Saturday, January 28, 2017

The flip side of Air New Zealand

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 20.)

There’s something slightly creepy about Air New Zealand.

Our national carrier plays very successfully on its image as an airline that does things a bit differently from others. It’s the plucky little airline that could.

We’re supposed to see Air New Zealand as quirky – a bit “out there”. Its “brand” is encapsulated in those famous safety videos, which are cited as evidence of Air New Zealand’s sense of fun, and in its habit of changing its livery to cash in on whatever’s trending, whether it’s the Rugby World Cup or The Lord of the Rings.

Myself, I can’t stand those smug, gimmicky videos, but we’re expected to love them. It’s almost a requirement of citizenship. Air New Zealand has so carefully aligned itself with Brand New Zealand that it’s unpatriotic not to think it’s the coolest little airline on the planet.

But the flip side of the airline’s corporate persona is that it can be bossy, authoritarian and a bit anal. It’s the schizoid, bad-tempered clown that can turn nasty if you don’t laugh at its jokes.

Property investor Sir Bob Jones and broadcaster Gary McCormick have both fallen foul of the airline for not complying with what Jones trenchantly calls its infantile nanny-statism. Both were banished to the naughty corner.

Jones ended up buying his own plane. McCormick has been banned for two years, an extraordinary act of arrogant corporate bullying that he intends to challenge.

I banned myself from flying Air New Zealand if I could possibly avoid it after an experience several years ago when I was booked on an afternoon flight to Sydney. I had to catch a bus to Canberra and made sure I had hours to spare, because experience had taught me to expect delays.

So it turned out. As the afternoon wore on, I sat through countless announcements of delayed departure times. I can’t recall precisely what reason was given: “servicing requirements” or “engineering requirements” or one of those familiar bland excuses that airlines use to cover up their slackness. 

At one stage we were grudgingly given vouchers for the airport cafĂ©, the value of which seemed to have been fixed so as to ensure we couldn’t actually buy anything edible.  Otherwise the airline’s ground staff were characteristically missing in action.

In the event, our flight arrived in Sydney several hours late. I missed the last bus by minutes and had to make hurried arrangements to spend the night in Sydney, at considerable inconvenience both to me and the people who were expecting me in Canberra.

But what lingers in my mind was what happened when it became obvious, halfway across the Tasman, that I was at risk of missing my connection.

I approached three flight attendants who were idly chatting at the front of the cabin. I wanted to ask if they happened to know where the bus pickup point was at Sydney Airport – a piece of information that might save me vital minutes – or, failing that, whether they could suggest any other way of getting to Canberra at that late hour.

As they saw me approach, their conversation ceased and their demeanour changed. They looked at me with a mixture of alarm and suspicion. A passenger, doubtless wanting something ... a problem, in other words.

When the most senior of the attendants opened her mouth to speak to me, it wasn’t to ask how she could help. It was to reprimand me, in headmistressy tones, for stepping across a line on the floor of the cabin beyond which passengers weren’t permitted. It seems I could have been a hijacker trying to get into the cockpit.

She had all the charm of an SS concentration camp guard. Needless to say I hadn’t noticed the line on the floor (who would?) and had no idea I had suddenly become a security risk. No matter. Rules are rules, and I had to be put in my place.

It was one of those moments when you’re so taken aback that you don’t think of an appropriately witty response until much later. (The French have a term for this: l’esprit d’escalier.) But I proceeded to seek the flight attendants’ advice anyway.

They not only couldn’t help me, but showed no interest in doing so. In fact they reacted as if it was downright impertinent of me to interrupt their chatter, although it was their airline that had caused my predicament.

Such things stick in your mind for years.  It became my defining Air New Zealand moment, even superseding the memorable time my luggage – and that of most other passengers – was removed from an Air New Zealand flight to Tonga without our knowledge because the plane was overweight. The pilot casually informed us of this only when we were halfway to our destination.

Everyone has their negative airline stories, but almost all of mine involve Air New Zealand.  It's an airline that does a lot of things well, but it often appears unwilling to accept responsibility for the inconvenience it creates for passengers when it fouls things up.

That’s how McCormick fell out with the airline. He had been stuffed around by flight delays and decided that the least Air New Zealand could do was allow him a glass of wine in the Koru Club as a quid pro quo, even though he wasn’t a member. 

I understand his exasperation, but that's not the way things work with Air New Zealand. It determines the rules, and unfortunately they don't include anything about getting passengers to their destinations on time or recompensing them if it fails to do so.

In Jones’ case, the circumstances were different.  His argument with the airline arose from a flight attendant’s by-the-rulebook insistence that he read the instructions for passengers travelling in the emergency row, though he says he’d flown in the same seat countless times before.

