Monday, December 29, 2008

Let's be honest about child deaths

(Published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, December 23.)

WE’RE killing our kids, according to a recent news item. Two children are said to die every week as a result of accidents, and the blame is being laid – at least in part – on our “she’ll be right” attitude.

A front-page news story in The Dominion Post cited figures from a recent World Health Organisation report and quoted Ann Weaver, director of Safekids New Zealand – the injury prevention arm of Starship Hospital – as saying that compared with other wealthy nations, New Zealand performed very badly.

“We have this ‘she’ll be right’ attitude and an aversion to being told what to do,” she said. “We don’t want to mollycoddle our children … but, looking at these statistics, you can see we’re not doing enough.”

I interpreted the statement that we’re “not doing enough” as a coded call for more regulation – more rules that place the paternalistic state, rather than parents, at the centre of child protection.

I’m the first to agree that two child deaths a week are two deaths too many, but there are some important points to be made about these statistics.

The first is that a press statement issued with the WHO report specifically cites New Zealand as being among the countries with the lowest rates of accidental injury to children. Lobbyists who agitate for greater state intervention are careful to make us look bad by comparing us with the relatively few affluent western countries that have even better child safety figures.

They also seem careful to avoid reference to the politically unmentionable factor that prevents New Zealand from catching up with those countries. I refer to the disproportionately high rate of accidental death and injury among children from Maori and Pacific Island families.

It’s an awful but indisputable fact that whenever you read of a toddler being backed over by a careless driver, of a baby being smothered in bed, of a child wandering off on a riverbank or a beach and drowning when no one was watching, or of children dying in a house fire caused by a burning candle or a cigarette lighter left lying around, the probability is that the victim will be from a Maori or Pacific Island family.

It’s an even more terrible fact that children who die or are permanently damaged as a result of physical abuse are most likely to be Maori or Polynesian, though I’m not sure whether these deaths and injuries count as “accidental” for statistical purposes.

No one, least of all the innocent victims of parental carelessness or brutality, is served by denying that these problems are disproportionately common among Maori and Pacific Island families.

What’s more, these issues are well understood and in most cases are covered by existing laws. The law has long required, for example, that children in cars be properly restrained, but it's commonly disregarded by Maori and Pacific Island drivers.

Ignorance? Carelessness? Laziness? Lack of imagination? Who knows? But to suggest that we need more laws to reduce injuries to children is either delusional or dishonest. Adequate laws exist already.

Stricter enforcement might help, but what’s far more important is that parents are encouraged to develop a greater awareness of the risks surrounding children and a stronger sense of personal responsibility for the safety of those in their care. There can be no more urgent task confronting Maori and Pacific Island leaders.

Performing a haka at the graveside of a dead child is a poor way to show how precious the tamariki are.

* * *

MUCH has been said about the supposed virtues of online shopping. You can get goods cheaper, people say, because online retailers have low overheads. You can shop in the comfort of your own home and at a time of your own convenience.

But in the midst of the Christmas shopping frenzy, I want to put in a word for the old-fashioned shop.

Online retailers such as Amazon - which I use occasionally - have taken a huge amount of business from traditional stores, but there’s still something to be said for a retail outlet where you can examine the merchandise.

It’s easy to make a wrong decision about a product on the basis of a description on a website, as I did recently. Misled by an Internet retailer’s brief note about an expensive music reference book, I ordered it and when it arrived, found it wasn’t at all what I expected.

As it happened I liked the book anyway and have no regrets about buying it. But the deal could have turned sour.

Online shopping has other drawbacks too. I recently got the run-around from online retailer Fishpond over a DVD I ordered off its website at the beginning of November. To cut a long story short, the DVD turned out not to be in stock. After several exchanges of emails I was advised that it might not arrive before mid-January.

Tough luck if I’d ordered it to give someone for Christmas. I told them to forget it.

There are no such problems with the conventional retailer. If you’re shopping for a book, for example, you can pick it up and flick through the pages. And if you like it you can go to the counter, pay for it and walk out with your purchase tucked securely under your arm

Technology is great when it delivers, but too often it sings a siren song of false promises.

Holmes: egotistical to the end

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 24.)

A funny thing happened on Monday morning. For the first time in 22 years, the tens of thousands of New Zealanders who wake up each day to Newstalk ZB, the country’s most popular radio station, didn’t hear Paul Holmes.

New Zealand’s highest-profile broadcaster stepped down from his breakfast throne last Friday – encouraged to do so, evidently, by his bosses, who presumably thought it best that he quit while he was still ahead. Holmes will continue to broadcast on Saturdays but his coveted Monday-Friday timeslot has been taken over by Mike Hosking.

Holmes is not only New Zealand’s best-known broadcaster but also, arguably, the most egotistical. And he remained so to the end.

In his regular column in the Herald on Sunday the week before he quit, Holmes subjected himself to something called the Proust Questionnaire. He apparently found the revelations about himself fascinating and, being Holmes, naturally assumed his readers would be similarly enthralled.

