Sunday, 26 June 2016

Notes on a Shambles

Since absolutely no one is fed up of hearing what every man and his canine thinks about the recent referendum, I have decided to drop in my 2p worth. (It was about £1 worth, but the currency has since devalued.)

Firstly, to my European friends: sorry about this shit. We’re not all racist twats. My own feelings on this run to bitterness and disappointment. I feel ashamed of the place I have called home for so long, but optimistic at much of what I have heard from Londoners and others since the result was announced.

Secondly, to my friends and family who voted leave: sorry for implying you’re a racist twat. I’m sure some of you aren’t, and are doing what you think is best. But to those of you who are embracing the Xenophobia Warrior Princess vibe, well, fuck you. Not only is your position illogical, it’s breaking up the band, Yoko.

I was at a lecture at the LSE a few months ago, which was focused on the consequences of immigration, based on data from long-term studies in the UK and elsewhere. Interestingly enough, the conclusion was that immigration overall has but a tiny (positive or negative) effect on the economy of the country concerned; that is, results are negligible. That is, nothing to be worried about.

The lecturer pointed out that the main reason people from the EU want to come to the UK (or indeed, other places) is because the economy is doing well. Therefore, he added, if you want to stop immigration, all you have to do is destroy the economy. It was a joke at the time, but now it seems like some kind of cruel prediction.

See, in the days since the vote, the pound dropped to a thirty-one year low, the country’s credit outlook has been downgraded from ‘stable’ to ‘negative’, the UK’s economy dropped below France’s in the world rankings, and the value of a UK passport decreased significantly. And this isn’t including the billions of pounds which were pulled out of the country before the vote even happened.

While all this was happening, figures from the Leave campaign, like Farage and Johnson, all came out to tell us that (surprise) the things they’d promised probably weren’t viable after all. I am used to politicians breaking promises, but the efficiency with which it occurred this time must break some kind of record.

Funnily enough, the £350 million figure splashed across the side of that big red bus has always been untrue. The number was something closer to £120 million, and of course doesn’t take into account all the benefits we got for being a member, as well as the fact that it will cost approximately that much to access the single market. As well as requiring concessions (notably on free movement of peoples) over which we will no longer have any say.

Also occurring was a renewed push for a united Ireland (in and of itself, not necessarily a bad thing) and another push for a referendum on Scottish independence. Since all the areas in Scotland voted to remain, they must feel particularly shafted right now, and I can’t see any way another referendum there wouldn’t spell the end of the UK as we know it. It seems like taking the country back means taking it all the way back to 1707. And I cannot blame our northern cousins in the slightest.

Boris Johnson is our version of Donald Trump. Besides the obvious similarities of ugly mugs with bad hair, they’re both looking to enact disastrous policy based on xenophobia and outright lies. ‘Take back control’, should probably just have been worded ‘make Britain Great again’.

Figures have also been quoted around the difference in the way people voted, given their age. Put simply, the younger you were, the more likely you were to vote remain. It’s hard not to feel like this vote has been a betrayal of the youngest by their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, people pining for a past which will never come again (and which, to be honest, probably wasn’t all that great anyway). The future of the nation have been denied the future they so clearly wanted. Other interesting parallels include the fact that areas with high immigration voted to remain, perhaps seeing the benefits it can bring, and that the more highly-educated someone was, the more likely they were to vote remain. Draw your own conclusions.

There are already movements in place: the idea that London could secede from the rest of England (though this seems like a pipe dream, it’s not the worst idea I’ve heard), the petition calling for a second referendum, which is nearing three million signatures (based on the idea, not enshrined in EU law, that the majority should have to be at least 60% and turnout 75% for the result to count), and calls from David Lammy MP and others to simply ignore the result, given that the result is not legally-binding. The Lib-Dems, in a genius piece of promotion, have promised to keep the UK in the EU if the Brexit triggers a general election.

While I do think that such a momentous decision should require more than 51.9% of the vote in order to be enacted, I wish the rules for such would have been stated when the referendum was announced. In terms of actually dismissing the result, while I am not normally in favour of ignoring the will of the people, in this case that there would indeed be valid reasons to do so.

  1. The monstrous amount of misinformation provided (and subsequently admitted) to the public during campaigning. Decisions founded in ignorance should not shape the future of the nation.
  2. The aforementioned slim majority.
  3. The fact that if sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds would have been allowed to vote, the result would have been different. The future of the country belongs to the young, and it’s fair that we give them a say in it.
  4. The disastrous consequences already occurring, as well as those to come, both for the economy and stability of the country, and for the future of the UK (not to mention the EU) as a whole.

Sometimes the people are wrong. I hate to say it but, sometimes democracy fails.

Now, a lot of this may sound like sore-loser talk, and I can understand that accusation. ‘We won,’ they say, ‘so let’s get over it and move on’. Funnily enough, this from a group of people who still moan about the ‘hand of god’. I think though, that to concede defeat and move on would be a mistake. There’s too much at stake, for people inside the UK and out, for Britons who voted and those who were too young to be allowed to, or able to. If the Brexit happens, it hurts us all. Maybe we can prevent that, and if there’s a chance we can, then we damn well need to give it a try.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Glorified G

Here’s the topic on everyone’s lips of late: gun control. Having had the good fortune to live in two countries where gun laws are relatively strong and sensible (that is, New Zealand and the United Kingdom), it might seem at first that I have nothing useful to say about gun control. However, I can dodge this argument by stating that anyone who has an interest in avoiding seeing their fellow humans murdered by legally-obtained weapons ought to have something useful to add to the argument.

