Firmly anchored in the past, Tony Simpson

The Oxford History of New Zealand 
G W Rice (ed),  (2nd Edition),
Oxford University Press, $59.95

When, in 1973, Professor J G A Pocock delivered his J C Beaglehole Memorial Lecture on British History to the New Zealand Historical Association (subsequently published in the New Zealand Journal of History), he subtitled it a plea for a new subject. And as is so often the case with Pocock he left the sting of his address to the last. His was really a plea for the writing of a new New Zealand history. The British cultural star cluster, he concluded, is at present in a highly dispersed condition, various parts of it feeling the attraction of adjacent galaxies; the central giant has cooled, shrunk and moved away, and the inhabitants of its crust seem more than ever disposed to deny that the rest of us ever existed. This freed us, he thought, to construct our own cosmologies. This should not necessarily mean parallel universes in which each star should figure as the centre of its own universe. That was a legitimate but limiting perspective. What was needed was, perhaps, a post-Commonwealth and extra-European, but anti-nationalist, history, in which we redefined our tangential identity by remapping the various systems in which we move. It was an intriguing and challenging notion.

In the two decades since he delivered his address there has been a big bang explosion in the writing of our history. It is appropriate, therefore, that we should explore the extent to which historians have followed Pocock’s advice, and the publication of a second edition of the Oxford History a decade after the first supplies the occasion.

Others have also recently done so, although not as many as one might have expected or hoped. In his witty and informed 1990 review article, Of Verandahs and Fish and Chips and Footy on Saturday Afternoons (NZJH Vol 24 No 2, October 1990), for instance, Jock Phillips surveys New Zealand history writing and concludes in respect of its recent productions that there are many gaps yet to be filled. Above all, he remarks, we have failed to come to terms with our national cultures as one of the fundamental determinants of our historical experience. In particular he points up how little we really know about the evolution of values and ways of life in this country, and how urgently we need a cultural history, a history which can recover in loving detail the diversity of cultures which once settled here, and the processes whereby those diverse cultures were given a New Zealand content. What was it, he wants to know, and our historians to discover, that created a culture of fish and chips, and verandahs, and footy on Saturday afternoons? This seems a demand for the antithesis of that for which Pocock was pleading. How Phillips relates that to the Oxford History is unclear; in a curious lacuna he omits from his survey one of the most significant historiographical events of the decade.

Even more recently Eric Olssen (NZJH, Vol 26 No 1, April 1992), specifically referring back to Pocock’s challenge, and in more sombre vein than Phillips, has pointed out the irony inherent in a situation in which the perspectives of nationalism versus anti-nationalism raised by Pocock are beginning to emerge in our historiography at precisely the point at which the nation as a focus of history writing is coming under challenge from those social historians who perceive other collectives of class, gender, and ethnicity, as more appropriate foci.

More specifically he notes the introspective content and tone of the first Oxford History, its assumption that New Zealand can be understood in terms of what has happened here alone, and its continuing thralldom to both what he calls the Reevesian paradigm, and to Beagleholian contempt. By the former he means a determination to write a history which ends harmoniously with all parties satisfied and at peace, and by the latter a determination to sneer at New Zealand’s cultural and intellectual life because of its alleged provincial and lower middle class insularity.

If this is true then obviously the editors of the Oxford History did not, at least in their first attempt, respond to Pocock’s plea. But was this criticism fair and, if so, is it repaired by the second edition? The answer to the first question is both yes and no. A review of the contents of the 1981 edition confirms Olssen’s criticism, but only up to a point. There is an insularity about some of the contributions, a comforting assumption that the rest of the world can go hang, and that we need only explore ourselves. This is, of course, one of those fundamental cultural characteristics which Jock Phillips would have us put under the historical microscope, and therefore we should not be surprised to see it implicit in our history writing. Most of our historians these days are New Zealanders after all.

But essays in the earlier edition belie Olssen’s critique, the first three contributions by Davidson, Owens and Gardiner in particular, although this is as might be expected in dealing with origins, and the Anglocentricity of the two latter was disappointing on first reading, and is still on reappraisal.

