Thursday, February 19, 2009

Home and Away: thoughts on the British-Kiwi relationship

In the course of a rare cleanup of my Microsoft Word files this week, I came across the following. It’s a talk that I was invited to give to staff at the British High Commission in Wellington two years ago about the British-NZ relationship, and how New Zealanders regarded the mother country. I was about to delete it when I thought, “Hang on – I’ve got a blog now. I can bore other people with this, besides the Poms.” So here it is.

The High Commission staff member who asked me to give the talk, a New Zealander, urged me not to hold back. I sensed that he was disappointed afterwards that I wasn’t more brutal, but on re-reading it I think my comments were reasonably frank without being gratuitously insulting.

It’s a long read, so if you're going to attempt it, pack some muesli bars and warm clothing.

* * *

MY brief, as I understand it, is to give you a New Zealander’s perception of Britain today, of the relationship between our two countries, and how it has changed.

I can’t pretend to speak for all New Zealanders. Each of us has our own individual perspective. But I would say that in many respects my views are probably fairly typical. They are also, of course, partly shaped by my observations and experiences during nearly 40 years as a journalist.

I would like to start by talking in general terms about how pervasively British culture has penetrated our own.

As far as I’m aware, I don’t have so much as a millilitre of British blood. I come from Irish Catholic stock on my mother’s side and a mixture of Danish and French Protestant on my father’s. Yet the first time I travelled to Britain, in the mid 1980s, I felt instantly at home.

The sights, the accents and the institutions I encountered wandering around London seemed intimately familiar. This agreeable sensation was magnified by the fact that I had stopped off for a few days in San Francisco on my way to Britain and found America almost intimidatingly alien.

Why should a New Zealander with a name like du Fresne feel completely at ease on arriving in Britain for the first time? Simply because I grew up in a society in which our cultural influences were overwhelmingly – in fact almost exclusively – British.

New Zealanders of my children’s generation, who have grown up watching American TV shows, wearing American designer labels and using American speech idioms, can’t begin to imagine how all-pervasive these influences were.

Let me give you just one small example. On Sunday nights in the pre-television era my family would gather around the radio. The programmes we listened to were all British – Take It From Here, Hancock’s Half Hour and the Paul Temple mystery serials by Francis Durbridge were staples.

On occasions my mother would drive us the 30 miles to Hastings to see comedies from the Ealing or Boulting Brothers film studios. Her favourite stars – and they became mine too – were people like Alistair Sim, Cecil Parker, Alec Guinness and Joyce Grenfell.

It’s almost surreal that a child growing up in a small country town in New Zealand should have been so deeply influenced by a country 12,000 miles away, with which he had no familial or hereditary connection. But many of my weekly rituals as a child were British in origin.

Every week I looked forward to picking up our regular order from the local newsagent, which included the comics Film Fun, Radio Fun and Tiger – all British. I didn’t have the slightest interest in soccer, and still haven’t, yet I always read Roy of the Rovers. On Friday nights we would buy fish and chips – another British tradition. And our parents always drank tea, coffee being regarded as almost subversively avant-garde.

By contrast, we were exposed to relatively few American influences. There were American cars on the road – more then than now, oddly enough – and of course American films, and American music. But the hamburger, that universal symbol of coca-colonisation, didn’t arrive in New Zealand until the 1960s, and we were well into the 1970s before the first McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried outlets opened.

Let me more talk a bit more about music, specifically. Conventional wisdom has it that the rock and roll revolution happened in the mid 1950s with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and Fats Domino. But I would argue that in New Zealand there were two rock and roll revolutions.

There was an American-inspired cultural earthquake of sorts in the mid-fifties, but it was a relatively minor tremor compared with what was to come, and the social effects were largely peripheral. The rebellious bodgies and milk bar cowboys of the 1950s who wore tight jeans and rode motorbikes (invariably British Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs, oddly enough) were generally viewed as being an anti-social minority on the fringes of respectable society.

The really major seismic upheaval, in terms of mainstream music and culture, didn’t happen until the British beat boom of the 1960s, which brought us the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Animals.

