I’ve been reading my dad’s book, The Story of New Zealand (1960), his first major piece of writing about New Zealand after returning from the UK in the mid-fifties. It’s funny hearing his voice, though not so much the voice I knew but his public and well-trained voice. You could almost call it a published voice; clipped Received Pronunciation, barely the same as the voice I grew up with. (You can hear it at it’s most extreme in a piece taken from 1951, at about 35 minutes in this Sounds Historical recording.)
When public people die there’s an oddness for the people who knew them privately. An unease that maybe the public was more important; that the private got in the way, or hampered the public figure. When the two sound so different, which was the real one, the authentic experience? But I recognise the understatement; in person it would have been delivered with a gentle smile. If you were lucky you’d see the twinkle in his eye as he checked to see if you’d got the joke. In written form, it’s just a statement, left hanging for you to take or leave.
I also recognise the optimism and hope in his writing, and it goes some way to explaining the social or political disconnection I think he felt late in life. In writing about the Liberal era of the 1890s, he refers to how changes in that decade effectively became a standard of New Zealand social and political life. Things like industrial arbitration, state loans to small farmers, a state department of agriculture, all pointed to an accepted role of the state in building a fair society. What’s telling is that – writing in the late 1950s – these things more or less still existed. The consensus had stuck, and at the time there seemed no reason to think it would end.
He was still young, only 35 and writing a history of a country. The sixties hadn’t happened; Britain hadn’t joined the EEC; Muldoon hadn’t inflicted his perverse conservative socialism on us, nor prepared the ground for the neo-liberalism-on-crack during the eighties and nineties. So much hadn’t changed at that point, a point that from this distance evokes a benevolence and shared belief in a decent society.
It’s a rose-tinted view obviously; the past is always gentler, more innocent, more honest, prosperous and glowing than the present. And there’s been plenty of positive change – second wave feminism, Waitangi treaty settlements, gay law reform to name a few – but I think we’ve lost some decency and I think he felt that too.