The questionnaire consisted of questions such as “what is your current state of mind?” (to which Holmes answered “mellow”); “what is your most treasured possession?” (“My CNZM – Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit”); “what is your greatest regret” (“not leaving my job in 1993 and going into Parliament”); and “what is your most marked characteristic?” (“my honest, relentless sense of humour”).

What’s notable here is the Holmesian disregard for the convention that it’s for others, not us, to judge our personality and character. Many of us possibly think, privately, that we’re fascinating people, but it takes an exceptional ego to take that extra step and go public about it. Holmes cheerfully defies all the New Zealand stereotypes about modesty and humility.

Note also the assumption that the voters, no doubt delirious with gratitude, would automatically have elected Holmes to Parliament. I seem to recall also that he once toyed with the idea of standing for the Auckland mayoralty.

Holmes’ hubris was almost his undoing when he quit TV One for Prime several years ago, apparently confident that his legion of viewers would follow him. They didn’t. His successor, Susan Wood, inherited his audience virtually intact, thereby proving that it was a combination of the 7pm timeslot and TV One’s hold on viewers, not Holmes’ magnetic presence, that made his show such a ratings success.

There is a flipside to Holmes’ conceit, however. As is often the case with big egos, he appears deeply insecure.

Journalist Carroll du Chateau noted this in a New Zealand Herald article marking Holmes’ departure. As Holmes showed her to the door of his home after she had interviewed him, he asked her: “Do you think they like me? You know, do people like me or not? What do you think?”

Du Chateau wrote: “It is a stunningly personal question that reflects the inner vulnerability of our most influential broadcaster. No, he is not an egotist; he is, at heart, a little kid rattling around an enormous Remuera mansion with three small dogs and a cat, wanting to be liked.”

While it certainly seems true that Holmes yearns to be liked, I respectfully disagree with du Chateau about whether he is an egotist. I think he unquestionably is. It’s just that big egos are often, paradoxically, fragile and desperate for affirmation.

It may seem astonishing that at this stage in his career, an extraordinarily successful man like Holmes still needs to be told he’s a success. But in my experience, many high-profile people crave reassurance that they count for something. It’s not enough, somehow, for them to be at peace with themselves internally; they need the endorsement of the crowd. It’s their validation.

Another way such people assure themselves of their importance is by surrounding themselves with other important people. It’s surprising how many well-known New Zealanders are compulsive name-droppers, anxious to impress others by telling them about the high-flying people they rub shoulders with.

There was a hint of this, too, in du Chateau’s article on Holmes, when she mentioned the prominent photos on a sideboard at his home showing the broadcaster with important people such as Bill Clinton and Kiri Te Kanawa. I seem to recall too that when Holmes remarried a few years ago, the guest list at the lavish ceremony was a Who’s Who of VIPs, including the then prime minister.

Personally I don’t think it’s healthy when journalists become as big as the people they’re reporting, and even less so when they count them as personal friends. But it’s important to remember that Holmes, although he carried out journalistic functions, was not a journalist by training. He came to TV journalism via a background that included theatre and talkback radio. So perhaps it’s no surprise that he blurred the line between journalism, with its traditional principles of objectivity and detachment, and entertainment.

That he has journalistic skills, however, is unquestionable. Personally, I prefer Holmes the writer to Holmes the broadcaster.

Noses were put out of joint years ago when he won the Qantas award for newspaper columnist of the year, but there was no question that he earned it. He’s a fluent, assured and perceptive writer, and if he finds himself getting bored making olive oil at his Hawke’s Bay estate he could do worse than nurture this talent.

His profiles of party leaders, written for the New Zealand Herald prior to the election, were sympathetic and revealing, teasing out aspects of the politicians’ personalities that political reporters had left unexplored. I thought it was some of the most interesting journalism of the campaign.

Even so, there was almost as much information about Holmes in those articles as there was about the people he was supposedly covering. Only Holmes could write an article about Jeanette Fitzsimons in which he managed to refer to the difficulty of piloting his giant Bentley – of which he seems inordinately proud – up the Greens co-leader’s tortuous driveway.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

McVicar's U-turn

SENSIBLE Sentencing Trust spokesman Garth McVicar irrevocably blew his credibility when he said Bruce Emery, the Auckland man who fatally stabbed teenage tagger Pihema Cameron, should have been set free.

McVicar has built his reputation around calls for tougher sentencing, especially for violent crimes. You have to wonder what made him execute such a spectacular U-turn in this case.

The manslaughter verdict for Emery seemed fair and appropriate, and he should face the consequences. Tagging may be an infuriating scourge, but no one deserves to die because of it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Good riddance to the Fitz

I rejoiced at the news, reported in today’s Dominion Post, that Palmerston North’s Fitz Tavern is to close. The Fitz, in its heyday a famous student pub, represents everything that is wrong with our drinking culture.

