The Mt Albert Methodist Church choir (that's us) sang at the ANZAC service at the Mt Albert Memorial this morning. There were dawn services all over New Zealand on ANZAC Day, including the largest one in front of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, but Mt Albert's began at a more reasonable time, 9:30 a.m. Since this was one of scores of smaller, local services, I wasn't expecting much. I was wrong.
ANZAC Day is a national holiday to commemorate New Zealand soldiers. The date of April 25 was chosen because that was the day in 1915 when the ANZAC (Australian & New Zealand Army Corps) forces landed on the beach at dawn to begin their campaign to take the Gallipoli peninsula from the Turkish army. (See the red circle in the upper left corner) The invasion was ill-advised and after 9 months of fighting, little ground gained, and over 10,000 men lost, the troops pulled out without a victory.
It feels strange to me for a national holiday to be on the day their army got slaughtered. I'm more accustomed to the rah-rah patriotism of America where we celebrate, magnify, and treasure only victories, and secretly wish our defeats would disappear. On ANZAC Day, however, people don't celebrate the lost battle; they honour the men who bravely went into battle even though everyone knew it was a suicide mission. They honour the way the tiny little country on the other side of the world sent their boys to help the British Empire. They honour the way those boys distinguished themselves and earned respect from Australian and British troops. April 25, 1915 was the day New Zealand was admitted to the Big League, and they proved themselves worthy. ANZAC Day is a solemn day, deserving a solemn service that always ends with the bugler playing Last Post.
In Mt Albert's little Memorial Hall, I was astounded at how many people were in attendance! There were 250-300 people trying to fit into a venue that seats about 150. Luckily, the choir was positioned on the stage so we were assured a seat. Before the service, we had been forced to scrounge a few chairs; we grabbed all the strays we could find, including 3 we took from the podium. Once the service began, the place was packed, and the audience was standing all along the back - 4 rows deep - and more standing outside. There was an abundance of strollers, toddlers, and school children alongside the veterans and older generation. All sorts of local groups were represented: Mt Albert creche (pre-school), 2 local high schools, Girl Guides (Girl Scouts), Mt Albert churches, Mt Albert Senior Centre, Mt Albert Bowling Club, NZ Navy, NZ Air Force, NZ Coast Guard, RSA (the NZ veterans' group is called Returned Services Assoc.) ... and on and on. Each group laid a wreath at the memorial.
The main speaker for the service was none other than Prime Minister Helen Clark, because the Mt Albert neighbourhood is her home electorate. She gave her speech without notes, citing battles and relating history to the New Zealand experience. She's probably given a fair number of ANZAC speeches before. Overall, she's a polished speaker, with an unusually deep voice that carries well and commands attention. There were 3 security men discreetly but obviously lurking about, wearing earpieces and looking shifty. During the service, she sat by the podium, on a chair that someone had fortunately replaced because a certain choir had snatched hers. I can't believe we stole the Prime Minister's chair! It's a wonder we didn't get arrested by the guys in suits.
After the service, everyone got a cup of tea, including Helen Clark. She was chatting with various people while her security hovered nearby. At one point, Officer #1 spoke into his sleeve to tell something to Officer #2, who looked back at #1 from across the hall with a puzzled look, a shrug, and some pointing at his ear, indicating that his earpiece wasn't working and he couldn't hear a single word that Officer #1 had said. Ha.
Shamelessly - utterly shamelessly! - I asked one of our choir friends to introduce us to Helen Clark, since I knew that they were long-time acquaintances. He readily agreed, and ushered us over and introduced us as his American friends who moved to NZ. She shook our hands and asked where we were from in America, so we described our locations in Washington State & Oregon. We mentioned that Auckland looks a lot like Seattle - waterfront, ferries, Sky Tower. She agreed, but said she'd just been in Seattle in March and it was dreadful, rainy weather. We all agreed that the weather was much better here in NZ! After a bit more chit chat, we moved along and let others talk to her.
Next, we headed back to the church for a pancake breakfast put on annually by 2 members of the church. Brian, the choir accompanist, played old war songs like A Long Way to Tipperary while we all sang along, even though I hadn't heard of any of the other songs. But it was a fun way to spend the morning. And yummy.
Well, that was my brush with fame here in NZ. My choir friends kept asking if I had a good talk with my friend Helen, and were teasing me about never washing my hand again, now that I had shaken hands with the Prime Minister. I know it was brazen of me to ask Merv to introduce us, but I thought it was pretty cool to meet her nonetheless.