Category Archives: Uncategorized

Welcome Manu: A Kiwi For The UK

After a long hibernation, this blog has exciting news on the kiwi front.

You may remember that a few years ago I wrote from the Midlands about a conversation I had with a contact at Dudley Zoo about the possibility of them housing a kiwi.

The response was: “I’ve had a word with one of our curators and apparently we have had them in the past but they are very difficult to acquire”.

For a while, my hopes of having my national mascot in the UK seemed dashed.

But today I was alerted to news that a zoo in Devon – Paignton Zoo – has managed to acquire a kiwi.

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Manu (pic right from Paignton Zoo) is described as a five-month-old “shy, nocturnal mini-ostrich from the other side of the world”.

The zoo proudly says he is the only kiwi in the UK and one of only a handful in Europe.

He is a brown kiwi (an endangered species) and comes from Frankfurt Zoo in Germany.

Fellow New Zealanders of my vintage may remember that Manu was one of the characters in the children’s television show Play School – a little Maori doll.

I feel very excited about the new kiwi and love the idea that my country’s feathered mascot will be living just hours away.

It’s like having a piece of New Zealand here in the UK.

Speaking of Manu, the zoo’s curator of birds Jo Gregson added: “Kiwis need special care and attention. Each one is an individual.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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War, History and the Kiwi-ness of France

I have just returned from a ten-day break over Christmas and, having been so slack at updating this blog during the past few months, I will do so now.

D-Day mural in a shop window in Bayeux
D-Day mural in a shop window in Bayeux
My parents have been visiting this side of the world again and this time they decided to show me that there is more to France than just Paris.

I’ve never been a fan of Paris. It always felt like a city that has been told so often that it is a beautiful, sophisticated tourist mecca that it has stopped trying.

So we spent Christmas in Saint-Malo and, being someone who has always felt at home by the sea, I fell in love with the town.

Then there were the days spent in Arras, Amiens, Caen, Ypres, Bayeux and other towns shaped by last century’s two major conflicts. Some miraculously avoided damage while others were reduced to rubble before rising up and being rebuilt as the monuments to recovery that we see today.

New Zealand war graves at Bayeux
New Zealand war graves at Bayeux

The countryside also bears the injuries of war – craters dotting the otherwise incredibly flat farmland, with shells and other battle remnants still being discovered more than a century later.

Then there are the hundreds of war cemeteries, the final resting place of many thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen, lines of white crosses and headstones stretching in some places as far as the eye can see. They still stand strong and firm against the bitter winter wind and backdrop of dark grey clouds.

There are the messages on some gravestones from parents, brothers, sisters and children. A few are to “daddy” but it is the simple “with love from mother and dad” that brings me close to tears.

And there are the headstones with the silver fern – only a handful at Bayeux (a sailor and three airmen – let me know if you’ve spotted any others) but many at Tyne Cot, for example. So far from home.

Map of New Zealand (South Island in the foreground and me trying to get out of the photo while putting my camera away.)
Map of New Zealand (South Island in the foreground and me trying to get out of the photo while putting my camera away.)
New Zealand is mentioned a lot in that region. I found a little memorial to the New Zealand forces in an outer suburb of Arras and a small town near Ypres had a cathedral with a map of New Zealand painted on the pavement outside. It is very strange to feel so close to my home country while standing half a world away from it.

I stood on Omaha Beach, where mainly American forces landed on D-Day. Seven decades later, it is only the waves that charge onto the shore. A scene where bravery was mixed with death and desperation is now peaceful, with golden sand and sun-touched sea.

And I stood at the gates to a memorial for members of the resistance in France. More than 200 brave civilians were shot dead in the ditches of that citadel on the outskirts of Arras between 1941 and 1944. It lies just beyond the entrance to a forest and is surrounded by an eerie silence.

Omaha Beach
Omaha Beach

Maybe it’s a strange way to spend a holiday. I spent many days doing more typical things too – shopping, sightseeing, eating out and generally enjoying my family. But it is difficult to ignore history – and my country’s part in it. It’s difficult to know that thousands of New Zealanders travelled across the world to fight in those two wars without wanting to see where they lie and to say thank you.

And, perhaps most importantly, nobody could see the crosses and headstones of generations slaughtered and still think that war is a glorious thing.

