Saturday, July 27, 2013

We don't know how lucky we are

(First published in The Dominion Post, July 26.)
PERHAPS OUR politicians aren’t such a bad lot after all. Consider the following.
British Conservative MP Patrick Mercer recently resigned as party whip after the embarrassing disclosure that undercover reporters had paid him £4000 – part of a promised contract worth £24,000 a year – to ask questions in Parliament, supposedly on behalf of Fijian business interests.

Only days later, two Labour peers, Lords Cunningham and Mackenzie, were suspended by their party after being filmed boasting how they could get around House of Lords rules to promote clients’ interests.
For £144,000 a year, Cunningham – a former minister in Tony Blair’s government – offered to host social events on the House of Lords terrace, lobby ministers and arrange parliamentary questions on behalf of a fictitious South Korean solar energy company. An Ulster Unionist peer, Lord Laird, was caught in the same sting and resigned from his party.

The Sunday Times quoted Cunningham as saying to undercover reporters: “Are you suggesting 10,000 pounds a month? Make that 12,000 a month. I think we could do a deal on that.”
The phrase “snouts in the trough” barely begins to describe such venality. And the suspicion is, as Spectator columnist Rod Liddle put it, that all the British politicians are at it – “it’s just that the cameras aren’t there to see them”.

Meanwhile, across the Tasman, the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party has been caught up in a long-running corruption inquiry that upholds Sydney’s reputation as the southern hemisphere's Chicago. 
The Independent Commission Against Corruption heard that disgraced ex-Labor minister Ian Macdonald granted coal exploration licences, in highly suspicious circumstances, to two mates: wealthy Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid and a former union boss, John Maitland. Obeid’s family and friends allegedly stood to make a windfall profit of $100 million.

All this puts our own politicians’ peccadilloes – whether they involve watching hotel porn, behaving like an oick in a Hanmer Springs restaurant or getting too close to an attractive reporter – into perspective. Even Taito Phillip Field, the only New Zealand politician to be convicted of bribery and corruption, looks like Mister Clean by comparison.
* * *
IT WAS GOOD to see a humble mince and cheese pie win the supreme prize at the Bakels pie awards this week. In food, as in literature and music, you can’t beat a simple thing done well.

Traditionally working men’s fare, the pie has been subverted by nouveau-riche pretensions. It’s the culinary equivalent of those working-class, inner-city suburbs that have been gentrified by the university-educated, pinot noir-drinking, Citroen-driving bourgeoisie.

The rot set in when bakers with ideas above their station started creating such excesses as chicken, cranberry and camembert pie. Now they vie with each other to produce ever more outlandish concoctions such as the salmon, scallops, leaks and crabmeat pie that featured in this week’s awards.
Another entry was made from apple, vanilla bean, frangipani, rum and cinnamon. This is an affront to the proud heritage of the pie. Any pie that can’t be ordered at a lunch bar counter by a hungry truck driver without blushing should automatically be disqualified.

Perhaps the judges’ decision to honour the mince and cheese pie (itself a refinement of the plain meat pie, and therefore viewed with suspicion by some purists) is a symbolic act of rebellion – a signal that enough is enough. But we are left with a larger problem.
The asparagus roll, the club sandwich, the filled roll, the mince savoury and the sausage roll – gastronomic delights enjoyed by generations of New Zealanders – are all on the endangered list. In fact they’re almost extinct in central city cafes, surviving only in suburbs and provincial towns.

In their place, food cabinets in fashionable cafes are stacked with dreary, bland paninis, croissants and bagels. They have the texture of carpet tiles and slightly less flavour.
We have been beguiled into eating this arid fare on the false premise that it’s sophisticated and cosmopolitan, but it is no such thing. Give me a meat pie and a cheese and onion sandwich anytime. 

* * *

THE VOCAL idiosyncrasies of broadcasting journalists are a source of endless fascination.
We’ve had the harsh, strangled vowels, the habitual mispronunciations (other than for Maori place names, which are enunciated with great care) and the squealy, little-girl voices. Now it seems the fashion among female radio and television journalists is to sound as if they’re constantly on the verge of tears.

