Dreams Of Old New Zealand: A glimpse of the curving North Otago shoreline and a swathe of bright blue sky
LAST NIGHT I dreamed of Oamaru. I was born there 55 years ago in the big public hospital which overlooked the little seaside town. In those days, public hospitals were almost always built on hilltops. Set there by the State, they quite literally “watched over” the citizenry they were erected to serve. It was reassuring.
Why was I dreaming of Oamaru? I’d like to think it was because, on the eve of the 2011 General Election, I was reaching back into my past for answers about the present, and the future, of my country. That, at some point in the dream, someone would step forward and answer all the questions my conscious mind has been asking me since the campaign began.
But the unconscious doesn’t work like that, does it?
In my dream the person with the answers was me. A hall-full of people was waiting for Chris Trotter to get up and sing. But he couldn’t sing. His guitar had no strings, and he had forgotten all the words to his songs.
I looked down at the audience from the stage. All the faces were friendly, expectant and curiously familiar. The big doors at the end of the hall stood open, framing a glimpse of the curving North Otago shoreline and a swathe of bright blue sky. Then somebody shut the doors; the audience fell silent; and I woke up.
Except it won’t be a dream from which we wake on Sunday morning; it’ll be a brand new political reality to which we open our eyes. And unless I’m very much mistaken, the most important aspect of this new reality will be how few points of connection it has with our nation’s past. Old New Zealanders, like me, will feel like those people left standing on the quay when a big passenger liner pulls away. One by one the paper streamers connecting us to the departing world will snap. The ship will sail away and we’ll be left behind.
The people on board the ship will breathe a huge sigh of relief. For the past three years they have grown increasingly impatient with Old New Zealand and its passé traditions. They know that the egalitarian values it persists in celebrating have no currency in their brave new world.
A brutal and unreflective fatalism defines these New New Zealanders. For those lucky enough to be born to the right parents, life is good. Is it their fault they’re lucky? Losers’ children (with the right sort of genes) will scrabble and claw their way out of whatever hell-hole they’re born into – and why not? No one’s going to condemn them for the crimes they commit getting out and climbing up. The consideration of others is a choice people make – usually at their own expense. The only real crime is getting caught.
It’s why the Captain of this happy little ship, John Key, is so incredibly popular among passengers and crew alike. He epitomises the strategies for success they long to emulate. Mixing sunny smiles and cheery waves with the most ruthless and unforgiving displays of political management. His enemies called him “the smiling assassin” – never understanding that his friends have come to admire both the killings, and the “aw-shucks” grin that accompanies them, in equal measure.
The most frightening thing about the new ship of state is the number of people who have scrambled aboard for no better reason than the proximity of wealth and power. Even in the bowels of steerage their excitement remains undimmed. They can feel the beat of the band through the ship’s bulkheads, and smell the champagne and caviar wafting through the ventilation shafts. They have no idea that their real purpose is to satisfy the First Class passengers’ pathological appetite for social torture. That, in the neoliberal theatre of pain, the flesh of the poor is the ultimate prop, and their suffering the only acceptable tribute. Not even their children will be spared.
Perhaps that’s why I awoke so suddenly from my dream. Perhaps the closing of the doors was the signal that it was about to descend into nightmare.
And I'm left wondering: is my use of the departing ship metaphor ill-judged? Is it really possible for us Old New Zealanders to avoid embarking alongside the New on Mr Key’s voyage of the damned? Aren’t we all aboard that ship? All inescapably bound to its fate? Aren’t those paper streamers attached to the world we are leaving behind? Isn’t the moment of their breaking also the moment we must bid farewell forever to Old New Zealand?
I don’t believe it is. Neoliberal values are like those plates African tribeswomen insert in their lower-lips. They are alien to the true shape of humanity and are only accommodated by constant application and severe distortion. Once accomplished, however, the effect is much admired by those who have already endured the process. And those who have not are, naturally, despised.
But we plate-less ones at least retain the natural shape of our humanity and inhabit a world in which it is still possible to whistle to, smile at, and kiss one another. In this sense, we Old New Zealanders have indeed been spared the horrors of Captain Key’s voyage.
I dreamed last night of Oamaru and awoke fearing the onset of nightmare. But it need not be so. For hasn’t Oamaru become the capital of that strange art-form known a “steam-punk”? Past and future can be merged to create a potent new hybrid of magic and science. Old songs can find new singers, and old guitars new strings. And, if we all try hard enough to remember, perhaps, in time, the right words will come back to us.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.