The BurnOuts at the Beeb (TopGear & Clarkson)

March 27th, 2015 at 3:00 pm by Kokila Patel

By John Stringer


I really likeTopGear, Jeremy Clarkson and James May (and the other good-looking one from The Monkeys). I watch it on rainy sunday afternoons, or with beer and dogs while Her WithinDoors is away and I have the man house to my rule-breaking self.

The three (plus The Stig) have a chemistry and a lad-ishness that gives me hope as a 50-something white flabby male. It’s either that, or take up Himalaya trekking and swimming. I’m not a petrol head, but once had a Jag (well, actually a Daimler Series ii , but everyone thinks it was an XJ6 and it’s made by Jag) and a 1939 Austin Minx (which I reminded everyone was born while Hitler was driving into Poland).

It was about the characters and the writing; May’s dry wit and Clarkson’s gorgeous turns of phrase. The three irresponsible petrol gurus take no prisoners, they are not beHOLDEN to corporate auto conglomerates who pay mega amounts to have their cars castigated and belittled. They are also passionate about driving, cars and on road awesomeness.

They’ve drawn millions like me, into a stupid car geek programme and made it thrilling, funny, entertaining, and made The Beeb millions (TopGear is their star programme). 12 seasons.

And so this debacle with Jeremy Clarkson, the tallest moai on this Easter Island, was like a very British spinster stoush unfolding on Coronation Street.  Auntie Beeb and that tart Mrs Clarkson going at each other with handbags and hair nets. The Mirror reported Clarkson had made an “expletive-laden rant at a charity event” against BBC exec.s earlier in the week, later qualified as “meant in jest.”

But May was right, it was initially a fairly small private meltdown that became way bigger than it should have which was a “tragedy.” See here.

James May has done a series of on camera reactions from the front door of his modest Council-style flat (ya gotta love those Brit celebrities and their humble ‘ostentation’).

So initially I played this as a case of Political Correctness gone mad.  Yes, there was the off camera ‘N’ bomb (which you can hear endlessly by any Black comedian and Rap artist over and over again, including in films) and the “slope” comment, which was obliquely racist but a really funny pun in the context of the sloping bridge. (Let’s be honest, EVERYONE does that behind closed doors; all human groups nick-name other groups).

But the Beeb – as May said on the clip – probably had their hands tied. It was not really about blokey Blokiness standing up to oppressive Stalinesque modernism that is hand wringing political correctness.  No, it seems Jeremy is suffering from MANopause and went too far.  As May says, “He’s a Nob.”  The Sydney Morning Herald  said he was a victim of his own behaviour. Brilliance and hubris; like that myth that all artists are manic depressives, their genius stalked by a converse.

But you have to give The BBC credit, they’ve handled this pretty well.  Sure, it got away from them, but like a honed working-class British greyhound, they hauled in that runaway fluffy bunny and mouthed it several times. Tony Hall conducted a thorough investigation, and spoke to both parties about the incident.  It was reported Clarkson had turned up at the producer’s house to make an apology,  but was cold-shouldered.

Seems to me Clarkson was a bullying oaf; a 20 minute tirade of abuse against an innocent victim based on perceived elevated celebrity status and not getting special treatment (prima donna stuff) and then some sort of ‘handbagging’ incident.  Various reports about a punch or not.  Probably just some middle-aged man shuffling.

Reading Halls’ explanation (in full here below) you have to accept The Beebs position and actions. Clarkson is brilliant, loved by millions for his irreverence (note his Twitter count) and Britishcock a snoop, but was a bully and lost control.  Tony Hall initially stepped in to delay an immediate sacking. Pproducer Oisin Tymon (opposite) was attacked and endured a sustained superiority tirade, in a work context. Unacceptable. Bullying is bullying, and no one should have to endure that, especially at work.

“First – The BBC is a broad church. Our strength in many ways lies in that diversity. We need distinctive and different voices but they cannot come at any price. Common to all at the BBC have to be standards of decency and respect. I cannot condone what has happened on this occasion. A member of staff – who is a completely innocent party – took himself to Accident and Emergency after a physical altercation accompanied by sustained and prolonged verbal abuse of an extreme nature. For me a line has been crossed. There cannot be one rule for one and one rule for another dictated by either rank, or public relations and commercial considerations.

“Second – This has obviously been difficult for everyone involved but in particular for Oisin. I want to make clear that no blame attaches to him for this incident. He has behaved with huge integrity throughout. As a senior producer at the BBC he will continue to have an important role within the organisation in the future.

“Third – Obviously none of us wanted to find ourselves in this position. This decision should in no way detract from the extraordinary contribution that Jeremy Clarkson has made to the BBC. I have always personally been a great fan of his work and Top Gear. Jeremy is a huge talent. He may be leaving the BBC but I am sure he will continue to entertain, challenge and amuse audiences for many years to come.

“The BBC must now look to renew Top Gear for 2016. This will be a big challenge and there is no point in pretending otherwise. I have asked Kim Shillinglaw [Controller of BBC Two] to look at how best we might take this forward over the coming months. I have also asked her to look at how we put out the last programmes in the current series.”

Right result.  Oisin Tymon will stay on, Clarkson has gone for unacceptable behaviour after a final written warning.

What next?  Well, channels will be falling over one another to hire Clarkson for mega gazillions. Netflix is already a rumoured suitor. A successful rival may buy-up James May, Richard Hammond lock stock and barrel and parallel a similar show, or something new. The fans will slide and wheel burn over, and it will make the new company tonnes of money. But they’ll have to pay high, as Hammond and May also have other BBC shows they are involved with.

And I suspect Hammond and May without Clarkson will not work, like The Two Ronnieswithout sexual innuendo. But I hope they all work together to complete a successful 2015 series, perhaps with a funny focus on Clarkson’s departure. That would have class.

I like Clarkson, we need brigands like him, irreverent, Churchillian bulwarks against namby pamby, metrosexual hand-creamy politically correct 1984-ness. They give us hope. Clarkson is a kind of Beowulf epic hero, clad in furs with a dripping metaphoric battle axe of wit, double entendres and scathing put-downs.

So, Clarkson has been bumped on a pedestrian crossing and rushed to ER, where he’ll revive, arise as an anti-Beeb phoenix albeit somewhat shattered on a fast ferrari windscreen, and get paid even more. And as admirer Tony Hall director general  of the BBC admits, “continue to entertain, challenge and amuse audiences for many years to come.”  Like a revered but slightly naughty vintage classic that leaves too much oil on your driveway.

This was a very British debacle. The issues were all traversed through the tabloids, no one got too hand-wringy, the issues got put, there was perspective, and values, and a hard call (worth several gazillion to the BBC) taken in the interests of fairness, equal treatment. We got an actual outcome (Clarkson got sacked) , the victim was reassured and cemented in his employment (as the innocent in all this, he was). Clarkson was cut adrift with respect and acknowledgement today to slew new speedways, but without covering up or failing to acknowledge his offending Nob-ishness.

We await the next lap with petrol-heady expectation.

~ John Stringer

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A Completely Dumb Brilliant Marvel Movie (with a Racoon and a Talking Tree)

January 6th, 2015 at 4:00 pm by Kokila Patel

by John Stringer (


I pretty much like anything Marvel, except this stupid comic (1969- ; self-title 1990). I have a pretty good collection of early 1960s Silver Age Marvel comics to prove it and DaughterofAwesome (aka Cypher) has met Stan Lee (so she’s on the quirky Xmas card and presents list). Comics can be a great investment. See here: $100k Comic Found in Wall.

The recent comic-to-movie transitions have been mostly successful following the travesties of the earliest Spiderman movies (1977). Iron Man, Cap. America, Thor, The Avengers, the two parallel Spiderman franchises (Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi from 2002) are all pretty good interpretations propelling Marvel to a whole new level and empowering a completely new genre and creating a new audience. These reboots will replace the comics over the next generation, along with computer games and new media. Comics will become vestiges of collectible nostalgia for Baby Boomers and Gen. X and historic oddities for Gen. Y.  Who reads comics anymore, apart from the video store guy in The Simpsons or the Fatso pony-tail guy?


And so, having recently watched Guardians of the Galaxy on dvd at the insistence of WifeofAwesome and wondering WHY this Marvel comic was ever made in to a movie, I present the Guardians of the Galaxy Honesty Trailer. Because we need this. (I actually really enjoyed this 2014 movie, it was extremely watchable and really entertaining. I just hated the Racoon. Too Disney!). But, let the Honesty Video speak…

Guardians of the Galaxy. was one of the biggest (unexpected) movie successes of 2014, snobbed by reviewers, loved by fans at the box office. Of more interest, was that it was a genius departure from the Marvel cinematic universe. And the give-away about what was really going on with this movie, was the final scene, after the credits, when Howard Duck makes a cameo appearance (heralding a forthcoming movie? Please, no!).


Howard was a socially satirical cigar-smoking anthropomorphic duck from New Stork City on the planet Duckworld. He was a 1970s Marvel anti-hero superhero, a tongue-and-cheek lampoon of Marvel itself by Marvel.  A mash of Donald Duck, Daffy Duck and Marvel all-in-one, demonstrating that Stan Lee (and creators Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik) have great self-awareness and a robust sense of humour.

Guardians Of the Galaxy is pretty different from Captain America: The Winter Soldier and is perhaps ‘high’ on its own power but has the same tongue-in-cheek self-awareness and self-deprecating in-house jokes. In Guardians, one critic says Marvel is trolling its own world and “doles out middle fingers to the audience they know they have in the palm of their hands.” I’d agree with that. But the spaceships and vacuum of space wars are awesome.

You like superheroes? Well how about a movie that stars a stupid raccoon and a one-word speaking tree called Groot? (a rip-off of Tolkien’s Ent). Yup, that’ll work. The critic concludes, “And here’s the one finger salute, ‘the raccoon, the tree, the many-colored people and the white guy –who brings them together– made a metric crapton of money for Marvel.’ To which I say,

“People, it’s a movie based on a comic.  Just enjoy it. I did.  Immensely. A great holiday watch if you’re bored with the cricket.”

~John Stringer, Christchurch.

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Review: The Hobbit #3 (2014): Battle of Five Armies

December 18th, 2014 at 10:00 am by Kokila Patel

By John Stringer

For many of us, reading our first copy of The Hobbit, (published 1937) was seminal. It is still one of the most favourite children’s books of all time. CS Lewis comforted his recently bereaved adopted son with a copy inShadowlands (1993) while discussing The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe (Tolkien led Lewis to the Christian faith. Both classics were written within the fraternity ofThe Inklings pub group) And for many of us, the magic never really left. (50-year-old men like me still mention this). I went last night to a closed premier with a group of male and female friends in their fifties. It was a great ride and a fitting climax to the trilogy prefacing the LoTR trilogy.  It was nice to see Bilbo back in the story, center stage where he belongs as the hobbit in The Hobbit.  He was a bit awol in Hobbit 2.

Thorin Oakenshield’s ‘dragon madness’ is also center stage, like “Achilles’ wrath, the direful spring of woes unnumbered” from the Iliad. Sir Peter Jackson has captured the personality and forces of this mania in Homer-esque fashion in-keeping with that epic meter.  Thorin’s driven lust for gold, home, and his ultimate redemption through killing Azog the Destroyer are central weaves to this tapestry.

Our premier was prefaced by a short intro from the actors and crew, opening with aTVOne News piece of the first production announcement. (Those nineties hairstyles and Richard Long’s moustache!).  They all thank New Zealand for hosting this long three-film production, reflect on their connections here, how much they all loved New Zealand (except Cate Blanchett who has a cheeky Aussie riposte.  Stephen Fry says, “Just like Australia, but without the boasting”). Not too cheesy and cringe-worthy.

For me, Peter Jackson’s greatest achievement is forever marrying LotR and Hobbit to New Zealand.  And this is his film, not the Tolkien Trust’s.  I was saddened to learn chief trustee Christopher Tolkien, who finished some of his father’s work, such as The Silmarillion, has declined to ever meet Sir Peter.

Jackson Divergences and Women Added.

So, we have some Jackson divergences in this movie:

1) the creation of Turiel and a female elf love triangle between Legolas Greenleaf and cross-cultural dwarf interest Fili.  I think this works.  Tolkien was an Oxford don and his appreciation of women was somewhat distant and worshipful. Jackson (well, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens I guess) provide an updated version with Turiel written in to the script.  I like her; she works, and modernises the gender appreciations we have now that were not present between 1937-49 when LoTR and Hobbit were written (no dwarf women-folk; and few heroic female characters). Without the update, a Jackson-Tolkien literal would already be outdated. It had to be modernised and I agree with Jackson on this (also deleting Tom Bombadil altogether).

