Saturday, May 26, 2012


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

Whatever you think of James Bond, his name is undeniably associated with a certain sense of style.

Bond drove a vintage Bentley and smoked hand-made cigarettes (60 a day) made by tobacconists Morlands of Grosvenor St, using a blend of Balkan and Turkish tobacco.

He wore Sea Island cotton shirts bought from Turnbull and Asser of Jermyn St (who, unlike Morlands, are still very much in business, promoting themselves as shirtmakers by appointment to HRH the Prince of Wales). More formal occasions called for a dark blue suit of serge, tropical worsted or alpaca, depending on the climate, with a heavy white silk shirt and thin black knitted silk tie, dark blue socks and black moccasin shoes.

A famously fussy drinker, Bond stipulated that his martinis should consist of three measures of Gordon’s gin, one of vodka and a half-measure of Kina Lillet (a French aperitif wine), well shaken and served ice-cold in a deep champagne goblet with a slice of lemon. He was also fond of Taittinger and Krug champagnes and had a taste for fine red wines from Bordeaux.

These details were more than merely incidental to Ian Fleming’s stories. Bond’s tastes may seem quaintly dated now, just as his attitude to women seems patronisingly sexist by contemporary standards, but they were integral to the appeal of Fleming’s books. They were all part of the fantasy the author wove around his famous character.

They were Fleming’s idea of how a hedonistic, sophisticated man of the world with expensive habits might live. Bear in mind that British readers, Fleming’s primary target market, were still living with wartime rationing when the first Bond book (Casino Royale) was published in 1953, and the British spy’s racy, exotic lifestyle must have seemed a perfect avenue for escapism from the dreary real world.

Even now, well into the 21st century, the Bond formula remains commercially potent: a 25th Bond film, Skyfall, is currently in production, which brings me to the point of this column.

Skyfall will mark a departure from previous Bond films. For the first time, Bond (played by Daniel Craig) will be seen drinking beer. And not just any beer, but Heineken, because the Dutch brewery has struck a deal with the film’s producers – one that takes “product placement”, whereby companies pay to have their products displayed prominently on the screen, to a new level.

The Heineken deal, rumoured to be worth $US45 million, illustrates the all-pervasive influence of marketers in modern capitalism. To these cold-eyed hucksters, everything – whether it be a film, a major sports event or even a TV news bulletin – is reduced to a marketing opportunity. Nothing, not even the 60-year legacy behind James Bond, is sacred in the scramble to promote the all-important brand.

I was particularly interested in the comment of Heineken spokeswoman Lesya Lysyj, who was reported as saying: “James Bond is a perfect fit for us. He is the epitome of the man of the world.”

Note the language. “Perfect fit” is classic marketing-speak. In the world of the marketing executive, perfect fits, market share and brand positioning are all that matter. Bond may have drunk martini and champagne for nearly 60 years, but fidelity to Fleming’s character counts for nothing once a big Dutch brewery waves a big cheque under the noses of Skyfall’s producers. Now Bond is to become just another lager-swilling prole.

Product placement was already rampant in Bond films, leading one to wonder whether storylines and dialogue have now been wholly subordinated by commercial motives.Entire websites are devoted to “leveraging” (another wretched marketing word) off the products exposed in the Bond films. You can find sites that tell you the brand of every item of clothing worn by Daniel Craig in his role as Bond, right down to braces and swimming togs.

Such promotional opportunities don’t come cheap; the marketing arrangements negotiated with each new Bond film must almost rival the box office takings in terms of the revenue generated. It’s no coincidence that in movie industry parlance the Bond films are collectively described as a franchise, a term synonymous with the right to sell merchandise. But the Heineken deal is perhaps the most brazen example yet of commercial tinkering with Fleming’s legacy.

Does the fact that Bond will now drink a bland Dutch lager really matter, in the grand scheme of things? Of course not. What does matter is the baneful influence of the marketers, who now contaminate everything within reach.

They have captured professional sport with their exclusive sponsorship deals and obsessive, heavy-handed suppression of competition (as we saw during the Rugby World Cup), and they are increasingly invading the media. In television, the influence of marketing executives even influences the content of news bulletins.

