U.K. electoral campaign reaches it nadir

I don’t bother with social media any more, unlike during the previous UK election in 2017. Prospective electoral candidates should avoid it too, since writing rubbish on Facebook is bound to catch up with you. But there was something awfully familiar about this graphic from the Tory Party’s twitter feed, as seen on the Guardian‘s live blog yesterday:


It reminded me of something the New Zealand National Party came up with in the 2005 general election, when they tried to get redneck votes by playing the ‘race card’, as we call it:


By way of explanation, that is Helen Clark of Labour on the left; and Don Brash of National on the right, Brash being the former governor of the central bank who got back into politics to complete the so-called Neoliberal revolution. It is a brutally effective sign, once you know that ‘iwi’ refers to the Maori word for tribe, and the referent is to the legal conflict at the time over the ownership of the foreshore. What might have been a technical legal argument became a major faultline in New Zealand politics ; Brash did not win the 2005 election, but he got very close, paving the way for another finance man, John Key, to win in 2008, and to remain in power until the Panama Papers were released.

Anyway, back to the British election, it might have been slightly more effective if Corbyn was on the left, but it still puts the dichotomy at its most stark. And, of course, it is abhorrent that the latest terrorist attack in London has been politicised by the Tories. For all the talk about Jeremy Corbyn being anti-Semitic, and associating with Palestinian groups and other terrorists, this had just been words before the UK citizens died in London.

Now we also see the blatant bias, and partisanship of the UK media, including the BBC. Not only is Corbyn portrayed as ‘soft’ on terrorism, but the trope of his links with muslim terrorists is back in play. To give an example that the BBC’s international viewers would have seen, take the BBC World News programme Newsday, which screens at around midday in New Zealand. Yesterday the London presenter was Kasia Madeira, and she had on a guest from the Sunday Times, Katherine Forster,to discuss how the terrorist attack had become political. Apparently this was because Corbyn had put the blame on austerity, and specifically on the cuts to spending on the Parole Board and related services. With facilitation from Madeira, Forster then went on to state that Corbyn was known to ‘side’ with terrorist organisations such as Hamas in the occupied part of Palestine, and of course the I.R.A.

Now ‘sided’ sounds a relatively innocuous word. But it is much stronger than ‘sympathiser’ for example, or supporter, and much closer to being a ‘collaborator’. So there we are, back to the Tories’ favourite trope, identifying Corbyn and Labour as the enemy within, not just soft on terrorism. Of course, Kasia Madeira never challenged the use of the term ‘sided’, or the claim that Corbyn abets terrorists. This was either because the BBC does not do that to guests chosen from the Tory press, or she is as right wing as Ms Forster.

But, unlike the Tory press, the BBC is meant to be objective and balanced. Having a smear artist like Forster on proves that the BBC is both biased and partisan, on behalf of the Conservative Party. There is certainly no balance on any of the BBC World News programmes that screen here in the evening, and there is a lot of commentary coming from business guests who are, if not inevitably Tory, then certainly not sympathetic to Labour. In a binary system the side with the most money usually wins, but having media stooges also helps.


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Johnson’s Sophistry and the slow boat to China

More on the British election from a New Zealand perspective. Boris Johnson continues an incredibly erratic performance, and the Conservative Party are full of tricky manoeuvres and funny games on social media. Johnson launched the Welsh Conservatives campaign and the broadcast highlights included a diversion on the prospective trading relations with China. He asked the audience to check on-line if Wales was closer to China than New Zealand, ‘as the crow flies’. It turns out this was true, as the crow flies. Why he thinks that this makes any difference to the trade in sheep meat, who really knows. The fact remains that New Zealand is closer to China by sea, and already has a free trade deal.

This means that New Zealand farmers will always be able to out compete little old Wales, no matter what the geography is according to BoJo. And in today’s LBC radio interview, Johnson also claimed that there were more  free trade deals in the pipeline, besides the U.S. one, including with New Zealand. That’s news to us, but maybe the New Zealand government has got high up in the queue. Even with the Labour Party in government here, the free trade fetish continues. Indeed, in the last election campaign they misled progressive voters into believing that they would no longer pursue the Asia-Pacific trade agreement known as the TPPA. This was before Trump threw out his toys over it. But, after the election the Labour Party returned to form, and agreed to a bowdlerised version of the TPPA, the CTTPA, or a similar acronym. The key part of this was that it would not include the clauses allowing for corporations to sue governments that were not allowing domestic market competition, including for pharmaceuticals.

