Simon Bridges on his new book, and the personal dig that left him in tears

Simon Bridges talks to Greg Bruce about his new book and his new life.

We met at the Servo Cafe – or, as he knew it growing up, the gas station – in Te Atatū Peninsula – or, as he knew it growing up, Tat North. When he lived there in the 80s and early 90s, it was not known as the riviera of the west, and run-down houses were not selling for $2 million.

We were there because he was promoting his book, National Identity, and because it was the place where his identity was formed, in a house quite close to the Servo Cafe, where he lived with his mother, five older siblings and his father, a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher known by fellow Baptists as “Hallelujah Heath”, Bridges shared a bedroom with his brother Mark, six years older than him, whose bed he once peed all over. Mark was annoying him, so he said, “‘If you keep doing that I’m going to pee all over your bed.’ He kept doing it and I peed all over his bed.”

By the time Simon was born, his parents had more or less given up on parenting, he says. “It was complete negligence, right? I roamed the streets of this suburb till all hours and they never checked or anything.”

His father was distant. He describes him now as a “very strange man” and “emotionally crippled”. In the most poignant moment in the book, Bridges, so unused to physical touch from his father, describes his cheeks growing hot and his eyes welling up when holding his hand to cross the road.

“I always got along fine, don’t get me wrong. He never did anything bad to me. Didn’t do a lot good.”

His dad didn’t live in nuance, he says. “It was kinda like, ‘Money good, food good.’ I mean, terrible thing to say about the dead but he bears a passing resemblance to Homer Simpson in a way. Don’t get me wrong: he’s academically smart, but people can be smart and simple, right? And he was simple in his upbringing, what he thought.”

Bridges took me to the church where his father once preached to congregations so big they had to build an extension to the church, and where people would hang out the windows on Sunday mornings, listening to his sermons. It was empty the day we stood in the car park, several months after Bridges had finished writing the book, but only a month after the death of his father. I asked if he would have written about him differently, had he died before the book was finished. He said, “There would be a bit more in the past tense.”

Then he became serious and his voice caught, and he struggled to get the words out. “I think I might have emphasised more that he was a good man … and that he was a … a great man … because he left a great legacy.”

For much of his teens, his dream was to become a radio talkback host. He applied to Auckland Institute of Technology’s Bachelor of Communication Studies, which offered a radio major at the time. He claims, without firm evidence, that Phil Goff was in charge of the course at the time. “I have the rejection letter somewhere. I might be gilding the lily with this but I feel like it was in Goff’s name.”

He believes the rejection was fate. He stayed at school for 7th form and became head boy. Had he been left to make his own decisions, he says, he probably would have done a PhD. “I’d probably be some commie in a university, spouting Marxist critical studies nonsense or something.”

But his dad pressured him to do law and he says he’s grateful for that. By that time, he was already a member of the National Party, which he joined as a teenager, when he saw them canvassing outside Foodtown Te Atatū, where he worked for a while. He says it’s possible he could have gone either way politically. His mum was a card-carrying National voter but his dad was more of a swing voter, who voted Lange during Bridges’ formative years in the 1980s.

“I think in the end maybe it was the talkback that poisoned me … but no, I don’t want to be too cute about it actually. My values were National. They were, if anything, probably more right-wing then, in a way. Back then, you’d get impressed by a very simple thing. I was hugely impressed by John Banks.”

The second most poignant moment in the book comes when he writes of crying while reading an article on The Spinoff, by linguist Elizabeth Gordon, titled: “Simon Bridges has the accent of New Zealand’s future. Get used to it.”

In his years as a top lawyer, when scrutiny of his personal foibles was commonplace, and even during his early years in Parliament, Bridges says no one made fun of the way he spoke. It was only when he reached the top level that people felt entitled to have a crack.

It affected him, he says, because it felt so personal: “So many things that probably could have got to me and should have got to me, didn’t get to me. That really got to me, the accent stuff.

“I think that shock of it being something I hadn’t thought of, the personal nature of it, and just that it was intrinsic.”

Plenty of people tried to make him change the way he spoke, or to help him change, but he was never sure he wanted to. He says now he felt it would be some kind of betrayal, although he doesn’t know why.

He’s pushing back on the criticism now, he says, not just for himself but for anyone else that speaks like him.

“I do think that the book will, in that portion, stop it. I reckon media will read that and appreciate it’s a pretty narrow, parochial snobbism – that if they’re worried about gender and race and all the other things, which they should be, they should be about that as well.”

