The Age of Entitlement

The Glitterati at Work, late 1960s

The Glitterati at Work, late 1960s

Let’s take a moment to reflect and rewind…

In 1992 I lived in a dramatically cold flat, the top floor of an old wooden house that was gradually falling to bits. Seven of us shared three bedrooms. Showers required a clean leap between wet floor and metal showerbox, lest one be grounded with a foot in each camp. Fortunately, we we could seldom afford the electricity bill.

Ah, the providence of poverty!

We were all around the same age, 15-17 and we’d all been working full time for a couple of years. I worked between 40 and 50 hours a week at a steam laundry. I counted and sorted incoming dirty laundry, mainly from the hospital, without gloves, shoes or religion.

My flatmates and I were all trying to stay alive until we reached 18, at which point we could get the dole when we inevitably found ourselves out of work. The dole paid $117 a week.

I had just over two years to go.

I began the job at the laundry about a year after the introduction of the National Government’s Employment Contracts Act, (ECA). The ECA did away with previously negotiated labour agreements, keeping just the minimum wage. There were no unions, no penalty rates and, as I was constantly reminded by my boss, I could be let go within the first three months without notice. Little did he know I’d let myself go already. The joke’s on you, sir!

I was relieved to make the three month mark, as it was the point at which every job I’d had since I’d left school had ended. Under the new Employment Contracts Act, Employees were free to negotiate a contract with their employers. The National Government of the time cheerfully reminded us employees that if our contract wasn’t satisfactory we could simply choose another employer! This was the Beauty of The Market!

As it turned out, The Market was flooded with keen young things lining up to scavenge through festering piles of sheets in a rainbow of early decay. My ‘bargaining position’ therefore, was poor. It should be said that it was better that most of the other women I worked with, because unlike them, I could read.

The Employment Contracts Act did away with penalty rates, so we could work 17 hours in a row and get paid the same amount for the first hour as we did for the last. Budgeting was a breeze!

I was under 16, so once I passed the 3 month probation my pay reached just under $6 an hour, before tax. This was, however, more than the minimum youth wage. I considered myself lucky.

I also got 50c “Dirt Money” payable upon delivery of an item covered in blood/pus/vomit. These items were sighted by the factory supervisor who sat in an elevated perspex office overlooking the factory floor, where he ate chocolate biscuits and children, and had furniture cobbled together by Dickens and Foucault.

My pay paid my rent, but only just. We shared groceries, helping to carry them home on a Monday night. I had a bowl of Weetbix for breakfast (we all agreed we would only eat one serving a day), and my lunch order – a bread roll with beetroot and a slice of cheese – cost $6. Most nights were dinner free, but on weekends my flatmate often worked the closing shift at KFC. So, two nights a week she would wake us up at 2am to eat the ‘last batch’ of chicken left over at the end of the night. Bliss.

I was 178cm tall and weighed 48 kilos.

1991 also saw the deregulation of the health system, bad news for those of us on a diet of newly retired KFC and nits. At one point during the year we all got scabies but the new GP charges meant it would cost each of us around $8 – $10 for a visit to the doctor. Rumour had it however that there was a German doctor in town who would see multiple patients in one appointment. She was clearly a communist. We split the cost of the visit and the prescription and were sent home with instructions to wash all our bedding in hot water. She might as well have told us to soak it in Dom Perignon. The scabies galloped on, undaunted.

Three months later, in a sleep deprived fit of itching hysteria, my flatmate scratched through her dermis and into the muscle with a hair-clip. The resulting infection festered for a week, causing a kidney infection that raged for another three days.

She grew more and more ill but was adamant that we should not take her to the hospital, as she couldn’t afford it. In 1991 the National government, as part of its ongoing privatisation of the healthcare system, introduced a per night charge for hospital stays.

The charge was to discourage people from using the hospital ‘unless they really needed to’ (disregarding the fact that Doctors are generally slightly better equipped to determine the ‘need’ for hospital admission than the average punter with an axe in their face).

Initially this charge was set at $50. I seem to recall health minister (soon to be Prime Minister) Jenny Shipley saying that it cost about $170 a night to stay in a full service hotel, so the $50 hospital charge was relatively cheap. This was perhaps unfair media treatment. With the benefit of hindsight Shipley may have chosen more considered words, but it’s since emerged that she was ‘doorstopped’ at home at the exact moment she’d started carving a glue-sniffer. The media can be unkind.

