Salient was founded in 1938 to serve as an ‘organ of student opinion’ for the students of Victoria University. Since then, it’s gone through some radical changes—just as its readers have done—but some things remain the same. Feature writer Selina Powell tracks the progress of the magazine you now hold in your hands.
In 1938, Germany invaded Austria, American leaders condemned Nazi persecutions and Winston Churchill spoke of the tragic necessity of war. Evel Knievel was born and the first Superman comic was released. Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds aired for the first time, leading to mass panic for those who treated the fictional radio broadcast as an actual announcement of an extraterrestrial invasion. In Australia, 300 people were rescued at Bondi Beach after being swept out to sea by a series of freak waves.
Across the Tasman, in the same year that the ballpoint pen was released, the first issue of Salient was published. Increasing international tension and the prospect of war had led the Students’ Association to envision a publication which would “link university life more closely with that of the outside world on the assumption that if war ever did begin, which seemed likely to occur, it would at least be an advantage to have a few clues of what it was about.”
While Salient aimed to keep students informed, entertainment was also an important part of its function. Student events, such as the Freshers’ Welcome described in this April 1938 edition, provided relief from the stress of war time: “There was sound of revelry by night. It was Freshers’ Welcome. Wellington’s capital had gathered then, her beauty and her chivalry, and bright lamps shone o’er fair men and brave women.”
Later in the same month, following the 1930s version of Uni Games, a plea for the return of a “curious anglo-saxon drinking horn” was issued, with speculation that the item was “in the possession of Auckland University College”.
In June 1940, the same month that Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Italy declared war on France and Britain, and France surrendered to Germany, the sole image on Salient’s front cover were the stencilled letters, ‘I Object’.
Salient reflected in a philosophic moment in 1943: “Many students to-day find University life in war time has problems of an exceedingly difficult nature. Accordingly, Salient has decided to devote these columns to the solution of some of those problems which do so much to darken those years which should be the happiest of our lives.”
The same issue of Salient volunteered to publish extracts from letters of former Victoria students who were currently enlisted in the armed forces in an effort to keep concerned friends and classmates informed.
Salient’s enduring love of puns can be seen in a 1943 article entitled ‘Flighty!’, which described the revelations of a public lecture entitled Flight in Birds and Man.
“Dr. Richardson pointed out that as long as men tried to imitate birds they would not succeed in flying. Only when an American engineer sold himself the idea of constructing machines like bridges were the first successes achieved.”
In 1947, Salient discussed the Philosophy of Doubt, explaining “why more doubt must be the slogan of a University… time and time again, unanimous opinions of the ablest men have been shattered by new evidence”. This sentiment seems to foreshadow Victoria’s long-running ‘It Makes You Think’ campaign, which focused on learning as a skill rather than the acquisition of accepted facts.
A concerned correspondent in 1948 highlighted a perceived thorn in the side of Salient readers: “Sir, when I came to Varsity as a Fresher this year, I thought I was coming to an Institution of higher learning and culture, but what do I find? Quantity of beer, quality of beer, reminiscences of beer and prospects of beer pervade every student activity.”
In the same year that Mao Zedong declared China a People’s Republic and the Soviet Union first tested an atomic bomb, a letter to Salient questioned the fear that surrounded communism:
“Dear Sir, is it useful, in these red-baiting days, to ask ourselves what constitutes a Red?… And if it is Red to fight for a better life for young people, then to be called Red is an honour second to none.”
In the 1950s, men returned from war and women were expected to go back to their kitchens wearing A-line dresses, gloves and high heels. Salient described Vic’s hosting Tea Dances, where students were provided with a venue for dancing and “a generous, appetising and substantial meal guaranteed to keep the wolf from the door”. Readers were encouraged to attend in order to “get to know members of the opposite sex in an informal and friendly atmosphere (as recommended by the Ladies’ Home Journal).”
Back then, Salient announced engagements, reporting that “love blooms in test tubes in accordance with mathematical formulae” after a match between two science graduates.
In New Zealand, the 1950s was also an era of concern about growing immorality among young people. A series of teenage sex scandals led the Government to instigate an inquiry into ‘Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents’. Johnny Devlin, a popular rock-and-roll artist of the time, was labelled by critics as the ‘Satin Satan’.
Salient was not too peachy clean either. The publication was described as “a farrago of filth, facts and falsity” by Justice Owen. This quotation was used to advertise the magazine in 1954, along with the motto ‘The People’s Vice’.
Complaints were voiced in 1955 about the protracted length of campus development. In a similar vein to current criticism of the Campus Hub project, one student observed, “the much talked of Student Union Building is obviously a thing of the far distant future.”
Talented young writer James K Baxter published a short story and a poem in the 1955 literary edition of Salient. In Salient’s 1957 tribute to New Zealand literary great, A.R.D Fairburn, Baxter described Fairburn as “a liberating force, a writer from whom one learns courage”.
Salient reported that a 1956 debate on the morality of birth control drew the largest crowd of the year. However, it was clear that revolution was not quite upon the University with the leading speaker for the negating team arguing that if women were not busy having children, they would become childish themselves.
