Thursday, September 29, 2011

All that was missing was a gunrack

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 28.)

I am writing this column on a train. This is something I have never done before and probably will never have occasion to do again.

To be precise, I am on a train called the California Zephyr. We pulled out of Union Station, Chicago, at 2pm on a Wednesday and arrived at Denver, Colorado, at 8.45 the following morning, having covered 1670 kilometres.

Now we’re underway again, climbing west through the foothills of the Rockies. Our train ride will end in another 33 hours - assuming we keep to schedule - at Emeryville Station, near San Francisco, from where my wife and I will fly home to New Zealand.

By then we will have travelled nearly 4000 km on the California Zephyr. We originally intended to undertake the entire train tip in one hit, but couldn’t get a sleeping compartment and didn’t fancy sitting for 52 hours. So we broke the journey for a day and night in Denver before reboarding.

It’s now 9am on Friday and we won’t reach Emeryville till 4pm tomorrow. I have travelled in America before, and flown across it, but this train trip has given me a new appreciation of the country’s vastness.

Before boarding the California Zephyr in Chicago, we spent several weeks travelling in rental cars, covering about 5500 km through Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Michigan.

Americans we spoke to were appalled when we told them of the cities we intended to visit - places like El Paso, Texas (unfairly reputed to be one the most dangerous cities in the US, due to its proximity to the ultra-violent Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez), and Detroit, which has become a byword for crime, unemployment, drugs and urban decay (again, not entirely fairly; we enjoyed downtown Detroit and never felt unsafe).

“You’ll be seeing the armpit of America,” exclaimed the woman sitting next to us on our flight to Houston, our first destination. Certainly some of the towns on our itinerary are no tourist meccas, but I had my own reasons for wanting to see them - reasons which will become apparent if and when I finally get around to writing the book that has been gestating in my head for several years.

Along the way we have had some great experiences. Before flying to Texas we attended a memorable performance of the long-running radio show A Prairie Home Companion, recorded before an enthusiastic audience at a spectacular venue high in the hills above San Jose, California.

Just getting there was a quintessentially American experience. The rental car agency in the small town where we were staying couldn’t supply us with a car, so gave us a V8-powered Ford F-150 - the classic good ol' boys pickup truck - instead. All that was missing was a gun rack in the cab.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, we spent a Saturday night at Cain’s Ballroom, founded in 1934. Cain’s Ballroom was the home of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, the originators of a musical genre known as western swing, and the tradition has been kept alive by the current band at Cain’s, the Tulsa Playboys.

In Detroit I made a musical pilgrimage of a different sort - to the two modest houses at 2648 West Grand Boulevard where the great Motown soul hits of the 1960s were recorded. I stood in the recording studio, which has been preserved much as it was then, and marvelled at the prodigious outpouring of music that flowed from this claustrophobic basement before Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr ended the magic by relocating to Los Angeles.

In El Paso, we drank Dos Equis beer and ate burritos at Rosa’s Cantina, an unprepossessing bar on the outskirts of town that supposedly inspired the Marty Robbins cowboy song familiar to any New Zealander who ever listened to a 1960s radio request show.

At the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, we watched a succession of confident young men heroically tackle a 72-ounce steak. If they managed to finish it, their meal was free. None did. Gross? Yep, but very Texan.

There was lots more, of course, but it will have to wait for the book.

Now, after six weeks away, my wife and I are ready to go home. Travelling is a great adventure but it can also be tiring and stressful. Driving and navigating in a foreign country - especially one whose freeway system is as unforgiving as America’s - is a challenge, even when you think you’ve become accustomed to it.

On this trip, the latest of several we have made to the US, we used a GPS system for the first time. It certainly made navigating easier at times, to the point where I found myself wondering how we ever managed to find our way around without one.

But even the GPS was overwhelmed when we struck manically busy freeway interchanges in some of the bigger cities, where dense traffic moves at 110 kmh and multiple exits peel off in all directions. In cities like Houston and Kansas, we encountered interchanges that made Auckland’s famed Spaghetti Junction look positively Lilliputian.

At such times Mandy, as we christened our GPS (I confess we got into the habit of talking about her as if she were a third person in the car), would go into meltdown and I would have to make a split-second decision about which exit was the correct one. Sometimes I got it right, sometimes I didn’t.

At times like these, when we're floundering around an alien city looking for the accommodation we booked online (always hoping we’ve made the right choice out of the bewildering plethora of hotels and motels offering), I can see the appeal of taking a guided group tour rather than travelling independently.

