5 June 2012
Considering that New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy and that the events of this week are of some historical significance with regard to the monarchy, I wonder what schools are doing with regard to the celebration of the Diamond Jubilee?
My mind goes back to the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne 60 years ago. I was in Year 2 at that time and activity was ceaseless. We drew crowns, got given fold-out things about the State Coach (vehicle not football), actually was presented with a medal that commemorated the event, was taken by bus to the picture theatre to see a film of the coronation mere days after the event – it was a big event in schools.
But those were very different times. Paul Holmes refers to our generation as having been brought up in the shadow of the Second World War and I know what he means. It was a much more jingoistic time and although “we” had won the war the cost was high in both human terms and financial terms.
They were also rather simplistic times and I have long thought that this was due to the myriad slogans that were part of the war-time discourse and which stayed around for quite some time. “Freedom is in Peril”, “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory”, “Keep Calm and Carry On”, “Careless Talk Costs Lives”, “Dig For Victory” were all known and acted as shorthand for some aspect or other of behaviour during war-time. Even some that seemed not to be about war had their origins during that time – “Coughs and Sneezes spread diseases” for instance.
And the “Empire” or what was left of it by the 1950s was a key organising principle of what we learned. South Africa, Canada, Australia and of course the “home country” itself were all topics that occupied quite a lot of our time – especially drawing the flags! School cadets were still in place in the early 1960s when we were in secondary school.
As a young boy I was on Sundays used to listening to the Listeners’ Request Session which had many nostalgic songs from the war, stirring military marches played by brass band and not the reedy military outfits and, on Sunday evening there was a “Diggers Request Session” that was weekly listening. This was wall-to-wall songs from the war period. And so it went on.
Shining through all this rather solemn stuff was our young Queen who we lined up on streets to see, were taken by bus from school to join all the other school children in Hamilton at some park to have her drive up and down the ranks waving demurely while we did what we were supposed to do.
We also knew what the Poet Laureate had to do – write verse for occasions. I think we even learned the rather forgettable verse that marked the failing health of King George Sixth:
Across the electric wires
The urgent message came
The king is not much better
In fact he’s much the same.
I couldn’t vouch for the authenticity of this but how on earth do I know it?
So here we are 60 years later and the world has changed – not quickly and for much longer than we have acknowledged. Peter Ustinov famously tells of going to school for the first time in England – There was a large oleograph on the wall of a classroom of Jesus Christ holding a boy scout by the hand and, with the other available hand, pointing out to the boy scout the extent of the British Empire on the map. Put it down to my foreign background if you will, but I was pretty sceptical from the start.
The red on the map of the world had long dwindled and then all but disappeared. But some things didn’t change. John Osborne summed it up well in a scene from Look Back in Anger when Alison Porter’s colonel dad rues the changes to the Empire – “At the time we thought it would go on forever” – to which his daughter replies “You’re hurt because everything’s changed and Jimmy’s hurt because everything’s stayed the same”. This sums up the mood that was to prevail.
Unlike Australia, there is very little talk in New Zealand of replacing the monarchy with a republic. That might be because it isn’t an issue or, if it is, we still remain pretty divided on the issue. There are still sections of the New Zealand community who would regard such talk as treachery! Like changing the flag!
On the other hand we are a constitutional monarchy. The founding agreement for our country is between tangata whenua and the synecdochial crown, an arrangement that means much more than mere symbolism.
I thought that the elevation of the Duke of Edinburgh to the Order of New Zealand was a kindly act towards an old fellow – harmless in its implications and even rather gracious in its thoughtfulness. A bit like giving great grandfather a new set of slippers. The carpers were I think a little ungracious.
In a country where there seems little reason to party other than after a test match, the Diamond Jubilee seems a good excuse for a party for the little ones and I hope schools have felt able to.
And in amongst it all there could be also a little learning. I am a little surprised at the impact of all that we did in those years about all this stuff and how it has stuck. Then again, arriving in Great Britain for the first time many years later and many years ago, I realised that my education had prepared me to live in England rather than New Zealand! Some things change for the better.