Long long ago, when I was a teenage wannabe poet, I took a special fancy to 19th century decadent poets. Two of my favourites were the bad boys shown here: Charles Baudelaire and Algernon Charles Swinburne. It wasn’t so much that I loved their poetry – though it had a certain, well, decadent, appeal – as that I loved the idea of them. Their wild, anarchic lives, rebelling against social norms and accepted bourgeois morality. Myself, I could hardly have been a less rebellious youth, on the outside at least. But inside I was a roiling mass of hating and wishing I could overthrow the established order, as long as I could do it without any risk or danger to myself.
Nowadays I’m rather glad I didn’t become an opium addict, or an alcoholic, or contract syphilis from prostitutes. But then, I didn’t become a poet, either.
And today I’m feeling disillusioned as I think about poor old Swinburne who didn’t die young and had a rather miserable old end. He had some alarming sexual proclivities, it’s true, and once spread a rumour that he had had sex with, and then eaten, a monkey. But it seems he may not really have been as decadent as he pretended to be. Oscar Wilde stated that Swinburne was “a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser.” (And Oscar Wilde probably should know.)
I used to visit Swinburne’s grave in St Boniface Churchyard, Bonchurch, IoW, and stand there thinking maudlin poetic thoughts for minutes on end. In this respect, he is unique among poets I have admired and wanted, without knowing anything about them, to emulate.
In 2013 Anthony King and Ivor Crewe published their book The Blunders of Our Governments, a study of the cock-ups of British Governments in recent decades. Here’s their opening paragraph:
“Our subject in this book is the numerous blunders that have been committed by British governments of all parties in recent decades. We believe there have been far too many of them and that most, perhaps all, of them could have been avoided. In previous generations, foreign observers of British politics viewed the British political system with something like awe. Government in Britain was not only highly democratic: it was also astonishingly competent. It combined effectiveness with efficiency. British governments, unlike the governments of so many other countries, knew what they wanted to do and almost invariably succeeded in doing it. Textbooks in other countries were full of praise, and foreign political leaders often expressed regret that their own system of government could not be modelled on Britain’s. Sadly, the British system is no longer held up as a model, and we suspect one reason is that today’s British governments screw up so often.
When I first looked at this book, probably in 2014, I just thought it would be too depressing to read. Who could imagine that, five years later, there would be so much more evidence, and even more incontrovertible evidence, of the authors’ assertions? It has become a truism, repeatedly written about and discussed in the media, that our ‘political class’ have failed us, that our whole politivcal system is no longer fit for purpose, that Britain has become a laughing stock, over which former friends scratch their heads in bewilderment, wondering how we can so far have lost our sanity.
The blunders that have clustered around the whole Brexit debacle are so egregious, that they probably draw attention away from all the other blunders of the same period (failure to deal adequately with the 2008 Crash, austerity policies, out-sourcing to private companies, Universal Credit…) So, just a recap (I’ll probably forget some of these, so do prompt me if memory fails.)
David Cameron promising a referendum on EU membership in the first place
… without sufficiently defining the terms of whether the result would be advisory or mandatory, or what majority would be required to force so great a constitutional change
Parliament leaping to accept the narrow 52-48 result
Mrs May’s decision to hold a General Election to help her implement ‘the will of the people’
Her precipitate invoking of Article 50 before there was any kind of plan about how to implement it
Spectacular failure of a succession of (let’s face it, often ignorant and incompetent) negotiators to negotiate or reach any kind of deal until beyond the eleventh hour
Failure of MPs to agree to any proposed Brexit plan
All of this to appease the most extreme Eurosceptic members of the Tory party
And all the while, this process is accompanied and orchestrated by the right-wing press whipping up hatred and issuing threats against anyone who dissented from the new orthodoxy. And no one challenges the lies that continue to be told to smear opponents. In the interest of ‘balance’ and the reporting of the most sensational events, the most extreme individuals and groups have constantly been given more airtime than the voices of reason. (Ask yourself how many times Nigel Farage has appeared on the News or in panel discussions, compared with, say, Caroline Lucas?)
It’s not just the Governments that have blundered. Somehow the whole electorate, the whole country, has taken leave of its senses and continues to follow the path of most damage. At least Alice got out of Wonderland, and managed to return from Through the Looking Glass to the world of reality and sanity. I wonder if we will ever be so fortunate?
The following morning dawned bright, warm and sunny, and we were hopeful that we’d be able to get up on the glacier this time. We walked round the corner to the Helicopter Line, where once again we were allocated to the groups, given our wristbands, reminded of the safety procedures (Never approach a helicopter from the rear; don’t try and open the door yourselves, our crew will help you out when it’s safe…) This time we made it across the highway and through the short stretch of bush to the actual landing site. We even saw a helicopter coming in to land at the far end of the open ground. And then the message came over the phone: Cloud has come down, it’s too dangerous to fly, flying cancelled until further notice.
Apparently this is common, even normal. Fewer than 50% of people who book a helicopter flight up onto the Franz Josef glacier actually make it up there. And there would be another opportunity for a helicopter ride later in the tour: just not onto the glacier.
So it was back to the coach, and on the road again. It’s 144 km from Franz Josef down to Haast, described by Denis as the most remote settlement in New Zealand. And the west coast of South Island is the wettest part of the country, with up to 7 m (that’s seven metres) of rain annually. It felt like quite a lot of it fell during that morning1, during which we stopped to have a quick run through a bit of rain forest to see one of the waterfalls.
Rainforests don’t have to be tropical: there are temperate rainforests too, of which those in this part of New Zealand are typical. They are like nothing I’ve ever seen or experienced before.
From Haast the SH6 takes you inland up the Haast Valley, and over the alps again, then south among some of the glacial lakes of South Island. Lake Wanaka on our right, then Lake Hawea on our left, and so down at last to Queenstown, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. It’s 248 km from Haast to Queenstown: this was a long day on the road.
So: what was my favourite place in New Zealand? There are so many candidates, so many wonderful sights and scenes. But I think I’d have to say, Queenstown. Not because it’s the birthplace of (commercial) bungee jumping, or a favourite centre for lots of other extreme sports that you have to be mad to pursue. Just because it is an almost unbelievably beautiful setting, a charming small city with so much going on, and set in the midst of scenery that looks like it’s straight out of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Which is because so much of it was used by Peter Jackson when he made the film.
How can you not love a place with sunsets like this?
It was up before 0600 the next morning to leave the hotel at 0730 to catch the ferry to South Island. In the near perfect summer weather we were having, it was a beautiful crossing, leaving the port of Wellington and sailing the 92 km over the Cook Strait and along the Marlborough Sound to Picton.
Leaving Wellington Harbour
And this is why it’s called Aotearoa: the land of the long white cloud:
From Picton our coach took us first into the Marlborough wine producing region, to visit the Wither Hills Winery. Wine-tasting! We were surprised throughout our time in New Zealand, that the wine in the restaurants seemed quite expensive. On reflection there was a much higher mark-up than we’re used to at home, compared with the prices in the supermarkets and liquor stores which were substantially less.
And then back to the city of Nelson, where we were to stay for our first two nights in South Island. Nelson is a sweet little city with its cathedral, and straight main street where most of the shops and restaurants are situated. It turns out that the ring used as the ‘One Ring’ in the film Lord of the Rings was made by a local jeweller in Nelson. Wow!
On a balmy summer evening there were lots of great eating places along Trafalgar Street, with people sitting at pavement tables. We ate pizza at Bacco, with a nice bottle of Montepulciano from the local Marlborough region.