It’s time to top-up the compost in the raised beds at the front of the house in Stepney Green. A lot of people get pleasure from looking at my garden as they pass by and I like that. Two elderly well-dressed women stop to look and admire my red Phormium Tenax.
‘That’s from New Zealand – flax,’ one of them says. ‘We’re from New Zealand,’ she continues.
‘So am I. I’ve been here thirty-nine years.’
‘I’ve been here for fifty,’ the other woman says.
‘Are you local?’
‘I live in Whitechapel, next to Sainsburys.’
‘That’s handy. I shop there every week. Whitechapel is the traditional place for immigrants to arrive,’ I say with a wry smile.’
She smiles back.
‘It’s great that we have a new woman Prime Minister,’ I venture.
A shadow crosses their faces momentarily. ‘Yes it’s interesting.’
‘I do hope she can fix a few things,’ I’m pushing their boundaries, I can tell.
‘It’s good for Labour to be in power every now and then to make some social changes.’
I adjust my narrative. ‘Yes, it’s good to have a balance between social care and capitalism, I guess.’
‘We don’t really want to get into politics,’ one of them says.
The second one, from Whitechapel adds, ‘New Zealanders live in paradise, they just don’t know how well off they are.’
I look doubtful. ‘Perhaps a demi, semi paradise,’ I say, all the while thinking of child poverty, water pollution, housing and high suicide rates.
She continues. ‘New Zealanders just don’t realise that these issues are all over the world.’
Now this is something I can really agree with. It’s true, New Zealand, in spite of the traditional ‘Overseas Experience’ done by young kiwis, still seems to think that their problems are unique. No, they are not. They are experiences all over the world.
We return to the red Phormium Tenax, a safe conversation. I tell them how I grew it from seed (really easy) brought from my Mother’s garden in Hawke’s Bay. They are amazed that it can survive here in the UK.
‘Well if you’ve been to Otago, (they have) they grow enormous down there.’
They move on down the road and a walnut-faced old man, who has been watching us from his white van parked outside the house next door, approaches. He grins to reveal a front gap in upper and lower teeth between in incisors and canines.
‘You like to have sex?’ He nods in the direction of the parting women.
I’m shocked and surprised on a number of levels. I never consider sex with women whatever their age and briefly consider telling him I’m gay. Quite quickly I decide that it’s not worth the bother and as English is clearly not his first language, he may not get the message. I’m surprised that he has even thought about sex with these women, or has he observed my conversation and confused it with flirtation?
I shake my head and laugh. ‘No, not for me.’ and decide to move the conversation in a different direction. ‘Are you working on the house next door?’
‘Yes, my son. I watch out for parking guys.’
‘If you’re working for the council, why don’t they give you a permit?’
He shrugs. ‘There was not time to do it.’
‘What are you doing in there?’
‘My son, he is fitting new bathroom.’
‘Yes, they are always doing something in there. Where are you from?’
‘Oh. How long have you been in London?’
‘Ten years now.’
‘So after the war?’
He nods and proceeds to tell me all about the former Yugoslavia. I try to show him I know about it and attempt to contribute by naming some of the regions which are now countries, but he’s on a roll. Finally he comes to a halt with ‘Croatians very bad people.’
‘Oh, I thought the Serbians were pretty aggressive.’
‘No, no, Serbians are very kind friendly people. BBC got it wrong, they told lies.’
I’m not quite sure how to answer that, particularly as he’s Croatian himself and should know. Just as I remember the current lot of Croatian military men being tried for genocide, his son emerges from the house next door and he’s off.
A few moments later a woman of South Asian origin, wearing a headscarf passes my garden with her hands, palms together as if deep in prayer. She stops and smiles. ‘I really like your garden; it gives me great pleasure every time I pass.’
Im sitting naked on a beach enjoying the sight of a South American Rugby team, half of them striped off, nervously sitting in rows facing the sea. Im also reading The Stories of Frank Sargeson, a (closeted) gay New Zealand writer covering the 30s 60s, when my phone rings. Its a local Auckland number.
A pleasant young sounding man Is this Christopher Preston?
Im cautious Yes.
Im Mark from iticket.
I just bought a load of tickets from these guys for the Auckland Arts Festival. Whats gone wrong?
I noticed that you tried to book tickets for Revolt. She said, at the Basement Theatre.
Yes, it didnt work so I assumed its sold out.
No, no, its not, there are tickets left.
Oh, right. How did that happen?
I think you tried to click through on a Silo Theatre email that was faulty.
Oh. How did this guy get my phone number? Presumably all the data I entered is still floating around somewhere.
Would you like to book a ticket now?
Um Ill have to look on my diary. Do you think I can do that while you are on the phone?
Should be ok. I can take your credit card details.
My credit card is sitting in the pocket of my shorts next to my towel. I attempt this new manoeuvre with my phone. No, I cant do it. Im sort of on a beach.
Actually theres no sort of about it, I am on a beach.
Giggles from the young man.
Ill have to do it when I get home what availability is there for Wednesday or Friday?
I thank the young man and note that the Rugby team have relaxed and are now standing around with arms folded chatting to each other some on the beach, others knee deep in the sea. Reg, a local in his late seventies, is watching with admiration. I return to Frank Sargeson whose writing hints strongly of homosexuality. We were in those days, illegal.
Its Wednesday evening and the tiny foyer of the Basement Theatre is filling up with anticipation. Increasingly, my approach is to avoid too much research beforehand. By experiencing a work without expectations Im more easily taken by surprise. It is enough that one of my favourite companies, Silo Theatre has produced Revolt. She said. Revolt again, but a number of my professional theatre associates have recommended this show on facebook, including my trans friend and theatre critic Lexi Matheson.
