Yuke-Yuke

I’ve always loved musical jokes.

Q. How do you know if a drummer’s knocking your door.

A. The knocking keeps speeding up and slowing down.

Q. What do you call someone who hangs out with a group of musicians?

A. A drummer.

They never get old. And like most things musical, there’s always a fair bit of snobbery involved. Music is tribal, it affirms identity. “I like this.” “But not if those dicks do.”

This was underlined when I was tracked down by a Canadian gent who is writing a history of one corner of NZ music. It wasn’t an interview, he was just buying me coffee and a muffin while I showed him photos of the mid-‘80s alt. music scene in Christchurch. We bonded over our love of history and DIY culture. But when he asked me what defined ‘real’ Flying Nun music my answer made him whip out his phone and start recording.

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I said music is like religion. It fires up firm beliefs and conflicting passions. Arguments are inevitable and unending, vicious and unbending. Like religion, bands were sneered at for not being ‘real’ Flying Nun while others were allowed into the canon.

In the same way, drummers are the whipping boys (and girls) of rock ‘n’ roll; they will always take a beating. Actually, no one makes jokes about female drummers. They are too cool for words, sexy beyond comprehension. Even the thought has me diverted.

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I first became aware of the ukulele renaissance when I worked on stories about the Play It Strange initiative founded by Mike Chunn in the early 2000s. I did lots of interviews with him as he went into schools helping kids engage with music by replacing the recorder with the ukulele. He was a nice guy, a bass player; the cleverest and sexiest type of musician, according to the ladies (and some gents). He wanted to show kids that writing songs was easy, and fun. The recorder was not easy, or fun. It was painful to play (and listen to), and it killed the love of music in generations of school children.

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The uke is a great starting point; a way into joining a band and developing the craft of composition and performance.

But some people never went beyond it. Soon, hobby groups appeared everywhere, murdering wonderful songs with ham-fisted irony. You and your unmusical mates could have a few drinks and be just like the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Except not as good. Or funny.

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And while I generally love music of all kinds, the ukulele renaissance died for me on the night I saw the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra ‘warming up’ the crowd at a rugby test in Wellington. It was raining, bitterly cold, and while the crowd scoffed chips and drank flat beer, the ‘band’ tried to warm them up by droning their way through Talking Head’s ‘Road To Nowhere’. It was just awful. The sound, the performance, the choice of song: all were poor. It was like bad sex, but worse. Much, much worse.

The ukulele had officially become the 21st century recorder.

But here’s the thing. The other day I picked up a ukulele. Tuned it up and twisted my fingers into the unfamiliar chords. A good song-book had appeared in the house and the selection was appealing. I started on Hunters & Collector’s ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ and couldn’t stop. The beautiful, deep, simplicity of that classic tempered my resolute snobbery. I was soon banging my through AC/DC, Paul Kelly and Nancy Sinatra, switching to guitar when they chords were easier for my big, fat fingers.

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Three days later I’m happy to say I love it.

But don’t tell my muso friends.

Q. What’s the difference between a ukulele and an onion?

A. No one cries if you cut a ukulele in half.

To Think, to Speak

Last night I dreamed I slept with Ellen. We didn’t sleep. We were standing up, face-to-face. Her blue eyes were stunning, invitingly playful, and their beauty almost diverted me from the delicious sensation of how smooth and warm she felt. I was in heaven, I didn’t care that we were standing in the street, I just didn’t want it to end. But then a concern came into her eyes and she said, “I like girls.” I immediately withdrew, and began a flustered apology that ended as I woke.

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I’ve never had such thoughts about Ellen. I like her. She is engaging and full of play. The only reason she entered my dream was that she appeared briefly in The History of Comedy. The episode focused on female comics, more specifically, American comedians. It was typically chauvinistic, ignoring the rest of the world, and any form of comedy that isn’t stand-up, TV or film. There was no room for the world of comic literature or theatre. Or actual comics.

But that’s not the point. When you’re trying to sell something like an idea, always talk big; include little, exclude much.

