Hullo again … delayed by a frankly inexcusable three weeks, this episode brings together some of the things I noticed and wrote notes on while in New Zealand. It’s the longest one so far, and might have been a lot longer if I hadn’t just despaired of ever doing it justice. I don’t think I’m ever going to fall for a country as hard as I fell for Greece, but man, New Zealand is very nice. Next episode will cover Polynesia …
(PS: Attentive readers may note that the word “Maori” is consistently misspelt. This is because I don’t know how to do the flat line accent over the a. Sorry)
1. Anglosphere populations
We went to New Zealand via a short two week stay in Australia, where we were mainly going to visit our friend Andy. He is a professional singer and works mainly in directing operas at the Sydney Opera House – this is of course ridiculous, rather like going to London because you have a mate who is a Beefeater. We stayed in one of Sydney’s Eastern suburbs, a name which presumably means nothing to 90% of readers, but which carries an iconic significance to the small part of the globe which follows Rugby League. Eastern Suburbs were the Dallas Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the game in the 1980s when I was growing and (not having really followed League all that much for twenty years) I was heartily disappointed to discover that they had changed their name to “Sydney Roosters”, presumably out of an erroneous belief that it sounded cooler. It was out near Botany Bay, a perfectly respectable place where the salt of the Aussie middle class resided – builders, plumbers, opera directors, that sort of person.
I also met up with John Band in a pub roughly antipodeal from the one I first met him. This place was a curious sight to me, as it looked more like a betting shop with a bar in it, something which would of course be totally illegal in the UK. Apparently, until really quite recently, there was only one kind of liquor license in New South Wales – the “hotel licence”, which allowed you to open, as a sort of portfolio within a smallish geographical area, a hotel, a pub, a betting shop and two bottle-shops. Other than that, it was “clubs” (servicemens’ and rugby, for example) which tended to be the hubs for drinking and gambling. Australia leads the world in fruit machine technology, and also in problem gambling, and I wonder how much of the money ever really makes its way to returned servicemen or to rugby players.
All of which is somewhat introductory to my theory. Which is that across the world, every large English-speaking country has a nearby, smaller and slightly nicer English-speaking population, like a little brother that people can feel good about when the bigger version has pissed them off. So America has Canada, Britain has Ireland and Australia has New Zealand. It sometimes even works in fractal fashion – North Island of New Zealand has South Island. You can actually use this presumable accident of geography to your own advantage as a consumer of political news, because the smaller population acts as a noise filter for the larger one. What I mean is that, for example, any piece of British news which doesn’t make it into the Irish press is probably the sort of chatter and noise that you always tell yourself to ignore; similarly for American and Australian news that doesn’t make it into the Canadian and New Zealand media respectively.
Another thing that Anglosphere countries tend to go in for is somewhat oversized main cities. Auckland is 31 per cent of the total population – the rest of New Zealand consists of slightly more than three million people, spread out over a pair of islands roughly the size of Great Britain. After spending fifteen years travelling the world on the basis of seeing nothing but the central business district of the main commercial city, my trip to New Zealand was quite odd in that I spent two and a half months there and didn’t visit Auckland once, other than to pick up and drop off hire cars.
2. Maori and Welsh
We were staying in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, in a town which has a significantly larger Maori population than the New Zealand average – about 40% of the population of Whaktane, and 60% of the kids at the school where my children attended for a month. I’ve always been fascinated by the Maori – mainly from seeing them rampaging against Wales and the Lions in test matches, but also in the idea of them as a native population that not only survived European colonisation, but fought them to an honourable peace and even managed to get a legally binding treaty out of them. I read quite a bit about it all while I was there.
The history of the process leading up to the Treaty of Waitangi can be told in several different ways; as far as I can tell there are at least three narratives about how it came to be signed.
One of them is the “unconquerable heroic Maori” version, under which the Maori were the one native population who white settlers couldn’t defeat in battle, so they sued for peace (and then tricked them out of their land). It’s certainly true that from a military point of view, the Maori had a lot of advantages relative to many Australian and American native tribes. For one thing, they weren’t nomads or hunter-gatherers, and so they had been able to support a dedicated warrior class for a long time. For another, that warrior class was a very successful example of its kind – they were kind of like the Vikings of the South Sea. And finally, they had access to jade and obsidian, meaning that their “stone age” weapons were considerably more effective than the median; a stone axe that you see in museums back home is a pretty hopeless thing, but a Maori war axe is much more obviously something that could take a limb off. All these things certainly made a war of conquest and extinction against the Maori a much more difficult proposition than it might otherwise have been. On the other hand, the actual results of the various small wars and the virtual extermination of the King movement make me think that if the Europeans had really put their minds to it, they could have forced a much worse outcome.
