A marriage and self-serving boomer men
A remarkable personal essay by the great pioneering New Zealand feminist Phillida Bunkle on an autobiography by her ex-husband - and her version of events of a strange incident when a politician threw her out of his house because he thought she was picketing a beauty pageant.
During the 1970s and 1980s a new baby-boomer generation of male intellectuals redefined New Zealand’s place in the world. Between them they constructed a new national narrative. Jock Phillips and Chris Maclean, two of its leaders, have published beautifully written and presented memoirs: Maclean’s A Way With Words came out last year, and Making History by Phillips earlier this year. Both books describe the development of a powerful, confident, optimistic narrative of New Zealand, celebrating our unique position and our independent, progressive identity that was fitting for a generation born, as Maclean puts it, “into the best of times”.
But for women seeking a place in that new narrative, the moral of their books is this: keep your own documents, even the little cards that come with the flowers. For without even these small reminders you will be trapped in subjective, unbalanced, exaggerated accounts of your life.
Phillips and Maclean were close friends. I was married to Jock and acquainted with Chris. Our triangle forms a key, revealing episode in both their books.
Maclean’s autobiography is the more self-revealing of the two. He basks in his strength and fitness, and conveys what he feels about the tramping experience, “what it is like to cross a river, run down a scree slope and share a backcountry hut with strangers…especially using a drop toilet.”
By contrast, Phillips, the consummate historian, presents his life as a cultural artefact placed carefully on public display, correctly located in its period, precisely labelled, professionally explained, the provenance meticulously preserved. He's an excellent curator of his self but the person beneath remains elusive, unreachable; his reserve even unnerving.
We learn a great deal about Phillips’ roles within the institutions he served because he catalogues them precisely and at length. But we catch only rare, modulated glimpses of his authentic self, as if seen high on a distant mountain pass.
Maclean and Phillips were close companions through the formative 15 years of research and exploration that shaped the emerging new narrative. The two friends shared strikingly similar backgrounds. Both their fathers graduated from New Zealand universities and won prestigious Oxbridge scholarships; they'd returned to New Zealand after World War II hoping to establish academic careers, and both made advantageous marriages to women whose capital defined the social status of the families they created. And both sent their sons to conservative Anglican prep schools, followed by prestigious private boys schools.
Phillips made an early mark as a theorist of masculine culture, with his chapter “Mummy’s Boys: Pakeha Men and Male Cultures in New Zealand,’’ published in a book Beryl Hughes and I edited in 1980.
Seven years later, he expanded his essay into a prize-winning book, A Man’s Country?, which analysed male identity in New Zealand. While alert to the construction of masculinity, Phillips did not, however, analyse the gendered pattern of power between men and women. In his world, men are the principal victims of masculinity.
Phillips was closely identified with defining the Kiwi male response to second-wave feminism. Some feminists regarded him as a fellow traveller. But he did little to explore New Zealand's changing family culture. It proved a significant omission.
Maclean, meanwhile, as well as working as a property restorer, gallery developer, multi-media artist and photographer, researched and wrote impressive biographies of mountaineer John Pascoe and hunter Stag Spooner, culminating in his monumental study co-authored with Shaun Barnett, Tramping: A New Zealand History.
His work as a writer and publisher got an early career boost from Internal Affairs, and both men won major literary prizes. Maclean was awarded the Ministry of Culture and Heritage history prize of $60,000, and twice won the history book prize at the national book awards.
Phillips rightly if adoringly describes himself as “the leading public historian of his age”. He had a major role in developing the institutions that gave public expression to the new nationalism in galleries, museums, libraries, archives, and television. His career saw him establish the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies, and he was appointed the government’s chief historian in his role at Te Ara, the official encyclopaedia of New Zealand. He won honours from the Queen, the Royal Society, and Victoria University of Wellington, as well as the lucrative Prime Minister’s Award for literary achievement in non-fiction.
These careers are examples of the emergence of a new publicly-funded role for New Zealand’s intellectual class. Phillips details his key role in the management and oversight of the new relationship between intellectuals and the state. Maclean is well aware that, unlike the pre-war generation of literary nationalists, he benefited from unprecedented largesse provided by central and local government and lotteries. Phillips shrewdly recognised that the national narrative was related to the rise of boomer opportunities and audiences. He calculates, "The number of people with university degrees had risen from about 5000 in 1944 to over 200,000."
It led to “a new cultural nationalism which resulted in a re-definition of New Zealand’s identity...This awakening of Aotearoa to a new vision of itself has been the most challenging and exciting development of the last twenty years in New Zealand." Certainly his own “yearning nationalism” found a well-paid home.
By his own account, Phillips excelled at weaving valuable links between public funding bodies and cultural institutions, especially the newly created Ministry for Culture and Heritage. He was an important advisor to a number of influential funding bodies such as the Fulbright Awards. As a key gatekeeper, Phillips extended recruitment to carefully chosen students and creative people.
He was also able to claim his own personal autonomy. He writes that he “had broken with the cultural traditions of my upbringing, and, in exploring the society and culture of my own country, I had found my niche in life.”
