Ships lying idle in Wellington Harbour in 1951 (photo: NZ History)

Lockdown letters #18, Renée: 1951 and the dictator’s to-do list

‘Illegal bulletins by Rona and Chips Bailey and cartoons by Max Bollinger continued in spite of police raids and were delivered by people to other people, all of whom knew if they were caught with a copy they’d go to jail.’

Read more from the lockdown letters here.

After the fifth listen I went for a walk. In Murder Most Foul, Bob Dylan uses ordinary language, the rhymes are sometimes a little awkward but Dylan does that anyway. He uses repetition, ideas, images, to fix it in the listener’s mind. Murder Most Foul is circular too – the words always come back to the event he’s focused on – the assassination of John F Kennedy. There had been terrible things happen before. The poor, black, powerless, killed by members of KKK is only one example of a racist and violent past. Kennedy was white, youngish, affluent, well educated, a good orator, Roman Catholic and married with two kids, had affairs with Marilyn Monroe and many others, par for the course probably, and in November 1963 America saw to its horror that not even this golden hero was safe. Sure there’d been presidents assassinated before – 1865 Abraham Lincoln, 1881 James A Garfield, 1901 William McKinley. But that was then – this was the ’60s, a new Camelot. Like the storybook one, JFK’s Camelot was a myth and it was blasted to bits by that shooter’s bullet on Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas that day in November 1963.

Cavier’s music is perfect, the cello a rich mourning lament under the words.

It’s a sunny day in Otaki and if the virus likes damp cold conditions, it’ll be out of luck today.  I see a bike coming towards me and I step off the footpath into the entrance to the Kura. The cyclist waves, shouts, ‘Thanks,’ and I smile and walk on. 

What would I consider a seminal event in my lifetime? The Waterfront Lockout in 1951? Tangiwai Rail disaster Christmas Eve, 1953?  The sinking of the Wahine April 1968? The march led by Whina Cooper in 1975? Not one more acre. Eva Rickard and her stand against the Raglan Golf Club? Bastion Point? The Erebus disaster in 1979 and the subsequent attempted cover up? The 1986 Homosexual Law Reform marches?

Dick Scott’s 151 Days shows how the 1951 lockout affected journalists and freedom of speech. The emergency regulations forbade media to publish anything at all from the Wharfie’s side of the story. The illegal bulletins by Rona and Chips Bailey and cartoons by Max Bollinger continued in spite of police raids and were delivered by people to other people, all of whom knew if they were caught with a copy they’d go to jail. 1951 showed how easy it was for a government to clamp down on press freedom, but also demonstrated that courage and teamwork by freelancers could prevail. The emergency regulations stayed on the books until 1987, so  any government in those years from 1951 to 1987 could have invoked them had they wanted to. Controlling the press has always been high on a dictators to-do list.  

One of the things I get asked wherever I go is ‘where do you get your inspiration?’ It’s a good question that has a very disappointing answer. When I say, ‘I just keep working and it happens’, they nod and I know they’re thinking, she just doesn’t want to tell us the secret.

So here’s the secret – there is no secret.

If you mean that sudden illumination, that wonderful flash of insight then sorry, that only happens after you’ve been working on something for a while. And sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.

I write for the fascination and like Leonard Cohen said, “I’m a writer which means I go to work every day but I don’t get it every day’”. Like him and everyone else in the game I don’t always get it right on the day either. I’m lucky, I always had a teaching job to pay the bills and even luckier because teaching and writing are the jobs I enjoy most.

I write my way into a story, a poem, a play and I write my way out. One thing I know for sure – there’ll be sticking points, hurdles. Writing that flows like it was effortless and easy to write comes only after hard work. 

Bob Dylan wrote his way into an outstanding piece of work – a 15 minute meditation, not only on the assassination of a president but on the fallacy of the American dream. And today it’s underlined by what is happening in New York and in America generally. Yes terrible but it doesn’t mean us, seemed to be the mantra when the news of the virus first broke. That dream of invincibility still goes on. You have to wonder – how many times does a country have to be told?

Yes, we are so lucky to have Jacinda and her team.

Two strawberries, six tomatoes and let’s hear it, all together koutou  – homai te pakipaki – the broad beans are up.

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