The New Zealand Flag

New Zealand Flag

A short piece on symbols and families

Britain has her bulldog; the Aussies have their ‘roos; the Yanks like their Eagle and the French sport their rooster.  We, of course, have our beloved kiwi; we have our silver fern.  And the others have their lions and thistles and wallabies and warratahs and snails and frogs’ legs … all these are honoured in their way, on rugby jerseys and marketing symbols: strong brands, unmistakably of their country.  When Churchill roused the British people to resistance, he called upon the spirit of the bulldog and the lion; for the French, de Gaulle talked of the rooster being the only animal who could still sing with both feet planted in manure; in their more relaxed moments, the delicacy of French tastes recalls snails and frogs’ legs and garlic-filled evenings of wine and fine culture.  From our own backyard, we are proud of the Silver Fern – emblazoned on our national teams – and the kiwi, symbol of a small but proud, gritty young nation in the Southern Seas.  All these countries are proud of their symbols; all of them are known immediately, around the globe, linked with only one nation each.  And not one of these symbols appears on that country’s flag.

In fact, what all of these countries do have on their flag is the red, white and blue.  This comes straight from the meld of the three-cross Union Flag – St George, St Andrew and St Patrick – fused into one identity from three, to put it mildly, radically different pasts – English, Scottish and Irish – and this melding created a symbol of liberty for the world in dark times, when conquering powers marched across Europe and the world and warred between each other.  Such was the power of that symbol that countries in turmoil soon followed suit: France chose expressly to borrow those colours for their own flag; the United States, newly formed, deliberately took them in turn, and New Zealand and Australia, their inhabitants nowadays almost all of them having ancestors who arrived by ship, chose a naval ensign emblazoned with their past in the top corner: a Union Jack, floating on a Southern ocean, guided by a Southern Cross, forming the larger part of the flag.

Yet two issues are often strangely given in favour of changing the flag: 1) we need our own identity and to “stand on our own two feet”; 2) it looks like Australia’s.

1.  Identity and Ourselves

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but New Zealand already does perfectly well without our “mother country”, the United Kingdom, running the show.  We cut our apron strings to that mother, in any real governing sense, decades ago.  What we have sensibly kept is the heritage – the family name – once we left home, along with the ceremonial aspects and kindred blood.  We bear the appearance of our mother in the positioning of her flag upon ours – because we owe that much to her historically.  To disown the Union Flag is adolescent tantrum: to claim that we are now “so mature” that we don’t want to be seen in public with our Mum.  The conflicting search for freedom in a teenager is a worthwhile and exciting one – but we must be careful, while still a fresh, young country – yet no longer a child – not to throw out our past wholesale in search of our future identity.  We are what we are.

We are a former colony, frontiersmen and indigenous tribes, all immigrants at one time to a remote country, bound into a new nation.  We can see where we came from at our origin: Britain, and the Southern seas, for most of us.  And those not from those specific places have certainly become so culturally: our language, our rule of law, our individual freedoms, our history, our shared values, our way of doing business, our way of defending ourselves, our institutions: all these things we inherited in large part from Britain – unfashionable though it is to point that out – and we have made them our own, and kept a proud symbol to prove it.  Our flag reveals this heritage: two tribes, one from the Northern hemisphere, and those from the South, bound into one image in an ocean with room for all, which allows for yet more to arrive; and, to show our new sense of place, three-quarters of that image is given over to the Southern part.

2.  The Aussie question

Our flags must be almost as close as any other two nations in the world – with the exception of those mid-European striped-flag nations whose permutations of colour flummox even the most encyclopaedic, pub-quiz-ready mind.  The thing is, I think we *should* look a bit like Australia.  We are “brother countries”, after all.  We mock each other and enjoy rough and tumble across the ditch, as siblings do, but we are, in our values and laws and language and everything already listed, extremely alike.  Why create difference where it does not exist?  Is that a recipe for harmony?  I would rather be mistaken for an Australian than for just about any of those groups whose flag, as often proposed in the flag debate, is based on black: Isis, pirates, fascist dictators and the rest of them.  The silver fern on black may be an excellent sporting symbol – or indeed any graphic design variation on it, or the koru, or the kiwi – but alone it is no basis for a national identity.  Liberty, direction and renowned heritage, on the other hand, are the very best basis – represented by the Union Jack and the Southern Cross combination we have.

