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 aflfuent 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.

Postscript 25/7/2020:

Yesterday the New Zealand media announced that Behrouz Boochani had been given refugee status in New Zealand. He seems to have been resident in Christchurch since arriving for the literary festival. It was also made apparent that he had become a research fellow at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, and had his own research project to conduct. This is presumably good publicity for that university, but it is one of the worst places in New Zealand for an outsider to try to do something new in terms of research. At least it was for me. Anyway, a good outcome for Behrouz, but not for the others left in Australian detention camps.

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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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Revisiting New Zealand in 1976 (the Listener) #3

Well it’s the end of September in 1976, and the cover of the listener has a publicity shot for a new New Zealand TV drama, Hunter’s Gold. This is a young adult costume drama, set in the goldfields of Otago, in the South Island, in the nineteenth century. It was written by an ex-pat, Roger Simpson, but still marks the revitalisation of the TV and film industry in this period, and the interest in historical dramas set in colonial times.

The other cover story involves the plight of a native bird, a flightless parrot called the Kakapo. Written by Anna Kenna, the story of the likely extinction of the Kakapo focusses on the lack of knowledge of the bird up to that point, given that there had been no confirmed identification of any females for many years. There has now been a breeding programme for some time, but there are still less than 200 Kakapo alive. But, other female activists are highlighted in the listener this week, after a mention last week: Elsie Locke writes about education, and Sue Kedgley is interviewed in the Persons column.

In this week’s Rock column Gordon Campbell reviews a Motown LP called The Bitch is Back, by Yvonne Fair. Not the one by Elton John. Elton and Kiki Dee are still top of the singles chart, holding out against two Abba songs, and Henry Gross. Neil Diamond is still top of the Albums chart (with Beautiful Noise), and has Hot August Night enter at number 15. The album storming into the top 10 is Frampton Comes Alive, at number 9, just below the Seekers, and just above the Dark Side of the Moon. The other big mover is Joe Walsh with You Can’t Argue with a Sick Mind at number 19, just below Olivia Newton-John.

On to the Wednesday night TV listings, and the write ups of the prime time British shows. On TV 1 there is a photo of Erin Geraghty and Fiona Fullerton in their nurses uniforms for Angels. And on TV2 there is a somewhat poorly reproduced publicity shot of Gabrielle Drake playing croquet, in a very long dress, with the caption “Gabrielle with the nice brown hair.” It’s hard to tell if she has brown hair, due to the black and white shot, but we are assured she does have brown hair, and was only wearing a blonde wig in The Brothers.

At 8.30 pm on TV1 we see the third episode of Survivors, called ‘Gone Away’, written by Terry Nation. Gone Away begins with a long scene in which Tom Price, played by Talfryn Thomas, comes across a deserted farm, and decides to take a shot gun, before catching a glimpse of a boy in a kitchen mirror. Tom Price is a key character for Terry Nation, a kind of rover with a habit of talking his way out of situations, what we would call a bit of a bullshit artist. In Nation’s book Tom Price is the last one left, the ultimate survivor, but in the TV series he initially appears to be not more than a tramp with a habit of lying. It seems that Talfryn may not have been a very pleasant fellow, but the man could act.

The Tom Price character tends to pop up at odd times in the first few episodes as a minor one, but becomes more endearing with repeated viewings on DVD, even adding a hint of humour at times. In the first episode he is asleep in a makeshift shelter on a hill when Jenny comes across him, and they have a brief conversation. By the second episode Jenny is desperate for some company when she encounters Price again, coming out of a mens store wearing a new suit, and about to get in a Rolls Royce. Tom’s brief joy ride in the Roller is the only light bit of the second episode, but he continues to keep his distance from Jenny, and prefers to roam around completely aimlessly, avoiding other people.

The Tom Price character stands out because he is the only one that appears to get dirty; even though the other characters are also sleeping rough, they always appear to be clean. This indicated some of the problems with continuity that Survivors had, and also that only some aspects of the story were realistic. Of course it’s all about class. The criticism of Survivors was that it lacked diversity, all of the characters were middle class, except Tom Price. I would have thought that was the point in a way: all these middle class people that have secure lives or useful functions in the old society find themselves ill-equipped to survive the post-plague world. This was even more the case with the female characters, all are very safe in a way, and none are grubby little liars like Tom Price.

