2003 reloaded

by Listener writers / 27 December, 2003
The year of shock and awe. Shock that war was waged without legitimacy or reason, awe at the gall of those who did it; shock at the defeat of complacent champions, awe at the arrogance of their leaders; shock at the tragedies, awe at the achievements ... from the Middle East to Middle Earth, from Washington to Wellington, it's time again to wring out the old!

So here it is, nearly December 31 again, and still no weapons of mass destruction have turned up. For that matter, neither has Saddam Hussein. Or Osama bin Laden. Some mistake, surely? This was the year when the American-led invasion was supposed to put everything right in Iraq and conclusively prove the case for war. As it turned out, the only weapon of mass destruction anyone saw in 2003 was the Ring on Frodo's finger.

Two events, one brutally real, the other fantastically fictional, seemed to bracket this year of grace: the fall of Baghdad and the rise of Middle Earth. The fact that New Zealanders probably got more excited about the latter either proves the indomit-able power of the human imagination or confirms that this country can hide its head in a hole with the best of them - especially if it's a hobbit hole.

For the figuratively minded, there were parallels between the two events. With the gollumish Tony Blair never far away, urging him on, George W Bush doggedly climbed his own Mt Doom and thrust the Coalition of the Willing into the fire - along with a few thousand apparently expendable human lives. The really scary thing is that, with Baghdad taken, Bush no longer seems to be working from a script.

Third only to the Iraq war and Lord of the Rings as the major news event of 2003 - for New Zealanders, anyway - was Paul Holmes's "cheeky darkie" remark, followed closely by the America's Cup mast debacle. In both cases, something apparently snapped. But if stories such as these could so easily hog the headlines, it rather suggested that there were no major economic grievances upon which to dwell. In short, with Helen Clark and Michael Cullen hardly putting a foot wrong, it was a good year for the government.

Not so for the Opposition, who turned on an extraordinary circus in October: out, messily, went the uninspiring Sam Gamgee figure of Bill English, and in came the wrinkled man's Harry Potter, Don Brash, not to mention the Ron Weasley of the National Party, Nick Smith - who brought new depth of meaning to the term "stress leave" before being unceremoniously rolled.

2003 saw the last of UE, the GE moratorium and Richard Long at six o'clock. He had read the news every night since 1936: we shall not see his like again. It was also the year that Holmes and Russell Crowe got married, though not to each other, the year of Whale Rider, the year when Kim Hill was publicly pilgerised. The Pope got older, Parekura got slimmer, most of us got fatter, we acquired a Supreme Court - here come the judges - and the Beehive had a $40m refit.

The real-estate market went so galactic that, by the end of the year, it looked more like an unreal-estate market.

It was not a good year for CYFS and therefore, by definition - though this part of the equation tended not to make the news - it was a bad year for New Zealand parents. Our parliamentarians cared enough about prostitutes to liberate them from illegality, but five days later did not care enough about the terminally ill to grant them the option of euthanasia.

In between losing the America's Cup in March and the rugby World Cup in November, we won the netball World Cup in July. The population finally staggered past four million on April 24 and mysterious brown muck - still not satisfactorily explained - splattered houses from Blenheim to Te Awamutu. Someone or something up there possibly doesn't like us.

Years from now, people will probably look back and say, "2003? My God, it all started then, the slide into drug-fuelled civil anarchy, the terminal erosion of the New Zealand economy. The signs were all there!" But for now we bathe in the global glow shed by Frodo, Sam and Gandalf: his rod and staff comfort us still.- Denis Welch

Popcorn and puha

The Wellington premiere of the third Lord of the Rings film, The Return of the King, was the movie party to rule them all, even if not everyone is 100 percent convinced by the hoopla - there are still nagging concerns over the way that the trilogy was part-funded by controversial tax breaks (The Tax Return of the King, anyone?). However, international visitors bought it - one of the embedded media, Slate's Brad Weiners, asked, "Is it possible to exaggerate the excitement this show has generated here? Not easily" - and there is more serious talk about Oscars this time round. But there were other local successes to cheer in this film year: Niki Caro's Whale Rider was both a critical and a commercial winner, taking over $US20 million at the American box office, and - on the same day of the LOTR party in Wellington - beating Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to win the BAFTA for best children's film. And that story was every inch a New Zealand story. Overseas, Christine Jeffs made an impressive job of very difficult material - the Sylvia Plath biopic - and that film, Sylvia, opens here in January. That film and Jane Campion's somewhat bewildering erotic thriller In the Cut opened and closed the London Film Festival this year. Big achievements.