Another version of history, apparently often popular with people who want to undermine Treaty rights, is the “willing submission”. This is, in my opinion, far too close to a Just-So-Stories version of Hobbes’ Leviathan to be plausible, but the idea is that the Maori realised that, with the beginnings of trade with the European empires, and consequent introduction of firearms and steel weapons to their culture, they were in genuine danger of fighting each other to extinction unless they handed over sovereignty to a wise and benevolent outside ruler. It’s definitely true that the so-called “Musket Wars” had an astonishing effect on the Maori population, but not all Maori nations were involved in them, and the timing, as far as I can tell, doesn’t really match up to the Treaty process.
Finally, there’s the “domestic humanitarian” explanation. Basically, the period leading up to 1840 was a high-water mark for humanitarian and abolitionist movements in British politics. Popular and political opinion regarded what had happened to the Australian Aborgines as an appalling disaster (and, of course, a considerable political embarrassment when one was trying to moralise at the Americans about slavery), and there was widespread support in the Foreign Office for trying not to do things so badly this time round. On this view of history, the colonists were offering the Maori a much better deal than any other tribal population was getting (and, they kept emphasising, a much better deal than, say, the Tahitians were getting from France – the threat of pulling out and leaving New Zealand to another colonist was made a few times). On this view of history, the big advantage the Maori had was that they were basically a single people – although composed of a variety of national and genealogical groups, they had a single language, established political and trading relationships and generally formed much more of a coherent community than other tribal populations of the colonial era. It was possible to get a critical mass of Maori leaders together in a single hall and make a deal with them, just at the point in history when this was thought to be the right thing to do.
I think there are bits and pieces of truth scattered through all of these answers to the question of “why did New Zealand end up with a treaty rather than a genocide?”. Also, it seems to be the case that a lot of chiefs simply took the view that the game was up, and that having spent their entire history living by the sword, they had now come up against a superior military force (the records contain several statements by Maori leaders to the effect that within four or five generations, Aotearoa would be a white country). Conquest and displacement of the existing population was a common phenomenon already. One of the interesting things about Waitangi Tribunal jurisprudence on the allocation of land rights to iwi is that, for a lot of its purposes, the clock stopped on February 6, 1840 – if your people were, at that time, hiding in the forests having been driven off your ancestral lands during that particular episode of the Musket Wars, then the basic position is tough luck.
As you can tell, I read quite a lot about the history of the Treaty of Waitangi, and the thought that kept on coming back to me was that this must have been exactly how things progressed during the English conquest of Wales back in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. A basically tribal society, with lots of small princedoms led by local hard men, largely but imperfectly converted by Christian missionaries. Lots of little alliances with the expansionary foreign power, aimed at gaining immediate advantage in a local power struggle, but losing sight of the larger process of which they were a part. Sporadic episodes of brutality to make it clear where the superior military might was. And an eventual recognition that it was time to join the winning side and get the best deal you can, coupled with a recognition on the part of the conqueror that the population had to be given some concessions as they were otherwise capable of being more trouble than they were worth.
There are dozens of such analogies between the Maori and the Welsh, even down to the shared love of opera arias and rugby football. The New Zealand educational system often sends teachers on exchange visits, as Wales is at the cutting edge in terms of managing bilingual education in a minority language. It sounds at this point as if I’m just descending into whimsy, but there’s actually a serious message. Because, although one doesn’t want to underestimate the problems of the Maori population – and they were evident, all the poorest outlying towns seemed to be majority Maori, and whenever you saw someone on the street who was clearly poor and not in good physical condition, they were also – it’s also clear that they’re surviving and finding a role in modern New Zealand society in a way in which you just don’t see Australian aborigines and Native Americans doing. And the distinction here seems very important to me.
