A family affair

Christchurch, New Zealand


Another month passes. To most of you we continue to be an electronic presence – felt only over the web. Nothing has changed. But down here life is very different. Our existence feels a lot less like travelling, and the trip seems to slip rapidly into memory. Its terrifying how quickly the human mind moves on.

We’re at the end of a month in New Zealand. The purpose of coming here is primarily to visit Marisa’s family. Though for me it is also an opportunity to visit the parts I haven’t seen before, and there is nowhere on the earth I am happier to return to. Its hard to believe its been 5 years since we were last here, but its hard to express how far from London this is. Where day is night, summer is winter, up is down.

When I was a kid New Zealand meant lamb and Anchor butter. A garden of England in the south. But the world has changed a lot since then. Since the UK joined the EU it is no longer the default buyer of NZ produce. No longer an admirable paternal friend. The UK is now clearly merely a part of Europe. And out of the shade, New Zealand has grown.

The old world hasn’t gone away. There are still reflections of England in the smallest things. Do you want Marmite on toast for breakfast or would you prefer Weetbix? And the ‘World Famous in New Zealand’ array of kitsch Kiwiana is still here – gumboots, jandals (aka flip-flops), pavlova (hotly contested with Australia), Buzzy-Bees (every child should have one) etc.

But feel the tapestry of a more sophisticated land.

We couldn’t resist popping in to a few wineries on our trip north to south. New Zealand produces fine wine (world beating Sauvignon Blanc and cracking Riesling and Merlot), and mostly in a delightfully understated way. Marlborough and Montana are only the start, the boutique vineyards stretch from the top of Northland right to the south.

And New Zealand has spawned the ‘World of Wearable Art’ which deserves to be globally famous, and probably will be. Your life will not be quite complete until you have seen it. This annual catwalk show features everything from tributes to artists (an earshaped headpiece for VanGogh, or body warping outfits in homage to Picasso or Dali) to truly beautiful inventions reflecting the world around us, nature, optimism, and humour. It features a number of categories, and because this is New Zealand, one of the most avidly contested is ‘Bizarre Bras’.

NZ has created the world’s wildest tourist industry. Bungy jumping is so passé darling. Instead we went ‘Blackwater Tubing’ – where you abseil 100ft into a cave, surf the rapids in its underground river by the light of the glowworms, then rock climb out. Choice eh?

Oh, and did you hear, this is the land of (yawn) Lord of the Rings.

It is exciting to be somewhere that is so busy creating its identity.

But for me, most exciting of all, is the emergence of New Zealand’s many cultural identities. Maori culture is really vibrant, and it’s a lot more than the Haka you’ve probably seen at rugby. We spent 2 weeks in the North Island – where I’ve never been before, and were lucky to experience communities where life revolves around the Marae (traditional meeting house) and receive Maori hospitality.

New Zealand is grappling with history. This is not easy. In a country that has always thrived on ‘equality’ it is hard to understand the wrongs of the past, and to accept the discomfort of righting them. There is a tribunal here to address historic land claims etc (for more information you should read about the Treaty of Waitangi). Its rulings are certainly contentious. And listening to both sides of the argument, you can have sympathy with both.

But the blend of cultures here, between Pakeha (white European descent), Maori and Islanders (a mesmerising patchwork of peoples, primarily Samoans and Tongans but including numerous smaller communities) is a beacon to the rest of the Anglophile world of what could be, and despite all the issues, New Zealand feels, to me, hugely optimistic.

While visiting friends Jason, Sophie And Max in Wellington we called in at the national museum Te Papa (our place). A view of everything New Zealand from the junk shop to the waka, and embracing – as I’ve never seen anywhere before – the sheer diversity of New Zealand’s ancestors, from displays on many Pacific cultural groups, to the stories of Polish orphans.

There’s a cartoon on TV here called Bro’town. Its NZ’s answer to the Simpsons and pastiches the interaction of Pakeha, Maori and Islander. It’s wonderful and has fantastic depth. It would be difficult to understand it outside NZ, but hey, they have shown ‘The Kumars at No42’ on NZ TV.

In modern Maori slang your looser family and friends are your ‘cousie-bros’. And I have had the pleasure of meeting some of mine – while visiting Leeanne (Marisa’s cousin), Dale and Leada. It was such a privilege to go to a party there (a 40th – yikes, I’m getting old) and be the only foreigner present. They showed us such friendship – it was inspirational to be with them.

We spent a week in Ashburton, with Marisa’s Mum Alice, her husband Winston and the wider family. It’s great to be so welcome. And when the sun shines and the Southern Alps light up the western horizon, there’s nowhere else you could possibly want to be.

And finally, to the pub to watch rugby with Shirley in Christchurch. (The NZ national anthem is half in Maori – cool eh?). Despite the fact that several people attempted to explain the rules of the game to me, I think I convinced them after a while that I knew what was going on. It’s easy to find a bond with Kiwis if you accuse the opposition fullback of ‘kicking like an Aussie’.

So I’m glad to be here – it’s a place we could all learn a lot from. The tolerance, the recognition that everyone deserves a ‘Fair Go’ is wonderful. And you know, NZ was the first country in the world to give women the vote; it has managed to convert its British based political system to proportional representation so minorities are heard (the Green movement is thriving); it has scrapped its appointed house of parliament without hitch; and there are no NZ troops in Iraq. We could learn a lot.

This much I know

We hired a car again for a few weeks. Me and Annie needed some space – she was in danger of becoming a thorn in my backside! A trip to the Op Shop again produced some real classics. We cruised to ABC (remember Smokey?) and Spandau Ballet. We’ve become a 2 man 80s revival!

In New Zealand they’re quite into rock at the moment. But then, even a stopped clock keeps the right time twice a day.

All change

Arrived in Bangkok last night. It’s hot here. More in a few weeks.

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