Saturday, April 25, 2009

On the road

I would like to apologise for, and explain, the erratic (or perhaps I should say more erratic than normal) updating of this blog in recent weeks. I have been on the road, literally, in the US and for much of that time, have been unable to get an Internet connection. Normal service will resume in due course, for better or for worse. I hope I'll also be able, eventually, to produce something explaining what I've been doing here.

In praise of aerial topdressing

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 15.)

Driving through the Wairarapa back country recently, I saw a truck loading superphosphate into a topdressing plane in a paddock beside the road. I just had to stop and watch.

I’m no aviation enthusiast, but something about aerial topdressing fascinates me. It’s partly the skill of the pilots, partly the fact that it’s such a distinctive element of our rural heritage.

New Zealand pioneered aerial topdressing, using former World War II pilots to drop fertiliser in otherwise inaccessible places. It was a job that called on all their aviation skills. They flew low over hair-raising terrain and the death toll was high, but their work transformed vast areas of previously unproductive land into pasture.

Topdressing is part of the same number-eight wire tradition that gave us the electric fence and the Hamilton jetboat. All were New Zealand innovations that caught on around the world.

Waikato farmer Bill Gallagher made his first electric fence in the 1930s. The Hamilton-based company he founded is now an international leader in the design and manufacture of high-tech animal control systems.

Sir William Hamilton – another farmer, this time from South Canterbury – ingeniously adapted the principle of jet propulsion to boats, realising it would be the ideal way to navigate the shallow, fast-flowing rivers of the Mackenzie Country. His ideas have been adopted worldwide in craft ranging from jet skis to coastguard and naval vessels.

Such men represented something of a golden era in New Zealand – a time when resourceful and imaginative individuals, often with little formal education, made significant contributions to the country’s economic development.

How much less efficient farming would have been without the invention of a fence that could be picked up and shifted around, providing farmers with previously unimagined flexibility; and how different the vibrant tourist industry would seem without jet boats operating on our spectacular rivers and lakes.

Topdressing’s economic impact has been huge too. I see from a comprehensive entry in Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, that a John Chaytor of Wairoa is credited with the first use of aerial means to enhance agricultural productivity. In 1906, he spread seed from a tethered hot air balloon.

By the 1920s, the Americans were using planes for crop dusting. (Any Alfred Hitchcock fan knows about American crop dusting from the famous scene in North By Northwest, in which Cary Grant is attacked by a crop dusting plane and hides in a cornfield.)

But it was New Zealand that pioneered the application of fertiliser from the air. To use a phrase from crime novels, it had both the motive (large areas of the central North Island were deficient in trace minerals but too hilly to fertilise using trucks or tractors) and the opportunity (a lot of ex-RNZAF pilots were keen to apply their flying skills in civilian life, and there were war surplus planes available for conversion).

Private farmers acting on their own initiative were among the pioneers of agricultural aviation but the government, recognising the potential economic benefits, got behind it too.

I was intrigued to read that in 1949 one Stan Quill, a WWII flying veteran whose son was a friend of mine at school nearly 20 years later, was appointed head of an RNZAF research and development wing with the task of carrying out topdressing trials. Those trials culminated in a demonstration drop before an audience of farmers and reporters near Masterton, where I’m writing this.

The 1950s wool boom, triggered by the demand for warm uniforms for troops serving in the bitter cold of the Korean War, came along just at the right time, providing farmers with surplus capital that they spent on fertiliser and other improvements. By 1958, according to Wikipedia, there were 73 aerial topdressing firms flying 279 aircraft.

I grew up in a country town during that period and the noise of topdressing planes was part of the soundtrack of my childhood. There was a farm airstrip just a few hundred yards along the road from our house where planes would land on a slight uphill gradient and take off using the downhill slope to gain momentum.

All manner of aircraft were adapted for topdressing – puny Tiger Moths, lumbering twin-engined Bristol Freighters, Lockheed Lodestars and DC3s, De Havilland Beavers, noisy Ceres (a civilian adaptation of the air force Harvard) and, of course, the ubiquitous New Zealand-built Fletchers.

The Fletcher was purpose-built for flying in difficult hill country, often operating off tiny airstrips fiendishly sited on wind-swept ridges and nasty-looking spurs – anywhere there was a few metres of land that was more or less flat.

Originally designed in the US as a short-takeoff military attack aircraft called the Defender, the Fletcher was modified for topdressing purposes and in time became, to all intents and purposes, a New Zealand aircraft. From 1961, it was made in Hamilton.

The Cresco, direct descendant of the Fletcher, is a Kiwi success story that deserves greater recognition. It’s bigger than the old Fletcher and has a much more powerful turbo-prop engine, but with the same unmistakeable buzz-saw engine note.

