Friday, January 31, 2014

Banks retains the capacity to surprise

I've made some savage comments about John Banks over the past couple of years - all of them, I believe, richly deserved. He has done and said some spectacularly stupid things and almost single-handedly destroyed ACT. But Banks is nothing if not a complex character, and he still has the capacity to stir admiration. His speech in Parliament this week  on education and child poverty, which I thank Keeping Stock for drawing to my attention (via Lindsay Mitchell), helps explain why Banks is still held in grudging respect even by many of his political opponents. (Helen Clark is one who reportedly has a soft spot for him.) It's a powerful, heartfelt piece of oratory of a like all too rarely heard in Parliament, and its eloquence is only heightened by the constant heckling of Hone Harawira - arguably Parliament's most boorish man, despite some pretty intense competition from other aspirants to the title. 

Sauerkraut in Masterton - who would have thought?

I was mooching around in the kitchen the other day, generally getting in the way, as I do, when something caught my eye.
It was a vacuum pack of German sauerkraut that my wife had bought at a local food outlet.

Now who would have thought, in the New Zealand I grew up in, that in the future you’d be able to buy German sauerkraut (for the uninitiated, that’s fermented cabbage, which sounds gross, but it’s not) in a provincial town like Masterton?
I think back several decades to when I first lived in Wellington. Even in the capital city there was only one place where you could be confident of finding exotic foods such as sauerkraut, Gouda cheese and Bismarck herring.

It was a small Cuba St supermarket called Fuller Fultons, and it was mainly patronised by European immigrants – Dutch, Austrians, Swiss, Poles and Jews – who yearned for the food they had known in their homelands. My Polish father-in-law was a frequent customer.
In those days, sauerkraut would have been brought into the country under a special import licence. There were lots of odd little companies that imported and distributed small lines of specialist foodstuffs.

No New Zealand companies bothered to make them, because there was no money in it; not enough demand. New Zealand then was still a monocultural, meat-and-three veg society.
Nonetheless, in the tightly controlled economy of that era – Fortress New Zealand, as it was sometimes known – anyone wanting to bring in such goods had to obtain an import licence, which was not always easy.

The theory was that New Zealand manufacturers were thus protected from overseas competition, an approach promoted by the influential left-wing economist Bill Sutch and adopted by both Labour and National governments.
This policy had several consequences. One was that inefficient New Zealand industries got away with producing overpriced, second-rate goods because there was no competition.

Another was that companies fortunate enough to obtain import licences for sought-after products were on the pig’s back. Many old New Zealand merchant families became wealthy purely on the basis of the goods that passed through their warehouses. Having secured their gold-plated import licences, they hardly had to lift a finger.
And of course everyone – shippers, importers, wholesalers and retailers – clipped the ticket on the way through, meaning higher prices for the hapless consumer.

A third, and incidental, consequence was that the public servants in charge of granting import licences were treated to a lot of lavish lunches and dinners. Sir Des Britten, who owned a classy Wellington restaurant called The Coachman, once told me of an official who dined there several times a week at the expense of businessmen wooing him for favourable treatment.
But the distortions in the rigidly controlled economy (which were all for the benefit of the public, of course) went far beyond these little quirks.

That was also the era when, bizarrely, you needed a doctor’s prescription to buy margarine. Why? Because the dairy industry persuaded the government that without such restrictions, sales of margarine would hurt butter producers. It’s hard to believe now, but that restriction wasn’t lifted until 1974.
Then there were the incomprehensible and utterly irrational limitations on what corner dairies – the only retail businesses allowed to trade at weekends – were allowed to sell when everything else was shut. You could buy a tin of shoe polish, but not a pack of sausages; a packet of clothes pegs, but not a jar of marmalade.

Alright, I can’t recall whether those specific examples were literally correct. But no one could fathom the logic – for want of a better word – behind the list of goods that were approved or forbidden. Committees of bureaucrats seemed free to impose whatever pettifogging rules they chose, and to heck with reason.
Many dairy owners ignored the regulations anyway, but did so at the risk of being pinged by government snoops who prowled the suburbs looking for subversive shopkeepers. Doubtless they were considered enemies of the state.

How quickly we forget all that. A generation has grown up since the era I’m writing about, and in the meantime New Zealand has changed radically.
The Labour government of the 1980s took bold steps to deregulate the economy and drag it into the modern era. It dismantled the complex tangle of tariffs and import licences that protected the privileged. Not surprisingly, many complacent, long-established companies collapsed once exposed to competition.

Among the new businesses that sprang up in their place were Stephen Tindall’s the Warehouse, which took full advantage of the newly deregulated economy by sourcing cheap goods from Third World countries.
There was great wailing and gnashing of teeth, because the Warehouse pulled the rug out from under local manufacturers – which had prospered in the absence of cheap imports – as well as taking business away from traditional retailers. But I applauded its arrival because it made a wide range of low-priced goods accessible to consumers who had previously been disadvantaged by the cosy status quo. Low-income shoppers remain the Warehouse’s core market.

