Friday, December 27, 2019

Les Walters and that advertising slogan

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, December 26.)

A long time ago, I worked alongside a reporter named Leslie Walters.

Les got into journalism after a stint in the army. He was a likeable character with an idiosyncratic view of the world.

It soon became apparent that Les wasn’t exactly suited to the role of hack reporter, writing formulaic news stories about car accidents and council meetings.

His career might have gone nowhere had it not been for the late Frank Haden, editor of what was then the Sunday Times. Frank appreciated Les’s offbeat sense of humour and had the good sense to give him some stylistic freedom.

The result was a mad, anarchic weekly feature that combined elements of Monty Python, Spike Milligan and Private Eye. Les seemed to inhabit a parallel universe. It wasn’t journalism, but it was funny and original and it attracted something of a cult following.

Perhaps inevitably, it also attracted the attention of a recruiter from an advertising agency, which brings me to the point of this column.

It was in advertising that Les found his niche. And if his name means nothing to most New Zealanders, those of a certain age will certainly remember the slogan he was credited with creating for the tourism industry in the 1980s. “Don’t leave town till you’ve seen the country” was aimed at encouraging people to experience New Zealand rather than book plane tickets to foreign destinations.

It’s a phrase that has insinuated itself into the national consciousness, rather like “The drink you have when you’re not having a drink”, which came from roughly the same era and is remembered long after the brand it advertised (Claytons) vanished.

I thought about Les’s slogan while on a recent caravan trip with my wife around the top half of the South Island. His advice remains as true now as it was three decades ago.

At Ashley Gorge in North Canterbury, we had one of the country’s most exquisite camping grounds to ourselves (although to be fair, it was fully booked the following weekend, which was Canterbury’s Anniversary Weekend).

At remote Lake Coleridge, we marvelled at the grit of the engineers and workers who created one of the country’s earliest hydro-electric power stations in a beautiful but inhospitable landscape. My father, who was an engineer with the State Hydro-Electric Department, would have been fascinated.

On the return drive, the view over the vast, braided bed of the Rakaia River against its mountain backdrop almost literally stopped us in our tracks. You can see why the Canterbury high country captivated artists like Rita Angus and Bill Sutton.

We drove through charming little North Canterbury towns with Tolkienesque names like Windwhistle and Glentunnel, the latter with its fabulously eccentric gazebo-shaped brick post office (still in use).

On the road across Arthur’s Pass, we played vehicular leap-frog with rental camper vans that were constantly pulling off to the side of the highway so their goggle-eyed occupants could take pictures.

We roamed in the chilly, swirling mists at the top of the Denniston Incline, where a hardy community of 1400 people once eked a living from coal. It’s an extraordinary place that all New Zealanders should make the effort to visit.

Quirky takeaway fact: it was said that the local football team had an advantage against visiting sides because the Denniston players were able to locate the ball by ear in the thick fog. They were also known to take advantage of the poor visibility by sneaking extra players onto the field.

At Runanga, we admired the famous old miners’ hall (c. 1908) with its faded socialist slogan “The World’s Wealth for the World’s Workers”. It remains true that more than any other part of New Zealand, the Coast has a culture all its own.

We did some of the standard touristy things: Punakaiki, Farewell Spit, the celebrated Mussel Inn in Golden Bay (greatly over-rated, if you ask me, with a menu that wouldn’t require much more culinary skill than KFC).

But here’s the thing: Almost everywhere we went, our fellow travellers were from overseas. At lonely Lake Coleridge, at the end of a rough and dusty road that would deter a lot of drivers, we met an adventurous Scandinavian woman touring alone on a motorbike.

In a camping ground at Greymouth, we shared the kitchen with a big group of Israelis. At Denniston, we shared the mist with tourists from Australia.

On the long, winding road to French Pass, surely one of New Zealand’s most spectacular drives, most of the vehicles we passed were rentals of the type that overseas visitors hire. I was impressed to see an intrepid Asian woman tackling the route alone.

Not for the first time, I marvelled at the number of foreign tourists who find their way to beautiful, out-of-the-way places that most New Zealanders never see. Outsiders seem to appreciate our country in a way that not all New Zealanders do.

Okay, it wasn’t the holiday season, so we probably weren’t seeing a typical sample. Still, I couldn’t help thinking of Les Walters and his advertising slogan. 

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Then and now

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, December 24.)

They say that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, but I’m not so sure. It can be instructive from time to time to recall how things were in the past and to ask the tricky question, is life better now?

Consider the following:

I remember when my home town, with a population of 3000, had its own daily paper and everyone read it.

