Friday, July 24, 2009

We'll know who to blame when the wowser backlash hits

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, July 21.)

THERE could be few more unlovely cultural confluences than the one where boy racers meet binge drinking.

On its own, either phenomenon is ugly. Together they make a vile and lethal combination, as we saw in Invercargill a couple of weeks ago when a hotted-up Honda Civic slammed into a wall and three teenage lives were extinguished. According to the police, that made six boy-racer deaths so far this year in Southland alone.

Was alcohol a factor in the Invercargill crash? Well, the TV cameras showed what looked like a crushed Speight's carton in the boot of the wrecked car, and we know that alcohol occupies a place of honour in boy-racer culture.

This was confirmed by the young men’s tribute pages – replete with moronic phrases like “party on” and “go hard” – and by the inevitable roadside shrine at the scene of the crash, where friends placed bottles of alcopop and Tui in a perverse homage to the dead.

But these people are mere kids. Immaturity provides them with an excuse for indulging in maudlin sentimentality that romanticises sudden, violent death. Not so excusable is the role of adults in this continuing tragedy.

By that I mean people like the family spokesman at one of the Invercargill funeral services who wore a Tui hat and told the mourners to “keep cruising” and “party hard” before leading the congregation in a drinking song. What a clot.

Other adults may like to think they are safely distanced from the mayhem, but they cannot be entirely absolved of responsibility. Breweries and their advertising agencies continue to promote the booze culture while sheltering behind sanctimonious corporate statements promoting responsible drinking.

If I were on the board of Dominion Breweries, I don’t think I’d feel comfortable about Tui’s celebrated status among boy racers and binge drinkers.

Then there was the liquor entrepreneur Michael Erceg. When the tributes flowed following his death in a helicopter crash in 2005, people politely overlooked the fact that Erceg was behind the explosive growth in the sale of alcopops – “ready to drink” mixes that marketed alcohol in a form irresistible to teenage drinkers, and none more so than the insensible young women whom the police regularly scoop up from the footpaths in Courtenay Place.

Also culpable are well-meaning parents who look on while their children mark their passage to adulthood at 21st birthday parties by downing a yard glass, a tradition invariably accompanied by violent vomiting (and in one tragic case a couple of years ago, sudden death).

I could go on. There are idiot publicans who still think it’s a good idea to offer 50 crates of beer as a prize in a pub competition, and rugby players who promise to shout their teammates a keg if they win a big game.

Clearly, some people in the liquor business are not good at reading the signs. Largely because of public alarm over binge-drinking and alcohol-fuelled crime, the wowser lobby – which never really went away – is now collectively rubbing its hands at the prospect of the liquor laws being tightened up again after five decades of gradual liberalisation.

Those who favoured sensible relaxation of the liquor laws, in the belief it would ultimately lead to more civilised drinking, can only their shake their heads.

No one should be in any doubt about where the blame should lie if the current review of the liquor laws gives effect to a public backlash against excessive consumption. The promoters of the drink-to-get-pissed culture were too thick or too greedy, or both, to see it coming.

* * *

THIS Friday, July 24, is Montana Poetry Day, which seems an appropriate time to ask: what is poetry?

Much of what passes for contemporary poetry isn’t poetry at all. It’s prose, chopped up and arranged so as to suggest some sort of poetic structure. Punctuational gimmickry – which often means no punctuation at all – completes the artifice.

If it reads just like prose once you remove the contrived line breaks, then it isn’t poetry. Amy Brooke, a Nelson writer who frequently locks horns with the self-ordained priesthood that rules New Zealand’s incestuous literary scene, calls it “post-poetry”.

It’s an ironic twist that Sam Hunt’s mongrel verse, which once drove literary purists into a frenzy of denunciation, now looks positively Shakespearean alongside that of some more recent arrivals on the scene.

In the 1960s, “poets” hijacked rock and roll and almost succeeded in giving it a bad name. (“Hi, I’m Bob Dylan, and I’m taking this plane to a place where only people with PhDs in modern literature will pretend to know what my songs are about.”) Now they’re trying to do the same with poetry itself.

* * *

AMONG ALL the initiatives suggested for combating obesity, has anyone considered good old-fashioned shame?

Here’s an idea: install compulsory weighbridges at the entrances to all McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC outlets. The moment an overweight person sets foot on the threshold, klaxon alarms could sound and the words “Obese! Obese!” could start flashing in bright red lights.

No one’s freedom would be curtailed, since the customer would still be allowed to proceed to the counter to place his or her order. But what’s the bet they would slink away in shame, perhaps to enrol at the nearest gym.

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