27 February 2013

The worst over ever bowled

[Following a list of four thoroughly bad ideas in cricket] No1 though, a scheme so cunning that, as Blackadder would say, it was as cunning as a fox who has just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University, has to be the [...] plan devised by Wellington on the final day of their Shell Shield match against Canterbury at Christchurch on 21 February, 1990.

If Wellington won the match, they would win the title too. Canterbury were chasing 291 in 59 overs, but by tea on the final afternoon, they were 108 for eight, and Wellington were worried the match was petering out to a draw. So John Morrison, Wellington's coach, and Erv McSweeney, their captain, decided to lure Canterbury into trying to win their match in the hope that the potential reward would encourage them to risk their last wickets. The best way to do this, they figured, was to bowl an over so bad that Canterbury would be compelled to cash in on it.

Then Wellington would pull a rope-a-dope, and bring their best bowler back on just as the opposition were within sight of the win.

Batsman Bert Vance was the hapless sap who was roped in to bowl, because, Morrison said afterwards, "he was coming to the end of his career and didn't have averages to protect."

"The idea," Morrison explained, was "to leave Canterbury about 20 to get off the last over so that they might have a crack and throw away their two wickets." But "Bert overdid it somewhat. It's fair to say he embraced the instructions somewhat more than we imagined." That was an understatement. Vance's first delivery was a no ball, delivered from two yards down the wicket. The batsman, Lee Germon, was so startled that he didn't score off it. He did off the next though, a full toss which he hit for four. Vance's next 15 deliveries were all no balls, which went for four, four, six, six, four, six, one, four, one, zero, six, six, six, six, and six.

"He would just walk over the mark and toss up these no-ball full-tosses," Morrison recalled. "It was a free slog to the batsmen, who got fours and sixes in droves. It all got a bit chaotic. The scorers, the umpires and the players – it got to the point where none of them had a clue how many fair balls had been bowled or what the score was. It was an old-fashioned scoreboard, so there were boys running up and down ladders trying to keep up, but they were all over the place. Halfway through the over, no one knew what the hell was going on and I remember sitting on the side thinking, 'Oh my God, we're going to throw this game away.'"

Vance obviously had the same thought. His next two deliveries were both legitimate, and he didn't concede a run off either of them. Then there was another four, followed by one more dot and a single to finish. There were 77 runs off the over, the last of them a little twist of salt in the wound because it meant Germon would keep the strike. He had scored 70 runs off the over, and took his score from 75 to 145. Canterbury could have made even more, but in all the confusion the umpires lost count and Vance got away with only bowling five legitimate balls.

Ewan Gray was left to bowl the last over. Canterbury needed 18 from it to win the match, and Germon, his eye in, hit 17 from the first five deliveries. But the scoreboard was still kaput, with smoke streaming from the ears of the bamboozled scorers. Germon and his partner Roger Ford, who had added just five runs to his own score while his Germon had been busy making whoopee, were completely oblivious to the fact that they only needed one run to win. So Ford blocked the final ball of the match, making it a draw with the scores exactly level.

"I nearly had heart failure when I learnt a little time after the game that Canterbury only needed one to win and we had Vance bowling to a very leaky field," Morrison explained. The over, the most expensive in the history of first class cricket, was struck from the official records, though the ninth-wicket partnership of 182 is still a record for the club. "I decided," Morrison said ruefully, "that the tactic, while being innovative, was definitely a once only."

- Andy Bull, 'The worst over in the history of cricket and other awful ideas', Guardian, 26 February 2013

22 February 2013

"Drunk, by Jove!"

Fordyce, George (1736-1802), physician. Fordyce was a popular doctor, but his bedside manner was unorthodox. According to James Caulfield's Portraits of Remarkable Persons (1794), he was once called to the sick bed of a titled lady when he had too much to drink. His condition made it impossible for him to take her pulse since his own was so unsteady. Frustrated, he admonished himself, muttering, 'Drunk, by Jove!' and left. The next day he was again summoned to her bedside and, fearing that he would be reprimanded for his condition on the previous occasion, he went in some trepidation. He was greatly relieved when she begged him to forgive her, confessed that his diagnosis had been correct, gave him £100 and promised that she would never touch alcohol again.
Fordyce's study of the eating habits of lions convinced him that one meal a day was enough for anyone. Accordingly, for 20 years he followed a routine that never changed. A 4 o'clock every afternoon he went to Dolly's Chop House in Paternoster Row where he ordered a one-and-a-half-pound rump steak. While this was being prepared he enjoyed an appetizer of half a chicken and a plate of boned fish. With his meal, he drank a tankard of ale, a quarter pint of brandy and a bottle of port. After leaving Dolly's he went to three coffee houses, one after another, drinking a large brandy at each, before setting out on his medical rounds. He died of gout at the age of 66.
- William Donaldson, Brewer's Dictionary of Rogues, Villains & Eccentrics, London, 2002, p.266
George Fordyce
By way of evening up the score, it's worth noting that George Fordyce was also a distinguished practitioner of his age, a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians. He delivered the prestigious annual Harveian Oration for the latter in 1791, a lecture delivered in Latin and originally instituted in 1656. According to the Royal Society 'his work was highly regarded in his lifetime, but an eccentric lifestyle and a lack of concern for the social graces tended to reduce his standing among medical colleagues. He made no significant discoveries and although his contributions to medical education were important, he has been largely neglected'.

