Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rugby players with day jobs? Unthinkable.

Thought for the day

The woeful plight of the Otago Rugby Football Union seems to provide further evidence that the capitalist model, which works so well in other settings, isn’t necessarily suited to sport.

The union’s insolvency has been attributed to several causes. A key factor was the debt attached to the old Carisbrook stadium, but it’s clear there were other contributors. These included declining revenue from attendance at matches – a problem not confined to Otago – and excessive player salaries.

Both of these flow from the advent of professional rugby and the rampant commercialisation of the game that followed. It’s hardly surprising that attendances have declined when fans can stay home or go to the local pub and watch the match in warmth and comfort on Sky. Combine the Sky factor with increased admission prices and the move from afternoon to evening fixtures (only the most hardened Southern Man would have fancied shivering in the stand at Carisbrook on a freezing Dunedin night) and it seems a perfect squeeze. And that’s not taking into account the fact that even hard-core fans must feel rugbied out by the unrelenting intensity of a season that starts in February and runs until October – a schedule that seems largely driven (as was the move to night matches) by the demands of the game’s corporate backers.

Add to these factors the cost of contracting players ($1.1 million last year in the case of the already heavily indebted ORFU) and the only surprise is that the union didn’t collapse earlier.

Inevitably, there’s now talk about a partial winding-back of professionalism. Former All Black Chris Laidlaw believes provincial rugby should revert to amateur status and the NZRU’s Steve Tew seems to be thinking along similar lines, suggesting that provincial players could be paid during the ITM competition but not year-round. That would help reconnect rugby with its grassroots traditions, when players held down regular day jobs and lived as part of the community rather than in a highly paid, tightly managed professional bubble, isolated from the game’s followers.

If one outcome of the ORFU’s failure is a thorough reassessment of the state of New Zealand rugby, and if one outcome of that reassessment is a transfer of power from the shiny-faced men in suits back to the people who value the game for itself rather than for its value as a “brand”, then the upheaval in Dunedin might not be entirely in vain.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Asserting the right to feel offended

MY, what a furious reaction my fellow Dominion Post columnist Rosemary McLeod provoked with her recent column about transgender people. (Boy, I hope I’ve got the nomenclature right here. Terminology is such a minefield these days – get something even slightly wrong and you’re likely to wake up to the chanting of a noisy picket line at your gate.)

In McLeod’s case, 50 people calling themselves “Queer Avengers” protested outside the Dominion Post offices claiming the paper was guilty of something called transphobia. Fairfax's Stuff website was bombarded with demands for the columnist’s dismissal and accusations of “hate speech” – a coded term for anything that upsets the over-sensitive.

This illustrates one of the more intriguing phenomena of our age. Never in human history have so many people willingly identified as members of disadvantaged or oppressed minorities.

History is replete with terrible oppression, mostly racial or religious. But Jews, black people, Christians and other victims of historic oppression – and I mean oppression on a grand scale, the sort that results in genocide and slavery – didn’t choose that fate. Neither did they seek to draw attention to themselves. On the contrary, they tried to go about their daily lives without being noticed. To become too visible was to invite the heavy hand of persecution.

Only in my lifetime have people voluntarily assumed, and even aggressively asserted, “outsider” status. This they display with defiant pride, daring others to offend them or question their assertion of special rights. This is a luxury afforded by a broadly tolerant, liberal society.

As progress has gradually been made in the truly epochal battles against oppression and discrimination (for example, against blacks, Jews and women), so the action has shifted to ever-smaller and more obscure minority groups, each demanding recognition of its special needs or even its very existence. Some of the most vocal of these groups represent tiny minorities that no one had heard of until relatively recently. Perhaps they’re making up for lost time.

This is sometimes referred to as the cult of victimism, in which people define themselves according to the degree by which they feel an indifferent society mistreats or excludes them. It overlaps with the phenomenon known as identity politics, whereby people see themselves not as belonging to a broad and diverse community with generally shared values and objectives, but as members of a disadvantaged minority that must mobilise around a set of political goals aimed at improving their own status. This almost invariably involves antagonism toward society’s mainstream, which is seen as the enemy.

In the case of the Queer Avengers demanding retribution against the oppressive Rosemary McLeod, I wonder whether they’ve paused to consider that her right to upset them, and their right to protest outside the Dominion Post in response, are two sides of the same coin. Both are conferred by a society that tolerates diversity and dissent. Imperil one right and you imperil both.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Armchairs might have been a better idea anyway

Thought for the day

There are probably several good reasons why Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Museum shouldn’t host an exhibition by a Mexican artist in which bubbles, partly made from water previously used to wash dead bodies, are blown from the ceiling into a silent room.

The first and most obvious is that it isn’t art, at least as most people understand the term. The second is that it’s grotesque and ghoulish. But as a believer in freedom of expression, I’m obliged to support the Dowse’s right to stage pointless exhibitions that are likely to appeal only to people wearing black clothing and funny-looking spectacles.

