Hard News by Russell Brown

Things being what they are

I've been reading Sir Keith Sinclair's A Destiny Apart: New Zealand's Search for National Identity, which makes some fascinating observations about the practice of war remembrance that developed here after World War 1. A conventionally religious flavour was gradually squeezed out in favour of the Dawn Service, which, says Sinclair, "might, indeed, have been some pagan ceremony."

The concrete symbols of remembrance that dot the country even now, he notes, "are neither churches nor chapels; the cross is rarely employed. Rather, they look back to the Greek cenotaph, the empty tomb or to the column. The Auckland War Memorial, like the National Museum in Wellington, was inspired by Greek Temples. Each is placed on a hill, like the Acropolis. The obelisk looks back to ancient Egypt. Some monuments are arches, like the triumphant arches often erected in nineteenth-century New Zealand to welcome distinguished guests. These too, derive from the pre-Christian world. In many countries, these war memorials played a major role in strengthening nationalism. The nation was imagined as a community in which everyone shared, and to which everyone owed an equal duty. For men, that duty, included, if necessary, the supreme self-sacrifice."

It has made me look again at a brass shield that hangs on my office wall. I believe it to be a piece of wartime trench art (well, that's what the auctioneer reckoned), hammered out of shell-casings. It has the initials "NZ" in the centre, and around its perimeter are three intricately-marked tiki faces, separated by three Celtic motifs. It's a fascinating object, one about something other than Empire, and I wonder about its creator. It makes me wonder whether war was not only the crucible of our nationhood, but in some way our cultural nationalism.

I'm not sure that Jim Hopkins would agree. I'm not a big fan of the newspaper writing of Hopkins - if old windbags are to be the order of the day, I'll stick with Garth George, thanks - the man can carry an argument. But I wonder if anyone else found Hopkins' Anzac week offering in the Herald strange and a bit sad.

He opens with a conversation with a taxi driver on the matter of the drunk who, the previous night, had tried to gain entry to a nightclub, got into a scuffle and suffered a fatal head injury, apparently as a result of being kicked while he was down. They agree that the old "code" that you didn't attack a defenceless man is a thing of the past.

Actually, I quite clearly recall seeing nightclub bouncers throw a man down stairs in such a way that his back could have been broken, and kick and beat a drunk to a pulp on the footpath - 20 years or more ago. My observation would be that most bouncers are like Zen masters compared to what they used to be. But that's not the point. Jim is really just looking for a prop to hang his sense of grievance on: "Neither of us," he says "were comfortable with what the world had become."

New Zealand's best days are gone, Jim and his driver agree. Jim applauds this "irreversible pessimism", comparing it unfavourably with "what you'll hear from those who command the lecterns on Monday":

They will speak of the future with great optimism, in part because we've seen the light and won't repeat the old mistakes.

They will speak of futility and horror, turning war into a martial metaphor for capitalism, in which the noble and long-suffering infantry are continually betrayed by a bungling officer class. It will be war through a post-Marxist lens, and there's truth in the view but it is by no means the whole story.

Yet that is what we will hear on Monday. And also, if not explicitly then certainly by implication, that those same bumbling, bullying officers represent the old way of doing things. The male way; a way that is most definitely out of favour now.

But it seems pointless to depict what we now believe about that part of that war as some girlish lefty revisionism - especially when the chief of the New Zealand Defence Force has used the occasion to declare that "military professionals today see in this campaign joint warfare at its worst, at least from the British side: lack of co-ordination, lack of focus, blunders and the squandering of life. Perhaps the Gallipoli campaign was a high-water mark of our nation’s imperial subservience."

Jim continues:

We've allowed our heroes to be melted into victims. We've allowed honour and courage and character to languish. We've allowed rights to reign and responsibilities to be ignored. We've allowed the contemptible to be tolerated and the despicable exonerated on the basis of some socio-cultural matrix that makes everything nobody's fault. And so people get kicked in the head when they're lying on the pavement.

And who's to blame? Well, "the rest of us" for "allow[ing] this army to march unchecked" - and that army "won't rest until it's conquered the last outposts of the old empire". We've allowed ourselves to be overrrun by an army of ... poofters, apparently. And "social engineers", who appear to be much the same thing. He also declares us to be in a "Treaty-based war" with each other, which would seem to trivialise the real meaning of war.

It's a strange way to carry on in the week of an event about which we have actually reached quite a remarkable and respectful consensus. When we are clearly not at war with each other.

In a week when the Herald's Anzac Day editorial can marvel at the way thousands lined the streets of Wellington to witness the passage of the Unknown Warrior:

They watched as one, united people. Just as they gather today as one people to commemorate those who played such a pivotal role in the forging of a shared New Zealandness.

The sacrifice of those who fell at Gallipoli, and those who failed to return from other conflicts stirs them. As it stirs an ever-increasing sense of national pride and history.

When Tze Ming can write a post like this.

When Garth George himself can write so lyrically in the same paper of shedding tears as he stands on the old disputed ground:

I couldn't help it. My throat closed up, the tears gushed out and, as I flicked them from my face, they fell in the dust to join those of many of the hundreds of New Zealanders who fought and suffered and died at this place.

And echoing down the decades I heard the yelling of orders, the screams of the wounded, the grunts as a fatal bullet tore the life out of one of our men, the shrieks as the Turks charged our trenches again and again and again.

I heard the thunder of naval artillery, the crack, crack, crack of a hundred rifles, the stutter of machine guns and the murderous whirr of shrapnel that cut down the flower of a generation of this nation's young manhood.

