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.