We have an iconic New Zealand comic character from the 1970’s called Fred Dagg. We were big fans in my home when I was growing up. Fred Dagg was an archetypal Kiwi farmer sort of character, blunt, plain speaking, dry wit and observational humour. He also sang a few modified and original songs. One of which was ‘We don’t know how lucky we are’. It was basically extolling the good things about New Zealand as opposed to living in other parts of the world.
I was reminded of this recently, not that I haven’t always felt that way, about how lucky we are, or at least it was bought into sharp focus again when I returned to England after being away for over three years. You may or may not be aware, depending upon how often you visit this blog, but then even I don’t visit this blog very often, that I lived in England for 20 years, from 1991 until 2013. I was back in NZ in 1995/1996.
I went to England for Christmas, I love a Winter Christmas, it feels more Christmassy than Summer Christmas.
Having spent a couple of weeks, and a couple of weeks was enough, I felt inclined to jot down a few observations, for my own benefit and for those who sometimes lose sight of how lucky we are to be New Zealanders. It may be topical that our ‘national day’, Waitangi Day is looming and far from being a national celebration, it’s largely been hijacked as a tiresome national day of Maori grievance. That’s a whole other story, which I won’t bore you with here. Suffice to say, a handful of activists making ridiculous public statements and demands have put a tarnish on the only current day we have to celebrate our birth as a modern nation. But then I’m a ‘Pakeha’, I’m sure if I was Maori I’d feel different. In actual fact, I believe we should have that national date marked as sometime in 1984 when we were dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century after the previous 150 years effectively being one of England’s offshore islands, albeit at the other end of the world. That’s also another story.
I flew Air New Zealand via Los Angeles for the 2nd to last time; the last time was the return journey. I will never fly Air New Zealand via Los Angeles again. The experience of stopping for fuel made so horrendous by the American department of Homeland Security unnecessary checks on transit passengers, I never wish to repeat the experience.
We landed at London Heathrow in fog so thick as to render the runway invisible. The first I knew about being anywhere near the ground was the mechanical noises from outside the aeroplane and the bump as we touched the tarmac, there was nothing visible from the windows, just impenetrable fog. That plane would never have touched down in New Zealand. In New Zealand pilots have to see the runway to land on it. I’m not sure why they can’t use instruments as these pilots did.
The arrivals halls at Heathrow terminals can be seething masses of humanity; this time was reasonably quick and civilized thankfully. After a long haul flight from NZ, spending an hour or so waiting in a snaking queue to get a stamp in your passport isn’t high on anyone’s list of good ways to spend your time.
I digress, this isn’t about the journey.
First observations on the ground? Infrastructure, lots of it, everywhere. I was interested to see how I would find England after I left, how I found it was busy. The vast scale of Heathrow airport, the volume of traffic coming and going, the confusing signs to exit the airport. The sheer weight of society on the move.
You travel from several lanes of roads onto another major artery with even more lanes, each one full of traffic moving at about 70 miles an hour if able, usually not because everyone else is busy using each lane.
You notice the rubbish, litter, debris, abandoned stuff all along the side of the motorway, you have to drive as fast as everyone else or you’re in the way. Luckily we knew the way and someone else was driving, but for a tired driver of a recently rented car on their first trip to England, the first experience of the motorways would be extremely daunting. It gives one a momentary extra thought of contempt for those delicate souls from New Zealand who, despite having a driving license, claim to be unable to drive in Auckland or Wellington. True story, those people exist.
As we leave one motorway for another, and drive deeper into the English countryside, the roadside debris is still abundant. The winter landscape is stark. In winter in England, everything dies back; all the trees lose their leaves, it starts getting dark at 3:30pm. Bleak is the only way to describe it. The trees in New Zealand pretty much all keep their leaves all year round. Darkness in the depths of winter arrives about 3 hours later.
I spent time in Winchester, Bath, some country villages and London. I love the architecture, the trappings of history. The shopping is amazing. Shops full of high quality things in abundance, the choice, the styles, the variation. Shopping in New Zealand is pretty woeful. Certainly for chaps. It’s almost impossible to buy a quality pair of shoes, or a well made shirt for example. We seem to only need cheaply made, lightweight but expensive clothing. I’m not sure why that is.
What does strike me, constantly as I move about in England is the heightened stress levels, everyone looks put upon, everything good has a long queue. Everywhere you go, everyone else is there already. Because I’m tall I can see the sea of heads bobbing along every footpath, short people would just see a wall of people.
People in a hurry to get anything done, business or leisure before everyone else gets there. This was the quiet period; the no mans land between Christmas and New Year. I just wanted to go home.
Leaving the house is a mission in England. It involves taking on everything and everyone just to go to the shop. Going for a drive is an expedition to be endured, anything you might want to drive to is at the far end of many busy roads. There is nowhere to stop, usually nowhere to park. You can drive through several towns looking for a place to park in a Supermarket. The idea of getting a park outside any shop or place you wished to visit, a wistful fantasy. Blind luck rather than any sort of hope or expectation.
I have no idea really how I survived this for 20 years, a couple of weeks and I’m ready to leave. I wanted my space back.
When I was on my way home, several hours into the 2nd leg, what I thought was several hours; I turned on my little aeroplane TV screen. I chose the flight map to see where we were over the Pacific Ocean as I had ‘lost the will to live’ a few hours ago. What I thought would be about 5 hours out from home was 2. I shed a tear. I was much nearer home than I had thought.
I nearly kissed the ground when we landed.
This isn’t about knocking England though. England, Great Britain is what it is. A heavily populated major country just off the coast of Europe.
What’s different here? Why was it so good to be home? Actually everything works much the same here as it does in England; we drive on the same side of the road. Things in shops are recognisable; the money works the same way. We eat similar things and obey the same rules.
What we have here though is space, time, loads of it. The incredible natural beauty we are rightly famous for and ease of living. Leaving the house to go out and see stuff is a pleasure rather than something you have to psych yourself up for. The queues for good things are small; the roads are largely empty apart from bits of Auckland and when Wellingtonians go to and from work. The air is clear and the sky is huge. You can come and go as you please, you don’t have to navigate humanity. People are reasonable and largely helpful. Except when they get into a motor vehicle. Something about getting into a motor vehicle turns kiwis into monsters. We are the worst drivers in the Western world. Selfish and obstructive. This is a national disgrace, that and too many dairy cows pissing into all our waterways.
We have many social ills. Poverty, domestic violence, unaffordable housing in Auckland. But this really is the greatest little country on earth. We are incredibly fortunate to live here.
We have abundant beauty, safety, peace and quiet. You’ll be constantly open mouthed at the natural wonder all around you. But what we have most is ease of living. Living is easy. Doing stuff is easy, going places is easy. There’s a tangible lack of global oppressiveness in the air, we are a chilled out country. Aware of, but far removed from the issues facing the less fortunate. We punch above our weight in so many respects. Sport of course, the arts, politics, economy, you name it. But what it boils down to for me is how easy it is to get through each day, while being lucky enough to be surrounded with the incredible ‘New Zealandness’.