When I see these planes weaving low through hills and gullies, I can’t help stopping to watch. Once, driving through a narrow gully on a winding gravel road in a remote part of the King Country, I damn near wet myself when a Cresco suddenly appeared under full power only metres above my head.

Aerial topdressing peaked in the mid-1960s. With the wisdom of hindsight, we can now see that it had some adverse effects. One was fertiliser runoff, but perhaps a more damaging consequence was that some steep back country was turned into pasture when it would have been better used for forestry, thus avoiding erosion.

Still, we can’t – and shouldn’t – overlook the contribution aerial topdressing made to our most important industry.

Now that I’m living in a country town again, I often see and hear topdressing planes flying out at first light and heading back to base at dusk. They are the bookends of the rural day.

It’s a good sight – a sign that farmers are spending money. When topdressing planes are mothballed because farmers can’t afford to buy fertiliser, as happened in the 1980s, we should all start to worry. We forget too easily that much of this country’s wealth still comes from the land.

An alternative view of the Crete campaign

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, April 14.)

ANZAC DAY approaches, and with it the opportunity to hear once more the familiar, comforting stories of Kiwi valour and resourcefulness on the battlefields of the two world wars.

We are brought up on accounts of heroism in the face of insuperable odds and of pride and glory even in defeat. At Gallipoli, New Zealand troops made the best of an impossible situation; on Crete, they acquitted themselves with honour against a vastly superior enemy.

At least, that’s the conventional wisdom. But I recently came across a publication that presented a very different perspective on the 1941 battle for Crete, in which nearly 4000 New Zealand soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

Published 20 years ago, former soldier Peter Winter’s book Expendable, subtitled The Crete Campaign – A Front-Line View, is a short but pithy account of the fighting.

It presents a vivid picture of the airborne German invasion and the desperate, close-quarters combat that raged in the olive groves as ill-equipped New Zealand forces grappled with a technologically superior enemy. But what is most striking is the author’s low opinion – contempt is not too strong a word – of the New Zealand military leadership.

Far from portraying the fight for Crete as a noble struggle against a crushingly superior opponent, Winter argues that the Germans could have been beaten had the New Zealand leadership been more imaginative and decisive.

He describes a “muddling” battle in which the island’s defenders squandered the advantage of superior numbers and prior knowledge of where and when the attack was coming. German paratroopers landed virtually unchallenged on ground that New Zealand troops had obligingly vacated only shortly before, Winter wrote.

According to the author, the New Zealand commanders had a World War One mentality and a stubborn faith in the bayonet charge, a tactic that was ineffectual against modern German weaponry. Time and again, he wrote, opportunities were lost to strike back at a frightened and demoralised enemy.

Winter reminds us that the British war historian Alan Clark accused Freyberg and Kippenberger, the New Zealand commanders, of constantly under-rating the fighting power of their own men.

Winter is particularly scathing about Freyberg, whom he describes as a brave but unimaginative man, “dull, pompous and condescending”.

Some of the most powerful passages in the book describe the humiliation and degradation of the New Zealanders’ retreat across the mountainous spine of the island – a retreat that Freyberg had vowed would never happen.

Reading this book came as a shock to one who, like most New Zealanders, grew up regarding Freyberg as a hero.

No doubt in every war there are rank-and-file soldiers who are bitter about their commanding officers and think they could have done better, and Winter’s opinion of Freyberg and Kippenberger certainly wouldn’t have been enhanced by the four years he spent in a German POW camp after being left behind during the disorderly evacuation from Crete.

But it’s a powerfully written book (Winter was a journalist in civilian life) and too good to be dismissed as mere disaffected griping. We need iconoclastic works like this to provide some balance to the politically convenient “official” record.

* * *

IT HAS BECOME almost routine for people convicted of hideous crimes to appeal. In most cases these appeals are funded by that perpetually generous mug, the taxpayer, through an out-of-control legal aid scheme, now thankfully under review.

A radio talkback caller recently made the excellent suggestion that there should be an element of risk attached to such appeals so that criminals and their lawyers think twice before committing courts to the time and expense involved.

The law could be changed so that if an appeal fails, an extra term of imprisonment automatically gets added to the sentence already imposed. That might serve as a deterrent to thugs and lawyers who seek to take advantage of an indulgent judicial system and legal aid scheme.

Former ACT MP and lawyer Stephen Franks has urged such a reform for years and tried in 2002 to get it through Parliament. Perhaps it’s time for someone else to pick up the baton.

* * *

AM I THE only person who gets irritated by references in the media to supposed celebrities whom I’ve never heard of?

By definition a celebrity is someone who is known. But to qualify for the term these days, all that’s necessary is to have been seen on television. It doesn’t matter how obscure the programme, how fleeting the appearance or how inconsequential the role.

