31 January 2009

You can walk everywhere, 'cos nowhere's very far

(Wellington, 04.01.09)

I lived in Wellington for seven years.

It's a vibrant, sociable place, with a beautiful harbour, funky cafes and a jealously-guarded reputation as a small city with many of the benefits of big city lifestyles. I always enjoyed the proximity of wilderness and the rugged coastlines. Hop in the car and in ten minutes you can be atop a windswept hill, in the midst of a bush-clad reserve or hunting for polished glass on wave-lapped stony beaches, often without another soul around.

It's a perfect place to have a night out on the town with friends, starting down Lambton Quay or the Terrace where most people work and ending up in the late-night bars and pubs of Courtenay Place. There are great cinemas including the splendidly refurbished Embassy, which hosted the famed Lord of the Rings and King Kong premieres. (For a report on the latter, see my Scoop article from 2005).

Wellington boasts the national museum, Te Papa, which often hosts interesting travelling exhibitions (although admittedly it is quite an eyesore from the outside). Wellington is well organised too: the buses run more frequently than in (much larger) Auckland, and the construction of the Stadium next to the train and bus stations means that getting to and from major sporting events is a breeze.

In January I paid my first visit to the capital since I departed for England in early 2007. It was very enjoyable to catch up with friends, revisit old haunts and enjoy the summer sunshine. Returning to Wellington after two years living in a city of seven million people reminded me how compact and uncrowded New Zealand cities are. I'd forgotten the glimmer of amusement that always struck me when attempting to cross Lambton Quay at lunchtime: there's invariably no need to reduce one's pace to avoid oncoming traffic because there simply isn't very much of it. And if the pedestrian traffic on Lambton Quay gets your goat there's a simple solution: just cross to the other ('harbour') side, because there's generally hardly anyone walking there. This also works if you're being rather un-Wellington-y and trying to avoid running into people that you know on the way back to the office at lunchtime.

Savouring the refreshing Wellington breezes - hell, who am I kidding, the gusting, balance-affecting, patience-trying gales - I was reminded of a particular song from the 1990s. Specifically, the year in question was 1993, the year in which the Mutton Birds released Salty, their second album. The Mutton Birds, led by tunesmith Don McGlashan, kept alive the dream that there could be more than one guitar pop band in New Zealand aside from Crowded House. They played snappy singles and moody album tracks alike adorned with blissful harmonies and a keen sense of the internal workings of a great song.

The lead single from Salty, 'The Heater', was a bleak yet intriguing glimpse into a paranoiac worldview... and despite the dire state of New Zealand radio programming at the time, it still topped the charts. Perhaps the Mutton Birds could save New Zealand from soulless manufactured pop music and the dreary mediocrity of grunge? Just briefly, all was right in the world.

The diversity of the music on Salty contributed significantly to its successes. The Heater was followed by the awesome Byrdsian jangle-pop of 'In My Room', while 'Anchor Me' remains a popular song to this day. The more outre album tracks like Queens English impressed with their inventiveness. Even the three songs written by Mutton Birds bassist Alan Gregg added to the feel of the album, rather than undermined its overall sense of quality.

Gregg, a former member of New Zealand indie bands Dribbling Darts of Love and Sneaky Feelings, specialised in quirky numbers that in other contexts could be mistaken for joke songs - the sort of material that the Beatles allowed Ringo Starr to sing, once an album, both for a bit of light relief and to allow them to slip out the back of the recording studio for a crafty Woodbine. To be fair, Gregg's song 'There's A Limit', sung by McGlashan, fits in perfectly well with the rest of the album. Its mean-spiritedness is couched in a seductive melody, and it contains the memorable couplet:

You can charm the birds out of the trees
Till the cows come home
But my patience is sure put to the test
When I return and in return for trying to help out
Find someone else is shitting in my nest

Another Gregg composition, 'Esther', is more straightforwardly a silly throwaway number, with an endearingly daft chorus rhyming 'Esther' with 'best of':

Esther I've known you for ages
And I've watched you through all the changes
Esther, we used to be the best of friends
But now we're becoming strangers

But it's the other Alan Gregg composition on Salty that was bumped way up the batting order. His song 'Wellington' appeared as track 4, with its bouncy optimism lightening the mood after the moody 'You Will Return' and setting the scene for the lovely choruses of 'In My Room'. It fitted into the mould of the consciously domestic focus of some of the songs on the Mutton Birds' debut album, particularly the classic 'Dominion Road'. Back in 1993 when New Zealand music was barely on the radar on radio and TV, explicitly parochial songs like 'Wellington' were somehow frowned upon. The assumption was that New Zealand bands' generally futile attempts to conquer the American or British charts shouldn't be 'undermined' by songs with local references. Which is one way to produce boring identikit copies of American bands, although in defence of the concept it didn't seem to do Silverchair much harm in Australia.

