If Rex Fairburn had been writing now he would surely have been a blogger. Not one whose work fell easily on the "left" or the "right", but assuredly one who would not shrink from a good argument.
"He always wanted a scrap …" wrote Denis Glover and Geoffrey Fairburn on the jacket of The Woman Problem and other prose. "Right or wrong, he would argue the hind leg off a cow and bite a camel's bum. What he has to say is not so much to convince us that that his is the only thinking … as to make us think about these things for ourselves."
Fairburn's politics were neither consistent or wholly rational - his dalliance with Social Credit saw to that - but they were forthright. As the New Zealand Book Council profile declares:
"Fairburn’s targets are those individuals and institutions that encourage the worship of false idols - capitalist greed, puritanical repression, social status and power, hypocrisy and the cult of the respectable."
Some of his work - notably the gamely-argued tosh of The Woman Problem - would be considered "politically incorrect" now, and readers may divine a modern resonance in My Imaginary Journey's "female dictator", Madame Onions.
He was a man who in 1947 spurned Frank Sargeson's offer to arrange a stipend from the Labour government's State Literary Fund ("I'd take money from a friend, if the circumstances were right. But not from the State, not in the form of a pension anyway, because that allows the State to get a foot inside my door …") but in 1951 lamented that "I find it impossible to insulate myself against the infections of the market place, to evade the sooty hand of commerce …"
My Imaginary Journey was first delivered as a radio broadcast for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service on October 5, 1953, at a time when Fairburn was working (unencumbered by any formal qualification) as Lecturer in History and Theory of the Fine Arts at the Auckland University College in what would now be known as Elam. In it, he pokes at our smugness; both that of Sid Holland's mainstream New Zealand in 1953, and of the cultural establishment he worked alongside at the time.
This will be the first of a series of works by Fairburn to be published on Public Address in 2006.
The text here is taken from The Woman Problem and other prose, 1967 (Blackwood & Janet Paul Ltd; ed. Denis Glover and Geoffrey Fairburn) and is used with the kind permission of Dinah Holman and Janis Fairburn, literary executors of the Fairburn Estate.
The audio recording has been kindly made available by Sound Archives Nga Taonga Korero and was converted to MP3 by Richard Hulse at Radio New Zealand. Special thanks are due to Rachel Lord and Blair Parkes for their help.
IT WAS ONLY by the merest accident that I came to pay a visit to Autarkia, that paragon of twentieth-century states. At the time I was on my way home from a world tour. I had made a pile of money out of the publication of a book of poems - so much money, indeed, that after buying a new car and a string of race-horses, and making handsome presents to all my friends, I found I had enough left not only to pay my income tax, but also to take me on an extended tour abroad. By the time I left for home again my book of poems was in its fourth edition, the money was simply rolling in, and my bank account was threatening to burst at the seams: so I found I could indulge myself further by chartering a special plane to take me on the last lap of my Journey.
Unfortunately - or rather, as it turned out, very fortunately - a series of minor mishaps overtook us. First, my pilot dropped the bubble out of his spirit-level: and while he was fumbling for it on the floor of the plane, he lost his sense of direction. As a precaution, he had taken a pair of compasses on the trip: but these were of no use at all. On the contrary, they led to a further complication-for we found ourselves describing circles over a strange piece of territory, which neither of us could at first identify. In the end it came to a forced landing.
It wasn't long before I realised that we were in Autarkia. Apart from the slight worry at having lost our way, I wasn't at all displeased with this. Like the rest of you, I had heard so many rumours about this country that I was, in fact, delighted to have the chance of satisfying my curiosity. Autarkia is, as you all know, reputed to be the last word in modernity. For that reason it is, of course, practically a closed book to those who have not been there: since all the publicity and information services-including, I need hardly say, literature and the arts-are under direct control by the Government, it is quite impossible to discover by docu¬mentary evidence what conditions there are really like. And since it is almost impossible to get permission to enter the country, little is known by outsiders about the manners and customs of the Autarkians - except that it seems to be generally agreed that their customs officials have no manners at all.
