Friday, January 13, 2006

I can relate...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Fighting Man

It has been alleged that Marx coined the saying “Those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it.” To which it is said that Engels added the quip “First as tragedy and later as farce.”

Issues such as free verses fair trade or the role of the state and the community in economic and social affairs have been fervently debated and discussed previously and many of the arguments propounded by their advocates or opponents then are the same or similar to those being put forward now.

The sad thing is that people tend not to take an active interest in history or indeed in political or social issues. I hold the opinion that if you take time to remember your history you develop a more complete and comprehensive picture of where you might want to go in the future.

I’m reminded of how much people live in ignorance of the past every day as I travel on Red Bus into the Christchurch Bus depot and past ‘Tommy Taylor Courts’ which are on the corner of Brougham Street and Walton Road. As I read my weighty tomes on various topics, I sometimes hear my fellow passengers question as to whom Taylor was and why there are a block of apartments named after him.

Thomas Edward (Tommy) Taylor was an ‘Independent (Radical) Liberal’ and was the Junior MP for Christchurch City and later became the MP for Christchurch East (now Wigram) during the 1890s and 1900s. He was a prohibitionist, which was a major issue in New Zealand during the latter 19th and early 20th Centuries. In addition, he was also a major proponent for women’s rights and welfare and labour reform in Victorian/Edwardian New Zealand.

Taylor’s championing of those rights, as well as his impulsive manner, constantly brought him into conflict with other political notables of that era, in particular Richard ‘King Dick’ Seddon. Taylor thought that Seddon’s approach on a number of matters was half hearted and reluctant (for example, Seddon did not support women’s suffrage and the reason that the relevant legislation passed in 1893 had a lot to do with a political miscalculation on Seddon’s part in addition to the vigorous campaigning of Kate Sheppard and the Woman’s Temperance Movement) and as a result, Taylor frequently criticised Seddon and his Government for their lack of reforming zeal.

Although, his impulsiveness and lack of compromise often led him into conflict, Taylor never flitched from the belief that the reforms that he proposed such as; free secondary education, the introduction of technical colleges, the reform of mental and penal institutions, cottage homes for orphans, vocational guidance, land reform and better conditions for old-age pensioners and workers would have dramatic benefits for the great majority of people.

It was this belief that eventually caused Taylor to break with the Liberals and align himself increasingly with the burgeoning Labour movement and its representatives. Although, not a socialist, Taylor recognised that the Liberals were incapable of implementing many of those reforms and that the future for progressive legislation lay elsewhere, a sentiment that he expressed to Red Fed Organiser, Bob Semple in a letter just prior to his death.

Taylor died at the tragically young age of 49 of a perforated gastric ulcer on 27 July 1911. He had been Mayor of Christchurch since April of that year. At his funeral procession 50,000 people lined the streets of the city.

Sadly, there has only been one book ever published on Taylor. Simply titled ‘The Fighting Man,’ it was written by Nellie Frances Hayman Macleod and was first published in 1965.

I remember people like Tommy Taylor and their beliefs and convictions every time people (mostly Student Executive members) come into my office and tell me about how we need to accept legislation and reforms that are ‘second best.’ I thank God (even though I’m an atheist) that people like Taylor, Sheppard and company kept their ‘eyes on the prize.’ That prize being a better and more inclusive world for all.

If they did not have their eyes fixed firmly on that prize, the rights that we have now would never have come into being.

Tommy Taylor – Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Strange Things in Strange Places

It’s so quiet here at work. What with the University presently being inhabited with a small number of staff and a smaller number of students, one could hear the proverbial pin drop. With that in mind, plus having some spare time over my lunch break, I thought that I might write a book review to start off the New Year.

Book Review: ‘Tomorrow Comes the Song: A Life of Peter Fraser’ by Michael Bassett with Michael King

It strange what you find sometimes in the most unexpected places and I certainly did not expect to find this biography of Labour’s second (and war-time) Prime Minister, Peter Fraser in the Oamaru Warehouse during the Christmas break. But, there it was, nicely nestled between the romantic fiction, the DIY guides, the cook books and the fitness and exercise books as part of the Warehouse’s post Christmas ‘Big Red’ Book Sale.