I remember when primary schoolkids got the strap for minor infractions and secondary schoolboys were caned.

I remember a time when there were no human resources departments.

I remember when some state highways – the road from Napier to Taupo was one – still weren’t sealed.

I remember when you pushed button “A” to be connected when making a call from a public phone box.

I remember when people travelled to and from Britain on ocean liners with exotic names like Flavia and Arcadia.

I remember party lines and three-digit phone numbers.

I remember when the title of professor was one that automatically commanded respect.

I remember school dental nurses.

I remember when newspapers routinely referred to married women using their husbands’ initials and surname. (My wife would have been Mrs K du Fresne.)

I remember when only sophisticated people drank coffee.

I remember when we ate roast mutton on Sundays.

I remember when politicians didn’t have press secretaries and prime ministers almost never spoke to reporters.

I remember when the serial prison escaper George Wilder was considered a national hero.

I remember when no one knew what an avocado was. Or lasagne. Or Pad Thai.

I remember when the road toll reached 843 in a single year.

I remember hot pants.

I remember when boys were obsessed with World War Two exploits and amassed cherished collections of War Picture Library comics.

I remember when the local cop was regarded with respect (not always deserved) and sometimes fear.

I remember Telethons.

I remember when people arranged their holidays through travel agents (okay, some still do).

I remember when farmers could afford to buy flash new cars - Chevrolets, Dodges, DeSotos - because of the demand for wool to clothe American troops in the Korean War.

I remember when most towns had a pie cart.

I remember when a public bar was a mysterious place with frosted glass windows that were open at the top so that a fug of beery fumes and tobacco smoke could escape, and where the hubbub within suggested men having a good time.

I remember when only corner dairies and service stations were open at weekends.

I remember when bad boys were sent to borstal.

I remember the 1987 stock market crash, and the shock it caused to inexperienced investors who didn’t realise share prices could go down as well as up.

I remember when you had to catch a ferry to get across Auckland Harbour to the North Shore.

I remember when New Zealand Forest Products was the country’s biggest company.

I remember cranking the telephone handle to get through to the local exchange and being asked, “Number, please”.

I remember when bottles could be returned to the suppliers for a small refund and bottle drives were a popular method of fundraising for clubs and schools.

I remember when television came to my home town and I would ride my bike around the neighbourbood gazing enviously at houses with aerials.

I remember when everyone watched serious current affairs shows such as Gallery.

I remember when private hotels, which provided food and beds but no liquor, were a popular accommodation choice and motels were still a novelty.

I remember when no one had heard of sun block.

I remember when the state-owned New Zealand Listener sold nearly 400,000 copies a week because it had a monopoly on publication of the week’s TV programmes.

I remember when the only restaurants in provincial towns were dining rooms attached to fish and chip shops.

I remember when pubs had ladies’ and escorts’ bars and no barmaids.

I remember when radios and TVs needed a minute or so to warm up after being switched on.

I remember walking more than a kilometre to school each day from the age of five.

I remember the occasions when kindly Mr White from down the road gave me a lift in his Austin 7 and no one assumed he was a paedophile.

I remember newspaper honesty boxes.

I remember seeing a picture of the Beatles for the first time and thinking they looked weird.

I remember when flying to Australia was an adventure that you dressed up for.

I remember childhood friends dying from illnesses which today are easily treatable.

Back to that question at the start: is life better now? The only possible answer is yes and no.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The truth about that Saigon execution, five decades on

Everyone has seen the picture of South Vietnamese police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan summarily executing a Vietcong prisoner in the streets of Saigon during the 1968 Tet offensive. It’s one of two photos that became emblematic of the Vietnam War, the other being Associated Press photographer Nick Ut’s shot of the naked nine-year-old girl Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing with other children after being burned in a napalm attack.

Pictures like these helped turn American public opinion against the war. The execution of Nguyen Van Lem, especially, looked like a callous and casually sadistic act. It’s hard to look at the picture without wincing. It conveys almost viscerally the impact of a pistol shot at virtual point-blank range. Americans seeing it wondered, understandably, whether the American military should be propping up a regime that permitted such barbarism.

The impression given in the accompanying news stories at the time, and repeated over and over again since, was that Lem was merely a Vietcong suspect. But what wasn’t made clear, and is still little known, is that there was a back-story to the picture which revealed that the barbarism in Vietnam wasn’t one-sided. I learned of it while reading Max Hastings’ exhaustively researched book Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975, which I started months ago and recently picked up again, determined this time to finish it.

