It’s been a long time since I lived in the UK. I left in December 1993, eight and a bit years after arriving in the misleadingly sunny September of 1985.
In 1985 Thatcher was Prime Minister; by 1993 John Major had taken her place, and I arrived back in 2010 to the joy that is Cameron's Tory/Lib-Dem coalition. (I missed the Blair and Brown years altogether.) When I left, SURPRISE SURPRISE and NOEL’S HOUSE PARTY were still on TV. My fondest memory of SURPRISE SURPRISE is Cilla Black singing and marching her way through ‘In the Navy’ on board an actual ship. Sadly, this is not available on YouTube, though at least we can still see/hear the wonder that was the closing credits.
But I digress. Things change, things stay the same. One thing I had forgotten about: the casual colonialism. In the US, I got out of the habit of experiencing this. When Americans find out you’re from New Zealand, they are various things – delighted, curious, intrigued, envious. Sometimes they are confused, and think that you might have said Venezuela. But mostly they are positive. I heard the words ‘I love your accent’ at least once a week. (This was good, because nobody else anywhere – including anywhere in New Zealand – loves my accent.)
The casual colonialism isn’t as bad here in the UK as it used to be, but this is relative. It’s like saying service in Britain isn’t so bad these days either, or it hasn’t rained that much in Glasgow this week. An example: arriving in the mail recently, a copy of Scotland in Trust magazine. We get this as members of the National Trust. (The National Trust for Scotland, to be precise, because Scotland has to be separate and different. It has to contend with casual colonialism issues of its own.)
In the ‘From the Archive’ section there’s a black-and-white photograph of a kapa haka group standing in a walled garden. The headline reads: ‘Maori dance at Pittmedden 1978.’ Pitmedden Garden is a National Trust property in Aberdeenshire.
Don Currie, author of the short article, describes what we can see in the photo – the fountain, the yew trees, the audience, the ‘dancers’ who had just appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. He makes specific mention of the two guitar players standing behind the group. These guys, both young, wear shirts, blazers, and what people used to call slacks. The ‘elaborate attire’ of the other performers, notes Currie, stands out against the formality of the garden, ‘and even the musicians’ jackets and wide-collared shirts.’ Clearly, he deduces, ‘Maori culture did not go untouched by Seventies fashion.’
Um, what? There's a glimmer here of patronising smugness that – to give the writer the benefit of the doubt – was probably unintentional. Why would anyone Maori living in New Zealand in 1978 – let alone gadding about the world – be ‘untouched’ by the fashion of the day? Without the startling evidence of this photograph, would we readers of Scotland in Trust assume that, back home in the Land of Exotica, Maori walk around wearing piupiu, busily untangling poi or lowering kete of food into hot pools?
Earlier this month I was reminded of how a colonial notion of distance – cultural and physical – persists here. Robert McCrum’s column on books in the Observer mentioned the attention-seeking remarks made by VS Naipaul about female writers (it's all 'feminine tosh', apparently'), and cited the reaction by New Zealand writer – and Booker Prize winner – Keri Hulme. Hulme lives, McCrum advises, ‘amid sheep and fisher folk’ on New Zealand’s South Island. In other words, in some fairy-tale land, a place of yokels and delightful simplicity. (Try asking someone on the West Coast to point you in the direction of some ‘fisher folk’ and see what they have to say.)
According to McCrum, not only is Hulme buried deep in a Tolkienesque idyll, she ‘has been silent for decades.’ This news will surprise many New Zealanders. Is this the silent Keri Hulme who actively comments (sometimes under the moniker Islander) on literary blogs like the late, lamented Leaf Salon, and the lively forum managed by the indefatigable Bookman Beattie? Is this silent Keri Hulme the writer who was published in Landfall last year? The Keri Hulme who was the fiction advisor to the Montana Prize judges the year my first novel won a prize? The Keri Hulme who has edited a Huia Short Stories anthology, and this year is serving once again as a judge in their Pikihuia writing competition?
Hulme herself was unimpressed by the label ‘silent’ and told Bookman Beattie exactly what she thought here.
I suppose what McCrum is really saying is this: Here in London we haven’t heard anything from Keri Hulme for decades, so she MUST be silent. Whatever she’s up to in the distant colonies – ‘noises off,’ as it were – doesn’t count.
The patronising swipes don't stop there. Hulme, McCrum says, ‘told her New Zealand audience …’ – hang on, which audience? Is she the Queen of New Zealand, perhaps? Do we all assemble, amid the sheep and the fisher folk, at a weekly audience? Or perhaps she was speaking to a physical audience at some kind of festival event in New Zealand. No. Actually, she was commenting online on a blog post by Bookman Beattie. I guess McCrum doesn’t want to mention the source, or give a context for the discussion.
In her comment, Hulme calls Naipaul ‘a misogynist prick.’ This permits more smug colonialism from McCrum. ‘The language of literary criticism,’ he observes, ‘clearly has a different register in the Antipodes.’
This might be a more useful observation if Hulme had been engaging in literary criticism – say, writing a long essay on Naipaul for the New York Review of Books. But she was commenting online, responding to a blog post. Anyone reading various online Guardian/Observer articles will soon discover that the ‘language of literary criticism’ in online comments is pretty much the same all over the world. Here’s a selection from Guardian and Observer readers on the topic of Naipaul: he is a ‘total tool’, a ‘silly old fart’, a ‘mega-misogynist’, an ‘old git’, a ‘wife beating’ writer, an ‘oaf’, ‘a prize berk’, and a ‘sexist a**hole.’
A Guardian online article a few years ago posed the question: ‘is VS Naipaul simply the grumpiest, most conceited writer alive?’ In a print article about literary prizes in the Guardian earlier this month, writer and critic Bidisha alleged that a ‘man does a s**t in a potty and it is called a work of genius; a woman produces a work of genius and it's treated like a s**t in a potty.’ (You can read the whole feature here.) Gee, the language of literary criticism clearly has a different register in the UK, doesn’t it?
This is what I mean by casual colonialism: dismissive, smug, and a little patronising, with no sense that one’s own ignorance and/or parochialism might be informing an interpretation – of a picture, of remarks, of another culture, of another part of the world. It’s amazing to me that it still exists here.
This week, when I'm not puzzling over such absurdities, I'm thinking of two of my family members who are in strange places right now - strange to them, at any rate. My mother is in hospital in Auckland, and my niece has just arrived in Paris, where she'll be spending the next two months. I hope my mother will be able to come home soon. I hope my niece has the most wonderful, wonderful time.