I would not include, among the valid reasons for not hosting the exhibition, the fact that it is regarded by some Maori as “culturally unsafe”, to use a politically fashionable but decidedly sinister term. Yet Maori objections are the reason the Dowse has decided to cancel the show, which was due to open tomorrow as part of the International Arts Festival.

No one can quibble with local kaumatua Sam Jackson’s refusal to “bless” the so-called bubble installation because of Maori concerns that being around fluids from dead bodies can invite death or calamity. That's his prerogative. I would go further and suggest that the local iwi is within its rights to insist that the pataka (storehouse) known as Nuku Tewhatewha, which is housed elsewhere in the museum, be protected from possible contamination by the exhibition. After all, the pataka was gifted to the Dowse by local Maori and is regarded by them as sacred. But to insist that the bubbles installation be cancelled altogether suggests this is an instance of local Maori asserting themselves just because they can. They have learned from experience that timid public officials will quickly buckle when cultural sensitivities are raised. Never mind that it is a brazen assertion of the objectors’ rights over the right of others.

The simple answer to Maori who objected to the exhibition would have been: “Fine – don’t come”. If they stayed away, they wouldn’t be contaminated. If Pakeha wish to expose themselves to the risk of death or calamity, on the other hand, that’s their business. Maori are entitled to live by their own beliefs but not to impose them on others.

There is another important angle to this. In 1998, devout Christians were outraged when Te Papa hosted the Virgin in a Condom exhibition. Despite angry protests Te Papa stood firm, and was applauded for doing so by the very same people who I suspect are now nodding their heads in solemn approval of the Dowse’s decision to back down rather than upset the local iwi. It’s okay to antagonise mad white God-botherers, but we mustn’t get offside with the tangata whenua, or - perish the thought - be accused of breaching Treaty obligations relating to art exhibitions.

If there’s any consolation in this, it’s that the Dowse is now thinking of placing a few armchairs in the exhibition space that was to have been occupied by the bubble installation, so that people can “spend time meditating in a beautiful, quiet environment”.

Now why didn’t they just do that in the first place? It would have made more sense than the bubbles, and no one would have been culturally offended. At least I don’t think so ….

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Get used to it, Prof

People are such exasperating creatures. Why can’t they just accept what their betters tell them? That was the tone of an interview on RNZ’s Morning Report this week in which American biology professor Kenneth Miller bemoaned stubborn opposition in the United States to the teaching of evolutionary biology.

Even in New Zealand religious groups were encouraging resistance to evolutionary theory, the professor complained. Dammit, why must these people insist on defying the experts? It’s plain inconsiderate.

Asked by Geoff Robinson whether it really mattered, Prof Miller insisted it did, because if people rejected scientific consensus on fundamental matters such as evolution, it became easier to disregard scientific consensus on other issues such as (and I could see this coming) … climate change.

Sorry, Prof, but a free society allows people the right to disregard orthodoxies of all types. It’s downright subversive, I know, but there it is.

I don’t line up with creationists but neither do I trust academic zealots, who can be just as intolerant of dissent as the most rigid fundamentalists. The illustrious professor should get used to it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Throwing good money after bad

Question for today:

The government tells us it’s determined to reduce state spending. To that end it’s restructuring government departments – for example, turning Foreign Affairs on its head and even cutting numbers in an already skeletal Defence Force – and looking at departmental mergers. Why, then, in the midst of this supposed austerity drive, is New Zealand On Air still contributing $300,000 a year to a radio station (Kiwi FM) whose pitiful audience share (20,000 listeners, or 0.1 percent of the market) shows that people simply aren’t interested in tuning into a station set up with the express purpose of promoting local music? The decision to reduce the station’s New Zealand content from 100 to 60 percent, which we now learn was settled in secret with then Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman last year, serves only to highlight the abject futility of the entire experiment.

We can understand all too easily why Labour bankrolled Kiwi FM in 2006. It’s simply another variation of the familiar Utopian experiment pursued by left-wing governments the world over: the delusion that all it takes to produce a perfect world – or in this case, one where the citizens joyously groove to taxpayer-subsidised New Zealand music all day – is a bit of judicious state tinkering. But why is a National government persisting with this nonsense? I would have thought it was a fundamental point of difference between the two major parties that National doesn’t waste public money on misbegotten schemes like this, least of all when it’s simultaneously promoting frugality. But as is so often the case, the politicians have proved me wrong.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Brownlee goes to the man at the top

I’ve criticised Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch once or twice in the past for appearing to exempt RNZ from the critical scrutiny that it applies to other media organisations, so it’s only fair that I should acknowledge an item yesterday which showed that RNZ isn't entirely off-limits after all.

Host Colin Peacock reported that a recent discussion on the panel segment of Afternoons with Jim Mora included reference to Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee’s criticism of Christchurch mayor Bob Parker as a clown. Christchurch East Labour MP Lianne Dalziel was then invited onto the show and naturally seized the opportunity to have a go at Brownlee for kicking the city when it was down.

