30 June 2008

There is no victory in revenge

In Shotgun Stories, Arkansas director Jeff Nichols has constructed a deft low-budget contemporary fable depicting the futility of never-ending cycles of revenge that spring up amongst those who are quick to anger but too proud to value peace-making over retaliation.

The film opens with the death of the father of two sets of half-brothers, one trio of which he abandoned to life with their cruel and vindictive mother. These three, whose names reflect their parents' lack of interest, are Son, Boy and Kid, and they live a meagre existence on the edge of town, holding down dead-end jobs and just scraping by. The second set of brothers came with the father's second wife, whom he married after reforming his ways, and who live on an impressive farm. (No-one mentions the oddness of a man having seven sons and no daughters - sounds like a musical to me - and it doesn't seem to matter that the actors who play Son, Boy and Kid bear absolutely no resemblance to one another).

After Son leads his brothers to the funeral and tells the assembled congregation exactly what he thought of the father who abandoned them, a feud is set off amongst the hot-heated half-brothers. Perhaps spitting on the coffin wasn't the best idea, and things quickly spiral out of control into an ever-increasing cycle of violence of Sicilian proportions.

The film builds the tension expertly, and the viewer is frequently kept on edge as a lone pickup truck looms into view in the distance while characters talk in the quiet, understated Arkansas way in the foreground. This effect is particularly enhanced by the widescreen filming technique: it was shot on 35mm in the anamorphic 2:35 aspect ratio (no, don't ask me, I don't know either - but it sounds nifty). It also works well as a depiction of life in a rural town in the South (it was filmed in England, Arkansas, half an hour or so out of Little Rock on Highway 165, population 3000) - life is slow and there ain't much to do nor much to earn.

The differences between the two sets of half-brothers are spelt out in their automobiles: whereas the elder farming brother Cleaman drives a newish F150 pickup, Son creaks around town in an old pint-sized Mazda pickup (ain't even American!); Boy's ride, which is also his accommodation, is a decrepit van with a malfunctioning cassette deck; and Kid is so broke that he doesn't even have a car, and has to rely on his girlfriend's mother's car to go on a cheeseburger date.

The standout performance in the film is from Michael Shannon, whose restrained depiction of Son Hayes, torn between loyalty to his brothers and the temptations of anger, charts the course of the film. In the end, Shotgun Stories is a quiet achiever of a film, telling a simple story effectively and painting a believable picture of life in the rural American hinterland, where cinema often patronises or basks in homely platitudes.

The film has received positive reviews, but has had almost no luck in obtaining a traditional release, despite the strength of its performances and the quality of its story. Last month in the US it was playing only on a handful of screens (never more than four in total) and receiving negligible box-office takings. But as reviewer Roger Ebert, who loved the film, points out,

This film has literally been saved by the festival circuit. After being rejected by major distributors, it found a home in smaller festivals, where word of mouth propelled it into its current wider release. It has qualities that may not come out in a trailer or in an ad but sink in when you have the experience of seeing it. Few films are so observant about how we relate with one another. Few are as sympathetic.

This film deserves a much wider viewership. Here's hoping that cinema-goers will be able to see the film on the big screen before the attention of movie distributors moves on elsewhere in search of a breakthrough hit. One is staring them right in the face.

29 June 2008

Unusual NZ cricket results

Today New Zealand beat England by 51 runs in the 5th one-day international at Lord's, thereby winning the 5-match series 3-1 with one match abandoned due to rain. This capped off an intriguing one-day series in which New Zealand's victories often came in uncommon forms.

In the first innings of today's match New Zealand completed a relatively rare feat: the team scored 266/5 in its 50 overs. This may not sound particularly impressive, but consider this: in the 209 ODIs the team has played this decade so far, it has batted first 96 times. In those matches in which a result was achieved, it has only lost five or fewer wickets against quality opposition (i.e. excluding the United States, Zimbabwe, Canada and Bangladesh) on eight occasions. And today's result marked the first such occasion in over four years - the last occurrence was against South Africa in Wellington in February 2004. Here's a complete list:

Completed ODIs in the 2000s against quality opposition in which NZ batted first and lost five or fewer wickets

01.11.2000 114/5 vs South Africa in Durban (lost by 6 wkts DL)

25.02.2001 284/5 vs Pakistan in Christchurch (won by 138 runs)

26.01.2002 242/5 vs Australia in Adelaide (won by 77 runs)

24.04.2002 277/5 vs Pakistan in Rawalpindi (lost by 3 wkts)

12.06.2002 212/5 vs West Indies in Port of Spain (won by 9 runs DL)

29.11.2003 291/5 vs Pakistan in Lahore (lost by 3 wkts)

20.02.2004 254/5 vs South Africa in Wellington (won by 5 runs)

28.06.2008 266/5 vs England at Lord's (won by 51 runs)


New Zealand's exciting defeat of England in the 4th one-dayer at the Oval on 25 June marked another rare feat, because it was one of only three one-wicket ODI victories by New Zealand this decade. It seems to be something of a trend in recent years though, as all three have occurred in the past two years. The most recent example before this England tour was a match against Sri Lanka on New Year's Eve 2006 in Queenstown, in which bowler Michael Mason famously struck the last ball of the match for a boundary, having played out five dot balls against Sanath Jayasuriya with the in-form batsman James Franklin stranded at the non-striker's end.

ODIs in the 2000s in which NZ won by 1 wicket (not-out batsmen)

31.12.2006 vs Sri Lanka at Queenstown (James Franklin 45*, Michael Mason 4*)

20.02.2007 vs Australia at Hamilton (Brendon McCullum 86*, Jeetan Patel 0*)

25.06.2008 vs England at the Oval (Kyle Mills 25*, Mark Gillespie 4*)


Another relatively rare victory occurred in the 3rd one-dayer at Bristol on 21 June. New Zealand batted first and posted a total of only 182 from its 50 overs, yet it still beat England by 22 runs in a low-scoring duel of a match. In fact, the Bristol victory was one of only five occurrences this decade in which New Zealand has batted first, scored under 200 runs and gone on to win the match. Interestingly, in all of these matches the New Zealand captain lost the toss and was asked to bat first. All of the matches were against quality opposition, and only the Mumbai match produced what could be described as a walkover.

ODIs in the 2000s in which NZ batted first, scored under 200 runs and won

11.01.2002 199/8 vs Australia at the MCG (won by 23 runs)

19.05.2003 156/8 vs Sri Lanka in Dambulla (won by 9 runs)

29.02.2004 193/8 (33 ov) vs South Africa in Auckland (won by 2 runs DL)

16.10.2006 195 vs South Africa at Mumbai (won by 87 runs)

21.06.2008 182 vs England at Bristol (won by 22 runs)

25 June 2008


Victoria Park, E9
24 June 2008

Last night East London received an alien visitation from the Oxfordian gods of the space-rock pantheon, as Radiohead played a million pound concert to approximately 20,000 revellers on a mild but blissfully clear June evening.  

