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Every columnist in New Zealand, right now
Every columnist in New Zealand, right now

MediaFebruary 1, 2019

The real toll of the great NZ heatwave? Batshit opinion columns everywhere

Every columnist in New Zealand, right now
Every columnist in New Zealand, right now

Spare a thought, please, for the commentators, battling desperately to string together coherent ideas as the mercury hits ridiculous.

The weather was hot in New Zealand this week, as documented for posterity by our newspaper of record in cover lines such as “In for a scorcher”, “HEATWAVE”, “Keep your cool, the heat’s here all week” and “It’s still flippin’ hot”.

The wavy hotness brought merriment to many, including holiday-makers, iceblock retailers and people who enjoy watching inhabitants of the continental fireball called Australia slack-jawed at New Zealanders freaking out over overnight temperatures of 18C.

But there is a grim crest to the heatwave, too. I don’t mean the drought threat. I don’t mean the health impacts or the omens of environmental apocalypse. No, the true human toll of the Great NZ Heatwave of 2019 is painfully etched in the columns published through this terrible sweaty week.

It would take more than a severe case of heatstroke to stop the commentariat. Delirious, dazzled, irrepressible, they filled their empty pages like unruly tourists travelling down State Highway 1.

Exhibit A: John Roughan, godfather of New Zealand column writing, who began his new slot in the Monday paper with the obligatory what-I-did-in-my-holidays anecdote. He went to Kaiteriteri. “It was a little like stepping back into New Zealand as it used to be. Beautiful Kaiteriteri on Tasman Bay is run by a public body. Everything, the motor camp, the store, the apartments, the restaurant, the burger bar, is run by a board appointed by the Minister of Conservation.”

It was very nice, and yet something was rotten. Specifically, the shop didn’t sell sun-shield screens for the car. Ergo: look what happens without a free-market economy. Very hot cars happen.

Having bored even himself with that line of thought, Roughan abandoned it completely, switching to an account of how he went to the Australian Open in Melbourne. “Tsitsipas’ play was indeed sensational against Federer and in his subsequent quarter-final. But he choked in the semi against Nadal whose domination of that match reminded me how great Nadal really is,” he wrote, as if he’d woken from a dream and found himself writing for the sports section.

Could Roughan conceivably tie these strands together? Of course he could. As effortlessly as Björn Borg in his prime, he brought it home: “Tennis does not matter much, the economy does.”

Kate Hawkesby saw Roughan’s segue and laughed. In the Herald, The ZB dawn host had a strong thesis about the state of the KiwiBuild programme, and the only way to make that argument was to devote 90% of the piece to a stream of consciousness about the clothes being worn by Labour MPs, and Trevor Mallard attending an event being hosted by his own party, and a baby –  a baby! – being in proximity to its mother.

One sentence especially burned like a fire in a dodgem enclosure: “Jacinda Ardern’s baby Neve was also there  –  I don’t know why, I’m not sure if other people’s kids were there, but let’s not call that weird because we’ll be lynched.”

(To be fair to her, she was absolutely right to condemn Iain Lees-Galloway for wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “I’m the boss guy” on it. No one who wears a T-shirt with “I’m the boss guy” on it should be anywhere near the levers of power.)

The Herald was not alone in running a temperature. Beyond the blissfully oblivious young man who wrote for Stuff about how he didn’t fancy working building fences (there’s nothing more that can be added to Emily Writes’ take on that), Stuff had long-serving Dominion Post columnist Rosemary McLeod playing op-ed roulette.

“Things that puzzle me: short shorts and rompers on grown women, big dogs in the city, fish and chips on hot days at the beach, why people say they love summer, why people don’t garden any more,” she said by way of introduction.

The trouble with women in shorts centred on “women with chubby legs, women who don’t seem to care”, and: “I’d applaud not caring, but it leads to unshaved legs, facial hair unplucked, and stroppy attitudes about more things than most people can keep track of.”

Turn on the air-con, somebody.

She continued: “What they call The Wonder of the Natural Me I call misplaced egotism and laziness, and the day will never come when I think grown women in romper suits are cute.”

The only person ever to have called anything the “wonder of the natural me”, by way of clarification, is Rosemary McLeod, in this piece.

Also, big dogs in cities are bad and beaches are bad and sandcastles are bad and, look, it’s very hot. “As for summer, truly hot and sweaty summer, what’s to like? You can’t sleep. You don’t want to eat. You’re sweaty. The sun is harsh, and may end up giving you melanomas, eventually killing you.”

Then, after a quick account of why gardening is good, McLeod revealed “what bugs me greatly”. And that is? Convicted rapist Grant Hannis, who should have received a harsher sentence. She’s not wrong, but, holy shit, what a ride: women in shorts > dogs in cities > beaches and sandcastles > the joys of gardening > iniquitous sentencing for sexual offences in the criminal justice system.

These are no mere hot takes. These are heatwave takes.

Less scorchingambitions for Jake Bailey. The Herald boy-wonder columnist’s perspiration drips from every column as he strains yet again to squeeze out a thousand words. In The Heatwave of 2019, his column might be précised like this: I once put a small dent in my mum’s car > That happened at the carpark at the mall > Speaking of malls, you try to go and get one thing at the mall and then you end up looking at other things at the mall > Speaking of looking at other things, YouTube is like that.

I can hardly stand in judgement. Some of the most directionless, tenuous and generally shithouse columns I have ever read were written by me. It’s just this damnable heat. Spare a moment for the hyperexia-battered commentariat and their struggle in the face of a heatwave and a deadline.

And, as I crawl to the end of another uncomfortably warm working day, I ask you to consider this: who is the latest and most celebrated addition to the firmament of New Zealand columnists? Leighton Smith, for it is he, the great indefatigable owl formerly of Mmmmnnnneswstalk ZB.

His first column, published in the Weekend Herald, on the subject of Donald Trump and journalism, railed against “the fakestream media”, which may or may not be a nod to the “Committed to the truth” advertisements currently running in the Herald, which promise readers of the paper, “Sometimes we’ll agree to disagree. But we’ll get our facts straight first.”

That’s all fine. But Smith drops a hint in a postscript to his debut column. “Don’t forget the science is not settled….” he writes, offering hope that we will be treated in weeks to come to homilies on why human-made climate change is total nonsense. So my overheated hypothesis is this: Leighton Smith is denying the existence of climate change from the security of his underground air-conditioned windowless office in the hope that New Zealand will continue to boil hotter and hotter and all its columnists will increasingly scribble like kittens in custard and he will emerge as the one and only true voice of reason.

P.S. It’s just a theory.

P.P.S. It’s very hot.

Keep going!