Sport 33: Spring 2005
Before I Went Blind
So where do you start: Winston Peters? I don't think so—but, coming back, your eyes fall on such things and you think: You, still alive! I want him gone by lunchtime. The inner groan when you see that Judy Bailey is still reading the news. And such news! That's the news? Surely New Zealand is at its worst in the run-up to an election.
But you're pleased to be back. That's what you keep telling yourself— you've thrown the dice, there's no turning back, so, of course you're pleased to be back. But in fact you are. For the first couple of weeks I walked around with a big dopey grin on my face, loving everything. Fish 'n' chips in the rain under a Norfolk Pine at Mission Bay: magic. The wine! The food! For five years we had the pick of European food and wine, and what we have here, I'll take it any time. And so cheap! And so good! Of course, for the first few weeks back after five years, wine with fancy food in the company of old friends is what takes up most of your day. Not too much wrong with that [pats fat stomach]. And all the no-brainer stuff: the All Blacks with a decent scrum. Everyone speaking English! It's like a return to real life.page 172
And that's the problem. You can feel real life settling in, real thoughts, and, although you don't want to, you can't help noticing a few things. Where to start?
In Germany, maybe. As I said, I was there for five years, with my wife and our two kids—in fact we came home with three—working on the Jewish Museum Berlin. Now that museum is a whole other topic and I don't propose to go there tonight, but what it meant was that, unlike other countries I have spent time in, that job meant I really did go in to German society; or at least some way in. I look at myself now with a Kiwi eye and I think, So are you more serious? Are you less flexible?—or is that just age? Are you taking yourself more seriously? Or is that just hubris? The casualness of New Zealand, this is not a big feature of everyday life in Germany.
It's one of the big things which strike you here, this casualness. I want to start now on a long slow circle into the middle of what I have to say tonight and out at the edge as I start what I get is the greeting from the heavyweight Maori guy who inspects my passport at Immigration: 'Great to have you back, fella. Welcome home.' After cops with machine guns, you've gotta love that. The bloke getting you into lines for Customs clearance: 'Look everybody, we're a bit overloaded here, everyone just go over into those two outbound lanes, would you—just ignore the markings on the floor.' Ignoring markings!—never in Germany, Bruce.
Then you step outside, and everything is so open—the skies, for one. In Berlin there's always a building rising right in front of your face, there's no horizon, no distance. I can't tell you how lucky we are to be able to escape, so quickly, from the enclosingness of cities. And the freshness of the air! After a year in Berlin my nose was like a chimney that needed a sweep, and it stayed like that for the next four years. I'd been back a week when I noticed that it was getting better. It's all the exhaust emissions etc in the air, and in fact there's no wind in Berlin to blow it away—well, nothing that we'd call a wind. It did blow a bit one day and all the dead branches came down off the trees, killing seven people and closing the roads for days.
Okay, quickly now on the weather: it's too soon for me to be missing the way the seasons are articulated in Europe but I know I will. It's not so much the snow—though I did love the way that white blanket page 173smoothed everything back to elemental shapes. It's the changes—the way you can so strongly sense the world turning, and your life going through its seasons. Makes you more reflective. Somehow instead of seasons, what we have here is weather.
And what's that weather like? Well, we don't really notice. In New Zealand we are increasingly of the idea that the weather should be constantly warm and permissive of outdoor leisure activities, and any weather that's not is somehow an aberration, an insult to our idea of our lives. Accordingly we wear warm-weather gear no matter what. To see people in Courtenay Place Wellington during a southerly in a teeshirt or shorts is to remember what Jock Phillips said, in this case about New Zealand men: that the culture of not giving expression to pain has become a culture of not giving expression full stop.
