26 May 2009

The sparrow question

What'chu lookin' at?
Originally uploaded by eT le snap
The Auckland colonial newspaper, the Southern Cross, of 150 years ago catered to the usual obsessions of the era. Its front page of 27 May 1859 was dominated by shipping advertisements for passage to Australia and England, for sale notices for the contents of ship cargoes recently landed at Auckland’s docks, and the usual want ads of the time (‘Wanted in the country, about three miles from the Town, a Middle-aged WOMAN, as a general servant and Cook. She is to have good references from her last situation’.)

Actual news reports do not kick in until near the end of page two, with reports on the Queen’s Birthday celebrations, a Supreme Court case (Petschler v. Young) regarding the provisions of the Customs Regulations Act 1858, and a two-month-old letter from a London correspondent updating the colonies on the Parliamentary goings-on of Disraeli and Palmerston.

Buried beneath a brief report on the return to relative civilisation of Dr Hochstetter's expedition into the dense bush of the central North Island, there is an even briefer report on a small aspect of New Zealand history that, while seemingly insignificant at the time, still shapes our environment in the 21st century:

The long talked of importation of sparrows will shortly take place. Mr Brodie has shipped three hundred on board the Swordfish, carefully selected from the best hedgerows in England. The food alone, he informs us, put on board for them cost £18. The sparrow question has been long standing in Auckland; but the necessity to the farmers of small birds to keep down the grubs is admitted on all sides. There is no security in this country against the armies of caterpillars, taking off the grain crops as clean as if mowed by a scythe. Mr Brodie has already acclimatized the pheasant, which is abundant in the North. The descent from pheasants to sparrows is somewhat of an anti-climax; but should the latter multiply, the greater benefit will have been conferred on the country. There will be much laughing about the sparrows; but we are glad to see that Mr Brodie maintains his reputation, even in trifles, of always doing what he has once said he will do.

This brief passage, whimsical in tone though it may be, gives an early glimpse of the introduction of the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) to New Zealand.

This archive indicates that the Swordfish, a Shaw Savill vessel, arrived in Auckland on 12 July 1859 after a passage of 132 days from Gravesend and Dungeness with 18 passengers aboard. The Southern Cross of 15 July 1859 contains advertisements of many goods newly unloaded from the ship's hold, including 100 cases and 150 half-cases of Geneva gin, 100 cases of bottled beer, 400 dozen of Marzetti's ale and stout, 63 anchors, 75 dozen Bright Patent spades, 16 jam boilers (30 to 80 gallons capacity).

Of course, there was always the chance that the entire thing was a joke - after all, sparrows 'carefully selected from the best hedgerows in England' has the ring of a leg-pull to it. But the introduction did proceed, and as with so many of the actions of the colonial acclimatisation societies in New Zealand, the introduction of the house sparrow proved to have far-reaching consequences for the native flora and fauna. Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, notes that:

They were intended to help reduce the swarms of crop-eating insect pests. However, while they do feed their nestlings on caterpillars, beetles, flies and spiders for the first week after hatching, at other times they are more interested in grains and fruit than insects. They can cause significant damage to wheat, barley and maize crops.

Sadly for the sparrows aboard the Swordfish, they were not able to play their foreseen role as the vanguard of the colony's war against insect pests. The 15 July 1859 Southern Cross reported:

'Good news for the grubs' - We are sorry to have to say that none of the sparrows, 360 in number, shipped by Mr Brodie on board the Swordfish, lived to see New Zealand. They began to die shortly after leaving England. We regret that Mr Brodie's spirited enterprise should have failed of success; he deserves, however, no less credit for having made the attempt. We saw on board the Swordfish a very health well conditioned specimen of our old friend the black-bird. We understand that the sparrows were shipped in five cages. The large number necessarily together in one cage must, we think, have contributed to the mortality amongst our old hedge friends.

Despite the sparrows' sad end, the aforementioned Mr Brodie eventually got his way and introduced the birds to the colony, but he did not remain in New Zealand to see the long-term effects. A member of the House of Representatives from 1856 to 1859 and a prominent local trader in Auckland, Walter Brodie later inherited a considerable estate from his father, who was a major shareholder in The Times newspaper of London. He returned to England with his family in 1870, where he lived for the remainder of his life.

24 May 2009

You can get to Taumarunui going north or going south

Ohakune signal hut
Originally uploaded by eT le snap
Back in the days when Air New Zealand was a monopoly and air travel was prohibitively expensive, travelling by train up and down the main trunk line between Auckland and Wellington was much more commonplace than it is today. Many people have dim and possibly grim memories of cheapskate overnight journeys on the Northerner overnight train that delivered travellers to their destinations wracked with sleeplessness and crusty from a long night in uncomfortable seats. I did the Northerner twice, and memories of both trips elicit strong recollections of drunken fellow passengers boarding down the line after a long session at the pub, leaving them reeking of beer and ensuring that they lapsed into a stupor that even their window-rattling snores failed to interrupt.

