Friday, June 22, 2018

A couple of thoughts on that baby


Who could not be pleased for Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford that they are now the parents of an apparently healthy baby girl? I can’t think of a more life-changing experience.  

They are entitled to our best wishes. But two things strike me about the national reaction to the event.

The first is that judging by the purring emanating from politicians, media commentators and people on the street, by which I mean all that tiresome, self-congratulatory stuff about New Zealand showing the world how things should be done, you’d think we were all miraculously involved in the baby’s conception.  

Well, hang on. It’s Jacinda Ardern’s and Clarke Gayford’s baby, not ours. There’s something slightly creepy about the way the entire country seems to be claiming credit for the birth.  

The other thing is that many of the people cooing with delight over the event also support women’s right to have an abortion. But can someone please explain how a baby can be a source of such joy in one set of circumstances, yet be treated as something to be discarded as an inconvenience in another? I just don’t get it.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Spare us the sanctimonious hyperbole, Nancy


Leading US Democrat Nancy Pelosi says the Trump administration’s migrant family separation policy, now hastily rescinded, “leaves a dark stain on our nation”.

Well, perhaps it does. But against the broad sweep of history, it pales into insignificance against other stains on the American soul. American history is littered with episodes the nation would doubtless prefer to forget, most of them involving appalling mistreatment of vulnerable minorities.

There were massacres of Native Americans, of which Wounded Knee is the most infamous example. There was the Trail of Tears – the forced relocation of American Indian tribes from their ancestral homelands, which resulted in thousands of deaths from exposure, disease and starvation. There was slavery, and later the institutionalised oppression of the descendants of those slaves. There were mob lynchings of black Americans – too many to count, and often accompanied by acts of unimaginably sadistic cruelty. There was the Ku Klux Klan, whose brutal enforcement of white supremacy was often condoned and even encouraged by politicians. There was organised crime and corruption on a massive scale, its perpetrators secure in the knowledge that the people charged with enforcing the law could easily be bought off. In foreign affairs, the US government has repeatedly propped up repressive totalitarian regimes - another stain. And even on the battlefield there has been at least one act of unfathomable American savagery, the My Lai massacre.

America remains a fundamentally decent society, its people genuinely committed to doing the right thing. That’s apparent from the widespread revulsion at the forced separation of migrant children from their parents. But there’s something distasteful about Pelosi making political capital out of the migrant crisis and indulging in sanctimonious, hand-wringing hyperbole by calling it a dark stain on the nation, when she must know that far, far worse things have been done in and by America – many of them, moreover, perpetrated by Democratic Party governments.


Friday, June 15, 2018

Even Northland didn't want him, but now he's going to be our acting PM

(First published in the Dominion Post and on stuff.co.nz, June 14.)

So we’re going to have Winston Peters as our acting prime minister for six weeks. Not bad for a politician who was rejected by his own electorate at the last election after failing to complete a single term.

Not bad either for a politician whose party won only 7 per cent of the vote and which, judging by recent polls, would struggle to scrape back into Parliament if an election was held tomorrow. 

This is democracy New Zealand-style, in which the rewards – the baubles of office that Peters once insisted he wasn’t interested in – go not to a politician who commands broad public support, but to a crafty minor player who has learned how to game the system and manipulate the bigger parties.

We should all be ashamed at this travesty. But in the welter of media excitement over Jacinda Ardern’s impending motherhood, we’ve somehow overlooked the embarrassing fact that the most powerful office in the land is being placed in the hands of a politician with no popular mandate.

Perhaps we have short memories, so allow me to help. The Peters party lost three of its seats at the last election, including Peters’ own. Its share of the vote dropped from 8.6 per cent to 7.2 per cent – hardly a resounding endorsement.

We don’t know, and may never know, exactly what happened in the subsequent negotiations to form a coalition government, because the politicians prefer to keep all that stuff secret. Transparency? Pffft.

What we do know is that Peters largely controlled the process because his party’s puny share of the vote gave him the balance of power.

We also know now, although no one knew then, that on the day before the election, Peters had quietly instituted legal action against senior National Party figures over the alleged leaking of details about the overpayment of his national superannuation.

