Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blog days

A year is a machine for making time in. It has cogs and
wheels that go round in a quotidian grind, and levers
that, pressed, produce weekends, public holidays.
Ka-chunka ka-chunka. It is entirely programmed by
man, of course, though loosely based on a heavenly
model. Now the machine has completed its cycle again;
tomorrow we enter a new production phase. Signing off
my timesheet for the one just ending, may I thank all
those who have read and/or commented on this blog,
wish all and sundry (and rainwet) a new year fit to fight
for, and commend to you—amid news of suicide
bombings, wars, military escalation, terrorism and
international tension, not to mention the grim tidings
of global warming—the words of James Lovelock, who,
asked at the beginning of the year what big stories or
planetary developments he expected to see dominating
the media in 2009, replied: ‘Rarely mentioned is the
amazing persistence of the decency and good behaviour
of almost everyone everywhere.’

Monday, December 28, 2009

Dog days

These are the dog days between Christmas and New Year,
when by common agreement New Zealanders decide to let
nothing happen; when the bones of politics bleach in the
sun; when worn-out issues, washed and spun, are left to
dry colourlessly on the line; when stripling summer
struggles for definition, like a body-builder seeking muscle
tone; when the pohutukawa, late one year, early the next,
can never be taken as red; when traffic backs up for miles,
and the engine ticks like a cooked clock; when, the camping
ground reached too late in the day, father drives tent pegs
into the rude earth with a savage fury; rain comes on,
making of wrappings and ribbons one pulp, and glazed
fruits lie uneaten. The dying year sinks in the west, and the
awful knowledge dawns: We had the cone but missed the
ice-cream. Remindingly, beside the quays, the beached
whales lie gasping; courier and postie visit us no more;
and none knows what’s worth watching on TV tonight.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Set to soar

HOLIDAY HOME SALES SET TO SOAR blares the headline
on the front page of today’s Sunday Star-Times, followed
by the breathless intro:

2010 could be the year to buy your own slice
of paradise, say property experts, as buyer
confidence returns to the holiday home
market and sellers set reasonable prices.

First, let’s look at the truthfulness of these statements.
Nowhere in a long report by Emma Page is evidence
produced to justify the headline; in fact, the only ‘expert’
quoted says it’s unlikely that there will be a surge in
buyers as there was in the boom years. Elsewhere we’re
told of an ‘uplift of interest,’ a ‘flurry of activity,’ ‘some
life’ returning to the market, but nothing remotely
indicating that the market is ‘set to soar.’

Then there are the ‘property experts: who are these guys?
Only two people are quoted, and one is the chief executive
of Harcourts, a real-estate company with a vested interest
in talking up sales prospects. The other is someone from
an outfit called Strategic Risk Analysis who could
reasonably be called an expert, but all his projections are,
rightly, hedged with caution (it’s him who says a surge is
unlikely). Further information purporting to be evidence
in support of the ‘set to soar’ thesis turns out to be the fact
that the ‘most popular search on for
2009 was “mortgagee”, suggesting people were looking
for bargains'; and the conclusion of Trade Me head
Brendon Skipper—who kindly ‘analysed six top holiday
areas for the Sunday Star-Times,’ that while demand had
risen nearly everywhere the volume of listings is mostly
down—which means, of course, that owners are holding
off selling, though the report doesn’t make that connection,
obviously because it would wreck the ‘set to soar’ thesis.

Which brings us to: why? Why would the country’s biggest-
selling newspaper lead with such a blatant beat-up? It’s
not the first time, either: the Star-Times under editor
Mitchell Murphy has a fondness, not to say obsession, with
front-page leads about the property market. More than one
in four of the paper’s front-page leads during 2009 was
about real estate in one form or another, either promoting
investment (NOW’S A GOOD TIME TO BUY A HOME) or
). Actually, they liked one headline so much they ran
The aim of these latter stories, by the way, was clearly to
encourage people to take advantage of the cheap home-
buying opportunities generated by others' misfortune.
Shockingly, the Sunday Star-Times did not devote a single
front-page lead to the biggest local story and worst tragedy
of the year, the Samoan tsunami of 30 September.

