At least until the advent of jet travel in the mid-1960s, the arrival of famous people in New Zealand led to considerable media coverage and the inevitable question from an insecure nation, ‘What do you think of New Zealand?’. When Irish author George Bernard Shaw visited in 1934, a book of his comments to the New Zealand press appeared just six days after he left.
Some visitors came with a particular focus – American author and angler Zane Grey wrote extensively about his deep-sea fishing exploits, and US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was interested in the role of women. Many rehashed old judgements – in 1925 author A. P. Herbert thought New Zealand more English than England. Four years earlier Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle praised the country’s treatment of Māori.
The American historian Robin Winks wrote in 1954: ‘In America it is the accepted thing for men to use some such preparation as a deodorant, a cologne, a shave lotion, and an after-shave powder. This is, of course, regarded as effeminate in New Zealand. It seems to be more common to smell of hair oil, tobacco, and well scrubbedness.’1
Criticisms emerged and became more pronounced from the 1950s. There was widespread disappointment at the quality of New Zealand food, and some disgust at the level of public drunkenness. British author Eric Linklater in 1951 suggested that his meal of cooked mutton ‘appeared to have been killed by a bomb, and the fragments of its carcass incinerated in the resulting fire.’2 American writer Sydney Greenbie thought that ‘there is one cook from Auckland to Invercargill, and his name is Monotony’.3 Some visitors, especially Americans, considered that New Zealanders dressed atrociously.
A conservative people
More challenging were those visitors who, attracted to New Zealand by its reputation as a reforming social laboratory, found it politically and socially conservative. As early as 1914 English poet Rupert Brooke had noted that New Zealand had implemented a full Fabian programme yet had the same troubles as elsewhere. By 1951 American novelist James Michener decided that the (Pākehā) New Zealander was the most conservative white man in the world.
Suburbia of the southern seas
In 1953 the British broadcaster Wynford Vaughan-Thomas wrote a poem, ‘Farewell to New Zealand’, which attacked the country’s conservatism:
Saved by the wowsers from the Devil’s Tricks,
Your shops, your pubs, your minds all close at six.
Your battle-cry’s a deep, contented snore,
You voted Labour, then you worked no more.
The Wharfies Heaven, the gourmet’s Purgat’ry:
Ice-cream on mutton, swilled around in tea!
A Maori fisherman, the legends say,
Dredged up New Zealand in a single day.
I’ve seen the catch, and here’s my parting crack –
It’s undersized; for God’s sake throw it back!4
Many saw New Zealand as a quiet suburban society characterised, in English playwright Noël Coward’s words, by ‘aggressive Puritanism’.5 Some, such as Sarah Mussen in the 1960s, thought it ‘incredibly dull’.6 The Beatles toured in the same period and thought New Zealand fans were much quieter than the wild Australians, while the Rolling Stones described Invercargill as ‘the arsehole of the world’.7 As late as the 1990s American travel writer Paul Theroux was caustic in his criticism of Christchurch as ‘prim and moribund’, with ‘frightful bungalows and dusty hedges and twitching curtains’.8
The most serious criticism came from an American Fulbright scholar, David Ausubel, who spent a year in New Zealand in 1957–58 and whose book The fern and the tiki was a wholehearted attack on the New Zealand character and social values. Ausubel believed that despite their welfare state, New Zealanders were not altruistic or reforming. They were unfriendly, punitive and authoritarian. Smug in their belief that their society was the best in the world, they were unable to confront serious social issues. Their heavy discipline resulted in juvenile delinquency. An earlier Fulbrighter, Robin Winks, in a more balanced account, praised New Zealanders’ friendliness but noted their provincialism, narrow-mindedness and refusal to accept criticism.
Ausubel was very critical of New Zealand racial attitudes and presented evidence of prejudice and discrimination. The book created hot debate – but it only presented, in stronger language, ideas that other visitors had shared. Thirty years later British writer Robin Hanbury-Tenison, who had ridden on horseback through New Zealand, was also critical of Pākehā attitudes towards Māori.
Not all negative
Not all 20th-century visitors were so damning. English novelist J. B. Priestley, visiting in 1973, found the country a ‘special place’ because it was ‘new, innocent, naïve, still friendly and not artfully predatory’.9 His descriptions highlighted New Zealand’s cultural richness.
Tip for tat
In 2006 the English comedian John Cleese visited New Zealand. He found Wellington sophisticated and Napier fabulous, but Palmerston North did not fare so well. ‘If you wish to kill yourself but lack the courage to, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick,’ he wrote, dubbing the city ‘the suicide capital of New Zealand’.10 In return a sign saying ‘Mt Cleese’ appeared on top of a compost heap at the city’s rubbish dump.
Getting over it
By the start of the 21st century New Zealanders were less concerned about individual visitors’ reactions to their homeland. The country was more self-assured and social change had transformed some of the earlier targets of criticism – there had been a revolution in shopping hours and in food quality, for example. There were so many overseas visitors that comments by prominent individuals did not draw the attention they once had. In terms of mass tourism, the judgements of travel guides garnered interest. In general the views of travel publishers such as Lonely Planet or Rough Guide were positive, emphasising the country’s physical beauty, opportunities for adventure tourism and good nightlife. Wellington endlessly promoted Lonely Planet’s comment that the city was ‘the coolest little capital in the world.’11