This made it highly improbable, to say the least, that he would agree to a coalition with National. But both major parties continued to negotiate with him in good faith, each believing it was in with an equal chance and each trying to outbid the other for his favour.

With the benefit of hindsight, the negotiations can be seen as a charade with only one likely outcome. Both major parties were played for suckers.

We eventually learned what Peters’ price was. Not only did he emerge as deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister, but four Cabinet seats were allocated to NZ First – twice the number it would have been entitled to if Cabinet appointments were proportionate with the party’s poll result.

Of course all these inconvenient details are swept under the carpet now, because they reflect badly on our flawed electoral system.

Rather than ask awkward questions about the murky circumstances in which the Labour-led coalition was formed, we’re expected to marvel at what a good job Peters is doing as foreign minister.

Well, of course he is. After all, it’s hardly the most taxing gig in the Cabinet. And who wouldn’t relish a job that involves hob-nobbing with world leaders in exotic locales?

It’s perhaps telling that his one serious misstep so far was his misplaced enthusiasm for a trade deal with Russia. I have a sneaking suspicion that Vladimir Putin is the type of leader Peters admires.

We’re also assured that Peters will do a great job as acting prime minister – but again, why wouldn’t he? He’s onto a good thing and he must know it. He probably considers it due reward for a long and tumultuous political career which now, please God, must be nearing its end.

But we should also remember that this is Winston Raymond Peters we’re talking about. And where Peters is involved, the potential for mayhem and debacle is never far away.

We’re encouraged to believe everything is hunky-dory in the coalition and that it will be business as usual – Ardern’s phrase – when Peters steps up. But only this week Peters humiliated Justice Minister Andrew Little by derailing Little’s plan to repeal the Three Strikes law.

He also provocatively re-activated the legal action over the leaking of his superannuation overpayment, in which one of the defendants is his Cabinet colleague David Parker as Attorney-General.

This is classic Peters. The timing could hardly have been accidental. He can’t help himself.

But I’m picking the real test of Peters’ new-found statesmanlike mantle will come when he has to deal with journalists. Almost alone among New Zealand politicians, Peters has never quite accepted that accountability to the public, via the media, goes with the territory.

Will he be able to suppress his natural antagonism toward journalists in his new role? The sheer improbability of it conjures up Dr Johnson's famous image of a dog walking on its hind legs. But it might be fun to watch.


Thursday, June 14, 2018

So it's true then - pop music HAS become boring


(First published in the Nelson Mail, the Manawatu Standard and stuff.co.nz.)

I did something last week that I almost never do. I watched an item on Seven Sharp.

This particular item had been previewed during an ad break in the 6 o’clock news and it aroused my interest. It asked the provocative question, has pop music got boring?

So I watched the item, and the answer reporter Tim Wilson gave was: Yes, it has.

Ah, so it’s not just me then.

Here I was wondering whether I was alone in harrumphing over the monotony of 21st century pop.

I had rebuked myself for doing what people have always done when they get to a certain age – namely, shake their heads at the incomprehensible tastes of the young. But here seemed to be at least partial confirmation of my view that pop music has become drearily predictable and insipid.

Wilson interviewed Auckland musician and arranger Godfrey de Grut, who lectures in popular music studies at the University of Auckland. De Grut comes with plenty of music industry cred, having worked with the likes of Che Fu, Brooke Fraser and Boh Runga.

Admittedly de Grut is no teenager, and neither is Wilson. But they’re a lot younger (and cooler) than I am, so I took heart from their assessment that mainstream pop music has become, in de Grut’s words, bland and homogeneous.

De Grut was able to explain in simple terms what it is about these songs that makes them l sound so similar. They use the same song structures and the same sterile technology. Often they’ve been crafted by the same songwriter. To me it all sounds pre-packaged and bloodless – the aural equivalent of junk food.

The Seven Sharp item seemed to confirm the impressions I’d formed on a recent car trip, when I couldn’t find any of the radio stations I usually favour and ended up listening to a pop station.

