Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Southern Lights

35 years ago, New Years Eve in New Zealand made world headlines,
but not for any reasons you might expect. 

The final day of 2013 has dawned hot and bright – already the best day weather-wise since Christmas, over a week ago.  And this is quite natural, as this also happens to be my first day back at work, since finishing an absurd 22 hour shift on Christmas Eve.
Part of the reason for this rather long day was my determination to complete a project which I first began working on in the middle of this year, but then found less and less time available to work on as my job spiralled into the purgatory of ‘admin’.
Today is the 35th anniversary of one of the world’s most famous UFO sightings. And it happened more or less above my head as twelve-year-old me slept on oblivious to the fact that the Marlborough skies were at that moment full of a phenomenon which I usually sent everyone else to sleep with.

I do remember seeing the now-famous footage shot by Quentin Fogarty’s camera crew, soon afterwards, on their return to Blenheim in the very early hours of December 31 1978. Although reportedly feeling as if their Argosy freighter was being played with by the mysterious objects like a lumbering fishing boat surrounded by a mischievous pod of darting, leaping dolphins, the film sadly does little to convey this. Instead a fuzzy, ‘squashed orange’ bumped around TV screens all over the country (and eventually the world) accompanied by Fogarty’s excited narrative.  In fact, I’m pretty certain we didn’t even have a colour TV then, but the even less impressive result did little to curb my enthusiasm.

Despite being the only case of unidentified flying objects ever verified by multiple radar sources and visual sightings simultaneously, (amounting to several reliable witnesses including  experienced air crews and air traffic controllers), and on top of all that actually filmed – few people seem to remember this incident today.  The only echoes of it I was aware of years later came from seeing pilot Captain Bill Startup’s son ribbed in my seventh form class, because of his father’s experiences.

I managed to acquire both Bill Startup’s book (The Kaikoura UFOs) and journalist Quentin Fogarty’s (Let’s Hope They’re Friendly!) for my research, and each give fascinating accounts - Startup’s  factually, and Fogarty’s more emotionally.  Either way, it’s clear that there was an awful lot more to this story than the public was ever made aware of, and this was emphasised further by the white-wash report prepared by the New Zealand Defence Force.  The nearby Japanese Squid fishing Fleet and/or Venus rising explanations offered are both embarrassingly inadequate, and perhaps the reaction of an anxious Government caught short by the possibility of foreign aircraft making merry in our airspace while the Cold War still loomed.

To me it’s very appropriate that this event occurred during the festive season, book-ended by child-like amazement and looking to the future. The universe, and even some aspects of New Zealand history, is still full mysteries. As we enter a bright new year may we never lose our capacity for wonder.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Yearly projections

The medium of film seems an appropriate way for this blog to look back on the year that was.

2013 is almost over, and in terms of cinema entertainment it’s been a memorable year.
Marvel films continue their, until now, unchallenged domination of the big screen, but wait, up in the sky, is it a bird, is it a plane..?
Alas, this list is dominated by large, noisy 3-D blockbusters, but spectacle is best appreciated on a big screen, after all.
A couple of smaller films brought plenty of film magic of an altogether different kind and I only just managed to get tickets to duck Matt Smith’s chin in 3-D. 
It seems that I may have missed ‘the film of the year’ however, as Gravity continues to attract praise from pretty-much everyone.
Here are some of my highlights (and a notable low-point).

Although released in late 2012, we saw Skyfall at the beginning of this year, making Bond the first of three long-running fictional heroes celebrating an anniversary on-screen in 2013. And if this film
put a foot wrong I certainly didn’t see it. I particularly loved the more personal, scaled-down resolution, with no large-scale assault on a super villain’s lair to stop a satellite-borne laser beam starting World War Three, this time.  Instead, Bond is desperately trying to get two elderly British thesps to safety through the besieged, fast disintegrating remnants of his family estate, and it’s riveting. 
Another highlight was young Ben Wilshaw as the new Q.  Making an instant impact with screen-presence well-beyond his age, some suggest him as a natural choice for the new Doctor when Matt Smith announces his departure.  By the year’s end Wilshaw has been cast as another icon instead: Freddie Mercury.

Iron Man 3
Two sequels and a last-chance reboot dominated the middle of the year, and I made it my business to organise group viewings of all of them with friends of varying enthusiasm.
First out of the gate was Tony Stark’s latest outing (which apparently could have been the original Iron Man 2 if the unexpected success of the first film hadn’t produced that ill-advisedly premature and hurried sequel a few years back.)
Downey delivers, as usual, and the idea of having Stark suffering from post-Avengers combat syndrome was a fascinating one.  Pairing him with the antithesis of a cute kid (Downey jnr, jnr?) lead to the film’s most charming scenes, Ben Kingsley is exceptional and Gwyneth Paltrow wears a vest top very well. But somehow this sequel fades from memory quite quickly after the climactic explosions die away.