According to Hastings, Lem, who led one of the many groups of Vietcong insurgents that infiltrated Saigon at the start of the Tet offensive, had earlier slit the throats of a captured South Vietnamese army officer, Nguyen Tuan, his wife, six children and 80-year-old mother.

It was Lem’s misfortune that he was subsequently caught and brought before Loan, who administered immediate retribution. Hastings, who is admirably even-handed in his acknowledgment of atrocities by all participants in the war, flatly asserts that “the murders committed by [Lem], who was dressed in civilian clothes [so was not covered by the Geneva Convention], justified his execution”.

Hastings also reveals that Eddie Adams, the AP photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize for the picture, regretted that its publication caused enormous harm to the image of the South Vietnamese (and Americans), and lamented that he couldn’t also get a picture of Lem cold-bloodedly murdering the Tuan family.

Hastings’ account certainly casts the execution in an entirely  new light. As he told me when I interviewed him about his book for The Listener:

"Everyone has seen the pictures of the South Vietnamese monk burning himself in the street; everyone's seen the picture of the South Vietnamese police chief shooting dead a Vietcong prisoner; everyone's seen the picture of the naked girl running for safety after being caught in a napalm strike. But no one sees pictures of all the ghastly things that the communists did to their own people, because the pictures don't exist." Quite so.

Friday, December 13, 2019

A country where too many avoidable accidents happen

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, December 12.)

She’ll be right. It’s almost the national motto. But in the aftermath of the Whakaari/White Island catastrophe, perhaps we should ask whether we’re just a bit too blasé about the acceptance of risk.

We go through national paroxysms of self-reproach after a tragic event – witness Pike River, the Christchurch earthquakes, Cave Creek – yet we seem to make the same basic mistake over and over again.

We’re world leaders at flaying ourselves after disaster has struck, but we never seem to see it coming.

The reputational damage done as a result of this latest tragedy will not be quickly repaired. Most of the victims are overseas tourists, and international media outlets are asking, inevitably, why people were encouraged to visit the crater of an active volcano whose risk assessment had only recently been revised upwards.

Many of those killed when the structurally unsound CTV building collapsed in the 2011 Christchurch quake were from overseas too, as were several of the skydivers who died when a plane plummeted into the ground at Fox Glacier in 2010.

The world also heard about the Mangatepopo canyoning tragedy (six dead) and the Carterton hot air balloon that crashed, killing 11 people, while under the control of a dope-smoking pilot. Put all this together, and New Zealand starts to look like a place where too many avoidable accidents happen.

This casual approach to danger in profitable tourist activities stands in striking contrast to the obsessive and costly enforcement of petty, nitpicking health and safety regulations in areas of daily life where the risk of injury is minimal.

We may have narrowly missed one more tragedy when an unstable cliff collapsed on the coastal route to Cape Kidnappers earlier this year, injuring a Korean couple who were forced into the sea. It was surely pure luck that the cliff didn’t come down while a tractor-drawn trailer-load of tourists was passing beneath it.

The Cape Kidnappers excursion is understandably popular with foreign visitors. Part of its charm is that it’s unmistakeably Kiwi in its laidback, No 8-wire approach and the quirky humour of its guides. I imagine the Whakaari/White Island tour has something of the same character.

Tens of thousands of people have visited the island and returned to the mainland feeling nothing but exhilaration, but the question must be asked: Did that lead to a culture of complacency and a downplaying of the risk inherent in visiting an active volcano?

Visitors to Whakaari were apparently given a safety briefing. But knowing it was a routine procedure, experienced by thousands of other tourists before them, they may have regarded it in much the same offhand manner as conference attendees treat announcements about the location of the toilets and emergency exits.

One report suggested that more emphasis was placed on the risk of seasickness on the boat trip to the island than on the possibility of fatal burns and damage to internal organs from toxic gas and ash.

Gas masks and hard hats were handed out, but tourists could have been excused for viewing them as being akin to theatrical props. They might well have reasoned that if the island was so hazardous that they might actually need protective gear, the authorities wouldn’t have allowed people to go there in the first place. 

We now know, of course, that the masks and helmets were hopelessly inadequate.  

Hard questions will need to be asked not only of the tour operators, but of the cruise ship company that touted the Whakaari/White Island visit as a suitable day’s outing for its passengers.

The named victims included a British woman aged 80 and two Australian men aged 78 and 79. Really? What chance did they have of running for safety in an emergency?

The police haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory either. Not only were their attempts at communication shambolic and ineffectual, but they succeeded in creating the distinct impression that if matters had been left to them, the death toll might have been far higher.

