Southerly by David Haywood

98

A Blog on Behalf of an Anarchist Glaswegian

My anarchist Glaswegian grandfather was a man of many strange theories. Some of them, I have subsequently realized, were actually rather clever and forward-thinking; others still seem to be pretty daft.

Here are five of his theories that rise immediately to the top of my mind:

  1. That women should be paid the same as men. (This idea was positively heretical for most of my grandfather’s working life.)

  1. That the first words of any constitution should be: “Government shall pass no unnecessary laws”. (My grandfather hoped this would make politicians argue so much that they’d hardly pass any laws at all.)

  2. That herbicides and pesticides are dangerous to the environment and should be used very sparingly. (For most of my grandfather’s life the prevailing philosophy was “too much is not enough”.)

  3. That classical music is without merit, and listening to it will make you depressed. (My grandfather knew some depressed people who liked classical music).

  4. That the New Zealand parliament should have two upper houses each comprising citizens chosen at random to form what my grandfather called a “parliamentary jury”.

As a child and young teenager, I held the opinion that four-fifths of the theories on this list were absolutely bonkers (Theory #1 being the obvious exception). But nowadays I’m not so sure that my grandfather was quite as wrong-headed as I once thought.

I recently had a discussion with a former colleague about the lack of checks and balances in New Zealand’s parliament. My former colleague considered it a shame that Jim Bolger’s scheme for an elected senate had been abandoned. This, in turn, prompted me to mention my grandfather’s proposal for two upper houses in New Zealand. “That’s an intriguing idea,” said my friend. “You should get him to write an article about it.”

It is unfortunate that my grandfather is no longer around to fulfil this request. But after some consideration I find myself inclined to agree that his concept is worth putting down in writing. In many ways, my grandfather seemed destined to have been a political blogger; he just had the misfortune to be born at the wrong time. So it seems only reasonable that I should correct history’s bad timing by giving his ideas an airing on the internet.

My grandfather’s proposal for two upper houses arose out of his dissatisfaction with the parliamentary systems in both his native Britain and his adopted home of New Zealand. He despised the British House of Lords with its millionaire toffs, bishops, and inbred nobility; but acknowledged that it provided a useful check on the House of Commons. On the other hand, while he approved of the absence of bishops and hereditary peers in New Zealand’s parliament, he felt that the House of Representatives were dangerously unchecked without some sort of upper house.

But my grandfather also doubted the ability of elected politicians to act as a check on other elected politicians. “The inherent problem with politicians,” he often proclaimed, “is that they are politicians.” It goes without saying, of course, that he disapproved of any upper house whose members were appointed by the leader of the lower house, as effectively happened in New Zealand’s old Legislative Council.

Hence my grandfather’s unorthodox proposal for two demarchic upper houses. Here’s how he envisioned the system would work:

  1. The first upper house (or “Senior Parliamentary Jury”) would consist of 12 randomly selected citizens between the ages of 70 and 75. The age of these jurors would give them considerable life experience to draw upon when making decisions, but perhaps would also incline them to be socially conservative. They would almost certainly be retired, and so the time lost to their jury service would be unlikely to hinder their careers.

  2. The second upper house (or “Junior Parliamentary Jury”) would consist of 12 randomly selected citizens between the ages of 20 and 25. The age of these jurors would tend to make them willing to experiment with new ideas, and perhaps to be more socially liberal. They would be unlikely to have a house or children, or to be firmly established in a career; and so the time lost to jury service would not be an undue hindrance to their future life.

  3. The selection process for parliamentary juries would be the same as used for court juries, and the same eligibility criteria would apply to potential jurors as to potential elected members of parliament. In addition to this, the government and opposition would each be allocated a “challenge” with which they could block the appointment of a particular juror whom they believed to be unsuitable.

  4. In their parliamentary roles, these juries would not be able to initiate bills themselves—but bills from the House of Representatives would not be able to pass without securing a supporting majority in either the Senior or Junior Parliamentary Jury. In other words, the final passage of a bill could be blocked if both upper houses simultaneously had a majority of jurors voting against it. Only finance and expenditure bills would be excluded from this process.

  1. The jurors would serve a one-year term, so that the longest period that any bill could be delayed by any particular set of jurors would be one year. Jurors would not be permitted to serve more than one term in their lives.

My grandfather was quick to point out a number of good reasons for using jurors rather than elected politicians to provide a check on the House of Representatives:

  • Jurors don’t have to get themselves elected, i.e. they don’t have to fund-raise or have any relationship with campaign donors.

  • Jurors aren’t beholden to any political party or concerned with advancing a political career.

  • Jurors can’t be manipulated by an established government bureaucracy or civil service.

  • There are no barriers to juror selection in terms of class, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, profession, or level of education.

  • Over time, the make-up of jurors will be statistically likely to represent society (except, of course, with regard to age distribution in my grandfather’s particular scheme).

My grandfather’s choice of age as the method of dividing the two parliamentary juries is rather ingenious. In theory, I suppose, the juries could be divided by any means (such as, for example, sex or level of education) so as to make them as dissimilar as possible—the idea being, of course, that if two very dissimilar upper houses agree about blocking a bill then there’s probably a sound basis for doing so.

