There died a myriad / And of the best, among them / For an old bitch gone in the teeth / For a botched civilization / Charm, smiling at the good mouth / Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid / For two gross of broken statues / For a few thousand battered books.
I used to think the best thing to do to our flag was this:
But looking at it now I think this is a bit lame. What does that have to do with New Zealand?
Of all the alternative visions of the flag mooted I like this one the most:
It has black in it, which seems to be our default national colour, and it represents the land of the long white cloud. At a push it might be said to be Papatuanuku and Ranginui at the moment of separation. It is also, of course, freaking weird and disturbing, which is also good.
In fact, I don’t think we should change the flag at all. Not because the RSA says people died for the old one (they didn’t, not really, not for the flag), but because it’s stupid and anti-historical to do so. You can ditch the Union Jack on the flag but you can’t get rid of it out of our history or our current culture. Many other flags have a Union Jack in the corner but that is a historical marker that links us to the Pacific.
Couldn’t we change our dreadful national anthem instead?
God of nations at thy feet?
Then again, the more you go down this path the more you realise that it is pointless. Who really cares? I mean really. I’m not the kind of person who likes standing for flags. I’m not sure why I’m doing it. Is it to check my readiness for battle? For most people the national anthem is something people do for sports contests. The only other place it is routinely trotted out is at school, once a year, for a prize giving to prove to the parents we know the words. What the politicians really want us to do is pick a new colour for the outside of the house, not deal with the far thornier problems on the inside.
Which is about par for the course I suppose. We are familiar with councils or corporations that come up with a new logo and new letterhead at great cost but keep the same staff, structures and problems, and this is what we are being asked to be diverted by now. Changing the flag is the most superficial possible way to look at becoming a republic. At the start of the parliamentary year we had policy to talk about; all we have now are flag designs and Kim Dotcom. Perhaps we could use Kim Dotcom as our new flag.
The man on the left in this photo was my great-uncle. He fought in World War One. As a consequence he lived the rest of his life as a bachelor, in a shed out of the back of his sister’s house, hunting rabbits and keeping his own company a lot of the time. He also, somewhere over there, serving King and Country, lost whatever belief he had in God. The moment he told my aunt, when she was a young girl, that there was no God has remained with her all her long life. I sense the absence of God for him was not a matter of indifference, but a bad taste in the mouth that coloured the flavour of life for him forever.
There is a plausible theory that New Zealand’s hard-drinking culture was maintained and made socially mainstream by the returning servicemen from two wars and their desire for camaraderie with people who “got it” and some self-medication. Not that it was just the men who suffered. You would have to wonder if New Zealand’s culture of domestic violence also started its self-perpetuating cycle in the aftermath of those wars. And then there was just plain old sadness:
“The war changed our family. Somehow it changed from a nice happy family to a kind of remorseful family. There wasn’t the happiness. There wasn’t the laughter. There wasn’t the birthday parties. When we, and all the family got together, uncles, and aunts and everybody, there were too many cousins missing. Too many friends missing.”
Flo Small, quoted in Changing Times
On my mother’s side her father lost his two brothers in World War Two, which must have charged the family gatherings of his parents with that exact feeling of remorse.
Died some, pro patria, non “dulce” non “et decor” . . . / walked eye-deep in hell / believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving / came home, home to a lie / home to many deceits / home to old lies and new infamy / usury age-old and age-thick / and liars in public places.
Flags are the creation of an imperialist age where homogeneity was enforced and difference ostracized or assimilated. In New Zealand we achieved our own flag in 1902 thanks to the patriotic imperialism of Seddon sending his contingents off to the Boer War. If it is a flag founded and maintained in war then perhaps we should change it. The ideology of patriotic war in defence of Empire has declined. Our dominant ideologies now appear to be around capitalism, and in capitalism you want a good brand.
Not that this solves your problem. What is brand New Zealand? Which simplification and lie do we pick to represent us? Complexity doesn’t work in corporate logos after all. Something simple that captures what is essentially us then. Something simple that nods to the past and positions us for the future; something simple that recognises the Maori, the Pakeha, the Pasifika, the Asian; something simple that captures the natural world and cultural one. Something that gets at the idea of heroism and wife-beating, nobility and binge-drinking, racial harmony and oppression, misogyny and feminism.
Challenging stuff, but I suppose John is up to it. He is a useful symbol for our age in this country, as useful as Seddon was in 1902 as a cipher for that time and its worldview: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but which country offers the best compensation package for your set of skills in the world market.”
I decline the debate. Our flag is what it is. A symbol of pride, a relic, a “simpler” time, a constant around which people can see whatever shades of disharmony or unity they wish. It somehow connects with that troubling moment of national identity that is Chunuk Bair which is either the forge and crucible of New Zealand identity, or New Zealand willingly in the cross hairs of imperial internationalism at its worst. Or both. Or neither.
To be honest, I’d rather there was no flag. At least it would provide a laugh every time we won an Olympic medal; the athletes on the podium heads raised to the empty flag pole as the empty rope is cycled with great dignity by the officials to the top as we listen to the sound of nothing with our hands on our hearts.