Friday, April 24, 2015

Ordinary men who did extraordinary things

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 22.)

I recently watched several episodes of the National Geographic documentary series Last War Heroes. The programmes covered the decisive period of World War II from the D-Day invasion of Normandy to the arrival of Allied forces in Berlin, the black heart of the Third Reich.
The title might give the impression that the series glorified war, but no. It was unflinchingly honest in its depiction of what war was really like.

In addition to the terror and tension of combat, soldiers had to endure bitter cold, hunger and even boredom. We tend to think of the Allied advance into Germany in 1944 as a triumphant, unstoppable roll, almost a jaunt, but it was nothing of the sort.
German resistance was fierce and GIs, soldiers in the best-equipped and technologically most advanced army in history, sometimes lacked adequate food, ammunition and clothing.

Then there were the unspeakable sights that nothing could have prepared these men for, such as the heaps of pitifully emaciated bodies in the concentration camps they liberated. One piece of stomach-churning footage showed a bulldozer pushing a jumble of naked corpses into a mass grave – proof that, at its worst, war is about the shredding of the last vestige of human dignity.
The series followed a familiar format: interviews with former soldiers and airmen, interspersed with film footage from the war. But it was the interviews that made far the greater impression.

There was a quiet dignity about these men – Americans, Canadians and British – as they recalled their wartime experiences. There were no big egos, no wallowing in glory. If anything, the tone of the interviews was one of sorrow and melancholy.
These were ordinary men who had experienced unimaginably awful things and been left deeply affected. The contrast with the crass heroics of Hollywood war movies couldn’t have been more marked.

I have noticed the same quality in documentaries featuring New Zealand veterans, including those of the Maori Battalion; softly-spoken men whose quiet humility gave no clue to their formidable reputation as soldiers. To see these noble old men shedding unashamed tears over the graves of former comrades in faraway countries is profoundly moving.
With every year, fewer of these veterans survive. It can’t be long before the last one goes. But throughout New Zealand, thousands will turn out on Anzac Day to solemnly honour them.

This is an extraordinary turnaround after the 1960s and 70s, when people of my generation – the Vietnam War protest generation – were inclined to view the Returned Services’ Association and all its members as crusty, reactionary old warmongers.
Anti-war sentiment was so strong then that soldiers who served in Vietnam almost had to skulk back into the country in secret for fear of ostracism and abuse.

Shamefully, they got very little support from the government that had sent them to fight. It wasn’t until decades later that those Vietnam veterans felt confident enough to march in the streets and reclaim their history.
Now, even people who were active in the anti-Vietnam protest movement are likely to turn up at Anzac Day commemorations with their grandkids. We’ve mellowed with age and become a bit less judgmental in our understanding of the past.

What we can probably never fully understand is what impelled men to enlist for military service in the two world wars, knowing their lives might be placed at risk. It’s harder still to grasp what inspired ordinary New Zealanders – bank tellers, farmers, labourers, clerks – to behave with extraordinary bravery on the battlefield, as many thousands did; to face enemy fire knowing their next breath could be their last.
I have never entirely bought the idea that they went to war to preserve freedom and democracy. That seems a convenient modern spin to put on it.

I suspect that to many soldiers, especially in World War I, freedom and democracy were probably abstract concepts. More likely they were fighting for king and country out of a simple sense of patriotic duty.
Very few in World War I were likely to have understood the complex dynamics and power plays that precipitated the war. But what soldiers in both world wars would have comprehended was that the British Empire, of which they were part, was under threat.

No doubt a desire for adventure and travel, opportunities not widely available in the first half of the 20th century, would have been an additional incentive to enlist. But their sense of duty and loyalty, values which sound quaintly anachronistic now, would have been the crucial motivator.
That leaves the other question that probably only men who served can answer. What gave them the courage, resilience and determination not only to endure the trauma of the battlefield, but to face death with apparent equanimity when every instinct must have screamed at them to cower in a foxhole or turn and run?

