30 January 2013

"There was nowhere for Brian to run"

On a 23-year game of tag between friends who are now middle-aged, and who now live all over the US but still surprise each other in innovative, not-at-all-weird ways:

One year early on when Mike Konesky was "It," he got confirmation, after midnight, that people were home at the house where two other players lived. He pulled up to their place at around 2 a.m., sneaked into the garage and groped around in the dark for the house door. "It was open," he says. "I'm like, 'Oh, man, I could get arrested.' " 
Mr. Konesky tiptoed toward Mr. Dennehy's bedroom, burst through the door and flipped on the light. A bleary-eyed Mr. Dennehy looked up as his now-wife yelled "Run, Brian!" Mr. Konesky recalls. "There was nowhere for Brian to run." 
- Russell Adams, 'It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being "It"', Wall Street Journal, 28 January 2013, via BoingBoing.

29 January 2013

The dangers of a pedagogic approach

Sometimes highly educated writers are surprised that words they regard as ordinary are unknown to the person sitting next to them on the train. Take that example about displaying posters in the library:

Your request raises a question as to the provenance and veraciousness of the material, and I must consider individually all posters of a polemic or disputatious nature.

Of the hundreds of educated people I've shown it to during writing-skills courses, only a handful have known that 'provenance' means 'origin' or 'source'. That may be regrettable but it sends a message to anyone with a wide vocabulary: don't assume that others know all the words you do. A paediatrician in the UK who stated her profession on a plaque outside her house found that her doors and windows were daubed with anti-paedophile graffiti. The vandal clearly didn't know what a paediatrician was, and hadn't stopped to wonder why a paedophile would advertise the fact on her house. Similarly, Personnel Today (18 July 2000) reports that when a communications director said in an office memo that he favoured a 'pedagogic' approach during training programmes, he was told to be out of the building by lunchtime as the company did not tolerate 'paedophilic perverts'. After he successfully pleaded a defence based on the Concise Oxford dictionary, a directive was sent to the entire staff saying that only words found in the local newspaper would be allowed in all future memos - a solution that owed more to face-saving than common sense.

- Martin Cutts, Oxford Guide to Plain English, 2004, p.30.

[Perhaps a solution lies in expanding children's vocabulary. According to Prof E.D. Hirsch, 'there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter']

28 January 2013


For evidence, see the front page of today's Dominion Post, which reported that the capital was enjoying an all-too-rare burst of proper summer weather and the thermometer was tipped to scale the heady heights of 26 degrees today. It certainly felt like it out at lunchtime. This naturally sent Wellingtonians slightly mental, like all those deathly pale people in England who march out of the house in singlet tops when the sky clears, the sun comes out and the dial exceeds about 12 degrees, or the ladies in central London who work on their tan at lunchtime in the middle of a jam-packed city park. You have to hand it to them, it takes a lot of commitment and forethought to bring your swimsuit into the West End and don it without self-consciousness.

It's kind of sweet that we're getting so excited about such a modest heatwave. (The paper called it that, so I can too). After all, 26 degrees would hardly be noteworthy in northern climes like Auckland, and in Australia or even hotter lands it would be considered a trifling, mild day. (Tomorrow's forecast for Marble Bar, Western Australia: sunny, high of 42 degrees).  Here in Wellington it's a civic event, and normal standards of decorum are thrown out forthwith. Yesterday was first time I've ever seen someone wearing a bikini top in Courtenay Place. This gave rise to two thoughts: 1) This is *Wellington* - what was she thinking? What happens when the sun goes behind a cloud? (Doctor: "What seems to be the problem, miss?" Woman: "It's my front, doctor. It froze off"), and 2) Has she never seen the 'togs togs undies' ad?

I suppose it's just that we're so used to being downtrodden by the Wellington climate that any time we're able to truly cut loose and enjoy the sort of summer that everyone else seems to enjoy, things get a little unhinged. The whole 'you can't beat Wellington on a good day' is absolutely true; and in any case because I've lived in Wellington for less than 10 years in total I don't qualify as a proper Wellingtonian and am therefore not permitted to make any critical judgements about the qualities of the climate or the lack thereof. It's just that if we're honest, we tend not to expect many good days and when they do come around the diem must well and truly be carpe'd.

27 January 2013

A great day for flying

Having enjoyed attending Hannah & Kris' wedding in Hawarden yesterday, it was a perfect day to fly back to Wellington today, with beautiful clear skies all the way and a port-side window seat on Jetstar flight JQ292 from Christchurch to Wellington. In case you were wondering, the flight was on time. It was a straight take-off to the northeast from CHC, followed by a quick dash up the Kaikoura coast and a right hook at Plimmerton to come in over the harbour for a northerly descent into WLG. There was time for a quick glimpse of the Hobbit set on Miramar peninsula just beneath Mt Crawford Prison and then we were down.

21 January 2013

Crafted with all the skill of a shipwright's art

A few weeks ago I read Richard Woodman's novel, The Disastrous Voyage of the Santa Margarita, a fictional account of the real ill-fated galleon of that name that endured bitter crew rivalries, a series of devastating tropical storms and a bloody encounter with the local inhabitants of the Ladrones (now Northern Marianas) islands after being shipwrecked in 1600.

