Sunday, March 6, 2016

Life inside the Kiwi culture clash

New Zealand really is, geographically speaking, at the arse end of the world. It’s right there at the bottom of the world, off to the side of Australia, with only Antarctica any further south.

It’s absolutely nowhere near the financial and cultural powerhouses of the world in America or Europe, Africa and South America are distant lands, and even Asia is a fucking 12 hour flight away.

This isolation from the rest of the world, and the relative youth of the country, inevitably leads to some interesting, unique art and culture, although it is still taking a while for the nation to really get anywhere and find a proper voice. In the meantime, this young culture soaks up everything it can, and spits it back out as something new.

The culture coming into New Zealand over the past century - the films and TV and books and comics and magazines and everything - has been mainly a mix of English-speaking nations. And while this is slowly changing, with much more of a pleasing Asian flavour in recent years, almost all our pop culture is based on a weird Anglo-American blend.

This means that my two favourite comic books in the world are 2000ad and Love and Rockets, and my two favourite TV shows are Doctor Who and Deadwood. New Zealand isn’t either of these countries, but it has always taken the best of both, which works out bloody well for anybody who likes to indulge in it.

It wasn’t always this way. This country was, for the first two-thirds of its post-colonial history, always a British country, with very British values and cultures, and that's why we still spell colour and flavour with a u. It was still the mother country, and city builders did their damnedest to recreate the best of British in Aotearoa. You especially saw it in the Southern cities, where Christchurch tried to recreate the exact streets of England’s finest towns, while Dunedin made no shame of being utterly Scottish.

Although, notably, the traditional Kiwi home of a wooden villa with a porch can also be found all along on the West Coast of the United States, and especially in San Francisco, as these wild lands were tamed by civilised knobheads at roughly the same time in history.

As in architecture, so too in culture, and the books and films and television that New Zealanders indulged in invariably came from the BBC and the finest publishers of London. This leads to the situation where Coronation Street and NCIS are the most popular programmes on telly, in happy co-existence. (Although the unending blight that is Coro is always going to be clear favourite, because our Nanas all love it, and when they try to change the time slot or frequency of episodes, there is always an almighty and genuinely angry uproar.)

New Zealand is almost exactly on the opposite side of the globe from England, but for much of its modern history, it has attempted to build a little slice of British paradise in places like Whakatane and Temuka.

But as much as the British influence the origins of the country, the United States and all of its wonderful movies and television and comics is just the Pacific away, and has regularly seeped in through the seemingly ironclad Brit bubble. When the UK joined the EU in the 1970s and turned its back on NZ agricultural imports, the country realised it had to find new markets for its butter and mutton, and the English influence wavered, just a bit.

So things like Americna comics, which were still a relative rarity in the 1950s and 1960s, began flooding into the country in later decades. Just as the Sweeney and the Dukes of Hazzard were both on TV in the early eighties, you could find the latest weekly Star Wars comic sitting next to the actual American Star Wars comics it was reprinting, right there on the bookshop shelves.

And there has been a definite Australian influence as well, although that was often limited to the vast amount of Aussie bikie movies of the seventies, and cheap black and white reprints of American comics. And there was Italian exploitation films and globally loved European comic albums like Asterix and Tintin, to join in with all the rest. It all went in.

It wasn’t a perfect of wonderful, endless content dropping out of the sky. Everything comes in over the high-speed internet cable these days, but the task of actually getting all these weird creations from all over the world to these islands right down the bottom has always been a monumental one, and it didn’t always work.

There would be regularly missed issues – some particular 200ad progs took decades to track down – and a lot of films would never make it to local cinemas, and television shows would just never make it to NZ screens. You took what you could get, and appreciated what you got, and tried to build up some kind of your own culture around it. Nobody else was going to do it for you.

There was still a bit of actual New Zealand culture, and it has produced its own fine completely indigenous stories, especially from some incredibly talented Maori and Pacific Island creators.  There are some lovely comics, movies, music TV and novels coming from this end of the planet, all uniquely Kiwi, and plenty to be proud of.

But there isn’t a lot of it, and you can only watch Outrageous Fortune or The Dead Lands so many times. You have to rely on the imports to keep things fresh and new, and the latest from HBO or the BBC is always welcome.

The best local stories are, of course, the ones that could only be made in New Zealand, and appeal to something unique about this country. But they’ll always be viewed through that lens created by a culture that has eaten up as much as it can.

It’s still changing today. Even ignoring the brilliant amount of new young female comic artists finding their voice, there is far more Asian culture coming through, bringing in more new styles and new ways of thinking. It’s not even that new, the anglo-Manga boom started more than 20 years ago, and grown-up adults have spent a lifetime in its happy clutches.

The future might be more Eastern (which is actually north-western from where we are), but this might be the last lingering tradition of this country’s British heritage - taking the best of other cultures, and amalgamating it into its own. That’s how a city like London remains vital and alive for century after century, and New Zealanders can only hope for a taste of that international flavour.

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