For similar reasons I applauded when the car trade was opened up to used Japanese imports and the car assembly companies (none of which survived) were stripped of their protection. Who could possibly object to low-income people finally being able to afford decent, low-mileage vehicles?
Not all the sweeping changes ushered in by Sir Roger Douglas worked. (When she was prime minister, Helen Clark liked to call them the “failed reforms”, even though she was a member of the same government and was happy to leave them in place.) But I doubt that many New Zealanders who remember the days of Fortress of New Zealand would want to regress to that era.

Of course other things have changed too. A more liberal immigration policy has exposed us to multicultural influences. Cheaper international travel and more open borders have enabled us to experience a world our grandparents could only read about, and to bring back new ideas and ways of doing things.
For me, a telling symbol of New Zealand’s transformation was the opening several years ago in sleepy, bucolic Carterton, just down the road from where I live, of a Turkish restaurant (a very good one, too); and only a year or so later, a French one (also very good).

We have become, dare I say it, a great deal more sophisticated. Which, to bring me back to where I started, explains why a store in provincial New Zealand finds it profitable to stock imported sauerkraut. And very nice it was, too.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Accepting the intolerable

There has been a fascinating response to my Dominion Post column last week (reproduced on this site) about the Bainimarama regime in Fiji.
To recap briefly: I described Commodore Bainimarama as the Pacific’s only military dictator and said his regime had many of the hallmarks of the despot, including such appealing characteristics as nepotism and suppression of dissent. I also said that Bainimarama had been promising elections since 2007 but no one was holding their breath.

Cameron Slater, on his Whale Oil blog, was quick to respond. Improbable as it may seem, it turns out that Whale Oil is a friend of the repressive Bainimarama government. He wondered whether I’d been to Fiji recently and suggested all I needed to do to find out what was really going on there was to pick up the phone and have a friendly chat with the benign Frank or one of his minions.
Whale Oil also pointed out, as proof of Bainimarama’s beneficence and good intentions, that Fiji will be having elections later this year. (I’m having to quote this from memory because the Whale Oil site is down today, having been subjected to a cyber attack, according to Cameron, by people upset at his description of a young man killed in a car crash near Greymouth as “feral”. Actually, I suspect that what offended West Coasters more was his statement that the young man had done the world a favour by dying – an unfortunate example of Cameron succumbing, as he sometimes does, to the urge to indulge in gratuitous shock-jock tactics, although that hardly justifies death threats in retaliation.)

Several aspects of Cameron’s response to my column intrigue me. The first is the naivety of his apparent belief that Bainimarama is unfairly misrepresented by left-wing journalists and would happily give us the true story if only we asked him nicely. This touching faith in Bainimarama’s goodness and honesty sits oddly with the tough, don’t-believe-the- bastards scepticism that normally characterises the Whale Oil blog. Perhaps if we phoned Robert Mugabe or President Bashir al-Assad we would discover that they too are simply misunderstood by the bleeding heart liberal media.
Then there’s the implicit notion that if only I’d been to Fiji recently I would see things differently. While it would certainly help me get a better understanding of the situation, I reject completely – and always have – the idea that you have to experience something first-hand before forming any judgment. I’ll die waiting for someone to suggest that if you didn’t live in Stalin’s Soviet Union, or experience one of Hitler’s concentration camps, ithIyou have no right to judge them.

The thing is, we have to form views based on what we know – which is where the much-criticised Michael Field comes in. In much of the Pacific, the media are so tightly controlled that journalists are unable to report what’s going on. It falls to outside reporters like Field, who are operating in a free environment, to expose stories that bullies like Bainimarama would prefer to suppress.
But back to Whale Oil. He points out that Fijian elections are scheduled for September, as if all will be put right then and everyone will live happily ever after. What Whale Oil doesn’t mention is that elections have been repeatedly promised and then postponed since Bainimarama seized power in December 2006. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that even if they finally take place, they will be free and fair. On the contrary, Bainimarama has given repeated signals that they will happen on his terms. He may well decide who’s allowed to stand and what they might be able to do if elected. And whoever is elected will run the risk of yet another military coup if they displease him.

Moreover, there can be no prospect of free and fair elections while the Fiji media remain under stifling government control. An election requires an informed electorate – one able to hear freely from competing candidates and make their choices accordingly. There seems no chance of that happening as things stand.
One other point about Whale Oil. I wonder how long an inflammatory stirrer like him would last in Bainimarama’s Fiji. I’d say a couple of days, tops.