Television New Zealand’s Ruth Wynn-Williams and Radio New Zealand’s Olivia Wix are the prime exponents of this approach, reporting every news item as if they’re barely in control emotionally and at any moment could start sobbing convulsively.
The intention, presumably, is to ensure viewers and listeners are not merely passive consumers of news, but are emotionally engaged. Judy Bailey, who started all this back in the 1990s, has a lot to answer for.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

They're coming to take me away, ha ha

I've suspected for some time now that I'm losing it. In fact my heartless, ungrateful children tell me this process has been going on for years. But today I got incontrovertible proof. I was out for a ride on my mountain bike, cruising some gentle tracks on the northern outskirts of Masterton on a gloriously sunny winter afternoon. Approaching the top of a hill, I decided to take another route that went off to my right. There wasn't a vehicle within hundreds of metres and only one other human being, a distant walker, in sight. And suddenly I realised I had extended my arm to indicate I was turning.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Packing a sad over the decline of New Zealand English

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 17.)
Some of the silliest things get on my nerves. Words, for example.
Reading my paper the other day, I came across the word “lorry”. The story in question – about Greenpeace activists who used a truck to get access to Britain’s tallest building, which they then climbed to protest against oil exploration in the Arctic – was sourced from a British newspaper, The Times.

In The Times, “lorry” is perfectly acceptable. It’s a word peculiar to the version of English spoken in Britain, so would be familiar to that paper’s readers. But what on earth was it doing in a New Zealand publication?
I vaguely recall occasionally hearing, as a child, people of my parents’ generation speaking of lorries, but even then it was rare. Today it seems as archaic as the once-common practice of referring to Britain as “home”.

It must be decades since I heard the word used in conversation. Many younger New Zealanders probably have no idea that a lorry is what we call a truck. My Shorter Oxford Dictionary (which is actually quite long) tells me it originally meant a low, flat wagon with no sides, although the word’s origins are obscure.
My point is that “lorry” has no place in a New Zealand newspaper and should automatically be substituted with the local equivalent, which everyone knows and understands.

After harrumphing about this to my wife, who stoically endures my frequent rants about the misuse of the language, I turned the page of my paper and was immediately confronted by another word alien to New Zealand English: airplanes.
This report came from the Washington Post. “Airplanes” is an American term, and just as out of place in a New Zealand paper as lorry. There are several alternatives: aircraft, airliner, plane or even aeroplane (which pedantic aviation types seem to prefer), all of which are in common New Zealand usage.

Either the subeditors who prepared these stories for publication couldn’t be bothered spending a few seconds making the necessary changes, or it just didn’t seem important enough to worry about. Perhaps it didn’t even occur to them that these are not words that New Zealanders use.
Such indifference to language, by journalists of all people, bothers me.

Readers of this column may well think there are far more important things to get riled about than the appearance of non-New Zealand words in our news media, and of course they are right.
But I could say the same about rugby fans who indulge in heated debates about whether Aaron Cruden or Beauden Barrett should be groomed as Dan Carter’s successor, or people who tweet their favourite cupcake recipes. We all have our little obsessions.

My excuse is that language is a vital expression of culture. That’s well recognised; just look at the millions of taxpayer dollars being spent each year in an attempt to ensure the survival of te reo Maori.
Over the past 150 years, New Zealand has developed its own rich, colourful and often highly inventive vocabulary – a variant of the English language that’s uniquely ours.

I was reminded of this last week when I bought a copy of noted lexicographer Dianne Bardsley’s new book New Zealand Words. It includes expressions such as “away laughing”, “mates’ rates”, “pack a sad”, “perf”, “number eight wire”, “clobbering machine”, “Tiki tour” and “box of fluffies”.
Many of these expressions would mystify outsiders but are instantly understood by us. Our language is one of the things that marks us as different, even from our near-neighbours the Australians (with whom we share many slang terms while simultaneously having an idiosyncratic vocabulary of our own).

If we value this distinctiveness, we should be prepared to man the barricades against linguistic intrusions from other variants of English; hence my chagrin at the use of words such as lorry and airplane.
Interlopers like these are appearing more frequently, aided by globalisation and technology. We are being exposed more than ever to pervasive forms of English used elsewhere, such as in America.

Unfortunately, journalists are aiding and abetting this process. I cringe when I hear or read Americanisms such as “race car”, “swim meet”, “oftentimes” or “sail boat” used in local news media.
I fear that the honourable word “track” – as in Milford Track – is at risk from the imported “trail”. Similarly, it may be only a matter of time before “tramper” becomes “hiker” to conform to American usage.

I worry that “cookies” and the ghastly “buddies” are making headway too, when “biscuits” and “mates” serve perfectly well.
It’s not just Americanisms that irritate me. The English term “lads” – increasingly seen and heard locally, often in a sporting context – gets on my nerves too.

Why we seem so eager to adopt such terms, when there are long-established local equivalents, is a bit of a mystery. Presumably it has something to do with the desire to be seen as trend-setting.
The French have been grappling with this problem for centuries. They even have an official institution, the Academie Francaise, whose function is to resist the advance of English.