In short, the Sunday Star-Times has made it its business to
make property-buying a desirable and even necessary
thing, notwithstanding the economic recession and despite
the advice of people with far more claim to be 'experts' that
the last thing New Zealand needs is another property boom,
which would in fact be destructive to the country's future
prosperity, not least because all the money that goes into
bricks and mortar is money that doesn't go into savings,
research and productive forms of investment. Why the
paper feels it needs to do this, I don't know. It obviously
can't have anything to do with wanting to ensure that house
sellers and real-estate firms keep advertising in the Star-
Times and other papers in the Fairfax stable, and it's
equally hard to believe that Mitchell Murphy wants to
damage the New Zealand economy by encouraging short-
term acquisitiveness at the expense of long-term benefits
for the whole population, whether homeowners or not. So
what can it be?

Friday, December 25, 2009

For the heaven of it

A woman described as mentally unstable has tackled the
Pope to the ground. Thankfully he seems all right. But
couldn’t the whole monstrous overblown edifice of the
Roman Catholic Church itself be described as a form of
mental instability? Indeed, any form of religion (‘that vast
moth-eaten musical brocade/created to pretend we never
die,’ as Philip Larkin put it) probably qualifies as a type of
derangement, self-willed or otherwise. Which may explain
why some of humanity’s worst crimes—far worse than
knocking someone to the ground—have been committed
in the name of religion. Personally I find it hard to gaze
on the absurd pomp with which most major religions
aggrandize themselves and not feel that, unable to bear
the lightness of being commended by Jesus, we humans
have had to weigh ourselves down with sceptres, robes and
silver in order to survive any intimations of holiness. What
with all that, and the wars waged and massacres done in
defence of different interpretations of God’s word, that
itinerant rabbi who preached in Galilee 2000 years ago,
should he return now, would wonder what in hell had been
done in his name. I prefer Nick Cave’s version: ‘Christ is
the imagination—terrible, irrational, incendiary, beautiful.’
So let us today, 25 December, wish our imaginations happy
birthday; and have a merry Christmas anyway, just for the
heaven of it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


However stoppingly, however stumblingly, however self-
servingly, however grudgingly, however hypocritcally,
however dragged-into-this-kicking-and-screamingly,
with what bad grace and with many a we’re-not-to-blame
and we-can’t-possibly, bickering and bridling to the last,
the nations of the world are somehow cobbling together
a collective response to the greatest and most urgent
issue faced by all the inhabitants, human or otherwise, of
Planet Earth—a response that, grossly inadequate as it will
inevitably be, is nonetheless the optimum at this moment
in time, given the state of humanity and the predominant
attitude held towards the planet’s ecology. What comes
out of Copenhagen won’t be as good as it ever gets: it will
be just as good, no more, no less, than can be got by 192
nations represented in one place addressing one central
topic in December 2009. There may be times when,
looking around, and considering the historical record, we
reach the conclusion that humankind is not fit to manage
a planet of its own, but right now let us marvel—a little,
anyway—that first Kyoto and now Copenhagen happened
at all. Should a global-sized volcanic eruption instantly
fossilize everything on Earth exactly as it is now, as
Vesuvius did Pompeii, archaeologists 10,000 years hence
might just possibly conclude from the evidence that, yes,
the people of the early 21st century did have a glimmering
awareness of what needed to be done in their own best

Meanwhile, on another planet, this morning’s Dominion
Post trumpets the headline THE ROAD STARS HAVE
by way of reporting the Government’s decision
to spend at least $2.4 billion over the next few years on
building more and bigger roads for cars and trucks to
drive on in the Wellington area. As the headline indicates,
and the paper's own editorial confirms, the decision is
treated as a giant plus for the Wellington region. It’s a
‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain a world-class road
network,’ tootles the DomPost, in no doubt that such a
thing is desirable in all respects. More traffic, of course,
means more burning of fossil fuels, but nowhere in the
coverage is there a hint of the consequences of that; the
unspoken idea seems to be that that’s not something we in
our time need to worry about, we should just go on doing
more of what we do now, only bigger and faster, and
somehow human ingenuity will sort things out further
down the track. Yeah right. I don’t think 192 nations would
be meeting in Copenhagen right now if humans had had
the wit to address what they were doing to the planet a lot
earlier than this. The impoverishment of the ecological
imagination in this respect is staggering. We know that’s
the way the Government thinks, or doesn’t think, but the
daily newspaper of a city that has a greater green
consciousness probably than any other in the country
might be expected to reflect that consciousness at least to
some degree, rather than go all starry-eyed about ‘Four
new sections of SH1! Two new Wellington tunnels! Fast-
track for projects!’ and so on.

