Saturday, January 22, 2011

Please don't take it too seriously, chaps

My comments about cricket in the Curmudgeon column (see below) provoked some mild indignation, though in my defence I should point out that I also received emails of support, including several from people who described themselves as cricket lovers. Donald MacDonald, who was a couple of years ahead of me at Central Hawke’s Bay College, gently rebukes me for categorising cricketers as coming from comfortable, white, middle-class suburban homes with indulgent parents. Donald played cricket and clearly resents the implication that he came from a privileged, molly-coddled background. He points out that his father – who, like the parents I referred to in my column, watched all his games (including those played at Russell Park and Onga Onga Domain, names with a certain resonance to a Waipuk boy) – was a shepherd, so it can probably be assumed he wasn't a stalwart of Rotary.

Point taken, Donald, but you must understand that we journalists deal in sweeping generalisations. We couldn’t function otherwise.

A reader calling himself Santiago good-naturedly takes me to task for suggesting that the Wellington suburb of Tawa was an example of the type of bourgeois setting in which cricket thrives. Granted, Tawa may have changed a bit over the years; but in the days when I lived at Titahi Bay and commuted to and from Wellington by train each day, I prided himself on being able to pick which of my fellow passengers would get off at Tawa. It was then an extremely conventional suburb, populated by middle- to upper-level public servants and insurance company employees with neat haircuts and Hallensteins suits (Hallensteins in those days being a rather more conservative gents’ outfitter than it is now). I don’t believe things can have changed that much.

On a more serious note, over at the Stuff website, a reader named Tony Penman (and good on him for using his real name) gives me a right old working over. “If cricket is a representation of middle class values then I say all the better for it,” he writes. “If being middle class means respecting education, aspiring to excellence, valuing good manners, taking responsibility for one's own conduct, attaching importance to independence, building families, fathers engaging with sons, then it is something to be celebrated and not derided or mocked by this piece of lazy journalism.

“I ask you what is wrong with being middle class exactly? Maybe the middle classes can be smug accountants who run ordered lives with aspiring children but NZ is the better for it. After all through their work and endeavour they provide the vast tax revenues that finance New Zealand’s  burgeoning underclass and inflated welfare state.”

To which I can only say, much as it may surprise Mr Penman, that I entirely agree. (Well, perhaps with the exception of the lazy journalism bit. That hurt.) The column was not intended as an attack on the middle class, whose values I generally share. My comments should be read in the knowledge that I grew up in a cricket-free household, shunned team sports with all the slyness I could muster, and regarded cricket as a Protestant sport (the du Fresnes were Catholic) played by goody-two-shoes from only the most respectable homes. In the circumstances it’s only natural that I should develop a thoroughly jaundiced view of the game. In the words of an old country song, I’m surely to be more pitied than scolded.

Second thoughts on Smart Talk

May I be permitted a partial recantation? (For God’s sake, man, get a grip! This is your blog. You can do anything you like.) I may have slightly over-egged the pudding – only slightly, mind you – in my earlier post (see below) on the recent replay of a Radio New Zealand discussion about climate change. So I want to make a few points in elaboration (and no, this is not because anyone has browbeaten me on the subject).

The first point is that Guy Salmon, whom I first encountered more than 40 years ago, is a man I respect, and I did him an injustice by stereotyping him – at least by implication – as a leftie. Guy’s position is far more complex and nuanced than that. He is neither a strident ideologue nor a panic merchant, and he deserves credit for arguing that the climate change lobby should engage collaboratively with, for instance, the agriculture sector.

The second point is that the panel discussion (rather smugly entitled Smart Talk) was not just about climate change, as my blog post might have implied. It was nominally about sustainability, so Radio New Zealand could argue, at a stretch, that there was no reason why a climate change sceptic should have been included. But it was entirely predictable that much of the discussion would turn on climate change, and I still maintain that the views expressed failed to meet any reasonable test of balance.

In fact when I went to the RNZ website and looked at other programmes in the Smart Talk series hosted by Finlay Macdonald, I noted a distinctly pinkish tinge to most of the participants. This may explain why I occasionally get dyspeptic about political bias within the state broadcaster, as I did this week.

