It’s barbarity! It’s New Zealand! Guy Somerset

From the Writer’s Notebook: Around New Zealand with 80 Authors
Lydia Monin
Reed, $29.99,
ISBN 0790011085

George Bernard Shaw was not a man you would have wanted to be stuck in a lift with. If you were ever in any doubt about that, Lydia Monin’s From the Writer’s Notebook: Around New Zealand with 80 Authors should settle the matter. Shaw was barely down the gangway off the ship at the start of his month-long 1934 holiday in New Zealand before announcing: “I have been in Russia. It is a very remarkable place. Now I want to see if New Zealand is any better.” He was soon claiming he was “really one of the makers of New Zealand” (being a pioneering Fabian socialist and New Zealand having introduced a Fabian programme) and dispensing advice about New Zealand’s dependency on the “home” market:

What you have to do in these islands is to eat your own butter and see that everybody in New Zealand has plenty of butter to his bread. When you have reached this point, stop producing butter and produce something else.

 

Brains perhaps, he suggested. But as someone pointed out: “They take all the bright brains from New Zealand.” “Do as Russia does and don’t let them go.” (It only added to Shaw’s insufferableness that – in the broader sense, if not the Soviet-inspired detail – he was sometimes right.)

Shaw was still at it when he reached Picton (ahead of an unplanned detour into Christchurch after hearing that it was New Zealand’s “most intellectual” city). Britain, he said, was “sick of being badgered, battered and kicked by her rapidly growing Dominions and [was] withdrawing from the Empire.” But New Zealand had supported the “home” country in the Great War, a reporter retorted in defence. Shaw surpassed himself: “You went into it out of pure devilment. You need not have sent those troops unless you had liked. You could have joined the Germans if you liked.” Shaw, remember, was on holiday. Imagine what’s he’d have been like if he were on the job.

For the most part, it is writers on the job who make up Monin’s book – either on lecture tours or researching books (sometimes combining the two), or who wrote about the country without even visiting it. The latter range from Anton Chekhov and his  pithy  “It’s barbarity! It’s New Zealand!” to Aldous Huxley:

[New Zealand is] nothing very exciting or spectacular, of course. No Parthenons or Sistine Chapels, no Newtons or Mozarts or Shakespeares; but also no Ezzelinos, no Napoleons or Hitlers or Jay Goulds, no Inquisitions or NVKDs, no purges, pogroms or lynchings. No heights or abysses, but plenty of milk for the kids, and a reasonably high average IQ, and everything, in a quiet provincial way, thoroughly cosy and sensible and humane.

 

Don’t you just love that “reasonably”?

The cover boasts 80 writers, a figure Monin manages while barely touching upon the modern era, in which the traffic of writers on junkets is such that household names often come and go virtually unnoticed. (I can remember a bestselling British crime writer reduced to filling his time meeting and greeting Paperplus staff.)

There was no danger of that fate befalling the writers upon whom Monin focuses most of her attention: Shaw, Anthony Trollope, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling and J B Priestley, who were followed and fêted wherever they went. For fêting or rather fawning, the North Canterbury Gazette’s Shaw editorial takes first prize, happily concurring with his opinion of New Zealanders as “interesting half-grownups who are suffering from arrested development of individuality” (“precisely what all visitors of distinguished intellect … have said about us”) and dismissing as “duffers” anyone who thought otherwise.

With the exception of Kipling – at the beginning of his career in 1891 – these were all gentlemen of a certain age. Today we get clapped-out old rockers; then we got Twain suffering from carbuncles (1895) and Priestley recovering from a piles operation (1973). Like a rock star, Shaw even had his own “rider”, outlining for hotels his strict vegetarian dietary requirements.

The perennial question asked – as, dismayingly, it still is – was what they thought of New Zealand. (Nothing was to be overlooked: “Did you see the Wanganui River?”) The replies – as they still are – were predictable in their reassuring flattery and varying shades of condescension. But then how couldn’t they be, given the question?

Just as visitors today will tell you the country is like Britain in the 1950s, Shaw in 1934 thought New Zealanders resembled 19th-century Englishmen. Genuflection before the scenery was, of course, de rigueur. Trollope (1872) went the extra distance, saying that, if her coal-fields could be made productive and the iron washed ashore in her sands made into steel, he could see “no reason why Auckland should not rival London”. We’ve heard it all before (well, perhaps not that last one). When Noel Coward (1941) can do no better than to describe the Waitomo Caves’ “millions of glow-worms glittering on the rocks overhead like stars”, you realise what you’re up against.