When even Helen Clark - Social Engineer in Chief, if you will - can give a speech mentioning pride, courage, loss and nationhood that prompts the immortal quote from a man in the crowd: "It is the first time I have cried in a Helen Clark speech."

And, perhaps most of all, when two schoolgirls, one from Sydney, one from Auckland, are quoted in the Herald on Sunday and show not only that they understand the historical basis of Anzac Day (better than I did at their age), but that they have an idea of what it means to them now. They spoke of bravery and the consequent freedom we enjoy, but also of war being "scary" and "horrible". Eleven year-old Briar Sutherland said the Anzacs had "helped us to understand that New Zealand is a special place to live and we need to enjoy it."

I can't help but think that those young men who sacrificed their lives on foreign shores would rather have thought they were fighting for Briar's optimism than for Jim and his taxi driver's blame-the-world bellyaching about things being what they are.

Anyway, people seem to have enjoyed the "what would Jesus have on his iPod?" question. Here are some responses:

Although I am not a religious person myself I am absolutely convinced that Jesus would have some Stevie Wonder on his iPod. Sometimes when I listen to his music I think it provides proof that enlightened beings roam the earth.

I would like to think he was open to all genres, not just the lovey stuff (Coldplay and Cat Stevens do come to mind though), and so has a bit of a thing for funk (Clinton), life changing British bands (Happy Mondays, The Jam, Joy Division), perhaps some Outkast, but not the dirty ones, and of course some gospel and classic oldies (Ella, Mahalia, Nina, Billie, Al Green etc).

Some Springsteen too, especially The River. And perhaps Jeff Buckley's version of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'. That might be a bit of transference there though.

I think Buddha might be into some more ambient stuff ... something a bit more meditative.

He'd have to dig the Beatles (who doesn't?). 'All You Need is Love, 'I Am the Walrus', 'Sgt Peppers'.

Some Darcy Clay, perhaps?
Tim Sherman

He'd have to have Velvet Undergrounds' "Heroin" I mean his son gets a mention. Plus The Doug Anthony Allstars "I've got Jesus riding shotgun on the stagecoach of my life."
Hamish Mack

I'm sure Jesus would have Steve Earle's 'Jerusalem' album on his iPod. The title track is an outstanding 21st century song. I'm with the SFO Gate on Christian rock. Vile.
Margaret Mayman
St Andrew's on The Terrace

Good idea. I think Jesus would have some soul in his activism, so Sam Cooke would be on there. I can picture him walking off into a lonely desert sunset when 'A Change is Gonna Come' pops on in his Shuffle. And what about Kanye West's 'Jesus Walks'?! He'd have some choice hand-jive to go with that.
Danny Butt

Couldn't help but think of Trinity Roots. Living in Bristol last year I saw them play at the Ashton Court festival. I felt filled with kiwi spirit, and suspect a few others in the audience might have too!

Randy Newman, most of his albums. Ry Cooder ,'specially his stuff with Mali musical master Ali Farka Toure. Ambient music from the late 90s when everyone listened to it but it never made it to radio. Instead we got cockrock and golden oldies. And some of the new C/W bands like Lambchop and Brave Combo. And lots of singer/songwriters.

He'd be too busy:

a. First, working with an Open Source group, and Babelfish, to translate the New Testament into his native language, Aramaic.

b. Then running a daily Carpenter's Blog correcting Paul's incredible distortions of Jesus's teachings (subjection of women; slaves be good servants to your masters).

c. Then starting a new worldwide movement to depose Paul's latest mouthpiece.
Gordon Dryden

Robyn Gallagher of Robyn's Secret Passage had more on the complex matter of Ukraine and the definite article:

This is what the Guardian readers' editor wrote about the Ukraine vs The Ukraine saga. Most interesting is this bit quoted in the piece:

"Soviet translators, who knew the patterns for country names in English, deliberately translated the name of this area with the article 'the' because it then sounds to English-speakers like a part of a country rather than the name of an individual, independent country."

As for what's on Jesus's iPod, surely the Beatles - after all, they were, er, more popular than He.

A finally - this is a long post even by my standards - reuniting rock bands can be either a good or bad idea. The members might be wiser, with more perspective on (even respect for) their own music; better players; just a lot more fizzed about it than they were when the band fell apart. Or it might just be a bit sad.

Straitjacket Fits were in the former category in the course of their three jam-packed night at The Studio in K Road. I went along for the third night - not quite as good as Friday, I was informed, but good enough for me. With Andrew Brough having declined the call, this was the Blow lineup, with Mark Peterson providing Shayne a more sympathetic foil (he sings in tune and can play pretty much anything on the guitar) than Broughie ever did.

It also meant that that album got a substantial airing, and the momentum flagged a little during a couple of its lesser tunes. But for the most part, it didn't sound like nostalgia; it sounded quite contemporary. And when the band mustered that deep, almost orchestral wave of sound, it was quite extraordinary.

There was a nice moment when someone down the front gave Shayne Carter a copy of The New Zealand Trotting Handbook. He picked it and proudly identified the horse on the cover, its trainer, where the horse was trained, and the riding colours. The whole night, indeed, felt pretty nice. Our old friend Malaika had travelled all the way from Germany for the shows, and didn't look 10 years older than the last time we saw her. Then afterwards, we went to N's place - since a sudden change of domestic circumstances this year, she's back flatting with girls - and played beautiful music on vinyl and looked at the moon till 3am. That was cool.