29 January 2012

A flying visit to Blenheim

A couple of weeks ago I celebrated my final few days of liberty from the employment market before my contract recommenced by taking off for a quick two-day visit to the South Island. The main purpose of my trip to Blenheim was to take in a splendid collection of World War 1 fighters at the excellent Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre just outside of town, but there were several other sights to enjoy while in the area, and the journey to and from the South Island was also enjoyable.

I started out on a grey Wednesday morning, making my way to the Interislander terminal for the 8.25am sailing of the massive Kaitaki, formerly the Pride of Cherbourg, which has a capacity of over 1600 passengers. Given that the last time I'd crossed Cook Strait it was in the far smaller Bluebridge Santa Regina, this vessel was a whole order of magnitude greater.

Heading out of Wellington

There may have been a lively breeze blowing outside, but inside the ship there was no sensation of motion. There was a magician with balloons to detain the kids, and a bearded singer with a guitar in the bar area to detain real ale drinkers. I spent as much of the three and a half hour journey as possible on deck, admiring the views inside Wellington Harbour and along the south coast. There was a palpable shift in climate as we entered the Marlborough Sounds, with blue skies appearing and the thermometer climbing several degrees. A small pod of porpoises even flitted across the port bow, although I was too slow to grab a good photo of them. I stayed out in the sunshine and admired the lovely view as we navigated through Queen Charlotte Sound - what a sight.

The ferry Aratere, dwarfed by the magnificent Sounds

Looking back up Queen Charlotte Sound to the north

Eventually we eased into port in Picton, and I disembarked with an hour and a half to spare before my Intercity coach ride to Blenheim. I have fond memories of my first visit to Picton with friends in the mid-90s, and I can confirm that the mini-golf course and the seaplane are both still going strong. I'd also love to return with more time to revisit the remarkable remains of the Edwin Fox, which was built in 1853 and is probably the world's oldest merchant ship. I strolled up High Street in the sunshine, somewhat held back by the immensely noisy wheels on my cheap cabin bag, and secured some lunch to eat down by the waterfront.

Soon it was time to depart on the half hour coach ride into Blenheim. The Intercity dropped me at the railway station, and it was a short walk to the nearby Koanui Lodge, my accommodation for the night. I'd stumped up for a single room, which was perfectly decent. I enjoyed the fact that the Lodge was located on Main Rd, despite the fact that the thoroughfare was not actually the main road in Blenheim. Perhaps it used to be, back in the day. Now it's full of used car lots and fast-food joints with no on-street pedestrian access, and is dominated by southbound traffic heading towards Christchurch.

After dropping off my gear I walked the short distance into the centre of town to check things out. Blenheim is not replete with historic buildings, and although its CBD is perfectly pleasant it also holds little of particular interest for the casual visitor. Most people visit Blenheim for the marvellous collection of vineyards ringing the town, but I wasn't venturing out on a solo booze cruise, no matter how much I enjoy Alan Scott's riesling or a nice drop of Seresin.

It's probably worth noting that the most interesting aspect of Blenheim's history is its original name, which was actually The Beaver. The first surveyors were caught in one of the river's many floods and were required to clamber up onto their bunks 'like a lot of beavers in a dam', and the name stuck until about 1860.

The following morning I ventured out on my planned stroll to Omaka. While the Lodge apparently had cycles to borrow, I didn't want to churn through my day in Blenheim too speedily, so I decided to walk the five kilometre route to the airfield at the outskirts of town. (It's a flat, easy walk apart from the sun, and it took me about 45 minutes).

The aviation collection is located in a large modern hangar at the edge of a working airfield, and its $25 entry fee is more than good value if you're an aviation buff or just a history fan in general. The collection focuses on one- and two-man aircraft from World War One, chiefly fighters and scouts, with a healthy helping of aeronautical memorabilia thrown in. Certainly, most of the aircraft on display are replicas, but that is absolutely no reason for purists to give Omaka a miss.

The aircraft are uniformly beautiful, and the particular skill with which Weta Workshops has assisted in arranging the displays and mannequins has given the exhibits a powerful sense of realism. Last year I was fortunate to visit world-class aviation collections in Paris and Berlin, and while those museums had superb collections, the manner in which the aircraft were displayed was somewhat clinical and old-fashioned. At Omaka the aircraft are placed in context with the imagined daily life of a fighting warplane going on around them. A downed Morane-Saulnier Type BB, ditched in a muddy field, with a Ford ambulance lurching to the rescue and RFC men pulling the stricken crew from the wreckage. New Zealand's RFC air ace Keith Logan 'Grid' Caldwell perched precariously on the wing of his doomed SE5a as it skims the trenches, just before he leaps to an uncertain fate.  And there's a famous centrepiece: the gleaming Fokker Dreidecker belonging to Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron, spreadeagled in the dirt, with Australian troopers carving the aircraft up for priceless souvenirs and relieving the Baron's recumbent corpse of his bespoke flying boots.

Etrich Taube (1910-15)

Morane Saulnier BB (1915-16)

Famous American ace Eddie Rickenbacker's flying suit

'Grid' Caldwell's great escape

The death of the Red Baron

There was also the chance to step aboard a piece of New Zealand aviation history outside the hangar, when museum staff opened up ZK-CPT, a vintage clamshell-doored Bristol Freighter that flew the Chathams run with Safe Air until its retirement in the 1980s.  While the aircraft generated affection from its flight crews due to its power and reliability, it must have been a rather mixed attraction for passengers. The shipping-container-like interior was frequently shared with cargoes such as live sheep or unrefrigerated seafood, and the fuselage was thin and unpressurised, so the journey was both relentlessly noisy thanks to the nearby Hercules engines and choppy because the aircraft couldn't fly above inclement weather.    

