Friday, July 26, 2019

Are we too dependent on sport for our self-esteem?

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, July 25.) 

I squirm when New Zealand pulls off any against-the-odds feat on the world sporting stage, as it has done twice in the past fortnight.

Like any patriotic New Zealander, I celebrate these occasions and marvel at sport’s capacity to produce down-to-the-wire drama. But I brace myself for what I know is coming: an unseemly national orgy of self-congratulation. We’re always ready to claim a vicarious share of the credit for something achieved through the hard work and dedication of a few.

And so it turned out. The Cricket World Cup final reverberated in the media for a full week, choking the airwaves and devouring entire plantations of pinus radiata. And we didn’t even win, although a visiting alien, observing all the excitement, would never have guessed that.

It’s interesting to speculate on how we would have reacted if the Black Caps had actually beaten England. I’m not sure the national mood would have been any more exultant.

In a strange way, it was as if losing by the tiniest of margins – and due only to an arcane rule few knew about – fed into our view of ourselves as the little country at the bottom of the world that consistently punches above its weight and wins, morally at least, even when it loses.

The game was celebrated and analysed and then celebrated and analysed some more, until we had wrung every last drop of glory from the, er, defeat. 

Everyone had to have their two bobs’ worth: cartoonists, editorial writers, columnists, talkback callers, letter writers and, of course, politicians. All felt compelled to give voice to what they apparently regarded as their own unique insight.

Then, just as it was all starting to subside, up bounced the Silver Ferns with their storybook redemptive win over arch-enemies Australia. And the nation, having almost exhausted itself over the cricket, had to summon the energy to do it all over again, except that this time there was a real victory to celebrate.

Bizarrely, it seemed almost anti-climactic. Perhaps the “Damn, we almost pulled it off” scenario suits the New Zealand psyche better than a last-gasp win.

It may seem disloyal to ask this, but are we really so dependent on sport for our sense of wellbeing? If we are, then something may be out of kilter in the national character.

To be fair, we’re better than a lot of countries at keeping sport in perspective. It’s not so crucial to our self-esteem that we need to assert ourselves by unleashing gangs of thugs on the fans of opposing teams, as English football clubs had a habit of doing not long ago. The Heysel stadium tragedy of 1985, remember, was caused when Liverpool fans attacked supporters of the Italian club Juventus, resulting in the collapse of a wall and 39 deaths. That was sporting tribalism at its ugliest.

It’s safe to say too that a New Zealand footballer who caused his team to crash out of the World Cup by scoring an own-goal wouldn’t risk being killed by a grieving fan, as happened to a Colombian player in 1994. Neither would we subject members of a losing team to a humiliating public inquisition, as in North Korea.

So we can congratulate ourselves for being relatively civilised by world standards. And as obsessed as we supposedly are with rugby, we still don’t match the Welsh – or, for that matter, Melbourne fans of Australian Rules football and American baseball tragics – for devotion to a sporting code.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that our jubilation when national teams win – and despondency when we lose, as with the America’s Cup in 2013 – is a bit over the top. And, dare I say it, a bit juvenile. It suggests a sense of national insecurity – a need to reassure ourselves that we amount to something.

It’s only sport, after all. No one’s life depends on it.

People can say it’s harmless, but I’m not even sure that’s entirely true. Women’s refuges know to expect more calls for help whenever the All Blacks lose, which suggests we invest far too much emotion in sport.

None of the above criticism applies to the Black Caps or the Silver Ferns, who deserve our admiration as much for their grace, resilience and good humour as for their sporting prowess. It’s not them whose perspective is a bit out of whack – sport is their career, after all – but the rest of us back home.

And here’s a strange thing: we love to compliment ourselves on not blowing our own trumpet as a country – unlike those appalling Australians, whose arrogance offends us.

I’m old enough to remember the days when an All Black who had scored a try would trudge back from the goal line with his head lowered as if he had just committed the unpardonable sin of drawing attention to himself. Boasting or skiting in any shape or form, by players or fans, was sternly discouraged.

Not any more, yet we still take pride in our supposed modesty. New Zealand must be the only country in the world that boasts about being humble. But you can’t take pride in humility; it’s a contradiction in terms.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Ernie Abbott's death still cries out for justice

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, Stuff regional papers and, July 24.)

It’s 35 years since a bomb killed Ernie Abbott, the caretaker of Wellington’s Trades Hall. That’s literally a lifetime ago – a point brought home by a recent reconstruction of the crime on TVNZ’s Cold Case.

One of the detectives investigating new evidence in the case was four years old when the bomb went off. This meant he had to acquaint himself with the political mood of the period, which was essential to an understanding of the killer’s likely motivation.

That wouldn’t have been easy, because judged from today’s standpoint, New Zealand in the mid-1980s seems almost an alien society.

It was a country in the last throes of Muldoonism.  Society had been violently polarised by the 1981 Springbok rugby tour and the economy was on its knees after years of compulsive tinkering by a bullying, authoritarian prime minister. 

New Zealand’s parlous economic state at the time could largely be blamed on Robert Muldoon’s dogged belief in the virtues of regulation and state interventionism, but trade union militancy was a potent aggravating factor.

Vital industries – freezing works, the waterfront, road and rail transport, shipping, construction, car assembly plants – were subject to constant bloody-minded disruption.

Trade union leaders – Jim Knox, Ken Douglas, Bill Andersen, Pat Kelly, Blue Kennedy, Con Devitt – were household names, although rarely mentioned in complimentary terms, other than by their members (and even then, not all of them). Many were avowed Marxists.

Strikes were rarely out of the news and public tolerance of union disruption was stretched to breaking point. It was a malaise that Muldoon, notwithstanding all his tough talk, never seemed willing or able to confront. All this added up to an ugly, sullen national mood of which Ernie Abbott became the hapless victim. 

