Monday, March 18, 2019

After Christchurch: what I think


I grew up in Christchurch. I’m old, so it was through the 1960s and ‘70s. It was a very white, monocultural city then. I remember, when I was about 14, being so delighted and astonished to hear a couple (of tourists) speaking French as they walked along Colombo Street and through the Square, that I followed them closely, shamelessly eavesdropping on a language I’d just started to learn, thrilled and amazed to hear it being used so casually.

I was at least fortunate to go to Avonside Girls’ High where our roll included students from all over the country who attended Te Wai Pounamu girls’ boarding college. So we had a strong Maori presence at school, which was unusual for Christchurch; and I was a member of the Maori Club, learning action and poi songs, which I can still sing along to now.

But that was the limit, as far as non-English cultural contact went. It was only the sainted OE that brought me into contact with other nationalities and ethnicities – starting with my first taste of Parmesan cheese, in an Italian restaurant in Sydney, in 1973. I’ve come a long way since then.

Now I’ve been fortunate to have travelled to every continent, and been in contact with most major ethnic groups, as well as some very small ones. It’s been fascinating and enlightening, surprising and rewarding, mind-opening - and reassuring. Because of course I’ve discovered that everyone, all over the world, is pretty much the same.

The clothes, customs, religion, architecture and superficial appearances differ, and thank goodness for that. I remember the Blue Mink song that came out in 1970, ‘Melting Pot’, which said “What we need is a great big melting pot… turning out coffee-coloured people by the score” and at the time I thought how that would solve so many problems.

Now, though, I think how boring that would be. Not the brown people bit – to be honest, I think mixed-race people are the most attractive of all of us – but the cultural amalgamation that’s implied. It’s the differences that make the world interesting, worth travelling to witness, our own domestic lives richer when those cultures are brought into our own country.

I love that New Zealand is now one of the most ethnically diverse in the world. I enjoy going to a coffee shop and hearing lots of different languages being spoken as we all enjoy our flat whites. I like seeing saris and the hijab and lavalava being worn around the streets. I think it’s great that kids at primary school learn everybody’s different greetings and important days.

And I hate those who want to get rid of it all, to go back in time to when we were so limited, and our lives so narrow and pale and dull. I hate their ill-founded self-importance, their bigotry, their self-deluded sense of superiority, their retrogression, their ignorance. I’m sorry that their lives are so impoverished – but I’m glad that they are in the minority and that they will be pushed aside, and they will not get their way. We are moving on towards our rich, colourful future, and they will be left behind. No-one will miss them.

Guns and roses

Both have been selling fast over the weekend. Florists have run out of stock as people have poured in wanting flowers to place at the various sites of remembrance around the country, mostly outside local mosques. The most prominent site nationally is along the railings of the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, on the other side of Hagley Park from the Al Noor mosque where most people died - 50 of them now, since the discovery of another body as the police sorted through what must have been a scene of ghastly chaos. 

And, disappointingly, guns have also been being snapped up as people rush to get in before the laws are tightened here about registration and licensing, and semi-automatics are banned. (Apparently the machine guns are claimed to be necessary by hunters culling wild goats. Since I've never heard of massive herds of goats here needing to be mown down, to me that suggests a lack of skill in the hunter, who needs a stream of bullets to be sure of hitting individual goats. Case closed.)


The flowers outnumber the guns, though. Let's keep it that way.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

15/3 = 9/11

I really believe that's not an exaggeration. Yesterday was New Zealand's 9/11 - the same scale (somebody has calculated that 49 out of a population of 4.5 million equates to almost 3,000 in a population the size of the US), the same sudden shock, the same feeling of violation from outside, the same loss of a sense of security - and innocence.

Today we woke up to the realisation that our physical isolation is no longer a protection; that the world is so closely linked now that ideas and connections are just a couple of clicks away. And that the confidence and support that social media now give to idiots who can only hold one idea in their heads, can lead to events that affect everybody else, forever after.

The white supremacist bigot who killed 49 people in two Christchurch mosques yesterday (he was the only shooter) has appeared in court, accused of murder. Our news media pixelated him by order, but I don't want to see his smug, stupid face anyway. He will, in due course, have the entire book thrown at him and, I hope, be deported back to Australia so we taxpayers don't have to fund him.

The families and friends of the victims are anxious and frustrated because many of the bodies are still lying in the mosques, unidentified - and unidentifiable, easily, because Muslims put aside their phones and wallets etc when they are praying - and already well outside the traditional 24 hours from death to burial. The media have been full of stories about close escapes, rescues and deaths; bravery, sorrow and horror. Sites all around the country are filling with flowers, drawings and messages of comfort and solidarity. There have been vigils. 

