Nelson Wattie reflects on the controversial closure of the Centre for New Zealand Studies at Birkbeck College at London University.
A unique New Zealand cultural institution, successful, expanding, useful to the community and valued by students, researchers and the general public alike, has recently been closed down.
At a London conference two or three years ago, New Zealand’s then Prime Minister, Helen Clark, announced that Birkbeck College at the University of London had agreed to host a Centre for New Zealand Studies. An agreement was signed: the college would manage the centre, and the New Zealand government would provide funds of £100,000, with a guarantee that the arrangement would continue until 2011 before being reviewed.
There was clearly a need for an institution of this kind, and under the energetic interdisciplinary leadership of Dr Ian Conrich it was soon providing a very wide range of services. International conferences were held, involving people from all over Europe and from the Antipodes. In London, there were film showings, readings by many leading New Zealand writers, panel discussions on the arts and the sciences, lessons in the Maori language, art displays, meetings of various kinds and the provision of materials through a well-stocked library. A notable publication series was established, based on papers presented at conferences but including other contributions. The library was being used by half a dozen PhD candidates for their research.
Big but viable plans were being made within the financial resources provided by us, the New Zealand taxpayers, and by the generous hospitality of Birkbeck College. There was every reason to believe that the flurry of activities would not only continue but expand and diversify. Why would a thriving institution with a promising future be closed down? What wall did this train hit? The explanations have yet to be made, so that speculation and rumour are rife. Those who paid and who might have benefited from the historical research and the cultural and personal encounters deserve to know the true reasons, and the rumours deserve to be stifled.
One and a half decades ago, another attempt at establishing a cultural base for New Zealand in London collapsed due to personal dislikes. A flat had been found in the Bloomsbury district, and there were hopes that it could serve as a home for New Zealand writers in the metropolis. These hopes foundered on the rock of factionalism. Could the demise of the centre be due to a similar kind of argument, rather than to any financial or administrative problems? After all, the value of the institution in academic and cultural terms could hardly be questioned.
It is fair to say that Dr Conrich is an eccentric. There is a tendency for individuals who passionately pursue large-scale projects, and who drive their ideas forward with that obsessive disregard for obstacles that is usually called “vision”, to be a bit eccentric. The force of their energy can even make them hard to deal with at times. The compensatory factor is that they get things done. Rapid institutional expansion is more likely to follow such energetic application than the deliberations of a committee or college board. The destruction of a thriving and clearly needed institution because one dislikes some such individual would, of course, be far too small-minded to be imaginable in the case of visionary university scholars and diplomats. This, therefore, cannot be the explanation, even though some speculation has looked in that direction.
The fact is that Birkbeck College backed out of the agreement it had made while the other party, the New Zealand government, offered no resistance. This latter point should be of concern to New Zealand taxpayers. What has become of the money we invested in this project? How has the guarantee of maintenance till 2011 been passed over? Has that involved a breach of contract – of a contract to which we are a party?
For many decades now – at least nine – New Zealanders have been asserting their felt need to be more independent of Britain. In some quarters republicanism is in the air. We want to stand sturdily “on our own feet”. Of course we feel no need to assert such independence from Russia, China or any other country. Britain is different. Many, perhaps most of our systems and patterns of life and governance, whatever diversity we may have achieved in the meanwhile (and whatever other ethnic elements may be added to the mix), owe their origins to Britain: the Westminster system of government, the education system, our medical attitudes and systems, the nature of the unarmed police force, the criminal code and the road code and much more. Of course, there are many more subtle and less obvious debts, including in literature and other arts, that may even extend into our subconscious minds.
A relative of mine, trained and experienced in architecture, recently settled in London and found that he could take up work immediately, using the skills and methods he was already familiar with. This would not have been true to the same extent in the USA or on the European continent. Such bridges between ourselves and people on the other side of the world need not necessarily be regretted. They are not due to ideology but to historical and current fact. Surely, then, a cultural centre where such relationships can be explored and brought into consciousness – even with the purpose of changing them – must have a high priority, once our children have been fed.
In the last two and a half years 2000 people, many of them prominent scientists, scholars and artists, have visited the Centre for New Zealand Studies. Within that short period 114 events have been held there, in addition to six international conferences and three festivals of New Zealand culture. Even the New Zealand High Commission expressed the view “that the Centre has contributed a great deal to the cultural and academic community in the United Kingdom”. Birkbeck College presented a positive image of it in their publicity material.
The Centre for New Zealand Studies was the only one of its kind outside New Zealand, and there are few that can be compared with it at home. Its resources included 7000 books and journals, many of them to be found nowhere else in the northern hemisphere. They included handwritten documents by iconic writers like Robin Hyde, Maurice Shadbolt and Janet Frame. Postcards written by the great film director Rudall Hayward were to be found among the resources. There were poems by such writers as Peter Bland, proofs of Caxton Press Books, old tourist and film posters and a variety of other materials.
In its vibrant programme the centre hosted many distinguished guest speakers, including Hamish Keith, Vincent O’Sullivan, Fleur Adcock, Lloyd Jones, Chris Pugsley, Bill Manhire, Jock Phillips, Marilyn Duckworth and Elizabeth Smither. Film master-classes were conducted by Vincent Ward, John Barnett, John Reid, Kerry Fox, and Don McGlashan. The programme of activities included many showings of New Zealand films, readings, concerts, discussions and so on.
The news that the centre was to be closed caused outrage. A petition calling on the authorities to stop the closure was signed by almost a thousand people, many of them well known in scholarship and the arts. An article in the Times Higher Education Supplement stimulated a long thread of angry and thoughtful comments online: “Has Birkbeck failed to keep a major donor, not to mention a sovereign country, informed?” (Paul Burns); “I am particularly concerned about the fate of the Centre’s library and excellent collection of materials” (Fleur Adcock); “The idea that my old university, London, should (apparently) have acted on such short notice and with so little consultation beggars belief” (David Carnegie); “cutting it down in its prime. Birkbeck must stop acting as a latter-day imperialist institution, sit down with the newcomers and ‘korero’ – that is discuss candidly and with good heart, the best outcome for a rare and wonderful thing” (Peter Wells). Similar comments were made by Elspeth Sandys, Hamish Keith, Emma Neale, Ian Wedde, David Howard, Tom Brooking and many others.
By early October Dr Conrich was no longer permitted to enter the premises – even though, he claims, personal property worth many thousands of pounds is held there – and his assistant, turning up for her daily work, broke down in tears when she found that the locks had been changed. So ended another chapter in the effort of New Zealanders to examine, criticise and enjoy their British heritage, and explain themselves to a largely indifferent England.