Archive for April, 2016

The seat of civilisation

So what is it that absolutely defines civilisation? That tipping point when our species moves from uncouth barbarian to civilised being? Let me jump, with no further ado, to the answer: it is plumbing.

I remember making that decision back in 1978 while watching what was the original reality TV show when twelve couples and three children were placed in a re-created iron age village. These original Greenies were frothing with romanticised anticipation of the opportunity to demonstrate that man and the planet were so much healthier back in the pre-industrial ages and life itself so much more satisfying.

It was hilarious. One of the first tasks, being practical people, was to arrange for their communal latrine. There is nothing more ‘back to nature‘ than taking logadvantage of an already fallen log as the communal lavvy seat and digging a trench beside it for the containment of the communal waste. Job done, now for a well deserved communal dinner. They spotted a hen and thought that will do nicely. I would have kept it for the eggs but what do I know about sustainability, I bow to the wisdom of the village earth mother who they elected (I forgot, they did that just before designing the ablutions block). Eventually, after an extraordinarily clumsy hen-butchering effort during which, I suspect, the hen decided to pretend to be dead just to get it all over with, they had their chicken dinner. And so to bed for the first self-satisfied night (not intended as a euphemism, but may well be)  in their communal bed-hut.

And, in the middle of the night, the chook got her revenge. Oh dear, you have to be so careful with chook; it can be dodgy if not butchered and cooked correctly and this chook was a long, long way from being undodgy. It was probably still technically alive when they ate it. So as their second mistake dawned on them (their first mistake was the design of the latrine, but more of that later) it became clear why such romanticists were, forever after, referred to as the greens; nothing to do with the colour of grass, everything to do with the colour of the faces of this lot as they stumbled barefooted in their hemp undies to where the fallen tree lay and then fought like primal beasts for the spot with the least bark upon which to place their soft white bums while they communally sprayed arse-gravy into a far-too-shallow trench.

And so morning dawned on these twenty seven very unwell greenies. Their first day in the iron age now seemed as romantic as a newly married couple waking with a stinking hangover and a squashed turd in the bed. And they just realised they would no longer have eggs for breakfast. It all went downhill from there, apart from the trench filled with arse gravy which just sat there attracting flies and awaiting their return.

And so, in spite of the subsequent impact of the internet into our lives, my conviction remains unwaveringly that the tipping point between civilisation and barbarism is with our ability to instantly turn a pile of poo into a shiny white bowl of clean, clear water with a hint of citrus. Thomas Crapper was, to my mind, the founding father of our civilisation.

I raise this now because it is our local body election year and the time for us to elect our village leader upon whom we will depend to ensure our latrines are well plumbed and that we are not served dodgy chicken. So first let us reflect on our current village earth elder, Dave Cull. What did we know of him when we elected him? Well he was a TV presenter and a published author on all things DIY. Handy about the house. Knows a few things about pipes and drains, the fundamentals of our civilisation. Perfect. The sort of good practical bloke to whom you can give a miner’s hat with torch and leave him to happily wander through our sewers and mud ponds to ensure all is well. 

FloodThen came the big flood of June 2015. What happened? Even I know that floods occur when drainage inflow exceeds the outflow. The official response came quickly. A prophetic mayoral announcement in the local newspaper, headlined, “End game for South Dunedin” or something similarly dramatic, put the blame squarely on mother nature and her annoyance with our failure to remain in the Iron Age where we belonged. “The seas are rising” said the wise old one, “we are being punished for offending Gaia with our toxic fumes. We will have to have a conversation about abandoning South Dunedin, either that or find a few virgins to sacrifice”. A year later after many hundreds of paid hours of ‘investigation’ we find that the cause was, as the common man said at the time, the failure of Council staff to sweep up the autumn leaves off the streets, check the pumps and clean out the mud tanks before the rains came.

