(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz., March 20.)
I’m writing this column in a camping ground at Long Bay, on the Coromandel Peninsula.It’s Sunday morning. From where our caravan is parked I could almost spit into the sea, if I were of a mind to.
There are bush-covered headlands to the north and south of the bay and pohutukawa trees line the shore. Last night I heard the quintessential New Zealand nocturnal sound of a ruru (morepork) calling.At the moment the tide is out and I can see kids fossicking on the rocks. The floating platform that people were diving from when we arrived here yesterday is virtually high and dry.
Earlier this morning I watched a family harvesting cockles. The sea is flat calm, the air is warm and there’s a gentle breeze blowing.Beyond the bay I can see a string of pretty islands: Motukopake, Motuoruhi and other, smaller ones whose names I don’t know. Somewhere in the distance, hidden in the haze on the other side of the Hauraki Gulf, is Auckland.
Unlike some of the camping grounds my wife and I have stayed in over the past few days, this one is unmistakeably Kiwi. It’s not flash but it’s friendly and it has all the essentials.Most of our fellow campers are tradies who have done well and bought caravans and boats. Dogs are permitted in the camping ground and behave themselves impeccably, with the exception of the camping ground owner’s one-eyed border collie, which runs in front of the camp’s maintenance ute barking furiously and trying to bite the tyres.
The maintenance man tells me the dog does this only with the camp’s own vehicles, never the guests’, so I suppose it’s okay.Anyway, all this is by way of a long-winded pre-amble. Get to the point, I hear you say.
Well, I was in the camp kitchen this morning washing the breakfast dishes, and through an opening in the wall I could see the TV set in the adjoining lounge. The TV was on and although I couldn’t hear what was being said, I could see that the scenes were from Christchurch.Because we’d been on the road for several days, it was the first TV coverage I had seen of the massacre and its aftermath. I assumed it was one of the local channels recapping last week’s events, but then I saw the Al Jazeera logo at the bottom of the screen.
I saw armed police in the streets of Christchurch. I saw Jacinda Ardern speaking with her familiar signer for the deaf at her side. I saw floral tributes to the dead piled high under a banner that said, among other things, “Kia Kaha” – stay strong.Overseas viewers must have wondered what it meant. We know, of course, and on seeing those words on the screen I felt a sudden surge of emotion. It was a forceful reminder that this terrible thing had happened right here.
I was reminded of something my wife said on the night of the shootings as we sat in our caravan listening to radio news coverage. “This is something that happens somewhere else,” she said.Well, New Zealand has become that somewhere else. It’s no longer possible to delude ourselves that we are somehow magically insulated against the evil we see reported nightly on the TV news from other places.
For 48 hours, we were the centre of world attention, and not in a good way. On the night following the massacre I streamed Newshour from the BBC World Service. It was almost entirely taken up by Christchurch.Now call me perverse if you like, but I felt proud listening to the BBC’s coverage. Proud at the actions of my fellow New Zealanders who saw what was happening on Deans Avenue and stopped to help the victims, regardless of threats to their own safety. Proud at the many New Zealanders interviewed by the BBC who insisted they wouldn’t allow this catastrophe to change the way we are. And proud, too, that so many commentators overseas shared our own astonishment that this could happen in New Zealand, of all places – a country universally acknowledged as tolerant, open and respectful of human rights.
It’s not the terrible event that defines us, but how we respond.And as I look out over Long Bay, where the tide is starting to come in and the boaties are backing their trailers down the launching ramp and the demented one-eyed border collie has just tried to round up a flock of seagulls, I’m reminded again of what we value about living in New Zealand and why so many people from troubled countries want to come here. It takes a lot more than a single terrible event to change that.