Streets of shame

In the buildup to the final parliamentary debate on the Prostitution Reform Bill in July, it seemed - if you listened too long to the bill's opponents - that the moral fibre of the nation, already dangerously frayed, was about to fall apart completely. Decriminalised, prostitution would penetrate the suburbs, flash lurid neon signs next door to churches and schools, and generally raise its unlovely profile. Little has publicly changed with the passing of the bill, however; the main changes appear to have been that, for the first time, sex workers are having to deal with the ugliest customer of all - Inland Revenue - and that councils all over the country are busily passing bylaws in order to keep prostitution where they clearly think it belongs: the light-industrial zone. Don't hold your breath, but some people also think the state should fund organisations such as IHC so that prostitutes can be trained to service disabled clients.

Occupation blues

Looking back, it now seems obvious that the Bush administration had decided to go to war with Iraq only days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and any excuse - Saddam's illusory links to al-Qaeda, the ghastly nature of his regime, the desire to create a model of democracy in the Middle East or the urge to steal Iraq's bountiful supplies of oil - seemed to suffice, on any given day.

Ultimately, it was Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction that blew the lid on the whole tawdry game. Hadn't all those WMD been destroyed in the 1990s? Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter certainly thought so. Current UN weapons inspector Hans Blix couldn't find them. The UN Security Council didn't believe in them. So the US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq and then they couldn't find them, either. After eight months of looking, no one has ever found any meaningful trace of them. Then lo, earlier this month, US President George W Bush told a re-election rally in New Jersey that getting rid of Saddam Hussein's WMD had been one of the great accomplishments of his administration. Yes, Dubya had caused the non-existent to vanish, right before our very eyes. The world hadn't seen a trick like it since the days before the tiger ate half of Siegfried and Roy.

Along the way, up to 55,000 Iraqis - according to some reports - and more than 300 US troops have been killed. Thousands of people have been injured and displaced. The country's resources have been put on the auction block for foreign buyers. Winning the war was never in doubt, but the Americans have made a hash of the peace. Currently, they are racing to put a framework in place to enable Bush to declare victory before next November's US presidential elections.

Right now, even that exit plan is bogging down. By next February, the US aims to declare a Foundation Law for Iraq - effectively, this will be an interim constitution. A month later, meetings will begin to be held in all of Iraq's 18 provinces to nominate a total of 250 delegates to a Transitional National Assembly, which will be put in place as the new government of Iraq, somewhere around the end of June. Full national elections will eventually be held, no later than March 2005.

Very neat. However, in a quite fateful step, this timetable has been opposed by the most influential Shi'ite figure in the new Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He has put forward a different plan. Sistani wants elections to be held early in 2004 - to create a new government chosen directly by the Iraqi majority who, not co-incidentally, happen to be Shi'ites.

The Americans are - to say the least - somewhat perturbed. They do want to let the Shi'ites dominate the fractious minorities within Iraq. If nothing else, having Iraq plunge into ethno-religious strife could be a bad look for Bush on the election trail. Yet, having thoroughly alienated the residents of the central Sunni triangle and while facing daily attacks in Mosul in the Kurdish north - can they really risk inflaming the Shi'ites as well? Right now, the only thing the forces do all agree on is that February's Fundamental Law will lay the foundation for the Islamic Republic of Iraq. Yes, after all the lies, bloodshed and suffering, Bush and Tony Blair have succeeded in creating a new officially Islamic regime in the Middle East.

