Motoring magic from the wonder age of deco – part 2

The other Saturday I spent a few hours in downtown Napier, New Zealand, where the annual art-deco weekend was in full swing.

'Art Deco' car parade, Napier, February 2014.

‘Art Deco’ car parade, Napier, February 2014.

For a few days the town turns into party central, celebrating the rich and famous lifestyles of 1930s Hollywood. There’s a lot of cosplay. And  a lot of tourists. I overheard a couple of them – done up in period costume down to the cloche hats – chatting in German, something like: ‘Ich muss ganz ein Eis kaufe mir’. I don’t go in for the dress-ups, nor did I attend any of the set-piece events such as a 1930s picnic or the tours. It’s my home town after all. And I’ve (literally) written the book on it.

Crowds along the balcony of the 1932 Masonic Hotel, an early streamline building.

Crowds along the balcony of the 1932 Masonic Hotel, an early streamline building.

But I did make the point of going to see the vintage car parade. They spanned the gamut from the First World War through to the early 1940s. Few of them actually appeared on New Zealand roads at the time – the country imported mainly British. And none of them, I suspect, were in quite the sparkling order they are now. But that wasn’t the point …was it.

Quintessential modernism - streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Quintessential modernism – streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Passing the Buick...

Passing the Buick…

The art of deco.

The art of deco.

Parasols and sun.

Parasols were vital wear in 33 degree C heat (91 degrees F).

My camera really didn't capture just how much the cars glowed in the sun.

My camera really didn’t capture just how much the cars GLOWED in the sun.

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard.

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard Super 8.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Writing tips, science, geekery…and more.

A quarter century of fun with digital image manipulation

Normally I don’t edit the photos I take, other than minor straightening, colour correction, scaling and adding copyright watermarks. But I realised the other day that I’ve been using image manipulation software in various flavours for about 25 years.

So this time I thought I’d have a bit of fun. I took this photo on a blustery grey-ish day in the South Wairarapa.

Original photo taken at 1/160, f.8 and 18mm focal length. Then dealt to. Who needs Instagram when you have Photoshop?

Photo taken at 1/160, f.8 and 18mm focal length. Then dealt to on the computer. No Instagram.

It’s purely filtering – the apparent fringing on the top right is an artefact of the process I used.

Can anybody guess what I did? Clue: not all the picture is actually filtered; and the effect is mostly a digital rendering of a well known film-photographic technique. You could, I think, do much of this in a darkroom with trays of chemicals and a stop-watch, old-style. But the computer’s faster, cleaner and not so smelly.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tops, science geekery and history. Watch this space.

Enjoying the art deco fantasy of Napier, New Zealand

I’ve spent a few days prowling the downtown streets of my home town, Napier, New Zealand, capturing its art deco heritage.

The Sun Bay, memorial to the 258 who died in the devastating quake of 1931.

The Sun Bay, memorial to the 258 who died in the devastating quake of 1931.

I’ve been writing on it for years – Random House produced my first book on the history of this city, back in 1997. The downtown collection of modernist buildings emerged from a devastating earthquake of 1931, which prompted wholesale reconstruction. Most of it, broadly, was complete by 1938-40, although the Anglican cathedral did not reopen until the early 1950s.

Modernist buildings on the corner of Hastings and Tennyson Streets, Napier, New Zealand.

Modernist buildings on the corner of Hastings and Tennyson Streets, Napier, New Zealand.

Initially, architects had grand plans for block-spanning buildings, Spanish Mission style along the lines of Santa Barbara. But Depression-era financial penury put paid to them, and instead owners rebuilt, individually, as they could afford it. The result was one of the best collections of small modernist-style buildings anywhere in the world. The book I wrote on the quake and its outcome, back in 2001, is long out of print. But I can still walk the streets of my home town and take photographs. Enjoy.

Detail of the Thorp building. When I was a kid, this was a shoe store. Then it became a coffee shop. Now it's empty and up for lease.

Detail of the Thorp building. When I was a kid, this was a shoe store. Then it became a coffee shop. Now it’s empty and up for lease.

The Market Reserve building, centre here on Tennyson Street, was the first to go up after the devastating 1931 quake - it had been authorised before the disaster and would have been built anyway.

The Market Reserve building, centre here on Tennyson Street, was the first to go up after the devastating 1931 quake – it had been authorised before the disaster and would have been built anyway.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More deco fun. Regular posts resume next week – watch out for writing tips, science geekery with custard, and more.

Guess which real-world place is most like Mordor…

Last week a British meteorologist at the University of Bristol published a weather analysis of Middle Earth. Tres cool.

Here’s a link to the paper: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2013/10013-english.pdf

According to the report, the weather in The Shire was much the same as that of Lincolnshire – which is pretty much what Tolkien was envisaging. It’s also like Belarus, but that may be coincidence. The place in New Zealand where the weather is closest to The Shire is north of Dunedin. Curiously – though the report didn’t mention it – there’s an area there called Middlemarch, which sounds suitably Tolkienish.

Not really Mordor - this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

Not really Gorgoroth – this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

When it comes to Mordor, the real-world place I immediately think of is the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, which I visited earlier this year. Tolkien’s explicit imagery was First World War trenches and Birmingham factories. But that isn’t where the British meteorologist found Mordor weather. Oh no. turns out the places most like Mordor, weather-wise, are New South Wales, western Texas and Los Angeles. (That said, Tolkien also made clear that the gloom around Mordor was made by Sauron.)

It was spring when I took this picture of a railway station in Soest, Netherlands.

Ok, so it wasn’t raining when I took this picture in Soest, Netherlands…but it was overcast.

What struck me about the report was how close Tolkien got to what we’d expect from a scientific perspective, if his land was real. There is a reason for this – Tolkien was basing his world on Europe. The Shire was approximately where Britain lies; Gondor and Mordor in North Italy. The weather he described followed, especially the constant rain around Trollshaws in The Hobbit, a place geographically congruent to Soest, Netherlands.

All of which is pretty neat. And it goes to show that there is often a lot more in the creations of fantasy writers than they perhaps imagine when they come up with the concept.

What do you think of Middle Earth weather?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, more science, more humour and more Tolkien stuff. Not that I’m a fan. Well, I am really.

Rain, rain nowhere, and not a drop to drink anyway…

New Zealand’s problem just now is it’s not very green. It’s brown. And yellow.

After four summers washed out by relentless rain, 2013 has opened with a one-in-seventy-year drought. Wellington region is especially hit – the municipal water supply is at crisis level. Any external use, even a watering can, is strictly forbidden – and they’re pinging people who transgress. We had a present locally last week in the form of two-and-a-bit days rain. But not enough – it sufficed only to wash rubbish into the system – throwing Wellington, where I live, on to its 10-day emergency supply.

The other Saturday I went to have a look at the Hutt River – Te Awakairangi, also called the Heretaunga river. Or, to anybody who’s seen The Fellowship of the Ring, Anduin.

The Hutt river. An American frontier-style fort was built on the bank on the left of this picture in the late 1840s. There's no trace now, of course.

The Hutt river. An American frontier-style fort was built on the bank on the left of this picture in the late 1840s. There’s no trace now, of course. What this picture doesn’t convey is the stagnant smell.

The Hutt river, looking south towards the rail bridge. Usually there's a lot more water in it than this.

The Hutt river, looking south towards the rail bridge. Usually there’s a lot more water in it than this. Its pakeha name comes from Sir William Hutt (1801-1882), one of the shareholders of the New Zealand Company.

It’s the main source for most of Wellington region’s water. And it’s virtually dry.

Worse, New Zealand also generates a big chunk of our power with water, down south. That’s not in good order either. I’ve got a post coming up on our nifty eco-friendly hydro-power engineering. But that won’t fill the storage lakes.

Time, I think, to plan Laundry Day. That usually spurs rain. At least if I’m involved.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this week: more writing posts – ‘sixty second writing tips’ and ‘write it now’. More geekery. And, aside from blogging, rain… I hope.

Inspirations: New Zealand’s wild wild west

A century and a half ago, New Zealand could easily have been mistaken for mid-west America. It was the spitting image of the frontier across the Pacific.

The towns had the same limed roads, hitching posts and clap-board buildings. When the railway went in, even the locomotives were the same.

In a literal sense our ‘west’ was actually our south, our middle and our north. Oh, and our west. The whole country, really. It wasn’t surprising. Colonial-age New Zealand was part of the ‘Pacific rim’ – a frontier subculture that shared values, look, speech patterns and even people. Many of them were gold miners, rushing from California to Victoria and finally to Otago.

You can still see traces of it today – a point that came home to me a little while ago when I was in Cromwell for the first time in many years.