How does a basically tribal society adapt to a modern industrial lifestyle? That, in my view, is a really important question for the world at the moment, as it’s the key to the Afghanistan conflict, among other things. The Pashtun tribes who make life so difficult for any and all occupiers of that territory are not stupid, and they are aware of what happened to the Khoi-San, the Native Americans, the Aborigines, and more or less any tribal society that has ever adopted any position other than one of strictly “no compromise, no retreat, nothing except trade in firearms and textiles” with respect to the modern world. Economic development in that region is more or less impossible if it has to be attempted in the context of a society which is basically the largest surviving tribal society in existence and wants to stay that way. For that reason, if no other, I think it’s a good idea for the rest of us to look at New Zealand and see if there’s anything to learn.
3. Fruit and flightless birds
The landscape has an extraordinary …generous quality to it. The desert in Jordan carried the constant fear of death to the unwary, and the fertility of Sri Lanka also had a sinister quality to it, as if something was going to start growing on you if you sat still for too long. And Australia, even in the temperate zones, is such an extraordinary collection of poisonous and hazarodus things (one episode of Peppa Pig has been banned by the ABC, as it involves Peppa learning that Friendly Mr Spider is nothing to be scared of, a message which is wholly inappropriate to teach Australian kids). But New Zealand – the countryside seems to be acting as if it is trying to kill you by throwing fruit at you. The native bush seems to be full of not much except edible plants and slow-moving flightless birds. Lush green forests which bloom red in the summer, fern roots, buckets of shellfish – the Maori canoes must have thought they had landed in paradise. Even the glaciers are pretty cuddly-looking by Swiss standards; we didn’t get right up into the Southern Alps, but we went up to the Franz Joseph glacier, and, while any glacier anywhere in the world is a pretty awe inspiring sight, it didn’t seem to me to have that palpable sense of death about it that you get at the Aiguille du Midi, for example.
The bush and vegetation is pretty scenic in itself, although in my opinion it’s better seen from the road, or across a valley. In this opinion I apparently strongly disagree with the Department of Conservation, whose principles for the planning of walking trails pretty much define the phrase “unable to see the wood for the trees”. It is fun to walk through ancient rain-forest and duck under massive tree-fern branches pretending to be David Attenborough, but when you’ve taken a ten mile hike along something advertised as a “coastal path” and see the sea four times in four hours, you do begin to start humming “here we go round the native bush, the native bush, the native bush” with an increasingly desperate timbre. I am, on the other hand, on sound historical grounds in holding my own view – historians reckon that the Maori settlers destroyed about half of the native forest that existed before they arrived (mainly by burning it down to facilitate the hunting of the ostrich-like moa, now extinct), and that the European settlers destroyed about half of the remaining half.
4. The agriculture cluster
The key to understanding the economy of New Zealand is that it’s an industry cluster, and the industry in question is agriculture. Or, and this might be a bit more controversial, the industry in question is agriculture marketing, the most perfect example of which being the way in which the Chinese gooseberry was renamed the “kiwifruit” and production ramped up exponentially to meet US and European demand. At some point, if they can transport them without bruising, I’d guess that they’ll have a go at doing the same thing with the Feijoa, a kind of South American guava that’s very popular domestically. Marketing isn’t looked down on as a frivolous activity for people not clever enough to do science in New Zealand, as far as I can see – farmers, if they want to enjoy middle-class incomes, have to be very aware about the difference between the stuff that comes out of the ground or off the animal, and the sort of thing that people want to see in their shops.
They are really very snappy about working out what the world wants and how to give it to them. Australian wine starts selling in the UK? Bang – New Zealand plants a load of vines. The Marlborough region develops a brand premium for Sauvignon? Bish bosh, ship truckloads of chardonnay grapes from Hawke’s Bay down to Marlborough and you can sell Marlborough Chardonnay too. Craft beer, did someone say? New Zealand agriculture is on the case, digging up the less successful vineyards and ramping up on a dozen new specialty varieties of hops. It is one of the few agricultural industries in the world which has basically no subsidies or tariff protections, and as a result they are just so much sharper and more responsive; it’s a perfect example for anyone wanting to talk about X-inefficiency in their economics class.
What’s interesting is that the general level of awareness of agricultural matters, and of the trends and fashions in global foodstuffs, is very widespread and very detailed. Over a barbecue, my brother-in-law asked me why I thought it might be that Europeans were prepared to pay such big money for manuka honey these days, and mentioned that a friend of a friend had been putting in more beehives. He had no real personal interest in apiary as far as I could see – he has a good job helping to keep the dairy giant Fonterra’s vast logistics chain of tanker trucks moving. It’s just the sort of thing that one makes conversation about in New Zealand, same as I might, six months earlier, have asked someone at a similar party what they thought about house prices. House prices are a common topic of conversation too, by the way, it’s not a totally alien culture.
