Monday, 2 April 2018

In praise of a plate of porridge

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A few years ago a friend told me that his heart specialist, who is of the feminine persuasion, advised him to have porridge for breakfast. “Porridge,” she reckoned, “Just eats up cholesterol.”

I decided to follow her advice and have been on a diet of a porridge for breakfast ever since. I assumed that my childhood regime of Creamota plus generous amounts of brown sugar, and lashings of cream would nullify the cholesterol-reducing qualities and so now I merely dribble the tiniest amount of maple syrup on the gooey mass and add a couple of dessertspoons of heart-ticked-labelled plain yoghurt.

Recently my doctor congratulated me on substantially reducing my cholesterol level.

It’s not quite the same as I remember the enjoyment of my childhood porridge, but I was a skinny kid and any opportunity to bulk up would have been encouraged by my long-suffering parents. Milk back then came in glass bottles and the top 20 per cent was thick delicious cream. You never shook the bottle and there was always a race among siblings to get to that top section to make your porridge incredibly palatable.

I reckon NZ dairy producers are the only industry group in the world that have allowed their commodities to go backwards. Today’s milk is like white water and I suspect the white water that tourists go rafting in is just as nutritious. And you wouldn’t use a hand egg-beater to try and whip cream today. It would take hours. You need an electric model and even then you need to start the process well before the meal for which it is intended to get it acceptably thickened. Leave it in the refrigerator for a couple of days and it miraculously turns to water.

It’s like the opposite process Christ used at Cana in Galilee.

Improving the quality of their products does not seem to appear high on Fonterra’s agenda. All you read about is the arguments over preserving the integrity over the farm-gate milk price and the feasibility of being able to trade their shares amongst themselves.

The good news is that the New Zealand dairy co-operative chose a curious name to brand its products so disappointed consumers around the world buying the mediocre merchandise will assume that it is produced in Spain, leaving the entirely false image that we are a great primary-product producing country, intact.

I don’t know just how popular porridge is anymore. I couldn’t find the old tried and true Creamota brand in the stores anywhere and in fact most porridge is sold as ‘rolled oats.’ The word porridge hardly appears anywhere on our grocery shelves these days.

And yet it is a well-established brand name. The three bears found theirs at varying temperatures and ‘pease’ porridge was in the pot for nine days. If you’re interested ‘pease porridge’ was porridge with peas added. Sounds awful, but the Pease Porridge Hot nursery rhyme saw legions of schoolchildren pairing off and clapping hands together following the rhythm of the verse.

What a splendid way to market your product.

However on the other side of the coin ‘doing porridge’ is British slang for serving a prison sentence; porridge being a traditional breakfast in UK prisons. This was exposed by a TV comedy series starring Ronnie Barker.

If you think that having a UK-prison-style breakfast every morning would be incredibly boring and perhaps even soul-destroying, well you’re not wrong. However I do get a respite once a week when I attend a Rotary Club breakfast where we are served bacon and eggs and tomatoes and sausages proceeded by fruit and cereals and accompanied by triangular shaped toast with butter and spreads and coffee.

It then takes all of the next week to lower my cholesterol.

“No matter what diet you are on, you can usually eat as much as you want of anything you don’t like.” - Walter Slezak


Friday, 30 March 2018

A night to remember - for some of us

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A phone call in the middle of the night can be quite scary; I was reluctant to pick up the receiver. I needn’t have been. On the other end of the line was a pleasant sounding American woman who told me she was the secretary of the NZ-US Council and was calling from Washington DC. It seems my invitation to the gala evening with President Obama in Auckland had got mislaid; she found it behind her desk and was distressed that I hadn’t received it.

Why on earth had I been chosen with the favoured one thousand when there were potentially four and a half million more estimable guests than me, I naturally asked. She said she understood that I was the President of the Independent Columnists Guild (ICG) and warranted being included.

She was right of course. I established the organisation and I am the President and the Patron - and the only member, though I’m pretty sure my subscription lapsed years ago.

