Archive for the 'Uncategorised' Category

Angels and demons

Lionel Terry self-portrait (click for image credit)

Lionel Terry self-portrait (click for image credit)

Scientist Steven Pinker (in The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011) argues that there has been a long-term, worldwide decline in violence, thanks especially to:

the rise of nation-states and judicial systems with a monopoly on the use of force;

the increased monetary value of individuals as economies have become more sophisticated;

increasing respect for ‘the interests and values of women’;

cosmopolitan forces such as literacy which help us empathise with people unlike ourselves;

the increasing application of knowledge and rationality in human affairs.

This recasting of the centuries-old concept of human progress has a common-sense appeal. For example, historian Miles Fairburn’s argument that nineteenth-century New Zealand was an ‘atomised society’ with weak social bonds was supported by the colony’s high rate of violent crime – which then fell steadily during the twentieth century as society urbanised and rural roughnecks ’settled down’. Yet rates of conviction and the lengths of sentences for violent crime then rose steadily in the late twentieth century. Was social order in New Zealand now declining – or was one consequence of the ‘feminisation’ of society noted by Pinker an increasing willingness to report domestic and sexual assault? Was there more crime, more openness about it, or more willingness to punish it?

Last week’s atrocities in France are the latest of many recent correctives to any complacency about ‘progress’. New Zealanders have a self-image as easy-going pragmatists – we’d never come to blows over ideas, surely? Yet In the early years of the colony, ‘gentlemen’ fought duels to defend their ‘honour’, sometimes with fatal consequences. And Pākehā land-grabbing during the New Zealand Wars of the mid-nineteenth century was justified by theories of racial superiority. In hindsight, it seems miraculous that the social convulsions of 1912/13, 1951 and 1981 – all clashes of ideology as much as of economic and political forces – resulted in only one death.

Nor have New Zealanders been immune to justifying racial violence on religious grounds. The enthusiasm with which Te Ua Haumēne, Tītokowaru and Te Kooti were pursued during the New Zealand Wars owed much to their espousal of non-Christian religions as well as to the threat they posed to colonisation. And in 1905 Lionel Terry killed Joe Kum Yung in cold blood in Wellington to draw New Zealanders’ attention to the necessity for racial and religious ‘purity’. Violence often broke out at meetings of the early twentieth century Protestant Political Association, which was virulently anti-Catholic – and anti-Irish.

As Pinker puts it, our ‘better angels’ are often at war with our ‘inner demons’, which include ideologies that justify violence in the pursuit of utopia. From this perspective, Kiwi pragmatism has quite a lot going for it.

Remembering the Pike River 29

Flags fly at half-mast during a memorial service for the 29 men who died at Pike River in 2010 (click for image credit)

Flags fly at half-mast during a memorial service for the 29 men who died at Pike River in 2010 (click for image credit)

Wednesday 19 November is the fourth anniversary of the explosion at the Pike River mine on the West Coast, which killed 29 men in 2010. There is added poignancy with the recent announcement that there will be no further attempts to recover the bodies. The anniversary is being marked this year by a television documentary, Dreams lie deeper, featuring a vocal tribute by Dave Dobbyn and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington.

This was the seventh major disaster in a New Zealand coal mine. A total of 210 men have lost their lives in such disasters. All were due to explosions by methane gas given off by coal or asphyxiation by carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, formed after a fire or explosion.

As with most coal mine disasters, the Pike River tragedy would not have happened if established safety precautions had been followed. Both the Royal Commission report and Rebecca Macfie’s book Tragedy at Pike River Mine reveal a series of problems that were consistently overlooked by the board of directors and the executive managers of Pike River Coal Ltd in their rush to get production under way. For months before the explosion there had been reports of excess methane and other health and safety problems. The safety inspectors employed by the Labour Department were overworked, and relied on reports by the company that all safety requirements were being complied with.

One of the main recommendations of the Royal Commission was that the government should set up an independent safety organisation. Worksafe New Zealand now has statutory responsibility for all safety issues in the workplace, with a designated High Hazards Unit for industries such as coal mining and oil exploration.

Last year the Orpheus Choir of Wellington asked Dave Dobbyn to write a piece dedicated to the 29 men who died in the Pike River mine. The documentary (Wednesday 19 November, 9.30 p.m. on TV1) follows Dobbyn as he travels to Greymouth to meet members of the victims’ families and completes the composition and arrangement of ‘This love’ with Mark Dorrell. As the lyrics evolved, Dobbyn chose to focus on the love and memories of the families rather than bitterness about the events leading up to the disaster. You can listen online to the Orpheus Choir and Wellington Young Voices singing ‘This love’.

Designs for living

The showroom of designer David Trubridge (click for image credit)

The showroom of designer David Trubridge (click for image credit)

For those of us who cannot draw more than the odd doodle, the release of our eight new stories on architecture and design is cause for jealousy and wonderment. The inventiveness of people who can imagine a new building, or a new typeface or a new object – such as a revolutionary pair of scissors – is almost magical. The whole group of entries is a testament to the major theme of Te Ara’s last section: creativity.

There are four stories which focus on architecture. To be honest, colonial New Zealand was not especially noted for its creativity or originality in this field. The one exception was in Māori architecture, where, as Deidre Brown shows, Māori developed the idea of large carved wharenui (meeting houses) a style previously unknown in Aotearoa.