2) Jackson also gives us Dune-esque “were worms,” who chew through the mountain and allow Azog’s army to ambush the squabbling Elvish, Dwarfish, and Man armies.  This was brilliant and I liked them immediately, huge Dune worms with triple-lipped mouths like the diamond head of a tunneling mine drill.

3) He also gives us more of Radagast the Brown and his Disney bunny sleigh.  Didn’t like that in Hobbit 2, but he works here, and I really liked his link to bringing the eagles to the Battle of Five Armies (the fifth army: elves, dwarves, men, orcs, eagles).”The Eagles are coming!”  They always save the day, so heroic and clean amid all that orcish/troll scum filth. Radagast’s link here is an addition that fits with the spirit of Tolkien.

4) Dain Ironfoot II and his Iron Hills dwarf army of the north (near the Lonely Mountain, arrives on a kune kune pig and there are some mountain goats with large horns.  But I accepted this; it makes sense, and when Thorin and his hand-picked team of four hurtle toward the orcs, the horned rams make excellent mobile…well…batteringRAMS. They then pronk up the mountain side towards Azog’s command post. As a Jackson interpretation of Tolkien, I think that works very well. Dwarves delve in and love rock, mountain goats also, so that’s a symmetry that makes sense in Middle-Earth despite being absent in Tolkien. Movies are about interpretation and new layering.

5) In Jackson Legolas kills Bolg, but it was Beorn in the book.

But there the departures end. The rest is very faithful, even down to the book’s “Bolgers” at the Bag End auction, a nice hat tip to our former prime minister Jim Bolger. Jackson again cements this epic to New Zealand.

Empowering Women

This is not The Hunger Games, but there are lots of empowered women in this film (like Jackson/Walsh did with Rohan’s Lady Eowyn in LoTR). There’s Galadriel, Turiel, and a peasant woman in Laketown played by Sarah Peirse who was the murdered Honora Parker-Rieper in the famous true Christchurch murder Parker/Hume crime (see here: Parker & Hulme Pt 5 (Review: Peter Graham’s 2011 Book). That story was immortalised in Heavenly Creatures (1994) Jackson’s first ‘proper’ movie (the film that ‘found’ Kate Winslet) and really launched Jackson as a serious film maker.


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Capital Blood. Vamping It Up in Wellyblood

December 8th, 2014 at 10:00 am by Kokila Patel

Review: What We Do in the Shadows (2014).

~ by John Stringer.

2014’s What We Do In The Shadows written by and starring Taika Waititi (Boy) and Jemaine Clement (Fot Conchords) is a short black comedy about a group of vampires flatting together in Wellington, New Zealand.

  • Viago, a dandy Victorian vamp. (Waititi);
  • Vladislav, a Roumanian vamp. (Clement);
  • Deacon an eastern European vamp. (Jonathan Brugh) who knits and whose excellent gypsy-cum-Indian folk dance prefaces the movie’s opening template (hilarious); and
  • Petyras the 800-year-old Nosferatu vamp (Ben Fransham).

Together they rework the Flight of the Conchords wannabee-musicians-in-NY cycle but in NZ via a contemporary goth vamp romp. Also featuring is ‘Murray’ (Rhys Darby) as the alpha male pack leader of a group of counter-gang Westside Story werewolves (“not swear wolves!”).

It’s hilarious and there are some great lines in the film.  “Leave me to do my dark bidding… on TradeMe–I’m bidding on a table” and jokes about age disparities, blood, werewolves, trying to get invited in to nightclubs, the police coming by to check on fire alarms and whether they’re installed correctly, etc.

The essence of the film is that now hallmark New Zealand (Napoleon Dynamite) ordinariness juxtaposed with the ludicrousness of historic vampires adjusting to mundane life flatting in Wellington (“Stu’s in to computers and stuff”).  There are flat meetings (“Do your bloody dishes!”), chore rosters (“I dragged a body down the hall, so in a way, I swept the dust up“) and farcical attempts to attract ‘wictims’ to their flat.  I laughed a lot.


One of the downsides of being a vampire, is you cannot eat chips.  One chip, and a rookie vamp. suffers projectile blood vomiting of Peter Jackson Brain Dead proportions.  It’s also difficult on relationships to eat friends, the main one of whom is appropriately called “Stu.”  Stu helps the vampires catch up with technology; they can watch sunsets on-line, and send txt messages, and most importantly, Google virgins.

It is maladjusted immigrants and geeks adjusting to Nu Ziland but remaining true to themselves and having lifestyle issues, filmed as a reality TV documentary; The Osbornes meets Blair Witch and Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I liked the “Unholy Masquerade Ball” organised by the Karori Zombie Association, Wellington Vampire Society and Upper Hutt Werewolves Group which has a showdown when the flatmates bring Stu,  a human, to the undead ball (ie vestiges of Cinderella). There is also a great “vampire fight!” as two vamp.s flit in and out of bat and human mode.

Lots of visual puns over vampire reflections in mirrors; virgin jokes; “bisketti and spaghetti;” stakes and crucifixes; and several workings of the vampire powers of hypnotism (stronger and weaker in various vamps) “No, the electriceety bill is p-a-i-d. …No, you will not cut off the telephone, we-paaaid-the-bill!”

I got the joke after a minute (but kept laughing all the way) but this would perhaps have been better as a more compressed one hour TV programme (47 minutes with ads) rather than a full length film.  It also lacked a central narrative and would have been richer if there was a stronger story woven through, perhaps a romantic narrative or a quandary.  Otherwise it’s just an episodic extended joke.

I did like the editing cutaways to magazines and historical books early on, which cleverly conveys the historical backstory in a quick run.  The music is perfect and the actors are all great; Jonathan Brugh and Clement especially turn in talented performances.  But my favourite vamp was actually Petyr, who never speaks.

The title is clumsy, why not just Wellington Vamps or Capital Blood? Sometimes the setups for the jokes are a bit laboured. I would have also omitted the dvd Extras as they diminish the finished product.  As a more edit-compressed faster TV one hour, this would have become a cult classic.  But as a film, it’s just too stretched, but nevertheless a hilarious Saturday night TV watchwith popcorn. 6/10.

Here’s the trailer.

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Congress Declares War on Obama. The end of his Presidency?

December 7th, 2014 at 10:00 am by Kokila Patel

By John Stringer


The gum-chewing celebrity stand-in for President is under serious threat as, in breaking news 5/12 NZ time (Associated Press and Fox), the US Congress – the real power behind the ‘throne’ – has just voted down Obama’s Executive Order immigration initiative to vote amnesty to five million illegal immigrants. (Incidentally, Obama won his second term by about five million votes; so this might be viewed by some as a cynical Democrat ‘buy-up’ of an electoral buffer [ten million people] against the other side, a bit like the electoral implications of Sir Robert Muldoon’s universal superannuation initiative, that it could be argued significantly expanded the National party voter base).


Capitol Hill (or “The Hill”) that houses the US Senate (right) and the House of Representatives (“the House”) (left) sometimes also referred to (confusingly) as “the Congress.”

The bicameral US Congress (House of Representatives & Senate) is the real power in America, among several checks and balances.  They vote the money and a president must have their support to go to war (remember all that pressure from Churchill to Roosevelt to enter WWII, and Roosevelt needing to navigate Congressional sentiment and feeling and using them as his effective UK filibuster?).

Presidents Reagan and Bush both used Executive Orders, but to enact already passed laws; Lincoln used the rare power under emergency in time of civil war.  Obama has used it simply to circumvent the democratic process in America to get what he wants, a policy he cannot get sufficient votes for in the House. Obama has ‘made law’ on the hoof without reference to, indeed in the face of direct opposition from, the democratically elected political representatives.  He has done this by appealing to some ‘higher morality’ for the ‘righteousness’ of his party political and factional ideology, the pathological arrogance of a lot of Left political thinking. That is an anti-democratic outrage.

Back in Democracy-land (Govt of the People by the People) the elected House voted 219-197 to declare Obama’s immigration actions “null and void and without legal effect.”   Obama himself described his own potential action as “unlawful” before doing it. 22 times he said that but he’s weasel-worded a 180 degree ‘switch-a-rooney’ to now say it’s ok; brought in his lawyers. So, government by selective lawyers. At first the ‘constitutional professor’ (Obama) said it would be illegal and unconstitutional to take the action he now has, but has since ‘learned’ how wider the powers of the President actually are.  Gee, how convenient. Government by research and autocracy. No wonder he’s attracting the epithets “Emperor” and “King.”


So, this is no longer about Immigration, but the Constitution and Democracy.  Like gun laws, you don’t fight Americans on C and D.  Obama will lose and his ‘presidency’ may unravel. But it gets more serious than that, because this stand-off is potentially tied to the Budget.  The Constitutional debt ceiling (already historically lifted by Obama amidst acrimonious factional debate and stonewalling) expires on 11 Dec. 2014. Current government funding will expire. The House will be disinclined to give the President his way.  It could potentially be a bleak Christmas for government workers.


Moreover, 17 States led by Texas have voted independently to sue the President over the Constitutional legalities of what he is doing (see the States list at the bottom of this post).  That is serious disunity in the Union.  Remember, the breakup of the Union and civil war occurred previously over political policy disagreements (slavery, property rights, State autonomy vs Federal authority, transference, among other complex issues).

A severe issue is the political mismanagement of this.  Obama seems oblivious to the budgetary and political consequences of his immigration autocracy, and that implications would inevitably flow like falling dominoes for contravening the Constitution and slapping Congress in the face. Did he not understand that of course the majority Republican House would want to leverage the Budget issues against his unprecedented contempt over immigration policy?  Wakeup Mr President; do you not understand how politics works?

The 113th Senate must also pass this House “null and void” bill (and may not); the White House has already said it will veto the House bill (to block the immigration initiative).  So, this is war.

The difficulty for many Republicans, is the backwash against them if they stonewall the government flow of money, as it hits many Americans in the pocket (government workers).  So, short-term pain for long-term Constitutional and Democracy principal and politics? It’s a risk. Some Repub.s want to delay the Immigration fight until 2015 (when there will be both a Republican House and Republican Senate majority).  Makes sense.

[Note: Despite the recent 2014 mid-term elections during the 113th Congress which gave the Republicans a majority in both wings of Congress, the 114th Congress does not ‘meet’ in Washington DC until 3 January 2015. Until then, the 113th Congress continues, a bit like our Parliaments, until they are sworn in. (Recall the constitutional crisis over currency devaluation between the outgoing Muldoon administration and the incoming Lange 4th Labour government? [the 40th-41st NZ parliaments]).

My pick is the House bill will not get Senate support, but it will sound a warning to the Obama presidency that will galvanise the 17 States pursuing legal suits against him over the Constitution.  Then in early 2015, the Republicans will rally and engage their President in an almighty Constitutional scrap (Senate & House) over their system of government. It will be a challenge for the 2016 presidential runners, and surely, will play trump cards to the Republican nominees, presenting hustings themes of the highest order to American minds (Constitution, Democracy, Federal Power, Monarchy vs Presidents,  etc. You can hear the booming stump speeches already). Hillary Clinton, if selected, will be drowned out in the greater debate.

The federal lawsuit against President Obama, includes: Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin. 

~ John Stringer.


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Review: Interstellar (2014)

November 23rd, 2014 at 9:00 am by Kokila Patel

By John Stringer

80KoreaPic copy

Went and saw this last night, it was definitely on my list of new releases to see on the big screen, butFury won out first (Review: Fury (Brad Pitt) the Tank movie 2014) and I think I made the right choice despite very good reviews across the board.

I’m not quite sure how to feel about this movie, so let’s cut to the building blocks.

81KoreaPic copy

Lead man is Matthew McConaughey (Cooper) well-known to all of us but not really a big star (U-571etc). This is perhaps his biggest break since Sahara 2005 when he was also the lead.  A restrained, square-jaw, McC is undisputedly manly but does he have the gravitas to carry-it-off? Just I think, as an interstellar pilot.  He’s a reprise of Keir Dullea (Dr. David Bowman) of the 1968 classic 2001:Space Odyssey and this film is essentially an oblique rework. It even has HAL 9000s in the form of “Case” and “Tars” coolOdyssey monolith-esque walking talking robot jenga blocks.

