Saturday, September 28, 2013

A mild form of hysteria

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 25.)
At the time of writing this (Sunday), I have no idea how the America’s Cup will play out. But it doesn’t really matter, because this column is more concerned with the America’s Cup as a sociological phenomenon.
A different New Zealand has been on display over the past couple of weeks. We like to think of ourselves as phlegmatic people, slow to register emotion. There is no better example of this than New Zealand skipper Dean Barker, whose composure and measured understatement has been one of the most striking aspects of the entire contest.

In contrast, the national mood over the past few days has resembled a mild form of hysteria.
Encouraged by incessant, chest-thumping media hype, we quickly get carried away by the prospect of international sporting triumph. Nothing causes us to shed our inhibitions – or our modesty – faster.

But events like the America’s Cup also serve as a kind of social glue. I think of it as the spirit of Telethon. Just as in the 1970s the entire nation coalesced around the novelty of 24-hour television charity fundraisers, so an event like the America’s Cup pulls us all together. For a brief period we put aside the things that normally divide us and focus on a common cause.
This is very much a New Zealand thing, and it’s probably due to our size. We are small enough to feel connected.

One of the most intriguing aspects has been the way people felt the urge to indulge in communal bonding. Rather than watch in the comfort and privacy of their own homes, thousands chose to gather in clubs and public venues, often sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers. I can only guess this has something to do with feelings of excitement being heightened (and perhaps with disappointment being easier to take) when it’s shared.
None of this was orchestrated. In fact interest in the event built slowly.

I began watching at the time of the Louis Vuitton series, when it seemed not many people were paying much attention. I wouldn’t have bothered myself, except that an Italian-American friend in San Francisco (a keen supporter of Team New Zealand) began sending me YouTube links that captured my interest.
At that stage it wasn’t the prospect of a New Zealand victory that pulled me in so much as the sheer spectacle. Even when the New Zealand boat was racing by itself, its speed and agility was enthralling. This was sailing as it had never been seen before.

As Emirates Team NZ dispensed with the hapless Luna Rossa team and attention turned to Oracle, the media began to sit up and take notice. And when the New Zealanders won the first few races against Larry Ellison’s defenders, the momentum became irresistible.
Suddenly the TV and radio networks, sensing a big story in the making, were frantically dispatching their star reporters to San Francisco. We love our own myths, and there is none more irresistible than the one in which, by sheer grit and No 8 wire resourcefulness, we take on the world.

Even cynics who sneered at sailing as a rich man’s sport found themselves being sucked in. Doubtless the prospect of New Zealand giving the unpopular software billionaire Ellison a bloody nose helped overcome their ideological qualms.
We’ve been here before, of course. When the All Whites qualified for the FIFA World Cup in 1982, people with no prior interest in football suddenly became ardent enthusiasts. Work would cease when our underdog players took the field.

The same thing happened in 2010, when we took huge pride in the fact that New Zealand was the only team not to lose a game (something the critics unkindly pointed out wasn’t necessarily hard to do if you played a strictly defensive style of football).
In 1987, the hit song Sailing Away helped whip up a fever of patriotic enthusiasm when a young Chris Dickson skippered KZ7 in our first America’s Cup campaign off Fremantle. In 1995, red socks became the symbol of the nation’s passionate support for the ultimately successful Cup challenge led by Peter Blake, with Russell Coutts as helmsman.

There is an almost childlike delight in the way New Zealanders rise to such occasions. Sociologists and psychologists no doubt have their explanations, but I suspect it has a lot to do with our being a small, young country that’s over-anxious to prove itself.
We’re on the edge of the world and we don’t have much weight to throw around. So it feels good to be noticed, even if we sometimes over-estimate the amount of world attention we’re attracting.

Being a small, intimate society also means it’s relatively simple to galvanise the entire populace behind a campaign – a point cleverly exploited by the promoters of the 2011 Rugby World Cup with their “stadium of 4 million” theme.
But while there’s almost a naïve innocence in the way New Zealand gets behind its sporting heroes at such times, this aspect of the national character has its less attractive facets too.

One is a tendency to pump ourselves up – never a good look. Not only do a few early successes lead us too quickly to a position of irrational optimism, thus setting ourselves up for bitter disappointment in the event of failure, but we also tend to take collective credit for something in which we have played no part.
Listening to talkback radio and watching fans being interviewed on the TV news, you couldn’t help but notice how the pronoun “they” – in reference to the New Zealand crew – morphed into “we”, as if the entire population was out there out on the water.

