Septuagenarian motorbike dreams

She who also used to ride a motorbike, Mt Coot-tha, circa 1970

I’ve been having recurrent (and happy) motorbike dreams lately, a few days short of a significant birthday. I had no idea what septuagenarian meant. Also, as my spell-checker immediately informed me, I did not know how to spell the word either. A septuagenarian is a person between the ages of 70 and 79.

There’s a lot of this about, with the quintessential baby boomers (those born in the immediate post-war years (1946-1950), throwing big parties and telling people not to bring presents. Some have a late flirtation with their youth, buying a motorbike they couldn’t afford then or taking bucket list cruises to exotic climes.

We graduated from ‘sixty is the new fifty’ to feebly claiming that seventy is the new sixty. A few say I could pass for that, but they don’t see me in the morning, in the harsh light of the ensuite mirror.

Septuagenarianism causes one to reflect on mortality. Indeed, it makes one think of times when a premature exit was on the cards. In my case, this was a bad motorbike accident in 1969. If you fall off a motorbike at speed or hit something, you are always going to come off second-best.

A study by the Federal Department of Transport found that motorcyclists are 41 times more likely to sustain a serious injury than car occupants. Moreover, the study found that 10% of motorbike accident victims were not wearing crash helmets at the time.

Not that the statistics put people off riding motorbikes or indeed competing in motor racing, be it on dirt tracks or professional circuits. The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries estimates there are one million registered motorcycles in Australia, and twice that number of off-road bikes.

My accident (it traumatises me still to recount) resulted in smashing both kneecaps, breaking my jaw and a lip laceration requiring 37 stitches. The latter was the least of my problems. I had both kneecaps removed and lay in a hospital bed with both legs in plaster for months. I became close to the pigeons roosting on the roof outside my narrow window. And I took up studying racing form to pass the time.

It is a good thing the brain does not retain the memory of pain. Let’s just say when the IRA decided on kneecapping as a form of punishment, they were inflicting great pain and future disability on their victims.

In those days, hospitals routinely doled out synthetic forms of morphine ‘PRN’ (Latin for as required – pro re nata). After several months, they weaned me off Omnipon (synthetic morphine) as my body was starting to crave the drug. Thus began a difficult period.

We can skip over the bad parts, which are chronicled in a highly romanticised song, Motorbike Dreams.

After getting out of hospital, I went to a (physical) rehab unit where daily therapy aimed to get my legs back to normal. As those who have had a patellectomy would know, full flexion is rare. I kneel with difficulty, cannot squat and take extra care to avoid having awkward tumbles. Apart from not having much of a head for heights, I avoid climbing ladders beyond the third step and have never been on the roof of our house.

Rehab and the sci-fi hallucination

Rehab was a hoot, after four months of being cooped up in a public hospital. It was only when I first got on crutches and struggled up the halls of the orthopaedic ward I stopped feeling sorry for myself. There in rooms by themselves or shared with others, was a coterie of ex-bikies, all of them in various degrees of pain and disability far worse than mine.

In rehab, I learned to play pool, always being defeated by a Vietnam vet whose left arm was frozen horizontally at chest height. It made the ideal place to rest a pool cue but was otherwise quite inconvenient.

This impish Polynesian chap, whose name now escapes me, decided one night we should all disobey the curfew and slip down the road to the pub. The rehab unit was located in a dodgy south Auckland suburb. But as Tipu (let’s call him that) said, “Otara’s not as bad as it’s painted, Bro.”

We had a great night out, temporarily forgetting the daily struggle to regain our version of normal fitness. I dimly recall a fabulously rowdy public bar rendition of Ten Guitars (New Zealand’s unofficial anthem).

In July, the surgeon who operated on my right leg decided to try manual manipulation, in a last-ditch effort to improve on 97 degrees. An ambulance came; I was taken back to hospital, given an injection of pethidine and then anaesthetised. I woke up in recovery 20 minutes later, with the surgeon shaking his head. The ambulance took me back to the rehab unit (I’d had a shot of pethidine, remember). The rehab crew were gathered in the rec room watched a flickering black and white RCA TV set. In my altered state it seemed like a bad sci-fi movie.

