Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Is this the longest war?

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I went to see the film Battle of the Sexes recently. In essence it’s the story of a 1973 tennis match between Billie-Jean King and Bobby Riggs which became the most watched television sports event of all time. Trapped in a media glare King and Riggs, aged 30 and 55 respectively at the time, were on the opposite sides of a binary argument, but to some extent the real story was about off-court issues. Male chauvinism, equal pay, women’s liberation and even lesbianism were closely examined and mostly found wanting, even taking into account the era of the match-up.

Riggs, the world’s number one tennis player in 1939, is an old pro with a gambling addiction who has lost his drive and is looking for the next hustle. He firmly believes that an over-the-hill tennis veteran can beat the young female champion.


Meanwhile King has been arguing on behalf of her fellow players on the American women’s tennis circuit to be paid more and although the proposed match looks like a gimmick she realises the message it could send to the world if she wins. To complicate the issue, despite apparently being happily married, she unexpectedly falls in love with her female hairdresser.

And all this based on a true story.

If art really imitates life then the male of the species comes out of this rather badly.

A few years ago David Cunliffe apologised for being a man and subsequently lost the leadership of the Labour party, but perhaps he had a point.

Pay equity and glass ceilings are still relevant topics of conversation and then as if to emphasise the real life battle of the sexes out of left field wanders the grotesque Harvey Weinstein.

We’d all heard the stories of the ‘casting couches’ but turned blind eyes assuming the dalliances were consensual. A number of credible victims have come forward however alleging rape, and other sordid expectations from the pusillanimous producer.

But there are mixed messages. Italian film star Asia Argento says Mr Weinstein forced himself on her originally, but then concedes to later having a number of agreed-to liaisons with him ostensibly to further her career.

Meanwhile Weinstein admits to some misdemeanours, but assumes therapy will cure his perceived addiction and believes Mrs Weinstein will understand.

She doesn’t of course - and has left the building.

Can Mr Weinstein seriously be cured? I see a parallel in American doctor Vernon McGee’s ungenerous description of alcohol addiction. “If alcoholism is a disease,” he says “It is the only disease that comes in a bottle; the only disease contracted by an act of will, the only disease that is habit forming and is the only disease given as a Christmas gift.”

Writing in England’s Daily Telegraph 'Everyday Sexism' campaigner Lara Bates reckons Weinstein is not a “beast” or a “monster,” but a man who has behaved like many other powerful men. “While many decent men have been shocked and appalled by the emerging allegations, women everywhere have nodded grimly, thinking of their own Weinstein’s. If we insist on labelling Weinstein a monster, then we must face up to the fact that there are monsters everywhere and it shouldn’t be the responsibility of their victims to stop them,” she wrote.

You could argue that despite the 44 years since Billie-Jean and Bobby’s classic clash, the battle of the sexes is still being waged.

“Whatever they may be in public life, whatever their relations with men, in their relations with women, all men are rapists, and that’s all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws and their codes.” - Marilyn French

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Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Are you being served?

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I was in a menswear shop in a shopping mall in another city recently. The franchise is noted for its fine polo shirts and I was gazing at their latest samplings when a shop assistant asked me if I needed any help. I assured her I didn’t; I was just looking I said. I have a number of this company’s particular brand of polo shirt, but my wife pointed out that these were new colours and were made of a vastly improved material from those languishing in my wardrobe. She thought I should upscale my trousseau.

I assured her that my current vestments had a few more years left in them, but she reckoned they were getting out of shape and were fading. Both of these observations may have had a semblance of truth in them and it’s a characteristic of modern womanhood that they seem to always want their consorts to be seen in the latest fashion; as if anyone else would notice.


I moved to another display stand and did discern a pair of shoes that I coveted, but by now my wife had sensibly moved next door to a ladies-wear store and so was not there to urge me to acquire. Not that I would of have; although I am not the male equivalent of Imelda Marcos I do have more shoes than you can shake a stick at, some of them having barely been worn.

The shop assistant, passing by with clothes she was about to stack on an adjacent shelf, wanted to know was I still happy just browsing? I assured her I was and eventually left the premises with my credit card still firmly ensconced in my wallet.

