20 Dec In Praise of Backpackers

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 21.12.20


Thirty years ago, when I was learning to do live comedy, my two friends and I would load up Margaret’s car on a Friday afternoon with wigs and props, and tootle round the corner to Kong’s, a backpackers hostel with a tiny bar in Queenstown. There would have been rehearsals during the week, squeezed in between Mike’s shifts as a restaurant dishwasher and my daytime gig on local radio, and Margaret’s other rehearsals with the bands she sang with all over town.

We called ourselves “Triple M Productions” which was a pretty fancy title for three mates who would sling together a stage made from old beer pallets we’d salvaged from the alley behind the bar, but we adopted a professional ethos long before any of us were being properly paid. We sold tickets, did songs and character sketches, and I began to have a crack at what would eventually be stand-up comedy once I let go of those wigs and props. I only remember snippets from our weekly shows which is probably just as well – the impression I would do on stage of one of Queenstown’s more colourful restaurateurs makes me blush now at its brazenness, but it was an audience favourite so it kept turning up on the set list.

You only get good at comedy by doing it, over and over. Fixing, refining, losing the bits followed by silence, building on the parts that deliver laughs. In a small town (which Queenstown was then) backpackers were an ideal audience, constantly refreshing themselves so that every Friday you had new ears for your revamped show.

Three decades later, pre-Covid, young visitors travelling on a budget continue to be a valuable audience for creative workers. Back when the borders were open, there were nights at our Auckland comedy club when a comic would ask “Where are you from, mate?” and discover the room was a veritable United Nations, filled with walk-ins from hostels on Queen Street. They gave you an opportunity to test how “international” your jokes might be; you gave them a taste of local culture delivered in the local accent, and a relatively cheap night out.

I’m not sure how you quantify the contribution backpackers make to our creative industries as an audience (though you could measure my gratitude especially in those early days as “heaps”) but you can calculate their contribution to our pre-Covid tourism earnings at around $1.5 billion a year. Sure, they spend less per day than their parents might, but they stay longer, pick fruit, wait tables, pay tax and do a lot of free marketing on social media. Some of them will come back in a couple of decades to eat at the restaurants they used to wash dishes at, and go Heli skiing from the luxury lodge they might have once cleaned. They are, in fiscal terms, an investment.

So it has been jarring to listen to many people, from the Tourism Minister to a nice lady from Golden Bay on my radio just now, talking about backpackers – at best, living on nothing but instant noodles and, at worst, doing unspeakable things on our lawns and in our waterways. The notion is that we should use this moment while our borders are closed to rethink who we might want as visitors, and redesign ourselves as a premium destination for high-value tourists only.

I’m all for re-invention, and for taking unique opportunities like this to reset how we do things – we’ve all been doing a bit of that this year. I’m also a fan of us making the most of what we have to offer – like, why sell raw wool when the real money is in high end wool products? And yes, maybe some of our tourism offerings have been a bit naff, relying on buses turning up with captive audiences to watch Barry shear an old ewe and sorry but the gift shop is closed on Mondays.

But the idea of turning our back on backpackers and focusing only on the wealthiest tourists once the borders reopen feels as un-Kiwi as, crikey, a black-tie barbecue. Visitors come here for our relaxed openness and lack of stuck-up-ness as much as our pristine-looking wilderness or 5-star hotels and boutique vineyards. Also, it seems weird to make our big selling point the kind of activity most of us can’t afford. Feels like inviting someone round for backyard pétanque when we’ve never actually played it ourselves.

Who we want here – and what we want to offer them – should be a reflection of the best of who we are, and what makes us special. And that’s guardians of our natural resources, and kind and generous hosts. If we focus on being those things, once the borders are open again, the right value visitors will come.


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12 Dec Party On

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 14.12.20


Last week at one of those fancy annual get-togethers various industries do at this time of year, I saw a writer I admire very much. We don’t know each other that well, but we’ve been bumping into each other for decades in rooms like this, and I read his stuff and watch it on the telly, and he’s just generally brilliant and New Zealand is very lucky to have him. 

We grabbed each other for a hug (it was a huggy kind of party) and asked each other (as we’ve always done) how we were, and simultaneously rolled our eyes (as we all do now) at the madness that is 2020. There will be particularities to our lives, of course, but fundamentally we all know what this has been like – universally weird and terrifying, but also unifying and, by crikey, aren’t we lucky when you take a global look around.

That middle six months, I told him, had been pretty munted but now, “It’s like normal life again, just with more gratitude.” That’s very good, he said, have you written that down? I told him I hadn’t yet, I’d just put it that way for the very first time, but I probably would, since he’d liked it. And here we are.