Meanwhile, European architects, whether designing domestic buildings, public, commercial and religious buildings, or theatres and halls, stuck to their European background. Architecture was heavily imitative, copying historic styles. Early buildings were a restrained Georgian; but then the battle of the styles developed between classical revival style and Gothic. Gothic, used commonly in churches, was also found in some homes such as Auckland’s Highwic and some public buildings, for example Canterbury’s provincial council chambers. There were some marvels even within these traditions, and I urge you in particular to look at the interactive of Francis Petre’s Catholic basilicas in classical revival style.

Ōamaru courthouse, one of New Zealand's many classical-style public buildings (click for image credit)

Ōamaru courthouse, one of New Zealand's many classical-style public buildings (click for image credit)

The 20th century saw international influences remain strong, but there were striking local variations – James Chapman-Taylor’s homes, which developed out of the arts and crafts movement, the modernist-influenced buildings of Ernst Plischke, the Group Architects‘ attempt to adapt the modernist style to a New Zealand way of life, and John Scott’s magnificent Futuna Chapel, which blended Māori and Gothic church elements with modernism. It is also worth looking at the images and films of theatres and cinemas, some of which were enchanted spaces where ‘everything ordinary was left behind’, as the narrator says in Peter Well’s film about Auckland’s iconic Civic Theatre.

The story of landscape architecture shares with the stories of design – fashion, graphic and industrial – a period of striking growth and creativity in the last part of the 20th century. Although there were garden designers before then, the profession did not really get established until the early 1970s. Since then, landscape architects have helped transform the character of our cities.

Fashion design got its kick-start in the 1940s, when the disruption of imports and a ready market, with American troops here, led to the first local fashion houses. The last 30 years of the century saw an outburst of creative designers and fashion houses such as Zambesi, Trelise Cooper, WORLD, Karen Walker and Kate Sylvester. Exposure at the London Fashion Week in 1999 was international recognition that there was something happening down under – something ‘edgy, dark and intellectual’.

Speedee electric jugs (click for image credit)

Speedee electric jugs (click for image credit)

Industrial design took off in 1962, when both Elam and the Wellington School of Design began professional training. Forty years later industrial designers had helped change the way we experience our every day lives, with such creations as:

  • the electric ‘jug’ (as distinct from the British ‘kettle’)
  • Fisher & Paykel’s DishDrawer
  • Methven’s SatinJet shower
  • Bendon’s seamless bra
  • Phil & Ted’s baby buggy.

As for the third type of design, graphic design, there was some fine work in the 1930s and 1940s, especially some great railway posters. But, again, it was 1962 when the first fully professional training began. The fruits of this were seen in some stunning logos for New Zealand Post, New Zealand Railways and the 1974 Commonwealth Games. In the digital age, New Zealand’s internationally recognised typographic designers included Catherine Griffiths, Sarah Maxey and Kris Sowersby.

Fittingly, these stories are to be enjoyed as much for the visuals as for the words. As you pass from image to image you cannot but be grateful for how much the talented people who can draw have enriched our world – in the buildings we inhabit, the objects we use, and the clothes we wear.

Quiz: Man’s best friend

Animals and us

Animal Liberation Front targets a Wellington fur shop, 1983

Animal Liberation Front targets a Wellington fur shop, 1983 (click for image credit)

Last month’s passage of a law to ban all remaining ‘legal highs’ unless they have been proved harmless and the outlawing of testing of such drugs on animals has encouraged us to feature two stories, one on Animal  welfare and rights and the second on the history of Drugs.

The animal rights story is fresh off the block. Its origins are an interesting example of how Te Ara responds to the wider New Zealand audience.  About a year ago we launched our entries on Daily life, sport and recreation.  They were generally well received, but a member of the Greyhound Protection League was concerned that we had not presented the full story of greyhound racing. He argued that some greyhounds suffered real abuse after their days of racing were over, and that our story on Horse and greyhound racing should cover that issue.

In the end we decided that the racing story should stand, but the interaction forced us to accept that the fascinating history of animal protection was lacking in Te Ara. We had an excellent entry on Pets, but not one that adequately explained the history of efforts to protect animals from abuse. So Nancy Swarbrick, who had written the pets story and had just published an outstanding book on pets, agreed to research and write the piece. It makes for an intriguing read.

As with so many New Zealand movements and institutions, the local story begins as a pale echo of larger, more organised movements in the United Kingdom and the United States. Almost 60 years after the SPCA was established in Britain, societies were set up in New Zealand’s main centres. As in the old country, they were concerned with blood sports, the conditions experienced by working horses, dangerous modes of trapping pests and cruel forms of farming. But it was interesting that in the small towns and rural townships where farm life was centred, the movement was nowhere to be seen.

Almost a century later a new radical movement began overseas. Once more there were ripples here, with a number of organisations sparked by the international animal liberation movement. More recently, however, the radical animal liberationists have come closer to home, and tackled issues that are important to both New Zealand farming and the economy, such as battery-farmed hens and the crating of pigs. Animal rights are beginning to have a distinctive New Zealand story, as one might expect in a country where farming and the growing of animals are so significant.

The Drugs story was first launched last year, and it also tells a history of overseas ideas slowly becoming domesticated. In the 19th century, following British practice, cannabis and opium were freely available and present in many patent remedies. When in the early 20th century restrictions on opiates and cannabis began, this was almost entirely the result of international pressure. It was not until the later 20th century, as drug-taking became more established in New Zealand and distinctive patterns of drug-taking emerged (little use of opium and cocaine and much use of amphetamines and party pills), that domestic pressures for restrictions emerged.

So the latest law is but another example of New Zealand politicians at last responding to distinctive local issues in their own way. These two entries help to explain why this is the case.