Now it’s time to say goodbye

"To everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven" (Ecclesiastes 3.1, RSV).

Passing Notes, the longest running such column in a New Zealand newspaper, first appeared in the Otago Daily Times on August 7, 1871, initially under the byline "Sigma", but from 1878 by "Civis". Several of its writers have been ODT newspapermen, but for about 60% of its life its writers haven’t been journalists.

One hundred and forty years after that initial column, the first column by the present Civis was published, on August 13, 2011. Nearly 13 years later this Civis passes on the metaphorical pen to a successor.

The editorial staff have suggested that this final personal column should be a "farewell", so first person, rather than third, seems appropriate.

When approached to write Passing Notes for an unspecified period, I was surprised (my only written contributions to the ODT had been occasional Letters to the Editor, and an article written, on the suggestion of a deputy editor, in place of a letter submitted on a complex legal and professional matter), and honoured. I was given an open brief, to write on any subjects I chose, with no restrictions apart from the unspoken but obvious ones of libel and copyright.

In an ODT article marking the 100th birthday of Passing Notes the author wrote "Through the changes in tenure ... the range of subject varied, but throughout there remained the basic attitudes — informal but critical comment, and concerned discussion of current trends." I’ve tried to uphold those attitudes — others can decide whether I’ve succeeded.

I’ve written about books and bedsores, marriage and misogyny, religion and rugby (not the same), scows and sewage, torture and tuatara.

Some correspondents reject my opinions. Fair enough: debating issues is important, and responses to the column have been interesting, whether supportive or dismissive, even when labelling me "a Labour Party apparatchik" (I’ve never belonged to a political party, and I’ve voted for National, Labour, and the Greens). I’ve appreciated supportive letters, especially those defending Civis against ad hominem attacks.

I make no apology for advocating for social democracy — realistic progressive taxation of income, capital gains, and wealth to fund properly public healthcare, education (including tertiary education, both polytechnic and university), healthy affordable housing, and adequate welfare benefits — and for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation.

Or for decrying the destructive policies of the right-wing parties now in government, starving public services and making climate change worse, and the pusillanimous approach of the recent Labour government to taxation.

Or for denouncing the cruelty intrinsic to rodeos, contrary to provisions of the Animal Welfare Act — it’s interesting that those writing to oppose my views on this, as with matters involving Te Tiriti o Waitangi, come from all over New Zealand, well beyond what one might assume about the ODT’s circulation.

And Covid. It kills, can cause long-term disability, and can reduce cognitive ability: Why are masks, which reduce the risk of catching or spreading Covid, so rare in crowded indoor spaces?

Some have railed against Civis’ anonymity: one complainant took the matter, unsuccessfully, to the NZ Media Council. Anonymity is a decision for the ODT: I would happily own all my columns.

It’s been satisfying to note interesting talks (following its fascinating look at Chinese immigrants’ music, Toitu Otago Settlers Museum’s series on immigration to Otago continues in May with a talk about Jewish migration), art exhibitions, and performances by the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, City Choir, Little Box of Operas, other local and visiting musicians, thespians, and (not least) school groups, and to acknowledge individuals who’ve contributed to society locally, nationally, and internationally.

My thanks to the ODT, the three editors I’ve worked under, and past and present editorial and administrative staff, for the opportunity to write the column and for their support. And to all who read Passing Notes.

Best wishes to the new Civis: "Vitai lampada tradunt"