Cromwell's preserved historic district - once a road at the top of the town, now lapped by the waters of Lake Clyde.

Cromwell’s preserved historic district – once a road at the top of the town, now lapped by the waters of Lake Clyde.

I have to say, the phrase 'yeeeee-haw!' went through my mind when I took this photo. Inappropriate, really...

I have to say, the phrase ‘yeeeee-haw!’ went through my mind when I took this photo. Inappropriate, really…

Cromwell is unique; the town was part-flooded during the 1980s when the Clyde Dam was completed and Lake Clyde began filling. There was a scrabble to do some last-minute archaeology. And what had been one of the upper town streets was preserved as a historic district, redolent of the way the town had appeared during its golden age in the 1860s.

Elsewhere,  glimpses of later history still poke through – in places, redolent of mid-twentieth rather than mid-nineteenth century – less American, but still here and there with that cross-Pacific influence.

OK, the car's English - a give-away really. This scene is pretty classically New Zealand, I have to admit.

This scene is pretty classically mid-twentieth century New Zealand, complete with English car - except for ‘gasoline’. We usually call it ‘petrol’.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more sixty second writing tips, ‘write it now’ – structure, and total geekery with ancient astronauts.

Inspirations: Scotland away from Scotland in New Zealand’s deep south

In the late 1840s migrants from Scotland poured into New Zealand’s deep south, looking to build a devout Presbyterian settlement untrammelled by the schism that had ripped the Church of Scotland asunder, unbothered by the social upheavals of the Industrial Revolution.

It didn’t work. When they arrived, they discovered the Anglicans – the ‘little enemy’, as they called them - had got there first. The Scots also brought their social problems with them. And then the gold miners arrived, with their rough and rouse-about life, sending shivers up the spines of the more God-fearing Dunedinites.

Still, there were some compensations. After travelling half way around the world, they found their little corner of New Zealand was altogether familiar. I covered that story in a book I wrote a few years ago for Penguin, Old South. But what I didn’t mention there was just how awesome that landscape is.

Lake Clyde - an artificial 'hydro' lake formed in the late 1980s after the huge Clyde Dam and associated hydro plant was completed.

Lake Clyde – an artificial ‘hydro’ lake formed in the late 1980s after the huge Clyde Dam and associated hydro plant was completed.

Not surprising in a way; similar latitude, similar geography and similar climate combined to make things – well, similar. Shortly intensified by the settler effort to import every plant and animal they could find. Including deer, rabbits and – if urban legend is anything to go by – at least one puma.

A photo I took of the Kawau gorge, north Otago, 2013. It wasn't easy, the place was socked in with rain most of the day I was there.

A photo I took of the Kawau gorge, north Otago, 2013. It wasn’t easy, the place was socked in with rain most of the day I was there.

Today, Southland and Otago are the only parts of New Zealand to have any trace of a regional accent – a slightly rounded ‘r’. Nobody outside New Zealand would likely spot it amidst the universal ‘I’ll have sux fush and a scoop of chups, eh’. But that slight ‘Southland burr’ is definitely there – a legacy of that old Scottish heritage. Cool.

Are there any places you know of that are weirdly similar – despite being geographically distant? Is there any landscape you’ve found that’s totally awesome? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Inspirations: eco-recovery in extreme dirt road trucker land

Ever watch Ice Road Truckers? One of my favourite shows de jour. A few weeks ago I spent half a day in New Zealand’s own extreme truck-driving environment, the open-cast coal mine at Stockton. It’s New Zealand’s biggest mine, perched on a dizzying plateau north of Westport, right above a town with the apt name of Granity.

The view from the Stockton plateau, looking southwest towards Westport.

The view from the Stockton plateau, looking southwest towards Westport. I have to say it… is this an awesome view, or what?

The view from the plateau is stunning. As is the work in the mine – which is where the extreme trucking comes in. It’s to do with the scale. Everything looks normal, until you stand next to it.

This digger is way bigger than it seems. Seriously.

This digger is way bigger than it seems. Look at the size of the driver.

Some serious earth-moving.

Some serious earth-moving. The tech term for the soil covering the coal is ‘overburden’.

Here’s a picture of me in front of one of the trucks. I am 182 cm tall without the hat. I think I’ve lived in houses smaller than that truck. These can carry 70 tonnes of spoil downhill in one hit. And there are bigger ones on the mine that lug 100 tonnes uphill (not down – it’s a brake temperature problem). The big rigs operated by the trucking company I once worked for, an aeon or so ago, topped out at less than half the loaded weight of these suckers.

This truck is one big sucker. How big? I am 182 cm tall without the hat.

This Tasmanian-built Haulmax with Caterpillar diesel is one big sucker.

Kind of cool – certainly for blokes. Did I mention they start by using explosives to break up the rock? Then cut loose with that ultra-heavy moving machinery? My wife watched the earth-moving action and made some comment about boys in sandpits, but hey… A little later, we learned that women drive the trucks too, and have a better maintenance record than the men.

Down sides? Well, the coal’s exported, mostly to India, where it’s used for steel-making, but also burned. And as you can imagine, open cast mining leaves its mark on the landscape – piles of spoil, great ledged pits where coal has been scooped out, all surrounded with the detritus of heavy industry. Actually, you don’t have to imagine. I took a photograph.

Part of the coal mine.

Part of the coal mine. Kind of ugly.

Plus side? That landscape is temporary. New Zealand has strict resource laws, and this place operates under conditions. One is that there must be no visible sign of the mine from below. Another is that they put back the original top-cover, plant cover and animals – returning the plateau to a natural state as good as, or better than, it was before.

Restoration - back to what it was once like. A pretty bleak plateau, but with its own natural rugged asethetic.

Restoration – back to what it was once like. A pretty bleak plateau in natural state, but with its own rugged asethetic.

That’s been ongoing. Before excavation begins, the original top layer with its plant and insect life is re-positioned nearby for preservation and re-installation later. It’s important. The plateau is home to specialised life – unique plants adapted to the bleak environment, even rare native snails. Some snails, I am told, are collected and preserved for the future in refrigerators. Not only does the chill not hurt them, they’ve apparently even been breeding there. Slowly – uh, obviously.

I think it’s pretty inspiring.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Dreams stay with you in a big country

It’s a big country, in places – New Zealand. Quintessential Middle Earth, to some. And suddenly my wife and I find ourselves in this part of it:

I took this one with full polarisation.

Open road, big country and big sky. To me, my SLR and polariser, irresistible.

Not planned, though we’ve been planning this road trip for a while: a wander through New Zealand’s South Island, over Haast Pass into Westland – a spectacular bush-clad landscape that looks like a downstream slice of the Jurassic. Mainly because it is. But we never get there.

The view towards Glenorchy at the top of Lake Wakitipu. Fog rolled in as I took this one. Of course...

The view towards Glenorchy at the top of Lake Wakitipu. Fog rolled in as I took this one. Of course…

Our plan rests on good weather, not too big a gamble in January, except for my astonishing capacity as a rain god. Clouds roll in as we look around Glenorchy, home to a branch railway line that, at 50 metres, is regarded as New Zealand’s shortest. By the time we reach Wanaka the district is sodden and the information centre jammed with annoyed tourists.

TSS Earnslaw, 101 years old now and an icon of the lake. An old family friend was steam engineer on board until his recent retirement. You'd never guess, but I took this picture with just two hours to go before rain socked in.

TSS Earnslaw, 101 years old now and a New Zealand icon.  An old family friend of ours was the engineer on board this classic triple-expansion steamer until his recent retirement. You’d never guess, but I took this picture of the Earnslaw berthing at Queenstown, on Lake Wakitipu, with just two hours to go before rain socked in.

The pass is closed by a slip. Come back at noon. We dash through pelting rain to find brunch. An hour later nothing has changed, except the information board which tells us to come back at 3.00 pm for more news. The tourists fume: ‘Sie Kiwis! Ist Ihr Wetter so völlig undiszipliniert und ohne Ordnung!’

Quite. We have family to meet in Westport in two days, and Haast Pass is the direct route.

‘Let’s go up the east coast,’ I suggest. She Who Must Be Obeyed agrees. We set out for the Lindis Pass – the road to north Otago and the MacKenzie country, better known to the world as ‘Rohan’.

A few minutes later we break out into bright sunshine. Of course.

And we enter a gigantic landscape with a big sky and rolling ochre hills that defies the imagination. It is the antithesis of Westland; a vast land of vast form that leaves us breathless with its beauty.

We keep stopping. I am on a photography jag. What’s the point in lugging  a camera that weighs over 1kg with a lens that looks like a ½ scale Saturn V rocket, if you don’t use it?

These days anyone can create a perfect panorama. I still prefer the old collage effect with hand-held SLR. I took these shots of the Lindis Pass, deliberately moving the camera to create that jigsaw look, and pasted the results together manually.

These days anyone can create a perfect panorama. For reasons associated with ‘the emotion of art as a dada concept’, I still prefer the old collage effect with hand-held SLR. I took these shots of the Lindis Pass, deliberately moving the camera to create that jigsaw look, and pasted the results together manually.

Besides, this landscape is not to be missed. It is not just a big country. It is a huge country. It unfolds around us in a vast carpet of tussock and rolling yellow-brown, mythically gigantic when beheld from the puny scale of mere mortals. I find myself thinking not of the fantasy riders who pounded across it in Jackson’s ‘The Two Towers’, but of the hardy Scots and English folk who took it on for real in the 1850s, throwing sheep across Crown leasehold with enthusiastic abandon and reaping financial rewards that made them rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Tussock and Echium - Patterson's Curse, in the top of Lindis Pass.

Tussock and Echium – Patterson’s Curse - in the top of Lindis Pass.

Otago tussock. Distinctive - and means the disbelief, for me, isn't entirely suspended in 'The Two Towers'.

Otago tussock. Distinctive – and means the disbelief, for me, isn’t entirely suspended in ‘The Two Towers’.

It's a big, big country down here.

It’s a big, big country down here.

Not to mention James MacKenzie, the alleged sheep-rustler who, legend goes, hid a stolen flock in the midst of this enormous landscape – a land that, today, bears his name.

It is a fantastic place, a land of legends, a land of history, an inspiration – and a place for dreams.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Summer skies, blue waters and a promise for the year

There is a pleasure about summer that seems to blow away the cobwebs of a busy year and the gloom of winter. Today I thought I’d share a few pictures I took recently in Napier, New Zealand.

It’s my home town, though I don’t live there these days; and it underscores the fact that there is a lot more to New Zealand scenery than Tolkien landscapes. Especially in summer when the blue skies stretch huge from horizon to horizon and the water laps against beaches lined with pohutukawa. These pictures are unedited apart from some minor cropping, adding my copyright notice, and re-sizing to fit the blog. I was playing with a polarising filter and new lens – looking to capture the feel of the day in a place deep in the South Pacific where the summers are Californian and the architecture pure Hollywood.. What do you reckon?

Ocean going waka moored against East Quay, Ahuriri harbour, Napier New Zealand. Earlier in 2012, I spent hours standing in Awarua harbour, Rarotonga, trying to photograph this one.

Ocean going waka moored against East Quay, Ahuriri harbour, Napier New Zealand. Earlier in 2012, I spent hours standing in Awarua harbour, Rarotonga, trying to photograph this one.

Greywacke brought down to the sea by the rivers that cross the Heretaunga plains give Napier's beaches their shingled look - and tint the summer sea azure.I went for full polarisation with this one to bring out the clouds, which the hills inevitably sweep into interesting shapes.

Greywacke brought down to the sea by the rivers that cross the Heretaunga plains give Napier’s beaches their shingled look – and tint the summer sea azure.I went for full polarisation with this one to bring out the clouds, which the hills inevitably sweep into interesting shapes.

The Tom Parker Fountain, on Napier's town centre foreshore, was donated by local identity Tom Parker in 1936. Though midelled on an English example, it is pure deco, a Hollywood fantasy in a townscape that was once going to be rebuilt along the lines of Santa Monica. I have been photographing it for years in many weathers and seasons.

The Tom Parker Fountain, on Napier’s town centre foreshore, was donated by local identity Tom Parker in 1936. Though modelled on an English example, it is pure deco, a Hollywood fantasy in a townscape that was once going to be rebuilt along the lines of Santa Barbara. At night the water is lit in rainbow colours from beneath. I’ve been photographing it for years in many weathers and seasons.

Coming up this year:

The response to my last post, making 2013 a year of kindness, has been just fantastic – and everybody agrees. Thank you so much for your support! And let’s do it.  The year of kindness. So – on this blog, this year, we’ll have:
- posts on kindness and the positive side of the human condition…with
- some posts on my favourite writers
- some posts on New Zealand scenery and photography
- a systematic how-to series on writing
- some science geek posts
- a short series on history mysteries
- and more

Copyright Matthew Wright © 2013