However, Fordyce certainly fitted the bill of an odd fellow. In the Carl P. Pforzheimer Library edition of Shelley and His Circle 1773-1822, a footnote records that he:

...had some fame as an eccentric in an age of eccentrics. From his concentration on his lectures, his carelessness in manners and dress, "and from spending no more time with his patients than was barely sufficient for forming a just opinion of their ailments, he had for many years but little private employment in his profession" (Monk's Roll of the Royal College of Physicians).


Dolly's Chop House emerged during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14), and according to John Timbs' Club Life of London (1866) was at the time of publication 'still a well-appointed chop house and tavern, and the coffee-room, with its projecting fireplaces, has an olden air... The entrance to the Chop-house is in Queen's Head passage; and at Dolly's is a window-pane painted with the head of Queen Anne, which may explain the name of the court'. By the time Henry Shelley published Inns and Taverns of Old London in 1909 Dolly's, which he notes once had an illustrious clientele, was no more -

Almost adjacent to St Paul's, that is, in Queen's Head Passage, which leads from Paternoster Row into Newgate Street, once stood the famous Dolly's Chop House, the resort of Fielding, and Defoe, and Swift, and Dryden, and Pope and many other sons of genius. It was built on the site of an ordinary owned by Richard Tarleton, the Elizabethan actor whose playing was so humorous that it even won the praise of Jonson. He was indeed such a merry soul, and so great a favourite in clown's parts, that innkeepers frequently had his portrait painted as a sign. The chief feature of the establishment which succeeded Tarleton's tavern [i.e. Dolly's] appears to have been the excellence of its beef-steaks. It should also be added that they were served fresh from the grill, a fact which is accentuated by the allusion which Smollett places in one of Melford's letters to Sir Walkin Phillips in Humphrey Clinker: 'I send you the history of this day, which has been remarkably full of adventures; and you will own I give you them like a beef-steak at Dolly's, hot and hot, without ceremony and parade'.      
In 1846 the Literary Garland and Canadian Magazine, published in Montreal, expounded in a more florid and clearly impassioned style on the literary and culinary adornments of Dolly's:

Turn from the bustle and tough beef of New-gate street down a quiet court, silent as a cloister, and on the right hand side you will see Dolly's Chop-House - than which a more celebrated tavern does not exist within the precincts of London. Talk of pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulchre, or Mahomet's sacred house of Mecca, or even to a-Becket's shrine of old, at Canterbury! How shall we number the great and celebrated men who have many a time and oft visited the venerable gridiron at Dolly's Chop-House. And a rare gridiron it is! For upwards of a century that gridiron has never cooled; by night and day, from luncheon-bearing morn, through dinner-inviting mid-day, till suppery eve, perpetually are its bars simmering and simpering forth their greaseful admiration of the tender steaks which lie upon them. 

Paternoster Row was devastated during the Blitz in December 1940, and eventually redeveloped into Paternoster Square in 2003. The renovated and transplanted Temple Bar, designed by Wren and removed from the spot where Fleet Street becomes the Strand in 1878, now separates Paternoster Square from St Paul's.

But never mind that. Is it just me, or after all that talk of Dolly's does a barbecue sound good right now?
Dolly's Chop House, 1856
(c) British Museum

21 February 2013

In the cross-hairs

Having worked as a university executive with students from more than 80 countries, I've noticed that students from abroad are struck by the violent language in our songs and films, and they hear it bleeding into our political discourse.

Many have asked me in amazement why it is even necessary to state that guns and ammunition are banned from university residence halls. Yet, "son of a gun," 26 colleges in three states permit guns on college campuses. And gun liberalization legislation for colleges is in the "cross hairs" in at least nine more states.

- Joe Lurie discusses the impact of firearms on American language, Contra Costa Times, 5 January 2013

20 February 2013

Disability & normality

Francesca Martinez: I find comedy is really great to address subjects like disability, because people do tend to get their pants in a twist, and I enjoy challenging our notions of normality and disability. Because I've never met a 'normal' person - have you?

Richard Herring: I don't think so, no.

Francesca: Are you 'normal'?

Richard: I'm really not, no.

Francesca: I think 'different' is normal.  These words like disabled and able-bodied are so unhelpful. Like, surely you must have things that you can't do?

Richard: There's a lot of things I can't do...

Francesca: Tell me one of them.

Richard: I can't do... D.I.Y.  Can't do anything with D.I.Y.

Francesca: Were you born like that, Richard?

Richard: I guess I was, yeah.

Francesca: How do you cope?

Richard: I usually pay a man to come and do it for me.

Francesca: Pay a man! That is so resourceful. Wow! What about your parents - were they not very good at D.I.Y. either?

Richard: My dad was quite good at D.I.Y., actually.

Francesca: Cor, that's weird isn't it? Bloody genes, it's a lottery, isn't it? And does that mean you can't have sex?

Richard: Yeah, I don't think it's connected, but...

Francesca: Well done! You're a real inspiration. I think we've all learned something here today.

- Richard Herring's Objective, BBC Radio 4, 21 November 2011

See also: (both NSFW-L)
Video: Francesca Martinez interviews Ricky Gervais
Comedy: Richard Herring - Christ on a Bike

19 February 2013

Ich bin ein Thorndonite

After having signed the agreement to buy an apartment way back at the end of August last year, today I finally settled the transaction and took vacant possession. Moving-in day to the Thorndon apartment is on Saturday. The length of time between agreement and settlement was due to the existing tenancy agreement, a fixed term lease that could not be broken. Fair enough, it's meant I've been able to enjoy the views from Highbury a while longer. This afternoon I collected the keys and went to do a quick inventory of the chattels. The view out the front windows is over the rail workshops and towards the Stadium; there's double-glazing so noise isn't a major concern.

