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Upton-on-line December 15th

Final edition from the motherland

A hectic round of loose end tying brings upton-on-line to the end of 2000 and the last edition from the motherland. 42 years on the same farm (that’s all of them by the way), 17 years in the same house and 19 years of political detritus accumulating in box files and folders in Parliament is a lot of dead weight to throw overboard. And upton-on-line is an inveterate hoarder. But the 6th arrondissement beckons.

What the obituaries said

Upton-on-line has been amused to read a succession of political obituaries from the experts in the Press Gallery. Unlike real life, in political life you get to read about your own passing – sometimes before you thought you were finished, and then again when you do actually go. Indeed, some politicians have made a career out of encouraging the political obituary writers to sharpen their pencils only to undergo a further incarnation. Mr Alec Neill who will replace upton-on-line will be eligible for his third obituary when he returns to Parliament on January 12th. You also get to deliver the sermon at your own funeral (known as a valedictory). (Mr Neill has yet to deliver one since you don’t get to give one unless you die of natural causes – i.e. you’re not assassinated in a General Election).

The fascinating thing about reading your own obituary is the extent to which cherished myths are lovingly embalmed along with the corpse. Take John Armstrong of The New Zealand Herald for instance. Having labelled upton-on-line a paradox, he divined that he arrived in Parliament in 1981 “promis[ing] much” but leaves “having delivered less”. Upton-on-line respectfully disagrees – particularly with the first assertion. He arrived far too young to have any impact. The only ‘promise’ was the sort of hypothetical promise unopened scratch kiwi tickets have. Certainly, Armstrong’s predecessors in the Herald didn’t get too excited when there were people like Ruth Richardson to ruffle feathers and the patrician Philip Burdon to smooth them down again.

And delivered less? Well I suppose that’s axiomatic if you’ve first gone along with the great promise myth. Upton-on-line’s heresy was to resign from the Health portfolio. Real political men don’t do these things – they blunder on oblivious to the rising anxiety of their colleagues who quite reasonably just want to get elected. Upton-on-line has made it repeatedly clear that the health reforms were poorly executed – but he is not sure that putting the whole process in neutral for a couple of years was so smart either.

“His failure to handle a really big job forever consigned him to backwater portfolios like Environment and Science”. Well, upton-on-line can’t argue that this is truly the way all parties seem to regard these portfolios, but if that’s the case he just loves backwaters. Asked in 1990 on election night what portfolio he expected, upton-on-line replied (to the incredulity of the journalist in question), “science”. That’s what he had done his homework for. But then that was probably being paradoxical! Or, in Armstrong’s kind verdict, “just too nice” (on the basis that only nice people take an interest in boffins and butterflies).

The Gallery’s stylish stylist, Victoria Main, was less judgemental. Main shared a seventh form geography classroom with upton-on-line back in 1975 when she and some others from the Waikato Diocesan School for Gels came over to St Paul’s Collegiate School for Boys to sharpen up her elementary spatial development and map reading skills! Victoria has pursued a brilliant and international career since then while upton-on-line has, until now, been rooted in Ngaruawahia. And her formidable French language skills have left upton-on-line in a state of nervous disarray every time he has passed her in the corridor.

But her obituary was in English and she had apparently jettisoned any previous verdicts (having written several embryonic obituaries for upton-on-line in the late 'nineties). He was, she opined, Parliament’s “most difficult [MP] to encapsulate in a news story”. There followed a nicely crafted set of verbatim lift-outs. But her magpie eye spied the best line (though upton-on-line says it himself) in the valedictory – the bit about the “sheath-knife toting farmers” in the National caucus. Main leaves Enzed on the same day as upton-on-line to further her brilliant international career working as a francophone antipodean for Agence France Press in London.

As usual, Brent Edwards from the Evening Post was the most forensic, not taking the valedictory on trust but seeking judgements from Helen Clark and Jenny Shipley. Both felt upton-on-line’s author would be missed from Parliament but they had (predictably) different motives for that conclusion.

The only ‘commentator’ (if he can be called that) who was long enough in the tooth to offer a then-and-now obit was cartoonist Tom Scott who simply reproduced (with a few amendments) the cartoon he did for The Listener when upton-on-line first arrived in the House 19 years ago. (It can be viewed at It provides an unflattering account of upton-on-line’s new walk-out-of-the-shower hair style and includes a bust of Gretel (alias Ruth Richardson).

