Beware the Imperial typewriter. Beware the big, black, early-plastic rotary phone. Its whirring dial. The Gestetner, too – the cranking of it, the ceaseless issuing forth of the cyclostyled sheet. For these instruments, in the wrong hands, were capable of changing this country forever.
And did they fall into the wrong hands? Yes, they did. The man’s name was Tom Newnham. Before there were desktop publishers, he was one. Before networking was ever defined, he was doing it. He became, it seemed, the secretary of everything, and his brick bungalow in Auckland’s Dominion Rd became the headquarters of everything – “always littered with papers, reports and clippings,” recalls one mate, “which his endlessly indulgent and good-humoured wife Kath would ‘bulk’, as she called it, into slightly more seemly piles to maintain a semblance of tidiness”.
Let’s take the leap and say that Tom Newnham was to New Zealand’s anti-Vietnam war, anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid years what Tom Paine was to the American Declaration of Independence – its letter-writer, pamphleteer, chronicler, analyst, activist and a strategist in what became a revolution. He was unquenchable, and one looks to the opening chapters of his newly and, naturally, self-published biography Interesting Times*, to see what divine horse, with what hoof-strike upon barren New Zealand soil, first opened up the spring. And we see:
• Newnham at nine. His father Curly, a dustman, affixes big political posters to the back of his bike and is pelted with clods of earth as he rides to work through upper-class Fendalton. Labour wins that 1935 election. Lesson, from the biography – “standing up to be counted”.
• Newnham at 16. His father grows increasingly thin and sick. Christchurch Hospital can find nothing wrong and sends him home – “to die”, a nurse tells young Tom, who writes immediately to the Minister of Defence demanding better treatment for a World War I veteran, service number 84. Curly is readmitted as a result, an inward goitre is finally diagnosed, the patient is cured. Lesson, from the biography – “the efficacy of political action”.
• Newnham at 23. With a double degree from Canterbury University College, newly certificated by the Christchurch Teachers’ College, he works his passage to England as a kitchen-hand, is obsessed with the food that frequently, in the slapdash wash-through, lodges dry within the four-tined fork, and invents the three-tined fork. In England, he patents it. Lesson from the biography – zilch, except that the man’s dedication to social progress is obviously practical as well as principled.
We note also that he pioneered, made, packaged and sold the first potato chips in New Zealand – Kiwi Crisps – but again, peaked too early on that one.
He teaches in England from 1950, a “secondary modern” school first up, where the bedlam of the day reduces him sometimes to tears at night, and then moves to a satisfying experimental school in Surrey. He hangs over the public gallery in the House of Commons and listens to Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Aneuran Bevan, John Platts-Mills and others. He hones his letter-writing skill in the New Statesman. By 1952 his gaze is on China, where the Red Star is arisen, and one of his childhood heroes, Rewi Alley, runs a distant desert school. He signs up as head of science at Queen’s College, Hong Kong, learns Chinese, applies in due course for leave to visit the mainland, and finds himself set before the colony’s director of security. Harrumph. No. Only a note on his file – “Has left-wing tendencies.”
Cut to New Zealand. It started quietly enough. Back from Hong Kong in 1956, he taught at the Maori District High School at Te Araroa, and while there gathered signatures for the No Maoris – No Tour anti-apartheid campaign of 1960. Then to the Warkworth District High School, where he pinned the petition on the noticeboard, and noted the following remarks from the senior secondary assistant:
– We should let South Africa solve its own problems. They aren’t so different from us. What’s wrong with their laws ?
– Well, take just one example, a black cannot marry a white.
– That’s no big deal. It doesn’t happen here, really. Only among certain classes.
– My wife’s a Maori.
He drove to Auckland and joined the big Queen St march of 1960 that marked the All Blacks’ departure for South Africa. Action! Rusticated for years, starved for news, he met Frank Haigh, Les Charters, Sarah Campion, Professor John Reid, Harold Innes. Jim Gale … Quakers within the group, too, and old left-wingers such as Pat Dobbie the printer, from Bob Lowry’s Phoenix days. This – so we surmise, for the book is more chronicle than confession – is a Damascus moment. Whatever, he turns into a bolt of pure energy.
