Dedicated to Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012)
“Historical understanding is what I’m after, not agreement, approval, or sympathy,” he wrote in his memoir.
On Sunday night I had a dream about my friend Matt who died suddenly in May. In my dream I was looking for a letter that he had sent me that had something important in it, but I couldn’t find the letter. As is the way with these kinds of dreams there was this sense that my goal was always just around the next corner, so I seemed to endlessly move closer to what I wanted but never quite reached it. This was not the first time that I have dreamed about Matt since he died, and so far these dreams have not been happy dreams because they always leave me feeling weighed down with sadness.
On Monday morning then I woke in a flat mood, and found myself standing at the kitchen window after breakfast watching an empty chippie packet blowing around the garden. When you’re down, empty chippie packets blowing around gardens seem like handy metaphors for life. On the other hand, it is usually better to go and put the chippie packet in the bin rather than construct metaphors about life.
Monday and Tuesday I had a History teachers’ conference. I drove Cathy and Rosamund up to Victoria University and dropped them off before I parked the car in the university carpark. Walking through Victoria University it seemed like quite a different place from the place I had studied in the early 90s: new buildings, new configurations of old buildings, and some of the familiar places too. It was a little unsettling. I was very young in this place, and have a lot of strong memories of people I knew then, as they were then, in those places, and seeing so many of them changed sent a ripple through my past. Probably it was my mood, but when I rounded a corner of the Hunter Building and saw a funny little statue I was suddenly transported across the intervening 21 years to a time when I vividly remembered standing by that statue with some friends. It’s rather an odd statue, not particularly beautiful, but I was pleased to see it. And sad. The John-Paul who walked past that statue so many times 20 years ago is long gone, and so, sadly, is one of the friends.
There is a small, historic cemetery just across from the Hunter Building. A handful of gravestones lurch on a wooded hill that looks down over the city and the harbour. It is a good spot, when you are 20, to sit, and smoke, and contemplate the meaning of life. As I get older I become sensitive to the accumulation of memories, and the people in them. Although I have no belief in an afterlife, I become increasingly sympathetic to parts of the Maori view that we have a duty to the dead, that they live in us, and that we carry each other forward into the future through memory and stories.
The first day of the History conference was not good. Our Minister of Education spoke for thirty minutes. She had a pre-prepared speech which she waved at us and told us was good, but which she clearly had not written, and only read a couple of bits of. She spoke rapidly, and sometimes incoherently, sometimes retreading parts of her life story at school (I had read it already on her website), and sometimes giving us the party political message on education. It was not a good performance. She appeared to be a person who hadn’t spent a lot of time listening to other people, but was very enthused by her own story.
After that we had three more presentations which left me cold, or simply bored. I was able to cover three pages in doodling.
The second day of the conference started with a speech by Justice Joe Williams. It was one of the three best speeches I have heard in my last six years in education. Justice Williams is a Maori man who is now a judge, and was once a lawyer working on the Waitangi Tribunal helping members of different iwi to present their grievances to the Crown in order to receive redress.
Justice Williams began by speaking in Maori and then translated. He said that he had begun, as most speakers on marae begin, by paying respects to his ancestors who had passed beyond the horizon and live on in memory. He then used a wonderful phrase which he believes describes the role of the historian. Historians he said were “kaitiaki o te po”. This translates to mean the caretakers of the night.
It was a phrase that resonated inside me. Suddenly I felt honoured to be a teacher of history, honoured and charged with a great responsibility.
One of the other great speeches I have heard in the last six years was also delivered by a Maori man, Moana Jackson, and was also connected to History. He was speaking about the Maori perspective of the Treaty of Waitangi. Both Justice Willians and Moana Jackson made their points by telling inter-related stories, and then pulling the threads of those stories together at the end. After I heard Moana Jackson speak I told the Maori teacher at our school, who had organised the visit, that I wanted to change my teaching style to reflect the importance and power of stories.
It’s funny how often I forget the power of stories.
Probably the lesson that most of my students will remember from my History class this year was about the impacts of war. We had spent the lesson before looking at casualty lists in WWI and WWII, but it pays to remember Stalin when you look at casualty lists: one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. With this in mind I wanted my students to understand that death is only one impact of war, and that on top of that terrible price are other costs. We turned to Youtube and looked at films taken in hospitals in 1918 of people with shellshock. I told them the story of my great-uncle Robert who led an isolated life after WWI and lost his belief in God, and I showed them a letter that another great-uncle, this one on my mother’s side, had received from his wife. This great uncle – called Frank (aka Bunt) – was serving on British bombers in England during WWII, and he married a British girl while he was over there.
We have quite a few letters he sent to his parents during the war, and just the one from his wife. Her letter to him, of 1943, ends:
You made me terribly happy this weekend my dearest, needless to say there seemed something even more deeper than the last. Something that grows deeper, greater, stronger and more beautiful every time. To say that I love you more each time seems almost an impossibility, but there is always something added, something that binds me closer and closer to you making our love more and more beautiful. And now I can’t sort of go back on life and picture what it was without you because I know I never really lived before. Gosh Bunt, I do love you so, and miss you terribly, but I keep thinking how wonderful it all is.
Oh darling I do love you so, love you, love, love you, with all my heart and soul. Don’t ever forget how much.
On 22 May, 1944, Frank’s plane went missing over Europe and never returned.
Which is an impact of war. The grief of widows. And fathers and mothers.
The class was silent afterward, and charged. I had brought my ancestor and his young bride into the room, and we had mourned for them.
As I get older I return to the stories of my ancestors more often. I draw a lot from them. Now I begin to think about what Frank contributed to WWII – aerial bombardment of Germany – and how I feel about that. His contribution to perhaps 300,000 civilian deaths in Germany. But the New Zealand boy in the plane, and the girl in Britain writing to him, and the parents across the world, and the German families hearing the sound of the sirens and the bombers, are all trapped in something vast, and evil, in which right and wrong quickly unravels.
On the way back to the car at the end of the second day at the History conference I noticed a small plaque on the ground. I had never seen it before, and walked over to read it, intrigued:
Which made me smile; that someone wanted this tree to be remembered. I came to Victoria University in 1991, and must have walked past this little plaque dozens of times without noticing it, or knowing of the graceful oak. It doesn’t matter how long we live in the midst of it, History and the life of our ancestors lives on waiting to be discovered again.
As have the stories of the Maori in New Zealand.
And my heart has stories to sing for you Matt. As I walk through Victoria University I sense that you walk with me. We could still lie down on the Hunter Lawn, in the sun, and listen to the hum of cars, misquoting poetry. Or perhaps we should share a smoke in the cemetery again, and I will tell you what Justice Williams told me Tawhiao said to Te Whiti after he, Tawhiao, had lost the Waikato War,
I will return to the valley of my birth, and sit, and eat tears of bitterness from sunrise to sunrise.
Tears of bitterness my friend. Tears of bitterness.
I will do my best to take care of you. Kaitiaki o te po.