Sunday 16 August 2015

Antipodean flag waving

It is fifty years since the Canadians ditched their old imperial flag with the Union "United Kingdom" Flag filling the canton [technical term for the top corner next to the hoist].  It was replaced by the, now iconic, maple-leaf flag, which is so helpful for travelling Canadians to stop them being mistaken "aaaaarghh!" for USAmericans. There were teething pains at the time but everyone who objected has either a) died or b) settled down to something that is recognisable, easy-to-draw and distinctive. Irish people have to share their green-white-orange tricolour with République de Côte d'Ivoire which have adopted a orange-white-green tricolour: piss off Ivoiriens, we got there first.

Now the Prime Minister of New Zealand, a man of who makes beige seem vibrant, is trying to put his mark on history by changing the national flag. The Kiwis share the imperialist cantonal burden of the old Canadian flag but also suffer from the Ivory Coast syndrome: quiz-time: which of the two blue flags 'defaced' with the Southern Cross [L] is saluted by Australians and which by New Zealanders?  There, half of you have got the correct answer, the rest should toss that coin again.  I think it's true to say that the republican movement is a little stronger in Australia, so there might be a teeny bit of envy that the Kiwis have made the first move in symbolic separation from the mother country.  The main factors that retain the link are
  • a common and wholly apolitical head of state: an elderly lady called Mrs E. Windsor, who lives near Slough at 1 Windsor Castle, Windsor, Berkshire, SL4 1NJ
  • most people speaking some form of English . . . even the Maoris - it's like Irish here
  • and a lot of shared culture history - Gallipoli, Tim Minchin [yes I know he's from Oz]
  • a fondness for highly salted "Anchor" butter
Anyway, a while back it was decided to approach the idea of flag change with full democracy even if that might result in full democrazy: everyone, with any design qualification or none, was invited to submit a new design or a dozen. It's as if SFI Science Foundation Ireland invited anyone to apply for €1 million grant to push back the fronteirs of science. While that might pop up some wholly novel idea that would save the planet, cure cancer or feed the starving millions, the signal to noise ratio would be great and someone would have to go through hundreds or thousands of applications looking for intellectual and practical gold.  After all the obviously offensive madness had been culled, there were still 10,000+ designs that had to be scrutinised by a jury of 'ordinary people', to get a longlist of 40. [L one of the10,000 that didn't make it: symbolising the desire of Kiwis to fly over tall buildings].  Here's the long list:
The committee says "A great flag should be distinctive and so simple it can be drawn by a child from memory. A great flag is timeless and communicates swiftly and potently the essence of the country it represents. A flag should carry sufficient dignity to be appropriate for all situations in which New Zealanders might be represented. It should speak to all Kiwis." A short-list of 4 will be announced in the middle of next month which will be put to a plebiscite and the winner of that competition will go head to head with the old Southern Cross in another referendum next year.  This-all is going to cost a staggering NZ$26 million [almost at parity with US$]. This is about the same as it recently cost us in Ireland to get post-codes, so the new design had better speak volumes . . . and to all Kiwis, even the flying variety.  If the 40 designs look like they are drawn from a limited fund of themes, it's because they have eliminated all the bat-shit crazy ideas. Which suggests that the come-one-come-all original brief was a total waste of money and time, except as a raree show that has given folks a bit of harmless fun.

The curly thang is not, as I thought at first, a tribute to the surfers of the Southern hemisphere but a koru, the unfurling head of the native silver fern Cyathea dealbata which has a long history in the iconography of the Maori people; symbolising new life, growth and strength. If New Englanders are reminded of fiddleheads - the edible young heads of their native ferns, they shouldn't take the comparison too far: C. dealbata is a tree-fern and can grow as tall as a house.  The mature fern frond also features in a number of the designs, as does the olde Southern Cross, and even in one case a curlicued all-black pastiche of the Union Flag in the canton.  Other distinctively Maori cultural elements that someone thought to acknowledge are rananga, tukutuku, taaniko.

Koru as an element of New Zealand vexillology has at least a 30 year history dating from Friedensreich Hundertwasser's design for a new flag [L] for his adopted country. He was born Friedrich Stowasser in 1928 in Vienna and put on a Hitlerjugend shirt between the Anschluß Österreichs and VE day to avoid being outed as a Jew.  He changed his name as a statement: "100 waters of freedom and prosperity" and became famous as an Out There tree-hugging social experimenter and philosopher but mostly as a designer, notably of postage stamps, with a penchant for the biomorphic.  He hated rectangles because they reminded him of squared off regiments of storm-troopers and designed a public toilet in NZ built from old bottles and recycled bricks. His flag is already out there, he's dead, as an adopted Kiwi from Foreign he/it represents inclusiveness, it's gorra Koru . . . the people of Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud, could go further and fare worse.  It's probably too late to claw back the NZ$26m and give everyone $5 to buy a couple of cold beers.

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