My flatmate was rightly nervous about going to hospital. Outstanding debts were swifty on-sold to Baycorp. In a penurious town there is no-one more zealous than the debt collector who is himself only one pay cheque from the other side. I distinctly remember discussing this contingency: obviously we had nothing BayCorp could or would take (they were famous for taking belongings at an address, regardless of the provenance), but they could ruin her credit rating, and she was the only one of us who was old enough to be on a lease.

The kidney infection continued unabated. My dear flatmate raged, fainted and puked her way through another three days while we waited for market forces to rationalise the extent and outcome of her illness.

Finally, after a week she fell unconscious. We borrowed a friend’s car, scraped together $3 petrol money and a carried her down the stairs and off to hospital, where we were told she was three hours from death. She was back at work later that week, the entitled bitch.

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Embracing Your Seismic Self: nurturing your inner bowl of Weetbix.

The iconic Edmonds Guide to Liquifaction

The iconic Edmonds Guide to Liquifaction

You can live without earthquakes. I say this as someone who has backed away from the angry edge of a tectonic plate and moved to Australia. Australia forgoes earthquakes for the merriment of periodically being burned alive in your bed.

I thought I’d miss the odd quake but I was surprised how quickly one adjusts to not sliding from side to side like an tidal whelk at a 90s dance party.

I’ve experienced my fair share of earthquakes. I’ve lived in Wellington, Greymouth and Christchurch. Residents of both Wellington and Greymouth are well accustomed to jiggling around with their fellow countrymen like meaty fleas on a tectonic dog.

Cantabrians, on the other hand, aren’t. Or they weren’t. Until all of a sudden they were.  And it came as a hell of a shock. You see, Cantabrians were heavily invested in a comforting fallacy – that Christchurch didn’t get earthquakes.

As a kid in Greymouth, this was just part of the city’s appeal. Christchurch was something of an Eldorado – a genteel city where the sun always shone, bubble gum didn’t taste like coal grit and people mowed their lawns without a goat. Serious lifestyle risks were limited to getting a nasty sunburn or an Exponents song stuck in your head. It went without saying that Christchurch was immune to tectonic outbursts.

You might think I’m being flippant, but this view about Christchurch was as firmly held as it was ubiquitous, (especially the part about the Exponents). People genuinely thought that Christchurch ‘didn’t get earthquakes’. After all, ‘There hadn’t been one in living memory’.

It didn’t take me long to get suspicious of this myth. Fresh off the boat from Greymouth, whose two main exports are coal and mercury poisoning, ‘living memory’ is a fungible concept. The ‘no earthquakes’ idea is also unfeasible. After all, New Zealand is little more than the scab of two fractious bits of planet. Why should Christchurch remain unaffected?

A spot of research revealed that parts of Christchurch were in fact reduced to rubble in 1881, 1869, 1888, when severe earthquakes, estimated at about FUCK FUCK and FUCK! respectively on the ChristAlmighty scale hit North Canterbury. Those earthquakes might not have been ‘in current living memory’ but neither was Parihaka, the Mt Tarawera eruption or Gallipoli and no-one seems to be ironing over them in a hurry.

It’s an interesting omission, especially given New Zealanders taste for ‘history making’, where any and all of the most unremarkable of daily occurrences are seized upon as part of the ‘nation’s rich tapestry’. As a ‘young’ colonial country everything from failed military campaigns to biscuit wrappers is venerated, and at times reinvented, in the service of a (somewhat confected) ‘Nationhood’. As anyone who has visited Te Papa lately will attest, the ‘Kiwi’ section looks like an abandoned cargo cult before the cleaners came through*.

Given all that, where’s the backlit display box housing three petrified squares of ginger crunch rescued from Mrs Wilson’s Sydenham kitchen following the 1888 Canterbury earthquake? Or perhaps a dusty chunk of chimney? Or even the top of the Christchurch cathedral? They could actually use that. (For those currently advocating the rebuild of the Christchurch cathedral as a repository of the city’s history and traditions, it’s worth noting that it’s been substantially rebuilt once already. Perhaps the most enduring historical tradition associated with the Christchurch cathedral is the desire to perpetually rebuild it after a massive fucking earthquake).

Why have these Christchurch earthquakes been ‘forgotten’? And, more importantly, did this ‘forgetting’ lead to Christchurch’s love of stone masonry where other New Zealand cities opted for safer timber?

Wellington was also shaken to its foundations at the end of the 19th century. Unlike Christchurch, however, its residents abandoned the glorious Empire-ey aesthetic of stone and built the city out of timber instead. Timber, you see, wobbles. Wellingtonians didn’t ‘forget’.