Rain man

Just as New Year wouldn't be New Year without parties, fireworks and mass arrests at Mt Maunganui, so winter wouldn't be winter these days without the solemn raindance of ministers and meteorologists, reminding us once more that there's not enough water in our hydro lakes and we'd better starting turning off switches quick smart. So it went in 2003, with the lugubrious figure of Energy Minister Pete Hodgson re-emerging for his annual power-saving campaign like the Ghost of Precipitation Past. True, it was another dryish year - the warmest June on record - but eventually the rain fell in amounts adequate enough to keep everybody's power, and hair, on. There remained the nagging feeling that we should be managing our energy resources better than this; thus, the belated formation of an Electricity Commission designed to regulate an industry incapable on its own of guaranteeing supply. The hot new idea is "hydro firming", but don't be surprised - come next autumn - if Hodgson isn't inviting us all to take our partners for the next raindance.

Mutate now and beat the rush

Will October 29, 2003, be remembered in times to come as a day of infamy, the day this country crossed a fatal line - or as just another 24 hours, the day that, as usual, we celebrate the birthdays of Richard Dreyfuss and Winona Ryder and generally have a good time? Opponents of genetically engineered food would certainly favour the former view: the lifting of the GE moratorium on that date was one small shift in the calendar but one giant step (backwards, they'd say) for New Zealand's health, safety, economy and international reputation. With the moratorium gone, GE food producers can freely apply for commercial release of their product - and even GE proponents acknowledge that the consequences are incalculable. All anyone can say is that the new law passed in October lays down stringent precautions against genetic organisms running wild. So far, no great rush of applications; but the field is, literally, wide open.

Insecurity blanket

A bad year for the notion that we enjoy an open and fair legal system. Ahmed Zaoui, the poster boy for being more sinned against than sinner, arrives seeking refuge from an appalling Algerian regime and expecting a fair suck of the sav from our asylum laws. Instead, he gets solitary confinement in maximum security and encounters an incompetent bureaucracy, a seemingly prejudiced watchdog, a security system

that makes the Keystone Cops look like the CIA and an Immigration Minister saying the exact opposite of what she said in Opposition. At its Kafkaesque heart, the case involves the accused having no right to know what he is accused of; at fault, mainly, a lousy law that we may eventually thank Zaoui for having reformed - assuming that he survives Kiwi justice.

A Dog's Life

A little girl is terribly mauled by a dog in a park. So far, so horribly ordinary. But instead of a slavering, quadruped bundle of abuse and tattooed wrists in chains, the guilty party consists of two coiffed Ponsonby residents and their ugly and temperamental but loved mutt. Public outrage reaches critical mass and it is decreed that everything that walketh upon four feet and possibly biteth shall be leashed, fenced and microchipped from this day forth.

Earth to Parliament: vicious dogs are commonly made and owned by vicious people who ignore current laws governing their "pets" and much else. The simple, cheap and ignored solution to rampaging dogs is to cut all canine knackers off. Some would reserve the treatment for owners, but even this

government might not go that far.

Shore fire

Some Maori ended the year promising a summer of protest as the government revealed its policy on the foreshore and seabed under cover of Christmas. Balancing not-so-delicately between trying to soothe Maori - or keeping the Maori vote - and a wider public trenchantly opposed to change, the government settled on a largely cosmetic policy nodding towards Maori customary rights while retaining control of both foreshore and seabed.

Maori are understandably aggrieved, having won Court of Appeal sanction to claim access and ownership. Pakeha are angry that the issue got as far as it did. Prime Minister Clark and Attorney-General Wilson made their no-win situation worse with clumsy handling. Now the government has to deal with angry Maori, suspicious Pakeha and its own disenchanted - and quite likely disenfranchised - Maori MPs. And with Maori likely to take further action in court and the Waitangi Tribunal as well as on the beaches, it's not nearly over yet.

Death and dignity

Euthanasia became a dead issue for the second time when NZ First MP Peter Brown's Death with Dignity Bill got the same reception from Parliament that Michael Laws's virtually identical bill was given in 1995. Brown's right-to-die proposal was rejected. Supporters argued that people motivated by love and concern should not be called before the law; critics that the bill was the top of a slippery slope. The real question was whether the nation had thought the change through: polls show that euthanasia remains popular with the public, as long as someone else delivers the coup de grace. The year's euthanasia cause célèbre was Lesley Martin, who wrote a book about the death of her terminally ill mother and was charged with attempted murder. Martin goes on trial in the High Court next March, when the entire debate begins again.

