|Heart of Darkness|
It had to happen. It had been a long time coming, it had taken far longer than many people might have expected, but it was inevitable. The day finally arrived when I was completely overcome by imperialist sentiment.
The England cricket team faced New Zealand's Blackcaps in the First One Day International at Wellington full of confidence and marginal favourites (for the match if not the series) following their trouncing of the Kiwis in the 2 Twenty20 matches. After 2 of the most soul-destroying months of my life, in which I had been driven close to insanity by Kiwi laxity & duplicity, and gotten only 1 week's paid work & 2 weeks' 'Work for Accommodation' under my belt, the big event I'd so eagerly anticipated was finally upon me. The following day I would retrace my steps by heading back up north for a few days to do a Lord of the Rings tour in Tongariro National Park (which I'd been prevented from exploring properly by the horrendous weather during my stay in Taupo), and this was the reason I'd stayed in Wellington rather than continuing my travels then returning for the cricket.
England won the toss and elected to bat, or elected to self-destruct I should say. After a slow start, it soon became obvious that the team had reverted to the old ways of indiscipline and non-communication that prevailed before Paul Collingwood took over the One Day captaincy - with 5 men clean-bowled, 1 caught, 1 caught-and-bowled, and 3 farcical run-outs, all for a measly 130. For me, after everything I'd been through in order to see the match, this was an absolute kick in the teeth. My immense frustration with New Zealand culture had already made me wonder if the country was truly capable of functioning independently. Now, no matter how easy our cricketers made it for theirs, I finally understood how those journalists at The Sporting Times must have felt in 1882 when they lamented England's first home loss to Australia with a mock 'Obituary for English Cricket,' thus giving birth to the Ashes: they, like all their fellow countrymen, could not even begin to understand how we could lose to a team from our penal colony; and 126 years later, I could not even begin to fathom the concept of beginning to understand how we could perform so badly against an ex-colony which, despite having been settled by Britain's finest (the Imperial Government subjected aspiring emigrants to tests to prove their worth), had had its psyche bleached by the radiant southern sun to the point where 'Yes' means 'No' and vice-versa. If, however, I found even the remotest shred of consolation in believing that the whole experience could not possibly get any worse than it already was as England's pathetic innings drew to its swift conclusion, then alas I was sadly deluded.
During the break, I went to get a much-needed beer from the catering unit. "Can I see some ID, please?" asked the attendant. Not a problem: since New Zealand invariably operates 'Think 25' (as discussed in Chapter 2), I have always carried my passport when alcohol may come onto the radar; but unfortunately there was not a trace of common sense or even basic human intelligence to be found here. After I handed the document over, the attendant scanned it for a moment before saying, "I'm not sure we accept passports," after which she called her manager who spent about a minute 'sizing me up' before reluctantly agreeing to the transaction with a very subtle wink-of-the-eye. "So why don't you accept passports?" I asked. "Because," said the attendant, "they're not standard ID." "So what is?" I replied. "Well, proper ID," came her response. Holy Mother of God, I thought to myself, how on earth did this woman ever get through playgroup?! I mean, I'm not a New Zealand resident, so I can't have a Kiwi 'Prove Your Age' card; presumably the sale of alcohol to foreigners is not restricted to those with driving licenses (I have never taken a lesson), and many places don't accept non-NZ licences anyway. I was so tempted to leave the stadium at that very moment, but decided to give England 10 overs to show they at least had some pride left, so I returned, hard-won beer in hand, to my seat. When, however, the players took to the field again and the Kiwis immediately started slogging the ball about for fun, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself shouting "BODYLINE!" down at the England team: clearly they were incapable of preventing a drubbing using any legal means, and I now had considerable empathy with then-England Captain Douglas Jardine's devising of the hugely controversial tactic to stop the legendary Aussie batsman Sir Donald Bradman on the 1932/33 Ashes tour; after all, what gross perversion of natural law had endowed a descendant of lowlife criminals with such genuinely superhuman talent and, 75 years on, dared to enable the most lackadaisical nation on earth to make such an easy job of winning? No chance that nature would atone for its own sins by summoning the ghost of Harold Larwood onto the pitch at Wellington, so what would be the harm in Collingwood & co. breaking a few rules? After all, some constitutional commentators have challenged the legal legitimacy of New Zealand's sovereignty. In an exasperated text message to an American friend I said, "Let our nations team up to re-conquer the Empire - you can have Australia so long as we get New Zealand!"
