Sunday, 29 April 2012

Of Roosters and Feather Dusters

In Reality, Size Matters.

What is it about trees and whales that stir the emotions of so many folk? When people tie themselves to trees in order to prevent their felling for so-called development, or spend days and nights on a beach keeping stranded whales wet until they can be returned to the sea, are they being noble or are they demonstrating their shallowness and bigotry? Let me explain.

Blue whales are the world's largest mammals and many of their whale cousins hold lofty positions on the mammalian size list. Whales, elephants and other macro-animals, when they are in danger, stir humans to all kinds of noble action in their defence. It's the same with trees. Let's all hope we don't return to the practices of earlier generations in some countries (including this one), of felling for short term gain, trees that took thousands of years to grow, but there is huge discrepancy between the perceived importance of treading on a small whorled pogonia and felling a New Zealand kauri tree.  No problem with anyone doing what they can to help and save these various large species, but what of the smaller plants and creatures, which through no fault of their own don't capture the imagination of large numbers of people. Take the peripatus worm, whose habitat is threatened by a motorway development. I'm not suggesting there is no human concern for the worm, in fact a great deal of trouble is being taken in attempting to ensure its future, but it doesn't cut it in the emotional stakes with whales or gorillas, does it?

So then, are whale-watchers and treehuggers shallow and bigoted when they fail to show equal concern for all species regardless of size, fame or cuddliness? Certainly they would be thought of that way if they applied the same rules to their fellow humans. But then, don't we all? Of the one-and-a-half million humans who die every day, how many are considered important enough to have their obituaries published?

An Old Dog Learns a New Trick

For most of my life I've enjoyed crossword puzzles. The ones they call "quick" crosswords (although that's something of an oxymoron in my case) with general knowledge clues and straight word definitions that can be looked up in an encyclopaedia or a dictionary as a last resort. Many times I've looked at the clues in crosswords of the cryptic variety and given up when most times I couldn't see the answer to a solitary clue.

Recently I started to question why I couldn't solve these puzzles. I've always loved words and those who know me well often roll their eyes at my silly little wordplay jokes. To Google I went, and sure enough, there was a plethora of advice available on how to solve cryptics. "Don't be discouraged," one website told me, "if you can solve up to five clues in your first few weeks you're doing well". One crossword a day is all I have time for, and The Otago Daily Times (you won't find the crossword, they need to sell papers!) supplied the raw material. On the fifth day, I completed the puzzle correctly! Sadly, this makes me neither genius or expert, but it does make me a cryptic nut. And old dogs can learn new tricks!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Why Knights today?

One of the more curious moves by New Zealand's National-led government has been the reintroduction of titular honours, announced by prime minister John Key very soon after taking office in 2008. The previous Labour government had replaced those honours carrying the titles "Sir" and "Dame" with uniquely New Zealand awards carrying no less recognition but without the titles. Knighthoods had long been abolished by most, if not all, British Commonwealth countries some years before, so a move back in time to a tradition all but forgotten pretty much everywhere except Great Britain seemed a very strange thing to do, especially as it hadn't been an election issue and indeed to my knowledge hadn't even been a part of National Party policy prior to that election. There wasn't a huge outcry when the announcement was made - after all, the Nats had just been elected in a landslide and the solid majority who voted them in were starry-eyed and hardly likely to remonstrate.

Three and a half years hence the twice yearly announcements that further small groups of people, some of whom have done nothing more than rise to positions of prominence in their respective professions, are to be addressed as "Sir Charles" or "Dame Constance" seem to have become accepted as a part of life in New Zealand. In each group so honoured, there seems to be at least one man, one woman and one person of Maori descent. I wonder why that is?

In the last three years there has been a great deal written and said about the widening gap between rich and poor in this country. Of course, there is no rule requiring knighthoods to be bestowed only upon the wealthy but it is reasonable to presume that posties on beats in Cannon's Creek and Otara won't be delivering many offers of such titles any time soon. Which brings me to the point of this ramble: rightly or wrongly, the public perceives knighthoods to be the preserve of the rich and famous, so why would the government do something completely unnecessary to feed the notion of the widening gap they claim doesn't exist?

Footnote: the wife of Sir Theodore Hucklebuck is entitled to call herself Lady Hucklebuck. What entitlement does the husband of Dame Felicity Marychurch have? And what will be the entitlement of the legal Civil Union partner of NZ's first openly gay knight or dame?

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Day I Met a Moonwalker

Dave Brown, aka JC's Helper did an impressive bit of name-dropping today, thereby moving me to consider who might be the most famous person I have met and spoken with during my lifetime.

The setting was the ballroom of the Southern Cross Hotel, circa 1987 (since closed and demolished), Melbourne, Australia, This was prior to the deregulation of the Australian banks, when the big mutual life insurance societies were soon to be forced into demutualising and giving up their long held ability to spend policyholders' money like there was no tomorrow. And spend it they did. Lavish overseas "conferences" every year as incentives for salespeople to achieve quite moderate targets were commonplace, as were high value prizes as incentives for the same salespeople to sell more of what they were already being paid extremely generous commissions to sell. At the time, I was employed as a sales manager for the largest Australian "mutual" of them all. Every January, in an attempt to get their salesfolk's minds back on the business of selling after the Christmas break, they produced extravagant "back to work" conferences at the state level. It was a challenge each January to outdo the theme of the previous year's conference and the sales personnel typically rolled up in droves, eagerly anticipating the best show ever.