'Wellington' is so enjoyable to listen to, it merits a blow-by-blow account. Think of it as liveblogging, assuming you can describe the act of blogging about listening to a song recorded a decade and a half ago as a 'live' experience.

(Alan Gregg)

0:00 Nice gallumphing intro there. No nonsense, no messing about, no fiddly chords. A good sensible 25 seconds with only a few acoustic flourishes to dilute the honest stodge.

0:25 Cut to the chase - "I wish I was in Wellington, the weather's not so good / The wind it cuts right through you and it rains more than it should". Commendable candidness up front there, Mr Gregg. Because he's right, you know. The weather in Wellington is quite crappy. But wait!

0:38 "But I'd be there tomorrow, if I only could / Oh I wish I was in Wellington". Ah, he was softening us up there with his tale of meteorological woe, only to floor us with his heart-warming loyalty! God bless you, Alan Gregg.

0:51 Big chorus! Rhyming 'bureaucracy' with 'along Lambton Quay'! What more could you ask for in a song lauding the qualities of medium-sized conurbations? Nothing, that's what.

1:17 Ah now we're discovering hitherto undiscovered depths to the lyrical content. For now it is revealed that this isn't a love song to the fair capital city, but rather this is a narrative disguise to the real message behind the song, which is to a woman living in Wellington; a lament to a long-distance relationship:

It just isn't practical, you down in the capital
And me at the other end of the island
The problem is the gap - between us on the map
And there's no easy way to reconcile it

Hmm, rhyming 'practical' with 'capital', eh? Well, I suppose we can let him get away with that one. 'Gap' and 'map' we're fine with, and he scores major points for deploying the word 'reconcile' in a pop song. Readers of a sensitive disposition or who are from Christchurch may be alarmed that the above lyric leads me to infer that Mr Gregg is writing from the perspective of someone living in Auckland. (This is akin to heresy in some circles).

1:42 Take it to the bridge! Again, no frippery here. You can buy these bridges in packs of six from Mitre 10.

2:01 Ah, he returns to safer territory, praising the nightlife in the capital. What about the girl, Alan? Forgotten her already?

I wish I was in Wellington, the cafes and the bars
The music and the theatre, and the old Cable Car
And you can walk everywhere 'cause nowhere's very far
Oh I wish I was in Wellington
Oh I wish...

If you listen closely you can hear the point where Don McGlashan is so moved by the sentiments endorsed therein that he joins in to trill the 'and you can walk everywhere' line. It's true, you know. Don't just take Don McGlashan's word for it.

2:30 Quick Beatles rhythm fill! The spirit of George Harrison fills the room to kick off the last verse. Mind you, George Harrison once said that visiting New Zealand in 1964 reminded him of visiting the 15th century, so what would he know?

2:31 Big finish! Nice McGlashan b.vox there. It was his band, you know.

Oh I wish I was in Wellington, the wind it cuts right through
I wish I was in Wellington, there's so much more to do
I wish I was in Wellington, and you wish I was too
Oh I wish I was in Wellington, 'cause then I'd be with you
Oh I wish I was in Wellington, 'cause then I'd be with you...

8mm footage of Wellington, 1963 [2:19]

26 January 2009

Good cop, dumb cop

[Pic: AFP]

As New Zealand's five-match ODI cricket tour of Australia looms, it's interesting to note that the Australian press is once more paying attention to the New Zealand side. The Australian media loves the game and is blessed with a tremendous set-up in which to watch some of the world's best cricketers at work - the grounds and pitches are superb and the weather is generally excellent. However, due to both the long-standing pride in Australian cricket achievements and the corresponding relative lack of prowess exhibited by most New Zealand teams since the Hadlee heydays, the profile of New Zealand cricket is generally low and when it is the subject of reporting, much of it isn't favourable. Part of the reason for this is the long-standing fondness of Aussies for winding-up thin skinned New Zealanders, but generally they have a point where New Zealand is concerned: there is a distinct lack of world-class players and when compared to the rich vein of talent on offer to the Australian selectors, there is a distinct skills gap between the world champion Australian team and the often struggling New Zealanders.