The stage area is scattered like Tracey Emins Bed and props are visibly on display, encouraging speculation. The stage managers desk is also visible as there are no wings in this auditorium. The last few late-comers are ushered over the stage as the cast enter in overalls and clear up the mess and proceed to set up for the show. Its all frantic activity, choreographed, watch-able and exciting. My expectations are aroused as backdrops are hung and a floor-cloth unrolled, ready for the show. It begins gently, with a scene where the token male expresses his sexual desire to a woman. Its about gender language and when the woman joins in, his penetration conflicts with her enclosure, so he has to adjust his vocabulary or its just not going to happen. The scenes progress with him increasingly not able to understand or adjust. Polynesian actor Fasitua Amosa looks like a gentle giant and shows just enough of his feminine side to make you think there might be hope. He feels like the failed protagonist, the antagonist in fact. But with the scripts that Silo Theatre produce, you can expect the unexpected. Failing to understand that his female employee really does just want Mondays off, he proceeds to receive a No to his marriage proposal in the third scene. Confronted with a melon-eating woman sitting in a supermarket trolley in the dairy isle, he retires from the fray. A mother, carrying her damaged daughter, visits her cave-woman mother to confront denial of female history. He makes a brief appearance as a loin cloth wearing cave man, hardly reaching the stage before being dismissed. The structure breaks down to a chaotic and exuberant ending so that the three women might also be failed protagonists. There are strong performances all round from Sophie Henderson, Michelle Ny and Amanda Tito. I also enjoyed the performance by stage manager, Eliza Josephson-Rutter, who casually sits at her visible station, looking at her phone and eating snacks. She throws costumes and props on stage with indifference, leaving actors holding props too long and with impeccable timing runs her cues to the wire. The stage really is a mess at the end, but with it all rolled up in the floor cloth and backdrops torn down, the stage is bare for the bows.
There is no satisfactory ending, just a passing cry to do away with men as they exit, pushing or riding a theatrical skip on what looks like its going to be a long journey to gender equality.
Im used to no satisfactory ending these days were supposed to think about it. Grabbing a programme on the way out gives me reading material on the ferry back to Waiheke and the first thing I noticed is that Alice Birchs script was first performed by the RSC at The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2014. That at least explains the bluebells. Her inspiration for the play comes from the story of radical feminist, Valerie Solanas and her self-published SCUM Manifesto. She then shot Andy Warhole and book sales went crazy. Um does this mean with a camera? So, typing Who shot Andy Warhol into google, I find that he refused to make her film script as it was too dangerously radical, even for him, so she shot him with a gun. He was seriously wounded and never really recovered. She went to prison and was diagnosed (conveniently?) as schizophrenic.
All this on International (at least in the western world) Womens Day – a day in New Zealand when the news is full of a facebook post by Senior Wellington College school-boys, claiming that true WC boys should take advantage of unconscious drunk young women. We pretend to be shocked, some try to excuse but deep down we know there is a problem raising boys to men. I wish I could remember and distill my mothers method raising us. She claimed she always knew I was gay – I wonder if that influenced her. She was certainly always interested in diversity and difference.
Its the small steps on a long journey which bring about change and there will be setbacks along the way. The courage of a Rugby team to go naked on a beach or attending thought-provoking theatre are such steps, but how do we erase phobias from human conditioning?
The first Impression, flying in to Mandalay from Bangkok, is of bright blue roofs. Closer to the ground green roofs emerge from the surrounding foliage. It’s not significant, just a change from orange, red or grey. The airport itself is new – a runway in the middle of a field – we are the only plane at the terminal. It’s reminiscent of the early days of Ryan Air and Easyjet in Europe, who flew into provincial upgraded airstrips two hours away from where you wanted to go. Tour guide Richard and owner of Outside the Square (almost independent travel for Gay men and their friends) is there to meet me. There are others to arrive on a later flight so there’s time for coffee – a pale late – and to get cash out of an ATM. Two or three years ago there was only one in the whole country, now there are two at this airport and they pop up in the cities and Hotels. Myanmar is gearing up for a future of tourism, so it’s good to be getting in before the rest of the world. Mike and Ray, both from Auckland, emerge with damaged luggage. Ray’s wheelie rucksack has a gaping compartment exposing all his pills and potions.
He’s cheerful enough about it and has brought along needle and thread to re-mend the tear. John and Nev, both from Christchurch are also on this flight so now we are six and the next introduction is to a bus nick-named Priscilla – after that camp Australian movie with Terrence Stamp in drag. The Windows are adorned with a scalloped pelmet with mauve tassels. Red and white fairy lights and lacy antimacassars on floral seats complete the picture. Priscilla (not her real name) belongs to the Mother-in-Law of our local guide, Georgie, who employs a driver and assistant Oo. We galumph along a rolling dual carriage-way into the city at a sedate pace. Myanmar is both a very ancient civilisation and an emerging country. Ruled by strong in kings the 10 – 12th centuries, the country was subsumed by the British in the exploitative way of Empire. The Japanese drove out the British in WW2 and were in turn defeated by the allies. For decades now, the country has been ruled by Generals. All the while the patient Burmese have continued, sustained by their Buddhist faith. Their reward has been a democratically elected government lead by Aung San Suu Kyi.
We are staying at MaMa’s Guest house, owned and run by a woman called Sue. She’s clearly looking to the future, preparing for the influx of tourists, (visas, previously issued for seven days, now last for twenty-eight) and she is building an extension. A new ground floor reception/dining room is complete and workmen are building two floors above for accommodation. Mark and Garry from San Francisco arrived the day before, so after sorting rooms and bags we 8 set off in Priscilla to the Sandamuni Pagoda.
