Monday, September 21, 2009

Joe Bennett and a preposterous neologism

Catching up on the papers after a couple of hectic weeks, I finally got around to reading Joe Bennett’s latest column.

I love Joe’s writing and regard him as a columnist of world class. He’s funny, eloquent and perceptive even on his off-days, which are rare.

Of course it helps that I almost invariably agree with him, particularly on matters related to the use of language – which made this particular column a little different from the norm.

After wittily skewering the pretentiousness that frequently characterises restaurant reviews in newspapers and magazines (and of which I’ve probably been guilty myself), Joe confronts the terms “waiter” and “waitress”.

He notes that the “ess” suffix has fallen out of favour, supposedly because it’s demeaning. Disappointingly, he seems to capitulate on this issue when I would have expected him to put up a fight.

Although acknowledging that he has never met a waitress who said she found the word demeaning, he nonetheless turns his attention to the quest for an acceptable, gender-neutral alternative and comes up with “waiters”.

This term, Joe writes, describes their job precisely and is by definition sexually non-specific. But alas, “it has been deemed unsatisfactory by the people who resolve such matters. It seems that usage has smeared the word permanently with testosterone.”

He then pounces with glee on the preposterous neologism coined to get around this non-problem – namely, “waitron”.

I’ve seen this term used occasionally and assumed the usage was tongue-in-cheek; a satirical poke at the political correctness that now contaminates the English language. How could it be otherwise?

But no; it appears the word is making a serious bid for acceptance. It’s not in my 2005 edition of the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary (though the hideous “waitperson”, a word that almost justifies the reintroduction of capital punishment, is). However we have seen silly, gender-neutral words infiltrate the language before, and a googling of "waitron" indicates it might be gaining ground.

I’m with Joe when he laughs this ridiculous word off the page. He says there are only four words he can think of that end with -ron: cyclotron, electron, neutron and moron. “One is a machine for boffins, two are sub-atomic particles, and one describes the character who invented the word waitron,” he writes. Classic Bennett.

Joe then, almost as an afterthought, puts up a rather half-hearted defence of “waitress”. But it was disappointing that he earlier appeared to accept “waiter” as a legitimate alternative.

While sharing his contempt for anyone using “waitron”, I would argue that waitress is a perfectly respectable word – along with actress – and that we should vigorously resist the attempts of the language Nazis to expunge it from the vocabulary.

I agree with Joe that there’s nothing degrading about being described as a waitress – or an actress, for that matter. The words waitress and actress simply acknowledge the reality that these people are intrinsically different from their male counterparts.

Does anyone think less of Katharine Hepburn, Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts for being called actresses? Any discriminatory connotation exists only in the minds of crazed ideologues.

But there’s more to it than that. The English language is a wondrous tool that enables us to narrow down meanings and nuances very precisely.

One of the purposes of words is to create mental pictures and impressions. A writer or journalist using the gender-neutral terms waiter or actor leaves the reader in doubt as to whether the person in question is a he or a she.

This can be a crucial distinction. If I were to write that I had chatted up a cute waiter in a Courtenay Place bar it would create a very different impression than if I had used the “ess” suffix.

Either scenario is highly unlikely – but it illustrates why people who use words for a living should fight like fury to prevent the English language from being de-sexed.

Footnote: Elsewhere in his column Joe noted, “A perfect dinner is one where you don’t notice what you eat.” Spoken like a true Englishman, Joe.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

If it's popular it must be bad

I have just read Grant Smithies’ cover piece in Your Weekend about Pip Brown, the former Masterton girl (note that: Masterton girl) who is conquering the pop world under the name Ladyhawke.

Smithies is a clever and knowledgeable writer about pop and rock music (and so he should be, considering that he’s chosen it as his professional niche), but he shares the besetting fault of many others ploughing the same field. He’s a bit of a snob.

He refers to the fact that Ladyhawke draws her inspiration from the mainstream pop of the 70s and 80s: Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, the Electric Light Orchestra, Pat Benatar and so on.

Smithies manages to restrain himself from commenting on her musical tastes until it comes to Phil Collins, whom he labels “the insomniac-friendly King of Bland”. Ladyhawke recalls her dad playing Phil Collins on the car stereo all the way to Auckland and says, rather defensively: “Hey, some Phil Collins songs are really good. You can’t help but rock out to Easy Lover.”

Actually you can, Smithies interjects disdainfully, after wondering why the young Pip Brown didn’t call CYFS from a petrol station along the way.

Okay, it’s clever, and harmless enough. And to be fair, Smithies balances the ledger towards the end of his piece, where he declares that Ladyhawke’s brand of pop is as catchy as the clap (nice line). But the gratuitous sideswipe at her fondness for Phil Collins is telling.

