Five years on, it remains a seminal text – our national psyche in <140 characters. Ashleigh Young pays tribute to Hera Lindsay Bird’s ‘sale at briscoes’ tweet.
The greatest New Zealand tweet doesn’t exist any more. It’s a ghost. Looking at a screenshot feels like looking at a photo of a Tasmanian tiger – it definitely existed, but it’s almost spooky to see it now, to imagine that it walked among us on this same earth.
It was a Wednesday. August 2017, late afternoon. It was 13 degrees and raining in Wellington, and I was probably biking home. The front page of the NZ Herald that day had a photo of someone’s broken knee X-ray on it and a story about flu patients flooding hospitals. On A5, above a massive ad for a spa pool mega sale, and above an op-ed by columnist Rachel Stewart with the opening line “Metiria Turei is not Jesus”, there was the “Word on the street” section.
What did Aucklanders just trying to go about their business think about Turei having lied to WINZ 20 years ago, when she was a solo mum struggling to look after her kid and go to law school? Monique, 25, said she wouldn’t vote Green anyway. Clint, 43 and wearing some kind of hat, said, “The question of her integrity has to come into question.” Ron, 77, said, “She’s a brave lady.”
At 5:39pm, a few minutes after the news broke that Turei had resigned, due to unbearable pressure, the poet Hera Lindsay Bird tweeted “godDAMN this stupid milkloving piece of shit dumbass mean spirited sale at briscoes racist sexist 40% off deck furniture piss country”.
How to describe this tweet without destroying its magic? Maybe it’s not possible. Like a butterfly pinned to a wall, the greatest New Zealand tweet never asked to be displayed and scrutinised in this way. It was tweeted like any other tweet back then: with the assumption that it would be seen by some people and then would quickly sink back into the ceaseless flood of the present.
Twitter in 2017 was a desperate churn, but far less of a desperate churn that it is now. The character limit was still 140, until it inflated terrifyingly to 280 in November. The most retweeted tweet that year was a teen in Nevada asking Wendy’s for a year of free nuggets. I don’t think I even knew who Elon Musk was; he hadn’t yet tweeted the words “pedo guy” about one of the rescuers of the boys trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand. 2017 was also the year of Winston Peter’s tweet “Tweets on Winston Peters NZ politician” – which, incredibly, still exists in the wild, and is a serious contender for the greatest New Zealand tweet. But though you could write a doctoral thesis on “Tweets on Winston Peters NZ politician”, though five years later it still shines brightly, the tweet doesn’t have the complexity, the rereadability, the sheer electricity that Hera’s “piss country” tweet has.
The tweet is pure rage. All punctuation has been blasted off with the force. It is breathless yet delivered through clenched teeth. It’s a ragged whisper as well as a howl.
Everyone has their favourite moment. For some it’s the humiliating truth of “milkloving”. For others it’s the snarl of “piece of shit dumbass”, which reads almost like Bird is drawing breath, sharpening her knife before the horror of “sale at briscoes”. We have all been seen here, very seen. Then the tweet draws itself up again and finds its harrowing focus: “racist sexist”. That’s where we are, that’s where we find ourselves, like Milhouse struggling alone in the wreckage of chairs after the Spinal Tap concert. That is the truth of it. Then the devastation of “40% off deck furniture”. What is it about “40%” that cuts us so? It’s the bloat of that number, the frothing excitement that such cheapness has traditionally stirred in many of us, when that cheapness is made possible because of some deep rot, some crushing indifference, some mean spirit.
The moment I always return to is the crescendo of “piss country”. It’s that word “piss” – it’s so unexpected, almost sweet. Like all great endings it shines a new light back through the tweet: suddenly this place is not even solid, it is just piss.
Hera’s tweet may be funny and satisfying, and it may feel right every time its ghost is reanimated in screenshot form to ride again – it is always right – but it’s also inescapably sad. The despondency that many of us were feeling that year, in the run-up to the election and the insane fall-out from Metiria Turei’s admission, was real. “I did not have enough money to pay the rent and put food on the table,” Turei later wrote. “And so, like many – but not all – people faced with that choice, I lied to survive.” The response at large to that brave admission was pure piss country. Out of that moment of floundering for wisdom, for some right and useful opinion to have, rose up this seminal text that, in not trying to be wise or right or useful, managed to be all three.
The tweet was lost during Hera’s long hiatus from Twitter. But perhaps it makes sense that it exists now only as a ghost. Part of me believes that when the great tweet was made, it was already ancient. It had seen several universes live and die. It flared brightly all of a sudden as it passed through our tiny lifetimes, and then it exploded, though its light still reaches us through the years as the tweet itself moves into some other, unknowable form.