It was only due to the heroic actions of volunteers, acting on their own gumption and courage, that more lives weren’t lost. As it was, many New Zealanders would have been greatly troubled by the possibility that victims may have been left to die after rescuers had to retreat.

What of the politicians, then? National Party leader Simon Bridges and the Mayor of Whakatane gave virtuoso demonstrations of tone-deafness by saying they hoped visits to the volcano would eventually resume. I couldn’t help thinking of Jaws, in which news of a killer shark is played down so as to not to affect tourism revenue.

Then there was Jacinda Ardern, who made a valiant effort to strike the same heartfelt tone of compassion that won her worldwide praise after the Christchurch mosque massacres.

To victims and their families, she said: "You are forever linked to our nation and we will hold you close." Doubtless her words were sincerely meant, but they didn't have quite the same force second time around - perhaps because while no one could have foreseen the events of March 15, this week's tragedy could have been avoided.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

New Zealand or Aotearoa? Let the people decide

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, Stuff regional papers and, December 11.)

It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that for years, a determined campaign has been underway to rename New Zealand.

It’s being driven by activists, bureaucrats, teachers, academics, politicians and people in the media who think “New Zealand” is too Eurocentric and insufficiently reflective of the biculturalism that is said to define us as a country.

It’s not a formal, co-ordinated campaign but a spontaneous, unofficial one that started small and has steadily gathered momentum as more people take up the cause.

Radio New Zealand was an early adopter and remains in the front line of the push for change, as it is with usage of the Maori language generally. Aotearoa is frequently used by RNZ journalists and presenters in preference to New Zealand, and lately the same trend has been creeping into the print media.

In defence of the practice, it can be argued that every New Zealander knows what Aotearoa means. But some RNZ journalists go a whole lot further – for example, by referring to Christchurch as Otautahi and Auckland as Tamaki Makaurau.

That’s overstepping the mark. It’s arrogant and elitist, and shows contempt for listeners because it leaves them to guess what place the reporter is talking about. The intention, clearly, is to encourage people to adopt these names in everyday usage. But arbitrarily renaming cities is not one of the statutory functions of Radio NZ.

This is not to say there isn’t a good case for a public debate about the adoption of Maori place names. But let’s be transparent about it, and follow democratic process rather than having change imposed by gradual indoctrination.

That debate might start with the fact that “New Zealand” says nothing about us or our place in the world. It was conferred by historical accident and treats us not as a country in our own right, worthy of our own distinctive name, but as an offshoot of Europe.

We can only conclude that the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman displayed a mischievous sense of humour when he named New Zealand after a province of his homeland. By his own description, the country he sighted in 1642 was “a large land, uplifted high” (he was looking at the mountains of the West Coast).

So what did he do? He named it after a low-lying, mainly flat province that was largely reclaimed from the sea. Zeeland’s highest point, as far as I can ascertain from Google, is 54 metres.

It can be argued that this striking mismatch between name and place gives Aotearoa a head start in any debate about what we should call ourselves. It’s also more euphonious, more poetic and more descriptive. And it’s exclusively ours, not a 17th century hand-me-down from Holland.

Another ground for objecting to “New Zealand” is that it conveys the Eurocentric implication that the country didn’t exist until Tasman gave it a name, although Maori had been here since the 13th century.

But hold on a minute. There are other factors to consider, starting with the fact that we’ve been known as New Zealand for more than 300 years.

Admittedly other countries have changed their names. Ceylon became Sri Lanka, Persia became Iran and Burma became Myanmar, to name just three examples. The world got used to the new names and moved on, but it would be wrong to ignore the enormous economic cost and the long, hard process of adjustment and acceptance required.

And like it or not, the name New Zealand stands for something in the world – in trade, tourism, diplomacy, sport, war and the arts. It’s a powerful brand, built up over two and a half centuries. We mess with that legacy at our peril.

Then there’s the pronunciation to consider. Aotearoa isn’t a name that the world could effortlessly get its tongue around. Even well-meaning New Zealanders struggle with it, and they’re not helped by te reo purists who sneer when people get it wrong.

These are all factors that could be explored and weighed if we were to have an open debate, as we did over the national flag. There’s no reason why the Aotearoa/New Zealand issue couldn’t eventually be decided by referendum.

New Zealanders have shown they are not averse to the adoption of Maori place names. The acceptance of Taranaki as an alternative to Egmont, and increasingly of Aoraki in place of Mt Cook, is proof of that. Expect Whakaari to replace White Island before long, too.

There’s scope for many more places to revert to their Maori names as the significance of names bestowed during the colonial era recedes into the mists of history. How about Ahuriri instead of Napier, for starters, or Taitoko for Levin?