Having someone else take care of all your arrangements and make the decisions about where to stay, where to eat and what attractions to see must alleviate a great part of the stress and uncertainty of travelling. But I have a nagging suspicion that it takes away a lot of the fun and adventure too.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

America versus NZ: a scorecard

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, September 27.)

I have been travelling with my wife for the past few weeks in the United States. And along the way, in idle moments, I have been compiling a list.

Well, two lists really. One consists of things the Americans do well; the other of things I think we do better in New Zealand. And as we approach the end of our journey, the scoresheet seems pretty evenly balanced.

No 1 on my list of things the Americans do well is service.
Even in no-frills places like McDonald's and the budget-priced Motel 6 chain, where we have stayed occasionally, there is a consistent commitment to good service. Customers are almost invariably greeted with a welcoming smile and treated with respect.

Waiters and waitresses seem to take genuine pride in doing their job well. You never get the feeling (alas, all too common in New Zealand) that serving other people is below their dignity or too much trouble, or that they're doing the job only because they need the money to pay their university fees or whatever.

Cynics might say this is because staff in American hotels, restaurants and bars depend on tips, but it goes beyond that. It's ingrained in the culture.

Allied to this is the American concern for good manners and civility. In their everyday behaviour Americans display an old-fashioned courtesy that puts most New Zealanders to shame. Even the panhandlers (beggars), who seem to occupy almost every street corner in the larger places, are polite; sometimes extravagantly so.

Americans are great initiators of conversation too. New Zealanders tend to be crippled by their British reserve but Americans don't hesitate to strike up a conversation with a total stranger, or to offer assistance if they sense that you need it. This holds true whether you're in a big, brash city like Chicago - where I'm writing this - or one of those small rural towns that look as if they've just materialised out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.

Public toilets are also high on my list of things America does much better than New Zealand. Whether they're in parks, bars, gas stations, public buildings or roadside rest areas, they are almost always impeccably clean and well-maintained - although I'm not sure I approve of the lack of privacy in some men's dunnies, where the almost non-existent partitions between cubicles are presumably intended to deter anti- social activity.

Speaking of bars reminds me of beer, which also warrants a mention here. American beer was once nigh undrinkable, but in the past decade there has been a proliferation of regional boutique or "craft" breweries that offer excellent alternatives to ghastly mainstream labels such as Budweiser and Miller.

Better than the craft beers made in New Zealand? Certainly as good as, and probably more varied.

Now, some of the things that, in my view, we do better in New Zealand. Top of my list are coffee and food. The Americans may have caught up where beer is concerned but it's almost impossible to get a half-decent cup of coffee anywhere in the US, which is odd when you consider coffee is in some respects the quintessential American beverage. As for tea, don't even think about it.

Food? Dear me. The Americans do a few things superbly (even a run-of-the-mill US steak house could teach our most illustrious chefs a few things about cooking a fillet of angus beef) but they are arguably the world's least adventurous eaters.

American restaurants and cafes offer endless variations of the same limited and tiresome culinary repertoire: burgers, chicken, fries, hot dogs, steak and pizza. It's stodgy, fatty, flavourless and served in such grossly excessive amounts that the "to-go box" (or doggy bag, as we would call it) is an almost mandatory requirement at the end of every meal.

There's only so much you can do with a bun and a ground beef patty, yet massive freeway billboards advertise this or that restaurant chain's burgers as if they were the last word in gastronomic accomplishment. In my notion of hell, this is what the damned would be forced to eat day after day.

And as it is for food, so it is with motor vehicles. The Americans still haven't ended their love affair with the noisy, primitive, thirsty Detroit V8 - the automotive equivalent of the double cheeseburger with fries. In the south and west in particular, V8 pickup trucks almost outnumber cars.

What else? American plumbing fixtures are downright perverse, the sales taxes are diabolical (oh, for the simplicity and transparency of GST) and the depressing number of social casualties on the streets is proof that the American dream has a nightmarish flipside.

And how I long to get back home and tune into a radio network that offers something other than 24/7 political rants, incomprehensible sports chatter, fundamentalist evangelism and all-night sessions on the paranormal - including an interview with a Kiwi who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Now how did the New Zealand media miss that story?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The English language is under attack

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 14).

The English language is one of the most precious gifts of our culture. Used properly, it is a precision instrument. There are virtually no ideas or situations for which apposite, accurate words or phrases cannot be found.

On the few occasions when such words are not available in English, we’re free to raid other languages for terms such as “schadenfreude” or “coup de grace”, for which no exact English equivalent exists.

