Friday, August 12, 2005

Patrick Snedden

Frank Sargeson lived on Esmonde Road, the conduit off the bridge. A right turn past his place and you were on the road to Devonport. Turn left and within a short distance Takapuna township appeared. I was not aware of Sargeson’s presence in my youth. Now, more conscious of his importance as a distinctively New Zealand writer and his early mentoring of the talented and now-famous, it is no surprise that the physicality of this island nation and its coastlines features so prominently in our Pakeha literature.

There are the dimensions of pioneer freedom in all of this, the need for simplicity, for getting along with one another and for the self-reliance so familiar to those making their living off sea or land. The classic statement of this was the bach or crib. If anything signalled our singular, untouchable, unregulated sense of self as Pakeha, this was it. At the bach the rules changed, the ambience becoming more primitive, uncluttered. The demands of the ‘other life’ became temporarily suspended, and time and order played no part save for the requiting of hunger and the maintenance of shelter. Skill at living off the coastline was an artform most admired.

In so many respects, the foreshore provided for many of us Pakeha a powerful and fundamental cultural metaphor of transition. It is the in-between space that can be both land and sea, but for a time neither land nor sea. Our beach life became our in-between life, our moment to be culturally tidal.

That in-between life as beach person is thus one of our most significant Pakeha cultural archetypes. It is archetypal because it goes to the very heart of our identity, so intuitively understood. Few words are required to explain it. While it may remain unarticulated for long periods, it resonance resounds when it is under threat. In 2004, as the debate around the ownership of the foreshore took hold, many Pakeha responded quite viscerally to the threat to public ownership of the beaches. As much as this was a taonga to Maori, something to be protected in respect of their rangatiratanga, so too was it an issue that put our Pakeha cultural identity under immediate threat. The response was widespread alarm and vigorous defence of ‘our’ coastline. In the resulting ferment the technical definitions of what constituted foreshore (the wet land between mean high-water mark and low tide) and seabed (everything on the ‘wet’ side of the foreshore) became immaterial.

Here a real contest of cultural values seemed destined for a legislative shoot-out, perhaps with only one winner. Was this inevitable? What was it the Maori were talking about?

From chapter 8 of Pakeha and the Treaty – why it’s our Treaty too, published by Random House 2005
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