24 October 2011

Not the target market

Over the past week I've been participating in a Roy Morgan TV and radio poll, filling out a booklet filled with innumerable tick-boxes to illustrate my media habits. When the polling company asked if I wanted to participate I weighed up the faff of actually setting down my media consumption in a detailed fashion against the desire to boost the few decent programmes and channels there are in New Zealand, and came down in favour of the latter.

So since last Sunday I've been keeping a careful record of everything I've listened to or watched, in half-hour allotments. This actually proved far easier than expected, because despite temporarily having access to plenty of pay TV channels through the Telstra cable connection in my current flat, I actually watch very little TV, and the radio listening I do is fairly predictable: Morning Report, a bit of Nights with Brian Crump and Kim Hill on Saturday morning, all on Radio New Zealand.

In addition to signalling my devotion to the high standards of radio broadcasting on Radio New Zealand, I was also keen to highlight my fondness for programmes on the commercial-free public service channel TVNZ7, which is threatened with closure in 2012. However, the format of the survey made it difficult to do the latter. There are dozens of channels on pay TV, and many of them aren't assigned their own individual column of tick-boxes in Roy Morgan's poll - instead, they're all lumped together under the catch-all phrase, 'Other pay TV' - which is a misnomer in TVNZ7's case, because it's not pay TV, it's free-to-air. I was able to flag my approval of TVNZ7 elsewhere in response to a query asking what channels I regularly watched and liked, but I would have preferred to make this point directly.

I should acknowledge that my viewing preferences mark me out as someone who is not likely to be hunted down and actively courted by advertisers, which is the real purpose of the Roy Morgan poll. Sure, I spend money on books, music and DVDs, but I spend a large part of what little time I do devote to consuming TV and radio locked into channels with no advertising. In pollsters' terms, I am an un-person.

Still, filling out the media diary was a worthwhile exercise, if only because it confirmed my suspicions that New Zealand TV offers little of real merit these days, or at least it offers little that interests me. In one section of the media diary the pollsters listed TV programmes organised by their channels, and asked for audience attitudes to each programme. The only options provided were:
  • I especially choose to watch it
  • I watch it only because someone in the household wishes to
  • I watch it if there's nothing better
  • I really love this programme     
I'd make three observations about this particular exercise.

From the lists for TV1 and TV2 programmes I could find only a single show that I could actually bear the thought of watching - the BBC's sitcom Miranda. Aside from that it was wall-to-wall pointless tat, which illustrates how irrelevant TVNZ's two main channels are to me and presumably people like me. In fact, it's been so long since I've regularly watched programmes on TV1 or TV2 that my default assumption is that if a programme features on those channels, it must be dire. Perhaps I miss out on a few good choices that slip through the pack of stinkers that make up TVNZ's schedules, but given how bad much of TVNZ's material is, it's a risk I'm happy to run.

TV3 and Four seem to have collared the handful of American programmes that I actually enjoy: animated comedies like King of the Hill, The Simpsons and Futurama, and witty live comedies like 30 Rock and Parks & Recreation.  And there are a smattering of quality British programmes like the Graham Norton Show, QI and Top Gear on those channels and Prime. But the distinctive feature of the listings is the huge swathe of American programming that dominates all the free-to-air channels. Of the limited range of New Zealand-made programming, much of it is the ultra-low-budget reality schlock. Is it any wonder that young New Zealanders are growing up knowing less and less about their own country and their own stories?

Lastly, the list of four tick-boxes above contained no option for 'I'd never watch this rubbish and I would actively avoid the products and services of any advertiser associated with it'. This is so often a factor when watching commercial-laden TV in New Zealand, when even good programmes can be mangled beyond recognition by enormous quantities of braying adverts. Wouldn't you love to be able to tell TV programmers (and their associated ad company puppet-masters) when their offerings are lousy?

So clearly I'm not the ideal survey recipient, from Roy Morgan's perspective. But having completed their weekly survey, which includes a gigantic consumer poll covering a multitude of marketplaces such as travel, telecommunications, supermarket shopping, electricity, motoring and many others, I have to wonder if the consumer intelligence that Roy Morgan is selling is really worth what its customers pay for it. Because I've completed most of their rather thick booklets due to a sense of intellectual curiosity, but it was particularly time-consuming and I can't imagine most people offering up that much of their own time for no reward. (There's a prize draw for a small cash sum, but the chances of winning are low).

