In a recent column, left wing commentator Chris Trotter has written what appears to be a paen to Prime Minister John Key. (I’ll address this issue in a series of posts, this being the first.)
Trotter argues that John Key appeals to many New Zealanders because he represents an ‘ordinary’ Kiwi who has made something of himself (by becoming rich and internationally successful) and, more to the point, symbolises the hope “that politics can be, and should be, the province of ordinary men and women”.
But the answers to some very obvious questions are being begged in this explanation, specifically:
- Just how ordinary is John Key?; and,
- What counts as ‘ordinary’ in New Zealand?
Trotter’s main point is that John Key – and the outline of his life story – appeals to New Zealanders’ sense of the value of ordinariness. I think he’s right – but it’s a complicated issue, as all sociocultural responses are, and some interesting insights into New Zealand culture and New Zealanders can be gained from ‘unbegging’ the two questions above.
I want to start with my personal insight into the paradox that helps explain why a multi-millionaire, foreign exchange dealer can be embraced by New Zealanders as being ordinary. I learnt about this paradox – what Trotter calls “the paradoxical pressures of New Zealand’s thwarted egalitarianism” when I was on what I usually call my ‘OE’ – though I was born in England – in 1983-84.
I worked for a couple of months on a hop farm in Kent. It was interesting work as I was chosen to work in the Oast House, which housed the big kilns to dry the hops. I slept, ate and lived in the Oast House during that time with two broad-accented Kentish farm workers who were very experienced at the job and controlled the process.
The farmer always employed Kiwis and Aussies to do the harvest labouring as he found them reliable. This year, however, there was one exception – an itinerant, pipe-smoking, John Lennon look alike, bespectacled Englishman with Home Counties connections (no doubt an upper-middle class family) and who, at 32, had so much more maturity and was endowed with an old-worldly wisdom we youthful antipodeans completely lacked.
One evening, a dozen or so of us walked the unlit country lanes to a pub called the Wheatsheaf Tavern. It had wooden beams, low ceilings and straw on the floor – a picture-postcard perfect country pub. A few pints went down.
At a certain point in the evening the Englishman lit his pipe and sat back with an air of gentle and genteel elegance in his frayed tweed jacket. It was then that a young North Island boy, blond, rosy-cheeked, fresh off the farm, flushed with ale, blurted out with aggressive brashness, and for no apparent reason, “You know what I really hate about the English?” He was looking directly at the Englishman.
The Englishman glanced at me. I shrugged.
“All this class stuff … if you’re not from the right class, and all that.” The young Kiwi was now on a reasonably intoxicated roll.
He extolled the virtues of what he claimed was a classless New Zealand – a myth no doubt seen by our elite as conveniently popular amongst New Zealanders. Then he came to the punchline and my enduring lesson in the virtue of ordinariness in New Zealand.
“We don’t care about class in New Zealand!” – probably true. Then, the phrase that has stuck in my mind for over 27 years, punctuated, as it was, by a rhetorical pause that was probably caused by an internal irruption of beer but emphasised the point memorably:
“In New Zealand you can be anything you like … [pause] … so long as you’re an ordinary bloke.”
The Englishman’s eyebrows vanished up beyond his hairline. He turned to me with a questioning look on his face as if to check that he had actually heard what he thought he had: A complete contradiction presented as a noble virtue.
I nodded back to the Englishman and, with an embarrassment that forever marks me as a complete traitor to the value of Kiwi ordinariness, I shook my head and stared down into my pint. What the farm boy seemed unaware of was blindingly obvious to our lone Englishman who had clearly gone well astray from his class origins in an act of eccentric rebellion – you can’t be anything you want to be if you also have to be an ‘ordinary bloke’.
If John Key had been there – though I think he always had a very much more productive OE in mind – he would no doubt have quietly smiled and not felt remotely embarrassed at the farm boy’s outburst. After all, it’s a lesson about the Kiwi culture that, even at that young age, John Key had no doubt already learned.
To be continued …