So the major controversy with the TPPA had been over pharmaceuticals, and the role of American drug companies. New Zealand has an organisation called Pharmac which organises the purchase of drugs for the public health system, and therefore can obtain the best prices through this form of collectivism. Of course, this was anathema to the Americans drug companies, who want to extract monopoly prices for their patented medicines. Pharmac is therefore similar to the British organisation that is called Nice, and any free trade deal with the U.S. would always have drug purchases on the agenda.

Therefore the British Labour Party didn’t really need the leaked document, detailing the trade talks with the U.S. Government, to know that the role of Nice would be up for discussion at the very least. But having got an un-redacted version of the Tories trade talks, it would have been nice if the media have covered it, rather than banging on about anti-Semitism, which appears to be far more important than the health of millions of poor people. In the broadcast version of events seen here, via Sky News Australia, Sky’s Diana Magnay was asked every hour about the veracity of Labour’s claims. She was apparently with Corbyn’s campaign in Falmouth, but it could have been anywhere, Magnay stated that the document did not back up Corbyn’s claims, even though she can’t have read it; and went on to say that everything had changed under BoJo. Besides the partisan bias, Magnay could not provide a coherent statement, despite doing it all afternoon for the Sarah-Jane Mee Show. Magnay used to be a CNN correspondent, so really has drawn the short straw being assigned to Corbyn. By contrast, Kate McCann gets to luxuriate on BoJo’s campaign bus. And Sky continued to show footage of Johnson meeting with nurses in Cornwall, but not the audio part of the event, especially when one of the nurses asked where he would get his ‘nurses tree’ (for new nurses).

The other mention of New Zealand last week was also in the context of health, and it happened during the feisty Question Time Special, where a partisan audience got to roast their enemies. Johnson was accused of being dishonest in his first question, and was later called a racist, but otherwise appeared to be doing fine. But the questions on the NHS were difficult. One of the audience was a GP (general practitioner) who stated how onerous the conditions for local doctors were, and compared it to Australian and New Zealand GP practices, which had similar earnings but far less stress. It might be true that health is less of a political football than in the UK, but the picture is not so rosy. The vacancies for GPs are in rural areas, where shortages mean doctors do have to work long hours. In the cities the hospitals have similar maintenance issues, and problems with treatment times for cancer, which vary on a geographical basis. And there are similar shortages of doctors and nurses, even though it is nowhere near as bad as in the UK.

Johnson’s best bit of sophistry must be his claim that there will be 50 000 new nurses over his next term. This was despite the lack of trainees caused by the Tory removal of the student maintenance grant, and the effect of student loan debt; and the claim that more nurses would arrive as immigrants from the EU, despite the fact that Brexit means less immigration to most BoJo supporters. But the real doosie was the claim that 19 000 of the 50 000 figure would be contrived from the number of nurses that would be retained, when they would have otherwise left the NHS. So 19 000 nurses already in the NHS are counted twice, or are not really ‘new’ nurses at all. Maybe they will be receiving offers from American drug companies that they cannot refuse.

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Immigration and the end of the ANZAC Spirit

I got an email yesterday from Amnesty International in Australia, entitled ‘Behrouz is finally free’, with a photo of the Amnesty man greeting Behrouz Boochani at Auckland airport. Behrouz Boochani is an Iranian Kurd, an asylum seeker who has been held at one of Australia’s offshore detention centre for years. An award winning journalist, who wrote a book on a smuggled smart phone while stuck on Manus Island (in Papua New Guinea), Behrouz got a visa to visit New Zealand for one month, including an appearance at a literary festival in Christchurch, and is never going back in to Australian detention again.

This was a publicity coup as well as being a personal liberation. Behrouz quickly flew down to Christchurch with Golriz Ghahraman, another Iranian refugee, who is now a Green Party MP, and met the mayor. She gave him a greenstone (poumanu) pendant while the local news media filmed. Rather surprisingly the news item was high up on evening news bulletins, despite the fact that the refugee aspect of the punitive Australian immigration regime has not been covered well here, in comparison to the Australian practice of deporting New Zealand born residents who have committed a crime. Speaking of crimes, arriving in Christchurch was symbolic, given the massacre there by an Australian citizen in March this year. The media speculated that the release of Behrouz would annoy the hard-line far right Australian government, but the story was actually covered on Sky News Australia, the only Australian TV channel carried on the pay TV package here.

