Screeching Gull and the War to End All Wars: Christchurch, New Zealand

I couldn’t love my husband more than when he set off with long steps after the seagull. The bird had been screeching at other gulls, trying to scare them away from us. The loud gull wanted all of the crumbs from our pastries. David and I were eating breakfast on a bench in a little park by a stream in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“I hate bullies,” David said, and took off again after the gull, which flew toward a nearby memorial arch for New Zealanders who fought in wars abroad.



There was a memorial like this in each town we visited in New Zealand and Australia. Most were built as grand testaments to the war meant to end all wars. The Great War, the monuments say. The one in Christchurch lists names of places where boys from this little town went to fight Britain’s battle. Off New Zealanders went to places like Egypt and Turkey’s Gallipoli. Along with France and Belgium, the memorial lists Mesopotamia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, now called Iraq.


One in 12

Little more than a decade before, men from New Zealand had gone off to fight in the South African war of 1899-1902. Britain drew troops from its faraway colonies to aid its battle to seize control of gold-rich parts of South Africa from Dutch-descended farmers, known as Boers.
Of 6,5OO New Zealand volunteers for the South African war of 1899 to 1902, 228 died, according to “The Sorrow & the Pride” by Chris Maclean and Jock Phillips.
Young New Zealanders raced to sign up for the next war, to fight what they saw as German attempts to grab more than its share of the world. New Zealand’s native Maoris lobbied an initial rejection of their services to win the chance to fight with their countrymen, even after Britain had long broken treaty promises to treat the Maori fairly.
New Zealand sent about 90,000 volunteers between 1914 and 1918. Another 3O,000 were conscripted, according to “The Anzac Experience: New Zealand, Australia and Empire in the First World War” by Christopher Pugsley. Battle and disease killed 18,000. The loss was equal to 8 percent of men of eligible to serve, Pugsley wrote. That’s about one in 12.
Bloody as it was, the Great War had many 20th century sequels. Melbourne, Australia, raised a memorial that remains one of the city’s most impressive buildings. Additions were made later for World War II, to honor those who served in places such as Korea, Borneo, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Play in the Park

We crossed back through the Christchurch memorial on our way to a free outdoor performance in the botanical garden by a local comedy group, The Outwits. We carried a takeaway dinner from an Indian restaurant, chicken in a tomato-and-pepper sauce served on
rice and some nice inexpensive New Zealand white wine.
I spread out a green sarong as a picnic blanket. Cicadas chirped away in the background as we ate dinner before the show. They kept it up during the performance. Their music, well music of sorts, would grab your attention now and then.
The Outwits kept the audience laughing during the production of the Reduced Shakespeare Co.’s play based on a sprint through centuries of books. They did a New Kiwi-flavored version of “All the Great Books Abridged,” with references to New Zealander Alan Duff’s “Once Were Warriors.”
When the actors asked the crowd who had read books like “Don Quixote,” it struck me how many of the “great books” I’ve either not read or only sped through for class assignments.
The play’s comic scenes on Joyce’s use of inner voice inspired me to try to read “Ulysses,” a book whose rambling style has so far put me off. I’m looking for an East Coast U.S. celebration of this June 16 of Bloomsday, when people gather to read Joyce’s book. If anyone knows of one, I’d love to hear about it.

Poor Man’s Servant

The play also has fun with “The Odyssey.” Homer’s wily adventurer, Ulysses is portrayed as a Captain Kirk-like character, who must visit hell and there encounters former comrades in arms.
The performance inspired me to find an English translation of “The Odyssey” on line and reread parts of that scene. Ulysses encounters the great hero Achilles and lauds Achilles, telling him how he was adored in life and now is a prince among the dead.
Achilles replies: “I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man`s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.”
The Outwits also made me want to tackle Tolstoy’s book at some point. References to “War and Peace” cropped up again and again in the play, as war crops up again and again in history. In the U.S. today, the war in Iraq is like the zzzhmm of cicadas, something that grabs our attention for short spells before we return to thinking of something else.

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