It was almost as if we’d been waiting for Britain to validate the new youth culture before we embraced it. And while we were dutifully waiting for a signal from the Mother Country, we passed the time listening to Cliff Richard and the Shadows, who were as popular in New Zealand as Elvis ever was. Incidentally, if you ask any New Zealand pop guitarist of the early 1960s who his big influence was, it wasn’t Scotty Moore or James Burton or any of the hot-shot Americans – it was Hank Marvin of the Shadows.

You’ll note that I used the term “Mother Country” to refer to Britain. If this expression is used at all today, it’s normally in a gently sardonic fashion. Yet there was a time when it was used with the utmost reverence.

I’ve recently been working on a project which involved looking at newspaper files from the early 20th century, when the term “Mother Country” was not only in common usage by the New Zealand press, but was accorded capital letters.

Similarly, it was common in the press to refer to Britain simply as Home, with a capital H. The personal columns, for example, might record that Mr and Mrs So-in-So of Wellington had recently left on a ship for a voyage “Home”. It was an accepted synonym for Britain and remained in common usage until the 1960s.

I mention all this by way of a scene-setter, to try and give some idea of how totally New Zealand was in thrall to Britain. I could easily go on. I could talk, for example, about the rapturous public response to royal visits. I was a young reporter on The Dominion when the Queen toured in 1970, and for several weeks the entire staff of the paper was mobilised with one aim in mind – to ensure the Queen was covered every step of the way. It doesn’t happen now.

I would like to turn now to a personal assessment of the good and bad aspects of that British heritage.

First, the good. I’ve always thought it was a blessing that New Zealand was colonised by Britain rather than one of the other European imperial powers, such as France or Portugal or the Belgians. In many ways the British were enlightened and liberal colonisers. It’s easy to find fault from a 21st century standpoint, but from James Cook onwards they generally treated the Maori with a degree of respect that stands out against the shabby treatment of native races by colonial powers elsewhere.

Then of course there’s the great legacy of Westminster parliamentary democracy and all that went with it – political freedom, respect for individual rights, freedom of the press and free speech, a robust judicial system and a tradition of tolerance and liberalism. These principles weren’t always applied consistently but they did provide a sound platform on which New Zealand could develop, and I don’t think we should ever understate the enduring value of those traditions.

I’ve often thought that if I were to find myself in prison on trumped-up charges anywhere in the world, I would want it to be Britain. You may have had your lapses – the Guildford Four and the Derek Bentley case of the 1950s come to mind - but I think I’d stand a better chance of getting a fair hearing in Britain than in most other countries, including America, where justice sometimes seems precarious.

Britain also gave us wonderful music – I’ve already mentioned the Beatles – and it gave us wonderful television.

We have Britain to thank, too, for a fantastically rich heritage of humour. Many New Zealanders of a certain age still lapse into Goon Show language at the slightest excuse, and can describe individual episodes of Steptoe and Son that were made more than 40 years ago; the pickled onion in the bath scene comes to mind. Fawlty Towers, Open All Hours, Dad’s Army and Monty Python have embedded themselves deep in the national consciousness, to the extent that people commonly recite familiar lines from them – “Don’t mention the war” being just one example.

As popular as some American TV comedies have been, such as Seinfeld and M*A*S*H, they simply don’t command that sort of enduring attachment.

These are all things for which we owe Britain a debt of gratitude. And of course you gave us rugby, more of which later.

But then there are the downsides of our British heritage. Where do I start?

Oh, what the heck – let’s get the unhappiest aspect out of the way first. British food.

It was New Zealand’s singular misfortune to derive its culinary traditions from a country with possibly the dullest cuisine of any culture in the world, save perhaps for Eskimos and Laplanders. It’s a cuisine that finds its highest expression in roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and despite all the hype surrounding Gordon Ramsay, Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver, it’s my observation that much British food is as dull and stodgy as ever. Fortunately in New Zealand the past thirty years has seen a gastronomic revolution that has largely coincided with a more adventurous immigration policy.

I also blame the British for our tradition of bourgeois conformity, which I believe can be attributed to the fact that New Zealand was predominantly settled by members of the British middle class.

