27 May 2015

Press your space face close to mine, love!

Neil Finn, the rest of Crowded House, Johnny Marr and Connan Mockasin perform David Bowie's Moonage Daydream, at a concert in 2010 celebrating Finn's birthday. Twin-axe solos! And rather fetching carpets too.

Crowded House play Moonage Daydream with Johnny Marr & Connan Mockasin from Crowded House on Vimeo.

[Via Finn's Facebook page]

See also:
Music: Neil Finn, Wellington, 19 September 2014
Music: Pajama Club, Wellington, 3 December 2011
Music: Liam Finn & friends, London, 2 December 2008

23 May 2015

Turns out that Nabokov fellow can actually write

Who would've thought that the celebrated Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), whose Lolita was one of the great English novels of the 20th century, was actually quite a dab hand with a phrase? Everyone who has read him, that's who, and finally I have too. Here's one example, plucked from the mid-section of the book as the ill-starred pair drive the backroads of America:

At night, tall trucks studded with coloured lights, like dreadful giant Christmas trees, loomed in the darkness and thundered by the belated little sedan. And again next day a thinly populated sky, losing its blue to the heat, would melt overhead, and Lo would clamour for a drink, and her cheeks would hollow vigorously over the straw, and the car inside would be a furnace when we got in again, and the road shimmered ahead, with a remote car changing its shape mirage-like in the surface glare, and seeming to hang for a moment, old-fashionedly square and high, in the hot haze. And as we pushed westward, patches of what the garage-man called 'sage brush' appeared, and then the mysterious outlines of table-like hills, and then red bluffs ink-blotted with junipers, and then a mountain range, dun grading into blue, and blue into dream, and the desert would meet us with a steady gale, dust, gray thorn bushes, and hideous bits of tissue paper mimicking pale flowers among the prickles of wind-tortured withered stalks all along the highway; in the middle of which there sometimes stood simple cows, immobilised in a position (tail left, white eyelashes right) cutting across all human rules of traffic.
- Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, 1955

See also:
Books: Frankenstein in the Alps, 3 March 2015
Books: Proust writes an action thriller, 3 January 2015
BooksMark Twain on knowing nothing about NZ, 31 July 2014

22 May 2015

Palmyra 2008

In the news today, word of the apparent fall of the ruins of ancient Palmyra to ISIS forces was another reminder of the potentially devastating consequences for global heritage of the intractable civil strife that has ravaged Syria. Palmyra lies within Syria's borders now, but its origins lie in distant antiquity as a Neolithic settlement and later in the second millennium BC as a caravan stop for desert traders. Under later Roman control in the third century AD it became the home of the fearsome Queen Zenobia, whose rebellion against Rome was ultimately crushed and the city punished cruelly. Until the civil war, Palmyra was one of the highlights of any journey to Syria. Now its future is wholly uncertain.

I visited Palmyra with my friends Jennifer and Andrew in 2008, during our expedition to Syria and Jordan (relevant blogs: part 1part 2 and part 3). We were driven by Abdul, a friendly local man, in his ancient burgundy-coloured Mercedes sedan in a daytrip from the middle Syrian town of Hama. En route on the 200 kilometre seatbelt-less eastward journey we paused to admire Bedouin beehive dwellings and pondered the geographical implications of a highway road sign that proclaimed a turnoff for the Iraqi border that lurked less than 100 kilometres further east. The journey was hugely important, allowing us to spend two and a half hours exploring the superb temple complex and the remains of a lavish colonnaded commercial avenue in the heart and heat of the desert, with the landscape peppered with the rubble of long-gone architecture and sprinkled with the odd camel decked out for tourist rides. Here's a few photographic mementos of that visit on 1 November 2008.