You get a sense of magnitude though, in the processing plants, rather than the pastures and fields themselves. One field of cows looks quite like another. And although if asked, you’d realise that if you’ve been driving for two hours past nothing but fields of cows, you don’t really get a sense that there is a hell of a lot of milk being produced here. Then you drive through a town like Edgecumbe, past something which looks for all the world like an oil refinery, and realise that it is in fact a dairy, the size of an oil refinery. Four million litres of milk go through that particular plant every day (one litre for every New Zealander), and it’s not even one of the top three Fonterra plants. A lot of the milk is converted into powder, which is sold to the Asian market. This was my first clue that I might be heading into some interesting economics – at the duty-free shop in Auckland Airport, one of the things that they pile up high next to the scent and booze is great big tubs of infant formula.
5. On the road again
We took a camper van around the country for a month, in between the New Year and the first day of school for the kids. The countryside is just as stunning as everyone says it is, if you stick to the coastal highways, and even the brownish agricultural towns in the middle of the flat plains are actually not without interest. Eketahuna, a dot on Highway 2 on the way down to Wellington, sticks in my mind. It’s a hell of a dull looking place, with a big agricultural store, a really quite baroquely horrible-looking rough hotel, and a load of grassland for miles around. But even in the middle of this town there was a rather nice little cafe, which was making the fair old effort with home made quiche and nice coffee, and we spent a pleasant lunchtime there (it’s called “Addiction” if you’re ever passing through), having a refreshing lunch and leafing through the papers and magazines.
Our main goal was the Interislander ferry, though, to travel as far south on the South Island as we could, consistent with making it back in time for the start of term. It’s an astonishing boat journey – even if the top deck is closed out in the Cook Strait so you can’t whale-watch, as it was for us, the voyage through the Queen Charlotte Sounds is the sort of thing that people spend serious money on scenic trips for. We did actually take a scenic boat trip around them a few days later, with an informative tourist-boat captain who pointed out which of the green hills were native bush and which were forestry plantations. Once you’ve had it pointed out, it’s easy to recognise the combed-hair appearance of managed forestry, which they’re trying to phase out in the Sounds in the interest of conservation and restoration. They’re also gradually trying to exterminate rats and possums, islet by islet, in order to restore an environment in which kiwi and other flightless, harmless birds can thrive. Almost the most interesting thing about the trip, though, was the captain himself – I had simply seen him as a fairly average-looking, slightly stocky white guy, but he concluded the trip by welcoming us all to Te Pounamu in the name of his people, Te Ati Awa. It’s actually a lot harder than one might think to tell who’s a Maori and who isn’t; the huge guy with long hair and tattooed arms might be a South Sea Islander, while down in the South Island (due to interaction with Norwegian whalers) there are apparently blond-haired, blue eyed Maori.
Once we had stopped oohing and aahing over Picton (which took a while), we headed off down the west coast. The scenery gets even more dramatic on the highway down here – we didn’t see a single motorcycle gang, which amazed me because if I lived there and had a motorbike I am pretty sure I’d do nothing but ride it up and down between Nelson and Greymouth. The highways have the same sinuous curves that you get in the Alps, with granite cliffs on your left and pounding waves on your right (vice versa when you’re going north again, I suppose). We were lucky with the weather, but even so there were one or two days when a big wind got up and the sea really showed you what it could do – onto a lee shore as well, on the day when we passed Punakaiki and Rapahoe Bay, in the area where the opening scenes of “The Luminaries” take place.
6. The biggest event in New Zealand history
I read four or five non-fiction books by local authors while travelling around and in spare moments – two histories of the Treaty of Waitangi, a book about gangs, a corporate history of the dairy company Fonterra, and a book about what the hell “manuka honey” was and why it was so expensive. There was one historical event which was mentioned in all of them. That was …a short break is provided here for readers to have a guess …. the entry of the United Kingdom into the European Economic Community in 1972. Not something which had occurred to me either, to be honest, but when you think about it, it’s fairly obvious that this would have been a cataclysmic event; the UK represented 80% of New Zealand’s export earnings at the time, and they were effectively told that they were being given five years’ notice to find alternative customers for their agricultural produce, as the Commonwealth system of tariff preference was wound down and the UK joined the land of milk lakes and grain mountains. In actual fact, and largely thanks to some pretty well-executed and desperate diplomacy, New Zealand got a pretty generous system of transitional arrangements, but from 1972 the country had clearly been put on notice that the clock was ticking, and that it was going to need to think about the future as a genuinely independent country rather than a far away part of England. The political and economic repercussions were felt throughout more or less the entirety of New Zealand society, as far as I could tell.