Bayeux military cemetery. The note on the piece of paper: "Thank You"
Bayeux military cemetery. The note on the piece of paper: “Thank You”

London and Me

I first visited London as a 10-year-old. I was with my parents, my dad’s parents and my younger sister. Three generations of the family traveling together.

I'm on the left at Hampton  Court. Then the one with the long hair at the Tower of London.
I’m on the left at Hampton Court. Then the one with the long hair at the Tower of London.
During our three month European trip (taken mainly during term-time – yes, New Zealand schools allow that!) we visited dozens of wonderful places but the city that made the biggest impression on me (besides York, perhaps) was London.

From the first time we emerged from Westminster tube station onto the London streets, looking up and seeing Big Ben, this city won me over. I don’t remember the rubbish, the summer that I still needed to wear a jacket for, the crowds. I remember the art galleries, the concert halls, the buildings. I remember the palace guards, the punks and the hundreds of different languages I would hear every day. I was fascinated by this city so unlike anything I’d ever experienced in New Zealand. And for years I would tell anyone who would listen that I was going to return to London one day.

It took more than a decade but, when I bought my one-way ticket to the UK late in 2007, I decided I would spend my first few days in London with a friend from university before heading off to find my new path. So for a few days London and I were re-united. London didn’t notice – for London doesn’t need to return my love – but I did. And now, of course, I’m back again – on a more permanent basis this time. This is an excerpt from an email I wrote home during that first brief return in 2008:

My friend and I went along the rest of Oxford St and along to Piccadilly. Then it hit me. Since the last journey to London when I was 10 and my obsession began, I had allowed it to be dulled by all of those people who had said to me ‘it’s just a big city’. I had lost some of that love for London that I had gained when I was here then.

Walking to Piccadilly, it hit me again and I had a lump in my throat. The red double decker buses, the most beautiful city architecture I have ever seen (we seem to think that for a building to be functional, it has to be modern but these streets are full of old buildings with big name shops that function perfectly and look gorgeous at the same time). And the people: there’s a stubbornness about people in London which is enhanced by the wonderful number of languages and cultures of people from other countries who have also come to make the city their home. The manner here is the “straight-talking, very little small-talk” that I can relate to. I bought a hairbrush (of course I forgot mine) from Boots – an oddly-named pharmacy chain on Oxford Street. The salesman didn’t ask how I was when I walked up to the counter because we both know he doesn’t care and I don’t much care how he is either. We’re not friends and chances are I’ll never see him again. He said ‘hello’ and asked if I wanted my purchase in a bag. That’s all I need. Anything else feels a bit false and a waste of time.

Then my friend and I hung out in Trafalgar Square – the square that has the lions. There was this beautiful yellow-ish light and children climbing all over these magnificent lions which have guarded Nelson standing on top of the column for so many years now. What history they must have seen.

We looked on the board near Leicester Square where the night’s West End shows are advertised with late-comer prices. There were people trying to sell tickets to Sound of Music and Grease as well. Then we caught the tube home. It was just before 5pm and already dark. It wasn’t warm but I don’t remember feeling frozen.

That’s about it for now. I miss you and the sunshine – but I love London and, in a strange way, it feels as if I have come home after many years. I always promised I would.

Sorry about any spelling mistakes – some keys on this keyboard are in different places to the ones at home!

Your Sharon

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Thank You

My grandparents didn’t have direct involvement in D-Day, the 70th anniversary of which we remember today. My granddad the Lancaster bomber was on leave that day (everyone needs a break!), and my grandpa’s war-time work was in radar so, while obviously important, he didn’t leave the UK. I had a great uncle who was very clever, spoke excellent German and worked in intelligence so perhaps he played a small part, I’m not sure.

But that doesn’t stop me recognising the day and what it meant.

I think how nervous and frightened many of those soldiers must have been.

They knew their cause was a just one but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t hear the sound of the guns as their boats swayed in the water.

The smell of vomit from comrades as they grappled with fear.

The longing glances at a photo of those back home – the wives, girlfriends, parents and children.

The wishing they could be with them instead. The wondering if they ever would be again.

But courage does not mean you are never scared. It means you are able to put that fear aside.

It’s oh so easy for me to say now.