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I thought about this the other day as I listened to my partner explain the persecution of witches to our three young daughters. They’re smart girls, but as with all broad subjects, things need to be simplified. However, when my partner said that the witch-craze happened because men were afraid of powerful women, I couldn’t hold my tongue. Yes, there was truth in the statement, a lot, but we had both recently listened to a podcast about witches where a telling point was made. The overwhelmingly majority of accusers were low-status women, and girls.

My partner looked at me with a little anger, and kept going. It was not the time to say that the persecution only took root because those in power (men), listened. And when they stopped listening, the wide-spread persecution of witches ended. Such accusations were once more viewed as vexatious, rather than the work of the devil. Europe had gone from the Early Modern period to the Enlightenment, and the brutal religious turmoil of the Reformation no-longer devastated economies, societies, and beliefs. People felt less disrupted and an accusation did not require a witch-hunt.

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Yesterday I read Margaret Atwood’s measured, and well-argued, reflections on the #MeToo movement. It lead to brutal attacks devoid of nuance and reflection. Some women felt betrayed. How could the writer of the Handmaid’s Tale ‘attack’ women in this way? Atwood had done none of the things she was accused of. As always, she was brilliant and insightful. But in the narrow minds of her accusers she was a traitor, siding with the inevitable back-lash.

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The world is not black and white. Nuance and shade are important. Questioning voices must be heard rather than dismissed. I learned this studying history where historians hardly ever agree on anything (the collective noun = an argumentation of historians). They constantly qualify every opinion (as I did when I added my voice about the witch-craze the other day).

Sometimes it’s best to say nothing if you want to be heard. As with comedy, timing (and delivery) is everything.

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I said this to my partner when she wanted to write an angry letter to the editor about a particularly opinionated, and ignorant, review of a book by a writer we both admire. Knausgaard thrills people because he gets at truth in a unique way. When I finally read the review I saw why it had angered my partner. It was badly argued and dismissive, both confident and clueless, with the self-assured tone of a narrowly clever young woman. Worst of all, the reviewer took pride in not having read his wildly successful, and much-loved, previous works. Just because she didn’t like the title. Sniff!

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I could see why my partner wanted to strike back. Ignorance is nothing to be proud of. But I’m a bit of a Stoic and I said whatever my partner wrote would be dismissed with a similar lack of comprehension. No actual communication would take place. She needed to turn her anger into something more creative. That is the point of Stoicism. It’s not about holding your tongue. It’s about not being beholden to pleasure or pain. Hard-felt emotions should be acknowledged, released and turned into gold. That way they cease to damage you, and others may enjoy your efforts.

It is important to speak up, to not be fearful. But it is just as important to measure your words, to make sure they address the whole palette, not just the shades you admire.

I have never lusted after Ellen. But I will remember the sensations I felt and the loving, troubled, look in her eye until my last breath. She didn’t need to say a word.

 

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First of All

Firstly: I think it’s great that our Prime Minister is having a baby. It’s nice. It makes me happy.

Secondly: I love all the discussion it has provoked. Yes, there is plenty of vitriol born of sexism, and a queer sense of betrayal, but that is the nature of social media and the overall discussion is a good one to have.

Thirdly: Why are so many people crowing with pride? Unless you are directly involved (or one of the grandparents-to-be) aren’t you as deluded as those pouring scorn? It is like celebrating the success of a team you didn’t play in. Surely you have to be on the field, or in the bed, to take pride?

Just like a sporting triumph, I believe a lot of people think it says something great about our nation. Yes, I’m tempted to cheer along, but the pregnancy of our PM comes a very distant second to the leader of a troubled, and socially repressive, Muslim state that beat us by 28 years. 28 years!!! A generation ago!? I see no reason for claiming a medal. They were packed away yonks ago. The cheering crowds have gone home to make, and raise, babies (and grandchildren).

Fourthly: New Zealand has always prided itself on being an egalitarian nation. It is one of our most cherished founding myths, an oft-celebrated characteristic of our national identity. Yes, the gap between rich and poor has greatly increased over the last decades, and celebrity worship has crept in, but we still resist deferring to power or authority. We are not required to call police officers ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ (USA), or fawn over our ‘betters’ (UK). When I see a royal or a famous celebrity in the street I do not bow or scream or cry. Like most NZers, I treat them as I would any other human being. I either say gidday, or ignore them.