Lead woman is Anne Hathaway and ever since her AMAZING piece in Les Miserables is just legend! We also have Michael Caine, John Lithgow (Third Rock from the Sun, appropriately), Ellen Burstyn (The Five People You Meet in Heaven,appropriately) and Matt Damon makes an unexpected mid-way appearance.  Wes Bentley (Seneca Crane of Hunger Games, and the creepy kid in American Beauty) is a crew member. Produced and directed by the UK Nolan brothers; Chris Nolan made his big break with Batman Begins, same year as Sahara.

The synopsis is a team of explorers travel through a wormhole near Saturn, put there by“them” in an attempt to lead us to a potentially habitable planet that will sustain humanity. “We were never meant to stay here, but to leave.” Things are bad on earth. There is a subplot of the Great Depression Dust Bowl, and the movie even has vox pop video records of actual people talking about that experience but appropriated to the current.

And we get lots of fields of corn, ala Signs (Gibson) and Field of Dreams (Cosner). What is it with corn fields (is it the crop circles)? There’s even a great chasing through the corn fields as per North By North West.  So, several classical movie allusions hidden in here.

Here’s the trailer…

There is a very cool unexpected tsunami scene. I liked too, that since things ‘collapsed,’ drones from India have continued flying for decades powered by solar panels, and occasionally come down.  Cooper ‘grabs’ them using his laptop and harvests their solar units to run his combine harvesters (frustrated farmer-astronaut).  There is also a great piece during the Parent-Teacher interview, when “Murph” the daughter is scolded and gets into a fight for believing the Apollo Moon missions were not a faked conspiracy to bankrupt the Russians into space exploration and expense, now Educational dogma. Space Jock daddy ain’t havin’ that (Unbelievers! …Ah well, back to farm).

The movie tantalizingly does not set us in an era; there’s no opener “Earth: 2034.” Gramps Lithgow recalls the late 20th century, people still drive pickups, there were wars over food. Crops have progressive blights and are failing. “We still have corn, but that too will die.”Most people are farmers.  The earth population is much reduced. NASA has secretly survived, hidden away.  So, perhaps mid 21st century ( 2050?) but it does not pinpoint it for us.  Because this movie slides Time all over the place.

Great special effects, spacescapes, craft, cryogenic freezing, robots, but this movie is a philosophical piece inside the capsules and on icy planets with great views, and so has more humanity and monologues of interest than Gravity had, which was visually spectacular but just lacked the human element. This movie has a good blend of both and the second half is better than the first.

We get lectured about time continuums and poltergeists, gravity as a communication tool transcending time for Beings in a fifth dimension, and all that pseudoscientific gumph. Michael Caine has a lifetime full of blackboards covered in real maths; science and maths as the Hope of humanity. Except mid-mission Anne Hathaway introduces Love.  Maybe love is what should decide what choices we make, isn’t that core to humanity, maybe that’s what things are really all about? Ya’ think? Gee, all that time I waisted on that PhD.

And of course McC (Cooper) is sighing and crying the whole time about his abandoned family back home in the dust, starving, and “Murph” his daughter who daddy promised to come back to. A grudge held across time and space and a whole lifetime. That’s gotta suck.

The movie holds together, with a great climax into a time conundrum reminiscent of the psychedelic Space Odyssey finale, but better explained.

But I’m not sure how I feel about it. I loved the Dr Who time gymnastics (they have to make decisions that will cost them back on earth (if they ever get back)…”every hour we spent here is seven back on earth.”  So they work fast, to get back to family before they die or are as old as they are now.

Some poignant TV video logs to eachother over time, pics of babies coming and going, people aging, as the crew just stay the same, and a tear jerker at the end between Cooper and Murph (no spoiler).

But there were too many implausible bits that jarred.  The crew bar one descend to ahopeful planet leaving the black guy behind to scramble data over the relative longer time and try and learn something about gravity to help the NASA team back on earth. When the crew finally make it back to the ship, well black guy has been there alone for 23 years.  Same with Matt Damon, who has lived an eternity alone on a space rock; and at the end, Anne Hathaway, playing house all by herself for eons.  It just doesn’t wash. People go mad that alone.  What do they do for decades, play Solitaire?

After 23 years Cooper just brushes past the black crew member and doesn’t even say hello. Callous as a comet core. Racism and ageism in space?

And the ending is unresolved, a bit like Space Odyssey.  It felt rushed. Gee, we’ve run out of time in a time movie. The sub plot around the son is simply abandoned, we see him no more. Why all the earlier development and angst? Murph dismisses Cooper, “I’ve got my children around me now.”  Hello?  A lifetime apart, not knowing if he was alive, you’d want a chat and cup of tea, maybe a Mackers, yeah?  Nup. “You belong up there, in the stars..GO!” Man alone in the sunsets stuff.  Saving family by leaving.

Some overly loud sudden crescendos of classical music (I suppose to mirror Odyssey’sfamous sound track of the Blue Danube?).

Overall I enjoyed this. The characters are excellent and the dust threat on earth interesting.  The NASA conspiracy is believable, but once we get out there in time continuums and bouncing off black holes, and breathing pure ammonia, well, the science and attempt to be ‘believable’ lost me. But, a good addition to the sci fi stable this season.  I preferred the story and action of Tom Cruise’s latest outings Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow; and Prometheus; and Gravity.

7/10 stars plus a black hole from me.

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Part 8 GANGNAM Style: Visiting North & South Korea 2014

November 10th, 2014 at 10:00 am by Kokila Patel

By John Stringer

FinalTanks, Planes, Temples and some LoTR Southron Warriors

Hauling back to Seoul and Incheon from the JSA and the DMZ on the border with North Korea, it was back in to the streets.  I really like this picture, which for me sums up so much that is South Korea.

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After the official tours, we took a guerilla tour of our own through some of the back streets, and got lost, to see how real South Koreans live. I really enjoyed this.  Lost down catacombs of chaotic streets laden with produce, boxes, and the detritus of enterprise, we were stared at, but discovered a cloistered, cozy, close-living vibrant community.  People live close together, this is a major urban center after all, but there was a sense of village that our central NZ cities do not have to the same degree.

I’ve mentioned and photographed many of the more humourous Engerish oddities.  A visitor to Korea may be flummoxed by this, as well as the various ‘nazi’ flags flying on buildings. These of course denote temples or places of historic significance, and are actually a very ancient peace symbol (present as wall tiles for example, in the Christ Church Cathedral).  If you know your nazi symbols, you’llrealise the arms are actually in different orientations (inverted) than that used by Hitler and Co. But still, a bit disconcerting if you are uninformed.

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Being from Christchurch and having some responsibility for the Container Mall, I was surprised to come across this urban Police Station IN A SHIPPING CONTAINER.  “Snap!”

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These cool sculptures represent each of the months of the year. And en route, there is this red button on the subway.  Not a Nuclear Apocalypse reset button, but it does say “Do not lean on this button, Emergency Train Stop” which in New Zealand would just be too tempting.  Not in Korea, where people are most obedient of official imperatives.

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Wherever you go on the South side, there is a very real commitment to the ultimate re-unification of the Korean peoples. Signs like this are indicative, expressing the sentiment.

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Korea is of course an ancient culture, so they have wonderful architecture (both ancient and modern). We came across these scarlet traditional warriors, which reminded me of Southrons (Haradrim) from Lord of the Rings (see here: Wouldn’t like to cross them: Kung Fu, Tae Kwon-Do and other martial arts, most likely, and they’d all do well in ‘Mouvember.’ But if those dudes are too scary, there’s always the Blues Brothers behind them.

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Because of the Korean War that New Zealand soldiers participated in, we went to the Memorial Hall for Incheon Landing Operation that celebrates the support of Americans and other nations for South Korea, particularly the First Marine Division.

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This is one of the planes used in the Korean War, set in a garden.  You can climb right up to the cockpit, where you meet this…dummy.

The museum has great arches, steep stairtcases and alleyways which lead to dramatic sculptures and memorials. It is a very steep layered complex, with some precipitous drops, dangerous for children or energetic teenagers, that would never be allowed in New Zealand.

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The Koreans feel quite passionately about the Americans actually putting ‘boots-on-the-ground,’ something very non-PC these days (so ISIS is allowed to murder, rape, torture and massacre its way through children, women and innocent men. But that’s another story).

These steps for example lead to this, a huge bronze sculpture of the landing American soldiers (thus the name of the museum park) backed by a massive sculptural wall carved in relief (which you can see behind it).

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Some more hardware, parked throughout the campus.

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To the left of this amphibious Buffalo armoured vehicle, you can see the New Zealand flag (3rd from left).

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and third from the right, the Australian flag.

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This is an American M24 Chaffee tank.

As mentioned in Part 1, this was my first trip to Asia.  It was great, exciting, different, dynamic, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the sharing of the journey. But it’s always good to get back to New Zealand, the best place in the world.  Let’s hope DPF is not eaten by a Cayman or catches gets of those urethra fish while he’s up the Amazon without a paddle.  Jal itsuh.

~ JS.

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Part 7 GANGNAM Style: Visiting North & South Korea 2014

November 9th, 2014 at 10:00 am by Kokila Patel

By John Stringer

The Axe Murder Incident & A Bong on the Border

Before leaving the JSA (Joint Security Area), a post on the notorious Axe Murder Incident.  As mentioned, tourists have been killed in the JSA.  In 1976 there was a very serious incident that almost re-ignited the Korean War.

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Within the JSA stood a large poplar tree on the South side that blocked the South’s view of various points within the JSA ‘corral’ (OP 5 and UNC CP3).  In terms of preparedness for a sudden surge from the North (they have a barracks on site, and build tunnels into South Korea) this need for an unobstructed view is understood.

At UNC CP 3 there is a guard and the site sits next to the Demarcation Line. It is described by the on site troops as “the loneliest place in the world.”  Regular JSA site pruning and trimming was accepted by both sides and had been carried out without incident over the years. However, this area was often walked around by Korean guards as they looped around from their side via the Bridge of No Return and to the Barracks.  So, perhaps in one sense they came to accept it as ‘North Korean territory.’ At least the branches that spread out over on to their side.

Four UNC guards and six South Korean Service Corps began some routine cutting. They were questioned by a North Korean guard, who told them to leave the tree alone. Normal procedure would be for either side to call an immediate on-the-spot Security Officers Meeting in the conference room, but the North did not do so, nor lodge a protest.

Because the North had expressed interest in the tree, the South commander organised an additional ten security staff and put in place a number of other reasonable precautions, including cameras.  The workers had arrived at 10.30am to do the work. Ten North Koreans arrived and were briefed on the work.  20 minutes later, the North officer ordered the South to stop working.

The work continued. He took off his watch, wrapped it in a handkerchief, placed it in his pocket, and yelled “Kill the Americans.”

The North Koreans grabbed the workers’ axes in the and around the tree and targeted the two American officers nearby who immediately went down.  One of the workers drove the truck in front to try and protect the mutilated body of Cpt. Boniface.  This broke the momentum and the North Koreans scrambled back across the Bridge of No Return but not before Cpt Boniface and Lt Barrett had been hacked to death.

The incident escalated tensions, military assets were scrambled, and tensions rose.

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A few days later, several S. Korean and American units formed a ring around the tree (Operation Bunyan) and Engineers cut the poplar down limb by limb. The soldiers were told to defend themselves if attacked.  A number of back-up units were positioned in a chain outside the JSA, for immediate backup and assistance if things went sour.  The Bridge of No Return was blocked by a truck. The delicate issues were eventually resolved at a Joint Military Armistice meeting. But this tree came close to sparking WW III.

You pass this site on a tour of the JSA.

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Operation Paul Bunyan, 1976, and the trimming and final felling of the poplar tree, which took almost an hour amidst highly strained international tension.

Leaving the JSA and back to the Dora Observatory and military base (see Part 4) below. You can see the viewing platform at the far left.

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And some military hardware, as well as this man having a surreptitious bong, in the carpark.

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With one of the Observation Post guards at Dora.

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South Korean ROC at Dora. Cool guns.

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And finally, the view from the balcony towards North Korea and I think the Kaesong Industrial Complex (NK).

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Next time, Final (Part 8): Tanks, Planes, Temples and some LoTR Southron Warriors.


Review: Still Mine (DVD) 2012

November 2nd, 2014 at 10:00 am by Kokila Patel

By John Stringer


I watched this relatively new film (2012) on DVD with an old friend yesterday.  It stars James Cromwell (Farmer Hoggett, Babe; LA Confidential etc) who I love, and Denevieve Bujold who was new to me.

