A natural in the Big House

By Michele Hewitson

Meeting Anand Satyanand, the new Governor-General, is a very nice experience for a number of reasons. For one particular reason it is inordinately thrilling: He has had lunch with the Queen.

He is, of course, an interesting and amiable fellow himself. So much so - the amiable bit - that I'm sure he won't mind if I bang on about him and the Queen.

The new GG - on Wednesday he has been 21 days on the job - is a tolerant sort. He doesn't mind me asking what he had to eat at the lunch.

"Do you want to know precisely what we had?" Yes, please. Can he remember? "Yes. We had - and it was all in French, of course - so it was a bit of mackerel mousse on melba toast with an accompanying salad. The main course was veal with a flat pasta with a mushroom sauce with courgettes and kale cabbage and a wonderful crescent plate of salad on the side. And the dessert was, I'm not sure of the precise term, but it was like a crystal plate with - what's it called? - like custard on the bottom and on it were crescent-cut nectarines with a glaze on it."

Well, he did ask whether precision was called for. There is more. A cheese board and "she said to me all of a sudden ... you must try some of that because it is made from ... jersey cows at Windsor which originally came from New Zealand ... She wasn't just playing things for the sake of it.

She was actually trying to make us feel at home, if you like."

There was wine, red or white, although the Duke had beer and the Queen had her own bottle of something unidentified.

"It might have been wine, it might have been sangria, it might have been Ribena. I don't know what it was."

I don't know whether the GG was as fascinated as I was by all of this. If he wasn't, he did a better than decent job of pretending. But fancy him remembering the menu in such detail. He has a lawyer's mind for detail.

He is amused, in retrospect, by the "informal" tag which accompanied the event. "We had what for them, Their Royal Highnesses, was an informal occasion. Which is when two people alone are invited to share a meal with them and in those circumstances it is regarded by them as informal, but of course the exact opposite for others. It was a heart-in-the-mouth formality."

With seven corgis in the dining room. They were very well-behaved? "Yes, they were exuberant, rolling around on the floor but not getting out of control ... They didn't sort of come biting or yapping or doing anything out of order."

It was silly of me to say "yes" to the offer of a precise description of the menu. We'd already come to the end of our time and I could have used it asking him something serious, such as what sort of GG he intended to be. But it's fairly easy to figure out the answer to this without resorting to the question: down-to-earth, resolutely not pompous. He is determined to be a happy sort of GG.

"A constructive approach to leisure is one of the serious things that is very important in this kind of job because it is a heady wine. It is living in artificial circumstances and we are here doing this job for New Zealanders and that's something you've got to devote your whole attention to doing. It's quite taxing to do that because you need your intellectual functions as well as your emotional functions engaged in that. Therefore it's vital to rest and recharge ..."

This is a long way of saying that he intends to follow the previous GG's example and take regular breaks. He is good at giving answers which sound long-winded in print but not in person. His public affairs officer describes his manner of speaking as "lyrical" and that's about right.

This is also handy. He is already accomplished at giving long, measured, neutral-but-nice answers to questions. He has not been trained in these GG arts, I am told. So he must be a natural.

In any case, it is no use asking a GG for his opinion on things, or about his politics, because one of the strange things that has to happen is that their opinions and politics get put away in a suitcase under the bed until the end of the five-year term.

"I think," he says, "GGs obviously hold opinions about matters, but whatever their opinions are they need to be - aah, what's the word? - subsumed or registered against the background that the principal job is to represent New Zealand to New Zealanders."

He likes to tell a story about his father, a much-respected GP.

"One of the nicest things about him was that you could never work out whether he was a Liberal conservative, or a Conservative liberal. He had this wonderful mix of viewpoints which I think is not a bad role model."

Satyanand and his wife, Susan, helped David Lange in his first, unsuccessful, political campaign in 1975. Ten years earlier, when Satyanand was a law student, he was part of the "electoral machine" for lawyer Clive Edwards (later Tongan deputy prime minister) when he stood in Auckland Central for National. This is handy now because it balances him out quite nicely, doesn't it?

"Well, yes. I didn't have it on the shaving mirror that it was going to be the case. Ha, ha."

He is our first Asian Governor-General and the first district court judge to hold the role. He thinks he is probably our first Catholic GG. He is certain he is our first GG to have been a rugby league administrator. He is, in a sense, a sort of grand Everyman. One who - and this is another odd thing that happens when you become GG - gives up the comforts of home and goes to live "inside national treasures".

The Satyanands live now at "1 Rugby St, Newtown, and 119 Mountain Rd, Epsom". He recites these addresses with a sort of boyish delight, as though he is still getting used to the idea that he is the Governor-General. Both addresses are quite grand and they have well-appointed apartments within the grandness. The Wellington place is "like a grand chateau" and the Auckland one a "wonderful rendition of a late- Victorian or Edwardian house".

I thought it might be a bit like living in a museum but he says, "No, a museum connotes lights being switched off at 5, and a funereal atmosphere. This is a place which has people in and out all the time."

Still, you wouldn't want to break anything, would you. "No. But, you know, we've had the context of the forthcoming funeral on the weekend [his mother's funeral was on Monday], but we had the Lord Chancellor of England and an Auckland High Court judge for lunch on Saturday. We had people from the neighbours in for drinks on Friday evening. I just thought we should do the good Kiwi thing ... so we rang up ... and said, 'Hi, we're the new neighbours'."

I had met him once before briefly, when he was GG-designate. It might, I thought, be interesting to see if any sort of transformation had taken place. That first meeting was a comedy of errors in which he had agreed to an interview because, I suspect, he was too nice and well-mannered to say no. But we didn't have an interview because he wasn't yet GG, hadn't yet been briefed and, he said, in his droll fashion, "I might inadvertently say something".

He was, I thought then, a delight: gracious and funny but with more than sufficient gravitas for the job ahead. He was obviously much amused - and a little embarrassed - by the shift in the way his life would from now on be arranged.

Anyway, I promised that the next time we met I would call him "Your Excellency", which he lets me do a couple of times before he says "you only need to do that once". He is already adept at pretending to be pompous - but I think we can count on it only ever being pretend.

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