Friday, June 26, 2020

Local guitar hero mourned

They buried Kemp Tuirirangi yesterday in the urupa just along the road from my place. I didn’t go to the funeral service; I didn’t feel I knew Kemp well enough. But my brother Paul did, and he estimated a turnout of about 200 mourners at the Carterton Events Centre.

Most readers of this blog wouldn’t have heard of Kempton Te Keepa Tuirirangi, but he was loved and admired by the many musicians who knew him. He was a freakishly good guitarist who didn’t hanker after fame but played for the pleasure and conviviality of it.

My brother, a bass guitarist, played dozens of gigs with Kemp over the years in bands that included the Red Dog Saloon Band and the Kemptones.  Venues ranged from the Bristol Hotel in Wellington to truck decks outside country pubs in the backblocks of Hawke’s Bay.

Few of the people who appreciated his playing on these occasions would have recognised Kemp or known his name, but most would have heard him on record. It was Kemp who contributed the guitar solo on the classic 1972 Blerta single Dance All Around the World, still a staple on greatest hits playlists.

The last time I saw Kemp play, several years ago, was at the Bristol. He drove straight to the gig from his Masterton job as a cement truck driver and either couldn’t be bothered, or didn’t have time, to get out of his work gear before plugging in his battered Fender Stratocaster and letting rip. That was the sort of guy he was.

He was a versatile musician, happy playing rock and blues but not a purist. He wasn’t too proud to entertain the punters with crowd-pleasing pop and never seemed too fussed about learning the correct lyrics to songs. And of course he had a life away from music, being a much-loved husband and family man.

Kemp died of cancer on June 19, aged 71. You can read more about his musical life here.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Was Rotorua really the best choice?

The Government is endlessly inventive in finding new ways to cock up its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Its latest brainwave was to pack busloads of newly arrived travellers from foreign pandemic hotspots off to Rotorua after hotel space ran out in Auckland.

Presumably Rotorua was chosen because there’s plenty of accommodation there. But hang on: the reason there’s lots of accommodation in Rotorua is that it’s a popular holiday destination, and the school holidays are approaching. Didn’t anyone stop to consider the possibility that filling local hotels with people under quarantine might deter families from visiting the city just when we’re being urged to support domestic tourism and Rotorua tourism operators are desperate for business?

I must declare an interest here. I recently booked several nights’ accommodation in Rotorua during the school holidays so we could take our grandsons there. We were planning to do all the touristy things: the Skyline Luge, the Polynesian Pools, a 4WD trip to the top of Mt Tarawera. Suddenly I’m wondering whether it’s wise, given that three Rotorua hotels are full of people who may be carrying a potentially lethal virus, including one confirmed case. Theoretically we should be safe, since the hotels are supposedly are under tight lockdown; but who can have confidence in the quarantine arrangements after the fiasco in Auckland?  

It’s no surprise that the local tourism industry is apprehensive, with Rotorua Tourism CEO Andrew Wilson saying he hopes people won’t be deterred from visiting. You have to ask: was Rotorua really the only alternative? After all, Hamilton is much closer to Auckland and doesn’t exactly loom large on school holiday wish-lists. Wouldn’t that have been a better choice?

We decided to stick to our plans because we don’t want to disappoint the grandsons. One of them is fascinated by volcanoes and keen to see where Mt Tarawera had its guts ripped out in 1886. We’ll just have to revert to our own personal Level 2 precautions and hope the quarantine arrangements don’t turn out to be as laughably porous as they were in Auckland.

There goes my collection of Viking records

I bristled – boy, did I bristle! – when I read that the housing company G J Gardner had withdrawn a TV commercial after someone objected that the name “Taranaki” wasn’t correctly pronounced.

Te Waka McLeod reportedly complained to the company and suggested its staff attend a “cultural competency” course. G J Gardner initially rebuffed her, explaining that the people in the ad were not paid actors but real people, born and bred in Taranaki, and this was how they chose to pronounce the name. “It’s a personal choice, this keeps our ad authentic.”

