Archive for the 'Helen Rickerby' Category

Whadarya? Some thoughts on being a New Zealander overseas

There’s nothing quite like being overseas to make you think about home.

On a recent trip to Europe I found I was pleased when people asked me where I was from, and that I felt proud to say ‘New Zealand’. This was a bit of a surprise to me, but I think my pride came from two things.

Firstly, New Zealand is a ridiculously long way from anywhere, especially Europe, and I thought they should be impressed that I’d travelled such an enormous distance (and many people were – and I was rather impressed myself).

Secondly, I was pleased to let them know that I wasn’t American or English or Australian or any of the other slightly less exotic and, I suspect, more annoying tourist possibilities. (As much as I’d like to be mistaken for a local, with my paleness and limited knowledge of any language other than English, that was not likely to happen in Italy or Greece. And in fact my pale friend who is actually Greek often gets mistaken for a tourist, but that’s a whole other story.)

Gratuitous holiday snap from one of my favourite places (Oia, Thira)

Gratuitous holiday snap from one of my favourite places (Oia, Thira)

I’m sure individual American tourists, for example, are completely lovely, but I did notice a general level of demandingness that most ‘I’m-not-really-a-tourist-I’m-a-traveller’ New Zealanders don’t have. And I didn’t want the waiters or shop keepers or ticket sellers to think that I was going to waltz on in to their country and start demanding things.

At home in New Zealand I have to admit I don’t feel that I entirely fit into this culture. I don’t like rugby, that universal topic of conversation (though I do have some interest in the weather – that other universal topic of conversation). I’m not really that interested in sports at all. I’m not much of a DIYer; I don’t hunt, fish, tramp or rock-climb, I have neither a bach nor a crib. I don’t like beer. ‘Mate’ and ‘cheers’ aren’t in my vocabulary. (Please don’t throw me out.) But overseas I was proud to be a New Zealander, which suddenly seemed to mean a certain kind of polite intrepidness rather than a sporty repression.

For Wellingtonians overseas, finding a decent coffee is a major concern

For Wellingtonians overseas, finding a decent coffee is a major concern

What are New Zealanders like overseas? What are New Zealanders like in general? Well, according to the American sitting behind me on the plane to LA, who I overheard talking to the English woman next to him, New Zealanders are friendly. He was at the end of his first visit to New Zealand, which he had enjoyed. He said he had been told New Zealanders were friendly, and indeed, in his new experience, they were. Americans could be friendly, he said, but it was often false. Australians also were quite friendly, but New Zealanders were even friendlier. And he had a theory about why this was. Australia is like a big brother to New Zealand, in the same way the US is to Canada, and so, because of this rivalry, New Zealand needed to be even better at things than Australia. Hence New Zealanders needed to be even friendlier than Australians.

I found his theory interesting, but unconvincing. If New Zealanders are indeed so friendly (are we really?), I suspect it’s probably more to do with our belief in egalitarianism (which these days, with increasing inequality in New Zealand, is not actually reflected in reality), along with our desire for people from the outside world to love us (‘So … what do you think of New Zealand?’).

Back home in New Zealand (click for image credit)

Back home in New Zealand (click for image credit)

A last anecdote vaguely related to the topic at hand – which I guess must be New Zealand identity – in Vienna we rushed into the Art History Museum (more properly the Kunsthistorisches Museum) with less than an hour until closing time. The ticket seller made sure we knew how little time we had before he would sell me the tickets (we did, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see just one thing – frescos painted by Gustav Klimt above the grand staircase). Then he asked me where we were from. ‘New Zealand,’ I said. ‘A very long way,’ he said. ‘Yes,’ I agreed. Then he said, obviously trying to be witty, ‘Where is Harry Potter?’ I was bamboozled, but smiled my polite New Zealand smile, and it wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realised he’d confused one fantasy film series – Harry Potter – with another: the Lord of the rings. Perhaps that’s what we are to the world: extras from Middle Zealand – as the Lego movie (which I watched on the plane on my way home) humorously called us. Oh well, it’s nice to be back in my castle.