The central stupa is surrounded by fields of small white stupas, each housing a marble tablet inscribed with the writings of Buddha. It’s been described as a temple surrounded by the world’s larges book. Richard has provided us each with a lungyi, the all purpose garment worn by men and women. We’ve had instruction on how to tie them, a cause of much hilarity and varying degrees of success. Basically it’s a tube of material and you have to step into it, draw one end up to waist level, hold it out on each side with your hands. There follows a movement best described as lifting and drawing together so the front stays up and the sides are brought to the centre, twisted around each other and tucked into either side of the centre tail which ends up looking a bit like a codpiece – cue more hilarity and size envy – as one might expect from a group of gay men old enough to know better.
We adopt the lungyi to visit the temples, mainly for respect. Though we are all wearing longish shorts there’s a chance of revealing a knee. Shoes of course have to be removed, so I think we are going to get tough soles on this tour. The Burmese of course have the most beautiful broad feet, un-spoilt by narrow fitting shoes. This temple complex continues down the road, where preparations are being made for a celebration.
Terracotta dishes are being lined up along the paths, filled with oil, wicks added ad lit. People are arriving in their finery and we learn that it’s Aung San Suu Kyi’s 71st birthday. 710 lamps have been lit.
A young man has a drone overlooking the scene. We decide to stay on, postpone the next temple and rearrange our dinner time.
A band from the San area is playing and men dance in mock fights, one with gold painted wooden swords. Aung San Suu Kyi is much revered and now her birthday can be celebrated more openly. It feels like an
honour to stay and share it with the people, who are so welcoming and accepting. The security guard and the Red Cross Brigade insist on being photographed with us. We as westerners are
curiosities but also a link to the rest of the world, although none of this is spoke … yet. I just wonder what they would make of the extraordinary politics happening on the other side of their world at this moment.
Mama’s is cooking us dinner tonight and the last of our party, Richard from Titirangi and Peter from Perth arrive from a few days in Yangon, in time to eat: Chicken Burmese style; Spicy Aubergines; stir fried vegetables and tea salad (hot and delicious) and rice washed down with local beer. We sit around the table and introduce ourselves one by one. Life stories are exchanged, questions asked and laughter shared. It’s a good start and it’s going to be a good group of people who have lived full and busy lives.
Monday is the big day. A 5am rise for me, a drive to catch the 6am ferry then a train to Henderson. The organisers have arranged with Auckland Transport to allow us, with our registration tags to travel on the train for free – hurrah! Australian swimmers join the train and I point them in the right direction for the pool at the Westwave Leisure Centre.
Team Auckland members and volunteers are already hard at work setting up the pool, putting in the timing pads and lining up chairs. I set to work filling out the lunch vouchers for the day with volunteers’ names and my signature. I get a message from the
Deputy Mayor that she will be a few minutes late and is cycling to us so I wait outside the pool as arranged, to greet her. She looks regal, arriving on a battery assisted ecycle – all the rage here – in a bright pink shirt – appropriate for the occasion, but with a bloody elbow where she’d ‘canned of’ the bike trying to answer her phone. No, she didn’t need a plaster, but makes the most of the story in her speech, exhorting us ‘older people’ not to think that we can behave like we’re in our 20’s any more.
Proof of accessibility to politicians here is demonstrated by no accompanying security, a warm greeting for me with a hug and a kiss. Can you imagine that happening in London? Many people involved in the Swim event know Penny personally – including the official photographer Andrea, working for Gaynz. My job is to show her in to the pool – they all know her at reception – introduce TAMS Chair, Jeremy and Coach Cynthia, then disappear. Instead I find myself herded into a group photo by Andrea.
The opening goes well, but I’ve missed the official warm-up, a chance to check turns and get the measure of the pool which I’ve not swim in before. I’m delighted to note that the new starting blocks have that adjustable raised ledge at the back familiar from Ponds Forge pool in Sheffield. I content myself warming up in the diving pool, which is about 20 metres wide, while the 1500m freestyle event plods along. I’m monitoring my legs closely, avoiding anything which will cause cramp and have even come supplied with glucose tablets to feed them instant energy.
First up for me is the 200m Backstroke which under any circumstances is a punishing race and to be one’s first of a meet makes it more so. I’ve been working on my backstroke since disastrous times and disqualifications a couple of years ago. My plan is to start off steady and settle into the stroke, so I’ve got something left for the last 50m. The result is pleasing as I cut 5 seconds off my last long course time at Papatoetoe last year – still nowhere near my personal best, but hey, I’m a couple of years older now and moved into the next age group. Theoretically all my times this year are PB’s.
As there are only two heats of the 200 Backstroke, I’m thrown straight into the 200 Medley Relay and because I’m the back-stroker in the club, get to start the race. Mindful of the 200 Individual Medley coming up, I ease up on my kick. Besides, all the others are much younger and faster – our team has a combined age of 279 years. Fortunately there’s a twenty minute break now, time to swim down and refuel with a glucose tablet. I’ve never swum a 200 IM before and worked out my estimated time by doubling my 100m time and adding 30 seconds.
I know the trick here is to relax and take it easy. It’s not four 50m sprints and the first length of Butterfly can be exhausting, my weakest stroke is Breast, which I also find hard work, leaving me to make up time on Backstroke and the final Freestyle. Amazingly, I come in only .90 seconds over my estimation plus they announce that I now hold the record for this event. Wow … except –looking up the records later – no one in my age group has ever swum this event in the short history of Asia Pacific Out Games/ Proud to Play. My last swim of the day is the 100 Back which is 2 seconds slower than hoped for.
