I’m sticking to this, no matter what the “official” story is.
Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop (Belkanp Press, 2014)
This book contains a neat, telling little anecdote from 2001 when a proposed constitution was being devised for the European Union and the issue of the Christian roots of Europe was brought up.
There were vigorous pro and anti arguments- author Larry Siedentop notes the more vehement voices in favour were from Poland and the most vociferous against tended to be France.
The overwhelming feeling, though, he observes, was more awkwardness than anything else: ‘one of embarrassment, and an uneasy wish that the question would go away.’
The question did go away, because the proposed constitution was dropped.
It is that embarrassment that I find most interesting.
I think it’s got several sources. One is the largely unexamined assumption by educated Westerners that while Christianity might be part of their heritage it is a heritage which belongs with childhood and should be left in the intellectual kindergarten along with psychological equivalent of fingerpainting and peeing in the sandpit.
But whether or not you’re a Christian believer, Siedentop argues, it is clear that for whatever reason there was a ‘moral earthquake’ shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus.
Christianity, he says, changed the grounds of human identity because, by combining Jewish monotheism with an abstract universalism derived from later Greek philosophy, it emphasised the moral equality of human beings.
That was new. It meant that the moral equality of human beings was more important than any social roles they might occupy.
And that presumption of moral equality is at the root of modern secular liberalism.
His argument is endorsed – though Siedentop is not mentioned – in this piece from last week in the New Statesman, which I’m grateful to Philip Matthews for posting on the Twitter.
Historian Tom Holland notes that his own researches into the ancient world showed him the values of Greece and Rome were further from our own than we often realise: he concludes, more or less, that what made the difference, what caused the change, was the ‘moral earthquake’ Siedentop writes about.
Siedentop gives Paul rather than Jesus most of the credit for this, asking rhetorically, at one point, whether Paul was ‘the greatest revolutionary in human history’.
I’m not so sure he gets the balance quite right: Christ’s instruction, ‘render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto the Lord that which is the Lord’s’ has for a long time seemed to me to be the most subversive religious instruction in history.
It set up the question of what one does, in fact, owe to the secular authority/state, and what one owes to one’s God/conscience.
Setting that boundary was not just the source of the Reformation but also the Enlightenment and beyond.
I suspect we are going to have to fight that battle again: the information revolution, the tools I am writing this article on and you are reading it on, is increasingly blurring the boundary between what belongs to us as individual citizens and individual souls; and what belongs to the great collective, whether that collective is the government, Facebook or some other global entity, or just the social media chorus crowd demanding we share our private selves.
But Seidentop – the first ever holder of a university post for intellectual history in the UK – is less concerned with this and more with highlighting the debt modern secular liberalism owes to Christian thought.
He points out that so far as is known, the main themes of the Jesus ministry were repentance, the imminent end of the world, and a God who loved all human beings, including and especially ‘the least of these’.
There was no unanimity at all amongst Jesus’s followers about his mission: some seeing him as a political leader while others believed the ‘kingdom’ spoke of was of a more mystical realm.
Paul took this and fashioned it into something more. Paul turned those teachings into the ‘moral earthquake’ away from patriarchal family and the tribe as the agency of immortality.
With Paul, individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality.
Paul, whose writings on Jesus are the earliest we have, translated the word ‘Messiah’ or ‘anointed one’ into Greek – and translated the idea of the Messiah in the process.
When he began talking of ‘the Christ’ – the son of God who died for human sins and directly offers each individual the hope of redemption, Paul shifted the concept from one who would deliver Israel from its enemies to one who would offer salvation to all humanity. The Christ stood for the presence of God in the world, and offered each individual their own salvation – on an equal basis.
Which is pretty radical stuff. It was morally radical because it overturned the presumptions of our natural inequality based on social categories.
‘For Paul, Christian liberty is open to all humans. Free action, a gift of grace through faith in the Christ, is utterly different from ritual behaviour, the unthinking application of rules. For Paul, to think otherwise is to regress rather than progress in the spirit. That is how Paul turns the abstract and potential of Greek philosophy to new uses. He endows it was an almost ferocious moral universalism.’
This meant that, below the surface social roles and divisions of labour, there is a shared reality: ‘the human capacity to think and to choose, to will’.
