Thursday, September 16, 2010

Rate moments in history

All day the battle had raged; Napoleon’s troops had surged
again and again, forcing the Duke’s men back to a barely
defensible ridge. The field below lay littered with the
bodies of the slain. It seemed that, come the morrow, the
Bonapartists must triumph when they renewed their
terrible onslaught. But with nightfall there came a lull, and
the Duke, withdrawing to his tent, brooded on what
possible manoeuvres he could devise to withstand the foe.
Then came a messenger, who had ridden like the devil
from the capital far behind. The note was pressed into the
Duke’s bloodied hand. He took it. He read it. It said: ‘The
Reserve Bank Governor has decided to keep the official
cash rate on hold.’ A glimmer of hope dawned in that
famous face. 'Tell the men,' he said softly to an aide, 'tell
the men that we will fight and fight again.' In that instant—
as history has since recorded—the battle was won.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

For the birds

I wonder if people are actually thinking about what they
are saying when they use the phrase ‘kill two birds with
one stone.’ If they thought about it for a moment,
they’d realize what a grisly image it evokes. It’s a worn-
out old cliché handed down for several generations but
now utterly meaningless and inappropriate. Yet there it
is again in a headline in today’s Dominion Post: HOW
. Yecch. Many terms once in common use have
been dumped because, as times change, they come to
seem offensive or silly; along with other ugly phrases
like ‘room to swing a cat,’ this is one of them. With a
little imagination it could easily be supplanted by, say,
‘sew two buttons with one thread’ or ‘score two goals
with one kick.’ Whatever. But leave the birds alone.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Another glorious example of the tyranny of unregulated
exchange rates, the kind New Zealand has, the kind that
make a mockery of what ought to be the straightforward,
fair and honest business of making money out of what a
nation produces and sells to other nations. I quote Rick
Curtis, speaking for the citrus growers of New Zealand,
who said on Radio New Zealand the other day that it’s
getting harder to sell fruit like lemons and mandarins on
overseas markets because competition is getting tougher
and, guess what, fluctuations in the exchange rate of the
New Zealand dollar—that bauble—make it virtually
impossible to judge how profitable a market will be. ‘It’s
like playing Russian roulette,' said Curtis. 'except you've
got no gun and no bullets.' Actually, now that I look at it,
the extended simile doesn't really make sense; but we
know what he means. 'You have,' he added, 'absolutely
no control.' Thus do we penalize and handicap our
exporters while rewarding faceless currency speculators
sitting in front of screens in foreign cities.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Walk the pork

I’m sure the Mad Butcher deserves his knighthood for the
charity work he has done but it’s hard to listen to him
rasping away on commercial radio telling us over and
over that the price of the pork he sells can’t be beaten
when you know that the pigs the pork came from must
spend part if not a good deal of their lives indoors. That’s
the only conclusion you can draw from the deafening
absence in his ads of the words ‘free-range.’ The other
conclusion you inevitably come to is that the meat’s so
cheap because it’s the product of no-frills industrialized

Say it isn’t so, Mad B! What a power of good you could do
if you sacrificed a little of that much-vaunted cheapness
for the assurance to consumers that any pig slaughtered
to provide pork, ham or bacon for your shops has lived its
life in the open, snuffling about, mud-bathing, rootling
around or whatever it is that pigs do to occupy the
unforgiving minute. I am not a vegetarian. I like eating
meat. But I won't buy chicken or pork products that are
not clearly certified 'free-range' because I think farmers
and producers who don't qualify for that label are treating
chickens and pigs in a way that goes beyond the humane,
the sensible and the sane. A mad butcher could nail his
colours to the mast of humanity and sanity here. What
about it, Sir Peter?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Gone in 30 seconds

Sean Plunket’s farewell to Morning Report this morning
was a slightly cloying affair; many a listener will have
been close to wincing at the syrupiness of it. Fact is,
Sean was never the most-loved guy on the RNZ block,
and it’s hard to get warm and fuzzy about him at the best
of times. They got it right in the last 30 seconds, though,
with a great quick-cut montage of the Plunket interview
style (‘Just answer the question!’), and hit the 9 o’clock
pips with a voice purring ‘Radio New Zealand National’
just as it does after each bird call. So the booming hoot
of the Plunketbird will be heard no more on Radio NZ,
and Morning Report will be the poorer for it. I know
many people don’t like him (a fellow journalist whose
views I respect simply despises him) but for some years
now he has been possibly the only journalist in New
Zealand capable of making politicians nervous and
flustered when being interviewed. They all have far too
soft a ride, controlling the news agenda with ease, so
any journalist who can discomfort them is pure gold in
my book. Newstalk ZB have already snapped Plunket
up as their morning talkback host but it wouldn’t surprise
to see him turn that show into more of a challenger to
to Noon, with less talkback and more interviews.
Radio New Zealand, in the meantime, needs to let us
know soon who his replacement will be—and it must be
someone with a sharp edge and a highly developed shit

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Commenting on a Tri Nations game in Melbourne a few
weeks ago, a British sports columnist wrote that the All
Blacks destroyed Australia 49-28 in a 'mesmerising game
of such bewildering running, passing, immaculate
handling and implacable ferocity, it did, quite literally at
times, take your breath away. It was a sport unlike any
other we get to see up here, in the northern hemisphere. I
know it always get said, and is always wrong, but who can
stop these All Blacks from taking next year’s World Cup?'

Well, golly gee and shucks. That was Roger Alton,
executive editor of The Times, writing in the Spectator of
7 August. But I'm not sure whether we should regard his
rave as thoroughly deserved praise or the kiss of death,
because unfortunately there is an answer to his question
'Who can stop these All Blacks from taking next year’s
World Cup?' and the answer is: Themselves. But thanks
for asking anyway, Rog.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Come again

To the launch of David Grant’s biography of Ken Douglas
at the Brierley Theatre, Wellington College. Yes. I never
got to say hallo to the biographer or shake hands with the
biographee, and left before the formal part of proceedings,
on account of a congenital condition that prevents me
from standing for hours on end with an empty glass in my
hand listening to people make speeches, or even, in some
horrifying cases, read long extracts from their newly
published work. I was there long enough however to clock
a large and varied crowd of launchgoers ranging from old
lefties to new righties, all giving the impression that
whatever hard-fought struggles there had been in the past,
that was all over now, and all that remained to be done,
politically speaking, was a tweak here and a top-up there
and Rodney’s your uncle. The hegemonic domination of
the centre-right is almost total; as one former cabinet
minister said to me, he was blessed if he could see much
difference between the major parties these days. He’s
right. There isn’t. Much difference. There never was,
actually, not since 1935, and it’s the same across the
Tasman, where Gillard’s Labor and Abbott’s Liberals are
really only factions of the same party. Can the left—a real,
thriving, thought-through, rambunctious left—ever come
again? Don’t doubt it. History isn't finished with us yet.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Truth to power

A gathering at Te Papa: for the first time I meet Judith
Binney, whom I interviewed by phone a few weeks ago
for the Listener. She was in Menorca, Spain, and I was
in Wellington. I had read her book Encircled Lands in
a kind of white heat in order to interview her about it.
The book, which has since won the supreme award in
this year’s national book awards, tells in relentlessly
clinical detail how Tuhoe were stripped, cheated and
robbed of their land by the predatory Pakeha in the
late 19th and early 20th centuries. Binney is still
dismayed, as she was in the interview, by the Prime
Minister’s about-face on granting Tuhoe authority over
Te Urewera National Park. Much has changed, and
improved, in the past 30-40 years in terms of Pakeha
recognition of what was done to, and what is owed to,
Maori—when she and Binney were young academics,
Claudia Orange told the gathering, Maori were all but
invisible—but John Key’s abrupt announcement
seemed to kick us right back to the 1890s. Binney’s
book is, however, not only a landmark but a lighthouse,
and I believe that the illumination it casts will shine so
strongly that, in time, it will help to change attitudes.
It will last longer than Key or any government; it will
never stop speaking truth to power.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Workers are human too

In view of my criticism of the New Zealand Herald for
milking cheap emotion out of the Auckland hospital
radiographers’ strike it’s only fair to record that two
days later the paper belatedly published a report
explaining precisely why the workers were planning to
strike, backgrounding the issue and interviewing a
radiographer who said how distressed she and her
colleagues felt about the effect the strike would have
on patients and people expecting surgery. ‘To come to
a decision to go on strike takes huge emotional effort,’
she is quoted as saying. As I said, these decisions are
never made lightly where public services are involved.

Significantly, this story was written by regular health
roundsman Martin Johnston, whereas the tear-jerking
front-page lead wasn’t. The Herald should have run it
up front right at the outset.

Little slack can be cut, however, for TV1 and TV3, both
of which ran reports about the strike last night, and
both of which went unerringly for the ‘human’ angle of
the patients who would suffer because of it. Both Garth
Bray (TV1) and Melissa Davies (TV3) focused on the
problems the strike was causing, which is fair enough
up to a point but, reported in isolation, carries the
inescapable message that the people doing the striking
are heartless bastards. Both gave airtime to the head of
the health board but neither deigned to put the strikers’
side of the argument. Davies said she’d tried in vain to
contact the union but that was just to get a reaction to
the case of guess who? the same family featured on the
front page of the Herald on 31 August.

