Engaging antics while dusting the general store, Harry Orsman

Shame and Disgrace: A History of Lost Scandals in New Zealand
Tony Simpson,
Penguin Books, Auckland, 1992, $29.95

Open 7 Days: a celebration of the New Zealand general store
Don Donovan,
Random Century, Auckland, 1992, $34.95

Tony Simpson writes interesting social history candidly telling the truth as he sees it rather than pretending to let the truth tell itself. It’s a view that many of us appreciate ‑the outsiders looking in. And though he has a strict eye for goings-on, Tony Simpson has a Christ-like avoidance of pushing personal dirt and individual blame for their own sake.

The result here is an engaging account of the antics of our society’s mainly low-born but more-or-less well-connected lice as they jostle for power and pennies on our body politic. The greasy self-serving politics of the Victorian rural oligarchy merge with those of the 20th-century mercantile, with always a Whitaker or so to help his cronies and himself and to suggest that though the law is not the oldest profession it has pretence to be the greediest and socially most vicious. We are led through a procession of mediocre grubberies – of rabbits and shortsightedness, of Maori land slinters, of cronydom, of galleries of goodies and baddies, of ‘Jewlius Rex’ Vogel, the first government official (and novelist) to live overseas expense-wise high on the hog, like any post-Muldoon tripping politician or Treasury buff; of Thomas Taylor, the crusading coldteaite, and Thomas Russell, the bankrupt entrepreneur who plumbed the mystery of the Piako Swamp but who lived very well and happily-ever-after-thank-you on his ‘wife’s money’ and cut up for 160,000 pounds at death; of mismanagement of the Bank of New Zealand; of Ettie Rout’s sallies and male fudging, through sheer provincial puritan embarrassment, of sexual things – venereal disease in World War I and after, dirty and seditious books. The efforts of George Macnamara and Ossie Mazengarb (‘we were only doing our job’) would now be laughable if their ghosts weren’t so much with us. All these and more parade themselves, and persuade us as a community that our besetting social sins were (and still are) those of middle-class petty theft, low-scale greed, a smug, legalistic contempt of discovery, an abiding distrust of parliamentary democracy, and a chronic inability to learn from a short history. ‘Been there, done that, so what’, is the motto.

The peccadilloes described are mainly those of white male middleclass Protestants, Catholics, and Jews; and the book’s quite kind to police, medicos and trade unionists. Possibly the ‘Shame and Disgrace’ of 2092 (publ Extinct Books) will be able to include an account of humanist Polynesian and female power-greed-censorship structures which should by then be more obvious and tractable. For already Maori entrepreneurs are accepting challenges with both hands, and women seem to be taking, like ducks to muddy water, to many of the tasks in the corporate hierarchies formerly reserved to male whores. Few of the actors in Tony Simpson’s book would have approved of this state of affairs.

Don Donovan’s pleasant book brought back memories of the better part of a misspent youth in and around a country store which gave (then often illicit) service twelve hours a day seven days a week, mainly odorous memories of spices and bulk grain, the cloy of interminable half-pounds of fancy-mixed biscuits to be bagged, boxes of oranges newly opened – the tissue wrappers to be collected and smoothed for use in the lavatory, the leathery tang of working-boots ready to step off the shelves, the rich smokiness of hand-sliced bacon (the story is told of the Blenheim Self-Help’s first electric slicer and a strong-willed matron who seized control on her husband’s behalf to show how she wanted his bacon cut, and sliced off a finger-tip), and in the background, in other people’s shops, of course, the smell of ancient dust – and mice.

Donovan’s text is informative, his illustrations superb – false fronts, verandahs and all – with the ghosts of cobwebs past jostling a busy present. And, to cast the inevitable Kiwi moral, readers will be glad of evidence that there still remain pockets of independence from the shocking blots on the rural landscape engineered by Four Square’s violent yellow staining an otherwise lovely countryside. This old-fashioned tastelessness belongs to the era of sanding the sugar, soaking the cheese and damping down the bacon in the interests of weight increases. There is more elegance in the Clevedon, Pukekohe, or Supa Rupa stores than in most of the yellow terrors. All in all, Open 7 Days is a celebration worth joining for the modest entry fee charged.

 

Harry Orsman is a lexicographer and lapsed grocer.

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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