2020 in Aotearoa
Twenty -Twenty started well in Aotearoa, a fine Summer with sea swimming in very acceptable temperatures. A couple of Out to Swim team mates from the UK visited and I did the usual drive around showing off Waiheke Island with a swim on the fabulous Onetangi Beach followed by lunch. Or was it the other way around?
Lunch followed by a swim? It all seems so long ago now as I write on the penultimate day of a year that has seen such upheavals yet been strangely uneventful at the same time. Today, the UK has reported a record number of Covid 19 cases, even as several vaccines are being administered.
February saw me in Melbourne for the annual IGLA swim meet, connecting with many gay and lesbian friends from around the world. I collected a few medals on the way and was particularly proud of my Team Auckland relay team winning two golds in our age group.
March began with a return to Otago researching my Grandparent’s story. In Tapanui, where they began married life, I visited the local museum and looked through the back copies of the local paper (1913-22). I also visited the farm they leased and talked to the present owner. Finally, I revisited the cemetery where their first born (my Uncle) is buried and has lain un-visited for over one hundred years. I drove back to Dunedin through farm land that was once the thriving community of Pukepito, where my Grandmother had her first teaching post. Farming does not require so much labour now and these rural communities have disappeared.
Back in Auckland the festival was beginning. Already, COVID-19 was about in the world and had disrupted delivery of equipment needed for the out-door spectacular. I managed to catch a few shows before everything was cancelled and we went into lockdown in the last week of March. I stopped shaving with a tentative view to growing a beard and started a diary. The hand-written in pencil diary lasted 15 days and really is too boring to take any further and the beard, by contrast, seems to be a success and is still with me – for the moment.
I did write a short essay entitled ‘A Duty of Care’ a part of which is worth quoting here. “There was little debate when our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced the first and dramatic measures against the COVID-19 virus. She was firm, precise and empathetic – something the rest of the world has noticed and envies. My impression was that she and her government acknowledge a duty of care for us. It’s an important concept and there are many stories of individuals and groups applying this principle to their friends and neighbours.” “…so many governments/rulers around the world … (believe) their duty is to the profits of the wealthy and to consolidate their own power.” “In Aotearoa – New Zealand we are teetering on the brink, holding our collective breath against a community spread.”
Everything seemed to stop. The rest of the Festival events were cancelled with refunds or the option to donate the ticket to the performers. Swimming pools were closed and in desperation I took to swimming in the sea for extended periods. I managed about fifteen minutes a day, dodging around the yachts in Rocky Bay, amounting to around six to eight hundred meters. Sometimes there were one or two people about. An old man in an aluminium dingy rowed back and forth across the bay for exercise. A neighbour was in isolation because some Australians, who had been visiting his work place, subsequently tested positive on their return. He needed emergency supplies of Chardonnay, which I deposited outside his door. Another neighbour asked me to be her walking buddy – we were encouraged to take exercise by the Prime Minister. We still walk and talk once a week. I collected another friend who wanted another gay man to talk with and go to the movies when lockdown finished. We’re still friends and have extended to theatre and lunches out.
After a week or so, our leader put the lid on my solo swimming in the sea due to anticipated problems created in the event of my needing to be rescued. Undeterred, I took to my fold up Brompton and cycled around the hilly roads of Rocky Bay. I took pains to ride the shortest route down and find the longest way up-hill. My London swimming club, Out to Swim started zoom exercises. The time difference meant that most sessions were in the middle of the night, but thankfully they were recorded. It was weird exercising on my own and looking at all the familiar faces in London.
I’d planned to go to the European Swimming Championships in Hungary in May/June. Fortunately, I’d delayed entering and booking flights. The Auckland Masters around the same time was also cancelled along with the NZ short-course Masters in August. By September I should have been exploring Peru and returning to London in November. At the end of the day, none of this matters, and I’ve felt looked after and lucky to be here in Aotearoa.
My main activity during the first Lock-down was going through my grandfather’s bankruptcy file. After making an application to view it four years ago it eventually arrived in a zip file containing around four hundred PDF’s. The process and the workings of the Official Assignee were fascinating and I gained a valuable insight to my Grandfather’s character and activities. I’d already learned about his marriage, five children and divorce but we never met. I found his bankruptcy story very moving and tragic, perfect material to go into my next novel ‘Donald and Hilda’ the story of their relationship. It’ll be a few years away, but keep your eyes out for it. In the mean time you can always read my last book, ‘The Donors’.
COVID-19 produced reasonable consensus between political parties here. The then leader of the opposition found his compulsive adversarial approach didn’t work, so he was replaced with an unknown and untested chap. He found it all too much and lasted only a matter of weeks leaving the post open for Judith Collins – formerly known as ‘Crusher Collins’. She’s made a few attempts at empathy, but it doesn’t suit her. She’s better doing irony.
July saw me back down in Hawke’s Bay on my brother’s farm underneath the snowy Ruahine ranges. We’d been released from lock-down and moved gradually down the levels until swimming pools could open and I was back swimming.
It was a relief to go out and spend some money in a place that was not the supermarket. With a complete absence of tourists, Kiwis took to the roads and planes to explore their own country, bringing temporary relief to some of the top holiday destinations. The ski fields were full and hiring a campervan suddenly became affordable. Although there are still no gigantic Cruise liners clogging up our ports, trade has continued and my Airline pilot cousin has been busy flying freight to Shanghai and Los Angeles. It seems that the world still needs to be fed. In return we got the film crew for the next Avatar movie and various sporting teams, all of whom spent their time in isolation. We’ve also had a stream of ex-pat Kiwis returning home. Some have developed COVID in isolation and indeed we’ve learned to manage our borders over time, as mistakes have been made and there have been a few near misses with some escapees unable to stand being locked up in a hotel. We had a mini lockdown in Auckland in August/September, the cause of which remains uncertain, but could have been from a hotel lift button.
October allowed me to return to Central Hawke’s Bay after the boredom of the second lock-down. I filled my lungs with fresh spring mountain air and helped with docking lambs on the farm swimming at the local pool in between. We had another scare with an outbreak among the visiting Pakistani Cricket team but for the moment we are almost operating normally except for mask wearing on public transport. A trip to Great Barrier Island with my brother and sister-in-law was a diversion in November, which compensated for losing my flight back to London.
I’m looking forward to 2021. I’ve found the progress of COVID19 fascinating from a scientific point of view and been astonished at the rapid development of the vaccine. It won’t be rolled out in Aotearoa until April next year, by which time I will be back in London and queuing up at my local health centre for my jab.
Books read and recommended this year: The History Speech by Mark Sweet (NZ); Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (US); Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski (US/Germany/Poland); Pale Rider by Laura Spinney (UK); The Great Successor by Anna Fifield (UK); Girl Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo (UK).