Woodman's novel contains an imaginative description of the Santa Margarita early on as the hero of the tale, Don Iago Fernandez, boards the vessel for the first time:

From the hired native canoe Don Iago stared up at the vast bulk of the Santa Margarita's stern looming above him and marvelled. Close to, the great ship impressed even more than she did at a distance. Although the timbers wore their coat of newly applied oil with a soft gloss, there was no other evidence that the great nao had not been built in the shipyards of Cadiz or Havana, for she was crafted with all the skill of a shipwright's art, even to the carvings on her high poop, where above the windows of the great cabin and the gallery that ran around the stern, amid the roil of leaves and palm fronds, a drooping Santa Margarita, her breasts bared by a town gown, struggled against the licentious intentions of what, Iago supposed, were two Roman soldiers. The fashioned woodwork, however, wrought by native craftsmen, had been modelled on the Spanish soldiery who despoiled their own women and wore the morion and cuirass of Castile and Aragon [...] 
Stepping over the high rail and down upon the deck, Iago was confronted by noise and turmoil. He regarded a confusion of strewn packages, boxes and chests among which scores of seamen and coolies swore and toiled as they sought to secure what seemed at first glance to be an immensity of cargo. Although some of the larger bales were being lowered into the hold through the two small hatchways amidships, it was clear that much was being borne on deck, where a party of swarthy seamen shoved and secured them. These men seemed to be drawn from all quarters of the globe. Dressed only in baggy breeches and headscarves, their naked torsos shone with sweat as they laboured under the hot sun. Forward, Iago's eye was caught by a huddle of female Filipinos, several of whom were washing clothes in wooden tubs; others idled, one plaiting another's hair, while all gossiped cheerfully. They were carelessly and indifferently dressed and clearly the seamen's women. The illusion of disorder, thought somewhat modified by the roaring figure of the boatswain whose rattan was freely applied, was in sharp contrast to the Santa Margarita's outward appearance. 
- Richard Woodman, The Disastrous Voyage of the Santa Margarita, Sutton, 2008, p.16-17. 

The basics of the historic journey were as follows:

1600 - Santa Margarita: The galleon sailed from Cavite to Acapulco, but was shipwrecked in the Marianas. This ship may also be the vessel which has been referred to various Filipino history books as the 'Capitana', but this has not been confirmed. It was a vessel which in some records was listed as having disappeared as it travelled from the Philippines to Mexico. Two years after the disaster, another galleon, the Jesus Maria, which sailed from Acapulco to Guam, and then to Cavite, was able to rescue 260 survivors* of the Santa Margarita shipwreck and transported them to Manila. 
- Shirley Fish, The Manila-Acapulco Galleons, 2011, p.499 [*Figure disputed - see note below]  
In the novel and in real life, the Santa Margarita came to grief near Teteto Beach on Rota Island, about 50km north of Guam. Only a handful of the ship's crew and passengers remained alive by the time they ran aground, and a history of bad blood between the islanders and Spanish visitors meant that more Spaniards soon perished. By the time the survivors were rescued by passing galleons only around 35 were left alive of the original complement of 260. (It appears the quote above confuses the total complement with the number of survivors).

The wreck was rediscovered in 1997 but its treasures had long dispersed into the local Chamorros community. Cunningham & Beaty's 2001 book A History of Guam reports that 'the Chamorros ... rescued the treasure from the sinking ship. There was a great deal of gold and jewelry aboard. Soon every Chamorro who wanted one had a golden necklace to wear. Some hung the jewelry on branches of trees to see it sparkle in the sun'. And other items from the ship's stocks were put to new uses. Jennifer McKinnon & Jason Raupp's 2011 article 'Potential for Spanish Colonial Archaeology in the Northern Mariana Islands' contains photographs of Spanish clavos (decorative nail heads) that were used as coconut oil lamps.

Photo (c) Jennifer F. McKinnon

20 January 2013

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

(c) David Lloyd (NZ), In a flick of a tail
Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition
Natural History Museum / Wildlife Magazine
At Pataka Gallery, Porirua
Until 27 January

In London I enjoyed several visits to the castle of learning that is the Natural History Museum, located in the museum mile in South Kensington. Thronged with school parties, the long dank underpass from South Ken tube station to the entranceway of the NHM is punctuated with alternative diversions - don't you want to visit the V&A instead? But if you demur and proceed to the end of the subterranean passage, which is usually every bit as cold as the weather outside, you will eventually emerge on the corner of Queen's Gate and Cromwell Road, SW7, with Alfred Waterhouse's elegant museum building looming over your shoulder. Nowadays you usually have to queue for a security check, and perhaps it will be raining while you do so, but once you're through and into the first great hall you can marvel like generations of youths before you at the exciting spectacle of the famous diplodocus skeleton, with its seemingly endless curved neck.

