Steve Braunias looks back on 2020 and refuses to name the one thing that defined the year.
It could have been worse. It wasn't like we suffered the utter devastation and plain unannounced rudeness of an asteroid flinging itself at the planet, like the one that struck 2.229 billion years ago in Yarrabubba, in Western Australia, and was confirmed in January as the world's oldest asteroid crater. There wasn't an awful lot of life around 2.229 billion years ago but its scant bits and pieces were put through an extinction event. "It squeezed the Earth's crust to unimaginable pressures," said Curtin University researchers, describing the impact, "before exploding and ejecting carnage across the landscape." 2020 was nothing like that. Well maybe a bit like that. It was quite a bad year in some respects.
Easy to regard Australia's bush fires at the beginning of the year as a sign, an omen, of things to come. At the time they felt like apocalypse, now. I remember one creepy summer's evening walking along the street and sniffing the sharp, almost sickly smell of smoke that travelled across the Tasman. I thought: the world is on fire. A woman was sitting on her front porch. I stopped at her fence, and said, "Can you smell that?"
She said, "Smell what?"
I said, "The smoke. You know. From the bush fires."
She said, "What bush fires?"
There's always someone who's the last to know or plain doesn't want to know. But the bliss of ignorance didn't stand a chance when something else travelled over the sea, something thinner than smoke, odourless and poisonous. Everyone got to know all about it. It was the only subject. It was war. Last drinks were called. "Faces along the bar/ Cling to their average day," wrote WH Auden, in his classic poem on the eve of World War II, "September 1, 1939," which got referenced a lot this year for its lines about waiting for the world to be plunged into darkness. "The lights must never go out/ The music must always play." On March 23, the bars closed; on March 25, New Zealand closed.
April, supposedly, was the cruellest month. But actually I thought of it then and look back on it wistfully now as The Dreaming. God it was a beautiful summer, and it went on, and on, and on, as April was transformed into a Groundhog Day of blue skies and heat weaves corrugating all over the Auckland isthmus as we obeyed the government directives: Stay home. Save lives. Do absolutely nothing. It was like Christmas, it was like camping. Certainly it was a bit of a drag to stand in a socially distanced queue at the supermarket – the queues outside liquor stories were even more forlorn – but it wasn't exactly the end of civilisation. It was the banality of dystopia. You got your supplies, you went home, you watched Tiger King.
My happiest viewing on social media was of some fat fellow who posted a daily video of the many and varied ways he'd jump into his pool. Crisis? What crisis? That guy had it going on and he was my chief inspiration to spend whole afternoons in my own pool, a little less actively, flat on my back on a Warehouse lilo. I read War & Peace. I read Madame Bovary. Now and then I'd go inside to snack and read something a little less profoundly; as prisoners under house arrest, we all succumbed to clickbait and gazed at such sponsored content classics as She Was Asked To Leave Water Park Over Bathing Suit. April was a chance to sit back and think, and, even better, sit back and not think. Good times.
Not entirely good times. Okay the whole thing felt like a nightmare. Irish author Mark O'Connell found himself regarded as a kind of prophet when his book Notes from an Apocalypse was published this year. It was a study of end times. "We live in a time of looming, of things impending and imminent," he wrote. "But has the looming not in fact given way to the crisis itself?" Answer: yeah pretty much. As well as the mounting death toll, there was fear, uncertainty, financial disaster. I took the threat of being laid off a lot more seriously and to heart than the risk of getting sick; of course I wore a mask and all the rest of it, but loss of livelihood was my chief concern, not loss of life.
"Are you going to die?", my daughter asked. Answer: nah not yet. I turned 60 in 2020 and was therefore classified as vulnerable to the poison in the air but anyone who knows me views me not entirely affectionately as a kind of cockroach and in any case all of New Zealand formed that fabled team of five million to stand firm, stand together, stand fast. When we were released from our homes by the all-clear sirens – I really wish there actually had been great big blaring and honking all-clear sirens; that would have been a nice touch – it felt strange to walk among others and reclaim our place in society. One of the first things I did was go to the movies. I sat by myself in an empty cinema and watched Greenland, a really dumb and fairly entertaining film about Earth laid waste by an asteroid.
Things were a lot worse pretty much everywhere else apart from like Antarctica. America, especially, was the pits. The death toll is higher every day at the moment than the Twin Towers attack; it's become 9/11, 24/7. At least, and at last, the American people found a vaccine. It's called Biden. It's cured the deadly Trump flu and ended a reign of error. The only problem is that Trump lingers on (we cross live to a madman shouting on Twitter: "I WON THE ELECTION IN A LANDSLIDE", etc), stinking out the joint for as long as he can - there's always someone who's the last to leave or plain doesn't want to leave. Headline, The Onion: "Donald Trump Jr Refuses To Step Down From Post Of President's Oldest Son."
