Hard News by Russell Brown


Family Matters: a post about 2020

My sense of recent history is a mess; sometimes I can't rightly say what happened, when. I tell people about something I did two years ago and it turns out it was late last year. And still, like all of us, I'm still effectively in the moment that unfolded in March.

I recall realising even before we went into our pandemic lockdown that what a lot of what people – including me – were doing was a matter of processing anxiety in public. It was evident, vividly, on social media, where sometimes we expressed it by policing each other, shouting at each other , drawing lines, letting fly. Heartbreakingly, I found myself shouting desperately at old friends who began a descent into malignant conspiracy theories.

By contrast, when, in the first week of lockdown, Bauer Media took the opportunity to shut down its New Zealand operation, removing our household's last reliable source of income, what should have been really alarming seemed to almost get lost in the overall roar of dread.

The wage subsidy helped there, in a way that went beyond mere finance. It was money that had turned up in the bank in a way that didn't rely on the unknowables of the virus economy. It said: there's a backstop. A few weeks later, when some work actually did turn up, making an online series for Spark Lab called The Pivot Reports from my kitchen table, I discovered that had been a widely-shared sensation among small business people. It was room to breathe and it was available swiftly and with few questions asked. The subsidy was an $11 billion chill-pill and worth every cent.

We now know that New Zealand wasn't very well prepared for a global pandemic, and that it took a succession of decisive actions, rapid responses and lessons learned to get us where we are, for now. It's a trusim to say it now, but the government's communications mattered hugely. They worked with the anxiety I mentoned above, as much as against it, in getting us to do the right things. And they invoked a historical national tradition of working for the common good. That card works a little less well every time it's played, so you'd best play it well first time.

In sum, I've thought a lot about this tweet I sent in February. There were screwups and the shine went off a few things, but we have been well-governed at a truly critical time.

There were personal challenges amid it all. During the first Level 3 lockdown, my mother suffered a fall and a stroke – it's still not quite clear which came first – and I flew down to Wellington to spend my days with her and my nights in a hotel room in a locked-down central city. She suffered failures of care that have led me to formally complain to three different organisations. Dealing with ACC was endless and exhausting. Responsibility for Mum's emotional health weighed heavily on me and I had some moments of real despair.

But Mum's home, where she always wanted to be, and she's making a go of it. Since she was young, she's repeatedly had to fall back on her own resources, find personal strength. It's what she knows. I asked her recently how she'd been that week: "I'm boxing on," she said.

There's no question of her joining us for Christmas, but I'm greatly comforted by the care she's getting from the local Nurse Maude organisation. Those women are lovely. They were also good enough to let me know that Mum had asked them to cancel her midday visits over the Christmas break, apparently to give the nurse worker a break ("I can make myself a sandwich"). To be fair to Mum, she did back down more or less immediately on that one.

And then, because there wasn't enough on in 2020, I got myself involved in a campaign for the cannabis referendum. I've written about the subject of the referendum at length elsewhere, so let's just say I'm proud of what we did with We Do. It was a big, exhausting, fascinating experience.

I had watched the polls long enough to know that a win for "Yes" was the less likely outcome, but as the weeks passed I did think we'd get close. We got very close. As I've been telling people, I was ready for a narrow loss – but I wasn't ready for Andrew Little to jump up and declare an end to all drug reform for the foreseeable future. That's not a sustainable or responsible position and it won't stand.

Indeed, it stood only until Jacinda Ardern's government did the right thing and fulfilled a commitment to legalise drug-checking services at events. It was such a relatively uncontroversial move in the end that it's easy to lose sight of how far we've come on this. The idea that we would have High Alert, a drug early warning system that brings together the police, government and science agencies and the community, would have seemed a long shot five years ago.

Wendy Allison, Jez Weston and the other people at KnowYourStuffNZ deserve huge credit for that. They've been ethical and organised, been taken seriously by everyone they've had to deal with, without surrendering the peer-to-peer philosophy at the core of what they're doing. It's still the tribe looking after itself. That's a remarkable achievement.

Things are changing. Most notably, they're changing in America, where the conversation about cannabis reform is tilting significantly towards acknowledging and addressing the damage done by the drug war. I wrote about that last week for the NZ Drug Foundation. Everything's fringe until it's mainstream. Some of us will just keep poking at the parts that look like they might move.

There has been other cause for cheer on the work front. What looked like an extinction event for New Zealand media in March has resolved surprisingly well. Most of the magazines shut down by Bauer are back in some form. Stuff is now independently-owned (this is another one of those things it's hard to believe only happened a few months ago), newly invigorated and paying its staff Christmas bonuses. Editorial commissioning budgets are back and there's work about. But oh, it would be nice if freelance journalism paid better. There's a part of me that loves doing several different jobs about quite different things at once, and a part of me that's just exhausted by it.

There's been another job lately. I'm looking to get our 26 year-old son back into education, for the first time since we had to withdraw him from school when he was 12. He has such a quick, interesting mind. It's going pretty well so far, but we've had false starts before and I know it's not going to be easy. I do occasionally remind myself I generally keep it together fairly well. Maybe I'm boxing on a bit like Mum.

I value the part of my life that's out there with the tribe. I missed my friends during lockdown, I missed talking and dancing. I relished the sense of everyone valuing those things extra hard after lockdown. You felt it at gigs and parties. At one particularly busy and brilliant party this year, the birthday host's wife stood up and spoke about how lucky we all were to be able to do this. Auckland went back into Level 3 lockdown four days later.

But that, in truth, wasn't like the first one. Level 3 isn't Level 4, we knew the drill, and when every small retailer in our suburb had the table out the front with the hand sanitiser it felt oddly like some sort of street fair. The family who took over Point Chev Fresh just before the first lockdown and  looked terrified when you went in (I remember thinking they should just close up and go home) had it all down by August.

Allow me to put in a plug for Point Chev Fresh, by the way. They've been steadily developing the shop and it's a top place not only for produce, but both Indian and Mediterranean food supplies – and they're also just really nice people.

The same is true of various other businesses in our community, not least, Cupid, that little bar I always bang on about. In a horrific year for hospitality businesses, Alix McEntegart and her crew have maintained their composure and their standards, and they've given a lot of us a place to play. The Mum 'n' Dad Disco Christmas party at the bar last Friday, where Sandy Mill and I played our records, was great because it was fun. We need fun in our lives.

For those of us with access to some form of it, family matters too. One of the things that brightened lockdown for us was seeing our next door neighbours come out every day and play with their little kids. As a family, we ourselves are very used to each other's company and that helped too. I also bless the day in January we got Fiona an e-bike. Riding together during lockdown and since has added another great element to our long, loving relatinship. It's one more way we know each other well.

Best wishes, everyone. Stay safe, be well.

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