Smithies springs from a long tradition, dating from the late 1960s, of “rock” critics (they prefer the term “rock” to “pop” because of the latter word’s supposedly trivial connotations) for whom just about anything that’s commercially successful is fatally contaminated.

It’s only a year since Smithies got into an amusing stoush resulting from an article he wrote about Billy Joel. Smithies appears to have sucked up to the former chart-topper during a phone interview, pretending to be a fan so that Joel would play ball. Then he wrote a disparaging piece in which he condemned Joel’s music as “sentimental rubbish”, never imagining that the singer-songwriter would read it. But Joel did, and wrote Smithies an indignant letter asking why he hadn’t been more honest when they spoke.

That episode may have discouraged Smithies from insincerely ingratiating himself with pop stars, but it doesn’t seem to have changed his view of popular music.

I’m no fan of Phil Collins myself, but after several decades it becomes tiresome reading rock journalists sneering at pop stars for committing the cardinal sin of being popular.

It’s as if any music that’s commercially successful must, by definition, be bad. Even the Beatles – to my mind, the most creative pop band in history – went through a long period of being treated by most highbrow rock critics, especially those from America, as unworthy of serious critical attention. More recently, Abba suffered the same fate before attaining a sort of retro-chic status. But it would be hard to find a more perfect example of pure, sophisticated pop than Abba’s.

Generally speaking, the critics prefer their rock heroes to be obscure and esoteric. They love nothing more than to write rhapsodic pieces about performers few people have heard of. It adds lustre to their critical image – or so they seem to think – if they can claim knowledge of something or someone that is too abstruse or inaccessible to have penetrated the public consciousness.

They revel in the exclusivity of the priesthood – the status supposedly conferred by inside knowledge denied to the ignorant masses.

Amusingly, the critics often use the overworked term “legend” to describe these obscure heroes. In the jargon of rock criticism, it is almost axiomatic that a “legend” is someone that only an enlightened handful – the cognoscenti – know about.

It also helps ensure critical approval if a rock star or band strikes a fashionable political pose. Better still if they’re drug-addled and dysfunctional as well. And of course no one appeals to the critics more than someone who is tormented by demons. Death by suicide or drug overdose almost always ensures canonisation. Phil Collins would undoubtedly have got a much better press if he hadn’t been so damned normal.

Ladyhawke herself appears to have suffered as a result of this syndrome. She says success in her home country was far more important to her than anything that happened overseas. Yet even when she was playing huge venues overseas, she told Smithies, she sensed a lot of negativity and cynicism whenever she came back to New Zealand. Perhaps we prefer our pop stars to be dark, gloomy and introverted – rather like our movies, as explored in Sam Neill’s documentary Cinema of Unease. But that’s a subject for another day.

In a recent blog I referred in passing to the American music journalist Tom Moon, author of 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die.

Moon occasionally lapses into the irritating gibberish that is Rolling Stone magazine’s house style, but his great redeeming grace as a critic is that he’s open to all manner of musical influences. Not only does his book span almost every genre imaginable, but Moon has no qualms about celebrating pure, commercial pop (Abba is there, along with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass) alongside the arcane and the highbrow. Moon’s slogan is “The more you love music, the more music you love”.

Significantly, Moon has worked as a professional musician (a saxophonist) himself. He understands that music is a complex interplay of melody, harmony, rhythm and sometimes words. This sets him apart from many of his peers, who seem primarily interested in lyrics (the more enigmatic the better, because we all know that if a song’s hard to understand it must be profound) and the ideological posturing of the performer.

I don’t know about Grant Smithies, but I suspect that many rock critics, unlike Moon, can’t sing or play a note and possibly aren’t really interested in music for its own sake. The result is that they write about it much as a blind person might review a movie.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The supposedly Ugly American - an easy target

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 16.)

I was flicking through an old Listener last week when I stumbled across an article I must have missed first time around.

It was a column in which a well-known New Zealand writer recalled a female American travelling companion whom he and his wife had encountered while on a group tour of the Australian outback.

The article poked fun at the American tourist, whose name – possibly made up by the writer – was said to be Mayleen. She was described as having the exuberance of a 10-year-old and a similar level of social discretion.

The writer didn’t mock Mayleen affectionately. Rather, his tone was sneering and bordering on malicious.

Mayleen was portrayed as irredeemably stupid, loud and annoying. If the writer was to be believed, everyone in the group loathed her from the start and wanted to get as far away from her as possible.

The tour guide was quoted as saying he hoped Mayleen didn’t get run over as a result of her propensity for bounding across the highway to take photographs. It wasn’t that he was concerned for her survival, it was just that her death would have meant five hours’ paperwork.

In other words Mayleen was the archetypal Ugly American – only in female form as opposed to the more common male variant, who invariably wears a gaudy tropical shirt and has a cigar clamped in his mouth while he bores and offends everyone within shouting distance by loudly delivering his invariably bigoted opinions.