As an example, the most ridiculous exercise in the consumer poll booklet is a page devoted to attitudes towards supermarket chains, asking 'which, if any, of the following statements do you associate with each supermarket?'  For each of the ten supermarket chains listed there are *fifty-eight* tick-boxes, making a grand total of 580 tick-boxes on one page. Statements put to the reader include 'They have spacious aisles' and 'trolleys and baskets are always available'. Needless to say, I gave this page a miss. Who actually fills that sort of nonsense out, and who makes business decisions based on the information derived from it?

09 October 2011

'Russia grows and grows. She has become a nightmare'

I've recently finished reading British historian Norman Stone's World War One: A Short History, which I can recommend as an excellent refresher for those who haven't read about the Great War, or for someone looking for a succinct yet rigorous sample of all the various historical controversies that have arisen since 1914.

WW1 was perhaps the sixth most deadly conflict in human history, with nine million combatants losing their lives. Looking back from the 21st century we now see the train of events that led to war as having a grim sense of inevitability about them. The strictures of great power alliances, growing bellicosity and a willingness both at the heads of government and amongst the wider populace to 'sort out' differences on the battlefield rather than through the muddled world of diplomacy, and the implacable influence of military mobilisation schedules meant that once tensions passed a certain threshold, war was a certainty.

It was both a certainty and in many ways a desired outcome, particularly for the German leadership from the Kaiser down. As the BBC points out:

Under Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany moved from a policy of maintaining the status quo to a more aggressive stance. He decided against renewing a treaty with Russia, effectively opting for the Austrian alliance. Germany's western and eastern neighbours, France and Russia, signed an alliance in 1894 united by fear and resentment of Berlin. In 1898, Germany began to build up its navy, although this could only alarm the world's most powerful maritime nation, Britain. Recognising a major threat to her security, Britain abandoned the policy of holding aloof from entanglements with continental powers. Within ten years, Britain had concluded agreements, albeit limited, with her two major colonial rivals, France and Russia. Europe was divided into two armed camps: the Entente Powers and the Central Powers, and their populations began to see war not merely as inevitable but even welcome.
In the summer of 1914 the Germans were prepared, at the very least, to run the risk of causing a large-scale war. The crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire decided, after the assassination on 28 June, to take action against Serbia, which was suspected of being behind the murder. The German government issued the so-called 'blank cheque' on 5-6 July, offering unconditional support to the Austrians, despite the risk of war with Russia. Germany, painted into a diplomatic corner by Wilhelm's bellicosity, saw this as a way of breaking up the Entente, for France and Britain might refuse to support Russia. Moreover, a wish to unite the nation behind the government may have been a motive. So might desire to strike against Russia before it had finished rebuilding its military strength after its defeat by Japan in 1905.

Stone looks at the clamour for war from the German side, and highlights the morbid fascination with national survival that beset senior figures at the time:

After the War had been lost, nearly all of the men involved destroyed their private papers - the German Chancellor, the Austo-Hungarian foreign minister, almost the whole of the German military. We really know what happened in Berlin in 1914 only from the contents of trunks, forgotten in attics, and an extraordinary document, the diary of Kurt Riezler, who was the (Jewish) secretary of Bethmann Hollweg. In the diary there is a devastating entry for 7 July 1914. In the evening the young man sits with the grey-bearded Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg. They commune, and Riezler knows, as he listens, that he is catching the hem of fate. The key line is: 'Russia grows and grows. She has become a nightmare'. The generals, says Bethmann Hollweg, all say that there must be a war before it is too late. Now, there is a good chance that it will all work out. By 1917, Germany has no hope. Therefore, now: if the Russians go to war, better 1914 than later. But the western Powers might let Russia down, in which case the Entente will split apart, and, either way, Germany will be the winner. 
- Norman Stone, World War One: A Short History, London, 2007, p.20.
That evening discussion took place during the July Crisis, slightly more than a week after Gavrilo Princip's assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June. Within a month of the assassination, which warmongers in the German military and political hierarchy leapt upon as a vital casus belli, Austria-Hungary had declared war on neighbouring Serbia, accusing it of being behind the assassination. Serbia was Russia's ally, and the Germans knew that defending the Serbians would bring Russia into conflict with its Austrian allies. The stage was set for the vast and bloody conflict that paralysed Europe, killed millions, and brought about the downfall of three imperial reigns.  

See also:

Each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds
The Western Front

04 October 2011

Gold has been all-in-all to us

Hokitika 1867
Hokitika, 1867 (Via Alexander Turnbull Library)

New Zealand author Charlotte Randall’s fifth novel, Hokitika Town, is set on the West Coast of the South Island in 1865, during the boom years of the gold rushes that brought a motley collection of colonists from all over the world to the wild and wet ribbon of habitable land that is still isolated and largely untamed to this day.

The book’s protagonist, a young Maori boy making his way in European settler society, is called by many names: Halfie, Harvey, Thumbsucker, Pipsqueak, Bedwetter and Cocoa.  His narration, naive and curious but also fiercely independent and loyal, is a real treat, as Randall portrays his growing confidence with English and the ways in which he makes himself an intrinsic part of the town’s life and local dramas. Here’s Halfie, early on in the tale, discussing his place in the West Coast economic food chain as an errand-running  ‘coin boy’:

The gold and the coin got some kind of joinment I not unnerstand. If you find a bit of gold, whitey give you coin, but if you already got coin, whitey give you a bit of gold. They not the same but somehow equal. Not that I ever done this swapping, but I seen it. Sometimes I get tired tryna figure it all out. I go for a sleep in the sun on the river bank. When I wake up fresh, that’s when I like to go to Hokitika town. I go down the street with all them hotels. All them young whitey girls stand in the doorways in their pantalons. They call out, ‘What yer staring at, little boy?’ and pull up their long skirts to show their pantalons. If I do what they want, let my tongue hang out, act like a dog that want a big drink, the girls laugh and throw a piece of bread. I not unnerstand what’s intresting about seeing them frilly pantalons around whitey girls ankles but I do pretty much anything for their bread.

Hokitika, which during the time in which the story is set was a booming mining service town and the second busiest port in New Zealand, is now a trifling town of around 3,000 that seldom features in national news headlines, aside from during its annual wild food festival. It’s sometimes hard to picture how quickly a thriving, if grimy and somewhat ramshackle and lawless, town sprung out of the narrow West Coast sand.  It was built on the rush for gold, which saw thousands of diggers flock to the Coast from New Zealand and Australia, with ships often having to fight off insistent would-be passengers convinced that by missing out on passage to Hokitika they would be missing out on the richest early claims at the nearby Waimea, Ross and Kaniere goldfields.

A traveller journeying by sea from Nelson to Hokitika on a small sailing vessel in February 1865 at the start of the gold rush left his impressions of the town upon his arrival, quoted in a tome by the prolific popular historian J. Halket Millar:

Okitiki is at present represented by two long lines of buildings which stretch from the wharf, or rather the landing place, forming a street about 40 ft. broad. These buildings are mostly built of calico, and are occupied as stores for the sale of grog and provisions. A few of the Hotels and Bank Agencies are built of wood and iron, with some of the lower kind called shanties as mere tents. Each person is allowed for business purposes an allotment measuring 30 ft. of frontage by 70 ft. in depth […] In the place there was neither law nor order observed further than the arrangement I have mentioned about allotments. Each holder of property has to support his claim by power of his own right hand, and Lord Bounce reigns supreme […]

The sandy flat on which the township is erected is covered over with driftwood that has evidently been brought down by the Okitiki [River] on some great overflow of its bed, and there are many who declare their belief that some day Okitiki shall exist, or cease to exist, at the bottom of a great lagoon of water caused by the flooding of the river. At present there is no limit of firewood to be had where one chooses to pitch a tent […] The place seems to be well enough supplied with stores, as I counted about 40 already erected, and about a dozen more in process of erection.

- Quoted in J. Halket Millar, Westland’s Golden Sixties, Wellington, 1959

A few months later the distinguished traveller Julius Haast expressed his surprise at the speed with which Hokitika had risen up:

The principal street, half a mile long, consisted already of a large numbers of shops, hotels, banks and dwelling-houses, and appeared as a scene of almost indescribable bustle and activity. There were jewellers and watchmakers, physicians and barbers, hotels and billiard-rooms, eating and boarding-houses, and trades and professions of all description […] Carts were unloading and loading, and sheep and cattle driven to the yards; there was shouting and bell-ringing, deafening to the passers-by; criers at every corner of the principal streets which were filled with people – a scene I had never before witnessed in New Zealand.
Hundreds of diggers ‘on the spree’ and loafers were everywhere to be seen, but principally near the spit and on the wharf where work went on with feverish haste. Before arriving at Hokitika, I counted seven vessels at anchor in the roadstead, amongst them a large Melbourne steamer; whilst in the river itself, five steamers and a large number of sailing vessels were discharging their cargoes, reminding us of the life in a European port.

