Greatest NZ Stories: Sunday dinner with the PM

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John Marshall, Prime Minister, 1970
John Marshall, Prime Minister, 1970

1970s New Zealand was a very different place, as Des Cowie explains...

New Zealand is a very small country and its political leaders remain easily accessible to their constituents.

In 1971 a prank resulted in my flatmates and I having a roast Sunday dinner with the Prime Minister of the day, John Marshall, known to many as 'Gentleman Jack'.

In that year I was living in a four-person flat in Wellington with other students from Victoria University. Each of us was studying for different majors - education, science, commerce and Noelene for an arts degree in Political Science.

It was a remarkably cohesive flat considering the differing personality types. Noelene, however, was particularly naive and totally impractical. As a true academic she spent her life in books and saw the world through the most horn-rimmed glasses imaginable. Her view of society swirled around in her grey matter and her dress sense indicated she had very little concept of fashion.

She was nonetheless very much a romantic, but at the age of 20 had no experience of the opposite gender.

With finals exams approaching, there was a tendency to withdraw from letting off steam during the weekends in order to concentrate on studying.

It is not a lifestyle that is well-suited to emerging adults.

On one memorable night when Noelene was attending her church the three remaining heathen flatmates conjured up a devilish plan to embarrass their churchgoing housemate.

Given that Noelene had always expressed great excitement at the idea of having a boyfriend but realising also her naivety, the plotters tracked down the PMs home phone number and left a note for Noelene to say that "John Marshall had called and would Noelene please call him back".

A more socially aware person, especially one studying Political Science, should have smelt a rat - but not our Noelene - she couldn't get on the phone quickly enough.

The plotters could hardly contain themselves at Noelene's gullibility.

She hadn't cottoned on to the fact that she was ringing the Prime Minister of New Zealand at 6pm on a Sunday night!

The phone was answered by John Marshall - not the Prime Minister but his eldest son. This was fortuitous because it made the plotters note so much more credible - a young male had made an inquiry after her.

The plotters however were unaware that their little scheme had a twist.

Given that John hadn't called and left a message, he tried explaining that to Noelene. She, however, had already moved to a point in her head where she had wedding bells and was dancing down the aisle. She resisted John's explanations for what seemed like an eternity. When John became more insistent, Noelene responded in righteous indignation and became mildly abusive.

For the plotters, the scene unfolding was hilarious - it appeared their flatmate was ripping into the Prime Minister. None of us could contain our laughter and we left the lounge where the phone conversation was taking place.

Eventually Noelene terminated the phone call believing that John Marshall just didn't have the balls to front up to his true affections for her!

The Plotters then fessed up - letting Noelene know she had been ranting at the PM. Noelene, however, had her own surprise for the plotters - it was not an old person she had been talking to but someone of her own age!

There was a collective recognition of a need to ring back and make an apology for the prank.

After composing herself, Noelene made the call and to everyone's surprise the conversation went on for nearly an hour. Hearing Noelene's explanation that she was the victim of a prank, John Marshall invited the whole flat around for dinner the following Sunday evening.

It was a very pleasant occasion and none enjoyed the distraction more than the Prime Minister himself, who was then embroiled with some serious confrontations with the labour unions.

- Submitted by Des Cowie

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