Every year in one small corner of the NHM the world's greatest nature photographers are shown in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. It's a hugely popular event, so the relatively modest room is often crammed with peering onlookers, shuffling awkwardly to grab one clear, unobstructed view of a prized image or squinting purposefully to read the accompanying captions. In fact, the popularity of the event means that entry is by timed ticket - if you miss your spot you're out of luck. And it's not cheap, either - £10 is the going rate for tickets.

Of course living back in New Zealand I miss this sort of access to the fabulous exhibitions on offer in London. Sure, there are a few dribs and drabs that make it this far, and the World Press Photo exhibition is an annual treat, but generally pickings are threadbare. So I was delighted to learn that a gallery in Wellington was displaying the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, and even better, it was free! (I would've been happy to pay to see it, mind).

My visit yesterday was my first visit to Pataka, which is a modern arts centre sharing space with the Porirua library, smack in the centre of the big-box retail wasteland of central P-Town. Like the Wellington region's two other galleries, the City Gallery in Civic Square and the Dowse in Lower Hutt, Pataka is remarkably fond of pseudish conceptual art rather than crowd-pullers like the WPY exhibition, so I'm doubly glad for the highly-accessible, crowd-pleasing photography on offer. It appears to be a little old, with small references to these being the 2011 award winners, and the NHM website indicates that this may be the very last stop on the global tour for the 2011 pictures. No matter - even if the photos are two years old, the fact that you can view them in Porirua for free is a real bonus.

I enjoyed the dozens of superb images on display, and loved the addition of minute technical details in the captions, including camera models, aperture settings and ISO ratings. This also allowed me to tot up a rough count of the machines used by the most successful photographers. Unsurprisingly, the best photographers - or, to be precise, the people who captured the best images - used the most expensive rigs, with the most popular being the Canon 5D (price: around $2500, body only), and the Nikon D3S (price: lots). There were also a clutch taken on an equally-ludicrously-expensive Canon 1D, the one Jonah boasts about to the photographer in 'Veep'. I was surprised and pleased to see that my own camera, the Sony Alpha 350, made a single appearance amongst the exhibition photographs, although perhaps it's noteworthy that it was in the aged 15-17 category - clearly, my camera has now been relegated to photographers' children to use. Nikon and Canon dominated proceedings: in my survey there were only two award-winning pictures taken on Sony cameras (the A350 and the older A200) and a solitary one taken on a modest Pentax K10D.

If you pay attention to the photo captions you may notice another pattern emerging: almost all of the wildlife photographers in the exhibition are men. Perhaps it's a combination of the technical boffinry associated with the most complex SLRs and all the various accoutrements seemingly required to take the very best shots, or, as the comments on this blog indicate, because women are less inclined to relish the solitary isolation of the hermit-like snapper, holed up in a blind for six hours at a time waiting for a single photographic opportunity. Either way, it seems to me like we're missing out on a huge range of potential contributors.

There are so many splendid images in the exhibition, and you can browse them all in the online gallery, but here's six of my favourites:

Jamie Unwin (UK) - Frozen in Flight
This is the aforementioned Sony shot by a teenager, a marvellously kinetic close-up of a great tit taking off from a snowy field in Kiddlington, Oxfordshire. The detail in the tiny bird's outstretched wings is excellent.

Joe Bunni (FRA) - Polar Power
These sorts of exhibitions always seem to feature a near-death experience and as canny photographers know, it's a great USP. This shot from icy Nunavut in the far north of Canada ticks all the boxes: a polar bear looms half in, half out of the water, mimicking the stance of the photographer snapping him only a couple of metres away. The photographer reckons immediately after the shot was taken the bear reached out and touched the camera with his paw, before swimming off. It's a great story whether or not it's true.

Joel Sartore (USA) - Balancing Act
If this mountain goat shot from the Glacier National Park in Montana was ever made into a movie it would probably feature Tom Cruise playing the role of the goat, wedged into uncanny and perilous crevices on a sheer rock face in order to snatch a lick of an outcrop of minerals to supplement its hardy diet.

Ross Hoddinott (UK) - Territorial Strut
Part of the beauty of zoom photography is being able to get incredibly close to the smallest creatures, and this square-framed portrait of a proud and ostentatious red robin in a snowy Devon field is a classic example.

Xavier Ortega (ESP) - Sleeping Infant
For maximum cute value this close-up image of an infant chimpanzee being cradled by its mother in the Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania is hard to beat.

Gregory Basco (USA) - Chachalacascape 
One of the most stylish and well-composed images in the exhibit, this monochrome photo of jungle birds in Costa Rica is wildlife photography as high art.

See also:
Exhibition: Who Shot Rock 'n Roll?, Auckland Art Gallery, 28 December 2012
Exhibition: Sukita / Bowie: Speed of Life, Masterton, 15 September 2012
Exhibition: World Press Photo 2012, Wellington, 19 August 2012
Exhibition: Three photography exhibitions, London, April 2011

18 January 2013

Mosquito, Spitfire & Kittyhawk flypast

At lunchtime Wellington was treated to a flypast from three participants in this weekend's Wings Over Wairarapa airshow. Led by the famous Wooden Wonder, the Mosquito fighter-bomber - the only one left flying - and escorted by a Spitfire and P40 Kittyhawk, the aircraft approached over the harbour and executed a lap of the waterfront area, before heading back north over Thorndon, which is where I recorded their flypast. The main action is at 0:45 in the clip. You can also catch a glimpse of the formation approaching Wellington in a video shot from the Kittyhawk's cockpit here.