- Quoted in Philip Ross May, The West Coast Gold Rushes, Christchurch, 2nd ed, 1967, p.313-4

May’s comprehensive The West Coast Gold Rushes lists some Hokitika population projections at the peak of the boom years – which must be regarded as speculative due to the transient nature of much of the population at the time and the lack of effective administrative control:


Year Month Pop Source
1865 Apr 2,000 W. Seed
  July 3,000 adults Lyttelton Times, 17.07.1865
  Sept 2,500 Lyttelton Times, 29.09.1865
  Dec 2,000 S. Carkeek
1866 Feb 11-12,000 West Coast Times, 05.02.1866
  Apr 6,000 C. Fraser
  May 8-10,000 W. Wilson
  Dec? 7,000 Southern Provinces Almanac 1866

- May, 1967, p.501-2

The town boasted its own newspapers, including the West Coast Times, which published its first edition in May 1865. A Saturday edition published a few months later on 12 August displays a front page heaving with advertisements for services designed to part diggers from their hard-won gold, including the classy-sounding Mac’s Nonpareil Pie House: ‘Meals at all hours – good beds – wines, spirits, and malt liquors of the best brands’. The Times’ editorial column called for increased spending on the Coast by the Canterbury provincial government, claiming that:

From the Grey River on the North, to where the main range touches the sea on the South, and backward in a wide sweep between those two points to the snow-clad hills, the whole of the country is one vast goldfield, little prospected, comparatively speaking, but rich wherever the miner has been tempted to try his fortune. For very many years the West Canterbury goldfield will be worked with profit, if the science of the geologist and the teachings of practical experience are to be relied on.

- West Coast Times, 12 August 1865

However, this proved to be an empty boast. As the easily-accessible gold was plundered and claims ran dry the diggers largely fled to other goldfields, although some remained to work the new West Coast coal mines or fell the plentiful native timber. But the origins of the West Coast and Hokitika itself were quite distinctive, as May points out:

Among the gold rushes of the mid-nineteenth century, that to the West Coast was unique. Elsewhere pastoralists or agriculturalists had been the pioneers, and settlement had preceded a gold rush. Mission stations and cattle ranches were established in California when the ‘forty-niners burst into the Great Valley. The goldfields of New South Wales and Victoria erupted in what was already a gigantic sheepwalk; squatters had explored and occupied the range and basin country of Otago before the rush of ‘sixty-one. ‘The actual beginning of the Westland was its gold discoveries’, explained the West Coast Times: ‘Gold has been all-in-all to us’.

- May, 1967, p.476

02 October 2011

RNZAF Red Checkers

Following on from yesterday’s naval parade through the city, today featured an aerobatics display from the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s Red Checkers display team. Five pilots put their New Zealand-built single-seat CT-4E Airtrainers through a challenging and presumably crowd-pleasing routine above Wellington harbour.  I say ‘presumably’ because I actually observed the display from my deck up in Highbury.  The Checkers did a loop around my house, so I like to think they spotted me on the deck with my camera and did a special lap just for me! The display finished with a dramatic starburst manoeuvre, which must have looked fantastic from the waterfront and from the Cook Strait ferry, which was just leaving port and had all the action going on directly overhead.











Royal New Zealand Navy 70th anniversary

Yesterday the Navy had free run of the capital when it began a weekend’s celebrations commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the independent Royal New Zealand Navy. Ceremonies began with a march down through the city from Parliament to Civic Square, and then crowds of Wellingtonians descended on the 11 Navy vessels that were open to public visits. I met up with Richard to have a look at a few of the vessels, and managed to investigate the multi-role vessel HMNZS Canterbury, the offshore patrol vessel HMNZS Wellington, and the inshore patrol vessel HMNZS Hawea.
Before 1941 our maritime defences were the responsibility of the Royal Navy, although a distinctly New Zealand naval force was established as early as 1913, and from 1921 until the foundation of the RNZN the RN had a New Zealand squadron, which included the 18,500 ton battlecruiser HMS New Zealand.
Navy parade
Pictures taken from in front of the Supreme Court building opposite Bowen House at the start of Lambton Quay.

HMNZS Canterbury
HMNZS Wellington