Friday, February 27, 2009

Obituary: Bryan Beauchamp

I wrote the following obituary for the Dominion Post. My fellow blogger Jim Tucker, head of the Whitireia Polytechnic journalism school and a former pop columnist for the Taranaki Sports Weekend (now, who would have thought that?), read it and suggested I post it here. 

 Bryan Donald Beauchamp, musician. B Auckland, July 17, 1941; m (1) Marilyn, 1d; (2) Pat (3s, 1d); d Rotorua, February 7, 2009, aged 67. 

 As the singer and drummer for Bari and the Breakaways, Bryan Beauchamp was in the vanguard of the music revolution that swept New Zealand in the early 1960s. It was the era of the British beat boom, when wholesome, clean-cut performers like Cliff Richard were being elbowed out of the pop charts by long-haired English bands that took their inspiration from black American rhythm and blues. Beauchamp was a Westie boy who played alongside guitar ace Peter Posa in a band at Henderson High School. He recalled in memoirs written for a Kiwi music website ( that it was the era of slick dance bands such as the Embers, the Keil Isles and the Kavaliers. Beauchamp originally played guitar but switched to the drums because the band he was with at the time, the raunchily named Mauri Chan Sextet, “was always having trouble with drummers”. In 1964, in response to a newspaper ad, he moved to New Plymouth to join the Blue Diamonds, led by guitarist Bari Gordon. The group’s rhythm guitarist – then capable of playing only a few chords – was an enthusiastic teenager named Keith, aka “Midge”, Marsden. The lineup was later to be completed with the addition of Dave Orams, another New Plymouth boy, on bass guitar. As the British beat boom gathered momentum, the Blue Diamonds let their hair grow, threw away their shiny blue uniforms, adopted a grittier repertoire and metamorphosed into Bari and the Breakaways – a name suggested by the late Tommy Adderley, who had appeared with them as the guest act at Taranaki talent quests organised by impresario Johnny Cooper. The band made its debut under the new name at a dance in the Lower Hutt Town Hall and subsequently moved permanently to Wellington, picking up regular work at Johnny Coolman’s Sorrento Coffee Lounge – then famous as a meeting place for Wellington’s demi-monde – and the marginally more respectable Mexicali. Then the only full-time band in Wellington, Bari and the Breakways won national exposure through appearances on the weekly TV pop show Let’s Go, compered by Pete Sinclair. Beauchamp recalled: “By this time I had become not just the drummer, but the lead singer as well. When it came time to go ‘live to air’, I had to start out on my drum kit then, while the camera was on someone else, grab a pair of maracas and act like a lead singer.” A recording contract followed. The group’s first release was a cover version of the Who’s I Can’t Explain, followed by the song that was to become something of a signature tune, the old Frankie Ford rocker Sea Cruise. Now managed by Wellington promoter Tom McDonald, the band toured widely. The first night of a two-week engagement at the Safari Lounge in Christchurch typified the culture shock that was transforming pop music at the time. “It was about 10 to 8 and the club manager was looking worried,” Beauchamp wrote. “ ‘Hey guys’, said the boss, ‘you’re on in a few minutes. Aren’t you getting changed?’ ‘No,’ we said. ‘This is how we dress’.” Wellington remained the band’s home base. “Traditionally, when groups moved to the Hot City, Auckland was where you went,” Beauchamp recalled. “But I firmly believe that in the early 60s, Wellington was it. There were more bands and more venues. Auckland groups were coming to Wellington to crack it.” It was the era of Sunday afternoon pop jamborees, when 4000 teenage fans – some bussed from as far away as Palmerston North – would pack the Lower Hutt Town Hall and the adjoining Horticultural Hall. As Beauchamp said, “If you didn’t like the group in one hall, you moved next door”. Inspired by the wild behaviour of the Who, Bari and the Breakaways even staged their own demolition act. At the climax of one performance, Marsden attacked a speaker cabinet with his guitar – an eye-catching gimmick, somewhat diminished by the fact that it was an old cabinet with no speakers inside it. The band’s heyday was relatively short-lived. Gordon quit and returned to Taranaki, where he died aged only 22. The band continued as the Breakaways, developing an edgier rhythm-and-blues feel with new guitarist Dave Hurley, but by 1967 it was all over. Orams went on to play in top bands the Underdogs and the Quincy Conserve before moving to Melbourne, while Hurley went to Britain. Marsden dropped out of sight for several years before re-emerging with the Country Flyers and eventually becoming something of a musical institution. And Beauchamp? He never again achieved the prominence he enjoyed with the Breakaways, but he continued playing music in the towns where he subsequently lived – first Paraparaumu, later Auckland and then Dannevirke, where he formed a country rock band, Dixie Express, that included his daughter and foster son. At the time of his death he and his wife Pat were living near Reporoa, where Beauchamp worked as a teacher’s aid at Reporoa College. He died of liver cancer, having had an earlier brush with cancer in 2007.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Is this the end of the Waitangi Day cringe?

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 18.)

For many years I cringed, as I suspect many of my fellow New Zealanders did, at the approach of Waitangi Day.

Every year the politicians went to Waitangi to indulge in ritual acts of self-abasement and humiliation at the hands of Maori protesters while most of us tried to look the other way and pretend it wasn’t happening.

Over the past couple of years, however, the mood at Waitangi seems to have changed. This year, despite an isolated outburst of unpleasantness, we got a sense of what it might be: a day of celebration.

Maybe I’m being Pollyanna-ish, but there seems to have been a significant shift in the Maori mood. A lot of the heat has gone out of Treaty and race relations issues.

This view is reinforced by a Human Rights Commission report which showed that race relations, a pressing issue for New Zealanders in past years (it topped their list of concerns in 2002 and 2003), didn’t even make the top 10 last year. On the contrary, it topped the list of issues New Zealanders were most optimistic about.

Commentator Chris Trotter, who can make sense when he isn’t busy romanticising Marxism, recently put his finger on one possible explanation for this easing of racial tensions. He pointed out that iwi-based corporate entities, enriched by Treaty settlements, were now wielding real economic power.

Trotter’s theory is that the political Right – for which read the National government of the 1990s – saw the benefit to be gained by co-opting the Maori tribal elite as partners in capitalism. (It’s apparently inconceivable to him that the Bolger government might have been motivated by a sense of fairness and obligation.)