In today’s story, several Fitz regulars fondly recalled the pub’s supposed glory days. One of them, who took pride in the title “Legend of the Fitz”, told how, in 1981, he downed a five-ounce beer, a seven-ounce, a 12-ounce, a half-racecourse jug – whatever that is – and an imperial jug in 28.2 seconds.

“There was not even one drop [spilled], it was boom, boom, boom,” this giant of the binge-drinking culture bragged. No mention was made of the several million brain cells sacrificed in such rituals, evidence of which was arguably all too clear to the reader.

“For $20 you could get pissed and a burger on the way home,” this fellow continued, demonstrating that the boorish pisshead culture of the 1970s is still alive and well in a few dark corners of the provinces. What a guy.

As delighted as I am that the Fitz has closed its doors, I despair when I read this sort of stuff. It makes me wonder briefly whether we’ve learned a thing. (In fact we have, of course; it’s just that there are places where the message hasn’t penetrated.)

The Dom Post reported that plaques on the pub walls commemorated a student who demolished seven pies in a minute and “a fella who drank a crate in 58 minutes”. A former barman told of the days when the Fitz sold more than 1000 quarts an hour and 500 students would pack the bar after midday.

Almost as an afterthought, the story also mentioned the death of student William Cranswick, who died after being knocked unconscious in a game of bullrush at the Fitz following a drinking session in which he and three mates were buying bourbon and cokes in trays of 16. They had bought six such trays. William’s parents told the paper, not surprisingly, that they were pleased the pub was closing.

I found the admiring tone of the story disconcerting. To acknowledge that a minority of New Zealanders like to drink themselves insensible is one thing; to celebrate it as an example of hard-case Kiwi male culture is another.

Ironically, the story appeared only days after the Dom Post carried a front-page report and accompanying feature story on the medical and social costs of excessive drinking. Among other things, that report quoted drug and alcohol counsellor Roger Brooking as saying 10 percent of New Zealand drinkers get through nearly half of all alcohol consumed. These are precisely the sort of problem drinkers who patronise irresponsibly managed pubs like the Fitz.

Pubs that encourage excessive consumption, as the Fitz did, play into the hands of the New Puritans who think all drinking is wicked. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the solutions these activists tirelessly lobby for wouldn’t just target the pathetic minority who habitually drink to excess; they would very likely penalise all those who drink in moderation.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Kiwi Diaspora

There was a thoughtful piece by Simon Upton in today’s Dominion Post (actually, all Upton’s pieces are thoughtful) on the Kiwi Diaspora. He estimated that as many as one million New Zealanders now live abroad, a point the National Party hammered during the election campaign as proof of New Zealand’s economic decline. I read somewhere recently that only Ireland has a greater proportion of its population living elsewhere.

“Read the Christmas letters of almost any middle-class New Zealand family,” Upton wrote, “and the exploits of their emigrant children will be proudly recounted.” His column would have resonated with many New Zealand parents who are now resigned to their offspring living overseas, and whose pride in their children’s achievements is offset by anxiety about the possibility of them never coming back.

In my own case, I have a son in Australia and another in California. I would love them both to be in New Zealand but I can’t see any chance of it happening in the foreseeable future. (Fortunately I have two daughters still in Wellington to look after their father as he descends gently into senility, a process that both would argue is already well advanced).

I look around my whanau and see similar situations elsewhere. Two of my older brother’s three daughters are in Melbourne. One of my nephews is on an extended trip abroad and when he met up with my son in California, both agreed there was little to attract them back to Enzed.

On my wife’s side of the family, two more nephews are overseas – one in Switzerland, where he has family connections, and the other in England, where he and his wife revel in the travel opportunities presented by close proximity to Europe.

We used to reassure ourselves that this was just a phase all young New Zealanders went through – their OE – but that once they were ready to settle down and raise a family, they would be lured home. Now we’re not so sure. As Upton put it: “To date we have comforted ourselves with the (perfectly valid) observation that young people need to get out and experience the world; and that they will return eventually, bringing with them experience and global fluency that are vital if we are to have any hope of keeping up with the world’s leaders. The only trouble is that they don’t tend to return in sufficient numbers and we don’t keep abreast with leading-edge economies.”

The ramifications don’t bear thinking about. As Upton says, “Each of these bright young emigrants represents lost intellectual horsepower to the government, business and community.” The bleak implication is that the ones left behind will be those who are too old, too lazy, too unskilled or too lacking in ambition to make it in the competitive economies overseas.

That’s an unduly pessimistic assumption, of course, because many skilled and talented young New Zealanders (I dislike that term “Kiwis”) do choose to stay put or return home. Yet the fact remains that we’re bleeding. Recent figures show that more than 47,000 people left New Zealand for Australia on a permanent or long-term basis in the year ended September – hardly surprising when pay rates across the Tasman are estimated as being between 25 and 40 percent higher. Many of those emigrants were skilled workers, exacerbating a skills shortage that is steadily gnawing away at the productive base of the New Zealand economy.

