Rule Britannia

We went to the Governor General’s House on Sunday.  The local paper the week before told us that there would be an open day, and that the recent refurbishments had cost $45 million dollars.  Lewis’ did the curtains.  I say this because Lewis’ did our curtains, and having paid for their services I can easily imagine that it cost $45 million to refurbish the Governor General’s house.  The Governor General’s house has an awful lot of curtains.

After walking up the very long driveway we joined a very long queue and watched the elderly whisked past on golf carts to the front of the line, and Eleanor wrecking her pants by sliding down grassy banks on her bottom.  Once we got inside past the security there were also queues as we funnelled out of large rooms through doorways or up staircases.  The new carpet had pilled from all the foot traffic, and some people seemed determined to try out all the couches and armchairs.  A young man sank into a leather armchair in the library with gratitude, as I watched Eleanor and friends gambol past expensive looking vases on flimsy side tables.  The security feigned indifference but undoubtedly had mace ready to subdue parents who had been told the cost of replacing shattered vases.  The library was disappointing although it did have a large book on duck stamps which I assume had an unintentionally funny introduction.

To be fair to all the armchair connoisseurs, there were a lot of very nice, upholstered chairs in the Governor General’s house that were crying out to be sat on.  The carpet we were wearing in was nice too.  In the main entrance there were wood panels showing each of the Governor General’s coat of arms.  Dame Sylvia Cartwright’s was blank which seemed more believable than the ornate shields of her mainly plebeian forerunners.  Down a long corridor were pictures of the previous Governor Generals with Captain William Hobson first in the line.

“He looks like a woman,” someone observed.

“He was quite ill,” I said, as if that explained anything. 

Some kind of tropical fever had begun to slowly destroy Hobson’s health earlier in his career before he came to New Zealand.  Still, I see what they mean.  He does have a feminine cast to his features, and a chaste hint of a smile. 

I have a lot of time for Hobson; a fairly gentle warrior of the British Empire.  He policed pirates in the Caribbean, and was on one of the escort ships that took Napoleon to St. Helena before he ended up in New Zealand.  In (god forsaken) New Zealand he tried to cobble together a legal document in a foreign language with the help of missionaries and the idealistic sentiments expressed to him in a letter by Lord Normanby.  After he had done it he didn’t last long.

His grave is a lonely place.  Tucked down by a busy Auckland street under a dripping canopy of trees and largely forgotten.  The homeless make tents under the nearby bridge, and drunken gravestones pitch down the hill between the trees.  You feel more like you will be mugged than moved standing at his graveside, although some might see that as appropriate at the grave of one of the makers of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Not, of course, that William Hobson, or Fitzroy, or the whole lot of the first Governor Generals ever lived in the house that we were trooping around on Sunday.  It was completed in 1910, and Hobson died in 1842 in Auckland.  He had no staff to speak of, no money to speak of, and no guns to speak of, just a title and some far, far off imperial backers to try and conjure authority with.  So it is almost a shock to see him there, first in the hall of prints and photos that line the hall to the banqueting chamber.  First in a line of Governor Generals who become increasingly pompous looking; weighed down with titles and moustaches and regalia.  I wonder what this kid from Ireland called William Hobson ever knew about elaborate silver services of the type we see in the banqueting hall where our tour of the house ended.

There was a soldier in the banqueting hall in a soldier’s khaki suit.  Eleanor marched up to him.

“What are you?
“I’m a soldier.”
“Why do you have money on your jacket?”
“They’re medals.”
“Why do you have medals?”

“I was a good boy.”

“What did you do?”

“I ate my vegetables.”

I don’t know exactly what Apiata did to get his V.C. but I hope it was more than polish off a plate of sprouts.  Eleanor, however, seemed satisfied with this answer and marched off.

Back outside the wind whipped across the long lawn and blew flicks of rain at us from the north.  Eleanor and our friends’ kids flew off across the lawn while I zipped Rosamund inside my sweatshirt.

It’s a grand old building and when it was built what it represented must have made complete sense to the citizens of New Zealand.  Now I’m not sure what it means.  I wondered too what Hobson would make of it.  As we walked away I imagined him watching quietly from his frame in the hallway as the staff closed the doors, and began to hoover up the dirt that the great, great grandsons and daughters of empire had tracked in on the carpet.

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4 thoughts on “Rule Britannia

  1. I went to a press gallery dinner at the Governor General’s house a few years back. Dame Cartwright gave a short speech in which she told the media she thought they were rubbish, and then her attending soldiers chased the nation’s political press out into the street. I like early evenings so it was a pretty good night for me.

  2. “What are you?
    “I’m a soldier.”
    “Why do you have money on your jacket?”
    “They’re medals.”
    I’ve always admired your insiteful writing, but you’ve been totally outdone by your daughter this time!

  3. Yep.

    I am often outwitted by my four year old daughter.

    I still have the edge over the seven month old.

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