Sometimes, there are advantages to being ill-educated.
Let me explain. Everyone I know who has studied New Zealand literature at university has come away a little ambivalent about the experience. They feel, it seems, that they not so much absorbed the canon of important New Zealand writers as they were bashed over the head with it. The ideas about ourselves that such cultural nationalists as the poet Allen Curnow brought forth between 1930 and 1960 became oppressive, rather than inspiring.
I was lucky. I was able to discover the ideas for myself. I started to find little books on the shelves of Wellington bookshops. I set up a "historical blog", Great New Zealand Argument, on my Public Address website, with the idea that yesterday's writing of argument might prove useful if it was brought back to life alongside the contemporary debates of our other blogs.
Eventually, there was a book inspired by those books: Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas About Ourselves. In the introduction I noted that, like the small presses of the 20th century, blogs had become a haven for satire. (Google Danyl McLachlan, David Haywood and Graham Reid for excellent contemporary examples.) And I ventured that:
"[I]n the blast and counterblast of the world of weblogs, there is a sense of individual endeavour similar to that of the pamphleteers and small presses. A solitary perspective, rather than the obligations that go with a masthead, will shape the written argument."
Sometimes I wonder what some of our founding writers might have done with the power to publish – and then argue about it – offered by today's powerful tools of social media.
I imagine that Sir Keith Sinclair, our first great nationalist historian, would have written an excellent blog, in which he looked both back, and forward, to the future of New Zealand. Allen Curnow would have had a poet's appreciation of the 140-character economy of Twitter. And Monte Holcroft, the grand, liberal Listener editor, would still have been editor of The Listener; but The Listener would have been increasingly focused on a busy and compelling website, where the national conversation buzzed, day and night.
But of them all, one name stands out: A.R.D. Fairburn (1904–57) would have been bloody brilliant on the internet.
Fairburn is generally taught now as a poet, and he wrote quite a bit of that. But he wasn't the best of our poets, and, for me, it's his argument that's the key to him. His cranky, rambling 1944 essay, 'We New Zealanders', certainly has its flaws: most notably a section in which he hails the theories of Social Credit as the answer to New Zealand's economic problems. But it's also possessed of a raging, huge, unmissable voice.
That voice sounds through other broadsides, such as 'The Wowser in the Woodpile', in which he complained of "a close causal connection between prohibitionist activity and the deplorable drinking customs of this community." (He was known to like a drink, and then several more.)
His posthumously-published essay 'The Woman Problem', is the sort of brilliantly-executed tosh that would have kept a internet flame war going for weeks. He wrote the gorgeous 'The Sky Is A Limpet', a "pollytickle parrotty" of Michael Joseph Savage. In 'The Culture Industry' he expressed his deep suspicion of government support for the arts and literature (you'd imagine arguments about NZ On Air and the Film Commission would have got pretty tasty on a Fairburn blog). He was a Marxist, a journalist, an accomplished fabric printer and an early believer in organic farming. His circle of acquaintances was legendarily wide.
And in the day when it's de rigeur for bloggers to rail against The New Zealand Herald, it's worth noting that Fairburn did it in 1938, with the scandalising, anonymous pamphlet 'Who Said Red Ruin?'
Fairburn had another key attribute of a good blogger: he didn't need much editing. "One of the remarkable things" about Fairburn's letters, declared James and Helen McNeish in their biography, Walking on My Feet, "is how meticulous Fairburn's English was even in his careless moments."
Much of what I've written about above doesn't feature in the official appreciations of Fairburn. Too many careless moments, perhaps. But the works I've mentioned make me think not just that he'd have been a wonderful blogger. They make me think that a night on the town with Rex Fairburn would have been a hell of a good time.
NOTE: This post is republished from my monthly column in the current issue of Red Bulletin magazine, which is distributed free with The New Zealand Herald and by other means. Thanks to Jon Forder for the ready permission to re-use it here.