Tuesday is also a 5am start with a new lot of volunteer vouchers to organise. This time I get to warm up in the main pool and psyche myself up for the 800m Freestyle, a distance I’ve come to enjoy. There are only three of us in the first heat and there doesn’t look as if there’s anyone who can push me along. Megan from Wet Ones, Sydney looks handy in the lane next to me and we level peg for around 50m. When she drops back I realise that I’ve got to race against the clock plus leave something in the tank for the last 100m.
It goes to plan and I spot team mate Jenny waving me on. I can tell that Megan is 10 – 15 metres behind me because I hear her final lap whistle and speed up. As I sprint down the final lap, ahead of the field, I get the feeling that I’m showing off now. Nice. Andrea, the photographer shoots me and Bella the turns judge says ‘Good race.’ The timekeeper has kept a note of my splits and its perfect, each 100 getting faster to the end and a new Long course PB. Yay!
Penny, the Deputy Mayor has come back, this time in her swimming togs and draped in the TAMS towel we gave her yesterday. She’s organised a scratch relay team of ‘unattached’ people, just for fun and Andrea is running around taking lots of photos now. I have a 4 x 50m freestyle relay to swim which goes ok, then it’s my last event, the 50m Backstroke. By now I’ve forgotten about my legs so on the last 25 metres the cramp strikes, not seriously, but enough to take one second off my seed time. Definitely time to re-evaluate sprinting and starting a new set of Personal Bests for my new 65 – 69 age group. It’s been good that there are four of us competing in this group, though my only challenge was in the 200m Backstroke.
The organisers of Proud to Play blanched at the number of medals required to cover every age group in the swimming, so we compromised and points are counted up and medals awarded to the top three. Peter from
Wet Ones wins the Gold medal for the most points and I come in with Silver. After the medals, there are more presentations and I find my self presenting flowers to President Jeremy and Secretary David. Cynthia, who has masterminded the whole operation, gets a special mention and flowers.
After clearing up, there’s fun to be had in the water chute which we’ve arranged for the swimmers and volunteers to enjoy. First time down is really scary. Getting flung from side to side in the dark with brief moments of light is scary – it goes on forever and dumps me under water at the bottom feeling quite dizzy. I get bolder and we team up getting up to five at a time all holding each other, until the lifeguard thinks we should not go beyond that. Later we all meet up at our regular bar in the Viaduct region, downtown for nibbles and drinks with the other swimmers. Peter from Wet Ones Sydney tells me that if I had entered 6 races I would have won the Gold. He’s very competitive and pretends to be put out that I beat him in the Backstroke. It wasn’t to be as all the events were too close together for me to do justice to six events.
The cultural exchange with the Australians continues on the Thursday when they turn up to our regular training session and help us fill three lanes. It’s always good to have a full lane and they push us along. A great swim and more drinks afterwards.
The Pride Parade marks the end of the celebrations and we are all summoned to march between the two Proud 2 Play vehicles up Ponsonby Road. Last year we marched down the road. As usual, there’s a lot of standing about before it all gets going and when it does we realise that we are near the end as Miss Ribena, the Police, the Armed Forces, the National Party and the Labour Party all go to the front of the queue. Even the ANZ bank get going before us so that we trail behind the Queer Vegans.
The Australians have stayed on for pride and there’s quite a bit of stripping down to Speedos. A couple of the Sydney Wet Ones wear ‘Budgie Smugglers’ – it’s a brand. Tee shirts are discarded and retrieved when the sun goes behind clouds as we’re all waiting to get going.
There are rumours of demonstrations ahead holding up the proceedings. Christian and TPP (Trans Pacific Parnership) protesters are mentioned. There are complaints but one of the swimmers (from Western Australia) keeps reminding us that ‘everyone has a right to protest.’ Yes! Later, it transpires that there’s also a demo in Karangahape Road (top of Ponsonby) about the way Gay & Trans prisoners are treated in prisons. Yes to this as well.
When we do get going, it’s a blast and loads of fun, dancing up the street – with my tee shirt on. I meet up with some old friends on the way, but don’t feel like queuing for food and drink at the nearby park at the end of the parade. Just as I’m making my escape, I come across Andrea, the photographer, sitting on a wall looking completely exhausted. I want some of her photos from the swimming, but she is unable to speak and can only delve into her pocket and give me a crumpled piece of paper, which I assume is her card. I slip it into my pocket and walk back down the road, stopping to have a glass of wine or two with Ed, from TAMS before making a dash for the Waiheke Ferry.
Considering that New Zealand passed the Homosexual Law Reform Bill as late as1986, the celebration of Pride has leapt ahead. By contrast, London Gay Pride’s attempts to turn into a parade or carnival, have failed. It has remained essentially a march, albeit a huge one, with an after party in Trafalgar Square or in a club of one’s choice, all happening on the one day.
In Auckland, celebrations now go on for two weeks, beginning with a huge cultural offer which, quite frankly, puts London to shame. Covering exhibitions, film, Literature, Theatre and Comedy, there’s also the Heroic Garden Festival where you can meet the gay garden owners.
I manage to get off Waiheke Island to a couple of the theatre shows in town.
Chris Parker’s No More Dancing in the Good Room is a coming out one man show indulging Chris’s desire to dance ballet. There’s not quite enough material to make the show work but the finale where Chris dances a duet with a home movie of his younger self in the kitchen is very moving.