Just to do a little truck-stop here on clothes: the unbelievable casualness of the clothes New Zealanders wear is one of those things that poke your eye out, right up there with the popcorn quality of the TV news—TV in general, actually—and the obsession with violence (more on this later). Peter Jackson on set reminds me of Les Murray's poem, 'The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever'. Guys wearing to work the jersey they used to wipe the dipstick. Jandals at the dinner party, the lawn-mowing trousers … At the same time, New Zealanders have become a lot more conscious of style. Travel back with me if you will to my boyhood in the Masterton of the 1950s (please, let's don't stay there too long): what I can see walking down Queen Street is the daggy, the saggy, the raggy and the self-rolled tobaccy. Not too much of that about these days, outside of Speights commercials. Lots of people seem to have one eye out for that TV camera that might just suddenly put a frame around them and make their day. So the style is, be casual, but with streets of cool.
When you look pause and look around at the skies here, one of the things you see everywhere is wires. Black lines cutting the open into pieces—telephone wires, power lines, looping, sagging, making cobwebs. Doesn't anyone care what things look like? The Germans have been getting rid of powerlines for years. And signs. Our cities are thickets of signs. The whole country has gone berserk on marketing itself. Every little Lotto outlet and heel bar has a brand and a tagline and they just have to get it poked right into your eye. Doesn't anyone page 174want the cities to breathe a little? Oh, that's right: our cities are for commerce, not for people. And all that marketing competes with another category of signs, you know the ones, which read, 'In case your eye catches this sign instead of the thing right in front of you, these are stairs, which means you have to lift up your feet or else you'll have a nasty accident.' Doh. If we didn't have so many of these signs maybe we'd see the stairs better?
The wires-in-the-sky thing extends to pylons—so we're really going to have pylons marching across all our paddocks? Is there no money in this country for beauty?
Or do we think we have so much of it down south that up here, where most of us live, we don't have to care? And wind turbines. In fact I think wind turbines are relatively interesting-looking, and I'm all for eco-friendly sources of power. But has anyone looked at what's happening in Germany? There, they've had serious investment in wind power for over twenty years—thanks to significant government subsidies, many farmers erected big propellers on their land and sold the power to the national grid. You see them, stately forests of them, seeming to cartwheel across the horizon, when you take a train journey. They're intrusive, yes, but not ugly. Nevertheless … Just recently the Germans have concluded that the propellers are not an economic source of power, and are going to abandon them—just as we are about to invest heavily in this area. And Germany is a country with an infinitely greater commitment to ecological sustainability than us—is anyone paying attention?
Of course the eco-commitment of the Germans can get tedious. To get rid of your rubbish you need to sort it into at least five types, each of which must go into precisely the right bin down in the courtyard. These bins are used communally and when you move into a new apartment block you are given comprehensive instruction on how to divide and deposit your stuff—it's detailed in your lease, and woe betide if you get it wrong—phalanxes will arrive to set you straight. Colour-code your empties into the correct white, brown or green bin or face a good dressing down. When you move out of your apartment, take it back to the bare white walls you started out with—the exact shade of white, naturally, which is also specified in your lease. No question that any improvements you might have page 175made would be worth keeping—everything must go. Is that smart? When we left Berlin I spent four days unbolting and throwing away a massive mezzanine floor that was so big and solid you could have landed the space shuttle on it—and the next tenants were only going to have to put it up again. Remove the light fittings, fill the screw-holes, and leave only bare wires. Remove the sink bench, leave only the outflow pipe. Now, what do you do with the sink bench, which was custom-built and won't ft anywhere else. Well, there's no market for it—actually, there's more or less no market for any second-hand stuff. I guess it's because for the last hundred years or so Germany has been so incredibly wealthy. Maybe that's about to change—unemployment is way up and rising steadily; economic growth is non-existent. But, for now, what you do is get your friend with a van to come round and take it to an urban recycling centre. It's what Berlin has instead of a dump. My first visit to one of these amazed me. For a start, it's so clean you could hold a picnic in the middle of it. No smell, none whatsoever. It is simply another urban facility standing cheek-by-jowl with crowded apartment blocks and shops. Men in bright, clean overalls direct you where to put everything. (They are all men. It's men in charge in Germany. When Helen Clark visited the Jewish Museum, all my colleagues said, 'Your prime minister is a woman?' Angela Merkel, who very likely will be Germany's next Chancellor, faces hatred from the men in her party who resent being told what to do by a woman. Never happen here, would it.) Back to the recycling centre: everything is divided into shipping containers, which, when full, are shipped off for use as raw materials. Neat, clean, self-serviced. But it does feel a bit counter-intuitive. You want to get rid of your perfectly good old desk, so you break it down at the recycling centre, using the crowbars they provide, into splinters, for wood pulp—is that necessarily a good idea? Your old chair, which isn't good for recycling, is dragged away somewhere and crushed. Unless it's an antique, hardly anything is ever used again. All the old fridges, washing machines, dryers, in a container for scrap metal. It does make you wonder.