Victoria Park hosted the Love Music Hate Racism concert recently, and perhaps its open vistas are more suited to the diffused spectacle of a multi-stage music festival than to highlighting the individual brilliance of one group.  But it allowed a huge crowd to gather to see one of the most inventive and creative rock bands of the past two decades perform new material with a scattering of highlights from the height of their '90s popularity.   

The newer material from In Rainbows, the album released in 'honesty-box' download form on the net, stalked and stuttered in a storm of bleeping beats and jagged guitars, and showed why Radiohead are consistently regarded as musical innovators, reluctant to rest on their laurels.  This truly sounded like music made for the 21st century, and reminded the audience why the band is leagues ahead of the many that follow in their wake, scavenging the scraps of fame that Thom Yorke and his colleagues willingly eschewed.

In this material the superb light show came into its own.  Five massive square screens formed a narrow rectangular strip of colour at the rear of the stage, and a matching pair of four screens arranged in a square on each stage wing all relayed an expertly-mixed blend of live stage footage and a giant strobing graphic equaliser mash-up.  But the real highlight was the forest of dozens of thin tubes hanging from the roof of the stage, forming a gleaming cage of light over the performers.  The tubes effectively formed a 10-metre high canvas of light across the entire width of the stage, pulsating and gyrating with rich colours and patterns.

I freely admit that my devotion to Radiohead was at its strongest at the time of OK Computer in 1997, and although I was impressed by Kid A my attention wandered elsewhere in later years.  But in performing some of their older material Radiohead reminded the crowd why they are master songwriters and performers.  As the Guardian review says: 'when Just, from breakthrough album The Bends, comes along, people react to it with the fevered desperation of a dog that's been locked in a kennel for a week, howling, jumping and dancing with glee'.  It's a fantastic performance of a signature track, and the kicking guitar in the outro is, if anything, even more thrillingly violent than on the album.  The brooding Everything In Its Right Place builds its menace gradually until it dominates the park with its dark, nonsense psychosis and rhythmic dancefloor repetition.  Most beautiful of all, the swooping crescendoes of The Tourist allow Thom Yorke's ethereal vocal power and the band's loping chords to spread over the audience.  And in the second encore, the quiet-loud authority of You And Whose Army? is received with something approaching a rapturous response.  Well, from me, anyway.  

All that remained at the close was to make the dash to Mile End tube to beat the crush attempting to return to London.  Those at Victoria Park had witnessed a remarkable performance from a band still at the top of their game. 

(Earlier, support act Bat For Lashes, aka Natasha Khan, also impressed with her delicate and deftly-handled songs, channelling Bjork and Tori Amos to good effect.  An artist worth following up.)

Radiohead setlist from Efestivals.co.uk:
01 15 Step
02 Bodysnatchers
03 All I Need
04 The National Anthem
05 Pyramid Song
06 Nude
07 Arpeggi
08 The Gloaming
09 Dollars and Cents
10 Faust Arp
11 There There
12 Just
13 Climbing Up The Walls
14 Reckoner
15 Everything In Its Right Place
16 How To Disappear Completely
17 Jigsaw Falling Into Place

Encore 1:

18 Videotape
19 Airbag
20 Bangers 'n Mash
21 Planet Telex
22 The Tourist

Encore 2:

23 Cymbal Rush
24 You And Whose Army?
25 Idioteque

24 June 2008


The weather gods smiled on Wimbledon today, the first day of the 2008 championship, and SW19 was bathed in luxurious summer sun and warm temperatures. I had entered the convoluted ballot months before to secure tickets to a day's play, and it turned out to be the opening day, when all the players are fresh and everyone's on display. As luck would have it, I went with my mate Greg from the CC, who has long been a tennis fan and was able to fill in many of the blanks for me regarding player careers and results of recent championships.

Having regularly passed by the grounds on the 493 bus en route to the shops of Wimbledon, I've kept close tabs on the massive refurbishments that have been taking place over the past months. On opening day the facilities were in perfect order and everything ran very smoothly despite the large crowds. I made a point of bringing my own supplies, including some remarkably tasty Herefordshire strawberries from Sainsbury's, because inside the ground a punnet of 'no less than ten' (i.e. seldom more than ten) strawberries costs ₤2.25, and a plastic cup of Pimm's costs ₤6 (!).

Our seats were in Court 1 with excellent diagonal views across the court. We had three matches on show, and first up it was the ladies...

Serena Williams (USA, world ranking 6th) beat Kaia Kanepi (Estonia, 36th), 7-5 6-3

Estonian 23-year-old Kaia Kanepi put up a good fight against her stronger and more experienced opponent, serving aggressively and staying close throughout the first set. Once Serena Williams won the first set from a Kanepi double-fault she stamped her authority on the match and Kanepi began to make unforced errors. Still, it was a creditable performance from the lower-ranked player. The difference between the two appeared to be Serena's serve: Williams sent down seven aces and only one double fault, while the Estonian only managed three aces and made four double faults.

(Below: Williams, Kanepi, and match point)

Lleyton Hewitt (Australia, 27th) beat Robin Haase (Netherlands, 64th), 6-7 6-3 6-3 6-7 6-2

The young Dutchman Robin Haase put up a great fight against the skilled campaigner Hewitt, taking the first set from Hewitt and stretching the match into the fifth set in a commendable display of stamina and skill. The match saw the best rallies of the day, with Haase keen to lure Hewitt into the front court and then lob gently over his head. The luck often went Haase's way, such as in one rally in which Hewitt sent a rocket aimed straight at Haase's chest and the hurried defensive shot magically landed just inside Hewitt's baseline, and the angry reply shot was chipped delicately at 45 degrees to win the point for Haase.

I suppose I was always going to support Haase as the underdog, but Hewitt made the decision a little easier by still sporting his trademark backwards baseball cap, which is a useful signifier of Want Of Character And Decent Judgement, particularly in an adult. In the end though, Hewitt was tough enough to come back from one-nil down and from two-all to win the match, three sets to two.

While Haase bettered Hewitt in aces (28 to 18), he also committed more unforced errors (54 to 32) and achieved lower conversion rates - Hewitt had significantly higher percentages of points won on first and second serve, and on receiving points.

(Below: Hewitt, Haase)

In the middle of the Hewitt-Haase match I ventured out from Court 1 to explore the other games in action. Wimbledon on match day is a great spectacle, and the best thing about the ground is that you can get very close to the courts. Outside the three bigger courts (Centre Court and Court 1 and 2) there are 17 other courts continually staging matches, and you can wander in and out as you please, and you're never more than 10 metres from the sidelines. With mens' (gentlemens') and womens' (ladies') along with doubles matches all being played at once, it's a great way to get a taste of the real grass-roots game.

