Driven to grizzling, Dale Williams

The Cars We Loved
John McCrystal
Penguin, $36.95,
ISBN 01401004517

Killing Us Softly: The Kiwi Culture of Complaint
John Bluck
Shoal Bay Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1877251100

Kiwiana! The Sequel
Richard Wolfe and Stephen Barnett
Penguin, $49.95,
ISBN 0140298770

We seek it here, we seek it there. That damn’d elusive cuddlerug of national identity.

We used to know who we were. We were Mother England’s little farm in the South Seas, with added scenery. Bonded to Britain both by temperament and economics, our love of British cars stemmed from choice as well as necessity. These were cars that bestowed dignity. The British car and the New Zealand aesthetic were ideally suited. As John McCrystal points out in The Cars We Loved, until recent times British manufacturers were oblivious to such sharp practice as planned obsolescence, and New Zealanders’ taste ran to maintaining old cars on the road far longer than we do today. Relationships had time to mature. McCrystal interviews some keen New Zealand owners and collectors
of classic British cars from the years 1940-1970, and lovingly photographs them with their vehicles.

No US hubris, no brash, candy pink Caddys and Oldsmobiles these, no Japanese pragmatism or skittish Italian brio: the design of British cars was stamped with the solid virtues of the great British class system. Salt-of-the-earth family-oriented troupers like Ford Prefects and Hillman Imps; the city gents of Jowett Javelin, pompous in pinstripes and bowler, or the upwardly aspirational Triumph Renown, its gorgeous aristocratic lines offering the self-assurance of a baby Bentley. Posh Rovers, merry little Morries, and imposing Wolseley 6/110s, which McCrystal describes as “like driving the lounge of a well-appointed fallout shelter”.

Correspondingly, when the Brits aimed for modern, as they did with the Triumph Herald, lèse-majesté could result. There was something faintly embarrassing about the spectacle, like granny hitting the cooking sherry and attempting the cancan – brave and jaunty, but you wish she’d stop making a goat of herself.

When the sun set on the British Empire and rose in the East, the remnants of the British motor industry became, like its class system, a relic opted into only by a handful of loyalists. McCrystal writes vividly of the passion of these collectors.  Nothing too deep, but he does it well – how the proud owners first came by their treasures; memories of good times and chat about prices; the challenge of maintaining the cars against the onslaught of rust and missing parts. And there’s a difference in the way the genders approach ownership, he says: men collect promiscuously, whereas women tend to form long-lasting relationships with a single vehicle. You knew that.

So we lost our place in Empire and we’re not sure that we’ve yet found a new possie. John Bluck, Dean of Christchurch Cathedral, can look the Kiwi psyche in the eye and not flinch, and our insecurities are plain to him. He thinks our chief national characteristic is whining, and, every inch a Kiwi, he wants to grizzle about it.

We’re not even positively negative about it, in his opinion. Why do we give so much attention and credit to people who delight in telling us we’re a sorry lot? Much of our self-scrutiny is merely thinly veiled self-loathing, he reckons, citing the commentary of Gordon McLauchlan and Brian Edwards. Tipene O’Regan may have glimpsed the truth when he observed that it is the grievance itself that gives some people their identity.

Then Bluck’s train of thought seems to hit objects on the line. He spends a long time shunting up the siding of race relationships without arriving anywhere in particular, and when he gets onto the invisibility of people in the provinces as portrayed in the Auckland-dominated media, he sits there letting off steam. I think he meant to go on to deduce that invisible people feel powerless, and that that in itself gives rise to depression and complaint. If so, that’s a point worth making, and I should have been glad had he made it.

Can anything be done to relieve our national symptoms of depression? He diagnoses an urgent need for new Pakeha rituals to mark our beginnings and endings – of school, of relationships, the finding and losing of jobs or partners, achievements such as drivers’ licences and overseas trips. Our transition times need to be formalised and celebrated with generosity, grace and style, he says. And why not? Sport has proved to be too fragile a vessel to bolster national well-being, especially when we lose, and the cult of celebrity through which some try to live vicariously is too synthetic a fast food to offer nourishment. We may as well give Bluck’s ritual happiness a go, and if you spot any resemblance to a greater role for formal religion in his urgings, it can be no coincidence.

And we might bolster self-esteem too, he suggests, by finding virtues in our smallness: Schumacher’s hour may have arrived. Writing of the universal idolatry of giantism, Schumacher argued that people can be themselves only in small, comprehensible groups. New Zealand was never going to find identity in footing it with the big boys – constantly inflating our expectations ensures a constant diet of failure and disappointment.

Life down here on our two draughty rocks in a wild blue ocean was ever an edgy business, and is likely to remain so. In short, cheer up, knuckle down and quitya bitchin.

Few have been keener fossickers in the archaeological dig of national identity than Wolfe and Barnett. In New Zealand! New Zealand!, Volume 1 of Kiwiana, they beavered away decoding the Linear B of TT2 wrappers and deciphering the Rosetta Stone of Buzzy Bees. Now they try a new tack, seeking validation in Stephen Jay Gould’s assertion that “historical origin need not match contemporary function”. Gould was writing of the US naturalisation of the fine old English game of baseball, but Wolfe and Barnett find the principle works for them too when they appropriate demonstrably non-New Zealand “icons” such as daylight saving and fish and chips and declare them instruments of popular Kiwi culture. Maybe we didn’t invent them, but we use them to define ourselves, and we do it our way.

So generous is the sweep of their inclusion that the point of the book becomes somewhat blurred. Where is the Kiwiana in mixed flatting? making scones? keeping chooks in the backyard? “Popular culture” seems infinitely elastic.

The book suffers a little from uncertainty of purpose. At times it seems aimed at an educational readership, giving young Kiwis a crash course on the way we used to do things. Afternoon teas, no.8 wire, Rogernomics. At other times the authors appear to be annexing Sibyl Fawlty’s specialist topic, The Bleeding Obvious: pea pie and pud; rugby’s been popular; we won a yacht race. Then they go completely feral and offer New Zealanders ten songs to sing overseas (“Stairway to Heaven” and “Gaudiamus [sic] Igitur”, yet no Ches and Dale?). This smacks of desperation. Constant reader, totally confused, lies down with a cold compress.

But it’s good-natured enough, and diverting, and harmless, and heaven knows we could use some positive images of ourselves. How telling that we must delve into the past to find them.

Keen types still in search of icons of national identity may as well try to catch a falling tui, or get with child a manuka root. We need more light on the subject. Just as well I can hear Colin and Katherine arriving with their little lamps.

 

Dale Williams is a Wellington editor and reviewer.

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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