The day the water came to Auckland

January is supposed to be a slow news month in New Zealand, with half the country on leisurely summer holidays, schools closed, and the beaches full. 

Not this January, where in the last two weeks of the month we saw our world-famous prime minister suddenly resign and replaced by a guy named ‘Chippy’ and as if that wasn’t enough, my city was hit by the worst floods in living memory. We’ll be cleaning up the damage from this slow January for some time.

My suburb out in West Auckland of Titirangi was ground zero for a lot of the damage, as I wrote over at RNZ. We’re still coming out of the storm, but it’s been pretty awe-inspiring and terrifying to see. The photos and video pouring in to newsrooms were astonishing. I’ve covered a LOT of disasters and chaos in my journalism career but I’ve never had one where I had to stop in the middle of work to keep my basement from floating away on floodwaters. 

We are lucky, of course, compared to many here in Auckland. We lost power and water for a while and things are wet in the basement, but four people have died, and hundreds of homes are ruined.

On Friday when the storm hit, it surprised everyone by being far, far greater in magnitude than your usual Auckland rainstorm. Our basement has flooded before, but not like this, where a literal torrent of water rushed through. I’ve never actually felt scared for my home and myself before, but as I was out there in knee-deep water frantically shovelling dirt and clay to redirect the water rushing under our house, I had a few moments of that stark primal fear that you only get when you realise that you are caught up in something far beyond your control. I also thought getting knocked unconscious against my own house in a rainy narrow ditch and drowning would be a bloody stupid way to go.

Just 500m or so down from our house, a massive slip closed off the road and has left a house above precariously close to coming down too. Across the street half our neighbour’s garden just dropped down the hill. All around our neighbourhood are giant slips and open cracks in the earth that look far more like earthquake damage than anything else. The beach we often go swimming about saw its entire yacht club collapse. 

My old friend and co-worker Cathy ended up in The New York Times talking about how her land just started slowly slipping away.  

Thirty years ago I joined an environmental club at my university and wide-eyed and optimistic we hoped to make things better for the future in our very tiny way. Thirty years have passed and that optimism is gradually draining away, like the flood waters down my street, because of an ossified political culture in many countries, greedy businesses and a world far more interested in pointless culture wars and distractions. People are still denying climate change or screaming conspiracy theories every time something like this happens. Hell, I’m not just pointing fingers – I’m part of the problem, too. My little suburb is hardly alone in extreme weather events the past few years. 

This was not your typical midsummer Auckland rain, and indeed it was Auckland’s wettest day in history. This is climate change, new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said. This is the future we’ve all spent the last 30 years dithering about, worrying about, pretending wasn’t going to happen and ultimately, we’re all beginning to understand, doing nowhere near enough about. 

The year that Thanksgiving became Covidsgiving

Well, we tried. 

Our family managed to avoid the Covid-19 pandemic for almost three years, but our number finally came up during our overseas holiday visiting family in the US. We caught it in transit, somehow, despite wearing masks as much as possible. Like dominoes cascading downwards, once the first person tested positive the entire family shortly followed.  Thanksgiving became Covidsgiving.

Fortunately, we all caught a pretty mild case of the virus – good news as several folks in the family aren’t in the best of health and it was very worrying to see them test positive. It still sucked, particularly as it kind of mucked up our holiday, but after close watching of all the grim headlines the past few years I know it could’ve been so much worse. 

All journalists have cliches they loathe to see in print, and “post-pandemic” is one I’ve been kicking out of news copy every chance I get. We’re definitely post-lockdown – whatever your views on that, it’s clear the cultural buy-in for such policies has passed – but “post-pandemic” implies the disease has somehow gone away. If anything, far more people I know have been touched by Covid-19 in 2022 than at any time in the years prior. 

The virus felt particularly inescapable these past few months, when it seemed like every friend I knew in New Zealand caught it, especially many who had also managed to avoid it earlier on. It became pretty clear that no matter how hard we tried to do the right thing, we were probably going to get it eventually. 

A friendly acquaintance from my 1990s small press comics days, Andrew Ford, died of it in New York recently. An energetic booster of self-publishing comics and bringing rare art back into print, he was just 48 years old when he died. It’d been many years since we’d been in regular touch but it was still a shock to remember this go-getter kid I once knew and exchanged letters and drawings with and to realise he was one of the Covid casualties. I think of Andrew Ford often lately, and the millions of others whose stories have been cut short by Covid.

I traveled an awful lot at the beginning of this year as I first stepped outside the pandemic bubble of New Zealand. Despite having to deal with incredibly lengthy travel, quarantine back home in New Zealand and an Omicron surge, I somehow didn’t catch Covid. Yet this time when my family boarded the plane from NZ to the US, it wasn’t even 72 hours before the first of us tested positive. Both times, I and the rest of my family wore high quality masks. 