Frank Dancevic (Canada, 95th) beat David Nalbandian (Argentina, 7th), 6-4 6-2 6-4

The big surprise of the day was the poor form of popular Argentinian star David Nalbandian, who was runner-up to Lleyton Hewitt at Wimbledon in 2002. He was soundly defeated by a lowly-ranked Canadian from Niagara Falls, Frank Dancevic, who played a blinder, defeating the higher-ranked player in straight sets in just 96 minutes and without too much bother at all.

Nalbandian appeared to have gained quite a bit of weight since his last appearances, and the spare tire seems to have slowed him down. The Argentinian's game was erratic: four double faults and 21 unforced errors, compared to Dancevic's clean sheet (no double faults) and only five unforced errors. Dancevic was, at the risk of descending into rampant sporting cliche, on fire today: he served 16 aces to the leaden-footed Nalbandian, and was clearly superior in winning the points that mattered, grabbing five of his eight break point opportunities, as opposed to his opponent, who only managed one from five.

(Below: Dancevic, Nalbandian & lineswoman, and match point)

Now all that remains is to wish New Zealand's Marina Erakovic the best of luck in her ladies' matches - she's only 20 years old and she's already ranked 53rd in the world! More power to her.

Official site: Wimbledon 2008
BBC: Wimbledon day one photos
Mock The Week: Things a Wimbledon commentator would never say

23 June 2008

A spruik too far?

A what too far, you ask? 'Spruik' is an Australian verb that crops up in the print media in that country with surprising regularity, and it means 'to promote a thing or idea to another person, in order that they buy the thing, or accept the idea' (Source: Wiktionary). It's pronounced sprook. 'Spruiking' is a genuine Australian curiosity, and an interesting one too. No-one's quite sure how it arose, but its first recorded appearance in Australia was in 1902, so it has some pedigree.

A simple Google News search for the word 'spruik' shows it appearing in 179 news items (YMMV), from the Sydney Morning Herald to the Dubbo Daily Liberal (and before you ask, no, that's not a joke), and all of the appearances were in Australian publications, although the A Word A Day archive does list an appearance in the Times from 2004.

I've recently noticed it creeping into more common usage in the New Zealand Herald. The most recent appearance was on 21 June in an article by the Herald's business writer Fran O'Sullivan, who seems to be rockin' the Jenny Shipley look these days if her byline picture is anything to go by. In it, she wrote:

...Picture a New Zealand where rolling tax cuts, possibly even indexed to inflation, become the norm just like in Australia. National leader John Key and his deputy, Bill English, are spruiking that vision to business audiences as they continue to spurn all attempts by the Finance Minister to entice them to engage with him in Parliament on his recent Budget.

O'Sullivan's implied salivation aside, the Herald seems to use the 'spruiking' word sporadically. Plugging 'spruik' into the Herald search function (which is admittedly not the soundest research technique, given its limitations) throws up a handful of previous appearances. O'Sullivan has used it once before in a November 2007 article on Canadian infrastructure investors, while Deborah Hill Cone used it in an October 2007 article on the topic of business writing itself. (She also managed to shoe-horn in the word 'spondulicks', which just goes to show that business writers must get a bit weary of thinking up synonyms for money. And actually there's no 'k' in 'spondulics', although I don't think you'll find many people willing to argue particularly strenuously about it). The only other listed appearance is a February 2006 telecoms story by Paul McIntyre, but it's on Telstra, an Australian topic.

As I mentioned, the Herald's search function is not wholly reliable; it didn't manage to spot the 21 June O'Sullivan article. But it seems to indicate that it's a word that appears in the writing of the Herald's business reporters, and that it gets past the paper's sub-editors. And the Herald is of course part of an Australian media stable, APN News & Media. Does this mean the Herald is using an Australian style guide, or is the familiarity of the Herald's writers with Australian business writing mean that they occasionally throw in a 'spruik' here and there?

I've always been interested in how our language evolves and mutates with common usage, and perhaps this is an example of a new introduced species attempting to gain a foothold in New Zealand English.

Admittedly this is not a big issue. But if I was given a choice, I'd like to think that newspaper journalists would stick to the basic rule that the vocabulary used in their stories should be informative and not obstructive, and that they should avoid jargon and unfamiliar words and phrases unless they perform demonstrably better than the existing vocabulary. From a personal perspective the word appears rather inelegant too. Using 'spruiking' in the New Zealand context seems gimmicky to me, and it begs the question, do the Herald's readers know the meaning of the word when it's used?

18 June 2008

Mark Heap: Cracked Actor

Many people will not have heard the name Mark Heap, and maybe not a whole lot more will recognise his face either, but for aficionados of British comedy talent his is a name to remember. He's a talented comedian who has appeared in a wide range of comedy programmes, and has recently started moving into supporting roles in films such as the big-budget Stardust and the no-budget Captain Eager and the Mark of Voth (as the superbly-named Lieutenant Scrutty Baker; you can view the trailer here). His speciality is playing demented misfits and all-purpose loons, but he's already receiving more mainstream roles in TV programmes like the pleasantly inoffensive sitcom Love Soup (starring his Green Wing colleague Tamsin Grieg) and the period drama Lark Rise To Candleford. Before too long he'll be cast in a Hollywood blockbuster as a psychotic babbling Batman or Spider-Man villain, just you wait.

Heap is the sort of actor who, once you've seen him in a few episodes of a TV programme, you'll realise you know him from numerous other appearances. I have to admit that it took me quite a while to realise that the artist character Brian in Spaced was played by the same actor who played Dr Alan Statham in Green Wing - and to be honest it's not that impressive a disguise. One character has a goatee but no moustache, and the other has a moustache but no goatee. (Yeah, I guess I'm one of those people who would've been taken in by Zorro's mask or by Clark Kent taking off his spectacles when he emerged as Superman...)

Here's a quick tour of some career highlights of Heap's comedy appearances since the late 1990s:

Stressed Eric

This animated series featured Heap voicing the title character, Eric Feeble, a put-upon suburban dad with anxiety issues. The show was exported to the US but unfortunately it was re-voiced by the ubiquitous and surely rich enough already Hank Azaria of The Simpsons fame. In this excerpt of the UK version, Eric is having some equestrian difficulties.

Big Train

In this sketch comedy show that ran for two series Heap played a variety of characters, but this one enabled him to display his talent as a street entertainer and juggler. In the Distracting Boss sketches Heap showed the best way to defuse potentially tricky situations with irritable employees:


In Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson's whip-smart Gen-X comedy Spaced, Heap played the basement-dwelling conceptual artist Brian Topp, who befriends Tim and Daisy despite some serious space cadet issues. In this clip Brian tries to explain what he, like, does.

