26 November 2011

Don't forget to vote

Photograph: William Hall Raine, via National Library NZ on The Commons

This oft-shared photo shows massed hat-wearing crowds watching the Evening Post's results board outside the newspaper's Willis Street offices in Wellington, during the general election held in December 1931. This was the first election held since the onset of the Depression in 1929, and was brought about by the breakdown of a United-Labour coalition over disagreements on how to deal with the massive economic crisis. Electors punished the United Party of Premier George William Forbes, returning only 19 of its candidates, down from 27 in 1928. Former Premier Gordon Coates' Reform Party, which had been in opposition, became the largest party with 28 seats in the 80-member House, gaining one on its 1928 total. This meant United and Reform were able to form a majority coalition to keep the growing Labour Party out of office, with Forbes remaining as Premier despite leading the smaller government party. Harry Holland's Labour Party boosted its caucus from 19 to 24 and became the official Opposition, securing an electoral beach-head that it would eventually turn to victory in 1935. This election was also the genesis of today's National Party, when the United-Reform coalition merged into a single conservative party to counteract the growth of Labour.

The 1931 election was a first for election broadcasting in New Zealand too. Archivist David Colquhoun discusses the story behind the photo:

In Wellington, for the first time, you could stay at home and listen [to the election] on the radio. The local 2ZW station set up in the Post's results room in what proved to be a successful experiment. The Dominion had 2YA on hand. But for the politically committed, staying at home seemed a dull option, compared with the old practice of showing your colours on the street. Besides, as the new radio coverage was also boomed out from loudspeakers, and you could see the candidates live as they gave their end-of-evening speeches from the Post balcony.
- David Colquhoun, Wellingtonians from the Turnbull Library Collections, 2011.   
See also another two angles by William Hall Raine of the Willis Street crowd scene: one from the north side and another from the Post's offices.

23 November 2011

Ten years after Tony

With Tony & Lynda, Tuscany, Easter 1999
A decade can flit past remarkably quickly when you're not paying attention. The recent release of Martin Scorsese's Living in the Material World doco has reminded us that it's nearly 10 years since George Harrison died (the anniversary is 29 November). But in more personal terms it's also been ten years today since the untimely death of my good friend Tony Gibson. Tony died in Auckland on this day ten years ago due to complications arising from his haemophilia and the bad blood scandal that infected him with hepatitis C. He was only 28.

I first met Tony in Form 1 in my class at what was then known as Manukau Intermediate (now Royal Oak Intermediate), where he would participate with vigour in our rolling, impromptu games of 'sogby' - football with a bit more added physical contact a la rugby - and the ever-popular matches of handball, with or without 'black magic'. Of course he probably shouldn't have been playing rowdy physical games, but Tony didn't let his condition stop him enjoying himself. Rather, he bore the inevitable bruises and bleeds and the ever-present hassles of constant medication with stoic fortitude.

It was clear that Tony was a gifted scholar too, with a quick wit and a talent for imaginative creative writing. He put these skills to good use at school, and I have fond memories of his panache for satire, such as his lyric 'Cruise Missiles Across the Persian Gulf' set to the tune of 'Star Trekkin'. But for us Tony was at his peak in the highly geeky and thoroughly enjoyable world of role-playing games. Tony was a great dungeon master, with a valuable knack for story-telling and the diplomatic skills necessary when hosting a disparate bunch of nerds, and we all enjoyed many quality RPG sessions with him over the years. I was delighted to hear one of Tony's friends speak at his funeral service, observing with real fondness that 'Tony killed my first character', a comment that probably generated a quiet wave of confusion amongst the 'grown-ups' present. Losing your first character is a true RPG rite of passage.

It was always a treat to visit the Gibsons' Hillsborough home and venture down the very 1970s stairs to the converted garage that was Tony's man-cave. Aside from the role-playing, there was also the fun of being exposed to Tony's precocious musical taste through his very grown-up hi-fi. I certainly have Tony to thank for being a huge influence on broadening my interest in music. Tony and his stereo opened my ears to the glories of David Bowie's back catalogue (1971's Hunky Dory is still one of my top-five albums to this day), the chaotic hodge-podge of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, and the effortless cool of soul legend Otis Redding. He didn't have quite as much luck with convincing me to like the Sex Pistols though!