The one form of the game in which New Zealand has shown some chance of footing it with Australia is in ODIs. Australia is ranked first in the world in both tests and ODIs, but whereas New Zealand is ranked a lowly eighth in tests (with only cellar-dwelling Bangladesh - played 59, lost 52, drawn 6, won 1 - beneath them), in ODIs the 'Black Caps' rank a more creditable fourth. Generally a New Zealand tour of Australia only holds a remote chance of victory, but Australian fans with longer memories will recall the World Series matches in 2002 in which New Zealand beat Australia in three out of four matches, dumping them out of the three match final series. Of course, the main driving force behind those wins was fast bowler Shane Bond, who is sadly no longer part of the picture, but the fact remains that New Zealand has shown it's capable of upsetting Australia at home in ODIs.

One event that's generated considerable comment in the Australian media was New South Wales' signing of Brendon McCullum to play in the T20 state final between NSW and Victoria yesterday in Sydney, having not appeared for the state before. McCullum, an explosive opening wicketkeeper-batsman, holds the current record for the highest score in T20 cricket (158 not out for the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL competition), and would be a good pick for most teams. Some controversy emerged in Australia as a result of this 'parachute selection', with traditionalists arguing that McCullum's role as a hired gun was unfair given that he had not appeared for NSW in the competition before the final and therefore was not a 'true' part of NSW team.

This led to two interesting comments in the media by high-profile Australian cricketers. The first was from the recently retired Australian opener Matthew Hayden, who offered his sympathy for the situation that had apparently led McCullum to sign for NSW, and pointed the finger of blame at the ICC:

Matthew Hayden believes the signing of New Zealand star Brendon McCullum by NSW to play in tonight's Twenty20 final against Victoria in Sydney is an indictment on the state of world cricket and the poor treatment of New Zealand.

The just retired Australian great claims that if the game was administered properly at the highest level, New Zealand players would be too busy representing their country at the peak time of their season, not signing for Australian states.

"It is reflective of how disappointing the international program has been for New Zealand more than anything," Hayden said last night.

"It's a real indictment on their cricket that you can have one of the elite players in world cricket not being able to play the volume of cricket with the earning capacity that most international athletes can expect. It's pretty tough. I feel very sympathetic towards a country like New Zealand, which has some wonderful cricketers but they don't get enough international opportunities. What's the ICC (International Cricket Council) doing?"

Matthew Hayden's comments are an expression of the collegiality that still runs through professional cricket. Sure, players have to be competitive on the field and modern cricket often involves mind games in the media and unseemly sledging during the game. But despite that, there is a real sense of mutual respect for a former rival evident in Hayden's words. However, while his argument against the ICC's scheduling policies do have a broad resonance when considering the New Zealand cricket schedule over the course of the last few years, when you consider the current New Zealand cricket schedule there isn't much to complain about. New Zealand's summer tourists this year have been super: the West Indies followed by India, both for a substantial number of matches. McCullum's quick trip to Sydney occurred in a window of opportunity in which his provincial team Otago had already qualified for the finals of the T20 competition in New Zealand and didn't require his match-winning hitting. As long as Otago didn't mind losing his services for a dead rubber match, I'm sure the management of New Zealand Cricket would be happy for McCullum to be gaining match play against a quality opposition, scoping out the SCG pitch and acclimatising to Australian conditions.

The second media comment was that of quixotic Australian all-rounder Andrew Symonds, who gave it a bit of larrikin when he was interviewed by comedy legends Roy and HG on their Triple M radio programme on Friday. Symonds took a nationalistic approach to the debate on McCullum's NSW signing, arguing that it was unseemly for NSW to select McCullum for a one-off match when that would displace a team member who had battled through the T20 season to get NSW to the final. Unfortunately, Symonds also resorted to some colourful expressions to illustrate his point, which is what most of the media focused on, because whenever Symonds attracts attention these days the story is coloured by his history of disciplinary problems. Symonds was reported as saying:

“They're trying to use him [McCullum] as the out because he's a Kiwi,” Symonds said. "Yep, we love to hate them, but he's the lump of s..., sorry, lump of cow dirt, that people are thinking of. Now to get away from that, the actual topic is about playing cricket and getting into a final.

"To get yourself to that position and if you haven't brought anybody in, personally I wouldn't be changing a winning team. It doesn't matter about McCullum, mate, he could have been Irish, he still would have got it.”

“It's not his fault, he's doing his job and trying to earn a wage. But what happened here is an injustice. I said Daniel Smith, his opposite number, was going to miss out. But they said this morning that Daniel Smith is going to play, but at the end of day somebody is still going to miss out"

Symonds' on-air comments were no skin off McCullum's nose, and he offered the correct response, which was to laugh off the insult and rise above it, rather than to over-dramatise the situation:

McCullum was happy to let the moment pass. "Mate, people are entitled to their opinion and I certainly wasn't offended by it at all," he said. "There's nothing you can do about it. I was over here [in Australia] to enjoy the occasion and certainly did that and it was just a great game to be a part of. I'm not worried what people have to say and certainly not offended by it at all."

I'm sure that if Symonds is selected and plays against McCullum on this tour a sheepish apology will be offered in person and accepted, and nothing more will come of this minor case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. After all, New Zealand can't afford to be too precious about drunken incidents given the wayward antics of Jesse Ryder.

The real concern is, as the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out:

...that this isn't a one-off. [Symonds is] supposed to be proving to Cricket Australia and his team that he's committed to them. Any elite athlete who goes on air and starts rambling after consuming alcohol must face questions from his employer. Symonds just has to hope CA hasn't run out of patience. It's not renowned for its sense of humour.

Here's hoping that if Symonds is in good enough form to be selected that his unwise comments don't keep him out of the spotlight.

NZ in Australia
29 Jan v Prime Minister's XI, Canberra
01 Feb 1st ODI, Perth
06 Feb 2nd ODI, MCG
08 Feb 3rd ODI, SCG
10 Feb 4th ODI, Adelaide
13 Feb 5th ODI, Brisbane
15 Feb Only T20, SCG

23 January 2009

The Oscars shortlist

With the announcement of the Oscars shortlist this morning another Academy Awards season has swept down upon Hollywood like a plague of immaculately-clad celebrity locusts. The rest of the movie-going world will now look on with a modicum of interest until the 81st Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles on 22 February.

It's another year in which there are no stand-out clean sweeps on offer, and no sure fire favourites to bludgeon any lingering suspense out of the ceremony itself. And similarly to many other recent Oscar years, there are a lot of workmanlike but hardly historic films on the shortlist.

Chief among these is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Perhaps it's just because it's not been released here in the UK yet, but I can't see this film being looked back on with any great fondness in five years, let alone 10 or 20. I'm sure it's a competent effort; it just seems like it's Brad Pitt's year for the golden handshake so his film is damn well going to feature prominently in the nominations whether or not it's a technically and stylistically excellent film.

I've not seen enough of the Best Picture nominations to judge the probable winner, but I have a hunch that the performance of Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon may be sufficiently powerful to earn the film the top nod. It would be thoroughly deserved, but still it'd be great if the popular outsider, Slumdog Millionaire, sneaked through to catch the big guys unaware. It's a simple good old-fashioned story and it would be nice for a low-budget film to take the big prize.

I'd imagine Best Director will go to Ron Howard, simply because he's a nice guy who's had a long and productive career. He also has a much higher name recognition factor amongst the Academy members and the general public.

As I've said, I hope Frank Langella will take the Best Actor award, but it's also great to see Mickey Rourke win a nomination for The Wrestler. Given the career doldrums he's experienced in recent years even to be nominated is a great achievement and a vindication for the formerly self-destructive Rourke. It will also bring Darren Aronofsky's movie to a much broader audience, which is well deserved.

Best Actress? Blimey, I don't know. The worthiness quotient seems very high this year, as does the old adage that Best Actress performances must contain copious hankie-drenching bawling if they are to gain the Academy members' favour. The last winner of Best Actress for a comedy film was Frances McDormand for Fargo in 1996, unless you count Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love as a comedic performance (1998). Surely it must be Kate Winslet's turn for a gong by now after those five previous nominations without a win? She took Ricky Gervais' advice in Extras, made a Holocaust film and raked in the nomination forthwith. Clever girl.

I hope they don't give the Best Supporting Actor award to Heath Ledger posthumously. This is not to criticise his performance in The Dark Knight, which was of a high quality. The fact remains that if he wins there will always be a lingering suspicion that many Academy voters rewarded him out of sympathy for a promising (but hardly legendary) career cut short. The same sentiment, coupled with a quasi-morbid fascination with viewing a final performance has helped the film itself to score more than half a billion at the US box-office. If another man wins the Oscar, won't they feel that their own triumph has been somewhat undermined by preventing the sentimental favourite from winning? It would have been better to stage a special one-off tribute to Ledger rather than throw his name into the nominations hat. At least Robert Downey Jr won't mind either way: like Mickey Rourke, the very fact that he's been nominated for the shaggy dog story Tropic Thunder is a victory given his recent history.

Finally, it would be fantastic if the Academy rewarded Happy-Go-Lucky with the Best Original Screenplay honour, given the honest quality of Mike Leigh's charming little British film. Indeed, it's a pity that the effervescent Sally Hawkins won't be sitting alongside Kate Winslet on 22 February as another British Best Actress nominee. But a screenplay nod for Wall-E too? Sure it's a sweet film and some of the animation is very pretty to look at, but given that during the first three-quarters of the film the dialogue consists of barely three words, I fail to see how its script required gargantuan feats of talent and intellect to produce. Oh well, good luck to them and to all the other nominees...

22 January 2009

The brave new world of 1984

It was rubbish growing up a geek in the 1980s.

We had the benefit of decades worth of sci-fi writing to inform us just how brilliant and shiny the future was going to be. Silver spacesuits, moon holidays and commuting by teleportation were all just around the corner - or at least we hoped so. (Some people never got over it). Former Steely Dan member Donald Fagen captured the wide-eyed anticipation of the glorious technological future in his 1982 solo track 'I.G.Y.', named after the International Geophysical Year of 1957-8, when Sputnik soared into orbit and everything seemed possible:

Standing tough under stars and stripes
We can tell
This dream's in sight
You've got to admit it
At this point in time that it's clear
The future looks bright
On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
Well by '76 we'll be A.O.K.

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free...

The trouble is, this starry eyed optimism was out of place in the 1980s when so much of the technological revolution had yet to occur. Sure, we scrambled to play Galaxian at the games arcade and fussed over our brand new plastic digital watches, but if you were a geek in the 80s and you wanted a computer, you were starved for choice. Perhaps this explains why I owned a Sinclair ZX81 - boosted to 16K of RAM. Yeah, it wasn't very good.

Recently I was searching through some of my boxes in storage and I came across a Dick Smith Electronics (NZ) 1984/85 catalogue advertising a full range of the chain's wares, which gives a good idea of the wonders on offer at the time. Clunky home computers take pride of place at the front of the catalogue, and while it's amusing to chuckle at the specifications, the most eye-opening aspect of the adverts are the prices: the Reserve Bank's inflation calculator indicates that NZ$1 in 1984 is worth NZ$2.80 now (Q4 2008). Bear that in mind...

VZ-200 Colour Computer

My schoolmate Mathew had one of these, and at the time it seemed the height of modernity. 16K of ROM and 8K of RAM - now that's a whole lotta horsepower to play with! But sarcasm aside, the VZ-200 was dirt cheap ($557 in today's money) compared to other machines of the time. And maybe DSE couldn't shift any units at the original price? It was designed to run through a TV input so no expensive monitor was required, but the main expense hit the user when they sought peripherals - witness the printer for $495 (equiv. $1386). More cost effective to hire a fellow student to write things out by hand, I would've thought. Still, look at all those lovely games on offer...

DSE CAT home computer

Now this is the business. Lovely brown 80s backdrop too. Trading on its Apple compatibility, the CAT had a 2MHz processor, 32K of ROM and 64K of RAM, expandable to a whopping 192K. Its colour graphics card could manage a 560 x 192 display, assuming you shelled out for a colour monitor to take advantage of it. (Remember, back then a lot of users made do with eye-burning green or amber screens due to the prohibitive expense of colour monitors). The price tag here is particularly wince-inducing: $1295 for the computer only is $3626 in 2008 money, and that's without an RGB monitor, which set you back another $1095 ($3066), or a green screen for $450 ($1260) if you're feeling strapped for cash. Lastly, you'll need some data storage, so don't forget the disk drive at a trifling $550 ($1540) so you can save 165K on each of your 5 1/4-inch floppy disks. And don't forget people, this is the future!

