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The Rainbirds--and other Dunedins.

The Rainbirds, first published in 1968, presents a familiar impression of New Zealanders. People in Dunedin where the novel is set are perceived as shallow, materialistic, puritanical and philistine: 'Everything here caters for you if you live like everyone else, enjoying a healthy outdoor life, getting a good wage, having plenty to eat, owning your own home'. (1) Imagination is frowned upon: 'Herbaceous borders are more precious than a display of bright ideas in the head' (p. 59). Behaving like the country's 'pampered sheep wriggling their fat rumps against the view' (p. 59), people seek to confine their experience to the superficial and to 'be pampered into believing that they're never going to die' (p. 158). At Easter, 'resurrection ... could be fittingly celebrated only by Trots at Forbury and in every park the Michelin-caricatures getting in trim for the football season. In one of the local churches the Chord Society performed a Bach passion but few people had the courage and agility to ascend the thin rungs to heaven; only giants climb beanstalks while Jacks cut them down; any ascent is a risk' (p. 160).

The central character, Godfrey Rainbird, is ostracised because he has visited the region that the ordinary shallow New Zealander denies exists. He has, as it were, come back from the dead, having been wrongly diagnosed after an accident, and while recovering from the ordeal he resolves not to shun the death-like region to which he was inadvertently introduced, but to confront it in all its terrors. 'Physically he had gone where every man goes in the end but where many pretend they do not and in their pretence build a pleasant green powerful camouflage above the pit' (p. 168). So determined is their pretence, their conformity burgeons into malevolence directed against the Rainbirds for daring to remind them of the fact of death:
 The mother drinks, the children are under the Welfare, the
 husband's a crank. They're not fit for decent folks to have truck
 with (p. 201).

Godfrey, on the other hand perceives his experience as an enlightening one:
 He knew that he now saw everything more clearly than he had ever
 seen it. With a view from the country of the dead how could it be
 otherwise? (p. 121).

In her autobiography; Frame explains her own experience in mental hospitals in terms of a terrifying yet enriching encounter with death:
 I inhabited a territory of loneliness which I think resembles that
 place where the dying spend their time before death and from where
 those who do return living to the world, bring inevitably a unique
 point of view that is a nightmare, a treasure, and a lifelong
 possession; at times I think it must be the best view in the world,
 ranging even farther than the view from the mountains of love,
 equal in its rapture and chilling exposure, there in the
 neighbourhood of the ancient gods and goddesses. (2)

Godfrey's imaginative inward journeying may be seen to elevate him to the status of artist, with affinity perhaps to Frame herself and to all those other artists of the provincial period who felt ostracised as visionaries in a determinedly unimaginative society.

Was Dunedin in the sixties really like that? 'Provincialism' has become for some a pejorative term, as if the attitudes towards society taken by Frame and others were something to be grown out of. Peter Simpson for example writes, 'with New Zealand's steady growth in cultural maturity provincialism is losing its grip on both artists and their audiences'. (3) Mervyn Thompson suggests that the provincial writers' 'obsession with sterility has become at once the most sterile and cliche-ridden theme in New Zealand drama and film'. (4) We might conclude, therefore, that the suggestion in The Rainbirds that 'the frightful consequence of creating the platitudes is that we fit our life to suit them" (p. 123) might apply to the platitudes of provincial writers as well as to the common-place exchanges of ordinary people.

However, there are hints that the almost archetypal provincial perspective of Dunedin in The Rainbirds is not to be taken at face value: Frame subverts her own provincialism. We are given no encouragement to believe that any perceived national identity is reliable. Misconceptions are shown to abound, their inaccuracy underlined by ironic exaggeration. Lynley 'had heard that New Zealand was not the wilderness she had imagined it to be; it had people; it exported butter and cheese and lamb and racehorses; it had the world's champion shearers and runners and it had a dead writer who had written about a Garden Party, so perhaps it had garden parties?' (p. 69). 'Godfrey soon discovered that everyone in New Zealand was born (or at least conceived) among sandhills and lupins' (p. 94). From New Zealand, the media image of Britain places it within a general disaster area called 'overseas': and from the more wicked and distant Overseas came
 rumours and news of plots of politicians, crashes of aircraft,
 earthquakes, tornadoes, hundreds killed (p. 162).