On March 27, 1984, someone walked into the Trades Hall building on Wellington’s Vivian Street and placed a small suitcase on the floor in the foyer. Several unions had their offices in the building, so it was a natural focal point for anyone with a grudge against the movement. 

When Abbott picked up the unattended suitcase at 5.19pm, apparently with the intention of locking it away until someone claimed it, the bomb inside exploded. He was killed almost instantly.

It was inconceivable that the device was intended for him personally. Ken Douglas, then secretary of the Federation of Labour, suspects the real targets were the participants in a high-level strategy meeting that the bomber possibly thought was being held in the Trades Hall, but which actually took place at the FOL head office some distance away.

Abbott was a socialist and a committed unionist, but he was a very minor cog in the union machine. He held no significant office and was liked by the many who came and went from the Trades Hall – me included, since I often visited the building as a reporter in the early 1970s. I remember him as perky, chatty and good-humoured, although he was apparently not averse to an argument.

We can only assume that whoever murdered him didn’t really care who the bomb killed. It was a crime of blind rage and resentment against trade unionism as an institution. Regardless of what anyone thought about the unions, it was a despicable act of terrorism.

The prime suspect remains alive and has been publicly named. He fits the profile of the likely killer: a grudge-bearing loner with experience of explosives.

Cold Case revealed significant facts that had not previously been disclosed, but the evidence is circumstantial and the police remain hopeful that someone will come forward with information that will close the case.

The drab old Trades Hall still stands in Vivian St and I assume it still houses union offices, but pretty much everything else has changed since 1984. Even the nearby Panama Hotel, where unionists did their drinking and plotting, has long gone.

Several months after Abbott died, the voters tossed Muldoon out of office and the oppressive national mood that had characterised the latter part of his nine years in power was lifted. In its place, New Zealand found itself caught up in the Labour-initiated economic upheaval that became known as Rogernomics, after Finance Minister Roger Douglas.

Ironically, despite the election of a supposedly union-friendly Labour government, trade unions went into sharp decline. Weakened by rising unemployment and economic turmoil, the movement was torn apart by a bitter internal battle between hard-core militants, who believed the key to survival lay in even greater militancy, and a more pragmatic faction led by Douglas.

In the end, neither side won. Jim Bolger’s National government had the last say in the 1990s, abolishing compulsory union membership and ending many of the rights and privileges previously enjoyed by unions. Today only 17 per cent of New Zealand workers belong to a union, the character of the movement has changed radically and strong-arm militancy is a distant memory.

But one thing hasn't changed. Ernie Abbott's killer has never been charged, and his death still cries out for justice.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Otago's academics know what's best for us, so let's put them in charge

The thought often occurs to me that New Zealand could save itself a whole lot of money and political argy-bargy by simply handing over the governance of the country to the academics of Otago University.

They know exactly what needs to be done. They never tire of telling us. Barely a week passes without one of their number pointing how simple it would be, using regulatory tools, to create a Utopia here in our remote corner of the Pacific.

If only we listened to their advice, New Zealand would be a fairer, safer, healthier and more equal society. (Not freer, though, because freedom can get in the way of Utopian visions and must be strictly controlled by people who know what’s best for us.)

For starters, if we listened to the Otago academics, we wouldn’t be a nation of drunks and fatties. Marketers of alcohol and unhealthy food would be made to stand in the naughty corner. But alas, we’re all at the mercy of greedy, manipulative capitalists and politicians who are too cowardly, or possibly venal, to do the right thing.  

We’ve been reminded of this – yet again – over the past few days by the indefatigable Professor Doug Sellman and a bright-eyed colleague named Simon Adamson, who appears to have taken over from Sellman as director of Otago University’s National Addiction Centre. Their message is that the government, by refusing to act on the mental health inquiry’s recommendations for tighter alcohol controls, is pandering to liquor industry lobbyists. "You gotta follow the money and ask who's benefiting from the status quo," Adamson told Newshub.

Health minister David Clark brusquely dismissed the claim, saying he refused to dignify it with a response. Well, of course he’d say that; he’s obviously in the pocket of the liquor barons and their shadowy propagandists. What else could you expect?

Another tireless moral crusader is Professor Kevin Clements, who is described on the Otago University website as the founding director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. (One of the things universities do very well, along with generous sabbaticals, mutual back-scratching through academic exchanges and endless rounds of taxpayer-funded international conferences, is the creation of  grandly titled institutes for the pursuit of ideological hobby-horses.)

One of Clements’ shticks is gun control, so it was no surprise when he popped up at the weekend in a radio report about the government’s gun buyback programme. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that New Zealanders own twice as many firearms per capita as Australians and six times as many as Britons, “so on a per capita basis New Zealand is a fairly overgunned society” – the clear implication being that we’re dangerously addicted to firearms and for our own safety, we need much stricter controls.

But hang on a minute. Surely the crucial consideration is not how many guns New Zealanders own, but how often they are used to kill people or commit other criminal acts. That’s what matters.

Here the statistics are interesting. Wikipedia, which publishes what appear to be reputable figures on gun ownership and related crime, confirms that New Zealand has a high rate of gun ownership, as you’d expect in a country with a substantial rural population and a large hunting community.

But while we own 30 firearms per 100 people, which is high by world standards, our rate of firearm-related deaths (including suicides) is low: 1.07 per 100,000.

The figures make it clear there is little or no co-relation between gun ownership and deaths caused by firearms, other than, perhaps, in the US, where there are 120 firearms per 100 people and 19.5 gun-related fatalities per 100,000. 

Australia has 14 guns per 100 people – half as many as New Zealand, as Clements said; yet its firearms-related death rate, at 1.04, is only microscopically lower than ours. Other comparisons can be made with Norway (31 guns per 100 people, 1.75 deaths per 100,000), Switzerland (24 guns per 100, 3.01 deaths per 100,000) and Canada (25 guns per 100, 2.05 deaths per 100,000). In other words, despite Clement’s alarmist pronouncement, New Zealand measures up very favourably.

