Sunday, August 13, 2017

Classic album still carries a heavy message

Sometimes buying on instinct can be hazardous, but I have never regretted the purchase of J.D. Blackfoot's The Song of Crazy Horse.

Having played the LP again recently I did a Google search to see what he was doing these days and came across this clip of him playing an acoustic version of part of his classic album in 1997.

By way of background, J.D. Blackfoot, an American was living in New Zealand and recorded his classic album in this country and it won the RATA (Record Arts Talent Award) Album of the Year award in 1974.

Having always had an interest, and an empathy, with the plight of the Native American peoples, and having just read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown, I was naturally drawn to this album on display in the window of the DIC in Invercargill's arcade linking Esk Street with Tay Street. It had a gray
cover with a drawing of a bison on it. And while earning a reporter's pittance, some things never change, I had to have it and bought it on spec.

It is probably the most satisfying music purchase I ever made. I still have the vinyl album, songbook and poster that came with the original edition. The presentation, music wise, transcends time but not as much as the message does.

It is a powerful story that highlights the United States at its worst, and we live through yet another example of how amazing it can be that a country so powerful, with so much going for it in all manner of ways, can be so misguided in the care and love of its people. As Blackfoot said in the preamble to the piece in this clip:

"I found a book the other day so I looked up Red and White to see what it'd say.

"One was a Savage, the other unlearned, like a look in a mirror the tables were turned for history has named you.....Savage!"

The US could do with someone sharing the sentiments of J.D. Blackfoot and Crazy Horse nowadays. As was noted on the back of the songbook accompanying The Song of Crazy Horse,

 "Crazy Horse was supposed to have said, 'One does not sell the Earth upon which the people walk'.

"If that line truly came from his lips, in my opinion, he was one of the heaviest men to ever set foot upon Mother Earth."

It's nice to think there's a New Zealand connection with this tremendous recording. All power to The Song of Crazy Horse.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A journalistic tour de force

I believe I have just completed the best book I have ever read on journalism. It may be 18 years old but so much of what it contains relates to personal feelings on the craft of journalism and the management of the news product.

Given all that has happened in the last 20 years it is interesting to reflect on comments made by the writer Max Frankel in his book The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times.

The Times in this instance being The New York Times, the newspaper Frankel was fortunate enough to work for during all his working life, ending as the company's executive editor.

It may be that the latest generation of journalists will wonder at much of what Frankel describes in his story. They have worked only in the corporate model of the industry and sadly that is hardly a shining example of how best to maintain journalistic standards in the face of demands to turn a profit for the all important, yet faceless, institutional shareholders who were never concerned about the journalism side of the business – witness the downsizing of newspapers around the world.

Yet experience has shown the family model of ownership was the ideal in the news business and one of the reasons The New York Times has retained its standing is because it has maintained the family connections that made it such a significant player on the news stage.

Even in the face of digital pressures it has held its place, instituting a paywall, but not just offering their news service to subscribers. For one thing a quick flick of the keyboard can make every issue ever printed of the newspaper available to anyone who may be interested. That's one incentive to pay for the service, but there are others which an explore of their website will reveal.

It also allows the columns Frankel wrote in his retirement to be read at leisure, an example of his gravitas being applied to news production without having to be concerned with the process.

What makes Frankel's story all the more compelling is the background to his career, his exit from Nazi Germany as a schoolboy Jew just before the onset of war, the adaption to life in the United States and all that it had to offer and his advancement through the remainder of the 20th Century and all that it involved in news-gathering.

He knew the effects of the Holocaust, he knew also of the separation from his father who disappeared into the Russian gulags as the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time in Poland. The story of his father's existence in those years of separation are a sidebar to Frankel's story yet important all the same in helping explain his later actions in life.

"Those who would truly stop the presses and seal the frontiers of nations and knowledge reappear in every generation, with tempting philosophies and contempt for humanity."