The writer of the article is a man whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past but this piece irritated the hell out of me. It was smug, snide and condescending.

I’ve seen many similar articles before – some by New Zealand writers, many by English journalists. Americans, it seems, are fair game in the culture wars. It’s taken as read that they are all crass, vulgar and stupid, and that we superior New Zealanders (or English, as the case may be) will be amused by tales of their ghastliness.

Just this past weekend, in one of the Sunday papers, I read another sneering column by a New Zealand journalist who clearly regarded Americans as greedy and feckless beyond redemption. And I occasionally read TV reviews by critics who can’t bring themselves to watch anything American but swoon uncritically over anything made by the BBC.

I have a question: if all Americans are so stupid, how come their country is the wealthiest and most powerful on earth?

The writer of the Listener article possibly told us more about himself than about Mayleen. Why was this article written? It was clever, in a cruel sort of way, but it didn’t tell us anything of value. Its sole purpose was to show how gauche, tasteless and silly Mayleen was.

Was the purpose to make the writer and his readers feel superior to this supposedly pathetic creature? I suspect the article was written in the confident knowledge that the ageing chardonnay socialists who still make up a proportion of the Listener’s readership – though not to the extent that they once did – would have shared the writer’s view that Americans are crass, vulgar people deserving only ridicule and contempt.

Would it have been written, I wonder, if Mayleen had been English, or German, or Canadian? I suspect not, because that wouldn’t have reinforced smug prejudices in quite the same satisfying way.

Scratch many supposedly liberal New Zealanders and you’ll find a nasty vein of anti-Americanism not far beneath the surface. I guess this is partly a result of our British heritage; the Brits never really forgave America for breaking away.

It’s also the ugly flipside of our otherwise attractive national trait of egalitarianism. A certain type of New Zealander despises America because of its raw, brash capitalism. We like to think our brand of liberal democracy, with its strong strand of humanitarianism, is more civilised – and by and large, I agree that it is. But that’s no justification for condemning all Americans.

For every loud, ignorant and obnoxious American of the type caricatured by self-satisfied New Zealand writers, there are many who are polite, considerate, witty, socially sophisticated and highly educated.

I sometimes wonder how many of the critics have actually been to America. In my experience those who have spent time there, and made the effort to get to know Americans, take a much more tolerant view.

A few days ago I was talking to a cousin who has visited all 50 states. He knows Americans as charming, courteous, obliging and generous people. My experience isn’t quite that extensive but my impressions are the same. Many times while travelling in the US I’ve been taken aback by the kindness, consideration and graciousness of complete strangers.

Of course you’ll find extremes of good and bad. That’s inevitable in a country as big and dynamic as America. Someone once wrote perceptively of another country that “whatever you read about India, the reverse is also true”. Exactly the same applies to America.

Fixating on the popular caricature of the Ugly American may shore up prejudices, but it doesn’t reflect reality.

In any case, every nationality’s worst characteristics seem to be exaggerated when they are away from home. The boorish Australian is a well-known phenomenon internationally and I’ve cringed at the behaviour of fellow New Zealanders overseas. Then there are the English, who are likeable people on their home ground but often seem to become obnoxious when they emigrate.

Mayleen, if indeed she exists as described, may be an Ugly American, but on the basis of the Listener article I’m not sure the New Zealander who wrote about her is any more likeable.

The inexorable march of the bureaucrats

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, September 2009.)

I WAS startled to hear Michael Player introduced on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report recently as the acting deputy commissioner of police.

Mr Player is a career government PR man. When he’s not acting deputy commissioner, his designation in the police hierarchy is general manager of public affairs.

He is not, and has never been, to my knowledge, a sworn police officer. He was recently made a fellow of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand. In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, he’s a spin doctor.

Mr Player’s rise to a position of power and influence within the police is symptomatic of a wider change that has transformed that department.

Under nine years of Labour government, the police were often suspected of being politicised. This arose not only from their enthusiastic embrace of political correctness, but also from the way they tip-toed around any alleged wrongdoing involving Labour politicians.

But while politicisation of the police under Labour remains only a suspicion, there can be little doubt that they have succumbed to the almost equally insidious curses of managerialism and bureaucratisation.

The rot set in when police commanders were re-desginated as managers and began talking about service delivery.

I recall going behind the scenes at Wellington police headquarters several years ago and noticing, with a sinking heart, that a wall was covered with elaborate flow charts that looked as if they had been lifted from a management textbook.

I knew then that the police had been captured by the dead hand of the human resources department. And where the HR department has gone, the PR department is invariably close behind. In the typical modern bureaucracy, these two departments are where much of the power resides.

This is not a personal attack on Mr Player. For all I know, he’s a splendid PR man, though cynics might deny that any such creature exists.

