26 October 2012

Bird on a wire

The latest instalment in my Highbury kaka-spotting comes from Labour Day last week, when I snapped an inquisitive fellow posing atop the washing line upstairs at dusk, hoping for a treat. As you can see, he has plenty of parrot bling, with multiple identification bands around his ankles. (Do parrots have ankles?) He's also sporting a fine flush of red feathers to impress the lady kakas; that's apparently how you tell kakas apart from keas - the former has red feathers, the latter green, and keas are larger.

See also:
Photos: Kaka country, 4 October 2012
Photos: Kaka acrobatics, 17 December 2011

25 October 2012

Violante, Chlorophyll and Treacle

Devil. Whale. Chlorophyll, Violante, Treacle -- you name it, Hong Kong probably has someone who goes by it. The former British colony is obsessed with weird English names.

Unusual appellations have been found on people of all kinds. The secretary for justice is Rimsky Yuen and the previous secretary for food and health was York Chow. Among celebrities, there is a Fanny Sit, Moses Chan, and Dodo Cheng. Models? We have a Vibeke, Bambi, Dada, and Vonnie. But lawyers take the prize. There is a Magnum, John Baptist, Ludwig, Ignatius, Bunny and four -- yes, four -- Benedicts.

Odd names make for odder situations. Last July, police arrested a woman named Ice Wong with 460 grams of ice -- the drug, not frozen water. Months earlier, the law caught up with Devil Law when he was brought before a judge for drug possession and crashing his car into a bus. In 2010, a woman called Cash Leung was jailed for paying cabbies with fake cash [...]

The practice goes back to colonial times. "There was a period when it seemed desirable or prestigious to have an English name," said Stephen Matthews, an associate professor of the linguistics department at the University of Hong Kong's school of humanities. "Businessmen would take on English names as a mark of sophistication or to show they did business with foreigners."

In school, it was easier for English-speaking teachers to remember students' English names than their Chinese ones, Matthews said. And, as Li notes in a 1997 paper, addressing students by their English names was one way to encourage their interest in the language.

Li writes that English first names served as a "lubricant" to speed up the process of getting acquainted. Chinese forms of address, which are either very formal or overly familiar, do not favor quick rapport-building between strangers [...]

Matthews estimates that 90 percent of the institution's female and 65 percent of its male students have English first names.

As for the unconventional names, he said they initially arose in part due to an "incomplete knowledge" of the English language. Hong Kongers might have not appreciated the connotation of the name Kinky, for example. Februar might have been a misspelling or the result of someone over-generalizing the use of the names of the months like April, May or June, or both.

Over time, however, people have stopped questioning whether such variations are real names and accepted them. "It started as an inadequate knowledge of English, but if you see an unusual name today, it's because [Hong Kongers] are taking charge of their own language, not because their language abilities are not good," Matthews said. "People feel they can do what they want with English. If you tell Decemb or Februar that theirs are not English names, they'll say, 'I don't care, it belongs to me.' In a way, they're asserting their Hong Kong identity... [The English language in Hong Kong] is no longer a symbol of British influence, but part of people's identity."

- Joyce Man, Hong Kong Loves Weird English Names, The Atlantic, 1 October 2012

See also:
Travel: A foreign devil in Macau
Travel: Anticipating the auspicious pig

24 October 2012

A conservatorium unique in the world's institutions

In the past few weekends I've explored the northern end of the Titahi Bay peninsula a couple of times, and on my first visit I came across the old Transmission Station atop the hill. Normally I'd provide a historical backgrounder on a building like this, but the Porirua City Council have done an excellent job of that on their website, which reveals the building was completed in 1937. Initially the facility and its adjacent transmission tower (see below) were designed to replace an older building on Mt Victoria and broadcast just to the Wellington region, but went on to become the designated site for broadcasting to the whole country in the event of a national emergency.

The opening ceremony for the 60kw 2YA transmitter on 25 January 1937 was attended by the Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, who also held the portfolio of Minister of Broadcasting. The first Director of Broadcasting, Prof James Shelley, took the opportunity of the opening to announce plans to construct a new national centre for broadcasting in Wellington. The Evening Post reported his speech in the following day's edition

The Government has ... decided to replace the present inadequate and temporary headquarters and studios in Wellington by a great broadcasting centre, which shall embody in it a national conservatorium for music and the spoken arts. It is anticipated that this institution will become the cultural centre of the Dominion for these arts, working in intimate relation with the artists in other centres, coordinating and organising whatever talent the Dominion may possess... We are not content with a poor standard on the football field and we should not be content with a poor standard in music and drama. We are assured by famous visitors from overseas that the talent is here, it needs stimulation, higher teaching, and organisation. Only broadcasting has the power to do this for New Zealand, and this the Government has recognised, hence the decision to establish this great broadcasting centre and conservatorium, which will be unique in the world's institutions... The congested conditions of the premises at headquarters at present make such developments impossible; the building of this broadcasting centre will therefore be proceeded with immediately, for it will probably take eighteen months to two years to build. It is of little use having such a powerful instrument as the new 60-kilowatt station at our disposal unless we ensure the necessary development of talent to be transmitted by it.

The Transmission Station, estd. 1937
Twin masts crest
The National Broadcasting Service operated from 1936-62,
when it was renamed the NZ Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC)

The adjacent 212 metre tall Titahi Bay Transmitter is visible across much of the Wellington region. It's the second highest structure in New Zealand after the Sky Tower in Auckland. The original mast was replaced in 1979 and refurbished again in 2004. It now broadcasts AM feeds for Radio New Zealand, Parliamentary broadcasts, Newstalk ZB, an iwi radio station, and Access Radio. 

