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A right royal time of it

Sixty-one years ago the nation was gripped in a similar wave of enthusiasm as that which we seem to be experiencing at the moment with the arrival in New Zealand of a rather pleasant young couple and their child. A young Queen Elizabeth and her consort arrived in New Zealand in December 1953 for a royal tour that seemed to go on forever.

Well, it had started many months prior to the visit with the work done in the schools. Projects about just what she was Queen of, and it was then quite a lot of red on the map of the world. But there was also quite a lot about the paraphernalia of the Royal Family – castles, crowns and ceremonies.

Each school child in New Zealand received a fold out of the State Coach, the gold one and its six white horses and their jockeys in the stockings and elaborate jackets. Just quite why we received this was not really made clear as when they later arrived the Queen and her Duke travelled in black cars, on the backs of open Land Rovers and even in the Royal Train. They bought their own boat for convenience.

But the high point of the preparations for the visit was the presentation to each school child of a Royal Visit Medal – a rather important looking gong with its blue ribbon. Back in 1953 this seemed like the pinnacle of achievement.

Of course the cynics and perhaps the republicans would have a field day about all this and how bad it was and how the minds of young people should not be distorted with all this rubbish. But you have to remember that back then the shadow of World War II was still slowly lifting, countries like New Zealand were still experiencing the austerities that came from that and there was no television. So an event of a national scale and involving a huge number of places was a chance to be happy.

And so most towns in New Zealand and especially the ones visited decorated themselves up and this in itself brought pleasure and happiness.

When the Queen and her Duke were in Hamilton, Mum took us to stand for quite some time at a spot that gave us a glimpse and no more of the flash cars as they went past and spotting the white-gloved hand giving us a wave was mission accomplished.

And so it seems the pattern repeats in a modernised manner today with the young couple and the royal kid.  Although a very significant difference is the extent to which they mix and mingle, bend over to chat with little people, laugh and have fun doing things that would have seemed outrageous back in the fifties. The mock sailing race, the jet boat ride, taking George to Plunket, the ants running around ostensibly playing rugby, the cycling stadium and such activities all seemed harmless enough.

Greatly different this time is the contingent of “the media” that swarm around the whole business.  We are constantly told that New Zealand is receiving publicity that “money can’t buy”.  I don’t believe this largely because when I travel I find plenty of people who do not know where New Zealand is, cannot distinguish between it and Australia, have no understanding of our politics and/or people and none of that bothers them.

Perhaps it is not necessary for us to seek a purpose in such events as a royal tour any more than we might in the visit of an opera singer or author or an orchestra or a sports team that arrives. In different ways we are simply better for having enjoyed the experiences. And so it is with this past week.  It is not necessary to seek to understand the crowds that line up to see the royals now any more than we needed to in the fifties or in London outside Buckingham Palace.

Should we believe that such a visit could persuade us which way to vote at the general election as has been suggested? Probably not. Those seeking to be the government will need something stronger than “no royal tours in election year” as a policy. And there seems to be little in a visit such as this of the negativity that the media feeds on and indeed promotes.

However next week we will be able to get back to life as normal – murder and mayhem, cyclists and cars, surplus and deficit, missing aircraft, whales, oil and farms, water and Canterbury and……. schools will be able to get back to the projects on Eskimos.


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Pathways-ED: Appreciating today by thinking a little about yesterday


Good morning, good morning, good morning! It’s a sunny day today in Wellington and this morning we are going to……”

Before I went to school this was how many a morning started when my mother had the radio on and listened to Aunt Daisy while completing all those chores that mothers have when they have pre-schoolers. Aunt Daisy was a broadcasting phenomenon in the 1950s and in that era before the cult of celebrity took grip on New Zealand, she was a widely known and greatly loved figure.

Not only did she broadcast her daily programme, she wrote a cookbook or two, a book of “Handy Hints” which I have and which is encyclopaedic in its scope. Above all she was a character.