We will surely work through this national adolescence – this obsession with image and appearance in our search for a new banner, this rejection of our mother country in the dropping of the Union Jack, this huffy grump of being labelled part of a family we no longer consider cool, by changing a flag so like that of our closest friend and ally across the Tasman Sea.  We will surely work through this phase in our national life – we are no longer a child, doing our mother’s bidding; we are finding our own way and have long since cut the apron strings.  Britain has no real power here anymore, beyond the symbolic presence of the flag and the renowned and still much-loved headship of Her Majesty the Queen and her family, who bring us more attention and clout: so why would we be insecure about her symbols?

It’s as if we can’t handle being from somewhere: we can’t handle our background.  It seems we’ve entered that phase of life where Mum has to drop us way down the road from the school gates, so our friends can’t see our family on the corner.  We don’t realise that our past is what gives us the strength to forge our own way ahead – that adolescents, amidst all their profession of rebellion and rejection, really crave the strong support of their background and family group – that tension between past and present, as a constant reminder to keep going, keep exploring, keep innovating – those things teenagers and New Zealand both do so naturally, and so well, because we both have a strong base and inheritance from which to work.  Yet we run the very real risk of throwing that source of energy away.  Of tearing up the family album, of pushing our past away – our history, our heritage – in the name of revisiting appearance and image.  And if that’s not what we’re doing by throwing out our flag, if it’s nothing so drastic, or so deep and profound; if it does not go to the heart of it all, then why are we doing this at all?  For the graphic quality?  For a marketing strategy?  But we’ve seen that silver ferns and kiwis can be used for all that without being on the flag – just as bulldogs and kangaroos and roosters are.  New Zealand marketers do a superb job of that already.  To find the reason, let’s look at our school days for a minute: excuse this, but I’m a teacher.

Occasionally, there will be a kid at my school, who complains about having to wear a uniform. It’s not even an especially uncomfortable or stuffy one.  It’s a fair question, but the reason is simple: save your energy for something important.  Express yourself in meaningful ways, not just through facile things like image or appearance, or what colour you drape yourself in each morning.  New Zealand, as we mature, has that same marvellous opportunity here: let’s get through our national adolescence not by expending energy on changing some image or appearance.  Not by being so obsessed with loudly proving to everyone that we’ve cut the apron strings that we end up shredding the apron itself.  Don’t be fooled, like the teenager slicking his hair in front of the mirror or popping his collar, by thinking that changing an image says something especially deep, or that it’s time well-spent looking at ourselves and braying about how we’re all grown up now.  Let’s make use of this youthful national energy by expressing and renewing ourselves in some meaningful way instead: in science, in culture, in the arts, in our families, in trade, in useful laws.  Keep the flag as it is: those who survive their teenage years and emerge as healthy young adults are always quite happy to be seen with their Mum in public.

William Gunson

8th August 2015.

New Zealand Flag

Update: for those researchers who have asked for further details on the point, the historical reference to the first origins of the red, white and blue of the British/Kiwi Union Jack, then the French Tricolore and the American Stars & Stripes (et al) is analysed by Prof. Robert Tombs, of the University of Cambridge, in a 2007 publication.

Pensant et bien pensant

Place de la République, 7 janvier, 18h50, une foule silencieuse

Place de la République, 7 janvier, 18h50, une foule silencieuse

In the July 17 TLS, Julian Jackson writes of How the French Think, reviewing Sudhir Hazareesingh’s new book of that title.  Jackson notes accurately that after the Charlie Hebdo killings and the global demonstrations of 7 and 11 January, the “momentary spirit of national unanimity has been followed by anxious soul-searching.”  Such moments reflect a widely-held sensibility at a point in time, if not always with absolute unanimity; they suggest the beginnings of a movement in favour of those demonstrating.

