Archive for the 'Kiwi culture' Category

Knitting madness

Knitting pattern, probably from the 1960s (private collection, Caren Wilton)

Knitting pattern, probably from the 1960s (private collection, Caren Wilton)

When winter comes, my desire to knit kicks in. I barely think about it over summer, but as the weather cools down and the nights draw in, a kind of obsession takes me over; it seems increasingly to me to be some sort of primal instinct, some kind of nesting thing, rugging up against the cold.

Knitting as a domestic craft boomed in New Zealand during the First World War, when Lady Liverpool, wife of the governor, encouraged women and children to knit socks and scarves for the troops overseas. In 1915 she published the country’s first book of knitting patterns, Her Excellency’s knitting book, whose cover bore the ditty: ‘For the Empire and for Freedom/We all must do our bit;/The men go forth to battle/The women wait – and knit.’ Her patterns included socks, balaclavas and gloves, as well as a ‘mitten for an injured hand’ and a ‘soldiers’ shooting mitten’. Mīria Pōmare, wife of the politician Māui Pōmare, joined forces with Lady Liverpool, launching a fund to provide comforts to the men of the Māori contingent – knitted garments included, of course.

Vast quantities of knitting were produced during the war. In August 1916 alone, 130,047 items were made, and in 1919 the people of Rangataua in the central North Island wrote to Lady Liverpool to alert her to the stellar work of Harriet Gardner, an old-age pensioner who had produced an average of 1.36 pairs of socks per week over the 220 weeks of the war.

So, after all this wartime industriousness, how could you stop knitting? Knitting became a major home craft alongside sewing, and remained that way for most of the 20th century, until the availability of cheap imported clothing combined with changing attitudes to home crafts to turn women off knitting.

There’s another knitting boom these days, one with a hipster edge (‘not your nana’s knitting!’). It’s fuelled by the internet, with new devotees learning to knit from YouTube and talking to each other on the wildly successful Ravelry website. People gather in groups at the new, stylish wool shops to knit and socialise, and classes at weekend knitting retreats like the annual Unwind and Knit August Nights sell out within minutes of going on sale. Tash Barneveld, owner of Wellington’s Holland Road Yarn Company, says, ‘The most noticeable change between the knitting of our grandmothers and now is that we are at leisure to knit. Now we have the luxury to choose it as a hobby, whereas for past generations it was required to clothe families in an economical way.’

13 June is Worldwide Knit in Public Day, though knitting in public has a long history – check out these women knitting at a protest, during a lecture and in the ladies’ gallery at Parliament. And I can attest to the fact that the Wairarapa evening commuter train from Wellington is another hotbed of knitting, with me among those snatching the chance to complete a few rows.

Tunes on Te Ara

An early record from TANZA, whose name was an acronym for 'to assist New Zealand artists' (pic: Mataura & Districts Historical Society)

An early disc from record label TANZA, whose name was an acronym for 'to assist New Zealand artists' (pic: Mataura & Districts Historical Society)

Every year since 2001, New Zealand Music Month has rolled around in May. Te Ara is full of the stories and sounds of local music. Music historian Chris Bourke’s monumental entry on Popular music takes readers on a jam-packed journey from traditional Māori music to Lorde. He also treats us to shorter forays into the worlds of Jazz and dance bands and Folk, country and blues music. Peter Clayworth explores the military and Scottish origins of Brass and pipe bands, while Piri Sciascia and Paul Meredith chart the evolution of Waiata hōu – contemporary Maori songs.

These entries are replete with great images, sound clips and music videos. If you’re looking for some music to get you through your day’s work, why not check out Hirini Melbourne’s ‘Te pūtōrino a Raukatauri’, Pixie Williams’s classic ‘Blue smoke’, the Chills’ ‘Heavenly pop hit’ or Concord Dawn’s ‘Broken eyes’? There’s something for everyone on Te Ara.

Kia maumahara tātau

The Anzac service at Rongomaraeroa marae (pic: Rongomaraeroa marae)

The Anzac service at Rongomaraeroa marae (pic: Rongomaraeroa marae)

When a whole community turns up to support an event you know it is a big deal. Pōrangahau’s population at the last census count was just 195 but approximately 300 people turned up to our Anzac Dawn Service.

The morning started with a brisk march from the Pōrangahau war memorial hall down to the church cemetery and our cenotaph. We were led by the Queen Alexandra’s Mounted Rifles, and as we got closer the sound of karanga echoed eerily of lives lost, of a new day, of a day commemorating those who served from our small community.

Remembering those who served (pic: Rongomaraeroa marae)

Remembering those who served (pic: Rongomaraeroa marae)

It was a time of beauty as well. I te ata hāpara (at dawn) Pōrangahau was shrouded in mist. Whānau marched on to our memorial hall and onwards to our urupā, Kaiwhitikitiki. With karakia we entered, laid our wreaths and moved about to mihi to all our tīpuna. A pōwhiri followed on our marae, Rongomaraeroa. A table stood proudly on the mahau filled with whānau photographs and taonga and our wharekai was beautifully decorated with poppies made by the kura. Waiata welcomed all our whānau and guests for parakuihi (breakfast) and we settled in to hear four local families share their First World War stories.

This is the first time I’ve known an Anzac service to come to the marae – and what a privilege it was to be there.

