In July 1953 Frank Corner, then External Affairs Officer at our High Commission in London, sent a long letter to Alister McIntosh, head of External Affairs in Wellington. At that time New Zealand was in the process of adjusting to changing centres of power and the changing reality of our own place in the world as we turned, slightly, away from Britain. We had to reassess the capabilities we would need, where limited money should best be spent to advance core security interests, and how we could best lean on the resources of other countries as we faced the reality that Britain could not be relied upon for defence in the Pacific.
“I take it for granted that we shall make a commitment somewhere. Realistically speaking we have no need to do so. No country is less likely than New Zealand to be attacked; we are protected by enormous stretches of water, by our unimportance, by the naval weakness of Russia and the Asian powers and by the fact that Russia’s naval force must in war be in great demand in European waters; and, above all we are protected by the fact that no power could invade New Zealand without first defeating the sea power of the United States. Our geographical position suggests a policy of neutrality, and such a policy might increase our security, since it is only our belligerency which is likely to cause a foreign power to think of attacking us… It would not be impossible for New Zealand to follow a policy of neutrality and it could be argued that we would be more secure if we did so. Certainly more attention would be paid to us if we were not, as now, taken for granted. But this is irrelevant talk. It is not in New Zealanders to be neutral, and it is inconceivable that we could stand aside, like India, when the West is threatened by the Soviet Union… And though our division would hardly swing the balance it does seem important that we should consciously link our fate with that of Britain and Western Europe and fight to defend it. We can take it for granted that we are going to make a commitment; the only question is as to the area in which we can best do so.”
Today we find our foreign policy contortions risk becoming permanent injuries. We want an “independent” foreign policy, but we won’t criticise Trump nor investigate Chinese steel dumping. We want an American defence umbrella but would not, until recently, have any of its ships visit, and now will only take those that are least capable of defence. (We smell the uranium on their breath but spray some strong cologne and comment on the notes of Hawaiian frangipani). We wanted a democratic Pacific, but in criticising Fiji only left a vacuum. We want to grow trade with China, but thereby increase our dependence and frustrate our allies by our eagerness.
“The present period of indecision”, Corner wrote in that same 1953 letter, “gives us the chance to look again at this question of our commitment, probably the most important policy question facing us… I find this whole problem extremely complex, as it must be, because we are not free agents and because our history and civilisation and interests are hard to reconcile with our geography.”
Our history and civilisation and interests are still hard to reconcile with our geography: this is the premise of New Zealand foreign policy. But with Britain turning her back on the world, Trump stabbing everyone’s, and the Chinese not letting on whether or not they hold a knife, now is the time to think seriously and broadly about our present period of indecision.
I’m reminded of an American friend who visited me in New Zealand. We took a road trip down the West Coast, from Wellington to Queenstown, and after a few days of driving through small towns, my friend said something along the lines of: “Typography and signage in this country are fascinating. Everything is so clear, direct and uncluttered.”
Peter was talking specifically about shop signs and billboards—the Tip Top dairy and Fish&Chip shop kind of signs. But his comments stuck with me for some time afterwards.
Comparing some twentieth century NZ and British printing for instance, New Zealand’s is refreshing in its simplicity. Yet it’s a simplicity with strength and directness; it’s not watered-down “minimalism” or any kind of Instagram-age aesthetic (it has obviously existed long before any of that, as Robin White’s painting shows). I almost want to say that printing work like the Caxton Press’ has a “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”. I’ll stop just short, but it’s nice to think about the signage of your local fish-and-chip shop in the same way as Winckelmann once pondered the Apollo Belvedere.
Maybe, perhaps, possibly the “harsh clarity of New Zealand light” is expressed somehow in our typography, and maybe our book printing? Perhaps the peculiar quality of our direct and un-ozone-mediated light influenced our typographers as it was said to influence the likes of Rita Angus, Christopher Perkins and Colin Mccahon?
I’m not as interested in causes as I am effects. Our signage and our typography is as it is (is as great as it is)—what now? Kris Sowersby’s National typeface is now in use all around the world, from the Huffington Post’s website to a new biography about Mies van der Rohe. (Of all accolades for a modernist-tradition designer, being called upon to help sell Mies’ design must surely be among the highest.) My personal favourites are Sowersby’s “Untitled” typefaces, a kind of distillation of type design to a level where our subconscious barely recognises them as design at all. They have a kind of simplicity to them, even a noble one, but that’s coupled with a—well, screw it, a quiet grandeur. They aspire.
Sowersby is drawing on the “Super Normal” philosophy of Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison, where design is so subtle as to be invisible. He didn’t invent the idea. But again, a New Zealander is at the cutting edge in typography, as, supposedly, one was at the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1890s it was said by a “leading English typefounder” that “‘For the future historian of typefounding of the present generation we shall certainly have to go to New Zealand”—this being a reference to the work of Robert Coupland Harding and his Typojournal.
To belabour the point about Kris Sowersby and his Klim Type Foundry: what I am most enamoured with is the insistence that (as he titled an exhibition last year at Objectspace) “There is no such thing as a New Zealand typeface.” That’s right! This is not a New Zealand typeface. It’s just a typeface, a really good one. One that happens to have been made by a New Zealander. Whether you’re talking about his “National” or his “Untitled”, or even his “Newzald“, they’re just typefaces. They also just happen to be some of the best that designers around the world can get their hands on.
“The idea of an isolated American painting, so popular in this country during the thirties, seems absurd to me, just as the idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd… And in another sense, the problem doesn’t exist at all; or, if it did, would solve itself: an American is an American and his painting would naturally be qualified by that fact, whether he wills it or not. But the basic problem of contemporary painting are independent of any one country.”
I think that’s what Sowersby and Objectspace were getting at with “There is no such thing as a New Zealand typeface.” It’s also why I don’t really believe in “New Zealand art”, or “New Zealand writing”. If it’s good it’s just “art” or “writing” or “a typeface”, and the New Zealandness problem “solves itself”, because a New Zealander is a New Zealander and his or her work will inevitably be shadowed by that fact.
Peter Robinson was then half right with his 1998 work Strategic Plan, where the challenge was laid down: “Mission statement: First we take Manhattan then we take Berlin.” Well, they’re being taken—but not quite with Robinson’s instructions, like “Always attempt to speak the native’s language”, and “Cash in on fashionable contemporary dialogues such as ethnicity, marginalisation and globalism.” Robinson’s work is still in Auckland, but the typographers are well and truly in Manhattan and Berlin.
I’m being unfair to Robinson. His work is much more nuanced than that, and points out the hollowness of those “instructions” as much as it implies we should follow them. But I raise it because really, the New Zealanders doing some of the most groundbreaking work, in art, writing and typography are doing it in the most New Zealand way possible: so damn modestly that it’s sometimes hard to even see. No emphasising idigeneity, no American-style self-promotion. Just fantastic work. The best seem to have absorbed the lesson of Allen Curnow that somehow or other was forgotten along the postmodern way: “It is not by harping on what is native, indigenous, insular that any of these songs are news: if they are good they cannot but be news of the human condition.”
One more quotation, this one Donald Judd’s: “The importance of art done in the United States since World War II… is most easily explained by saying that a few artists simply decided to do first-rate work.” Granted, it was maybe a little more complex than that; but unless artists know they’re doing first-rate work, what can dealers, curators, publishers and politicians ultimately do? I end with this quotation because people who happen to have passports issued by New Zealand are doing first-rate work.
My latest obsession, as some of my recent essays here might attest. But I’m currently in the wrong country to be learning about New Zealand printing—and I would have found a short bibliography most helpful as I began to learn. Below are some of the sources I found particularly useful and interesting, in the rough order that I think it would have been most effective to have read them in.
But first, some background. Printing in New Zealand began as it did in Europe, out of theological necessity. The Church Missionary Society (CMS) operated the first presses out of Northland, and as Don McKenzie points out in his Oral Culture, Literacy & Print in Early New Zealand : The Treaty of Waitangi, the NZ case provides a fascinating look at a society moving from a primarily oral culture to a print-based one almost four hundred years after Europe went through the same shift. The first item ever printed in New Zealand was a pamphlet of catechisms in Maori, printed by Reverend William Butler Yate at Kerikeri in 1830. But as surviving copies show, Yate didn’t really know what he was doing with the printing press, and he soon went back to Sydney to have a professional print 1,800 (shoddy) copies of the Bible in Maori.
Four years after Yate’s botched attempt, William Colenso arrived at Paihia with a better printing press—and, more importantly, the knowledge of how to use it. (Don McKenzie mused on this: “Technology itself is nothing without a human mind…”) Within weeks of his arrival, after having some missing parts of his press re-made, he too had printed sheets of Maori catechisms, plus the first item in English: an announcement, with hindsight ironic, of the New Zealand Temperance Society. And two years later, in 1936, Colenso would start printing his run of 5,000 copies of sections of the Bible, the first full “book” printed in New Zealand. Colenso is today probably best remembered for being the printer of the Treaty of Waitangi, and for his record of the days and ceremonies surrounding the Treaty itself.
Robert Coupland Harding has been called (by McKenzie) “New Zealand’s first and most eminent typographer” (here’s a more recent summary of his life and work). Printing properly from the 1860s through the end of the century, Harding worked in the craft tradition of typography, culminating in his journal Typo. His international reputation in printing and typography was apparently significant, maybe presaging New Zealanders’ twenty-first century influence in global typography (I’m thinking of Kris Sowersby and his Klim Type Foundry, whose work I love and which I come across on more and more websites, among others).
Then there are the twentieth-century big names: Denis Glover and Leo Bensemann at The Caxton Press, and Robert “Bob” Lowry, first with the Auckland University College Students’ Association Press, and then later both Pelorus and Pilgrim presses. Numerous other private presses operated in the twentieth century (including McKenzie’s own Wai-te-Ata Press at Victoria University), but for sheer influence, Glover and Lowry get the credit.
With that too-brief summary, here’s the reading list I wish I’d had when I became interested in the topic:
A History of Printing in New Zealand, by R A McKay & Wellington Club of Printing House Craftsmen, 1940. First printed in a limited edition of 600 copies, this has been described as “the most beautiful book ever produced in this country.” It is interesting both for its content and for its quality. Includes various essays on aspects of early and contemporary printing in NZ, plus illustrations throughout.
A Book in the Hand: Essays on the History of the Book in New Zealand, edited by Penelope Griffith, Peter Hughes and Alan Loney, Auckland University Press, 2000. A fantastic set of essays on printing in NZ. I particularly enjoyed Donald Kerr on “Sir George Grey and his book collecting activities in NZ” (this was really great), Peter Hughes on Bob Lowry, and Alan Loney’s essay on typography.
Book and Print in New Zealand: A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa, edited by Penny Griffith, Keith Maslen and Ross Harvey, 1997. Essays on all aspects of printing and publishing in New Zealand. Probably one of the most thorough books I’m including here, but it doesn’t capture the lives of those involved as well as the others here—it seems more aimed at those interested in printing from an industry point of view, so if that’s you, start here.
The National Library of New Zealand’s “Book History at the Turnbull” guide. An online resource with a huge number of links and sources, not all solely related to NZ. This is a great bibliography, but the reason I’m writing my own rather than directing readers to it is that I didn’t really know where to start with their list—not all their sources are equally useful.
Oral Culture, Literacy & Print in Early New Zealand : The Treaty of Waitangi, by D F McKenzie. Victoria University Press, 1985. This really should be a classic in NZ, and I was ashamed that I hadn’t heard of it before this reading. It’s based on a speech McKenzie gave at the British Library, where he took up the NZ case of the Treaty of Waitangi to make a broader point about the meaning and nature of texts. The only reason it’s not higher in this list here is because it is primarily focussed on the text of the Treaty; but the early sections about Yate’s and Colenso’s printing efforts are brilliant.
