Monday, 27 July 2015

Man's Dominion

Graffiti in Dunedin

What is “cultural cringe”?

New Zealand tourist guides write about the “cultural cringe,” a self-deprecating Kiwi inferiority complex – the idea that everywhere else must be better!!?? Yet my reading about North Island and South Island suggests to me that New Zealand punches way above its weight. Three activist facts alone suggest a country with robust politics where tradition is not hidebound:
New Zealand suffragettes and the sinking of the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior
  • New Zealand was the first country to offer universal female and male suffrage (in 1893)
  • Between March 2005 and August 2006 New Zealand became the only country in the world in which all the highest offices in the land were simultaneously occupied by women (Head of State, Governor-General, Prime Minister, Speaker and Chief Justice)
  • In the wake of the French bombing of the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, in 1985, a flotilla of private New Zealand yachts occupied the Pacific Ocean where France were intending to carry out nuclear tests – radical and brave!
Prince William participates in a Maori greeting

An idealised alternative England?

In shorthand media mythology, New Zealand promotes Commonwealth values of democracy, fairness, tolerance, equal opportunities, sustainable development and environmental guardianship. Commonwealth values are indeed inherent, but so is weird comedy in the form of the Flight of the Conchords (Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement.) Tolkien might be English but it took a New Zealander, Peter Jackson, to realise successful movie versions of his works. Director Jane Campion and actors Russell Crowe and Sam Neill are three more examples of why “cultural cringe” is unecessary.
Sam Neill, Jane Campion, Peter Jackson, Flight of the Conchords, Russell Crowe
Other notable cultural figures and history makers include: Manu Bennett (actor), Eleanor Catton (novelist), Richard Curtis (writer), Alan Dale (actor), Kerry Fox (actor), Janet Frame (writer), Sir Edmund Hillary (mountaineer), Lucy Lawless (actor), Jonah Lomu (rugby player), Katherine Mansfield (writer), Temuera Morrison (actor), Anna Paquin (actor), Ernest Rutherford (scientist), Kate Sheppard (suffragette), Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano) and Karl Urban (actor).
Successful Kiwis
Add these to Lorde and Aaron Smith and you see what I mean – “cultural cringe” is unnecessary.
Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider

Asserting Identity and Sacred Nature

One of my favourite films is Niki Caro’s film of Witi Ihimaera’s book Whale Rider starring Keisha Castle-Hughes. I think the film shows that you can assert your own identity against the odds. New Zealand, in such a remote location, has certainly asserted its identity. The tension between tradition and modernity is at the heart of Whale Rider, as the Maori people in the film/book negotiate modern times. The beginning of the story introduces the interdependence of mankind and nature; humans as stewards of the natural world. I get the sense that New Zealanders take the governance of the planet seriously - and in a humanitarian way. The following poem (found on David Hardy’s website and reproduced with his permission) captures the message:

Man’s Dominion by David Hardy 

When settlers came from overseas 
Overwhelmed, they were, by trees 
Like nothing else they’d ever seen 
For most of them were evergreen 

It wasn’t long before they tried 
To make the landscape countryfied 
They burned the bush and planted grass 
The scar might show - but time would pass 

Besides the cattle, sheep and horse 
The predators were brought in force 
They introduced for sake of sport 
The animals that could be caught 

To hunt and shoot and fish and snare 
They brought the rabbit, deer and hare 
And very soon the people found 
Erosion, rocks and barren ground 

The deer ringbarked the forest trees 
That died as though they had disease 
The goat came later on the scene 
And ringbarked where the deer’d not been 

The rare and tender little plants 
Most succulent inhabitants 
No one, then, assessed their worth 
They disappeared right off the earth 

With ignorance and greed they came 
And mankind now is just the same 
We’re losing species year by year 
So at that rate they’ll disappear 


The horrors of Isengard and the beauty of Fangorn

David’s poem chimes with the environmental messages built into Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with the destructive forces of Sauron and the military violence of the Orcs pitted against the homely values of the Hobbits in the Shire and the world-weary Ents, the ancient shepherds of Middle Earth forests.
Isengard being destroyed by orcs; Merry and Pippin enjoying an Ent ride in Fangorn.
It strikes me that New Zealand was the perfect place to film Tolkien’s works since it has had its share of environmental struggles. The history of the country is riddled with battles, massacres, treaties and land negotiations between the European colonizers (from 1642 onwards) and the Polynesian migrants who developed the Maori culture and who began settling first around the year 1200.