Half an hour later, Brownlee himself was on the line – hardly a surprising development, as Peacock acknowledged, since politicians frequently phone radio stations seeking the right of reply. But what was different in this case was that before coming on air, Brownlee had spoken to RNZ chief executive and editor-in-chief Peter Cavanagh. Now that, as Peacock said, was unusual.

What wasn’t clear from Peacock’s account was whether Brownlee, frustrated after failing to get through to Mora’s production team, leaned on Cavanagh to intervene, or whether the minister’s staff simply explained their predicament to the RNZ switchboard operator, who then offered to connect them to Cavanagh. If it were the former, it has unsavoury echoes of the days (mercifully long gone) when cabinet ministers considered it their God-given right to heavy state-owned broadcasters; if the latter, then the explanation may be perfectly innocent.

The important thing is that Mediawatch was on to it. Media scrutiny is the best antidote to political interference, if that’s in fact what was going on here.

What’s more, the programme didn’t let the boss off the hook. It quoted a statement from Cavanagh in which he said it was a tribute to AWJM that people were so keen to come on the programme – to which Peacock pointedly added: “But you do have to wonder if others would be able to get through to the man at the top.”

Foreign investment secrecy nothing new

In the Weekend Herald, John Armstrong reminded us of the inscrutability of the processes followed by the Overseas Investment Office in approving foreign investment (I won’t say declining, because that doesn’t seem to happen very often) in New Zealand land.

Armstrong says the consent process is supposedly public but has more in common with the practices of a secretive sect. “Land subject to purchase by an overseas investor has to be advertised in New Zealand as being for sale. But the Overseas Investment Office is not obliged to consult with affected third parties and can ignore any submissions from that quarter. Applicants can seek to have their details kept confidential – even after the office's verdict has been published. It is not until that point that the public may get wind of a sale to foreign interests. By then – barring going to court as the rival Sir Michael Fay-led bid for the Crafar farms did – the horse has long bolted.”

Armstrong describes the process as archaic and flawed, but it was very nearly far worse than that.

In 1995 the National government tried to sneak through an amendment to the Overseas Investment Act that would have imposed blanket suppression on applications by overseas interests seeking to buy land or acquire an interest in New Zealand companies. News media that defied the blackout would have been liable for fines of up to $100,000 and even imprisonment.

Had this provision been in place now, the sale of the Crafar farms to Shanghai Pengxin could have been done and dusted without anyone knowing. If a journalist had learned of it and been foolhardy enough to break the story, he or she could have ended up in the slammer.

Astonishing as it may seem, this draconian amendment was set for a smooth ride through Parliament until a well-placed source in the bureaucracy tipped off the Evening Post, which splashed it all over page one. As a result, the amendment was shame-facedly shelved and no more was heard of it.

Does any of this matter now? Only in so far as it indicates a long-standing culture of secrecy surrounding (and probably within) the OIO; a belief that foreign investment in New Zealand, and the office’s processes for dealing with it, should be shielded from scrutiny. Whatever one's views about the Crafar land (and I don't have strong feelings either way), that's decidedly dodgy.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Where six degrees of separation become two

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 15.)

Things happen to you in New Zealand that I can’t imagine occurring anywhere else in the world. Let me give you a couple of examples.

In an earlier column I referred to a pending family reunion in Nelson. This took place on Waitangi Day weekend in Golden Bay - or, to be more precise, at Pakawau, roughly halfway between Collingwood and the base of Farewell Spit.

There can be few places in New Zealand more isolated, which was part of the reason it was chosen as the venue. Golden Bay itself feels cut off from the outside world by the formidable barrier that is the Takaka Hill; descending into the Takaka Valley always feels to me like dropping into a mystical realm reminiscent of the author James Hilton’s fictional Shangri-La. But even by Golden Bay standards, Pakawau is off the beaten track.

The tiny settlement doesn’t hold an especially significant place in the history of my family, although some cousins have a bach there, and in many ways it was a wildly impractical location, being a long way from anywhere and particularly hard to get to for those coming from Auckland and overseas.

Yet in other ways it was wholly appropriate, being a beautiful, unspoiled spot surrounded by bush and sea and a long way from civilisation. These are irresistible attributes to members of my whanau, who inherited from their parents a fondness for out-of-the-way places.

But I digress. The main reason for explaining all this is to emphasise how remote Pakawau is, and how improbable – but utterly typical of New Zealand – was the experience I’m about to relate.

On the Sunday morning we all gathered to clean up the Pakawau Memorial Hall, a classic Kiwi country hall where we’d had a knees-up the previous night. The job done, a few of us were standing around outside saying our goodbyes when a Farewell Spit Tours bus trundled past.

This being a place where traffic is so infrequent that strangers automatically acknowledge each other, we gave a friendly wave to the handful of people on the bus. I was vaguely conscious of someone waving back.

It was only when my wife and I got back home to Masterton several days later that our next-door neighbour poked her head over the fence and told us that she and her husband were the couple waving from the bus.