In my vision of Hell, marketing managers would be in charge. Commercial dominance is all they understand; no other values exist in their narrow, soulless world. Often they have no interest in the goods they are selling, only in the precious brand.

Even in the wine industry, which calls for a degree of personal affinity with the product, I have come across marketing managers who might just as well have been promoting tractors or ballpoint pens. Some would have been barely capable of distinguishing Chateau Haut-Brion from Diet Coke. And why should they? To the marketing executive, the intrinsic merit of the product is of little or no consequence. 

Oh, well ... I’d long since lost interest in the James Bond films anyway. Fleming’s fund of original stories was exhausted long ago and the scriptwriters struggle to come up with fresh ideas – the more so, no doubt, when those infernal product placement opportunities keep getting in the way.

The overrated Craig – the sixth actor to play Bond – has been credited with breathing new life into the franchise, but he has all the emotional range of a piece of 4x2. He exhibits none of the panache that most of his forerunners (especially Sean Connery, who remains the definitive Bond) brought to the role. It would be fitting, then, if the film that finally ended Bond’s extraordinary run was one that the marketing hucksters had hijacked.  


(First published in The Dominion Post, May 22.)

I CAN ONLY hope that if I live to 75, I’ll be as mentally sharp as Gordon McLauchlan is at that age.

The Auckland writer recently reprised his 1976 best seller The Passionless People, and the new book – The Passionless People Revisited: New Zealanders in the 21st Century – demonstrates he has lost none of his fire or flair.

McLauchlan remains one of our most perceptive and trenchant commentators.  Even if you don’t share all his political views, you can’t help but admire his withering contempt for the cant and shallowness that surrounds us.

He skewers his first victims in the opening pages. Writing about the 2011 election, McLauchlan refers to John Key not by name, but simply as the Face – “the perfectly passionless palliative Face [that] kept saying it wanted to talk about serious things such as the economy and yet somehow never did”.

McLauchlan writes of celebrity journalists Paul Holmes and Mike Hosking, “embedded at the high end of town among the also rich and famous”, watching the election from the equivalent of corporate boxes. John Banks is the “robotic Energiser, for whom any power point will do”. Don Brash is “John Cleese playing a politician”.  

I could go on, but you get the picture. McLauchlan can be a bit of grump, but having begun his journalism career in 1952 he brings to bear an historical perspective lacking in younger, more fashionable commentators who haven’t seen it all before.

To this quality, McLauchlan adds a facility with words that is rivalled by very few – among them Joe Bennett, who takes a similar delight in puncturing vanity and pretension. 

* * *

THE TRIBUTES rightly flowed for Grant Tilly, the stalwart of the Wellington theatre and television scene who died recently of cancer.

Tilly was a formidable actor, as anyone who saw him in his friend Tom Scott’s powerful one-man play The Daylight Atheist could attest. He was also a skilled artist and a self-taught joiner who delighted in making intricate little boxes.

He was not given to flamboyant or egotistical behavior. Having interviewed him once and met him socially on other occasions, I got the impression that unlike some actors, he knew exactly who he was and didn’t feel the need to put on a show.

Yet there’s one thing for which I blame him. Fairly or unfairly, I hold Tilly largely responsible for the strange accent used by male New Zealand actors, particularly those of the older generation, whenever they’re trying to sound authentically Kiwi.

I say “strange” because it doesn’t sound like any genuine New Zealand accent I’ve ever heard. You don’t hear this faux Kiwi bloke accent on contemporary TV shows such as Outrageous Fortune, but it’s still noticeable in stage plays, Radio New Zealand drama productions and radio commercials – particularly those advertising “blokish” businesses such as sports shops, building supply merchants and rural services companies.

Tilly was the first actor I noted using this accent and such was his influence that it seemed to be picked up by every other male thespian of his generation.

My theory, for what it’s worth, is that actors such as Tilly learned their craft during an era when the New Zealand theatre was strongly influenced by British traditions. The default accent was an English one (as it was on radio and TV).

