This page written circa 7 July, 2007.
New Scientist informs me that, according to the United Nations' best information, the worst place to live on this planet is Niger in west Africa, while the best is Norway, based on such things as life expectancy, goods and services produced, buying power, literacy, and so forth. The article cautions that there may be more to it than health, wealth and education, observing that "it surely can't be that much fun living in a country where winter can bring a mean monthly temperature of -15C, the sun does not rise for two months of the year, and you will need a second mortgage to buy a drink in a bar". Norwegians call that living? New Zealand's already got a lead there, sorry Marion!
Years ago, I liked to stimulate discussion by asking what type of cuisine, meaning what nationality of food, a person would choose if they had to live on that type for the rest of their life. The question seemed to be purely culinary, but I would answer: It would be Italian if I had to cook it, because spaghetti and pizza are easy to make and hard to get wrong, but if someone else was to be doing the cooking it would be hard to decide between French and northern Chinese. I suppose I was actually wanting insight into people's values, what did they value in food and life, and did gluttony beat lust in their mythology.
Two years ago in Putting Out the Fire with Gasoline I reported Nick's story of how our old high-school chaplain remembered the discussions he had with Nick, Tony K and myself, and credited us with helping him give up religion. In my years at school there had been a succession of chaplains, mostly banging their unreasoning heads against the wall of capitalist, Jewish, or atheistic troublemakers that comprised my class. One particular fellow had been the chaplain at a major Sydney prison, but I do not recall him appreciating that irony. Only Tom Jennings showed a truly enquiring mind, and those discussions probably lead to my interest in understanding people in terms of their value judgements.
As for New Zealand and Bywater Grange, I am getting quite used to the agrestic view out of the kitchen window. Kay is planning an exhibition in the Photo Gallery with nothing but a year's worth of photos of Pirongia, of which she takes no small number:
The builders are making progress on the extension, but at New Zealand speed. Actually it has rained about 4 inches in the last week so nothing has happened and the subfloor is under an inch of water, but the roofer's scaffolding has arrived and we are assured that all will be well. It better be, guests are queueing!
Domestically, Kay seems to have Bywater Grange coming along nicely; Nutbush Chainsaw Massacre is a far cry from It's Me Again, Wall. I am quite enjoying the company of my kids, as well. Some agent must have rubbed off Dan onto me when we hugged last month, virus, prion or similar. Incidentally, Dan asked me if I had observed anything about New Zealand that was "un-Dan-like". I could not think of a single thing.
Meanwhile at work, I am doing my bit to help New Zealand reinvent itself after the fashion of Eire and Finland (other small countries that have rocketed up from the rear in global terms). If all the projects I have brewing at work come off, I will have committed myself thrice over. Like Zero Mostel's producer, I am banking on some flops. There is a real risk of excessive success. Several quite independent people have read funding applications I have written and passed a comment to the effect of "they couldn't possibly not give it to you". I know that the proposals I make are good, and I know I write a clean, punchy plan, so it is up to the funders now.
I read recently in the SMH that a huge number of motorists had been booked for exceeding some pathetic speed in one of the newer freeway tunnels in Sydney, where an automatic system altered the speed limit and adjusted the speed cameras to match. It had some reason for cranking the limit down, but such was the outcry that the quite unreasonable fines were all reversed. The real agony is that some pratt in the government thinks that speed cameras and fluid limits are "good for the citizens" and can simply go ahead and make it happen. What I dislike about Aus is not really the socialist lean but that belief that the government has a duty to force people to do what is good for them, the resulting petty interferences, and the inevitable naive push to "produce the goods" using too much stick and not enough carrot. George W believed the US has a duty to straighten out the Iraqis too. Both betray dubious national values.
So let's return to my "question du jour": Why do people live where they live, and where is the best place to live? Marion showed us a book called Slipping into Paradise: Why I Live in New Zealand when we visited them in California recently. The author relates asking his wife "where would you live if you could live anywhere" and she replies "Darling we can live anywhere and we live here". Admittedly this book is rather wanky and over-the-top, but it sure highlights some virtues of NZ. For my part, I like New Zealand's "national value judgements", as reflected in the government policies I see. Not all of the citizens have adopted the can-do, make-it-happen attitude, but at least the policies are there, pushing on the national tiller. This star is rising.
In most respects we are enjoying this selcouth land. Yet I have this niggling fear that there will be something fundamentally un-Dan-like about the value judgements of New Zealand. Lean-and-green but a bit vague and unfocussed, it is a far cry from know-what-you-want, get-it-done, produce-the-goods California.