Last Christmas when I traveled the vast majority of people in transit in Los Angeles and elsewhere I went wore masks in crowded airports. But in November 2022, maybe 20% of the other people in the airport and planes were wearing masks. We tried our best, but when the majority of other people aren’t masking up… well, you get Covid, I guess. We’ll never know who we caught it from – was it the guy coughing a few rows up? Someone at the airport we passed by? It was such a mild case that the contact must have been fleeting. But I do wonder if that person had bothered to mask up in crowded public areas, our holiday might have turned out differently. Everyone’s sick and tired of all this, I get it, and a rugged, brutal individualism has replaced whatever fleeting community spirit first animated our Covid responses. You do you, and well, other people will do whatever.

One of the biggest knock-on effects of the Covid years for me has been a gradual lowering of my respect for other human beings. I hate that I’ve become more judgy, more annoyed at idiots going down conspiracy rabbit holes, pissed off at people flouting mask rules and everyone being outraged all the time – including myself. Many of the people I know who’ve caught Covid at last these recent months have expressed the same frustration – we tried, we did the right thing, we still caught it, so what’s the point?

Despite it all, it was still a good holiday – bonding with my parents and a new baby in the family and seeing the gorgeous colours of fall in California. The trees blazed up into autumn colours and the kinds of brilliant yellows, oranges and reds we just don’t see in our part of New Zealand.

At times the leaves fell in thick fluttering sheets, dotting the bright blue California skies with colour and reminding me that even in this age of outrage and plans never quite working out how you hoped, there are moments where you can still try to be a little more like one of those flimsy leaves, floating on the breeze and letting the sun shine on you while it can. There are no outraged leaves in nature.

Well, at least Liz Truss will go down in history

Watching British Prime Minister Liz Truss’s brief tenure go down in flames has been an exciting spectator sport. After a mere 45 days in office, she’s resigned, and while the debates over her car-crash of a tenure will be going on for some time, eventually, she’ll be a footnote – the shortest serving UK Prime Minister ever. At least she’ll have company, in that weird world of history’s short-timers.

In fact, Truss is not anywhere near the record set in other countries for the shortest leadership – the briefest US President lasted a mere 31 days, while in New Zealand, our shortest-serving Prime Minister was only 13 days. In Australia, it was just eight!

US President William Henry Harrison is a footnote in Trivial Pursuit games. He died a mere month after his inauguration, the then-oldest US president at the age of 68, after giving a nearly two-hour inauguration speech in the freezing cold. His health declined over his short term, not helped by a habit of going for long walks without a coat or hat in wintry March weather. Because it was 1841, his treatment during his illness consisted of fun things like enemas, “cupping,” castor oil, opium, and a lovely cocktail of camphor, wine and brandy. It didn’t help. He lingered until April 4, 1841, only his 31st day in office. He gets points for what is perhaps the most “I love my job” deathbed speech of all time – “Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of government; I wish them carried out, I ask nothing more.” 

Harrison’s death has long been attributed to pneumonia, but more recent research has found it might have been some kind of enteric fever, spawned by Washington’s then literal swamps. He didn’t leave a whole lot of accomplishments other than running what might be considered the first “modern” campaign, yet his death, the first of a US President in office, did help establish the precedent of the Vice-President becoming President. Many thought John Tyler should only become an “acting President” but he simply assumed the full office, which is how it’s worked ever since. 

Henry Sewell, considering career options.

Here in New Zealand our shortest serving leaders have mostly been during the earlier days of British colonial government. Henry Sewell was New Zealand’s first premier, Prime Minister or “colonial secretary” from May 7 to 20, 1856, during the very earliest days of our colonial government – “he was too reserved and elitist for the rough and tumble of colonial politics, as the brevity of his premiership showed.” Other earlier PMs had pretty short terms as well. In modern times, the late Mike Moore served for only 59 days in 1990 before his Labour Party was voted out of office. Despite his short term, he went on to have a pretty solid career in world politics and was given that crowning kiwi accolade when he died at age 71 – “an everyday bloke.”

Across the ditch, there’s certainly been a lot of turnover in Australia’s Prime Ministers, including what I believe is the only Prime Minister ever lost at sea, but they’ve got work to do to catch up with poor Frank Forde, who only lasted 8 days in 1945. He became Prime Minister when John Curtin died suddenly, but a week later his Labor Party picked someone else to lead, and well, it was farewell, Forde. 

Few will mourn Liz Truss’s brief term as Prime Minister, but its mere brevity indicates she’ll go down in history for one thing, at least – just maybe not the way she wanted. 