All in all, very drole.

The funeral oration

Upton-on-line does not intend to weary readers with the entire text (it can be found at But he does reproduce the bit about the Treaty since is starts with a family tale that has some pretty deep resonance for him. Here it is:

“The hill country from which the PM comes is very much where my own roots lie.

It’s a beautiful, not specially well known part of New Zealand that guards three magical harbours and some of the wildest and most exhilarating West Coast seascapes in the land. It’s where my father’s mother’s family settled in the very earliest days of European settlement and I’d like, today, to relate a little piece of family history that has been in the back of my mind over the last few years.

If you open the old, 1940 Dictionary of New Zealand Biography you will find this laconic entry under the name of Wilson, Thomas:

“(1814-86), born at Burton-on-Trent, came to Taranaki in the Berkshire (1849) and spent some years in business in New Plymouth and farming. In 1856 he moved to Raglan in the Zillah and took up a farm at Okete, where he remained throughout the Maori wars, running many risks and alarms from hostile natives. He represented Raglan in the Auckland Provincial Council (1873) and was chairman of the Whaingaroa road board and a member of the county council. Wilson died on 8th September 1886.”

Behind that description of my great great grandfather, lies a fascinating tale. Like all early settlers who purchased their land from local Maori, survival depended on getting on with your neighbours. Trade between settlers and Maori developed very quickly.

I grew up in the 1960s listening to my great Uncle – Harold Wilson – reminiscing about life in the Raglan hill country in the second half of the nineteenth century. He knew Tawhiao and Te Puea and, like all members of the first three generations of the family, spoke fluent Maori.

Maori and Pakeha alike were cattle traders. He would talk of how they swam mobs of cattle over the harbour mouths using horses, dogs and Maori canoes, judging it so the turning tide carried the stock to right landing place.

Relations must have been good. Maori used to sharpen their axes on the Wilson grindstones. And when local Maori expressed concern that a tomos in which they’d placed valuable items might be raided, the family obtained iron gates to close off the entrance.

As tensions rose with the approach of the land wars, some Maori advocated the speedy despatch of the Pakeha. My great grandfather – a young man at the time – found himself on the receiving end of this sentiment one day as he squatted on the floor of a whare in Okete. A fierce Maori warrior from the Taranaki had come up the coast to call people to arms and was addressing the locals.

There was a single, white tallow candle burning in the whare and to demonstrate what should happen to the settlers, the speaker raised his taiaha and swung it violently through the candle, decapitating it. “And”, he said, “we should clean up the Wilsons first.”

My great grandfather said he’d never been so terrified in his whole life. But the local elder, one Wiremu Te Naana, intervened. “We have no quarrel with the Wilsons”, he said. “They’re our friends”. And he took off his feathered cloak – his korowai – and placed it around my great grandfather’s shoulders and effectively placed a tapu on the family. It remains in the family to this day.

No-one was harmed. And so my great grandfather, his father and the rest of the family carried on farming without running any “risks and alarms from hostile natives”. And all of us, to this day, know that we owe our existence in New Zealand to that act of magnanimity.

Now there is no particular moral to be drawn from this tale other than that my forbears – and their Maori contemporaries – had to work out, face to face, how to live together. And so must we today. We have to be honest about our history, but there is no need to be trapped by it.”

So that’s it for now

Whether Upton surfaces on-line again is in the balance. A newsletter from the diaspora is an option some time in the New Year. (Everyone except Victoria Main will have to purchase a French dictionary). But in the meantime we can all depart for our summer diet of re-tread movies, front page animal stories, mosquito bites and over-priced Pinot Noir…

Thank you

To upton-on-line readers, one and all, for the feedback, brickbats and occasional floral offerings that came our way. Adrienne Frew has, as a result, almost become a household name and special thanks go to her for her patient administration of each edition. Adrienne makes a dizzying career move in the New Year as she goes to work for a real academic, Dr Wayne Mapp, who lends National most of the gravitas it possesses. Thanks also to Markus Eschmann who usually got it up on the website on time (well almost usually) and finally Bernard Cadogan – the prestidigiateur from whose crepuscular lair (yes, you read that in the funeral oration) most of the intellectual skyrockets emerged, and the odd thunderbolt. We’ve all had fun and, I hope, injected some useful raw material into a debate that has seemed pretty anaemic at times.

Thanks again and happy holidays.

Simon Upton

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