Siedentop then takes the reader from Paul through the Gnostics, onto Augustine, and through to the medievalists such as Abelard, Aquinas, and Ockham, right up to the edge of the rise of the Enlightenment and modern liberalism – where he stops.
The epilogue, ‘Christianity and Secularism’ which summarises his arguments, is worth reading alone. Christian ‘moral intuitions’ – his phrase – and way of thinking, thought patterns and habits of mind, (my way of putting it) lead to liberalism and beyond, to the modern, secularism of today.
Indeed there is a delicious irony in the fact that the pattern by which liberalism and secularism developed between the 16th and the 19th centuries follows the pattern developed by canonical law between the 12th and 15th centuries. The sequence of argument, Siedentop says, is extraordinarily similar.
That sequence begins with the insistence on equality of status of all human beings, with this idea based on a range of basic human rights. It concludes, he says, with the case for self-government.
The war between religion and secularism is ‘an intellectual civil war’ because of the shared moral roots of their arguments.
‘Why do Europeans feel happier referring to the role of ancient Greece and Rome than to the role of the church in the formation of their culture?’ he asks, rhetorically.
Secularism, he says, is our belief in an underlying, moral equality of humans, and this belief implies there is a sphere in which ‘each of us are free or should be free …it is a sphere of conscience and free action.’
This ‘central egalitarian moral insight of Christianity’ is its legacy to the world.
Finally he argues the failure to understand the shared moral root with Christianity means there is a tendency to underestimate the moral content of liberal secularism.
That underestimate leads, he concludes, to modern ‘liberal heresies'”.
The first of these is to reduce liberalism to merely the freedom to make a buck, and, more generally, ‘a crude form of utilitarianism’.
The second is a retreat into a private sphere of family and friends at the expense of civil spirit and political participation, something which ‘weakens the habit of association and eventually endangers the self-reliance which the claims of citizenship require.’
In his final sentence he asks ‘if we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?’
I’m not so sure about that ‘shape’ – it’s a bit too evangelical for my tastes.
But we need, I think, to better understand and appreciate the depth of our own moral tradition – not to convert or ‘shape’ others in any way, but to understand what shaped us.
The Prose Factory by D J Taylor (Random House 2015)
The Great British Dream Factory by Dominic Sandbrook (Penguin 2015)
‘No one over the age of 40 – no one at any rate old enough to have experienced a literary world made up entirely of books, newspapers and reference libraries – can roam the world of the blogosphere and the online symposium without thinking that there is too much of everything – too many books, too much criticism of them, too many reviews, too many opinions, too many reading groups, too many book clubs, so many literary prizes that any vaguely competent novel comes garlanded with two or three endorsements from the judging committees, that we are drowning in a sea of data where an instant reaction is always liable to crowd out mature reflection, where anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s and the fact that the distinguished man of letters in the Wall Street Journal thinks McCarthy’s The Road is a work of genius is of no interest at all to the Amazon reviewer who awards a single star for a “lack of bite”.’
Well, there is definitely too much of that sentence, but you can see what he’s getting at.
It comes towards the end of D J Taylor’s The Prose Factory, which covers the history of English literary affairs and business from 1918 through to roughly present day.
It is full of ideas about writing, the business of writing, and by that I mean both the often neglected financial side, and also what writers were really concerned with, as opposed to what they said they were concerned with.
There is a great section on the rise of what was known as “the middle article” – light essays on literature or culture more generally in newspapers from roughly the 1920s onwards.
Such articles were still common in British newspapers when I became a junkie in the mid-1980s – or at least the broadsheets such as the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Observer and the Sunday Times.
The ‘middle article’ became the vehicle for maintaining liberal values just as, in the political sphere, the liberal tradition became threatened. Essayists as diverse as GK Chesterton or AG Gardner or JB Priestley kept this tradition going – a tradition which included the attitudes of universality tolerance and diversity of subject matter.
One essayist is described by Taylor, delightfully, as reviewing James Joyce’s Ulysses from ‘the angle of one who suspects that Ulysses has merit but can’t quite see it himself’.
This got me thinking about the blogosphere because… Well of course it did. Back when blogs became a thing, about a dozen years or so ago, I likened them to the old 18th and 19th-century pamphleteers: partisan, often puerile, and occasionally very personal.
There has, in the past few years, developed a sort of second wave of blogs in New Zealand (and no doubt elsewhere) which is less concerned with politics and more with wider issues.
