There’s a lot more nuance in the former National leader’s new memoir than you might expect, writes Emma Espiner.
It was an inauspicious start to my relationship with Simon Bridges when, the week that I had set aside to review his memoir National Identity: Confessions of an Outsider, the only news to filter through to me was that Simon Bridges had decided to define himself as a non-Aotearoan, or something.
It’s not a political memoir, the cover declares, and that’s largely true. Politics is dealt with in general, as issues through a centre right lens, rather than in relation to parliamentary politics. There’s distressingly little dirt on his frenemies in the National party and almost nothing on his foes in other parties. On the subject of Winston Peters, for example, the most sharp he gets is to call him an old crocodile. Given the litigious nature of said reptile and Bridges’ knowledge of defamation law as a former crown prosecutor, perhaps that’s not surprising at all.
More than anything it is a memoir about the experience of being in public life. “You have to confront who you are” he says early on, and for Bridges this means being scrutinised from every angle, about everything from his voice to his whakapapa, his masculinity, his Christianity, his introversion and his working class upbringing. He’s frank, funny and seemingly without artifice as he takes us through his childhood, his experiences at university, his career in the law and, not much at all about the time actually spent in parliament.
At the risk of making everything about identity politics, which he would hate, Bridges is at his most interesting, and least comfortable, in his exploration of ethnicity. He opens with an anecdote about being treated like a “bloody Māori” by a South African doctor after turning up to a doctor’s clinic unshaven, in a hoodie. “He was pretty rude. He wasn’t interested in my symptoms and made a comment that I was wasting his time.” Recalling his mother’s sadness that none of her children inherited her blue eyes, I winced as he quoted his father’s response to this: “A little mud in a glass of water made it all brown.” He notes the Labour party’s subtle scepticism of his authenticity as Māori, because “real Māori are Labour” and I remember the time David Cunliffe, not so subtly, stood up in question time and mocked him as “perma-tanned”. Later he said that he had been unaware that Bridges was Māori. Without the key visual signifiers of Māoritanga like tiki or pounamu, Cunliffe was unable to identify a Māori colleague from across the debating chamber, which tells you more about him than it does about Bridges’ whakapapa.
While identifying proudly as an anglophile, Bridges decries the overt classism of Britain and reflects on New Zealand as more egalitarian with “our shared spaces and trips to the same doctors”. He adds in our identification of a spade as a spade and other number eight wire cliches. Interestingly, the criticism he gets over his working class accent belies this egalitarianism. That the liberal intelligentsia were the most vicious about his lack of elocution is uncontested in the record, and it hit him hard. “For some reason these comments really got to me, more than the huge buckets of shite I had poured over myself on relatively regular occasions about a bunch of other stuff.”
An introvert, Bridges is at his best as an ethnographer. He details, like a visitor from another planet, the activities of his more socially adept wife, his extroverted in-laws, his preacher father and his colleagues from both sides of parliament. “The National party rank and file are about big, strong hands and handshakes. Look them in the eye, son, and tell it like it is. Straight talk it, son.” Then he says the New Zealand Labour party will have its own version of this, and thinks that it probably involves darned wool and colourful cardigans. He’s got a strong antipathy for people who live in Grey Lynn, but he’s not suburb-ist; he extends this disdain to liberal wokesters in other urban centres like Wellington as well.
He’s most convinced, and most convincing, on crime. His stories of working as a crown prosecutor are alive with detail, feeling and expert insight in a way that his chapter about music, for example, isn’t. “I’ve never been as fascinated by crime as some. But I am fascinated by people: the crazy shit we do, how we mete out justice for our safety, and transform people’s lives for theirs and society’s redemption.” In addition to the hardline punitive angle you might expect from Bridges, on the causes of crime he says “I actually accept that among the many contributing factors are colonialism and institutional racism. I know from my own experience that people in authority treat brown people differently to white ones. It would be naive to think otherwise.”
Culture is the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves. It is a useful lesson to read the story that Simon Bridges tells himself, about himself. It’s a story that is meticulously interrogated and, while some of us would draw different conclusions when presented with the same facts and experiences, there’s a lot more nuance than you would get with a two minute soundbite on the news and that’s the point of writing a book. You can have your own say in 276 pages and, if somebody chooses, they can take you at your word.
As his own narrator Simon Bridges has a habit of being not quite what you expect, while simultaneously being exactly what you expect, a perplexing paradox that he doesn’t fully reconcile in this memoir. You have the sense that figuring out what he’s about isn’t over. For example he says “I was clear in my own mind that I was the best person to lead National and the Opposition” but never really explains why. He was as surprised and delighted as the rest of us with the unexpected outpouring of joy that his yak-walk generated. In everything, from his relationship with his whakapapa to his more-nuanced-than-you-might-think position on crime, his aspiration to drink a $12,000 bottle of wine as a matched pairing with two Big Macs, to his lack of interest in rugby, he’s saying “There has to be more of you like me.”
Ultimately my impression from this memoir is that Simon Bridges is an odd little farty human like the rest of us and, while I don’t know that the depths of authenticity that he plumbed for this memoir are going to do anything for any lingering political aspirations that he holds, it wasn’t a boring or wasted read. Meeting Simon Bridges in this book felt like getting to know someone on the other side of the political spectrum from myself, and feeling that there is enough common ground that I could probably change his mind about a few things, and the thoughtful, bookish person he portrays himself as would probably feel the same about me. I guess that’s about as good a place as anywhere to meet, in our increasingly polarised political discourse. The first thing I’ll do is ask him to never say Aotearoan again, please.
National Identity: Confessions of an Outsider, by Simon Bridges (HarperCollins NZ, $37.99) can be ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington. Orders will be processed as soon as each store hits level three – which for Wellington, is tomorrow! Yahoo!