In the 1950s New Zealanders feared communists as one might fear the sudden appearance of handpuppets. An article published in Salient in 1957, ‘Communism in the College, suggested that lecture theatres were not immune to the Cold War climate: “Legend has it that one of our revered professors is leaning so far to the left that he has taken to wearing two left shoes while playing tennis”.
Writing in 1957, a Salient reader channelled Mark Twain’s observation that there is nothing sadder than a young pessimist: “Why don’t you get a few of the starry-eyed variety of students to review films and plays? The cynical adolescent pose rubs a bit thin.”
The 1960s were characterised by a growth in protest movements, both in New Zealand and overseas. In 1960, a total of 150,000 New Zealanders signed a petition to prevent an all-white All Blacks team from touring apartheid South Africa. This decade also saw protests against New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the beginning of French nuclear testing in the Pacific.
However, Salient and the student population were not immune from occasional apathy. In April of 1960, a reader complained: “Salient is not doing its job. Why don´t you attack something?… Look at the daily newspapers; follow their example. See how courageously they attack things—jitterbugs, dogs, Russia, the weather, Russia. No Sir, no Pulitzer prize for you. Your magazine doesn’t expose anything.”
In its report of the 1961 debate ‘Should Castro be Castrated?’, Salient observed: “Most students did not seem to care. Mr Max Riske, the adjudicator for the Debating Society’s last debate, summed the evening up as ¨the worst debate I have ever heard”. ”
Editor of Salient 1963, Geoffrey Palmer, who went on to become Prime Minister and known as ‘Sir Geoffrey’, introduced a ‘Girl of the Week’ page to the magazine and criticised the ‘new woman’ of Victoria University.
An anonymous contribution to Salient in 1968 entitled ‘Junk is a Way of Life’, described the emerging drug culture as “a scene of light and colour, a scene of beauty and contentment, a scene of horror and danger”. Amid the ’60s drug jargon of the article lies the central conviction that “this newfound land, no less than America 400 years ago, is going to change things, is going to alter the attitudes of many people and is going to become the symbol as well as the means for a new outlook.”
The second edition of Salient in 1971 proudly notes its approval by the Anarchist Conspiracy. It contains tips on getting stoned with annotated diagrams, and contends that “the only way to change a law is for a large proportion of the population to break it. Remember there was a time when you could get hung for a loaf of bread, that law evolves to meet the needs of society, and that grass is not only a moral issue but a political one.”
In 1975 Salient reviewed Poets to the People, a collection of South African freedom poems. Excerpts from poems are seen to illustrate the need for an assertive stance against oppression as well as the desire for gentle human contact and peace:
Let’s have poems
blood-red in colour
ringing like damn bells
– Oswals R Mtshali
I don’t want fists and paws
To be touched
and to touch,
– Hugh Lewin
An interview with Israel Shanak, the chairman of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, published in a 1975 edition of Salient is accompanied by a photo of two protestors standing beside each other. The placard of one protestor reads “I am a Palestinian Arab, I was born in Jerusalem Palestine is my homeland, but I cannot return there”. The other: “I am an American Jew. I was born in the USA. Israel is not my homeland, but I can ‘return’ there”.
A voice other than that of the middle-class white male grew stronger in Salient during the 1980s and 1990s. Feminist and Maori editions of Salient were published for the first time, and column space was devoted to issues affecting the gay and lesbian community. Salient published an article in 1980 condemning sexist language, accompanied by a useful list of terms classified as unacceptable (mankind, the best man for the job, cameraman) and acceptable (humanity or people, the best person for the job, camera operator).
A 1987 Salient article published favourite bathroom graffiti, including such gems as “My IUD picks up Radio Active/My IUD is Radio Active”, “Just relax: in 60 years it will all be over” and “the Vice-Chancellor is probably not really God”.
With the introduction of the Tertiary Students’ Association Voluntary Membership Bill in 1994, Salient ran an article entitled ‘Freedom’s Just Another Word for Everything Left to Lose’ that adamantly opposed the legislation. In 1996 the bill was thrown out of Parliament, with Michael Laws, in Hone-esque fashion, failing to appear for the second reading of legislation that he had introduced to the House.
In 1996, Salient investigated the phenomena of students marrying to become eligible for the student allowance. The article claimed that Michael Gibbs, then-VUWSA President and student representative matchmaker, helped to connect students without qualms about marrying for money. Advertisements for financial rather than soul-affirming nuptials were placed on community boards and published in the Notices section of Salient: “Poor student needs wife (confidentiality assured).”
This retrospective began with an account of global events not to elevate the status of Salient, but to place it in its context. The fledgling ambition of Salient’s founders was to publish a magazine that would provide a source of information and opinion that transcended University walls and instilled an awareness of forces greater than the both the individual and the student body as a whole.
From such noble beginnings, Salient has had a long and eventful journey through the 20th century. Salient is now significantly older but no wiser. The opinions and content of this magazine will undoubtedly become as cringeworthy and quaint as those released in past issues. But perhaps it is not what is said or how it is said that matters. Perhaps it is the voice that Salient provides, as an ‘organ of student opinion’, that is its most important function.