Lest we forget: A.N.Z.A.C. Day 2019


New Zealand graves at Polygon Wood, Belgium. R. GLENNIE

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon

My visit to Belgium last year had three aims. See some of its rich history, test drive some of their superb craft beer and chocolate and visit some of the more notable war graves and memorials to the madness that was World War 1.

Polygon Wood war cemetery was basking in sunshine when I visited it in September 2018. A beautiful clear autumn day in a peaceful wooded setting with nicely maintained grounds, a far sight from the horribly mangled place that it would have been at the end of 1918 with nary a tree in sight, shell holes half full of ground water with rotting human bodies, bits of uniform, guns, unexploded ordnance and other detritus. So toxic I imagine, that it would not have been fit for even the hardiest biological organism.

When I remember those famous words from Binyon this year and in years coming, I will also remember them for the German soldiers who were just following orders just like ours. I will remember them because those Germans probably no more wanted to be in the war than I suspect any of the others – looking for ways to legitimately “catch a blighty” (be wounded enough to be sent home)was common. With little or no understanding of the horrendous mental toll that living in trenches with inches deep mud, being shelled incessant whilst dreading the whistle that would send everyone over the top in far too many cases for the final time, those who had gone mad were dispatched by a gun shot.

I remember them because as Paul Ham, in his book Passchendaele: A requiem for a doomed youth makes clear, the disgruntlement with a stupid war where no progress seemed to be getting made, by the end of 1917, both the German and British civil populations loathed the war. A war where the youngest British soldier was just 13 and the oldest was 68; where the first British soldier to die, died just 200 metres from where the last British soldier died. The French had nearly mutinied after the blood bath at Verdun the previous year, causing their commanders to effectively withdraw the French military from the war for a year.

What is not so well known is what caused the Germans to suddenly surrender. It was rumoured that after more than a year effectively in dock, the German high seas fleet was finally ready to put to sea again. Except that there was a problem. When the fatal Battle of Jutland occurred in 1916, the German navy had not seen much action and there was some excitement about the prospect of finally fighting. Fast forward two very bloody years on the Western Front, a civil population sick of the huge losses, the nearly universal shortages of just about everything and no end in sight, the German navy had lost the will to fight. Mutiny set in at the naval bases and spread like wildfire. On 8 November 1918, the Kaiser abdicated. Three days later in a train carriage at Compiegne an Armistice was signed.

Nearly 100 years later I visited a museum at Zonnebeke where we could see a collection of defused shells and it was explained to us what their individual purpose was – each colour marking meant a different use. Some were gas shells that would explode and release poison gas. Some were made for piercing the concrete of bunkers and still more were made as incendiary or high explosive shells. The range of uses that were found was impressively depressing. German, British and French shells were all well represented among them.

As I wandered among the many graves – New Zealand, Canadian, Australian, French, German, British, Belgian, South African, Indian and those of others – I thought about where the consequences of World War 1 have taken us in the 100 years since. I thought about the social cost, the several quantum leaps our ability to kill each other has taken, and about how much (or how little) our politicians seem to have learnt from it. When they advocate for war, I think of the millions of young men sent to their deaths all for a war that history is by no means certain about the purpose of.

Those young men never had a voice, but my generation and future generations hopefully do. Binyon’s words are for them too. As a reminder.

The annual chocolate shortage (Easter)


Every Easter on the Sunday there is a temporary spike in the collective weight of the humans living in New Zealand. It stems from the massive annual splurge on chcolate treats that comes with Him having risen from the Cross 2000+ years ago. Except that I am quite sure 2000+ years ago when Jesus was nailed to the Cross, no one could have had the foggiest clue that it would be acknowledged as much by the dollar as by the Christians around the world.

So, enjoy your chocolate overdose tomorrow. I am sure it will be fun and that many of you will go to bed wondering whether that was such a grand idea after all, yet already thinking about how you can make 2020 even better. I will not be one of these many people – unfortunately I do not see Whittakers making easter eggs or other Easter related chocolate treats, and I have sworn off Cadbury and anyone else who uses palm oil. And at  the end of the day to me, Easter has become one vast commercial con where the dollars speak louder than the meaning of it.

