One Question Quiz
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

BooksApril 2, 2020

Lockdown letters #7, Morgan Godfery: Thoughts from under the plum tree

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

In our new series The Lockdown Letters, some of New Zealand’s best writers tell us what they’ve been up to in the days of Covid-19 alert level four. Today, political commentator and essayist Morgan Godfery.


In the absence of a capitalist routine, one day bleeds into the other.

In the before times most of us could measure our lives against the clock’s metronomic tick, clinging to its daily rhythms. Waking, drinking, eating, working, creating, connecting, and sleeping. On our best days, time’s passing felt like a melody, embracing every beat and delighting in every pause. But on our worst days time was a cacophony. We wake, work, fight, eat, drink, fight, and we forget to sleep. Are these our worst days? I’ll resist making the call – in this country, at least, there are so many things we take comfort in, like our brilliant essential service workers – but I’m still recommending everyone keeps an ear out for that cacophony.


I’m sitting under Nan’s dried-out plum tree wondering why we order our lives according to a 40-hour work week. Friday or Saturday – what’s the difference other than one is an essential production day and the other usually isn’t? Everything about the before times seems bland and passionless. For my people time begins with a dread scream as Papatūānuku’s children sink their hands into her ashen flesh, ripping her from her lover. And each year begins with a soft cry – the sob, sob, sob of a son, Tāwhirimātea, who never left his mother. And each day begins in ritual trills, the high and low notes of a karakia tīmatanga. “Whakataka te hau ki te uru.” Get ready for the westerly. “Whakataka te hau ki te tonga.” And prepare for the southerly.

My own relationship with time is nowhere near as imaginative, but before the lockdown I could take comfort in its washed-out routine. The alarm whines at 6am, and my accumulated habits take me through the day. My work looks much the same as it did the day before (unfinished), my menu remains more or less the same, and my eyes droop at the same time every night, as mechanical as the tick, tock of the bedroom clock. But on day eight that routine is a nothing, and I realise how totally capitalism shapes my personal life as well as how utterly dependent I am on it for structure. It set my waking time, it set my sleeping time, and it set the content of my every day. 


My partner tells me time is non-linear, and that makes perfect sense to me in this strange, dangerous interregnum. The future isn’t rushing forward, a tackle-line coming closer and closer to the crunch. It loops. In Papua New Guinea the Yupno community point to the river mouth when discussing the past and towards its mountainous source when discussing the future, a pattern of thought exactly reversing our customary, capitalist understanding of time and its flow. Ka mura, ka muri. We walk backwards into the future. The thing we miss when we overlook the past for an obsessive focus on the future is that how we live today – uncertainly, if nothing else – is not necessarily The Natural Order of Things. Not even Papatūānuku and Ranginui were together forever.


My partner and I are in lockdown at different ends of the country. I miss them every minute, every day. The time is torture. I’d give everything to reach through, close the physical distance, close the temporal distance. We talk all the time about a hundred different things and the conversation often comes back to revolution. One thing about lockdown is it forces you to think through how the injustices of the past – from income inequality to simple geography – shape life during a global pandemic. We’re all lucky to live in New Zealand, for sure, but some of us are luckier still to fall back on wealth and family support.

What about the people who lack it? For essential services workers and for the poor the lockdown isn’t a lovely four-week holiday in a warm, dry mansion. For people with chronic illnesses their support networks are largely taken out, whether by social distancing or by hospitals preserving capacity and redeploying staff to the rona response. In the before times it seemed as if our systems were “robust”, as the politicians like to say. In the now times it’s clear this isn’t quite true. If we fail, community transmission would almost immediately overwhelm our intensive care capacity and the burdens – bluntly, the deaths – would fall almost entirely on the vulnerable. The elderly, the immunocompromised, the poor living in overcrowded homes.   

We can put a stop to this timeline. We’re not hapless victims or passive bystanders. But doing so means listening up. These are my thoughts from under the plum tree. 

Tomorrow: Renée.

Keep going!