As you can see, the cruise ships are parked nearby during the summer months. The one pictured is the Diamond Princess, which is 290 metres long, displaces 115,875 gross tons, carries a maximum of 2670 passengers and is taller than the Stadium roof. I was able to watch it sail out of the harbour from my window up in Highbury.  

18 February 2013

The people's car

1966 VW 1300, Hobson St, Thorndon
Spotted this lunchtime in Hobson St, Thorndon, a lovely example of a Volkswagen 1300 Beetle from 1966 - all too rare these days despite being ubiquitous a generation ago. This particular year has particular resonance for me because my Grandad drove a '66 VW for many years until the early 1990s, and my mother drove a series of four '66 VWs, one after the other, until the last was replaced with a trusty Mitsubishi hatch.

Most of the many VWs that graced New Zealand roads were imported kitsets constructed at a factory in Otahuhu in Auckland:*

Auckland businessman and car-maker Arthur Turner obtained the Volkswagen franchise in 1953, replacing a failed Jowett deal, and the first Beetles rolled out of his Otahuhu plant in April 1954. They proved popular with Kiwis, and the air-cooled 'Veedub' with its characteristic off-beat roar became a common sight on New Zealand roads. The ten-thousandth Beetle rolled out of the Otahuhu assembly plant in May 1962. 
The original design was steadily improved and updated over the years. The earliest 'single piper' models gave way to two exhaust pipes. The rear window grew from a small oval to a reasonably practical frame. Engine sizes rose from the modest 1200 cc to 1300, 1500 and eventually 1600 cc. All betrayed their origins as aero engines, with flat performance in some rev-ranges, but they also gave the Beetle better performance than many small British cars of the period. 
- Matthew Wright, New Zealand on the Move, Auckland, 2011, p.143.  
* The Otahuhu factory also assembled Fiat Bambinas and VW Kombis.

Grandad's tan-ochre VW served for around 20 years of reliable motoring, helped by the specialist German car mechanics at Qualitat down in Penrose. In the end it would have kept going for another few years, but it was stolen about 1990, stripped for parts, and dumped.

My mother's series of VWs, which were only coincidentally built in the same year, had a little more adventurous lives. Two were stolen, including one parked outside the house next to Jellicoe Park, which was never seen again, and another that had been parked in Kitchener St in town on a Friday night and was later found nearby parked on a double-yellow line and impounded: the thieves hadn't managed to get it started. Which begs the question, how did it get driven to town and home from the car pound? Magic, clearly. Another one kept going after the battery actually dropped out of the engine cavity while it was going over the Harbour Bridge. Which is probably the textbook definition of indestructability, when you think of it.

Of course, they weren't perfect cars - far from it. The electrics were notoriously poor, particularly on the earlier 6-volt batteries. I am reliably informed that if you turned on too many of the lights, radio and wipers at once, the car would stop dead. (This was later rectified by installing 12-volt batteries). The heavy body combined with a modest engine output meant that the VW could never attain particularly swift speeds, even on the motorway - the top reaches of the dial (80-90mph, from memory) were dreamland territory. But at least the rear-mounted engine could deliver a surprising kick from a red light stop, outdistancing many other cars for at least the first 50 metres after an intersection, by which time all opposing cars would sail past again.

I don't recall the heater ever working in our VWs, or at least we never bothered with it. The windscreen wipers couldn't really keep up with a proper Auckland downpour, and indeed I recall one such deluge coinciding with my passenger-side window mysteriously dropping down into the door cavity, meaning I was soaked on a long drive home.
That said, the VW was a great car, the sort of unpretentious utilitarian everyman / everywoman vehicle that transcended social class. The throaty engine noise referred to above was great, because it meant I could hear whenever Grandad or my mother was nearly home. The seatbelts were tipped with shiny, solid 'A'-shaped heads that a hefty metallic clunk to them, but of course I never used them when I was young, because this was the 1970s and there were no car-seats. (The seatbelts would've been useless in a crash if I'd been wearing them anyway). I've been told I used to enjoy travelling on the motorway standing on the passenger seat pretending to 'drive' using the handle above the glove-box as my steering wheel, and when I was younger my preferred nook was the 'canoe seat' storage area behind the back seat, because it was nice and warm from the hot engine below.

We managed fairly impressive journeys in the VWs now and then, but mostly it was used around town and to visit the relatives in Hamilton. It did struggle with thinner air though - on one trip to the mountain the engine conked out at the Chateau. Luckily we were able to coast downhill a bit and get it started again for the journey back. Come to think of it, that's another aspect that New Zealand motoring has been lost since we moved to the commendable reliability and endurance of Japanese vehicles. Most of us now lack the skin-of-the-teeth motoring stories that were ever-present in New Zealand until as late as the 1980s, as endless ageing British and European clunkers were kept going with a combination of blind hope, a convenient slope, and a vigorous push-start. Perhaps that's a sign of the motoring times - when was the last time you offered to help someone push-start their car?

