Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The Quintessential Kiwi?

We New Zealanders lost two of our most distinguished countrymen in the last couple of weeks - poet Hone Tuwhare and adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary. Their deaths got me thinking about who we choose as our national icons and what this says about us.

It's strange, feeling sad about someone you've never met and really know very little about. I felt that way because Sir Ed was, of course, one of the few people the overused words 'legend' and 'great' actually fit, but it was more than that. You saw his face every day on the $5 note. He was the only New Zealander most people in the world have heard of, a man whose death led the websites of all the major serious daily papers in the UK, and was big news in America, Australia and many other places. As residents of a small nation stuck in the bottom right hand corner of the map, a place that goes unnoticed most of the time, we are almost hysterically proud of anyone who makes a mark on a global level.

As the person who made the most famous mark of all, Hillary played a major role in defining how we see ourselves.

He was rugged, humble, generous, laconic, adventurous, environmentally and socially aware. A high achiever who didn't boast about it, a man who used his fame to help others more than himself. Helen Clark described him as "the quintessential Kiwi".

But was he, really?

For example, how many New Zealanders are at home in the wilderness, or even enjoy a few days bushwalking? More than many countries probably, but I think most of us would rather get out a DVD than go for a tramp, let alone drive a tractor across Antarctica. We, like the rest of the Western world, are getting increasingly fat and lazy.

How charitable are we? Our national aid budget is miserly. And most would rather stick a new tv on the credit card (or go on a big OE) than contribute much to saving starving Africans.

How committed are we to conservation? We talk a good game, but we're among the most wasteful of all nations. It's only our low population that has kept us from completely fouling up our islands. Since coming to London, where public transport is light years ahead of Auckland and environmental awareness generally seems higher, we've realised that New Zealand is behind the times.

There's truth that many of Hillary's qualities are part of New Zealand culture - we admire modesty and that dry sense of humour can be seen in Flight of the Conchords, for example. But overall, Hillary was someone we like to think we come out of the same mold as, rather than that actually being the case. He's the peak, we're the foothills.

Also, the strong, stoic Pakeha outdoorsman of the Hillary/Colin Meads/Barry Crump type plays too big a role in our gallery of heroes. Hone Tuwhare's passing reminds us that 'quintessential Kiwis' include Maori, women, artists, scientists and more. The kind of people we admire is changing - look at how Peter Jackson is revered. But the Speights men still have too firm a foothold in our national identity, particularly in rural areas, for my liking.

What do you think?

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