Bainimarama’s apologists were also active on the Stuff website, though of course none identified themselves. One commenter pointed out all the good things Bainimarama had done: free education, free buses to school, better roads and hospitals, freer trade, more jobs, better working conditions and so forth. All of which might be laudable, assuming it’s true; but dictators often seek to justify themselves by their positive achievements. Hitler was greatly admired, by many outsiders as well as his own people, for restoring German pride and revitalising Germany’s infrastructure and economy; Mussolini, according to legend, won the undying gratitude of Italians for getting the trains to run on time. Even the monster Stalin still has his admirers in modern Russia. (He was a brutally effective wartime leader largely because it didn’t matter to him how many of his people died.) People like Mugabe understand that even despots are more secure if they earn the loyalty of at least some of the people by looking after them. On a much less malignant level, our own Robert Muldoon grasped that you could prosper politically by patronising one section of the community; even better if you could then persuade your supporters that they needed your protection against other sections of the community that might threaten their interests.
So yes, Bainimarama might have done some good things. That’s not to say a legitimately elected leader might not have done the same, but it’s harder in a democracy. Democracy’s messy. One reason dictators often look forceful and effective is that they can override all opposition. They don’t have to worry about democratic niceties like free speech, property rights, elections or consultation. They just do it. People who get in their way are likely to find themselves banged up in prison, or suddenly out of job.

This particular commenter – obviously someone in Fiji – urged me to write another piece after the elections. I would be happy to do so, and to eat humble pie if I’m proved wrong. But the commenter rather blew it at the end when he or she said it was a shame I probably wouldn’t be allowed in to Fiji to cover the election. I rest my case. If Bainimarama is confident that he’s doing the right thing and has the support of the Fijian people, he would have no need to be so paranoid about outside scrutiny that he bars visits by all but the most compliant journalists.
It comes down to this: we either believe in democracy or we don’t. It’s either the starting point for good governance and a fair and free society, or it’s an optional accessory that we can tack on if it happens to suit us. I unapologetically believe the former; my critics are clearly happy with the latter, despite the overwhelming evidence that the freest and most prosperous countries are all democracies.

Finally to Brendan, who is a frequent commenter on my blog. (It’s just occurred to me that I have no idea who Brendan is, but I’ll set aside my usual objection to engaging with people who don’t identify themselves.) Brendan is normally in broad agreement with me, but we part company here. He thinks it’s arrogant to impose our norms on societies with no democratic traditions. To me this means we should enjoy all our rights and freedoms but not bother ourselves worrying about the billions of people who live under repressive, despotic regimes. Not our problem. Let them stew in their own juice.
By implication, we shouldn’t attempt to do anything about butchers like Assad. After all, they’re operating within their own cultural traditions. We should cut them some slack. Perhaps if Hitler hadn’t been rash enough to invade Poland, we could have left him alone too; never mind that millions of Jews would have been exterminated in the process. I’m not comparing Bainimarama with Hitler, obviously, but it’s only a question of the degree to which we’re prepared to accept intolerable behaviour by the leaders of other countries.





Monday, January 27, 2014

All that's missing is megalomania

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 24.)

WE DON’T seem to hear a lot about Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama these days. Perhaps that’s because we prefer not to think about him.

Our near neighbour – the Pacific’s only military dictator – presents a big problem.

What he’s doing in Fiji, namely suppressing democracy and silencing opponents, is repugnant. We don’t approve.

But what can we do? Economic sanctions, such as isolation, would inevitably punish innocent, ordinary Fijians. Besides, many New Zealanders like their cheap Fijian holidays and wouldn’t take kindly to being told they can no longer fly there.

The net result is that we find it easier to look the other way. Bainimarama is just too difficult.

He was back in the news recently when Fairfax Media’s Michael Field, who has made it his mission to keep an eye on dodgy goings-on around the Pacific, reported that Fiji might be barred from the forthcoming Wellington Rugby Sevens because the International Rugby Board had suspended its annual grant to the Fiji Rugby Union.

The story caught my eye because Field (who is banned in Fiji, along with two other New Zealand and Australian reporters) described the FRU as being effectively controlled by Bainimarama, a rugby enthusiast. It also turns out that the Fiji Sports Commission, which has come to the FRU’s rescue, is run by Bainimarama’s daughter.

There you have it: nepotism, one of the defining characteristics of the despot. This can be added to the various other aspects of his rule that qualify Bainimarama for the classic definition of the petty tyrant.
These include, in no particular order:

● The conviction that only he knows what’s best for his people. It may start out as a sincere desire to do the right thing, but over time it gets warped into a sense of omniscience. The tyrant in the making begins to enjoy the feel of power and convinces himself that he needs to keep exercising it a little while longer.

● The promise that repressive controls are only a temporary measure, regrettably made necessary by the need to ensure social and economic stability. Those controls have now been in force in Fiji since 2006.

● An absolute intolerance of opposition which justifies control over the media, trade unions and anyone else who might be a source of dissent.

● Approval, even if only tacit, of state violence.  Military regimes need to show who’s in charge and that defiance will be severely punished, as happened to recaptured Fijian prisoners who were subjected to police beatings in 2012.

Endless promises that democracy will be restored when the country is deemed ready. Bainimarama has been promising elections since 2007. It’s not clear what elusive set of conditions he insists on before having them, but no one’s holding their breath.
The only trait missing from the above list is megalomania. That will become apparent if and when Bainimarama starts awarding himself grandiose titles – perhaps emperor or field-marshal, with all the commensurate Idi Amin-style medals, sashes and other trappings – and ordering that large portraits of him be erected in prominent places.

The tragedy is that when he seized power in 2006, Bainimarama seemed to have honourable intentions. He appeared determined to break the power of the chiefly elite and ensure fair treatment of Fiji Indians.