The flaw in his argument, as far as I can see, is that the economic benefits of the Treaty settlements have yet to trickle down to “ordinary” Maoridom. In fact the tribal elite fought tooth and nail in the courts to ensure that so-called “urban” Maori – those without strong tribal affiliations – remained dispossessed. That large body of urban Maori has no reason to feel part of any economic renaissance – not yet, anyway.

However, all Maoridom will have grasped that Maori now exert greater political power than at any previous time in living memory. For this they can thank the Maori Party, which by breaking Labour’s grip on the Maori vote gave Maori a truly effective voice in Parliament; and they can also thank John Key, who cleverly drew the party into his centre-right coalition government.

Maori now sense, after decades of being taken for granted by Labour, that they have a real opportunity to influence political decisions. I believe that has quelled a great deal of the anger that made previous Waitangi Days such a joyless ordeal.

But even setting that aside, we have plenty of reason to celebrate on February 6.

New Zealand has the rare distinction of having been colonised not by conquest, but by agreement with the occupiers. It had the good fortune to be settled by a colonial power that, by the standards of its time, was enlightened, humane and bent on dealing honourably with those who were here first.

Things would have turned out very differently had New Zealand been colonised by the French, the Portuguese or the Belgians.

Of course the good intentions of 1840 weren’t always fulfilled, which is why, for the past couple of decades, we have been working through a sometimes painful and expensive settlement process.

But Treaty grievances aside, we shouldn’t allow the toxic lies of revisionist, left-wing historians to blind us to the truth that there was, and remains, an enormous amount of goodwill and mutual respect between Maori and European.

Most Pakeha take pride in Maori culture. It has become part of their own heritage – witness the enthusiasm with which white New Zealanders take part in the haka.

There is a closeness between the two cultures that is not replicated in any other country I know of. We work together, we play sport together and we marry and have children together to the extent that Maori and Pakeha blood are inextricably intermingled. This is the common experience of all New Zealanders.

A few months ago I clipped from my local paper one of those “From the Archives” photographs showing the rugby team that won a local championship in 1953. There are three Maori faces in the side and they happen to include the captain and vice-captain.

This, in a predominantly white rural area during the conservative 50s. That says something powerful to me about the reality of relations between Maori and European.

But it goes further than that. Most New Zealanders are not aware that as long ago as 1894 a Maori politician, Sir James Carroll, was elected to represent a general (in other words, Pakeha) electorate in Parliament, a seat he held for 25 years; or that he was twice acting prime minister.

This historical fact doesn’t gel with the view propagated by the revisionists that New Zealand has always been a racist society that marginalised and oppressed Maori.

It’s worth noting that Australia didn’t get its first Aboriginal parliamentarian till 1971. Even then he wasn’t elected by popular vote (he was selected by the Liberal Party to fill a casual vacancy in the Senate), although he was subsequently returned to Parliament via the ballot box.

It wouldn’t surprise me if school pupils learn a lot more about Treaty abuses and the shame of Parihaka than they do about people like Carroll and other influential Maori politicians who enjoyed as much respect from Pakeha as they did among their own people.

They probably don’t learn that Parliament created Maori seats in 1867, to ensure Maori had a voice, or that Maori men were given universal suffrage 12 years ahead of Europeans.

Of course Parihaka and Treaty abuses are part of our history, and we have to face up to them. But there’s also a lot to be proud of in our race relations, and we shouldn’t focus on the bad to the exclusion of everything else.

Neither should we need to be reminded that there’s more to New Zealand than the relationship between Maori and Pakeha, and more to be proud of.

Waitangi Day should also be an occasion for celebrating the fact that we live in one of the world’s freest, most liberal societies – a country that honours human rights and the rule of law, that is almost entirely corruption-free, where people have the right to elect and sack their governments and speak their minds without fear of a visit from the secret police in the middle of the night.

Heck, even as I write this, I find myself almost looking forward to Waitangi Day 2010. Now that’s a new sensation.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Toxic maelstroms in the council chamber

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, February 17.)

I WAS ONCE, in a professional capacity, an occasional attendee at meetings of the Wellington City Council. It struck me then as a deeply dysfunctional group of cranks, bullies, egotists and grandstanders.

There were one or two councillors whom I concluded were deranged and possibly a risk to public safety if they were allowed onto the streets unaccompanied.

I remember thinking that if the citizens of Wellington bothered to attend these meetings and saw how their representatives behaved, they would be horrified. They certainly deserved better.

Municipal politics can be toxic maelstroms, and Wellington wasn’t alone in this. Porirua City Council in the 1990s was a shocker too (and may still be, for all I know).

Several of the Wellington city councillors who sat around the table then are still there today. Tragically, people keep voting for them simply because their names are familiar.

Whether this helps explain the present kerfuffle over the location of the proposed indoor sports stadium, I can’t be sure. But feuds and personal agendas are certainly nothing new in the council chamber.

Of course there were sane, level-headed councillors back then, as there are now.

Andy Foster, the councillor now being pilloried for opposing the Evans Bay stadium, was one of them – a councillor who was conscientious about doing the hard yards, tried to avoid vendettas and seemed genuinely concerned for the betterment of the city.

Kerry Prendergast, now the mayor, was another who had her feet on the ground and stayed focused. It’s sad that these two, who were then usually on the same side, have ended up acrimoniously at odds.

* * *

IF THE National-led government did nothing else, it would earn our undying gratitude simply by placing a freeze on bureaucratic restructuring.

Since August last year we have had a new government organisation called the NZ Transport Agency. This absorbed the functions of Land Transport New Zealand and Transit New Zealand.

The creation of the “super agency” attracted very little public comment or analysis, which illustrates how resigned we have become to constant organisational change in the public sector.

A brief look at the new agency’s history makes the brain spin. Land Transport New Zealand was previously the Land Transport Safety Authority. It changed its name in December 2004, at which time it also merged with another agency called Transfund.

The pulling together of Transit and Land Transport New Zealand reversed a split that took place under National in 1998, when Transfund was created because of concerns that Transit wasn’t giving enough roading money to local councils.

So what was once rendered asunder has now been joined back together again, at God knows what cost. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Labour justified the latest merger by saying it would provide a “more integrated and cost-effective approach” to transport planning and funding. Hmmm … heard these phrases before?