Bedouin dwellingts, eastern Syrian desert


Temple of Bel, Palmyra

Temple of Bel roof carving

Gates to the grand commercial avenue

Camel tout

Gates to the grand commercial avenue

Temple at the far end of the avenue

Camel & Ottoman fort

Palmyra from the Ottoman fort


20 May 2015

Homemade Kindle cover

When I got my Kindle a couple of years ago I was too stingy to pay for the protective wallet cover thing that they tried to add-on at the time, but naturally I did want to keep my new toy safe from scuffs and scratches. The solution was to purchase a hardback school exercise book for a few dollars and to make my own nondescript, low-profile case. And it's performed the task admirably, only suffering a small defeat at the hands of a spilled glass of water - but while the exercise book was water-damaged, it kept the device inside perfectly dry.  All you need to make your own is a book that's thick enough to provide some padding above and below the e-reader, and then you hollow out the centre of the book with a craft knife. Simple! (Although I admit in the image below mine has clearly seen better days.) 

16 May 2015

Dirk Diggler's bid for rock glory

Mainlining the seething unchained spirit of 80s power balladry, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) spends some of his hard-earned riches from the adult video biz on recording studio time to lay down his would-be chart-topper You Got The Touch. In this artistic endeavour he has the assistance of his fellow actor Reed Rothchild (John C Reilly), who boosts morale with some killer dance moves, and a put-upon recording engineer played by singer-songwriter Michael Penn. A glittering pop career surely beckoned for Dirk - industrial-strength cocaine addiction permitting - as seen in these extended and deleted scenes from Boogie Nights.

12 May 2015

Creature comfort goals, they only numb my soul

With its Revolver chords and snappy pace, the Goffin/King-penned Pleasant Valley Sunday may seem an identikit pop template, but the lyrics are guardedly anti-consumerist and the TV spot is an interesting glimpse of life in the Monkees in 1967. Of particular interest is exactly how much interest Mike Nesmith appears to have in proceedings, which is precisely zero - although he does grimace when he plays a duff note near the end. Still, it's by no means a trifling number. The Dolenz vocal is typically polished, and Jones and Tork seem to be enjoying messing about. The single was another Monkees hit, reaching number 3 on the Billboard chart and number 11 in the UK, and it was sandwiched between two properly great Monkees singles: Neil Diamond's A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You, and John Stewart of the Kingston Trio's meaningless but insidiously catchy and therefore world-conquering Daydream Believer.

See also:
Music: The Monkees - You Just May Be The One, 10 September 2013
Music: The Who at Monterey Pop, 31 January 2014
Music: Denmark Street, 18 January 2010

10 May 2015

Ustinov on Spartacus

Following tonight's superb expedition to the Embassy for the screening of Kirk Douglas' 1960 epic Spartacus, here's a typically erudite, witty and insightful interview from Peter Ustinov, talking about his role in the film, how it was made, and working with young director Stanley Kubrick, stars Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, and the obstreperous Charles Laughton ("You're just as good as Burl Ives"), meeting the formerly blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and run-ins with the waspish columnists Hedda Hopper and Jimmie Fidler. Ustinov says that the the scenes between he and Laughton were written by Ustinov himself, to better fit Laughton's style, and that he was credited as 'Stonewall Ustinov' for the work. And there's a small tale about his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the Spartacus role at the end.

09 May 2015

On the surprise UK general election result

So the results are in and a surprise small Conservative majority appears to be the situation. An inquiry is being planned into why the result was so different to the pre-election opinion polls, and why no-one saw it coming. Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have all stepped down as leaders of their respective parties. Russell Brand has admitted that maybe he didn't have all or indeed any of the answers. Here's a few thoughts on the implications of the result.

This was a proportional representation election carried out under a first past the post system. Or to put it another way, the electorate is hugely fragmented and every party is either over-represented or under-represented substantially. This means, as many people have pointed out, that the electoral system that Westminster has clung to is not fit for purpose. Held up by its supporters in the two main parties (who naturally have the most glaring vested interest in advancing their own party's cause) as providing clear majorities for the largest party, I'd argue that despite yesterday's result first past the post has now handed the UK two elections in a row without a workable long-term majority.