The function was that night; “Can you get to Auckland in time to attend?” she wanted know. I replied in the positive and she said she would inform the officials that I would arrive without the paper credentials that would normally be required to get me in. She asked me to describe myself so her people could identify me. I wanted to say I looked like George Clooney, but opted for a more accurate response and said Marty Feldman.

“Best of luck getting there,” she said before hanging up.

I dived out of bed and rushed to the Masterton air terminal in Manaia Road forgetting that Air New Zealand had withdrawn services some years ago. I peered through the glass door at the empty interior and swear I saw a picture of Shane Jones hanging on the wall above the reception desk.

I headed to Wellington, but a truck and trailer had jack-knifed on the Hutt Road cutting off both sides of the highway. So I shot over the Haywards to Paraparaumu airport where the national carrier had abandoned all flights to Auckland.

There was a cardboard cut-out of Shane Jones on the forecourt.

Final option was Palmerston North and I got the last seat on the last plane headed for the city of sails. I got a Uber to the Viaduct Event Centre to find everyone was seated. The doormen recognised me instantly from the description I had given to the lady from Washington and I was taken to the only empty chair in the house - at the top table. Apparently John Key’s daughter Stephanie had missed her flight from Paris (where’s Shane Jones when you need him) and I had a seat between Mr Key and Sam Neill.

I was seated directly opposite Mr Obama himself who was sitting next to Bronagh Key and Sam’s wife Noriko Watanabe.

Conversation wasn’t easy. Key had played golf that day with Obama, “What’s your handicap?” I asked him. “Bronagh,” he said. She glared at him from across the table.

I told Sam Neill that I had enjoyed his performance in Hunt for the wilderpeople. He said most people hadn’t even noticed he was in it. Wherever they went to publicise the film young Julian Dennison got all the kudos.

So I finally turned to the guest of honour. “Barry” I said, “Were you really born in America?”

He glaringly ignored the question and asked: “Why are you here?” I told him I was President and Patron of an organisation called the ICG, but his eyes just clouded over.

Eventually he spoke to the madding crowd, talking at length about how they’d taken down Bin Laden and that they weren’t really sure if it was Osama in the compound or a Pakistani General. Fortunately he said it was Bin Laden though it occurred to me, do we really know that, given the body was disposed of quite quickly?

I have this abiding picture of a Pakistani General’s wife sitting at home wondering where her husband has got to.

My final conversation with Barack was when I told him that Osama and Obama are surprisingly similar names and about the trouble I’d had getting on an aircraft to get to the function. I was hoping he might offer me a ride back on his private Gulfstream jet, but his eyes just clouded over again.

I’m not quite sure how I got home. It all seemed like a dream.

“The crowds cheered me as I passed by, but they would just as noisy if they were going to see me hanged.” - Oliver Cromwell


Saturday, 24 March 2018

Why golfers should never smoke

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As I recall, Ted Douglas was a softly spoken Scottish gentleman. And he was a pretty good golfer too. Actually that’s an understatement. He won the New Zealand Open on four occasions. In 1913 and 1914; and then again in 1919 and 1921. In 1922 he was employed by the Masterton Golf Club as their resident professional. Later he returned to his homeland where he won a number of major tournaments, though never the British Open, and then came back to Masterton in 1947 to once again take up the role as professional at the Lansdowne course.

He bought a house over the road from where I lived with my parents in Opaki Road and became a firm family friend. He and his wife would often baby-sit my sister and me, though baby-sitting usually involved us going over to their place and staying the night. They spoilt us rotten.

Mr Douglas cut down some clubs and set about teaching me to play golf using our expansive backyard as a practice course. He told my father I had a natural swing and one day would be a champion golfer. Well he got that wrong; though this was due more to my lack of motivation than to his professional coaching skills or misjudged foresight.