A cynic would be strongly tempted in this case to modify
the old media saw ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ to ‘If it weeps, it
keeps.’ Neither reporter necessarily set out to
deliberately cast the striking workers in a negative light
but that's what happens when you take the easy option
and tell your story simplistically and one-sidedly. You
want a 'human' angle? Workers are human too. The
radiographers in Christchurch instantly called off their
strike there because of this morning's earthquake.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Country sides

To read some Australian media reports you’d think that
any rural resident west of Sydney despised the Green
Party as tree-hugging, latte-sipping urban wankers, out
of touch with the gritty realities of living on the land.
Yet Bob Windsor, one of the independent ‘country’ MPs
holding the balance of power across the Tasman at the
moment, had this to say yesterday:

‘A lot of people in the country are concerned about the
Greens, I'm not. In fact over time I've developed a
good relationship with [Greens leader] Bob Brown.

‘We've got to recognize that every environmental policy
is not necessarily bad. I don't agree with everything the
Greens do, but I'm not petrified about the circumstances
of them being in the Senate.

‘I say to the farm groups that these people are going to
be in a very prominent position in the Senate for some
years. Rather than just write them off as being just anti-
agriculture, which in my view they're not, go and talk to
them, go and raise the issues.’

ABC News, reporting a Sky News interview, also says
that ‘even self-described anti-Green Bob Katter (another
rural independent MP) said there were areas of policy
that he agreed with the Greens on, such as restricting
food imports, biofuels and the power of the major
supermarket chains, and quotes him as saying: ‘I was
surprised that there was common ground—and very
aggressive common ground.’

Well, how about that. Fact is, for all the negative
imagery peddled about them, and for all the sad
nonsense spouted by Federated Farmers’ current
leader, the Green parties in Australia and New Zealand,
both countries with strong pastoral sectors, have by
definition a lot in common with farmers and rural
people generally, and I have watched with interest the
way this commonality has been developing in recent
years. The New Zealand Greens have certainly not been
shy of getting involved in the practical side of
agriculture and making constructive suggestions about
farming methods and care of the land and animals.
Despite, as I say, Don Nicolson’s obstructionist bluster,
my feeling is that many farmers are not averse to taking
a greener approach. Most farmers are in fact ecologists
at heart, but the industrialization of agriculture and the
corporate pressure to keep ramping up profits has
driven some of them into taking damaging shortcuts
and ignoring the downstream (literally) consequences.
But every day in the media you will see or hear reports
of farmers adopting or considering more sustainable
and ecologically responsible practices. The Greens are
well placed to capitalize politically on this in a country
like ours, and notwithstanding some misgivings about
their current leadership, I believe Russel Norman and
Metiria Turei are the ones to take the Greens forward.
They both just need a couple more years on them; the
sense of shrewd maturity projected by Bob Brown is
clearly a big electoral asset for Australia's Greens.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

By the numbers

Judt, whose book begins with the words ‘Something is
profoundly wrong with the way we live today,’ is
particularly strong on ‘economism’—the reduction and
compression of virtually all political debate to matters
of profit and loss, growth and gain. The way we live now
is essentially by the numbers. It has become very
difficult, if not impossible, in current conditions to
sustain any kind of argument about, say, the care of the
aged or early-childhood education without being forced
back onto purely financial calculation (and made to feel
as though you are naive and woolly-headed if you don't
think purely in dollars and cents). This, in a large sense,
illustrates the atrophy of our conception of the state and
the triumphalism of the ‘market.’ But it is not, Judt says,
an instinctive human condition; there was a time when
we ordered our lives differently, and were no worse for it.
Taking my cue from him, I believe that one of the most
fundamental challenges for the left is to confront the
blatant and insidious permutations of economism, and
thus shift the ground of debate from ‘Can we afford it?’ in
a narrow accounting sense to ‘Can we not afford it?’ in a
fully contextualized ecological sense (which is also an
economic approach in the truest sense of the word).
A very challengeable recent example would be the report
of the Welfare Working Group, which seems to have
emerged from a hermetically sealed space
uncontaminated by the real world in which people work
and live. It also means addressing the role of the state,
which, like it or not, remains the best counter to the power
of globalized capitalism, because, as Judt says, it embodies
notions of collective trust, communal identity and social
cooperation that no 'market' will ever truly reflect or
answer to.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Illfare state

I have just read Ill Fares the Land, the last book by the
British intellectual Tony Judt, and, for two reasons, a
painfully sad one to read. First, because it’s a lament
for the lost values of what Judt settles for calling
social democracy—the worldview of the broad left, if
you like, in westernized societies. Second, because
Judt was dying as he wrote it, dying from Lou Gehrig’s
disease, which he contracted in 2008. He has since
died, aged 62, on 6 August; though paralysed from the
neck down, he continued to the last to dictate essays
and intensely affecting memoir pieces that have been
regularly published throughout this year by the New
York Review of Books

His last book takes its title from a couplet in Oliver
Goldsmith’s 18th-century elegy The Deserted Village
—a poem that captures the irreversible shift of labour
in Britain from country to city as the Industrial
Revolution applied its crushing weight to a way of life
previously unchanged for centuries:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

Judt’s thesis is that the Keynesian social contract that
underpinned and defined Western society for about 30
years after the Second World War has been smashed
by the rise of the neoconservative right. He is horrified
by the recrudescence of 19th-century ‘individualism’
and, while striving not to succumb to sentimentality
about the ‘good old days,’ which weren’t all that good,
argues that we need to revive and articulate the values
of social democracy—otherwise we are condemned to
continue our lives as little more than atomized,
depoliticized consumers—living proof of Margaret
Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no such thing as society.’

So far, so disenchanted liberal-left baby-boomer. But
what is to be done? That indeed is the title of Judt’s fifth
chapter (and didn't some other bloke write a book with
that title?), but unfortunately he loses his way, never
quite answering the question outright and putting forth
no political program other than something like ‘Let’s
talk more boldly about what we believe in.’ Still, given
the hegemonic dominance of global capitalism and the
relentless chorus of its acolytes, there are worse things
to do. The left is intellectually stagnant at the moment,
desperately in need of clear thinking and clearer
speaking. The only left-wing energy of any genuine
meaning and relevance is coming from the green side
of politics but that has yet to be integrated into a wider
movement such as those for which the labour and
social-democratic parties of the ‘West’ became the
parliamentary vehicles in the first half of the 20th
century. There needs to be a crucible of ideas and
debate, and maybe, in lieu of town-hall meetings and
the tired rhetoric of street marches, the blogosphere is
it right now. In New Zealand anyway I certainly don't
see any significant left-wing exchange going on
anywhere except in the blogs of people like Bryce
Edwards, Gordon Campbell, Chris Trotter and No Right
Turn. Those are flames that must keep burning. We
need to hear, as Judt says, the 'resurgent language of
civil society.' Above all, he says, ‘We need to learn to
think the state again,’ and stop letting it—by default of
our silence—be vilified as a lumbering, incompetent
source of economic dysfunction.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

No violin unscraped

Like Brian Edwards, my heart sank when I saw the front-
page lead in today’s New Zealand Herald: there’s only
one term for this kind of journalism and it’s ‘cheap shot.’
For the record, under the tear-jerking banner headline
STRIKERS’ HELPLESS VICTIMS, the Herald chose to angle
its report of the strike by Auckland radiography and
hospital laboratory workers this way:

The parents of a baby girl are devastated after being
told long-awaited surgery to help her to eat without
a tube has been postponed because of hospital strikes.

Seventeen-month-old Rebecca Jones has cerebral
palsy and was to have two surgical procedures this
Thursday to ease constant pain and sickness, and
help her take solid food.

What I am about to say has nothing to do with this little
girl’s particular situation. Who among us would not feel
the parents’ distress and identify with it? But by the
Herald’s own account, the strike has forced the
cancellation of 500 operations and among them there
would undoubtedly be other cases of personal distress.
This case, involving a little girl in pain, was clearly
singled out for the front-page story in order to make the
point that the strikers are real shits who should feel
guilty as hell. Note, however, that all the cancelled
operations were for elective surgery (a fact buried deep
down in the story); in other words, many patients were
waiting for operations before this strike came along and
many would still be waiting if it hadn’t happened at all.

Not only does the Herald bias its report against the
workers from the outset, it makes no attempt, as
Edwards correctly notes, to explain, analyse or even
report in any substantive way the reason for the strike
and the case made for it by the workers involved. This is
all too common in reports of industrial action. In one of
my Nine to Noon media comments last year I criticized
the Herald for angling its coverage of a strike by airline
cabin staff on (of course) the disruption to flights and
travel plans. The implication of this kind of reporting is
that workers in public-service industries should never
strike, because it will always be inconvenient or
upsetting for someone. Perhaps the Herald would be
kind enough to advise them of a suitable time, if indeed it
can bring itself to perceive that sometimes the breakdown
of wage negotiations leaves workers with no other option.

I think we can safely say that the radiographers and lab
workers would not have taken this action lightly. To
suggest otherwise, as everything about the Herald's
story suggests—indeed, screams—is to imply that they're
a pack of heartless bastards, when in fact they spend
their days taking care of more people's health than the
entire editorial staff of the Herald ever do.

