In the 2019 Rona Bailey lecture, held at the National Library of New Zealand, Dean Parker talked about growing up in Napier, what he learnt in London from Trotskyists and Irish republicans, joining the Socialist Unity Party back in New Zealand, the formation of the NZ Writers’ Guild and its affiliation to the Federation of Labour, and the politics of writing and the writing of politics. The Rona Bailey Memorial Lecture commemorates activist Rona Bailey (1914-2005) and is held every two years by the Labour History Project.
Dean Parker is a New Zealand screenwriter, playwright, journalist and political commentator based in Auckland. Dean has worked as a writer for much of his life and been prominent in his union, the NZ Writer’s Guild.
His plays include ‘The Man That Lovelock Couldn’t Beat’, ‘Baghdad, Baby!’ and an adaptation of Nicky Hager’s expose ‘The Hollow Men’. Amongst his screenwork, he has won awards in New Zealand for tele-play ‘Share the Dream’ (starring Joel Tobeck), and co-writing successful big-screen comedy Came a ‘Hot Friday’, adapted from the novel by Ronald Hugh Morrieson.
Parker also wrote Federation of Labour play ‘The Feds’ (with Rena Owen as Jock Barnes) and co-directed the documentary ‘Shattered Dreams’, alongside journalist Francis Wevers. The film examined industrial conflict in New Zealand in the years before the 1951 waterfront lockout.
‘Johnson’, Dean Parker’s first novel, was published in 2017. In this book Parker imagines the future of the protagonist of John Mulgan’s classic novel ‘Man Alone’. In October 2013 Parker was presented with a prestigious Laureate Award from the Arts Foundation.
Text of Dean Parker’s Rona Bailey Memorial Lecture
I did a count earlier in the week and found I’d had seven plays produced in Auckland. I’ve had fourteen in Wellington. I feel at home here. I remember a branch secretary of the somewhat austere Socialist Unity Party, a bloke almost Dickensian in his cheery sort of gloom, visiting me in the communal flat I shared in Freemans Bay in the 1970s and staring out the window at a day that was dark and dank and drizzling and saying, “I like this sort of weather, Dean.” I feel the same about Wellington.
Last weekend some of you may have attended a conference here, in the Library, marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of HART, Halt All Racist Tours. Years ago the Listener asked me to review a book about the anti-apartheid movement in New Zealand and the 1981 Springbok Tour. The book was Dancing on our Bones, by Trevor Richards. I happily took the job. NZ’s historic role had clearly been not to secure the Dardanelles for Churchill, or to hold Crete, but to bring about the downfall of apartheid. But here also was the opportunity to relate what I saw while awaiting the Springboks’ touchdown at Auckland airport in July, 1981.
I wrote how hundreds and hundreds of us, protesting the arrival of apartheid, were penned into an area separated from the airport by a high wire fence. A friend of mine, a borstal old girl from West Auckland, took it upon herself to unpick the staples holding the fence-wire in place. This done, she tugged at the wire and we all joined her in pulling away an entire stretch of it. We then advanced to the line of the now non-existent fence and faced a threadbare row of police standing each at least a yard apart with no weapons and looking hapless and helpless. The airport was ours for the taking. And we did nothing. Because to step beyond the remains of this non-existent fence was to trespass into unknown territory. Within a few weeks all such restraint was gone and we were locked in a major struggle with the state.
I wrote that here was a tiny example of how in periods of social upheaval history speeds up and the most servile of us suddenly, confidently, take upon ourselves actions we never would have dreamt of: thus a strike of women in St Petersburg in February, 1917, ends with the working class taking power in Russia in October.
A few days after the Listener came out I received a letter in the mail. It was from Rona Bailey. It read, “Dean! We don’t want to hear about you! We want to hear about Trevor’s book!”
I’m really honoured to be asked to present the Rona Bailey Memorial lecture. It’s an honour I prize and I’d like to thank Cybele and the Labour History Project for the invitation. I’m normally in the back row at these events. I was here for one thirty years ago, a Labour History gathering in Wellington. I had some little badges made to distribute. They read, “A half-decent job delegate is worth a dozen labour historians.”
I recall at one of the breaks in this Labour History gathering of thirty years ago I was taken to Rona’s house, a beautiful place in Roseneath. Rona took me into the main room where she had on proud display a large batik print that she had recently acquired. On it was an image of a policeman on a horse with a baton hanging from his saddle. Walking alongside him was a man with his head down. Rona said to me, grimly, “It’s one of the Waihi strikers in 1912 being run out of town by the police.” Now I had seen the image before. It was taken from a photo in the Auckland Weekly News, November 1912. It was in fact a picture of a scab being escorted in to work by armed police. I mentioned this and Rona was horrified. I felt terrible.
But to the substantive matter, as Peter Conway would say. This is my third attempt at writing this speech. At first I was going to do a draft entitled “Catholicism—My Struggle.” Then I checked the description of the Rona Bailey Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the Labour History Group, and found it involved—of course—some sort of account of labour history. When I was at Catholic high school we were visited and spoken to by Des Nolan from the Wellington Clerical Workers’ Union. This was in the 1960s. He told us of the necessity of young Catholics becoming active in the union movement in order to combat the growing strength of the Communists. That would have been as close as my speech “Catholicism—My Struggle” would have come to organised labour.