The creation of the new agency will reinforce the impression that the public sector is run by headless chooks, flapping around the barnyard in a frenzy of activity that expends a lot of energy for no purpose.

* * *

I REALISE I’ve wrongly been giving John Key credit for the unfamiliar, Zen-like calm that has characterised domestic politics over the past couple of months.

It’s true that Mr Key’s sunny disposition and willingness to engage with disparate political interest groups has had a sedative effect, helped by the fact that the new leader of the Labour party, no matter how hard he tries to be a pitbull, is almost grotesquely reasonable.

But the real reason things seem so blissfully peacefully, I realised while watching the TV News last Saturday night, was that Winston Peters has left the political stage. By doing so, he has, at a stroke, reduced the rancour quotient to virtually zero.

At a party meeting in Auckland, Mr Peters evaded the media by leaving through a side door.

I wholeheartedly approve of this new approach. Invisibility suits him very well.

* * *

I KEEP hearing economic commentators scolding us for not realising the severity of the economic crisis and acting accordingly. But what do they expect us to do? Dress in sackcloth and flagellate ourselves with barbed wire? Stop laughing, going to movies, listening to music or doing any of the other things that give us pleasure?

Would they prefer that we all draw the curtains, eat dry bread and gruel and sit around in darkened rooms feeling miserable?

Bugger that. Getting on with life is surely the best possible response to the financial meltdown. There are enough people around the world talking themselves into a depression without New Zealanders joining in.

Wellington at the weekend was buzzing. I can’t think of a better antidote to all the prophecies of doom from the economic Cassandras.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Home and Away: thoughts on the British-Kiwi relationship

In the course of a rare cleanup of my Microsoft Word files this week, I came across the following. It’s a talk that I was invited to give to staff at the British High Commission in Wellington two years ago about the British-NZ relationship, and how New Zealanders regarded the mother country. I was about to delete it when I thought, “Hang on – I’ve got a blog now. I can bore other people with this, besides the Poms.” So here it is.

The High Commission staff member who asked me to give the talk, a New Zealander, urged me not to hold back. I sensed that he was disappointed afterwards that I wasn’t more brutal, but on re-reading it I think my comments were reasonably frank without being gratuitously insulting.

It’s a long read, so if you're going to attempt it, pack some muesli bars and warm clothing.

* * *

MY brief, as I understand it, is to give you a New Zealander’s perception of Britain today, of the relationship between our two countries, and how it has changed.

I can’t pretend to speak for all New Zealanders. Each of us has our own individual perspective. But I would say that in many respects my views are probably fairly typical. They are also, of course, partly shaped by my observations and experiences during nearly 40 years as a journalist.

I would like to start by talking in general terms about how pervasively British culture has penetrated our own.

As far as I’m aware, I don’t have so much as a millilitre of British blood. I come from Irish Catholic stock on my mother’s side and a mixture of Danish and French Protestant on my father’s. Yet the first time I travelled to Britain, in the mid 1980s, I felt instantly at home.

The sights, the accents and the institutions I encountered wandering around London seemed intimately familiar. This agreeable sensation was magnified by the fact that I had stopped off for a few days in San Francisco on my way to Britain and found America almost intimidatingly alien.

Why should a New Zealander with a name like du Fresne feel completely at ease on arriving in Britain for the first time? Simply because I grew up in a society in which our cultural influences were overwhelmingly – in fact almost exclusively – British.

New Zealanders of my children’s generation, who have grown up watching American TV shows, wearing American designer labels and using American speech idioms, can’t begin to imagine how all-pervasive these influences were.

Let me give you just one small example. On Sunday nights in the pre-television era my family would gather around the radio. The programmes we listened to were all British – Take It From Here, Hancock’s Half Hour and the Paul Temple mystery serials by Francis Durbridge were staples.

On occasions my mother would drive us the 30 miles to Hastings to see comedies from the Ealing or Boulting Brothers film studios. Her favourite stars – and they became mine too – were people like Alistair Sim, Cecil Parker, Alec Guinness and Joyce Grenfell.

It’s almost surreal that a child growing up in a small country town in New Zealand should have been so deeply influenced by a country 12,000 miles away, with which he had no familial or hereditary connection. But many of my weekly rituals as a child were British in origin.

Every week I looked forward to picking up our regular order from the local newsagent, which included the comics Film Fun, Radio Fun and Tiger – all British. I didn’t have the slightest interest in soccer, and still haven’t, yet I always read Roy of the Rovers. On Friday nights we would buy fish and chips – another British tradition. And our parents always drank tea, coffee being regarded as almost subversively avant-garde.

By contrast, we were exposed to relatively few American influences. There were American cars on the road – more then than now, oddly enough – and of course American films, and American music. But the hamburger, that universal symbol of coca-colonisation, didn’t arrive in New Zealand until the 1960s, and we were well into the 1970s before the first McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried outlets opened.

Let me more talk a bit more about music, specifically. Conventional wisdom has it that the rock and roll revolution happened in the mid 1950s with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and Fats Domino. But I would argue that in New Zealand there were two rock and roll revolutions.

There was an American-inspired cultural earthquake of sorts in the mid-fifties, but it was a relatively minor tremor compared with what was to come, and the social effects were largely peripheral. The rebellious bodgies and milk bar cowboys of the 1950s who wore tight jeans and rode motorbikes (invariably British Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs, oddly enough) were generally viewed as being an anti-social minority on the fringes of respectable society.

The really major seismic upheaval, in terms of mainstream music and culture, didn’t happen until the British beat boom of the 1960s, which brought us the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Animals.

It was almost as if we’d been waiting for Britain to validate the new youth culture before we embraced it. And while we were dutifully waiting for a signal from the Mother Country, we passed the time listening to Cliff Richard and the Shadows, who were as popular in New Zealand as Elvis ever was. Incidentally, if you ask any New Zealand pop guitarist of the early 1960s who his big influence was, it wasn’t Scotty Moore or James Burton or any of the hot-shot Americans – it was Hank Marvin of the Shadows.

You’ll note that I used the term “Mother Country” to refer to Britain. If this expression is used at all today, it’s normally in a gently sardonic fashion. Yet there was a time when it was used with the utmost reverence.