I’m not the least bit unhappy with this outcome, but there was a time when shop assistants were known as salespeople. I have come to the inevitable conclusion however that employees who actually sell their sponsors products are about as rare as a contemporary NZ voter extolling the virtues of MMP.

With a bit of a nudge and some soundly thought-out dialogue I might well have walked out of the shop with a new pair of shoes and two state-of-the art polo shirts. I say two because the deal was $79.95 for one, or two for $140 - and I can’t resist a bargain.

But it’s not just menswear shops. I have noticed the same lack of interest in marketing to diners in restaurants.

When you go straight to the main course no effort is made to entice you to try an entree first. The main course menu often offers up extras like wedges, onion rings or mushrooms, but the waiter person never suggests you add these. And often you have to badger the individual attending your table to actually see the dessert menu.

At a local restaurant recently I had to leave the table to get my guests a drink from the bar having failed to attract anyone in the dining room to come and refill empty glasses. And what about getting offered coffee or a liqueur at the meals end. In fact when did you last see any restaurant serving liqueurs to round off the evening?

On the other hand it can be overdone. I went into McDonald's last week and said, “I’d like some fries.” The young lady at the counter said, “Would you like fries with that?”


“By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.” - Robert Frost

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Saturday, 7 October 2017

A thoroughly modern navy

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It was pleasing to note that the far-sighted New Zealand navy has finally pulled the plug on Morse code as a means of communication, 155 years after its invention. How thoroughly modern. What will they do next? Abandon keel hauling and walking the plank as a form of punishment? Samuel Morse came up with his amazing system where dots and dashes became dits and dahs in the middle of last century; he would have been somewhat gratified to know that it survived almost to the 21st century; at least in the antipodes.

Morse was, surprisingly, a portrait painter and the first words he transmitted were: “what hath God wrought.” It was never considered that there was any particular prophetic meaning in this, but back in 1845 the Bible would have been one of the few books in widespread circulation so a scriptural passage would be almost mandatory. Our illustrious navy was apparently a lot less poetic. “Close down this circuit. Out.” it said last week, as it ended a major division in its repertoire of communication systems. Morse would be turning in his grave at their lack of imagination. I gather for the navy, (and you’re going to love this,) there was no remorse.


I used to be dab hand at Morse myself; nearly fifty years ago, and I can still pretty well remember the whole alphabet in dits and dahs. This is amazing if you think about it because I can scarcely recall the name of someone I met half an hour ago. Fellow Lansdowne scouter Ken Wilton and I were the best in our troop and won the much sought after signals trophy at a regional scout competition held at the Solway showgrounds in the early 1950’s. Ken’s forte was reading semaphore flags which the New Zealand navy probably still use to alert sailors that it is time me for their daily tot of rum.

We used to practice our craft by me climbing up on the woodshed roof at our house at the bottom of Opaki Road and Ken getting up on top of his parents wash-house (we call them laundry’s now) in Third Street and we would flash messages to each other using our Eveready torches. We honed our communication skills this way, but I doubt that the messages we transmitted were earth shattering in content. Sounds like a pretty dull pastime compared to today’s high tech recreational activities but this was back in the days when Tom Sawyer was still our consummate hero, and the Ginger Spice equivalent was Becky Thatcher.

My Morse-code reputation must have proceeded me and at Wairarapa College I was assigned to the coveted signals corps during barracks week. My commanding cadet was one Neville Jaine. Neville was a year ahead of me at college and was even skinnier than I was (and still is, darn it) so it fell to me to have to carry the cumbersome and extremely heavy radio sets that were state of the art back then. We spent most of the week roaming the streets of Masterton communicating quintessential information back to the College. Neville wore the earphones perched over the ridiculous khaki soft hats we used to wear, while my growth was seriously stumped carrying the massive radio set on my back. We were sort of a juvenile equivalent of Dad’s Army.