Reading Jones’ description of the hatchet-faced flight attendant who marched off to report him to the captain, I couldn’t help wondering whether it was the same woman I’d encountered on my flight to Sydney. Certainly it sounded as if she had the same schoolmarm-ish demeanour.

Now here’s the thing. People will say that aviation safety requires that instructions be obeyed. But Air New Zealand’s preoccupation with enforcing the rules, and punishing rebellious souls like McCormick and Jones, would be more tolerable if it were matched by concern for passengers whose travel is disrupted by the airline’s own failings. But it isn’t.

The airline insists on passengers complying with instructions, but often fails to fulfil its reciprocal obligations toward them. You're at their mercy.

It’s a lop-sided relationship in which one party expects passengers to meekly do as they’re told, but doesn’t always keep its side of the bargain – and incurs no penalty for failing to do so. There’s no naughty corner for unaccountable, anonymous airline employees when planes run late or are cancelled.

I know of other regular fliers who avoid Air New Zealand if they possibly can, although it’s not easy in a country where one airline enjoys such overwhelming dominance. If Jones and McCormick want to form a club, I’m sure there’d be plenty of starters.

The Warehouse, in Greytown? Some mistake, surely

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, January 25.)

This was going to be a column about The Warehouse, but somehow it’s mutated into one about Greytown.

For the benefit of readers who have never been there, Greytown is a picturesque (some would say quaint) Wairarapa town with a population of roughly 2000.

In the past couple of decades it has become highly desirable as a bolt-hole for the elite of Wellington, which is little more than an hour’s drive away.

I say “weekend retreat”, but some people who bought weekend cottages there liked it so much they subsequently moved there permanently. The Wairarapa is full of affluent refugees from Wellington, but nowhere more so than Greytown.

Dame Fran Wilde has a place there. So does the man who succeeded her as chair of the Wellington Regional Council, former All Black Chris Laidlaw. Other residents include former top public servants, arty types and high-profile professionals.

They are drawn to Greytown by its relaxed pace, its attractive old buildings and its “villagey” atmosphere, not to mention the convenience of being a relatively short drive from Wellington yet enjoying a much nicer climate and a more congenial lifestyle.

Smart cafes, pricey furniture shops and up-market fashion boutiques line the main street. One entrepreneur even hauled an old two-storey wooden railways administration building across the Remutaka Hill from the Hutt Valley in six pieces, reassembled it and gave it a second life as the White Swan Country Hotel.

Paradoxically, Greytown acquired its charm partly as a result of historical neglect. When the Wairarapa railway line was built in the late 19th century, it bypassed Greytown. That meant development stalled there, whereas nearby Featherston and Carterton, both of which were on the railway route, surged ahead.

But it also meant that Greytown’s buildings were preserved pretty much in their original Victorian state, because there was no money to be made by tearing them down and building new ones. As a result, Greytown today is visually a lot more appealing than its neighbouring towns with their mish-mash of architectural styles.

For my taste, Greytown is a bit Midsomer, if you get my drift. I’m not suggesting grotesque murders regularly occur there, as in the TV town, but it’s cute, and there’s a certain social homogeneity. I call it a Decile 10 town, whereas Masterton, where I live, which is a bit further up State Highway 2, is definitely Decile 1-10.

So how did I get onto the subject of Greytown? Ah yes, The Warehouse.

I was going to write a column about the beneficial impact of The Warehouse on low-income New Zealanders. There’s a lot of opposition to so-called “Big Box’ retailers, but I recently stumbled across a Massey University research paper, published in 2007, which argued persuasively that The Warehouse had been good for low-income people, and particularly for Maori.

It had always been my impression that The Warehouse performed a socially and economically useful function by putting a wide range of products, often of good quality, within reach of people with limited disposable income.

The Massey paper not only confirmed as much, but also revealed that the company had a reputation for being good to its staff. Maori employees reported that they were treated well and given opportunities for advancement. 

The Massey paper referred specifically to controversy in the wealthy Northland town of Kerikeri when the company proposed to open a store there roughly a decade ago.

Many of the predominantly Pakeha residents wanted Kerikeri to remain an “up-market” town. They were worried that The Warehouse would have a negative impact on the town's image. 

Local Maori, however, were firmly in favour of The Warehouse opening a local branch because the existing Kerikeri shops were too pricey and they had to drive all the way to Kaitaia to find stuff they could afford. 

And that brings me back to Greytown. Because when The Warehouse announced last October that it planned to open a temporary summer store in Greytown, there was a similar reaction. A local retailers’ spokesman protested that the “red-shed” brand didn’t fit the town’s image as a “quality and distinctive shopping destination”.

