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 Compañeros:
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.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Chicken scoop for the soul

As I said on radio a few weeks ago, No Right Turn is in
my view the best individual blogger, pound for pound,
blog for blog, in New Zealand, at least as far as politics
and current affairs are concerned. His ability to
analyse policy and legislation and comment helpfully
and perceptively on them, often within hours of their
announcement, is second to none. But I must take
issue with him when he chastises New Zealand Herald
political editor Audrey Young, as he has just done, for
blogging about a stray chicken in Parliament Grounds.
Has the man no poetry in his soul? The symbolism of
this lone bird—nicknamed Tegel by security guards—
running free in the shrubbery outside the nation's
most prominent battery farm is enormous. It was let
loose a few days ago, apparently, along with several
others by someone whom Young describes as an 'idiot
protester'; the others have been caught but not the
plucky Tegel. Long may he/she roam! In fact, some
lines of relevant poetry have just occurred to me by
accident, so I'll inadvertently drop them in here:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse squawks of unpremeditated art.

No Right Turn, who seems unusually choleric in his
anti-chicken blog, condemning 'this trivial bullshit' and
demanding 'real journalism' from Young, also needs to
remember that doing a blog as well as being a full-time
political reporter for a newspaper or TV channel ain't
easy, and if a subject—however paltry—presents itself,
you'll tend to go with it. Especially, as in this case, when
you have a scoop. With the exception of Fairfax's
Colin Espiner, whose blog has become so popular that
he could hardly not keep it up, and is no doubt allowed
time specifically to do so, most Press Gallery journos
required by their editors to blog have struggled to
maintain a regular output. Guyon Espiner hasn't
blogged for seven weeks, nor Duncan Garner for a
month; it had been three weeks between blogs for
Young herself before inspiration happily struck her in
the form of this remarkable case, which is, I venture to
think, unique in the annals of Parliament. Almost as
remarkable, the fearless Young, not hitherto known for
her prowess with the camera, got an exclusive picture
of Tegel in full prowl across the parliamentary lawn.
When one thinks of the headless chooks running
around inside the House, let us be grateful that one
with its head still on is running around outside.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Indirect lighting

The time has come to commend the novels of Penelope
Fitzgerald. The Blue Flower is one of the most exquisite
short novels I know, and The Beginning of Spring, which
I’ve just finished, is almost in the same class. Fitzgerald and
Shirley Hazzard stand apart from other late-20th-century
novelists, in my view, in their supreme ability to withhold
and under-explain, rather than gush and overwrite. They
let motives be revealed gradually or indirectly through the
actions of the characters, so their narratives are lit
obliquely—from the side, as it were, rather than from
overhead. Even major plot developments aren’t signalled
by flashing signs; the reader comes across them almost by
accident. The true forebear of Fitzgerald and Hazzard is E M
Forster, who once said ‘Only what is seen sideways sinks
deep.’ It is true; only in very rare moments, perhaps two or
three times in a lifetime, do we grasp a great truth by
looking straight at it. Life is casual, rather than causal, more
happens by hazard than we care to acknowledge, and while
novelists by definition impose some kind of predetermined
story on their situations and characters, only the very best
of them successfully refrain from getting in front of the
story and blocking the picture, like some kid at a cricket
ground jumping up and down in front of the television
camera as it pans the crowd.

The other great virtue of this kind of fiction-writing is that
it flatters the reader’s intelligence, which works for me
anyway. Again, I commend the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Give the money back, Witi

As a writer of fiction (one published novel), poetry and
non-fiction (one published biography, hundreds of
magazine articles and columns), I cannot conceive of a
situation in which I would knowingly publish passages
of other people's work as if they were my own. I simply
cannot. The writer knows what's his and what isn't. All
of us writers appropriate other people's phrases and
ideas but we either acknowledge the source or cloak it
by paraphrase. Nothing Witi Ihimaera has said since
the plagiarism in his latest novel was revealed has
adequately explained how he came to do what he did.
And I agree with people like Karl Stead and John
Reynolds that it's not a trivial offence, nor one that can
somehow be magicked away by post-modern musings
along the lines that 'nothing is original' and 'everyone
does it' and 'most of that stuff was out of copyright
anyway.' The fact is, he practised a deception on his
readers. For that reason alone, the Arts Foundation's
decision to go ahead and give him an award of $50,000
at this time is a colossal misjudgment that discredits
New Zealand literature, undermines the integrity of the
awards and makes a mockery of the standards to which
university students are supposed to aspire. The best
thing Witi could do now, not least for his own reputation,
is give the money back.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Penny Lane

Hearing 'Penny Lane' on the radio just now, I was taken
back to London in 1967 and the release of the single, this
on one side, 'Strawberry Fields Forever' on the other.
Even then, I think, we knew it was the beginning of the
end for the Beatles; both songs had an autumnal quality;
they signalled goodbye to the Liverpool out of which John
Lennon and Paul McCartney had come, while at the same
time attaining a level of maturity and sophistication in
song-making beyond which they could hardly hope to go.
All that came after was, in a sense, pastiche and parody,
right down to 'Let It Be' and 'Octopus's Garden'. In fact,
I'd agree with those who think that Revolver was the
Beatles' apotheosis; but if that album was the signature,
then the 'Penny Lane'/'Strawberry Fields' single was the
paraph, the farewell flourish underneath. What terrific
songs they both are, one so McCartney, the other so
Lennon, both extraordinary evocations of childhood, one
drawing on the music-hall tradition of past years, the
other pointing towards a more complex, layered kind of
music: call that single a 20th-century cultural hinge, as
indeed the Beatles themselves were. For three or four
unforgettable years in the 60s they made the door swing
both ways.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Is that clear

Thanks to ANZ economist Cameron Bagrie, interviewed on
Morning Report the other day, we now know what needs to
be done to make New Zealand productive and prosperous.
Asked by Geoff Robinson for an ‘idiot’s guide to the
economy,’ the redoubtable Bagrie tore into the subject like
a shark leaping for bait. In essence, this is what he said
(edited, but all his own words):

We need to step back and look at the big picture, because
there’s an underlying weakness in the tax base and not a
lot of money left in the kitty. According to fiscal
projections we need to get used to a new normal as we
come to the long end of the curve. There is no free lunch
here. There has to be a process of fiscal consolidation. The
economy is a soup-bowl, a saucer or a bathtub with a few
waves sloshing along the bottom. If we look like going
back to the old normal, the stick’s going to have to come
out and the Reserve Bank’s got to knock that on the head.
Yes, there is positive momentum but going forward it’s
not a robust recovery as we turn the corner. The ball’s not
going to go over the fence every time. There’s a behavioural
aspect to the economy that’s going to be the big driver.

Good to get that clear.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Must see

Wow. The program for next year’s international arts
festival in Wellington has just been announced, and I can
hardly wait to order my tickets. Top of my must-see list is
the celebrated French poet/acrobat Philippe Sacré-Bleu,
who balances on a wheelbarrow while reciting Rimbaud,
but put me down, too, for the Royal Canadian Mounted
Police Brass Band’s dazzling tribute (with searchlights) to
the music of Leonard Cohen—God, if that doesn’t fill the
Westpac stadium I don’t know what will—and Hamlet on
skateboards by the cult Danish duo Elsie & Nore.