I’ve recently been working on a project which involved looking at newspaper files from the early 20th century, when the term “Mother Country” was not only in common usage by the New Zealand press, but was accorded capital letters.

Similarly, it was common in the press to refer to Britain simply as Home, with a capital H. The personal columns, for example, might record that Mr and Mrs So-in-So of Wellington had recently left on a ship for a voyage “Home”. It was an accepted synonym for Britain and remained in common usage until the 1960s.

I mention all this by way of a scene-setter, to try and give some idea of how totally New Zealand was in thrall to Britain. I could easily go on. I could talk, for example, about the rapturous public response to royal visits. I was a young reporter on The Dominion when the Queen toured in 1970, and for several weeks the entire staff of the paper was mobilised with one aim in mind – to ensure the Queen was covered every step of the way. It doesn’t happen now.

I would like to turn now to a personal assessment of the good and bad aspects of that British heritage.

First, the good. I’ve always thought it was a blessing that New Zealand was colonised by Britain rather than one of the other European imperial powers, such as France or Portugal or the Belgians. In many ways the British were enlightened and liberal colonisers. It’s easy to find fault from a 21st century standpoint, but from James Cook onwards they generally treated the Maori with a degree of respect that stands out against the shabby treatment of native races by colonial powers elsewhere.

Then of course there’s the great legacy of Westminster parliamentary democracy and all that went with it – political freedom, respect for individual rights, freedom of the press and free speech, a robust judicial system and a tradition of tolerance and liberalism. These principles weren’t always applied consistently but they did provide a sound platform on which New Zealand could develop, and I don’t think we should ever understate the enduring value of those traditions.

I’ve often thought that if I were to find myself in prison on trumped-up charges anywhere in the world, I would want it to be Britain. You may have had your lapses – the Guildford Four and the Derek Bentley case of the 1950s come to mind - but I think I’d stand a better chance of getting a fair hearing in Britain than in most other countries, including America, where justice sometimes seems precarious.

Britain also gave us wonderful music – I’ve already mentioned the Beatles – and it gave us wonderful television.

We have Britain to thank, too, for a fantastically rich heritage of humour. Many New Zealanders of a certain age still lapse into Goon Show language at the slightest excuse, and can describe individual episodes of Steptoe and Son that were made more than 40 years ago; the pickled onion in the bath scene comes to mind. Fawlty Towers, Open All Hours, Dad’s Army and Monty Python have embedded themselves deep in the national consciousness, to the extent that people commonly recite familiar lines from them – “Don’t mention the war” being just one example.

As popular as some American TV comedies have been, such as Seinfeld and M*A*S*H, they simply don’t command that sort of enduring attachment.

These are all things for which we owe Britain a debt of gratitude. And of course you gave us rugby, more of which later.

But then there are the downsides of our British heritage. Where do I start?

Oh, what the heck – let’s get the unhappiest aspect out of the way first. British food.

It was New Zealand’s singular misfortune to derive its culinary traditions from a country with possibly the dullest cuisine of any culture in the world, save perhaps for Eskimos and Laplanders. It’s a cuisine that finds its highest expression in roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and despite all the hype surrounding Gordon Ramsay, Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver, it’s my observation that much British food is as dull and stodgy as ever. Fortunately in New Zealand the past thirty years has seen a gastronomic revolution that has largely coincided with a more adventurous immigration policy.

I also blame the British for our tradition of bourgeois conformity, which I believe can be attributed to the fact that New Zealand was predominantly settled by members of the British middle class.

It seems to me that one of the privileges conferred by membership of the upper class is that you’re pretty much free to behave as outrageously as you like, and if you’re working class you can take risks because you don’t have much to lose. But the middle class is obsessed with doing the right thing, toeing the line, obeying the rules, not making a fuss or giving offence, not standing out in the crowd and in general not being seen to do anything that might jeopardise one’s social standing.

It was precisely this sort of person that New Zealand immigration policy sought to attract. We were suspicious of anyone who wasn’t British, and when we couldn’t get enough British migrants in the 1950s we turned to Holland, because the Dutch were deemed to be the next-best thing – hard-working but eager to assimilate and become good Kiwis, and not given to volatile displays of emotion like some other European nationalities.

This unadventurous legacy produced a rather joyless, grey society, as is evident from any old newspaper photograph of a New Zealand crowd scene. We were a very grim and oppressed-looking lot. Our timid immigration policy dulled New Zealand society to the extent that the journalist Gordon McLauchlan, in the 1970s, wrote a best-selling book about New Zealanders called The Passionless People. Meanwhile Australia had opened its doors to people from southern Europe and the Levant and got a much more colourful and vibrant society as a result.

Now I’d like to turn to the subject of British cars. The New Zealand of my childhood got around in Humbers, Vauxhalls, Ford Zephyrs and Vanguards, and generally we were pretty satisfied with them. Perhaps we were just conditioned to believe that if they were British, they must be good. At any rate we didn’t have a great deal of choice, because British cars enjoyed preferential tariffs that gave them a huge advantage in the marketplace. Those tariff arrangements were part of a quid pro quo in which Britain took our meat, butter and wool and we in turn demonstrated our loyalty by buying your cars, trucks, tractors, aircraft and ships.

It’s hard to pinpoint the precise time at which the disenchantment with British cars started to set in, but it was probably sometime during the 1960s – I would guess between the Mark 3 and the Mark 4 Zephyrs. Suddenly British cars were no longer the benchmark.

This could have been due to two factors. One was that Japanese cars were starting to creep onto the New Zealand market, giving us a point of comparison. And it was obvious to anyone that pound for pound, the Japanese cars offered far greater reliability and a much higher level of specification. Heck, they came with heaters, radios and carpets.

But the other factor, I suspect, is that British industry was in decline – partly because of a rise in militant trade unionism. A sullen, resentful work force seemed bent on sabotaging British industry, and weak management seemed powerless to arrest the process. And so you got what became known as the British disease.

Whether it was some sort of ripple effect I don’t know, but British design also suffered. The result was that New Zealand motorists found themselves lumbered with appalling clunkers like the Austin Maxi, the Morris Marina and the Vauxhall Viva – ugly duckling cars that would have been second-rate even if they had been able to do what they were claimed to do, which they couldn’t.

