Satire in 2021 was given every opportunity to blossom throughout the year, thanks to the sustained buffoonery of one of the most crazed appointments to high office of all times: Judith Collins. I would like to thank the National Party for having lost their way so completely that they granted her long-held wish to lead the party. Their appointment gave the nation comedy gold. Bliss it was, during her reign of error, to be a Labour MP; but to be a satirist was very heaven.
We shall not see her like again. Her exit, shrieking to the last, claiming she was in possession of something she called "principles", was the single funniest performance of the year, or at least up there with the widely reported arrest of Bishop Twit, Brian Tamaki, when he sat in a prison cell for dressing only in his underpants. New Zealand in 2021 was oppressed by lockdown and Delta; we needed a laugh, and Collins and Tamaki stepped up.
How to respond as a weekly satirist? There are two extremes of satire. One is the kindly, gentle manner of George and Oliver Goldsmith, in their classic 1892 book The Diary of a Nobody. At the other end there is Goya, when he drew the savage and monstrous travesties in his famous series The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.
Tom Sainsbury stays close to the first model with his gentle caricatures. As someone who goes about his life with two competing ideas about everything, I run towards Goldsmith as fast as I run towards Goya. Sometimes it's better to be kind, but sometimes it's a failure of nerve; sometimes it's better to be cruel, but sometimes it's over the top. Should I be good, or should I be evil? I staged many satires this year in that archetype of good and evil – the cowboy Western, starring the Ardern Gang (white hats, drinking herbal tea) and the Collins Gang (hatless, drinking rotgut whiskey).
Sometimes a tall dark stranger appeared. From a Secret Diary in May: "Another day was dawning in Dodge. The townsfolk peeped out through a gap in their white lace curtains. They were waiting for the train to pull in.
"It carried a very special passenger, who many loved, but many others feared. Everyone had an opinion about him. Whiskey drinkers in the National Saloon raised their glass to him. Craft beer drinkers in the Twitter Saloon cursed the ground he walked on.
"His name was legend across the whole Wild West. There wasn't a soul who hadn't heard of The Outlaw Hosking."
This was when Ardern made him an outlaw by refusing to continue her weekly interviews with New Zealand's strongest interviewer.
Another stranger rode into the Secret Diary earlier this year: "A tall bald stranger rode into town at half-past dead. The only movement on the main street was the gentle roll of tumbleweeds. He hitched his horse but the water trough was dry. He walked to the well. The well was dry. He took off his hat, and wiped his gleaming head with his bandana until it was dry.
"He opened the doors of the saloon and stood there for a while to let his eyes get accustomed to the dark. He made out a few good old boys sitting at a table down the back. They were playing cards and drinking rotgut whiskey. He could feel their eyes on him as he made his way to the bar.
"He said, 'I reckon this town needs a new sheriff. Someone to get it back on its feet.'
"The honky-tonk piano fell silent …"
Such was the introduction of Christopher Luxon into the dear old Secret Diary, which has been satirising parliamentarians for 12 years. I know the Secret Diary should get out more and mock people outside of politics. There was the great gift this year of everyone's favourite villains, William Willis and Hannah Rawnsley, who crossed the border and became immortalised as the w***ers of Wānaka. I duly joined in the mocking but there were few other wretches worthy of public ridicule, and so I stuck close to Parliament, with my cowboy sagas as well as other genres.
Paul Goldsmith starred in a satire taken from P.G. Wodehouse ("We Goldsmiths are not very strong in the head, particularly at breakfast time; and I was conscious of a dull ache between the eyebrows. 'Jeeves,' I said, 'I seem to be having that peculiar sensation known as a thought.'"), David Seymour starred in a satire taken from 1984 ("It was a bright, cold day in September, and the clocks were striking 13. Citizen Seymour glanced at the poster with an enormous face of a dark-haired woman gazing from every wall in the corridors of The Party. 'BIG SISTER IS WATCHING YOU', the caption beneath it ran"), and there were numerous satires inspired by my mid-year lockdown binge-watch of the entire series of Game Of Thrones.
And so: "Royal trumpets blared as the royal god made her entrance into the royal caucus. 'Announcing,' cried a royal brown nose, 'the Queen of the Hermit Kingdom, First of Her Name, Protector of the Realm, Mother of Neve, Clarke's Missus, Minister of Secrets, Graduate of the Malignant Brotherhood of the International Union of Socialist Youth!' Her royal lapdogs bent the knee."
It was during these Game of Thrones satires that I finally stumbled on a device for the Prime Minister. For years, when John Key ruled as PM, I wrote scenes where he would unscrew his head, which would then float to the ceiling; Key was always such a weightless figure. But what to do for Ardern? What device, what revealing gag? Something occurred during a Secret Diary in October.
"The Queen rode to the Shire of Whanganui. A crowd of about 200 chanted angry slogans, and showed her no respect, no loyalty, and, most stunning of all, no love. Her advisers received news from ravens that her reception in the Shire of Hunterville would be more of the same.
"The Queen hurried back inside her carriage. She took off her Halo, and inspected it. It was dark in the carriage. Ordinarily her Halo shone like a torch. But now she could barely see it …"
Arise, the Queen of Halos; except that she is fast becoming an emperor with no halo … It was fascinating to watch then public protests staged this year by the so-called freedom movement and, in particular, their depictions of the Prime Minister. As alternative truthers, their aim is to present alternative narratives to the Covid story of lockdown and vaccines, and one of their ways of going about it is by expressing alternative satires.
I quite liked some of their mockeries of Ardern. They were definitely closer to Goya – harsh, grotesque – than the gentle whimsies of Tom Sainsbury or The Diary of a Nobody. Sanjana Hattotuwa, a researcher at the University of Auckland's Disinformation Project, has studied anti-vaxxers and says, "The social fabric of New Zealand is being tested and threatened in ways that are historically unprecedented … It is a hellscape." Ardern is routinely satirised as a kind of demon in that hell. Well, it fulfils one of satire's requirements: it makes her easy to recognise.
Judith Collins was always easy to recognise in my cowboy satires. I cast her as Whitey Collins, friendless and alone in her attic, brushing the hair of a doll that looked exactly like her. Secret Diary, June: "The plain fact of the matter is that no one had anything to do with the Collins Gang ever since Whitey assumed the leadership. The townsfolk shunned the gang and paid it little mind. More pointedly, they shunned Whitey, and paid her no mind whatsoever … A riderless horse crossed the street. Vultures roosted on a telegraph wire."
Farewell, Whitey! Those were the days. It made my job such a joy. Secret Diary will resume after the summer break, when the news cycle and the politicians return; right now, it's time for the honky-tonk piano to fall silent.