Once completing University study and winning a place at the New York Times, Frankel moved through the ranks as a foreign correspondent in Europe, and spending enough time in Russia to lend a fascinating perspective to aspects of the Cold War. He worked in the newspaper's Washington bureau and then spent time back in the home office learning all that would be required of him in his executive editor's role.

For anyone with the slightest interest in the journalism of the 1950s-70s, Frankel's experiences are riveting: Cuba, the missile crisis, the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, Richard Nixon et al.

The New York Times famously won the right to publish the Pentagon Papers and Frankel was in the middle of the fight. He said of them:

The Pentagon Papers proved that every administration after World War II had enlarged America's commitment to the defense of South Vietnam and secretly intensified attacks on North Vietnam. Yet at every stage the government had hidden the true dimensions of the enterprise and its own abundant doubts about the prospects for success. Although by 1971 the terrible cost and length of the war were obvious, no one who believed that government was accountable to the governed could fail to recognize this history as explosive news: the government analysing and bemoaning two decades of its own Vietnam operations.

Frankel's understanding of the importance of the papers was borne out when court actions began and the ill-equipped New York Times lawyers, better suited to financial arguments with Wall Street, failed to grasp the occasion's significance. At a crucial stage in the proceedings, he addressed the lawyers with a memo outlining why the Times' case was so crucial and it played a key part in their successful argument. It also helped that the Judge hearing the case had worked in World War Two intelligence so had a clear grasp of what and what wasn't secret.

It was as the news industry began to change that the Times faced the same issues other newspapers around the world had to contend with. But such was the Times' view of its place in the world that it refused to react as so many others did. Frankel highlighted Times' boss Punch Sulzberger's attitude which was that the Times' raison d'etre was to practice great journalism.

It needed to make money – not to enrich the Sulzbergers or even the stockholders but because profits were the only guarantee of the paper's honesty, independence and survival. If mismanaged or misdirected, the paper could not look to any private fortune for rescue.

In moving into his executive role Frankel describes the challenges involved in moving the monolith that was the New York Times into new areas of thinking and operation. He described the battle he had in convincing colleagues that in the battle against television it was important that it wasn't television determining what was 'the news' of the day. The news of the day for the New York Times would be the news that it chose to define, or that it felt its readers needed or were interested in. As he put it, journalists believed they knew what the public needed to know whether or not they wanted to know it. But in reality they did not know what their readers wanted.

Frankel described how he received, almost by accident, results of an experiment that was like spying on readers. What was revealed were details that showed none of the readers read the paper in the way it was thought they did and, importantly, no two readers read the paper the same way.

Anyone who has been involved in endless think tanks trying to better their newspaper anywhere around the world would identify with this attitude. But Frankel said having absorbed all these challenges, it still took time for the realisation to occur that the new function of newspapers was to

…add unique value to widely available information. As much as news, we sold judgment and expertise. And that had far-reaching implications for every facet of newspapering.

And therein likes the crux as so many newspapers now struggle in comparison to the Times.

Judgment and expertise are expensive commodities. They require staff drawn from an elite talent pool plus training and experience and time for research and reflection. Above all they require a willingness to break with convention.

Other aspects of the news operation also come into Frankel's ambit: affirmative action in relation to equal pay for women, improved opportunities for minorities and coverage of the AIDS epidemic, and his description in the changes undertaken by the New York Times is a fascinating study in an organisation of its size. Equally interesting is the way in which Frankel realised, from his own refugee experience, what events in Hungary in 1989 meant, seeing much sooner than others the break-up about to occur in the Communist world.

As a closing gesture in his book, Frankel reflects on the realities facing journalism. Consider some of his thoughts:

+ The relentless pursuit of profit panders to commercial interests and causes informative news to be replaced with the inane.

+ The imbalance of power between earners and spenders has damaged news operations at all but a handful of American newspapers. The exceptions are obvious: instead of stockholder 'democracies' they remain limited monarchies. They are family papers, like The Times, whose founders did well by doing good and who managed against the odds to pass both their values and assets to succeeding generations…The families are not absolute rulers. They, too, must deliver dividends and ascending profit margins. But they can pursue a more distant and responsible vision of success than next month's bottom line.