On the other hand, Venezuela has a much lower rate of reported gun ownership than New Zealand (18 per 100 people) yet a death rate even higher than that of the US, at 26.48 per 100,000. And then there’s El Salvador, often described as the world’s most dangerous country: 12 guns per 100 people, 44.45 deaths per 100,000.

Even allowing for the possibility that statistics from some of these countries may not be totally reliable, it’s clear that firearm ownership figures on their own, such as those cited by Clements, are virtually meaningless. I wonder, does it ever occur to credulous journalists, most of whom have university degrees so have presumably been taught critical thinking, to challenge supposed experts over the simplistic and misleading use of statistics?

Evidently not. They have been ideologically programmed not to challenge the left-wing orthodoxy that prevails in universities, where indoctrination and conformist group-think have supplanted intellectual inquiry and academic rigour.  

To return to my opening thought, just think how much simpler life would be if academics were given the power to rule us. The great appeal of their regulatory prescriptions for society is that they don’t have to be weighed against public opinion or put to the test in the real world. Neither are academics bothered by inconvenient notions such as the right of individuals to make their own choices about how they live, all of which can make parliamentary democracy untidy and quarrelsome.

Academics aren’t constrained by accountability either, because they don’t have to answer to anyone. Unlike politicians, they don’t have to worry about incurring the resentment of the people who pay their salaries and risk being tossed out of office.

Perhaps most appealing of all, if academics governed us there would be none of the acrimony which characterises parliamentary rule, since they all appear to agree with each other.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Taking a short cut to power

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, July 11.)

Sigh. Here we go again.

According to a TVNZ news report, Northland Maori are lobbying for greater representation in local government. Despite having one of the highest Maori populations in the country, Northland iwi leaders say the lack of Maori representation on district councils means Maori are not being heard.

Ngati Hine kaumatua Pita Tipene laments that local government legislation and processes are “shutting out our people”. Not for the first time, compulsory Maori seats have been touted as one possible answer. But the solution to the lack of Maori representation is achingly obvious.

According to TVNZ, Maori make up an estimated 50 per cent of the Northland population. It follows that if Maori candidates put themselves forward for election and persuade other Maori people to support them, Maori councillors will be elected. Weight of numbers will ensure that.

If Maori engaged more actively in local government both as voters and candidates, 50 percent of Northland council seats could be occupied by Maori – possibly more, since non-Maori voters are likely to support good Maori candidates, just as they have done elsewhere in New Zealand.

That 50 percent figure gives Northland Maori the potential to become highly influential and possibly even dominant in local government. The remedy is in their hands if only they choose to seize it. Isn’t that how democracy is supposed to work?

In the indelicate but admirably blunt language of Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis in 2016, Northland Maori need to get off their arses and vote. But some Maori leaders prefer to take a short cut to power.

We keep hearing that Maori are disempowered. They are “disengaged”, to use a fashionable term – too disengaged, evidently, to use the democratic rights open to every citizen.

The only possible solution, we're frequently told, is to create special mechanisms which would guarantee them a place at council tables, such as the creation of special Maori wards or the establishment of voting rights for unelected Maori representatives – as was disgracefully provided in law for Auckland City and adopted by the district council in my home town of Masterton, among other places.

What we’re really talking about here is power through the back door. The advocates of guaranteed Maori representation want to bypass the democratic hurdles that other candidates for public office must leap over.

The debate then becomes a philosophical one about whether Maori are so disadvantaged and demoralised that they must be given political rights not available to others.

The powerful counter-argument is that to grant special rights to any segment of the population, whether on the basis of race or any other factor, is a potentially lethal compromise of democratic principles, which hold that no group of voters should wield more power than others.

Ordinary New Zealanders obviously recognise this hazard, even if their elected leaders don’t. Every time well-intentioned but wrong-headed councils have pushed for the creation of Maori wards, they have been emphatically defeated in referendums. 

We’re told this is because we’re a racist society bent on preventing Maori from acquiring power.
But hang on a minute. The evidence shows that where strong Maori candidates put themselves forward for office, Pakeha as well as Maori voters will support them. Does that sound racist?

In the last local government elections three years ago, Porirua elected its first Maori mayor, Mike Tana, who beat a favoured Pakeha rival. Wellington acquired a Maori deputy mayor, Paul Eagle – now the Labour MP for Rongotai – and a new Maori councillor, Jill Day, who has since taken over the deputy mayoralty. Eagle, incidentally, had increased his majority in three consecutive council elections.

In those same 2016 elections, South Wairarapa voters elected three Maori to their district council. Napier gained a Maori councillor, Api Tapine, and Wiremu Te Awe Awe was elected to the Horizons Regional Council. All this happened without the benefit of separate Maori wards or other forms of special treatment.

No doubt there were other examples that I’m not aware of. I could also point out that two previous mayors of Carterton, Georgina Beyer and Ron Mark, are Maori, and that former rugby league star Howie Tamati served on the New Plymouth District Council for 15 years (yet contradictorily insisted in 2015 that New Plymouth Maori needed their own ward).

All of these people were elected by Pakeha voters. Racist? I don’t think so. The record shows that non-Maori voters will back good Maori candidates. But of course such candidates have to put themselves forward first, rather than wringing their hands in anguish over supposed Maori disempowerment.

Oh, and did I mention that there are 29 Maori MPs in the current Parliament, including 23 elected by voters on the general roll. Racist? Really??

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Not home, exactly, but where we came from nonetheless

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, other Stuff regional papers and on, July 10.)

“Welcome home,” I said to my wife.

Minutes earlier, our train had rumbled over the River Oder, which marks the border between Germany and Poland, although I didn’t realise that until we passed the next town. The sign on the station platform identified it as Słubice, revealing that we had passed from a Teutonic country into a Slavic one.