Somewhere along the line his good motives were corrupted by power and personal ambition. Shakespeare would have loved it.

SADLY, things don’t seem a whole lot better in Tonga.

Once again we had Field to thank for revealing that even as the people of Tonga’s Ha’apai islands were reeling from the most destructive cyclone in living memory, their rulers were more concerned with political infighting over who should be finance minister.

As international aid agencies scrambled to provide assistance, the Tongan government maintained an aloof silence. It seems it didn’t want to give the impression that Tonga couldn’t cope on its own.

Saving face was obviously more important than helping their own devastated people. The only public statement issued was one naming a new finance minister to replace one who had upset the ruling elite.

In Tonga, unlike Fiji, there’s not even the pretence of democracy. Commoners have limited power to elect members of parliament but real power resides with the royal family and nobility.

The government’s casual disregard for the welfare of its people was never more tragically exposed than when the rust bucket masquerading as the ferry Princess Ashika sank in 2009. Any other country’s citizens would have risen in outrage over the tales of official negligence, complacency and indifference that emerged following the sinking, in which 74 people – mostly women and children - drowned.

Sadly the Tongan people remain deeply respectful of their monarchy for reasons that, to any outsider, are a mystery.  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The nest outside my window

Over the past few months I have observed, through my office window at home, a small miracle unfolding – not once, but three times.
I look out on a garden that consists mainly of native pseudopanax trees. Early in spring one of these trees was chosen by a Mr and Mrs Thrush – I never got to know their first names – as the perfect site for a nest.

As the nest began to take shape, the birds suddenly realised their proximity to a space inhabited daily by a human (the nest being barely a metre from my window). I could sense them wondering whether it was worth continuing. But they must have decided I looked okay, because they duly completed the nest and produced a clutch of eggs.
I was worried about cats raiding the nest, as has happened here before, so gave nature a helping hand by sprinkling citronella oil on the ground around the base of the tree in the hope that it might serve as a deterrent.

I subsequently enjoyed a box seat as Mr and Mrs Thrush hatched and raised their brood. As they have since repeated this feat twice, I have become familiar with the pattern.
Several things strike me as remarkable. The first is the uncanny, instinctive understanding between the two parents as to how the work is divvied up: who’s going to sit on the nest and who’s going to head off in search of a feed. This was all resolved, at least as far as I could tell, without any marital bickering.

But even more astonishing was the speed with which the eggs hatched and the chicks matured to the point where they were able to fly off. I didn’t keep a log, but the time lapse between the point when I first saw the chicks’ heads jutting above the perimeter of the nest – and always remaining absolutely still when their parents were absent, presumably so as not to attract the attention of predators – seemed to be no longer than a couple of weeks. I can only conclude the worms around here contain  steroids.
I would see the chicks’ beaks outstretched as they waited for Mum and Dad to return from their latest foraging trip. Within days they would be standing unsteadily, flapping their inchoate wings. Then the more adventurous of them would be teetering around the edge of the nest, impatient to fly. I marvelled that none of them fell.

Then one morning I would come into my office, look through the window and see the nest was empty. The birds had flown.
The first time this happened, I thought that was that. But the parents went on to raise two more sets of chicks in the same nest. The last ones took to the wing only a couple of days ago, by which time the nest was looking distinctly ragged and well-used. An accountant would probably say it had been well and truly amortised.

I’ve heard of some bird species producing three lots of chicks in a season, but don’t know whether these particular thrushes were exceptionally fecund.
I just hope magpies don’t decide to try it on too. They’re intolerable enough during the nesting season, dive bombing anyone who comes near (and especially anyone wearing lycra and riding a bike, for whom they reserve special malice). If magpies decided to raise several lots of chicks rather than just one, the mayhem would continue for months.

Anyway, I have observed a marked increase in the number of thrushes in our garden. Presumably the ones I see picking at the fallen plums on our back lawn are the products of the nest outside my window.
I hope they stick around. I like birds (I’ve become particularly attached to a pair of California quail that warily roam around our section each day), but I particularly like thrushes. They’re handsome birds and they have a beautiful song.

I like them a lot more than blackbirds, which are as thick as thieves around our place. Blackbirds sing beautifully too, but they also have a raucous alarm call that irritates the hell out of me. I wish the bloody things would understand that this is my property and that I’m entitled to walk around without them noisily squawking in panic every time I disturb them.
They crap on our back deck, too, even though it’s covered. I’m sure they do it just to piss me off.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A peaceful death after a tormented life

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 15.)
We buried my brother-in-law three weeks before Christmas. While it was painful, there was also a sense of release for both him and his family.
Andrew was schizophrenic. For many years he was a committed patient in Porirua Hospital. Later, when it became fashionable for mentally ill people to be released into the community, he was moved into a flat that he shared with another former patient.

My wife, Andrew’s older sister, managed eventually to get him into a pleasant hostel on the Kapiti Coast, close to their elderly mother and other family members, where his meals were provided and resident staff kept an eye on him. It was there that he spent his last years.
He had a measure of independence and his essential physical needs were met, but he passed most of the time shut in his room.