I must admit that my opinion of Peter Fraser has been somewhat jaundiced due to my considerable exposure to the Lee mythology in my misspend youth and my copious reading since of New Zealand history and social science. However, ever eager to learn more about Fraser, I brought the book for the princely sum of $9.95.

I’m given to understand that originally the book was to be written by Michael King. However, due to King’s increasing illness at the time, he was unable to complete the research and drafting with the result that Michael Bassett took over the research and wrote the drafts.

Firstly, I need to be honest and state that I don’t like Michael Bassett. However, that being said, I respected his work as an historian. I own several of his earlier books on Third Party Politics and the Third Labour Government (written while he still subscribed to social democratic views and opinions) and found them useful and reasonably well written.

But, I am disappointed in this book. While, the book does develop Fraser as a fuller person based on his experiences and achievements, it does not measure up to Barry Gustafson’s 1986 biography of Michael Joseph Savage, 'From the Cradle to the Grave' nor to Erik Olssen’s 1977 biography of John A Lee.

Actually, it told me no more about Fraser’s ability and characteristics than I already knew. The book confirmed Fraser as a dour and somewhat puritanical person, who disliked risqué humour, disapproved of sex outside of marriage and was a teetotaller. However, I also knew that he was a hardworking, intelligent and able MP, Minister and Prime Minster who quickly adapted to being placed in new and demanding situations, such as becoming Prime Minister in 1940 on the death of Savage at the beginning of World War Two.

The book also glossed over other ‘disquieting’ aspects of Fraser's personality. It does not dwell on the authoritarian and dictatorial traits that he constantly exhibited when dealing with his Labour Party colleagues, it makes only passing reference to Fraser’s somewhat Machiavellian role in the 1930s antagonisms between John A Lee and Savage. Lastly, it eulogises the relationship between Fraser and Fintan Patrick Walsh (the nearest that New Zealand ever had to a corrupt Jimmy Hoffa type Union Leader), which allowed both of them to virtually ‘rule’ the Labour movement through fear and strong arm tactics during the 1940s.

(I’m always reminded of two comments made about Fraser during this period by Labour MP’s in relation to his dominance over both the Labour Party and the Government. The first was the observation ‘that when Peter Fraser smiled, it was like moonlight flickering over tombstones.’ The second was ‘that if Fraser asked how the wife and kids were then you were serious trouble,’ which related to Fraser’s habit of starting conversions with pleasantries about family life before grilling and deriding an unfortunate MP).

Then, there is the issue of Bassett’s apparent loathing toward Michael Joseph Savage (Labour’s First Prime Minister), who Bassett portrays as a person of exceptionally limited ability and intellect, who loved adoration to the extent that he allowed his colleagues, namely Fraser, to take the blame for misjudgements and unpopular decisions and seldom showed them any loyalty. The problem with this description is, as Gustafson makes clear in his biography of Savage, that it is simply not accurate. However, Bassett is even more scathing about Robert (Bob) Semple, who he describes as a ‘vainglorious windbag.’

Bassett also obviously feels the need to justify his increasingly right wing behaviour and political outlook, especially as a Minister in ‘that Labour Government’ during the 1980s, as littered throughout the book are ‘snide’ comments in relation to the foolishness of the economic and social policies of the First Labour Government. Obviously, it was a novel experience for Bassett to learn about politicians who actually thought that people needed to be listened to, respected and treated with honesty – the First Labour Government actually delivered on its manifesto commitments. (Sorry, that was my snide comment).

Lastly, there is the sentence structure and proof reading. Like most people, I’ve sped through sentence construction, misspelling the occasional word and placing commas in places where they should not be placed. However, there are a number of sentences which I was forced to reread several times as they were simply not comprehensible on the first reading.

It is a solid book, nonetheless, which presents Fraser more as a person and demonstrates his considerable abilities. However, it could have done with the added panache (and balance) of an historian like King.