Unless I misread him, Upton seemed resigned to the inevitability of this process continuing, citing New Zealand’s isolation and small population base. “A big population confers a depth and variety of skills, anonymity and constant competitive learning that will always be denied a very isolated community. The expats I run across … have found their niche in societies that offer more in human terms than ours ever can.” But I don’t think we can afford to be so fatalistic, which is why the new government must follow through on its election rhetoric and work at building an economy that will offer more to our best and brightest.

On this note, it was interesting to read former BNZ chairman Kerry McDonald’s scathing comments – also in today’s Dom Post – about Labour’s management of the economy during the past nine years. McDonald described it as an “absolute disaster”.

He told James Weir, the Dom Post’s business editor, that the past decade of growth was a chance to address productivity and international competitiveness, encourage a strong export sector and restructure the tax system. “Instead we went in the other direction and grew the state sector, increased taxes on businesses and introduced myriad new regulations. We absolutely knocked the stuffing out of the private sector.”

This can’t simply be dismissed as ideological grumbling. McDonald is a former head of the Institute of Economic Research and a respected economist. His comments pinpoint the tragic wasted opportunities of the Labour years – and also reveal how clever Labour propagandists were in convincing people that the economy was roaring along like a freight train when in fact the current account deficit was climbing to an unsustainable level and the export sector, on which New Zealand ultimately depends, was falling woefully short of its potential.

Tony the Terminator strikes again

Earlier this week, Radio New Zealand’s Midday Report broadcast an item about a Napier judge who packed a man off to the cells for making a hand signal to a gang member in the dock.

Remarking that he wasn’t going to have his courtroom turned into a circus by clowns, the judge remanded the man for 24 hours for contempt.

You didn’t have to be clairvoyant to work out, even before his name was mentioned, that this must be Judge Tony “The Terminator” Adeane, already famous for jailing taggers.

Judge Adeane strikes me as a throwback to the authoritarian judges of the past, but perhaps a bit of shock treatment is what’s needed to discourage the loutish behaviour now commonplace in the courts.

There have been other encouraging signs of a collective stiffening of the judicial spine. Only last week, Southland judge Dominic Flatley sent a teenage defendant home to get changed when she appeared on a drink-driving charge wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “Miss Wasted”.

One of the defining features of the sixties generation was its rejection of authority. I was as enthusiastic about this as anyone, but there are some institutions that can’t function properly without respect for authority. The armed forces are one and the courts are another.

As a cadet reporter I covered the Magistrate’s Court in Wellington, where there was zero tolerance of bad behaviour. Ben Scully was a famously tough magistrate alongside whom Captain Bligh would have looked a sickly liberal. A choleric glare from Scully was enough to silence the most unruly public gallery, since he gave the impression that nothing made him happier than to send a busload of miscreants off to Mount Crawford before morning tea.

He would have loved nothing more than for some rebarbative felon to appear in the dock wearing a hoodie, chewing gum and slouching. It would have made his day.

Even relatively gentle beaks of the time, like J A Wicks and Sir Desmond Sullivan, would come down hard on anyone who dared trifle with the court’s dignity. Courtroom antics that are now almost routine – such as offensive and menacing gestures, shouts and abuse, clapping, cheering and macho posturing – were unheard of.

The courts dispense justice on behalf of the people and are entitled to insist on decorum. It’s not just a matter of a pompous, bewigged poo-bah on the bench demanding that lesser beings bow and scrape before him; it’s a question of proper respect for the institutions of justice. Not for the first time, I find myself applauding Judge Adeane for his uncompromising, “clap ’em in irons” approach.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The effrontery of Caroline Evers-Swindell

(Published Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 10).

That cheeky Caroline Evers-Swindell! Just who does she think she is?

Somewhere near the 40-kilometre mark on the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge two weekends ago, the Olympic gold medal-winning rower had the nerve to pass me.

I wasn’t about to tolerate this affront. On the next downhill stretch, I overtook her at speed.

Alas, my moment of glory was brief. As soon as we hit the next climb, she passed me again.

That was the last I saw of her. She finished 2363rd in a field of 4764 riders, completing the 160km course in 5 hour and 44 minutes. I took exactly an hour longer and came 3747th.

Fleetingly getting the jump on an Olympic gold medallist – albeit going downhill, and probably with a slight tail wind – was about as good as it got for me. I had entered the event with the aim of bettering what I considered to be a poor performance last time, in 2003, when I got around the lake in 6 hr 30 min.

It wasn’t to be, but at least I achieved my other objectives. These were, in order of priority: (1) to complete the event; (2) to finish without mishap (a previous round-Taupo ride, in 1996, ended with me being carted to hospital with a broken collarbone following an accident caused by my own recklessness); and (3) to ride the entire Hatepe Hill.

