A year ago next week, New Zealand went bananas. A posse of visitors from the once European nation of Britain was travelling the country, leaving in its wake a gust so profound and pongy it threatened to rip our pearls from the national clutch.
They were tourists, they were unruly, and by God we miss them.
Who can be blamed, this summer, as we attempt to put ourselves back together after a mostly miserable 2019, for melting into memories of those heady days of January? Who can honestly say that under every Bunnings straw hat they don’t glimpse a boy flipping the bird, threatening to knock their brains out?
Who among you can reasonably putter up to a fast-food restaurant without recalling how the Unruly Tourists were denied service at a Burger King for going through the drive-through on foot?
It’s said that tourists should “take only memories and leave only footprints”. The UTs took that up a gear, leaving footprints and rubbish all over the beach, as well as a sack full of memories for us all.
Such memories! Among other things they were accused of putting hair and ants in their meals so that they could claim them for free, nicking a Christmas tree from a service station, leaving bundles of baby poo on an aeroplane, ripping off motels, and despoiling Takapuna beach.
What a trail of distraction. Headlines sailed across the news sites like foiling catamarans. "Unruly tourists: Motel room left ‘smelling of kid’s poo'"; “The hunt for the unruly people"; “Unruly tourists ‘copulate, defecate and urinate’ in native Britain”; “Worse than pigs”; and inevitably, "May contain hair: Hell launches Unruly Tourist pizza".
Across the nation, New Zealanders gripped their phones waiting for the delicious hit of an unruly push notification about a sighting in a shopping mall, or some toast getting thrown on to the ground, or a UT spotted in a unicorn onesie.
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff got fired up, calling them "a bunch of arseholes", apparently using up all his energy for the year in the process.
Media and thrillseekers alike scoured the country craving a sighting, a trophy, a click, a glimpse of this totemic moment of cultural anthropology. In truth the greatest crime of the family – who were variously reported as claiming to be aristocrats and just here to look at hobbits – was they were plain rude, breaching the cardinal rule for tourists in New Zealand: smile politely, say you’re loving your time here so far and that everyone is just so nice.
After those rollercoaster weeks of unruliness in the summer of 2019 they were deported, to the delight of the 10,000 people who signed a petition demanding they be thrown out, "to teach a lesson to future tourists that we do not accept such behaviour in our Homeland".
A year on, is it time to start a petition of mercy, of redemption: to pardon them their offences and invite them back, just to give us the summer news soap opera we crave? Could they be offered an official pardon by the prime minister or a high ranking hobbit? Come back Unruly Tourists, all is forgiven.
Of course I’m getting carried away. They did some horrible stuff, and some faced criminal sanction for ripping people off. They also teased out some of the worst national tendencies – in the form of classist, xenophobic and outright racism from (to borrow a mayoral phrase) New Zealand’s own bunch of arseholes.
We don’t really want the Unruly Tourists back, even if the gods might forgive us a moment’s nostalgia. What we want is a summer diversion: a mindless, momentary distraction from the existential inferno across the Tasman, from the terrifying portents of chaos in the Middle East, and from a rubbish cricket team.
We need a decent silly season story. So far there is nothing remotely satisfactory on the horizon. It’s been such a silly-desert that otherwise sensible people have resorted to pontificating at length about a small group of individuals who pick up books and then put books down again.
At this point we’re ready to obsess over a friendly dolphin with an adorable name. A lost penguin. An unlikely friendship between a dog and an otter. A confectionery-based scandal. One highly rated New Zealand media figure is said to have drunk half a litre of Bailey’s out of a shoe shortly before Christmas, if that will do it? Things are so desperate I’m ready to get enthused even about politicians with summer beards. Name it, we’ll take it.
And one more thing, if it’s not too much trouble: a Weta Workshop waxwork tableau of the Unruly Tourists in the lobby at Te Papa.