Saturday, May 05, 2007

There is a thing I feel the need to share for the benefit of one of my readers (he'll know who he is). I can now look back at the behaviour of my hosts on that awful trip I had to New Zealand, and, well, just laugh at it. I drew the conclusion a little while ago that the attitudes and behaviour of some people just is not worth getting angry or upset about. All it does is empower them anyway. If people's behaviour is either very strange or very unpleasant in your view the best remedy can be to make light of it. Political Umpire told me that such a day would come and I did not believe it at the time. I do now, even if it is impossible to recall the trip with any fondness due to my personal experiences. I won't say any more about my hosts as they don't know I'm writing this, as far as I know don't care to read this blog so it's not really fair bitching about people online who aren't in a position where they can defend themselves.

What the trip did do was tell me that I could not live in New Zealand for any extended period. It is just way too remote and small population wise for my liking. Christchurch and possibly Auckland I could handle temporarily. But Wellies, or God forbid New Edinburgh? I think I'd rather curl up and, you know the rest. I cannot articulate for why I feel this way exactly. I don't believe that it was just my personal experiences on the trip, I believe there was something which I picked up about the actual places. Wellington with it's green belt of hills felt claustrophobic to me, although the locals felt that was part of the towns beauty. But I don't think it was just that really.

As for Dunedin I recall wondering where the Maori were, and I then heard most had been slaughtered there by the British settlers. I noticed it was a very white town. Who knows, perhaps the place had bad karma? The noticable protestantism and the prominent Queen Victoria statue was also telling. I also dislike the fact that it has been and still is an ongoing tradition in that country of pretending that it does not have a problem with racism.

New Zealanders tend to see themselves as South Pacific Canadian (being to Australia what Canada is to the United States. But I think they are still more English than they care to admit, as one very honest man on the West Coast of the South Island admitted to me. Funnily Dunedin seemed proud of it's Scottish background while the English settlements seemed to wish to shun theirs. It aint cool to be English these days, even in England itself one appears more attractive and exotic if they can claim foreign ancestry. I get told quite often that I appear Eastern European. I believe my grandmother had some Roma in her background so that may have something to do with it. At least I get looked at more often! It seems that the English have a bad reputation and a sense of guilt due to having been blood soaked imperialists.

Don't get me wrong, I don't want to be unfair on New Zealand. It is a lovely place for scenery, the pace of life is a lot slower and the people are for the most friendly. But I found the national insecurity that often expressed itself in an immature patriotism very grating (don't worry, I find Brit patriotism just as irritating, if not more so). I received a particularly nasty dose of it (combined with an anti English feel) from a girl who had two English parents. New Zealand as a country appeared to believe it had something to prove, probably because it is a young country which has not yet fully developed a full sense of it's own identity, like for instance Canada has, and Australia. This would account for a lot of the anti English sentiment there. There is also some anti American and anti Australian sentiment, but the anti English thing stands out more because it seems a little closer to self hatred. A prejudice seems to exist in that country that the English are lax in matters of personal hygiene. I think this might be due to the tradition of baths in England as opposed to the shower. However, I disliked being at a party when the person right next to me stated that 'English people don't wash' not knowing that I was British until I opened my mouth and said 'Don't they?' in the poshest voice I could speak in. I should have sniffed under my armpits. It also turned out that the person in question was a meat lover and seemed to have a slight distaste for vegetarians (I notice that this attitude is not uncommon among meat eaters of a certain class, i.e those who enjoy their fancy cuisine, I really haven't encountered much of that attitude among the proles, who seem pretty indifferent to the eating habits of others, whether or not they deem dietary preferences strange or not). That is a thing that probably does not matter wherever you go. However, when I left that night one of the guests nearby said it had been nice meeting me. I repeated the courtesy to my bette noir as well as to the person who gave the initial farewell. The result? I was not only ignored but given a dirty look. Perhaps being not only English but a vegetarian too was too much for that individual, who had should I say very Anglo features and if average demographics are anything to go by most likely had grandparents or great grandparents, if not an actual parent, who had grown up in England.

It is small things like that which made much of it seem incongruious, although on an intellectual level I can see the reasons. The country strikes me as being slightly akin to a surly adolescent child of what was the British Empire.


Political Umpire said...

Hi Liz. Needless to say, I found that an interesting post. As I am currently trying to defrost a frost-free (ha!) freezer, I only have time to sketch a few thoughts in reply:

1. To my mind, any place is as defined by the people as by the physical geography. When first in London, I was slumming it to a certain extent in a not very salubrious suburb south of the river. I didn’t like the litter, I didn’t like the tired looking rows of terraced houses, I didn’t like the absence of any famous landmarks and I certainly didn’t like the overcrowded trains, the traffic or the absence of any natural beauty. But most of all I didn’t like the neighbours. I had sacrificed much to be there (a very comfortable middle class existence), yet the locals seemed surly and insular, and my fellow immigrants even worse, stumbling around the streets day and night and mumbling for social security in the post office when I was sending letters home. It really irked me that I had arrived on such a high, wanting to see and do everything in England, yet the fellow visitors (admittedly not from anywhere similar to me) didn’t seem to care less nor did the locals. I wanted to know every detail on every historical building but the locals seemed clueless and, worse, uninterested.