It’s because of the need to find a way in the post-EEC world, of course, that New Zealand ended up making such an outsize contribution to the trade agreements, basically running the Cairns Group throughout the GATT process and providing the WTO with its first chief executive. They got a lot of what they wanted, in the end – ther countries tended to be well-disposed to Kiwis as, being a small and remote country, they had few oppportunities to make enemies in other fields which carried over into the sphere of trade policy. It must also have helped, of course, that this was a vital life-and-death matter for the New Zealand economy, while it was somewhat lower down the agenda for everyone else. This meant that the average calibre of the New Zealand diplomats assigned to the task would be much higher – while the negotiation of agricultural subsidy and trade agreements is a pretty humdrum matter for the civil services of most countries, for New Zealand in the 1980s it was the ultimate high-flyer post, almost literally tasked with the job of keeping their country in the developed world.
As one can guess, the story had a happy ending, based on New Zealand’s development of Asian markets to replace the lost UK one, and the country’s emergence as the Saudi Arabia of milk. This was so successful that a load of sheep pasture, and even forestry land, was converted to dairy pasture. This left me a bit worried that things were getting too concentrated, and you could see on the television news that the precipitous drop in the global price of milk was beginning to worry people. But New Zealand is unlikely to lose market share. I grew up in North Wales, with a couple of farmers in my extended family, and as a result, I was always very much aware of how difficult it was to make a living out of sheep and cows. One of the things that originally got me interested in the subject of economics was asking the question “How come they’re able to send lamb and butter all the way from New Zealand and still sell it cheaper than Wales?”, and never being very satisfied with the answer.
When you get there, though, and if you’ve done an economics degree in the meantime, the answer is obvious, and it’s to do with opportunity cost. The two islands of New Zealand are roughly the same area as Great Britain, with somewhat less than a tenth of the population. The price of farmland in New Zealand isn’t being set by the alternative value of building a housing estate, or a hotel, or a factory, or basically anything. It’s cheap, and it rents even cheaper. And this is both a big and a sustainable comparative advantage. There are surprisingly few places in the world which are as thinly populated as New Zealand, but which are nonetheless as rich in high quality temperate-climate agricultural land.
7. Free range kids
We’d been worrying a little bit about the effect on our kids of taking them on our round the world trip – out of school for a year, and taken away from their friends and forced into the company of Mum and Dad all the time. The elongated stop in New Zealand was meant to help with that – they could see their cousins for a while, and we also arranged to enrol them in the local middle school (and our little one in an infants’ school a few miles away). I have to say, it was a spectacular success. Part of the whole purpose of bringing the children round the world – god knows, it wasn’t the sheer joy of home-schooling – was to let them see that different ways of doing things are possible, and the way that children live in New Zealand really contrasted with how things were in London.
The kids have much more independence, and a much more outdoor lifestyle. When there isn’t so much traffic on the roads and there’s more empty space, they can play in it. My ten-year-old nephew was able to go out alone into the bush to look after his father’s possum traps (it’s considered civically responsible to take care of a few traps in the local bush, because possums and rats eat kiwi eggs). After school, kids would arrange to meet up, parent’s absent, and “jump off the wharf”. (Jumping off things is actually the national sport, as far as I can tell – it doesn’t get as much TV coverage as rugby, but has many more participants. In the course of a fifteen minute lift I gave to a hitch-hiker who had missed his bus back home from one of the higher local wharves, I was given a pretty comprehensive run down of all the tall objects with bodies of water beneath them in the surrounding district. There’s a sign on the bridge over the Whakatane River saying “Do not jump off this bridge”, but I don’t know why they bothered).
On enrolling our five-year old at her infants’ school we were pretty much immediately handed a piece of paper with details of the two-day camp that the tots would be going on. It’s a totally different world.
