1953: Prize-Giving Speech
February 15, 2019
By Anarchist History of New Zealand
Prize-Giving Speech was recorded on LP for Barney Flanagan and Other Poems (1973) but dates, I think, from poet J.K.Baxter’s The Fallen House (1953.)
Baxter wrote many powerful poems to deliberately provoke and enliven New Zealand culture. Such attempts needed to be frustrated by being re-framed as a friendly Kiwiana icon. Like the song Born in the USA the mainstream thinks Baxter’s poems are a nice tame bit of art but the reality of their message cuts the legs right out from under the society they came from.
Senior Inspector of schools gives a speech to one of the schools under his supervision…
Do not believe us; do not follow us.
Our systems of authority, built for security,
Deceive us into incorrigible vanity.
If virtue cannot, cunning may defend you,
Your dreams of gunmen and black-stockinged girls,
Misery at midnight in the murderous dormitory.
Happy I could be at the end of a black journey
If one of you, or two, even by borstal,
Larceny, sodomy, destruction and revolt,
Could escape the virus concealed in the prize-giver’s palm
And defeat our intention to make you like ourselves
Old ghosts and bags of wind, gourds of the Judas tree.
Be reconciled to terror: the night is terrible
In which we move and live and find our being.
Though for me it is late, accept my apology
For having been deceived …
Only on his deathbed could the conductor of the soul-crushing operation confess his crime and failure. To reveal that the true lessons in Government Schools are Confusion, hierarchy, indifference, dependency, captivity.¹
The Browning Version
Baxter’s assault here or elsewhere isn’t like that of Punk in 1978² or Pink Floyd in The Wall (1982.) Those were a younger generation busting loose. Punk, in particular, was a Demolition Phase which periodically sweeps away the old generation’s stodgy ways and failed designs so that a new one can have a clear path.
Within a few short years of a Demolition Phase we sometimes, perhaps always, if we know where to look have an Apology Phase. Baxter here, like Rattigan in his play The Browning Version, uses his art to represent a dying doyen of the Old Guard status quo giving his side away and apologising. Baxter and Rattigan’s 1950s senior academic figures are passing away and as their last act lift the lies from Youth’s eyes so he can see clearly. The spell is lifted. There were no Punks in this 1950s cycle, they belonged to the next. There were, in New Zealand, bodgies and widgies perpetrating this Demolition Phase against the old ‘GI Generation’ back from the war.
The audio release was too early for the next cycle, too soon for Punks and one of the most memorable examples of this trope in The Empire Strikes Back (1980.) Here the Old Guard in the form of Darth Vader, on his death bed, whispers to the Youth, Luke Skywalker, his regret as he turns on the old orthodoxy and his old master.
Here is that great speech from The Browning Version equivalent to Baxter’s poem or Vader’s Death. This is the one I like best, from recently deceased Albert Finney…
We can track some of these Apology Phases by observing the times films were made of The Browning Verison. Trust movie producers to know when the market is ripe..
Here’s a list of occurances from Wikipedia..
The Browning Version (play), Terence Rattigan’s 1948 play
The Browning Version (1951 film), starring Michael Redgrave
The Browning Version (1955 film), a TV film starring Peter Cushing
The Browning Version (1985 film), a TV film starring Ian Holm
The Browning Version (1994 film), starring Albert Finney
As we see, the 1950s phase matches up with the Rebel-without-a-cause and The-wild-one bodgies and widgies demolition. After the Punk phase, a 90s Apology Phase.
Worth noting that the play’s script (at least the 1951 film script..) calls us back to Socrate’s Apology. Quite rightly so, since this is the original Apology Phase from Western Civilisation. What’s so remarkable about Socrates however is that he takes a totally different tack to Darth Vader or Baxter’s or Rattigan’s man. Plato makes Socrates recommend obedience to The State in his dying breath rather than release the Youth from his obligation to be bound to it.
Baxter is the anti-Plato, Prize-Giving Speech is a real Apology Phase phenomena whereas Plato’s was an attempt to arrest and thwart cultural growth and renewal.
1, To paraphrase John Taylor Gatto
2. See future post
Full text of poem here; 45cat
Image ref. 45cat.com
Image ref. Superintendent Chalmers overseeing the Principal from The Simpsons
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