But dividing the parliamentary juries according to age gives an added advantage over other approaches. The match between parliament and society in terms of sex, class, and ethnicity has improved dramatically in my lifetime. But there are obvious practical reasons why those aged under 25 and over 70 will always be under-represented. My grandfather’s proposal addresses the lack of representation for these age groups while at the same time providing the intended check on the House of Representatives.

As he put it: “The House of Representatives is a reflection of present society. The Junior Parliamentary Jury would be a reflection of the future and the importance of having a good country for young people to inherit. The Senior Parliamentary Jury would be a reflection of the past and the wisdom that can be drawn from society’s previous successes and failures.”

There are certainly a couple of potential disadvantages associated with parliamentary juries: primarily due to the chances of selecting an extremely eccentric juror, or the problems associated with compelling an unenthusiastic juror to serve. But the ability of the House of Representatives to challenge the appointment of jurors would minimize the chances of the former; and the age division of the juries would minimize the latter, since both age groups are at a time in their lives when the inconvenience would be comparatively minor (and, no doubt, both age groups are also at a time in their lives when a parliamentary salary would tend to balance out a considerable degree of unenthusiasm).

Of course, there are endless minor details that could be discussed. Should the upper houses be physically situated in Wellington? (My grandfather favoured one in Northland and one in Southland.) What resources in terms of researchers or administrators might the jurors be allocated? What would be the rules with respect to jurors receiving delegations from the public or elected politicians? To what extent would jurors be permitted to discuss the internal proceedings of the upper houses? These are all interesting details; but I don’t think any of them are particularly difficult to resolve.

My grandfather always acknowledged that governments in New Zealand are elected to govern. Unfortunately, however, history has clearly shown that our governments don’t always govern as promised; and sometimes embark on radical programmes that were never mentioned in their election manifestos. Often there may be good reasons for governments to do these things; but if a government bill is rejected by a majority in two different parliamentary juries (with radically different compositions) then there’s a high probability that the bill genuinely isn’t a good idea, and that it’s to the country’s benefit that it doesn’t pass.

I’m under no illusion that John Key (or any members of his executive) will read this account and suddenly declare that New Zealand needs two demarchic upper houses. But the more I think about my grandfather’s proposal, the more I admire its ingenuity as a means of providing an efficient check on the House of Representatives without reducing the government to a state of paralysis. In many ways it’s not even such a radical proposal—after all, juries are an established means of reaching an impartial verdict, and their use has been refined over hundreds (at least) of years.

I’ve spent many hours of my life arguing with my grandfather over his strange theories. In writing about his proposal for parliamentary juries, I find myself with the same thought that often used to strike me after these arguments: “It probably is a daft idea, but wouldn’t it be interesting if somebody tried it?”

Above: My grandfather (second from left) deep in political thought.

67

Continuing After A Short Interruption

At 12.51 pm on 22 February 2011, I had just finished writing a piece about the arrival of my daughter, Polly (who had been born three weeks previously). A moment later, my computer exploded all over the room.

Miraculously, however, the hard-drives survived, and a couple of years later I’ve been able to recover the data. So here, at last, is my unpublished blog from that day just before the earthquake struck...

* * *

Two traumatic incidents within the space of 48 hours is really too much.

The first incident occurred following a visit to the barber. Bob had been exceedingly—not to say unnaturally—well-behaved during his haircut, and I suppose he had lots of parent-embarrassing energy that needed to be released.

As we were riding the lift to the parking building, he began to expound upon the strange feeling of suddenly having less hair: “My neck feels like a snow-penguin, and also like a big bag of ice is weighing on my throat, and also like my head has been chopped off by scissors...”

Our fellow lift-traveller, an elderly lady, felt moved to interject a question. “Has Daddy taken you to the hairdressers?” she asked.

Bob paused in his monologue. “No,” he said sorrowfully. “Rats ate my hair.”

The elderly lady swivelled her head in my direction and gave me a long, condemnatory stare. Possibly the sort of accusing gaze that you inflict upon a man who lets rats eat his son’s hair; possibly the look reserved for a man who raises his son to tell such outrageous lies.

Two days later and the psychological scars of this condemnatory stare were just beginning to heal when a second traumatic incident occurred. My blissful Saturday night slumbers were interrupted by Jennifer poking me in the back with an insistent finger. “Wake up,” she said. “It’s time.”

Oh dear, I thought, has it been nine months already?

The still-sleeping Bob was put under the supervision of a kindly neighbour. Jennifer and her surprisingly heavy suitcase were loaded into our car. We set forth through the dark night to hospital.

In the maternity ward, Jennifer unpacked her suitcase to reveal a laptop, an external hard-drive, a draft doctoral thesis from one of her students, and a small quantity of baby clothing. In short order, she managed to re-confirm her discovery that midwives are really annoyed by maternity patients working on laptops.