The argument is therefore even clearer than before in favour of meaningful electoral reform in the UK to bring in a system of proportional representation. (Even Nigel Farage says so). The risible 2011 referendum on Alternative Vote was never going to deliver proper reform, which is exactly why the Conservatives forced it on their hapless Liberal Democrat coalition partners. Here's what the 2015 election result would have looked like under PR, and what's striking from these projections is that not just some but all of the main parties are receiving representation that is substantially out of whack. This is grossly unfair to voters. Both the Conservatives and Labour are gifted more seats than their support merits, although this effect is far more pronounced for the Conservatives, who received 36.9 percent of the vote but garnered 50.9 percent of the seats in the Commons. The SNP are also substantially over-represented due to their sweeping of the Scottish electorates. Both UKIP and the Greens return only one member, which means that their combined voices of five million British voters are represented by a mere two MPs. It's like the rotten boroughs of old.

The Conservatives, against all predictions, gained seats in 2015 - but this doesn't mean they have a sweeping mandate for continued reform. Their share of the vote increased by half a point over their 2010 result to a total of 36.9 percent - but that is a long way from 50 percent. The hard right will want to use the next parliamentary term to press on with hard-line policies in case they are not returned to office in 2020 (assuming the Conservatives retain the support of a majority of the House for that long). But given the thinness of Conservative support across the UK it would be foolish to adopt a hard-right strategy.

In one sense, Rupert Murdoch was right. Despite being a cartoonishly evil meddling tycoon puppet-master of the far right, Murdoch's tweet that the nearly four million voters who cast their ballots for the anti-Europe, anti-immigration, thinly-veiled racism of UKIP need to be heeded is, sadly, correct. The party has a mere one MP (Douglas Carswell in Clacton) but if the UKIP vote is combined with that of the Conservatives that is an enormous right-of-centre voting bloc. (Some left-of-centre voters do cast their votes for Farage's UKIIP, however). Over the next few years the UK may see a situation akin to the 1993-96 term in New Zealand before the first MMP election, during which members elected under first past the post decided to jump ship to parties that were closer to their own reactionary political views. The pressure will be immense for far-right Conservative backbenchers to defect to UKIP and soak up the love from those four million largely unrepresented voters. The Conservative majority may not last.

With this in mind, David Cameron should consider the New Zealand approach to coalition-building and provide himself a little security by - against all predictions - retaining the coalition with the Lib Dems. The Conservatives might not need those eight extra votes now, but at some point in the next few years they are likely to. And gifting a minor portfolio to the Lib Dems (or, with a spot of wishful thinking, a referendum on proper proportional representation) would be an ideal insurance policy, allowing the public opposition to the Conservative government to be diluted into a broader anti-Coalition sentiment.

Labour, unsurprisingly, elected the wrong leader - and perhaps even the wrong Miliband. The party seems to have been in denial about what was needed to win a popular vote. The polls suggesting a dead heat between the Conservatives and Labour may not have been 'wrong'; as in New Zealand in 1993, there may have been a concerted shift in public opinion right at the last minute, as voters questioned whether they felt Ed Miliband could actually pull off the job of being Prime Minister. And the Crosby Textor approach of polling for weak spots (i.e. the supposed dangers of a Labour-SNP coalition) and then relentlessly targeting them seems to have worked a treat in the electorate battles that mattered.

The SNP now have an African National Congress-like vicehold grip on the Scottish seats at Westminster. The question remains is how it will respond to the challenge of almost unfettered authority for the voices of Scottish voters in a Westminster system dominated by an English Conservative party government. By 2020 we may well be asking: will David Cameron be the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom?

In a related problem, a new colonialism is operating in the UK. There is only one Scottish Conservative MP in the government caucus - one MP speaking for 5.3 million Scots. Also, the UK is now governed by a party with huge ties to provincial England but almost none to inner-city Britain, where some of the biggest problems the nation faces are playing out.

After all that drama, don't worry if the election result gets you down: the Guardian has concocted a wonderfully desperate list of nine things to be cheerful about, including the fact that Nigel Farage didn't manage to win Thanet South (and was photographed next to delighted comedian Al Murray when the result was announced), and the silver lining that the utter plonker George Galloway isn't an MP anymore.