An American veteran in Last War Heroes may have supplied the answer. “The greatest fear for me,” he said, “was to let my friends down.”
In other words, they drew strength and courage from each other. It’s something known as esprit de corps, and probably the only men who really know what it means are those who depended on each other for their lives.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The frantic quest for the Next Big Thing

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 17.)
Ever get the feeling the consumerist society is getting just a bit out of hand?
I certainly do. For the status-conscious, life seems to be an endless, frantic quest for the Next Big Thing.

Allow me to give you an example. A year or so ago a New York bakery started selling something called the cronut, so named because it’s a cross between a croissant and a donut. People queued for five hours to buy them.
Inevitably the cronut craze quickly spread to New Zealand. We like to be up with the play on such things.

They weren’t cheap but they flew out the door. Everyone wanted them. Suppliers couldn’t keep up with the demand.
In foodie circles, admitting you hadn’t tried a cronut – or worse still, didn’t even know there was such a thing – was tantamount to revealing you had a paedophile in the family.

Having scoffed a few cronuts myself, I can confirm that they are indeed wickedly desirable. But here’s the thing: I haven’t seen a cronut in months, or even heard them mentioned.
Cronuts, it seems, are just so last year. Exciting new diversions, such as Lewis Road Creamery Fresh Chocolate Milk, have elbowed them out of the way.

As for cronuts, so for the Lewis Road product. The Waikato dairy factory that made it (which is not, as far as I can ascertain, in Lewis Road) couldn’t keep up with the demand when the product was launched.
Wellington’s temple of gastronomy, Moore Wilson, had to ration it: one bottle per customer. On Trade Me, 750ml bottles – retail price $6.29 – were selling for up to $26.

Supermarkets had to put out signs advising when stocks had run out. Anguished shoppers who missed out were dousing themselves with petrol and setting themselves alight in New World car parks. (All right, that’s a slight exaggeration.)
As with cronuts, though, the Lewis Road chocolate milk frenzy quickly subsided. You could probably stroll into your local Countdown this morning and fill your trolley with the stuff.

Better still, you could try making your own at home. It was just chocolate milk, after all.
So what made this particular brand so desirable that everyone simply had to have it? I’ve never tasted it, but logic and experience tells me it can’t have been that sensational.

As advertising people know, creating demand for a product is often about selling the sizzle rather than the steak. Words like “creamery” and “fresh” seem irresistible in a world obsessed with naturalness and authenticity. And it’s surely no coincidence that Peter Cullinane, the man behind Lewis Road, is a former worldwide boss of Saatchi and Saatchi.
Clever advertising (and I suspect social media was a key tool in this instance) can build an aura of mystique around a brand. The same happened with the New Zealand vodka 42 Below, which made a multi-millionaire of another former ad man, Geoff Ross.

I’m not suggesting Cullinane’s and Ross’s products were not good to start with, but their success was about much more than quality. It was about creating a sense of desirability and exclusivity.
The marketing campaign for Lewis Road didn’t just tap into a hedonistic society’s hunger for new sensory experiences. More subtly, it exploited that peculiar form of social anxiety known as FOMO, or fear of missing out.

Psychologists define this as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent”. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) Status-conscious people can’t bear the thought of being excluded from something new and exciting. 
You see this same phenomenon played out when a trendy new restaurant opens. It’s typically swamped by fashion-conscious foodies … that is, until another trendy new restaurant opens. Then they move on, like so many reef fish.

There are innumerable other examples of our cultish obsession with newness.  In the 1990s we were captivated by wine, in the noughties it was coffee, now it’s craft beer.
Our forebears, who fretted about being able to put food on the table and having enough warm clothing to survive the winter, would find it very puzzling. They would call us an effete society, if they knew the word existed.

And what does it all amount to? Ultimately, the longevity of any brand relies on much more than novelty. In the long run it’s consistent, dependable quality that counts.
The women’s fashion business is hilariously capricious, yet the little black dress, created by Coco Chanel in the 1920s, endures virtually unchanged. Will we be queuing for cronuts and Lewis Road chocolate milk in 90 years? Somehow I doubt it.

When getting there was half the fun

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 8.)

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when air travel was an adventure.
My first trip outside New Zealand was to Melbourne in 1972. The plane was a Lockheed Electra, the last turbo-prop aircraft to fly the Tasman.

Air travel was expensive then. It took me months to save for the trip.
There was a sense of occasion; I wore a suit and tie. You dressed up to fly in those days. Now it’s track pants and jandals.

Back then, the term jet-setter was used to denote the glamour and excitement of international air travel. I felt I had been admitted to this exclusive circle even though the Electra was driven by conventional internal combustion engines.
I marvelled at the quality of the in-flight meals and made the most of the free booze. I felt pampered and sophisticated.

It’s impossible to pinpoint the moment when flying ceased to have that delicious allure, but I think things began to turn sour in the 1990s.
What happened, of course, is that flying became just another form of mass transportation – as exciting as catching a bus to Woodville, and only marginally more luxurious.

Low fares put air travel within reach of just about everyone. While this demonstrated capitalism’s wondrous ability to make available to the masses what had previously been the preserve of the rich, it would be pointless to pretend it didn’t have its drawbacks.
One is that airlines have screwed down their costs to the point where nothing is complimentary any more, at least on short-haul international flights. Even the in-flight entertainment is ingeniously contrived so that nothing remotely worth watching is free.

In place of the simple old hierarchy of first-class and economy, there’s now a more complex division between those passengers who buy “the works” – baggage check-in, food and liquor, movies – and the untouchables like me, with their carry-on bags and home-made sandwiches in clingwrap.
One inevitable consequence of the tiered fares is that supposed limits on carry-on baggage, which no one ever took seriously anyway, are now treated with total contempt.

Airlines solemnly warn that the number and size of on-board bags is strictly policed, but I’ve never seen any evidence of it. People struggle aboard with vast amounts of luggage and there’s a fierce contest for locker space. It doesn’t pay to board late unless you’re encumbered with nothing larger than an iPhone.
But of course the most important factor in keeping fares low is squeezing more people in. Accordingly, leg room has been reduced to the point where passengers of my height spend the three-and-something hours to Sydney or Melbourne with their knees up around their ears.

Of course all this can be justified by those cheap fares, but Air New Zealand finds other ways to torment you that have nothing to do with keeping costs down.
Those supposedly quirky safety videos, for example. These seem to go on longer every time I fly. They have assumed Cecil B DeMille proportions.

They’re supposed to show the world how cute and witty and original we are, but they make me want to scream and lunge for the exit. Besides, I can’t help thinking they’re counter-productive, since the safety message risks getting buried under all the celebrity appearances and visual gimmickry.
And is it just my imagination, or have in-flight announcements become more frequent and intrusive? Every few minutes there’s a raucous interruption over the intercom, invariably delivered by a voice that would make fingernails on a blackboard sound euphonious.

Speaking of which, I wonder why we still need so many flight attendants. The only contact most passengers have with them is when they’re boarding, at which point the attendant looks at your boarding pass and helpfully tells you your seat number, presumably on the assumption that you can’t read it yourself.
And while we’re on the subject of useless information, can anyone explain why tradition demands that the pilot always announces the altitude you’ll be climbing to? I mean, who cares? Just get us there.

I could go on. I could talk about the frustration of the long queues at security and immigration. When I flew out of Sydney a few weeks ago, we queued for more than 40 minutes at passport control. I was told it was a relatively quiet day. Thanks, Al Qaeda.
It also irritates me that every time you arrive at or leave an international airport, your route now takes you through a duty-free store in the hope you’ll be seduced by the overpriced designer-label goods on display. Who’s dumb enough to buy this stuff, when cheaper equivalents are generally available downtown or online?

No, flying these days is an ordeal; there’s no disguising it. Passengers are just so many units to be processed.
No one pretends anymore that getting there is half the fun. The drug company that develops a pill to knock you out for the duration of your flight will make zillions.