But all this training prepared us perfectly for world war three where I imagined we might have been parachuted behind enemy lines to transmit intelligence back to our troops. Ken and I would have looked for the nearest wash-house or woodshed roof and Neville, who was a wonderful orator, could have done an impression of Puck from Midsummer Nights Dream to avert the enemy’s attention. In the event world war three was canceled; or maybe just postponed. Born in the lucky generation we were too young for Korea and too old for Vietnam. Ken went on to be an accountant, Neville and lawyer and then a judge and I followed in the footsteps of my ancestors and pedaled meat in a sacristy of sausages and soup bones.

For all that, Morse’s invention was an incredible breakthrough for its time and initiated a new phase in world history. Never before could a message be sent without someone going somewhere to carry it. But around thirty years ago the first satellite was launched and today hundreds of them encircle the globe and allow us to communicate instantly from one side of the world to the other. Cables under the sea enable instantaneous telephone contact; these cables are capable of holding a million voice messages and make worldwide usage of the internet possible.

Amidst all this technology, now well entrenched, our cautious navy has decided in its wisdom that Morse may be unnecessary. No one could accuse them of rushing into things.

The end result of all this explosion in international contact is what we call globalisation; a term hardly used as little as ten years ago. Commentators are even suggesting that because of globalisation nations are losing their borders and the sovereignty they once had. Politicians have lost their capability to influence events. Its not surprising that no one respects our political leaders like we once did. Multi-national companies now rule the waves, some of these with gross national products considerably higher than many nations. Word has it that they abandoned the Morse system of message transference eons ago.

The era of the nation state may be over. Countries, according to Japanese business writer Keniche Ohmae, have become mere “fictions.” and he cites the Asian economic crisis, which has affected us all, as a demonstration of this. This might well have meant that nations fighting nations would become a thing of the past but Kosovo and now the India/Pakistan conflict have somewhat defused this optimism.

It is possible then that one day we will again need a well equipped fighting force to ensure our own survival and reassert our nationhood. Colleges don’t have barracks weeks any more and the citizenry are probably are ill-prepared to fight a war. Ken Wilton and I will gladly clamber on to our shed roofs but it is no good calling on Neville Jaine to help out. As head of the police complaints authority he presently has his work cut out adjudicating as to whether or not the police acted hastily in shooting a car converter who brandished a fake gun at them. For some, world war three has already started.

Meanwhile the New Zealand navy is probably contemplating what to do with its carrier pigeons.

(First published in July 1999)

“No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned…a man in jail has more room, better food and commonly better company” - Samuel Johnson

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Sunday, 1 October 2017

The idle teenager

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Before television was introduced to this country in the early 1960’s, music held sway.

Drugs were unheard of, beer taps were turned off sharp at six, and in the evening radio was king. Apart from the “pictures” the only other form of entertainment, for the non-betrothed anyway, was dancing.

In the mid-fifties a new form of dance swept the world and in 1957 some friends and I formed a rock’n’roll band called The Drifters which saw us gainfully employed most Friday and Saturday nights in various dance halls around the Wairarapa.

In the South Island an entrepreneur named Joe Brown was making his fame and fortune with a dance every Saturday night in Dunedin’s vast Town Hall. Two halls actually, one for traditional dancing and one for rock’n’roll. Being New Zealand’s main university town at the time, these dances were packed with our brightest and whitest.

Joe Brown had another string to his bow. Every year he would travel up and down the country staging talent quests in the cities and major towns. “Joe Brown’s Search for Stars” was the proprietary name and the winners of each contest were invited to Dunedin for the annual grand final in the Town Hall, and then taken on tour. In 1960 Joe Brown’s Search for Stars came to Masterton.

The Drifters opted to compete; and in not just one item. We entered in the instrumental section as well as the vocal section and I was the band’s vocalist. We had an occasional female singer with a glorious voice named Lois Hatfield and we agreed to back her as well. Also local chemist Wayne Snowsill and I fancied ourselves as Everley Brothers imitators and so we proffered a separate entry. The winner was chosen by audience vote and they wisely selected local boy soprano Joseph Anderson for his splendid rendition of Sixteen Candles. Our items came second, third, fourth and fifth.

