Saturday, January 30, 2010

Pernod Ricard is onto a winner here

Sauvignon gris is an obscure variety of white grape – so obscure that it warrants only five lines in the definitive Oxford Companion to Wine (and even then it’s not an entry in its own right, but a footnote to the comprehensive one on sauvignon blanc). In my 2008 copy of the New Zealand Winegrowers Statistical Annual (note to self: must get an updated version), sauvignon gris isn’t even mentioned among the white grape varieties grown in this country, presumably being covered by the catch-all designation “other whites”, which together accounted in 2008 for only three percent of the total white varieties planted.

Nonetheless the sauvignon gris grape has not gone entirely unnoticed. Te Mata Estate, at Havelock North, grows some for blending (along with a small amount of semillon) into its Cape Crest Sauvignon Blanc. And it now transpires that Pernod Ricard, owner of Montana, has quietly been trialling sauvignon gris in its Marlborough vineyards.

The results have just been released under the Montana Reserve label, and I reckon they’re onto a winner. The name of the grape variety suggests an amalgam of sauvignon blanc and pinot gris and that pretty much sums up the wine, though it’s more of the latter than the former. It has the weight and mouth-feel of a good pinot gris – rich, rounded and mouthfilling, with a satisfyingly fleshy texture. The pear and nectarine flavours, too, are more reminiscent of pinot gris than sauvignon blanc. At the same time the wine has something of the fresh brightness of a sauvignon blanc, but without the pungent herbaceousness that puts some drinkers off that variety.

According to Pernod Ricard, sauvignon gris is not a crossing of the sauvignon blanc and pinot gris grapes but a variety in its own right, originating in Bordeaux. My Oxford Companion says it’s also known as sauvignon rosé, presumably on account of its faint pink tinge, and adds that it can produce a more substantial wine than sauvignon blanc. That’s certainly true, judging by the example from Montana.

I hope Pernod Ricard has plenty of the variety planted, because I can see this wine taking off. The recommended retail price is $23.99 but I see from today’s paper that New World is selling it for $12.99, at which price it’s a steal.

● My book The New Zealand Wine Lover’s Companion (published by Craig Potton Publishing, RRP $29.99) is available from a good bookstore near you.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

And now for something completely different

Owning a property that backs on to a council reserve full of exotic trees, as I do, has its disadvantages. It means the spouting gets choked with dead leaves every autumn and I have to clamber gingerly along the edge of the roof to clear them. They pile up on the lawns too, in such quantity that I have to pile the trailer high with sack loads of leaves – mostly from elms, but with a smattering of oak leaves too – and take them to the compost pile at the tip. There are far too many for our own compost heaps to accommodate.

But having so many trees around has its compensations. They give us privacy, they protect us from the southerly and they provide an attractive backdrop to the house, which was one of the reasons we bought the property. And most of all there are the birds.

I have to confess my enthusiasm for the local birdlife isn’t always shared by my wife. They scratch out her seedlings, gorge on our plums and grapes, and crap all over the back deck. Notwithstanding this inconvenience, which I unsympathetically categorise as minor, I think the birds are marvellous.

The most visible permanent residents are blackbirds and thrushes. I’m ashamed to say that as a kid I would stalk blackbirds with a slug gun and found them incredibly wary – a blackbird was the ultimate kill. (My father approved because the birds plundered his apple trees.) But the blackbirds around here are engagingly tame and hop around me with insouciance even when I’m using the rowdy motormower. I guess they have learned from experience that human activity disturbs insects, affording an easy feed. One cocky blackbird in particular is always on the scene when there’s digging being done.

Mallard ducks sometimes nest in the garden and we are visited every day by starlings, which I regard as among the least interesting birds – dull to look at and, unlike the blackbird and thrush, totally lacking in musical charm. But even foraging starlings have their fascination, marching in groups across the lawn with almost military precision. They're welcome to every grass grub they can get.

We have chaffinches and silvereyes in abundance, and yellowhammers. Sparrows too, of course.

A young chaffinch startled me a couple of weeks ago when it crashed into the side of my head as I was having a cup of tea on the deck. It bounced off me onto the table in front of me, where it stood for several seconds looking at me with an expression of indignation, as if it was my bloody fault for sitting there, before regaining its composure and flying off, doubtless to rejoin its anxious mum.