Incidentally, the US release of Spaced on DVD will be accompanied by an extra episode commentary by a few American fans of the series. You may have heard of them...

Spaced: The Complete Series features bonus material including the all-new commentary from Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Matt Stone, Bill Hader (Superbad, Saturday Night Live), Patton Oswalt (King of Queens, Ratatouille) and Diablo Cody (Oscar®-winning writer of Juno) [Source: www.spaced-out.org.uk]

Green Wing

It's in the part-improvised and riotously funny Green Wing that Heap portrayed his most famous comedy character: the impossibly neurotic and self-important Dr Alan Statham, who is irredeemably fixated upon the chain-smoking harridan office manager Joanna Clore (Pippa Haywood), despite her eternal disdain and roving eye. In this first clip Statham has prepared a special treat for Joanna, but she's sent an office wageslave (Olivia Colman, who plays Sophie in Peep Show) in her place. Witness the magic of the famous Alan Statham Recorder Dance:

In the second clip, Statham is on one of his regular crusades against perceived persecution, struggling in vain to get a better slot in the hospital carpark. In this scene, Statham breaks one of the basic rules of hospital operating theatres - never, never eat the patient. Truly a special moment in TV comedy history...

15 June 2008

Trooping the Colour

Guardsmen line The Mall before the ceremony

Today the British Army performed Trooping the Colour, its annual demonstration of ceremonial fealty to commemorate the Queen's official birthday. The custom dates back to the 17th century, and since 1748 in King George II's reign the ceremony has been held to commemorate the sovereign's birthday.

Hundreds of starched red-blazered Guardsmen wearing their towering bearskin hats paraded in tightly-choreographed ranks past the Queen to receive her salute and that of the Duke of Edinburgh. Many of the Guardsmen marching have seen active service, and some will be deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. Jingling cavalry squadrons decked out in the mirror-polished breastplates of the Life Guards or the gold-corded tunics of the Royal Horse Artillery also took their turn, displaying the precision riding skills that they still practice.

As the ceremony in Horse Guards Parade is best viewed from the highly sought-after seats in the temporary grandstands, I waited up The Mall near Buckingham Palace instead. After the ceremony the Army units marched and trotted down to the Palace, with military bands including the mounted musicians of the Band of the Household Cavalry playing lively marching tunes.

See below for some of the videos I took. I suggest you select 'watch in high quality' for a better picture if you have the option.

Interspersed with the Army units were open horse-drawn landaus carrying the members of the Royal Family back to the Palace, apart from Princess Anne, whose equestrian skills enabled her to ride with the cavalrymen. First came Princes William and Harry escorting Camilla Parker-Bowles, the Duchess of Cornwall. They were followed closely by Prince Edward and other minor royals. After a decent interval came the landau bearing the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, the latter in regimental colours, bearing a sheathed sabre and still wearing his bearskin hat. Must've been hot under there.

The Duchess of Cornwall and Princes William and Harry

The Life Guards

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh

An Army general rides in the procession to the Palace

After the Royal Family entered the Palace gates and retired inside, the crowd gathered close to Buckingham Palace to watch the royal appearance on the balcony, and to observe the Royal Air Force fly-past scheduled for precisely 1.06pm. As a 42-gun artillery salute rang out from the adjacent Green Park the Queen waved to the crowd and spectators' necks craned to look for oncoming aircraft.

As we waited I heard an American tourist marvel that the British monarch travelled in an open carriage and stand in plain view on the Palace balcony, and that civilian airliners were routinely allowed to fly almost directly over the Palace. One genteel English gent nearby assured her that such openness was a mark of British civility, and remarked that tourists often expressed amazement when they viewed Windsor Castle on the approach into Heathrow: 'why did they build the Castle so close to the airport?' they supposedly asked.

The aerial display turned out to be the largest seen in many years, in part to celebrate the RAF's 90th anniversary. The huge convoy of military aircraft that flew over Trafalgar Square and Admiralty Arch, down The Mall and over the Palace stretched 20 miles across London's skies.

In pride of place at the head of the fly-past was the historic flight: the world's only remaining Lancaster bomber still flying, escorted by two Spitfires and two Hurricanes. Then came a long succession of more contemporary RAF aircraft:

- A Hercules transport with two Kingair 200s
- Nine Eurofighter Typhoons
- An E-3 Sentry AWACS craft with a VC10 airtanker
- Nine Tornado fighter-bombers
- A C-17 Globemaster transport
- A Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft from 201 Squadron at RAF Kinloss
- A Tristar transport jet and two HS125 liaison jets
- And finally, 16 Tornado GR4s in a precise diamond formation.

After the spectacular fly-past the royals returned inside the Palace for their lunch and the crowd outside dispersed with the same intention. I overheard a superbly British moment of conversation as the crowd milled in the aftermath of the fly-past: a wife said to her husband, 'ooh, that was spectacular, wasn't it?', to which her husband replied, 'well yes, but my taxes paid for it so it should've been!'

BBC: Queen watches Trooping the Colour
BBC: In pictures

11 June 2008

Lo-o-o-o-ng songs

Brothers and sisters, I have been moved.

Moved by the power of soul music, none other.

And that's Soul with a capital S, people. The electric power of the mighty song, undivided, unmistakeable, unquenchable, unshakeable.

What have I heard? I have heard the siren call of the black prophet, the soul guru, the master of the rhythm. His name? It is Mister Isaac Hayes, brothers and sisters.

Okay, perhaps we can ratchet the soul fervour down a notch or two in the interest of readability and fleeting credibility. For those unaware, Isaac Hayes is probably most famous for two disparate appearances in the media spotlight. From 1996 to 2007 he provided the golden voice of the character ‘Chef’ in the scatological animated TV comedy programme South Park, until he resigned from the show (or someone resigned on his behalf – stories vary wildly) as a result of an episode ridiculing Tom Cruise and Scientology, the dubious sci-fi religion of which Hayes is also currently a member.

Hayes obtained more lasting fame two decades earlier with his career-defining ‘Theme From Shaft’ – a strutting, street-wise, genre-defining funk jam with an oh-so-cool delivery – for a low-budget blaxploitation epic. The theme went on to win Hayes an Oscar for Best Original Song in 1971, as the awards that had named the whiter-than-white ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ from Mary Poppins as Best Song seven years before finally caught up with the notion of black music. The ‘Theme From Shaft’ also caught the spirit of the time, channelling the black liberation movement and the power of soul and R&B into a funky pop song without rival, and one that pushed the boundaries of possibilities.

