Saturday, May 30, 2009

Why leftist academics hate the media

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 27.)

A year or so ago I started what’s known as a blog. It’s an ugly word, blog – the beauty of language clearly doesn’t rate highly on the priorities of the people who run the digital world – but I’m afraid we’re stuck with it.

“Blog” is a contraction of web log, which, for the benefit of readers who can’t be bothered familiarising themselves with such things (and I can't say I blame them), means a personal commentary or journal written on the internet, to which readers can attach their own comments.

I have reservations about the so-called blogosphere – mainly that it provides a platform for toxic, semi-literate ranting and personal abuse, much of it anonymous. Nonetheless it’s a dynamic forum for comment and debate, and for better or worse I joined it.

To get to the point of this column, I recently wrote a commentary on my blog in response to a paper written by a Massey University academic, Dr Sean Phelan. Dr Phelan, who teaches media studies in Massey’s Department of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, devoted 17 pages to an analysis of New Zealand journalism and its relationship with academia, and to the tension between theory and practice in the training of journalists.

The paper was written in academic jargon of the most pretentiously arcane type imaginable – I commented in my blog that it read like a parody – and demonstrated, as one has come to expect from New Zealand academics, a pronounced ideological list to port on the part of its author.

I don’t have space here to go into the paper’s content, but I decoded it to mean, in essence, that Dr Phelan thought New Zealand journalism students should be taught the theories of Karl Marx and left-wing sociologists and philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, whom Phelan admiringly cited as “critically engaged thinkers”.

Dr Phelan lamented that the teaching of journalism was an “instrument of the existing hegemonic order”, a phrase that sounds as if it came straight from the Marxist handbook. I wrote that he was advocating the politicisation of journalism training and went on: “More specifically, my guess is that he would like journalism students to be inculcated with the view that the news media is a tool of the ruling class, manipulated by the rich and powerful for their own benefit.”

My blog prompted an immediate reaction. The first few responses endorsed my view of Dr Phelan, one commenter (a well-regarded writer whom I would have regarded as vaguely leftish himself) labelling Dr Phelan’s paper “academic claptrap”, and “incoherent posturing”. But then Dr Phelan’s friends and fellow academics rallied to his support.

Two media academics from the Auckland University of Technology tried to put the boot in, but it was like being savaged by goldfish. One was the journalism lecturer Dr Martin Hirst, an avowed socialist who appears to have a highly inflated view of the weight his views carry in the world of journalism. He portentously wrote that he had not yet had time to prepare his response to my blog – as if we were all breathlessly waiting for his Olympian judgment – but warned that it was coming. (Two months later, nothing has surfaced. I’m shaking with relief.)

Another commenter sneered at my statement that the news media functioned as a marketplace of ideas, claiming this was a meaningless slogan typical of “faded old neoliberal ideology”. Really? Perhaps I’m imagining all those lively and informed expressions of opinion and exchanges of ideas – exchanges that help shape public opinion on the issues of the day – that I see every day in newspaper stories, opinion pieces and letters to the editor, or hear on talkback programmes and interviews on Morning Report. Priggish leftists hate this stuff because it permits the dissemination of views they disapprove of.

The same commenter complained bitterly about editors and journalists controlling access to information in newspapers. Fancy that: editors and journalists running newspapers. The cheek of it!

Who, I wonder, does he think should make decisions each day about what goes into the paper? Someone has to. Perhaps he would prefer it to be a state-appointed commissariat, ideally including him.

Left-wing blogger Russell Brown, the poor man’s Bono, got in on the act too, making the extraordinary statement in his blog that I hadn’t read Phelan’s paper. (To all Brown’s other talents it seems we must now add omniscience.) Well alright then, I admit I didn’t read the paper – I made it all up, and by the most freakish coincidence it turned out that the incomprehensible words I put in Dr Phelan’s mouth were exactly those he had written in his paper. What were the chances of that happening, eh?