Living on an Island, I make the most of time in the city and see The Legacy Project in the same evening. Here, six emerging queer writers, present short plays. Things are looking good for the future of queer theatre writing, particularly with the introduction of Trans issues. Trans (male to female or female to male) is the new frontier to be won and two of the plays bravely make a start on what proves to be a rich subject and hopefully work for trans performers in the future. The Pronoun Game was the most confrontational and experimental of the six plays. The premise is the cleaning of a bedroom, but the subtext delves into gender identity and Trans/intersex possibilities. Clad in a flesh coloured body stocking the protagonist seems asexual but several conversations with friends and colleagues later conclude that being naked might have been an even bolder decision. My favourite, however, is Sean Carley’s The Last Date. A man in his fifties wants to try sex with a man before he dies. Bedevilled by inaccurate on-line dating information, neither man is what the other expects. This chimed with me in my current dilemma, to date younger men or continue looking for that elusive companion around my own age.
My main focus at this time is on swimming. I’m on the committee organising the Swimming Competition, part of the Proud to Play sporting festival. I end up with two contrasting tasks, organising a voucher system for volunteers to get a filled roll (ham or egg) from the pool café and inviting the Deputy Mayor, Penny Hulse to open the event.
The Voucher job involves contacting the café manager for a quote and designing the voucher – easy. Inviting the Deputy Mayor involves getting her contact details off the council website, calling her mobile number to leave a message with a follow up email. She replies almost immediately with a yes and there follows an event sheet from her office to be filled in and returned – almost as easy as the vouchers. I can’t imagine the Deputy Mayor of London being so accessible or available.
I also volunteer for the Ocean Swim event. This is an opportunity for Proud to Play to combine with the Bean Rock swim starting and ending at Mission Bay on the Saturday. Taking my fold up bike on the 8am ferry, I cycle around the harbour. My job is to tick the Proud to Play swimmers off the list, get them to sign a waiver form and issue a purple/blue swim cap so we can identify them as they come in. My choice of UK English is picked up by a couple of cute American Guys who read ‘tick off’ as ‘told off’. They like that. The distance out to Bean Rock and back is 3.2K and around the half way buoy 1.6k. Two of us ‘check off’ (US & Kiwi English) the purple caps as they come in, for place and time.
Later we have our own medal ceremony and I get to award the guys – medal over the head and kiss on the cheek. I then cycle off to do a final swim session in the 50m pool at Newmarket before our meet on Monday. Standing on my feet all morning has taken its toll and after doing a sedate 1,400m I can hardly move my legs. The ride from the pool to downtown is all
down-hill and one of my favourite freewheeling journeys, so my legs come back to life and I arrive at Silo Park down by Auckland harbour all ready for the games opening ceremony. A powhiri (welcome) from the local Maori has been organised and we, the people of Auckland welcome our visitors onto the land. I’m always moved by this part of our culture and am pleased that it has become so much a part of tradition in Auckland. Local ‘out’ lesbian MP Louisa Wall, who promoted the gay marriage bill is there along with the Mayor of Auckland Len Brown accompanied by his ‘Rainbow Advisory Board’. It’s a great opening event and to my delight Trans activist and academic, Lexie Matheson is on that board. I’ve not met up with her since we worked together as Actors in 1977 – a lovely reunion.
Sunday is Big Gay Out at Coyle Park, Point Chevalier. For me, this is another volunteer job on the Proud to Play tent. BGO is the usual info and merchandising tents with bars and a music stage with live acts.
It’s become a tradition for the Prime Minister of the day to attend, but this year apparently, Prime Minister John Key got booed off the stage. He hasn’t had a good month as reaction to the Trans Pacific Partnership kept him a way from the annual Waitangi Day Celebrations. I miss all the drama – too busy sorting out registrations for gay athletes and by 4.30 I’m ready to cycle off to the ferry for an early night on Waiheke.
It is with some trepidation that I set off, almost reluctantly, to attend the ANZAC service here in Waiheke. Its forty-five years since I last did this, and I want to know what happens here on the Island. Radio New Zealand, has been hard at it with wall to wall stories. One interviewee, who has written a book about Maori Involvement, tells how a troop performed a haka and found they had terrified the Ottoman Turks, who believed that they were being attacked by savages. The Radio succeeds in winding up my emotional vulnerability. Images of my grandfather at Gallipoli keep coming to mind, the terrible waste of life in that place and in Europe.
I park in the almost deserted supermarket car park and note the continual stream of cars entering, realizing that the supermarket is closed because it’s ANZAC day, and driving straight out again. Some are so incredulous that they drive right up to the doors to read the opening hours. I walk up the short hill to Belgium Street – the centre of the district known as Ostend – to the RSA Hall, the War Memorial and the Field of Remembrance opposite. This is a grassy slope on which white wooden crosses seem to be set out twice a year. They were in place last November for Armistice day and removed some weeks later. A few Saturdays ago the green space was made available as a car park for the Ostend market. (There’s a new supermarket being built on the waste ground where we normally park)
I investigate the ‘Peace Rock’ – brought from the local quarry and embellished with two plaques promoting peace in the world. Today, people are inspecting the rows of crosses, reading names and taking photos. The main road to and from the rest of the island is about to be blocked off and a diversion is arranged. The Volunteer Fire Brigade have brought out two engines and the fire-fighters (M&F) are uniformed and meddled. Groups of other uniformed people are gathering.
Over a PA system Flower of Scotland and Loch Lomond are playing. There are no bands, but a male voice choir and electric piano are getting ready, testing their equipment. People have come in all sorts of dress as one would expect on Waiheke – not the uncomfortable Sunday Best required in the 50’s and 60’s. It’s still warm so some are in shorts and sandals. Surprisingly, the young man from the Native Plant Nursery is wearing a dark suit with a pounamu (greenstone) where his tie should be. He’s very excited and carries a wreath.