Fifthly: Jacinda and Clarke (and baby-to-be) are ­not, as reported, the ‘First Family’. This is an unofficial term used to describe the family of the head of state of the USA. Which is a republic. Which we, as yet, are not.

This misnomer seemed to sneak in during the wildly popular terms of John Key as Prime Minister when media darling, Max Key, was repeatedly referred to as the ‘first son’. The fact that this scion of privilege grabbed this mantle with three arms is understandable given a fawning media, his narrow life experience, and the actions of his father in bringing back the archaic titles of Sir and Dame in order to elevate his sporting heroes, and mates, above the hoi polloi.

This may seem all a bit pedantic, but founding myths and national identities are important. They inevitably contain as much self-delusion as truth but, nevertheless, they are the stories that bind us.

I take pride in our egalitarian myth. I enact it and take part. No one stands above me, and I stand over no other. No one should be held back, or elevated, because of gender, race or class.

Last verse (same as the first): I love the fact that our PM is having a baby. But Clarke is not the ‘First Man’, or ‘First Dad’, as he has repeatedly been referred to in our news and social media.

The first family of NZ is actually the family of our Head of State.

If people don’t know who that is, then it’s time to ask questions of our country, our media, and ourselves.

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Brick by Brick

I guess it’s a question for the AFOL community. How long are you happy to be separated from your bricks?

The question seemed a good one. It came during the first of several presentations at a Well-LUG meeting of AFOLs. My 9 year-old’s membership is controversial. Not all LUGs welcome non-adults. AFOLs are adult fans of Lego but the Wellington LUG (unlike other Lego User Groups) let her join.

How do I get more Lego into my life?

The presenter proposed the LUG made models of civic redevelopments bringing computer visualisations to life (via Lego). Each member would contribute a section to a larger model to be displayed to the public.

 

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Is it going to be insured? You know, after what happened in that mall in Queensland?…. (General muttering). Ah yes, the helicopter thing. (Shaking of heads). Look, worst case scenario it gets tipped over and all the bricks get mixed up.

It was a freezing Saturday in the Hutt. Canterbury and Otago had declared States of Emergency but thirty adults, four teens and three kids were at the meeting to consider Lego. In an adult way.

How do you best photograph your models? SLR or smartphone? Lightbox or in the field?

What is GBC? (The Great Ball Contraption. Engineered models that deliver balls to other contraptions in inventive ways).

 

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LDD vs Stud.io (virtual Lego building programs).

Who still uses LDD?

A show of hands indicated most still used the former.

(Sharp intake of breath).

It won’t be long lads, it won’t be long…

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How do you get the most out of brinklink? (The online trading community akin to eBay or TradeMe). Apparently, the hardest part is describing the brick you want.

Keep it simple. Think like a store man…  Describe it backwards. And don’t order over a glass of wine. Unless cost isn’t an issue.

 

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But it wasn’t all talk. New members introduced themselves, and their passions.

Russell, my 2nd time. I do vehicles. Mustangs, Chevys. But like kids’ cartoons, with over-sized engines.

 A woman speaks for a retired couple with ‘sudden time’ on their hands.

Terry does The Excavator… with added motors (impressed murmur). I do Dr. Who.

 My name’s Brian. I am obsessed with building spaceships.

 Solenne. I think building furniture is what I’m good at.

 Yeah, I do vintage space-ships. 1978-1990.

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It felt like an AA meeting, but with fizzy drink. Lots of fizzy drink. I awkwardly talked to the fans (who were almost as socially awkward as me) while my girl necked a Fanta and admired the models, especially the baby figure. (Very rare, according to those around me).

Look at this figure, Dad. What’s she holding? …Gosh, it’s a bit Baywatch… Yes, (says the proud man) it’s Pamela Anderson. I got her second-hand. (He lets me hold tiny Pam).