Support wires on the transmitter mast
The current transmitter mast

James Shelley in 1931 (via DNZB)
The main change brought about by the opening of the Titahi Bay installation in 1937 was that radio broadcasts of Parliamentary proceedings, which had commenced the previous year (1936), were now able to be heard over much of New Zealand. After many delays, Professor Shelley's plans for a national conservatorium were scaled back drastically: according to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography 'Shelley laboured for years to see new headquarters constructed for the National Broadcasting Service; they would contain a conservatorium to train musicians and actors. Foundations were dug but the project was then abandoned'. Shelley would have more success in other areas: he founded the New Zealand Listener magazine and was a key instigator of what later became the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; he was also heavily involved in the planning for the 1940 Centennial celebrations

A remnant of Shelley's grand scheme eventually saw the light two years after his death in 1961: the unassuming but much-loved Broadcasting House in Bowen Street, which was finally completed in 1963 and (in)famously demolished in 1997 to make way for grand refurbishments in the Parliamentary precinct that never got off the ground.

22 October 2012

Saving appearances

I'm not so ill-tempered to suggest that recent reports that TVNZ spent almost $1.3 million on hair, makeup and outfits for its stars over the last three years has completely lost its moral compass and is engaged in a shameless circle of wasteful extravagance and pointless celebrity objectification. After all, television is an intensely visual medium requiring a certain amount of personal grooming for those who appear on our screens to avoid undermining whatever credibility they might possess. And the studio lighting can certainly play havoc with your skin tones, as I encountered first hand during my brief sojourn into the world of TV appearances in the 1990s, which happened to coincide with my long era of famously unruly skin. At least I didn't have to worry about the perils of modern HD broadcasting, which would have taxed the skills of the makeup artists to breaking point.

But I don't think it's outrageous to dial it back a bit and suggest that TVNZ's spending in this area is wasteful. No realistic viewer expects the nattering talking heads depicted on our screens to be clad in a different outfit every single day, like the Queen or Victoria Beckham. The quality of factual broadcasting should derive from the content, not the packaging - but of course that's not how TVNZ sees it. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that superficial visual appeal plays a major role in everything TVNZ does, and there's definitely a gender-based discrimination at work there too. After all, how many game and comely young lasses does TVNZ put onscreen, and why are they all required to have Jennifer Aniston's big flicky hair from Friends in the '90s?

The Herald article indicates that TVNZ spent $1,288,229 on hair, makeup and clothing over the past three years, which is over $400,000 per year. We could argue about the appropriate bare minimum level of spending in this area, and I'm not about to claim that there should be no spending of this type whatsoever, but to add a sense of perspective to TVNZ's spending priorities it's worth remembering that for the same amount of money TVNZ could have hired 14 graduate journalists at a starting salary of $30,000 as listed by Careers NZ. Would viewers really suffer if the journalists on their screens didn't wear designer clothes or have professionally-done hair and makeup? Or by the looks of this NZ On Air report, the same amount of money could have been used to fund three extra additional hours of NZ-made documentaries, which is certainly something that we need far better access to. 

20 October 2012

Homer Simpson's first appearance

When Faye wasn't at Central Casting, she took [her father Harry] around on his peddling trips in her Model T Ford. It was on her last expedition together that he had fallen sick.

It was on this trip that Faye acquired a new suitor by the name of Homer Simpson. About a week after Harry had taken to his bed, Tod met Homer for the first time. He was keeping the old man company when their conversation was interrupted by a light knock on the apartment door. Tod answered it and found a man standing in the hall with flowers for Faye and a bottle of port wine for her father.

Tod examined him eagerly. He didn't mean to be rude but at first glance this man seemed an exact model for the kind of person who comes to California to die, perfect in every detail down to fever eyes and unruly hands.

"My name is Homer Simpson," the man gasped, then shifted uneasily and patted his perfectly dry forehead with a folded handkerchief.

"Won't you come in?" Tod asked.

He shook his head heavily and thrust the wine and flowers at Tod. Before Tod could say anything, he had lumbered off.

Tod saw that he was mistaken. Homer Simpson was only physically the type. The men he meant were not shy.

He took the gifts in to Harry, who didn't seem at all surprised. He said Homer was one of his grateful customers.

"That Miracle Polish of mine sure does fetch 'em." ...

Tod was right about one thing at least. Like most of the people he was interested in, Homer was a Middle-Westerner. He came from a little town near Des Moines, Iowa, called Wayneville, where he had worked for twenty years in a hotel.

One day, while sitting in the park in the rain, he had caught cold and his cold developed into pneumonia. When he came out of the hospital, he found that the hotel had hired a new bookkeeper. They offered to take him on again, but his doctor advised him to go to California for a rest. The doctor had an authoritative manner, so Homer left Wayneville for the Coast.

- Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust, 1939.

[West's short novel, his last he published before his early death at age 37 in a California car crash, features the harmless dupe Simpson, who is enamoured of the vivacious young movie extra Faye Greener and uses his life savings to bankroll her dreams of movie stardom. Around the time The Day of the Locust came out, West and his colleague Francis Iles were contracted to RKO Radio Pictures and produced a script that was eventually rejected for Alfred Hitchcock's 1941 movie Suspicion, featuring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. It is rumoured that West's car crash was caused by his grief at the death of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald the day before].