Queen Elizabeth II 1926-2022: My time under the monarchy

Queen Elizabeth II poses for a portrait at home in Buckingham Palace in December 1958.

For almost 16 years now, I’ve been a subject of the Queen. 

It’s kind of weird whenever I think about it — that a kid who was born in Alaska, grew up in the hills of California and went to university and started his career in Mississippi, would end up a subject of the British monarchy. 

But ever since I moved here to New Zealand in 2006, that’s exactly what I’ve been, and since becoming a New Zealand citizen around 10 years back, I even swore allegiance to her majesty.

Although we all knew it was coming, it’s a strange thing indeed to wake up and learn that Queen Elizabeth II is dead.

I’ve always been a bit neutral about the queen, neither a rabid royalist nor a fanatical republican. I guess I’ve mostly just been interested in the workings of a centuries-old system of royal hereditary rulership, having grown up pledging allegiance to a different flag, to myths and legends about George Washington and Abe Lincoln. I liked the novelty of being part of a monarchy when I moved here, of having the Queen on our coins and cash and all the little finicky bits of royal protocol I’ve had to learn in my work as a journalist. 

New Zealand is my home these days, quite possibly for the rest of my days, and King Charles III is now my head of state. Hearing the words “God save the king” this morning for the first time felt bloody, bloody weird, I’ll tell you that. 

The last couple of years, there’s certainly been a part of me that’s kind of appreciated the kind of cultural stability the Queen’s presence brought, when you look at the chaotic upheaval among flailing political parties in my homeland, where a creeping authoritarian fascism seems to be more and more accepted.

And after 16 years here, I firmly think some parliamentary system of government – where party leaders are more accountable, where minor parties have a larger voice – is essentially superior to the creaky, unfair US system of antiquated electoral colleges and deeply unequal representation, states with 500,000 people having the same Senate spots as states with 50 million. 

Sure, there’s lots of questions to raise about the legacy of the monarchy and its relevance in the future, about the bad things that have happened under kings and queens, the idea of being “born to rule” and the often horrific impacts of colonialism.

But today, I’m just kind of sticking to my number one rule about engaging with the internet in 2022: Don’t be a jerk. 

Ninety-six years, 70 of them in one job, is a good run. The sheer longevity of her reign – she ascended the throne when my 80-something parents were teenagers – is remarkable. She spanned from the age of silent movies and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to streaming TikToks and Prime Minister Liz Truss.

History is happening now, today, and tomorrow. We’ll all go back to arguing about everything in a few hours, I’m sure, but today, I’m watching the great gears of history turn and one era ending, forever.

 

Back on the big screen: New Zealand International Film Festival

Life isn’t entirely normal yet, and may not be for a while, but at least I can go to film festivals again.

During the strictest of New Zealand’s lockdowns, cinemas were all shut down, and one big casualty the last few Covid-addled years has been the New Zealand International Film Festival, which suffered from cancellations, postponements and management problems in 2020 and 2021.

Ever since I moved here in 2006, NZIFF has been a highlight of the calendar year, a time when Auckland gets to pretend it’s the centre of the cinematic universe for a week or so and enjoy the buzziest hits from Cannes, amazing revival classics and hidden gems that change your brain. I’ve watched dozens and dozens of NZIFF movies over the last 16 years, and I missed it dearly in these Covid days. 

This year’s festival isn’t quite up to full speed compared with the before times – it is shorter and smaller – but I still managed to catch several great films this week mostly at Auckland’s legendarily awesome Civic Theatre, the best place in New Zealand to watch a movie. 

I love my Marvel cinematic universe and all that jazz, but a well-curated film fest is a whole different vibe, one that engages new parts of the brain. It celebrates the communal joys of art, too – at a time when doing anything as a community feels a bit fraught, it’s good to be reminded there are benefits to it. 

I would’ve liked to fit more in my schedule, but only four movies made the cut for me this year. I watched an intimate and witty documentary on the late great author, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time; South Korean icon Park Chan-Wook’s exquisitely crafted twisty romantic detective thriller Decision To Leave; the harrowing and weirdly life-affirming documentary about two married volcanologists Fire Of Love, and this year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner, the scabrously funny, filthy Swedish satire Triangle of Sadness. 

Triangle of Sadness is a divisive movie among the critics but in a packed gorgeous old cinema, this barbed attack on influencer culture and the privilege of the wealthy felt like a perfect film festival experience. A story of two young and vapid gorgeous people who end up on a cruise ship that turns into a Lord of the Flies-esque fiasco complete with plentiful vomiting and even worse, it’s not subtle. It’s not a deep satire, and it might be a little long. Yet its outraged, shouty and impotent tone somehow seems to mirror the weirdness that is life in 2022. It’s the movie for the moment, as we’re all a little bit stuck in our own personal cruise ship voyages from hell. In the end, you have to laugh about how absurd everything is, don’t you?

