Hear our voices: 'Cultural cringe' an obsolete bias

By Peter Calder

It’s been almost 70 years since New Zealand poet Allen Curnow wrote of how hard it was to learn “the trick of standing upright here”. We’ve come a long way since the term “cultural cringe” was first coined.

We should feel proud of Kiwi stars who succeed like Kimbra, not anxious about their export, writes Peter Calder. Photo / Michael Craig
We should feel proud of Kiwi stars who succeed like Kimbra, not anxious about their export, writes Peter Calder. Photo / Michael Craig

Exactly when the moment was that we came of age as a nation rather depends on your point of view. But the speech Prime Minister David Lange gave on March 1, 1985 at the Oxford Union seemed like a good contender. The highlight was when a snooty American preppy asked how we could enjoy the protection of the nuclear umbrella while banning nuclear ships.

"I'm going to [tell you] if you hold your breath for a moment," Lange said. "I can smell the uranium on it as you lean towards me."

Even by the politician's considerable standards, it was a sparkling ad lib. And, delivered on a world stage, it was also a jolting dose of national self-assertion. The powerful symbolism of our nuclear-free stand had an impact out of all proportion to its effect on geopolitics, giving heart to people all over the word alarmed by Reagan-era brinkmanship. We had been racked by internal conflict over Vietnam and apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and early 1980s, but Lange's oratorical flourish distilled our sense of being distinctively ourselves and proud of it.

It's arguable that it was the beginning of the end of the cultural cringe that had been our prevailing self-image for half a century.

The idea that we were second-rate (except on the rugby field) was deeply ingrained into the national character: in "the Old Country", and later the US, was where real stuff happened; we were the globe's provincial hicks, and even the celebration of our successes carried the self-effacing qualification that the achievement was very good "for New Zealand".

It's hard to say when the idea that something was "made in New Zealand" became a source of pride, rather than a suggestion that we were settling for second-best. Our lamb has always been better than theirs, which is why Bill Clinton wanted tariffs to protect the fatty meat from the coyote-chewed sheep they rear in Montana, but in other areas it took the riskiest kind of groundbreaking to make us realise that we could do as well as the rest of the world - and better still, that what we did would be ours.

We loved the Beatles and the Beach Boys - and local artists were respected in direct proportion to their ability to do note-perfect cover versions of their songs. Our appetite for Dave Allen or Morecambe and Wise was insatiable; who would have imagined that they would soon be displaced in public affection by a man in gumboots and knee-length black singlet, or a Maori who - to his own enormous, cackling amusement - made jokes about Maori? Once we began to laugh at our own funny men and women, there was no stopping us: McPhail and Gadsby made "Jeez, Wayne" a national expression. Now brown faces like the Naked Samoans (and their animated avatars in bro'Town) and Madeleine Sami give a distinctive voice to local comedy, to go alongside Jaquie Brown's Kiwi take on the kind of neurotic self-obsession that we always imported.

Local acts like Kimbra, Gin Wigmore and Annah Mac are on high-rotate on kids' iPods. Flight of the Conchords may boast of being "New Zealand's fourth-best folk-comedy duo", but they have somehow managed to become the world's best at the same time. Hearing Oscar-winners making acceptance speeches in Kiwi accents has started to become routine.

Better still, many of these talents were recognised here before they made it big on a world stage. It was not so long ago that we took no notice of our achievers until they had been given international acclaim. We may lament the exodus of talent - not just artistic, but intellectual and technical - and it certainly poses economic challenges that require political and social solutions. But it's worth remembering that the stars who are born here and shine elsewhere are our product, not our property. We should feel proud of them, not anxious about their export.

It is beyond question that the baby-boomer generation now reaching retirement has made the country more culturally lithe and nimble than the one it was born into. As an economy, we are still too dependent on selling our agricultural produce - the experts say a foot-and-mouth outbreak could assign us third-world status almost instantly - but the days have gone when we sent everything overseas for others to add value to. Boutique (and bigger) producers of everything from cheese to fine merino and software continue to showcase this as a place that prizes quality above quantity and prices itself accordingly.

The challenge facing the boomers is to consider what future they are handing down to their children. They are the first generation in the country's - perhaps the world's - history whose children will be worse-off than they were - in some areas, such as education, health care, housing and employment massively so. Indeed, the last generation has seen the emergence of large and conspicuous underclass; the word "poverty" has taken over from "socio-economic disadvantage". To add insult to injury, the burden on the working-age population of earning enough to fund national superannuation will double in the next 30 years.

The changes that have taken place in the generation since the 80s have been dizzying. In 1981, many of us were still watching black-and-white television. The 80s carphone, as big as a brick and wired into a suitcase-sized receiver in the boot, has become a tiny accoutrement carried by even the smallest child, which downloads video of breaking news - or best mates - in real time.

It is observably the case that the pace of change always accelerates, and it will continue to do so. The country - and the world - that today's youngsters will inherit will be as unrecognisable to their parents as today's would have been to their great-grandparents. But it is not too much to hope that the typical New Zealanders of the mid-century will be as resilient and adaptable as their counterparts anywhere, ready for whatever might come their way.

Peter Calder is a Herald columnist and critic who is old enough to remember when people thought that something made in New Zealand was second-rate.

- From The Magazine featured in the September 10 new-look New Zealand Herald.

- NZ Herald

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