First-time visitors to this country, especially those who spend more than a day or two in small towns and country areas, often comment on the number of war memorials. Central Otago is a good example nearly every locality has a memorial. Some have two, one for each great war.

What does that tell us about New Zealand, and particularly about Central Otago as it was then, and maybe still is?

First, we tend to think locally now, and even more so then. The young men whose names are on all those memorials were from small communities, and the people who knew them wanted their sacrifice to be permanently marked, in their own community.

And the names are important. These are not abstract memorials about far off national events. They are most of all lists of the names of those who fell. They were ours, and we wanted them to be remembered here, where we could see their names every day.

That, by the way, is why Americans find the Vietnam Memorial in Washington so riveting. Acres of polished black granite, every inch covered with names, each a fallen soldier, each representing a real story; a whole life snuffed out before its time, listed in the order in which they died. Thousand upon thousand upon thousand. Sure, it's a national monument, but it's the individual names that make it so compelling, and so memorable.

Second, we think tribally or we did then. Boarder disputes and territorial battles were the order of the day. Reports of turn-of-the-century rugby matches between Clyde and Cromwell, say read like dispatches from the Boer War. It was a serious business. So when it came to war memorials, we wanted our own.

The district council is currently reviewing community board boundaries, and the idea of 'community of interest' is being talked about. If you live in Roxburgh, do you have much interest in what happens in Tarras or Pateoroa? In 1919, when we moved around a lot less, and even in 1946, the answer would certainly have been no. Would a memorial in Alexandra have satisfied the citizens of Clyde? The answer, then, was no. It probably still is.

The question now, half a century after we built the last of those memorials, is do we still think that way? And does it matter if we do? I think we do, and I think it does, because what we've got is what people in cities all over the world yearn for real communities.

Sunday, June 11, 2000

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