Lesser Emblems, Six Years Later. (And just what the hell does that mean?)

Not much has changed in the six years since I wrote this except the cast of characters we call our politicians. This piece castigates George Bush but you could readily insert Barack Obama’s name without interrupting the seamless narrative. (I’m a Yellow Dog Democrat and I can still say this, sadly.)


Wellington street art, plus decoration

Thirty years ago, for reasons I cannot now remember — well, maybe I needed the cash –, I worked for a time in a London restaurant called Cranks. Cranks was a health food restaurant in the age when health food meant powerfully, soporifically heavy, grain heavy, legume heavy vegetarian food. The theme was echoed in the serving plates, which were all hand thrown by a potter somewhere at the end of the world in Cornwall. I liked to imagine him stooped and earnest over his wheel casting out [is that what you do? cast out?] plate after plate of specified Cranksware, all browns and tans. Then you’d go in the house where the long suffering spouse would be wearing something inadequate and badly knitted and sitting in a kitchen that didn’t work and which smelled permanently of wet baby. She’d come into the studio [it’d have to be called a studio, don’t you think? even though it was really a shack of some kind], bringing him yet another cup of cheap tea, murder uppermost in her mind especially when she saw once again his clay-chunked beard that grew sideways and never saw a comb. If she did go through with the murder, by now I expect she’d be out of prison, rehabilitated, have a sensible hairdo, and be doing something productive like, well, running a bank.

I thought about the plates a lot because I was the dishwasher at Cranks, always aware of their weight and variability. Which rather applied to the other people working there. Evidence of the declining Empire all around. I had the hots for Ethne, for example, a stout Irishwoman from Connemara. But the real point of this is that it was at Cranks that I discovered there are two basic ways to learn stuff in the world. One of course is the Socratic Method, generally approved and beloved. The other tacitly approved and generally beloved method is Public Humiliation.

See, as an integral part of the decline of the British Empire, there were bunches of Australians and New Zealanders working at Cranks as well as Irishwomen, cute or otherwise. But I couldn’t tell them apart. Well, I knew for example that the tall blond one and the Not Quite As Attractive And Not As Tall One were both from Down There somewhere but I couldn’t get beyond that. Until I called the Not Quite As Attractive One a Kiwi. Stop action, freeze frame, oh shit what have I done wrong? She made absolutely sure, loud and clear, yea unto the very echoes of Cranks, that I never mistook an Australian woman for a New Zealander ever again. No wonder I remember her as the less attractive one.

No wonder perhaps that I went first to New Zealand rather than Australia.

The first thing to recognize is that New Zealand is very far away. You know this, even your average state legislator might possibly know this, but I just thought I’d remind you, because it’s important. Shirley Hazzard, in her magnificent novel The Great Fire, describes what being so far away has wrought in New Zealand life. It’s grimly social, she says, because “remoteness had generated a fear of occasion, and the populace clung to the safety of its small concerns, just as their forebears had clung to these islands, greeting them as rafts and spars in the wild ocean, rather than as destination.”

Not only is it self-evident that New Zealand is a long way away, with all sorts of cloying social effects, it’s also closer to the sun. Trust me on this. Our first bike day, we rode out to Balmoral Forest. No, it’s not in Scotland, though it might as well have been. It was a proper glorious British day, blue skies, scudding puffy clouds, and a wind that didn’t argue too much with the direction we were going. But what made it Not Quite British was a real and immediate souvenir: severe sunburn. In a forest, for God’s sake. The ozone layer protection down there is a good deal thinner than a Northerner would imagine. Not surprisingly, the rate of skin cancer in New Zealand is thus higher than anywhere else. Which rather explains the deep dislike Kiwis seem to have for George Bush.

Not only him, but Dick Cheney and Bill Clinton, too. None of them, leaders of the quote free world, have done anything about global climate change and the dissolving ozone layer that keeps us all happy here on earth. Or should. And it’s dissolving fastest down near the South Pole. Down in that far away place.

And the polite little shouts of distress from down there aren’t heard in the real power centers of the world. One can readily argue that nobody’s shouts of protest are heard in the ultimate center of the world, George Bush’s odd little sample of a brain, but this has been going on for some time. As in pretty much ever since New Zealand was founded. When it’s so far over the horizon, why would you pay attention? For proof, I offer the fact that you probably don’t know who the Prime Minister is. You could hazard a guess that it’s a self-satisfied overweight white male, generally a safe choice for a mostly white country, but in this case you’d be wrong.

Now, it isn’t that Kiwis are exempt from blame, it’s just that they woke up to climate weirdness faster than most. The problem is larger, much, much larger; it’s humans generally. Humans like to explore, to move, to see the new, to feel the different. Ah, but when they find a place and settle in it they immediately, irrationally, irredeemably, set about recreating the place they left. As Hazzard says of the Kiwis, “they had left their destination behind them, and could only re-create, here its lesser emblems. Audacity had been exhausted in arriving at the utter-most point of the earth.”

Happens everywhere. How else to explain the British Pantry in Salt Lake City, with its shelves of sweets, dubious soup mixes, prissy tea towels, and other goods suitable for the expatriot? How else to justify the years when exiled Easterners flew back to Salt Lake from a New York visit with bags of bagels, their lesser emblems? Or not one, but two Tibetan restaurants. And don’t even go there with the coffee shop thing.