So I abandoned that and emailed Cybele that I would do a speech I’d once successfully given at the Trades Hall in Auckland about class struggle in Hollywood—the moves to organise unions in 1930s Hollywood, particularly among screenwriters. I remember seeing a cartoon in the New Yorker showing a group of picketers walking around in a circle, the way they do in the United States to avoid being arrested for loitering. And all the picketers were carrying big placards. Except the placards were blank. And someone explains: “It’s a writers’ strike.”
I put this to Cybele and she replied, “I would really like you speak about your life and work.” So… I shall talk about Napier, about Catholicism, about overseas, about the Socialist Unity Party, about the Writers’ Guild, and then about the politics of writing and the writing of politics. I shall not mention Blackball or 1951 or Sonja Davies. I shall speak for a full sixty minutes, thus pre-empting—I hope—any floundering question time. I shall not use a power-point but shall rely on the potency of metaphor. Please feel free to doze off, as some bits you may find less interesting than others.
I had a one-man play on at BATS last year about a Marist Brother who taught me at Napier Marist. For those who missed it, it’s on again at Circa next February. Napier Marist was a rough old school whose two famous old boys at the time were Paddy Donovan, lightweight boxing bronze-medallist at the Empire Games in Cardiff, and John Gillies, Machine-Gun Murderer of Bassett Rd.
On the face of it, the play was about this Marist Brother who was, as they used to say, “theatrical”. I heard when he turned up at St Bernard’s in Lower Hutt the Head Brother exclaimed, “Calls himself a Marist Brother? He doesn’t know a thing about sport!” But I realised a lot of the play was in fact about my mother’s world.
My mother used to drag me along to Hollywood musicals at the Odeon and the State in Napier. My own theatre-of-choice was the Mayfair, the local flea-pit, where I’d go with my best friend to watch Westerns.
But my mother adored a musical. The English playwright Howard Barker says go to a musical and you’ll come out believing in anything; go to a tragedy and you’ll think twice. But musicals can sustain those whose lives are otherwise pretty ordinary and give them not so much anything to believe in as something at least, flimsy, sentimental, sugar-coated and relentlessly optimistic though it is. The French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre always said that movies should have a happy ending. Theatre audiences can handle doom and gloom, he argued, but those who go to the movies have enough misery in their lives without further burden.
I had a novel published in 2017. Sold about six copies. But I had a lovely response from a woman who rang to say, “You gave it a happy ending! Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” Whereas a political acquaintance of mine came up to me in the street and said, “What about that ending? You’ve gone all Hollywood mushy!” He was of course an organiser for the bloody Greens.
My Mum had social aspirations which were constantly being set back by Sergeant Prendeville down at Napier Police Station ringing up to say Dad’s brother, Uncle Joe, who worked on the railways, had been picked up again, drunk and disorderly round town, and would Chris come and get him out of the lock-up?
At the Napier Races, wearing her fox fur, she’d be mortified at my father picking up and examining discarded tote tickets in case someone had thrown away a live one.
She once bought a set of fish knives and forks so we could consume our Friday night fish and chips with decorum. What a disaster that was.
She avidly followed the British Royals and used to talk about “Old Mary” in the same familiar yet slightly unsettled tone she talked about my Great Aunts, Gwen, Ruby and Queenie. It wasn’t until sometime after that I discovered “Old Mary” wasn’t, in fact, a Great Aunt but instead was the severe and disapproving wife of George V.
In later life Mum would come to adore Edna Everage, with whom she probably shared the odd trait. She’d lower her voice and confide in me, “It’s a man, you know.”
She’d confuse the words emphysema and nymphomania and startle me with accounts of what had kept her up the previous night. She was raised Anglican and converted to marry my father, who was the off-spring of generations of Irish Catholics. She wanted to call me William but my father’s family had an ancestral grudge against anyone named Billy. I once did one of those Q + A profiles in an Auckland paper. It was headed, “Are You a Westie?” There were four questions and I answered yes to all. “Do you drive a Jap import?” “Do you drink Lion Red?” “Do you support the Warriors?” “Is your name Siobhan or Dean?” My parents reached a compromise over my name. I ended up with my first name Dean, after Dean Waretini, the Maori baritone—my mother being very fond of popular music—and with my middle name Leo, after the first of the Nazi Popes.
Eventually my mother gave up on the Church. At a Mass, very pregnant, she’d listened to a local priest delivering a sermon on the primacy of the foetus; how even if it threatened the mother’s life, this new soul must be delivered. Well, that was it for her. She stopped going. “It’s a cruel Church,” she said to me.
My father didn’t go to the movies, preferring the races. He was brought up to work on his father’s farm until ill health drove him away from physical labour and into the city as a clerk for the State Advances, that wonderful institution that would give citizens cheap mortgages. He was from the deep north of Hawke’s Bay, would eat huhu grubs and had a sprinkling of Pakeha Maori like tai hoa, e hoa, and kei te pai.
At the back of a Napier South house he set up a chook run and vegetable patches and planted fruit trees. He was a man fearful of the new and the foreign and who rarely left Hawke’s Bay (nothing worth seeing) and certainly never ventured outside of the North Island. I never saw him read a book. He preferred instead the monthly New Zealand Farmer and listening to the races and the footy on the radio. He would take me to the home bend at the old Napier races to share with me the cursing of the jockeys in the line-up for the final straight. In 1956 he gave me a leg-up over the wall at McLean Park, after the gates were closed on a full ground. The Bay were playing the ’Boks. He told me to sit with the seminarians from Greenmeadows.
