Hard News by Russell Brown


A few days away

They don't serve anything for free on Pacific Blue. Except, that is, for the jokes. Clearly, part of what Richard Branson's airline is selling -- apart from the basic airline functionality of getting you from A to distant B in a safe and timely fashion -- is its hard-case cabin culture.

So before we took off for Christchurch, our cabin chief introduced herself and her "twins", the other, somewhat lookalike, hostesses. The steward on the way out of Christchurch, turned the safety demonstration into a whole comedy routine. The lifejackets had a whistle "for attracting sharks". Parents were advised that "if you're travelling with a child, do make sure you fit your own mask first. If you have more than one child -- pick a favourite." And "remember that the closest exit may be behind you -- like a stalker."

Yes, really. Still, they do fly on time.

I was in the Garden City for my annual talk to students at the CPIT Broadcasting School. As usual, I was still finishing my presentation on the flight down; and, as usual, I enjoyed the experience. The kids on that course seem not only bright, but engaged.

From there, David Haywood picked me up and conveyed me to Whisky Galore, where Michael Fraser Milne poured me a dram or three while I decided what I should buy (the Balbalir 89 and the Duncan Taylor bottling of the Clynelish -- one fruity and full, the other long and peppery).

We then picked up Emma Hart -- who I can reveal now will be joining the Public Address stable full-time, as soon as we get her 'Upfront' masthead done.( Ditto for Hadyn Green, whose new sports blog, Field Theory, will be appearing here any moment now too.)

Jen duly came home with the real star of the show, Bob the Baby. He was a little stern with me until I made farting noises with my hands. Kids love that.

From there, it was to Wellington and a day-long NZ On Screen trust board meeting. After two-thirds of a day discussing detail and going through reports, I was reminded what the project is really about when I brought up one of our archive gems from the test website on my laptop. We all just gathered around and looked at it. The content is the thing. We're getting there.

From there, it was over to Cuba Street, where I realised I'd booked the wrong hotel in the right building: the Comfort rather than the Quality. My room at the comfort was a shoebox with no broadband. Reception offered to shift me to the Quality for an extra 60 bucks. I agreed, and the room turned out to be a tasty corner suite with 90-degree views and a verandah.

I lay around feeling like P Diddy until it was time to join The Dropkicks for the recording of their podcast (Episode 30), which traditionally consists of the team drinking heavily and cracking wise. I was a washout in the quiz segment (because I am a high-level strategic guy, not a nerdy systematising guy) but my Sarah Ulmer haiku slayed

Sweet Sarah Ulmer
The nation; the siren calls
Oh truly, she's cute

From there it was on to eat and drink with friends, and we ended up back at the P Diddy suite to talk into the night. At one point in the evening, my friend, who has been reeling from the sudden death of his father, stood up and sang a traditional song in the memory of his departed dad. It was special and moving.

Saturday morning, as planned I set out down Cuba St for the Rita Angus exhibition at Te Papa. As I stepped out of the hotel, I saw a few flakes of snow cavorting on the southerly. It was that cold.

I ran into Grant Robertson, occasional PA sports blogger and Labour candidate for Wellington Central, on his way down to a new migrants' fair at the town hall with a fistful of party brochures in hand. It's the kind of thing you have to do with your Saturday morning when you offer yourself for office. He seems pretty happy with his campaign so far.

(I'd picked up a Capital Times, in which the Wellington Central candidates had been asked some question as to whether there was a culture of bureaucratic waste that needed dealing to. It's a dangerous question to answer in Wellington Central, and Stephen Franks, as National's candidate, basically bent over backwards to equivocate. I suspect having to strike such poses is coming at the cost of degree of cognitive dissonance for Franks.)

The Angus exhibition was worth the walk. It is a life's work of strong, serious painting. I stopped in front of the famous portrait of Betty Curnow. I've seen the painting before in books, but something caught me about it in person: I know Betty's great-granddaughter (whose father is an old and dear friend): she strikingly like Betty does in the picture.

There's a quote from Angus on the wall of the exhibition to the effect that all her paintings are "alive". And they are, despite (or, for all I know, because of) the meticulous preparation and prodigious technical skill that has gone into their production. You can imagine any of them living on the wall of your house, holding its space like a member of the family, which isn't always the case with things you see in a gallery.

The show is a reminder that Cass, the painting everyone knows and loves, was the start, not the pinnacle, of the Angus style; and I was surprised by the watercolours, particularly the one of Waipara Gorge, where the paint seems to hang in space on the canvas. If you're in Wellington, make the time.

And then, soon enough, it was back to Auckland to be warm and to watch the Olympics in HD. I'm in a position to make a comparison here. There have been some standouts (the Tour de France), but much of the content on Sky's two "HD" sports channels has been a disappointment: either not true HD (the Sydney Tri-Nations test), HD but in 4:3 aspect ratio (the ATP tennis tour); or just not really stunning (the Auckland Tri-Nations test).

The Olympic coverage being broadcast on TV One via Freeview UHF is something else. It is frequently transfixing, and some shots -- the camera strung across the rowing course, manoeuvred over the leaders as they pass, and any number of angles on the swimming -- provide an almost documentary insight into the physics of particular sports.

In such circumstances, you might think that commentators would simply shut up and let the luminous pictures speak for themselves. Apparently not. Could someone hit Pete Montgomery with a tranquilliser dart? His hysterical commentaries may have added momentum to the effectively inert sport of sailing, but they are unbelievably irritating when applied to a sport in which something visibly happens.

It appears the director at the rowing felt the same way. Arousal was getting the better of inspiration as Montgomery called the end of the coxless pairs: twice in 10 seconds, he shouted that the New Zealanders were really "laying into" their work (it must have been about the tenth time he'd used the phrase that day). And then, as he was about to utter it a third time, you heard a "la …" and then a second or three of merciful silence. They muted their own commentator! I, for one, was deeply grateful.

Still, I gather we are not the only nation to feel this way. As this New York Times blog points out, most of its readers are complaining about the "incessant chatter" of NBC's hosts. The author suggests people might be a bit happier with the more oblique style of the BBC's promo for its own Olympic coverage, a diverting animation work created by the Gorillaz and Jamie Hewlett. It's based on the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West, which a generation of the rest of us knows better as Monkey. Cool.

PS: This week's Media7 looks at the Beijing Olympics and the stories that are and aren't being told. The panel features the Wellington dissident journalist Nick Wang and Dr Jian Yang of Auckland university, with one more to come. If you'd like to join us early tomorrow evening for the recording, drop me a line asap.

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