I am talking, of course, about the most recent mass shooting in the US, in Orlando, FL. At this time it may be useful to throw around some statistics. The BBC has an interesting article stating that there were ‘372 mass shootings in the US in 2015, killing 475 people and wounding 1,870, according to the Mass Shooting Tracker, which catalogues such incidents’. It provides comparisons with the UK, Canada and Australia for relatively recent gun homicide rates, and quotes another source, which says that ‘So many people die annually from gunfire in the US that the death toll between 1968 and 2011 eclipses all wars ever fought by the country. According to research by Politifact, there were about 1.4 million firearm deaths in that period, compared with 1.2 million US deaths in every conflict from the War of Independence to Iraq.’

Thing is, though, even though Pulse was the latest (and bloodiest) in a string of mass shootings going back for years, other websites can be found holding data which seem to suggest that per capita rates are higher in parts of Europe than in the US. Whether or not this is true, to me is in some sense immaterial. After all, police forces don’t respond to victims of burglary by saying, ‘well, look at that other city, they have much worse rates of theft’, and if they did, the victims would probably reply, ‘who cares? I need you to solve the problems we have in this city, right now.’ So, the following thoughts can be applied to many countries equally.

Having said that, the US still stands out as having much worse gun crime than comparable Western nations, and I don’t think that the stats can really mask this fact for long. Also, the US has some of the more, shall I say, interesting arguments against gun control that I have heard. Then there is the fact that, when even the most modest proposals for reform are put forward, they are twisted, misquoted, and torn down with such vigour that no change is possible. Even though there seems to be public support for ideas like a gun sale database, or preventing people with mental illness from buying guns, any reforms are blocked in Congress. A cynical man might suspect that for the will of the people to be so openly defied, for the people to be so rashly endangered, either the relevant politicians are stubborn, stupid, or have another motivation altogether for the way they behave.

Omar Mateen, the man who pledged allegiance to Isis (or, as I like to call them, Daeshbags), before the attack, was very possibly a closeted homosexual whose religious beliefs caused him to hate himself and those who lived the life he secretly desired but could not bring himself to embrace. It seems that those at the club were deliberately targeted because of their sexuality, and the club was a place Mateen had visited previously. His homophobia is framed within the larger narrative of intolerance promoted by the religious ideology the attacker pledged allegiance to before the attack.

Certainly Mateen was known to the FBI, although he was not deemed a threat. It might be logical, though, to prevent such persons from having access to automatic weaponry.

Add to this the sickening behaviour of religious persons in the US who have praised the shooters’ actions, and you see why the issue of gun control is even more urgent in such a country. The man who may be President also took the chance to say a nonsensical ‘I told you so,’ exploiting the horrors of the moment. (Fortunately most Americans seem to disapprove of his response.)

There is information suggesting that most gun deaths in the US are accidental, and many involve children. This is another place where you would think people might pause to think it may not, in fact, be worth having guns in the home after all, no matter how well-secured they are.

I also dislike the argument that people are generally safer with more guns around. This follows no logic that I can find, except maybe in the event of alien invasion or zombie apocalypse (though if either of these happen, the NRA will be too busy fighting to yell ‘I told you so!’). To take the most extreme situation, if no one in a country has a gun, then no one in that country can be killed by a gun.
If guns are limited to law enforcement officials and the army, then, again, it means citizens are much less likely to be shot illegally (discounting for a moment the issue of skin colour). Of course, the US is a country flooded with guns, and many argue that in such a situation, where criminals will not follow gun laws anyway, they are safer and more protected from said criminals if they themselves are armed. I can see their line of thinking, but if someone breaks into your house in the middle of the night while you’re sleeping, are you really going to have time to get to your well-secured gun? And if you are, are you then able to engage in a Lethal Weapon style shootout with armed robbers without some collateral damage, or with your children in the house?

Another issue is the sheer type of weaponry available. There is an argument for allowing responsible gun owners to have hand guns, hunting rifles, and shot guns for clay pigeon shooting, but why on earth would they ever need an AK-47 or Sig Sauer assault rifle? What kind of deer are they hunting?

One of the biggest obstacles to change is the Second Amendment, which states ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ To me, the phrase ‘well regulated Militia’ denotes both the need for good regulation, and the need for guns to be held by a body or organisation for a particular purpose (such as civil defence) rather than simply held by whoever wants one at the time. Still, much ink and many hours have been devoted to this argument, and I am not going to solve it here.

Finally, I have been told that the people need guns should they ever need to stand up to the government. In response to that, I would simply say, the government of the US has machines that can kill you from a hundred miles away, at the press of a button. They have (arguably) the most well-equipped and well-trained army in the world. If they want to get you, your small arms stash will not stop them.

Now, it is not, and probably never will be my place to decide on US law, or even to vote on who should run the country. Thing is, as I mentioned, these shootings are a human problem as well as an American problem, and therefore I find it helpful (if not necessarily effective) to think about what could be done to solve it. The power, though, is with the people with the votes, the people in the position to make changes. The question for them is, what if it’s your child’s school next? Or your sibling’s workplace that suffers a mass shooting? And sadly, at the moment, the real question is: how long until the next one?

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Brexit or Bremain?