On Reevesian and Beagleholian perspectives Olssen was on surer ground. One of the most infuriating aspects of mainstream New Zealand history writing is the smug assumption that it will all come out right in the end and therefore all is for the best as events unfold. The first edition of the Oxford had that smugness in abundance. As to the cultural assumptions which underlie it, the less said about those the better, except to remark that the provincial assumption that culture means whatever is fashionable on the high cultural scene in the metropolis just now should be good enough for us, and that we should make haste to emulate it, was obviously alive and well in history writing circles at least in 1981.

A decade on has the new edition of the Oxford History escaped these traps? The answer to this is also that it has and it hasn’t. One of the most interesting points of comparison is to examine who’s in and who’s out. None of the original contributors has been dropped, although their contributions have been edited in some instances. But other names are added to the later sections. David McIntyre looks outwards, and over two contributions assesses our relations with the world from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present. The Maori people no longer vanish from our history in 1960 but are brought up to date in an excellent essay by Ranginui Walker. There is an attempt to get to grips with the meaning of postwar political developments in the light of the last decade of change.

But the smug insularity of tone remains overall, however valuable some of the individual contributions may be. The list of these contributors has got longer, but the coterie feel of the list itself is more marked than it was in 1981. Even more noticeable than the inclusions are the exclusions. Some of our most notable and creative historians are missing. Olssen is there but not Phillips. And where are Orange, Hamer, Belich, Nolan, Macdonald, Fairburn and a host of others who have taken our history in new directions? Much ‑ although not all ‑ of the book’s content is, consequently, Reevesian historiography at its blinkered worst. From that perspective the Oxford History is inaptly presented, suggesting a comprehensiveness to which it has no business pretending.

Without specifically mentioning names, Phillips implied the same lack in his 1990 article. Significantly, he drew attention to the developing influence of the Annales school on international history writing in general and on New Zealand historiography in the previous decade, and to a developing determination to get beyond the written document, the source of traditional academic history. Reading this new edition of the Oxford History one would be unaware that these developments had ever occurred. Even such English influences as the History Workshop group would appear to have made no impact on the way we write our history if this book was typical of it.

As to Beagleholian contempt, it is still as Beagleholier than thou as it was in 1981. One of the most fascinating of the developments of the last two decades has been the rapid transition of our national cultures as they adapt to and absorb the international mass culture which electronic technologies and multinational corporate power has created. New Zealand since the introduction of television in 1960, for instance, has become a vastly different society culturally.

All of this has spawned not only individual cultural historians such as Rachel Barrowman, who have done fascinating and pathbreaking work, but an entire school of cultural analysis at Massey University associated with the magazine Sites. These developments have had negligible effect on the contributors to the Oxford History. On the contrary, we continue to count our cultural development, if this book is anything to go by, in terms of our ability to emulate the patterns of culture of the metropolis. Do we publish more novels than we used? Ah then, we must be more cultured than we were. This continuing colonial perspective serves only to point up the irrelevance of such elitist perceptions to the great majority of the populace. As Phillips had the prescience to notice, where footy on Saturday afternoons came from, what it has become, and why, should be the subject of our cultural history, not the number of symphonies which are being written.

The ultimate question which this new edition of the Oxford History allows us to pose is: how much progress have we made in the direction Pocock preferred that we should go over the two decades since he proposed it? Some, but not as much as we might have been expected to make if we had been concentrating solely on that task. We have not, of course, been doing that. A good deal of energy has, instead, gone into Phillips, preference of establishing a social and nationalist history, however patchily. To use Pocock’s own image, instead of mapping the relationship of our universe to other relevant constellations from a new perspective, we have preferred to explore previously unknown regions of the planet itself.

Some of these, such as the gender or ethnic fields, have suggested themselves arising from our preoccupation with social history, particularly hi the last decade. Others, such as the use of oral or visual sources as new means of decoding historical meaning, we owe to the semiologists whose influence on European history writing since the sixties has only begun to flow through into history written in English in the last two decades. The depressing thing about this new edition of the Oxford History is that it remains so firmly anchored in the past, impervious to Pocockian prescriptions, and to any new intellectual influences.


Tony Simpson is a Wellington writer and broadcaster.



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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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