One of the only things that Price says in Gone Away that was true, is that he came across the young boy in a dispute over a chicken. This was just before he found Abby Grant’s new settlement in an abandoned church, with her knickers on a makeshift washing line, and he decided to help himself to some food and then have a kip. In the meantime, Abby, Jenny and Greg Preston have gone away to get some more fuel for the Volvo, and to scavenge for food at an out of the way store. There they encounter rats, a dead body with a ‘looter’ sign hanging from it, and a trio of men with guns. They are led by Dave Long (played by Brian Peck who is also in The Brothers), who are part of Arthur Wormley’s militia. After a stand-off, and the trio holding up our heroes at gun-point, Jenny grabs one of the guns from the character in a suit and tie (played by Robert Gillespie). Abby takes the keys from their jeep, Preston shoots out a tyre, and the heroes are off in the Volvo. After some soul searching on a river footbridge, Abby realises that there will be many men with guns, and no co-operative effort to re-build society as she had assumed.

When the Volvo gets back to the church the trio come across Tom Price, they build a fire, then decide that the young boy Price tells them about might be Abby’s son. Off the trio go into the woods as darkness falls. This is when we get the quote that provides the blurb for the TV listing for Gone Away. Greg Preston feels the need to tell Abby it might not be her son Peter who is holed up with the man in the woods. And by the time they get there both the man and the boy have died of a secondary illness. And so the trio of survivors press on, looking for the lost schoolboy, but only after Dave Long’s trio return to bust up their settlement. Tom Price then decides to go with them, not to be seen again for the following three episodes, and the next two being penned by Jack Ronder, with no guns.


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Revisiting New Zealand in 1976 (the Listener) #2

This week the listener cover story (18 September) features a preview of a radio programme titled ‘Ladies, a plate please’. For those that don’t know what this means, it refers to the cultural practice whereby, when inviting a couple to a social event, the female was to bring a plate, preferably with something appetising on it (usually home baking). The cover features prominent cook Alison Holst, opera singer Kiri te Kanawa, and a young Marilyn Waring, who had just been elected to Parliament aged about 23.

The article is titled ‘Feminism: the wave rolls on’, and features veteran campaigner Elsie Locke, Rosslyn Noonan, the NZ organiser for International Women’s Year 1975, and Susan Kedgley, described as ‘a spokesperson for women’s lib in New Zealand in the early 70s’. Kedgley is ‘back here on leave from New York’, without mentioning her job at the U.N., where she apparently dated Kofi Annan. Sue Kedgley would later become a Green Party MP, along with Keith Locke (son of Elsie), who was targeted by security services.

Anyway back to the listener. There is a particularly interesting article on abstract art by Wystan Curnow. This includes photographs of paintings by Gordon Walters and Gretchen Albrecht which are probably worth a small fortune now. Ray Columbus writes the rock column this week, firstly introducing the readers to a German band named Kraan, which don’t fit into the Krautrock genre. Meanwhile, Joe Walsh has released You Can’t Argue with a Sick Mind, ably assisted by the other Eagles. The Eagles Greatest Hits moves up one place on the charts, Dark Side of the Moon moves down two, Hideaway by America comes in at 14, and Santana’s Amigos makes a rapid rise to reach number 17.

Moving to the Wednesday evening TV listings. Both The Brothers and Survivors are promoted with photos of the stars and a write up on the page. Brother David Hammond is played by Robin Chadwick, and he is seen kneeling in front of his Kendo equipment. Apparently Chadwick is a New Zealander, born in Whakatane, and he did all the usual Kiwi lurks, ‘like working on the wharves and in the woolsheds at night’. Meanwhile, on the TV1 page we see a photo of Carolyn Seymour, shivering in the winter cold, with a caption ‘Survivor?’. Her character, Abby Grant, is quoted as saying that “we’re less practical than Iron Age men,” without the ability to make and maintain all the complex systems of modern living. Apparently the real question in Survivors, according to the write up, is whether our ‘shaky pyramid’ of unstable globalism is re-created, or a new civilisation is formed with ‘the tiller of the soil recognised for his skills and where nuclear fission is only used peacefully’.

Of course Survivors was known for philosophical discussions of the big picture, the future of mankind, that kind of thing. But mostly by male characters with something of a messianic complex. The Abby Grant quote comes from a conversation with the character Arthur Wormley, played by George Baker, who leads what turns out to be an all male militia in a country house. Abby is attracted to the veneer of normality, and the sight of the power being on and a cooked dinner. But after repeating her spiel about civilisation she realises that Wormley, a former trade union hard man, actually leads a vigilante type of outfit. In his own meandering speech, and his tie and tweed jacket, Wormley declares that he is the one with the organisation skills to re-create a government, and also to allocate the remaining food supplies. He also executes his main rival, an ex military man who may have owned the house they are occupying, over Mrs Grant’s objections.