Without a film festival to gather up all the visions of the world, from South Korean noir to Swedish ennui, it’d be a bit harder to see these things, these perspectives. To be in a crowded cinema (mostly mask-wearing, thankfully) and laughing and gasping over the world together seems a bit naughty, a bit daring these days.

I missed that vibe, and even if the crises roiling the world are hardly over, it feels good to laugh together, for a moment, at a film festival. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Time for an update for some of my paying writing! I have been writing some book reviews recently for the great New Zealand Listener magazine, including in this week’s issue, a look at Anthony Horowitz‘s new James Bond novel With A Mind To Kill, the latest in the never-ending series of authorised 007 adventures and a pretty cracking read.

Plus, I also recently reviewed a nifty new revisionist biography of explorer Ferdinand Magellan, Straits: Beyond The Myth of Magellan by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in the June 18 issue!

Unfortunately the reviews aren’t online, but hey, if you’re in New Zealand do pick up a nice shiny print copy of the latest issue if you like!

I’m also continuing to help debunk the never-ending flow of misinformation out here on the internets (I mean, seriously. It never, ever ends) through my writing for AAP FactCheck. It’s not all Covid misinfo these days, and some recent factchecks I’ve worked on include:

For the answers to these and other exciting questions, do check out AAP FactCheck‘s home page and help us fight back against the plague of falsehoods!

The sounds of Aotearoa – a New Zealand Music Month playlist

Aldous Harding, Neil Finn, Reb Fountain

It’s the final few days of New Zealand Music Month, an annual celebration of all that makes Aotearoa music great. 

I’ve lived here more than 15 years now, and I’m still amazed by the depth of NZ music, from the melancholy beauty of Crowded House to the hugely influential post-punk sound of Flying Nun’s The Chills and The Clean to the rousing waiata of Māori anthems to the Kiwi-fried country of artists like Tami Neilson and Delaney Davidson. There’s the inescapable strength of amazing New Zealand women like Aldous Harding, Reb Fountain and Lorde or the madcap adventurousness of folks like Troy Kingi and SJD. 

Troy Kingi.

In this pandemic world, borders have been pretty well closed to international music, so the few concerts I have seen lately have been homegrown – a wonderful Crowded House show between Covid surges, Reb Fountain and Marlon Williams tearing up the stage, a celebration of Flying Nun Records’ 40th anniversary. 

Every country has its own sounds, and there’s something wonderful about becoming an immigrant to another land and learning about its own unique sounds. New Zealand is a melting pot of Māoritanga, British influences, Pacific emotions, the echo of the vast seas and the echoes of a few dozen other cultures who’ve also ended up calling these lands home. 

The first New Zealand music I ever heard was more than 30 years ago, a fuzzy dubbed cassette of Crowded House’s Temple of Low Men given to me by a long-vanished girlfriend. The music sunk deep into my genes, although I had no idea then I’d ever end up living in the place that band came from. 

I can’t make a definitive list of the “best” New Zealand songs, but these are 30 that make me happy every time I hear them, and represent a pretty broad cross-section of Aotearoa sounds, tilted toward my own listening preferences, of course.

Some are old, some are new, some of them are bloody obvious choices that are embedded deep into the kiwi brain, others are a bit more obscure but just say something essential about this strange little oasis at the bottom of the world where I’ve somehow ended up living a big chunk of my life. Another 30 songs could easily have been added, but let’s save some for another year!

Have a listen to my eccentric playlist Noisyland Music: NZ Music Month 2022, and celebrate the sounds of Kiwiana!

So, this is 50

It’s not quite the 50th birthday I once planned – from pre-COVID plotting of having an epic holiday in Japan, to maybe going over for a weekend in Sydney. Then as countries locked down it became possibly a jaunt to Wellington or maybe just stay in Auckland for a nice restaurant dinner, to today, under ongoing Delta lockdowns that hopefully will be a thing of the past by my next birthday.

So, for my gala celebration, it’s takeaways with family, Skype with parents and maybe a quick ocean swim to shake off the cobwebs.

That’s good enough, really.

Kurt Vonnegut, 1990, by Yousuf Karsh

There’s a quote by another guy who was born on the same day as me, Kurt Vonnegut, that kind of sums up the vibe of being here, alive and at a half-century in a world not quite like I imagined it would be when I turned 20, or 30, or 40:  “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

I’m 50 today, and Kurt would be 99 years old.

It’s a kind of happy accident that I’m here at all, that any of us are, and in the end, you get what you get.

Again, to quote my birthday buddy Kurt:

“That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones.”