I drove past the temporary Warehouse store in Greytown just the other day. It’s very low-key. You have to look hard to see it, notwithstanding the red paint, so perhaps the local retailers were being over-sensitive. In any case it’s on the outskirts of town, so the local boutiques won’t be contaminated by its presence.

But here’s the thing: There didn’t seem to be anybody there. I’d noticed the same thing previously when I’d gone past.

What can we infer from this? Perhaps the people of Greytown are signalling, in a gentle way, that The Warehouse doesn’t really belong there. Or perhaps it’s the market saying there’s a right place for everything, and The Warehouse no more belongs in a town like Greytown than a BMW showroom belongs in Shannon or Takaka.

On the other hand, there may be no conclusions to be drawn at all. But in the meantime, readers of this column might have learned a little bit more about Greytown, a little bit more about The Warehouse, and maybe even something about human nature too. 

Footnote: In what I suppose could be seen as a happy compromise, The Warehouse did establish an outlet at Waipapa, near Kerikeri - close enough to satisfy price-conscious local shoppers, but sufficiently distant to leave Kerikeri's exclusive image intact.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Lange legacy: a stream of borrowed one-liners, but not much else

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 13.)

Is it time for a reassessment of the David Lange legacy?

I ask that question for a couple of reasons. The first was a speech that Gerald Hensley gave late last year.

Hensley was head of the Prime Minister’s Department under Lange and thus uniquely positioned to observe him. The picture he painted of Lange’s behaviour during the showdown with the United States over nuclear warships was not flattering.

Before I go any further, I should mention that I was delirious with pleasure when Lange’s Labour government was elected in 1984.

Sir Robert Muldoon had cast a malevolent shadow over New Zealand since 1975. He was a bully who succeeded politically by polarising New Zealanders along them-and-us lines, never more so than at the time of the 1981 Springbok rugby tour.

In Lange he faced, for the first time, an opponent he couldn’t handle. Lange seemed impervious to Muldoon’s method of attack, responding with sparkling eloquence and insouciant wit.

As prime minister, Lange appeared to champion New Zealand’s right to repudiate nuclear weapons. Many New Zealanders experienced a surge of nationalistic pride at the way he stood up to pressure from Washington to accept visits from American warships.

Peak pride came with Lange’s performance in the celebrated Oxford Union debate of 1985, when he argued that nuclear weapons were morally indefensible. He famously told his opponent, the American televangelist Jerry Falwell, that he could smell the uranium on Falwell’s breath.

Lange was in his element. He was a performer who loved to charm people with his humour and verbal dexterity. I was in Britain at the time and recall feeling quietly pleased that New Zealand and its charismatic prime minister were being noticed and admired internationally for taking an independent line.

But as Hensley has revealed, Lange was talking out both sides of his mouth – saying one thing to New Zealanders and another to our allies.

In public, he was pledging to honour Labour’s commitment to ban nuclear weapons and nuclear propulsion. But behind the scenes, he was assuring America and our other Anzus treaty partner, Australia, that he would make the problem go away.

As Hensley tells it, the Americans were genuinely disposed to seek an amicable and mutually honourable solution, but in the end became so exasperated with Lange’s duplicity that they spat the dummy. He even kept his own Cabinet in the dark.

When a crisis arose over a proposed visit by the ageing destroyer USS Buchanan, carefully selected by the Americans to avoid the suspicion that it might be nuclear-armed, Lange disappeared to a remote Pacific atoll and was out of touch for eight days.

When, later, the visit was barred to satisfy anti-nuke activists in the Labour Party, the Americans justifiably felt deceived. Richard Prebble, a member of Lange's Cabinet, later described it as a shambles.

Hensley gives the impression Lange was counting on verbal equivocation to muddle through, but ended up painting himself into a corner. Far from being a courageous champion of the anti-nuclear cause, he was a dissembler who tried to play a double game – and when it failed, tried to make himself invisible.

Small wonder that Lange subsequently decided politics was too much like hard work and quit, leaving Geoffrey Palmer with the hopeless job of trying to prevent the faction-ridden fourth Labour government from unravelling. 

So Lange was a charming political dilettante. But I said at the start of this column that there were two reasons to reassess his legacy. Here’s the other: plagiarism.

Whatever his failings (and in his later life Lange showed a bitter, disputatious streak), we at least admired his wit.

Wasn’t it he, after all, who once joked that New Zealand was “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica”. Yes, he did – but I recently discovered that the line was originally used by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1970, in reference to Chile.

All right then. But how about Lange’s memorable line that National leader Jim Bolger had “gone around the country stirring up apathy”?

Whoops. That was borrowed from British Conservative Party stalwart Willie Whitelaw, who used the line in reference to Labour leader Harold Wilson.    

As far as I can ascertain, the line about Falwell’s uranium-enriched breath was Lange’s own. So was the one about Muldoon’s knighthood in 1984: “After a long year we’ve got a very short knight”. But you have to wonder about the provenance of some of Lange’s other witticisms.

More to the point, Hensley's recollections about the Anzus crisis suggest that being prime minister requires more than an endless supply of one-liners.

Footnote: Since this column was published, I've been reminded that the famous "uranium on your breath" comment was directed not at Falwell personally, but at a young member of his debating team. More significantly, Gerald Hensley has revealed that it was indeed not Lange's line originally. Hensley had spotted it in an Australian cartoon (he thinks it was in The Bulletin) and pointed it out to Lange, thinking it would amuse him.  

Monday, January 16, 2017

Safe, efficient, reliable ... and boring

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, January 11.)

I walked past a big 1970s-era Chrysler Valiant in town the other day – an orange one (still the original paint job, I’d guess) with a tan vinyl roof.

I’ve driven such cars. They handled like a wheelbarrow half-filled with water. But I’ll tell you what: they had character. They had personality. When you drove a Chrysler Valiant, you knew you were driving a Chrysler Valiant.

I contrast this with the occasions when I hire a modern rental car. I couldn’t tell you what I’m driving without looking at the logo in the centre of the steering wheel.

They all feel and look the same. They’re safe, well-equipped, economical, reliable … and boring.

I thought of that Chrysler Valiant a couple of days later when I was reading the motoring section of my paper. It included a story about the new Holden Commodore due to be released next year – the first Commodore not to be built in Australia.

Holden had released advanced publicity shots of the new model from different angles. To me it looked virtually indistinguishable from the equivalent model Mazda, Hyundai or Kia.

Say what you like about the Chrysler Valiant, but it was unmistakeably a Chrysler Valiant. There was no way you’d mistake it for its competitors, the Ford Falcon and the Holden Kingswood (each of which, in turn, looked completely different from the other).

And before you say anything, yes, I know your chance of getting killed was far greater if you crashed in a 1975 Valiant or Holden Kingswood than if you have a prang in a modern Honda or Subaru.

In that respect, I concede we’ve made enormous advances. But did safety improvements have to come at the expense of the styling quirks that gave the cars of earlier eras their individuality?

Allow me to illustrate my point. On Facebook recently, my friend Phil O'Brien, co-host of Radio New Zealand's popular Matinee Idle, posted a 1957 magazine advertisement for a car identical to the first one he owned – an eggshell-blue Austin A50 Cambridge.

Phil invited other people to contribute reminiscences about their own first cars. There were 113 responses, many of them very witty.

They covered a weird and wonderful assortment of makes and models that people of a certain age would remember well, from the everyday (Austin A30s, Vanguards, Vauxhall Veloxes, Triumph Heralds, Holden Specials, Morris Minors and Ford Prefects) to the slightly more exotic and racy (a Renault 750, a Jowett Javelin and an Auto Union – precursor of the Audi). 

There were some that few people with any self-esteem would admit to having owned (namely, a 1970s Morris Marina and a Skoda Octavia wagon from the 1960s). But the point was that for a couple of days, people indulged in an entertaining nostalgia-fest about old cars.

Now ask yourself: can you imagine anyone getting similarly excited in 50 years’ time about peas-in-a-pod Ford, Mazdas and Toyotas? I can’t.

Good cars, all of them, but dull. With globalisation, the “world car” that motor companies started talking about in the 1970s became a reality. Lookalike models roll off assembly lines on every continent.

Old cars were quirky. That’s why people gather wherever classic or vintage cars are on display. Small wonder that Nelson publishers Potton and Burton recently brought out We Had One of Those!, a wallow in automotive nostalgia written by Stephen Barnett.

Would any relentlessly profit-driven car multinational today allow its engineers and designers to create something as eccentric as the lowlight Morris Minor, the Morgan three-wheeler or the Hillman Imp? It just wouldn’t happen.

And here’s another thing about modern car design. In some ways it has regressed, in both practical and aesthetic terms.

Design orthodoxy demands a rising waistline and a passenger compartment that tapers sharply towards the rear. As a result, window space is greatly reduced for back-seat passengers and the rear view is so restricted that drivers become almost wholly dependent on the reversing camera to see what’s going on behind them. And they call this progress?

Few cars demonstrate the regression better than the royal family’s vehicle of choice, the Range Rover.