Behrouz later appeared on the Al Jazeera channel from his Christchurch hotel room, where he described the Australian detention practices as ‘barbaric’, and claimed that the remaining adult refugees in detention were starving. Many have attempted suicide, and most have developed psychiatric illnesses; some have even been assaulted by the indigenous people running the island prisons, whether on Manus or on Nauru, another island territory that is paid by the Australian regime to hold asylum seekers indefinitely. Nauru has a long history of colonial intervention, and used to have its minerals harvested for Australasian farmers to spread over their fields as fertilizers from planes (this was called Superphosphate).

It would have been a long time since Behrouz was on an airplane, and he barely survived the boat journey from Indonesia to Australian waters over seven years ago. There has been much comment about the USA and the United Kingdom imposing an Australian style ‘points-based’ immigration system. But rather than debate how the points would work for desirable immigrants, it needs to be understood that the Australian system is admired by conservatives for its systematic brutality and punitive aspects. Long before there was Trump and his wall on the Mexican border, a small Australian man named John Howard was winning federal elections for his Liberal Party with a policy of ensuring that asylum seekers would never get on to the Australian mainland. This has always been justified on the basis of not rewarding people smugglers.

In more recent times it has been a man named Peter Dutton as Home Affairs minister in the Liberal-National Governments that has been the face of the detention policy. An ugly man, with even uglier policies, Dutton hails from the state of Queensland, known for its corruption, but which heavily favoured the Liberal Party at the last election, based on an anti-Climate change agenda. Dutton was even the preferred candidate when the far right wing of the Liberal Party tried to depose the sitting Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, last year; but the party preferred Scott Morrison, an evangelical Christian, who is a better retail politician. Nonetheless, the Liberal Party were prepared to lose their seats in the aflluent areas of Sydney, where the soft ‘liberals’ objected to the harsh treatment of those detained offshore, even though some of their sick children were allowed to leave the islands.

The brutality of this immigration policy is that the detention is indefinite. Dutton does not really want any detainees to leave, even when there are genuine offers to take the refugees off Manus Island and Nauru. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has offered to take 150 asylum seekers per year, but this has been rebuffed. The flimsy excuse for this has been the belief among Australians that, once the refugees become New Zealand citizens, they will then be able to travel to Australia eventually. It is of course hard to believe that anybody would still want to go to Australia after detention in ghastly camps on offshore islands, but the Australians refuse to budge on Ardern’s offer.

There used to be something called the ANZAC spirit, which is a sense of co-operation between Australia and New Zealand. ANZAC refers to the army tradition, begun in the First World War, when Australasian troops were flung into a hopeless attack on Turkey at Gallipoli. The senseless slaughter there led to the dawning of an identity separate from the imperial masters in London. But it is now time to admit that this is an historical remnant only, and should really only be seen in a military context. At a government level the Australians simply don’t respect us or our Prime Minister (who is ridiculed on Sky News Australia), whether that be on immigration or climate change in the Pacific.

The most egregious examples of Australian contempt comes with the deportation of petty criminals, who are technically New Zealand citizens. Due to free movement in the past, many working class New Zealand families have re-located to Australia, usually in search of better paying jobs. But if they do not become Australian citizens they also do not get welfare payments, even after paying tax for years. And if they happen to commit a crime, which is often the result of domestic disputes, they will be punished twice: a custodial sentence will result in sequestration in an offshore detention camp, and then eventual deportation. Often these men have not been in New Zealand since their childhood, and have no relatives left here, or any other kind of support, let alone job opportunities. This approved deportation of petty criminals leads to crime here in New Zealand, and is against any residual sense of  ANZAC co-operation and goodwill that might remain.

So, to take a recent example, of the serious bush fires raging in Australia, we have sent firefighters to help them. Why should we continue to send our people over to Australia, and potentially sacrifice them in dangerous situations? Even if there is some financial compensation, or some other benefits, such as it being good training, we should no longer just automatically send our people. I don’t recall the Australians reciprocating, but maybe they have in the past. But until they treat New Zealand and all our offers of help with respect, let alone observing international human rights and norms with regard to the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, we should not be sending help to them.