Neither am I suggesting there should be no outsiders within the police. It’s a tribal organisation and it would be unhealthy if the traditional police culture had everything its own way.

Besides, there is a precedent of sorts for Mr Player’s rise. Lyn Provost, an accountant with a background in auditing, had the rank of deputy commissioner for nine years before resigning recently to become Auditor-General. But she remained a backroom person, largely invisible to the public, whereas Mr Player seems to play an active role in day-to-day decision-making.

Significantly, the reason Mr Player was on Morning Report last month was to announce the abrupt reversal of a decision by police HQ to stop providing the media with the names of people convicted of drink-driving offences. The U-turn came after the forceful intervention of Police Minister Judith Collins, who made it clear she supported publication of offenders’ names.

Mr Player could have been excused for being red-faced. The dopey decision to withhold the information from the media - on the spurious pretext of "privacy" concerns - bore all the hallmarks of a bureaucracy more concerned with pettifogging political correctness than with deterring people from breaking the law.

Of all government departments, the police have arguably the greatest need of practical, experienced people able to make snap operational decisions in situations of extreme duress. But the inexorable march of the bureaucrats creates a danger that common sense and initiative will be hobbled by a risk-averse, tick-the-boxes mentality.

* * *

I USED to enjoy visiting Auckland and had little patience for the petty sniping that Auckland was constantly subjected to from other parts of the country. I took the view that all our major cities had their own quirks and virtues, and comparisons were pointless.

These days, however, I try to avoid Auckland. When I do go there, I can’t get out fast enough. It strikes me as a soulless, inhospitable place where people go about their business without a scintilla of warmth or friendliness.

Those old clichés about Auckland being a city of surly, tight-faced people, all preoccupied with where their next buck is coming from, may be true after all. The Aucklanders I encounter make New Yorkers, once legendary for their supposed indifference to their fellow human beings, look almost promiscuously friendly and outgoing.

I exempt from this criticism Auckland’s obliging Auckland cab drivers, who do their best to make up for the lack of grace and courtesy displayed by their fellow citizens. But otherwise, it’s a city of people who give the impression they would sooner sever a limb than smile. Waiters, hotel receptionists and bus drivers all give the impression of having been trained at a hospitality school somewhere in the Balkans.

It’s a tired and grotty-looking city too, despite that magnificent harbour and some charming residential suburbs.

Queen Street has reportedly had $43 million spent on it over the past couple of years, but the effect is like plastering cheap makeup on the face of an ageing prostitute. And the much-vaunted cafes and restaurants along Ponsonby Rd, where Auckland’s pretend celebs gather in the hope of making the gossip columns, have all the style and flair of a Soviet gulag.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I got them old anal constitution blues

There’s an interesting thesis to be written on why so many men of a certain age have a deep attachment to blues music.

They’re mostly in their 50s, 60s and 70s. They wear leather jackets and jeans. Most have beards.

Their thinning grey hair is often pulled back into a ponytail. A disproportionate number, oddly enough, are British.

Blues music draws its support from the same demographic group that rides expensive motorbikes – a last gesture of rebellion before the retirement home beckons. You see them out riding en masse on fine weekends.

Some of them manage to kill themselves, probably because modern motorbikes go a whole lot faster than the British bikes they owned 40 years ago, which spent most of their lives dismantled or leaking oil in the driveway.

It’s definitely a male thing, the blues. You’ll see a few long-suffering female partners at blues nights, but mostly they seem to be there to humour their men.

An earlier generation of men of the same age had a similar passion for Dixieland jazz. The common factor is a vicarious identification with the oppressed blacks of America.

Again, it was a British thing: Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk, Chris Barber. The chances of hearing a trad jazz band were far greater in an English pub than in America, where the music originated.

I’m not averse to blues music myself, but a little goes a long way. It consists mainly of miserable men feeling sorry for themselves. You can hardly blame their women for walking out on them, which seems to be the theme of most blues songs.

Of course people are entitled to listen to whatever music they fancy, but another common characteristic of blues lovers is that they tend to be contemptuous of any other musical genre. Not for them the American music writer Tom Moon's admirable maxim that "the more you love music, the more music you love".

Forty years ago, when the blues boom was taking off in New Zealand, thanks to British musicians such as Eric Clapton, John Mayall and the original Fleetwood Mac, who repackaged American blues and sent it back home, I wrote in a column in The Dominion that “the blues breeds bumptiousness”. Even then, self-consciously cool blues fans would sneer at anything that was remotely commercial. Not much has changed.