And it’s true – I am grateful every time we are allowed out of the house and we get to do things in large groups. Not just for work, but for social things like this – and I haven’t always felt that way. I’m fine at an event if I have a job to do but, like all secret introverts, I am an anxious guest. If I’m the MC or the entertainer, there’s a script, but just turning up for a party involves a hell of a lot of improvisation, and myriad opportunities for screwing it up.

Given that we are up to our shapewear-encased thighs in office parties and end of year work dos, and right on the cusp of Christmas family gatherings, it’s a good time to be honest about how anxiety-inducing this can be, and what we can do to turn the dial down a notch or two.

Let’s start with the premise that parties are supposed to be fun, so anytime you are making choices about how to approach it, run it through that filter. Wear a floor-length, sleeveless, backless shimmering gown if that’s your jam and makes you sparkle like a movie star, but if a posh frock leaves you heavy-limbed like an awkward toddler playing dress-ups, find another way.

About 30 years ago, I was invited to a glamorous birthday party for which the other young women had had something made by their family dressmaker. Pictures had been cut from magazines and fittings had been scheduled. Unaccustomed and overwhelmed, I’d been offered a ball gown that belonged to a very chic workmate’s very chic daughter. It had apparently been a triumph when she wore it, but it is hard to describe how hideous this many-tiered midnight-blue full-length lace gown looked on me, who was not her daughter. Picture an unfortunate cross between one of those tulle toilet roll covers with a doll’s head sticking out the top and an overly-compact Christmas tree. But it had felt wrong to reject it (rude!) so I wore it anyway. I could read the unmistakeable horror in my friends’ eyes. I stood in a very dark corner for a bit and clomped home early. I am still frightened of tiered lace.

My preference now is to wear something that makes me laugh, and pair it with comfortable shoes because there are enough challenges without being distracted by the notion that the balls of your feet are on fire. Challenges like remembering people’s names – particularly in that triangle of terror where you are talking with someone and a third person arrives, and you are Person A and it is your job to introduce Person C to Person B who is clearly known to you.

Once – and this is true – I introduced my mother to a new arrival, after a long pause, as “Mrs A’Court” because her first name had suddenly and terminally escaped me. My mother, always better at social niceties, leapt in with a charming smile and said, “Please, no need to be formal, call me Donna” and I was saved. But not really.

Donna’s advice is still the best advice for all the social anxieties about being too loud, or not fun enough, or not finding the right words. No one, she always said, is paying nearly as much attention to you as you are – relax.

And the best moments at a party – aside from the obvious which is long, hilarious confidential chats in the Ladies? Honestly, it’s just when someone seems really pleased to see you. So do that for them, too.


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10 Dec Christmas is Crackers

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 7.12.20


In a year when you have to take your certainty where you can find it, I find myself inordinately excited at the prospect of Christmas. We have a plan, and I like it a lot – tootling south to join family and friends for a couple of days. I will be a guest, not a host – a rarity for me in the last 25 years – though I will be joyfully contributing my signature Christmas dish. So picture us, if you will, driving down with an enormous bowl of cherry-sherry trifle strapped in with a seatbelt on the backseat of the car. Let us pray for no sudden stops on State Highway 2 this Christmas Eve.

So much has gone wrong this year – holidays cancelled, work lost, expectations upended – I find myself less pressured about making things turn out “right”. I used to fuss and fret about getting the gift shopping done in reasonable time (and tried not to give withering looks to people who told me they’d finished wrapping all theirs in November) and got hot and bothered over menu choices and co-ordinating the cooking times for the steamed asparagus and the glazing of the ham while also keeping glasses topped up and saying the right kind of ooh and ah as people opened their presents.

On more than one Boxing Day I found the Christmas Crackers, unopened, under the spare bed where I’d stashed them a week before and unearthed the really good wine on a shelf in the linen cupboard sometime around New Year. Actually, that last one was pretty tremendous – there’s something extra fizzy about the champagne you open after everyone else has gone home.

Thankfully (possibly for all concerned) I am not in charge this year. But there has also been a shift in my idea of what really matters at Christmas. Feel free to try this yourself because it worked for me. Think back to last Christmas and what you got for gifts. I remember that they were all delightful, but I couldn’t provide a detailed list. About the only Christmas gift I vividly recall was the blue bike I got when I was six years old. Dad wired blocks to the pedals so my legs could reach them, which possibly helped imprint the memory. But what I got five years ago? Ten? No idea.