+The most important function of the family monarch is to resolve the inevitable conflicts between Advertising and News and to protect journalistic values from commercial attack.

Finally, it is Frankel who offers a highly relevant passing thought in the days in which we find ourselves:

If I have learned from my times, I know something of the future: It will rain again, on the world and on The Times. Those who would truly stop the presses and seal the frontiers of nations and knowledge reappear in every generation, with tempting philosophies and contempt for humanity. By their press shall ye know them. They will cause new floods.

What is tragic in the news environment in which we live, is that the people in newspaper management, and industry investors, who have been responsible for the situation now facing the journalism craft will have no comprehension of the issues Frankel raises, nor will they care.

They will have no understanding of the loss of institutional intelligence in the coverage of so much that is important to the democratic existence that can only survive on knowledge. They will wonder why when advertisers finally abandon the sheets on which so little relevant news is published. And they will look at the diminished returns in their annual investment statements and wonder what might have gone wrong?

Enlightenment will be their final reward when the last bottom line has been rubbed out.

The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times by Max Frankel, Random House, New York, 1999

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Fifty years on from one of the great rugby tours

Much attention has focused on the 30-year anniversary of the first All Blacks team to win the Rugby World Cup in 1987, but also worthy of celebration is the 50-year anniversary of the 1967 All Blacks.

If the inaugural World Cup champions played a leading hand in revolutionising the way rugby was played in their time, then the honour of changing a fixation, and adapting quickest to new laws to speed up the game must go to Brian Lochore's side of 1967.

The side toured Britain and France, the Irish leg of their tour was cancelled due to a foot and mouth outbreak in England, and were unbeaten when living up to coach Fred Allen's statement at the beginning of the tour that they were going to run the ball and British and French fans should make sure they took the chance to watch them.

Their feats may seem like ancient history to the modern generation of rugby fans but to those who lived through their era they managed a revolution in the game and changed rugby forever.

It has become fashionable, especially in the midst of the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour, to claim the 1971 Lions had a huge impact on All Blacks rugby. To an extent they did, especially in scrummaging, and they did show, in their provincial games only, that it was possible to run the ball from everywhere.

But in terms of impact the fire was lit by Allen and Lochore's men, with not a little of assistance in terms of intent from tour manager and captain of the famous 1945-46 Kiwis Charlie Saxton.

Their mix created a huge impact in Britain and their feats have been recorded for the more recent rugby fan by Alex McKay in his book, The Team That Changed Rugby Forever – the 1967 All Blacks (Published by New Holland).

The coach of the 1971 Lions, Carwyn James and journalist John Reason, said in their 1979 book The World of Rugby, "…it was the statement of faith in 15-man attacking rugby, after years and years of ten-man attrition, that made the 1967 All Blacks so important in the development of the game."

They also added, "For at least 60 years, New Zealand had played in nothing like the same style, but by making such a commitment to attack, the 1967 All Blacks did the game of rugby football throughout the world a service which even they probably did not appreciate."

For British & Irish Lion and Wales flanker John Taylor was just at the start of his international career when playing for Wales against Lochore's team at Cardiff Arms Park and he recalled to the reviewer that he and his team-mates were well aware that they were facing something new in the game with the way the All Blacks were playing.

And while the score was only 13-6 to New Zealand in the Test Wales had been well beaten, he said.

McKay has set the scene for the tour by looking back at the time and the condition of rugby. He saw it from a close angle having often been a ball boy at Okara Park in his home town of Whangarei. In researching the book he travelled to New Zealand from his base in Australia and spoke with as many of the surviving players as he could.

Having worked in academia he wanted to write the story in a more free-writing style in telling the stories of what he was a diverse range of individuals who moulded into such a successful team.

