Kiwiosities: Cultural  (Colonial)  cringe

The Australian expression encapsulates a similar problem that used to trouble sensitive New ZealandersThe principle is that things done or  better achieved overseas are necessarily better than those done here. During the 20th century there was an argument for this, as the infant  Dominion had too small a population to sustain some artistic enterprises and there was sense in  seeking a larger market abroad for books and paintings.

Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) made her own life and that of those around her miserable, with her desire to escape from New Zealand and lead the literary life abroad.  Ironically her best work sings with pictures of this country. Artists such as Frances Hodgkins (1869-1947) likewise worked as expatriates.

E.H. McCormick records in his 1940 survey of New Zealand literature: ‘Writers sought in the old world, surroundings more sympathetic and stimulating than those in New Zealand; they migrated to London as Americans of the “ lost generation” migrated to Paris’ Writers in the 1930s took a more bellicose stand on our emerging traditions while still seeking the recognition and rewards of publication overseas.  The lack of national self-confidence was expressed in 1939 by the poet Allen Curnow with the lines:

Not I,  some child born in a marvellous year,

Will learn the trick of standing upright here.

Confidence has improved since then, particularly when  comparative  prosperity produced the funding for a professional and full-time arts industry. Local actors replaced  overseas touring shows, communities supported fine orchestras, new magazines provided sophisticated avenues for journalism. Cheap and quick air travel has, along with mass communications, allowed artists to live here while working internationally. Hopefully, many New Zealanders finally lost their cultural cringe when Keri Hulme won the prestigious Booker McConnell Price for the best English novel of 1985, without apparent concession to any other tradition but her own.


Excerpts from Kiwiosities, a book by Gordon Ell on the traditions and folklore of New Zealand.

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Gordon Ell, a former journalist and wildlife film-maker, is the author of many popular books about New Zealand's historic and natural heritage.