2. Things have changed a lot now primarily because I have gone on to meet others (immigrants and locals) with whom I have things in common, as well as living somewhere rather nicer (though hardly Mayfair). Obviously there are still things I don’t like, but London’s big enough to find people like oneself (first advantage), big enough to ignore the ones you don’t (second advantage), well-placed (and wealthy) for international travel (third advantage), and cosmopolitan enough to find variety in everything from wine and food to cultural activities/festivities to television programmes (fourth advantage). It also has the best newspapers, though the internet renders that less of a comparative advantage these days. Auckland, my home-town, has more of one, two and four than the rest of New Zealand but rather badly misses out on the third. That remains important to me even though my days of flitting off to the continent on a whim when a spare weekend presents itself are currently rather few (I’m banking on them coming again).

3. Now to NZ. Yes, I’m afraid to agree that there is and always has been something of an immature patriotism there, or as my father would put it, an inferiority complex. This would be manifested in the copious obeisance shown to overseas visitors by television interviewers, sporting or otherwise, combined with the anxious question “did you enjoy your stay in New Zealand?” British on the other hand can be quite keen to run their country down, whining that fings aint wot they used to be or self-flagellating that evil Britain is responsible for all that’s wrong with the world.

It’s fair to say that the worst offenders of the anti-Pom brigade in NZ are the ex-Poms themselves, who presumably wish to reassure themselves that they made the right decision in moving. Second worst are those with only English ancestry, whom I guess want to justify their ancestors’ choices. Within that category definitely the worst are those who’ve never been to England themselves.

Some put anti-English feeling in NZ down to Gallipoli (ignorantly if so, since 75% of the troops there were British), others to Britain failing to resist the Japanese advance in the 1940s and others to Britain joining the common market. My father blames the Catholics (he married one, incidentally), I won’t even go there.

Tell you the truth, though, I never encountered the poms-don’t-wash joke save with Barry Humphries and other Australian writers; I didn‘t think it was a Kiwi joke. Seems I was wrong. I’d have tormented your interlocutor personally, but you’re probably a nicer person than me!

4. Race relations: this is a subject that would take forever. In short, in my youth I was told (I was sure quite properly) that NZ had no racial problems. Then, in the last few years I was at school, I was told that it had disastrous racial problems. No doubt the truth is somewhere in the middle. Haven’t spent enough time in Dunedin to comment (one weekend to be exact), though I doubt there was ever a significant Maori population there, or anywhere in the South Island for that matter. Tribal warfare was an institutionalised part of Maori society and to an extent a reasonable number of deaths in the C19 would have occurred due to some of them obtaining European weapons to use on the others. The fact that some Maori fought on the European side during the wars of the C19 would suggest that it wasn’t simply a case of arrive and conquer (would not have been possible anyway as the Europeans didn’t arrive in significant numbers quickly enough; for decades the Maori could simply have thrown them into the sea had they chosen). Another factor was the introduction of European diseases to which the Maori had no immunity. I think the prevailing attitude for most of the C19 and the C20 up until the 1980s was one of integration, certainly not extermination. And while that resulted in policies that are now thought objectionable, it was thought to be the best thing for Maori at the time. But there are many arguments in the other direction and I’ve gone on enough.

5. Would I live there? Well, I don’t, which must be at least a partial answer …

Anonymous said...

Well, I'd better not disagree with you, or I'll only add to the impression of immature self-defensiveness!

Maori population was always lower in the South Island in pre-settlement times, owing to the harsher climate and the fact that the north was settled first. There was never a massacre of Maori in Dunedin. There was, though, a series of enclosures which drove many Maori off their land in the south. The largest southern tribe, Ngai Tahu, saw much of their land turned into pasture.

Largely because of the strength of the Maori, who adapted very well to
the new technologies brought by the of the Europeans and even set up their own states in several parts of the North Island, there were no outright massacres of large groups of Maori by Pakeha at all, except for an incident at Rangiaowhia in the lower Waikato, where a church that civilians were sheltering in was torched and fired into during the New Zealand Wars.

But there are other ways of wiping out populations. For instance, when Gilbert Mair invaded the Urewera mountains, home of the Tuhoe people, in 1869, he had his soldiers tear up all the potato plots they could find, and thus condemn many Tuhoe to starvation.

