Lifting the lid of the national box, Stevan Eldred-Grigg

The Penguin History of New Zealand
Michael King
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN 0143018671

A Short History of New Zealand
Gordon McLauchlan
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN 0143019082

One day at the start of the 21st century, happening to be staying in a hotel in central Christchurch, I woke up, drew back a couple of heavy drapes and took a look at a frosty Cathedral Square. My grandmothers, had they been teleported forward in time from their deathbeds in the middle of the 20th century to join me at that wide window, would have recognised half the facades – handsome slabs of Victorian and Edwardian masonry. The two old women would have been gobsmacked, however, by the faces of most of the well-dressed people to be seen in the Square.

“Chinks!” my mother’s mother would have hissed. “Chinks and bloody Japs!”

“The rabble-rousers were right about the yellow peril, evidently,” my father’s mother might have added, with the voice she prided herself upon as dry.

Cathedral Square during the heyday of my grannies was crossed by white people who spoke English. The suburbs and farmlands stretching beyond that square formed a world of white people who spoke English – though a few families of Chinese market gardeners, and two or three small villages of Maori, lived very quietly, not often noticed by the whites who thundered up and down the long straight metal roads of the province in Austins and Humbers, Fords and Chevrolets.

How has this extraordinary change in the society of my home province, and more broadly the nation of which that province is a sometimes reluctant part, come about? What does this change mean?

Anyone who wants to ask questions of this sort should not turn to Michael King or Gordon McLauchlan. McLauchlan asks only very simple questions which at his best he answers with energy. King asks more complex questions which he answers with intelligence and care, but he has almost nothing to say about, for example, those Asians in Cathedral Square. Both writers are men with big hearts, fond of humanity. At the same time they are both, like my two grannies, offspring of particular families and particular races and particular classes in particular places at particular moments of history. The two books they write can be treated in many ways as artefacts of social formations which are highly provisional, and both writers at the start of their books make that point themselves very clearly.

Michael King is careful not to claim high scholarship but writes the more ambitious book of the two. A book which has become a runaway bestseller. He defines his audience as “curious and intelligent general readers”. He states his particular goal as the identification and examination of “the myths that have shaped New Zealand cultures.” Bestseller status for a slow-moving and rather humdrum work of history is great news for those of us who love history. New Zealand is a rocky archipelago rich in fossils. King has written a book which will very quickly turn into a fossilised fragment of the late 20th century. The book is bicultural – a word coined during the last few decades of that departed century and not likely to stay good currency since it is turned down by many traders even now – and at the same time is an eco-history. Devoid of any serious theses, the book nonetheless does tend to turn on a central theme of the relationship between the white majority and one of the minority peoples, and to some extent also turns on a secondary theme of the relationship between all people and the ecosystem.

When it comes to writing history, I think King would have agreed with me that one of our main goals must be to look at the past democratically. Democracy means among other things treating all people equally. King’s book is very lopsided. Whole hunks are given to very small groups of people. Four pages are devoted to a 1950s “cloak and dagger” quasi-McCarthyism which had harmful effects on the careers of a few hundred public servants. Four percent of the entire book is devoted to the handful of white navigators who sailed our way in the 17th and 18th centuries. Yet these minor events reveal nothing very meaningful about the lives of the generations that were to follow on the rocky archipelago.

Meanwhile the millions of women who worked their way through the 19th and 20th centuries as cooks and cleaners and mothers in bungalows and cottages and kitchens are only given the odd glance sideways. One mere unmemorable paragraph, for example, about the 1880s sweating of throngs of women and child workers. Workers whose reward for being sweated was often to get sick, lose limbs or eyes, and from time to time be boiled to death in a dye vat, or sliced in half by a spinning steel wheel. Dye vats and spinning wheels don’t enter at all into his portrait of the sweating controversy, which is oddly disembodied, generalising, vague.

King’s skills of course are more those of biographer than historian. He likes telling anecdotes about individuals rather than analysing society. Janet Frame and Princess Te Puea. Famous folk, not common folk. Actually most of all he prefers blokes. Page after page – after page! – is about great guys. Rugby gets 12 entries in the index, plus a helpful “see also All Blacks”. Netball gets nary a word.

Nor are the biographical bits as good as we might expect from King. Almost all his characters are mute. When he talks about the lives of sweated women workers he quotes somebody – but it’s late 20th century historian Raewyn Dalziel talking about those workers, not the workers themselves, and her prose is as bread-and-butter as the prose written by King. So why does he bother to quote? Why not paraphrase? Or, better, look for some pithy quote from a woman worker herself? Women workers are not unknown for speaking pithily.

The least democratic aspect of the book is its lopsided tilt towards one race. King loves writing about Maori. Yet how many of us who have lived in these islands since the beginning of history have been Maori? Or mostly Maori? One out of five? Not likely. One out of six? One out of seven? Why does this book devote well over a third of its pages to Maori?