He argues that New Zealand historians had singularly failed to explore New Zealand culture “in all its richness — its smells, its tastes, its fashions, its rituals, its words”. No New Zealand stone was left unturned as the two friends set out to remedy this failure. In doing so, they invented an innovative On-The-Road style and method of dynamic history-making, “calling upon other bodily movements than the rather passive act of reading words on a page.”
In A Way With Words, Maclean joyfully describes how, in the years of research leading up to the publication of their first jointly co-authored book, he and Phillips spent many happy weeks and most holidays away from home wandering “from one end of the country to the other.”
Their travel expenses, he complains, were “hardly met” by a grant of $2000 from the Alexander Turnbull Library, but the two men enjoyed “some marvellous moments of discovery”. They savoured the freedom and exhilaration of road trips in which “every day was full of humour and learning,” exuberantly interspersed “with body surfing, walks and, when time allowed, longer overnight tramping trips.
They visited “art galleries, battle sites, churches, cemeteries, marae and museums, and stayed in backcountry huts, motels, motor camp cabins and sometimes camped.”
During the late 1980s, while preparing their next shared volume, the pair augmented their road trips by spending “many evenings looking at slides while relaxing over red wine, discussing images and making choices”.
From 1976 to 1990, their creative partnership was central to the emotional life and loyalties of both men. It spanned the arrival of Maclean’s own children, the entire childhood of Phillips’ children and continued until the publication of their book The Sorrow and the Pride in 1990 - and the beginning of the end of my marriage to Jock.
But what of their understanding of family dynamics, including their own?
Maclean gives scant attention to the apparently largely emotionally detached businessman his father had become. Phillips' father was so emotionally inaccessible that Jock knew little of his father’s past until he recovered the story for his own autobiography.
Strict physical and emotional discipline makes an army out of unconnected men. For years, war had cut off a father's generation from domesticity. When they finally returned in command of their own families many men would unquestioningly use authoritarian means of control, often including passive-aggressive verbal stonewalling or physical withdrawal to hide away at the RSA or the shed, behind a newspaper, up a mountain or in front of a screen.
The distant-father syndrome deprives boys of a close connection to their father, and of an internally felt assurance of their own masculinity. A boy's sense of being a man is not based on an internalised sense of self but on external markers. Preoccupied with the father’s legacy they feel they must earn their father's attention. Boys deprived in this way can step into adulthood only when they measure up and achieve more. This may take the form of more risks taken, heights scaled, speeds achieved, drinks downed, girls scored or maybe more socially approved undertakings such as securing more money, or recognition, or influence,
As adults, boys raised in such families are also likely to feel intensely ambivalent about intimate female partners.
For Phillips and Maclean, it’s possible that their mothers, Pauline and Joan, came closer to the ideal of the post-war wife and mother than most. Both women were exceptionally well-educated and, crucially, both had control of substantial unearned income. This income not only elevated the standard of living and class identity of their families, but also their own power and influence within them. In the case of Pauline Phillips, the home and garden over which she presided with unobtrusive grace was provided and maintained by the university. In addition, her extended family provided care for her children during holidays and lengthy overseas trips.
If Maclean’s and Phillips' mothers significantly raised expectations about wifely care, they may also have increased the urgency of their need for periods of escape from domesticity.
Philips neglects to mention his mother’s public life as the president of the Mothers Union and author of its now unobtainable booklet, What Boys Should Know. But his account leaves no doubt that his mother personally embodied the ideals and values of the mother of public ideology.
The autobiographies suggest that feminist questioning of that ideology would, however, bring considerable tension into their families and those of their contemporaries.
After our marriage ended, Phillips would find lasting happiness in a second, more class-appropriate marriage. However the scant attention both memoirs give to the families they created in adulthood contrasts with the detailed attention given to understanding the construction of the families in which they grew up. Yet the transformation of family life is one of the most conspicuous characteristics of the boomer generation, and one most closely connected to our country’s less celebrated problems.
Maturity was defined as freedom from, not within, the family. Freedom, as Maclean wrote, was “to put on boots and a pack containing all you need for a few days and step out across rough ground”. It provided escape from the patterns of paternal power and maternal oversight familiar from their childhood. But the relief of shaking off the impediments of wives, children and suburbs was not always temporary.
Both autobiographies run headlong into a divide between inclusive, publicly-held values regarding women, and the peripheral position actually granted to women in private.
Phillips thanks two women who saved his letters. His correspondence makes it possible for him to tell his story with such precision. Tellingly, though, he didn't preserve their replies. They were simply less important to him than he was to them.
As the boomer boys groped towards a viable model of authentic manhood and paternal authority, they found neither easy intimacy nor an affectionate, supportive journey towards adulthood but rather encountered a silent, distant emotional vacuum. On-again, off-again relationships come and go, and children wash around in their wake. Career success and public acknowledgement remain the only constant measures of the self. The “good family man” departed from the nation’s story, leaving a yawning silence at its centre.