As the debate about leaving the EU or staying in rumbles on, one thing becomes readily apparent: the lack of real information with which to make an informed choice. It’s true that we know what life is like inside the EU now, and that, for all the rhetoric, we have no idea what life will be like outside the EU if we leave; and although this, in and of itself, it not a reason to vote remain, it does provide a good starting point for examining how things might go. This truth is, things could be much better in some ways, and much worse in others, and I don’t feel like we get a lot of the best information about these scenarios.
One caveat before continuing: the below are just my general views and thoughts. As mentioned, a lot of the ‘information’ provided to us is guesswork, and so I will do the best I can with what I have.
Ok, two caveats: my views on the EU will be clear by the end of this post. I don’t claim an impartial or unbiased view, and I am setting out to express how I feel about various points.

Immigration
The hot button issue for Brexit campaigners is immigration. One issue I have with all the focus on immigration is that it’s not really the most problematic, expensive, or serious issue facing the country, although it is often portrayed that way. That aside, I think it’s fair to say that several truths emerge from the debate around immigration:

  1. The UK is a relatively small country, and, given the current stretches being applied to public services, can only afford a modest amount of immigration.
  2. Immigration places burdens on the welfare state; abuses of which are often highlighted and do need to be curtailed.
  3. The majority of people who come to live and work in the UK from the EU pay more in tax than they take out, and this will only increase when new restrictions on claims to public funds come into place.
  4. UK citizens have benefitted from being able to live and work in EU countries. It’s unclear exactly what would happen if we leave, but there is the distinct possibility of large numbers of retired Brits having to return home, people who by and large contribute less to the economy than EU citizens of working age.
  5. The UK already has a different agreement to the rest of the EU when it comes to immigration, including exclusion from the Schengen free movement principle, and an opt-out of an otherwise compulsory acceptance of refugees.
  6. There also seems to be a conflation (though this is just based on people I have spoken with) of the problems of non-EU immigration with EU ones. Leaving the EU will have no direct effect on policies about people from non-EU nations.
  7. Leaving the EU won’t deter illegal migrants from trying to come here. Remaining in the EU allows greater collaboration with other members (particularly France) on how best to control and curtail dangerous and illegal migration.

Science
The majority of scientists in the UK wish to remain in the EU (source), and have warned that leaving could have a disastrous effect on funding and research. This seems logical to me, given the inherently collaborative nature of scientific research; even in this age of electronic communication, face to face association is invaluable. The importance of such research in a world dealing with challenges as diverse as climate change and the growing resistance of bacteria to any form of antibiotic cannot be underestimated.
And I know this argument may be simplistic, but if Stephen Hawking, one of the cleverest people alive, thinks remaining is a good idea, that’s something to take into consideration.

The NHS
Differing opinions have been offered on whether the NHS would be worse or better off if we remain in the EU, but I think the argument that money sent to Brussels could be channelled back into the NHS is overly simplistic, and ignores the benefits which accrue from such payments (the price of food and other commodities, the effect on wages and workers’ rights, investment in services, and so on). It’s also the case that many of the doctor and nurse positions are currently filled by EU workers, who will have to be replaced in the event of a Brexit. This task isn’t impossible, but I haven’t heard any explanation yet as to where those workers will come from, and if immigration isn’t a solution, what is?
In addition, UK citizens abroad benefit from access to European health services through the use of the EHIC card. This is a valuable safety net when travelling.

Trade and the economy
The effect a Brexit would have on the economy is not known. Speculation abounds. It does seem likely that import and export deals would have to be renegotiated, both with the EU and EU trading partners, and that tariffs would follow. This is not a good thing for British trade in either direction. 61% of small business exports go to the EU; they are our major trading partner.
Again, there isn’t a consensus on what the effect on jobs, taxes, spending cuts and so on. Economists have come out arguing for either position. I am not savvy enough with the details to really know which way things will go, but it seems that no one else is either. On balance, I think that the risk to the economy is higher if we leave than if we stay, and the weakening pound suggests that uncertainty about the future is damaging to the economy in and of itself.

Sovereignty
A YouGov poll indicates that support for the EU is higher in Scotland and Wales than in England. This is not surprising given that these countries are used to being the junior member in an alliance of nations. They are used to seeing their sovereignty diminished for the greater good of the alliance. Perhaps the English have yet to understand that teamwork requires compromise, that balancing local needs against the needs of the many is not always an act than can be achieved to everyone’s complete satisfaction. Perhaps the way that Scotland and Wales think of England is the way that many English think of the EU.
I also saw a poll which said that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be in favour of Bremaining. This gives me hope. I like the idea that integration and tolerance will become the norm, that in fifty years, people will think of Europeans as allies and cousins, to be worked with towards common goals, rather than viewed with suspicion.

The EU is often lamented as a production machine for regulations, but much of the regulation it produces is to the benefit of Brits, as well as other Europeans. Cheaper cellphone coverage and air travel, protections for workers under employment law, protections for human beings in line with the human rights act, environmental regulations to reduce emissions, invest in renewables and protect wildlife, the list goes on. Being in the EU enables Britain to help fight climate change, tackle international criminal networks and humanitarian crises, fosters military co-operation, thus reducing the strain on our armed forces, and keeps commodity prices low. Add to that the influence of the bloc in world affairs, an influence the UK benefits from despite her different currency, and you have a pretty good list of reasons to Bremain.
The EU is a success story, and it has managed to take countries which were at each other’s throats less than a century earlier, and turn them into allies between which war is now unthinkable. This is progress by any definition. Of course, the UK was not part of this initial arrangement, and so views the EU from a different perspective - that of a trading partner. This view is not inherently wrong, but shapes the expectations we have for what the EU is and should be.
It’s also true that the EU is not without problems, unnecessary expenditure and red tape. Abuse of welfare systems and NHS tourism are valid concerns. No human institution is free of problems. It is my personal feeling that the world is becoming smaller, more connected all the time. It is also my feeling that this trend is positive: collaboration and cooperation among nations draw us together, and help us form common purposes and solve problems which may otherwise seem insurmountable. To withdraw from this union would be a reversal of a great achievement, a step towards isolation in a world where such a thing is impractical, a highlighting of differences when what is needed is an expression of solidarity. The essence of the Brexit is the politics of fear and division, and I cannot believe that such politics will ever be the right way to proceed.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Batman vs Superman

Of course, SPOILERS follow.

