Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Meads had a style all his own

Being an early convert to the Colin Meads, and he was only Colin then, style of speaking, it was a privilege to enjoy the opportunity to engage in two lengthy interviews with him in the last two years.

The first was for the book Tony Johnson and I wrote, Behind the Silver Fern, and the second was for the on-going and occasional series of video interviews for allblacks.com known as the Legends of the All Blacks.

The first was before the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer that claimed his life and the second was the last interview he gave before his death. Yet the delivery in his speech from that first experience until his last never varied. He was consistency personified.

That first experience was in the Wool Saleyards building at Gore, in Eastern Southland in early-1968. He and his skipper Brian Lochore were in town to address, if memory serves correctly, an open meeting of the Gore Tin Hat Club. It was an ideal venue befitting the farming background of both men and the community in which they were speaking. They felt at ease with their audience.

They had not long returned from their 1967 tour of Britain and France, a highly-successful tour that changed All Blacks rugby for the better and which it was my privilege to enjoy as a young rugby fan growing up. The scrapbooks compiled during that tour remain in my possession.

A career in journalism, and more especially with a large part of it devoted to sports writing, meant coming into contact with both men on a professional level in the future. Lochore, more especially, because of his roles both as a coach and as chairman of the Hillary Commission at a time when being based in Wellington at The Evening Post.

There was a chat with Meads when he was touring the country promoting the first of the books of his life, written by Alex Veysey, but it wasn't until the two occasions more recently that our paths had crossed.

Two particular stories Meads described on that evening in Gore have stuck with me and seem to have avoided regular inclusion in his after-dinner repertoire.

The first involved an early tour stopover in the United States and some of the All Blacks and their coach Fred Allen, returning from an evening out only to find themselves caught in the middle of a shoot-out in the street. As Meads told the story, the players ducked for cover, or hit the ground, immediately.

When the shooting stopped they dusted themselves off and did a count to see all were present and intact, only to find their coach was unaccounted for. They looked around and found him holding open an ambulance door as the wounded were taken away. Ever the military veteran, Allen was in the middle of where the action was thickest.

The second story related to a rather ikey London hotel the team were staying in later on the tour. It was the custom wherever the All Blacks were staying for the Apple and Pear Marketing board to ensure a case of fresh New Zealand apples were available in a central position in the hotel for the players.

One night a few of the side decided they had enjoyed enough of the products in the apple box so they decided to play some cricket in the hallway with apples as cricket balls. As happens in these sorts of events there was some noise involved.

The following day at training, Allen took Meads aside and said to him a few of the younger chaps had got a little boisterous the night before and appeared to be playing cricket in the hallway. Would Colin mind making sure the young fellows in the side were put through their paces at training as some form of punishment?

Not a problem at all, Meads had replied, relieved that blame hadn't been apportioned to the guilty parties.

Memory also reminds that 'little French bugger Jean Gachassin' got a mention, as he did many times in the future while the Alain Plantefol incident in which the sickening blow that required 14 stitches to Meads' head in the French Test also got an airing.

And at the end of it all there was the chance to get the autographs pictured herewith from both men in the TP McLean book of their exploits in the 1966 series against the British & Irish Lions, The Lions Tamers, McLean's latest book of their 1967 tour All Blacks Magic not having been released.

Like many New Zealanders, probably far more than is appreciated, a young boy from Mataura had a lot to be thankful for in the demonstration of humility, good humour and story-telling charm that Messrs Meads and Lochore provided that night in Gore and on many other occasions subsequently.

They lit their game with a healthy lifetime of lustre and the example they have set will be forever as glorious as the feats they achieved on the fields of the world.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Tom Pritchard: What a difference he might have made

It is ironic in a week in which New Zealand has lost an icon of rugby in Sir Colin Meads that the death has also occurred of a man who was capable of achieving that same status in our cricket ranks.

I refer to Tom Pritchard, who died today aged 100.

He should have toured England in 1937 with the New Zealand cricket team and would have been in his element had he made himself available for the 1949 side.

Instead, Pritchard, through opportunities provided by a certain German corporal, a No.11 on most team's batting lists by the name of Hitler, A., threw in his lot in county cricket with Warwickshire.

So well did he do that any check of New Zealand's Cricket Almanack will show him sitting fourth on the all-time list of New Zealand bowlers with 818 wickets in his career: Richard Hadlee, Clarrie Grimmett and Sid Smith were those ahead of him.

Pritchard was looked at for the 1937 tour, by a selector who took a train ride to a pre-arranged net alongside the railway line in Palmerston North only to comment afterwards that there were five or six bowlers that were better in Wellington?

Ah, such were the barriers in front of country cricketers in those days. Suffice to say that one country cricketer who did tour, Martin Donnelly, was never in any doubt that Pritchard would have made a difference on the tour.

But if he bore a grudge, Pritchard kept it to himself and played out his career in the thrilling days of county cricket in post-war Britain. He remained for years after until returning to New Zealand to indulge himself in his love of horse racing.

It was at the Levin Racecourse early one morning that I had been coaxed by local sports nut Bernie McCone to come to trackwork to meet Pritchard. It was well worth the effort and I was immediately struck by his bearing and spirit. A few years later it was my great privilege to spend the morning with him at his home preparing a feature for The Evening Post. A more delightful host it could not be possible to imagine.

There's something to be said for those people who have been there and done that when they look at modern trends in a game like cricket. Pritchard was a great supporter of the New Zealand game but like so many his contribution is more likely to be referred to in the history books rather than the coaching manuals New Zealand Cricket might have put together for young players based on the experience and wisdom that men like Tom Pritchard would have been only too willing to dispense.

Why are we as a nation so committed to reinventing the wheel as every new management regime believes it has the answer to the game's issues?

Knowledge has always been power and with Tom Pritchard's death a significant resource has been lost to the game.

But he was an inspirational man to meet and he truly made his mark in his craft. Fortunately his life story has been captured in Paul Williams' book, Tom Pritchard, Greatness Denied.

Vale Tom Pritchard.

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