The Otago harbour tide gauge has shown an average annual rise over the past one hundred years of 1.28 millimetres. The current level is almost the same as it was forty years ago. The problem is confirmed as being that the mud tanks, put in after we reclaimed the harbour shallows for housing, were simply too full of mud. They need regular cleaning out. In spite of having a DIY expert as Mayor, this did not happen. Under questioning from Radio NZ the mayor spluttered that it wasn’t his fault, the system was designed to cope with a one in fifty year flood and this flood occurred within the fifty years. Excuse moi?? The last South Dunedin flood was ten years ago so did our DIY mayor think he had another thirty nine years before having a bit of a look at them?

Well just for the record, long before we could ever be accused of excessive carbon emissions, Dunedin experienced regular major floods that did not have anything to do with any fifty year deal with mother nature. In the first century of our city’s history it was North Dunedin that suffered the wrath of the gods of flooding. Major floods, with the Leith River bursting its banks, occurred in: February 1868, January 1870, February 1877, November 1883, December 1911, August 1913, April 1923, March 1929, November 1933, April 1944, September 1946, February 1955.

But there were no Mayoral proclamations during that century saying ‘we need to have a conversation about the end game for North Dunedin”. The North Dunedin flood protection just got better and better as experience was built up. In the late 1950’s the water channel from George Street to Great King Street was straightened with a high velocity concrete channel. Boulder traps were built upstream of George Street and in the late 1960’s  a larger boulder trap built upstream of the Malvern Street bridge. North Dunedin is now safe and happy.

So South Dunedin just needs a basic programme of sweeping up leaves before they wash into drains, clearing out the tanks before each rainy season and making sure the pumps in the pumping station are working. It may even require a bit of channeling work like the Leith did or more sea-wall construction. Then, Dave, I really do not think we are needing to ‘have that conversation about the end of days’.

But what we really need is a total review of Council priorities (which means who we choose on the upcoming village earth-mother elections). For the South Dunedin mud tank problem is just the start of our city plumbing issues. If our mud tanks were neglected because they are out of sight out of mind, when was the last time the mayor went for a wander through our sewers? The job we elected him for. The preservation of the very basis of our civilisation. And what is the state of the water pipes to feed our showers or fill our baths. Close behind the essential need to have a civilised crap, is the need to have a nice hot bath or refreshing shower on demand. It is for good reason that we have the age-old maxim, cleanliness is next to godliness.

Truth is, the plumbing of our city is old, very old. Some sections of piping are an ancient hundred years old when clay pipes may not have been as robust as today’s standards and our population was half what it is today. Would the Dave Cull that we thought we knew from TV’s Home Front tolerate that? As author of such riveting reads as “NZ backyard DIY Projects” and “Kitchen Essentials“,  our plumbing should have been a DIY job right up his alley, so to speak. Condition critical. Priority #1. But it is not. In this city, under this mayor, priority #1 is that a couple of dozen middle-aged men can park their SUV’s in South Dunedin on a Sunday morning, put a black pudding down the front of their Lycra’s and pedal off on one of the city-wide routes that will take them to the cafe of their choice for a latte and slice of cheesecake. ‘Yoghurt not cream thank you, my body is a temple’.

We are now being fed alerts from Council that the budgeted $20-30 million earmarked for the cycleways could well head northwards to $100 million and this money “will be found” quote/unquote. And the city plumbing can wait a few years until we have completed our priority of building end to end cycleways through the city.

What we need to do is take Dave Cull and his Council, feed them some dodgy chicken and make them spend the night sitting bare-arsed on a log in the dark. That should re-set their priorities for a civilised society in Dunedin.

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Love thy neighbour….

A big truck blocked my driveway yesterday morning. It was here to load up all the earthly possessions of my neighbour of 30+ years and shift them somewhere else. This should be a time for having a beer and a farewell barbecue to chat about all the good days; about having watched our children grow from little kids to parents themselves. A tear in either eye, a staunch man hug, a brave wave and promises to keep in touch wafting into the wind.

But it wasn’t like that. Truth is he hasn’t spoken to me for well over twenty years. Nor I to him, if I’m honest, but he started it. I was the one who actually spoke last when I delivered the final words of our final conversation those 20+ years ago which, to memory, went along the lines of, “ you bring your hose over here, Stew, and I’ll shove it up straight up your arse for you.”