Leave me alone!

The outrageous treatment of New Zealand's celebrities - large pay packets, comped to the best parties and openings, ego-gratifying attention, etc - came to a head when teen tabloid (insert your own alliterative label here) terror Jonathan Marshall collabor-ated in a low-down and dirty website called NZ Tabloid. It specialised in unsubstantiated, uncorroborated and plain unhinged gossip, which, most who weren't targeted agreed, could often be intentionally and unintentionally very funny. Alas, it ran foul of the professional tabloid media and the plug was pulled. But not before presenter Mike Hosking achieved a new kind of anti-celebrity by taking a women's magazine to court in an attempt to prevent paparazzi pictures of his children being published. The first judgment came down in favour of press freedom, but the pending appeal decision is destined to be a landmark in our privacy law. Who'd have thought - Mike Hosking, a footnote to legal history?

Lost in the translation

Foreign fee-paying students are our fourth biggest industry. Eighty thousand of them brought $1.7 billion into the country in 2002, earning more than wool. For once, the little guy got a piece of the action, too, as homestay students propped up households. But the boom may be bust. The government has put its hand out with a new levy and demands for new standards of care after an intellectually disabled student died. With SARS, the terror war, the ebullient New Zealand dollar, rising graduate unemployment in China and reports of bad Kiwi attitudes towards Asians, there were predictions of a

50 percent fall in numbers this year. In fact, statistics say numbers rose by 14 percent. Despite this, when Ernst & Young pronounces computer training mogul Caron Taurima its Entrepreneur of the Year, she promptly goes bust. Leaving more than 500 Asian students outdoors and possibly out of pocket. Satellites detect China moving troops to forward staging areas.

A bug's life

WANTED: human volunteers to be injected with an experimental SARS vaccine. No? Not jumping at the chance? Not even if we tell you the Chinese-developed vaccine contains only purified samples of the dead SARS virus, designed to spur the immune system into attacking live virus in the event you contract it? The trouble with SARS is that the new coronavirus, which killed 774 and sickened another 8000 before subsiding in July, spread far beyond its physical victims. The news of this disease injected a worldwide population with fear and doubt about the abilities of medical authorities. What was especially nerve-racking was the cover-up at the source, in China. With fears that SARS could resurface this northern winter - a vaccine is still two years away - there is now alarm that the Chinese Government has lifted the ban in markets on the sale of wild animals, including the masked palm civet, an animal many believe was the source of the SARS virus.

The prosecution rests

The weirdest court action seen in this country was still trundling through the courts at year's end. Most of the able-bodied men on Pitcairn Island, all descendants of Bounty mutineers, were charged with sex offences against women on the island. In the middle of it all, the Listener published photographs showing prosecutor, assistant prosecutor and magistrate parading on a ship's deck dressed in red wigs and plastic boobs while returning from a hearing there. The UK claims the island is within its jurisdiction, the islanders claim to be living under their own laws, and the whole fuss is being heard in an Auckland courtroom. Without their men, the islanders, women included, say that their tiny community cannot survive. They accuse the British of spying, lying and arrogance and they promise a second mutiny.

Oh Donna

She is either the most wickedly defamed New Zealand MP, or just wicked. Donna Awatere-Huata and husband Wi face multiple charges, including fraud and attempting to pervert the course of justice. Yet, when news broke last year that government grants to their children's reading programme, the Pipi Foundation, had been used for other purposes, including enhancements to the Huatas' home, followers of her career could barely credit it. The former radical human rights protester had become a stern and respected critic of governments wasting money. Yet, from the Huatas' Hawke's Bay fastness, the allegations and documents kept coming: most sensationally, indicating that she had drawn money from the fund for a secret stomach-stapling operation, the dramatic results of which she had boasted in the media were down to willpower. Her mortified party finally expelled her, after receiving no mitigating explanation for the funding discrepancies, but Awatere-Huata - looking a million bucks - continues to sit as an independent in Parliament every day, head hoist. The surgeon's knife clearly slipped, disabling her embarrassment gland.