Ok, so, here goes my second film review. Having seen the film twice now, I feel I am ready to work my way through it. Perhaps I should do this for any film I review, since at the second viewing I often find myself more relaxed and able to take everything in. In any case, before I get into it, I want to make a statement: if you know me, you know I am far more of a Batman fan than a Superman one. I won’t go to deeply into the reasons here; suffice it to say that I just feel that Superman is often not an interesting character. So, this may have coloured my impressions slightly.

I’ll start with some objections to the film that I have read, and then talk about some of the things that I liked.

One of the common ones, and my least favourite, is that the film isn’t funny enough. I knew going in that it was going to be a more serious film than other contemporary super hero blockbusters, influenced by the style Nolan became famous for in his trilogy. I am okay with this. I think that Batman as a character lends himself well to that world, and doesn’t need to be played for laughs. I’m prepared to sink into the seedy underbelly of Gotham. After all, it’s why Batman exists. Superman, on the other hand: I can see why Superfans are less loving of the darker take on the Man of Steel, but I think it’s a logical one to take if the ‘realism’ of what would happen in a world containing such men is to be explored. That’s what DC set out to do, and it makes for a lot of thoughtful cinema.

(NB: if it’s humour you want, the Lego Batman film, due out next year, looks like it could be just the ticket. And don’t mention the Suicide Squad reshoots. Grrr.)

Another objection, which I have touched on above, is that the film is not a true representation of the characters. While the Batman in the film is very close to some of the interpretations in comic form that I have read, I can see that, again, Superman is less so. However, I don’t think the way that they have gone about interpreting the character is inauthentic. The examination of the pair again comes from a desire to explore the way that having these events, powers, and abilities play out in ‘real life’ would affect the men and women involved. And of course, the characters themselves are always evolving, always there to be reimagined and reworked. In this sense, I feel that the movie does a good job.

Kevin Smith commented that the movie had no heart, later saying that the heart was to be found in the viewer of the movie. Now, when it comes to comics and movies, Kevin knows his shit, but it’s hard to define heart in an objective way. I think perhaps he meant that the movie didn’t pull you in, in an emotional sense, didn’t really connect you to the characters. I am not so sure about this. I have never really felt connected to Superman, but I felt for him in this film, in the sense that emotionally and mentally, he is a normal man, but the expectations on him are so large because of his physical powers. Even when he tries to do the right thing, he is criticised. And he has to control himself every day, all the time, while subject to taunts and vitriol, because the slightest flash of anger could kill.

I also understood Bruce Wayne’s point of view, his sense of fatigue after years of fighting crime, losing friends, seeing good men go bad; he sees a new threat, so immensely dangerous and powerful, and he is compelled to act. His anger, his motivation, is understandable, and so is the fact that by the end of the film, he sees Clark Kent for what he is: a man struggling with the responsibility he’s been given. The friendship and understanding between these two men is at the core of the Justice League, which of course this movie leads into.

I’ll comment on the JL tie-ins here, because I know some people felt they were shoehorned, that the movie was trying too hard, packing too much in. That the footage of the other characters was little more than an advert. I disagree with this. I think the tie in to the LexCorp research is logical, and fits with what we saw of Lex Luthor. It was a nice little teaser to the stand-alone movies. Admittedly, DC has been forced to play catch up when it comes to the JL movies, but I feel like as long as they focus on the core of their characters without worrying too much about what Marvel are doing, they’ll do a good job.

The Knightmare sequence, which it has been suggested may be a timeboom rather than a dream, I thought was excellent. The action was good and visually, it worked. It tied in with Bruce’s fears about Superman, while hinting at worse things to come. Sure, if it hadn’t been in the movie, it wouldn’t have made much difference to the storyline, but I like the aesthetic and the foreshadowing of bigger, badder things to come.

In terms of the acting, Henry Cavill was solid, and I really liked Eisenberg’s turn as Lex Luthor. Amy Adams made me like Lois Lane more than I usually do, and Jeremy Irons might just be my favourite Alfred so far. Gal Gadot was excellent as Wonder Woman (and as Diana Prince); she managed to convey the confidence and cool of a woman who’s seen it all and then some, showing determination and even amusement in the fight with Doomsday. It’s good to see a strong female superhero.

Now, I was one of those who bitched and whined when I heard about the decision to cast Affleck as Batman, and I have to say, I was wrong. After thinking about it, post rant, I realised I’d been wrong before, about Bale, about Ledger, and so I scaled back the nerd rage and decided to give the man a chance. And he didn’t disappoint. I really like the way he captured the anger and intensity of a Batman who’s right in the grey area between hero and desperado. I liked the batsuit, too, and the way he moved when wearing it.

Doomsday as a character is not really worth saying much about. He is a gigantic monster, a foil for the big three to rally against. He served his purpose well enough, roaring and spitting lightning. As for the death of Supes: I get that it was needed, I get that it shows the true nature of the threat, it ties in to the comic, and it provides a focal point for the rallying of the Justice League. At the same time, it was hard to feel too sad, because we all know he’s coming back. However, perhaps the manner of his return will be important in a future movie. Let’s wait and see.

