The end of the world is nigh. Portents of doom abound, although it’s not locusts and boils this time. First, all the really good people have started dying. Bowie, Prince. Why isn’t it ever somebody like Gene Simmons from Kiss? Next, avocados cost $6 EACH. Soon, robots will take our jobs. Humans are to robots what horses were at the dawn of the automobile, complete with the same level of cynicism: “Think it’ll affect us?” “Neigh.” A bot may already be doing my job – I’m not sure you’d notice the difference, apart from a marked improvement in spelling and grammar.
The point being, things are stink and getting stinker. Folks are living in their cars. Not living in their cars like I did during Girlfriend Suitability Test holidays with the economist; where (and most women will identify with this) one puts up with mild indignities such as gritty coffee and sleeping in the back of a Holden Commodore for the chance to shag a hot bloke. No, New Zealanders are taking up residence in cars because they have nowhere else to go. This, in a country where the first Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, once carried tenants’ furniture into the first state home while people looked on, shouting ‘Hooray!’ A country that practically invented social welfare (actually, it was the Song dynasty in 1000AD, followed by the Holy Roman Empire, but by golly we were quick to get on board, in 1935). A place known for a love of fairness, men who cry at sheep dog trials, Telethons.
Today’s Kiwis are brilliant travellers, only too happy to shower the beggars of the world with spare change; wholly without sympathy when poverty clutters up the footpath at home. Because then it becomes, not an example of the roulette-like vagaries of Third World life: “Mate, you won’t believe the bloody shambles over there,” but someone who looks like us/talks like us/supports our team. In other words, our responsibility, our problem.
The first time I saw a beggar on the streets of Dunedin, I was astonished. I mentioned it later that night at a dinner party and heard him denounced as lazy, a bum. Someone making an (apparently) incredible amount of money doing nothing. Because it’s much more comforting to think a grimy, gap-toothed man surrounded by plastic bags has brought it on himself. Because just thinking about the financial knife edge most of us walk every day, the insurance-less, savings-less sliver of fingers-crossed that losing your job/husband/getting cancer could knock us off − the hairs-breadth separating respectability and destitution − is so frightening we’d rather not contemplate it. Better to see the homeless as shiftless losers. Wilful jumpers, not the fallen.
At dusk tonight, the Real Homeless of Auckland (many not beneficiaries but full-time employed) will begin gathering in Bruce Pullman Park, preparing to sleep in their cars while across town at the Pullman Hotel the stiletto-shod Real Housewives of Auckland wobble out to the Merc after a divine high tea spread (a mere $68 per person) of blueberry macarons, citrus tea cake, smoked salmon sandwiches and spinach tart topped with goat cheese foam; toasting their good fortune with a glass of Moet et Chandon ($18) or sharing a bottle: “Let’s push the boat out.” “We can’t, Binky’s taken it down the Sounds. Hahaha!” for only $90. Guess which group Matchbox Pictures are making a TV show about.
Norm Kirk (incidentally also a Labour PM − is there a pattern emerging?), who built his own house, right down to casting the bricks, after paying £40 for a Kaiapoi section, famously said people don’t want much just, “Someone to love, somewhere to work and something to hope for.” Now, if The Bachelor’s anything to go by, you’ll be lucky to find someone to love and a job that isn’t a complete waste of 4 years and a $50,000 loan. There’s still something to hope for, as long as it’s not owning your own home. Hope Trump doesn’t win.
The ‘nots’ vastly outnumbering the ‘haves,’ and the haves disinclined to share, this a good time to mention Jesus. “The poor are always with us,” he said, which politicians love to repeat as a verbal shrug, a way of saying, ‘Yeah, nah, it’s inevitable,’ conveniently forgetting the second half of this quote from the Gospel of Mark, which is ‘… and you can help them anytime you want.”
The robots haven’t yet taken over, but the heartless seem to be in power. Here, at the Apocalypse of decency, you’d better pray. Pray it doesn’t happen to you.