Now I’m no mathematician, but the odds against such an occurrence – our neighbours from a town hundreds of kilometres away in the North Island passing that spot at that precise moment, in one of the most sparsely populated parts of the country – must be overwhelming.

In New Zealand, though, we are almost conditioned to expect it. We live in what must surely be one of the most intimate societies in the world. It has become a cliché to say that the six degrees of separation that supposedly connect every human being on the planet are reduced to two in Godzone.

It must make the conduct of an illicit affair infernally difficult. The chances of being spotted, if not in the act then at least in incriminating circumstances, must be higher than anywhere else in the world. (For that reason it was hardly surprising that a brothel that started up a couple of years ago in a Wairarapa town lasted only a few weeks; it was on the main highway and its carpark was in full view of passing traffic.)

Being seen outside the Pakawau hall wasn’t the only example during that weekend of the eerie New Zealand propensity for freakishly coincidental encounters. On the Saturday morning, I drove to the Collingwood store to get a few supplies, including ice for our chilli-bin.

I had barely walked in the door before the woman in charge of the store approached and asked if I wanted some cardboard cartons to put my ice in.

“Whoa!” I thought. I knew Golden Bay was renowned for its other-worldly quality, but never imagined that the local populace was endowed with extra-sensory perception.

The explanation turned out to be disappointingly prosaic, but in keeping with the two degrees of separation theory. Someone else from the du Fresne whanau had phoned earlier to inquire whether the store had ice, because it was needed for the bar that night.

When I walked in, the woman behind the counter recognised me from my time at the Nelson Evening Mail (as it was then) 25 years before. She had worked there too, and assumed I was the du Fresne who had phoned earlier about the ice. Only in New Zealand …

When I related this to other family members my sister, never one to be outdone, mentioned that when she and her husband called at the charming retro coffee caravan parked near the boat ramp at Collingwood, the female barista who served them had been a pupil in my sister’s art class in Hawke’s Bay aeons before – and furthermore, the barista’s brother was married to the former girlfriend of my sister’s son and farmed next to him in the foothills of the Ruahine range.

By now I suspect we’re getting down to one degree of separation.

My sister also told of lunching with her husband and daughter at the Mussel Inn (a famous Golden Bay establishment which I regard as over-rated, though it’s considered heretical to say so), where the daughter knew the bartender from her theatre course at Victoria University.

But two degrees of separation stories don’t just crop up in New Zealand. My favourite one, still, concerns my first visit to London in 1985.

On a quiet Saturday afternoon I checked in to the Royal Commonwealth Society in Northumberland Avenue, where I was to stay, and entered my name in the guest register.

The guy behind the counter, who had said very little up to this point, looked at my name and remarked casually: “You must be one of the Waipukurau du Fresnes” (actually he used “Waipuk”, the abbreviation favoured by locals).

Indeed I was one of the Waipuk du Fresnes. It turned out that he came from Waipawa, five minutes away from my home town, and his mother knew my mother through the Catholic Women’s League.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Rock's shock-jocks gloriously out-pranked

The most cheering story I’ve read in weeks was the one in today’s New Zealand Herald about how a pair of lesbians turned the tables on the oicks behind a Valentine’s Day win-a-divorce stunt promoted by Auckland shock-jock radio station The Rock.

Hosts Jono Pryor and Robert Taylor (I’m starting to suspect that anyone who calls himself Jono is bound to be a moron) thought a good way of marking the traditional lovers’ day would be to find someone disaffected enough by his or her relationship that they’d be prepared to go live on air telling their partner they wanted a divorce. In return for this wizard wheeze, The Rock would pay the legal costs of the split.

But in a glorious case of poetic justice, the pranksters were out-pranked. A woman calling herself Sam phoned the station saying she wanted to end her relationship with her husband, “Andy”. But when Taylor dialled the number to give “Andy” the bad news, he was nonplussed to find himself talking to a woman and wondered if he had misdialled.

“No, this isn’t Andy. It wasn’t Andy to start with, you f***ing idiots,” said a woman who identified herself as Sam’s wife, Amber.

The Herald report went on: After a couple of seconds of silence, Pryor began to speak but Amber interrupted: “So how does it feel you two – how does it feel like, being on the other end of something?

“We sabotaged you, you dickheads.”

Amber and “Sam” then proceeded to shred the two hosts, who seemed – probably for the first time in their radio careers – lost for words. Amber said she wondered why more women weren’t in lesbian relationships “with dickheads like you around”. Quite so.

When he eventually recovered from the realisation that he’d been suckered, Taylor had the temerity to sound indignant. “You’ve been lying to us!” he whined to Sam.

Fantastic! Game, set and match. It was richly fitting that the bozos from The Rock, who clearly relish the thought of publicly humiliating others, should themselves be made to look like the prats they are. Will they learn anything from the experience? Probably not.

I’ve never listened to The Rock (just as I’ve never bought a pizza from Hell, another company that specialises in puerile publicity stunts), but I’ve read enough about the station to conclude that if you added up the IQs of all its hosts, plus those of all its thumb-sucking jockstrap male listeners, you’d be hard-pressed to reach double digits.