To get serious, the manner in which Dr Phelan’s colleagues and supporters swarmed to his support (I exempt one or two whose comments were fair and constructive) was telling. Academic institutions provide a cosy environment in which neo-Marxist ideology, however bizarre, largely goes unchallenged because it is widely shared.

It’s relatively unusual for academics to have their snug, self-reinforcing leftist orthodoxy disturbed by outside scrutiny. They don’t appreciate someone picking up rocks in the academic streambed to see what’s scuttling about underneath.

One of their stock reactions to criticism is to cry anti-intellectualism, as one academic did on Russell Brown’s blog in response to my comments about Dr Phelan. But if the word “intellectual” has become a discredited and derogatory term, as I believe it has, it’s entirely due to flaky academics whose heads have disappeared up their own rear orifices.

The subtext lurking beneath the academic response to my blog was a familiar one. Academic institutions provide a sanctuary for many people who feel bitter and thwarted because the world – or in this case the news media – doesn’t conform to their ideological prescription.

They have a vision of a better world which they would like to impose regardless of whether the rest of us want it, and they have determined that the most effective way of achieving this is through taxpayer-funded sinecures in academia where they can promulgate their theories pretty much unopposed.

It irritates the hell out of these people that they can’t control public discussion so that other people can be made to share their worldview. That, in a nutshell, explains why they so deeply resent the news media.

Friday, May 29, 2009

My take on the Rankin saga

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, May 26.)

HERE, for what it’s worth, is my take on the Christine Rankin saga.

One of the features of Labour’s nine years in government was the influence exerted by policy advisory groups, state agencies and non-governmental organisations lobbying on a range of issues that included health, education, welfare and human rights. Broadly speaking, their agendas conveniently ran parallel to those of the government.

Even when they weren’t Labour appointees, members of these groups could generally be relied on to fall into line with the prevailing political orthodoxy. A cosy consensus built up around Labour’s Utopian social agenda and there was little room for dissenters.

Though unelected, unrepresentative and largely unaccountable, these Wellington insiders wielded considerable power. Entire forests were felled to satisfy the political establishment’s appetite for reports and policy proposals to make us better, healthier, more socially concerned citizens, even if it meant whittling away the right of individuals to make their own choices.

With National’s election the political environment charged overnight and those busybody groups now sense that their power is slipping away. There is a whiff of panic in the air. The appointment of Ms Rankin to the Families Commission was hardly going to turn the world upside down – she’s only one of seven part-timers, for heaven’s sake – but it was correctly seen as a symbolic turning point.

Hence the venomous intensity of the attacks on Ms Rankin from a wide range of groups and individuals, many of whom have had the government’s ear for the past nine years and don’t like the thought of ceding influence to anyone whose views don’t conform with their own.

Of course Ms Rankin didn’t help by leading with her chin. Her best PR strategy would have been to pull her head in and lie low, but her ego prevailed. She’s no more capable of buttoning her lip than I am of being selected for the All Blacks.

* * *

AN INTERESTING aspect of the Rankin imbroglio has been the role of the news media, whose function has changed during the past few decades from that of an essentially passive reporter and observer of politics – some would say too passive – to that of an active player, using its considerable power to shape and drive political events.

Political journalists not only determine what is news (as they have always done, to a greater or less extent) but go further, whipping up stories involving conflict and personalities while ignoring others with deeper implications. Often these other stories are dismissed as too dull or complex, especially for TV viewers who are deemed to have the attention span of goldfish.

In effect journalists have become choreographers of the political ballet. Politicians dance to the media’s tune because they can’t risk losing control of the news agenda.

Moreover, political journalists who were once content to simply report events now freely pass judgment on them as well. They tell us not only what is happening, but what to make of it. This is especially true of TV.

In the process they can make or break political careers, as we have seen in TV3’s relentless coverage of the hapless National MP Melissa Lee’s blunders on the Mt Albert campaign trail.