But before Shaft, Isaac Hayes is credited with playing a major role in shaping the course of black music through the 1970s and beyond with his 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul. On it, Hayes displayed his massive confidence and innovative approach to recording, in part by eschewing the standard short-format three minute single in favour of much longer soul workouts. The album contained only four tracks, and climaxes with a track that’s 18 minutes and 42 seconds long – the effortless mastery of Hayes’ radically revitalised cover of country artist Jimmy Webb’s ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’.

The track begins with a long Hayes monologue at the microphone, his band keeping time behind him as the audience is drawn ever closer into the story. Author Robert Gordon says:

‘the long intro was how he shifted the audience’s attention from their conversations to his. Toward the song’s end, when the protagonist accepts his fate and states, “I got to go on,” the horns break like sunshine through the clouds. It’s masterful arranging and early evidence of the great work that would come from this star on the rise’

Hearing ‘Phoenix’ got me thinking about relatively rare art of composing and performing long songs, particularly looking into the past from an age in which the short attention spans of the 1950s and 60s have returned and album sales are declining. Generally my collection tends towards the snappy three-minute pop songs of yore. Not being a devotee of progressive rock, in which interminable album workouts with one track per side were not unusual (1972’s ‘Close To The Edge’ by Yes with its one track Side A, I’m looking at you…), I have been relatively ignorant of the longest of the long songs. But a simple click of a mouse (to sort the music collection by track length) reveals a treasury of longer material that requires no special devotion to enjoy. So in the inimitable style of Nick Hornby and pop anoraks everywhere, here’s a personal top 10 of quality clock-botherers. You will detect a distinct vintage flavour…

1. Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace [16:10] (live, 1972) – Better take your vitamins and have your bible handy for this one, and a hefty stack of handkerchiefs to mop your fervid brow because by the time you’ve relished the entirety of this gospel workout you’ll be: A) full of praise for the almighty Queen of Soul, and B) completely exhausted.

2. The Who – My Generation [15:46] (live, 1970) – From arguably the greatest live album in history, ‘Live At Leeds’, the world’s loudest rock band blast out the most epic student gig ever performed. Not only is this masterwork nearly five times longer than the single version of ‘My Generation’, as the planet-frightening battery of sound reaches its crescendo you can hear Pete Townshend having a little fun by playing a duet with the echoes of his electric guitar bouncing off the back wall of the venue. Vital listening for even the most cursory rock fan.

3. Santana – Soul Sacrifice [13:52] (live at Woodstock, 1969) – Okay, so it begins with a few minutes of hippie chanting and tin-clanging (‘Peace! Peace! Peace!’), but it melds so beautifully into the intro for Santana’s incendiary series of instrumental rock solos that the results are hard to believe. Such virtuoso guitar-playing! Such machine-gun drumming! Truly a moment when the hippie lovegods smiled down and said ‘the People heard Rock – and it was Good’.

4. Traffic – The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys [11:36] (1971) – From the album of the same name, this loping jazz-tinged rock wonder sneaks up on you and before you know it, you’re listening to a Capaldi/Winwood masterpiece of epic proportions. The fuzz-toned keys are a special treat.

5. Elton John – Funeral For A Friend / Love Lies Bleeding [11:07] (1973) – a bifurcated piano-rock-and-synths epic, the swirling instrumental of Funeral For A Friend, in which Elton imagines the sort of music he’d like played at his own funeral, forms an overture for the stomping straight-ahead pop of Love Lies Bleeding. The opening track of legendary 1973 double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton opened his 2006 concert in Wellington with this number, thus ticking off my #1 wishlist song in one fell swoop.

6. The Stone Roses – Fool’s Gold [9:53] (1989) – Beloved of TV producers searching for propulsive music loops, the instigators of the dance-rock Madchester scene were never finer than in this, their creative apogee.

7. Patti Smith – Land: Horses / Land of a Thousand Dances / La Mer (De) [9:27] (1975) – How badly does rock music need another reinvention as powerful as the one punk poetess Patti Smith offered up in ’75? Momentum and throwaway cool are steeped through this and it’s still as exciting as the day it was recorded.

8. David Gray – Say Hello Wave Goodbye [8:59] (1999) – This warm, wistful ode to a lost love closes out the mega-selling ‘White Ladder’, Gray’s breakthrough album, but this track was written by Soft Cell’s Marc Almond. It allows Gray to stretch out his vocal chords on the outro and provides the perfect end to a classic fin-de-siecle album.

9. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Almost Cut My Hair [8:52] (1970) – How’s this for a hippie manifesto, in which refusing to shear those free-flowing locks becomes a statement of stoner empowerment, kickin’ it to The Man. Everyone sing along now: ‘I feel like letting my freak flag fly!’

10. Sparks – Number One Song In Heaven [7:30] (1979) – Giorgio Moroder worked his magic over an extraordinary cult disco classic to produce this stretched-limo version with its soothing intro half leaping headlong into the tautest, jumpiest, catchiest, daftest electro-disco blockbuster this side of Boney M. ‘Gabriel plays it, god how he plays it…’. How this only made #14 in the UK pop charts I’ll never know. The video version below omits the intro but is still ace:

What, only space for ten? I could go on: anyone who hasn’t definitely needs to hear John Hiatt’s 1993 live version of ‘Slow Turning’, Paul Weller’s ‘This Is No Time’ at the Albert Hall, and Bowie’s ‘The Width of the Circle’ from The Man Who Sold The World...

10 June 2008

NZ directors climb the Hollywood honour roll

Movie business website Box Office Mojo collects data on motion picture grosses and the performance of individual directors and actors. As a New Zealander it's particularly pleasing to note the rise of directors like Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, King Kong) and Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Shrek 2, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian) to the higher ranks of successful directors, with each having helmed blockbusters that have brought in over US$1 billion at the box office. These returns place Jackson and Adamson amongst the most famous names of contemporary movie-making - not bad for two chaps from Pukerua Bay and the City of Sails.

Here's a run-down of the top 20 directors in terms of total box-office grosses in US dollars, as at 9 June 2008. The directors' names are followed by their total gross figure and their highest grossing film.