This doesn’t mean the gifts weren’t fabulous – they always are. But once you’re not six, they tend not to be the thing you recall.

Now think back to what you ate last Christmas Day. That’s easier if you have a tradition – we did roast chicken in the middle of a hot summer’s day when my grandmother was alive because that was her favourite, then shifted to hot ham and cold salads in the years after because that was my mother’s. But the exact menu? Couldn’t tell you – aside from the year Dad decided to barbecue mussels but I failed to put the baby potatoes on to boil in time, so the mussels ended up like rubber and the spuds had a certain crunch. Fiascos are memorable, but it’s hard to recall the faultless Christmas lunch.

And now, try to remember who was there with you for Christmas last year. And the one before that. And twenty years ago… I can give you a full and detailed list of the people who came to Christmas at ours every single time. Or the ones we’ve spent in other places – with my brother in Wellington, or my parents-in-law in Melbourne, or that wonderful one in Hawkes Bay when my kid and I and the rest of my family were treated to a magical time with our incredible friends and their extended whanau, some of whom had travelled all the way from England.

So I have no trouble remembering the people I’ve spent Christmas with – which suggests to me that this is really what the celebration is about. Sharing the day with people you love, or are related to – and isn’t it fabulous when those people are one and the same.

Here’s a special shout-out to anyone for whom this Christmas will involve an empty chair. We have had three now without my dad, and last year was our first without my mother. Grief is a tricky thing and will sneak up behind you and wallop you at some point, triggered by nothing in particular. So it can be useful to lay some ground rules in advance. Tell everyone you might need to slip away on your own for a minute, and that this will be okay. Maybe ask people not to raise the absence until you do, or agree to a pre-arranged moment that works for you all. And then go get the crackers from under the spare bed and share them with the fine people who are there, and make some new memories.


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30 Nov We Really Should Dance More

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 30.11.20)


We really should dance more. Not necessarily in the one-two-cha-cha-cha way with neat choreography and spandex. I’m talking about that thing where you kick your shoes off, toss your hair back and spin with your arms outstretched, unfettered joy sparking from your fingertips.

Too much? Appreciate it’s not very Kiwi to whoop and holler when good things happen. Settle down, mate, no need to make a fuss. Except that there are some really terrific reasons for celebrating every win, big or small. And it doesn’t have to be dancing – you are also allowed cake or whatever your personal go-to is for revelling in a triumph or a job well done.

It has been fascinating over past weeks as the results of US and New Zealand elections have rolled in, and those who have expressed delight in them online and in real world conversations have been told to shush up a bit, think of the work ahead, not assume the path will be easy, and been immediately reminded of the flaws of various personalities and their policies.

British journalist Jonathan Freedland describes this as our tendency to “search for the defeat contained in the victory”. We warn each other about the next dire thing, remind ourselves that this success (whatever it is) is not the end of the story. There are – gird yourselves, sisters and brothers – more horrors awaiting us.

All of which is no doubt true but it feels… deflating. Is there a sadder sentence than, “Yes, but…”? Everyone needs a moment to breathe out. We might know, too, that people who celebrate each small win do something very useful – they build resilience to keep going. Talk to anyone who has faced a major challenge with their health, a job, a relationship or some kind of natural disaster and they will tell you that an essential ingredient to having enough puff to reach their big goal is about setting smaller goals along the way, and then doing some version of a little dance as you achieve each one.

This is why we have invented birthdays – one day a year for each of us where we invite everyone to say, Hoorah!, You made it through another year! Look at you, you beautiful thing (for you are beautiful on this, your special day) and we will celebrate your achievement of making it one more time around the sun!

Imagine how discouraging it would be if you blew out the candles and, instead of “Many happy returns!” everyone shouted, “Look out! Odds on, the next year is will be dreadful… If you even survive.” Bollocks to that. I don’t care if you’re 103 – you deserve the gift of the thought of another great year that ends in another fabulous party.

This is also why we invented anniversaries, particularly of the wedding variety. On an appointed day in our annual calendar we take a moment to remember why we got together in the first place, and take a moment to find those first feelings again, rekindling the flames of early passion. Settle down, mate. But, yes, park the kids up with grandparents and gaze into each other’s eyes for a bit, and stop thinking about next week and whose turn it is to put the bins out and flea the cat.

Similarly, Casual Friday at the office works best when it does not contain a trace of the coming Monday. Anyone who spends Friday drinks reminding co-workers of next week’s deadlines should be immediately reported to HR, or sent out to buy chips.

