Reasons to be Cheerful

Ian Dury’s birthday. One of the cleverest wordsmiths to ever front a rock band – and what a rock band. The Blockheads were magnificent, especially the rhythm section of bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Charley Charles.

Here’s the band live, and in their prime. Love that great loping bassline.

Today is also World Chronic Fatigue Day, which is definitely something not to be cheerful about. I was diagnosed with this at Uni: unlike some, I got over it, albeit gradually. Others haven’t been so lucky.

‘Meanwhile, back….’

Been a year of anniversaries, hasn’t it?

As an aside, the first modern centenary, according to a thing I read on the weekend in the TLS, was 400 years ago, 1617 – the 100th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. It marked the occasion when Martin Luther popped down to the local Mitre 10 and got a hammer & some nails, all the better to affix his wee note on the problem with Catholicism to the door of the local kirk.

We just, for New Zild political nerds, had the 30th Anniversary of the fourth Labour government’s December 1987 economic package. It was this which finally split that government, eventaully, with the ripping noise being the main political sound effect for the next 12 months.

More recently there was the 100th anniversaries of the Russian Revolution – the October, Bolshevik one, that is – and the Battle of Paschendale.

January 2017 was 50 years since Rob Muldoon first became finance minister, and didn’t that end well?

Musically, 1967 was a biggie.

I’m going to focus on music now, simply because I’m sitting in a hospital waiting room so screw having a look at anything serious.

Earlier in the year it was 50 years since the Beatles released their Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

Someone coming to the matter, cold, would be left with the impression this was one of the greatest cultural event since the last greatest cultural event which got the baby boomers all excited.

There is, of course, the release of yet another rerelease/reissue/remastering of the album, this one is ‘super deluxe’ one in which you can hear Ringo scratching himself in both mono and stereo.

As someone who was only a month or so off my third birthday, I have to say Sgt Pepper didn’t make a great deal of impact on me at the time.

I can remember Penny Lane on the radio, earlier that year. It was, I now gather, originally intended for the album, as was the other side of that single, Strawberry Fields Forever, but they wanted a single and, as was the custom with British bands, it was released separately.

I think both are better than anything actually on the album, with the possible exception of A Day In The Life. Years later, as a teenager taking an interest in music and being more than a little disgruntled with what was on the radio at the time, I asked for the album for Christmas. It was, after all, supposed to be the greatest album of all time, according to the musical books I’d read.

It was…interesting, certainly. Great swirling depths on some tracks, especially ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’. Some of it was a bit naff. It was ok, and interesting – certainly more so than the disco (and worse) on the radio in the late’70s.

But ‘Penny Lane’ is a song I still associate with childhood summer: to me, those high exuberant trumpets sound like the sun on the skin feels. Dad had made a sandpit for us at the start of the summer and I remember playing with this great little red tractor in it; the sound of the old radiogram coming through the window, the kind of deep, wooden mahogany tones which are unique to the sort of cabinet those old devices came housed in.

I’m sure being mixed in mono had something to do with it, for audiophiles, and probably being played on vinyl also had an effect.

But I’ve never heard music with quite the same warm rich tones since. This is probably partly nostalgia but hey, its Christmas.

It is a bit weird, looking at the video clip the Beatles did at the time, because it is so clearly the dead of northern hemisphere winter and it is a song which to me beams the laid-back heat of a New Zealand summer.

Other music from that year – and it must have been a time I was starting to notice what was on the radio – was Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe.

This was very much to my taste, because it mentioned ‘my brother was out baling hay’. I loved the machinery brought in for making hay on the farm, especially the baler. There should be more songs which mentioned baling hay, I remember thinking at the time. The rest of the song seemed a bit pointless.

The double-edged nature of Christmas

Christmas is always bittersweet.

Ostensibly a festival which gives hope to all human beings, tidings of comfort and joy, all that, it’s never been that kind of happy-clappy thing it appears on the surface.

Partly it is because the double-edged nature is built into the festival, into its myths. The best example perhaps is in three wise men who brought the gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. The gift of gold appears straightforward enough: frankincense is more ambivalent and myrrh is an embalming ointment. It prefigures the crucifixion, suffering and the fact this child will be tortured to death.

The most memorable carols are often ineffably sad: ‘Silent Night’ is incredibly melancholy, and as a child, for years, I would avoid it.  Partly because I associated it with an episode of ‘Lassie’ in which Lassie had gone missing and Little Timmy had to sing it in the town choir. I must have been about four when I saw that.

That double-edged nature of the festival carries into the secular songs associated with Christmas, often in bizarre ways.

One of the most popular modern Christmas songs, the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, is a duet between two people at the end of every tether they could have reached the limit of: in a drunk tank, insulting each other with foul epithets (‘you scumbag, you maggot’ ‘you cheap lousy faggot’ etc) and yet managing to be somehow uplifting at the same time.

A more bizarre one is the loved and hated Snoopy’s Christmas: a childish celebration of a mythical duel above World War One’s western front between the lovable cartoon dog Snoopy and the real-life, somewhat cold and probably psychologically disturbed Manfred von Richthofen. Who was, after all, the greatest fighter ace of the First World War, whose specialty was sneaking up behind reconnaissance machines and setting them on fire – and then, if they, as they usually did, fell on his side of the lines, scouring the wreckage for souvenirs amid the bodies.

It is a deeply weird song.

Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly wrote one of the great Christmas songs, about a bloke phoning his family home from prison at Christmas. ‘How To Make Gravy’ is a song which builds and builds, emotionally: I wrote a bit more about it here a few years back. 

Christmas can be a jarring time: it is supposed to be about home, not just about physical home but also the feeling of being with someone you are meant to belong with.

The other double-edged thing about Christmas is it is poignant because you remember previous, happier Christmases with loved ones who aren’t around anymore.

Or who might be there this time but are under a cloud of some sort or other which throws into question whether they will be there next year.

That brings me to another great, non-seasonal Paul Kelly song – Deeper Water, a song following a young boy being taken swimming by his dad, to feeling out of his depth as he grows up and life’s experiences, both joyous and sorrowful, threaten to overwhelm him.

‘The clock moves around 

The child is a joy

But death doesn’t care just who it destroys

The woman gets sick 

Thins down to the bone

She says “where I’m going next,

I’m going alone….”‘

Like I say, it’s not a Christmas song in the least. But it cuts to the heart of the joys and sorrows of life in the same way Christmas can.

Setting the religion aside for those who want to take it literally, I think the great power of Christmas is, in fact, this double-edged nature.

It seems we humans need to mark these apparently incompatible things together, somehow: both joy and sorrow, grief and celebration, silly toy cartoon characters and disturbed real-life sociopaths, alcoholic abusive degradation and  uplift and hope; and, yes, a figure who has come to give hope to all humans who is publicly humiliated and tortured to death.

It is a reminder that we are all these things and that all these things – at some metaphorical level anyway –  are part of our lives.

That joy and suffering are at the core of human experience.

And that both lie at the heart of this strange thing we call love.

For Waitangi Day….

A favourite spot, over the past summer, has been the hills above Makara. The bottom left-hand corner of the North Island, the area is wild, open, and glorious. The daughter loves it there, I’m pretty fond of it myself.

There’s a high tensile toughness, as it looks out at the world. The plant life is not tall – under constant pressure from howling seaward winds, it sticks close to the ground, even though the ground itself is not the most fertile you would find. It’s scrabbly, rocky, and gives up its nutrients grudgingly.


Remnants of how New Zealand faced past threats are there: concrete gun emplacements built at the start of World War Two glower out at the sea.

To the north, you can see Mana & Kapiti Islands. Wheel your view around to the south-west and there’s the South Island. You’ll often see at least one of the Cook Strait ferries, possibly more than one.







‘Silver blue, the sea like sheets on a bed
At the edge of the world a ferry boat crawls away like a snail…’

…as Don McGlashan wrote in the great Mutton Birds song, ‘Along the Boundary’. I don’t think the song is actually about this spot – I remember McGlashan saying, somewhere, it was about a specific place and memory, but I suspect that place is on the other side of the strait.

There is a ferry boat, crawling away here, if you squint hard enough


But anyway.  It’s off an album which came out in 1995, around the time I moved to Wellington. It’s always had a special place in my heart and I think of this particular song almost every time I go up to this place.

It’s about a child climbing a tree, and struggling to keep up with a bigger child – a friend or, more likely, a sibling or a cousin – who is ‘much older’.

The song tells of a child discovering he/she could keep up with the ‘much older’ person.

‘You never thought I could get such a long way up, but I looked straight ahead…’

And there’s the evocative memory…

‘I feel the branches move around me
I see the thistles along the boundary
Up along the boundary…’

And, from up there, the child’s feeling of, if not omnipotence, then certainly strength and potential:

‘I move patches of wind round the bay of glass
I move shadows of clouds over the grass
I’m at the controls, there isn’t a shelf or a rock on the beach
That I couldn’t reach…

The sun pulls the hills the way the tide pulls on the sea
Waves and waves of grass are breaking, rolling over to me
And the sky’s like a wheel
Like a wheel…’

It’s sheer poetry. McGlashan’s one of our best songwriters: he is certainly our best at evoking the New Zealand space – both headspace and physical space.

He’s kind of a rock muso version of Maurice Gee.

Today the threats those concrete blockhouses were built to face are gone. Behind them, the flat area dug out to house soldiers’ barracks is partly overgrown with lupins.


Sheep may safely graze there. Children play noisily and happily in the old buildings once built by khaki-clad soldiers in deadly, fear-filled earnestness of an overwhelming threat.

