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Upton-on-line - Special Kiwi Nostalgia Issue

Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition
22nd November 2002

Special Kiwi Nostalgia Issue

In this issue

Upton-on-line reports on a recent outing to the Stade de France for a rendez-vous with Franco-New Zealand rugby tribalism, British MP Austin Mitchell’s regurgitations on pavlova and a uniquely French scandal involving a parrot.

Black And Blue

As acquaintances can attest, upton-on-line has not exactly lived and breathed rugby over the years. Initiated in the rites at the age of nine, he found charging around freezing cold playing fields in bare feet less congenial than practicing the piano (much to the disappointment of parents one suspects). It was the unnecessary sort of collision of allegiances that boarding school promotes. The result has been many years of artful deception in taxicabs and party political social functions where conversation is routinely expected to dissect the minutiae of last Saturday’ s game.

But six years’s enforced schoolboy rugby leaves its mark. And when you’re an offshore kiwi, the sheer iconic importance of the game is overwhelming. Encouraged by his physiotherapist (who, having the advantage of physical possession half an hour at a time, has talked nothing but rugby and the approaching test for some months), upton-on-line joined thousands on the trek to Paris’ Stade de France for the big game on Saturday last – (with physiotherapist in tow!). It was a chance to feel overwhelmingly outnumbered and out-chanted as well as introduce two little New Zealanders to their national game.

Out-numbered we certainly were. It had seemed, on the train out to the stadium, that there were rather a lot of black and white painted faces, silver-ferned skulls and kiwi flags. But in the cavernous stadium (which France had, justly, hoped might host the next Olympics but one), the sense of being a tiny corpuscle on a tide of Gallic adrenalin was pretty overwhelming. (If anyone is thinking of changing the national flag to black and white, they should think again: against the rivers of blue, red and white, the doughty kiwi contingent looked like a protest contingent.)

Armchair experts have delivered all the commentaries anyone needs on the performance of the teams. Upton-on-line wouldn’t dream of treading where even experienced commentators like Trevor Mallard and Murray McCully carefully weigh each pin-pricking verdict. Besides, being parked almost directly behind the goal posts at a distance that seemed like the Florida control room of the war on terror, the action was easier to interpret by listening to the reaction of the French crowd than anything visually discernible. (Jonah Lomu, in particular, seemed to stir a primal groan from the crowd if he as much as looked like being near the ball – and a frisson of national pride every time he was swamped.)

Suffice to say that from upton-on-line’s vantage point, les Bleus seemed to have so much possession they seemed at times more interested in progressing laterally across the field than down it but that is probably just the observation of a total innocent. New Zealand’s backs, by contrast, were able to devote the evening to a really thorough workout on defensive play. The 20-20 score seemed unjust to a French team that was miraculously dynamic as it put into practice Bernard Laporte’s requirement that every player has to be able to do everything, anywhere, anytime. (‘Polyvalent ‘is the French for this – so much more elegant than being a Jack-of-all-trades).

The most significant thing about the experience, though, was the feeling the French have about New Zealand rugby. There seem to be, in the minds of French rugby fanatics, two missions: one is playing the rest of the world, the other is playing New Zealand. Upton-on-line has heard all about it on the physio’s table and across the table at the OECD. There’s some indefinable thing about the All Blacks with the French. They’re treated as some sort of exotic, connoisseur’s choice, rather like those puffer-fish that Japanese gourmands risk death to eat. The haka is awaited as a near-religious experience.

And it was rather nice that the French Rugby Federation handed every spectator a small slip announcing that the evening’s game was dedicated to Dave Gallaher, the All Black who died at Quesnoy in 1917 during the First World War; in respect of which spectators were enjoined to afford the haka “all the dignity and respect” that “our New Zealand friends merit”. A link between nations and peoples that could never be secured in an age of commercial, televised posturing.

Your Own Team Always Gets It In The Neck

The slightly numb anti-climax at the game’s end sent tens of thousands of French home with all of those sentiments intact but a palpable sense of frustration. So too for the kiwis who jostled their way to the (astonishingly efficient) trains that drained the crowd, thousands at a time at intervals of just a couple of minutes. The kiwis within earshot seemed to have very clear ideas about their team’s shortcomings. That seems to be the way of it with sports – it’s always easier to bag your own team’s short-comings than admit the strengths of your opponents.