I live in a time where the word “hero” or “legend” is used for anyone who wears a uniform, regardless of what they do. Or for people who step in and help someone else – something that should simply be described as “being a decent person”. Or, shamefully, for young men who kick a ball around a field, earning millions from it and behaving as if they have saved the world simply because they managed to kick the ball into the space between two metal posts.

Today all of those people must feel small. I feel small.

Because today, 70 years ago, bakers, butchers, teachers, students…so many thousands of different people together turned the tide of history.

It was a tide of fascism and hate, a tide of evil, a black cloud that was covering Europe and threatening to engulf the United Kingdom.

That tide must have seemed, at that time, so formidable.

But it was faced and turned by those who were willing to give so much and yet have asked for so little in return.

These days they go back to the Normandy coast year after year to remember but, having been hundreds a few years ago, they are now just a handful.

A handful of men who remember what it was to be truly courageous, to serve…and to sacrifice everything.

And, most endearingly, many do not even seem to realise why they are so special.

But they are heroes. Every one.
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The (brief) Return

In August 1832, a young Princess Victoria toured a very special part of England, as she explored the country and met some of the people who she would one day lead.

The region had become one of the powerhouses behind Britain’s industrialisation and in her journal she recalled the men, women, children and houses were “all black”.

“But I cannot by any description give an idea of its strange and extraordinary appearance. The country is very desolate everywhere. There are coals about and the grass is quite blasted black. I just now see an extraordinary building flaming with fire.”

But, even more than the strange surroundings, it was the region’s people who made an impression on her. She wrote: “We have just changed horses at Wolverhampton, a large and dirty town, but we were received with great friendliness and pleasure.”

It is that same friendliness and pleasure I’ve always experienced in the Midlands, more than 180 years later.

Last week I returned to the Midlands for a day. I had a very good dentist while I lived there and, having heard so many horror stories about London dentists, I decided the cost of getting there and back every six months was nothing compared to the cost of bad dental care.

So I got the train to Birmingham, where I spent a few hours before continuing on to Stourbridge, near Wolverhampton. It wasn’t long before I was reminded of that special friendliness, more than 180 years after the then Princess Victoria.

It was in the Big Issue seller outside Moor Street station who saw me holding my empty salad wrapper and knew, without asking, that I needed to be directed to the nearest rubbish bin, which he did with a cheery: “Just over there, love”. It was in the middle-aged man who asked me the time of day as I shopped in Selfridge’s and then, catching my accent (apparently I still have one), began to quiz me about the All Blacks. And it was in the elderly lady in the dentist’s waiting room who chatted happily to me about the town’s bus service.

As is usual for me, I arrived a bit early in Stourbridge and so I had time to walk from the town centre – and a chance to walk the track alongside the canal.

IMG-20130527-03074Those paths have so many memories for me. They were where I ran when I was happy and walked when I was down. I discovered a bluebell forest in the autumn, losing my way in carpets of blue. In the summer the field below was covered with dandelions and buttercups and the path to the bluebell forest was shared with grazing horses.

In the spring there were blossoms, their petals falling onto the towpath, creating a covering of white. And in the winter the trees were skeletons, black stick figures against the amber and silver sunsets I enjoyed so much. IMG_4042 Two houseboats cruised along the river and a class of primary school children walked along the track with their teacher.

The few buildings alongside the canal, once bustling with craftspeople involved in the town’s glass industry, had music coming from them. There was the faint sound of talking, lights seen through the smashed windows. People were working there again.

20140507_134920_resizedThe grass was no longer “blasted black” and the coal mines were long gone. The only darkness was in the weather. For, while the Midlands has its beauty, it is still England. And consequently, by the end of my trip down memory canal, it had begun to rain.

A Kiwi Pilgrimage

This week I’ve been thinking about Gallipoli.

I’ve mentioned Anzac Day on this blog before, the April 25 commemoration of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps landing on the Turkish coast in 1915. The main aim of the campaign, which also involved French, British and other Commonwealth forces, was to secure the Dardanelles for supplies to the Black Sea and Russia.

Every Anzac Day Australians and New Zealanders around the world remember these landings on a day that, for us, has become even bigger than Remembrance Day (or Armistice Day, as we call it). Anzac Day is our poppy day and our day to remember all those from our country who died in that campaign, that war and all conflicts since.

