10 Questions with Michael Belgrave

<p>Michael Belgrave, author of <em>From Empire's Servant to Global Citizen: A History of Massey University</em></p>

Michael Belgrave, author of From Empire's Servant to Global Citizen: A History of Massey University

1. Now that it’s published, what pleases you most about From Empire’s Servant to Global Citizen: A History of Massey University?

I’ve always believed that history is about storytelling, as much to be heard as read. I’d like to think that this history is full of stories; stories about intelligent, farsighted, sometimes difficult, hugely energetic people, all committed to their ideas of a college and university, however much they squabbled with each other along the way.


2. You’ve described it as ‘biography’ of the university. How so?

The book is Massey’s life and times, the story of its changing sense of its purpose, identity and futures, exploring how Massey was transformed as the world around was transformed and as New Zealand shifted from being defined by its relationship to the British Empire to being an independent country, but thoroughly enmeshed in a global world. What it isn’t, is a physiology, a story of its parts.


3. Who are the great characters who emerge from it?

Massey has had the ability to draw people in, often early in their career, committing them to a lifetime in the service of an ideal, although the ideal could be different depending on the person and the time. The ideal may be scientific agriculture, love of the discipline, improving a profession, enhancing communities, or simply teaching.  Many of these characters continue to pursue these ideals — continue to feel attached to the university — decades out from their retirement. Others seem to play out a neverending series of retirements. But if I have to choose one figure, I choose Geoffrey Peren. Peren was a man of his age, but in his correspondence, particularly with strangers, there was a warmth and generosity which transcended his time.


4. Does Massey have an unsung hero?

Massey’s unsung hero is a largely forgotten Liberal politician by the name of George Fowlds, whose political abilities and drive made Massey possible. He was able to put the vision for an agricultural college into being as it was developed by the two recently arrived professors, Peren and Riddet. Without Fowlds, there would have been no grand science building, now commemorating Peren’s enduring contribution to the university, and perhaps no Massey at all, prior to the 1960s.


5. Tell us about one new thing that you discovered about the university while writing this book.

The biggest surprise was appreciating how international Massey has been, right from the 1930s, but increasing dramatically through the 1950s, when the Colombo Plan brought students from across Asia to Palmerston North. Then, once the university had been established, a very substantial chunk of its funding came from the Department of Foreign Affairs, taking Massey staff to almost all corners of the Pacific and Asia.


6. Oh, alright then, what was another new thing?

Just how quickly Massey in the 1920s became focused on New Zealand problems at a time when New Zealand’s university colleges were still primarily fixated on the science and knowledge of elsewhere. When the new nationalist academics of the 1960s ‘discovered’ New Zealand and the Pacific, the agricultural college’s founders had already been there beforehand.


7. What’s the most amusing thing you discovered?

There’s a lot in writing this book that made me laugh — the parochial squabbling of local communities as they fought to have an agricultural college and the university, and the fuss over Tom Scott’s Masskerade 1969. Then there is a photograph on the back cover which always makes me smile. I will leave you to work out which one.


8. You’ve been at Massey for a long time and you’ve seen a lot of changes. Has writing the book drawn you, in a sense, closer to the university?

It’s not that long ago! Well, getting on to a quarter of a century, I suppose. For some, I’m still very much a newcomer. I was pleased to find in the Massey of the past the kind of university I’d hoped it would be, particularly through its commitment to applying scientific knowledge to real problems. That Massey at Albany had a cattle stop at one of its entrances seemed to sum up something good about the university.


9. What’s the best time of day for you for writing?

It’s 1:34 in the morning right now, so guess . . .?


10. What are you reading at the moment?

Right now? I’m re-reading John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy. Perhaps there are parallels between a university and the Service.