Cromwell is Craig Morrison, a tall, proud, wiry 89-year-old New Brunswick (Canada) traditional farmer.  His strawberries are no longer wanted, because they must now (due to bureaucracy) be delivered in refrigerated trucks.  He can’t afford that. “They were on plants 2 hours ago.”

Bujold is Anne his wife of over 60 years. She begins to suffer from early onset Alzheimers and starts smoking again, for example, after 50 years, and forgetting basic things.  This was therefore a very poignant film for me. See…

The title STILL MINE I think refers to his wife and marriage, but also his retaining his honour and credibility as a master craftsman in the face of bewildering and oppressive modern rules, and managing to build a new home on his land for Anne (a bit like Noah inThe Notebook). It is a blend of The Notebook and Man Alone vs the State.  It is beautifully filmed, with lovely colour vistas and the sensitivity to humanity, family and relationships Canadian films do so well.

The plot revolves around his building a new, smaller house, after his wife falls down the stairs.  But bureaucracy hinders him.  So, we have this proud gritty resistance set against the time delays of bureaucracy and modernity. There is also a lovely Babe Ruth baseball sideline.

If you liked the scene, “That’ll do Pig. That’ll do” from Babe, you’ll love this, especially when Craig goes to the funeral of an old community friend.  Craig Morrison has the same single determination and self-respect as Farmer Hoggett.

Life-long friends die, the community rolls timelessly along, except that change (modern rules around lumber, farming and building – Craig was taught building by his shipwright craftsman father.  Houses in the area are still standing 200 years on), and his wife’s failing memory and their changing relationship.

This is a wonderful movie.  It deals with aging, and the humanity of decrepitude.  There is passion, love, frustration, anger,disconnection (with his adult children). There are no easy answers, just a story of courage and the nobility of facing death and decline with human dignity.

This was great, and I’d recommend all young people view it in schools, because it’s about aging, which faces us all.  This is a perfect film for a wholesome audience, your kids, a chick flick, but also a great date night DVD.  Watch it,  8/10.

Here’s a clip.

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Review “Fury” (Brad Pitt) the Tank movie 2014

October 27th, 2014 at 9:59 am by Kokila Patel

By John Stringer

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FURY opened on Friday and I went to the premier.  I really enjoyed this movie and give it 9/10 stars. It is directed by David Ayer of Fast and the Furious (2001).

Spoiler Alerts.

Set in April 1945 as the war is drawing to a close, Bratt Pitt, the Sgt commander of a US A4 Sherman tank crew, has been “killing Germans first in Africa, then in France, now in Germany…It’ll be over soon, but before then Norman, a whole lota more people gotta die.”

The Allies are making their final push towards heartland Germany but encountering dogged resistance every step forward, so the merciless killing escalates. The film actually opens with a txt on black…“In WW II American tank crews were out gunned and out armoured, and suffered greatly at the hands of superior German technology” or words to that effect. Ok, that pretty much sets the scene for us.

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This is a grimier, dirtier, more ghastly portrayal of war, especially tank warfare, than Saving Private Ryan 1998 (Tom Hanks). It’s more in common with Enemy At the Gates 2001 (about Stalingrad with Ed Harris, Jude Law). But it’s a quality addition to the WW II war movie genre. It’s about the traumatised men: their numbness, shock, endurance, and tenacity.

Brad Pitt plays a battle-hardened tank sergeant (Sgt. Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier) commanding a M4 Sherman tank and her five-man crew (2nd Armoured Division). They are out-numbered, out-gunned, and have a rookie soldier thrust into their platoon who was trained to type 60-word- a-minute.  His first task is to literally scrape the face of his predecessor off the inside wall of “Fury,” the tank, their “home.”  He vomits.  The bucket of cold water just smears the blood everywhere.

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Clockwise left to right: 1) Navigator radio op. Boyd ‘Bible’ (arya saved?) Swan; 2) asst. driver the greenhorn Norman; senior driver ‘Gordo’ Garcia, Sgt Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, and the sinister brute gunner Grady ‘Coon-ass’ Travis.

The gunner is a volatile menacing moldy-teethed brute called Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis played by Jon Bernthal, better known to us as Rick’s family friend Shane in Walking Dead 2 whom he was forced to murder at the end of the season.  Then there’s Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan, a weeping, smoking “are you saved” Christian with doe eyes (Shie LaBeouf). Latino Michael Pena plays ‘Gordo’ Garcia the all-important driver, and “Norman” is the rookie assistant driver and machine gun operator who goes to church.

There’s lots of philosophical jostling about war, life and death.  “Boys, God says we can kill ‘em but not screw ‘em!” There is a facetious tank crew motto, “Best job I ever had.”

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This would be their tank shoulder patch [the 2nd Armoured Div] and you glimpse it occasionally in the movie.

The 2nd Armoured Division crew are advancing with the 66th Armored Regiment in a normal platoon of four tanks. Pitt’s 5-man team is the only crew to have come through together since D-Day.  Pitt has the usual head-holding stress attacks like Cpt John Miller of Private Ryan (Tom Hanks) about losing men, but hides it. But you can see it in his eyes.  Nevertheless he’s ruthless, cynical, hard-bitten, and will do whatever he has to keep himself and his men alive. This includes ‘blooding’ Norman in to shooting a German prisoner in the back.  “It’s you or him…you gonna get me killed Norman?…shoot him.  Do your job.”


There’s no Cpt. Miller letting Germans go in this movie and Pitt rips up the Germans family photos before he’s shot.  This is tough love and the raw morality of the jungle.

Norman resists and, a church goer, tries to hold on to his humanity, but as they pass power poles with children hanging from them and other SS atrocities, this incongruity is evoked.  His ‘humanity’ risks the lives of his crew-members and when he acts too slowly, a tank crew is hit in front of them and a tanker burns to death.  “That’s your fault Norman, that’s on you, you see what you did? Do your job!” They are, lirerally, a killing machine and must not falter.


Some great scenes in this film.  A highlight is their encounter with a much-feared Panzer VI (Tiger I) tank which ambushes their 4 tank platoon and “boils up” three (men roasted alive) while Pitt and “Fury” charge it to get around behind it and pierce the back armour.  Their missiles bounce helplessly off.  It takes composure and nerve while their mates are being blown to literal roasted pieces around them. High stress white knuckle stuff.


This is the best tank duel I’ve seen on screen.  It is fierce, deadly, nerve-wracking and desperate. You get how vulnerable, scared cr**pless the tankers must have been up against a Tiger, and how utterly brave they all were. The American attrition rate was catastrophic.

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Two of my own 1/72 painted WW II models. I have four 3-tank platoons of Tigers (top) and about 40 Shermans (right); about the right ratio for a fair duel.

The Tiger was actually the first German tank to be captured by the Allies.  There is only one working Tiger left in the world today. Some sobering statistics: it took ultimately several thousand Shermansto wipe out 1500 Tigers (each tank has a crew of 5).  Shermans were a piece of tin against a better-designed, harder-hitting, longer-range metal monster.  It would normally take 4 or 5 Shermans to take out a Tiger, which is why it was feared so much.  The Russians simply mobbed them with T34s.  There are supposed to be no more Tigers left, but Pitt’s platoon is ambushed by one.

I really like how the CGI is done for the armour-piercing rounds.  It’s so violent, so fast, so total in its devastation. Like lasers of death.

Another great scene, is after a battle and the US Army haven take a town.  Pitt and Norman go upstairs and connect with two German civilian women. It is tense with suggested occupier rights to imminent rape, but Pitt intervenes with some eggs he’s found and asks for them to be cooked (women as cooks rather than rape victims). There is some piano playing and singing, a sanctuary of civilisation in this otherwise ghastly hell-hole. Until the other crew-members arrive.

before they arrive, young Norman takes the younger women in the back room (Sgt Collier: “If you don’t take that healthy lookin’ girl in back, I will!”).  When the older German woman tries to intervene, Pitt says forcefully, “Nein!  …They are young, and alive.” (ie, let them be).

But belligerence arrives emphasized by some discordant gorilla bashing on the piano in contrast to Norman’s previous playing by the other tank crew-members as Pitt attempts to preserve this small island of normality centered around the poached eggs. (Sarcastically) “Oo, it must be Norrr-man day.” “You weren’t there in France Norman.  You like horses? It took us three days to shoot all demhorses…the swarms of flies were like fog.”

In this scene we also see that Pitt’s back is completely burned.  However, the war calls, and they have to press on.  It is reminiscent of the little French girl scene and her parents in the sniper incident in Private Ryan. Good people die.

The film comes to an almighty climax, as Pitt’s platoon is ordered to hold a cross roads to stop an unknown German troop getting around the side.  3 of the 4 tanks are knocked out en route by the Tiger, but Fury decides to go anyway and hold the cross roads alone. Their track gets blown off and they are immobilised.  Then a crack SS Panzer Grenadier troop (“maybe 2 or 300 hundred”) with tracked vehicles advances down the road toward them on dusk.

They disguise the tank with a burning German and other debris and set a point blank ambush. All hell breaks loose and it is a sustained and dramatic finale to an excellent movie.

One brickbat (Spoiler). When some Germans finally get two stick grenades inside to finish off a dying sniper-riddled Pitt, they explode. But when Norman crawls back inside through the floor hatch, Pitt is not minced all over the interior of the hull, as he should have been. I deleted one star from 10 for that. I guess Pitt is too pretty for that.

The action is dramatic and riveting.  The characters are solid. I especially liked the interplay between several of them about theology and in the end when Pitt surprisingly quotes Isaiah 6 back at ‘Bible’ Swan.  Like Pitt, I knew the reference, which was gratifying. This recalls Cpt Miller and the secret of his pre-war vocation (English teacher) among his platoon.  Perhaps Pitt was a minister or something before the war and has hidden it to be a killing machine to keep his men alive. It surprises ‘Bible’ Swan. Later he does the same when he’s shot and dying, quoting scripture to Norman. So there is a strong tilt to the redemptive qualities of Christianity in terms of duty, death, and redemption in this movie. This is contextual and valid in the context of WW II American soldiers.

But it is not clean.  Human flesh is squashed indiscernibly into the mud. Heads and limbs get blown off and people rejoice in their killing.  I also appreciated this is not American 100 bad guys shot to every 1 good guy Gun-ho. No, this is more realistic. Americans are out-gunned. They die.  No nationalist propaganda here, just the cruel hard, soul-destroying realities of tank warfare in the mud of 1945 German fields and towns with Tigers prowling around.

Some great lines in the movie:

“Norman, ideas are peaceful, history is violent.”

“Ya see that Norman?  That is a city on fire.”

Some visuals I enjoyed: the grimey mud and subdued palette of the film without drawing too much attention to itself; the small round tanker rock climber helmets they wear, which are a bit dorky, but utilitarian and for me, juxtapose the heroic male coolness factor. Just men doing the hard stuff.  I liked the look.

I totally recommend this film, especially for the blokes. To conclude, I can’t leave you without this commentary and the Tiger fight scene (spoiler).

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Part 6 GANGNAM Style: Visiting North & South Korea 2014

October 27th, 2014 at 9:00 am by Kokila Patel

By John Stringer

Typical shopping plaza in South Korea (Incheon) that at night transforms to a Times Square-type neon tapestry. And some more of that modern architecture I mentioned.

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Back to the JSA.  So, this is where the two Korean borders converge inside the DMZ. The Joint Security Area is the only portion of the Korean Demilitarized Zone where South and North Korean forces stand face-to-face and ‘share’ an enclosed area that straddles both countries. For this reason it is often called the “Truce Village” by the media and the military or as I call it the Standoff OK Corral.

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North Korea is above the red MDL line (Military Demarcation Line) which transects the blue conference rooms. The House of Freedomis the main gathering building for South tourists with the curved roof (photo below) across which is the Panmon Hall or Tongilgak I think it is also called. Behind that is a North barracks which is why this area is so tense.  It could be overrun quite easily, which would essentially cause a war.  Note that there are lots of access roads on the North side up to the MDL, but hardly any on the South, which identifies the respective intents.

The MDL line is demarcated by a series of white 1m high wooden posts set at 10m intervals so that the boundary is unequivocal.  The post line extends between the blue conference rooms as a concrete sill, which you can see in the photos. Inside those buildings, the space becomes ‘shared’ but the north half is seen as North Korean, etc.