At one point in the novel Godfrey reflects on the difference in leisure activities in Britain and New Zealand:
 In New Zealand he had found that the equivalent of a 'wicked
 weekend in Paris' was spent in the company of a motor-mower or with
 hammer, nails and paint. He was satisfied enough with the
 attractions of motor-mower and housepaint; and with the attractions
 of his wife! He would think sometimes, however, of how he might
 have spent his leisure in England. No lawn to mow, garden to weed,
 house to paint; all the untidiness and wild growth of earth
 controlled under concrete. He would have spent his days indoors
 with the telly, at the pictures or theatre, and when the dark
 winter came and evening began at three o'clock he might have taken
 classes in art, a language, the Ancient Greeks, How to Plan a
 Nation's Economy (p. 58).

Is this to be taken seriously? The list of topics for study is arbitrary, as if anything would do as an evening filler. If it should be taken at face value, the provincial implication that Britons are more cultured and prone to mental effort than New Zealanders are is not supported by Godfrey's other memories of Britain, nor by Lynley's. Godfrey recalls a lonely rainy valley in the Trossachs, and his memories of London centre not on pictures, theatres, or even a glittering exchange of bright ideas but on a leaking gas ring in a cold bed-sitter and a view over a mortuary: Lynley remembers a boarding house in Camden Town, evenings spent watching Westerns on television, and women whose talk was about their husbands, their children and their doctors. Britons do not all attend evening classes, and neither, as Godfrey knows, are all New Zealanders lacking in an upper storey: (5)
 Godfrey knew that not everyone spent the weekend mowing and
 painting. A few enjoyed occupations that might have helped them
 to face death and resurrection (p. 58).

Within The Rainbirds itself then, Frame subverts her own apparently coherent provincial portrait of Dunedin. (6) Furthermore, she hints that coherence in any form is not certifiable fact but a yearning for order. Conformity to any given formula is shown to be restrictive--'Borrowed thoughts and judgments conserved energy' (p. 104)--but non-conformity is a death-like absence of coherent meaning:
 If one man pursues a course foreign to other men it is the other
 men who find themselves in danger--they may stop to wonder if their
 course is right; and stopping is perilous; it suggests immobility:
 dumb stones; petrified forests (p. 181).

'The application of traditional beliefs gave comfort' (p. 105), but The Rainbirds advocates the spiritual austerity of life without comfort. When his electric blanket fails to save him from an icy, terrifying dream, Godfrey eschews metaphoric electric blankets which protect humanity from the chaotic tendencies of sea and sky and the disorderly intrusion of death: (7)
 He was in deep, deep; for finally there is no Out or In, all is one
 territory, Out is merely the place where a man is afraid to go, a
 place that he therefore denies exists, but it is there, in him; it
 stays, as the sea and the land stay though the sea may be kept in
 control by the building of a wall, a temporary token agreement; men
 are natural mermen though it may be at night only that they go out
 of their depths and drown in caverns of sleep and dreams; yet at
 some time in a man's life the agreed boundary becomes the place not
 for repelling but for entering admitting the unknown (p. 168).

It may be then, that criticism of society in The Rainbirds which appears to be directed against the conforming masses should also be taken to include the conforming literati who accept the coherence of a provincial perspective. If this is the case it is not generally noticed. Margaret Dalziel writes that The Rainbirds gives a 'splendid account of our own particular unemphatic yet all-pervasive brand of materialism' (8) and the reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement says that the 'exposure of small town New Zealand life is quite savage'. (9) C. K. Stead in a complaint about contemporary literary figures being 'the handmaiden[s] of political and sociological myth-making' suggests that 'the literary community ... which used to be resolute in its criticism of our society' rose above myth and established the facts. 'Accurate observation' is seen as one of their virtues. (10) The shifting ground of The Rainbirds subverts the idea of anything so comforting as accurate social observation, even while appearing to offer it.