Here’s another interesting thing. Blues lovers generally like to think of themselves as non-conformists. Almost by definition, blues music is seen as the music of outsiders and outcasts. Yet I know of a blues club which has a written constitution that runs to eight pages and specifies in excruciating detail how the club’s affairs are to be run. It could only be the work of an anally retentive control freak. What would Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker have made of it, I wonder?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Like carrion eaters swooping on road kill

As the world awaits the supposedly inevitable collapse of the "dinosaur" newspaper industry, here’s something to ponder.

If newspapers die, other news media will be left floundering. Where will they get their stories?

Notwithstanding the cutbacks made by newspapers, they are still by far the most industrious and prolific breakers of news. Day after day, news editors in television and radio pounce on the morning paper for ideas. TV and radio piggyback on the print media to such an extent that their bulletins would look very anaemic if they no longer had newspaper stories to chase up.

Take TV3’s 6pm news bulletin last night (Thursday). The lead item was Michael Laws’ squabble with a group of Otaki schoolgirls over the spelling of Wanganui, a story broken by the Dominion Post. Later came a human interest item about a teenager in the Waikato who had unearthed the remains of warplanes buried at the end of the Second World War – another story lifted from the Wellington paper.

Campbell Live followed up two newspaper stories: one from the New Zealand Herald about a North Shore octogenarian who had been told to vacate a Navy-administered piece of land where she had spent 16 years planting native trees, and the other from the Dom Post about a Muslim woman who was barred from Hastings District Court for wearing a headscarf.

I don’t make a point of monitoring these things systematically but my impression is that this was a fairly typical night. And I’m not picking on TV3; One News is equally dependent on the print media for story ideas.

Radio does it all the time too – even Radio New Zealand, though it has a comprehensive news-gathering operation of its own. I noticed this morning that RNZ’s nine o’clock bulletin had a new lead item about off-duty police officers being charged with assault. Since this story suddenly popped up out of nowhere, I assumed it had been taken from today’s Herald – and so it turned out.

There’s nothing improper in this. News organisations have always felt free to plunder and plagiarise each other, usually without giving credit to the source. But the flow of ideas is overwhelmingly one way, from print to electronic media.

Television, in particular, is journalism’s equivalent of a carrion eater, swooping on road kill left behind by print reporters.

The reason TV and radio are so heavily dependent on the print media to unearth stories is that newspapers, even in today’s straitened times, still have the greatest number of reporters out there “on the ground”.

Newspapers also invest more resources in investigative reporting, which is why the most spectacular “exclusives” of recent years (did anyone mention Louise Nicholas, Donna Awatere-Huata or Tony Veitch, all Dominion Post stories?) have been broken by the print media. All the above stories generated a running feast of sensational items for TV and radio bulletins. Was the Dom Post paid a royalty each time? Of course not. That’s not how it works.

TV current affairs programmes do some excellent investigative work too; TV3’s exposure of serial Christchurch sex abuser Dr Morgan Fahey comes to mind, and there are others. But the scorecard is heavily in favour of print. A methodical study would show that TV reporters spend a far higher proportion of their time on follow-up stories than those employed by newspapers.

Newspapers do the legwork and then the TV crews turn up in their big station wagons and rehash the stories, dressing them up with visuals, for the six o’clock news. It’s a form of freeloading, but it’s been going on for decades and there’s probably not much newspapers can do about it.

What makes things different now is that newspapers are under unprecedented economic pressure. Not only has advertising, the main source of newspaper revenue, migrated to the Net, but news junkies are greedily gorging themselves online without having to buy a paper or give any thought to where all this news is coming from and who’s paying for it.

As newspapers retrench in response to these pressures, it’s possible that the flow of news that has sustained downstream feeders such as TV and radio for so long will start to dry up. It may be happening already.

All this helps put into perspective Rupert Murdoch’s increasing irritation at the amount of free news available on the Net, and his determination that people should start paying for it. Murdoch is right when he says good journalism is expensive, even if not everyone agrees with his definition of “good” journalism.

It also helps explain why Murdoch’s son and heir apparent, James, is gunning for the BBC’s expanding news empire. “Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet,” Murdoch Jr said in a speech last week. “Yet it is essential for the future of independent journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it.”

I’ve seen no suggestion that newspaper proprietors are looking at ways of making their electronic rivals pay for the stories they rip off, and I’d be surprised if it happened. But I bet they grit their teeth as never before when they see other media feeding off stories that they have spent a lot of money, and sometimes taken a lot of risks, to break.

Waltzing Matilda? No thanks, cobber

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 2.)

One day, someone may attempt to write a book explaining why Australia and New Zealand get along much better politically when there’s a Labour prime minister in power on one side of the Tasman and a conservative on the other.

John Key, nominally a conservative, clearly has a warm rapport with Kevin Rudd, Australia’s Labour prime minister, just as left-leaning Helen Clark did with Rudd’s conservative predecessor John Howard.