Just over the hills, the Makara wind farms whirl, while under them, a stream of mountain bikers, all sweaty and multicoloured exuberance, whirl their pedals in a kind of mock tribute.

So: here’s the Mutton Birds, doing ‘Along The Boundary’, live. Bit rough, but its still a great song.

Heavy Blanket

I don’t normally do this sort of thing on social media – but this is an exception. I can vouch for the usefulness of these blankets – they didn’t solve the sleep issues we have with our daughter, but they helped a lot, and she loves her ‘heavy blanket.’

And I’ve seen other kids on the autism spectrum benefit from the anxiety-reducing properties of them.

They’re not cheap – and if you’re a not-so-well-off parent of a child on the spectrum, they’re of a price that can hurt.

So, anyway. Here’s the givealittle link.


Chronic Fatigue Day

Today is International Chronic Fatigue Day.
I tend not to write too much here about personal stuff because, well, its personal. I’ve got a residual Presbyterian inhibition about letting out that sort of thing. Besides, I don’t want to bore people.

Not sure why today is different, but it is. My Other Half has chronic fatigue, and has had it now for, I think, 10 years. She had to sell her business after she got the condition. For now, she can’t work.

I was diagnosed with it myself when I was at University. I’d never heard of the condition at the time. Things like that happened to other people as far as I was concerned. I’d had glandular fever the previous year: had hepatitis simultaneously, which can happen. Bounced back and felt fantastic: I was warned by the doctor it would take me to 2 years to get back to my previous level of health but I didn’t take much notice. I felt fine. But nearly a year later it was like slowly walking into a swamp. Each day I was more and more stuffed. I’d come home and just crash. Eventually I started crashing in the library.

I was one of the lucky ones – I got over it. Slowly. But the years 1990-94 are years I was only half there, it seems.
I’ve never had quite the same amount of energy I used to have, but of course at least some of that could just be the aging process.

Oddly enough, I’m glad I had it. Partly because I think it’s a good thing for people who have had a pretty charmed life (and in retrospect I think had, up to that point) to get a knock-back or two.
It meant I canned the law degree I had started and went back to journalism, which I’d done for four years before going to Uni. I think I’d have hated being a lawyer.

Most importantly though (and this is perhaps linked to the first reason) it means I can understand what my other half is going through. A lot of people who have chronic fatigue lose their partner as well: it’s a difficult condition to cope with.

Since then I’ve met quite a few people with it. There’s also a couple of reasonably high powered people around town who have had it and recovered, which is kind of comforting.

A rare visit to the pictures…

Saw ‘Starter for 10‘ last Friday. Set at a UK Uni in the mid 80s and about a bloke who is determined to go on University Challenge and bed his blonde teammate.

It doesn’t quite work out, of course, but it’s a damn good laugh. They seem to do Uni Challenge a bit different in the UK to the way we used to do it here.

The year I was on it only a couple of teams took it seriously. Auckland wasn’t one of them. We took the attitude it was a week’s free holiday in Dunedin, and that was about it.

The attached picture is from the Listener sometime in late 1989. I’m amazed I ever had that much hair. Note the mixed image – underneath the scarf and long dark overcoat is a check shirt bought from the local Dairy Factory back home.

There was quite a bit of partying but I had glandular fever at the time and I’ve never drunk so much tomato juice in my life.

The first night there the organisers – TVNZ – figured we’d like to see a video. They put a great deal of thought into it. You can imagine them thinking ‘what sort of film would people who go in for University Challenge most like?’ and came up with Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The room we saw it in was packed. Many of them there knew every word and kept talking along with the film. This completely annoyed the manager of the Massey team, because she was the only person in the room who had not seen it at least three times.

Nerds? Who said nerds?

Some of the teams had done a lot of training. One team was reputed to have creative visualisation exercises to motivate them, whereby they visualised the prize – a PC – on their desk. At least two of the teams – Waikato and Vic – had been selected quite a while before and had spent the ensuing period doing training quizzes.

We’d had one training session. It was meant to be three hours but after the first hour we went to Shadows.

We still nearly won. Came up against Vic in the semi and they were all completely hungover.

The final – against Waikato – initially, was a draw. We’d got one question awarded though which turned out to be not right – from memory we had to name a bunch of South American countries which had something in common. Can’t recall what.

Anyway, we’d named Paraguay, I think, which wasn’t right. Waikato challenged this, were proved right, and we had to re-enact and refilm two thirds of the game.

When we got on the bus to the airport afterwards, the Waikato team got on after us and we starting singing ‘Don’t cry for me Paraguay…’

That was the last Uni Challenge they had in NZ.


Forgot to add one of the best bits….the manager of one of the previous year’s teams was recounting a discussion they had had with Pete Sinclair over the dinner on the final night. Talk had turned to things that had a surprisingly aphrodisiac quality. Sinclair volunteered, with a deadly straight face, that “one thing, which beleive it or not, is a mild aphrodisiac, is Marmite.”