Star Trek – Into Darkness
The biggest and perhaps only criticism I’ve heard of this film is that “It wasn’t as good as the first one”.  I suspect chances were it was never going to manage that particular feat, and I personally loved Abram’s second Trek.  An intriguing refracted image of the original Star Trek 2, on steroids, it also managed to tell an exciting, original story and the large cast were well-served.  Benedict Cumberbatch shows why he is everywhere at the moment.

Man of Steel
I’ve wrote plenty about this film here http://fasmatodea.blogspot.co.nz/2013/11/steel-works.html
and it just might be my favourite cinema experience of 2013 due to the intense feeling of relief that this man can still make us believe he can fly.  Perhaps a little cold and nihilistic at times, this is none-the-less the best possible start for the ‘other’ comic superheroes’ advance on the big screen. Led - as is only right - by Superman. Watch out Marvel!

 Pacific Rim
Aargh. How could this come from the mind of the same man who made Pan’s Labyrinth? As clanking and colossally monstrous as its ‘stars’, but not in a good way.  Please redeem yourself with your Lovecraft film, Mr Del Toro.

Song for Marion
Not seen on the big screen, we enjoyed this, appropriately, in more intimate surroundings at home.  A lonely man struggles with the loss of his wife only to finally realise that good can come from any situation and it’s never to late to change.  This is the epitome of a well-made, modestly budgeted British film with several hundred times more heart than anything on offer at the multiplexes, as brilliant performances and plenty of humour take you through a spectrum of emotions before thankfully coming to rest on ‘life-affirming’.  It probably helped that the original General Zod: Terence Stamp, the ninth Doctor: Christopher Eccleston, and the gorgeous Gemma Arterton were in the lead roles, too.

The Magic of Belle Isle
Perhaps a state-side answer to Song for Marion, another loveable curmudgeon finds redemption and a second chance due to the irrepressible natures of those around him, and a dog called Spot.  Morgan Freeman brings even more charisma than usual to the role of disabled former-author Monte Wildhorn and the every-day eccentricity of Belle Isle, combined with priceless, and sometimes elaborate, dialogue helps make this lovely little film irresistible.

The Day of the Doctor
I saw the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special with my wife and father, in a cinema packed with fans of all ages, in 3-D.  The audience was roughly 50% female, some wore Matt Smith costumes, some took their parents, even their Grandparents (or is that the other way-around?).  This alone would have been enough to burst my sad little fan-heart with joy, but impossibly, The Day of the Doctor actually lived up to its hype.  After a very patchy series earlier in the year, the programme-makers somehow got back in touch with the essence of ‘Who’ just in time, and literally gave us a celebration which had something for everyone.  Twelve (“No sir; thirteen!”) spinning little blue boxes felt like every Christmas present ever, arriving all at once.

Beyond the Edge
A late arrival (saw it yesterday!) and well-worth inclusion. I researched Hillary and Tenzing’s climb fairly exhaustively earlier this year (see infographic below), but this documentary finally conveyed what the climb was actually like, from the treacherous Khumbu icefall to the terrifying vertical Hillary’s Step. Superb research gives new insights to a story already familiar to many, while beautifully filmed recreations of key events convey the emotion and spectacle.  The achievement is humbling, yet stirs National pride at the same time, and our cat carries the name Ed with justified honour.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Stardust Memories

Anyone get music for Christmas?  Be very careful how often you play it – some albums may never find their way out of your head...

As most of us have now begun our summer holiday, here’s a not-especially proud look back at some of the albums , Christmas presents or otherwise, which somehow came to embody certain of my summers long past.  You probably have your own – music which either by choice, necessity or desperation became inextricably entwined with memories of certain December/Januarys when summers really were long and hot.  So why don’t you tell me about them - as a wise man once said: “When we share, we heal”.

Summer 1977
First I can remember would have to be The Story of Star Wars – the first album I ever owned.
Videotapes and DVDs were as much a part of the future as droids and lightsabres, but the magic of audio cassette technology condensed the film soundtrack down to roughly 24 minutes on each side, and provided wonderfully baritone linking narration from Afro-American actor Roscoe Lee Brown (To Kill a Mockingbird). I could now replay Star Wars as many times as I wanted – and I did: again, and again, and again.  Every moment from the opening 20th Century Fox fanfare to Alec Guinness solemnly wrapping up by promising that: “The Force will be with you, always” became indelibly embedded in my 11-year-old mind. No wonder it was going to be many long years until I finally got a girlfriend.

Summer 1980
I’m probably even less proud of this one, but it really wasn’t my fault.  Leaving town on a two week family holiday to the Nelson Lakes National Park, perhaps inspired by the name of our destination (I can think of no other justification) my father picked up the cassette of a Willie Nelson album called Stardust.  I think we’d call it a ‘covers album’ these days, and it got thrashed severely over the following fortnight. At the end of ‘Georgia’, possibly his most well-known effort, Nelson repeats the line “on my mind” over and over again, which I now believe was actually some kind of insidious audio-brainwashing. Because even now, in my poor mind perfectly good songs like ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ and ‘Sunny side of the Street’ are forever associated with Willie’s arid, quavering warble.

