The Spike or Victoria College Review 1936
Not since "1066 and All That" have we read a history book with so many laughs as "New Zealand, A Short History." (Dr. Beaglehole, 1936). Before we got out of the preface, the flat surface of our student calm was rippled with the first cynical snigger.
Says Dr. B., "And perhaps even to write a preface is to run the risk of pretentiousness."
Say we, "Brother let us pull out the mote that is in thine own eye."1
Mirth and derision both with and at the author follow in waves as his studied impudence and "acidulated disrespect"2 rise and fall from page to page.
And before we forget. At the end of the book we felt that New Zealand history was more a matter for the Spirit Ironic than for the historian, and we would have said this, but the wraith of Dr. B. interrupted, "Those are my words. I said that very thing about New Zealand's attitude to Imperial affairs only, on page 71."
Say we. "But Dr. B. You shouldn't be so bashful about it. The Siren had you all the time, and not the Muse."
[Query: Is the Spirit Ironic a Siren?]
There is one thing about being an intellectual. You don't have to admire anything, and all in one breath you can deride anything you please. Take monuments for instance, Dr. B. says, "The southern provinces were building their surplus funds into monuments of Victorian-Gothic repulsion which remain with dreadful steadfastness to this day." This must mean Canterbury, because we have thought the Christchurch Cathedral, the Provincial Council Chamber, and the Museum all beautiful; and besides that, Bernard Shaw said he loathed the Christchurch Cathedral, and he is an intellectual, which brings us back to where we started.
"Well," say we, naively, "what if it is Victorian? You don't throw out museum specimens when they get out of date, and you don't renovate them. You put them in a case labelled 'Vicoriana,' or what have you, and say they are very interesting products of their period."
It begins to dawn on us. Perhaps the stigma is on us who are so Victorian as to admire some of the things our grandmother admired, and our repulsiveness and dreadfulness is heightened by the epithet.
Our next exhibit, ladies and gentlemen, is the pillory. Come along and watch the little victims squirm and writhe as we jab them here and there, and pour acid on them. Here we have Dick Seddon . . . "who loaded the four winds of heaven . . . with superhuman frock-coated jingoism. . . . He united within himself a whole orchestra, or, rather, brass band of achievement; and as a performer on the big drum he was without peer."
And Bill Massey, "Laborious farmer and laborious politician, successful in both roles, dividing a faith as massive as himself between the Scriptures and the British Empire. Precipitate in patriotism and inaccessible to subtlety, he was the epitome and exemplar of the country he led."
And George Forbes, "Successful in spending a lengthy period in Parliament without giving rise to the suspicion that he would one day lead it. . . . He assumed his own reputation as an honest man."
And Gordon Coates, "The largeness of whose reported administrative achievements history may hardly yet estimate. . . . Armed with his own confidence as never before."
And Downie Stewart, "Wise with all the wisdom of a world that had passed. He saw with terrible distinctness the disadvantages of everything."
Between gibes and words and thumbnail portraits, Dr. B. occasionally lapses into historical facts which give the essay an air of verisimilitude, but as Dr. B. (and Anatole France) says, "All history is selection," and Dr. B. is a good Maori but a dead Maori," but it stickles tion to lost causes, and championship of oppressed minorities.
We say what a contemporary reviewer says, "New Zealand settlers never said, 'There's no good Maori but a dead maori,;" but it tickles our ears to hear about the wicked National Government and what they did to Freedom of Speech.
We also say (and this is all), "You had better read it. All the M.P.'s are reading it, and it wouldn't do to be less informed than they, and you will find it highly entertaining and diverting."
—Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
1 Words not ours. See Holy Writ.
2 Words not ours. See N.Z. Financial Times.