That’s one small step for a man,” said Neil Armstrong, as he stepped on to the surface of the moon, “One giant leap for mankind.”

‘Tipu, mate, is this for real?”

He grinned at my dilated pupils and patted me on the shoulder.

“It’s all fake mate, shot on a Hollywood film set.”

Maybe that’s when the rumour began?

By the way, if you didn’t know, there are (still) persistent myths about the Apollo 11 moon landing being faked. In 2008, the TV series Mythbusters came up with one of the more entertaining attempts to debunk the un-debunkable.

Later in ’69 I was discharged from rehab, having made four wooden collection bowls on a foot-operated lathe. It was a sad day, as we had all formed a bond forged by physical adversity.

I went back into the world, to a series of unsuitable jobs where my physical limitations became painfully obvious. The hardest one was steam-cleaning refrigerated railway wagons at 4am. It wasn’t a difficult job once you had clambered up into the wagon, but getting there was pretty problematic.

Just try going for a week without squatting when performing daily tasks and you will have some idea how I adapted to ‘bottom-drawer’ world. No complaints here, though. I got off lightly, as people who have had their kneecaps removed typically develop arthritis and other ailments as time wears on. As a physio once told me, “You’re a lucky lightweight”.

In my 40s, playing soccer with the kids at a birthday picnic, I did the quick about-turn and felt something go ‘pop’. Weeks of pain and hobbling later I ended up in the rooms of an orthopaedic surgeon. He examined the X-rays and asked me to perform a few basic knee movements.

“Is this coming good on its own, do you think?”

“Yeah, I think.”

“Well, forty year old knees with the surgeries you’d had, if it’s coming good, I’m not touching it.”

I give my knees a good talking to, most days, and keep them going with daily walking, weekly yoga and by avoiding the scourge of the over-60s (having a fall).

“Good and faithful servants,” I mentally tell my knees every morning, “Carry me through another day.”

I don’t ride motorbikes anymore, but I’ll never forget the free-wheeling euphoria of a downhill run. And I still have motorbike dreams.









Housing bubbles here and abroad

(New housing in Pokeno, 57 kms south of Auckland city. Risky motorway photo taken by Bob, who will go to any length for FOMM readers!)

Kiwis and Aussies aged 45 and over share one obsessive thought at this moment in time: how will our kids ever be able to afford their own home? Unless the housing bubble bursts, they probably never will be able to, even when the Boomers die off and leave their kids a residual estate.

The housing market both here and in Aotearoa has got away from humble wage earners. On my all-too quick visit to the old country, Auckland’s steaming hot housing market was all anyone could talk about. After a January dip in median prices (a reaction to new tax laws introduced in late 2015), the March figures revealed a $100k hike in the median price to $820,000.

Stories abound of people who bought a cottage in a then-dowdy Auckland suburb for $100k or less in the 1980s and sold last week for $1 million. The New Zealand Herald’s front page on April 13 proclaimed “Here we go again” to head a story about Auckland’s median house price. The story continued on page 3 where Labour Housing spokesman Phil Twyford said the $70k increase in the median price in just one month was almost one and a half times the median income in Auckland.

Not surprisingly, investors accounted for 44% of the 3000+ sales used to determine this alarming figure. This is similar to the Australian trend, where for the past two years just over 50% of housing loans have been made to investors.

Buyers with cash and/or equity are surging into the Auckland housing market and many pundits feel it is inevitable that it will join Sydney in having a $1 million median house price.

Everyone I spoke to told me that Auckland/New Zealand has the highest income to mortgage ratio in the world. The crusty old journo in me demanded that this be verified. The International Monetary Fund, which keeps track of housing costs vs income, indeed placed New Zealand 1st, ahead of Germany, Estonia and Austria. In sixth place came the UK and in 9th place Australia.

The ratio compares housing valuations to average income, the higher rankings showing that house prices have risen much faster than income. (Conversely, if you can score a job in Spain, where unemployment is still running at 22%, you can buy a cheap apartment and go running with the bulls in Pamplona).