Professionally, he prospers. He gains a UNESCO fellowship and tours Asia, visits China and co-writes The Monsoon Lands, a geography text that sells 80,000 copies. He’s a lecturer at Auckland Teachers’ College, then an educational editor for Whitcombe & Tombs. He and Kath are raising two kids. Yet in his spare time, as secretary of CARE, the Citizen’s Association for Racial Equality, he tackles the prevailing discrimination against Pacific Islanders in supermarket checkouts, racially weighted insurance premiums, compulsory pregnancy tests on incoming Samoan women, the covert bans on employing Maori in banks. With Kath, he visits Maori prisoners in Paremoremo’s D block. He helps organise the Inquiry Centre for new migrants that will later evolve into the Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, is secretary of the Race Relations Council and arranges the first-ever observation of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in New Zealand.
The biography barely touches this activity, but it’s worth tipping the hat to that early work. The Indian lawyer Thakor Parbhu, who got his first job in the Frank Haigh legal office, recalls now: “In those days you’d go into a bank or an insurance company or a law firm, and you’d never see a Maori or an Indian or a Chinese. We accept the way things are today and, once we accept it, we forget the people who fought in the difficult days. But those guys are the forgotten heroes.”
So it goes – quiet fights for racial justice. And quiet marches – the regular orderly Hiroshima Day marches organised with groups such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the unions.
Then, suddenly, the loudspeaker blast, the angry shrieking. The South Vietnam general is in town. The President of the US himself arrives to twist Prime Minister Holyoake’s arm, and New Zealand artillery troops leave for an unpopular war. The Progressive Youth Movement surges against the police line. The camera flash renders Tim Shadbolt, bullhorn atilt, huge upon the wall. The testosterone-soaked student generation begins its clash with the politically recalcitrant soldier generation. Nuclear testing, the war, the Springboks, the patriarchy – the causes are legion, and the fuel exotic. The joy of pot, of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, Abbie Hoffman’s imagination, Danny the Red’s revolution.
At this time, Tom Newnham is 40 years old, more teacher than student. Those of us who were journalists then watched him speak at the demos, and noted the difference. He wore jacket and tie, was a quoter of UN resolutions, and lists. Not a demagogue, nor, one guessed, an inhaler. A rational, Enlightenment figure in a darkly boiling world.
By 1971, the troops were gone from Vietnam, and anti-apartheid was the go, with the stroppy, student-run HART the new ogre. But Newnham was a key figure – again it is surmise, for the biography is modest and attributes much to a collective CARE – in adopting a new policy of active non-violent disruption of racist sports events. At a stroke, the anti-apartheid campaigners were no longer fringe groups with a bee in the bonnet about surf lifesaving or minor sports. They were actively refining the techniques and tools to physically sabotage the rugby. The brick house in Dominion Rd began to attract bullets in the mail, scrawled obscenities, “nigger-lover” phone calls.
Newnham was still the rational man, the one who did the letters and named the UN resolutions, but now he was swept into a savage lockstep to the Man with the Impaled Cheek. “I received your letter which was as mischievous and inaccurate as usual”, came one reply from Prime Minister Muldoon – he simply binned most.
By 1976, as a result of the National government’s long and deliberate flouting of a United Nations-led call to sever sports contact with South Africa, as a result, too, of Newnham and others keeping African sports bodies and activists closely informed of every Muldoon move, 22 black nations boycotted the Montreal Olympics. Sole cause of that boycott was the All Black tour of South Africa that year, and New Zealand Government approval of it. The air grew dark with chickens coming home to roost; a furious Muldoon accused HART and CARE of deliberately telling lies about New Zealand – “their activities border on treason …”
The atmospheres continued to darken, the violence to rehearse as one American nuclear vessel after another pushed into a New Zealand port through the Peace Squadron fleet. It broke finally in 1981 with the Springbok rugby tour. On July 25, Newnham is at Rugby Park, Hamilton. The protest hard-hats and a softer core tear down the hurricane wire, invade the ground and stop a Springbok provincial game. Newnham’s broken ribs prevent him joining the tight-packed on-field group, and he patrols its edge, shouting at whichever visored Red Squad policeman looms out of the smoke. He has an epiphany then that has been building 21 years. “For a few brief moments, it was a rapturous, climactic, if irrational feeling of ‘We’ve done it! … All things are possible … now racism and apartheid and the bloody tour will melt away!'”