When your child is bursting with joy at mastering the scooter, don’t tell her this will mean nothing in terms of her ability to ride a bike. Give her a round of applause and let her feel how great it is to become adept at a thing, and she will find her own hunger for trying the next one.

Celebrating each win is also how we find each other. Every heaving, sweaty, crowded dancefloor has its beginnings in one or two brave souls who could not sit still any longer, tossing aside their reticence and snatching up their confidence on the off chance a few others might feel the same way and they won’t be left hanging for too long. When you tell people what delights you, you give them permission to share their joy, too. This is how we find our dance partners, and our tribe.

So let’s allow ourselves moments of unfettered glee – the dancing in the streets is not a distraction, it is the essential thing that grows our resilience to keep going with all the other less dancey stuff that happens next. Feel free to take yourself for a wild spin.






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18 Nov Tempting Fate

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 23.11.20

We can be slow to learn some of life’s simplest lessons. That whole “not tempting fate” thing is a class I have failed time and time again. 

There was that Christmas Eve several years ago, for example, when the whole family had gathered at my place. I always find the preparation for Christmas crazy stressful (who doesn’t?) coming as it does during the busiest time of my work year. So all the big things – late night gigs, shopping, food preparation, making up the spare beds, end-of-year paperwork – gallop along beside each other as the immoveable Christmas Day deadline looms.

I had expected to be still wrapping gifts and assembling trifle till midnight but somehow at 5pm everything was done. At which point I said in a much too loud voice to our houseful of guests and also the Fates that I was Ready For Christmas. Boom! The phone rang and it was my father’s doctor saying his test results had arrived and we needed to admit him immediately to hospital. At almost the same moment, my little niece ran face-first into our glass door and smashed it – just the door, thank goodness, not her face, and I don’t know how that worked but there was much relief amid the general confusion that we were only whisking one of us off to the admissions department.

So Dad spent Christmas in hospital while we tried to find a glazier, and everyone googled “concussion, signs of” while checking the size of the egg-shaped bump on my niece’s head. Note to self: do not tempt the Fates with your over-confidence.

But I keep forgetting. So much so that if I ever say definitively that I have something all sorted, my husband gives me a look. He should have been there last week with the look when I announced to no-one in particular (except the Fates, obviously) that I hadn’t been sick all year. Nothing – not a bug, not the flu, not even a cold, I remarked. Lockdown, I figured, plus a flu shot, plus careful handwashing and a lot of staying home and much less contact with large groups of people during winter, and doubtless the masks. Wonderful, I said, and maybe this is one of the upsides – we’ve adopted protocols that take better care of ourselves and each other.

Boom! I sneezed, and my eyes started streaming. Classic hay fever, and just the time of year for it when the broom and the flax pollen always drives me crazy. I knocked back the antihistamines I keep handy for just this purpose and soldiered on.

But it’s different now, right? You sneeze and feel you need to explain this is not The Plague. Your health is everyone’s health in Covid times. You can’t catch hay fever, but… is that what it is? I don’t know about you, but one of the thoughts that keeps me awake at night is the possibility of having a cluster named after me. Rationally, I know there should be no shame in it – this is, as we know, a very tricky virus and so long as you do the right things with testing and tracking and tracing and going hard and early, no one would think less of you for it, but…

Certain it was hay fever (achoo!) but also worried I’d worry other people, I diligently wore my mask in public places. Being one of the few in a mask at our supermarket takes a moment to settle into – will they think I’m paranoid? Neurotic? Plague-filled? But I swear people went out of their way to smile sympathetically as I went out of my way to say out of their way. It was as though they figured I had a reason for not wanting to breathe on them, and we all knew it wasn’t them, it was me. I am grateful we don’t have that American cultural divide that places masks on the side of stealing our freedoms. Here, covering your mouth when you’re sneezy is just good manners.

The morning I woke up hot and with a sore throat, our household drove to our local Covid testing station and let the nice lady put a stick in our noses, and then cancelled plans and stayed home to wait for the text. Negative. Just a cold, and largely gone when the message arrived less than 24 hours later. Happy, though, to be safe, not sorry.

We talked, my husband and I, about how this might be another upside to Covid times. That before, with a cold, I would have swallowed some pills and soldiered on, putting work and family commitments before my health, feeling the weight of responsibility to get the job done more keenly that the need to get well and – more significantly – protect other people from me. He is welcome, next time I’m feeling a bit off but start putting on a brave face, to give me that look again.


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12 Nov Weighty Issues

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 16 November 2020

Actually, I’ll tell you what, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to achieve and maintain a healthy weight ever since obesity became a topic of conversation near the end of the election campaign. So grab yourself some frozen vegetables out of the freezer and do something with them, and then let’s have a little chat.

