Monday, January 27, 2014


I received one of those catalogues yesterday. You know: excited cover assuring me that yes, I have already WON one of these prizes and I only need to place an order from the catalogue to receive it. This time it could be a quartz watch, $5000 or a diamond ring or – the biggie – $25,000. 

Being temporarily at a loose end, I leafed through, marvelling, even scoffing, at what people think other people might want to buy. Like pads to stick on your feet, 100% natural naturally, which many believe draw impurities and toxins out of your body while you sleep. Really? What about a lucky Sung dynasty bracelet to bring good health, riches, love and happiness – just what we all want, how could we resist? And, ah! A magnetic back support with 16 concealed magnets believed to help assist recovery.

Cutesiness reigned. There was a cheeky frog reading a book in the garden beside a rain gauge; an adorable life-like plastic puppy that barks if someone moves – go down well at the barbie; delightful meerkats that sway in the breeze and light up at night. There was a does-anyone-really-want-this? element: scissors with a tape dispenser attached; a singing bird moisture sensor for pot plants; a his ‘n hers portable urinal. Scoffing became poor sport – shooting fish in a barrel.

Then a handy looking jar opener caught my eye. Have you tried opening jars lately? They are welded shut by machines and while I have strong fingers I often need the ancient gadget – a piece of tin with teeth – that we found at an Ideal Home Exhibition in London centuries ago. The catalogue offered quite a number of such items aimed at elderly or slightly disabled people, like kneelers, pruning shears, cushions, bunion relievers, non-slip mats.  Hmm, don’t knock it, I might need some of those one day.

And then, OMG, as I read on I started thinking: that might be quite useful – oh, and that, mine’s falling to bits, perhaps that would be a decent replacement, and – wow, I’ve always wanted one of those! Next thing I had made a list: two roomy handbags for the price of one, a diamond nail file, a food chopper – dammit, forgot to include the jar opener. Added up, decided that it was worth risking, went on line and spent up large. Might even score one of those big prizes as well. Can’t wait for the courier ...

Saturday, January 18, 2014


When I first read the letter from the marketing manger of Telecom I couldn’t believe it. Then I thought I must have read it wrong. Now I’m not so sure.

It is not a long letter – twelve lines, not counting the big bold headings. Admirably short in fact, given the tendency of large entities to waffle and fudge.  However, the brevity might have been a mistake in this case because I am confused about the message.

Girl in Red Dress
The letter announces in large letters that there will be SOME CHANGES TO YOUR TELECOM PLANS. Three lines follow, explaining that the new plans deliver “more value than ever before”.  Well, that’s always nice.  But apparently they need to make some changes.

Next headline: GET MORE FROM YOUR ONE BILL.  I’m all for that, tell me how. So, they are going to introduce “a flat fee of $3 a month”.  Not much – but why? I already pay a monthly fee. Well, the $3 is for “15 anytime minutes to any standard NZ landline or mobile.”  I assume this means not just local calls, which till now have been free, but to anywhere in NZ. That would be progress, and very welcome. Another plus is the inclusion of free calls to mobiles, which currently cost far too much.  So far, so mostly good.

Then comes the confusing bit: “Once you’ve used your 15 minutes, calls will be 69c/min.” My first thought was that this meant 15 minutes free-calling for the month. My second thought was, silly me, surely not, that’s ridiculous, 15 minutes would be used up on the first day – probably the first morning.

But just when I relaxed with a sigh of relief, I saw another line saying that from March my bill would show the “monthly fee (includes 15 anytime NZ minutes) $3.00/month”. So, back to square one: is it 15 free minutes a month or per call?

Please will someone tell me. It’s no use ringing Telecom – I just tried. The last headline in the letter reads: NEED TO KNOW MORE? JUST ASK and invites me to phone the customer service line. They have to be joking – all their representatives were busy with other calls.  If I am going to have to pay 69c per minute after the first 15 minutes I won’t be calling any company or government department that puts me on hold, has installed automated answering, or runs a call centre based in the Philippines. I can’t afford it.

Postscript (24 January): It has now become clear, after many enquiries and eyebrow-knotting, that the letter I received applies only to my mobile. Phew, that's a relief! Rest easy folks. 

Friday, January 10, 2014


1963. I remember it well. Before 1963 AJ, who was a Police detective in Auckland, could spend his time investigating the theft of Monsteria deliciosa plants or cattle from the city council pound. At the beginning of 1963 he was up in the Waitakere ranges helping to catch an insane man who had killed three people, including two policemen. A month later two more were killed in Wellington. At the end of 1963 two wannabe Al Capones were shot in Bassett Road and AJ was in a boat under the harbour bridge looking for the machine-gun.

AJ in 2004, Bassett Road
I’ve been reading Scott Bainbridge’s meticulously researched book about the Bassett Road machine-gun murders and it’s all come back to me.  1963 was the year that Auckland changed.  From being a small town where everything that went on in the criminal world was known to every policeman assembled each morning at headquarters, it became, at least for a while, what the press called a little Chicago.

Before 1963 AJ could be rostered for all-night duty once in six months and spend the night in a car with a uniformed driver coping with anything that arose during the night. Imagine that: one detective for the whole of Auckland.  Murders were so infrequent that a squad was formed only when they occurred.  Anyone wanting a car for the day's enquiries formed a line outside the Chief Detective's office.  There were never enough cars to go round so it was a matter of sharing or even taking a bus - detectives had bus passes so they could travel free. 

On the street relations between the Police and the crims were positively chummy.  As Bainbridge puts it, “the Jacks knew the crims, and the crims knew the Jacks”. A crim sidling up with a hungry look would get a cigarette or a couple of bob, and the favour might be returned with a tip about a job going down. They frequented the same pubs. They often liked each other. There was respect and understanding on both sides. The violence, when it occurred, was limited to their own kind.

We lived right in the city, in what Bainbridge calls “notorious Grey’s Avenue”.  It didn’t seem so at the time.  It was handy to work for both of us, and our children attended the kindergarten in the park across the road.  I often heard the clink of chips and the roars of triumph from the Chinese gambling den at the bottom of the street as I passed.  Apparently there was also a nightclub called the Grey Dove, with a beer house upstairs, and also a “dressmaker’s” establishment that was really a brothel, although I can’t imagine where it was – Grey’s Ave was quite short and two large blocks of flats took up most of it.  However, I walked to and from work every day and was frequently propositioned in Grey’s Ave – I could have made a fortune had I been so inclined.

Bainbridge’s book brings those days back to life, teeming with characters who might have been a bit dodgy but were also somehow na├»ve and just mucking along the best way they could. The Bassett Road killings were done, it seems, in a spirit of bravado: one fellow playing hit-man because another was angry his girl was lured away from him.  They had all seen too many gangster movies and read too many Micky Spillanes. How petty it seems, and how sad.  As a result of these killings the armed offenders squad was formed.  After 1963 nothing was ever quite the same.