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Sporting codes and political success: is it really the time of the ‘Workington Man’

It’s Saturday the second of the November, and today was meant to be the day that New Zealand won its third rugby world cup in a row. Instead, it will probably be England. So conventional wisdom is that if the All Blacks win the world cup the incumbent government goes on to win the next election. This is something that the National Party was convinced of here, which is why they spent so much time associating themselves with rugby union, the game that unites the provincial areas with the larger urban areas.

You would think that if England win the rugby union world cup then the Tories are a shoo-in for the December election, being only a month away. No doubt Mr Johnson and the other old Etonians will be crowing about the victory, rather than Brexit, for a good week or more. But will it unite the country like a football world cup win would? And if rugby union is so important to them, why are they trying to target the ‘Workington Man’, the latest caricature that the Tory think tanks believe is the quintessential Northern voter, and those that will desert the Labour Party. But the problem here is that the ‘Workington Man’ follows rugby league not the rugby union code.

I personally enjoy watching rugby league, rather than union. But to those not familiar with the two rugby codes there is not a lot of difference, other than the thing called a ‘Line-out’ is not used in league; and the game is stopped for each tackle until a team has had six, when they must kick the ball or just lose possession to the other team. As I understand the people who created rugby league, they were working class, and became professional players, whereas rugby union prided itself on being amateurs until relatively recently. Rugby league was an entirely Northern game, as the names of the clubs indicate: Wigan, St Helens, Bradford, Leeds, Hull; all in Lancashire or Yorkshire. Except for Workington, which is the North-West, in Cumbria, not so much Labour held.

All of the big clubs seem to be in Labour constitutencies, with Warrington South having returned to the fold in the 2017 general election. Just because these areas voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, it didn’t mean that the seats were lost the next year, so why do they think this will happen in the 2019 election. Maybe it’s just Workington, given that the adjacent seat of Copeland went to the Tories in 2017. It’s fair to say that rugby league is still the working class game there, as it is in New Zealand, and many Kiwi men have played or coached in England. Most of these players would be from the Auckland area, such as Henry and Robbie Paul, who were involved with the Bradford Bulls. Robbie is now manager; Henry actually went on to play rugby union for England (splitter).

But rugby league is also played in Christchurch, and on the West Coast of the South Island. And of the players from Christchurch, Gerard Stokes, went to play in Workington in the 1980s. He returned to Christchurch, but went back to Workington to coach the club. Gerard Stokes is better known as the father of Ben Stokes, the English cricketer who took the cricket world cup off the valiant New Zealand team earlier in the year. Though born in Christchurch, Ben Stokes obviously stayed in England after his parents returned home. The merciless English tabloids have recently exposed their family tragedy. But the English cricket team have returned to New Zealand to play T20 internationals, and again beat our side yesterday, in Christchurch, albeit without having Ben Stokes playing.

I wanted to just write a bit more about class and politics, using the example of rugby league. It is mostly played in New Zealand by Polynesian men, often from some of the poorest in the urban areas, particularly in South Auckland. This is the home of the professional team, the Auckland Warriors, which joined the Australian National Rugby League (NRL) competition in 1995. The first captain was Dean Bell, a Kiwi international that played for Wigan, I think, the most well known club to New Zealanders. But many Kiwis had already been playing in Australia, often going to England later in their careers. One of the other local league teams is based in Mt Albert, the central Auckland seat, which was held for Labour by Helen Clark. As Prime Minister Helen Clark had, of course, to attend the All Black games just to be seen there. But she also knew the role of rugby league in the working class communities, and was patron of the Mt Albert rugby league club. Jacinda Ardern is now the MP for Mt Albert, and Prime Minister, if not patron of the league club. But league is still Labour heartland, or vice versa.

So, what of the role of Workington Man in the British election. It is unlikely that the Labour Party will lose that seat, but not impossible, and it would signal a landslide. But for that to happen they would also have to lose other seats across the belt of rugby league towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The clusters of these seats was joined up by the two seats won in 2017: High Peak and Colne Valley. The former seat is also an area where the local council is now controlled by Labour, one of their few successes in this year’s municipal elections. The other question about the stereotype of the Workington Man is gender: even if the men are dead keen on Brexit, are the women going to desert Labour? Lisa Nandy in Wigan; Holly Lynch in Halifax; or Emma Hardy in Kingston-on-Hull West & Hessle? Don’t be daft.