Joseph Anderson performed with great credit in Dunedin, but the grand final was won by a young Maori man from Palmerston North named Joe Nathan who received a standing ovation, I gather, with a stirring rendition of Old Man River.

The bean counters in Joe Brown’s back rooms in Dunedin, however, must have misread the Masterton results and saw my name featuring regularly, concluding I was a jack of all trades but, fortunately for me, not bothering to complete the proverb. I was offered the tour of New Zealand as a rock’n’roll singer and in doing so became part of the exceptionally talented Dunedin rock group, The Golden Aces.

I was flown to Dunedin in a creaky old DC3 one mid-winter’s Saturday morning where I was to join the troupers and rehearse for a few days before we took the show on the road. That afternoon I met the band and that night I sang at the Town Hall dance which was broadcast live to a New Zealand-wide audience on the YA network. There were lots of telegrams from friends and family back home saying that I came across well, but I knew the static from Wellington to Wairarapa was endemic and that I would have sounded less appealing to anyone with a half-decent reception.

On Sunday we met the rest of our fellow travellers and were shown the printed programmes. I nearly flipped. Beneath my photo I was described as New Zealand’s number One Teenage Idol. The band members were more circumspect. Having heard me the night before they decided a more appropriate title was New Zealand’s number one idle teenager.


This was a variety show typical of the era. Besides Joe Nathan, The Golden Aces and the idle teenager we had another Maori tenor from Christchurch named Charles Hikana, a ventriloquist from Wellington, Ray Anderson with his doll Benny P. Baker, Gary Chadwick, an harmonica player from New Plymouth, and last but certainly not least, New Zealand’s foremost pianist at the time, the irrepressible Jack Thompson from Invercargill.

Manager and compere was tall, charming, ex-Dunedin policeman, Ian Dawson. Dawson had an unusual impediment; he stuttered badly off stage, but in front of a microphone and an audience, his speech was unhindered.

We spent three days rehearsing the show in Dunedin and then took off for our opening night in the Palmerston North Opera House. We arrived with a blaze of publicity given that this was Joe Nathan’s home town and the city was particularly proud of him.

At around seven o’clock in the evening we made our way to the venue where Jack Thompson insisted that he had a dressing room to himself. There were only two dressing rooms in the complex so the rest of us had to share the one other. It was interesting to note that those of us of European descent put make-up on our faces to make ourselves browner under the spotlights, while those with the Maori ancestry put powder on to make themselves whiter. There’s a message here somewhere, but I’m not quite sure what it is.

A sell-out crowd greeted us warmly. Earlier we had sussed out the nearest coffee lounge to the theatre - it was to here that we intended to casually saunter after the show in order to accept the adulation of the crowds, imagining, particularly, a generous number of nubile young women craving autographs.

We made one major mistake in Dunedin. We had omitted to time the show. At intermission, which came earlier than we expected, we had pretty well run out of items. Such was the panic that Ian Dawson was now stuttering both on stage and off and Charles Hikana agreed to take over the role of compere. We sat down backstage and wondered what we would do for the remainder of the evening.

The final item on the programme was listed as The Sensational Trio - this was Joe Nathan, Charles and me. We harmonised such songs as ‘Heart of my Heart’ and ‘It’s a Sin to tell a Lie’ backed by Jack Thompson on the grand piano and The Golden Aces. Prior to that, Joe Nathan sang ‘Old Man River.’ These items were the only ones we so far hadn’t performed.

The 15 minute intermission stretched to 30 minutes as we agonised over how we would produce a creditable second half. I agreed to sing some songs the band and I had never rehearsed together, Ray Anderson said he would create further humorous patter between himself and Benny P. Baker and Gary Chadwick allowed he knew one or two other tunes he could belt out on his mouth organ. Golden Aces drummer Johnny Berryman, who also had a speech defect, caused I think by a cleft palate, said he could sing ‘Susannah’s a Funicle Man’ and when he did, the audience, assuming he was feigning the funny voice, demanded an encore.

