Thursday 5 October 2023

Nostalgic For A Joyous Left.

Those Were The Days: If you drank at the Captain Cook Tavern, especially downstairs, your horizons simply couldn’t fail to be broadened. Upstairs, where the bands played, might have been more recognisably studenty, but, if you kept your ears open in the Back and Corner Bars, you could learn at least as much as you were being taught in all those lecture theatres on the other side of the Museum Reserve.

I WAS A CAPTAIN COOK MAN, Grant Robertson was a Robbie Burns man. If you know anything about the great student pubs of Dunedin in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, those allegiances should tell you a lot.

While I was at varsity, the “Cook” had a reputation for entertaining more than just students. While the “new” Dunedin hospital was being built in the 70s, the pub’s “Back Bar” was patronised by construction workers. In the years prior to the University Staff Club opening its doors, the Cook’s “Corner Bar” remained a watering hole for the more adventurous sort of academic. Trade union officials, especially those employed by the Hotel, Hospital and Restaurant Workers Union, could also be found in the Corner Bar, along with poets Hone Tuwhare, Peter Olds and John Gibb. The artist Eion Stevens also drank there. There were  pool-players, too, tough guys one didn’t interrogate too closely – unless one was looking for something a little more interesting than alcohol.

Meaning that, if you drank at the Cook, especially downstairs, your horizons simply couldn’t fail to be broadened. Upstairs, where the bands played, might have been more recognisably studenty, but, if you kept your ears open in the Back and Corner Bars, you could learn at least as much as you were being taught in all those lecture theatres on the other side of the Museum Reserve.

The Robbie Burns was different. For a start, its clientele was nothing like so bohemian. Law students drank at the Robbie Burns – alongside the true crème-de-la-crème of the university scene, medical students. The “Robbie” – as everybody called it – was just that little bit more – what? ‘Refined’? No, that isn’t right. How about ‘self-consciously superior’? Yes, that will do. That will do nicely.

Oh, and I nearly forgot, the Robbie was where most of the student politicians drank. The presidents of the Otago University Students Association and their hangers-on – the Robbie was their pub. That’s why Grant Robertson (OUSA President in 1993) and his mates drank there. Like talked with like – and liked it. To say they learned nothing would be wrong, but they certainly didn’t learn as much as the students who drank downstairs at the Cook. Unsurprising, I suppose, that all those budding journalists who worked on the student newspaper, Critic, generally preferred the Cook to the Robbie.

And all this is related to the looming general election – how? Nostalgia is fine, in its place, but what has drinking in the 70s, 80s, and 90s got to do with voting in the 2020s? Nothing at all, I suppose, unless you’re willing to see those two Dunedin pubs as peculiar prefigurements, strange and symbolic representations, of what the New Zealand Left used to be, and what it has become. Because what could be more like the sprawling and rambunctious labour movement of the 1970s and 80s than the downstairs bars of the Captain Cook Tavern? And what could more resemble the preening, superior, student-politician-dominated Left of 2023, than the up-itself, yuppified, Robbie Burns Hotel of the 80s and 90s?

A party purporting to represent the people cannot be anything like the prissy affair of ambitious back-biters that the Labour Party and (God help them!) the Greens have become.

Entering a genuine left-wing political party should be like entering the Cook on a Friday night. It should be buzzing with conversations and barking with arguments. One should have as much chance of encountering a burly construction-worker, full of choice epithets for those with soft hands and even softer heads, as a Māori poet, a philosophy lecturer, and a Marxist union activist. A people’s party should, like the Cook, be a place to get educated, inspired, intoxicated and (if you’re lucky) seduced. You should walk out of a people’s party ready to change the world, your place in it, and, if you’ve met the right sort of leftists, your opinions.

What a people’s party can never be is a collection of cliques, where like meets like and no one else. Where newcomers are assessed with a calculating eye and a closed mind. Where the only trick worth learning is how to separate the mere seekers after power from the smug possessors of it. A true people’s party is full of smiles and snarls – not smirks. Its members speak freely and argue passionately – not in conformity with the current orthodoxy. When people’s party comrades finish arguing, they buy each other a beer – they do not sell each other out, or dob each other in. A people’s party welcomes and involves, it does not exclude and punish.