Jolanta corrected me, as she frequently does. “I never thought of Poland as my home,” she said, “any more than you think of Denmark as yours.”

She was right in the sense that although born to Polish parents, she never lived in Poland. Her parents were forcibly transported to Germany from Warsaw during World War Two to work in a labour camp and never went back. Jolanta grew up in Germany and emigrated to New Zealand with her family in 1965.

But in my defence, I was speaking figuratively. She’s undeniably Polish, after all; she grew up speaking Polish as well as German and regularly conversed in Polish with her mother, who died only recently.

So her roots are in Poland, just as mine – on my father’s side, anyway – are in Denmark. And while I’m not one of those people who become fixated with the minutiae of family history, one purpose of this trip to Europe was to connect with those roots.

For me, this involved visiting the towns my Danish grandparents came from and enjoying the very convivial company of distant Danish cousins. Similarly, for Jolanta it was a pilgrimage of sorts to Warsaw – although we had been there before – and an opportunity to re-establish contact with descendants of the few family members who had survived the war.

In Warsaw, by sheer coincidence, our hotel was only a short walk from No 2 Daleka St, the address of the apartment building where Jolanta’s parents were living when the Germans invaded in 1939, and from which they were evicted by Wehrmacht soldiers in 1944.

There’s no trace of the building now, because the Germans flattened the city as punishment for the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising and everything was later rebuilt. But we went there anyway, on a quiet Sunday morning, and just along the street came across a plaque marking the spot where 17 Polish civilians were shot in cold blood and their bodies burned. Such memorials are tragically commonplace in Warsaw.

We also took a bus across the Vistula River to the vast Bródno cemetery, a serene and beautiful place where Jolanta’s grandparents were buried in 1942. No trace remained of their graves, although they were still there when we last visited in 2002.

There was war in my family’s past too. Religious conflict drove my Protestant du Fresne ancestors out of France in the 17th century and eventually led them to the town of Fredericia, in Denmark, where Jolanta and I wandered around the simple but elegant church built by the French Huguenot community in 1735.

There are still du Fresnes living in and around Fredericia, although they use a different spelling: Dufresne. In the small town of Søvind we were lavishly entertained by the grandson of my great-uncle, who stayed in Denmark when my grandfather left for New Zealand in 1890, and his wife. Their daughter provided translation when needed. Most younger Danes speak good English; the older ones not so much.

Near Sønderborg, close to the Danish border with Germany, we went with another cousin, a Clausen from my grandmother’s side of the family, to the Dybbøl Mill – something of a national shrine, having been the scene of an historic battle between the Danish and Prussian armies in 1864.

Fighting raged around the Clausen family’s lovely old stone farmhouse, where Danish troops were accommodated. The house was severely damaged but was later repaired and still stands at the end of a quiet, leafy lane, only a short distance from where tourists swarm around the great mill and its impressive museum.

The Danes lost the war with Prussia, which is why some of the Clausens decided to emigrate to New Zealand. They didn’t want to live under Prussian (German) rule.

They settled in the Manawatu and are there still. Ironically, the part of Denmark that was ceded to Germany after the 1864 war reverted to Danish control after World War One.

My Danish relations were almost embarrassingly hospitable. A laughter-filled dinner at the home of another cousin in Sønderborg banished any notion of the Danes as a dour nationality.

So what’s the point of relating all this? Not much, I suppose, except that our European pilgrimage reminded us that all New Zealanders (yes, Maori too) are immigrants, or at least once were, and that many of our forebears came here to escape troubled pasts and start afresh.

It often took great courage, determination and resourcefulness. But most found what they were looking for here at the end of the earth, and that's something we should never take for granted.

Friday, July 5, 2019

An earlier rumination on architecture

As I was posting my recent column on Wellington buildings a couple of days ago, I remembered a speech I gave at a debate on architecture in Greytown in 2010. I dug it out of my files and was agreeably surprised to discover that I don't disagree with anything I said then, which is not always the case. For what it's worth, here it is:


I have to confess that initially, I didn’t quite understand the motion of this debate. The statement that architecture is the mother of all arts seemed just too abstract and esoteric, so my first inclination was to invoke Gary McCormick’s first rule of debating and ignore the motion altogether.  But then I did some research – which broke Gary McCormick’s second rule of debating – and discovered that the motion is based on a quote by the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

What he actually said was: “The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilisation." So when you see the quote in its entirety, you start to see where he’s coming from.

What I take from Wright’s statement is that our most potent and lasting symbols of culture and nationhood are not works of art, but works of architecture. And when you think this through, it’s inarguable.

Ancient Greece has no more recogniseable symbol than the Parthenon. Ancient Rome has no more recogniseable symbol than the Colosseum.

Entire civilisations are identified by the structures they left behind: Macchu Piccu in Peru, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Petra in Jordan – “a rose red city half as old as time”, in the words of the famous poem by John William Burgon.

France’s most potent symbol, one that’s instantly recognised worldwide, is the Eiffel Tower. And what could be more symbolic of Russia than the famous onion-shaped domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, which has stood at the very heart of Moscow since 1561, and still represents the apotheosis of Russian architecture?

Think of India, and you’re likely to think of the Taj Mahal. Moving closer to home, what image could be more representative of Australia than the iconic lines of the Sydney Opera House? And what could better exemplify the brashness and self-confidence of early 20th century American capitalism than the Empire State Building?

Speaking of which, how many of you knew the Empire State Building was completed in just 410 days? In New Zealand, you’d wait that long for a resource consent to build a chookhouse in your backyard. But I digress.

Buildings such as the ones I’ve just mentioned give people a sense of who they are and what they value. They are emblematic of their culture and society. What’s more, buildings belong to the people in a way that other works of art such as paintings and sculptures can never do. By their very nature they are public, enabling ordinary people to share a sense of ownership.