18 October 2012

Steve Waugh's holy handkerchief

For all its bluff and sandpapery qualities Australia can also be a terribly sentimental place, not least when contemplating an image of itself that seems to entwine with the finer cricketing qualities: a green-tinged notion of Australian grace and Australian youthfulness, present in reverence for its cricketing cathedrals, the seasonal rhythms of its Test schedule, and of course the recent and terribly sombre cult of the baggy green cap. Only the most tearfully self-mythologising of cricketing nations could, in all seriousness, enshrine a shred of Steve Waugh's red snot-rag in its cricket museum within, not 100, or 150 years, but two years of his retirement. Let us congregate now over these minor soilings, this recently crystallised mucus, as though He were still with us now bestriding our fair land. Oh. Sorry, Steve. Didn't see you standing there.

- Barney Ronay, 'The Spin', Guardian, 16 October 2012

17 October 2012

Recently Minister did I mention Das Reich?

Question 8 from Jacinda Ardern to the Minister for Social Development, Hon Paula Bennett, in the House today, 17 October 2012, as transcribed by Youtube's automatic captioning service, which struggles to cope with the New Zealand accent:

Jacinda Ardern: Thank you see my question: is the Minister of such a developed in the past one hundred delegates were identified in the report repeat by turning chinta asap on the security of the weekend, and have you all to see your hope all of them if they can't be done in two thousand reports?

Hon Paula Bennett: Candidacy with electro neatly situation we buy the kiosk we can eat it directly to the emu stinging week, meaning that seems a bit documents we receive support from the kiosks, and this reports that it will be his Christian. Was this issue would resist in and the problems faxed, and given the situation in a land that it's clear that they were not, and this is why the chief executive in ninety-eight decide its release this information publicly Easter day and then in effect be upfront upon us a couple korechi dealing with.

Jacinda Ardern: To achieve received any purports either brutal all restaurant on vulnerabilities within in Macy's systems at the time ever with committee on local business is speaking on?

Hon Paula Bennett: ['Mr Speaker, no.' - the transcription missed this bit]

Jacinda Ardern: What did you hear the monitoring October all lost out of hearing you automated systems involved given this is what she undertook she withdrew in two thousand and nine me on a book called "Let's Take a Bit More"?

Hon Paula Bennett: Training off by sisters was more than just the kiosk six link if you can see that - got my accounts we people can now take CC rowing information online coming in about twelve percent previous commentary, and they come into the chaos out - these are the victims US-Cuban Arafat blackrock - outside what we've got now as we head because ABN has had a hard copy kiowa online more than just about the chaos it was that arrangement for myself... uh... I was advised the Minister that we would be looking at how quickly that has rolled out and and what the cost is and that's exactly what we've done.  

Jacinda Ardern: [Point of order] When one of the suspense and one of our hearts very specific in my Christian narrowed walks at the monetary exactly in Thailand... uh... I would've liked to Minister to address the success of prostate cancer.

Mr Speaker: Odd, but I think the Ministers the member's questioning is in fact serious, and Andy sees these appropriate question.  I think it should be treated with more respect by the member's colleagues. Member's colleagues sorted to interject in the Minister responded to those objections on Bockman asked Minister to ignore all of that give the precise answer.  [Interjection]  Now the member motors company that. Sure what places member thinks marble from our principle it is a purple - I'm not going to underclassmen, believe I don't want to give the member dignity. We just want to know how trials which I think that it's too soon to din supplement a Christian.

Jacinda Ardern: Cases to stick it in time ancient asap content in the city theke recruit chief executives find that they had not reported on part of the ladies and the system, or did someone within the city cheek the report?

Hon Paula Bennett: Beyond the borders and Mr Speaker and then I see so the report on Monday night at eight o'clock and at keeping say NATO idea was that after one o'clock we we we've done the priests at conference, the single track team chins it without a doubt ticket prices particularly actually find which has done an excellent written at a press release to the one I think.

Mr Speaker: Point of religious views.

Jacinda Ardern: Mike my Christmas specifically who identified data reported found among abilities but that was not reforming American Christian just driven. Recently Minister did I mention Das Reich on taking the stage to curry the chief executive's climb that they had not reported on partner abilities in the system, or did someone within the state programs sheik reports?

Hon Paula Bennett: The complementary nine only - it wasn't a phone call from dot attempted to make sure that I don't know yet - United Bank! - and that is I say this peaceful to my attention: big night!  And Indians consequence we put out the next morning just driven...

[To see the autocaptions, click the left-most button at the bottom right of the Youtube screen]

16 October 2012

Yossarian's liver

Yossarian ran right into the hospital, determined to remain there forever rather than fly one mission more than the thirty-two missions he had. Ten days after he changed his mind and came out, the colonel raised the missions to forty-five and Yossarian ran right back in, determined to remain in the hospital forever rather than fly one mission more than the six missions more he had just flown.

Yossarian could run into the hospital whenever he wanted to because of his liver and because of his eyes; the doctors couldn't fix his liver condition and couldn't meet his eyes each time he told them he had a liver condition. He could enjoy himself in the hospital, just as long as there was no one really very sick in the same ward. His system was sturdy enough to survive a case of someone else's malaria or influenza with scarcely any discomfort at all. He could come through other people's tonsillectomies without suffering any postoperative distress, and even endure their hernias and haemorrhoids with only mild nausea and revulsion. But that was just about as much as he could go through without getting sick. After that he was ready to bolt. He could relax in the hospital, since no one there expected him to do anything. All he was expected to do in hospital was die or get better, and since he was perfectly all right to begin with, getting better was easy.

