Dr Richard Swainson runs Hamilton’s last DVD rental store and is a weekly contributor to the Waikato Times history page.
OPINION: 2022 will be remembered as a year of loss. However invested you were in our largely absentee head of state, the demise of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II removes one of the constants in our lives. When I phoned my English-born aunt, who was employed at Eton College at the time of the last coronation, to offer condolences, it occurred to me that Jean was amongst a select minority: those born before 1936, whose life span has encompassed the complete reign of three monarchs, the tail end of another and the beginning of a fifth.
Such numbers would cut no ice with republicans, many of whom fume on the margins of the media, startled by the outpouring of genuine grief and emotion. What a masterstroke that Paddington Bear animation was during the platinum jubilee, capturing the imagination of a whole new generation, ensuring that we can stave off the spectre of a pigs-in-trough, home-grown presidency for decades yet. Affection for the colonial roots runs a tad deeper than the finger-wagging intellectuals and woke crusaders suspect. I hope to die in a constitutional monarchy.
When I awoke to the news of Elizabeth II’s passing I could initially muster little more than numbness. My wife and I were still processing the fact that a good friend, Noel Smith, the vice-president of the Rotorua Morris Minor club, had died around the same time. I was still mourning the death of a gentleman and scholar who served as best man at our wedding, Dr Dean Ballinger, having taken off around ten days to help organise his funeral. A few weeks before Dean and I had attended the memorial service of one his former colleagues, Dr Geoff Lealand, Prior to that, I heard that an old teammate from interclub squash, Dr Peter Robinson, had met a premature end. Earlier still, news that Gareth ‘Griff’ Robb, an irrepressible character who had preceded Dean in the Mobile Stud Unit, arguably Hamilton’s finest ever band, had died in the saddest of circumstances, was devastating.
Did I mention that 2022 is a year of loss? Since the sovereign’s demise the world has been deprived Jean-Luc Godard, an artist some would argue was the greatest living filmmaker and almost indisputably its most influential. And Lambchop Dragonwitch, Jr., the only feline to have ever resided at Auteur House, my domicile and place of business, lost the last of his nine lives at the venerable age of sixteen.
I attempted to write the obituaries of some of the above named, employing all the professional distance the task requires. However much you strive to reconcile a list of vocational achievement, gongs and good deeds against a sense of the subject’s character, the tyranny of the word limit ensures you always fall short. I feel this acutely in Dean’s case, where a description of the precise nature of motor neurone disease, of how it systematically stripped the most articulate of men of his voice before robbing the cartoonist and fine artist of his capacity to draw and the musician of his ability to drum or play keyboards, needed to be spelt out. I could have added how he never complained, accepted the love and care of his wife with grace and forbearance yet also was honest enough to communicate his anxiety about death and great sadness at leaving his partner and three sons at the age of forty-eight.
Dean’s long interest in the paranormal should have been recognised with a couple of stories relevant to his passing. Back in November 2014, as we were posing for post ceremony wedding photographs in the Te Awamutu Rose Gardens, Dean became fidgety and evidently distressed. When I pressed him as to the reason, he explained that he had just been overcome with a strong sense that he would die prematurely. We laughed it off at the time – or at least I did – but when his MND diagnosis was confirmed some six years later, Dean brought up the incident, certain that he had foretold his own destiny.
Exactly a month before he died, Dean and his wife Kelly witnessed and photographed a rare albino tūī in their garden. He was sufficiently excited to post the images to social media, seemingly missing the significance of the white bird as a harbinger of death in both Māori and European mythology.
Whether such poetic notions provide solace or provoke incredulity, in his last days Dean was reading Ecology of Souls, a book which he described as “an ambitious attempt to develop a unified theory for all paranormal phenomena based on the conceit that they have something to do with the dead”. With a critical if always open mind, he was trying to understand what was immediately ahead.
However we conceive of death, the reality of loss is all too evident in the days, weeks and months that follow, as those left behind feel the absence of voices, opinions and company. What I would not give to hear Dean’s pithy remarks with regard Godard’s passing, especially given the Swiss-born film director elected to take his own life, an option that Dean himself never seriously considered. How I would laugh at Geoff Lealand’s curmudgeonly response to the sovereign’s death and likely renewed enthusiasm for constitutional reform.
The fantasy of a shared afterlife, where the recently deceased gather in some grand departure lounge is a seductive one, beloved of cartoonists. It’s all too easy to image Jean-Luc Godard in a corner, smoking, aloof, spouting in pretentious French some incomprehensible theory of this or that to an incredulous Geoff Lealand, Elizabeth Windsor elsewhere, regally surrounded by corgis and thoroughbreds, perusing a stud book or the heavenly equivalent of Best Bets, whilst Dean Ballinger sketches, Noel Smith tinkers with an engine, Peter Robinson prunes some trees and Griff Robb, sans clothing, dances around and rarks folk up with a provocative aside or two. There would also be a mischievous black cat, pushing over any glass of water in his path, creating havoc.