It’s not often I think it’s a good idea to sit outside for three hours on a cold London Saturday afternoon. Then again, it’s not often the wife and I are invited to the opening of the NZ Memorial “in the presence of her Majesty the Queen.” In fact, the whole splendid event that took up most of my day was kicked off with another splendid event – the invite some months ago from the NZ High Commission inviting me and Shelley, as a couple - that is, not me plus guest, but as a proper truly recognised couple. Civil Union in NZ, Civil Partnership in UK – it’s still not marriage, but it’s a lot more than I ever expected twenty years ago.
So there we were, Kerry Fox on one side (with Tupperware of homemade Anzac biscuits she’d brought to share – good woman), Barbara Ewing on the other (checking if I was crying at the same moments she was – we were), and Sean Fitzpatrick, Craig Dowd and Andrew Mehrtens in front of us. Brilliant view until they stood up, obviously. As Barbara pointed out, the sportsmen were in the row in front of the artists. Definitely a kiwi event.
I’m the youngest child of seven, unlike most of my contemporaries, both my parents fought in WW2. My father was in NZRAF 75 squadron. He joined up early on. A Martinborough boy, no doubt some of his reasons for getting involved in the conflict so very soon were to do with him being eighteen in 1939 and wanting a bit of excitement, this was long before Martinborough counted as a chic destination. I know he chose the Air Force because it had the most chance of that excitement – and a good uniform. Our dad understood the value of a good uniform.
But he also joined up because it was the ‘right’ thing to do. A Labour man all his life, I know as an adult he cared about politics, took it seriously. I don’t know what he thought when he was eighteen, there’s some family story about my Nana knowing Mickey Savage, maybe they really were sitting around debating politics long into the night at Venice Street, but as a grown man the little he did tell me about his long war experiences, was that he thought it was the right thing to do. To try to stop what was happening in Germany, to stop the fascist rise, to do his bit.
In my father’s case, doing his bit involved being an air gunner/wireless operator in Lancasters. Bloody dangerous. Of the 12,000 NZ airmen in WW2, a quarter of them died. In the past few years I’ve had several friends die of various illnesses, it’s been awful. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to think a quarter of my mates had died before we were twenty five.
Tom was shot down over Germany in 1941, he spent the next four years in a succession of German Prisoner of War camps. He did not have a glorious war. The very little he ever shared with us was about hunger, cold, boredom, and longing for New Zealand while looking at Austrian mountains through barbed wire. But he never said he didn’t think he should have gone, and he always reminded us that what he and his mates suffered was nothing compared to conditions in the concentration camps, reminded us too that what our grandfathers and their mates went through in the First World War was bloodier and dirtier still than the action they’d seen in Germany.
He was generous too about ‘ordinary’ Germans. Aware that they were as caught up in the conflict as he was, that the average German soldier was not the same as an SS member. That war, on either ‘side’, is dirty and nasty and brutal. And not at all glorious. When I was twenty my father gave me the diary he kept as a PoW. It’s very brief, often sarcastic, definitely sad, and it astonishes me it was written by a twenty two year old boy. They were such boys.
Which is kind of the point. This memorial – elegant, strong, beautiful and evocative – is very much about youth. Because it was predominantly young (and young-ish) people who gave time, years, and lives in wars. And the wars are still going on. The one this country – Britain – is currently engaged in is no less sad and destructive than any other. Certainly there doesn’t seem to be much chance of a positive outcome.
It was clear yesterday that the NZ Memorial, both the art work itself, and the opening ceremony, with a swathe of royals and two kapa haka companies, music and speeches, was absolutely not about glorifying war. My parents (my mother was in the UK army during WW2) both believed in remembering in order to stop it happening again. None of our memorials have yet achieved that, but the point of a memorial is still to try to do both. Remember the past, and hope for the future.
At the reception afterwards (at the RAF club on Piccadilly, again I could feel my father’s pride all the way from his Tokoroa grave!) I talked to several of the NZ veterans who’d come over for the event. Lovely old guys. Warm and generous with their time and stories. And not a little flirty. One of them thought he might have known my Dad. All of them were moved by finally being part of a long overdue recognition of their past work, and the deaths of their young friends. Of making it this far.
It’s a good piece of art this memorial, pieces of art. It has poems on it, pictures carved in. It stands proud and stands out. Hyde Park corner is hardly a stopping place, it’s basically an enormous three-lane roundabout. But the stands were lit last night when we went home, and the Southern Cross shining out from the top of them does look like a beacon. I’m delighted that it is on my way home from most places I go to in London. I’ll see that and get to remember my Dad, and home, and acknowledge some past in the hope that we can find a way to stop the violence in the future.
And, for an ostensibly sad and solemn occasion, a lot of the afternoon was fun, exciting, a bit silly. The Queen, in the flesh is very small, and seemed quite old. She looked a lot like someone’s Nana in a very good hat. Helen Clark sounded good. She and Tony skirted ever so carefully round the whole Iraq thing in both their speeches. He mentioned global warming. Ngati Ranana’s version of Po Atarau had me in tears. Dave Dobbyn sounded great. Hayley Westenra is tiny. Gaylene Preston still looks like a very groovy film-maker.
At the reception, the younger NZRAF blokes were exceedingly charming, as only men who fly planes and wear a great uniform know how to be. I talked to Roger Donaldson about my Dad’s diary and those many untold stories. The RAF people gave us good New Zealand wine – there’s always give good wine at the New Zealand events. And I sat in the cold of Hyde Park Corner and shared an Anzac biscuit with an All Black. My Dad would have been really proud of that too.