I sat beside her bed in the useless manner that I’d perfected when Bob was born. Occasionally I would hand Jennifer a glass of iced water. The midwife checked progress and made pointed comments about the laptop.

After a few hours it became obvious that events were inexorably underway. The laptop was removed from Jennifer’s reluctant hands. My useless strategy of iced water was upped to an almost-as-useless strategy of hand-holding and back-rubbing. “You probably want to consider some pain relief at this point,” said the midwife.

“I’m okay,” said Jennifer.

Poor Jennifer looked anything but okay. The birthing process was obviously reaching its final stages. Her breathing came in huge, ragged gasps; her teeth were clenched with pain. It was agonizing to watch. I’d have been swearing my head off, screaming for an epidural—but Jennifer just grimly worked her way towards delivering the baby.

Polly was born shortly after dawn. “You can cry if you want to,” said the midwife, who seemed slightly disappointed by our lack of waterworks.

I held Polly while the midwife organized the weighing scales. “I’ve delivered hundreds of babies,” she remarked. “Your wife is a very strong woman, isn’t she?” During the pregnancy there had been a few moments of disagreement over Jennifer’s intention to stay working until the baby was born. That all seemed to be forgiven now. “I’ll make your wife some marmite on toast,” decided the midwife.

It was extremely good marmite on toast. I was allowed to eat a slice—even though I hadn’t done anything.

Shortly thereafter Jennifer and Polly were wheeled down to the parking bay, and loaded into our car. Have you ever driven in Canterbury? For some reason, most drivers in our province become borderline psychopaths as soon as they sit behind a wheel. Indeed, even the most responsible Cantabrian motorist won’t hesitate to ram your car if they think it’ll shave 30 seconds off their trip. I wondered, once again, how the DHB has come up with a system that requires parents to play dodgem in the streets of Christchurch with two-hour-old babies on board.

By the end of the trip my body had never contained so much adrenaline. I was shaking like a cold-turkey alcoholic. Perspiring with anxiety, I gingerly transferred Jennifer and Polly into a wheelchair, and delivered them carefully to the post-natal ward. “Lift’s broken,” said the receptionist. “Wifey’ll have to trot up the stairs, okay?”

“No, it’s certainly not okay!” I yelped. “She’s just given birth. This is unacceptable! I’ve had medical advice that my wife mustn’t walk. I demand that you provide a lift! Our midwife ordered me to take extra-good care of her—this is an outrage!”

“Hmm,” said the receptionist. She called a nurse. The poor nurse spent twenty minutes with us, traipsing back-and-forth all over the hospital, locking and unlocking doors, until eventually she discovered a route that allowed us to reach the post-natal ward via a lift. She wasn’t best pleased.

“I could actually have walked up the stairs,” said Jennifer, after the nurse had gone. “But you seemed to think that you were being helpful.”

Jennifer and Polly were assisted into bed for some much-needed sleep. Later that afternoon I took Bob along for a visit. “We’ve moved your wife to a new room,” explained a helpful hospital midwife. “I’ll show you to the way.” Her nurses’ shoes squeaked along the shiny corridor while she engaged Bob in friendly conversation:

Nurse: And do you have a new sister or a new brother?

Bob: I have a new sister and when she’s older I’m going to buy her a gun. And I’ll have gun too, and I’m going to weld sockets on our guns so that I can tow them with my truck. Then we’re going to shoot kiwis, and their meat will fly through the air, and land in a basket. And a robot will cut the meat into slices so that we can take it home to eat. I’ve already designed the robot.

Jennifer was tucked up in bed wearing a nice white hospital nightgown. Her long hair was fanned across the pillows. She held a tiny bundle in her arms.

“Hello Mummy,” said Bob, putting his head on one side to get a better view of his new sister.

“Hello Bob, it’s very nice to see you,” said Jennifer. “Would you like to sit here and hold Polly?”

“Why is she so tiny?” asked Bob indignantly, with the air of a man who’s been handed an insufficiently large portion at a restaurant.

I had a sudden recollection of Bob attached to a tangle of tubes in the intensive care unit. “You were much smaller than Polly when you were born,” I said.

“She’s been breast-feeding really well,” Jennifer told me. “Apparently we can go home tomorrow.”

The next day Bob made a large placard for our front door: “Welcome Home Polly!” He was almost dancing with excitement as he introduced his new sister to our house. “This is the hall, Polly. This is the sitting room. This is my bedroom. Here’s where you’re going to sleep, Polly. Can you see the river? When you’re older I’ll build a boat and take you rowing there.”

“Please read us Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel,” he announced. “I’m sure Polly would really like that.” Bob retrieved the book from the shelf and thrust it into my hands.

“Perhaps you could look after the children while I get unpacked,” said Jennifer, handing my daughter to me.

Polly snuffled into my neck as I manoeuvred myself carefully onto a chair. Bob plonked himself heavily into my lap.

Our offspring were in the plural now, I thought. One child is the sort of accident that could happen to anyone—it doesn’t really conclusively prove that you’re a parent. But having two children is the final nail in the coffin of parenthood. There’s no denying it now.