1. Steven Spielberg ($3701m; E.T.)
2. Robert Zemeckis ($1802m; Forrest Gump)
3. George Lucas ($1700m; Star Wars)
4. Ron Howard ($1606m; The Grinch)
5. Chris Columbus ($1567m; Harry Potter/Sorcerer's Stone)
6. Gore Verbinski ($1308m; PotC/Dead Man's Chest)
7. Tim Burton ($1289m; Batman)
8. Peter Jackson ($1271m; LotR/Return of the King)
9. Sam Raimi ($1249m; Spider-Man)
10. James Cameron ($1146m; Titanic)
11. Michael Bay ($1093m; Transformers)
12. Clint Eastwood ($1002m; Unforgiven)
13. Andrew Adamson ($1000m; Shrek 2)
14. Ivan Reitman ($996m; Ghostbusters)
15. Ridley Scott ($980m; Gladiator)
16. Brett Ratner ($980m; X-Men/The Last Stand)
17. Joel Schumacher ($962m; Batman Forever)
18. Roland Emmerich ($945m; Independence Day)
19. Tony Scott ($942m; Top Gun)
20. Jay Roach ($927m; Meet The Fockers)

Movie grosses aren't necessarily the mark of a legendary directorial talent: Sydney Pollack only managed 28th place on the list, Steven Soderbergh is 30th, Martin Scorsese 32nd, Woody Allen 72nd and Ang Lee is only 75th. And monetary success aside, Ron Howard, Chris Columbus and Gore Verbinski haven't exactly helped to raise the standards of motion pictures or create great works of cinematic art.

But big numbers definitely help a director stay in the business of making movies and allow them greater freedom in selecting their projects. Jackson has a higher total gross than establishment figures like Titanic director James Cameron and Clint Eastwood, and this influence enabled him to tackle his lifelong ambition, an expensive modern remake of King Kong, while his box-office clout has meant a green light for The Lovely Bones with a reported budget only one-third the size of King Kong's and with no big name drawcard actors on the cast list (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon).

Adamson outranks the famed Ridley Scott on the list. Indeed, he will likely leapfrog Eastwood into 12th place as the returns from Prince Caspian mount up - it's taken $125m so far.

One thing that marks out the best way for a director to stamp their authority in Hollywood - get themselves attached to a dead-cert blockbuster franchise: Lord of the Rings, Shrek, Narnia, Spider-Man. Which is why Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg are so interested in making the Tintin films!

Screen Directors Guild of NZ
NZ Film Commission
NZ Film Archive
Film NZ

09 June 2008

The safest flat in Tooting

My old flat
Originally uploaded by eT le snap
This afternoon I paid a visit to my old digs in Ascot Road, Tooting, just to see the neighbourhood. A few shops have closed since '99 and a big Sainsbury's has opened near the Tube but it's still basically the same - a bit run-down.

The flat was fairly crummy, but it was very cheap - less than 60 quid a week including council tax. When I lived there it was owned by Mr Mendes, an Indian chap from Goa whose main source of income was as the proprietor of an Afro Hair Supplies shop in Tooting High Street. (It's still there, one of three such shops).

As you can see from the photo, it's right in the shadow of the Tooting police station. My first bedroom in the back overlooked the station car park. Actually it was much quieter than you'd expect, and there was certainly very little danger of burglary!

The house wasn't in the best state of repair, which explains the low rent. On one occasion the landlord had come around to mend the hinges on the bathroom door, but didn't have the right tools to re-hang the door, so he left it loose. When we wanted some privacy - like, to shower - we had to lift the door and wedge it into the doorframe. One morning I managed to mess this up and the bathroom door ended up in the shower with me!

Another time I complained to the landlord that my bedroom ceiling leaked during rainstorms, so he sent his son along with a bucket to put up in the roof. Now that's problem-solving. Fortunately I left the flat before the bucket filled up...

08 June 2008

Give my regards to Stoke Newington

Today I reluctantly returned the keys to Craig and Claire's apartment in Stoke Newington, north London, after nearly five weeks of house-sitting duty. Fair enough - it's not unreasonable for people to want their apartment back after a long flight from the other side of the world. Only I'd grown quite attached to the place...

Stoke Newington is a funky mix of busy city life with a village-like feel. Strangely, it benefits from not being on the London Underground, because this relative inaccessibility has meant that the area has yet to be over-run with wealthy City types. It still has a down-at-heel, studenty feel, and it's also a haven for north London's Turkish community, with Turkish bakeries, cafes and barbershops along the High Street.

For many centuries Stoke Newington was an outlying village of London, but by the time a local clergyman was jailed in 1562 for repeating gossip about Queen Elizabeth, the city was growing outwards to encompass more and more of the intervening fields. When Charles II passed through Stoke Newington in 1675 there was an attempted regicide when a shot was fired at him. Things quietened down after the arrival of the railway from Liverpool Street in 1872, which linked the area with the city and brought about a new influx of residents eager for cheap accommodation.

As for me, I can certainly vouch for the convenience of the location - with the station only five minutes walk from Craig and Claire's apartment, the train takes just 15 minutes to reach Liverpool Street, and for trips to other parts of town there's the 24-hour bus every few minutes to Angel and King's Cross, and regular buses to Hackney and London Bridge. And best of all, the Rose and Crown at the end of Stoke Newington Church Street has its pub quiz night every Tuesday...

05 June 2008

The music of Walk The Line

Well you wonder why I always dress in black
Why you never see bright colours on my back
And why does my appearance seem to have a sombre tone
Well there's a reason for the things that I have on
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down
Livin' in the hopeless hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime
But is there because he's a victim of the times

- Johnny Cash, ‘Man In Black’ (1971)

In the comedy spoof Walk Hard, a stage manager approaches our pensive singin’ hero Dewey Cox backstage, calling for him to take the stage and perform. Cox’s sidekick fends off the stage manager, declaiming, ‘Give him a minute, son. Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays’. Harking back to the opening scenes of Walk The Line, the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk Hard makes a good point: man, that sure is one long flashback in the Folsom Prison scene.

In between the bookends of the Folsom performance director James Mangold (Cop Land, Girl Interrupted, 3:10 To Yuma) fills the viewers in on the Cash life story, and a fine set piece his movie is too. Joaquin Phoenix played a druggie and was nominated for an Oscar but didn’t win. Reese Witherspoon was nominated too: she *didn’t* play a druggie and therefore *did* win an Oscar. For me this just goes to show that if you lead a life of reckless drug abuse and behave like a jerk in the presence of talented and beautiful women, then in the end you get to marry Reese Witherspoon, who if you're very lucky will let you polish the golden statuette once in a while. Score!

Seriously though, this film is a solid piece of work, and it took nearly $120 million at the US box office, making it a strong performer. It also tells the story of one of the last heroes of the age before saturation level was reached in broadcast media.

The thing I liked most about Walk The Line is that it successfully portrayed one of the very few figures in country music who carried off the art of being a country performer without being tarred by the associated deeply uncool hokum, platitudes and cliché generally associated with the genre. Cash was shown as a rebel fighting the musical establishment (note, the pop music establishment, not just the country establishment). His peers were not just the country-as-can-be Carter family, but equally fellow southerners tearing up the 1950s pop charts, like Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. This placed Cash firmly in the centre of the musical culture of the time. Have a look and enjoy this confident 1959 live performance of Walk The Line:

This depiction of Cash at the centre of it all is probably just reflecting fact and is no great stretch of the imagination, because the American musical climate of the 1950s and 60s seemed to me to be bound together more tightly than today's, due to the relative scarcity of media outlets to expose artists. Sure, there were plenty of short-range radio and TV stations where an act could gather local notoriety – witness the fertile American garage rock boom of the 60s, with acts popping up all over the country to record singles and albums, but few crossed over to attain national and global fame.

Cash was one of the few who made it big, and he stuck around and kept releasing records until the end of his life in 2003. He even achieved a critical rebirth from the 1990s onwards as mainstream music audiences sought out the authenticity and gravitas Cash had always offered. He might not have been trendy or young and pretty, and country radio had largely abandoned him due to his habit of courting musical controversy (after all, look what they did to the Dixie Chicks) but Cash could still write and perform with style.

His collaborations with famed producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Tom Petty, and many others) brought a plentiful vein of good form, and saw Cash release numerous albums:

• American Recordings (1994)
• Unchained (1996)
• VH1 Storytellers (1998 live album, with Willie Nelson)
• American III: Solitary Man (2000)
• American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)
• Unearthed (2003 boxset, released posthumously)
• My Mother's Hymn Book (2004, released posthumously)
• American V: A Hundred Highways (2006, released posthumously)

Many of these recordings featured Cash covering contemporary rock artists, which attracted younger audiences to Cash’s music and broadened his appeal.

Two late-period tracks highlight Cash’s staying power and show why he achieved such a resurgence amongst rock audiences towards the end of his career. On American III he covered U2’s graceful ballad ‘One’ from Achtung Baby (1991), the album that helped drag the Irish ubergroup out of their 80s rock treadmill. Cash’s cracked, expressive voice worked wonders with the lyrics and gave the song a haunting quality that the original arguably lacked. And on American IV his rendition of Sting’s ‘I Hung My Head’ from Mercury Falling (1996) is a sparse, honest affair, with the role of the accidental murderer awaiting the hangman’s noose utterly believable in Cash’s performance.

Another major asset to the film, aside from the excellent performances offered by Phoenix and Witherspoon, who sung all their own material, was the film’s soundtrack, which was guided by the gifted producer and performer, T-Bone Burnett. Burnett generated a set of songs largely taken from the country genre and fired them up with the vigour and pace that would appeal to broader audiences, rather than just country fans. Take a listen to Cash’s early recordings for Sun Records in Memphis, and you’ll hear real country music – there’s twang aplenty. Then listen to Walk The Line’s soundtrack and you’ll hear the beautiful thumping bass that sets the Folsom Prison water glass popping – this is a prime example of melding the best of two musical genres.

Burnett is a low-profile figure, but is well-known in the music industry. I came to know his work through his artful production on six great albums by his then wife Sam Phillips (who is not to be confused with the famous head of Sun Records, who was Mr. Sam Phillips). In the 1990s Burnett moved into film work and achieved great success with the soundtrack to the Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), which played a major role in the recent revival of interest in bluegrass music, before he moved on to Walk The Line. He has also collaborated and produced albums for a great many artists, including Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello and the Wallflowers.

His work on the Walk The Line soundtrack achieves similar results to that of the soundtrack album project that accompanied Backbeat (1994), which saw a collection of indie rockers assembled as The Backbeat Band to perform covers of the songs the Beatles would’ve covered in their speed-fuelled early 1960s performances in Hamburg. The Backbeat soundtrack, like that of Walk The Line, captured the essence of the original performances but packaged it in a way to ensure that contemporary audiences could enjoy and relate to the material.

Recently I finally had an opportunity to see T-Bone Burnett perform live on an episode of Later With Jools Holland. He produced Raising Sand (2007) the collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and is touring with them as a guitarist. Burnett lurked on stage right, not wanting to draw attention away from the grizzled Plant and the rare beauty of Krauss, but it was a real treat to see him performing live, even if it was from nearly ten kilometres away in the BBC TV Centre. Now all we have to do is provide Jools Holland with a polite reminder that it’s T-Bone Burnett, not blues stalwart T-Bone Walker, as he mistakenly introduced him after the performance.

T-Bone Burnett

To commemorate Burnett's work as a solo artist, here's a dodgy video transfer of River Of Love from his self-titled 1995 album. Don't be thrown off the scent by the fact that it's TNN, or by the dodgy hairstyles - this is a top song.

01 June 2008

Indigent cricket cousins

English comedian David Mitchell, the co-star of ‘Peep Show’, ‘That Mitchell And Webb Look’ and the movie comedy Magicians has commenced as a regular columnist for the Guardian, and in his first article, ‘Ho-hum Kiwis could try haka to make us care’ he addresses the current New Zealand cricket tour of England. He summarises the attitude adopted by most English cricket fans to the touring New Zealanders:

We don’t hate or despise or fear, let alone respect them; we disdain them. You can tell from the number of times you hear an England supporter say “New Zealand are actually a very good side”. There’s a silent “considering none of us really give a shit whether they live or die” coming afterwards.

It all boils down to a fondness for great rivalries and a sense of dramatic narrative that runs through English sport, Mitchell says.

It’s not an age-old clash, England against New Zealand – there’s no ancient rivalry, not much post-colonial bitterness, no history of war, it’s just two countries that both think the other is kind of fine. In the rugby they’ve managed to pep it up with the haka and other Maori stuff but in the cricket there’s just no story. And people crave stories in sport – a proper narrative like in a film…

The article is illustrated by a fetching cartoon by Matt Johnstone of a pair of pasty-faced New Zealand cricketers leaping and gesturing on the pitch, performing a haka while a bemused England batsman looks on.

I know what sort of reaction a column like this would foment in the easily-excitable New Zealand sport media and blogosphere – all are eager to leap into the reflexive and defensive “anti-Kiwi bashing” mode and would reel out irate columns decrying the arrogance of the English cricket media and how this will all play into New Zealand’s hands by lulling the English team into a false sense of security. (Welsh columnist Stephen Jones often achieves the same effect with his rugby writing).

But I’m not about to write that sort of blog, mainly because whether New Zealanders such as me like it or not, Mitchell – who is a witty cove, and cricket writing needs more of his ilk – has a valid point about the relationship between English and New Zealand cricket. We shouldn’t get up in arms over the overtones of disdain in the relationship – they are only reflecting both the broader gaps in cultural links between the two countries, which have been widening since Britain’s imperial mindset ebbed away after World War Two, and in the long-remembered aftermath of the UK joining the Common Market in 1973, thereby single-handedly demolishing the greatest pillar of New Zealand’s agricultural export economy.

The cricketing relationship between England and New Zealand is also dominated by the real differences in cricketing culture between the two sides. In England, performances in test cricket are the holy grail, and this is reflected in both the international test rankings (in which England is currently fourth, as opposed to New Zealand's seventh ranking) and the batting and bowling averages, in which England has a clear superiority over nearly every facet of the visiting New Zealand team. This doesn’t necessarily mean that England deserves to be regarded as ‘the better team’ on every occasion, or that England will necessarily win every test they play against New Zealand – look at the Hamilton test in March where New Zealand caught England on the hop and beat them by 189 runs. What it does mean is the experience and devotion to test cricket is generally reflected in England’s performances against weaker sides like New Zealand.

New Zealand, on the other hand, has bent with the wind and focused its efforts on the shorter forms of the game where the skills required in test cricket are less influential. Indeed, New Zealand has a clear advantage over England in the one-day form of the game: it’s currently ranked third in the world, while England is only sixth. In recent years New Zealand has embraced one-day cricket, while England plays fewer games:

Decade NZ ENG
1970s 20 46
1980s 126 120
1990s 191 135
2000s 204 186

This is partially a reflection of where the money lies – in New Zealand it’s impossible to fill cricket grounds for test matches, aside from the smaller boutique grounds adopted for the recent England tour. The big crowds and the big money for New Zealand Cricket are only generated by the shorter games, in which it’s possible to sell thousands of tickets and huge lakes of the sponsors’ beer to boozy sun-addled fans.

Mitchell makes a good point about the bilateral cricketing relationship between the two countries. In England there is an overwhelming sense that the New Zealand tour is a necessary interlude before the real business of the summer, the tour by South Africa. Perhaps you could substitute the word ‘chore’ in place of ‘interlude’ for many commentators and England fans. Just try reading the cricket articles in the daily newspapers before a New Zealand match – you’ll often find the column focuses exclusively on the England team and its well-moneyed scions, and there’s next to no discussion of the New Zealand team or its selection and prospects. The relationship, at least as far as the English press go, is not particularly close. As blogger Hamish McDouall has pointed out, ‘Scyld Berry called us “indigent cousins”, but I guess when your parents have given you a name with no vowels, you’d start off pretty embittered’.

Contrast the English view with that of the New Zealand team. For New Zealand cricketers, a tour of England is a career pinnacle. The chance to stamp your name on the visitors’ honours board at Lord’s is highly sought-after. The New Zealand captain, Daniel Vettori, who holds the record for the best one-day bowling at Lord’s, has been quoted as saying, ‘Lord’s is a special place for any cricketer and it is a privilege to play here’. The quote sits pertly on one of the many display billboards at Lord’s, next to an artful black and white photograph of Vettori looking wistful or perhaps just slightly hung over.

You would think that the ongoing rugby rivalry against Australia would transfer into the cricketing arena too, and while New Zealand’s cricket rivalry with Australia is strong, there are two factors that mean the trans-Tasman cricketing relationship shines just slightly dimmer than the one with England.

Firstly, history. New Zealand has played a whopping 93 tests against England, more than double the number it has played against Australia (46). England was New Zealand’s opponent in New Zealand’s first ever test match, in Christchurch in 1930, and has a long history of nurturing the game in New Zealand. It was clear at the beginning that it would take amateurish New Zealand years to catch up with the other test-playing nations, and to do that it needed match practice. Australia, on the other hand, did not play New Zealand for the first time for another 16 years, and after the walkover they inflicted in the single match in 1946 (New Zealand bowled out for 42 and 54; Australia winning by and innings and 103 runs in under two days) they did not deign to play another test against New Zealand for an astonishing 27 years. Make no mistakes, for nearly all of the period of Australia versus New Zealand cricket the larger neighbour has clearly been the dominant force. But the legacy of this dominance still plays a role, and is quickly remembered (rightly or wrongly) in incidents such as the infamous under-arm delivery in 1981.

Secondly, New Zealanders are a pragmatic lot. There’s no sense in investing all your emotional capital in a rivalry in which you have little hope of victory on a consistent basis. Australia hands out so many drubbings to New Zealand on the cricket field that any victory over the baggy-green worshipping millionaire sportsmen from across the Tasman is greeted by a national outpouring of good cheer. (I remember the great roar of approval at Paul McCartney’s concert at Western Springs in Auckland in March 1993 was when he offered his congratulations for the one-day victory earlier that day against Australia, in which Jeff Wilson hit an electrifying 44 not out off 28 balls to eke out a come-from-behind 3 wicket win). England, on the other hand, is the classy team that New Zealand can beat. Not all the time, and more in the one-day game than in tests, but it still feels good to be able to foot it with a pedigree team.

Mitchell’s observation of the lack of a sense of dramatic narrative flow to the New Zealand is valid too, at least as far as the English media are concerned. English sport writers are great mythologisers, always fond of stoking a story to build great rivalries, or building up sporting heroes into titanic figures of legend. Witness the ever-present English cricket writers’ hobby of poking around trying to find ‘Thenextbotham’ (it’s pronounced excitedly, as one word, generally while wiping a small bubble of frothy saliva from the corner of the mouth). They are also ever eager to christen a player with ‘talismanic status’, such as the frequently injured all-rounder Andrew Flintoff. The main effect of assigning talismanic status to a player is that England generally lose as many matches as possible when that player is unavailable, because a valid excuse has conveniently presented itself. At least the Guardian writer Vic Marks, writing about the second test at Old Trafford, is polite enough to mention the favourable comparison between Flintoff and New Zealand’s giant all-rounder, Jacob Oram:

Oram looked like a journeyman. So let's compare him to, say, the former colossus, Andrew Flintoff. The Lancastrian has scored five centuries in his 67 Tests and averages 32. Oram five centuries in 29 Tests at an average of 37. Ah, but what of the bowling? Flintoff, 197 wickets at 32; Oram, 59 wickets at 29. Gulp.

Perhaps the level of English disinterest will subside as the tour progresses, but I can only see a few chances for this to occur. Perhaps New Zealand might pull off an unlikely victory in the upcoming third test, which would set off a round of teeth-gnashing and recriminations in English cricket for emerging from a test series against lowly New Zealand with only a piffling draw to show for it. Heads would roll, or at the very least, some England players would feel their necks getting appreciably chillier as the selectors draw up their team for the South Africa series.

More likely is that as the test series ends and the shorter game returns, New Zealand will put up more of a fight, and this will give the English media more to write about. If only New Zealand had its bulky biffer, Jesse Ryder, in the team, the English media would’ve had a field day. Mixing the calm rule-abiding nature of his namesake Jesse James with the abstemious, responsible nature of his namesake Shaun Ryder (of Happy Mondays fame), his absence will doubtless be lamented by the entire English cricket media, although it will probably not stop them hanging out in the bars near the cricket grounds on the off chance that he shows up to stick his hand through a toilet window again. Ah, memories…