THE REVIEW - 12 JUNE 2009
On a clear weekday morning in March 2004, the 60-year-old New Zealander writer Graeme Lay glimpsed a front-page newspaper photo of a car accident on the treacherous State Highway 2 near Maramura, a small town a little more than an hour's drive from Lay's home. "Oh s***, he thought. "Another accident on that bloody road." Lay put the paper aside. Later that morning, the phone rang in the study of his Victorian home, a room lined with tall, single-pane windows and shelves of books - a few of them written by Lay's friend, the prolific New Zealander writer and historian, Michael King.
The call was from Christine Cole Catley, a neighbour and a kind of octogenarian mother hen to New Zealand's literary community. "The photo in the paper," Cole Catley stammered. "That was Michael!" On a day nearly five years later, birds chirp and a plane thunders overhead. Lay regards me glumly. We inspect a framed photo of Michael King, who is smiling gigantically, his barrel chest and full salt-and-pepper beard forming the picture of a man in the bloom of authority and promise. Lay breaths in a lung-full of ocean air.
"An amazing fellow," Lay says. "We still can't believe he's gone."
I had arrived in New Zealand a week earlier, having come to attend the wedding of my sister, an American livestock veterinarian, to a New Zealander outside the city of New Plymouth. When I changed flights in Auckland on the way in, Michael King's books were five deep at the terminal bookstore, most prominently his The Penguin History of New Zealand. Despite its drab title, the book's first print run sold out in six days. Since then it has sold enough copies - more than 100,000 - for there to be several volumes on every block in the country. Published just seven months before King's death, the book has, according to the historian Jacob Pollock, "cemented itself as historical orthodoxy for some time to come". I was fingering the illustrated cover when I heard a boisterous team of softballers - a riot of teenaged Islanders, Caucasians, South Asians, and East Asians - all with matching scarlet track pants and Kiwi accents, moving through the terminal. Behind them was a sign for biosecurity, sternly warning against "dangerous goods" and invasive species. It's a hard-earned caution, this respect for the consequences of invasion and assimilation. King's 500-page history begins with a description of New Zealand's two main islands as isolated hunks of green-fuzzed rock in the middle of the ocean. Over thousands of years, as the ecosystem complicated, a flora and fauna took hold that were mythical in their fecundity - and doomed by their fragility. In many ways, New Zealand is an environment still reeling from the recent shock of human habitation. When human settlers landed - first Polynesians, probably in the 14th century; then Europeans, a few hundred years later - the large flightless birds that once dominated the landscape stood no chance.
But, as King writes, the islands' history isn't just a tragic record of encounter and extinction. In his telling, the story is something much happier, a kind of fairy tale. Despite New Zealand's decades of bloody musket skirmishes, the ultimate compromises between indigenous groups - or Maoris, as they are now known - and white settlers managed to avoid the forced marches, murders and marginalisation of North America and Australia. Instead, within about a hundred years, there existed a settled and progressive democracy of a kind that took 20 centuries to develop in Europe and four in America. By 1867, all Maori men over the age of 21 were already eligible to vote and stand for parliament. In 1903, New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant women's suffrage.
By intermarriage and gradual popular consent, a new kind of citizen emerged, King writes. Neither wholly native nor fully colonialist, New Zealanders came to be many things at once: Maoris, other Pacific Islanders, European settlers and the children of marriages between the groups, all full participants in the social contract. King's book is a proud record of these compromises and of how, for decades and decades - as measured by basic economic indexes and quality of life measurements - they produced what King calls a "good-hearted, practical, commonsensical and tolerant" people whose qualities "saved the country from the worst excesses of chauvinism and racism seen in other parts of the world".
Five years after King's death, it seems appropriate to view the nation through the lens of his big claims. Is New Zealand's experiment more fragile than his proud chronicle let on?
On my first morning in New Plymouth, I met my first pakeha, the Maori name for white New Zealanders used agreeably by many here. (Imagine Americans effortlessly calling themselves wasichu, the Sioux Native American word for "white man.") The pakeha in question was Janice Hawkes, my sister's landlord and a lifelong farmer. We were high up on a bluff, overlooking acres of plunging valleys criss-crossed by fencing and dotted by white, woolly sheep. Janice told us she had been married on the same weekend several decades before. "Did you have to milk afterwards?" my sister joked. "No," Janice laughed, working her gnarled fingers together. "I had that day off." Family farmers like Janice are a dying breed in New Zealand, holdovers from the recent days when the country resembled a South Pacific approximation of Thomas Jefferson's ideal America - agrarian, democratic and prosperous. For generations New Zealand was the "garden" of Great Britain, supplying the commonwealth with meat, dairy products and wool. Trade protections, a mild climate and market events like the great 1951 wool boom produced an uncommon marriage of agriculture and affluence.
Then in 1973 the UK entered into a trade agreement with the European Economic Community, ending the islands' reign as a dedicated supplier of food and wool. In the absence of steady British demand, New Zealand's economy buckled under its system of high taxes and agricultural subsidies, and in the 1980s the country swung to the opposite end of the regulatory spectrum, drastically liberalising its economy.
Throwing itself behind "business-friendliness" and laissez-faire international trade, New Zealand paved the way for large conglomerates - such as Fonterra, a New Zealand cooperative that controls almost one third of the international dairy trade - to dominate the agricultural market. As rural populations unshielded by farm protectionism fled to the cities for work, people like Janice Hawkes were becoming an exception rather than the rule.
