Several times now well-meaning, if misguided, people have suggested I stand for council. I know. When my mother-in-law heard about this, the first time it happened, she almost broke a hip laughing. Because I simply do not have the temperament for it. Can you imagine me coping with long boring meetings, misogynist old farts or the tedious minutiae of engineering reports: “Is it going to flood? It’s not? Excellent, let’s all go home then.”
Such were my thoughts last Saturday as I sat through a three hour meeting that made Brexit look straightforward, held at a school in a seaside community just outside Dunedin. There were the usual pitfalls: technological failures, reading out entire reports instead of just handing copies around, a bewildering focus on the cost of tea towels and whether it should be put in the general expenses column.
That took care of the first hour. Next, to the reason for the great number of permanent and part time residents who’d turned out in the freezing rain for a meeting they’d normally sleep through: plans to install a toilet on the reserve of this quiet seaside village. A poo had been seen (sadly not photographically documented − as Councillor Andrew Noone later intimated, poo hearsay isn’t good enough) and on the basis of this single fouling, events had been set in motion resulting in the most frightening phrase in the English language being uttered: “Hello, I’m from the council, and I’m here to help.”
A toilet expert ran through the various considerations, three of which were purposefully completely absurd (“let’s put it in the cemetery,” oh, how culturally sensitive) in order to make the bad thing look less bad. “He really knows his shit,” said the economist, looking a little flushed. The room was getting hot, with impatience. We had come to bury Caesar but were being forced instead to listen to digressions on odour dispersal, bird bathing (something tourists do when there is water in a public facility involving washing their smalls and having a quick sluice of their stinky parts, the solution being a dry waste system) and the notorious difficulty of keeping public toilets clean. Security would be provided by the DCC to stop vandalism and antisocial behaviour. Good lord! This was really selling it.
Strangely polite, while child-size chairs crushed our spines to powder we listened and listened as the manifold intricacies of the thing we had absolutely no interest in having were explained at length. However, someone had pooped and someone had complained and now it was a public health matter, the council involved. Unfortunately there was no way to back out of their presence, or hypnotise them to ambivalence with, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” No diverting the great meddling eye of Sauron now.
Sweet old duffers inadvertently spoke great truths. “We don’t have busloads of people coming here,” they said. Yes, because there isn’t a toilet. “Wouldn’t a toilet attract more people to the area?” By Jove, I think you’ve got it! We could decide how much information we wanted listed on the council website, said the nice lady from Planning and Gravel (I think). Nothing could be done about Lonely Planet, obviously. Lonely Planet! What century were they living in? The only thing Lonely Planets were good for these days was shoring up the walls of Pakistani high rises, in lieu of bricks.
The economist demonstrated the Camping NZ app he had downloaded on his phone that morning, showing every toilet in the vicinity. “What is your point!?” thundered a local. Things fell apart. The centre could not hold, nor the veneer of civility. Freedom campers! Warrington! Last summer! Councillor Noone was of the opinion tourists were great for the economy. It was Nimby-ism to try to stop the toilet, and by extension, tourists. Well, yes, that’s exactly what it was. It was our backyard and we did not want it.
A toilet wouldn’t attract freedom campers − that was a ridiculous idea, apparently. I said I thought it was ridiculous to think it wouldn’t attract them. That if we built it, they would come. I was told on no uncertain terms that I was wrong. Something I will be delighted to be in the fullness of time, if it means no white campers cluttering up the foreshore for months on end, no rubbish or empty cockle beds. “Stop talking,” whispered the economist. “We have to live with these people.” But we also have to live with the consequences of the decisions we make, just as Great Britain now has to live with Boris’s.