This was the best radio I’ve heard in years, though not for the reason Taylor and Pryor imagined. You can hear it here:

It's not quite "Welcome back, Winston", but ...

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, February 14.)

A COLLECTIVE groan went up when Winston Peters was re-elected in November. I was one of those doing the groaning.

I wrote at the time that Mr Peters had exhausted his credibility several times over. But here we are, just three months down the track, and like many other people, I’m almost grateful that he’s back in Parliament.

Only Mr Peters has sufficient disregard for political orthodoxy to question the apparent rorting going on over the whanau ora scheme and the allocation of taxpayer money for family reunions – sorry, hui – under the inventive banner of “Whanau Integration, Innovation and Engagement”.

It has long been obvious that Maori organisations are held to entirely different standards of accountability when it comes to the spending of public money. That’s the key issue here: not whether whanau ora is a good idea (it could well be), but accountability.

But National is looking the other way because it doesn’t want to jeopardise its fragile relationship with the Maori Party, Labour won’t utter a sound because it’s intent on winning back Maori support, and the Greens are sitting on their hands because … well, because the tangata whenua are sacrosanct and the Greens consider all state spending on oppressed minorities to be automatically virtuous.

There was a time when ACT would have kicked up a fuss but those days are passed. So it falls to Parliament’s master huffer and puffer to hold the government’s feet to the fire, and thank God for that.

When Mr Peters tires of pursuing whanau ora minister Tariana Turia, perhaps he could turn his attention to the Maori tribal elite’s greedy, opportunistic demand for preferential treatment in the disposal of state assets, for there are justifiable fears that John Key’s “elegant solution” will ultimately involve rolling over and doing a sweetheart deal with corporate Maoridom rather than face a costly, drawn-out battle through the courts.

* * *

WHEN will TVNZ and TV3 come clean about the secret cloning plant that supplies them with female reporters?

It’s obvious to anyone watching the news on either network that there’s an assembly line somewhere producing a steady stream of young women journalists whose only point of difference is cosmetic.

Hair colour, facial features and complexion may vary (you can do amazing things these days with prosthetic makeup), but they are all of a similar age and pleasing to the eye.

They speak with the same gushy little-girl voices and use the same peculiar vocal inflexions and wince-inducing vowel sounds. All place the emphasis on prepositions and conjunctions (such as “of”, “and” and “in”) instead of nouns and verbs, and all share the same propensity for inserting extra vowels in words where they don’t belong (for example, “unknowen” and “for-wah” for “four”).

They even share similar physical mannerisms, using strange hand and arm gestures to embellish their story-telling. It’s obvious to anyone with half a brain that they must share a common genetic ancestor.

Like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, these pretty young things have gradually displaced more mature female reporters. Male journalists are vanishing too, save for a few carefully groomed young men – such as TVNZ’s boy wonder Jack Tame – who were plucked straight from school by talent spotters looking for boyish visual appeal.

Only in out-of-the-way places like Christchurch, Queenstown and Wanganui do a few grizzled old-school TV reporters hang on, having successfully evaded the attention of the marketing advisers who dictate the tone of the modern TV news bulletin.

I’m convinced that somewhere a closely guarded facility houses a laboratory-created model from whom all these female reporters have been cloned. It could be deep in the Waitakeres but it’s just as likely to be Miramar, for I feel certain that Weta Workshop is somehow involved.

* * *

IT’S A VAIN hope, but one of my wishes for New Zealand in 2012 is that we be spared so-called reality TV shows such as Police 10/7 and Motorway Patrol.

Television at its best has the power to uplift but it can also drag viewers down. These shows take a perverse delight in doing the latter, bombarding us with images of no-hopers and bottom-dwellers whose lives are a desperate mess and whose powers of communication are so limited that every third word has to be bleeped out.

The insidious effect of such exposure is to reduce us to the level of the participants. We are desensitised to appalling behaviour, gradually coming to view it as normal and therefore acceptable.

We are also conditioned to the socially corrosive view that New Zealand is infested by dysfunctional and dangerous people when in fact they are a tiny minority.

Police 10/7 offers a figleaf of moral justification by inviting viewers to help the police catch criminals. But like Motorway Patrol, much of its content is voyeuristic, demeaning and heavily dependent on schadenfreude for its appeal.

A programme about ordinary citizens behaving well would more accurately reflect reality. Of course no one would watch it – but is that justification for so relentlessly exposing society’s ugly underbelly?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Don't worry, there'll be another one along soon

What odious, hypocritical outpourings have accompanied the untimely death of Whitney Houston, and how predictable.

The show business luminaries who make such an extravagant public display of grief for her, and who will no doubt turn the Grammy Awards presentation ceremony into a tacky mourn-fest of the type Hollywood delights in, are by and large the same people who sustain the greedy, amoral system that chewed her up and eventually spat her out.