Getting back to climate change, my own position is that I’m a sceptic rather than a denier. I believe some good can flow from the climate change debate if it results in reduced pollution and more careful use of finite resources. But we now know that much of the research cited in support of global warming theories is decidedly dodgy, and that some unscrupulous climate change alarmists will dishonestly manipulate data to support their cause.

We also have reason to be deeply suspicious of their underlying agenda. The Left lost the great ideological battle of the 20th century when people the world over saw that socialism was oppressive and economically ruinous. Now the Left’s strategy is to weaken capitalism by launching lateral rather than full-frontal attacks. The moral panic whipped up over climate change – which presents a perfect excuse for the state to assert yet more power, and for a massive transfer of wealth from the democratic, capitalist West to the developing world (where, in many cases, it would end up in the hands of tyrants and despots) – is a prime example.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Perhaps we'll all be too drunk to notice

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 19).

We are a nation in denial.

In every glossy magazine I open – and in newspapers, to a lesser extent – page after page is devoted to the pursuit of pleasure in one form or another. We are endlessly absorbed with food, fashion, travel, design and other trappings of an affluent, self-indulgent lifestyle.

A visitor from another planet could be excused for thinking we are a prosperous country with so much money at our disposal that we have no concerns more pressing than where to go for our next overseas holiday, which trendy architect to engage for our new beach house or what $50 bottle of Central Otago pinot noir to drink with our Moroccan lamb tagine.

Something is seriously out of kilter here. Our preoccupation with the good life is completely out of line with economic reality. As a nation, we seem far more interested in consuming than producing.

I don’t want to sound like a killjoy, but New Zealanders are living in a dream world. Economically speaking, the country is in a bad way. We have gone from being one of the richest countries in the OECD in the 1960s, when we had strong export-led growth, to one of the poorest.

The best analogy I can think of is a cruise ship on a very long voyage. Once a stylish liner, the envy of other fleets, it set out from port under brilliant skies with flags fluttering gaily, bands playing and paintwork gleaming. Several decades later it’s running on one engine, the hull is rusted and encrusted with barnacles, the sea has turned ugly, there are menacing skies ahead and the captain is worried he’ll be refused fuel at the next port – yet still you can hear the clinking of champagne glasses and the whooping of merry-makers as the ship limps on.

It’s a sobering fact that the last year in which our income from exports exceeded our spending on imports was 1973. We were once frequently reminded that we were living beyond our means, but we tired of hearing it and tuned out. We prefer to party and hope.

Late last year the Budget deficit was revised upwards to more than $11 billion. To cover this, the government is borrowing the eye-watering sum of $300 million a week – money that we taxpayers will eventually have to pay back. In the meantime, Standard and Poor’s has pinned a “negative outlook” to our credit rating, which may mean higher interest rates on whatever we borrow.

And it’s not just the government that is living on borrowed money. New Zealanders have binged on private debt as well, which would be all very well if that money had gone into activity that generated the exports on which our economy ultimately depends. But it didn’t; instead it fuelled a property boom. A strange sense of entitlement – one that would have been completely alien to previous generations of New Zealanders – convinced us that we all deserved to live in McMansions, even if we had to mortgage ourselves up to the eyeballs to do it.

Our leaders knew what was happening but were happy for household debt to expand because it provided an illusion of economic growth. As the former BNZ chief economist Len Bayliss has pointed out, such policies went down well with the majority of voters because they saw themselves benefiting from rising house prices.

More recently, sluggish economic growth has been exacerbated by adverse events such as the Canterbury earthquake, finance company collapses (most notably the South Canterbury Finance failure, for which the taxpayer is picking up the tab), the Pike River tragedy and the leaky homes fiasco, with its potential multi-billion price tag.

The income gap with Australia is widening, despite the government’s avowed attention of catching up. Half a million New Zealanders now live across the Tasman because of the better economic opportunities there, and the number is likely to rise.

This disparity between New Zealand and countries like Australia is not just a matter of sterile economics; it has social consequences too. Three of my four children now live overseas, and my family is by no means exceptional. It’s said that among developed countries, only Ireland has lost a greater proportion of its population to other countries, and those losses include some of our best and brightest.

There is talk of rebalancing the economy – of reducing state spending and putting more resources into the export sector – but the government shows little sign of having the political courage to make the necessary tough decisions. Politicians, locked in to a three-year electoral cycle which militates against coherent long-term planning, have difficulty seeing beyond the next election.