I think of this as the Little Red Hen syndrome. Few people took much interest in the America’s Cup bid in its early stages; in fact the government’s decision to back Team NZ with more than $30 million of taxpayers’ money was widely attacked. But once the team tasted success, we were all eager to be associated with it.
Elements of the media haven’t helped, some journalists and broadcasters abandoning all semblance of detachment as they assumed the role of cheerleaders. As Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch programme pointed out, their braying jingoism stood in stark contrast to the humility and graciousness of the sailors themselves.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Enough of the quirky shtick - just get us there on time

(First published in The Dominion Post, September 20.)
IT’S ALMOST a condition of citizenship that we shouldn’t criticise Air New Zealand. The national airline has much the same sainted status as Dave Dobbyn, Sir Peter Jackson and (as of a couple of weeks ago) Dean Barker.
We are conditioned to take pride in Air New Zealand as the quirky little carrier that out-performs the big international players and delights passengers with its hard-case safety videos and idiosyncratic livery.

But right now, I’ve had Air New Zealand up to here. In fact I’m well on my way to developing a full-blown Air New Zealand phobia.
Just when I’d finally forgiven them for the occasion several years ago when they offloaded most of the baggage from my flight to Tonga because the plane was overweight, then casually informed us of this fact as we were approaching Nukualofa, a recent run of bad experiences has left me convinced the national carrier is often complacent and lackadaisical.

Every time I check in these days, I brace myself for a delay due to “engineering requirements” or any of the other euphemisms Air New Zealand routinely uses to gloss over its failure to get passengers to their destination on time.
A common excuse is “late arrival of the aircraft”, as if this were some force majeure over which the airline has no control.

(A novel announcement earlier this year, on a night-time flight into Masterton which had already been delayed leaving Auckland, was that the pilot couldn’t find our destination because he had lost his satellite signal.)
In several instances when my travel has been disrupted, matters have been made worse by a failure to keep passengers informed.

Most people accept that planes can be delayed for legitimate reasons, but they find it much harder to forgive an airline that can’t be bothered telling them what’s happening.
Neither can they excuse the offhand response of some airline staff to the predicament of people whose plans have been thrown into disarray, often resulting in inconvenience and expense – as happened to me recently when a trans-Tasman flight was delayed by several hours because of a mechanical fault, which meant I missed the last bus to Canberra and had to stay overnight in Sydney.

On that occasion, after the initial announcement of a delay, Air New Zealand ground staff in Wellington magically vanished rather than deal with passengers’ questions. We were later consoled with vouchers for $6 which we could redeem at a café where nothing remotely edible cost less than $7.
An almost comical example of communication failure occurred on my most recent arrival at Wellington Airport, when it was decided the southerly was too strong for baggage handlers to unload the plane. (Strong winds at Wellington? Who’d have thought?)

Air New Zealand’s inability to keep people informed was pitiful. What struck me was the patience, or perhaps I should say resignation, of the passengers milling around the stationary baggage carousel. Perhaps we’re like stoical Soviet-era Russians, so accustomed to second-rate service that we accept it without complaint.
You can’t help wondering whether Air New Zealand could afford to be so slap-happy if it didn’t enjoy a monopoly on most of its services.

ALL OF WHICH brings me to the national airline’s gimmicky safety video featuring Bear Grylls.
The first time you see it, it’s mildly diverting (that is, if you don’t mind Bear Grylls). By the second viewing, it’s already starting to grate. By the fifth or sixth time, you’re ready to run screaming for the emergency exit.

Air New Zealand is at risk of overplaying the cute, quirky shtick that has become part of its brand.
No doubt it keeps a lot of bright young advertising things in work, but I’m sure most travellers would opt for dependable service – such as planes that get them to their destination on time – over novelty safety videos featuring Hobbits and All Blacks.

Besides, isn’t there a risk passengers will be so distracted by the visual cleverness that the safety message will be lost?
AND SINCE I’m on the subject of air travel, there should be a special place in Hell for the architects who designed Wellington Airport’s supposedly edgy international terminal.