Being in the hospital was better than being over Bologna or flying over Avignon with Huple and Dobbs at the controls and Snowden dying in back.

- Joseph Heller, Catch-22, New York, 1961

[Since everyone always quotes the famous passage early on in Catch-22 in which the title is explained, I thought I'd quote a completely different passage, in this case being a description of Yossarian's campaign to cheat fate by inventing medical complaints to keep himself grounded. But just in case you're unfamiliar with the concept of Catch-22 - surely one of the most memorable and important comic novels of the 20th century - here's a trailer from the 1970 film version in which Doc explains the catch to Yossarian (Alan Arkin). But you really should read the book - it's tremendous from Chapter 1] 

14 October 2012

Two Little Boys

In Two Little Boys Robert and Duncan Sarkies have produced a professional, unpredictable black comedy that draws on three strong lead performances from Bret McKenzie, Australian comedian Hamish Blake and local Maaka Pohatu, that adds plentiful helpings of the rugged and isolated Catlins scenery to an examination of male camaraderie under duress. The quality of the performances was impressive - I knew McKenzie could carry a role, but Blake and newcomer Pohatu were also very likeable onscreen.

Set in Invercargill in 1993, this is the tale of a cover-up that ensues when mulleted dullard Nige (McKenzie) accidentally runs over a Norwegian backpacker. Nige's life-long best mate Deano (Blake) steps in to take charge of the pleasingly inept cover-up process, only to have matters complicated by the arrival of Nige's new mate Gav (Pohatu), a laid-back, philosophical chap whose innate optimism and sunny disposition threatens to undermine both the cover-up and the long-standing relationship between Nige and Deano. Two Little Boys is solid work and shows Blake certainly has the talent to further grow his acting career. It might struggle in America with its plentiful (and amusing) swearing - one scene consists of an argument conducted almost solely through the use of the f-word - but I found that aspect both authentic and appealing. And I think we can all agree that y-fronts are just inherently humorous, no matter what the situation.

I also enjoyed the helicopter shots of Gav's ancient Bedford van and Nige's rooty old bumblebee-coloured Laser barrelling through Catlins curves to the sound of Blam Blam Blam's 'There Is No Depression in New Zealand', particularly given the fact that the previous scene had established that someone was cross with Deano for pinching the entire 'B' section of their CD collection. The film's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' moment is the three lads enjoying The Swingers' 'Counting The Beat', which works well because it is of course a catchy classic number, but also because it was by a New Zealand group and had topped the pop charts in both New Zealand and Australia back in 1981, thereby tying into the film's ambitions of targeting the trans-Tasman market. (The film is released in Australia on 15 November).

My only suggestion is that Deano and Nige's bogan roots weren't explicitly addressed in the soundtrack. Seeing as the film was set in 1993, I wondered if an airing for the cartoon hair metal of Push Push's 'Trippin' might have been in order. Sure, it would mean nothing to Australian listeners, and perhaps Push Push were 'too Auckland' for proper southern blokes - but it would have been bloody funny. And no doubt Mikey Havoc could do with the royalties.

Note: trailer NSFW (swearing)

13 October 2012

We elevate people to the status of heroes in order to let ourselves off the hook

Let me get one thing straight: I love the Beatles. I haven't named any kids after them but I still really love them. They were the first group that I was ever properly aware of. In my early teens I would sometimes stay in and listen to the radio all day in the hope that I would catch a song by them that I'd never heard before and be able to tape it on my radio-cassette player. When I bought a new turntable last week, I took along my copy of Abbey Road to do a listening test. It was essential to me that that record would sound good on whatever I bought. But the whole point of the Beatles is that they were ordinary. Four working-class boys from Liverpool who showed that not only could they create art that stood comparison with that produced by "the establishment" – they could create art that pissed all over it. From the ranks of the supposedly uncouth, unwashed barbarians came the greatest creative force of the 20th century. It wasn't meant to be that way. It wasn't officially sanctioned. But it happened – and that gave countless others from similar backgrounds the nerve to try it themselves. Their effect on music and society at large is incalculable. I am so the target-audience for this book that it hurts – but something feels wrong.
Britpop (I can scarcely believe that I typed that word of my own free will) perhaps comes in useful for once at this point. People of my generation felt this obscure pang – this feeling that we'd somehow missed out on something amazing. So we tried to make it happen again – but exactly the same. You cannot do a karaoke version of a social revolution (good fun trying though). What changed in the interim? Why was Br**pop doomed to failure? Too many factors to go into here, but one was: too much information. Too much reverence. Wearing the same clothes and taking the same drugs will not make us into Beatles. It will make us fat and ill. And books like this (along with many others, I admit) are what make that mistake possible. The Beatles didn't know they were the Beatles. The Beatles didn't have a plan or a blueprint to follow. They followed their impulses and vague hunches and somehow left a legacy of 213 songs with scarcely a dud among them. That's all the information you need, really. But now that relatively modest body of work has been overshadowed by all the "previously unseen" and "the making-of" nonsense that becomes necessary if you want to flog people the same thing year after year.
We elevate people to the status of heroes in order to let ourselves off the hook: "I'm just a mere mortal – I could never even dream of doing something like that." Lennon himself always seemed at pains to deflate any such high opinions of himself: what he would make of this book, I can only guess. The letters show an ordinary human being doing ordinary things: writing lists, sending postcards, enquiring after relatives. Why is that interesting? Because that person has now achieved demigod status. Is that a good thing? I dunno – good singer, though. Pretty good songwriter too, as it goes …
- Jarvis Cocker reviews Hunter Davies' The John Lennon Letters, Guardian, 10 October 2012
(Neil McCormick's review of the book in the Guardian Bookshop link above concludes: 'What do we really learn about Lennon from nearly 400 pages of annotated private correspondence? Well, he couldn’t spell. He liked to doodle. And he had way too much spare time on his hands.')

