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Paul Thomas: Folk who don't like ordinary folk

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    Paul Thomas: Folk who don't like ordinary folk - 16-Feb-2008
    I wasn't surprised to learn that English writer and aesthete Duncan Fallowell reckons New Zealand's a dump. What would have come as a surprise is Fallowell, whose hobbies are rose wine, rent boys and doing strange things to his hair, thinking otherwise.

    You see, Fallowell and people like him - clever, fastidious, up themselves - can't really abide ordinary folk. Ordinary folk are "non-intellectual". They "lack the necessary verbal repertoire for dealing with inevitable complexities".

    Ordinary men are fat, ugly and tattooed. Ordinary women have "lesbian haircuts and don't do cleavage" - for which he should be grateful, one would think. They drink beer or ready-mixed concoctions rather than wine and read the sports or gossip pages rather than Duncan Fallowell.

    And there's a hell of lot of them. As Abraham Lincoln said: "God must love the common man because he made so many of them."

    As even those who've never heard of Fallowell will be vaguely aware, they're not confined to this country.

    Having spent five years in England, I can attest that it's bursting at the seams with ordinary folk, some of them very ordinary indeed.

    Ditto every other country I've visited.

    So what we have here is a London-based cultural snob looking down his nose - I'd say his aquiline nose but Fallowell bears a passing resemblance to low-camp comedian Frankie Howerd of Up Pompeii! fame - at the Kiwi common herd.

    All the more puzzling then that the New Zealand Listener, supposedly the house magazine of our liberal, worldly, self-confident intelligentsia, should devote its cover and five inside pages to Fallowell and his extended sneer.

    I doubt it has ever rolled out such a welcome mat for a new book by a New Zealand writer. It seems the cultural cringe is alive and well and living where you'd least expect it.

    The Listener would probably argue that Fallowell and his book were merely the departure point for an examination of the destruction of our architectural heritage and the supposed promotion of Polynesian culture at the expense of European.

    So why didn't they present it in those terms? Beneath the cover headline "Why Brits see NZ as a 'philistine hellhole' " (actually it's only two Brits - Fallowell and a Spectator reviewer) the terms "dumbing down", "politically correct" and "Polynesian culture" crowd raucously into a single sentence. Talkback radio, eat your heart out. And if it's not about Fallowell, why is he referred to three times on the cover?

    Journalists tend to have a fairly breezy attitude towards headlines: they're essentially attention-seeking devices, not to be taken too seriously.

    As with promises of sensational bargains and sure-fire investments, you need to read the small print to get the full story. But as journalism students used to be taught, the headline is the first thing, sometimes the only thing, the reader reads.

    Last year the Dominion Post ran a piece in which an Australian journalist reflected on his stint in America. His theme was that foreign correspondents in the US often do their readers a disservice by recycling stereotypes and failing to convey its diversity.

    "It's so easy and so tempting," he wrote, "to describe and report on an America of gun madness, violence, junk-food-fed obesity, scary religious fundamentalism and swaggeringly stupid politicians. That America exists but it's not the whole story. It isn't even half the story."

    The headline? "Obese, gun-happy and violent - but I'll miss it." I guess "Complex, generous and welcoming - I grew to love it" wasn't confronting enough to keep readers from their horoscopes.

    Those wretched souls who can't do without a periodic spanking from Mother England are unlikely to have to go cold turkey any time soon. Already a cricket writer following the English team has extrapolated from the recent attempted plane hijacking to portray New Zealand as a racial tinderbox: "Prejudice is clearly on a hair trigger here." The basis for this fatuous claim seemed to be an encounter with a taxi driver.

    And in a few months England's rugby press corps will descend on us, nostrils flaring with disdain. Compared to them, Fallowell's on the take from Tourism New Zealand.

    Funnily enough, while the fourth estate can spoil its critics for choice, they often zero in on the wrong target. Last week All Black coach Graham Henry told this paper's rugby writer Wynne Gray that the media "didn't reflect public opinion" in its coverage of the World Cup fall-out and his reappointment.

    Reflecting public opinion - a notoriously skittish, easily manipulated and often misguided beast - isn't the media's core responsibility. Besides, Gray was covering the All Blacks when Henry was still coaching club rugby, which surely qualifies him to express an opinion without first conducting a vox pop on Queen St.
    Ref: - NZ Herald


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