See also:
Photos: RNZAF 75th anniversary airshow, Ohakea, 31 March 2012
Blog: Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, Blenheim, 12 January 2012
Blog: Le Bourget Air & Space Museum, Paris, 5 March 2011

16 January 2013

Several rhinoceroses of ineptitude

On the positive side, the Kiwis have never batted better in their second innings in an away series against the Proteas. An open-top bus parade through Wellington surely awaits ‒ their collective second-innings average of 23.5 was their best performance in their seven visits to South Africa.

Sadly for that hamster of consolation, bouncing up and down on the negative end of the statistical see-saw are several rhinoceroses of ineptitude. Only a tenth-wicket slapabout, as BJ Watling and Trent Boult added 59 in the second Test in Port Elizabeth prevented them from recording the worst-ever first-innings series performance in the history of Test cricket.

Even that only lifted them into second-last place (out of 1187), averaging 8.3 per first-innings wicket in the two Tests, compared to South Africa’s 6.5 in their first ever Test series, way back in 1888-89, when a trip to that part of the cricketing universe was rather less intimidating for visiting batsmen than it is now. Given that the 1888-89 games were only retrospectively awarded Test status some years later, New Zealand can still unproudly claim to have compiled the most dismal first-innings performance in a Test series by a team that actually knew it was playing in a Test series. And they can still also anti-boast that no team has ever lost its first-innings wickets more rapidly in a series than their once-every-19.2-balls, a figure boosted by the 50 balls of marathon resistance that Watling and Boult put together last week.

New Zealand also proved the two age-old cricketing truisms: “If you go to South Africa with three of your best batsmen missing from a team that habitually gets thrashed by South Africa, the fact that you are also missing your best pace bowler and best spinner will become swiftly irrelevant”; and, “If only two of your batsmen average over 21, and none of your bowlers takes more than four wickets, then you will probably struggle to win a series against the world’s best team.” Wise words.

- Andy Zaltzman, 'Viva New Zealand', Cricinfo, 15 January 2013

13 January 2013

The Troubles

I used to go over to Northern Ireland a lot when I was doing standup in the '90s and my wife would say, 'Fred, when you're over in Northern Ireland do you mention the Troubles?' I said, 'What?' She said, 'Do you talk about the Troubles when you're on stage?' And I said, 'Listen, I think you'll find the people of Northern Ireland have got more to worry about than the lack of female orgasms in our house'.

- Fred MacAulay, The News Quiz, BBC Radio 4, 11 January 2013.

12 January 2013

It's called Highbury for a reason

I've been living in Highbury since September 2011, but will soon be moving closer to work in town. Highbury is a great place to live. I got my first taste of the area flatting with Kath, Richard and Sam in Moana Road 10 years ago, and it's been great to return and enjoy its mix of great views and access to walking trails. I walk to and from work, which is a great way to start and finish the day. The morning walk through the Botanical Gardens takes 35 minutes, and in the evening I cheat a little by riding the Cable Car up to Kelburn and walking from there. The video below shows the last stages of my walk up Highbury Road yesterday, including (if you listen closely) a taste of the usual bird jamboree that goes on in the late afternoon as half the birds of Wellington return to the wildlife sanctuary for the night, and finishing up with the splendid views over the city and the harbour from my deck.

See also:
Photos: Bird on a wire, 26 October 2012

11 January 2013

How to improve any video

Apparently adding Yakety Sax to pretty much any video on Youtube will improve it. Like on this moronic injuries clip, which is the sort of thing the internet seems to be heaving with - that, and sleepy kittens.  I haven't actually watched the original version of Single Ladies. I prefer to think it looks and sounds exactly like this.

10 January 2013


In honour of David O'Doherty's visit to New Zealand earlier this year for the comedy festival, here's a 25-minute interview on Nine To Noon from 1 May 2012. It kicks off with a recording of FAQ For The DOD, and amidst the chat there's an in-studio (ooh, up close and personal) rendition (in a singing, rather than blindfolded military kidnapping sense) of Sent A Text (To The Person The Text Was About) and Try To Think Of Other Things. You can find my review of his excellent Wellington gig here. If you feel like delving a little deeper into the world of 1980s plastic Casio keyboard-based very low intensity musical whimsy (or 'vlimwy'), I can recommend the two albums linked below, the purchase of which will guarantee you spiritual fulfilment and philosophical enlightenment.  

