Saturday, 20 January 2018

Be careful what you wish for

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The new government’s desire to reduce plastic packaging is compelling, but we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Despite the devastating effect on the environment (which I fully acknowledge) plastic packaging has revolutionised our lives and we might not enjoy stepping back into the alternative lifestyle

Back in the 1950s my father and I used to start work at 6 am in our butchers shop. It’s not that we were light sleepers, but from 6 to 8 we were very busy serving mostly male members of the community who would come in at that time to purchase the families meat requirements.

There was method in their madness. Sans plastic bags, meat was wrapped in brown paper with the odd square of greaseproof paper (very expensive) in between some of the cuts. Inevitably these parcels bled. Not ideal for wives to carry home with other purchases that could include items of clothing. Groceries and other items in brown paper bags weren’t immune from absorption from the blood-weeping meat parcels and so it was important that meat was purchased separately.

With the introduction of the incredibly cheap plastic carry-bags all manner of food and other items could be bought together without any risk of contamination.

The man of the house could now sleep in.

Our whole attitude to waste in those halcyon times was different. We almost always had incinerators in our back yards to burn off our paper and cardboard rubbish, compost bins got rid of the food waste and we had a relatively small metal “dustbin” for the litter that wouldn’t burn and I guess the dust (hence the name) from our vacuum cleaners.

Down at the rubbish dump (we didn’t call them landfills back then) the discarded rubbish was mostly metallic. We didn’t have to recycle bottles; we sold them back to the retailer who had sold them to us in the first place. At the Masterton “tip” the green waste and other combustibles were turned into compost by the two genial Blake brothers. Their product was put into a paper sack and sold at a shop attached to the municipal building where you also paid your gas bill. The shop also displayed modern gas appliances alongside the bags of garden compost.

It all made too much sense to last of course. The gasworks closed, the Blake brothers retired and increasing plastic waste made composting impossible for any successors.

The pace of life crept up as shops opened seven days a week and people had less time to tend their gardens so disposal units were installed in our kitchen sinks to get rid of our food waste and incinerators were banned.

On the credit side of the ledger however was evolving plastic packaging that meant shops could introduce the self-serve style of merchandising, reducing staff and lowering costs. Supermarkets replaced grocers, greengrocers, butchers and even milkmen and these huge retail caverns gave us food choices previously undreamed of at competitive prices.

Do we want to go back to the future?

I don’t think so.

“Do not buy what you want but what you need; what you do not need is dear at a farthing.” - Cato the Elder


Saturday, 6 January 2018

Welcome to the new year

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I’m pretty sure that when I was a kid I wouldn’t have thought I’d be around to celebrate the arrival of 2018. Life expectancy was a tad shorter back then, but modern medicine has done wonders for our generation and I’ve learnt with proper care the human body will last a lifetime.

In “As you like it” William Shakespeare talks about the seven ages of man, but at my age there are just four: ill, pill, bill and then will.

I’m doing my best to maintain my sense of humour; they say happy people resist disease better than unhappy people. In other words the surly bird catches the germ.

Anyway the Bible says we cannot get any older than 120 so I’m setting my sights on seeing in the New Year in 2060.

Those mathematically inclined among you will have deduced that I came into the world in 1940. Mind you, if my father hadn’t been so shy and retiring I’d be three years older than I am now. At about the same time I was born Churchill was intoning that “this was their finest hour” and my parents thought he was talking about them. This illusion was maintained right up until I reached adolescence and then they wished they had sent me off to the war. Dad always disowned my misbehavior by claiming I was abandoned on their doorstep. I wasn’t actually found there; our door opened outwards, and they discovered me two somersaults out on the roadway. He reckons there was a note pinned on my shawl, it read: “Keep your head down, the door opens out. Mum!”

And so I was an unwanted child; my father spent weeks trying to find a loophole in my birth certificate and when I was born he tried to collect on his accident insurance. My mother went to the clinic to seek an abortion but it was too late, I was already in primer three. When I went to school my parents used to paint the house a different colour and change the number on our front gate.

Dad taught me to swim by taking me out to Castlepoint, rowing out in the bay and dropping me off. Swimming to shore wasn’t so bad; getting out of the bag was the hard part. As a teenager I had such terrible acne that my dog used to call me Spot.

By the time you’ve reached your late seventies you’ve learnt everything, but you can’t remember any of it. I don’t know what they went back to before the advent of drawing boards and I haven’t a clue what the best thing was prior to the invention of sliced bread. One old codger reckoned if they’d had electric blankets and sliced bread in his day he’d never have got married.

