Cracker by Damian Christie


Weapons of Mass Production

The following story appeared in the July-August issue of Metro Magazine. As Metro has no online archive of its articles, they have kindly granted permission for me to reproduce my story here. 

Guangzhou is the biggest city you never knew existed. Even if you do know it exists, you might not know it’s one of the biggest – 9th in the world, with a population of nearly 12 million people. Including the greater city area along the Pearl River Delta, and the number is more than double that. In those terms, it is second only to Tokyo as the world’s biggest agglomeration.

It’s not the sexiest city in the world. It doesn’t have the romance of Paris, the history of Rome, the spirit of Rio or the dirty credibility of New York. It’s not even the sexiest city in China; that title goes to Shanghai, which fancies itself the New York of the East. Shanghai, by the way, is the world’s biggest city proper, and has the skyline to match. Not that Guangzhou isn’t trying – the massive Pearl River flows through the heart of the city, and after sunset the buildings shine with more multi-coloured lights than a Nissan Skyline cruising down K’ Road on a Friday night. Even so, you’d struggle to say it’s a pretty city. The streets are kept remarkably clean of litter, while the sky is hazy with pollution.

Pearl River

But you don’t come to Guangzhou for the sights, you come to trade; to buy, to sell, to produce. Guangzhou is the economic powerhouse of the People’s Republic. If decisions are made in Beijing, and the money banked in Shanghai, then Guangzhou is where things get made. Formerly known as Canton, it’s been a major manufacturing and trading hub of China for hundreds of years, and it’s showing no sign of slowing down. In 2005 its GDP was roughly the same as New Zealand’s. Today it’s twice that.

Jeremy Maclaurin has been coming to Guangzhou for the past six years to oversee his fashion manufacturing business, including local labels NVAH and neverblack. Living in Havelock North but making the journey half a dozen times a year, in February Maclaurin decided to stop being a visitor from the Hawkes Bay, and relocate permanently.

As we drive towards his 3 bedroom/2 bathroom apartment – worth a million or more to buy, but a steal at just NZ$1100 or so a month to rent – Maclaurin points to the huge residential buildings surrounding his. There are, he says, some 200,000 people living within a couple of city blocks, and by the end of the year, 5.2 million people will be living in the ‘suburb’ of Zhujiang New Town. Just seven years ago, those buildings weren’t there.

In Guangzhou, most numbers quoted seem to have a bunch of zeroes after them, and they’re thrown around with impunity. At Zuru Toys, Anna Mowbray has orders for millions of tiny, water-activated robotic fish, destined to be the impulse craze of Christmas 2012. On another floor, an order of 500,000 boomerangs is being cut from blue foam; outside, a massive skip is piled with the foam outlines of where boomerangs once stood. You don’t exactly have to be Captain Planet to realise this is less than ideal, but somtimes I guess the world just needs more blue foam boomerangs.

Anna Mowbray says her friends at home share a common misconception: “I do believe they think we’re all running sweatshops.” But touring Zuru Toys HQ, an hour from central Guangzhou, while I’m doing a great impression of the incredible melting man in the 35 degree heat with what feels like 110% humidity, I don’t see any evidence of that.

“There’s a huge distance between people’s perceptions of China and the reality,” says Maclaurin. “Those days [of sweatshops] are far gone. A big part of that was factories had to start meeting standards for their export markets, then new labour laws were introduced a few years ago, and so there’s minimum wages, social security, health insurance and things like that.”

Yes, China has minimum wages – in Guangzhou it’s about NZ$220 a month. But factories over a certain size (25-30 workers) are also expected to be responsible for food and accommodation. The latter is particularly important as most of the factory workers don’t live down the road with their families, they come from remote villages, hundreds or thousands of miles away, and live in accommodation which is usually part of the factory complex. They send most of their wages back home, and twice a year make the long arduous journey back to their villages. It’s as often as Mowbray returns to her family home in Cambridge, which she left seven years ago.

Sure, the factory jobs are repetitive, menial. No-one seems to be having a great time working the machinery, but I’ve seen a few production lines in New Zealand, even worked on a couple, and never thought anyone was having a ball. However I couldn’t help thinking that the guy whose job it was to test-fire a volley from each massive fluorescent green foam pellet gun didn’t realise he had the best job on the whole conveyor belt.

