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.