New Zealand is listed by the OECD as the third fattest country in the world, with 31% of Kiwis regarded as obese. Aotearoa sits behind only Mexico (32%) and the United States (38%). Two in three Pasifika (66%) and half of Māori (48%) are obese. So collectively we have a problem – which already suggests that we might need to look collectively for the causes and find solutions.

I’ll start with my own experience of weight loss and gain. Like a lot of women, my weight has fluctuated over the years – weight “loss” is something that happens when I work really hard at it, weight “gain” is something that seems to happen by stealth. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything differently – unaware that I’m either eating more or exercising less – but suddenly my pants feel tight and someone will say, “You’re looking well” which is code for, “You’re chunkier than you were last time I saw you”.

But I am old enough now to be able to look back and spot the patterns. I have been at my lightest during those months and years when I’ve been able to focus on me, and take great care with food by spending time on it, and also money. There was a patch there after my daughter left home and before I was daily involved in caring for my parents when I achieved and maintained exactly the weight recommended for a women of my height. It took effort, focus and cash.

On the other side of the bathroom scales, I have been at my heaviest when I’ve been broke and busy – time poor plus actually poor – and in a situation that demanded I put my own needs last. “Busy” meant I had little time to plan meals or prepare them from scratch. Exhausted, and dearly wanting a nap or an early night or a sleep-in but unable to arrange my life that way, I’d reach for fast and easy fuel. And when I was poor? That fuel was high-calorie cheap stuff – bread, baked beans and sod all kale – nothing that involved long preparation or cooking time. Get some food in to me, race off to the next task. Anyone on a tight budget knows that healthy food costs more and the quick high carb/salt/sugar options are constantly on two-for-one specials. If you’ve been broke all your life, then win Lotto, you will suddenly notice there are better options on the shelves for people with fatter wallets.

The suggestion that obesity is a “personal choice” is about as nuanced and therefore useful as suggesting that poverty itself is a personal choice – when in fact how much you earn is very much down to a range of factors, including the big ones of gender, age and race, and other contributors like physical and mental health, disability and medications.

I often look at slim, fit women and assume, wow, you are lucky enough to spend time on yourself. You have been able to arrange your life to go to a gym or Pilates and pick up some fresh fruit and veg on the way home in your car. There are times when, no matter how much I have wanted to, I could not arrange that. I remember someone saying to me once that, if I really wanted to join a gym, I would miraculously find the time. I probably don’t need to tell you that the “someone” was a man with a nine-to-five job and no kids.

And then I look at plump women and assume, you are probably very busy taking care of a lot of people – so much so that you have little time to even think about what you might like to do for yourself. I bet you do a lot of kind things for other people, and maybe even make it possible for them to still fit into the pants they wore last summer. You’re a good egg.

Both of which assumptions may well be wildly incorrect. A much wiser person has pointed out that the so-called “plump” woman I am assuming has no time for herself may very well be spending hours at the gym eating fruit, and the “slim” person could be a chain-smoking couch potato. We make a mistake when we associate “thinness” with health. And while, for me, weighing less might be about taking time for myself, for someone else it might be the opposite – self-care will involve taking medications that might lead to weight gain. You can’t read anything at all about a person from the shape of their silhouette.

In my case, you know what would have helped me lose (or not gain) a few kilos? Pay equity, affordable and accessible childcare, and a world that was safe for women to go for a walk or run or bike ride after dark. And for so many women, a better division of domestic labour that would offer them time to focus on themselves for a moment. All of which requires changes to the system, and to the way we socialise boys and how we value unpaid care work. 

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10 Nov 700 Guests, No Canapes – on Working From Home

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 9 November 2020


Last week at my place, I hosted an event for 700 women. You’re probably thinking, crikey, that’s a lot of canapés, but – and I think we are all relieved about this – the snack situation was down to individual responsibility. I’m not sure what other people grabbed during breaks – I can only confirm that a couple of times I sent a text to my husband to bring me a cup of green tea if it wasn’t too much trouble. Unspoken was an instruction to leave it near the door so no one would end up in the background of my Zoom screen in their Disney-themed pyjama pants.

This was one of the many gatherings that, in other years, I have MC’d in person but has, in Covid Times, moved online. I do and also don’t miss the planes and hotels. I genuinely do miss looking out at a sea of faces and having random chats in the bathroom with kind and interesting people. But I am also finding the upside to communicating in a virtual world. There was a moment at the start of this day when women started logging on – 45 participants, then 186, then suddenly 600 and climbing – and they were throwing cheerful good mornings! and kia oras! into the live Chat on the side of my screen, and I felt genuinely emotional about making this connection, even if it was by fibre optic cable.