Nor could I bear to miss the world-renowned Hungarian
gypsy ensemble with their dancing kittens and the
critically acclaimed German theatre production of Janet
Frame’s Owls Do Cry, or Die Owlen Gehen Boo-hoo-hoo.
And I just couldn’t look myself in the eye if I failed to get
along to the breathtaking midnight waterfront
performance by Siegfried and the Grinning Skulls, which
should still leave time for the cutting-edge Cuban/Italian
dance troupe Pasta La Vista and their flaming spaghetti
routine. Oh, and then there’s the cult Danish duo (a
different one) whose Jemaines of the Day pays oblique
tribute to Flight of the Conchords and Dave Dobbyn.

And I haven’t even mentioned writers’ and readers’ week!
But just quickly, I’ve put a circle around the panel debate
between the challenging British thinker Gordon Brown-
Blair, the Bedouin-American novelist Britney Sands
whose books have taken Algeria by storm, Bill Manhire
and the controversial Swedish blogger Oskar Nominee.

Above all, let me plead with all intending festivalgoers not
to miss the avant-garde theatre ensemble from Belarus: in
the course of their three-hour production no one utters a
word—in fact, no actors appear on the stage at all. Part of
the charm of the work, apparently, is that for the audience
it remains an open question as to whether the ensemble
has even arrived in the country. This is precisely why we
need international festivals, because local artists just can’t
afford to put on work of that scale and depth. Book now!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

On looking into a selection of Sassoon's verse

The first half—up to and including 1915—is all starlight
and roses and misty dreams; like he wrote these poems
with a daffodil wilting in his hand, yearning vaguely
towards the horizon. This is the work of an effete young
man with too much money and time on his hands. It's
watery stuff that runs through the mind and leaves no
mark. Bapaume and Carnoy are yet to come.

The second half—mud; then blood; then mud and blood
and spattered brains and God knows what else. Reality
has risen up and kicked this man in the guts. There in
the trenches, among the sodden mangled dead, Sassoon
is shocked into writing what's in front of him, not what's
far away and over the moon. And, through him, we see
what it all came to—the posturings of Empire, the pomp
and strut of statesmanship, the glittering brilliance of the
Viennese court, the old men's political games—all that
came down to stinking boots and rotting corpses and the
intestines of the man next to you spilling into your lap.
In Sassoon's verse the long 19th century quivers and
dies, and the 20th century arrives like a grinning skull,
accompanied by a scamper of rats.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Concert night

It is some time since I went to an orchestral concert,
so going to one last night was like being exposed
afresh to a foreign culture. For a start, we noted with
interest that, as soon as the doors of the auditorium
closed just on 8pm, there was a mass migration from
the cheap seats into the unoccupied more expensive
ones. Swept along by an irresistible tide, we too joined
this great movement of peoples, seeking, as humans
have always done, to improve our lot in life. Then
came another surprise: the conductor of the NZSO
turned out to be a rubicund Finn with a startling
resemblance to Father Christmas. Unfortunately, he
had but one gift to give: one of his own symphonies
(he has composed 230 of the things), which went on
for some time in such a discordant way that I was
reminded of the anonymous lines sent to the Boston
Herald in 1924 after a Stravinsky concert:

Who wrote this fiendish Rite of Spring?
What right had he to write the thing,
Against our helpless ears to fling
Its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bang, bing?

Luckily the rest of the concert consisted of Sibelius’s
stirring Karelia Suite, a surge of Wagner suggestive of
political incorrectness and—what I was there for—
Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, sung by Norwegian
soprano Solveig Kringelborn. Overshadowed, possibly,
by the frabjous Finn, whose massive back and flowing
white mane were a constant distraction, she seemed to
retreat modestly from the challenge of singing Strauss
rather than go boldly towards it. Why she had to stand
several metres back from the microphone was never
clear to me, though I'm sure there's a valid acoustic
explanation. Never mind: nothing could detract from the
overall beauty of the music, by which, I felt, the NZSO
players were wonderfully inspired. Though I may not go
to many of their concerts, I'm happy to see a portion of
my tax payments keep them in business. And yes, it's
true: no recording in the world can beat the thrill of
hearing great music played live.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Stores are the new banks

Next Wednesday, according to a large ad in the newspaper,
'BNZ stores will be closed for the day' so that staff can work
on 'community projects.' Most commendable. But what's
with the 'stores'? Further down the ad, we're told that
certain services won't be available in store' that day—you
know, services like opening accounts and depositing and
withdrawing money. If you want more info, the ad
concludes, 'visit our website or pop into your local store.'
Wow. Guess I must have missed the moment when BNZ
told the world that banks were now stores, as it seems to be
taken as read in this ad. Don't want to be picky, but what
exactly was the problem with calling a bank a bank?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Tell yourself

The stories we tell ourselves about our lives: they begin
in childhood or youth as feelings or reactions (pain,
joy, bewilderment etc), crystallize into impressions,
harden into habits of mind, come, in the end, if we’re
not careful, to choke us, like epiphytes smothering a
host tree. They do not have to be true to gain such
power. They just have to be faithful enough to the
source from which they arose. Because, failing further
enlightenment, and pending fresh drafts of the script,
with some stories we go through life saying the same
lines over and over again, following the same plot,
bumping into the same furniture, expecting the same
dénouement. And getting it. Of course.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Outside the square

Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma is a kind of Chinese War and
Peace for modern times. It’s hugely overwritten, and this
reader anyway struggled to consistently distinguish
between all of the characters, but what a canvas he paints
on. This is the (surely only thinly) fictionalized history of
what, by way of geopolitical shorthand, we call the
‘Tienanmen Square massacre.’ You want to know what
really happened, go here: not to some non-fictional account.
It was the most serious challenge the ruling Communists
have faced in their 60 years in power, which is why they
crushed it with such brutality. In Ma’s novel, the story is
told by a student leader who, having taken a bullet in the
head near the square on 4 June 1989, now lies in a coma,
able to observe and think but not to speak or move a
muscle. His deterioration is all too plainly, but no less
brilliantly for that, a metaphor for the Chinese state’s
inability to function fully and humanly. The narration
alternates between his life as it is now—the portrait of his
increasingly mad mother, condemned to look after him, is
unforgettable—and as it was then, when thousands of
students camped in the square in a fever of rebellious hope.
To read what became of their leaders in later years is to feel
the full blast of the tragedy of modern China, which can only
survive, it seems, by consuming its own young.

Friday, October 16, 2009


I have just spent an unproductive five minutes reducing
what appeared to be a perfectly good, lightly used,
almost-full-length Staedtler 2B pencil to a broken stub in
a vain attempt to sharpen it. What is it with pencils these
days? Or is it just me? In my hands anyway the wretched
things just will not sharpen to a sustainable point. Time
and again the lead breaks or the wood splinters. I speak
now as one who has filled wastepaper bins to the brim
with pencil shavings and blackened his finger and thumb
with graphite in a positive rage of sharpening activity. It
may happen, on some sunny occasion, that I make my
point, as it were; yet hardly have I borne the pencil in
triumph to the paper and begun writing with it than the
point breaks off anyway. Either I have lost the plentiful
pencil-sharpening gifts that nature bestowed on me in
my youth or something’s up with the quality of the
modern pencil. Which could it be? Discuss.

Friday, October 2, 2009


The latest police statistics show that 13.5% more 'family
violence' incidents were reported last year, compared
to the previous year, which itself showed a 28.8% rise
in reports compared to the year before that. The head
of the Families Commission, Jan Pryor, is reported as
saying that the rise was to be expected, because the
'existing level of family violence did not occur overnight,
and the increased reporting is a testament to the lower
acceptance of violence in our society.'

By Christ, I hope you're right, Jan. I think you are. The
image that comes to mind is of some hideous misshapen
creature being dragged, limb by limb, claw to claw, fist
by clenched fist, out of the dark cellar where it has dwelt
for years and into the light, screaming and kicking but
rendered, finally, powerless, deprived of the domestic
secrecy on which it has thrived. Bring it on.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Southland dog

A superb blog today by Jeanette Fitzsimons about the
proposal to extract lignite from the Southland soil and
turn it into ammonia urea for use as farm fertilizer.
She begins

Now here's a great idea for economic development.
First, dig up Southland.

and proceeds majestically to demolish the case for
granting Solid Energy permission to develop this
proposal, pointing out along the way that

This dog of a project has only emerged because
of the Government's proposed changes to the
ETS. These changes mean that there is no cap
on the emissions for Solid Energy making the
urea, or for farmers piling on more nitrogen.

New Zealand's emissions will rise substantially,
but you, dear taxpayer, will foot the bill.

Jeanette not only remains a powerful political voice for
the Greens but has come to be an astute and acute
critic of agricultural practice in this country—not as
some urbanized greenie who never got cowshit on their
gumboots but as someone who knows farms and farming
and argues from a position of, essentially, sympathy for
farmers trying to make a living. She doesn't lecture them,
just points out the common sense (and economic value)
of farming more ecologically. She has even been
published in Straight Furrow. That's good. Far apart as
they may seem at the moment, I believe that the farmers
of New Zealand have a lot more in common with the 'green'
point of view than the rhetorical posturing of their leaders
would cause you to think, and as, over time, the two
positions fuse, the pastoral industries will change quite
dramatically in nature.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Envoy yourself

Speaking of Simon Upton, I see the Government has
appointed him as a special envoy to promote the idea of
what John Key calls a ‘Global Alliance’ on research into
ways of mitigating agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
The idea of the alliance, announced by Key during his New
York visit, is an astute political move, as it gives the
impression that this government really cares about such
matters as agricultural emissions, when in fact it has done
nothing but back away from decisive action on the matter.
The choice of Upton makes it doubly astute, because he
has some ecological cred, and, as my last post indicated,
he's capable of thinking outside the usual narrow limits of
political discourse, even if he did belong to a government
(the National one of the 1990s) that allowed little scope for
such unorthodox behaviour. He may well wind up, again,
being the poster boy for National government greenwash;
if they really cared about agricultural emissions they would
have put serious funding (not the piddly few millions
currently allocated) into research as soon as they took
office—as indeed should the previous Labour government.
For at least 15 years now it has been clear that agricultural
emissions would be the achilles heel of any international
commitment New Zealand made to reducing its carbon
footprint. Yet for 15 years we fiddled while cows belched.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


In his latest Dominion Post column former National
government environment minister Simon Upton
comments on French President Sarkozy’s initiative,
which I've blogged about twice recently. He writes:

Environmentalists have long (and rightly) despaired
of the way politicians have regarded
GDP as the pre-
eminent measure of policy success. When I joined a
political party, I did so because I shared some broad
values with the party of my choice. But time and
again, I found political argument reduced to a banal
exchange over who could generate a higher quarterly

GDP number.

No self-respecting economist or statistician would
make the claims for
GDP that politicians do. We all
know that cleaning up toxic waste dumps or having
to build more prisons shouldn’t figure in calculations
of ‘progress.’ But the sheer simplicity of
GDP has
swamped more nuanced measures.

The Stiglitz/Sen report presented to Sarkozy makes a
powerful case, says Upton, for ‘dislodging the fetish of
celebrating a form of growth which ignores the
destruction of natural capital.'

Do I sense a shift in the wind? The global economic crisis
has, I think, opened the door to different ways of thinking
that haven't had a look-in for a long time, if ever. Whether
more enlightened ideas will even get over the threshold of
the door is another matter: judging by the pussyfooting that
has just taken place at Pittsburgh, they might wait around
on the doormat unattended unless given some independent
momentum. Sarkozy has at least made a start.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Just not -me

Though resistant to many forms of American cultural
imperialism I've long thought that other English-speaking
countries besides Australia should adopt American
spellings like program, color and traveler. (Come to think
of it, why did Australia and not New Zealand go that way?)
I already can’t be bothered with ‘programme,’ which is not
only inconsistent with similar words (we have ‘telegram’
and ‘angiogram,’ after all—imagine writing ‘angiogramme’)
but looks ugly into the bargain. It seems we’re stuck with
‘labour,’ though, unless the party of that name drops it.

On the other hand, the Americans opt for the double-l in
words like 'fulfillment' and 'willful,' which is plain perverse.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Late lunch

For New Zealanders anyway, 'tea' still means 'dinner,' as
in the evening meal. Less common these days—in fact,
completely gone, as far as I can tell—is 'dinner' to mean
what we always now call lunch. In the early 1960s I'd
often bike home from school at the end of morning
classes for dinner at about 12.3opm—and it was dinner,
too, hot meat and vegetables as often as not, laid daily on
the table for three kids and husband by my hard-working
mother—before racing back by 1 o’clock. But I'm reading
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, and Drouet takes
Carrie out for the evening, to see The Mikado. This is
Chicago, 1889. The next sentence made me blink: ‘They
stopped in at a restaurant for a little after-theatre lunch.’
Consulting my faithful Chambers, however, I find that in
America anyway lunch once meant a snack at any time of
day. I never knew that.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sun and stars

Further to my blog about better ways of measuring a
society’s health and wealth than simply by gdp
, I see
Robert Skidelsky, in an essay in the British magazine
Prospect, saying that, in the light of the global financial
crisis, and with the gloss coming off globalization,

national politicians are likely to reach for ideas and
influences that until recently would have seemed
exotic. The idea, for example, that economic growth
does not, beyond a certain point, make people
happier. David Cameron, a market-friendly
Conservative, has talked about the importance of
general wellbeing as an alternative to the mania for
economic growth.

Southernrata, commenting on my blog, points us to a
set of useful comments here on the French plan, with
a pointer to the original report by Joseph Stiglitz and
Amartya Sen. To their voices can be added that of J M
Keynes, whom Skidelsky quotes as saying that

we destroy the beauty of the countryside because the
unappropriated splendours of nature have no
economic value. We are capable of shutting off the
sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend.

Keynes must have written that at least 75 years ago. No
wonder Skidelsky says it's time to take a lead from him
again. Skidelsky's whole essay, well worth reading, is here.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Dial one-one-one

Slightly disturbed to hear Rodney Hide say in the House
today, as the legislation creating the Auckland 'super-city'
was being railroaded through, that what he wanted was
'one council, one mayor and one plan.' Now where have
we heard that kind of talk before?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sarkozy speaks

Sarkozy-baiting seems to have become a popular sport in
Western media; the French President is often portrayed
as vain, impulsive, wacky and an embarrassment to his
countrypeople. He may well be all those things but he
consistently challenges received thinking in refreshing
ways—for instance, with his proposal for France’s
economy to be measured not just by the single narrow
yardstick of gross domestic product (gdp) but by other
indicators, such as happiness, well-being and
environmental sustainability. Sarkozy asked Joseph
Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to come up with something more
enlightened than gdp, which as the measure of a society’s
health and wealth should have been ridiculed out of
existence long ago. The two economists have now
delivered a report that recommends measuring ‘progress’
by a much wider range of indicators than purely financial
or income-earning ones. Housework, for instance; access
to education and health services; sporting, cultural and
recreational activities; the cost of environmental damage
and not just the money made from fixing it. (The classic
illustration of gdp’s failings is that, with a major oil tanker
spill, the money spent on cleaning up the mess is counted
as a plus towards economic growth.) But let Sarkozy speak:

A great revolution is waiting for us. For years, people
said that finance was a formidable creator of wealth,
only to discover one day that it accumulated so many
risks that the world almost plunged into chaos...

The crisis doesn't only make us free to imagine other
models, another future, another world. It obliges us to
do so...

If leisure has no accounting value because it's essentially
full of non-market activities like sport or culture, we put
productivity below human fulfilment.

Cripes. Some of us have been waiting all our lives to hear a
national leader speak like that. And what's more, it seems
as though what's being proposed for France will be actually
be put into practice. These are not mere words.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


It seems that we must aggrandize ourselves in order to
survive. Only by projecting a larger sense of self can we
hope to prosper as social beings. From among many
potential selves we choose the one that works best with
other people, the one that gets the business done, the one
that gets results. Eventually, by this quotidian alchemy,
we all seem bigger than we are. Hence the revelation at
the end of The Wizard of Oz: in the final analysis, each
one of us is crouching behind a curtain cranking up the
volume and furiously pumping the smoke machine in
order to impress and even scare others.

The fear of inconstancy has become the terrorism of the
soul. For the sake of conveying a consistent and
presentable image of ourselves, we fight this daily war on
terror at enormous expense of emotional resource. Yet
when, with some trepidation, Isabel Allende published a
memoir, instead of feeling exposed (she writes), 'I felt
stronger. I realized that what makes people feel weak is
all the secrets, the things we hide, the things we think are
embarrassing and shameful. And when you just talk about
it, you realize that everybody else probably has the same

I remind myself that it was one of the aims of the people
who came together at Little Gidding, the 17th-century
English religious community, ‘not to think of human
nature above that which it is, a sea of flowings and
ebbings, and of all manner of inconstancy.’

Monday, September 14, 2009

4,000 years on


Archaeologists excavating a remote South Pacific site
believe they have found evidence of a primitive culture
that apparently flourished four millennia ago.

After sifting painstakingly down through several layers
of fossils and ruined artefacts they have found what they
believe to be parts of a burnt couch.

‘This is very exciting,’ said chief archaeologist José Maria
Putin. ‘There are legends of an ancient couch-burning
culture in this part of the world and our discovery
appears to confirm that it really existed.’

Professor Putin explained that 4,000 years ago a city
occupied the site, which is now part of a wilderness park,
and the couch-burner people possibly ruled the city for a
brief period of time before being overthrown. Though
not very intellectually advanced, they exerted a major
influence on neighbouring tribes by means of their
seasonal rituals, which usually took place after dark to
the accompaniment of strange wolfish cries.

'From what we can tell,' reasoned Professor Putin, 'they
burnt couches—of which they had an inexhaustible
supply—to appease the gods and to reassert their
territorial claims.

‘We have also found a number of tiny rectangular objects
with keypads,’ he added. ‘This may have been their way
of communicating with each other, apart of course from
grunts and howls.’

The archaeological dig will continue for a further six
months in the hope of finding traces of higher life forms.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Stand up for MMP

It’s good to see John Armstrong taking a clear firm stand
on MMP. In fact, his New Zealand Herald column
is the clearest, firmest column he’s written in quite a
while. It should be required reading for anyone inclined
to dally with going back to FPP or switching to SM, which
is basically FPP-lite. Armstrong tackles all the arguments
for dumping MMP and sends them packing. He’s
particularly robust on how reverting to FPP would leave
the country exposed again to the absolute power of a
small unrestrained executive:

Losing MMP would be a giant leap backwards;
a constitutional tragedy of disempowerment
given the gaping absence of limits on Cabinet
power in a unicameral Parliament.

Couldn’t have put it better myself. By contrast, fellow
Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan sides feebly with the
'We need governments with hair on their chests' camp
by writing: ‘Fighting the next election on an electoral
system—even first-past-the-post—which gave more
power to the major party to implement sensible policies
would do more to even the gap with Australia than
endless horsetrading.’

(To which Marty G at The Standard has retorted: ‘That
"endless horsetrading" is called democracy.’)

O'Sullivan is an astute analyst of business and politics
whose opinions I often respect, even when I disagree
with them. In this case, however, she is backing the view
that the best kind of government is the one with
unlimited power to do what it wants (aka 'implementing
sensible policies'). Governments, according to this view,
have to be able to be swift and decisive in their governing,
unimpeded by having to consult or negotiate with other
parties—otherwise they'll be outmanoeuvred by other
governments in the global marketplace. Governments
like that of China, say, that don't have to worry about
internal opposition, coalition deals, parliamentary debate
and other time-wasting stuff. In my view it's a dangerous
road to go down, and New Zealand's in danger of drifting
down it, unless more voices like Armstrong's are raised.
We're still waiting for a ringing, unequivocal commitment
to MMP from the Labour Party, for instance. Lord knows
puts little enough restraint on parties that lead
governments, but a little's a lot better than none at all.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Repackaging Phil

The repackaging of Phil Goff has to be one of the more
grisly public-relations jobs undertaken in New Zealand
politics. It’s as if someone were trying to convince us
that Keith Holyoake was a closet Grateful Dead fan, or
that Jenny Shipley studied Barthesian semiotics.
Attempted image makeovers on this scale usually signify
desperation on the part of the party concerned, so this
does not bode well for Labour. As I wrote in my Helen
Clark biography, ‘Successful leadership is finding the
right level of projection—a level at which you feel
comfortable about yourself and at the same strike the
public as credible, if not convincing.’ Somewhat
gratuitously, I added that ‘It ain’t as easy as it sounds.'

