Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONSocietyJune 24, 2020

Six minutes of sunshine

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

It’s a grim time of year in Wellington, but not only the bleak weather is to blame, writes Danyl Mclauchlan. 

Then there was the bad weather. Wellington feels like it really only has two seasons, which stretch from solstice to solstice. For the first half of each year it is autumn, with maybe a few hot days scattered through January and February; days when it seems like it might be warm enough to swim in Wellington harbour, until you jump in and realise it is not. This is a long stretch of clear, calm days, gradually getting shorter and cooler; snow on the hills to the north, across the harbour, and snow on the Kaikōura Ranges, south across the stone-coloured waters of Cook Strait. There’s a lot of civic pride wrapped up in the beauty of Wellington at this time of year, and the fact that you can go running and hiking and mountain-biking right in the middle of the damn city, beneath the clouds of once near-extinct birds pulsing above the native trees. 

But by midyear the mountains to the north and south are no longer visible. Neither is the harbour. Neither are the birds. Even the hills are just ominous shapes in the mist. Instead the winds and sleet and rain howl in off the sea, and they keep on howling for six fucking months, the wind tossing sheets of frozen, horizontal rain around the city like a celebrity trashing a hotel room. “If Wellington had good weather all year we couldn’t afford to live here,” is a thing I say to friends and family in the early stages of this season. “We’d be like Geneva, or Park City.”

But by December, when Auckland eats dinner outside every night, and my face is frozen into a grinning rictus after walking into so many blasts of icy, screaming wind, I stop saying this, because I no longer want to live here either. “Nobody should live here,” I say instead. ‘This is a cursed place.”  

Last week Wellington saw only six minutes of sunshine. Cursed. It was also weirdly deserted. While the rest of the country – and even the satellite towns of the Wellington region, places like Porirua and the Hutt – opened up, central Wellington still had that haunted, empty lockdown-era air to it. And so many cafes were closed! Normally, when Wellingtonians can’t jog along the south coast or go mountain biking at Mākara, we crowd into cafes and drink coffee and talk about it as if it’s an illicit drug or an underground band only we know about instead of a ubiquitous global commodity.

But last week the cafes opened late and closed early. The ones I went to were near-deserted. The streets outside them were empty; with empty buses sending up sheets of spray as they cruised past empty bus stops, empty shops, darkened office buildings. “It’s because the public service aren’t back at work yet,” the cafe owners complained. ‘They’re mostly still working from home.” And it looks like many of them will stay there. For, eg, Radio New Zealand recently reported that as many as 80% of Ministry of Health employees have indicated they’d prefer to continue working remotely. Many businesses in the central city are worried they’ll go bankrupt.

I talked to a right-wing political operative last week, and wondered aloud if the opposition was going to attack the government over this. “Probably not,” the operative replied. “It’s shocking, but the opposition parties do want the country to succeed, and every day the Treasury and MBIE offices are effectively shut adds incalculable value to the wider New Zealand economy. That’s Labour’s recovery plan. Grant Robertson is a genius.” 

Maybe he is. But the remotely working public service has not covered itself in glory over the last week. It really has seemed cursed. Much of the Wellington commentariat has been puzzling over what’s gone wrong with the border management and Covid testing debacles, and who should be fired for it all now that the military has been called in to literally do the public sector’s jobs for them. I have no secret insights into this. But I do know that most people working from home find it a very productive way to work when you have a large, difficult solo project to finish and don’t want to be distracted, but difficult and unproductive when you have an unstructured, ongoing, collaborative set of tasks to complete and problems to manage. Like, say, responding to a pandemic. Maybe that’s part of the puzzle here? 

I make mistakes at work too. And some mornings, around this time of year, after the weather’s changed and the city is wreathed in rain and drowned in mist and I have to commute to campus via a public transport system that’s a chaotic, unreliable mess, I try to persuade myself I should “work from home”. I generally force myself to go into work. But if I do stay home, then find myself making mistakes that might kill hundreds of people and cause billions of dollars damage to the economy, I like to think I’ll go back into the office. Even if it’s raining.

Keep going!