The media don’t help either. Coverage of serious issues such as the state of the economy is relegated to the back pages or to TV current affairs programmes viewed by a tiny audience on Sunday mornings.

The country is assumed to have little stomach for debates about such vexatious issues as the recent report of the 2025 Task Force on how we might catch up with Australia. Better to send a reporter out in search of the city’s most exotic cocktail or best eggs benedict.

Banality and frippery too often take priority, reinforcing the impression that we are a nation of airheads, determined to keep carousing even as our stricken ship slips below the waves.

The New Zealand Institute, one of several organisations with a record of pointing out facts that New Zealanders don’t want to hear, recently produced a bleak scorecard for the nation in which we managed only a “C” overall and a dismal “D” in such crucial areas as household wealth, labour productivity and innovation (violent crime, too – but that’s another story).

NZI director Rick Boven was quoted as saying New Zealanders are an under-performing, complacent lot with an over-generous estimation of themselves. The “she’ll be right” attitude, which he traces back to the era when Britain bought all we could produce and guaranteed our prosperity, is ingrained in our culture.

Oh well. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that when the SS New Zealand eventually sinks, we’ll all be too drunk to notice.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sceptics not wanted

Radio New Zealand is obliged under its charter to provide impartial and balanced coverage of news and current affairs. I interpret this to mean that, like publicly funded broadcasters in other countries, it accepts a duty to reflect a range of opinions, particularly on contentious issues.

Most of the time it honours that charter requirement, though sometimes you sense that its journalists, producers and presenters, many of whom have a natural inclination to the left, do so with clenched teeth. But now and again RNZ treats its charter obligations with utter contempt.

I’m not talking about Kim Hill on this occasion, though heaven knows she’s a frequent offender. Neither am I referring to Chris Laidlaw, though his Sunday morning show is notable for its deference to gurus of the Left. No, the programme that captured my attention in the early hours of this morning was a repeat broadcast of a panel discussion – you certainly wouldn’t call it a debate – chaired by the ubiquitous Finlay Macdonald, a man whose silky manner and apparent reasonableness disguise a lofty contempt for anyone whose views he doesn’t share.

The subject was the environment and Macdonald’s guests were Simon Terry, executive director of the Sustainability Council, veteran environmentalist Guy Salmon and former Green MP Nandor Tanczos. All were articulate and spoke with conviction, as you’d expect – and all were conveniently like-minded when the discussion turned to climate change.

The three panellists, with no lack of encouragement from the host, presented variations on the same theme. We are on the brink of a global catastrophe and the only thing that can save us – if it’s not too late – is that we change our wicked, extravagant, exploitative, capitalist ways.

You would never have guessed, listening to this back-scratching fest, that there exists a large body of formidable scientific opinion that doesn’t buy into the alarmist theory of anthropogenic global warming. Disparaging reference was made once or twice to “deniers” (a contemptible term that places climate change sceptics in the same category as those who insist no Jews were killed by the Nazis), but in such a way as to make clear to listeners that such people were a lunatic fringe and therefore not to be taken seriously.

I’ll stick my neck out here and assume that no climate change sceptic was invited to join the discussion. On no account was the cosy, leftist consensus to be disturbed. If you don’t like what someone says, no matter how solid their credentials or persuasive their research, shut them out of the debate. In fact if their credentials are sound and their research persuasive, all the more reason to deny them a voice. Nothing must be allowed to challenge leftist orthodoxy.

The programme was a travesty. It may have played well to Radio New Zealand’s substantial left-wing audience, but it will also have played into the hands of those who ask why the taxpayers should continue funding a broadcaster that can, on occasions, so flagrantly disregard its obligation to promote balanced debate.

Enough of this tiresome peece-taking

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, January 18.)

IS IT MY imagination, or have we been bombarded with more cricket than usual this summer?

I always get the feeling that the media gives this quaint sport far more attention than it merits. It gets saturation coverage, but I notice from TV that the grandstands are often almost deserted. At Seddon Park during the first test against Pakistan, you could have sprayed the stands with machine-gun fire and not risked hitting a single living soul.

