An “ill-tempered” letter to this magazine got the writing career of one of New Zealand’s most influential historians off to a flying start.
In his well-preserved obituary, in tidy handwriting, Phillips is ambitious and confident about life. He becomes a farmer after representing New Zealand in cricket, but his stellar sporting career is cut short by injury. He earns a royal honour for his contribution to the meat industry. He lives to what must seem, to his teenage self, a ripe old age – he is dead, at 63, mourned by his wife, four children and nine grandchildren.
Phillips, now 72, has lived well past his imagined lifespan and taken a different career path.
His father, Neville Phillips, was professor of history at the University of Canterbury. His mother, Pauline (née Palmer), was a university graduate who came from a Hawke’s Bay farming family. Academic and farming influences were all around him: at his Christchurch home and on his mother’s family farm during summer holidays with his parents and two sisters.
Phillips studied at Victoria University in Wellington, then in the US at Harvard University, where he met his first wife, Phillida Bunkle, a feminist and academic and later a two-term MP, while they were both postgraduate students. They have two children, Jesse and Hester. After they divorced, Phillips married Frida Susan Harper in 2000.
He recently published his memoir, Making History: A New Zealand Story, which covers his conservative Anglophile childhood, his growing awareness of, then immersion in, New Zealand history and the Listener’s role in starting his writing career.
Were you almost destined to become a historian?
My father always had lots of history books, and our house was a place where visiting historians, people from Canterbury’s history department and lots of history students would come. I was brought up in that world and, almost without thinking about it, became interested in history. I gravitated towards reading about history, but it wasn’t New Zealand history, it was all British history. My father didn’t believe New Zealand had a history worth looking at, and that became part of my world view.
You spent time in the UK in your teens, then later studied in the US. What part did the two countries play in your becoming a New Zealand historian?
I spent a year in England when I was about 16. When my parents returned to New Zealand, there was a chance for me to stay on and go to Oxford or Cambridge, but I decided I wanted to live in New Zealand. When I did my degree at Victoria, I found I gravitated towards US history, which seemed a great relief from British history, which was full of aristocrats and their politics. American history had so many wonderful characters and was so democratic in its instincts. And while I was living in the US, it was people there asking me about New Zealand that shamed me into going to the basement of a library at Harvard and finding this wonderful collection of New Zealand history books.
At 13, you were imagining a life in farming. In hindsight, could that have satisfied you?
My summers in Hawke’s Bay had a huge influence in terms of developing a real love for the landscape and of physical outdoor work. I used to spend every summer employed on the farms there. At that point, it was certainly the lifestyle I aspired to, but where would the farm have come from? My parents were not rich enough to afford one.
Connected to that, perhaps, you wrote an article for the Listener in 1978 called “A great place to bring up children”, in which you argued that intellectual and cultural stimulation were just as important for children as those idyllic beach and rural holidays. What provoked that?
When [Phillida and I] went to the US, we had two kids under the age of four. I had dreaded it, because we were leaving a New Zealand summer and going to a Boston winter, which turned out to be the worst winter Boston had had in a century. So, we made for the museums, and I just couldn’t believe how the kids responded to that, how quickly they learnt. So I came back and wrote “A great place to bring up children”. It was meant to be provocative – people accused me of being captured by American capitalism and turning my back on a great New Zealand tradition. [Former prime minister Robert] Muldoon used to say the essence of the New Zealand life was on the New Zealand beach. And I thought, we just don’t have an intellectually rich enough culture.
Publication of that article was a significant turning point in your career, wasn’t it?
It became quite important in my life, because the people in the museum community got me to come and talk at a museum conference. As a result of that, [Te Papa’s chief executive] Cheryll Sotheran tapped me on the shoulder and got me to go and work there. So, yes, that little article had quite a long-term effect.
But even before that, you were making your name, in every sense, at the Listener.
