A stanza from Curnow’s THE UNHISTORIC STORY
Spider, clever and fragile, Cook showed how
To spring a trap of islands, turning from planets
His measuring mission, showed what the musket could do,
Made his Christmas goose of the wild gannets.
Still as the collier steered
No continent appeared;
It was something different, something
Nobody counted on.
I majored in history from university. The unintended consequences of human actions, or sometimes inaction, that’s the attraction of history. The past – how people have lived and organised their societies - fascinates me. Not only has it fashioned the present, it will help shape the future. Questions of leadership, of power, of conflict are of continual interest. I slowly learnt to understand the crucial importance of economics in these occurrences. while the relationship of art and literature - effect and reaction - is always intriguing. Auden’s lines, ‘[History] is by the criminal in us: goodness is timeless,’ are valid but they smack to me of the heretical. My spirit can accept the validity of the claim, but my will cannot. It goes on its merry way pursuing historical interests.
Humanity came late to Aotearoa,. Pakeha even later. My view of this latter part of our history was shaped by two historians, Sinclair and Oliver and a poet, Curnow. Of the three I suspect the poet’s impact is the greatest. His potted history of the European arrival has a simple argument – the result is not the one anticipated. The land of milk and honey bathed in the light of kowhai gold had disappeared under the weight of puritanism, capitalism, greed and selfishness, a land without a soul at home. The clever change of rhyme scheme in the last four lines of each stanza adds to the sense of something not quite right, hesitations and misgivings.
There’s a contradiction here. Curnow’s conclusion, intellectually accepted, was not my actual experience. Indeed, during the 1950s and 1960s while the intelligentsia were decrying our smugness, crudeness and conservatism I saw with delight the impact of labour-saving devices upon Mum’s time and energy and how it increased the farm’s productivity. After the depression and the privations of war materialism made sense. Unemployment was low, Britain took all our butter, ANZUS guaranteed our security and the welfare state was a given. The damming of rivers was not controversial, though a massive social change was starting with the influx of Maori into the cities. Depression and war over, poverty vanquished, we could concentrate upon progress and prosperity.