There are other Dunedins, different from the one both confirmed and undermined by The Rainbirds. In An Angel At My Table Frame writes about the Dunedin suburbs of Caversham and Kensington where 'I had seen the poverty, the rows of decaying houses washed biscuit-colour by time and the rain and the floods; and the pale children lank-haired, damp looking, as if they emerged each day from the tide'. (11) The view from her bedroom window is described as 'pure Caversham--dreary grey stone buildings with a glimpse of the tall chimneys of Parkside, the home for the aged, resembling my idea of a nineteenth century English workhouse'. (12) This Dunedin is not in The Rainbirds. Twenty years had elapsed, and it may be that Caversham and Kensington had been brought into line with the more prosperous suburbs, but there is also the possibility that ways of seeing are influenced by myth. Graeme Dunstall hints as much when describing New Zealand's economic life in the sixties. He says that there were great disparities in the life-styles of different classes, but that this was not considered particularly important by the relatively deprived because inequalities were perceived as removable and the egalitarian myth maintained. (13) For the provincial writer in the sixties, the myth of conformist materialism--of pampered fat sheep enjoying the View-meant that poverty was invisible. In A State of Siege when Malfred first arrives on Karemoana she sees two families of ragged children, one Maori and one Pakeha: 'She had forgotten about poverty, and until now, no-one had reminded her'. (14) Poverty is non-existent in prosperous New Zealand, and seeing it is not enough to diminish the currency of the myth.

In the Dunedin of The Rainbirds, material prosperity is general. So also is cultural deprivation. But from Dennis McEldowney comes evidence that for a relatively small town Dunedin provided a remarkable variety of what are generally held to be cultural experiences. Entries in his diary for August 1965 tell us that on the first of the month he listened to Strindberg's Dance of Death on radio, on the second he watched Denis Glover being interviewed on the television programme Youth Wants to Know, on the third he went to a lunchtime poetry reading with jazz, on the fifth he saw exhibitions of New Zealand weaving, and of 'Gothic art from the Victoria and Albert Museum, on the sixth he saw Keith Patterson's paintings exhibited at Roslyn, and on the tenth he went to an exhibition of contemporary German painting at the central gallery. (15) Dennis McEldowney makes no comment to suggest that these activities were exceptional. Far from Dunedin's smallness and isolation inhibiting culture, as was the provincial perspective, it appears to have made possible active participation between artists and public and the opportunity for people to experience locally produced works of art as well as that imported from abroad. (16) Of course from these diary entries it is not possible to say what proportion of the population responded to the cultural activities on offer, nor can it be assessed to what extent those who stayed at home were privately exercising their creative imaginations. I am not suggesting that contrary to literary mythology the majority of people in Dunedin were intensely creative, rather that literary mythology can be shown to be suspect, a too simple coherent formula, and that we should consider the pluralism suggested by Godfrey's afterthought, 'not everyone spent the weekend mowing and painting' (p. 58).

The provincial suggestion that Britons customarily devote their long winter evenings to study is undercut by irony and subverted, as I have said, from within the text. The converse implication that such activities were not available in Dunedin is easily dispelled. In 1965 the University of Otago Extension Department programme included courses in French, German and The Visual Arts. The Ancient Greeks are not specified, but Godfrey could have attended 'Five Centres of Civilisation' or 'Old Testament and Modern Relevance'. If he were interested in planning a nation's economy he could have tried 'New Zealand and the World', or 'Otago's Future Development', both of which were university extension courses, or 'Socialist Planning', one of several courses offered by the W.E.A. (17) Any adult in Dunedin so motivated, with a basic educational qualification and with the time available, could enrol for separate units at Otago University--where he or she might encounter a Burns Fellow engaged in writing. The suggestion that Dunedin society was hostile to anyone of visionary sensibility is contradicted by Frame's personal experience. While she was writing The Rainbirds her Burns Fellowship gave her the salary of a university junior lecturer, a room and freedom to write. This attention contrasted with her previous time in Dunedin when she worked in a hotel. She has described the contrast as 'the triumph of the little serving maid ... who is invited to the castle'. (18) In this narrative, it is not the visionary artist whom society rejects, but the little serving maid.