Time is on my side (and in my pencil-case)

Having mentioned the popularity of digital watches in the early 80s, it seemed a shame to leave out this page. In the 80s owners of the calculator ruler were certainly envied, but the pen watch never seemed like a good idea: surely someone would pinch it or it would get lost? And it's not as if every moment in life when you needed to know the time would coincide with the writing of a letter or school project.

But fair enough - that stopwatch is still pretty cool even now...

21 January 2009

Tales to tell back on shore

On the first day of 2009 Auckland was positively glowing in the warmest of summer sunlight as the city's inhabitants woke up from whatever New Year revels they had indulged in the night before. Still in my post-jetlag early rising mode, I decided to fill a long-standing gap in my inventory of Auckland experiences that I had meant to address for years.

Despite visiting Queen Street regularly throughout my seven years in Wellington, I had never ventured inside the National Maritime Museum, which is located on the waterfront at the entrance to the well-moneyed and rather soulless Viaduct Basin. I've been to a wide selection of maritime museums in my travels, with those in Greenwich, Amsterdam and Sydney being particularly memorable. But the one in Auckland? For years I steered clear, for no good reason.

One cause of hesitation was the fact that the museum's largest exhibit, the maxi-hull America's Cup yacht KZ1, looms over the entrance as a tangible reminder of the Viaduct's role as host of the Cup from 1995 to 2003. While I acknowledge that holding the Cup was a sporting feat of some renown, I have absolutely no desire to visit an America's Cup museum, having grown heartily sick of the tedium generated by its interminable domination of the New Zealand media for many years. Sure, to be out there sailing on the yachts would be quite exciting. But watching it on television? Even more boring than watching golf. What's the point of watching a sport on TV if you need a complicated computer graphics package to make sense of what's going on? Without the graphics you can't even tell who's in front. And that's before I've even mentioned the hyperactive Olympics-obstructing jabbering of the hysterical Peter Montgomery.

But on closer investigation, my fears were allayed. The museum avoids the pitfalls of pandering to America's Cup bores, and instead concentrates on telling the story of New Zealand seafaring thoroughly and with gusto. Charting a course through the long history of these islands, the museum highlights the proud tradition of Polynesian mariners, the bravery of early European explorers and colonists, the building of a merchant marine in a young nation beset by terrible roads, and the maturation of New Zealand's relationship with the sea through the 20th and 21st centuries. It also boasts a small collection of heritage vessels that stage harbour cruises for visitors when the weather's fine.

All in all, I wished I'd made the journey to the National Maritime Museum a little earlier. It seems to have quite a low profile in Auckland, which is a pity given the quality of its exhibits. If you've not been before, I commend it to your attention if you fancy an interesting afternoon by the Auckland waterfront. Now all we need to do is convince the Council to take a leaf out of Wellington's book and revamp the waterfront so it actually feels like part of the Auckland downtown area.

(Below: Sema Makawa, a Fijian drua canoe built in 1993; and a mock-up of the steerage cabin of a 19th-century colonists' ship, complete with under-floor rocking motion and creaking noises. Above: The masts of KZ1, decorated for Christmas)

16 January 2009

Forest lords and mission houses

Curled fern frond near Tane Mahuta, Waipoua Forest, Northland

Whenever I'm in Auckland I try to visit my father's crew in the Rodney district an hour north of the city. Bruce and his wife Sally have a lovely 10-acre block just outside the bustling little town of Warkworth, where they enjoy a pleasant lifestyle. This time my visit to stay with the Warkworth Wilsons included a quick road trip to parts north with Bruce in his Mazda sedan. It had been 20 years since I'd seen the Waipoua forest north of Dargaville and the Bay of Islands, and I was keen to pay another visit during my short summer excursion to New Zealand.

Our first stop was quiet little Dargaville on the banks of the Wairoa. Its streets were virtually deserted when we drove into town on the Sunday morning between Christmas and New Year, with most of its residents either inside at home or away for the holidays. There wasn't much going on, so after buying icecreams from a threadbare shop near the river and filling up with petrol, we took our leave.

