Defining nationhood

Strange Fruit, by Turtle Donna Sarten at the Academy of Fine Arts, Wellington.

Strange Fruit, by Turtle Donna Sarten at the Academy of Fine Arts, Wellington.

It was ANZAC Day last Wednesday (25th April). Outside of Australia and New Zealand (and increasingly the UK, for reasons I’ll explain later), not many people have heard of ANZAC Day. Fewer still understand what is all about.

Here in the Antipodes, ANZAC Day is possibly the most significant NATIONAL holiday we have. National in the sense of being specific to our country – rather than a reflection of our wider cultural adherence to broadly Christian festivals like Christmas and Easter.

I know that the Australians also have Australia Day and we New Zealanders have Waitangi Day; both of which commemorate events that represent the beginnings of the formalisation of European dominance over the indigenous peoples of the two countries. But increasingly ANZAC Day has come – for many on both sides of the Tasman – to better represent each country’s sense of nationhood.

I’m going to quote Wikipedia here, because it’s a pretty succinct account of what ANZAC Day is:

Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand that broadly commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served.”[1][2]

The date is the day, in 1915, when Australian and New Zealand troops landed, as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force, on the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is now Turkey, in an attempt to capture it from the troops of the Ottoman Empire, which was allied with Germany in World War I.

Gallipoli was a monumental military cock-up. Instead of the envisaged swift, decisive Allied victory, fighting continued for eight months before those Allied troops left alive were evacuated. Forty four thousand (44,000) Allied troops died at Gallipoli (from the British Empire and France); eighty seven thousand (87,000) Turkish troops also lost their lives. For two relatively under-populated countries in the Pacific, the 8,500 Australians and 2,721 New Zealanders who died represented an enormous loss (remember too, that thousands more were fighting and dying in muddy battlefields in France also).

ANZAC Day then, has come to symbolise a moment in time when two of Britain’s newer colonies felt themselves emerge as distinct nations – shaped and scarred by terrible suffering.

When I was a child, ANZAC Day was a public holiday, but most people I knew regarded it as little more than a welcome day off work. Those who attended the dawn parades seemed to mainly be returned servicemen and women, their families and those in the military.

Ironically, the further we have travelled from the actual Gallipoli landing, the more people feel the need to remember. There are no WWI veterans left to take part in the parades and services; and dwindling numbers of WWII veterans. Now it is their descendants who rise before dawn, pin the medals of grandfathers and great grandfathers onto their own or their children’s chests and go out in the cold to take part in increasingly well-attended commemorations that are held all around the country. That includes the small city-fringe community I live in, where the gates of the local park serve as a war memorial, naming the dozen or so farm boys who left very rural Greenhithe to go to war but did not return.

ANZAC commemorations have traditionally also taken place at ANZAC Cove itself, and increasingly in the UK as young Kiwis and Aussies on their OE (overseas experience) join with other ex-pats to remember not only the sacrifice of their forefathers, but affirm their own cultural identity.

2015 will be the centenary of Gallipoli. Already it’s been announced that there will be a ballot for places at the ceremony at Anzac Cove, such is the interest amongst Antipodeans young and old. In Auckland where I live, the mayor has announced a programme of remembrance, which includes funding for memorials, museum exhibitions and events. New Zealand – and likely Australia too – are preparing themselves for a momentous occasion.

While interest and participation in ANZAC Day has grown, there has always been discomfort with the notion of defining nationhood in terms of military sacrifice. Amongst other things, it highlights the way different conflicts have been perceived – something that’s central to the beautiful and moving installation, Strange Fruit, by Turtle Donna Sarten, currently  at the Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington.

I’ve written about this installation in another blog, so won’t repeat myself here except to say that Strange Fruit consists of 3890 military dog tags; each of which has been hand-inscribed with the name of one of the New Zealanders who served in Vietnam during the period 1964-72.