There are greenfinches too. At least I think it’s a greenfinch that takes up a position in one of our pittosporums at certain times of the year and announces the start of the day with its extraordinarily loud but not unpleasant twittering. The reason I can’t be sure of its identity is that it seems a shy and furtive bird that hides amid the foliage and disappears if I come anywhere near.

Like the putative greenfinch, other species come and go according to the time of year. We normally have a noisy resident tui population but they have been absent in recent weeks, possibly taking advantage of the warm weather to migrate to the Tararuas. My three-year-old grandson recognises the tui’s song instantly but can’t get the pronunciation quite right, calling it a chewy bird – so that’s what the tui is called now at our place. (We’ve also adopted his habit of referring to the supermarket as the stupid market, which we consider pretty perceptive for a kid that age.)

A morepork (ruru) is an occasional lodger in the reserve. It was a permanent inhabitant for a long time but now seems to visit intermittently; I heard him (her?) only last night. Kingfishers (kotare) appear now and again too, their sharp, distinctive call usually being heard before they are seen. A much rarer visitor was the large shag – I’m not sure which species – that we suspect devoured our goldfish a couple of years ago. (It did us a favour, in a way. We were mildly concerned about the goldfish pond because of our two small grandsons, but once the fish had gone we filled it in.)

Fantails (piwakawaka) are ever-present, as they are in many urban gardens. On a sunny morning a few weeks ago, one fluttered into my office after I had thrown one of the two sash windows wide open. I opened the other window and left the room, hoping the bird would find its own way out – but when I came back I saw, to my consternation, that it had trapped itself in the narrow space between the two panes. By carefully manoeuvring the upper and lower windows while simultaneously making what I thought were soothing noises, I eventually managed to free it – but I wouldn’t mind betting the experience shaved a few days off its life expectancy.

Incidentally, I have heard that the Maori regard the fantail as a harbinger of death – but as you can see, I’m still here. I hope I’m not tempting fate by saying this.

Anyway, what prompted all this rambling about birds was that today my wife, who doesn’t normally get excited about the avian world, called me to the French doors in the dining room. “Aren’t those quail?” she asked, pointing to the far side of the lawn. And dammit, she was right – two California quail were cautiously making their way through the undergrowth.

That was a pleasant surprise, since I’ve not seen quail around here before and wouldn’t have expected them in a built-up area. I just hope the neighbourhood cats don’t get them.

Now I’m waiting for my first kereru, or better still, a bellbird. But I’m not holding my breath.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Still crazy after all these years

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 20.)

One of the hallmarks of a liberal democracy is its tolerance of stirrers and agitators.

After all, democracy is built on the contest of ideas, and nowhere do the rules say that only safe ideas – those acceptable to the mainstream – are permissible. If that were the case, there would be little impetus for change.

Democracy sometimes depends on extremists to stretch our thinking and challenge us with new ideas that drag us beyond our comfort zone. Freedom of expression and a free press allows us to test and debate radical views, and if they have merit they ultimately get political traction.

Even if the ideas of stirrers and agitators fail to win mainstream acceptance, we put up with them because the freedom to irritate and antagonise your fellow citizens is a measure of the health of democracy. The moment governments start to suppress ideas simply because they don’t conform to comfortable majority thinking, democracy is in deep trouble.

As with so many other things in a democracy, however, it’s question of striking the right balance. The right to stir and agitate is not unlimited – which brings me to the subject of this column.

John Minto is a career stirrer and malcontent: a man who appears to bear so many grudges against the system that it must be a constant challenge deciding which one to vent on any given day.

In 1981 he was a leader of the protests against the Springbok tour. Most of his fellow agitators from that time have since settled into comfortable middle age. Their once red-hot political passions have mellowed to an autumnal gold. (Geoff Walker became the boss of a big publishing company; Alick Shaw put on a smart suit and became deputy mayor of Wellington.) But not Minto – his ideological fire burns as brightly as ever.

He has the gaunt, intense expression of a man obsessed – indeed you might say haunted. It seems that in Minto’s fevered imagination the world is populated by honest, working-class battlers who are helpless against the plotting of heartless capitalists, politicians, warmongers and imperialists. Or at least they would be helpless, if it weren’t for Minto heroically manning the barricades.

His paid job is as an organiser for the Unite union, in which capacity I saw him a year or so ago marshalling a picket line outside a McDonald’s outlet in West Auckland. But he also sounds off frequently on education issues, representing something called the Quality Public Education Coalition (how many members, I wonder).

