Archive for January, 2008

Email From America

Friday, January 25th, 2008

By David

This week, the United States is in the middle of deciding who will represent the Republican and Democratic Parties in the contest to elect the next President. One does not need to have studied Political Science for long to know all is not well with American democracy. Plato first described democracy as the system of “rule by the governed” where ordinary citizens elected their governors. Nothing wrong with that you might think. However Plato forgot to mention that citizens did not include women, non-land owners or slaves. Of Athens’ 250,000 adult inhabitants only about 5000 were allowed to do the voting. We certainly would not consider that state of affairs to be democratic today.

But, like anything made by man, democracy is capable of being altered and improved by man. In particular democracy began to mean a much wider franchise and protected minority rights. For example, no one today would consider a nation to be democratic that denied women the vote or insisted that only Baptists could elect a government. Some of you may not know that New Zealand proudly lead democracy forward by being the first country to give women the vote.

Probably the single most significant transition in the character of democracy is the attention given to ensuring minorities are represented in government. It is called proportional representation and aims at matching the percentage of votes that special interests obtain in elections with the seats they receive in the legislature. In 2007 the Economist magazine produced a list of the most democratic countries in the world. The top nations, Sweden, New Zealand, Germany, Norway and the Netherlands, all practice versions of proportional representation.

The United States is seventeenth on the Economist’s list. I do not want to hear anybody say, “That’s not too bad.” In Olympic terms, American democracy does not even make it to the semi-finals. American democracy was eliminated in the morning heats. Why? Because unless you join the Democratic or Republican Parties there is zero chance of you becoming President or being elected to the Senate or Congress. It is of course theoretically possible, but practically, there’s no chance. An independent observer could be excused for describing democracy here as a two party dictatorship. The foresight and vision of Plato would have seen him promote a very different version of democracy were he alive today. I like to think that the foresight and vision of Jefferson and Madison would have resulted in a very different constitution had they been writing it today. I wonder if Washington DC today has any Platos or Jeffersons or Madisons. American democracy is in need of their perception.

While American democracy may be in need of some improvement, this week saw a development that bodes well for life in America and for Florida in particular. I have lived here for six years. In that time I have witnessed a million things this nation does extremely well. I have visited the Kennedy Space Center and wondered at the technology that produced the Saturn rocket and the space Shuttle. I have been to three National Swimming Championships and am in awe at the depth of talent on display. The list is endless of events and scenes. I can listen to Elvis 24/7 on SIRIUS. I can drink Coke, the soda that taught the world to sing. I can wonder at the humbling generosity Americans at Christmas. But let me tell you one thing this nation can not do. No one can make proper “fish-and-chips”.

I don’t know what goes wrong. The fish is too thin, the batter is not crispy enough, there’s no vinegar, it’s the wrong species of fish or maybe it’s all of the above. I don’t know, but in 2190 days of looking I’ve never found a decent British, Australian, New Zealand feed of fish-and-chips.

Until today; the parent’s of one off our better swimmers (their daughter is 11 and has averaged 40 kilometers a week over the past 7 weeks of aerobic conditioning) called me to say that on Delray Beach’s main street, Atlantic Avenue, in the Blue Anchor Tavern they had found real British fish-and-chips. They would, they said, bring me a dinner to the pool. I could try them for myself. Yea right, I thought; another limp offering of tasteless fish and soggy chips.

Ten minutes later they arrived, clearly delighted with their find. I joined in, but I knew that these kind and generous Americans jubilant as they might be, they really had no idea. Asking them to pass judgment on fish-and-chips was akin to asking me to rustle up a new formula depicting nuclear fission. I thanked them and carried the offering home.

It looked real enough, but I’d seen that before. The taste would be different. From the first bite I knew; America had taken on another challenge and had triumphed. This is a truly great country. Someone here in Delray Beach can make real British fish-and-chips. I feel a little emotional just talking about it. If the fish-and-chip frontier has been crossed, if this test has been passed, why should I worry? Revitalizing America’s democracy will soon follow.