Architecture, it’s been said, is the art form that most impacts on our lives. It belongs to us all. We don’t just live and work in buildings created by architects; we walk among them and look at them every day of our lives.

That makes us all experts on the subject. I certainly consider myself an authority on architecture, by virtue of the fact that I was born in a building and have lived and worked in them all my life. If that doesn’t qualify me to talk with authority on the subject, I don’t know what does.

In fact I suggest that we should all reclaim ownership of the discussion about architecture from the architects, who have tended to control or at least dominate the conversation in the assumption that only they are qualified to talk about it. Events like this debate are a good way to start.

Now, I’ve talked about some of the iconic buildings of other countries and their importance as expressions of national pride. The question then arises, how does New Zealand measure up?

I think it’s fair to say that we have no equivalent of the Sydney Opera House. Okay, so it was conceived by a Dane – but it has been embraced by Australians, and it has come to symbolise boldness and audacity and opportunity. Can we say that of our own architectural icons?

I’m one of the many who believe we missed a golden opportunity to create an iconic building with Te Papa. It’s a brutal, unappealing building from the outside and doesn’t make any sense internally either. Fortunately as the native bush on its waterfront side has grown it has softened the harsh lines of the building – a reminder of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous quote that the physician buries his mistakes, but the architect can only advise clients to plant ivy to cover his.

The building that’s most often described as an instantly recogniseable New Zealand icon is the Beehive. But the concept was created by a Scotsman, Sir Basil Spence, and the building doesn’t say anything about us as a country. Its only virtue is that it’s distinctive. Internally, it’s appallingly impractical because of its shape. In fact it’s a classic reversal of the design dictum that form should follow function. Spence created his sketch and then left it to Ministry of Works architects to make it work, but of course it never did.

So what else have we got? Well, I checked on Te Ara, the website of the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, and it listed 12 buildings that it described as iconic. They range from the Hundertwasser toilets in Kawakawa to the Civic Theatre in Invercargill.

The Sky Tower is there – but although it’s emblematic, like the Beehive, I think of it as representative of Auckland rather than New Zealand. It’s has a dramatic quality because of its sheer scale, but I don’t know that anyone would describe it as aesthetically pleasing or inspirational. In any case, there’s little to distinguish it from similar “statement” towers in overseas cities.

Many of the other buildings on the Te Ara list, such as Christchurch Cathedral and the Rotorua Bath House, are colonial derivatives of British architectural styles. Even the lovely National Tobacco Company building in Napier is a knock-off of the art deco style that you can see in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Interestingly enough, the Te Ara list doesn’t include a building that is often cited as one that is unmistakably unique to New Zealand because of the way it combines modernist design with Maori influences. I refer to the Futuna Chapel in Karori, which David Kernohan is going to talk about at greater length.

So we seem to be a bit impoverished architecturally, at least when it comes to public buildings. Perhaps, as Johnny Mathis sang, it’s just a matter of time.

The Roman architect Vitruvius thought buildings should raise people’s spirits, but you certainly couldn’t say that of a lot our corporate architecture. I regard buildings like the Majestic Tower in Wellington as Gordon Gekko buildings, after the character in the movie Wall Street. They are dominating and assertive but no more than that.

And there must surely be a special place in Hell for the architects who created the brutalist government buildings that rose in many provincial cities during the 1960s and 70s. I suspect that there once existed a secret government department called the Ministry of Architectural Abominations. There’s no reference to it in official records but we know it must have existed because we can see the evidence of its labours in places like Palmerston North, Napier, Nelson and Masterton.

I believe this department was staffed by draftsmen specially trained in East Germany, Bulgaria and North Korea. Their brief was to make provincial cities feel more important by putting high-rise buildings in their central business districts, whether the residents wanted them or not. 

The result is that virtually every provincial centre in New Zealand is blighted by at least one brutally ugly government building that towers above its neighbours and blends in to the cityscape with all the subtlety of an All Black prop in a corps de ballet. The very worst of them is the high-rise Nelson Post Office building, which would be my nomination for the title of ugliest and most incongruous building in New Zealand.

The people responsible for these atrocities should not go unpunished. Like war criminals, they should be hunted down like dogs and made to account for their crimes. They are the Slobodan Milosevics of architecture.

From my layman’s perspective, if there’s a definitive New Zealand style of architecture, it seems to be expressed more in our everyday domestic architecture. You could argue that the definitive New Zealand building, one that really says something about our lifestyle and our values and aspirations, is the humble Kiwi bach, which was celebrated in a television advertising campaign decades ago.

And again, from my layman’s point of view, it seems to me that if there’s an emerging character in our architecture it’s a certain eccentricity and playfulness. You can see this in the work of Ian Athfield, in Roger Walker’s Mews apartment development in Hataitai and in Hundertwasser’s toilets at Kawakawa. You can see it in the Puke Ariki gallery at New Plymouth, which looks as if it’s been built from driftwood washed up on the beach. You can also see it in the idiosyncratic building now taking shape at Wellington Airport, which has been dubbed The Rock.

Now, since I’ve touched on the subject of the New Zealand home, I’d like to say something about the ostentatious suburban homes known as McMansions, which are spreading like gorse over the hills of Greater Wellington.

It’s a strange quirk of human nature that as families get smaller, houses get bigger. New Zealand suburban homes have grown in inverse proportion to the size of the families inhabiting them, and to the sections they occupy.

Thirty years ago the average new house had a floor area of 127 square metres; now it’s 175. A typical new subdivision consists of large, ugly houses, typically occupied by two adults and one or two children, packed cheek-by-jowl on pocket handkerchief-sized pieces of land. But of course they have to have a double garage, preferably with enough room for the jet-ski that gets used once every summer.

These are symptoms of what has been labelled affluenza, a disease said to be running rampant in a society afflicted with terminal consumerism.