Production line, Zuru Toys

The irony of Guangzhou is that while many major multinationals use it as a production base, it is also a primary source of one of their biggest headaches – knockoffs. At the Hu Mai markets, just one example of hundreds, canny shoppers can experience an entire street of multi-storey buildings and bustling alleys, each crammed with stall after stall of such merchandise. Forget cheap imitation Lacoste and Ralph Lauren polo shirts; what’s on offer here are high quality replicas of the latest season fashions, from all the usual big brands, but also niche, high-fashion labels – even Karen Walker sunglasses make an appearance. Worringly, at least for those hoping to protect their IP, this isn’t a consumer market – most stalls won’t sell you a single pair of Adidas limited edition trainers – you’ll have to take a hundred, minimum. Easily spotted among the Chinese, a large number of Africans populate the markets, deep in negotiation with the stallholders, ordering 500 of this, a thousand of that, destined mostly for South Africa.

Jeremy Maclaurin tells me of a woman he met with a Louis Vuitton store, who admitted one in every four bags she sold was from these markets – her way of keeping the margins up. If the customers can’t tell the replica from the real deal, it does start to raise some big picture questions about the value we place on a brand, but that’s another story. I wonder, as a designer himself, whether Maclaurin is bothered by the knowledge that his designs, or those of his clients, might end up on these shelves alongside the Paul Smith shirts, the Nudie Jeans. However he seems to have taken to heart the old adage about having the serenity to know when he can’t change something. It’s just one more cost of doing business in China.

Corruption is an obvious question from a Western journalist, but again, it seems more of an accepted - if officially frowned upon - cost of doing business. “It’s more about building relationships,” says Maclaurin, “so if you know the right people then things can happen a lot quicker than if you don’t go down that channel. But when you’re doing due dilligence on a business, you always factor in a certain amount for that.”

Logan Komoroski, a furniture designer who made the move from Auckland about the same time as Anna Mowbray, points out it’s perfectly acceptable to include these under-the-table payments as a business expense in the monthly accounts, and that as soon as the necessary backhanders are made, things happen very quickly indeed.

And there’s certainly no lack of opportunities. Talking with the three early thirty-something expats, the number of side-projects and potential new businesses is as overwhelming as it is inspiring. All speak of the lack of red-tape compared with doing business back home. “It was just becoming harder and harder,” says Komoroski, who now produces furniture for countries worldwide, and increasingly, the Chinese domestic market. He also has side projects transforming shipping containers into retail and living spaces, and waterfront property development in the nearby Philippines, both from contacts made in Guangzhou. Business is never far from the mind in Guangzhou, neatly illustrated as Komoroski, with an impressive grasp of Mandarin, tries to poach the waitress delivering our drinks. “It’s getting hard to find salespeople who speak good English,” he explains. The waitress takes his card, laughing nervously, not sure whether she is the butt of some expat joke.

 “I think China sees any new business as a good thing for the country as a whole, so they try and make it as easy as possible,” says Maclaurin. “Here nothing seems to be a problem, so you can look at a number of projects within a year – some eventuate, some don’t – but at least you have that opportunity.”

And therein lies the paradox, at least from the outsiders’ point of view. It’s the last giant bastion of Communism, and yet Komoroski says he’s “never lived in a place as free.” Which is not to say the Communist Party does not make its presence occasionally felt. Sitting in my hotel room, I’m unable to access Facebook or Twitter. Yet as I’m being blocked, Anderson Cooper is on CNN, broadcasting the first major interview with the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, who escaped house arrest and is now living in the US. As the broadcast goes out, Cooper points to the CNN feed as it appears in China, almost goading the authorities to shut it down. They don’t.

Central planning certainly works when it comes to getting things done. Guangzhou hosted the 16th Asian Games in 2010, and saw more than NZ$3 billion invested in beautification, new sports venues, and improving the transport network, including high speed rail. The architecturally impressive Leide Bridge and Canton Tower were also opened for the Games – at 600 metres, the latter is the third tallest structure in the world, although this is the sort of fact that’s almost out of date as soon as it’s written down.

