I woke up at 4.20 this morning, read for an hour or so and then got up to check on what time today’s Rugby World Cup game was to be played. I had in mind to write something about my childhood, and memories thereof, but the first thing I saw on the day was the spectacle of the southern sky, blazing red as the dawn came up, backlighting the tall buildings of the Montreal skyline, a spectacular sight. With my childhood upbringing in mind I couldn't help but reflect on how different was this sight of the big North American city, from that small place where I grew up. In those days, New .Zealand was a country of small towns: I lived in the fifth biggest town in the country, whose population was only 26,000, and which did not boast a single building taller than, say three stories. A far cry from the modern big city that always seems impelled to reach out both across the land, and up into the sky, vainly trying to touch the heavens.
But before I get on to my subject for the day, I simply have to mention what I read about at 4.20 am. It was an article in the most recent issue of The Guardian Weekly, from London, about a campaign against so-called illegal immigrants to Britain initiated by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary in the government of David Cameron, that was so horrible as to be scarcely believable. She had vans going around in six London boroughs with considerable immigrant populations, emblazoned with a message: “In the UK illegally? Go home, or face arrest.” The notices were illustrated with a picture of handcuffs and the number of recent immigration arrests (“106 arrests last week in your area”) and a notice along the bottom: “We can help you to return home voluntarily without fear of arrest or detention.”
The article dealt with the inhumanity and injustice visited on what has become known as the Windrush generation, named for a shipload of West Indians who were imported into Britain with their families to fill jobs that could not be filled with British-born. These people were never offered any documents asserting their right to be in Britain, although they were all British subjects, and were therefore sitting ducks when, almost half a century later, public sentiment turned against immigrants --- especially, one might observe, coloured immigrants --- and whose children were targeted for deportation in the most heartless and brutal manner conceivable.
The article tells one detailed story, among several others, of a woman who was four when she arrived with her Grenadian parents in 1968, and was 48 when, worn to a frazzle by her fruitless effort to get the government to accept the 75 proofs she had gathered of her lifetime of residence in the country, she gave up and accepted “voluntary” repatriation to a country she had never known, where she arrived without money, had no contacts, and little prospect of getting work. Her life was completely ruined by the experience of being so chosen and persecuted, and even the eventual repatriation to Britain that she was granted, and some of which was paid for by the British government, did not make things any easier for her: once again, she had to start to rebuild her life at an age where such a thing for a woman in her circumstances was almost impossible.
Okay, that’s the cheerful story with which I started my day.
The article was written by a journalist called Amelia Gentleman, who had spent several years uncovering this horror-story, a job that was made rather touchy for her in that she was married to Jo Johnson, celebrated brother of Boris Johnson, who was at the time a minister in the Conservative government. It was her articles that eventually forced the government to take notice of the injustice so callously visited on these Windrush survivors,
What I originally set out to write 671 words ago was stimulated by my having seen the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, as she appeared on Stephen Colbert’s Late show. He was trying to get her to say something undiplomatic about Donald Trump, because she was present when he addressed the General Assembly the day before, at which time there was a whiff of laughter when he spoke. He remarked that he did nt expect that response. “Did you join in the laughter?” Colbert asked.
“Are you trying to create a diplomatic incident?” she asked. She said the audience had laughed at Trump a second time, and that time, as Trump claimed, they could be said to be laughing with him.
“And the first time?” persisted Colbert.
“The first time was like a gentle murmur among themselves,” she said, laughing.
“Did you join in?” asked Colbert. “I was observing,” she laughed..
What set me off to write something about Ardern was that I saw the exchange on a New Zealand newspaper outlet, and it was followed by a large number of reader responses. Many of them were of a grouchy, grumpy variety that I remembered vividly from my childhood, “What’s she doing over there, gallivanting about,” was the tone. “She spends more time doing that than working hard to make life better for New Zealanders.”
I have the impression from what I have read recently that she has had to confront that sort of criticism ever since she was chosen to be the Prime Minister. And it was the grouchy tone of these responses that seemed so familiar to me. I was 17 when I became a newspaper reporter in my own small town. I was a supporter of the Labour Party and its government at the time, and I came to abhor the ultra-conservative National Party opposition whose policies had gotten New Zealand into the desperate position from which a Labour government was needed to pull the country back up by its bootlaces.
I worked in journalism in New Zealand fore almost three years before leaving the country for good, and during that time, in fact during all of the years until I was 22, I never remember any New Zealand newspaper of the time expressing any favourable opinion of the Labour government.
I remember just after I first left home to move to a slightly bigger city, Dunedin, (80,000 population, the fourth city in the country) that I took a room in a boarding house kept by a dreadful woman who had a virulent hatred of the Labour Party, the Labour government, and anything that could be in any way associated with Labour and its works, however loosely. She tended to greet my arrival in the house by holding up some headline or other from a newspaper, showing another proof of the imbecility of Labour and its ministers.
It was not lost on me that the government she was talking about was one that had been elected in 1935, and was re-elected every three years until 1949, having during all those years presided over an extremely well-managed economy, maintained at full employment with a successful export programme for the nation’s wool, butter and cheese, and one that, with its generous social programmes kept New Zealanders healthy and strong, and well enough educated to have chosen to keep them in power in spite of the unrelenting media campaign against them.
The first Labour Party Prime Minister was an Australian working class man, Michael Joseph Savage, an unremitting socialist, who had been a labourer, ditchdigger and held a variety of other jobs until getting involved in the union movement, after which he had drifted into, first, municipal, and later national, politics. He was deeply revered among the ordinary people of New Zealand: for many years, pictures of him adorned the walls of thousands of the homes of ordinary New Zealanders, alongside, often, pictures of Queen Victoria. He was the Prime Minister when the British government declared war on Germany. He issued a statement virtually from his death bed, declaring unequivocal support for the war:
“…we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand. We are only a small and young nation, but we march with a union of hearts and souls to a common destiny.”
My wife often told a story that encapsulates the feeling people had for Savage. In the middle of rhe great depression she was given a watch as an unimaginable birthday present by her Maori grandmother, “Don’t thank me, dear,” her grandmother said, “thank Michael Joseph Savage.”
That my distaste for these bitter conservatives who so much out my back up during my brief adulthood in New Zealand, was not displaced was confirmed for me when I returned to New Zealand to live after 25 years. It happened that the leader of the National Party was elected Prime Minister just after I arrived with my family in 1975.
Every speech Robert Muldoon made was full of what sounded to me like dreadful ideas, every one of which I abhorred. I leave it to Wikipedia to explain the results:
“(Muldoon)’s tenure as Prime Minister was plagued by an economic pattern of stagnation, high inflation, growing unemployment, and high external debts and borrowing. Economic policies of the Muldoon Government included national superannuation, wage and price freezes, industrial incentives, and the Think Big industrial projects. In foreign policy, Muldoon adopted an anti-Soviet stance and re-emphasised New Zealand's defence commitments to the United States and Australia under the ANZUS pact. His refusal to stop a Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand divided the country and led to unprecedented civil disorder in 1981.”
That is why I so disliked the negative conservatism that, during my boyhood, I always felt was waiting to pounce on the country and ruin it. I had the impression during the 18 months I was able to stay in New Zealand, that every time Muldoon opened his mouth to utter some banal idiocy, the greater was the applause showered on him by the reactionary electors who voted him into power.
Ah well, wot the hell, wot the hell?