But back to Ms Rankin. The media generally dislike Ms Rankin but they love the Rankin story, and they love the Rankin story for much the same reason they dislike Ms Rankin – she’s egotistical, mouthy and flamboyant and needs to be brought down a peg or two. She’s a political conservative too, which makes her fair game in the eyes of many journalists.

She isn’t the first to feel the sting of media disapproval. As already observed, Ms Lee has copped it in recent weeks and so did the hapless Don Brash. We shouldn’t forget Winston Peters either, though Lord knows I want to.

* * *

SO AWARD-WINNING Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif was indignant at being detained for three hours by “racist” immigration officers at Auckland Airport.

Diddums, as former prime minister Helen Clark might have said.

Everyone who travels is inconvenienced to a greater or less extent by the stringent security checks made necessary by terrorism. What Hanif experienced was merely an extra degree of the delay and indignity experienced by anyone who flies, including flustered mothers with tired, distressed small children whose teddy bears are highly unlikely to conceal plastic explosives.

Hanif needs reminding that all this security rigmarole would be unnecessary if it weren’t for murderous Muslim fanatics. Many of them come from his home country, which makes it inevitable that immigration officers are going to pay particular attention to someone travelling on a Pakistan passport.

Rather than venting his spleen on immigration officers – who apparently compounded the offence to Hanif’s precious ego by not knowing he was here for Auckland’s Readers and Writers Festival (I wonder if he uttered the immortal line, “Don’t you know who I am?”) – Hanif should direct his resentment where it belongs: at those of his fellow Muslims who insist on making targets of innocent people.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A column about (ahem) my legs

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 13.)

At the risk of revealing more about myself than you really want to know, let me tell you about my legs.

They are, not to put too fine a point on it, skinny.

They are so skinny that when I was a kid, my older brother, who had a much more robust set of pins, would taunt me by saying I risked being arrested for having no visible means of support. (That phrase means nothing to someone born after 1970, but in those days it was commonly intoned in court as part of the vagrancy laws.)

My mother, who had a typically Irish sense of humour, consoled me by pointing out that at least my legs reached all the way to the ground, which was better than nothing.

As I moved into that stage of life when one becomes aware of how one is seen by others, particularly girls, I grew quite self-conscious about my legs.

Packed off to boarding school at the age of 15, I quickly learned that boarding school pupils mercilessly homed in on any characteristics that marked someone as different from the norm, physically or otherwise.

I recall wisecracks about boys having pirate ancestry (they had inherited sunken chests) or having Bondi physiques (a long way from Manly). In my case, I was bestowed with the unflattering sobriquet “Twiggy”, after the spindle-shanked English model of the same name.

She became a celebrity, and a wealthy one at that, on the basis of her skinniness. Alas, all I got was the nickname.

Fortunately my image, in the eyes of my schoolmates, was redeemed by the fact that I could play the guitar and sing – the one ability, other than sporting prowess, that guaranteed acceptance.

It was sport that heightened the realisation that my physique did not conform to the New Zealand norm.

Decades of vigorous selective breeding in the bedrooms of a rugby-obsessed nation had produced a male body type perfectly adapted for rucks and mauls, with thick trunks and stout, powerful legs. I was about as far from this archetype as you could get.

I was useless on the rugby field, having the neither the physique nor the necessary instinct for the game. We du Fresnes were runners; rugby just wasn’t in my genes.

The fact that I had an uncle who was a New Zealand mile champion in the 1930s would have counted for nothing at my rugby-mad school. In contrast, one of my schoolmates enjoyed reverential respect because he was a great-nephew of the famous Brownlie brothers, Maurice and Cyril, of the 1924 “Invincible” All Blacks.

In later life, my non-regulation physique was to present me with a real problem when it came to buying trousers. My legs are long as well as thin, but New Zealand men’s trousers are designed on the assumption that all blokes are built like Sean Fitzpatrick, with waists – if they have any at all – barely higher than their hips.

Finding a pair of pants that come all the way up to my waist, without simultaneously strangling my scrotum, was virtually impossible. So these days I postpone buying trousers until I’m going overseas.