There is still a highly political element, but it manages – a fair amount of the time, anyway – to avoid the juvenile and extremely boring ‘Ya Boo Lefties! ‘Ya Boo Righties!’ face pulling behaviour which became synonymous with blogging for a long time.
I think this “middle article” style seems not a bad description of the second wave.
Taylor is good – very good in fact, if very acerbic – about the sheer snobbery of many writers, with those espousing radical politics being the most snobbish of the lot.
The chapter on the 1930s – “The Pink Decade” points out that champions of working class amongst the intelligentsia seldom admitted actual members of the working class to their salons and that when they tried things seldom turned out well. There is a heartbreaking anecdote of Sid Chaplin, one of the few working-class writers,who was published being invited to George Orwell’s house and making it as far as the doorway before fleeing in terror.
He also has the occasional go at the more anti-intellectual tradition of English letters, but points out that even this, once upon a time, could draw on a background of shared cultural and intellectual heritage.
The mid-20th Century battleground between ‘modernists and traditionalists, of highbrows and lowbrows, of middle-class reactionaries, as Orwell once put it, thanking God they were not born brainy…’ was real enough, but, as he says, even conservative critics of T S Elliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ could pick up the classical allusions. That isn’t so now.
There is the ongoing problem of funding literature: ‘put an entity charged with expanding public take-up of literature in the hands of a bureaucrat, and the literature itself is all too easily lost sight of. Put it in the hands of other writers and the first casualty is likely to be a grasp of practical reality.’
There is, perhaps naturally, quite a bit on two writers who have written a lot about writers: the two friends who were often mistaken for each other, Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge.
Bradbury I’ve only recently started reading although I’ve certainly been aware of him for some years – Taylor heralds as a kind of chronicler of the strange death, not so much of Liberal England as of the less definable, and much more important, set of broad liberal ideas and attitudes. Bradbury is, he says,
Bradbury is, he says
‘an elegist for an ethical code in severe danger of being swamped, a dazzling intellectual high wire act or even – to lower the bar a bit – is top-notch slapstick comedian in the Kingsley Amis mould. His real achievement, you suspect, rests on his ability to show just how formidable a force the old-style liberal humanists can be – even here in a wind and ground down world, somewhere in that endlessly contested space between the end of the Cartesian project and the beginning of the World Wide Web.’
Bradbury’s compatriot and friend David Lodge has a slightly different approach and has a lovely line about how Lodge
‘clearly isn’t averse to dressing up in the glad rags of literary theory, but on this, and other, evidence he wouldn’t want to wear it next to his skin.’
And that brings us to the issue of literary theory which haunted the study of English when I was at university in the late 80s and which was one of the main reasons I steered clear of an English major. I figured if I was going to do political theory I would rather have the real thing.
And here we go full circle, back to the snobbery of the Bloomsbury-ites and their fellow modernists. There is a thorough and by no means one-sided discussion of critic John Carey and his attack on modernism, post-modernism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and literary theory generally, and Taylor does conclude that all too often 20th century literature has acted for minorities and elites to the exclusion of a large potential of readers of ordinary intelligent people who have developed, over the years, thoroughly understandable dislike of ‘culture’ and the ‘cultured’.
‘The “literary novel” … would sell far more copies and attract far more attention beyond newspaper books pages if it didn’t habitually come served with a light sauce of snootiness – if in fact, it didn’t refer to itself as a literary novel in the first place.’
Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role — that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength — this role is about played out.
So spoke former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the early 1960s. Acheson was of course discussing foreign policy, and the comments came at the time the British government was edging towards joining what was then called the European Economic Community and which we now know as a European Union.
And of course we also now though British voters opted to leave Europe last month, even if we – and they – still don’t quite know what that vote means.
Acheson almost definitely did not have in mind the kind of role Dominic Sambrook outlines in The Great British Dream Factory.
That role is as a kind of middlebrow entertainer to the world. Books, true, play a sizeable part in this role.
Sandbrook is though more enamoured of film, television, and music – a chapter on the country house is more interested in the film and television examples than the literary ones.
Brideshead Revisited certainly features, but Sandbrook is more interested in the 1981 television series than the original Evelyn Waugh novel (not one of Waugh’s best efforts, in my view, but still). While P G Wodehouse and Agatha Christie get a look in, it is the global phenomenon of Downton Abbey which really generates Sandbrook’s enthusiasm.