Seemed just a little harmless neighbourly banter to me; even if I had carried it out, a bit of colonic irrigation should not have been unwelcome, I would have thought, given he seemed to have shit on his liver over such a minor little dispute.

I should explain, 20+ years ago, before Helen Clark’s insane reign, it was not uncommon for homes to have an incinerator at the bottom of the garden. For incinerator read: a 44 gallon oil drum with the top cut off then forced down to about a foot from the bottom held in place by a couple of metal rods someone found somewhere to form the base of the incinerator and below that a hole roughly cut out to allow air to suck up and increase the potency of the flame. When the old drum rusted to useless, you phoned a bloke who knew a bloke with a truck (borrowed from his employer who presumably has a need for drums of oil and always wonders what happens to the empty drums) who turned up on a Saturday afternoon with the new one. It cost a slab of beer from memory. What you Post-Clark (=PC) children have missed out on! What fun days they were. Load the drum up with all the newspapers, cardboard boxes and what have you, throw a bit of motor mower petrol on for good measure, drop in a lit match and Bob’s your uncle. In the autumn sweep up dead leaves and throw them on top. I tell you it was very cheap entertainment on a Saturday afternoon and burning a drum full of bits and pieces really is something of a primal-spiritual experience.

Well to most of the world it was. But neighbour Stew was a “health inspector” from the Council. That job title is a euphemism for miserable little interfering gnome. Straight out of the Hobbit, was Stew. I caught him once previously, sifting, uninvited, through the ashes of our incinerator. I calmly enquired what the fornication he thought he was doing? He claimed the immunity of his illustrious position within the Council which apparently gave him the right to enter properties for the purpose of seeking evidence of the burning of toxic substances such as plastic bottles. He delivered this little homily looking exactly like Gollum from the Hobbit searching for his Precious. That’s when neighbour is pronounced nay-boor. But at that point Ava emerged and things got a bit ugly. Things were said.

And it wasn’t only incinerators. Wee Stewie took his responsibilities for enforcing the Council by laws very seriously. We were getting a few kitchen renovations done. Nothing too major and it was only by peering through the kitchen window from Stewie’s side of the house that anyone could see any sign of building activity. Then the building inspector knocked on the door; claimed to have been just walking past and thought he could notice a bit of non-consented building activity down the side of the house, behind the garage, out of view of the street. That could have been the very first Tui billboard, but Kiwis didn’t drink that horse piss back then. Stewie denied all knowledge of how the building inspector happened by our quiet little dead-end street, but what do you think? If it looks like dog shit etc etc.

Talking of dog shit reminds me, we owned a lazy, friendly old labrador called Ben. Even though it was not his specialist subject Stewie was no stranger to the dog by laws either. The result was that our dog became great friends with the dog ranger. She would often ring up at work and tell us she was looking after Ben for the afternoon as Stewie was up to his old tricks again. It turned out that Stewie had invented a sport called dog-fishing. One day he was actually observed hiding behind his hedge throwing a long piece of string baited with a piece of meat onto the street. When a passing dog took interest, Stewie would lure it into his yard, shut the gate and rush inside and, while the dog was distracted with the meat, he would call the dog ranger. Good old section 5.3 of the Dunedin City Council Dog Control By Law, ‘dogs shall not wander onto private property,’ got them every time.

Sam had a birthday party one year and invited two or three hundred of her closest friends. True to Stewie form, the noise control officers turned up with their little headphones and sound-register machines. Unfortunately the party had not reached the noise levels to qualify as a neighbourly nuisance which, to my mind, defeated the whole point of the party. Stew was a fun guy, the life and soul of any party.

KilroyAnyway, the reason for the offer of colonic irrigation which led to the 20+ years of silent treatment was that one afternoon, Kilroy style, he had proclaimed his intent and his duty to come over with his hose and extinguish my incinerator which, he claimed, had exceeded the permitted hours as specified in the Council by-laws for the disposal of approved materials by incineration in your backyard 44 gallon drum. He decided against testing my resolve to shove his hose up his bum and so, to drive home the point, my incinerator burned happily into the evening sky in blissful challenge to the appropriate by law. On his side of the fence he must have fumed as much as my incinerator and secretly vowed never, ever, ever to speak to me again. A vow he kept, for which I am most grateful.

