Archive for the 'Ben Schrader' Category

The wristwatch is dead; long live the cellphone and iPod

Watches on the wrists of Te Ara old fogies

Watches on the wrists of Te Ara old fogies

I was sitting at our staff meeting yesterday and looked at my watch to see the time. I then looked around the room and noticed that quite a number of my colleagues were not wearing wristwatches. There appeared to be a generational divide to this pattern, with those in their 30s and under more likely to have naked wrists than their elders. Was I witnessing the end of the wristwatch?

If so, it paralleled the pattern at home. When my son Fred turned 11 we said he could get a watch for his birthday and that we’d go into town and he could choose it. The expedition mirrored one I’d taken with my parents in the 1970s when I was his age. Getting a watch was big deal then – almost a rite of passage. I can still recall the event vividly. It was late shopping night in the middle of winter. It was cold and raining, but the bleakness was punctured by the blaze of street lights, flashing neon signs, and animated shoppers, including us. We ventured into a Lambton Quay jeweller (long gone) which had cases of childrens’ watches beneath the spotless glass counters. My parents made small talk with the jeweller while I scanned the dazzling collection. The first Japanese digital watches were just coming out and I thought about getting one of those, but the jeweller pointed me in the direction of the Swiss watches. ‘You can’t beat Swiss precision,’ he said to my parents. My eye finally rested on a piece with a gleaming stainless-steel casing, luminous hands and numbers, and a date function. That night I wore the watch to bed, diving under the covers to see its luminous face come to life: awesome! (I found the watch a few weeks back in a battered tin of other childhood mementos. I turned the winding knob, but the timepiece failed to tick, or tock – so much for Swiss precision.)

Fred’s trip to Pascoe’s jeweller lacked the same romance. The children’s watches were confined to a single case. Almost all were digital and featured a multitude of “modern” functions: a stopwatch, calendar, two alarms, and other things I failed to fathom. The one he wanted was larger than his wrist, but he eventually settled for a smaller one. Fred seemed less taken with his first watch than I had been with mine. He regularly forgot to wear it, so our hope that he’d become more punctual never happened.  Within a few months he lost it ‘somewhere’. We eventually got him another one, but that was ‘lost’ too. By this time he had a cellphone and was using it as his timepiece. None of his friends wore wristwatches and he did not see the need for one either. As he explained, if he forgets his phone he can get the time off his iPod. For his generation the wristwatch had lost the social status it had claimed a century before.

So like the roadmap – whose demise I’ve previously blogged about – it seems the wristwatch is fast becoming obsolete. However, I won’t be flaunting a naked right-hand wrist (I’m left-handed) any time soon. I like my watch and take pleasure in its simple design. Sometimes I watch its second hand move around the dial for the sheer pleasure watching the passage of time – it can get quite existential. At other times, I’ve glanced at it and been amazed at how quickly time has passed, or vice versa. I’d feel naked without it. What about you?

1981 Springbok Tour: Tom and my ‘cold war’

This post is part of a series remembering the 1981 Springbok Tour.

I watched Tom Scott’s drama Rage about the 1981 Springbok Tour on the tele last Sunday night. Though I didn’t think much of the femme fatale storyline – it centred on a Māori police graduate who infiltrated an anti-tour protest group, hopped into bed with a Pākehā protest leader and then fed the pillow talk back to her bosses – the premise that the tour was profoundly personal rang true.

The tour divided families, friends and fraternities. In my case, the tour strained the closest relationship I had at the time: with my twin brother Tom. As kids we were best friends. We shared the same room, played the same games and were in the same classes at school. By the 6th form (year 11) we had begun to find our own identities. He started wearing rugby jerseys and threw himself into the first-15 culture; I bought a Clash T-shirt and drifted towards the art-room gang of politicos and punks.

In the lead up Tom and I had a few talks about the forthcoming tour. He spouted the rugby boofhead line that the sports and politics should not be mixed and all he was interested in was the rugby. I retorted that such an ideal was absurd and had been since Hitler staged the 1936 Olympics – but he hadn’t done 5th form history so didn’t get the allusion. We decided we wouldn’t change each other’s view, so we formed a kind of détente where we agreed we would try and get along for the length of the tour. At that stage I was still hoping Muldoon would come to his senses and pull the plug before the Springboks arrived. But of course he didn’t and the team arrived on 19 July – which was also Tom’s and my 17th birthday.

The pitch invasion at the Hamilton game

The pitch invasion at the Hamilton game

After the pitch invasion that stopped the Hamilton game I shouted in triumph and Tom got surly. Following the batoning of anti-tour protesters in Molesworth Street, he bluntly told me they got what they deserved. The détente was cracking. When the Wellington test came I joined a protest march trying to invade Athletic Park; he went to a friend’s place to drink beer and watch the game on the tele. In the following weeks the curtain that hung down the middle of our room to prevent disturbance from reading lamps became permanently drawn: our ‘iron curtain’. And the conversations that we used to have about our days before going to sleep ceased. Sneers replaced smiles.