Early New Zealand Books, online database by Auckland University. This is a great chronological list of materials published about and in New Zealand, with many digitised books.
The Lure of New Zealand Book Collecting, by Johannes Carl Andersen. Whitcombe & Tombs, 1936. Printing from a collector’s standpoint: covers books earlier than printing began in NZ, but includes a number of good sections on early books produced in/about NZ. I didn’t bother reading this right through, though—and it looks like no one else here in Oxford has either, because some of the pages were still uncut in the Bodleian’s copy.
The William Colenso Bibliography, 2013. This is a huge scholarly undertaking, but allows one to easily find further Colenso sources. I used it to find materials in the library here, including some of Colenso’s early printing.
Thanks to everyone who pointed me in the direction of some of these sources. I hope it proves useful to others.
Charles Brasch’s contribution to the birth and growth of New Zealand culture was immense, and is still in many ways under-appreciated or unaccounted for. He was the founding editor of Landfall, the quarterly journal started in March 1947 that showed New Zealanders as well as the world what was unique about the writing, art and music produced in the country—we all know that much. He wrote poems himself, he collected the art of all New Zealand’s mid twentieth-century modernists (and then donated them all to the Hocken Library in Dunedin). He journaled fastidiously, which now, after Peter Simpson’s tireless work, gives us an account of the growth of our culture. But Brasch’s manner of philanthropy was the very best kind: he was always behind the scenes, providing money at just the right time and place where it was needed to support an artist, to publish a book or to start a fellowship. I say “but” about his philanthropy because that now means we will likely never know of or trace the extent of his contributions. Even his diary did not hear of his benevolence.
It has seemed to me then a little ungrateful that Brasch’s Wikipedia page points out, in the very first paragraph, that he gained an “ignominious third” in his Modern History course at Oxford in the late 1920s. I cannot think of any other public figure in New Zealand or elsewhere for whom undergraduate grades feature so prominently in their public biography. Brasch, however, was adamant, as he pointed out in his memoirs published posthumously: “I had not come to Oxford to get a degree”. And judging by his Oxford reading, he got from his time here exactly what he needed.
“One of the very few things I could remember of my first term was lying on my sofa through long damp grey days and reading Katherine Mansfield’s Journal, which seemed (in recollection) to set the mood of the whole term. In fact I devoured the Journal in two days… In that same term, I think, I began to read Plato…”
And just a few years later that undergraduate truant reading would serve Brasch well in one of his life’s most important moments. Sitting by his grandfather Willi Fels’ bedside during his last days—Fels, his maternal grandfather who essentially raised him and was the only one to support him in the decision to become a poet—Brasch read aloud to him the Phaedo, the recollection of Socrates’ death, excluding only those paragraphs he couldn’t bear to read. It was those paragraphs he couldn’t bear to read that were then read aloud, decades later, at Brasch’s own funeral.
His reading was immense, but unfocussed. In addition to the above we know that Wilde and Pound, Brooke and Graves were particularly important during his Oxford years. Brasch published just one poem during his undergraduate years, right before he graduated and went down to London; but this didn’t stop him paying Basil Blackwell a nervous, and unsuccessful, visit about the possibility of publishing a book. His calling to poetry at times seems driven more by an aesthetic sensibility than an inborn talent. Certainly he was not anywhere near the talent of Auden, who was at Oxford at the same time, or Baxter, whose superior talent Brasch immediately recognised and supported (he never seems to have been a jealous writer; maybe this fact explains the limits of his critical success).
