Hard News by Russell Brown


Citizen Key II: The High School Years

Wherein I take up David Slack's search for the soul of John Key. I can tell you that the new National leader and I attended Christchurch's Burnside High School together. I gather that we both met our soulmates in that time. But do I remember him? No.

For most of his time at Burnside, John P. Key seems to have kept his head down. That wasn't unusual. At the time, Burnside was an experiment - the largest secondary school in the country - and plenty of kids just did their time and moved on.

Key was in the same junior division as me, West, but a year ahead. Having fetched and scrutinised the yearbooks, I can tell you that in his fifth form year, he moved from a "P" class to the more academic "L" stream. But otherwise, he features nowhere in the record of school life: no prefecture, public speaking or school council; no fencing club, tramping club or sports teams; no aeromodelling, coin club or Inter-School Christian Fellowship. (Update: On closer inspection, I've found him: 1977 debating team! He did quite well too, and was awarded a flash for his "devoted contribution to the club". The group picture depicts a little chap with a cherubic face and the smile that some people perceive now as overly smug.)

But I caution that my account is incomplete: the yearbook for 1979 is missing, and that appears to have been John Key's year. The 1980 book records that the previous year, John Key was one of 21 students to receive the PTA Prize for Seventh Form Academic Work, and achieved a "B" Bursary. And - here we go - that he shared the senior prize in Economics with Paul J. Commons.

Commons (I'm assuming it's the same one) went on to do well for himself in the cement business. Key, of course, went into banking and became very rich before entering politics, and stands a decent chance of one day being Prime Minister.

There are a thousand other stories in the yearbooks. A few of us - Bevan Rapson, Mike Jaspers and I - went into media careers. Deb Stanaway, who I remember as part of a sort of 90210 in-crowd, duly got married - then threw away the form book and came out as a lesbian, became a well-known radio announcer and now teaches radio. Some others are senior civil servants. One guy was offed in a gangland drug hit. My favourite teacher, Dave Nicholson, was jailed twice for grooming and abusing teenage boys. Anton Jenner, who I long thought would be killed by rock 'n' roll, cleaned up, got an honours degree and now lectures in sociology at Canterbury. Last I heard from Penny Feltham, she was the Manchester Popular Music Industry collector at the city's Museum of Science and Industry. Jan Arnold survived the very public tragedy of losing her husband, Rob Hall; and her fiercely clever brother Peter (who dropped out of university for a job fixing arcade game machines) now designs servers in California. My first serious girlfriend, Nicole King, died tragically in a tenement fire in Paris and is at rest at Pere Lachaise, along with Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde.

By way of conclusion, if there were few signs that John P. Key would ascend to political leadership, it was always on the cards that I would end up a media wanker. I was first in sixth form English the year he topped the Economics class (I think the 1979 book includes a poem which is actually about the first time I tried marijuana). And the next year I won English and Creative English, the fruits of the latter being reproduced in the 1980 yearbook in the form of an amusingly romantic poem with the inscrutable title 'Integration by Inspection' (First Prize, Senior Poetry). But the same book contains a shorter work I remember more clearly:


I've been brushing against people all day
Picking up hate like fluff
It's getting heavy now

Clearly, I was Emo before there was Emo …

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