Today was a big day in the Horowhenua with the visit of the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, for the official opening of Council's impressive new offices. You don't get to meet the PM very often and I wasn't about to miss the opportunity.
Helen, as we were advised to address her, is a woman known for her severe hair, serious expression and eyes so fierce they could freeze the blood in your veins at ten paces. She is a woman who has what you need to survive in a mans world and she's been in power for eight years.
We assembled in the swanky new lobby, waiting for the PM to arrive, which she duly did, to be greeted in what I assume is the traditional Maori way, by a man dressed in a flax skirt with ferns wrapped round his legs and torso. She waited by the arch until everyone was ready and then there was singing as she walked into the building, surrounded by no security whatsoever. It's nice that the PM feels safe to enter a room full of people who could be anyone; no-one having been bothering to check identification on the door. But in a country with 2 million guns, is it wise?
There is something odd about seeing someone who you have only ever seen on TV; they always look the same, but different. Helen is much bigger than expected. Not taller or fatter; just bigger. But she is much less harsh. As she walked down the aisle past where we were sitting, I couldn't decide whether to doff my cap or try and meet her steely gaze. But she smiled and walked on.
Then there were speaches. Half an hour of the local Maori bigwigs talking in Maori. Which was excessive I felt. Then the mayor spoke for a bit about how well things are going in the district.
We listened politely and attempted to entertain Lily. But any one-year-old in a hushed event is like a bomb waiting to go off and the tension was mounting until the PM finally took to the stage and told us how great the building was and what great things the Council is doing. Lily sat through it all, but it was a relief when it all finished without any screaching incidents.
Helen actually seemed rather nice. Afterwards, a couple of people demanded to have their picture taken with her and she seemed happy to oblige. She had a quick chat with a few people before disappearing out the front to be taken back to Auckland, leaving behind a vague impression of someone who was slightly fluffier than expected. She has got cold, hard eyes. But that's because she makes cold, hard choices. She is, afterall, the PM, not a cuddly toy.