 

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And then it was on to the bit that my daughter came for. The competitive group build. Teams of four were given a huge box of blue and green eight-stud blocks and allowed thirty minutes to build four animals (turtle, goat, elephant and duck). Everyone lay on the floor, chatting and building. It looked fun. The models were amazing and varied. When the five minute call came my daughter burst into tears. The pressure, the fizz, the realization that her elephant didn’t have tusks? Maybe that’s why kids aren’t encouraged to join.

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So, the question remains. Am I an AFOL? I’m certainly a fan of Well-LUG. If I had a passion, it would be building overlooked historical events. Like when the Amazon Queen Thalestris turned up to have Alexander the Great’s baby. Or when senior government ministers let down Piggy Muldoon’s tyres so he couldn’t drive drunk. Or when Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe took Laurence Olivier to see Look Back in Anger and he decided he liked the play after all.

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For me, the best fun was watching the AFOLs. Noticing that their passion was for building models as opposed to the imaginative play (with silly voices) my daughter uses when she ‘plays Lego’ with her sisters.

But most of all I loved, loved, loved the bit the AFOLs openly dislike. When, at the end of the meeting, we pulled all the bricks (and models) apart.

 

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Five Lions (and an almost King)

­1977

The first time I saw the Lions was in a smoky little bar at Mt. Cook. I didn’t know it, but it’s where I was conceived. Presumably not at the bar (though people do funny things at high altitude). This humorous anecdote popped out at my mother’s funeral a few years ago. It got a big laugh.

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Back in 1977 I was 10. Unaware. I didn’t really know who the Lions were, I was a soccer player. However I liked the name and loved the animal, which I got to cuddle at Barrington Mall that same year. It was a promotion for Orana Park where you could drive through the lion enclosure and watch as they ate chunks of meat on your car. Even though I was 10 I knew that the All Blacks were better than everyone else. It was a great source of pride in our tiny nation.

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I was staying at Mt. Cook with family, and family friends, in a little A-frame chalet with no TV. So Dad and me, ‘Uncle’ John and his son, Michael, left the girls in the chalet while we males sloped off to watch the game. It was exciting being a kid in a bar. Against the law! But it was a Test. A very rare Lions Test, as my English dad, Dennis, explained. The four great Home nations against our little one. The dads drank beer (Lion or DB; the only choices back then) while Michael and me ate chips and drank Coke, talked quietly and messed about, watching little rugby.

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1983

The next tour took place in the aftermath of the civil unrest of the1981 Springbok Tour. Dad had taken me to the 2nd Test at Lancaster Park. It was the last rugby game I ever went to (unless paid to go). Riot police jogging in formation. Barbed wire and pitch invasions. Broken glass. Baton charges. People baying for blood. A shared bag of Mackintosh’s toffees with Dad.

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Like a lot of New Zealanders, my opinion of rugby was poisoned by the national trauma of 1981. Families split, flour bombs and beatings, teachers ranting at you to support! Oppose! All took a toll. So I watched none of the 1983 Lions Tour. Rugby culture turned me off. It seemed braying, violent. Ignorant. Racist. I found a welcoming counter-culture in music. It was years before rugby rehabilitated itself in the eyes of many NZers by winning the inaugural World Cup in 1987 (everyone loves a winner).

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1993

With the next Lions tour I was immersed in theatre, acting in shows up and down the country. Touring, touring, performing, writing, learning about the great diversity that plays into our complex national identity. I watched no games. It wasn’t something anyone I knew did.

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2005

By 2005 the world had ‘changed’. And so had rugby. It was now a professional package. It was hustled into professionalism when I started working in TV in 1995. I hid outside hotels with TV crews as the highly sensitive negotiations took place spending long hours talking shit, doing nothing, which is the nature of stake-outs.

At the 2005 game I was working on the ref communication system the officials now use to make decisions. The Lions Tour was the biggest rugby event the country had ever seen. Prince William was there listening to my mix. I was a little nervous.

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Half an hour before kick-off the police let us know that a bomb threat had been phoned in. Evacuation was being considered. 9/11 and the invasion of Iraqi still filled the news and the 2nd in line to the British throne was there. With 45,000 people in the stadium eagerly anticipating a rugby game full evacuation would disrupt the match, and international broadcasting. Satellite bookings and advertising windows would be sent into disarray. The police decided the threat was a hoax.

