Hard News by Russell Brown


Graceless Islanders

If you are ever rummaging through a second-hand bookshop and you see a book called Graceless Islanders, grab it. It's a collection of the Listener editorials of Monte Holcroft from 1959 to 1967. Within its pages, Holcroft charts a consistent, measured and liberal course through New Zealand's social challenges in those years.

The title essay, July 7, 1967, considers the Film Censor's infamous ruling that only segregated audiences - that is, either men or women, but not both - could see the film Ulysses, a decision, says Holcroft, "received with a mixture of resentment, indifference and quiet despair," while allowing it "a sign of grace that that the film could be screened under any conditions in this country, where grace is by no means abounding".

He notes that New Zealand is a society that enforces such segregation in the form of the public bar, under "the tacit assumption that that the male New Zealander is uncouth, unteachable, and potentially dangerous, at all times in need of protection from his ravening self." This is shortly before a referendum on six o'clock closing.

He laments a lagging of change in moral attitudes, in which "progress is delayed because morality is too often confused with intellect, so that certain kinds of behaviour are not only bad but unmentionable. The heart of the problem is a deficiency of imagination."

He concludes: "Yes some of us are weary of cautious and lagging policies or attitudes. It is growing late for men to be kept at school (in short pants, mark you) because they supposedly cannot behave as adults do everywhere - and indeed as New Zealanders already behave, when they leave these islands and cross the seas."

It's a beautiful piece of writing. Elsewhere, Holcroft examines both official censorship (the banning of Nabokov's Lolita: "A blanket censorship may pass unnoticed by the multitude; but it imposes on adult minds a restriction which narrows our freedom") and "the censor next door" in the case of the "Bick affair", in 1966, when Compass producer Gordon Bick resigned in protest (damning "the weak men of the NZBC and their timid decisions") at the NZBC's decision not to screen a programme on the change to decimal currency because Finance Minister Muldoon and his officials refused to appear.

Holcroft concludes by observing that "timidity cannot be put aside in one medium only; nor can the controversial mood be brought in by proclamation. The censor next door is still to be feared, still to be persuaded and removed from his self-imposed task; and this can only be done by gradual and continuing assault on all platforms. In a sense, perhaps, the battle can never really be won; the most we can do is to make sure that it is not abandoned."


But perhaps the most remarkable element of the book is the way so many of the tribulations it weighs up are familiar today. I was prompted to get the book down off the shelf yesterday by the memory of his judgement on a scandalous event involving youth and public drunkenness that took place before I was born. We don't remember the 1960 Hastings Blossom Festival now - even though it was host to chaotic scenes in which a crowd of more than 2000 was hosed by a fire engine in the rain and about 100 people were treated for injuries.

But it seems at least a little familiar; as does Holcroft's disapproving description of the news media's exaggerated characterisation of events (choice line from a news story: "Most of New Zealand was horrified and disgusted at the performance of teenagers over the weekend"). He advises news reporters to stick to the facts.

Elsewhere there is a period example of the homosexual panic defence, in the form of a case where a gay man in Hagley Park was entrapped and beaten to death by six youth who were acquitted by a jury. Holcroft finds in this "a deficiency of understanding, a failure of compassion, which has its source deep in the national character," and a crime that "itself came out of an unhealthy concern with sexual deviation."

There is child welfare. You might be surprised to learn that in the three years till 1965, Wellington Hospital alone had received three children who had died from beatings at the hands of their parents; and taken in a further nine injured in the previous 18 months.

"We sometimes forget," says Holcroft, "that that the humane treatment of children, accepted by parents almost as a law of nature, and enforced by man-made law when parents fail, is relatively new in modern experience."

He cites the theoretical case of "the woman beaten in childhood who gives the same treatment to her own children, believing it to be necessary (it did no harm to her, she says)".

There's even a consideration of the Exclusive Brethren - forcing apart families even in 1964 - which ends thus: "As they have withdrawn from the world outside, they are beginning now to withdraw from people close to them, repudiating love and fellowship, or reserving them for the Elect. Soon they will reach their ultimate and logical isolationb: the true end of exclusiveness can only be extinctions."

You don't read editorials like these in the Listener any more - but you don't read editorials like these anywhere any more. The pace is too great, the language necessarily plainer; the Reithian position of the Listener's editorial page splintered into a horde of opinionists.

So many things have changed in New Zealand since Holcroft wrote these pieces. Yet collected here they serve as a reminder that there is still much about the place that hasn't changed.


PS: I'm joining the bloggers' boycott of the Subway chain over a disgraceful employment decision at a Dunedin branch, which saw a an employee not only dismissed but prosecuted for theft after she shared her free staff drink with an upset friend. Subway says it can't do anything about its franchisees' actions. I suspect it can be induced to reconsider that position. More here, here and here.

Subway bloggers

Update: This from a member of the AWU, the union representing the sacked employee:

nb: I've removed a statement about a boycott of the George Street Subway which was given in error by a member of the union representing the sacked worker. The union is not supporting any boycott of Subway.

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