Oddly enough, a similar thing has happened with cars: engines have got progressively bigger and more powerful while interior space has diminished. In the mid-1980s, 40 percent of the cars on our roads had engines of less than 1.6 litres and the biggest-selling model was the Toyota Corolla. But when I last checked a couple of years ago, cars under 1.6 litres accounted for only 12 percent of the national vehicle fleet and the biggest-selling car was the 4-litre Ford Falcon.

When I was a kid, families of six would squeeze into a 1.6-litre Morris Oxford or Hillman Minx. The Morris 1100 was marketed as a compact family saloon. Now a 1.6-litre car is considered too small for anything other than a trip to the supermarket, and many 3-litre cars will accommodate only four adults.

Incidentally, can anyone here envisage a time in the distant future when today’s McMansions will be admired for their style? Housing fashions go in cycles and at some point most architectural styles become desirable again. The villa, the Californian bungalow, the art deco home, even the 1950s state house … they’ve all acquired a retro cool. But I’m going to stick my neck out and predict that no one in a few decades’ time is going to be desperate to acquire an early 21st century McMansion, even assuming they last that long. They look cheap and tacky now, and they won’t improve with age.

I’ll leave it there for now, Mr Chairman. I’ve strayed off topic a bit but I’m sure I’ve established beyond all shadow of doubt that architecture is the mother of all arts, even if, as a young and relatively immature society, we still have to look overseas for the most compelling evidence of that. Thank you.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Lacuna explained

Regular readers of this blog (all seven of them) may have noticed that nothing new has appeared since the end of May. That's because I've been overseas and I'm too lazy and/or technologically illiterate, when away from my PC, to post my newspaper columns as they are published. I'm now home again, which explains the belated appearance (below) of my recent efforts.

Contemporary architects have failed us

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, June 27.)

Earlier this year, France mourned when fire partially destroyed the Cathedral of Notre-Dame.

It was striking to see Parisians on their knees in the streets, praying and singing hymns – this in a country that was generally thought to have largely renounced Catholicism.

But it wasn’t just the French, or Catholics, who grieved. The world shared their pain, because Notre- Dame is acknowledged as one of Western civilisation’s architectural gems. Something about the sight of this ancient and glorious building in flames clearly touched even irreligious people.

The worldwide reaction to the Notre-Dame fire reminded us that buildings are important. Great architecture, like great music and great literature, has the power to inspire us. It’s also capable of making powerful statements about our history and culture.

So what great New Zealand buildings deserve to be celebrated? Er, not very many.

Of course we have no Notre-Dame, St Paul’s or Hagia Sophia, for the obvious reason that we’re one of the youngest countries in the world, in terms of human settlement.

But even allowing for that, our architectural heritage is pretty thin. Taking Wellington as an example, it’s hard to think of any building erected in my lifetime that evokes feelings of pride, still less awe. Lambton Quay, The Terrace and Molesworth Street are lined with monuments to dreary, functional conformity. There is no sense of vision or daring.

At best, Wellington has a handful of modern buildings that could be described as quirky. The Beehive – originally sketched on the back of a table napkin – arouses curiosity purely because of its novelty. It has minimal aesthetic appeal and must be cursed daily by the unfortunate occupants forced to work within its strictures.

Another famous oddball edifice is Roger Walker’s whimsical 1970s Park Mews in Hataitai – but again, it earned its fame as a conversation piece rather than for aesthetic merit.

On the rare occasions when an architect has created a modern building of enduring appeal, as John Scott did in the 1960s with Karori’s Futuna Chapel, it hasn’t always been treated with respect. Futuna was allowed to fall into disrepair (since rectified) and ended up hemmed in on all sides by town houses and barely able to breathe.

As for the significant public buildings that might be expected to make a statement about our values and aspirations, our architects have failed us.Te Papa, in its prime site beside the harbour, remains a slabby monstrosity that makes little sense inside or out.

And our supposedly “iconic” Supreme Court building, enclosed in a bronze thicket that’s intended to represent wind-blown pohutukawa and rata trees but looks more like tortured matagouri or a crown of thorns, is poorly served by its proximity to the elegant 19th century building that preceded it. The juxtaposition serves only to highlight the folly of contemporary architects straining for symbolism.

In fact look almost anywhere in the capital, and you can’t help but be struck by the contrast between buildings constructed in the latter half of the 20th century and those of earlier eras.

Sadly, some of those older buildings – among them the characterful Spanish Mission-style Midland Hotel – are long gone, but it remains true that the buildings which command our admiration today are mostly older ones. Perhaps even more remarkably, they have withstood earthquakes that rendered much newer structures uninhabitable.

St Gerard’s Monastery and Weir House are handsome buildings that make the most of their commanding locations. The latter bears the distinctive imprint of William Gray Young, who designed it in collaboration with Charles Lawrence.

Young left his mark all over the city, having also designed Wellington Railway Station, the Wellesley Club and the two-storeyed neo-Georgian gem in Kent Tce known as Elliott House.

Another architect who made an enduring contribution to Wellington’s architectural heritage was Frederick de Jersey Clere, who designed St Mary of the Angels and the lovely Wellington Harbour Board buildings that line Customhouse and Jervois quays.

Those who appreciate architectural aesthetics still admire these buildings. Will the same be true of structures such as the Michael Fowler Centre in 100 years’ time? I doubt it. The MFC looked outdated 10 years after it was built.  

And now it seems Wellington’s character homes may be at risk too, as the city council looks at ways of squeezing more people into a limited area of land. High-rise apartment buildings occupy a smaller footprint than old houses – but at what aesthetic price?

Just as the historic inner-city suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney give those cities much of their distinctive character, so Wellington’s older homes have a personality that its commercial and public buildings conspicuously lack. But with the city’s record of architectural vandalism, no one should assume their future is secure.

From Susan to Sadie: the constantly shifting public taste in names

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, June 26.)