But let’s do it the proper way, through open, public debate and consensus rather than by stealth. Until such time as New Zealanders indicate by democratic means that they want a name change, New Zealand should remain just that: New Zealand. 

Thursday, December 5, 2019

More thoughts on that Tremain cartoon

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Otago Daily Times cartoonist Garrick Tremain has been hung out to dry – or as seems to be the preferred metaphor these days, thrown under a bus.

I get the impression that Tremain now accepts that his cartoon making light of the Samoan measles epidemic was grossly insensitive. But he’s hardly the only person culpable.

All newspaper cartoons are supposed to be vetted by senior editorial people and we can assume that process was followed in this case, in which case editorial heads should be rolling too, metaphorically speaking.

The paper not only failed to see how wrong the cartoon was but also misjudged the public reaction, thinking it could get away with a low-key apology on page 10. The editor, Barry Stewart, has since tried to make amends by facing protesters yesterday and publishing a second mea culpa on the front page today.

But it’s Tremain who’s being made to bear the primary responsibility. Stewart says the cartoonist has been stood down while the ODT conducts a “review”, which sounds like a damage control exercise aimed at mollifying protesters in the hope that it will all blow over.

A particularly ignoble aspect of the controversy is the spectacle of a fellow cartoonist putting the boot in. Jim Hubbard has drawn not one but two cartoons taking a whack at Tremain, which strikes me as contemptible.

Hubbard’s cartoons are often close to the bone too, though at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Tremain’s, and it’s not hard to envisage circumstances in which he too might be publicly pilloried, in which case I’m sure he would appreciate a bit of solidarity.

As an aside, I can’t help wondering whether the ODT's display of tone-deafness over the Tremain cartoon is a Dunedin thing. No offence to the ODT – a paper for which I have great respect – or to the residents of that estimable city, but Dunedin is a bit isolated from the cultural mainstream and possibly not quite in tune with how issues are viewed in other parts of the country. Could that explain the ODT’s spectacular lapse of judgment?

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

That Garrick Tremain cartoon

Cartoons can be a tricky issue for editors. It’s not enough that they should simply be funny, and indeed some of the best are not. To be truly effective, cartoons need an edge. They should be provocative.

Accordingly, editors need to cut cartoonists a lot of slack. They will sometimes publish cartoons they know some readers will find offensive, and that they may even find offensive themselves.

The Media Council, formerly the Press Council, takes a liberal view of cartoons (by which I mean liberal in the classical rather than the lame, woke sense) and so do the courts. When Labour MP Louisa Wall took the Otago Daily Times to court over two Al Nisbet cartoons which she considered racist, Justice Matthew Muir agreed that they were insulting but held that they didn’t breach the Human Rights Act.

Whatever you thought of the cartoons, the decision could only be seen as a victory for free speech and a defence of the right to upset people. Regardless of their ideological persuasions, cartoonists would very soon be extinct as a species if they were denied that right.

Having said all that, sometimes a paper publishes a cartoon that seems to strike a sour note with almost everyone. The Garrick Tremain cartoon published this week by the aforementioned ODT was such a cartoon.

It lamely attempted to make humour of the measles epidemic in Samoa. But the deaths of 55 children are no one’s idea of a joke and the cartoonist couldn’t even claim to be making a point. Both the editor of the paper and Tremain himself admit it was a bad lapse of judgment. Tremain says it was a limp joke but he can’t wind the clock back.

Will that satisfy the vigilantes crying out for utu? Not a chance. They won’t rest until they have someone’s head on a platter.

The ODT’s apology, they say, is not enough. It never is. Among other things, they want the paper’s staff to undergo racism training. But where does race enter into it? The cartoon would have been offensive regardless of the ethnicity of the measles victims.

Auckland University of Technology journalism lecturer Richard Pamatatau has joined the pile-on, saying the ODT has a history of publishing racist cartoons and Tremain should be dumped. I wonder, am I the only one troubled by the irony of a journalism lecturer calling for someone to be silenced?

Pamatatau says Tremain’s cartoons are not what cartoons are supposed to be, but he’s no more entitled to present himself as the arbiter of what cartoons should say than I am.

Bottom line: being offended from time to time is the price we pay for freedom of speech, a quid-pro-quo that most people in a liberal democracy are happy to accept.

I would certainly far prefer to go on being offended – as I often am by cartoonists – than concede to people like Pamatatau the right to determine what views I may be exposed to. Given a choice between bad taste and puritanical censorship, I’ll take the bad taste every time.