08 May 2015

Win or lose, at the end of the day it was a game of two halves

So I still don't know exactly where Reporoa is, but after seeing this well-made New Zealand documentary by Christopher Pryor and Miriam Smith following its rugby team through an entire season in the rural league, I learned that farming looks like bloody hard work, farmers swear like absolute tartars even in front of little children, and by Christ they don't half drink enormous amounts of piss.

Seriously though, this is a marvelous glimpse inside the life of a group of amateurs who play, bond, drink, boast and crack wise without the camera ever seeming to be intrusive. The crisp black and white photography is sumptuously beautiful as it lingers on dawn fields wreathed in mist, the backs running their passing drills under floodlights, or a young buck dejected at a clubroom spurning by a rural femme fatale. The relationship formed by the filmmakers allowed them the closest possible access to their subjects, and the filming never felt intrusive. And by the end, jaded city folk might even come away thinking that farmers are almost human!

06 May 2015

Expedition to Cape Palliser

Cape Palliser lighthouse
A month or so ago I took a daytrip to the Wairarapa to catch up with a Carterton pal, and we went on an expedition to the south coast for my first visit to Lake Ferry and Cape Palliser. This was an excellent opportunity to test the new car, but also filled a gap in my knowledge of the Wellington region. And as predicted, it was a grand day out.

After the drive south from Featherston, skirting the eastern shores of Lake Wairarapa but not actually spotting it, the road passes through tiny Pirinoa, home of the area's tiny primary school and a general store, before ending up at the seaside holiday retreat of Lake Ferry itself on the shore of Lake Onoke and overlooking Cook Strait.

There's been a European settlement here for 165 years, with the titular ferry service established early in the region's European settlement to assist the growth of the Wairarapa economy. Back then the Rimutakas were almost impenetrable to travellers, so farmers seeking new pastures in the Wairarapa would take their herds along the south coast trail from Wellington around to the foot of Lake Onoke.

A history of the area records the formation of the ferry service that earned the hamlet its name:

The jury at the inquest into the drowning of Donald and John Drummond when crossing the lake in July 1850, made a strong recommendation that a ferry manned by Europeans be provided at the outlet as well as at the other river crossings in the region. The first applicant was well-known Te Kopi trader Nicholas Carey who in August formally applied 'to establish a ferry at the Lake. Memorialist has a Boat already there and is able at once to give safe conveyance to Passengers'. Henry St Hill in his report said that Carey had been trading to and from the Wairarapa 'for a long time past' and was a steady well-behaved man. He proposed that the licence, which was supported also by Colonel McCleverty and Henry Petre, be granted free for the first year. Although it was approved and issued it is doubtful whether Carey actually took it up for in March 1851, six months later, Purvis Russell wrote at length on behalf of himself and other signatories including his brother Henry, Vallance, Tully, Hume and Riddiford: 'The Settlers in this District have, in order to remove the extremely hazardous & dangerous passage by means of Canoes across the Lake, obtained for the annual payment of twelve pounds the right of ferry & have in pursuance of that object appointed a respectable & competent party in charge of a boat at the Lake but as the charges arising from the ferry are insufficient of themselves to maintain the ferryman we have now humbly to petition that your Excellency shall be pleased to recommend the issue of a Licence in favour of William Ardley the present ferryman...' Domett's minute probably implies the reason for Carey's earlier failure: 'Captain Smith has seen me on the subject and assures me that the arrangement is completely settled with the natives...' The Maoris had doubtless objected to any innovation which did not have their prior blessing. The licence was issued.
- A.G. Bagnall, Wairarapa, an Historical Excursion, Hedley's, Masterton, 1976, p.115.
The current Lake Ferry Hotel is now a rambling, low-rise affair that offers an ideal lunching spot. Inside among a collection of vintage photography of the area you can still see the old ferry tariff board that was once nailed next to the hotel's front door, advertising the rates of travel.

Lake Ferry looking south towards the bar

Next stop after lunch was the journey to Cape Palliser itself, which is nearly 40 kilometres from Lake Ferry along the winding coastal route.