Riders hit the Hatepe Hill 30 kilometres from the finish. In a fast-moving car you barely notice it, but on a bike, after several hours’ riding, it can be a killer climb. Part of it is psychological: it’s a long, straight hill that gets steeper as you approach the top. You can see it stretching out in front of you, without so much as a single bend to relieve the oppressiveness.

In 2003, to my lasting shame, I walked the last two or three hundred metres of the Hatepe Hill. This time, at least, I got to the top without dismounting.

So that was my Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge for 2008. It was the seventh or eighth time I’d taken part (I’ve lost count), and not my most distinguished effort.

While it would be nice to excuse my indifferent performance on the basis of my age, it won’t wash. Several of my contemporaries completed the event in just over five hours and Gary Ulmer, father of Sarah, did it in a blistering 4 hrs 28 min – at the age of 70.

But what an event. Dutch immigrant and Taupo resident Walter de Bont started the annual round-the-lake ride in 1977, persuading 25 other cycling enthusiasts to join him. This year 10,500 cyclists took part, taking over the town for the weekend and pumping millions into the local economy.

It attracts riders from several countries, along with an increasing number of “name” competitors, including several notables from sports other than cycling.

Evers-Swindell wasn’t the only famous rower taking part. Rob and Sonia Waddell scorched around the course in 4 hrs 22 min, Sonia finishing first in her age group. Among other finishers I noted the names of former All Black skipper Buck Shelford, Olympic yachtsman Hamish Pepper, former Sports Minister Trevor Mallard and television host Mary Lambie (who recorded an impressive time of 6 hr 10 min despite stopping for a broken chain).

Not all the 10,500 cyclists ride the full 160 km course. Over the years multiple spin-off events have evolved, including a relay (teams of two riding 80 km each, or four riding 40 km each) and, at the other end of the endurance scale, maxi-enduro (640 km) and enduro (320 km) rides. I suspect it’s a condition of entry for these latter two events that an EEG prior to the race must show no trace whatsoever of brain activity.

The organisation required for an event of such logistical complexity, calling for thousands of bikes and riders to be ferried to the relay changeover points and back to Taupo afterwards, beggars belief. But it all seems to happen flawlessly.

As the event has grown, so it has inevitably become slicker and more commercial. The corporate sponsors seemed more intrusive this year than on previous occasions, but I guess that’s the price you pay for a huge event that everyone wants to be involved in.

Fortunately, out on the course, where it counts, not much has changed. There’s still the same camaraderie among the riders, at least among the plodders where I compete.

The key to a long event like this is to spend as much time as possible riding in a bunch, or peloton. Riding in company helps keeps riders’ spirits up, but there’s much more to it than that. It’s calculated that cyclists save up to 30 percent of their energy riding in a group because the mass is more efficient than the individual. The riders at the front of the bunch overcome the wind resistance – you have to experience this to understand how important it is – and everyone takes a turn leading the bunch, at least in theory.

The disadvantage of riding in a tightly packed bunch, of course, is that if one rider has a momentary lapse of concentration, perhaps while reaching for a drink bottle or something to eat, several may be taken out in the resulting pile-up.

The dynamics of bunch riding are fascinating. Bunches form then break up as riders drop off the pace or crank up the speed, then re-form with an entirely different composition. The trick is to latch onto a bunch that’s going at just the right speed and hope it lasts, but it never does – at least not in the lower orders. I’m resigned to spending long periods on my own, which at least has the advantage that I can admire the scenery.

As you will have gathered, I’m pretty impressed with this event. My only serious concern is that every time I take part, it seems an army of malevolent elves has added extra hills to the long stretch on the western side of the lake, between Taupo and Kuratau Junction. This is a matter I intend to take up with the organisers.

The child as a fashion accessory

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, December 9.)

WHO would want to be a small child in the 21st century? Virtually from the moment of birth you’d be given the message that other people’s needs take priority over yours.

Within hours of being born, you’re bundled out of hospital because the health system considers there are more important things to do with the health dollar than allow new mothers time to bond with their babies. Mother struggling with breast-feeding? No support at home? Tough. Out you go.

Before you’re a few months old you’re likely to find yourself being left at a crèche each morning so that Mum can go to work, because a relentlessly acquisitive, consumerist society has convinced a generation of parents that owning a flash house, driving a late-model car and pursuing a career are more important than raising their children.

At weekends, you’re liable to find yourself being dressed in cute designer-label clothes and dragged off to a trendy café where you’re expected to behave yourself patiently while your parents slurp latté and read the Sunday paper.

And on the rare occasions when you’re taken for a walk in a pushchair – or baby-buggy, to use the cutesy-wutesy name now preferred – you’re propelled toward a procession of bewildering, and possibly frightening, strangers.

The recent report of a Dundee University study that showed forward-facing pushchairs might impair children’s development shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.