There are several Dunedins, and it is worth asking why the provincial view of it should have been the one so readily accepted; why the coherent provincial perspective of Dunedin in The Rainbirds is so much more visible than its subversions. One reason may lie in its very coherence. Frame advocates confrontation with disorder, but as the narrator observes at the end of Patrick White's A Fringe of Leaves, 'human nature cannot but grasp at any circumstantial straw which may indicate an ordered universe'. (19)

I have argued elsewhere (20) that provincialism confirms the existence of a centre, a soothing framework of belief for Western culture at a time when one of its major figures had said that 'things fall apart: the centre cannot hold', and when British economic and political centrality was very much open to question. The provincial myth implied that the centre was holding, and furthermore, Frame's particular version of it (if taken at face value) juxtaposes criticism of Dunedin society with an introspective way of seeing firmly rooted in Western literary tradition. Dennis McEldowney recalls 'She [Frame] thinks Proust is a good influence on any writer, for a way of seeing'. (21) It is commonly accepted within the Western cultural tradition that only the artist can delineate the 'real' life which the ordinary man conceals with cliches, that the visionary ego, intuitive and continuous, residing below the social self, can see beyond the surface outlines of existence into what is 'real' and enduring. The extent of Frame's extra-surface journeying may not have been what Frank Sargeson would recommend, but he had introduced her to Proust's work, (22) and she did not really have to 'remain free of other people's prescriptions' as Patrick Evans suggests, (23) to divert from prescribed New Zealand realism. There were other prescriptions to give the protection of authority to her independent expression in The Rainbirds. One of them was a method of psychiatric treatment esteemed in the sixties. R. D. Laing at the Tavistock Clinic in London argued for the validity of insights which may previously have been dismissed as the ravings of schizophrenia, and encouraged his patients to risk mental travelling wherever their 'madness' seemed to take them. The hope was that they would emerge with new insights and clarity of vision (as Godfrey does). The Rainbirds appeared shortly after the publication in 1967 of Laing's The Politics of Experience, which illustrates his theory; and both books may have contributed to the reception in 1971 of Doris Lessing's Briefing For a Descent Into Hell.

Paradoxically the intuitive visionary ego retains its authority via an aloof detachment from the society it defines. 'She [Frame] sees people seldom', Dennis McEldowney records 'but for that reason she believes--enters into them intensely'. (24) The visionary ego is not expected to check whether prosperity observed in Andersons Bay had reached Caversham or to count the number of evening classes available. Even the realistic provincial writer did not apparently check his 'facts' personally:
 Frank [Sargeson] had staged his own life perfectly, with himself as
 a writer, and he made sure that while he lived within the act of
 writing he was surrounded by characters who would bring him news
 from the world he could no longer explore in reality when the
 physical demands of fiction mean a seat at a desk or table, all
 morning or all day, and silence, solitude, and sleep. (25)