Using the yardstick applied by women’s magazines and gossip columnists, it seems you’re a certified celebrity if you were in an elimination round of Dancing With the Stars and you’re a solid gold A-lister if you once presented the weather on Alt-TV’s breakfast show, even if only your immediate family was watching at the time.

Metro magazine founder Warwick Roger liked to refer to such people as famous for being well-known, while the British satirical magazine Private Eye called them legends in their own lunchtime.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

It's a war out there - but it needn't be

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 1.)

There was an excellent letter to the editor in my local paper recently about the problems cyclists have with motorists.

If you’re a typical driver you may be tempted to stop reading at this point, thinking here’s yet another precious cyclist whining about cars. But hang on.

The interesting thing about this letter was that although written by a cyclist, its tone was unusually conciliatory.

The writer [Brendan O'Connor, who contributes very good film reviews to the Wairarapa News] acknowledged that most cyclists had stories of near-misses or inconsiderate behaviour by drivers, but went on to express his gratitude to “the majority [of motorists] who treat us with respect”.

He especially praised Fonterra tanker drivers, who are thick on the ground in my part of the country, and a local firm of agricultural contractors.

I endorse the letter-writer’s comments. I’m a cyclist too, and it disheartens me to see cyclists and motorists so frequently squaring off against each other.

All that’s required of either group is that they show a little respect and consideration for each other, but in public debate, if not on the road, they often behave like natural enemies for whom there can never be any common ground.

Certainly, cycling seems to be one of those issues that pushes all the wrong buttons. I was intrigued a few months ago to hear Wellington journalist and commentator John Bishop, normally a man of carefully considered opinions, sounding off about bike riders during Jim Mora’s afternoon radio programme.

Bishop accused cyclists of flouting the law – for example, running red lights, riding on footpaths and not wearing helmets – and of impeding traffic by riding in the middle of lanes.

He didn’t want to run them over, he said, but he found it hard not to. Cyclists were arrogant and a menace, and should be banned from main roads.

This was not the mild-mannered John Bishop I knew, but the fact that he got so agitated was proof that there’s an issue here. Many listeners were probably nodding their heads in agreement.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard these issues aired. A few months before, on the TV news, an Auckland city councillor vented his frustration about cyclists clogging Tamaki Drive, riding three or four abreast and failing to show consideration for motorists and pedestrians.

Is it true, then, that motorists and cyclists are locked in an unavoidable conflict? Are their interests really irreconcilable?

I consider myself qualified to comment since I’m a motorist as well as a cyclist, and aware of failings on both sides.

I’ve had a few near-misses with vehicles myself, mostly caused by poor judgment on the part of their drivers (and once, spectacularly, by my own carelessness) rather than any intent to annihilate me.

The most common problem is that motorists misjudge cyclists’ speed and turn across their path, wrongly thinking they have plenty of time to complete the manoeuvre without forcing the rider to brake or take evasive action.

But there have also been times when I’ve encountered sheer bloody-mindedness. A truck driver recently pulled out straight in front of me from a farm gateway, though he had seen me coming from some way off. Only days later an elderly man – in my experience, the most lethal category of driver – cut directly across my path as he emerged from a side road. As he passed in front of me, close enough to reach out and touch (punch?) through his open window, he gave me the blank look of someone who was brain-dead.

Had he said “sorry” or given an apologetic wave acknowledging he was at fault, I probably wouldn’t have minded too much. As it was, I’m not ashamed to admit I let rip with a flow of invective.

I also recall two occasions in Wellington when drivers – one a bus driver – seemed to go out of their way to cut me off and force me into the curb.

On the other hand, I’ve had the driver of a big truck-and-trailer unit give a blast on his air horn from a couple of hundred metres behind me on a narrow highway, just to warn me of his approach. Now that’s courtesy.

Now, what of cyclists’ attitudes? I occasionally see them unnecessarily riding two abreast at a sedate pace in the middle of a traffic lane when they could have cycled single-file or at least kept further to the left. That’s just as bloody-minded as the motorists’ behaviour described above.

Some cyclists take the view that because the law allows them to ride two abreast, then they will, regardless of whether they need to. Such attitudes do nothing to promote goodwill between the two classes of road user.

It’s useful here to distinguish between different sub-species of cyclist. There’s cyclistus zealotus – typically a Greenie who is ideologically committed to cycling as a way of life, detests motor vehicles and will assert his or her right to occupy road space because it’s a matter of saving the planet.

Then there’s cyclistus pelotonus, who – unlike the Greenie – drives a car most of the time (and often an expensive one at that) but at weekends likes to dress up in lycra, climb on a flash racing bike and join his or her cycling mates in a peloton – that’s French for a bunch of riders – on a group ride.

These people, who are generally not too concerned about saving the planet, assert their right to occupy a lot of road space because … well, because there’s a big group of them, they’re often soaked with testosterone and they know motorists will make way because no one wants to end up in court charged with careless driving causing death.