When a small child is facing its parent there is constant interaction between the two. The Dundee study found, predictably, that this stimulated brain development. Conversely, the study concluded that babies facing away from the pusher could be “emotionally impoverished” and even suffer stress. The language is a bit melodramatic but the message is simple enough.

There are obvious practical reasons, too, why the rear-facing pushchair is preferable. It means that whoever’s pushing can see instantly if anything is wrong, such as the child choking or being dazzled by the sun, or a wasp landing on its face.

But the vagaries of fashion dictate that the forward-facing buggy is the way to go. Forward-facing pushchairs are now so prevalent that it’s hard to find an old-fashioned one in which the child faces the pusher.

I suspect the appeal of the forward-facing pushchair has more to do with the gratification of parents than with the comfort and wellbeing of the child.

Couples are delaying having children because their careers take priority. When they finally get around to it, they often behave as if this most basic biological feat is something no one has ever accomplished before.

The child then becomes an advertisement for the parents, a fashion accessory to be shown off for maximum advantage. This is accomplished far more effectively when the unfortunate infant is facing forward.

* * *

TWO Wairarapa women recently organised a litter cleanup in which an estimated 10 tonnes of rubbish was picked up from rural roads.

The forensic evidence pointing to the culprits responsible for this roadside detritus couldn’t be clearer. Discarded McDonald’s and KFC packaging predominates, along with beer cans, stubbies and alco-pop bottles.

The problem, of course, is that the slobs who get most of their nutritional intake from fast food, washed down with vile beverages like Lion Red, Red Bull or Woodstock bourbon-and-coke, are the very people most likely to thoughtlessly discard packaging, bottles and cans out the car window.

There exists an entire sub-class that is oblivious to the economic cost and aesthetic offence of the rubbish they leave behind.

What’s the answer? The Greenies want punitive taxes on the companies that produce the rubbish, but a better solution might be an old-fashioned one. The community can take matters into its own hands not by cleaning up the Neanderthals’ litter – that simply gives them licence to continue – but by showing its collective disapproval.

The litterers must be made to feel guilty every time they drop a beer can or Big Mac wrapper. Stop and glare at them. Encourage your children to point at them and ask loudly why they’re making a mess. Try suggesting politely to the litterers that they take their rubbish home. Being polite to such numbskulls may go against the grain, but getting angry and abusive just gives them an excuse to be abusive back.

Guilt and shame have become unfashionable emotions, but even the dimmest-witted, greasy-fingered KFC eater has a faint, residual trace of social conscience that can be activated. Tolerance of bad behaviour is the curse of the liberal sixties generation, and never more misplaced than when it comes to littering.

* * *

I HAVE been lobbying quietly but persistently for the broadcasting of Snoopy’s Christmas to be made a criminal offence and for a government bounty to be paid on all copies.

Once that’s achieved, the next step will be to persuade the United Nations to declare the playing of Snoopy’s Christmas a form of torture, marginally more subtle than waterboarding but no less cruel and unnatural. Readers will be kept informed of the progress of this campaign.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The 60s generation passes the baton (reluctantly)

First published by the New Zealand Centre for Political Research (

In the first party leaders’ debate on TV One during the election campaign, Newstalk ZB political editor Barry Soper tackled National leader John Key on the subject of the 1981 Springbok tour. He wanted to know what Key’s position had been.

You could almost hear the groans from thousands of living rooms, including my own. The tour was 27 years ago, for heaven’s sake; couldn’t we leave it alone? What possible relevance could it have in 2008?

Viewers aged under 40 would have been puzzled rather than exasperated. After all, who cared whether a young John Key (he would have been only 20) took part in protests against an ancient rugby tour?

I still think Soper’s question was silly, but in one sense it pinpointed a factor in the elections that seems largely to have escaped comment.

The 1981 Springbok tour was the high-water mark of the protest era in New Zealand. For those who opposed the tour, it was as much the defining event of their generation as Gallipoli and the Great Depression had been for their grandparents and parents. If you wanted to be cruel, you could say that for many of the protesters it was the only time in their life that they did something exciting and vaguely dangerous.

But more than that, 1981 was the ultimate expression of much that the rebellious, university-educated, baby-boomer generation stood for. It was a significant factor in the momentous political changing of the guard that occurred three years later. With the defeat of Robert Muldoon in 1984, the baby-boomer liberals moved from the streets, where they had so recently been bloodied by police batons, into the halls of power.

Soper, like me, is a member of that baby-boomer protest generation. I wouldn’t have a clue what his position was on the tour, and in any case it’s not relevant. But clearly the tour still resonated with him as a sort of political litmus test.

Moreover, he obviously didn’t think he was alone in wanting to know what Key’s attitude had been, and he may well have been right. To the thousands of liberal baby-boomers who still thrill to the memory of matching through the streets chanting “amandla awethu” (“power to the people”), what Key thought about rugby and apartheid may well have been a matter of some significance.