Bristol Freighter cargo doors

Next door to the aviation centre a smaller hangar contained the Omaka Classic Car Collection, which is also definitely worth a visit for car enthusiasts. It's considerably smaller than the excellent Southwards Car Museum in Paraparaumu north of Wellington, but contains one man's appealing collection of New Zealand road cars, many of which hold a certain charm for those of us old enough to remember the days when British cars ruled the roads. While I was slightly saddened by the lack of an Austin 1100 'Landcrab', I was also unreasonably pleased to spot such seemingly mundane treasures as a Hillman Alpine, a Wolseley 16/60, a two-tone 1963 Ford Anglia Super, and an oh-so-brown 1979 Austin Princess HL. The latter Austin helps to illustrate the changing of the guard in the motor world, because in 1979 and as late as 1982 Austin was still cranking out Princesses, while in another corner of the museum a sprightly pixie, the 1978 Honda Civic subcompact, showed how the rest of the automotive 20th century would belong to Japan.

Austin Princess

Ford Anglia

Aside from the charming slice of working, family cars, the museum also has its fair share of genuine stunners. Chief among those are a trio of legendary Jaguars: a two-seater open-topped XK120 from 1950, with its swooping curves extolling a boom years optimism distilled into car form; the reddest of red 1959 XK150s coupes, with a 3442cc double overhead cam straight six twin SU carburettor under the bonnet; and my ideal luxury car, a cream-toned 1969 E-Type with its marvellous wedge rear and shining spoked wheels.

Jaguar XK120 & XK150

Jaguar E-Type

After three and a half hours at Omaka I walked back towards Blenheim, happy with my visit to the aerodrome. With the sun rising higher and baking Marlborough and me along with it, I paused to visit the Marlborough Museum, which was en route. It was fine for a brief visit, but the collection seemed to be dominated by the history of the surrounding vineyards and the wine industry. This is fine if you're fascinated by viticulture, but less interesting to me - I was keener to learn about the century and a bit before the grapes took over the town. There was a nice section on the travails faced by early settlers on the journey out from Britain, with a mocked-up stateroom and steerage quarters to show the privations suffered on the months-long journey to New Zealand.

Most middle- and working-class passengers travelled in steerage

I then took a stroll around the adjacent Brayshaw Park, a curious 'frontier town' replica consisting of mock vintage shops, which was absolutely deserted apart from me. For those who remember it, Brayshaw had the same worthy but slightly decrepit feel that the Auckland Museum's 'Centennial Street' had when we visited it as school-children in the '80s. One for the kids, perhaps.

It was soon time to head back to Wellington - this was a short visit to Blenheim, after all. My only souvenir: a $15 box of Errol Flynn films from the ubiquitous Warehouse in town. I nearly ended up staying longer than I had anticipated though: the shuttle service I had booked had clearly forgotten about me, and I had to call to remind them that I was expected at the airport in approximately five minutes. Someone raced out to collect me amidst a flurry of apologies, and I made it to Woodbourne in plenty of time. This is hardly LAX we're talking about here, so the check-in lady wasn't the least bothered that I was slightly tardy.

The single-engine 12 seater Sounds Air Cessna Caravan trundled up to the gate soon after I arrived, and the pleasingly old-fashioned routine played out - the pilot helped the passengers off and helped to unload their bags too, before nipping into the terminal for a quick chat to the check-in lady (seemingly the only staff member on duty). Then he ducked back out to the plane to help shepherd us on board. I sat directly behind the pilot to gain the best view I could of the 25 minute journey back to Wellington. There's nothing like flying in a small aircraft to remind you how exciting flying must have felt in the early days. The modest breeze tugged the tail sideways immediately after takeover and we slewed around a bit until we reached the 4000 feet cruising altitude. Then it was directly on to Wellington, which I could see in the distance soon after takeoff - it was a perfectly clear day for flying. The Marlborough Sounds were to the left, and the light brown Wither Hills lay to the south, and once we approached the southern shore of the North Island the West Wind turbines provided a handy reference point. In no time the Cessna was on the ground once more, and having enjoyed a speedy inter-island journey and an appealing two days in the South Island I set off for the airport bus and the familiar western hills of Wellington City.

Cessna Caravan, Woodbourne

Wither Hills, south of Blenheim

Landing approach at WLG

27 January 2012

A solution to excessive council CEO salaries

If you've been following New Zealand news recently you will have heard the furore about the salaries of council chief executives, and the annual increases that some of them have been receiving. The loudest debate has been over the 14.4% pay rise handed to Christchurch council head Tony Maryatt in December - his salary was increased from $470,400 to $538,529, which is a gross salary of over $10,000 per week. Certainly, running the Christchurch City Council in the seemingly endless aftermath of the terrible Canterbury quakes is a challenging and no doubt stressful job, and few would begrudge the holder of that position a healthy salary. But there has been widespread disquiet over the size of the salary increase - a rise of $68,129 - at a time when many of the vital services usually offered by a city council are still offline and when the rebuilding of Christchurch has still yet to commence, many months after the fatal quakes.  

