BooksSeptember 5, 2017

Confessions of a comedy writer who spent six weeks covering an election campaign


A memoir by Dave Armstrong about how he got it into his head to jump in his rusting Japanese car and spend six weeks covering the 1996 election campaign – and then wrote a book about it.

During the first part of 1996 I had a job writing comedy sketches for a Wellington television company. It paid reasonably well, and by the time the season ended I had a few thousand dollars in the bank. Writing television comedy was fun – but what I really wanted to do was write about the upcoming election campaign.

No magazine would commission me and publishers would not commit to producing a book until they had read a draft. So I arrogantly jumped into my rusting Japanese car and spent six weeks on a self-funded trip throughout New Zealand. Though I was technically a professional writer thanks to my recent television work, I was entirely untrained. My university majors were in trumpet playing and music history. I didn’t know the first thing about covering an election but I hoped I would learn on the job.

The smartest thing I did was to get a graphic designer friend to print a card which simply said ‘DAVE ARMSTRONG – WRITER’. Never underestimate the power of a printed business card.

My MO was to drive to a town, find out if there were any candidates meetings planned that night, and attend them. I couldn’t afford a laptop so I scrawled down notes in old exercise books. When I broke my collarbone trying to mountain bike down Mt Eden, I had to rely on memory as I couldn’t write very fast.

During the day I talked to people I met – likeable Act candidates in Napier, farmers’ wives in Amberley who were voting Labour but not telling their National-voting husbands, Alliance-voting taxi drivers in Wellington, Greenie hippies in Blackball, friendly Nats in Palmerston North, elderly members of the ‘We love Winston’ club in Stratford, nutty Social Creditors in Hastings and devout Christians in New Plymouth.

I’d never heard of fact-checking so misspelt Moutoa Gardens for an entire chapter on Whanganui, and got the names of more than one candidate’s spouse wrong. I didn’t realise I should warn politicians I was writing a book before they told me things that they probably shouldn’t have.

It was rather weird coping with the strange itinerary I had created. I remember racing through beautiful Northland kauri forest madly trying to get to Dargaville in time to hear National Minister Bill Birch (think Stephen Joyce but without the wit) talk about energy to a hall of 22 elderly people.

On rare occasions party officials asked for accreditation I simply flashed my DAVE ARMSTRONG – WRITER card and it worked a charm. The one time someone asked what paper I worked for I said Pegasus Times, and strode on in. There is no newspaper called Pegasus Times.

I often picked up hitchhikers. Meeting Zac, a steroid-using body-builder with anger management problems who was travelling to Paraparaumu to “pick up fluff” at a nightclub, yet was also intent on voting for Helen Clark, was a fascinating highlight.

So how did the campaign itself go? Prime Minister Jim Bolger seemed permanently grumpy, and Winston Peters did well out of dissatisfaction with both major parties. But the campaign belonged to Helen Clark. Labour was a cot case three months out (sound familiar?) but Clark did well in debates to bring them back from the brink, laying the foundations for victory in 1999.

By midnight on Election Night the results were in and Peters held the balance of power. No one knew – including Winston, I suspect – which way he would go. I would be unable to finish my book until he decided. He and his party took almost two months negotiating, finally going with National.

Years later I asked Bolger how he managed to do a deal with Peters given the animosity between the two men that existed after Bolger sacked him from cabinet in 1991 for criticising National Party policies. “One day I picked up the phone,” said the practical farmer, “and said ‘Winston, it’s Jim here; we need to talk.'”

Soon after the new government had been announced I had a rough draft of a book called True Colours, and my agent spent a couple of days hawking it around various publishers. “You’re wasting your time,” said one, “no one will buy it.” It was particularly satisfying a couple years later when that publisher had to ask me for permission to print a True Colours chapter in an anthology of New Zealand history.

“You describe True Colours as a combination of Tom Scott and PJ O’Rourke,” another publisher told my agent, “yet Armstrong is not as funny or perceptive as either.” Don’t hold back.

Finally David Bateman Ltd, better known for producing art books, decided they liked my book. I had a deal provided it was not too long. I had written nearly 400 pages so spent a long summer week cutting it down to about 250. I was then informed that thanks to the price of printing it offshore in a hurry I would have to cut it down to only 160 pages, in one weekend. I was initially furious but once I cut it down to the required length I realised it was much better.

Finally I launched the book in a bar in Wellington. Some politicians turned up, though Richard Prebble – always a good sport – was the only party leader there. I was informed that selling 2,000 or so copies was a good result, and True Colours made number 10 on the best-seller list for an incredible one week. Within six months, old copies were available at Paper Plus for 50 cents.

The critics were kind but the best feedback was a letter from a young Kiwi guy working in a godforsaken mining camp in Western Australia. His mother sent him a copy of True Colours and he said it was “better than watching porn all day” – the only other recreational activity available.

Regrets? I was overly critical of Jim Bolger. I wasn’t aware that in 1996, as well as fighting Labour, he was fighting the Right of his own party. “I had advisers telling me we should abolish all income tax,”  he told me years later. I suspect history will treat Bolger well.

A few months after publication, I received my royalty cheque. After taking out travel costs, food, accommodation (mainly youth hostels) and legal fees, I made a financial loss. True Colours cost me about the same as studying journalism for half a year. But I suspect I had much more fun and may have even learned more.

The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books

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