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Bercow Withdrawal Syndrome: a functioning Westminster Parliament?

Some short confessions of an Anglophile, I hope. I’ve had the misfortune to be fascinated by the Brexit process, and its lack of progress through the House of Commons. And I’ve lost sleep over it, given the time difference with New Zealand. Of course, New Zealand also has a Westminster system, and the Queen of England is the Head of State. But New Zealand politics is rather dull at the moment, despite Jacinda Ardern being internationally known. Our parliamentary procedure is much more rule bound than Westminster; and the Speaker can be more of a control freak, which suits the incumbent, a former school teacher. What a contrast with the House of Commons speaker, former Tory, John Bercow.

One does enjoy the wit of Bercow, and his chiding of his former Conservative colleagues, especially when interjecting from a sedentary position. But all good things come to an end. Even I have come to realise, however, that for all his wit Bercow is at the centre of a very British farce. Not because he is frustrating Brexit, but all of it is a very elaborate and verbose word game being played by the former public school boys of England. Bercow lets the representatives of the lower orders have their say. But you have to wonder when he uses his role to make impersonations of former MPs, including Whitelaw and Wedgwood Benn (the peer who renounced his inherited title). Not as bad as hearing Mr Rees-Mogg expanding on what kind of limbo the WAB is actually in, based on the derivation of the word and its religious connotations. This repartee went on for some time. But not as much time as Bercow allowed for the Tory men to tell him he was biased.

Of course, Bercow batted these very mannered condemnations away with trademark wit. But in New Zealand the Speaker would have told the member to put it in writing; or put up or shut up, even if in a standing position. Then he’d mention the relevant Standing Order to the member, and suggest that the House get on with its business. So the New Zealand Parliament is still functional, if rather utilitarian, and completely rule bound.

I woke up this morning to see some the UK Sky News, and Sophy Ridge with two guests talking about the Brexit impasse in Parliament, including a so-called former advisor to Boris Johnson. This gentleman stated that in the British system there had to be one party which had a Parliamentary majority, so the whole country has to vote on a wintry day in December to anoint a new Conservative Government, with another Queens Speech in the same year. Now, the Westminster system obviously operates as a binary one: there is a Government or Treasury benches, and the Opposition benches; but this does not necessarily require there to be only one party on either side. Indeed, one can’t say that there is still a two party system any more, despite the results of the 2017 election. In fact, the Conservative Party did have a majority, with the help of the DUP, and has just won a confidence vote in Parliament. So why doesn’t it just carry on with its legislation. Even if the Johnson Government resigned, it is possible for the Opposition parties to govern.

It is here that a comparison with New Zealand is interesting, partly because the second, and third, and fourth largest parties are in government. Indeed, the right wing National Party still has the most seats, but could not win a fourth term, because its coalition partners lost their electorate seats in the 2017 election. Some commentators still thought it should have had the first opportunity to continue in government as the largest party, but this is not a convention at all. I should at this stage indicate that New Zealand changed its electoral system in the 1990s, and opted for a German style method, the Mixed Member Proportional system. This involves a nation-wide party list vote, and it retains electorate seats, based on a separate vote. Together there is a 120 seat Parliament, but this involves more electorate seats than party list seats, usually 66 to 54 seats.

The key thing about the new system was that it has ensured that one party can not get a majority of seats, even though it is technically possible. But in First Past the Post, as in Britain, a party could get a minority of the overall vote, but a comfortable majority in Parliament. Nonetheless, commentators and especially the media, still operate under the assumptions of the old system, and it is still basically a two party system. Despite what I had hoped, the two old parties, National and Labour, still hold almost all of the electorate seats. National tends to get more, so is already ahead when the party list votes top up their number; then we wait to see if smaller parties cross the 5% threshold of party votes to get into Parliament. If they don’t we would be back to the old system. Moreover, when the opinion polls are published, the TV political editors like to see the smaller parties not reach 5%, so they can pretend they will not be in the next Parliament, and this means that the National Party can govern alone with a majority. So normal service will resume.