Key’s answer to Soper’s question – that he couldn’t really recall what he thought about the tour, because he was preoccupied pursuing the young woman who is now his wife – would have brought cries of disbelief and denunciation from veterans of the protest movement. How could anyone presuming to run for the highest office in the land not have had a firm view about the 1981 tour? And even worse, how could Key have considered it so unimportant that he couldn’t even remember what his view was? In the theology of the earnest, middle-class liberals who led the opposition to apartheid, this was tantamount to heresy.

But the brutal truth is that Key represents a generation for whom the tour didn’t matter, and matters even less in 2008. Now he’s prime minister, and the post-war liberals who have called many of the shots politically for the past 24 years are going to have to get used to it.

The left-leaning baby-boomers who helped keep Labour in power for nine years, and who watched with mounting despair in their artfully restored inner-suburban villas as the results came in on election night, are having to come to terms with the unpleasant fact that “their” people – of whom Helen Clark is the embodiment – are no longer in control. The baton has been passed to a new generation with quite different values and attitudes.

In that respect, Soper’s question identified a symbolic turning point, even if that wasn’t its purpose. The baby-boomers have had their shot at power and now it’s someone else’s turn.

I’m not a political scientist and I don’t “do” demographics, but the population statistics must surely show that the balance of electoral power has shifted, as it had to do, from my generation to generations X and Y – those born from the mid-60s on.

Admittedly these terms need to be treated with caution. “Baby-boomer” is the sociological term of convenience for people of my generation but in many ways it is unsatisfactory. I prefer to call it the sixties generation, a broader and looser description yet in many ways more accurate. My reasoning is that the 1960s – the era of the protest movement and student radicalism, hippiedom, drugs, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, sexual liberation (the pill) and Carnaby Street fashion – was the decade that encapsulated the profound political, cultural and ideological shifts of the time.

Technically the baby-boomer generation consists of those born between 1946 and 1964, but there were people born outside that era who exemplified baby-boomer values and people born within that era who do not. I know many people now aged in their late 60s and early 70s – too old, strictly speaking, to be baby-boomers – whose political views were shaped not in the dreary, prosperous and conformist 1950s but in the turbulent and exhilarating 1960s.

David Lange, for example, was born in 1942 but was unarguably a baby-boomer in terms of his politics. He was an idealist and a modern social democrat. Unlike the political leaders of the preceding generation, such as Holyoake, Kirk and Muldoon, he had the benefit of a free university education that was crucial in shaping his liberal attitudes.

Key was born in 1961, technically still well within baby-boomer parameters, and like Lange he went to university. But his formative experiences occurred during the 1980s, an era when many of the 1960s-era values so cherished by the liberal baby-boomers were being upended by Rogernomics.

That’s another thing the discombobulated baby-boomers will have to get used to. If it’s an article of faith among the liberal left that the 1981 protest movement was an heroic rejection of racism and authoritarianism, then it’s equally an article of faith that the economic reforms that came later in the 1980s were a betrayal of the egalitarian, social-democratic values that defined “their” New Zealand. But to all intents and purposes, people of Key’s generation have experienced only the post-Rogernomics New Zealand.

To them, the programme of deregulation, liberalisation and asset sales that horrified the liberal left (and rescued a moribund economy in the nick of time) would seem unremarkable. It’s all they have known. Grim reminders of the supposed treachery of the Douglas-Prebble-Bassett cabal – such a potent element of liberal-left folklore – are largely lost on Generation X-ers.

The extent of this generational shift is illustrated by the fact that Helen Clark in her 20s was immersed in politics (she was active in Labour’s famous Princes St branch) and taking part in protests against the Vietnam War while Key, at an equivalent age, was well on his way to making his first millions with Elders Merchant Finance. Only 11 years separate them in age but in reality the gap is infinitely wider.

So now the ageing liberal left faces the dismaying prospect of a future in which “their” leaders, the spokespeople for the sixties generation, are doomed to become yesterday’s men and women, since it seems unlikely that the reliable but unexciting Phil Goff (another baby-boomer) will be anything more than an interim Labour leader, elected to tide things over while the talented and ambitious young thrusters, such as David Cunliffe and Darren Hughes, jockey to become the next Clark.

All this has caused much wringing of hands since the election, but it’s no bad thing. The veterans of the Vietnam and apartheid protests may have convinced themselves they have a monopoly on idealism and political morality, but an honest stocktake of the baby-boomer era would show that in many ways we’ve stuffed things up spectacularly.

The sixties generation were a cosseted lot, arguably the most affluent and indulged generation in history. They responded to their good fortune by rejecting the values of their parents and rebelling against authority and conformity.

All this was very liberating, but it came at an enormous cost. A lot of babies were thrown out with the bathwater. My generation may have achieved unprecedented personal freedom, but it also created a legacy of social and family breakdown, crime, drug abuse and unhappiness on a tragic scale. John Key’s mob can’t do much worse.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Fish and chips with a Chinese accent

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 26.)

