It hardly seems possible, but 1965 was 50 years ago, and I have connections with 30/1/65 (other, of course, than being so very young on that date). It was Sir Winston Churchill's funeral, and I remember it clearly. Not because I was especially knowledgeable, then, about who he was, and certainly not because I even saw the funeral on TV - we were away on our family summer holiday, staying in a caravan at Kaiteriteri camp ground at the top of the South Island and, to be frank, the main event for me of that stay was falling out of the top bunk in my sleep and injuring my arm. (Not that there was any possibility of my visiting a doctor, let alone the hospital: a former-nurse mother and family tradition of frugality saw to that. "Probably just a greenstick fracture," she sniffed; and a day in a home-made sling was the sum total of my treatment.)
No, what really struck me then was hearing on the radio that there would be a 90-gun salute in England to mark the event, one shot a minute: ridiculously young as I then was, I could still work out that that meant they would be firing the cannons for a whole hour and a half, and I was astonished. Of course, any visitor to England is hard put not to rub up against the great man in one way or another: his hulking statue near the Houses of Parliament; the unexpected maroon velvet jumpsuit he favoured while taking shelter in the underground bunker of the War Rooms in Westminster; the display of his childish auburn curls and letters home from boarding school displayed at Blenheim Palace near Woodstock ("Papa, I will take your advice about the cigars and don't think I shall often smoke more than one or two a day"); his unpretentious grave at Bladon nearby.
I've been to all those places and understand the respect, and feel it myself of course - but, as a New Zealander, not quite as whole-heartedly as the Brits. There's a one-word explanation: Gallipoli. It was a disastrous campaign, responsible for the carnage of cannon-fire Kiwi and Aussie soldiers beginning on April 25 coming up to twice as long ago - 1915 - and whose idea was it? None other than Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. Not his finest hour (although as we all know his reputation was more than redeemed during WW2) and he was sacked from the war cabinet for it.
Naturally, it's not as black and white as that, and he was right to see the importance of trying to bail out the Russians by the only route possible; but from the Anzac perspective the predominant colour is poppy-red, and when I'm at the centenary in Turkey this year I doubt there'll be many apologists for Winston there.
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
I was struck, though, by how neat and tidy it was, by the row of young poplar trees in front of the buildings, how well-maintained it all seemed. Perhaps it's a mark of respect by the Germans, who to their credit keep this shameful part of their history open to everyone, for free - or perhaps it was always like that, a kind of orderly balance to the nightmarish things that went on there. It's true that there was a kind of disconnect that went on, men doing hideous things and then going home to their wives and children, living normal family lives.
So visiting Auschwitz, and Budapest's House of Terror, and Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, which I have, and so many other similar places in Cambodia, Africa, Russia and elsewhere, which I haven't, is necessary. Travel shouldn't just be about good times, it should always be about learning, and understanding, and remembering. That's why they say it broadens the mind - and, if nothing else, the Holocaust came about because of narrow, blinkered thinking.
Friday, January 23, 2015
It feels like a risky, non-PC and narrow-minded thing to say but, to be brutally honest, the Chinese are not my favourite tourists. Quite simply, they don't know how to behave. They're loud, pushy, ill-disciplined, have some very unfortunate personal habits, go around in large groups, and often seem to be taking small interest in the places that they're spoiling for everyone else. They remind me a bit of how the Japanese used to be when they first started travelling back in the '70s: in groups, pouring off buses to take photos of each other in front of various sights, climbing back on board again, and falling straight asleep. I still remember vividly being sent staggering off that flagstone in the middle of St Peter's Square in Vatican City from where all the columns around the outside line up. That group of excitably chattering Japanese tourists never even noticed that I was there first.
But since then they have become much more sophisticated, braver, more independent and perfectly considerate tourists. They have learned. Will the Chinese do the same? Perhaps, eventually - but there are so many more of them, newly affluent, to be making their first thrilling forays overseas that it will take a very long time for the message to spread about personal space, personal hygiene, queuing and so on. In the meantime, we'll have to put up with being crowded out and shouted down, and will have to watch where we put our feet. Such a shame, when you're in a place like Queenstown, which is all about gazing awestruck around you.
Thursday, January 22, 2015
I love ziplines. What's not to enjoy? You whizz through the air, high above the tree tops, usually with a pretty spectacular view if you ever were undistracted enough to appreciate it, and finish with an exciting swing - and it's all as safe as houses. If the crabby homeowners in the quarry ever got over themselves enough to have a go, they would understand the delight; but, sadly, that's not going to happen.
