Being Kiwi: War memories etched deepest in mind

After almost 150 years of reporting on New Zealand life, the Herald marks its rebirth in a compact format witha week-long series on the changing nature of what it means to be a New Zealander.

Ex-All Black Neville Black. Photo / Alan Gibson
Ex-All Black Neville Black. Photo / Alan Gibson

Neville Black, a former All Black, was born in 1925 - the year the All Blacks established a central place of rugby in New Zealand's national identity with an unbeaten tour of the UK that became known as the Invincibles Tour.

But it is the memory of war that remains deepest in the mind of the 87-year-old, who joined the military as a teenager and fought battles in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) during World War II.

"I saw a lot of guns going off, a few ships got torpedoed. In war, you're on the job all the time; it was all action stations from the start," he says.

"I met a hell of a lot of South Africans when I was there. They came to see me play when I went to Africa with the All Blacks."

For our oldest generation of Kiwis, who have lived through the war and depression, the current recession is nothing to them - and they are among the most satisfied and optimistic of New Zealanders in their views about life and country.

All 16 who spoke to the Herald for this series said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their lives.

"For my generation, apart from those killed or wounded in the war, we have been the luckiest generation," says 88-year-old Keith Illingsworth.

"There was full employment, you could always get a job; I don't think there will ever be a generation as lucky again."

But the Raetihi-born retired principal remembers the tough times growing up, and the hard life of the generation before. "Mum was a teacher, Dad was there but it was the Depression and a lot of men just couldn't get jobs; there was general poverty," he says.

"The only thing I remember [Dad] being able to get was riding a horse for the Queen St riots to club the rioters."

The 1932 Auckland riot was a significant event for many in this generation, when thousands of unemployed, hungry protesters ran down Queen St smashing windows and looting shops.

Many in the age group grew up on farms and in small towns. Unlike younger New Zealanders, they have had limited exposure to people of other cultures.

A massive 94.3 per cent are European, with Maori and Asians making up just 1.5 per cent each and Pacific Islanders and others 1 per cent or less.

Although most think ethnic diversity is a good thing, some are worried.

"I don't think it's a good thing," says 81-year-old Dorothy Whyte, who was born in Huntly and grew up on her parents' dairy farm near Taupiri. "Unbeknown to us, I think they are taking over our country. Look at them buying up those big farms and things. We don't know how much of New Zealand they own, that's the worrying part."

Despite having lived here for 30 years, English-born Norman East, 81, still does not identify himself as a New Zealander. "I follow the All Blacks, but I still look for Nottingham Forest scores in the newspaper," he says. "I like it here, and have settled here, but I will always be English."

All but one also rated family life - getting married or raising children - as the most important thing they have done in their lives.

THE QUESTION

Who are we: What does it mean to be a New Zealander in today's interconnected world?

The context: This week's changes in the New Zealand Herald are the biggest in our 149-year history and respond to equally momentous changes in our population and society that question our national identity.

The methods: A DigiPoll survey of 750 New Zealanders plus in-depth interviews with 91 people in New Zealand and 16 NZ-born people in Australia, including similar numbers in five 20-year age bands. The NZ interviews were arranged with the help of primary schools spanning the socio-economic decile range in north and west Auckland, Cambridge, Rotorua and Christchurch. In addition, historians at the online encyclopaedia Te Ara selected 30 key events that helped to shape our identity over the past 100 years.

The team: Greg Ansley, Kurt Bayer, Simon Collins, Yvonne Tahana, Lincoln Tan, Vaimoana Tapaleao.

KEY EVENTS 1912-32

1912 - William Massey becomes Prime Minister. Massey established our tradition of pragmatic conservative leaders, such as Holland, Holyoake, Bolger and Key, and was the great promoter of the quarter-acre suburban property as the essence of the New Zealand dream.

1913 - Wharf strike. The most disruptive, violent labour dispute in our history, it established a pattern of conflict between conservative governments and radical unionists.

1915 - Gallipoli. The first major engagement of New Zealand in World War I, the first time Maori fought overseas as a unit, and the start of our long-term relationship with Australia.

1919 - Prohibition is rejected. By a margin of 0.3 per cent, New Zealanders were able to keep drinking beer in their pubs. Bars now closed at 6 o'clock.

1922 - The Main Highways Act signalled the beginning of national highways and the first radio stations linked New Zealand to the world.

1925 - The Invincibles tour of the UK by the All Blacks established the central place of rugby in our national identity. 1932 On April 14, thousands of unemployed, hungry protesters ran down Queen St smashing windows and looting shops. It created a memory of the Depression and an image of what the country should avoid ever since.

Source: 30 key events 1912-2012, selected by Dr Jock Phillips and his team at the online encyclopaedia Te Ara. More online here.

THE SERIES

Today: Pioneer stock - Aged 80-plus
Tomorrow: War babies - Aged 60-79
Wednesday: Opening up - Aged 40-59
Thursday: Children of Rogernomics - Aged 20-39
Friday: Sport unites the nation - Aged under 20

Video: What is it to be a NZer?

- NZ Herald

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