What would you guess was the most popular name for baby girls in New Zealand last year?

I’ll give you a clue. It goes with Bronte.

Emily? Nope, that was the eighth most popular. The top spot went, for the second year in a row, to Charlotte.  

Charlotte Bronte, of course, wrote Jane Eyre, while her younger sister Emily gave us Wuthering Heights. But if the popularity of their names (Emily is consistently in the top 10) is due to the renaissance of the 19th century English novel, you might expect Jane to be in demand as a girl’s name too.

I say this because Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, arguably the book that did most to revive interest in classic English literature. Yet I’ve scanned the lists of popular girls’ names going back to 2000, and Jane is nowhere to be found.

All of which leaves us scratching our heads as to why classical female names such as Charlotte and Emily – not to mention Olivia, Emma and Sophie, all of which have topped the popularity chart in the past 20 years – should hold such contemporary appeal. None of these names would look out of place in a BBC costume drama.

And before you point out that Charlotte was the name chosen by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for their second child, which would explain a surge in its popularity, you should be aware that Charlotte also headed the list in 2006, 2013 and 2014, before Princess Charlotte was born.

Why am I writing about this? Because the constantly shifting public taste in names is an aspect of social behaviour that’s every bit as perplexing and unpredictable as changing trends in fashion.

In my childhood, boys were given names like Peter, Michael, David and John – solid, white-bread names, in line with the conformist, monocultural tone of the times.

Records show that these names remained predominant until the 1970s, when Jason entered the picture. In the 1980s Michael was still consistently popular but vied with Daniel, and in the following decade Matthew arrived on the scene. By the late 90s, Joshua was consistently topping the popularity rankings.

The noughties saw the arrival of Jack, Liam and Oliver. The latter name has been the most popular choice for male babies for the past five years.

Good luck to anyone trying to find a logical pattern here. Daniel, Matthew and Joshua suggest a biblical influence, but given the secular nature of New Zealand society, I suspect that’s entirely coincidental.

On the distaff side, Susan and Karen were the most favoured girls’ names for much of the 1950s and 60s, with competition from Sandra, Christine and Margaret. 

Lisa burst on the scene in the late 60s and Sarah ruled through most of the 70s and 80s before being toppled by Jessica, who pretty much owned the 90s. Then along came the Emmas, Charlottes and Sophies.

But the lists of the most popular names don’t tell the full story. Under the surface, other recent trends are apparent.

One is for kids to be given first names that look like surnames: Cooper, Hunter, Carter, Mackenzie, Bailey, Harrison, Riley, Harper. 

Another is the revival of female names that were considered unfashionably quaint even in my childhood – for example, Ruby (No. 1 on the popularity chart in 2011), Sadie, Chloe, Phoebe and Hazel.

In previous generations these names might have been considered an indicator of lower social status (remember Sadie the Cleaning Lady?), but they have acquired a retrospective chic among the upwardly mobile classes.

How do these trends originate? My guess is that it starts with someone deciding to be different by choosing a quirky or unconventional name for their baby, only to find that other people start imitating it. Soon, what was intended as distinctive and individualistic ends up being shared by thousands.

As with miniskirts for women and long hair for men in the 60s, what seems edgy and defiant today can be commonplace tomorrow.

Certainly the urge to conform remains potent. While there will always be outliers who buck the norm, in their choice of names as well as other things, most people feel more secure being part of the crowd. There’s safety in numbers.

And when all is said and done, perhaps there’s something to be said for being unimaginative. Because at the opposite end of the social scale from the Charlottes and Olivers there’s a growing preference for strange, made-up names which are typically multi-syllabic, often double-barrelled, and mostly unpronounceable. Some parents seem to give no more thought to the naming of their children than they might to the naming of a cat or dog.

Sadly, these names are likely to burden their bearers throughout life. Research suggests that people with invented names are statistically more likely to die young or end up in jail - not directly because of their names, but because of the social disadvantage those names signify. That's a helluva price to pay for having a unique moniker.

Jadwiga Zychewicz, 1922-2019

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, June 13.)

We buried my mother-in-law last month.

In different circumstances that might be the opening line of a bad-taste joke, but the life and death of Jadwiga Zychewicz was not something to be flippant about.

Mama (which was what almost everyone called her, Jadwiga being a bit awkward for New Zealanders to get their tongues around) would have been 97 in September. She survived tuberculosis and a Nazi slave labour camp and outlived three of her children.

She was born in Warsaw in 1922 and lost her only sibling, a younger brother, when he died of diphtheria at the age of seven. In the memoirs we encouraged her to write several years ago, she preferred to dwell on happy childhood holidays on a relative’s small farm.

Those pleasurable memories were made more poignant by her grim experiences after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, triggering the Second World War. Both her parents died in 1942 as a consequence of inadequate food and the freezing Polish winters.

She recalled being alone with her father when he died coughing up blood in their small flat in Warsaw and feeling helpless because a curfew and blackout prevented her from going out to seek help. She sat with his body in the darkness through the long night.

She contracted TB herself and was admitted to a Catholic sanatorium which somehow continued to function. She ended up marrying the brother of a fellow patient and described, remarkably, a joyous wedding in the midst of war.

Antoni Zychewicz, my late father-in-law, was a member of the Polish Underground whose function was to monitor BBC radio broadcasts on a clandestine radio. Mama recalled hastily concealing incriminating radio transcripts when a German soldier burst into their apartment demanding to see Antoni’s identity papers. Had the transcripts been seen, the result would have been imprisonment and probable execution.

Long story short: Mama and Antoni were ordered from their apartment at gunpoint in August 1944 when the Germans launched savage reprisals as punishment for the Warsaw Uprising launched by the Underground. All Mama took with her was an envelope containing her wedding photos. With thousands of others, they were deported to Germany and put to work in a labour camp producing weapons and ammunition for the Nazi war machine. 