And all this while Copenhagen is going on. As if—actually—
Copenhagen wasn’t going on at all. Absolutely no
connection is made between the crisis of global warming
and the spending of billions of dollars on new roads and
vehicle tunnels for Wellington. One wonders why the
Dominion Post
didn’t just go straight to the point and put
the banner headline across the page: FUCK COPENHAGEN.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A great issue

The latest issue of New Zealand Books, the summer one, is
a cracker. There’s a fine review by Mark Derby of Nga
Toa, a book about the Ngati Porou company of the
Maori Battalion, and Derby’s own book Kiwi CompaƱeros:
Zealand and the Spanish Civil War gets an equally
good review by David Grant. David Colquhoun writes very
well about James McNeish’s mythologizing of Jack
Lovelock, and Tony Simpson and Tom Brooking give us
excellent reviews of the latest James Belich and Anne
Salmond books respectively. Nelson Wattie contributes not
only an obituary of Alistair Campbell, as you would expect
of one who is writing his biography, but also a speculative
column on why the Centre for New Zealand Studies in
London has collapsed. I was also charmed by Paula Boock’s
thoughts on the differences between novel-writing and
television script-writing, though dismayed, like Damien
Wilkins, by her preference for the Courier font when
working. I guess it takes all types. But the standout piece in
this issue is Roger Robinson’s review of Maurice Gee’s
latest (and, it seems, last) novel, Access Road. It is in fact a
major essay on all of Gee's fiction, and what a wonderful
tribute it is too, beautifully written, subtle, poetic, knowing,
like a Gee novel in miniature itself. This is review-writing of
the highest order, and an absolute honour to our best living

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Here be wagons

Trevor Mallard is half-right to call me lazy for saying,
as I did in my last blog, that not a squeak had been
heard from Labour MPs on their Red Alert blogsite
about Phil Goff's 'nationhood' speech. I'd checked
back a few days but not far enough: as Trevor says,
both Grant Robertson and Clare Curran blogged
about it on 27 November, the day after the speech.
But 13 days have passed since then, days in which
people up and down the land have been debating the
meaning and significance of the speech, and nothing
further about it has appeared on Red Alert. So my
point still stands. Plenty of Red Alert blogging about
the ETS, educational issues, the 2025 report and
other matters of moment—65 blogs in all, in fact—but
regarding the party leader's debatable (in both senses)
speech, the only sound on Red Alert now, as I said, is
the rumbling of wagons being drawn in a circle—even
though Robertson blogged that it was vital to 'have a
mature debate about difficult and challenging issues'
and Curran insisted 'We must talk about it.' I do note
a sorrowful comment by Robertson on a Chris Trotter
blog about the speech, but that seems to be about it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Not so alert

I have been impressed with the Labour Party group blog
Red Alert, which opened for business earlier this year.
Under the guidance, it seems, mainly of Trevor Mallard
and Clare Curran, it has become a way for Labour MPs
to talk to people on the record but without the relative
formality of a media release or a speech. The tone of
most of the blogs is direct, chatty, idiomatic; foibles and
faults are freely admitted to, by Mallard anyway: he
seems to have found a fresh lease of life in this mode of'
communication, nattering on about everything from
serious policy issues to his personal fitness. The general
effect is to humanize the politicians, make them seem
more like you and me, and from Labour's point of view
that can't be bad. It's a great outlet, too, for new MPs
wanting to make their mark: Curran and Grant
Robertson, in particular, have seized their chances in
that regard. Party heavyweights tend not to contribute
or only occasionally, but at least half the caucus seems
to have weighed in at some time or other, so that sooner
or later virtually every major issue gets commented on,
often instructively.

