Determined to write New Zealand’s first Covid book, Paul Little chronicled the lives of more than 20 New Zealanders under lockdown as rural domesticity took over his own.
It all started with a mysterious virus causing a global pandemic that threatened the lives of millions of people, my writer wife and I losing our long-standing sources of income thanks to belt-tightening at NZME that coincided with the termination of Bauer Media, and a national lockdown that separated us indefinitely from our children and grandchildren.
You had to laugh.
You also had to find something to do. There was plenty to do in the garden, of course. And there was any amount of baking to be done, especially since I’d discovered how to make suet pastry. And walking the dogs on the beach more regularly than had been the custom was part of our new normal.
Certainly, all those activities were potential sources of income. But with the combination of lockdown and our remote rural location, the opportunities for selling produce at the gate to passing trade, flogging my suet pastry pies at the now-dormant Opononi market, or becoming a rural dog walker to the well-heeled, were severely limited.
One thing I did realise quickly was that there would be a book to be written about the experience. Probably several. My thoughts went back to the Canterbury earthquakes and the books that rippled out from that like shockwaves, stretching publisher inspiration to the point that, apparently having exhausted all other angles, people actually produced volumes called Quake Dogs and Quake Cats, full of inspiring tales of furry valour.
And the pandemic affected not just one province but the whole country, suggesting there would be even more to be said before we were reduced to Cockatiels of Covid. And one of those books would have to be the first.
As a ghostwriter, I can knock out a book in 10 weeks. With nothing else on work-wise, I reckoned I could do one in eight and still meet my daily baking targets. This would be the first Covid book in New Zealand – a dramatic account of an unprecedented* time, dropped into the publisher’s quivering hands, according to the letter of agreement, on June 8.
The book I hope you will soon hold in your reasonably steady hands is exactly the book that I imagined then. The plan was to follow the progress through the Covid-19 pandemic of a representative range of New Zealanders. I alleged in a pitch to my publisher that I would “check in on them weekly or fortnightly to record their experiences, expectations and reality, changing ideas and hopes for the future. Together their stories would build a compelling, personal, oral history of the epidemic”.
Almost half of the eventual participants in the book were there in those first few moments. Which was just as well, because I didn’t have a lot of time to mull over possibilities and fiddle with longlists and shortlists. Also: it was a pandemic. Who knew back then how many of those setting out on this perilous narrative journey would still be there when we reached our destination?
Obviously, the first thing to do was decide exactly who would comprise my ragtag bunch of misfits bound for Covid glory. I wanted people who were active in areas that would be greatly affected by the exigencies of lockdown. There were obviously many possible areas of interest, but wrangling more than 20 people’s stories would have been unwieldy. This was to be a chronicle, not an encyclopaedia. I soon narrowed down my dream team.
To my relief and delight, without exception, those I approached all got it with minimal explanation, and almost without exception, they agreed immediately.
Ultimately there were 21 contributors. They included friends, acquaintances, my accountant, people I’d written a book about before, total strangers, one cousin and my daughter’s boyfriend’s sister.
We were off to a great start. I began the book on April 8, 13 days into alert level four, and finished it on deadline eight weeks later. There was no way anyone was going to have a New Zealand Covid book out before mine.
So, congratulations to Chris Penk for Flattening the Country: the real story behind Labour’s lockdown published in June; to Anna Crichton for Dear Virus: A cartoonist chronicles love and life in the time of Covid, also in June; Phoebe Morris for Super Felix: Talking to kids about Covid-19, free to download in April; and Vaughn Davis for Covid Schmovid: 19 ways to make your small business boom, published September 11. [Ed: also to Kees Lodder, Cathy Casey, Manuela Bertão and Alex Casey for Opening Little Boxes, released in July.]
Meanwhile, interviews for the chronicle began, the process quickly resolving itself into one where I crammed all the interviews into half-hour slots on two to three days a week.
Honestly, I don’t know how counsellors do it, listening empathetically to other people from one end of the day to the next. Sure, getting $200-plus an hour probably helps, but it’s not all about the money, is it?
At our place, lockdown itself was the old normal. Apart from the factors mentioned above, nothing changed. Our house can’t be seen from the road, and that road is unsealed and seldom burdened with traffic so there was no sense for us of suddenly deserted streets. We have neighbours but they’d chosen to lock down elsewhere. Silence is the default soundtrack to our lives. There were no shops to be shut, no restaurants to which we couldn’t gain access, and we only go to the supermarket once a month anyway. Our children are all grown and my wife and I are used to being together around the clock, and like it that way. Admittedly, as with every marriage, there was some strain, especially as I sunk deeper into the book. I don’t think the designation “Captain Covid” was necessarily meant kindly, but I chose to wear it with pride.
I knew how lucky we really, really were, in contrast to many of the book’s participants who were having the full lockdown experience. They were both inspiring and somewhat intimidating. There they were dealing with the likes of mass unemployment for their members, keeping morale up for thousands of essential workers, facing their mental health demons, and learning the rules of a new (enforced) domesticity.
I had to collect the eggs from where our very free-range hens had hidden them every day and keep up with the spellchecking.
We tried to fit in and do what other people did. They had international Zoom quizzes, some requiring costumes. We had a couple of desultory chats between the family before packing that in. One respondent had themed Sunday night dinners involving elaborate menus, set dressing and wardrobe challenges. We had my father-in-law – the other occupant of our bubble – over for a weekly roast that was all over by 6.30pm because old people like to eat early.
That was as crazy as it got around here, but the perspectives of the people in the book were frequently startling if not downright surreal.
There was supermarket chain boss Chris Quin recalling how, after his wife watched a news bulletin about panic buying, she asked him if he thought they should stock up.
There was Grant Robertson describing how decisions about spending billions of dollars that would normally have taken place over months were being changed several times in one week. I was working out how many scones I could get out of one pumpkin.
Mental health worker Mark Wilson and his wife, back from a honeymoon in California, had been self-isolating before it was mandatory and found themselves the object of fascinated curiosity from neighbours who gingerly left food offerings on their deck before retreating quickly.
There was funeral director Francis Tipene, bemused to find himself overstocked with caskets that had been ordered in preparation for the large number of deaths that never eventuated.
And there was entrepreneur Jenene Crossan, who reminded us what it was all about and how lucky most of us were. A Covid sufferer and survivor, living to this day with serious ongoing effects, she represented the issue at the heart of all this – a terrible disease that could affect anyone. She also, in her almost-uniqueness, reminded us how remarkable the country’s achievement was. Most New Zealanders don’t even know anyone who’s had the virus. That’s how well we confronted it, and that’s the story I’ve tried to tell in this book.
* I don’t understand the hard time the cool kids in the media have been giving the word “unprecedented”. I guess if you are 102 years old, you have the precedent of the 1918 flu epidemic, but for the rest of us, this has all been rather novel. It seems an extremely useful word to describe that aspect of the experience. Unlike the ridiculous “pivot”, which, I am happy to say, does not occur at any point in The Covid Chronicles.
The Covid Chronicles: Lessons from New Zealand, by Paul Little (HarperCollins, $36.99) is available from Unity Wellington and Auckland.
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