The JSA is used by the two Koreas for diplomatic meetings and, until March 1991, was also the site of military negotiations between North Korea and the United Nations Command (UNC). Troops and even past Koreans leaders have actually met here, to agree terms, set boundaries and protocols.  For example, North & South Korean troops met and mingled while inspecting open casket repatriations of UN troops in 1993.  In the conference rooms, the respective parties meet turn and turn about (ie they have turns to call a meeting) to discuss minor armistice violations, various admin., and the Olympics. There are two representatives of the Chinese army present.  Only the senior officer of the calling side speaks.  A statement is read first in Korean, then English, then Chinese.  These meetings are extremely formal, often hostile and always unfriendly.  There are no mutual greetings or handshakes.

I asked why some of the South side soldiers stand half obscured behind the buildings.  This is to present only half a target in case of a sudden attack, ie at least two soldiers might remain to defend the MDL.  This indicates how hazardous this duty is.

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In this photo is the North Korean Tongilgak white building at the back. Note in this older photo it has only two stories. The concrete ‘post’ sill runs left to right immediately behind the brown soft hat North Korean with his back to us.

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In our photo 2014 you can see the North Koreans have added a third story, apparently a recreation room. But it is hardly ever used, sitting there simply to be higher than the South Korean Freedom House (see below).

The blue buildings are conference rooms and management rooms where officials from both sides can meet.  For example, the two security forces for the JSA meet in the blue building to the right to discuss tensions and incidents in an attempt to diffuse issues.  Despite being very formal and not friendly, it seems to work.  The blue building to the left is the conference room and we move single file in to here under strict behaviour instructions and with an armed guard.  The 38th parallel goes right through this building and even the central table, so half is North Korea.  There is a door on their side that is locked from the outside.  South Korea has a door on their side, also locked from the outside.  At agreed periods, each side can bring their tourists in to this conference room where a number of high level meetings have taken place, but never together.

Note the number of windows, 3 for each side and one in the middle which is neutral. If you were to escape to either side, this is the place and there have been attempts. There was a gunfight when a man fled from the North side over to South Korea.  He dropped into a sunken garden area (before the current complexes were built) and there was a gun fight.

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The door to North Korea. The ROK soldier stands guard on the North Korean side of the room, during their allocated inhabitation period.

Inside the conference room, which is bright sky blue, are mahogany tables and chairs.  Its quite cramped and only really for conferences, rather than tourists cramming in.  But its fascinating being in here and standing ‘over the line’ on the North Korean side.

This obscenity actually explains a lot about North Korea.  For them, much of the division is about their mana.  They want everything equal and even minor imbalances are seen as threatening their fragile sense of nationhood (ala the Axe Murder Incident, more later) or cultural self esteem.

Take North Korea’s big white Tongilgak/Panmon Hall behind.  It used to be only two levels, but when the JSA nations put some communications stuff on their roof, which made it slightly higher, well the North Koreans immediately built that whole third floor, simply to be “higher” than South Korea.

Below is what the view is from the North side.  You can see the communications installations covered over by the curved roof, Freedom House.  You stand between the two central pillars and then move into one of the buildings in front on the right hand side.

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Leaving the Standoff OK Corral we take a short bus ride around the rest of Punganuk and pass a North Korean town a short distance away that can be glimpsed through the trees. This is Daeseong-dong. The West has a large flag pole at the JSA, so the North Koreans came in and built this massive obscene flagpole and hung a gigantic flag from the top at Dong, to be “bigger” than South Korea.  In both cases, the West has not responded tit for tat, content to allow the North Koreans to feel they are ‘superior’ by peeing higher up the wall. You can see it quite clearly through the trees, a forbidden zone, untouchable fruit, with its hideous flag fluttering above them.

I can’t help but think about Orwell’s 1984, and what life must be like for people living in this rather run down grimy village so close to the liberty and freedoms of the West.  If only they knew.  I suspect only the most “politically correct” people (with family hostages elsewhere) are allowed to farm here.

As we drive around this area, we are strictly forbidden to take photos of towers and aerial installations, etc. The whole visit is very sobering and you can sense the tension. Then we come to the spot where some tree pruning became violent and fatal.

Next time: The Axe Murder Incident.


Part 5 GANGNAM Style: Visiting North & South Korea 2014

October 25th, 2014 at 9:00 am by Kokila Patel

by John Sringer

Before we get to the intensity of the Joint Security Zone, some more humourous Engerish.  Off Springs 2 and 3 outside the ‘Sodomy‘ restaurant or is it “Soda Me”? Then there’s Kolon Sport and the Gimpo Bridge.

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North Korea sponsors about 9000 carefully managed tourists a year from the north side through China.  To visit North Korea from the South side, the only way is at Panmunjeom via the Dorasan loop and Imjingak (see Part 3 & 4) facilities “on the road to Panmunjeom.”  But to actually go in to North Korea other than through Tunnel 3 in the DMZ, you have to visit the Joint Security Area and Camp Boniface.

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Here’s a map that helps get your head around the set up.  We are in the DMZ that bisects North & South Korea along the 38th parallel.  We’ve travelled by bus from Seoul to the Dorasan Observatory, Imjingak and through Tunnel 3 inside the DMZ.

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Now we’re off to the Panmungak (complex) at Panmunjeom. There are lots of names, and it’s a bit bewildering how they all inter-relate.

New Zealand was a signatory and founding member of this initiative, so, like the UN, our flag flies onsite and we occassionally have personnel posted here as part of the joint initiative, ie, the West verse North Korea.  NZ was of course active in the Korean war. Camp Boniface is the military base and its slogan is “In Front of them All.”

We pull in to the parking area of the Panmaungak. This is the Joint Duty Office (JDO) of the KPA/CPV in the JSA.  The UN and military obviously love acronyms. We are taken into a briefing auditorium.  There is a clunky propagandist short war movie that explains the essential facts, and then we are told, in no uncertain terms, that as we go into the JSA we must never point at the north side or the soldiers, be respectful, not make sudden movements, and stay strictly within the clearly designated areas.

At one point SkyGoddess is sternly told to stop gregarious gesticulation by HusbandOfAppropriateMoments (akaHeWhoMustBeObeyedThisOnce). A woman who wandered outside these areas was shot and killed by the North Koreans and there have been other incidents involving death. Soberly, we are then given this form to sign.

It’s not every day you waive responsibility for personal “injury or death“…as a result of a “hostile enemy act.” There are one or two spelling mistakes, which I circle before I sign.

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We are escorted the whole time, and our guide is a delightful American Sgt from the midwest.  He is armed, and answers all our appropriate questions. I have a long chat with him afterward about what its like working here. He briefs us that if we run towards North Korea, he will do his best to grab us and pull us back, but if we get across, we are on our own and will have to make the best life we can in North Korea.

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We enter a polished marble hall and there are helmeted UNCSB-ROK soldiers stationed about in a Tae Kwon Do pose, fists clasped.  They stand like this on four hour rosters and are immovable and impervious. They are armed; all we have are special red or blue plastic badges to allow us inside. I surmise blue is for wisdom, red is for ‘Gen Y. can I have some more money.’

Then we’re out onto a dais area where most people view North Korea across a short distance.  Many famous people have some to this point, including the Clintons, Helmet Kohl, Margaret Thatcher, Barack Obama etc.  We are allowed to take photos at certain points. I am on the left, and a bus passenger steps too far to the left and a Tae Kwon Do arm immediately flings out to create a rigid human barrier through which he cannot pass.

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We get a few seconds each to take photos in front of the line.  Its a scary place. You can see this from the expressions of the TwentySomethings who are kinda freaked out by Panmungak.  I tell them their red badges are targets. Panmaungak is like a zoo and we’re looking at the North Koreans.  Except they have guns and can shoot us.  They watch us through binoculars. I wonder if they were befuddled by my Dr Who shirt?

Tomorrow: we cross the line.


Part 4 GANGNAM Style: Visiting North & South Korea 2014

October 23rd, 2014 at 8:59 am by Kokila Patel

By John Stringer

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This trip we had two opportunities to visit North Korea, once over the border, and once through one of the tunnels (now closed, obviously) dug by NK to invade South Korea. It’s important to understand that North & South Korea are buffered by a DMZ – De-Militarised Zone. It’s a narrow strip of no mans land full of mines and fences. There was no peace treaty signed by the two Koreas so technically they are still ‘at war.’ The North vs South fences do not abutt eachother, there’s a wide fenced off neutral zone inbetween. This helps relieve tensions and fatal incidents (more of which later). This area converges together at the famous Joint Security (JSA) Demilitarised Zone which I’ll post on tomorrow.

It is vital to bring a passport or you cannot visit. It’s an early start for us, and at the Incheon subway station en route to Seoul where we’ll catch a bus, it transpires more than one of our party has forgotten to bring theirs. So Male50Something is dispatched at a trot back to the hotel to open various rooms, and safes, and recover missing passports.

Walking through the bus at Seoul, the passports are assiduously checked by serious-minded soldiers. They pause and check your photo against your mug, peering into your face for inherent terrorism. I pull my best ambivalent pacifist look. Anyone without a passport is taken from the bus. Serious stuff.

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The first view of North Korea is across the Han River where it runs into the Yellow Sea. The shoreline is heavily fenced with watchtowers at regular intervals, which makes you feel you are inside a camp. It runs for miles and miles closing off this watery weak spot along the border. You can see this barrier in the left hand corner of this photo returning from the DMZ, which is an exhausting place, zonking out two of our party.

The first bus stop is Imjingak Tourist Park, at Paju, Gyeonggi-do, which bares several scars from the Korean War. It’s the closest borderland to the DMZ and is the hub from which you get to grips with North Korea at the Dora Observatory, Dora Station and the 3rdTunnel.

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This is Imjingak

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Imjingak Park was built so that refugees from North Korea could face the home of their ancestors and pay homage. There’s a viewing platform offering a glimpse of North Korea and it’s also home to the Freedom Bridge, built in 1953 to bring 12,773 prisoners across. You can also see the bullet-ridden train that once ran the railway between North and South Korea. There’s a huge Tibetan-like Freedom Bell. The S.Koreans are deeply committed to peace and unification and have thoughtful memorials and displays like this “Peace Wall” throughout the Imjingak leisure park.

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This interesting artwork is made of rocks collected from different battlefields in 64 nations. It’s a memorial to the futility of war. That’s actually North Korea DMZ behind the wall memorial.

From Imjingak we take the bus to the Dora Observatory and military base. This features a wide walled balcony from which we can observe North Korea across the DMZ.  There is a yellow line, across which you cannot take photos (so you cannot shoot North Korea, and we are advised to strictly follow this protocol). Looking out through the observation binoculars I can see a North Korean man working some rice fields. It is very quiet, no vehicles moving people or activity.  We are told many of the buildings are actually fake (iemovie props).  They can tell this, as the windows do not match the supposed floor laterals.

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But perhaps the highlight at Dora is one of the many North Korea tunnels discovered at this location. No photos are allowed. Before you go in, there is a small museum and we are briefed on how the tunnels were discovered, and why they were made.  There are several interesting artifacts. The wall plaque below shows the discovery.  They are so deep, almost 80m they are very difficult to locate.  Soldiers go in and listen, just like WWI.

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We don hard hats and are taken in to Tunnel 3.  It is 400m long and 76m deep, one of 4 found so far, dug by the North Koreans to attack Seoul from their side

(see map at top). It’s fascinating and eerie. It slopes down and is a long walk.  Quite hard for tall people, as it is Korean size and at 5 ft10” I have to stoop the whole way while walking which is hard work. Try 400m at a crouch.  You totally need the hard had, as the sound of dozens intermittently bashing against the exposed irregular rock ceiling echoes down the narrow corridor cut through solid rock.

It’s quite claustrophobic, so don’t go in if you are in any way anxious.  The walls and ceiling are a rusty coloured rock.  At the very end, we can see drilled holes where explosives were laid by the North Koreans, but most of the tunnel was hand cut. The termination is now a series of concrete chambers.  These sit three deep as bulwarks and one is filled with water.  Our end has an open window in the casement so you can see in for security purposes.

It is a very interesting experience, and technically, we cross over in to North Korea through this violating tunnel, now sealed with concrete bunker rooms. Maps show us the several tunnels attempted by the North (like Hamas into Palestine) through which North Korea intended to amass thousands of troops for a surprise invasion to take Seoul.

So this is quite serious stuff. The South Koreans are consequently very vigilant and continually listening and probing for tunnels.

Next time: The famous Joint Security (JSA) Demilitarised Zone. A really scary place.