In my less busy moments, I’d scroll through the little squares of faces (microphones on mute but cameras on so we could see each other) and get an idea of how people had arranged themselves. Mostly solo – some at desks, others on sofas or at kitchen tables – but occasionally you’d see a whole conference room of ladies with pens and pads and mugs of hot beverages. It was like walking down a street at night, peering through living room windows with curtains not yet drawn, catching a glimpse of how other people live.

Some upsides, too, when it comes to sharing ideas. It’s a big ask for women to walk up onto a stage, or talk to a room full of strangers with a microphone thrust in their face, but easier to volunteer to unmute your mic and – from the security of your own space – read out the thoughts you’ve just jotted down on your bit of paper. Voices less often heard might be getting more of a turn in this virtual world.

We’re getting used to this new way of working. A survey last month of Australian and Kiwi employees across a broad cross section of industries found nearly two-thirds of us want a range of flexible work options. We stayed home during Lockdown, and we’re not convinced we want to go back to the office.

I was lucky when the world was sent home. No need to improvise – I’ve been working this way for the last 25 years. Aside from the bit where I stand on stage or sit in a TV or radio studio, everything I do happens where I’m sitting now, in my delightfully chaotic home office. My mother, bless her, would refer to it as “the study”, but it is less leather armchair and smoking jacket than this would suggest. Pyjamas mostly, with a good ergonomic chair and all the other necessities – four massive bookcases, a filing cabinet, laptop and other devices in easy reach. And just enough distractions – the cat’s igloo, photos on the walls of places I’ve been, and a cabbage tree on the other side of the window with a bird feeder and plenty of takers.

I don’t have a boss, I just have deadlines, so there is no one to mind if I get stuck on a job and scoot upstairs to put the washing out while I get unstuck. Bosses and workers will have to find new ways to measure what “working” is if you’re not just relying on seeing bums on office seats.

I spare many thoughts for women adjusting to working from home when that home also includes kids too young to read the “Mummy’s Working” sign on the door – if there is a door. Even as a teenager, that sign didn’t stop my daughter texting me from her room to bring her a juice. Which is where, of course, I got the idea for my order of green tea.

In place of watercooler chat, I have social media – mostly for one-on-one conversations but a few group chats that feel like a staff tearoom. I don’t have to sit next to a guy eating egg sandwiches, or a chatty young thing doused in Impulse Body Spray. And if, on a video call, anyone suggests I should “smile more”, I can turn off my camera and make the kind of finger shapes that would otherwise have me marched off to HR for a chat.


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05 Nov Get Out of Town

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 2 November 2020


Before all this Covid palaver redesigned our lives, mine involved constant travel. I recall sitting once in an airport close to Christmas, feeling a smidge travel weary, and filling in the time before a delayed flight by thumbing through my diary to count how many days I had spent away from home that year. The long and short trips round the country and the globe added up to a staggering four months out of twelve – fully one-third of a year spent sleeping in places other than my house. It certainly explained why my herb garden had gone wild, and why the cat had taken to sleeping in my suitcase whenever he got the chance. This, he possibly thought, is the only way I’ll get to see her – as a stowaway.

I travel for work, and also for pleasure. Even when I was little, and family trips generally meant I’d be carsick somewhere around Waipukurau, I still loved packing a bag – imagining what I might need for the places I imagined I might go. One of our family’s genealogists tells me there is Romany in our DNA and it feels not at all surprising. Even without the “gypsy” blood, the fact that my great-grandparents on one side and great-great-grandparents on the other travelled half-way round the world to a place they’d never seen suggests an adventurous spirit, right?

Part-Roma, part-shark, maybe – just like the fish, it is the moving forward that makes me happy. When we shifted into Level 2 that first time in May, I was in my car and driving out of the city in the first possible hours – I had grandchildren to see. But as I turned left off State Highway 1 and settled into the rhythm of rural roads, I could feel my shoulders drop and my muscles relax. The thought of arriving was joyous, but the getting there was part of the joy.

In the last few weeks, my suitcase – cat hairs removed with a lint roller – is back in regular business. Where have I been lately? Great Barrier Island, for starters. And I’m not the only one – New Zealanders hankering for a getaway have been arriving there in droves. The fabulous Orla who owns the island’s only pub tells us that, in non-Covid times, they have closed up for winter, but they stayed open this year to feed and water the kind of crowds who turn up for summer high season. Reports of the death of tourism have been somewhat exaggerated, here at least.