The Herald is by no means the only offender in this
regard, though, and I repeat, as I said on air today, that
it's still a paper that publishes a great deal of excellent
journalism—which makes it doubly disappointing that
it should resort to violin-scraping on the front page.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Another good column by Tapu Misa in today’s New Zealand
, this one about the danger of re-victimizing victims
of crime by trying to give them, as Chief Justice Sian Elias is
quoted as saying, a ‘sense of ownership of the criminal
justice processes.’ I won’t re-rehearse the arguments—you
can read them here—but will say again that Misa is one of
the best columnists currently writing in New Zealand. In my
closing media comment for the year on Nine to Noon last
December, in fact, I named her columnist of the year. She is
no great stylist in the sense of being a flashy user of words
—a metaphor in a Misa column is quite an event—but has a
terrifically well-ordered mind that enables her to drive to
the heart of any issue, however complex, and write about it
in a simple, direct, sensible, human way. This is an ability
not given, alas, to many columnists, most of whom, not
having enough to say, or not knowing how to sustain what
they say over the length of a column, soon lapse into tired
rhetorical postures or, worse, anecdotal ramblings. To draw
on all that you know about something and write coherently
and interestingly about it for 500 words or more is not as
easy as it may sound, and certainly not if you have to do it
every week without fail. Tom Scott once said to me that
anyone can write one brilliant column in three—the trick is
faking the other two. I spent eight years trying to cultivate
that trick myself, when I followed Tom as the Listener’s
political columnist, and by the end I’d been wrung dry.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Shit hits land

This caught my eye in the Listener’s cover story (by the
redoubtable Rebecca Macfie) about the damage being
done to our old friend ‘the environment’ by the
dairying boom: ‘Dairying wouldn’t stand up to any
analysis of the total costs.’—Canterbury sheep farmer
Brian Deans. Good point. The total costs. The usual
measures of growth and productivity take no account
of what economists, with a delicate elegance, call
externalities. When building a highway, for instance,
air and noise pollution are externalities that rarely
figure in calculations of the highway’s economic
worth (though the money spent on fixing the damage
done is counted as a plus when the ‘growth’ sum is
done). Similarly, until recent times, and not even
properly now, what happened to cowshit was of no
concern to the farmers pasturing and milking cows.
Finally, one might say, the shit is hitting the land. For
the first time in the agri-industrial age attention is
being paid on a national scale to precisely where this
shit goes and what it does when it gets there. That
explains why (you’ve noticed, haven’t you) words
like ‘effluent’ and ‘run-off’ are appearing more and
more in the public prints. Incredibly, there are still no
serious laws in place for penalizing farmers who let
cows wander into streams or just let the manure wash
into the nearest river; something called the Clean
Streams Accord is entirely voluntary (though moral
pressure to sign up to it is growing). Intriguingly, I
note from Macfie’s article that Environment
Canterbury is experimenting with ‘restorative justice’
programs whereby farmers found to have offended,
effluent-wise, have to front up and apologize to the
public. Such people clearly need to get their shit
together but not take it on the road.

I find that, without ever setting out to, I return in blog
after blog to what’s going on in the nation’s paddocks.
The fact is, as Macfie astutely says, ‘For all the
knowledge-wave conferences and high-tech industry
taskforces, we’re more dependent than ever on our
ability to turn cheap grass into cheap milk, to suck the
water out of it using cheap electricity, and to flog it off
around the world.’ Whatever the issues are for China
or Europe or the United States, this debate is central
for New Zealand. Get your gumboots on and join it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Take the bus

Details of credit card expenses released this
week show state sector bosses have racked
up almost $30,000 on taxi fares. Only a few
took trains, and only on overseas trips.
None claimed for a bus trip... Other than
airport shuttle buses, there were no claims
for public transport in New Zealand.
[Dominion Post 7.8.10]

I’ll tell you what, it’ll be a great day when a chief
executive or any other executive, state-sector or
private-sector, takes the bus anywhere, let alone
catches a train. Let alone walks. Or bikes! (We can
dream, can’t we?) Okay, I’ll let them off the bikes,
but just to imagine a departmental head getting on
a bus to go, say, from a meeting in one part of town
to a meeting in another is to recognize how deeply
embarrassing and demeaning they would find it.
And that, in turn, tells us how so much more
important than the rest of us they think they are,
and how they regard their time as more valuable
than ours. Sure, we all take a cab now and again,
but always? Every single time?

This also gives the lie to all the fine talk about the
nation reducing its carbon footprint. Our MPs are
no better; to go by car and/or plane is absolutely
automatic with them. As for the private sector, just
look at the car sections and supplements of business
papers and magazines: they are thick with the latest
high-speed luxury models. Whatever debate about
'the environment' is taking place in the real world, it
has completely failed to enter the pampered,
cosseted and resource-greedy world of the business

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The ex-files

Time was, in the vast vault that houses my hard-copy filing
system, I used to have files labelled AGRICULTURE,
ECONOMY, ENVIRONMENT etc. What a simple childlike
world that was. With every passing day it becomes harder
to separate material out into such neat, discrete categories.
I hold a clipping about the Emissions Trading Scheme in
my hand: in what manila folder should it be filed for future
reference? ENVIRONMENT? Well, yes; but also ECONOMY;
leaches into everything else now. As indeed it should,
whatever challenges it presents for the finicky filer. This
breaking down of clear sharp categories is a necessary
stage in the shift of our consciousness away from world as
fractionated and finite and towards world as contextual
and interdependent. The philosophers have been saying
this, like, forever; but politics is a terrible laggard.

I think the first dawning in my own consciousness of this
truth was the 1970s ‘environmental’ slogan that you can’t
throw anything away on this planet: there is no ‘away.’
Forty years later it is dawning on all of us, however
reluctant we may be to acknowledge it, that everything,
from cowshit to plastic bags, from BP to TV, from plankton
to post-modernism, is consequential and interconnected.
Once you know this, and live accordingly, you will either
(a) never know peace again or (b) go out and join the
nearest revolution.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Long ago and Faraway

I would be sorry to see Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books
sanitized, as reported here. Her publishers propose to
‘update’ her books to make the language in them less
old-fashioned—so it’s out with all those jollys (jolly good,
jolly rotten) for a start, and apparently even ‘mother and
father’ will become ‘mum and dad.’ Nor can ‘dirty tinker’
be allowed to survive. Well, okay; of course there was
racism and classism, subtle and not so subtle, in Blyton’s
writing, and attitudes taken by Julian, George, Dick and
Anne (and probably Timmy for that matter) that now
seem insufferably priggish; but where does this stop? Do
we remove the antisemitism from T S Eliot’s poems?
Rewrite Moby-Dick so that Captain Ahab saves the whale
instead of harpooning it? Books, like anything made by
human ingenuity, are of their time and speak to the
future beyond it—warts and all. No one would dare do this
with authors of adult classics, so it’s hard not to see the
tinkering with Blyton as an over-concern with the
supposed sensitivities of children—who, I suspect, are
much more robustly capable of coping with historical
distinctions than Blyton’s publishers think. Even as a child
in the 1950s myself, devouring Blyton by the shelf-load, I
could tell that she was already becoming out of date. But
she worked her magic then, and survives now, as Lucy
Mangan writes in this perceptive piece, ‘because she
serves perfectly the purely narrative appetite of a child that
precedes more sophisticated tastes—and which must be
stimulated and satisfied if those tastes are ever to develop.’

Speaking for myself, Blyton’s Enchanted Wood was central
to the forming of my imagination in childhood. It is one of
the pebble-beds over which the mind’s stream still flows. I
shall always be grateful to Blyton for this (and for her other
masterpiece, The Secret of Killimooin). Down below, how
deeply colonizing it was: that wood, those glades, not this
bush. Up above, in the cloudlands passing over the top of
the Faraway Tree, I floated free from all earthly geography.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Decision makers

Ever notice how often people in business are referred to
in the media, and refer to themselves as, ‘decision
makers’? You gotta love it. I get that businesses want to
talk themselves up as decisive, bold, robust, confident
and shrewd (I think that covers most of the bases) but do
the rest of us have to buy into it too? Here’s something
we could do by way of countering this ‘business-knows-
best’ mentality that so infects and indeed corrupts our
social thinking. Every time you see or hear the word
‘mother’ in relation to, say, some story about education
or children, substitute ‘decision makers’. For example:
‘Decision makers are up in arms about funding cuts to
preschools.’ Or: 'Most of the unpaid work in society is
done by decision makers at home.' I would hazard a bet
that, when it comes to decisions that really matter in
life, far more of them are made by mothers than by
businessmen. Conversely, when it comes to business
news, try replacing ‘decision makers’ with ‘people who
don't matter as much as mothers,’ eg, 'A survey shows
that 85% of people who don't matter as much as
mothers think the Reserve Bank should hold the line
on interest rates.’ I suggest this stratagem purely for its
educational value, not wishing to imply for one moment
that really serious stuff like breaking down trade
barriers and creating investment opportunities isn't
being dealt with maturely and responsibly by people who
don't matter as much as mothers.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Suck it up

Soft pop on the radio and singing along while doing the
vacuuming: it doesn’t get much better than this. Then I
saw her face… It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday… Pretty
flamingo... You know that’s all you ever were… Even
(ulp) Good morning starshine… Of all the films I ever
saw in my life there’s only been one, just one, in which
a character sings along to the radio while doing the
vacuuming. That was Dennis Hopper in The American
Friend. I felt a jolt of recognition: yes! Let us have
more of this fundamentally human and intolerably
joyful behaviour depicted across all media platforms.
Altogether now: Glibby glubby glooby, nibby, nabby
nooby, la la la lo lo… Tooby ooby wa-la... (feel free to
extemporize from this point on; and don't forget the
windowsills and ledges).

