Saturday, May 26, 2012


(First published in The Dominion Post, May 22.)

I CAN ONLY hope that if I live to 75, I’ll be as mentally sharp as Gordon McLauchlan is at that age.

The Auckland writer recently reprised his 1976 best seller The Passionless People, and the new book – The Passionless People Revisited: New Zealanders in the 21st Century – demonstrates he has lost none of his fire or flair.

McLauchlan remains one of our most perceptive and trenchant commentators.  Even if you don’t share all his political views, you can’t help but admire his withering contempt for the cant and shallowness that surrounds us.

He skewers his first victims in the opening pages. Writing about the 2011 election, McLauchlan refers to John Key not by name, but simply as the Face – “the perfectly passionless palliative Face [that] kept saying it wanted to talk about serious things such as the economy and yet somehow never did”.

McLauchlan writes of celebrity journalists Paul Holmes and Mike Hosking, “embedded at the high end of town among the also rich and famous”, watching the election from the equivalent of corporate boxes. John Banks is the “robotic Energiser, for whom any power point will do”. Don Brash is “John Cleese playing a politician”.  

I could go on, but you get the picture. McLauchlan can be a bit of grump, but having begun his journalism career in 1952 he brings to bear an historical perspective lacking in younger, more fashionable commentators who haven’t seen it all before.

To this quality, McLauchlan adds a facility with words that is rivalled by very few – among them Joe Bennett, who takes a similar delight in puncturing vanity and pretension. 

* * *

THE TRIBUTES rightly flowed for Grant Tilly, the stalwart of the Wellington theatre and television scene who died recently of cancer.

Tilly was a formidable actor, as anyone who saw him in his friend Tom Scott’s powerful one-man play The Daylight Atheist could attest. He was also a skilled artist and a self-taught joiner who delighted in making intricate little boxes.

He was not given to flamboyant or egotistical behavior. Having interviewed him once and met him socially on other occasions, I got the impression that unlike some actors, he knew exactly who he was and didn’t feel the need to put on a show.

Yet there’s one thing for which I blame him. Fairly or unfairly, I hold Tilly largely responsible for the strange accent used by male New Zealand actors, particularly those of the older generation, whenever they’re trying to sound authentically Kiwi.

I say “strange” because it doesn’t sound like any genuine New Zealand accent I’ve ever heard. You don’t hear this faux Kiwi bloke accent on contemporary TV shows such as Outrageous Fortune, but it’s still noticeable in stage plays, Radio New Zealand drama productions and radio commercials – particularly those advertising “blokish” businesses such as sports shops, building supply merchants and rural services companies.

Tilly was the first actor I noted using this accent and such was his influence that it seemed to be picked up by every other male thespian of his generation.

My theory, for what it’s worth, is that actors such as Tilly learned their craft during an era when the New Zealand theatre was strongly influenced by British traditions. The default accent was an English one (as it was on radio and TV).

As an indigenous drama scene began to emerge and more New Zealand plays were written by the likes of Roger Hall and Greg McGee, local actors had to develop a Kiwi voice. But by then I suspect they were so habituated to the British accent that they struggled to emulate their fellow New Zealanders. What emerged was almost a parody of the New Zealand accent.

This isn’t meant as a criticism. It was simply an indirect consequence of the famous cultural cringe that saw us deferring to Mother Britain, even in the way we spoke.

* * *

HITLER and Goebbels talked about the Big Lie – the lie so brazen and colossal that people couldn’t imagine anyone would make it up.

But there are also smaller lies which, if repeated often enough, become embedded in the public mind as established truth. Two of these relate to taxation and public services.

The assertion that the rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes is endlessly repeated, yet the top 10 percent of income earners still generate more than 70 percent of personal income tax revenue.

As for public sector spending, which opposition politicians insist is being ruthlessly cut, the truth (as an economist recently pointed out in these pages) is that government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product is the highest it has been since 1992, and cutbacks in public service numbers have made only a tiny dent in the massive increases over the past decade.

Remember these facts next time you hear the familiar Greek chorus wailing about how unfair everything is.

1 comment:

Vaughan said...

Check out the accent of the narrator of this 1946 film that was supposed to promote Auckland but ended up praising a factory and Kawau Island.

Even today in Australia and NZ,people with upper class UK accents are prevalent on upmarket TV and radio programs.