Like its humble older sibling the Land Rover, the Range Rover was revolutionary when it was launched in 1970. It was the world’s first luxury four-wheel-drive and a masterpiece of design.

It had clean, simple lines. The driver sat high, surrounded by acres of glass. Reliability may have occasionally been an issue, but visibility certainly wasn’t.

Now look at one of its descendants, the Range Rover Evoque. It looks as if something very large has sat on it. It has a squashed look, with a rear window that resembles one of those narrow slits that soldiers shove their rifles through.

The big-selling Toyota Corolla, too, has morphed into something that resembles a particularly nasty insect. It’s not even quirky-ugly in the way that, say, the 1970s Leyland P76 was.

Now there was a car that was so ugly it was strangely desirable. They don’t make ’em like that anymore, and more’s the pity. 

Of killer cats and yapping dogs

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 6.)

My wife found it lying in the garden by the compost bin. It was hard to see, its mottled breast feathers providing perfect camouflage in the undergrowth.

It was a Californian quail, one of two that we’d become accustomed to seeing around the place. Sadly, nature hadn’t disguised it well enough to save it from one of the neighbourhood cats.

It could only have been a cat that killed it. As far as I’m aware, healthy quail are not in the habit of spontaneously lying down and dying.

Besides, the cats around our place have previous form. Two summers ago, our garden became home to another pair of quail.  They were welcome visitors and we did our best to make them feel at home.

Mr and Mrs Quail produced seven chicks.  We were proud of our quail family and felt like proxy parents. But then the inevitable happened.

I found the bodies of two quail chicks lying on the lawn. Of the rest of the family, there was no sign.

After several days, the adult birds reappeared by themselves. We assumed that cats had got all the chicks.

They would have killed out of instinct, not necessity.  The cats we see are well-fed and don’t need juvenile quail to supplement their diet.

Prior to this I’d harboured no ill-feeling toward cats. We don’t own one, but our section is treated as common ground by all the neighbours’ cats and we constantly see them around.

One took to lurking under the concealing foliage of a weeping Japanese maple, from where it would ambush any bird that came within striking distance. A pile of feathers on the lawn would tell the story.

I could tolerate that. One blackbird less, when our garden is overpopulated with them anyway, didn’t bother me. But the quail chicks were a different story.

At that point I began to have some sympathy for Gareth Morgan’s campaign for controls on domestic cats. But he’s got it only half right, because cats can be a pest for other reasons besides their blood lust.

We often encounter cat excrement in the garden. It’s not only foul-smelling, but potentially dangerous because it can transmit the parasitic disease toxoplasmosis.

My resent-o-meter was cranked up a further couple of notches recently when a cat started making itself comfortable at night on an outside settee. It left evidence of its sleepovers in the form of ineradicable stains on the cushions.

All this has left me feeling slightly jaundiced toward cats when previously I had no feelings about them one way or another. But what do you do? Cats are unique among domestic pets in that they defy normal means of control.

Unlike dogs, they are impervious to human commands. Paradoxically, we require dogs to be chained or otherwise confined, while cats enjoy licence to roam at will. Why the double standard?

One solution would be for cats to be kept in cages or hutches, like rabbits, but you can imagine the outcry that would provoke. Cats are one of those red-button issues – like 1080 and fluoridation – that reduce otherwise rational people to a state of borderline hysteria.

In any case I have to admit that, even with my hostile feelings toward the cats that kill our quail and soil our cushions, the dogs in our neighbourhood irritate me even more. And this from a dog lover.

Our neighbours’ dogs don’t have to come on to our property to drive me mad, and they never run loose. They just yap. And yap. And yap.

Some noises you can put up with. A lawnmower or chainsaw somewhere in the neighbourhood is acceptable because it’s serving a purpose, and you know it’s going to stop when the job’s finished.

No, the noises that set people’s teeth on edge are those that are avoidable, like boy-racers, Harley-Davidsons and yapping dogs.

These noises are a public nuisance and an invasion of privacy. But the yapping dogs in my neighbourhood pose a conundrum almost as vexing as that of how to control cats.

The conundrum is this. I like my neighbours and have a good relationship with them. They are exemplary in every respect but one.

The thing I’ve never worked out is how to tell them, without jeopardising neighbourhood harmony, that their dogs drive me mad.

I did once try shouting at the owner of one spectacularly noisy dog whose barking was disturbing the Sunday afternoon tranquillity. It was pitifully ineffective. The owner couldn’t hear me because of the noise his dog was making. 

Footnote: If part of this column seems familiar, it's because a couple of paragraphs originally appeared in a column written for the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard.