Monday, June 28, 2010

Crispian St Peters has been on my mind

If I had a flag, it would be flying at half-mast today. I just learned that Crispian St Peters died on June 8, aged 71.

Crispian who? You might well ask. But if I mentioned his 1966 hit song The Pied Piper, still a staple of classic hits radio formats, the name might mean something.

St Peters (real name Robin Peter Smith) is almost as well remembered for the speed with which he faded from the pop scene as he is for his few hit songs. Rarely has a star shot into the firmament so spectacularly and then so quickly sputtered and died – a fate often attributed to his inflated self-regard, which attracted the derision of the British music press. (Well, when you start comparing yourself with Elvis and the Beatles after only two hit singles, you’re asking for trouble.)

But no one can take away from St Peters those few terrific songs, which stand as vivid reminders of the classy pop music emanating from British recording studios in the mid-60s.

He first came to attention with You Were On My Mind, a cover version of a song that had been a hit in 1965 for the preppy American pop-folk group We Five. St Peters gave the song a darker, more brooding quality. The song opens with his rich, supple baritone over a spare, chunky bass-and-drum backing and gradually builds into a pounding crescendo featuring a punchy sax and a Hammond organ. It made the Top 10 in Britain but as I recall, didn’t replicate the success of the breezier American version here.

The Pied Piper came next, and again it opened with a distinctive, chunky bass motif (faint echoes here of Chas Chandler in the Animals’ We Gotta Get Out Of This Place) – but this time it introduced a jaunty element in the form of a piccolo dancing behind St Peters’ vocal in the chorus. It proved an irresistible hook (I remember even my mother liking it) and The Pied Piper became his biggest hit, rising to No 4 in the US, No 5 in the UK and Australia, and No 2 in New Zealand.

And that was just about it, at least in Britain and the US. But I reckon St Peters’ best song was the third in his trilogy of 1966 singles – and other New Zealanders liked it enough to push it to No 9 on the charts here. The song was Changes, a haunting, elegiac song written by the American folk singer Phil Ochs but given an up-tempo treatment by St Peters’ arranger. St Peters sang his own harmonies on his two earlier hits but here he demonstrated his vocal range by singing alternate verses an octave apart, then both parts simultaneously. (Sounds gimmicky, but it worked. Just listen - you can find it on You Tube.)

Once again, the musicianship on this great record – notably Jimmy Page’s mournful guitar and a crisp, military-style drum tattoo that adds an ominous, almost funereal tone – is exemplary, reminding us how good those largely unknown 1960s British session musicians were. (Studio veteran Vic Flick and the youthful Page, in his pre-Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin days, played guitar on St Peters’ hits. Harry Stoneham played the organ, Rex Bennett was the drummer and Ronnie Seabrook contributed that distinctive bass – household names all.)

Changes remains one of my favourite songs, but it got only as far as No 57 on the American Billboard chart. After that it was pretty much over for St Peters. Dubbed the Cassius Clay of pop by the musical press because of his apparently incorrigible hubris (he reckoned he was a better songwriter than Lennon and McCartney and a more exciting performer than Tom Jones – a laughable claim when you see him lifelessly miming The Pied Piper on You Tube), he slipped into obscurity and ended up playing working men’s clubs. The irony was that the boasting was his manager’s idea; St Peters went along with it, believing the mantra that any publicity had to be good.

His later songs, including several he wrote himself, leaned toward the country idiom – an appropriate genre, given that St Peters seemed determined to emulate the self-destructive, Crazy Heart career path blazed by countless faded Nashville stars. His marriage failed, he suffered several breakdowns and in 1995 he had a stroke. He finally gave up performing in 2001.

He deserves to be better remembered than he is. His best songs are shining classics of British 1960s pop.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The right to give offence

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 23.)

It’s been an interesting few weeks for freedom of speech issues.

Former All Black Andy Haden touched off a furore with his “three darkies – no more” claim on Murray Deaker’s television show. In Washington DC, the career of a veteran journalist was brought to a sad end by her inflammatory remarks about Israel. And on the forecourt of Parliament last week, Greens co-leader Russel Norman was roughed up by Chinese security men offended by the Tibetan flag he was waving.