It seems to me that one of the privileges conferred by membership of the upper class is that you’re pretty much free to behave as outrageously as you like, and if you’re working class you can take risks because you don’t have much to lose. But the middle class is obsessed with doing the right thing, toeing the line, obeying the rules, not making a fuss or giving offence, not standing out in the crowd and in general not being seen to do anything that might jeopardise one’s social standing.

It was precisely this sort of person that New Zealand immigration policy sought to attract. We were suspicious of anyone who wasn’t British, and when we couldn’t get enough British migrants in the 1950s we turned to Holland, because the Dutch were deemed to be the next-best thing – hard-working but eager to assimilate and become good Kiwis, and not given to volatile displays of emotion like some other European nationalities.

This unadventurous legacy produced a rather joyless, grey society, as is evident from any old newspaper photograph of a New Zealand crowd scene. We were a very grim and oppressed-looking lot. Our timid immigration policy dulled New Zealand society to the extent that the journalist Gordon McLauchlan, in the 1970s, wrote a best-selling book about New Zealanders called The Passionless People. Meanwhile Australia had opened its doors to people from southern Europe and the Levant and got a much more colourful and vibrant society as a result.

Now I’d like to turn to the subject of British cars. The New Zealand of my childhood got around in Humbers, Vauxhalls, Ford Zephyrs and Vanguards, and generally we were pretty satisfied with them. Perhaps we were just conditioned to believe that if they were British, they must be good. At any rate we didn’t have a great deal of choice, because British cars enjoyed preferential tariffs that gave them a huge advantage in the marketplace. Those tariff arrangements were part of a quid pro quo in which Britain took our meat, butter and wool and we in turn demonstrated our loyalty by buying your cars, trucks, tractors, aircraft and ships.

It’s hard to pinpoint the precise time at which the disenchantment with British cars started to set in, but it was probably sometime during the 1960s – I would guess between the Mark 3 and the Mark 4 Zephyrs. Suddenly British cars were no longer the benchmark.

This could have been due to two factors. One was that Japanese cars were starting to creep onto the New Zealand market, giving us a point of comparison. And it was obvious to anyone that pound for pound, the Japanese cars offered far greater reliability and a much higher level of specification. Heck, they came with heaters, radios and carpets.

But the other factor, I suspect, is that British industry was in decline – partly because of a rise in militant trade unionism. A sullen, resentful work force seemed bent on sabotaging British industry, and weak management seemed powerless to arrest the process. And so you got what became known as the British disease.

Whether it was some sort of ripple effect I don’t know, but British design also suffered. The result was that New Zealand motorists found themselves lumbered with appalling clunkers like the Austin Maxi, the Morris Marina and the Vauxhall Viva – ugly duckling cars that would have been second-rate even if they had been able to do what they were claimed to do, which they couldn’t.

By the 1970s, the British cars that had once ruled the roads were more likely to be seen broken down beside them. We lost faith in British engineering and the Japanese were only too happy to fill the vacuum. The trickle of Japanese cars soon became a flood.

This may seem a trivial point, but I believe it was strangely symbolic of the way the traditional relationship with Britain was itself starting to break down.

It just happened that the British motor industry lost its way about the same time as Britain joined the EEC. And despite New Zealand politicians extracting concessions that guaranteed continued limited access to Britain for our agricultural products, there was a perception that Britain was abandoning us. So that was another, deeper factor straining the traditional ties.

Mention of militant trade unionism brings me to another unwelcome British import. New Zealand from the 1960s to the 1980s suffered an epidemic of bloody-minded industrial disruption, much of it generated by cloth-cap unionists who had emigrated from Britain and brought the class war with them. I won’t pretend that New Zealand didn’t have its own stroppy militants, but there was no doubt that British unionists were disproportionately represented in the unions that caused mayhem during the Muldoon era, and there was considerable public resentment toward them.

