A Letter from Our New Zealand Correspondent
One thing you quickly learn on arriving in New Zealand: pubs generally are the pits. Even the term ‘bar’ doesn’t fit. New Zealand ‘hostelries’ don’t ‘do’ atmosphere, ambience, comfort or décor. Actually they don’t do much other than booze and betting.
Yes, betting. In Aotearoa British or Irish style bookies are illegal. Instead there is a government monopoly the TAB, whose outlets are bars and drinking clubs. Some even go to having an ATM as well – just to facilitate.
I was reminded last month, on a short visit to Ireland, of just how wide the chasm is between the British and Irish pub of today and the pit that is the Kiwi whatever you want to call it. Sure, there are awful hostelries to be found anywhere in Ireland or Britain as there are little gems to stumble upon in New Zealand. By and large though the contrast holds and is truly striking.
I think the explanation has to be, in a word, ‘Protestantism’ – specifically that version of Prod that swept England from the mid-nineteenth century in particular, the Evangelical movement. In a way New Zealand is in this and some other respects, a kind of England of another era (Victorian) in aspic. The two great shapers of (Pakeha) New Zealand historically were the Anglican missionary movement in the shape of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and the colonisation companies, particularly those associated with Edward Gibbon Wakefield. The CMS, a decidedly low church and evangelical outfit, and Wakefield’s New Zealand Company (and related ventures)were arguably more important even than the Crown and its colonial administration: it handed over power to a settler Parliament in 1852.
However rakish Wakefield and his associates might have been their colonial grunts shipped out voyage after voyage in their thousands were of a different, striving and carving-out outlook, making new lives for themselves in a new world, pioneers with their camp ovens, beating and burning their way into and through empty (as they saw it) bush and settling where and when.
The CMS project was different, anti-colonialist, a dream of a Maori community, natives made Christian in its English image, heathens converted in the image of the Anglican God and his project and civilisation in the South Pacific.
Even with large Irish (Catholic) and Scottish (Presbyterian) elements in the colonial population the official national culture is essentially a sober-sided low church Anglican with Baptist and Methodist leavening. Stir in some Ulster Prods and smatterings of Danish and German New World-seekers and it all makes for a culture rich in intemperate and ill-tempered temperance.
To fully over-determine the culture add in an almost prohibitionist police attitude (despite a very large Irish Catholic component historically) and a system of public administration that puts licensing (of both bars and off-licenses or ‘bottleshops’) and opening hours in local council hands.
Today the country has possibly the most liberal opening-hours legislation in the world. Still though, councils regularly froth on the question of how far into the wee small hours drink should be served. It is on its face always an argument over money versus public order.
A much hotter issue is the opening of new premises – whether on- or off-licenses with the latter particularly contentious (usually on grounds of temptation of youth).
In truth the morality play, temperance and prohibition, is never far from the surface. Fifty years ago much of the country was ‘dry’ with going ‘wet’ a local referendum issue. Pubs and hotel bars where they existed closed at six in the evening, giving rise to that famous anthropological phenomenon, the daily heaving mass of concentrated mad male humanity, the ‘six o clock swill’.
The Kiwi bar in the official national culture is an occasion of sin, a dispenser of devil’s milk, a blot on the landscape. Drink, its dispensing and consumption then is not to be encouraged and certainly not in conditions of luxury, comfort and warm ambience. Thus the stand-up tables, sparseness of décor, general lack of atmosphere, the awfulness of ambience. Drinking is devil’s work and thus not to be undertaken in comfort.
Things are changing. Comfort is more than creeping in, the quality of (food) fare is improving (beyond the gargantuan steak sandwich with all trimmings in equal loading). Décor is even an issue; craft brewer tap rooms (a new pub) are actually attractive – if also very pricy (‘banker’s piss’ my partner labels the phenomenon).
It is still though a long way away from the familiarity, warmth and simple civility of the pub in its Irish and British and indeed European guises – just as they are disappearing under the weight of speculative money and profit-seeking.
And the betting? It is truly awful: the room in the corner with its wall of TV screens all streaming horse and doggie tracks from around the world with a temptation-bank of ‘pokies’ as well, together eating up and spreading … addiction really. The policy seems to be one of putting all sin under one grubby roof.
Modern New Zealand has one of the worst records in the world for family violence, wife-beating, abuse of women. It has a level unequalled almost, of incarceration and recidivism – and it is all worst in the Maori population with Pakeha running a close second. It is a Victorian capsule upholding almost all of Foucault’s theories of humanity, modernity and our ills. And yet it is as every Kiwi says, paradise and as the northern winter descends, in the south Sumer is icumen in. The asparagus and strawbs beckon.