Minding the gap, Tom Brooking

People, People, People: A Brief History of New Zealand
Stevan Eldred-Grigg
David Bateman, $24.95,
ISBN 9781869538132

In 1980 Stevan Eldred-Grigg wrote a provocative study of the great estate owners of the South Island which proved beyond any semblance of doubt that 19th-century New Zealand was a very unequal place rather than a “workingman’s paradise”. Marxist excess and inflation of the social rank of the big landowners drew attention away from the book’s strengths. Since then some historians, including Jim Gardner, Jim McAloon and myself, have critiqued these excesses and demonstrated that the wealthy landowners did not constitute a gentry for long because the lower social orders refused to behave deferentially towards these supposed social superiors.

As Eldred-Grigg himself showed, the bold actions of the vigorously democratic Liberal Government in attempting to “burst-up” the great estates’ owners in the 1890s broke the power of this landed elite. Equally importantly, the numerous sons and daughters of these patriarchs burst open the great estates from the inside by demanding their own piece of prime real estate. The rejection of primogeniture in favour of partible division, typical of new world societies, meant that within a generation estate owners became large farmers.

Despite carefully orchestrated intermarriage of children educated in exclusive schools, the so-called gentry soon metamorphosed into an upper middle class – still well off but nowhere as powerful as they had been before the Liberals unleashed their attack upon the “squattocracy”.  Unlike their English antecedents, most of these landowners also worked hard on their properties and were, as McAloon has made very clear, “no idle rich”.

Yet despite the important qualifications brought about by 20 years of scholarly endeavour, The Southern Gentry remains a classic. The fact that Eldred-Grigg provoked scholars into such industrious refutation of his ideas is a tribute to the power of his persuasive prose.

The same ability to write well about our past and prompt debate showed itself later in the nicely illustrated A New History of Canterbury (1982), and in Eldred-Grigg’s Marxist version of New Zealand labour history, New Zealand Working People (1990). Although his critique of labour historians was rather overstated, he did succeed in pushing labour history beyond the institutional confines of trade unions and Labour parties and into the world of work.

Again in 1993, he succeeded in writing a compelling and critical historical novel relating Ballantyne’s devastating fire of 1947. More recently, in 2008, he produced Diggers, Hatters and Whores, a well-researched and lively history of the New Zealand goldrushes. Yet, as its title indicates, this book neglects research across two generations which showed that gold miners in New Zealand often came from skilled backgrounds and were intent on pursuing self-improvement and respectability rather than the wild life. Many also brought families with them despite powerful mythology to the contrary. Never one to let awkward evidence get in the way of a good story, and, with his eye for colour, Eldred-Grigg dismissed as hopelessly dull the important qualifications produced by several historians.

In this book and various articles, Eldred-Grigg also poured scorn upon the racist attitudes of gold miners towards the Chinese. While this “unsettling” (David Hill’s term in the publisher’s blurb) is a useful reminder of the ugly and dark side of our history, it is somewhat lopsided and avoids the need to try and understand why our ancestors held such attitudes.

Then, in 2010, Eldred-Grigg published the Great Wrong War. Although beautifully illustrated, the book pushed his contrarian views too far by suggesting the majority of New Zealanders opposed WWI. As the meticulous research of the likes of Paul Baker shows, this is just ahistorical fantasy – the past as the Left would like it to have been. The alarming and more awkward truth is that the great majority of Pakeha New Zealanders – male and female – supported WWI, along with the big loyalist iwi like Nga Puhi, Arawa, Ngati Porou, Ngati Kahungunu and Ngai Tahu. Still, the book is undeniably provocative and, when added to evocative historical novels like Oracles and Miracles, makes Eldred-Grigg as well-equipped as any New Zealand historian to write a general history.

The mystery remains, therefore, why he decided to write the shortest ever general history; one that, despite numerous illustrations, reaches a mere 80 pages. How could he hope to weave his magic as a writer when racy prose is replaced with short sentences of which Frank Sargeson would have been proud? And who is the intended audience? Primary school children? If so, Elsie Locke’s equally liberal and left-wing Two Peoples, One Land (1988) is an alternative. Yet Eldred-Grigg’s new book is too short and simple for secondary pupils and lacks all the other apparatus of helpful texts, such as inset boxes, time lines, biographies and lists of prime ministers. Perhaps he had in mind new immigrants or tourists? The eye-catching illustrations – some well-worn, others fresh – will certainly appeal to such people, but what impression will they gain from such a condensed, sound-bite version of our past?

