When I was a kid my mother and I often went south for the holidays. My mother and my father were both from Otago, and any trip south involved stopping in on relatives. One place we sometimes stopped was Waikouaiti. My great aunt lived in Waikouaiti. Although she was unmarried she took care of a man called Syd. When I visited Syd I had no idea who he was. It was a long time after he died that I found out.
When I knew Syd he was an old man slumped in a dark back room, sucking on boiled sweets. He was somewhat frightening to a little boy although he was always friendly in an avuncular way. When my great aunt met him he was a dashing young man, who rode his horse about the farm and cut quite a figure. He was from a well off family and seemed to have the world before him. He was also one of the hundreds of thousands of men who rushed into the arms of World War One. It was the war that changed him forever.
He served in North Africa with the Cameliers. He met T.E. Lawrence. It is extraordinary to me that I have met a man that met Lawrence. He saw men so thirsty they leapt into the Suez Canal knowing they wouldn’t be able to get out. Not that he talked about it much.
In the news today was the funeral of Harry Patch, the last British man to serve in the trenches in World War One. He was born in 1898 and died at the age of 111. His family said that he never spoke of the war until he was 100. He served at Passchendaele. 325,000 allied troops perished. 260,000 Germans. Almost 600,000 men. And yet, even though it is moment of great horror that dies with Harry Patch, I remember again the quote from Borges,
Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder – and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death…. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man. What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world?
World War One has condensed itself in the public memory of the West to the image of the trenches. For New Zealanders it would also contain some idea of Gallipoli. It is impossible to read about the Western Front without being overwhelmed by horror. Whether it is All Quiet on the Western Front, or the poems of Wilfred Owen, or the memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon, whatever you read, it is appalling. Somehow ANZAC day seems an inadequate monument to the enormity of this human waste. What are we remembering?
Generally, we are not good at remembering or valuing our history in New Zealand.
I once had dinner in a café in Hawera called Morriesons. It was filled with bits and pieces saved from the house of the author who wrote the best opening line in New Zealand literature: “The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.” Ronald Hugh Morriesons’ house was torn down to make way for a car park. For KFC.
In the last couple of years the Governor General got a new flag because the old one was out of date. Out of date? We are talking about the flag of the representative of the Queen, a role that started in 1840 in this country with Captain William Hobson. The flag is not a marketing gimmick; it is a representation of 160 years of tradition. Such things do not “date”.
In the news recently was the fire at Maranui. I never liked the café at Maranui. It was too noisy, and too crowded for me (yes, I know it had great food, I’m just a grumpy bugger), but what really bothered me was how history was turned into decoration. Maranui was the home of the second oldest surf life saving club in New Zealand, and on the walls of the café were honour boards of former members. Some of these honour boards were for members of the club who had died in World War One. Something about being in that café slurping a flat white with those boards felt wrong, I felt uncomfortable there. Not that the boys represented by those names would care, they would probably celebrate all the life and energy they could see in the room.
Those boys are there too on the quiet, slightly faded stones in the walls of some old buildings, and on the faded wooden boards hanging on some walls that commemorate the young men who died in World War One. When you go in the side door of the Hunter Building at Victoria University there is one; when you pass through the underground passage between the BNZ centre and the old BNZ building there is a board listing all the bank staff who died. Pass through any town in New Zealand, it doesn’t matter how small, and there will be a memorial to the dead. They must be passed a thousand times in a day, and few would stop to read them, but I like to give them a nod. I like to acknowledge them, not because I wish to honour the heroes of an imperialistic war, but because I wish to acknowledge fate, and the fragility of a generation swept up almost willingly into a maelstrom that would not spare them. Each one of those names represents the solitary trace of a nervy network of feelings and memories, each one cut down, or torn apart, or sucked under and erased.
There but for the grace of God walk I.