So we managed a second half of sorts until it was time for the grand finale - Old Man River followed by The Sensational Trio. It was here we discovered why Jack Thompson wanted his own dressing room. It seemed he enjoyed a whisky during the show; on this occasion, a whole bottle of it.

Halfway though ‘Old Man River’ he got up from the piano stool, resplendent in white bow tie and tails, and whispered in Joe’s ear. The band stopped and Joe had to tell the audience that Jack wanted them to know that he had accompanied him when he won the final in Dunedin. The audience, as embarrassed as we were, clapped politely; the song restarted and was eventually well received.

It was now time for Charles and me to come on from different sides of the stage and burst into ‘Heart of my Heart’ in harmony with Joe. About half way through the song the entire audience broke up and started to laugh uproariously. Some were bent over double. We wondered: “What on earth have we done?”

I remember thinking perhaps my fly was unzipped but a quick glance ascertained that it wasn’t. I turned round and found the source of the uproar. Jack had fallen backwards off the piano stool and was lying on the stage his legs still on the seat and was grinning at Joe, Charles and me with the smile of someone well into his cups.

At this stage the trio looked anything but sensational and Ian Dawson, the poor man, was now stuttering incessantly and hastily lowered the curtain.

We gave the coffee lounge visit a miss. We could hear the crowds still laughing as they walked home past the stage doors and we waited until the coast was clear and then crept back to our hotel and ashamedly crawled into our beds.

The paper the next morning said it all. “Smoke concert air about Joe Brown’s Search for Stars” screamed the headline and started out: “The term ‘star’ is a much overworked word in the theatre, and certainly none of those on stage at the Opera House last night could lay claim to it.” Further on it stated: “Ricky Long from Masterton, described as New Zealand’s number one teenage idol, was unimpressive in an over-amplified performance” and went on, “What he and his band lacked in talent they made up for in volume.” This latter remark was a tad unfair; the band was not “mine” and was made up of exceptional musicians, except perhaps for their rhythm guitarist, me.

The critic managed to find fault with most of the items but saved the greatest vitriol for the unfortunate Jack Thompson. Surprisingly Palmerston North’s afternoon paper was kinder - their reviewer said the show was entertaining and merely complained of a few first night jitters. The morning paper however was more accurate.

In fact the show did improve; it could only get better and at the end of the six week tour it was being well received.


                                                                             Epilogue.

After the tour I convinced the superb Golden Aces saxophonist Barry Gray that he ought to leave Dunedin and come and play for the Drifters. I was best man at his wedding when he married our female vocalist Lois Hatfield. Fifty years on Barry and I found ourselves playing in a band called The Golden Oldies who performed regularly for old time dancers at Masterton’s Cosmopolitan Club. Barry has since passed on; so too has the Cossie Club and we now play for the same audience at the aptly named Old Folks Hall in Cole Street. Amazingly, after the tour Ian Dawson also came to Masterton. He promoted a Joe Brown style Saturday night dance in the Masterton Town Hall. The Drifters were his resident band. Joe Brown gave up the Search for Stars talent quests and took on The Miss New Zealand shows; Ian Dawson held the franchise for Miss Wairarapa. Later he moved to Wellington to take up ownership of the Sorrento Coffee Bar in Ghuznee Street and was to become the manager of the much celebrated Wellington pop group, The Librettos.

Midway through the tour, in August 1960, I had lost my teenage status; I turned twenty and the prospect of being an idle adult didn’t appeal. Except for my place in The Drifters I sensibly abandoned show business for more certain employment in the meat trade.

Which just goes to prove the universal adage: “Old rockers never die, they simply resort to selling sausages and writing tripe.”

(First published in January 2004)

"Tis strange - but true; for truth is always strange; stranger than fiction." - Lord Byron






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Saturday, 30 September 2017

Meads point was not lost on me

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In a past life I despised vegetarians with a vengeance; and animal rights people. Once an animal rights person threw a brick through our butcher’s shop window bearing a cryptic note which questioned the veracity of my parentage and contained other uncomplimentary messages about scumbags who sell meat for a living. I publicly responded that I hoped the brick thrower wasn’t wearing leather shoes or a leather belt, but the perpetrator was never found so an evaluation of their dress code was never assessed.