“A child in a man’s body,” I remember my mother describing him, saying, “All he wanted out of life was a new car and a day at the races.” Years after my father died my mother told me she had consoled a recently bereaved woman friend with the words, “I’ve had a very happy widowhood, Dulcie.”
In one of my last years at home, full of myself, I’d sat watching some BBC TV drama on our black-and-white set and realised my father was standing in the living room almost timidly trying to share my viewing, and clearly failing. I remember Terry Coyle, a former novitiate at Mount St Mary’s at Greenmeadows who had left the seminary after two years, telling me of returning home and correcting his father’s grammar over the dinner table and his father staring at him and saying, “You think your shit doesn’t stink; well, mister, let me tell you it does.”
My father left school in standard three, when he would have been nine. My mother was the educated one, getting through to standard six, the last year of primary school. She would have been twelve. After that, she was kept home to help her own mother run the household, as was the norm for the chosen daughter.
Dad, son of a farmer, always voted National and told me in 1957 that if Labour got in, our new car, a Vanguard, could end up nationalised. I would have been ten at the time. A dozen years later I was listening to people advocating the vanguard’s role in realising nationalisation.
Mum took no heed of Dad’s political warnings and voted Labour. “They got us out of the Depression,” she explained, adding, “Don’t tell your father.”
“Are we lower middle class?” I remember asking her as I stared out from our front window across the creek and at the state houses beyond. I’d put Tom Sawyer behind me and was reading George Orwell. “What a thing to say!” she replied. “We’re middle class.”
At school I won prizes for religious knowledge. I still have my Marian Missal awarded for Best in Christian Doctrine at Napier Marist.
I would have won the lower North Island Secondary Schools’ O’Shea Shield Debating Competition’s Religious Question in 1965 if it weren’t for some smoothly superior head girl from Sacred Heart Island Bay beating me into second place with that almost Protestant born-to-rule assurance Catholic ruling-class progeny have.
At university I found myself skipping Mass on Sunday and then drifting. A former Napier Convent girl I admired hugely came up to me in the caff at Vic and said she was having problems with the concept of the Holy Trinity. But what about the rest?
There was an episode of Father Ted where three church theologians visit Craggy Island and one of them takes poor innocent Dougal aside and says, “If you have any doubts about the faith Dougal, any tiny little doubts, now is the time to share them.”
And Dougal says, “Well you know how Adam and Eve ate the apple and were expelled from the Garden of Eden, and our souls were stained with Original Sin so we couldn’t go to Heaven but were stranded in Limbo, and then God sent the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove flying down on great beams of light to enter Mary through her ear and get her pregnant with Jesus who was born in the manger at Christmas and redeemed us by being crucified for our sins by the Romans and died on the cross on Good Friday but rose again from the dead three days later…?” And the theologian says, “… Yes?” And Dougal says, “Well—that.”
I remain steeped in the Church’s language and lore. When I made a Sunday visit to a friend in hospital I said gaily to my companion Isabel, “Comforting the sick—corporal work of mercy—partial indulgence!” then paused and added, “Don’t think those words have crossed my lips since 1965.” The paths in the bush never disappear completely.
Sitting amongst you, brethren, is one who was on the Dominion Council of the Labour Party and who went to Marcellin College in Auckland and who has lost his Faith—except for one thing. He has told me he still believes in Original Sin, that we are born with that stain on our soul—
“Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe…”
“We’re all fallen,” he said to me, “all weak, all drawn to sin; none of us can be trusted. That’s why we need a Labour government, Dean.”
At school, besides reading Milton’s Paradise Lost, we learnt that General Franco had saved Spain from depravity, that Mussolini’s corporate state was the highest form of democracy, that Our Lady would one day appear in the red sky above the Kremlin and that those from Hastings should take home a note telling their parents no longer to support Labour candidate Ted Keating as Labour was opposed to state aid for Catholic schools.
We were told to cover our tracks when sitting public exams like School Cert and UE and not refer to Henry XIII as a heretic burning in Hell and if we mentioned Catholics to use the term Papists. We were always aware that we were up against the Masonic Lodge. My friend Farrell Cleary and I went to a funeral some years ago and a Lodge Grandmaster spoke and asked for Lodge members present to be upstanding and UP THEY ROSE IN THEIR SUITS like those pod figures in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Farrell and I clutched at each other in horror and delight. There they were! As the priests had warned us! All about us! With their trouser legs rolled up and their left breast bared and giving each other their secret bloody handshakes and if there was no one round to give it to, giving it to themselves, and shouting out obscenities about the Pope, and all of them with their dark glaring eyes that followed you round the room and the grim ironic twist to their lips that seemed to mock what you hadn’t even yet said, always on the lookout for Roman Catholics to thwart. My best friend at school worked his way up the public service to become State Services Commissioner and it was an appointment that would have been celebrated by the Church in the same way the Russians gloried in the rise of Philby.
A good friend of mine, Don Presland, now departed to the Choir Invisible, used to tell me the world was divided into Micks, Masons and Mugs. He himself went to the same Marist school as me in Hastings and told me with relish that when he was President of the Engineers’ Union he was sent a formal letter of warning instructing him to cease and desist from referring to the National Secretary as a Goatfucker.