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Four into six won't go

Outrageous Fortune’s as good as ever, says Jane Clifton in
today’s Dominion Post, as the sixth and last season of this
great Kiwi comedy-drama begins. Much as I respect
Jane’s writing, I must sadly disagree with her on this one.
Essentially, Outrageous Fortune—sublimely brilliant for
the first four series—passed its use-by date a couple of
years ago and should have been laid to rest with honour.
Now all we get is the same old characters doing their same
old shtick over and over again, and boy, is it tiresome.
What once was fresh and sharp is now stale and outworn.
The dialogue between, say, Van and Munter positively
creaks: they might just as well get robots to say these
lines now. The core problem, I think, is that not one of the
main characters has grown or changed for the better or the
worse. Maybe that’s OK for a half-hour sitcom, no matter
how many seasons it runs, but with a more wide-ranging
drama like this you need some serious character
development after a while. The problem is compounded
by the fact that everyone looks older, as indeed they are;
yet they’re still carrying on like 14-year-olds. Outrageous,
yes. Fortunate, no. It’s a classic example of not knowing
when to quit while you’re ahead.

Past passive

What is this curious tense that the police use when
talking about criminal or suspected criminal activity?
Preliminary research suggests that it’s the past passive.
They will say, for instance, ‘The suspect has driven off at
high speed’ rather than ‘The suspect drove off at high
speed.’ There are more examples in today’s paper, eg,
from Western Australia, ‘He has attempted to sit on its
back and the croc has taken offence to that.’ I know of
no other sphere in which language is used this way. It
lends what the police say a stilted, formal quality—
which may indeed be why they use it. It puts just a little
distance between them and the event; makes the
description just that little bit less absolute. I think. I
dunno, really. The blog has been written in a state of
some mystification.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


For all the damage it's doing, not another word should be
published or report broadcast about the Gulf of Mexico
oil spill until at least twice as much coverage is given to
similar but far more devastating disasters in countries
like Nigeria. These are all too easily ignored or under-
reported because they don't happen in richer countries
where all the best-resourced and most influential media
organizations operate. As for the New Zealand media,
not having a single foreign correspondent worthy of the
name, and none at all in a non-Anglophone nation, it
inevitably gives disproportionate space to American
and British news. Thanks to the papers like the Guardian
and the Observer, though, some stories from poorer
parts of the world still get through; and I'm grateful to
the New Zealand Herald for reprinting this:

We reached the edge of the oil spill near the Nigerian
village of Otuegwe after a long hike through cassava
plantations. Ahead of us lay swamp. We waded into
the warm tropical water and began swimming,
cameras and notebooks held above our heads.

We could smell the oil long before we saw it—the
stench of garage forecourts and rotting vegetation
hanging thickly in the air. The farther we travelled,
the more nauseating it became. Soon we were
swimming in pools of light Nigerian crude, the
best-quality oil in the world.

One of the hundreds of 40-year-old pipelines that
crisscross the Niger delta had corroded and spewed
oil for several months...

The rest of this eye-opening report by John Vidal is here.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The ETS explained

Imagine (if you will) an ocean oil slick creeping ever
nearer the coast of a country. In this scenario, the oil
is leaking from several wells owned by a number of
different companies. Wildlife habitats, fisheries and
estuarine waters are threatened by the black ooze;
already there are pictures in the media of oil-soaked
seabirds. Something must be done. The government
of the country comes up with a solution. It will divide
the quantity of oil that is leaking—at least six billion
litres a day—into tradeable units. Anyone wanting to
pollute the coastline with oil will thus be able to do so,
provided they then buy credits from a company that
is not polluting the coastline with oil. The second
company can then trade those units on a pollution
market for others to buy and sell as they choose.
There is an exemption, however, for really big oil-
polluting companies: they don't have to buy credits
or indeed do anything at all about the oil their wells
are leaking. They have been advised that they can
expect to be brought into the scheme in 2015 or
thereabouts but that the deadline may be extended
when the time comes. Payment for the pollution is
required, however, from wage-earning individuals
onshore whose regular purchases of petrol help to
keep in business the oil-polluting companies: that
would seem to be eminently fair. Meanwhile, more
oil, lots more oil, keeps coming ashore. Some people
say this scheme is flawed. But it's a start, isn't it?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Name it

In Encircled Lands, her new book about Tuhoe between
1820 and 1921, Judith Binney finds ‘evidence of the
inability of human societies in general to accept that
different forms of tribal, or even communal, self-
government can coexist with the nation state, without
challenging national sovereignty. This,’ she goes on, ‘is
the essential, and repeated, issue in the relationship of
indigenous communities to the larger polity within which
they live.’

Frankly, it would be nice if the larger polity could even
accept that correctly spelt Maori placenames can coexist
with the Pakeha nation state. The resistance to the correct
spelling of Whanganui speaks volumes about that. Now,
thanks to a report in today’s Dominion Post, we learn that
some people—including the ubiquitous Michael Laws
bleating inanely ‘Where does the political correctness
end?’—are scoffing at the Waitangi Tribunal’s
recommendation that Rimutaka, the long-established
name of the range of hills between Wellington and
Wairarapa, should be corrected to Remutaka.

'The story behind the area's name,' writes reporter Tanya
Katterns, 'is that a Maori chief, Haunuiananaia, an
ancestor of the Te Ati Hau a Paparangi people of the
Whanganui region, left his home in southern Taranaki to
pursue his errant wife Wairaka, who had run off with a
slave. During his journey, he sat down to rest on a
mountain and think about his quest. He named the
mountain Remutaka—which means to sit down.'

Fair enough. Good story. As a Wairarapa boy who has
crossed those hills hundreds of times in his life I’m
ashamed to say I never gave a thought to why we called
them ‘Rimutaka’ or, more commonly, ‘the Rimutakas.’
I guess I thought it had something to do with rimu trees.
Doh. So if Remutaka is what it should be, then bring it on.

Incredibly, this simple, sensible and unarguably right
idea is too much for former South Wairarapa district
councillor John Tenquist, who is quoted as calling it
ludicrous. 'Once again we are pandering to a minority,'
he says. 'We have some European heritage in this country
and, rightly or wrongly, it has been Rimutaka for over
150 years, so if it ain't broken, don't fix it.'

Rightly or wrongly? I guarantee that if people went
around persistently spelling Masterton (named after a
real historical person called Masters) Mawsterton or
Mesterton, Mr Tenquist would soon have something to
say about it. But of course I'm forgetting: all rights are
equal but majority rights are more equal than minority
rights. Doh.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Advice for beginning mystics

'Be sober, be intelligent, be educated, rely on the
tangible reality as long as you can. Remember that
the act of writing is a tiny part of a bigger something.
Defend the value of the spiritual experience and if
somebody tells you it’s an old-fashioned notion,
laugh loudly and serenely. Don’t trust priests of the
postmodern religion of absolute playfulness.'
—Adam Zagajewski

Friday, June 25, 2010

Oaths of office

What can one say by way of encouragement to incoming
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (keeping in mind
the experience of her predecessor)?

Well, Julia, let’s just say that the career of anyone taking
top office consists of two phases.

First you’re sworn in.
Then you’re sworn at.

Good luck.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sorry seems to be the easiest word

Out there in talk radio land, Russel Norman is getting a
roasting for his part in what happened outside
Parliament last week. The mood has unquestionably
turned against him, as those who never liked the Greens
anyway use the incident as a fresh excuse for venting
anti-Green spleen, only this time with a fine ring of
self-righteousness. As if they’d been waiting for Norman
(that insufferable prick who keeps making sense, damn
him) to slip up, and now it’s Gotcha! Yes, a merry sense
of Schadenfreude pervades the scorn of talkback calls.

There’s a rich irony, too, in the frequent citing of how
well behaved Rod Donald was when he protested at a
previous Chinese state visit. He got permission, he stood
well back, he didn’t shout. Nice Rod. Good Rod. As if he
wasn’t regarded with equal contempt when he was alive.
The only good Green’s a dead (or retired) Green?

It’s also amusing to the point of hysterical laughter that
critics are calling what Norman did a ‘publicity stunt.’
Well, yes, if you like. So? Everything in politics is a
publicity stunt of one sort or another. Rodney Hide has
built a career on being one. You could just as easily say
that the entire visit by Xi Jinping was an elaborate
publicity stunt, orchestrated so delicately that the least
ruffle, like a man standing holding a Tibetan flag, could
threaten to send it spinning out of control.