Of course the Cook – as I remember it – is nowhere to be found in the Dunedin of 2023. The building still stands, it’s a pizza parlour now with electronic games. But the city – and the country – that made it possible for the Cook’s earlier incarnation to thrive, no longer exists. The New Zealand of 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago, was an altogether different country, they did things differently then.

The New Zealand Left, or at least the Left I encountered in the 1970s – and fought for across the 1980s and 90s – has also, like the Cook, ceased to exist. What killed it? The debilitating fear of freedom which is the inescapable companion of societies that devote themselves entirely to the pursuit of power and money, and construe the absence of these prizes as proof of culpable incapacity. In societies such as ours has become, there is no tolerance for sprawling, or brawling, or carousing. All ends are closed, all destinations known, all opinions pre-approved, all conduct scrutinised and judged.

If you can believe it, the University of Otago, alarmed by the twenty-first century student body’s predilection for drunkenness and couch-burning, bought up most of the great student pubs – and shut them down. The last time I was in Dunedin, however, I noticed that the Robbie Burns had somehow survived. It was being refurbished, brought up-to-date. Its owners promising “Emerson’s on tap”.

The thought occurred to me that New Zealand itself has become the Robbie writ large – a place where only the crème-de-la-crème feel entirely at home. Ours is increasingly a nation of the anxious and the embittered. A country which has not only forgotten how to fight, but also no longer remembers how to have fun.

What New Zealand, and the New Zealand Left, needs most is a rambunctiously good Friday night at the Cook, as it was, and, with just a little bit of luck, and a lot of courage, could be again.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project website on Tuesday, 3 October 2023.


DS said...

With the exception of Gardies (who always had a 9pm closing under University pressure, prior to being bought out altogether), what destroyed the Student Pubs in Dunedin was actually alcohol being sold in supermarkets. Much easier and cheaper to buy up beer from the local supermarket, and drag it home, rather than going to pubs.

It literally isn't financially viable to operate a student pub these todays.

Mike Grimshaw said...

Best political analysis of the year
As a gardies and cook drinker 85- 96 this makes perfect sense
Pubs were were you talked and argued - and played pool-with those different to you
I understood a lot about both Auckland and provincial nz by drinking at both of them
No-one went to the Robbie...
Pubs also provided social cohesion- by closing them Otago created a very problematic flat-focused social disorder

Jason Barrier said...

Very interesting Chris. I grew up in a family that could perhaps be described as underprivileged materially - albeit well endowed with love and encouragement. We were a rural Labour family, but gradually most of us have now drifted off to other political tribes for many reasons - not least the condescension that wafts from the Robbie Burns of yore and other haunts of the Labour elite today. So much talk about 'diversity' - so little actual diversity.

David George said...

Thank you Chris, the polarised and degraded state of civil discourse is certainly not confined to the Left.
Social media has made things worse but interesting that even the student bars back in the day were, effectively polarised. Mike above (unwittingly?) says as much: "No-one went to the Robbie". It's certainly possible that the other pub's patrons really were pretentious, pompous twats with nothing worth listening to. Or maybe not.

Anyway, a really great essay, thank you.

David George said...

Here's a sublime discussion,

Some highlights:

"The more fundamental truth of the matter is is that if people adopt subsidiary responsibility (and we could get into what that means) and we organize our social hierarchies effectively and generously we could make the Desert Bloom. We can make much out of virtually nothing and human beings have that capacity because we can transform cognitively. There's no reason to assume at all that we couldn't have more than enough for everyone.

Now that would mean those who want more for themselves than for other people would have to let go of that essentially power mad desire and be willing to share and be willing to raise the poor out of poverty. And of course doing so decreases the gap between rich and poor and that's very annoying if you're narcissistic and rich."

"Social media enables that tremendously because you can generate a mob of accusers, and they can be anonymous, and you can do that in no time flat and you can peck the feathers off someone and you can walk away feeling real good about yourself, and you can be happy that you got to express your resentment and bitterness. And away you go and of course you sacrifice someone for doing that but it's not you. And that's just fine and so we're doing that non-stop. Social media definitely enables that and that's a huge danger. Social media enables narcissistic psychopathy and that's not good because we've virtualized the world and we put a tremendous amount of power in the hands of narcissistic Psychopaths"

"I can handle it with a bit of a sense of humor now and you need to do that. If you lose your sense of humor in some ways you've been defeated, you lose yourself."