Most politicians who fail this test tend to fall down on
the credibility issue. Goff's an odd one: he's credible as
all get out, but never seems comfortable with himself in
the public arena. He always strikes one as acting a part.
We all do, of course—politicians more than most. The
trick is hiding it; a trick that Goff, I fear, has never
mastered. And no amount of motorcycle-riding, rolled
up-shirtsleeves masquerading is going to change that.
Fundamentally the guy's a machine politician, and
although the fall of the cards sometimes favours such
types, who really wants to vote for a machine?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thematic streets

Well, I knew that town planners from time immemorial
have, when all other inspiration has dried up, indulged in
the slightly licentious practice of thematic street-naming.
Straight off, I can think of a couple of Wellington examples:
the cluster of Brooklyn streets named after early American
presidents (Lincoln, Jefferson, Garfield, Washington), and
those in Island Bay owing their provenance to British rivers
(Tamar, Severn, Mersey, Clyde). First prize for imaginative
overreach still has to go to Auckland’s Pakuranga for its
Dickensian splurge (Oliver Twist Ave, Pickwick Parade,
Copperfield Tce and—my favourite—Bleakhouse Rd), but I
have only just learned that virtually every street in the
western Waikato town of Pirongia bears the name of a
19th-century European explorer who sought the Northwest
Passage across Canada: Beechey, Belcher, Bellot, Crozier,
McClure, Ross—with pride of place, the main street,
Franklin Rd, sacred to the memory of the massively
incompetent Sir John Franklin, who not only failed to find
the way through but got stuck in the ice and vanished with
all his crew, never to be seen again until three frozen
corpses turned up 30 years ago. Can any New Zealand town
save perhaps, Martinborough, with its world city theme
(Dublin, Venice, Cologne, New York etc) match this?

Knock it off

Sanctuary comments on my blog about the Waikato
Expressway by saying: ‘I commute a lot between Auckland
and Napier. I welcome with open arms the idea of
bypassing Smallville, Waikato on my way down to
Hawkes Bay. I reckon this expressway already has
knocked 20-30 minutes off the journey, and completing
as advertised will knock 30-40 minutes off the trip.’

Thanks for the comment, mate, but it invites the response:
So? When you’ve knocked another 20 minutes off, what
then? Another 20 minutes off that? And another? As
corners and curves and dips and bends are one by one
straightened out, the logical conclusion is a road running
in a perfectly straight line from Auckland to Napier. With
four lanes; four lanes good, two lanes bad. But why stop at
four? Six sounds good. Let’s have six lanes. Und so weiter.

Sanctuary should have a look at a report in Wednesday's
New Zealand Herald
and see there comments by a former
oil industry executive who says, among many other things,
that quite apart from running out of fuel for vehicles, in 20
years’ time New Zealand will have no more bitumen for
maintaining roads.

See also an excellent post by Hamilton-based Labour MP
Sue Moroney on the party’s Red Alert blog, in which she
calls the huge weighting of funding towards the expressway
a 'great leap backwards.' Funding for public transport in the
region, says Moroney,

will only increase by 3% next year and then will be frozen
for the next two years. With 9% growth in the use of buses
in Hamilton, this means that either services will have to be
cut and/or passenger fares will have to increase significantly.
Both options will force people off buses and back into their
cars. Smart, eh?
It also makes it virtually impossible for the
Hamilton to
Auckland passenger train service to be
established even if
the proposed trial is successful.

Mind you, if, as the current government believes, there is no
tomorrow, then we may not have a problem. So that could
be all right then.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hold that stone

A couple of blogs ago I cited Bill McKibben’s book Deep
Economy. Actually, I never read it in the end, not least
because I was put off right at the start by his use of one
of the ugliest metaphors ever to gain currency. On the
first page he writes:

For most of human history, the two birds More and Better
roosted on the same branch. You could toss one stone and
hope to hit them both…

But the distinguishing feature of our moment is this: Better
has flown a few trees over to make her nest. That changes
everything. Now, if you’ve got the stone of your own life, or
your own society, gripped in your hand, you have to choose
between them. It’s More or Better.

It’s a great point McKibben’s making, but what a crass
way of putting it. The ‘kill two birds with one stone’
metaphor has no place in civilized discourse. Just think
about the image you’re creating when you use it and
you’ll see what I mean. For years I've been campaigning
for phrases to replace it. When she was about 12 or 13
my daughter suggested ‘hang two socks with one peg,’
which totally does the business without generating an
unpleasant image; I also like ‘sew two buttons with one
thread.’ Further suggestions are welcome, and while
we’re at it, ‘no room to swing a cat’ has got to go too.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Sutch speaks

They do not design, spin and weave fine textiles
in cotton and wool just because they have textile
institutes or industrial design schools. They are
eminent in these things because they also stress
their essential concomitants—fine architecture,
sculpture, ballet, fine printing, film production,
ceramics, operas, music, drama, research, higher
learning, anthropology, science, philosophy,
literature, respect for and knowledge of man’s

It is impossible to imagine these words—uttered in 1963
by public servant W B Sutch when he was secretary-
general of the Export Development Conference—by
anyone remotely connected with the levers of political
power today. He was referring to the desirability of
New Zealand's emulating the way that the Scandinavian
countries, especially Denmark, added value to their
exports. The phrase 'essential concomitants' is, to me,
like a shaft of light from a time when it was still possible
—and perhaps, even then, only by a few individuals like
Sutch—to grasp the connections between all parts of
an economy, to see how the whole is formed by them,
and, above all, to take political action accordingly. For all
its drawbacks the concept of the state by which Western
nations functioned through the middle of the 20th
century tended to foster such thinking; the market
model by which we have lived since the 1980s rewards
the opposite kind of thinking: that all is fragmented,
discrete, competing rather than complementary, and of
worth only insofar as it can be quantified, categorized
and monetarized. Margaret Thatcher summed up this
view most infamously when she said, 'There is no such
thing as society.' Give me Sutch's philosophy any day.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

At some stage

$1 BILLION EXPRESS DELIVERY blared the front-page
headline of the Waikato Times on 27 August, above
a story that began:

Waikato roads are about to get a near $1 billion boost
with a third devoted to finishing the long-awaited
Waikato Expressway.

The Government today announced details of a $938m
package, $300m of which is earmarked for fast-tracking
the Waikato Expressway from Auckland to Cambridge,
including bypasses for Te Rapa, Cambridge,
Ngaruawahia and Rangiriri…

[New Zealand Transport Agency regional director Harry]
Wilson said the announcement this morning sealed a 32
per cent increase in roading funding for the region on the
previous three years' spending.

'This is tremendous news for the region and New Zealand,'
Mr Wilson said, adding it would likely contribute major
economic growth to the wider Waikato region…

Hamilton East MP David Bennett, who described the
announcement as 'a big win for the Waikato'…also said it
would be a catalyst for economic growth.

