New Zealand’s London: A Colony and its Metropolis
Auckland University Press, $50.00,
Far From “Home”: The English in New Zealand
Lyndon Fraser and Angela McCarthy (eds)
Otago University Press, $45.00,
On the day that the armistice was declared in 1918, Stan Stanfield got lucky with not one but two London women. Stanfield flattered himself that the women in question had turned to him – a “good-looking … young soldier from New Zealand” – for the company. That view has to be counterbalanced by his later admission that the pair happened to be prostitutes. Yet he was hardly the first New Zealander to couch his relationship with the “mother country” and her people in such gratifying terms. History is often a question of perception. For Stanfield, London and England were welcoming and familiar, the product of a mental landscape imagined on the periphery of empire.
For New Zealand historians since the 1950s, that world seemed perhaps a little too familiar. Cutting the apron strings required a more nationalist focus that emphasised the emergence of a distinctive New Zealand identity. Within such a framework, ties to the imperial hub were seen as little more than evidence of cultural cringe, “vaguely embarrassing examples of cultural immaturity”.
More recently, historians have begun to re-examine those ties. The flourishing world of Celtic studies is one product of this renewed interest. Yet historians are often drawn towards the exotic and unusual over the mainstream or even mundane. While we now know a great deal more about the distinctively Irish and Scottish connections with New Zealand, there has been no similar movement towards reconsidering our relationship with England and its capital.
Together, the two books under review go some way towards redressing this imbalance. But when the dominant group provides the default setting, it is not an easy task to discern what is unique about its own history. As Anthony Trollope observed of New Zealand in 1873, “Everything is English”.
Felicity Barnes’s book began life as a doctoral thesis supervised by James Belich, and the influence of his recolonisation thesis is apparent throughout. Belich argued in Paradise Reforged that, after a period of increasing independence, New Zealand found itself drawn into a tighter relationship with Britain from the late 19th century. Pastoral exports saw an imperial framework evolve into something more like that between a metropolis and its hinterland.
London became New Zealand’s cultural capital. But Barnes argues that “this was no cringing colonialism. It was cultural co-ownership”. New Zealanders claimed London’s streets as their own, along with its history and heritage:
New Zealand’s literature was published there, and its news was collected in Fleet Street. New Zealand’s butter, meat and cheese filled the windows of London chain stores, and New Zealand’s school children were quizzed on the best routes to send these products there. Visitors from New Zealand did not beg for invitations to royal garden parties; they went to New Zealand House to demand them. They used London as if it really were part of New Zealand.
The tyranny of distance was overcome through new technologies, such as improved shipping, refrigeration, telegraph cables, cinema, radio (and later television). New Zealand may have lain 12,000 miles away, but Barnes argues that the same innovations usually associated with the rise of modern nations also served to bring the hinterland closer to its metropolis.
Barnes’s work is a dense but richly rewarding read. One of its great strengths is the range of, in some cases, almost entirely neglected topics that she traverses in support of her arguments. When it comes to the mundane, it does not get much more unglamorous than meat marketing. Yet Barnes reveals some wonderful tales, including a lorry loaded with frozen mutton from New Zealand gate-crashing the Lord Mayor of London’s annual procession in 1885, the story behind the emergence of the Anchor butter brand, and the importance of butchers’ shop-window displays in promoting New Zealand meat.
Anyone who thinks that the “100% Pure New Zealand” campaign does not have deep antecedents in the marketing of New Zealand meat from the 1930s should read this book. But it is not just a matter of mutton. Barnes also writes of the estimated 60,000 New Zealand soldiers like Stanfield (“Bill Massey’s tourists”, as they were dubbed) who spent time in London during WWI. Efforts to draw them away from the dangers of women and grog through organised cultural tours were of limited success. London became a familiar landscape to these men, creating ever closer ties with “Home”. For some New Zealanders, including many writers, London became a place of relative freedom and refuge after the stifling Puritanism of their own country.
In later chapters Barnes discusses the influence of London on New Zealand media, cinema and television. She shows how the long-standing preference for New Zealand drama with rural settings (think Pukemanu, Hunter’s Gold or Mortimer’s Patch) reflected the country’s hinterland status. By the 1970s all that was changing, and the demise of public service television modelled on the BBC in favour of American-style commercial broadcasting reflected this new order.
Barnes’s work has real merit, but contains some omissions. Maori are briefly mentioned in the context of New Zealand representation in London at exhibitions and other events. But the perceptions of Maori visitors are not considered at all. There would have been real merit in examining whether their views of “Home” differed from those of Pakeha. Sporting ties have been explored at length elsewhere but might have warranted more than the one sentence they are allowed here. Then there are a few errors that should have been picked up in editing (Barnes uses the phrase “turn of the nineteenth century” at least three times, when it is clear from the context that in each case she is referring to the beginning of the 20th century).
Paradoxically, for a book about the English in New Zealand, many of the essays in Far From “Home” highlight the problems with identifying a particularly English experience. The English-born were always easily the largest group of 19th-century migrants to New Zealand (though the Scots and Irish were over-represented among those who made the long journey). Yet, as Stephen Constantine argues in his essay, class, religion, gender and regional differences cut across a clearly discernible English identity. As various contributors to this volume note, English migrants, being the dominant group, had less incentive to forge or sustain ethnic enclaves than other migrant communities.
Constantine’s demographic overview is accompanied by Marjory Harper’s account of English experiences and expectations of migration to New Zealand. Later chapters are quirkier in their focus, sometimes delightfully so. Greg Ryan reminds us of a time before the dreadful Lion-DB brewing duopoly of the 20th century when New Zealand had a vibrant and varied beer-drinking scene, based in part on imported English ales. Lachlan Paterson, writing of Maori understandings of Englishness in the colonial period, observes that, most of the time, distinctions between different groups of European migrants were ignored. Even official government translations sometimes used the term “Ingarihi” (English) to refer to Pakeha generally. He makes some valuable observations, including comparing the concept of “Home” with the Maori notion of Hawaiki, while noting the way in which Celtic origins are sometimes clung to today as a means of reclaiming an association with ancestral homelands without the same level of angst that purely English origins might be expected to generate.
David Pearson discusses the experiences of recent migrants, while Janet Wilson considers the literary achievements of English migrants between 1860 and 1914. For my money, however, among the most interesting essays are those contributed by the editors.
McCarthy reveals that some authorities in England were suspected of deliberately shipping local lunatics to New Zealand in order to lessen their financial burden. Despite such tactics, the English were under-represented in New Zealand asylums (and the Irish over-represented), for reasons that are open to debate. In a highly inventive essay that draws upon an extraordinary range of sources (including tombstone inscriptions, locks of hair and other memento mori), Fraser discusses migrant experiences of death, dying and mourning rituals. His essay serves as a poignant reminder that many never reached their destination, with children especially vulnerable to succumb to fatal illness or disease on the lengthy voyage from Britain.
It is no slight on Fraser if it is difficult to see what was distinctively English about some of the elaborate rituals he describes. Barnes sets out a compelling thesis of New Zealand as London’s hinterland that provides a framework for future analyses. Meanwhile, Far From “Home” serves as a challenge to recover the omnipresent yet (because of that) in large part invisible English influence. Together these works provide plenty of food for thought.
Vincent O’Malley is a Wellington writer and historian.