I’d encourage you to give Great Barrier a whirl. The locals will be thrilled to see you, and the scenery reminds of me Stewart Island/Rakiura but with the thermostat turned up about eight degrees. (That’s not a reason to not head as far south as you can, but it gives the Barrier an edge in early Spring.)

Living off-the-grid, locals are rightly proud of being the first island in the world to be awarded “dark sky sanctuary” status which makes it an extraordinary opportunity for star gazing. There are official tours, or you might get lucky enough to be invited, as we were, to dinner with enthusiastic locals who encourage you to poke your eye into their telescope and see Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons.

I am also freshly back from Levin, described once by some wag (possibly me) as the Paris of the Pacific. Many of us who grew up in small places have complicated relationships with our home town, but I liked this visit. Without wanting to come off like a crazy person, I will confess that almost all my nightly dreams are set in Levin – our old home, my school, the Little Theatre, the main street – so going for a wander there felt surreal but wildly familiar because, heck, I’m there every night.

Levin still has one of the best libraries – it was the centre of all the things I liked best as a kid (Books! Librarians! Daydreaming!) and is now literally the town’s community centre where you can borrow a DVD, play the piano, drink coffee and vote.

My diary tells me my suitcase will barely be home for the next few weeks – Rotorua, Whitianga, Tauranga, Wellington, Napier and more. Work mostly, but some days off here and there for hot pools and shopping and catching up with old friends. After months of connecting via Zoom, it will be grand to see people’s whole selves and do that hugging thing we’ve missed. Best I remember to bring some treats home for the cat.



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22 Oct Broccoli & Bedtimes

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 26 October 2020 


Fish fingers and macaroni cheese. That’s it. If you asked my granddaughter to draw you a picture of nana’s cooking, that’s what you’d see. Maybe there’d be a chocolate pudding discernible in a corner of the artwork if nana was being fancy and had the time. But dinner at my place? You don’t even need to ask.

This is not because that’s all I can cook. Indeed, Ariana has seen me whip up spicy enchiladas with smashed avocado (her mother’s favourite) or roast lamb and winter vegetables, or that lemon and wholegrain mustard thing I do with whole chicken legs and serve on couscous. At all of which she wrinkles her little nose, and turns instead with satisfaction to her plate of fish fingers and side dish of macaroni cheese.

Children should, of course, be encouraged to try new foods – educate their palates, widen their culinary horizons. But not by me. Because I am the nana, and I have decreed that broccoli and bedtimes are not in my purview. At Nana Michy’s House, carrot sticks and mandarins will be offered but not compulsory, and there is every chance you will stay up watching Disney movies till you fall asleep in her lap.

It hasn’t always been like this. When Ariana was two, she lived here with us (and her mama, and her great-grandparents) and all the necessary rules and routines were in place. There was a bath-bed-book routine preceded by meals which would have required many different coloured crayons to draw. (Green, certainly, on a daily basis, and also orange, plus red for tomato sauce which seemed to make everything palatable.)

But now, almost seven years old, she and her little brother live three hours away and travel here every few weekends so, operating on the basis that broccoli and bedtimes are correctly observed there in between visits here, I have adopted a different approach.

You can map it back to my own childhood when visits to Grandma – before she came to live near us – had its own ritual of treats. Jet plane lollies in a dish on her brass table, toffees in a purple jar. We knew without being told which bath towels were ours – routine and certainty amongst the strangeness of sleeping away from home, and away from our mother.

Even more clearly, you can trace it back to every school holiday and another each summer when we were bused to Hawkes Bay to stay with our great-aunt and great-uncle. Ruth and Frank arranged their home to make space for us – a camp stretcher in the sunroom, a particular eiderdown in the back bedroom, books on the bookshelves, egg cups designated for each of us, a crate of soda pop in the garage. Familiar things in our away-place you could count on that said, “You belong here, we keep a place for you”. So much so that, when we visited with our parents, not staying, I found it a little shocking that those things – the extra bed, the special china – had been put away. I think I had imagined that Ruth and Frank’s house was always set up for us, and that perhaps they always spent their days as they did when we were with them – feeding the ducks, visiting the local pool, finding all the things that enchanted small children.

It is impossible to measure how much all of this contributes to your sense of confidence, security and belonging as we grow up, except to say “a lot”. When the world feels uncertain, or you don’t quite fit in it, knowing there is a place – or several places – where you are welcome, expected and treasured casts a protective spell.