In Europe and the US, where men’s clothes designers cater for a much wider range of body shapes, I can experience the pleasure of finding trousers on the peg that fit me perfectly – and in some cases, even have to be turned up because they’re too long. It’s the only time I ever go on what might called a spending spree, buying more than I need because I never know when I’ll next get the opportunity.

As I advanced into middle age, my self-consciousness about my legs began to diminish. For one thing, I became less anxious about being attractive to the opposite sex. For another, I took up mountainbiking and road cycling and realised that as skinny as they were, my legs were far from useless.

They conveyed me around Lake Taupo seven or eight times in the 160 km Great Lake Cycle Challenge, in reasonably respectable times, and also got me through several gruelling Karapoti Classic mountainbike races.

I started feeling comfortable in shorts again, for the first time since childhood. Somehow, the knowledge that my legs were capable of propelling a bike over long distances, and up steep hills that forced many of my fellow riders to dismount and walk, made me less self-conscious.

It was oddly reassuring to discover, after a lifetime of feeling generally inadequate at sport, that there was at least one activity in which I could hold my own.

I even imagined that my legs might have developed a more pronounced musculature as a result of all that cycling. At least that’s how they look to me, seen from the right angle and in the right light, though my wife – who is always quick to bring me down to earth – reckons I’m being a bit fanciful.

I have to confess, to my shame, at a feeling of smug vindication when I look at some of my contemporaries who, in my college years, attracted all the best-looking girls because they played in the First XV. In middle age, their muscles have turned to flab and whatever sexual appeal they might have once has had long disappeared.

It was a bit of a shock to me, then, when an old friend commented recently, out of the blue, on my skinny legs. Good-natured ribbing from friends used to be commonplace whenever I appeared in shorts, but I hadn’t heard such a remark in years.

I wasn’t offended, and I know that the woman who made the comment would be mortified if she thought I had felt insulted. But it caused me to wonder again about a peculiarity of etiquette that, in my more sensitive days, irked me greatly.

How come it’s acceptable to comment on, and even make fun of, a person’s skinniness when it would be considered the height of rudeness to say to someone’s face that they were fat? Can someone please explain the difference?

Is Key too accessible?

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, May 12.)

THIS might sound odd coming from a journalist, but are our elected leaders too accessible to the media?

John Key pops up everywhere. On a typical day he might be interviewed on TVNZ’s Breakfast, Newstalk ZB’s breakfast programme, Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint at 5pm, the two 6 o’clock TV news bulletins and Campbell Live or Close Up. Helen Clark was no different.

Contrast this with prime ministers of previous generations, who made a point of being aloof and inaccessible other than when it suited them.

Even as recently as the Bolger-Shipley era, reporters were denied the opportunity to question the PM at a weekly post-Cabinet press conference. (Former political editor and Bolger press secretary Richard Griffin tells me it was David Lange who abandoned the Monday ritual in the Beehive Theatrette, and it wasn’t revived until Miss Clark became PM.)

I wouldn’t suggest we regress to the era when our leaders occasionally condescended to throw the media a token morsel of information. Part of the politician’s job is explaining what they are doing and why.

They must be held accountable, and the media perform an essential function by keeping the public informed of what the government is up to.

But have we lurched too far in the other direction? The news media are far more fragmented than they used to be; every TV and radio network wants a slice of the action. A mass press conference isn’t enough for the electronic media; it must be a one-on-one interview. That way the host and the station are made to feel important by having the PM as guest.

This is all very well for the broadcast media, but we didn’t elect Mr Key to spend a big chunk of his day gratifying the egos of radio and TV hosts. We elected him to govern.

* * *

IN 1954, a nationwide moral panic was triggered by the disclosure that schoolgirls were meeting men for sex in the Hutt Valley.

The men, described by a scandalised press as milk bar cowboys, would meet the girls in High St, Lower Hutt, on Sunday afternoons. According to the local police sergeant, sexual depravity ensued in riverside parks, picture theatres and private homes when parents were absent.

