I dashed out to take just a single photograph of a building – because the sun was shining so gloriously – when I spied a more seriously worthy ‘photo-op’. One digital click later I recorded a special moment in our seasonal preparation for Anzac Day. Two very polite and well-spoken young ladies wearing the uniform of New Zealand’s oldest state secondary school for girls, Otago Girls’ High School, had exchanged their first hour in the classroom this Friday morning for the honourable title of New Zealand Returned Services Association ‘Official Collector’.
And so it was that they were ‘standing guard’ over a collection box and a tray of poppies, fulfilling a role that dates from the first ‘Poppy Day’ in 1922, six years after the establishment of the RSA in New Zealand. The first watch of the day was almost over so when the ‘relief’ arrived, I found myself in conversation with four, uniformed, young ladies.
Typically, their inherited personal histories reflected war service: one never knew a grandfather because he was killed when her father was three; another knew a grandfather who had served in the Air Force. They had studied the First World War poets as prescribed in the New Zealand secondary school English curriculum and readily volunteered their understanding of the symbolism of the poppy.
I don’t imagine for a moment they expected their photo to be taken by a random passer-by, nor to have been engaged in further conversation. And I certainly wasn’t the only one to reward their hour off school with such comments as ‘Keep up the good work’. As the first two collectors posed in the mid-morning Dunedin sun, with dignity and respect for their part in Poppy Day, I smiled through the camera. The cafe and bar, outside which they were stationed, is called “Alibi (genuine)”.
This morning, these young ladies had the most honourable alibi of all.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow…
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
“For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) stanzas 3 & 4