Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Grey Days for a Kiwi Abroad - Blog 1, Chapter 1

This blog is dedicated to the millions of men around the world who have climbed off their self imposed egocentric pedestals and have acknowledged to themselves that depression and other mental illnesses are not chinks in the armour or an erosion of their maleness.

This is also a rather clumsy attempt to share my own journey through those pits of despair and self loathing to try and help some of the blokes, mates, diggers, chums and friends out in the world that there positive ways up and out. Failing that, it's a commentary on the 40-somethings who are the 4th and 5th generation of pakeha Kiwis grappling with what is still a very young nation.

It's also not really a review of the problems that face any one individual group within NZ - particularly indigenous New Zealanders, the Maori, whose male population have many issues that can not be addressed by self examination - their culture would percieve my admission of struggling with depression as a weakness. Nor do I work through the problems that the huge Polynesian population of my home country have to confront. It's about my journey and observations along the way.

But in order for anyone who reads this to get what is often referred to as a handle on me and my ramblings, I have to pave the way and set the scene. I wonder how many clich├ęs I’ll get through as well!

So long, long ago, in a land far, far away – begins my story for it is part of my story that gives credibility to some of the things I have come to understand.

One of the most common questions asked of me, a New Zealander who has for most of the last 20 years, chosen to live somewhere other than NZ, is why I'm doing it. Why would I choose to live in a place like the UK and not in NZ.

Why would I chose to live in a country already over crowded, expensive, immersed in cultural indifference and enshrouded in a perma-grey wintry umbrella for 6-months of the year, when I could be in Middle Earth, climbing mountains, forwarding streams, hacking out an existence in New Zealand's green and pleasant land. But I'm not.

I'm in living in the UK - by choice.

My reply to the question proffered is matter-of-fact, considered, but direct. But my answre will come much later.

I left what Kiwis used to call Godzone or NZ - the smaller of the two lands Down Under - 23 years ago, to do what many Kiwis before and after me have done. Undertaken the big OE. The overseas excursions that are supposed to broaden the mind, enrich the soul and fill the memory with myriad shapes, colours textures and beer. In the UK it's a gap year (or mid-life crisis depending on life stage) - the push to explore new time zones.

I was, like many from the Antipodes, rather competent at the national sport - rugby and beer drinking. I played to a representative level - but had been force-fed the game from school so that by the age of 21, I was tired of giving up 9-months of every year to what was then an amateur code. But it had its advantages - not least the bevvie of gin-soaked queens who fancied rugby players in shorts!

Remember that in NZ rugby is not a sport played only in private schools. It's the game of the people - hence its pre-eminent position on the world stage. I played with and against many, many players who were or went on to become All Blacks. Good blokes most of them.

The more interesting side is what many rugby blokes know and love about the game.

The brotherhood of mates, blokes who'll knock seven bells out of you on the rugby pitch then grind your face into the mud before buying you a beer afterwards. I met and played with a young American chap who had a desire to play rugby at a higher level and so ventured to NZ.

And in return, a few years later, I decided to join his club on the East Coast of the US to play and coach rugby (but mainly to see the USA and broaden my own horizons) - before (as the plan had been) returning to the fair shores of NZ to pick up my life. But when I boarded the plane to leave NZ, I left my plan in the departure lounge.

In those days, the national rugby executive had to sign a letter allowing you to leave the country to play somewhere else - and to give you the "you're representing your country and union - so behave" speech and politely added that I had to be back in time for the pre-season kick-off.

But I knew that I was only ever going one way and that was "away".

I stopped off in Sydney before flying to California (the only state I had previously spent any time in). Old friends had embarked on their OE a year earlier and had made it as far as Manly in Sydney - surrounded my other Kiwis, drinking Kiwi beer and working with other New Zealanders whose OE extended just across the Tasman.

I enquired as to how Ayers Rock (it was still Ayers Rock then) looked as the sun set, I asked how barren the Great Australian desert was - and wondered aloud just how beautiful the Barrier Reef must be. All I got was "we've never been out of Sydney mate". That struck me as rather sad. They could have saved $1,000 and stayed in NZ.

I was young and my own plan lacked any form of substance and compass, but I knew that I was going to see a bit of the world - and not always through the upturned lens of an empty Steinlager bottle. It's funny now, remembering back, that none of my friends hankered after Steinlager or demanded Pineapple lumps or Spring Onion crisps when they lived in NZ when the aforementioned items were on the shelves of the corner "dairy"- but as soon as they were in Australia - it was an exercise planned with military precision to secure them.

Anyway, back to the thread.

Kiwis are a funny breed - insular yet open, contradictions and yet uncomplicated - at least on the outside. Much of my blog will be dedicated to examining my own status as a Kiwi, how that has been the funnel for much of my success, and failure, but importantly – how it created the insecurity and grey day depression that I and many New Zealand males struggled with.

You might not agree with my thoughts – but as I have learned, my feelings are my own and my conclusions are just that. Mine.

You might want to settle in with a decent mug of coffee, tea or hot chocolate or as Neil Finn sang, "skip right over to the TV page".

There are no murders, suicides, episodes of self-mutilation. Nor is there much flat land in my story. Just roller coasters and sugar rushes. Grey days and blue sky elation.

Haere Ra – for now.