One man has fished out of his wardrobe a very crumpled blue checked jacket with a stain on the back; his friend wears a navy-blue jacket and black trousers. Dave, from Rocky Bay, by contrast, looks immaculate in perfectly pressed black shirt and trousers. He clutches a black casual zip up jacket. Poppies and medals are pinned to clothes – those wearing their ancestors’ medals have them on the right. One jacket-less man, too young to have fought, wears medals pinned to his shirt.
Outside the RSA Hall is a mounted machine gun with a corrugated iron (iconic here) poppy as an upstaging backdrop.
More people arrive and suddenly a group of teenage Maori warriors emerge from the RSA Hall and take up their position in the road. They are supervised by a woman elder and her taller junior. Both have tattooed chins (moko) now common on the Island.
The parade of marchers is gathering only fifty metres down the road and once the four marines have marched on and positioned themselves around the memorial, the march can begin. They don’t get very far before being challenged by the korero (challenge/dialogue) of the older woman.
The warriors do a war-like routine (haka) with their Manuka staves, the taller woman performs a waiata (chant/song) then the leader of the warriors, the only one with a taihia (spear/weapon) breaks through to challenge the military leader of the march.
They hongi (press noses) then the rest of the warriors rush forward to escort the marchers the remaining distance to the memorial. Here is an acknowledgement early in the proceedings, of the role Maori played at Gallipoli and it is very moving and appropriate for Waiheke and New Zealand as we are now. There was never a hint of Maori culture back in 50’s Waipawa – before the ‘renaissance’.
First up is the National Anthem. God Defend New Zealand has been promoted, much to my delight. Not only that, but the first verse is sung in Maori. Thankfully the male voice choir know the words though many around me do not. I make a note to learn these. By the time we get to the English verse, I’m inexplicably too tearful to sing, even though I do remember the words. A Bishop is on hand to say prayers sprinkled with some well pronounced Te Reo Maori. He is speaking of his hopes for peace in the world just as I remember from all those years ago and yet war continues. Perhaps my emotional state is to do with the futility of it all.
The Head Prefects from Waiheke High School address us with well written and delivered speeches. The Head Boy was born in Australia and has a Kiwi dad. He has a long list of ancestors who served, were wounded or killed. He remarks that one hundred years ago, he would most certainly be going off to Gallipoli.
The Head Girl, Maori and beautiful is the only one to greet us with Kia Ora (to life). She also speaks of her hopes for peace in the world and I am thankful for this evidence that the young still believe that we can change.
The format of the service is familiar, but different. We have three hymns to sing and I remember How Great Thou Art but not sung at ANZAC day. There is Amazing Grace, which comes from America and definitely wasn’t sung when I was a boy. By this time, I’ve recovered enough to sing and the RSA have distributed a laminated order of service with the words of the Hymns, so clearly this is the order every year. The Last Post – incredibly sad – is followed by the Ode, which always gets to me.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
We make an attempt here to take away their suffering, leaving us with the burden of old age and infirmity.
Then there is the Reveille, full of hope for a new day. We sing Eternal Father Strong to Save, which seems very similar to O God Our Help in Ages Past, another tear-jerker, followed by the laying of the wreaths, starting with the three branches of the armed forces. There are wreaths laid on behalf of politicians and political parties, all called out in order of importance beginning with the local MP. When the MC calls out New Zealand First, whose leader, Winston Peters, just won a by election in Northland, there is a pause. He corrects himself – it is the Green Party and the young man from the plant nursery steps forward, his blond hair plastered into conventional shape by gel and a tattoo of the sun peeking incongruously above the collar at the back of his neck. The wreath-laying continues through the list until the MC asks for any others whose names he hasn’t called to step forward. A lone woman, dressed smartly in red and black, lays a bunch of flowers. The Marines guarding the memorial retire and the marchers cross twenty five metres to the doors of the RSA and lunch. There is a hiccup as an elderly woman has fallen and has to be helped to her feet.
We crowd around the memorial to look at and photograph the tributes and I notice the crosses made from knitted red poppies. One of the women collecting for the poppy appeal out side the supermarket had been making these the week before.
I return down the hill to the car park, and observe an increasing number of cars entering and leaving, unaware that it’s ANZAC day and a national holiday. Don’t they listen to the radio or read the local papers?
On the eve of ANZAC day it seems that the whole country is obsessed with the centenary of the landings at Gallipoli by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Certainly the news outlets on Waiheke, comprising: Radio New Zealand National Programme, the $2 Gulf News (weekly) and two freebie papers are full of comments, articles and news of commemorative events. The strap-line for the radio is The day that changed New Zealand forever! This, to me sounds overly dramatic. OK, it was New Zealands first military action on the world stage in support of an ageing parent that was the British Empire and weve continued along these lines in every war since. The latest, only this week, is the deployment, along with Australia, of troops to help with military training in Iraq. (Australias Prime Minister today unadvisedly described this as an ANZAC initiative to howls of protest the politicians in this part of the world have large feet and even larger mouths in which to put them) The other thing is that the whole expedition was a disaster leading to massive loss of life and a humiliating retreat. As my Mother used to say, Only the British (including her colonies) can make a victory out of a defeat.
The local papers are full of stories about Uncles killed or Fathers wounded. The storytellers are themselves now extremely old and appear in the papers pictured with their ancestors medals or pay books which miraculously stopped that shell from killing them. My own grandfather was one of the wounded but never attended a single Anzac Day parade, nor wore a poppy or his medals so, to us, it was no big deal. However, I have to confess to adding to the verbiage by writing a short play called Granddads War. There was a suggestion from the director of the Waiheke short play festival that Gallipoli might be a fundable theme for this year. I initially felt uninspired, and then as happens with writers, an ideal crystallises and out came a seven a half minute play.
