Hard News by Russell Brown


Trams, drams and scams

We were in Christchurch, my producer Nigel and I, to record a variety of things for a forthcoming radio show, and we were busy. After landing on Friday, we popped into Sound Archives and quizzed Dr Paul Gee of Christchurch ED about why the youth of Christchurch seem to get so very much more munted on party pills than those of Auckland.

Then it was back to the hotel - the pleasant Copthorne Commodore, right out by the airport - to freshen up. We took a bus that wound through Ilam, where the trees were all a quarter century older than I remembered. The new suburbs I grew up in looked all bedded in and leafy.

Then it was off to the Whisky Guild members' dinner at Riccarton House. The weather could hardly have been more unfavourable for an indoor-outdoor do, but it was a convivial affair, with rather more whisky than food available if you weren't quick.

We bumped into the mayor and met Metro's beverage man Kerry Tyack, and also greatly enjoyed the arrival of the Canterbury Cheesemonger selection, featuring the Cropwell Bishop Shropshire, a blue vein cheese of spectacular orange hue, which tasted like God's own marmite. It went splendidly with the dry, peppery seaspray flavours of the Adelphi Breath of the Isles, and it didn't exactly disagree with the Glenfarclas Cask Strength that followed.

The following morning was Dramfest 07, New Zealand's first single malt whisky festival; launched, as you might expect with a pipe band. Good lord, there was some whisky on offer. Twenty-five exhibitors laid out their wares, with more specialist drams tasted in sets of six at the masterclasses.

It was striking what you could sample - in not-ungenerous portions - on the show floor. Fred Laing of the independent bottlers Douglas Laing was kind enough to put out a bottle of the Old Malt Cask Directors Tactical Selection, a rare independent bottling of 25 year-old Talisker, which I thought was sensational. I also attended the Adelphi masterclass with Alex Bruce, where a 35 year-old Springbank shone. And I had a crack at the nosing competition, where I made understandable mistakes about region, largely got the ages right and wound up kicking myself for failing to spot the deep, dark Glenfarclas from the night before.

The festival is the brainchild of Michael Fraser Milne, whose specialist store, Whisky Galore, seems to function as much as a community centre for whisky lovers as a shop. Michael is a man immersed in the culture of fine whisky, and in its role at the centre of good conversation. Although the show, sold out with more than 500 tickets at $45 each, was provisioned at the level of about one bottle per punter, there was (as Michael had predicted), no obvious drunkenness by later afternoon. No one was falling over, breaking things or causing trouble - although some of those who arrived early in the day had become highly social.

In line with a thread that will emerge when we make the show, we ducked out in the afternoon to interview the manager of New Zealand's largest adult store. Later, we paused to take in a Christian rock band in Cathedral Square on our way to The Lab, an example of that peculiarly Christchurch tradition, the NOS lounge.

Actually, lounge would be pushing it. The Lab is a party pill shop with a broken-down couch and some camp chairs. Given that they're making a margin approaching 99% on their $6 balloons, I think they could shell out on some better chairs, but the manager was friendly and good interview talent. And yes, in the spirit of inquiry, I did some NOS while the DAT tape ran. It sounds pretty funny.

After an unsuccessful trip (as in, we didn't get the interview we were promised) to a suburban brothel, we hooked up with David Haywood and Jen Hay for dinner at The Bicycle Thief and a pint or two at the Twisted Hop, which was roaring with social noise. I was struck again with the insight that pretty much every other city in the land has a better bar culture than Auckland.

After that, Nigel and I returned to The Lab where, as promised, we found some munted punters - quite a few of them backpackers from Europe - who were willing to give vox pops. I made Nigel do a couple of balloons so I could have a turn laughing at him. Outside, young folk - students, we figured - were forming huge queues to get into booze barns like Shooters and Boogie Nights. Many, if not most, of them appeared to be on the party pills. It was busy all over.

Now, the advantage - the only advantage - of staying at a hotel way the hell out by the airport should be that you can order a late Sunday checkout, sleep in, skip up the road to the airport and be home in Auckland before you know it. Unfortunately, thanks to broken planes, lost luggage and general Air New Zealand messiness, it would be fully seven and a half hours from door to door.

It wasn't just us. We ran into Open Souls, who were trying to get back to Auckland after playing an Orientation gig at Canterbury, a wee bit hungover. Seeing Tyra Hammond cheered me up: she's just all loud, all the time, even when she's not talking.

The bonus was that we had a long-enough layover in Wellington to pop out and see Kerry and Simon for drinks and nibbles. It was still a very long day, and, in need of something restorative later in the evening, I opened the Adelphi Selection (a 13 year-old Cragganmore) that came back from Dramfest with me, fetched some springwater and toasted the good form of Michael and his people.

Conclusions? Christchurch is as, people say, often strange beneath its reserved exterior. Its mob-handed nightlife is impressive in its boisterousness, but we didn't, as some people had warned us we might, feel threatened on the city streets after midnight. They also have a cheesemonger of distinction.

PS: Without wishing to bum everyone out, what on earth is Tariana Turia going to say next? Her proposal - with apparent party backing - to keep white folks out of the country was explicitly racist. If the party wasn't having such a dream run with the media - and it's an open question how long that will last - it could have been pretty nasty yesterday. Idiot/Savant and dc_red at Blogging It Real have plenty to say.

PPS: This is pretty amazing. McClatchy New Service's Baghdad office lets its Iraqi employees blog. Talk about some bleak, black humour …

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