Did he derive any pleasure from living? To be honest, it was impossible to see how he could. From a normal perspective, his life was devoid of purpose or enjoyment.
He did seem to like being with his family, at least as far as we could discern. Andrew never showed much emotion, still less talked about his feelings.

Conversation with him, a struggle at the best of times, became impossible towards the end. Though only 58, he seemed to have succumbed to a form of dementia which I assume was the result of the drugs he had been on for decades.
He was permanently confused, asking the same questions over and over again and forgetting things he had been told only moments before.

He would rarely sit down but would restlessly pace up and down, constantly looking at his watch. He gave the impression that no matter where he was, he was anxious to be somewhere else – as if by removing himself, he could escape whatever was tormenting him. This struck me as a particularly cruel form of torture.
In his last months he developed a strange spending compulsion, splurging money on incongruous items like electric toothbrushes and cellphones for which he had no use. Clearing his room, we even found a lavish edition of the complete works of the Bronte sisters, which Andrew would never have read.

For all that, his dementia (if that’s indeed what it was) gave him a degree of peace after decades of crippling anxiety. It seemed to take over the mental space previously inhabited by fears that he was never able to articulate.
Where there were previously demons, there was now just an apparently benign haze. I regarded it as a blessing.

I had known Andrew (as everyone knew him, although his original Polish name was Andrzej) since he was at secondary school. Even then he was almost painfully shy and withdrawn.
He certainly didn’t lack intelligence. He was keen on astronomy and after leaving school, began studying for a qualification in electrical engineering.

He was in his early 20s when his mental condition suddenly deteriorated. He retreated to his bedroom. He stopped eating and washing. He wouldn’t talk.
He withdrew into a world where no one could reach him. His hair grew long and lank and his nails were uncut. He looked like one of those painfully emaciated figures you see in photos taken after Nazi concentration camps were liberated.

Electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) saved his life. I have absolutely no doubt about that. It was administered after the family doctor intervened at our request. 
Prior to our giving consent for ECT, I had consulted my own GP. ECT was a highly controversial treatment (it still is), but my doctor was emphatic. “Get it done,” he said. “No one knows exactly why it works, but it can have dramatic results.”

And so it did. It brought Andrew back from the brink of death. He never again became the same person we had known before his illness set in, but for many years afterwards he was able to enjoy some quality of life, at least intermittently.
There are lots of Andrews in the world. I’ve never encountered anyone else quite like him, but I know from our circle of friends that many families have direct experience of mental illness or intellectual disability.

Get any bunch of New Zealanders together and you’ll find, if they are prepared to open up, that there are people in their families with schizophrenia, manic-depressive illness, autism, ADHD, eating disorders or any of the other mental afflictions that restrict and diminish people’s lives.
Such illnesses can be source of great anguish, especially when the condition is such that the family can’t provide the necessary care. In those cases we have to rely on the state, and it doesn’t always respond as we might like.

Andrew’s condition was managed rather than treated – a consequence, presumably, of the mental health system being overloaded and reduced to dispensing medication.
Family members battled for years on his behalf but found the health bureaucracy frustratingly sluggish and unresponsive. Appropriate sympathetic noises were usually made, but information was difficult to obtain and it was hard to pin people down. Accountability seems more talked about than practised. 

Admittedly, Andrew wouldn’t have been the easiest patient to deal with, because he was so uncommunicative; but it didn’t help that the psychiatrists nominally treating him changed constantly and none really had a chance to get to know him.
His death leaves us with a few nagging questions. Could we have done more for him? That’s a tough one. There were times when we believed a repeat treatment of ECT would have jolted him back to some semblance of normality, but once he was no longer a committed patient that required his personal consent, which he wouldn’t give.

We wondered whether he was influenced more by what he had heard than what he had experienced himself. Horror stories about ECT being used as punishment in mental hospitals during the 1960s and 70s had made it almost unmentionable, despite its proven efficacy when properly administered. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has a lot to answer for.
Could we have given him a better life if we had looked after him ourselves? Perhaps, but we would need to have been saints. Even the most supportive family often has to admit it can’t cope with the stress of caring for a member who is mentally ill.

Why was a gentle soul like Andrew cursed with such a cruel illness? What perverse lottery selected him to suffer, and for what reason? Those are questions I won’t even attempt to answer.
Andrew died after choking on a piece of cake that had been baked in honour of a fellow resident’s birthday. He went into cardiac arrest and his brain was deprived of oxygen for about 40 minutes.

The family decided to turn off his life support system several days later. The doctors at Wellington Hospital told us that even if he had been able to continue breathing on his own, he would have been severely brain damaged.
Did we make the right decision? I believe so.  In his comatose state, Andrew looked at peace for the first time in decades. He may have died clinically on November 28, but to all intents and purposes he had stopped living a long time ago.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Dotcom and Bradbury: a match made in heaven - or should that be hell?