Summer 1984
My first year away from home must surely have developed some more refined musical tastes.  Mixing with ferociously-trendy design students from all over the country must have exposed me to many new and challenging kinds of music?  Well, yes…it did, but what I chose to play this summer was the soundtrack to an unknown movie called FM. (It apparently went on to ‘inspire’ long-running radio station sitcom WKRP, which perhaps gives some idea of its flavour.)
Although often found at the bottom of bargain bins, this album showcased tracks from Foreigner, the Eagles, Steely Dan and that colossus among one-hit wonders – Boston’s mighty “More than a Feeling”.  A camping holiday with friends in the wilds of Marlborough’s back-country was spiced up no end by this collection of ‘past-its-sell-by-date’ 70s rock and our air guitars got a damn good work-out that summer, I can tell you.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Christmas trees and middle-toe

The build-up to Christmas has been eventful, but not quite what I had in mind as a ‘holiday break’

Our tree - it took some doing to get to this point - and that star still isn't straight!
As I’ve mentioned before, I love Christmas - but this time it feels as if Christmas might not feel the same way about me.  This year has been a challenging one, and as it reaches its end I realise that one of the challenges we haven’t met so well is keeping our work lives properly balanced.  In this respect, 2013 has been something of a long hard slog, with far, far too many hours which should have been recreational, healthily fulfilling or simply relaxing squandered instead on unaware and probably uncaring paymasters.  We love our jobs, mostly, and perhaps this has been part of the problem.  2014, we have resolved already, will be different.
But back to Christmas.  Apart from everything else it brings it means we can stop!  The relentless flurry of December will give way to time off; a holiday!  And it will be a more relaxing time than ever for me because fate appears to have intervened and literally made sure I stop by knocking me out of a Christmas tree and onto an instantly fracturing middle toe.

But more on this later.  Christmas began with ‘acquiring’ our tree.  I’ll skim over the exact details here, except to say that it was a wilding pine and the sweaty, scratchy effort we went to wrestling our prize out of a dense, gorse ridden thicket at dusk meant we earned it.  Or we like to think so.
Getting the tree home we quickly discovered that we’d also transported some passengers in its branches, and neither of them were angels or faeries.  

 The first was perhaps not too surprising to anyone living in New Zealand, but a magnificent example of a tree weta, none-the-less, and he was quickly and safely re-homed in our own ‘forest’ outside.
The second hanger-on was a much bigger surprise, (literally), and gob-smackingly appropriate to mention here.

Yes, it’s a phasmatodea, a stick insect almost 200mm long, in our Christmas tree!  In my entire life I’ve probably seen a couple of far smaller specimens, but this was your full-sized, equatorial ‘branch insect’.  Quite what such an exotic creature was doing in a pine tree is anyone’s guess, but he too is now safely re-homed in our own stand of native forest, and we hope he’s very happy there.

Which brings us to the decorating of the tree.  Call it tragic if you like, but this splendid glass Doctor Who Christmas tree ornaments were bought for me back in January and I’ve been looking forward to hanging them all year.  I’ll be making sure our tree is kept well hydrated to avoid any premature branch droop, as the sight of one of these beauties lying shattered at the foot of the tree would not make my Christmas a merry one. 

And with mention of ‘shattered’ and ‘foot’ I’d just urge you all at home to make certain that whatever you are balancing on to adjust the star at the very top of your Christmas tree is always stable, perhaps even held by someone else, and that maybe you wear some sort of footwear, too. I did none of these things and have now just completed possibly the busiest week of my year on crutches. But  I am happy to say that despite the hospital’s pronouncement that ‘at my age’ I would never manage the extra exertion of getting around and needed to take the week off – I am instead possibly covering distance to and from work faster than if I was walking. 
The sight of me ‘tripod-ing around’ (is this what HG Wells had in mind for his Martian War Machines?) also seems to bring a smile to workmate’s faces, so adding to the sum total of office Christmas cheer in some tiny way mines some positivity from this lamentable situation.

And now, the big day is almost here, so to those of you kind enough to look in on Phasmatodea from time to time: may you and your family have a very happy – and safe – Christmas.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Jangle Bells

It's time for the difficult second album -
but hopefully it's not too difficult on the ear.

After producing a Christmas compilation which some people actually played a couple of years ago, I attempted a volume two last year. Alas, I barely reached ten songs (and one of those was Snoopy’s Christmas) before reluctantly concluding that I’d used up the best ones on volume one. But with some encouragement from my friend Jonty, this year I re-doubled my efforts. I’ve trawled the internet for lesser-known festive classics and given the folk at itunes a very happy Christmas with my sudden spike in purchases to make up The Second Best Ever Christmas Album. Ever play list.
So, in the words of Slade: Here it is, Merry Christmas!