Bob and Polly snuggled warmly against me. I read aloud the words, “Mike Mulligan had a steam shovel, a beautiful red steam shovel. Her name was Mary Anne.” And I thought: being a parent isn’t such a bad thing, is it.

Above: Polly arrives home for the first time.

Above: Polly as she is today.

115

My Life As a Palm Tree

Other people’s two-year-olds seem very quiet in comparison to my own.

A friend’s two-year-old recently told me that “tidying” was one of his favourite occupations (I checked with his parents: it was true). A playground mother amazed me with the claim that she looks forward to rainy days, so that she can spend “silent indoor time” with her pre-school children.

You would have to be very deaf indeed to have any “silent indoor time” with my children. As a two-year-old, my son, Bob, would regularly achieve the same levels of quietness as having a V2 missile hit the house.

On rainy days, his preferred method of entertainment was to have me swing him in circles by his heels, and then flip him yelling into the air, so that he somersaulted once (or preferably twice) before crashing onto the settee. He would happily partake of this activity for hours.

It was the sort of child-care technique that I always imagined might be difficult to explain at an Accident & Emergency ward; and it really didn’t do my sore back any good either. One wet afternoon, ravaged by spinal agony, I attempted to distract him with an episode of the Thunderbirds television programme. Bob was indifferent to the plot, but entranced by the launch sequences. He immediately demanded a personal re-enactment—and that was how we discovered the Palm Tree Game.

Here’s how you play. The first rule of Palm Tree Game is that Bob is the “director” (in the mode, some would say, of a highly-strung Werner Herzog-style auteur). Bob’s first directorial instruction is to flip him upside-down in order to simulate Virgil Tracy’s egress via the life-sized portrait. Then Bob is dragged across various bits of furniture to recreate the journey down the chutes, and eventually lowered into his pilot’s seat.

At this stage, in a rather avant-garde move, our point of view is altered so that Bob becomes Thunderbird II itself. A cushion is raised to allow him to exit the hangar, and the director’s assistant is required to lie on the ground with both arms upthrust so as to represent coconut palms. The coconut palms are retracted as Thunderbird II stomps heavily down the runway. The exhaust hatch is opened. Thunderbird II bounces a couple of times on the runway’s stomach, and is then launched into the air with a wild cry of “Thunderbirds Are Go!”.

Did I mention that the director’s assistant is required to sing the Thunderbirds theme at the same time? Try doing that while a two-year-old bounces on your stomach. Imagine being criticized for inadvertently going “Oof!” instead of “Dum Da-Da Dum Dum”. Then being told that your “Oof!” has ruined everything, and that the launch sequence will have to be restarted from the beginning. Herzog only demanded that scenes be repeated a few dozen times; I was forced to become a palm tree on hundreds of subsequent occasions.

Sunny days with two-year-old Bob were much less emotionally intense. We would often indulge ourselves with a gentle bike ride beside the river. Bob would entertain me with shouted philosophical observations. “Look at those lovely flowers, Daddy,” as we glided past an elaborate council garden of tulips and violets. “I could come here one day and do a wee on those.”

The riverside parks had particularly good swings. In the finest Thunderbirds tradition, Bob eventually developed a swing launch sequence that involved a countdown, blast-off, and various booster stages. “I’m in orbit! I’m in orbit!” he would squeak, as the chains swung past the horizontal point, and gave him a nice bump at the end of a push. His shadow rocketed across the lawn; the sun made a halo of his wild two-year-old’s hair.

Sometimes, when intending to meet Jennifer after work, we would cycle as far as Riccarton Bush. This was dangerous territory. Wildlife and verdure seemed to give Bob an irresistible desire to exert his mastery over nature.

On one occasion, an elderly lady took a kindly interest in Bob. “Did you know that there are kiwis in Riccarton bush?” she asked. “Would you like to see a kiwi? ”

Bob nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, if I saw a kiwi I could shoot it with my gun, and its head would explode. Ha ha!”

I attempted my own chuckle of laughter, as if to imply that Bob was indulging in sophisticated two-year-old irony, and then grabbed his arm to beat a hasty retreat.

On another occasion, we met a mother and her children in the kahikatea grove. “Look at these magnificent trees, everybody,” said the mother. “Let’s all just sit here quietly and soak up their majestic beauty.” A deep silence followed her announcement. Into this silence Bob felt moved to make a contribution.

Bob: Those trees are very tall.

Me: [whispering] Yes, and they’re 600 years old as well.

Bob: [loudly] Daddy, you should go and get your chainsaw and chop them down.

One of the biggest difficulties in looking after a two-year-old is the lavatory. Not in terms of the two-year-old’s lavatorial needs, but rather your own. Biology dictates that you sometimes require a few minutes by yourself.

When this happens, you need to ensure that your child is safely occupied, and then operate at top speed. Parental instructions issued from a lavatory are difficult to enforce; unnecessary lingering almost always leads to disaster.

Me: [while sitting on the lavatory] What’s that noise. Are you playing with the taps? I told you not to play with the taps.