The shock is fading. Now it's all about sympathy for those who are grieving, anger at the perpetrator, and deep depression that we have now joined the rest of the world in losing a big part of what we love about our country: its safety. When we travel overseas, we're always aware in the big cities of what's happened there before, and could happen again - and it's always a relief to get home. Right now it's hard to feel that we'll ever get back to that in quite the same way.

We're also starting to question things: about the racists and white supremacists in our country, the gaps in surveillance, our gun laws. One heartening thing is that our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has been getting everything right so far, being human and one of us, and responsible and determined that this will not happen again, and saddened that the people who died, many of whom had fled their own countries to come here, should have been safe, and weren't. I did enjoy her response to Trump:  "He asked what offer of support the United States could provide. My message was: 'Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities'."

Already, semi-automatic rifles are to be banned. I'm hopeful that more measures will follow swiftly to make something like this much harder to happen again. But mainly, I just feel depressed.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Kia kaha, New Zealand

Shit. I never wanted to be right about this. 

This afternoon a scumbag armed himself up with an illegal semi-automatic rifle and shot dead 41 people - men, women and small children - in a mosque on one side of Christchurch, while an associate killed seven in another mosque a few kilometres away. Currently there are 48 people in hospital with gunshot wounds, one of whom has died. So today 49 people were killed while peacefully going to Friday prayers. In Christchurch. In New Zealand. By terrorism.

I've written so often in this blog about places I've been to that have suddenly been all over the news because of mass shootings - no need to list them, you know them as well as I do - and I've said more than once, with no smugness, but unease, that if terrorists really wanted everyone in the world to feel afraid, they should stage an attack in New Zealand, because that would prove that nowhere is safe. And that's exactly what's happened - the greatest ever loss of life here not caused by a natural disaster.

The perpetrator, whose name we all know but no-one is using, was all over Facebook with a 37-page manifesto in which he said just what I did. He'd come here FROM AUSTRALIA to plan and prepare his attack, and it was only then that he realised we would be the ideal target, for exactly that reason. Our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, put it very well this evening: 


"We, New Zealand, we were not a target because we are a safe harbour for those who hate.
We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, or because we are an enclave for extremism.
We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of those things.
Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion. A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who need it. And those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack.
We are a proud nation of more than 200 ethnicities, 160 languages. And amongst that diversity we share common values. And the one that we place the currency on right now is our compassion and support for the community of those directly affected by this tragedy.
And secondly, the strongest possible condemnation of the ideology of the people who did this.
You may have chosen us – we utterly reject and condemn you."

And you know what makes it even worse, if that's possible? That he chose to stage his attack in Christchurch. Just eight years after massive earthquakes wrecked the city and the lives of its people, who are still struggling with the aftermath, physical and mental. Poor, battered, brave Christchurch. My home town. 
Bastard.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Taranaki 3 - Birds and MAMILS

With thanks to Venture Taranaki for hosting me
I don't know, MAMILs, they're everywhere, but when you want one, can he help? No, he can't. Not this morning, anyway, as I was just setting out on my bike ride along the Coastal Walkway to the Insta-famous Te Rewa Rewa Bridge. I'm from Christchurch, you see: flat city, so bike gears always flummox me, and this morning I managed to seize them up so the pedals wouldn't, er, pedal. So, failed by the MAMIL - actually, more of an OMIL - I flagged down, I had to wheel the bike back ignominiously to the hotel and take another.
Anyway, that aside, it was a splendid thing to be doing on a clear, warm, sunny morning - and lots of others had the same idea. Cyclists, walkers, runners, with or without dogs and/or kids, they were all out there appreciating the sparkling sea, the white foam on the black sand, the Sugar Loaf islands and, of course, glimpses of The Mountain which, in Taranaki, is always there, peeping or looming. People were friendly, smiling and greeting me, and it was all just lovely. And the bridge, when I got there, didn't disappoint: freshly painted white, it was as artfully sculptural as it looks in all the photos, and make a perfect frame for the mountain. 
I already had my eye in, art-wise, after having a guided tour of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Len Lye Centre. It's a real mouthful, that - but the building itself is a marvel, all wavy stainless steel walls, reflecting and distorting. And inside is a regularly-changed display of Len Lye's kinetic artwork, which is mesmerisingly lovely and fascinating, and impossible to photograph. Plus, of course, in the art gallery, there was the usual arty-farty stuff that I always secretly suspect to be an elaborate con-type joke. I mean, a dark room full of black Venetian blinds hanging from the ceiling, scented with wildflowers and gunpowder?
Much more to my literal tastes was the Brie and sausage tartine that I bought from a Frenchman at a container café on the way back, and shared with a bunch of sparrows (only the bread base - the topping was too good for the likes of them).
Then I headed for Pukekura Gardens, near the centre of town, which are famous for their being lit up at night. Also for being the main venue during WOMAD, which is about to start, so some of the grounds were closed off. Never mind: I had a pleasant stroll around, under huge trees and ferns, past the azaleas and rhododendrons that grow so well here, and the traditional Tea House, and the big fountain that I set off by pressing a button. I walked around the lake with its ducks and swan, and crossed the Poet's Bridge - which is not as poetic as it sounds: it was funded with the winnings from a horse race won by The Poet.
Next I went back into town and flitted round Puke Ariki, which is the museum/library complex here: modern, well-presented and not too guilt-inducing for those of us with inadequate time/energy/eyesight. There was a nice little section on Taranaki ingenuity, which has led amongst other things to mechanised hedge trimmers, NZ's first purpose-designed farm bike, a device for practising brass instruments quietly, a mobile TB unit, and a no-dig hangi. I also learned, a little disquietingly, that Mt Taranaki has had numerous eruptions over the last several hundred thousand years, each time collapsing some time afterwards. The last time it blew was 250 years ago - I wonder if another collapse is on the cards?
And then my Taranaki visit was over - though I will happily return, there's lots more to see and do. Besides, I've got that damned mountain under my skin now, just like a local.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Taranaki 2 - Cicadas, surf , shiny cars and cycles