Reflections on the purpose of Waitangi Day


On 06 February 1840, British Commodore James Hobson, in a tent at the village of Waitangi in Northland, signed the Treaty of Waitangi with Maori tribes (Iwi) from around Aotearoa. Thus Aotearoa became New Zealand. 179 years later, as politicians converge for another Waitangi Day commemoration, I have been contemplating a what the day means to New Zealanders. And I have been wondering in particular what it means to those New Zealanders who were not born here, particularly those from countries with little or no British influence and might not understand “Britannia” in a historical context or Te Tiriti O Waitangi.

There are 365 days in a year, and the day most likely to draw Te Tiriti O Waitangi protests is – inevitably – going to be Waitangi Day. And this has me wondering what our ethnic communities think of Waitangi Day, what significance it holds to them as New Zealanders. Do they see the protests and get put off; is it just not relevant to them – and if it is not, what day on the New Zealand calendar IS important to them?

I think this is a conversation we as a nation need to have. New Zealand is more than a bicultural nation now – to call it bicultural would be to undercut the significant and ongoing contributions of communities of people from Pasifika, Latin American, African, European, north American, Middle Eastern, Asian nations.

Next week for example is the Chinese New Year. I have a colleague from China who brought dumplings in on New Years Day, which were delicious. And I have been invited to and had to very sadly decline an invite to attend Chinese New Year celebrations hosted by friends this Wednesday coming.

Others of you will have been invited to attend Diwali festivals and other cultural events of significance to particular nations, which have all looked great in the photos on Facebook. Others of you will have celebrated the national day of the country you are from.

I look at these and wonder what a single unifying day for New Zealand could be.

As New Zealanders we come together on A.N.Z.A.C. Day to commemorate our war time sacrifices. But A.N.Z.A.C. Day is not a day of celebration of who we are. It is a deliberately solemn day on the calendar to recognize some truly horrible sacrifices and hope that we learnt the lessons from them. Yet, this is the day of the year we seem to be closest to each other.

It also makes me ask questions about whether new comers to New Zealand are taught enough about us. We cannot blame them for any ignorance they might have if we don’t first teach them!

But how much do these communities know about Te Tiriti O Waitangi? Are we as the nation that these people are settling in doing enough to make them aware of our national day, and for that matter, given the beautiful kaleideoscope of diversity that we now have, can Waitangi Day actually be called a day for ALL New Zealanders?

I personally am starting to lean towards making Matariki a big thing on our calendar. There is nothing political about the Maori New Year – it is solely based on the Pleiades, a cluster of stars which appear in June. Waitangi Day is a day to acknowledge our past and the fact that we still have work to do, but Matariki could be a day to have all New Zealanders of all walks of life, ethnicities and so forth come together and celebrate all that is good and great about New Zealand.

What does Christmas mean to you?


What does Christmas mean to you?

To me Christmas is a time for family. It is a time for family to come together and celebrate being themselves, being part of a larger family unit. It is time to relax and unwind after a busy year, let ones hair down and have a good time.

I despise the commercialism of Christmas. I despise the insanity that is putting decorations up at the start of October in shopping malls, and all the fakery about being excited about Santa coming. I despise the horrible poppy versions of Christmas carols that get played ad infinitum on the P.A. system in shopping centre. Despite protestations to the contrary, all of this is all about $$. It is not about community, not about family, not about building a better world.

When I was working at Pak N’ Save, I despised Christmas and so did many of the other staff. It was a time of incredible pressure at work – do this; do that; can you do some extra hours – with grumpy customers, tantrum throwing children (and sometimes adults), harried staff and not a word of thanks from management. If the weather was bad and the fire alarm goes off in pouring rain, it was a chance to see people at their worst, which was perversely fascinating in some respects.

I deliberately write this with a bit less than three weeks to go before Christmas, accepting that from now until and including 24 December, I’ll be subjected to an increasing societal frenzy often known as the “Silly Season”, as opposed to the “Season to be Jolly”. This is the season of increasingly irrational people driven by all sorts of pressures. This is the season of people doing silly things, a spike of family violence issues.