But there's no question: German ecological practice makes this country look like a cowboy outfit where anything goes. We met a German eco-freak who, during Ronald Regan's 'star wars' era and terrified that Europe would get caught up in a nuclear war, emigrated page 176to New Zealand because it was, he figured, the cleanest, greenest, furthest-away place he could think of. And he was shocked by what he found here. He stayed as long as he could bear it, but the state of the rivers, the way we think about land use, the dumping of fertilisers, the way we build things: it was just too hideous, and he faced his fears and went back. In fact many Germans spoke to me about this: New Zealand does not care enough for itself. For a country that says it's clean-and-green, that sells those qualities, we're not trying hard enough. After living in Germany, it's difficult not to think: the only reason New Zealand is as clean and green as it is is because we have a small population.
Look: This is where we live. We're so lucky—we don't have acid rain dropping in from the primitive economies across the border. We don't have a thousand years of manufacturing as an inheritance. So what are we thinking about?
I suppose that's where, circling, circling, I start to bear down what is at the centre of what, after five years, I find in this country.
I mean, I love it here. I can't tell you how I maundered on about New Zealand to my poor colleagues at the Jewish Museum. I explained our recent history, the Treaty, Roger Douglas—despite which, they offered me a permanent contract. So, you see, we could have stayed in Germany. We chose to come home.
And it's as though, having done that, somehow you end up holding your own country to account. 'I committed myself,' you say, 'so you better deliver.' It's unfair, really. What part, tell me, of the modern world really measures up? The problem is, when it doesn't, then you feel: Okay, then I don't have to either.
After a few weeks, as I've said, various things started to come to the surface. The visual clutter; the casualness—which, in the main, I see as a huge positive; the obsession with superficial style; the indifference to beauty.
All done too with great confidence. Confidence, now there's a thing. The magazines, Metro, Next, Pavement, various magazines I found on coffee tables, had pictures of us, the New Zealanders, shot from below, gazing confidently into the middle distance. A gas station attendant with a good tan—what a hero. A king of business— look at the guy. Look at those haircuts powering their way along page 177Lambton Quay. Yep, there's real confidence here these days. It's as though we've come through. Come through what? I guess that would be Rogernomics—we took the pain and suddenly here we are, out on the other side, and thriving. And why not? It's good to be confident, it's good to love your country.
But, magazines—whatever happened to New Outlook? The Republican? Quote Unquote? They're gone. Okay, magazines do come and go, that's their nature—but what's replaced them? Style bibles, full of heroic portraits, full of flattery. Where's the Listener as it used to be? Metro as it used to be? Does no one want that kind of serious consideration of the country any more?
Within a few weeks of being back I heard three times in various media broadcasts people saying, 'You're not trying to get into that old "national identity" crap are you?' … 'All that navel gazing about national identity' … 'the national identity discussion is such old hat.' I found this hard to believe. Okay, the literal phrase 'national identity' has probably done its dash. But all over the world people are debating the idea of their nation—in France, in Germany, in the States. The whole world has, since September 11th, had some hugely fundamental questions thrown at it: can we live with one another? Can we keep living like this? Surely the discussion about who we are, about what the essential, it-must-not-be-lost quality of this country is—that's a discussion which, one way or another, has to go on forever. But, coming back, I pick up a great reluctance to talk seriously about these things, to consider who we are, where we're going. The only question everyone seems happy to address is, Is it good for business?
Where are we, Switzerland?