My grandfather never talked about what really happened in the war, and when I look at the stories being told now, they are either light hearted, neutral or descriptions of military strategy. Some insights are to be had from letters and diaries written on site, but afterwards nothing. As children we got funny stories about the war things like the mispronunciation of Ypres, the Belgian battle field, which ended up as wiper not a hint of the horrors encountered there. So the point of my play is that there were no stories which they could bear to tell except the funny ones. I included two of these in the play but had to send Granddad to sleep, to dream of the scene where he got wounded, which I had to invent.
My memory of ANZAC parades as a child and teenager in Waipawa is of Dad getting out his best (only?) suit and polishing his black shoes. There were also the medals rescued annually from a box hidden in an obscure cupboard. Where are my bloody medals? was the cry. They also had to be cleaned, a job my brother eventually took up. We never made it to the dawn parade but would assemble at one end of the main street, Dad up front with the Returned Servicemen, my brother and I with the Scouts or Cubs, shivering in our short pants in the cold autumn mist which rises out of the Waipawa River. The towns highland pipe band lead, followed by the Returned Servicemen. My father in perfect step with the others, made an impressive sight. This small town of 1700 people also produced a brass band and a team of marching girls who strutted in their white calf-length boots, dazzlingly short skirts and Hollywood style military hats. The Cubs, Brownies, Girl Guides and Boy Scouts plus the St Johns Ambulance Brigade, slotted in somewhere to make up the parade and marched down the main street of town, which happened to be the main North South highway. Traffic was diverted, not that there was much, as ANZAC day is a national holiday and the railways still carted most of the freight the heavy duty inter-city trucks were then unimagined. At the other end of the Main Street is the white Memorial Town Clock where the names of the fallen are to be read. Standing guard is an archaic cannon preserved for posterity in multiple layers of grey paint. This iconic image of Waipawa, to be found on a few hopeful tourist souvenirs, was for a few decades in the 70s and 80s , unaccountably usurped by a huge yellow duck the sort you might find in a childs bath which stood guard at the entrance to the town. Fortunately this was disposed of by friendly vandals returning us to sobriety at the town clock.
Here we were, assembled for the ANZAC day service the prayers, the bugle calls Last post and Revellie and the Hymns; O God Our Help in Ages Past and the National Anthems, which in those days were God Save the Queen and God Save New Zealand. All these played by the brass band.
I saw it then as an annual chore. War was still a mystery at that age, although we all had some expectation of experiencing it as we sweated under the brilliant autumn sunshine which had dispelled the mist and now shone unrelentingly on the servicemen in their dark woollen suits.
I havent been to an ANZAC service since then. As a student I demonstrated against our involvement in the Viet Nam war, sang antiwar songs at folk groups in the 70s and was generally against all war. In London I marched, protesting against the Iraq war one of 2 million. It was heady stuff, but in the long run, our voices went unheard. Its great that the young still believe, as I did, that we can change the world. I now know that its more complicated and that just maybe, mankind is destined to continually be at war. History tells us so.
I’m sitting in my study staring out of the window and trying to think of the next sentence. There are crows out on the road and in the playground opposite. I’m just thinking what on earth can crows find to eat over there when I hear the familiar cry of alarm from the male blackbird. A few moments later that fledgling flutters to the ground near a climbing frame.
‘Stupid bird,’ I think. ‘Why don’t you run into the thorn bushes near bye?’
But it’s not that clever and after one half hearted dodge, the crows have it. The blackbird flies around making a racket but is not brave enough to attack the group, who fight over the dying fledgling. A teenage boy passes through the playground eyes straight ahead, oblivious to the drama going on right next to him. One crow makes to fly off, but is intercepted and drops its half eaten lunch. The next thing that I see is the cat next door running out of the playground with the remains in it’s mouth. All that effort by the blackbirds just to provide lunch for a crow and a cat.
June was busy; I was away a lot and returned home after a long weekend to find that a pair of blackbirds had almost completed building a late nest in the grapevine, right above my back door. The female was sitting in the nest but flew out when I came out the door. I took a quick look through the landing window just above the nest and noted there were no eggs yet. I hoped that my reappearance would discourage the pair from their task. I imagined that they had already nested earlier and noted that this effort was very late in the season.
They must have decided that I was worth the risk and continued to build so when I returned after yet another weekend away, the female was sitting on four eggs. I was quite cross and concerned for them as I’d planned a party in my very small garden mid July and felt sure that the noise and activity would scare them away. I decided to carry on as normal, sitting in my garden courtyard, hanging out washing and gardening. I reflected that this choice of location might not be the brightest, but then again my presence could deter predators. How could they know that? Had they somehow learned that humans are OK to be around? Not taking any risk, the bird remained motionless if I was about, believing in her camouflage. She would only leave or return to the nest, beautifully hidden by the vine leaves, if she was convinced that I or any other creature was not looking. You might wonder what the male was doing all this time. He didn’t seem much in evidence, but the moment a couple of magpies flew into sight, he was on duty, distracting them away from the area by confronting them and pretending that his nest was several gardens away. Cleverly he would raise the alarm and take the drama well out of site of my grapevine.