On the other hand Norman Kirk and Gough Whitlam – both Labour men, but chalk and cheese in every other respect – had a prickly relationship, while feisty little Robert Muldoon had nothing in common with the cold, patrician Malcolm Fraser, though both led conservative governments.

Labour prime ministers David Lange and Bob Hawke, big egos both, made little attempt to disguise their dislike for each other, while Paul Keating barely noticed that Jim Bolger existed.

It’s fair to say that right now, following Mr Key’s recent visit to Canberra, the relationship between the two countries is the warmest it has been in decades.

That’s fine, up to a point. I like Australia. I worked there for several years and have an Australian daughter-in-law. A surprising number of my friends and former colleagues from New Zealand have ended up there – a reflection of the opportunities offered by a much bigger, more dynamic economy.

The bonds between the two countries are close and it makes a lot of sense for us to pull together when it suits our mutual interests. We are both liberal democracies in a part of the world that could do with more of them. But in focusing on all the things we have in common, it’s very easy to overlook the many ways in which we’re dissimilar.

We may speak the same language (more or less), look similar and be in relatively close geographical proximity, but the historical and cultural forces that have shaped us are quite different.

New Zealand was settled largely by middle-class idealists with a vision of an egalitarian society that had all the best features of Britain, minus the class structure. The colonisation of Australia, on the other hand, was initially driven by Britain’s need for a place to dump its convicts.

We remained staunchly loyal to Britain, even after it turned its back on us in the 1970s, whereas Australia struck out on a different path by hitching its wagon to the US as early as World War II. When I first lived in Australia in the early 1970s I was struck by how American it seemed, though the difference between the two countries has narrowed enormously since then.

Australia also pursued a bold (if intrinsically racist) post-war immigration policy that created a vibrant, multi-cultural society while we clung to a timid, Anglo-centric model that produced a drab, conformist one. It’s only in the past couple of decades that we’ve caught up.

Australia tapped into its vast mineral wealth while our prosperity depended largely on our ability to grow grass. And so on, and so on.

Notwithstanding the Anzac legend, all these historical factors have combined to create two very different cultures. Australians are brash and exude confidence; New Zealanders by comparison tend to be modest, self-effacing and almost apologetic when they succeed.

Even climate has played a part in forging these distinct cultures. The iconic Australian is a sun-bronzed Bondi lifesaver wearing Speedos; our equivalent is a grim-faced, mud-spattered rugby player clad in – well, black of course. What else?

Politically the trans-Tasman relationship has often been strained, for reasons already outlined. A consistent pattern has been the tendency for Australian leaders to have at best a patronising, at worst a dismissive, attitude toward their smaller neighbour.

That attitude typifies the way many Australians see us. They like us enough, but we don’t rate. They try to be nice, in a patronising way, but Australians have more important things to think about than this quaint little country languishing in their shadow. It’s a pretty place for a cheap skiing holiday, but not much else.

Australia is far more important to us than we are to them. To a large extent, this defines the relationship between the two countries.

Internationally New Zealand punches well above its weight, but we have no delusions about the fact that we’re a small state whose influence depends on us being seen as a fair, generally neutral player and an honest broker in world affairs. Australia’s international ambitions, as befits its size, are less modest. It sees itself as a middle-ranked power and pursues its policy goals in a more assertive manner that sometimes ruffles the feathers of touchy Pacific countries.

Much as New Zealand can benefit from a closer relationship, it’s important not to overlook these differences, especially in the sensitive area of international relations. Which brings me to the proposal to form a joint Anzac military force.

New Zealand is liked and respected in the world because we’re not big enough to be a threat to be anyone. We have no nationalistic baggage.

This colours the way our armed forces operate overseas. They are low-key; they don’t swagger. In trouble spots like Afghanistan and East Timor, they work hard to blend into the scenery and win the confidence and respect of the communities they serve among.

Can the same be said of Australian forces? To be honest, I don’t know. But from my observations of how the average Australian views the world, as against the average New Zealander, I think it likely that Australian troops would be less sensitive to local needs and feelings.

I’m no military man, but I can see potential for real tension at ground level in joint operations because of fundamental differences in character and outlook. On top of that, there’s the wider danger that New Zealand could get drawn into military operations that serve Australia’s strategic interests but not necessarily ours.

As gratifying as it is to have an Australian prime minister who sincerely wants us to go waltzing Matilda with him, it might be prudent to sit this dance out.

My doomed relationship with Telecom

(First published in The Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, September 1.)

LIKE a marriage turned bad, my relationship with Telecom seems doomed at every turn. Everything this company does seems calculated to antagonise me.

A couple of weeks ago they sent me a letter wittering unintelligibly about skateboards, confirming my impression that the marketing people at Telecom assume the entire civilised world is populated by infantile Generation-Xers.

The letter then lurched into impenetrable nerd-speak about the download speeds available under the new broadband deal Telecom was offering.

