“New Zealand’s leading public historian”, Tom Brooking

Making History: A New Zealand Story
Jock Phillips
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869408992

Jock Phillips has written an engaging memoir of his challenge to his father’s Anglophile and Eurocentric view of history, and transition from an academic to a public historian. This crisply written account is of particular interest to someone whose career has overlapped with Phillips’s, but should appeal to anyone concerned about how New Zealand history can be made available to a wide audience in stimulating ways. Whoever reads about this journey will also quickly learn that New Zealand history is anything but dull.

Phillips begins by writing about his father, against whom he rebelled once he decided to become an historian himself. Neville Phillips had a reputation as both a “God Professor” and a powerful Vice-Chancellor at the University of Canterbury. Yet he came from a humble background before ascending into New Zealand’s upper middle class. Grandfather Sam was born into a Jewish family from London’s East End. In 1904 he migrated to Christchurch, New Zealand, possibly pushed by growing public opposition to Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. He worked as a travelling clothes-salesman and married a gentile – Claire Bird – who converted to Judaism in 1912. Tragedy afflicted the family in 1923 in Whanganui with Sam’s death by drowning. Claire supported the family by working as a receptionist in pubs across the southern North Island. In Dannevirke, Neville’s life intersected with my old professor W H Oliver, in that he was taught at the local high school by Noel Hogben, son of the educational reformer George and father of the meteorologist who reported on the weather for the D-Day landings. Hogben also taught my father at Auckland Grammar – New Zealand is a small country! Neville moved to Palmerston North Boys High and fell in love with English literature (especially the poems of AE Housman, rather than the better-known Tennyson) and upper-middle-class English traditions, as opposed to any working-class legacies.

Neville’s first step in connecting to academia was to attend Canterbury University College, because his father always wanted him to acquire a university education to increase his chances of achieving upward social mobility. In Christchurch, Neville studied with another enthusiastic Anglophile in the form of James Hight. He also funded his studies by working at The Press with the emerging poet Allen Curnow, and wrote an MA on New Zealand’s transition from grumpy, colonial dependency to filial devotion to England.

A modest income limited Neville’s choices to the University of London, but his fiancée’s brother-in-law – Jim Nelson – found the funds to send him to his old Oxford College, Merton. Pauline Palmer, Neville’s former classmate at university and daughter of a wealthy Hawke’s Bay sheep farmer, accompanied him. Both fell in love with the English countryside and high culture and returned to live in England in retirement. The second chapter, on Pauline Palmer, Phillips’s mother, reveals, as Jim McAloon’s research has shown, that despite their public reputation as “gentry”, such members of the “squattocracy” more often came, in fact, from the hard-working and aspirational middle classes. Pauline helped develop Phillips’s close engagement with the New Zealand landscape on his frequent visits to the family farm.

Neville developed deep loyalty to the “mother country”, rather than a more usual schizophrenic combination of Imperialist loyalty and nascent New Zealand nationalism. Despite anti-Semitic prejudice, Neville served with the British Army as an officer in the artillery. After marrying Pauline, he served for a brief period in North Africa before he encountered the New Zealanders at the grim and costly battle of Cassino.

Neville developed genuine admiration for the New Zealand soldiers and wrote one of the better official histories on the Italian campaign when he returned home after the war. Yet he went on to believe that the only really significant history happened in Europe and Britain and, other than the war history, showed little interest in anything after 1800. He was very different from the two historians who most shaped the writing of New Zealand history after the war: Keith Sinclair, the left-leaning son of a wharfie; and Oliver, son of a radically inclined agricultural labourer.

Phillips’s career took the form of rebellion against his own father’s inclinations and his career followed somewhat different paths. Instead of Oxbridge, Phillips took up a scholarship at Harvard, where he met and married the English feminist historian and activist Phillida Bunkle. Attending Harvard during such seminal times as the late 1960s further exposed him to the full force of second-wave feminism.

Although Phillips and Bunkle returned to a lectureship in American history at Victoria University of Wellington, he soon became much more interested in the history of New Zealand. Before he published his PhD thesis on the late-19th-century Chicago intellectuals Jane Addams and John Dewey, he found that it had been heavily plagiarised by another young scholar and decided to concentrate instead on New Zealand’s less intensively studied history.

New Zealand history benefited from that decision as his A Man’s Country? (1987 with a new second edition published in 1996) is one of the most important history books written in late-20th-century New Zealand. It remains one of the more insightful critiques of the emotionally constipating Kiwi variant of masculinity. Phillips is more humble in his own assessment of his book on stained glass windows, co-written with Chris Maclean and published in 1983. In The Light Of The Past was, in fact, greatly enjoyed by many of his peers, especially those living in old art-and-crafts-type villas. The other book he co-authored with Maclean – The Sorrow And The Pride (1990) – on New Zealand war memorials – also had a greater impact than its author suggests. Anyone who has taught courses on New Zealand and WWI found it invaluable.

Phillips never seemed that comfortable as an academic historian and became increasingly frustrated that he couldn’t teach New Zealand history at Victoria, nor train would-be historians in small Honours streams as happened at Otago under the direction of Hew McLeod and Phillips’s American trained friend and colleague Erik Olssen. Phillips also worried that academic history only engaged a small audience. He had already noted that his frequent articles in the New Zealand Listener reached a much larger group of readers than his more academic offerings. So it came as little surprise when he moved to become the effective and energetic foundation director of The Stout Research Centre in Wellington in 1984. Phillips put the idea to Vice-Chancellor Sir Ian Axford and the University Council in 1983 and soon won the support of the Stout family as well, who already granted an annual fellowship in New Zealand history. The Centre has become a lynchpin for the activities of both academic and contract historians (of whom there are many in New Zealand) and has hosted many important conferences ever since. Phillips got it off to a flying start with major conferences on landscape, oral history and biography. Wellington’s central position plus important libraries and collections of archives has ensured its success ever since. But considerable credit must go to Phillips for his vision, courage and energy in founding such a useful institution.

Phillips moved on from directing the Stout Centre to serve as Chief Historian from 1989 to 1994 before adding an advisory role to assist Te Papa’s historical exhibitions. Then he served as General Manager Heritage in the Department of Internal affairs from 1997 before taking on the role of creator and editor of Te Ara, New Zealand’s first digital encyclopaedia, in 2002. In developing each of these roles, he became New Zealand’s leading public historian.

Phillips displayed his characteristic energy and drive in revitalising the Historical Branch of Internal Affairs. This small unit had been set up during WWII to record New Zealand’s war effort, but had languished somewhat. Under Phillips’s astute leadership, however, it greatly increased its range and productivity by taking advantage of the many centenaries of government departments to commission an impressive output of published volumes. The Branch also made significant contributions in the rather awkward sesquicentennial commemorations of 1990. The Chief Historian worked effectively with the new Historical Advisory Committee set up by Michael Bassett as Minister of Internal Affairs, a useful committee that might be reinstated to assist with the increased teaching of New Zealand history in schools.

The Chief Historian’s contribution to exhibitions at Te Papa shone out in Passports (on immigration to New Zealand) and Exhibiting Ourselves (on the four major exhibitions of 1851 at Crystal Place, London; Christchurch in 1906; Rongatai and the 1940 Centennial; and the 1992 Expo at Seville). For those of us lucky enough to view these exhibitions, who can ever forget the early robot Dr Well And Strong dishing out his somewhat censorious and paternalistic advice on nutrition?

Somehow, Phillips found time to continue publishing books of his own, including a charming study of the royal tour of New Zealand in 1953-4 (Royal Summer, 1993), a big picture book on migration to New Zealand, Settlers, with the historical geographer Terry Hearn (2008), and a new revised version of his book on war memorials, To The Memory (2016).

Given his exciting work on Te Ara, Phillips can retire content that he has done much to popularise New Zealand history. His initiatives have helped to greatly expand the resource base for more teaching of New Zealand history in schools provided, as he learnt in setting up the Stout Centre, that Māori and Pasifika are consulted at every step of the process.

Phillips began his book by quoting Oliver on the need for all historians to write their memoirs. He has produced a model exemplar that tells us much about the making of our history, without overloading the reader with details of his personal life. And the book is a delight to read, as Phillips displays his skill at communicating complex information and ideas in clear, simple language. This important book comes highly recommended to anyone who wants to learn more about the intriguing history of this last part of planet Earth to be settled by humans. Dewey would have greatly approved of its urging to understand more about the place where we live.

Tom Brooking is Emeritus Professor at the University of Otago.

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Posted in History, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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