As an aside, has anyone noticed that Vice-President Xi
did not utter a single word in public during his three-day
visit? Certainly not one recorded by the media that I can
find. Nor did anyone attached to his entourage, except
for the briefest statements. Naturally not a squeak came
from the guards who manhandled Norman; nor has the
Chinese government even deigned to respond publicly
to John Key’s ingratiating apology for what over the past
four days has somehow, by a rather sinister process of
Beltway elision, come to be called a 'scuffle.'

In all this, and by no means accidentally, the serious
question really raised by the incident—namely, how come
Chinese security guards were able to do precisely what
they liked on New Zealand’s Parliament Grounds and not
be called to account for it?—has been swept under the red
carpet, while the focus swings onto Norman, who has
gloatingly been scapegoated for doing something that
would scarcely have crept in at the bottom of a news item
had he not been assaulted by members of an official
foreign state entourage.

Let me get this clear. When our politicians go to China on
official visits they have to conform to the Chinese way of
doing things, out of politeness if nothing else. And when
Chinese politicians come to New Zealand, we have to
conform to their way of doing things here as well—and
apologize to them if we don't. Have I got that right? Just
so we're all on the same page about this.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Far from the land

A good article by Amanda Cropp in yesterday's Your
Weekend magazine about the employment of migrant
workers, mostly from the Philippines, on Canterbury
dairy farms. It's clear from what Cropp writes that the
bigger the farm and the less linked to the land its
owners—ie, if it's a foreign-owned 'corporate farm'—
then the more likely that workers will be exploited
and the animals ill-treated and neglected. She quotes
a farmer saying that '500 to 600 cows is still a family
operation, but once it's 1000 it's a completely
different ball game.' Some of the new farms being
proposed for places like the Mackenzie Basin are for
thousands and thousands of cows. What I found
most chilling in the article, though, was a passing
reference to a '14,000-cow indoor dairying unit' in
Saudi Arabia. Unit? Unit? That is battery farming,
plain, simple and barbaric.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Changing your books

Coming across a reference to ‘changing your books,’ I am
intensely reminded that when I was growing up in
Masterton in the 1950s and early 1960s, we didn’t go to
the public library to borrow books or take out a book, we
went (every Friday night, as a rule) to change our books:
the unspoken understanding being that you would always
have one or two books on the go, there would never be a
time when you weren’t reading one, and that therefore
you would change them regularly (it may have been that
you were only allowed to have them for a week in those
days, I can’t remember). And Friday night, late shopping
night, a special, almost magical couple of hours each week
in the life of a provincial town in the sequestered 1950s,
was invariably when it happened—the changing of at least
one book for another (I'm fairly sure, actually, that there
was a limit of three allowed at a time—for kids anyway).

The public library wasn’t the only one in town, though.
The big department store, the WFCA (Wairarapa Farmers'
Cooperative Association), later Wright Stephenson, had a
small lending library in its basement. This would be
inconceivable now—though video shops are the modern
equivalent. The WFCA’s poky little library stocked mostly
thrillers, romances and crime fiction, and you paid for
what you took out, of course—possibly threepence or
sixpence a book. In my teens I must have borrowed
hundreds of detective novels, working my way through
writers like Anthony Gilbert, Miles Burton and Erle
Stanley Gardner, as well as virtually all of Agatha Christie
and most of the Saint books by Leslie Charteris. I even
read westerns. Hundreds of books a year, gobbling them
up with the indiscriminate appetite of the young. In a way,
I'm appalled—why wasn't I into Dostoyevsky at 14?—but
on the other hand it got all that stuff out of the road early
on, so that I've never felt the need to spend time on it
again. Yeah right. So how come I still haven't read Proust?
And didn't I, for the sheer nostalgic comfort of it, revisit a
Biggles book earlier this year? Some books never change.
Maybe some readers don't, either.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


I am not sure about writers any more. I begin to think
they make too much of themselves. It’s not entirely their
fault, the poor sods: publishers and publicists are at
them all the time, demanding that they do tricks, jump
for fish and balance balls on the ends of their noses. The
book is in danger of being supplanted by the writer,
because the book qua book is just too hard for us to take.
As Rilke said, beauty is only the beginning of a terror we
can barely endure. Art, unmediated art, is a tough call in
these times: we need the backstory, the creative process,
the press release, the launch. We have to know that an
individual who could have been us did this thing. Thus
the writer, a cringing creature at the best of times,
someone who, as Colm Tóibín says, ought never to get
out of their mental pyjamas, is thrust forward blinking
into the light and told to hustle product. Some do it well,
of course, but the inexorable effect of writerization is the
diminution of the work.

We readers (consumers) are also terrified of our own
judgments and crave guidance on what to like and what
not to like. Imagine the sheer horror of picking up a new
book and knowing nothing at all about it. Panicking, we
turn to the flap for information on the author; rush to the
internet and google up some reviews; anchor ourselves in
the sheltered harbour of the already. Whew. Could have
got drowned out there.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

All White on the night

So. The whole world will be watching tonight when gallant
little New Zealand, the nuggety no-hopers from nowhere,
take on mighty Slovakia in the World Cup in South Africa.
Showing a shameless lack of national chauvinism, I must
admit to feeling somewhat dispirited about the All Whites’
chances till I read yesterday’s editorial in the New
Yes. The Herald, in its magisterial way, has
seized on the English goalkeeper’s fumble in the game
against the United States—an error that, observers say, is
already up there with Hitler’s invasion of Russia and the
maiden voyage of the Titanic as one of history’s most
shocking blunders—as a beacon of hope for Kiwi fans. It
proves, according to the Herald, that ‘once a team make
it to the World Cup, they can upset predictions with grit,
teamwork and undeserved luck.’

This is the spirit, by God, that allows New Zealanders to
hold their heads high in the world: the unswerving belief
that Kiwi pluck, skill and ingenuity will prevail just so long
as someone else cocks up somewhere. Never doubt it. Did
Hillary get to the top of Everest on nothing more than
guts and determination? No: he got there first because
had failed to do so before him. Why did Russell
Crowe become a Hollywood superstar? Because, in a
once-in-300-years phenomenon, several American
producers simultaneously had a brain explosion that
momentarily prevented them from detecting real talent.
Anything of note that any New Zealander ever achieved in
the world has been the result of accident, screw-up or
undeserved luck. I need hardly mention the famous case
of Ernest Rutherford, who only split the atom because he
accidentally dropped one on the lab floor while trying to
put it in a test-tube.

The All Whites, then, deserve all the undeserved luck they
can get. A 4-1 thrashing of Slovakia is perfectly possible,
given freakish atmospheric conditions, a mid-European
existential crisis 10 minutes from time and a sniper in
the top row of the stands. As the Herald, in its wisdom,
says: ‘Stranger things have happened.’

Monday, June 14, 2010

Prep talk

I’m not sure I agree with my old colleague Terry Snow,
who expostulates fulminatively in last week’s Listener
about the tendency to drop prepositions from news
reports, eg, ‘The high exchange rate has impinged their
profit’ and ‘British families are grieving loved ones lost
in Iraq.’ The English language didn’t get where it is today
without tightening, abbreviating, welding, fusing two
words into one, shedding wasteful words, getting ever
cleaner and crisper. ‘Grieving loved ones’ seems just as
good to me, if not better, than ‘Grieving for loved ones,’
and I also have no problem with ‘He appealed the verdict’
instead of ‘He appealed against the verdict’ and ‘They
protested the decision’ without the need for ‘against.’ If
the meaning is indisputably clear, as it is in all these
cases, then let’s not fret if the odd preposition misses the
cut. They still have a pretty good life, those preps, with at
least a walk-on role in just about every sentence ever
spoken or written.

By the same token, I've long been a fan of the American
custom of dropping superfluous letters from words, eg,
program for programme and traveler for traveller
(though, perversely, Americans cling to fulfill and willful).
I think also that the inventive abbreviations of txting
enrich, not impoverish, the language. A good acronym
gives me untold pleasure. The only form of abbreviation
that irks me is the growing media tendency to run the
initials of people's names together, so that C K Stead,
say, becomes CK Stead. Instead. As it were.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Bloody foreigners

‘Tonight is about democracy in Auckland where we are
presenting for the good people of Howick.’
—Botany MP Pansy Wong

‘This is a good day for Howick, Pakuranga and Botany.
They have a government that listens.’
—Local Government Minister Rodney Hide

—front-page headline, Howick & Pakuranga Times

What was being trumpeted here last week was the success
of an amendment to the Auckland super-city legislation.
For the south-eastern ward of the new council, the Local
Government Commission had proposed the name Te
Irirangi, but local people (some of the non-Maori ones
anyway) rose up in wrath at what one of them called an
‘appalling name’ that was difficult to pronounce. The
Howick & Pakuranga Times ran a campaign against Te
Irirangi, promoted a petition that went to Parliament and
won the day: the ward will be known as Howick.

The name is that of a 19th-century English aristocrat, the
third Earl Grey, who before he succeeded to his father’s
title was known as Viscount Howick, that being the name
of the family’s stately home in Northumberland. Grey was
Colonial Secretary in the British government at the time
eastern Auckland was being occupied by white settlers.
He never came near New Zealand, let alone the part of it
that bears his name to this day.