My father was a keen golfer and was often prone to bring home his golfing partners for a “spot” after a game. Back then a “spot” meant a drink and was usually whisky or brandy of a generous serving poured over ice in a crystal glass. On one such occasion, late on a Saturday afternoon, he turned up with Ted Douglas and Dr Bill Drake. Dr Drake had been a house surgeon at the Masterton Hospital and later a local GP and was a regular visitor to our home on various social occasions.

It so happened earlier on that afternoon I had decided to doctor a cigarette by putting a star fire cracker in the body. Star crackers were bangers sold exclusively by Chinese greengrocers and went off with such ferocity they were eventually banned.

They were about half the length of a cigarette and slightly smaller in circumference. I simply had to remove some of the tobacco, insert the firework and then pack the tobacco back around it.

My parents didn’t smoke, but it was considered “the thing to do” in those days to always have cigarettes on hand for visitors who did.

Once dad’s friends were seated I came in with the packet of Capstan with the volatile cigarette protruding temptingly and offered these to the guests. I could see that my father was looking on in some admiration as it was uncharacteristic for his son to show such impeccable manners.

Like my father Ted Douglas didn’t smoke and so my only potential victim was Dr Drake, sitting comfortably on the piano stool clutching a double-header brandy. He eagerly accepted my offering. I watched him light up and then went over to my father and whispered in his ear that Dr Drake’s cigarette had a star banger within it.

I’ll never forget the speed with which my father sprung out of his chair. Usain Bolt would have been proud of him. He got halfway across the living room floor heading for the unwary doctor intending to disarm the combustible cigarette when the inevitable happened. The explosion reverberated around the room and shelved ornaments came perilously close to destruction.

Dr Drake’s face was also unforgettable. It was totally blackened except for where the shredded pieces of cigarette paper had become attached to it. The hand, that a split second before had lifted the cigarette to his lips, was also dark-stained. He looked for all the world like a black and white minstrel and was momentarily stunned. There was no expression of annoyance in his eyes; in fact there was no expression at all.

I fled the room followed by a string of epithets from my furious father.

Some twenty years later I was at a function in Hawkes Bay where I ran in to Dr Drake. I took the opportunity to offer my sincere apologies, but time it seems had healed all wounds. He laughed about the episode and allowed that he had dined out on the story on numerous occasions.

I didn’t get to hear Ted Douglas’s response, but I imagine he would have said, “I was trying to teach the lad to play golf, not play the fool.”

If only I had listened.

“He enjoys that perfect peace, that peace beyond all understanding, which comes at its maximum only to the man who has given up golf” - P. G. Wodehouse 


Friday, 23 March 2018

There is virtue in thinking before speaking

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A new phrase to enter the lexicon, apart from “at the end of the day” and “going forward,” is “virtue-signalling.” I used it in a column recently and a number of people asked me, “What does it mean?”

It appears to have been coined by James Bartholomew writing in the Spectator in April 2015. He defined virtue-signalling as an act that does not require actually doing anything virtuous. He maintains that it “does not involve delivering lunch to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children; it takes no effort or sacrifice at all.”

And now Australian commentators are accusing the New Zealand government of virtue-signalling. In November Jacinda Ardern said she did not regard the plight of refugees, asylum seekers and other detainees on Manus Island and Nauru “as acceptable.”

This was a clear criticism of the Australian government. To add insult to injury Ms Ardern offered to take 150 of the Manus Island refugees and bring them to our shores.

Writing in the Inquirer Gerard Henderson, the executive director of the Sydney Institute, said this sounded very virtuous. “Over the ditch, there is a generous, young, female, left-of-centre Prime Minister, while Malcolm Turnbull is channeling the hard-line policy of his coalition predecessors John Howard and Tony Abbott. However the New Zealand Prime Minister’s gesture disguises one central fact: her country is not as generous to asylum seekers as Australia – and never has been.”

He then goes on to quote some statistics that don’t make us look too virtuous. Australia’s population is close to 25 million where ours is just under 5 million. Under its refugee and humanitarian programme Australia accepts 13,750 persons each year.