What do you think? What are New Zealanders like? What are we like overseas? Are we actually that friendly? Leave a comment!

Of forests, paddocks and bush

A rather romantic painting of a New Zealand kauri forest (click for image credit)

A rather romantic painting of a New Zealand kauri forest (click for image credit)

Recently I’ve been reading Gossip from the forest by Sara Maitland, an English book about the relationship between forests and fairy tales, and forests and people. Each chapter contains a ramble through a different English or Scottish forest, some musings and lots of fascinating information about trees, animals, history, fairy tales and people, and then ends with a retelling of a relevant fairy tale. I’m find thing it’s making me reflect on my own feelings about New Zealand’s forests. And I’m also learning a lot about British forests.

So far I’ve learned that the pre-modern relationship between people and forests in Europe was generally quite symbiotic. That the selective cutting, coppicing (cutting off the trunk of the tree and letting new shoots grow from the stump) and pollarding (when a tree’s branches are cut off and allowed to regrow) was good for the biodiversity of a forest, and allowed the trees to live longer. I also learned what coppicing was – it’s a term I’ve never heard before.

I’m not sure that either of those methods work with native New Zealand trees (though I can confirm that they do with the holly and sycamore trees I’ve been having a hard time killing). By the time European settlers got to New Zealand this sustainable living with and in the forest was out and the agricultural revolution was in. Why have lots of trees when you can instead have green productive farmland? In consequence, native forests tend to remain only in isolated areas or on mountains in New Zealand – generally areas that are no good for agriculture.

This interactive map, which shows which parts of New Zealand were forested in the years 1000, 1840 and 2000, indicates that forest loss began even before European settlers made it to New Zealand. Between 1000 and 1840 forest cover reduced from about 80% to 50%, at least partly due to Māori making use of fire in agriculture and hunting. New Zealanders’ relationship with forests is not exactly symbiotic – we have got a lot out of the forests, but the forest has not got a lot out of us.

Bush burned to create farmland (click for image credit)

Bush burned to create farmland (click for image credit)

Settlers changed New Zealand’s landscape in various ways, one of which is that now a green grassy paddock looks a lot like nature to most of us, but in the last few years I’ve been realising more and more how unnatural that really is. A lot of effort has gone in to making those green pastures, a lot of cutting or burning and a lot of fertiliser. A couple of years ago I first visited the UK, and while on a train from London to Edinburgh I got to see the landscape that our rural landscape is trying to look like – the landscape that most of the first European settlers came from. But now, reading Gossip from the forest, I’m realising that the rolling green fields in England and Scotland aren’t really ‘natural’ there either. Forest covered much more of the British Isles, and stock was able to graze within many forests. It wasn’t until the agricultural revolution hit that forests were seen as a barrier to farming.

So the forests visited by Sara Maitland, the author and narrator of the book, are often remnants, or even re-growths of old forests. These forests sound like charming, almost friendly places. With bluebells in the spring, and clearings and sun. The thing that has struck me the most is how different they sound to our forests. For a start, we generally don’t generally say ‘forest’ – ‘the bush‘ is our favoured term. And New Zealand bush is a gorgeous thing to behold and adventure through, but not a good place to go off-track or get lost in. It can be deadly. I remember a very sharp terror of having somehow wandered off the track by myself in a fairly tame bit of bush, and realising I was lost. The bush is so dense that you could be anywhere. (I managed to bash my way through the bush to the nearby road – fortunately I wasn’t actually in the middle of nowhere).

New Zealand bush is beautiful and all, but don't get lost in it (click for image credit)

New Zealand bush is beautiful and all, but don't get lost in it (click for image credit)

Just this week there was a report of a tourist who took one track rather than another and ended up lost for three days in Fiordland. If she didn’t have survival skills, the outcome of her story might not have been so good. So, like many New Zealanders, my feelings about the bush are not just fond, but also respectful and a little bit fearful.