TV3 quoted Maryatt in bullish mode on 5 January, arguing that he was worth the raise:

"I'm not refusing the pay offer and I'm not giving it to charity. That is on the principle that I feel I should be paid the market remuneration for the job and what is appropriate for my level of performance," he told The Press. Mr Marryatt said he expected his pay rise to cause controversy. There was a protest at council headquarters and "a barrage" of critical letters in The Press. "Any time I have a pay increase there is always negative comment because for most people what I earn is an exorbitant salary and any percentage increase on an already-large salary gets to a sizeable amount," Mr Marryatt said.However, his job was bigger than average - running a council with 3000 staff and a $1 billion-a-year budget while at the same time trying to manage recovery from the destructive September and February earthquakes, he said. "My job has grown immensely ... The benefit is for the city if they have a motivated and high-performing CEO," he said.
Perhaps Maryatt is right, and he is being paid in accordance with the importance of the position he holds and the issues he is responsible for. Perhaps his motivation levels are so fluid that if the people of Christchurch neglect to give him a 14.4% pay rise his productivity and effectiveness will sag drastically, thereby undermining the vital recovery of New Zealand's second-largest city. This is not a view I hold, but Maryatt should be able to advance his arguments and have them debated on their merits. However, the manner in which he phrased his rebuttal of criticism of the pay rise only served to exacerbate public disquiet about his remuneration. Wednesday's Waikato Times editorial pointed out that Maryatt, who came to Christchurch from the CEO's role in Hamilton, was being consistent with his previous form, but that under the present circumstances this was a grievous error of judgement:

There are echoes from Mr Marryatt's time in Hamilton, where his pay rises were always controversial. He would always staunchly take the view that he was worth the money and was only getting salary increases commensurate with other comparable chief executives. He was certainly an extremely capable chief executive. But in Christchurch, a city devastated physically and psychologically, such an argument cannot be justified. Given the circumstances, Mr Marryatt should have quite simply declined a pay rise of this magnitude. 

Finally the penny dropped, and Maryatt announced earlier that he had instructed the council to cease paying him the pay rise from today. (Note that while the pay rise was backdated when it was introduced, its rejection was not backdated).

This focus on Christchurch is not to suggest that the pitchforks and blazing torches are just blazing a trail for Maryatt's castle doors. Elsewhere in the country tempers have been raised by the ever-increasing salary packages for council chiefs. In the city Maryatt left in 2007, Michael Redman also attracted controversy by resigning the Hamilton mayoralty in 2010 after three and a half years in order to take up the (more highly-paid) position of chief executive of Hamilton City Council. (There's also the small matter of the V8 race controversy, which is yet to be resolved). The Dominion Post also weighed into the debate on Wednesday with the news that the chief of the Kapiti Coast District Council, Pat Dougherty, recently received a $44,000 salary increase, taking his pay from $241,000 to $285,000. 

The DomPost article also included a handy list of council chiefs from across the region and their salary increases, many of which were considerably greater than those received by average New Zealanders. And it turns out that if you want to be a council chief executive, your surest guarantee of success is the possession of a penis. Of the 20 councils who responded, 19 were run by men, as were the two councils that neglected to reply to the newspaper's queries - Hawke's Bay Regional Council, and Napier City Council - so that's 21 men out of 22. 

A Kapiti councillor, defending his vote in favour of Dougherty's pay increase, cited the common justification for such rises:

Councillor Ross Church defended the pay rise, saying the council had consulted experts. "We were advised the salary should sit at $285,000, and making an arbitrary decision would not follow due process," he said.
I have no reason to doubt that a due process was followed in Kapiti, or indeed in any other local authority. The same justification was used in Christchurch to explain Tony Maryatt's salary package - sure, Mayor Bob Parker said, it may be a lot of money, but it was good value for money, and if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. 
This idea that council chief executives possess extraordinarily rare skill sets that should command ever-increasingly enormous salaries is a relatively recent phenomenon. Certainly, as Maryatt pointed out, the man (and generally it's a male, as we've seen) in charge of, for example, '3000 staff and a $1-billion-a-year budget', as in Christchurch, has got a lot on his plate. And specialist consultants whose job it is to advise councillors on chief executive remuneration packages are doubtless wont to cite the ever-increasing amounts paid elsewhere in New Zealand and Australia, which leads councillors to believe that the only way to attract and retain high quality chiefs is to pay them many hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. After all, if they were running the same sized organisations in the private sector they'd be being paid millions, right?
And that's where the rationale falls down, because councils are not businesses run for profit. Their business is public service, and the people who run them are public servants. The skills required to run a successful council are not rare or mystical - they are gleaned by working in the bureaucratic environment for decades, learning the ropes and gaining a practical understanding of how things actually work on the ground: what businesses need to thrive, what ratepayers need to get on with their lives, which schemes are valuable and which ones are potential white elephants. We've had generations of this sort of council leadership, and it wasn't expensive. The current focus on the ever-increasing council chief executive marketplace assumes that CEOs are irreplaceable and that their skills must be bought with bags of gold.
This reliance on a faulty market model was perfectly exemplified in the state broadcaster TVNZ, which became so fixated on the importance of retaining broadcaster Paul Holmes that his salary package skyrocketed to unfathomable and politically unsustainable levels. The Herald reported in 2009 that back in the days when newsreader Judy Bailey commanded an $800,000 salary, which brought about a public outcry, money was apparently no object:
In the Bailey era, Paul Holmes was earning around $700,000 for his 7pm Holmes show on TVNZ, while an attempt to cut Susan Wood's $450,000 salary by $100,000 resulted in her leaving the broadcaster.
A world in which Susan Wood was worth $450,000 is clearly not one I'm familiar with. What was the upshot of these huge pay packets? The state broadcaster eventually called the talent's bluff. Holmes and Bailey were set loose, and while Bailey chose to retire gracefully, Holmes was given the chance to see if his 'market value' was actually worth the amount he was being paid, and it turned out it wasn't. (He went back to his highly successful radio career and eventually returned to TVNZ, presumably on a much smaller salary).  
How could a similar market correction come about in the world of council chief executives? Satirist Joe Bennett, clearly riled by the Maryatt salary ructions, offers a reality check:

People elect a mayor as a figurehead for the city. And they elect councillors to represent their views. The mayor and councillors together form a council. The council employs a town clerk, tells him what the people want done and gives him the rate money to do it with. The town clerk then employs a workforce to do it. The town clerk's job is not to be another figurehead, whose strong and sympathetic hand we can learn to love and trust. His job is to do as he's told by the councillors. Invisibly, clerically and efficiently.