No doubt her record company, even as its executives are beating their breasts and issuing pious tributes to her luminous talent, is cranking up the production lines with a view to cashing in on renewed demand for her CDs. Nothing sells records like a lonely self-inflicted death in a Beverly Hills hotel room.

One constant in the world of pop music and movies is that psychologically fragile stars like Houston are destroyed while the grasping, manipulative record company presidents and promoters who profit from their talent survive into comfortable (and usually very prosperous) old age. When did you last hear of a tormented impresario or record company executive taking an overdose or shooting himself?

What ruins stars like Houston? The great cliché is that it’s the bitch goddess of success – the lure of wealth, fame and celebrity that the American showbiz machine dangles in front of the ambitious and vulnerable. As with many clichés, it has a core of truth. It takes a strong individual to resist this Faustian pact, with its inevitable relinquishment of personal autonomy. No one who has read about the machinations of the US record industry can fail to be aware of the relentless pressure on stars to keep the hits coming. Once they dry up … well, you’re on your own, baby.

Some singers handle the pressure. Brian Wilson is one who has survived against the odds. Others such as Elvis Presley, Judy Garland and Michael Jackson, to name some of the more obvious examples, spectacularly succumbed. Others again have sought refuge in the twilight world of the Las Vegas Strip, the showbiz equivalent of the dementia ward.

An unanswered question is whether highly talented and creative people such as Houston are intrinsically frail psychologically and therefore pre-disposed to an early death (Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Kurt Cobain spring to mind), or whether it’s simply the remorseless pressure of their career that leads them down the path of self-destruction. My guess is that it’s usually a combination of the two.

Whatever, Houston is gone – but never mind. Pop stars are like buses; there’ll be another one along soon.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Another house concert in the Wairarapa

In April 2010 I wrote on this blog (I try not to use the verb “blogged”, it being an even uglier word than the brutish-sounding noun from which it springs) about a concert by the very talented Jess Chambers at the rural Wairarapa home of Simon Burt and Pip Steele. That was the first of what is evolving into a series of occasional “house concerts” organised by Simon after he tired of attending public performances where oafish members of the audience loudly talked among themselves and generally ignored the entertainer they had ostensibly turned up to see. Simon gets around that problem by issuing invitations to people he can rely on to respect the performer. This doesn’t mean the house concerts in the big old hilltop home at Ahiaruhe take place in an atmosphere of monastic solemnity; far from it. But it does ensure an appreciative audience, and so it was with last night’s concert by Auckland-based country singer Donna Dean – one of her last New Zealand performances before she moves to Melbourne.

This was the third of the Ahiaruhe house concerts. The one in between was by rising singer-songwriter Mel Parsons, which I attended but didn’t write about. This was sheer indolence on my part rather than any reflection on Parsons’ performance, which was exemplary.

Dean is no less a revelation than Chambers and Parsons were, though in different ways. I was ashamed to realise that this immensely gifted singer and songwriter has performed to huge crowds in Europe and the US – and wrote the title track for Destination Life, a Grammy Award-nominated album by American bluegrass singer Rhonda Vincent – yet remains virtually unknown in her own country. This no doubt explains why she’s leaving.

She also operates in a generally darker, grittier and more traditional genre than the alt-country songbirds of the Chambers-Parsons generation, whose music can loosely be categorised as melodic pop with a country inflection (or, if you prefer, melodic country with a pop inflection). Dean is older and her life clearly hasn’t always been easy. Introducing her songs she mentioned a period in rehab, a loved brother who died young and a childhood visit to her father in Mt Eden Prison.

Her life experience has been distilled into songs that convey an oxymoronic impression of brittleness and vulnerability combined with quiet strength. One of Dean’s songs was inspired by her regular visits to an Auckland acute mental health ward where she entertains the patients; it reminded me of Johnny Cash’s Committed to Parkview. Another, Silent Lie, powerfully and painfully explored infidelity and betrayal; a third recalled the drinking binges that preceded her admission to rehab in the late 1980s.

But it’s not unremittingly dark. Dean also performed an engagingly whimsical children’s song that had the 40-strong audience singing along (and an unusually tuneful lot they were, due no doubt to Simon Burt’s judicious filtering and the number of musicians present).

She frequently dipped into the mainstream country repertoire too. Last night’s set included songs by Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, the country standard Tennessee Waltz, Johnny Mullins’ Blue Kentucky Girl (popularised by Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris) and Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You. She even made a foray into soul with Dan Penn’s Do Right Woman.

Dean plays a beautiful 1994 Gibson acoustic guitar that she inherited from her late mother, who played rhythm guitar for the famed Auckland Polynesian bandleaders Bill Sevesi and Bill Wolfgramm. She told how her mother – clearly a profound influence – had an unfulfilled lifelong ambition to visit the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and laughed at the memory of smuggling some of her mum’s ashes into the US and scattering them outside the revered country music venue.

