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  • HUMAN NATURE: Grant McLachlan - Stuff - Column

Wowsers unite communities (against them)


The wowsers I came across were not too dissimilar in appearance

and personality as Roald Dahl's 'The Twits.'


"Wowser: an ineffably pious person who mistakes this world for a penitentiary and himself for a warder."

C.J. Dennis’ definition highlights how freedoms can generate spite amongst those unable to enjoy them.


I was on a writer’s retreat at a sleepy lakeside village finishing my grandfather’s war biography. Whilst adapting my grandfather’s struggle through hell to regain his freedom, the local wowser used his freedom to put everyone through hell.


I lived on a shared driveway which backed onto a beachfront reserve. Of the three properties who shared the driveway, the middle property took exception to locals walking past.


Instead of discussing the issue with anyone, the wowser erected a 2 metre high paled fence on the boundary between his neighbour’s property and the reserve.


When the neighbour – a retired farmer - found the fence, he asked the council whether they erected the fence. Thinking that the fence was erected in error, the retired farmer removed a section of the fence with his chainsaw so the public could regain access with the reserve.


The police then arrived and threatened to charge the neighbour with wilful damage. It wasted a lot of resources to clarify the situation.


There was tension for some time after that. While most people chose to ignore the wowser, it only made that person go to more steps to get noticed.

While accessing the reserve, the wowser stopped me, blocked me from using the access and told me that I was trespassing. I had to point out to him that what he was doing wasn’t necessary and that he was on someone else’s land fiddling with a fence he did not own. His response was classic. Standing like a cricket umpire, the retired policy analyst puffed out his chest, exhorted that he was not trespassing because he had not been issued with a trespass notice, and that he was blocking the access for "health and safety reasons." It turns out that the police and the council were familiar with the wowser, whose frivolous complaints occupied too much of their time. Wowsers know how easy it is to create work for bureaucracies to fight their wars for them. What makes it worse is that some bureaucracies often delegate their problems to people who are happy to soak up the bureaucracy’s budgets to exacerbate further.

The second that most people are confronted with a wowser, the frustration caused by not knowing what to do is compounded by the thought of having to complain to someone else or pay someone to fight it for them. That notion challenges the New Zealand psyche. The leverage of such a situation is what the wowser is relying on. Wowsers know that substance comes secondary to process. But if such behaviour continues, you fear that the wowser’s ego will build. ,

The fear of breaking laws allows bureaucrats to wield real power.


Often it comes down to one thing: People feel disempowered by government agencies who tell them what to do or because they don’t know how to deal with issues when they arise.


I recently had to tell a council that they should stop bullying their residents over a matter that was for the courts to decide, not them.


Every element of our central and local government started with a single complaint and an expectation that someone else should fix the problem. As soon as a bureaucracy lacks work, they look for another problem to solve. It doesn’t take much for the solution to a problem to become the problem.


Such an abrasive neighbour, however, can be a unifying force to other members of the community. Putting everyone’s heads together, we discovered that those accessing the reserve only walked on the strips of the right-of-way neighbouring the wowser’s due to a mature redwood obstructing the wowsers's strip. Under the law, the tree had to be removed – at huge expense.


Everyone then issued the wowser with a trespass notice. Faced with the huge cost of removing the redwood, the wowser instead sold their property and was never seen again. The neighbours then erected a sign saying "pedestrian access to reserve." Little effort or cost was involved.




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