NZ’s customary annual refugee intake is 750.

The disparity, on a per-head-of-population basis, is prodigious.

It’s much the same with the response of both our nations to the civil war in Syria. The Abbot government committed Australia to provide an extra 12,000 places for individuals displaced by the conflict. This policy has been continued by the Turnbull government. The 12,000 from Syria is in addition 13,750 regular places each year.

We were not so charitable. In 2015 the National government agreed to accept 750 Syrian refugees, only 600 of whom were by way of special emergency intake above our annual quota of 750.

As far as I am aware our Labour coalition government is continuing this policy.

Australia’s disinclination to take up NZs offer to accept 150 of the Manus Island detainees is understandable. Since our two nations have an effective open border in respect to our citizens, anyone who is accepted by us is entitled to enter Australia in due course. Australia is still recovering from a time when criminal people smugglers played a key role in that nation’s immigration intake, which also saw more than 1000 children, women and men drowning at sea. Any suggestion that asylum seekers can find their way to Australia via New Zealand will encourage people smugglers to revamp their deadly business.

Gerard Henderson is also critical of our commitment to our armed forces. We spend just one per cent of GDP on defence whereas Australia spends two. Henderson reckons we benefit from the actions of the Australian Defence Force in providing security in the South Pacific and as a result we get our national preservation on the cheap.

James Bartholomew might well have had us in mind when he coined the phrase.

“Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue.” - Confucius


Monday, 12 March 2018

Dare we let boys be boys?

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It’s pretty daunting to know after all these years that you have now become one of the most despised components of the human race. Elderly white Anglo-Saxon men are blamed for most of the evils of the world which include among other things racism and misogyny. The ‘me too’ and ‘times up’ brigade have us well in their sights, particularly if we’re heterosexual.

Even the old conservative party we once relied on to perpetuate our orthodox views elects a youngster of Maori descent to lead the opposition who then threatens to fill his front bench with members of the fairer sex. Our last bastion of self-defence, after the departure of Key and English, was Stephen Joyce, but he throws a hissy fit and leaves the tent and in so doing, us to the wolves.

However help may be on the horizon. Harvard professor of psychiatry Jordan B. Peterson has recently written a bestseller called: The 12 rules for life: an antidote to chaos.

The book offers common-sense advice and Peterson is also famous for what he says on his You Tube channel particularly about the role of men in society.

He says men in the West are suffering a crisis of masculinity because they are encouraged from birth by an apologetic culture to believe that traditionally masculine qualities - strength, aggression, self-reliance - are negative and destructive, while feminine qualities - willingness to co-operate for example, are the way forward for the human race.

“This,” he says, “Is so stupid it’s hard to know where to begin. Forcing men to become more agreeable and less competitive will be the death of them and all of us.”

That’s not all he says. Peterson touches every button: he thinks social justice warriors are mostly faking it, and he can’t abide virtue-signallers. He thinks intellectuals are mainly arrogant. He is not fond of humanities courses. He blames the left-wing academics for the mumbo-jumbo that infects public life. He can’t see the point of woman’s studies and he believes that universities are obsessed not with “intelligent conversation, but instead with having ideological conversations.”

He is also a Christian. He takes seriously the idea that God made the rules and that human beings are programmed to feel wretched when they break them.

There is obviously a real hunger for his message. Peterson’s You Tube channel has 60,000 subscribers. As of a couple of weeks ago he had 10 of the top 10 higher education podcasts on iTunes. He makes $40,000 a month from the crowdsourcing website Patreon and he reckons his audience is 90 per cent male.

His book is primarily aimed at young men. He encourages them to free themselves as quickly as possible of the burdens of their childhood and to accept the failings of their parents who probably did their best. He urges them to take control of their lives, “because when you’re carrying a burden or living a lie you’re suppressing who you really are, and so much of what you could be will never be forced to come forward.”

Everyone’s favourite line has to do with how life is going to kill you, so you might as well do the most magnificent thing you can think of. This particular bit of advice has become controversial, though I can’t for the life of me think why.