See also:
Comedy: David O'Doherty - We Are Not The Champions
Comedy: David O'Doherty - Let's David O'Doherty
Book: 100 Facts About Sharks
Book: 100 Facts About Pandas

09 January 2013

Posting the empire as the royal word

I was recently reminded of my 2007 visit to the United States National Postal Museum in Washington DC, when I borrowed a book from the library on the history of the US Postal Service. As it happens, the book turned out to be rather dry and institutional (who would've thought it?). But it did have the endearing feature of being a book about an American institution that commenced formally with the Continental Congress' appointment of Benjamin Franklin as the first Postmaster General in July 1775 (i.e. even before the Declaration of Independence), that starts off with an erudite 40-odd page introduction to the postal services of the Old World, kicking off with a section on mail services in ancient Mesopotamia, Assyria and Persia. I could picture US college students in the 1970s wading through the ancient history in the hope of finding American postal anecdotes for their civics classes. Personally, I enjoy a diversion into classics territory. From the book, here's an account of the postal service of the Persian empire of the 5th century BC, quoted from Herodotus' Histories:

Herodotus, in telling of how Xerxes (486-464 BC) used the posts in sending news of his defeat at Salamis (480 BC), described the Persian system in considerable detail: 
Nothing mortal travels so fast as these Persian messengers. The entire plan is a Persian invention; and this is the method of it. Along the whole line of road there are men (they say) stationed with horse, in number equal to the number of days which the journey takes, allowing a man and horse to each day; and these men will not be hindered from accomplishing at their best speed the distance which they have to go, either by snow, or rain, or heat, or by darkness of night. The first rider delivers his dispatch to the second, and the second passes it to the third; and so it is borne from hand to hand along the whole line, like the light in the torch-race, which the Greeks celebrate to Hephaestus. The Persians give the riding post in this manner, the name of angareion
- Carl H. Scheele, A Short History of the Mail Service, Smithsonian Institution, 1970, p.9-10.  
The success of the Persian messenger network also spurred the technological development of superior writing materials and more flexible alphabets. These in turn advanced the cause of literacy, albeit only for the privileged few who were entitled to use the service:

...a postal system that used clay tablets to carry information was a medium with a very limited rate and speed of transmission. The angareion of the Achamenidian Empire, which according to Xenophon was founded by Cyrus in the 6th century BC (the first known postal relay system), thus probably contributed to the shift from cuneiform to Aramaic in the writing of Persian by scribes under Darius, a transition that allowed the introduction of light papyrus or parchment. This light and easy possibility of letter writing served exclusively as a medium of control and command between the king and his satraps. Control had to be exercised not only over the peoples who had been subjugated by the Persians and were prone to rebellion, but over the satraps themselves, as well. The angareion posted the empire as the royal word, which transcended the regional living space of ethnic groups. 
- Bernard Siegert, Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System, Stanford University Press, 1999. 
Papyrus or parchment messages were certainly more convenient than clay tablets, but naturally clay stands a greater chance of surviving the centuries. The British Museum has an excellent example of a Persian message in its collections - the famous Cyrus Cylinder, which records Cyrus' conquest of Babylon in 539 BC and the capturing of the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus. The cylinder is 22.5cm long, and contains the wonderfully boastful announcement of Cyrus' view of his own place in the great scheme of things:

I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world, son of Cambyses, the great king, king of the city of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, the great king, ki[ng of the ci]ty of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, the great king, king of Anshan, the perpetual seed of kingship, whose reign Bel and Nabu love, and with whose kingship, to their joy, they concern themselves. 
- Cyrus of Persia, c. 539-530 BC, as translated by Piotr Michalowski, 2006
Not a bad way to introduce yourself the next time you're writing a letter.

See also:

08 January 2013

Never born, so I'll never get old

Today being the incomparable David Bowie's 66th birthday, and having just finished reading Peter Doggett's splendid The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s, I definitely feel that some video links are called for. Here's one each from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Hopefully I've eschewed the usual suspects in favour of some somewhat obscure material.


Seventeen-year-old David Jones appears on BBC Tonight in 1964, promoting his newly-formed Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men, formerly known as the International League for the Preservation of Animal Filament. The story had been picked up from a promo piece in the London Evening News, planted to hype his new band venture, the Manish Boys. (Doggett: '...the hype was instructive. Bowie had learned by making an outlandish announcement, and risking an image that blurred feminine and masculine, he could command the attention of the media')


Bowie performs Drive-In Saturday on Russell Harty Plus Pop in January 1973 - the same month it was recorded - in full glam regalia. Note also Trevor Bolder's splendid two-tone sideburns. Bowie performs his vocals live here to a backing track, and boasts a splendid silver-blue complexion, as if he was about to expire from mercury poisoning. Far worse was to come in the mid-70s when his cocaine addiction spiralled into overdrive. (Doggett: 'The song's location was the future, when sixties icons like Mick Jagger and Twiggy (the Wonder Kid) were as archetypal as anything conceived by Jung, and - as in the 1967 movie Barbarella - lust was a thing of the past, only accessible from ancient videotapes).