Cyclistus pelotonus has a remarkable ability to irritate non-cyclists even when not on the road. A friend of mine bridles at the way they arrogantly swagger (his words) into the caf├ęs they occasionally stop at on their rides.

I can afford to sound self-righteous here because I belong to a third sub-species, cyclistus solitarius. I ride on my own because I value the solitude and the silence. Because I don’t have any companions to make conversation with, I can keep well to the left and not hold anyone up.

If I’m on a narrow road approaching a blind bend and I sense a car stuck behind me, I signal as soon as soon as it’s safe for the car to overtake. And when motorists behave considerately toward me, as they often do, I acknowledge it with a wave.

At the risk of sounding like a goody two-shoes, I believe cyclists who show respect and consideration for motorists generally get it in return, and vice-versa.

Playing along with the fascinisti of style

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, March 31.)

THERE CAN be few expressions more irritating than the phrase “fashion crime”, as used recently by the clothing designer who created a range of T-shirts based on the home-knitted jerseys worn by David Bain at the time of his original trial for murder.

Robert Ewan, criticised for capitalising on a tragic event, told journalists he wanted only to comment on – for which read “make fun of” – David Bain’s “crime of fashion”. But the real criminals are people who use this offensive term, which implies the existence of a fashion priesthood to whom we all anxiously look for guidance on what we should be wearing.

We frequently hear the term “fashionista” used to describe these style-meisters but perhaps fascinista would be more appropriate, given their obvious intolerance of people who dare to dress in a non-approved manner.

Sadly the media often buy into this nonsense. A One News reporter played along with Ewan by referring to Bain’s “notorious” jerseys. This assumes the entire populace is party to a running in-joke.

I was reminded of the snooty disdain with which some political journalists condemned former prime minister David Lange’s first wife Naomi because of her fondness for cardigans. It’s surprising how easily petty snobbishness can assert itself in a supposedly egalitarian country.

The phrase “fashion victim” is a different matter. Now there’s an expression that has some validity, especially when applied to the countless men and women who so lack confidence in their own taste that they allow themselves to be enslaved by whatever is currently deemed “cool” (which of course can never be cool again next year, meaning that the dictators of style laugh all the way to the bank).

Having said all that, I must confess I quite liked Ewan’s T-shirts.

* * *

IN MY peregrinations around the Wairarapa I see a lot of big, shiny new buses. But I have yet to see one carrying more than a handful of passengers and many are empty, save for a lonely driver.

These buses have appeared on the roads over the past year or two because the Greater Wellington Regional Council is determined to promote greater use of public transport, whether people want it or not.

The Wairarapa, unlike Wellington, has virtually no history of public transport patronage. It’s a rural area where people are accustomed to getting around under their own steam.

I understand this was pointed out to council officials, but they chose to ignore the advice. Reality must not be allowed to intrude on the utopian visions of the planners and bureaucrats.

So the buses resolutely trundle back and forth, at God knows what cost to the ratepayers and taxpayers who subsidise them. I have yet to count more than five passengers; more often there are two or three, or none at all.

You’d think the council would at least consider downsizing from full-sized buses to the cute little ones that are used on Wellington and Hutt feeder routes. Then the low level of patronage wouldn’t be quite so painfully obvious.

* * *

I NOTE that the international insurance group that used to be called Norwich Union is now called Aviva. This is another triumph for the fraudulent industry that has built up around rebranding.

Everyone knew what sort of business Norwich Union was. Aviva, on the other hand, could be anything – a fashion label, a cosmetics brand or a cute Toyota convertible.

The new name is meaningless. It is an invention, just like Kordia, Fonterra, Axa and all the other nonsensical corporate names created by branding consultants.

I suspect the costs of such a name change far outweigh the benefits, once all the downstream feeders – stationery and website designers, ad agencies, PR firms, printers et al – have shared the spoils.

I read recently that the Aviva rebranding campaign cost £9 million. For that money, you’d think they could at least have got bigger names than B-listers like Bruce Willis and Alice Cooper to promote the new name.

To make matters worse, rebrandings provide an excuse for advertising campaigns that drip with nauseating insincerity. A recent full-page ad for Aviva in a British magazine went like this:

“Financial companies are not exactly well known for putting their customers first. We know how frustrated that makes you, because we asked you. So we’re going to be making a few changes. This is not business as usual. This is a company being built around you.”

Aaaargh. Do they really think anyone believes this ingratiating bullshit?

* * *

HAS ANYONE else, ah, noticed that TV3 political editor Duncan, ah, Garner has taken to, ah, inserting the word “ah” between, ah, every few words in his, ah, live reports? Is this, ah, an affectation picked up from, ah, sports and racing, ah, commentators who are in the habit, ah, of doing the same thing? In our house he’s now referred to as Duncan-ah Garner.