Phillips and Maclean lavish praise upon colleagues of many genders and ethnicities but the public and private stand inexorably apart, just as they have always done in innumerable conventional memoirs from previous generations. Take, for example, an incident considered sufficiently salient to be included in both memoirs at which I happened to be present. It concerns a beauty pageant, “a feminist picket line”, and a politician who forcibly threw me out of his house.
The incident in December 1983 was at the launch of In the Light of the Past, their first important jointly authored book. Maclean writes in his memoir, “We launched it at Carrigafoyle, an elegant mansion on The Terrace in Wellington. Its owner was the property developer and city councillor Rex Nicholls... But the occasion turned out to be a strange one. At the time, the Wellington City Council was debating whether to hold the Miss World beauty pageant in Wellington, and Rex supported the proposal. The book launch had been arranged before the controversy and Jock and I, perhaps naively, never considered the two might become linked. We did not endorse Rex’s view, but we were caught off guard. Guests arriving for the launch had to cross a feminist picket line.”
He continues, “For Jock’s wife Phillida, herself a prominent feminist, this was an impossible situation: she spent part of her time inside Carrigafoyle and part outside with the protesters on the pavement. Absorbed in the party, I was barely aware of the picket, but for Jock the situation was extremely stressful.”
Phillips describes the same incident in this way: “Rex Nicholls...had just become a city councillor and had just joined the majority on council voting to give money for the Miss World contest to come to Wellington. When we arrived at Carrigafoyle for the launch, there to greet us was a protest group carrying banners and chanting aggressively about Rex’s attack on women’s rights. It was embarrassing for me and Chris; it was even more embarrassing for Phillida, who knew many of those on the picket line.
“The evening was saved from disaster only by an excellent launching speech...and by the fact that when Phillida and I returned home there on the doorstep was a huge bowl of flowers, and a glorious apology from the feminists who had greeted us.”
I was married to Jock Phillips at the time. My memories are somewhat different.
The evening began normally. I arranged a babysitter, settled my two children and arrived at Carrigafoyle to assist Roberta, Rex Nicholls's then-wife, in the kitchen. We dipped summer strawberries into chocolate, arranged plates, and finalised the catering preparations for a large crowd.
All went well until Nicholls suddenly began berating me ferociously in the hallway. I hadn't registered the presence of people on the pavement outside and had no idea why Nicholls should have become so upset. He moved me backwards towards a window. Gesticulating wildly, he pointed to some women on the pavement, and accused me of organising their presence. He wouldn't accept my statement that I recognised only two of them, had no idea why they were there in the first place, and was certainly not responsible for their presence.
Frightened, I appealed to my husband Jock to confirm it. But he was embarrassed by the commotion and remained silent. Hissing abuse, Nicholls demanded that I leave his house. He then grabbed my arm and roughly thrust me outside, telling me to “join my friends”.
Shaking, I briefly asked the two people I recognised within the small group why they were there. They confirmed that I had nothing to do with their presence. I stood on the pavement, frozen in shock. I realised that my ejection from the house had been so abrupt that my coat, my handbag, and my keys to the car remained inside - along with my husband.
I hoped that Jock would offer some gesture of concern or at least bring out the car keys. These hopes were in vain.
Shaken, I had little alternative but to make my way down the unlighted steps to Lambton Quay and try to catch a bus home. The babysitter would, I thought, let me in. When the bus came I realised my money was in my purse at Nicholls's house. The bus driver, seeing my tear-stained face, let me stay on the bus until the end of the Quay. Still far from home, worried that I needed to relieve the babysitter, and uncertain when my husband would return, I had little alternative but to make my way back up the dark hill and hide near the car until Jock emerged.
When we finally arrived home, we found a bunch of flowers on the doorstep. Jock assumed they were for him. He failed to see that they were addressed to me, or that the senders, who didn't give their names, had included an apology for the distress they had inadvertently caused - to me, not Jock.
But the damage was not so easily undone. The suspicion that I had set out to sabotage the book launch hung over me but was never discussed. When I tried to talk about the silent accusation that my feminism had fuelled an act of vengeful sabotage of the men’s blossoming careers, my concerns were deflected. Some 35 years later, Phillips's and Maclean's autobiographies still point to my divided loyalty. Who else knew the location of the launch and had contacts with the feminists? It was only while writing this piece that I discovered by chance that the informant, who also instigated the protest, was in fact a close male university colleague of my husband.
What gives the incident its emotional force is the way it casts myself as the perpetrator, Phillips as the victim and Maclean as his rescuer. The shaping of a triangle fuelled by a vengeful, never-satisfied, feminist agitator is deeply embedded in New Zealand culture. It’s so taken for granted as to be almost invisible - yet it helps shape and preserve the myth of feminists as aggressive, and men as victims who are absolved of responsibility.
Making History: A New Zealand Story by Jock Phillips (Auckland University Press, $45); A Way with Words: A Memoir of Writing & Publishing in New Zealand by Chris Maclean (Potton & Burton, $49.99)
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