Even the title has its problems. New Zealand does not, in fact, contain many people and remains an extraordinarily empty land. More seriously, by limiting himself to so few words, Eldred-Grigg makes it impossible to develop any kind of coherent, central argument.

Remarkably, he manages to cover the key dynamics of race, gender and class, and even mentions – albeit briefly – the environment.  Familiar phrases from various earlier histories like Keith Sinclair’s Penguin history are interwoven with more opinionated paragraphs. Some claims are hard to dispute; others are loaded with problems. To illustrate the difficulty in such an approach, let us consider more carefully the final section entitled “A New Century”.

It begins: “New Zealand kept certain basic values throughout the late 20th century and now keeps those values in the 21st century. The way of life is less formal than in any other western country.” A useful observation for any intending immigrant. He also adds that “New Zealand is one of the more honest and least corrupt lands in the world.”  Again, in relative terms, this claim is hard to dispute. He goes on to say: “The nation is also, according to various surveys, among the two or three places where people enjoy the most freedom in the world.” This is more contentious and would be challenged by some historians as well as by commentators on current affairs, especially those appearing on Maori television.

He moves on to engage in the most problematic of all activities for historians: predicting the future. He begins: “New Zealand has no enemy. New Zealand for many years will probably not seek any military ally.” This claim would keep an army of diplomatic historians busy for a lifetime. But then he adds: “Voters will probably remain willing to support only a very small army and a tiny air force and navy.” It is hard to take issue with such a claim.

Wealth distribution – a central concern of the whole book – follows. Eldred-Grigg makes claims for

a moderate wealth, in which not only the middle class but the working class of the country continue to enjoy incomes more than enough to afford comfort for everyone. Average wages are not very good any more, by the standards of the western world. Yet many people in the country believe that there are more important things than money.

This surprisingly bland summation cries out for development.

After stressing that New Zealanders read more books than anyone else, the author shifts to multiculturalism. He then makes the extraordinary claim that “Asians within another twenty years will outnumber Maori.” Where on earth did he get that figure? Certainly not from the projections of demographers like Ian Pool and Richard Bedford, who suggest rather that by 2040 Maori will make up about 25 per cent of the population, Asians around 15 per cent and Pacific Islanders about 10 per cent. These figures, though, do support Eldred-Grigg’s claim that “Children of the future will often be of mixed race and mixed culture.” On the other hand, there is no discussion of the impact of immigration policy upon the likely percentage of Asians.

He concludes by suggesting that the ideal of “equal opportunity for everybody” has declined since the 1980s, whereas it shaped developments over the previous century – again, a claim few would take issue with, other than the extreme Right that has emerged in recent times. He wraps everything up by writing:

A wide gap now divides rich and poor. The gap, as yet, is not as wide as during the 19th century. Will citizens come to a new agreement that society should be based permanently on such a wide gap? Or will there be another change in mood, and a new movement towards equal opportunity?

Some historians would dispute comparisons between now and the 19th century, but the suggestion of cycles of development is quite intriguing. If only he had given himself space to develop it properly.

So this reader remains bemused by the book since I have no feel for its purpose or audience (others disagree; it has been favourably received by periodicals like North and South). I am happy for my grandchildren to look at the beautifully reproduced paintings, posters and photographs, and I have no problem with their encountering the issues of wealth distribution and multiculturalism. But they do deserve something a little less condensed, with the prompts that good text books require.

As it stands, the book is neither school text nor guide to immigrants and tourists, but rather a collection of striking images with skeletal text. It could have been so much better had Eldred-Grigg written a provocative anti-history for a popular audience in his best contrarian style. Historian David Grant once suggested to me that someone should write a book that challenged the kinds of milestones covered in my book of that title, by stressing the influence of  Maori, Pacifists, Asians, Pacific Islanders, artists, gays and Left/Right-wing dreamers, rather than celebrating the deeds of soldiers, sportsmen, reforming politicians and social engineers. Eldred-Grigg is ideally placed to write such an alternative counter-history, challenging every comforting orthodoxy and stimulating healthy debate. Let us hope he does so, but at much greater length.


Tom Brooking teaches history at the University of Otago.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category