I grew up in a little place called Pinehaven, so named because of the pine trees that grow on the hills that virtually surround it. We also had quite a bit of native bush around, including ‘the-bush-at-the-front’ and ‘the-bush-down-the-back’ of our house. Rimu was my favourite tree – for reasons I’m not really sure about, but probably have something to do with the fact that we had a least one quite large specimen in the back bush, and I was in the Rimu ‘house’ at primary school. The other houses were Kauri, Tōtara and Pine. I think I was a reasonably old child before it dawned on me that pine trees weren’t actually native. I guess when something has been around long enough – like pine trees and rolling green fields, they start to seem like they’ve been there forever.

Who the hell was Katherine Mansfield?

Katherine Mansfield: a nice young lady (Click for image credit)

Katherine Mansfield: a nice young lady (Click for image credit)

I kind of hate this photo of Katherine Mansfield (above). I mean, it’s a gorgeous picture and all – KM looking sweetly pretty, with a charming daisy on her lapel and just a touch of poetic intensity. And that’s why I’ve grown to hate it. It encapsulates to me the way I feel Katherine Mansfield has come to be generally represented and thought of in New Zealand: a nice young lady from the past who wrote nice stories about children playing at the beach. Basically, a bit dull.

I think the reason for this is because the place most people first (and maybe only) encounter Mansfield and her writing is at school, where we can’t have anything too racy. I also think it’s because we’ve co-opted her as a national treasure – as we like to do with anyone who came from here and has the tiniest bit of fame overseas – and national treasures need to be a reasonably nice. And also because, although we celebrate her, most New Zealanders don’t actually know that much about her.

Katherine Mansfield – born Kathleen Beauchamp in Thorndon, Wellington, 125 years ago today – was many things, but boring isn’t one of them. Instead, she was audacious, exciting, sometimes badly behaved, independent, talented, deep-thinking and ahead of her time.

As an upper-middle-class girl in Edwardian Wellington certain standards of behaviour were expected. And these are standards young Kathleen did not meet. She had relationships with both men and women (almost certainly sexual) and her scandalous reputation was such that the fiancé of her older sister Vera was warned off marrying into the family. The warnings didn’t work and Vera Beauchamp married James Abbott Mackintosh Bell at what is now Old St Paul’s (the same church where I got married almost 100 years later) in 1909. But Katherine was already gone by then. She had been badgering her parents to let her go back to London, where she had attended school from 1903 to 1906, and (possibly because of scandal) they finally let her.

Katherine Mansfield in 1906 (click for image credit)

Katherine Mansfield in 1906 (click for image credit)

Back in the motherland, Katherine had many youthful adventures and generally threw herself into life. She supplemented her allowance by performing musical skits at parties (while pretending to be one of the guests), became pregnant, married (someone else) and left her new husband the same day. She miscarried alone in Bavaria, and on her return she got involved with writers and artists, at first those associated with the avant garde journal The New Age. And that’s just the start!

There are many more stories I could recount, like the time she snuck into war-torn France to spend a few days with her lover, but space is limited. By the time she died in 1923, at the young age of 34, she had published three collections of short stories, and had written many more stories, articles, letters and journals which were collected and published after her death. She, to steal a phrase from a friend of mine, makes you feel you’ve done nothing with your life.

I can’t remember where I read it, or even if it’s quite true, but it has been said that she was the first woman in London to wear purple stockings – which encapsulates to me the kind of person she was, or at least the kind of person I think she was. But knowing what she was really like is a little bit of a problem with Mansfield. I’m fascinated by photographs of her because she generally looks so different in each one. Partly it’s because her face changed a lot as she became older and sicker (with tuberculosis), but partly I think because she was tricky to pin down. She once said to John Middleton Murry (who became her second husband), ‘don’t lower your mask until you have another mask prepared beneath.’