And that’s just the mild gustatory effect of exile. It’s just terrible when humans arrive on islands. And New Zealand is nothing if not islands. Skinny and tall (180 miles wide, maybe, with mountains that top out at 12,000 feet), but islands entirely. And so isolated that there were no humans for the first 80 million years of its existence. And in 80 million years, a lot of evolution takes place. (Sorry, but this bit is about evolution. If you don’t approve, skipping this paragraph will only begin to address your problems.) So all that time New Zealand was off by itself evolving with no outside influences at all. None. Time enough for a complex ecosystem to evolve, one that had no snakes, no quadrupeds, and precisely one species of spider. (I had to look this stuff up to be sure.)

So powerful an effect that the main food of the only hawk on the island (a true giant of a bird, wingspan of ten feet) was the Moa, an equally big six-foot tall flightless bird found only in New Zealand. And both were gone within 200 years of human arrival. No blame, that’s just what we do. Bagels to Salt Lake City, pigs & mongoose to New Zealand. Same thing. We screw it up.

By trying to make it look just like the place we left, we screw it up. Dive into any bird book and you’ll see the word “introduced” next to lots of birds. Yes, birds fly across oceans and stuff, but what possible evolutionary advantage could an English Sparrow, habituated to the insidious grime of British cities, gain by willingly migrating to New Zealand? None. But they’re there, along with the hideous Starling and a bunch of other interlopers brainlessly introduced by those timid exiles, anxious for the distempers of home.

And what’s lost in the process? Merely looking at the charismatic birds and ignoring the less lovely losses like that lonely species of spider, you’ll discover that, try as you might, you will never see the Piopio, the Laughing Owl, or the Huia. They’re all gone. Evicted into eternity with no chance of redemption. And we’re the poorer for it. Makes me think of Hilaire Belloc, who wrote

The Dodo used to walk around,
And take the sun and air.
The sun yet warms his native ground ––
The Dodo is not there!

The voice that used to squawk and squeak
Is now for ever dumb ––
Yet you may see his bones and beak
All in the mu-se-um.

Even when losing her marbles at the end of her life, my Mother was a consummate conversationalist. It was a boon to the tin eared among us. She knew just when to say, “oh, really,” “tell me more,” “how amazing,” and other helpful phrases. Most important, she knew what to do when people forgot something they’d intended to say. She’d helpfully begin to hum Arthur Sullivan’s little ditty, The Lost Chord. You may know the song. It’s about screwing around on the organ (that doesn’t sound quite right, does it? but you know what I mean), then finding one chord “like the sound of a great Amen” and never being able to find it again.

Well, there’s a lost chord in Ed Abbey’s writings. Somewhere in Abbey’s vast and shambling misericord, he talks about how useless the English language is for describing anything natural outside England. He says a language that evolved trying to describe vapid bogs and misty glens isn’t too much help in the desert. In other words, travel writing in English is something of a useless exercise. It’s an oxymoron. Example: we spent probably half the trip saying stuff like, “This is just like Oregon. No, wait, it’s like the Alps. No, I mean it’s really like coastal Maine.” Finally — stunning revelation — we decided that New Zealand was awfully like, well, New Zealand. No description; just that. It’s like itself.

So why the hell do we travel? We can’t describe it adequately, we can’t experience it as it once was or might have been (we probably wouldn’t enjoy it if we could), we seek out the familiar when we’re surrounded by uncertainty, and we certainly can’t get back to the original. What are we doing to ourselves?

Curiously, the only thing that humans do well without screwing it up for the rest of the globe is develop language. We’re really good at accents. You and I, for example, being who we are and where we are from, generally pronounce the number that’s between six and eight as seven. Kiwis generally say those sorts of ‘e’ as if they were ‘i’. “Sivin.” There’s a reason. New Zealand was first settled en masse in the 1860s and ‘70s and that’s when, as David Crystal helpfully points out, the right sort of people in England also pronounced their ‘e’ as if it were an ‘i’. And if you’re so far away, fearful of occasion, of standing out in any way beside the humiliation of vast distance and not having introduced enough of these stupid birds, then you’d emulate too. Case nicely closed. If you go to New Zealand by sea (an improbable indulgence, I know, but worth toying with) you’d have time to consider all this in Crystal’s lovely book, The Stories of English, 600 pages of thoughtful linguistic exploration of why all English is good English, even the kind of stuff you hear that gives you a frisson of linguistic angst. (Go on, admit it, you’re sometimes a snob about language use too.)

I really do understand why people want to move to New Zealand; it’s simply a very nice, very scenic place with good people. Polite, but good. But despite Auckland being a city housing the largest population of Pacific Islanders anywhere, New Zealand is awfully white and rather drearily British white. (What, after all, did I flee from originally?) And there’s nothing much one might call culture, just lesser emblems. No credible symphony, no dance to speak of, no art museums. They do history well, partly because they’re very aware of heritage and have good sense of design, but would I want to move there? No. Anyway, there’s no Cranks.

© Patrick de Freitas 2006

About Patrick de Freitas

Recovering bilbiopole interested in way too many things so I often have difficulty keeping up with myself. Or perhaps I'm more scattered than I imagine.
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