As an indigenous drama scene began to emerge and more New Zealand plays were written by the likes of Roger Hall and Greg McGee, local actors had to develop a Kiwi voice. But by then I suspect they were so habituated to the British accent that they struggled to emulate their fellow New Zealanders. What emerged was almost a parody of the New Zealand accent.

This isn’t meant as a criticism. It was simply an indirect consequence of the famous cultural cringe that saw us deferring to Mother Britain, even in the way we spoke.

* * *

HITLER and Goebbels talked about the Big Lie – the lie so brazen and colossal that people couldn’t imagine anyone would make it up.

But there are also smaller lies which, if repeated often enough, become embedded in the public mind as established truth. Two of these relate to taxation and public services.

The assertion that the rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes is endlessly repeated, yet the top 10 percent of income earners still generate more than 70 percent of personal income tax revenue.

As for public sector spending, which opposition politicians insist is being ruthlessly cut, the truth (as an economist recently pointed out in these pages) is that government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product is the highest it has been since 1992, and cutbacks in public service numbers have made only a tiny dent in the massive increases over the past decade.

Remember these facts next time you hear the familiar Greek chorus wailing about how unfair everything is.

Monday, May 14, 2012


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

I do like a good funeral.

That may sound perverse, but the funeral of someone who has died after a long, fulfilling life is a celebration.

It’s often an occasion punctuated by laughter. Thank goodness we’ve moved on from the days when tradition demanded that funerals were solemn, sombre affairs.

The format was once strictly controlled by the celebrant, who was usually a cleric. I still regret that my family had little say in my father’s funeral nearly 20 years ago, but that was how things were done then.

Traditionally minded Catholics – and probably members of certain other faiths too – still believe there’s a “proper” way to mark someone’s death. Some Catholics don’t like eulogies being delivered as part of the requiem mass, believing that the purpose is not to reflect on the deceased’s life but to pray for his or her soul.

But generally speaking, families these days are largely free to organise the event as they think fit. Often the funeral service includes what you might call an “open mic” forum, where people are invited to come forward and tell their own stories about the deceased.

The result is a more relaxed, and often more cathartic, experience. It shouldn’t be so frivolous as to be disrespectful, but it can be an occasion for laughter as well as tears.

And here’s something else about funerals. They provide an opportunity to reflect on your own life.

I attend more funerals these days than I would like to; four or five already this year. I have reached that point in life when I’m not only seeing off the last of my parents’ generation but also mourning an increasing number of my contemporaries.

Almost invariably, they are humbling experiences. No matter how well I think I knew the person being mourned, the eulogies usually reveal aspects of their lives – personal qualities, notable achievements – that I had no knowledge of.

Most people are  not inclined to blow their own trumpets. It’s only after they’ve gone that you learn that someone you may have thought led an unremarkable life actually did noble or courageous things out of sight. They may have made a profound difference to other people’s lives in ways that you never imagined.

An example was a retired primary school principal whose funeral I attended on the Kapiti Coast several years ago. I didn’t know Errol well – our daughters were good friends – but regarded him as a good and upright man: a pillar of the community in a low-key, conservative way.

What I didn’t expect was the succession of moving tributes paid to him by former pupils who had travelled a long way to attend his funeral. The impact this quiet, self-effacing man had made on their lives was obviously indelible.

On such occasions I am sometimes prompted to measure myself against the person who has died, and I don’t necessarily emerge well from the comparison. It can be sobering to speculate about what people might say at my own funeral, assuming anyone bothers to turn up.

What brought about this musing was a funeral I attended recently in Waipukurau for the mother of a good friend. Joyce was not someone I knew well; my wife and I attended mainly because of our long-standing relationship with her daughter.

But once again, the many eulogies provided a glimpse of a life that, although lived quietly and unobtrusively, was full and rich in the ways that count.

Joyce was brought up in the predominantly Maori settlement of Porangahau, in southern Hawke’s Bay, where her father was a drover. As someone remarked at the funeral, the family was so much a part of the local community that it never occurred to them that they weren’t Maori.