It’s a different story in Australia. Matches between Australia and England attract huge, obstreperous crowds, but these encounters carry a lot of historical and cultural freight. The Australians haven’t forgotten that their first white settlers were criminal exiles from Britain, and they like nothing more than to give their former colonial overlords a bloody nose (a pleasure denied them in the recent Ashes series). Perhaps cricket here would be more exciting if there were the same grudge factor.

What intrigues me most about cricket, in New Zealand anyway, is the sociology of the game. Of all our popular sports, it seems the most unremittingly bourgeois.

The young men playing it all look as if they come from comfortable, white, middle-class suburbs with neatly manicured lawns. I bet Tawa has produced lots of cricketers.

They all have white, middle-class names like Ben, Tim and Scott and look as if they were brought up by conscientious parents who drove them to practice sessions, watched all their games and kept scrapbooks recording their progress. Dad, who’s probably an accountant and stalwart of the local Rotary, would have spent hours patiently practising with them in the back yard. Mum would have carefully packed lunches for them on match days and ensured their whites were always Persil-clean and neatly ironed.

Although Maori and Pacific Islanders are natural team players, you don’t see a lot of dark faces on cricket pitches. I wonder why.

Even cricketers’ bad behaviour tends to be of the white-bread variety. Though the sport produces the occasional outlaw – Shane Warne and Jesse Ryder come to mind – most cricketing transgressions fall into the temperamental, hissy-fit category, such as whining at being left out of the team, rather than 4am brawls outside disreputable nightclubs and sleazy group sex sessions in hotel rooms.

Cricketers are a self-absorbed lot too, given to embarrassing displays of hand-wringing introspection after every crushing defeat. If I were the Black Caps’ coach, John Wright, I’d be more worried about their mental fragility than their erratic performance.

As for their childish rituals of team solidarity, such as the high-fiving and back-slapping every time an opposing batsman is dismissed – aaarrghh! What would W G Grace have made of it?

* * *

THE EVIDENCE is incontrovertible that television newsreaders and reporters are sent to the same speech school as Air New Zealand cabin crew. The giveaway is the emphasis they place on prepositions and conjunctions – joining words – rather than the nouns and verbs that matter.

Rawdon Christie, who has lately been filling in as a newsreader on TV One, has developed this mode of speech to an art form. He informed us last week, for example, that the US Congress suspended sittings in the wake of the recent shootings in Arizona, that a courageous intern stayed with wounded politician Gabrielle Giffords (who, incidentally, remained in a critical condition in a Tucson hospital), and that a minute’s silence was observed for the shooting victims.

This is the same vocal mannerism adopted by Air New Zealand crew who urge passengers: “Do remain in your seats until the aircraft has stopped outside the terminal”. Lately I have even heard this peccadillo creeping into Radio New Zealand news bulletins.

Mind you, nothing TVNZ does should surprise us. This is the network that likes its reporters to be, above all else, young and easy on the eye, and obviously instructs them to adopt a breezy, conversational tone, as if chatting with their friends over a latte, rather than the more formal, authoritative manner traditionally associated with broadcast journalism.

* * *

AUSTRALIANS love to make fun of the way New Zealanders talk, and especially the way we pronounce the letter “i”.

A Melbourne-based friend recently told me he was asked to give a presentation at a business conference across the ditch. Unbeknown to him, the script he was given contained a little practical joke. He had to recite a figure that included several sixes – and when it came out as “sux thousand and suxty-sux”, to Aussie ears anyway, the audience roared with laughter.

But why sux should be considered any more amusing than seex, or fush and chups more absurd than feesh and cheeps, is beyond me.

I now see that the Orstrylian Broadcasting Corporation has published an iPhone app based on a popular Aussie veedeo that mocks the Koiwoi accent. It’s time we heet back at this tiresome peece-taking.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Scandal seems a mild word in this context

The wretched saga of New Zealand’s Skyhawk and Aermacchi air force jets is limping toward its inevitable, shameful conclusion.

Not only are the RNZAF’s Skyhawk fighter-bombers destined to end up as museum pieces, but undefined “engine issues” now mean its Aermacchi jet trainers will not be brought back into service as defence officials originally hoped. Defence Minister Wayne Mapp is quoted in today’s Dominion Post as being “optimistic” that the 17 Aermacchis could be sold to offset costs, but experience tells us to take this with a grain of salt. For years we were strung along with assurances that the Skyhawks would be sold in going condition; now they are permanently mothballed and virtually worthless. Experience tells us to brace ourselves for an announcement in a couple of years’ time that the Aermacchis will be used as landfill.

It would have been more humane all round – and spared us a lot of expense, bullshit and prevarication – if the Skyhawks and Aermacchis had been blown up on the government’s orders when Labour came to power in 1999. At least we might have enjoyed the spectacle.

I agree with Lance Beath, a senior fellow in defence studies at Victoria University of Wellington, whom the Dom Post quotes as saying the Defence Force now completely lacks international credibility. Beath says he is tempted to use the word “scandal” to describe this travesty, but why hold back? “Scandal” seems mild in this context.

We are left with one of the world’s most toothless air forces, which is just as Labour wanted it. The party took office led by pacifists and idealists who cut their political teeth in the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s and 70s and remained gripped by a mindset that regarded any sort of offensive military capacity as bad. Hence the Clark government’s decision (one of the most lamentable of its nine years in office) to cancel a deal under which the air force would have cheaply acquired 28 F-16s to replace the Skyhawks, which even then were nearing the end of their operational life. Labour wanted a defence force with a nice smiley face: one that could undertake peacekeeping missions, rescue the occasional lost Tokelauan fisherman and fly relief operations, but never shoot at anyone (heaven forbid).

Helen Clark justified this touchy-feely, Defence-Lite approach with her famous pronouncement in 2001 – in justification of the decision to axe the air force’s combat wing – that we lived in an “incredibly benign strategic environment”. That was four months before 9/11. It’s interesting to square Clark’s statement against the reality today, when the entire planet has been destabilised by Islamic terrorism, an ascendant China is flexing its military muscles and any number of flashpoints (Pakistan and Korea being two of the more obvious examples) could ignite at any time.

Until the 1970s, New Zealand was led by politicians with bitter, painful memories of the Second World War. Many senior politicians - among them Robert Muldoon, Jack Marshall and Duncan MacIntyre - were ex-servicemen. The defence portfolio invariably went to a senior cabinet minister (no longer the case today) and the RSA, whose members and their fallen comrades had paid a high price for the Allies’ lack of preparation for war, was arguably the country’s most powerful lobby group. But as old soldiers died and memories of the war grew dimmer, defence slipped down the priority list. This helps explain why, in 2011, the air force is still flying Hercules, Orion and Iroquois aircraft purchased in the 1960s, when I was still at school (I’m 60 now).

In 1999, I wrote a column suggesting there would be a public outcry if the police were still driving around in Holden Belmonts, yet we expected our defence forces to get by with planes from the same era. More than a decade later, the Iroquois helicopters are finally being replaced but otherwise, all that’s changed is that more band-aids have been stuck on the Hercs and Orions to keep them flying.

Our half-hearted approach to defence means that we risk being seen by allies as freeloaders. National governments have been almost as much to blame for this state of affairs as Labour, though through passive neglect rather than outright ideological aversion.

At the time of the debate over the F-16 purchase, opponents made much of the fact that the RNZAF’s Skyhawks had never been used in combat and the F-16s probably wouldn’t be either, so why spend millions on them when the money could be better used elsewhere? This entirely missed the point, as I’m sure the critics knew. Most strike planes are never used in combat, but their mere existence greatly lessens the risk that combat will break out. Their value lies in the fact they are a deterrent to potential belligerents.

This is why New Zealand, by dispensing with its combat wing, lays itself open to the accusation that it’s not pulling its weight in defence terms. If every democratic government took the complacent, Utopian view that it should scrap its combat planes (or warships, or whatever) because they were unlikely to be deployed in warfare, belligerent states would very quickly be on the march.

The preservation of peace depends on the existence of international defence arrangements that pack sufficient punch to persuade would-be belligerents that it’s not in their interests to attack others. This in turn requires all countries that value freedom, such as New Zealand, to make a contribution commensurate with their resources. Can we be said to be doing that, when we no longer have an air combat wing capable of making even a token attempt to defend our own sovereignty before calling on others for help? I don’t think so.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

In praise of older things

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 5.)

The watch I’m wearing as I write this column is about 25 years old. It’s a Lorus, which is a poor man’s Seiko, and it cost me about $70. In the years since, I would have spent many times that amount replacing straps and batteries.