Because that's what I'm getting. That this is a nation obsessed all over again with material satisfaction; that anyone who wants to discuss things in any context except, 'What will it do to the sharemarket?' is just causing trouble—'Come on, wanker, get your boat shoes on, get down to the Loaded Hog.' You know, it's like a return to the 1950s. We're all right. We're satisfied. We got what we wanted. Everything's okay. Don't frighten the horses.
Of course there are things that people mention. The violence. It's hard to get good figures for comparison but it seems that Germany has about as many murders, per capita, as New Zealand. But you'd page 178never know that from the news. The same is true of violent crime. There's an obsession about these subjects in this country—but no commitment to discussing why that might be. A friend remarked recently that this was 'a country full of rage'. Is it true? Why? Sure, the media kick things around—but always in the context of who's the winner and who's the loser—the big concern is, who lost face. Politics in particular. Never focusing on, Where is this taking us? What are we becoming? The public transport systems: the clear message they give you here is, 'If you can't travel by car you're just shit and that's how you'll be treated.' On the bus to work each day, I can't sit down properly because I'm too long from hip to thigh for the moulded plastic seats. But I'm not that tall. Who says our buses should be so squashy, so noisy, so jerky, so ill-lit? Is it because public transport isn't the stylish way to go, so it's okay to default to like-it-or-lump-it? (Margaret Thatcher said, 'If you're catching the bus to work at 30, you're a loser.' So is that our attitude?) German buses, compared, are like limousine luxury. Everybody hates our public transport but does anybody have anything to say except, 'That's what the market dictates'? I don't mean, just moan. I don't mean, find out who is to blame. I mean: ask ourselves: Is this who we are? The media: everyone bellyaches about it, but then we tune in just the same.
The news: there's Judy saying, 'Today the fig leaf of political respectability was torn from the bleeding body of Rodney Hyde, who was exposed as having sold his principles down the drain when he dot dot dot.' Isn't she trying to say, 'Today the Act party changed one of its policies'? After five years of listening to the BBC World Service, the language of the news here is just astonishing to me—as though it's being tabloid-ised for a tabloid nation.
On the cultural scene, there's a powerful sense that there's a rich cultural life, that terrific work is being produced, and lots of it, some amazing stuff—the 'Small World, Big Town' show, for instance, at the City Gallery in Wellington is full of art that is at least as exciting as anything I saw in Berlin galleries—but does anyone care? Somehow, it's work in which there's nothing essential at stake. The nation has found a way to consume culture without being affected by it. And the practitioners feel that, and turn their faces towards each other, each looking in towards the 'higher ground' of aestheticism, towards page 179'those who know'. The cultural scene is segmented, the literary arts cut off from the visual, architecture cut off from theatre—and all of it cut off from 'real life'.
Isn't this is what people used to say about New Zealand way back? Aren't these the clichés I grew up with in the 1950s? But maybe they're coming back to bite us.
Or was it that they never went away and we just forgot about them? It's only a few weeks since his death, but the passing of David Lange really gave me pause. I can't help remember that time, that frst year when he came to power and, even though our economy was on its knees, we found ourselves. Remember the excitement of us going nuclear-free. Of having a prime minister who could make us laugh. New Zealanders laughing—that was a real breakthrough. New Zealanders who could really talk—Kim Hill, Derek Fox, Bill Manhire, suddenly that's what New Zealanders were, interesting talkers. That same year Keri Hulme won the Booker and soon after Lauris Edmond and Dinah Hawken won Commonwealth Writers Prizes for poetry—we all read those books and everyone was talking about them. An Angel At My Table —first the books and then the wonderful movie. The Treaty settlement process was launched. The rugby tour to South Africa had been stopped. There was a sense that we were going somewhere. The Rainbow Warrior went down—suddenly we were worth attacking— and we had a heightened sense of who we were. In 1990 I had lunch in Paris with Judith Trotter, who at that point had been our ambassador for four years; she said, 'This nuclear free nonsense, New Zealanders have no idea of what it's costing us.' And I got on my high horse. 'I think you've been away too long,' I said. 'I think New Zealanders know the price and they've decided they're prepared to pay.'
