True to principle, David Young

Peace People
Elsie Locke,
Hazard Press, $34.95

At the age of 80, Elsie Locke can look back on a life as a sometime communist (till 1956), environmentalist, peace campaigner, feminist and writer, and, contemplating a world so different from the one she entered as an adult in the 1930s, identify the lineage of many of yesterday’s protests and today’s attitudes. If, however, as long-time outsider, she takes satisfaction in seeing so many of her views on peace and disarmament becoming ‘mainstream’ she rarely betrays it.

Peace People is an honest and diligent account, essentially spanning a century, of what is loosely termed ‘the peace movement’ in this country. In concise, disciplined and footnoted coverage, the author records a sweep of activity beginning in pre-European New Zealand and ending in late 1975, just before the Peace Squadron sailed out to meet the USS Longbeach and Truxtun.

As one might expect of Locke, who has been culturally inclusive in her writing for far longer than most, the book opens with four chapters on pre-European and colonial peace endeavours in New Zealand. A comment by Irish troops during the Taranaki wars demands repetition: Begorra, it’s a murder to shoot them. Sure, they are our own people, with their potatoes, fish and children. Who knows but they are Irishmen, with faces a little darkened by the sun, who escaped during the prosecutions of Cromwell? Such are the limitations on space, however, that this section is necessarily sketchy and incomplete. It might better have been dealt with in a short essay drawing these threads from the past into the present rather than recourse to ‘progress by footnote’.

Other sections give rise to a similar response. The author is at her best when, fully confident of her material, she analyses and contextualises the personalities and trends that emerge. For me, the book’s hitherto somewhat bare bones took on sinew and muscle and character about chapter 20. Here Locke delineates the composition of the peace movement, with its religious, civil rights, communist, unionist, humanist and pacifist elements. Her treatment of how, as the Second World War loomed, each of these groups tried to deal with the imperative of staying true to its principles and the need to defend democracies against fascism is instructive. As a communist, ‘though still passionately and realistically anti-fascist’, she found it hard to decide what kind of war this was’ – especially given the keenness of most Western governments for the forces of Nazism to defeat the affeared Soviet communism.

The vindictive clampdown on peace campaigners like Ormond Burton and Bill O’Reilly by some of the conchie-stricken members of the first Labour Government gives rise to some fine writing. A petty injustice was done to a foreign-accented, leftist Dane, who was farming with an incriminating, new-fangled electric fence at Leigh, too close to where the Niagara went down. The small-minded provincial patriotism that cost him his farm can be identified elsewhere in the book: from the bricks hurled against the Passive Resisters’ Union meetings in Christchurch to the dogs let loose on the Mt John tracking station protesters in 1972.

Locke’s coverage of the early days of CND and Direct Action Committee, whose plans to invade the French Sahara test site pre-figured the voyage of the Fri into Mururoa by a decade and a half, and the international politics of the anti-Vietnam war movement and subsequent anti-US bases campaigns, is insightful and pacy. The text is lifted by numerous photographs, most of them interest for more than the hairstyles.

For me, this valuable record of courage and perseverance contains only a few deficiencies. One is that the Peace People themselves do not always come fully alive; another is the unanswered question of why conservative Christchurch has from the earliest times been at the forefront of peace activities. Finally, historical symmetry demands that a short essay at the end bring the events Locke has described through from 1975 to today’s world. But make no mistake, this is a valuable and often readable record.

 

David Young’s interest in peace matters began with his editorship of Canta in the 1960s.

 

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology and War
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