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.” 

Songs To Help Me Survive 2021

It’s a tough time out there. Auckland’s been in lockdown for just over two months now and New Zealand’s finally coming to grips with the coronavirus in the community. We’ve had great success compared to an awful lot of places, but right now we’re in a battle to vaccinate and stamp things out so it doesn’t get as bad as so many other places.

Still, like most of the last two years in this troubled world, it’s weird and stressful and I think we’re all kind of over it at this point.

In the end, when life starts to feel like a Groundhog Day of working and sleeping and walks around the neighbourhood and masks and health alerts and the increasing insanity of what feels like a good portion of the online world … well, music is one of the few things that makes sense, right?

I made a playlist nearly a year ago of Songs That Helped Me Survive 2020. For a while there, this year looked like it would be more cheerful, but it turns out this thing has a while to go yet.

But we’ve got songs, we’ve always got songs. Happy songs that remind us what it’s like to be human, angry songs that remind us it’s OK to feel freaked out and frustrated, lovely songs that remind us the grace in between the bad times. Here are some of those songs that are helping me survive 2021. I hope you might dig it too if you need a way to get away from it all.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

I’ve had a few posts half-written but life has kind of been overtaken by events here in New Zealand this week and it’s been a bit crazy as we deal with an unfortunate outbreak of the Delta variant. It’s been the first time in more than 6 months for any lockdown here and this is the strictest one since April 2020, but it’s a persistent beast of a disease out there…

Hopefully things will improve soon and most of us haven’t forgotten for a second how incredibly fortunate/lucky/grateful we’ve been not to have it as bad here as so many other places in the world have, and so many friends and family have suffered in the past 18 months or so.

In the meantime, I’ve been busy doing a lot of work with Radio New Zealand, and in bloggable content I wrote about 10 recent (and a couple not-so-recent) shows to watch during lockdown, which is applicable in an awful lot of places in this troubled world at the moment. Go and have a read!