With thanks to Venture Taranaki for hosting me
There's nothing like waking up halfway up a mountain with plains stretching out to the hazy horizon all around you, and the super-sharp peak of a volcano looming right above your head. So I set off before breakfast for a walk past, first of all, Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge's own little power station, which sits over a gushing mountain stream and provides the lodge with a literal source of super-cheap DC power. 
It's the oldest continuously-active power station in the country (when a superlative needs a conditional clause, it's hard to be as impressed as people would like you to be, I find). More impressive to my mind was the fact that at the lodge they use it for the 'under-bed heaters' which are apparently much more efficient than your common-or-garden electric blanket. But never plug your electronica into a DC power socket, people! Despair will result.
Anyway, it was a lovely walk through the goblin forest, as they like to call it here: trees stunted by the cold and wind, growing hunched and small, and hung with moss. It was busy with birds - and had been even busier with spiders, I discovered, as the cobwebs broke continuously across my face. Miss-Haversham-wedding-cake scenario, honest.
But the falls were pretty, and it was a lovely start to the day to be out there in nature and breathing that pure air. After breakfast I was back in the car for the winding road back down the mountain, heading for Hawera, a typical little country town with a sprawl of undistinguished suburbs around a neat centre featuring some officiously sturdy pedimented buildings - banks and their ilk - from early last century. Prime amongst them is the Water Tower, which was built in 1914 to stop the place from keeping on getting burnt down. It's concrete, but not ugly, and from the top of its 215 steps you get a grand view of, well, the mountain, of course.
My next visit was to be to an Elvis Presley Museum, run by an enthusiast in his home - but he was away at a sports event so, though it would have been useful story material, at least I was spared the effort of having to pretend to be a fan of The King. I'm too young!
Instead, I set off along SH45, the Surf Highway, along the coast and through a succession of little towns focused on their beaches - black sand affairs between high cliffs, with even today fairly big waves rolling in. The Surf Life Savers Clubs are very active here, and their red and yellow flags were easy to spot. As it's a Sunday, there were people everywhere, swimming and surfing, riding horses along the beach, fishing, playing with kids and dogs, and just chilling (actually, the opposite) on the hot sparkly sand. Ohawe, Manaia, Opunake, Oakura... all worth a little look.
The main thing on this drive though, was the looming presence of the mountain over my right shoulder - foregrounded by lumpy no doubt volcano-related little hills, or rolling green paddocks dotted with sheep and cows, or fields of maize almost ready to harvest, or artily framed by flax flower spikes. It was always there, a magnet, asking to be admired and photographed. Very distracting. I wonder if the locals ever get to the stage of ignoring it? But it always will look different, according to the snow, or cloud, or just the light generally.
I drove through New Plymouth to fill in a gap from yesterday, dutifully turning up to the Hillsborough Museum, which is a shrine to the Holden car. Inside a big shed are 44 different models, from the first 1949 car that looks just like a larger scale Morris 8, right through to the last one to come here from Australia, in 2017. That was a dark day, according to the museum's owner and obsessive, Steve. He owns all but 8 of them. Some of them - 8, again - have never been driven. Occasionally they get an outing to a show, where it's all about how pristine they are, but otherwise they're tucked behind their ropes inside the shed, safe from stone chips and (horrors!) even worse.
Honestly, I would have had more fun at the mini-golf course there, which looked inventive and challenging, but even I admit that would have appeared more than a bit eccentric, on my own. Instead, I headed off to Pukeiti Gardens, which I thought were in town and spent ages deeply mistrusting the GPS - but it turned out I was thinking of Pukekura. Pukeiti is a scenic reserve near the mountain with a garden in the middle: winding paths under big trees, lots of massive, and lesser, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, ferns, birds and cicadas, a tumbling mountain stream, and a fancy new Rainforest Centre with elevated metal walkways and lookouts. Nice.
Then I headed back into town, to stay at the King & Queen where they were expecting me, yay, and I had a very comfortable room. It's not far from the Coastal Walkway, where I went to catch the Golden Hour, the wet rocks shining in the low sun, Len Lye's 45m fibre glass Wind Wand waving gently in the breeze, and lots of people strolling, cycling and feeding little fish in a stream. All very Sunday evening. Again, nice.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Taranaki 1 - Clockwise round the mountain