Spies – he seemed rather taken with James Bond – and science fiction such as The Prisoner and Doctor Who are also star products of his Dream Factory production line.
While I’m sympathetic to Sandbrook’s rejection of some of the overrated cultural icons it covers, he tries a little too hard and too self-consciously to be a kind of middlebrow, plain-man iconoclast (he rates Elton John over David Bowie, to take one example).
His book lacks Taylor’s elegance and above all Taylor’s penetrating wit. While Taylor’s study – admittedly with a slightly narrower focus – is surefootedly deft, deep, and occasionally droll, there is a sense of clumsiness, over striving for effect, in Sandbrook’s work.
Both are worth a read. But Taylor’s is the one I will read again.
While taking a vaguely nationalistic bent and watching “Coast – New Zealand” on the Teev, this evening – and in particular listening to the way Scottish born presenter Neil Oliver says “New Zealand” I found myself recalling a theory expounded by an old English teacher from my school days.
He reckoned the way New Zealanders pronounce the name of the country – “Nu Zillun” – was derived from Peter Fraser, Prime Minister 1940-49.
Fraser was born in Scotland. This teacher – himself of Scottish heritage and a pillar of the local Presbyterian Church – had a theory Fraser’s diction was picked up and copied by New Zealanders.
It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Fraser was the wartime Prime Minister and that first Labour government was an extremely enthusiastic user of the publicity techniques of the time which included radio and of course newsreels.
It was the first government in New Zealand’s history to use such publicity mechanisms in quite such an aggressive way.
My old teacher’s theory came back to me this evening as I watched the Scottish presenterof “Coast: New Zealand” talk about the country and yes, pronounce it ‘Nu Zillun’.
If you have an NBR sub: Anzac, the Land Wars, remembering and forgetting. http://ow.ly/4n2Fvq
I think I have posted a link to this music before, but anyway. I will always associate this with Anzac Day: Vaughan Williams was an English composer who served as a stretcher bearer/medic on the Western Front and in Salonika during World War One.
He composed this after the war. It is shot through with grief, with an awful, haunting sense not just of loss and of waste but of something irretrievably broken.
There is a very good write-up about this here, even if some of the more technical musical stuff goes over my head.
‘Along that row of distinguished and original faces there would pass from time to time, as lightly as a shadow upon the waters, an alarming, an alien, spirit. It invaded and effaced the dignified construction of Mr Asquith’s features, it crept about the corners of Mr Lloyd George’s eyes, with imponderable fingers it ruined that noble forehead which was Mr Winston Churchill’s, it reduced the hatchet lines of Mr McKenna’s face to the lesser proportions of a ladylike paper-knife.. a spirit dangerous and indefinite, animula vagula blandula, the Spirit of Whimsy, which only afflicts Englishmen in their weakness.’
I have been thinking of this book a lot lately and I’ve recommended it to several people. It was one of those “formative books” – a book one reads as an impressionable age and has a powerful influence on the outlook.
I’m a firm believer that styles and methods of thought are more important – much more important in fact – than the actual content of those thoughts. Habits of mind are often unconscious, stem from a mix of influences and innate character, and serve to form thoughts and beliefs.
So although, in the case of this book, I didn’t agree with everything in it at the time, and probably do so even less now, Dangerfield’s attitude to the world of public affairs, and those who conduct it, had, now I re-read it, quite an effect.
I can even remember where and when I bought it – shortly after moving to Auckland in 1985, at the David Thomas second-hand bookshop in Lorne St, which was part of a small oasis of slightly disheveled civilisation in the downtown CBD at the time. There were four along the O’Connell-High-Lorne St zone at the time – Rare Books, Jasons, and Bloomsbury, as well as this one. Five, if you count the library.
Nice and handy, too, to the Dominos and Just Desserts cafes.
‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ is one of the few books I’d nominate for genuine classic status. It tells a great story – the kind of collective mental breakdown which swept over the British [ok, mostly English, and David Lloyd George] classes in the four years before the outbreak of World War One.
It is superbly written, generally with a dry ironic touch, but underneath this cool carapace some heated moral indignation bubbles and it occasionally bursts through.