12 October 2012

The bleakest day in New Zealand's history

Today is the 95th anniversary of the first day of the Passchendaele offensive on the Western Front. It's also the 95th anniversary of the death of Eric Claude Tucker, my grandfather's uncle. I visited Tyne Cot cemetery with friends in 2007, which is where Eric's name is memorialised, along with hundreds of other New Zealanders and allied soldiers who died nearby in the murderous machinegun-ridden Belgian meadows. A couple of years later I researched Eric's war history, and discovered that he didn't have an easy time in the Army, having chafed until the strict military discipline and being punished for various absences without leave and insubordination. Four days after returning from leave in England he died, aged only 27, on 12 October 1917, somewhere near Passchendaele - one of the more than 2700 New Zealand casualties on that single day. The country had a population of only around a million at the time. Though it is little remembered today, 12 October 1917 must surely be the bleakest day in New Zealand's recorded history.

09 October 2012

Under a fire that seemed pouring from all sides

The Duberlys & Bob (the horse)
Crimea, 1855, by Roger Fenton
Christine Kelly's 2007 second edition of the Crimean War diaries of Frances Duberly (1829-1903), Mrs Duberly's War, is a valuable insight into the bitterly-fought campaign between France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire against Tsarist Russia. When it was first published in 1855 Mrs Duberly's journals were immediately lapped up by the British reading public, which was eager for first-hand accounts of the war. This was in part due to the obscure geographical setting that was unfamiliar to British readers, but also because of the wide-ranging controversies that emerged from the conduct of the war, with the British military's poor organisation and inadequate tactical ability causing much loss of life and prolonging the conflict unnecessarily. It was probably also the first major war to be waged under the inquiring eye of the press and press photographers, with the Times correspondent William Howard Russell becoming the first 'celebrity' war correspondent and helping to influence public opinion in Britain. Indeed, the bad news coming from the Crimea ultimately brought down the British government, with the Aberdeen ministry eventually resigning in February 1855 over the shoddy conduct of the war. The news reports also helped to cement the reputation of the nurse Florence Nightingale as a saviour of the troops and in turn revolutionised the nature of military medicine. (Aside from inventing modern nursing as we know it, Nightingale also invented the pie chart!)

Mrs Duberly wasn't a nurse and didn't meet Nightingale in the Crimea. But this seemingly horse-mad woman in her mid-twenties was far braver than most of her English female compatriots, in that her presence accompanying her paymaster husband Henry, who managed the funds for the 8th Royal Irish Hussars, was a considerable rarity in the Crimea. Fanny was the only British woman at the front lines. She wanted to share her husband's fate and make his military life somewhat more comfortable. She also craved her own fair share of adventure: in several places in her journal Fanny expresses a fervent wish that she had been born a man so she could go to war properly.

Her journal, accentuated by extracts from her personal correspondence, is a vivid glimpse into the drawn-out Crimean campaign, exposing the British Army's shoddy logistics, cruelly disinterested leadership and the privations endured by thousands in the bitterly cold Crimean winters and in the blasting heat of summer. She provides eye witness accounts of some of the war's most well-known moments, including the Battle of Balaklava, in which the tragic Charge of the Light Brigade occurred, which was later made famous by Tennyson's poetry and entered the folklore of Victorian military endeavour. Here, in the entry for 25 October 1854, Fanny describes her view of the battle and its famous conclusion:

The 93rd and 42nd were drawn up on an eminence before the village of Balaklava. Our Cavalry were all retiring when I arrived, to take up position in rear of their own lines.
Looking on the crest of the nearest hill, I saw it covered with running Turks, pursued by mounted Cossacks, who were all making straight for where I stood, superintending the striking of our tent and the packing of our valuables.
Henry flung me on the old horse; and seizing a pair of laden saddle-bags, a great coat, and a few other loose packages, I made the best of my way over a ditch into a vineyard, and awaited the event ... Presently came the Russian Cavalry charging, over the hill-side and across the valley, right against the little line of Highlanders. Ah, what a moment! Charging and surging onward, what could that little wall of men do against such numbers and such speed? There they stood. Sir Colin [Campbell] did not even form them into a square. They waited until the horsemen were within range, and then poured a volley which for a moment hid everything in smoke. The Scots Greys and Inniskillens then left the ranks of our Cavalry, and charged with all their weight and force upon them, cutting and hewing right and left.
Not a man stirred, they stood like rocks till the Russian horses came within about thirty yards - Then one terrific volley - a sudden wheel - a piece of ground strewed with men and horses - when the Scots Gs & Royals bounding from the ranks dashed with their heavy horses on the mounted foe & hewed them down. Ten minutes more and not a live Russian was seen on that side of the hill...
A few minutes - moments as it seemed to me - and all that occupied that lately crowded spot were men and horses, lying strewn upon the ground. One poor horse galloped up to where we stood; a round shot had taken him in the haunch, and a gaping wound it made. Another, struck by a shell in the nostrils, staggered feebly up to [Fanny's beloved horse] Bob, suffocating from inability to breathe. He soon fell down. About this time reinforcements of Infantry, French Cavalry, and Infantry and Artillery, came down from the front, and proceeded to form in the valley on the other side of the hill over which the Russian Cavalry had come.
Such a goodly army as they were lying beneath us in the sunshine - with the Russian force half hidden behind the hill. Some wounded French soldiers came to us - Henry helped one poor fellow from his horse who was shot in the arm and another thro the thigh.
Now came the disaster of the day - our glorious and fatal charge. But so sick at heart am I that I can barely write of it even now. It has become a matter of world history, deeply as at the time it was involved in mystery. I only know that I saw Captain Nolan galloping; that presently the Light Brigade, leaving their position, advanced by themselves, although in the face of the whole Russian force, and under a fire that seemed pouring from all sides, as though every bush was a musket, every stone in the hillside a gun. Faster and faster they rode. How we watched them! They are out of sight; but presently come a few horsemen, straggling, galloping back. 'What can those skirmishers be doing? See, they form up together again. Good God! it is the Light Brigade!'
- Frances (Fanny) Duberly, Journal Kept During the Russian War, 1855, published 2nd edn. as Mrs Duberly's War, Christine Kelly ed., 2007.
Henry Clifford, later Maj Gen Sir Henry Clifford VC, who won his Victoria Cross a month after Balaklava, also witnessed the catastrophic charge in his role as aide-de-camp to Sir George Brown, commander of the Light Division:

From the commanding position in which I stood by the side of General Brite we saw the Light Brigade of Cavalry moving forward at a trot, in face of the Russian Army. 'Mon Dieu!!' said the fine old French General, 'Que vont-ils faire?' They went steadily on, as Englishmen only go under heavy fire. Artillery in front, on the right and left. When some thousand yards from the foremost of the enemy, I saw shells bursting in the midst of the Squadrons and men and horses strewed the ground behind them; yet on they went, and the smoke of the murderous fire poured on them, hid them from my sight.
The tears ran down my face, and the din of musketry pouring in their murderous fire on the brave gallant fellows rang in my ears. 'Pauvre garcon,' said the old French General, patting me on the shoulder. 'Je suis vieux, j'ai vu des batailles, mais ceci est trop.' Then the smoke cleared away and I saw hundreds of our poor fellows lying on the ground, the Cossacks and Russian Cavalry running them through as they lay, with their swords and lances.
- Henry Clifford VC, His Letters & Sketches from the Crimea, London, 1956, p.73.

The journal of a soldier, Sgt Mitchell of the 13th Light Dragoons, provided an enlisted man's first-hand recollection of the charge:

As we drew nearer the guns from the front plied us liberally with grape and cannister, which brought down men and horses in heaps ... We were now very close to the guns, for we were entering the smoke which hung in clouds in front. I could see some of the gunners running from the guns to the rear, when just at that moment a shell from the battery on the right struck my horse carrying away the shoulder and part of the chest, and exploding a few yards off. Fortunately I was on the ground when it exploded, or some of the fragments would most likely have reached me ... I found my horse was lying on his near side, my left leg was beneath him ... I tried to move, but just at that moment I heard the second line come galloping on to where I lay, and fully expecting to be trampled on I looked up and saw it was the 4th Light Dragoons [in the third line] quite close. I called out "For God's sake, don't ride over me" ... After they had passed I ... stood up ... soon found there were numberless bullets flying around me ... our brigade had passed beyond the guns. The smoke had cleared, for the guns were silent enough now ... so that we could see a number of men making their way back ... The number of horses lying about was something fearful ... By this time the mounted were making their way back, as fast as they could, some singly, and some in parties of two or three ... There were several riderless horses galloping about the plain ... I was getting tired, for we had been out since 4 a.m. and had nothing to eat since the day before.
- Quoted in Clive Ponting, The Crimean War: The Truth Behind the Myth, London, 2004, p.136.

The Crimean War was the first major conflict to be recorded photographically. The photographs of Roger Fenton in particular have become iconic features of the campaign, illustrating the bleak, often treeless expanses of the peninsula. One can only imagine the grim conditions the armies - and chiefly the poorly-equipped British army - must have endured in the winter months, with precious little shelter from the elements. Fenton's most famous image is probably the cannonball-strewn dirt track that Victorians believed was the route of the famous charge - but the photographed valley was actually several miles closer to besieged Sebastopol and was taken in April 1855, many months after the charge, as film-maker Errol Morris has argued.  It remains unclear whether Fenton moved the cannonballs before he photographed them, but in any case, for many Victorians Fenton's image summed up the grim sacrifice and peril of the faraway Crimean campaign.

Roger Fenton's famous 'Valley of Death' photo, Crimea, April 1855
As for Mrs Duberly, both she and her husband survived the Crimean War. After years of postings in India and Ireland they eventually retired to Cheltenham, where Fanny later died, childless, at the age of 73.

07 October 2012

Springtime in the Botanicals

Definitely signs of spring in Wellington's Botanical Gardens this weekend, with the tulips in bloom for the Spring Festival. I walk past these flower beds every weekday morning on my way to work, but they're more impressive later in the day when the sun shifts round to illuminate them, as these photos from yesterday show.

See also:
Photos: Botanical Gardens light show, 18 March 2012

06 October 2012

That little spark of celestial fire called conscience

A fictitious description of a party at the Hollingsworths' house, Whileaway on Long Island, gives a glimpse of pre-war life amongst the New York wealthy set:

Outside on the terrace, the breeze was temperate and wild. Though the sun had yet to set, the house was lit from stem to stern as if to assure arriving guests that should the weather take a turn for the worst, we could all stay the night. Men in black tie conversed casually with the rubied and the sapphired and the sautoir de perles-ed. It was the same sort of familiar elegance that I had seen in July, only now it spanned three generations: Alongside the silver-haired titans kissing the cheeks of glamorous goddaughters were young rakes scandalising aunts with wry remarks sotto voce. A few stragglers from the beach with towels on their shoulders were making their way toward the house looking fit and friendly and not the least ill at ease for running late. Their shadows stretched across the grass in long, attenuated stripes.
A table at the edge of the terrace supported one of those pyramids where overflowing champagne from the uppermost glass cascades down the stems until all the glasses are filled. So as not to spoil the effect, the engineer of this thousand-dollar parlour trick produced a fresh glass from under the table and filled it for me.
Whatever Mr Hollingsworth's encouragements, there wasn't going to be much chance of my feeling at home. But Wallace had made such an effort, I was just going to have to splash some water on my face, trade up to gin, and throw myself into the mix.
-Amor Towles, Rules of Civility, London, 2011, p.201.

Amor Towles' novel Rules of Civility, the story of a young woman, Katey Kontent, and her passage through 1930s New York high society from legal stenographer to magazine editor, is not the sort of thing I'd normally read. But the setting and, I have to admit, the cover of the British edition, caught my eye and gave me encouragement. (I've written about this before - in summary, American book cover design is often dreary and unappealing). This was fortunate because Rules of Civility is artfully written, convincingly researched and stock full of authentic glimpses of the period such as the one quoted above. The New York Times described the book as a 'snappy period piece', and sums up its modus operandi pithily: 

One night at the novel’s outset touches off the chain reaction that will produce both Katey’s career and her husband, and define her entire adult life. She’s swept into the satin-and-cashmere embrace of the smart set — blithe young people with names like Dicky and Bitsy and Bucky and Wallace — with their Oyster Bay mansions, their Adirondack camps, their cocktails at the St. Regis and all the fog of Fishers Island.- Liesl Schillinger, New York Times, 12 August 2011

Two interesting historical notes anchor the narrative. Firstly, at the outset, a more mature Katey admires an exhibition of Walker Evans' clandestine New York subway photos at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966, at the launch of Evans' book Many Are Called, which compiled three years worth of secret subway photos from the 1930s. The photos are a remarkable time capsule of American social history:

He seized on the subway reportedly because of the variety of people who, for a nickel, put up with the underworld gloom and the racket of the steel-wheeled cars. He was especially drawn to the riders' expressions, the private preoccupied or daydreamy blankness that people often wear when left alone in public. "The guard is down and the mask is off," Evans wrote at the time, adding, "people's faces are in naked repose down in the subway." And the best way to catch them in the act of being themselves, he decided, was to take pictures without their knowledge.
- Terence Monmaney, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2004

Secondly, the titular Rules of Civility are an actual set of 110 exhortations to good behaviour that a young George Washington copied out as a schoolboy. The 'Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation' offer a glimpse of the stern moral code he was taught, and perhaps offer some insight into his character, given later events and his rise to greatness. And some still make pretty good sense in the 21st century too:

5. If you cough, sneeze, sigh or yawn, do it not loud but privately, and speak not in your yawning, but put your handkerchief or hand before your face and turn aside. 
13. Kill no vermin, or fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others; if you see any filth or thick spittle put your foot dexterously upon it; if it be upon the clothes of your companions, put it off privately, and if it be upon your own clothes, return thanks to him who puts it off. 
50. Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any. 
90. Being set at meat scratch not, neither spit, cough or blow your nose except there's a necessity for it. 
110. Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.
Now all that's needed is some ambitious soul to commission a film version of Towles' novel. Perhaps if The Great Gatsby is a success and studios scramble for their own golden age of New York tale, they'll look favourably on this well-crafted story. 

04 October 2012

Kaka country

Having observed some kaka acrobatics on next door's telephone lines late last year, of late the hefty avian gymnasts have been even more prevalent in my neck of the woods. They enjoy a traditional kaka combination of swooping and squawking around the valley at dusk, chasing each other in and out of the trees. But of late some berries must have fruited on the tree next door at number 44, because twice this week I've come home to find the tree weighed down with a gaggle of kakas, all rifling through the flowers and hanging on to the slender branches for dear life. The birds weigh quite a bit, and half a dozen of them cause the tree to swing about disconcertingly. Yesterday one of them even flew over to investigate the rose camellia bush at the end of my deck, before flapping off in search of a richer meal elsewhere. Perhaps he may have been musing as he flew on his long-distant ancestors who predated both modern kakas and keas.  But probably not.

03 October 2012

Weetbix Soggy Weetbix

Bill Bailey - Qualmpeddler
Michael Fowler Centre
29 September 2012

On Saturday night Former Flatmate Al and I checked out Bill Bailey's comedy gig in town, taking the rare opportunity to enjoy the performance of a top-flight UK comedian. It's a long way to come to the far side of the world, so we're grateful when they make the effort. And Bailey has been here several times before - a repeat offender, if you will.

Bailey's comedy gigs are a deft mix of philosophical rambling and sharp-witted musical parody, and Qualmpeddler, his current show, is no exception. Perhaps some of his material seems a little less inventive after the glorious performances captured on his early DVDs, but it's still a pleasure to occupy an auditorium with Bailey as he mashes up sombre devotional hymns with pounding techno rhythms, thrashes away on an electric Turkish balalaika and issues forth a dancehall dubstep remix of the Downton Abbey theme music, replete with nonsensical soundbites from the dafter members of the cast.