Ironically, where education is concerned, Minto generally argues passionately for the status quo rather than for revolution. That’s because he likes the system pretty much as it is – controlled by central bureaucrats, left-leaning academics and the teachers’ unions at the expense of parents and parental choice.

The third string to Minto’s bow is an organisation called Global Peace and Justice Auckland – an organisation that sounds like a hangover from the Cold War era, when communists afraid to declare themselves sheltered behind front organisations supposedly dedicated to peace or opposition to racism and nuclear weapons.

It was in his capacity as chairman of Global Peace and Justice that Minto and a group of supporters spent several days earlier this month haranguing lone Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer at the WTA tournament in Auckland.

It seems that in Minto’s warped mind, the hapless Peer bore the guilt of her country’s behaviour toward the Palestinians. In the eyes of the protesters she was here not as a tennis player but as a representative of a murderous regime, and her very presence on the court at Stanley St was an implicit endorsement of the Israeli government and therefore a propaganda victory for Zionism. So it was not only legitimate but honourable to do whatever Minto and his fellow protesters could to distract her from playing and detract from the enjoyment of those watching.

It is at this point, I believe, that any public tolerance of Minto’s antics evaporates.

Peer’s personal position on the Palestinian issue – assuming she has one – is not known, to the best of my knowledge. But that aside, she was here lawfully to play tennis, and a paying crowd of enthusiasts lawfully paid money to watch her.

All this is of no consequence to Minto, who is so wrapped up in the righteousness of his cause that he pays no regard for the right of others to go about their lawful business without interference. He appears blind to all rights and all causes but his own.

I found all this strongly reminiscent of 1981. I opposed the Springbok tour and marched against it in Wellington and Napier (choosing the latter location deliberately, knowing that in rugby-mad Hawke's Bay, my home province, the anti-tour movement would have difficulty mustering a respectable number). But I believed my right to protest stopped short of interfering with the right of others to go about their lawful business. So I parted company with my fellow protesters the moment they began deliberately blocking streets, motorways and airport runways in an effort to disrupt the tour and obstruct those wanting to watch or play rugby.

The hard-core anti-tour protesters were so convinced of the correctness of their cause that they felt morally entitled to impose their views on others. They apparently couldn’t see that in a democracy, their right to push their views had to be balanced against the rights of other people to go about their lives without let or hindrance, to use a quaint legalism.

Nearly 30 years later, Minto still doesn’t see it. If anything, he’s even more of a zealot now than he was then.

And while I initially rejoiced at the news that he had been arrested while protesting with a megaphone outside the Stanley St courts, my pleasure was curtailed when a friend pointed out that Minto probably considered his arrest a triumph – a validation, of sorts, that confirmed all his beliefs about the brute power of a repressive, conservative state being brought to bear on a champion of freedom.

Sadly, that’s the way such minds work.

Cooking shows, global warming and other vital questions

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, January 19.)

VITAL QUESTIONS for our times (the latest in an occasional series):

Had a gutsful of silly cooking programmes on prime-time television?

Has there ever been a less flattering male fashion than three-quarter pants?

Does John Minto’s haranguing of a lone Israeli tennis player mark the final phase of his gradual descent into terminal obsessive-compulsive protest disorder?

Tired of being bombarded with heartrending images of forlorn-looking polar bears apparently marooned on ice floes?

Why do birds make a point of defecating on newly washed cars? Have they got something against us, or what?

Had enough Jane bloody Austen to last a lifetime?

Tired of things being “rolled out” and “signed off”? Whatever happened to words like “introduced” and “approved”?

Still waiting for Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch to apply some tough critical scrutiny to Radio New Zealand?

Has a single life been saved by all those expensive road safety ads on television?

Where is this New Zealand city referred to by radio and TV reporters as Nowson?

Is this the only country in the world where people say “yeah no”?

When did the comedian known as Te Radar last say something funny?

Seen enough alarmist images in the media of ice breaking off glaciers and icebergs, as if this confirms impending climate catastrophe?

How many Fulton Hogan trucks does it take to mow a highway verge? (I recently counted four. Can anyone top that?)

Would you feel your life had been wasted if you died never having seen an episode of Outrageous Fortune?

Geoff Robinson and Sean Plunket on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report – the classic good cop-bad cop combo?

Ever get the unsettling feeling that Treaty claims are rubber-stamped rather than subjected to rigorous testing?

Shouldn’t we all be grateful that New Zealand was colonised by poetic folk who left us a rich heritage of imaginative names like the North Island, the South Island, Northland, Westland and Southland?

Had enough of Susan Boyle?

Does anyone in New Zealand really have discussions around the water cooler, as frequently claimed by various commentators?

Has anyone calculated the increased likelihood of a child dying young if it has an unpronounceable, bizarrely spelt name that no one has heard before?

Was there ever a more lightweight foreign correspondent than TV3’s simpering Kim Chisnall?

Is the Nobel Peace Prize now so politicised that it has lost all credibility?

Has anyone been able to keep track of the 137 options (at last count) for new highway routes though the Kapiti Coast?

Now that summer has joined spring as a season of vilely unpredictable weather, why would any overseas tourist risk coming here?

Is bowls the only sport, apart from sumo wrestling, in which overweight men can hold their own?

Why doesn’t the letter “u” come straight after “q” in the alphabet, just like it does everywhere else?

Given that passenger aircraft are now so sophisticated they barely need a pilot, how come none of them have decent PA systems?

Who is Health Minister Tony Ryall’s fashion adviser, and why do they hate him so much?

Can anyone think of a good reason why the head of the Transport Agency, arguably one of the least impressive government departments, should be our highest-paid public servant?

Come to that, can anyone think what 221 other Transport Agency staff have done to earn annual salaries of $100,000-plus?

Global warming – a modern form of religious mania?

Is there any crime more reprehensible than stealing family pets and using them for dogfighting? (Well, of course there are – but not many.)

Ever found yourself grappling in a hotel shower with a slippery shampoo sachet that was impossible to open, other than with your teeth?

Can’t Americans accomplish anything without whooping and hollering?

Tired of TV news bulletins crossing to tongue-tied journalists reporting “live” from a scene where something happened several hours before?

Does anyone still own a waterbed? More to the point, are they prepared to admit it?

Eaten in a snooty restaurant lately where the waiting staff behaved as if they were doing you a favour by serving you?

Still sitting on a stockpile of Tamiflu?

Is Hamilton the world’s most boring city to drive through?

What would Ena Sharples make of the current inhabitants of Coronation Street?

How come a polo shirt doesn’t have a polo neck?

Isn’t it time the silly expressions “gobsmacked”, “blown away” and “to die for” were retired?

How come so many sickness beneficiaries are fit enough to assault people and break into houses?

Who on earth buys those expensive watches with faces cluttered by so many dials and numbers that it’s impossible to tell the time?

Why do so many upper-class Englishmen stammer? Do they teach it at Eton?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Green leader's warped ideas on "equality"

A comment by Greens co-leader Russel Norman on Radio New Zealand’s Summer Report this morning laid bare the envy and resentment that lies at the heart of the left’s approach to wealth and taxation.

Norman complained that New Zealand already had “a very significant problem” with inequality, then attacked the report of the Taxation Working Group for recommending that the top personal tax rate be reduced from 38 percent. If the top rate is reduced, Norman suggests, we will have “greater inequality”.

What he seems to be saying is that making tax rates more equal promotes inequality. This is a miracle of inverted logic. It confirms that in the eyes of the left, inequality isn’t inequality as long as it’s the wealthy, or anyone the left perceives as being wealthy, who are being treated detrimentally.

The Taxation Working Group isn't suggesting that lower-income earners should be taxed more to offset reduced taxation on high incomes. They would be no worse off. But this is still too much for Norman, for whom it’s an article of faith that the better-off should be made to pay for their success.

The Labour government in 2000 gave legislative effect to this warped mindset when it penalised high-income earners by increasing the top personal tax rate from 33 to 38 percent. It was an envy tax, pure and simple – a vindictive gesture that grew out of the same ideological conviction that treats business not as a creator of wealth which benefits the entire community, but as a greedy monster that must be controlled and punished for its wickedness.

Even supposedly conservative governments subscribe, at least in part, to the notion that the wealthy are fair game. Progressive taxation – the system under which your tax rate increases the more you earn – is so firmly embedded in liberal democracies that hardly anyone bothers to question it. Yet the arguments in its favour have nothing to do with fairness or even economic efficiency. Progressive taxation springs from a mixture of the pragmatic (we’ll tax the rich more because they can afford to pay it) and the ideological (we’ll take money from the rich because they don’t deserve it, and in the process we’ll create the perfect society where everyone is equal). Neither seems a particularly sound, still less moral, justification.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Beatles, a punk band? I don't think so

Radio New Zealand on Saturday replayed a programme in which Kim Hill interviewed New Zealand singer and songwriter Chris Knox for her Playing Favourites segment, in which guests talk about their lives and the music that has influenced them. I’m not sure when it was recorded, but obviously it was before Knox had his stroke last year, from which he is still recovering.

Knox, who is considered a founding father of the punk movement in New Zealand, chose as his first song the Beatles’ Baby You’re A Rich Man, and made the comment that the Beatles were a punk band themselves in their Hamburg days.

With all due respect to Knox, this sort of revisionist bullshit can’t be allowed to go unchallenged. Attempts to confer musical legitimacy on punk by claiming that the greatest pop band in history were precursors of punk won’t wash.

Punks raged against the status quo, but there was nothing in the music of the Beatles to suggest they were remotely interested in bringing down the “system”. The most they did was mock it in a good-natured manner, as when John Lennon famously told the audience at a Royal Variety performance in 1963: “Those of you in the cheap seats, clap your hands. The rest of you, just rattle your jewellery”.

Punk “music” – and I use the word loosely in this context – was all about rage, anger and alienation, whereas the music of the Beatles was essentially joyous. They may have looked wild and subversive by the standards of the time, but there was nothing nihilistic about them. Once people had got over their strange clothes and long hair, the Beatles became the darlings of the conservative British media – which is more than can be said for Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten and the other rebarbative pioneers of punk.

The Beatles didn’t confine themselves to rebellious rock and roll but fed omnivorously on a multitude of musical influences that included black r ’n’ r shouters such as Little Richard, soul groups (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Isley Brothers), mainstream, white-bread pop (Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Burt Bacharach) and even music from the stage. A Taste of Honey, from their first album – a song played in decidedly un-cool waltz time – was originally written as the theme for a Broadway production of the same name; Till There Was You, which was part of the Beatles’ repertoire at the Star Club in Hamburg, came from the Broadway musical The Music Man. Later they wrote sentimental ballads such as If I Fell (sometimes self-mockingly rendered in concert as If I Fell Over).

Punk? I don’t think so. The diversity of their repertoire confirms that the Beatles were interested in music for its own sake, not just as a means of making a statement – which was what punk was all about.

Most crucially, however, what irrevocably set the Beatles apart from the punk bands of the 1970s was that even in their early days they were accomplished musicians. They could sing and they could play – especially McCartney, whose creativity as a bass player has never been given due recognition. In contrast, one of the defining elements of punk was that punk bands couldn’t play. This was a point of which they were defiantly and perversely proud.

I recently heard Jim DeRogatis, rock critic (a job description that generally doubles these days as a synonym for wanker) for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of a new book about the self-consciously arty 1960s New York band the Velvet Underground, define the punk aesthetic thus: “You don’t have to learn how to play an instrument or be a virtuoso to make great rock and roll”.

Well, fancy that. If only Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly had realised that, they wouldn’t have had to waste all that time learning to play.

Anyone could do it, DeRogatis said; all you needed was a vision and a burning desire to say something. There it is in nutshell: music for people who don’t like music. Two chords were enough for most punk bands.

(Interestingly enough, the Velvet Underground, who are often cited as a key influence on punk, were Chris Knox’s second choice on Playing Favourites. Characteristically, they were playing out of tune – not that anyone would have noticed, or cared.)

Punk legitimised the mad flailings of the talentless. It created a sorry legacy that is still immediately apparent to anyone tuning in to Music 101 on Radio New Zealand, in which some terrifically talented young New Zealand musicians are subjected to the undeserved indignity of being sandwiched between acts that are no more capable of making music than I am of swimming Cook Strait.

The problem with punk was that it placed attitude above musicality and talent. Whether you could play or sing didn’t matter, so long as you adopted the right ideological posture.

Punk represented the politics of envy transferred to rock music. The punk rebellion was given a figleaf of artistic credibility on the basis that it marked the return of rock music to its working-class roots; a rejection of the bloated, over-produced corporate rock exemplified by bands like the Eagles, who would spend months in the recording studios polishing each track to almost sterile perfection. But in essence punk was political: a spiteful bid by the angry, the frustrated, the inarticulate and the untalented to wrest control of rock music from those who infuriated them by being able to play and sing.

Naturally it was embraced with enthusiasm by the rock journalism priesthood, whose only interest in music was as a vehicle for a message. The rock critics generally welcomed punk as some sort of metaphor for the class struggle against fat, corrupt capitalism – which of course it was. But no one should make the mistake of thinking it had anything to do with music, and neither should anyone – not even the sainted Chris Knox – debase the Beatles by smearing them with punk’s noisome ordure.

Footnote: The Velvet Underground song chosen by Knox on Playing Favourites was a typically pretentious piece of gothic nonsense called Venus in Furs, which includes the phrase “love not given lightly”. Interestingly, this is the key line – and title – of Knox’s own signature song. I wonder how many people realise the line was not originally his.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

There's a lot of inarticulate rage out there

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 6.)

I RECENTLY had occasion to use a public toilet. There, scrawled in bold black writing above the urinal, were the words “Go and f*** yourself”.

I was intrigued. Who was this instruction aimed at? Clearly not anyone in particular. If it had been, it would have said: “Go and f*** yourself, Brian” (or Karl, or Wayne, or whatever), in the optimistic hope that the intended insultee would happen to visit that particular urinal, realise it was directed at him and slink out in shame.

No, whoever wrote this particular piece of graffiti was angry at the world at large and didn’t care much who read it.

But what puzzled me even more was this: what possible satisfaction could the writer have got?

Admittedly, some people get pleasure from directing insults and abuse at others. Some malicious souls go through life being sadistically unpleasant, often to those closest to them.

Whatever satisfaction they get from deriding and belittling other people stems – or so I imagine – from seeing the hurt inflicted by their words. It’s perverse, but at least there’s a twisted logic to it.

Angry graffiti directed at no one in particular, on the other hand, is utterly illogical. The perpetrator doesn’t even have the satisfaction of seeing the shocked reaction of the viewer. So why would anyone go to the trouble?

Contemplating that message in the public dunny as I did my business, I found myself wondering – not for the first time – at the sheer amount of inarticulate, unfocused rage out there in the community.

I have come across other examples of such rage lately, some of them relatively harmless while others impose a substantial cost on the community.

An example of the former category was a driver I encountered while out riding my bike. He was going in the opposite direction, and as he approached he wound down his window and screamed abuse at me.

I didn’t discern exactly what he said, but the contorted face and the hostile tone left me in no doubt that he wasn’t wishing me the compliments of the season.

I didn’t recognise the man or his vehicle. I was on the opposite side of the road, riding by myself (as is my habit) and keeping well to the left so as not to impede traffic. But something about me so enraged him that he went to the trouble of slowing down and winding down his window so he could get it off his chest before continuing on his way.

Was the abuse aimed at me personally, or did the driver have an aversion to cyclists in general? Your guess is as good as mine.

As with the perpetrator of the graffiti in the dunny, I wondered what could have motivated this sad, dysfunctional individual to behave the way he did, and what possible satisfaction he could have got from it.

Readers of this column may recall that several years ago I recounted a similar incident that happened when I was out walking my dog. Again, it involved a total stranger. On that occasion, he paused just long enough to lower his car window and shout abuse from across the street - I recall him using a W word that rhymes with banker - before speeding off. (And no, it wasn’t the same vehicle I encountered on my bike.) My great regret is that in these situations I can never think of a more witty rejoinder than something like "F*** off, you tosser" - which, of course, brings me right down to their level.

As long they don’t escalate beyond mere verbal abuse, such incidents, while puzzling, are relatively harmless. Far more disconcerting, but still representative of the same inarticulate rage, are acts of mindless vandalism.

My local council planted 25 lime trees along a street only a block from my house. Two years later, only six are left.

Whoever destroyed these trees went to some lengths. The saplings were enclosed in sturdy metal cages anchored with waratahs driven deep into the ground. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to save them.

Someone was so filled with rage and hate that they wrenched the cages over and then snapped the saplings at the base.

This was done systematically and repeatedly. Sometimes trees that had been attacked on a Saturday night would be repaired and their protective cages re-erected, only to be vandalised again the following weekend.

Vandalism is synonymous with destruction. The word comes to us, after all, from the northern European tribe that attacked Rome in the 5th century and destroyed or made off with some of its greatest treasures.

But there is something especially sad and desperate about modern-day vandals senselessly sabotaging amenities that have been provided in an attempt to improve the quality of life in their own community.

It is a form of nihilism – a rejection of everything worthwhile. It’s tantamount to an attack on oneself, like self-mutilation. You can only wonder at the abject pessimism that underlies such behaviour.

Tagging falls into the same category. It’s as if the perpetrators live in such hopeless circumstances that they seek satisfaction by trying to drag the rest of the community down with them.

Taggers derive no obvious benefit from defacing people’s walls and fences with their primitive territorial markers. All that results is that the entire urban environment is degraded, to everyone’s cost.

Doubtless sociologists have an explanation for such behaviour. They would use words such as “alienation” and “marginalisation”. But such words go only part of the way toward explaining vandalism and certainly fall far short of justifying it.

It may be a matter of economic, social and political significance that some people feel so hard done by that they want to lash out. But feeling hard done by has never been considered a legitimate excuse for interfering with the rights of others or damaging their property, even by such trivial gestures as scrawling offensive abuse in a public dunny – or screaming abuse at a harmless cyclist, for that matter.

Friday, January 8, 2010

There's nothing wrong with Te Papa that a large bomb won't fix

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, January 5.)

ASSUMING the government ever gets around to announcing an appointment, I have some advice for whoever succeeds the late Seddon Bennington as chief executive of Te Papa.

Blow the place up and start again.

The problem with Te Papa is not simply that the architects missed an opportunity to make a dramatic statement – something to rival the Sydney Opera House – on its prime waterfront site. You could excuse that failure if the building worked internally, but it doesn’t.

It’s a haphazard, chaotic jumble, so poorly signposted and lacking in cohesion that every time I leave the building, I have an unsettling feeling that there must be things I have missed.

As if to confirm this, I read last year that Te Papa had decided to close its library because only 5 percent of visitors bothered going there. I’m hardly surprised. Despite having been to Te Papa many times, I didn’t realise there was a library.

As for the art gallery, I heard the artist Grahame Sydney comment recently that you needed to be a bloodhound to find it.

Admittedly it must be challenging for museum designers to create a coherent, sequential flow that guides the visitor past most of the important exhibits, but some manage it.

Te Papa misses by a country mile. There’s no sense of order or logic in the way things have been arranged.

Moreover, Te Papa makes things worse by trying too hard to be clever with the use of gimmicky signage and captions full of laboured puns that get in the way of clarity. Bizarrely, many captions and explanatory signs are hidden in semi-darkness where they are almost impossible to read.

Interesting exhibits are easily missed. On a recent visit I noticed for the first time, high on the wall in the entry foyer, a massive iron anchor left behind in a Northland harbour by the French explorer de Surville. Despite its size it’s easy to overlook because the attention of people coming and going through the doors is focused elsewhere.

When you do spot it, and wonder what story lies behind it, you have to search to find a tiny, obscure plaque explaining the anchor’s significance.

A good museum leads visitors on a voyage of discovery. Te Papa leaves them to stumble about and hope that with time and luck, they’ll find their way all around the interesting bits. Not good enough.

* * *

THE cumbersomely titled Capital Markets Development Task Force, which delivered its recommendations to the government last month, wants faith in the sharemarket restored so that more people are encouraged to invest in productive enterprises rather than ploughing their savings into property.

It’s a worthy goal, but you can hardly blame people for being cynical about the way the market treats small investors.

Take my own case. I wanted to invest in a New Zealand company that produced something useful, drew on New Zealand technological expertise and was export-focused, because ultimately that’s what New Zealand depends on for growth. I also looked for a company that had solid names behind it – not flash Harrys, but people with a proven track record. I didn’t want big dividends and was happy to park my money long term.

I bought shares in Provenco, which ticked all the necessary boxes. The presence on the share register of names like Peter Maire, Sir Stephen Tindall and Todd family interests was reassuring.

Alas, the rest is history. Provenco merged with a company called Cadmus – they were both in the business of providing eftpos equipment – and eventually it all came crashing down.

Well, them’s the breaks. Every investment has a risk attached.

What irks me, though, is that in the five months since ProvencoCadmus went into receivership, I haven’t heard a word from the company or the receivers. Not a word. It seems that in such situations, there’s no obligation on anyone to advise shareholders of the fate of their investment.

This is surely a simple matter of courtesy, if not of law. If the ProvencoCadmus experience is typical of the contempt with which small investors are treated, it’s scarcely surprising that people don’t trust the markets.

* * *

I SINCERELY hope Labour leader Phil Goff has a better year than he did in 2009, when he was barely more than a spectator. But I wonder whether his party has learned anything from the last election.

Labour recently distributed a glossy pamphlet in which Mr Goff talks about his grandmother being widowed with three kids and struggling to make ends meet, then goes on: “My story is like that of a lot of New Zealanders. I raised a family. I spent seven seasons in freezing works. I joined Labour because it stands alongside New Zealanders’ values.”

Freezing works? Widowed mothers? This is pure “old” Labour. It will resonate with those who remember Mickey Savage, Walter Nash and Norm Kirk: voters who will go to their graves voting Labour anyway, out of sheer habit. But it completely fails to connect with the vital voters of Generations X and Y whom Labour must capture, and for whom nostalgic evocations of the party's proud working-class history must seem quaint and irrelevant.

One of the lessons of the last election was that there has been a generational changing of the guard. If Labour still hasn’t grasped that, it’s stuffed.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

And the award for 2009's silliest film goes to ... Avatar

Curious to find out what all the fuss was about, I went to see Avatar last night (minus the 3D glasses, which haven’t reached Masterton). James Cameron’s sci-fi epic has already entered the record books as the fastest movie ever to pass $1 billion in box office receipts, which serves only to reinforce H L Mencken’s famous observation that no one ever went broke under-estimating public taste. I’d be astonished if I see a sillier film for the remainder of 2010, and possibly for a good many years to come.

The first third of Avatar’s 162-minute running time is not without promise. The concept is imaginative enough: an American corporation wants to extract a rare and extremely valuable mineral called unobtanium (a name that represents the high point of the film in terms of wit) from a lush but inhospitable planet called Pandora. To achieve this the corporation must either conquer Pandora’s inhabitants, a race called the Na’vi, or persuade them to move. Avatars – human-Na’vi hybrids controlled by human operators with whom they are genetically matched – are placed among the Na’vi to study them and attempt to win their co-operation. One such avatar is controlled by the main character, a former US Marine named Jake. When the Na’vi resist attempts to move them, the corporation deploys a small army of former marines to blow them sky-high. Problem is, Jake’s avatar by this time has been seduced by the Na’vi – literally and metaphorically – and takes it upon himself to lead the fight against the human intruders.

And that’s it, really. I’ve skipped the detail that occupies most of the running time, but none of it is of any consequence.

The first hour or so is made tolerably entertaining by the scale, spectacle and visual effects, which at times are arresting. But there comes a point when visual impact alone is not enough to sustain the film and the discerning viewer – well, anyone older than about 13 and of reasonable intelligence – starts to look for something a bit more substantial, such as convincing characterisation and a coherent storyline. At this stage Avatar runs out of gas and falls back on those familiar standbys of contemporary Hollywood: noise, special effects and furious pace. From about the halfway mark, the film becomes progressively more ludicrous to the point where I was frequently shaking with laughter (though trying to disguise it, since many of those around me clearly took the thing seriously). The characters are never more than cardboard cutouts, the screenplay sounds like a parody of every third-rate sci-fi movie ever made, and the acting is laughably wooden. Only Sigourney Weaver, as an idealistic scientist leading the study of the Na’vi, acquits herself with any merit. If for no other reason, she deserves our admiration for managing to keep a straight face.

Critics have interpreted Avatar as a profound political statement about rapacious American capitalism, but the message is delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The good guys and the bad guys are conveniently identified for the benefit of the audience, just in case they don’t get it. The No 1 bad guy is a psychotic former US Marine colonel who’s so over-the-top that he makes Colonel Kilgore, the character played by Robert Duvall in the famous napalm-in-the-morning sequence in Apocalypse Now, look like the Dalai Lama. The actor who plays him, someone called Stephen Lang (never heard of him? Neither have I), would look more at home in one of those Zucker-Abraham-Zucker spoofs like Top Secret or Naked Gun.

I came away from the theatre wondering how anyone could take this nonsense seriously. But in fact Avatar has won wide critical acclaim, which leads me to wonder whether critics have been bombarded with so much mush that they are now clinically brain dead.

This hypothesis is supported by the rapturous reviews given to District 9, which many reviewers inexplicably nominated as one of the best films of 2009. Like Avatar, District 9 starts out with some promise. Its first half-hour is wickedly clever and sly, but from that point on the tone of the film changes. What starts as an intelligent and witty satire soon degenerates into just another tedious high-tech splatterfest, utterly devoid of the irony that could have been its signature.

Wellington’s Weta Digital studios had a crucial hand in both Avatar and District 9, doubtless consolidating its reputation as a world leader in technical ingenuity. But at the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I wonder whether directors like Cameron and our own Peter Jackson (who produced District 9) are so transfixed by Weta-style technological wizardry that they have lost sight of the basic building blocks of a good film – namely script, story and characters.