Eight months after the landings and some short-lived victories, however, the campaign ended with the Turks still holding Gallipoli. Those eight months came at a massive cost to the Turks, with 87,000 killed. There were 44,000 killed from France and the British Empire, which included 8,500 Australians and 2,721 New Zealanders – almost one of every four who served in Gallipoli.

So April 25, 2015, will be an extra special commemoration: the 100th anniversary of those dawn landings. And I will be among thousands of Australians and New Zealanders on the coast for the dawn service. This is thanks to my sister winning a double pass in the ballot. (I won’t go into detail on the ballot but, if you’re interested, the information is at www.anzac.govt.nz/gallipoli-2015 ).

I’ve never been to Gallipoli, or even to Turkey, and I’m very excited. I will be able to stand on those cliffs and hills and appreciate how strong my countrymen were 100 years ago. I’ll climb up with my sleeping bag and little daypack, wondering how they managed to do it bearing heavy guns and ammunition – and in the face of determined Turkish defence. And I’ll consider, as I often do at that time of year, why a military defeat has come to be so sacred to my country and its sense of being.

New Zealand Memorial at Hyde Park, London.
New Zealand Memorial at Hyde Park, London.

I suppose there is something in all of us that wants to look for the positive. But there were other dates that “made us the nation we are today”. The first Maori MPs took their seats in Parliament in 1868. In 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant women the vote, the same year Elizabeth Yates became mayor of Onehunga, making her the first female mayor in the British Empire. Capital punishment was abolished in 1961 and, in 1996, the country’s first openly gay MP was elected. Ten years later, New Zealand sign language was recognised as one of New Zealand’s official languages.

All of those things are among those that made our country what it is today. And we can add to that the bravery against the odds of those troops almost 100 years ago. I wonder if they had any idea that they were doing so much more than fighting for control of the Dardanelles.

A Part of Me

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It has been almost two months since I moved from the Midlands to London. I’m used to moving and, having moved from New Zealand to England before, this one was only a baby move in comparison.

I’m very glad I moved. I’ve been very lucky to have lots of work and I’ve enjoyed getting to know new colleagues in two large newsrooms. I love being closer to the friends I missed so much while I lived further north. I love the buzz of London, the galleries, the museums, the concert halls. I love the colours, the food and the music. But sometimes it’s easy to feel lost. 

In a massive city of so many people with their own lives and purpose, I sometimes feel very small, insignificant and I’m reminded that the pond I’m swimming in here is much larger than any other pond I’ve ever been swimming in. But I keep swimming, and find things to delight in, get involved in and connect with along the way.

And I build resilience. I feel like I have used up a lot of resilience in the past year, but my mother told me before I moved that she was proud of how resilient I am. I don’t always feel resilient. But I’ve a lot to live up to.

I am the grand daughter of two Britons who also travelled across the world – to make a new life in New Zealand. From what I know, they had a few struggles too and it wasn’t always easy. But they did it, I assume, through determination, hard work and – yes – resilience.

I am the grand daughter of a Kiwi farmer who also travelled half a world away (in the other direction) to serve in one of the riskiest services in the war. I read once that at one point in the 1940s the average life expectancy for a crew in Bomber Command was two weeks. Two weeks. What courage it must have taken to step into that plane each night! But he survived. Skill, sure, but just as likely a great deal of luck and – yes – resilience. When one of the Lancaster’s engines cut out over Vlissingen, he didn’t say: “Right, that’s it boys. Time to give up”. He flew the plane home. He flew it home.

And I’m the grand daughter of his wife. A woman who stayed strong and true back in New Zealand; who was his rock and his inspiration. A woman who waited for his return and, in a way everyone who has loved a soldier will understand, made her own sacrifices to “keep the home fires burning”. Love, strength and – yes – resilience.

I am the daughter of a couple who have, through love and hard work, crafted a marriage that has lasted 38 years. That’s certainly nothing to be sneezed at today. Two people who have worked for what they have but also given so generously; who lead from the front. Two people who are, in their own quiet ways, tough and determined and – yes – resilient.

And I am a Kiwi. From a country where people know what it’s like to travel far and to explore the world. From a country made of brave natives and courageous migrants. A land where we’re used to being small, a land where so many other nations tower over us in size and strength. But a land where we make up for it with determination, resourcefulness and – yes – resilience.

All of that runs through my veins. That’s why I don’t give up.