What sort of individuals could we call on to fulfil this town clerk role, to undercut the increasingly moneyed class of council chiefs whose salaries spiral ever upwards? The sort of person who used to do the job, that's who. Career bureaucrats who build up a lifetime of experience in public sector management. And - crucially - we target those skills in individuals who are keen to give something back to society, in recognition of the success they have attained. The sort of person who is located to run an important Royal Commission of Inquiry - senior civil servants, retired judges, savvy military nabobs. Ex-MPs, even. But the key determinant of suitability for the roles, apart from the general aptitude for managing budgets and workforces that many people develop over their careers, should be that the people selected have already achieved financial security in their working lives, and want to top off their careers with a final distinguished act of proactive philanthropy.

This might sound like Bolshevik radicalism, but I believe there are substantial numbers of respected potential administrators who would relish the opportunity to perform an important role before they retire, to give something back to their local communities. And the icing on the cake is the change I propose to the honours system to add a useful incentive. For those individuals who complete several years of such valuable service to their communities and the nation would be almost the only people eligible for knighthoods, or the equivalent honour should knighthoods be re-abolished. I say 'almost' because there needs to be an opening for genuine national heroes to 'bag a K' too, but generally speaking people should be aware that the only way to earn a coveted place in history as a knight of the realm is to work for it, and for the people of New Zealand. Not only would this quell the disquiet sometimes expressed about the worthiness of some individuals appointed to certain honours, but it would allow councils to reduce their chief executive remuneration to a much more modest honorarium.

So what do you think? Gongs instead of half-million salaries - would it work?

20 January 2012

Osmonds and autocracy

David Runciman, writing in the London Review of Books about the contemporary financial crisis in Europe, has thoughtfully provided the ideal premise for my first blockbusting novel. What's not to like about the 1970s?

People who have announced that Europe’s current experiments with technocracy are a fundamental betrayal of democratic principles are being premature: it could work. But here’s the bad news: there is no guarantee that it will work. The conditions have to be right. The historical evidence suggests that democracies can be flexible only under certain circumstances. To start with, they must not be too poor. In countries where per capita GDP falls below a certain level (usually estimated at around US $7000), democratic experiments with emergency rule often end in disaster. It’s the temporary autocrats who don’t give power back. Political scientists take these thresholds very seriously. Above the line, democracies appear pretty much invulnerable, but below it, even safe-looking democracies might suddenly collapse into something worse. During the economic contraction of the mid-1970s per capita GDP in New Zealand fell perilously close to the cut-off point (it got down to about $10,000). It is hard to imagine what a military coup in 1970s New Zealand would have looked like. But it’s not impossible to imagine.

My rough working title is The Teachings of Chairman Rob, or perhaps The Napoleon of Hatfield's Beach if the former wasn't sufficiently obvious. Clearly, this has all the hallmarks of literary gold, and it would also provide the opportunity to exercise my fondness for descriptions of shoddily-made British cars of the 1970s with muddy brown paint jobs. Now all I have to do is learn how to write really, really well.   

11 January 2012

The greater part of Raetihi is intact

Old County Offices in Raetihi, 1922
On the drive back south to Wellington last week I paused for a break at tiny Raetihi, north of Wanganui on State Highway 4. I've driven the road to Wanganui a few times, mainly when I've been driven to distraction by the boredom of State Highway 1, but I don't think I've ever pulled into Raetihi to take a look. It's a sleepy little place, with a big wide main street suitable for driving cattle down, and a batch of heritage buildings that show it used to be quite an up-and-coming place.

Raetihi's commendably detailed Wikipedia entry records that the town was once the largest settlement in the King Country, with a massive population of 'almost 4500' in 1900. This figure seems too high, what with Te Ara listing the entire population of the King Country as 5475 in 1901, but it still gives an idea of how bustling the place used to be.

Whatever its population, Raetihi boasts a decent collection of period buildings from its heyday. Here are a few of the historic buildings remaining in Seddon St, Raetihi's main thoroughfare:

Old Bank of New Zealand building, with hitching post outside

County Offices detail

Now a cafe

Garage, next to The Royal

The Royal Cinema, 1915

But we shouldn't pretend Raetihi used to be a major metropolis. These two images from 1914 and 1916 respectively show the broad expanse of Seddon St unsullied by throngs of shoppers. In the earlier picture only one motorcar is visible, while in the 1916 shot the only sign of life is a flock of sheep idling in the middle of the road. Still, it's nice to see the hitching post outside the BNZ has survived all these years, even if it mustn't get much use in the 21st century.