One thing I didn’t like about the film was trailer fatigue. We saw way too much in the trailers, and there weren’t too many surprises held back. There weren’t many wow moments. This is a shame. It would have been a good idea to keep Doomsday or even Wonder Woman a secret; as it was, there weren’t many moments when I went ‘whoa’, or ‘that was totally unexpected and cool’. The bomb in the wheelchair was perhaps the biggest one.

I was also worried about seeing Batman’s origin again, but it tied in well with the later connection to Martha Kent, and the thing that made Bruce see Clark as a man. I think this made sense in the context of the development of the relationship between the two, which I have touched on already.

The action sequences were good. The movie was Batman-heavy in that regard, which is a plus in my book. The Batmobile chase scene was exciting and inventive, and even addressed a key weakness of the car raised in The Dark Knight. The warehouse scene was excellent, without a doubt one of the best Batman action sequences seen on film, and the type of thing I love. The ruthlessness and brutality of Batman, along with his innovative and relentless fighting style, were fantastic. The battle between the heroes and Doomsday was good, as much as for seeing Wonder Woman in action as for anything else. Batman diving around trying to avoid being squashed was also kind of funny. The title bout was good, quite well done given the ultimate problem of any fight between the two, but I did feel it could have been more grandiose. Maybe I was expecting it to be too much like The Dark Knight Returns, which is a great comic, and a definite inspiration, but not the sum total of what the movie was aiming to be.

So, overall, how do I rate this film? It’s hard to know how well it will stand up over time, but I can see myself watching it again once every few years. I wasn’t blown away, but I did enjoy it, and I like the action, the aesthetics, and the way it sets up for things to come. Therefore, I give it a 7 out of 10.


Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Great Flag Debate


Today the results of the New Zealand flag referendum were released, and we’ve opted to stay with the current flag, for the time being at least. I say ‘we’, but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t permitted to vote. I applied to vote, but I’ve been living out of the country for too long for my opinion to be valid, it seems. Not long enough to avoid being chased for debt, but long enough not to be allowed to have a say in this important matter. But that’s another story.
In any case, the flag remains the same. Had I been able to vote, I would have chosen – well, you’ll see my thoughts if you keep reading, which I assume is why you’re here.
The arguments for and against changing the flag (at least the ones I heard) were as below, along with a few other relevant points:
  1. It looks like a beach towel. I never really liked this argument, and honestly it could be applied equally to either flag. As you can put literally any image on a beach towel, I found this to be a pointless thing to say.
  2. Our flag looks too much like Australia’s flag. True, although depending on how you define it, ours has been around longer, so maybe theirs is the one that should change. I find it strange, though, that we should consider such an important thing as changing the flag in relation to how we are perceived by others. What I mean is, why does it matter if our flag looks like Australia’s? Any self-respecting kiwi should have learned to identify the flag in their youth, and outsiders are going to compare us to Australia no matter how our flags look.
  3. We want the flag to be individual. Again, our flag isn’t ‘unique’ enough. I don’t really get the obsession with being different from everyone else. Poland and Monaco have basically the same flag, and you don’t see them getting bent out of shape about it. Just google ‘flags that look similar’ to find other examples.
  4. John’s Key’s personal crusade: let’s face it, he wanted to change the flag, so he could be known as the man who changed the flag. It would distract so well from all the terrible decisions he’d made while in office, and leave him some kind of legacy beyond hair pulling. As has been pointed out, though, the money could have been better spent. I’m not against spending money on issues like these when the time is right, but the time was not right, and Key failed (or refused) to see that.
  5. The Silver Fern: let’s put the silver fern on the flag. Another aspect championed by Mr Key, to the extent that most of the shortlisted designs had the fern on them. I get that most of us love the All Blacks, but they (and other sporting teams) don’t represent the interests of the entire country. We’re about more than sport. And I get that the fern is a plant which doesn’t grow anywhere else, but so is rangiora.
  6. Getting rid of the Union Jack: New Zealanders are fiercely independent, and despite that fact that we’re still part of the Commonwealth, and have to have our laws signed off by a Governor General, many of us dislike being thought of as a British colony. I don’t think that this historical (and current) connection is a bad thing, and I don’t think it can be erased simply by changing the flag. That kind of change must come in law, and an alteration to our national ensign is a bit like papering over a deeper crack. To my mind, the removal of the Union Jack would be more appropriate when NZ finally becomes a republic and/or leaves the influence of the Queen behind. This takes me to my next point.
  7. The timing was wrong. For me, as I said, the flag change should happen when NZ becomes truly independent (which I believe is inevitable). Countries change their flags after moments of great turmoil and upheaval. South Africa changed theirs to help the country move past the horrors of apartheid. Rwanda changed theirs after the 1994 genocide. Were we supposed to change ours because we didn’t like the way it looked?
  8. I think at the root of the flag argument is the fact that New Zealand is a young country, still struggling with its own identity, still trying to define itself and be represented on the world stage. But that’s also why I think we should wait to change the flag. We don’t appear to know ourselves well enough yet to be able to devise a meaningful flag. I don’t mean that disrespectfully, just that we’ve yet to fully define our own path, set our own agenda, even integrate our own peoples. We can’t even decide to call ourselves all New Zealanders without reference to whether we’re Maori or non-Maori. It’s no bad thing to wait until we are more unified and collected as a people to decide on our national symbols.
  9. Let’s be honest, many of us didn’t take it seriously. Laser Kiwi, anyone?
  10. World Wars, and all that. One of the most common comments I saw was that somebody’s grandfather fought and/or died for the flag. I have to say, while I understand people’s feelings of respect and honour towards those who went to war for us, let’s be honest, they didn’t do it for the flag. They did it for the people they loved, the country they loved, or out of a sense of duty. In fact, a lot of men still considered themselves to be a part of Britain, and went to fight for her unhesitatingly during the first and second world wars. So it’s hard to say that they were thinking of the national colours rather than their wives and families when they stepped on to foreign soil with rifles in their hands. Of course, I don’t really know what they were thinking, but I know what I would have thought if it were me. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to those men to want to have a flag which represents our national identity; that freedom of expression is one of the very things they fought for.