But some time after, for a reason I never found out, the Council decided they no longer needed wee Stewie’s health-inspecting services. That was a bit of a dark time for poor old Stew. Enforcing Council by laws was his raison d’etre. Now the strutting little health inspector was stripped of his stripes, his clipboard confiscated and he was ceremonially drummed out of the city council health-inspecting squad. For a Ronin there are few options left as they wander the countryside in shame. But Stew, however, was fortunate to eventually find a new role in another council, this time for the inspection of waterways. So off he would go, of a morning, in his safari suit, armed with his butterfly net and specimen jar to wander the ponds and the rivers of the countryside in search of bits of floating or hidden turd. But, to be perfectly honest, that probably isn’t as much fun as it sounds. It had neither the status nor excitement of inspecting incinerators for molten plastic and kitchens for rodent droppings, but at least it got him out  of the house. And it was in the great outdoors that Stew had an awakening and discovered his inner entrepreneur. For out in the countryside he saw wood; lots of wood, just lying around waiting for someone to cut it up into fireplace sized bits and burn it. Stewie had turned to the dark side. If the City Council would not pay him to pour water on incinerators, then he would get in the business of creating the fuel for more and bigger fires. He would fill the skies with the vengeful smoke from Stewie’s well-cut firewood!  He bought a little truck, complete with a personalised plate declaring “Wudy1- I do got wood”. That might seem a bit cocka doodle dooey for a wood-chopping turd-scooper but, to be fair, after a dark period in the emotional wilderness, he was now back in the game with his truck continuously loaded up with logs, pallets and assorted bits of scrap wood all ready for the big chop. It was the perfect career for him; having such a low centre of gravity made him perfectly suited to chopping logs and scrambling over stacks of firewood and so, once again, his happy whistling wafted over the fence.

But it wasn’t all work no play for Stewie. When he wasn’t chopping wood and fishing for turds, he knew how to have a good time. He had discovered the thrill of flying model airplanes. Oh how we marvelled at them buzzing around the neighbourhood like angry wasps. I could only watch on in envy at this dashing young man with his flying machines. He took it very seriously and even went away to model airplane flying events around the country with lots of other people of a similar stature, if not age. No doubt, as they sat around the campfire in the evenings after an adventurous day’s flying, Stewie had them in awe with his tales of stalking renegade turds, ‘you get down-wind and sniff the air‘. If they had any doubts before about what they wanted to do when they grew up, they were surely inspired by Stew.

But when I say he did not communicate, I have to admit that he did sort of communicate reasonably recently. I just did not reciprocate. I had started parking my car outside his house instead of mine. I just thought that, since he was such an anal little prick, this might irritate him to distraction. Yes I know it was childish, but what I did not realise was there was, apparently, a Council by law that specified that I park no closer than one metre from a neighbour’s driveway. I was probably 20 centimetres short of a metre. So as if to show me that he was no longer the sort of sneaky little scrotum who would call up the Council, Stew left me this note on my windscreen:

Pure gold

I give him credit for a neighbourly warning of the danger of parking 20 cm too close to his driveway, but the truth was probably that when he phoned the Council they put him on hold for a couple of hours listening to muzak. And the veiled threat to swipe my car as he reversed a trailer full of wood was not to be taken lightly. Whatever, the important thing is that our footpath now has a red paint line on it to help me, in future, maintain the legal distance from his driveway and avoid the wrath of a parking officer who might happen to be passing down this dead-end street in search of vehicles that might be parked within a metre of the neighbouring driveway. Apparently there are no council by laws about painting red lines on footpaths.

So while we may not have been close neighbours over the decades, I had to accept my share of the blame for that. He was a neighbour for 30 years; he was part of my daily life for over ten thousand days and I realised that, in a way, I would miss old Stew. So now, as he drove away for the last time and it hit home to me that I may never see him again; that I may never get to say what really should have been said a long, long time ago, I felt the urge to call out, “Stewie, Stewie……I may not have actually said the words to you before but, Stewie… mate, you are a grade-one little wanker.”


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