Even failed developments in Guangzhou are on a massive scale. Across the road from my hotel sits a the massive hulking shell of a skyscraper, easily 50 storeys high, started but destined to never be finished. Meanwhile new buildings go up, and old buildings come down, the replacements always bigger, bolder, and more luminous than their predecessors. For an ancient trading city – Guangzhou had direct routes to the Middle East as far back as the 8th Century – there is little sign of its heritage.

An abandoned skyscraper

But this is not peculiar to Guangzhou, nor is it a remnant of the cleansing of Mao’s Cultural Revolution – the Chinese culture simply places no value on old buildings. Or more correctly, as the French explorer and poet Victor Seaglen noted upon visiting China a century ago, rather than adopting the futile Western approach of battling the erosion of its architecture, the Chinese positively embrace it, with built-in obsolescence. How Zen.

But it’s not just Guangzhou’s facade that’s changing. As much as it might seem like a bold new frontier town of capitalism and opportunity to me, Jeremy Maclaurin says he and his fellow expats feel like they’ve almost arrived too late – “if we’d been here five or ten years earlier, we’d have really been on the ball.” While the rise of the Chinese middle class has meant an exponential boom in domestic demand, and it’s harder to find people willing to work in factories.

China’s one-child policy also means many young Chinese are the sole beneficiary of two parents’ and four grandparents’ hard work, further relieving the urge to toil themselves. In Guangzhou, living costs, labour costs and real estate prices are all rising, driving manufacturing further away. Maclaurin is already beginning to invest in factories in Cambodia and Vietnam.

As unlikely as it might seem in the midst of still massive growth, if this trend continues it’s possible Guangzhou will one day lose its industrial foundations. The factories will empty, and without a purpose, the city will grind slowly to a halt, a victim of its own success. And just like every building that once stood there, the city of Guangzhou will embrace its own obsolescence. But not anytime soon.

Damian Christie travelled to Guangzhou with the help of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.



What Would Charlotte Do?

Wow. So it was three years ago I wrote this piece about finally getting on board with Twitter. 

A couple of weeks later I announced that I still really didn’t get it and was getting back off that dull suburban train... 

…and a week after that I had to refute claims from a few idiot bloggers claiming the previous decision had been somehow a victory for them. 

Well, having waited three years just to ensure they weren’t right about me losing my (self-employed job) for calling a spade a spade (or in the case of Michael Laws, something else entirely), I finally thought it safe to emerge from my cavern high on the Afghan/Pakistan border and once again jump aboard the Twitter train and see if the ride had improved any.

 Maybe Twitter had become a bit more mainstream in the interim, had settled down from those Wild West days of 2009. Maybe more people were actually saying, you know, stuff, rather than "HI IS ANYONE HERE". Or maybe I’d finally worked out what I wanted to use it for. Because finally I saw a point to it. Everyone has different reasons for using Twitter of course (some have none, but don’t let that stop them), so here’s mine:

When TVNZ 7 came to an end, I decided it was time to do a bit of social media housekeeping. My facebook account, which has always had a fairly sizeable list of acquaintances, had got a bit out of control. It now contained hundreds of people I’d never met before. Back Benches viewers I think, for the most part. All perfectly nice I’m sure, but it meant I could no longer narrowcast a message like “who wants a beer after work?” without being taken up on my offer by some 18 year old kid in Whangarei whose profile pic is him shaking hands with Roger Douglas  and smiling like it was the BEST DAY EVER.

So I started culling those folk from Facebook, and planned to migrate them over to Twitter, so I'd have one narrowcast social media, one vaguely broadcast. One conversation, one lecture, if you will, albeit with a brief Q+A session at the end.

In the three years I’d been off Twitter, about 1000 people had started following my dormant account (proof that people don’t really give a toss what you’ve got to say half the time), so it was well underway. I originally linked my Twitter feed to update my Facebook status, but I think that just made too many people angry. 

So now I tweet. And how. I’m hooked. Being vaguely unemployed has helped: Nothing like tweeting in yer 'gown. So why am I enjoying it this time when I wasn’t before?

One, I’m following more interesting people, or (less judgementally) people who are saying things I’m more interested in hearing. Two, I’ve found a tone and a reason to tweet – it’s a micro-blog, a status update you think the world might want to hear. Or at least that tiny portion of the world who follows @damianchristie.