I started listening because there was nothing else available, but I stayed tuned out of curiosity and fascination at the sheer relentless sameness of the music.

Song after song followed the same pattern: simple, repetitive, almost childlike melodies – they reminded me of nursery rhymes – over an insistent, pulsing electronic beat.

It struck me as being fashionably gender-neutral. The voices were almost asexual, even androgynous, to the extent that it was sometimes hard to tell whether the singer was male or female.

I have no idea who the performers were, but I recognised the songs as being representative of a genre that’s heard everywhere in hotel lobbies, cafes and airport terminals. You can’t escape it, no matter how desperately you might want to.

It’s the same music that I’m forced to listen to when I’m put on hold while waiting to talk to my internet service provider/bank/insurance company/whatever. I assume it’s their way of persuading you to give up and leave them alone.

I even hear it if I wake early and tune into NewstalkZB’s Early Edition to get the first news of the day. For some reason there’s always a pop song playing behind the host when she comes back on air after the 5.30am bulletin.

Listening to this stuff, I find myself wondering whether pop music has exhausted itself and retreated to the same safe space it inhabited before rock and roll.

I’m just old enough to remember the dull, anodyne pop that emanated from radios before Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. It was the era of The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane by the Ames Brothers, Hot Diggity Dog Ziggity by Perry Como and How Much is that Doggie in the Window, by Patti Page. 

Rock and roll arrived in the nick of the time. If it wasn’t for Presley, Haley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, we would have succumbed to the stupefying effects of an obesity-inducing musical diet that consisted wholly of white bread, doughnuts and marshmallow.

With the advent of rock and roll, popular music acquired not only a raw energy but an edgy, almost menacing quality. At the moment I’m reading an excellent book called 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, in which British writer Jon Savage analyses the culture and politics of that year through the prism of pop music.

By that time the epicentre of the pop world had shifted from America to London. It was the golden era of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks – bands that produced their own distinctive sounds and could never have been mistaken for each other, unlike today’s sound-alikes.

Savage’s book is also a reminder that the sullen, pouty, rebellious stance of bands like the Stones and the Who was seen as a potent threat to the conservative establishment.

It occurs to me that no one could take offence at today’s mainstream pop, other than on aesthetic grounds. Perhaps that’s its problem.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Comments update: they're working on it

In my last post I mentioned that I was no longer receiving email notifications of comments submitted to this blog. I thought I had fixed the problem, but no. Even the dozens of comments that I posted three days ago (after finding them languishing in my "awaiting moderation" folder) have disappeared. I now discover that the same problem has been experienced by other bloggers. Google says it's aware of the problem and is working on a fix.  Sigh.

Monday, June 4, 2018

To all those who wondered what happened to their comments, now you know

A friend alerted me yesterday to the fact that a comment she had tried to post on my blog hadn't appeared. How the blog normally works is that when someone submits a comment it comes to me as an email. I can then click "publish" or "delete" (normally the former, as it goes without saying that my blog typically attracts a superior grade of comment) and it duly appears (or disappears, as the case may be). But my friend's alert prompted me to check my blog settings, and in the course of rummaging around in the bowels of blogger.com I discovered literally dozens of unpublished comments, some of which had been languishing there since early last year. None of them had come to me as emails, so I was unaware of their existence. On the basis of better late than never, and in a desperate attempt to keep faith with my blog readers, they have now belatedly been published. My sincere (and rather embarrassed) apologies to all those commenters who thought I'd snubbed them. I now know not to assume that I'll receive email notification of comments.

This merely goes to confirm my lack of digital savvy. If running a blog could be compared with driving a car, I'd be displaying an L-plate in my rear window.


Saturday, June 2, 2018

If there was a train across the Pacific, I'd take it


(First published in the Nelson Mail and on stuff.co.nz, May 30.)

God, how I loathe flying. Everything about it irritates me.

This realisation struck me forcefully as I sat in a crowded Sydney Airport waiting for a connecting flight home after a 14-hour trip from Los Angeles.

I like to think of myself as an amiable-enough sort of bloke most of the time, but when I’m travelling I become a cranky misanthrope. Cooped up in oppressively close proximity with my fellow human beings, I develop a strange aversion to them and become sharply aware of their quirks and foibles.