Although no party has ever got a majority of seats since the system was changed, the electorate seats still indicate the underlying pattern in politics. Initially there was more volatility in the electorate votes, and seats used to change hands. The Labour Party were more competitive in provincial seats with a regional city or major town, especially in the lower North Island. But now they only hold electorate seats in the major urban areas, a university city like Palmerston North, and the old mining area of the West Coast of the South Island. This seems to be a similar situation to Britain, even though the Labour Party’s majorities are much bigger in the large cities, and in some of the regional university cities like Cambridge, if not in the former mining districts in the Midlands.

In the U.K. Mr Johnson obviously wants a winter election, so the turnout will be lower than 2017, mostly affecting the Labour held seats in the provincial districts. But, even if the Brexit debate still dominates, he has to get out his own vote to stave off the Brexit Party. The received wisdom is that the Conservatives will lose most of the Scottish seats won in 2017, that were vital to shoring up Mrs May’s administration. But the Scottish vote is very volatile, with big majorities being overturned in some seats, but not in adjacent ones. It is also assumed that the Liberal Democrats will win seats, based on their polling numbers, but their existing seats are mostly marginal as well. A close look at the previous results shows that the Lib Dems are a distant third in most seats, and even when second, they would have to overturn large majorities, apart from in Richmond Park (in London), Cheltenham, and St Ives (Cornwall). There have been a large number of defections from the main parties, but it is difficult to see the rebels surviving.

As an Anglophile I used to love football. In the 1970s, as a kid, the New Zealand public radion stations used to relay the British football results at 9am on a Sunday morning. So, through a crackly line, the BBC voice would come over, and we would get to hear how Norwich City had done. At the time Martin Peters was playing for them, a member of the 1966 English World Cup team. Norwich are back in the top league, and struggling, but the world of football is completely different. However, if you look at the clubs geographically and compare them to electorate seats, almost all of them are in safe Labour seats. This is obviously because most of the clubs are based in the big cities. But of all the other teams, only Bournemouth is an area with no Labour Party MPs. Another coastal club, Brighton and Hove Albion, is an area with two Labour members, and the solitary Green Party MP.

I’m not sure if there is a professional football team based in Buckingham, Mr Bercow’s electorate which has been uncontested till now. Or in most of the other Conservative areas, certainly not in the Premier League, or in the Championship. Not only is it a working class game, but football is the most inclusive sport, as well as having successful managers from continental Europe. The Conservative Party obviously want to go back to the little England of enthusiastic amateurs, and little clubs of articulate, but verbose blokes who know their place, like in Westminster. Even if they can still gerrymander the results, so that the biggest urban areas are effectively not represented in government, they should still have to follow the rules, hopefully to be enforced by Harriet Harman.




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Mars Hotel 1975 & Robert Hunter R.I.P.


This is a photo by New Zealander photographer Peter Peryer, who died last year. It was one of his first, and is called Hunua, from the Mars Hotel collection. If you could enlarge the photo a bit you will see that the graffiti on the old building is Mars Hotel. Peryer took the photograph on a very cheap camera called a Diana, before he became more famous.


Whereas this is the cover of the 1974 LP by the Grateful Dead, known as Mars Hotel (or Ugly Rumours from the Mars Hotel). The cover art was by Stanley Mouse, one of the legendary poster artists based in San Francisco, that added the visual dimension to the psychedelic sixties, and especially to the San Francisco bands. The Grateful Dead’s key lyricist, Robert Hunter, died this week aged 78, 24 years after his writing partner, Jerry Garcia.

So are the two images linked? The first is of a derelict building in a rural area of the North Island in New Zealand, that happens to have the words Mars Hotel painted on. There were certainly hip music fans in New Zealand in the 1970s, even if the Grateful Dead’s long strange tripping never included a tour in the southern hemisphere.

Anyway, that is enough of a connection for me to write a little tribute to lyricist, Robert Hunter, as a kind of distant Deadhead. The Grateful Dead had a lot of artistic connections, obviously the artwork, and the link to Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady, and so to the writing of Jack Kerouac and the Beats. But Robert Hunter was his own smaller scale genius, and I wanted to emphasise his link to English writing, and to the folk tradition, an interest he shared with Jerry Garcia before the psychedelic experience took them on the Grateful Dead’s legendary bus.