Some of the greediest people I've known were lefties. In fact I suspect the reason they were lefties is that they were deeply, bitterly envious of people with wealth and wanted a share for themselves. In a few notable cases, once they discovered their inner capitalist, there was no holding them back. This was true of several people I can think of who were once staunch union activists but later discovered a talent for making money.

I thought of this when I read courtesy of Whale Oil that Martyn Bradbury, the man whose flat was once decorated with portraits of Mao, Marx and Che Guevara, was charging Kim Dotcom $8000 per month plus GST for political strategy, "on top of a $5000 payment to allow him to upgrade his computer, cellphone and tablet devices". In other words, just another greedy left-wing trougher.

Bradbury has been making heroic efforts in recent months to appear sane, presumably with a view to making himself politically acceptable. It now appears he wants to stand for the new Dotcom party in Auckland Central. If Dotcom has any sense at all he will cut Bradbury loose; in fact today's Dominion Post suggests he might have done so already. I hope it's wrong. Dotcom and Bradbury deserve each other.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Now I know what happened to Camille

Years ago on National Radio I would occasionally hear a country singer from Gisborne named Camille Te Nahu. She was a class act – a singer whose sophisticated style transcended mainstream New Zealand country music, which seemed to have been at a standstill since the 1960s. Then I stopped hearing her, and wondered what had happened.

Well, it turns out she went to Australia and married a guitarist from Tasmania named Stuie French. They perform together as – who would have thought? – Camille Te Nahu and Stuie French. I heard them yesterday afternoon at the inaugural Clareville Country Music Festival in the Wairarapa and can report that Camille is an even classier singer now than she was when Nat Rad was playing her back in the 1990s.

What’s more, she chose her husband well. The name “Stuie” doesn’t sound too promising – a bit Ocker for my taste. Great country guitar players have names like Chet and Merle. But forget the name: Stuie is a prodigious guitarist who coaxes mellow tones and jazz-tinged licks out of his magnificent orange Chet Atkins model Gretsch that the master himself would applaud.

It’s a terrible cliché, I know, but these two make beautiful music together. A week or so ago I wrote here about the special quality of sibling harmonies, but maybe there’s something about couples too. These two have the same musical compatibility that make Gillian Welch and David Rawlings so irresistible.

It's hard to pin them down in terms of genre, because they cross boundaries, but they're at the soft, melodic end of the country spectrum rather than the hard and raunchy.

They can write, too. Two highlights yesterday were the evocative Things Change – a wistful song about how life happens faster than you can keep up with it – and Pretty Katalina, a tribute to Te Nahu’s Samoan grandmother. It’s hard to select other songs from a set that was hard to fault, but two that stood out were All I Ever Need Is You (a hit for Sonny and Cher in the 1960s, but much recorded by others) and a charming version of Anne Murray's Snowbird.

On top of all that, they had a nice line in patter and seemed to be enjoying themselves, even as the clouds gathered menacingly overhead and the Wairarapa north-westerly rocked the stage.

Te Nahu and French were worth the price of admission for an afternoon that was otherwise often drearily predictable, confirming that there’s a school of New Zealand country music still firmly mired in the past.

All country music springs from the same American roots, but at some point several decades ago we took a wrong turning onto a branch line in New Zealand – as they did in Australia – and we’re still stuck there. It’s a dead end and the tracks have long been covered by weeds, but the mainstream Kiwi country music train remains stranded - not going anywhere, but occasionally emitting a burst of steam and a feeble, plaintive whistle just to let us know it’s still around.

In the meantime, a plethora of new acts – I’m thinking of people like Marlon Williams and Delaney Davidson – is converting a new generation to country. They are more authentic in every sense, drawing on country music’s rich heritage but putting their own distinctive spin on it.
This is not to say all the acts yesterday were bad, merely that they were derivative. Some of the younger performers have real talent and the slick backing band, Midnite Special (formed by the son and daughter of Kiwi country stalwart the late Rusty Greaves), never put a foot wrong. Perhaps the real problem lies with the ageing group of country fans who feel they’ve been cheated if they don’t hear Pub With No Beer and She Taught Me to Yodel.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

The year of pronouncing Maori correctly

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 10.)
I’M NOT ONE for New Year resolutions, but I’ve made one for 2014. I’ve decided this will be the year when I make an effort to pronounce Maori names correctly.
Having been brought up, like most of my generation, using lazy, Anglicised pronunciations of Maori place names, I have no delusions about how difficult this will be. It’s hard to shake off the habits of a lifetime.

Friends look at me strangely, as if I’ve been seized by a sudden attack of political correctness, when I attempt the proper pronunciation of a name like Kuratau, where I holidayed last summer. But if we insist that the English language be treated with respect, then it’s only fair that we apply the same standard to Maori.
Consider the town I grew up in: Waipukurau. We always pronounced it why-pucker-row, with an emphasis on the last syllable, which we pronounced to rhyme with “how”.

In fact the stress should be placed on the second syllable – the “puk” bit – and it should be pronounced as puku, not “pucker”. The last syllable should rhyme with “go” rather than “how” and the letter “r” should have that unique Maori sound that almost resembles a soft “d”.
The name of the town of my birth, Pahiatua, deserves greater respect too.  As long ago as the 1950s my mother objected to people pronouncing it as pie-out-ooer, rather than sounding out each syllable correctly. But I suspect she was a minority of one.