Some years ago, when driving in the pouring rain to Wellington, I picked up a parka-clad hooded hitchhiker who to my surprise turned out to be an apple eating young lady who spent the remainder of the journey discoursing about the delights of being a vegetarian. I scarcely got a word in edgeways as she recounted the virtues of a meat free diet, particularly pertaining to the robust good health she had enjoyed since embarking upon this wretched lifestyle, some five years previous. I tried to stake my own claim, boasting too of an illness-free life, despite an almost obscene daily intake of red meat. In the process I offered up the argument that the Creator wouldn’t have given us carnivorous teeth if it was intended we live on a diet of bean sprouts and, in deference to her current penchant, apples. She ignored my protestations and promoted her cause with the fervour of an evangelical Christian.

Praise God for Cook Strait. Her arguments were so compelling had she been in the car any longer it’s entirely possible she would have gained the most unlikely of converts and caused a huge philosophical conflict with my inherited three generational vocation.

Colin Meads was always one of my hero’s for his exploits on the rugby field, but he went up even higher in my estimations when he came out firing on all cylinders in defense of meat eaters in general and the All Blacks in particular.


Meads reckoned the All Blacks losing streak at the time was likely caused by the pasta diet they have had to endure from Wednesday onwards before a Saturday international. In his day, he espoused, on the morning of a test, it was steak and two eggs for breakfast and then cold meat and mashed spuds for lunch. Pasta was not an option for a real man, he claimed, and that’s why Italy had never won a world cup. I wanted to give him a standing ovation but to be perfectly honest, his claim doesn’t bear close scrutiny.

Although Meads’ contribution to the team was monumental, the All Blacks weren’t exactly world beaters in his day either. If my memory serves me correctly, during his tenure we comprehensively lost three out of four tests in South Africa and in 1971 he captained the team to its first ever series loss in the British Isles. This despite the All Blacks presumably having bellies full of the finest steak and the freshest eggs.

They beat Italy, but back then so too could the Wairarapa College first fifteen.

Chris Laidlaw tells the delightful story of how the 1963 All Blacks traveled to Italy tourist class, in the back of the aeroplane, and were exhausted and hungry when they finally reached Rome. None of them could speak Italian and despite numerous attempts, were unable to acquire anything but pasta from the hotel dining room. Words like fettucini, canelloni and lasagne dominated every menu, Laidlaw claims, and Meads steadfastly refused to partake, saying that this type of food was unheard of in New Zealand. He opted to starve until an interpreter could be found to order up some real sustenance. So Meads’ anxieties were deep-rooted.

Pasta of course wasn’t unheard in New Zealand. A form of it was canned by Wattie’s and sold as Spaghetti, a much despised dish by anyone who actually had taste buds and any child who came to school with spaghetti sandwiches was to be the most pitied of infants.

So I empathised with Meads on that one. The only sensible use for flour and water that I knew of in my formative years was the makings of inexpensive glue used to paste pictures in our scrapbooks. For Wattie’s to merely add tomato sauce to this and then sell it as an edible item was, to a large extent, immoral.

(My more sophisticated family always have me sit at another table whenever we go to an Italian restaurant and I order conventional fare from the tucked-away section of the menu that allows for such plebeian tastes.)

The other problem with Meads’ argument though was that the carnivorous Kiwi’s don’t always fare well at the Olympics, despite their first world diets. On the other hand the Ethiopians, who wouldn’t recognise a steak and egg breakfast if they fell over one, and the Cubans, who only eat white meat, in the form of chicken, and even then only when the Pope visits, have often showed us what real stamina is in the fields of long distance running and boxing, respectively.

And a few years back the English rugby team managed to win a string of tests against formidable opponents at a time when you’d be mad to eat British beef and become even madder if you did.

Anyway, I’m pretty relaxed about vegetarians these days; live and let live I say, now my livelihood doesn’t depend on it. I would even break bread with the animal rights people whereas once I only wanted to break heads.

