Saturday, 15 November 2008

What is an "Old New Zealander"?


PUTTING to one side its ominous Orwellian overtones, 1984 represents a sort of "Year Zero" for older New Zealanders.

Were I a science-fiction writer, I might describe it in terms of a portal - one of those cosmic anomalies which permit the hero to pass from one universe to another. Think of the popular television series Stargate and you'll have a fair idea of what I'm trying to describe.

On one side of the portal lies the New Zealand of the here and now, and on the other the New Zealand which the 1958 edition of the Richards Topical Encyclopaedia called "The World's 'Model Nation'". The sub-heading of that entry is worth quoting in full: "How little New Zealand, starting her career amid wars and many money problems, built up for herself a government so sound and humane that she came to be called the best-governed nation in the world."

That was the way we were encouraged to think of ourselves - as the best. A country that had never been afraid to address the besetting problems of its times with solutions that were as bold as they were innovative. From the Industrial Conciliation & Arbitration Act of 1894 to the Accident Compensation Commission of the early 1970s, New Zealand was never afraid to lead the world. In fact, we rather expected to.

It was an attitude which bred civic engagement on a truly massive scale. Mass unionisation had created a working-class that not only expected to play a significant role in society, but did - frequently leading the debate on economic, social and international affairs. Our middle-class was no less involved in the life of the nation. Not for nothing were we described as the world's most avid committee-formers.

The contemporary notion that "ordinary" people cannot bring about meaningful change would have been laughed to scorn in "old" New Zealand. One in four of us belonged to a political party, and voter turnout seldom dropped below 89 percent. Indeed, in that fatal year, 1984, it reached a never-to-be-repeated peak of 93.7 percent.

It is fashionable now to deride the New Zealand that existed before 1984. We hear about its creaking bureaucratic inefficiencies, its featherbedded public enterprises, its subsidised agriculture, and its over-regulated and protected industrial sector. Horror tales are told about unbridled union power, and how you had to fill in a form to order an overseas publication. Foreign exchange was limited, the bars closed early, and it was simply impossible to get a good cup of coffee.

But, as anyone who grew up in the decades before 1984, and the election that ushered in Roger Douglas's neo-liberal "revolution", knows only too well, these are just the stories the creators of the "new" New Zealand have concocted, and endlessly reiterated, to justify their ruthless destruction of the "old".

Those of us with still-functioning memories, and no political sins to answer for, remember a nation very different from the one we inhabit today. It was a more robust, a more resilient, a more rebellious and an altogether more rambunctious nation. Its inhabitants were both more secure in their lives and more generous with their time, their money and their opinions. Back then you were as likely to discover a philosopher in the factory smoko room as the university common room.

All gone now, of course. Dead and buried. "Old" New Zealand exists only in the film and newspaper archives; in the sound libraries; and in the neural wiring of those of us who once lived in it.

And we are, in the language of the high-priests of New New Zealand - the economists - a "wasting asset". With each passing year, the number of us still susceptible to the moral gravitational pull of the world's "model nation" grow fewer and fewer, and one day - 40 or 50 years hence - there will be none of us left at all.

Then we will be nothing more than random photons captured on photographic film when someone, long ago, snapped a camera-shutter. Vague and fading references to a moment in time when the flesh and blood behind the images thrilled to the sunshine of a New Zealand summer's day, or wept at the tragedy of a passenger train swept away, a ferry foundering in a storm.

These are the "old" New Zealanders. Strangers in a strange land. Figures out of step, and out of sorts, with the temper of our times.

And what I hope to do with this blog is provide a running commentary on the continuities and disjunctions between the Old New Zealand in which I was born, and the New New Zealand in which, like a forlorn exile, I shall be buried.

The greatest poet - and prophet - of Old New Zealand, James K. Baxter, as always, saw it clearly:

The man who talks to the masters of Pig Island
About the love they dread
Plaits ropes of sand, yet I was born among them
And will lie some day with their dead.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I hated growing up in NZ in the 70's. It was narrow minded, provincial, dull, completely lacked consumer choice, Auckland had a very limited number of restaurants, there were no Asian restaurants to speak of apart from the odd takeaway, when we visited relatives in Australia we bought toasters and the like to bring home because everything was so much cheaper there. I escaped NZ in the early 80's and upon my return in 1990 noted the place had been transformed beyond belief. Consumer choice, great restaurants and wine bars, more interesting people even... I don't know what NZ you grew up in but it wasn't the one I grew up in.

Anonymous said...

Alan Curnow was New Zealand's greatest poet.

Carol said...

Growing up in 50s and 60s NZ, was for me the best and worst of times. I agree with some of the positives that Chris mentions above, and unlike Anon above, to me it was one of the major positives that the old NZ was far less of a dumbed-down, superficial, consumerist society dominated by transnational corporate elites. It was a place where being a child, with easy access to the wonderful NZ outdoors, meant being a bit adventurous, and using basic resources with ingenuity and originality.