The classic example was a union leader named Con Devitt, who’d come out of Clydeside and ended up in control of our Boilermakers Union, which represented welders. It was Devitt’s union that added seven years to the construction time for what was supposed to be Wellington's flagship building, the BNZ head office in central Wellington. In the process several engineering firms were driven out of business and New Zealand architects resolved never again to make the mistake of designing buildings in structural steel, because it would require the employment of Devitt’s members.

It was perhaps no coincidence that around this time, overt hostility began to emerge against British migrants as a group. An oafish talkback host named Tim Bickerstaff launched a campaign urging his listeners to Punch a Pom a Day, and we began to hear anti-English jokes like the one that went: “How do you know when a planeload of Pommy migrants has arrived? Because the whining continues long after the engines have been turned off.” Thus was created the stereotype of the Pommy whinger, who finds fault with so many things that everyone wonders why he doesn’t just go back home.

It’s a stereotype that persists to this day, and like most stereotypes it has a core of truth. You only need to listen to talkback radio, and note the disproportionate number of querulous British voices, to realise that.

What caused this hostility toward the British? I would guess several things. It was partly a backlash against Pommy whingers and union troublemakers, which in turn may have stemmed from a growing sense that British migrants were exerting too much influence and taking New Zealand in a direction, culturally and socially, where we didn’t want to go. A feeling, perhaps, that we were losing control of our own country.

But the point at which the relationship between the two countries really began to change irrevocably was when Britain threw in its lot with Europe in 1973.

In hindsight, it was probably a good thing for both of us. From a New Zealander’s point of view, we’d been trapped in an unhealthy dependency relationship, and with that went an element of sycophancy. Though we’d been nominally independent since 1907, we were still in the habit of seeking British approval for virtually everything we did. I remember, for example, that Sir Robert Muldoon insisted on Air New Zealand fitting its Boeings with Rolls-Royce engines rather than those made by General Electric, just to keep in Britain’s good books.

When Britain deserted us for the EU, New Zealand felt a bit like a teenager who’d been kicked out of home and forced to fend for himself. At first we felt hurt and a bit lost; but after a few years we realised we could not only manage on our own, but have fun doing it. What at the time seemed traumatic turned out to be liberating.

I should mention however that older New Zealanders in particular felt betrayed, and many probably still do. They couldn’t understand why citizens of a country that had unquestioningly sent troops to fight for Britain in two world wars, and incurred some of the highest casualty rates of any Allied forces, now had to stand in the aliens’ queue at Heathrow while German passport-holders were fast-tracked. But younger New Zealanders have grown up without any such sense of grievance; for them the war is an abstract of history. The umbilical cord connecting New Zealand with Britain has long been severed.

So where we are now? Well, New Zealand has moved on, to use a favourite phrase of our prime minister. The relationship with Britain is no longer a subservient one. We don’t look to Britain, as we once did, for all our cultural inspiration or for leadership in matters of international policy. Our most important relationship, as the Dominion Post reminded us yesterday, is with Australia. Britain is simply one of a number of other countries with which we maintain important relationships; but it is no longer the pre-eminent relationship.

We have developed a new identity, one that’s more firmly rooted in the South Pacific. New Zealand today draws more cultural inspiration from its Maori and Pacific elements than from Britain. And a generation has grown up which knows little of the old sentimental bonds with the Mother Country.

In many ways the relationship between our two countries is still in the process of being redefined, and inevitably there is some tension as we adjust to our changed roles.

I would suggest there’s still a residual tendency on the part of some British people to adopt a rather patronising – benign, perhaps, but still patronising – approach toward New Zealanders, much as one might address a slightly backward child. I remember my hackles rising at a dinner in Oxford University 20 years ago when a former British diplomat began lecturing me in a condescending manner on the folly of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance.

The nuclear issue of course was a touchstone of New Zealand’s new-found independence and it was pretty clear that the British government strongly disapproved. This was made obvious by Britain’s refusal to condemn the Rainbow Warrior bombing, which many New Zealanders interpreted as tacit condoning of the French action. Another betrayal.