'68 VW 1500 interior, Omaka, 12.01.12
See also:
Video: Blur - Beetlebum (About heroin rather than VWs, actually. But still.)
Trailer: Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo (1977)
Trailer: Dudu, Ein Kafer gibt Vollgas (1972) (Check out the fight scene at 2:18 - groovy, man!)

17 February 2013

Highbury to South Coast walk

Yesterday I took advantage of the bright sunshine and clear skies to undertake a hill walk I've been meaning to get under my belt ever since I moved back to Highbury. While I regularly walk up to the Wind Turbine from my place on a Sunday morning, it's always been the endpoint of my walk. This time I vowed to make it all the way to the South Coast via the hill trails, and then to finish up in Island Bay.

Through the magic of the camera timestamp I can provide a minute-by-minute chronicle of what turned out to be a three-and-a-half hour walk.

1.20pm Departed Highbury Rd with plenty of supplies, having donned my trusty Doc Martens (faithful servants since they were purchased in Covent Garden, 1997) and slapped on some Western Australian-bought sunscreen. They know their sun in WA. The opening stages of the walk skirt the outside of the Wildlife Sanctuary exclusion fence and follow the mountain-bike trail up a steep incline to the turbine.

1.34pm A fine view back across Wellington to start things off. My place is about 200m above sea level, so this is probably 250-300m up.

Wellington from above Highbury

1.36pm And the first clear view of the turbine, working steadily in the summer breeze.

Wind turbine (merged image)

1.46pm Brief pause at the turbine itself to down some water, and then head on to undiscovered territory (for me, at least) - past the carpark and onto the private farm road to Hawkins Hill.

2.08pm Hello, you're a long way from home! An ostrich patrols a roadside field, keeping a beady eye on passers-by. I continued on up the road along the crest of the hills, with Cook Strait on both sides in the distance.

2.36pm First sight of a peculiar dwelling - a mock castle in a fenced compound, flying a Dutch flag. Are there any Dutch super-villains? If so, I bet they live here. I pass the VHF transmitting station and take a detour up to get a photo of the radome atop Hawkins Hill.

Dutch castle & Hawkins Hill radome

2.43pm Good timing - the radome appears to be being painted today - maybe the first time since 1997? - with an abseiler perched halfway down. Must be a great view up there, although I suppose he'd need pretty powerful sunglasses. Turning back to the track, I head south along the ridgeline towards the sea.

Radome abseiler

3.08pm Another left turn, this time onto the prosaically-named Tip Track - that is, the track that leads to the city tip. A Cook Strait ferry sails below, en route to the harbour entrance a few kilometres to the east.

3.41pm Slowed down by the Tip Track valley incline. I'd hoped the track would veer seawards after it dipped down into a steep, gorse-lined valley, but naturally it climbed back up the other side to an even higher peak. On a hot summer's day this incline proved to be quite a challenge, so it was lucky there were a few shady spots midway for a pause to catch my breath. It was properly hot down there!

Tip Track valley, S-SE view

3.58pm First sight of the city tip, which is as unlovely as an open-cast mine. But because it's behind the hills, most people forget it's there. The track turns rocky and becomes harder to negotiate, particularly heading downhill at a steep gradient. Good for mountain-bikers though, I guess.

4.11pm The track edges closer to Happy Valley, and gives a good view over the back of Carlucci Land. Here's the world's tallest Fiat Bambina guarding the entrance.

Carlucci Land, Happy Valley

4.23pm Back into civilisation, relatively speaking. Heading down Happy Valley Rd past the playing fields and the school, I admire the thought-provoking 'tsunami safe zone' markings across the road. Reaching the south coast, I confirm my suspicions: the Happy Valley dairy is boarded up. I'll have to wait until Island Bay for an iceblock.

4.37pm Leaving Owhiro Bay, two ferries off the south coast are travelling in convoy from Picton: an Interislander followed by a Bluebridge. Must have been a great day to be out on the water.

4.41pm Pass a wedding party having their photo taken on the jagged rocks. Presumably there's some sand there to perch on, because ladies' wedding heels and south coast rocks do not mix well.

4.50pm Island Bay! Why aren't there more people on the beach on a marvellous day like this? All at home playing on their X-Box, I guess. I make my way to the bus terminus and wait for the bus back to town and may car, which is cunningly positioned at the Karori Tunnel to save me having to walk up Highbury Rd after the afternoon's exertions.

Island Bay

So, in summary, it was a great afternoon's walk. By my calculations the route from the top of Highbury to Shorland Park in Island Bay was 11.9km. If you're planning a similar outing, I'd recommend getting plenty of supplies in: I was glad I brought two 750ml bottles of water with me, because one wouldn't have been enough on such a hot day, and there's no safe-looking streams to fill up from. Good boots are important, because the Tip Track in particular is rocky and uneven in places. While it was a cracking day when I walked the route, if there was any doubt about the conditions then carrying an extra layer of clothing would be important, because the route is completely uncovered and open to the elements. And lastly, don't forget to tell people where you're going and when you expect to be back, because you'll lose mobile coverage in the valleys.

See also:
Blog: Pukerua to Plimmerton, September 2012
Blog: A river walk to Richmond, December 2010
Blog: Milford Track, November 2005      

16 February 2013

Beck + Sound + Vision

Some statistics first of all: Sound And Vision ran for 183 seconds. No human voices were heard for 46 seconds, when the backing singers crooned a two-note descent; no hook for 74 seconds, until Mary Hopkin (then married to producer [Tony] Visconti) provided a deceptively playful wordless chorus. Not until 88 seconds had passed did David Bowie's voice appear, posing a question with which his admirers could surely identify.
- Peter Doggett, The Man Who Sold The World, London, 2011 

That question being, "Don't you wonder sometimes about sound and vision?" Clearly Beck Hansen has been, because he recently performed a powerfully complex interpretation of Bowie's classic track from his 1977 album Low, featuring the Dap-Kings, an orchestra, umpteen guitarists, a gospel choir, Thai xylophones, musical saws, an alpenhorn (!) and even (for some reason) a yodeller. It's certainly not a snappy 3:03 any more though - more like a Thin White Duke-inspired rock operetta.

Beck's nine-minute version is performed in the round like the famous scenes from Elvis Presley's '68 Comeback Special, with the sparkly-jacketed performer at the centre, surrounded by the adoring audience, and the audience in turn being engulfed by the other performers. While the original recording is an unsettling yet technically superb evocation of clubland precision that conveys an inscrutable, glimmering slice of avant-garde art-rock, Beck allows his 21st century cast of over 160 performers to stretch out and offers a compelling chaos that merges into something approaching the euphoria of a truly classic performance.

[Via Public Address]

The grand cover version was proposed and funded by the US car company Lincoln, which is a complete mystery to those of us in this part of the world. Here's how I imagine the negotiations between Lincoln and Beck went:

Lincoln: Hi Beck! How'd you like to record a Bowie cover for us, a car company?

Beck: Er, well I like Bowie, sure - but for a car company? That sounds a bit weird.

Lincoln: How about if we throw in an unlimited production budget, complete artistic control and more money than you've ever seen in your life?

Beck: Where do I sign?

See also:
Review: Beck (et al.) at the Wireless Festival, London, 4 July 2008
Video: Bowie clips 1964-92, 8 January 2013
Video: Beck - Girl (from album Guero, 2005)

15 February 2013

Fighting Joe Hooker

Maj Gen Joseph Hooker (1814-79)
[A]lmost by default, the command [of the Union Army of the Potomac in the US Civil War] went to Fighting Joe Hooker. Another West Pointer, Hooker had done well in the Mexican War, then resigned in the fifties, and went to California, where he failed as a farmer. He returned to the army at the beginning of the war, and earned an odd reputation in the Peninsula. A newspaper correspondent filed a story under the headline "Fighting - Joe Hooker"; this was garbled over the telegraph wires and came out "Fighting Joe Hooker", and he was stuck with it. A loud, brash, intemperate man, Hooker had many friends and as many enemies. He was touted to replace McClellan after Antietam, but Lincoln chose Burnside instead. After Fredericksburg, Burnside wanted to fire Hooker, but it was his turn now. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase liked him, and so did the Radical Republicans, though it was whispered about Washington that his chief claims were that he was not a political rival. When Lincoln appointed him, he did so with such misgivings that he wrote him a very stern cautionary letter, counselling good behaviour, temperate speech, and above all the winning of victories.

To almost everyone's surprise, Hooker turned out to be a good administrator. The army had grown slack and sullen after Fredericksburg; soldiers always know when their officers are squabbling, for armies have few secrets. Morale was down, desertion was up, drill and dress were sloppy, field punishments were frequent and necessary, and it was obvious that the Army of the Potomac had lost tone. Hooker took rapid and effective steps to restore order, authority and confidence. He improved administration, rations and delivery of equipment. Where McClellan had thousands of men simply wandering off on extended leaves, Hooker instituted a rational furlough system. He made newspaper correspondents sign their dispatches, to stop irresponsible reporting. He cleaned up the army's rear areas, making one contribution to the vocabulary: "hooker" became a synonym for a prostitute because of his tolerance of them in the army's trains.

- James L. Stokesbury, A Short History of the Civil War, New York, 1995, p.152-3.    

14 February 2013

The widow Gonzalez means business

[The] trains that go to Paradise are always locals that get tied up in suffocating, damp stations along the way. The only express trains are those that go to Hell. It was one such train that Mario felt he had boarded when he saw Mrs Rosa Gonzalez walking towards the house with a stride as insistent as decisive as machine-gun fire. The poet [Pablo Neruda] thought it best that Mario disappear behind a curtain, and then, turning around on his heels and elegantly lifting his cap, he offered his visitor the most luxurious armchair in the house. The widow refused this invitation and stood with her feet firmly planted, her legs slightly apart. Puffing out her chest, she ruled out the possibility of further digressions.

"What I have to tell you is far too serious to say sitting down."

"What is it about, ma'am?"

"For the last few months, a certain Mario Jimenez has been hanging around my tavern. This young man has been insolent to my sixteen-year-old daughter."

"What has he said to her?"

"Metaphors," the widow spit between clenched teeth.

The poet swallowed hard. "And?"

"With these metaphors, Don Pablo, he's got my daughter as hot as a pistol!"

"But we are in the middle of winter, Mrs Gonzalez."

"My poor Beatriz is eating her heart out for this postman. And he doesn't have any capital other than the fungus that grows between his toes. And if his feet are teeming with microbes, his mouth is as fresh as a head of lettuce and his tongue more tangled than a pile of seaweed. And the most serious part of it all, Don Pablo, is that the metaphors he uses to seduce her have been shamelessly copied from your books."


"Yes! He began by innocently telling her that her smile was like a butterfly and now he's telling her that her chest is a fire burning with two flames!"