Peterson has faced the usual revolt, campaigns to stop him speaking publically, campaigns to stop him getting university funding; all par for the course for anyone who doesn’t tow the left-wing line in academia.

We never had this advice when we were young, we didn’t need to. In this topsy-turvy world I just hope it’s not too late.

“At my age I don’t get wolf whistles anymore, but when I did years ago it always cheered me up! I never viewed it as ‘harassment’ or a bloody ‘hate crime’”. - Leigh Miller


Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Economic systems up for scrutiny

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I thought it was a bit rich for Jacinda Ardern managing to buy her third house over the last year (the most recent one costing $1.7 million) when she said before and after her election that “homelessness proves capitalism was a blatant failure.”

In his bestselling book Eat the Rich witty American author P.J. O’Rourke endeavors to answer the question: “What is wealth and how do you get it?” He wanted to know why some countries prosper and thrive while other countries remain mired in poverty and despair.

Starting with Wall Street, where what he calls “good capitalism” thrives, he journeys to Albania, a land of “bad capitalism” where the free market had collapsed; to Sweden to study “good socialism” to see if it was indeed a socialist paradise as many believed, then to Cuba to observe “bad socialism” where Fidel Castro presided over a crumbling economy. He traveled to Russia, Tanzania, Hong Kong and Shanghai and discovered how reform can be difficult for countries in financial distress or undergoing political change. He found that behind the economic theories are real people struggling to acquire and maintain adequate living environments, as well as entire countries wrestling with poverty, unstable currencies and political corruption.

He concluded that in spite of its inherent faults, the surest way out of poverty was the free market. Wealth, he said, is the result of economic liberty, while poverty comes from economic repression. Free market capitalism may not be prefect, and at times not fair to everyone, but it does work. O’Rourke wrote the book in 1998. I’m not sure to what extent he might alter his conclusions in today’s economic climate though I doubt he will have much sympathy for Ms Ardern.

Capitalism was best explained in Adam Smith’s tome The Wealth of Nations first published in 1776. He wrote about a system of markets, prices, profit and private property ownership that created a natural order of how people could live in relative comfort and prosperity.

The system would be advanced by energetic and ambitious men and women whose actions could benefit the whole of society though that may not have been their noble intentions in the first place. His famous quote was: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our evening meal, but rather from their regard for their own self interest.”

Capitalism has been portrayed as the worst economic system apart from all the alternatives, but it does have has a tendency to implode from time to time. The 1930’s depression being the worst example, but also in 1973 when oil prices skyrocketed due to wars in the Middle East, again in 1987 when floating currencies caused the sharemarket to shed millions of investor dollars and of then course the global financial crisis in 2008.

However there has always been another option.

Four thousand years ago in the Old Testament when God gave Moses the law that the Hebrews were to live under, God created a cycle of seven years. Every seventh year the land was to lie fallow. Then after seven groups of these seven years – a total of 49 years – the land was to lie fallow two years in a row. In this fiftieth year, which was called the year of Jubilee, not only was the land to lie fallow, but all debts were to be cancelled, all indentured servants set free and all the land reverted back to the original owner.

So there was a natural flushing out of the economy. At the beginning of the fifty year cycle long-term borrowing would be common, but as the cycle began to draw to a close money would only be available for a few years and then in the forty-ninth year people would only loan money for one year because on the fiftieth year those debts would be cancelled.

This also created a real estate cycle. If you bought some land at the very beginning of the cycle then you could use it for fifty years so it had a high value. However if you bought it forty years into the cycle, the land would be worth much less because you could only use it for ten years before the title went back to the original owner. So of course real estate prices would drop rapidly as the fiftieth year approached.

That economic system kept the Hebrew nation going for over 2000 years. Humans have tried to improve on this, but it seems with little success.

Perhaps it’s as well for the Pakeha that the missionaries who came to New Zealand from the other side of the world expounded from the New Testament. Had they preached from the Old, the Maoris might still own all the land.