Katherine Mansfield in 1911 (click for image credit)

Katherine Mansfield in 1911 (click for image credit)

There are a lot of biographies of Mansfield, each with their own, sometimes wildly differing, views on their subject, and I think I must have read them all. The earliest was by the delightfully named Ruth Elvish Mantz, co-authored with Murry, who was busy growing the myth of his late wife (which turned out to be quite lucrative for him, but that’s another story). It represented Mansfield as some kind of brilliant angel, and a similar sort of reverential tone pervades Antony Alpers’s first biography (published in 1953). By his 1980 The Life of Katherine Mansfield he’d dropped the reverence and had a more indulgent ‘wasn’t she clever but naughty little monkey’ attitude. Others represent her as a bit of a bitch, while some biographers (I’m looking at you Jeffrey Meyers) seem to actively dislike her. In general, I’ve found them to take a one-sided view of Mansfield – as if they’ve only looked at one of those elusive photographs rather than a whole bunch. Of course this isn’t quite fair of all of them, and I do recommend the recent Katherine Mansfield: the story-teller by Kathleen Jones (2011), which I think treats Mansfield and the other people in her life more like people rather than characters.

You will have got by now that I’m a bit of a Mansfield fan. And, while I’ve been writing more about her life than her work, it’s her work that I’m actually a fan of. But it was her life that first got me hooked. As an aspiring teenage writer, she came to mean a lot to me as an inspiration – not only was she a woman writer, but she was a woman writer who came FROM HERE, from the very city I lived in (or, more truthfully, from the very city of which the city I lived in was a satellite). Not only that, but she was a writer of international importance.

Katherine Mansfield in 1920 (click for image credit)

Katherine Mansfield in 1920 (click for image credit)

I think it’s sometimes hard for us to tell how important New Zealanders are overseas – giants here might be minnows out there – but Mansfield deserves her fame. In her favoured form – the short story – she was developing new, modernist ways of writing that were, for example, less concerned with plot and more interested in psychology and character. While I love her New Zealand stories, such as ‘At the Bay’ and ‘Prelude’, my favourite story might well be ‘The daughters of the late colonel’, which arguably goes past modern and right into post-modern, with its surreal flights into the minds of the daughters (‘Jug’ and ‘Con’) that recall the ‘fantasy sequences’ that were considered so cutting-edge in television shows like Ally McBeal (if you can remember the 1990s).

Virginia Woolf, who was a friend of Mansfield’s, is now considered to be THE great modernist writer; but when the younger Mansfield was writing and publishing her modernist short stories, Woolf was still yet to find her way to the new techniques that would make novels like To the lighthouse such modernist masterpieces. Not to diminish Woolf’s considerable talent, but her way was paved by writers such as Mansfield (whose way, in turn, was paved by writers like Anton Chekhov).

I for one welcome our new Mansfieldian overlord

I for one welcome our new Mansfieldian overlord

A new public sculpture celebrating Katherine Mansfield was recently erected in Wellington, in Midland Park. Before it was installed I was sure I was going to hate it. The images I’d seen of how it was going to look made me think it was going to be part of the ‘Katherine Mansfield was a nice writer who wrote nice stories’ school (see for yourself here). But now that it’s up, I’ve grown to love it. To me the sculpture doesn’t look all that much like Mansfield, but rather like a giant alien Amazon/suffragette who is going to conquer our planet, AND she lights up at night. What’s not to like!

Her words light up at night

Her words light up at night

What do you think? Do you like or hate the sculpture? How do you think of Katherine Mansfield? Are you going to do anything to celebrate her 125th birthday?

For more about Katherine Mansfield read our biography of her, originally published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, check out events to celebrate her birthday, visit the websites of the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace and the Katherine Mansfield Society, watch Bliss, or read one or more of the many books about Katherine Mansfield and her work.

How to avoid sporting heartbreak

Alas, not this time – the tickertape parade after New Zealand won the America's Cup in 1995 (click for image credit)

Alas, not this time – the tickertape parade after New Zealand won the America's Cup in 1995 (click for image credit)

A lot of New Zealanders are still in mourning today. A sort of private-public forlornness has been hanging in the air since yesterday morning, when Emirates Team New Zealand was beaten 9–8 by Oracle in the America’s Cup. New Zealand is country that is bound together by sports-related joy and misery, or at least that’s what it appears like to me, and this belief is backed up by our Te Ara story on Sport and the nation.