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2017

Tonight I’m working on the 2nd Lions Test in Wellington. Packs of Lions supporters have been roaming the streets all week. They seem a good-natured bunch. It’s hard to reflect in anticipation. While I am the same person who watched games in 1977 and 2005 (and ignored them in 1983 and 1993), I’ve viewed each one quite differently. The same eyes see both less and more.

 

 

I expect to stay wrapped–up high in the media box I work in, with heaters and Wi-Fi cranked, doing my job and keeping warm. Trying not to scoff my stash of liquorice allsorts too quickly.

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No one expects the Lions to win, not even them. The All Blacks are 5-1 favourites. All I can say for certain is that I (probably) won’t be watching the next tour in 2029. And the British (probably) will have a new king.

 

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At Sea

It’s a strange feeling pretending that you are invisible in the middle of a celebration, silently observing, placidly staring in the opposite direction.

My work life has been peppered with such moments. Some came back to me as I watched Team New Zealand win the America’s Cup on the telly this morning. The moments are fresh, but a lifetime ago.

Like a lot of my scruffy South Island peers I grew up writing off the America’s Cup as an elitist rich man’s game. It’s how I felt when Team NZ won the cup in San Diego in 1995 in my first months of working in TV up in Auckland. There was champagne to celebrate at the rugby game I was covering at Eden Park but I didn’t partake.

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Victory Parade 1995

 

The following week I worked on the parade down Queen St to welcome home the team and the cup. It all seemed a bit rah-rah to me. Not rock ‘n roll. Sharing a success you yourself hadn’t earned. But that’s sport.

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Mayor, PM and Peter Blake, Victory Parade 2000

 

When the defence took place in Auckland in 1999 I got a lot closer, spending every race day on the water chasing the yachts on a camera boat. There were many rough, lumpy days. A lot of hot, becalmed weeks. I read dozens of books and watched people amuse themselves with surfing dogs, dolphins and women in bikinis clambering aboard to say hello to the sailors.

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There were parties. Lots of parties. Prada. Team NZ. Louis Vuitton. Free Moet by the bucket.

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On lay days from racing I did field sound for the billionaire, Bill Koch (youngest of the infamous Koch brothers, shapers of American politics with deep, shady pockets). Bill was great. A big kid. He had won the America’s Cup with America3 and just wanted to interview all his friends for fun. He put on a bbq to thank everyone at the end of the event. It was a little bit Great Gatsby. White linen tables in front of a cliff-top mansion over-looking Rangitoto and the Hauraki Gulf. Silver service and a famous band playing on the rolling lawn. He sat with me to eat his dinner; a nice touch when so many rich and important people in need of schmoozing.

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I wish I had pictures of that night, but all the spectacle became so normal and every day, and, unlike now, everything didn’t need a digital record to exist.

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Victory Parade 2000

 

 

On the day Team NZ successfully defended the cup I was deployed on land, so to speak, bobbing about in the centre of the Viaduct on a pontoon awaiting the arrival of the winners and the presentation of the world’s oldest sporting trophy. I had rigged a radio mic on the podium earlier in the day and had a wired backup concealed within reach.

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As Russell Coutts lifted the Auld Mug with his young apprentice Dean Barker the confetti bombs exploded and thousands cheered. It was deafening. I looked behind me to the camera people held back by security, took a photo of the drunk and excited crowd, and wondered how invisible I could be.

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In shorts, bottom right, taking first photo in this post

 

 

3 Days in Samoa (part 2)

Dazed from the heat and humidity, and a 10 hour trip (plus afternoon rums in the Koru lounge in Auckland and Merlot with dinner), I ticked ‘sport’ on the immigration card. When questioned I said, business and sport. The rugby. The Blues and Reds. The referees? The giant official smiled from behind his tiny desk, amended the card, and handed me back my passport.

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We picked up our rental and drove to the resort by the airport ‘turn right, drive a few minutes… bump!… first right’. The directions were spot on. The gates to Aggie Grey’s Sheraton Resort were indeed right after a sudden bump.