But are such demonstrations not the beginnings, but the last flowerings of a sensibility or spirit?  The soul-searching they precede inevitably changes their society because it engages reason to the spontaneous (or pent-up release) of passion – in itself, a rather French, Cartesian vs Rousseau-esque meeting of opposites.  Would people manifest in the streets again for – God forbid – a similar event?  Not a journalistic one, that is, where the absence of crowds might be accounted for by a lack of novelty – however cynical or insensitive that sounds.  But perhaps if, say, a religious or literary or charity leader was attacked – someone ‘unofficial’, like the Hebdo contributors.  We pray that such a thing never comes to pass – indeed I hesitate even to write it – but if it did, would people emerge in numbers once more?

Possibly, but the spirit would have changed in some way from the Je Suis Charlie street demonstrations.  They marked the end of something – or perhaps more accurately its peak, or governing pressure limit (on a ‘vent’ theory) – just as, in their quite different ways, did 1968 or Woodstock or the 9/11 vigils.  The anniversaries of this last are still poignant and sincere in so many cases, but with different assumptions and feelings latent, now that so much has occurred in the world, for better or for worse, as a result of the original events.  Do  such outbursts or flowerings signal the end or peak of something?  Or the passing of a leader – actual or construed or symbolic?  Or the passing of an idea?  Or a lack of incoming leadership, hence the melancholy felt so soon?

If some form of leadership will provide an answer to the question such flowerings pose, will it be one of reason or of passion?  Descartes or Rousseau?  Or, somehow, both?  And is this unique to France, given the international examples given – or is this aspect of the French spirit and of French endeavours, as Jackson notes that de Gaulle might have it, something more universal, in “the interest of all”?

Strasbourg, 7 janvier 2015

Strasbourg, 7 janvier 2015



Bordeaux, 7 janvier 2015

Bordeaux, 7 janvier 2015

When judges get bored …

The Supreme Court of the United States

The Chief Justice of the United States, Mr John Roberts, must have lost a bet.  Or maybe he was just bored.  Either way, he cooked up a stunner.  In the case of Pennsylvania v Dunlap, in 2008, he wrote the following paragraphs in a case judgment.  Astute readers will recognise the unmistakable tone of hardboiled 1930s detective writers Damon Runyon and Raymond Chandler.  Even a judge has to have fun sometimes.

* * *




No. 07–1486.  Decided October 14, 2008

The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.  CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS, with whom JUSTICE KENNEDY joins, dissenting from denial of certiorari.

North Philly, May 4, 2001.  Officer Sean Devlin, Narcotics Strike Force, was working the morning shift.  Under­cover surveillance.  The neighborhood?  Tough as a three-dollar steak.  Devlin knew.  Five years on the beat, nine months with the Strike Force.  He’d made fifteen, twenty drug busts in the neighborhood.

Devlin spotted him: a lone man on the corner.  Another approached.  Quick exchange of words.  Cash handed over; small objects handed back.  Each man then quickly on his own way.  Devlin knew the guy wasn’t buying bus tokens. He radioed a description and Officer Stein picked up the buyer.  Sure enough: three bags of crack  in the guy’s pocket.  Head downtown and book him.  Just another day at the office.

* * *

The full judgment can be found here, on public record:

A fictional incident along these lines had been portrayed in TV series The West Wing a number of years back.  Life imitating art?  Probably not: judges have been doing this for years – just like all educated people, they enjoy working the English language to its fullest expression.  And, after all, they’re only human: we all need our ludic moments from time to time.


A healthful ale

“I gave her cakes, and I gave her ale, and we was wond’rous merry!”  

—  Henry Purcell (British composer, 1659 – 1695, tune here)

On the eve of the First World War, wine was – startlingly – a major pre-occupation for the French leadership, for several weeks.  Absinthe, too.  One government minister remarked that the wine-drinking, absinthe-sipping, even ‘effeminate’ Frenchman was no match in war for the supposedly more masculine, “beer-filled Teuton”.  The British were a happy half-way house, it seemed, enjoying wine and spirits in moderate measure, but beer for the most part, and – consequently, it seemed – were a decent match for the Germans on the battlefield.

Une autre pinte, peut-être?