I’m in really good health, though I do have aids. Don’t panic Mr. Mainwaring; I’m talking about the hearing variety. They weren’t cheap; about nine thousand dollars. An old friend who died a few years ago and who was a technical engineer by profession took his apart and reckoned all up they contained about a $1.45s worth of components. Obviously those who assemble them are on more than the minimum wage.

It’s amazing though how your perception of age changes. When I was a kid I thought seventy-seven was really, really old, but now that I have got there I regard it as middle aged at most. However my four kids, insensitive little brats that they are, assure me that I am old. I remember when I turned sixty my daughter worked out that I was a sexagenarian, something I had known all my life but hadn’t been able to put a name to.

Someone asked me just last week: “Have you lived in Masterton all your life?”

“Not yet,” I said.

“If I knew how old I was going to get I would have taken more care of myself.” - George Coote


Thursday, 4 January 2018

There are regulations and regulations

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The 1984 Labour government set out to deregulate society. Roger Douglas (now Sir Roger) led the charge and not before time.

I remember back in the 1960’s, after seeing schnitzel steak in Australia, I decided to introduce it to our butchers shop in Masterton. Schnitzel was made from a thick flank of beef sliced thinly on the bacon slicer. Back then though we would get regular visits from inspectors from Wellington who checked to see that we were not deviating from the New Zealand standard specifications on meat products that were in booklet form and only occasionally updated.

Our man from the capital nearly had fit when he saw schnitzel steak and demanded that we withdraw it from sale immediately. I kid you not. At the time I was on the executive council of the NZ Meat Retailers Federation and fought through that body to have schnitzel included in the standard specifications. It took about eighteen months and New Zealanders were denied this delicacy for that period until it was finally included.

But it wasn’t just schnitzel.

We came up with all sorts of new cuts; Beef Olives, Steakettes, Canadian T-Bone Steak to name a few, but none of these could be marketed until we got them included in the book. You won’t believe this, but hamburgers were also outlawed. It was about 1973 before we were allowed to sell the patties. Up until then we could only sell the mince that you made them out of.

A previous Labour government, convinced that meat retailers were profiting too much from the sales of their product, decided to set the retail prices on all cuts of meat. At first this didn’t worry those of us who traded in the provinces. Our overheads were lower, access to fresh stock easier, and so the government calculated meat prices that had to suit the city meat retailers meant that the maximum allowable prices were well above what we were charging anyway.

But meat is a perishable product and you need to sell all cuts in equal proportions. Sometimes you needed to price something up because demand was outstripping supply and drop the price on another cut so that at the end of the week your stocks had run out at a comparable rate. No good having a whole lot of forequarters of lamb left over without the corresponding number of lamb legs, if you know what I mean.

Price control took away that flexibility and made our balancing act almost impossible. Inspectors from Wellington checked on us regularly, always arriving unannounced of course, and prosecutions were handed out to the non-compliers.

Mercifully for retailers that sort of nonsense is now a thing of the past and the market rules. You overprice your product at your peril.

Some of you would perhaps recall Geoffrey Palmer declaring war on “quangos” years ago. These little beasties were government inspired committees set up to do a variety of projects or check on the progress of other government inspired committees. We never really found out how far he got in this battle, but it would be a safe bet that if he were to go through the exercise again today, another group of quangos will have replaced the last lot.

That’s how regulations work. Governments exist to pass laws. Laws require regulations and we deregulate and then regulate some more, to fill the vacuum caused by deregulation.

Local governments do the same, but at a more leisurely pace. Take the dog controls. Encouraged by parliament and then warmly embraced by local council’s a couple of decades ago now man’s best friend cannot roam in freedom with its owner, but must be leashed, and signs are stenciled on to our footpaths reminding us that’s dogs are not to set paw in the CBD.

In Britain no such regulations exist. Dog owners can take their dogs anywhere; on the trains, into cafes and pubs. They even let them sit beside you in restaurants. Despite this shockingly uncivilised behaviour, I suspect there will always be an England.

In recent years have come the ordinances that meant it is illegal to have a drink on the Wairarapa beaches and apparently all other beaches in this fair country on New Year’s Eve. I can’t think of a more ideal place to celebrate the Hogmanay, but local legislators just hate to see people enjoy themselves.