8. Radio radio
We drove around a lot, and so got quite used to commercial radio – there is actually a pretty good Radio 4 equivalent from the state broadcaster, but I find something like that quite difficult to listen to in the car, and so we were mainly listening to the pop and phone-in stations. And … my God, they are bad. Not just the usual badness that you expect from middle-of-the-day talk radio (ask me about the problems that have shown up in the construction of the Auckland convention centre, I’m an expert by now), but simply in the technical abilities of the people in the studios. Constant bursts of dead air, presenters who can’t stop umming and ahhing, obscenities broadcast at three in the afternoon, and DJ links which defied belief (I heard one character segueing from a pretty tragic story about conflicts in Whitney Houston’s family over the brain-death of her nice, into “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”, with a remark that this was in some way appropriate to the problems of the Houston family. You could hear the conviction draining out of his voice, as he realised that this wasn’t sounding as good on air as it had when he was scribbling it on the back of a cigarette packet).
I don’t know what’s going on here. The obvious excuse would be that it’s a small media market, and so anybody who is capable of reading out a link without stumbling has gone to seek a better career in Australia. I don’t think this can be right though. For one thing, this problem doesn’t appear to affect print media; not only are there two decent quality national newspapers, even small towns have reasonable quality local papers. For another, it’s not all that small a media market – New Zealand has almost exactly the same population as Ireland, and there are definitely people with peak-hour slots on commercial stations in New Zealand who would not be considered ready for hospital radio in Ireland.
What I think is going on is a combination of two factors. First, as I mentioned, the state owned broadcaster doesn’t directly compete with commercial radio – it runs two stations, one of which is in depth news and the other of which is classical music. But a consequence of that is that the state owned broadcaster doesn’t indirectly subsidise commercial stations either – there’s no direct pipeline by which people who have been trained up by RNZ can walk straight into a commercial competitor and do exactly the same job. The role played by the BBC in providing human capital to the independent media industry in the UK is very important, and the same thing doesn’t seem to be happening in New Zealand.
The other driving factor is that broadcast media, more than any other industry, makes and is made by its consumers. As it happens, more or less anywhere I go in the English speaking world (and indeed, outside it if there are subtitles), I tend to be pretty appalled by the technical quality of the local output. But that’s because I grew up in and live in the world’s single most competitive media market. It’s very hard to grow up in that kind of market, even at its fringes out in Wales, without picking up a lot of background knowledge. The UK is a media-industry cluster, just in the way that New Zealand is an agriculture-industry cluster, and a big part of that in both cases is that knowledge of the industry isn’t confined to the people who are in it; it’s part of the everyday conversation. Alfred Marshall noticed this characteristic of industry clusters – “The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously. Good work is rightly appreciated, inventions and improvements in machinery, in processes and the general organization of the business have their merits promptly discussed”. The biggest asset of the British and Irish media industries is their educated consumer base, and that’s the thing that’s hardest to transplant somewhere else. I think this is the big benefit of the profusion of media-studies courses in British education – it’s not so much that all their graduates are going on to jobs in the media, it’s more that they will always be educated and critical consumers.
There is one area where New Zealand media seem to be very good at what they do, and it’s one that is likely to get more and more relevant. They’re very good at aggregation. Looking through the Bay of Plenty Times, I was struck by the fact that it had roughly as much international news as, say, the Observer, and wondered how they did it. The answer was pretty clear as the articles were all atrributed to the international newspapers from where they had been clipped. Presumably the fees for doing so were pretty reasonable, as there is little likelihood of cannibalisation of the New York Times’ circulation by a newspaper in New Zealand. But the general magpie instinct – the media equivalent of the proverbial “number 8 wire solution” – was in evidence across the media. I actually got interviewed myself on RNZ one weekend (on the rather excellent Kim Hill news magazine show), as the producer had put the word out on his grapevine that he needed talking heads for the HSBC tax story, and a mate told him I was passing through. In a world in which geographical boundaries are becoming less important in the media world, I suspect that people who have learned their trade in the New Zealand media will be showing up more and more elsewhere in the Anglosphere, although I would also guess that the same porous borders and global competition will be pretty much the death of RadioLIVE and Bayrock FM.
9. Thut uccent
It was interesting to see how my kids picked up the local accent in a month at school; my son didn’t at all, but the eldest daughter actually uttered the sentence, “Flup the swutch, ey?” to me towards the end of our time there. We made friends with some Swiss people who admitted they had a hard time with the Kiwi way with vowels (you’d never realise there were so many contexts when it’s ambiguous if someone is referring to a pen or a pin). The sentence that sticks in my mind was from a discussion on the radio, in which a beautifully-spoken presenter enunciated “But reverse sexism is just as dismissive”, with all the consonants as clear as a bell and all the vowels identical.