My first listening experience of the Dead came when I happened to find a cassette, in the 1980s, with both the 1970 classics, Working Man’s Dead on one side, and American Beauty on the other. I wasn’t really expecting the country rock genre though, all I had read about was the so-called acid rock stuff. But I nonetheless loved this cassette. In 1987 the Dead had released their most successful studio LP, In the Dark, but I had not heard that, and never much liked it later on. But the country rock stuff was great, and it was that which led me into the more familiar bands in the genre, the Byrds and Flying Burritos Brothers.

But in 1987 I had quit an admin job in a finance corporation, after the sharemarket crash of that year, when I had lost most of my savings. I took a trip down in the South Island, and stayed in Blenheim, where I did some seasonal work in an orchard, then in a vineyard on some stoney ground next to the Wairau river. Every day I would drive to the vineyard, greet the owner’s Irish Setter dog, put on my cowboy hat, take my hammer, and attend to the vines. I was relatively hopeless at it, but the older guys tolerated me. After a hot day we had our hammer throwing competition and went back home. I had a cabin at a camping ground and, after some dinner, lay back with my Sony Walkman and put on the Grateful Dead, first Working Man’s Dead, then American Beauty, when I would fall asleep during ‘Attics of my Life’. But all of those songs were great, I don’t need to praise each of them, they just seemed to fit the idea of a grafting seasonal worker.

One time I went to a pub in Blenheim, which was a bit of an eye opener. They had a rough and ready band, and at the official closing time the outsiders were expected to leave, while the locals carried on drinking. I met an American guy there, who was also at the camping ground, who said he had seen the Dead at a concert with Bob Dylan, and the whole thing had been 5 hours long. Far out man, it all seemed to fit into place.

When I went back to Wellington it was not so easy to find more Grateful Dead LPs. The only ones were re-releases of the mid 1970s period when they had their own record label, but that was after their classic Warner Brothers period. But I purchased the Steal ya Face live LP, which had the elegaic song ‘Stella Blue’, one of Garcia’s best arrangements. And I bought Mars Hotel, Wake of the Flood, and Blues for Allah on cassette initially. But you had to love the skeletons going round on the album labels.

So just a bit more on the Mars Hotel LP. I actually liked the two songs by Phil Lesh, the bass player, ‘Unbroken Chain’ and ‘Pride of Cucamonga’. These were the last of his songs with another lyricist, and after that it was mostly Hunter/Garcia songs, with others by Bob Weir and John Barlow. But as I write this I want to mention Hunter’s great lyrics for the opener to side two, ‘Scarlet Begonias’. Who else would write a song title with begonias in it, Hunter’s usual flower icon being the rose. But he starts off, ‘as I was walking round Grosvenor Square’. This was obviously one of his songs that he wrote while living in London, in his most fertile period. I always liked the line: “As I picked up my matches and was closing the door/ I had one of those flashes, I’d been there before.”

The usual thing here is to say that we will never see his like again, and in combination with the genius Jerry Garcia, and his unique playing, especially on the pedal steel guitar in country-rock mode. But Robert Hunter was the lyricist, that was what he did, so in a way what he wrote defines the music, cosmic American soul or something. Not necessarily the most original, but certainly the most empathetic. Just listen to ‘Box of Rain’, written with Phil Lesh, the first song on American Beauty, and go there with him.

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Revisiting New Zealand in 1976 (the Listener) #4

After a little break, filled with television watching of world tour cycling and the live feed of the Supreme Court in London, it’s back once again to 1976. This time we are with the listener in the first week of October of 1976, and some heavy duty international politics. There is an editorial about the legacy of Mao Tse-Tung in communist China, and an interesting article about Spain after the death of the fascist dictator Franco. The author, John Sligo, suggests that it is the communist party that will have to play a key role in Spain, being the least tied to the corruption within the system. The guest editorial, by Bill Willmott, is more idealistic, and unrealistic, given that Mao now has a different name.

But the Communist Party still controls the State apparatus in China, and presides over a hybrid form of capitalism that has the Pacific region under its sway. This is not just due to foreign aid, but also the infiltration of the Australasian society with political operatives. We recently had a candidate for the Australian Liberal Party, which is very right wing now, being exposed as a member of United Front organisations. After denying it publicly there has been something of a row over this recently elected MP from Melbourne. We actually have a similar situation in New Zealand’s conservative party, known as National, having a list MP, Jian Yang, who is known to have doctored his CV to make him look like a former university lecturer in China. In fact, he was involved in their spy school, but he won’t front for any kind of interview with the tame New Zealand media. Nor was it widely reported that his National Party leader, the hapless Simon Bridges, was recently in China to maintain links with the regime. This after it emerged that Chinese nationals were donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to his party.

