20 January 2008

Endangered Species

January 13, 2008

Mr Ed

Sir Edmund Hillary died on Friday. There has been wall-to-wall coverage on the wireless and this is how just one of the local weekend papers recorded his death.

New Zealand is a small town of a country, where six degrees of separation are unnecessary because usually one is more than enough. I never knew “Ed” but two journalist friends who became mates of his have been widely quoted over the weekend (one saying that Ed was occasionally depressed about the way New Zealand was going, but the success of The Lord of the Rings made him think we might be alright, after all).

There has simply been nobody in our short post-colonial history that has won and kept the respect and love of the public to the same extent. We were taught the legend of Ed with our mother’s full-cream milk. For 15 years his unshaven face has been on our lowest-denomination bank note, $5 or about £2.

I can just remember Churchill's funeral on television, but even “the century’s greatest Briton” was often a divisive character in his career. Colin Meads is respected by everyone in New Zealand except misanthropes and subversives, such as Springbok tour protestors with long memories. Charles Upham VC & Bar is hugely respected but we all kind of suspect he had to be insane to pull off his feats of courage on the battlefield. Be it the Hun or the Bok, extreme prejudice is the only response under pressure. And Bruno Lawrence had the casting couch all to himself.

But Ed Hillary was the Mt Rushmore of New Zealand heroes: courageous, laconic, generous, modest. He could also be cheeky, an important trait to an insecure nation. Take the case of the Upstairs, Downstairs race for the South Pole against Sir Vivian Fuchs in 1958. Apart from conquering Everest for Britain and its Dominions, Hillary just kicked that farm tractor in the guts and got it to the South Pole while Viv was still passing the port back in the gentleman’s club.

Today social historian Tony Simpson (The Sugarbag Years) has written a typically thoughtful essay on what it takes to be a hero in New Zealand.

But even more moving is this morning’s on-the-spot story about the two Australians who conquered the Tasman Sea (about 1200 miles) in their kayak for the first time. They hit the west coast a month later than they expected, after tides and winds sent them around in circles. In the words of another New Zealand hero, they were buggered. The nation has been following this story closely for weeks, maybe because a year ago a solo kayaker almost made it but perished just a day away from success. But their welcome today by the small city of New Plymouth is like reading of some event in the 1950s, when All Blacks scored tries without triumphant high-fiving, men were men and women cooked roast mutton. The most extraordinary thing about this account is the old-fashioned generosity to our neighbours in Australia; this was an Anzac event, whereas our sports journalists have hyped NZ/Aus encounters into Coliseum cock-fights (ever since the underarm bowling incident is my theory, and the boofheads have needed little encouragement).

Reading about the spontaneity of their welcome gave me goose-flesh, and I suppose the death of “Ed” on Friday had something to do with their welcome. People actually left their TVs to go down to see the boat come in. One last frontier has been conquered and any decent bloke would have to admit that, even if they were Aussies.

December 30, 2007

You talkin’ to me?

I have just stumbled upon Dick Cavett’s blog on the New York Times. It’s a treasure chest of anecdote, now freely available – along with columns by Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd – as the Times has abandoned its subscription system for “premium content”.

Here is Cavett reminiscing after the recent death of Stormin’ Norman Mailer, about a walk on the wild side with the pugnacious writer one night in New York in the early 1970s:

One night, after a heavily fuelled party brimming with literati at George Plimpton’s salon/apartment, Norman said to me, “Let’s walk.” … Mailer was smartly clad in a belted Burberry. It was past midnight and a misty ground fog gave the few lighted windows and street lamps — and our aimless strolling — a sort of imitation-London aura. As we wandered among East Side brownstones and townhouses, chatting civilly, ever and anon Norman would pop into a phone booth only to soon emerge looking displeased.

“I know a couple of places we might be offered a drink,” he would explain, putting his little number book back in his pocket. We resumed our walk. Glad that he kept failing to score another drink that neither of us needed, and aware that drink had loosened my tongue, I launched into a now-forgotten and very long narration about something or other. Maybe it was a sudden realization that I was with a master wordsmith who hadn’t spoken for several blocks that made me offer: “Norman, shall I drop the rest of this lengthy tale?” “No, no,” he said convincingly, brows tightly knitted in concentration, “I’m learning how to tell a story.”

December 17, 2007

Endangered Species Dept

TV3 News, 17 December 2005, 6.25pm

“Auckland Zoo has announced a new arrival. It’s a zebra, weighing in at 30kg. The Zoo reports that it was bouncing around in moments.”

TV1 News, 17 December 2005, 6.25pm

“Buckingham Palace has announced that the Countess of Wessex, Prince Edward’s wife, has just given birth to a baby girl. No name has been announced. “We wanted to see what it was first,” said Prince Edward. “We had no idea. And it takes a few days to decide on a name that is suitable for this human person you have brought into the world.”

December 2, 2007

Crosses to Bear

A friend is visiting when she gets a call to quickly switch on the six o’clock news. She once worked at the Army War Museum, in Waiouru, an army training base in the bleak, isolated centre of the North Island. Early in the morning the museum was broken into and 96 war medals were stolen, among them nine Victoria Crosses awarded to New Zealanders. Most significantly, the VC & Bar awarded to Charles Upham is one of them.

Like most of the country, we are stunned. This is more than the theft of our Crown jewels, it is like the desecration of a grave, an insult to those who fought and those who died. It is the act, rather than the objects themselves, that really offends the national mood, so delicate is our sense of ourselves.

Outside of the rugby world cup and our involvement with the America's Cup, New Zealand is not a place that flies its flag with promiscuity: we’re a little subtler about our jingoism, preferring actions to symbols. But we need our heroes, and they should preferably be underdogs, punching above their weight.

In national legend – especially to schoolboys who grew up reading imperialistic comics – Upham is like Colin Meads meets Rambo. But unlike the heroes in the Victor, Upham was real. As he got older, his discomfort at what he did (though he never forgave the Germans) and especially the adulation afterwards, could be read on his face as he carried the unwanted fame and mana for the rest of his life.

The trail for the burglars quickly goes as cold as Waiouru on a winter’s night. For a heist, the location couldn’t be bettered. The museum is on the main highway, but set out on its own, outside a remote, inward-looking camp. There are three directions in which one could make a quick getaway, with only long-distance trucks and dead possums for company. (This was the rationale 35 years ago, when a small town bank 50 miles down the road was robbed. A cousin working as a teller was locked in the vault with his colleagues.)

Six weeks later, the police decide to offer a reward of about $800,000 NZD, with a quarter of that offered by an overseas medal collector. The medals are possibly with a mad, selfish collector who (one imagines) fondles them in his library overlooked by stuffed dead animals and militaria, like a villain out of an early James Bond flick. It is more likely that they are buried in the back garden of some opportunists who haven’t got a clue what to do next. Drop them in the post, maybe. Call 0800 VALOUR if you can help.

Oddly, I can’t help but think of the prime minister at the end of a long year of bad news out of her control. There have been endless inquiries into allegations of rape by police officers; one Cabinet minister faces court action for alleged “favours”, while another was in court on a vexatious assault charge for a silly schoolyard tumble.

The recent series of engrossing oral histories about New Zealanders’ experiences in the Second World War exists because of the PM's direct support. But few people know that. The national psyche is wounded and angry, about this and a lot of things. And we're about to enter election year. Another call for 0800 VALOUR, perhaps.

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