What we see here, pure and undiluted, is a mindset so
entrenched that it goes, literally, without saying. The
newspaper itself has totally signed up to it. The equation
runs something like: roads=development=growth=jobs
=more money flowing into the region=higher living
standards for the people of Waikato—and the bigger the
roads, the better for everyone. And why not? In most
people’s minds, this apparently simple arithmetic has
served New Zealand well so far. For most of us, it's
virtually automatic to think that way. To not think that
way is to somehow feel that you're going backwards into
a darker, dirtier past. Horse-drawn traffic. Poo on the
streets. People wearing sandals. That sort of thing.

Hovering over the whole equation like a golden halo is
the spirit of Progress, which, as Bill McKibben says at
the start of his book Deep Economy, has for most of
human history been predicated on the idea that we can
have More and Better at the same time. Objectively, the
double whammy of peak oil and global warming has put
paid to that idea, but the realization that from now on it
has to be More or Better is taking time to get through to
our comfortable, cushioned minds. It has barely disturbed,
for instance, the collective mentality of the current New
Zealand government, which is cheerfully pouring money
into highway development as if there were no tomorrow—
which, in their minds, on this evidence, there clearly isn't.

Of the $938 million allocated to Waikato by the Transport
Agency with the government's blessing, $25.6 million will
be spent on public transport and $4.4 million on cycle and
pedestrian projects. Weep if you may. The story is being
repeated in other regions around the country.

Four days after publishing the above, the Waikato Times
a paper, by the way, that I generally admire—editorialized
excitedly about the roading spend-up: ‘The handbrake has
come off… a spectacular result for the region… Bulldozers
could be on the Te Rapa bypass next year.'

It would be interesting to know, reading this, what planet
the Waikato Times imagines its readers belong to. The
editorial goes on to ponder, briefly, the merits of a train
service between Hamilton and Auckland but dismisses the
immediate need for that by briskly concluding that a train
service is a 'want' but a completed expressway is a 'must.'
The real kicker, however, comes in the last paragraph,
when the writer loftily declares (my italics): 'At some stage,
Waikato and the country in general are going to have to
address public transport issues.'

Ah yes. At some stage. That's the day after tomorrow, isn't
it? Or is it the day after that? Your guess is as good as mine.
But it's no guess that the world's oil is running out fast, and
that alternative technologies for petrol replacement haven't
a bolter's show of fuelling the volume of traffic that's
supposedly going to be zapping up and down the Waikato
Expressway within the next few years.

'Surprisingly,' noted the Times, to its own apparent
bemusement, 'there has been muted reaction to the [big
roading spend-up] moves. Hamilton Mayor Bob Simcock,
a former National MP himself, while acknowledging the
impetus it would provide, lamented the lack of commitment
to public transport.'

Perhaps the paper could now produce another front-page
story, only this time one that tries to find out just why there
has been 'muted reaction.' Could be there's a change in the
air out there that the Waikato Times—which normally
strives hard to reflect what its readers want—hasn't picked
up on yet, and that the mayor has. The Romans loved
building more and better highways too. Most of them are
walking tracks now.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sure to rise

I see Philip Pullman has written a book arguing that the
whole idea of the risen Christ was cooked up by the
apostle Paul, who saw in the life of Jesus—a relatively
obscure Jewish rabbi—the basis on which he might
build a whole new religion. It doesn't invalidate the
religion in question to say that this is how it began, but
already the bishops are huffing and puffing, saying that
there is no scriptural authority for Pullman's argument.
I look forward to the book, The Good Jesus and the
Scoundrel Christ, because I'm one of those who were
captivated by Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, but
he's by no means the first to advance the idea that Paul
was basically a brilliant PR man for Christianity. As I
remember it, in Nikos Kazantzakis's novel The Last
Temptation of Christ
(memorably filmed by Scorsese)
Jesus doesn't die on the cross but marries and has a
family, discovering to his great relief that he doesn't
have to bear the sins of all humanity and can just get on
with being an ordinary joe. One day he comes across
Paul in the marketplace preaching the resurrected Christ
to the people, like a huckster selling patent medicine.
Hang on, says Jesus, you can't go around telling people
I died on the cross and rose again—look at me, I'm here,
I'm married with kids, I'm not the Messiah! To which
Paul, indicating the number of converts he's already
making, says, sure, but that's not what they want to hear
...they want something big to believe in, and I'm giving it
to them. Yes, it's a lie, but just look at their faces—they
love it! Now get out of my way and let me get on with it.

Thus the birth of Christianity—and modern marketing.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Gainsay the AA

Here’s the AA promoting the Waterview motorway link
that will rip through the Auckland suburbs of Mt Albert and
Avondale, requiring the demolition of hundreds of houses
and the concreting-over of at least five hectares of parkland.
Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they. The Automobile
Association exists to promote driving and the use of private
vehicles, and naturally it will lobby for anything that aids
and abets those activities. Since its formation in 1903 it has
grown to be a powerful, well-funded organization regarded
—as its website correctly claims—as the ‘leading advocate
for New Zealand motorists and their interests.’ Fair enough.
What I want to know is: where is the leading advocate for
New Zealand public-transport users and their interests?
Where is the powerful, well-funded organization that exists
to promote the use of buses and trains? There is none.
There are many small groups throughout the country
dedicated to improving public transport but no overarching
nationwide lobby group. If we had one that spoke out as
frequently and as forcefully as the AA does, with the kind of
research resources the AA has, the debates over such issues
as roading, peak oil and public health and safety would be
greatly enriched and far less one-sided, especially at a time
when the government of the day believes that the transport
budget is best spent on more and bigger roads. We need the
public-transport groups to coalesce and fight as one.

Look at the Waterview debate, for instance—such as it is.
The campaign against the overground motorway is being led
by a local group called Tunnel or Nothing. Good on them,
but it's like trying to fight bushfires. You might damp down
one but another flares up. And these are volunteers doing
what they can in their own time and at their own expense.
The case for public transport in this country needs to be
made in a nationally coordinated, professionally resourced
way, because the National-led government, supported by
bodies like the AA, is scorching the earth everywhere with
its motorway firestorm.

Footnote: in the link above, the New Zealand Herald reports:

Auckland University senior economics lecturer and former
Treasury employee Rhema Vaithianathan, a Mt Albert
resident, has meanwhile calculated that keeping the $1.4
billion earmarked for the [Waterview] project in the bank
for 10 years would earn enough interest to halve bus-fares
throughout the region.

Ain't that the truth? On ya, Rhema.

