Where the heart is, Les Cleveland

Home: Civilian New Zealanders Remember the Second World War
Alison Parr
Penguin, $50.00,
ISBN 9780143203541

 

Paradoxically, New Zealand was at its best during WWII. Driven by the integrative imagery of the “War Effort”, most of us felt we were united in a common cause. There was full employment, price control, import licensing and commodity rationing that we grumbled about but accepted as necessary. The civilian workforce was directed into productive tasks, and the pastoral and agricultural industries produced an astonishing volume of food for export to the United Kingdom as well as the Pacific front.

Drawing on oral history archives and other sources, Alison Parr has assembled an encyclopedic memorial to the war years in which the whole country became a sort of industrial beehive directed by a government with almost totalitarian power. The author does not reach any conclusions about the meaning of it all, but the chapter headnotes structure the work as a progression in time which features: “War Work”, “Making Do”, “Time Out”, “Far Across the Sea”, “Regret to Inform”, “Against the Tide” and “Back Home”. Some of the interviews indulge in what now seems like sentimental trivia rather than gritty actuality. There are some interesting recipes for augmenting the rationed food supplies which today’s unemployed and welfare beneficiaries might have to resort to as living costs and taxes continue to spiral, but what was it actually like for a wife and children to subsist on a beggarly allotment of four shillings and sixpence per day from an ordinary soldier’s pay? And what was it like to be forced into a factory churning out zillions of near-inedible army biscuits, or exiled to a mountain of cabbages awaiting dehydration, or maybe consigned to the manufacture of shiploads of export mutton known as “sheep shagnasty“ by its unfortunate American army consumers?

It is tempting to wonder why we were not clever enough to shrink from the Middle East commitment and to sit on the sidelines in a posture of unarmed neutrality, happily selling food and raw materials to the various warring contestants while we grew rich and fat. It would have taken a lot of nerve (especially when we were warned that a Japanese task force was heading our way) but, given a different kind of leadership and as things turned out, we might have got away with it, though America and Australia would not have been pleased. Perhaps patriotic empire supporters and would-be warriors could have been encouraged to volunteer for service in an export New Zealand foreign legion, but we might have had to pay them decent wages instead of the New Zealand government’s miserly, war-on-the-cheap rates of pay.

Home signifies that in times of peril the New Zealand population, in the interests of survival, was able to endure a belt-tightening, oppressive, near-
totalitarian cabinet dictatorship with remarkable unity and fortitude. However, in today’s disturbed world we seem to have lost most of the old certainties. What likelihood is there we could now reach any consensus about the common good, should history repeat itself? These days, we cannot even get the trains to run on time, let alone deal constructively with catastrophe, demoralisation and fear, no matter how inspired the leadership or desperate the emergency. New Zealand has been transformed into a dystopia of rip-off merchants, fraudsters, drug dealers and confused, bickering consumers indulging their self-interests in a country that may have lost its way.

Home is a substantial work of 292 pages with a 26 by 18.5 cm format, making it rather awkward to handle, but providing generous space for illustrations. Some of its subject matter is treated with careful diplomacy. For instance, the social complexities of the American occupation are described in terms of a historical romanticism which makes much of the techniques of courtship, and the sophistication and courtesy toward women said to have been displayed by the visitors.

By chance, like some Jamesian observer from another planet, I happened to arrive in Auckland on a troopship one night during the height of the American occupation. The city had become a garrison town. Queen Street was crowded with marines thronging the restaurants and spilling out of pubs that were trading after hours. Some soldiers were negotiating deals with black market operators, and sly groggers were peddling bootleg liquor. Every dark doorway was occupied by couples embracing. I was the only New Zealand soldier on the street in my battered lemon squeezer felt hat with its “Onward” badge that shone like a homely emblem in the threatening, alien wilderness.

Suddenly two frightened young New Zealand women rushed up and asked me to escort them home, whereupon Sir Galahad courteously saw them to their front gate with a sympathetic suggestion to be more careful next time they went to the movies and lingered on afterwards. I resumed my journey up Queen St to the YMCA in search of a refuge. There I learned that truckloads of armed American military police were on hand to put down riots, and the New Zealand detectives on duty were carrying pistols!

The Furlough Draft refusal of duty and its critique of what was going on in New Zealand is dealt with rather simplistically in Home, but appreciation of the protests of the Furlough men is essential for a full understanding of what was actually happening on the home front. The dedication and enthusiasm of patriotic men and women engaged in war work and in essential industries was offset by racketeers, shirkers, under-the-counter merchants and black market dealers. Morale was eroding in spite of the goverment’s emergency regulations, tight censorship and unceasing propaganda. An underlay of feverish excitement and self-indulgence was part of what the Furlough draft were protesting about. In doggerel verses entitled “Raw Deal” and “The Mugs Who Volunteered”, the men complained about racketeers and refugees making money along with those sheltering “behind the skirts of industry” in safe jobs.

The anger and jealousy of absent New Zealand warriors emerged in vernacular parodies of “The Marine’s Hymn” and “When They Sound the Last All Clear”:

From the whores of Montezuma
To the trolls of Tripoli,
There’s no bigger pack of bastards
On land or on the sea.
For they think they run New Zealand
But they couldn’t run latrines,
There’s no bigger pack of bastards
Than the United States marines etc.

 

And

 

When they send the last Yank home
How happy us Kiwis will be.
We will pray for the day
When they all sail away
And all of our girls will be free etc.

By 1944 there were signs of declining enthusiasm on the home front, and there were alarming disturbances in Wellington when most of the 13th reinforcement draft walked off an overcrowded troop transport, refusing to sail until their demands were met. They paraded menacingly on the steps of Parliament and passed the rest of a riotous day in the hotel bars of the town. Most of the draft trickled back to the ship when the prime minister dealt with some of their grievances and told them they were badly needed at the front. The government suppressed all accounts of this scandalous event, but latrinograms about it soon reached the 20,000 or so New Zealand troops in the Middle East and Italy. Home as the ultimate domain of sweetness and light and the stronghold of righteousness for an entire generation had lost some of its magic.

 

Les Cleveland is a folklorist, a documentary photographer and a former soldier in a 2NZEF rifle company in WWII.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and War
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