GANGNAM Style: Visiting North & South Korea 2014 Part 3

October 22nd, 2014 at 9:00 am by Kokila Patel

By John Stringer

Koreans have a high work ethic and everyone works in Korea, from young to old. This may be because they have a much leaner welfare system than New Zealand [insert ACT policy quotes here]. You see few beggars and bums on the streets of Korea and lots of ancient grandparents minding family shops.

Which brings me to the bowing.  Korea is structured with social customs that EVERYONE honours.  A senior person is always deferred to (which had implications for Korean aircraft safety and protocols and prompted changes to inflight cockpit systems across all airlines. Co-pilots and junior staff had to be trained to question senior pilot decisions). For example, a younger person will always nod and use both hands to an older person, and serve them food or a drink, never in reverse.  An older person would only use one hand to reciprocate to a younger person, etc. This creates widespread respect and social cohesion between the generations, something we completely lack in urban NZ.

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Note the tiny cart underneath which will be pushed by an elderly person.

As an example of the work ethic, there appears to be a civil recycling system in the city, whereby businesses put all their clean rubbish outside, and an army of people come with little push trailers to collect it up. No sooner is it out, than it’s gone. I saw one man unpacking a fridge for his shop, and an elderly woman standing there waiting for the box. The army of collectors take it to numerous small back alley sorting yards on every other block, discretely tucked out of sight, where they sort it all by hand, and obviously sell the material.

We saw this in operation in a back alley self tour we took through the catacombs of Incheon to see what the city was really like for ordinary people. This process cuts down the need for rubbish trucks in the streets, which would be problematic. (Actually, a bus became cast down a sloping alley close to our hotel. Pretty funny observing the extrication). For the load you can see pictured, a person would receive a few dollars. These workers are often elderly people, perhaps without sons or daughters to support them. It’s a win-win system focused on people and their need to work and support themselves, keep the streets freer of trucks etc., and distributes recyclables locally. Again, an evolved social efficiency. Despite this, Incheon still has a litter problem.

Generally Korea is pretty clean and tidy, but quite badly littered in big public spaces (I guess just because there are so many people). But you do observe constant street sweeping with Harry Potter brooms by random people and shop owners.

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We saw only two ‘street people’ the whole time we were here. I think this is because Koreans are prepared to work and are less lazy than some Kiwis. I met this man in a Methodist Park dedicated to John Wesley and gave him some money. He was most appreciative and humble. None of the demanding attitude I meet quite often among NZ homeless persons who have a sense of entitlement.

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Prices and currency comparisons are easy in Korea. It’s Won 000s to the NZ $1, so $50,000 Won is $50 NZ Kiwis. Easy peasy when shopping and comparing. It’ll cost you about $20 for a full night out, drinks incl. which because of the number of restaurants, is much cheaper than in NZ.

I tried these silk worm bug casings (below). They are actually very nice. Also, periwinkle type shells – suck out the cooked thingy inside. Also very nice.

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Incheon is full of tall pack-‘em-in-sardine-style apartment buildings, and we noticed they are numbered 101 etc.  This helped us not to get lost, until we did, and then realised EVERY apartment skyscraper on every lock is numbered 101, 102 etc. So, that didn’t help. Despite a lot of utilitarian Soviet-style residential stacks, Incheon has some welcome modern architecture. I also like how the Koreans take a little time and not much expense, to paint the underbelly of their over bridges, so life at street level is a little more pleasant than Soviet concrete. A good idea for Christchurch. Such a simple inexpensive idea.

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Like London and NY, Incheon and Seoul are, by necessity, cities of subways. This is something Len Brown is attempting, but it’s simply too expensive for New Zealand. The subways are easily negotiated in a different language, are efficient, and very clean. But note your routes and take smart phone pics of your relevant stations.  You also need to talk to someone about the fare cards, how to top ‘em up at the machines, otherwise you’ll get marooned inside the labyrinths.  Best to travel in a pair or more, so you can hand back an access barrier card if your partner’s barrier pass has expired.  Problematic for us a few times.

Following a subway ride to Seoul it is a long bus ride to the North Korean border and the DMZ.  The pickup is a large square in Seoul, and while we were there, there were large memorials to the horrific ferry tragedy a few days earlier.  The outpouring of concern and care was very moving, and Koreans perhaps engage with such issues as much for the humanity as ‘correcting’ Korean mana, apologising and restoring balance.  For example, I went over and spoke to some police officers, but they did not want to be photographed with the ferry memorials in the background.

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The border with North Korea is scary.  This pic sets the tone.  More next time as we cross the border….



Part 2. GANGNAM Style: Visiting North & South Korea 2014

October 20th, 2014 at 9:00 am by Kokila Patel

By John Stringer

As mentioned last time… 

“Hilarimouse Engerish abounds.” Not wishing to be superior or disparaging but it is humorous seeing Engerish featuring so prominently across South Korea, such as the brightly neon-lit SODOMIA Hotel on Rodeo Street or the Queen’s Room. And it’s near cousins…

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 But at least there is “happymoney.”
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Hauling in to Incheon International Airportfrom Christchurch, the first thing I noticed was how QUIET everyone disgorging from the plane into the Incheon cattle yards are.  A large hall full of sardines, and EVERYONE is silent, respectful.  This seemed very unusual to me.  In European or American contexts, people would be chatting and talking. Not here. It appears to be a public mindset I suspect a survival instinct in a society so full of people.
I really like Incheon airport.  It is spacious, well-lit, caters to people, and has won several awards.  The architecture is spectacular. Public sculpture is very modern in South Korea.  Although, there are glitches.  This gigantic phallus on the main drag outside the airport.  “Sou Korea..velly fertile?” They even light it at night. Ahem.
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ongdo Central Park is worth visiting.  It has the distinctive “Tri-Bowl” building. It supposedly represents the “sky (airport),” “sea (port),” and “land (metropolitan traffic network)” but I just see inverted Columbia space shuttle booster rockets.
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Then of course, there is this (below) [not photoshopped].  “Sou’ Korean boys… velly good flow.”
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Korean food is flavourable and delicious; the style is to go to open air BBQs where the staff roast different meats in front of you and you wrap it in various vegetables and edible leaves with your fingers. A common drink is Soju (“burned liquor”) which is like Saki. Korean food is balanced with good fresh vegetables. Cost-wise Korea is about the same as NZ but eating out is a bit cheaper because they have the populace to drive down establishment costs, something we should consider in NZ (ie try some Immigration).
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Being rather high up, and from Christchurch, we were perturbed to find this small wooden box in the closet in case of fire. I guess you climb inside it? Inside was a tinfoil fire blanket and a thin rope that you tie to a hook on the wall by the window that doesn’t open. We spent about 20 minutes each trying to open the window at various stages of our stay, which is set ajar. Merely a hope of saving yourself as you burn to death. We never did work out how the box would help. Maybe just tentatively reassuring and ticking a hotel insurance box.  Everything inside was completely useless.

Part of our visit was for a wedding. One of my new relatives is Eun Yee Un who collected us and was a marvelous host, but knows not a shred of English, or us Korean. Yet we communicated well and thoroughly enjoyed eachothers company all week.  Lots of smiling and nodding and laughing, universal human language.  Koreans are most generous.

Next time…off to North Korea.


GANGNAM Style: Visiting North & South Korea 2014. Part 1

October 17th, 2014 at 11:00 am by Kokila Patel

By John Stringer

My eldest son lives and works in South Korea, and recently we got an opportunity to visit there as well as North Korea. Despite being well-travelled it was actually my first visit to Asia so I jumped at the chance (North Korea fascinates and appalls me). So, swinging in both wives and two Off Springs, it afforded an occasion to post some reflections by Kiwis and an American in our party of five on ‘Megasia’ in the style of DPF’s yak haul up to Base Camp earlier this year. The Marathon Runner followed me to parliament, so here’s some reverse serendipidy in the spirit of Political Hack (not Yak) Travel Blogginess.

We used Incheon as base camp (Incheon is kind of a whole separate city suburb of Seoul, with its own International airport). Here is a typical street scene.

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Obviously the first thing that strikes you in Asia, is it is very busy. Incheon is also very young; lots of twittering yooths and fashionable androgenous lovelies. Young Koreans ape western fashions, hairstyles and looks to-the-max. There are actually seminars and forums on how to ‘look more western.’ This tends to result in boys looking like girls, and vice versa, or like Justin Bieber (who is neither), but I understand that is actually desirable today. Gender is so passé and nineties. Queue the 2014 man/woman Labour nominee for Whangarei Kelly Ellis, or the opening monologue of the Capaldi Dr Who [Strax on the ambivalence of gender].

I suppose this is symptomatic of living in a massive culture where conformity is everything. Contrary to western prejudice, all Asians do not look the same; that is just ignorant. My son can tell Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and Malaysians apart. They are also very competitive, as much as Aussie and Kiwis are (who do look the same).

Breakfast with my wives at the posh hotel (Benikea Incheon Royal Hotel, I know, sounds posh, aye?) and I’m hit immediately by the courtesy and customer service orientation (not a sexuality) of all Koreans. But Engerish is still a problem.

“Serial” instead of cereal at breakfast written in perfect calligraphic penmanship and slotted in to a golden holder amid the virgin white napkins. This (inevitably) prompted a polite English Teacher “see me” guidance and correction on a napkin handed respectfully to the Consiergé so-as not to embarrass. Can’t help myself.

Hilarimouse Engerish abounds. Not wishing to be superior or disparaging…[Tune in for Part 2 soon].

Below: Something odd for breakfast. When traveling I am adventurous (more on that later). These actually turned out to be lychees, so not so weird after all.
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Election Race 20 September 2014 ~ John Stringer

September 21st, 2014 at 12:51 pm by Kokila Patel


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Guest Post: Losing Our Heads Over ISIS

August 22nd, 2014 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

A guest post by John Stringer. Note that the remainder of the article over the break has a photo that could be disturbing for some:

The beheading of US photo-journalist James Foley of GlobalPost by a British heavily London-accented jihadist – now identified as a member of “the Beatles” ISIS troop – who had travelled to the Middle East to ‘fight’ for ISIS, changes everything. 

 A radicalized Briton has beheaded an innocent US journalist.

Think about that.

The jihadists are using innocent Europeans and Muslims who do not subscribe to their narrow religious cult with heinous brutality (80 Yazidi men ‘executed,’ their women and children sold into white slavery) as tools to conduct a psychological campaign of fear.  We call this “terrorism.”

It is designed to strike terror and is used as a weapon.

US journalist Stephen Sotloff is next.  The second in a sickening queue we will be forced to endure at the hand of these iSIS butchers.

Can journalists and Europeans function or even visit Muslim nations after this?

The Hamas tunnels in Israel (the latter so vehemently criticised and protested against by Internet/Mana rent-a-mobs in New Zealand last week) were designed as snatch holes. They want Israeli citizens, so they can be held, money extorted, or executed for propaganda purposes.

Now all and any Europeans are vulnerable to kidnapping, torture and beheading on camera for the purposes of propaganda. It does not matter who they are (they might be Olympic athletes in a Canadian Olympic village; perhaps a touring All Blacks team): simply non-jihadists and it’s better if they are Western and Christian.

What happens when this is done to a Western woman?  Or a celebrity?  The fuse of an international powder keg is burning.

This is like something out of the biblical Assyrian campaigns of Sennacherib’s terror across the ancient Middle

East: impalings, mass beheadings, mass slaughters, executions, torture, rape. etc. designed to create psychological awe.

Beheadings have a certain cultural oeuvre in the history and mentality of the extremist jihadi.  But they are not alone.


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Meanwhile in Christchurch, somewhere in Gerry Brownlee’s electorate…

August 2nd, 2014 at 9:00 am by Kokila Patel


Courtesy of John Stringer


NZ and the Debacle that is now Everest

April 20th, 2014 at 8:30 am by Kokila Patel

<8708992.jpg>As we celebrate death,  resurrection, and ascension this Easter, we have the news of another massive human tragedy on Everest. 12 or 13, perhaps as many as 20, climbers are dead. Chomolungma has reasserted her majestic terror.

New Zealand obviously has a close cultural affinity with Everest through Ed Hillary’s first ascent with Nepalese Indian Sherpa Tensing Norgay on 29 May, 1953 (61 years ago). There was also the 1996 death of Rob Hall at the summit staying with his trapped American client Doug Hansen, as his legs and hands failed (made all the more poignant when his final satellite phone call from the summit to his wife was played on the radio, “Sleep well my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much“).

John Krakauer was one of the lucky survivors of that ill-fated 1996 expedition and was covering the climb as part of a commercial deal for Outside magazine.  He later wrote the Into Thin Air book which was made in to a film.


