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‘Far from Home: The English in New Zealand’ by Lyndon Fraser & Angela McCarthy

Far from Home 180 x 230

 

   

 

Far from Home: The English in New Zealand

Lyndon Fraser & Angela McCarthy

Otago University Press, 2012. 

ISBN 978 1 877578 32 8

 

At my New Zealand primary school in the early-mid 1950s recent arrivals from England stood out like a sore thumb.  The boys wore socks with sandals, their shorts were too long, the top button of their shirt was done up and their hair was too neatly groomed.  But how would it have seemed 75 years earlier?  What, if anything, would have marked off the English from the other immigrant groups that had been arriving in New Zealand since the 1830s and 40s?  This is the question that the contributors to this latest Otago University Press migration-centred publication address.

It is not a question that has often been studied.  Although the English were the largest population group to migrate and settle in New Zealand, forming alongside Maori the other dominant stream within the emergent national culture, any distinctiveness seems to have been quickly lost.  There was no obvious English equivalent of the way in which Scottish and Irish immigrants retained and perpetuated an awareness of their cultural origins.  One reason for this was simply to do with their dominant status.  As Lachlan Paterson, in one of the best essays in this volume argues, this made it harder, or less important, for the English to cling to any points of difference.  The Scots and the Irish, although proportionately more numerous in New Zealand than in Britain, remained in a minority and were  therefore more likely to insist on their own distinctiveness.  Paterson even suggests that the Scots and the Irish could claim common historical ground with Maori, each having been colonised by England, though I’m not sure how much evidence there is for this ever happening.

There were other, more specific reasons for the way in which the Scots and Irish preserved their cultural identity when compared with the English.  An important one was religion.  Presbyterianism and Roman Catholicism were religiously and culturally cohesive in a way that the via media of Anglicanism could never be, although it should be remembered there were Scottish Catholics and Irish Protestants as well.  Another reason was geographical concentration.  Minority immigrant groups, at least at first, tended to cluster whereas English immigrants spread throughout the country.  Accent and even language was a further reason.  Although Gaelic was preserved only in the unique Scottish Presbyterian redoubt of Waipu, varieties of ‘braid Scots’ dialect influenced the speech of Scottish settlers in New Zealand and helped preserve a sense of cultural identity.  Irish and Scottish accents had regional variations, but nothing like the range of English accents which differed according to class as well as region.

This leads to several further problems that this collections addresses.  One is the amorphousness of ‘the English’ as a group.  As Stephen Constantine, in an essay whose title – ‘In Search of the English and Englishness’ – captures the main problematic of this volume concludes: ‘there was not ... a singular English identity, but several.’  Differences of class, of region (north and south most obviously), and the wide cultural variation across many different parts of England made it more difficult for the English migrant to identify with a home national culture in the way that the Scots and Irish did.  Anything that might be theirs, Queen Victoria for example, also belonged to others.  Whatever was English was also British.

This slippage between England and Britain is at the heart of the matter.  The hegemonic use of England as shorthand for Britain is irritating for the Irish, Scottish and Welsh, but also had the effect of diffusing any specific characteristics or qualities that might be regarded as English.  The constitutional arrangements of Britain today illustrate this.  Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each have their own parliament but England doesn’t.  In both New Zealand and at home, English dominance seems paradoxically to have resulted in a certain cultural invisibility.  In New Zealand, as most of the contributors agree, any particular English distinctiveness became lost within the more generic identity of Pakeha.  Only Janet Wilson’s wide-ranging essay on the literature of the English diaspora in New Zealand, and to a lesser extent Greg Ryan’s on colonial drinking customs, suggest a strong and continuing influence of Englishness.  In the case of literature, the persistence of language and forms from the mother country was also true of other settler societies and suggests a time-lag that was particular to cultural production.  Other contributors discern no more than what Stephen Constantine terms a ‘soft’ influence, one that is often difficult to pin down.

The subject of this interesting and valuable collection of essays proves therefore to be curiously elusive, something of a shifting target.  But this, in itself, establishes a significant point about the complex nature of New Zealand settler society and culture as it emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.

Rod Edmond

March 2013