There was also of course more than a touch of self-preservation in the Meads utterances. A sheep and beef farmer it made good sense for him to be promoting the end product of his labours. Never part of the professional football era, he had to fall back on conventional agrarian pursuits to keep the wolf from the door.

Isn’t it funny how most of our prejudices are dominated by the dollar?

“Hunger is the best sauce in the world.” - Miguel de Cervantes 

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Sunday, 24 September 2017

The baby and the bathwater

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I’m surprised the incumbent government didn’t trumpet the fact that the highly regarded Legatum Prosperity Institute’s index for 2016 placed New Zealand as the world’s most prosperous country. Norway came in second, Finland third, then Switzerland, with Canada and Australia fifth and sixth respectively. The United Kingdom came in tenth, and U.S. of A. was ranked at seventeen with once prosperous Japan at twenty-two.

I imagine concern will be expressed that between 2007 and 2017 America has gone from being the most prosperous nation on earth to number seventeen. As usual Scandinavian countries rated highly in the institute’s new index of prosperity, but I would have thought National’s promotional people could have highlighted the fact that New Zealand came in at number one.

The Index of Prosperity is a measure of material wealth and quality of life among 110 nations, so despite the doom and gloom that so often abounds in this country we seemed to have done remarkably well.


I also thought it unusual that there were no Asian nations in the top ten; first to feature was Singapore at nineteen. The Legatum Institute thought that Asia was where the challenge was coming from for America.

In his book Civilisation: The West and the Rest Harvard historian Niall Ferguson wrote that for 500 years Western nations have patented six killer applications that set it apart.

The first to recognise them was Japan, but since then one Asian country after another has downloaded these killer apps. These are: competition, modern science, the rule of law and private property rights, modern medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic.

These six things, according to Ferguson, are the secret sauce of Western civilisation.

An area where New Zealand may need to take cognisance of is the third “app”, the rule of law and private property rights particularly when you take into account the confusion over Ms Ardern’s proposed capital gains and land tax. This legislation would probably not suit our long-established and apparently successful ownership criteria, but it did have more than a modicum of support from the rank and file.

Given our current high positioning it might be prudent for any new coalition to let sleeping dogs lie.

And we must learn from history. It’s interesting how success in World War II actually hurt Britain while failure helped Germany. Following the war British society grew comfortable, complacent and rigid and its economic and political arrangements became even more elaborate and costly. Labour unions, the welfare state, protectionist policies and massive borrowing all shielded Britain from the new international competition.

Germany by contrast was almost entirely destroyed by World War II. That gave it a chance not just to rebuild its physical infrastructure, but also revise its antiquated political and bureaucratic institutions with a more modern frame of mind. Defeat made it possible to question everything and rebuild from scratch.

Some of Labour's policies looked alarmingly like the semblance of post-war Britain.

Sadly, from the top of the ladder, there is only one way to move.

“Prosperity is like the tide, being able to flood one shore only by ebbing from another.” - Xavier Herbert

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Friday, 22 September 2017

Translating a language in a foreign zone

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I have a sensible arrangement with the golf club. I agree to pay a sub as long as they accept that I don’t actually have to play the game. It’s a good deal for both of us. Mark Twain reckoned that golf ruined a good walk and the club saves a small fortune on green-keepers wages by me not despoiling the carefully manicured grass they call fairways, and the tees and the greens.

Last week I unthinkingly broke the contract. I agreed to play in a twilight golf tournament. It seemed like the perfect competition. My dictionary describes twilight as “a shadowy indeterminate state” which would mean no one would see my inability to strike the ball in an athletic manner, my complete lack of co-ordination, and the committee would be blissfully unaware of the damage I was doing to the course.

There were other aspects of the competition that I found appealing apart from being conducted in the dark. The organisers said it would be played over 10 holes - in my view the perfect length for a golf course - and that they had chosen the flattest ten holes so that the mountainous section did not have to be attempted.