The watch doesn’t look too flash these days – the gold finish has almost all worn off – but it has never missed a beat. Though there’s nothing on the back to indicate that it’s shock-resistant, I’ve lost count of the number of mountain bike crashes it has survived.

A few years ago I bought a much more stylish Fossil watch to wear on dressy occasions. I love the look of the Fossil, but it stopped dead not long ago and I had to pay a repairman to give it an overhaul.

I’ve never had to do that with the Lorus. It’s a testament to the same Japanese reliability that has made Toyotas and Hondas best-sellers all around the world. (I read recently that the only vehicle people will consider driving when they venture into the hazardous countryside of Afghanistan is a 4WD Toyota, such is its reputation for not letting people down.)

Speaking of cars, I still drive the Mitsubishi station wagon I bought new in 1999. It’s done more than 160,000 km and though it’s our second car now, it’s still a pleasure to drive. Apart from the routine replacement of parts such as exhausts and batteries, it has cost me very little.

Yesterday I put on my old Hi-Tec tramping boots to mow the lawn. I’ve forgotten how long ago I bought these, but I do remember that when we shifted house in 2003 and had a cleanout, I seriously considered putting my boots in the rubbish. They were old even then.

Nearly eight years later, I still wear them whenever I work outside. The rubber toecap has come away from the suede but apart from that, they’re fine.

I also wear a pair of cheap jandals. They are still spattered with fading traces of dark-brown timberstain, which remind me that I wore them when I helped my brother-in-law with a DIY project at his chalet in Switzerland in 2002. I reckon they’re probably good for a few years yet.

With great regret, I recently gave my wife a much-loved shirt to tear up for rags. I bought it in Germany goodness knows how many years ago, and when the elbows wore out, my wife took the scissors to it and it became a short-sleeved shirt. It survived several more years of frequent use before the collar began to disintegrate and I had to admit it was past its use-by date.

When I’m working in the garden I use a pair of loppers that my mother bought for my wife and me when we acquired our first house in the 1970s. I’ve occasionally used other loppers over the years but none feel right.

And when I pick up all the stuff that I’ve lopped off trees and shrubs to take it to the rubbish tip, I put it in the home-made trailer that I bought in the mid-1980s for $450. It’s one of the best investments I ever made and is in constant use. I paid a couple of hundred bucks to get it sand-blasted several years ago, to get rid of superficial rust, and then gave it a coat of paint. But apart from that, a new pair of tyres and a regular WOF inspection, it has cost me nothing. The suspension squeaks a bit, but what the heck.

In the kitchen, my wife uses a heavy cast-iron frying pan that I bought at the old Wellington department store James Smith (long since defunct) not long after we were married. The wooden handle is scorched and worn to the point where it has nearly broken off, but that frying pan cooks steaks to perfection.

You can see where this column is heading, can’t you? If I were the sub-editor writing the headline for it, it would be something like In praise of older things.

It’s a cliché that we live in an era of disposability. When something fails, it’s often easier and cheaper to throw it in the rubbish bin than get it fixed.

Planned obsolescence is an integral part of the consumerist economy and it’s inextricably bound up with the dictates of fashion. Many products become redundant for no better reason than that they are seen as old or outdated. A newer, smarter model has been launched and everyone must have it.

The fashion industry is the ultimate expression of this obsession with the new. Every year, the self-ordained high priests of style arbitrarily declare what is fashionable. This has nothing to do with logic, practicality or even aesthetics; it’s all intended to make style-conscious people feel suddenly ashamed of those perfectly good clothes in their wardrobe because they represent last season’s look. It plays not so much on women’s vanity as on their insecurity.

The popular media go along with this nonsense, never pointing out that what is ostensibly at the cutting edge of fashion has invariably been recycled, albeit often in slightly different form, from years ago.

Yet some of our most treasured possessions are those that we’ve had for a long time. I get quite sentimental about some of these things and it pains me to get rid of them, even when they have finally outlived their usefulness.

Not to sound too cheesy, they tell a story. Quite apart from being “fit for purpose”, to use a modern cliché, they carry evocative memories of our past, rather like a family photo album.

That’s why, when my Lorus watch finally conks out, I will probably tuck it into the back of a drawer when my wife (who doesn’t share my attachment to objects) isn’t looking. And it’s why I will probably want to hang that frying pan in the kitchen after the handle finally disintegrates.