Bob: [from the kitchen] I’m just doing [unintelligible].

Me: Well, whatever you’re doing, don’t play with the taps. We don’t want a repeat of what happened last time.

Bob: [to himself] That’s interesting. That’s very interesting. You’re a clever boy, Bob.

[The sound of a splashing—as from the sluice-gate of a medium-sized hydrodam—suddenly reaches my ears.]

Bob: [wailing] Daddy, I’ve made a waterfall and it won’t stop!

I found summer evenings with Bob as a two-year-old to be particularly pleasant. We would often climb the weeping elm in our front garden and do our bedtime reading amongst the branches. Bemused pedestrians would gaze skywards in surprise at my disembodied voice.

Of course, the trick with bedtime tree reading is in the extraction of your children afterwards. Unless I was very quick, Bob would clamber into the upper boughs, almost invisible in the greenery. “No, I’m not coming down. I’m living in this tree now. I don’t live in Christchurch any more.”

The actual insertion of Bob into his bed was, happily, the department of my wife, Jennifer. Few things are more relaxing than listening to someone else deal with your protesting child. As the harsh reality of bedtime hit home, Bob’s arguments in favour of postponement would become increasingly surrealist. I have long treasured this particular exchange:

Jennifer: Do you have an issue with going to bed tonight?

Bob: I have three issues: cutting up trees and throwing them down a waterfall; digging up dirt and raining it on snow penguins; when we're asleep and crocodiles come into our bedroom.

It’s hard to argue with that; although I believe Jennifer did her best.

I feel rather sad that I haven’t been able to indulge my two-year-old daughter, Polly, to the same extent that I once did with Bob. There have been no gentle bike rides beside the river. Her two-year-old’s life has been packed full of building, plumbing, electrical work. She knows the difference between a scrulox and a pozidriv screw; she can trot off to the workshop and bring back the builder’s level or the electric plane.

This is, I suppose, my greatest personal loss from the earthquakes and the bureaucratic disaster that has followed. Eighteen months of seven-day weeks and long working days is a lot of missed time for a two-year-old. There’s no way of getting it back.

Above: Polly assists with the paving.

109

Getting There is Half the Fun

“It’s very icy this morning,” I told everyone. “Are you listening, Bob? Are you listening, Polly? There’s lots of ice on our driveway. So you have to be really careful, okay? That means don’t run. The taxi will be here to collect us any minute.”

Fifteen minutes later I was phoning the taxi company: “Where are you? Have you forgotten to send someone? We have to be at the airport in half an hour!”

Another fifteen minutes, and despite the sub-zero temperatures I was actually sweating with stress. When the taxi finally arrived, I shouted: “Run for it everybody! We’re going to miss our plane!”

I picked up a suitcase in either hand and sprinted towards the front gate. The concrete paving stones seemed to rise up, twirl around, and then suddenly leap forward to smack me hard in the face. To my credit (or, at least, I presume some people might think it’s to my credit) my first thoughts were artistic in nature: don’t the rivulets of blood look pretty against the snow? Then I thought: “Ouch, that hurt.”

But there was no time to examine my wounds. We piled into the taxi. The taxi driver handed me a wad of tissues; I clutched them against my bleeding face. We were off to Trondheim, Norway.

Ah yes, Trondheim, only a mere 58 hours journey (door to door) from Dunsandel. This was a trip clearly absent from the slogan-writer’s mind when the phrase “getting there is half the fun” was coined. Unless, of course, the slogan-writer was thinking: “Getting there is half the fun of smashing your face into cobblestones”—which, now that I have done both, seems approximately correct.

At the airport, I sponged the worst of the blood out of my beard, and mailed a last-minute package to Russell Brown. The stress of the journey so far (30 minutes elapsed; 57.5 hours to go) made me unable to remember my own address to list as sender. Weirdly, however, I was able to remember Russell’s address. You never forget where you’ve had good coffee.

Naturally I refused the vile, luke-warm beverage offered by Air New Zealand on the flight to Auckland, but sucked a double espresso through a straw at the international terminal. My nose was throbbing like a bad nightclub, my lips continued to ooze blood, even my teeth were pounding with pain. How much worse could my day get? Travelling with small children for the next 55 hours: that’s how much worse.

The first leg of our international journey was to Hong Kong. I’ve never previously been to Hong Kong for the simple reason that you inevitably have to fly with Cathay Pacific. And I’ve never liked the idea of flying Cathay Pacific because I don’t like their logo, which is a stylized image of a burning plane.

It’s not that I don’t admire the magnificent ‘fuck you’ attitude in adopting a burning plane as the logo for an airline. A logo which, put into words, might read: “It’s not crashing into the ground that hurts; it’s burning alive on the way down.” But I worry about the nihilism of employees who might be attracted to work for such an organization. Safety engineers with “Live Hard, Die Young” tattooed across their chests. Stewardesses who sing The Who’s My Generation as part of the safety demonstration: “Join in on the chorus everyone! ‘Hope I Die Before I Get Old’.” I confess to finding the whole thing excessively morbid.

