10 Questions with Rachael Bell

<p>Rachael Bell, editor of <em>New Zealand Between the Wars</em></p>

Rachael Bell, editor of New Zealand Between the Wars

1. You teach the history of New Zealand in the interwar period – what drew you to it?

It was such a revolutionary time in our history – the start, really, of New Zealand as we know it. There were some big and dramatic changes, but more often the slow push of a relentless tide. More people with motor cars, more people with electricity, more people listening to radio or receiving a high school education. Transforming a nation, one household at a time!


2. Of course the people alive at the time could not have known they were living in an interwar period, could they?

No, mercifully for them they could not and as the decades progressed, although clearly all was not well, a return to war was what everyone was dreading. The same with the Great Depression – they did not know it was coming or, once they were in it, how or when it was going to end. It is easy to be wise after the event, but if you think of it we didn’t do much better with the 2008 global financial crisis. As someone said to me last year, ‘Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do study history are also doomed to repeat it!


3. Was it a time of bright promise and purpose?

Well, much of it was a gradual downhill slide, economically, bottoming out quite dramatically with the Great Depression. But against that there was the excitement of new technologies, speedy new cars and trucks revving up the pace of life, Hollywood movies and Hollywood fashions. There were greater opportunities here than elsewhere – we considered ourselves world leaders in child health, for example, and by the mid-twenties we were believed to have the highest home ownership rate in the world. And then after the Depression the whole idea of building a new, idealised, modern nation really took off, helped no end by the new Labour government’s publicity machine. We made a particularly rapid recovery from the Depression, with a spectacular jump in our GDP. There was the return of services, new jobs, massive public works spending – it must have felt pretty good, as if we were finally getting somewhere.


4. For everyone? Were Maori excluded?

There are many narratives and counter-narratives here. On the public front there were leaders like Apirana Ngata and Te Puea achieving the sorts of successes that the government and Pakeha society could latch on to, in as much as they suited the stories they held about themselves and Maori–Pakeha relations in New Zealand. Behind that, though, were the ongoing legacies of dispossession, grinding poverty and institutionalised racism playing out, often far from the Pakeha gaze. Peter Meihana’s chapter in this book is an excellent example of all three of these things, as his iwi Ngati Kuia tried to hold on to the right to harvest titi, mutton birds, in the face of Pakeha administrators and Pakeha cultural values, in this case the prioritising of the ‘scenic’ in the Marlborough Sounds. There were still many thousands of acres of land lost to Maori over the interwar period.


5. And women?

Another double-edged sword. For women who subscribed to or fitted the increasingly dominant nuclear family, domestic model with the stay-at-home mother there were gains to be had in terms of improved childbearing facilities and knowledge, family allowances, increasing state assistance for families and other less tangible forms of valuing of women in a mothering or domestic role. For those outside of that framework, however, such as single women, unwed mothers and the like, the indifference of the patriarchal state could certainly make itself felt. Women paid unemployment taxes, for example, but for much of the Depression received no financial assistance; assistance for unwed mothers remained discretionary while other benefits moved toward universal entitlement; and the spectre of domestic service as the catch-all solution for female financial woes limited other more constructive or farsighted responses by the state in achieving a truly egalitarian society.


6. What was admirable about this period?

The optimism, the infrastructure, the unerring belief in the scientific and the modern, the commitment of the new Labour government to building a fairer society. I admire the people for the faith they had in the future. A sort of brave new world.


7. Downsides?

Well, four of New Zealand’s greatest catastrophes of the twentieth century – the First World War, the influenza epidemic, the Great Depression and the Second World War – framed this period. It was in many ways, I think, the best of times and the worst of times. Death was ever-present in ways I think it is easy to overlook today. Not just from the First World War and its legacy or the flu epidemic, but in everyday life: child birth, work accidents, tuberculosis, childhood diseases such as diphtheria, scarlet fever and polio – things we wouldn’t give a thought to today. Life was still pretty fragile.


8. What is its legacy?

I think the biggest legacy of the interwar period is one of expectation. We expect to own a home, to hold down a secure job, and we expect the state to be intimately involved in our daily lives, our health and our family needs. We expect them to find us housing, to find us work and to provide a baseline standard of living. If a family fails and children are at risk, injured or worse, it’s the state we blame. The ideas of current levels of state intervention and of state support came directly from this period.


9. What’s one new thing you learnt while working on this book?

Oh, lots of things, but one of my favourite chapters is Janine Cook’s with its analogies between chicken farming and national health. It’s a bit left-field in its approach, and brings a really fresh perspective and captures beautifully, I think, the spirit of the times. Another eye opener was the photograph in David Littlewood’s chapter of ‘men and boys’ at the Penrose relief camp during the Depression. I don’t see any ‘men’ in that photograph, they all look like boys to me. Most of them would only just be starting high school today. It says a lot about the period, about education and ideas of childhood and adulthood. You work away on a period historically and feel as if you are getting to understand it pretty well, and then you see something like this and realise how much your lens is still coloured by your perception of the world today; how much we still look at history through what we know now rather than what people were thinking, feeling and doing then.


10. What are you reading at the moment, for work and for pleasure?

At the moment I’m reading articles on mothering in the 1920s and 30s, but I am dying to get into Chris Brickell’s new book on teenagers (Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand). It’s going to be wonderful. That’s what I will be reading at home as well; I don’t get much reading time and good history is entertaining as well as informative. Well, to me it is anyway.