Tara Brabazon: NZ has more to offer than cheap lamb roasts

The closure of the Centre for New Zealand Studies has important repercussions for the future study of post-colonialism

September 23, 2009

It is odd walking around with the name Tara Brabazon. Invariably telephone operators have difficulty with the pronunciation (“No, it is not B-R-A-V as in V for Victor. It is B-R-A-B as in “B for buggered if I am going to spell this surname again”). It is more fun having lunch with the affluent and sycophantic. Posh people think I am related to Lord Brabazon and launch into discussions about aeroplanes, Winston Churchill or watercolours. The look on their faces when they match my consonant-challenged oz-tray-lee-an accent with a toff British name is, to repeat those MasterCard advertisements, priceless.

One of the more bizarre familial connections dragged in through the fishing net of my name is with the founder of Empire Day. Reginald Brabazon, the twelfth Earl of Meath, proposed a commemoration of the Empire. Originally held on 24 May, this day was meant to remember Queen Victoria’s birthday after her death. Suggested by Brabazon in 1902 after a Canadian headmistress created the event in her school, it was introduced in New Zealand in 1903 and in Australia in 1905. Children were the focus of the programme, building pride in the Empire and “the British race”. School assemblies saluted the Union Jack; churches offered thanksgiving services; loyalty badges were worn.

In Australia, Empire Day continued until 1958 when its name changed to British Commonwealth Day. In 1966, the first (redundant, but honest) adjective was dropped. Currently, on the second Monday each March, Commonwealth Day is still recognised. The date was chosen because it holds no “connotations”: Mondays in March don’t coincide with anniversaries commemorating invasions, discoveries, uprisings or incursions.

While the neo-colonial narrative carried by Reg Brab is rather uncomfortable for a post-colonial theorist, a large group of Brabazons have camped out in the colonies for some time. One resident was my great-great-grandfather, Joseph Brabazon. He was the headmaster of an Auckland school in the 1860s. When I went to Wellington for my first academic post, there was a sense of returning to an unfinished family project linking Australia, New Zealand and education. It seemed appropriate that a short Australian bird with a posh name and a paint-stripping voice should work in New Zealand. I had spent most of my academic career up to that point thinking about how Britishness travels around the world.

New Zealand is different. It is densely cold and ambitiously hilly. Fine sportspeople are produced in New Zealand because the endless climbing builds calf muscles even in toddlers. Seeing the moon marinate Oriental Bay, the pastoral peace of Christchurch’s parks and the jack-in-the-box living of Dunedin’s Octagon made me thankful that I took that job. A large slice of my heart still lives in Wellington. The city’s students gave me more than they will ever know.

Not much quickens the research pulse for those of us who work in post-colonial studies. Our scholarly timetable is slower than that of those researching hot topics in banking, terrorism and war. So the last two weeks have been a shock. The big news has been the threatened, and seemingly actual, closure of the Centre for New Zealand Studies at Birkbeck, University of London.

For those who came in late, the Centre for New Zealand Studies has a series of functions. It houses the largest collection of artefacts and materials for New Zealand studies outside the home nation. In two and a half years, it has run 114 events, five conferences and three festivals. Maori language classes are offered and it is a base for New Zealand studies scholars. It has attracted six doctoral students and published five books and an annual journal. Ian Conrich, the head of the centre, won the New Zealander of the Year in 2008 and the centre received £100,000 from Helen Clarke’s Labour Government, which was meant to guarantee the centre’s stability until April 2011.

An online article in Times Higher Education reporting the news of the prospective closure gathered the most extraordinary of responses. Scholars expressed shock and concern. As always, the usual suspects who did not have the courage to use their own name decided to offer insightful judgments after a few wines. A sheep joke surfaced. But more worrying were the commentators who wanted British jobs for British workers, British universities for British students and British history for British citizens.

This is colonialism of the mind. While the sun has set on the British Empire, the consequences of this loss have been greeted with the intellectual subtlety of a small boy taking home his marbles after losing a game. If Britain cannot own New Zealand, then it is not necessary to know anything about it. It only fences a few sheep. We get the lamb roasts from Marks & Spencer anyway.

Actually, small nation studies are incredibly useful. They provide a test case for wider social and economic transformations. For example, two of my current doctoral students are producing studies of Cyprus. Andreas Masouras is constructing models of diversity in broadcasting and Antigoni Themistokleous is investigating media regulation. In understanding how EU mandates and policies operate, their research is timely. Cyprus is a small nation, but its size gives their research specificity and is informative for wider European media environments.

There is value in understanding histories that are not our own. One of the most important books emerging in this first strange decade of the 21st century is Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World. I have not been as moved, influenced or transformed by a book since I read E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class more than 20 years ago. Jacques has argued that “Western-style modernity” is not appropriate in tracking patterns of development in China, India, Indonesia and Brazil. He shows that Francis Fukuyama was wrong in affirming a singular narrative of progress, history, modernity, democracy and industrialisation. Instead, Jacques argues: “The narrowness, and consequent unrepresentativeness, of the Western experience is often overlooked, such has been the dominance that the West has enjoyed over the last two centuries.” While his focus remains on China, the impact of European domination through the 19th century propels his argument. Jacques’ book is an inspiration for scholars probing modernities, capitalisms and histories, rather than progress, freedom and stories.

Jacques’ work is a confirmation that differences should be studied with rigour. In comparison to China, New Zealand is a small nation. Nevertheless, it is remarkable. It offers a series of quietly distinctive models for managing cultural difference via biculturalism rather than multiculturalism. Even Richard Florida moved from his focus on the United States to commence The Flight of the Creative Class in Wellington. For creative industries theorists, New Zealand is much more than a few islands in the Pacific. Yes, there is The Lord of the Rings. This trilogy of blockbusters captures a significant intervention in histories of media mobility, globalisation and digitisation.

At our best, intellectuals are migrants to the places that transcend personal experience. To create knowledge, we extend beyond our homeland, beyond what we know. Those of us from formerly colonised nations have studied British history throughout our education. We keep bumping into symbols of invasion, conquest and loss. We speak your language. Your flag is nested in our own. We play your sports. Peel, Gladstone and Disraeli are better known than Barton, Deakin and Bruce. That is the nature of colonialism. The periphery knows about the centre. The question, in a post-colonial era, is whether there is a role for former colonies beyond New Zealand providing cheap lamb roasts and Australia sending cricketers to England every four years?

If the trolls, puppets and carping avatars who have commented anonymously on Times Higher Education’s website about the closure of the Centre for New Zealand Studies are the majority view, then only British subjects should be studied by British students. It is like post-colonialism never happened. If only New Zealanders are interested in – and should fund – a Centre for New Zealand Studies, then an unhealthy precedent is set, enabled through neo-liberalism. Those managing Parkinson’s disease should fund research into its cure. Citizens of colour must finance projects in racism. Those holding Islamic or Catholic faith pay for theology classes. Consider the international impact of such a decision. Should English migrants fund centres for English literature and history?

This is ridiculous. Ignorant. Foolish. The aim of research is to discover what we do not know. If research is locked into personal experience, then we reinforce already existing biases and views. Xenophobia, insularity, inwardness and backwardness must result. To tether research to identity politics – where we feel comfortable, settled and stable – will crush universities faster than any economic restructuring.

Considering all the research centres composed of a bloke sitting on a box holding little except an impressive letterhead and a bag of crisps, this home for New Zealand studies was and is valuable. However, David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck at the University of London, has announced that “the current director’s period of secondment at the College will come to an end at the end of September and an endowment has yet to be secured that would ensure that the Centre could continue in the longer term. We feel, therefore, that there is a need for a period of reflection and review to consider the way forward and also assess longer-term funding options.”

Professor Latchman may be right. The £100,000 funding from the New Zealand Government may be insufficient. But at some point, and sorry to operate against the tide of neo-liberalism, research is about more than the money. Difficult and defiant projects rarely attract corporate sponsorship. This does not mean that topics threatening “business as usual” should be avoided. If this country becomes lost in mantras of British jobs for British workers and British knowledge for British students, then education will die. We will block generations of scholars being courageous and thinking about the world beyond Jane Austen and Strictly Come Dancing.

