Speaker by Various Artists


The Treaty and Me

by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

I suppose it's true to say that much of my early education on matters of class and race came in the 1960s from two unlikely sources: the left-wing British newspaper, the Daily Mirror, and the two weekly US news magazines, Time and Newsweek. I did not know at the time that I was getting schooled along those lines; looking back, I imagine I can see some of what was going on in my adolescent soul.

The Mirror arrived fortnightly or thereabouts, by sea mail, about two months out of date, with each week's seven papers bound together in a yellow cover. It was a whopper, and after my Dad had made his way through them, my brother and I got to explore these strange messages from another planet. What did we know about England? After all, being born there but coming here as toddlers, we were New Zealanders -- read, the same as all the other kids -- but actually, we weren't. You never know you're different at the time: it's only afterwards, when some things that were not even questions then, come back in later life as a kind of answer. Ah, yes, so that's why my father got the Mirror -- it was his one concession to homesickness, a touch of nostalgia for his working class roots in a London starved by the Great Depression. Plus, he got to read the match reports on how his team -- Queens Park Rangers -- was doing. I never knew this until years after his death, when my English aunt on a visit here in the 1980s told me that Dad was a QPR supporter.

What drew me in was the Andy Capp comic strip and savage political cartoons lampooning a droopily moustached Harold McMillan, muddling his way through the PR disaster that was the Profumo affair. Then there was the graphic reporting of the terrible Aberfan disaster in October 1966, when a slagheap in a tiny Welsh mining village collapsed and buried the school, killing 144 villagers, 116 of them children. That made sense in a coalmining town like Blackball. The Mirror no doubt gave a class-based critique of the reasons why, with the same kind of one-eyed gusto invoked as when it slammed into "Rack-rent Rachman", a notorious London landlord.

Time and Newsweek were of a very different stripe. Politically Time's owners were Republican, and the international slant was very pro-US in terms of foreign policy reporting. But for me, pushing fifteen and aware with every passing month that the adult world possessed deeper and deeper shadows, these American magazines were like the Mirror -- their own strange form of manna from elsewhere quite other. We had no television, there were only a handful of private media outlets, few journals available to the average person, and there was no such thing as instantaneous news, except for the bulletins on the local (national) radio. The airwaves were still state-controlled in 1963 when John Kennedy was assassinated, but it didn't take long to get around the town once the report came through. Our Catholic neighbour, Mrs Neilson, came running across the road from her neat miner's lean-to, crying aloud for all the world to hear, "President Kennedy's been shot!".

More affecting for me long-term than such a dramatic news event was the reporting of the Civil Rights movement, as chronicled and pictured in those two magazines -- it began to wake me up. That, and the primal snarls of Bob Dylan, singing Only a Pawn in the Game: "Today Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught/and they lowered him down like a king...". Haunting stuff: even today, I can't escape a touch of neck-hair prickling when I hear him intone in that cod-hillbilly singsong, "From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks, /And the hoof beats pound in his brain". Shacks, cracks, tracks -- violent clashing sounds, poverty and prejudice crystallised in a single line, as the dark threat of a lynch mob loomed like a storm on the horizon.

Of course, I wasn't figuring and analysing all this back then, as I am right now -- but it was going in deep, shaping something I've never been able to shake. Looking back to my own arrival on these shores as a tubby wee Pommy toddler in 1950, it helps me to understand why I now feel the links between myself and that moment, and the remnant whānau of those Ngāti Whatua who were being forcibly removed from their marae settlement at Bastion Point and "relocated", their old dwellings burned -- at the same time as my father, his wife and two boys, FOB, were housed by the government in a brand new State house over in Plymouth Crescent, Bayswater, on the North Shore.

This is all by way of a somewhat oblique meditation on what Waitangi Day may be about for some of us: not protest, deeply felt or stage-managed; not reactionary denial, overt or passively aggressive; not the same old talking heads banging away in the media, a kind of repetitive local version of a Punch and Judy show; not the usual wise heads discussing on radio the "meaning" of the words of the Treaty, and if Maori knew what they were doing back in 1840; but perhaps a moment of reflection when we look at who we are, where we came from. And if justice and fair play have any meaning or application in our lives, what can we do to embody them now -- in the year 2010?

Dr Jeffrey Paparoa Holman is the author of Best of Both Worlds: The Story of Elsdon Best and Tutakangahau (Penguin Books)

6 responses to this post

Post your response…

This topic is closed.