That certainly was the case with the French. Here, for example, is what Philippe Guillard had to say in Monday’s Le Monde:

“The French XV, too frenetic, searching for gaps anywhere on the field, were going to run out of breath quicker than a hunting dog chasing a pig. Through being too keen to break up the game for the sheer hell of scattering their opponents, they overwhelmed themselves by the breadth of the field they opened up even faster than they could bewilder the New Zealanders. As a result, they often finished up breathless and disoriented, forgetting too often to take the fight right into the heart of the All Blacks’ defence or to kick the ball behind their lines when the going got hot - tactics which have been at the heart of France’s truly legendary victories over New Zealand. That was a pity because our [i.e. the French] forwards gave their opponents a pretty good lesson in rugby, in the scrum as well as in the line-outs which set up an attacking line that never really managed to succeed faced, it has to be said, by superior re-grouping and handling. A pity, but so much the better for all that, because to beat the All Blacks without being convincing would be to devalue the mythic status of the deed.”

Maybe. But Upton-on-line’s untutored view is that if the French keep playing like this, New Zealand crowds must start to accord the Blues the same respect we once reserved for the Springboks. In the meantime we’d better hang on to the America’s Cup to guarantee at least one area of undisputed bi-lateral sporting supremacy.

************

Pavlova Beyond Its Shelf-Life

Upton-on-line grew up (as did we all, didn’t we?) in a household where ‘pavs ’ were whipped up and served up at the drop of a visiting great aunt. They were always a near-run thing – if they rose too fast in the oven, an ominous fracturing led to the collapse of the central meringuial crust necessitating the emergency extrusion of vast quantities of whipped cream into the ensuing caldera. On the other hand, left too long under tents of gauze to keep the flies off in the midday heat, these fragile casts from the culinary kiln subsided in a viscous pool of sickly sog. Their shelf life? About 30 minutes.

All of which makes Austin Mitchell’s attempt at a 30 year re-heat all the more heroic - and indigestible. Upton-on-line was invited by New Zealand Books to review the aging British MP’s ‘book-of the television-series’, Pavlova Paradise Revisited published by Penguin Books. For diasporans spared the televised antics, the short verdict on the book is – don’t bother. But for those tempted to sample Mitchell’s return to the provincial kitchen that spawned The Half-Gallon Quarter-Acre Pavlova Paradise, here is the full review:

A Re-Heat For The Microwave Age

For those old enough to remember it, The Half-Gallon Quarter-Acre Pavlova Paradise was a funny, disrespectful but good-natured account of what it felt like to be a clever, progressive Left Brit in New Zealand at the end of the Holyoake era. Pavlova Paradise Revisited is the not quite so funny, more consciously respectful but not so good-natured account of how the same now-aging Brit feels about New Zealand in 2002.

In between times there have been a few changes. Those who remained at their stations – or arrived in between times – have never been the same since. One thinks of Simon Walker who, like Mitchell, arrived bright as a button, dazzled us all on television and then drank the lethal waters of Rogernomics. Fashionable left wing venom was transformed into pinstriped libertarianism. Not so with Mitchell. Whatever transformations he records (with an eagle eye and some good sense along the way), his own prejudices remain firmly intact.

And therein lies the tension of this book. The New Zealand of 2002 is, when read back to back with the earlier volume, almost unrecognisable. And the critique of the process that transformed it – the economic liberalisation of the ‘eighties and ‘nineties – is subjected to unrelenting vitriol. Yet paradise is somehow safe and the diagnosis offered bears the tarnish of partisan hagiography: “Helen Clark climbed out from under the monetarist rubble to rein in market liberalism … and in its pre [1999] election coalition with the Alliance, the preserving jar of social democracy, Labour took on the job of tilting the balances back.”

The economic analysis Mitchell offers will, rightly, invite the fiercest responses. If you have a penchant for undiluted Brian Easton with a seasoning of Bob Jones on monetary policy this is your conspiracy theory. Variously described as the economic lunacy of the last two decades, the triumph of economic sado-masochism and malevolent mysticism, something called ‘monetarism’ is ritually exorcised. For those of us who thought it was quite a limited theory about targeting assorted monetary aggregates as the best way of beating inflation, monetarism is revealed to have been a weapon of economic mass destruction with almost unlimited yield.

And when the facts don’t always oblige they’re simply changed. Never mind that from a high of around 11% in 1992, unemployment had fallen to 6% just three years later. In Mitchell’s account everything in the 1990s got worse. Never has revenge through the election of one’s friends been sweeter.