So at Nana Michy’s house, our moko have their own spaces. There’s a drawer filled with toys and nonsense – ones they remember and the occasional surprise. Books on the shelves and another basket of particular favourites beside the bed. Plates and cups in the cupboard, playdough, paper and pens. Stuff they can count on to be waiting for them so they know that, even when we are going on without them, they can slip right back in.

My favourite trip to the supermarket is the one just before they are due. Animal biscuits, honey yoghurt, rice crackers, and the pancake mix their mother expertly turns into breakfast each morning here. Also on the list, of course, fish fingers and macaroni cheese.

There is a theory that, to become the best version yourself, you need at least one person to believe in you. A teacher, or an uncle, or a nana, or a friend. A whole village would be even better, but one will do it. And at this stage in my life, I can’t tell you which is better – to have one of those people, or to be one.


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15 Oct An Homage to “Schitt’s Creek”, Bébé

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly, 19 October 2020

Back when we were isolated at home for weeks – two adults, one cat – I satisfied my need for company by voyeuristically immersing myself in the shenanigans of other, bigger communities. My favourite was a joyous binge-watch of “Schitt’s Creek”, a Netflix series following the trials and tribulations of a formerly wealthy family who had fallen on hard times and relocated to the distinctly unglamorous small town they’d purchased once a joke.

We watched all eighty episodes in an enchanted romp. We’d given the series a bit of a go when it first launched five years ago, but I’d sighed and given up somewhere into episode three. Back then, I hadn’t been in the mood for watching wildly privileged Americans look down their snouts at small town hicks. “I don’t like any of them,” I’d said, “and I don’t care what happens to them – shall we try one of those cheery Scandi noirs?”

But come lockdown, and with the sixth and final series gaining traction, we gave it a second glance and couldn’t take our eyes off it. First impressions dissolved, giving way to something that felt a bit like… well, love. I couldn’t wait to catch up with them each evening. Their heartbreaks broke my heart, their triumphs lifted my spirits. I had a new friend-goal in “David Rose” and a fresh role model in his mother, “Moira”. They were deeper and more interesting people than I’d given them credit for, and they had the ability to do that extraordinary thing – remain essentially themselves while becoming better people. At the end of the final episode, I cried – because it was deliciously moving, and because it meant we had to say goodbye. I still miss them. I continue to imagine them out there somewhere, being complicated and happy.

Feeling viscerally attached to people we have never actually met – either fictional or real – is a phenomenon much older than television. We can adore (or despise) anyone who lives large in our minds, from characters in books, to royalty and politicians. When Princess Diana died there was genuine grief from vast numbers of people who had never been in the same country as her, let alone the same room. We all navigate a range of emotions when an American president is shot, or becomes ill, or gets (or doesn’t get) elected, and there are local public figures who arouse genuine distaste or adoration depending on where we’ve placed them in our “friend or foe” file.

Sometimes, the emotional attachment to people we’ve never met – or who aren’t even real – defies rational thought. Back in the 1980s when “Dallas” was the TV show du jour, there was a woman who possibly lived alone with cats who would phone TVNZ the morning after each week’s episode and pass on her advice about what should happen next. Occasionally, instead of simply logging her call, reception would put her through to the most junior member of Avalon’s publicity department (hello) for a chat. I think we all felt a bit of company was the least we could provide. The nice lady – we’ll call her Joyce – would have preferred to speak directly to the people who had been in her living room the night before, but I would do. “Tell Pammy not to listen to JR – her Bobby is a good man, and that brother of his is just out to make trouble,” she’d tell me and I’d promise to relay the message to Southfork. She quite liked Sue Ellen but felt she had made some terrible life choices and we agreed she was best left to sort things out as best she could.

Joyce also had concerns about real, actual people on her screen – there was a Wellington newsreader whose hair she disapproved of because it looked to her “too much like a hat”. I explained that perhaps this was down to the way the make-up artist styled it, to which Joyce replied, incredulous, that the newsreader in question was surely old enough to do her own hair? I promised to nip downstairs to make this suggestion, but despite bumping into the newsreader occasionally in the Avalon corridors, it never felt like the right time to say, even with 1980s ambiguity, “Joyce called and she thinks your hair looks unreal”.

Heaven knows what Joyce would have thought of Schitts Creek – though I would definitely have been up for a chat about Moira’s wigs nailed to the motel room wall like trophies, evidence of who she was yesterday and might be tomorrow. When anyone wonders aloud about the point of actors and writers and other creatives, I think about this basic human need we have to attach ourselves to each other, to feel something towards the people – real or imagined – who live our heads, and remember Joyce.


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