Bill English unplugged

Prime Minister Bill English takes CLAIRE TREVETT of the New Zealand Herald for a walk at Zealandia.

Roger Sowry, left, and Bill Engish at Zealandia. PICTURE: New Zealand Herald

National leader Bill English can report he is often more internally happy than he looks.
This startling declaration comes while we are standing on the side of a lake at Zealandia discussing resting angry face. He had not known such a phenomenon existed.
“That’s good,” he says. “because I am often more internally happy than I look.”
It may even be true, but English also has a sadistic streak. On our last outing, he dragged us up an almighty mountain near Dipton and I could not move for three days afterward.
This time he was warned in advance via a text that a stroll in Zealandia was not going to be a walk-run and he was not to get any ideas about a repeat of Dipton.
He replied rather ominously that some of the tracks were pretty steep “and you can get lost”.
This was starting to sound a bit Heavenly Creatures.
I replied, maturely, “no, you can get lost”.
It came as some relief when English turned up without either his running shoes or a brick in a sock.
The instructions for this series were to take part in the leader’s pastime with a mate or family member to tell tales on them. No politics is allowed.
I had tried for something genteel, such as joining English on the sidelines watching his son Xavier play rugby.
Some of the other leaders probably have interesting pastimes but apparently English only enjoys wholesome pursuits like striding around mountains, so here we are going for yet another walk this time at Zealandia.
He arrives looking very casual-dapper indeed a Huffer jacket, light checked shirt, blue trousers and boots.
“Did (wife) Mary dress you?” I asked and he looks offended. “No, I’m capable of dressing myself.”
He is reminded of the appalling get-up he turned up in at Dipton, a lime-green raincoat, blue and yellow Highlanders beanie, grotty old sneakers and socks
that looked like they were knitted from Shrek the sheep’s dags. He was supposed to be filmed for a campaign promotional video.
He grins. “There may have been words after that.” At this, his press secretary grins too.
The sanctuary is near English’s home although he is not as frequent a visitor
as in the past when his children were young.
As for his companion? English has 11 siblings and six grown children. Several were apparently asked. All were suspiciously busy that day.
Instead, English has roped in Roger Sowry, a former National MP who is now a consultant at government relations firm Saunders Unsworth.
It is doubtful that English and Sowry regularly meet up to go wandering o’er glen and dale together, but they have been friends for a very long time 27 years in fact. They entered Parliament together in 1990 and Sowry was English’s deputy when he led the National Party last time round, in 2001 and 2003. He left Parliament in 2004.
They were dubbed the “Brat Pack” along with Tony Ryall and Nick Smith. They are now bordering more on Dad’s Army, and only English and Smith remain in Parliament, but they are still a pack.
They all still go on holiday together every summer. At the height of these mass summer exoduses, they had 16 children between them.
English is in charge of organising it this year and the level of his organisation will depend on whether he is still Prime Minister after September 23.
But that is some time away and this is the day before the poll that sparked the series of events leading to Andrew Little’s resignation and Jacinda Ardern’s elevation to Labour leader.
English would have known about the poll, but not the looming leadership change, so he is very chipper indeed not just internally, either. He later claims this was because of the pleasant environment rather than the poll.
English insists on paying the entry fee for himself and Sowry, which is very gallant of him.
But it quickly becomes clear that Sowry’s main role is to be the butt of English’s jokes.
Asked why he picked Sowry for this expedition, English gestures at Sowry and says “because I wanted to look slim and healthy”.
When Sowry later objects to being positioned downhill of English because he looks too short, English says “That’s the whole idea. It’s another of the reasons I picked you.”
By now Sowry may be regretting some of the things he said in the interview prior to English’s arrival.
That included describing English as “compassionate” and “very bright”.
“He’s a very deep thinker, he always finds the good in people when he’s with them. He understands people, he’s got an innate ability to understand what’s driving people and empathise with
That compassion is in short supply today, although Sowry is admittedly more interested in the cafe at the end of the walk then the walk itself.
On those happy families holidays, Sowry stayed back while English and Smith trained for whatever expedition they had planned. In the earlier years, Sowry says that included Coast to Coasts and kayaking from the South Island to the North Island.
“When we go on holiday, Bill’s always done extreme or what I thought were ridiculous things. These are things he goes out and does and I’ve always managed to escape from being dragged into those activities.
“That’s what drives him. He’s always been focused on keeping fit. Someone has to, not me.”
It takes a robust constitution to be one of English’s friends. Even former Prime Minister John Key cops it, without being there to defend himself.
The observation that English is more modest than his predecessor elicits a great snort from Sowry who says “that’s hardly a scale”.
English: “Yes, it’s not a huge effort to be more modest than my predecessor.”
English still hears from Key usually when Key wants to generously offer him some advice or share his views, English says.
He will follow Key’s advice in one respect he plans to stop drinking for the campaign.
“Not that it will be that much of a change, but it’s important through an election campaign to be able to concentrate at all times.”
Key lost about 5kg in the last campaign. English says he too has lost a bit of weight since starting the job, even though he gets out for his constitutionals less often with the fuller diary of a PM.
“It’s not from stopping drinking, I don’t drink a lot. It’s because I think a lot, your brain uses up a lot of energy doesn’t it?”
This is possibly not the most scientific of weight loss tips, but English also has a diet tip.
He gets to eat out a lot more than a Finance Minister did: “The thing that works is you always leave something on the plate. You do that for every course.”
The walk is over and Sowry has found the cafe. Beers are ordered (English’s abstinence vow is yet to kick in).
English relaxes when he hears no big interview is planned. “I prefer to maintain the delusion there remains some great depth to my character that remains unexplored.”
As for Sowry, after 90 minutes of sufferance and promising he will one day get his own back, he gets his revenge.
He tells English he was at a local government conference, but skipped English’s speech.
“My speeches are much better than they used to be,” English boasts.
“Are they?” shoots back Sowry. “Thank God for that.”
By now Sowry too will have followed the example of the English siblings in ensuring he will be busy the next time English asks for such a favour.
He is, much to English’s amusement and his own amazement, off for a cycle tour of Vietnam and will not return until the day before the election.

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