In July 1952 Yvette Williams won the long jump at the Olympic Games and became the darling of the nation. New Zealanders’ athletic abilities were displayed to the world. Less than a year later in May 1953 the New Zealand beekeeper, Edmund Hillary, ‘knocked the bastard off’ – he and the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first to climb Mt Everest. The feat was accomplished as part of a British expedition on the eve of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, and was seen as a British achievement. At the same time the craggy-featured, modest, immensely strong New Zealander became the face of the nation, and 50 years later that face still stared from the Kiwi $5 bill.
The royal tour
Six months later the new Queen and Prince Philip toured the country. The crowds turned out in hordes, waving the Union Jack in adoration. While they waited they sang British favourites such as ‘Land of hope and glory’ and ‘There’ll always be an England.’ The tour stimulated national loyalty to the empire and presented New Zealanders to the world. At Dunedin’s Carisbrook sports ground Yvette Williams performed for the royal visitors.
When Queen Elizabeth II toured in the summer of 1953–54, New Zealanders went to extraordinary lengths to express their patriotism. Some dyed sheep and horses in the British flag’s red, white and blue. In Invercargill a loaf of bread was baked in the same colours, while in New Plymouth bowling club members on their greens, the pony club with their horses and the aero club with their planes high above the city all formed the letter E. It stood for Elizabeth, but it might well have stood for Empire, or England.
The world saw a people whose prosperity was based on the hard work of pioneers, which had turned the country into a productive garden; a people protected by a generous welfare state, who believed New Zealand was the best place to bring up children.
When the Queen visited the Truby King–Harris hospital for babies and children in Dunedin, she was told that the children were ‘so scrubbed and shining, so healthy and tanned, so wholesomely fed and sensibly clad, they have been the best possible advertisement for our climate, our products, our health education, and above all, our way of life.’ 1
New Zealanders were also a harmonious people with the ‘best race relations in the world’. Yet during the royal tour there was no display of Māori culture in its tribal variety or richness. There was just one major Māori reception at Rotorua, and the emphasis was on demonstrating how well Māori were assimilated – ‘to show the royal visitors the relationship existing between the two races – both forming what we call New Zealanders.’ 2
Not an intellectual people
Other aspects of New Zealand culture were not a feature on the royal tour. The Queen saw no local plays or films, visited no galleries, read no New Zealand novels. In 1953 most New Zealanders did not think of themselves as a highly cultured people. Not surprisingly, intellectuals, feeling ignored and isolated, painted a less positive view of their fellow nationals. Appalled at the suppression of civil liberties in the 1951 waterfront industrial dispute, writer Bill Pearson left the country to pen a fierce portrait of New Zealanders as ‘fretful sleepers’, a people who were puritanical and repressive, given over to small-town prejudices and a hypocritical concern for respectability. 3
Others, such as Robert Chapman and Phoebe Meikle, attacked the separation of gender roles; and novelists such as Janet Frame, Ian Cross and Sylvia Ashton-Warner presented an unhappy picture of a society where creative individuals were repressed and race relations poor. Foreign commentators too began to criticise New Zealanders. In The fern and the tiki (1960) a visiting American, David Ausubel, argued that New Zealanders suffered from an authoritarian education which created a repressed hostility beneath their calm exterior. His analysis was not well received.
A sporting paradise
The best selling novel in 1960 was Barry Crump’s A good keen man – the tough deer-culler, a man alone, uncomfortable with women or cities, accorded with the stereotype of the New Zealand male. The most popular outside view came from Englishman Austin Mitchell in 1972, with his Half-gallon quarter-acre pavlova paradise. This affectionately presented New Zealanders as a decent but quaint people, characterised by big drinking and bigger partying. Mitchell’s was a gentler version of the stereotype which had by the 1960s become standard: that New Zealanders were governed by the triumvirate of rugby, racing and beer.