Barbecue at Phil's place

by andrew.mcnulty / 28 January, 2012
Chris Trotter finds a former Labour leader reflecting on the fickle roll of History's wheel.


"Now you must remember: Phil’s still getting over a pretty devastating loss.” Adam and Penny were still only halfway up the steep driveway leading to the isolated eyrie into which Phil had disappeared several years before. The shingle drive was shaded by tall ponga and manuka bushes and the air throbbed with the unceasing rasp of cicadas, punctuated occasionally by the bright rattle-and-shine of a tui.

“But you told me Labour had been crook for the past three years,” said Penny, pausing to straighten her back. “Yeah, I know,” Adam replied, “but when something that means so much to you finally dies, it’s a big wrench – takes a lot of getting over.”

“I guess.” With the top of the drive in view, Adam and Penny caught the sound of laughter and the clinking of cutlery and glassware. Above the sound of the cicadas they could hear, wafting down, the classic riffs of Boston’s More Than a Feeling. Penny made a face. “Ugh, 70s music.” Adam laughed. “You wait till he starts playing Glenn Miller.”

They found Phil seated on the big return veranda that half circled the house. He was wearing a massive pair of shorts that looked as if they’d seen action in the North African desert with Freyberg, a battered straw hat and a pair of roman sandals. One hand was around the neck of a magnificent Dobro guitar and the other held a squat green beer bottle in a death-grip.

“Adam! My favourite grandson! Welcome!” Phil leant the Dobro against the weatherboards with exaggerated care, deposited his beer on the deck, and heaved himself out of his wicker chair, hand extended. “Gidday Gramps!” said Adam. “Penny, this is my grandfather, Phil. Gramps, may I introduce my friend, Penny Walsh.” A shadow flitted momentarily across Phil’s face. “No relation I take it?”

“No, no, Gramps, don’t worry. I’m not going out with Fintan Patrick’s granddaughter.”

“Of course she isn’t!” boomed Phil. “That black-hearted betrayer of the working class couldn’t possibly be related to one so fair!” Penny blushed and shook the old man’s hand. “Thank you, Phil, I’m very pleased to meet you. Adam’s told me so many stories. And may I say how sorry I am about Labour.”

“Ah well, lass, all good things must come to an end. Still, I freely admit to missing old Labour – best dog I ever owned.”

“And much more trustworthy than the party he was named after?” ventured Adam.

“Too bloody right, son,” laughed Phil. “Labour’s dogged on us so many times I couldn’t resist giving its name to the genuine article.”

“So what d’ya make of this new bloke they’ve got, Phil?”

“Shearer? I like the cut of his jib – and he could hardly be worse than my namesake!”

“My friends in the Green Party reckon he’s a right-wing stooge,” said Penny, frowning. “They’d have preferred Cunliffe.”

“Would they indeed, Ms Penny Walsh. Would they indeed? Well, let me tell you this. I’m 90 years old – born when Bill Massey was still Prime Minister. I was 18 when the war broke out in ’39. I fought in Egypt and Libya. All those cities in the news last year, I know them well, Penny. I like the fact that Shearer knows them, too. I like the fact that he’s stared down the barrel of someone’s loaded gun. And I also like the fact that, in Israel, he knows who the bad guys are. He’s been places, Penny. He’s seen things. Things your friends in the Green Party couldn’t even dream about.”

“Yeah, but Phil,” protested Adam, “he’s got to have more than a good back-story. What does he actually believe? What does he want to do?”

“He hasn’t got a good ‘backstory’,” interrupted Phil. “He’s got good instincts. And, believe me, good instincts will carry you a long way. Just consider this Key fella. What did he have that Phil Goff didn’t have? He wasn’t smarter. He didn’t work harder. But, Adam, none of that matters – not if you’ve got the right instincts. Key knows how to think fast and act fast. So does Shearer. Because it really doesn’t matter if it’s the prospect of losing $50 million of someone else’s money or losing your own life. To get out of those sorts of situations you’ve got to be pretty damn quick on your feet.”

The old man chuckled, then spread his spindly arms over the young people’s shoulders. “But where are my manners? You two must be thirsty – and hungry. Let’s get you fed and watered.” Five minutes later, Adam and Penny, loaded down with food and drink, were seated on the veranda steps. Norm, the old man’s son, quietly picked out a bitter-sweet blues number on his father’s Dobro. The argument about Shearer had not abated.

“I still say the man can’t be trusted,” said Adam, through a mouthful of barbecued steak. “What’s he going to do for the unions? Is he prepared to renationalise the privatised assets?” Norm ceased his picking and shook his head sadly. “You really think it’s that easy, son? Do you really believe you can set your shoulder against History’s wheel and roll it backwards? Half of this country was owned by the state once, and union membership was compulsory. But you know what? In 1981, when the Springboks came a-calling, your precious proletariat wasn’t on the streets, it was seated in the stands. And if they could have laid hands on your mother and me – the protesters – they would have torn us limb from limb.”

Phil leaned forward in his chair, re­adjusting his hat against the setting sun. “D’ya know who set up Mickey Savage for those big reforms between ’35 and ’38, Adam? I’ll tell you who it was: Gordon Coates – a bloody Tory! It was Coates who pioneered state housing, Coates who tamed the Reserve Bank, and Coates who devalued the New Zealand pound and rescued the cockies from disaster.

“Why? Because he was a closet socialist? No. Because that’s the way History’s wheel was rolling in the 1930s and 40s. And any man who’d seen the worst that man can do, as Coates had in the First War, and who’d remained a halfway decent human being, just knew instinctively what had to be done.”

“And which way is History’s wheel rolling now, Phil?” Penny asked quietly.

“I don’t know, lass. I wish I did. In my time I’ve seen it roll forward – and back. I’ve seen it carry one class of people up, and I’ve seen it cast that same class of people down again. In 1938, on election eve, I marched with 70,000 workers to the Auckland Domain. Jack Lee was up there, silhouetted against a fiery sky, and all the union banners bravely flying. Strewth! I thought it was the bloody revolution! But, just 37 years later, I watched those same men and women vote for Rob Muldoon. It’s a big wheel, lass, and the best we can hope for is to hold on tight.”

“Jeez, Dad, lighten up! It’s a new year, and who knows where we’ll all be in 12 months’ time? Come on you two, let’s get some more beer.”

Chris Trotter is a political commentator who describes himself as an “Old New Zealander” – someone who remembers what the country was like before Rogernomics. Jane Clifton returns next week.
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