In our later years at Onehunga High Tony spent much of his time with his partner and soulmate Lynda, and after leaving tertiary studies they moved together to a great little house in Avondale, which they filled with wine, comics and lovable greedy cats. Like many of us from the class of 1990, Tony had started a Politics degree at Auckland, but he decided to take another course: he ploughed his enthusiasm and know-how into a risky but ultimately triumphant project: he established Gotham Comics in a small shop at the bottom of Onehunga Mall. Now in larger premises further up the hill in the heart of Onehunga, and run by Tony's former acolyte Jeremy Bishop, Gotham is still selling comics to the fanboys and girls after more than a decade, which is more like a century in the cut-throat world of comic retail.

It's been ten years without Tony, and there's been so many events in the intervening years that we'd all have loved him to be around for. He would have loved the LOTR films, for one thing. He'd have come down to Wellington for the Bowie gig in 2004. And there's certainly been no shortage of comic-book movie conversions over the years, some good, some not so good - but we can all agree that Tony would've sized up the market and expertly assisted the new generation of enthusiasts to feed their emerging addictions for the source material... and maybe helped to direct them to other new and interesting works at the same time.

So, in memory of Tony, ten years absent today: there's still no danger that we'll forget you. Let's raise a glass to his memory!

Interview: Jeremy Bishop, Gotham Comics, 20 September 2011
HFNZ: Haemophilia Foundation of New Zealand

20 November 2011

Excuse me, I'm having my banana

Claude, 25 October 2011
A photograph to commemorate the occasion of my grandfather Oswald Claude Tucker's 95th birthday today. Born on 20 November 1916 and given the middle name that he would use in place of the unwieldy Oswald, Claude was named after his uncle who left to fight in the First World War five months before he was born, and who died at Passchendaele before Claude's first birthday.

Claude grew up in Ellerslie, and like many others at the time, the family had little in the way of money. He was lucky to secure an apprenticeship as a printer during the Depression due to his high marks. After the outbreak of war in 1939 Claude volunteered to serve in the Army overseas, joining the 5th Field Ambulance in 2NZEF. During the course of the war he was to visit the UK (including England during the Blitz when invasion fears saw New Zealand soldiers diverted to bolster the British defences) and the Middle East including Palestine and Syria (the latter of which I paid a return visit to in 2008, taking in the sights of Aleppo, where he was based for a time). But most of his time in the Army was spent in Egypt. He didn't talk about the business of being a field ambulance soldier and the brutal sights he must have seen as broken men were brought back from battle; instead, he preferred to hark back to the pet lion cub that he and his friends rustled up from somewhere, and the high adventure of the biplane joyride he took over the Suez Canal.

In 1943 he had another stroke of luck, as his was the first number drawn out of the hat for furlough - the chance for some long-serving soldiers to return to civilian life in New Zealand. This enabled him to resume his courtship of Gwen Phillips, my grandmother. They were married in the little stone St James' church in Mangere Bridge in September 1943, and after a few years living in a rented house in Waterview, they moved into their own home in Onehunga, where they've been ever since. They raised three children in that same ex-State house, and there they recently celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary.

While his career was in the printing industry, academic and intellectual pursuits have always been a keen interest for Claude.  This spurred him to find time in his retirement to secure himself a long-cherished university education, when he worked towards his Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology at the University of Auckland, graduating in 1986. In more recent years Claude has been living in a rest home where his various infirmities can be managed, but this hasn't stopped him meeting the Prime Minister, when Mr Key stopped by for a visit.

Only five years short of a century and still ticking! I'm sure most of us would be grateful for that sort of staying power. Well done, that man.        

13 November 2011

Soderbergh's Contagion

Yesterday I caught up with Matthew to see Steven Soderbergh's film Contagion, a film that successfully mines modern jumpiness about global pandemics and the fragility of social order in testing circumstances. 