01 Fairytale of New York - The Pogues
In the words of musicradar.com: “An anthem for anyone who finds themselves staring into the bottom of a glass, reminiscing about lost love and wasted opportunities.”
Indeed, what could be more Christmassy than some ripe Irish abuse from the late Kirsty MacColl, some of which is still ‘scrambled’ by certain radio stations.

02 Snoopy’s Christmas - The Royal Guardsmen  
Plenty about this perennial favourite (with me, anyway) here: 

03 Santa’s List - Cliff Richard
There’s a folk memory that Cliff Richard used to produce a Christmas single every year, but it really only felt that way. This one edges out Mistletoe and Wine for me because that song commits the sin of breaking the word Chris-ti-an into three syllables just to make it scan in the chorus. Tut tut, Sir Cliff.

04 Thank God it’s Christmas - Queen
The mighty Freddie Mercury sings a Christmas song written by Brian May and Roger Taylor– what more possibly needs to be said? Except this from Rolling Stone:
“They never even made a video for it. That's a shame. It's a beautiful song that stands up to anything in their catalogue.” Hear, hear!

05 The First Noel - John Farnham
First released on an album called, rather egotistically, Christmas is… Johnny Farnham, in 1970, the Australian, erm , ‘recording legend’ can be forgiven because it’s the season of goodwill and he really rocks this classic carol.

06 Merry Christmas Everybody - Slade
Often pitted against Roy Wood’s I wish it could be Christmas Every Day (see Best Ever Christmas Album. Ever. volume one, if anyone actually kept it) in a sort of ‘Battle of the 1973 Festive Glam Rock hits’; this song is (in)famous for Noddy Holder’s astonishing bellow announcing to probably the entire solar system that ‘It’s Christmas”. Certainly doesn’t end with a whimper.

07 I’ll be home for Christmas - Linda Ronstadt
Such a gorgeous voice, you can’t beat a little retro-Ronstadt, especially at Christmas. She has been nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next year, and quite right too.

08 A Spaceman came Travelling - Chris de Burgh
Stop laughing. I bet Erich Von Daniken loves this one – ‘ancient astronauts’ meets the nativity, and somehow it works.

09 In Dulci Jubilo - Mike Oldfield
Ear-worm warning! Although it’s a typically quirky and exuberant instrumental from instantly recognisable Mike Oldfield, you’ll find yourself wanting to ‘sing’ along by vocalising with that bottom-kicking electric guitar, which is embarrassing. But the guitar solo isn’t – every Christmas song should have one. Translated as ‘In Sweetest Rejoicing’ or ‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice’ In Dulci Jubilo is thought to have been written around 1328.

10 Winter Melody - Donna Summer
From the depths of Disco, the arrangements in this soulful and rather long song (from Summer’s concept album called Four Seasons of Love) will take you right back to 1976, even if you weren’t actually there in the first place.

11 Just Like Christmas - Low
I might be the world’s least knowledgeable person when it comes to American Indie (beyond Raiders of the Lost Ark) and I hadn’t even heard of Low, but this song is a brilliant find (thank you again, music radar). I particularly like the booming ‘kettle drum’ which de-cheeses the sleigh bells perfectly.

12 Mary’s Boy Child - Harry Belafonte

The perfect remedy to Boney M, whose version also appeared on volume one. Belafonte is the touch of class this compilation so sorely needs.

13 I Believe in Father Christmas - Greg Lake
Interesting one this. At first listen it actually sounds anti-Christmas, but I’m assured is only anti-Christmas commercialism. This one third of Emmerson Lake and Palmer then really gives the instrumentals ‘welly’ at the end, making this song sound far more Christmassy than the festive industry he’s attacking.

14 December will be Magic Again - Kate Bush
The mighty Kate Bush, sings a Christmas… oh, I’ve done that, haven’t I? This is as left field as you might expect, including some distinctly un-Christmassy lyrics (don’t listen too carefully, kids) with arrangements and vocal gymnastics which no-one else could even consider attempting. And it’s brilliant.

15 Zat You Santa Claus? - Louis Armstrong
This is an unexpected homage to the ‘Christmastime ghost story’, a tradition I didn’t even realise existed until recently. Eerie whistling wind, an unexpected knocking at the door …and an eye at the keyhole! All conjured by the unmistakeable tones of Satchmo.

16 Frosty the Snowman - Cocteau Twins
Wow! What a find. “Lush and atmospheric with iceberg-sized instrumentals”, says Music Radar. It has also been described less kindly as the only Cocteau Twins song ‘ever able to be understood’. Either way, it could be the standout hit of this album. Which vowel is Liz Frazer actually using when she sings the second syllable of “Snowman” in the chorus? It could be any of the five options, but I suspect it’s all of them simultaneously. Insane and wonderful.

17 Star of Wonder - Fred Dagg
Short, but such a sweet memory. Anyone growing up in New Zealand in the 1970s will be able to sing along to the gumboot-stomping chorus, and smile at recollections of black singlets and John Clarke with hair.