Joyce’s story was, in many ways, typical of the New Zealand of her generation – a New Zealand now rapidly receding into history. She met and married Dave, who worked for the Post Office. He went off to war and when he returned, they began to raise a family.

Dave was the postmaster in a succession of small towns: Porangahau, Bulls, Collingwood, Ohakune, Warkworth. The family never had a car, travelling everywhere by public transport.

Joyce was a small, jolly woman who somehow reminded me of Charles Dickens’ character Clara Peggotty, the loving and loyal housekeeper in David Copperfield. (Perhaps it had something to do with knitting, of which both Joyce and Peggotty were fond.)

Wherever the family happened to be living, Joyce made a point of involving herself in community activities. She was a lifelong stalwart of the Country Women’s Institute and was a willing helper at the schools her children attended.

She was a loving mother who cooked, sewed, knitted and gardened. One of her sons recalled the time when an exasperated Joyce whacked one of her daughters on the legs with a wooden ruler, and I couldn’t help thinking of the irony that under present-day law this irreproachable woman could have been arrested and charged with a criminal offence.

Dave died years ago but Joyce ploughed on. She knitted clothes for premature babies, wrote the minutes of the local Women’s Institute meetings and was a staunch member of the RSA women’s section.

Above all she was a devoted mother and grandmother whose little house in Waipukurau was a place of warmth and welcome to all her close-knit extended family.

The attendance at her funeral was a measure of the affection felt towards her. The venue was crowded and the tributes, including one from a representative of the Maori community at Porangahau, were heartfelt.

The service, rather like the Anzac Day commemorations that Joyce didn’t live to attend this year, was a snapshot of a vanishing New Zealand. Family aside, the mourners were overwhelming grey-haired and many were frail.

They are the last of a generation whose expectations of life, by modern standards, were modest; a generation that believed in the old-fashioned virtues of hard work, thrift, self-sufficiency and pitching in when needed. It was a generation that kept its head down and would have been mystified by the vulgar self-aggrandisement of today’s celebrity culture.

Perhaps the worst that could be said of them is that they valued conformity rather too highly, but in other ways they personified values that succeeding generations might do well to emulate.


(First published in the Dominion Post, May 8.)

Continuing the relentless quest for truth on the most challenging issues of our times, I pose the following questions:

Are children with bizarre, unpronounceable names statistically more likely to die an early death from abuse by a caregiver, being hit by a reversing vehicle or wandering off unnoticed to drown or be struck by a car?

Had enough of Sonny Bill Williams?

Ever get the feeling that the more council chief executives get paid, the more things their councils manage to stuff up?

On a similar note, is it true – as some commentators have conjectured – that the rot began to set in when they ceased to be known as town clerks?

Tired of the media love affair with Sir Ian McKellen?

In fact, tired of the entire hullaballoo surrounding The Hobbit?

Get the feeling that the government has forgotten about the Pike River miners and their families? Just too hard, perhaps?

What’s with this new word “deconstruction” (as in the case of the Christchurch cathedral), and why is it suddenly deemed preferable to “demolition”?

How come, when the ancient Greeks were so wise, the modern ones seem so feckless?

When did “disconnect” become a noun?

Does anyone believe John Key when he claims that an increase in the number of pokie machines at Auckland’s SkyCity Casino will actually reduce the number of problem gamblers?

Does anyone still take professional boxing seriously?

In the effort to make sense of atrocities perpetrated by killers such as the Norwegian Anders Breivik, do we overlook the unfashionable possibility that some people are simply evil?

Feeling like a loser because you don’t have 33,000 Twitter followers, 1800 Facebook friends and several hundred people to whom you’re connected on LinkedIn?

Is Maori Television now the only channel where viewers feel they’re in New Zealand?

Still not convinced by John Banks’ attempts to convince us that he’s a born-again Act convert?

Why are so many official positions filled by English immigrants? Is this a lingering symptom of our infamous cultural cringe, or do New Zealanders just lack ambition?

Alternatively, is it because a certain type of Englishman (and woman) is genetically programmed to behave officiously?

Will broadcaster Mike Hosking ever win back his credibility following the disclosure of his cosy relationship with SkyCity?