Heady stuff

Who is he, this Yukio Hatoyama, the new prime minister
of Japan? Barely elected to office he has, according to a
report in the London Times, ‘made no secret of his
distrust of market fundamentalism.’ Apparently, too, he
has ‘strongly condemned’ global capitalism. Did we ever
hear newly elected John Key express such sentiments? I
don't think so. ‘We are not denying all market principles,’
says Hatoyama. ‘We just don’t think market principles are
a fundamental necessity.’ Be still, my beating heart! Of
course, it remains to be seen whether Hatoyama and his
Democratic Party really will ‘sever ties with vested
interests [and] abandon the pork barrel,’ let alone maintain
such an heretical attitude towards the great god market, but
what a start. First Obama, now Hatoyama. They even
rhyme. It already begins to seem New Zealand’s misfortune
that, just as other nations are electing, well, not exactly
radical lefties but progressive liberal leaders, we elect a
conservative government that lacks the imagination to
think outside the tired old paradigm of 'market-led' growth.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Gould to Garth

Speaking of the Herald, its op-ed page generally
maintains a high standard of opinion-writing from all
sides. Thursday 3 September was a good example.
There were three pieces on the page, each of them worth
reading in their own way. Outstanding was Bryan
Gould’s take on executive bonus culture
, in which he
exposed the puerility of the argument in favour of
bloated salaries and bonus payments for business
executives (‘If we are to attract the talent we need,’
droned a spokesperson for the Institute of Directors,
‘we have to pay salaries to match those paid in the rest
of the world.’) Yeah right. Writes Gould:

It’s a wonderful thing, the global economy. It requires
us to push up New Zealand’s top salaries to match
world levels, but at the same time requires wages for
ordinary employees to be driven down to the
benchmarks set by the lowest-wage economies.

The supposed need to pay a top executive 100 times
the income of his skilled employees is a self-serving
nonsense produced by a small charmed circle who claim
the right to set their own (and their mates’) pay rates.

Well said, that man. Then there’s a typically discursive
opinion piece from Mike Moore
, who, whatever his
political shortcomings, has a sharp original mind and a
gift for putting things in a memorable way, eg,

I coughed my coffee through my nose when I heard the
Law Commission release the stunning revelation that
young people ingest alcohol late at night. All this time I
had thought they drank booze.

(Subtext: get a life, Geoffrey Palmer.) Moore comes down
from his solo flight over referendum territory after only a
couple of speed wobbles (what exactly is 'light, corrective
patting'?) and taxis back into the hangar with this:

Most people behave well, they are just sick of a political
culture where you expect, at any moment, someone to
intrude on your television set and tell you to sit up
straight and not to eat too much meat.

Much of this is worthy and possibly even good. Esperanto
and vegetarianism are probably good ideas, too.

And to cap off this page of wonders, we even have Garth
George sticking up for the idea of dedicated Maori seats
on the Auckland super-city council. Writes George:

It seems to me that those who espouse the ‘one
nation, one people’ concept are invariably white,
and stand to the right of the political spectrum.
That, in itself, is a cause for suspicion.

Cripes. I also remember George, whose neck generally
gives the impression of being bright vermilion, writing
a column earlier this year in which he said he was quite
impressed by the Green Party. Just how red is that neck?

Friday, September 4, 2009


And in breaking news, I’m starting to wonder about the
distinction between ‘the economy’ and ‘the environment.’
As acting Director of Information Resources and Lists of
Stuff at Thumbcorp, I find myself more and more
inclined to file all matters relating to both topics under
the one heading—Economy. Ever since it came into
vogue in the 1970s the use of the word ‘environment’ has
irritated me; like many words with a once-specific and
limited meaning it has come to cover a multitude of sins.
The worst consequence of using it is the mental
compartmentalization thereby abetted, especially in the
minds of people who wish to maintain and indeed glorify
the capitalist status quo. So long as ‘the environment’ can
be contained as something discrete and negotiable, like
the balance of payments or a departmental budget, it
cannot disturb orthodox thinking; nature may be red in
tooth and claw but, this way, it’s declawed.

In fact, the economy is the environment is the economy.
I may have said this before. Whenever you see the word
‘environmental’ try replacing it with ‘economic’ and see
what happens. You might be surprised how little difference
there is between the two. For instance, the New Zealand
’s editorial of 3 September on the emissions trading
scheme concludes: ‘New Zealand should be in the vanguard
of environmental improvement.’ See what I mean?

Ejaculated William

Steve Braunias had some fun watching the 1947 Hollywood
film Green Dolphin Street on a Sky movie channel recently,
and wrote about it for Sunday magazine. I haven’t seen the
film but I happen to have on loan from the public library a
copy of the Elizabeth Goudge novel on which it was based,
and it’s a shocker—as overripe as a rotten peach. Published
in 1944, a daunting 500 pages of romantic fiction in small
type, it revels in the variations on he said/she said so loved
of novelists in the first half of the 2oth century. For
instance, opening the book at random I find (my italics):

‘Let’s leave it for tonight and decide tomorrow,’ hedged William.

‘I am a great sinner,’ stated Samuel with grief.

‘South Island?’ ejaculated William.

Much of it is set in New Zealand during the land wars,
though Goudge cheerfully admits in a note at the start
that ‘To all lovers of New Zealand it will be immediately
obvious that the writer has never been there, and she
most humbly asks their pardon for the many mistakes she
must have made.’ The film-makers never came near these
shores either: as Steve says, Mexicans, Hawaiians and
American Indians do duty for the Maori characters, star
Lana Turner is nearly burned at the stake by Maori, and the
key role of the New Zealand bush is played by redwood
forests in Oregon.

The Listener’s film critic at the time, John Maconie, was
distinctly unimpressed. His review, headlined THAT WILL BE
(a line delivered by Turner to her maid),
found the film ‘phony from beginning to end.’ The ludicrous
depiction of an earthquake (Braunias: 'Geysers bubble and
spurt, kauri topple like redwood') apparently got the
loudest laughs from the Wellington audience Maconie saw
it with. However, he wrote,

the money will have been well spent so far as the
New Zealand filmgoer is concerned if it helps him
to realize that when the critics damn Hollywood
for the insincerity of its productions, for its
sacrifice of truth to spectacle...and in general for
its refusal to face up to the facts of life, they have
some justification for their criticisms.

Ah, Hollywood. Even today, the IMDb website billing for
Dolphin Street begins ‘A Fiery Girl Who Dares The
Dangers Of The Sea And A Savage Land.’ Readers will also
recall the equally implausible 1961 movie Two Loves,
based on Sylvia Ashton-Warner's novel Spinster, filmed
entirely in a Hollywood studio and starring Shirley
Maclaine and, yes, Juan Fernandez as 'Chief Rauhuia.'
Bring on the enchiladas and puha.

Trivia note: Sebastian Faulks's novel On Green Dolphin
was inspired by music written for the 1947 film but
otherwise there is, mercifully, no connection.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Name and claim

Over at Tumeke! the redoubtable Tim Selwyn has taken
issue with my theory about the colonial use of ‘the’ to
prefix Maori placenames. From his observations, he says,
the prefix usually denotes a significant geographical
feature after which an area is named. He cites the Gambia,
the Congo and the Waikato as names representing areas
along a river and also its basin/catchment. Perhaps, Tim
selwynizes, ‘a unique, singular, geographical identifying
feature is what is being said of a place needing a "the".’