But for a lot of us, what was most important about a Catholic education was that we were taught by clergy who had taken a vow of poverty. We were taught that to steal a penny from a poor man was a mortal sin, whereas to steal sixpence from a rich man was a venial sin—and it didn’t take long to figure maybe you should steal the sixpence from the rich and give it to the poor and next thing you know, bingo! you’re in the Smash Capitalism Revolutionary Proletarian Party (Marxist-Leninist).
I’ve shared office space with nuns who were to the left of Lenin. Nuns have a very practical attitude to Church doctrine. I heard one of them shouting out about some poor young mother in an embattled state house in Glen Innes and pregnant again: “Oh, why doesn’t she get her tubes tied?” Frankly, if the Pope and the College of
Cardinals and Assembly of Bishops could be replaced by these nuns the Church’s current problems would disappear like a summer shower.
One of the nuns once told me she was talking to a fellow sister who was in despair at what she saw as their failure to keep the little souls in their care faithful to the church. And my nun responded, “I said to her, Dean, look at the number of those we taught who are now fighting for social justice! That’s success!”
James Baxter said somewhere, “When I go among the young neo-Marxists, I find that half of them grew up in the Catholic paddock.”
I remember the union movement in the very activist seventies had a big layer of Catholics and what’s left of it still has. HART, Halt All Racist Tours, had a significant Catholic element and suffered for it in Napier when the lovely old St Pat’s church that so timbered and enfolded my childhood was razed to the ground in 1981.
We were taught, “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Credit to the Church, and Satan, for recognising that we have souls to lose and are not just market commodities.
Now and again you’ll hear that line, about gaining the world and losing your soul, quoted in television dramas and you can bet your boots on two things. First, that you’re watching a decent piece of drama. Second, that the writer went to a Catholic school.
Marx describes religion as, “[T]he sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.” When he adds the sound-bite about the opium of the masses, he’s not talking about narcosis. He’s talking about numbing the pain of our vale of tears.
To the poor, to the wretched of the earth, religion is a consolation, and this consolation is real and seemingly lost on zealots like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, swanning about their metropolitan salons, purring away, pleased with themselves and their rationalities.
I’m aware the last National Government was as full of Catholics as an after-hours pub in the 1950s. James Baxter writes of Catholics taking the side of the boss at union meetings, writing, “an unconscious preference for strongly established authority takes hold of them.” But I’m also aware that when John Minto, stalwart of the left, was asked where his radicalism came from he replied, “The nuns at Napier.”
In 1969 I took a plane to London. I was 21.
I had two distinct groups of friends. One group was a bunch of Canadians that I shared a crowded basement flat with in Earl’s Court, Kangaroo Valley.
We pursued the favoured activities of the time: dropping acid, smoking dope, going to the big music venue, the Roundhouse, to see Jefferson Airplane and to the Isle of Wight to see everyone else and enthusing that the doors of perception were opening and a new consciousness was being born, where
“…logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
and the White Knight is talking backwards
and the Red Queen’s ‘off with her head’
remember what the Doormouse said:
‘Feed your head. Feed your head.’”
Decades later I’d be standing outside the tote at Ellerslie, checking the prices for the next race, and some stranger would come up and say, “Wanna score some acid?” And then, decades after that, I’d be standing surrounded by millions of people in a huge avenue in Shanghai on Chinese New Year, totally out of my comfort zone, and a Middle Eastern bloke would make a bee-line for me and nod and mutter out of the side of his mouth, “Hey, wanna score some hash?”
Clearly, I’d been marked for life.
The other group I kicked around with in London were less metaphysical. These were the politicos. This group consisted of English Trotskyists and Irish republicans, all of them in a state of agitation and ferment. The last twelve months had seen a major uprising by students and workers across the Channel in Paris, while over the Irish Sea in Derry the petrol-bombing Northern Ireland Civil Rights Campaign found itself in uncontested control of a Catholic Bogside previously secured by armed gangs of sectarian killers who called themselves the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
In London my two groups of acquaintances, Canadian hippies and English and Irish politicos, were almost a metaphor for the sixties, for the tune-in-turn-on-drop-out flower children of Haight Ashbury ’67, and for the students of Paris ’68, the soixante-huitards. They shared a certain degree of common ground. The Canadian hippies were political in their opposition to the war in Vietnam and opposition to something called consumer capitalism and some of the English Trots were more into psychedelics than dialectics.
As for the republican Irish, they were all over the place politically, except where it mattered—Ireland. And they would drink and take anything to leave the reality of that behind them.
So, between hippie and politico there was this degree of common ground, but you did find yourself having to make choices, between changing your head and changing society, between freeing yourself from work and fighting for the right to work. There’s a key text from the period, by Richard Neville, an account of alternative London in the late sixties: Playpower, published in 1970. Neville, a self-publicist to match Tim Shadbolt, was the editor of Oz, one of the more important—certainly the most persecuted—counter-culture magazines of the time.
Read Playpower and you’ll find declarations about the war in Vietnam, the Prague Spring, Martin Luther King’s Freedom Riders, the May events in Paris… but nowhere, nowhere at all will you find a single reference to the war that was going on less than a hundred miles from Richard Neville’s communal pad in Ladbroke Grove.
In Northern Ireland an organized resistance of young petrol bombers had confronted the para-military Royal Ulster Constabulary to such a degree that the British Army was sent in to regain control.
