Paradise preserved? Simon Upton

Pavlova Paradise Revisited
Austin Mitchell
Penguin, $27.95,
ISBN 0143018264

For those old enough to remember it, The Half-Gallon Quarter-Acre Pavlova Paradise was a funny, disrespectful but good-natured account of what it felt like to be a clever, progressive Left Brit in New Zealand at the end of the Holyoake era.

Pavlova Paradise Revisited is the not quite so funny, more consciously respectful but not so good-natured account of how the same now-ageing Brit feels about New Zealand in 2002.

In between times there have been a few changes. Those who remained at their stations – or arrived in between times – have never been the same since. One thinks of Simon Walker who, like Austin Mitchell, arrived bright as a button, dazzled us all on television and then drank the lethal waters of Rogernomics. Fashionable left-wing venom was transformed into pinstriped libertarianism. Not so with Mitchell. Whatever transformations he records (with an eagle eye and some good sense along the way), his own prejudices remain firmly intact.

And therein lies the tension of this book. The New Zealand of 2002 is, when read back to back with the earlier volume, almost unrecognisable. And the critique of the process that transformed it – the economic liberalisation of the 1980s and ’90s – is subjected to unrelenting vitriol. Yet paradise is somehow safe and the diagnosis offered bears the tarnish of partisan hagiography: “Helen Clark climbed out from under the monetarist rubble to rein in market liberalism … and in its pre-[1999] election coalition with the Alliance, the preserving jar of social democracy, Labour took on the job of tilting the balances back.”

The economic analysis Mitchell offers will, rightly, invite the fiercest responses. If you have a penchant for undiluted Brian Easton with a seasoning of Bob Jones on monetary policy, this is your conspiracy theory. Variously described as the economic lunacy of the last two decades, the triumph of economic sado-masochism, and malevolent mysticism, something called “monetarism” is ritually exorcised. For those of us who thought it was quite a limited theory about targeting assorted monetary aggregates as the best way of beating inflation, monetarism is revealed to have been a weapon of economic mass destruction with almost unlimited yield.

And when the facts don’t always oblige, they’re simply changed. Never mind that from a high of around 11 per cent in 1992, unemployment had fallen to 6 per cent just three years later. In Mitchell’s account, everything in the 1990s got worse. Never has revenge through the election of one’s friends been sweeter.

2

Yet the polemical retribution being meted out doesn’t invalidate the social and cultural analysis he offers, which can be acute enough. Penguin, not one suspects without some hesitation, classifies Pavlova Paradise Revisited as sociology. In truth, it is something of a smorgasbord. Mitchell attempts an improbable stir-fry of reminiscence, potted economic history, social commentary, travelogue and applied prejudice, with plenty of one-liners for the stalls.

The worst of it is the first chapter, which works hard to re-connect with the staccato irreverence of the original Pavlova – the twelve letters to “Keith” boiled down into 16 welcome rules for the new arrival in “smoke-, nuclear- and almost GM-free, world class demi-paradise”. No doubt the publishers thought the book needed a good front-end rev-up to launch readers through some pretty turgid television transcripts (this after all is “the book of the TV One series”). People like Warren Cooper and Bob Harvey may have utterly gripping camera presence, but being asked to plough through their pronouncements in black and white is not a kindness. Even Jim Hopkins, who is fatally funny in the flesh, starts to pall on the page. Worse is to come when we are asked to endure the organiser of Project Southland telling us that Invercargill is full of clever real estate agents or Mark Burton gravely informing us that New Zealand has “some of the finest mountain walks and national park tramps in the world.” At times, the effect of this sort of leaden promotional pap seems even to invade Mitchell’s normally ebullient prose.

But there is no denying the assiduous way in which he overcomes the handicap of being a non-resident commentator by making endless small allusions to the mini-scandals that have entered the nation’s folk lore in the intervening years. Peter Plumley Walker’s watery fate surfaces briefly in the torrent, as do Tuku Morgan’s underpants and Helen Clark’s paintings. This man’s cultural connectedness is up to the minute.

So are his sensibilities. All the old prejudices (private schools, Hawkes Bay gentry etc) are given an airing, of course. But even the robust Mitchellian shit-sifting capabilities (en passant, Kiwis don’t have them) have been subtly irradiated by political correctness. Without question, the most sanitised chapter has to be that on women, given over almost exclusively to the asphyxiating niceness of Shipley, Clark, Lee and Hobbs in conference. All Mitchell has to do is provide the briefest of codas in which young male culture is pronounced “defensive, escapist and resentful” while that of young women is “realistic, serious and dedicated”.

The chapter on Maori is scarcely more revealing – more talking heads (celebrated Maori ones to be sure) and some boiler-plate-correct verdicts on Pakeha attitudes: “Kiwis love to cut the heads off tall poppies, but brown ones are slashed nearer the roots. The obsession is ignoble, inhibiting and shows more than a touch of desire to keep Maori in their place. It is essentially jealousy.” I prefer Mitchell’s more general verdict that New Zealand has “grown more complex than a generalisation and offers less scope for simplistic summings-up.”