The truth is - as you will know from your digest reading - that Autarkia has already come close to realising the dream of every twentieth-century state - that of cutting itself off completely from the rest of the world. It has succeeded, for instance, in reducing trade with outside countries to the absolute minimum. Almost all the things it needs are by this time produced internally-synthetic bananas, rice and cotton grown by hydroponics, wines with French-sounding names, chemical coffee and cocoa, plastic bicycles, woollen clothes made from seaweed, artificial beefsteak made from sawdust - I could name you a hundred such commodities. In point of fact, Autarkia imports only one commodity. Having an exceptionally cold climate, it obtains heat from the Sahara Desert: blocks of heat are frozen and then shipped in refrigerated space to Autarkia, in order to provide much-needed warmth for the inhabitants. Being a completely up-to-date and progressive state, Autarkia makes no attempt to pay in full for these imports of heat. It merely pays the interest on the debt incurred - and, in order to do this, it has developed an export trade in dried heads. In normal times of political tension these are provided in sufficient quantity by unsuccessful politicians. In periods of relative quiet, an auxiliary supply is obtained from members of the academic staffs of the universities-this, indeed, being the more economical source, since there is in such cases no need to go to the expense of drying the heads, nature and culture between them having already completed that process.
You will, I know, wish me to say a word or two about what happened to my pilot and myself after we had made our forced landing. We found ourselves on a broad expanse of turf, which must have contained several hundred acres. I at once recognised this as a golf-course. I was puzzled by its flatness, and found out later that the Autarkians have made golf, their national game, completely rational. Every fairway was as level as a billiard table-there were no bunkers to obstruct play-the greens were funnel-shaped to facilitate holing out-in fact, everything had been done that you can possibly think of to make the game accurate and scientific. Of course, only those who are in good odour with the Government are allowed to use these links. Those who are not in favour - the majority - are compelled to play three times a week on a huge expanse of dune country nearby, with nothing but loose sand from end to end of it.
Soon after landing, we were taken in charge by two officials dressed like Beefeaters, wearing gas-respirators, and were conveyed twenty miles or so by car to Sisyphus, the capital city. I know that it is customary for travellers abroad to discuss the transport arrangements, the alcoholic amenities, the quality of the soap in hotel bathrooms, and other vital matters. I do not intend to weary you with a detailed account of what happened to us during our brief stay in Autarkia. That would be altogether too tedious. My time will be much better occupied in describing to you the tremendous advances this nation has made in the techniques of civilised living.
Perhaps the greatest triumph to have been achieved so far in this astonishing country is that women have by this time completely got the upper hand. No male is permitted to own property, propose marriage, run a bank account, give up his seat to a woman in a jet-propelled bus, go fishing on Sunday, smoke tobacco, choose his own library books, sit about in braces, or do any of the other things traditionally associated with masculine privilege. It is ten years since the vote was taken away from men. Incidentally, democracy has been carried to new heights by the adoption, some two years ago, of the principle of votes for animals. There was talk at the time of restoring voting privileges to men, as a logical extension of the new policy, but it came to nothing, chiefly because the vote itself has come to mean little or nothing in Autarkia. The work of Government is all done by a permanent and hereditary bureaucracy, consisting mostly of women, under the direct personal command of Madame Onions, the female Dictator - who is known affectionately to her subjects as 'The Strong Woman'. We had the pleasure of meeting Madame Onions. It was quite an experience.
There is still, by the way, a Parliament, but the Members are no longer put to the bother of speaking or voting. Each has a gramophone record, prepared by the Department of Propaganda and Education, which is played whenever it is his turn to speak; and all decisions are made by Madame Onions. This saves a great deal of disagreement and obstruction, and makes for smooth, stream-lined running of the country's affairs.
There is one thing in particular about which the Autarkians cannot be accused of half-heartedness, and that is soil erosion. Whereas we are content to leave this to the casual activities of amateurs, in Autarkia the State organises and superintends soil erosion on a gigantic scale, and entirely systematically. Water is pumped into huge dams on the tops of hills, and sluiced down the valleys. This is in accord with the increasing national campaign to get rid of dirt. Behind it lies, however, the further intention of preventing the illicit production of food. The food industry is a State monopoly, the profits from which pay the wages, salaries and bonuses of the large army of bureaucrats. The State has its own forests, from which sawdust is obtained, and food of all kinds is manufactured from this. We were astonished to be told, after our first dinner in Autarkia - a seven-course meal - that every item on the menu, from soup to ice-cream and cheese-straws, was manufactured out of State sawdust. It is, by the way, quite illegal for private people to plant, or to own, trees. The penalties are extremely severe, and there is very little bootlegging in food, even during the famine period of the year, which usually lasts from early winter until later autumn. Senior bureaucrats - and their guests - are of course exempted from famine.
I must tell you that Autarkia has brilliantly solved another twentieth-century problem - that of city traffic. This has been done by the simple method of banning pedestrians from the streets. It is necessary to obtain a licence to become a pedestrian-the fee is a substantial one-and one is only allowed to walk on the footpaths-and then only if one does so in a respectful manner, raising one's hat politely to every car and truck that passes. Trespassing on the roadway is a serious offence: to knock down a motor-car or a truck is a hanging matter.
