Dark Journey: How many of us came away from the Macdonald trial concerned at how large the cancer growing in the nation's heartland has become ... and wondering how far it has spread?
“THE GUY FAMILY are all of us.” Or so the Manawatu Standard would have us believe. But they’re not. The Guys are a wealthy Manawatu farming family – so wealthy they could afford to pay their son, Scott, and their son-in-law, Ewen, $100,000 p.a. each to run the family business. So wealthy that the bitter struggle between Scott and Ewen for eventual control of the property provided a plausible motive for murder.
All of us simply don’t live in a world where Dad, or our father-in-law, has enough money coming in to pay us a six-figure salary for attaching suction-cups to cows’ teats and driving around on tractors. Most of us live in a world where years of schooling and training leave us earning considerably less than the 32-year-old cow cocky who left school at 16, went to work on a neighbouring farm, and somehow persuaded the boss’s daughter to marry him.
All of us were interested in the Shakespeare-in-Gumboots drama played out in a Wellington courtroom this past month for exactly the same reason that (nearly) all of us used to watch Dallas back in the 1980s. Not because JR and Bobby Ewing were like us, but because the privileged lives of those wealthy Texas ranchers were nothing like us. Dallas drew us into a world where money was power, and where both could be had for nothing more praiseworthy than being a father’s son, his daughter’s husband, or the parents of his grandchildren.
If that all sounds a little feudal, then award yourself full marks for historical perspicacity, and get used to it. Because in the trial of Ewen Macdonald we all caught a glimpse of the vicious, class-ridden and quasi-dynastic society New Zealand is becoming. A society in which we no longer make our own fortunes but attach ourselves to someone else’s. A society in which arrogance breeds resentment potent enough to burn down one house and vandalise another. A society in which men settle scores in the dark … with shotguns.
No, “all of us” are not like the Guys – nothing like. The more fascinating – and worrying – question is: “How many of us are like Ewen Macdonald?”
On the surface he was everything the “ordinary” Kiwi admires: taciturn, hard-working, quietly ambitious; the sort of guy who rubs along well with everyone; mans the barbecue at fundraisers; gets elected to the local school board of trustees.
But, below the surface? Ah, well, that’s a different story. Gordon McLauchlan still insists we’re a passionless people, but Gordon has always been wrong about that. What defines so many New Zealanders – especially Ewen – isn’t a lack of passion but a surfeit of repression. That sinister expression: “You’ll keep!”, sums it up nicely. For what can it possibly mean except: “You’ve wronged me, but I’m not going to confront you now. No, I’m going to bury your insult deep, wait until it putrefies, collect all the poison, pour it into your beer when you’re not looking, and then watch you drink it.”
Two Ewen Macdonalds: Ewen of the Day and Ewen of the Night.
This repression was revealed during the trial, where we encountered two Ewens. The bluff cow cocky that was Ewen of the Day, and the deeply disturbing criminal that was Ewen of the Night. The man on a “mission” who crept into his neighbours’ farms under cover of darkness and poached their livestock. The man who torched his brother-in-law’s house for a laugh. The man who, accompanied by his faithful “childlike” partner-in-crime, Callum Boe, (a name worthy of Harper Lee or William Faulkner!) took an axe to Scott’s wife Kylee’s nearly-finished dream-house and scrawled “bitch slapper fucking whore” on its shattered walls.
Ewen’s outstanding lawyer, Greg King, asked the Jury to accept that these were “crimes against property” not against people. Well, that may have been true of the $20,000 stags he shot in the dark and then buried. But surely the arson and the vandalism were crimes against people? Surely they were blows directed against Scott and Kylee?
How well Mr King understood the mind-set of the ladies and gentlemen of his jury. How clever he was to call the brutal slaying of Scott Guy a “whodunit”: to turn the trial into a parlour game; to invite the eleven jury members to sit back and enjoy the ride he was about to take them on. He understood equally clearly how vital it was , in an era when the world’s television screens seem to feature nothing but crime and forensic detection, that his ride should make them think only of CSI and never of Criminal Minds.
The very last thing the Defence wanted was for the Jury to use their imaginations. Under no circumstances should they be invited to follow the evidence down the dark staircase that led to Ewen of the Night’s state of mind.
Fortunately for Mr King we live in an age where only a tiny minority of the population has even the slightest grasp of the literary canon of their civilisation. A better read Jury, when told by Mr King that the quarrel between Scott and Ewen had been mended; that they’d become the best of friends; might have recalled Shakespeare’s famous line from Hamlet: “That one may smile and smile, and be a villain”.
And so Ewen Macdonald was acquitted. The Crown failed to make the Jury stare long enough into the abyss that was Ewen of Night, and Mr King, with extraordinary forensic flair, unplaited the circumstantial rope with which the Prosecution had hoped to hang the Defendant. The Guys will go on asking: “Who killed our son?” And the Macdonalds will ask themselves a very similar question. The little town of Feilding will close ranks and keep quiet. In rural communities you either follow the lead of the big landowners, or leave.
And all of us? What will we take away from the past four weeks? Some will recall Hamlet and King Lear. Others will think of Dallas and CSI. But how many, I wonder, will register how large the cancer growing in the heartland has become. How many will ask themselves if it has metastasized into New Zealand’s cities and suburbs. This all-consuming greed; this murderous impatience; this contradictory urge to both curry favour and cast down: the cancer that’s eating us alive.
How long must we go on muttering: “You’ll keep!” Waiting there in the darkness before sunrise; listening for the sound of the ute’s tyres on the gravel; cringing from the sudden glare of the headlights; feeling the weight of the shotgun in our hands?
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.