The first non-playground one I ever did was at the end of the high ropes experience at Outward Bound, which our group did at night for extra thrills. (That was an excitement too far for one member of our watch who, having been shown the rope course earlier that afternoon, decided discretion was the better part of valour, and quietly opted out of the entire OB experience, hitch-hiking from Anakiwa back to Nelson. He was a reporter there to write a story about it for the Nelson Mail - I've wondered ever since what he told his editor.) High ropes are all about teetering and inching, so when we got to the end of that sweaty business and were able to sit on the T-bar and zoom through the darkness between the trees, it was a glorious release.
Then there was the one in Queenstown, which is the fastest way back to town from the top of Bob's Peak. The company running it has an eco-conscience, and while moving between the six different ziplines the punters are told about environmental concerns and introduced to the idea of Kiva loans to small businesses in third-world countries, so yay for them. But honestly, you're there for the thrills, and Ziptrek doesn't disappoint. The views over Lake Wakatipu are fabulous but entirely wasted because it's just so much fun to hear that whine from the runners as you skim down the slope to the next platform. There's just nothing like that moment when you launch yourself into nothingness.
They have another operation on Waiheke Island, too, which has fewer lines but one of them is really steep and long, and gives you a great rush, literally. Afterwards there's a gentle and pretty climb back up through the bush, so nobody at the top waiting to go is put off by any wild-eyed gibbering from previous punters.
Waitomo is where everybody goes to sit in a boat and be rowed through the caves to look at the glow-worms, which is has been appealing to tourists for over 100 years now, but it's very sedate. Much more brag-worthy is to abseil 35 metres down into Ruakuri Cave there, walk through absolute pitch darkness with a headlight illuminating the 'tites and 'mites, and then zipline through them with your light out for what feels like five minutes (but isn't). Very cool! And there are giant cave wetas to follow, too.
Ketchikan in Alaska, where the point of difference (apart from eagles circling not very far overhead, and the chance of spotting bears way down below at the bottom of the trees) was that the platforms between the eight lines had no railings. It was all perfectly safe, we were harnessed up and attached at all times, but it did add to the buzz, being able to peer straight over the side from near the top of tall spruce and hemlock trees. There were three swing bridges to sway over too, between platforms. Good fun!
Not that those kids in the quarry playground will ever get a taste for it. Shame.
Friday, January 16, 2015
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
But the whole free speech thing is not so black and white. Should everyone be free to say whatever they like? There are limits everywhere to what's acceptable. Last year in the UK, the US, Australia, here and no doubt many other countries, high profile people who offended various members of society by speaking their minds found themselves having to make public apologies and even resigning. The hip hop group Odd Future wasn't allowed into NZ because some of their lyrics were considered incitements to rape and violence. Personally, I'm happy that they were kept out - but how does that fit with free speech and artistic licence? It simply doesn't exist in the pure form that everybody, even the sainted George Clooney, has been claiming as an inviolable right.
If I had been in Paris, I would have carried a 'Je suis Charlie' poster, but not because I endorse the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which from what I've seen are pretty crude, unfunny and deliberately provocative; or The Interview, which looks like a double-B and would never have got studio backing if it had been about a Western leader being assassinated. For me the poster would have been shorthand for something much more complicated and fuzzy and even contradictory, about free speech and prudence, about tolerance of beliefs and the stupidity of religion, about understanding and despising radicalisation, about condemning both hypocritical provocation and its violent reaction. Maybe my poster should have read 'Oui. Mais...'
Monday, January 5, 2015
Since I always seem to be travelling in October when the run-up begins, I often buy tree decorations instead of more regular souvenirs. That means that every December I get to remember all the places I've been not just this year but previously too, and it's fun to see both the similarities and the differences in the style and design. I've blogged about that before though, so this time I'm coming at it from the opposite angle: will I be going there this year?
But, so far, Turkey is the only certain destination in 2015, for the Gallipoli centenary, the main event in a two-week tour of the country. Even if there won't be any Christmas decorations for sale there in April, there's no danger that this time next year I'll need a memory-jogger for that trip. It's going to be epic.
Sunday, January 4, 2015
But the holidays are over now and all last night's boats are gone, the bay left empty so there were just us residents and bach-dwellers left to enjoy the sunset. Except of course that they'll be back at the weekend, and some people don't go back to work quite yet, and the school holidays still have nearly three weeks to run, and then there's Anniversary Day, and Waitangi Day...