Fortunately, however, there were no singing nihilistic stewardesses on this particular flight. The only singing during the safety demonstration came from my own daughter, Polly, who took the general silence as a cue for a deafening version of her favourite nursery rhyme: “WINKLE! WINKLE! LITTLE STAR!” A few nearby passengers smiled indulgently. But I didn’t kid myself they’d be doing that for long.

By this time Bob’s interest in air travel had well and truly evaporated. “I feel grumpy,” he said. “Make Polly stop singing. How long until we get to Norway?”

“Fifty-four hours,” replied Jennifer soothingly. “As soon as we leave the runway.”

“How much is 54 hours on a plane? Is it soon?”

“Not long,” said Jennifer, in a statement that she later admitted was the most outrageous lie of her life.

Over the next twelve awful hours we gradually fell into a routine. Jennifer dealt with Bob, and his endless complaints: “These movies are all boring! How long until we get to Norway? Can you please read me another book? Why can’t you make Daddy stop breathing like that?”

At the same time, I attempted to deal with Polly and her ongoing mission to throw herself from the plane’s emergency exit. My cunning approach was to distract her with Mickey Mouse cartoons, which, according to the Walt Disney Studios, are beloved by children everywhere in the world. “I don’t like this rat! Make it go away!” shouted Polly at regular intervals. Then catching sight, once more, of the emergency exit: “OPEN THAT DOOR! I’M GETTING OUT!”

By Hong Kong we were all beyond exhaustion. “Only three more flights to go,” said Jennifer, attempting to raise our spirits. In their usual contrary manner Bob and Polly quite enjoyed being checked for bird flu at immigration. Indeed, as far as they were concerned, it was the high point of the entire trip.

Jennifer had booked a hotel on the basis of a theory, which she subsequently admitted was delusional, that we could get a few hours sleep before our next flight. Apparently she had forgotten our children’s personal motto: “Sleep is for losers”. While we waited for the hotel bus, Bob and Polly sprinted in circles around our immense pile of bags. It was 3.00 AM local time.

No, they didn’t sleep.

“Why is it so hot in Norway?” asked Bob a few hours later, as we wearily boarded the bus back to the airport for our next flight.

“Actually we’re not quite in Norway yet,” I said gently. “We’re in Hong Kong, where Keith Ng was born. Do you remember Keith?”

“He bought me cake,” said Bob. “Let’s go and visit Keith again. Let’s go back to New Zealand.” And then suddenly sobbing, “IT’S TOO HOT HERE, THIS IS THE WORST DAY OF MY LIFE!” Jennifer and I felt disinclined to dispute this.

Two minutes before our arrival at the airport, Bob fell into a deep, coma-like sleep. He lay motionless on the concrete footpath while we offloaded our bags. The bus driver found this astonishing. “I’ve never seen anyone so much asleep before,” he said.

Bob remained completely unconscious as he was lugged with maximum inconvenience through the departure process. It goes without saying that the slight unpacking of our bags at the hotel had somehow caused one of them to become 300 grams overweight, which necessitated ten minutes of repacking at the counter; and which, of course, resulted in catastrophic failure of the hinges of the other bag.

Tight-lipped with anger and frustration we joined the huge security queue. By now it felt like Bob was made of uranium; an immense patch of dribble crept slowly over my shoulder and down the front of my shirt. Polly was weeping inconsolably. Jennifer looked as though she wanted to join her. The cuts on my lips were still oozing blood.

Bob awoke, suffused with energy, as soon as we had passed through security.

The plane to Frankfurt was like a bad movie sequel to our Hong Kong flight. Jennifer and I, both convinced that we’d previously been saddled with the more horrible child, mutually agreed to a trade. Jennifer lost out. It transpired that the wonderful people at Lufthansa had programmed a couple of ESA documentaries on the flight entertainment system; Bob watched each of them five times over in rapt attention.

From the other end of the row I could hear the semi-muffled screams of Polly, and the unmistakable sounds of a two-year-old being forcibly restrained from throwing herself from the plane’s emergency exit. I’ve known Europeans critical of the cost of their space programme, but if you ask me it’s worth every bloody penny.

The only drawback to the ESA documentaries was Bob’s desire to share information by out-shouting the commentary in his earphones: “DADDY, DID YOU KNOW THAT CERES MIGHT HAVE LIQUID WATER BENEATH ITS SURFACE?” His observations were, I admit, penetratingly loud in a cabin full of slumbering passengers; but by now I was beyond caring about other people’s sleep.

We arrived in Germany.

A quick customer survey: how satisfied were we with our experience at Frankfurt Airport? Well, you know, I feel moved to make a slight, and very diplomatic, suggestion. Perhaps the airport could have a lane at immigration for parents with young children? Or to put it another way: WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU THINKING? WHY HAVEN’T YOU GOT A FUCKING LANE FOR CHILDREN? DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO GO MAD AND START STRANGLING THEIR BABIES? I HATE YOU, YOU FUCKING IDIOTS!