"And do you believe that the image he used was visual or tactile?" the bard asked.

"Tactile," the widow responded. "I have prohibited her leaving the house until this Mr Jimenez clears out. You might think it cruel of me to isolate her like that, but I caught her red-handed with this poem folded up in her bra."

"Her bra was red-hot?"

[There ensues a reading of the lovelorn poem from Mario. It contains four uses of the word 'naked' in four lines]

"I am asking you," the woman continued, "his confidant and the source of his inspiration, to order this Mario Jimenez, postman and plagiarist, to refrain from setting eyes upon my daughter from this day onward, for the rest of his life. And tell him that if he does persist, I will personally see to it that his eyes are yanked out of his head."

Even after the widow had left, invisible particles of her being seemed to hover, vibrating, in the air.

- Antonio Skarmeta, Il Postino (The Postman), 1985, Eng. trans. Katherine Silver, New York, 2008

13 February 2013

What would you expect from a Game of Thrones game?

This question, posed by Anthony Burch and answered by his sister Ashly Burch, features in one of many game-related comedy clips on Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin'? Can't say I've played Game of Thrones: The Game (...of Thrones...) but Ash is probably right when she sums it up. (NSFW-Language)

There's plenty of other clips on the Hey Ash website, among which my favourites include the malevolent Ash wreaking havoc on her brother's creations in Minecraft ('Best game evah!'), or wreaking havoc on her brother by nicking all his stuff in the style of Skyrim thievery. Yes, there seems to be a theme developing here. Apart from the entertaining comedy acting, there's also snippets of informed commentary on the games to boot, which is usually Anthony making pseudish utterances and then being roundly derided for it.

I first heard Ash in a clip someone cobbled together of a character she voices in the game Borderlands 2 - the anarchic teen sociopath Tiny Tina ('world's deadliest 13-year-old'), who is genuinely funny in a rather twisted way. This is rare for a game character, unfortunately. Incidentally, the game's creator was recently criticised for the language Tina uses. Can't really see a problem with it, personally, but then I have no idea how actual 13-year-olds talk, let alone ones in imaginary video game universes, so I'm probably not the world's greatest authority on the matter. In any case, I'd be surprised if someone doesn't pick up Ashly and her brother for bigger things in the near future.

See also:
Trailer: Must Come Down (2012), feat. Ashly Burch & David Fetzer

12 February 2013

Wodehouse in Hollywood

P.G. Wodehouse, via Guardian
The desire to entertain which stood [P.G. Wodehouse] so well at the typewriter could get him into trouble in the flesh, especially in his dealings with the press. In 1930, he went to Hollywood on a $2,000-a-week contract from MGM. He found the working habits of the studio peculiar—“The system is that A. gets the original idea, B. comes in to work with him on it, C. makes a scenario, D. does preliminary dialogue, and then they send for me to insert Class and what-not. Then E. and F., scenario writers, alter the plot and off we go again”—and easily kept up his own writing while fulfilling his studio commitments. Having agreed in May 1931 (at MGM’s request) to be profiled in the Los Angeles Times, he made some pre-interview remarks to fill the moments as the reporter, Alma Whitaker, got settled in his living room, about how much he liked Hollywood, etc. etc., but regretted that “he had been paid such an enormous amount of money without having done anything to earn it”—“$104,000 for loafing.” (Though his idea of loafing was writing “a novel and nine short stories, besides brushing up my golf, getting an attractive sun-tan and perfecting my Australian crawl in the swimming pool.”)

These comments, rather than the official interview, made the front page of the paper and were picked up around the country—it was a depression after all and he found himself “a sort of Ogre to the studio now.” Biographers have presented this incident in one of two lights: either as the innocent and unworldly Plum dropping a brick or as a calculated attempt to get back at his Hollywood masters. Yet he was really just employing a common type of prep-school bravado: claiming to have done no work while still achieving great success. It’s an old boy’s habit, and Wodehouse was the oldest of old boys—all his life he remembered his days at his boarding school, Dulwich College, as among his happiest.

- Robert Messenger reviews Sophie Ratcliffe (ed.), P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, The New Criterion, February 2013.

See also:
ComedyWodehouse outwits the critics, 23 September 2012
Comedy: The fine art of stage direction in musical comedies, 15 February 2012
Movies: A lotus-eater in Hollywood (how Wodehouse fell in & out of love with the movie industry), Observer, 29 August 2004

11 February 2013

By the dawn's early light

As soon as I pulled back the curtains today I knew I just had to make a dash for the camera. Here's a few photographs of this morning's brilliant cloud-light in Wellington, as seen at 6.55am from Highbury looking eastwards towards the Rimutaka Range past Eastbourne. I think the peak pictured is Mt Matthews (941m), the highest point of the range, which sweeps northwards as far as State Highway 2 and separates Wellington region from the Wairarapa. (Click photos to enlarge).

See also:
Photos: Mt Kaukau, 6 February 2013
Video: It's called Highbury for a reason, 12 January 2013
Photos: A certain slant of sunlight, 14 September 2012

10 February 2013

What the Middle East peace process really needs

"Shalom – this is Chuck Norris": are there words that could possibly bring more cheer to a Jewish film fan's heart? It turns out, yes, there are. While you might know that Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud-Beitenu party squeaked a win, what you probably don't know is that this win is literally thanks to the star of such classics as Lone Wolf McQuade and The Delta Force. Yeah, I dropped the literally bomb.