In the longer run, the alienation of Maori land was in many places even more devastating. One hundred years ago Maori population had dropped to a low point of 40,000. Today it's ten times that, and with the added influence of Pacific Islanders and Asians, Pakeha are well on the way to being a minority in Auckland, the largest city in the country.

In the South Island, of course, it's a different story - the homogenous population down there and the very different landscapes make it feel like another country.
There are still some surprises, though - the West Coast has a proud
history of Fenianism and socialism,
and even Christchurch has a quite left-wing history, hard as that may seem to believe. Dunedin is really a Scottish rather than English city, and is probably the Bohemian capital of the country, with a world-famous indie music scene.

I suppose what I find odd about your comments is not their negativity - you'll get worse on my blog, when the issues of Kiwi nationalism and Anzac military adventures are raised - but the lack of any sort of historical and sociological perspective. Surely a Marxist has to rely on more than chance impressions?

For the record, my favourite town in Britain is Hull, which probably means I'm an incorrigibly provinical Kiwi.


Sanctuary said...

Its a pity you didn't like N.Z. I am a sixth generation New Zealander and I like the place, which is a rare piece of luck really given my lack of choice in where I can go and live. Actually I agree with most of what you say in general terms, although personally I don't consider myself a South Pacific version of anything. Without excusing it, I am of the view that a lot of the anti-English thing comes from two sources: 1) N.Zer's often see the national myth as being in a better Britain, just like an idealised deep England only without the nasty bits like dark satanic mills, class war and overcrowding. 2) Our primary exposure to the English (as opposed to the British) is people of the rugby playing class. 2) feeds into 1) quite nicely, and creates a lot of lazy anti-Englishness. Personally, I love the U.K. and I lived there for five years in my younger days, I would like to spend a part fo every year there, but I couldn't imagine the homesickness i would feel if seperated from my homeland for to long. Its like Xmas I suppose. I hated U.K. Christmas. To me, Christmas is warm, so you can ride you new bike outside or play with your toys in the yard. Horses for courses.

Like all island peoples, we are a little xenophobic in general.

One other thing to bear in mind is N.Z. is probably unique in the way its intellectual left wing and monied right wing elites combine to dispise popular expressions of affection for the homeland. Both, to my mind, betray a deep seated and reflexive settler mindset at times. Because here the people are not allowed by their leaderships elites to be proud of who they are, they often resort to putting down others to make up. Once we become more comfortable with celebrating who we are, we will be less interested in the insecure defeatism that marks so much of our national conversation down here.

Its not all bad though. We genuinely value consensus, we try at good race relations and we don't want a bar of the so-called war on terror. We've got a lovely empirical pragmatism and we are (usually) terribly polite. Above all, if you wave at them, New Zealanders are a people still disposed towards waving happily back.

Anonymous said...

The British make up the largest percentage of immigrants to New Zealand.

Maybe this has something to do with your experience as a tourist. Immigrants attract a little bit of racism in all countries, unfortunately.

Political Umpire said...

Hi Liz, I dropped by and saw you haven't been around for a while. Hope all is ok.


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Nick said...

Well, avegetarian AND English; imagine that!

Maladjusted said...


Mlle/Mme Contraire

Such is the Antipodes.

I haven't had any long sojourns in NZ, but as an Australian, I know that a casual crappiness to the English comes after only cricket and self-praise in the lists of national past-times that bind the community together.

More than any other equivalent, this past-time gives us(as I think you intimate a propos of NZ) the frequently repeated ritual of national self-assertion that we so desperately need, not to mention serving as a wonderful screen to keep us from looking at anything that is petty, parochial or flagrantly unjust in our own society.

In Australia the mark of our being an egalitarian society is not to be measured by the distribution of wealth, privileges or opportunities but rather by bizarre symbolic things like our love of beer (apparently a coup de grace tyrannies everywhere), our occassional profanities (ditto) and most of all how rude we are willing to be to the scions of our former colonial masters. Doing this last bit, is so egalitarian that it virtually single-handedly upholds Human Rights everywhere.

Prplexed as to how being rude to visitors serves as proof the undimmed glory of the Southern Republics, thus:

If life in the 3rd millenium were a bad Hollywood telemovie set in 1788 and you were, say, some caricature of an English toff with an (anachronsitic) slave-whip, -- we the average Aussie larrikin, raconteur, contrarian, et cetera would be terribly defiant, and independent. The fact that there are (alas) no late 18th century servants of the Empire around for us to prove this fact, means, however, that we have to substitute the revolution we never had (and didn't require) with the tawdrier (and kind of mysterious) RETROACTIVE revolt of being mystifyingly supercillious (and sometimes just rude) to
visitors from the Old Country.


(I recently ranted about this phenomenon in a post called "Girt by Sea". So it goes.)