Friday, February 26, 2010

Full cream fifties

Listening today to that late 50s Guy Mitchell favourite
‘Heartaches by the Number,’ which is now
acknowledged, I believe, as having been crucially
influential on Jimmy Page’s chord progressions for the
third Led Zeppelin album, and may even have been
indirectly responsible for Frank Zappa’s experiments
with trance fusion, I remembered again the intense
connexion between booming dairy production and
1950s male vocalism: the rich tones of Mitchell,
Johnnie Ray, Vic Damone and many others owed a
great deal to higher postwar cholesterol intake, coupled
with the smooth, soothing effect of all that butter and
cream sliding daily down the throat. Frank Sinatra, who
never packed away the dairy products like these guys,
having come from a slightly earlier generation, always
sounded reedy by comparison. Agriculture’s role in
popular culture, especially music, folk-dancing and the
New Zealand short story, has been all too little
recognized, in my view.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Buzzards too

Further to my comments on Radio New Zealand, about
which I also spoke this morning on Nine to Noon, I might
add that if the vulture’s eye belongs to the current
government, then surrounding the vulture is a bunch of
buzzards collectively known as private radio, the two major
networks of which would love to feast on RNZ’s carcass.
Many times over the years they have complained about
’s public funding, which in their view gives the state
broadcaster an unfair advantage in the marketplace. The
day they do a tenth of the things RNZ is required to do by its
charter (and does well) is the day they might have the bare
beginnings of a genuine case for complaint. I agree with the
New Zealand Herald, which in its editorial today wonders
why RNZ (whose annual government funding is $34 million,
in other words, peanuts) is having the big stick waved at it
when the ‘potential savings are trifling.’ One has to suspect
another agenda than just cost-saving in tight economic
times. Let us not forget that one of the most powerful
cabinet ministers, Steven Joyce, whose No 14 ranking belies
his influence, is a former chief executive of RadioWorks,
one of the country’s two main private radio networks.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Vulture's eye

The attack on Radio New Zealand by the man laughably
called ‘the Minister of Broadcasting’ was all too predictable;
I predicted it myself about a year ago. The last National-led
government, in the 1990s, tried this too, floating ideas like
program sponsorship; and it was only a matter of time
before this one’s gaze settled on RNZ, rather as a circling
vulture’s eye falls on its prospective prey. The excuse, as
ever, is that times are tough, budgets are tight, the
government has only so much money to dish out, and every
public agency must play its part in reducing the national
debt. Curiously, these arguments don’t seem to be a
problem when it comes to splashing out billions more on
highways and cutting taxes to the benefit, principally, of
those already better off. (Someone earning $30,000 might
get $7 more a week: someone on the Prime Minister’s
salary will get $300 more a week—how does that work
again?). In any case, the funding of public-good
institutions like Radio New Zealand cannot, essentially, be
argued on purely financial grounds, so any government
doing so is by definition revealing itself as unconcerned
with or, worse, unaware of the public good. We live in
desperately shallow times when the minds of ministers
function like calculators; this is the reduced state to which
the ‘more-market’ thinking of late-20th-century
capitalism has brought our civilization. At least Helen
Clark, passing through this week, has the moral gumption
to stand up for Radio New Zealand on grounds other than
pure cost. If others don’t do the same, we will inevitably
see what RNZ chief executive Peter Cavanagh calls the
degradation of program quality and, beyond that, the final
destruction of public radio in this country. All because it
wasn't raising enough revenue. Give me a break.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


It was to be expected, I suppose, that the advocates of
genetic engineering would seize on the economic
shenanigans of recent times to promote the case for the
monsantification of world food production. To quote
the London Times, quoting the UN Food & Agriculture
Organization, ‘the combined effects of high food prices
and the global economic meltdown have pushed more
than 100 million people into poverty and hunger.'
Therefore—so the argument goes—the introduction of
more and more GE crops is essential if we are to ‘avert
a global food crisis.’ Only that way, it seems, will
enough food be produced to feed the world's growing