I also spent a small amount of time in Napier looking for a wine store which was in “the IM Pei building”. I was quite enthusiastic about seeing how the French-Japanese modernist had dealt with the placement of one of his glass structures in the context of Napier’s historical streets (the town was demolished by an earthquake and rebuilt just at the peak of the art-deco boom). But in fact, the person who gave me the directions was referring to the former local headquarters of the insurance company, AMP.
10. Man mountains
I saw the first one on the aeroplane from Sydney – an absolutely huge Maori guy, with tattoos all over his arms, bulging out in all directions from his Chicago Bulls vest. “Oh hey, here we go”, I thought, and pointed him out to my son, who was worrying a little bit about whether he would be made to play rugby against a class of junior All Blacks and consequently flattened. In fact, the unfeasible-giant body type isn’t really any more common among the Maori population than the comparable rugby player build is in the valley of South Wales, but it’s very noticeable when you see it, and it’s definitely genetic rather than a result of exercise and diet and/or steroid abuse – there were quite a few kids at the school who were close to a multiple of the size of their classmates.
11. Driving a camper van into Mordor
I spent about half of our holiday doing Ian McKellen impressions and saying things like “one does not just take a car ferry …into Mordor”, until, and indeed after, the family told me to stop. We did actually go through the Land of Mordor – it was filmed in the Mount Tongariro national park, which provides plenty of geothermal atmospherics, along with one of the comparatively few genuinely forbidding pieces of landscape in New Zealand. If you make your way through it, and past the proving grounds for the New Zealand army, you get to Lake Taupo, and some of the nicest geothermal spas you’ll find. We took the camper van through Mordor twice, because we liked it so much. I really don’t understand why Frodo had such a hard time finding the way, by the way – the road system is very easy to understand, you just pick a numbered highway and stick to it, rolling along for hours while occasionally boggling at the size of a Fonterra milk-tanker road train.
The New Zealand tourism industry does potentially have a bit of a problem with “Peak Hobbit”. Now that the Lord of the Rings films have all been made, and The Hobbit’s narrative thread has been stretched out as far as it can realistically go, there is something of an issue with the development of further sword and sorcery epics to set there. The Estate of JRR Tolkien are cutting up rough about further licensing deals, having decided that they didn’t get enough out of the first six films. And, possibly more of a problem, the quality drop-off between the two novels that have already been filmed and the remaining Tolkien canon is one that rivals the Crack of Doom itself. Nobody wants to see “The Silmarillion Part One: Endless Genealogical Blah About Elves”, let alone its sequels “Now Was He The Grandfather Or The Great Grandfather Who Owned That Piece Of Jewellery” or “The Great Battle, But First Let’s Get This Ancestry And Marriage Thing Nailed Down Once And For All”.
I think they’ll be all right. The tourist industry has definitely gone chips-in on Hobbitry – the natural history museum in Wellington’s foyer is dominated by a massive orc, which occasioned two thoughts in me – first, that this was not strictly a natural history exhibit, and second that it probably says something about the state of race relations that nobody has seen fit to make a big deal out of the fact that the villains of the film are big tattooed wielders of spears and stone axes with (to my mind) recognisably Polynesian facial features. But I think that after more than a decade plus of Hobbitry, they’ve built up a sufficient base of satisfied customers to keep people returning via word of mouth. Also, the film franchise has managed to build its own mini-cluster of special effects and stunt-work companies (building on the national love of jumping off things). The nature of the trilogy and its budget was that it was able to provide a reliable enough stream of work to make it worth people’s while investing in capital and in building up local businesses, and now they’re able to pitch for work on international films unrelated to hobbits.
