Helen Watson White
Making History: A New Zealand story by Jock Phillips (Auckland University Press, 2019), 373pp., $45
In 1973 it was considered newsworthy that a couple of young postgrads, Phillida Bunkle and Jock Phillips (then called John), had come to teach at Victoria University of Wellington, sharing a four-course lectureship in the field of American history. Since few, if any, academics with ‘identical’ qualifications had occupied the same job before, in a small way they were making history, and on 16 June the Dominion made a note (and photo) of it. The couple’s motivations were a reflection of the times. Phillips is quoted as saying that in the US, where they had been living, the counter-culture had ‘launched an attack on American middle-class ambition and the emphasis on men “getting ahead”. Men are beginning to feel now that the job is not everything.’
For someone who thought (and from all accounts continued to think) that there was more to life than paid employment, since his time as a lecturer Phillips has been ‘getting ahead’ in a series of very interesting Wellington jobs, all of them ambitious, all of them Making History in the sense of breaking new ground.
After establishing Victoria’s Stout Research Centre in support of ‘consciously interdisciplinary’ New Zealand studies, Phillips, on becoming chief government historian, proceeded to broaden that role as well, extending the number and range of the kinds of history that came out of Internal Affairs’ Historical Branch. Always promoting high scholarly standards, and still as chief historian, he was involved for four years in the team developing the national museum, Te Papa, finding novel and engaging ways to communicate narratives, objects, sounds and images from the past. After a stint at heritage management, and as the digital revolution progressed at a pace nobody had foreseen, he headed another team designing the online encyclopaedia Te Ara, which incorporates the 3000 biographies of the printed Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. It’s been quite a ride.
Phillips introduces Making History: A New Zealand story as a memoir of his ‘life as a public historian … set against the context of a country discovering its own past’. In its title there is a second meaning, an indication that history is something constructed or made. ‘There are many possible life stories,’ he says of his (partial) autobiography: ‘I have chosen but one.’ The selection of what is in and what is out – the same creative decision-making process he describes the teams using at both Te Papa and Te Ara – is part of the construction of the ‘story’, giving it the lean it has, the colour and texture and edge. And there are many experiences, ideas, ironies and other people’s stories within one story. Besides the stated theme of ‘consciously’ Making History there is another, of revolution, a driving movement for fundamental social change. The ‘generational revolt’ that propels many participants in the book remains, I imagine, in the minds of many readers who were also active in that era.
While resolutely non-violent when they took part in protests, Phillips and Bunkle certainly made waves over all the social issues in public contention in the 70s and 80s and beyond, and in departing from their original English/colonial society attitudes, they took others with them. Bunkle was born and raised in England, expressing her rebellion by pursuing a postgraduate degree in American history. Phillips’ early life was in Christchurch and Hawke’s Bay, where his mother Pauline grew up and other members of her family remained. His father, devoted ‘anglophile’ Neville Phillips, was a history professor and, from 1966, vice-chancellor of Canterbury University. Jock Phillips chose Victoria University for his first degree, as a sort of rebellion, and studying American history at Harvard was more obviously so.
At the age of nine, Phillips was captured by his father’s colour slides of ‘castles and country houses, Roman ruins and Renaissance paintings’, brought back from a trip to what was then called the ‘Old World’ of Britain and Europe – the only world, as it was commonly assumed, with a proper history or even civilisation. The Americas, on this mental map, were known as the New World, and the US had the beyond-the-pale status of a former colony.
American history was the midway point in the transition from an early and enamoured focus on British and European history to a deeper critical understanding of New Zealand history, since colonial New Zealand could be considered also a New World country. This was the direction in which Phillips’ teaching broadened while he was at Victoria. Having been employed as an ‘Americanist’, however, he wasn’t allowed to reflect on New Zealand themes. While much of his exploration of diverse teaching methods and histories seems to have been dismissed by his seniors as boat-rocking, he did manage to incorporate, in two ways, some of the radical re-thinking about gender and society from Bunkle’s expanding area of women’s studies. One way was through a continuing-education course that he offered on the history of New Zealand males, which drew an interested female audience as well. A fourth-year honours course on ‘the American family’ kept him ‘in touch with international writing about women, and, to the extent that it was happening, on men’.