That war in Northern Ireland, that war against British imperialism, was almost the blackest of satires of the counter-culture. You want to be freed from the burden of a job? Go to West Belfast. You want to exist in a place without money? Try the Bogside in Derry. You want to live communally? Choose any tenement in Strabane. You want to alter your consciousness? Drink twelve pints of anything.
And they didn’t live in peace and harmony there. And they didn’t respond to repression with mantras and popping flowers in soldiers’ rifle barrels, but with barricades and petrol bombs and Civil Rights marches that were finally shot off the streets by the British Army until, inevitably, the Provisional IRA emerged.
When I returned to New Zealand in the 1970s I and a couple of mates joined the Bill Andersen/Ken Douglas Socialist Unity Party, the Moscow-aligned Tankies.
I was such a middle class arty poseur sitting among all those union secretaries and Trades Council delegates. I remember at a branch meeting when Bill started talking about the SIS and warning us that there’d be an SIS plant sitting amongst us, I thought, “My God, they all think it’s me!”
However one of my mates stood out even more. He was one of those who embraced a 1960s philosophy of sex, drugs & rock’n’roll. His dad was a wharfie but my mate was a clear bourgeois decadent. And yet he was the sort of revolutionary the left cannot do without, never deviating from a belief that the point of life was its enjoyment and avariciously reading Rosa Luxembourg and Allen Ginsberg and Victor Serge and Emma Goldman. He was the one who coined the term “Weasel” to describe members of the Workers’ Communist League—founded of course by Rona Bailey, among others—softening the c in WCL. The term originally described a British Trotskyist group, the Workers’ Socialist League, who were a split from the infamous WRP, the Workers Revolutionary Party, etc, etc. Quelle horreur.
My mate’s enthusiasm for life was matched by a loathing for Tories but he also looked askance at hippiedom and once said to me that all the counter-culture came down to was everything ended up sold across the counter. Which was not strictly fair, but it did pretty much sum up a conclusion many of us had reached.
The reason I’d joined the SUP—what that fragrant-flower Audrey Young described to me as coming to have snow on my boots—was that Robert Muldoon had become Prime Minister. I believed (wrongly) that he was going to make a fundamental, perilous change to the NZ political landscape and figured (rightly) the only ones capable of stopping him were the left-wing unions then taking a lead from the SUP.
Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was eventually to name my union, the Writers’ Guild, as one of those NZ unions he claimed were directed from Moscow. By then I had left the Tankies and Muldoon named someone else as our SUP overseer. I witnessed her state of shock when she came into the Guild office the next day. One of Auckland’s two daily papers had taken a stand and refused to publish Muldoon’s list, but the other, the morning Herald, had. She was now a subject of public debate. It was NZ’s scoundrel times.
The Writers’ Guild was formed in 1975 and affiliated to the Federation of Labour in 1978. I heard that the President of the FOL, Jim Knox, had asked just what these Writers’ Guild people did and been told, “They write.” He replied, of course, “Why don’t they join the Clerical Workers?”
The reason for the Guild being formed in 1975 was the same reason the American Screenwriters Guild was formed. Writers were being hired in bulk by an employer.
In Hollywood, the studios placed screenwriters in writers’ blocks where everyone could feel disgruntled collectively.
Samuel Goldwyn was reputed to sneak round to the writers’ block at MGM and crouch under the window, just in case one of the typewriters inside wasn’t clacking busily away.
Dorothy Parker once hurled herself at the window of the Paramount block and wailed to the world outside, “Please! Help us out of here! We’re sane, just like you!”
You will all have heard of the Academy Awards, the Oscars. But many of you may not know what this Academy is. It’s an Academy of Motion Picture Artistes. It was set up by Hollywood studio heads in 1929 to pre-empt the formation of unions. So writers, actors, directors and designers were all grouped together into this family which would resolve any family issues, such as rates of pay. Dorothy Parker famously said, “Looking to the Academy for representation was like trying to get laid in your mother’s house. There was always someone in the parlour, listening.”
At a subsequent meeting to form a separate Hollywood Screenwriters’ Guild, some self-important scribbler stood and declared creative writers did not need a union. Dorothy Parker called out, “If you’re a creative writer, I’m Queen Marie of fucking Rumania.”
In New Zealand in 1975 writers were being hired to work on our first soap opera, Close To Home. It was production line work and we wanted standard rates of pay for our differing inputs.
Eventually we met with the Broadcasting Council of NZ to negotiate a collective contract. At our strategy meeting the night before, our President, Bruce Mason, who was to be on our team, suggested a canny tactic which I’m surprised hasn’t been taken up by other unions. He told us how he’d recently been awarded an honorary doctorate from Waikato University. “If you all refer to me as Doctor,” he said, “we might hold them in our thrall.”
It worked. The negotiations were a triumph for Dr Mason and his team and in the most sensational wage increase in NZ industrial history we doubled the going rate for writing for TV and radio.
The negotiations took place on May 25th, 1978, an auspicious date. At a break during the morning proceedings we heard the police and army had just moved against the land protest at Bastion Point. We sent off telegrams condemning the government and giving solidarity messages to the protestors.
The Writers’ Guild always maintained its own identity and during those periods of legislated union amalgamations it declared itself a poofy professional body separate from all these engineering and manufacturing mergers and when the legislation was changed it returned to being a manly industrial union. We once had an emblem that consisted of Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe dancing together in costume and each with their right arm replaced by the FOL’s hairy arm clenching its great hammer.