To sum up, my principal objection to the flag change was that the timing was wrong. The flag should be changed when the country becomes fully its own, and when we have a better idea of who we are as a people. I also think it was a costly exercise, started for the wrong reasons. I have no doubt that the flag will change one day, and I have no objection to this. But we’re stuck with old four-starred Jack for now, and I’m just fine with that.

Monday, 14 March 2016

A brief sojourn, in South America

Rio

The sky outside the windows is red fire, nature elemental, obscured only by the curve of a man’s head as he reclines his seat. I massage the small of my back and shift in my seat, trying to ease the pressure on my tailbone. Outside and to the right, the clouds cover expanses of green, part momentarily, and close again.
The day is warm and close. I step into a cab without haggling, and watch the world go by. The driver never indicates, part one of the strange thing they call ‘culture’ here. Outside, the world is derelict; half-built or half-maintained, buildings fall apart before they are obscured by partitions erected at the side of the highway. A graffito declares ‘Rio 450 anos corruptos politicos’. Others are drawings underneath flyovers, in impossible places. As we slow, men sell popcorn strung around their necks. The police sit with their red lights on, and watch the traffic.
Mercifully, I am allowed to check in early, instead of spending hours nervously carting my bag of beautiful possessions around an unfamiliar city. I shower, cold water only, and snooze, unable to get the AC working.
I ask directions to the beach, which is easy to find. In the midday sun I walk as slowly as possible, limping from shade to shade. The beach bars offer more shade, food which has the same names as food I know, but different consistencies. I eat, and drink, and watch the waves crash in and out. I pay and leave, a big tip? Who knows? I walk, new jandals cutting slightly. In the sand leading down to the sun chairs they have laid hose pipe with small holes, which keeps the sand wet and cool enough to tread.
Along the waterfront people ride bikes and jog, which is hard to believe in this heat. Half the men I see disdain shirts. Old men and women are turned brown with the sun, crinkly, dried out like fruit, or maybe tough and protected. Other people are at work, hauling carts or shifting produce. I want one of those drinks which is basically just a cut open coconut, but I don’t order one. I wander back to the hotel and wash the sand off my feet.

Rio is beautiful in that European way, with grand vistas and mountains, while much of the pavement is dilapidated and smells of piss.
My friends are here. Instead of taking a cab, I decide to walk. It’s half an hour, but the night is warm and I like to walk. I stroll (see: power walk) along the Copacabana, under shady trees and past shady characters. I am accosted by a whore; she asks for a light and then rubs herself against me unceremoniously. Rebuffed, she asks if I’m gay. I tell her I have a girlfriend, the lie covering the truth: I don’t feel like risking HIV or a mugging.
I arrive at the hotel unscathed, embrace my friends, receive candy. We go up to the roof, drink caipirinhas, and survey the beach at night. The world is beautiful, from up here.

The next day I visit giant stone Jesus, along with thousands of others. He stares down across the city with either benevolence or indifference. The holes in his hands are fake: they don’t go all the way through. I wonder how big a cross would have been needed to crucify a giant stone Jesus.
The tour van stops outside the Maracana in the baking heat. I buy water which would be cheap in London but is expensive here. The guy knows what he’s doing. There’s a statue of a famous footballer holding the World Cup aloft but not looking thrilled about it. In front of the statue a man poses in a Brazil shirt, taking money from people for pictures of him with a football. I snap one of the statue without him, and go to stand in the shade.

We drive past people in the street; a young boy mimes shooting an old man in the face, the old man looks both horrified and disgusted. He steps forward.
We pass on, around the lagoon, where people jog in the afternoon heat, without breaking a sweat. I retreat to the hotel and apply more sunscreen, make my way to the roof, and sloth about in the pool. From there I can see a mountain, in the deep curve of which, if I stand on tip toes, I can see over to Jesus, guarding the city.
Later, I message my friends and we have drinks and catch cabs up to Pão de Açúcar. My friends fall asleep in the back, well-travelled as they are. The mountain is at its grandest when you cannot see it; perched atop the hill we ignore the visitor centre and take handfuls of photos. I know in my heart they’ll always be a pale imitation of the sights which flood into my eyes, and the happiness I feel here, with my friends around me. Tomorrow, I will fly from the little airport; we see the planes bank hard and sweep in to land, and then we get in the capsule and head back down to the ground.

Porto Alegre

I fly in and cruise to the hotel, find an exquisite room with patio doors which aren’t supposed to open but do, and take snaps of the view. My friends and I go up to the pool and dick around; the water is warm and waist high.
We head out for dinner, walking in the evening heat to a local mall. On the way in, we see a castle surrounded by a massive ball pit. The question is raised: can we play? The answer is yes. We take our jandals off and pile in. We tackle each other, dive around, throw balls, and generally act like happy idiots. I feel dirty, exhilarated, and tired all at the same time.
Dinner is excellent: meat and slabs of melted cheese, and beer to wash it down. I ask how to say toothpick in Portuguese.