This second episode, ‘Genesis’, introduces the third character in the trio of survivors, Greg Preston. Preston makes a rather grand entrance, flying a helicopter back from the Netherlands, where he has been working as an engineer. Preston is able to land right beside his small cottage in the countryside and finds his wife dead, something that does not seem to bother him that much. He then drives off in his nifty MG car, looking to exercise his new found freedom. It is not too long, though, before he runs into a woman, Anne, flagging him down on the road. She is living in a shed in an abandoned quarry, with a man who has just had an accident and is pinned under a tractor. Preston proves his practicality by getting Vic out from underneath the tractor, but then begins to realise that Anne expects him to stay with them, and their impressive stock of collected goodies.

The quarry is both a metaphor for the prevailing econmic system, and a good place to hide out, at risk only of complete boredom. Anne herself turns out to be an aristocrat that is rather mercurial, at times almost pathetic, and at others rather strident in her ambition for commandeering as much stuff as she can. The parallel with Wormley is interesting, as the story cuts between the two scenes at the quarry and the country house that Wormley’s men occupy. Anne realises that any kind of accident could prove fatal, so she wants to live it up a bit; and, ironically perhaps, she also knows that money itself is no longer the main currency, it will be the control of the goods. There’s “an abundance of everything” according to Anne, as long as she has a man to look after her like Preston.

There is another quote from Anne that was chosen for the TV listing for the ‘Genesis’ episode. As one of the new rich, and holder of ‘things’, Anne expects that other people can do the work for them in return for a warm coat, and things like that. Preston is sceptical, and after trying to attend to Vic’s injuries, heads off in the morning not expecting to return. But, after raiding a pharmacy in town, and picking Lucy Fleming’s character (Jenny), he returns down the road to the quarry. There he meets Anne walking up in her fur coat and with a bag. She announces that Vic has died, and the trio head off to find another shelter. But Jenny and Preston end up with Abby, and leave Anne behind. So the actual story will be the trio, but it would have been better with just Abby and Jenny. Certainly, in Terry Nation’s book Anne, whom he calls Sarah, tries (unsuccessfully) to seduce Greg Preston; but in the TV series, Vic survives to seek revenge on Anne.

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Revisiting New Zealand in 1976 (the Listener) #1

Margaret Thatcher did visit New Zealand in September 1976. She even made the cover of the listener magazine. The listener was the magazine provided by the State which gave the listings for the two public TV channels, and the publicly-owned radio channels. But it was also the home of current affairs journalism in New Zealand at the time, as well as many cultural columns including Rock music, and only cost 20 cents. It was also a big magazine in terms of size, pages bigger than A4, and there were over 100 pages to read.

I was looking for a photography article by Geoff Chapple, but couldn’t find it in the archived copy (there was a photocopy provided). Instead I found a fascinating read, not just because of Margaret Thatcher on the cover, along with pictures of the five lead actors in the British TV series Angels which was due to start its run on Wednesday nights. If you might think the magazine leaned to the ‘right’, one might also notice a column named Persons, in which Geoff Chapple interviewed Willie Mae Reid, Vice Presidential candidate of the American Socialist Workers Party, quoted as saying, “capitalism produces its own grave-diggers in greater and greater numbers.” Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher’s friend, who worked for the NZ Prime Minister at the time, is quoted as saying that Mrs T was offering ‘capitalism with a conscience’. That obviously didn’t go so well.

There are many things of interest here, including the publication of the National Record Sales chart. Number 63 indicates that ‘Shannon’, by Henry Gross, was still at the top of the chart, closely followed by the Swedish group (‘Fernando’), and Elton John with Kiki Dee. The Swedish group also featured in the Albums chart, with two Rod Stewart offerings, as well as the Royal Scam, Wings at the Speed of Sound, and the Dark Side of the Moon at number 10. Gordon Campbell reviews the book by Greil Marcus, Mystery Train, for his rock column, and expresses disappointment in John McLaughlin’s new LP (Shakti).

On to Wednesday night television listings. TV1 has Angels debuting at 7pm, followed by Barney Miller at 8, and something called Survivors at 8.30pm, before current affairs at 9.30pm. Meanwhile, TV2 has Bless this House at 7.30pm, followed by The Brothers at 8, Kojak at 9, and the News at Ten. Wow, news on both channels, never happens now, but what to pick for a drama. The TV1 page has a picture of the ‘survivors’ played by Ian McCulloch (not actually in the first episode), Lucy Fleming, and Carolyn Seymour; while the TV2 page shows a very sexy photo of Brothers actress Hillary Tindall in a pool, rather than Gabrielle Drake. Despite this I know that I did watch Survivors at age 8 in 1976.