Raetihi, c.1914, by Frederick George Radcliffe

Raetihi, 1916, by Frederick George Radcliffe

Diana and Jeremy Pope's North Island travel guide records the following history of Raetihi:

Raetihi was founded in 1892 in a densely bushed area. The Whanganui River as far as Pipiriki was then the district's principal means of access and wagoners found the town site to be the nearest area of level ground as a stopping point. Disaster struck in 1918 when fire devastated vast areas of native forestlands in so great a blaze that as far away as Wellington the smoke forced schools to close. Nine sawmills, over 150 houses and and least three people perished [...] It was years before the district could recover and a long time before logging and milling could be reorganised.
- D. & J. Pope, Mobil NZ Travel Guide: North Island, 9th edn., 1996, p.186.

The great forest fire of March 1918 was reported at length in Wellington's Evening Post of Thursday 21 March 1918 under the headline The Great Blaze, and noted that Raetihi itself was in better condition than had been feared at first:

First reports rather over-estimated the effect of the fire. The greater part of Raetihi is intact. When the townspeople hurried away from Raetihi they did not know how the town would suffer. Business places and dwellings at either end were totally destroyed, likewise houses all round the place; but the centre of the town, including a great number of business premises, still stand, damaged merely by the cyclone. It is miraculous how they escaped the fire, for sparks fell in heaps everywhere. It is certain that the country has suffered more than the towns, the brunt of the disaster falling on sawmillers and settlers.

It appears that rain falling on the Tuesday afternoon and night in March 1918 saved towns like Raetihi and Ohakune from much greater damage. But the longer-term impact was more significant, with the local economy taking years to get back on its feet. Raetihi was also hit by the decline of timber stocks as easily accessible wood was exhausted, the closure of the town's branch railway connection in 1968, and the decline in rural industry in the 1970s and 80s. Now the town earns a living from passing travellers on the State Highway, and from ski tourism in the winter.

Photo credits for Alexander Turnbull Library images: 
(1) Looking down one of the streets in Raetihi. Radcliffe, Frederick George, 1863-1923 : New Zealand post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-005995-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

(2) Seddon Street, Raetihi. Radcliffe, Frederick George, 1863-1923 : New Zealand post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-005994-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 

09 January 2012

Whilst I write, a perfect hurricane blows

From the diary of British businessman James Brogden (1832-1907), detailing his early impressions of Wellington during his visit to the capital in November 1871:

The houses are all built of wood on account of the earthquakes. One earthquake shook the houses so much that the large chandelier in the Govt. House swung about so much that it hit the ceiling breaking it down on each side. The Harbour some miles in extent was raised 3 feet at once. Several large vents in the earth like the bed of a small river are still remaining. The Great Earthquake occurred in 1854 , - and it is said there is one due now! I cannot give you an idea of the winds. They are something terrible. Whilst I write, a perfect hurricane blows and the wind sweeps over the hills on to the water in the bay, carrying clouds of spray along in a way I dare say you have scarcely seen. When it is fine, showers of dust and pebbles are driven along the beach, which make it quite distressing to be out. But when a still clear day appears, I assure you the view is fine, and about equal to the views in Morecambe Bay looking towards Windermere and the Lakes.

Brogden was in Wellington to negotiate his family firm's contracts with the Government to build railways in New Zealand. The Brogden Contracts, as they were called, were highly controversial and much debated in the House and in newspaper letters columns; they would eventually involve the construction of six new railway lines in New Zealand. By 24 November 1871 the contracts had finally been signed for the Wellington to Masterton railway, with construction to begin in December; in fact, work on the first section of the line through the Hutt Valley did not commence until August 1872. The building work for the entire line was tricky, encompassing the rocky harbour shores and the steep Rimutaka Ranges. It would be nine years before the line finally opened all the way to Masterton. 

Hutt / Wairarapa Line opening dates (via Wikipedia)

Wellington to:
Lower Hutt    April 1874
Upper Hutt    February 1876
Kaitoke         January 1878
Featherston   October 1878
Carterton       July 1880
Masterton      November 1880

08 January 2012

How to come a cropper

Wellington's Mark Gillespie collides with team-mate Rory Hamilton-Brown

Wellington played Canterbury on Friday at the Basin Reserve in a Twenty20 match, and while the game seemed even at the innings break, with Canterbury scoring 151/8 and Wellington's Andy McKay and Jeetan Patel each snaring three wickets for fewer than 20 runs. However, Wellington chased poorly, with only James Franklin and extras reaching double digits, and Canterbury dismissed their opponents for a meagre total of 90, thereby earning a 61-run victory.

Probably the most notable event of the game occurred during the 10th over of Canterbury's innings, when the South Islanders were racing to a high score at more than eight runs per over with only one wicket down. The 22-year-old Canterbury opener George Worker hit a low ball to midwicket, and two Wellington fielders, bowler Mark Gillespie and English import Rory Hamilton-Brown, dove for the catch. Hamilton-Brown, the Surrey captain who was playing his first match for Wellington, took the catch to end Worker's dangerous innings at 45 from 29 balls, but the ensuing collision with Gillespie saw both fielders incapacitated and the match halted while both received medical attention. Hamilton-Brown was worst off from the encounter, heavily gashing his right leg. But after receiving 12 stitches in his calf and a dose of painkillers he bravely returned to open the batting for Wellington.

Hamilton-Brown nurses his injured right calf

Wellington captain Grant Elliott calls for medical assistance
The Dominion Post's Mark Geenty reported that 'Gillespie was nursing a sore neck, and should also have received a thick ear from his coach. It was always Hamilton-Brown's catch and Gillespie's reckless dive could have resulted in broken limbs'. All in all it wasn't a good day for Gillespie, who played 46 matches for New Zealand from 2006 to 2009: later in Canterbury's innings he beamed the Canterbury captain Peter Fulton, and he finished with unsightly bowling figures of 4-0-42-1. Perhaps the scoreboard gnomes had this in mind when they left up the following incriminating letters, halfway through removing Luke Woodcock's surname:

A bit harsh on Gillespie, perhaps?

The 24-year-old Hamilton-Brown should be one to watch in future, and it's good that Wellington has formed a relationship with him early in his career. In Friday's paper he was quoted as saying, 'I like that pressure of going away from where you're comfortable in a county side, into a new side where you've got to prove yourself again. I can't wait to get out there'. Every cricket bio makes a point of mentioning that in 2009 Hamilton-Brown was appointed as Surrey's captain, thereby becoming the county's youngest captain for 138 years. He also led the county back into the top division in English cricket.

Surrey is a hugely influential team - London's 'other' team besides Middlesex - and for a young cricketer to be given charge of such a high-stakes outfit is a real vote of confidence in Hamilton-Brown's ability. His 2011 record for the county is relatively solid. In 16 first-class county matches in 2011 he scored 1039 runs at an average of 37.1 - just the one century in 30 innings though. In 13 List A (one-day) matches he scored a more modest 372 runs at 28.6, but at a commendable strike rate of 120. And in 15 T20 matches for the county he managed a somewhat disappointing 232 runs at an average of 17.8 and a strike rate of 129. Hopefully he'll score plenty more runs for Wellington this summer.

Other scenes from the match:

Gillespie bowls from the northern end

Andy McKay bowls from the scoreboard end

Kids flock for free mini cricket bats

A young fan on the ground at half time

Racing clouds on a traditional Basin cricket day

02 January 2012

My best and worst films of 2011

My movie-going has been rather disjointed this year, so this year’s film round-up is a slightly ramshackle list. I started the year in London without a job, and ended it back in the workforce in New Zealand, and this meant that for at least half the year I missed out on new releases. I certainly wasn’t going to stump up for London first-run movie tickets at their astronomical prices! Since relocating to New Zealand I’ve enjoyed the Film Festival (always the highlight of the winter months) and since I picked up full-time work in August, I’ve also been able to take in a wider range of movies at the cinema.

I’ve decided this time around to limit my list to current films only, mainly because I saw (and loved) The Social Network in 2011, but that’s unquestionably a 2010 production. To have that film as one of my top three 2011 titles seems a bit odd, so I’m restricting myself to just 2011 films in these lists - or, to be precise, I'm aiming to do so - apologies if I've made any errors with the dates. This means I have to omit some superb films that I saw in 2011 that were produced in 2010, such as the gripping Of Gods and Men, and a clutch of quality non-fiction films like Armadillo, Inside Job, Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D, Senna and Tabloid. On the plus side it also means that I dodge the potential for being snarky about Sofia Coppola’s aimless Somewhere and the decent but massively over-hyped Black Swan.

So here’s my rundown of my top 10 films of 2011 in reverse order, with the usual caveats that if you like a film and it’s not on the list, it’s probably just that I just haven’t seen it. I’ve also included a trio of three disappointing films, and I consider myself lucky that I didn’t notch up enough stinkers for a full list of five like last year!

My best films of 2011

10. Hanna (dir. Joe Wright)
At the outset Hanna appears to be the same old indestructible killing machine fantasy, but once the near-albino wunderkind rejoins society from her Arctic isolation and comes into contact with electricity, music and (gulp!) boys, how will she adapt? Saoirse Ronan is as strong as ever in the lead role, and Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett and an amusing Tom Hollander all essay truly atrocious accents that add to the daft whirl of excitement. With a driving Chemical Brothers soundtrack scoring its heart-pounding and smartly-shot chase and fight scenes, and the welcome addition of the scene-stealing Jessica Barden who lit up the English farce Tamara Drewe, Hanna is a fine confection - this decade's Run Lola Run, even.

9. Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen)
Sure, Midnight in Paris is in some regards a self-indulgent travelogue, but if you suspend your disbelief at the touristy clichés and the occasionally workmanlike dialogue then there's plenty to enjoy here. There's so many memorable luminaries in Allen's fantasy Paris and most of the performances are so smartly executed that it's hard not to find something to admire, whether it's Alison Pill's firecracker Zelda Fitzgerald, Adrien Brody's quixotic, finger-waving Salvador Dali or Kathy Bates' matronly Gertrude Stein. Certainly the large number of characters that Allen has thrown into the mix means that the flashback scenes tend to feel a little crowded, and in modern Paris there's little for Rachel McAdams to work with as Owen Wilson's unsympathetic and bitchy fiancé. Just don't take it too seriously and you'll emerge having had a surprisingly good time. But please Woody - next time no accordion music, okay?

8. 13 Assassins / Jûsan-nin no shikaku (dir. Takeshi Miike)
There are a few tastes of Japanese director Takeshi Miike's panache for visceral gore at the start of his samurai epic, 13 Assassins. Evidence of monumental cruelty, the grisly deaths of captives, plus a couple of unflinching ritual suicides all serve to underline the rather obvious point that the Caligula-esque lord who is the target of the film's assassination plot deserves everything thrown at him by the titular heroes and is a Thoroughly Bad Egg. After that initial burst of ultra-violence, 13 Assassins is much less unsettling and quickly becomes engrossing, as the hugely outnumbered but plucky team assembles and plans its raid against stupendous odds. There are refreshing touches of gruff samurai humour along the way, and the climactic ambush at a deserted mountain village is an extended masterclass of action filmmaking, with jaw-dropping battle scenes and a fittingly thrilling conclusion.