I have to confess, though, I’m not a follower of sport, especially not in that obsessive, strong-feeling sort of way. But I kind of get it. It’s exciting to be following a team or sportsperson, feeling your emotions go up and down as their fortunes do. The tension, the anguish, the joy – if they win – or otherwise the misery. It seems to be it’s a lot like falling in love and having your heartbroken over and over. And New Zealand sports followers have a lot of opportunity for heartbreak. Especially, I’m told, if they’re following the New Zealand men’s cricket team.

The big sport in New Zealand is, of course, rugby. More specifically, it’s men’s top-level rugby. The All Blacks have given this country more than its fair share of heartbreak, especially when it comes to the world cup. After a win in the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, New Zealand endured 24 years of losing until 2011, despite generally being the favourite to win. Right before the 2011 competition started a friend said to me very seriously that he didn’t think he could bear another loss. That if the All Blacks didn’t win that year, he would have to stop following rugby. He couldn’t do it to himself anymore; it hurt too much. Matters of the heart are always hard.

World cup grief (click for image credit)

World cup grief (click for image credit)

I hope you won’t throw me out of the country for being unpatriotic when I admit I didn’t actually watch the final of the 2011 Rugby World Cup (though I’m told it was a very painful experience). But as soon as it was over I knew straight away that the All Blacks had won because I could hear the screams of joy from inside my house. I went outside, down my path to where I can look out over the city and I just listened to all that happiness floating up. It sounded like the whole city was outside expressing their jubilation in the streets. But, mixed in with the triumph, I’m pretty sure I could detect a great deal of relief. A collective sigh of ‘thank god I haven’t just had my heart broken again’.

In this most recent heartbreak, we can find ways to assuage it. We can say, ‘Well, they just had more cash to throw at it.’ Or, ‘There were heaps of New Zealanders on the other boat anyway, so it’s almost like we won.’ Or, ‘Both of the boats were built in New Zealand anyway.’ And all of those are true, but they don’t change the result.

I have a suggestion though, for those of you who get your emotional highs from following sport but want to avoid too much heartbreak: switch to following women’s sport.

These women probably won't break your heart (click for image credit)

These women probably won't break your heart (click for image credit)

Personally, I think women’s sport is seriously undervalued in this country, with the possible exception of netball. And that’s not only a shame and perpetuates the idea that anything is only really important if a man does it, but it also means we’re losing opportunities to feel good about ourselves as a nation.

Just hours before victory was stolen from us on the water around San Francisco, the Football Ferns, the New Zealand women’s football team, beat China 4–0 to win the Valais Women’s Cup. I don’t know how important, or otherwise, that cup is, but during it the New Zealand team, which is only ranked 19th in the world, beat 4th-ranked Brazil – something no New Zealand team at any level has ever managed to do before.

Though, it sounds like the Football Ferns are just getting started on their winning streak. The teams to follow if you don’t want to get your heart broken are the Black Ferns rugby union team and the Kiwi Ferns rugby league team. Both teams have won their respective world cups every single time. (Update: ok, apparently not every single time – the Kiwi Ferns lost the final of this year’s cup, but three wins in a row is still an amazing record.) Were there street parades? If so, I missed them.

Then again, those teams are so good that perhaps a dedicated follower would miss those heart-stopping moments, where there’s a good chance of defeat and misery. Maybe happy contentment isn’t what a sports follower is looking for out of their obsession. For what is love without risk?

Yesterday’s Seddon 6.5 magnitude earthquake

Map showing the epicentres of the recent quakes (Source: Geonet)

Map showing the epicentres of the recent quakes (Source: Geonet)

Yesterday, at 5.09 in the afternoon, a magnitude 6.5 earthquake struck in Cook Strait, between the North and South islands. It was felt strongly in central New Zealand, sending people under doorways and tables, but fortunately only four people have been reported injured. There has been some damage, especially to buildings in Wellington’s central business district and around Wellington’s wharves. Workers have been advised to stay out of Wellington’s CBD today, a building in Blenheim has been evacuated, and residents of Seddon are advised to boil their water.