By the 1970s, the British cars that had once ruled the roads were more likely to be seen broken down beside them. We lost faith in British engineering and the Japanese were only too happy to fill the vacuum. The trickle of Japanese cars soon became a flood.

This may seem a trivial point, but I believe it was strangely symbolic of the way the traditional relationship with Britain was itself starting to break down.

It just happened that the British motor industry lost its way about the same time as Britain joined the EEC. And despite New Zealand politicians extracting concessions that guaranteed continued limited access to Britain for our agricultural products, there was a perception that Britain was abandoning us. So that was another, deeper factor straining the traditional ties.

Mention of militant trade unionism brings me to another unwelcome British import. New Zealand from the 1960s to the 1980s suffered an epidemic of bloody-minded industrial disruption, much of it generated by cloth-cap unionists who had emigrated from Britain and brought the class war with them. I won’t pretend that New Zealand didn’t have its own stroppy militants, but there was no doubt that British unionists were disproportionately represented in the unions that caused mayhem during the Muldoon era, and there was considerable public resentment toward them.

The classic example was a union leader named Con Devitt, who’d come out of Clydeside and ended up in control of our Boilermakers Union, which represented welders. It was Devitt’s union that added seven years to the construction time for what was supposed to be Wellington's flagship building, the BNZ head office in central Wellington. In the process several engineering firms were driven out of business and New Zealand architects resolved never again to make the mistake of designing buildings in structural steel, because it would require the employment of Devitt’s members.

It was perhaps no coincidence that around this time, overt hostility began to emerge against British migrants as a group. An oafish talkback host named Tim Bickerstaff launched a campaign urging his listeners to Punch a Pom a Day, and we began to hear anti-English jokes like the one that went: “How do you know when a planeload of Pommy migrants has arrived? Because the whining continues long after the engines have been turned off.” Thus was created the stereotype of the Pommy whinger, who finds fault with so many things that everyone wonders why he doesn’t just go back home.

It’s a stereotype that persists to this day, and like most stereotypes it has a core of truth. You only need to listen to talkback radio, and note the disproportionate number of querulous British voices, to realise that.

What caused this hostility toward the British? I would guess several things. It was partly a backlash against Pommy whingers and union troublemakers, which in turn may have stemmed from a growing sense that British migrants were exerting too much influence and taking New Zealand in a direction, culturally and socially, where we didn’t want to go. A feeling, perhaps, that we were losing control of our own country.

But the point at which the relationship between the two countries really began to change irrevocably was when Britain threw in its lot with Europe in 1973.

In hindsight, it was probably a good thing for both of us. From a New Zealander’s point of view, we’d been trapped in an unhealthy dependency relationship, and with that went an element of sycophancy. Though we’d been nominally independent since 1907, we were still in the habit of seeking British approval for virtually everything we did. I remember, for example, that Sir Robert Muldoon insisted on Air New Zealand fitting its Boeings with Rolls-Royce engines rather than those made by General Electric, just to keep in Britain’s good books.

When Britain deserted us for the EU, New Zealand felt a bit like a teenager who’d been kicked out of home and forced to fend for himself. At first we felt hurt and a bit lost; but after a few years we realised we could not only manage on our own, but have fun doing it. What at the time seemed traumatic turned out to be liberating.

I should mention however that older New Zealanders in particular felt betrayed, and many probably still do. They couldn’t understand why citizens of a country that had unquestioningly sent troops to fight for Britain in two world wars, and incurred some of the highest casualty rates of any Allied forces, now had to stand in the aliens’ queue at Heathrow while German passport-holders were fast-tracked. But younger New Zealanders have grown up without any such sense of grievance; for them the war is an abstract of history. The umbilical cord connecting New Zealand with Britain has long been severed.

So where we are now? Well, New Zealand has moved on, to use a favourite phrase of our prime minister. The relationship with Britain is no longer a subservient one. We don’t look to Britain, as we once did, for all our cultural inspiration or for leadership in matters of international policy. Our most important relationship, as the Dominion Post reminded us yesterday, is with Australia. Britain is simply one of a number of other countries with which we maintain important relationships; but it is no longer the pre-eminent relationship.

We have developed a new identity, one that’s more firmly rooted in the South Pacific. New Zealand today draws more cultural inspiration from its Maori and Pacific elements than from Britain. And a generation has grown up which knows little of the old sentimental bonds with the Mother Country.

In many ways the relationship between our two countries is still in the process of being redefined, and inevitably there is some tension as we adjust to our changed roles.

I would suggest there’s still a residual tendency on the part of some British people to adopt a rather patronising – benign, perhaps, but still patronising – approach toward New Zealanders, much as one might address a slightly backward child. I remember my hackles rising at a dinner in Oxford University 20 years ago when a former British diplomat began lecturing me in a condescending manner on the folly of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance.

The nuclear issue of course was a touchstone of New Zealand’s new-found independence and it was pretty clear that the British government strongly disapproved. This was made obvious by Britain’s refusal to condemn the Rainbow Warrior bombing, which many New Zealanders interpreted as tacit condoning of the French action. Another betrayal.

For our part, while we no longer instinctively defer to bigger countries, I think we have to be very careful that we don’t make the mistake of pumping ourselves up too much. I remarked in a recent column that an element of braggadocio has crept into the national character, which I find deeply unattractive and unbecoming. Legitimate pride in our achievements – and I’m referring here to things like the America’s Cup and the Lord of the Rings – all too easily mutates into boastfulness.

It’s one thing to throw off the cultural cringe that has led us in the past to defer to everyone else, but it’s quite another to go to the other extreme. To pump ourselves up constantly, as we seem to be doing, just seems to me to be another symptom of national insecurity, and just as unattractive.

I mentioned that Britain and New Zealand are still in the process of redefining their relationship, and I suggest that’s much harder for you than it is for us, because we’re not encumbered to the same extent with historical baggage.

Britain has had to come to terms with the loss of empire and great power status, and I don’t believe that’s been easy. In fact I think a lot of British people still haven’t quite faced up to it. I remember an English friend of mine remarking wistfully that Britain should never have given up its colonies. I imagine there are a lot of people living in those former colonies who also wish Britain had never given them up, because they were probably far better off under British colonial rule than they are now; but of course it’s idle to indulge in nostalgic pining for an era when much of the world map was coloured in British imperial pink.

