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

Stephen Fry vs God

Stephen Fry has taken up the distressed cries of thousands of years, from believers and unbelievers alike, by asking that crucial question: if God exists, how can there be such suffering in the world? Here’s the clip that went viral:

A gallant man of impassioned phrase and strident tongue has taken on the Almighty where He seems weakest: how can an all-loving, all-powerful God create a world of child cancer?  Fry is following a great tradition, says the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.  Such anguished cries of distress against God are already heard in Scripture: in the Books of Job and among the Psalms. Not to mention Blake and others.

The essence of the answer to Fry here is not meant to dull his cry and query, so much as show that it is misplaced.  Free will is the short, traditional and complete answer to such cries.  A longer answer deals with the nature of God, which is missed by Fry’s words.  That is, though all-powerful, God is also the exact opposite.  Not just a Grand Old Man on a throne creating a mountain here, a species there, a disease here …  He is also a baby; a poor carpenter; a crucified, mocked, dying man.  And it is this second ‘God’ that gives this deity the unique right to speak on suffering – and to comfort us that “all shall be well”.  Giles Fraser, Guardian columnist and once Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral, sums it up:

“This is why the Jesus story is, for me, the most theologically revolutionary story that there can be. Because it imagines God and power separated. God as a baby. God poor. God helpless on a cross. God with a mocking and ironic crown of thorns. In these scenes it is Caesar who has the power. And so the question posed is: which one will you follow when push comes to shove? You can follow what is right and get strung up for it. Or you can cosy up to power and do as you are told. By saying that he will stare ultimate power in the face and, without fear, call it by its real name, Fry has indicated he is on the side of the angels (even though he does not believe in them). […]

Furthermore, this powerless thing subverts Fry’s accusation of God’s iniquity. For if we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – and yes, this means we will have to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity. Which is why, even in the midst of absolute horror, he has the authority to whisper in my ear that all will be well.”

What’s more, crying to God that there’s evil and sickness and harm in the world begs the question: what are we going to do about them?  Have we not intelligence, and power, and skill, in ourselves – God-given or otherwise?  Tim Stanley, of the Telegraph, puts it this way:

“Stephen Fry suggested that religion has no answer to the problem of suffering. On the contrary, it’s obsessed with it. Consider Christianity (because most of you reading this will be Christian, either by belief or culture). The Christian take on suffering is that it’s an inevitable part of being human. This is because we live in a fallen world in which God largely leaves us up to our own devices to look after ourselves – although he gifted us intelligence and compassion to enable us to do the right thing.”

The reason this sort of question is posed with such vigour by Stephen Fry is that it is a natural one.  Indeed, it is a powerfully dramatic one – hence why the clip went viral.  Other media examples even include fictional uses.  President Bartlet of The West Wing spoke truth to power on the accidental and unfathomable death of an old friend; this is heroic venting at its most powerful, orating as he advances straight down the aisle of National Cathedral, Washington D.C., cigarette in hand:

Let’s also refer in passing to Kevin Spacey’s eulogy for the dead child in the recent House of Cards: he both shocks and connects with his audience-congregation by shouting “I hate you God!”, before (cynically, in his case) speaking on suffering.

These ‘longer answers than free will’, as I hinted above, necessitate discussing the nature of God. Fraser touches on it further in his article quoted above, but let me quote instead from Stanley – and particularly the human example with which this section concludes:

“[Firstly,] the idea that God just watches suffering and feels indifferent to it is nonsense. This is a God who sent down his only Son to actively endure the worst pain and humiliation that any human can take. The Romans drove nails through his body, suspended him from a cross and left him in the burning heat slowly to expire – crucified alongside a common criminal.

[… Secondly,] our model in life isn’t some Aryan hard-body god with good health, white teeth and a tan. It’s a broken cripple upon a cross. And living up to that model means not avoiding suffering but going to where it is found – in hospitals, care homes, prisons etc. It means suffering alongside people in the hope of sharing the burden of their pain. […] Often the question is asked, ‘Where was God at Auschwitz?’ The answer is Father Kolbe.”

One final comment.  Because you might worry that all this means “you have to suffer to be good” – that popular form of spiritual sado-masochism that feels good by feeling bad all the time, where true happiness is supposed to be achieved by being truly miserable … You don’t. Instead, it’s a question of resisting the bad by walking alongside those who suffer, as God/Christ did/does.