Even in 2009 Lower Hutt isn’t exactly jumping on Sunday afternoons, so it’s not hard to understand teenagers looking for a way to relieve what must have been an oppressive ennui in 1954. But the disclosures triggered a public outcry and led to the famous Mazengarb inquiry, which found that moral delinquency, encouraged by unsavoury films and literature, had infected the nation’s youth.

Fast-forward several decades and not much has changed, except that it’s no longer High St or the banks of the Hutt River.

These days, we’re told, male predators are using the Internet to find and groom young women for sex – hence the steady flow of official warnings to parents to watch what their children get up to in chat rooms, and the recent establishment of a special police unit to target Web sex criminals.

All this is breathlessly reported as if it were a new phenomenon. But as the Mazengarb inquiry showed, sexually hungry men have long preyed on curious teenage girls. The means by which they find them may have changed, but let’s not kid ourselves that it’s anything new.

* * *

OVER lunch with a friend recently, I abstained from my usual glass of wine and had a tomato juice instead.

Big mistake. It was so sweet as to be almost undrinkable.

I’m very partial to tomato juice, preferably served with a generous quantity of vodka, a good shake of Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco, a squeeze of lemon and some salt and freshly ground black pepper. But most tomato juice is now so unnaturally sugary that my wife and I avoid all brands but one.

I note that the iconic soft drink L&P also tastes a lot sweeter than it used to, which makes me wonder whether drinks manufacturers en masse have quietly been upping the sugar content of their products.

I asked Green MP and food watchdog Sue Kedgley whether she was aware of higher sugar content in soft drinks and fruit juices but she didn’t know of any research that would prove my suspicions. However the Obesity Action Coalition directed me to analysis which showed that fruit juices and soft drinks typically contain, per serving, six or seven teaspoons of sugar.

The point was made that most people wouldn’t dream of putting that much sugar in their tea or coffee, yet we consume it in other drinks without batting an eyelid.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Rankin has earned the last laugh

Delicious. That was the word that sprang to mind when I read that Christine Rankin had been appointed to the Families Commission. (That’s delicious as in irony, and not to be confused with delicious as it might be applied to, say, confectionery or ripe tropical fruit.)

One of the more pleasing aspects of National’s election victory in November, for me, was that it promised relief from the pervasive influence of sanctimonious, busybody policy agencies that, under Labour, had proliferated like mushrooms – or perhaps toadstools would be a more appropriate metaphor – in spring rain.

The Families Commission, of course, wasn’t a Labour creation. It was a well-intentioned, if poorly conceived, initiative of United Future leader Peter Dunne, who made it the price of his co-operation with the Clark government in 2002. Creation of the commission gave Dunne a political trophy that he could flourish for the benefit of United Future’s conservative Christian supporters, for whom “family” issues were of paramount importance (the more so given their anxiety about the policies that might flow from a leftist, Godless government).

Any hopes that the commission would champion the traditional family values embraced by Dunne’s supporters rapidly collapsed. The most charitable assessment of the commission’s performance is that it was industriously (if expensively, at $7 million a year) ineffectual, harmlessly busying itself with talkfests and reports to which no one paid a blind bit of notice. A darker interpretation is that the commission was hijacked so as to ensure that none of the issues of concern to Dunne’s supporters – for example, the ticklish question of parental rights versus those of the state – got in the way of Labour’s Utopian social agenda.

Any illusion that the commission would protect traditional family values, as naively envisaged by Dunne’s allies in 2002, was irrevocably shattered when it threw its weight behind Sue Bradford’s anti-smacking bill last year. And if that wasn’t enough to raise suspicions that the commission’s agenda was firmly aligned with Labour’s, any remaining doubts would surely have been erased when the commission’s founding head, Dr Rajen Prasad, was named at No 12 on the Labour list for the 2009 election (he’s now an MP).

