Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Artwork a lop-sided history lesson

Cartoon / Peter Bromhead
Cartoon / Peter Bromhead

The Maori name for Auckland, Tamaki Makaurau - land of many lovers - is not meant to imply the first Aucklanders were unduly promiscuous. The lust was for land, the prized land bridge between three great harbours, that was endlessly fought over, with much blood spilt.

In this context, labelling Jim Ross, the baton-wielding "Massey Cossack," recently memorialised in the controversial Queen's Wharf installation as "one of the many lovers of Auckland" is just a continuation of this long tradition of conflict. But singling out this farmer who rode to town "to help down the [1913 general] strike and keep the town's name" as the sole representative of this fractious moment in Auckland's history is to present a very unbalanced and one-sided snapshot of the event. It's rather like symbolising the Springbok tour demonstrations or the occupation of Bastion Point with a statue of a baton-wielding policeman.

Critics of the work's temporary removal are now complaining of left-wing censorship. That's rubbish. Auckland Councillor Mike Lee, who triggered the "censorship" is closer to the point when he says "we have really lost our way if heritage experts believe vigilante thugs rounded up to attack striking working people are deemed to be heroes".

I support Farmer Ross's return. The menacing silhouette of this armed strike-breaker is hardly an image that exudes warmth or attracts support. Put him back by all means, but in the interests of historical balance, why not an equally menacing wharfie, wool-hook at the ready. With a sentence or two rounding out the story. It's not as though space is a problem. The area along the side of Shed 10 on Queen's Wharf is a vast and empty canvas. There is plenty of room for all sides. Mr Lee did not create the bias. That occurred when Waterfront Auckland decided that strikers from Grey Lynn and Ponsonby were less lovers of Auckland than the farmers who'd ridden in from East Tamaki and Waiuku to do battle.

Waterfront Auckland has installed four - one now temporarily removed - historic tableaux, in what is planned to be a string of story-telling "stations" stretching along past the Ferry Terminal, through Wynyard Quarter and on to Westhaven.

They will provide a chance for "the people of Auckland, [and presumably tourists] to connect their rich past with the present and future of our city. It is a celebration of our people, the land, sea and sky. It is about growing pride and local knowledge. Each story will be told by one of Auckland's many admirers. Characters who have at some time contributed to its growth and success."

There's promise of film and audio and citizen feedback to come.

But before any more are erected, there's a need for a historian to check each script for balance.

It's not as though the organisations supporting Waterfront Auckland in this enterprise don't know where to find one. All they have to do is look in-house. Backing the project are Voyager NZ Maritime Museum, Torpedo Bay Navy Museum, Auckland War Memorial Museum and two major council controlled organisations, Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development and Regional Facilities Auckland.

While Auckland marks the centennial of the Great Strike with an unscripted scrap over a single artwork, in Wellington, where much of the serious strike action took place in 1913, they're taking a very different approach.

A commemorative parade will take off at midday on November 5 from the Museum of Wellington City and Sea along Lambton Quay.

Live bands will take part, six "Cossacks" on horseback will confront a group of "strikers" waving billboards and shouting 100-year-old slogans of defiance.

Getting into the spirit of the occasion, both the Police Museum and the Wellington Museum will be lending items from their Great Strike displays cases, including a historic baton or two and clothing.

There will be a display of photos and talks from historians along the way. Museum spokesperson Pippa Drakeford says the Maritime Union has given assistance but not the rail union, which 100 years ago didn't go on strike. I doubt re-enactments are an Auckland thing, but you have to envy Wellington's obvious sensitivity to the past, something sadly lacking here, even in places you'd expect to be taking a lead. Hopefully, the lesson's now learned.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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