Rob Hall

The Neil Finn song “The Climber” is also about that event.  On 22 Feb. last year, it was announced Christian Bale will play Rob Hall in another movie of that 1996 tragic climb (Universal Pictures, Working Title working with Emmett/Furla Films).

So, the commercialisation of Everest and the issues surrounding its ascents continue. This was certainly something Ed Hillary lamented and was critical of.


Brain Blessed

Also last year, during a visit to NZ (to make ads for an Australian bank in NZ) British actor Brian Blessed (‘father’ of Blackadder, series 1) currently starring in a series of NZ bank ads, said adamantly, “I don’t think there should be any expeditions to the mountain unless they are climbing it without oxygen – 29,035ft is just high enough to be climbed without oxygen.

“It’s achieving nothing in the development of human will and human achievement and in the spirit of adventure. It’s all vanity.” He said first Everest conquerors Hillary and Tenzing were different because they were “going into the unknown”.

“Blessed said people did not appreciate how dangerous an Everest ascent could be. He described the need for weeks of acclimatization and the difficulties of conquering the various stages of the climb.

On the eve of the 6oth anniversary of Hillary & Norgay’s ascent, mountaineers revealed a new insult to the great mountain – a ladder across the Hillary Step. This is a tricky 12m high outcrop of rock just before the final stretch to the summit itself.  Hillary climbed it by working his way up a crack or fissure of the rock face, which is why it carries his name.

Congestion and waits of longer than 2 hours (serious at this altitude) are now occurring at the Step, which is a natural bottle neck and has caused so many deaths, particularly during the 1996 season when it was discovered by Hall that there was no fixed rope at the Step. 520 climbers have reached the summit of Everest in the last climbing season.  Similar commercial congestion caused the 11 deaths on K2 featured in the film The Summit K2 (2013), now surpassed by this 2014 Easter tragedy.

The Guardian covered the plans to put the ladder up the Hillary Step to ease that congestion.

Frits Vrijlandt,  president of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation, said the ladder could be a solution to the increasing numbers of climbers on the mountain. I think the solution would be to restrict the ascents to 100 a year, and run a lottery.

Apa Sherpa, who climbed Everest a record 21 times before retiring in 2011, described the Hillary Step as “very hard” and said a ladder was a good idea.

Pertemba Sherpa, who played a key role in the British expedition led by Sir Chris Bonington, and climbed Everest’s south-west face for the first time in 1975, told The Guardian that the security of the sherpas working on the mountain should be paramount.

“The route is changing, there is more rock, less ice and snow. It’s very dangerous,” the 65-year-old said. “For [the] safety of sherpas, this is good.”

So, differing views.  Putting a ladder up would reduce the congestion (not much) and probably increase the number ascending, so the bottlenecks may remain or even get worse.

For me, the issue is about the growing commercialisation of Everest and the “need” to ascend, as some form of personal development or enrichment or “vanity” as Brian Blessed rightly calls it.  This is what I would do:

1. A no-climbing moratorium for 5 years to allow a pause in the rapid commercialisation process and to allow the fraternity to reflect and refocus.

2. A covenant that a party must climb to a certain height, and bring down a certain weight of rubbish (tents, used oxygen tanks, etc), or a dead person for burial, as part of a compulsory acclimatization and a prerequisite before they are allowed an attempt at the summit. (A bit like foresters required to replant trees after they harvest stands of wood).

3. Perhaps an absolute age range limit on the mountain and certified years of climbing experience.

I’d be interested in David’s thoughts and his impressions of the risks we impose on Sherpas, Nepalese and other poor Third World mountain people (such as the Pakistanis on K2) porting, guiding and otherwise servicing our Western obsession with climbing these mountains.  Why not just go to Base camp as he is doing: enjoy the scenery, the challenge, support the Nepalese, but don’t risk their and other climbers lives insisting on climbing to the summit?
~ John Stringer
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Hobbit 2 Review – John Stringer

January 2nd, 2014 at 10:00 am by Kokila Patel

I went on Christmas Eve, and here are my thoughts.  See my
review of Hobbit 1 also published on Kiwiblog.

This second instalment in The Hobbit trilogy opens with a
delightful cameo of Peter Jackson. So, we get this
out-of-the-way from the get go. A pub patron steps out of a
Bree Inn, bites a carrot in half, and stumps off in to the
rain drenched muddy alley way of Bree main street. Tick.

The elves in Hob 2 are much darker, more threatening than
before, even more than Hugo Weaving’s excellent ‘Agent
Smith’ Elrond from LoTR I-III. We see them in context,
as a race, pruning orcs from their borders and having warred
with the dwarves and Sauron.  We also catch a glimpse of
their gracious tragic arrogance. Lee Pace’s King Thranduil
is one of the stand out performances of this episode. The
elves too, this outing, seem to have liquid eyes (Mirkwood
Gucci) and more close-ups to enthrall and allure us in
contrast to the comical dwarves (of which more below).We
also get a lot more of Legolas’ back story, his relational
context, and the new character Tauriel introduces a love
triangle conflict with one of the dwarves. This is added by
Jackson (absent in Tolkien). Legolas is ennobled in this
tale and the elf-dwarf humour is back. There is a lovely
scene where he denigrates a dwarf passport drawing, “Is
this one of your hideous dwarf women?” “Noo. That’s
may wee bairn, Gimli.”  Legolas’ eyebrow twerks.

Jackson absolutely blew me away with Hobbit 1 which exceeded
my expectations as a long-time Tolkien buff.  So first,
some brick bats.

1. Hob 2 starts off lightly.  It comes across too
cartoonie, like the Disney-esque Radagast the Brown wizard
in instalment 1 which almost went over the line with the
rabbit sleigh (back this time too). Radagast is played by
Sylvester McLoy (Dr Who 7) a kind of Catweazel Worzel
Gummage figure with birds nesting in his hair.

2. Hob 2 is a bit disjointed, with cut-aways and flash backs
(especially Gandalf’s role in this movie) as Jackson seeks
to link this trilogy with LoTR (The Hobbit was written first
before LoTR was conceived). Fortunately the film is
redeemed in the second half by the drama with Smaug. But
you are aware of an episodic feel to Hobbit 2.

3. The barrels scenes with the dwarves escaping the elven
halls is ridiculous.  It is Tintin gymnastics to the
extreme, with Legolas doing those fanciful circ du
soleil Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon somersaults and
skateboard tricks.  Quite how the barrels stayed upright
with heavy dwarves in them in white water must have been a
miracle of the Valar.  It was silly and demeaned the
characters; bordering on Disney kids holiday rollicking.
Perhaps Jackson was attempting to capture something of the
children’s storybook nature of The Hobbit, which Lord of
the Rings is not.  But he recovers well.

4. Bilbo is also rather pale in this movie. He is almost a
second tier character beside Thorin, Bard, Smaug and the
Orcs. It is called The Hobbit after all. I’m not so sure
Martin Freedman was the best option as Bilbo. I wish Leo
McKern was still alive (Rumpole of the Bailey) either as
Bilbo or Thorin.

5. Mayor of Laketown played by Stephen Fry was a
disappointment, a bit like Barry Humphries as the Goblin
King in Hob 1. Fry is such a good actor (he was brilliant as
Oscar Wilde) but was off-key in this role.  It would have
been better if he played Lord Melchett.  Badly cast, a
lack-lustre performance and a missed opportunity.

6. There is ridiculous physics and timing in this film, like
when the dwarves somehow erect a massive moulded dwarf, fill
it with liquid gold, and then pull it apart in an attempt to
drown Smaug.  MacGyver on steroids. I would have cut that
out of the film altogether as too Indianna Jones and the
Temple of Doom.

7. Sorry, but I hate Bombur. He looks like Obelix with a
pleated beard and clashes with several of the dwarves,
especially Thorin, who are presented as gorgeous
metrosexuals, while others have the knobbly noses and stumpy
feet we expect of fantasy dwarves. They feel like two
different races.

Now the good bits.

There is a wonderful, dangerous, dark character in this
episode, and that is the bear-of-a-man Beorn the
skin-changer.  Jackson really captures the man, wild eyed,
slightly unpredictable, anchored in history. His makeup is
amazing.  Not too much, but enough to suggest the
Wildlands. I won’t show him to you, you have to go see the
movie for that. A highlight of Hob 2.

In Mirkwood there is a wonderful extended scene reminiscent
of the human-eating bugs in King Kong. Bilbo slays the
Spiders with the help of the Ring and saves the dwarves.
This is masterful, and even exceeds the book, Jackson at
his best.  I loved when Bilbo slips the ring on, and we
can hear the Spiders’ language. We also discover why Bilbo
and Frodo’s elven blade is so-named.

Jackson does some great linkages between Hobbit and LoTR,
establishing the origins of the Black Riders, and visually
linking Sauron’s form to the All Seeing Eye. He also
develops the personality of the ring itself. There is a
great wizard duel between Gandalf and Sauron at Dol Guldur.

Laketown is amazing.  Jackson portrays this once grand
place, now decrepit beneath the shadow of Smaug’s Lonely
Mountain as truly Tolkien-esque without too many
similarities to medieval Britain. The model makers deserve
an Academy for Laketown.

Thorin Oakenshield is fleshed out more deeply and we are
beginning to become torn by his heroic melancholy and his
corrupting greed for the gold and kingship. I personally
think the actor (Richard Armitage) is too pretty. A
knobbly ugly war-scarred dwarf is how I imagined Thorin
Oakenshield.  But his duel with Smaug, calling him a
flabby worm (as Tolkien does) is fantastic, as they duel
verbally for psychological rights to be “King Under the
Mountain.” Thorin is certainly brave.

A poignant moment when Thorin finally steps in to the halls
of Erebor beneath the Lonely Mountain. Here I think we catch
the obvious allusion to the Jews, and I’ve written on
whether Tolkien was allegorizing Jewish history in the
dwarves before.

The orcs Azog and his mongrel son Bolg are great, reminding
me of Satan and Son of Satan in Constantine. They grunt and
conspire their way through this movie. We also get much more
of the Wargs.

Smaug (pronounced SmOWg) is simply magnificent and exactly
how Tolkien portrayed him in my mind. He is malevolent,
dangerous beyond measure, and this is the most intimidating
portrayal of the majesty and weapon-of-mass-destruction
Dragon ever seen.  Smaug, spoken by Timothy Benedict
Cumberpatch, totally redeems the movie.  The second half
is fabulous with a long fight scene between Smaug, the
dwarves under the Lonely Mountain all the while with Bilbo
trying to burgle the sacred Arkenstone.  But Smaug is on
to him.

It is delightful seeing the Scrooge McDuck vaults times one
hundred, filled with gold and somewhere under it all, a
sleeping dragon.  Bilbo steps out tenderly as if walking
on egg shells, but gold booty is so NOISEY.  It slides and
rattles. GASP.  “If there’s one thing ya do laddie, don’t
waken it!”

The movie ends well, with Smaug flying off into the evening
sky with the hopelessly vulnerable Laketown below about to
be nuked by this jealous, angry psychopathic arrogant
ballistic missile with wings. Bilbo and the dwarves look
helplessly on; what have they awoken?  But Bard, already
well scripted by Jackson and team as an isolated outcast
whose grandfather failed to kill the dragon, has one family
heirloom black arrow left, and knows where the dwarven wind
lance is.  Queue Hobbit 3 and a day for Men! But first, a

Great closing music.

All-in-all a dutiful middle piece to the trilogy.  Smaug
lifts it. 8/10.


John Stringer 22 August 2013 – A reprise? (Shearer goes)

August 22nd, 2013 at 9:00 pm by Kokila Patel

Dec 2011…


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Why did Bob go?

July 6th, 2013 at 3:10 pm by David Farrar

John Stringer blogs on 10 reasons why he thinks Bob Parker went:

  1. CEO not a poli.
  2. Marryatt and Consents
  3. Endless negativity and character assassination
  4. The Press
  5. Polls
  6. Wife and “well-being”
  7. Reputation and legacy
  8. Communication
  9. Transferred frustration
  10. Media prostitutes.

I don’t agree with all of them, but I do think the endless negativity was very real, and partly explains what Marryatt stuffed up also. He definitely made many mistakes, but I suspect the fact that some Councillors spent so much of their time attacking and undermining the Mayor and CEO, is why he was reluctant to let them know when problems arose, such a the consenting.