It was about the breakup of a consensus, of assumptions about how their country – and, given the size of the British Empire of the time, the world – ought to be governed. The future of Ireland, Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” and the House of Lords’ self-defeating obduracy, votes for women, and the rise of the Labour Party dominate and served to break up that consensus.
As Dangerfield put it,
‘Whatever his political convictions may have been, the Englishman of the ‘7os and ‘8os was something of a liberal at heart. He believed in freedom, free trade, progress, and the Seventh Commandment. He also believed in Reform. He was strongly in favour of peace – that is to say, he liked his wars to be fought at a distance, and, if possible, in the name of God. In fact, he bore his Liberalism with that air of respectable and passionate idiosyncrasy which is said to be typical of his nation, and was certainly typical of Mr Gladstone and the novels of Charles Dickens.’
And he shows how widespread this worldview was, usually with a neat and deftly humorous touch, starting one section with,
‘In 1903, when Joseph Chamberlain, who had proved how insubstantial were party differences by being a Unitarian, a Radical, and a Conservative at one and the same time…’
It is character sketches like this which really make the book dance, because they are not just sketches of individual characters, they are used to show the spirit of the age. Here is Dangerfield on Arthur Balfour, the Conservative Party leader between 1902 and 1911: for Balfour, he writes,
‘…politics was little more than a serious game. He played it with the faintly supercilious finesse which belongs to a bachelor of breeding, and with a bitterly polite sarcasm which was quite his own. He had entered Parliament originally from that mixture of duty and idleness which made an English politician of the old school :in other words, because he could neither fight, preach, nor plead. …He had become one of the more eminent of English philosophers at a time when English philosophy was at a low ebbb…
‘In his youth he had been known as ” pretty Fanny ” and indeed in those far days he looked rather like an attenuated gazelle. But with advancing age his face came more and more to resemble an engaging, even a handsome, skull : it carried into drawing-rooms and debates a special property of hollow mockery, its eternal memento mori which, since Mr Balfour was always affable and lively, gave him an air of mystery and even of enchantment.’
Any writer who can come up with the phrase ‘attenuated gazelle’ is someone I have to tip my hat in homage to.
Here he is on Liberal prime minister Henry Asquith:
‘..ingenious but not subtle, he could improvise quite brilliantly on somebody else’s theme. He was moderately imperialist, moderately progressive, moderately
humorous, and, being the most fastidious of Liberal politicians, only moderately evasive. If he can be accused of excess it was in the matter of his personal standards, which were extremely high.’
My own copy of the book fell apart several years ago, I’ve since got ahold of some online excerpts and have ordered a new one from Abebooks.
It is, as those excerpts quoted above show, a joy to read if you have love history and good writing and possess a sense of humour.
It is also – because it was written in the 1930s – great to read a thoughtful book which considers Winston Churchill as just another politician, albeit a particularly colourful one, before the public monument he became post-World War Two.
Local parallels? I frequently found myself pondering this book during Helen Clark’s prime ministership. It seemed to me then quite possible we were looking at an endgame for the New Zealand Labour Party and its world view, mostly because of the inherently defensive approach to almost all policy issues.
Oh, and because Clark and Cullen at times reminded me of the Asquith-Lloyd George combination, albeit without Cullen wanting the top job.
But Clark’s cool rationality had a whiff of Asquith, and Cullen definitely had a touch of the Lloyd George at times, especially in his way with the wittily destructive phrase.
The travails which have befallen Labour since then have confirmed those thoughts from a decade ago.
And we may, now, be seeing a wider, world wide break up, with the rise of Trump-ism in the United States and the sentiment of ressentiment which that appeals to taking other forms elsewhere.
But more on that in my real job.
For now, fellow well-written-history-buffs: this book is a true classic.
That rare combination: a thought-provoking joy to read.
In this year of anniversaries, mostly blood-soaked ones, there is one this weekend which has been oddly missed.
It is a 100 years since the Anzac evacuation. The troops were taken out of Anzac Cove over the night of the 19th December 1915.
It is seen, of course, as a failed and costly campaign.
Costly it certainly was. But found myself wondering, a few weeks back as I read Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” whether it was totally failed.
The received version is the landings were to provide relief to the Russians, who were on the Allied side and were under pressure following defeats by the Germans at Tannenburg and also from the Ottoman Empire – the Turks – on their southern side.