“You can’t get a good Chinese takeout in China, and Cuban cigars are rationed in Cuba. That’s all you need to know about communism.” - P. J. O’Rourke


Thursday, 1 March 2018

Flying in where angels fear to tread

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When George W. Bush marched his troops into Iraq I tentatively applauded the move. After all they had weapons of mass destruction didn’t they? Well actually, no they didn’t, but nonetheless Saddam was a tyrant and surely he deserved to be removed. I was probably influenced somewhat by childhood memories of folk saying back then if only someone had got rid of Hitler in 1938 we could have avoided the terrible catastrophe that was World War II.

There is no doubt Saddam was a tyrant in the mold of Adolf Hitler and many others; Idi Amin springs to mind. And there was plenty of evidence that Mr Hussein had killed hundreds if not thousands of his detractors. There was no doubt he had gassed the Kurds and had brutally attacked Kuwait. George W’s pater had dealt to him pretty conclusively on that occasion. We knew too that he had shot his two son-in-laws after they had defected to the West and then unthinkingly returned to the loving arms of their wives. No wonder they say love is blind.

By ridding the land of Saddam Hussein the “coalition of the willing” naively assumed the Iraqi’s would live happily ever after. Sadly it seems the country, with so many discordant political and religious factions, needed a strong man, no matter how psychotic, to keep the peace.

And then there was a new tyrant on the block, the block being the Middle East, the tyrant being Muamma Gaddafi. Without much forethought a hastily cobbled-together coalition flew headlong into the valley of death in an effort to get rid of him.

Gaddafi had a chequered relationship with the West. He was a handsome young army officer when he took over Libya in a military coup in 1969. But after the usual honeymoon period Libya was soon to become a pariah state and was denounced for oppressing internal dissent, committing acts of state-sponsored terrorism and assassinating expatriate opposition leaders. There was also crass nepotism which saw Gaddafi amassing a multi-million dollar fortune for himself and his family.

He was welcomed by the West initially, but as absolute power corrupts absolutely he became perhaps the most despised leader in the world. The handsome young army officer had morphed into one of the ugliest people on earth, arguably because of the blood on his hands which give credibility to the claim that sinful acts eventually manifest themselves on the faces of the perpetrators and that your eyes are mirrors to the soul.

His bombing of a nightclub in Berlin in 1986, killing a number of Americans, saw a response from US President Ronald Reagan who bombed Gaddafi’s compound intending to kill the leader, but was accused instead of killing his adopted daughter named “Hanna”.

It was later revealed that immediately after the raid Gaddafi had taken a dead child from a nearby hospital claiming to adopt her by chanting: “I adopt you, I adopt you, I adopt you,” saying to an aid, “It works in this country for divorce, so it should work for adoption.”

Gaddafi then promised to avenge the so-called “killing” by committing a terrorist act on a major American airport. I was in America at the time, flying back on my own from Brazil via Miami and Los Angeles. Both airports could be considered “major” and I was tempted to kiss the ground when I landed safely back in New Zealand!

The Lockerbie bombing might have been the last straw for the West but the Christian tenet to forgive those who trespass against us often takes us down paths we might not normally tread. Roving UN ambassador Tony Blair led the charge for absolution, even publicly embracing Gaddafi, which may have had more to do with BP wanting to maintain its oil contracts than any genuine rekindled affection.

In the end Gaddafi was killed by his own people with his own handgun. Like Iraq and Syria, Libya is now a basket case which leads me to wonder whether Western leaders ever considered the old adage ‘the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.’

Call me old-fashioned, but I get nervous when I see witless young men in hooded sweat-shirts mindlessly firing their AK47 rifles into the air with total disregard as to where the lead projectiles might fall. Are these then the new leaders of the Middle East?

The only no fly zone I trust is in our pantry, after I’ve sprayed it with Raid.

“We are advocates of the abolition of war, we do not want war; but war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.” - Mao Tse-Tung