Another kick in the pants for New Zealand's 'smiling zombies'

By Andrew Stone

Gordon McLauchlan believes New Zealanders need to talk tough to one another. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Gordon McLauchlan believes New Zealanders need to talk tough to one another. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Movies get remade, so why not books?

The Passionless People was a runaway success for author Gordon McLauchlan when it dismantled New Zealand society and framed its citizens as inert, smug and content. "Smiling zombies" was McLauchlan's phrase for the people who inhabited its fair shores in 1976.

With the addition of a verb and nearly four more decades of close inspection, McLauchlan has returned with The Passionless People. The author may have changed - he is now 81 and carrying some of the burden of the years - but his convictions remain intact.

The cast of the new book has an appropriate 21st century flavour but under the bonnet the moving parts of the new edition adhere faithfully to the model which served him well 37 years ago: McLauchlan offers excoriating judgments, biting satire, and the same breezy prose which has laced all his works.

He dissects booze culture - "passionless piss-ups" - the growing gap between rich and poor, sex, and casts a jaundiced eye across the state of literature. His verdict: "Our writers now mostly cruise through the minor angst of the middle-classes while large injustices thrive around them."

Here is McLauchlan on Prime Minister John Key: "I am fascinated by his incredible slightness of being. We know nothing much about him at all."

On welfare reform: "It will soon become blazingly obvious to the underclass that their best [course] of action is ... to get honours degrees from the London School of Economics and take jobs in Treasury. Then they wouldn't need to know anything painful about the world at large, would understand that people are economic units not human beings in a broader sense and could get jobs on government advisory committees as long as they add and subtract - especially subtract."

And - a particular bugbear of the journalist in McLauchlan - the dreaded committee meeting: "Part of the motivation for the committee is a kind of cowardice, a fear of taking responsibility. If people take a decision alone they are responsible for the outcome, as they should be. Fearful that the result of that decision may be challenged they seek refuge in the imprimatur of a meeting. This spreads any blame."

McLauchlan's bleak conclusion from his new study of zombie-land is that its people have swapped frowns for smiles, aware yet incapable of arresting an inexorable drift towards social and economic disaster. We have jumped from the sheep's back into the banker's maw, leased the home and become an economic colony, largely of Australia, with China waiting in the wings.

The man responsible for these assertions is not some bitter old crone spitting tacks over a keyboard and lamenting a world he once knew.

His mood when he wrote Revisited - the backdrop is last year's election - was "jolly".

"It seems," he says, on a sunny morning in his central Auckland apartment, "if you're over 70 and criticise things you're grumpy. I'm not grumpy. I hate grumpy people."

If anything, McLauchlan says he was disappointed that the 2011 campaign was a flat, dispiriting period when blind Freddy could see the country was "broken".

He characterises the result as "a face winning by a nose". McLauchlan says some mistake his trenchant political views and assume that he is anti-National.

"I'm not. I just think we've been appallingly governed now for years." His favourite prime minister, by a country mile, was the patrician Keith Holyoake.

In his book he puts it this way: "It's been a long time since anyone spilt blood over politics in this country - and for that let us be thankful - but it would be nice if we could clear the phlegm from our throats and talk tough to one another about the future with nothing off the agenda.

"Give the politicians Viagra eye-drops so they can take a hard look at themselves."

McLauchlan's phrase "passionless people" took root in New Zealand's cultural landscape after the opening salvo was published, despite the rather large insult it levelled.

Right from the start it was challenged by critics who argued the land boiled with passion, especially in the convulsive events surrounding the 1981 Springbok tour.

The author says that view is wrong. "Passion is not just anger, the madness of the moment," he says.

"It's not just throwing bricks, it's explaining why you're throwing bricks. To have passion means to have a firm conviction about something like fairness, equality, or decency. It doesn't mean you have a closed mind, but the moral courage to say why this is right or wrong."

Warming to his theme he asserts: "There is no debate in this country. A typical New Zealand debate involves someone shouting and someone shouting back and then there's an embarrassed silence."

Little chance though of McLauchlan dropping the shutters. He's got a book due mid-year on ports and wharfies, and is writing another. As for the passionless land, he thinks it might take a full-blown calamity to shake up the place.

There's a basic decency here, he offers. "It's just you can't get them off their arse to make them feel strongly about things that should matter to them more."

* The Passionless People Revisited by Gordon McLauchlan (David Bateman, $29.99, Published April 16).

- NZ Herald

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