Friday, 2 May 2008

Changing Times

Smalls Books and Models was a shop selling ‘books, plastic kits and diecast transport and military models’ in Central Wellington. Every time I walked past it, I recalled the heady (and that’s not just due to the rather enticingly-named poly cement) days of Airfix kits.

With these models you could glue, assemble and paint rockets, ships, tanks, cars, dinosaurs and historical figures. They were a great thing to do on a rainy day when you couldn’t ride your bike or go to the park to play football. Parents got to play with them too, having hours of fun using tweezers for the fiddly bits that podgy children’s fingers couldn’t manage.

I remember my sister making a scale model of the Golden Hind, with miniature figures clinging to the rigging for their dear little plastic lives. Of course it was educational as she found out all about Sir Francis Drake and his voyages of discovery. It took her ages and the manufacture of it was more than half the fun – when it was finally finished, it was left to gather dust on the windowsill – I think it may still be there.

Building model kits taught skills for later life such as following instructions; manual dexterity; hand-to-eye co-ordination; patience; and the pleasure of seeing something develop before you and knowing you had made it yourself.

Airfix is now in a fix as their sales are down. Parents complain that many of their constructs are violent. Today’s children, and their parents, prefer instant gratification with either sanitised whimsy or video games, which as we all know, are inherently placid.

Whether this has anything to do with the disappearance of Small Books and Models, I don’t know, but I do find it symptomatic that it has been replaced by a shop called ‘The Apple of My Eye’. Established in late 2005, TAME purports to sell ‘a gorgeous compilation of our favourite hard to find nursery items and playthings from around the world.’

The website insists the ‘fantastic range of goodies are vintage inspired, contemporary and whimsical.’ The writers freely admit that they love sentiment. They also love the unholy mix of marketing and manipulation. They trumpet that the goods they sell are ‘ethically made and traded’, offering a ‘unique example of craftsmanship and design’.

Hence you can buy dolls with pink co-ordinated accessories, so your ‘wee one’ can learn early on about succumbing to fashion dictates. With a clear conscience and a knowledge that you are being ‘kind to the world and those in it’ you can start a child on the road to capitalism with ‘Birdie anibank’; a hand-knitted depository that wears a ‘cute little hat and sports rainbow striped wings.’

Smothered in saccharine you can buy ‘cosy’ cotton items for ‘onseies’ and ‘modernist’ blankets that are, apparently, ‘so snuggly (sic) that parting from them would be unbearable.’ The nauseating advertising continues with things for ‘baby’s room’ like the resolutely pastel ‘bedtime buddies’ and ‘softies’.

Of course, gender stereotypes are strictly reinforced with blues for the boys and pink for the girls. If you don’t yet know what flavour ‘the sunshine in your life’ is going to be, but are still desperate to part with your cash, there are some green, orange and brown items: Elfie and Sprite are mythical spirits combining a twee fantasy world with the latest boardroom buzzwords, as they are ‘perfect guests for tea parties, and robust enough for garden adventures.’ And there are knitted car-shaped music boxes which are both pink and blue.

TAME offers ‘apple lessons’ in which you can learn new talents and ‘wow your coffee group friends with stories of your trapeze and aerial tissue lessons.’ Clearly this is far more socially acceptable than spending time with your child building a model of something real.

We have softened the edges of our world, so it is all a big blurry, fuzzy cocoon. How nice; how safe; how mind-numbingly dull; how blatantly untrue; how crushingly brainwashed. Pass me the Valium – oh, I see, you’ve used it all up already.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

International Comedy Festival

I used to go to a lot of live comedy when I was a student in Manchester, where there were regular gigs and stand-up comedy was an art form. Here, in New Zealand, I know the population is a lot smaller and there are not the opportunities to perform, but there is such a dearth of comedic talent that I came to the conclusion that New Zealand is just not a funny nation. I know Kiwis will disagree and I can hear the shout of 'Flight of the Chonchords' from here. But, and leaving the merits or otherwise of that particular duo (who weren't valued in New Zealand until they were recognised in the U.S.), what else have you got?

Well, quite a bit, it appears. The line-up for this year's
International Comedy Festival includes some pretty fine Kiwi comedians. I am full of respect for those who hurdle these obstacles and prove that geographical isolation doesn't have to produce insularity. Jeremy Elwood, whose professional brand of political and social comment is so good that it reminds me of the fabulous Ben Elton, is an absolute stand-out. But then, he was born in Canada, and raised in the UK. If you get the chance to check him out, do.

I have been trying to get to as many shows as I can and it is a delight to see some good comedy again. One of the things I like about the festival (apart from the laughter) is the fact that not all the shows are on really late. Some even start as early as 6.30pm, which I think is very reasonable. As I said, I used to go to comedy a lot when I was a student. When I didn't have to get up early the next morning and go to work.

Maybe that's why traditionally stand-up appeals to a younger audience. You don't have to do a different show; just do it earlier. Sometimes it can be even better when the audience hasn't had a chance to get pissed yet, and can actually appreciate what you're saying. Just a thought...

These are my reviews of the shows I have seen so far:
First Laughs
The Lonesome Buckwhips: Charity Gala
Janey Godley: Tell It Like It Is

Monday, 28 April 2008

Fennel tea: my newest favourite thing

My new favourite thing is fennel tea. Twinings have brought out a version in their infusions range, which they call Pure Fennel and in which they claim to only use fennel seeds. Hmm, I could probably pick a few and add my own boiling water, and not have to pay for a box with a rather fey picture on the front of a fennel bush in flower.

My run through Pass of Branda (which sounds wonderfully gothic or otherworldly but is actually just a wee hill between bays) is lined with fennel – in the summer it feels like running through a curry kitchen of bright yellow flowers; in spring the brilliant green feathery fronds hold enough residual moisture to soak you as you brush past.

Fennel is naturally caffeine-free, has ‘anti-spasmodic properties’ and stimulates the production of gastric juices. Not only is it useful for gastrointestinal and menstrual cramps, heartburn, diarrhoea, and colic, but apparently it can also be used to help alleviate the symptoms of whooping cough, asthma, bronchitis, and other upper-respiratory infections.

I don't know if any of this is true, but it is a great ingredient to add a piquant flavour to many meals. I discovered a great recipe involving fennel, pernod and cannellini beans which goes perfectly with firm white fish. My mouth is watering as I think of it.

Fennel has been used as a drug to aid indigestion for centuries form the Chinese to the Greeks and of course, the Romans. It is native to the Mediterranean and has a mild liquorice flavour. Fennel tea is not as strong as liquorice tea, which can leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Fennel tea is good for bloating and gas, and can be combined with peppermint for a different type of refreshing flavour.

As with all organic and natural remedies, there may or may not be a measure of truth to any of this, but who cares? It tastes good!