Needless to say, I left the stadium after about 12 overs, and by the time I returned to my hostel, the match was very nearly over. My one blessing was that the train to take me up to Tongariro left very early the next morning, so I had to retire to bed by 10pm; and with my soul so weary I went out like a light. As expected, the TranzScenic service provided by far the most spectacular train journey I've ever been on, also featuring historical, geographical and cultural commentary at points of interest (including Tangiwai, where each Christmas Eve it stops on the rebuilt bridge for a wreath to be thrown into the river). The Lord of the Rings tour was excellent: it was allowed to go ahead despite the bad weather, but this actually meant that the settings for the Dark Land of Mordor felt much more authentic than they would in more benign conditions! It was on the return train journey that my blood was once again made to boil: about a third of the way through the 7-hour journey, on a brief loading stop, the young lady who was sat next to me - probably about the thousandth German person I'd met in New Zealand - asked me what the time was, and when the train got going again we started talking and were soon enjoying an excellent conversation on travel, films, literature, history and the like - occasionally bordering on debate but remaining safely within friendly and civilised realms. Then, with an hour or so to go before arrival back in Wellington, out of absolutely nowhere, an elderly man got out of his seat, angrily announced, "Right, I've had enough!" and stormed through the carriage to the buffet car. I got a vague inkling that he had taken umbrage to the conversation, and maybe the German lady did too, but either way the conversation was starting to naturally wind down and we both soon returned to our reading on the final approach to the capital.
When the man returned to his seat, he proudly boasted, "I finally got him to shut up!" and repeated this arrogant declaration when we arrived in Wellington. Reader, mark my words: if the young lady had been of any nationality other than German, I would have immediately confronted this grumpy old man, reminding him that people of his age are always reminding people of my age about all the sacrifices made by elder generations so that we could have freedom of speech. I had, after all, nearly 4 years previously, taken on a political matriarch and won - so some random Kiwi on a train would be child's play. My decision to refrain from the confrontation was shown in an interesting light when I told the German lady how diabolically angry I was about the whole thing, and she said, "Well, you were speaking very loudly." Indeed, I admit (as will everyone I know) that I do have a very loud voice - which, again, I have Herr Asperger to thank for - but I firmly believe that free speech should mean free speech and not be limited to only speaking at a certain volume in certain places at certain times. I also believe, even more strongly, that anyone who attempts to force another into behaving in a manner in any way genuinely unnatural to them is fascist scum. Paradoxically, though, this was almost certainly the very problem with my Germanic companion's response: she no doubt falls into the niche category of Germans whose collective feeling of guilt over the Third Reich is so overwhelming that they semi-inadvertently denigrate the very values for which war was waged upon Hitler - fearful of free speech meaning free speech because the Fuhrer exploited said freedom to the absolute maximum. I, on the other hand, would argue that anyone who thinks a person near them is talking too loudly should simply talk louder than them (to hell with decorum), and would, if given the chance, remind those atypically meek Germans that it was precisely through having far too much time to silently ponder the universe - the state of affairs that results from people keeping their voices down and talking in moderation - that Hitler was able to dream up the plans which caused unimaginable butchery and would've led to the downfall of civilisation were it not for that great imperialist reactionary who had the courage to open his mouth while his power-surrendering liberal contemporaries kept theirs shut, Sir Winston Churchill.
