Performing masculinity: teaching the haka to the unemployed

I have just 21 weeks to wait before the start of the Rugby World Cup. To while away the time, I want to remember a rugby-playing Marxist from New Zealand who in 1934 taught the haka at a summer camp for unemployed men.

Bertram in China in 1937

Bertram in China in 1937

James Munro Bertram was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford when he volunteered to spend his summer with the Universities Council for Unemployed Camps (UCUC). Born in Auckland on 11 August 1910 to a Presbyterian family, he came to England with left-wing views and a training in journalism. He graduated in 1934 with a first in English, then took a second class degree in modern languages in the following year.

UCUC, though based in Cambridge, drew support from a number of English and Scottish universities, and is best understood as part of the broader tradition of student social service, sharpened by the political and economic divisions of the 1930s. Its founders came from a broadly Christian milieu, as did Bertram.

Launched in 1933, UCUC organised some ten work camps during the long summer vacation in the following year. One camp was in Eynsham, on the estate of the fabulously-named Col. Raymond ffenell, a former gold mine owner who used his estate at at Wytham Abbey to promote charitable causes. As was typical in UCUC camps, it involved a small group of around a dozen student leaders and some 60 unemployed men, who worked together to prepare a camp site for the Girl Guides, including digging out an area for use as a swimming pool.

Extract from The Times, 19 July 1934

Extract from The Times, 19 July 1934

The camp leaders also organised a visitors’ night, inviting Col. ffenell and other local inhabitants for an evening’s entertainment. Such events were quite common in UCUC camps, and had a number of different functions; the organisers certainly hoped that they might help reduce local suspicions of the unemployed; they also aimed to build bonds between the unemployed and the students; and they provided an opportunity to raise funds from the audience.

The high point of the Eynsham visitors’ night was Noah’s Flood, a medieval miracle play, performed on Pinkhill Lock and lit by car headlamps. The play was directed by the leading Chaucerian scholar Nevil Coghill, who also featured earlier on the programme as a violinist. The acts also included songs, humour (stand-up), animal mimicry, and a ‘Maori dance and war cry’ performed by the men of Tent 9.

First half of the Visitors' Night programme

First half of the Visitors’ Night programme

James Bertram was leader of Tent 9 (in keeping with the UCUC principle of allocating one student to each tent as its leader). The decision to teach the men to perform the haka reflected his keen interest in rugby, while presumably it was his political beliefs that led Coghill to cast him in Noah’s Flood as a somewhat ahistorical ‘Red Shirt’.

What was a New Zealander, studying English, doing at an unemployed camp? Bertram was a Christian and a convinced socialist, and he reportedly decided to join UCUC after supporting the Hunger Marchers as they paraded through Oxford. As a democratic Marxist he opted to join the Independent Labour Party rather than the Communist Party, starting an ILP branch at the University. After leaving Oxford he worked as a journalist, becoming a foreign correspondent in China before eventually being imprisoned by the Japanese. Subsequently he obtained a senior lectureship in English at Victoria University College, Wellington, where he taught until his retirement.

Bertram died in 1993, and I’m sorry that I never met him. He probably wouldn’t have agreed with my view of the work camps as a form of intervention on the male body – but he sounds as though the discussions would have been interesting and informative.

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2 thoughts on “Performing masculinity: teaching the haka to the unemployed

  1. Pingback: History Events and News at 27 April | History & Social Action News and Events

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