Sure, it's cheesy as hell. And Live Aid is hardly an obscure performance, but it is obscure to me because until today I'd never seen Bowie's performance. Certainly, the suits are risible, the 'wave bye-bye' is cringe-inducingly literal, and it's all very slick and a million miles from the art-rock he produced in the 70s. But wait a second: he opens with the wilfully obscure TVC-15 (which reached no.33 in the UK charts in May 1976 and was based on a weird idea of Iggy Pop's, in which televisions turned carnivorous), follows up with the iconic Rebel Rebel (Doggett: 'pure attitude from start to finish: the essence of adolescent defiance, guaranteed to bring out the teenager in all who heard it') and adds in the pop blockbuster of Modern Love (check out the archetypal audience fist-pump when it kicks in), which, let's not forget, includes the lines 'No religion, no confession, don't believe in modern love'. And he finished up with the peerless 'Heroes' (which is omitted from the clip below due to clip length restrictions, but can be viewed here). All in all, I can put up with a few dodgy clothes, some funny 80s backup singer dancing and a bit of gurning in return for a performance that's this much fun.


For someone who's made a career out of remarkable and unpredictable media appearances, one of the most shocking performances Bowie gave was a non-musical one. At the conclusion of his set at Freddie Mercury's tribute concert in 1992 he surprised everyone by kneeling down and reciting the Lord's Prayer for Mercury and all the other victims of Aids. Presumably (possibly?) sincere, this was so completely out of character for a rock gig that it stunned the music press, who are a notoriously hard bunch to startle. Was it yet one more piece of Bowie theatre - performance art on a grand scale? Did he do it for a dare? (Doggett: '...Bowie appeared alongside Mick Ronson at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in London, closing his performance not with Rock 'n Roll Suicide as Ziggy Stardust would have done, but with an impromptu recital of the Lord's Prayer. It was perhaps the single most shocking moment of his career: utterly sincere, totally in keeping with the ethos of the occasion, completely at odds with the totemic cliches of the classic rock tradition').

See also:
News: David Bowie to release new album, Guardian, 8 January 2012 
Exhibition: Sukita/Bowie: Speed of Life, Masterton, Sept-Oct 2012
Review: Bowie in Labyrinth

07 January 2013

Strange notions of the telegraph

WW2-era US military telegraph key, via Wikimedia
I've recently re-read one of my favourite books, Tom Standage's excellent 1998 pop-sci history, The Victorian Internet (subtitled, wordily, 'The remarkable story of the telegraph and the nineteenth century's on-line pioneers'). It's a brilliant and succinct summary of the revolutionary impact electric telegraphy had upon the 19th century world, and while the utopian predictions of international peace and harmony that were made at the time of overseas cables linking up countries and continents didn't come to pass, it did bring a new immediacy to politics, news and business in a world formerly dominated by the delay of ship-borne news, which took weeks or months to percolate across the globe. 

Understandably, while the telegraph wires spread across the world, many people failed to grasp how the telegraph actually worked, which led to some comic misunderstandings, as Standage relates:

One magazine article, 'Strange Notions of the Telegraph' gives several examples of incomprehension: "One wiseacre imaged that the wires were hollow, and that papers on which the communications were written were blown through them, like peas through a pea shooter. Another decided that the wires were speaking tubes". And one man in Nebraska thought the telegraph wires were a kind of tightrope; he watched the line carefully, "to see the man run along the wires with the letter bags".
In one case a man came into a telegraph office in Maine, filled in a telegraph form, and asked for his message to be sent immediately. The telegraph operator tapped it out in Morse to send up the line and then spiked the form on the "sent" hook. Seeing the paper on the hook, the man assumed it had yet to be transmitted. After waiting a few minutes, he asked the telegrapher, "Aren't you going to send that dispatch?" The operator explained that he already had. "No, you haven't," said the man, "there it is now on the hook".
Another story concerned a woman in Karlsruhe, Prussia, who went to a telegraph office in 1870 with a dish full of sauerkraut, which she asked to have telegraphed to her son, who was a soldier fighting in the war between Prussia and France. The operator had great difficulty convincing her that the telegraph was not capable of transmitting objects. But the woman insisted that she had heard of soldiers being ordered to the front by telegraph. "How could so many soldiers have been sent to France by telegraph?" she asked...
The retranscription of the message at the receiving station also confused some people. One woman preparing to send a telegram is said to have remarked as she filled out the telegraph form, "I must write this out afresh, as I don't want Mrs M to receive this untidy telegram". Another woman, on receiving a telegram from her son asking for money, said she was not so easily taken in; she knew her son's handwriting very well, she said, and the message, transcribed at the receiving office, obviously hadn't come from him.
-Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet, 1998

Having recently reviewed the Crimean War diaries of Mrs Frances Duberly, it's also worth noting that that war (which saw France and Britain invading Russia's Black Sea peninsula territory and besieging Sevastopol) was the first major conflict to be influenced by telegraphic communication. Wires were strung from Bucharest to Varna on the Black Sea, and then a British company laid an undersea cable to the Crimea. Standage records that:

This was bad news for [British commander and Raglan's successor] General Simpson, who was so exasperated by trivial inquiries from his incompetent superiors in London that he is said to have complained that "the confounded telegraph has ruined everything". 
For who was better placed to make strategic decisions: the commander at the scene or his distant superiors? In his history of the Crimean War [8 volumes, 1863-87], the historian A.W. Kinglake referred to the telegraph as "that new and dangerous magic" that played into the hands of meddling officials who were nowhere near the battlefield. "Our government did not abuse it," he declared, "but, exposed to swift dictation from Paris, the French had to learn what it was to carry on a war with a Louis Napoleon planted at one of the ends of the wire, and at the other, a commander like Canrobert, who did not dare to meet Palace strategy with respectful evasions, still less with plain, resolute words"
-Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet, 1998

See also:
Map: New Zealand telegraph network in 1868

06 January 2013

The proud tradition of international diplomacy

We've all been there: the Christmas office party that got a little out of hand, lots of booze, a few high jinks and some embarrassed, hungover faces the next day.