Unlike the catchments referred to, this argument doesn’t
hold water. Since independence from Euro-imperialism,
both ‘the’ Gambia and ‘the’ Congo have become, simply,
Gambia and Congo, just as we here in New Zealand are
now more likely to say ‘Manawatu’ and ‘Waikato’ without
the prefix. Sure, there are English exceptions, as I
acknowledged ('the' Coromandel) and as another
commentator on my blog points out, but Tim himself
admits to some uncertainty about the way it works and I
have yet to hear a convincing case against the idea that
even grammar can be a colonizing force. Next question:
who put the colon in colonialism?

Trying on

How much we need to work through, how many forms of
living we try on, like suits of clothes, before finding the
right one, or at least the one that is least uncomfortable.
And death, no doubt, follows shortly afterwards. In this
sense, all life is indeed a preparing for death: the flesh
must be burned through, layer by layer, in order to purify
the soul for the next stage of its journey. With what relief
it must, at last, lose that weight, rising in wonderful
lightness, like an astronaut on the moon.

Life as a surgical boot on the leg of the soul.

‘I’ve never got my act together,’ said Anthony Hopkins,
wonderfully, in an interview once. ‘There is no act to get
together. My life is none of my business.’ This calls to
mind the character in The Bell by Iris Murdoch who says
that the chief requirement of the good life is to live
without any image of oneself. Impossible, of course; but it
should be possible to be less preoccupied with how one
appears to other people.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


We know that the current Chinese regime has been making
strenuous, even shrill efforts around the world to stop the
pro-Uighur documentary The 10 Conditions of Love from
being shown, apparently on the grounds that any officially
unsanctioned view of the political situation in Xinjiang—or
East Turkestan, as the Uighur people know it—is by
definition not fair and accurate. Watching the doco on
Maori Television last night I had the feeling it was probably
neither, but as an attempt to put the Uighur side of the
argument it was entirely valid and well worth screening. So
big ups to Maori Television for that. A great shame, then,
that the channel felt it had to follow the doco with an
official Chinese government one purporting to show the
'truth' about the riots in Xinjiang, which, like Tibet, has
been colonized and exploited by Han Chinese in recent
years. The 10 Conditions might have been biased but at
least it held together as the work of people with hearts and
minds capable of independent thinking; the government
film was so patently a piece of state propaganda that I
turned it off after a few minutes. Whether Maori Television
thought it was striking that mysterious thing called
'balance' I don’t know, but whatever the reason, it didn’t
work. The channel undercut its original brave decision with
what seems to have been a craven one, bowing to pressure
from Beijing.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Crime time

Last night, 31 August, both major television channels in
New Zealand led their flagship 6pm news bulletins with
a fatal shooting in Hawke’s Bay. Tonight, 1 September,
they both led with reaction to the banning of gang
insignia in Wanganui. And this is not uncommon: any
homicide, anything crime-related, anything calculated to
promote fear and loathing, can always be assured of high
placement in the news. For myself, I am trying to imagine
what goes through the heads of news chiefs and bulletin
editors when they make the decision not only to cover
these stories—with all the associated expense, in these
supposedly cash-strapped times, of sending out reporters
and camera crews—but to assign them the greatest
prominence. Whichever way I turn it, I invariably come
up with the same conclusion: that whatever it is that’s
going on here, it’s not news; it’s a form of entertainment
packaged no less formulaically and titillatingly than, say,
CSI or Criminal Minds. In which case I respectfully ask
TV1 and TV3 to stop calling these programs news bulletins.
By all means broadcast what you will, but drop the false
labelling and the pompous pretence that endlessly
covering crime and misbehaviour is real gritty journalism.

The really sad part is that some genuine journalistic work
of merit is done for these bulletins but it usually gets
shunted down the list. Tonight, for instance, 3 News picked
up on a blog by John Minto in which he raised the idea of a
a maximum income cap of $250,000. There was actually
no reason in the world why that story couldn't have led the
bulletin—no reason except, apparently, the sheer terror of
addressing serious issues seriously. Sure, I get it: 'serious'
doesn't cut it for advertisers and ratings; but, in the case of
the past two nights anyway, it's depressing to see news
chiefs settling for the predictable, the prejudice-feeding and
the formulaic as the six o'clock fanfares rise and fall.

The new ETS

Prime Minister John Key expressed optimism today that
with hard work and co-operation by all concerned parties,
an Evasions Trading Scheme could be in place by the end
of the year.

Though much remains to be negotiated, the Government
is promising that under the proposed scheme, all major
sectors of industry and agriculture will be able to evade
their responsibilities in a responsible fashion.

The long-term aim is to keep New Zealand not only a few
steps behind its trading partners but backing away at the
same time.

‘This government didn’t get where it is today by facing up
to things,’ Mr Key told a media conference. ‘I don’t think
we could look ourselves in the eye if we, um, did.’

Evasions will be allowed up to a cap, beyond which even
bigger evasions can be traded for credits, according to the
evader-evades principle by means of which evaders can
evade in proportion to their evasion-generating capacity.

‘It’s our job as parliamentarianians to uphold the core
principle of evadability,” said Mr Key. ‘New Zealanderses
would expect no less.’

Monday, August 31, 2009

The 'the'

Reading the letters of Constantine Dillon, an aristocratic
young English colonist who lived in New Zealand from
1842 until his death by drowning in 1853, I’m struck
afresh by the use of the definite article in connection
with various regions of New Zealand. For early British
settlers it was always ‘the’ Waimea, ‘the’ Wairarapa, ‘the’
Rangitikei,’ ‘the’ Manawatu. Note that the article was
invariably attached to Maori names, not English ones.
No one talked of ‘the’ Nelson or ‘the’ Canterbury. (The
only exceptions that come to mind are the Hutt—an
abbreviation of the Hutt Valley—and the Coromandel.)
Overall, it's hard to escape the conclusion that prefixing
‘the’ to the names of Maori regions was a way of
reinforcing British ownership of, or claims to, those
places. It somehow domesticated them, while also, no
doubt, ameliorating the awkwardness of pronouncing
Maori names straight out—without a social introduction,
as it were. The ‘the’— could we say?—helped to make
orderly the wilderness and straight the path of colonial
annexation. Thus even the humblest part of speech was
pressed into service on the side of the imperialist project.

I may be mistaken but I detect a trend now, in the early
21st century, towards dispensing with the 'the' in these
cases; more and more we hear just 'Waikato' or
'Manawatu,' though the article still seems to cling to my
own place of birth, 'the' Wairarapa, perhaps because the
Maori presence was historically less influential there.

I note also that Dillon—though hardly exceptionable in
this—makes reductive references to Jewishness, as in this
comment on Auckland in 1848: ‘This is such a horrid
place, always raining, up to one’s knees in mud and dust,
everything dirty and shabby, the people almost all Jews or
people from N.S.Wales.’ A few pages further on, a man
described as a blackguard, a scamp and a liar is also called
'a regular Jew.’ You can't help but wonder to what extent
this kind of casual, almost perfunctory antisemitism helped
to lay the ground—helped to ease attitudes into action—for
what came a century later.