Yes, I wrote an ill-tempered letter to the editor, attacking the sort of hero worship of John Beaglehole, the great New Zealand historian, arguing that he was basically only interested in 18th-century Britain rather than 20th-century New Zealand. And Ian Cross, the magazine’s editor at the time, who was a great cultural nationalist, thought this was great. He asked me to write editorials once a month. And not only did he ask me to do that, but also he actually changed my name, because I’d signed my letter J.O.C. Phillips. Cross told me, “This is a people’s magazine, you can’t have a poofy set of initials”, so I said, “Okay, people call me Joc, so now I will be Jock with a k. Even my parents eventually called me Jock.
As you delved further into New Zealand history, turning away from your parents’ British orientation, they upped sticks and retired to the UK. How did that affect you?
It came as a bit of a shock. My father had been in the British Army in World War II and had always aspired to live in England. One day, he asked my mother, “What would you do if I died?”, and she said she’d go and live in England. She asked him what he’d do if she died, and he said he would go and live in England. So they said, “Why don’t we do it now, together?” And they did and it was the best thing; they were very happy. My father spent all his time watching cricket, as they lived near the Kent County Cricket grounds, and they were close to mainland Europe.
Your 1987 book, A Man’s Country?, looking at Kiwi male stereotypes, was quite groundbreaking. It was revised in 1996. Is it due another update?
I think you’d have to write a whole new book. New Zealand has become a much more diverse society than it was in the 1980s when I wrote that. We had a much more homogeneous, Pākehā-dominated culture and we’ve now got a much greater range both of ethnicities and social groupings. We’ve got much greater extremes of wealth and poverty. We are a much more complex and culturally rich society than we were in 1987.
In your latest book, Making History, you express the view that New Zealand historians should be fluent in te reo. Are you, and what is the added value?
You can’t understand or read or teach New Zealand history without confronting the fact that the relationship of Māori and Pākehā is central to that dynamic story. And if you are going to tell that story adequately, you have to be able to access Māori as well as Pākehā sources. It’s a great sadness to me that I became interested in New Zealand history later than I might. I have tried to learn te reo, but I am not that good at it. If I had learnt in my twenties, that would have been better, and I should have been required to do so. It still disappoints me how few New Zealand historians have that facility. But my granddaughter, aged six, can fluently count up to 100 in te reo. Māori ritual is becoming more part of the daily ritual of school. It’s happening because people realise, intuitively, that it’s important to this country.
Have your children been influenced in the way your father influenced you?
Neither has any interest in history – so much for my influence. My son is an accountant and my daughter teaches dance, so, no, not a skerrick of influence.
What would you rate as your greatest professional achievement?
That sort of judgment is for other people to make, but the thing I most enjoyed doing was Te Ara [the online encyclopedia of New Zealand]. We had a wonderful team. I learnt so much about New Zealand in all its facets. It was so interesting to be able to translate knowledge that mainly came out of books and written material to an interactive digital form of communication, with plenty of images and films. And it’s the easiest thing I’ve ever had to do, because no one ever said no. From the start, everyone could see there was value in what we were doing.
Why do you think government ministers, always facing financial constraints, seldom turned down your funding requests?
New Zealand history is a good-news story for ministers. We provided them with opportunities to launch books or websites. No one was really going to argue that giving public support to encourage New Zealanders to understand their history was a bad thing. Michael Bassett, a former historian, gave me huge support when I became chief historian; that was his passion and so you could understand that. But then Graeme Lee. Who would have predicted he had any interest in history? But he always said yes when we offered something like a book launch, and he always spoke enthusiastically. We were able to rise above partisan politics.
What are you working on?
I’ve been commissioned by a publisher to do a History of New Zealand in 100 Objects. In the past 10 years, historians around the world have become increasingly interested in material objects as a route into the past. This is a great challenge and I hope by the time I finish that, we might be able to put on an exhibition so that people can see the objects. I am addicted to writing history and I will probably keep doing that until I leave this mortal coil. There is so much New Zealand history to be explored. Every subject you pick up, there is always a new perspective. I love doing it.
This article was first published in the August 3, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.