But few Christmas bashes will have matched up to the riotous affair thrown in the Honduran embassy in Bogota, which according to press reports resulted in the mission being ransacked and looted while diplomats cavorted with prostitutes. Someone even defecated in the ambassador's office. The Honduran daily El Heraldo splashed details of the party in a front page story titled 'Diplomatic scandal: prostitutes and drunkenness in Bogota'.

According to the paper, a personal aide to the ambassador organised the party which ended with the diplomatic mission's office in shambles, papers scattered and computers and telephones stolen.

The newspaper said there was evidence of an orgy in the building.

Ambassador Carlos Humberto Rodriguez was apparently not present at the party which was held a few days before Christmas.

- Sibylla Brodzinsky, Guardian, 5 January 2012.

03 January 2013

Prince cleans up his back catalogue

Prince biographer Matt Thorne observes, 'He often goes back and re-records unreleased songs or overdubs new bits, censoring the explicit content'. Censorship is an area that Prince may have to confront on several of his famous albums. One of the most salacious songwriters of the '80s and '90s, he became a Jehovah's Witness in 2001, and his faith has had a noticeable effect on live shows, where he substitutes new lyrics for swearwords. Songs like "Sexy MF", "Head" and the notorious "Darling Nikki" (which led to Parental Advisory stickers on albums) are no longer performed at all. "The Cross" from "Sign 'O' The Times", has been rewritten for a different reason: Jehovah's Witnesses believe Jesus died on a stake. 'It sounds like a joke,' winces [UK fansite editor Ian] Jones, 'but it's true'. In his efforts to rid his work of sexual explicitness, Prince sometimes veers to the opposite extreme. 'A good example is "Extra Lovable", a much-loved '80s outtake,' notes Thorne, 'which he renamed "Xtra Loveable" and re-recorded, removing the sexually aggressive lyrics and replacing them with references to Care Bears and Elmo from Sesame Street'.

- David Cavanagh, Uncut Magazine, November 2012

[The original lyrics of "Xtra Lovable" include the immortal couplet, 'Baby, U could turn my mama on  / She's just as straight, just as straight as straight can be']

02 January 2013

Seasick Steve

Seasick Steve (right), Mangawhai Tavern, 29 December 2012
Seasick Steve
Mangawhai Tavern

29 December 2012

On Saturday I went with Bruce to the Mangawhai Tavern, a small seaside pub venue near Wellsford, to see American-born and Norway-based septuagenarian blues electric guitarist Seasick Steve. His late-bloomer road to fame is particularly pleasing, having been catapulted into popularity after a single performance on the BBC's Jools Holland New Year Hootenanny at the end of 2006 (watch it!). That performance, in particular his stomping rendition of Dog House Boogie that got the crowd stomping, attracted all the right sorts of attention and his many return visits to the show have gained him a wide audience for his electrified blues-rock, which is characterised by pile-driving dirty Southern riffs, a mean and swampy rhythm feel and gravely vocals delivering wry lyrics.

Baseball-capped and sporting a long, white beard, Seasick Steve looks likely to be cast as a mechanic in the Dukes of Hazzard or perhaps as an extra member of the Foggy Bottom Boys. But this seemingly slight and elderly fellow takes pleasure in making a great deal of noise, tapping into generations of blues heritage and adding plenty of rock references. (It's not surprising that his new celebrity mates include rock stars like Jack White, Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones).

Offering thanks for the strong attendance, Steve earned cheers from the local audience by mentioning that his father had been stationed in New Zealand during WW2 and that he had therefore always wanted to visit. So, a diplomat as well as a rock star.

Live and in person, Seasick Steve's gig is peppered with crunchy guitar licks, howling reverb, and the occasional strut around the stage as a tune is pared back to the barest essentials before bursting forth into another electric onslaught. He definitely knows how to work a song, commencing a number on his own with a pounding rhythm and then kicking it into another gear by adding his drummer sidekick from offstage, or building a series of outros, each more violent and frenetic than the last, into a crescendo of feedback noise. Incidentally, the aforementioned drummer, a white-haired gent perhaps of a similar vintage to Steve, was every bit the musical match for the guitarist, and played a superb set. It just goes to show that two gentlemen of pensionable age don't have to play nice to get attention!

See also:

Interview: Kim Hill interviews Seasick Steve, 22 December 2012:

01 January 2013

Who Shot Rock & Roll?