Whether this becomes the soundtrack to your Christmas, a beer mat or a bird scarer, we hope you and your family have a very happy Festive season. (And if you think some of these choices are dubious, be grateful that the Jingle Cats: Miaowy Christmas and the Red Hot Chilli Pipers didn’t make it this year)  

Friday, 6 December 2013

Fruits of Labour

Once upon a time, summer was something
which had to be worked hard at.

Summertime to many means berry fruit, from the firm scarlet succulence of strawberries to the boysenberry’s purple voluptuousness – barely containing the ripe load of its own juice.  And for certain provinces in times not too distant past summertime also meant gathering this bounty from the local orchards.  Most kids over the age of 13 seemed content to spend their long hot summer holidays fruit picking.  Filling punnets with an apparently endless supply of berries for minimum wage, and dreaming of cooling down in a river or swimming pool with your friends, afterwards.  You’d never get rich berry-picking - but it was casual and often delicious work.  Novices were let loose on the raspberry and boysenberry crops, while only the trusted few were allowed near the strawberries.  With orchards long in decline, I feel ashamed to admit that we used to waste this wonderful fruit by throwing it at each other in brief, but colourful berry fights.  The vivid red and purple explosions must have pre-dated paint-balling by almost a decade. Many years later, on a long trek through the Himalayan foothills and as far from fruit of any kind as possible, the thought of a single New Zealand boysenberry was sometimes all that kept me going..  
Work in the orchard usually finished early afternoon, and a vast exodus of young, fruit-stained cyclists would briefly fill the street, eager to put the remaining long hours of summer light to good use.  Berries genuinely did swim before your eyes when you closed them  to try and sleep at night – but there are worse things.

In Marlborough, the less glamorous and far harder accompaniment to berry work was garlic picking.  Crouched over a large bin, in the middle of a parched field offering no shelter from the blistering sun, this was many youngsters’ first taste of real labour.  The garlic bulb offered few possibilities for sneaky mouthfuls or throwing fights, the way that berries did.  The only free sample available was when you inevitably nicked your fingers with the dilapidated shears provided, and received the sharp bite of garlic juice straight into the cut. Eye-watering had replaced mouth-watering, and there were no lush, tall berry bushes to protect you from the sun or the eyes of the supervisors.
Apparently Marlborough’s hard winter followed by a long dry summer made it New Zealand’s premier garlic region. The crop was everywhere, to the extent that on hot still evenings the entire town of Blenheim seemed to have a not-unpleasant pall of garlic hanging over it.
Something else which escaped our young minds was that garlic is spectacularly good for you, containing health-promoting vitamins, minerals and compounds.  Garlic growers were quick to tell you that they’d never had a sick day in their lives, but like their claim that all the garlic went to Fiji –“where they eat it like apples”, we took this with a pinch of salt.  In fact, it seems that the Fijian Indian population were indeed the recipients of our garlic, and put it to good use in traditional dishes.
Alas, like the berry orchards, Marlborough garlic has also seen far better days, having lost much of its market to cheaper Chinese varieties and its land to a home-grown export of a different kind. The successor to the major summer holiday job provider in Marlborough is now the grape.

I was so young when I first worked in a vineyard that my employer kindly fudged the age on my paperwork so that I’d be paid something closer to my older workmates.  He might have regretted his generosity because my callow, spindly frame wouldn’t allow me to keep up with them, and I lagged far behind.  These were the early days of a now famous winery and our job was to hammer nails into row upon row of posts, one day to support award winning vines.  My delicate hands would be bleeding from the burst blisters I collected, and the hard day combined with the long bike ride to and from the vineyard meant that I slept as never before at night.  Being a pasty redhead, I actually believed wearing a long-sleeved, roll-neck skivvy was a sensible form of protection from the merciless sun.  Unsurprisingly, this attracted some derision from my bronzed and brawny, stripped-to-the-waist companions.  I’ll never forget the humiliation of hammering my own thumb in fright when one of the female workers urged me to get rid of the skivvy and as incentive offered to ‘show me her chest if I showed her mine’.
To everyone’s relief, including my own, this job came to an abrupt end when I managed to fall off a tractor I’d been riding on, on our way to ‘smoko’. (OSH was merely a sneezing sound in those days).
Hauled out of a ditch, concussed and covered in blood, my first experience of the wine industry was a short but memorable one.  It had been kinder to me than I probably deserved, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last time that I’d be left smashed after an encounter with Marlborough wine.
Years later, holiday jobs became a more serious matter, no longer a fun way of filling the weeks before and after a family holiday, somewhere...  Home from varsity for the Christmas break, labouring suddenly becomes vital to ensure financial survival during the frugal year ahead.  With money becoming more important, so does the level of exertion required.  And so, one year the spindly, pasty redhead became a woodcutter for a summer.  Long days spent swinging a weighted axe at huge, rubbery slabs of blue gum in the Marlborough sun meant that even I was no longer quite so pasty, or spindly by the end of this job.  Weirdly, as my skin finally darkened, so did my hair and I was never a bona fide ‘ginga’ again.  So a good result all round, then.