And so I was delighted to read about the group in the Coromandel this New Year who built a “sand sanctuary island” in the Tairua estuary claiming they were in international waters and therefore entitled to “knock back a few cold ones” without being chastised. Three of those involved were apparently Americans who were probably encouraged to think outside the square by their unorthodox President.

But don’t get me started on the Worksafe regulations that the National government introduced a couple of years ago. If only I’d had the foresight I would have invested in a scaffolding company and today I could afford to be sipping a latte in a posh London cafĂ© with our dog at my feet.

We will of course eventually regulate ourselves out of existence. The last person left to turn out the lights will likely be the great-great grandson of the man who used to chastise us for selling meat cuts that weren’t in the book.

Poor old Roger Douglas will be rolling over in his grave - and he’s not even dead yet!

“However harmless a thing is, if the law forbids it most people will think it is wrong.” - W. Somerset Maugham


A new year lunch

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Saturday, 30 December 2017

Not all animals are equal

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Pity the poor possum. Totally despised in this country, huge amounts of money are justifiably spent on their eradication every year. If only they knew better they could migrate to Australia where they are regarded as cute furry little animals, loved and even protected.

If you think about it, animal rights people, usually wearing leather shoes and leather belts, are surprisingly selective. I recall some years back when emotive scenes on our TV screens of fur seals being clubbed to death in the arctic circle caused outrage in this country, while at about the same time the management at the Waingawa freezing works were celebrating the killing of one million lambs that season; right on our doorstep. Is there anything cuter than spring lambs cavorting around a paddock? Why did the fur seals get all the sympathy? I suspect it was the bright red blood against the backdrop of the white snow that elicited our overwhelming compassion. Contrast this with Waingawa, where the blood was hygienically washed off the smooth concrete floor almost before it landed on it.

In a satirical column in Wellington’s Evening Post many years ago Bob Jones came out in defense of the cod. He questioned why people became so upset when whales beached themselves. Dozens flock to the scene and do their best to refloat the huge mammals, then burst into tears when their effort are inevitably unsuccessful. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of cod are harvested daily and nobody bats an eyelid.

The latest pest animal to be despised is the rook. This is a large black bird that has become the scourge of the local farming community. Bird lovers are not saying a word about the concerted efforts to get rid of them. Tui’s and Takahe’s lead a charmed life. Rooks are rubbish.

Sadly this selective affection can also be seen in the human community. I remember some years back  when 38 black Africans were shot dead in the Ugandan jungle to avenge the killing of eight whites who were in the area to have a peek at a colony of gorillas. The organisers of this retributory exercise conceded that those killed may not have had anything to do with the slaughter of the tourists. They are continued to pursue and destroy, and as far as I am aware no human rights group ever stood up and condemned this apparent overkill. Those blamed for the brutal murder of the tourists were the Intarahamwe (Hutus to you) though foreign correspondent Paul Henry, who was in the area at the time trying to find kidnapped Douglas Kear, thought that is was more likely to be Ugandan rebels who were to blame. Never mind, the Hutus were expendable as far as the world community were concerned and it must have been great sport for the bounty hunters. Rook shooting and possum trapping wouldn’t have held a candle to a good old Hutu hunt.

It’s the way of the world though that some species are more valued than others. I recall a train crash just out of London many years ago that killed six British commuters. About the same time 1500 Bangladesh citizens perished in a huge flood in their hinterland. The train crash made our news screens over three or four nights, with vivid scenes and emotive commentary. The Bangladesh tragedy rated about one line on one of those nights. The ratio then is six Britons to 1500 Bangladeshis. We don’t know the acceptable proportion of Anglo-Saxon tourists to Hutus, who were admittedly a fierce and murderous lot, but it will be hugely disproportionate.

The most bizarre aspect of the Ugandan incident was the arrival of a group of FBI agents to apparently retaliate for the uncalled-for slaughter of six of their nationals. You can just picture America’s finest, black suits, slouch hats, plastic identity tags, and shoulder holsters striding through the jungle in search of the perpetrators.
They would have skirted round a party of grazing gorillas, cautiously approach a clearing and confront the wretched enemy; black men, dressed in regulation T-shirt and shorts gleaned from Oxfam parcels, with machetes in hand. In a nutshell just about everything they own in the world draped around a thin malnourished body. After their experiences of gun battles on the streets of New York this would be child’s play for the G-Men. In short order the skeletal Hutus would be mowed down as the Dick Tracey look-alikes remove the guns from their holsters, fire in rapid succession, dive to the ground and then roll over towards wooded shelter in moves they would have learnt by rote from watching episodes of The Naked City and Hill Street Blues during their adolescence. The machete bearers would have had no answer to the finely honed skills of the well fed and well educated Americans and the tourists will have been further avenged.