Stir-Fry Pavlova

Yet the polemical retribution being meted out doesn’t invalidate the social and cultural analysis he offers which can be acute enough. Penguin, not one suspects without some hesitation, classifies Pavlova Paradise Revisited as sociology. In truth it is something of a smorgasbord. Mitchell attempts an improbable stir-fry of reminiscence, potted economic history, social commentary, travelogue and applied prejudice with plenty of one-liners for the stalls.

The worst of it is the first chapter which works hard to re-connect with the staccato irreverence of the original Pavlova – the twelve letters to ‘Keith’ boiled down into 16 welcome rules for the new arrival in ‘smoke-, nuclear- and almost GM-free, world class demi-paradise’. No doubt the publishers thought the book needed a good front-end rev-up to launch readers through some pretty turgid television transcripts (this after all is ‘the book of the TV One series’). People like Warren Cooper and Bob Harvey may have utterly gripping camera presence, but being asked to plough through their pronouncements in black and white is not a kindness. Even Jim Hopkins, who is fatally funny in the flesh, starts to pall on the page. Worse is to come when we are asked to endure the organiser of Project Southland telling us that Invercargill is full of clever real estate agents or Mark Burton gravely informing us that New Zealand has “some of the finest mountain walks and national park tramps in the world.” At times, the effect of this sort of leaden promotional pap seems even to invade Mitchell’s normally ebullient prose.

But there is no denying the assiduous way in which the handicap of being a non-resident commentator is denied by way of endless small allusions to the mini-scandals that have entered the nation’s folk lore in the intervening years. Peter Plumley Walker’s watery fate surfaces briefly in the torrent as do Tuku Morgan’s underpants and Helen Clark’s paintings. This man’s cultural connectedness is up-to-the-minute.

So are his sensibilities. All the old prejudices (private schools, Hawkes Bay gentry etc) are given an airing, of course. But even the robust Mitchellian shit-sifting capabilities (en passant, kiwis don’t have them) have been subtly irradiated by political correctness. Without question, the most sanitised chapter has to be that on women, given over almost exclusively to the asphyxiating niceness of Shipley, Clark, Lee and Hobbs in conference. All Mitchell has to do is provide the briefest of codas in which young male culture is pronounced ‘defensive, escapist and resentful’ while that of young women is ‘realistic, serious and dedicated’.

The chapter on Maori is scarcely more revealing – more talking heads (celebrated Maori ones to be sure) and some boiler-plate-correct verdicts on Pakeha attitudes: “Kiwis love to cut the heads off tall poppies, but brown ones are slashed nearer the roots. The obsession is ignoble, inhibiting and shows more than a touch of desire to keep Maori in their place. It is essentially jealousy.” I prefer Mitchell’s more general verdict that New Zealand has “grown more complex than a generalisation and offers less scope for simplistic summings-up.”

The Cruelty Of Smallness

It is in exploring what smallness and distance does to New Zealand’s society that Mitchell regains the lightness of touch needed to coax from kiwi readers a willing suspension of fondly cherished beliefs. Much of what he has to say about the hallmarks of smallness rings true - the intimacy and friendliness of a population inoculated against the pretensions of political and business elites; the gold-fish bowl exposure of leaders, the nosiness of the ‘invigilated society’. Whereas the inhabitants of populous countries are forever seeking privacy and escape from the ubiquity of human contact, people in New Zealand, Mitchell notes, “come as a pleasure not a nuisance, a pressure or someone in the way.”

On the other hand, the sheer lack of people in the way means short career ladders and a less testing environment that cannot easily hold its talent. In this respect he draws a sensible parallel with Ireland – “the world is a stage for talent nurtured in the sustaining smallness of both countries”. His other, more hackneyed conclusion – that if Ireland can be a Celtic Tiger sucking in skills, industries, investment and talent, so can New Zealand – smoothly ignores the tyranny of our geographical and geo-political isolation. Being a political partner in an enterprise drawing together 350 million of the richest people in the world is a bit different from being the pluckily independent outlier of an even more sparsely settled and much more humanly-hostile continent.

And this is where Mitchell’s thesis is problematic. Because he assumes that with the death of distance (as he calls it), comes the death of conformity and cultural and political dependence. The first part of that is true. Released from the thrall of a colonial time-bind by travel and communications, a much more exciting sort of society is possible. But it’s the second part of the transformation that has to be in doubt. There is just too much of the happy fairy tale about a conclusion that, following some soul-bearing from a cast including the likes of Chris Laidlaw, Sam Neill, Brian Corban and Ian Fraser, can claim that

“these voices, like so many others I heard, speak of a confident sense of identity, the emergence of the feeling of difference and nationhood that intellectuals have looked for decades … [that] has emerged out of the combination of the characteristics instilled by a small, intimate society, hardened by the economic ordeals of rejection, excessive liberalism and the slow build back to normality, then energised by globalization.”