And there’s the tricky bit. I’ve worked out there are different relationships on twitter. There are people who are way famous and will probably never talk back to you. And you feel like a dick tweeting them knowing everyone can see you do it, but occasionally you think @rickygervais REALLY needs to know what you’ve got to say. Ricky Gervais has more than three million followers and has tweeted some 2600 odd thoughts.

There are people who are just, you know, people. People that no-one other than their actual, real life friends, have heard of. And they might have 50 followers, and have tweeted some 20,000 thoughts. Mostly, in my experience, many of those will be responses to tweets from people like Ricky Gervais, who aren’t listening.

The other day my number of tweets surpassed my number of followers, which are both around the 1500 mark. It was significant, because until that point I was on the Ricky Gervais side of the line (it's a big side okay, with plenty of people on it), and now I’m on the side of the line with that guy with 50 followers whose name escapes me (an equally big side). I paused for a few minutes, and then carried on. I mean, what are you going to do.

So there are the Ricky Gervais people, and the unknown tweeter guys. Then there are the people who can be described as your peers. People you know in real life, or near enough to it.

It's these people I have long back and forth conversations with, critiquing, arguing, explaining, clarifying and occasionally apologizing to. Because let’s be clear: Twitter is a fucked place to have an argument. As with most of the internet, it’s easy to misconstrue tone, but even more so because in order to fit your thought into 140 characters you’ve removed the words, punctuation etc that help make everything we say each day less ambiguous. Also, I think there’s something that just makes people want to pick fights and talk at cross purposes, even if they’re probably 99% the same. Mind you, chimpanzees and humans are 99% the same, and you know, I can spot that 1% difference on a good night.

What annoys me about Twitter – apart from the needless arguments with the other chimps? The fact there’s no easy way to split off a conversation with a peer or group thereof (the Direct Message function is crap, and limited). If I’m tweeting back and forth to @CMRanapia, well guess what, 1499 other people at my end just have to sit through that. I don’t wish that on people, but I don’t see an alternative.

Then there are some people also seem to make something of an art out of affixing a loud-hailer to what surely would be better off done by txt. “Did you put the washing on” or “what time are you going to the gym” are surely statements suited for another medium. But that's just me. Right now, someone out there is probably reading this and going "dude, I don't give a toss about your thoughts on Twitter". Everyone is someone else's "what time are you going to the gym".

And you know what? Your Twitter Account, Your Rules, Your Life. And that’s what I’m coming to terms with. If you don’t like what’s happening on your Twitter feed, don’t blame the people you’re following, blame yourself. You chose to follow each and every one of them. And insulting someone you follow, but who doesn’t you, is to me a bit like yelling at the mean Simon Cowell on the telly. Kinda sad.

Of course, unlike that example, on Twitter, the Simon Cowell does hear you. They can (and largely will and should) ignore you, or they can respond. Unless it’s truly for sport, I think the latter is unwise. When I’m faced with that situation, I think “What Would Charlotte Do?” and then do the opposite. Engaging, retweeting, absorbing all that bile, well clearly it doesn’t do you any good. Sorry Charlotte, you need to put the Twitter down and step away.

 So I’m changing the channel, or at least fiddling with the fine tuning. Yes Alyssa Milano, I had a crush on you when I was ten and you were in Who's The Boss, but there’s nothing about the state of your son’s chest cough that I need to know. Don’t stop tweeting about him, I’m sure some of your two million-plus followers care more than me, and I have a feeling you’ll be fine without my patronage. I'm just fine tuning.

 I’m enjoying listening in on conversations between various NZ comedians (@Rose_Matafeo and her man @guywilliamsguy are particularly droll favourites), assorted media types, the oddly addictive @PebblesHooper and just a few random people with a nice turn of phrase – I wish I could find more of the latter. I’m loving adding my two cents to the Sunday night flurry of commentary over New Zealand’s Got Talent (#NZGT), or following a breaking political story with a bunch of tweeting bloggers. Because when it works, it’s a beautiful constantly moving feast. And one day, if the stars align, and I say precisely the right thing at exactly the right time, @britneyspears might just give me that RT.

EDIT: My pal Glenn (@radiowammo) has just explained to me that only people who follow both myself and @CMRanapia are able to see our conversation. If that's true (which I'm sure it is), it's marginally better I guess but now I have to draw Venn diagrams trying to work out the intersection of people following me and everyone else I follow. It's going to be a long night...