The Guild flourished and at a 1999 meeting of the CTU I approached Dave Morgan and suggested his declining Seamen’s Union might like to join us. I said we could have as a logo a typewriter with a little metal anchor hanging off the carriage.
Like Actors’ Equity, the Guild is an organization of self-employed contractors not in a master-servant relationship. Like Actors’ Equity, we sought a collective agreement with film producers and found them wringing their hands and wailing that they’d love to, but their interpretation of the law was sadly they couldn’t.
Of course Equity finally took matters into their own hands in 2010 and at the end of that disgraceful year in which so many New Zealanders displayed the lynch-mob mentality that lies so close to the surface here, Warner Brothers had subjugated a sovereign nation, extracted a hundred million dollars from its taxpayers’ pockets and all but destroyed the possibility that New Zealand film workers would have the freedom to be covered by a union like other workers.
It was deeply ironic that Warner Brothers should be behind the Hobbit dispute. It was Jack Warner, after the Second World War, who led the attack on the left in Hollywood that became the McCarthy hearings. The Cold War of the later 1940s and early 1950s was not simply an ideological battle whose roots lay in the competing foreign policies of the Soviet Union and the US State Department. It was also a reaction by big business—such as the Hollywood studios—to gains won by unions as they came out of a depression.
New Zealanders are such little people. We’re told we like to believe in giving everyone a fair go and not doffing the cap. But being a New Zealander means the exact opposite. It means loving to doff the cap. It means being taken for a ride by the rich and powerful and then ganging up on anyone who doesn’t want to be taken—like actors in a union.
I think writing began for me when I went and saw the movie of John Osborne’s stage play Look Back In Anger in Napier and I thought this sort of shouty sulking, done by others, was ultra-cool and fitted my pretensions. After that writing became a place to hide while I avoided a career. Then, like a false prophet, it seemed to offer an income. This period of illusion began a few years after I returned to New Zealand from London.
In 1974 I had my first play staged. Two years before Roger’s. It was a small late-night piece at Downstage directed by Jean Betts. At a climactic moment of the play I asked for a great banner with an image of Lenin to be dropped from the flies.
Fortunately the director chose to ignore this. Possibly the budget didn’t stretch to it.
But the great red banner was very much of its time. There seemed a lot of agit-prop theatre in the earlyish 70s. Murray Edmond, Ken Rea and Farrell Cleary were involved in street theatre in Auckland. Paul Maunder’s Amamus Theatre was launching Sam Neill’s career in a play about the 1951 waterfront lockout. Red Mole’s political satires were happily based in Carmen’s in Wellington. And a director with a furious hatred of the New Zealand ruling class, mad Mervyn Thompson, had moved up from Christchurch and was running Downstage.
It was a period when Tim Shadbolt responded to an Arts Council questionnaire by suggesting that writers be given fellowships attaching them to road gangs. Which I still think not a bad idea. It was a period when if you turned on your television you’d see a local drama series about a carpenters union written by Jane Galletly, a former PSA organiser.
I was now spending my time writing for stage and radio supplemented by the dole and casual warehouse jobs. Eventually I was approached by a script editor from TVNZ who asked if I was a member of the Communist Party. When I said no (I think I told him I was in the Storeman & Packers’ Union, which was an SUP union) I was offered a job writing for Buck House, a TV sitcom.
I soon realised that writing is not actually a very good means of earning a living but I persevered with it and, as the years went by, it became a comforting habit, like a priest reading his breviary.
Being a writer is a humbling experience. I once finished up a rehearsal at the Court Theatre in Christchurch and waited outside for a cab to the airport. The cab arrived and I sat in the back and the driver said, “Connected to the theatre, are we?” And, rather pleased with myself, I said, “Yes! I’ve got a play coming up!” The driver nodded. Then he said, “I’ve had Rima Te Wiata in this cab.”
I have a tiny office space that I rent at the Auckland Trades Hall on Great North Road and I leave home and walk there every day like a normal person. The desk I have there I assembled from a Warehouse Stationery kit. To the right is a window that gazes at a blank five-storey wall rising up like a vast Imax screen. To its left hangs a painted bamboo curtain, partly covering an open-plan entrance through which nuns working for Tenants’ Protection used to appear to borrow my Bible and talk about overthrowing the National government of the time.
On my desk in my writing cell is a computer that doesn’t have a modem, so I dwell in myself like a rook in an unroofed tower—to quote Seamus Heaney—and can’t be distracted from the writing task in hand. I once read of the writing habits of the 19th century English novelist Anthony Trollope. He had a full-time job—running British Post—but would rise early and write steadily through to 8am. He wrote on large lined pads and if he finished a novel before eight he would simply turn the page and commence a new one. Such valiant, unclouded foray from project to project… I described my admiration for this to Isabel and she stared at me and said, “But that’s what you do.”
In the past my cell was downtown and I would have lunch in a nearby cheap Chinese eatery. One day the owner asked me what I did. I said I was a writer. He asked how much I wrote each day. I gave the automatic reply, “Five hundred words”. He went away and must have picked up a magazine and counted out 500 words because the following day he came back up to me and said, “That’s a good job.”
