As a new colonial society, there were limitations in some fields of New Zealand life and culture. New Zealand took decades to achieve cultural independence and emerge as a nation in its own right, with the specialised occupations of an urban culture. Initially a rural people, New Zealanders were often ambivalent toward intellectual or artistic aspirations. Recent immigrants from England were still conscious of its class system, and New Zealand’s wealthy élite felt inferior to their British contemporaries.
Writer Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923) was one who felt stifled by the drudgery and conservatism of colonial life, and like many others she left for Europe as soon as circumstances allowed.
Writing from Cairo during the Second World War, soldier and writer John Mulgan expressed this wanderlust: ‘New Zealanders … spend their lives wanting to set out across the wide oceans that surround them in order to find the rest of the world’. 1 New Zealanders’ war service meant that they were well known in post-war Britain. In her entry on expatriates in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966), the New Zealand novelist and theatre producer Ngaio Marsh wrote that ‘of all importations from the Dominions, New Zealanders are the most welcome and the most popular’.
Writers write home
Shortly before her death, in a 1922 letter to her father, expatriate writer Katherine Mansfield commented, ‘the longer I live the more I turn to New Zealand,’ and, ‘New Zealand is in my very bones’. 2
In a 1932 letter to fellow poet R. A. K. Mason, Rex Fairburn also expressed his yearning for home:
‘This natural scene, in England, is lovely – stately and beautiful, calm and sedate. But I have no sympathy with it – none whatever. I had rather be beside a smelly New Zealand tidal creek.’ 3
An emergent people
Ngaio Marsh also lamented New Zealand’s lack of cultural opportunities, calling New Zealanders ‘an emergent people’. For writers, actors, artists, musicians and scientists the call of established cultural scenes and institutions was too strong.
Ernest Rutherford quipped that ‘we haven’t the money, so we’ve got to think’, an attitude that, perhaps, helped him split the atom. Yet opportunities for fertile minds like Rutherford’s were invariably overseas. New Zealand universities were small and lacked the laboratories that larger economies could afford. Even after the Second World War, academic brilliance was a one-way ticket to the United Kingdom or United States. Rocket scientist William Pickering could hardly have worked for NASA from his home town of Wellington. He became a United States citizen in 1941, but still hung a painting of Mt Cook in his office, and retained a faint Kiwi accent.
While many found opportunity overseas, exile had its downsides. Although letters and news from the antipodes alleviated homesickness, they also intensified the feeling of distance. When writer Kevin Ireland, then England-based, heard of the poet James K. Baxter’s death, his grief could only be private. In the poem ‘A way of sorrow’ he wrote: ‘I did not weep / or talk at length or write / but read the poem you sent’. 4