takes some time noting the changing status and social conditions of Maori. Otherwise, the overall effect is more faits divers than history: just one damn thing after another. It’s amusing in the way of old bedside books if you want a series of self-contained yarns before lights out. But it cannot be taken seriously as a authoritative or thorough ‘history’ of twentieth-century New Zealand.
All this would be harmless enough in a nostalgically glowing ‘All Our Yesterdays’ sort of way, but there’s a more negative side to this book. Paul Moon prides himself on defying the academic history ‘establishment’ and giving a no-nonsense version of the past, free of jargon. Theory is shunned. In his introduction he declares: ‘I have avoided making any overarching claims about the nature of New Zealand and New Zealanders in the twentieth century and have similarly exercised reluctance when exploring theses relating to the country’s social and cultural identity during this period.’ He adds that the book is simply ‘an attempt to build up an impression of New Zealand over this period; and if a few shoots of insight spring from its contents, then it will have achieved its purpose.’ (p.9) In effect, he claims to be ‘objective’ and apolitical, leaving readers to draw whatever conclusions they will from whatever ‘impression’ this impressionist presents. There should always be some caution exercised about historians and other social commentators who declare they avoid ‘overarching claims’ and interpretation. Experience tells me to expect a lot of unanalysed and unsubstantiated opinions instead, presented as objective ‘fact’. My suspicion is fully justified in this case, and Moon’s introductory disclaimers come close to being disingenuous. For, by omission, by implication, by an epithet inserted here and a snide innuendo there, Moon can be seen to express strong interpretative opinions about many things. In effect, these are his own ‘overarching claims’ and ‘theses relating to cultural identity’, no less doctrinaire for not being clearly articulated in one place.
Consider his cherry-picking. Moon asserts in his introduction that ‘by choosing to focus on fewer episodes – as I have in this volume – the opportunity exists to prod and probe them in more detail, rather than just graze the surface before quickly moving on to the next field’ (p.6). In reality, the choice of ‘episodes’ means both de-contextualization and the avoidance of things Moon prefers not to examine. Take the matter of the New Zealand home front in both World Wars. It is almost ignored for the Second World War (there’s an account of the ‘Battle’ of Manners Street and the shooting of Japanese prisoners at Featherston camp). It is completely omitted for the First World War. Why should this be so? The wholesale reorganisation of New Zealand’s economy during the Great War was crucial to the way the country ran for the next few decades. Missing it out compromises severely something which claims to be a ‘history’ of twentieth century New Zealand. Aware that I am only speculating, I wonder if Moon wanted to avoid mentioning that, with the Reverend Howard Elliott and the Protestant Political Association (PPA) exerting some influence on the Reform government, the last years of the First World War were also the most fraught period in New Zealand’s history for religious bigotry and sectarianism? The bigotry came mainly from more marginal, less theologically sophisticated Protestant churches projecting their fears onto Catholics.
At any rate, by completely omitting these matters, Moon makes it easier to give his own typically anti-Catholic spin on the few occasions the Catholic Church is mentioned. Inter alia, there is a ludicrous 4-page summary of the sedition trial of Bishop Liston (pp.154-58), who was apparently just an evil man bent on disturbing the peace. There is a complete misrepresentation of the position of the Catholic Church in New Zealand (‘where medieval-like doctrine trickled down from the Pope’) over homosexual law reform (p.537). In his coverage of the 1930s Depression, Moon devotes two pages (pp. 219-220) to the short-lived New Zealand Legion, with its British imperial flag-waving notions for curing the Slump – while failing to note that many of its personnel were recycled PPA people. But then he can’t note this, can he? Because he’s edited the Protestant Political Association out of his narrative. It would appear that Moon’s own theological leanings are conservative Protestant ones. At least that’s my deduction, following from his extraordinary claim that Lloyd Geering ‘smeared’ a conservative spokesman, E.M. Blaiklock, after the heresy trial. (p. 430) Moon dislikes left-wing intellectuals and militant unionists almost as much as he dislikes Catholics, and his obiter dicta comments on them, peppering the text, again betray his ideology. It may well be that complacently left-wing interpretations of our history have for too long dominated our history departments, and are overdue for a good intellectual challenge. The recent reassessments of Bill Massey would seem to indicate as much. But a good intellectual challenge is not what Moon gives. There may be some cheap fun to be had in Moon’s odd swipe at left-wing pieties, such as his smirking at the ‘bluster’ and ‘booming oratory’ of David Lange (p.513) and Lange’s ‘glib piece of banter’ at the Oxford Union debate (p. 530). But it is hard to smile when we have already waded through pages of Moon telling us in tub-thumping style that industrial troubles before the First World War were the fault of sinister unionist ‘activists and agitators who travelled throughout the Pacific Rim’ (p.91); that the Waihi strike was caused mainly by ‘a decade of socialist rabble-rousing and indoctrination.’ (p.94); and that in 1951 ‘underwhelming as [Sid] Holland’s methods may have seemed to a few of the country’s academics, they proved fitting for the task he faced in dealing with militant unionists intent on throwing their weight around in the political arena.’ (p.335)
In fairness I should note that his eight pages on the 1951 waterfront dispute are reasonably balanced, but then apparently in Bill Sutch’s trial, ‘the hubris of the intellectual left was approaching its climax’ (p. 461). Later, during the 1981 Springbok Tour protests, ‘the act of protest and defiance almost became an end in itself’ (p. 495); and, ‘at some point during the tour the protest movement had turned feral’ (p. 498). I could, of course, be accused of my own cherry-picking in quoting Moon samples, except that they are all much of a muchness, a continuous tabloid editorial. I recall that when Moon was criticised for his ridiculous caricature of Bishop Pompallier in his 2001 biography of Hone Heke, he riposted that it ‘amounted to just a few sentences’ in the book. But a sentence here and a sentence here amounts to Moon’s ‘overarching claims’, his unexamined biases and assumptions. Biases are slyly pervasive in New Zealand in the Twentieth Century. A book containing an historical sweep of 591 pages isn’t completely devoid of merit, of course. This is a readable, if highly selective, gallop through the secondary sources, merrily telling some good tales, rapidly delineating some interesting vignettes. But the claim to be free of a thesis is pure imposture.