Nashville’s influence is obvious in Dean’s singing and songwriting. You can hear Texas, Kentucky and Oklahoma in her songs, just as you can detect faint echoes of singers like Trisha Yearwood, Nanci Griffith and Suzy Bogguss. Yet there’s nothing cringingly derivative in her performance. She’s recognisably a Kiwi girl who just happens to have found, in the American country music tradition, the perfect vehicle for expressing herself.

Dean was accompanied last night by Whangarei luthier Steve Evans on mandolin and Derek Burfield of Wellington on upright bass. Evans played with fluency and assurance but Burfield was clearly unfamiliar with Dean’s songs, which detracted from an otherwise memorable performance. Being roped into a pickup band at short notice is always challenging and there were times when I felt Dean would have been a lot more comfortable with just Evans behind her.

Footnote: Donna Dean performs tonight at the Wellington Bluegrass Society, 54 Richmond St, Petone, at 8pm. Phone (04) 477 0069 to check whether tickets are still available.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The academic hijacking of the arts

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 1.)

Question: Which of the following writers acquired their skill as a result of attending a creative writing course – Shakespeare, Tolstoy or Dickens?

Answer: None.

Question: Which of the following songwriters acquired their skill as a result of acquiring a degree in composition – Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael or Lennon and McCartney?

Answer: None.

Question: Which of the following famous film directors acquired their skill as a result of studying filmmaking – Frank Capra, John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock?

Answer: None.

I could go on, but I think you can see where this is heading.

It’s all to do with what I call academic capture, a phenomenon of our time whereby skills that were once acquired intuitively or “on the job” must now be learned in a classroom or lecture theatre.

What set me off on this theme was a recent article in the British magazine The Spectator in which the author Philip Hensher reviewed a collection of essays celebrating the creative writing programme at the University of East Anglia.

The UEA creative writing programme is one of about 100 similar courses available in Britain. It has been going for 40 years and Hensher describes it as by far the best known.

“Probably most people who want to become writers would like to study there,” Hensher writes of the UEA. It follows that the course’s tutors can have their pick of the most promising applicants. Hensher then asks: “So why do they struggle to produce 20 famous names from the last 40 years?” Good question.

Of the nearly 300 writers who have completed the UEA course, Hensher says he has heard of 50 and read work by 20, “not all of whom I would regard as significant or even particularly interesting authors. Why doesn’t UEA do better?” Again, good question.

Before I go on, I should point out a couple of things. First, a subsequent letter to The Spectator revealed that Hensher, having been turned down for the job of professor of creative writing at UEA in 2007, may have been writing from the perspective of a sore loser. Second, Hensher admits that he teaches creative writing at a rival institution, which raises further questions about his impartiality. Yet his article raises some interesting points.

Hensher observes that the traditional formula for success as a writer – namely, reading a lot of books and attempting to write your own in the evenings or while on holiday – has been supplanted by the degree in creative writing.

“I suspect that most would-be authors nowadays don’t think there is any other route to publication,” he writes.

The confining mindset he’s describing – that nothing is achievable unless you’ve completed some officially endorsed course – doesn’t apply only to writing. Innumerable skills and occupations have fallen victim to academic capture, including my own of journalism.

I have written before in this column about journalism’s transformation from an occupation where you acquired the necessary skills on the job to one that now demands an academic qualification, too often taught by people with little or no track record of their own. This has changed the nature of journalism and the type of person attracted to it – to the ultimate detriment, I believe, of the profession.

Nursing went the same way when training that was previously hospital-based moved into polytechnics. I have nursing friends who learned under both systems and they are all adamant about which they would prefer. Even the polytechnic-trained ones believe the old way provided better preparation for their career.

Cooking is another skill the teaching of which has largely been institutionalised, yet the most accomplished chefs I know were either self-taught or started out as lowly kitchenhands who learned by watching and doing.

The academic hijacking of vocational training has reached such a ludicrous point that Sir Robert Jones – or Bob Jones, as he prefers to be known when in his writer’s persona – devoted his satirical novel Degrees for Everyone to the subject. Jones bemoans the fact that universities now offer “nonsense degrees in nonsense subjects” and that rigorous scholarship has been undermined by commercial considerations – namely, the need to get bums on seats and therefore qualify for government funding.

A more recent phenomenon is the one addressed by Hensher. I refer to the fallacy that artistic accomplishment – whether it be in writing, music, filmmaking or whatever – is somehow dependent on having the right academic training.

Gullible students (presumably with equally gullible but well-heeled parents) are now sucked in to signing up for university courses that purport to teach them how to become pop musicians or write hit songs. But how many hit songs came out of university courses? None that I can think of.

You either have a gift for something or you don’t. I don’t believe it can be instilled. The writers, filmmakers and composers listed at the start of this column didn’t learn their craft from lecturers in sterile classrooms; it was intuitive.

It may seem incredible in this qualification-obsessed era, but Shakespeare somehow managed to produce the greatest body of literature in history without the assistance of a lecturer telling him where he was going wrong.