After so many years he was impressed with how honest the players were.

"I was really impressed with them, I didn't expect that," he said.

They had been a literal Band of Brothers and he felt a central part of their story was what they had done after their careers was over. In the case of the 1967 side it is a remarkable contribution to the game.

Lochore's subsequent deeds are well known and are reflected in his position as patron of New Zealand Rugby. But others like: Earle Kirton, Ian Kirkpatrick, Colin Meads, Graham Williams, Alistair Hopkinson, Waka Nathan and Sid Going had significant coaching careers while others like Malcolm Dick, Ian MacRae, Kel Tremain and Meads again had been involved at a high level of administration.

Chris Laidlaw, Tony Steel, Ken Gray and Grahame Thorne went on to careers as politicians while Jack Hazlett had a significant career in business. Bill Davis also represented New Zealand at softball.

All of this is revealed by McKay and demonstrates why this was such a special side and deserving of a revered place in New Zealand rugby history.

McKay has left no stone unturned and it is significant that he has highlighted that not everyone in the side was enamoured with Allen and his methods, which is a healthy balance in any appreciation.

The story of the side deserves a special place in New Zealand's burgeoning rugby literature and McKay has filled a significant gap in that regard.

The presentation of the book is effective, if disappointing for the number of errors not detected in proof-reading, but that aside it captures its subject splendidly and that after all was its aim.

The Team That Changed Rugby Forever – the 1967 All Blacks by Alex McKay. Published by New Holland, Price $35.00

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Airlines have been doing it for years

United Airlines deserves everything that is coming at them over the disgraceful treatment of a passenger on an overbooked flight.

No matter how much events may have been worsened by real or imagined comments from either party, the simple fact of the matter is that the passenger entered into a contract with the airline, was in his seat, and then United decided to break the contract.

But this sort of thing happens far too often and personal experience has me on the side of the passenger every time.

It was in Edinburgh after the 2007 World Cup game between the All Blacks and Scotland that I arrived at Edinburgh Airport to find my ticket would not respond at the check-in machine for a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt where I was to catch a flight to Marseille en route to my next stop in Aix-en-Provence.

Approaching the inquiry queue at Lufthansa's check-in I was given no explanation and told to stand in a line to one side. The line grew steadily and discussion started that others had also been unable to get their tickets to respond at the appropriate place.

After a considerable period of time, and almost to the scheduled departure time, a muppet, not literally, but for all intents and purposes a Lufthansa lackey who looked and sounded like one, emerged to tell the group that our flight was full and we wouldn't be making our trip.

That was it, no apology, no explanation, just go and shove it up your arse.

As an aside, I could never understand why a supposedly international airline would bother to overbook a flight when there was an international sporting event in that city and there would obviously be people wanting to get out of town with a minimum of fuss. I don't accept that rugby isn't a German sport – people employed in these companies know when all sorts of events, sporting, cultural or otherwise are on.

One by one we checked with the poor person behind the inquiry counter, it wasn't her fault (we were to hear that many times in the next hour or so) and she told us to go to another counter to try and book another flight.

So those who were still prepared to fly with Lufthansa duly approached this other counter where another muppet showed little or no concern for the inconvenience his company had imposed on myself and my fellow travellers.

It wasn't his fault, he said. But it was his airline's fault, he was told.

A seat on a later flight was arranged, but it meant missing my connection to Marseille. Another flight was then arranged for 6.45am the next day. So a night sleeping at the airport then?

"Oh no sir, Lufthansa will arrange accommodation for you."

And that's another story, we'll get there soon.

While there is a complete feeling of helplessness, because scream and carry on as much as you like (which I didn't, I left that to others) there is nothing that is going to change, there is also a sense of power. You see the Lufthansa man is vulnerable, and he feels the pressure.

You tell him you are a working journalist and you need somewhere to do the work that Lufthansa has denied you the opportunity to do in the comfort of your hotel room in Aix-en-Provence later in the evening. So he does get you a place in their flight lounge where you can wait for your flight.