Journey to the other ends of the earth

New Zealand is only one possible destination among many. Will I go there one day? Time will tell.

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy a glass of crisp and cold Marlborough wine and hum the theme tune to Fellowship of the Ring.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

There And Back Again

One Ring To Rule Them All

It would be hard to resist visiting some of the film locations of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit if a dream visit to New Zealand ever happened…. My understanding is that New Zealanders have embraced the tourist, creative and employment opportunities resulting from Peter Jackson’s films of Tolkien’s works. Weta workshops are now firmly established as an international leader in 3d modeling, costuming, armour, weaponry and special effects of all kinds.

From Hobbiton to the Dead Marshes….

I imagine that travelling is a key aim for most retirees. “All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time that is given us.” (I imagine Ian McKellen’s voice as Gandalf intoning those words….) I have been lucky over the years to travel to some unusual places: Kenya, China, Finland, Milledgeville (in Georgia, USA.) I hope that retirement will feature some further memorable experiences, before Shakespeare’s seventh age of man kicks in.
Seventh Age: "second childishness and mere oblivion."

There and back again.

It can feel uncomfortable being adrift, as Bilbo Baggins tells his nephew: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
I blogged earlier about my idea of home being where your loved ones are. I’ve always taken the subtitle of The Hobbit to heart - There And Back Again; after a journey, it’s always satisfying to return to hearth and home. Going out, coming back. Ebbing and flowing. In the middle of a holiday, it’s good to know that your slippers are waiting at home (unless you took them with you, of course.) Would New Zealand feel just too far away? Perhaps I should stick to walking along the local canal?

Into the Wild

Journeys into the wild are good for putting personal concerns into perspective. When I lived in Helsinki for a year, I undertook a road trip with two Japanese men and a son of one of them; and en route to Nordkapp we called at Hammerfest, the most northern civilian settlement with over 5,000 inhabitants.
Hammerfest in northern Norway
I’ll blog about my year in Scandanavia in the future, but what I’m remembering now is the sense of being on the edge of the world at the mercy of nature. When faced with the spread of cosmic existence, evident in the sight of the galaxy of stars in remote places like Hammerfest (or, I expect, New Zealand), human anxieties can seem insignificant. Worries can gain perspective. “All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time that is given us.”
Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Elijah Wood as Frodo, image created by vanderstelt-studio

The Smallest Person

Galadriel tells Frodo “Even the smallest person can change the course of history” to reassure him that he has the strength to endure on his quest. The quest goes on. Excelsior!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Kia Kaha (Forever Strong)

Touring Lions

All Black Aaron Smith, singer Lorde with her letter of support to Joe Irvine 
The British and Irish Lions are touring to New Zealand in June/July 2017. Having not won against the All Blacks since 1971, the Lions will be raring to touchdown in New Zealand and get off to a flying start on 3rd June at Toll Stadium in Whangerai. Lorde’s song Glory and Gore might serve as anthem for the All Blacks. 
You could try and take us (oh-oh)
But we're the gladiators (oh-oh)
Everyone a rager (oh-oh)
But secretly they're saviours
Glory and gore go hand in hand
That's why we're making headlines (oh-oh)
You could try and take us (oh-oh) 
But victory's contagious
Cook Islands where Tatau was filmed

Bucket List

Since watching the recent BBC3 series Tatau filmed on the Cook islands, New Zealand is currently high on my Bucket List of the places I hope to visit before I “shuffle off this mortal coil.” Of course Peter Jackson’s films of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have no doubt boosted tourism already but there is something seductive about the remoteness of the country, notwithstanding its rugby history and the pull of the film locations.