Kia maumahara tātau – lest we forget.

Rural towns and numbers

Ōhura: a quiet township in 2011 (image: Waikato Times)

Ōhura: a quiet township in 2011 (image: Waikato Times)

Updating Te Ara’s regional entries can be a sobering exercise when one’s gaze is fixed on rural New Zealand. In contrast to the inexorable population increase of the big cities and some other main centres, many rural towns are losing people year in, year out.

Urbanisation is not a new trend – more New Zealanders have been urban dwellers from the early 20th century. The rural population has hovered around 500,000 ever since. For the most part though, rural towns held their own until the late 1960s when, in the wake of Britain joining the European Economic Community, agricultural prices stagnated and trading conditions became unfavourable. Young rural people flocked to the cities for work and remained there. Rural life got even tougher in the 1980s after the government removed farm subsidies.

Te Ara’s entry on the King Country region exemplifies these macro-trends. The area’s population peaked in 1961 and has fallen ever since. The new 2013 population figures we’ve added to the entry show a continuation of this trend – the region lost 33% of its population between 1961 and 2013. The populations of Taumarunui and Te Kūiti have fallen, while Ōtorohanga, which is much closer to a big city (Hamilton), has remained stagnant since the 1980s. Places off the beaten track and historically reliant on one industry, like the old mining town of Ōhura, are extreme examples – its 2013 population was 129, an 80% drop from 1961.

It would be interesting to hear from people who make their lives in these places. It’s easy to allow a sense of doom and gloom to permeate when looking at numbers alone, but situations are always nuanced. Award-winning photographer Tony Carter visited Ōhura time and time again in the last two years to photograph its people. He recognised that life was hard and but noted that ‘most people [were] proud of who they are. I felt the people there were quite creative in their own way and happy with their own company’.

In search of the Great Southern Cheese Roll

A cheese roll in a Middlemarch café – not quite the real thing

A cheese roll in a Middlemarch café – not quite the real thing

Having grown up down south, it took me a long time to realise that other parts of New Zealand don’t know what cheese rolls are, which is so very, very sad. There have been at least two, possibly three, conversations during morning tea at Te Ara where the few of us who grew up south of the Waitaki (or at least went to university there) have tried to explain the delights of cheese rolls to those unfortunates who have never tasted them. The others haven’t seemed convinced by our passion, and unfortunately we never managed to provide any for tasting purposes, although we threatened to, which might explain why they’re still not mentioned in Te Ara.

If you too have no idea what I am talking about, then let me explain. Cheese rolls are made from thin white bread, which is spread with a mix of tasty cheese, Maggi onion mix and evaporated milk, then rolled up, spread with butter and grilled. Well, that’s my memory of them – there are a few alternatives out there, which include an actual onion or mustard and vinegar rather than the Maggi. (You can watch a video here on how to make them if you’re interested.)

When I was growing up in Dunedin you could still buy them from a tea shop, or the department store tearooms or the school tuck shop, and they were a cheap, warm and filling food. They also came frozen in large plastic bags, usually as part of a fundraising exercise. If you grew up in a health-conscious household like I did, eating brown bread, margarine and trim milk, cheese rolls were not only cheap, warm and filling, but also quite possibly the food the devil supped on in hell, and therefore totally irresistible.

Recently I have run into ‘cheese rolls’ again – but cheese rolls that have had a makeover. One time was when I stopped at a café in Middlemarch last winter (I know, cafés, Middlemarch – the Otago Central Rail Trail has really transformed some bits of rural Otago) and was presented with a very large wholemeal bread version (pictured above). It tasted great – but was not a cheese roll as we knew it.

The second time was more recently, at Arthur’s, a café on Cuba St in Wellington which serves ‘Dunedin cheese rolls’. I was there with two other former Dunedinites, so of course we had to try them. Sadly neither were these the cheese rolls of memory, although they looked similar. In this case the filling had become more sophisticated – like a gruyere fondue mix – and it was served with chutney! While we ate them all (in seconds), we all agreed that, once again, they were not the cheese rolls of old.

A cheese roll with chutney (whatever next?) at Arthur's in Wellington

A cheese roll with chutney (whatever next?) at Arthur's in Wellington

However, all is not lost – recently a plate of authentic cheese rolls was circulating at our Ministry, courtesy of the lovely Ashley, and a shared lunch that got cancelled. A good southern lass, Ashley made her cheese rolls as mother made them (well, not my mother), and I ate mine far too fast to photograph it.

It is not just the (strange) southern people who have worked on Te Ara who have this obsession – Labour MP Clare Curran wrote an Ode to the Cheese Roll; the Riverton Art Centre produced an exhibition, Toasting the Cheese Roll; Southland radio hosts James and Rachel wrote a song about them; at one time Lynda Topp had 6 dozen in the freezer; and Professor Helen Leach, along with researcher Raelene Inglis, even published an article on them, ‘Toasted cheese rolls – a regional specialty in New Zealand’.

I’m not sure what it says about our nation, if anything, when one of the few regional food specialities we seem to have is white bread & cheese (dressed pies arguably being another), but perhaps if the Mainland ever secedes from the rest of the country they could include the cheese roll as part of their flag – an image of melted cheese flapping in a southerly has a certain mad logic to it.