The bemused gorillas would deplore the theory that they eventually evolved into humankind. Worse news for them though is that there is now a school of thought in America, legitimised by a chair at Berkeley University in California that hypothesises that Darwin got it around the wrong way and that humans actually evolved into apes. When I heard this I thought: “Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!”

If you’re a possum choose Australia for your country of birth. Rooks are acceptable in England, but lambs and cod are doomed internationally from day one. The Intarahamwe and other black Africans have an appalling life expectancy and yet, there, but for the grace of God, go you and I.

(First published on the 17th of March 1999)

“It’s absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” - Oscar Wilde


Sunday, 24 December 2017

A photo update

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              See the story on the Van Nguyen family by going to 2013 then to June the 13th


Saturday, 23 December 2017

Silent nights, but hectic days

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“A long time ago in Bethlehem, so the Holy Bible say, Mary’s boy child Jesus Christ was born on Christmas day.” So starts one of our most popular carols, although the composer says it’s not a carol, but a Christmas song. Written in 1956 in calypso-style by Jester Hairston, Harry Belafonte heard the song being performed by Walter Schumann’s Hollywood choir and sought permission to add it to his album ‘An Evening with Harry Belafonte.’ An edited version was subsequently released as a single and became a worldwide hit.

Theologians however could be excused for having trouble with the last line of the verse; “And man will live for evermore because of Christmas day.” Strictly speaking, that’s not what the ‘Holy Bible say.’ According to Jesus’ parable of the sower only one in four (the good soil) who hear the message of the Kingdom will fully discern it and bear fruit and therefore receive salvation.

And it would be safe to assume that includes both men and women.

However in an increasingly secular world this minor aberration won’t matter too much. After all it is the season to be jolly, say the organisers of the world, and then they throw anxiety, strain, and financial hardship at us. For good measure they allow heat exhaustion if we live in the Southern hemisphere, or, in a cruel twist of fate, freezing cold conditions for our fellow global villagers in the northern reaches.

Christmas need not be recognised by atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Hindus and all manner of people who don't have to get involved, but in an almost suicidal bid to be part of the action they go along with most of the traditions and even mark their own calendars from the year of Christ’s birth, despite some suspect timing.

It’s now thought that the sixth-century Roman Monk Dionysious Exiguus who established the Christian calendar may have miscalculated His birth by about 5 years. If so, this means we could actually be living in the year 2022!

Also much controversy and speculation surrounds the date of Jesus’ entry into the world; over 100 different options being ascribed. Many say shepherds do not allow their flocks to be out between November and April; too cold, therefore the child must surely have been born in the Northern hemisphere summer, between May and October.

Others claim December the 25th was chosen in the fourth century by the Christian church because on this, the longest night of the Northern hemisphere year, pagans celebrated the victory of the god of light over the god of darkness. A competitive celebration, a “Christ Mass,” was therefore set up to honour the birth of the “Light of the world.”

Whatever, we’ve stuck rigidly to the December option and from that doubtful decision we insist that all the jobs we wanted done around the place over the past year are finished by that mystical moment in time, and the pressure mounts.

The pace of life quickens considerably as we approach the so-called “festive season” and hospital emergency departments gear up for people presenting with stress-related illnesses and ready themselves to receive the victims of road accidents, often incurred because of excessive alcohol intake, for many an essential stimulant for the period, so that the uncertified birthdate is celebrated in real style.

Sadly, the birthday Boy barely rates a mention these days as the jolly white-bearded man in the red suit seems to have acquired centre stage. And while harassed shoppers try to buy the right present for the right person at the right price, available carparks outside gift shops disappear faster than people who admit they voted for amalgamation!

I heard a story about a lady who was shopping with her two small children in a department store before Christmas. She waited for an elevator and when the door opened she saw that it was full, but just managed to squeeze herself and her two small children in. As the elevator began to move, and barely able to breath in the confined space, she turned to those around her and said, “You know whoever started this Christmas thing ought to be shot!”

“No need,” said a voice from the back, “We already crucified Him.”

“I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.” - Shirley Temple.