Most of the controversy over the building arose from its external appearance, which one critic likened to dog turds.  But it’s the interior that matters most, and Wellington’s international terminal is gloomy and uncomfortable – as you discover when you have hours to kill waiting for your delayed flight to Sydney.
Airport terminals should be designed for comfort and convenience. They should be bright and airy, as the best overseas terminals are. Architects who want to make a creative statement should stick to public toilets.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Abbott had the last laugh

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 11.)
Right to the very end – even after he had convincingly won the Australian election, dealing his Labor opponents their most crushing defeat in a century – some of the Australian media continued to treat prime minister-elect Tony Abbott as a figure of ridicule.
In fact one of the most striking aspects of the election across the Tasman is that it demonstrated very clearly the extent to which the Australian media have become politicised. It also showed, not for the first time, how out of touch Australian political journalists are with the public they supposedly serve.

If the Australian Labor Party needs to examine itself thoroughly and honestly in the aftermath of the election, then so too do the Australian news media.
The Australian press has become arguably the most politically partisan in the Western world. Broadly speaking, the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the influential Fairfax Media papers – the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age – threw their weight behind the Labor government while the Murdoch press backed Abbott’s Liberal-led coalition.

The snarling feud between the leading media outlets – which of course are bitter commercial rivals too – became almost as much a theme of the election as the contest between the politicians.
Tough luck for Australian voters wanting a detached, objective assessment of the parties, the politicians and the policies. In my view this was a fundamental misuse of media power.

It was impossible to avoid the conclusion that many journalists – even those who accepted that the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government had become terminally dysfunctional – couldn’t stomach the thought of Abbott as prime minister.
Hence the continuing derisive references, even as Australians were going to the polls, to the “budgie-smuggler” Speedo swimming togs Abbott was once photographed in.

For heaven’s sake, that was in 2009. That journalists continued to mock him over what they perceived as an offence against good taste said more about them than it did about Abbott. It not only exposed their sneering antipathy towards him, but also their warped notion about what mattered to Australian voters.
And it revealed a strong streak of elitist liberal snobbery – as did the ridiculous fuss made over harmless comments made by Abbott on the campaign trail.

So he commented that a young female Liberal candidate had sex appeal, and on another occasion mentioned his good-looking daughters. You’d think, from the ensuing media hysteria over these supposed “gaffes”, that he’d advocated the bombing of boats carrying asylum-seekers.
To their great credit, Australian voters refused to be distracted by these media diversions. They recognised, even if the Canberra press gallery didn’t, that Australia urgently needed to be rescued from a desperate Labor government that had lost its way and was being led down a blind alley by the increasingly erratic, impulsive and egotistical Kevin Rudd, a man who gave the impression of being prepared to say or do anything in order to cling to power.

Don’t get me wrong: Abbott doesn’t exactly give the impression that he’s a political giant. (Then again, neither did John Howard, and he won four terms). But he certainly deserved better than to be derided in the media as the Mad Monk, presumably on the basis of his Catholicism.
He is, after all, a former Rhodes Scholar who attained a Master of Arts degree at Oxford.  Even former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke cautioned that Abbott was underrated by his rivals.

Now the shattered Australian Labor Party must rebuild. It promises to be a long and arduous process, but the party that produced such notable prime ministers as Hawke, Paul Keating, the wartime leader John Curtin and Ben Chifley deserves better than to be to be left in tatters by the unscrupulous, self-serving plotters and conspirators who came to power in 2007.
In New Zealand, of course, Labour is going through a similar reconstruction process, having tried two leaders and found them wanting since the formidable Helen Clark stood down following the election defeat of 2008.

As in Australia, the party is dogged by factionalism, though not nearly to the same extent (or with such corrosive effects).
In both countries, Labour faces something of an identity crisis. Traditionally the party of the working class, it has been taken over by university-educated, middle-class, urban professionals – teachers, academics and the like – whose concerns are often far removed from those of Labour’s core constituency.

It’s largely due to the tension between the progressive and traditional wings of the party, which Miss Clark adroitly managed, that Labour has been destabilised. Whether the current three-way leadership contest will resolve matters remains to be seen.
The difficulty of reconciling the two factions is neatly personified by Grant Robertson, who is said to be the caucus favourite for the leadership.

Robertson is gay, which sits very well with the fashionable identity politics embraced by the party’s liberal wing. But Labour depends on the brown vote, especially in South Auckland, and church-going Pacific Islanders are hostile to homosexuality. A gay leader could well drive them into the arms of New Zealand First or the Conservative Party.
And there are other problems on the way. Eager to convince the party rank-and-file of their socialist credentials, the contenders have been busy outbidding each other in their determination to show how far to the left they are.