I find myself muttering under my breath at people who take too long at the check-in counter or try to stuff too much into the overhead baggage locker.

I harrumph over gimmicky, infantile in-flight safety videos that go on for far too long – I’m with Bob Jones here – and I bristle at bossy flight attendants, although most try to be personable and helpful.

I resent being bombarded with clutter – blankets, headphones, pillows, plastic cups – that there’s no room for, and I curse the ever-more rigorous airport security screening procedures.

Most of all I seethe when dopey or inconsiderate passengers hold everyone up. At LAX, hundreds of us sat on the tarmac for an hour and a half because someone had checked in their suitcases but failed to take their seat, which meant their bags had to be found and unloaded. 

I regard the modern airport as a vision of hell, the more so when I’m stuck in one for hours because my flight is held up, as it so often is. Delays are endemic in international travel, and airlines are very good at avoiding responsibility for the consequences. Just watch the ground staff magically disappear when there’s a departure lounge full of disgruntled travellers wondering where the hell their plane is.

Other airport irritants include scruffy backpackers – a 21st century global contagion – who spread themselves across several seats or sprawl across the floor, obstructing others. In my curmudgeonly state of mind I imagine many of them are travelling on round-the-world fares paid for by over-indulgent parents.

In Sydney I observed another phenomenon of modern travel: I was surrounded by zombies, all blankly fixated by their “devices” in what appeared to be a case of mass Facebook hypnosis. I’m not just talking about millennials here: “senior” women too were mesmerised by their phones and tablets. Not for the first time, I wondered what could be so riveting as to demand their total attention.

In the toilets, I had to listen to men noisily hoicking. Why do males apparently feel the need to do this when women don’t? And what is it about airport toilets that triggers this nauseating habit – or do these slobs do the same at home?

To get to the departure lounge, I had to pass through duty-free outlets where I was assailed by hucksters – polite, attractive hucksters, but hucksters nonetheless – trying to sell me perfume and liquor that I can buy cheaper elsewhere.

Fliers once had the option of bypassing duty-free. Now they have no choice. It’s a racket, pure and simple, but there was no shortage of buyers. Somehow the idea has been implanted in travellers’ heads that duty-free shopping is always cheaper than elsewhere. This has enabled airport companies and duty-free operators to enter a very lucrative conspiracy aimed at exploiting the gullible.

The flight from LAX to Sydney had been arduous, as long-haul air travel always is for me. Some people happily pass the time watching movies, but something strange happens to my brain when I board an aircraft. Though I rarely sleep, I lose all interest in watching movies or listening to music, and even reading palls after a time.

On this occasion I forced myself to watch a movie and chose to see Dunkirk for the second time – a dumb choice. All movies are greatly diminished on those tiny screens and tinny earphones, but Dunkirk – which depends heavily on its spectacular cinematography and sound effects – more than most.

The rest of the time I did what I invariably end up doing on long-haul flights: I gritted my teeth and imagined that by sheer force of will, I could somehow make the time pass more quickly. In the process I almost lost the will to live.

My wife and I had paid extra for exit-row seats, which at least meant I could stretch out. I don’t think I could have lasted the flight squeezed into a standard seat, which these days seems designed for people with the bodies of teenage Olympic gymnasts.

At least I’m relatively thin. How large people manage is beyond me, to say nothing of the miserable wretches who have to sit beside them. And how the hell do obese passengers get on in the aircraft dunnies, where there’s barely enough room even for people of normal size?

I recently read that airlines earn nearly one-third of their revenue from the 5 percent of passengers who fly business class, which kind of puts everything in perspective. Corporate travellers and the rich must be kept happy – the rest of us not so much.

What it all boils down to is this: airlines have made flying a whole lot cheaper by packing more and more people in, but there’s a trade-off in terms of comfort and enjoyment. Only a mug could believe that flying is still the pleasurable and exotic experience that it once was.

It has become an ordeal, pure and simple. If I could take a train across the Pacific I’d do it, even if the trip took a week.