Hard News by Russell Brown

The National Arena

The Wellington Stadium is a marvellous place to watch rugby. It is an arena in a sense that other New Zealand grounds are not, in that its shape and symmetry have the effect of concentrating atmosphere. And my God, was there some atmosphere on Saturday night.

Huge washes of red splashed across the stands by kick-off time. By hook or by crook, Lions fans appeared to have grabbed around half the seats, and their team did not lack for vocal support. Some New Zealanders appear to have taken the view that the Welsh, Scottish and Irish are good sorts, but not the English.

I thought they were all good value, and the English lads had a nice line in toilet-queue humour - if also a marked preponderance of faces only a mother could love. Surely they can't all have played prop?

The vigour of the Lions support drew New Zealanders out of their shells. If you weren't shouting and singing, you weren't really there. Singing? Yes. Cultural nationalism via the pop charts. 'Loyal', 'Victoria', 'Bliss', 'Haere Mai', 'I Got You' and 'Slice of Heaven' all got an airing in the breaks and were largely sung with more gusto than the national anthem. (Face it, you feel comfortable singing 'Why Does Love Do This to Me?' in a way you don't singing 'God Defend New Zealand'.)

You may note that Dave Dobbyn had a hand in no fewer than three of those tunes. And, after the post-match interview with Tana Umaga played on the big screen, as the stadium slowly emptied, his lovely new song, 'Welcome Home' ("Out here on the edge, the empire is fading by the day …") rang around the oval. It was an appropriate and fulfilling moment, and testament again to Dave's ability to deliver great spirit through his best songs.

The coaches have said that the Lions management's attempts to vilify Tana Umaga in the past week helped galvanise their players. They certainly galvanised the supporters. In some sense, most of us felt there were values at stake here. As David Kirk pointed out in the Daily Telegraph, "New Zealanders respect and respond to grim determination, they believe in people who shut-up and put-up, and they react rather badly to sore losers and wimps."

But the game. Oh, the game. I felt viscerally connected to the All Blacks that evening. And how sweet was it that Umaga ran in the first try? The All Blacks were swift and ruthless exploiters of turnover ball, thunderous tacklers and tireless toilers (Tracey Nelson's All Black game stats for Saturday make interesting reading). Dan Carter had such a game that the claim in one of the Sunday papers that his was the greatest individual performance in an All Black jersey was not actually unreasonable.

Clive Woodward appears to have clung to the misguided belief that the All Blacks would display mental weakness under pressure. In fact, it was the Lions who were, at key moments on Saturday, mentally unfit. When Wilkinson's first penalty shot hit the post and they regained the ball, they simply needed to display purpose and composure and would probably have scored a second try for a 14-0 lead. Instead, one of their forwards lost the plot, dived over the ruck and the All Blacks were out of jail. Later, Wilkinson squandered a huge overlap with a misdirected drop goal attempt; a really remarkable failure of vision.

I've never subscribed to the view - popular with the florid prose merchants who write about rugby for the British press - that it's all about passion. Or, as one Lions player had it last week, about hating the All Blacks more than the All Blacks hate them.

It's not like that. There was certainly passion (in his after-match interview, Byron Kelleher twice declared himself "proud to be a New Zealander"). But passion is not enough, and it is no more important than the other elements: focus, skill, the desire for excellence and the ability, in the cauldron, to enjoy what you're doing.

Afterwards, I met up with my friends Kerry and Simon and enjoyed the atmosphere of a thronging Courtenay Place before moving uptown to the Havana bar, which was full of boisterous, bug-eyed kids, and a nice place to be. From there, it was home to watch Live8, sometimes with the sound down. I was mildly shocked at finding Pink Floyd to be actually quite good.

I'm afraid I can't quite muster the expected hand-waving enthusiasm for Live8. I'm unconvinced when I see Mariah Carey, her life awash with money and waste and the demands of a diva, pleading for an end to poverty. Or when performers in Philadelphia get $US12,000 goodie bags for their trouble, or wristbands carry the branding of sweatshop giant Tommy Hilfiger.

People like to feel they're involved somehow in a good thing - and what more pleasant and less onerous way to get involved than going to a concert in Hyde Park, or wandering around Edinburgh on a sunny Saturday afternoon? I hope it has some concrete effect, but I'm not sure it actually will.

I had to get up on Sunday morning to do a phone interview with Garry Ward of Newstalk ZB Wellington, one of several interviews about Great New Zealand Argument I did while I was in town. The one I enjoyed most was with Oliver Driver on Frontseat, which was also occasion for my first visit to Avalon in about 20 years. Avalon is vast. The corridors are cavernous, the makeup room could serve the cast of a feature film. It actually reminded me more than anything of an old film studio I visited once in eastern Poland; a kind of monument to a socialist cultural past.

Speaking of the past, we screened 20 minutes of the Lange Oxford Union speech at our launch at the Film Archive on Sunday, and it was a good thing to see it again after all these years. The audience seemed to like it and - contrary to no fewer than three warnings about Wellington book-launch audiences I was offered earlier in the day - they almost all stayed for the duration of a useful panel discussion on ideas in the book with Jim Traue, Gemma Gracewood and Che Tibby. It was a very good do (Scoop's Alastair Thompson took some nice pictures of proceedings), if not quite a Great Blend (Wellington, hang in there - we're bringing you a show this year).

Earlier on the Thursday, my publishing partner Martin Taylor and I paid courtesy-and-signing visits to Unity Books and Dymocks. That Tilly from Unity is a hard case. But perhaps the best bookshop moment was the following morning, when I stopped in front of Bennett's on Lambton Quay. In the front window, by the door, there was a display of six titles. Three of them were Great New Zealand Argument, Graham Reid's Postcards from Elsewhere and David Slack's Civil War and Other Optimistic Predictions. Public Address is culturally in the house.

A note about getting the book: we've had some issues getting the book out through the big chains. If you can't find it, ask for it (and ignore anyone at Whitcoulls who says it's not out for another month) or try a good independent bookstore. I'm not quite ready to open up local retail sales yet, but if you're overseas, or you really can't find the book locally, you can buy it though our shop at Amplifier here.

I also did my usual trawl of the second-hand bookstores, and came up with an unusually rich haul, including Keith Sinclair's Pember Reeves biography and a veritable swag o' Fairburn: the 1966 reprint of his great satirical poem about Michael Joseph Savage, The Sky is a Limpet, the original printing of Three Poems (including 'Dominion') with Denis McEldowney's name inside and The Woman Problem and other prose, whose dust jacket bears a wonderful sketch of the author's character:

The peripatetic school of Greek philosophy involved a lot of gesticulation and walking around Acacia Grove. In this we have never had Fairburn's equal. Right or wrong, he would argue the hind leg off a cow and bite a camel's bum. What he has to say is not so much to convince us that his is the only thinking … as to make us think about these things for ourselves.

Fairburn would have made a great blogger.

And that's about it. My passions for rugby, cultural nationalism and nights on the town have been served, I've done a lot of talking and people seem to like Great New Zealand Argument. I've come back bearing old books and new ideas. It has been a thoroughly satisfactory trip to the capital.