The reason I remember Survivors, despite being only 8 years old, and despite all the TV I did watch in the late 1970s, was because of the scary title sequence and accompanying theme music. This was where the Asian scientist drops a test tube, infects himself with a variant of the plague, travels to the eastern bloc country, collapses on the tarmac of the airport, and proceeds to infect the entire world due to international travel by plane. The blurb for the series tell us that 98% of the world population dies as a result. For the first episode, ‘The Fourth Horseman’, there follows a strange quote from the programme.

As we know, Survivors was created by Welshman Terry Nation, better known for creating the Daleks in Doctor Who, and for Blakes Seven, which he turned to after the first series of Survivors. The series was filmed mostly in rural England during the winter of 1974, before the actual ‘winter of discontent’, and of course is unremittingly bleak. It was also very innovative in a number of ways, without the budget and technology that the post-apocalyptic genre relies on now. But is it really the first post-apocalyptic drama series, and the only series to have two female leads, or is it of interest for other reasons?

On the face of it the story is about Abby Grant, a middle class woman with one child, living in the English countryside in relative luxury. After she survives the plague outbreak she goes off in search of her son, who was at a boarding school in the country. The first episode sets this scenario up, and includes a parallel story where a London resident, Jenny Richards, comes through the outbreak unscathed, and heads out to the countryside in search of company. Abby and Jenny don’t meet until the end of the second episode, so the first instalment acts as something of a pilot, and is the most interesting.

So Abby Grant drives off to the school and only finds corpses, until noticing a light in a technology room. There she finds a teacher, Dr Bronson, who is mostly deaf and at a loss to know what he can do. But after apprising Mrs Grant of the situation regarding her son Peter, who has left the school with a camping group, he eventually launches into his last lecture. This is when we reach the dialogue quoted in the programme listing: “we are of the generation that landed a man on the Moon, but the best we can do is talk of making tools from stone.” Bronson’s point is that once the existing infrastructure is gone, it can’t be replaced. In fact, with death on such a scale there is not the skill to actually maintain the existing technology. The character extrapolates from this that the underlying problem has been the over-specialisation, and an advanced division of labour means that no one has the skill to actually master all the processes that produce commodities.

It has to be said that this is interesting, but not the first thing that survivors of the plague would grasp. Nation seems to have used the Bronson character, and Peter Copley’s brilliant cameo, to hightlight the deference to formal education in British society. So Dr Bronson’s point is that there has to be a return to a traditional, small scale society, where all the ‘old crafts’ are re-learned and passed down by the elders. He might have also said that most of what was taught in boarding schools was of no practical use to survive with, even if it wasn’t in the formal curriculum. In particular, he is most proud of the radio ham equipment made and used by the boys to contact people around the world. All that has now gone, but those ideas of globalization turned not to be of much use in the end.

The other episodes in the first series of Survivors written by Nation have equally interesting dialogues between characters, and reflect on the underlying economic structure of British society. But he did not write the middle episodes, which took the series in the wrong direction, especially as Abby Grant’s son is never really part of the story. Carolyn Seymour’s character, at least initially, took Bronson’s lecture rather literally, and sought to create a commune based on subsistence farming and self sufficiency. Those ideas were fashionable at the time, but did not make for much drama, so various conflicts over resources had to be written into the stories, and reflect the domination of the male characters. It was too much to expect male writers to provide good dialogue for female lead characters: Carolyn Seymour was sacked by the producer, but Lucy Fleming’s Jenny character survived, and by the third series she is determined to turn the power back on. I may look at other first series episodes for more 1970s insights.

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Now for something completely different


This may be the last blog post, or a change in direction, but has nothing to do with tax havens. It is time to renew the blog, and pay WordPress for the privilege, as I can’t seem to go back to the free blog site I started with. There are still readers so I feel obliged to keep it alive, even though the situation is not very conducive. In particular, I do have a Gmail address to go with the site but don’t publicise it for obvious reasons (scams). And the fact that the alerts from the blog are put into spam by Gmail; and that there are also alerts from other well known blogs on tax havens and money laundering that I should be getting but don’t receive at all.

But back to the photo. For those that don’t know this is Grace Slick at Woodstock, fifty years ago, in some sort of excelsis. I copied it from a lengthy piece about Woodstock on the London Review of Books website. And if you have not heard of the Jefferson Airplane, and the role of Grace Slick as the co-lead vocalist, you’ve missed something worthy of remembrance. She is heard on the Woodstock recording announcing that they were playing ‘morning maniac music’, having missed their evening slot, and that this was a ‘new dawn’. As good as any place to make a new start with the blog, and simply pursue interesting cultural things, with an ear and eye mostly on the 1970s. Enjoy.


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