The idea seems to have been to knock the Turks out – the Ottoman Empire having been called ‘the Sick Man of Europe’ for most of the previous century, obviate the need for the Russians to fight on their southern flank and thus allow the Russians to commit all their troops against Germany.
We’ve tended to be taught it was a “sideshow” to the main event: the war on the Western Front against Germany in France.
But it wasn’t as much of a sideshow as all that.
As Clark’s book – perhaps the best short history of the origins of World War One I’ve read [he has a lecture on it here]– shows, the real strategic game of World War One wasn’t the west, it was the future of south east Europe and the Ottoman Empire.
Russia’s long term ambition included access to the Mediterranean for its Navy, via the Straits of Constantinople.
Britain and, to a lesser degree France, were not so keen. They had, a half a century previously, fought the Crimean War precisely to stop this happening.
The conviction amongst western statesmen was the backward Ottoman Empire – backward, inefficient, but sprawling west to east from Jerusalem to Afghanistan – would crumble at some point.
Who would benefit from this collapse was one of the most important strategic issues of the era – more so, in fact, than who won or lost in Flanders. It is why British troops were put into Palestine and Iraq and remained there for rather a long time. (Plu ca meme chose, etc etc etc….)
‘Russian strategic thinking tended iincreasingly in 1912-14 to view the Balkans as the hinterland to the Straits – as the key to securing ultimate control of the Ottoman chokepoint on the Bosphorus.
Underlying this conviction was the belief, increasingly central to [Russian Foreign Minister] Sazonvo’s thinking during the last years before the outbreak of war, that Russia’s claim to the Straits would only ever be realised in the context of a general European war….’
So, I suspect, the ANZAC landings were less about “providing relief” for the Russians, than making sure that if the Ottomans did collapse, there would be Allied troops in the region to pick up the bits – or at least to make sure the Russians weren’t able to just walk in.
When the failed Gallipoli campaign made it plain the Turkish armies were not going to be quite the pushover everyone assumed, the entire venture became less strategically important.
Clark’s book closes a year before the Gallipoli landings. New Zealand only gets one mention – he quotes a pamphlet by an unnamed clergyman urging an attitude of sacrifice amongst young New Zealand men to protect their womenfolk from unnamed “aliens”.
It is cited as an example of the way in which assumptions about the inevitability of war had seeped into wider public consciousness.
There was, Clark suggests, “a deepening readiness for war across Europe, particularly within educated elites. It did not take the form of bloodthirsty calls for violence against another sate, but rather of a ‘defensive patriotism that encompassed the possibility of war without necessarily welcoming it.’
It is no coincidence the spark which triggered the firestorm – the assassination at Sarajevo – was in the south east of Europe.
Serbia, following the assassination, was portrayed in Allied propaganda as the gallant little nation besieged by bullying neighbours.
Which was, to put it mildly, a charitable view.
The ‘gallant little Serbia’ of wartime propaganda bears some uncomfortable parallels with today’s Pakistan.
The terrorist group which carried out the assassination in Sarajevo, a fluid group which operated under various names such as Black Hand or Unity or Death, was both a threat to the Serbian government and inextricably linked with numerous members of that government.
The group moved of its own accord, across borders, and if the Serbian government had wanted to move against it the result would have been revolution in one form or other. Too many Serbs – some within the government – backed the terrorist’s goals.
The debate on the origins of World War One might be old, Clark notes, but
“..the subject is still fresh – in fact it is fresher and more relevant now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. The changes in our own world have layered our perspective on the events of 1914…Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organisation with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge, but this organisation was extra terrestrial, without a clear geographical or political location…”
One of the great things happening in New Zealand right now is the deepening of our history: new works which go beyond the ‘good guys/bad guys’ approach of a lot of earlier works. Life is more complex than that. http://mauistreet.blogspot.com/2015/08/book-review-man-of-secrets-private-life.html?spref=tw
There was a time when rugby test matches had a sense of occasion. Now, it seems, they’re a bit like the latest software upgrade. Don’t worry about missing this one, there will be another along in two or three clicks of a Yes I Have Read The Terms and Conditions.
Even the Rugby World Cup…hell, it only seems the other day the first or second* most famous whitebaiter in NZ history (and son, btw, of my 7th Form History teacher) was lining up a shot at goal at Eden Park.