Tara Te Irirangi was the paramount chief of Ngai Tai, the
tangata whenua at the time the settlers arrived. According
to Brian Rudman in the New Zealand Herald he was a
‘friend to the newcomers, learning their language and
supporting the new settler government.’ Nice of him. He
got a street named after him, and Otara’s name derives
from him too. But the Local Government Commision’s
proposal was clearly a suburb too far for some. ‘The name
has come from nowhere,’ thundered the editor of the
H & P Times
. ‘It doesn’t mean anything to people who
have lived here for a long time.’

Go figure. Rudman wrote an excellent column about it here.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, the Invercargill
City Council has roundly rejected the idea of calling a new
street Ti Kouka Way, as suggested by a council officer, and
opted for Kakariki Way instead. Not so egregious, you
might think, but Ti Kouka (the cabbage tree common in the
area of the street) missed out because, according to the
Southland Times, ‘councillors agreed it might be difficult to
pronounce.’ One said it sounded like ‘coconut.’ Another said
it would be a hard one to explain to a call centre in Delhi.

That's the trouble with these pesky foreign languages, which
is what te reo still clearly is to many Pakeha: they're just
not English enough.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The good news

A state house in South Auckland. Fish and chips for
dinner. Again. The phone has been cut and the power has
gone out because the family can’t afford to pay the bills.
By candlelight a woman gasps for life: the end is near, as
a bronchial condition brought on by years of living in a
damp underheated house takes its toll. She was supposed
to be getting home help but the district health board
stopped funding that service. Suddenly the sound of a car
pulling up in the driveway. It’s young Malo, just home from
an (unsuccessful) job interview on the other side of town.
He rushes in. ‘Mother,’ he cries. ‘The news—it’s just come
through—the tax cuts in the Budget. People earning
$70,000 or more are going to do really well out of it! Many
of them will get hundreds of dollars more a week!’
Exhausted by the fight for every breath, the dying woman
somehow musters the strength to give a grateful smile.
‘Thank God,’ she murmurs. ‘Thank God for that. And the
business community, the corporate investors? Please tell
me they will suffer no more.” Malo’s grief-torn face is, for
a moment, lit up by a tremendous smile. ‘It’s all right,
mother,’ he says softly. ‘Company tax has been reduced to
28%.’ The sick woman struggles to rise from her bed.
She’s clearly excited beyond her ability to contain it. ‘But
that’s…but that’s—‘ ‘Yes, mother,’ replies Malo. He's
almost crying now. ‘Yes. That’s even lower than Australia’s
company tax rate.’ She sinks back into her pillows. Her
strength is almost gone. ‘And John Key? That nice Mr Key?
Tell me he’ll be all
right.’ She feels her son’s hand on her
brow. ‘You need worry no more, mother,’ he says proudly.
‘Thanks to the tax cuts, John Key and people like him will
get $350 more a week.’ She gropes for his hand, squeezes
it with her last ounce of strength. She can die happy now.
There is peace, and justice, and goodness in the world. The
rasp of breath grows fainter. Malo weeps helplessly. The
candle flickers, and goes out.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mean to say

The older I get (and I am now 63), the less art works its
its magic on me. Is this typical for a sixtysomething or
is it just me? The poets, the writers, the musicians I
once worshipped now seem more like people with
problematic personal lives, who, unable to cope with
reality, found solace in invented worlds. Gorgeous,
enchanting, brilliantly embroidered worlds, but
artificial nonetheless. Well, that’s what art is, isn’t it?
Artificial. And fair enough too. In the great cosmic
wash-up quadrillions of years from now, it may be that
art will be all that the universe remembers us by—that,
and certain inexplicable acts of kindness. I hope human
beings will go on getting as much out of art as I have in
my life—and still do, but with a growing jadedness.
Why, I find myself wondering as I try to embark on a
new novel, would anyone go to the trouble of creating
this fantastically elaborated fictional world? Have they
failed so soon, I muse out loud as I toss the book aside
halfway through page 10, to cope with reality? Even a
phrase in a non-fiction book can try my churlish
patience, such as this from Country Driving: Three
Journeys Across a Changing China by Peter Hessler.
In Beijing, he writes as early as page two, it was a ‘gray,
muggy morning, the sky draped over the city like a
shroud of wet silk.’ Once, I would probably have thought
this a fine turn of phrase, and, indeed, would have
written one just like it myself. Now, like Bertie Wooster
bewildered by Types of Ethical Theory, a book foisted on
him by a ghastly girl called Florence, I can only respond
helplessly, ‘Well—I mean to say—what?’

Friday, May 7, 2010

Bulldogs and berets

Memorable ad placements of our time: on page 75 of the
March issue of the American monthly magazine Harper’s,
politely and unobtrusively placed in a column of small ads
for, among other things, European berets, English
bulldogs and a CD of romantic piano music, we find this:

Poisoned environment.
Toxic Landscape. Ecotourism Fraud.

I’m impressed that they should care so much—even a four-
ad in Harper’s would appear to cost about $US100—but
also dismayed that 'they' (these anti-1080 campaigners)
should be so fanatical about their cause that they are
prepared to condemn the whole of New Zealand to the
rest of the world on the basis of it. Whether it will deter
well-heeled Harper’s readers from holidaying in New
Zealand is anyone’s guess. Probably, given the hazards of
modern travel, ranging from volcanic ash to passengers
strapped with explosives, a little possum poison isn't
going to be the No 1 disincentive for leaving home.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Confession of a tragic New Zealander

Even more baffling is why some tragic New Zealanders
are passionate followers of English teams despite
having no parochial connections to them, but that’s
another story.—Karl du Fresne blog

In early adolescence, probably when I was about 13 or 14,
and at my sexual and intellectual peak, I began taking a
keen interest in the English football league, and would
check the results weekly, as fascinated by the names of
the clubs, I fancy, as I was by racehorses’ names (about
which I have written elsewhere). Those were the days
when the results—all of them, all four divisions, as there
were then—were not just published in the papers but
read out on radio. Burnley 1, Huddersfield 2; Nottingham
Forest 0, Sheffield Wednesday 0—that sort of thing, on
and on for a good few minutes, chanted sonorously, like
a litany, by a newsreader just after the news at (if I
remember rightly) 8 or 9 o’clock on Sunday morning.
For reasons unfathomable to this day but possibly simply
because I liked the look of the word, I adopted Chelsea as
my favourite team and, alas, they have stayed that way in
my affections ever since, through decades of vicissitude
and disappointment, leavened only by the occasional
triumph, eg, the FA Cup in 1970. Unlike my old colleague
Steve Braunias I’m not a particularly enthusiastic fan of
soccer, much preferring to watch rugby—though I once
lived quite close to the Stamford Bridge ground in London
I never went to see a game there—but to this day my eye
still strays to the English football results to see how
Chelsea are doing. In recent years, of course, they have
become a super-club, always near the top of the league
and winning trophies regularly. The fact that they have
done so by spending squillions of pounds on buying star
footballers from other countries, to the extent that the
current team can scarcely contain a single player born in
London, let alone Chelsea, has not weakened my
kneejerk reaction to the word Chelsea, nor will it cloud
my satisfaction when, this coming weekend, Chelsea
wallop Wigan Athletic at Stamford Bridge to win the
premier league for 2009-10. Such is the enduring power
of words, certain of which can cast a lifelong spell on us.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


In a recent Spectator former editor Charles Moore writes
‘What phrase on a news programme promises the
greatest boredom? I would say "awards ceremony".’ He’s
not far wrong either. I'd add only that a strong contender
for the title would also be ‘comedy festival.’ The spirits
sink at the very words. There is something profoundly
wrong with a civilization that insists on having so much
‘comedy’ together in one place at the same time. Stop me
if you’ve heard this one, but the whole idea of comedy as
a discrete genre imposes an oppressive expectation that
one will be amused, and in the stranglehold of that very
expectation the laughter dies on one’s lips. The best
humour comes at you sideways or out of context; the
term ‘stand-up comedy’ is actually an oxymoron. Comedy
as we now know it was invented to fill a market niche.
How funny is that?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

No, no, Neo

Many people were shocked last year by the images of pig
maltreatment shown on the TV current affairs program
Sunday, after comedian Mike King was smuggled into a
Horowhenua pig farm by animal-rights activists. But not
shocked enough, apparently, to stop buying pork and
bacon products coming out of such farms. The last I heard,
sales of New Zealand pork had hardly been dented by the
exposure of practices like putting sows in narrow stalls in
which they can’t even turn around. Despite noises of
appalment from the Minister of Agriculture after the
program aired, nothing has happened to change such
practices, and indeed, the pork industry is dragging its
, calling for more time (like, several years) before
the introduction of a pig welfare code outlawing sow stalls
and farrowing crates. The only thing that will hurry the
industry up is a consumer backlash. Just as many of us
now make a point of buying free-range eggs, so we must
buy only free-range pork and bacon if we want pigs to be
treated humanely in this country. There’s precious little
of it on the supermarket shelves but it can be found if you
look for it (and are willing to pay a bit more). We also
need restaurants and cafes to get the message. In a
Wellington café the other day—Neo, on Willis St—I felt
like ordering one of their tasty-looking bacon/egg snacks
but when I asked if the bacon was free-range, the girl
behind the counter looked at me as if I’d just landed from
Mars. The assistant she called over also had no idea what
I was talking about. I gave the snack the swerve, and won’t
be eating at Neo again. I’m sure they’re not exceptional,
but it would take them very little (a few dollars more) and
gain a great deal of goodwill if they went to the trouble of
ensuring that any pigmeat they use is from a free-range
farm. What about it, guys?