The big day arrives. We dress for the wedding, and the boys and I head down for a gathering of men tying ties. There’s tapas and whisky, and joie de vivre. David had brought presents from Australia, for the groom: a digeridoo, a boomerang, a stuffed koala.
We jump in cabs and head to the venue, a beautiful deck overlooking the river, blue skies and a mild breeze. The ceremony is lovely, and even though we don’t speak the language, we get choked up when Alex and Carol say their vows.
The reception is amazing. There’s great food, dancing, and plenty of booze. My friends and I dance like maniacs, and don’t feel ashamed. The waiters top drinks up with skill and timing, fuelling the carnival atmosphere. Samba dancers and musicians arrive, ramping up the tempo even further. Ties and high heels are discarded, as are inhibitions. We donate money and receive pieces of the groom’s tie; we throw the bride and groom into the air, almost recklessly. People are happy and friendly.
Later in the evening, there are cigars and whisky, and quiet conversation. Six hours have flown past, more quickly than I could have imagined. We head back to the hotel, and drink another drink, before heading to bed.

The day after is blissfully lazy. We invited to the bride’s father’s house for drinks, conversation, and some of the best barbecue you have ever tasted. Salted beef, and pork with crackling. Even the potato salad is amazing. We chat and sit in the shade, made to feel so welcome and so at ease.

Buenos Aires

I arrive in the middle of the day and leave my luggage at the desk, too tired to worry about taking my laptop and passport with me. I saunter down sun-baked streets, in search of a reputable ATM and adventure.
The Plaza de Mayo is covered in sun, and some tourists. There are banners and political graffiti around, and I feel safe, but edgy. There’s a famous monument, and a church. I stop in for a rest and some cool air. If there were candles, I would have lit one for my mother, but there are not. I wander the city, blend in; people hand me flyers for things I can’t read. I walk up to another large monument, find a café, and have lunch.
Later, after I have been able to check in and drop my bags, I wander the city some more, and have dinner; the café is charming in an unassuming way, and I watch football teams whose names I don’t know while I eat. The game is frenetic; I sip cold beer and eat slowly. Well, slowly by my standards.

The next day I ask how to use the tube and ride it to the zoo. The place is almost deserted; it’s a weekday and cold by their standards (18 degrees). I finally see elephants after years of trying (well, intermittently trying), and they are beautiful, if bored.
I visit the Cementerio de Recoleta, which is amazing in a sad way. Some of the tombs are majestic, others unkempt. As I pass one by, I am sure I can see the white of a skull in a broken coffin. I wander around, taking photographs, and leave again soon, tired of thinking about death.
Buenos Aires is a beautiful city; it’s European, with Spanish, Italian, French, even English influences on the architecture. The grid system reminds me in places of New York, which can only be a favourable comparison. I feel more comfortable here, given that my small amount of Spanish is much better than my small amount of Portuguese.

Praia de Pipa

I awaken at 3am and take a cab to the airport, flying to Natal airport via Rio. The time passes quickly enough, and soon I arrive. Noah and Helen have waited several hours for me, drinking and playing cards, so we can take the hour and a half cab ride together. For this, I am extremely grateful.
We arrive late, and miss the sunset. Our friends have been chilling and drinking all day; I’d expect nothing less. We have a drink and walk back across rickety planks, back to the pousada to drop off our bags and take an evening swim. I practice my diving and my floating. Life is as good as it’s ever been in that moment.
The pousada is quiet and lovely, with a beach view to break your heart. At night, I talk with Lisa and David, and sip red wine.

The next day is stormy and wet, but still warm. We muck about, wander into the town, past restaurants and shops full of beer, sunscreen, and jandals. We find a restaurant nestled back from the road, amid a cooling cover of trees, and we eat. The food is fantastic, like everything here.
That evening, two of us leave. I bid them farewell, sit back down with a lump in my throat, sip vodka and coke. The rest of us chat, and tell stories.

In the morning I eat breakfast, cooked personally by Vera, the pousada’s owner. She also makes fresh smoothies every day, with berries from a tree in her garden. I laze about in the hammock, and then we wander down to the beach. The ocean is choppy, but so warm; I cannot help but jump in. It’s been far too long since I was in the ocean.
We sit about under umbrellas, and take pictures of sand crabs scuttling out of holes in the sand. Time passes slowly and quickly at the same time. We leave the beach and go riding quadbikes, an idea I am nervous about at first but quickly learn to love. The drive is thrilling, the scenery almost too much to take in. We pass rafts ferrying cars across a river, local kids playing football. It would be fun to join in, if time permitted, and if they wouldn’t put us to shame.
I head back to the pousada to relax for a while and change. Vera tells me, I am not alone. I will always remember her saying it. We converse in broken English, and I go up to spend an hour snoozing in my hammock. I decide I need a hammock, when I get around to buying a house.
Dinner that night is excellent, topped off by a game of poker using improvised chips: acorns, matches, and pinecones. I am terrible at poker, and always will be.

Noah and Helen leave the next morning, and it’s another day at the beach for Alex, Carol and I, and more swimming. Or, more being smashed around by waves. I get sunburn, but what the hell. Time does that thing is does once more, swimming away out of reach. We head out later for dinner, and talk about learning languages and having ambition. The cause of all suffering, is desire.


