30 September 2013

Royal Marines Band

At lunchtime today Her Majesty's Royal Marines Band played and marched onto the Parliament forecourt for a display of their talents, with the event being enlivened by the traditional Wellington spring horizontal rain. Their party piece, at 04:15 in the clip, is a performance of the theme from Game of Thrones.

29 September 2013

How to entertain house guests

Guests usually take the train from London, and before we pick them up I remind Hugh that, for the duration of their visit, he and I will be playing the role of a perfect couple. This means no bickering and contradicting one another. If I am seated at the kitchen table and he is standing behind me, he is to place a hand on my shoulder, right on the spot where a parrot would perch if I were a pirate instead of the ideal boyfriend. When I tell a story he has heard so often he could lip-synch to it, he is to pretend to be hearing it for the first time, and to be appreciating it as much or more than our guests are. I'm to do the same, and to feign delight when he serves something I hate, like fish with little bones in it. I really blew this a few years back, in Normandy, when his friend Sue came for the night and he poached what might as well have been a hairbrush. Blew it to such an extent that after she left I considered having her killed. "She knows too much," I said to Hugh. The woman's a liability now and we need to contain her".

His friend Jane has seen some ugliness as well, and though I like both her and Sue, and have known them both for going on twenty years, they fall under the category of Hugh's guests. This means that though I play my role, it's not my responsibility to entertain them. Yes, I offer the occasional drink. I show up for meals, but can otherwise come and go at my leisure, exiting, sometimes, as someone is in the middle of a sentence. My father has done this all his life. You'll be talking to him and he'll walk away - not angry, but just sort of finished with you. I was probably six years old the first time I noticed this. You'd think I'd have found it hurtful, but instead I looked at his retreating back thinking, We can get away with that? Really? Yippee!

- David Sedaris, New Yorker, 3 June 2013

24 September 2013

Speaking on behalf of the Furniture-Man

The stuff of every child's nightmares: household furniture comes alive and expresses firm views, amplified by life-or-death stakes, about the modes of transportation with which they should be delivered in the event of moving abodes. From the New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 January 1935. An online archive of the magazine text and images can be found here

Kanye West: Man of words, man of wisdom

People say it's all too easy for nonentities like me to poke fun at celebrities by taking their candid ramblings out of context and treating them as serious attempts at communication. So let's do that! Here's some Kanye West quotes from a recent interview with the New Zealand DJ Zane Lowe from BBC Radio 1:

On making music that's confrontational"So I'm gonna take music and I'm going to try to make it three-dimensional, like [long pause], like in Star Wars, and the hologram'll pop up out of R2-D2. I'ma try to make something that jumps up, and affects you, in a good or bad way." 
On not intending puns"Everybody is like, bound to these-no pun intended, they're bound to..."
"I'm gonna try to push Pusha T-no pun intended once again. This keeps happening to me." 
On radio"I was talking to Frank Ocean about this and said, like, my mom got arrested for the sit-ins, and now we're more like the sit-outs, like sit off of radio, and say, 'Hey, radio, come to us.' We need to find something new because it's being controlled in a way and manufactured in a way that really awesome artists can make amazing music and not break as far past as something that's very formulaic." 
On race and being marginalized"I've reached a point in my life where my Truman Show boat has hit the painting. And I've got to a point that Michael Jackson did not break down. I have reached the glass ceiling. As a creative person, as a celebrity. When I say that, it means, I want to do product, I am a product person. Not just clothing, but water bottle design, architecture, everything, you know, that you could think about. And I've been at it for 10 years, and I look around, and I say, wait a second, there's no one in this space that looks like me, and if they are, they're quiet as f--k. So that means, wait a second, now we're seriously, like, in a civil rights movement." 
On fashion"Me and Virgil [Abloh] are in Rome, giving designs to Fendi, over and over, and getting our designs knocked down ... [We] brought the leather jogging pants six years ago to Fendi, and they said 'no.' How many mother--kers you done seen with a leather jogging pant?" 
On hip-hop's cultural dominance"When I see Hedi Slimane, and it's all like, okay, this is my take on the world. Yeah, he's got some nice $5,000 jeans in there. It's some nice ones here and there, some good s--t here and there. But we culture. Rap the new rock and roll. We culture. Rap is the new rock and roll. We the rock stars. [Zane Lowe: "It's been like that now for a minute."] It's been like that now for a minute, Hedi Slimane! It's been like that now for a minute. We the rock stars, and I'm the biggest of all of them." 
- via Forrest Wickman, Slate.com, 23 September 2013
I love the idea that someone had to think up thematic captions for Mr West's somewhat elliptical thought processes. And are leather jogging pants a thing now?  I mean, other than in Bavaria? I caught a bit of West's performance on the BBC's Later With Jools Holland last Friday night. It might just be my age showing, but I couldn't help but think his performance would have been far more enjoyable if (1) the camera shifted slightly to the right to focus on the tremendous soul vocalist Charlie Wilson (formerly lead singer of the Gap Band) accompanying West, who really has a fantastic set of pipes, and then (2) the producers turned off West's microphone so we didn't have to listen to him droning on about how cross he is about things. But what would I know, right?