But it was also a demoralising time to grow up as an independent-minded lesbian in a society were homophobia was pervasive and a woman's place largely seen to be in the home supporting her men-folk. I could also see it wasn't such a great place for many working people and Maori who were less well-off than me. But, paradoxically, it was also a time that provided some hope that better times were coming through grass-roots, community-networked efforts.

There have been some changes for the better, but the main change for the worse has been in the rise of neolliberalism, and consumer society where the 'good life' is measured by what you own rather than what you can do and how you do it. IMO there needs to be a shift way from this towards a Green New Deal, where the focus is on sustainable production, quality of life and an inclusive caring society.

Lewis said...

The "old" New Zealand... that would be what life was like before Britain joined the EEC, no?

Anonymous said...

Chris, right on as always.

In January this year I was deeply saddened at the passing of Sir Ed, to me it was more than the sadness of his death, but it was the death of an icon of the Old New Zealand as your put it. He represented all that was the Old New Zealand: Hard Working, Kind, Generous, Humble, and Selfless.

I see Helen Clark in the same vail, a member of the Old New Zealand. Now we've got a Prime Minister without substance or a spine who left New Zealand the first chance he got and cant remember where he stood on one of the defining moments for this country.

Its sad to see people attacking the welfare state, perhaps a cornerstone of the old New Zealand. If only we could go back to a time when being kiwi was giving a helping hand to someone in need.

Tim Selwyn said...

My first impression was: John A Lee for a new depression. I look forward to reading them.

Geoff said...

Ahh, consumer choice, asian restuarants and cheap toasters. Thats what you're up against Chris ...all power to you.

Anonymous said...

If it wasn't for the older generation of New Zealand voters we probably wouldn't be in the position of having our future compromised because New Zealand didn't do its bit for climate change.

Anonymous said...

Yes 'anonymous' - Allen Curnow is NZ's greatest poet.
I've noticed a bit of a tendency to over-rate Baxter by left-leaning folk whose opinions I otherwise mostly share and whose writing I admire. Michael King did so too.

It could be that Baxter's didacticism appeals to them, but in poetic terms he is usually at his worst the more didactic he becomes.

Not that Baxter isn't great at his best. But late Curnow is another thing altogether, the linguistic horsepower is unmatched by anybody.

But aesthetic disagreements aside - good to have you back Chris. I will be reading your blog with pleasure.

stargazer said...

hi chris, really glad to see you blogging again and in your own space.

as for me, i'd have to agree with the first comment. nz was not a nice place to grow up in during the 1970s when you were non-white. school was harsh and ugly. the outside world perhaps a little less so, in that adults are more used to hiding their contempt behind a veneer of politeness. seeing my children progress through school, i think things are a whole lot better.

the 70s definitely weren't a good time to be a woman, eg the lack of protection from domestic violence and from sexual harassment in the workplace etc. i remember hearing a story about dorothy jellicich, ex ham west MP, who wasn't allowed to open a bank account in her own name without her husband's signature, even though she was a sitting MP!

Anonymous said...

Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.
Ecclesiates 7:10
I do remember even unto the 50's, and unlike Chris, I can remember the conformity, the narrowness of thought, the smugness and bigotry of that era, as well as its strengths. Today's shallow consumerist society with its obsession with gadgets and greed , is however in many ways more open, tolerant and with its own insights, lacking the war economy of the 50's.

muerk said...

Old NZ had it's strengths and weaknesses, but it does still exist Chris. You don't see it because you're in the city, but here in Greymouth you'll still find the philosopher in the factory, the solid community spirit, and a fine pint pulled at the Union Hotel.

Here the lads play rugby, the lasses play netball and (honestly) when there is a function advertised in the paper, I have read, 'ladies bring a plate'.

You can even get a decent cup of coffee here, although if you want exotic food there is only the single Indian restaurant. On the other hand if you want a steak pie with melt in your mouth pastry and a plentiful meaty filling tucked into a savory gravy then this here town is the place for that.

Men are men here, miners, fishermen, farmers, bushmen, hunters, but don't ignore our women because they're just as likely to bake a feather-light Edmonds sponge, raise five kids and volunteer at the church shop, as they are to milk 500 cows before breakfast.

Come on down to _real_ New Zealand and I'll take you to Blanchies for a club sandwich and a nice cup of tea.

Richard McGrath said...

Geoff - what would you prefer? The state owning and running everything? One brand of toaster? No Asian restaurants? No Asians? The old, conservative, homophobic, repressed New Zealand we grew up in?

Anonymous said...

Some things yet remain. The PlayCentre movement is here still - a beautiful little bit of 1960s NZ family-based communitarian socialism.

But more importantly: NZ does not have a "contemporary notion that 'ordinary' people cannot bring about meaningful change". Quite the opposite: individuals can and do make a difference, and we know it.

If your comrades believe they cannot change this place then that's far more a sign of their age and their generation's displacement in New New Zealand than a sign of what NZ is like.