The day train, however, was a much more agreeable journey. The Overlander day service isn't speedy, taking the best part of 12 hours to travel between the two cities, but it does offer splendid scenic views of the central North Island and a relaxing day spent in relative comfort. When I moved down to Wellington in January 2000 I took the Overlander, and thinking it would be a boring day I brought along the ultimate time-absorbing read: a three-volume set of The Lord of the Rings. But despite the foul weather that day that saw most of the journey swathed in rainclouds thick with precipitation, I never once opened my Tolkien. Watching the rolling countryside change from the green Waikato farms to the rugged plateau tussock and then down to the wind-swept Kapiti Coast occupied the hours with ease, and boredom was never an issue.

I'd not taken the Overlander for many years, and when it came time to plan my most recent visit to Wellington I decided it was time for a repeat journey, just in case the rail company decides to pull the service. Even now there's only three trains a week during the long winter low season, with daily service only returning in the summer months. A ticket offer meant I could travel for only $49, and conveniently placed friends and relatives meant that I could shorten the journey by starting at Paraparaumu rather than Wellington and alighting at Hamilton instead of Auckland. (Thanks to Catherine and the Woodtuckermortons!)

The Overlander journey isn't for those in a hurry - a coach ticket is probably faster and cheaper. But it's a relaxing way to spend a day and to enjoy the North Island's spectacular scenery en route, or to reach Ohakune for the ski-fields. And from the perspective of someone who has journeyed up and down State Highway 1 far too many times, it's great to be able to take the train and see a different view of the journey while someone else does the driving.

The crews are pleasant and helpful, and frequently point out details of scenery viewed from the carriage windows, or details of the viaducts and horseshoe bends of note to train buffs. This goes a bit overboard during the transit through the Raurimu Spiral, which is an impressive engineering feat but is not exactly gripping from an average passenger's perspective.

Let me reiterate that the staff were excellent... because I'd also like to sound a note of caution. Don't travel on the Overlander if the sound of Rull Kiwi Accents sets your teeth on edge. One lady mentioned on the intercom that we could view the township of Raurimu out of our left windows if we could see through the "thuck must" (yes, it was foggy), and as I neared my destination the same lady begged us to be very careful when we alighted at Hamilton station, because builders were working to refurbish the platforms. She asked train passengers to be "vujulunt", and while my Cub Scout training has taught me to maintain a constant state of vigilance (and to ensure my woggle is in good repair at all times) I had to wonder if the train's overseas passengers had the slightest clue what she was saying.

17 May 2009

For those old honky-tonk monkeyshines

The comedy festival’s on in Wellington at the moment, and a number of talented acts from the British comedy scene have made the journey down to New Zealand to help those of us in denial about the ongoing Americanisation of the New Zealand cultural outlook pretend that we still live in a world in which Monty Python, Blackadder and The Young Ones are the acme of the comedic art.  While I would’ve loved to see Dylan Moran again, I reasoned that I’d seen his gig in Wellington three years ago.  (By all accounts the Auckland performance was up to his usual high standards).  So on balance I opted for a two-pronged approach – English actor and comedian Steve Coogan, followed a week later by Irish stand-up Ed Byrne.

Steve Coogan’s most famous comic character is of course the ludicrous Alan Partridge, the idiot sans savant broadcaster whose career and life spiral into a morass of hopelessness due to his unwitting incompetence and obnoxiousness.  Who could forget the legendary payback inflicted upon Alan by disgruntled Norfolk farmers after he insulted them on his Radio Norwich pre-breakfast programme, when they tip a dead cow on top of him as he tries to make a promotional video about canal-boating in Norfolk?  But Coogan’s also created a series of other characters, which are accurately described in the title of his most recent UK tour, ‘Steve Coogan Is Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters’. 

In TV interviews leading up to his New Zealand performances Coogan had emphasised that the touring version of his show would aim for broad laughs rather than ‘chin-stroking humour’.  Damn, I thought.  I like the chin-stroking stuff!  Catherine had kindly arranged tickets to see Coogan at the Michael Fowler Centre last weekend, so we were able to take in his show. 

The first half saw the effortlessly vulgar character Pauline Calf trading earthy witticisms and allowing Coogan his penchant for cross-dressing.  This was followed by a quick costume change and the appearance of Pauline’s brother Paul, the long-term loser who’s always down the boozer.  His monologue focused on the many failures in his love life, and exemplified Coogan’s attempts to localise cultural references in his material.  When wistfully remembering spotting a lost love out shopping, Paul mopes, ‘I saw her in the Pak ‘n Save carpark loading three bags of shopping into the back of her Daihatsu Charade… she was out of my league’. 

