Ben Thomas studies and salutes the newly minted coat of arms for the mighty former governor-general.
What highlights can we remember of the governor-general who retired in August this year? Alas, there are few. The job is one of almost unremitting ceremonial tedium: interminable set-piece speeches, endless awards, a procession of visiting dignitaries stretching into infinity.
And yet Sir Jerry shone.
As the 88-year-old Queen Elizabeth II struggled with steps at the 70th anniversary of D-Day, and Russian brute and former KGB agent Vladimir Putin watched on impassively, Sir Jerry – a genuine former SAS killing machine but one who has never once felt the need to be photographed riding a horse topless – showed the strength that can be found in tenderness as he gently the guided the elderly monarch down.
Speaking at a function for the 100th birthday of Katherine Mansfield, he admitted off script near the end, “I haven’t actually read any Katherine Mansfield”, to predictable gasps of horror from the assembled literati.
As he struggled to recapture the sense of moment – “When I was growing up there was always a sense of how – big – she was” – he was every one of us, more then than ever. Every one of us who skipped out of reading The Doll’s House at high school, every New Zealander trying to explain the significance of Ka Mate in an English pub.
So let us rejoice that the newly minted Coat of Arms to which he is entitled will now be carved alongside those of his predecessors’ in the Taupaepae (official entrance hall) of Government House.
Governors-general consult closely on the creation of their distinctive “armorial bearings”, as the elements of the crest are known. In keeping with New Zealand’s colonial history, most cling to heraldic tradition. Griffins, dragons and medieval helmets abound. There is lots of Latin. While Sir Denis Blundell (1972-1977) showed a wry sense of reflection about the ceaseless busy-work of the office (“To serve with tolerance”), stripped of Latinate obscurity his successors’ efforts can come across like slogans for a new primary school set up by property developers (“Through truth comes joy”).
When it came time for this most Kiwi of Queen’s representatives to have his coat of arms designed, what did he want?
Firstly, the motto. Sir Jerry plumped for Te Reo and, as a mark of his democratic leanings, chose something we already know: “He tangata. He tangata. He tangata.”
The Notes on Symbolism, prepared by the New Zealand government’s Herald of Arms Extraordinary Phillip O’Shea, tell us: “The Dexter Supporter is a European woman wearing a green evening dress” while “The Sinister Supporter is a Māori in the uniform of a Lieutenant in the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment wearing over his shoulders a Māori cloak or Kaitaka. The latter is the style of cloak worn by the Grantee.” It concludes: “The Supporters resemble the Grantee and his wife, Lady Janine Mateparae”.
The miserable, sniffing Wellington literary scene may tie themselves in knots looking for hidden significance here, but the meaning is plain: these figures are in fact Sir Jerry and Lady Janine, as evidenced by the fact that Lady Janine is clearly holding in her right hand (dexter) the Mateparae family cat, Boots.
Unless Sir Cyril Newall (1941-1946) kept two winged horses in the governor-general’s grand Auckland residence, it seems likely Boots (“a common sight around Government House”) is also the first family pet to appear on the Coat of Arms.
The fantail (“the Grantee’s favourite bird”) spreads its feathers to show a recognisable Southern Cross, with the addition of an extra star, because the Mateparaes have five children, and no-one will be left behind on his watch. The Herald at Arms Extraordinary notes, “Green and Red are Army colours.”
Two thoughts immediately present themselves. First, if only he had been in civilian life earlier, and able to contribute to the ill-starred New Zealand flag design process, the referendum may not have been such a waste. And secondly, that we salute Sir Jerry, a governor-general who was just so – big.
* Text of Sir Jerry’s Katherine Mansfield birthday speech lifted from Ashleigh Young’s very excellent Can You Tolerate This?)