But this fantastic gift, refined and enriched over hundreds of years as the English lexicon has expanded, is under constant attack by people who seek to debase and degrade it – people who use words to obscure rather than clarify; to disguise rather than reveal.

It goes without saying that politicians are among the worst offenders. Certain words and expressions are now so debased by misuse that they are bound to arouse suspicion.

Consider how the word “inappropriate” has been distorted out of all recognition. Once a term of mild rebuke for socially gauche behaviour, such as turning up at a formal dinner wearing jeans, it now serves as a euphemism for all manner of disgraceful and improper conduct, from sexual indiscretions through to fraud and bribery.

Words that describe such behaviour honestly and unambiguously – such as immoral, crooked, corrupt or just plain bad – have fallen into disuse. It’s only a matter of time before the perpetrators of war crimes stand accused of inappropriate behaviour.

Other words have been robbed of their force through overuse. Derogatory terms such as sexist, racist and fascist – words that might once have shamed or intimidated the people at whom they were directed – are now bandied about so promiscuously that they have become meaningless.

George Orwell was wise to all this. In his famous essay Politics and the English Language, written in 1946, he condemned the deliberate use of vague and misleading words.
He explained how euphemistic language could be used to make appalling things seem almost respectable (I wonder what he would have made of the phrase “collateral damage”, from the Vietnam War), and he pointed out the fondness of totalitarian regimes for language that disguised their inhuman oppressiveness.

Orwell also recognised that sloppy language and sloppy thinking go hand in hand. Dumb down the language and the intellect soon gets lazy too. After all, if you don’t have to express yourself clearly, why bother making the effort to think clearly? It’s easier to resort to a grab-bag of meaningless, empty slogans. Clear speech facilitates clear thinking and vice-versa.

If anything has changed since Orwell’s time, it’s that politicians no longer have a monopoly on the abuse of English. Several other occupational groups now compete to rob the language of its precision, nuance and beauty.

Some of the most egregious crimes against English are perpetrated by three of the most powerful forces in the modern corporate environment: human resources, marketing and IT people.

Human resources departments (the very phrase is Orwellian) are notorious serial abusers of the language. Pick up the executive recruitment section of any newspaper and you’ll sink in a morass of HR-speak. Study the ads and it soon becomes apparent that the phraseology is interchangeable, regardless of the job being offered. The same hollow jargon – key outcomes, customer-focused solutions and suchlike – is endlessly recycled and re-arranged in slightly different combinations. The common factor is a disregard for the integrity of the language.

HR departments may have to try harder, however, because their challengers in marketing are taking non-language to new extremes of flatulence. Consider the following, posted as a testimonial by a wine company marketing manager on the website of a research firm:

"[The research consultants] were a delight to work with,” it read. “Their commanding knowledge of the wine industry across geographies ensured we were able to quickly drill down to the key issues and deliver compelling consumer insights for our core target. They managed key stakeholders from different businesses effectively and collaboratively to deliver clear recommendations to move our business forward.”

This is not writing. It’s the equivalent of painting by numbers, whereby a limited stock of glib clichés is recycled in varying permutations, as in executive recruitment ads. It treats English as just another corporate tool, rather like a cellphone or calculator: simply a matter of pushing the right buttons in the correct sequence.

But blame for the most damaging and sustained assault on the language rests with the computer industry. Computer-speak has no relationship with any other form of English. In fact you could make a compelling case that it was created by aliens with no previous knowledge of the language.

On one level, it is either infantile (for example, “Twitter” and the internet term “cookies”) or plain ugly (as in “blog” – a word that no one with an ear for the euphony of the English language could have invented).

Computer-speak, or geek-speak, is also notable for the way it spurns logical terms in favour of silly neologisms. When I’m transferring CDs onto my MP3 player, for example, the software can’t bring itself to use plain-English words like “copy” or “transfer”. No, it uses nonsensical terms like “rip”, “burn” and “sync”.

The worst examples of cyber language are those that are incomprehensible to anyone other than geeks, and perhaps Daleks. Herewith, a few examples that have popped up on my computer screen:

“Your browser’s cookie functionality is disabled. Please enable Java Script and cookies in order to use Blogger.” This might mean something to a young man with greasy hair, body odour and bad skin, but not to me.

“Please do not power off or unplug your machine.” Understandable enough, perhaps, but "power off"? "Power" wasn’t a verb last time I looked. What’s wrong with “switch”?

“Changes have been made that affect the global template, Do you want to save those changes?” Well, I might, if I knew what it meant.