And it’s not just the former colonies that Britain has lost. It’s had to cope with the loss of some potent symbols of economic and cultural sovereignty too.

Harrods, that definitive British retail institution in Knightsbridge, is owned by an Arab family. MG Rover, the last surviving volume producer from Britain’s once mighty car industry, collapsed ignominiously in 2005 and was bought in a firesale by the Chinese. Jaguar is owned by the Americans while Bentley and Rolls-Royce, probably the two proudest names in British automotive history, are in German hands. How humiliating is that?

And I want to make special mention of Rupert Murdoch. I’ve long been intrigued by the intense ill feeling shown toward Murdoch by the British intelligentsia, in particular, and I can only conclude there is deep resentment that a great British institution, The Times of London, was taken over a colonial upstart from Australia.

The mere mention of Murdoch’s name is enough to induce apoplexy among journalists from left-leaning papers like The Guardian, but they need to be reminded that it was Murdoch who did what British newspaper owners seemed incapable of doing, which was to take on the powerful Fleet St printing unions and drag the newspaper industry kicking and screaming into the 20th century.

Now let me turn to sport. I suspect that Britain still hasn’t come to terms with the fact that, having created the game of rugby, it promptly ceded superiority in the sport to some of its remote colonies. This suspicion is borne out by the fact that when the British magazine Rugby World published its list of the all-time top 100 players a few years ago, six of the top 10 were from the British Isles.

I don’t think any objective commentator would dispute that the two pre-eminent rugby teams for most of the 20th century were South Africa and New Zealand. Yet only one All Black and one Springbok made the British magazine’s all-time top 10 players. Sean Fitzpatrick, the most successful All Black captain ever, scraped in at 98 on the list.

The same stubborn denial characterises the obsessive – one might say unhinged – rantings of the British rugby writer Stephen Jones, who just can’t accept that rugby supremacy resides in the southern hemisphere. While Jones keeps on disparaging the New Zealand style of play, the All Blacks keep on winning. You’d think he might have figured this out by now and pulled his head in, but no.

Much British sporting journalism seems to be characterised by desperate optimism. Whether it’s the English football team or Tim Henman or the Lions, the British media repeatedly make the same error of talking up British chances and raising unrealistic hopes on the part of the fans. We saw this with the grossly hyped visit by Clive Woodward’s Lions in 2005, when of course they suffered a three-nil whitewash. And as for poor old Henman, I used to feel desperately sorry for him every time Wimbledon rolled around, when he would have to carry the burden of the unrealistic hopes of the British media.

I personally experienced something of this yearning for British sporting glory at Le Mans in 1985. There was a huge contingent of British fans there and their hopes were pinned on a clean sweep by the Jaguar team, but one by one, to the bitter disappointment of the Brits, the Jags fell out of the race (mostly mechanical failure, as I recall; fancy that). In the end it was Porsches that filled the first five places. On the trip back to London our charter bus stopped for a meal break in the beautiful city of Rouen and the British fans took out their frustration by behaving like absolute yobbos, abusing the locals and urinating all over the historic square where Joan of Arc died at the stake. It was not the most endearing side of the British character.

At times like this I wonder whether sport has become a substitute for military conquest and a means by which some British people – and I must in fairness emphasise “some” – try to recapture something of the pride of Britain’s great military past. Certainly British football hooliganism, which fortunately seems to have abated in recent years, is an outlet for jingoism of the ugliest type.

I can afford to be holier than thou here, because I come from a country with very little history to speak of, certainly not by comparison with Britain. We have no past glories to recapture and no former colonies to be patronising toward (although some Pacific Island leaders might dispute that). Metaphorically speaking, our historic baggage would fit into an overnight bag while yours would fill an entire cargo hold. So the adjustments as the relationship changes are easier for us.

I would like to finish with a specific reference to some British journalists.

I am a great defender of freedom of the press, for which – as I said earlier – we can thank our British heritage. And freedom of the press includes the right to express extreme and offensive views. But one aspect of being a small country is that we tend to be over-sensitive to criticism; and I have to confess that from a personal point of view, nothing winds me up more than a sneering piece by a British journalist about what a small, tedious and godforsaken country New Zealand is.

I have read many such pieces. One of the more recent was by the British writer Douglas Davis, and it appeared in The Spectator – incidentally, a great magazine that I subscribe to despite its occasional lapses.

Davis devoted almost an entire Diary column to what seemed a totally gratuitous attack on New Zealand. Let me read bits of it to you.

[Blog readers: At this point in my talk I recited excerpts from Davis’s column, but I threw the offending article out ages ago and haven’t been able to find it on the Net. Suffice to say he dismissed Enzed as a dull, bleak and mediocre country and even mocked the Kiwi accent. Now, back to my talk …]

I have to say here that while I sometimes cringe at the New Zealand accent myself, it’s pretty damned rich for anyone from Britain to mock the way other nationalities speak. A few years ago I shared a carriage on a French train with a group of teenagers and found myself idly wondering what country they came from. It was several minutes before I twigged that they were actually English and were speaking, at least nominally, the same language as me.

Reading stuff like Davis’s column, I instinctively want to counter-punch. I want to point out that opinion surveys frequently reveal the British to be some of Europe’s most unhappy and demoralised people. I feel like asking Davis why it is, when you turn on the Living Channel on Sky TV, you see endless programmes about British people traipsing around real estate offices all over Europe because they’re desperate to get away from the place. I could talk about the reality TV shows from Britain that portray British people as overweight, unhealthy, useless and dysfunctional. I could ask why, if New Zealand is so deeply unattractive, so many British still choose to migrate here. And I could point out that if I wanted to form perceptions about Britain on the basis of Heathrow, as Davis seems to have done at Auckland Airport, I could paint an extremely unflattering picture.

But of course this would not only be petty, but would present a very distorted picture of Britain.

I can’t help but wonder what impelled Davis to present such a jaundiced, negative picture of New Zealand – one that I know isn’t shared by many of his countrymen. Is it possible that he feels resentful about Britain’s declining place in the world and tries to make up for it by striking out at soft targets like boring, sleepy New Zealand? Is it the old story of making yourself feel better by putting someone else down? That’s the question I’d like to leave you with, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your time and attention.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Idiosyncratic pronunciations

Kim Hill has long puzzled her listeners by insisting on pronouncing film as "fillum", in the manner of the working-class Irish. Now her fellow Radio New Zealand presenter Kathryn Ryan has come up with another idiosyncratic pronunciation: azma.