The next day is the last. We eat breakfast and take a ride to the airport. If I had my way, I’d have been two hours early; instead I trust the locals and we arrive in perfect time. I hug my friends, and head inside to catch my flight home. I think about the trip: one of the best I’ve ever had, and over far too soon.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Snap shots of New York City - Part III

Times Square

A man dressed as Spiderman looks at his phone, wanders, looks at his phone. Maybe he really is Spiderman, waiting for people to save. Spidey-sense: we have an app for that.

Behind me an old man sits, black skin contrasting a long white beard. He has a blue beanie and a straw coming out of his mouth. He sits comfortably, leaned back, one leg over the other. A plastic bag and a disposable cup of coffee rest on the table in front of him. The tables here are red and made of steel.

There are more people dressed up here, running around. Minions, Hulk, Predator. I can’t figure out what the hell they’re doing. Lure the kids in, then Predator jumps out to scare them? That would be entertaining. The air is chilly but easily tolerable, the breeze light. My back hurts so I sit some more, look at my watch. In my left back pocket is a bunch of change I’ll give away.

Further behind me a Latino man in a black hoodie and blue baseball cap sits, a bag between his feet, a phone sideways in his hands. He leans on the table, taps the buttons. A cord snakes up to his ears.

A family use a selfie stick, a white-haired lady and probably her son; neon is the backdrop, but that’s true almost anywhere you look here. The square wears a false skin, made of light.

Two cops wander by, discussing the time in the loud way New Yorkers talk. One hangs his hat from his belt. I look at my watch as they stand, confidently, kings of the city. There are a lot of them. I am a Londoner. I am a New Zealander disguised as a Londoner. I am a New Zealander disguised as a Londoner disguised as a New Yorker. I want to be everything. Well, not everything.

A guy dressed as Elmo walks by on my right. His Elmo laugh is creepy.

In the middle of Times Square is a US Armed Forces recruiting station, with Old Glory brightly-lit on the side. That, and the barrage of flashing advertisements, endless unceasing, are all you need to know about Times Square. That, and the people, so many of them dressed up; so many of them cops. I think about going into Starbucks. Maybe later.

The floats don’t get down this way until gone nine o’clock. I could’ve slept in. The guide said arrive at seven am for a good spot. I said, you must be ’avin’ a bubble.

I don’t talk to the pigeons, not yet. I sit up and rub my back. I wonder if the ihop is open today.

People talk in that way that’s normal here. it’s hard to come to New York and then complain about American accents. My phone tells me the word of the day is gormandize. It couldn’t be more appropriate.

The Rail Line Diner, Part Two

At the table across from me they discuss politics: the evils of Donald Trump, the blatant racism of Fox News. He wears a red hoodie, and has a beard. He talks of ideological differences. He scratches his face and declares: ‘If Trump wins I’m moving to Canada.’ I can’t hear what she says. They refuse more coffee, and leave.


There’s a ball game on TV. Philadelphia – Detroit. Tempting to stay and watch, even. But the TVs face the opposite direction to the tables. The food is good – as usual it’s a lot. I control myself – a little. The waitress is friendly, attentive. She drops off the cheque. ‘Happy holidays. Spend it with your family. Have a few drinks but don’t get drunk.’ I smile. Maybe I will.

Central Park

Central Park is unseasonably busy, due to the unseasonably warm weather (there’s still ice skating though). I buy a hot dog from a vendor. As I wait, the vendor gives a man some ice, free of charge, for his son who bumped his head. I walk past the rocks and the water, and find a seat. I think about reading my book.

A guy plays guitar, and sings. Wild Horses, All Along the Watchtower, Stairway to Heaven. His voice is gritty, his beard long, and he is happy. He collects tips in a suitcase with water bottles atop. In my back pocket, my change digs into my butt.

If I lived in New York, I’d miss all the grass. Sure, it has grass, but most of it is caged.

People take pictures and throw bread to the ducks (even though it’s bad for them), and then take pictures of the ducks. I have jumped on the picture wagon. I have five or six of Central Park, which I’ll put on my computer and never look at again. I really should rename the images so they make sense when I’m older, but aint nobody got time for that.

Selfie sticks. Whatever happened to holding the camera? They must be a city invention. Do we mistrust all strangers, or are we alone so much? Is this progress?

If I lived in New York I would walk its streets for hours.

The player stops playing. On the bench next to me, girls discuss… something. Look at pictures of cats, make dinner plans. I find them attractive and repulsive at the same time. Is it my fault? I look at my watch.

People feed squirrels. I guess that’s a novelty. I was glad to see black ones at the zoo, so it’s one more life experience in the bag, I guess. The squirrel runs behind the bench. The girls comment on it, then ignore it. Or is that me? Beside me, a toddler shushes herself and points at the squirrel. (My friend’s dog is fine with people, but barks at toddlers. What does that mean?) The girls out down empty ice tea cups. One wears mittens and light brown boots, and waits to catch me looking at her. She is the prettier one and probably used to it. The other one wears jeans and a short brown coat. They get up and walk off. I think that I might not be cool, but at least I don’t wear mittens.

A girl with a hat slashed with dark green flowers walks past; her hair matches the hat, and you can’t help but see it. She pretends to hat attention. She talks to her friends in a voice at once fast and slow. The guitar man still isn’t playing, but there’s some kind of brass instrument from somewhere. The green girl and her friends walk on up the slope; she seems a little self-conscious about her weight, the way she moves (I can tell). But, it might be my assumption; the way she’s dressed, it’s perfect for autumn weather.

More photos of ducks and scenery, with expensive cameras. A heavy man in a grey and black tracksuit sits down next to me. I hope he doesn’t want to talk. I am getting hungry, so I decide to leave. I head towards 59th Street, but it will be another hour before I eat.