Back in 1976 the National Party was led by an authoritarian, R.D. Muldoon, who used his security services to get dirt on his opponents, and alleged communist fellow travellers in the trade union movement. The listener’s cover story is on the leader of the trade union movement, called the Federation of Labour, Tom Skinner. Skinner had just received a knighthood and was presiding over the most militant period of strike action since the 1950s. This was in a period when compulsory unionism – yes it was compulsory to actually join a trade union – meant there was a strong base of industrial power. But it was also a time of economic stress, and argubaly long term decline. Skinner was the last of the old guard, and being knighted suggested he was part of the establishment. The article by Geoff Chappell makes it clear that he did not read any of the leftist literature.

Now on to the cultural front, but not leaving behind politics. The Labour Party was born on the West Coast of the South Island, in the mines, but an earlier Prime Minister known as King Dick also eminated from that region. Mary Seddon, Richard’s grandaughter, reviews a book called Miners and Militants, a collection of essays based on MA theses supervised at Canterbury University. She concludes: “right from the beginning the West Coast has been inhabited by far too many mean little men with grabby hands, ready to leave the gaunt wreck of empty tailings or burnt-out forest in their wake…” A visual equivalent of this point was made in the 1960s by photographer Les Cleveland, in The Silent Land, a long photo-essay that captures the colonial mentality. Other reviews suggest that literary publishing in the South Island, especially in Dunedin, was still strong. Meanwhile, Ray Columbus writes about the classic band Split Enz, which has just gone to London to re-record their first LP, known as Mental Notes, with Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music. It will now appear on the Chrysalis label, if not in the local charts yet.

Nothing new in local television this week, though that will be about to change. The listener in fact runs an article on the programme Upstairs, Downstairs, with photos of Gordon Jackson and other serious looking cast members, with some some social history. The series runs on Tuesdays at 7.30pm, opposite The Sweeney on TV1, with that listing showing a serious looking John Thaw with gun in hand. On Wednesday night there is a promotion of The Brothers, this time with a photo of Patrick O’Connell as Edward Hammond, who replaced Glyn Owen in that role. Owen will soon appear in a later episode of Survivors, which this week has the ‘Corn Dolly’ episode playing, being the first script by Jack Ronder in the series. This episode has a short quote from a new character, Charles Vaughan, played by Denis Lill, about making sure there is a next generation of survivors.

I was not going to write about Jack Ronder’s scripts for Survivors, mainly to focus on what Terry Nation had intended to do. Ronder and the show’s producer, Terrence Dudley, seem to have got control of the series at some point, and took it in the wrong direction. Nonetheless, Ronder did have some interesting ideas, and the Charles Vaughan character proved to be essential to the ongoing survival of the porgamme, being the key character by the third series. In this first appearance he has something of a cult leader type of role, or just that of a harem figurehead. Vaughan was an architect who also ran a hobby farm with his wife, and now wants to lead a self-supporting community. But while he is off surveying the wider district with a female companion, most of his community have been poisoned by fish, apparently. After discovering the trio of Abby, Jenny and Greg, he returns to find his people dying, and then it gets a bit odd. It emerges that at least four of the women were pregnant, and Abby is being lined up as the next candidate. She is having none of it, and once Jenny decides to leave the trio is off again, with a classic long camera shot at the end of the episode. This leaves Charles with just two pregnant companions.

It was the idea of a set of two trios, both with one man and two women, that could have been developed here. And the problem for the series, conceptually, is that Abby and Jenny realise that if they are going to have a self-supporting rural commune they need someone like Charles who actually knows how to grow food. It could have worked to have contrasting trios trying to survive, even if they were not directly linked in a settlement. By the time this happens, at the start of the second series, Abby was written out of the programme, and Charles is in a monogamous relationship with a woman Pet, played by Lorna Lewis. Jenny was by this stage pregnant with Greg’s baby, as Lucy Fleming was in real life, so the interesting idea of the trio with two women was gone.




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