A short drive north up State Highway 12 we stopped to enjoy a walk along the well-kept bush paths at the Trounson Kauri Walk, a conservation reserve with plenty of mature kauri trees in their prime. Wandering through the bush you can really get a feel for the Northland forests before widespread logging removed much of the straight-as-a-die kauri from the area to feed the demand for masts and spars for the 19th century world's navies and merchant ships. Outside the grove the sun beat down, but inside it was cool and calm, and the native birds chattered to each other quietly in the tree branches, with fat wood pigeons perching on high boughs to keep an eye on human trespassers into the forest kingdom.

We paused at the nearby hamlet of Donnellys Crossing, which was once the end of a bush railway line from Dargaville used by loggers and gum-diggers. Nowadays there's just a small tearoom with tables made from huge hunks of Northland timber. The short-staffed lady behind the counter made us tasty BLT toasted sandwiches while we admired the stock on display in the tiny general store that occupied one corner of the tearooms.

Heading north once more, it was only a short drive through the beautiful dense forest to a short strip of road dotted with parked cars: the start of the short bush walk to see Tane Mahuta, the mighty kauri lord of the forest, and the largest kauri known to exist. It’s 51.2 metres high, its trunk has a girth of 13.77 metres, and estimates of its age range from 1250 to 2500 years.

Further north the road reaches the mouth of the Hokianga Harbour and veers eastwards towards the beach at Opononi, home of many a summer camper and ornamented by a simple statue of the town’s most famous visitor – the playful Opo the dolphin, who frolicked with children in the harbour in the summer of 1955-6.

After a race to eat icecreams in the sun before they melted, we continued on to the Bay of Islands. Securing a motel room on the outskirts of Kerikeri for the night, we settled down to watch the second T20 international from Hamilton, which New Zealand won by 36 runs. Then we enjoyed a top-notch takeaway curry from an Indian restaurant in the town. Highly recommended!

The next day was overcast and damp. We made haste after breakfast in Kerikeri and drove down to Kerikeri inlet to see the heritage buildings there. Samuel Marsden planted the first grapes in New Zealand here in 1819. The Stone Store (1833-6) is the one most people remember when they think of Kerikeri, and it’s great that the road that curled around the store and led to the bridge over the inlet has now been closed to traffic so as to protect the building’s delicate foundations. But it’s the two-storey villa next door that’s more significant – the unassuming white-painted Mission House is the oldest building in New Zealand. The Church Missionary Society built it in 1822 for the Rev John Butler, New Zealand’s first clergyman. In a letter dated 6 November 1819 to a fellow clergyman, Butler had said:

The prospects are indeed glorious, and I am fully persuaded that New Zealand is ripe for all the instruction and improvement that a Christian world is able to bestow. The New Zealanders are a robust, athletic and noble race of men, of lively dispositions, amazing quick in perception, and, generally speaking, they are a kind and affectionate people. Many of them speak a great deal of broken English, and are very fond of our language. There is no obstacle in the way to prevent our progress in the glorious work of civilizing, and, by God's blessing, evangelising New Zealand, but the want of means and proper instruments.

Next stop was the Treaty grounds at Waitangi, which has been enhanced by the recent decision to allow New Zealand citizens free entry. This is a good move, as the Treaty grounds have been rather over-commercialised in recent years. The Treaty House where the British Resident, James Busby, resided is still a pretty adornment to the sweeping greensward where chiefs and dignitaries gathered to sign New Zealand’s founding charter on 6 February 1840. Nearby is Te Whare Runanga, the Maori meeting house built for the Treaty’s centenary in 1940.

From the nearby bayside tourist centre of Paihia we took a small ferry across to historic Russell. In its original guise of the whaling village of Kororareka, Russell was famously described as ‘the hell-hole of the Pacific’, renowned for drunken sailors and Maori living a dissolute and lawless life. Russell was also the site of the famous insurgency led by Ngapuhi chieftain Hone Heke, who cut down the British flagstaff at Russell four times to demonstrate his disdain for British rule. Part of the war that erupted between British troops and Maori warriors in the north can still be seen in the timbers of Russell’s Christ Church, where the holes drilled by rifle shots in the attack of 11 March 1845 can still be seen, and the gravestones of British soldiers killed that day still lie.

After lunch in Russell I visited Pompallier House, the site of a French Roman Catholic mission from 1841-2, which housed a printing press to bring biblical texts to the local Maori. Ringed with well-kept gardens, the two-storey house now proudly displays elderly printing presses and samples of the materials it published.