With thanks to Venture Taranaki for hosting me
It's only a half-hour flight from Auckland to New Plymouth, so I could have got a really good start on this weekend's jaunt - if only the first ferry of the day on a Saturday left at 6am, as usual, and not 7am. So instead I arrived in Taranaki (never, I was soon to learn, to be referred to as the 'Naki) at midday. It was a glorious clear day and Mt Taranaki, that fabulously symmetrical Fujiyama lookalike, was clear and sharp against an almost cloudless blue sky.
Having started in thrall to natural beauty, it felt especially perverse to go, as the first item in my itinerary (of course, I am here for work), to look at thousands of dead animals. But yes, that is what Manutahi Museum is: a celebration of the taxidermist's skill. John, who owns the collection, is a fanatic but not a trophy hunter - he is as aware of looming extinction as anyone and, since these animals have already been killed and mounted (many years ago, most of them) he just wants them to be cared for and admired and kept as a kind of memorial. For me it was at first quite confronting and uncomfortable, especially since he has not only a white rhino head on the wall but a black rhino too, and you, dear regular reader 😀 know my rhino connection. I can see his point, though. The rhinos, by the way, you poachers out there, have had their horns removed long ago and replaced with fibreglass. So don't bother breaking in.
John's enthusiasm is a marvel in itself, and his intimate knowledge of each of the animals preserved there is astonishing: he just reels off the names and statistics, without hesitation. There's a huge polar bear, a lion, a zebra, warthog, black bear, reindeer and masses of mounted birds (his speciality) plus scored of various types of deer and antelope from all over the world. There are stuffed possums and foxes and jackals and a cheetah. There's a bison, scores of varied antlers and horns (again, no rhino - or ivory), bulls, an African wild dog, a dingo, possum, two-headed lamb, and a plastic dish of baby rats preserved in methylated spirits. Plus tarantulas and other spiders and insects, fish, shells, eggs, fossils, rocks... Astonishing, truly. Oh, by the way, though John wouldn't dream of killing these animals, he does make an exception for wild pigs and deer, the shooting of which he refers to as a "meat recovery mission". Fair enough, i suppose. No native species in his collection, incidentally - it's not allowed, even if he finds a dead bird on the road.
It was still a relief to emerge into the sunshine again. My next mission was to drive the Forgotten World Highway to Whangamomona - which did turn out to be a mission, truly. My hire car was a neat little Corolla, but even so, on that narrow road that constantly wound up, and then down again, it took a lot of attention - attention that was equally constantly being enticed away from the road by the scenery. The mountain was initially in every view but eventually sank away out of sight, leaving enticing views into valleys, across farmland and volcanic lumpy bits, some neatly grazed and golden, some bushy and green. There were saddles to cross, a railway to follow, sheep and cows and horses, and, with the windows open, cicadas and birds to hear as I wound my way through the hills. It was gorgeous, really. And - thankfully - no traffic!
Then I got to Whangamomona, population 20, which is self-consciously quirky, having declared itself a republic within NZ and occasionally electing a sheep as its president. You can buy a passport to have stamped at the pub. It's a bit of fun I suppose, but the French girl behind the bar didn't have her heart in it so it fell a bit flat really. Oh well, it's a tick.
And then I drove all the way back again, seduced by the Golden Hour gilding everything I looked at, and up into the huge perfect circle of bush that surrounds the mountain. There was yet more winding until I got to Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge, which is meant to have a Swiss cottage feel to its rooms. I can't vouch for that because when I went to check in they said "Um, who are you again?" Turns out the manager got the booking confirmation email from Venture Taranaki, but didn't get around to putting it into the system. And the hotel was full. But his nice wife Bernie (he, notably, didn't show his face to me at any point during my stay) offered me a staff bedroom, which was perfectly fine if not at all fancy and definitely not Swiss. All's well that ends well, eh? Especially because they do a mean sticky date pudding there, with lashings of butterscotch sauce.

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