En route to Cape Palliser
There wasn't time for a detour to the spectacular Putangirua Pinnacles inland - next time, definitely - but there was the opportunity to pause for a look at the isolated fishing settlement of Ngawi, to admire the fishing vessels perched up on the stony shore and the hard-working tractors that pull each boat trailer up to safety. I'd never even heard of Ngawi, but it struck me as an interesting place - on the day of our visit it was idyllic but in rough weather it must be highly exposed to the elements, and the locals must have a rugged time of it going out to fish.

Ngawi fishing boat

Further on, the well-populated seal colony just before the Cape Palliser lighthouse is a marvellous opportunity to observe a community onshore. Family groups were perched around the craggy rocks, sunning and snoozing, uttering an occasional gruff bark. Unfortunately our visit was marred by annoyance at a party of young South Africans (perhaps a church party), the males of which clambered over rocks attempting to pat the young seal pups as if they were household pets, despite warning them not to approach closer than 10 metres.

Cape Palliser seal colony

The final stop on the expedition was the candy-striped Cape Palliser lighthouse itself, which sits on an outcrop overlooking the exposed coast at the southernmost point of the North Island. This part of the island features in one of the earliest European visits to New Zealand:

By February 1770 Captain James Cook had been four months in New Zealand waters and before refitting in Queen Charlotte Sound had practically circumnavigated the North Island. His first examination of the Wairarapa coast was incidental to his proving to sceptical officers that Cook Strait was in fact a passage between two islands one of which they had by then nearly encompassed. On February 7th the Endeavour cleared the Sound and stood away to the eastward. Cook saw ahead that the land 'ends in a point and is the southernmost land of Aeheinomouwe which I have named Cape Palliser in honour of my worthy friend Capt Palliser'.
- Bagnall, p.16.
The lighthouse was opened in October 1897 and was operated by a lighthouse keeper until automation in 1986. For a city dweller it really does feel like the end of the earth!
The lighthouse from the west

South coast from the Cape Palliser lighthouse

01 May 2015

Ed Byrne

Ed Byrne - Roaring Forties
Hannah Playhouse
30 April 2015

Last night at the Hannah Playhouse (formerly Downstage), Irish comedian Ed Byrne harked back to his first gigs in Wellington way back in 1997... at Downstage. No-one was complaining about the proficiency and charm Byrne brings to his well-honed standup routine, even if he joked that he had reached his peak back in the late 20th century. (His famous Alanis Morissette-baiting routine on irony was an early highlight). Now 43, Byrne's material focuses on disgraceful middle-agedness, but without the dreary predictability that might suggest. He still takes a wry glee in juvenile idiocy, such as the sure-fire lady-repellent that is air guitar solos, and offers a deftly-told account of being forced to attend a four hour driving awareness course with a didactic instructor whose po-faced delivery demanded the silliest possible answers, despite the growing annoyance of his fellow classmates. Now with two children, Byrne's recounting of the effects of child-rearing on friendships and social lives also appealed: 'I have all these new friends just because their children know my children, and I don't have time to see the friends I actually like!' Two highlights of the set were clever pieces on his recent hernia (caused by lifting a semi-full compost bin) and the resulting surgery, and a marvelous retelling of a visit he and his wife took to an NHS doctor to discuss a vasectomy, which was full of bleak self-deprecating humour.

Throughout the gig an added dynamic was the presence of two young local women taking turns to perch at the edge of the stage and translate Byrne's material into sign language. They did a sterling job, but at one point as the material got rather 'boisterous' in discussing matters sexual and you had to feel sorry for them. (But at least we now know the sign language for 'erection'). Ever the gentleman, Byrne did pause to muse whether making them translate his comedy was in effect a form of sexual harassment. That, and the banter with a lady audience member who explained that her own hernia was brought on by being 'fat and pregnant', made for a highly appealing night of professional comedy in Wellington. Now all the capital would like, if you don't mind, is for Byrne to convince his mate Dara O'Briain to tour New Zealand too!

See also:
ComedyEddie Izzard, 15 February 2015
ComedyBill Bailey, 3 November 2014
ComedyJosie Long, 6 May 2013
ComedyDavid O'Doherty, 5 May 2012
Comedy: Ed Byrne / Steve Coogan, 17 May 2009