Baby Boom and Bust

Baby Boom and Bust

The tragic decline of the Listener’s three best columnists

With a readership of 269,000, the Listener is New Zealand’s most widely-read current affairs magazine – but it’s also the home of three tragically in-decline columnists. Callum Fredric and Maddy Phillipps document the writers’ undignified transformation into commentators both one-note and off-key.

Most of the Listener’s columnists have never been to Critic’s tastes. Many have always been unreadable – Diana Wichtel (needless, uncomfortable sexual references in each and every TV review), Toby Manhire (lol, John Key was photographed gesturing somewhat awkwardly at a summit – AGAIN!), and Rosemary McLeod before she quit and devoted her life to spitting bile at sluts in short skirts.

But three writers – Bill Ralston, Joanne Black, and Jane Clifton – showed great promise earlier in their careers, yet since 2006 have commenced an uninterrupted downward trajectory into irrelevance. In 2013, they are caricatures of themselves more grotesque than anything the Listener’s relentlessly left-wing cartoonist Slane could draw. Critic examines the fallen, so that the rest of us can learn from their sorry demise.

Bill Ralston

Bill Ralston was known as one of the hard-drinking cohort of TVNZ reporters back in the 80s, and had a successful media career until the late 2000s. When he began writing for the Listener in 2005, he wrote about a variety of topics, including politics, the media, and political correctness. Now that his media career is over, and he is free to enjoy four cheeky glasses of vino before lunch instead of three, he exists only to describe his alcohol consumption in meticulous detail. Rest assured that it is significantly above average.

We get it, Bill. You’re the quintessential lad, even at 60, and can often be found ogling the nubile bodies of young women while knocking back a nice red at SPQR. But while your liver can apparently sustain such unrestrained hedonism, your 52 columns per year cannot. Get some new material.

Despite ostensibly self-aware references to his advancing age, you can tell Ralston secretly believes he is still revered as a charming maverick with a hint of the mongrel, whose grizzled appearance is the only consequence of years hitting the bottle. The sole purpose of his column has become force-feeding this idealised Ralston to his readers via improbable segues, gradually making “Life with Bill Ralston” more self-referential than the texts from a 200-level English paper. Unfortunately, the meta-Ralstonality serves only to emphasise the fact that it has been years since he did anything of note – increasingly, his columns are simply a window into the life of an unremarkable man who likes to sup on the juices of fermented grapes.

Much like a fresher, Ralston cannot restrain the urge to tell the world of his legendary alcohol consumption. Unlike a fresher, Ralston is not an 18-year-old girl from Merivale, and should have more interesting things to talk about.

So when did it all go wrong? In June 2008, Ralston was a sprightly 55 and on top of his game, penning a relatively amusing guide to business buzzwords. Sample text: “Matrix – A meaningless word used to complicate a simple set of relationships affecting your business.” This is classic early Ralston, cutting through the BS and giving his readers the unedited truth. New Zealand’s Jeremy Clarkson, except with no cars and slightly better hair. But mere months later, the clumsy segues and incessant documentation of alcohol consumption began:

(Nov 2008): “My right elbow is certainly the most well-developed part of my body, a result of excessive drinking and smoking.”

On drinking wine at a beach house (Aug 2012): “when this group gets together, there tends to be mammoth bursts of gluttonous eating, binge-drinking, and general whoop-it-up behaviour.”

“We were up and feeling fresh but housebound, so there was the danger of a light breakfast wine. I always recommend a pinot gris in these circumstances. Then there was the prospect of a wee bit more drinking with lunch. The risk was we’d be too plastered to eat dinner…”

On drinking wine at a beach house (Jan 2013): “Around here, there is a lot of nattering about wine. When is the appropriate time to open a bottle? The current consensus is that the sun and yardarm are aligned at about 1pm.”

Now, in April 2013, there is no longer even the faintest pretence of linking the extended descriptions of Ralston’s drinking habits to a topical theme:

“Wine, Women and Prose” (Apr 2013): “Forgive me, but I’ve just had a busy and confusing weekend involving alcohol, sex, and the arts.”

“Going out with a bang” (April 2013): “[The Alcohol Advisory Council’s] limit of 21 standard drinks… restricts you to three standard drinks a day, which is roughly equivalent to barely half a glass of my standard pour.”

Critic thinks it likely that, in a moment of rare and startling clarity, ALAC imposed the 21 standard drink weekly limit to deliver us from Ralston’s weekly chronicles of claret. Naturally, like everything ALAC does, this had absolutely no effect.

Joanne Black

When she began working at the Listener back in 2005, Joanne Black was a frazzled mother who saw the funny side of her daily squabbles with the brood. She struck a workable balance between complaining about having to raise children, and obviously loving them deep down.

In the early days, Black’s genuine loathing and resentment towards her children, complete with vivid daydreams of brutal filicide, was but a latent, gestating horror.

Skip forward to 2012, and “The Black Page” had fully embraced the nominative determinism of its ominous title. Tangible hatred and venom directed at Black’s unfortunate children leaps from the page. In Black’s ideal world, they would be silent and unquestioningly deferential to her authority at all times. In an even more ideal world, they would never have been born.

It appears that after hating on her kids “ironically” for several years, one day the switch flipped, and there was not a drop of irony left to dilute the roiling sea of regret and bitterness upon which Black now sails. Any biological or evolutionary ties Black may once have felt toward her children have long since been severed by her cultural conservatism, manifesting in loathing of their rudeness, constant texting, and lack of respect for her maternal authority.

As late as 2008, Black scraped together the remaining remnants of her self-awareness to write: “Like many parents, I think kids today have it all laid on far too easily compared with my day where we had to arise at 4:00am to thresh the wheat…”

But by February 2012, she had succumbed to unadulterated misery and detestation of her children’s existence: “Is there anyone who, like me, works from home and who does not punch the air in relief on the day the kids return to school for the first time each year? … On the first day my three children were back at school, I wandered around my home relishing the strange emptiness.”

If any column sums up the bleakness and misery of Joanne Black’s life, which in her mind is a direct product of her decision to bear children, it is the column in which she breaks her ankle. Just before going on “our first night away from the kids in three years,” a child broke his neck and caused her to miss it. A year later, another errant child did not come home for dinner, forcing Black to search the local park. The minimal arch support of her Hush Puppies slippers caused her to slip and fall, breaking her ankle and denying her the pleasure of “our first night away from the kids in what is now four years.”

On Families Day: “Will there be a day to remember the detrimental aspects of being part of family or whanau? Or are we to assume that is what we do on the other 364 days of the year, and that is why we need a Families Day?”

On her daughter’s school camp: “To my surprise, other parents asked about things like contingency plans in case of emergencies. That never occurred to me. All I wanted to ask was whether it had to be only a night and not, perhaps, a month away, instead.”

On 2012: “I have arrived home from holiday to have the shroud of annual despondency settle on me… 2012 from my perspective seems more like an endurance test to come than a new year of hope and promise.”

On being bed-bound after breaking her ankle: “On the brighter side, I have finally found a point in having children. Rather like a Third World mother who considers the more children she has the better the goats will be looked after, my children have come in very handy for waiting on me… Having three of them ensures that there is always someone within hollering distance.”

Jane Clifton

Political columnist Jane Clifton has devoted her entire life to reporting on something for which she apparently feels nothing but hatred and disdain. Being cynical about both major political parties is common. It’s beloved by both good-honest-blokes (“they’re all a bunch of crooks”) and embittered commentators like Joanne Black (“none of my kids have shamed the family by becoming an MP… yet!”).

But while it’s understandable for someone who doesn’t actively follow politics to profess disdain for all sides, Clifton has spent 30 years chronicling the lives of New Zealand’s hardworking elected representatives. She refers to politicians as “clowns,” yet fails to recognise that this makes her a clown correspondent of 30 long, pointless years.

Back in 2005, Clifton had some semblance of political belief, even though it was hard to pin down what side she was on. Her columns during this time show a dislike for the nanny state and the odd useful analysis of contemporary political events, complete with humour and even an occasional shred of conviction:

On the release of the Working for Families welfare program (2005): “But it may be beginning to occur to them that they bloody well shouldn’t have to feel thankful. It was their money in the first place. They worked hard, they earned it, and now here they are, being impersonated in a twee television ad by Stepford-beaming actor families, as being in need of extra assistance from a benevolent state.”

As recently as June 2008, Clifton was spotted sharing the odd genuinely-held opinion on a political issue, albeit in purely negative terms: “Labour’s instinct with big, horrible, complicated problems that can’t be solved is to make all of us share the guilt in some way. The classic was the microchipping of dogs. All dog owners must bear the shame and cost of policing for dangerous dogs…” By this stage, it would appear that Clifton’s love of her two Chow Chow dogs was the only thing that would arouse any passion in the empty void that was her hopes and dreams.
Now, Clifton has fallen prey to the scourge of political journalism – the belief that it is possible to be objective by smugly lambasting both sides. She condemns the existence of problems like slow economic growth, unemployment, and violent crime, yet douses every proposed solution in a torrent of negativity.

(Oct 2011): “The two main parties seem to be lacking a major strategy: how to grow the economy.”

“Heaven forfend there should be any original thinking, but do these parties’ strategists never, ahem, have a browse around the internet?”

Clifton’s own foolproof “Fiscal Clifton” plan, which she totally has laid out in her head, has all the solutions and is radically different to the boring, failed prescriptions of the major parties – but not cray-radical like the Greens: “Neither side of the House has a killer set of measures to tackle our economic lameness head-on. The only bold call, the Greens’ quantitative-easing prescription, has been that party’s one big misstep this term.”

Nihilism is an understandable coping mechanism for political types – better not to care than to feel acute pain throughout each 6-9 year reign of the party you dislike. But where other political journalists are bland groupthink machines fuelled only by the scent of blood, Clifton has actual talent that is being wasted.

Despite her constant critique of politicians’ wilful ignorance, Clifton remains intentionally oblivious to the gradual dessication of her soul. Joanne Black conducted a hard-hitting and completely circlejerk-free interview with Clifton, in which Clifton professed, “I don’t think I’ve got cynical.” On political ideologies, she said: “Agnostic is probably a pompous way of describing it – bewildered is probably better. It’s hard to hold down one viewpoint on issues for very long.”

The denial is understandable. For Clifton to admit to herself and her readers that she doesn’t give a fuck about the issues of the day would be to admit a wasted existence. Her career is brutally summarised by the title of her 2012 end-of-year political roundup: “2012 – the year of going nowhere.”


Critic’s only solution to the seemingly irreversible decline of these three columnists is an elaborate life-swap experiment. If Clifton were to spend three weeks with Joanne Black’s children, who as sketched on “The Black Page” are clearly sociopathic, cyber-bullying and serially-sexting tearaways, she would be driven into an uncontrollable rage. For the first time in over four years, Clifton would feel the unfamiliar tickling sensation of human emotion in her hippocampus. This might in turn prompt her to reconsider her unthinking slapdowns of earnest, idealistic politicians, at least until a major political party proposes a new set of reforms to deal with a pressing societal issue.

Joanne Black and her long-suffering husband could spend two weeks away from their kids at a secluded beach house in the Bay of Islands, plundering Ralston’s extensive wine cellar to drink the pain away. By Critic’s count, the first blissful night of child-free inebriation would be just the second night the Blacks had spent away from their kids in eight years. The correction of this sad but completely avoidable life situation would give Joanne a new sense of perspective, and upon her return to hell on earth she might postpone the kids’ daily belittling to bake them a batch of melting moments.

Finally, Ralston would spend a few weeks writing Jane Clifton’s column, which would afford him the opportunity to talk about something vaguely topical and at least tangentially relevant to the lives of his readers. His credentials as a media pundit would be temporarily restored, giving him another two years’ worth of credit in the bank of public goodwill, which he would inevitably squander on self-indulgent columns describing boozy lunches.
This article first appeared in Issue 9, 2013.
Posted 3:14pm Sunday 28th April 2013 by Anonymous and Callum Fredric.