A poorly balanced book, in summary. A banal book, too, more lightweight than it need be, and clearly thrown together in a hurry. Why is it popular? Maybe for those reasons: lightweight, banal. Nobody need feel threatened. Almost all can feel disarmed by a book so easygoing and so low key.

Gordon McLauchlan takes on the more modest task of writing what he defines as “a short and personal narrative” introducing the history of the country “to general readers and to students”. Most pages are well laid out and tidily illustrated – though the maps are scrappy. McLauchlan is a livelier writer than King. Less wordy, more varied in his syntax. Maybe the discipline of many years of journalism can be given some of the credit, though the fondness of the author for the spoken yarn is also probably part of the story.

Content is even more lopsided than in King. McLauchlan seems to get off on war, which with its smoke and fakery fills, by my count, one out of every nine pages of the book – far more than its fair share. Women in some ways get less short shrift than from King. Yet for the most part they tend to be high flyers not common womenfolk and are grafted onto the text with a lack of eagerness, awkwardly. Nowhere in the book do we find any social analysis of any depth or complexity – and a lot of what gets written in the way of generalisation is folksy hokum. Mind you, the same could be said of King.

McLauchlan ends pessimistically, while King ends upbeat. McLauchlan comes from a puritan sub-culture. King by contrast is characteristic of the baby-boom generation, its sense of open possibility but also its vapidity, its lack of bite.

Both books are deeply provincial. They keep their focus closely on events in the rocky archipelago. One result is that we build up a very strong sense of a unique country. Yet isn’t it true that many of the things they write about are also true of a lot of people living in other parts of the world? And that the things that shape the lives of people on our archipelago are more often from outside, or from below, rather than neatly coinciding with the boundaries of the political state? The cultural “country” to which my sheep farming gran belonged, for example, was in many ways a country shared with a lady on an estancia in Argentina, or a widow in comfortable circumstances in pre-war Pomerania, rather than with a Red Fed in Waihi, or a charwoman scrubbing a toilet in Ponsonby. Not to mention Princess Te Puea.

Or, to look at another example: King and McLauchlan both define women and men as unusually drab and conformist in the early- and mid-20th century, as though this was somehow a hallmark of New Zealand. They offer no reasons why. Yet one of the most consistent observations made about the western world for a century or so until the 1960s was precisely its pervasive drabness and conformity. “Speranza”, Lady Wilde, in 1891 looked with dismay upon a sea of grey and brown and black, and moaned that a “dreadful uniformity of homeliness and utility pervades all classes.” Oscar, her son, protested about the “uniformity of type and conformity to rule which is so prevalent everywhere, and is perhaps most obnoxious in England.” Nietzsche at the same time complained about the same thing in contemporary Germany, where life “every day becomes more uniform, more ordinary.”

Historians have often attributed this phenomenon of increasing standardisation of western life to the impact of industrial capitalism and its class system in which almost everybody became a consumer of mass-produced assembly-line products. Historians have also often attributed the breakdown of this standardisation in the late 20th century to the evolution of a post-industrial economy and the fragmentation of the mass market into the new system of niche markets and consumer subcultures. New Zealand, on the face of it, seems pretty much a textbook example of the process. Yet neither of the two writers under review relates the clothes worn by New Zealanders to anything outside the borders of the country. A national history does a sort of violence to the real shape of people’s lives by shoving them into a box that seldom seems to fit – the national box. We end up making dubious generalisations based on shonky evidence.

The two books are provincial in another way, too, in that they are written by white men who have taught themselves how to tackle the history of the Maori while at the same time they stay blind to Asia. King celebrates New Zealand as the first state in the history of the world to introduce “full democracy”. He says nothing about the fact that until about 50 years ago those of Chinese ancestry were denied the right to vote. Nor does he say anything about the fact that at the same time any woman who was already a New Zealander and who married a Chinese New Zealander lost her right to vote and indeed lost her nationality.

National history can’t cope well with polymorphousness. National history wants an identikit. Gao Xingjian, after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, said: “Once literature is contrived as the hymn of the nation … such literature loses what is inherent in literature, ceases to be literature and becomes a substitute for power and profit.” A historian might respond by saying that history is not in that sense literature, or that a history of a nation is not necessarily a hymn to the nation, but the problem remains that the boundaries of a nation are seldom the most important variables in determining the lives lived by people inside or outside those boundaries.

National history must simplify. All writing is simplification, of course, but the best history will also somehow ramify. At the turn of the 22nd century a majority of the people living within the present state of New Zealand could conceivably be speaking Mandarin. They will turn in vain to these two books for any sense of their place in a longer history. Which brings us back to the beginning of this review, and my two grandmothers. And to the hole in the whole notion of national history.


Stevan Eldred-Grigg lives in Shanghai and Wellington. His next book, a literary history of New Zealand, will be published by Unitas (Taipei) later this year.


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