That New Zealanders still thought of themselves as British became evident once the Great War of 1914–18 was over. Peace brought regulations restricting non-European immigrants, along with programmes to attract more people from Britain. In 1920 the Prince of Wales toured the country to crowds of adoring admirers. The next year, saluting the flag was made compulsory in schools once a week – but the flag was Great Britain’s Union Jack, just as the national anthem was still ‘God save the King’. A new history text for use in the last year of primary school called Our nation’s story concerned Britain, not New Zealand; just as New Zealand writer Alan Mulgan’s book Home concerned a tour of England, not New Zealand, his actual homeland.
New Zealand way of life
At the same time, during the 1920s a distinctive way of life continued to evolve. By 1921, three-quarters of the nation were born New Zealanders. The house and garden in the suburbs became most New Zealanders’ dream. With improved transport, especially cars, the beach became a popular attraction, identified as a highlight of the Kiwi lifestyle. Baches (weekend cottages) and camping grounds appeared. People discovered the mountains and the bush, and tramping and hunting became popular weekend pursuits.
The building of large grandstands at race courses and rugby grounds signalled the arrival of these major spectator sports, and when the Invincibles rugby team paraded after their unbeaten tour of Britain there were crowds six deep. During the war the ritual pre-closing ‘six o’clock swill’ at pubs had been introduced, becoming a part of many New Zealanders’ lives. Observers noted the emergence of a distinct accent and particular phrases.
Far from Home
In the 1920s there were efforts to settle British immigrants as farm labourers where they might ‘become true New Zealanders’, but those who settled in the city faced considerable antipathy as ‘homies’ 1:
‘Who moans and always has a grouse,
But never seems to have the nouse
To know five bob won’t rent a house?
The Homie …’ 2
During the years between the world wars, writers began to portray the New Zealand character. Returned soldier Frank Anthony wrote humorous tales in his ‘Me and Gus’ collections. His heroes were backblocks men, speaking a Kiwi lingo. In Europe the expatriate Katherine Mansfield wrote in a different style, but still in search of her roots. As the economic depression arrived in the late 1920s, there was a stronger push for nationalist writing. Neither the prose of John Mulgan, Robin Hyde and Frank Sargeson, nor the poetry of Allen Curnow and Denis Glover achieved a large public following over the next few decades. However, they all explored the particularities of the New Zealand condition, whether through the characters of Glover’s ‘Arawata Bill’ or Mulgan’s ‘man alone’, or the vernacular of Sargeson.
From 1935 the Labour government’s expansion of the welfare state heightened New Zealanders’ sense that theirs was a distinctively experimental, egalitarian and humanitarian country. The government saw the 1940 centennial of the Treaty of Waitangi as a way of encouraging national identity. The displays at the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington and the 30-part publication Making New Zealand were conscious efforts at promoting and articulating a national consciousness. Frank Sargeson won the centennial short story competition with a piece entitled ‘The making of a New Zealander’.
Yet these developments did not challenge the sense that New Zealanders were essentially British. When the world again went to war in September 1939, the cry was ‘where Britain goes, we go.’