Much more interesting – sometimes revealing, sometimes just entertaining – is when the writers went off-script, not merely repeating New Zealanders’ received wisdom about themselves, but offering a stranger’s alternative perspective. John Galsworthy (1893) wrote about “the curious but infernal regions of the North Island” and scenery that “amounted to a maximum of the marvellous and a minimum of beauty”. Coward (again, in rather wittier mode) on Rotorua: “I felt that to be able to boil an egg in a puddle outside your front door, although undoubtedly labour saving, was not really enough compensation for having to live immediately on top of the earth’s hidden fires.” Still in Rotorua, Trollope rather daringly challenged the myth of Hinemoa swimming to her lover on Mokoia Island: “As the distance is hardly more than a mile, and as the Maoris are all swimmers, the feat did not seem to me to be very wonderful.”

Rupert Brooke (1913) complained: “All the women smoke, and dress very badly, and nobody drinks. Everybody seems rather ugly – but perhaps that’s compared with the South Seas.”  Priestley found the description of roadside eateries as tearooms misleading, suggesting “lady-like establishments delicately run by the daughters of late Indian army colonels”. Twain wrote of the “very tastefully frescoed” Maori.

Meanwhile, there are the alternative perspectives New Zealanders had on the writers. Not everyone was fêted and fawned over. Conan Doyle (1920), with his spiritualism lectures, encountered understandable irreverence – from many quarters, not least The Press, and including a miller’s advertisement (“I hope I was the only victim, and that every stranger within [Auckland’s] gates is not held up to ridicule for the purpose of calling attention to Mr Blank’s desiccated corn”). Likewise western writer and fishing nut Zane Grey, whose 1920s boosterism on behalf of New Zealand angling turned nasty after he became a tad too critical of local practices.  But even Trollope could provoke the Bay of Plenty Times to say “we shan’t miss him much. He did not make himself popular here, hardly showed himself in public at all.” And at a television interview, Priestley “sensed the studio crew were so bored they were almost yawning”. (But then television studio crews are like that – they’d probably be yawning if they were filming the first interview with Princess Di freshly risen from the grave.)

Sometimes, it is the sheer incongruity that grabs your attention: Shaw in a bright red borrowed women’s bathing suit at Mt Maunganui; Coward performing some of his songs to the “polite bewilderment” of Rotorua Maori; Trollope cosying up to “a fine young woman of splendid proportions, popularly known as ‘the Duchess’ ” in a Rotorua hot pool (“I think I did wise in leaving Mrs Trollope in Auckland”); better still, Trollope dining with the son of Maori chief Te Rauparaha:

It is said of him … that he has killed men, but never eaten them; of his father … that he had killed and eaten men … but of his grandfather, that he had killed men and eaten them, and had then himself been killed and eaten.

 

You could see, though, why Twain – that cynic and absurdist – would be so taken with a Maori chief saying of a missionary:

Why, he wants us to stop worshipping and supplicating the evil gods, and go to worshipping and supplicating the Good One! There is no sense in that. A good god is not going to do us any harm.

 

There are these delights and more as you make your way through Monin’s book – even if doing so is more difficult than it ought to be, what with the irritating potted explanations of everything from Cook Strait to rata for the benefit, presumably, of some putative foreign tourist readership; her unannounced lurches from writer to writer; and her odd structuring device of shoehorning the writers into a region-by-region journey from north to south (so that Trollope, who inconsiderately for Monin entered the country in Bluff, is travelling in reverse). But there is also an awful lot that lays bare what a meaningless cultural transaction amateur travel can be, full of a sense of dislocation (hey, it isn’t home! Though sometimes it’s a bit like home!), of fleeting, superficial impressions and generalisations, and of the first flush of infatuation with a new discovery. Tellingly, in this regard, the most astute, evocative writing is that of the professional travel writer James (later Jan) Morris.

Monin has clearly done a lot of research, and has unearthed fascinating snippets alongside more substantial pieces from sources both major and minor, both obvious and unexpected. She has joined dots that you might not have even realised were there, and touches on important themes. But she doesn’t bring much depth or much of her own original thought to the subject, relying instead on quotations. It would have been good to have seen an introduction of the order of Lydia Wevers’ Travelling to New Zealand: An Oxford Anthology (2000) – one that articulates more fully how it isn’t only baggage of the leather kind that visitors carry with them.

 

Guy Somerset, a Briton who has been living in New Zealand for five years, is books editor of the Dominion Post.

 

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Posted in Essays, Literature, Non-fiction and Review
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