In my room I fiddled with the telly, trying to decide if I needed food. But it was 10pm. I was exhausted and needed sleep.

I woke with my throat raw. Two flights. Sleeping with air-con. I walked out my patio to the white sands, took a dazed selfie to post on Facebook then joined my workmate for breakfast in the Apolima Fale. It was paradise eating with no walls and such beauty.

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Unlike everyone else working on the first Super Rugby game in Samoa we weren’t staying in town, so we had a one hour drive along the coast through village after village, ramshackle and pristine, proud of famous sons The village of David Tua, The village of Joseph Parker etc. I took passing photo after passing photo of open fales, little family stores and concrete swimming holes, all obliterated by bad light or my reflection.

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It was as I remembered from 1999, but much tidier. The rubbish scattered everywhere was now all absent. There are stands all along the road where rubbish is left so roaming dogs can’t get at it. Some are homemade. Some are engineered metal with labels saying ‘Australian Aid’.

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As we got closer to Apia bunting and flags lined the road. For rugby? Apia was jammed with people. Markets and stalls everywhere. We were funnelled away from our destination by closed roads and police. It was Independence Day. Samoa was celebrating throwing off its New Zealand overlord. NZ likes to think it was a benign ‘administrator’ who liberated Samoa from Germany at the start of WWI. But we didn’t let go and our officials mowed down peaceful marchers when they asked for freedom.

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There’s a wonderful Samoan song that remembers that atrocity. I learned it years ago when acting in a Samoan play. I sometimes sing it in the shower, delighting in the onomatopoeic sound of the Samoan word for machine gun. Fanata’avilli. Rat-a-tat-tat.

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It was hot and humid at the stadium. With four road cases to carry up the steep concrete steps to our booth at the top of the stand we took it slow, but it was hard going and my colleague soon began to feel faint and unwell. There was an air con unit but no remote control. It took forever to find someone who understood what we needed.

Heat and lack of water aside, it was an easy rig. I had to clamber onto a dodgy rusty, dusty, roof to rig aerials; a challenge with the grade-2 muscle tear I gave myself when I slipped on some rocks last weekend. But I was strapped from crotch to knee with purple tape so I was reasonably mobile. From the breezy, shaded cool of the roof I looked down to the two fullahs mowing the field. With t-shirts tied over their heads to shield them from the sun, they pushed two domestic lawn mowers across the entire pitch; slowly doing a job done by ride-on mowers in NZ. The average hourly rate is $1.50 over here.

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By 2pm we were done. I’ve never been so thirsty. Though it seemed wrong we couldn’t face the bustle and heat of Apia in celebration. We weren’t here to tourist, so headed to Frankie Hypermarket to pick up bottled water and drive back to the resort.

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After inhaling the plate of fruit left in my room I lay down on the bed to sleep. But as soon as I closed my eyes I felt bad. What a waste. I couldn’t hide in the air-con, no matter how tired I felt, so I put on my togs and headed to the pool. The water was stunning but I couldn’t swim with my torn thigh so I floated about in the empty pool (where was everyone?) before grabbing a sun longer on the beach to watch the ocean breaking on the distant reef.

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Four Australians turned up with drinks on the chairs beside me. The pool bar was unattended so I went up the main bar in my wet togs, trying not to feel self-conscious. It was happy hour. For the next 90 minutes! Alone in paradise I slowly made my way through the NZ$8 cocktails. Apolima Sunrise, Midori Splice and Blue Lagoon. Tequila, Midori, Vodka, Malibu, Blue Curacao and Orange Liqueur all went down easy as I skited on Facebook and listened to the Aussies mither about wedding fails.

So I put on a smile and put on the shitty dress. It’s what bridesmaids do. She wanted to arrive in a helicopter. A helicopter. I said, if you do that my hair will be all to shit. To shit. I literally bit my tongue for two weeks. So she dicked the best man to get back at him. Well you would, wouldn’t you? They’re still together. Toronto. Toronto for fuck’s sake.

The man drank beer in silence as his three bikinied companions competitively relived each horror. I guess he had never been to a bad wedding.

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