That's the thing I ask myself, now: is there any price we prepared to pay, for anything? What are we prepared to forgo, in the interests of 'something better'? Tax cuts?
Interesting when you turn to Germany. That is a nation defined, even today, by the terrible things done in its name sixty years ago. It's true that, fifteen years ago, the fall of the Wall did provide a new focus. But then the problems of reunification gradually swelled, most visibly in the unemployment numbers, at the same time as economic growth subsided, so that today the country is at a loss: unable to page 180afford the strong social provisions it has regarded as eternal but not yet ready to give them up in favour of a market-driven society. Good on them, I say. Hang in there, Germany.
Of course, in many ways there's no real comparison possible between the two countries. Totally different histories, languages, geographies, climates, social make-up. Levels of discussion: in Germany they really know how to give an issue the complete three-sixty—by judgement day, you're heard all the angles. Is that true of us? My impression is, New Zealand is made up of what I call 'agreement groups'. People only associate with people they agree with. Are we afraid everything will fall over if we say boo? Our books: after twenty years in the book trade here what I think people want from a new novel is, one, to be flattered; two, to be comforted; and, three, that the book be decorative. Doesn't exactly sound like Günter Grass, does it.
And yet Germans are ready to feel a great affection for New Zealand; an affinity—they see us as who they'd like to be, if only. There's a shared sense that it's the human that matters.
And they're right. The human side of New Zealand is amazing. I know I've been having a good old moan, and everyone hates a moaner, me especially—so throw your bananas now. But it's the people here. You know, Ken Gorbey and I didn't get that museum open when no one else could because we were such great museum makers, because of our brilliant skills at synthesising cultural history. It was because we are Kiwis. Sorry if that sounds a bit trite, but you can't overstate, I don't think, the way that New Zealanders know how to solve a problem, how to cut through the crap, how to focus on what really matters. This is the upside of the casualness: we have a terrific sense of how far to go, of the unnecessary. Jandals at the dinner party: it's not going to break any bones. When you say of Germans, 'They didn't know when to stop', a real shiver goes down the spine. 'They didn't know when to pull back.' But do we?
As everyone knows, I'm quite keen on pop music. So I've been catching up. Trinity Roots, Fat Freddie's Drop, these are CDs you might pick over music from anywhere in the world. While I'm sitting there listening, I like to look at photographs—at the moment, two books in particular: Marti Friedlander's Godwit collection and Ans Westra's Handboek. Mostly, what you've got there is pictures of the page 1811960s and 70s. Wonderful pictures, so expressive—but not timeless. On the contrary, they're very much of their time. It's the faces—our 60s and 70s faces—that amaze me. I stare at them. Those people are astonished to be here; and at the same time they're not sure of where they are.
You couldn't say that these days. Those heroic photographs I saw in Metro and the other magazines—New Zealanders are so self-possessed now, so expert, so competent. So aware of their competence. We know where we are. We know who we are. We're in the middle of our lives in the middle of our world here in the middle of the Pacific.
But what are we doing with this knowledge, that has been so hard-won? Have we arrived—at the end of our history? Is this it? Is this [waves hand around] what we had in mind? Or are we bored with the idea of issues, or are there no issues left, or is it that the media reduces everything to porridge; or are we just too busy with our own struggles to care what kind of society we're making?
Have we arrived, New Zealand, at the place we were going to?
PS: Three weeks later, some of the dust stirred up by the election has settled. The first thing I note—with pride—is that we seem not to have been bought off by the promise of tax cuts. Sure, lots of people voted National, but this was, I gather, more because of an anxiety about where Labour was taking the country. So I have to be happy with that.
And, along with everyone else, I am delighted that the Maori Party has four seats. That's one of the most interesting things to happen in years. Roll on the stoushes.
Still, the sense of a near miss is very strong. A close call. We—I don't just mean Labour sympathisers—very nearly went under.
But suddenly party politics seems rather reduced in significance. Oh the relief. So now what happens? We let them get on with it and return to blow-by-blow coverage of backpacker murders, or who fronts the TV news. Otherwise it's default to dedicated study of the market. Gives the phrase 'business as usual' a certain quality, doesn't it?