Felicity barnes is keen to give us a more ample, more nuanced understanding of our past relationship with Britain than earlier historians have served up—and she is not afraid to re-examine concepts such as ‘Britishness’ to do so.
New Zealand historians Keith Sinclair and WH Oliver were interested in tracing the steady emergence of a New Zealand identity, says Barnes. For them and their followers, ties ‘Home’ were embarrassing examples of cultural immaturity and impediments to progress. Even recent historians, who maybe more inclined to reassess the relationship, tend to dismiss imperial ties as nothing more than the ‘natural’ legacies of settler origins.
Barnes will have none of that: “Britishness was invented as much as it was inherited, constructed by settlers at the same time as they themselves were embodiments of it.’
In New Zealand’s London: A Colony and its Metropolis, she reveals this process of invention by examining the site where it imaginatively or actually happened—London.
“Historians have missed it, but for the best part of a century, New Zealand’s most important city was 12,000 miles away. It was New Zealand’s London, and it shaped our culture,’ she says.
Two little-studied activities are at the heart of New Zealand’s London: New Zealanders as tourists in the metropolis, and the marketing of New Zealand meat, butter and cheese.
In the 1920s and ’30s, high-profile editors such as Alan Mulgan made pilgrimages to Britain and reported on their visits to St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and other iconic landmarks for the benefit of their distant readers. But a diverse and far more numerous group of visitors to the imperial capital were ‘Bill Massey’s tourists’—the countless thousands of New Zealand soldiers who spent leave there during World War I.
Unlike Indians and other non-white troops of the empire, New Zealanders were not ‘gated’ in London: they were free to explore, protected from the city’s darker side (sex, gambling, drunkenness) by organisations such as the YMCA and the International Hospitality League.
Concerned that London’s welcome could go too far, the league organised night patrols. One writer reported their work as being “of a delicate personal nature requiring the utmost tact to separate men from women of known disreputable character”. No-nonsense New Zealand women formed part of the patrol, armed with sticks for ‘delicate’ separation.
What soldiers’ letters and postcards reveal is a complex set of relationships with London. A connection, naturally, with sites made famous by cultural transmission, but also privileged access to those sites as an equal owner of the history embodied in them and as a co-creator of the values they enshrined. Some even expressed a guarded superiority to a culture they judged had degenerated from its former heights.
The usual sightseeing itinerary was, at any event, a selective one. Smithfield (the destination for most New Zealand meat) and Tooley Street (its dairy hub) were notably absent. As Barnes notes, despite the fact that most tourists arrived on ships designed to carry passengers above and meat and butter below, “those travellers were encouraged to view their relationship with the metropolis via the family bonds of empire, not the cold calculus of economics”.
The reality is that by 1933, New Zealand accounted for almost half of Britain’s imported lamb, mutton, cheese and butter in effect, it had become a town-supply district of London.
Rethinking the relationship with London as between a metropolis and its hinterland, as Barnes does, offers new perspectives. New Zealand transitioned from colonial periphery to hinterland at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to technologies—from fast steamships to submarine cables—that shrank distance and paradoxically strengthened ties to Britain even as they promoted nationalism.
In the process, and with great deliberation, New Zealand’s identity was recalibrated for metropolitan consumption, and nowhere more obviously than in its produce-marketing campaigns. In the popular international exhibitions, in print ads and posters and in butchers’ shop displays, New Zealand became an idealised white-settler farm. Stripped of both Maori imagery and untamed nature, the country was pictured as modern and safe, pastoral and bounteous. No longer itself the commodity (real estate) as in its settler phase, New Zealand was now a prime source of commodities.
There is much else of value in New Zealand’s London, but its real achievement is to hone a fruitful new metaphor. “Whether characterising cultural wasteland or a servile and docile ‘dutiful Dominion’, New Zealand’s culture has been the subject of unforgiving historical assessments for most of the twentieth century,” says Barnes.
“Reconnecting New Zealand with its metropolis, as Home and hinterland, not as servile colony to an imperial centre, changes the story.”