Week in Review

Book of the Week: Linda Burgess on the New Zealand male

Linda Burgess ponders the baby boomer generation of New Zealand men after reading the autobiography of Wellington historian Jock Phillips.

Massey University auditorium, late 1970s. There’s a meeting of feminists and an English lecturer, male, who has declared himself a feminist, attends. Afterwards, he’s ropable: he’s made it very clear he’s a feminist, yet he’s not been given due deference. He feels mocked. His body language says, they’ve had their chance, and now they’ve lost it.

A couple of hundred kilometres down the road, Victoria University student Jock Phillips is putting his foot in the same deceptively tranquil pond. This is an interesting time to be a male. Male baby boomers are there for one of the sharpest social transitions ever. Their fathers, still in a job guaranteed for life, have often been away to war and have come back on the silent side; mowing the lawns, planting the veg but not the flowers; their mothers putting meals on the table, the washing on the line and biscuits in the tins. If born a decade earlier, male baby boomers would have done what their fathers did, choose a career and stay in it.  Buy a house for less than $10 000.

Marry someone like their mother.

Not all families were the same, of course, not everyone had a mother like mine – clever, but doomed by the Depression to leave school early and to spend her 40s looking through the Venetian blinds waiting for us to come home from school for lunch. Although in my generation, this is a typical enough memory. Phillips’ childhood, as described in his autobiography Making History, was more like the ones kids in books had – the brainy kids’ books, written by E Nesbit and Arthur Ransome. His parents were both intellectuals, both historians, his father becoming when quite young, Professor of History then the VC of Canterbury University. The Phillips’ house guests weren’t just ex-Lance Bombardiers nicknamed Budgie who needed picking up from the bus stop. They had names that still can be found cluttering multiple indexes.

In small-town Taranaki at least, New Zealanders were still inclined to be anti-intellectual. Baby boomers’ mothers often didn’t work, and able girls of my generation were being pointed towards two occupations – nursing, or teaching. Nursing had an advantage: the heightened opportunity to marry a doctor. Phillips, though, is able to float cleverly along on a stream of intellectual privilege.

Both his parents are ardent anglophiles, they’ve made it clear that New Zealand doesn’t really have a history yet, and bugger off back to Britain’s ancient monuments and decent conversations the minute they retire. By then Phillips has done exactly what you expect him to do – done well at Vic, and won his way into Harvard, and discovers New Zealand history.

Wait. Just like the generations before it and after it, baby boomers want to do things differently. Just like lots of us, Phillips is photographed in dewy-eyed youth protesting against war and racism. And this is where baby boomers start to go in different directions. This is where some ride the wave, others paddle lazily, and others change sides.

Phillips was an absolute genius – probably like his father, it seems – at working out, moments before most people did, the way things were going. Not only academically bright, he knows how to read the times. It is pretty much impossible to imagine anyone doing it better. How did he manage to not be eviscerated by feminists, seen as a girl’s blouse by his father’s generation? How did he know that history wasn’t facts and figures, but the lives of real people?

I’ve watched this generation on this way through; I’ve been of it. Quite recently I’ve noticed that those who do well – and I mean the men, because don’t tell me it’s still not a man’s world, less so, but God it’s not equal yet – those who do well, the men, are the ones who’ve had said to them, you’re nothing boy. You’re shit. The boys who’ve cruised through high school, confident in their ability, don’t always have the killer instinct.

So I find Phillips particularly interesting. All the way through, he’s had it. He could be obnoxiously entitled. But he’s thought, I want things my way. I want things different. Let’s be involved, let’s push things in an interesting direction, and let’s be decent. He never seems to think, I’m special, I can do this. He just knows he can, so he’ll give it a go.

This is a book written by a man whose contribution has been exceptional, but more importantly, over decades when change has often been cruel, his contribution has been benign.

*

His mother was landed gentry, or the New Zealand version of it, with a childhood that included ponies, governesses and boarding school. The young Phillips grew up knowing significant historians as family friends. His early years were spent having proper grownup conversations; he went off to Christ’s College where he excelled. Why the reader doesn’t feel unattractive envy is because you never feel that he is what used to be called skiting. Even when he mentions getting 100 percent for School C maths.

Just after this display of alarming competence he’s taken off by his parents for a year in London, where he goes to a public school known for its academic excellence. He comes back to New Zealand and just scrapes on to the Scholarship list. That is, New Zealand’s top 70 students.

It was at Harvard that he realised how little he knew about New Zealand history. He went down to the bottom of the university library – so far down that the floor was dirt – and found their collection of New Zealand history books. He was converted. 

By this stage I was thinking, this isn’t a memoir, it’s that rare thing these days, an autobiography. The memoirist uses personal recall and draws on anecdotes that a family tells – whether true or not. The memoir writer is free to extrapolate, to reinvent. The memoir is closer to the novel than to its brainy sister, the autobiography. The autobiographer, with a desk stuffed with letters and articles and family records, draws on a primary source – mostly themselves, and a collation of letters and newspaper articles – especially if the autobiographer is an historian and comes from an esteemed family who have meticulously kept their correspondence. And this is what Phillips’ historian-heavy family has done: Jock’s parents and sisters and friends appear to have kept every letter he wrote; and there were a lot of them. The schoolboy historian, the working historian, also appears to have kept every cutting in which he featured from the paper.

He was in at the beginning of a change in how we look at history, as interested in the lives of ordinary people as in the achievements of prime ministers. He believed profoundly that historians could and should exist outside of academia.

Always prepared to learn, by nature inclusive, he learnt how to navigate around various iwi. With a tendency to pair up with feminists, he wrote extensively on what manhood implies in New Zealand. Locally, he was there for the founding of the Stout Centre, Te Papa, and that wonderful thing, Te Ara, the online encyclopedia that I found extraordinarily useful when writing two books about historic buildings. I love Te Ara for its writing – accessible but never patronising – and for the way it allows you such easy access to so many sources. He was Chief Historian. This book has mesmerising insights into the public service – he rights some of the wrongs that Roger Hall did by portraying public servants as idle sandal-wearing no-hopers.

Never spiteful – well perhaps, just the once – he shows how hard it’s been to attempt to get things right after the disaster that was Rogernomics. He makes it clear that some people are promoted beyond their capabilities, that others are found – disastrously – expendable and that some battles can feel won, until the next one comes along. He comments on bad experiences as well as good ones, and I’m guessing he sometimes chooses just to leave things out. Generally though, the book has optimism at its heart.

Phillips had a most fortunate childhood, which gave him more perhaps than his fair share of opportunity, but what this book proves is that he used it. There’s no sense of entitlement, just a drive to use those things he was gifted with not only to his own advantage, but New Zealand’s. The title says it all: it’s not only his story, but ours.

Making History: A New Zealand Story by Jock Phillips (Auckland University Press, $45)

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