In a discussion on respiratory illness this morning, Ryan repeatedly used the American pronunciation for asthma, using a hard “s” – a sound very close to “z” – in place of the soft “s” traditionally favoured by New Zealanders (including the person she was interviewing).

I have never heard this American pronunciation in New Zealand before. It’s hardly a life and death issue, but you have to wonder where these odd ideas come from.

Ryan’s preference for “azma” draws attention to one of the many peculiarities that distinguish British and American-style English. In certain words where we use a soft “s”, such as asthma, the Americans use a hard one. But conversely, in some words where we use the hard form of “s”, the Americans sound it as a soft “s”, so that our “nauseous” becomes their “norshous”, and the names Leslie and Wesley transmute into the quaint-sounding (at least to us) Lesslie and Wessley. It’s not uncommon to hear Americans refer to Elvis Pressley.

To use another Americanism (or should that perhaps be Americanissm?), go figure.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Key has transformed the political landscape

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 4.)

How suddenly, and how radically, the political landscape has changed.

We have a new prime minister, one quite unlike any of his predecessors.

The two dominant political figures of the past nine years, Helen Clark and Michael Cullen, have quietly melted into the wings, leaving the Labour Party under the leadership of Phil Goff and Annette King.

As capable and experienced as these two politicians are, it’s hard to see them as anything but stopgap leaders, holding the fort until one of the younger Labour Party thrusters (David Cunliffe? Darren Hughes?) pushes his or her way through.

What happened in the November election was nothing less than a transfer of power from one generation to the next. But there is even more to it than that. It has reoriented New Zealand politics in the same way (though not nearly as dramatically) as Barack Obama’s election has transformed the political mood of the United States.

The election of John Key signalled a new style of centre-right political leadership that could reshape the National Party and re-position it for the future.

It is a potentially far-reaching change that seems to have caught Labour napping, and the centre-left party will have to re-invent itself quickly – as the left-wing commentator Chris Trotter has noted – to catch up.

Let’s look at the generational issue first. Only 11 years separate Mr Key and his predecessor, yet they represent different eras. The events that shaped Helen Clark’s political values, and those of her generation, had little impact on the man who now leads New Zealand.

Miss Clark epitomised a generation politicised by the student radicalism of the 1960s – a generation that rejected the traditional values of its parents in everything from sex to music.

Mr Key was born too late to be deeply affected by any of this. To him and others of his generation, which is now displacing the Clark-era baby-boomers as the politically dominant demographic group, the Vietnam War and Springbok tours are probably little more than historical curiosities.

Miss Clark was of the generation that chafed under the autocratic, socially conservative rule of Robert Muldoon. Mr Key, by contrast, was a young adult in the tumultuous days of a reformist Labour government that turned New Zealand upside down and gave it a hearty shake. The political forces that shaped the two could hardly have been more different.

But possibly even more significant than any of this is John Key’s political personality.

He is a prime minister of a style we have not seen before: relaxed, open and congenial. David Lange appeared to have some of these qualities but at heart he was intensely private and, some say, a troubled man.

You certainly don’t get the impression of hidden torment with Mr Key. There is a freshness and spontaneity about him that reaches across traditional political divides. As with many sunny optimists, people find him hard not to like. A lifelong leftist of my acquaintance described him last week as “a good bloke”.

Perhaps more important, he doesn’t seem bound by old conventions and stereotypes. National Party leaders in the past have tended to be stuffy (Keith Holyoake), authoritarian (Robert Muldoon) or pompous (Jim Bolger). Mr Key is none of these, and clearly feels no need to change his personality simply because he has become prime minister. He is not awed by the weight of his office.

Neither is he bound by dogma. With Mr Key you get the impression that whatever works is okay.

Until recently I regarded his pragmatism as a mark against him. I thought the leader of the National Party should be staunch in upholding its traditional values – individual freedoms, private enterprise and so forth. But less than three months into his prime ministership, I’m modifying my views. Because already, he has changed the tone of the country in a positive way.

For one thing, Mr Key’s willingness to break the mould is refreshing. We saw this in the way he surprised everyone, and defied political convention, by reaching out simultaneously to ACT on his right and the Maori Party on his left.

More recently we have seen this quality in the disarming but politically shrewd way in which he defused the issue of whether a Maori sovereignty flag should fly on the Auckland Harbour Bridge. No big deal, he said; just find a flag that’s acceptable to all Maoridom (that was the shrewd part) and he’ll even fly it over Parliament.

Mr Key’s political modus operandi is to reach out and engage with people rather than stand on the ramparts delivering ultimatums. So far it’s a winning technique.

On the occasion of Paul Holmes’ farewell from Newstalk ZB's breakfast show, just before Christmas, we saw in the background the remarkable sight of Mr Key in earnest but apparently amicable conversation with Miss Clark. If that wasn’t an indication of a new style of leadership, I don’t know what is.

We saw it again in the annual celebrations at the Ratana marae. Here, deep in traditional Labour territory, Mr Key was feted while the Labour delegation was left, figuratively speaking, out in the cold. Labour MPs even experienced the humiliation of hearing their party roundly (and justifiably) rebuked by one of the official speakers for the way it had taken the Maori vote for granted.

The warm welcome given to Mr Key was partly in deference to his position as prime minister, but there was more to it than that. It was also an acknowledgment that he had give Maori a more meaningful say in government than Labour ever had.

In less than 100 days, Mr Key has comprehensively re-arranged the furniture of New Zealand politics. In the process, he has moved the political centre-ground decisively to the right. And he has done this without resorting once to the mythical far-right ideological agenda that his critics predicted would be unveiled if he won power.

What’s more, he has done it effortlessly, and with a smile on his face. This is a wholly new style of politics.

Of course this may not last. The political path is strewn with booby traps that could blow up in Mr Key’s face.

But for the moment, his success has left Labour flat-footed. The party’s preachy, censorious finger-wagging is suddenly out of fashion and out of synch with the mood of the electorate, as Chris Trotter has written.