In Wellington earthquakes remain a quintessential part of the city’s idiom, no matter how infrequent. I think perhaps it’s their constant presence – Wellington has always had little shakes. No-one ‘likes’ them, but they’re part of life’s general unpleasantries, like spiders or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Conversations are halted at the first signs of shaking. All eyes turn to the house’s earthquake gauge, a lampshade, sturdy vase or jar of pickled onions. Is it…. wobbling?

In our freezing, dilapidated flat wedged into the slippery crack of a dark suburban valley we watched the contents of a half-empty bong lurch from side to side like a septic metronome. Earthquakes are an insidious, enervating and utterly unavoidable part of everyday life in Wellington, like southerlies or breakfast programming on ZM (also rated on the ChristAlmighty scale).

I wonder, if Wellingtonians had been granted a short reprieve from earthquakes, would they have been as quick to forget about them as Cantabrians?

 

*Many, many things about Te Papa are fabulous, especially the natural history exhibits that succeed in the challenge of engaging kids. But as a New Zealander I have to say that the new, white-people history part is depressing and not my cup of tea (there’s an entire wing for them). 

 

Ouch.

Numb ray

Numb ray

Australians would like you to believe that one cannot venture into the ocean without being stung, poisoned or simply inhumed whole. Twice. In Australia, the ocean is the fishy equivalent of a shot-gun blast through the screen door.  With deliberate litotic flourish these potentially dangerous creatures are often given benign and innocuous common names, such as the Blue Ringed octopus or Irukandji jellyfish. This is often in stark contrast to their Latin names (‘Screaming Grasping Blue End’ and ‘What-The-Fuck-Was-Errk?’ respectively).

Beware the Not-Bad Flat Fish.

This approach, however, lacks nuance. For instance, today I bring you a fish that does exactly what it says; The Coffin ray. Even that name however, has been downgraded. After all, you might choose to be cremated. And really, its sting is not that bloody bad, you blouse. With that in mind, the Coffin ray is known around these parts in by its less dramatic name, the Numb ray.

It’s been raining here. A lot. We live at the mouth of a large river, which, under normal circumstances, is salt water for about 7 kilometres inland. However, recent flooding caused a drop in salinity at the beach and surrounding area, killing unlucky sea creatures in its muddy wake. Which is where the numb ray comes in. One of these washed up on the beach a couple of days ago, along with a paddock-full of sad looking sheep and a few cows.

Unlike most rays, the numb ray has no tail with which to sting you. Phew. Instead, it has around 50-200 volts, at around 30 amps to liven up your day. Although the numb ray is limited to Australian waters, there are numerous electric rays in the world, some of which were used to anaesthetise women during childbirth, which just goes to show you why women still like to sneak off behind the curtains to squeeze them out.

Seriously though, how cool is this thing? I didn’t even know it existed until one of the local salts told me about being stung by one. Twice.

Tony Abbott cancels environment; “I’m just over it really”

Gen and Murray's Golden Retriever at Abbott's speech on Monday night.

Gen and Murray’s Golden Retriever, before Tony Abbott’s address on Monday night.

Tony Abbott has announced the government’s radical plan to cancel the Australian environment, claiming increasing costs and declining interest have made the biosphere untenable. The announcement follows weeks of speculation at Genevieve and Murray’s place, culminating in a wide ranging dinner party on Monday evening. Over the soup course, Abbott stated that the environment was no longer compatible with the overarching intellectual traditions of the coalition and blamed Labor’s legacy for the changes,

“Let me be clear, we need to address the remaining environment we were left by the previous government. Now I know there will be some who disagree, but in the end I have to do what’s right for Australia. And what’s right for Australia, clearly, is to extract and convert as much mineral wealth as possible to maintain the bank balances of our overseas friends and to keep our dollar nice and high.”

In his speech, Abbott recognised public disquiet over the changes,

“Of course, this won’t happen overnight. We’ll be cancelling the environment in a calm, measured, responsible, staged, logical, harmonious and considered way. I expect the phase out to be entirely completed during the period between Christmas Eve and Boxing day.”

Abbott also acknowledged the unfairness of some of the difficulties faced by the environment,

“Look, I think we can all agree that if the environment’s name had been spelt with C-O-A-L then things might be different, but as it stands, on the basis of the facts and the benefit of hindsight, foresight and frontsight, the time has come to end of this commitment that has been hanging around our necks.”

Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt was unavailable for comment this evening, instead referring enquiries to Tarquin, the only Golden Retriever at the address.