December 2020

30 Dec A New Year (Peow Peow)

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 4.1.21

After careful thought, I have decided that my New Year’s Resolution for 2021 is to make the diary in my NZ Covid Tracer app look like something I’d be proud to have Dr Ashley Bloomfield read out to the nation at a 1pm briefing.

To be clear, this does not mean I want there to be any community transmission of this stupid virus or that I would like a cluster named after me. Horrific idea. I mean that having a thrilling record of places I’ve been is symbolic of the kind of lifestyle I aspire to.

This is the great thing about each New Year – it invites us to pause for a moment, take a breath and consider the sort of person you would like to grow into, and the type of life you would most like to lead. Hence the annual making of resolutions – fresh resolve to do things differently as our planet makes its next orbit around the sun.

I’ve never liked the negative resolutions that are about stopping things (eating chocolate, swearing) but I can embrace positive resolutions about doing more of something (eating vegetables, saying “Stop it, I don’t like it” with practiced force). And it seems very in keeping with the 2021 vibe to track my “Things I’d Like To Do More” progress with an actual tracker on my phone.

I’ve developed real affection for the little yellow-and-white-striped icon on my home screen, its symbolic gender-fluid person in the centre with arrows shooting out in a burst like a superhero. I imagine a cartoonish “peow peow” each time I see those arrows but I stop short of making the noise out loud – most of the time, at least.

I love learning a new skill, and I’m pretty darn proud of my ability to tap that icon with my thumb, hold the screen in one hand up to a QR code while nonchalantly looking elsewhere and waiting for the gentle buzz that lets me know a visit has been formally recorded. It’s how an old sailor must feel when they skilfully tether a boat using a complex knot while gazing off towards the horizon, or maybe how an actor in a western feels as they blow the gun smoke off the tip of a pistol, then spin it and replace it in the holster in one smooth move. Peow peow.

As a record of my whereabouts, the “My Diary” tab proves to be more reliable than my memory which increasingly has only vague settings like “not that long ago” and “just the other day”. It is also more specific than my actual diary which contains information about what I had planned to do (as opposed to what I did) and is even more specific than my bank statement which has plenty to say about what I bought (ooh, Christmas) but not where I just window-shopped.

Recently (and that’s the only time frame my brain can give me) I used my NZ Covid Tracer to confirm that I went to the supermarket on the Wednesday (not Tuesday) which meant I could safely deduce on Friday that the leftovers in the fridge were still good. Excellent backup to a sniff test which is generally unreliable for something that contains prawns, chorizo and quite a lot of spice.

There are people, of course, who suspect this is all about the government, or deep state, or someone in a basement beneath a pizza parlour or something, wanting to track my movements. I figure if Facebook, my bank and my phone’s GPS constantly know where I am, the Ministry of Health might as well get in on the action. Plus I admire the specificity and accessibility of the information we are sharing between us – I can’t phone the bank, for example, to check if my paella is off.

The challenge I’ve set myself for 2021 is to ensure that this diary is a fun read. From time to time I’ve scrolled through it to see how the land has lain, and felt deflated. Supermarket, supermarket, vet, supermarket, gas station, supermarket… That’s no way to live. But then there will be a flurry of entries that make me smile fondly – a restaurant, an airport, a bookstore, an art gallery, a theatre, a ferry crossing… That’s more like it. Or a whole clutch of check-ins to some idyllic little town like Akaroa, or from the road on the way to visit grandchildren.

It’s not that I want Dr Bloomfield to ever find himself in the position of narrating the basic plot-points of my life to the whole of Aotearoa. Though if he had to, I’d like him to have a good story to share. Really, dear diary, this is just for me. Here’s to a remarkable 2021 where we make our own stories a pleasure to read.



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28 Dec 2020 – Looking For The Shiny Bits In Dark Places

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 28.12.20


Back at the start of this ridiculous year, I wrote a new show and debuted it at a festival in February in the glorious Hamilton Gardens. “2020 Vision”, I called it – as a nod to the year and also because it contained my predictions of the big issues. It was a preposterously grandiose title meant mostly as joke. But there was a lot in the show about new beginnings (personal and universal) and hope for global action on climate change, with a couple of amusing lines about the threat of a new pandemic that would probably turn out to be nothing very much at all. 

