We fail to value our history

There is nothing like travelling overseas to sharpen perception of the best and worst in one’s own country. 

I’ve had this opportunity over the past month visiting several centres in Europe, meeting family connections and friends as well as doing “touristy” things. 

In terms of goods and services the overwhelming feeling is of “sameness”. Much of the time we could have been anywhere in the world as the same multinational names and “brands” turn up with depressing frequency whether its marketing companies, accountancy firms or fast foods.

Too many main streets and shopping centres are dominated by the likes of Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hutt and Subway.

There is growing community resistance to the dead hand of these multinationals and one bright spot is the suburb of Stoke-Newington in London where we stayed.

The local council has succeeded so far in keeping the multinational fast-food chains out and the benefits are obvious. The area is a rich treasure trove of small family eateries. Talk about value and variety! The argument of the multi-national chains that they provide extra choice is rubbish. They remove choice as they use their huge resources to destroy local competitors.

Another area of “sameness” is the content of political debate. Aside from the Iraq war Helen Clark’s Labour government has mirrored its policies on Tony Blair’s New Labour Party in Britain. The same arguments we are familiar with here over health, education and poverty for example are aired daily and like New Zealand, political debate is governed by the concerns of the middle class. Labour and National here talk about “mainstream New Zealanders” while British politicians like Gordon Brown, the heir-apparent to Tony Blair, has based his leadership appeal around policies for “middle England”. Like New Zealand the poor don’t get a look in and appear most commonly in the media on the backs of outbreaks of criminal violence from the social breakdown associated with ingrained poverty.

And if you thought the quality of political debate in New Zealand was low then it is undoubtedly worse in Britain. The huge number of daily tabloids bring an even stronger media focus to the sideshows of politics where bubble-gum journalism abounds. It’s like having a dozen “Truth” newspapers to choose from every day with headlines and content to match. Another case where “choice” is an illusion.

Perhaps the most sobering difference we encountered was the value which other countries place on their history compared to New Zealanders. We have often made excuses that we haven’t been here long enough to have a decent history although this view is thankfully changing. With a thousand years or so of Maori settlement and more than 360 years of European contact we have a history as long as most parts of Britain.

Despite this we don’t relish it as do the Scottish for example who base so many “tourist attractions” on their history. While in New Zealand we advertise our scenery, outdoor activities and Maori culture in our tourism promotions, the Scottish advertise the likes of Edinburgh Castle, the royal mile and the William Wallace (the Braveheart of popular renown) memorial at Stirling near the site of his most famous battle.

Middle-class New Zealanders in their tens of thousands flock to historic sites such as these every year and this is understandable as many trace their ancestors from this part of the world. But by comparison how many of these same New Zealanders have visited sites of struggle here? For example how many would have visited the site of the battle at Orakau Pa, perhaps the most famous battle of the New Zealand land wars of the nineteenth century?

In this battle, since portrayed in one of our earliest movies as “Rewi’s last stand”, Maori chief Rewi Maniapoto led a small band of valiant defenders against overwhelming odds and although defeated pulled off a daring, dramatic escape. The battle marked a turning point in our history and is every bit as colourful, interesting and riveting – both factually and historically – as Wallace’s battle at Stirling Bridge and yet it is largely unknown to New Zealanders and invisible to our tourists. Should you visit the battle scene today you will find just a small parking bay and a plaque which briefly describes the battle.

This speaks volumes for our lack of understanding and ambivalence about so much of our history. We have a long way to go before we feel comfortable enough with it to celebrate it ourselves and promote it proudly to our visitors.