Not counting a bizarre interlude dressing up as a cartoon animal to give out helium balloons in a shopping mall – possibly the nadir of my career, (if not my life), my final summer holiday job was a season at the Lake Grassmere salt works.  Affectionately known as the ‘Siberian salt mines’ by we student workers, almost 70,000 tonnes of salt is still harvested from this lake each year.  The ever dependable Marlborough sun and drying nor’westers are utilised to evaporate and concentrate the saline until it’s ready for processing.  Ironically, for an industry so dependent on sunlight, we never saw any of it.  12 hours inside a dirty, noisy factory, loading sacks of salt into railway wagons with a team of student-hating labourers – this was a man’s job if ever there was one.  Catching the sacks as they fell from an elevated conveyer belt was punishing work, even more so when they occasionally hadn’t been sewn shut (either accidentally, or not) and would empty their pummelling load of still-hot salt on top of you.
But as is often the case in these situations, if you could show that you were willing to work hard the permanent workers could eventually soften towards you.  When I was christened with a nickname which is unrepeatable here, I knew I’d finally been accepted, particularly when I met the traditional challenge of lifting a salt sack above my head.  Fear is a tremendous motivating factor.
Towards the end of this otherwise happy job, I suffered a major emotional blow when a ‘dear John letter’ arrived in the mail from Wellington. Perhaps this is another consequence of summer holidays when you have to spend months away from your usual life elsewhere, but I was devastated.  My uncharacteristic misery must have been showing because my team of fellow salt workers had finally had enough.  They actually stopped the conveyer belt and made me sit on a pile of now stationary salt sacks to pour out my tale of woe.  The surreal image of hardened, boiler-suited labourers bringing an important part of their factory to a standstill just so they could listen to my broken-hearted whimpering will stay with me forever.  They considered for a moment, and then delivered their verdict - I hadn’t been dumped as such, just ‘put on ice’.  

Having now just passed my 20th Wedding anniversary I wish I could tell them how right they were! Graduating the following year student jobs became a thing of the past and holidays, although drastically reduced, generally became holidays again. I’d harvested a wide range of Marlborough flavours from sweet berries and grapes, to garlic and salt – and although arduous work at times it had always been fun. Summer has never really been quite the same since leaving holiday jobs behind, but now that we are growing our own berries, picking enough for a dessert can still bring back happy memories. I’m very content to pay for garlic someone else has picked, though.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Fly like a Beagle

We're about to be woken by distant cannon fire,
and the strains of "O Tannenbaum"...   

It’s December – how did that happen?   Well, the same way it does every year presumably, with Christmas trees and promotions now firmly established in shop windows, ferry sailings all but booked out and intensifying scarlet splashes appearing among the leaves of the cities many pohutukawa trees.
At my house, December 1 also marks an occasion eagerly anticipated but dreaded in equal measure by a significant other.  This Sunday will mark the dusting-off of Snoopy’s Christmas (and various other cheese-and-tinsel infused Yule-tide ‘favourite’ songs) for the annual festive thrashing - lasting until I’m made to put the CDs away on Boxing Day.  The above image is the cover for a compilation album I created a couple of Christmasses ago, so that others can do the same... or possibly not.
How did this novelty hit, released by The Royal Guardsmen, become so firmly established in contemporary Kiwi culture, and why do I love it so much?
As with many things, there might be a personal degree of perversity involved. The more people I meet who want to pour scorn on this feel-good favourite, the more I want to profess my devotion to it.  I even went as far as sending a card containing this message to a well-known journalist who was somewhat un-Christmassy about the best canine pilot in Allied Command in his column (and fortunately he saw the funny side).  
 There’s much more to it than contrariness of course, so let’s first see how this festive duel of aerial aces began.

The Royal Guardsmen were actually six young men from Florida, most of them still at High School when they formed in 1965.  The name was chosen to reflect the popular ‘British music invasion’ on American pop charts at that time, and their original aim was to become a ‘cover band’ (long before the expression was ever coined), performing authentic versions of current hits live. 
Meeting a talent scout in a music store led to them recording a demo record which in turn led to a proposal from record producer Phil Gernhard.  He was asking local bands to take a look at the lyrics for a novelty song called Snoopy vs The Red Baron, with the aim of releasing a record of the ‘best’ treatment.  The Guardsmen unenthusiastically composed a self-professed ‘hokey’ arrangement, which Gernhard liked, released, and it shot to the top of the American charts in November 1966, catapulting a student garage band to something approaching fame. I love the fact that their first television appearance was hosted by Khan himself, Ricardo Montalban.
 Although our adversaries are in place for this ‘proto-Snoopy’s Christmas’, along with the military drum beat and aeroplane sound effects, obviously the most important element (the clue is in the second word of the title) is missing.
Sadly the band’s ambitions to become serious musicians were thwarted by Gernhard’s insistence that they record two further ‘Snoopy’ songs the following year, but the third one, a certain Christmas novelty hit, is a record the Guardsmen have admitted to having the most fun making. Although eventually becoming a gold record, Snoopy’s Christmas only charted at number one in the US on Billboards ‘Best bets for Christmas’ chart.
In New Zealand, however, it shot to number one in Christmas 1967 and for reasons I’ve been unable to ascertain, has remained a festive favourite here ever since (despite the predictable Snoopy hate from vocal minorities in media silly-season opinion polls each year). 
As for the Royal Guardsmen, they eventually became disillusioned with their pigeon-holing as a novelty band and split up in 1969.  They remain philosophical about their one-time fame as ‘the Snoopy Boys’ – proclaiming “Long live the dog” when the single debuted at number 3 on iTunes Children’s chart. They apparently filmed a 2011 documentary titled, Burned by a Beagle – The True Story Of The Royal Guardsmen.