3

It is in exploring what smallness and distance does to New Zealand’s society that Mitchell regains the lightness of touch needed to coax from Kiwi readers a willing suspension of fondly cherished beliefs. Much of what he has to say about the hallmarks of smallness rings true – the intimacy and friendliness of a population inoculated against the pretensions of political and business elites; the goldfish-bowl exposure of leaders; the nosiness of the “invigilated society”. Whereas the inhabitants of populous countries are forever seeking privacy and escape from the ubiquity of human contact, people in New Zealand, Mitchell notes, “come as a pleasure not a nuisance, a pressure or someone in the way.”

On the other hand, the sheer lack of people in the way means short career ladders and a less testing environment that cannot easily hold its talent. In this respect, he draws a sensible parallel with Ireland: “the world is a stage for talent nurtured in the sustaining smallness of both countries”. His other, more hackneyed conclusion – that if Ireland can be a Celtic Tiger sucking in skills, industries, investment and talent, so can New Zealand – smoothly ignores the tyranny of our geographical and geo-political isolation. Being a political partner in an enterprise drawing together 350 million of the richest people in the world is a bit different from being the pluckily independent outlier of an even more sparsely settled and much more human-hostile continent.

And this is where Mitchell’s thesis is problematic. Because he assumes that with the death of distance (as he calls it), comes the death of conformity and cultural and political dependence. The first part of that is true. Released from the thrall of a colonial time-bind by travel and communications, a much more exciting sort of society is possible. But it’s the second part of the transformation that has to be in doubt. There is just too much of the happy fairy tale about a conclusion that, following some soul-bearing from a cast including the likes of Chris Laidlaw, Sam Neill, Brian Corban and Ian Fraser, can claim that

these voices, like so many others I heard, speak of a confident sense of identity, the emergence of the feeling of difference and nationhood that intellectuals have looked for for decades …  [that] has emerged out of the combination of the characteristics instilled by a small, intimate society, hardened by the economic ordeals of rejection, excessive liberalism and the slow build back to normality, then energised by globalisation.

 

Do we have here emerging nationhood or just “the future we’d looked forward to in the ’sixties but by a route we couldn’t possibly have conceived of then”, as Mitchell, the self-styled “apprentice nationalist”, puts it. In the same way that Mitchell’s prediction of sunlit economic uplands sits uncomfortably with his wholesale denial of the economic reforms that brought New Zealand to where it was by the late 1990s (“growth came like rain on the monetarist desert”), his verdict of national and cultural maturity doesn’t square with his analysis.

In fact, he seems on much safer ground in judging New Zealand to be a “Copy Country”, prey to an endless supply of fads. In the same way that imported pests, lacking their predators, wreak havoc with our ecology, imported enthusiasms frequently flare into fetishes in the absence of the sheer inertia and cruel indifference of large societies.  Mitchell’s characterisation of New Zealand as a limpet needing a rock (one of several images that survives from his earlier work) seems truer today than ever.

Indeed, Mitchell’s own conclusions on cultural identity – “a province in a global culture and a small parochial market within it”– support a much more nuanced conclusion than the somewhat shrill nationalism that appears to be the book’s political objective. The extent to which a provincial and parochial version of global culture can underwrite a fiercely independent national enterprise remains an open question.

For all their cultural depth, few European countries could imagine maintaining the effort and institutions needed to maintain the sort of separated political and economic existence New Zealand faces. In a globalising world, they cherish (some would say indulge) their cultural particularisms safe beneath the umbrella of political and economic co-existence (if not union) that big numbers can provide.

For the Irelands of this world, cultural identity has been secured at the price of a high level of economic and policy dependency on the greater European enterprise. Not all dependencies are bad, and Mitchell is right to acknowledge (however much this must grate in post-Belichian New Zealand) that the dependent, colonial period allowed the country “to grow and develop as part of a wider whole”, thereby providing an antidote to the insularity of distance and smallness. This is undeniable.

But it is another thing to claim that the destruction of distance necessarily brings with it the destruction of dependency and the birth of the sort of self-originating, self-critical and self-sustaining society that would justify Mitchell’s nationalist millennialism. Hedonistic consumerism (after all those decades of import-licensed misery), with a national indebtedness that continues to pile up inexorably, and an absence of obvious political or security partners do not add up to the “dynamism and confidence of a nation which feels itself to be going somewhere.”

What we have, in Pavlova Paradise Revisited, is another link in the chain of Britannic utopianism that has been visited on us repeatedly since early days. That it survives in this brittle shape says much about the dystopia that generally follows in the wake of fondly held dreams.

 

Simon Upton is a former MP now based in Paris, where he works on a range of environmental issues.

 

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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