Was Ronald Hugh Morrieson really a goth?
The Waitaha myth, like the Moriori myth before it, answers a number of urgent needs in its provincial Pakeha creators. It destroys the Maori claim to indigeneity. It reaffirms the historical superiority of European civilisation. And, by extending out the length of time civilised people have dwelt in New Zealand from hundreds to thousands of years, it renders Maori culture irrelevant. Most importantly, however, these new myth-makers reassure historically disoriented Pakeha that their cultural "connection" to these islands is far stronger than that of the brutal primitives who destroyed the wonder and glory that was Waitaha.
Light is the best answer to mould, and Trotter's article aims a bright light at a putrid idea which has festered and spread in relative obscurity over the last decade or so. Thanks to Trotter, thousands of Kiwis who would not be aware of the debates about pseudo-history in the blogosphere will have been forewarned about the untenable claims and unpleasant motives of pseudo-historians like Noel Hilliam and Martin Doutre.
While I appreciate Trotter's intervention against the pseudo-historians, and share his view of the political agenda of people like Hilliam and Doutre, I can't agree with some of the more general points his article makes about Pakeha New Zealand society. Trotter begins his piece by suggesting that the novels of Ronald Hugh Morrieson, with their 'pitch-black nightmares of small-town dysfunction' and sudden outbreaks of sexually-charged violence, say something essential about Pakeha New Zealanders. Pakeha are, in the opinion of Trotter, a 'prickly people, prone to sudden mood changes'. The source of our unease is, he thinks, geographical: 'alone' in our 'empty land', we have 'a murderous need to feel at home'.
Trotter believes that this need to feel at home drives us to construct reassuring myths, like the Moriori myth, which suggested that the people that Pakeha colonised were themselves colonisers, and thus somehow 'deserved' the invasions of the Waikato Kingdom and Parihaka, or the myth that, ever since the wars of the nineteenth century petered out, Pakeha and Maori have lived in harmony as New Zealanders. As the Moriori myth and the myth of good reace relations have broken down in recent decades, pseudo-historians like Doutre and Hilliam have laboured to erect new obfuscations in their place.
Trotter's view of Pakeha identity brings together two discourses which have at different times been popular amongst New Zealand intellectuals. His belief that New Zealand's isolation and small population have created a sort of existential anxiety amongst its non-indigenous inhabitants has its origins in the work that writers like Charles Brasch, Allen Curnow, and MH Holcroft produced in the middle decades of the twentieth century. In the essays of Holcroft and the early poems of Curnow and Brasch, the New Zealand landscape is, despite the best efforts of generations of white settlers, an eerie, alien thing which will not let its appropriators feel at ease, let alone at home. Physical alienation breeds social alienation, and in Brasch's much-quoted poem 'The Silent Land', the tight little colonial towns which sat beside harbours and rivermouths are as inhospitable as the landscape around them:
The plains are nameless and the cities cry for meaning,
The unproved heart still seeks a vein of speech
In one of his most famous poems, Curnow gazed at the skeleton of a moa in Canterbury museum and felt a kinship for the anomalous, ill-fated species. The poet seemed to despair of escaping the feelings of isolation and inadequacy New Zealand gave him:
Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year,
Will learn the trick of standing upright here.
Not all of Curnow and Brasch's readers shared their bleak vision of New Zealand. In the years after World War Two a group of young intellectuals based in Auckland aggressively questioned the idea that they lived in some sort of 'silent land', and denied being victims of geography. Growing up in the working class Auckland suburb of Point Chevalier, close to old pa sites, Chinese market gardens, and communities of Dalmatian immigrants, Kendrick Smithyman and his friends and fellow poets Keith Sinclair and Bob Chapman found talk of a 'silent land' incomprehensible. The young iconoclasts formed what they called the 'Mudflats School of Poetry', and contrasted it to the 'Empty Plains and Hills' school of Brasch and Curnow. Although Sinclair and Chapman lost some of their early interest in poetry - Sinclair became New Zealand's best-known historian, and Chapman eventually had the dubious distinction of being the country's first professional political scientist - Smithyman would develop the critique of Brasch and Curnow in both poetry and prose.
In his 1965 book A Way of Saying, Smithyman rejected the literary nationalism of Brasch and Curnow and put forward a fiercely regionalist vision of New Zealand literature and New Zealand society. Poems like 'The Silent Land' were, Smithyman insisted, part of a 'Canterbury myth', which had little or no relevance to the rest of the country. Smithyman was a scholar of Northland history and literature, and he knew that this part of the country, with its large Maori and Dalmatian populations, its hills covered in ancient earthworks, and its villages that had been continuously inhabited for many hundreds of years, could not be understood through the poems of South Island writers like Brasch and Curnow.
At the same time that Smithyman was writing his manifesto for regionalism, the Wellington poet and critic Louis Johnson was also taking issue with the literary nationalism of Curnow and Brasch. Johnson and his supporters claimed that poems like 'The Silent Land' underestimated the success that New Zealanders had had in adapting to their new environment, and ignored the vibrancy of cities like Wellington.
Literary nationalism has been out of fashion in New Zealand for decades. With the benefit of hindsight, the anguish of poems like 'The Silent Land' seems like an expression of the frustration of a small group of young intellectuals trying to establish a foothold in a relatively philistine culture, not an authentic representation of general Pakeha feeling.
Chris Trotter's vision of Pakeha New Zealand society owes much to the 'Canterbury myth', but it also borrows from a more recent and more fashionable view of our culture. Over the last decade or so, the term 'New Zealand gothic' has become popular amongst commentators on Pakeha art. The films, songs and books which best fit the term 'New Zealand gothic' were all created over the past thirty years, and consist of fanciful visions of small town and rural New Zealand. In films like the The Locals and songs like Don McGlashan's 'Passenger 26', urban Kiwis find themselves stranded in the sticks and left to the tender mercies of people who do not share their sophisticated, liberal tastes and prejudices. With its caricature of provincial New Zealand as the abode of inbred, often violent eccentrics, the 'New Zealand gothic' genre is an expression of the steadily increasing distance between urban and rural New Zealand.
Ronald Hugh Morrieson is often cited as the father of the 'New Zealand gothic', but his novels have nothing at all to do with the genre. His books are certainly violent, but they are also funny and frequently joyful, and his characters are lovable rather than monstrous eccentrics. Morrieson wrote to celebrate the life of his native South Taranaki, not to make it the butt of urban jokes.
Julia Millen's 1996 biography of Morrieson showed that he was a man who saw the flat country in the shadow of Mt Taranaki as his turangawaewae, and who hated and feared the prospect of travel. As a young man, Morrieson left south Taranaki to study at the University of Auckland; after only a few days in the strange city, though, he became desperately homesick, and returned to his beloved Hawera. Apart from a trip to Wellington to attend court and a disastrous appearance at a literary festival in Whanganui, Morrieson never left his native country again.
Both the 'silent land' myth of Brasch and Curnow and the fantasies of the 'New Zealand gothic' genre are the work of metropolitan intellectuals who are, at best, incurious about the particularities of life in the regions of New Zealand. In his life and in his work, Ronald Hugh Morrieson was a regionalist. If we want to understand him and his world, then we need to attend to Kendrick Smithyman's warnings about the dangers of airy generalisations about abstractions like 'New Zealand' and 'Pakeha identity'.