Gordon McLauchlan: Island King a smoking gun

A gentle onshore breeze whispered through the leaves atop all but one of the coconut trees, bringing the glad tidings of yet another blue, paradisical day on Tongatapu.

If you listened carefully, though, to the tallest tree of them all, a few metres back from the beach, you could detect a soughing, perhaps even a keening of despair and grief, for the glory that was once Tonga.

The tallest tree had survived 200 years of cyclones and tidal waves. It could remember when canoes raced away from the beach paddled by clear-eyed, bronzed men, ready, once clear of the reef, to set the sail for Fiji or even Samoa to trade - a huge enterprise even in their robust canoes.

A Christian missionary in Samoa recorded that the Tongan trading canoes had arrived as they did at the same time every year. They had brought letters from the brethren in Fiji.

The tallest tree, which thought of those times with such pride, quietened as the breeze fell and tried to overhear a meeting of the court of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV. The king, a great potentate by his own estimate, was listening to a wily Chinese joker urging him to build a cigarette factory in his kingdom.

"With due respect, Your Majesty," said a public health official, "If we have a factory churning out cigarettes, more of our people may smoke, and die earlier."

"But," said his magnificence, "as my United Nations colleague, the great Bill Clinton, used to say, 'It's the economy, stupid'. We will get 70 jobs from this and maybe export orders. My good friend and business partner here, Mr Tsay, points out that the people of his great country smoke like the Sydney suburbs in summer and there are a couple of billion of them. Can't be too bad."

"That may be true, Your Majesty, but it seems contradictory, not to say hypocritical, to be conducting a campaign against smoking tobacco in public places and manufacturing cigarettes," ventured the official.

"I'm glad you didn't say 'hypocritical' or you may have spent a night or two in the slammer," said His Majesty. "I don't mind criticism of me and my two lovely children as long as it's positive thinking. This means you could suggest I should build two fag factories but not that I shouldn't build any, which is negativity."

"There's room in the slammer at the moment," said the police chief eagerly, "We've just about wiped negativity out."

"You see," the King said to the public health official, "everyone agrees with me or the jail would be full. Our police chief here is very diligent. He keeps negativity to very low levels. Positive thinking is what we want here in our island paradise. What do you think, son?" he asked the Crown Prince.

"I have agreed."

"I know you have a greed - a voracious, perhaps insatiable, greed - but what do you think of this fag factory idea?"

"We should do it, but we should also prohibit the importation of foreign-made cigarettes so that every ciggie smoked in our island paradise should be homemade."

"Good idea. And we - the royal family - will get a percentage."

"Money isn't everything," said the public health official.

"Now, now, now - negativity," said the King, raising his fat hands to his fat head.

"Okay, we've agreed on that then, Daddy," said his daughter, the Princess, "but other entrepreneurs from all over the world are queued up in the waiting-room."

"Like whom?"

"There's the man from Colombia with a proposal for growing the coca plant."

"How much?"

"Two million dollars a year and 50 jobs."

"Send him in."

"In a minute. I think you should see the man from the Asian Nuclear Waste Institute first. He's promising $100 million a year and 700 jobs building underground cement silos."

"Tell him it's a deal," said the King salivating.

"With due respect, Your Majesty, nuclear waste is poisonous and if it leaks it may poison the workers and also the fish in the surrounding ocean," said the public health official.

"Fish? Fish? Who cares about fish in the surrounding ocean? With $100 million a year we can import it in cans, you fool."

"But what about the workers?"

"Well, we should be able to import them, too, if we run out of locals."

"Ah," said the public health official, "but what about the royal family. The leaks may affect your health."

"Well, for $100 million a year I think we could live quite comfortably in Auckland or Sydney."

Outside stands a dissenter, negative enough to carry a placard bearing the following:

No one gets it wronger

Than the fat old King of Tonga.

How did Queen Salote

Leave us progeny so dotty?

"I'll have him," said the police chief looking out the window. "Give me a couple of days and I'll have him thinking positively. Your Majesty deserves better from the people who are lucky enough to live in our island paradise."

The very tall coconut tree thrashed about as though a gale were blowing, its precious fruit dropping to the ground like tears.

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