See also:
Music: Later With Jools Holland s38 e05, 5 May 2011
Music: Later... is 250, 23 October 2010
Music: Wireless Festival 2008, 6 July 2008
Music: Concert for Diana, 13 July 2007

22 September 2013

Dark cloud / white light

Yesterday I paid a visit to the Porirua gallery, Pataka, to take in the timelapse photography exhibition of Joseph Michael, a young man with two first names. In 'Dark cloud / white light' the young photographer has created an impressive collection through painstaking engineering and no little effort in reaching some obscure locations around the wilds of New Zealand. In each location he establishes a photo rig and shoots high definition timelapse photography for 24 hours, capturing an entire day from a single vantage point. This requires impressive dedication, keeping the camera rig firmly immobile for a whole day and night, and ensuring no obstructions impede any of the approximately 10,000 photos being taken (else they'll have to be laboriously edited out in post-production - flies landing on the lens, for example). The ever-present threat of rain can often ruin a shot, or maybe the light is just wrong on the particular day he and his crew visited.

There are 10 timelapse 'days' in the exhibition, many of which were shot in the Otago wilderness that Michael is closest to, but also extending into remote areas of the North Island. My favourite timelapse was a beautifully composed shot taken as Spirits Bay just east of Cape Reinga in the Far North, facing west along the curving bay while the wind races a sea of clouds towards the camera and the shadows play on a solid rocky outcrop in the foreground. This is one of two presented in 3D, which was apparently much harder to produce. One 2D image taken at the head of Lake Marian in the Darrans in Fiordland depicts the shimmering lake surface reflecting encircling mountains, while wispy tendrils of clouds undulate up and down the valley sides. Another of the Hawkdun Range in central Otago is framed like a Grahame Sydney photograph with the furrowed hills occupying the bottom sixth of the view, all the better to depict the beautiful colour transitions in the sky as the sun sets and the stars emerge and whirl about the pole. The play of light and colour is also evident in the fine shot of Ngauruhoe, with the larger Ruapehu relegated to a supporting role in the background - as the sun rises the volcanic cone changes tone from black to grey to burning red. (I took some decent aerial photos of the two back in July).

A key part of the presentation is the accompanying soundtracks prepared by local recording artists, and piped through headphones to the viewer. I could take or leave this noodly ambient accompaniment, along with the unashamedly pseudish psycho-babble of the catalogue essay ('Ecopsychology is a branch of philosophy that addresses this interconnectedness through the concept of the ecological self, described as 'a wide, expansive or field-like sense of self, which ultimately includes all life forms, ecosystems and the planet itself''). Just give me the imagery, plain and unadorned - because in this work, Michael has captured the powerful beauty of New Zealand vistas that require no embellishment whatsoever.

Behind the Scenes - Shot #5 from Joseph Michael on Vimeo.

The free exhibition runs at Pataka until 13 October.   

See also:
Photography: Ans Westra, Wellington 1976, 30 June 2013
Photography: Wildlife Photographer of the Year, 20 January 2013
Photography: Who Shot Rock & Roll?, 1 January 2013

20 September 2013

"I'm not expecting you to comb the bloody legend's hair"

In 1992 Ringo Starr was promoting his first album in nine years, Time Takes Time, which boasted a bevy of luminaries as producers including Don Was and Jeff Lynne. There was a single with a promo video, the passable Weight of the World, and a tour with the All-Starr Band to support the album. However, Starr had not reckoned on coming up against the indefatigable interviewer for rock mag Q, Tom Hibbert, he of the infamous 'Who the Hell...' column that entertained so many Q readers from the mid-80s to the mid-90s.

Many of Hibbert's Who the Hell interviews involved pompous windbags and half-baked celebs being allowed to embarrass themselves by simply being themselves: vain, intensely self-referential, and usually completely unaware of the fleetingness of their notoriety. But occasionally the interviews are testier when subjects are proper famous musos who are unused to being asked thorny questions by fearlessly sarcastic journos. Hibbert's Starr interview is a classic example of this genre, and the questions asked are not even that provocative; but certainly, Hibbert mentions Starr's well-known former problem with alcoholism, and is understandably far more interested in talking about Starr's time with the Beatles than with his new solo album. Ultimately, an innocuous enough misunderstanding tips the interview over into strop and flounce territory:

Ringo takes this opportunity to tell me what a great musician he is and how his new LP is really jolly good and everything until I interrupt to suggest that however good his new LP is, it can hardly hope to top Abbey Road, can it? He looks at me as if I am deranged: 
'What, as an album? My album can't beat the Abbey Road album as an album?' That is, in a nutshell, what I was driving at. 
'Well, the so-called B-side of Abbey Road is one of my favourite sides, the one with Bathroom Window and Polythene Pam but just by chance I was re-listening to Sgt Pepper the other day and that's a fine album too and it's a bloody marvellous album, it's a bloody fine album and The White Album was great because we were like a band and the first album which took 12 hours to put down was an achievement ... So I don't know what you're talking about. That was 30 years ago, man. I'm still making records and you can hear that I'm a great musician on the new record, Time Takes Time, if you can ever be bothered to mention it. This is an actual bloody legend in front of you. I'm not expecting you to comb the bloody legend's hair but if you could mention the new LP and these other fine musicians I'm still playing with'. 
Ringo Starr is close to rage and I don't know quite why. I decided to placate him by talking about his All-Starr Band. This ploy is not a success. What is it like working with Todd Rundgren, I enquire? Todd Rundgren's a bit mad, isn't he? 
Ringo lunges forward in the sofa, almost doing himself an injury. 
'What? What? Have you met him? Why would you say shit like that? You don't even know the man. How dare you say shit like that about a friend?' 
I meant 'mad' as in 'genius'. It is a compliment. 
'You're talking shit. That's like saying Frank Zappa's mad. Frank Zappa's probably the nicest man I've ever met in this business. I've been in the game too long for this shit! I've done my bit. I've made a record, I've made the thing and I hope it's a Number 1 because I've done my bit, I'm promoting the thing ... or I am trying to promote the thing...' 
What manner of umbrage is this? Ringo Starr seems to feel - and strongly - that my failure to spend this interview discussing his new LP and the brilliance of Tom Petty and Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter and Harry 'Schmilsson' Nilsson and everybody else who played on it - is impudence of the first order. But wouldn't such an interview be a trifle limiting and boring and...? I am unable to make this suggestion because The Clown, The Lovable One, seen here in his updated role as Pop's Mister Crosspatch, continues to rant away... 
'If you'd bothered to listen to the single Weight of the World you'd hear a line in it which goes ... er, er ... well, it says that you can't live in the past and that sums it up. Because you're living in the past. As far as this interview has been going on, it's shit because it's been The Beatles interview and you haven't even mentioned Time Takes Time or Weight of the World. But that's OK. You've got the time. That's what you asked. I've answered your questions. And ...' Ringo rises from the sofa, two feet nine inches of unbridled anger ... 'That is it!' And it is. He flounces from the room, a cry of 'Thanks a lot!' that oozes with sarcasm, his cheery farewell. What this man needs, in my estimation, is a stiff drink, or a cig, or both... 
- Tom Hibbert, 'Who the Hell... Does Ringo Starr Think He Is?', Q Magazine, June 1992, quoted in Best of Q Who the Hell...?, London, 1994. 

In honour of simpler and less trying times for Ringo, here's one of his best solo moments - the April 1971 single It Don't Come Easy, which hit the top of the pop charts in Canada and reached number 4 in both the UK and the US. The recording line-up is unsurprisingly top-notch, with George Harrison on guitar, Klaus Voorman on bass, Stephen Stills on keys, and Badfinger's Pete Ham and Tom Evans on backing vocals, with Ringo providing drums and lead vocals.

Sadly, Hibbert died in 2011 after a long illness that had prevented him from writing for more than a decade. But friend and colleague Mark Ellen remembers Hibbert at his finest:
Hibbert was transferred in 1986 to the new rock monthly Q, where a long-running feature known as Who the Hell … was devised especially for his withering humour and his extraordinary ability to get pompous public figures to make buffoons of themselves. 
Month after month, the gullible and self-important celebrities of the day –Jeremy Beadle, Jeffrey Archer, Robert Maxwell, Samantha Fox, Keith Floyd, Bernard Manning, David Mellor, Sir Jimmy Savile – would find their pearls of wisdom gently lampooned and their carefully constructed profiles vigorously barbecued. Tom flew to Brazil and tracked down the train robber Ronnie Biggs (whom, inevitably, he both liked and rather admired). He puffed his way across the Alps pointing his microphone at the charity-walking Ian Botham and his elephant. The health minister Edwina Currie once advised him that his fondness for nicotine might lower his sperm count. 
- Mark Ellen, 'Tom Hibbert obituary', Guardian, 2 September 2011
See also:
Music: Ringo Starr - Back Off Boogaloo (1972 single)
Music: The Beatles logo, 4 June 2013
Music: Marc Bolan 1947-77, 16 March 2009

19 September 2013

On the 120th anniversary of women's suffrage in New Zealand

Women voting in 1893 (via NZHistory)
The Electoral Bill granting women the franchise was given Royal Assent by Governor Lord Glasgow on this day in 1893, 120 years ago. The editorial of Wellington’s Evening Post on the following day discussed its significance for the country in somewhat equivocal terms (emphasis and paragraph breaks added):

The women of New Zealand are the first who under the British flag have been enfranchised by virtue of their womanhood. It has been said, no doubt with a considerable degree of truth, that a large proportion of the women of the colony did not ask for or desire the franchise. It is also asserted, we hope incorrectly, that a large proportion of the women will not use the franchise now that it has been bestowed upon them. The time has now gone by when the question of what women generally desired in this matter was of any real importance. It is not now a question of desire or no desire, of like or mislike. Parliament may have been mistaken, although we do not think it was, in its interpretation of women's wishes, but it is too late to consider that point. For good or for evil, whether it be regarded as a boon or a burthen, the franchise has been conferred upon the women of the colony, and it has become their duty to make the best possible use of the power with which they have been invested. It is no longer a matter of inclination — it has become one of duty. There is no going back in a matter of this kind. The step taken, wisely or unwisely, hastily or warily, cannot be retraced. If a mistake has been made, all that it remains possible to do is to endeavour to minimise the evil results— if the step is in the right direction then must the fullest possible advantage be taken of it.

To take an active, independent, and intelligent interest in the functions which constitutionally devolve upon them as electors has now become an almost sacred duty on the part of the women of the colony, and we cannot believe that they will prove unresponsive to the call, or careless in their performance. Much of the future of New Zealand depends upon them. A great power has been placed in their hands. They can neglect to use it; they can use it for ill; or they can make it operative for the greatest good to the country and to the community amongst whom they dwell. The sphere of their influence has been mightily enlarged. Instead of exercising only indirect power through their husbands, sons, or brothers, they are now charged with direct authority, and personal responsibility for its use or abuse. We trust they will remember this, and endeavour to realise the vast extent and importance of the new duties and new responsibilities which have in many cases, no doubt, been thrust upon them unwillingly and unsought for.

It is not in woman's nature to resist the call of duty. To make the best use of the franchise is now an imperative duty. It has been entrusted to them to counteract and in some measure lessen the evils which experience has proved to arise from universal Manhood Suffrage — the investment with political power of men of low intellect or vicious minds, who have in many cases debased the very manhood by which they have claimed and been allowed to exercise equal voting power with the most intellectual and virtuous of their sex. Women have been admitted to the exercise of votes with the hope and desire of elevating, improving, and purifying the whole electoral body. Can they turn away from the opportunity of doing this, and shirk their plain duty? They have been given votes that they may aid in the choice of men worthy to be entrusted with the guidance of the affairs of a young nation, and may secure the election of Parliaments whose aim will be to promote the material, the intellectual, and the moral welfare of the community, to ameliorate the social evils which unfortunately exist, and to establish the foundations of the State upon sound and enduring principles. Is not such a task worthy of the best energies of the best women? And the franchise has been given to women that they may raise and improve the status and prospects of their own sex, securing for them those equal rights, powers, and privileges in other things than politics which even-handed justice would confer, but which man, in the arrogance of sexual authority over those whom he has regarded as his inferiors, has too long denied.

- Editorial, Evening Post, 20 September 1893.

The general election that was held in November and December of 1893 (November for general electors, December for Maori) was won comprehensively by Richard Seddon's Liberals. Despite this success, Seddon was actually an opponent of women's suffrage who had only switched to support the bill when its passage became inevitable. He even made strenuous but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to have the suffrage bill vetoed in the upper house, the Legislative Council.

Seddon's antipathy to women's suffrage was no isolated case. The result of the suffrage bill was historic and hugely beneficial to New Zealand's reputation as a progressive nation, but the reasons underpinning the actual political decision-making that resulted in its passage were far more self-interested and paternalistic, as historian David Hamer explains:

New Zealand was celebrated as the first country in the world to give women the vote (in 1893). Yet within New Zealand the direct consequences of this are not easy to trace or define. Women may have been granted the vote, but they could not yet be Members of Parliament, let alone Cabinet Ministers. Behind the scenes wives of leading politicians such as Ballance, Seddon, Stout, and Reeves were able to exercise considerable influence, and there were some very influential and effective women government officials such as Grace Neill, Assistant Inspector of Hospitals. But for the most part, issues that were of concern to women had to be filtered through a system in which every position of power was held by a man. What emerged bore a close resemblance to what men thought was good for women rather than what women themselves may have thought. There was no attempt by the political parties to mobilise or appeal to women as a distinct political force, and no women's parties emerged to exploit on women's behalf the fact that they had received the vote. One reason why male politicians had been so ready to make the concession of the vote was that they were confident that women would not behave politically in this way. Much of the debate on giving the vote to women focused on the likely consequences for the temperance cause, it being assumed that they would vote overwhelmingly for a cause so strongly identified with the protection of family life. But the predictions were not borne out in any massive increase in the vote for prohibition. The emphasis in policy directed towards women was on the strengthening of the family unit rather than on the vote serving as some sort of lever to promote female emancipation, and women's organisations were on the whole prepared to support this. 
- David Hamer, 'Centralisation and nationalism', in K. Sinclair (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of New Zealand, 2001, p.149-150.
Even the male politicians in favour of women's suffrage were motivated by other concerns than the purity of expanding the democratic franchise. Self-interest was often the primary factor at work, as can be seen in this letter from senior statesman Sir John Hall:

...About Female Suffrage we must agree to differ - Your experience in the towns under the influence of strikes, may be an argument against women's suffrage, but in the country districts, and even throughout the Colony generally, it will increase the influence of the settler and family-man, as against the loafing single men who had so great a voice at the last elections. But for them all the country seats would have come to our side. I cannot believe that those who have anything to lose, will fail to bring to the poll, the female voters belonging to them. And generally among woman-kind the drunkard and the profligate will not have much chance, which will be a great gain for us...

- Sir John Hall, writing to G.G. Stead, 30 June 1891, quoted in McIntyre & Gardner, Speeches and Documents on New Zealand History, London, 1971, p.204.
See also:
History: Election night 1931, 26 November 2011
History: Gold has been all-in-all to us, 4 October 2011
History: Bad meat and bad blood, 20 April 2011

18 September 2013

Ishmaelia, and the art of the two-word scoop

via Penguin Australia
The narrator sets the scene for Evelyn Waugh's famed comic novella, Scoop, which satirises the fast and loose life of the newspaper foreign correspondent. The description draws on Waugh's own war-reporting experiences in Abyssinia including a trip from August to December 1935 that laid the groundwork for a non-fiction account, Waugh in Abyssinia.

Ishmaelia, that hitherto happy commonwealth, cannot conveniently be approached from any part of the world. It lies in the North-Easterly quarter of Africa, giving colour by its position and shape to the metaphor often used of it - 'the Heart of the Dark Continent'. Desert, forest, and swamp, frequented by furious nomads, protects its approaches from those more favoured regions which the statesmen of Berlin and Geneva have put to school under European masters. An inhospitable race of squireens cultivate the highlands and pass their days in the perfect leisure which those people alone enjoy who are untroubled by the speculative or artistic itch. 
Various courageous Europeans, in the seventies of the last century, came to Ishmaelia, or near it, furnished with suitable equipment of cuckoo clocks, phonographs, opera hats, draft-treaties and flags of the nations which they had been obliged to leave. They came as missionaries, ambassadors, tradesmen, prospectors, natural scientists. None returned. They were eaten, every one of them; some raw, others stewed and seasoned - according to local usage and the calendar (for the better sort of Ishmaelites have been Christian for many centuries and will not publicly eat human flesh, uncooked, in Lent, without special and costly dispensation from their bishop). Punitive expeditions suffered more harm than they inflicted, and in the nineties humane counsels prevailed. The European powers independently decided that they did not want that profitless piece of territory; that the one thing less desirable than seeing a neighbour established there was the trouble of taking it themselves. Accordingly, by general consent, it was ruled off the maps and its immunity guaranteed. As there was no form of government common to the peoples thus segregated, nor tie of language, history, habit, or belief, they were called a Republic. 
- Evelyn Waugh, Scoop, 1938, Book II, chapter 1.

A few pages earlier, our hapless hero William Boot is given a valuable lesson in the art of reportage by a friendly old hand, Corker of the Universal News, while en route to Ishmaelia. Turns out you can convey a scoop in just two words.

There were two nights to wait in Aden for the little ship which was to take them to Africa. William and Corker saw the stuffed mermaid and the wells of Solomon. Corker bought some Japanese shawls and a set of Benares trays; he had already acquired a number of cigarette boxes, an amber necklace, and a model of Tutankhamen's sarcophagus during his few hours in Cairo; his bedroom at the hotel was an emporium of Oriental Art. 'There's something about the East that always gets me,' he said. 'The missus won't know the old home when I've finished with it'. 
These were his recreations. In his serious hours he attempted to interview the Resident, and was rebuffed; and finally spent two hours in confidence with an Arab guide who for twenty rupees supplied material for a detailed cable about the defences of the settlement. 'No use both our covering it,' he said to William. 'Your story had better be British unpreparedness. If it suits them, they'll be able to work that up into something at the office. You know - "Aden the focal point of British security in the threatened area still sunk in bureaucratic lethargy" - that kind of thing'. 
'Good heavens! how can I say that?' 
'That's easy, old boy. Just cable ADEN UNWARWISE'. 
- Evelyn Waugh, Scoop, 1938, Book I, chapter 5.
See also:
Books: P.G. Wodehouse - A Life in Letters, 17 August 2013
Books: Nathanael West - The Day of the Locust, 20 October 2012
BooksAmor Towles - Rules of Civility, 6 October 2012

17 September 2013

Ruggles at Gettysburg

Last night's Filmsoc offering was the 1935 Leo McCarey (Duck Soup, The Awful Truth) comedy Ruggles of Red Gap, in which Charles Laughton plays a reserved and starchy English gentleman's gentleman whose aristocratic employer loses his services in a game of poker to a nouveau riche family from Washington state. Upon taking Ruggles back to their rootin' tootin' hometown of Red Gap, unsurprisingly it turns out that Ruggles loosens up a bit and starts to enjoy the lifestyle in the land of opportunity. It's a knockabout comedy, nothing particularly special, with fairly predictable comedy dialogue making much of the Ruggles' reserve slowly broadening as he is charmed by American life.

That the dialogue occasionally feels a little humdrum is a surprise, because it's not as if the screenwriters lacked plenty of source material.  The story was originally a newspaper serial that started in 1914, before both being written up as a novel by Harry Leon Wilson and as a Broadway musical the following year. There was also an earlier screen adaptation by Famous Players/Lasky Corp in 1923.  

The avuncular, effete Laughton was highly bankable at the time, having won the Best Actor Oscar for the title role in the 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII. Laughton would also appear as Bligh alongside Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian in the famed Mutiny on the Bounty in the same calendar year as Ruggles. 

A particular highlight of the film is the saloon-bar scene in which Ruggles, who conveniently had been perusing US history texts in his employers' seldom-used library that very morning, adds some gravitas to proceedings by reciting Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The scene is both splendid cinema and completely hokey, pulling all the right strings as the Englishman uses the fine presidential words to make his own declaration of independence (to mix metaphors rather comprehensively). Perhaps it's meant to be a satire of Americans' lack of knowledge of their own national heritage - after all, none of the bar patrons has the slightest clue what Lincoln actually said on that famous day. Or perhaps the heart-swelling national pride that accompanies the recital - and of course the RADA-trained Laughton is the perfect orator - is just nicely undercut by the barkeep's reaction at the end of the speech: clearly a speech that high-falutin' must call for booze. Whatever the intent, you have to admire the writers, who know full well that patriotism sells - and, even better, using public domain text saves you having to write dialogue yourself.

The opening title card of Ruggles, like Design For Living screened at Filmsoc a couple of weeks ago, elicited a few sniggers from the audience. A bold logo pronounced 'NRA', with the tagline 'We do our part'. But this was not an advertisement for the notorious National Rifle Association. Rather, it showed the film-makers' commitment to the National Recovery Administration, a short-lived voluntary initiative of the Roosevelt administration, that sought to encourage setting minimum wages and maximum weekly hours, as well as minimum prices at which products could be sold. In 1935 the US Supreme Court ruled the legislation unconstitutional, and the organisation was dissolved in May of that year. However, some of its provisions emerged in 1936 in the Wagner Act, which set the groundwork for US labour relations.

Via Wikicommons
Laughton's wife, actress Elsa Lanchester, whom he married in 1929, was also a leading lady at the time - she played Anne of Cleves alongside Laughton's Henry VIII in the 1933 film, and in 1935 she starred as the title character in James Whales' Bride of Frankenstein. Her 1970s interview with Dick Cavett below is worth a watch; she seems quite taken with the dashing Cavett.

See also:
Radio play: Ruggles of Red Gap with Charles Laughton, July 1939 (w/ introduction by Cecil B. DeMille)
Interview: Dick Cavett talks to Elsa Lanchester about Laughton
Music: Toy Love - Bride of Frankenstein (NZ, 1980)

16 September 2013

Roman Machines

Yesterday I enjoyed visiting the local museum in Palmerston North for its Roman Machines exhibition, which displays modern scale model reconstructions of some of the finest examples of Roman engineering. Many originate in the timeless designs of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, as recorded in his famous Ten Books on Architecture (De Architectura libri decem), which is the only surviving such work on architecture from the period - the first century BC. The exhibition covers a wide range of Roman industry, from instruments of war like the onager catapult and the ram in testudo (the siege engine otherwise known as the tortoise), to construction tools like the Vitruvian crane and the Calcatorian crane, and the industrial machinery like the Archimedes screw pump and the mighty noria water-wheels. My friends and I marvelled at the norias that still growled noisily at the heart of modern Hama in Syria back in 2008 before the nation's present dilemma; here's a brief - and very noisy! - video of them in action. (There were no photos allowed in the exhibition. Pity).
Roman drainage wheel relay,
Rio Tinto mine, Spain (via Wiki)

The exhibition contained an interesting collection of militaria, including various replica equipment for legionaries and a mocked-up infantry shield-wall (testudo), plus a few key items that would be familiar to any fan of Gladiator or Spartacus. I also enjoyed learning about the machinery of the hypogeum (underground) at the Colosseum, which was used to raise and lower cages containing wild animals so as to deliver them to the action above. Heinz-Jürgen Beste of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome explained the hypogeum to the Smithsonian Magazine in 2011:

“See where a semicircular slice has been chipped out of the wall?” he said, resting a hand on the brickwork. The groove, he added, created room for the four arms of a cross-shaped, vertical winch called a capstan, which men would push as they walked in a circle. The capstan post rested in a hole that Beste indicated with his toe. “A team of workmen at the capstan could raise a cage with a bear, leopard or lion inside into position just below the level of the arena. Nothing bigger than a lion would have fit.” He pointed out a diagonal slot angling down from the top of the wall to where the cage would have hung. “A wooden ramp slid into that slot, allowing the animal to climb from the cage straight into the arena,” he said.

There's also a great opportunity to explore the detail of a fine full-size print of the famous Tabula of Peutinger (Tabula Peutingeriana), a six metre-long scroll depicting the entire road network of the vast Roman Empire from around the fifth century AD, at the very end of imperial Roman history. The map itself is now in Vienna, and is a medieval copy of the Roman original. It contains intricate detail that would have aided long-distance travellers to plan their itineraries, particularly if they were travelling to one of the empire's three great cities: Rome, Constantinople or Antioch.

The exhibition runs at Te Manawa in Palmerston North until 6 October, then it moves to the Southland Museum in Invercargill until mid-January 2014, and it finishes up at the Waikato Museum in Hamilton from January to May 2014.

See also:
Blog: Two sides of Roman London, 28 January 2010
Blog: British Museum Hadrian exhibition, 20 October 2008
Blog: Napoli, Herculaneum, Pompeii, 3 April 2008

10 September 2013

Never take advantage of a love bright as the sun

I've always had a soft spot for the Monkees, stemming presumably from the 1980s repeats of the TV series but also from the expert crafting of their pop sound that obviously echoed that of the Beatles. Everyone knows that the Monkees originally didn't play the instruments on their recordings, but as they matured as artists and performers they took over performance duties from the studio crews and became their own men.

Without the enormously valuable but highly regimented TV songtrack beaming their wares into millions of American homes the Monkees would never have been able to release an astonishing four US chart-topping  albums in the space of 13 months from The Monkees in October 1966 to Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd in November 1967. The army of session performers, initially, and crack songwriters helped to generate production-line pop, but the quality of what was released and the comedic talents of the performers themselves helped to seal the Monkees' fame. Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork also developed as songwriters, gaining the confidence to stand up to their producers and record their own material alongside that of the hired guns.

Mike Nesmith was the strongest writer amongst the four, having had self-penned songs included from the first Monkees album. His fondness for the country-folk sound was perfectly evoked in You Just May Be The One on the band's third album, Headquarters, released in May 1967. A sensitive lyric paired with Byrdsian chiming guitar, the number featured in the first season of the TV show at the end of the episode 'Monkees a la Mode', in which the boys are ostracised when a high-class society magazine mistakenly praises them as fine and upstanding young Americans. Two minutes of pop at its finest.

See also:
Comedy: 'Monkees a la Mode' (TV episode)
Music: Michael Nesmith - Propinquity
Music: Michael Nesmith - Cruisin' (Lucy & Ramona & Sunset Sam)

08 September 2013

The Australian election under proportional representation

As a momentary diversion from the news across the Tasman about the new Australian government to be led by Liberal leader Tony Abbott, it's worth remembering that the electoral system has a major impact on the outcome of elections. Australia's outdated and peculiar preferential voting system favours the big parties over the smaller ones, and the intentionally complicated process of voting 'below the line', requiring electors to rank every single one of the competing parties or else their vote is invalidated, has been rendered almost impossible by a profusion of joke and spoiler single-issue parties.

