Thomas Aitken is in his final year of studying Expressive Arts and Journalism at Massey University and spent his summer working on the Pukeahu project via a summer research scholarship. This piece fuses together writing and drawing to guide the reader on a late night stroll through the streets of Wellington, ANZAC day 2015.
My brushes with ANZAC day have been few and far between. As a kid I often visited the Wright’s Hill Fortress in Karori, but that was less about commemoration and more about playing army with real dress ups. I guess there was my final year of high school where I was appointed to lay a wreath on behalf of my school, but that almost went sour when I went out the night before and nearly trampled the wreath left in my porch coming home from town. Luckily it was an easy fix up and I quickly discovered that a hangover is an excellent way to achieve the sombre look so desired at these events.
This year, however, felt different. Mainly because the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, the millions of dollars spent on the new Pukeahu War Memorial Park and Peter Jackson’s Great War Exhibition seemed to have culminated in a nationwide debate on the topic. Was it glorification of an unnecessary and avoidable war? Or was it appropriate commemoration for those who gave their lives for our freedom? Either way, an infinite number of synthetic poppies had been sourced for the occasion, an audio visual extravaganza was to be projected onto the War Memorial, and Westpac Stadium was desperately trying to fill seats for their much publicised ANZAC day Aussie Rules game.
I had to work through most of the celebratory palava — but, having found myself at a loose end in Newtown that night, I decided to stroll into the city and soak up the ANZAC vibes. As I walked along Adelaide Road, past the Basin Reserve and down Cambridge Terrace I found no shortage of nationalistic antics.
‘Oi! Go back to your own country you fuckin’ chinks!’ Looking up I made out a shirtless man in a third storey window of the Cambridge Hotel. At ground level a group of Asian men collectively eyed the pavement and shuffled through the throng of smokers gathered outside the pub. An alcohol gargled ‘We don’t want you in our country!’ followed, accompanied by the sound of smashing glass, and I too averted my gaze.
I often get the feeling that history settles over locations in layers; at times leaving physical imprints like bricks and monuments, and at other times leaving nothing more than a feeling hanging in the air. A hundred years ago, when the imposing Mount Cook Prison stood atop Pukeahu, the streets at its feet formed the infamous slums of Chinatown. Despite being one of the earliest migrant groups in New Zealand the Chinese were subject to heavy racial discrimination, leading to a neighbourhood riddled with opium and illegal gambling. Some of these sentiments still linger over these streets, and for a moment I wondered if this was the reason the government had opted for synthetic poppies.
Beyond Cambridge Terrace I turned left on to Courtenay Place, where the poppies lined the gutters red along with more broken glass, pie wrappers, religious pamphlets and free vouchers to strip bars. Around three a.m. now, the bars were beginning to close, leaving revellers from Saturday night’s celebrations disoriented on the streets. Outside the St. James Theatre I came across a man engaged in a heated discussion with a street character affectionately known as Papa Smurf (on account of his sage demeanour and impressive beard). On this particular night his brown cardboard sign read ‘I bet you $1 you’ll read this sign’ and seemed to have attracted a heated discussion.
Wildly gesticulating in front of him was an impassioned shaggy-haired man who, from what I could gather, had been working with Weta Workshop on their installation of the Great War Exhibition. Intrigued, I took a seat on the pavement and listened as he engaged with whoever else would listen about what ANZAC day meant as a New Zealander. Through his work on the heavily graphic interpretations of World War One, he said he had discovered that the ANZACs weren’t always the heroes they are painted as.
‘I mean what do you guys think about all of this pomp and hype about ANZAC day huh?’
Shit, here we go again.
Papa Smurf, being a self-proclaimed bastard grandchild of a Maori soldier and a Greek woman (probably without consent he hinted), had spent much of his life on the streets and therefore felt fairly indifferent about dwelling on histories. But I suppose I had entered the conversation too and thought I’d humour the guy. I had after all spent most of my summer researching Wellington history.
‘Yeah it’s fucked. And did you ever think that more people died in the New Zealand Musket Wars than New Zealanders died in WWI? I mean where’s their parade?’
He seemed a little caught off guard by this remark, so I decided to lay it on a little stronger.
‘Maybe you should go and check out the Parihaka Memorial that’s in the carpark outside the exhibition you’ve been working on. Did you know they held peaceful protestors in a prison that stood where the museum building is now? I mean it’s easily missed but if you’re into uncovering the untold stories of New Zealand history then that might be up your alley…’
The guy seemed genuinely taken aback by this and it was at that point that a passing man, having obviously been outsmarted by Papa Smurf’s sign, stopped and began to berate us.
‘What is it you want? You want money? Go out and get a job!’ From his accent he was possibly South African and probably quite drunk.
‘No no no, you’ve got it wrong,’ replied the impassioned young man. ‘We’re just having a discussion about what ANZAC day means. I mean you’re South African right? Surely you know all about how the British treated others in times of war?’
‘Yeah yeah mate, they were running concentration camps in South Africa long before Hitler, but you don’t hear us harping on about it! The problem with you Kiwis is you’ve gotten into history so recently that there’s nothing to talk about. Your country is too young mate! Too much talk and not enough history!’
‘But my point is even though we do have a “young” history, the way that we’re teaching it is completely glorifying these potentially racist soldiers and repressing what really happened!’ The Weta guy seemed to be really pushing this argument, and fair enough I thought. I’d probably be venting drunken frustrations too, had I spent hours of my life painting miniature figurines only to conclude that they were perpetuating some kind of false nationalist agenda.
To keep him honest I chimed in with a, ‘Now you’ve realised, what can you do to change it.’ But we had obviously exhausted the South African’s patience and he was already sloppily drawing conclusions.
‘Look, the past is in the past for a reason you know? It’s history. It’s already happened you know? Here we are in the present. We’re not going to war. Our words won’t change anything. So how about we find somewhere to get a drink and forget about it all huh? Let’s get off the street and I’ll buy us a round! …And you…! You want some food or something?’ he added as an afterthought, gesturing at Papa Smurf.
‘Oh yeah, if you’re offering…’ drawled the beard, looking pleasantly surprised. ‘But you’re out of luck on the drink front. It’s just gone four. The bars all shut five minutes ago.’
‘You could get yourself a non-alcoholic beer at Dreamgirls across the road,’ I suggested, handing him a free entry voucher from the gutter. ‘Strip clubs and takeaways are pretty much the only places open at this hour.’
‘Bloody Kiwis!’ He muttered storming off into the distance, voucher in hand and leaving the three of us a little bemused. By this point the discussion seemed to have run its course and shortly after, the noticeably calmer Weta employee bade us both farewell.
‘Gentlemen, it’s been very enlightening and an absolute pleasure, and if you have the time, then I highly recommend you check out this exhibition up the hill. It might not tell all the aspects of the story, but it’s free and tells a pretty brutal account of some of the shit that went down in the First World War. And I’ll definitely check out that Parihaka Memorial, though I’m not quite sure how I’ve missed it.’
‘Oh it’s pretty missable, next to that big old War Memorial,’ I replied. ‘Check out the bricks on Tasman Street while you’re there too. If they’ve got an arrow on them it means they were made in the Prison brickworks. Mount Cook’d be a helluva lot taller if they hadn’t got the prisoners to make bricks out of the clay.’
‘Ha, really? Shit. I’ll have to check it out… Nice to meet you guys,’ he added, flicking some coins into the hat.
‘Churr Brudda. Happy ANZAC day,’ grinned Papa Smurf.
‘Haha sure. Happy ANZAC day.’