Whaddarya? David Slack epitomises the thinking, egalitarian, inclusive and creative half of New Zealand society that has always been so feared and despised by the hyper-masculine, woman-hating, anti-intellectual, Rugby-worshipping half. How we Kiwis have made one nation out of two such mutually hostile traditions was the subject of David's "Salon" spot at Ika Seafood Bar & Grill on Tuesday night.
ALL NEW ZEALANDERS must live with Rugby. There is no possibility of escaping, and absolutely no chance of ignoring it. Rugby, love it or hate it, has exerted, and continues to exert, a tremendous influence on the way New Zealand presents itself to the world. It has certainly left its mark on David Slack. In the “Salon” spotlight at the Ika Seafood Bar & Grill on Tuesday night (25/8/15) the professional speech-writer, author and broadcaster proved how impossible it is to discuss New Zealand’s brutal national game without, at the same time, discussing the nature of the society which supports it – and oneself.
Slack was born in Feilding, a small town in the Manawatu, that could easily have been the setting for Greg McGee’s extraordinary play about Rugby, Foreskin’s Lament. The sort of town about which these lines from the play could have been written:
“This is a team game, son, and the town is the team. It’s the town’s honour at stake when the team plays, god knows there’s not much else around here.”
The frankly fascist implications of the statement “the town is the team” need little elucidation. It was Mussolini, after all, who came up with the slogan: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
Slack’s description of his Fielding contemporaries as “knuckle-dragging sons of the soil” speaks eloquently of a young boy made to feel like an “exile” from his own country. Growing up in Fielding, Slack’s subversively divergent personal priorities (he read books!) would elicit from his peers, over and over again, the single, brute interrogatory: “Whaddarya!”
“Whaddarya!” is, literally, the last word of Foreskin’s Lament. Its electrifying effect produced by McGee’s inspired inversion of the word’s usual purpose. Instead of drawing attention to the “other’s” difference – and so confirming his or her exclusion from the team/town/nation – the word was hurled back in the audience’s face. “Whaddarya!” was McGee’s defiant challenge to a country that was already, in 1980, gearing up to welcome the Springbok ambassadors of apartheid.
1981 – and all that. The Springbok Tour cannot be avoided in any honest discussion of New Zealand Rugby (unless, of course, you are the Prime Minister). It was as if both sides, Pro- and Anti-Tour, had contrived to line up and scream “Whaddarya!” at each other for 56 days of utterly uncharacteristic political passion. For Slack, and the tens-of-thousands of others who opposed the Tour, the issue was whether or not the more open and diverse country that New Zealand was becoming would prevail, or, be smothered to death in the fascistic headlock of all those “knuckle-dragging sons of the soil” who wouldn’t have hesitated to affirm the slogan: “All within Rugby, nothing outside Rugby, nothing against Rugby.”
After 1981, it seemed that the two halves of New Zealand could never be brought back together. Rugby became a litmus test. If you were a fan, then you were morally reprehensible: a “Rugby thug” who was also, no doubt, a racist, sexist, homophobe. In the new New Zealand that was rapidly taking shape there could be no place for such people.
But, of course, there was a place for them. As the hero of Foreskin’s Lament reproves the liberal feminist character, Moira, following one of her diatribes against the piggishness of New Zealand’s Rugby culture:
“This is the heart and bowels of this country, too strong and foul and vital for reduction to bouquets, or oils, or words. If you think they’re pigs, then you’d better look closer, and get used to the smell, because their smell is your smell.”
Remove Rugby from the New Zealand equation and we no longer add up.
Slack has written a delightful history of the childhood game of “Bullrush”. In it he celebrates the “teamlessness” of the game, and the way people remember it with smiles and laughter. This, he seems to be saying, is the true essence of the Kiwi character; the way we really are before the “town” turns us into emotionally-stunted sacrifices to the mud-splattered god, whose only gospel is “kick the shit out of everything that gets in the way of winning the game”.
But that just won’t do. And, in his gloriously meandering address, Slack more-or-less conceded as much. Yes, New Zealand is about the anarchic individualism of Bullrush, but it also about the fascism of the First Fifteen. We are, if I may borrow that most overused of Rugby phrases, a game of two halves. And at some point over the past 34 years, almost unnoticed, those two halves have become one again – at least when the All Blacks are playing.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 26 August 2015.