Auckland: Sound of a city's voice

By Gordon McLauchlan

As Auckland merges to create a supercity, the Herald looks back at how Auckland has changed over the years. Click here to view the full series.

John Mulgan, author of novel Man Alone. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
John Mulgan, author of novel Man Alone. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

The faux poet from Christchurch, D'Arcy Cresswell, has been quoted as saying many years ago: "New Zealand wasn't truly discovered until Ursula Bethell 'very earnestly digging' raised her head to look at the mountains. Almost everyone had been blind before."

He is not the only one to make that point. Although Bethell was one of those Cantabrians who were more English than the English, her poetry rang true, without the maudlin overtones of what went before her.

About the same time, although half her age, a greater New Zealand poet, R. A. K. Mason, was starting to write in Auckland and he was the true
discoverer of a poetry that helped the country emerge from the grey shadow of colonial artistic life, which had previously existed as an appendage of British culture.

During the 1930s, and mostly in Auckland because Auckland had what no other place had as much of - a growing urban population more attached to the outside world - these writers, some of them self-consciously, set about telling New Zealand stories in a New Zealand way.

Argentinian novelist Guillermo Martinez refers to a proverb of his
homeland: "A small town is a vast hell". And in terms of literature
and art that is as true of New Zealand as anywhere else.

Artists such as painter Frances Hodgkins, writers Katherine Mansfield, Jean Devanny and James Courage, and scholar Ronald Syme had fled from the country's intolerable (forthe artist) narrowness and puritanism. And stayed away.

New Zealand remained a hard place to breathe for writers who often hyperventilate in the act of creating, but the place at least had the pull of "home" for those such as A. R. D Fairburn and Frank Sargeson. They went to England but came back. Some writers did not leave.

The quite abrupt change towards a New Zealand literature is best illustrated by the culture gap between Alan Mulgan, a cringingly
sentimentalist writer who was literary editor of the Auckland Star, and his astringently realist writer son, John.

In the 1930s, in the depths of the Great Depression and heading towards another world war, John Mulgan was one of a group of University of Auckland students who were contentious towards the university establishment and challenged the conventions in an explicit way in controversial small magazines and in the student's magazine Craccum. They included James Bertram, A. R. D. Fairburn, Mason, Allen Curnow, Desmond (later Paddy) Costello and Bob Lowry.

At the same time, independent of the university but part of the Auckland cultural ferment, were writers Frank Sargeson, Roderick Finlayson, politician John A Lee, Jane Mander, and Robin Hyde, who was working as a journalist on the Observer. John Mulgan's Man Alone, a story steeped in the Depression, was picked over for years by critics and sociologists and became an emblem for the loner - the puritanical, stoical, uncommunicative Kiwi male.

Fairburn constantly berated politicians and bureaucrats with satirical verse and articles, and there is no mistaking the depth of his wrath when you read the opening lines of his poem, Dominion: The house of the governors, guarded by eunuchs, and over the arch of the gate

It was the same with Mason, who wrote many poems inspired by what Allen Curnow later called his "compassionate anger", including the well known Christ poem, On the Swag.

Mander, Devanny and Lee wrote movingly of poverty. Sargeson was less direct in his engagement with society but he spoke with uncanny accuracy, in the voice of ordinary people. Finlayson wrote stories of Maori and their repression.

These Aucklanders were the first New Zealand cluster of writers and they provided a platform on which a mature and intrinsically New Zealand literature stood up; and what was most distinctive about their work was its free, lively and unintimidated engagement with social injustice, poverty and inequality.

So what is striking about contemporary Auckland writers - make that New Zealand writers - is their detachment from the matters of social justice or the fundamental political and social freedoms and concerns of their fellow citizens.

Poets and novelists, both realists and satirists, have their scrutinising place in Britain and America but most here show indifference to dealing with the live issues of public concern, not only in their work but as writers within the community.

Apart from a few satirical journalists, the quarrels with the world of our contemporary writers and their fictional characters seem mostly confined to stories of middle-class bickering and angst; and among themselves they expend much energy on silly, internecine spats - such as the recent attack on C. K. Stead about his prize-winning short story - spats the great reading public neither understands or cares much about.

For years, the freedom of writers and journalists in the Pacific
Islands has been under pressure. In other parts of the democratic world, the writers' organisation PEN actively supports near neighbours.
But not here.

I quote, as I have often done, James K Baxter: "One of the functions of artists in a community is to provide a healthy and permanent element of rebellion; not to become a species of civil servant."

Are too many current writers unwilling to offend the establishment in the way their 1930s forebears would have done? A question that must be asked is whether this lack of engagement with the world is because they
have been lulled by the largesse of too much patronage?

Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland writer.

Taking to the airwaves

The best-known voice in Auckland during the Great Depression belonged to a down-to-earth churchman who had a radio station and called himself "Uncle Scrim".

Radio was in its infancy. Wireless telegraphy had been discovered 30 years before but quickly brought under Government licensing control.

The first broadcast programme was not licensed until 1921. Commercial broadcasts were permitted the following year, though advertising was prohibited.

Licences required mainly local content, and religion had to be emphasised at certain times on Sundays. The Rev C G Scrimgeour was a colourful and charismatic Methodist City Missioner. He used films to enliven his Sunday evening services but it was in the new medium of
radio that he made his mark.

Scrimgeour started on 1ZR, a station owned by the music shop Lewis Eady, and then with financial contributions from thousands of Aucklanders, he set up station 1ZB. He called it Radio Church of
the Friendly Road and through the Depression it broadcast his concerns for urban poor and unemployed.

"Scrim", as he was known, did more than talk about their plight, he organised the Auckland Social Worker's Association and Businessmen's Relief Service.

But it was his Sunday radio programme, Man in the Street that got him into trouble.

On the last Sunday before the 1935 election the Government became convinced he intended to use it to urge votes for the Labour Party, which was led by his good friend Michael JosephSavage.

Savage's biographer Barry Gustafson reports that the Post Office radio section assistant engineer, Thomas Clarkson, was told to jam IZB's transmission using equipment secretly set up in the Newmarket railway yard.

"As soon as Scrim started to address the voters his voice was drowned by a loud, raucous static," wrote Gustafson. "The following morning,
before the machine could be removed, Scrim accompanied by Mayor Davis (Sir Ernest Davis, a part-owner of the radio station) and Lee (John A. Lee, an Auckland Labour MP) arrived at the railway yard."

Postmaster General Adam Hamilton, soon to be the first leader of the National Party, denied prior knowledge but Gustafson believes the Government "undoubtedly suffered from the widespread and adverse public reaction."

If there was another voice the public came to know well on the "wireless" it was that of Savage himself. He became the first Prime Minister to make full use of the medium, occasionally copying the "fireside chats" of his contemporary in the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt.

- NZ Herald

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