For our part, while we no longer instinctively defer to bigger countries, I think we have to be very careful that we don’t make the mistake of pumping ourselves up too much. I remarked in a recent column that an element of braggadocio has crept into the national character, which I find deeply unattractive and unbecoming. Legitimate pride in our achievements – and I’m referring here to things like the America’s Cup and the Lord of the Rings – all too easily mutates into boastfulness.

It’s one thing to throw off the cultural cringe that has led us in the past to defer to everyone else, but it’s quite another to go to the other extreme. To pump ourselves up constantly, as we seem to be doing, just seems to me to be another symptom of national insecurity, and just as unattractive.

I mentioned that Britain and New Zealand are still in the process of redefining their relationship, and I suggest that’s much harder for you than it is for us, because we’re not encumbered to the same extent with historical baggage.

Britain has had to come to terms with the loss of empire and great power status, and I don’t believe that’s been easy. In fact I think a lot of British people still haven’t quite faced up to it. I remember an English friend of mine remarking wistfully that Britain should never have given up its colonies. I imagine there are a lot of people living in those former colonies who also wish Britain had never given them up, because they were probably far better off under British colonial rule than they are now; but of course it’s idle to indulge in nostalgic pining for an era when much of the world map was coloured in British imperial pink.

And it’s not just the former colonies that Britain has lost. It’s had to cope with the loss of some potent symbols of economic and cultural sovereignty too.

Harrods, that definitive British retail institution in Knightsbridge, is owned by an Arab family. MG Rover, the last surviving volume producer from Britain’s once mighty car industry, collapsed ignominiously in 2005 and was bought in a firesale by the Chinese. Jaguar is owned by the Americans while Bentley and Rolls-Royce, probably the two proudest names in British automotive history, are in German hands. How humiliating is that?

And I want to make special mention of Rupert Murdoch. I’ve long been intrigued by the intense ill feeling shown toward Murdoch by the British intelligentsia, in particular, and I can only conclude there is deep resentment that a great British institution, The Times of London, was taken over a colonial upstart from Australia.

The mere mention of Murdoch’s name is enough to induce apoplexy among journalists from left-leaning papers like The Guardian, but they need to be reminded that it was Murdoch who did what British newspaper owners seemed incapable of doing, which was to take on the powerful Fleet St printing unions and drag the newspaper industry kicking and screaming into the 20th century.

Now let me turn to sport. I suspect that Britain still hasn’t come to terms with the fact that, having created the game of rugby, it promptly ceded superiority in the sport to some of its remote colonies. This suspicion is borne out by the fact that when the British magazine Rugby World published its list of the all-time top 100 players a few years ago, six of the top 10 were from the British Isles.

I don’t think any objective commentator would dispute that the two pre-eminent rugby teams for most of the 20th century were South Africa and New Zealand. Yet only one All Black and one Springbok made the British magazine’s all-time top 10 players. Sean Fitzpatrick, the most successful All Black captain ever, scraped in at 98 on the list.

The same stubborn denial characterises the obsessive – one might say unhinged – rantings of the British rugby writer Stephen Jones, who just can’t accept that rugby supremacy resides in the southern hemisphere. While Jones keeps on disparaging the New Zealand style of play, the All Blacks keep on winning. You’d think he might have figured this out by now and pulled his head in, but no.

Much British sporting journalism seems to be characterised by desperate optimism. Whether it’s the English football team or Tim Henman or the Lions, the British media repeatedly make the same error of talking up British chances and raising unrealistic hopes on the part of the fans. We saw this with the grossly hyped visit by Clive Woodward’s Lions in 2005, when of course they suffered a three-nil whitewash. And as for poor old Henman, I used to feel desperately sorry for him every time Wimbledon rolled around, when he would have to carry the burden of the unrealistic hopes of the British media.

I personally experienced something of this yearning for British sporting glory at Le Mans in 1985. There was a huge contingent of British fans there and their hopes were pinned on a clean sweep by the Jaguar team, but one by one, to the bitter disappointment of the Brits, the Jags fell out of the race (mostly mechanical failure, as I recall; fancy that). In the end it was Porsches that filled the first five places. On the trip back to London our charter bus stopped for a meal break in the beautiful city of Rouen and the British fans took out their frustration by behaving like absolute yobbos, abusing the locals and urinating all over the historic square where Joan of Arc died at the stake. It was not the most endearing side of the British character.