Ever noticed that professional sportsmen who think nothing of maiming and crippling their opponents on the field are acutely sensitive to even the mildest verbal slight?

Still trying to figure out how the ugly wharewaka on the Wellington waterfront managed to win a major architecture award?

Further to that, doesn’t it reinforce your suspicion that many awards – whether for architects, writers, artists, chefs or whatever – are of dubious credibility?

When did people start having “surgeries” rather than operations?

Is Gareth Morgan in danger of overplaying his role as New Zealand’s leading (if not only) capitalist with a conscience?

Speaking of Gareth Morgan, whatever happened to the noble notion of anonymous philanthropy?

Ever wondered what God makes of honey-tongued, patrician American televangelists whose Sunday morning programmes are always followed, oddly enough, by an appeal for “gifts”?

In all the hand-wringing over Christchurch’s Anglican cathedral, has the fate of the much more attractive Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament been ignored?

Doesn’t the former cathedral’s demolition provide the perfect opportunity to finally correct the unsightly hodgepodge that was Christchurch’s famous Square?

Feeling ever-so-slightly queasy about disgraced sports broadcaster Tony Veitch’s return to the airwaves in a role that sometimes has him moralising about other people’s behaviour?

If Greater Wellington regional council can’t get the management of the existing suburban rail network right, can it be trusted to commit vast sums of public money to its future expansion?

When did New Zealanders start wearing rucksacks instead of backpacks?

Does this mean the parka will soon become an anorak, trucks will become lorries and we’ll soon be eating supper rather than dinner?

Is the Greens’ charmed ride in the opinion polls largely down to the fact that their righteous policies have never had to be tested in government?

If Heineken can buy off James Bond with a $45 million “product placement” deal, what next? Will we see him eating a Big Mac rather than pate de foie gras?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


I see Restaurant magazine has released its annual list of the world's 50 best restaurants.

I'm disappointed to see that the Horse and Hound pub in Masterton has been overlooked. Its wine list is rather limited but its crumbed blue cod (with chips and salad) surely entitles it to a place alongside Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck and the fabled Noma of Copenhagen.

I've always been intuitively sceptical about these "world's best" lists. This serves as confirmation that they can't be trusted.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


In a very real sense, whatever happens from now on in the John Banks-Kim Dotcom imbroglio is immaterial. The public has made up its own mind. Banks has lost where it ultimately counts most: in the court of public opinion. And he has only himself to blame, because Banks has made himself look every inch a guilty man. What has swung people against him is his extraordinarily evasive response to questions – the infantile references to cabbage boats, the pitiful “I don’t remember” mewing – which have been broadcast for all to see, and which are likely to be repeated ad nauseam until, like a maimed animal, Banks is put down.

There are now at least three counts against him. The first is that he was dishonest about the source of donations from Dotcom and SkyCity. The second is that when confronted, he was incapable of giving a straight answer. To those charges can now be added a third: that he abandoned his benefactor and former chum, Dotcom, when the German turned to him for help after his arrest. It’s distasteful enough that a sycophantic Banks should grease up to a billionaire entrepreneur as he did, but it looks almost reprehensible that he didn’t want to know Dotcom once the German was in trouble (which is presumably why the Dotcom camp turned on him by leaking the information that now has Banks writhing). No matter what people think of Dotcom, there is bound to be some public sympathy for him in the light of David Garrett’s claim on Kiwiblog that Dotcom sought assistance from Banks when he was banged up in Mt Eden (which is apparently in Banks’ electorate) but was ignored.

Perhaps Banks has learned that you can’t have it both ways: you can’t schmooze rich patrons without accepting that some sort of payback may be expected down the track. Old sayings about free lunches and supping with the devil come to mind. On the other hand, you get the feeling that Banks may be one of those men who just doesn’t learn.

Footnote: In an earlier post on this subject I wrote that a conviction for a breach of the electoral law would place Banks' Epsom seat at risk and therefore endanger the government's tenuous majority. In fact, as Duncan Garner pointed out last night on TV3, the government can count on safely retaining Epsom, but it would be left without a potentially helpful ally on its right.