12. Land of a hundred gangs
Another way in which members of a basically tribal culture can adapt to a modern industrial society, of course, is by forming motorcycle gangs. And quite a few Maori have taken up this solution, meaning that New Zealand has significantly more gangs per head of population than almost anywhere on earth. They aren’t all motorbike gangs by any means – the two biggest gangs in New Zealand are the Mongrel Mob, and Black Power, both of which are street gangs – but unusually, even the non-cycle based gangs copy the fahsion of wearing denim jackets with patches on them. And the patch-wearing gangs aren’t exclusively Maori, although the white membership seems to be pretty small these days, outside the explicitly racist gangs. But in the area where I was staying, the costumed avengers seemed to all be Maori. As far as I could see, Whakatane was mainly a town of Black Power Outbackz, while some of the surrounding towns (particularly Kawerau, a big sawmill and logging centre) were Mongrel Mob. This apparently caused some problems, as the main funeral parlour for the surrounding region is in the centre of town, right in the centre of gang territory, and so is a focus for occasional fights. Gang central is on one of the shopping streets, down from the schools, where I would occasionally hang around over a beer and watch the world go by, waiting to pick up the kids. I was later told that this was a brave thing to do, although it didn’t feel like that. I presume that the Turf Tavern got more lively in the evening, but in mid afternoon, it’s “no gang insignia” policy was largely respected, and although there were often a few tough looking lads there, they were generally asleep.
One doesn’t want to glamourise these people. Although they have some embroidery on their denims and they are in and out of each other’s houses and business more than your average collection of deadbeats and thugs, they’re not exactly the Sopranos or the Sons of Anarchy. Successive investigations into the role of the patched gangs in drug dealing and organised crime have tended to find that they are really quite weak on the crucial dimension of organisation (Jarrod Gilbert’s book, “Patched” contains a hilarious description from a narcotics squad agent of the panic engendered at an alleged Mongrel Mob drug market when he showed up on a trial basis and tried to buy an ounce. He ended up being directed half way across town to the house of someone who wasn’t even a gang member). In general, their criminal activities are confined to domestic violence, occasional brawls with other gangs, and smashing up pubs. It always takes a surprisingly small crew of arseholes to create a disproportionate public nuisance; even in a smallish market town of 15,000 people, less than two dozen such types can be a real menace if they’re all mates of one another. And obviously, the family life is never great, and this seems to be how the gangs reproduce themselves; reading through the history books strongly suggested to me that this phenomenon has a lot to do with breakdowns in traditional extended family life as a result of urbanisation, but somewhat mare to do with institutional failures of the care home system. And when you give a kid a name like “Wicked Chains” and encourage him to get a large and visible tattoo of a criminal insignia before he’s fifteen, you can be pretty sure that kid is going to find it easier not to leave the underclass behind.
My sister, who we were visiting, has been in charge of the emergency room in the town’s hospital for several years now, and so sees a lot more of the gang members than most. Although the perspective of an ER doctor is likely to see fewer of the skilled motorcyclists, moderate drinkers and happy marriages of any community than the true population mean, she seemed to regard her “regular customers” with a sort of exasperated affection, as long as they behaved themselves while waiting in her emergency room. Which they did, by and large – my sister learned her trade in Liverpool, and has never been in the habit of tolerating any nonsense. If she could change anything about the culture that produces people like Wicked Chains (I have changed names out of respect for the confidentiality of my sister’s patients, but the guy’s real name was no less alarming), it would be that it would please her greatly if they could discover a concept of machismo which was consistent with getting your wounds treated when they happened, rather than waiting a few weeks for serious complications to set in.
13.By the sea
The letter combination “Wh” in Maori is pronounced with a sharp exhalation, somewhere between the way that that Father Ted pronounces “what?”, the way that English people try to deal with the Welsh double-L in “Llanelli” and a straightforward letter F. It’s certainly close enough to the F sound for t-shirts saying “Where the Whak is Whakatane?” to be pretty big sellers locally. It’s very proud of its status as the “Sunshine Capital of New Zealand”, and I actually heard the competition for this title being commentated on by two local radio presenters as if it were a race (“we’ve slipped behind by a few hours, but Queenstown would really need to be a long way ahead of us at this stage, because they get very cloudy winters down there”).
It’s also home to Ohope Beach, which proclaims itself “New Zealand’s Best Loved Beach”, and although I haven’t fact checked the fieldwork, the claim is credible. It’s a sweeping ten kilometres of pale sand, with a nice level, reasonably safe surf break at one end. The waves come in at roughly head height and break in an orderly fashion; swimming is hard work, if exhilarating, but playing in the waves is absolutely joyous. The active maritime volcano at White Island puffs out smoke every day, and you can look at it as you run along the beach in the early morning. I used to love doing this; the sea, the hills, the sand and the beach-houses set back about fifty metres so they don’t crowd you. I would jog along and wish the oyster-catchers good luck as they dug in the sand.