All this made some people wonder whether the Families Commission, along with finger-wagging upholders of leftist orthodoxy such as the Human Rights Commission, would be a goner if National came to power. As early as last August, Simon Collins in the New Zealand Herald was speculating that the commission would be a casualty of a National victory.

But no; John Key’s government has decided on a much more exquisite solution. National has retained the commission, presumably as the price of Dunne’s support in Parliament, but its appointment of the flamboyant Rankin – a staunch opponent of the Bradford bill – places a fox in the henhouse, and already the feathers are flying. For good measure, Rankin is joined at the commission boardroom table by another conservative on family issues, Parents Inc chief executive Bruce Pilbrow.

National isn’t traditionally known as a party of jokers, but only someone with a wicked sense of humour could have perpetrated this piece of political mischief. Dunne is incensed, as are the Greens and the Labour Party.

Claims that Rankin’s appointment is an act of sabotage aren’t entirely off the mark, though National would doubtless prefer to characterise it as a rebalancing of an institution that, like most politicised state agencies under Labour, tilted sharply to the left. I note that John Armstrong, in an uncharacteristically choleric column in the Herald this morning, claimed Rankin was unpopular – but with whom? Perhaps with the Beehive insiders political editors talk to, but there’s little doubt in my mind that the family values espoused by Rankin are a lot closer to the mainstream than the views of people like Prasad and his successor, Victoria University academic Jan Pryor. That’s born out by the number of opinion polls that showed the public overwhelmingly opposed the Bradford bill (which, to its lasting shame, National ended up supporting).

One of the most satisfying aspects of Rankin’s appointment is that it will cause enormous chagrin among leading Labour lights, who detest her. Whatever one might think of Rankin’s extravagant behaviour while head of Work and Income, and she did indulge in self-aggrandisement on a stupendous scale, it was hard not to sympathise with her in the face of a nasty gang-up by male politicians and public service mandarins who, for all their supposed belief in sexual equality, clearly felt uneasy with – maybe even threatened by – a stroppy and assertive woman who flaunted her sexuality.

Social Welfare Minister Steve Maharey allegedly swore at her in meetings, belittled her as looking like a cocktail waitress and ordered her to change the way she looked – no sensitive New Age male, he – while the creepy Mark Prebble, then head of the Prime Minister’s Department, nagged her over the shortness of her skirts, complained that she made him feel uncomfortable and fretted that her breasts were a distraction. Dear me.

Most peculiarly of all, the Employment Court action over Rankin’s dismissal as head of Work and Income heard that her boss, State Services Commissioner Michael Wintringham, offered to visit her in Australia if a job could be organised for her there, but added – and it’s anyone guess why he should have said this, but the answer isn’t likely to be edifying – that any such encounter would be platonic, because he was celibate.

It was hard to escape the impression that as much as she was punished for her lavish reign at Work and Income, Rankin was also made to suffer for upsetting sexually uptight men. After all that, I reckon she’s earned the last laugh.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Tardis that is my wife's handbag

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 29.)

“Where’s that receipt?” I asked my wife. I wanted to return a faulty electric hedge trimmer to the store where we’d bought it and needed the receipt as proof of purchase.

“In my handbag,” she replied. My heart sank.

“Which one?” I asked.

“You know – the big white leather one,” she said.

My heart sank further. My wife’s big white leather bag is the size of a coal sack. Just lifting it puts me at risk of a hernia.

I began rummaging. I pulled out two Air New Zealand boarding passes for a flight to Nelson in June 2000. I remembered the occasion well – an old friend’s funeral.

There was an annual leave application from my wife’s job at a Wellington childcare centre in 1996.

There was a family admission pass to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. When were we last in Melbourne? I wondered. Ah yes – 1989.

Next I pulled out a yellowing recipe for my late mother’s cold Christmas pudding. It was typed on the Imperial 66 Mum owned in the 1970s.

I fossicked further. Next came an envelope containing colour pictures of our kids at the beach in Hawke’s Bay, where we used to holiday in my parents’ caravan. There were just three kids then; our youngest daughter, now 25, hadn’t yet been born.