Unlike in earlier conflicts, Vietnam veterans did not return home to parades celebrating their sacrifice. They experienced the embarrassment, silence and sometimes hostility of a public which had comprehensively turned against the war. In New Zealand, veterans have lobbied tirelessly  for recognition not only of their service, but even more importantly, of the physical and psychological damage they suffered – including exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange and PTSD.

Detail: Strange Fruit by Turtle Donna Sarten.

Detail: Strange Fruit by Turtle Donna Sarten.

In the stillness of a stark white gallery, Donna Sarten has invited visitors to contemplate war and sacrifice and remembrance, through the lens of a recent conflict that in many ways divided this country as much as World War One united it, and perhaps re-defined our sense of nationhood as much as Gallipoli originally formed it.

A maze of manners


The boy-child, blissfully unaware of the manners’ maze that awaits him.

ZimmerBitch has relocated to Wellington for a few well-deserved days of coffee and socialising and socialising over coffee.

One consequence of this is a reliance on public transport; something that’s a bit alien to my usual car-borne existence. Wellington has pretty good public transport in my experience. I know the locals complain and to be honest, the airport-Hutt Valley bus is criminally expensive, but in general whenever I’m in the capital I find I can walk a short distance to a bus-stop and before long a bus comes along that is willing to take me someplace interesting faster than I could walk.

This morning, I had to get from my hotel in funky Cuba Street to Victoria University’s Pipitea campus; a relatively short and mainly picturesque walk, but not one I wanted to do in heels.

Being relatively early morning, the bus was pretty crowded. People were already standing; but since they seemed to be teenagers, I felt ok about grabbing the last seat. It’s only when I sat down that I realised a woman had got on behind me. Really stylishly dressed and professional-looking I figured her to be in her sixties and was about to stand up and offer her my seat when it occurred to me I’m not that much younger than her – and to the rest of the bus we probably both looked more alike than different. I was suddenly struck with one of those dilemmas only the well brought-up could ever experience; was it worse to stay seated – which seemed disrespectful to me – or stand up and effectively say “hey lady, you look old enough to need my seat.”

I stayed put. Being rational, I was only going a few stops anyway. But more importantly, in this youth-obsessed age where sixty is the new thirty five, I figured I’d be mortified if someone – anyone – offered me their seat on the bus.

Daily Prompt: Million Dollar Question


Why do I blog?

1. I’ve got a fidgety brain.  I need to write because it seems to be the only way to channel the fidgeting; to get the ideas that won’t shape themselves in my head somewhere I can see them and construct some sort of sense. It’s cerebral knitting. And yes, I do the actual kind too to stop myself grinching fabric and picking at my fingernails.

2. I’m basically sociable. I like talking to new people; having them become part of the narrative I’m constructing. And more importantly, I love sharing in other people’s stories. My mum can go for a bus ride into town and come home with eight strangers’ life stories. I used to both marvel at that and be slightly freaked out by it. But you know what? I’m becoming my mother – only I’m riding the cyber-bus.

3. I like technology. I used to keep a journal which got filled with photos and newspaper clippings, but with a blog I can have video and links to other writers’ and ideas and all sorts of cool stuff. It’s way more exciting to produce, and a much more interesting reader experience. I’ve worked as a writer/document designer and I feel really strongly that (kind of like how we eat with our eyes first) we read pages as a whole visual thing. Text is increasingly image and the more I can make those images appealing, the better.

Nuff said!

Remembering Emily Keeling: and working to end domestic violence

Laying flowers for Emily Keeling

Laying flowers for Emily Keeling

A few weeks ago my partner and I were walking in Symonds Street Cemetary in Auckland and chanced to find the grave of a young woman who had been fatally shot in 1886. Since this was Auckland in 1886, and New Zealand has generally been considered a fairly safe place, I was determined to find out the story behind the death of Emily Keeling.

Headstone for Emily Mary Keeling, died 2 April 1886.

Headstone for Emily Mary Keeling, died 2 April 1886.

I’ve written about it in my family history blog, Shaking the Tree, but essentially Emily Keeling was a 17 year old on her way to Bible Class when she was shot by a young man who claimed he loved her and could not live without her. He killed Emily and then himself.

