Monday, January 25, 2016

Something Thoughtful

 Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Gentle reader, I am going to harrumph. And not only am I going to harrumph, but I am going to say “Pshaw!” And not only am I going to say “Pshaw!” but I am going to add “Oh fie!” and end with a loud “Bah, humbug!”
It happened thus.
For three days I was shepherding my two eldest grandchildren, visiting from England, around the city of Wellington. We visited such wondrous places as Somes Island and the Karori nature reserve, which has now been poncily renamed “Zealandia”, where my 12-year-old granddaughter had ample opportunity to indulge her favourite hobby – photographing birds in their native habitat. We visited Cuba Mall, where my 14-year-old grandson had ample opportunity to follow his strongest interests by lingering long in one boutique specialising in geeky comics and another specialising in computer games. And of course we went to Te Papa and saw Peter Jackson’s gargantuan mythologisation of New Zealand soldiers at Gallipoli. And we saw one suitable stage play.
Nice place, Wellington, despite its “daylong driving cloud”. Please do remember that it is an Aucklander who is writing this.
But then the fateful moment came when my digestion was quite ruined and my equanimity lost. No, it was not the so-called “National Portrait Gallery” with its undistinguished daubs. Nor was it the tour of Weta Workshops, more to my grandchildren’s taste than mine.
It happened when we stepped into the modest Wellington Museum, which concentrates on the history of the port and mariners and shipping and the like. We watched the vivid and wrenching black-and-white film of the sinking of the “Wahine”, rendered more immediate to my grandchildren by my telling them that their great-uncle (my elder brother) was one of the young army officers who had the awful task of gathering up bodies that were washed up on the Eastbourne side of the harbour. We looked at interesting items about immigrants of formers times and the toil of watersiders.
Then, alas, we went up to a line of illustrated placards each of which purported to give a significant Wellington event for each year of the 20th century.
One of them told the untruthful and completely fanciful story of Gordon Coates, Minister of Works, telling a group of unemployed workers in 1932 that they should go to the Basin Reserve and “eat grass”. Doubtless some political opponents spread this fabricated story at the time, but it was and is pure moonshine.
Granted the placard attempts to cover its arse by referring to this as Coates’ “alleged” comment, but as it has no basis at all in historical fact, why bother repeating it at all?
To compound matters, this singularly inept placard was headed “Shades of Marie Antoinette”, comparing Coates’ “alleged” response to the fiction that Queen Marie Antoinette said of starving Parisian who had no bread “Let them eat cake”. This particular historical lie has been debunked innumerable times. (The fable of the cruel queen who said “Let them eat cake” had been in circulation for decades before Marie Antoinette was even born, and was first associated with her by a political pamphleteer about 50 years after her death.) Once again, the placard does a little arse-covering by stating that the queen was “said to have” made the fictitious reply. And once again I ask – why bother perpetuating what is known to be a fiction?
I assume that an institution like the Wellington Museum employs people to research and write the captions to their exhibits. In this case, the untruthful story about Coates and the untruthful story about Marie Antoinette led to mention of the riots by unemployed people that took place in both Wellington and Auckland. But why lead into such an important historical set of events by telling what is completely unhistorical? That way lies mythology rather than history.
It annoys me to see popular fictions posing as information.
So harrumph, “Pshaw!” “Oh fie!” and a dozen “Bah, humbugs!”

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