Then there were others, Selwyn Toogood comes to mind. An effective broadcaster across radio (quiz shows, hit parades, general programmes and so on), he made the transition to television with both quiz shows and “handy hint” panel shows.

There were many others including Colin Scrimgeour (before my time!) who were greatly famous for their role – in his case in having the government jam his radio station when he was thought likely to be about to urge listeners to vote for the Labour Party.

None of these kinds of broadcasters can be summed up in terms of comparisons to broadcasters of today. The way they worked, the technology they had (or didn’t have!), the stiff formality of all media in those days, the respect for people’s privacy and dignity, the concern for high standards of language use – all these factors circumscribed the way they worked on the media and the kinds of people they were.

All this has come to mind as the media over the past several months has tracked the tragic decline from good health through to the too early death of Sir Paul Holmes. When the media become concerned about one of their own they know no limits and one simply excuses the excesses as emotion over-rules normal practice.

He has been described as New Zealand’s greatest broadcaster of all time and I wonder about this. He certainly was a remarkable character with as much confidence as he had talent across a wide range of things. But the claims are a little over the top. Like all people who enjoy success, they do so on the shoulders of those who went before. He came to talkback radio and was able to mould the “breakfast session” traditions, well established by people like Phil Shone and Merv Smith with the still relatively new talk back radio potential pioneered by the likes of Gordon Dryden, Eccles Smith, Geoff Sinclair and Tim Bickerstaff and Sir Bruce Slane. I think that the last one there, Sir Bruce Slane, a well regarded legal figure actually used a pseudonym since some practices of the past still prevailed and it was not totally acceptable for a lawyer to be doing this.

Then there is the issue of current affairs. Sir Paul Holmes was not only the brightest star in the current affairs constellation over quite a period of time but, for the past ten or so years, pretty well the only one. Radio has been better in this regard than television.  A serious discussion with him at the helm was a serious discussion. Well informed, well prepared, quick on his feet and faster with his tongue, he stood alongside those he interviewed and it was often good television or radio. But the last twenty years of current affairs barely bears comparison with the previous twenty years when a stable of commentators seemed to make television the go-to place for intelligent discussion of what was happening in New Zealand. Of course the success of Muldoon and Lange and their governments handed them plenty to get stuck in to and they did this with energy and at the time a ferocity that was there with Paul Holmes but with no-one else.

A mark of greatness is perhaps the ways in which a gap is filled when such people move on. There has been no explorer / adventurer / philanthropist to replace Sir Edmund Hillary and there might never be one of his ilk again. The wisdom of a Sir Paul Reeves is badly missed in these fractious times. There aren’t many to step up to fill the gap left by Sir Paul Callaghan, a rare talent.

To be sure, Sir Paul Holmes left large gaps when he moved on. Mark Sainsbury never captured the magic that sustained the eponymous Holmes Show, Mike Hoskings suffers by comparison in the breakfast slot while Jack Tame is a very poor out-of-depth substitute on Saturday morning radio. And Seven Sharp just beggars belief – not current affairs, not adult, not intelligent, low level humour…. Children’s’ television? No, it can’t be, children demand more intelligence and better humour.

Holmes was one who took the cliché out of being “a hard act to follow’.

We have people who do well, athletes, rugby players, musicians (some of who would be considered “great”) and lots more but our sense of proportion in our judgments is often distorted by the media that wallows in its power to create greatness. Does not the extent to which the weekly magazines immerse themselves so deeply in the trivial and with people who are famous simply because we are told they are famous, somewhat astonish? Greatness is not a crowed place and the media might reflect a little more on who might already have got there before they dish out the accolades.

Reflecting on the past, not just the last few minutes relatively speaking, is not a bad thing. Perhaps perspective requires this. Do we get this right in education? Could we name our great teachers and educators? The ones who really made a difference? It would be worth giving this some thought at this time when the media is obsessed largely with the negative when it comes to education. The agenda will be set by them if we do not set a different one.