PS.  Yes, 'tis great Back Benches is returning to Prime next year, can’t wait.  In the interim (and possibly beyond, who knows), I’m very pleased to announce I’ll be doing a bit of reporting for ONE News at 6pm. One or two days a week, general reportage, but once I get up to speed hopefully a few stories I have a bit of specialist knowledge about. My first shift was today, and I got to watch E! TV for three hours in preparation for an item on the Emmy’s – probably exactly what half of you assume most MSM journos do every day…

Also, I know you’ve probably all read it already, but shit Keith Ng’s most recent blog is a great illustration of my previous post about John Armstrong’s whinging. I’m charitable enough to genuinely believe the Herald on Sunday set out to try and find something meaningful behind the National Standards data. You may disagree, but regardless, unfortunately, they didn’t seem to have any statisticologists of Mr Ng’s calibre to explain where they might be going round. I think he’s got a job already, I assume he has, but god damn some media outlet could benefit from that dude being paid to work a calculator for them. 


Bloggers: Pr*cks, Ars*holes, B*st*rds and C*nts

I’d like to pitch in a few thoughts about the John Armstrong vs the Two Bloggers column.  I don’t generally read much of what Armstrong writes; Gordon Campbell’s response to Armstrong’s column would be the first time I’ve read Campbell’s blog; although I do often use Bryce Edwards' work to catch up with the day’s politics on those occasions when I’ve been head down in an edit or some such. I find it, as Russell is fond of saying, “useful”.

Which is to say this is not about that, at least not the specifics. I don’t know or care if Campbell has been regularly making snide asides about Armstrong, whether one of them schtupped (I’ve never written that before, and not sure how to spell it) someone important to the other, or whether Armstrong was just tired and grumpy and/or needed something to write about. But I’d like to say a few things about the more generalised “bloggers vs the establishment” meme.

When Public Address began back in 2002, there weren’t many blogs in NZ. Not ones you’d want to read anyway, not ones about politics and stuff. I didn’t know about blogs when Russell asked me to start one.  And for at least five or six years after that, much of my time was spent explaining to people what one was.

I remember a newspaper column I had in the Herald on Sunday when it started in 2004 – “Blogger” was my description. It wasn’t my idea, and always seemed a bit odd, like I was being defined by one medium I worked in, at the expense of all the others. Surely it would’ve been just as apt, albeit redundant, to call me “Columnist”. And despite Public Address having won at least one or two Netguide Internet Awards by the stage, and me proudly telling Mum all about it, the day that first paper came out she called to ask, “what’s a Blogger”?

When I started working for Sunday at TVNZ in 2005, people there would ask the same question – reporters, sensing it was something mysterious, new and hip, would suggest doing a story about blogs. I was the subject of a number of articles around that time, talking about the medium. No-one seemed that interested in what the bloggers were saying, just where and how we were saying it. The idea one might actually use blogs as part of one's research was unthinkable. These people weren’t even professionals.

I don’t think a huge amount has changed in 2012. There are more blogs, yes. I don’t generally have to explain to any media what they are. But the idea that blogs are at best, an annoyance, and at worst a mess of half-arsed angry ill-thought-out feral opinion, still holds with many of the media establishment. Using a blog as a source, even just an idea for a story (and admitting it), would be like quoting Wikipedia in an essay or taking medical advice from sue6918 on Answers.Com.

The blogs don’t help of course. There are the rabid ones, the ones who will repeat a story even after it’s been pointed out to them that it’s not actually accurate, simply because it does their cause some good. There are the ones that sneer and dismiss the entire media establishment as either a vast left/right wing conspiracy, or totally and utterly in the pocket of our Government owners (that one’s for TVNZ)… it’s hard to even see the term “MSM” these days as being anything but pejorative, in the same way as a former political editor at TVNZ was unable to say the word “blogger” without his contempt being obvious.