When the New Zealand capital was moved from Auckland in 1865, both the central towns named after heroes of the Napoleonic Wars were considered as candidates - and Bonaparte's final conqueror triumphed over the admiral who died whilst handing the French Emperor his worst naval defeat. It naturally felt strange trying to imagine this small town as the capital of a nation, but the fact that it was never required to expand on a metropolitan scale did enable it to pay more direct homage to its inspiration, for all the major streets are named in honour of Lord Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar: I noticed (obviously) Trafalgar Street and Trafalgar Square (far smaller than its London counterpart of course), Collingwood Street and Hardy Street, while the hostel where I stayed - incorporating an English-style pub named the Prince Albert - was on Nile Street. The following day I took a hike in Abel Tasman National Park, which is named after the Dutch explorer whose sighting of New Zealand was the first recorded by a European (though he was not the first one to set foot on Kiwi soil - that honour belongs to Captain James Cook). Unfortunately, the day after that it was back to business as usual when I attempted to change my itinerary as I was on standby for a local scenic flight booking to open up, and was told the bus was so full heading both north and south out of Nelson that I would have to wait at least 5 days, maybe a week. I agreed to this, but was rather puzzled by what I'd been told when I observed that the town's streets were as dead as a doornail even at 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays: just where exactly were all those hordes of backpackers?
I was almost as relieved to get out of Nelson after 2 weeks as I had been to leave Wellington after 2 months. I had grown absolutely sick of watching new busloads of people coming and going every day, and was acutely aware that my story - about how long I'd been in New Zealand, how long in 'Welly & Nelly,' and how despite all my frustrations with Kiwi culture I was determined to see out my abnormally long Working Holiday - was rapidly losing any semblance of credibility with these people. Who on earth was I kidding, though, if I thought things might finally start to look up? The next stop was Westport, a one-horse town situated (unsurprisingly) on the West Coast, and - true to form - I became probably the first person in the history of Kiwi Experience to spend more than a night in this place. There was a good reason for this, though: a German guy whom I'd met on the flight in from Bangkok and immediately become very good friends with, said he'd be arriving in Westport 2 nights after I arrived, and since I was really looking forward to catching up with him after several months and was absolutely desperate for a decent conversation after the merciless social assembly line in Nelson, I booked myself in for 3 nights. With very little to do for a few days, I continued an exercise I'd begun in Nelson: writing an article on approval in principle for Majesty magazine, concerning the controversy over the Royal Family's no-show at Sir Ed's funeral. I was reasonably confident of success when I submitted the piece, but - you guessed it - success was not forthcoming on the third night when my German friend failed to show and was incommunicado. What hope was left for humanity if even the super-efficient Germans could not resist the embrace of that South Pacific chill? My stay in Westport had also shown me how astoundingly temperamental the South Island weather is, which did not bode well for the continuation of my travels.
The people with whom I headed out of Westport seemed a pleasant enough bunch at first; but by the end of the day, which culminated in a massive party at a remote, legendary West Coast pub, it was clear to me that they were the most insatiable party animals yet and that, one way or another, disaster was inevitable. They had chosen cross-dressing as the obligatory theme for the party: needless to say, I would never sink to the low of full-on transvestism in a thousand years; but I decided with some reluctance to compromise by donning 2 innocuous, gender-neutral textiles I had purchased in India, in a slightly effeminate manner. Furthermore, although I knew I would not be able to keep up with the drinking pace of my fellow travellers, I continued to put on the stiffest of stiff upper lips, participating successfully in two 'boat race' drinking games as part of an intra-bus competition by imagining my maternal grandfather, a publican who thoroughly enjoyed the perks of the trade, looking down on me from heaven. What of my paternal grandparents, though, whom I have largely to thank for inspiring my interest in the monarchy? Surely they would be looking down flabbergasted at the site of me in the midst of such debauchery. I had not had time to access the internet to check for the editor's response to my article, but as my enjoyment of the party wound down I was overwhelmed by the fatalistic sense that if it was rejected I would have only myself to blame regardless of how well-written it was. I retired to ponder this gloom long before the party ended; and, mercifully, the meal we'd eaten beforehand was so hearty that I did not wake up with anything resembling a hangover; not physically speaking, that is. Our breakfast stop on the road was at a rustic lodge littered with trophies of game-hunting and possum-trapping, a glorious celebration of eco-fascism at its worst: having a few weeks previously been disheartened by Biosecurity leaflets ardently discouraging the inadvertent transportation of algae from one beach to another, now I fully understood the reason for those ultra-strict Customs regulations: New Zealand does not have the slightest collective conception of letting nature run its course.