In retrospect, Tom had it harder than I did. We were a family of woolly liberals. Dad had been involved in the 1960 ‘No Maoris, No Tour’ campaign and had recounted tales of joining a moving picket around the Square in Palmerston North and being pelted with abuse. Tom no doubt felt isolated from the rest of us and clammed up. But I think we did all watch the final Eden Park (flour bomb) test together and cheered when Allan Hewson kicked the series-winning penalty. For Tom I imagine it a great All Black rugby moment; for me it was relief that it wasn’t a propaganda victory for the apartheid regime. Not long after the tour our older brother left home and Tom moved into the vacated room. We were soon speaking again but, since then, have never mentioned our ‘cold war’. Perhaps, like many other battle-weary New Zealanders, we just wanted to forget that the tour’s 56 surreal days had ever happened and get on with living.

It seems to me that the only winner out of the fiasco was Muldoon. The pro-tour rural vote saw him narrowly win the 1981 election. One of the things Rage depicted was the extent (unknown to me) to which his officials tried to get him to call off the tour even as it was proceeding. That he ignored this advice and was prepared to let his country rip its own guts out for political gain highlights the deep cynicism of the man. So this Monday – 12 September and the 30th anniversary of the end of the tour – I’ll celebrate that we’ve never had another leader like him. I’ll also give Tom a ring.

In praise of jaywalking

At morning tea Te Ara staff were discussing the tragic case of Venessa Green, who was tragically hit and killed by a bus while crossing Wellington’s Willis Street the week before last. The morning paper showed a photo of a sign that may have blocked her view of the street. In bitter irony, it featured an image of a bus with the warning ‘Buses Coming this Way’.

Some of us wondered why she could not have crossed at the pedestrian crossing barely 10 metres away. We then agreed that jaywalking was a New Zealand cultural trait that even the most fervent traffic engineer had little hope of shifting. That’s not to say they haven’t tried. One my favourite Te Ara clips is from a 1952 government road-safety film attempting to stop jaywalking. ‘Jay’ is early 20th century slang for a stupid person, which the film plays up to the full.

Wellington is, according to a recent newspaper article, the jaywalking capital of New Zealand. And I have to confess I’m a totally unreformed jaywalker and will blithely cross streets within sight of pedestrian crossings. This is partly because I’m lazy and can’t be bothered treading the few extra metres, but it is also, I like to think, a small public protest against the pre-eminence of the car. For a few brief seconds I can ‘reclaim’ the street for those it was originally intended for: pedestrians.

Corner of Cuba and Manners streets in Wellington, around 1920, when cars had taken streets from pedestrians

Corner of Cuba and Manners streets in Wellington, around 1920, when cars had taken streets from pedestrians

As I discovered while researching the Te Ara Street life entry, the motor vehicle’s dominance of city streets is barely a century old. Before then the street was a shared space, where vehicular traffic had to travel at walking pace and negotiate around pedestrians, not the other way round. But with the growth of motor traffic in the 1920s, pedestrians were officially sidelined to footpaths and encouraged to cross streets at particular places, at particular times.

That many pedestrians continue to jaywalk perhaps suggests there is a hidden impulse in our ‘urban DNA’ that resists such constraints being placed on our passage through cities. (Having had free reign of city streets for millennia this impulse decreed it was not going to surrender that right for the sake of a mere machine.)

Urban DNA or not, some city planners have finally recognised that privileging motor traffic over pedestrians is a sure-fire way to kill city life. Since the early 2000s cities such as Auckland and Wellington have been trying to introduce ‘shared spaces’ – where, as before, vehicular traffic and pedestrians share the street. Proposals in Elliot Street in Auckland, and lower Cuba Street in Wellington, are currently coming to fruition. It is my hope that these will prove successful and lead to further shared spaces, eventually taking in the likes of Willis Street, making it safer for all.

West Coast washout

‘With a high rainfall, the weather is a regular topic of conversation on the West Coast.’  (Te Ara West Coast entry)

The kind of rainfall Ben and his family had to content with on their West Coast trip

The kind of rainfall Ben and his family had to content with on their West Coast trip

One of the highlights of our South Island family holiday was to be several days camping on the West Coast. After booking the Picton ferry in September I’d scanned the web for dog-friendly campgrounds. I found two: at Lake Brunner and Carters Beach. I rang the one at Lake Brunner to confirm a place. The grizzled voice at the other end of the phone guffawed when he discovered I was booking so far in advance. ‘Nah, ya don’t need to book. They’ll be plenty of space.’