Trotter has suggested that this new-look National government is emotionally connecting with the public in a way that Labour can’t match. If the Opposition doesn’t loosen up and select candidates more in tune with popular sentiment, he wrote, National may revert to being the natural party of government. He may well be right.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Style a late scratching at Trentham

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, February 3.)

STYLE is hard to define but you know it when you see it. A person with an innate sense of style can look good in clothes from The Warehouse. Conversely, those who haven’t got it are never going to have it, no matter how much they spend on designer labels. You can dress a turnip in Working Style or Starfish but it’s still going to be a turnip.

The recent male fashion contest at Trentham demonstrates the point. Judging by the published photos, style was a late scratching – with the possible exception, that is, of 83-year-old Norm Rodley, who managed to make even the clich├ęd safari jacket look acceptable. He carried it off because he has natural flair and panache.

As for the other contestants, oh dear. The cravated fellow who was initially adjudged the runner-up, and ended up sharing the main prize with Norm after the winner was disqualified, looked like a 1950s spiv from London’s East End.

The 50s look is obviously in. Another Wellington male stylemeister who posed proudly in the fashion pages of this paper a couple of weeks ago was a throwback to the same decade, except that in his case it was more the Neapolitan handbag-snatcher look. I could have pictured him on the pillion seat of a Vespa, cruising the narrow streets looking for unsuspecting female tourists.

And what of the women fashion hopefuls at Trentham? Tragically, not much better. It seems a tradition that women racegoers must dress in a fussy frou-frou style that is the fashion equivalent of gaudy chocolate boxes.

Raceday fashion is a peculiarly sexless branch of couture, one that seems to have forgotten that the fundamental purpose of dressing up is to make oneself look attractive to potential partners. At Trentham, there are better-looking fillies in the birdcage than on the catwalk.

* * *

THERE’S a new class of have-nots. On Newstalk ZB last week, a Wellington woman complained that her son’s high school seemed to assume that all pupils’ homes had Internet access, when his didn’t.

She couldn’t find out when the school re-opened for 2009 – apparently the information was availably only on the school’s website – and even more astonishingly, she said many of her son’s homework assignments last year were delivered online. She had been fighting a running battle with the school administration and getting nowhere.

I suspect this is the tip of a very large iceberg of disaffected and disconnected citizens. People without computers find themselves excluded from a steadily widening range of activities, from taking advantage of cut-price deals to participation in public affairs.

It can be argued this is simply the market at work. Technology changes and people eventually have to adapt if they want to stay “in the loop”. But have we reached the point yet where vital public institutions such as schools are entitled to assume that everyone is plugged into the Net? I wouldn’t have thought so.

* * *

WHEN I was a boy I would save my paper-round money and send a postal note to a mail-order firm for an item I coveted, such as a sheath knife or watch. Invariably the product would be delivered within 10 days or so.

Fast-forward several decades, and we are able to use the miracle of technology to buy things online. Sometimes this works – stuff I’ve ordered from US-based Amazon has arrived only days later – and sometimes it doesn’t.

In a previous column I mentioned my experience with online retailer Fishpond. I ordered a DVD from Fishpond last November 3 and was told it would be dispatched within days. To cut a long story short, it turned out they didn’t have my requested DVD in stock, though it was advertised on their website, and eventually they advised me I wouldn’t have it till early January at best, and possibly several weeks after that. I cancelled the order.

I can now report that my relationship with Fishpond has gone from bad to worse.

On December 31 I ordered a book via their website. A confirmation email advised that it would “ship” (sic) within 6-11 days.

On January 20, I got another email saying there had been a “temporary delay” in sourcing my item. “At the time of your order, the supplier was showing stock on hand but they must have mis-counted so it has been ordered from another source.”

Oddly enough this was precisely the same wording as in the email I had received advising of the delay in the arrival of my DVD the previous month. There seems to be a lot of miscounting going on. Or perhaps Fishpond is misleading its customers into thinking it has certain items in stock when in fact it doesn’t.

You might well wonder why I would risk doing business with Fishpond again after my earlier experience, but I was given a Fishpond voucher as a present and am determined to use it, no matter how hard this outfit tries to frustrate me.

Incidentally, I’m still waiting for my book.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Business will have taken heart

The significance of the business assistance measures announced yesterday by Prime Minister John Key goes beyond what they actually do. The package itself may be relatively modest, especially when compared with what Kevin Rudd has done in Australia. But it sends an important message to business – and particularly to small business owners – that this is a government that values the business sector, understands its difficulties and wants to give it a leg-up. The potential impact, in terms of morale, shouldn’t be under-estimated

For nine years, the business sector managed as best it could under a Labour-led government that too often seemed indifferent to its problems and unappreciative of its importance. The only temporary departure from this pattern was the famous “charm offensive” of 2000, when Labour realised it had gone too far in alienating business people by burdening them with regulations and compliance costs.

That Labour and its parliamentary allies didn’t spend a lot of time fretting about the welfare of business was hardly surprising. Only a few Labour MPs had experience in the private sector and fewer still – a mere handful – had experienced the challenges of trying to run a business. Overwhelmingly, Labour consisted (and still does) of former teachers, university lecturers, trade union officials and public servants: people who never had to worry about paying wages or GST, complying with the minutiae of health and safety regulations, finding suitable employees (and getting rid of unsuitable ones) or the plethora of other daily challenges that go with operating a business. It’s astonishing – and a compliment to Labour, in a way – that a party so unrepresentative of mainstream New Zealand should have stayed in government for so long.

It wouldn’t be fair to demonise Labour as being overtly hostile to private enterprise. After all, international surveys showed that New Zealand remained a relatively easy place to do business. Yet Labour often managed, collectively, to give the impression that business was tolerated only because it was a means by which the government could gather more revenue with which to fund its multiple busybody initiatives. Rarely was there any acknowledgment by leading Labour figures, such as Michael Cullen, that private enterprise – risk-taking capitalists big and small, from the farmer and the local hairdresser to Fonterra and Telecom – was the source of all our economic wealth.

That has now changed. A dramatic political mood shift has swept the country, the full extent of which is only now becoming apparent. New Zealanders signalled strongly in November that they have had enough heavy-handed government, thank you very much, and they are likely to be receptive to a stronger emphasis on the need for wealth creation and the removal of barriers to improved productivity. Key’s package yesterday may have been modest, but business will have taken heart from the underlying message.