8 Dec 2018

Graeme Cairns - Laird of Hamilton

From Saturday Morning, 11:41 am on 8 December 2018

Former McGillicuddy Serious leader Graeme Cairns now divides his time between penny farthings, medical training and street theatre, and his latest endeavour "doing pennants" features a bicycle-powered sewing machine.

The McGillicuddy Serious Party was founded to contest the 1984 election with its campaign plank of the Great Leap Backwards.

It predicted upheaval, chaos and the breakdown of society as we know it and a plan to insulate New Zealand from the worst excesses of the future. 

Graeme Cairns (centre) performs in Kaikoura

Graeme Cairns (centre) performs in Kaikoura Photo: Supplied

Despite a defence policy of removing New Zealand from all world maps, its political ambitions came to nought and its leader Graeme Cairns threw in the towel in 2000.

Now known as the ‘Laird of Hamilton’, he is also a musician, a founding member of the Big Muffin Serious Band and an actor.

Cairns serves as a trustee on the board of the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival in which in February will celebrate its 20th year.

He has been involved with the festival in numerous roles since “before it started,” he says.

His latest contribution to the festival is a workshop/performance called ‘Doing Pennants’.

“Ages ago we decided that the centre of the festival needed to be decorated like a hub, it needed to feel like a hub, so we set up a structure of bamboo poles with ropes between them and I built a bicycle-powered sewing machine.

“People come along and they design a flag, cut it out and somebody has to hop on the bike, that’s their penance, for having a good idea someone has to suffer for their art.”

The flag is sewed on the spot and then pegged to the line, Cairns says.

“We’re up to about 600 flags now, it’s 36 metre across, it’s huge now.”

Cairns numbers riding a penny farthing bicycle among his many talents and recently rode in an event in Oamaru.

“It’s pretty jolly challenging," he says. "Once you’re on it’s okay, it’s the getting on and the getting off that’s the tricky bit.

“Downhill I’ve done 27km/h which is pretty diabolical because the weight of the pedals makes the front wheel flap around like crazy, so you’re hanging on for dear life.”

Graeme Cairns McGillicuddy Serious Party founder.

Graeme Cairns McGillicuddy Serious Party founder. Photo: Supplied

“An enthusiastic young fellow on an BMX bike came hooning around in front of me in Oamaru gardens in the last few kilometres of my 400km ride and banged into me, so I went head over heels but survived perfectly fine.

“I was wearing a helmet, it’s a bicycle helmet but I’ve modified it to look like an explorer’s pith helmet, it’s modified to look Victorian appropriate.”

These days Cairns divides his time between street theatre, music and “a little bit of acting".

“I don’t do the outdoor Summer Shakespeare anymore because it’s too hard on your voice, but I act for the medical profession - pretending to be a sick person for training doctors.

The toothbrush fence in Te Pahu, Waikato.

The toothbrush fence in Te Pahu, Waikato. Photo: Flickr/MarkGunn/CC BY 2.0

“It’s great acting because you learn a bit about medicine, you do just as much research into the character, but there’s only an audience of four so you don’t have to shout, there’s no scripts to learn and you get paid so, you know, that’s quite good acting.”

Cairns has no desire to revive his great political movement, despite McGillicuddy Serious once being the fifth-biggest party in the country. He says it attracted 20,000 voters at the height of its success.

“Add all of those people together, it would fill a very, very large paddock.”

His imagination – carrot kazoos, toothbrush fences etc – is fuelled by Hamilton, the laird says.

“Hamilton is a quite an extraordinary place, it’s very entertaining but it’s all slightly below the radar and there are bits of it which are extraordinarily boring I have to say and that makes creative people get imaginative.”