Brasch suggests it was partly Plato, partly a flirtation with Buddhism, and partly the lives of other writers (their vegetarian diets) that meant “notions of purity obsessed me… By fits and starts I made several ineffectual bids towards purity. The purity I believed I longed for failed to distinguish properly between what goes in at the mouth and what comes out of the heart.” Brasch, of course, as one of the inheritors to the Hallensteins clothing empire, had the means for an aesthetic life—a life of lavishness and luxury, if he so wanted. But notions of the ascetic are always strongest in those for whom it is a choice rather than a necessity. “Fortunately,” Brasch goes on in his memoirs, “my will was weak and my senses strong, so that I did not fall into puritanism, but continued in a cloud of contradictions, not knowing what I wanted except that I wanted to write poetry. Of these inner cross-currents I spoke to no one.”
The inner cross-currents of which he spoke to no one could be seen as those tides that shaped his life. His sexuality and love life, for one thing (always tortured), but also more immediately, in his post-Oxford years, that of his vocation. Though he thought of himself always as a poet, his life and posthumous reputation seem to rest on his role as “literary editor” and “arts patron”, as Wikipedia, ever reflecting the public sense, puts it. Or, as he put it, reflecting on his most tortured period and the reaction of his father: “Was I going to be a drifter, sticking at nothing? an idler? a dilettante? I could not explain adequately, because I had not the courage or conviction to avow my secret hopes.”
Landfall certainly dominated his days, to the extent that friends at times advised him to give up the editorship if he was to keep writing poetry. The myriad tasks and constant letter-writing kept this man of leisure busy, or at least busier than Baxter, and then again we find him organising shows of McCahon’s work in Christchurch, for instance, without telling either his diary or Colin. We come up again against Brasch’s old-world decorum, more than just the result of an Oxford education of the late 20s—a fundamental drive to do for others (for a nation) what his means allowed him to, all without any desire for or expectation of credit or recognition.
Fortunately for us, even if we can’t know of all Brasch’s deeds, we can find the products of them—most significantly, in Dunedin, the city that was for him always home. The Hocken Library of the University of Otago possesses one of the best art collections in the country, in large part thanks to Brasch (gifts and bequests tend to snowball as more people see the stature of an institution through what has previously been donated). Rita Angus’ View from Tinakori Road is there; so too is McCahon’s The Virgin and Child Compared, to name just two personal favourites of over 450 artworks. His personal library of over 7,500 volumes also lives at the Hocken, and so far under-explored is Brasch’s collection of international art and prints that were separated from the main bequest and given to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.
As I sit here in Oxford, “through long damp grey days”, reading Brasch’s journals and memoirs, Dunedin comes into focus. Dunedin, and all the places and people Brasch visited and wrote of. They become centre and I am living at the margins, unable to see or read or connect with that which is most important to me (except for those few books that, thankfully, the Bodleian happens to stock). Distance indeed looks our way, as that famous line of Brasch’s poem, “In These Islands“, tells us.
Walking this evening past Brasch’s old rooms with their views out onto the Elm trees of St. Giles, it came clearly to me how a culture is built, how it moves forward, how it communicates more and more life. It gains life and communicates it because of the individuals who decide there isn’t enough of it, and who decide to devote their lives to creating more of it. It is simple, in retrospect; but looking forwards, for the young man flunking Oxford with an ignominious third, it must have looked like the most difficult thing in the world.
More on Charles Brasch:
Charles Brasch. Indirections: A Memoir. Oxford University Press, 1980.
Charles Brasch. Journals. 3 volumes, published by Otago University Press.
Charles Brasch. The Universal Dance: A selection from the critical prose writings. Otago University Press, 1981.
Charles Brasch. Present Company: Reflections on the Arts. Blackwood & Janet Paul Ltd, 1966.
James Bertram. Charles Brasch. Oxford University Press, 1977.
Sarah Quigley. A World Elsewhere: a critical and biographical study of the European influence on the life and work of Charles Brasch. DPhil (PhD) thesis at the University of Oxford. (One copy available at Oxford’s Weston library; I couldn’t find an online version).
Donald Kerr (editor). Enduring Legacy: Charles Brasch, Patron, Poet, Collector. Otago University Press, 2003.