After the Treaty: a new fiction
Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture
14 November 2005
This is an honour and an astonishment: an astonishment because this occasion is grandly titled a “lecture” and I am a journalist — journalists write stories; and an honour because I think Bruce Jesson was worthy of having a lecture named for him.
I don’t claim familiarity with Bruce. But on a couple of occasions I went fishing (well, sitting on a boat) with Bruce and his generous friend Peter Lee. Once we became marooned when the motor in Peter’s venerable vessel would not start. As Peter communed with his engine and we gently rocked far out of swimming distance from Peter’s little bay on Waiheke, Bruce suddenly grinned at me. Imagine the story, he said, if the news media were to report our loss at sea, each in the incongruous company of the other, he of the “left” and I supposedly of the “right”.
In fact, we shared, I think, two interests: in policy, where it originates, how it works and what it does to people; and in the ingredients of this place, this country, which we who perch here sometimes fancy we can call a nation. But Bruce was an activist as well as an observer; as much a politician as an analyst of politics; he shaped as well as described. I just watch. The price I pay for the incalculable privilege of watching up close is to have to write down some of what I see. Moreover, Bruce was, Andrew Sharp wrote, a “patriot”. My roots are too shallow and my ambitions too small to be a patriot. I am ephemeral; Bruce has a legacy.
Bruce had a framework, marxism, into which to fit the world he studied and wanted to change. I have no such framework.
I did fall under Marx’s spell as an instantly impressionable 17-year-old university fresher. “From each according to ability, to each according to means” seemed as indisputable as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
But, while my grandfathers were working class, my parents were teachers, which stranded me in the petty bourgeoisie and so doomed me to fail the class-consciousness test. (I am a life member of the Engineers Union but that is another story). So it would not have surprised Bruce that Marx lost his grip on me when the following year my French lecturer, Max Adereth — incidentally, a marxist — introduced me to the bleak, and for me, as it turned out, inescapable, limbo of existentialism where there are no bearings other than those one makes up for oneself. My journalism reflects that: no right answers, just a stumbling search for questions, confined to the empirical, not the theoretical, to the event, not the imagination, to human muddle, not tidy templates. Journalism the way I live it operates by its own version of the uncertainty principle, all the more uncertain because its role is to haphazardly freeze-frame that everlasting wide- screen movie, The Human Condition.
My freeze-frame this evening is the Aotearoan/New Zealander of 2005. Like all freeze- frames, however, it is of a subject in motion. And, as I shall make clear later, I am here to ask for help.
By definition, to talk of the Aotearoan/New Zealander is to talk of someone who belongs in Aotearoa/New Zealand — or in Aotearoa or in New Zealand or in New Zealand/Aotearoa, for different people belong in different place-names.