He advises that compensation for your inconvenience will be available when you get your accommodation voucher at the desk in Frankfurt.

Have you ever been to Frankfurt Airport? It is not small.

It is a Lufthansa hub, so there are a lot of desks you can call at looking for an accommodation voucher. After walking around for about 45 minutes the requisite desk was duly found, and another queue was formed.

While my own details were being sorted, accommodation voucher, offer of a free Lufthansa flight as compensation which drew the response "Why would I want that, I don't ever intend to fly Lufthansa again" which drew a snort and an upraising of eyebrows, out of a door appears another Lufthansa muppet who claps his hands and says, "All staff stop work please, we are having our farewell for so-and-so."

This doesn't go down well at 11pm after you have been dicked around by said airline. So your response is not unexpected.

"Er, hang on a minute mate, we're in the middle of some important business here as the result of a stuff-up made by your airline."

"But we're farewelling a staff member," he said.

"Sorry mate, we've been 12 hours, (taking in the time difference) getting sorted, your staff member can wait."

Anyway, once all that was sorted, those of us left standing were to be found in a queue waiting for the bus to take us to our accommodation.

It was at this point that I struck up a conversation with a young Swiss couple who had been to the said Rugby World Cup game the day before. It turned out he had gone to school in England and had played rugby, was a big All Blacks fan and the trip had been a birthday present from his wife. This fact is important as we will see.

The bus arrived and we headed off into the night to pull up at this hotel just down the road. In we go, bags and all, the bus disappears and we troop into reception.

Checking in we are informed that the hotel is completely booked out. Nice one Lufthansa, didn't even check if there would be room at the Inn.

Well this proved the tipping point for my new Swiss friend.

It would be fair to say Hitler at the Nuremburg rallies could not have been more animated than the dressing down my Swiss friend gave the poor chap behind the desk. Paint almost peeled from the walls as he gave it full throttle.

I mean, it gets like that when you have struck incompetence and lack of care for more than 12 hours, taking in the time difference, of course.

Eventually, the bloke behind the desk rang the next hotel down the line and Hallelujah, there were rooms to spare.

So now a taxi had to be called to provide the travel. Lufthansa got that bill too as I recall.

By 1am you finally have a room but it's a hollow victory knowing that because of airport security requirements you will have to be up at 5am to go back to the airport. And after an effort like that, the heart is racing and the last thing it feels like doing is slowing down in order for you to sleep.

In all you feel like you might have had two hours sleep. But you do get up, and it was just as well you were early because the security line is right out the door. Sunlight helps your way across the tarmac and about an hour later you are in Marseille and heading for Aix-en-Provence.

Can I get a plug in here for the delightful university town in the south of France? If there was anywhere you were going to relax after the ordeal you had been through it would be in Aix.

Ah, but you're a working journalist on assignment and a quick check of your fellow media tells you there's a press conference at the All Blacks hotel that morning.

A few days later, you are in Toulouse airport awaiting a flight to London where you will eventually catch a train to Cardiff for that fateful quarter-final event. On the wall of the departure lounge is the European Union's Passengers' Rights poster which is well worth a read. It is available at this site, start about Article 5 for the relevant information, it is worth knowing if you are ever bumped.

I should say that at no point did Lufthansa ever make the effort to put a copy of passengers' rights in front of us.

So, Lufthansa, United Airlines, you're all at it, and it stinks.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

John Clarke - a rare talent lost

Talk about knock me over with a feather, Trev!

John Clarke's death at the far too young age of 68 has robbed us of one of the great New Zealanders.

True, he hadn't lived in New Zealand since the late-1970s, but his presence was with us all the time, and courtesy of his work, he was available to all through his marvellous sketches on the ABC with Bryan Dawe. 'The front fell off' the most typical of his comedic style but only one of many brilliant examples of his abilities.