The provincial perspective, then, relies for its credence on the authority invested by Western tradition in the intuitive understanding of the visionary writer, rather than on any physical connection between writer and surroundings. Another reason for the durability of the provincial myth may lie in the support it gives to the status quo: the power structure embodying the way everyday economic life is directed could safely tolerate the criticisms of provincial writers. Although they were, as Stead says, resolute in their criticisms of society, the effect of Frame's criticism is to support the status quo by diverting cultural criticism away from the political and towards the transcendental. Despite Frame's strong sense of the inequities of society, evident in the autobiography, the actual effect of her work is to draw attention away from injustice and to focus it on an apolitical spiritual deficiency. The publication of The Rainbirds coincided with the end of open access for New Zealand's primary produce on the British market, and with the end of full employment. The visionary writer whose focus is on inner realities is not concerned with such practicalities, nor with how resources might be rationally distributed so that creativity is integral to everyday life and people have more equal access to life's rewards. The provincial writer who insists that prosperity is spiritually bad for you is unintentionally colluding with a power structure forced by the pressures of global capitalism to legislate over prosperity's increasingly unequal distribution. However profoundly true it is that metaphoric electric blankets isolate their users from a full experience of life (and death), the relevance to society of such a philosophy is to valorise hardship. The close links between artists and public which seem to have been developing in Dunedin in the sixties are dismissed as irrelevant in a view which sees the visionary's role as separate from ordinary people, observing them and disapproving of ease. In the seventies in Australia, Malcolm Fraser tried to reconcile relatively deprived Australians to lower standards of living with the slogan 'Life isn't meant to be easy'. In suggesting to New Zealanders that no electric blankets should be permitted, The Rainbirds fulfills a similar function. The resolute criticisms of the provincial writers could be safely displayed in very much the same way that Josiah Bounderby of Coketown displays paintings and elegant furniture in his home--as alibis for culture. They make no difference to the way he runs his mills.

The provincial myth diverts attention from divisive material practices not just in New Zealand but in Western society generally. The philistinism, materialism and so on which Matthew Arnold deplored in nineteenth century English are discovered to be not a function of mercantile/industrial capitalism, but a part of newness, of being just a province. The translation to New Zealand of the capitalist system is rendered insignificant by a provincial literary tradition which insists that improvement is not a matter of altering the system but of responding to visionary artists and being more imaginative. Frame's view of a Caversham Old People's Home as a replica of an English workhouse elides into a vision of shallow suburbanite conformity. (26)

In literary circles, The Rainbirds' version of Dunedin is better known than any other not because it is more accurate but because it has more uses. Provincialism draws on authoritative traditions providing coherence and the assurance that there is a centre; it lends support to the status quo while appearing to criticise it. In tracing the rise of modern New Zealand literature, Patrick Evans stresses 'how much is owed to the forces of the age'. (27) It is the forces of the age, not accurate observation in The Rainbirds, that have made other Dunedins invisible.


(1.) Janet Frame, The Rainbirds (London: W. H. Allen, 1968), p. 101.

(2.) Janet Frame, An Angel At My Table (London: Paladin, 1987), p. 96.

(3.) Peter Simpson, Ronald Hugh Morrieson (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 60.

(4.) Mervyn Thompson quoted by Lawrence Jones in Barbed Wire and Mirrors: Essays on New Zealand Prose (Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1987), p. 229.

(5.) Frame has said that New Zealand's is a rich material culture but lacking an 'upper storey' (Landfall 8 [December 1954], 309-310).

(6.) Subversion of provincialism is taken a step further in The Carpathians. An archetypal suburbanite proudly displays her possessions: whirlpool bath, mirror tiles and shagpile carpet. She then tells her surprised visitors: 'I'm no fool you know! You can't believe that I'm entirely serious about this? Being shown the houses and garden used to be a set piece for visitors, and now it has become a sort of nostalgic joke as well as a good piece of entertainment--like the Main Trunk Line and the old Railway pies and cups and saucers ... and the British Empire ... we're great at entertaining ourselves, you know, and we do enjoy our homes' (The Carpathians [London: Bloomsbury 1988], p. 63).