American cultural history was the place where major thought-roads began for these two: the politics of revolution coming out of colonialism, the movement against slavery, environmental philosophy in Thoreau’s Walden, the rigours of religion in Hawthorne, the drives for suffrage and civil rights, and the origins of first-wave and second-wave feminism. In the chapter titled ‘America!’ we are given a rich sense of their shared intellectual hunger, the excitement of absorbing Kate Millett, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, of ‘reading Freud and Jung and thinking about the politics of the family’. We are also told of a return to the US on leave in 1977, during a ‘ferocious winter’ when ‘intellectual endeavours’ alone could not keep the family warm.
Family. Despite a historian’s dismissive view of ‘family history’ initially shared by Phillips with his father (whom he calls ‘god-professor’), this book demonstrates that his family background played a crucial part in his own ‘personal evolution’. He gives a chapter each to his parents (and their parents), showing where they came from, in interesting and unforgettable detail.
For illustration of both the themes of discovery and of revolution, and of this exploration into his family’s past, there are many telling images in the book: superlative photographs, personal, press and historical/archival. Families, groups and individuals, buildings and landscapes, artworks, computer games, web pages: all find an apt place through careful selection – including a photo of someone’s arrangement of stones to spell out God is Dad, found by the author on a ‘misty moor’ in Ireland on the day his father died. One chosen picture communicates poignantly the turning point of Phillips’ return home: a slightly faded colour print facing the start of Chapter 5, ‘Discovering New Zealand’. Who are these long-haired hippies on a Glenorchy beach, wearing nothing but tramping boots and smiles? Why, this is the future chief government historian and ‘one of the country’s best-known feminists’. They have all the freedom in the world, before family.
The revolutionaries’ two children, born 14 months apart, arrive in a single line on page 144, early in Chapter 5, in which Phillips plants natives along with vegies in his Karori garden, and through driving and tramping adventures develops ‘a growing love for the landscapes of New Zealand and a deeper knowledge of the flora and fauna’. While he cedes that ‘parenthood put some limits on such explorations’, and while experiencing a marked division between a ‘lively social and cultural scene’ and a somewhat constricted ‘work life’ at the university, Phillips doesn’t miss a step on his new learning curve. ‘I began to record my enthusiasms with the camera’ – ‘increasingly interested in the human history to be found in small-town New Zealand’.
There’s something of a hiatus here, which must have been intentional but is nevertheless disturbing. Phillips is soon to opine, in this ‘Discovering’ chapter, that his PhD thesis subject, John Dewey, had given him a ‘valuable world view. It had imbued me with the vision that intellectual endeavours could not be an end in themselves; they needed to relate to the deeper problems of life in the social and cultural environment.’ Yet apart from a group of couples with families getting together once a week to discuss ‘what a “liberated” partnership might look like’, there is no record here of how an awareness of the ‘politics of the family’ is converted into practical living. ‘There are many aspects of my life that are barely treated,’ he had said in his introduction. We were warned.
There were other outcomes or products of the relationship that need to be acknowledged. This was, after all, a marriage of historians, both of whom were evolving a new understanding of what history could be. While Phillips’ ventures into popular journalism, in radio broadcasts and Listener articles, shaped his later thinking outside the academy, so did Bunkle’s involvement in the women’s movement and feminist research (neither of them very positively endorsed by the university) widen both their interests in social history and their political compass. Feminist experience and impetus certainly helped activate the ‘men’s movement’, giving the men’s meetings for consciousness-raising a precedent, a language and a form. Without feminist scholarship, Phillips acknowledges, there would be no book called A Man’s Country, his critique of the male Kiwi stereotype: a book as different from his father’s ‘history’ as it could possibly be.
The story of this memoir is shared by many who heard their parents call England ‘Home’. It recalls European New Zealanders voicing nationalistic pride in ‘our Maoris’, our ‘scenic wonderland’, yet for generations not recognising that the country had an ‘exciting, stirring’ and sometimes shameful past which they, once they were aware of it, could own. Phillips’s return to the land of his birth from another country with a ‘New World’ history, helped him, as he says, gradually to discover his own country, and keep on uncovering its hidden dimensions and traditions: a journey which he clearly sees won’t end while he is alive.
HELEN WATSON WHITE is a Dunedin writer, critic and photographer.