In all three instances, to a greater or less extent, freedom of speech was the loser, demonstrating that this most fundamental democratic right remains fragile.

Democracy depends on people being able to express their views freely even when they give offence. Our legal and constitutional traditions recognise this.

In a robust democracy, we shouldn’t be frightened by controversial opinions. Yet time and again, the voices of renegades are drowned in a howl of censorious disapproval. Inevitably, the consequence is that people are discouraged from speaking out.

Let’s take Haden first. His claim that a race quota applied in the selection of the Crusaders Super 14 rugby team seems to have been disproved, but the underlying issue went largely unexamined. Haden seemed to be suggesting that the reason the Crusaders are so successful is that they have a higher than normal ratio of Pakeha players to Polynesians.

In a rugby-mad country, this seems a proposition worth exploring. Do whites play a more winning style of rugby? That thought must have occurred to many rugby fans observing the makeup of the Crusaders (who, even if there is no race quota, are noticeably paler than other New Zealand Super 14 teams). But we tiptoed around this issue because of the uncomfortable racial implications.

It was far easier to condemn Haden as racist – often the first option of those who want to shut down legitimate discussion – and move on.

But interestingly enough, another notable former All Black has considered the same question without incurring public condemnation. In a new book, Chris Laidlaw examines differences between Pakeha and Polynesian players and suggests, among other things, that Polynesians are more likely to lose confidence when the run of play turns against them.

He goes on to say that Maori and Pacific Islanders are more instinctive (than Pakeha) in their approach to the game, “and every team at the top level needs someone who can plot and plan, adjust and adapt” – the implication being that that “someone” is more likely to be white. Laidlaw argues (and the evidence suggests he’s right) that the key to rugby dominance lies in a combination of “lightning fast, sidestepping Polynesians” and “hardened, pragmatic Pakeha tight forwards” with a dictatorial Pakeha halfback or first-five to direct play.

In effect he’s acknowledging that different races do have distinct characteristics. To the politically correct, this is a no-go zone – but perhaps Laidlaw gets away with it because he’s a former Labour MP and race relations conciliator. No one would accuse him of being racist.

Haden, on the other hand, is seen as fair game because he’s a hard-core, old-school rugby man, and it’s a well-known fact that all such people are, by definition, rednecks and bigots.

The worrying thing about the condemnation heaped on Haden is that it sends the signal, once again, that certain touchy issues such as race are off-limits; that they are not to be discussed, at least not in public. (Robust discussion carries on unabated, of course, in homes, pubs and workplaces. Short of introducing Big Brother surveillance, it can never be stamped out.)

Now to Washington DC, where the veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas was forced to resign over her statement that Israel should get the hell out of Palestine. Asked where the people of Israel should go, Thomas said they should go “home” – to “Poland or Germany”.

In just about every respect, it was a dumb thing to say. It was foolish politically, especially in a country with a powerful Jewish lobby that pounces on any statement that smacks of anti-Semitism. It was unprofessional, indicating that Thomas had allowed her personal views (she’s of Middle Eastern descent) to override journalistic detachment. Most of all, it was breathtakingly ignorant and insensitive.

Yet for all that, there was something distasteful and vindictive about the storm of opprobrium that came down on her. She’s an 89-year-old woman who appears to have had what is colloquially known as a brain explosion. But if Thomas has been sufficiently well regarded to serve as an honoured White House correspondent since the presidency of John F Kennedy, she should surely be judged by her life’s work rather than by a single outburst during an off-the-cuff video interview.

All of us make dopey statements in unguarded moments. Not many of us pay for the mistake by forfeiting our job and our life’s reputation. It seems odd that in a country with such a strong constitutional tradition of free speech – a tradition that allows a non-stop stream of political venom from high-profile commentators on Fox TV – an old woman should be so harshly punished for a single misjudgement.

And what of Russel Norman? He exercised his right to protest outside the Parliament where he sits as an elected representative, and for his trouble suffered the indignity of being jostled by representatives of a foreign state who seemed to think themselves entitled to deter dissidents with the same strong-arm tactics they use at home.

Problem is, Dr Norman (like Haden) seems to have been deliberately provocative. He made sure he got right in the faces of the Chinese delegation. In doing so, he blunted the moral force of his protest and set himself for up for a backlash that muddied the issues by setting his right to protest against our obligation to respect the dignity of an important visitor.

Yet the incident highlighted the challenges that arise when a liberal democracy such as New Zealand snuggles up to a repressive, authoritarian state.

Our eagerness to trade with China will present the New Zealand government with one of its sternest tests of character. How far will we be prepared to compromise our democratic values in order to humour our wealthy new friends?

Prime minister John Key can justify his apology to the Chinese on the basis that Dr Norman overstepped the mark, diplomatically speaking. But New Zealanders who value free speech – and that should mean all of us – will be watching this government closely for signs of submission to China.

The Chinese know all about submission. After all, they invented the word kowtow.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A small country with a big inferiority complex

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, June 22.)

ONE OF our least attractive national characteristics was on display last week. I refer to our puerile tendency to poke our tongues out and go nyah-nyah at the Australians whenever we're perceived to have bettered them.

Not content simply to relish the All Whites’ lucky 1-1 draw with Slovakia, we had to gloat at the Socceroos’ 4-0 hammering by Germany. But any side can have a bad day, particularly against a side that’s ranked sixth in the world, and it could easily be the All Whites’ turn to stumble next. Schadenfreude – the enjoyment of others’ misfortunes – has a nasty habit of rebounding.

In any case, what was the point of crowing at Australia’s failure? All it did was announce to the world that we’re a small-minded country with a big inferiority complex.

We even failed to see the ironic humour in the Sydney Morning Herald’s headline: Australasia 1, Slovakia 1. Predictably, we rose to the bait and took it as a slight.

Sporting rivalry between New Zealand and Australia has always been intense but it used to be essentially good-natured. I’m not sure that’s true anymore.

A sour, petty tone is creeping into the relationship, though only on our side of the ditch. Surveys show that Australians still regard New Zealand and New Zealanders with more affection than any other country, which is probably more than we deserve. We should hope it stays that way, because we need them more than they need us.

Rivalry when we’re competing against each other is one thing, but in international competitions like the World Cup we can surely afford to be more big-hearted. In fact we should probably celebrate Australian successes as the next best thing to our own.

* * *

ONE OF last year’s more bizarre moments came when Dr Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organisation, announced the start of the swine flu pandemic. She made it sound as if she was opening the Olympic Games or announcing the winner of the best picture award at the Oscars.

“The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic,” she proudly declared. I waited for her to add “Gentlemen, start your engines” and sound a hooter.

So far this year, concern over swine flu has been noticeably muted. In fact people are now wondering whether last year’s hysteria was a huge over-reaction, largely orchestrated by big drug companies that stood to make billions from the sale of vaccines.

The British Medical Journal has been severely critical of the WHO, accusing it of being less than transparent in taking advice from experts employed by the drug companies.

On Morning Report last week, director of public health Mark Jacobs told Sean Plunket that about 35 people in New Zealand had died of swine flu. And how many could be expected to die in a typical year from normal seasonal influenza? “Probably 200.”

Notwithstanding all the above, I got a flu vaccine this year because my GP recommended it, and he’s a sensible bloke. But the WHO’s credibility has taken a hammering, which is gratifying because this is the same organisation that drives the global phobia over alcohol consumption.

* * *

THIS column recently noted the emergence of a psychological affliction called Acute Sensitivity Disorder, the main symptom of which is readiness to take offence.

The rapid spread of this condition is apparent from the annual report of the Advertising Standards Authority, which contains a list of the most complained-about ads of 2009.

No 1 on the list was a Hell’s Pizza ad which played on a widely reported incident in which a Tongan man barbecued a dog in his back yard. No surprises there, since Hell’s Pizza and its advertising agency go all out to provoke controversy with ads that push the boundaries and were probably thrilled that this one attracted 62 complaints (which were upheld).

But the ad that most interested me was the one that ranked No 2. This was a Stihl chainsaw television ad in which a dying man, with his weeping family clustered around his bed, feebly whispers in his son’s ear: “Look after your mother”.

After the old man draws his last breath and expires, another family member asks the son what his last message was. The son, barely able to conceal his delight, replies: “He said I can have his chainsaw.”

Fifty-two people complained. Some said the ad was in bad taste, lacked sensitivity and was disrespectful of death. Others said it promoted lying for material gain and undermined family values.

Good grief. Whatever happened to our sense of humour? I’m phobic about television advertising, but if there were more ads like this I might stop reaching for the mute button.

To its credit, the Advertising Standards Complaints Board didn’t uphold the complaints. It ruled that the “darkly humorous and satirical presentation of a deathbed wish” saved the ad from crossing the threshold of offensiveness.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The night they stopped the trots for The Fugitive

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 9.)

So it’s been 50 years since New Zealand families first clustered eagerly around flickering black-and-white TV sets with long-forgotten brand names like Murphy, Pye and Majestic.

Presented with a golden opportunity to mark its most significant milestone, our state-owned flagship television network dropped the ball spectacularly, judging by most critical reaction. I struggle to recall a programme that has been more universally panned than TVNZ’s Cheers to 50 Years of Television.

Most people, it seems, felt cheated by a production that didn’t properly honour television’s rich legacy. It’s ironic, when you think about it: viewers at home seem to have a deeper appreciation of the impact television has had on their lives than the decision-makers who now run the medium.

But never mind. We all have our own private memories.

Television was late coming to my home town in the provinces. Until about 1963 it was a treat to be enjoyed only on visits to Wellington, when I would gaze transfixed at whatever was on the screen (although even then I learned of television’s capacity to disappoint when the TV version of Dennis the Menace, a mischievous character whom I much admired in his comic-strip form, turned out to be sanitised and saccharine-sweet).

Even after the television signal finally reached our town, it was a couple of years before my parents acquired a set. I would watch enviously as TV aerials appeared on the roofs of other people’s houses.

Those TV aerials were a potent and instantly visible status symbol, as was the type of set purchased. People who bought console models with 23-inch screens considered themselves a cut above those who could only afford 21-inch boxes on naked legs.

Of course the cost of the TV set didn’t always reflect the affluence of the owners. Just as Sky satellite dishes can now be seen attached to the most rundown houses, so low-income families in the 1960s often couldn’t resist the temptation to buy the most desirable TV sets.

I had a friend whose family was by no means well-off; in fact I think his father might have been on a benefit. Yet they were among the first people in town to get a TV set, and a flash one at that. Naturally he became a much closer friend from that point on, and I frequently got into trouble for arriving home late for dinner, having been detained by whatever programme was showing at my mate's place.

Those were the days when transmission began at 5pm. Old habits die hard, and to this day it still feels vaguely decadent to watch television before that hour (just as it is to pour a drink, but that’s another story).

Strangely enough, I struggle to recall the programmes that captivated me then. I was riveted by anything involving pop music, such as In the Groove or C’mon, and I vividly recall the mournful strains of the Coronation Street theme, which seemed to reflect the rather grim, working-class tone of the programme (as it was then) far better than it does the much more racy soap opera that Coro St has since become.

But the truth is that whatever was on, we watched. Such was the power and novelty of television then. I remember my father being a great fan of Z Cars, but my own youthful tastes tended more to sitcoms such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Beverly Hillbillies and My Three Sons.

What’s not often appreciated is that television served, albeit unintentionally, as a socially unifying force. It brought the country together because everyone watched the same programmes; there was no choice. It naturally followed that everyone talked about the same programmes. Television became a social glue.

As Jim Hopkins, a former television journalist and astute commentator, wrote in his column in The New Zealand Herald recently: “The real magic wasn’t the programmes, it was the debates and conversations the next day in school grounds and smoko rooms and homes and over fences.”

It’s hard to believe now, but the country would come to a virtual standstill for certain programmes. An Australian friend once told me of coming to New Zealand on holiday during the late 1960s and going to the night trots – I think it was at Hutt Park – and being astonished when the racing was suspended so that everyone could watch the final episode of The Fugitive.

Similarly, Chris Bourn – the producer responsible for Studio One and other hugely popular light entertainment shows in the 1960s and 70s – recalled on Jim Mora’s radio programme last week that a Wellington City Council meeting was adjourned for the final of the British drama series The Planemakers.

Chris also mentioned that no one would schedule meetings on the night The Avengers screened – which reminded me that at boarding school, our evening study period ended early for the same reason. I wonder if the priests who ran the school realised the effect the black leather-clad Diana Rigg had on schoolboys’ raging hormones. We certainly didn’t watch the show for Patrick Macnee.

Television, by enabling us all to share a common experience, had the unexpected effect of bringing the country together. That unifying power was later to be exploited quite deliberately in the form of Telethon, a nationwide fundraising extravaganza – in fact a whole series of them – that generated a wave of excitement and energy from which not even the most curmudgeonly citizen could escape.

That was perhaps the high-water mark of television’s power in New Zealand, and it reminds us of a period which seems, in retrospect, quaintly folksy and naïve. It was a time when, as Chris Bourn rather wistfully said, we were still excited about television. Now it’s just a business.

Television New Zealand, which sprang from a strong tradition of BBC-style public service broadcasting, albeit modified to allow a degree of pragmatic commercialism, has turned its back on its origins and now appears wholly driven by revenue and ratings. Advertisers rule.

Attempts by the former Labour government to pull TVNZ back into line by means of a public charter were a failure. Now, under National, even that flimsy pretence of a public broadcasting ethos is being abandoned.

Oh well. It was good while it lasted.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A textbook media feeding frenzy

There is a strangely moralistic tone to the furore surrounding Labour MP Shane Jones.

Jones has been singled out for particular shame over misuse of his ministerial credit card because some of his spending was on adult movies. But surely what matters most is that the spending was unauthorised. That some of the money went on pornographic films is secondary. In the relentless media focus on that titillating angle, we risk losing sight of the central issue.

On Jim Mora’s daily panel discussion on Radio NZ yesterday, Jock Anderson described the reaction to Jones’ transgression as “Presbyterian” – a word that neatly captured the cloud of moral sanctimony that burst over the Labour MP’s head. No doubt there was a large element of schadenfreude involved too.

If Jones had postured in public as a morals campaigner, the vilification would be justified. But he hasn’t – at least, not to my knowledge. So the focus should be on the fact that he, and several of his colleagues, played fast and loose with public money. Whether it was misspent on blue movies, $155 bottles of Bollinger, golf clubs, flowers or massages is really neither here nor there.

It’s the misspending that matters. That’s what Jones should be ashamed of, from a political standpoint. That he watched pornographic films in the privacy of his hotel room is probably more a personal issue for him to square with Mrs Jones (for whom this must all be painfully humiliating) rather than the taxpayers.

Of course there is a delicious piquancy for political trainspotters, as Audrey Young points out in the New Zealand Herald, because the Labour caucus includes staunch feminists for whom pornography is anathema. They may well be baying for Jones’ blood. But from a public interest standpoint, the pornography angle is a sideshow.

If there are any lessons to be drawn from the controversy, other than the obvious one that politicians should be more respectful of public money, it’s that hubris can cloud political judgment. In Jones’ case, he seemed so confident of batting away the credit card controversy that he failed to see the minefield in front of him.

Duncan Garner’s report on TV3’s news on Wednesday night indicated that Jones’ strategy was to take the heat out of the spending revelations by boldly fronting up. But his composure started to crumble when Sean Plunket threw him a curved ball on Morning Report the next morning by asking whether his hotel movie bills included porn films – a question Jones appeared not to have anticipated, and which he fudged unconvincingly – and by the end of the day he was wallowing in ignominy that was almost embarrassing to watch.

It was a textbook example of a media feeding frenzy developing at such speed, and with such force, that Jones was knocked off his feet. His clumsy attempts to salvage the situation by excusing himself as a “red-blooded dude”, and jokily dismissing the films as not worth watching anyway, only made things worse.

Politically, Jones seems to have led a charmed life up till now. He has frequently been touted as a future Labour leader, though for the life of me I have never been able to see why. Now, to use the familiar cliché, his career is in tatters. Shakespeare would have loved it.

Where's Professor Higgins when we need him?

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, June 8.)

SOMEWHERE in New Zealand – Auckland, it’s rumoured – there’s a speech academy that teaches young women to mangle the pronunciation of English. All Air New Zealand cabin crew are sent there for training before being allowed to make in-flight announcements.

Female television and radio journalists also take the course, their employers having negotiated a generous bulk discount.

This secret academy has refined to perfection the grotesque distortion of vowel sounds and the adoption of an infantile, sing-song mode of speech similar to that used by little girls addressing their favourite dolls.

Trainees are also instructed in the art of speaking as if they have just inhaled helium, so that what emerges resembles a shrill squeak rather than human speech.

A popular optional course provides expert tuition in the placing of emphasis on words such as “to”, “will”, “of”, “for”, “in” and “is” (as in, “please remain in your seats until the aircraft is outside the terminal building”, or “police will be widening the search for the missing man”).

On completion of training, graduates are guaranteed to speak a hackle-raising form of English that triggers an immediate, involuntary cringe from anyone who values euphonious speech and clear pronunciation.

Fascinated language scholars are tracking the development of this new form of New Zealand English and confidently predict that within a generation, it will be incomprehensible to anyone born before 1960. Already, overseas tourists boarding Air New Zealand flights expecting to hear English spoken have been known to panic on hearing the in-flight announcements and wonder whether they are on the right airline.

* * *

IT WAS encouraging to see Northland Maori MPs Kelvin Davis and Shane Jones pulling no punches – sorry, probably not the best figure of speech – in their condemnation of the Maori criminals who assaulted and robbed three French tourists in the Far North.

Branding them as “scum”, “mongrels” and “brainless bums”, Mr Davis said he was sickened and ashamed by the way some of his people treated visitors.

Fellow Labour MP Mr Jones called for the attackers’ relatives and friends to dob them in, saying they had tarnished Northland’s reputation.

What made their ringing condemnation all the more forceful is that it’s rare for Maori leaders to be so blunt in holding their own people to account. We are accustomed to them directing their rhetoric the other way – at the Pakeha majority that is supposedly the cause of all Maori problems. This conveniently puts the onus for all the ills suffered by Maori on someone else.

Rarely if ever do you hear Maori leaders rebuking their people for their high crime rate, drug use, mistreatment of children or neglect of education.

We could do with a resurgence of the inspirational Maori leadership of past generations – leadership that challenges Maori to take greater responsibility for themselves and gets away from the relentless focus on compensation that too often benefits only a tribal elite.

* * *

A RECENT caller to Justin du Fresne’s radio talkback show suggested that drunks who clog hospital emergency departments on Friday and Saturday nights, seeking treatment for injuries caused in fights or accidents, should be presented with a bill for the trouble they cause. If they refuse to pay, or don’t have the money, the caller suggested arrangements could be made to have their pay or benefit docked at source.

It sounded like an idea worth pursuing. The practical implementation would take some working out, but it would help drive home the message that people who drink to excess should be made to take responsibility for the consequences. Far better that than reintroducing wowserish restrictions that would make responsible drinkers pay for the bad behaviour of the minority.

As it happens, the talkback caller’s idea wasn’t entirely original, though he probably thought it was. Buried deep in the Law Commission’s mammoth report on the liquor laws (at page 392) is a suggestion that police be given the power to impose a financial charge on drunks who have to be driven home or placed in custody for their own safety.

The commission comments: “We think there should be some means of recovering from these individuals some of the expense to which their behaviour puts the state.”

It suggested a sum of about $250 in each case. Given that more than 21,000 intoxicated people in 2007-08 were nannied by the police, it could be a nice little earner.

The commission doesn’t appear to have considered extending the idea to hospitals, but it did quote Wellington Hospital emergency department doctor Paul Quigley as saying it was unacceptable for drunks to use resources such as ambulances to the detriment of worthier users.

Well, make them pay. If it’s feasible for the police, why not hospitals too?