This involves creating French equivalents of invasive English words such as email, software, chat and networking (note how many are related to the digital revolution).  But it seems to be a losing battle, which serves to remind us how contagious language can be.
In the meantime, of course, common-sense English is also under constant assault from silly neologisms. One of the most baffling – heard every time you fly – is the term “power off”, as in “please power off your electronic devices”. For heaven’s sake, what’s wrong with “switch”?

I know of teachers who work with severely disabled children whom they are instructed to refer to as “clients”. Similarly, it seems the word “pupils” is on the way out; schoolchildren are now routinely referred to as “students” regardless of age.
It doesn’t help that dictionaries, which once laid down the law on proper English usage, are now descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words they simply reflect common usage, whether it’s right or wrong.

So there’s no authority to counteract the abusers of English; they are free to vandalise the language to their hearts’ content. But it would help if journalists, who should be protectors of the language, were not complicit in the process.  

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Face it: Australians are different

(First published in The Dominion Post, July 12.)

THE ONLY surprising thing about the end of Robbie Deans’ career as coach of the Australian rugby team was that it took so long for the axe to fall.
Australians are far more stridently nationalistic than New Zealanders, and it must have riled Ocker rugby fans that a Kiwi (or should I say Koy-woy) was in charge of the national side.

The Australian attitude toward New Zealand is essentially one of indifference, but they can be prickly about their small neighbour and hate to admit we can do anything as well as they can – still less better. That’s why, when New Zealanders succeed across the Ditch, Australians deal with it by claiming them as their own.
The relationship between the two countries is complex. We have a lot in common, but no one should make the mistake of thinking we’re alike.

Their history, politics and culture are different from ours. Some historians would argue that the two countries took fundamentally divergent paths because one was settled by convicts, sent there against their will, while the other was founded by free people motivated by a desire for a better life.
Paul Henry found out to his cost how different Australians are. Hugely popular (if polarising) here, he tanked on Australian breakfast television.  They just didn’t get him.

Australians will tolerate and even embrace successful New Zealanders, but only on their own terms. It helps if you’re prepared to become more Australian than the Australians, as in the case of New Plymouth-born broadcaster (and now naturalised Australian) Derryn Hinch, who adopted their larrikin ways with gusto.
Deans’ dismissal by the ARU probably had less to do with his win-loss record – which wasn’t so bad once you exclude defeats by the All Blacks – than with his nationality. No matter how many games the Wallabies won under him, he would have struggled to win acceptance.

Now they’ve got a dinky-di Australian in charge, Earth is back on its axis and national honour is restored.
* * *
ONE OF THE most interesting aspects of the recent upheaval in Australian politics was the way in which sexual politics intruded on media coverage.

High-profile female commentators such as Anne Summers and Kerry-Anne Walsh conspicuously lined up on the side of the deposed Julia Gillard. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that they saw Gillard’s overthrow by Kevin Rudd as part of a gender war.
As with the 2011 media coverage of Alasdair Thompson, the Auckland Employers’ Association chief who was mercilessly savaged because he made a politically incautious remark about women workers, it seems that some women journalists abandon all semblance of objectivity the moment gender issues crop up.

* * *

DON’T YOU LOVE the way sanctimonious academics and health commissars demonise alcohol while sanitising, and even promoting, cannabis?
The head of Australia’s Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education – yet another of those tiresome taxpayer-funded anti-liquor groups with grandiose names – popped up on Jim Mora’s radio show a couple of days ago, essentially arguing that dope causes less damage than alcohol and should therefore be decriminalised.

This highly debatable proposition is frequently heard from smug, middle-class baby-boomers who are safely insulated from the pernicious effects of habitual cannabis use.
Such people are typically well-educated and have high-paying jobs, usually in the public sector. A spliff at the weekend does them no harm. They are far removed from the pestilential effects cannabis has among unskilled workers and those on welfare.

The pro-dope, anti-liquor evangelists still buy into the 1960s-era delusion that cannabis is grown and sold by harmless, dreamy hippies, whereas alcohol is foisted on a helpless populace by bloated, rapacious beer barons. Hostility to capitalism is often at the heart of anti-liquor lobbying.
“Dope harmless, booze wicked” is the wowser’s equivalent of the robotic chant “four legs good, two legs bad” from George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Their propagandising is highly effective, entrenching myth as truth. Only this week my fellow columnist Dave Armstrong, an intelligent man, fell for the familiar wowser line that “we live in a binge culture as far as alcohol is concerned”. But anyone who remembers the 1960s and 70s knows that binge drinking was far worse then that it is now.
* * *

WAS THERE ever a more useless piece of advice than that offered in a radio ad I heard recently on what to do in the event of a dog attack?

If you’re attacked while riding a bike, the ad suggests, you should dismount and place the bike between you and the dog.
This would be an excellent suggestion but for one thing. It would require the dog to desist from attacking while you slow to a stop, get off and manoeuvre the bike into the defensive position.

It’s possible there are pitbulls trained to observe such Queensberry rules, but somehow I doubt it.

Friday, July 5, 2013

How much trust can we place in a "most trusted" list?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 3.)
I’ve never met Sir John Kirwan, but I’m sure he’s a nice bloke. He was a very good All Black winger, possibly even a great one (he’s one of the top 20 all-time international try scorers), and he coached the Italian and Japanese rugby teams before taking up the reins at the Auckland Blues.
He has also taken the unusual step, for a high-profile rugby figure, of admitting he has struggled with depression.

I would assume that his role as the figurehead of a campaign raising awareness of depression was one of the reasons he was named recently in a Reader’s Digest opinion survey as the most trusted New Zealander.
Kirwan seems intelligent, personable and articulate. He also seems to have a sense of public duty, and good on him for that. But the most trusted New Zealander? Really?

Not for the first time, I concluded that this survey served no purpose other than to promote the publication that sponsors it.
Put another way, it’s a gimmick designed to remind us that Reader’s Digest still exists – a fact that might otherwise be in danger of being forgotten.

The last time I wrote about one of these surveys, in 2011, I described the “most trusted” list as bizarre.
The top three that year – Sir Ray Avery, Sir Peter Gluckman and the late Sir Paul Callaghan – were all scientists. I guessed that they were chosen not so much because each had demonstrated his trustworthiness, but because people like to think of scientists as incorruptible seekers after the truth.

In other words, it’s possible they achieved their rankings because of what they did rather than who they were. After all, none were household names.
No 4 on the list that year was Justice Helen Winkelmann, chief judge of the High Court. This seemed extraordinary; probably fewer than 5 per cent of the population would have heard of her, given that she had been in the job only a short time.

I ridiculed that survey result because rather than coming up with their own nominations, respondents had been given a list of 100 names and asked to rank them. So they would have been asked to rate the supposed trustworthiness of people they might not even have heard of.
There was no logic or consistency in that 2011 list. The top 10 also included a comedian (Bret McKenzie), a fashion designer (Denise l’Estrange-Corbet) and a celebrity chef (Simon Gault).  No one could possibly have taken the findings seriously.

This year, Reader’s Digest (or to be more precise, the research firm that carried out the survey on the magazine’s behalf) did things differently. It undertook two surveys. The first supposedly determined who had caught the public imagination in the past year and the second rated how the top 100 were trusted on a scale of one-to-ten.

So, different methodology – but as a measure of trustworthiness, were the results any more credible than in 2011?
Nearly half the top 20 most trusted were sportspeople. Richie McCaw came in at No 3 (behind VC winner Willie Apiata at 2) and Peter Snell was ranked seventh.

Other sporting heroes in the top 20 included Sarah Ulmer (10), Valerie Adams (12), Dan Carter (13), Sir Colin Meads (15), Mahe Drysdale (16) and Dame Susan Devoy (17) – although whether Dame Susan was there by virtue of her sporting achievements or her performance so far as Race Relations Commissioner wasn’t clear.
The other striking feature of the poll was that after sports people, we seem to place most trust in the faces we know from television. Judy Bailey was ranked fifth, Kevin Milne ninth, Jim Hickey 11th, Nigel Latta 14th and Jo Seagar 19th.

The fact that some of these people are no longer regularly seen on screen testifies to the powerful hold television has over us. We could possibly also include in that category Alison Holst, who ranked fourth, although it’s an even longer time since she was a television fixture.
According to the publicity guff from Reader’s Digest, the survey established that to be trustworthy, “you need to be dependable and responsible, factors that placed first equal in the rankings. We also respond well to people who are inspiring, hardworking, humble, intelligent, courageous, kind, have a sense of humour and those who are generous.”

The problem is, we don’t know how most of those named behave in their private lives. One would like to think they are beyond reproach, and perhaps some are; but we see only the small part of them that is on public display. Some of them could have egos the size of Ruapehu, which might influence our perception of their trustworthiness.
In any case, we are not in a relationship of trust with sports people or TV personalities. We trust sportsmen and sportswomen to do their best and not to cheat, but that’s about as far as it goes. As for television entertainers, all we ask is that they please us. Trust hardly enters into it.

We may admire or like them, on the basis of what we know about them, but that’s different from being sure they can be trusted. That calls for a much tougher test. Try asking yourself whether you would leave your grandchildren in their care for a week, or entrust them with your life savings.
One much-loved figure who polled well in the survey was exposed by his former spouse several years ago as a wife beater and adulterer. Trustworthy? Hmmm.

I suppose what irritated me about this so-called survey, which was really little more than a popularity poll, is that trust is a hugely important part of our lives.
We trust our partners not to cheat on us. When we take the car to the garage, we trust the mechanic not to charge us for work that isn’t necessary. When we hire a builder, we trust him not to take short cuts or scrimp on materials that might cause the house to collapse in an earthquake.

When I interview someone for a newspaper or magazine article, he or she trusts me to report them fairly and accurately – quite a risk, given the consequences that could flow from being seriously misquoted.
When you think about it, a civilised, ordered society largely functions on trust. It deserves better than to be trivialised by gimmicky surveys.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Creators of tosh should bow to Peters

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 28.)
SOME people are in the fortunate position of being able to write or say almost anything and get away with it.
Take art critics, for example. Most contemporary art is, almost by definition, incapable of being explained coherently. It follows that a critic can interpret it any way he or she chooses and sound authoritative, at least to the gullible.

Often the artists themselves have no idea what their works mean. Some of the more honest ones admit it.
The critic therefore has total freedom to decide what the artist’s creation represents – and if the critique is phrased in words whose exact meaning is impossible to pin down, so much the better.

Much the same applies to wine writers, some of whom are in danger of displacing art critics as the most infamous creators of pretentious tosh.
Because the flavour, aroma and texture of wine is subtle, nuanced and hard to capture in words, a wine writer can use outrageously fanciful descriptive terms and appear knowledgeable. I know, because I used to be one.

Then there’s Winston Peters. Even art critics and wine writers should bow to him as the acknowledged master of verbal flummery.
Words cease to have any meaning when they tumble out of Mr Peters’ mouth. The sounds that emerge resemble recogniseable language but they reveal nothing.

It follows that it’s usually pointless trying to get sense out of him. An interview with him is as futile as a dog chasing its tail. Yet journalists keep on trying, as John Campbell bravely did on Campbell Live a couple of weeks ago.
Campbell is a very accomplished broadcaster, but perhaps he needs to be gently reminded that Albert Einstein defined insanity as trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

* * *

THE FUNNIEST programme on television so far this year wasn’t a comedy. It was Bear Grylls tackling the wilderness of the central North Island.
I’ve often suspected Grylls was a bit of a fraud but could never be sure. He’s not a complete fraud, because he obviously possesses genuine survival skills and attempts dangerous feats that you and I wouldn’t.

But you’re always aware, watching him, that there’s a cameraman recording his stunts and sometimes probably taking even greater risks than Grylls does. And I’ve always wondered just how wild and inhospitable the terrain he tackles really is.
Now I know. It was hilarious watching Grylls indulging in heroics on the volcanic plateau as if it was one of the last untamed wildernesses on the planet – a place where his life was in danger with every step.

It wouldn’t have surprised me if most of the time, just out of the picture, there was a gaggle of Japanese tourists, a herd of inquisitive cows or an espresso caravan; possibly even a Four Square store and a busy highway.
Watching Grylls will never be quite the same again.

* * *

IT WAS good to see Peter Dunne looking defiant on TV3’s The Nation last weekend – or at least as defiant as a mild soul like Dunne is capable of looking.
Yes, he behaved stupidly, but it’s hard to disagree with Dunne’s statement that he experienced an extreme form of muckraking.

He could well attract a wave of sympathy after the hammering he’s taken. New Zealanders are fair-minded people and many would view the recent gang-up against him with distaste.
It’s a sad reflection on the state of politics that one of the least offensive people in Parliament should be the target of such malice. Apparently we don’t like such people and relish a chance to bring them down.

Many voters dislike him because they see him as an opportunist – an each-way man, bending with the political current. But there’s another way of looking at him.
I see him as being anchored firmly at the dead centre of New Zealand politics. It’s the two major parties, rather than Dunne, that wobble around ideologically as they scramble to capture that vital middle ground.

* * *

WHAT IS it about public transport that incites the quasi-religious fervour exhibited almost daily in the correspondence columns of this newspaper?
Maybe I’ve just unwittingly put my finger on it. There’s evidence that human beings are psychologically hard-wired to need belief systems. Organised religion once met that need, but it has been in decline for decades.

Perhaps the people who once embraced religion now find their purpose in proselytising for light rail, trams, trains or trolley buses. Certainly their advocacy is as ardent as that of the most pious Bible-basher.
Whatever the explanation, they are thunderously boring. If Wellington’s local government elections are going to be dominated by these single-issue obsessives, the entire populace will switch off.