New Zealand’s London: A Colony and its Metropolis, by Felicity Barnes, (Auckland University Press, 2012), 344 pp., $49.99
Felicity Barnes’s engaging book maps the history of New Zealand’s and New Zealanders’ relationship with London, from the first colonial journeys back ‘Home’ to the long-prevalent Big OE. Her study introduces the appealing concept of ‘recolonisation’, the process by which New Zealanders have, since the beginning of European settlement, appropriated London as their metropolis.
In Barnes’s refreshing take, the New Zealander in London does not play an inferior role in the colonised/coloniser binary equation. But while Barnes argues that the relationship was a reversal of the usual one between colonial subject and the imperial centre, the uncritical gaze of the early New Zealand pilgrims is nevertheless deeply rooted in pro-imperial patriotism. Her study focuses on Pakeha New Zealand, which she argues has the power to imagine London as it pleases, and to name the terms of the relationship.
To illustrate early encounters, Barnes takes us through the writings of travelling colonials, the letters of World War One soldier-tourists, and the sometimes sentimental memoirs of writers and journalists such as Katherine Mansfield and Alan Mulgan. These accounts suggest that London’s apparent fixedness provided the white settler with a counterpoint to the newness and exoticism of the colony. These early impressions betray an unconscious alienation of the colonial from his and her place in the New World that London was able to alleviate. They also present a rather homogeneous vision of London, seen through the eyes of mainly Pakeha, middle-class, and conservative people. Imbuing London with a stability to counteract the unstable social and cultural landscapes of colonial and postcolonial New Zealand, these accounts imply a false consciousness in these writers because, like every other metropolis, London is a dynamic entity that changes constantly.
Barnes records that from the twentieth century London’s role expanded to become a refuge from the pervasive puritanism of New Zealand culture. The implicit spiritual and intellectual emptiness that drives New Zealanders towards London needs deeper analysis. Just what are the collective and undisclosed desires that continue to impel so many New Zealanders to visit, work and make their lives in London? Barnes, like James Belich, argues that London was a cultural centre for New Zealanders as early as it was a political and economic one and a greater emphasis on this phenomenon would have made the study richer. Instead of just picturing the New Zealander in London as a conservative, middle-class Pakeha, showing Maori engagement with London, or an acknowledgement of the desires of ‘other’ New Zealanders, would have been a welcome addition.
New Zealanders’ involvement in radical politics and their engagement with the worlds of fashion, music and art would have complemented her excellent discussion on the fraught relationship of New Zealand writers with literary London. A summary of the pilgrimage in the 1970s and 1980s by young New Zealanders wanting to experience punk culture first hand, or to escape the gloom of the Muldoon era, for instance, might have balanced the dominant, conservative relationship with a subversive and radical one.
Parts of Barnes’s history are very entertaining. Her description of the work of the New Zealand International Hospitality League, whose aim it was to provide World War One soldiers with a home away from home and to keep them away from London’s pubs and prostitutes, is hilarious. There is even a photograph of a couple of these moral policewomen, armed with the sticks they used on patrol to prise away amorous Kiwis from so-called loose women. On the other side of the world and facing the strong possibility of death on the battlefield, New Zealand men still could not escape our peculiar brand of secular puritanism. The anecdote illustrates how wartime exposed London as a place of iniquity as well as a place of culture and heritage, an uncomfortable clash that the brave ladies of the hospitality leagues tackled head on. Barnes suggests that without the huge efforts of these organisations, New Zealand’s conventional relationship to London might never have developed, and this is what Barnes delivers — a conventional history of New Zealand and London.
To structure her thesis, she uses the handy metaphors of time and space. She shows that as time and space contract through technologies such as refrigeration, radio, air travel, film and satellite TV, our relationship to London has waxed and waned. The metaphors also reflect the strong colonial urge to shrink time and space between New Zealand and the “civilised world” that Julius Vogel and Samuel Butler imagine in their utopian novels, Anno Domini 2000: A Woman’s Destiny and Erewhon. (In A Women’s Destiny, the Empire’s parliamentarians communicate simultaneously through what could be described as a form of e-mail, thus removing the excruciating wait for correspondence between the imperial centre and its colonies.)
The use of the time-space metaphor is an effective device that Barnes could have exploited even more to illustrate the dynamism of the relationship. For instance, the advent of refrigerated shipping (along with clever marketing) instantly turned New Zealand into London’s abattoir through the reliable supply of good quality meat but Britain’s joining of the EEC in 1975, and even concerns about food air miles, have reduced that role. Perhaps with the recent problems in Europe’s meat supply our old job might be reinstated? This is, I think, Barnes’s point. It is a continuing bond — one that cannot be described as familial, historical, cultural or economic but a complex combination of all these things — that could make this a possibility.
A good deal of the book is devoted to the economic bonds between New Zealand and the United Kingdom. A convenient base for colonial travellers, London also became the ideal place from which to promote ‘New Zealand Inc.’. Barnes’s history elaborates the story of marketing New Zealand, its shift from London’s farm to a sophisticated adventure destination. Her discussion of New Zealand’s self-projected image as a masculine dominion in contrast to the imposed femininity of the dependent colonies is also important. The image of New Zealand as strong, self-sufficient and male was exploited by early marketers to sell our meat and butter to Britain and played a vital part in reifying New Zealand’ s national identity with these characteristics. Furthermore, our reliance on British markets was proof that the dominions were not as independent as they believed themselves to be. Oddly, the study doesn’t mention the reversal in our exporting fortunes when Britain joined the Common Market, and the sense of betrayal that New Zealand, the farming sector especially, experienced.
Barnes’s study possibly overstates London as representative of New Zealanders’ yearning for ‘Home’, as ‘Home’ in this sense means a place of spiritual belonging – a turangawaewae for displaced Pakeha of British descent. Just how many travellers from New Zealand to London can claim purely English descent? London, like ancient Rome, is a city of foreigners, the place where the colonised and the colonisers gather at the imperial centre. London is the metropolis and home to the whole Empire with every former colony or dominion and every individual having a specific relationship to it. Perhaps for many New Zealanders, London for all its noise, congestion and dirt, fills an inner emptiness, the missing piece within our postcolonial psyche that is more fascinating than London is as a proxy.
Most of the New Zealanders of Barnes’s London take the well-trodden path. Her study focuses on how London was and is experienced by the white settler and his and her descendants. She invites the stories of other ‘Londons’ — Canadian, South African and Australian — to compare the relationship of the other white settler nations to the imperial centre. But what might be more interesting is a comparison between a ‘Pakeha London’ and a ‘Maori London’, or those that appear in the literature of V S Naipaul and Zadie Smith – the Londons that accommodate the Empire’s dispossessed and their descendants.
London belongs to everyone and no one. Anyone can aspire to be a Londoner, just as anyone could aspire to be a Roman; this in part explains London’s enduring attraction to New Zealanders and everyone else who claims the city as their own. Felicity Barnes’s history offers us a compelling and thoroughly researched insight into one of those Londons.
PATRICIA McLEAN is a freelance writer and editor based in Dunedin. Her PhD from Victoria University was on constructions of masculinity in the novels of Maurice Gee.