Friday, January 17, 2014

I am not alone ...

It has been some time since I wrote on this blog, but a chance encounter this week with quotes about New Zealand has spurred me to continue sharing my thoughts on ‘being a New Zealander’.

Foyer wall in the Vero Centre.
The quotes were emblazoned across a huge foyer wall in the Vero Centre at 48 Shortland Street, Auckland. All reflections on living, being or deriving from New Zealand. Most came from those who were born here, a few from visitors or new arrivals (eg Governor Hobson). Though I had heard many of them in some way over the years, there were a few unfamiliar ones.

They ranged from the short and informative (‘High Winds’ – AA sign), to the humourous (‘We don’t know how lucky we are’ – John Clarke (aka Fred Dagg)), to the profound (‘Each of us has a piece of New Zealand we regard as ours’ – C K Stead).

I found it amusingly ironic that, when I tried to take photos for my own use and reference, it was the soft American accent of a black security guard that informed me – in the most polite and gentle way – that I would need to get permission from the building’s owners.

No matter. I copied down some of the quotes I identified with most strongly, and took note of the building owners to contact later for a copy of the full complement – if required.

There were two that resonated more deeply. One was from a foreigner, George Bernard Shaw: If I showed my true feelings, I would cry: it’s the best country I have been in.

The other was from a New Zealander who ironically spent her adult life – and died her tragic death – overseas. Yet, Katherine Mansfield wrote:
I thank God I was born in New Zealand
A young country is a real heritage
Though it takes one time to recognise it.
But New Zealand is in my very bones.

Each one of those lines echoed within me. I don’t know if the irony in the second line was deliberate, but even if our heritage on the land (in the Pākehā line at least) is relatively short, it is still a heritage and something to be treasured.

Just a few days earlier, I had deepened my knowledge of the Jean Batten trail in our history at the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) in Auckland. She is one of those famous names that everyone knows, but may not realise the significance of her achievements – and be in total ignorance about other aspects of her life. She too was born in New Zealand, spent most of her adult life elsewhere, and died tragically – in Majorca in 1982, alone and unrecognised by anyone around her.

No doubt it was because New Zealand was in her ‘very bones’ that drove her to go beyond simply breaking the England-Australia flying time in 1936 to become the first to fly direct England to New Zealand single-handedly. She had scant specialist equipment, but an uncanny ability to navigate – including 2000 kilometres across the Tasman Sea to within 100 metres of her target landfall destination in New Zealand.

Her worldwide fame was primarily concentrated into 1934-36, after which she largely receded from public view. Her fuller story is both sad and inspiring, a combination of brilliance and tragedy. It is perhaps appropriate then that ‘Jean Batten Place’ in Auckland is so short – perhaps a hundred metres if that. But it could do with a plaque explaining who she was, and what she achieved – or a sculpture of the little Percival Gull that brought her safely across the Tasman – and back to Britain again.

Perhaps that time will come.

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