7. Page One: Inside the New York Times (dir. Andrew Rossi)
Print media junkies will enjoy this rare chance to peek behind the scenes at the venerable New York Times. The documentary offers an intriguing glimpse at the practicalities of responding to the major stories of the day, and in particular the Wikileaks-related material that dominated the headlines when the film was being made. The plight of traditional print media in an era of rapidly declining advertising revenue and burgeoning competition from online rivals with lower cost structures is a predominant theme, and it's by no means certain if the NYT can survive, even if its demise would be a tragedy for serious news reporting. Ultimately, Page One doesn't provide any answers to this looming problem. Rather, it offers up a snapshot view of the business of modern news-gathering, perhaps as it nears the end of its lifetime. The film certainly shines when telling the story of its gravel-voiced narrator, the formerly hard-living David Carr, who is awash with pithy quotes. If he was given a trilby and a Remington manual typewriter he'd fit right into any of the newsroom scenes in His Girl Friday.

6. Mysteries of Lisbon / Mistérios de Lisboa (dir. Raoul Ruiz)
It's rare to find a film these days that justifies an intermission, but this four and a half hour Portuguese historical epic certainly does. It tells a myriad of intertwined stories of 19th century Portuguese life amongst the nobility, with detours in place and time to Venice and revolutionary France. Sticklers might find the emphasis on patient story-telling and gradual reveals frustrating, but personally I relished the chance for the various characters' stories to stretch out and breathe; indeed it became something of a running joke for characters to utter lines like "let me tell you my story right from the beginning". Replete with multiple identities, honour-staked duels, unknown legacies, wronged noblewomen, grand masked balls, vengeful suitors, quixotic adventurers, villainous pirates and dozens and dozens of cast members, Mysteries of Lisbon sprawls most enjoyably on the big screen, and rewards viewers who appreciate cinema on the grand scale. My only complaint pertained to the slightly melodramatic score, which occasionally swelled to intrusive proportions.

5. The Trip (dir. Michael Winterbottom)
Michael Winterbottom’s odd-couple road movie features British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reprising their chummy rivalry from 2005’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, only this time the story is built around improvised scenes. Originally appearing as a well-received 6-part BBC series, the film has been edited from the TV broadcast for cinematic release. Each man plays a fictionalised version of himself, and the dynamic is surprisingly effective: Coogan as an insecure, impatiently ambitious would-be ‘serious movie star’, and Brydon as the contented family man, happy with his lower station in the comedy food chain. Roped in to replace Coogan’s (fictional) American girlfriend on a restaurant-reviewing tour of the north of England for the Observer Food Magazine, Brydon spurs Coogan’s competitive urges with his caricatures, leading to a series of entertaining mealtime impersonation jousts - Michael Caine and Woody Allen being two particular highlights. As Coogan struggles to land a major role and pines for his distant girlfriend, the viewer is treated to a finely-observed comedy of two spotlight-seeking middle-aged entertainers forced to spend a week in the close quarters, and to the sweeping vistas of the northern scenery, which Winterbottom’s camera shows off to magnificent effect.

4. Bridesmaids (dir. Paul Feig)
The ridiculous notion that women can't be funny on the big screen has hopefully been banished by this refreshing comedy. The chemistry between the female cast-members in Bridesmaids is clear, and much of the material is highly entertaining. The charming Kristen Wiig has been due a major hit for ages, and the success of Bridesmaids - a defiantly female-focused film that is a hit with both genders - is a testament to the consistently-overlooked talents of female comedians and writers. Perhaps this will kick-start a bandwagon of new films to counteract the heavy male-dominated imbalance of recent years (decades!). Only complaint: 124 minutes for a knockabout comedy? Editing please!

3. Bill Cunningham New York (dir. Richard Press)
I challenge anyone watching Bill Cunningham New York to come away from this film with any less than unalloyed respect and admiration for the profound joy and pleasure this genial octogenarian takes from his life's great passion: [photographing beautiful clothes on interesting people. His monkish asceticism is legendary, and the camera crew takes you inside his minuscule bathroom-less and kitchen-less studio flat (in Carnegie Hall, no less!) which is full to the brim with filing cabinets containing his life's work and precious little else. He is not even slightly interested in the trappings of celebrity, has never owned a TV and takes pride in rejecting monetary reward whenever it is offered. The sight of wizened Bill cycling between glittering Manhattan parties in his high-vis vest or in the front row at Paris Fashion Week, snapping away whilst wearing his $20 street sweepers' raincoat, is a breath of fresh air in this most artificial and contrived of environments. Here is a man who is universally admired both for his consummate skilfulness at depicting the beauty and foibles of the mercurial world of fashion and the characters who wear it, and for his remarkably humble and sunny disposition. It is a privilege to spend 84 minutes in his company through the medium of this simple but hugely effective documentary.

2. Submarine (dir. Richard Ayoade)
This utterly charming novel adaptation by first time director Richard Ayoade (who plays the socially challenged Moss in The IT Crowd sitcom) absolutely nails the misfit awkwardness of teenage romance in a hilarious and refreshingly unsentimental black comedy. The casting is perfect, with the young duo winningly portraying teen weirdos experimenting with A Proper Relationship (preferably with no hugging), and the comedic foils of the grown-up actors lavishing every scene with wry humour. Sally Hawkins is as sparky as ever as Oliver's uptight mum; Noah Taylor gives an quality portrayal of his hollowed-out, nerdy dad; and Paddy Considine is laugh-out-loud funny as the spiky-mulleted new age mystic who threatens to break up the family by stealing Oliver's mum away. Oliver's school friends are also reliably entertaining, offering consistently awful personal advice to the sensitive, clueless youth. With its grimy, handheld shots of a grey-skied Welsh industrial town and its deft soundtrack by Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, and with too many brilliant moments of bleak comedy to count, Submarine is without a doubt a modern classic.