The Tiniroto Hunt

Monday, January 14th, 2008

By David

The last article Jane wrote for Swimwatch was about the end of her swimming career. What she didn’t tell you, because I kept the statistics, was that she competed for eleven years. In that time she swam 27,548 kilometers (17,218 miles). Excluding holidays that was an average distance of 53.28 kilometers (33.30 miles) per week for 517 weeks. She normally averaged 14 strokes per length which means her arms completed about 15 and a half million strokes in the eleven years. I was pleased to see in her Swimwatch article that she complained only of a sore hip.

In the same years she lifted weights on 1522 occasions. She lifted 7914 tonnes, which, for those of you who have trouble imagining that weight, is the equivalent of one 747 aircraft every two months for eleven years. As I said, I was pleased to see she complained only of a sore hip.

With that work load you can appreciate that there is little time for modern swimmers to indulge in other sports. That was not always the case. In the sixties and seventies we swam, played a little rugby or soccer, ran cross country and took part in the Tiniroto Hunt.

The Tiniroto Hunt tried very hard to emulate the fox hunting traditions of our ancestors; a pack of hounds, scarlet coated horsemen, trumpet calls, the cry of “tally-ho” and polished leather bridles and saddles. No effort was spared to faithfully copy the sport’s British heritage. Unfortunately in New Zealand, one fairly important ingredient to a successful fox hunt was missing. You see, in New Zealand there are no foxes. Instead our hounds hunted down unfortunate rabbits and hares.

I rode in the Tiniroto Hunt. My horse Nehaw was not as impressive as some of the fine steeds owned by the well-off Tiniroto farmers. However, Nehaw could run fast and was a sure-footed beast, crucial qualities for a successful hunt. The night before a hunt, Nehaw’s mangy coat was clipped into a sleek pattern and his tail and mane braided and combed.

I also needed to prepare. Carefully laid out in my room was a black Harry Hall velvet riding hat, riding boots, crop and breeches all bought from the saddler across the road from the Mahia lighthouse in Wairoa. My jacket was bought from Williams and Kettles three or four doors up from the saddler. It looked close to a formal hunting coat, but wasn’t. By midnight I was ready to go.

At six in the morning our club gathered in a frosty field on Dave Berry’s farm and waited for the hounds to pick up a scent; the older club members were already sipping Scotland’s national drink from expensive silver flasks. Eventually the hounds found and ran howling after a scent. With absolute faith in their expertise and honesty we set off in pursuit. At this point I must admit to you that Nehaw knew far more about what to do than I did. As long as I stayed fixed in the saddle he had an uncanny knack of finding the lowest fences to jump and the shortest routes to maintain contact with the speeding dogs.

On more than one occasion I almost left the saddle as Nehaw decided to change direction without warning the driver. I can remember falling only once when Nehaw galloped at full speed down a beautiful smooth slope towards an open gate. A most unfortunate gust of wind swung the gate closed as we reached the opening. Nehaw did the sensible thing and stopped. I did not. In fact I cleared the closed gate at some speed and with several feet to spare.

After galloping around for fifteen minutes or so, the hounds caught the rabbit and quickly murdered the poor animal. I remember clearly the ritual of my first hunt. The Hunt Master said a few solemn words. Blood from the first kill was painted on my cheeks and one of the rabbit’s feet was given to me as recognition that I was not longer a virgin in the hunting business. I kept that foot for years.

Once the first rabbit was killed we waited to do the same thing again and again and again. I sometimes thought we only gave up when the amount of whiskey consumed put the hunt’s older members in danger of falling off their horses at a gentle walk. Nehaw enjoyed the whole experience far more than I did. He was clearly disappointed when it was time to head for home. Usually I couldn’t wait to get home. I don’t know how many of you have done much riding. But let me assure you there is always a buckle somewhere that finds a bit to chaff.

I’m not sure why I went back to each hunt. Perhaps like Jane who swam because that’s what she did. The Tiniroto Hunt was there and that’s what I did. I had more time than her. I didn’t swim 53.28 kilometers every week.