It's worth remembering that there is an easier and fairer way to conduct a general election, and that's the proportional representation system in use in New Zealand since 1996. Certainly it's not perfect, but it gives parties their fair share of Parliament, as opposed to the current Australian system. So instead of the current substantial majority for the Coalition, what would a New Zealand-style MMP election have looked like in Australia? Using the current first-preference results (n.b. counting is still underway) with a five percent threshold and an electorate-seat exemption, here's how it might have looked for Australia:

% vote
Country Liberals
Palmer United
Katter’s Australian

The Nationals' total of nine electorate seats is actually more than the seven seats they are entitled to from their share of the overall vote, so there would have to be two 'overhang' seats, taking the size of the Lower House to 152. A result like this would put the nine members of the Palmer United Party (which was only formed in April) in a prime position to choose the next government of Australia. The result would likely generate a victory for the Coalition, but it would require the support of the Liberals, Liberal-Nationals, the Nationals, the Country Liberals' one member and the Palmer United Party to form a majority government.

See also:
Results: AEC Virtual Tally Room
Politics: Political Compass - Australia 2013
Comedy: Clarke & Dawe - A Pollster?, 5 September 2013

07 September 2013

Norway's greatest resistance hero

Max Manus, via Wikimedia
Last night I watched the 2008 Norwegian wartime biopic Max Manus, which highlights the astonishing bravery of Norway's greatest resistance fighter of the war. Norway was occupied by the Germans from April 1940 until May 1945, and during that time Max Manus (1914-96) was a constant thorn in the side of the German occupiers, escaping from Gestapo captivity to flee from Norway and eventually, by a circuitous route through the USSR, Turkey, Arabia, South Africa, the US and Canada, ending up in Britain to train as a saboteur. Aside from his legendary elusiveness, limpet mines were Manus' speciality, and with them he (and colleague Roy Nielsen) effected his most famous exploit in January 1945. Ten limpet mines were attached to the SS Donau, a 9000-ton freighter the Kriegsmarine had commandeered for troop transport work. The Donau sailed shortly after the mines were placed, and was sunk at Drøbak, a short distance south from the capital down the Oslofjord. After the war Manus started a successful office supply company, and he later retired to Spain.

The film Max Manus stands as a fine testament to the man, depicting both his enormous bravery and the psychological impact of the violence and loss that his resistance work brought. Aksel Hennie is excellent portraying the heroic but tortured Manus. The film is a big-budget affair, with hundreds of extras and major outdoor shots in urban areas and impressive set-dressing, which must have been a logistical nightmare. I wonder who they found to make that giant swastika ice sculpture, for one thing. The CGI use is particularly commendable - it's unobtrusive, and enough work has been put in to allow the director to pull off several key shots that would not have been possible only a few years ago.

I visited Norway in 2008 and at the Norsk Folkemuseum I caught a glimpse of wartime life for Norwegians during the occupation. Strict rationing was in place, and the Germans also banned loitering outside the state monopoly alcohol shops. So enterprising Norwegians did their best to be 'just passing' immediately before the store opened, and then all piled in to try to secure some all-important hooch, as can be seen in the before-and-after shots below, taken during the occupation.

05 September 2013

My submission on the Basin Reserve flyover

Tomorrow at 5pm is the deadline for submissions to the Environmental Protection Authority on the NZ Transport Authority's proposed Basin Reserve flyover in Wellington, which will see an elevated motorway wrapped around the northern and northeastern edge of New Zealand's premier test cricket venue. It's a stupid idea, and the half-hearted attempts in the plan to mitigate the effect on the cricket ground will not address the many problems it will create. Aside from that, it's just daft to be building an ugly, graffiti-attracting, city-splitting flyover in the 21st century. Inner cities and motorways do not mix, and there are cleverer ways to move people around cities than just whacking a motorway through the middle of them. 

Anyway, for what it's worth, below is my inexpert and last-minute submission to the EPA. If you want to make your own submission, the form is here. You can read the NZTA's sales pitch here.


Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission. I oppose the planned Basin Reserve flyover for several reasons. 

NZTA should reorient its focus away from destructive road-building that encourages wasteful and unsustainable private car journeys, and instead adopt more cost-effective and environmentally sensitive public transport infrastructure that better serves the city's long-term future. Urban traffic volumes have been trending downwards for more than five years despite ongoing population growth and the recovery after the Global Financial Crisis. Baby boomers will be retiring soon, yet it is their interests that are dominating decision-making on motorway building. Younger generations are driving less and seek stronger public transport to encourage more liveable urban lifestyles. The likelihood of increasing fossil fuel shortages in coming years also indicates that expensive motorway infrastructure is a poor investment in the medium-to-long term. 

The planned flyover damages the architectural heritage of inner Wellington and creates a prominent elevated traffic flow in an area that should be focused on recreational activities. The Wellington Urban Motorway already divides Thorndon and has in recent years following its extension reduced the pedestrian amenity of the upper Cuba quarter. It now splits the inner city with high traffic volumes and speeds, and isolates parts of the vibrant Cuba shopping scene on either side of a noisy and dangerous inner-city motorway. The same mistake should not be made at the Basin. 

The planned flyover is also poorly integrated with the Buckle Street underpass. If a motorway is to intrude into the inner city, an underpass is the least disruptive way to build it. It is foolish to adopt a relatively
environmentally-sensitive approach to the Buckle Street area and then construct a mid-20th century brutalist-style flyover at the underpass' eastern end. No amount of wishful thinking or idealised artists' renditions would prevent the Basin Reserve flyover from becoming a graffiti magnet. If it is built it will make the area even less desirable to pedestrians, particularly at night. The flyover will also block out sunlight to the cricket ground and its northern approaches. 

Finally, the Basin Reserve is a crucial part of Wellington's sporting character, and attempts to blight it with a motorway flyover are both foolish and insensitive. The proposal to create an elevated traffic flyover wrapping closely around the Basin Reserve's northern and northeast boundaries will have a seriously detrimental effect on the amenity and character of New Zealand's best test cricket venue. The supposedly mitigating structure next to the existing stand will not even cover half the length of the flyover, so the vehicle noise from its eastern two-thirds will be clearly audible throughout the ground. Ruining a test cricket ground by making it too noisy to enjoy might be one excuse for closing the Basin Reserve, but it is not a wise or far-sighted decision. Councillors who support the flyover because it nets the Basin a new structure after years of neglect of the facilities are entering into a fool's bargain.

04 September 2013

On the 70th wedding anniversary of Gwen and Claude

My grandparents, Gwen and Claude, were married on this day in 1943, 70 years ago. The ceremony was conducted at a little old stone church, St James in Mangere Bridge, which was built in the 1850s. Both were married in uniform, as was the custom of the day, and because it saved a little money, which was scarce at the time.

Claude was listed as a 26-year-old compositor, but he had spent the past three years serving in the Army overseas, mostly with 5 Field Ambulance of the 2NZEF. He had been lucky to return to New Zealand on furlough, escaping the North African desert and the imminent slog of the Italian campaign, and then he was drawn in the lottery for an honourable discharge from the Army in recognition that it was time for the younger men to serve their time. Three years away was quite enough.

Claude had corresponded with his young sweetheart Gwen while he was in North Africa and the UK, and she is listed on the marriage certificate as a 21-year-old with no profession. This is not quite true, because Gwen had enlisted in the services herself while Claude was away, and worked in Auckland in a variety of roles.

Both Claude and Gwen's parents are also listed: the fathers by their profession (fellmonger and labourer), the mothers by maiden name (McCarthy and Powdrill).

In the following years Gwen and Claude moved from their first home together in Waterview to the state house in Onehunga that would be their permanent home together for over 50 years until Claude's move to the Ranfurly Veterans Home in Mt Roskill several years ago when infirmity and the lack of easy access to the house meant he would be better cared for by professionals. In the Onehunga house, distinguished by its atypical sky-blue paint job, now flaking and worn but still vivid, Gwen and Claude raised their three children.

At first the lack of a fridge meant daily visits to the shops at Tin Tacks Corner to stock up on provisions, which went into the cold safe that is still in use in the kitchen. Later a garage was built (which still bears the mark of an unscheduled Mini collision many years ago), and eventually when I came along a white metre-high chain-link fence was added to the front of the property to stop me running out onto the street. The house became a place for children and grandchildren to visit, and for Gwen and Claude to practice their daily ritual of an early dinner followed by washing and storing away the dishes in plenty of time for the six o'clock news. The ancient Shacklock fridge from the mid-1970s still keeps the milk cool in the kitchen, and the busy patterns of the brown carpet still remind visitors that floor coverings can last for generations if you put your mind to it.

All these reminders that nothing ever seemed to change in the house - apart from the one big upheaval of Claude's removal to his new home at the Ranfurly - disguised the fact that by all accounts Gwen and Claude's marriage was steadily building into an institution that stretched across the best part of a century. When they were wed, the world was still at war against Hitler, New Zealand still had 17 years to wait before it got a television service, and the quickest way from Onehunga to Queen Street was by tram.

And at the weekend the small but moderately vigorous clan gathered in the Ranfurly billiard room to commemorate 25,568 days of marriage. There were children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. There was a message of congratulations from the Queen, which I had applied for some months back, plus additional messages of congratulations from the Governor General, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Internal Affairs, and the local MP, which were added to the mix. The occasion was perhaps a little taxing for the guests of honour, but then they do have a combined age of 187.  

The Governor General Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae included a poem in his card, which I thought was quite commendably literary for an ex-military man. Written by local Wellington author Emanuel E. Garcia, it observes:

Why is it difficult to see that love
Depends not on alacrity but most
On kindness' depth and the compounding trove
Of stored affection to restore its host

Gwen & Claude snapped on Queen St.

03 September 2013

A book is a device to ignite the imagination

From Alan Bennett's sprightly and appealing 2006 novella The Uncommon Reader, in which the Queen discovers her hitherto untapped love of books when she chances upon a mobile library bus in the palace grounds, here's a deft synopsis of the joys of reading from the fictionalised monarch:

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic. Actually she had heard this phrase, the republic of letters, used before, at graduation ceremonies, honorary degrees and the like, though without knowing quite what it meant. At that time talk of a republic of any sort she had thought mildly insulting and in her actual presence tactless to say the least. It was only now she understood what it meant. Books did not defer. All readers were equal, and this took her back to the beginning of her life. As a girl, one of her greatest thrills had been on VE night, when she and her sister had slipped out of the gates and mingled unrecognised with the crowds. There was something of that, she felt, to reading. It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between those covers she could go unrecognised. 
- Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader, London, 2006.
The real monarch's seeming lack of enthusiasm (or perhaps just lack of spare time) for literature is satirised in Peter Morgan's play The Audience, which depicts a royal holiday at Balmoral. The visiting Prime Minister Harold Wilson requests a book to demonstrate his prowess at rote memorisation; Her Majesty is momentarily nonplussed and has to telephone her staff to track one down. When it arrives, the only tome to hand is an old Prussian military text left over from Prince Albert's 19th century visits.

See also:
Books: Lucy Mangan on 2nd-hand bookshops, Guardian, 31 August 2013
Books: Clive James on Dan Brown's 'Inferno', 17 July 2013
Books: 'Il Postino', 14 February 2013
Books: 'The Day of the Locust', 20 October 2012