Britain is a small nation and I am proud to live here. I admire the contours of the landscape, the subtle palette of colours and the gentle, warming light. I respect this country so much I even married one of its citizens. Indeed, some of my best friends are British. Yet to pretend that all the knowledge our students and fellow researchers require is sourced from this small island is misleading. There are many opportunities to investigate “British Studies”. Often this subject is renamed “History and Literature”.

Where can British scholars learn about colonialism? For example, I recently examined a doctorate investigating a British missionary in Samoa. I had assumed – as did my fellow examiner – that post-colonialism would play a part in this research. We were wrong. The student summoned a fairy tale where beautiful children were saved by British Christians. There were gorgeous – and disturbing – photographs of Samoan children sitting in pews in a Presbyterian church. We asked her about race and colonialism. She demonstrated no historical or theoretical knowledge, but – more worryingly – displayed no capacity to consider the dislocations created when imposing religious beliefs over other societies. Inevitably, I had to ask a direct question: “As an English woman – living in the heart of a former empire – what particular challenges did you confront researching a nation with a complex colonial history?” I looked at my fellow examiner with a raised eyebrow. She nodded. This was the crucial question to see if she could make the necessary corrections to this thesis, to transform it into more than pretty pictures of Samoan children sitting in a church. The doctoral candidate replied: “Oh yes. The expense of air travel between London and Samoa really hampered my research. It cost so much money to get there.” To cite Shakespeare’s Cassius without the vengeful irony, “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings”.

Britain had a powerful empire. It is still a potent political and economic force in the world. Its literature and music – from Shakespeare to the Beatles – dominates high and popular culture. The difficult question is what happens to Britain when the colonies disperse? With the closure of the Centre for New Zealand Studies, a pocket of challenge, question and critique is lost. It is not a decision that will help create British citizens that understand their past and can build a future shaped by great scholars like Martin Jacques.

Former colonised peoples speak English, enrol in courses titled English Literature, watch the Premier League and play cricket. However, this is not one-way traffic in power and culture. The September 2009 music charts saw Vera Lynn re-enter with her greatest hits album, released for the seventieth anniversary of the Second World War being declared. One song absent from We’ll Meet Again is Now Is The Hour. While Gracie Fields’ version is well known, the song’s Antipodean origins are less well remembered.

In 1913, an Australian piano piece was published, titled the Swiss Cradle Song. In 1915, it was adapted, given a Maori lyric, renamed Po Atarau and used to bid farewell to Maori soldiers as they left to fight for Britain during the First World War. By 1920, an English verse was added and the Po Atarau verse modified. Gracie Fields heard this new version, Haere Ra Waltz, when she visited New Zealand in 1945. She learnt the tune, renamed it Now Is The Hour and it became a hit in 1948. Bing Crosby then released an American version that topped the charts.

There is a lesson here. New Zealanders improved a song written by an Australian. No surprises there. But through this sonic migration, it became a soundtrack for the tragedies of war and colonisation. It was then performed in English by a British singer who provided the musical arrangement for an American icon. This is a story of popular culture. It is also a story of colonisation.

The Centre for New Zealand Studies may close. Its demise may be caused by the economy, stupid. We colonial types have often seen economic excuses mask more profound social transformations. Sam Neill captures this situation best in his outstanding documentary Cinema of Unease: A Personal Journey by Sam Neill. He offers the historical haiku for fellow citizens to remember.

“We would do our duty, and our duty was to produce cheap food for home. How many sheep lost their lives for the British Empire? Well I can tell you: 340 million sheep were raised here, slaughtered, sent to Britain at basement prices and converted into overcooked Sunday roasts. Then in 1973, Britain joined the common market without so much as a thank you very much. It was a betrayal of breathtaking ambivalence. The very reason for our existence had gone. We felt abandoned and incredibly stupid.”

Once more, Britain had an opportunity to understand colonialism. That door is closing. British scholars may metaphorically assume – following the final lyric of Now Is The Hour – when renewed interest surfaces in New Zealand via another filmic blockbuster that “you’ll find me waiting here”. Unfortunately, the Maori lyric of Now Is The Hour reveals a more melancholic truth. “Ki i te tau /E tangi atu nei” finds the loved one weeping with loss, rather than waiting patiently for a return. “Breathtaking ambivalence.” Again. It may be caused by the economy, stupid. It is also called colonialism, silly.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.