He was still riding a tricycle while all his friends were riding BMXs and he still remembers the shame of that. He also remembers the shame of his brother calling him “unco”, aged 8 or 9, which put him off sport for good. He writes in the book that he now prefers reading history to watching rugby.

He describes himself as an introvert. He says this doesn’t mean he’s shy or dislikes people, but prefers his own company. In the third most poignant moment in the book, he writes of asking his wife Natalie how he could describe his introversion:”She says it’s very easy. She says my idea of heaven is being alone in a comfy lounge chair in a closed room that’s in a house full of my family going about their activities. All my family would be around, but not with me.”

Understanding he’s an introvert has made him a happier person, he says. If we can all understand ourselves better, he says, we will all be happier people.

“Some people say everyone’s good. I think people, left to their own devices, it’s a bit Lord of the Flies – that people are very selfish. I wouldn’t take that too far, right? There’s good and bad. So, left to my own devices, I would be a grinch, on a desert island with you know, myself and, hopefully, sort of Natalie somewhere, but she could come and go every so often.”

As suggested by the book’s title, National Identity is a reflection not just on his own life, but on the life of the country. Reflection is something he feels we don’t do enough in what he calls our, “Good times, rugby, beach-going culture.” He worries, he says, about New Zealand being a “complacent, lifestyle nation.” His hope is that the book will help people, from any political persuasion, think more about who we are and that doing so will make this a better place to live.

But, in its personal focus and almost ostentatious avoidance of big issues – the cover reads “NOT A POLITICAL MEMOIR” – the book feels a bit like a sequel to the now-famous video of him at his sister’s farm, soon after he was deposed as National leader, walking with a baby yak named Hope: a post that, depending on your point of view, showed him either discovering meaning in life beyond top-level political leadership or charming his way back into it.

Of that video, he says: “Let’s be honest about this, brutally honest: Just as for every other senior politician in the land, including Saint Jacinda, some of these things are planned. It’s like, ‘Let’s make this look like a spontaneous moment that we’ve only been thinking about for the last week.’But that wasn’t.”

Much harder to say that about a book.

In May last year Bridges was ousted as leader of the National Party. Since then, he’s established a renewed connection with his children, been filmed walking with a baby yak, lost a father and written a book.

In the book, he hints at regret for the years in which he was so devoted to politics he hardly saw his family but, when asked about regrets, he doesn’t admit to any. He says his relationship with work is “complicated”, that he’s a workaholic, that work gives him purpose. When he was a Cabinet minister and then leader of the Opposition, he says, he worked every hour he was awake.

“I don’t know if I say it this bluntly or starkly in the book, but that’s very selfish. It’s not, because in a sense you feel like you’ve got a higher purpose, right? You’re giving that to the country, and I know that sounds wanky, but that’s what you tell yourself.”

He says his work habits were an attempt to overcome a sense of inadequacy but, if he could have his time again, he says he would care less about it. He still works 50-60 hour weeks, he says, but he had no work commitments scheduled for the Saturday after we talked, and that would never have been the case during his days in Cabinet and as party leader. He did have something scheduled for Sunday.

“It is sort of for the best,” he says. “In a sense it doesn’t matter because it is what it is, right? But I’ve had a great – what is it now – year or so? It’s been brilliant.”

He’s at peace, he says, and writing the book was an important part of helping him get there. He says it’s allowed him to work the leadership out of his system and to do the same with his father.

“I had a fair bit to process. I was set on a track to try and win a general election, I’d given it everything and I needed something productive and good for myself, and maybe others, to do. And I couldn’t – because of Covid – go and climb Kilimanjaro. So this was it.”

He says someone had recently told him they weren’t sure whether the book was a genius ploy to make a comeback as leader, or an attempt to set fire to everything.

“Other people can analyse the crap out of that. It’s not what I set out to do. Now that I’ve done it, I’m going to have some fun and, I’m going to be frank with you, if I can take some benefit from it, cool. But that wasn’t why I did it – genuinely. I had a period of time, it was good for me, I wanted to do something. It came out more easily than I could have hoped or expected, and simply put I hope people enjoy it, they like it. I hope they get a bit more than that – a bit of deep and meaningful – out of it. In the end though, if they don’t, I don’t want to say, ‘I don’t care’, because that’s too hard in this kind environment in which we’re in, but I’ll be okay. I hope for my publisher, yeah, and for me, it sells a lot of copies, but if it doesn’t, who cares?”

National Identity, by Simon Bridges (HarperCollins, $38) will be available from August 18.

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