“A buffer overrun has been detected which has corrupted the program’s internal state. The program cannot safely continue execution and must now be terminated.” Gulp; sounds serious.

The geeks who perpetrated these atrocities are on a mission to re-invent the English language. If we value our heritage, we must ensure they don’t succeed.

Cafes aren't for kids

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, September 13.)

THERE ARE some things that just don’t belong together: Coke with single malt whisky; tomato sauce with paté (though that didn’t stop my father); the Mongrel Mob and Black Power. I could go on, but you get my drift.

To that list I would add children and cafés. I like children – I’m told I was once one myself – and I usually enjoy cafés, but the two are generally not compatible.

First, being dragged to a café is cruel to kids. They'd rather be in a playground or at McDonald's. No token collection of toys in the corner can alter the fact that cafés are places for grown-ups, and I feel sorry for small children who are expected to amuse themselves for hours while their parents chatter and slurp their double-shot soy lattes.

Second, taking kids to cafés can be inconsiderate to adult patrons who go there to enjoy conversation or read quietly – experiences that are not enhanced by children noisily racing around, especially given the fashion for minimalist décor that amplifies sound.

A recent lunch with a friend in an eastern suburbs café – one we had chosen because of its reputation as a place that takes food seriously – was marred by small kids running amok. Their mothers appeared oblivious to the racket they were making.

Parents who insist on taking their children to cafes are being selfish, both to the kids and to fellow patrons. The children are either going to be bored or make nuisances of themselves.

Café-addicted parents should accept that having children requires a modification of one’s former lifestyle – and if that means having to cut out Sunday brunch or long lunches with the mothers’ group, so be it.

* * *

IT’S DISPIRITING when journalists are complicit in the debasement of their own language.

Take the word “offshore”. Until recently it was a useful term that could be applied to anything not too distant from land, as the word implies.

An offshore island was one you could sail to for the weekend. Ships anchored offshore while they waited for a berth. Offshore drilling rigs were often within sight of land.

My dictionaries are in accord on this. The first definition they give is “situated in or on the sea, not far from the coast”, or “some distance from the shore”. The coast or shore is the reference point.

If you wanted to refer to something that was much further away – beyond the horizon and perhaps taking several hours to reach by plane, you used the word “abroad” or, more commonly, “overseas”, since to get to any other country from New Zealand requires a trip across water.

Put another way, Kapiti Island is offshore but Britain is overseas. Perfectly simple and eminently logical.

But in one of those quirks of English usage that creep up on us by stealth, “offshore” is now treated as a synonym for “overseas”. In fact it’s well on its way to monstering “overseas” out of the language altogether.

So where we previously had two perfectly good words with specific meanings, we now have one that has become ambiguous and misleading, and another that is falling out of use.

As with so many linguistic abominations, we can thank the business sector. “Offshore” was originally embraced by accountants and tax lawyers – no respecters of language – as a term meaning any country beyond the reach of tax gatherers and legislators, as in “offshore tax haven”

Had its usage been confined to the business world, there would be no cause for complaint. “Offshore” could have harmlessly taken its place amid all the other flatulent jargon favoured by the suits.

But no, the word has spread into general usage. And the worst thing is that this viral contamination has largely been facilitated by journalists, who should regard it as their professional obligation to protect the integrity and accuracy of the language.

* * *

DONOR fatigue is what happens when people get so many requests for charitable donations that they switch off and put their chequebooks away.

Charities have themselves to blame for this, at least in part, and here’s why.

You make a donation and provide your name and address so that you can be sent a receipt for tax purposes. But most charities seem to take this as a commitment on your part to support them in perpetuity and, thereafter, regularly bombard you with appeals for more money.

There are only so many worthy causes people can support. Most have a few favoured charities that they give to year after year. This doesn’t stop them from making occasional donations to other causes but once they do, they can expect to be on the mailing list for years. I wonder how many soon get donation-shy as a result.

As I write this I have a pile of requests on my desk from organisations that I have given a one-off donation to but don’t wish to go on supporting year after year. Quite apart from anything else, it’s a huge waste of paper.

FOOTNOTE: When I last checked, my comments about children in cafes had attracted 187 responses on the Stuff website. Initially they were unremittingly hostile but more recently the tide seems to have turned slightly in my favour.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On the take: true confessions from a wine writer

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 31.)

An unseemly spat broke out recently among the usually genial fraternity of New Zealand wine writers.