Une autre pinte, peut-être?

How times have changed.  The youth of France, surrounded by Médoc, Gevrey-Chambertin and Sancerre, now prefer a large measure of Kronenbourg 1664, while the youth of Britain have, apparently, been turning more to the delights – and relative cheapness – of wine.

In Britain, French drink is held in high regard; in France, British drink is exotic and appealing.  Well, plus ça change: cross-channel grass-is-greener syndrome has long been a feature of Franco-British interaction.  Steak-frites, the essence of French cuisine, is originally a British dish, from a time when France’s meat supply was mostly rotten, while Britain enjoyed exquisite produce.  Maurice Chevalier, the stereotypical Frenchman, wore entirely British fashion.  And so the pendulum has swung once more in the field of booze, too.  The French are drinking beer; the British are drinking wine (although “real ale” is a notable exception, and actually mitigates part of the problem).

Whatever one’s view of the archaic and almost comical attribution of tipple-preference to national characteristics and war prospects, quoted at the start of this article, this particular warhorse has once again reared its ugly head.  Tax on booze has been proposed in Britain, to curb binge-drinking.  This goes some way to explaining the switch away from beer to wine, à la française.  It is cheaper for the average young couple, especially in the midst of recession, to remain at home with a half-decent £7 bottle of wine, than it is for them to leave the house and attend a pub, where a pint now nudges three pounds – more than one round and you’re down on the deal.  Sharing that bottle of wine with a partner, rather than a pint with a pile of mutual mates, is becoming the norm.

This has three effects:

  1. To change the British drinking culture from beer to wine.
  2. To reduce social contact at a traditional juncture, the pub. And –
  3. To take a chunk out of the British economy.

Why the third point?  Bluntly, Britain’s a bit bloody short on decent wine of its own.  She’s far better at brewing a decent pint, an art – even a science – at which perhaps only Germany’s brewers (and perhaps the Belgians, Czechs, New Zealanders and Australians) are equally talented.  Hence the “beer-filled Teuton” of France’s despairing pre-war leadership.  This means that most of the (cheap) wine Britons drink comes from France, Spain and Italy.  Money, in short, flies out of British pockets into those of Continental vintners, both at the expense of Britain’s domestic economy, and one of her oldest social establishments.

"Well, ale be bound!"

Three foaming pints of ambrosia

A solution, then.  A tax on European wine?  No – both unimaginative (extra taxes are always somewhat of a blunt political instrument) and illegal (such tariffs not being entirely in the spirit of European co-operation).  A big subsidy on beer?  No – both irresponsible (“free beer” is one of those things a novelty political party might stand for) and, again, illegal (British brewers and French farmers should probably never appear on the same side of an argument).  A more subtle half-way house, perhaps, just as Britain’s drinking was perceived to be all those years ago before World War One.  A tax break specifically for casked pub beer – ideally focussing on ‘real ale’, perhaps coupled with a stronger ‘appelation’ award system.  This would benefit pub-goers: the same amount of alcohol consumption, since one bottle of wine or several pints would then amount both to the same units of alcohol as well as price.  It would benefit social interaction, filling up community meeting-points rather than isolating people inside their homes to drink.

There are obvious problems here, of course: any reduction in the cost of drinking is doubtful as to social responsibility.  Yet a balancing of off-licence hours and pub-closing times could partly address this very issue if done in tandem.  Another problem would be overcrowding of pubs in major centres, which are less community meeting-points, but more simply watering-holes.  A focus on ‘real ales’ would, again, partly address this, turning beer into a more appreciated tipple, as wine is, than a bland booze-content-driven effort, which ignores taste and local-sourcing awareness.  Supermarkets might get on board with a new trend in this area, which is well overdue.

I stop at this point, to invite discussion.  Perhaps it might be best to leave you with a letter to the Editor in last week’s Telegraph, which sums up the issue rather nicely.  And perhaps one day the people of Britain, neither wine-supping Frenchman, nor beer-filled Teuton, might indulge a little in a fine ale, and be “wond’rous merry” once more.  In times such as these, we certainly need it.


Links cited: Guardian, Telegraph, Deller Consort