The first half was concluded by Coogan’s Portuguese crooner, Tony Ferrino, who is bushy of moustache and smooth with the laydeez, in the style of Engelbert Humperdinck or 70s-era Tom Jones.  Here’s a UK clip of Tony Ferrino performing his signature tune ‘Ordinary Girl’, which was performed on the night:


After the intermission most of the rest of the show was occupied by Partridge, the star turn, who has reinvented himself as a high-tech motivational speaker.  The ‘high-tech’ angle facilitates numerous IT jokes at Alan’s expense, when he uses an interactive pointer glove to control images on a large projection screen and pictures of increasingly inappropriate content from his personal folders appear.  He also conducts a mock live link-up with Radio Norwich talkback callers, and the joke in which he ignores a depressed caller whilst foolishly clicking on a penis enlargement spam ad and then drafting a hurried letter to the spammers claiming that he ‘and his [fictitious] girlfriend’ are more than happy delighted with his existing size girth.

Following Partridge, it only remains for Coogan to perform a jaunty and possibly Avenue Q-cribbing song and dance number with a rather unrepeatable title to round out the show.


On the following Friday night I went with Al and two of his pals to see the Irish comedian Ed Byrne at the Opera House.  Byrne, a genial figure who is probably most famous for his Alanis Morissette baiting in his younger days, when he quite sensibly pointed out that her song ‘Ironic’ displayed a singular lack of comprehension of the concept of irony.     

Byrne is now a regular guest on UK TV panel games that feature comedians, like Have I Got News For You and QI, and has appeared on the popular Friday night comedy show, Live at the Apollo:


In his Wellington performance Byrne touched on the loose concept of social class, quickly learning from his posher friends that buying a big TV was irredeemably working class, and that while eating a pheasant that crashed into his patio windows and broke its own neck was verging on posh (with the extra added poshness of having zero carbon miles because the meal was organic and actually flew under its own muscle power to his house), the fact that he had used the phrase ‘patio windows’ rather than ‘French windows’ was an instant giveaway of working-classness. 

Byrne also touched on the 80s pop culture of his youth, pointing out a rather glaring inconsistency at the heart of Back To The Future, and the holy grail of status symbols when he was a lad, the Sodastream fizzy drink maker.  But it was in the second half when he had changed from his student-style threads into his snappy suit, when his material stretched out well as he told about his recent marriage and the joys of having a posh-sounding but sweary wife, that Byrne showed that he had mellowed somewhat and has the ability to play to a wider audience than the appreciative comedy circuit that has enjoyed his work for over a decade now.  He related the story of how his inebriated fiance initially rejected his marriage proposal (made in a Kaikoura restaurant, by the way) as a rather ill-judged joke, and how this set his mind racing in an instant, imagining a solo retreat to the casinos of Las Vegas to become a comedian in residence.  This was a flight of fancy of course, but it held a kernel of truth: if the Americans found the right role for him, Ed Byrne would find deserved fame and fortune on a much larger scale than the middling level he freely admits to now enjoying.

13 May 2009

Observations on sort of living in New Zealand

I’d been away in England for two years, but now I’m back haunting the shores of faraway New Zealand while I await a decision on my British work visa.  The story’s long and twisted, and probably best not gone into in a public blog, because I’m liable to type rude words, and they’re still considering my application. 

So let’s constrain this to random observations about the way of life in New Zealand – things I’ve observed since returning.  It’s been a month now: half spent in Auckland, half in Wellington, where I’ll be for another week or so.  So, let’s start with the city of sales:


Wow, I’d forgotten how bad TV is in New Zealand.  I mean, it’s not as if I’m a big TV watcher, but at least in the UK there’s a variety of programming that can provide some intellectual stimulation, and the programmes aren’t shot through with scads of blaring advertisements.

And the TV news!  Don’t get me started.  Why we need the best part of ten minutes to go through the climactic conditions of a small country is almost beyond me, not to mention the constant sneak-peek glimpses of the weather forecast earlier in the news bulletin and the ridiculous stretching out process that sees more and more places added to the ‘major cities’ list for fear of slighting any seething provincial metropolis.     

Kids from Howick ‘slumming it’ at Manukau City: don’t wear your basketball caps at that wannabe gangsta three-quarters twist.  Not only do you look silly, you’re not fooling anyone into thinking that you’re a Macleans College version of Fifty Cent. 

Mmm, Lamingtons.  From the Chinese bakery at the Tawa Road shops in Onehunga, precisely, so your mileage may vary.  Note to industrialists: if icecream makers can concoct a wildly popular cookies and cream icecream, surely they could manage a Lamington icecream too?  Or, come to think of it, a Lemon & Paeroa-flavoured iceblock?  (That’s a popsicle to you auslanders)


Who put Wellington’s bus stops so close together?  It’s great that Wellington’s got the best public transport network in New Zealand, don’t get me wrong.  It’s just that if the buses were any longer they could have a door at each end and a one-stop journey would involve getting on at the back and exiting at the front at the next stop without the bus having to move. 

Cuba Kebab’s iskender plate is still my idea of the epitome of capital cuisine.  And they have TV3 news on their telly rather than TV1.  What more could you ask for?  Satay Village in Ghuznee Street runs it a close second.

But having to pay to put money on a Snapper card, having the card reader babbling constantly during bus journeys, and having to tap off as well as at the time of boarding?  Way to make a potentially excellent system rather less awesome.

On the plus side (and it is a big plus) you get days like this.