Fresh from his triumphant foray into political broadcasts when he warned back in September that if President Obama won the 2012 election America would be lost to "the triumph of evil"[*], this month Norris answered the long-wondered question: what is the one thing the Middle East peace process needs? That answer is, of course, Chuck Norris. It's so obvious when you think about it!

In his broadcast supporting Netanyahu and the Likud party, Norris modestly concedes that while "you might think I'm a tough guy from my films" – naturally, Chuck – "Israel has its own tough guy and his name is Bibi Netanyahu." One can only weep that Bruce Lee was cast as Norris's co-star in The Way of the Dragon as opposed to Bibi – oh, the cruelty of retrospect! Admittedly, Norris's reasons for voting for Netanyahu might not have the refinement that Snoop Dogg/Lion's did for voting for President Obama ("He mad cool yo") and not for Romney ("Bitch got a dancing horse"), but it's early days.

- Hadley Freeman, Guardian, 31 January 2013

[* Surprisingly high waistband there, Chuck! I mean, we're talking Simon Cowell levels]

09 February 2013

Are you feeling euphemistic?

This New Zealand Department of Health public service advertisement appeared in the NZ Listener of 6 September 1975. I particularly enjoy how the ad refuses to spell out what V.D. actually is, and the quote marks around 'at risk'.

Actually, my dear fellow, with a haircut
like that I doubt you're in any danger

This edition of the Listener featured John Clarke as Fred Dagg on the cover: 1975 was the year in which John Clarke rose to fame in New Zealand. In 1975 New Zealand had only two TV channels. The second, Television Two, had just begun broadcasting in June that year. (Generation Y and younger look at you funny if you remind them that New Zealand didn't have television at all before 1960). Prime time viewing was filled by Selwyn Toogood's 'It's In The Bag', generic American detective shows, and very slightly racy family entertainment from the UK in the guise of 'Man About The House', featuring Richard O'Sullivan, Paula Wilcox and Sally Thomsett. The latter was recorded by the Listener with its full cast, writers and producers listed like a motion picture.

The launch of Television Two was notable for two reasons: it featured Jennie Goodwin, the first female newsreader in the Commonwealth, and a bare week after it was launched the channel staged New Zealand's first Telethon. The first charity drive was in aid of the St John Ambulance, and raised $585,000. Telethons went on to become a cultural touchstone over the following decade until the mid-1980s, by which time event hosting costs were beginning to make the large-scale television events less affordable. It's safe to say that none of the Telethons raised money for V.D. - whatever it stands for.

And just pause for a moment to ponder: the young folks pictured in the ad above will be nearing retirement age. They might even be your parents. 

See also:
Health posters: Shifting attitudes, 1969 and 1980s, Te Ara 
History: 1975 key events in New Zealand, NZHistory.net

08 February 2013

The remuneration whoopee cushion

Last year I mentioned in two posts the culture of extravagance that arose in TVNZ as it shifted from a public service broadcaster to one focused almost solely on ratings and advertising sales. In January, in a piece on excessive local authority CEO salaries, I argued that the model for paying 'the talent', i.e. TV presenters, had become entirely severed from reality. In TVNZ's case it took a major public outcry, and presumably overt or covert political pressure, to reign in the excessive and lavish salaries offered to the public face of the network:

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).
Then in October I mentioned in passing that if contemporary TVNZ bosses really wanted to save a bit of money while at the same time bolster their journalistic reputation, they might consider repurposing the nearly $1.3 million it spent on hair, makeup and outfits and instead use the money to hire up to 14 graduate journalists. A flippant suggestion, certainly, but one that speaks to the priorities of the state broadcaster.

Earlier this week commentator Gordon Campbell illustrated the point I was trying to make in January 2012. In discussing the flurry of media commentary on the death of broadcaster Paul Holmes, he delves into the history and culture of TVNZ in the Wild West days of the 1990s when taxpayers' money was seemingly flung around with gay abandon and salaries soared to insultingly high levels:

Worldwide, the 1990s was a decade when massive pay packets became self-validating symbols of potency for the senior executive class. Unfortunately, and due in part to a Treasury bungle, TVNZ failed to re-register under the Companies Act 1993 for the period 1994 and 1995 – and it thus failed to deliver annual reports and specify the income bands for its top earners during those years. As a consequence, we lack precise evidence for the period when the income of TVNZ’s top presenters began to interact with the pay packets of TVNZ’s executives, and started to boost them skywards. I wrote an article about this in 2004, but since it’s now behind a paywall, I’ll briefly summarise the contents. 
What we know is that at the outset of the 1990s, newsreaders Richard Long and Judy Bailey were reportedly on incomes of $65,000 and $80,000 respectively. By 1993, Paul Holmes’ TVNZ/RNZ deal was reportedly worth $250,000. Two years later, when TVNZ’s annual report once again saw daylight, there was one individual – believed to be Holmes – on $720,000. The escalator on executive salaries had also begun running. Another individual – believed to be then-CEO Chris Anderson was on the $420,000 to $430,000 band. 
By 2001, the top salary had only inched forward to $750-760,000 – but that second placed earner (who in parliamentary hearings that year was alleged to be then-CEO Rick Ellis) was now earning between $720-730,000, and this topped out a year with a parting payment to someone (again, assumed to be Ellis) of between $850,000 to $880,000. 
This ratcheting effect cannot be blamed on Paul Holmes. It was not his fault that the huge leaps in his own remuneration during the 1990s got used as a whoopee cushion for the top executives who employed him, to validate their own leaps in pay. We are however, still living with the effects of that era of vanity and excess, and it has been cemented in place as the norm.
A timely reminder that when public money is being spent, serious questions always need to be asked whenever anyone asserts that 'market forces' demand exorbitant remuneration packages. Just remember what happened to Holmes and Susan Wood and remind big-noter celebs and CEOs alike that employers and, ultimately, taxpayers, may well call your bluff. Because sometimes when the 'pay peanuts, get monkeys' argument is deployed, the hairy simians look like a real bargain compared to what's on offer. 