Tom Hunter said...

I think you rather might enjoy reading this article about the author of the famous American book, Bowling Alone, <a href=">The education of Robert Putnam</a>:

<i>Published as Bowling Alone in 2000, the findings largely confirmed Putnam's discovery of a great decline in civic involvement since the 1960s. Over that time, voting turnout in America had fallen by a quarter, and interest in public affairs by a fifth. Non-profit civic associations had remained numerous, but they'd become narrower and more professional, oriented toward lobbying politicians rather than engaging a mass membership. Nor had associations based on employment or churches replaced the older, broader civic bodies. There was less generalized trust of other people. In short, compared to the decades before 1960, America had become much more atomized.</i>

And Putnam has personal experience in that...
<i>Putnam's initial questions in this domain arose from his upbringing in the 1950s in Port Clinton, a modest manufacturing town in Ohio. The Port Clinton he remembered was not wealthy but had great civility — like the Italian north. Most families in the town had only modest means, but they supported their children in school. Few parents had college degrees, but most of their offspring went to college, and many went on to build professional careers. Private firms employed the parents and offered college scholarships to the young. And many local civic organizations mobilized the community to address common issues and needs.

But in later decades, the town fell apart. Factories had largely left it for cheaper venues in the South or overseas, meaning the economy no longer paid well enough to support families. In response, Putnam believes, parental behavior deteriorated. Fathers often quit working or abandoned their families, while the young often succumbed to drug addiction or crime. Fewer children progressed in school or established a career. Community resources were overwhelmed. At the same time, people with more education and income in the community lived far better than they had in prior decades. Inequality had soared. This America had left individuals to get ahead on their own, and only the fortunate could do so.

Why this change? The left usually blames such decline on economic forces that government fails to counter with enough benefits for families when marriages fail or jobs are unavailable. While not adverse to that view, Putnam asked a different question: Why had civility and community organizations failed? Why had modest but earnest towns like Port Clinton come to resemble southern rather than northern Italy?</i>

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Chris, the Labour Party you remember has almost certainly gone for good. Unfortunately. And one of the major reasons it's gone is that the leadership of the working class has been gutted. Most of those people who would have led a decent Labour party have been marginalised by having their jobs sent overseas, being forced to establish a small business, or being casualised and de-skilled. These were people like my father who was a skilled worker and very intelligent, but uneducated because he had to leave school at 13 to help support his family. Luckily he retired before we started importing the stuff he made. Some of his relatives back in England now drive vans instead of doing skilled work.
These people were prominent in trade unions which were also gutted – and trade unions were the backbone of the party. Now we simply have 2 middle-class parties fighting over the centre ground. I don't think that's going to change any time soon. I don't see any way to improve it either.

greywarbler said...

Interesting informative responses Chris T. Thanks to the commenters for insights.

Simon Cohen said...

Bill Noble was a staunch Captain Cooker.

larry said...

Translated to Auckland. The University is located in Princes Street adjacent to the Grand Hotel. It's miniscule front " private"? bar was the de facto equivalent of your ... Chris Trotters Robbies... though without the.precious political elitism. The Wellesley Street was your more " workers" retreat. Another pub ... name near K rd had wooden floors that in the days of 6 o'clock closing could be firehoused down a la a cowshed for hygiene reasons you understand. Pub crawls in Capping weeks of the 60's took in nearly 40! from memory licensed drinking establishments with most now long gone in the inner.City. Them ... hic! ... were the days ehh?

The Barron said...

Very esoteric, but sometimes it just came down to Speights or DB

David George said...

Perhaps you're just looking in the wrong place; "The Joyous Left" are out there Chris - celebrating the rape, desecration, torture and murder of women and children.