Badlands

By the time the body of Coral-Ellen Burrows was found near lonely Lake Onoke on the south Wairarapa coast in mid-September, the whole country seemed to be grieving. Her stepfather eventually pleaded guilty to her murder, but Child, Youth and Family Services was implicated by Coral's birth father in her exposure to abuse, audited and found to be as dysfunctional as some of the families it is charged with protecting. Like the root causes of crime, the reason so many children remain vulnerable in New Zealand remained a debate polarised and paralysed by moralisers and do-gooders, with forlorn hope that the next year won't see its own share of horrors.

The fact that methamphetamine abuse was also a fact in the murder of Coral-Ellen added extra urgency to the perennial law and order debate. The rise and rise of cheap "P" and its associated tendency to turn the psychotically inclined into criminal time-bombs saw the drug laws changed but the police still struggling to keep up with the illicit laboratories and their clients.

Gnomic utterances

Our highest-paid broadcaster let his Good Guy to the Nation guard slip when he called UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan "a cheeky darkie" during a radio critique of the UN's stewardship. Naturally, any of the argument's merits were swamped by public and official outrage at the slur, which was widely judged both racist and patronising. Paul Holmes eventually apologised - albeit in a ratings-getting, end-of-bulletin fashion, which caused further offence. But the gaffe quickly became a lightning rod for dislike and even envy of the ubiquitous and attention-addicted Holmes. His TV bosses - though hand-washingly silent on the "cheeky darkie" infringement on the grounds that he'd only said it on the radio - leaked word that he would not return to the screen in 2004. Still, some argued his greatest sin was giving gratuitous ammo to society's mealy-mouthers and handwringers.

Don's party

More in desperation than in confidence, National finally exchanged its poll-laggard leader Bill English for first-term MP, former Reserve Bank Governor Don Brash. But so hasty and bungled was the coup - Brash's majority just two votes - that no one remembered to organise him a deputy. With senior contenders such as Gerry Brownlee and Simon Power either hiding or sulking, the caucus chose from among the middlebrow remnants the excitable English supporter Nick Smith. He became so alarmingly hyper-stimulated that, within 48 hours of assuming office, he was packed off for a fortnight's stress leave. At this, the sulking seniors rallied, persuaded Brash to butter up Brownlee as a more suitable number two, and told Smith that he need not trouble himself with the burden of high office, after all. Smith, still duly elected and professing himself quite rested, thank you, insisted he wanted to continue, and white-knuckled it almost to the point of a contested ballot. This extended display of plotting and whispering served cruelly to shorten the traditional new-leader-honeymoon, for by Brash's second opinion poll, National was back to English-level lows. Labour calls the new top Tory team Moga-Don and Mastadon.

THEY WALKED THE LINE

The Grim Reaper really got stuck into his work in the music field this year, taking Johnny Cash, Don Gibson, Maurice Gibb, Little Eva, Slim Dusty, Sheb Wooley, Robert Palmer, Hirini Melbourne, Edwin Carr and the irreplaceable Dylan Taite among others. Film directors Elia Kazan and Leni Riefenstahl also passed on, as did actor/director David Hemmings. Radio personalities Doreen and Robbie signed off for the last time, along with local literary notables Bill Sewell and Dennis McEldowney. Prominent Maori to die included John Turei and Irihapeti Ramsden, while three former government ministers went to that great Cabinet room in the sky - Mick Connelly, Frank O'Flynn and Merv Wellington. The sporting world will sorely miss John Davies, Millie Khan and All Black great Don Clarke (who died right at the end of 2002) - but the road-crash death of rally driver Possum Bourne was the greatest shock. Let's also salute the passing of Mark Todd's golden horse Charisma. Oddly, though, one of the most mourned New Zealanders turned out to be Rob Jones, the homeless "man with the bucket" who was for many years a familiar sight on the streets of Wellington.

Also missing in action this year were: Richard Simmons, Johnny Paycheck, Fred Rogers, Hank Ballard, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, John Paul Getty Jr, Dr Robert Atkins, Nina Simone, Robert Stack, June Carter Cash, Gregory Peck, Leon Uris, Strom Thurmond, Katharine Hepburn, Buddy Hackett, Herbie Mann, Barry White, Buddy Ebsen, Bob Hope, Sam Phillips, Gregory Hines, Charles Bronson, John Ritter, George Plimpton, Donald O'Connor, Bobby Hatfield and Art Carney. RIP.