I must confess, while working a student holiday job in my teens which kept me within earshot of a radio all day, I strained for some ‘cred’ by affecting a cynical adversion to having to listen to the song several times a day.  A friend pulled me up with the far more genuine remark “Come on, how can you possibly complain about Snoopy’s Christmas?”  I instantly realised he was right – to profess an adversion to the distilled spirit of peace and goodwill which this silly little song celebrates would surely be the very worst in Dickensian mean-spiritedness.  I wasn’t like that, and didn’t want to be.  I love Christmas, always have and always will.

Snoopy’s Christmas also channels the essence of the famous unofficial Western Front Christmas Day truce in 1914 (beautifully depicted in the film Joyeaux Noel 2005),  and I hope to give this a closer look as we get closer to Christmas this month.
I can’t help but wonder how Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, famed, respected and feared on both sides for his unparalleled aeronautic skill, would feel if he knew that he would become best remembered by many because of a Christmas song celebrating his fictional encounter with a cartoon beagle.
In the spirit of Joyeaux Noel, perhaps it just might have seemed utterly preposterous enough to ignite even a famously-elusive teutonic sense of humour. 

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Who's turning 50: Part Two

It's here at last, but the moment has been prepared for

Thursday 21 November
The anniversary celebrations really began for me this afternoon at the Embassy theatre.  Doctor Who was up there on the big screen, but it wasn’t some time-paradoxical screening of The Day of the Doctor from the near future.  It was part of a show reel of the very best which New Zealand television’s greatest television channel is offering next year.
The Prime new season launch in Wellington is an annual event which I always look forward to. In some ways, it feels like the very first stirrings of the festive season with bubbles and gifts, and it’s always great to catch up with these lovely people who do so much promote Doctor Who in New Zealand.
I found myself in a ‘your sad teenage self would never have believed this’ situation, being engaged in conversation by two beautiful women who only wanted to talk about how exciting the Doctor Who anniversary special was.  I know it’s their job and I know our acquaintance is purely a business one, but all the same it was in equal parts bizarre and utterly delightful. 

Friday 22 November
Then the following morning this charming graphic and apparently very addictive game was brought to my attention by a variety of friends and colleagues throughout the day. 

 Even my sister texted me updates of her progress through the game.

Workmates who had no real interest in the programme took breaks to pitch themselves against a lone obstreperous Dalek, and ask me various questions about the history and anniversary of Doctor Who during the day. An editor asking me who Catherine Tate played and how to spell ‘Noble’, and stuff.co.nz asking for a copy of the infographic at the top of this post to put on-line made it seem as if Doctor Who was seeping into all aspects of every-day life.
To my surprise the fiftieth anniversary was indeed starting to feel like a global celebration, or at least the eve of one.

Saturday 23 November
The big day dawned hot and sunny, a further reminder that it may be the half-centennial here, but in the wintry northern hemisphere the anniversary special, wouldn’t screen until 8.50am the next day, our time.
I passed the day very happily, doing odd jobs outside while enjoying the boundless generosity of my friends Peter and Dave, firmly plugged into my ipod and listening to some ‘aural Who’.   

Under the banner of Destiny of the Doctor, Audio Go and Big Finish have collaborated this year to release an audio story for each Doctor, each month, culminating with the eleventh Doctor adventure which I listened to today.  Wrapping up the previous ten month’s stories and telling a great yarn in its own right, listening to this proved to be a perfect way to quietly celebrate this special date, in anticipation of the main event tomorrow.

