Roderick Finlayson was born in 1904 in Devonport, the only son of John Finlayson and Mary Cargo. John Finlayson was a bank clerk who one morning when his son was two took a ship to San Francisco to escape heavy gambling debts. His wife did not follow and sometimes John Finlayson sent money home, but eventually they divorced. He remarried, gave up gambling and made a livelihood as an accountant, and raised a second family. There is a half-brother of Roderick Finlayson in Miami, who is an electronics engineer in space research. Finlayson’s mother did not marry again but she was a lively person and he recalls a succession of sheep-farmer suitors in leggings and wide-brimmed hats.
Mrs Finlayson and her son moved to her mother’s house in Pompallier Terrace in Ponsonby, then a suburb of modest elegance with a very good library in the Leys Institute. The grandmother’s house became the centre of a rich childhood, warm in affection and international in outlook. A frequent guest was Jean Hodges, an American negro singer who made the Finlayson home her base when she came to New Zealand on concert tour. She had a lavish personality and there was a sense of excitement whenever she came home, always by hansom cab, expansive with news of triumphant concerts. It was a shock to Roderick Finlayson to discover later in life that black people were oppressed.
His best friend was a Rarotongan boy who boarded next door with the family of a middle-aged Welsh sea-captain named Davis, a colourful Pacific personality known from Fiji to Rarotonga as “Rakau” Davis. His only son had married a daughter of a Rarotongan chiefly family.
An old man said to him, “Roddy, I don’t know how it is, but I know you are not a Pākehā. You are a Māori.”
Finlayson recalls his sense of location in Auckland in his youth. “It was first and foremost a Pacific port with Island trading schooners coming and going, their cabins hung with ripening bananas on the bunch, the nearby shops filled with Island oranges, taro, kumara, yams, and those delicious wine-like sun-dried bananas packed in their own dry leaves. New Zealand was for me the centre of the South Pacific.” But he was also aware of the aggressive forces that defeated Māori resistance in the nineteenth century. “In the course of time I identified the villain as our ruthlessly technological and acquisitive society. Others called it capitalism.” He turned more to the world of the Māori.
In his early childhood he used to go each summer to the farm where his uncle was employed at Taneatua in the Bay of Plenty. When he was 12 his uncle moved to another farm at Paengaroa, towards Tauranga. Swimming on the ocean beach the boy came know the three Māori families who lived near the burial ground on the cliff-top at Pukehina. He was welcomed into one home, accepted as one of the family, and even consulted in family discussions, When his uncle moved again to Glenbrook, Finlayson continued to visit his adoptive family at Pukehina, staying with them each summer.
An old man said to him, “Roddy, I don’t know how it is, but I know you are not a Pākehā. You are a Māori.” He knocked about with his young Māori friends, seeing the Pākehā towns through their eyes and sharing their humiliation when the fish and chip shops of Tauranga disdained to serve them.
Finlayson left school in 1921 at 17. He apprenticed as an architect and worked mainly as a draughtsman, “copying plans and drainage systems for block after block of cheap suburban shops”. He turned his back on the profession for which he retained in order to devote his time to writing. It brought little financial return. His two collections Brown Man’s Burden and Sweet Beulah Land were published at the author’s expense. There were no more than a few hundred of each book printed, distribution was poor, and the two collections between them attracted no more than six short reviews.
In 1931 he visited Rarotonga. He hoped to find material for an exotic Pacific novel. But his Rarotongan school friend was in jail, and he carried a letter of introduction from two men who he had met casually and did not know they had left behind a reputation so bad that at the mention of their names, the doors of the only guest house he could afford were closed to him. But the landlady’s grand-daughter, a girl of 12 who was visiting from New Zealand, liked the look of his face and persuaded her grandmother to take him in. (In 1936 he married Ruth Taylor. She was the landlady’s grand-daughter who had spoken for him several years before at Avarua.)
He returned from the Cook Islands to New Zealand and tried a number of jobs. He was persuaded by Government encouragement to grow tobacco (which nobody wanted). He worked as a salesman for a product used for polishing and preserving tyres and rubber fittings, but earned little at it. It was mainly by freelance writing that he lived.
He was the first to want to write of Māori as living fellow men and to see in their way of life qualities the Pākehā might envy
Unemployment gave him time to read about the past of the Māori. The problem that presented itself to him was how to relate the pride and authority of the pre-European Māori to his present state as an inhabitant of rural slums. “How then reconcile the nobility of the Māori in legend and tradition, and the great mana of the ancient ariki, with the humble estate of the people I had known and lived with – descendants of the greatest of ariki, now bereft of mana and living, even though proudly and cheerfully, in poverty on wastelands, outcast and dispossessed on the fringe of the Pākehā world?”
It was a problem for most Pākehā interested in Māori culture: there were folklorists and archaeologists who thought the contemporary Māori blocked their view. But Finlayson observed that as the Great Depression revealed the emptiness of many of the values in which Pākehā placed their faith, and brought financial ruin and spiritual defeat to many, Māori permanence and vitality appeared stronger. He was the first to want to write of Māori as living fellow men and to see in their way of life qualities the Pākehā might envy.
Bill Pearson’s biographical sketch, republished here with the permission of publisher Sam Elworthy, is an edited version of his Introduction to Brown Man’s Burden (Auckland University Press, 1973). The new collection of stories and essays, A Roderick Finlayson Reader edited by Roger Hickin (Cold Hub Press, $42.50), is available in bookstores nationwide or direct from the publisher.