Birthday weekend gives rise to a wish for a holiday that fits — Matariki, uniquely ours, is just the thing.

The sun shone briefly on Monday, which may have bestowed some holiday atmosphere on the waterfront. I hope so, because when I went down during a break in the rain on Sunday, I didn't know whether to cringe or cry.

Advance publicity, dripping with phrases like "Tally ho!" and "best of British" had promised a "thriving hub of stalls and performances" that would "celebrate the merriment and magic of all things British, history, culture, machines and food".

Needless to say, no one was getting too excited about the food; there's good reason for that joke about the Empire being created by men roaming the world in search of a decent meal.

There was a suspicious-looking Welsh rarebit and an apology for a Cornish pasty in a pie warmer, and one of those British grocers that do a roaring trade among expatriates was selling stuff like Yorkshire tea and Rowntree's fruit gums.


But that thriving hub was missing in action. A big chunk of the cavernous space in Shed 10 and the adjoining Cloud was taken up by luxury British motor cars, less a display of British engineering prowess than an advertisement for a local car dealer. Elderly Austins, from the Seven to the A40 Cambridge, each with a foil tray to catch oil drips, sat forlornly outside, locked against the cold, their owners far too sensible to stand around talking to tyrekickers.

In a little sideshow area a Ferris wheel spun, its empty seats squeaking. Gaping clowns swivelled their heads in search of ping pong balls that never dropped.

Inside, it was, if anything, slightly more embarrassing. I had, alas, missed the Morris dancing, but music was provided by a band called the DeSotos, "leading exponents of Americana and Country Blues". To be fair, they were playing Beatles, Rolling Stones and Kinks songs.

For a jolly jape, you could stick your face into a frame made in the likeness of a long-dead monarch. Warriors in a mediaeval village dressed up for a battle as the womenfolk watched on. A young woman in Victorian hooped dress and a man in cricket whites and boater did their best to look enthusiastic and I found myself hoping they were being well paid. Later they showed a version of Alice in Wonderland by that quintessentially British film-maker Walt Disney.

I'm sure the people who organised all this had the very best of intentions and the weekend's bitter cold can't have helped attendances. But it seemed to me that the weather and the dismal, provincial lameness of the show were simply underlining the faded and antique irrelevance of a public holiday established to celebrate the birthday of a monarch on the other side of the world.

It isn't, as most people know, even Her Majesty's birthday (that's on April 21), but since 1908 the monarch's birthday has been celebrated in June because of the chance of good weather. (Thinking back to last weekend, you may spot the flaw in that argument, but cheer up: they're expecting a heatwave in London this week).

Not for the first time, I found myself wondering why Queen's Birthday is a public holiday here. I am of unashamedly British heritage: my mother's father was born in Leeds and my father's forebears, whom we have recently traced to Lincoln, may have fled there from Scotland during the Highland clearances. But I always cross out "NZ European" on forms and write "Pakeha" because the word speaks so specifically of what I am.

Queen's Birthday does the opposite, implicitly lumping me with a family of nations whose connection is archaic and historical (how many of us can point to Belize on a map?).


Of course, no one wants to lose a public holiday, particularly the only one in the long, cold grind between Anzac Day (or Easter) and Labour Weekend. Much more sensible is to mark Matariki, which begins in late May or early June.

For the first inhabitants of these islands, the rising of the star cluster known to Europeans as the Pleiades was the signal to prepare the ground for the coming year - a new beginning, if you like, something like a New Year.

Its date is dictated by moon phases, so it varies - this year it's June 18 - but Easter is similarly moveable and Matariki can easily be Mondayised. What we would have is a holiday that belongs to us and us alone. That's worth celebrating.