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HARD NEWS FROM EUROPE: The Stolen Edition

For various reasons - including the burglary referred to in the second bulletin - Hard News from Europe didn't go out to its various destinations on the Internet. My thanks go to the saintly Matt Buchanan, who retyped the first bulletin after the digital copy disappeared along with the laptop it was written on.

Cheers, RB

Approved: hardnews.kiwifruit
HARD NEWS 20/4/01 - Postcard From Amsterdam

HARD NEWS is first broadcast in Auckland on 95bFM around 9.30am on Fridays and replayed around 5.15pm Friday and 10am Sunday on The Culture Bunker. You can listen to 95bFM live on the Internet. Point your web browser to http://www.95bfm.co.nz. You will need an MP3 player. Currently New Zealand is 12 hours ahead of GMT.


GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... and greetings from Amsterdam, home of meat, bread, cheese and chocolate; of buds and beer, of tolerance and the apparently compulsory smoking of tobacco.

The locals will tell you quietly that beneath the liberal veneer lies the tough timber of Dutch Calvinism, but I'm only really seeing the veneer right now. Just steer clear of irony and don't be late for appointments and the people are a delight.

So I landed in London with the WebMedia advance party. There's no greater reminder of how far away New Zealand is from the rest of the world than flying for 28 hours to get where you're going. But I was back in the old town for the first time in 10 years and I was thrilled.

Everything has changed about London and nothing has changed. On one hand, the place is falling apart worse than ever. An agricultural plague is on the land; the disastrous privatisation of British rail continues to serve up fresh delights and the infrastructure crumbles everywhere.

And yet London is new. More European, more global, more the pop cultural playground than ever. A popular rush to refinement has taken hold. My old local curry house is still there on Clapham High Street; only now it's surrounded by stylish bars and restaurants with plastered walls and creative lighting. And, although it can be hard to see where everyone gets the money, people do go out. Some drink to remember, some drink to forget, but they do go out.

More so than ever, the daily press brings an embarrassment of riches; the newsstands groan under magazines, supplements, guides and the like. I am the kind of print junkie who'll pay $20 for an airmail Guardian at Magazzino: to be able to buy one every day for 45p seems almost too kind.

Anyway, we began Day One proper with a coffee at the good old Bar Italia, which, I regret to say, was no more adequate. It's true about the coffee folks; when you venture forth from the home of the South Pacific Coffee Cult, you will struggle for satisfaction. I have finally found a place in the 'Dam called Puccini that hits about a seven out of 10. We asked them why their coffee was better than everyone else's and they explained that it was "made with love". I presume that the added love is why a long black costs $6.50.

Anyway, the first night in London turned out to be one on the tiles, on the back of only three hours' sleep in the previous 48 - thanks Veronica! - followed on successive days by a curry and a trip to Ikea with my nesting friends Simon and Matt.

On the Sunday, as one does, I visited the Tate Modern. The number of people visiting the museums and galleries of Britain increased by 4.5 million last year - and 85% of the growth came from the Tate Modern.

It's a brilliant building, if a little given over to its own impressiveness. The art, of course, was great. Yet seeing much of it for the second or third time, I couldn't help feeling a little hemmed in, as if walls bordering Western Europe and the East Coast of the USA had been erected so as to define what modern art was. I came over all South Pacific. I wanted to see a McCahon in the landscapes gallery. And I was, in the end, strangely unmoved.

The exception was the room in the Tate which houses the huge works Mark Rothko created for the Four Seasons restaurant. They were never hung there, and it seems absurd that these haunting, meditative paintings were ever commissioned for a busy restaurant. Sitting there in a brief moment of solitude - rare enough in itself in London - I fancied they had a sound, these paintings. A sonorous, mournful, haunting tone. I did an odd thing, for someone in an art gallery. I shut my eyes and listened. How extraordinary.

Two hours at the Tate was quite enough of the South Bank for one day, so I set off for the altogether livelier arts of Camden Town. The market has become vast there. All the tribes gather and sell their wares to the youth of Europe and the world.

And nestled in its midst is MTV Europe, where a New Zealander, Brent Hansen, is President and CEO. It's a long way from Radio With Pictures. We did the Kiwi thing and paid our bro a visit. I'm sure that he won't mind if I remark that he is still such a New Zealander and - perhaps more remarkably - still a music fan.

I was struck by the extent to which "Cool Britannia" is real in the Britain of 2001. Alongside all the grime and pestilence, there is coolness stockpiled.

The reserves of cool are such that I began to wonder if Britain will much longer need the tourist appeal - and that surely is the chief reason for its maintenance - of its monarchy. The Royal Family continues to be destroyed from its own fringe, what with the bizarre tale of the Duchess of Wessex, wife of Edward - who is NOT GAY - Sophie Rhys-Jones.

Sophie had been working for a PR company that traded heavily on her royal connections. She and her boss were entrapped by a News of the World reporter masquerading as a wealthy Arab sheikh. She blurted out a whole lot of stuff about politicians and the royal family to this man, establishing herself as the archetypal thick toff in the process. He admitted to a fondness for coke and E and offered to arrange a roomful of rent boys for his apparently wealthy client.

It is the most banal affair you could imagine, yet it has turned into a lurid and controversial chapter of Britain's eternal public soap opera. How bizarre that one of the characters is our Head of State.

Meanwhile, news comes in distant flashes from home. Christine Rankin is going to the employment court in search of a settlement - I'm sure even she doesn't think she'll get her job back - because her contract as CEO of the Department of Work and Income hasn't been renewed. Could this woman get any more appalling?