Some readers may notice that I have removed an item posted on this blog a few days ago. This was not the result of anything said to me, but purely a matter of personal judgment.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Baby Zachary - the ultimate gay fashion accessory?

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, January 4.)

HOW DOES a jaded, ageing but fabulously wealthy pop singer amuse himself when the hits stop coming? In Elton John’s case, the answer is to have a surrogate child – the ultimate gay fashion accessory.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this turn of events. Remember that in 1984, John married Renate Blauel in Sydney. In a sense, she appeared to be an accessory too – a convenient means of fending off speculation about his sexuality at a time when it might have been detrimental to his popularity.

If that matrimonial charade was a career move, this latest undertaking looks like a vanity project.

Just as it suited John to take a pretty young bride then, it apparently suits him now to have a baby. Fashions change, after all, and there are few things more fashionable in 2011 than single-sex parenthood. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that John’s need for self-gratification takes priority over other considerations, such as the effects on Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John of having a father 63 years older.

We can only hope, for young Zachary’s sake, that John’s sudden enthusiasm for parenthood is more than just a passing dilettantish fancy, similar to that of people who buy a cute-looking puppy for Christmas then tire of it and dump it at the SPCA six weeks later.

* * *

MANY occasional visitors to the Wairarapa regard the Rimutaka Hill road as a formidable obstacle. I once met a family of Canadian tourists who spent an enjoyable summer’s day in Masterton, where I live, but were anxious to get back “over that mountain pass” to their Wellington hotel before nightfall.

Most Wairarapa residents, on the other hand, are accustomed to crossing the Rimutakas and think nothing of it. Many regard the physical barrier between them and Wellington as part of the region’s charm.

But there’s a type of driver frequently encountered on the Rimutakas who is a pain in the neck. These are Wairarapa locals, almost invariably male, who are determined to show everyone else how fast they can go. I call it the Rimutaka Syndrome.

Peak commuting times in particular are when these macho road warriors like to display their nerve and skills with risky passing manoeuvres or by tailgating slower vehicles to hurry them along.

It’s a daily display of one-upmanship and I suspect that for many of these drivers, it’s their only chance in life to feel superior to others.

It goes without saying that they are not terribly bright. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that notwithstanding their breakneck haste, they almost invariably end up stuck behind slower traffic further along.

This was borne out for me one afternoon recently when three vehicles that were in a desperate hurry to get past me on the hill road reached their eventual destinations – Featherston and Greytown respectively – only seconds ahead of me.

If they had wiped themselves out, you could only conclude that it was natural selection in action.

* * *

I SEE that another architectural abomination has risen on a prime site on the Wellington waterfront. I refer to the $11 million building erected to house two ceremonial Maori canoes near the southern end of Frank Kitts Lagoon.

On seeing this eyesore for the first time I literally recoiled. My first thought was that someone must have slipped something into the architects’ coffee. But no; it seems the clever people from Architecture+ were seeking to create something profoundly symbolic. The ugly, asymmetrical roofline is supposed to represent a Maori cloak thrown over the building.

The capital seems determined to set some sort of benchmark for ugly public buildings. The $80 million Supreme Court, with its silly bronze thicket supposedly representing the strength and durability of the rata and pohutukawa trees (more strained symbolism), is an object of ridicule. Te Papa was a tragic wasted opportunity and the new airport terminal, ostensibly inspired by the rocks of Wellington’s south coast, looks more like a pair of Halloween pumpkins.

For heaven’s sake, can’t our architects just concentrate on creating buildings that work aesthetically and practically, rather than desperately trying to be “edgy” or attempting to make symbolic statements?

* * *

REPORTING on last week’s storms, a TVNZ journalist said there had been violent wind gusts on Mt Cocoa. For those not in the know, this is a peak in the Cadbury Range above Khandallah. I waited eagerly for word of wind speeds on Mt Milo and Mt Ovaltine but these were not forthcoming.

Later that night I heard a radio reporter talking about flooding in the Pellarus River. I’m not sure of the location of this river but wonder if it’s anywhere near the Bay of Plenty town of Operticky, which I recently heard mentioned by another radio journalist.

In the meantime I remain keen to establish the whereabouts of Te Arower, where, according to another radio bulletin, the freezing works burned down in December.