A profound socio-culinary change has passed almost unremarked in New Zealand. I was reminded of it by a recent news item announcing the result of a contest to find New Zealand’s top fish and chip shop.

The honour went to a takeaway outlet named So Fine Seafoods, in the Hutt Valley suburb of Avalon. But what caught my eye were the names of the proprietors: Anthony Cho and Jian Huan Zhou.

Fish and chips have been an essential part of New Zealand’s culinary traditions for as long as anyone can remember. They were among the items of cultural baggage that working-class British migrants brought with them in the 19th century. In fact fish and chips are one of the few notable contributions the British have made to international cuisine, along with the glorious meat pie.

But an interesting happened to fish and chips in New Zealand. They were hijacked by people of Mediterranean origin.

In the New Zealand of my childhood, most fish and chip shops were owned by Greeks, Dalmatians or Italians, all of whom showed a natural aptitude for the dish.

I suppose these migrant groups took to cooking fish and chips because they were accustomed to a fish diet in their home countries. My guess is that they started out by catching and selling fish – this was certainly true of the Italian community in Wellington, who dominated the fishing trade – and progressed naturally to cooking it in batter and serving it with deep-fried chips, like the English.

So adept did these Mediterranean nationalities become at cooking “greasies”, as they were affectionately known, that I believe New Zealanders enjoyed the best fish and chips in the world – better by far, certainly, than any I have eaten in the UK or anywhere else.

In my own home town in Hawke’s Bay, we had two fish and chip shops. One was owned by Jack Radonich and the other by Mark Ujdur. They were directly opposite each other in the main street.

Back then we called such people Yugoslavians, which was a bit of a misnomer. They were more correctly called Dalmatians, from a coastal region of what is now Croatia. (At least “Yugoslavians” was more accurate than “Austrians”, which is what New Zealanders called them until the First World War, since they came from what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire.)

Jack Radonich and Mark Ujdur were probably from families that migrated to Northland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to dig for kauri gum. When the gum ran out, some of these people turned to winemaking (hence the many prominent wine companies of Dalmatian origin, such as Montana, Babich, Nobilo and Delegats). Others went into the fishing business (the names Vela and Simunovich may ring a bell) and some with more modest aspirations settled for fish and chip shops.

We favoured Jack Radonich over Mark Ujdur (which we pronounced You-jar). Being Catholics, and thus forbidden to eat meat on Fridays in those days, we were regular Friday night customers. This was one Catholic tradition which, despite widespread antagonism toward Catholics, had permeated the entire community. Friday night was fish-and-chip night for Protestants and Catholics alike.

Jack Radonich was a shy, gentle man with smiling eyes. His English wasn’t good – a raucous Kiwi offsider named Ted dealt with the customers – but his fish and chips were more consistent than his rival’s. And if you were in the know, you could walk through the dining room and place your order in the kitchen out the back where Jack did the cooking, while lesser beings waited patiently at the counter in the front of the shop.

It’s a tribute to the staying power of fish and chips that decades after the Pope waived the rule about not eating meat on Fridays, they are still a Friday-night tradition for many New Zealand families. What’s even more impressive is that they have survived in the face of fierce competition from fast foods that in my childhood weren’t even heard of, such as KFC, pizza, kebabs, Asian takeaways and the ubiquitous McDonald’s.

But to get back to my starting point, the other significant development in the fast-food business, besides its rampant proliferation, is that the Chinese have finally learned how to cook fish and chips.

It took some time. In the 1970s and ’80s I would avoid Chinese fish and chip shops. Chinese cuisine may be among the most delectable and varied in the world – I often think if I had to choose one ethnic cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it would be Cantonese – but their skills didn’t seem to lend themselves to a culinary style as foreign as fish and chips. Their fish too often seemed excessively fatty or stale, their chips soggy. The Greeks, Dalmatians and Italians remained the masters.

My son and I once deduced, from intensive research, that your chances of getting good fish and chips were best if they came from a shop that was owned by one of the above ethnic groups and had blue waves painted on the shop window. Don’t laugh – the blue-waves rule proved a pretty reliable guide.

But the Chinese are nothing if not adaptable. Their ability to observe and learn has made their country an economic powerhouse. And so it was probably inevitable that they would eventually get the hang of traditional Kiwi greasies.

I haven’t tried the fish and chips from the award-winning So Fine Seafoods. In fact I don’t eat a lot of fish and chips these days, much as I love them. But in Wellington the other night I stopped, as I have done several times before, at a Chinese-owned fish and chip shop in Molesworth St, just up from Parliament.

It’s impeccably clean and it’s run with an efficiency that Jack Radonich would have gazed at with astonishment. But most important of all, it makes fantastic fish and chips – fresh, crisp and irresistible.

If I were a Greek, Dalmatian or Italian fish and chip shop proprietor, I’d be seriously worried. At the very least, I’d be painting blue waves on the front window.