The lights dimmed and the hum of social chatter faded as the sound system produced an ominous roar and a cloud of vapour emanated downward from above the stage, clearing slowly to reveal a replica of the Apollo 11 landing module "Eagle" that Weta Workshop would have been proud of, being lowered gently onto the stage. The exit hatch opened, a ladder appeared, down which climbed a moon-suited man while the public address system played a recording of the actual moon landing in 1969: "One small step for man.....". The figure turned, walked awkwardly in moon-walk fashion toward the microphone as he removed his helmet and brought an audible collective gasp of astonishment from his audience when he said: "Hi, I'm Neil Armstrong" as the first words of his keynote address to the conference.

It was going to be a hard act to improve upon the following year, and so far as I can recall they never did. Yes, it was indeed the Neil Armstrong, who had been spirited into Australia by the organisers and would be spirited back to the United States the following day without the Aussie news media ever getting wind of his presence. Such was the power of the southern hemisphere's largest mutual life insurance office. At the "after match" cocktail function, I joined the long queue to glad-hand the world's most famous astronaut and request his autograph - "For my kids, you understand!"

Footnote: a group of my management colleagues from out-of-town centres, who were hotel guests overnight, were enjoying a few quiet drinks later that evening in the room of one of their number, when they had a hunch to phone reception and ask to be connected to "Mr Armstrong's room". The request was granted and the famous astronaut duly accepted an invitation to share a few drinks in Room number such & such - appearing at the door a few minutes later. He proved to be an entertaining guest, evidently, spending an hour or so in friendly conversation, during which he revealed that it had been part of the deal to keep his visit secret. Rather risky, I should have thought, especially given that he was booked into the hotel under his real name - albeit only a surname.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

A Captain, a King and a Tale of Two Cities

Dunedin's Anna Chinn has likely never darkened the Captain Cook Tavern's doorway, unlike countless thousands of her University of Otago alumni over several generations, many of whom have fonder and more vivid memories of "The Cook" than they have of the university library or the Castle Lecture Theatres. Their eagerness to indulge in the fermented and spirituous nectars available therein as they approached the venerable institution would easily have outranked any desire to admire the views to the north, or indeed the south, along Great King Street.

If they didn't see a reason to turn their gaze from the pub door to the magnificent tree-lined Dunedin streetscape with its Mount Cargill backdrop, it's hardly likely they puzzled, as I did today, over the origin of the street's name. Were the city fathers of the day honouring a revered king? Dunedin was settled by Scots in the late 1840s, when Victoria was already 10 years into her reign, so there was no king at the time. When her son succeeded her on the throne in 1901 as King Edward the Seventh, Great King Street would have been named long since. Could it have been named Great King Street to differentiate it from a now long forgotten Little King Street? And then, the penny dropped. Of course. Great King Street, Dunedin was named after its Edinburgh counterpart, like so many other Dunedin streets: George Street, Princes Street, Cumberland Street, Moray Place and Rattray Street to name but a few. Edinburgh's Great King Street was presumably named in honour of Scotland's revered King James the Sixth (James the First of England). Puzzle solved. 

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Who was the luckier?

During the past week, two New Zealanders have drawn the short straw against huge odds. The first, one of hundreds of thousands driving innocently along motorways, was suddenly confronted by another vehicle which, having entered via an exit ramp and therefore travelling in the wrong direction, struck him head on and killed him intantly. The second, a thirty-something male supermarket checkout operator, won a 26 million dollar lottery jackpot and bravely declared that he would be at work at 5.00am the next morning as usual. When he learned of the waiting media scrum, he didn't front and left town for places unknown. Most would say the latter was the lucky one. I wonder.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Ultimate April Fools' Prank

Dunedin's daily newspaper, The Otago Daily Times, will be gutted at April Fools' Day falling on the only non-publishing day of the week. For many years they have kept a tradition of running a fictional (but sometimes almost credible) front page story of local interest to feature on their 1st April front page. It's a bit of fun, but my failure to recall the detail of a solitary historical example might say something about their quality. Then again, it probably says even more about the recollection ability of my aging brain.

The April Fools' prank that comes most readily to my mind was perpetrated perhaps 12 or more years ago in this city. It duped more local citizens than any newspaper could ever have hoped to reach in such a short time.

Harbour Cone is a former volcano, thought to have been extinct for millions of years, which features prominently in views from most parts of Dunedin.

Before dawn on the day of which today is an anniversary, a person or persons unknown climbed to the summit, where they set and lit a large smoky fire just behind the peak, where the fire itself couldn't be seen.

Thousands of Dunedin citizens awoke to the unthinkable sight of their beloved Harbour Cone apparently awaking from its long sleep. Brilliant!