Ruby Princess and the Great Discontinuity

Denis O’Reilly is a New Zealand community leader and activist. This is his 91st essay for

My time as a bouncer on the door at Ali Baba’s in Cuba St Wellington, circa 1975, taught me to read the street. Anticipate the hitting of shit upon fan. Sunday two weeks ago, my darling Taape and I went out for our communion, breakfast at Mr. D’s, one of Napier’s superb eateries. Coming down Dickens St was a phalanx of tourists, Aussies and Americans, taking in the sights of our Art Deco City. They had disembarked from a floating petri-dish called the Ruby Princess. Taape and I gave each other that knowing ‘this is not good’ look. Rightly so. As events have transpired, the coming of the Ruby Princess to the Port of Napier was the vector for the transmission of Covid19. This unwelcome waka will come to symbolize Covid19, ‘he mate uruta’, and the great discontinuity it brought.

Discontinuity may not necessarily be bad thing. For the last couple of years or so I’ve felt besieged by more complex work and growing responsibility in an increasingly dysfunctional system. There is little institutional memory in Wellington. There is a mechanistic culture. I agree that what gets measured gets done. Establishing what’s valuable, and then what’s vital, becomes the challenge. We have a whole new opportunity to redefine what’s valuable, what’s vital, and how we count these. We are all going to start as learners.

Then there’s us. Ourselves. There’s a joke I tell. It’s one of my late brother Laurie’s. It goes “What has two wings, two legs, feathers, a beak, and barks?”. The audience, of one or more, ponders. Responses are proposed. They fail. Eventually the propositions evaporate, and the riddle’s solution is sought. “A chicken!” I tell them. Inevitably, the audience demurs, “But a chicken doesn’t bark!”. “Oh, I just put that in to make it a bit harder.” Let’s just stop making it hard for each other. The new game in town is win win.

In August last year I proposed, on this very platform, to treat gangs and gun crime as a contagion. Damn, careful what you wish for alright. Ah well, resisting Covid19 now means there are no gangs or ‘others’ anymore. Only New Zealanders. Let’s keep it that way. We are in this together. It is said that in apocalyptic times we initially panic. We then go through a secondary phase, one of altruism and great aroha towards one another. “Be kind to each other”. But as time goes on, and the new order of things starts to stretch from weeks to months, and a certain stir craziness arises we can experience a third phase, a descent into ‘WROL’ as preppers call it, Without Rule of Law. Facilitating compliance with the laws in order to break the chain of infection is a noble role. In my Consultancy Advocacy & Research Trust role I’m proud to serve and facilitate a team of five pro-social ‘kahukura’. These are community leaders who are committed to te mana kaha o te whanau, the building of strong achieving families, and who seek to mitigate community harm. Indeed, we are all in this together.

Prior to Martial Law I went to a performance by Kate Tempest at the Michael Fowler Centre. It was part of the NZ Arts Festival. I’d heard her on National Radio. I thought wow.

It’s coming to pass, my countries coming apart
The whole thing’s becoming such a bumbling farce
Was that a pivotal historical moment we just went stumbling past?
Well, here we are, dancing in the rumbling dark
So come a little closer, give me something to grasp
Give me your beautiful, crumbling heart

Festival crowds are their own beast. You’ve got your ‘NZ Festival Friends’ set who are predominantly mature middle-class Pakeha prepared to venture. Then there’s people like me who just happen upon an artist. And then there’s the fans. I think the bulk of the ‘Friends’ set at the performance had come directly from the Save Concert FM Protest Concert at Parliament, such was their ilk. It was a diverse audience, and ain’t diversity the order of the day!

I’d thought Kate Tempest was a black woman from ‘sarf London’. I was to be educated. She’s a true pink Pom. She started off with a korero about Tyson Fury who overcome unimaginable challenges as a child, and since has had to struggle with mental health and addictions issues. Kate related a recent tale about how difficult it was to find somewhere to view Tyson’s recent world title fight against Deontay Wilder. I was a bit non-plussed. The man is a mad Irish traveler. The fight was a brutal thug fest. Maybe Kate liked the way that he flipped the script by witnessing for Jesus Christ (as an alternative to sweet Allah) and then having the cheek to sing Bye Bye Miss American Pie as a salute to the audience. Well Kate sure as hell had blown any misconceptions I might have been gathering about where her mind is at. Performance commenced. It took me a while to distinguish the lyrics from the bass-laden beat, but, slowly the verbal imagery, spatial lighting, and the synth sounds curated by Hinako Omori, blended and built, and a groove grew. The fans, louche lizard types, gathered front stage right in a rhythmic flowing dance. Alternatively, when the lyrics required deep attention and contemplation, they gazed lovingly at Kate, elbow on stage, hand on chin, Rodin like. The performance was compelling, all enveloping. Kevin Roberts once talked of Sisomo, being sight, sound, and (e)motion, and this was a prime fusion of all these factors. I never saw live performances of Alan Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac or any of the other beat poets. I have heard Linton Kewsi Johnson and Leonard Cohen. It seems to me Kate Tempest is up there as a lyricist, eerier perhaps, but equally a profound voice of our times. Hello, Bob Dylan’s newly released recording Murder Most Foul is being played On RNZ Music 101 as I write. A convocation of poets is about us. Things stir in the spirit world.

Discontinuity. Life and death, ka mate, ka ora. Everything will change, even culture. New tikanga will arise. The people from Waipatu, such as the Tomoana whanau, are a wellspring of the spirit in momentous times. They have deep cultural knowledge and can express these metaphysical matters in melody and rhyme. They also speak straight. Ngahiwi Tomoana is our tribal chairman. He knows of the 1918 flu’ epidemic and the disproportionate impact this had on Maori, a mortality rate of five to one. Ngahiwi anticipates the grief and the cultural discontinuity ahead and shares his personal consolation.

To my mokos and kids
If I die today- bury me straight away
Bury me quick bury me quiet
Tika tonu this is love uee!

No tears no tradition no throngs can defeat this thing
Only love And I love you all
No marae No goodbye
Tika tonu This is love uee!

Pray for the healing hands
That day by day eye death
The labourers , the leaders , the legions of volunteers
Tika tonu this is love uee!

I’m shrouded in my reo
Aroha manaaki wairua
Bury me quick bury me quiet
Tika tonu this is love uee!

I’ve booked a room in Hotel Hawaiki for you and me
For eternity Life death love is forever
Bury me quick bury me quiet
Bury me close

Come the day to cry
Create and celebrate the beast is dead Hareruia! But not today
Tika tonu this is love uee!

My breath of life lives on
In my charging mokos my handsome sons my haughty daughters
Tihei mauriora!
Bury me quick quiet and close
Tika tonu this is love uee!

Ngā mihi aroha kia koutou katoa, Na Ngahiwi Tomoana – Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi Inc. Chair.
Thankyou Ngahiwi. God Bless. Ka nui te ora. Keep safe, korero awhi, speak words of love. Denis O’Reilly Pa Waiohiki. 28 March 2020

Tags: Corona Virus  COVID-19  Denis O'Reilly  

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