Bailey's been a comedian for a couple of decades now and he must know British audiences backwards. He also exhibits a refreshing trait of avoiding putdowns or snide remarks about foolish hecklers; he can deal with them in a trice of course, but he doesn't make them the butt of the joke. It's a pleasingly self-deprecating mix of rambling narrative, particularly when Bailey delves into the topics that he's most interested in at the moment. In Part Troll there was an ambitious philosophical bent, and in Qualmpeddler Bailey devotes a little stage time to his relatively new ecological pursuits - he's made UK nature doco Wild Thing I Love You for Channel 4 and is currently editing a BBC documentary he made on Indonesian baboons.

I couldn't help wonder if this travelling version of Qualmpeddler is different to that performed in the UK. Crowd participation took up a fair amount of time that could have been filled with more interesting material. After all, no-one in the audience was going to guess the name of his Turkish musical instrument (it was really obscure), so labouring the point that it wasn't a mandolin wasn't exactly comedy gold. (But when he finally played the thing: brilliant).  Perhaps he was being polite when, to illustrate an anecdote about dim UK reality TV sleb Chantelle Houghton, he asked the audience for the New Zealand equivalent and it took forever to reach the consensus that the Ridges were probably equally 'famous' for no good reason. Perhaps it's harder to communicate with New Zealand audiences because we don't open our mouths when we speak, or at the very least when we attempt to make ourselves heard over a crowd of several thousand other comedy gig-goers.

My favourite part of the gig was in the encores where he returned to the philosophical concepts, spruced things up with some cleverly-made Terry Gilliam-esque animations of famous Victorian artworks (Turner, Constable) and ranted about the modern fondness for acronyms.  I particularly enjoyed his handy mnemonic to assist with the terrifically hard task of boxing the compass ('Never Eat Soggy Weetbix'), which he took to the logical extremes for dedicated mariners: 
  • Soggy Eat
  • Soggy Soggy Eat
  • Soggy
  • Soggy Soggy Weetbix
  • Soggy Weetbix
  • Weetbix Soggy Weetbix

Which certainly beats gloomy old U2's Sunday Bloody Sunday, and could even pass for a Sanitarium advert, if you squint your ears. 

Then it was time for his musical piece de resistance, which included not only the little ditty in the clip below, but also classics of the modern oeuvre like The Final Countdown by Europe. Because it's important to stay grounded in the classics, isn't it?

See also:
Interview: Bill Bailey on Radio NZ, 27 September 2012
Review: Bill Bailey in Hammersmith, 3 July 2008
Comedy: Black Books - Bernard discovers he can play piano (hilarious!)

01 October 2012

A messy lust quadrilateral

Michelle Blundell (c) Bats
by Penelope Skinner
Bats Theatre, Wellington
Ends 6 October 2012

English playwright Penelope Skinner has prepared a deftly constructed glimpse into twenty-something life in Eigengrau, a play that takes its name from the technical term for the colour the eye perceives when you're in perfect darkness - not black exactly, more a darker shade of grey. (It's a German word; in English it's 'intrinsic grey'). This is possibly both a nod towards the moral ambiguity of the play's characters and their various dilemmas, and perhaps also a wink in the direction of the mega-selling slash fiction doyenne E.L. James.

Instead of a typical love triangle, perhaps it's more accurate if not particularly illuminating to refer to Eigengrau as a 'messy lust quadrilateral'. It's predominantly a black comedy based around the relationships of two pairs of London flatmates - feminist activist Cassie lives with airy dreamer Rose, while thrusting young exec Mark shares his bachelor pad with his loser Uni friend Tim. Briefly, Rose has a fling with Mark and now decides she loves him; Mark isn't returning her texts and is instead eyeing up Cassie and busily reading up on Germaine Greer; Tim, on the other hand, is besotted with Rose and moping over the death of his chain-smoking Nan.

As a comedy Eigengrau succeeds - while there are flashes of close-to-the-bone humour designed to make the audience uncomfortable, there are also plenty of examples of deft comedy writing. Mark's attempts to seduce the principled, strident Cassie are particularly entertaining, as he professes to be swept up in enthusiasm for her feminist beliefs, and neither the audience nor Cassie can quite believe him. He even makes an appearance in a 'This is what a feminist looks like' t-shirt, as sported by Bill Bailey a few years ago.

The local cast of four does a good job with Skinner's material. The various English accents were genuine enough for my ear, including Cassie's Sloaney drawl and posh bastard Mark's impeccable diction.  The young cast worked together well and their performances benefit from plenty of stage and screen experience. Chelsea McEwan Millar, who apart from having 50 percent more names than most people also played the principled, uptight Cassie, has previously appeared in Go Girls and Under the Mountain; Michelle Blundell (Rose) essayed a memorably tragic karaoke performance in this play but is perhaps better known for her 2012 appearances on Shortland Street, plus roles in Go Girls and The Almighty Johnsons (as Frigg); and RADA-educated boy wonder Calum Gittins (Mark), son of the play's director Mark Gittins and LOTR screenwriter Philippa Boyens, has credits for none other than The King's Speech and LOTR: The Two Towers. The fourth cast member, Simon Ward (Tim) perhaps has a less starry background but gives a likeable performance as a mopey loser, and he can boast that one of his self-written plays has been recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio Merseyside.

It must have been interesting for Gittins to play in Eigengrau given that his father was directing the play. Without going into too many details, one scene simulates a rather personal consensual act of a sexual nature. How do you take direction from your dad in that situation? 'No, that was too quick. Next time make it last longer. Quite a bit longer, please - and don't forget, lots of energy!'