That is why God is not that aloof being, carelessly creating the world of child cancer and hunger that Fry describes in his distress. But rather, a being who has given us a world where we are free to do as we please – for good or ill – and who suffers as we do, but also shows us ways to alleviate this, and gives us the intelligence and the grace to do it.  To give freedom to beings you’ve created, knowing it could all go horribly wrong – or that some of the problems they’ll encounter, they simply won’t be able to solve (yet), is love of a deep and parental kind. Blaming a deity for human problems that humans haven’t yet solved, seems to be missing the point.

And so does the flipside of Fry’s comment, which suggests a desire for Utopia.  If we expect both human freedom and worldly perfection to exist at one and the same time, then we are asking to be deceived.  Pick one …

– WDG.

Related articles on celebrity/religion:


What’s Bred in the Bone

Why Symbols and Richness of Imagery Matter

This passage is from Canadian author Robertson Davies’ novel, “What’s Bred in the Bone”. It describes why science (however wonderful all its discoveries) has a good deal to learn from all the symbols and images of religion (however religious or not one may be). These images enrich the human experience of the world; they are essential to wonder; they are essential to discovery.

“Well, science is the theology of our time, and like the old theology it’s a muddle of conflicting assertions. What gripes my gut is that it has such a miserable vocabulary and such a pallid pack of images to offer to us – to the humble laity – for our edification and our faith. The old priest in his black robe gave us things that seemed to have concrete existence; you prayed to the Mother of God and somebody had given you an image that looked just right for the Mother of God.

The new priest in his whitish lab-coat gives you nothing at all except a constantly changing vocabulary which he – because he usually doesn’t know any Greek – can’t pronounce, and you are expected to trust him implicitly because he knows what you are too dumb to comprehend. It’s the most overweening, pompous priesthood mankind has ever endured in all its recorded history, and its lack of symbol and metaphor and its zeal for abstraction drive mankind to a barren land of starved imagination.

But you, Maria, speak the old language that strikes upon the heart. You talk about the Recording Angel and you talk about his lesser angels, and we both know exactly what you mean. You give comprehensible and attractive names to psychological facts, and God – another effectively named psychological fact- bless you for it.”

Robertson Davies was a UCC man who taught at Trinity and was a parishioner of the Church of St Mary Magdalene. All his books are about Torontonian culture in all its glory. He spoke in a sort of Victorian RP and wore a Jehovah-like beard his whole life. Here is a video of him:

A deeply-dipped hat tip to Dr Michael Bonner, who suggested this text, and this author.

The Cuckoo Post

The Cuckoo

The Cuckoo
(Photo: Wikipedia/MDF)

A new phrase to coin?

Here’s a Facebook phenomenon that’s dying for a name …

Friend A has something posted on his wall by Friend B.  Person C sees this post, and comments on it, directing the comment at Friend B. Friends B and C then proceed to have a conversation entirely unrelated to the original post, on a topic to which Friend A cannot contribute.  But the conversation is taking place on his wall, often developing into a huge string of comments, and eventually occupying most of his news feed.

When cuckoos breed, the pair lay their eggs in another bird’s nest, leaving them to hatch and take over that nest.  Friends B and C are the cuckoos here – while poor old Friend A is that other bird, who has to put up with his friends’ little nest-egg of a conversation slowly filling up his wall.

A cuckoo post, ladies and gentlemen.  For that is what it is.

Of course, I may be over-analysing this …


A recent post on someone’s wall …
(Photo: Mull)

The Spring Buskers

A couple of years back I was living in Paris.  One day at the start of Spring, I took a walk around the streets near our flat, and took some footage of the streetlife there.  There were buskers and beggars and all sorts.  Some were worth a second look and a listen.  So here is a tiny sketch, a mini-doco, a clipped collage, or whatever you like to call it, of some characters I met out walking that day.

Consider it a new addition to my short film clip series, “Paris Calling”, from back in 2010.  It’s a little glimpse of what comes out of the woodwork in the French Spring …

(Best at full screen with sound up.)


Footage (2010) & editing (2012): copyright and all rights reserved by author.