Not being interested in “powering through downloads” and “blasting through online videos”, as if this were the pinnacle of human aspiration, I binned the letter. But a few days later I got a call from a Telecom sales rep trying to interest me in the same upgrade.

She got off to the usual unpromising start – mispronouncing my name, then asking me, with patently artificial enthusiasm, how my day was going. Aaargh! But the deal sounded good. The rep explained that I could get a free modem worth $199 and all I had to do was stay with Telecom for the next 24 months.

Inexplicably, I said yes. This was the equivalent of a naïve tourist accepting a cab ride from a Moroccan refugee with no teeth, a glass eye and a battered 1963 Peugeot who promises to undercut the authorised taxi firms and ends up driving the passenger from Wellington Airport into the city via Waikanae and Upper Hutt.

No sooner had I indicated my acceptance than the Telecom rep began to recite, at machinegun speed, a series of conditions, caveats and disclaimers that suddenly made the deal seem a lot less attractive. I politely suggested that perhaps those conditions should have been spelled out beforehand, then withdrew my consent.

I now distrust Telecom so much that I’m not interested in hearing about freebies. I start from the assumption there are going to be fishhooks.

* * *

IF THERE were a public poll to identify New Zealand’s most loathed company, it’s a fair bet Telecom would be a contender for No 1. If we could view chief executive Paul Reynolds’ contract, we’d probably discover that a large portion of his $5 million-plus income package consists of an odium allowance similar in concept, if not in the amount involved, to the one that used to be paid to journalists working for the scandal-mongering New Zealand Truth to compensate for public opprobrium.

Interestingly, Telecom seems to employ an army of public relations people. This confirms The Curmudgeon’s First Law of PR: that the more PR flunkeys you employ, the lousier your public image is likely to be.

Since I’m on the subject, I might as well unburden myself about other companies I detest.

I share with millions of other computer users a visceral dislike for Microsoft. Here’s a company that has grown to be one of the biggest in the world despite being as non-user-friendly as it could possibly be. It shakes one’s faith in the otherwise wondrous virtues of capitalism.

I’ve written before about Microsoft Word’s endearing habit of shutting down without warning while you’re in the middle of writing something, resulting in the loss of your last half hour’s work.

This is the equivalent of your car engine suddenly cutting out during peak-hour traffic in the middle of the Mt Vic Tunnel. We wouldn’t put up with it from a car manufacturer but oddly enough we tolerate it from the world’s biggest software company.

Eveready is another brand on my blacklist. In my experience, it’s axiomatic that a torch bearing the Eveready name is unlikely to work. In fact the only thing it will outlast – and then only by the slimmest of margins – is the batteries made by the same company.

There. That feels better.

* * *

I KNEW two weeks before it happened that the Wellington Lions had lost the Ranfurly Shield. I knew it the moment I unwrapped my Dom Post and a glossy Wellington Lions poster fell out.

Designed in the mythic style made fashionable by The Lord of the Rings, the poster portrayed the team as invincible, stony-faced warriors posing against a brooding sky. Shafts of golden light penetrated the clouds, presumably indicating the blessing of the rugby gods. In the foreground was a large male lion, symbol of masculine virility.

Oddly enough all the players seemed to be wearing black stockings, which I thought rather spoiled the effect.

Now I must be careful what I say here, for this esteemed newspaper is one of the team’s sponsors. But the thought occurred to me that rugby players who allow themselves to be mythologised like this are inviting retribution. Pride cometh before a fall, after all.

Alas, rugby has fallen into the hands of advertising agencies and marketing hucksters. It’s no longer the national sport. It’s a brand – or, to use All Black coach Graham Henry’s telling terminology, a “product”. Mark my words, no good will come of this.

In ancient Rome, conquering generals leading triumphal parades through the streets of the city had a slave alongside them whispering in their ear: “Memento mori” (remember, you are mortal). Maybe the Rugby Union should adopt the practice.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A disgrace to free speech

My former colleague and fellow blogger Denis Welch devoted his weekly media slot on National Radio’s Nine to Noon yesterday to the blogosphere – or more precisely, to the ugly, abusive tone of much of the comment posted on blogs.

Host Lynn Freeman, sitting in for Kathryn Ryan, volunteered that it really bugged her that so much of this rancid comment was anonymous. “It’s so gutless,” she said. “I despise it.”

Damned right, Lynn. I believe that if an opinion is worth expressing, it’s worth putting your name to.

When the opinion expressed is innocuous or benign, it may not matter too much. But when someone is viciously attacking someone else personally, as is so often the case, they should have the courage to step out into the light where they can be seen.

Of course the very reason so much blog comment is toxic is that the perpetrators are able to hide behind pseudonyms. If they were required to own up to their outbursts, these contemptible fleas would quickly vanish. Anonymity makes them brave.