It didn’t take a genius to see how this was going to play out. McLeod posted the company’s response on social media – as you do – and G J Gardner suddenly found itself fielding more complaints. The company was soon in reverse gear, acknowledging it was wrong and apologising. “We do not wish to offend any New Zealanders of any ethnicity, culture, religion or lifestyle,” said national franchise owner Grant Porteous, metaphorically beating his breast.

He confirmed the ad was no longer on air and said “we need to do better” across the country in terms of pronunciation of Maori. “We should support this movement and the desire of passionate Maori to have their culture and heritage re-generated across all New Zealand.”

McLeod was reported as saying she was happy to see the ad pulled – well, she would be – and hoped it was the beginning of “a wider conversation” about getting pronunciation right, including within corporate organisations.

So what was it about this affair that made me bristle? After all, I agree we should make an effort to pronounce Maori names and words more carefully, which is not something that comes easily to someone brought up in Waipukurau. Try overcoming the habit of a lifetime by pronouncing that name correctly. I do it, but it requires a conscious effort and still makes me feel slightly, er, woke. Suffice to say, most of the people I know who live in the town still pronounce the name the old way – which, incidentally, is how Maori pronounced it too when I was growing up there.

Here’s the thing. I believe there’s a gradual cultural evolution taking place in which the country is moving toward correct pronunciation of Maori and greater recognition of the Maori language in general, even to the extent of considering the substitution of Maori place names for English ones (which is fine as far as I’m concerned, just as long as it’s done by popular, informed consent after an open debate).

My Pakeha grandsons pronounce Maori words correctly and pull me up when I don’t. But generations of older New Zealanders have grown up pronouncing Maori in a particular way (just listen to long-term residents of Wonger-newie and Tau-wronger), and I think we should cut them some slack. As G J Gardner initially pointed out, before their risk-averse PR advisers presumably got in on the act, the people in the TV ad were pronouncing Taranaki the way they always have. I don’t believe for a moment that they intended to degrade the Maori language.

In fact I’d go further and say we should respect people’s right to get pronunciation wrong, just as we respect the right of people to express opinions that we think are crazy. After all, broadcasters and journalists get away with mangling spoken and written English day-in, day-out.

In a sense, it’s a freedom of speech issue. But there’s a distinct whiff of cultural totalitarianism in the way that Maori language activists, who have been given a fresh tail wind by the overwrought BLM protests, demand that others conform to their ideals – and use online gang-ups to achieve it.

That’s the other disturbing thing here: the speed with which G J Gardner capitulated. Of course it was their right to change their mind about the ad, and some people will applaud them. But what message does it send when companies collapse in a grovelling, mea-culpa heap at the first sign of controversy, as they so often do? It signals that capitalism lacks the guts and confidence to stick up for itself, which is all the encouragement the enemies of capitalism need.

Speaking of which, I see that NestlĂ© in Australia is renaming its Red Skins and Chicos lolly brands because “redskin” was once (a long time ago) a derogatory term for a Native American and “Chico” supposedly can be – can be – an offensive term for a Hispanic person. (It’s also the name of a Californian city where friends of ours live. Perhaps that’s racist too.)

No doubt greatly heartened by NestlĂ©’s decision, an Auckland activist – a UK-trained lawyer, one of the many who arrive here and immediately set about turning us into the culturally enlightened type of society they think we should be – is now urging that Eskimo lollies and even Afghan biscuits be rebranded.

Afghan biscuits? Good grief. Should I, then, be throwing out my old Viking records? Should we lay siege to the makers of Kiwi shoe polish and demand that hotel menus no longer refer to English breakfasts? And how the hell have Indian motorcycles (a brand currently enjoying a spirited revival) survived?

A rational person would ask a couple of simple questions: is the brand name demeaning? Is it degrading? To which the answer, in almost all cases, is no. But we’re not dealing here with rational people; we’re dealing with ideologues and zealots intent on reshaping the world.

Footnote: My apologies to the people who commented on an earlier publication of this blog. When I replaced it with a properly formatted version, the comments unfortunately disappeared too. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

Lotta Dann and the liquor debate

I was name-checked (I believe that’s the fashionable term) by Kim Hill on Saturday morning during a discussion about alcohol. (For the record, I don’t normally listen to Hill, but a friend texted me to say my name had come up during an interview. Naturally I later accessed her show via the RNZ website, praying she had defamed me and that I might enjoy a comfortable retirement on the proceeds. Sadly, the reference wasn’t legally actionable.)

Hill’s guest was Lotta Dann, who has written a book called The Wine O’Clock Myth. Dann is a recovering alcoholic who had her last drink eight years ago and now has a website, Living Sober, that offers encouragement and support for women with a drinking problem. In her book, which was also the subject of a feature story in Stuff’s YW magazine the previous weekend, she criticises the “normalisation” of alcohol and the liquor industry’s use of advertising that portrays drinking as glamorous and sophisticated. According to Dann, getting drunk with the girls can start out as an enjoyable social habit but end up leading women into some dark places. All of which I know to be true.

Early in the interview, Hill chimed in: “I can hear Karl du Fresne on the line as I speak, insisting that wine is a civilised beverage and that it’s only the outliers who make it a problem, and that the liquor industry should not be regulated for the sake of a few people who can’t take their booze.” This was probably intended as a dig, Hill and I not being mutual admirers, but it’s not a wholly inaccurate summation of the many columns I’ve written over the years about alcohol and the endless debate about how tightly it should be controlled.

Briefly restated, my position is that most New Zealand drinkers do consume alcohol moderately and responsibly. Our per capita liquor consumption is not high by international standards. Most of us are perfectly capable of enjoying a few drinks without causing mayhem on the roads, bashing our partners and kids or becoming alcoholics. But it’s pointless to deny (and I never have) that alcohol is a potentially dangerous and addictive drug that can cause serious social harm. The debate is all about where to strike the difficult regulatory balance between benefit and harm. 

For decades we had an extremely strict, religiously influenced regulatory regime that placed tight controls on liquor consumption and produced perverse, counter-productive consequences such as the notorious six o’clock swill and the advent of the suburban booze barn. From the 1970s onwards, the trend was one of gradual liberalisation.  It would be dishonest to pretend it hasn’t produced some undesirable outcomes, such as the boom in consumption of RTDS by young women and the proliferation of cheap  liquor outlets, but I would argue that New Zealanders are far more civilised drinkers now than they were 50 years ago.

The debate, still, is about how far governments should go to protect the minority of problem drinkers by regulating alcohol – through advertising rules, the legal drinking age, pricing mechanisms and so forth – without unfairly penalising the majority of people who drink moderately and responsibly. We still haven’t got the balance quite right and may never do, but we can't allow alcohol policy to be dictated by a noisy coterie of state-funded wowsers, moralists and control freaks in the bureaucracy and academia who bombard us with anti-alcohol propaganda, don’t believe New Zealanders can be trusted to make responsible choices about drinking and are also, I suspect, fundamentally hostile to capitalism.

But back to Lotta Dann. She seemed to agree with my proposition that alcohol causes no harm to people who can control their consumption. Her concern, which I totally understand, is for those people who can’t. But she went on to say: “Our [liquor] environment only pushes one side and doesn’t acknowledge there’s a dark side to this addictive drug”. I dispute that. No one who reads newspapers, watches TV or listens to the radio can fail to be aware of the shrill warnings constantly emanating from the neo-wowser lobby. The question is whether alcohol policy should be predicated on the harm it does to a minority without proper regard to the benefits enjoyed by the majority. It’s always going to be tricky.

As an aside, I know many people who, like Dann, have overcome their addiction to alcohol. They include some of my oldest and closest friends. I have huge respect for them. But at the same time, I wonder whether recovering alcoholics are necessarily the best people to determine what is best for society as a whole when it comes to liquor issues, since their perspective is likely to be coloured by their own problematic relationship with drink. Dann raises valid concerns and appears to have helped a lot of women. That can only be good. But someone who has personally struggled with alcoholism has seen the worst consequences of alcohol consumption, so may not be the most objective authority.

The Wine O’Clock Myth: The truth you need to know about women and alcohol, is out now.

Friday, June 12, 2020

A reflection on 51 years as a columnist

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

I wrote my first column for The Dominion 51 years ago.

Jack Kelleher, the editor, employed me to write a twice-weekly column aimed at readers of my own age group. The late-1960s youth rebellion was in full cry and Jack hoped I could tap into a market segment that had been all but ignored by the conservative print media.

Alas, the column lasted little more than a year. It was a good idea that failed for want of someone with the know-how, confidence and energy to make it work. I hadn’t yet turned 19 when I was hired and didn’t have a clue what I was doing.  (I’ll pause here to allow my critics, who are many, to chime in with the obvious riposte).

I’ve written hundreds of columns since then, for a variety of publications. I began writing this one in 2005 and today’s is my last. There’s still gas in the tank, but in case the engine starts sputtering I’d prefer to pull over to the side rather than risk stalling in the middle of the road.

It’s a funny business, column-writing. Here are a few observations formed in the course of doing it intermittently over a half-century:

■ The first duty of columnists is to be read, which is rarely achieved by expressing milk-and-water opinions that no one disagrees with. We are lucky to live in a liberal democracy that allows free speech. How much longer that will remain the case, when ideologically driven state agencies such as the Human Rights Commission are vigorously pushing to restrict what we can say, is a moot point.  But in the meantime, not to take full advantage of that freedom would be like going into the Boulcott Street Bistro and ordering a Marmite sandwich.

■ It’s a strange quirk of human nature that readers tend to attack you in public but agree with you in private. By that I mean that those who dislike something you’ve written are more likely to disagree by way of a letter to the editor – or in recent years, an online comment – rather than confront you directly, whereas people who share your opinions will often get in touch by phone or letter. I've had many supportive phone calls over the years but never a hostile one, which is a surprise given that my columns often anger people. Make of that what you will. Perhaps New Zealanders prefer to engage in combat at a distance rather than hand-to-hand.

■ Having a public platform on which to say what you think is a great privilege. The quid pro quo is that columnists must accept that they’re fair game for criticism. But when all is said and done, a column is just one person’s opinion. It has no legal force or coercive power. No one is compelled to read it, still less agree with it.

■ Online comment sections introduced a new dimension to the business of being a columnist. I thought it wrong that while newspapers insisted (rightly, in my view) on writers of letters to the editor identifying themselves, they allowed online comments – some of them abusive to the point of being defamatory – to be made anonymously.

■ Public discourse has become infinitely more polarised and confrontational. This is partly due to the fact that the anonymity conferred by the Internet gives people the courage to express themselves far more intemperately than they might otherwise dare.  But it’s also attributable to the ideological heat generated by the so-called culture wars over such issues as race, gender identity, climate change and so-called hate speech.

■ Democracy depends on the contest of ideas, to which columnists – of both the Left and Right – contribute. One of the tragedies of the digital revolution is that it has accelerated the decline of the traditional broad-church print media, where newspaper readers were presented with a wide range of opinions moderated by editors and expressed civilly. In its place we have an overheated online echo-chamber where people shut themselves off in ideological ghettos and are exposed only to ideas they agree with.

■ Over the period I’ve been writing columns, issues have become far more complex – often too complex to explore adequately in 800 words – and events much faster moving. In the 24-hour gap between writing and publication, the landscape can change dramatically. This is a roundabout way of saying it’s got harder.

■ I have good friends who sometimes disagree vehemently with my columns, but we remain good friends. That’s as it should be in a civilised society. It would be a dull world if we all agreed with each other, and duller still if we had to choose our friends on the basis of their politics.

Footnote: To regular readers, my thanks. For the record, I’m going of my own volition and my retirement is unrelated to the recent change of ownership at Stuff.

Don't expect things to return to normal anytime soon - if at all

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, Stuff regional papers and, June 10).

I’m writing this on Monday morning, several hours ahead of the expected announcement about the move to Covid-19 Alert Level One.

I keep hearing people - business people especially - say they can’t wait for things to get back to normal, but it’s quite likely they never will.

The coronavirus pandemic has had such a profound social and economic impact that things are unlikely ever to be quite the same again. We are experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime reset. 

On a personal level, people have discovered new ways of living which many seem reluctant to give up. For the duration of the lockdown, New Zealand became a quieter, slower place.

People’s habits changed, and with them, their expectations and aspirations. Parents enjoyed time at home with their families and were in no hurry to go back to high-rise workplaces and the rat race of the daily commute. Even after the country re-opened for business, downtown Wellington was reported to be eerily quiet.

If there’s to be a return to normality, it may be a long time coming. In the meantime, office buildings may remain half-empty and all those retailers selling nice-to-haves, as opposed to essentials, will have a hard time of it.

On a broader level, Covid-19 has destroyed wealth and disrupted economic activity on an unprecedented scale. In the process, it has demonstrated just how fragile the global economy is – or was. 

Countries that four months ago were on an economic roll - most notably the United States, but New Zealand too - now face the prospect of a long and arduous rebuild.

Companies that seemed solid and profitable, such as Air New Zealand, were exposed as being ill-prepared to cope with a sudden, catastrophic reversal of trading conditions.

No sector has been hit harder than international travel and tourism. Think of the vast amount of capital tied up in all those idle cruise ships and airliners, and of all the jobs lost when they were laid up. No one can be sure when, or even whether, that business will crank up again.  

Neither can anyone say with certainty whether the West will regain the level of affluence that has made the past few decades some of the most prosperous in human history.

I believe we will, because market economies are remarkably resilient. But in the meantime, those who deride capitalism are enjoying an “I told you so” moment.

They point to the economic damage done by the coronavirus pandemic as proof that boom-and-bust capitalism is wired to fail, often at the expense of those least able to cope with adversity.

It’s certainly true that at times like this, big government comes into its own. Socialists argue with some validity that when capitalism implodes, it’s the state that comes to the rescue.

Just as happened during the Great Depression, dire conditions have made it possible for the government to take charge of the economy on a scale that wouldn’t normally be politically acceptable.

The effects are likely to be long-lasting, and while they may be beneficial in the short term, history suggests that the interventionist state that is now seen as benevolent will eventually come to be viewed as stifling and sclerotic. That’s exactly what led to the neo-liberal revolution of Thatcherism and Rogernomics in the 1980s.

In the meantime we not only face a deep recession, but future generations will be burdened with eye-watering public debt that must someday be repaid, as a few clear-eyed economists keep reminding us.

For Jacinda Ardern and her government, the past four months must have been a nerve-wracking balancing act. Did they, as some commentators argue, shut down the economy just to save a relatively small number of lives that in many cases would soon have been lost to old age or ill-health regardless?

It was an agonising judgment call for any government, and perhaps only time will tell whether they got the balance right. The Swedish experience suggests they did.

As an aside, it will strike some people as deeply ironic that the government placed such weight on the value of human life when only weeks before, Labour and Green MPs had jubilantly passed legislation removing the last token protection for life in the womb, even to the point of denying medical assistance for babies aborted alive. It’s a strange world, to be sure.

Footnote: This will be my last column. This decision was entirely my own and is unrelated to the recent change in the ownership of Stuff, which I welcome as a return to New Zealand control. My thanks go to the editors who published my columns - especially to my good friend Bill Moore, a former editor of the Nelson Mail, who originally gave me this platform in 2003 - and to the readers who read them, including those who were sometimes offended by what I wrote. As someone once observed (it may even have been me), columnists who never upset anyone are probably not doing their job.