You had to be there, Simon Upton

Creating a National Spirit – Celebrating New Zealand’s Centennial
ed William Renwick
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0864734751

How many people can recall New Zealand’s 150th birthday? And of those who can, what is it that is most vividly remembered? The aurally taxing label of sesquicentennial seemed all of a piece with the brief and professorial tenure of Sir Geoffrey Palmer at Premier House. As the scene changes of the fourth Labour Government’s Gotterdammerung crowded in on one another, “sesqui” events came and went in an increasing blur.

A particular low point was the distribution of some of the special sesquicentennial medals. It was decided that MPs should be able to nominate 25 or so local worthies as the lucky recipients of specially minted medals. It was a questionable duty to be giving people who were fighting for re-election. But the nadir of the whole process must have been the decision, no doubt well-intentioned, to present the medal to all sitting MPs. They just turned up one morning in members’ in-trays along with the junk mail and invitations to calf club days. I can still hear the cynical guffaw from an office down the corridor.

How different, it seems, were the events of 1940. It was a different world and a wholly different political climate. New Zealand then was also in the hands of a Labour Government but it was the confident first-edition version, untainted by later revisions. The world was at war. And the most isolated part of the British Empire had every psychological need to affirm its viability both as a nation and as an outpost of civilisation.

Creating a National Spirit – Celebrating New Zealand’s Centennial is the result of a wide-ranging survey sponsored by Victoria University’s Stout Research Centre of the events of that milestone year. Its 19 chapters cover the full range of activities in which the wartime Dominion immersed itself. There was a centennial exhibition, the publication of a dictionary of national biography, 12 book-length surveys and 30 pictorial pamphlets, a trail of memorials and re-enactments, literary, dramatic and music competitions, a travelling art exhibition, a film, and an atlas that never saw the light of day.

If this last sentence does not scan easily, it provides a clue to the book’s weakness. For while it represents a formidable amount of research on the part of its contributors – and in some cases evident passion for the subject matter – the organisation of the material around events leads inevitably to a forest of detail and the recurrence of names and events in a way that makes a through-read difficult. This is no criticism of the volume’s editor; it is the unavoidable consequence of the decision to publish what appear to be papers presented to a 1999 conference.

It is not hard to see how the delivery of six papers on the big event of the year – the Centennial Exhibition – could bring the event to life. William Toomath’s admiration for the facility with which Edmund Anscombe mastered the “streamlined Art Deco” style in conceiving the Rongotai site would, one suspects, be captivating in the flesh – particularly when the contributor quotes his own precocious judgments as a budding 14-year-old design critic. But you really have to be in the business to take pleasure from learning that the tower that dominated the exhibition was “timber-framed throughout, with heavy posts near its corners, and was sheathed with quarter-inch (6mm) asbestos-cement sheets, flush jointed, and without wall openings.”

The opening chapter by Gavin McLean, which painstakingly details the logistical and financial machinations of the exhibition, is even more deadly. The minutiae of traffic control arrangements, bank overdrafts and season tickets can be got away with in a fluent verbal presentation; on the page, they grimly defy digestion.

Without question, the best written chapter is from Rachel Barrowman whose account of the Centennial Historical Surveys is an object lesson in how to distil the essence of such a project without descending into limp paraphrases or grinding detail. Thirteen surveys were planned with that most demanding of specifications: that they be both scholarly and popular. The process of pairing authors and subjects – some more successful than others – is deftly told by Barrowman. It was romance that sold – the romance of discovery, exploration and pioneering. Unsurprisingly, topics like government and farming languished in the bookshops.

What never made it into print is as interesting as anything that did. Sir Apirana Ngata never got round to writing the survey on Maori with which the series was supposed to be launched. James Cowan’s popular Settlers and Pioneers had its chapter on the Waikato wars removed because of the author’s troublesome decision to side with Maori, comparing the settler government’s actions with those of the recent Italian invasion of Abyssinia. But most piquant of all was the fate of W B Sutch’s contribution. Commissioned to provide a piece on social provision, Sutch produced what officials and Ministers viewed as a Marxist polemic. No amount of revision could save it and it was dropped – though at no loss to its author who received his full fee, part of which he asked for in kind in the shape of the Soviet Atlas of World History.

Shirley Tunnicliff’s chapter on the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography describes the single biggest publishing project of the centennial. This monumental, two-volume, 1000-page project was the single-handed labour of Dr Scholefield, parliamentary librarian and chief archivist. Living as we do in an era in which scholarly research has been turned into a mass production industry, it is hard fully to grasp the extraordinary dedication and single-mindedness that must have been required. As such, Tunnicliff’s talk of “more rigorous academic training” of today’s scholars and their “new and more sophisticated research techniques” carries a slightly patronising whiff.

While it is surely right to heavily discount the over-representation of many “white males of European descent” and highlight the grossly distorted roll call of just 36 women amidst the 2500 entries, one wonders whether she really needed to mention every single one of them by name in a series of clunking paragraphs which become lifeless lists. We are informed that Maori men are well represented (though not a single one is identified), but we do get the names of two Chinese businessmen (on the incontestable ground that they are from a minority). There is nothing about Scholefield’s style or any of his judgments. If, as Tunnicliff maintains, Scholefield is still a good read, there is little here to entice one to curl up with a volume on a rainy winter’s afternoon.

The application of contemporary wisdom to faded prejudices is a temptation that is resisted with varying degrees of success by the contributors. Even Jock Phillips, in an otherwise excellent summary piece, cannot resist quoting from a typically patriotic statement in the House on the introduction of the Centennial Bill in 1938 and following up with the commentary: “Not a soul laughed.” To which I am inclined to ask, why should they have? Understanding why those sentiments rang true at the time is the real prize.

Many of the contributors draw attention to the marginal profile of the Treaty and the strength of the pioneering myths together with the beginnings of their deconstruction by a literary and intellectual elite. One wonders if a more promising presentational device would not have been to focus thematically on the social, political and cultural currents that ran through the centennial year rather than glimpsing them amidst the scenery and organisational committees of so many events.  Certainly, Ngata emerges repeatedly as a powerfully important personality, worthy of a portrait to himself.

But that would have meant holding a different sort of a symposium on which to base this handsome and beautifully produced volume. When, in closing, Jock Phillips describes the venture as “a walk in the streets of our parents’ youth”, he is even closer to the mark than perhaps he intended. So much that happened in the centennial year was driven from Wellington. So many of the leading personalities were at the heart of the governmental elite. This largely sympathetic retrospective is the product of their intellectual descendants. Fourteen of the 18 contributors are from Wellington and deeply embedded in its governmental, academic and cultural fabric.

While Waitangi gets a chapter (as do the regions), the weight of these essays focuses on the Wellington enterprise. Quintessential among them is the loving attention paid to what the book’s introduction calls J C A Beaglehole’s “typographical moment”.  Sydney Shep provides a perfect portrait of the great scholar’s fastidious engagement with getting things looking right. As he put it: “Good type properly used is part of a decent and rational civilisation.” The Government Printing Office, he opined, wasn’t doing its job if it was content with anything less.

Shep describes Beaglehole’s legacy with all the passion and intensity of Nabokov on butterflies: good book papers, fine letterpress work, generous margins, solid case bindings and “the grace and elegance of Aldine Bembo, Baskerville, Granjon, Polyphilus, Perpetua”.  All with the aim of “touching the mind of the country”.

It is that able, high-minded and slightly superior lens through which our capital has sought to improve an often mercenary provincial populace. This should be the Stout Research Centre’s next big symposium: the Wellington Mind. But at least two-thirds of the contributors should be from places like Auckland or Palmerston North.


Simon Upton works from Paris on sustainable development issues. He is a sometime Minister of Cultural Affairs.


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