Wanganui is another place name that has been serially abused. Many locals pronounce “Wanga” as they do “longer”, with a hard “ng” sound, then add insult to injury by pronouncing the last two syllables with a “ew” sound, so that it comes out as “newy” rather than “nooey”.
Not that I’m trying to sound holier than thou here. I’m as guilty as anyone of mangling Maori names to make them easier for Anglo-Saxon tongues to get around.

Will my New Year’s resolution mean I’ll become more tolerant of newsreaders and reporters on TV and radio making torturous efforts to pronounce Maori words correctly while brazenly committing atrocities with English? Not on your life.
* * *

THE LAST few months of 2013 were bad ones for the police. There was the Roast Busters sexual abuse saga, which they admitted mishandling (and misleading the public about).

They were found to have behaved unlawfully in the so-called Urewera terror raids of 2007 and to have used excessive force breaking up a teenage party in Khandallah.
They were embarrassed by the “Black Widow” murder case, which they treated as a suicide until a coroner intervened. And they were exposed as behaving arrogantly in the case of an innocent man savaged by a police dog.

The police are a human institution. They are bound to make mistakes. What is more worrying is the public perception of arrogance, resistance to outside scrutiny and reluctance to apologise when they get things wrong.
Police Commissioner Peter Marshall is due to retire soon. It may be time to consider appointing someone from outside – someone not steeped in police culture.

It has happened before, in 1955. Police Minister Anne Tolley should consider doing it again.
* * *

I TRY TO BE polite with cold callers, whether they’re at the door or on the phone. What I mean is that I always remember to say “thank you” before hanging up or slamming the door on them. But I admit I put on a bit of Basil Fawlty act a couple of days ago.
The knock on the door came while I was in the middle of replacing the paper in my printer, but it wasn’t the interruption that pushed my Basil button.

After identifying himself as representing an energy company, the visitor made the mistake of asking me how my day was going.

Even if he’d had any prospect of signing me up, which he didn’t, he would have lost me at that point.
First, how my day was going was no business of his. Second, he didn’t give a stuff anyway. My wife could have run off with the local dog control officer, leaving me with six wailing children and an incontinent mother-in-law to look after, for all he cared.

Why, I wonder, do marketers insist on trying to ingratiate themselves with prospective customers by asking patently insincere questions about how their day’s going?  I bet it’s lost them far more business than it’s gained.
There is no one, but no one, who is not irritated by the practice. But some marketing guru obviously thought it was a good idea and put it in a textbook, and now it seems we’re stuck with it.

Nonetheless, to the startled Indian gentleman who hastily retreated when I gave him a burst on my front porch, my apologies.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The brothers who inspired the Everlys

Following the death of Phil Everly, a lot of attention has been given to the various people influenced by the Everly Brothers – among them the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and the Hollies. But no one seems to have thought about who influenced the Everlys.
Though they were a pop act, their early influences were pure country. They were based in Nashville during the most successful part of their career and sprang from a country music tradition of brother duets that included the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore Brothers and the Stanley Brothers.

The Everlys acknowledged a particular debt to the Louvin brothers, Charles and Ira, whose biggest country hits came out in the mid-1950s. The Encyclopaedia of Country Music says of the Louvins: “Their stratospheric vocal interplay made them probably the most influential harmony duet in country music history, touching everybody from Emmylou Harris to the cowpunk band Rank & File".
It’s long been recognised that sibling vocal groups have a special quality.  As the ECM puts it: “Similar vocal timbres, common word pronunciations, familiarity with each other’s singing style and shared cultural origins help to explain siblings’ ability to phrase and harmonise so well.” That’s never been more apparent than in the songs of the Louvins and the Everlys, but you can hear it in plenty of other family groups as well, from the Bee Gees to our own Topp Twins.
The Louvins, born Charles and Ira Loudermilk, came from a poverty-stricken farming family in Alabama and were first cousins of the prolific pop songwriter John D Loudermilk (they changed their name to make it easier to pronounce). The mandolin-playing Ira, a classic high, lonesome tenor in the bluegrass tradition, didn’t handle things well when their gospel-influenced style fell from favour in the early 1960s. The two acrimoniously broke up (as the Everlys were to do a decade later) and Ira’s life disintegrated in a classic Nashville story of self-destruction. He developed a serious drinking problem, was shot and seriously injured by his first wife, then died in a car crash with his second wife in 1965. Charles lived till 2011– long enough to enjoy the belated recognition that came his way when a new generation of country stars rediscovered the Louvin brothers’ music.  
For an example of the Louvins’ harmonies, try When I Stop Dreaming – a song they wrote themselves, and now a country standard. The similarity to Don and Phil Everly is striking. But that's from the commercial end of the Louvins' repertoire. Arguably more representative of their distinctive style is the traditional Appalachian murder ballad Knoxville Girl, a slice of gothic Americana whose grim theme is bizarrely offset by the Louvins' jaunty, offhand delivery. Classic.