Now that is not to defend his decision. He should have informed the Council. But some Councillors are to blame also for creating a culture of negativity and attack, so the CEO did not feel he can be upfront with them. If he tells them of problems, they’ll just use it to attack him.

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Review: World War Z by John Stringer

June 24th, 2013 at 4:00 pm by Kokila Patel

Review: World War Z by John Stringer (

As a selective zombie genre fan (Zombieland, Legend, 28 Days/Weeks, The Walking Dead) I vote this a good addition to the zombie film cultus; how appropriate to have a lead actor named Pitt front a zombie film.

World War Z (for Zombie) is based on “World War Z” the 2006 apocalyptic horror novel by Max Brooks which was a follow-up to his 2003 book, The Zombie Survival Guide. However, the movie bears little relation to the Brooks’ book.

Brad Pitt (Gerry Lane) is a retired UN operative (last mission Liberia). The world starts goin’ crazy, fast (ie when a wing-mirror gets smashed off by a cop, you know your day’s goin’ downhill when that happens) with a rapid-spreading, 11-second-infecting rabies type virus afoot (or no foot, as the case may be). Most cities of the world are over-run and these zombies move fast. Gerry and his family only just make it to a military flotilla out at sea, safe from zombies, where a US official (Fana Mokoena) is running things after everyone else in Washington has got their teeth in to something else and “turned.”

Gerry heads off with a special Ops team in exchange for his family’s place on one of the ships, to try and track down the original source at possible locations around the world. They want to understand how and why the infection is spreading. Don’t get bit.

This is essentially the very successful British 28 Days Later (2002) and 28 Weeks Later (2007, starring Robert Carlyle, one of the best actors around) zombie romps redone, which introduced sprinting zombies. Z borrows heavily from both movies.

We have the clichéd Mummy and Daddy separated and kids caught in between issues, seen in Legend, Walking Dead, 28 Days and War of the Worlds, now a required plot staple of these movies (is zombie-ness a meat-aphor for separation?) and perhaps most poignantly addressed in the seven minute Australian zombie movie Cargo (appropriately directed by Ben Howling another great genre surname).

The drama and special effects of Z are fantastic. There are also some riveting scenes (like when zombies attack on a plane; and the attack on Jerusalem). Others I really enjoyed:

the over-running of several mega cities is dramatic and poignant political commentary under the zombie veneer.
The desperation on the Belarus airplane after they think they’ve escaped but find a zombie in the toilet, and how that plays out. No spoiler.
Pitt instantly chopping off the female Israeli soldier’s hand (Segen) to save her from “turning” a partnership begun but not really developed in the movie. I suspect the script had a betrayal and conflicted love story in it that got edited out.
The Laboratory lab technician zombie on the other side of the glass door from Pitt for hours on end, with his teeth-chattering Hannibal Lector impersonation.
A zombie going nuts in a plane seat still strapped in, after crashing.
The turbulence caused to the Belarus airplane from a nuclear detonation we glimpse out the port side window.
I also like how Pitt wraps Vanity-Fair or Vogue magazines around his limbs to protect himself (will zombies be put off?) a kind of parody on himself and the paparazzi.
This movie also gives us the most frightening zombie I’ve seen yet, a black female lab technician with dreads, locked in a glass lab. Awesomely disturbing.

If you didn’t catch it, the scene where Pitt and his family are trying to flee from the rooftop by helicopter and Pitt suddenly runs over to the edge of the building, and counts to 11. He thinks he’s been bitten and counts to 11 to see if he turns. If so, he’ll fall off and save his family from himself.

I would not watch this in 3D, it was fine in 2D, but one NZ critic found the action in 3D exhausting. That is sometimes my experience too; you can have too much clarity, like drinking too much champagne.

Mum is freckle red head Mireille Enos (incidentally a Mormon); the ubiquitous black man in charge is Fana Mokoena; and Z also stars British actor Peter Capaldi known to Commonwealth audiences from the Dr WHO Torchwood TV franchise (incidentally playing a Dr here of the W.H.O Research Centre).

There is plenty of modern politics woven in here too:
1. Israel catches on quickest that the zombie outbreak is happening (in India) using its “tenth man paradigm” and closes its walls and thus protects itself, or does it? So, some subtleties there about walls, Jews, immigration and how Israel is besieged.

2. North Korea controls its outbreak when all 23 million act as one, and smash each other’s teeth out so there is less biting. Gummed to Death in North Korea might be a sequel. It adds a new dimension to Gangnam.

3. Working with Belarussian airways.

This is apocalypse on steroids. It is gripping racy drama, and I loved the tension all the way with the same pressure applied in different contexts (a supermarket, dark apartment hallways, a crowded city, in a research centre -vestiges of Alien II there).

Pitt is great, restrained acting and good presence, but the narration at the end is a bit of a hokey anti-climax. The discovery of how to deal with the zombie threat is somewhat implausible (well, this is an Undead movie I suppose) and frankly, wifey and kids were redundant other than as inconvenient satellite phone callers (you’ll see). Why too, do only our two protagonists survive the mega plane crash. Luck? Pitt’s good looks?

A great addition to the genre, and really worth a watch – I enjoyed it immensely, especially the Jerusalem scenes – but it’s not deep (just enjoy, you don’t read Shakespeare on a roller coaster after all).

One point behind the grittier British 28 Weeks Later with its relentless opening scene, 7/10.

~ John Stringer.

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Christchurch v Wellington – Guest Post John Stringer

May 9th, 2013 at 10:00 am by Kokila Patel

Wellington is 1/10th as Good as Christchurch (even after the

Kilometres of Christchurch beaches make Oriental Bay look
like a sand pit, which it is, just dumped ships ballast. So
you’re sunbathing on a tip!

Up until the year 2000, I had lived equal durations in both
the Wellington and Canterbury regions, raised my kids in
both, so am qualified to take on Colin Espiner and his
assessment of Wellington vs Auckland.  I’m sorry, but this
will be a one-eyed total slam dunk.

Christchurch is named after God; Wellington after some
British warmonger.

Colin opines,

1. Better coffee. Wellington is powered by caffeine. And
there’s none finer than in the capital.

Well, if “coffee” is Wellington’s best “asset”
let’s just stop now. The same coffee in Wellington is
distributed elsewhere in NZ, so that is an impotent point.
Christchurch has hundreds of cafes and all the main brands
of coffee, as well as its own local roasters.

2. The Brooklyn windmill. Don’t scoff. One of the first in
the country and now a major tourist attraction. The views
from the carpark are stunning.

Any views in Welly (if you’re not being blown over) are
about a tenth as good as the 360 degree views from the Port
Hills (try the Christchurch Gondola, not that red fire
engine on a cable thingy; ours is silent, yours rattles and
bangs away).  Against the Welly Windmill (an ironic but
appropriate fit for Windy Welly) Christchurch has the
Victorian Jubilee clock tower, the bells of several
neo-gothic churches, two massive cathedrals, and had the
Lyttelton time ball.

3. The Bucket Fountain. You’ve got to love a town that
keeps something so hideous and so broken that it’s become
a city icon.

If this is one of Welly’s finest bench-marks then it’s
all over.  It’s a hideous thing.  To counter, Christchurch
has it kitsch Queen Mother Corgis, the stunning Drummonds
outside the Christchurch Art Gallery, the Anzac bridge, the
hideous 9/11 memorial sculpture on Madras St (perhaps the
ugliest public sculpture ever made) or any number of
brilliant public sculptures that grace like artificial
flowers this very fair Garden City.

4. The Penthouse cinema. Arthouse cinema at its finest,
complete with decent red wine and its own theatre cat.

The Art Centre cinemas (Cloisters and Academy), Hollywood at
Sumner, the Rialtos, the Metro, the Regent, as well as the
chains: Hoyts, Movieland and Readings. Christchurch has
gazillions more cinematic options than Welly and even more
than Sydney.  We even have outdoor cinema.

5. Westpac Stadium. Sorry Eden Park, but the Cake Tin is
better in every respect.

I have to concede this one, as Jade is damaged, but we have
several others (our Westpac Stadium for example, as backup)
and Christchurch is getting a huge multi-million dollar job
bordering Cathedral Square.  It will be state-of-the-art.

6. Public transport. Aucklanders haven’t heard of this,
but it’s a fast, cheap, convenient and quick way to get to

Many young adults in Christchurch simply do not have drivers
licenses because they can get anywhere in our city, hassle
free, inexpensively, on the amazing transport system.
Moreover, we have San Francisco style trams, London
double-decker buses, an efficient rail system; it all leaves
Welly for dead.  Our bus drivers are also friendly and
helpful; Welly bus drivers are known for their grumpiness.
It’s the weather.

Christchurch has far more bikes than Welly and the most
amazing suburban rides as well as mountain-biking options
with views the best in the world for this sport.

7. Sunshine and fresh air. OK, sometimes too much fresh air,
but Welly clocks up many more sunshine hours than its
northern sibling.

Blenheim actually has the record, so this goes to a
Mainlander.  Christchurch has much fresher air because we
have a massive range of mountains along our spine, and our
city is much closer to direct prevailing sea winds.

8. Cuba Street. No other city in New Zealand does cool
grunge like Wellington’s Cuba Street. Plus it’s home to
Midnight Espresso, home of the finest nachos in the country.

Sorry, Cuba Street is a second-hand shop with a few buskers.
Christchurch wipes the floor here with its impressive
Cashel Street pop-up Restart Mall (now an international
attraction) and New Regent Street with its tram flow and
Spanish Colonial architecture.  Then there’s Rolleston
Avenue flanked by Christs College, the Canterbury Museum,
the Avon, and spectacular Hagley Park, the rival of NY’s
Central Park. No contest.

9. Wellington’s waterfront. Whereas Auckland and
Christchurch have turned their backs on their ports, the
capital’s is a living, breathing, human space. And you
can’t beat Oriental Parade in the sunshine.

It is abutted by a huge Soviet box (Te Papa paid for by the
rest of us) and trying to access the foreshore is not that
easy.  In Christchurch stroll down to New Brighton and walk
along the Brighton Pier, read a book in the library on the
sea front, or go over to the many bays of Banks Peninsula
where you can swim with dolphins, catch various ferries to
exotic bays like Diamond Harbour, or enjoy the seaman’s
culture of Lyttelton, Scott and Shackleton’s final ports
of call.

10. Houses you can actually afford to buy. Not much point in
living somewhere if you can’t afford it. Wellington house
prices are not cheap, but they’re not stupid either.

You can buy a 2-3 bedroom in Christchurch by the sea for
$149,000 (there are several on Trademe today) or you can buy
multi-million dollar homes in a massive selection of
beautiful suburbs, several with rivers flowing through them.

We haven’t even mentioned the Crusaders (I have to show
some mercy), or the easy access to the great outdoors that
Christchurch has in spades: from alpine skiing to ocean
sports, ballooning, sky sports, caving, mountain climbing
and all within the hour.

Kilometres of beaches make Oriental Bay look like a sand
pit. There is mighty chinook salmon, and trout fishing, in
Christchurch. You can literally hand feed wild trout and NZ
eels within a block of Cathedral Square. We are wrapped
around by an ocean reserve with whales, dolphins, and ocean
fishing. We have a working Maori village, a working modern
Maori tribe, Ngai Tahu, a role model for how Maori can make
the most of historic Treaty settlements.

Our art gallery puts to shame anything in Wellington as does
the vibrant arts community across the spectrum.
Punting-on-the-Avon, the Antarctic Centre, the Cardboard
Cathedral, our huge network of parks, gardens, river and
wetland reserves; the texture of Banks Peninsula. Then
there’s Autumn and Spring.  Christchurch is utterly

Since 1900, Canterbury has produced seven prime ministers
(Hall-Jones, Holland, Kirk, Palmer, Moore, Shipley, Key) to
Wellington’s three (Fraser, Nash. Marshall).  Aaron
Gilmore may have stood on our List, but he moved to live in
Wellington, so he’s yours.

You may have the (recent) Wellywood investment of Sir Peter
Jackson at Miramar, and Weta, but where are all those films
actually shot?  Canterbury. Heavenly Creatures is a
Christchurch Story.  The Riders of Rohan gallop Canterbury
vistas. Narnia’s centaurs and fawns carouse among our
limestone outcrops.

Sorry Welly, but perhaps the best measure is that more
people choose to live in the Garden City than in the glass
and steel corridor of Welly, jammed in between the Petone
highway and the Ngauranga Gorge.  Christchurch is the second
largest city in New Zealand and shines beside Wellington’s
flickering torch.

~ John Stringer,