New Zealand's London by Felicity Barnes and Far from 'Home' edited by Lyndon Fraser and Angela McCarthy - review

by Ian Conrich / 10 January, 2013
London is capable of saying as much about New Zealand as Auckland or Wellington.
Book review - New Zealand's London
New Zealand's London

Research into New Zealand’s social and cultural history continues to evolve at an impressive rate. The range of subjects being covered and the quality of many publications suggest what can be defined as New Zealand Studies is of significant academic weight.

Many similar academic books would often fail to appeal to the general population in other countries, but in New Zealand the wider public appears to have a healthy interest in books that seek to document, examine and understand the country’s unique identity – past and present.

In a way, this is not surprising: ours is a relatively young settler nation in which biculturalism and multiculturalism are ever more important and this touches on questions of migration, integration and the Mother Country. It may also help to explain why so many of these studies are focused on connecting, contrasting and relating these islands with countries and other identities near and far – from Australia, Japan and China to France, Italy and Germany.

Regional ethnicity is a key issue, and here the British Isles have dominated, with the many migrants who voyaged to New Zealand able to retain and transfer aspects of the original homeland. Of these, Scottishness and Irishness in New Zealand have been the focus of the majority of the books, and centres are devoted to the study of these subjects at the universities of Otago and Victoria. It may be that Englishness in New Zealand is too obvious; a rather diverse identity, it also lacks the distinctiveness of Scottishness and Irishness.

New Zealand’s London: A Colony and its Metropolis by Felicity Barnes and Far from ‘Home’: The English in New Zealand edited by Lyndon Fraser and Angela McCarthy are welcome additions to the historical studies of New Zealand. Well suited to being read together, these books are, however, accidental companions, about journeys that frequently move in opposite directions.

Fraser and McCarthy are fixed on Englishness and the English diaspora in New Zealand; Barnes travels back and forth across the oceans. With her rover ticket, Barnes has a flexibility that allows her a broader understanding of her subject, with an approach from both hemispheres.

In this context, the covers of the two books are revealing. The Carolyn Lewis cover for Barnes’s book is a collage of images reminiscent of Peter Blake and Jann Haworth’s sleeve design for the Beatles album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It unites cut-outs that include a beefeater and a London Underground sign with an Anzac soldier and an old tourist image of two Maori girls performing a hongi, all beneath the British and New Zealand flags and the antiquated image of hands clasping across the oceans. It is a clever cover, which announces the book’s intentions well.

In comparison, the Fraser and McCarthy book carries a singular front cover image of a detail from Ford Maddox Brown’s 1852 painting The Last of England. The journey here is very much one way, the voyagers staring ahead and England as a country left behind. It is an unfortunate choice of painting, since it was actually inspired by a departure for Australia.

Both publications are to be applauded, but Barnes’s demonstrates the power of a well-worked doctoral thesis, clear and jargon-free, turned into a solidly illustrated model of historical cultural analysis. There is much to like in a book that is unafraid of combining chapters on the mass marketing of New Zealand lamb in 1920s and 1930s London with New Zealand soldiers on leave from World War I experiencing the British metropolis, a mecca within the Empire, for the first time. Barnes correctly views the understanding of identities within a settler nation as myriad, with London, a complex cultural melting pot, capable of saying as much about New Zealand as, say, Auckland or Wellington.

Far from Home
Far from Home

Reaching across New Zealand, Fraser and McCarthy’s book is also diverse in its approach. For instance, Greg Ryan’s chapter on English ale, colonial beer and 19th-century New Zealand drinking cultures manages to sit next to McCarthy’s research on English migrants in New Zealand asylums. Both are vital contributions, with an excellent introduction from the editors, but as with some other collections, the individual chapters can be too specific, creating a gathering of specialised case studies.

There is also the problem, which can often emerge, of some contributions being much weaker than others, or appearing too disconnected or abstract. For such a major subject, I would have preferred greater consideration of the macro, as opposed to the micro, issues. Nevertheless, it has highlighted a forgotten path on which there is much more to be discovered

NEW ZEALAND’S LONDON: A COLONY AND ITS METROPOLIS, by Felicity Barnes (AUP, $49.99); FAR FROM ‘HOME’: THE ENGLISH IN NEW ZEALAND, edited by Lyndon Fraser and Angela McCarthy (Otago, $45).

Professor Ian Conrich is chair of the New Zealand Studies Association and was director of the now-closed Centre for New Zealand Studies in London.
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