Let me say a word about the economic foundations of Autarkia. Of the heavy industries, the chief one is horse-racing. Here again, gigantic strides have been made towards complete rationalisation. The most startling instance of progress is that the horses have been got rid of. The members of the racing public sit in front of television screens watching horse-racing scenes taken from old movie-reels, and laying their bets by telephone. The placings are decided by drawing names out of a hat. This new system is extremely successful. There are no dull moments. Every race is packed with thrills, and may be watched in comfort from an arm-chair, or even a bed. The laws of chance apply fully, and quite fairly, and guarantee plenty of excitement in return for the money one loses. An additional advantage gained from doing without horses is that the oats saved are turned into fertiliser, which is used in the State forests, thus helping to increase the supply of sawdust for food.
And now let me tell you something about the education system of Autarkia. Common sense, and a feeling of responsibility to the nation, have at long last triumphed over the older policy directed at 'helping human beings to realise themselves' - as sentimentalists used to express it. There is no nonsense about the education system of Autarkia. Every child is now trained rigorously in some functional occupation that will serve the ends of State policy, and is allowed to do nothing else. 'If we are to hold our place in the modern world,' said the Minister of Propaganda and Education recently, 'we must make every citizen a cog: a happy, smiling, singing, contented cog-in the smooth-running machine of the State. Only thus can we succeed in preserving those traditional liberties which are more precious than life itself.' In these words we find the key-note of the Autarkian education system. Even the higher education has been remodelled completely along these lines. In the universities there are chairs of riveting, ice-cream making, boot-clicking, paint-spraying, handle-turning, and dozens of other useful activities. Classical studies, literature, philosophy, and other forms of mental thumb-twiddling which used to be called, with unconscious irony, 'the humanities', are now banned as subversive activities. The Autarkians have a genuine love of progress, and are busy building a happier world.
Speaking of their schools, I must not forget to mention one most remarkable instance of the way in which they have forged ahead-and that is in the matter of sex-education, which they take very seriously indeed. In all primary schools there are regular classes for the teachers, where they are provided by the pupils with the very latest knowledge.
I would have you know that in Autarkia the arts are not neglected. The Autarkian Government has a high sense of the importance of tradition and culture, and fully appreciates the role that art and literature have to play in the drama of history and the evolution of the human spirit. Every senior bureaucrat has two specially-chosen writers attached to his staff: their duty is to gather materials and write his biography. Similarly, he has on his staff an artist, whose function it is to paint his portrait at frequent intervals, so that posterity may have a complete record of the personalities associated with the glory of the Autarkian regime. For both writers and artists the expression of private thoughts is, of course, strictly forbidden, as being contrary to the principles governing the Autarkian way of life. The Un-Autarkian Activities Committee constantly supervises the conduct of artists and writers, and quickly checks any tendencies towards irresponsible personal expression.
If you ask me to give you a concise notion of the social and political ideals underlying Autarkian life, I can sum them up in one word - the word Freedom. The Autarkian attitude towards Freedom can be described only as one of worship.
This spiritual goal is like a great light shining above the pathway of life, leading them onward towards ever better and brighter things. The national motto, inscribed on every public building and on every banner, is, indeed, 'Freedom Through Conformity'. Freedom, they explain, is the end, and Conformity the means. On this principle the political philosophy of the Autarkian state is based.
I feel, personally, that it was a very great privilege to have been given the opportunity of inspecting at close hand this latest and most promising chapter in human history unfolding itself before my very eyes. And I must say that certain rumours I had heard previously about the inhospitable reception given to visitors turned out to be entirely unfounded - at any rate, in the experience of my pilot and myself. Wherever we went we were showered with bundles of most illuminating propaganda material-pamphlets, posters, reports, even full-length history-books. We formed many friendships. And when we came to leave that happy country we were sorrowful indeed. At our final interview with Madame Onions we wept unrestrainedly.
I am aware that I have not told you very much about our day-to-day experiences during our fortnight's stay in Autarkia. I am very much afraid that any curiosity you may have about these matters must wait until some other occasion, when we can talk more privately. I gave a solemn promise to the Minister of Propaganda and Education that on our return home we should not fall into the heresy of personal expression. I hope, however, that I have managed to convey to you something of the infectious enthusiasm, the forward-looking optimism, of the Autarkian people. I am convinced that future generations of humanity, looking back on the murk and darkness of the early twentieth century, will agree that it was Autarkia that led the van of progress, and showed mankind the pathway to brighter and happier things.