The sun shone. Allan, the stage manager, could not have been kinder or more welcoming. People arranged themselves on white plastic chairs and someone told me later that, throughout the hour, Tūī – my favourite of all my favourite birds – sat still and quiet in the trees behind the stage almost as though they’d bought tickets. Afterwards, I explored the gardens with friends who had come along, and we shared a drink and some stories on the lawn. What a terrific year this was going to be if this was any indication.

It wasn’t. Ha! This year has not been terrific for anyone much except maybe vaccine researchers and conspiracy theorists, both of whom have had plenty to be going on with. Heaven help you if you’re a working mother (note: all mothers are working mothers), or you own an international airline, or work in hospo, entertainment, or tourism. Hugs and thanks if you’re a supermarket worker or in healthcare or anywhere on the frontlines of dealing with this virus. Warmest thoughts to those separated from family, and to those still recovering from the long effects of Covid. Special love to the families of the twenty-five people here who have died.

If 2020 was a person, I’d want to spit in its eye. Okay, no spitting, but I’d want to shove it out the door and suggest we never speak of it again. But also (and forgive me if this sounds contradictory) as an anxious person who is always waiting for the other shoe to drop, I’ve learned from my experience of quite a few other years that it helps me to take a breath and look for the shiny bits in dark places. I consciously make lists of things to be thankful for, otherwise I’d never get out of bed.

In no particular order, here are some things I liked very much in 2020: swimming before breakfast with my granddaughter on her birthday, finding the filter on my Zoom app so I don’t have to wear makeup for meetings, learning how to make paella, discovering a new (to me) Dolly Parton song and singing it, nailing how to wear a mask without my glasses fogging, working out that I prefer a vodka martini to one with gin, and also noticing I sleep better when I go to bed sober.

If I cast my mind back, I can see that my life is different from the way it was a year ago and in some ways (though not all) it is possibly better. I survived the existential angst about “Who am I if I don’t produce anything” when I couldn’t work (I’m a māmā, nana, partner and friend), and also survived the very real financial stress. (Thank you, Government Wage Subsidy.) Those months of no work cleared the decks in a way, and I’ve been mostly able to put things back thoughtfully, keeping space for friends, riding my bike and going for walks. I also recognise that I am greatly privileged to be able to do this – I’m older and have fewer people dependent on me now, and all kinds of things make my life easier than other people’s so my job is to be grateful and to pay it forward.

I constructed a questionnaire to get me started on my list – feel free to use it. If you happen to find yourself in the middle of a lazy afternoon, roll these ideas around in your head and see what you come up with.

Your Best Meal, Best Moment, Favourite Person, Best Purchase, Most Moving Musical Experience, Favourite View, Happiest Surprise, Favourite Show, Most Spectacular Sunset, Favourite Book, Best Movie, Finest Gift (Given and Received), Greatest Achievement, Funniest Story and The Nicest Thing Someone Said To You This Year.

You may have more than one answer to any given question. Excellent. Just write them all down. It may make you feel more kindly disposed to 2020, and less inclined to slap its silly face or give it angry space in your head. Hug it, thank it, say goodbye. This “unprecedented” year will never darken your doors again. Turn around and greet 2021. And keep that questionnaire handy.



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21 Dec Roast Busters Charged

On Wednesday 16 December 2020, we heard that charges have been laid against three men allegedly involved in the horrific “Roast Busters” series of events from 2013 and the years earlier. I wrote this piece about it at the time which I hoped would keep the women at the centre of the story. I remember tucking away the thought then that, in New Zealand, we have no statute of limitations on rape or sexual assault. The women involved were very young when these things happened to them. We know that women and other survivors of assault can feel better able to go through the legal process later, and it seems that day has come. Here is my original story from November 2013. A Tough Week To Be A Woman – Sunday Star Times

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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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