And yes, despite being unresourced, unfunded, and often lacking in any journalism training, the bloggers have one thing many paid journalists lack – time. They have time to pick through your articles line by line and look for errors, or areas where you’d been a bit casual with the facts. Bastards. They have time to go back through the political past and dig up references you didn’t have the time to find while sweating on that bus in Russia. Pricks. They can quote extensively, write prolifically, update constantly and adjust accordingly, while your article in the paper of record sits there mocking you with the glaring omission you now realise it contains. Arseholes. They can just sit back and say “you coulda done better” or “I would have done it like this”. C**ts.

Yeah, life was a lot easier when the only way a person could criticise your work was to take pen to paper and write a letter to the editor, hope it got past the gatekeepers without being subbed beyond recognition. You even got a right of reply then if you wanted it – the Last Word. It’s fucking tough being John Armstrong in the 21st Century, let me tell you. I’m surprised it took you this long to snap. I know those work trips are more work than trips, I’ve been there. I still don’t know any journalist on the way up who wouldn’t give their right arm to jump on that plane to Vladivostok, even knowing exactly how difficult it was. You’ve got the access, the bloggers don’t. Having a bitch about bloggers criticising your work is like a dinosaur sitting in a swamp whinging about the oncoming meteorite. Much as you might want to, you can’t stop it. It ain’t going away. Time to adapt.


Audience wanted for lively TV discussion


Lifting my head above the parapet briefly to let you know about something I think a number of you might be interested in.  My recent absence here is for no other reason is that I've been in maximum hay-making mode while the public service broadcasting sun that is TVNZ 7 is shining. As observant viewers will realise, that's about another three weeks, and there's still hay what needs harvesting, both for me, in a taking care of my little nuclear family over the winter months sense, and for you, in that there's some great TV in the next few weeks.  Bang rather than a whimper, as it should be.

I finished shooting the last pieces for Hindsight today - 39 episodes in 18 months, and I think we've pretty much rinsed that idea, so while it's always sad to end a great project, I don't feel it's gone before its time. 

Back Benches has another 3 shows left, and in a somewhat odd twist, as many of you will know, the Backbencher Tavern suffered a substantial fire on Thursday morning. It'll recover, but not in time for those last three shows, which to be honest, feels f***ing weird. We were looking forward to farewelling the show in its original setting, now we're at the Speights Alehouse up the road.  Which will be great, but it's weird nonetheless.

ANYWAY.  The thing I really wanted to tell you about is part of TVNZ 7's last hurrah, a series of five shows around the concept "The Big Idea". Ideas that have the potential to transform New Zealand as we know it.  I'm producing it, former US correspondent Tim Wilson is fronting it, and we've got five shows brimming with great talent, all filmed in front of a studio audience at the upstairs schmancy bit of the Cloud at Queens Wharf in Auckland City. And we'd love you to be there.

The shows, in order of filming, are:

Sunday 17 June:  
100% Solar by 2020: As the pressure on existing energy sources grows, should we look to an abundant resource virtually untapped, right on our rooftops?

Monday 18 June:  
Predator-Free New Zealand: An idea proposed by Sir Paul Callaghan. What if we made a concerted effort to eliminate every opossum, rat and mustelid not just from outlying islands, but from the entire country?

Monday 18 June:  
Teach the World to Farm: With looming world food shortages, do New Zealand's technologies and expertise put it in a unique position to teach the world to feed itself?

Tuesday 19 June: 
Population 15 Million: Should New Zealand stop being a 'town in a country' and increase the population - i.e. 15 million people in the next 50 years?

Tuesday 19 June: 
Selling New Zealand: Do we want to sell ourselves as more than a pretty place where Lord Of The Rings was filmed? What should our unique selling proposition be to take us into the future? And what does 'brand New Zealand' really mean?

We've got some heavyweight panellists, some of the best and brightest, and each show should be interesting, informative and entertaining. Just what we aim for on TVNZ 7.   

If you'd like to come to any of the filmings - they're done "as live", so will only take half an hour, and naturally there's a few drinks before or afterwards, depending on the session, so you can chat about the ideas further.

You're welcome to come to one, two, or the whole shebang, whatever takes your fancy. First in, best dressed.

Just register via this page here (not to me via publicaddress please):

And if you can't make it, the shows will be broadcast on TVNZ 7 starting the following Monday.  But do come.