07 February 2013

So Long You Pretty Thing

As featured on Jarvis Cocker's Sunday Service on BBC 6Music this weekend, here's the Capital Children's Choir performing a cover of Spiritualized's So Long You Pretty Thing, which sets out plaintive and forlorn but in the best tradition of Bridge Over Troubled Water or Everybody Hurts ends up epic and rather fabulous. Plus instead of a Tiny Dancer they sport a tiny drummer, which can't hurt. The song, which appears on Spiritualized's 2012 album Sweet Heart Sweet Light, was written by Spiritualized's Jason Pierce and his 11-year-old daughter Poppy Spaceman, which provides a nice link to the youthful performers in this video. I wonder if they realise how marvellous it is just to be recording in Abbey Road?

This children's choirs singing artfully-selected popular songs meme seems to have a lot of legs at the moment, and why wouldn't it, given the warmth of performances like this one by the CCC. Just remember it was all done many years ago (in the mid-70s, to be precise) with equal verve and charm - albeit not in Abbey Road and perhaps not with quite the same polish - by the Langley Schools Music Project. Dig them kid harmonies!

06 February 2013

Mt Kaukau

It being a public holiday and all, I thought I should get out of the house rather than getting hooked into playing Civ or watching umpteen episodes of Hey Ash, Watcha Playing? So this afternoon I trekked up Mt Kaukau (elevation 445m above sea level), something I've not done in many years. Naturally, rather than taking the half-arsed cheater's option of driving halfway up and walking from Sirsi Crescent in Broadmeadows, I took the route from the Khandallah Pool. The key, newbies, is to take the right-hand 'alternate route' signposted immediately after crossing the stream by the playground. It may be a whole lot steeper than the main path, but that means it's less crowded and therefore no-one can see you turning an alarming shade of purple as you ascend. But whichever way you go up, be sure to pick a clear day because the views from the top are splendid (click photos to enlarge). Duration: about 90 minutes, at my pace.

Qantas flight from Australia coming into land
Northern view over Ohariu Valley

The transmission tower
Stadium, Te Papa & Mt Victoria
'Aratere' sailing for Picton
Northern view

03 February 2013

Astronauts' Wives Club

By now, when the other wives came around to the house of the Wife during a flight, they were not there to hold her hand over the dangers her husband was facing. They were there to hold her hand over the television cameras she would be facing. They were there to try to buck her up for a true ordeal. They liked to do the Squarely Stable routine. One of the wives - Rene Carpenter was good at it - would take the role of Nancy Whoever, TV correspondent, and hold her fist up to her mouth, as if she were holding a microphone and say:

"We're here in front of the trim, modest suburban home of Squarely Stable, the famous astronaut who has just completed his historic mission, and we have with us his attractive wife, Primly Stable. Primly Stable, you must be happy, proud, and thankful at this moment."

And then she would shift her fist over underneath the chin of another wife, and she would say:

"Yes, Nancy, that's true. I'm happy, proud, and thankful at this moment."

"Tell us, Primly Stable - may I call you Primly?"

"Certainly, Nancy, Primly."

"Tell us, Primly, tell us what you felt during the blast-off, at the very moment when your husband's rocket began to rise from the earth and take him on this historic journey."

"To tell the truth, Nancy, I missed that part of it. I'd sort of dozed off, because I got up so early this morning and I'd been rushing around a lot taping the shades shut, so the TV people wouldn't come in the windows."

"Well, would you say you had a lump in your throat as big as a tennis ball?"

"That's about the size of it, Nancy, I had a lump in my throat as big as a tennis ball."

"And finally, Primly, I know that the most important prayer of your life has already been answered: Squarely has returned safely from outer space. But if you could have one other wish at this moment and have it come true, what would that one wish be?"

"Well, Nancy, I'd wish for an Electrolux vacuum cleaner with all the attachments - "

- and they'd all crack up at the thought of what a dim lummox the Genteel Beast [the Press] really was. Still ... that didn't make it any easier when your time came.

- Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, 1980

[According to David Shayler & Ian Moule's 2005 book Women in Space: Following Valentina, the unofficial astronauts' wives club was formed in 1962 and 'met occasionally for many years during the 1960s and 1970s, but drifted apart during the late 1970s as the original astronauts selected in the 1960s moved to new goals outside of NASA, although dinners and social gatherings still took place for several years'] 

See also:
TrailerThe Right Stuff, dir. Philip Kaufman, 1983
NewsreelJohn Glenn orbits the Earth in Friendship 7, February 1962*
Interview: Ex-Astronaut Wife Rene is the Carpenter in the News Now, People, 7 April 1975
NewsThe Astronaut Wives' Club, BBC, 8 November 2007

* In which, charmingly, the voiceover chap pronounces 'retro' as 'ree-trow'.