It’s not generally known that the young Ed Hillary did all his training on the Masterton golf course prior to his triumphant ascent of Everest in 1953. When asked why he chose Lansdowne he apparently said: “Because it is there,” and on one occasion, after he had successfully traversed the full eighteen holes of the course, he told those back at the clubhouse that he had: “Knocked the so-and-so off.” All this is anecdotal, but it has a ring of truth to it.

The organisers let me down right from the barrel-jump. A twilight tournament to them meant a 4.30 pm start. Taking daylight saving into account this is about when the sun is at its highest point and any attempt on my part to participate unnoticed was quite impossible.

They must have named the competition after the zone they are in.

To play golf successfully you have to learn a whole new bunch of words and ideally attend a special language school for a few weeks. When I arrived a formidable looking woman was standing on the clubhouse veranda and was obviously commanding the whole operation. I was told she was the “captain.” She asked me what my handicap was. I noticed, just a few feet away, a man in a wheelchair with two broken arms, a broken leg and a neck brace; the result, I presume, of a car accident. I said that comparative to him, I didn’t have one. The captain told me she would put me on a “twenty four” and I could have “fourteen shots.” She mumbled something else too, but the only words I caught were “smart” and “Alec” so I assume she wasn’t referring to me. She also said that whenever I hit a bad shot I could have a “mulligan.” I thanked her profusely, now concluding that around here English is a second language.


But I gave a good deal of thought to all this curious information and reckoned I knew what she meant. “Mulligan” must be brand of whisky, probably an Irish whiskey. I was apparently allocated fourteen “shots” of this whiskey and then for every time I sliced, hooked or had an “air shot” I was allowed to take extra swig. It’s a good thing I don’t imbibe because by the tenth hole I would have been paralytic.

Scoring is another mystery. You have “stableford” points. This sounded like a garage for a certain brand of car, but the poor man I was partnered with spent an age endeavouring to explain the intricacies of this complicated scoring process, eventually giving up. I left school with three languages: fair French, lousy Latin and great Britain, but my best subject was bookkeeping and I also had a reasonable grasp of maths. Despite these units of higher learning I’m darned if I could work out the “stableford.” In the end my partner said he would keep both our scores which I suspect would have been unacceptable to the “captain,” but I never let on.

The course is apparently in good condition because everyone we encountered as we crossed paths to access the flattest holes said how great the fairways looked. I wouldn’t know because my ball inevitably went into that section of the course they call the “rough.” The rough is cunningly placed on each side of the fairway and is cleverly configured so that if your ball lands in it, it completely disappears from sight. If you do perchance to happen upon it, it is so enveloped in the long grass that to hit it out successfully is virtually impossible. Most “mulligan’s” would be drunk, I would imagine, from these outer reaches of the course.

One day I’m going to build a golf course where the fairway is “rough” and the edges of the fairway will be mown like a bowling green. Thousands will flock to my club because they will feel good about themselves and I will make a small fortune. Unfortunately it will take a large fortune to build and maintain the course, so I will still be out of pocket.

For me to play ten holes is the equivalent to a seasoned players playing eighteen or more because I wend my way from one side of the fairway to the other. The America’s cup people would call this “tacking” but it is not a recognised feature of golf. I end up hitting twice as many balls and walking twice the distance. To confuse the issue my partner said after we had played ten holes we could go to the “nineteenth.” Try as I may I never found a tee, nor a hole, nor a green, with the number 19 on it.

We did however end up in the clubhouse; it was still broad daylight and now we were confronted with the prize-giving ceremony. An engaging young fellow with clean shaven head and the unlikely name of “Jamie” was the MC. Someone whispered to me he was the club “pro” but I dared not explore what that might mean. There was a table full of small boxed items to give out to the winners. I counted 39 prizes on the table and given there was ten teams of four participating, odds were that I was in for a trophy. Pretty well everyone had proudly gone forward when the last prize was left to present. Surely my name would come up next. The final award was for the worst round of the day and I got up out of my chair and was halfway towards the podium when I realised the intended recipient was the man in the wheelchair.

I felt like a complete mulligan.

(First published  November 20th 2002)

“Language is not an abstract construction of the learned or the dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.” - Walt Whitman. 

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