My friend Geoff Chapple once told me of being approached by an embassy staff member at a function at the Chinese Embassy in Wellington and asked if he would do a children’s book for the Chinese on Rewi Alley. Geoff said, “Sure—how many words?” The embassy official paused, excused himself, went away to get advice and then returned and said, “Hard to say. Some English words are very big, some are very small.”
Sometime in 1930 the great lyrical larrikin poet and faithful Bolshevik Vladimir Mayakovsky told a fellow Party member, “I have acquired a large number of habits which are incompatible with organised work.” A month later he shot himself.
“Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
Love’s boat has smashed against the everyday
Behold what quiet settles on the world.”
I’ve been, with Isabel, to the small furnished room where he died, in Moscow. An old woman, who was caretaker, pointed to the carpet on the floor and said, “There, he died there.” Then she pointed her fingers at her heart, like a revolver. For an absurd second I had the impression she’d been there when he shot himself through the heart.
It can be difficult juggling art and politics. The New Zealand communist poet Ron Mason once said “Poetry usually dies in agony if it gets so much as a whiff of politics,” and he went some way toward proving this with a dire piece called International Brigade, “to be presented en tableau”. So when he wanted a political arena in which to write he was drawn to the public debate of drama.
Unfortunately he wasn’t a natural playwright, he was a natural poet. But once he became a committed Communist Party member there seemed no practical short-term good to be drawn from the cold waters at the bottom of his poetry well.
He was caught between politics and his own nature and ended up a bit like those wretched university honours students that the Socialist Action League used to try and embed in freezing works in the 1980s.
You can respect artists for joining the Party, for doing their tuppence-worth for the struggle and not lurking on the side-lines. But such enthusiasm can come at a price. Democratic centralism just doesn’t do the job for art.
For the Party to work, to go about its business, it has to be about class and it has to be organised. The problem is that when art works, when it’s liberating, it’s about all sorts of things and works best when it’s not really about what it’s about. It’s instinctively anarchic.
Albert Camus—the French novelist and playwright who was once vividly described to me by Dick Scott as, “that cunt”—referred to the Communist Party as the cemetery where they bury dead writers. Somehow the Party artist has to find a way to co-exist in the two worlds of party politics and artistic creation, to keep a sensibility intact—to face the music and dance.
Being inside the Party can make it hard to resist what I’ve seen called “the Spartan pieties of the left”. In the narrowed world of socialist politics, everything has to have a political explanation or it can’t be made to fit. You can’t take full account for the complexities and ambiguities of humanity or you’d end up doing nothing; all that human nonsense keeping us from larger truths. The NZ novelist Noel Hilliard said when he left the Communist Party in 1956 it was as though a jam jar containing an enormous blowfly had been unscrewed from his left ear.
There’s an English playwright David Hare. Labour Party left. Left-ish. Popular at Circa. Has written about public life—institutions, political decision-making. He says somewhere that art “frequently reminds us that things are never quite as simple as they seem. Nor are people. Put people on the stage, in all their humanity, propel them into a course of events, and in even the most savage satire or preposterous farce, characters may acquire a sympathy, a scale, a helplessness…”
Which is to say, the politics of successful plays come from the hearts of fragile, searching characters and are not decided before the curtain rises. I’ve read of a question put to writers: have they ever seen a play that made them change their minds? I thought, “Have I?” I couldn’t think of one. But—I have written a couple that made me change my mind. And that is one of the pleasures of writing—you’re never quite sure where the keyboard beneath your fingertips is going to lead you.
I’m aware that there’s a political dimension to our lives; that these lives are shaped by government policies and economic orthodoxies which can all be changed by political action.
But I don’t write political pamphlets disguised as stage plays. I happen to have written enough political pamphlets in my life to know the difference between them and a stage play. In a political pamphlet there’s one issue, no characters, a simplified argument and unless someone can supply a good cartoon, very little entertainment.
A stage play is the opposite—particularly when it comes to entertainment, because people are paying for a show and if you give them a pamphlet they feel, rightfully, they’ve been mugged. It’s like being picked up at a bus station and offered a meal and then you find you’re being given a lecture about the Reverend Moon or Krisha Consciousness.
I was once at a Marxism teach-in weekend in London. On the Saturday evening I was having a beer with some people I’d met and a young woman came up selling tickets for the agit-prop play that night. A bloke near me asked, “What’s the play?” The young woman answered: “Socialism or Barbarism.” The bloke immediately responded, “Two tickets to Barbarism, please.” It was a joke, of course, a clever response. But whenever I tell this story to anyone there’s always a laugh of recognition. Because no one wants a lecture on socialism, they’d much rather be entertained by the staged horrors of barbarism.
It’s salutary for a writer to stand in that queue at the men’s toilet at the old Bats theatre and hear your invasion-of-Iraq play with its crackling dialogue, complex characterisation and deft plotting reduced to how hot the belly-dancer is.
One of the founders of Downstage Theatre in Wellington, now defunct, was Martyn Sanderson, also defunct. Martyn said his intention with Downstage was to change society. The evidence seems to suggest that theatre is not going to change society. Plays don’t cause revolutions. It’s the other way round.
The English satirist Peter Cook was always fond of expressing his admiration for the role of 1930s German political cabaret in bringing about Hitler’s downfall.
Shelley said poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Auden said, no, that’s the secret police. Economics is more important than culture. Shakespeare may have entered our thinking, but Adam Smith dominates our lives.
