Richard Swainson: Brickbats and bouquets
OPINION: A happy by-product of writing an opinion column are the brickbats and the bouquets that occasionally flow your way.
In a sense it matters not which.
A letter to the editor may contradict or indicate the correspondent has missed or twisted one's point but that is always secondary to the fact that its writer read the column in the first place.
A missive of praise, whether sent privately or intended for publication, strokes the ego a great deal but feet should forever be anchored to the ground. You are not engaged to necessarily change minds, still less as part of a popularity contest.
Prior to the general election I wrote a piece that took its lead from a Labour Party rally. It was a dispatch on Jacindamania, reporting on the rapturous reception accorded the new leader as much as the woman herself. The angle I used was a personal one. I expressed delight that the party's policy on tertiary funding corresponded to that enjoyed by my generation some three decades earlier.
A letter to the editor called me out on it. I had "… been beguiled by the stardust and fallen heavily for flowery rhetoric and so-called 'vision' ".
Of course, I beg to differ. Ms Ardern's appeal was less that of Tinker Bell than Norman Kirk, the Labour icon she chose to quote. Her rhetoric was only marginally more flowery than his, if a good deal warmer than any witnessed from the incumbent administration.
In any case, I wasn't advising the readership to vote for Jacinda, rather rejoicing in the fact that there was again a point of difference between New Zealand's two major parties.
If you favoured lower ACC levies over a corporation that actually fulfils the purpose it was set up for, the invitation was there to tick the blue box twice over. Judging by the Hamilton results, most did. Good luck if you have an accident.
The morning the article ran in the paper an email of an altogether different stripe appeared in my inbox.
A distinguished gentleman of 85 years, an occasional Auteur House customer and frequent contributor to the letters page of the Waikato Times, had written to say that it ranked "up there with the best" of my work.
Frank favoured Labour's chances, though volunteered that this opinion was informed by being a "lifetime card-carrying" member of that party.
He then told me that he had not only exercised his franchise early but talked to the Electoral Commission to confirm that his vote would still count if he expired before polling day. Tone is sometimes difficult to ascertain in an email. I'm not sure if this information was meant to make make laugh or not. It did, but it also moved me to tears. A commitment to the country's future was balanced against a blackly humorous acknowledgement of mortality. I hope for Frank's sake, if nothing else, Winston Peters elects to bed down with the left.
Another, far more personal letter arrived the other day, addressed to both my wife and myself. It began with an admission that its author can no longer climb the stairs to visit in person. A sad reality, given that the last time Frances paid a call she was so vigorously present, engaging in banter with our customers, challenging all and sundry to question their assumptions about life. A vital woman, rich in experience, reflective and well informed about both local and world affairs.
Back in March, Frances was one of the few to attend a wee seminar I had been invited to host after a screening of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). Always positive, she provided the kind of detail about the film's cultural backdrop that only an adult of the post-war years could. One or two of my assumptions were quietly corrected. It was a privilege to hear her and others talk about an era I know only from books.
In the letter she writes with dismay about issues referenced over the years in this column, from funerals to urban crime and the sorry, unresponsive state of our police force. She concludes that "nobody cares more than five minutes – if at all", that the younger generation "don't listen and talk past us to the next thing".
I have no answer to this beyond the recognition that New Zealand's population is ageing and we as a society are failing them. Respect and attention cost nothing. It is the least we can offer to those who raised us.