Who Shot Rock & Roll?
Auckland Art Gallery
Until 3 March

During my traditional holiday visit to Auckland I spent an enjoyable hour exploring the rock photography exhibit Who Shot Rock & Roll at the Gallery. The collection was curated by the Brooklyn Museum, which I visited in 2010, and offers a rich sample of rock and pop photo portraiture across an impressive six rooms. The beauty of assembling a collection of this size is that it can attempt to cover a decent swathe of music history across the decades, including the '50s swagger of a very young Elvis Presley, the moody insolence of Astrid Kircherr's Hamburg Beatles portrait, David Bowie reaching out from the stage to an ecstatic Tokyo audience, U2 bunched up in the desert in Anton Corbijn's famous Joshua Tree cover shot, and on through 21st century artists like Eminem and Li'l Kim.

While the primary focus of the exhibition was photographic imagery, there was also a welcome slice of film and TV representations of rock stardom. The ancient film clip of Elvis essaying an early number set the scene perfectly, but must have driven the ticket girls mad because it was on a 160-second loop all day. And while it was a perfectly serviceable performance I'm not sure why a track by The Vines was chosen as a representative sample of rock videos.

Here's a few of my highlights from the collection, with photo links where the images are available online. It really was a case of finding the best rock photography all in one place. For only $15 entry it was a bargain.

- George du Bose, 'The B-52s', resplendent in beehive coiffures and a general air of youthful new wave chic in a shot that was coloured-up and deployed as their first album cover in 1979 - an album that contained the legendary 'Rock Lobster' single.

- Peter Vernon, 'The Sex Pistols', the famous celebratory shot as they emerged from EMI headquarters having been signed by the label, with John Lydon gleefully spraying beer over everyone. (The signing didn't last - they were dropped shortly after the famous Bill Grundy TV appearance).

- Jill Furmanovsky, 'Oasis', an impressive hand-compiled photo-collage of the band recording with Johnny Marr at Olympic Studios in London, 2001, which is a vivid representation of a busy recording session.

- William Randolph, 'Wilson Pickett & Jimi Hendrix', a splendid rare 1966 shot showing the young Hendrix resplendent in a natty tux and having a great time in Pickett's backing band, which is hugely incongruous with his later gypsy rock god image.

- Jean-Paul Goude, 'Island Life', three shots showing how the famous cover shot for Grace Jones' album was stitched together from a myriad of source images in order to create the arresting and somewhat alien statue portrait that she became famous for.

- David Gahr, 'Springsteen with fans', a charming 1973 shot from a New Jersey shopping street, in which a gang of teenage girls in their P.E. gear have coralled Bruce into a shop doorway and mob him for a photo. Everyone looks delighted, including Springsteen!

- Bob Whitaker, 'George Harrison - no way out?' from 1965, an archetypal representation of the perils of rock stardom, with the ever-inscrutable Harrison posing in front of a locked gate behind which hordes of desperate fans are thronging; above sits the ironic notice: 'way out' - certainly not for a Beatle.

- Laura Levine, 'Bjork as Venus', 1991 - this backyard portrait in Woodstock, New York, shows the Icelandic singer larking around with mates, wearing strategically-placed leaves and , in the final piece de resistance, extending her tongue to capture a falling raindrop. Reputation as the world's preeminent manic dream pixie girl secured.

- Gered Mankowitz, 'Marianne Faithfull', 1964, in which the 18-year-old Faithfull was photographed by the similarly 18-year-old Mankowitz, rocking the pert schoolgirl look in a London pub - a teenager flirting on the grown-ups' home territory. The record company was too nervous to use this shot as the cover for her first album, but it perfectly captures the youthful beauty and confidence that gained her entry into pop stardom.

- Bob Gruen, 'John Lennon, New York City', 1974 - these iconic building-top photos of Lennon in a cheap tourist vest have become amongst the most pirated rock photographs in history. Apparently Gruen doesn't care overly - he just makes his money from selling prints taken from the original negatives.

- Jerry Schatzberg, 'Frank Zappa, himself' - a droll 1967 portrait of a serious-looking Zappa rocking a pair of fetching pigtails, showing that he was never afraid of looking silly.

- Lastly, it's Bjork again - then boyfriend Stephane Sednaoui's video for her single 'Big Time Sensuality' from the album 'Debut' featured in two versions on matching screens - the released official version filmed on a flatbed truck in New York during the day, and an alternate rare edit filmed after dark. Such a performer!

New Year Sky Tower fireworks

Last night I managed to secure a good spot on the Hopetoun Street bridge over the motorway to photograph the New Year fireworks display from the Sky Tower at midnight. I was in the same spot last year, but at five minutes to midnight a massive bank of clouds shrouded the top of the Sky Tower, rendering the display completely invisible across the city. Just like last year, as midnight approached cars on the motorway offramp peeled off to the side lane and parked up for a few minutes to watch - strictly illegal, but no-one seemed to mind. Then the five-minute display kicked off as the hour struck, in perfect conditions. (Click the images to enlarge).

The fireworks display kicked off at midnight