Friday, January 3, 2014

The rich are still different

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 1.)
I learned while still relatively young that rich guys get the best-looking girls.

I spent two years at a boys’ boarding school that enjoyed what might be termed a fraternal relationship with several girls’ schools in the same district.

After attending dances put on by these various girls’ schools, it dawned on me that the most desirable girls were found at the most expensive school. They were the daughters of prosperous lawyers, doctors and farmers.

I didn’t like them any more than the girls from less exclusive schools. In fact their snooty, exaggerated accents could be off-putting. But they were good-looking, sophisticated and precocious.

Needless to say, none were interested in me. Though polite enough, they put out subtle but unmistakeable signals that I wasn’t quite in their class.

I became aware even then that the rich emit pheromones by which they instinctively recognise each other – a phenomenon I have observed many times since.

This awareness of the sociological connection between good looks and wealth was reinforced for me a couple of years later, when I played in bands.

Playing at society balls around Wellington in the late 1960s, I was able to observe more closely the relationship between wealth and pulchritude. The posher the function, the better-looking the women. (I also noted that wealthy revellers were often the worst-behaved, but that’s another story.)

What I was observing, of course, was Darwinism in action: good old-fashioned natural selection.

Many women intuitively seek out wealthy men who will keep them in luxury and comfort. Even if this means settling for a lifelong mate who’s an oaf, a dullard or a bore – well, that’s the price some good-looking girls are prepared to pay for a big house, expensive clothes and regular overseas holidays.

Over time, the inevitable happens. Good-looking women produce good-looking offspring, with the eventual result that an upper class evolves that has a high proportion of people with desirable physical characteristics.

It’s a brutal truth that there are likely to be more good-looking women in Remuera or Fendalton than in Porirua or Gore (although having said that, I had the miraculous good fortune to marry an exotic Polish beauty whose family lived in a state house in the unprepossessing Porirua suburb of Cannons Creek). And of course even those who are not naturally good looking can afford to spend lots of money on clothing and makeup that make them look as if they are.

This select gene pool tends to be jealously guarded. The children of the wealthy are discouraged from marrying outside their class – not that most would want to. They grow up culturally conditioned, if not genetically predisposed, to mate with others of the same caste.

One of the most striking aspects of The Rich List, the late Graeme Hunt’s excellent book about wealth in New Zealand, is the extent to which New Zealand’s wealthiest families are linked through marriage. It’s like a scaled-down version of European royalty’s labyrinthine connections.

You’ll note that I use the word “class”, which is rarely used in New Zealand. We are brought up with the comforting belief that ours is an egalitarian society – and so it is, by comparison with many. But there has always been a social elite whose membership is determined by wealth and breeding.

I should perhaps have put those two words in the reverse order, because breeding takes precedence over wealth. Some families fall on hard times but still enjoy membership of the elite. Their dress, speech and behaviour sets them apart from the hoi-polloi and guarantees them acceptance in the right circles. “Old” money commands respect even when it’s all been spent.

Conversely, all the wealth in the world won’t necessarily buy invitations to the best houses. Vulgar johnny-come-latelies, social climbers and arrivistes are likely to be given the cold shoulder – politely, of course.

While never part of this social circle myself, I rubbed up against it while at boarding school. It wasn’t a snobby school by any means, but my schoolmates included the sons of some seriously wealthy families.

Other pupils, like me, came from backgrounds of modest means. My mother went back to work in her 50s to pay my boarding fees and I was conscious, when some schoolmates came to stay during the holidays, that our lifestyle was far removed from theirs.  

Having attended the “right” school remains an important determinant of social eligibility. The one I attended was considered respectable, if not in the top rank with Christ’s College and Wanganui Collegiate.

The manner in which one has made one’s money matters too. Sheep and beef farming remains a socially respectable source of wealth (dairying may be more profitable these days, but cow cockies still don’t cut it in the social stakes), as are certain professions – notably medicine and the law.

The social barriers are not totally impermeable, but someone who has made a fortune in plumbing supplies or used cars might find it hard to crash through.

I have been ruminating on these matters lately because of two minor, unconnected events.

One was an engagement notice that I spotted in the paper. I recognised the names of both parties to the impending nuptials and had to smile. It seemed a perfect match, bringing together two wealthy families with impeccable upper-crust credentials. There was old money on both sides – one from the city, the other from the provinces. The gene pool is being protected as assiduously as ever.

The other event was a charity fundraising function at a large country house that I happened to attend. It was a gathering of several hundred predominantly rural people, all of whom seemed to know each other.

I was there only because an old friend was involved. It was a pleasant occasion. The people were lively, friendly and of course impeccably dressed. The marquee hummed with conversation and a large sum of money was raised. The rich have always been generous supporters of certain charities, treating them as an excuse for a good party while drumming up money for worthy causes at the same time.

Not for the first time, I experienced the sensation of being an outsider. But I had a good time, and came away with the oddly reassuring feeling that some things don’t change. The rich are still different, just as they always were.