Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Heath Ledger

Man, what a bad couple of weeks for talented Antipodeans. First Sir Ed, then Hone Tuwhare, now Heath Ledger.

Lauren and I both really, really liked Ledger, who was one of the best young actors on the planet. Brilliant in Brokeback Mountain and Candy, I was really looking forward to seeing his taken on The Joker in The Dark Night.

Looks at the moment like suicide by drug overdose. If so, that's yet another talented artist to kill themselves. Very sad.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

January in the wrong hemisphere

While in the midst of the December spend-now-think-later-sure-I'll-have-one-more season, Tane and I decided that we really needed a quiet and cheap January. Due to the wintry weather and short daylight hours of London, however, what seemed like a common sense idea threatened to turn January into a long, boring, cold month. So, to counter obsessing over the fact that NZ is warm at present and in order to ignore that nagging feeling that we are very much in the wrong hemisphere right now, we have made a real effort to enjoy London and what it has to offer.

Yay for corny London photos!

We have seen some of London's best landmarks, including Tower Bridge, the Globe Theatre, and St Paul's church. Although see St Paul's every time I look out my window at work, Tane hadn't been there properly yet.
A highlight, though, was the Tower of London. I loved it - the Crown jewels were blingy, the history fascinating, and the Beefeater guard that gave us a tour hilarious. The guys in fluffy hats carrying far from from fluffy-looking weapons were pretty neat too. I wonder if they have to go to marching school as part of their training?
Inside the Tower, where the Beefeater asked if there were any Americans in the audience. A few stuck up their hands, at which point the Beefeater laughed and said "if you'd paid your taxes, this would be your history too!"

Another place we have visited this month that's worth noting is the beautiful Hampstead Heath. The heath was so overgrown, it could have been a park in NZ. That was, if you ignored the dogs being walked in coats from the Gap. Oh, and this house filled with paintings, including a couple by Vermeer and Rembrandt.
A great house to visit. Art aside, I particularly enjoyed the aniseed balls you could buy inside, even if I did binge on them and cut my tongue. Mud, mud, everywhere ...

Hampstead Heath, overlooking the city to remind us that we're not in NZ now, Dr Ropata

The most recent trip was to Kent (the region south of London) for a look at the fabulous Leeds Castle and a winery. The castle was fantastic. As fantastic, in fact, as the maze nearby was confusing. The castle was built back in Norman times and lived in by Henry VIII's first wife, the divorced Katherine of Aragon. It felt a little odd actually to see her rooms so soon after seeing where the woman she was replaced by, Anne Boleyn, lost her head at the Tower.
Alice and Stephen in the maze, right before a giant bird started swooping around their heads. Not that I was there, though, as I was concentrating on eating the toffee bought in the castle shop. I am sure you are seeing a theme here about what I really deep down like the most about these historic places ...

Between these trips and other fun times often involving drinking pints (all in the name of enjoying the tourist side of London of course) Tane and I have realised that perhaps we didn't have the cheap month we needed. But, I don't care - I managed to enjoy a January in the wrong hemisphere without wanting to cry when walking past the poster in Ealing promoting cheap flights to Auckland. And that's what counts, really.

Some very impressive guns outside the Imperial War Museum. I would not want those loaded and pointed in my direction. Once inside though free museums are O for Awesome when it's cold.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The Quintessential Kiwi?

We New Zealanders lost two of our most distinguished countrymen in the last couple of weeks - poet Hone Tuwhare and adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary. Their deaths got me thinking about who we choose as our national icons and what this says about us.

It's strange, feeling sad about someone you've never met and really know very little about. I felt that way because Sir Ed was, of course, one of the few people the overused words 'legend' and 'great' actually fit, but it was more than that. You saw his face every day on the $5 note. He was the only New Zealander most people in the world have heard of, a man whose death led the websites of all the major serious daily papers in the UK, and was big news in America, Australia and many other places. As residents of a small nation stuck in the bottom right hand corner of the map, a place that goes unnoticed most of the time, we are almost hysterically proud of anyone who makes a mark on a global level.

As the person who made the most famous mark of all, Hillary played a major role in defining how we see ourselves.

He was rugged, humble, generous, laconic, adventurous, environmentally and socially aware. A high achiever who didn't boast about it, a man who used his fame to help others more than himself. Helen Clark described him as "the quintessential Kiwi".

But was he, really?

For example, how many New Zealanders are at home in the wilderness, or even enjoy a few days bushwalking? More than many countries probably, but I think most of us would rather get out a DVD than go for a tramp, let alone drive a tractor across Antarctica. We, like the rest of the Western world, are getting increasingly fat and lazy.

How charitable are we? Our national aid budget is miserly. And most would rather stick a new tv on the credit card (or go on a big OE) than contribute much to saving starving Africans.