(7.) Elsewhere, Frame is more conciliatory about defence mechanisms which make life bearable, as can be seen in other references to blankets. She tells us in the autobiography that she gave her parents an electric blanket against the cold Oamaru winter (An Angel At My Table, p. 129). She also wrote a story called 'An Electric Blanket' exploring ways of giving warmth (p. 139). The search for comfort is given a metaphysical sense in Living in the Maniototo. The narrator admits the human spirit's need for artificial warmth. She does not condemn people for being unable to 'live by bread alone or soul-food' or for needing 'carpets and furniture and blankets'. She needs a gold blanket herself, and admits 'the price of warmth is often too high for too close a scrutiny of the means of getting it' (Living in the Maniototo [London: The Women's Press, 1981] pp. 219 and 230).

(8.) Margaret Dalziel, Janet Frame (Auckland, Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 17.

(9.) Review in The Times Literary Supplement, 21 November 1968, 1301.

(10.) C. K. Stead, 'The New Victorians', Metro (February 1989), 119.

(11.) An Angel At My Table, p. 76.

(12.) Angel, p. 78.

(13.) Graeme Dunstall, 'The Social Pattern' in The Oxford History of New Zealand, eds. W. H. Oliver and B. R. Williams (Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 423.

(14.) Janet Frame, A State of Siege (London: W. H. Mien, 1967), p. 64.

(15.) Dennis McEldowney, Full of the Warm South (Dunedin: John McIndoe, 1983), pp. 124- 27.

(16.) Dennis McEldowney's picture of a culturally vibrant society is echoed in a contemporary impression: 'The intellectual inheritance of Dunedin has much to do with its vivacity. It still has the air of a town concerned with culture in a broad sense. The university is located close to the city's pedestrian heart; the main street is not a freeway, but a thoroughfare designed to discourage cars. At hand are other educational institutions--Knox College, the Museums, Library and schools. The town is integrated in a way that other cities have forgotten. The extraordinary array of impressive churches serves the tourist industry better than any number of discotheques could: there is reason to travel to Dunedin, to see something strange, a town with an identity that is not pastiche' (Michael Sharkey, 'Godzone; the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea', Meanjin 49 [Autumn 1990], 90-91).

(17.) This information is taken from the University of Otago Extension Department Annual Report, 1965.

(18.) Janet Frame, 'The Burns Fellowship', Landfall 22 (September 1968), 241.

(19.) Patrick White, A Fringe of Leaves (London: Jonathan Cape 1976), p. 405.

(20.) 'Owls Do Cry : Portrait of New Zealand?' Landfall 44 (September 1990).

(21.) Full of the Warm South, p. 167.

(22.) Angel, p. 146.

(23.) Patrick Evans, The Penguin History of New Zealand Literature (Auckland: Penguin, 1990), p. 195.

(24.) Full of the Warm South, p. 143.

(25.) Angel, p. 158.

(26.) It may well be that the focus on 'inner realities' of which Frame's provincialism is a part derives as much from necessity as from conviction. That is to say, the inequities of the capitalist system may appear to be impregnable, so that attention has to be focussed elsewhere. Edward Alexander suggests as much in his study of Matthew Arnold. In accounting for Arnold's shift from political activism (he had supported the Chartists) to the firmly apolitical stance of The Function of Criticism at the Present Time (1863), Alexander writes, 'When current events do not go as one wishes them to, the desire to view them only sub specie aeternitatis is nearly invincible' (Edward Alexander, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin and the Modern Temper [Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1973], p. 46).

At one point in his autobiography, Sargeson shows that it was the pressures of international finance rather than the shortcomings of New Zealanders, that prevented the realisation of New Zealand as it might worthily have been. 'He [the uncle who tried to farm in harmony with nature] was more or less dictated to and directed by the petty financiers of the neighbouring town of Taumaranui, the local representatives of Big Money, with its centre of power located at that time in the city of London. What did these people care that my uncle had destroyed the bush, and was now having difficulty in creating a stable pasture? All they appeared to be concerned about was that he should pay his interest regularly' (Sargeson [Auckland: Penguin, 1981], p. 58).

(27.) The Penguin History of New Zealand Literature, p. 77.
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Title Annotation:Dunedin, New Zealand
Author:Brown, Ruth
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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