It might also be the “Sad Season” because of a nearly annual spike in people being laid off – I cannot remember a year unfortunately in recent times when I did not hear about staff redundancies somewhere.

Or perhaps the “Desperate Season” where people are struggling to support themselves, yet feel the need to somehow appear jolly and be like they are having a great Christmas. There is no hiding the fact that for many people Christmas is simply an unaffordable time of year. It is supported by the large number of people and double income couples needing food parcels because rent and other basic costs drain the bank account as soon as the latest pay cheque arrives.

The Silly Season is also punctuated by staff Christmas parties where people let their hair down, and/or Christmas dinners which are more civilized/more restrained and everyone is on their best behaviour – supposedly. With the exception of one, mine have all been great. Unfortunately most years cannot seem to go by without hearing through the media of at least one Christmas function, normally the informal Christmas party, going awry, and of the consequences that followed.

Do I sound pessimistic? Yes. I try to be positive, but thus far, I have already seen most of the above symptoms being played out in public or heard about them through the social grapevine. Obviously I hope that nothing else in a negative way will happen, especially with all that is going on around the world. And it is in times like these that I have been inspired by stories of hope from some of the grimmest, bloodiest, muddiest times in the last 200 years – like the German and British soldiers who simply refused to fight on Christmas Day 1914 and played soccer, smoked cigarettes and let the other side clear their dead from the front.

I hope your period leading up to Christmas is okay and that you get everything you need to done without too much hassle. I hope none of you hear about anyone who has lost their jobs.

And when it is all over, enjoy the break until we have to go through the motions all over again next year.

Halloween is a non Kiwi rort: celebrate Matariki instead


Each year at the end of October I see people getting dressed up in all things spooky. I see pubs throwing parties to celebrate the end of a harvest on the other side of the equator. And I wonder for a moment just how many of the people celebrating it stopped to think about its (ir)relevancy to New Zealand.

Halloween to me is about as Kiwi to me as A.N.Z.A.C. Day or Waitangi Day is to an American. Its relevancy to myself is no better. I do not recognize it in any shape or form as a New Zealand festive occasion and thus have no problem putting a sign on the gate saying “No Halloween” or similar.

And when people mention Halloween, they say “celebrate Halloween” like it is supposed to be some sort of festive occasion. That in itself raises another point that I would like to address. The crescendo that builds up around Halloween to me is a dress rehearsal for that other big commercial con: Christmas, with its endless advertizing, excessive decorations of shopping malls. I look at the all the expensive gifts people get for family and the effort that goes into having a big family feast on a day that for many families is quite stressful and I sympathize with them – I honestly could not give a stuff about Christmas.

Maybe I come across as a grinch. Whoop de doo. Once upon a time Christmas might have been a family time, but now there is just too much money involved. I don’t so much look forward to Christmas as I look forward to the holiday period AFTER Christmas. There are times to celebrate, and seeing out the year/ushering in the new one I think is a credible one irrespective of culture or nationality. Which is why I am not so grinchy as my put downs of Christmas and Halloween might suggest.

We have Matariki, the Maori New Year in June – lets celebrate it. Lets have our fireworks displays then instead of on Guy Fawkes; a big public hangi with pavlova for dessert. Let’s spend the week in the lead up to it learning about the Pleiades and the Southern Cross. This can be our opportunity to bring all New Zealanders together our being. Lets make this as Kiwi as.

Sure it might be June. Sure it might be getting into the coldest and wettest part of the New Zealand annual calendar. We can combine it with the interlude that the Super Rugby has on so we can all cheer the All Blacks as they begin their rugby season. If we can agree on a public holiday for Matariki, then I have the perfect one for it to replace:

Queens Birthday Weekend. This is to the best of my knowledge not really celebrated or recognized by most New Zealanders as anything other than a day off work. It lacks any particular meaning – we do not come together like we do on A.N.Z.A.C. Day to pay our respects. We do not acknowledge it in the way we celebrate our respective provincial days. It is just a day off.

Would the politicians be up for having a truly unifying New Zealand day where we can celebrate all that is good and great about Aotearoa/New Zealand? I would.