Friday, 27 November 2009

Lake Hayes Mistake

A couple of weeks ago I had occasion to go to a newish housing development – Lake Hayes Estate – and it got me thinking about homes and communities.

This place was originally established as ‘affordable family housing’ although with an average sale price of $604,000, I’m not sure about their definition of the word ‘affordable’; a vile subjective term anyway.

Some of the houses are well-appointed and incorporate some intelligent examples of design. Others are simply hideous. And they are all lined up in neat little rows with double garages and tidy lawns.

They are surrounded by mountains and sunk down in a dip so you can’t see from the road, which means they can’t see the beautiful lake for which they are named. In fact, many of them can’t see anything except next-door’s fence.

So I suppose their occupants go to work all day in Queenstown, or possibly Arrowtown, while their children are at schools or kindergartens. They come home to their fortress, pull the curtains, and put their feet up, happy in their nuclear, suburban, Stepford Wives existence.

When I was there I didn’t see a soul, apart from the rubbish collector. There is a park where children can play, which is laid with Astroturf and fenced off from predators. There is no cafĂ©, there are no shops and there is certainly no pub.

When we moved to our house, one of the reasons for choosing the location was so that we could walk to the local village and go to the pub. I realise this may not be everyone’s priority, but what happens when they run out of bread or milk? They have to get in a car and drive to the supermarket. It’s not the sort of place that encourages ‘thinking outside the box’ (another vile expression). Living in one? That’s another matter.

Neither does it encourage community. The propaganda calls it a township, which to me has sinister connotations of segregation and apartheid. There are walkways so you can pop round to your friend’s house, if they live in the same estate as you. As it is not on the way to anywhere, the roads are quiet so the kids could ride their bikes, if there were any in evidence. It is safe and secure and sterile. We used to call these sorts of places cul-de-sacs, or dead ends.

William Morris promoted the idea of community or fellowship – “Fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell; fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death; and the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship’s sake ye do them.”

But there is no evidence of fellowship here. No laughter or conversation. But wait, I saw one – a tree house in a walnut grove. It was a prime example of youthful enthusiasm and breaking the rules in a totally harmless way. It will probably be removed soon. This is not a place for fun, learning, or exploration.

Sadly these days people are forming ‘communities’ with virtual strangers on their electronic antisocial networking pages. They would rather stay in their house with the metaphorical drawbridge firmly raised rather than meet folk for a pint down the pub. The clean, barren impersonality of Lakes Hayes Estate may well be the way of the future. I hope not. I think it’s a big mistake.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The tyranny of book lists

The Telegraph has released a list of 100 books that defined the noughties. It's interesting. It doesn't claim these are the best books written in the past decade; just the ones that have had the most impact on the book-reading (and even non-book-reading) populace.

Top of the list is J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - fair enough. The publishing world would certainly be a different place if it weren't for the boy wizard. As the author of the piece, Brian MacArthur notes, "If you don’t know what a Muggle is by now, you’re either Rip van Winkle or enormously stubborn."

He also points out the influence of the Richard and Judy book club (the 100 titles they selected sold 30 million copies), the politics of the Blair years, and the impact of the war on terrorism and the resulting conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the decade of the rise of the non-celebrity (Jade Goody) and the runaway best-seller (Dan Brown).

Of course, there are the usual spurious splutters of indignation from the faux-literati; "Can't believe you've not included..."; "Don't make me laugh"; "I'm not being a snob, but..."; "Are these things written to reflect the vox populai?"; "A list to give any aspiring writer who still has a clean conscience a lifelong stomach ache. Filled with trivia, morbidity, and sheer horror."; "You missed..." These from people who clearly didn't get the point of the article.

And MacArthur writes well - how about this description of Speaking for Myself by Cherie Blair - "Prime Minister’s wife turns into Lady Macbeth. The rest of the country cringes." - this one of Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss - "Bossy, humorous punctuation primer that taught us to love the semicolon." - or this of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold - "Grim, grim grim: teenage girl is raped and murdered, and watches her family from heaven. Everyone loved it."