Yesterday was the 127th anniversary of Emily’s murder, and I went back to Symonds Street cemetery to lay flowers on her grave. With me were two wonderful women friends who also wanted to remember and honour Emily Keeling and all the other victims of domestic violence.

You can read Dee’s moving blog post about our trip here.

One of the reasons we have taken up Emily’s story is that we are all Trustees of the Friends of Women’s Refuges Trust (FoWRT).

This organisation was set up almost 20 years ago by a group of women on Auckland’s North Shore, to fundraise for Women’s Refuge. FoWRT has done this by organising what has become a major and important biennial sculpture exhibition – Sculpture on Shore.

In 2012, Sculpture on Shore exhibited work from over 100 New Zealand artists and artists’ collectives, attracting over 17,500 visitors. The range of work is diverse and extraordinary and in some cases, created specifically to reference the site, or the issue of domestic violence – as in the case of Bernie Harfleet’s 14 , and Turtle Donna Sarten’s Black and White and Red all over.

Since its inception, Sculpture on Shore has raised over NZ$1.2 million for Women’s Refuge. It’s a huge undertaking that relies very heavily on volunteers – over 200 volunteers in 2012. That’s two hundred plus amazing people who give up hours, days – and in the case of some, like my friend Alix, weeks – of their lives to make the exhibition work; to make it wonderful for the thousands who come to see it.

The first time I went to Sculpture on Shore was about 10 years ago. What I remember most about that occasion was my son – then aged about five – running from exhibit to exhibit shouting out the prices, and telling us we couldn’t afford them! By last year he’d managed to slow down enough to appreciate the art, and went home with a plan to submit a proposal to have a piece of his own accepted in 2014!

But that’s an aside. The real point about Sculpture on Shore is that at heart, it is an act of love and of compassion and of solidarity with the many victims of domestic violence in New Zealand. Artists, visitors, and all those who organise, staff and support the event do so not just for the love of art, but because we become part of a tangible, powerful force for change. In New Zealand, on average 14 women, six men and ten children are killed by a member of their family each year – a statistic poignantly highlighted in Bernie Harfleet’s 14.  NZ Police are called to domestic violence situations on average once every seven minutes.

Reading the newspaper reports that followed Emily Keeling’s death, it appears that her killer had not tried to harm her before the fatal shooting, which in some ways makes his actions even more shocking. We may never be able to prevent such men (or women) from harming those they claim to love, but that doesn’t mean we are helpless. When it is estimated that one in three New Zealand women will experience psychological or physical abuse from their partner at some time in their life, it is likely that we all know someone who is a victim. Women’s Refuge is one of the key organisations helping those who experience domestic violence, but we are all able – on a personal level – to show the same love and compassion and solidarity that underpins Sculpture on Shore.

Dee and Alix at Emily Keeling's graveside. April 2nd, the anniversary of her murder.

Dee and Alix at Emily Keeling’s graveside. April 2nd, the anniversary of her murder.

for the sheer joy of it

There wasn’t a lot of music in my house when I was growing up. My mum favoured “Greatest Hits” type classical music and singers like Frank Ifield and (cringe) Cliff Richard. My dad owned some Nat King Cole and George Shearing (but not much of either); which I thought were really cool. We also had lots of “Scottish” music of the particularly sentimental variety.

So my musical taste has been formed by friends and boyfriends and it is — quite frankly — all over the place. I used to be a bit embarrassed by this, but now I’ve just just come to accept that “that’s who I am.”

Maybe it’s because of this patchwork approach and my lack of the sort of tribal loyalty to particular genres that tends to emerge in teenagers, I respond to music in a very simplistic way. Some things just move me. I could analyse it, but generally I choose not to.

So I’m not going to write an essay about Poi E. I’m just going to say that it is one of the most joyous pieces of music I know and let you decide for yourselves. I’m interested to hear what you think.

Also check this out. It’s from the movie Boy and I think it does a brilliant job of taking spirit of Poi E into the 21st century.