The feeling that I was on a downward trajectory towards catastrophe, was growing more and more prevalent by the minute. Indeed, in a sense, my past had come back to haunt me. When at university some years ago, I had achieved my First Class Honours against all the odds by writing a hugely ambitious dissertation examining seemingly abstract ways in which the works of Hollywood filmmaker James Cameron can be seen as a continuous narrative descent into Joseph Conrad's literal Heart of Darkness, which required me to spend ages poring over numerous texts and pondering obscure historical & cultural references & links binding seemingly unrelated stories together into a psychological downriver journey like that experienced by Conrad's protagonist Marlow. Now, here I was on my own downriver journey, heading deeper and deeper into the wilder and wilder south through a former colonial outpost - similar to the state of which Conrad's numerous experiences inspired him to write his most famous work. I had known whilst writing my dissertation that my swiftly acquired, mercilessly pursued obsession with darkness would one day bring damage to my soul; and when the bus arrived in the village of Franz Josef, where a famous glacier neighbours a rainforest (on the edge of which sat our hotel), I knew that this journey had reached its climax. As far as New Zealand was concerned, I had reached the deepest and darkest realms of the jungle, where even the sanest person is guaranteed to succumb to its ways and laws - as Marlow finds to his cost, and as his cinematic counterpart Willard in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Cameron's protagonists also do, in their own ways.
When I went to check my emails, there was good news waiting for me. My article had been accepted - my first professionally published piece for nearly 4 years, and the first for which I was to be paid more than a nominal sum. When I looked up from the computer screen, I noticed that the hitherto-horrendous rain had eased and the clouds were starting to clear over the glacier, meaning I might just get to do the hugely popular glacier hike the next day. How in the name of sanity could I possibly have been so ridiculously optimistic? The rain came bucketing down all night long and the hike was called off. Staying to do it the next day meant that in order to get to Queenstown - the real Adventure Capital of New Zealand - in time for the only scenic flight I'd actually been able to book, I would have to skip 2 legs of the Kiwi Experience and take another dreaded local bus. Small price to pay, I thought, but at the same time I felt that I was just one itinerary setback away from giving up my trek and returning to Auckland to seek work. The inevitable meltdown finally happened in the hotel bar that evening, when I tried to explain my reasoning to my 'mates' whom I'd stoically joined for a few afternoon drinks in the dorm as the rain came down ever harder outside: relentlessly, like a bull in a china shop, they totally lambasted, mocked, denigrated and condemned my forward-thinking, career-minded, economically-conscious, stability-seeking attitude, telling me not only that any work experience I gained on my travels would be worthless to my career plans, but that my previous full-time experience would be as well - it was all about personality and nothing else. Worst of the bunch was a Spanish lady who claimed superiority over me on two fronts: firstly, she studied history and politics at Oxford despite having no interest in a career in either, claiming that "qualifications only matter if you're going to be a doctor or a lawyer" and that the sole purpose of university is the social experience; and secondly - Glory Hallelujah! - she had nonetheless forged a highly successful career... as a recruitment consultant! That was IT - my anger finally boiled over at this woman who represented the absolute epitome of political correctness, raging liberalism and continental infiltration of British society; but I managed, with far greater difficulty than I'd had at the cricket match, to psychologically beat myself into resisting the urge to shout "GET YOUR B****Y SPANISH INQUISITION OFF BRITISH SOIL!!" Instead, I just told everyone in no uncertain terms to partake in the fate believed by said Inquisition to await its victims following their executions, and then wasted no time in storming out of the bar.