The unpleasantness was touched off by the establishment of an organisation called Wine Writers of New Zealand, a group with the noble aim of encouraging excellence and integrity in wine writing. Hardly an exceptionable goal, you might think. But it touched some raw nerves.

The formation of the group arose out of concern that some wine critics were being paid by wine companies to review their wines. Those joining WWNZ are required to sign a “declaration of independence” to the effect that they won’t accept payment for published reviews.

The declaration says, in part: “If reviewers are to be widely trusted and respected, there must be full, transparent independence between them and those whose products they write about.

“We believe the practice of supplying wine reviews for direct payment removes that independence, is highly undesirable, and has the potential to harm the reputation of all wine writers in New Zealand.”

You might think this hardly needed to be spelled out. After all, what credibility could a wine writer have if it were known that he or she accepted payment from the winemaker?

As someone who has contributed wine columns to several national publications and written a book about wine, I had no hesitation in signing the declaration.

Being a pathological non-joiner, and suspicious of any group that might be seen as elitist or cliquey, I was not party to the formation of WWNZ and had no desire to join it. In any case, I’ve largely withdrawn from wine writing.

But I felt I had no option but to sign the declaration (the signatories to which are listed on the WWNZ website) because if I hadn’t done so, people might have suspected I had accepted payment from winemakers myself. I would regard such payment as fatal to whatever credibility I might have as a journalist.

However it also needs to be said that the situation is not as straightforward as it might seem at first glance.

Not all the people who review wine in New Zealand are journalists. Some have made careers in the wine industry. A few of these people operate as wine consultants, in essence. They review wines for a fee and regard it as a legitimate service to the industry.

The problem arises, it seems to me, if those same people write about, or comment on, wine for the public without disclosing their relationship with the winemaker. That’s where things get ethically dodgy.

No matter how impartial, objective or professional these reviewers hold themselves out to be, people will wonder whether they are commenting favourably on a particular wine because they have accepted payment from the maker.

It’s these individuals who see the formation of WWNZ, and the publication of the so-called declaration of independence, as an attempt to get at them. The absence of their names from the list of signatories will be interpreted, fairly or unfairly, as evidence that they take a fee and are therefore compromised.

At least one of them, a friend of mine who is a respected wine judge, is concerned that there are now “good” wine critics and “bad” ones, and that he’s in the wrong category.

I have some sympathy for him. As someone who has worked in the wine business for years and depends on wine for his livelihood, his perspective is different from that of a journalist like me.

People like my friend are also resentful at what they see as the “holier than thou” tone of the wine writers who formed WWNZ. And they have a point.

When I was regularly reviewing wines, courier vans would pull into my driveway several times a week to deliver free wines. None of it was solicited by me and I don’t even know how the wineries got my address. It just kept turning up, sometimes in embarrassing quantities.

There were no strings attached and no wine company ever complained if I didn’t review a wine they had sent me, or gave it a less than glowing endorsement. They understood the rules.

In any case I often reviewed wines I had bought myself, which avoided the risk that the content of my articles would be dictated by whatever happened to turn up free on my doorstep each week (as seems to be the case with some of the wine writers I read).

Buying my own wine also meant that I generally reviewed wines that ordinary consumers could afford, since I didn’t have the bank balance to splash out on Penfold’s Grange or Chateau d’Yquem.

But the point is that virtually everyone who writes about wine in New Zealand is “on the take”, in a sense. Most don’t pay for the wines they review, some of which are very expensive, and they are happy to enjoy sumptuous dinners and free trips to exotic wine destinations.

I have accepted trips myself. Among wine writers, they are regarded as legitimate perks (just as overseas jaunts are by motoring writers, who are arguably journalism’s most practised junketeers).

Ironically, when I recently exchanged emails with a wine writer who was a key player in the formation of WWNZ, she was visiting the Margaret River wine region of Western Australia. I’d be astonished if she paid her own way.

I would stop short of saying most wine writers are “embedded” in the wine industry, as wine commentator Keith Stewart (a non-signatory to the “declaration” and a bit of a renegade) extravagantly claimed in an attack on WWNZ. But it’s certainly true that from a purist point of view, all wine writers could be seen as ethically compromised to a greater or less extent.

Even some of the most illustrious names in international wine writing – people like the Englishman Hugh Johnson and Australia’s James Halliday – have had deep commercial entanglements that I believe jeopardised their reputation for independence and impartiality.

As with many journalistic endeavours, wine writing is fraught with ethical grey areas and few, if any, practitioners can claim to be as pure as the driven snow. In fact if you listen very carefully, you may hear the sound of stones crashing through a glasshouse.