There was a reference supplied to my wife by the posh Sydney restaurant where she worked briefly in 1972. A damned good reference it was too.

There was her birth certificate from Stuttgart in 1951, a bit tattered around the edges but still legible (well, if you read German).

There was a Star Ferries pass from Hong Kong, dated 2002. That would have been the trip from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island on which my wife found a natty little folding umbrella left behind by a previous passenger. She still uses it – in fact the umbrella was in her handbag too.

There was a photo of me standing outside an ancient pub, famous because parts of it had slumped into the mineshafts underneath, in the English Midlands. That would have been 1985.

There was a Plunket booklet recording the birth weight and developmental progress of our first son, now 36, and the business card of the real estate agent who sold us our first house in 1978.

There were copies of our children’s reports from their primary school in Titahi Bay, dated 1981, and a receipt from Madame Louise’s Le Normandie restaurant in Wellington dated 1976. I had a whitebait fritter followed by lobster thermidor; my wife ordered smoked eel and a carpetbag steak. I vaguely remember an argument about whether we should order white wine or red.

There was a crumpled admission ticket to a screening of Ryan’s Daughter at the Cinerama in Wellington. Gee, that Sarah Miles was sexy.

Next I found a hardback copy of Great Expectations, issued by the Paraparaumu Public Library in 1987. I idly wondered what the overdue fines must amount to by now.

The reason it was never returned was that the book had accidentally become entangled in a copy of the Manawatu Evening Standard that carried a front-page picture of my wife’s family arriving at the Palmerston North railway station in 1965. Immigrants were news then, especially when the family included three strikingly attractive blonde daughters.

My search for the hedge trimmer receipt continued.

I came across a grease-spattered Des Britten Cookbook, published in 1977, and an owner’s manual for a 1970 Triumph 2000. Fat lot of good that ever did us – it was the most unreliable car we ever owned.

Next I found a loaf of sourdough bread, a selection of cheeses, half a dozen bakewell tarts and a frozen size 14 free-range chicken. My wife doesn’t like to go anywhere without the security of knowing we have food.

There was a Kodak Instamatic camera that I’d completely forgotten owning. The film that I took out of the camera is at the chemist’s now; heaven knows what the developed images will show.

There were several balls of wool and a Butterick sewing pattern for a man’s kaftan. A great kaftan it was too, except that it had no pockets. I remember making quite an impression when I wore it hosting a party in 1975.

A carton of Rothmans cigarettes came out next, purchased duty-free when we were both still smokers. How could we have mislaid that?

There was a battered dual-speed Ryobi power tool that I last used to sand a house that I painted in 1981. I vaguely remember my wife putting the Ryobi in her bag to get the damaged power cord repaired. She must have forgotten it.

There was a complete set of Arthur Mee’s 10-volume Children’s Encyclopaedia that I remember taking from my parents’ house when we cleaned it out after my father died in 1984. I’d idly wondered where it had gone.

Then I found a two-person tent, complete with fly, guy ropes and pegs. “You never know when we might need it,” my wife used to say. She probably stowed the tent in her bag about the time we owned the Triumph 2000, reasoning that we could never be sure where we’d be marooned when it next broke down.

There was the nice little macrocarpa coffee table she made at woodwork night classes in Porirua when the kids were still small. I think she was distracted when she arrived home with the finished table because our youngest child, not accustomed to being left in my care, was bawling inconsolably. Somehow the coffee table just got left in the bag.

Next, I pulled out a Hornby electric train set. We got it for the kids one Christmas but never could make the damn thing work. It ended up back in its box and ultimately found its way into the handbag, probably with the aim of dropping it into a Salvation Army store. Oh well.

By now you will have gathered that there is a slight element of exaggeration in this tale. But not much.

Doctor Who’s Tardis – the size of a phonebox on the exterior, but miraculously capacious once you get inside – has nothing on my wife’s handbag, which represents a dimension of space hitherto unimagined by physicists.