This earthquake – which was centred 20 kilometres east of Seddon in Marlborough (south-east of Blenheim), at a depth of 17 kilometres – was the largest of a swarm of quakes that are being referred to as the ‘Seddon sequences‘. The earthquakes are still continuing, but the probability of another large aftershock decreases with time. The earthquakes are mainly centred on an area where the Australian and Pacific plates meet. Even though under the sea, the earthquake wasn’t big enough to trigger a tsunami – they usually have to be a magnitude 7.0 or greater. However, it was certainly felt by the people on the inter-island ferry that was in the area at the time, with the captain at first thinking they might have hit something.

The ‘Seddon sequence’ began with a magnitude 5.7 just after 9 on Friday morning. Te Ara staff experienced their first earthquake on the 13th floor of their new building and, like other high-rise office workers, found the swaying rather disconcerting. I was quite pleased to still be at home in my wooden Edwardian house on the hill, comforted by the fact that wooden houses tend to stand up very well in earthquakes.

1848 Marlborough earthquake

This was a fact first noted by Wellington’s early settlers in 1848, when they experienced an earthquake estimated at magnitude 7.5, centred on the Awatere Valley in Marlborough (which is also where Seddon is). When the citizens of Wellington rebuilt, noting that most of the brick and stone buildings had suffered damage, many rebuilt with timber, leading to the distinctive wooden architecture the city has today.

1855 Wairarapa earthquake

Probably the best-known earthquake to have shaken Wellington is the 1855 Wairarapa earthquake, which was centred on a fault in Palliser Bay. At magnitude 8.2, it is the largest recorded earthquake in New Zealand. It caused considerable damage in Wellington and elsewhere in central New Zealand, and between five and nine people died. It also changed the geography of Wellington considerably, lifting up the land around Wellington’s waterfront. Much of Wellington’s CBD is now on land that was previously under the harbour. The advantage was more land, but a disadvantage is that the land is less stable, and much of the reported damage from yesterday’s quake seems to be in that area.

1942 Wairarapa earthquakes

The most recent large quakes to affect central New Zealand were in 1942, during the Second World War. Two powerful (7.2 and 6.8) earthquakes, centred near Masterton, shook the lower North Island. Masterton had the most damage and, similar to yesterday’s quake, some buildings in Wellington’s CBD were also damaged. Also similar to yesterday, both were outside of usual business hours, which likely meant there were fewer injuries, and perhaps deaths, than might otherwise have been the case. There was only one fatality – a man in Wellington was killed by coal gas escaping from a fractured pipe.

Further information

For information about what causes earthquakes, how they are measured and  seismic activity in New Zealand, read Te Ara’s entry on Earthquakes.

For more about past earthquakes in New Zealand, check out our Historic earthquakes entry.

If you’re visually inclined, check out our fantastic infographic: The shaky isles: Canterbury & other quakes.

GeoNet and GNS are the go-to people for information about the current earthquakes. This blog post gives good information about what’s going on: A weekend of Earthquakes - what is going on???; Preliminary science from the Seddon sequences also looks at the science of these quakes, and the New Zealand Herald’s live chat with GNS scientist John Ristau will answer a lot of your questions.

Civil Defence’s Get Ready, Get Thru website has good information about what to do in an earthquake.

Wellington City Council is posting updates on its website http://wellington.govt.nz/, and also on its Wellington Region Emergency Management Office Facebook page.

Feel free to add other useful links below. And, if you’re living anywhere in an earthquake risk zone, it’s a good time to get your emergency kit ready. Be safe.

Update: Looks like GNS is now calling the earthquakes the ‘Cook Strait earthquakes’, and have set up an information page, which they’ll be updating regularly: http://info.geonet.org.nz/display/home/Cook+Strait+Earthquakes