Lennon and McCartney couldn’t even read or write music, yet they composed some of the most popular songs of the 20th century. Frank Capra, arguably the greatest Hollywood film director of the 1930s and 40s, had a degree in chemical engineering. Hoagy Carmichael, who wrote some of America’s most loved popular songs, trained to be a lawyer.

Far from nurturing talent, mediocre tutors with fixed ideas of their own can stifle creativity. I recall New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton complaining, in the most polite way, that a tutor on a creative writing course she attended tried to impose his own restricting view on how she should write – surely the antithesis of creative freedom.

I have seen the same in journalism courses, where students with a highly individual style were pressured to conform. As Hensher wrote in The Spectator: “The majority [of institutions] will always prefer the second-rate and self-limited writer to the dangerous maverick.”

While arguing that the work of the imagination – which after all is the writer’s greatest asset – can’t be bestowed in the classroom, Hensher allows that a good teacher can impart useful advice on structure and style. But perhaps the most telling point he makes is that a startling number of the writers celebrated in the book about the UEA course have disappeared into total oblivion. Well, fancy that.

Cosying up to the big money

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, January 31.)

IF THE National Party has an Achilles heel that makes it vulnerable to attack, it’s a fondness for cosying up to big money.

First there was the unseemly eagerness with which it prostrated itself before emissaries from Warner Bros in the 2010 row over Sir Peter Jackson’s production of The Hobbit. Then came the sweetheart deal with Sky City, whereby Auckland will gain a new convention centre in return for regulatory concessions that will allow the company to install extra gaming tables and 900 more poker machines.

Any competent government will look for ways to promote tourism and create new jobs; but there’s a counter-argument that if it results in more gambling addicts squandering the family grocery budget on pokies, it’s not worth it.

Meanwhile another Sky, Sky TV, has benefited from a hands-off regulatory regime (admittedly adopted by Labour as well as National) that has seen Sky’s audience multiply at the expense of publicly owned broadcasters. Benevolent market conditions enable the pay-TV company to outbid free-to-air rivals for sports broadcasting rights and all the best new drama programmes. As a result, we have witnessed the gradual death by strangulation of public service television.

National has also exposed itself to the accusation that it’s too matey with Australian-owned TV and radio operator MediaWorks, which was the beneficiary last year of a $43 million government loan guarantee. What made that deal look particularly dodgy was that Steven Joyce, then Minister of Communications, is a former managing director of MediaWorks’ radio subsidiary – although to be fair, it was reported that Mr Joyce initially advised against the arrangement.

Now we've learned that the grotesque German known as Kim Dotcom, who is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of internet piracy, purchased New Zealand residency in 2010 by investing $10 million in New Zealand government bonds. Immigration officials knew of his convictions in Germany for insider trading and embezzlement but weighed his criminal record against “potential benefits to New Zealand”.

We don’t know whether political influence was brought to bear in the decision to grant Dotcom residency, but perhaps direct involvement wasn’t necessary. Officials often take their cue from what they know to be the attitudes of their political masters.

Of course everyone expects National to be business-friendly, just as Labour ingratiates itself with trade unions. But it’s one thing for a government to promote a prosperous economic environment, and quite another to roll over for big business or any sleazy entrepreneur waving a cheque book.

* * *

HOW DISPIRITING that a country as dynamic and full of talent as the United States couldn’t produce a more impressive set of Republican challengers for the presidency.

Virtually all the contenders are encumbered with compromising baggage that journalists were bound to unearth. With early frontrunner Herman Cain, it was a history of sexual harassment. For Newt Gingrich, it’s his marital record and apparent predilection for adultery. For Mitt Romney, who tried hard to present himself as Mr Clean, it’s not so much his great wealth – Americans have no problem with that – as his evasiveness over how much he pays in tax.

Rick Santorum has been accused of living in one state while claiming school subsidies for his large family in another; Ron Paul has been embarrassed by bigoted views expressed in a newsletter published under his name. And on it goes.

But it’s not just that. Conspicuously absent from the Republican campaign is any hint of inspirational vision.

Where are the successors to the great American political speechwriters of the past such as Ted Sorensen, who crafted John F Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech with its appeal to Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”? Or Peggy Noonan, who masterfully recycled the poet John Magee’s line about aviators who “slipped the surly bonds of earth ... and touched the face of God” in a speech by Ronald Reagan honouring the astronauts who died in the Challenger space shuttle explosion.

Certainly there’s been no sign of soaring rhetoric so far from the Republican hopefuls. At this rate all Barack Obama has to do is turn up and the White House will be his for another four years.

* * *

VERY FEW men look better with their shirts off than on. (The same is true of women, but I’m not allowed to say that.) So why do Wellington Phoenix fans insist on baring their torsos when their team plays? All that pale, flabby flesh, all those man boobs and scrawny chests … it’s not a pretty sight.

I note with alarm that Gareth Morgan, one of the team’s new owners, demonstrated his solidarity with fans by getting his own top off at a game last year. It’s all very well wanting to prove that you’re one of the boys, but surely this is going too far.