After French forces set them free in 1945, they faced a difficult decision: whether to return to Poland, which was by then under Soviet control, or remain in Allied-controlled West Germany.

Wisely they chose the latter course. They had heard of other Poles who had disappeared or been arrested on returning to their homeland – victims of Stalinist paranoia – and they didn’t want to take the risk. In any case, they had no families to return to.

In the immediate post-war years they lived in a converted bomb shelter before graduating to an apartment block built by the Americans near Stuttgart. Antoni worked for the US Army in distant Bremerhaven while Mama raised six children virtually solo in a one-bedroomed, walk-up apartment on the fourth floor.

They tried for years to emigrate – first to the US, then Canada. Neither country would take them because both Mama and Antoni had lungs scarred by TB.

Then Australia accepted them, and that would have been that, except that some former Polish neighbours had migrated to Wellington and wrote urging them to do the same – which is how the Zychewicz family ended up, in 1965, living in a Lyall Bay migrant hostel.  

Later came a state house in Porirua East and later again, a home of their own in the new Porirua suburb of Ascot Park.

Mama spent 20 years working in the bindery at the Government Printing Office and in the process suffered serious hearing loss from the ceaseless clanking of the machinery. Antoni, who also worked for the government, died in 1980. I don’t think he ever recovered from the deprivation of the war years.

Mama was a tiny woman. She was shy almost to the point of being reclusive and gave the impression of timidity, but she had a steely core which was probably a survival mechanism.

She showed no obvious emotion when three of her children died in recent years and I wondered whether the war years taught her that she couldn’t afford to dwell on sadness and grief; she just had to push through it.

This column barely touches on the many moments of life-and-death drama that marked her early life, including a narrow escape from a train bound for Auschwitz. She was matter-of-fact about what she had experienced, probably in the knowledge that millions of Poles endured much the same hardship.

In my eulogy at her funeral I said it was difficult to comprehend the breadth of the lifetime's experience embodied in her diminutive frame, or the strength of the spirit that sustained her. If I had to choose a single word to encapsulate her life, it would be that she was a survivor.

The blank space that is John Key's political legacy

(First published in Stuff regional papers, June 12. PLEASE NOTE: This was published before John Key featured prominently in the media over the departure of ANZ chief executive David Hisco. In any case, that event made no difference to Key's political legacy, which was the subject of this column.)

Remember John Key? He was once our prime minister.

Actually, he was our prime minister for slightly more than eight years – in other words, nearly three terms.

That’s quite a long tenure. If you rank all our prime ministers according to their total term in office, he’s in eighth place – slightly behind Helen Clark and Robert Muldoon, but ahead of Jim Bolger and well in front of David Lange.

And I can’t resist pointing out that if this were Australia, where politics is a lot more volatile, Key’s eight years-plus would place him up there with tenacious survivors like John Howard and the late Bob Hawke. 

Key resigned as prime minister only two and a half years ago. It may come as a surprise to be reminded that it was so recent, because to all intents and purposes he has since vanished from public view. It’s almost as if he never existed.

Remember, this is a man who was regarded as something of a political colossus – in New Zealand terms, anyway – when he was in power. His personal approval ratings surpassed even those of Jacinda Ardern post-Christchurch.

Press gallery veterans considered him the consummate politician, with an almost mystical power to charm voters. Caucus unrest was almost unheard of when Key ran the show.

Yet now his name is hardly spoken, at least in a political context. Have we got short memories, or is there something else going on here?

Admittedly, Key departed in unusual circumstances; that is to say, he went of his own accord, at a time of his choosing. That’s rare in politics, where most leaders end up outstaying their welcome and refuse to leave the stage even when it’s obvious to everyone else that their time is up.

Muldoon, for example, remained a cantankerous presence around Parliament after he was rolled as National Party leader. And although Lange resigned as prime minister of his own accord, he too remained in politics and metamorphosed from the witty and charismatic leader of the fourth Labour government to an increasingly bitter, disenchanted and physically unwell figure in opposition.

But with Key, you got the feeling that he’d ticked being prime minister off his to-do list and was happy to move on.

All of which raises an intriguing question: 50 years hence, which New Zealand prime ministers will historians rate as the ones who made the most lasting impact?

My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that for all his personal popularity when he was in power, Key’s name will be well down the list. Because when you look at what he stood for and what he achieved, it didn’t add up to much.

He was a manager and a pragmatist rather than a visionary, and although he managed competently enough – he helped get us through the global financial crisis, after all – we really knew no more about his values and aspirations at the end of his term in office than we did at the start.

To this day I don’t know what motivated Key to enter politics. His one serious attempt at creating a legacy – the referendum to change the flag – ended in ignominious defeat.

There’s a marked contrast here with Norman Kirk, who died in office 45 years ago. Kirk lasted less than one term but his name endures, and not just in the memories of ageing Labour supporters.

Kirk is remembered because he was seen as a man with emphatic political values. Even in his brief term in office, he presided over a lasting reset of New Zealand’s place in the world. By asserting our right to make our own way, rather than function as an appendage of Britain and the United States, he changed the way we saw ourselves.

To use a fashionable term, he was a conviction politician.  He got into politics because he had firm views about the need for change, and he had the ambition and energy to make it happen.

Lange was a conviction politician too, as was Helen Clark. You knew what they stood for even if they weren't always true to their own stated values . Ardern seems to have been cut from similar cloth.

National’s leaders, on the other hand, have tended to fall into the manager-pragmatist category. Keith Holyoake, Bolger and Key did whatever worked and were largely unencumbered by ideology. An exception was Muldoon, who had very strong convictions but often seemed to be in the wrong party.

Which prime ministers left the deepest footprint? I think the answer is clear. We still talk about Muldoon and Kirk, and Clark remains influential.

That's not to say they were our greatest leaders, but I suspect they're the names New Zealanders are likely to remember when Key has been relegated to the back pages of history.