Far Away Is As Far Away Feels

Dunedin on South Island, where the Lions are playing the Highlanders on 13th June, is the furthest city on the planet away from London. I learned from Robert Tombs’ The English and Their History that South Island has something in common with the Scotland/Wales/England landmass and with Honshu, Japan’s main island. All three are the main islands “of the three largest temperate archipelagos in the world.” Japan seems more remote to me somehow, even though it is geographically closer. (As the crow flies, Saltaire to Tokyo is 5,846 miles. Saltaire to Christchurch is a whopping 11,697 miles: double the distance plus five miles!) Yet New Zealand “feels” more within reach than Japan.

Natural Beauty

New Zealand scenery is undoubtedly spectacular, and the temperate climate, though volatile, leads to amazing natural beauty. (I am sure Japan enjoys the same variety of features.) The weather wouldn’t put me off visiting, by any means.

Kia Kaha (Forever Strong)

Should I worry about the Ring of Fire? The earthquakes in 2010, 2011 and 2012 caused much destruction and loss of life, but news reports suggest there is much resilience and a determination to rebuild and thrive. Kia Kaha (Forever Strong) seems to have been adopted as a national motto and applied to rugby and survival against the odds in equal measure.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Nobody's Perfect

Joe E Brown and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot - "Nobody's Perfect!"
Young love
When I met my future wife at the University of Manchester, we became friends for three years before we started “courting.” During the three years of friendship we confided to each other aspects of our lives, families, friends, lovers, university departments, ambitions, fears, hopes and dreams. When we married in 1986 I think we thought we knew each other pretty well.
Rose Leslie as Ygritte in Game of Thrones
Mature love
29 years later we now know that in 1986 we knew comparatively little about each other. And we thought we were good at communicating back then. But we left out quite a bit of important stuff. Some quirky foibles and some murky peculiarities. Some ugly inner grumbles. Some shoulder chips, some lurking anxieties. But there were also a few wonderful glories about each other that had yet to bloom. As time went by, though, the glories, grumbles, foibles and important stuff began emerging. So I would say we know each other much better now.
Life’s festival battering
Particular moments have created bright memories: sitting on balconies looking at views, raising a glass in celebration, smiling across a crowded room, sharing in quiet victories, loving children. Other moments have caused challenges: organising childcare, moving house, being bereaved, building careers, coping with illnesses. Life’s journey has been all about reacting to the ups and downs of twists and turns and the ins and outs of the lives of the people we know (and even the people we don’t know but we hear or read about.) You get to know someone intensely when life’s festival batters you and exposes you, warts and all.
Peter Lely's portrait of Oliver Cromwell - "warts and all"
Oliver said….
Oliver Cromwell said to the painter, Sir Peter Lely: “….I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.” As an avowed monarchist I shouldn’t give Oliver Cromwell blog-space, but I admire him in the same way I respect and revere Maximilien Robespierre (more on him in the future) – a visionary at the very least, someone who wanted to make a positive difference to society at the time, but whose road took a series of catastrophic turns. Cromwell’s “warts and all” philosophy seems to be a good way to approach your friends and loved ones. Nobody’s perfect. And warts make you human.
Growing Older
I think I was round about 24 years of age when it finally dawned on me that I would never “grow up.”  Or maybe that was the age when I realised that you never stop changing.
Being “grown up” seems to be a fictitious state of mind. I don’t know that you can ever say you are finally “grown up.” You just have more commitments and responsibilities – but you are often no more equipped to deal with life's complications than a younger whippersnapper with a smart phone.
Rarely pure
In my final years of teaching I was able to see with startling clarity how incredibly assured and knowing and optimistic and hopeful Sixth Form students were, even when they were making claims that should be disputed and qualified. It’s a relief to realise that the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. And that’s OK. “The truth is rarely pure and never simple” declared Algernon in Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest and, though witty, it is a truth that gets truer as time goes by.
Then and Now.... older but not much wiser....