1. TT3D: Closer To The Edge (dir. Richard De Aragues)
The Isle of Man TT motorbike races have killed 237 people since they began in 1907. Each year they wound and sometimes kill more and more riders. Yet the ones who survive are ever eager to pick themselves back up, get their wounds stitched, bones re-set and spines bolted into place, and get out racing again on the most dangerous roads in motorbike racing. It's a form of collective insanity demonstrated time and again in the interviews that form a large part of TT3D: these are people, mainly men but a few women too, absolutely in the thrall of this ultimate motorcycling challenge. In a sensible world, the TT would be banned. But luckily, the people who participate and the fans who love the sport are not sensible people. You can see it in their eyes and the repeated tales of being cruelly injured one year and being back racing the next.

The clear star of the film is the rebellious larrikin Guy Martin, with his Wolverine muttonchops and rakish charm: he talks non-stop and most of what he utters is complete tosh, but the camera loves him and so do the crowds, who will him on to the winning title he has thus far never claimed. He tinkers with his bike incessantly, sleeps rough in his van re-watching old race videos searching for a lost fraction of a second, and foolishly flouts track regulations out of sheer petulance. Every second he's on screen is a small joy. The other riders are equally fixated to the point of obsession: a veteran champion in his golden Winnebago trying for one last trophy, a quietly-spoken local Manx tryer hoping to delight his hometown fans, and the compulsive Steve Davis-like figure of a would-be champion, pumping iron in his gym in case it gives him the slightest edge.

I've never ridden on a motorbike, and perhaps I never will. It looks pretty dangerous to me. But being in the company of people insane enough to race these machines and run the very real risk of falling off them at 170mph going around a tight corner hemmed in by drystone walls? That's a rare pleasure. TT3D is a must-see documentary for anyone who appreciates an exciting story peppered with tremendous imagery and fascinating, yet somewhat mental, characters.

For a longer review, see here.

My three worst films of 2011

3. The Adjustment Bureau (dir. George Nolfi)
Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are both relatively likeable in this modern-day fantasy from writer-turned-director George Nolfi, in which a mysterious agency deploys equally mysterious powers to subvert everyday lives in keeping with its shadowy master plan for the universe. But the script, despite being lifted in the traditional fashion from a Philip K Dick short story, is so wafer-thin that the resulting film is a real disappointment, with a farcical ending and a laughable plot device ('we need to wear our hats before we can teleport through doors, you know') that bears all the hallmarks of a screenwriter failing to think of a good excuse to include cool 1940s-style headwear in his movie. The only highlight for me was Emily Blunt's impressive modern ballet moves in one scene - she clearly cuts a fine leg.

2. Cowboys & Aliens (dir. Jon Favreau)
When I say that aspects of Jon Favreau's adaptation of the graphic novel Cowboys & Aliens strains credibility in key respects, don't assume that I'm talking about the fact that it's a Western with creepy space aliens as the villains. In fact, I'm fine with that. Rather, it's the simple implausibility of many of the turning points of the film that frustrate, and particularly so given that this isn't as bad a film as some reviwers have made out. Sure, it's far too long and this stretches the viewer's patience - an overblown two hour flick when an 80 minute actioner would have suited. It has a decent cast, including Harrison Ford getting to play more or less his actual age for once, plus Daniel Craig's cowboy, who is suitably rugged, taciturn and generally baffled by proceedings. The problems lie in some arbitrary plot points that fail to make sense and the reliance on big-budget explosions instead of decent dialogue that rises above the level of hoary old cliches. And did anyone else notice that the nasty aliens in the Spielberg-produced Cowboys & Aliens look rather a lot like the nasty alien in the Spielberg-produced Super 8? Perhaps a more knowing, tongue-in-cheek approach that recognised the cartoonish nature of the source material would have generated a more appealing mix, as would a stronger focus on Sam Rockwell's weedy Doc character - an odd couple pairing of Rockwell and Craig would have been much more interesting. At least the widescreen scenery's pretty, and the effects and sound are both top-notch.

1. Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier)
Lars von Trier's Melancholia deserves plaudits for the talent that produced its striking visuals. The opening slow-motion apocalyptic premonitions are beautiful and powerful, and the closing shots of the looming, implacable world of Melancholia as it bears down on Earth are hauntingly effective. The film benefits from some decent performances too, particularly from Charlotte Gainsbourg as the anxious Claire; Kirsten Dunst is also perfectly acceptable as the depressive Justine, bowed down with ennui and gripped by visions of the end of the world. However, the film's two chapters - the tortuously long wedding scene in which everything goes horribly wrong, and the build-up to the world's close encounter with the onrushing rogue planet Melancholia - both overstay their welcome and should have been subject to heavy editing to cut down over-long scenes. None of the adult characters is particularly likeable so it is hard to summon any sympathy for their plight or even, at some points, tolerate their presence on screen. And while it doubtless seems like nit-picking, it can hardly have escaped viewers' attention that while Justine and Claire's parents are English, one daughter appears to have grown up French and the other is American. No matter, it is a trifling complaint compared to the major fault of the aimlessly pretentious Melancholia - this is a topic worthy of a short film stretched out to a tedious 137 minutes, with little to enjoy apart from the technical aspects of its visuals. Death by massive glaring metaphor? No thanks, Lars.

See also:
Blog: My best and worst films of 2010
Blog: Watching the 2011 Oscars