As we crossed back to Paihia on the ferry the heavens opened and the Bay of Islands received a summer deluge that didn’t let up for hours. Driving back to Warkworth we could reflect on an excellent tiki-tour of the north. The Mazda’s windscreen wipers slapped the downpour away and the headlights drilled through the blinding mist cloaking the Brynderwyns, and we returned to a good bottle of wine at the Wilsons' table.

NZ Government Tourist Bureau film of Northland, 1940s

14 January 2009

Tokyo, Ueno Park

A city's parks are often a good measure of its civic pride: witness the beloved expanses of New York's Central Park, the oasis of calm in a bustling metropolis that is London's Hyde Park, or the regal promenades of the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Many people enjoy visiting city parks, and some make substantial journeys in order to reach them.

Following my stopover in Japan en route to New Zealand for Christmas, I can now claim to have visited Tokyo. However, I can't say that I've seen many of Tokyo's sights; in fact I have seen only one. With only a few hours to spare in the Japanese capital, and not wishing to miss the opportunity of seeing at least a small corner of a country I had never visited before, I boarded an airport train and explored Ueno Park in Tokyo on a mild Sunday afternoon in December.

I chose this park for the simple reason that the Keisei Limited Express train that runs from Tokyo's Narita Airport terminates at Ueno Station close by the park entrance. With my command of spoken Japanese running to perhaps five words and my ability to count terminating at the number three, I was reluctant to venture far afield given the possibility of missing my onwards Air New Zealand flight. So I limited my little Japanese adventure to a straightforward low-intensity amble in the park. It turned out to be a good choice.

The train from Narita took 70 minutes to reach Ueno. In that time it passed through open fields, followed by medium-density suburban townhouses, and then the big city apartments and office blocks of the inner city. There were a few fellow gaijin travellers on the train, but most of my fellow passengers were locals. Like me, quite a few of them lolled sleepy-eyed as the carriage rattled along to its final destination. A few others adopted the Asian habit of wearing medical facemasks, indicating that they had a cold and did not wish to infect their fellow passengers with their impolite germs.

At the end of the ride I arrived at the super-clean Ueno Station. Emerging from underground onto a busy thoroughfare, I walked about 50 metres to the park entrance, which was clearly signposted in Japanese and English, and began my exploration.

The land for Ueno Park was given to the city by the then Emperor in 1924, and it is a firm favourite with Tokyo's inhabitants. Its broad pedestrian avenues are lined with mature cherry trees, and on this mild winter afternoon with the temperature about 13 to 15 degrees people were taking the opportunity to enjoy a walk in the sunshine.

The park is dotted with statues and shrines. Near the entrance the statue of Saigo Takamori (1827-77), unveiled in 1898, depicts the famed samurai with a silk belt holding in his middle-aged paunch while he walks his sprightly little dog. Down a broad flight of stairs lies Shinobazu Pond, a little sea of clacking dry reeds with a shrine to Benzaiten on an islet at its centre. Further into the park, past a selection of Japanese street performers juggling and performing acrobatics, an equestrian statue of Prince Komatsu No Miya Akihito (d. 1903) keeps a watchful eye on the passing cyclists and the nearby softball players practicing their hitting inside their towering chain-link fences, which prevent fly-balls from beaning other park-goers.

At the far end of the park sits the impressive Tokyo National Museum building. While it looked intriguing, I didn't have enough time to do it justice so I resorted to visiting its gift shop instead. There I purchased some pretty postcards depicting 19th century Japanese paintings of courtiers and cats (not in the same picture though).

On the way back to the station I passed the National Science Museum and was both impressed and slightly bemused by the huge model of a diving blue whale outside. Perhaps passing motorists might mistake the museum for a fast-food joint? Next door was the National Museum of Western Art with its outdoor sculpture garden, where I admired casts of Rodin's The Thinker and The Burghers of Calais and Bourdelle's Hercules the Archer, and one of the original three casts of Rodin's monumental La Porte de l'Enfer (The Gates of Hell).

While I had only had time to visit a tiny corner of massive Tokyo, I was glad to have been able to enjoy the sights and take a few photographs. As I drowsily observed the scenes of Tokyo life as the Narita train passed through the city, I promised that I would return one day to explore the city with a little bit more time up my sleeve.