Later that afternoon, we piled into my sister's truck to drive into New Plymouth, a city of 50,000. The fog had lifted, and the lush countryside opened up - a strange cross between European verdure and a fern-choked South Pacific paradise, overrun by sheep. As we passed signs for sheepskin tanneries, abattoirs and grazing cows, we slowly entered the country's more urban present. Cities like New Plymouth have not only become the economic redoubt of struggling farmers, they've also become home to the vast majority of the nation's Maoris. In 1840, when New Zealand was formed under the treaty of Waitangi, 100,000 Maoris shared the islands with just 2,000 Europeans; Queen Victoria's representative rang in the treaty by declaring, "He iwi tahi tatou" ("We are one people.") Today, with Maoris making up barely 15 per cent of the population, that declaration - echoed in more recent majoritarian calls for national unity, and in the face of what some islanders see as an eroding Maori identity - has taken on an ominous cast.
Maori culture and politics saw a revival 30 years ago, culminating in several massive government transfers of land into Maori hands to redress old abuses of the Waitangi treaty. By 2002, the number of dedicated Maori seats in Parliament had raised to seven (out of 120). But the indigenous islanders are still far from achieving an equal socioeconomic footing with other New Zealanders. Their largely urban population posts depressing rates of illiteracy, incarceration and unemployment, and currents of resentment in the politics of Maori and Pakeha relations often cut both ways.
Even still, glimpses of Michael King's great compromise are not so hard to find. As we pulled into New Plymouth, we headed for the city's 128-acre municipal gardens, the site of an outdoor concert that night. The band had just fired up, and a crowd of several thousand began to roar. "Got any Cookies out there?" asked the mocha-skinned female band-leader. Hands shot up around the crowd. "This song is from the Cook Islands," she said, shouting out to yet another unique demographic in New Zealand's staggering ethnic mix. (Fifty-eight thousand New Zealanders identify as being indigenous to the tiny Cook Islands.) I stood in a line of heavyset, dread-locked islanders who were smiling and singing along, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and pumping their fists. Nearby, I spotted a pakeha couple in overalls, straight off the farm and singing along as well.
A few days later, I drove to Auckland, New Zealand's largest city. My first stop was to see Michael Bassett, a former minister of health, lawmaker and historian, now mostly retired and in his seventh decade. "It was a beautiful March day," he recalled of the afternoon Michael King died. Bassett was sitting back in the dim cool of his library, which smelled of fresh paint and old books. Bassett and King were friends and collaborators, and so Bassett said he felt perfectly fine being frank about the Penguin History's tendency to be overly optimistic. Rather than looking at basic economic forces, Bassett told me, King focused on the soaring moments of national history. "As a result," Bassett says, the book's "happy lessons are the lessons of a country frozen in time" - a country of four million people still living quaintly on the proceeds of 40 million sheep.
The story that King missed, Bassett said, is that New Zealand - stuck in an economic rut - is facing the possibility of losing its first-world status. In the 1950s and 1960s, the country's per-capita GDP was ranked in the top three or four in the world. In 1959, only 21 people were officially unemployed in New Zealand. Today, Bassett said with a sigh, the rate of unemployment is comparatively high - five per cent - and getting higher. And the once top-ranked country now falls behind Spain, Greece and Italy in per-capita GDP. The 21st century, Bassett said, is leaving New Zealand behind, and rising crime rates - with Maoris making up half of the prison population - have become a morbid public preoccupation.
Basset's unease seemed to dovetail with a more general air of moral panic. Every day I was in the country, the newspapers featured at least one story about "boy racers", a subculture of young men - predominantly pakeha - who pour diesel fuel on the roads to peel out in clouds of smoke with souped-up Hondas and Toyotas, baiting police and cruising the roads at high speeds. As the news reports detail at length, they are also prone to violence. "Boy Racers Not 'Cockroaches', But 'Ugly, Immature'," was a typically exasperated headline. (Since my visit, the panic has heightened; last month, Parliament passed special anti-boy racer legislation.)
Other views are of course far more optimistic than Bassett's, and the islands have weathered the global financial crisis better than many other nations. But whatever its future holds, New Zealand is a young country - a place where ennobling historical narratives and national mythmaking play a huge role in smoothing over the central contradictions within the body politic. Stephen Turner, a professor of English at the University of Auckland, points out Michael King's telling habit of calling Maori the first indigenous people, suggesting of course that pakeha are the second indigenous people. "But if both peoples - the first peoples and the second peoples - are indigenous, then actually nobody's indigenous," Turner tells me. "Michael King, when he happily says that we're all indigenous, just squashes this distinction." Maori historians, meanwhile, are struggling to give the indigenous voice "a turn with the historical microphone" writes the scholar Aroha Harris, "without reducing it to the role of backup singer."
The next morning, I drove over to see Graeme Lay, the writer and friend of Michael King. He was exasperated by my questions about New Zealand's declining GDP. "Who gives a s*** about the GDP?" he sputtered. "You've got a beautiful beach down the street, you've got a climate like this, and the mountains and the forest and all the rest of it." For him, paradise was enough.
This piece was published by The Review. Read the original here.