Forever revered in New Zealand for his character Fred Dagg, he was the rarest of beasts, a genuine Kiwi comedian. He was so good a major New Zealand food sales company still employs a very poor imitation of his style to try and drum up business.

But there will only ever be one John Clarke.

His New Zealand persona was transferred easily to the Australian market where his efforts in two series of comedies before the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 titled The Games were David Brent and the Office well before Brent, and Ricky Gervais, had even been heard of.

Multi-talented, he provided the voice for Wal Footrot in the film of Footrot Flats, the originator of whom, Murray Ball, died two weeks ago, but he also starred in and wrote many film scripts.

His documentary series Sporting Nation was a three-part study of Australian sporting history and psyche, and was magnificent in its breadth of achievement in bringing out some outstanding stories of sportspeople under pressure. The separate interviews, or extras as they call them in DVD compilations, are a treat in themselves.

The credits for such an impressive career in satire will long be John Clarke's legacy. Australia will remember him in one way, but in New Zealand it will always be for the ability he demonstrated in bringing a bumbling rural bumpkin into the mainstream in a way that several of his catch phrases remain part of the vernacular.

"That'll be the phone", being probably the first of his many great lines. Others being, "Geddinbehind", "Kick 'er in the guts, Trev" and the immortal "Over she goes" describing a 'borrowed' car going over the edge of the Wainuiomata Hill after a night on the turps.

His songs were automatic hits, "Gumboots" and "We Don't Know How Lucky We Are" can still raise a smile. He was a product before his time but who latched onto the funny bone of a country that had been too serious about itself for far too long.

There are other memories. A personal one related to time spent as the 'Entertainment' reporter of The Southland Times. This was a pretty good gig, you got to review all the records that were sent in, you went to all the shows that came through town of which there were many in those days, and sometimes you got to interview the participants.

John Clarke was one such interview. He invited me into his room at the Don Lodge, then one of the inner city hostelries run by the Invercargill Licensing Trust. Being a Sunday and having travelled from somewhere to the bottom of the world, he was relaxed during the interview – he was, in fact, flat out lying on his bed.

Pulling up a chair, it was a case of just chatting away and noting down the answers. Not many questions asked stick in the memory, although there was a recall of asking where he drew his inspiration for his ever-changing material.

"The front page of the newspapers, that's the key. There's a wealth of comedy material there," he said.

Anyway, interview done, it was back to the office to write it up and it had to be said it was one of the more enjoyable assignments.

The next day while going about the usual sort of Monday morning reporting duties, the Racing Editor, the always gentlemanly Norman Pierce, came through the Reporters' Room door heading toward his office while informing me that there was 'someone' outside to see me.

Going out into the entrance way there was John Clarke. The immediate thought was "What have I stuffed up in my interview?"

So saying, "Gidday John, what brings you around here?"

He replied: "Gidday Lynn, I've got nothing to do for the morning so I thought I'd come around for a chat!"

Well this was serious, time to find a place for a yarn. So it was down to the Southland Times cafeteria. It had just been vacated by the hordes, that's what used to be employed in provincial newspapers in those days, hordes of people, so we had the room to ourselves with the coffee pot still bubbling away.

What followed was the most entertaining and interesting hour it had been possible to enjoy to that stage of my career.

Clarke was full and frank. He told me that if Rob Muldoon got elected in the forthcoming 1975 General Election he would leave the country that was for certain. He told me the pittance that the NZBC (New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation) used to pay him for his ground-breaking skits and we talked about all manner of other things.

You could tell word had got round that John Clarke was in the building because it felt like every one of those afore-mentioned hordes trooped by the cafeteria by going out of their usual way to have a look at this character of the moment.

Journalism is a game that provides many highlights beyond the norm and being able to share of John Clarke's time in that fashion was certainly one of them.

His loss at a time when the world could do with his type of humour and satire will be all the more obvious as time goes by.

Farnarkeling will never be the same again. John 'Fred Dagg' Clarke, RIP.