Unsurprisingly, I did not get much sleep that night. Nonetheless, I embarked on the glacier hike the next day (it went ahead though the weather was still bad), thoroughly enjoyed it, and was mightily relieved to find that despite my slightly expanded waistline I was still reasonably fit. The following morning the clouds had lifted and the sun was out, and as the local bus approached Queenstown in the afternoon I called the scenic flight operator who gleefully told me the forecast for the next day was excellent. So it proved, with stunning views over the mountains and lakes. I had already decided, following my bad experiences in Franz Josef, to shatter the golden rule of New Zealand backpacking by laying off the alcohol during my 4 nights in Queenstown, and after the helicopter ride I decided I would capitalise on my turn of luck with the weather by getting all my remaining activities out of the way in the space of a week and returning to Auckland 3 weeks ahead of schedule. So, the next day, I did the local Lord of the Rings tour; and the day after that, I took the Kiwi Experience bus through magical Fiordland to Milford Sound for a cruise - probably the country's most popular tourist attraction, and rightly so I'd have said. Through it all the weather remained fine, and I was extremely grateful for having been endowed with the good sense to cut my losses and hasten my return to the stability of city life. Having reached the all-time low of my travels and then so quickly ascended the height of inspiration and enjoyment, I was convinced that things couldn't get any better. Once again, I was greatly mistaken; only this time, thank the Lord I was.
After 4 days in Christchurch, during which I took what proved to be by far the best of all the movie tours, to the main setting for the equine kingdom of Rohan in an alpine valley adjacent to the Canterbury Plains - which the filmmakers had said was exactly what they imagined when reading Tolkien's text, meaning no CGI was required - and explored the city sufficiently to see that it certainly is the most English-looking part of urban New Zealand, I returned to 'the Big Smoke' on 12 March. It did not take me too long to get what proved to be a very good supply of temporary work, although I was slightly miffed to find that my damage limitation exercise had indeed not been quite enough to enable me to get real career-enhancing experience under my belt - that would have required a 6-month commitment. Still, I was able to take some consolation from the fact that, if those drunken buffoons in Franz Josef were in fact right about experience meaning nothing, then I would have been doomed to spend the rest of my life working for home-based sole traders anyway and have therefore sacrificed very little, if anything, personally speaking, by travelling. Less than a month after arriving back in Auckland, I linked up once again with the Monarchist League, and - on 02 April - watched a live webcast of the Queen's Garter Memorial Service for Sir Ed in St George's Chapel. I must confess, the service was so brilliant and moving, as well as being such a rare honour, I did feel very minor guilt at having said certain things in my writings that demonstrated marginal sympathy for the "Show us you care, Ma'am!" lobby over the funeral conundrum. At the end of the day, though, I believe what I wrote was a fair analysis, considering both sides of the argument and finally urging a gradual, measured transition to a more uniquely Kiwi relationship between the Queen and people of New Zealand, as opposed to quickfire, wholesale change. Furthermore, I was disappointed by the fact that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown did not attend the Windsor gathering; it was, after all, for a man who'd helped give the British Empire its one final moment of peacetime glory. Fittingly, though, a granddaughter of Churchill - the premier in 1953 - was present. Maybe, dear reader, I will have ignited your curiosity sufficiently for you to try and get your hands on the magazine containing my article if you have not already done so.
25 April was ANZAC Day - the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli by the Australia & New Zealand Army Corps in World War I - when both nations honour their war dead. I attended the service of commemoration at the cenotaph in Auckland Domain, and was generally most impressed by it. I was also, however, slightly disappointed that while the Australian National Anthem was sung alongside 'God Defend New Zealand,' 'God Save The Queen' was not. Kiwi Defence Minister Phil Goff, in his address, was eager to emphasise how the experience of New Zealanders and Australians fighting side by side forged a bond between the two nations; but he also pointed out that it was as a result of going to fight for King and Empire that the Kiwis who returned did so with a true sense of nationhood. It would therefore surely have been appropriate to include the Royal Anthem to honour the Personal Union of the Commonwealth Realms, in which New Zealand and Australia stand alongside Britain as equal partners. On the other hand, I was delighted when - during a subsequent talk in the adjacent War Memorial Museum - one of the speakers revealed that her father fought at Monte Cassino during World War II like my paternal grandfather, and the speaker was equally delighted when I spoke to her afterwards. [Here I should note that, when I went to Italy with my grandparents 10 years ago, Cassino was one of the places we visited.] Moments like this show how important it is for the bonds that unite countries a world apart to be celebrated to the fullest.
Chapter 3: Cultural Clashes | Chapter 5: A Change of Plan