Steve Braunias' Campaign Diary: Day 3
DAY THREE: IN WHICH THE SHADOWY INNER WORKINGS OF THE GREEN PARTY ARE EXPOSED – AND METIRIA TUREI TORTURES CHRIS KNOX
Election 2014! Restless, mobile. Last night, the campaign trail led to a home in Grey Lynn, that pleasant, expensive arrangement of villas close to downtown Auckland, so often crudely mocked as a breeding ground for urban liberals, where neighbours chat of compost and real estate, where hipsters turn their heads in the mirror as they inspect the depth and shape of their stupid beards, where a woman in crushed velvet pants opened her door to 73 urban liberals from the Green Party.
She hosted a fundraising event. It was called READING YOUR GREENS. Puns are bad for your mental health but the event, “An evening of poetry, prose and performance”, promised an intellectual feast. The headline act was Eleanor Catton. O Cat! Author, literateur, the best mind of her generation. You wouldn’t catch her howling and destroyed on the negro streets of dawn. She glides through the best assemblies the bourgeoisie has to offer. There she was, at last week’s NZ Post Book Awards, as the Lady Bountiful of New Zealand letters – The Luminaries was judged best novel, and she announced she would donate the $15,000 loot to establish a grant for other writers. Saint Cat! And last night, radiant and evangelical, she was Green Cat.
The invitation said to arrive at 6pm. There was a soft mauve light in the closing sky. A man parked his scooter on the pavement. He wore a rucksack. There was white wine and organic beer. Who made the beetroot dip? Wonderful! The house was large. A man with his hair tied into an interesting topknot sat on the stairs. A youth with a black eye emerged from a room, plucked at samosas and slices of pizza and returned from whence he came. There were Japanese prints on the wall. The bookcase was neatly alphabetical, big on old fiction – DH Lawrence, Harper Lee, Penelope Lively. Penelope Lively! She wasn’t really.
Green co-leader Metiria Turei was there. Green MP Denise Roche was there. Someone from the Greens called Barry was there. There were a lot of softly glowing candles. They shaped long shadows. All was calm. But wait! What sound yonder? Hooves! Hooves, and the bellowing cry of a man upon a horse – Gamling had come!
Gamling! Soldier of the Rohan. King Theoden’s right hand man. Fought at the battle on Pellenor Fields. Yes, that Gamling, from Lord of the Rings, as played by our MC for the evening, actor Bruce Hopkins. He wore a T-shirt with a peace sign on it. He said, “Have a look around yourselves! It’s a cool gathering of humanity.”
The cool gathering of humanity sat in rows on folding chairs. Turei stood at the back with a smile playing on her lips. It played all night. The aching face, the sore feet – such is public service.
Hopkins introduced poet Courtney Meredith. “Electric fences of the mind”, etc. Her second poem was about the taniwha. She boasted of her third poem: “It gives me the shivers.”
Hopkins introduced Green candidate Jack McDonald, 21, and the great-grandson of James K Baxter. He read three of his ancestor’s poems like a man delivering a speech advocating the immediate protection of some species of native bat. He beat the poetry to death with the club of his rhetoric. But the apple had not fallen far from the tree. Baxter, too, was hectoring, a man who could burn the log of his monologue all night long. Jack was beardless, but so was James – his iconic image was the wise old mystic draped in a long beard, but in fact he grew it late in his vivid life.
You looked at young Jack with his soft, beautiful hands, and you knew that if old James were alive today he too would be Green. Lyrically Green, but also tormentedly Green, disputatiously Green, weirdly Green – perhaps Gamling, too, was possessed of similar vision. “Wow,” breathed Hopkins. “Can any of you indicate if you just had a little trip like the one I was having?” The cool gathering murmured. Turei’s face acheth.
Author Geoff Chapple sang and played acoustic guitar. Actress Lucy Lawless sang while someone from the Greens called Craig played the ukulele. And when the Cat read from something she’d written once about the grandeur of outdoors New Zealand (“a cloud-filled valley”), and her partner Steve Toussaint read the first poem he wrote in New Zealand after he arrived from the US (“the white pine morning”), two things became clear.
The nuanced language, its art and its intent and its engagement with society – it revealed the audience as more than just the kind of crowd you would expect to see chattering in the foyer of the Civic during the international film festival. These were people who had chosen thoughtfulness as a way of life. They were attracted to literature, they were likewise drawn to principles of the intelligent maintenance of life on the planet. O Greens! The new Sunday School, perhaps, with their sanctimonious manner, their pious lessons. But their chief insistence is on clarity of thinking.
The other thing that became clear about the Greens during the readings was their guiding principle: length. Toussaint’s poem was as long as the Cat’s book. Patient Greens! They must love the marae, with its embrace of the interminable. They are in it for the long haul. They talk a long talk. Will anyone think of the children? The Greens always think of the children, of the future, of infinity – you can never get rid of them. They are the light that never goes out, the voice that never stops.
It was time for Hopkins to introduce the Green’s first lady of aching graciousness. Turei wore a flimsy black number, and said, “I love our country! Do you love our country?”
“We love our country,” chanted the audience, infantilised.
“I love our country,” Turei repeated. But this wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it appeared in the shape of the ukulele she held in her hands and proceeded to strum as she and Roche launched into a version of Chris Knox’s “Not Given Lightly”. Poor Knox! Has he not suffered enough? It was the longest four minutes in musical history. The song lay quivering on the rack of the wretched ukulele; the lyrics were beaten senseless, with the same kind of club that young Jack had used to clobber old James’s verse. The two MPs declaimed, they wailed, they got the audience to sing along on the chorus. Infantile Greens!
Turei and Roche: “It’s you that I love!”
Audience: “It’s you that I love!”
Turei and Roche “And it’s true that I love!”
Audience: “And it’s true that I love!”
And so on. Ghastly! Give the Greens a problem, and they will make good use of their agile intellects, and come up with numerous suggested solutions; give them a fucking ukulele, and they lose their mind.
When it finished, a signed first-edition copy of The Luminaries was put to auction. Dawn Harris of Epsom won it for $1950. And then the little white envelopes were handed out. They contained the little green forms with instructions on how to make a donation pledge. “We are not on low incomes,” Turei reminded the gallant 73. “We all want a cleaner, fairer, smarter Aotearoa… Kia ora tatou,” etc.
The night was done. Her smile was genuine.