Changing channels

When announcing that Bill Ralston was the new head of news and current affairs at TVNZ, CEO Ian Fraser reckoned that Ralston would bring his own style to the role, including "just a hint of the mongrel". No doubt there are some ex-TVNZ employees out there, casualties of Ralston's cost-cutting measures, who think Ralston has more than just a hint of the mongrel in him. More like a rabid rottie. Declaring the news was boring, that Richard and Judy ought to "lighten up", staff needed to take more risks, presenters couldn't take money for their "exclusives", Ralston took to TVNZ's "celebrity culture" and payroll mercilessly. For better or for worse, we said goodbye to Mary Lambie, Richard Long, Pam Corkery, Maggie Barry, April Bruce, half of the Breakfast team and a horde of veteran reporters. Too early to say whether this all meets the state broadcaster's charter requirements, but women's magazines may never be the same again.

Privy members

One more step on the road to inevitable republicanism or an outrageous judicial hijack by the dark forces of political correctness? Both views were well and truly aired in the run-up to cutting the colonial apron string with the Privy Council, but the real and lasting concern was always that the new Supreme Court would be too susceptible to political patronage, hand-picked as it is by the Attorney-General. Right idea, wrong process? At this stage, a reserved decision.

Wet is the new black

New Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton says engineers are a vital cog in a yacht design team. Who would have thought? Certainly not that lot who put all their faith and our trust in the hula. Forget the fuss over Dave Dobbyn's "Loyal" and whether or not it was appropriate as the theme for the defence of the America's Cup. Not even "Six Months in a Leaky Boat" would cut it. How about six minutes, or less. That's all it took on the first beat of the first leg of the Cup defence for the waters of the Hauraki Gulf to pour in over the side of the black boat as it became blindingly obvious that form had triumphed over function in designing NZL 82. Up against Russell Coutts, the sharpest man ever to get his hands on the Auld Mug and we hand him that sort of advantage? Luckily, he was a Kiwi, and we could still claim to produce the best sailors in the business, even though they seemed to have misplaced their sense of national pride. And really, does anyone miss the America's Cup and its perpetual carnival of money, arrogance and conspicuous consumption. Doesn't the Eurotrash allure of the Mediterranean seem much more like its spiritual home?

Final frontier

During the Columbia space shuttle lift-off, debris from the external fuel tank was seen falling off and striking the fragile thermal protection tiles on the underside of the craft. On its return to Earth two days later, amid much nervousness and trepidation, the shuttle landed safely. That was April 14, 1981, Columbia's maiden voyage.

Almost 22 years and 112 flights later the same thing happened, but this time Columbia's luck ran out.

On the morning of January 16, with a crew of seven aboard, the shuttle lifted off. NASA engineers noticed a briefcase-sized chunk of foam insulation had broken away from the shuttle's external fuel tank and collided with Columbia's left wing, but decided that the damage was probably minimal and agreed that the incident was "inconsequential".

On the morning of February 1 Columbia began its one-hour journey home. A man in California reported seeing several small bright pieces coming away from the shuttle. Then, in Texas, people saw the shuttle breaking up into multiple tumbling smoke trails. When Columbia failed to arrive for its scheduled touchdown in Florida, officials knew the craft was lost.

House party

New Zealanders this year stampeded into the rental property market faster than you can say Residential Tenancies Act. House prices went up a blistering 21 percent. Now with immigration slowing and wages failing to match pace with house price increases, there are predictions that a further interest rate rise next year could cause a rapid cooling. And the problem with that? Well, spending has been running ahead of incomes, as wealth from rising house prices has spurred Kiwis into a big spend-up on everything from tapware - who would have thought taps could cost more than your kids' education? - to large-screen TVs. That spending could slow sharply if the housing boom slows. In the Netherlands, which has also experienced a housing boom, it's reported that a mere levelling off in house prices shaved a full percentage point off growth. If an economic downturn here causes everyone to shoot through to Australia and the only tenants available can't afford the rent ... okay, no need to hyperventilate, breathe deeply.

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