If you were wondering how this is relevant, Spain’s economy went pear-shaped after their real estate market tanked in 2008. Caveat emptor!

The problem when housing markets get hot is the price rises are not matched by the prospective buyers’ incomes. In 2015, the median house price in Auckland increased $83,000, against a median income of $46,800. The data for this NZ Herald story, headed “Does your house earn more than you do?” was sourced from NZ Work and Income and the New Zealand Real Estate Institute.

In Sydney’s over-heated market, house prices are up to 12 times median income, according to a Sydney Morning Herald report in November. In mid-2015, the median Sydney house price was a headline $1,004,767, against a median household income of $85,067.

Meanwhile in Aotearoa, those determined to get their toe on the first rung of the housing ladder are fleeing south, as far as Huntly (a former mining town 97.2 km from the big smoke on State Highway 1), and north to Wellsford 77.3kms away. The plan is to buy, commute, save and over time upgrade closer to Auckland.

Pokeno, once a small Waikato hamlet just outside Auckland city limits, is now a forest of houses, if not nestling, then sprawling over the once green rolling hills. New housing is evident on both sides of the four-lane motorway which now extends to Hamilton and beyond. I had a trawl through real and was unable to find much new in Pokeno under $600k. So the early birds have already got their worms and now it is just another suburb of Auckland, a 57 km commute to the city.

Others have absconded to small towns like Te Aroha, Wairoa and Dannevirke, where a decent house and block of land (known as a ‘sixtion’) can be had for less than $150k.

New Zealand has few barriers in the way of investors – until recently there was no capital gains tax (as such) and no inheritance tax. Prime Minister John Keys introduced new measures in last year’s Budget, one of which was a tax payable if the (investment) property was sold within two years of purchase. Keys refused to call this a capital gains tax, saying New Zealand already had one, but the government has to prove “intent” to make a profit.

New Zealand also tightened its foreign investment rules and now requires all foreign buyers to declare a tax identification number from their home country. Kiwis don’t call it negative gearing, but as in Australia, expenses relating to investment housing (depreciation, interest, maintenance etc) can be offset against rental income.

Those who support a continuation of negative gearing in Australia claim that if it was abolished the property market would collapse. The Real Estate Institute of Queensland (REIQ) said 79% of its members and landlord clients believed that investors would abandon the strategy if Labor’s negative gearing changes were brought in. (Labor proposes to restrict negative gearing to new homes and ‘grandfather’ or exempt existing investment houses.)

REIQ Chairman Rob Honeycombe said the findings confirmed that changes to negative gearing would be disastrous for the Queensland property market.

“That will have a crippling effect on house values and on the rental market, where the private rental market plays such a critical role in keeping rents affordable,” he said.Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, no doubt sensing the pre-election atmosphere, has declared he will make no changes to negative gearing in next week’s Budget. The estimated 1.5 million people who invest in residential property would be sure to vote for the politician with the least disagreeable tax policy.

Meanwhile, the 25-44 age group, once the heart of the first home buyer cohort, is struggling to save for a deposit, faced by high rents and stiff competition for affordable housing. Assuming they could find a house in Sydney or Auckland for $700,000, it still means they have to save $140,000 for a deposit (about 14 years at $200 a week).

Their plight creates a dilemma for well-intentioned property investors, those who have simply decided that bricks and mortar is the best form of investment. Sure, they get the tax breaks, but they also have to take the investment risk in the first place and then the secondary risk that they might get the tenants from hell. The third risk may be a Pamplona-type charge for the exits if Labor gets up and changes the rules.

Part of the solution lies with the 814,000 Australians (2011 estimate), who have paid off their mortgages. Whatever their circumstances, they are the only people who, either by gifting money or using their equity for a loan, can help their adult children buy a house. Waiting for the bubble to burst is another option. Or you could move to Spain…there are apartments in Pamplona priced from 39,000 euros (about $A58,000). Buena suerte con eso

 (Thanks to Laurel (She Who Also Sometimes Writes) for being a splendid substitute when I was abroad )