Dane Giraud:

"the barbarity we saw a few days ago, which is ongoing, may signal a turning point. It will be harder now for the general public to excuse the excesses of the Greens, and the bigotry and thinly veiled hatred of the far Left more generally. Rivers of ink need to be spilled calling this behaviour out and making their parties accountable. As Jews, we simply have no choice, but wider New Zealand too can only suffer under the toxic cloud of such parties, academics, and activists. As the great Christopher Hitchens said, you can measure the moral health of a society by the levels of antisemitism within it. We must collectively stand against the pro-fascist Left, and return our society to full health again."

Guerilla Surgeon said...

And where were you David and for that matter Dane when this was happening on an ongoing basis thanks to the Israeli blockade of Gaza?

According to a 2012 joint report by Save the Children and UK-based Medical Aid for Palestinians:
10% of children under five experienced stunted growth due to prolonged malnutrition due to the blockade and siege.
58.6% of Gaza’s schoolchildren were anemic, as were more than 68% of children aged nine to 12 months and nearly 37% of pregnant women.
According to UNICEF, more than 90% of the water from Gaza’s only aquifer is unsafe for human consumption due to pollution, while repairs to Gaza’s sewage and water infrastructure cannot be carried out because of Israeli restrictions on the entry of building materials and equipment.
Gaza suffered from severe shortages of electricity due to Israeli restrictions on imports of equipment needed to replace the electrical infrastructures.

Where were you and Dane, when the Israelis killed 40 Palestinian children in the last year or so?

Why were you not protesting that the Israelis refuse to allow materials to be imported into Gaza to repair the sewage system, meaning that 90% of all the water there is not fit for human consumption?

Where were you and Dane when the Israelis refuse to allow school supplies into Gaza?

There's more than one type of racism David, and it's quite possible that you and Dane are guilty of another type of anti-Semitism.

David George said...

You have wonder how the thousands of rockets to be fired into Israel, the caches of grenade launchers and assault rifles made their way into blockaded Gaza. Or why the purchase of those was prioritised over the basic needs of the people. Or why those perople were deliberately placed in harms way by having arms dumps, rocket launchers and terrorist HQs near (or in in some cases) schools and hospitals. Or why the surviving captives haven't been returned home.
Perhaps Hamas don't really give a shit about the Gazan people. I think that's it.

David George said...

GS: "where were you David"

I don't know GS, not out celebrating that's for sure.

It's very unsettling to see the crowds out cheering for the Hamas mass murderers, and just hours after this appalling atrocity. What the hell is wrong with people? And what a strange coalition of misfits and madmen - Far Left wokesters, Islamic fanatics and Nazis. What to make of that?

There was even an outfit, Queers for Palestine (AKA Turkeys for Christmas), at one of the protests/celebrations that got a bashing from the Muslim guys. Happy times.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"You have wonder how the thousands of rockets to be fired into Israel, the caches of grenade launchers and assault rifles made their way into blockaded Gaza. Or why the purchase of those was prioritised over the basic needs of the people."

Why? Because her mouse is a nutty extreme right religious organisation.

My point David which you have ignored completely is that the difference between you and me is that I will call out war crimes wherever I see them, but you constantly make excuses for the people you side with or simply ignore them. Israeli settlers murder approximately 200 Palestinians a year in the occupied territories. With very little in the way of punishment. Why don't you surprises all and tell is that you condemn it?

BlisteringAttack said...

I drank mostly at the Oriental. A Speights pub. DB at the Cook, I found, too sweet for my Southland tastebuds.

Also, a friend recently recounted how at the corner bar at the Cook, they would do 10 nips in a jug etc Those were the days...

David George said...

I'm not going to surprise you, GS, I don't know enough about it - and to say the "information" we are fed is corrupted and unreliable is to say nothing at all.

However I know hate when I see it. The crowd celebrating the murders (and worse) at the Sydney Opera House with chants of "kill the Jews, Gas the Jews" qualify.

David George said...

Yes Blistering, I remember those days and jugs of rum and Coke, happy times. The wowsers (fun police) brought in a law banning it.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Ah David typical. "You don't know enough about it". You're quite happy to comment on any number of things you don't know enough about. But you're sort of people killing innocent kids? Of course not. Perhaps I can open your eyes. I suspect not, as usual you will be making excuses.

BlisteringAttack said...

CAJ Williams probably wrote the best poem about the Cook in his work 'Week-day, The Cook'.