How committed are we to conservation? We talk a good game, but we're among the most wasteful of all nations. It's only our low population that has kept us from completely fouling up our islands. Since coming to London, where public transport is light years ahead of Auckland and environmental awareness generally seems higher, we've realised that New Zealand is behind the times.

There's truth that many of Hillary's qualities are part of New Zealand culture - we admire modesty and that dry sense of humour can be seen in Flight of the Conchords, for example. But overall, Hillary was someone we like to think we come out of the same mold as, rather than that actually being the case. He's the peak, we're the foothills.

Also, the strong, stoic Pakeha outdoorsman of the Hillary/Colin Meads/Barry Crump type plays too big a role in our gallery of heroes. Hone Tuwhare's passing reminds us that 'quintessential Kiwis' include Maori, women, artists, scientists and more. The kind of people we admire is changing - look at how Peter Jackson is revered. But the Speights men still have too firm a foothold in our national identity, particularly in rural areas, for my liking.

What do you think?

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Tane's Reviews: The Darjeeling Limited and American Gangster


Be warned. This film will make you want to go to India immediately.

Another low-key, kooky masterpiece from director Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic), The Darjeeling Limited is named after the train taking three emotionally damaged brothers on a journey through the subcontinent. In typical Anderson fashion, the film is filled with oddball characters, poignancy, and understated humour. Add in the gorgeous setting, and this is a delight.

Another warning. As well as getting you on a plane to India, you’ll be compelled go out and get the soundtrack. Lauren got it for me for Christmas, and we played it again and again and again. You’ll be humming ‘Le Champs Elysees’ for weeks.



Ridley Scott’s latest movie is a good, if not a classic, edition to the large catalogue of American crime films. Based on a true story, it’s essentially parallel but interlinked tales of two men (Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe) struggling to survive in criminal societies in New Jersey in the 1970s – the underworld of Harlem, and the local police.

Crowe, as the cop, and Washington, as the gangster, deliver performances as strong as you’d expect from two men who regularly feature in ‘Best Actor’ nominations. It’s a long but well-paced film that keeps your attention without fascinating you. This is because while Crowe’s character is likeable, he’s not that interesting, leaving Washington’s portrayal of a brilliant and brutal drug dealer as the only truly outstanding feature of American Gangster. It does not help that the script is a mixed bag, filled with many sharp lines and many silly ones (“f*** me like a cop, not a lawyer!”).

Well worth seeing, but no Godfather or Heat.


Saturday, 5 January 2008

7 reasons why Germany is wunderbar

Last week, we joined Stephen and Sarah for a trip to Germany. Although Tane has seen an impressive amount of Germany, it was my first taste of a country that I have learnt a lot about over the years. In spite of the weather being cold and wet, it was a great holiday. Wunderbar, even, for these seven reasons:

1. Delicious, rich, fatty, filling food

Buns shaped like pigs!

2. Very cool churches

We based ourselves in Cologne, home of one of the most stunning cathedrals in the entire world. It was jaw-dropping, a structure that can only be described using corny cliches. To give you an idea of it's size, we were unable to fit the church into a single photograph so have at least a dozen photos of parts of the Cathedral, none of which actually do it justice. The one above is the best we could do without scaling the rooves of buildings and what-not. Luckily the very sweet and pictureque Aachen cathedral fitted nicely into a single shot.
3. Bones of very old people inside the churches

In Cologne, we saw a massive gold box that is supposed to be filled with the bones of the Three Magi, or the Three Wise Men. Even if it was a dirty scam, at the very least the bones were of three people from at least 1000 years ago. This was of particular interest to me as last year I read a Da Vinci Code-esque book about these bones. Fortunately there was no exploding communion bread as in the book, although that would have been very exciting. We also saw a box containing the bones of Charlemagne in the Aachen cathedral.

4. The Rhine

I thought it was cool, although Stephen and Sarah agreed that the Rhine looked like the Waikato and that Cologne reminded them of Huntly. Whatever. How could anywhere you can buy buns shaped like pigs remind you of Huntly, I say.

5. Beer Halls
6. Beethoven

We went to the very lovely city of Bonn, home of Beethoven. Everything was closed as it was New Year's day, but we were able to see the outside of his house at least.We were also able to see a very serious-looking statue of Beethoven, which was just begging for a "spirit fingers" moment.

7. Seeing places that bring history alive

A more sombre part of our trip was a visit to the building in Cologne that housed the Gestapo during World War Two and has since been turned into a museum, El-De Haus. Much of the museum was in German, but the language barrier didn't matter when we ventured into the cells below the building where prisoners were kept. Here we saw the messages and notes that prisoners wrote on the walls before being moved elsewhere. This one below was especially harrowing.

Reading about the atrocities that occurred during World War Two is one thing, but seeing evidence of it is a whole different story. For that reason, it was a real experience to visit somewhere that brought this history to life.

In summary, Germany was wunderbar. I don't know if I'll visit the industrial heartland of West Germany again, but certainly look forward to seeing more of the country in the future. Yay!