America, with its ambitiousness, its dream of itself, its industrial military psychopathic complex, was always destined to end up with a Trump in charge. New Zealand is far too modest and laconic and holidayish to tolerate that kind of seething buffoon. "We don't know how lucky we are," observed Fred Dagg, and New Zealand sang along with it, but the paradox of that sentiment is that we know exactly and pretty bloody smugly how lucky we are. That was made very evident in 2020. We were the place to be, the envy of the sick world.
You hear a lot these days about systemic racism, systemic bullying, and other systemic failures of the human spirit but the 2020 wage subsidy was an outstanding example of systemic efficiency. I applied for it one anxious afternoon at 3.30pm, made a cup of tea, and an email confirming I had received many welcome thousands of dollars arrived before I had a chance to finish gazing at such clickbait classics as Walmart Cameras Captured These Hilarious 20 Photos.
God bless the civil service. Faintly liberal, faintly conservative, New Zealand's deepest ideology is a need for proper administration. We just want things to work. 2020 was the year of good governance, which was unfortunate for Opposition parties in an election year. Headline, October 7: "Judith Collins rubbishes opinion poll showing National at 32 per cent." She was quite right to rubbish it. The opinion poll really was total nonsense. It was far too kind. On election night, National got 25.6 per cent.
The election campaign was a marvellously diverting spectacle. It offered pretty much the only circus in town. There were early signs that it might be as crazy as the 2014 campaign, when Kim Dotcom and Colin Craig provided rich entertainment and made my book Madmen: Inside the Craziest Election Campaign Ever a best-seller that Christmas. This year's campaigners included Our Lady of the Eternal Grasping, Hannah Tamaki, and the incredible double act of Jami-Lee Ross and Billy Te Kahika.
Tamaki, though, was ineffectual and barely made a peep. Ross was nowhere to be seen. We can only hope this continues to be the case.
At least Kahika made an effort. We played table tennis this year as part of my series of games with political leaders, and I wrote, more in hope than reasoned thought, "Everything about his play and his behaviour around the table suggested to me that he has the right stuff to pick up enough support to become the strangest and most appalling member of Parliament since Jami-Lee Ross." He gave it a good shot and it has to be conceded that his public gatherings – the march on Queen St, especially - looked to be the happiest of the entire election campaign. Conspiracy theorists know how to have a good time. But 2020 just wasn't the year for revolt. It was the year of going with what you know; the boat had been rocked enough, nearly capsized, and the fact it stayed afloat with little loss of life owed a lot to Our Lady of Eternal Kindness, Jacinda Ardern.
It was the year of getting used to the new normal but ended up with the same old normal as New Zealand returned to its quintessential states of New Zealandness. Milton recently hosted the 154th Tokomairiro A&P Show. Two guys challenged all-comers to shovel as much coal as possible from local mine Kai Point into a weighing digger, in 30 seconds. There was also something called a donkey buffet: quintessential New Zealandness always has an animal in it. Headline, Hawke's Bay Today: "Man takes his ewe on near-daily walks through central Hastings". The man's name is Toots and the ewe's name is Lily.
The story was as charming as the one about the lamb and the dog that Alison Smith wrote about in the Bay of Plenty Times: "The odd couple became minor celebrities online after Onemana resident Tricia Dickey-Mcclain saw them hanging out on the turnoff to the small coastal town near Whangamatā. 'I opened up my car door to see if the dog had a collar on and they both just jumped in. I wasn't sure what to do so I posted to Facebook to see if I could find the parents,' she said." The dog's name is Charles and the lamb's name is Graham.
Toots and Lily, Charles and Graham: it's a land fit for heroes. It was the year that went missing, it was the year of absence, it was the year to forget but ought to be remembered as New Zealand's triumph because it was the year of the great escape. There was an echo of that in a story in the Northern Advocate this week. A truck carrying Christmas hams smashed into the historic archway of the Pukekohe Anglican Church. The archway was destroyed, Reverend Jan Wallace sadly confirmed. The story continued, "Inside the truck were 23 hams for a Christmas lunch for the elderly and food parcels for families in need. Luckily these were not damaged in the accident, Wallace said."
The hams made it. We made it. Here's to a safe and even boring 2021.