After all the dust settles from TVNZ 7, I'll be back more regularly. I've got stories to tell.  A trip to China and Singapore (you can see a bit of the former in my final Hindsight episode on June 26th), tales from the suburbs, and musings on life in general.  I'm looking forward to having a bit more time to do this sort of thing, even if the reason why I'll have more time aint great.  Silver linings etc.  


Are you Ready to Laugh?

The end of the golden weather this morning seems timely. It’s been great, day after day basking in the warmth under blue skies, like the Summer we never got. But it had to end sometime, and what better way to deal with the rain than by gathering with friends for the NZ International Comedy Festival.

I love May. Every year my Beloved and I gorge ourselves on the best of international and local comedic talent – and anyone who still thinks it’s clever to question whether the latter exists can get their coat now – often four or more shows a week, back to back shows on some nights. I have friends who go ga-ga for the Film Festival, taking days off work to catch the matinee screenings of the latest independent Belgian doco; others stuff themselves with culture at the Arts Festival; and while I’ll happily pick at both, it’s the chance of laughs that get me out the door.

The best place to start each year is the Five Star Comedy Preview. It’s the day before the Gala (which is today), and features a hand-picked selection of the best international talent. Each performs for about 10 minutes, which as the name suggests, is a great preview. Some acts you can’t wait to see their solo show, others you think 10 minutes was great but enough, and then there’s the odd one you’re happy it was short, although they’re pretty rare.

So I was excited to head along to last night’s preview at Sky City Theatre (yes, I felt dirty sitting in the belly of the beast). Enough preamble, here’s my thoughts on the 8 artists.

Must See: Milton Jones. English. Classic droll delivery of one liners, perfectly timed, no hurry to get through a sentence. Hilarious. Best joke of the night was an off-the-cuff jibe (at/with, I’m not sure) a couple of the previous acts who had both told the same story.

Definitely worth a look: Chris Martin (UK), Brendon Burns (Australia). Both top-class comedians with great, original, observational and not-so-observational humour.

Would like to see more: Craig Campbell (Canada). I generally love Canadian comedians and their often bogan humour – Glenn Wool, who has come the last couple of years, is a great example of that  and Craig Campbell, with his bushy beard, long hair and crazy eyes looks like he could be too. And while there were plenty of hints that he is hilarious, last night he took the unusual step of using his entire 10 minutes to re-tell a story that the night’s host, Dan Willis (UK), had just told us. It involved the two of them being mugged overseas, it was a good anecdote, and Campbell certainly added and enriched its telling, but with so little time from each comic, I personally didn’t need two different journeys towards the same punchline – although I dare say any comedians in the audience would’ve loved it (cf the film The Aristrocrats).

Undecided: Bill Dawes (USA). I’m happy to hear offensive humour on any topic. Any topic. There are pretty much no ‘no-go zones’ for me, as long as it's funny and/or clever. Brendon Burns’ Michael Barrymore material is a good example of this. But Bill Dawes’ off-hand remark about not seeing the black folk in the audience until they smiled… let’s just say that delivered by a white guy with an American accent, it definitely challenged. And followed up with lots of jokes about exactly how gay Les Mills gym was, I’m not sure if he’s on the right side of ironic for me, even if I still laughed in places that weren't overtly racist or homophobic.

Not my thing: Stuart Taylor (South Africa), Dead Cat Bounce (Ireland). Stuart Taylor, just didn’t really find him that funny, although I do have a sort of visceral reaction to the South African accent, to be fair. Dead Cat Bounce are an Irish comedy-rock trio. Very talented musicians, they could probably spend more time working on the comedy than the guitar solos. Although NZ has set the bar pretty high when it comes to musical comedy. As the final act of the night, with an audience as warmed-up as they were ever going to get, it still fell a little flat.  But judge for yourself, here’s a song they performed last night, “Kayaking”.  

A couple of flat points aside, overall it was still a fantastic preview of the weeks to come. This is the first May with a wee-one at home, so I’ll have to choose a little more carefully than in the past, but I’ll still get my fix. There are dozens of acts other than these eight of course (Jason Byrne also comes highly recommended) and a swathe of local talent (The Boy with Tape on his Face, if you haven’t seen him before, is a must-see). Do it.

[EDIT: I just remembered that the first song Dead Cat Bounce performed, a macabre take on 'Old Macdonald', was actually quite funny. So that's one out of three.]