Lyndon Hood - patriot like a missal, Lower Hutt

Monday, July 12, 2004

It seems there's some agitation, not for the first time, to change New Zealand's flag. The issue has been raised by a few prominent personalities. I get the feeling they're aware that there are hundreds of more important things we could be talking about.

For example, we have a national anthem that I myself can't sing without giggling. If there isn't some topical irony in the verses there's always the sentiment expressed in the refrain: "God defend New Zealand". Indeed. The lyrics are from a poem by Thomas Bracken (surprisingly, not his worst) and they combine with John J. Woods' music to produce an overall impression of plodding awfulness that I wouldn't wish on any country.

Changing the anthem's been discussed before too. I remember one of the TV arts programmes of the past commissioned some NZ musos to do better. Turns out it's quite tricky. Gareth Farr produced something more song than anthem, and quite a complicated song at that. This clearly failed the programme's "can be sung by a rugby crowd" test. Chris Knox, another contestant and noted anarchist type, went to the heart of what he considered the purpose of a national anthem. It went: "New Zea-land is a veryveryveryveryveryveryvery nice country". Possibly Colin Powell is a fan.

One way to get a new flag is by revolution, when a design of or relating to the revolutionaries is adopted by fiat. I won't hold my breath. The Tino Rangatiratanga standard is pretty cool, but it's not even going to be a separate-but-equal flag any time soon.

So if we're going to deliberately design a national flag the first thing we need to do is understand its semiotic value (I know you guys love it when I talk modern philosophy). To my mind, its purpose is to be a symbol for the country, rather than saying something about the country. You may happen to do the former, in a superficial, non-controversial sort of way, but it's the latter that's important. The Union Jack might say, "We're England and Scotland and Wales," but that's only so it can say, "Britain!"

Incidentally, consider that navy ships, as a sign of distress, fly their flag upside-down. I don't imagine anyone outside the British navy would know the difference. Note: flag should have a right way up (sorry, Japan).

So we have a flag the says "We're a British colony somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere", which isn't superficial and non-controversial. We are now, in fact, free to follow the time-honored tradition of allowing liberated countries to choose their own new flag. As to what kind of symbol would make a good replacement, a the moment I only have one comment:

No bloody ferns.

Firstly, I am not an All Black. Secondly, as a local flag-maker pointed out in the Hutt Times, foreigners think it looks like a white feather. Thirdly, and I'm indebted to my father for this one, every country in the entire world has ferns. I'm not entirely against the (fern-related) koru, but I should point out the spiral is pretty much universal as a native-art thing as well. Also, if we're going to incorporate maoriness into our national symbol we should probably recognise it a bit more in real life, hmmm?

My mother, when the flag issue comes up, shows visitors her Hundertwasser flag. Friedrichsreich Hundertwasser gave Vienna some remarkable urban buildings and a new way of looking at window-frames. He gave New Zealand the famous Kawakawa public toilets, and designed a new flag. It's got a koru and appears to be popular among hippies.

My other main requirement from a national flag is - call me conservative - it should look like a national flag. One thing that means is that the design should be static rather than dynamic. The Hutt News was actually running a competition for a new flag. Some of their choices (as well as being fern-heavy) had a dynamic, active quality that made them seem more like conference logos or the ensigns of government trading bodies. We want a good, solid flag. We don't want to seem like some fly-by-night quango country like the Marshall Islands.

Their other thing is good blocks of strong colour. This means people can recognise it when it's fluttering in the breeze in the distance (another problem with our current model, considering Australia). On the other hand, this may just be a throwback to the day when flags were made by patchwork and embroidery. Today we have the technology to produce a flag that represents the way the world really sees us. Like, a full-size image of Frodo Baggins as played by Elijah Wood.

I take some comfort in the way Canada seems to have manufactured a new symbol for use on their flag. Because our only other standard option is the kiwi. Quite apart from the way we currently seem to be sick of the kiwi as a national symbol, what is it really? A bird that can't fly, sleeps all day, and is most remarkable for laying enormous eggs for its body weight and having nostrils at the end of its beak. Indeed.