26 Oct 2022

Bookmarks with Dr Ashley Bloomfield

From Afternoons, 2:25 pm on 26 October 2022

"So many good books piled up beside my bed while I was otherwise occupied with carrying this 5000-piece jigsaw piece of Covid in my head for about two and a half years" - Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

After four years as Director General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield is taking a break.

He chats to Jesse Mulligan about some "cracking good" podcasts, books and songs – and the power of kindness.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield

Dr Ashley Bloomfield Photo: New Zealand Doctor

At a stadium concert by American rock band Kings of Leon last week, Dr Ashley Bloomfield reckons he and his wife were the only two people wearing masks.

The show was a "cracker", he says, but with a crowd of over 10,000 people, it could also easily have been a superspreader event.

To Ashley, wearing a mask is an expression of kindness – a quality New Zealanders have demonstrated through the pandemic but one our culture urgently needs to "re-embrace".

New Zealanders' response to the government's "pretty intrusive and extensive" anti-Covid measures is a great example of what collective kindness can achieve, he says.

"The [government's] call to action was a very simple one – stay home, save lives, be kind.

"That's very different to 'stay home and look after yourselves'. It was 'stay home and look after each other'.

"You can't police your way to a good outcome from a Covid pandemic. You can't police your way through a lockdown. It requires people to do the right thing.

"It's a wonderful example of what you can do if people look beyond themselves and say 'what can I do to help others?"

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, followed by Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

 Dr Ashley Bloomfield and Jacinda Ardern Photo: Stuff / Robert Kitchin

Also key to New Zealand's relative success in combatting Covid-19 was our high level of public trust in the government, Ashley says.

"If you look at other countries that were successful, a high level of public trust in what the government was doing was essential.

"Even though that eroded somewhat over time – [particularly] once vaccination came along – we already had a really strong platform that we just continued to build on."

Ashley says he still keeps an eye on New Zealand's Covid numbers but now "without the feeling like it's my responsibility to do something about it".

He'd always wanted to get into podcasts but only had time since resigning as Director General of Health.

Meanwhile, his wife has been "patiently waiting for me to paint the doors inside our house".

In recent days, he's been listening to some podcasts while doing just that - "Podcasts are perfect while I roller the doors."

A few of Ashley Bloomfield's favourite things:

Podcast: The Rest of Politics

Former Downing Street comms strategist Alastair Campbell and former cabinet minister Rory Stewart give an insider’s view of UK politics.

"These two are just fantastic."

The Rest is Politics - brand image

Photo: Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart


Podcast: What You Will Learn

Two Aussie mates who happen to share a first name – Adam 'Ashto' Ashton and Adam 'Jonesy' Jones – read a nonfiction book and then review it together.

"It's very clever and it's very funny as well."

Adam Ashton ("Ashto") and Adam Jones ("Jonesy") - hosts of the podcast What You Will Learn

Adam Ashton ("Ashto") and Adam Jones ("Jonesy") - hosts of the podcast What You Will Learn Photo: What You Will Learn


TV show: Ted Lasso 

Ashley enjoys the sweet, hapless character in this Apple TV+ show about an American football coach hired to manage a British soccer team.


Movie: Burnt By The Sun (1994)

Ashley first saw this "fabulous Russian movie" at a film festival in the '90s and has rewatched it several times times.

"It's a pretty haunting movie about the Stalin times… it's set in 1956 in Russia. It's a stark reminder of what happens when totalitarianism gets away."

Ashley studied the Russian language at school (Wellington's Scots College) and enjoys listening to it.

As a New Zealander visiting the former Soviet Union, he found the cultural differences "very striking".

"Walking down the street you get nothing from the people you look at, you just get a blank face … They don't trust anyone so you give nothing away when you walk down the street."


Movie: My Life as a Dog (1985)

This Lasse Hallström film is set in 1950s rural Sweden.

"It's a delightful coming-of-age tale. A lovely movie to watch, very funny and a good film."


Movie: Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar is the "go-to escapism sci-fi movie" Ashley has watched more times than he can remember.

"[In the film] Earth's not that habitable post-global warning. But a black hole opens up in the outer reaches of the solar system and [an astronaut played by Matthew McConaughey] travels through that looking for some other planets that we might inhabit. Some of the science behind it is very plausible."

The period between 2014 and 2016 was a particularly good one for sci-fi films, Ashley says. He also recommends The Martian and Arrival.


The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu - book cover

Photo: Macmillan

Novel: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin is also a trained engineer with an excellent knowledge of science.

The Three-Body Problem is the first of three "quiet weighty tomes" in his trilogy Remembrance of Earth's Past

'Three-body problem' refers to two stars and one planet orbiting alpha centaur - the star nearest earth four light years away.

"One of the problems in physics is if you have three bodies rotating around each other, their orbits are chaotic. The planet keeps being scorched by one or another sun then life is almost lost. But intelligent life far superior to humankind develops. Then the beings from this planet head towards earth.

"This is a cracking good trilogy and the people who've come across it that have read it have likewise been enthralled by it ... oh my goodness, it's just fantastic".


Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman - book cover

Photo: Little, Brown and Company

Novel: Any Human Heart by William Boyd

One of Ashley's favourite novelists is the Scotsman William Boyd.

His fascinating portrait of Logan Mountstuart – an unremarkable man who repeatedly ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time – is also beautifully written.

"The story is quite remarkable and whilst Mountstuart is something of an antihero, by the end of it you're quite attached to the fellow."


Any Human Heart by William Boyd - book cover

Photo: Penguin Books New Zealand

Non-fiction book: Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

As someone who's "very much an optimist by nature", Ashley really likes the title of this book by the Dutch journalist and historian Rutger Bregman.

"[Bregman] counters the arguments that humans are inherently selfish. He argues that it's our ability to cooperate and show kindness that has allowed us to flourish as a species.

"It's by no means flawless, but he gives a cogent argument for why kindness and cooperation has been fundamental to our success as human bearings.

"That's in a sense what distinguishes us from other animal species that we chose as part of our evolution, quite deliberately, to cooperate with each other."


Active Measures by Thomas Rid - book cover

Photo: Macmillan

Non-fiction book: Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare by Thomas Rid 

Ashley just finished this "excellent" book about the historical problem of disinformation by the German political scientist Thomas Rid.



Song: 'Buffalo' by The Phoenix Foundation (from the 2010 album Buffalo)

Wellington band The Phoenix Foundation released their album Buffalo just before Ashley moved to Geneva to work with the World Health Organisation for a year.

"I saw them play this album at The Blue Lizard, which is this underground bar in Switzerland. They were fantastic."


Song: 'Pacing the Cage' by Bruce Cockburn (from the 1996 album The Charity of Night)

Bruce Cockburn is a prolific Canadian singer-songwriter, who is still touring at 77.

Ashley describes him as "a wonderful wonderful guitarist and a great songwriter, quite politically active with his lyrics".

This song and the whole features fretless bass which "adds to the beauty of the music", he says.


Song:  'Second Nature' by Neil Finn (from the 2017 album Out of Silence)

Ashley has been a fan of Neil Finn - "one of the world's best songwriters" - since the days of Split Enz, but he also loves Finn's solo albums.

Out of Silence is "a cracking good album" that features 'who's who' of New Zealand musicians singing as a choir.

The Infinity Sessions – a four-part documentary about the recording of the album – is "brilliant viewing," he says.