The party date approached and rain threatened. I decided to erect a gazebo, which would take up most of the courtyard and come within inches of the nest. I did it in stages putting up the frame the day before. She sat on the nest all the way through it, so encouraged, I carefully pulled on the covering the following morning. She flew out of the nest but once the top was on and I could no longer be seen from above, she returned. It rained hard, clearing up in time for my guests. I didn’t tell anyone the blackbirds were nesting. Human beings are inherently inquisitive and children might have insisted on looking in the nest. While we had been partying away under the canopy, things had been happening above. When I dismantled the gazebo the following day, there were four chicks in the nest. Mum wasn’t sitting and there was a very faint sound of cheeping. Both
birds were alternating their visits, bringing food to the youngsters, trying to work out which ones needed feeding next. I didn’t expect all four chicks to survive and some of them looked overheated. The temperatures at this time of year on a South West facing wall were exhausting.
A week later, I discovered one of the chicks dead by the back step. A quick look, while the mother was away, first checking no one was looking, showed that only two chicks remained. There were no clues to the fate of number four. I removed the dead chick to the other side of the house so that scavengers would not come sniffing and continued to come and go alongside my bird family. Some days later one of the chicks was sitting on the edge of the nest peering at me through the vine leaves. Meanwhile the grapes are ripening and it’s time to expose them to sunshine by removing some foliage. This turned out to be a bad idea as the chick decided to flee the nest, fluttering ineffectually down to ground level and taking refuge at the base of an ivy-clad wall, behind a small statue of a naked woman. Whatever sound the young bird emitted in this exercise produced parental alarm several gardens away. Checking for chick number two revealed that the frightened chick was the last one left of the four originals.
I’m generally a Darwinian, but as I’d caused the chick to jump out of the nest, I felt duty bound to put it back, which I achieved by getting out the ladder, throwing a cloth over the chick and returning it to the nest and carefully removing the cloth. Feeding resumed and for the next few days the fledgling could be heard calling discreetly to be fed and exercising its wings.
The next thing I know, the fledgling has jumped out of the nest again and is perched on the handlebar of my bicycle in full view of any predators.
‘Stupid bird,’ I muttered, and chased it round the courtyard with the cloth.
Its next excursion found it perched on the lower branches of the honeysuckle.
‘That’s a bit more sensible,’ I told it. Young Blackbird was hidden under the canopy and high enough off the ground to give the neighbourhood cat a challenge. Dad seemed to be the main feeder now and the next day I spotted the youngster away out of my courtyard on a high wall between me and next door. Then it was gone. I hope it makes it and I can now attend to my grapes.
He asks questions but offers no answers, prompting me to join the debate bringing the personal into reasons for Pride. Why do we march and what are we proud of?
I very well remember being young, vetting partners for their left wing credentials and thinking we could change the world. Thank goodness there are still those who believe that. However, I come from a time and place where homosexuality was illegal and I’m amazed that we have come so far in my lifetime. I remember my first pride in the late 80’s, walking over Westminster Bridge nervously holding hands with my boyfriend. It was the only day of the year when we felt bold enough to do this. It was thrilling, a seemingly defiant act, which in retrospect seems insignificant. Yes, we speculated about the cameras on helicopters identifying us later – part of the paranoia we’d been programmed into but there was a feeling of empowerment (probably imagined) much like my experience marching against the Vietnam War in the 70s.
Did it make a difference? I believe so, but not necessarily in the ways you might expect. The sight of Lesbians and Gay men visible to the public and media (The Bi came later, followed by Trans and now Queer – where will it end?) caused derision, hate and laughter from media and onlookers but it gave us confidence to be ‘Out’ to friends and family, the workplace was to come later. So over the years people got used to the fact that we exist. In what then seemed like an achingly slow journey, acceptance grew to where we are now. Lemmey cites Stonewall as a pivotal moment in our history, and I recommend Martin Duberman’s book Stonewall – an account of the gay struggle for liberation in the US. However, the drag queens at the Stonewall Inn weren’t part of a political organisation; they were just pissed off and pushed to the edge by the Cops. They unwittingly started a revolution. That’s how revolutions usually begin and the intellectuals quickly move in to invent the ideology. It’s a very slow revolution and continues with advances and retreats.
The difficulty for intellectuals such as Lemmey, is that we are not a politically or sociologically homogenous group. We are not, like miners or teachers but can be found in all cultural, class and political groups. I used to think it inconceivable that any gay man could vote conservative. I didn’t know any and assumed that if they did exist, were sheltering in ‘The Closet’. Now, with more experience, and the predominance of centre-ground politics, I know and dare I say, like a number of Tory gay men. At the other end of the political spectrum I count a Marxist as a dear friend. That LGBT people inhabit such a wide spectrum is, I believe, a strength in our continuing struggle to be visible to all sections of society. Our goal must be for our sexuality to be unremarkable to everyone.
So, the representation of workers from banks, supermarkets the Civil Service and other corporations in this year’s pride is surely a good step in spreading the ‘Some people are gay – get over it’ campaign and taking the revolution to new levels. Back in the eighties Pride struggled for sponsorship (I vividly remember Ian McKellen then running around rattling a bucket desperately trying to get Pride revellers to donate) and was always going broke or having funds embezzled. That companies are now willing to sponsor indicates a new tolerance for their employees, many of whom would have been sacked in the past. Hopefully there is also a more responsible Pride management, because sponsors need looking after.
Does all this mean that the battle is won? By no means, vigilance and visibility will always be needed. As I marched with Out to Swim this year being hotly pursued by Front Runners, I overheard one elderly man say to another –
‘God help us, there’s even a running group.’
While such dinosaurs exist, we need to be vigilant. A few weeks ago two young men were queer bashed by sixteen-year-olds in Whitechapel, not far from where I live. Prejudice is also alive and growing in the young – we need to be vigilant and have pride in our sexuality and diversity.