At times like this I wonder whether sport has become a substitute for military conquest and a means by which some British people – and I must in fairness emphasise “some” – try to recapture something of the pride of Britain’s great military past. Certainly British football hooliganism, which fortunately seems to have abated in recent years, is an outlet for jingoism of the ugliest type.

I can afford to be holier than thou here, because I come from a country with very little history to speak of, certainly not by comparison with Britain. We have no past glories to recapture and no former colonies to be patronising toward (although some Pacific Island leaders might dispute that). Metaphorically speaking, our historic baggage would fit into an overnight bag while yours would fill an entire cargo hold. So the adjustments as the relationship changes are easier for us.

I would like to finish with a specific reference to some British journalists.

I am a great defender of freedom of the press, for which – as I said earlier – we can thank our British heritage. And freedom of the press includes the right to express extreme and offensive views. But one aspect of being a small country is that we tend to be over-sensitive to criticism; and I have to confess that from a personal point of view, nothing winds me up more than a sneering piece by a British journalist about what a small, tedious and godforsaken country New Zealand is.

I have read many such pieces. One of the more recent was by the British writer Douglas Davis, and it appeared in The Spectator – incidentally, a great magazine that I subscribe to despite its occasional lapses.

Davis devoted almost an entire Diary column to what seemed a totally gratuitous attack on New Zealand. Let me read bits of it to you.

[Blog readers: At this point in my talk I recited excerpts from Davis’s column, but I threw the offending article out ages ago and haven’t been able to find it on the Net. Suffice to say he dismissed Enzed as a dull, bleak and mediocre country and even mocked the Kiwi accent. Now, back to my talk …]

I have to say here that while I sometimes cringe at the New Zealand accent myself, it’s pretty damned rich for anyone from Britain to mock the way other nationalities speak. A few years ago I shared a carriage on a French train with a group of teenagers and found myself idly wondering what country they came from. It was several minutes before I twigged that they were actually English and were speaking, at least nominally, the same language as me.

Reading stuff like Davis’s column, I instinctively want to counter-punch. I want to point out that opinion surveys frequently reveal the British to be some of Europe’s most unhappy and demoralised people. I feel like asking Davis why it is, when you turn on the Living Channel on Sky TV, you see endless programmes about British people traipsing around real estate offices all over Europe because they’re desperate to get away from the place. I could talk about the reality TV shows from Britain that portray British people as overweight, unhealthy, useless and dysfunctional. I could ask why, if New Zealand is so deeply unattractive, so many British still choose to migrate here. And I could point out that if I wanted to form perceptions about Britain on the basis of Heathrow, as Davis seems to have done at Auckland Airport, I could paint an extremely unflattering picture.

But of course this would not only be petty, but would present a very distorted picture of Britain.

I can’t help but wonder what impelled Davis to present such a jaundiced, negative picture of New Zealand – one that I know isn’t shared by many of his countrymen. Is it possible that he feels resentful about Britain’s declining place in the world and tries to make up for it by striking out at soft targets like boring, sleepy New Zealand? Is it the old story of making yourself feel better by putting someone else down? That’s the question I’d like to leave you with, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your time and attention.


Ayrdale said...

I was born in England and came out here as a boy of 7.

I've always had pride in being a Pom because of England's history, culture, respect for free speech, democracy etc, etc.

Not any more.

England has become a 4th rate spineless parody of what it was. From its acceptance of PC "multi-culturalism" at the expense of its own culture and values, to its celebration of its own debased population,(the current story about the 13year old dad for example) its endless dreary,angry and whining TV shows, (where are the good comedies these days ?), the demise of the BBC as an objective news source etc etc ad infinitum.

I blame my destructive (post war)generation of socialist hypocrites, determined to turn the population into obedient welfare beneficiaries. If there is any hope for the UK it will come out of a deep anger and sense of betrayal. Some UK blogs, and the ascent of the BNP may be the forewarnings of such anger.

Thanks for the chance to rant...

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