Scoop Review of Books

Individual Happiness Now

Book Review
Individual Happiness Now
by Len Lye and Robert Graves, with an introduction by Roger Horrocks (Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre, $12)
Reviewed by Jan Rivers

individual-happiness-now-book-coverThe recent launch for the previously unpublished Individual Happiness Now by New Zealander Len Lye and UK academic and classicist Robert Graves by the Govett Brewster Gallery brings an essay first written in 1941 to a contemporary audience. Lye, who was living in Kent at the time, wrote it with bombers flying overhead towards London each night. It was edited, improved and toned down by Graves.  Lye was troubled that English propaganda about the fight against fascism failed to have the power, vibrancy and persuasiveness of the German variety in support of the Reich. At a time when some were advocating that being conquered might be tolerable he wanted to write something that countered this propaganda with a powerful statement about the freedoms offered by UK culture and society, guaranteed through its government, and to make the case that they were worth fighting for.

Subtitled A statement of a common purpose, the short essay describes a compelling vision of the creativity and independence of thought that democratic government can offer. His idea came in a ‘eureka’ moment, and he describes the words of the title in turn. Individual relates to the freedom, when one has met commitments to society, to “think what I like, do what I like, wear what I like.” As a creative artist this freedom was fundamental to Lye’s world view. Happiness was framed as being an inalienable right which governments are created to protect – as in the promise of the US Declaration of Independence –“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. About the final word in the title Lye wrote describing it as a kind of ‘mindfulness’ avant la lettre:

“Now” stands for the immediate relevance of things. No individuality, no happiness has any relevant existence either in the past or the future. Nothing exists in the future except expectations of individual happiness felt now: nothing worthwhile exists in the past except memories of individual happiness, or records of it in literature, art or work accessible now.  (Lye, 2017)

Naturally, as the artist and creative spirit he was, Lye focussed on a level of individualism which appears anarchistic and even indulgent. However, as the book’s subtitle implies, there is no doubt that he is also explaining that human freedom, uniqueness, experience seeking and creativity can be best delivered in a society that also values social solidarity and community.  He rails against bureaucracy, and there is some irony and unintentional humour in this: during the 1930s and beyond, his film work was being commissioned and used by the UK Post Office Film Unit and other public agencies at a time when those organisations were major sponsors of creativity in arts and film, so much of his living was supported by the very bureaucracies that he complained about.

The essay is preceded by a context-setting piece by New Zealand filmmaker and author Roger Horrocks, who was Len Lye’s assistant for a while and his biographer. In it he describes the history and background to Lye’s thinking and the relationship between Lye and Graves. Horrocks’ point here is to highlight the contrast between a 1941 government, whose values existed but were hard to express persuasively and current governments, whose pro-people values, if they are discernible, would barely warrant being expressed in idealistic language.  The consequent sense of disengagement and cynicism have become a potent force in our politics. For this reason the pair of essays are important, linking an understanding of the 1940’s world which was under duress to current conditions with our own challenges.

In New Zealand, authors like Morgan Godfery (Ed. The Interregnum) and Max Harris (The New Zealand Project), Nicola Gaston (Why is science sexist?) and many others in the BWB oeuvre as well as Jane Kelsey (The Fire Economy) are writing about current problems and possible futures.  Horrocks’ and Lye’s essays in Individual Happiness Now argue for the need to hold to the principles of the vibrant bi-partisan liberalism and social democracy that appear now to be in retreat worldwide.  In 2017, you need to be in late middle-age to have lived in Lye’s world, to smell it, see it, understand it and to know how it worked.  This slender book sits alongside other recent work exploring the more beneficent policy-making from this time:  Jim MacAloon’s Judgements of all Kinds : Economic Policymaking in New Zealand 1945-84  (government) and Jan and Luit Bieringa’s film The HeART of the Matter (NZ arts education from the 1950’s to the 1980’s) are New Zealand examples. Overseas books like Australian Winton Higgins’s Rule of Law, Tony Judt’s writing or Ken Loach’s film Spirit of ’45 both bring to life early/mid 20th century’s more hopeful and communitarian world views.

Here’s hoping this book joins other evidence from the past about values based and humanitarian policies and politics and is influential to current authors and readers in thinking about what it is possible for good governments to do.  Thinking about how lives can be well lived by working in common purpose for individual happiness now has much to recommend it in 2017.

To buy the Book

From New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery  Individual Happiness Now by Len Lye and Robert Graves is $12.00 (+ 5.00 postage)


On an Island Saturdays on Radio New Zealand Roger Horrocks was interviewed by Kim Hill 1 April 2017 Radio New Zealand

Judgements of all kinds by Jim McAloon (link recorded interview about the book).  New Zealand History website

The beauty of bureaucracy by Owen Hatherley New Statesman March 2009 about Lye’s work for the UK Post Office’s film unit.

Rule of Law Winton Higgins 2016 (Book review)

The heart of the matter Film directed by Luit Bieringa (link to description and film excerpt)

Spirit of ’45 (2013) film by Ken Loach