Sunday 24 November
The line between tragedy and comedy became even finer than usual this morning.  Tomorrow night we are going to see The Day of the Doctor at a packed cinema, in 3-D, but I wanted to see it today so as not to be ‘spoilered’ as soon as I went anywhere near the internet or a newspaper.  And if I’m to be entirely honest, I also wanted some reassurance that I wasn’t setting up others seeing it with me for a less than memorable night out.
So, as arranged, I called around at a neighbour’s home to watch, only to discover that in the recent digital change-over, they had somehow lost Prime – the channel exclusively screening the anniversary special.
At least half an hour was spent, flicking between all the other channels, trying a busy helpline and scouring an incomprehensible manual, before I concluded that fate was telling me to get outside and enjoy the sun instead.
Walking home, I gave in to last-minute temptation and called in on another neighbour, who made me a cup of tea and watched the remaining last half of the special with me – in a perfect state of incomprehension.  Bless you Brian, I don’t think you’ll ever know what it meant to me and I only hope the experience of me alternating between whooping with surprise and joy and shedding nostalgic tears hasn’t traumatised you too much.

Having only seen the last half, I can’t even begin to review this story, and indeed, most likely won’t, as three posts on the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who are probably enough.
But I will say that what I saw certainly ticked all the boxes for me, and then drew some more boxes and ticked those too.  I eventually left to shovel sheep poo in sweltering heat for a couple of hours, with a grin on my face and still-moist eyes, feeling completely satisfied and very fortunate.  Not only do I now know how it ends, but I still have forty-odd minutes to look forward to tomorrow night which I haven’t seen yet.
Many happy returns, Doctor!

With final apologies to The Radio Times

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Count down part five: Tasting Notes

Hammer’s Dracula makes it to London at last, and meets Wallace!

“Words fail me” said Christopher Lee writing about his opinion of the latest film’s title to his fan club in 1969, “as indeed, they do in the film”
There is an additional reason for his typically unvocal performance in this film, however, and that is that Lee was never originally supposed to take part and was written-in at the last minute. Well aware of their star’s reticence to don the red-lined cloak once again, Hammer attempted to create a new vampire anti-hero, Lord Courtley, to be played by fresh young actor Ralph Bates. But the American distributors were having none of it, and Lee again was persuaded to return in what is in fact one of the best sequels in the entire range.

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969)
An abandoned British traveller stumbles into the closing scene of the previous film, Dracula has risen from the Grave, and is somewhat startled by the screaming, writhing figure transfixed by a giant cross and bleeding profusely.  The blood quickly dries to a red powder which the interloper collects, and so the Count is finally Blighty-bound, as Bram Stoker always intended. And here he stays, as the Carpathians are completely abandoned for the following two productions in this series (although the next film, chronologically, is an exception and oddity, as we will see later.)
Transferring the action to Victorian London is a refreshing move, and we are introduced to a fascinating cast of characters whose affairs absorb our attention so fully that the fact Dracula doesn’t even appear until half way through is barely noticed.

Three brothel-frequenting gentlemen (including great turns from Gromit’s Dad: Peter Sallis and one of Bond’s original bosses, Geoffrey Keene), who also keep puritanical reins on their own daughters, bring Victorian hypocrisy to the forefront. Beautiful Hammer regular Madeline (Maddy) Smith (she over all the many other Ladies adorns the cover of the definitive book about the actresses of these films: Hammer Glamour) makes her debut as a Python-draped exotic dancer, who’s routine is rudely interrupted by a sneering Courtley.  
 Bates went on to do some great work with Hammer, most notably his Doctor Jekyll, but here I’m afraid it’s clear he was never going to cut it as a Dracu-Lee replacement. A surprisingly high voice makes you instantly miss Lee’s sepulchral, if rare tones, and it’s something of a relief when imbibing the imported blood literally transforms Courtley’s dead body into the Lord of the Undead. It’s worth noting that the satanic ritualism leading to this became inextricably linked with the Count’s revival in future films. No longer simply an undead European nobleman, he seems to have been elevated to fully-fledged demonhood.
Once up and about, the Count swears vengeance on Wallace and his two pals for the death of his ‘servant’ Courtley (although never having met him). Despite this tenuous motivation, the film really kicks off, as can be seen from our much higher than average victim tally at the end of this post. The most virtuous daughter, Alice, quickly comes under the Count’s spell and is actually directly responsible for two gruesome deaths, including straddling and staking Peter Sallis, which certainly never happened in The Wrong Trousers.

 Apart from turning and eventually draining Alice’s poor friend Lucy, Christopher Lee actually does very little until the final act.  He mainly lurks in the shadows and, like another famous Count (and acquaintance of Kermit the Frog), keeps solemn tally as those he has sworn vengeance upon meet their various ends.
The climax takes place in the abandoned Church where it all began and is more of a psychic confrontation than previously seen. After smashing a lofty stained-glass window and lobbing masonry down at our remaining heroes, the combination a scorned woman’s fury and a successful attempt to re-sanctify this former place of worship sees the spiritually-beset Count plummeting to his doom.

The same kind of script reshuffling which harmed Brides of Dracula seems to have worked in reverse here.  Taste the Blood of Dracula feels on the cusp of worthy original and modern exploitative Hammer, and manages to embody the best of both. Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, perhaps its success was a factor in Christopher Lee putting on the red-lined cloak again in the same year for the next film: Scars of Dracula. But could it be that the Hammer Dracula series had reached its zenith with Taste, leaving only one way to go?