A Radical Writer’s Life
The society in which I grew up largely no longer exists, immolated in the “reforms” of the 80s and 90s. It would be wrong to consider that an entirely bad thing, but we need to be clear what we have lost. The central core of that loss is easy enough to delineate, but it is also important to be aware of the satellite cultures associated with it that seem to have also gone the way of all flesh and which we may have more reason to lament.
Among these was a radical and dissenting political culture, with its roots among our 19th century immigrants, which flourished from the 1890s to the 1970s, and which sometimes had a signal effect on the direction of our politics. Among its leading luminaries should be numbered politicians Harry Holland and Norman Kirk, and public servants such as George Hogben and Bill Sutch.
At its best in the 30s and 40s, and as described by Rachel Barrowman (A Popular Vision, 1991), it was a multi-faceted and creative response to the challenges associated with creating an egalitarian democracy in a pioneering settler community, and one which understood the significance of the cultural dimension of that challenge in the Gramscian sense. Dick Scott has always been at the forefront of that tradition and is one of its survivors.
He seems at first glance an unlikely candidate for such a role. A farming background in rural Manawatu is not usually a seedbed for radical historians, but the experience of growing up in the Depression and its aftermath radicalised a generation of our intellectuals from all walks of life. That and the influence of radical teachers such as Professor Willis Airey, an aptitude for political journalism, and membership of the then significant wartime Communist Party, led Scott naturally into work on the Labour daily The Southern Cross, and editorship of the Public Service Journal, organ of the PSA under the radical leadership of Jack Lewin. From there it was a short step to operating the clandestine press for the outlawed watersiders’ union during the 1951 lockout, and to writing what has become the classic history of that epic dispute from the radical unionist perspective, 151 Days. In doing so, Scott found his métier as a popular historian.
I first encountered him as the author of a slightly later work The Parihaka Story (subsequently re-issued in 1975 in a much expanded form as Ask That Mountain). To say this book was a revelation to me is a considerable understatement. Growing up as I had in Christchurch where Maori faces were notable by their absence, and with an academic background in the physical and social sciences, like most New Zealanders I had no inkling of the shameful history of Maori/Pakeha relations in this country.
At a personal level Scott’s book contributed materially to my own decision to follow his path into the writing of social history. At a more generalised level Scott was an outrider of the subsequent outpouring of historical writing on Maori/Pakeha relations which was to make Michael King one of our most highly regarded historians, and to move the whole question of the Treaty of Waitangi to the centre of our social and political preoccupations.
Scott has gone on to write a total of 13 books covering significant aspects of our social history, including two important works on the still largely unexplored and equally shameful history of New Zealand’s colonial relationship with our South Pacific neighbours. All are finely crafted literary artefacts, which take us in some cases deep into the darker recesses of our own national story. It is a dimension of our national character that we have only recently discovered the fortitude to explore, but something we had better do promptly if we are to grapple with our developing cultural and economic place in the world of the Pacific rim. It is a measure of Scott’s skill and perception that he was there long before most of us.
This memoir of Scott’s helps us to see that achievement in context. The relationship between a writer – in this case an historian, but it applies to all – and the society and culture in which they grew up and developed their writing skills – is a very complex one; it takes a writer of uncommon skill to untangle it and set it forth for readers. Scott has done that.
History, as the radical English historian Raphael Samuel remarked two decades ago, is a theatre of memory. In the case of radical history this finds its most successful expression at the point at which personal and popular memory meet. When such history succeeds, it draws forth a shock of recognition on the part of the reader; this too is their experience writ large. Scott addresses that experience; reading any one of his books it is impossible not to say: “Yes, this is part of what it means to be a New Zealander.”
I remarked at the outset that the society he describes is dead. But paradoxically the culture which grew from the resolution of the problems that society set out to solve is still alive and well. All of the studies of social and political attitudes which have been undertaken since the 80s (and they have been legion) confirm the existence of a set of underlying beliefs, which the great majority of New Zealanders continue to hold, about wanting to live in an egalitarian fair-go society. Because the fundamental problems we have to resolve remain essentially the same – how do we build the way of life we want as a community when we are a small and vulnerable agricultural economy in a harsh international trading and financial environment? – the suggested solutions and options we have proposed in the past remain valid. These include those of a radical bent.
There are far more people than is often supposed, still lurking in every place, who can give voice to these options. Although the far reaches of the Kaipara might seem an unusual location for one of their best sources, as I also remarked, no-one might reasonably have expected one of our best radical historians to come out of rural Manawatu either. Scott’s contribution to what I detect to be a developing New Zealand cultural renaissance of a rather unexpected kind is increasingly appreciated, and will sooner rather than later, I hope, be accorded the recognition it demands.
Tony Simpson is a cultural and social historian, and senior public servant in Wellington.