If you’re a writer who sees the need for political change, the answer is simple: involve yourself with movements for social change and help out there. Meanwhile, carry on with your work. Your political beliefs are going to inform your writing along with your experience of love, death, hope, despair, belief and doubt.
Television, really, is the place to be. That’s where the mass audience is. That’s where most people get their entertainment and information.
There was a period when the best New Zealand drama by far was on television: Outrageous Fortune. But local television drama is extremely expensive, so not a lot of it is done. And while it is much more of a writer’s medium than movies, there are layers of control over what you write and how you say it and currently it’s more programmer-friendly than writer-friendly. Local TV of course is in a downward spiral at the moment, its wings and tail and just about everything else shot away by Netflix. It will be looking for local celebrity reality programmes to maintain its advertising revenue. So while you try to break in, you also look elsewhere.
Places like BATS and The Basement are the life-blood of theatre. New talent is constantly emerging, new debates are raised and a predominantly young audience identifies with it all. Standards seem to vary — I don’t go to many productions, but I skim reviews. The audiences, though, seem pretty niche: white and hip.
For the writer there’s a financial drawback. It’s great that ticket prices are kept competitive with movie tickets, but the writer’s standard 10% of the box means you get five-eighths of one-third of bugger-all. But what you want to say you get out there. And it is a lot easier to get a play on at these venues (easier in Wellington than Auckland, I might add). And you can tailor shows for their small stages and make your living elsewhere selling drugs.
Which brings me to the big theatres, ATC, Silo, Centrepoint, Circa, The Court. Here people are making a living: one or two writers, a few directors, some actors, a number of administrators. Here the writer can do large plays — plays with bigger casts, bigger staging, bigger themes; plays that will capture attention, that will be talked about.
But like television, largish sums of money are at stake and Boards and Councils and Artistic Directors are cautious about programming. The loyal and thinning audiences are older versions of BATS and The Basement, white and middle class but not as curious; curiosity seems to wear off with age.
Occasionally, in Auckland, I have discussions about possible plays with the Auckland Theatre Company, the biggest such company in New Zealand. Not so often now—in fact, not at all—but a number of discussions in the past. And there hasn’t been one of these discussions where the spectre of the theatre’s Tory subscribers hasn’t been raised from the sepulchre, the silken congealed excrescence of the entire Remuera ruling class set writhing menacingly before my timid eyes.
I remember an evening in London in the 1970s when I was taken from my Islington squat by a fellow playwright to a pub where the best of the younger English playwrights—David Hare and others—were celebrating the formation of the Theatre Writers’ Union. This was a militant breakaway from the more staid British Writers Guild. One of the playwrights was Howard Brenton, a leading stage writer. He said to me the role of the playwright was to drive the middle class from the theatre. I was impressed and said, “Excellent! How do we do that?” He said, “They walk out of my plays in droves!” A few years ago Howard’s play about Anne Boleyn was packing in the punters at an Auckland Theatre Company production. Whereas I heard the same punters were organising half-time walk-outs at my play about the NZ Polo Open. Of course there could be a number of reasons for the walk-outs from my play—I’m aware of that.
The tickets to productions at our major theatres are hideously expensive and you can’t help feeling this is part of the appeal of theatre to a wealthy audience with disposable income. This sort of theatre allows its audience to demonstrate its support of the arts, keeps it on trend with what’s fashionable overseas and gives it the occasional diversity credit. But it can be very cosy theatre. The legendary English director Peter Brook was once asked, “What is the future of theatre?” And he replied, “Cheap tickets.” Cheap tickets means a curious audience and interesting writing.
Sometime ago I read an online observation from a respected literary critic that NZ theatre seemed to have become irrelevant. Maybe. At times it does seem that if you wanted to know what was happening in this country, what the undercurrents were, you wouldn’t go to the theatre.
Not the main stages.
Maybe the retreat of newspapers and magazines from reviewing theatre may not just be a random act of cost-cutting.
When Britain joined the Coalition of the Willing and disastrously invaded Iraq, Britain’s National Theatre immediately called in David Hare and demanded a play about it. When NZ became involved in its longest overseas war, in Afghanistan, our main stages completely avoided the issue.
A half-decent play about New Zealand is better by far than a good Chekhov or a radical Ibsen. By far. Better for the theatre, better for the audience, better for the writer—better for the box office. I say better for the box office because if it’s merely entertainment the theatre is selling—which seems increasingly the norm—there are other more comfortable and far cheaper ways for an audience to experience a perfect but meaningless couple of hours. In fact the last time I was down at the local RSA watching the rugby, I noticed it was full of actors.
“Senor, senor, can you tell me where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon…?”
One more cup of coffee for the road…
What is it theatre can do? It can be a way in which we express human solidarity, even if that solidarity consists at times in the writer leaping up on stage at curtain-call to try to shield the cast from the rotten vegetables being thrown from the audience. It is more of a communal experience than the movies and more of a creative adventure than television. It can convince you for a night that to be alive is a gift. It can help you forget about Donald Trump. It can open your mind to arguments different to those you read in the papers or see on the TV, for these are the days of miracle and wonder (1), when all that is solid melts into PR (2), where we can’t trust words because we don’t know whose mouths they’ve been in (3). It should be our alternative parliament, an honest place of debate, a platform like that vital to the Greeks of old.
“We need to have a conversation about that.”
Thank you. Comrades.
(1) Paul Simon
(2) Mark Fisher
(3) Dennis Potter