I was born in a small farming village called Wyndham, 26 miles from the south coast of the South Island of New Zealand. This is almost as far south as human settlement has penetrated. Only in Tierra del Fuego in Latin America have there been more southerly habitations than where I lived. When we stood on the south shore, confronting us was the 20-mile Foveaux strait, certainly one of the most tempestuous stretches of water anywhere in the world, between the South Island and Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third major island.
It was so rough because we stood directly in the path of what we called The Roaring Forties, the westerly winds that blew across thousands of miles of ocean south of Australia before hitting us directly and dropping their vast store of water on our Western coasts. Fortunately, we had a high mountain range along the west coast that absorbed most of this water so that by the time the winds reached us, barely a hundred miles inland, they were able to squeeze out only a modest 26 inches a year of rain.
Beyond Stewart Island, there lay only a 3,000 mile stretch of water and ice to the South Pole. We were on a latitude of roughly 46.4 degrees south; if you compare a similar latitude in the northern hemisphere, say, Geneva, one can imagine the extent of our comparative isolation. Someone born in Geneva would find himself or herself growing up at the centre of a vast agglomeration of humanity, for stretching north is the European industrial heartland --- Germany, the British Isles, the Low Countries, most of France, all of Scandinavia, in comparison with which we had only water and ice stretching endlessly south of us.
It came as a surprise, therefore when I looked up the provenance of my village, to find how heavily attached we were to the imperial dreams of empires and their wars fought far away and long ago. Wyndham was named after Major-general Sir Charles Ashe Windham, a hero of the Crimean war who led the British assault on the Great Redan in 1855, and was said by the correspondent of The Times to have “saved the honour of the British Army.” Windham’s career illustrates the global reach of the British Empire, in the mid-nineteenth century, for two years after Crimea he was active against the Indian Mutiny, later he became a member of the British Parliament, before being appointed Commander of the British troops in Canada in 1867, the very year of Canadian confederation. He died in Florida, was briefly buried in Montreal, and finally found his resting place, as British heroes should, I suppose, in England.
My home village came to be named after him though the agency of a remarkable immigrant to New Zealand who gloried in the name of Major Sir John Larkins Cheese Richardson, born in 1810, the same year as Windham, but in Bengal, India. His father --- by name of Robert, the same name as my father, but there the comparison ends --- was a civil servant who ran a silk factory for the East India Company. The son was sent back to Britain to be educated at the company’s Military Seminary, but he returned to India where he became a Major in the Bengal Horse Artillery, with which he took part in the Afghan Campaign of 1839-42, which led to the massacre and withdrawal of the British Army, the first episode in a series of defeats --- British, Russian and more recently American ---- that have since given rise to the oft-repeated claim that no foreign power has ever been able to conquer Afghanistan.
After taking part in the East India Company’s 1846 war against the Sikh kingdom, Sir John Richardson retired from the company and its army, and decided to emigrate to New Zealand, which had only within the last ten years come under the authority of the British Crown, through the Treaty of Waitangi, signed with the Maori chieftains in 1840.
He chose the southernmost part of the country in which to establish himself as a country gentleman, and then he set about making a career for himself in politics. New Zealand was soon divided into about 10 provinces, each with its own governing structure of a provincial council headed by a superintendent, which post he soon occupied for the province of Otago. He turned out to be a man with firm opinions on social reform, and especially became a proponent of female education. He played a large part in establishment of Otago Girls High school in Dunedin, and was an early Chancellor of Otago University, the first University in the country. His firm views brought him losses in elections from time to time but he always bounced back, in another constituency, and finally in the Legislative Council that really ran the country. Thus it came about that I grew up on Redan street, with neighbouring streets called Nightingale, after the sainted nurse, Florence, and various names --- such as Balaclava, Inkerman, Alma, for example --- drawn directly from the Crimean war, to remind us of our place in the myths of Empire.
I remember as a small boy attending a function in Wyndham at which a number of young men who had enlisted for service in the Second World War were farewelled. (I remember being terribly embarrassed because it was the first time I had ever worn long trousers). This first group of young men were not conscripted, but had enlisted, so eager were they to get at the throats of the Germans. They had always been like that ever since the Boer war of 1899, a purely imperial enterprise that had nothing whatsoever to do with New Zealand. It makes one think that the brainwashing machinery of Empire must have been exceptionally efficient to have moved these young men so instantly and effortlessly to fight imperialist wars. In the First World War it is said that one out of every four New Zealand men between 20 and 45 were either killed or wounded in defence of the British interest. And similarly it is said that the 11,625 killed in the Second World War represented the highest rate of casualties, proportionately speaking, taken by any member nation of the Commonwealth, even including the Home Country (as my parents infuriatingly used to call Britain). New Zealand was so eager to join that war, that we almost beat Britain itself in our declaration. “Where Britain stands, we stand,” said Michael Joseph Savage, our Prime Minister, in his unquestioning acceptance of British leadership.
Rather surprisingly, now that I think back on it, I was brought up to dislike the Conservative mindset. My Dad, who later in life when he was a more successful businessman, began to embrace the political right, repeatedly told me, as a child, how irritated he had been, infuriated even, by the Conservative government of the early 1930s, whose solution to the economic crisis was to have the unemployed dig ditches one day, and fill them in the next, a sheer make-work process designed to give the illusion of something being done.
My teenage reading tended to reinforce my detestation of such right-wing tricks. A book by Archibald Baxter (father of New Zealand’s best-known poet, James K. Baxter) gave us an horrendous description of the brutality with which a conscientious objector to war was treated during the First World War. Having refused to serve, he was dragged by a rope towards the front line in France, in the hope that he would stop some enemy rifle fire. This set me up to be receptive to every opinion that was rejected by our own opinion leaders. I remember, for example, when the Soviet Union’s diplomats first emerged in San Francisco after the war, for the founding of the United Nations, enlisting my immediate sympathy as they laboured under the ferocious obloquy with which they were treated by Western press and governments, the contempt expressed for their rough, unfashionable clothes, their bad manners, their tendency not to agree with anyone on anything. I began to mop up publications of the Foreign Languages Publishing House of Moscow, trying hard to believe their heavy-handed account of world affairs, but usually having to abandon them halfway through, so tiresomely written were they. Still, along with this propaganda, I became absorbed in novels by some of the greatest authors who ever lived, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorki, Pushkin, This became the foundation of my lifelong sympathy with the left, both at home, where all the armoury of government was turned against radical unionists of the Communist persuasion, and abroad, where the Soviet Union was quickly turned into our enemy, the fact that they had sacrificed 27 million people in helping to save us all from the brutal, racist, dictatorship of the Nazis, having been magically forgotten.
So it seems that the local enthusiasm for the myths of Empire among which I grew up in Wyndham, apparently worked on a negative, rather than positive, way on my attitudes as I grew into manhood.