This year? I have an uneasy feeling. And so, for now, I’m going to take a dip in the steamy bathtub of nostalgia. I like it, and besides, it has a cute rubber duck.
So, here, first: an excerpt from the fillum Footrot Flats about rugby.
It might as well be a documentary. Captures the attitudes and dreams of an era perfectly.
And then there’s this moment, from winter 1977. The try that won the series against the Lions. It wasn’t the first test series I’d followed – that was the previous year, when the All Blacks went to South Africa – but this has happier memories.
Firstly, of course, the ABs won, unlike in South Africa, when the tests were almost 16 players versus 14, partly because the All Black selectors did not take a first class fullback or an in form goal-kicker, and partly because the referees were South African and delivered some crucial, dodgy decisions at critical moments, especially in the fourth test (one referee is reputed to have half-apologised, afterwards, to an All Black by saying ‘you have to understand, I have to live in this country’ .
Secondly, and of growing importance in the mid-1970s, was the Lions series did not have the moral ambiguity attached to the South African tour.
Personal example: at the age of 12, I could follow the 1976 series: by the 1981 tour, I was not watching any of the games (and never have since, btw, even on Youtube), rowing with my parents and getting into scuffles at school on the issue. (note, too – I didn’t start scuffles physically, but being unable to keep a smart arsed comment to myself used cause situations to develop )
The NZ Listener, in those days, had a monopoly on listing what was on TV. Yes, that’s right. The newspapers were allowed to print the TV listings for that day, but no one else was allowed to print them 10 days or so ahead, as the state owned Listener did.
Whenever the All Blacks had a test series, the Listener would have a big preview edition, usually with the All Black captain of the era on the cover (can still recall a great pic of Andy Leslie, the 1974-76 captain, balancing a ball and looking purposefully into the middle distance, before the South African series).
There was a centrefold pull out, with all the games on the tour: you could pin it on the wall and mark off the scores in each game.
They were kind of neat. Well, I thought so.
The other oddity was around whether the tests would be broadcast live on the telly. This was never officially announced or included in the tv listings.
The Rugby Union, you see, was worried fewer people would go to the games.
It didn’t make a blind bit of difference because everyone assumed the tests would be on the telly.
And everyone was right. Rioting in the streets would have eventuated if the games hadn’t been broadcast. Would have made what happened in 1981 look like a friendly game of swingball in comparison.
The first test of the Lions series coincided with National Field Days at Mystery Creek, and me and my brother were there with Dad. One of the the stalls – it may have been Livestock Improvement – had connected up a tv and the place was crowded out well before the official kick off time at 2:30pm.
Remember: this is despite it being officially uncertain whether the games were to be broadcast or not.
The other thing I note about this Lawrie Knight try is how people are reacting to it. The crowd, of course, goes wild, but then by this point in the game the crowd was probably fairly well lubricatd.
Look at the players, though. They’re probably quite pleased, but in most cases its kind of difficult to tell.
They’re certainly not going berserk and hugging each other like soccer players.
That’s another thing which has changed, changed utterly.
Russell Brown has a piece on this here: he points to a wider degree of comfort with emotions amongst New Zealanders, especially men, and I think he’s right there, but of course he suggests it might be something to do with drugs.
Now, this is not my area of expertise, so I have to defer to Russell’s much greater knowledge of the topic. And it is quite possible – very possible in fact, – that the use of various substances is more widespread than I have noticed.
But I have my doubts.
No doubt a Colin Meads or similar would put it down to too much pasta and salad eating by test players, not enough mutton, and far too many women teachers.
Again, I think this is unlikely.
I just think we’ve loosened up a bit. Also, there is a degree of emotional incontinence around now which has probably swung too far the other way.
It would not do to greet every success as if we are slighty embarrassed by the whole thing. (although, surely, if we are embarrassed by the whole thing, it should be ok to express that)
Besides, emotional repression has been unfairly maligned, at times, I feel. There is a place for it. Sometimes you do have to Not Make a Fuss – be it about a good thing or bad thing.
There is such a thing as a happy medium.
Well, a reasonably content medium, anyway.
We don’t want to get too carried away.
* Whether you like The Bone People nor not, I rekkin Beaver has to compete with NZ’s only Booker Prize Winner for this title.