But the tour kept on. At its end Newnham got busy and wrote his bestselling Batons and Barbed Wire. The Muldoon government staggered on for four years, but when you’re dealing with historical change, that’s the blink of an eye. The tour was the death-knell of apartheid sport, nuclear ships, Muldoon. Military adventure – short of medical, engineering and UN-sanctioned peacekeeping, and the odd bit of SAS skulduggery – stopped.
The work, seemingly, was done, but the activist didn’t stop. As secretary of CND he helped organise the nuclear-free zones at household, district and city level. In 1987, there’s tea with the old hero Rewi Alley, and a teaching stint at Alley’s reconstructed school in north-west China. There are another five books to be written, from a Peace Squadron history through to the recently published Dr Bethune’s Angel – a project Newnham calls “the most fascinating and fulfilling work of my lifetime”. He pieces together the little-known story of a New Zealand heroine in China, the Anglican missionary Kathleen Hall, who, in 1939, smuggled sufficient medicines through Japanese lines to supply China’s revolutionary 8th Route Army for an entire winter. And there are humble touches such as Newnham’s “English Corner” at Potter’s Park, Balmoral, where Asian students gather to converse with locals.
What drives it all? Newnham keeps it simple. “Sometimes it was said ‘God is Love’ or ‘God is Good’,” he writes. “But if you cannot believe in a personal god, there certainly exist love and goodness. It seemed to me obvious that these qualities exist and should be cultivated and expressed most strongly in the family, then further out to friends and neighbours and ultimately to all of mankind. This must be the key to a happy society and to world peace.” And, he claims, New Zealand is the ideal size for a democracy – “the politicians can never be far removed from their voters”.
Those of us who, as friends, fielded his telephone calls over the years knew the Newnham style. Some academic tries to malign Alley, as happened last year (Friend of China: The Myth of Rewi Alley, by Anne-Marie Brady). Newnham rings everyone, let’s everyone in that circle know what every-one else thinks, encourages each to act, and, if you don’t, he does it himself. Whether the matter is big or small, the same thing.
Most recently, for me, it was phone calls to report the startling Gavin Menzies thesis that a large Chinese fleet of 1421 discovered not only America, but also New Zealand. Newnham rings, and there’s the same almost skittish excitement and wonder at the new, the same near-naivety about those deeper grooves that are sometimes called the ways of the world. Tom – the bastard is just trying to sell books. He goes away. He trawls the evidence. He rings again – “I’m very angry with him [Menzies] at the moment. He’s right that the Chinese sent out a major expedition in 1421, but in the second
edition he’s pushing it just too far. He’s trying to say Moeraki boulders were abandoned ballast to the fleet. They’re not! They’re concretions.”
“You run the risk of calling him obsessive,” recalls David Lange of his contact with Newnham over the years, “but he wasn’t. He had the capacity to be self-aware, and he was never dogmatic. Not many people engaged in crusades have the capacity, in terms of their temperament, to alter their views. Tom did. He always hung about after the meeting, eager to talk through the points and to listen.
“And most people in these crusades flare and wither. The rocket goes off and that’s them. But Tom has been around forever, and acting on a very wide front.
“A measure of greatness is that you can marshal causes in some overall strategy, even transcend causes for some greater concept. Justice? Yeah, the sort of justice that it’s always impossible to pursue without exciting the ire of those who support that inflexible and at times unjust monolith, the law.”