Bob had again reached the end of his tether and lay stomach-down on the floor. He declined (loudly) to be picked up. He declined (very loudly) to walk. I considered the sanity of the many hundreds of weary travellers who surrounded us. I reached the conclusion that they would be unwilling to listen to hours of ear-splitting whining and weeping. We compromised on Bob remaining in his preferred prone position, but holding onto my trouser cuffs, and being dragged along the airport floor.

Bob was dragged along the floor for over an hour, as the queue snaked eight times back and forth in front of the passport control gates. About halfway through, Polly lay down on the floor, grasped Bob’s trouser cuffs, and was dragged along behind him as well. When we eventually arrived at the passport counter our children arose to reveal their clothing black with dirt.

We were quite a while at Frankfurt Airport, with an amusing last minute sprint to another terminal when we discovered that the wrong information had been printed on our tickets. Then we boarded the flight to Oslo—which, after the first few moments, I mentally dubbed the “fight club” plane. Jennifer and I have agreed never to talk about the fight club plane. Indeed, ever since it happened we have both been trying to erase our children’s behaviour from our memories.

But worse was to come. In the security queue at Oslo airport Bob finally snapped. He engaged in a full-scale temper tantrum. And yes, a six year old having a tantrum is not a pretty sight; and yes, the other passengers were no doubt fully justified in wondering what sort of parents would raise such a child. This was the moment, I regret to say, when I finally understood why parents want to beat their offspring. Only a vague recollection of Norway’s progressive child-abuse laws prevented me from enacting the violent fantasises that suddenly filled my head.

Polly fell asleep as soon as we boarded the next plane. We emerged at Trondheim Airport almost delirious with exhaustion. Polly still fitfully slumbering; Bob sullen and tear-stained; my face still swollen and seeping blood. Jennifer investigated the transport options and found a bus that would transport us to the town centre.

In our hotel, Bob collapsed on the bed, unconscious in mere moments. Polly was tucked beneath her blankets without waking. It was early evening. Bright sunlight illuminated the room. The streets outside thronged with people; buskers were playing beneath our windows. We slept.

I awoke an hour before midnight. Bright sunlight still streamed into the room; the streets were still filled with people; the buskers played on.

I awoke at 3.30 AM. Trondheim was as beautiful and sunshine-drenched as before, but the streets were empty. It was as if the entire populace had suddenly been abducted. In Canterbury I’d have judged it time for morning tea. How odd it seemed that no-one was outside in such bright sunny weather.

This is a pleasant change from midwinter in Dunsandel, I thought, as I drifted back to sleep.

105

Now I Am Permitted

Sometimes I thought it would never happen. And so did a lot of other people. But finally, finally, finally, I have the three building permits and the three resource consents all approved and signed-off on our house.

You might express incredulity upon hearing that I would need three building consents and three resource consents when I haven’t actually been building anything—merely moving an existing home. But I’m afraid that in post-earthquake Canterbury such incredulity would simply brand you as a naïve, out-of-touch simpleton. Although, frankly, the innocently happy world inside your head would be a much better place to dwell than the brutal gulagesque existence that I have been living for the past eighteen months.

Am I bitter? Hell, yes. Did I recently write an essay entitled “How I Became A Grumpy Old Builder”, an essay filled to the brim with complaints and accusations? Oh dear, yes, I’m afraid I did.

But I have just this minute pressed shift-delete on that essay. I have decided to be bitter no longer. I shall, in the words of that nice Mr Key, be going forward. Although I shall not, I admit, be going forward to cast a vote for Mr Key, or the great fat vandal that he appointed as Earthquake Recovery Minister.

Instead I shall go forward to a place of gentle amusement. The light-hearted and humorous side of the earthquake rebuild. Those comedic moments where amusingly bad things happened—to other people.

In this case, I am thinking of a specific other person: my friend and colleague, Emma Hart. If you have read Emma’s excellent book, Not Safe For Work you will recall that she once spent an unpleasant evening while a former boyfriend pointed a loaded crossbow at her head. But not mentioned in her book was an even more traumatic event that occurred several years later. A nightmare incident during which she was mistaken as my spouse.

“Husband?” spluttered Emma at her accuser. “Him? I wouldn’t marry him.” She pronounced the word ‘him’ an octave above her normal speaking range.

Never in my life have I seen anyone so indignantly incredulous as Emma on that occasion, and I confess to being slightly put out by the forcefulness of her denial. But not so much that I didn’t sympathize with Emma’s pain when the same mistake was made on the next occasion that we attended an event together. Poor Emma. She was horror-stricken. In desperation she began introducing me: “This is my colleague, David. We’re not partners or anything.”

Her approach didn’t really work. Over the years we have been mistaken as a married couple on numerous occasions, and Emma has eventually moved from grief to acceptance. No longer bothering to correct people on our non-marital status, she merely winces, and gives a silent shudder of horror.

Other people’s clouds often have silver linings, and it was as a result of this ongoing case of mistaken identity that I inadvertently became a spectator in Emma’s amusing EQR/EQC inspection. For non-Cantabrians I should explain that this is a joint exercise during which an inspector from Fletchers EQR identifies earthquake damage at a property, and an assessor from the EQC vehemently denies that the damage exists; or, if denial is obviously futile, that the damage was due to something other than an earthquake.