Boom boom

Just after noon in Wellington today, the sound of a
booming gun disturbed the air. Not just once but
several times. I had to think for a moment; then I
remembered that it was the Queen’s (real) birthday.
How quaint. So long as archaic rituals like this persist,
let us sit back and savour the irony of the chorus
coming from those who keep telling us that it’s way
past the time when the state should have stopped
saying sorry to Maori and making reparations for the
crimes of British colonialism in the 19th century. This
absurd business of the 21-gun salute—the officially
sanctioned method of tugging a forelock—is a grubby
little reminder that, while Maori are expected to
‘move on,’ the predominantly Pakeha state is quite
happy to stand still in the name of imperial tradition.
There is also a grubby big reminder of this: the
grotesque nonsense of retaining at great pomp and
cost a ‘governor-general,’ on the doing up of whose
Wellington residence $43 million is currently being
lavished. Roll on the republic.

Two things wrong

The New Zealand Herald’s front-page lead story today
begins with the words ‘A woman cyclist killed after being
struck by a train is believed to have been distracted
listening to an iPod-style music player.’ From a
journalistic point of view, there are two things badly
wrong with that statement. First, why a woman cyclist?
Think about it. Would the reporter say ‘a man cyclist’?
Of course not. This is soft sexism, perpetuating the
antiquated (but clearly persistent) notion that women are
not as fully human as men. Then there’s that ubiquitous
word ‘after,’ often used lazily by journalists to give a
heightened sense of chronological narrative to a story.
Think about this too. She was killed after being struck by
the train? I don’t think so. If that was the case, who or
what killed her and how? Obviously she was killed when
struck by the train, but in today's media ‘when’ is
increasingly being driven out of reportage by ‘after.’ Such
an awful accident deserved better reporting than this.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Scott's word

Here we go again. In today’s paper, a news item about
the screening of film taken on the Scott and Amundsen
expeditions to the South Pole in 1911–12. It recalls how
Scott’s diaries recorded the ‘famous last words of
comrade Lawrence Oates, who stepped outside his tent
with the words "I may be some time".’ Well, maybe.
Only earlier today I was reading a review by Max
Hastings in the New York Review of Books in which he
expresses scepticism about what he calls the ‘modern
cult of oral history.’ Reasonably enough, Hastings points
out that human memory is wildly selective, yet compilers
and editors ‘decline to mar the vividness of eyewitness
narratives by identifying errors.’ So what is remembered
by people many years later, especially if they lived
through dramatic or dangerous times, is often treated as
if it must be true. Similarly with diaries: we have
absolutely no way of knowing whether what Scott wrote
in his last diary, on that terrible return from the Pole, is
true, embellished or even a pack of lies.

Naturally the imperial British establishment of the day
had a keen interest in treating it as gospel truth, as it
made Scott and his men look like heroes and obscured
the fact that their deaths could have been avoided, had
more common sense prevailed in the planning of the
polar trip (as it did with Scott’s successful rival
Amundsen). The extraordinary thing is that most of us,
to this day, still prefer to believe the official version,
based on the diary found in the tent that was the last
resting-place for Scott, Wilson and Bowers. I have no
doubt that most of it is true, and have no wish to sit here
in my comfortable chair and mock these men who for
weeks in the ice and snow endured hardships that would
do for me in hours, if that. But will we honour the past—
with all its irksome shades of grey—or not? I take my cue
again from Hastings, a veteran writer on military matters,
who says: ‘No US or British regimental war diary that I
have ever seen explicitly admits that soldiers fled in panic,
as of course they sometimes do.’ By the same token,
brutal as it may be to say, we have only Scott’s word for it
—the word of a failed leader striving to put his doomed
expedition in the best possible light—that Oates behaved
as gallantly as he did, sacrificing his life by walking out
into the blizzard because, so frostbitten he could hardly
walk, he knew that he was holding the others back. It
could equally be that he went mad and started attacking
his companions, and had to be killed, or ran out
screaming rather than nobly (and perhaps a touch too
perfectly) announcing ‘I am just going out and may be
some time.’

I’m not saying he did or didn’t, but neither can anyone
say that Scott’s version is the unvarnished truth. And
we now know that Oates, whom Scott called an ‘English
gentleman,’ got a girl of 12 pregnant before he left
England—not, one would think, the act of a gentleman
of any nationality. As Hastings says, reviewing a book by
Margaret MacMillan called Dangerous Games: The Uses
and Abuses of History
, most people cherish their
national myths ‘too much to want mere facts, or even
assertions of historical doubt, to besmirch them. They
prefer a nursery view of their past to an adult one.’
Perhaps, then, it’s time to make a maturer view of the
Scott expedition and accept that, while we will never
know what really happened as those poor frozen Brits,
those mad men of an earlier generation, dragged their
way back across the Barrier, it’s naïve to believe that it
necessarily happened the way a dying man said it did.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Haneke's choice

Michael Haneke’s film The White Ribbon is one way of
attempting to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable
opposites described in my last blog—opposites made
emblematic in the image, true to life, of well-fed, well-
dressed Germans listening to Schubert in, say, 1943 while
fellow Germans (often following the orders of the
Schubert listeners, who knew perfectly well what was
going on) committed mass murder in death camps
situated in some cases no more than a few hundred
metres away. Haneke simply depicts the life of a German
village in the years 1913–14 and, without belabouring the
point, or even overtly making it, says, in effect, to the
audience: this is what Germany was like then—you know
what Germany was like immediately after that—make
the connexion. And in the narrow, enclosed world of the
village, dominated by feudal economics and Lutheran
religion, where male authority is paramount and
unchallengeable, where children are rigidly repressed
and adults abuse them at will, where atrocities occur in
dark places, it’s all there to be connected. Choose, if you
will, to see the seeds of Hitler, Nazism, the two world
wars, the Holocaust behind the walls and in the woods
of Eichwald, c1914. It’s your choice, Haneke is saying.
Clearly, in making this film, he has made his.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Enemy action

The seemingly unstoppable flow of books, films and
television programs about the Second World War tells us
that, though it ended 65 years ago, it still casts a long
shadow over our lives. It might not even be an
exaggeration to say that, in a psychological sense, the war
never ended; it is still going on; the battlefields have
shifted, that is all—from physical locations to hearts and
minds. I think there may be three reasons for this. One is
the patently obvious fact that such a seismic event in
human history—the biggest war ever fought—is not going
to politely take its place in the history books as if it were a
building collapse or a by-election: it hugely affected not
only the people who lived through it but generations

Second, the war enclosed another event that, largely
hidden from the world at the time, has come in many
ways to eclipse the war itself—an event, if that’s an
adequate word, so horrific that the mind still balks at
grasping the entirety of it. It was Theodor Adorno who, in
1949, said that the idea of writing poetry after the
Holocaust was barbaric; and George Steiner, I think, who
had difficulty believing in the meaning of progress,
indeed, of history, after Auschwitz. I’m sure he’s not alone.
Certainly it was he who once wrote that we will never be
fully human until we can, without going insane, hold in
our minds simultaneously the two images of (a) smoke
rising from a concentration-camp gas chamber while a
few hundred metres away (b) supposedly civilized
Germans listened to Schubert quintets. It may be that
humanity wrote its own epitaph in the death camps of the
Nazi regime, and that whatever cosmetics we apply to our
civilization now, we are essentially lipsticked ghouls in a

Third, those of us whose fathers died in or survived the
war are now of an age when, more urgently than ever, we
want to know more about our parents’ generation, and how
they coped with the aftermath of war. Partly, by having us.
Partly, unconsciously, no doubt, by carrying on the war,
lest the peace corrupt them. The men, certainly, went on
fighting, because how can you live through what they did
and then just settle down overnight to tea and biscuits and
a nine-to-five routine? The diary of a New Zealand soldier
coming back from the war in 1945 concludes, after the
berthing of the troopship, the flags, the bunting, the bands,
the speeches, the women on the wharfside, the train
upcountry, the cheering crowds at every platform, the
arrival at his hometown, it concludes—and there is no
more after this—with the words ‘Tears etc.’

Coming back from the war
was like being lowered
from a hot-air balloon.
At first the view was tremendous—
we felt like kings, with so much
earth to survey—but the closer
we got to the ground,
the more things rushed up to meet us.
Fields became blades of grass;
the sky went back to where it was;
and instead of the smell of death
there were stations, and faces,
and children thrust into our arms,
the old life reclaiming us,
tea, cups and saucers,
the sound of a single car in the street,
a plate held out with the future on it,
looks; unbridgeable silences;
tears etc.