This insidiously sinister line of reasoning should be
resisted. First, there is only a ‘crisis’ because of the
industrialization of food production by those whose
primary concern is not feeding the world’s hungry but
making exorbitant profits out of controlling the food
chain from top to bottom. Second, to quote Gandhi,
Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but
not for any man’s greed. I don’t know when he said that,
but it must be at least 60 years ago and I’ll wager a solar
system to a planet that it’s as true today as it was then.
Third, without even getting into the ecological risks of
genetic engineering, it's essentially about monoculture,
not agriculture, and that ain’t good for the Earth. Period.
Fourth, every time someone says what a good idea GE
food is, allow yourself to wonder how it is that every
extension of GE planting equals greater profit for
Monsanto and other giant bioindustrial corporations—
not for the peasants who actually do the planting and
harvesting. And all the heartstring-plucking in the world
about starving millions is as sincere as a McDonald's ad.

All of which makes the Listener’s February 6 cover story
even more of a disgrace than it would be at any other
time. Nina Fedoroff, science adviser to Hillary Clinton,
is given a free ride to make her case for GE with the
urging her on at every stride, eg, ‘She is one of
the leading campaigners trying to tear down the taboo
against GM foods.’ Taboo? Tear down? Spare us, please.
But no; the story continues more or less in the same
vein, with little attempt to place Fedoroff’s view in
context. The article was published under the byline of
staff writer Sarah Barnett but those familiar with her
good work for the Listener will, I’m sure, refuse to accept
that she could have wholly written what here appears in
her name. I don’t. It reads like a piece cobbled together
by someone senior to her. In which case, whoever did it
ought to have put their own name to it, not hers.

Monday, February 15, 2010

O Canada

I may well be wrong, and am already reproaching myself
for not doing enough historical research on this point, but
could it be that the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games are
the first Olympics, winter or summer, at the opening
ceremony of which a global TV audience of millions has
been entertained not only by a Leonard Cohen song but a
Leonard Cohen song containing the words 'She tied you to
her kitchen chair'? It might bear checking out. Quite how it
fits in with Baron de Coubertin's original Olympic ideal
('The important thing in life is not the triumph but the
struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but
to have fought well') I'm not sure, but what is clear is that
Olympic opening ceremonies have swollen over the years
into grotesque, bloated, hormone-fed swaggerings of
national chauvinism on the part of the host nations, each
of whom seem determined to outdo their predecessors in
terms of pomp, panoply and prideful preening. In the case
of Vancouver the Canadians have gone to extraordinary
lengths to try to convince the world that Canada has a soul,
a spirit, a unique destiny, even a culture. After half an hour
of exposure to bombastic speechifying and embarrassing
poetics, complete with Indian chiefs, Mounties, polar
bears and the inevitable spectacular light show the thought
crossed my mind: Methinks they do protest too much.
Frankly, a brass band and a few words of welcome would
have done the job just as well. Having said which, K D Lang
did do a fantastic 'Hallelujah.' In which the kitchen chair
made the cut but not, mysteriously, the subsequent verse
about 'what's really going on below.' Bondage may now be
an Olympic sport but even Canadians, it seems, draw the
line somewhere.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


In the long reaches of the six o'clock TV newshour, when
the first commercial break has come, and one knows
with a sinking heart that there are still 25 minutes until
the sports news, minutes that will be filled with padded
non-news items of insufferable tedium—not that the
sports news exactly raises one's pulse, though there is
still a dull pleasure in seeing a well-hit Chelsea goal or a
Hurricanes try—I was idly surfing the channels when my
weary gaze fell upon David Attenborough showing us
venomous snakes on Prime. My attention slithered out
of the hole it had been hiding in; I marvelled at the West
Australian tiger snake, gasped at the venom splattering
Sir David's visor, was transfixed by the flickering of the
forked tongues. Relief, at last, from the turgid politics of
the day. Why, then, when the African rock python
swallowed an antelope whole, with ever-widening jaws,
was I irresistibly reminded of the relationship between
the National Party and the Maori Party? Beats me.