It is unfortunate that I did not write anything down at the time, but I hereby present the sequence of events as I now recall them. My apologies to the EQC if I have misremembered any of the details; I would, of course, be devastated if I inadvertently caused offence to anyone at this fine organization.

The story begins as I return a borrowed book to Emma at her house...

SCENE I: A group of people, variously from Fletchers and the EQC, are examining a garage door that has obviously been damaged during the earthquakes. Emma Hart stands nearby. David Haywood enters the property via the driveway.

Fletchers guy: [Observing David Haywood’s entrance] Here’s the husband now.

EQC guy: [Continuing his interrupted monologue] Now I only been in New Zealand five days, right? But I knows badger damage when I sees it. What happens, right, is that it gets dark at night. And Mr Badger comes gimping along and he don't notice the garage (cos its dark at night, see), and he bashes right into it, and knocks it sideways like anything. And then the door gets bent, isn't it. Stands to reason. So it's badger damage not earthquake damage. That's why we got to cull 'em, right? Badgers that is.

Fletchers guy: [Gives prolonged speech explaining that there are no badgers in New Zealand].

EQC guy: Yes, now that's exactly what I was saying. I says to myself, could be badger damage, could be, but most likely ant damage. Cos you does have ants in New Zealand, isn't you?

Fletchers guy: [Nods affirmatively].

EQC guy: Cos with ant damage what happens, see, is that the ants go gritching over the tin bit of the door. Gritching all night, right? Now him [pointing at David Haywood], he can bloody sleep through anything, can't he? Just look at him. But his missus [pointing at Emma Hart] she can't bloody sleep a wink because of the ants gritching on the tin. Now in the morning she's all clemmed, because she's been awake all bloody night, and you do get clemmed when you're awake all night, because you're not sleeping, see? So that makes her right peevish. Not her fault she's peevish, because she's clemmed, isn't she, by the ants gritching on the tin. So she goes outside and gets a maul, doesn't she, and she starts larming all the ants. Now naturally when she's larming the ants with the maul she bends the bloody garage door. Stands to reason. So bain't earthquake damage, does it? It be ant damage. Cos his [pointing at David Haywood] bloody missus [pointing at Emma Hart] been larming the badgers with a maul on account of them gritching on the tin all night, see? I mean ants. Not badgers.

Emma Hart: [Emphatically]: That. Man. Is. Not. My. Husband.

Oh, how I chortled at the EQC assessor’s amusing misinterpretation of the earthquake damage. “Surely,” I thought, “Emma will regard the immense hilarity afforded by this situation as a worthwhile exchange for an unrepaired garage door and the slight psychological agony of being once again mistaken as my spouse.” Strangely, it appeared that she did not. Emma, it transpired, would have preferred the door to be fixed.

While sympathizing with Emma, I confess that I was still experiencing residual amusement as I drove away from her house. The one-hour traffic jam on the ring-road only mildly diminished my mirth; and I was still snickering as I arrived in Dunsandel, donned my tool belt, and prepared to begin work. It was only as I passed the lavatory door that my innocent laughter was cut suddenly short.

Ah yes, the lavatory. The one that wasn’t yet connected to the wastewater system. The one that should have had a large sign sitting on its lid: “Not connected. Do not use under any circumstances.” The sign had disappeared.

I had other workers at the house that day. The plasterers had arrived at the crack of dawn. “Just checking that you saw my sign about the lavatory?” I enquired with a hint of panic in my voice. “You know, the one that says its not connected to anything?” There was a long, long silence.

It turns out that a gang of plasterers has roughly the same digestive throughput as herd of diarrhoea-stricken elephants. Below the disconnected end of the lavatory was a circle of faeces and lavatory paper about three metres in diameter.

Unless you enjoy retching, the clean-up job was not one that I’d recommend. It took several claustrophobic hours in the crawl-space beneath the house to remove some two hundred litres of mixed soil and faeces, and to clean down all the affected piles, bearers, and joists. My sense of humour had entirely evaporated by the end of the job.

Then, as a kind of dessert to my main course of shit, my son vomited in the car on the way back to the Linwood Earthquake Village. And he continued to vomit for the next 12 hours—over every towel and sheet and blanket that we possessed. It was no fun at all.

But the worst of it occured when I related these sad and tragic events to Emma Hart. Did she offer me her heartfelt sympathy? Did tears prick her eyelids as the sorrowful story unfolded? No, unbelievably, she just laughed.

So where am I now? Happily I have all my consents, but there are still a few things to finish on the house. The roof to paint, the baseboards to be fitted, a week’s work in every room to revarnish the windows and to reinstate the wardrobe doors and mantlepieces. Oh, and the new fire to install. And the hedges and trees to plant. And the vegetable garden. Quite a lot, actually.

But the big pressure of the consents deadline is over. My seven-day working week shall be temporarily halted. I am taking a break from building. You shall hear more soon.