Following Christmas with whānau in Nelson, we drove south for the West Coast. Climbing the (ironically-named) Hope Saddle the heavens blackened and soon the windscreen wipers were struggling to clear the sheets of rain. At the turn off to Nelson Lakes the road to Murchison was sealed off. I asked a road worker, the rain dripping off his stubble, how long the road might be closed. ‘Could be five hours, could be less, could be more,’ he supposed slowly. I smiled and turned the car towards Blenheim. We promptly decided to reverse the holiday and visit the West Coast on our return.

A week later, having been charmed by the kea at Arthur’s Pass and impressed by the marvel that is the Ōtira viaduct, we finally descended to the West Coast. As the valley opened we could see in the distance that it was raining on our right and overcast on our left. ‘Which way are we going?’ asked one the boys. ‘Right,’ I confessed. We all laughed. Fortunately, by the time we got to Lake Brunner the deluge had stopped. We soon found the rather desultory-looking campground. It was for sale.

The grizzled voice was sitting in a battered armchair on the office verandah, alongside other ageing Coasters, all with beers in hand. ‘Gidday,’ I said. They nodded. I explained how our tent was not very waterproof and asked whether it might rain. ‘Probably,’ they agreed. Then one stepped off the verandah, looked at the sky and declared: ‘You’ll be right mate the weather comes from this way and its clearing.’ We decided to risk it. The only other option was a musty cabin the size of a double bed. We quickly erected the tent, the pegs effortlessly sliding through grass and sphagnum moss. After dinner we headed down to the stunning lake. The boys found a rope going out over the water and spent until dusk swinging out and jumping into the lake, while the dog and I fought off sandflies. We went off to sleep to the sound of kiwi screeching and the 11 p.m. coal train from Westport. The rain, as promised, stayed away.

The next day we headed to Carter’s Beach via (amazing) Punakaiki. The bubbly office woman at Carter’s Beach campground declared it hadn’t rained for days and was unlikely to soon. We booked in, pitched the tent, and headed into Westport for some fish and chips. Westport is a major fishing port and I was hoping we might score some fresh fish. Scanning the menu board of the recommended takeaway we found only one species: rig. ‘What’s rig?’ I asked the sullen-faced woman behind the counter. ‘Shark,’ she snapped. Viewing the limp fillets beside the fryer I asked ‘Do you have any other fish?’ ‘No,’ she replied with a disdainful look clearly reserved for outsiders. The boys ordered chicken burgers (which have gone down in family folklore for their awfulness) and Lis and I decided to boil up some pasta – again.

Tired from a busy day, we fell asleep early, only to be woken by heavy rain and strong winds around 6 a.m. Clearly the bubbly woman was a practical joker. As the tent poles buckled with each new wind gust, large drips of water fell down from the tent roof onto our sleeping bags. The dog whimpered. I finally decided we’d better get up before the tent was ripped to shreds – the one across from us had already collapsed. Stuffing everything into the boot of the car, we headed north through the Buller Gorge for the sunny refuge of Nelson. We obviously didn’t have what it takes to be Coasters.

The map is dead. Long live the Navman

In the Sunday paper a couple of weeks ago was an article about jaded Ponsonby types upping sticks for new lives in the country. On her journey to visit one of these city refugees the journalist described driving into the Te Awamutu back country and praying that ‘the Navman doesn’t let me down because there’s no one around to ask for directions.’ (Sarah Murray. ‘See ya, city’, Sunday: Sunday Star Times Magazine, 7 November 2010, p. 15). Incredulous, I spluttered through my Weet-Bix: ‘Why not use a bloody map then!?’

Will maps such as this become obsolete?

Will maps such as this become obsolete?

But I quickly realised I was on the wrong side of history. In the pre-Navman world the absence of a road map might have been explained along gender lines. In preparing for a trip beyond city limits, the average Kiwi bloke used to stuff his car glovebox full of maps procured from the AA. In the ‘unlikely event of an emergency’ – getting lost – the male driver could rifle through his maps and eventually reset his course. (The idea of asking directions from a stranger was too humiliating and emasculating to even contemplate.) Conversely, in the same situation, the average Kiwi sheila thought nothing of pulling over to the side of the road and getting pointed in the right direction by a helpful local.

I saw how this works as a kid when, having successfully travelled the length of the North Island in our trusty Holden station wagon, we arrived in Mangōnui and were unable to find the summer bach we’d hired. Mortifyingly for him, Dad’s glovebox library had no local street plan. After driving aimlessly through the settlement – some streets had no signs – he finally conceded to Mum’s pleading to pull over. While she chatted to the stranger, Dad slouched in his seat, his manhood slipping away.

This valuable lesson in Kiwi gender politics will soon be denied to new generations. When even the testosterone-loaded stars of Top gear use Navmans to navigate through Britain, we can only conclude that the days of the road map are numbered. Furthermore, with the Navman directing us right or left, it is inevitable that our map reading skills will decline. It might well be that future Kiwi kids will view any of the (so far) 325 maps on Te Ara with total bemusement.

On the plus side, with the Navman up on the dashboard, there’s more room for lollies in the glovebox.