Blessed to be a witness

Friday, 16th September


It's a terrible admission of amorality, but I love watching a bit of aggro. I hope I'm not the sort to slow down in the opposite lane to observe a gruesome car crash on the motorway, but I love seeing big arguments in the street, minor scraps, and so on. It's rather diverting, and exposes real, raw emotions rather than the facsimile ones of the stage and screen.

When we were in Sydney, sitting outside Paddy's Market (a big permanent indoor market that sells everything you could want in the way of cheap Chinese crap, as far as I can tell), we heard a lot of shouting. Then a skinhead ran past us from the entrance and turned to the security guard who was pursuing him, screaming "why don't you get your wife to **** you, you ********er!?!" "Oh goodie," I thought, "street theatre." We sat and watched for a few minutes, speculating on whether he wanted the man's wife to **** him at the same time as he was ****ing someone's ****, or whether being a ********er was a chronic condition. After a few minutes during which time the skinhead's friend was attempting to lead him away to no avail, the police arrived and, after more time during which the skinhead was gesticulating wildly and the security guards were raising eyebrows to each other, he was handcuffed and driven away. Excellent entertainment at no cost to us at all.

Therefore when we were on the road to Mount Maunganui, and we knew we had to pass through the nearby town of Tauranga, and we heard on the news that Tauranga town centre had been evacuated due to a madman who claimed to have two suitcases full of high explosives and was threatening to blow up a hotel, we decided to have lunch there. Three blocks of the town were blocked off by police cars and traffic wardens, and crowds of people stood around watching. The café we were in at the perimeter of the line had never seen custom like it, I hazard, and it took a very long time to get served. But the atmosphere was great. I overheard one guy giggling on the phone that his mate had been in the gym, covered in sweat and wearing just a singlet and shorts, and was evacuated. When he tried to get back to his office to change, he found that it too was barred. "It's all a bit of fun!" he grinned.

"Perhaps he's complaining about the price of the room", said a radio commentator - the Devonport Hotel in which he was holed up is the most expensive in the area. Nobody was taking the threat seriously at all, except the police. The guy in question was a Slovak who was being thrown out of the country. How the cops thought that a former mussel-sheller living in a backpacker hostel had got access to the high explosives he claimed to have I don't know. Perhaps he had provided technical details, or perhaps in the current climate, any potential act of terrorism is to be treated as genuine. The 'terrorist' was demanding to see the Prime Minister, Helen Clarke. And this being election week, I speculated that this could in fact be an electioneering stunt, and the PM would turn up on the scene in a Humvee armed with two M-16s, wave to the cameras, kick in the doors of the hotel with the words "Helen Clarke, taking care of business" and save the day.

Indeed Tauranga's sitting MP, Wintson Peters, did offer his services in what I took to be complete opportunism. This particular oleaginous chap said he'd do "anything in my power to assist my constituents" with regard to the siege, even though the guy with the 'bomb' had specifically asked to see the leader of the ruling Labour party, not the New Zealand First party that he represents. I wouldn't be so cynical about his motives had he not been the guy who, when he realised he was several points behind in the polls, raked up an inconsequential sexual harrassment suit against his National Party opponent, a case that dated from several years ago, was settled out of court, and involved a non-disclosure agreement. This, when breached, led to the revelation that the 'harrassment' involved the gentleman in question saying "I'd bet my left testicle that the All Blacks win next week", which led in turn to the delightful statement from the National Party leader Don Brash, to wit: "I don't want any candidates to be talking about their testicles, to be quite frank."

Slightly more sinister is the case yesterday of a 16-year-old boy who was paid $180 by party workers to deface their opponents' posters, was caught by workers of those opponents, and was held against his will overnight, made to give a video confession, and made to take the defacing stickers down, leading to charges of kidnapping against them. It's gratifying to see that Kiwi politics is as big a train wreck as anyone else's, even if some of the scandals are a bit manufactured, and it appeals to my voyeuristic nature to view the scandals as they unfold, as a non-participating rubbernecker.

We arrived in good time at my cousins' place in Mount Maunganui, where we were kindly and generously welcomed to their cosy bungalow in a cute little town, where they live with my two second cousins of six and two. My uncle and aunt meanwhile are living their dream of living on board a yacht, which is moored at a nearby marina. The boat is also cosy, albeit a trifle more cramped, but their evident pleasure at being there is infectious. Tonight we go for dinner on board.

Our relatives told us that the bomb threat is about the biggest news that the area has ever seen. And as predicted, the next morning the guy gave himself up and the suitcases turned out to be full of air - though if this had happened in Australia, the worryingly draconian anti-terror laws just announced there would probably get him prosecuted for possession of oxygen, which as we all know is a volatile substance and can assist in the manufacture of explosives.

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