I can’t claim intimate knowledge of the contents of other women’s handbags but I suspect it’s much the same story.

Oh, and by the way, I never did find the receipt for the hedge trimmer.

Shullfish on the ullah-carte menu in North Shorwah

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, April 28.)

IT WON’T surprise anyone to hear that my periodic grizzling about the ghastly voices of female broadcasters has had zero effect. If anything, things have got worse.

On my local radio station I hear a young woman announcer who sounds as if she has just inhaled helium. Even Radio New Zealand, the last citadel of correct pronunciation, has fallen to the Barbarians. There are female reporters on the state-owned radio network who would make Lyn of Tawa sound like the Queen.

I recently heard a female RNZ journalist report that a district howth board had wowcomed a crackdown on teenage drinkers. And did you know the Labour Party is led by someone named Full Goff?

Female broadcasters were once regarded as exemplars of proper speech, but in a bizarre upending of the norm, they now talk in a wince-inducing kay-way accent far worse than anything heard on the streets.

Radio New Zealand recently carried a detailed report about something called tullycommunications and a TV item said shullfish were threatened by an oil spill. “A” sounds get mangled too, as evidenced by a reference on radio to an ullah-carte menu.

Reporters are also industriously adding extra syllables to words. A fire on the North Shorwah burned for several ouwers and Lower Hutt has evidently acquired a new suburb called Bowelmont.

It’s almost a relief to report that the phenomenon is not unique to New Zealand. Australian political journalist Kerry-Anne Walsh, who does a weekly report from Canberra on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report, has a voice that would make a flock of galahs sound melodious.

I have heard it argued that none of this matters as long as we can understand what people are saying, to which my response is twofold. First, it’s physically painful to listen to some of these awful voices torturing the language; and second, it’s getting to the point where we can’t understand them.

It’s only a matter of time before we’ll need subtitles on the TV news bulletins to explain what some female journalists and newsreaders are saying.

* * *

IT MUST BE distressing to be British these days.

This once-great country seems trapped in an inexorable downward spiral exemplified by recent media feeding frenzies over supposed teenage father Alfie Patten, tragic junkie-singer Amy Whitehouse and Jade Goody, the former Big Brother “star” (for want of a better word) who, in the final throes of cancer, married her criminal sweetheart in a nuptials ceremony that touched off a bidding war by the loathsome British tabloids.

Its trashy pop culture aside, British society has been transformed by mass migration and is trapped in a mire of political correctness enforced by the ever more intrusive agencies of a busybody state.

The paradox of the modern multicultural Britain is that many immigrants seem sullenly hostile to their host country and some even wish to destroy it. The Conservative Party politician Enoch Powell, whose career was destroyed by the hysterical reaction to the so-called “rivers of blood” speech he gave in 1968 about the dangers of immigration, can now be seen as something of a prophet.

You can scarcely blame tens of thousands of Brits for voting with their feet and moving to continental Europe, where at least the weather is better. They must feel that the Britain of today is unrecognisable as the country they grew up in.

Britain’s slide has been chronicled with merciless clarity by commentators such as Theodore Dalrymple and Rod Liddle, contributors to The Spectator, whose contempt for those who have brought their country to this point is withering.

Ironically, The Spectator itself is emblematic of Britain’s decline. Once an outlet for some of Britain’s sharpest commentary, it has increasingly been taken over in recent years by braying, self-promoting toffs and compulsive name-droppers whose egos outweigh their talents.

* * *

EVER noticed how many people these days give their occupation as “writer”?

One might think that to earn that description, you’d need to demonstrate some history of published work. But many of the people who call themselves writers have no credentials beyond having once attended a writing course.

People don’t describe themselves as plumbers because they once changed a tap washer and they don’t claim to be teachers just because they occasionally help the kids with their homework. By the same token, isn’t it bit pretentious to call yourself a writer on the strength of something you once shared with the other members of your short-story writing class?

I make an exception for an old friend who recently gave me a copy of his business card, which describes him as a “Writer – internationally unknown”.