Do we have here emerging nationhood or just “the future we’d looked forward to in the ‘sixties but by a route we couldn’t possibly have conceived of then” as Austin, the self-styled ‘apprentice nationalist’ puts it. In the same way that Austin’s prediction of sunlit economic uplands sits uncomfortably with his wholesale denial of the economic reforms that brought New Zealand to where it was by the late ‘nineties (“growth came like rain on the monetarist desert”), his verdict of national and cultural maturity doesn ’t sit easily with his analysis.

In fact, he seems on much safer ground in judging New Zealand to be a “Copy Country” prey to an endless supply of fads. In the same way that imported pests, lacking their predators, wreak havoc with our ecology, imported enthusiasms frequently flare into fetishes in the absence of the sheer inertia and cruel indifference of large societies. Mitchell’s characterisation of New Zealand as a limpet needing a rock (one of several images that survives from his earlier work) seems truer today than ever.

Indeed, Mitchell’s own conclusions on cultural identity – “a province in a global culture and a small parochial market within it”- support a much more nuanced conclusion than the somewhat shrill nationalism that appears to be the book’s political objective. The extent to which a provincial and parochial version of global culture can underwrite a fiercely independent national enterprise remains an open question.

For all their cultural depth few European countries could imagine maintaining the effort and institutions needed to maintain the sort of separated political and economic existence New Zealand faces. In a globalising world, they cherish (some would say indulge) their cultural particularisms safe beneath the umbrella of political and economic co-existence (if not union) that big numbers can provide.

For the Irelands of this world, cultural identity has been secured at the price of a high level of economic and policy dependency on the greater European enterprise. Not all dependencies are bad and Mitchell is right to acknowledge (however much this must grate in post-Belichian New Zealand) that the dependent, colonial period allowed the country “to grow and develop as part of a wider whole” thereby providing an antidote to the insularity of distance and smallness. This is undeniable.

But it is another thing to claim that the destruction of distance necessarily brings with it the destruction of dependency and the birth of the sort of self-originating, self-critical and self-sustaining society that would justify Mitchell’s nationalist millenialism. Hedonistic consumerism (after all those decades of import-licensed misery) with a national indebtedness that continues to pile up inexorably and an absence of obvious political or security partners does not add up to the “dynamism and confidence of a nation which feels itself to be going somewhere.”

What we have, in Pavlova Paradise Revisited, is another link in the chain of Britannic utopianism that has been visited on us repeatedly since early days. That it survives in this brittle shape says much about the dystopia that generally follows in the wake of fondly held dreams.

************

Ornithological Fascism

New Zealand readers will recall the ruckus that surrounded the Virgin in a Condom affair at Te Papa some years ago in which curators found themselves standing in the trenches to defend sacrilege or freedom of speech depending on your outraged point of view. That was all about a touring exhibit. The City of Paris finds itself in the midst of a similar storm although the subject matter is altogether more drôle.

Le Figaro (Wednesday 20th November) reports that the decision by the city’s Musée d’Art Moderne to spend roughly NZ$400,000 on a living work of art has councillors in a similarly indignant lather. Entitled Ne dites pas que je ne l’ai pas dit (Don’t say I didn’t say it), the masterpiece by the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers is in fact a parrot that sits in its cage along with a table and two palm trees listening to a recording of a poem being read by the artist himself. Outraged opposition councillors have questioned spending such a large sum on an artwork with, literally, a life.

The species of parrot in question has, apparently, a life expectancy of roughly ninety years, but given that the ‘work’ was created in 1974, quite a lot of its perch life appears to have fluttered away. The parrot’s defenders on the Council have wasted no time in elevating the matter to one raising matters of the highest principle. For councillors to intervene in purchase decisions, a Green member has opined, would be to open the door to fascism!

Upton-on-line cannot confirm whether the parrot itself is capable of reciting the poem. But Le Figaro reports that, faced with the prospect of incipient fascism in the Hôtel de Ville, the parrot has been silent in defence of itself leaving it to progressive councillors to defend its right to be watched listening to the same poem, in the same cage, for the next half century.

ENDS

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