Rankin's litigious nature has apparently prompted a tactical restructuring of the welfare and income services, in order to minimise legal exposure by actually disestablishing her job. I'd have favoured something more subtle. A diplomatic posting to Khazakstan, perhaps.

I see some kid in Nelson took E, drank too much water and died - like Ngaire O'Neill before him - a wholly preventable death. This is 100% an educational issue, although I'm sure the home press has managed to blow right past that fact.

And there's a cyclone coming. Cool. Should be a big swell on the West Coast, right?

When I first disembarked in London, all of 15 years ago, one of the first things I realised was that I was not European. I was from the South Pacific. This time I felt that I was a visitor from Asia, economically at least. We pay Asian prices in an Asian market and that shapes us to some extent.

But a little Europhilia won't do us any harm. Europe is in good shape right now, and it's good to land here and breathe some fresh philosophical air. We mess our heads with too much from America in modern New Zealand, there are other ways.

Anyway, that's enough for now. Love to my friends and family, who I miss. You can check the Destination Amsterdam website at amsterdam.webmedia.com.

Forty five more WebMedia staff and Mikey Havoc arrive tomorrow and I'll report more on what's happening in A-dam in next week's bulletin. And at Easter in a town where you can buy cannabis in cafés, magic mushrooms at your local "smart shop" and meat with handles everywhere, you'd have to figure something's going to happen - G'bye!

GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... usually when you hear those words from me, I'm jiggling around in the bFM studio in Auckland, New Zealand. And it's daytime. Not tonight. I'm at a loungey sort of club - well, more of a concept than a club - called Baby. It's in Amsterdam. And there's a party on.

Tomorrow morning, I drag myself to Schipol airport and begin the long trek back to the land of my birth. I leave Europe with mixed feelings. As a colonial I'm an easy mark for antiquity. Visiting the Rijksmuseum and seeing the objects the Dutch were knocking out back in the 15th century makes my head spin. Amsterdam is, of course, home to a number of things that make one's head spin.

We had our merry fill of one of those things after last week's broadcast, when our Dutch friends took us to a warm and wonderful bar called Gollem - say it right and it sounds like you're bringing up phlegm - where we drank strong, tasty Belgian beer and demanded that our Dutch friends come and visit us for a swim at the beach. Amsterdam seemed magical as we tottered home.

About two hours later, while four people slept upstairs, WebMedia's production apartment was burgled. They cleaned out four laptops, a DV cam, passports, tickets, etcetera, in a haul worth about $50,000. Two nights later, one of the other apartments was burgled. Even the local police think it's an inside job. My friend James Murray, who lives here, says people don't realise that the dark side of Amsterdam's delights is its crime. I think everyone at WebMedia knows that very well now.

I can't offer much comment on events in New Zealand because I've been away two and a half weeks and it has reached the stage where the local stories don't make much sense to me. Nice to see inflation levelling out - and hence the chances of Don Brash sitting on his hands enhanced.

We are gloriously unaware of our momentary prosperity, actually. Yesterday Philips, one of the bulwarks of the Dutch economy, announced it was laying off 6000 staff. Nobody seems to be blaming the government. It's the global economy, stupid.

The government here does seem to be in the gun over foot and mouth disease, however. Dutch farmers are angry, although the language barrier makes it hard to divine exactly what they're angry about. Anyway, they've taken to stringing up pigs and cattle to any available high point in their local burgs - trees, signs, lamp posts, buildings. There are whacking great beasts suspended in the air in rural Holland. This does ease rural Holland's chief drawback - that it's numbingly dull to look at - but, believe me, it can seem quite surreal when you see it at 2am on your hotel room television.

I like the way Amsterdam is governed. Since the 1920s the city council has employed a philosophy that would give your average New Zealand Treasury official the screaming fear. They build houses - lots of them. In order to maintain the city's competitive advantage on rental rates, the city will build 18,000 houses on reclaimed land over the next five years, and a further 8000 houses to the south east of the city, where large corporates are clustered. And not just low-income housing either. They build fancy villas too, because they don't believe in slums. Fancy that.

Amsterdam's architecture is its history: its grandest buildings tell the story of prosperous periods in the town's long commercial history. They are preserved and occupied, while underneath them, in the soft sticky mud of the swamp where Amsterdam has existed since the 12th century, nine different telcos have fibreoptic networks.

There is a school of thought that holds that being resource-poor breeds ingenuity. The Dutch inherited a land with few advantages and were obliged to invent in order to earn a guilder. The country's archetypal industry - growing tulips - is in fact a series of commercial, technical and agricultural systems developed through necessity.

In New Zealand, our challenge is the tyranny of distance. And we are at our best when we have to invent to overcome it. That's the impressive thing about the trip I've been on. WebMedia could have sat in New Zealand and waited for the dot-bombing to stop. Instead they've flown 50 people - all bright, mostly young - to Europe to announce themselves. Like any four year old company, they don't get everything right, but they've done enough for this thing to be fairly legendary.

Personally and professionally speaking, this has been one of the most interesting things I've ever done. Apart from getting through the doors of some very cool companies, I've had the chance to reconsider Europe, 15 years after I first set foot here and 10 years after I first flew out. I've got a headful of stuff that'll take weeks to work through. I am lucky.

Well, that's enough from your European correspondent. There's a glass of New Zealand bubbly - Soljan's, weirdly enough - on offer and it's an offer I'm taking up. There's a party on and as well as the WebMedia crew, there's the Kog dudes, Mikey Havoc - who can't helped but be followed by fun - and a bunch of our new Dutch chums. I may be late home - G'bye!


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