Naturally, being a list-loving Libran, the first thing I did was see how many books on the list I have actually read (14), how many are on my bookshelves waiting to be read (14) and how many others I might actually read having seen this list (19).

I say I love lists, but actually they tyrannise me. When I see such a list, I feel compelled to somehow validate myself by measuring up to it. And I end up buying more books. Every time we move house, we cart boxes and boxes of my books from place to place and yet I still buy more and go regularly to the library. It's a serious addiction.

I realised recently that even if I never buy another book and live to an average life expectancy, I won't be able to read all the books I own. It was a sobering thought. And yet I still buy them. I blame the reviews and the lists which point out failings in my literary knowledge. I think perhaps I need help.

Susan Hill has the same problem as me, but she is famous, so she has written a book about it. In Howard's End is on the Landing she describes how she eschewed bookshops for a year and only read books from her own bookshelves. She came up with a list of 40 books that "I think I could manage with alone, for the rest of my life". I don't think I need to read this list as it would only put more pressure on me.

Also, despite assurances that the book is "charming", I'm really not sure that I could cope with the envy sure to ensue from reading descriptions of cosy farmhouse life snug around the aga in the sumptuous kitchen while her Shakespearean scholar husband (I didn't know she was married to Stanley Wells) potters about in the background. They're bound to have a big ginger cat too.

Anyway, I have my own system. It's not exactly fool-proof, but it sort of works, and I do work my way through several of my volumes. I'll tell you about it in another post. Meanwhile, I've got some books to return to the library...

Monday, 23 November 2009

Hard work doesn't pay

Last weekend we went down to Invercargill so that Him Outdoors could run the Southland Marathon. It was celebrating its one hundredth anniversary and is the oldest full distance marathon in the Southern Hemisphere.

I hobbled around the 10km on a dodgy knee, and Him Outdoors ran the marathon in a personal best time (2:52:15) – he doesn’t really ‘do’ marathons unless they are off-road and over mountains.

But this isn’t really the point. What I noticed was that he was equal 23rd overall and 14th Master (a ‘Master’ is over 35 on race day). Twelve of the top 20 males were Masters. There were 33 Open men, and 159 Masters. In the women’s category the top two women were Masters. The ratio of Open to Masters was 17:58.

In the half-marathon, Bernie Portenski ran 1:27:27, the second fastest half marathon ever by a woman over 60. She was just over a minute outside the world record. I don’t suppose you heard about it.

You probably did hear about the LG Text championships, because it was on national news. The national ‘champion’ won $10,000 and a trip to New York to represent NZ in the world championships where the winner gets USD100,000.

Despite all the talk about battling obesity and pushing play, sport is not really encouraged for young folk. Obviously the bright lights and big dollars have allure. In real sport (from which I am excluding X-games, Monopoly, poker and paintball), there isn’t any for anything other than rugby. Hopefully the fantastic All Whites victory (although they might have to change that moniker in South Africa) might change this. But I doubt it.

Apart from some nationalistic flag waving, the Olympic rowing and cycling medals had little effect on the youth psyche. Why? Because it’s hard work. It’s a hell of a lot of training for a number of years to perhaps get a medal, and you probably won’t be that good. Early morning starts, quantified nutritional intake, sacrifices of nights out drinking and partying, commitment and dedication… Why not just press a few buttons or throw a few dice instead?

Peter Snell, John Walker, Murray Halberg, Dick Quax, Arthur Lydiard, Marise Chamberlain, Alison Roe – these are legendary names and rightfully so. They earned their reputation and respect by quite literally doing the hard yards.

Times have changed and what kids want these days, according to career surveys and interviews, is money and the ‘fame’. Often they have no concept that they actually have to earn that fame.

A friend of mine who interviewed potential hosts for a radio station told me that when she asked the candidates why they wanted to be on the radio, they nearly all said because they wanted to be famous – not a good journalist, a knowledgeable presenter, a music lover, a comedian, or even (perhaps knowing that they lacked any aptitude) a personality.

With the comparable rewards that are being offered, no wonder kids would rather sit on their arses text messaging their friends than go out training for five hours a day, fitted around their ‘real’ job because they can’t get sponsorship to be an athlete. They may be lazy, but they’re not stupid.