I may have quoted Dan Davin before, that observation of
his that, once the excitement of war was gone, ‘A man’d
soon have to start up again all the old fights within himself
that used to go on in the days when there was no danger
to his skin.’ Often, then, the enemy became the women
and the children in the ex-soldiers’ lives. ‘When their war
ended, our war began’—this, quoted in the British book
Stranger in the House by Julie Summers, was said by a
woman whose husband had been demobilized. Many a
wife lived life on the frontline for years afterwards,
perhaps for all her life; and many a child grew up to the
echo of gunfire and the imprint of barbed wire. The war
goes on, and the more books and films about it, the
better—because it shaped our world, and it made us. I am
not sure any of us will live to hear the last shot fired.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Family secret

While the environmental consequences of dairy-farming are
currently gaining a great deal of attention, and rightly so,
and while the prospect of Chinese ownership of dairy farms
is exercising the minds of many, a titanic struggle is going
on for the heart and soul of the New Zealand dairying
system, namely, its co-operative structure, by means of
which virtually every dairy farmer has a stake in the
company that collects and on-sells the milk produced by
their cows. This company, which in its former incarnation
was known for much of the 20th century as the Dairy Board,
itself a co-operative made out of hundreds of smaller
co-ops, is today a global force called Fonterra. And
Fonterra wants—as global forces do—to grow. Already the
world’s biggest exporter of dairy produce, with farms and
factories in several other countries, it lives in mortal fear of
being overtaken or even swallowed by competitors and
therefore, according to the imperious logic of capitalism,
must expand or die. To do so, however, it needs more
capital—a lot more. The usual way of going about this is to
list as a public company (plc) on the stock exchange and
invite investment from anyone from Canadian pension
funds to what are tiresomely called ‘Mum and Dad
investors.’ Alas for Fonterra’s power-hungry executives:
the 10,537 farmers who already co-operatively own it don’t
like that idea. When, three years ago, management tried to
change the company’s capital structure with a partial public
listing, the farmers said no. Now the executives are having
another go. Last year they succeeded in boosting the
potential share capital by getting farmers to agree to a
system whereby they, the farmers, can buy 20% more
shares in Fonterra than their milk production would
normally entitle them to. Now the executives are pitching to
the farmers the idea of share-trading among themselves,
which, by creating a sort of internal market within the
company, rather like the stock market outside it, will
enable Fonterra—according to chairman Henry van der
Heyden—to manage its cash flows better. The real agenda,
however, remains the executives’ desire to open Fonterra
up to the world; for all their honeyed words about
‘protecting and strengthening the co-operative’ they clearly
regard the co-operative structure as a creaky old brake on
their accelerating ambitions, something even embarrassing,
like a family secret, out of keeping with the polished world
in which they move, a world where money is supposed to be
free to do whatever it wants and go wherever it will. The
farmers, for their part, are highly suspicious, because they
know that once Fonterra is floating free as a plc, it's wide
open to all sorts of investor machinations; before long, one
feels certain, it would become an amorphous transnational
entity owned by big anonymous money and taking milk
from any old where, with New Zealand dairy-farmers no
better than unprotected suppliers subject to the vagaries of
owners and/or investors in Baltimore, Berne and Bangkok.
Federated Farmers, for once, is right on the money when it
rejects outright any public listing of the company that,
whatever its international reach now, owes its entire
existence to thousands of anonymous New Zealanders
who, over the past 170 years, have laboured to make farms
and milk cows and who don’t want to see their livelihood
become the plaything of the global money-go-round. There
are few enough major New Zealand companies still owned
purely by New Zealanders; if Fonterra goes, you can just
about kiss goodbye to the already tattered prospect of this
country being in any sense master of its own economic fate.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Paperback reader

I am trying to remember the way I felt about paperbacks
when I was growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Though not exactly a new thing then, they were still new
enough to have about them a nimbus of specialness that
set them apart from hardbacks; to their thin pages and
flimsy covers, to their very slightness in the hand, clung
a quality of concentrated power. That so much could be
packed into so little! Or maybe my excited pleasure in
them simply reflected the fact that they were among my
first points of entry into the world of books. But I see
and feel them now, smell them now, the Pans and
Penguins and Picadors, or even those American Dells
that seemed to come from another planet compared
with the British titles that dominated the paperback
market. I still have some on my shelves, notably
(strictly for sentimental reasons) three of the yellow
Hodder & Stoughton Saint books written by Leslie
Charteris in what now seems an alarmingly florid style
and two versions of one of the Second World War true-
life tales I loved so much, indeed, took in like milk from
my mother’s breast—Enemy Coast Ahead by Guy Gibson
and The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill. Plus a mottled,
yellowing Pan edition of A G Macdonell’s England, Their
, with its immortal description of a village-green
cricket match. When I seek to recall others no longer in
my possession, into my mind for some reason comes
Knock on Any Door by Willard Motley; or is it Windom’s
by James Ramsey Ullman? No, no, it’s neither of
these, it’s Campbell’s Kingdom by Hammond Innes.
Little books, so light to hold, so easily bent and crushed,
and yet as durable as stone! I treasure you.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

An unreasonable sense of entitlement

Paula Bennett also speaks disapprovingly of those people
she thinks have an ‘unreasonable sense of entitlement.’
I wonder if, say, Mark Weldon, chief executive of the New
Zealand Stock Exchange, whose pay-packet last year went
up from $895,566 to $1,390,000
, could also be
considered to have an unreasonable sense of entitlement.
Of course he has a high-powered job but a pay rise of
nearly half a million dollars? On top of a salary already
stratospheric by most people’s standards? Depends on
your definition of ‘reasonable,’ I guess. But it’s funny how
the large amounts of money ‘earned’ or accrued in the
form of profits by those at the top of the private-sector
heap attract no government opprobrium, indeed, are
happily supported, directly or indirectly, by the whole
ethos of government as we know it. Yet these ‘earnings’
are made on the back of lesser-paid people’s labour and
investment, and sometimes at the cost of the latter’s jobs
and livelihoods. Perhaps it would help to correct the
balance if cabinet ministers occasionally made it clear—
ever so politely, of course—that the barons of the
boardroom are the ones with the really unreasonable
sense of entitlement.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Standing in the doorway

‘Every dollar that is spent on welfare has to be earned
by a hard-working New Zealander.’ Thus Paula Bennett,
who by fronting the latest ‘welfare reforms’ has probably
wiped out in one hit whatever goodwill she brought
with her into the job of Social Development Minister.
All the evidence is that, apart from a tiny minority, the
kind of people who get welfare benefits move from
work to welfare and back to work again, depending on
the state of the economy; the average stay on the
unemployment benefit is less than a year. In other
words, the hard-working New Zealanders who earn the
dollars that get spent on welfare are also the people
who gratefully accept that welfare when they need it.
They themselves have helped to pay the taxes that make
this possible. With remarks like the above, Bennett
contrives to paint a picture of two New Zealands, one
industrious and responsible, the other leechlike and lazy.
In fact, we are all in this together, as one people: today’s
‘hard-working New Zealander’ (it could be you) is
tomorrow’s beneficiary, and vice versa.

Politicians, particularly those on the right, commonly use
the failings of a few as a stick to beat the many with; to
see government ministers like Bennett doing it now is
desperately depressing. At a time of high unemployment,
where exactly are the jobs for those who will be forced off
welfare by these 'reforms'? Maybe there are two New
Zealands after all, because the picture this paints for me
is of one standing in a warm well-lit doorway driving the
other out into the snow.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The light of a burning forest

Driving through Wairarapa I see with fresh force what we
have done to the land. The early European colonists
called the stretch from Masterton to Pahiatua the Forty
Mile Bush. Little trace of that remains: just the odd stand
of native trees and manuka scrub. All now on either side
of the highway is pasture for cows and sheep. Here is your
open-cast mine, your quarry: the trees were extracted
from the land, leaving a scarred surface fit only for grass.
From 1840 on, New Zealand has been mined for milk,
butter, beef, mutton and wool. I wish I could remember
who wrote the following, but I copied it out of a magazine
once and it goes like this:

The Wairarapa had once been a great lowland forest
and now it’s gone. And gone with it is the humus in
the soil. Once we had a 30m canopy going down
through a succession of canopies to a 30cm depth
of humus. Now there’s nothing but 12mm of grass
and the climate of the Wairarapa has gone up by 12
degrees at ground level.

Your question is, of course: so? Humans were supposed
to arrive here in their hundreds of thousands, looking to
make a new life, and not disturb a branch or a leaf? No.
But we need continually to acknowledge that the impulse
that brought them from (mainly) the British Isles was
both a destructive and constructive one, and that their
legacy is our life here today—just as we bequeath to
future generations the consequences of every major
ecological decision we make. We may not know better
than they did but we know different; possibly, we have a
more developed view of consequences, if only thanks to
the fires they lit. Strange how one sees better by the light
of a burning forest. W P Reeves did:

The axe bites deep. The rushing fire streams bright;
Swift, beautiful and fierce it speeds for Man,
Nature's rough-handed foeman, keen to smite
And mar the loveliness of ages. Scan
The blackened forest ruined in a night,
A sylvan Parthenon that God will plan
But build not twice. Ah, bitter price to pay
For Man's dominion—beauty swept away!

That's from his poem 'The Passing of the Forest,' written
in the 1890s and subtitled 'A Lament for the Children of
Tane.' It took fewer than 50 years for a threnody like
that to be quarried from the guts of a poet aghast at what
he saw—'the fire's black smirch, the landslip's gaping
wound.' How much have we learnt since then? Your
mission now, should you choose to accept it, is to think
of New Zealand as the Thousand Mile Ecosystem and
work with that.