The site's shortcomings have been cruelly exposed in
recent days, however: not one comment has been
published about Phil Goff's infamous 'nationhood'
speech. Into those murky waters no Labour MP dares
dip even a toe, not on the party's own blogsite anyway.
Just when it would be great to see some healthy debate
about Goff's disinterment of the foreshore and seabed
hatchet, or should that be taiaha, a forbidding silence has
descended on Red Alert.

I'm being disingenuous, I know: a political party can't
afford to look disunited, and it's clear that, after a few
mumurings of unease about the Goff speech, notably
from party president Andrew Little, the wagons have
been drawn in a tight circle again. But it remains ironic
to hear Robertson say, as he has just now on Checkpoint,
that the speech raised 'important topics' that should be
debated, yet find none of that debate on Red Alert.
Which may, on this evidence, turn out to be not red
enough and not all that alert either.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Feeding time

The birds who feed in our back yard are beginning to
bring their babies along. Sometimes a parent bird has
two or three in tow. The kids haven't yet got the hang
of this picking-stuff-off-the-ground-with-your-beak
thing, so follow Mum or Dad around in nervous
anticipation. The baby sparrows don't say much but
flatten themselves against the ground and vibrate their
wings tremendously as they wait with open beaks to be
fed. The baby starlings are beautiful to look at—dark
grey and fluffy—but painful to listen to: their harsh
screech would test the nerves of the most devoted
parent. I haven't yet learnt to tell the baby blackbirds
and thrushes apart, because young blackbirds aren't
black but brown and speckled. As big as adults already,
they always look slightly dazed; maybe their eyesight
is poor? Anyway, we have been feeding them all with a
home-made mixture of rice, corn and other nutritious
stuff. All the talk among the birds at the moment is of
course about Don Brash's 2025 Taskforce report and
what it will take for New Zealand to catch up with
Australia—in their case, I gather, a doubling of
wingspans in the next 15 years—so just as soon as I
can make out exactly what they're saying about it, I will
report back.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

2025 and all that

What a desperately sad document the report of the 2025
Taskforce is. And yet how tremendously instructive too—in
in the way that accident investigators find the site of a train
wreck. Pinched, narrow, number-fixated, crippled by a
concept of ‘the economy’ as something primarily to do with
money, the report is not so much inhuman as ahuman,
bereft of anything signifying that it might have been written
by people for people. It is the little bit of business done by
grown men fascinated by their own motions. The very
concept of ‘catching up with Australia’ bespeaks an
impoverished imagination. One might say that that is what
the Government asked the ‘taskforce’—a committee,
actually—to do, but we have seen other official reports that
go further than their brief to show courage and vision.
Justice Mahon on Erebus, for instance. This one could
have had something serious to say about the state of the
nation but this is an age of diminished leadership and Don
Brash and his colleagues have adjusted their moral height
accordingly. Among their 35 recommendations you will
find not a single reference to climate change, global
warming, carbon footprints, the ecological credit crunch,
the planet’s inability to go on sustaining human lifestyles
at the present rate. Such news has clearly not penetrated
the consciousness of homo economicus, still smashing
rocks in the cave of his boardroom: a creature who, looking
out the cave entrance, sees not a horizon but a bottom line.
There is one reference to emissions trading, in the sense
of its being a possible impediment to ‘development,’ and
some concern expressed about road congestion; otherwise,
the whole green movement might just as well have never
happened. Through the eyes of Brash and co—and here’s
where the report is truly instructive—we see just how
juvenile and irrelevant they think ‘green’ issues are. New
Zealanders, the report says, and a hat-tip here to new
Green MP David Clendon for noting this, have frittered
away economic opportunities: ‘We distracted ourselves
with increased focus on fashionable causes and issues such
[as] sustainability.'

Oh, so that's what we've been doing with our contemptible
concern for the health of the planet. Being distracted.
From? Making more money and consuming more resources
without a thought for the morrow, of course. Silly us.