Now wash your hands

There's a global media cycle that throws up a epidemic panic meme about every three years, and Contagion milks that latent paranoia for all it's worth, in a slick, highly enjoyable package. Deftly shot in muted, pneumoniacal tones and packed with a top-notch cast, Soderbergh has presented a stylish update on the 1970s disaster flick, with its The Social Network-style electro soundtrack, a bevy of exotic locales (albeit full of people coughing) and a palpable sense of looming dread as the implacable virus spreads like wildfire across a helpless world and order is replaced by supermarket-smashing, vaccine-queue-jumping chaos.

Gwyneth Paltrow must have had fun in her role, as she spends nearly all her screen time looking diabolically fluey and one of her earliest scenes involves her character's cranial autopsy. The accomplished English actors Jennifer Ehle and Kate Winslet play largely identical characters, bureaucratic scientists both, and get to spout gobbledygook about viral vectors and transmission rates, and yet they manage to avoid slowing the film down. Jude Law's prosthetic overbite clearly mark him out in American eyes as a shyster of the worst order, and for good measures he essays a broad Assange-lite Australian accent (but for the record, it's 'maths', not 'math', writer Scott Burns). 

There are a few quibbles with the story, but nothing important. I can see why the writer personalised the initial infection vector, so we can dramatise the initial contacts in the Macao casino and identify with the victims, even if this is scientifically daft. While I enjoyed the hint of criticism of ludicrous homeopathy remedies, a few of the subplots are a little sketchy. It stretches belief to suggest that looters stage a home invasion and terrorise the wife of the disease control centre chief (Laurence Fishburne), but then simply let her go unharmed when they discover there's no vaccine in the house. If you've already armed yourself and broken into the house wearing masks, why not bloody kidnap her? Sheesh, you can't event get half-decent criminals these days. And while the sight of Law striding up San Francisco streets with his silly inflatable hazmat suit gaffer-taped to his cotton Dockers like some reject from Lost in Space was fairly amusing, I couldn't help but wonder why no-one knifed him to steal it.


Contagion is a highly successful piece of entertainment, and one that succeeds despite covering well-worn territory. But minded as I was of dramatisations of global pandemics, I couldn't help wondering what modern audiences would make of the grim fictional universe portrayed so successfully in Terry Nation's 1970s TV sci-fi drama Survivors, which, like Contagion, has as its genesis a super-virus originating in China that wreaks havoc throughout the world. The difference in Nation's imagined world is that rather than the millions who die in Contagion (and that's hardly a spoiler!), billions of people die in Survivors - nearly the entire human population of the world, in fact. The virus strikes so quickly that none of the characters has a clear idea of why the disease spread or where it originated. All that they know is that the cities are unsafe (which is handy, because the BBC budget didn't stretch to deserted city streets), that the only law is the law you make for yourself, and scavenging and looting is the only way to survive until society is rebuilt. I'll write more about the original Survivors soon, once I've had the chance to get my DVDs out of storage and re-watch them. (The BBC recently broadcast two series of a modern Survivors remake. I only saw the first series, and while it was reasonably good, it felt a bit too polished for my liking).


Watching Contagion also reminded me that while Steven Soderbergh is one of the directors who can be relied upon to make interesting and often highly successful films, I've actually seen very few of them. Certainly I need to remedy this, but at this stage I can honestly say that I've only seen Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Informant! and Contagion. After after his early success with SL&V a long spell of relative obscurity and little-seen films ensued in the 1990s. But his luck turned around in 2000 and for the past decade Soderbergh has earned the reputation of a highly bankable director, and one who can take a few commercial mis-steps with mid-level box-office failures and still afford to keep making small, bespoke films in between the blockbusters. Witness the amount of studio credit he must have built up after his string of successes with Erin Brockovich, the Oscar-winning Traffic and the Oceans films, and bear in mind that the earnings figures used to calculate the list below are only for US theatre takings - the global box-office figures, particularly for the highly successful Oceans films, is much higher. After all, Boxofficemojo has his current lifetime global box office takings at a whopping $873.4m:

  • Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989): $23.5m
  • Kafka (1991): -$9.9m
  • King of the Hill (1993): -$6.8m
  • Underneath (1995): -$6.0m
  • Gray's Anatomy (1996): -$0.3m
  • Schizopolis (1996): -$0.2m
  • Out of Sight (1998): -$10.4m
  • The Limey (1999): -$5.8m
  • Erin Brockovich (2000): $73.6m
  • Traffic (2000): $76.1m 
  • Ocean's Eleven (2001): $98.4m
  • Full Frontal (2002): $0.5m
  • Solaris (2002): -$32.0m
  • Ocean's Twelve (2004): $15.5m
  • Bubble (2005): -$1.5m
  • The Good German (2006): -$30.7m
  • Ocean's Thirteen (2007): $32.2m
  • Che: Part One (2008): -28.3m
  • Che: Part Two (2008): unknown
  • The Girlfriend Experience (2009): -$1.0m
  • The Informant! (2009): $12.3m
  • And Everything Is Going Fine (2010): unknown
  • Contagion (2011): $14.6m+, currently in cinemas

06 November 2011

The rockets' red glare

Photos from the annual Wellington city Guy Fawkes fireworks display, launched from three barges moored near Oriental Bay. The show reportedly cost $190,000 and used three tonnes of fireworks. My vantage point was on the northern, quieter end of Queens Wharf, where I used a Manfrotto 484 tripod to shoot exposures ranging from two to five seconds in length.  

05 November 2011

In fear of the Tsar's navy

Approach to Fort Ballance, Miramar
Fort Ballance sits atop Wellington's Miramar peninsula, and while it's currently shrouded by trees and little visited, in its heyday it served as the main naval defence for the harbour entrance. And it's older than you probably think too. Instead of being a part of the well-known World War 2 gun emplacements at Makara and Wright's Hill in Karori, or even of a World War 1 defensive network, it is actually Victorian in origin, having been built in the 1880s and come into service in 1885.

The enemy it was built to defend against was the Russian navy of Tsar Alexander III. The isolation felt by the New Zealand colonial authorities led to considerable nervousness about the ability of the stretched Royal Navy resources in the Pacific to counter any possible invaders. Russia was developing its Pacific fleet and constructing the Trans-Siberian Railroad to link its eastern territories to its heartland in eastern Europe.

There were also strained diplomatic relations and ongoing sabre-rattling with Britain over Central Asia and the approaches to the lush resources of imperial India. The Panjdeh Incident of March 1885, in which Russia seized territory in Afghanistan and killed about 600 Afghan troops, also tested the nerves of the isolated colony, because for a time it was feared the matter might lead to war. The Auckland Star of 23 March 1885 reported a telegram from London the day before, headlined 'The Threatened War: Russian Intrigue at Panjdeh', while the Otago Daily Times of 16 April 1885 contains reports from the Australian colonies, which were taking 'precautionary measures in view of a possible outbreak of war between England and Russia', including stronger controls on entries to Australian ports, the establishment of a permanent militia camp in Victoria, and a naval patrol service in the Gulf of St Vincent.

Russian naval forces never threatened New Zealand's ports, and the only naval incursions that actually reached our coastal sealanes were German raiders in both World Wars and Japanese submarines in World War 2.  But Fort Ballance remained a key part of Wellington's defences until it was superseded by the more modern Fort Dorset in 1911, and it continued to serve as an auxiliary facility, acting as the capital's main ammunition depot from 1924 until 1959. Fort Ballance also provided army accommodation from 1946 until as late as 1990, although it must have been a cold and windy place for a soldier's billet.

Now the fort is a Category I-registered historic place, and serves as a reminder of the impressive works Victorian engineers undertook in fear of the Tsar's navy. It's an isolated and almost forgotten spot that has attracted plenty of graffiti, but the structures seemingly remain sturdy and will hopefully be protected for many years to come as reminders of our military history. Indeed, some are keen to restore the fort, with local historian Allan Jenkins favouring the reinstatement of the 8-inch 'disappearing gun', which he believes was buried nearby in the 1970s:

Given that the mounts are still in the gun pit and the shields are buried nearby ... it's fair to say I'm fairly excited about the prospect of the gun making a very short trip back into its original home. It was a huge thing. It was the biggest and the best at the time. 
- 'Historian keen to see big gun restored', Dominion Post, 2 November 2011 

Images from Fort Ballance, 16 October 2011: