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August 6, 2018 | by  | in From the Archives |
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From The Archives

Bill Pearson’s essay Fretful Sleepers: A Sketch of New Zealand Behaviour and its Implications for the Artist, first published in 1952, depicts in detail the stifling conservatism of post-war New Zealand society.
When I first read it as a sensitive first-year student, it seemed to illuminate some deep, murky truth about the New Zealand condition. Here’s a taster: “[In New Zealand] you get up at a regular hour, go to work, you marry and have a family, a house and garden, you live on an even keel till you draw a pension and they bury you decently … There is no place in normal New Zealand society for the man who is different.” Kiwis don’t like it when Kiwis talk shit about Kiwis.

Imagine the earful Mark Richardson would have given Bill Pearson for this treason. But what New Zealanders really can’t stand, or even comprehend, is when someone comes to New Zealand and isn’t immediately charmed by the place. In Pearson’s words: “We sneer at English customs, yet from every visiting Englishman we exact words of praise and are offended if he criticizes us.” Our first question to tourists new to New Zealand is really a statement: “Beautiful isn’t it.”
As a history student, my official stance on this kind of deeply insecure nationalism is that it is “Not Good”. The Bill Pearsons and the Taika Waititis of this world are right to force us to confront the complacent arcadian image we have of little old New Zealand, harmoniously tucked at the bottom of the world.
But I’d be lying to you if I didn’t have a self-conscious, knee-jerk reaction to criticisms of New Zealand made by overseas visitors. That’s how I came to feel personally aggrieved by an American Fulbright scholar who visited VUW in 1961. Harvard Hollenberg submitted an account of his time at Victoria to Spike in 1961. (Spike was the student revue of Vic, published annually from 1902. A.H. “Bonk” Scotney founded Salient in 1938, and the two publications co-existed fairly comfortably until 1961, when Spike ceased publication).

Hollenberg was not charmed by his time in New Zealand. He found Wellington’s students unenterprising, its weather unbearable, and its coffee unpalatable:

“A typical Coffee Bar serves an absurd concoction which is black, bitter, and drained from an Italian machine. It is libellously labelled ‘American coffee’.”

Much like Bill Pearson, Hollenberg saved his most cutting remarks for the bland mannerisms of the average Kiwi bloke:

“They will learn that every good Kiwi must jealously prevent his neighbour from doing any better than he does. They will learn that intelligence is a poor substitute for prejudice, and that the path of least resistance leads to happiness, mental health, and progress. They will learn that women are unintelligent persons whose place is in the kitchen decorating pavlovas, while the well-informed men talk about rugby in the lounge over their gallons of urine flavoured bitters.”

“And just who does this Yank bloody joker think he is,” I thought to myself after reading these broadly accurate assessments of New Zealand in 1961, “coming in here and talking smack about 100% Clean Green, Pure, Lord of the Rings, God’s Own, Land of the Flat White Cloud New Zealand? When Bill Pearson said it, it was incisive commentary on the national character. Harvard Hollenberg can fuck right off, and take his drip coffee with him”. (I’m exaggerating, but only a bit).
Why do I care what an exchange student from decades ago thinks of Wellington? Why does our national psyche jump so quickly to insecurity? Why are we like this? It’s a little old and maybe a little cynical, but you could do worse than poke your nose into Fretful Sleepers for some answers. At the very least you’ll be able to do what I do: pass yourself off as a tortured intellectual by dropping literary references in your fortnightly column.

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