But far-left policies that play well to party stalwarts are unlikely to appeal to middle New Zealand. So whoever becomes leader must either moderate those policies further down the track – and face accusations of betrayal from Labour hard-liners – or risk annihilation at the ballot box.
Former leader David Shearer – a man whose intelligence is not in doubt, even if he lacked leadership skills – alluded to this danger in a candid interview with TVNZ political editor Corin Dann on Sunday.

Shearer, who clearly blames the party’s left wing for undermining his leadership, made the point that the activists want to take the party further left when it should be moving to the centre.
Nothing would give the National government more comfort than for the Labour left to prevail. I imagine that prime minister John Key and his strategists are delighted with the course events are taking.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A visit to John Steinbeck country

(First published in The Dominion Post, September 6.)
A FEW DAYS ago I visited the John Steinbeck museum in the town of Salinas, California. The Grapes of Wrath was the first “serious” novel I read. I would have been 12 or 13 at the time, and Steinbeck’s heartbreaking tale of the hardship and injustice endured by refugees from the Oklahoma Dustbowl during the Great Depression had a powerful impact on me.
The National Steinbeck Center, to give it its proper name, is a fittingly low-key tribute to a writer who would have recoiled in disgust from today’s celebrity culture. A shy man, Steinbeck was horrified at being recognised in the streets of San Francisco after the success of his 1935 novel Tortilla Flat. It probably wouldn’t haven’t have bothered him in the slightest that he has escaped the cult-like attention lavished on his contemporaries F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

A sense of place is central to much of Steinbeck’s writing. What was previously Ocean View Avenue in the charming old fishing port of Monterey is still recogniseable as the setting for Cannery Row, while the Mexican labourers toiling in the fields of the Salinas Valley in the late summer heat probably look much as they did when Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men.
Walking around Salinas, you get the sense that not much has changed since Steinbeck grew up there. It’s still unmistakeably an agricultural town – a Californian Masterton, if you like – but the main street has a decidedly moribund look. You get the feeling that, like many once-busy rural towns in America, its fate was sealed when it was bypassed by the freeways that began springing up in the 1950s.

One of the places Steinbeck would still recognise is Sang’s Cafe, just a couple of doors from the National Steinbeck Center. It looks pretty much as it would have when Steinbeck ate there.
Even the menu has a nostalgic look. Anyone for chicken sausage scramble ($7.95)?

* * *

IF AMERICA has a single defining characteristic, it’s noise. Americans find an infinite variety of ways to create noise and seem to have developed a remarkable tolerance toward it.
Much of the aural pollution is of automotive origins, due to their inexplicable attachment to rowdy V8s and Harley-Davidsons.

In New Zealand I wake to the sound of birds. But in the Californian town where my wife and I have been staying with our son and daughter-in-law, dawn is announced by the rumble of V8s as the neighbours fire up their pickup trucks and head off to work.
The Ford F150 pickup, in particular, is ubiquitous. It has been produced continuously since 1948, was the best-selling vehicle in the US for several decades and is rivalled only by the Toyota Corolla for total sales worldwide.

America has long since grown out of its love affair with the grotesquely large and ostentatious cars that Detroit used to build. Generally speaking, the cars you see on US roads now are not so different in size and appearance from those in New Zealand.
But the fondness for pickup trucks persists, especially away from the big cities. Every major car company produces its own equivalent of the F150 – even Japanese manufacturers such as Toyota and Nissan, which have cashed in by making their own V8-powered F150 lookalikes, just for the US market.

Then there’s that other uniquely American creation, the Harley: the only motorbike in the world that assaults the aural senses even when it’s merely idling. (Incidentally, someone has analysed the lazy throb of an idling Harley and decided it most sounds like the words “potato potato potato.”)
I suspect that exhibitionism is the key to the Harley’s popularity. It’s a “look at me” bike – or perhaps I should say a “listen to me” bike, since it insists on being noticed simply by virtue of the appalling din it creates.

* * *

OBSERVE any group of Americans over the age of, say, 50 and you can’t help but notice that a significant number appear to have difficulty walking. The degree of lameness and infirmity among older Americans is striking.
Doubtless this is partly due to the fact that many carry excess weight. Their hips, knees and ankles have failed under the strain.

But there’s another factor. You don’t have to be Marcus Welby MD to deduce that their limbs have seized up through lack of use.
America is such a car-focused society that it has almost forgotten how to walk. You can do virtually anything from the seat of your car, from banking to picking up your prescriptions from the pharmacy.

Try pushing a stroller to the local supermarket and you quickly realise that pedestrians are an afterthought. This is not something New Zealand wants to emulate.