Newspapers stopped accepting pseudonyms on letters to the editor a long time ago. (The Dominion was one of the first, in 1975.) Not only did this greatly reduce the risk of newspapers unwittingly publishing malicious letters, but the quality of correspondence improved overnight. No surprises there, since people who are prepared to be held accountable for their opinions are naturally more likely to think carefully about what they say and whether it can be justified.

Even talkback radio, though nominally anonymous, places a check on malicious and venomous callers by the mere fact that someone may recognise their voices. And if that’s not enough, content is moderated by a host who has a seven-second delay and a dump button in case things get out of hand.

The blogosphere, in contrast, is almost completely unrestrained. In Denis Welch’s words, it’s a Wild West.

There’s an argument that the anything-goes nature of the blogosphere is an essential part of its appeal; that anonymity is essential for free and unrestrained debate. This is a feeble excuse for gratuitous, juvenile name-calling. Transparency and openness don’t stifle free debate; they simply mean that it’s conducted in a civil, mature and honest way.

There is a narrow range of circumstances that justify anonymity. The whistle-blower drawing public attention to incompetence or corruption in government, at risk to his/her career, is an obvious example; likewise, the confidential source who gives information to the news media on a matter of public interest. But these defences don’t apply to the cowardly, splenetic ranters who infest the blogosphere. They’re a disgrace to free speech.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A townie's thoughts on the wool industry crisis

What we need is a good old-fashioned war.

Preferably, a good old-fashioned war in a place where the winters are bitterly cold – like the Korean Peninsula.

In the early 1950s, demand for wool to clothe predominantly American troops fighting the communists in Korea led to what is known, oddly enough, as the Korean wool boom.

Wool prices tripled, triggering a spectacular burst of economic growth quite unlike anything New Zealand has experienced since.

Sheep farmers wallowed in their sudden wealth. I recall the wool boom inspiring schoolboy jokes such as: Why do cockies insist on having glass partitions behind the front seats of their Rolls-Royces? Answer: So their sheepdogs can’t lick them while they’re driving.

Alas, it didn’t last. Sheep numbers continued to multiply, encouraged by the Muldoon government’s crazy subsidies in the 1970s, but with little regard for market realities.

Synthetic fabrics began to eat into wool’s share of the all-important carpet market. Farmers took a massive hit in the 1980s when the fourth Labour government sensibly, if brutally, kicked away the subsidies that had been propping up the rural sector.

These days the wool industry that drove the economic boom of the prosperous 1950s is in a dire state. Farmers still have to get their sheep shorn, but the wool cheque barely covers the cost of hiring a shearing gang.

Synthetics have been the ruination of the wool sector. Even farmers wear them.

Now, probably to no one’s great surprise, farmers - frustrated and impatient after years of poor returns - have voted to end the levy that funded the wool component of the work done by Meat and Wool New Zealand. As the estimable Jon Morgan reports in this morning’s Dominion Post, that means more than $11 million earmarked for research, workshops, training and the gathering of breeding and production statistics will not be available.

If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of nails being driven into a coffin.

The vote by farmers followed weeks of intense lobbying by supporters and opponents of the levy. Now those who argued for the levy's retention are asking questions such as: “Who’s going to train the shearers of the future?”

The crisis in the wool sector coincides with continuing – you could almost say chronic – breast-beating over the apparent inability of the New Zealand meat industry to get its act together and attack overseas markets in a co-ordinated fashion. Our farmers are arguably the world’s most efficient producers of prime lamb and beef but it all starts going to pieces the moment the stock are carted off through the farm gates.

Ironically, today’s paper also carried a story about Wairarapa shearing legend Laurie Keats, who has just been named a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Keats was the inspiration behind the Golden Shears competition, still going strong after 48 years, and was the driving force behind the National Shearing and Woolhandling Museum in Masterton.

That word “museum” suddenly seems sadly apposite. Future generations of parents may have to explain to their children what wool was.

One shouldn’t be flippant about serious issues, which this undoubtedly is. But I wonder if any farmer has thought about getting a few mates together and heading over to the Korean demilitarised zone, where trigger-happy North Korean troops eyeball American forces over the 38th parallel.

The cockies could fill their backpacks with choice clumps of New Zealand sheep shit, carefully compacted for ease of throwing. They could visit the demilitarised zone on the pretext of being just another group of curious tourists. Then, at a pre-arranged moment – ideally while sheltering behind heavily armed border guards – they could fling their odious missiles at the North Koreans on the other side, preferably accompanying them with vile insults in Korean which they would have learned beforehand. Then all they would have to do is duck and scurry back to their bus, dodging the flying bullets.

They would need to do this just before the onset of winter. Problem solved. They would be feted on their return as national heroes.