Monday, July 11, 2016

Iain Sharp on Janet Frame

The 88th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1994 issue. It was titled “A Bluffer’s Guide to Janet Frame” and the intro read:
Our greatest writer has produced 21 books – novels, short stories, poems, autobiographies. Naturally, you’ve read Owls Do Cry and To The Is-Land – but what about The Rainbirds or Daughter Buffalo? Never fear, help is at hand. Now you can amaze any dinner party with your intimate knowledge of her entire oeuvre thanks to Iain Sharp, who has read the lot. Here are the Quote Unquote Condensed Versions of the collected works of Janet Frame.
Written in her early 20s and published while Frame was still a patient in Avondale Mental Hospital, these 24 brief tales contain in embryonic form most of the themes of her later fiction. The joys of childhood give way to the pain and disappointment of adult experience. Hanging on to your imagination in a stiflingly conformist world is a perpetual problem. Frame focuses on the lives of losers, loners, loonies, budding writers and people on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The lagoon of the title story is gradually revealed as the murder weapon of a revered but secretly homicidal grandmother. Two of Frame’s sisters died by drowning. Frightening water imagery recurs throughout her work.

OWLS DO CRY (1957)
Set in the town of Waimaru (a thinly disguised version of Oamaru, where the author grew up), Frame’s powerful first novel traces the deterioration of the aptly named Withers family over a period of 20 years. The four Withers children compensate for their poverty during the Depression years with a rich fantasy life, but none of them manages to develop into a fully rounded human being. Francie, the vibrant eldest daughter, perishes in a fire at the local rubbish dump. Daphne, an unstable visionary, is confined to a mental hospital until a leucotomy transforms her into little more than an obedient robot. Epileptic Toby becomes a sullen recluse reliant on scavenging for his livelihood. Shallow little Teresa, who surrenders totally to materialism, is the butt of Frame’s rather crude social satire.

Written in London and dedicated to RH Cawley, the English psychiatrist who helped persuade her she was not a schizophrenic, as hitherto diagnosed, Frarne’s second novel is narrower in scope and less packed with imagery than her first, but nevertheless it remains one of her most haunting achievements. In a generally straightforward and understated fashion, the central character, Istina Mavet (the name blends the Serbo-Croatian word for “truth” with the Hebrew word for “death”), describes the eight years she has spent in New Zealand mental hospitals. There are obvious parallels with the Daphne sections in Owls Do Cry and with Frame’s own medical history. The repeated use of electric-shock treatment, the threat of personality-destroying brain surgery and the disregard for mental patients’ basic human rights are horrifying.

In this oppressively glum sequel to Owls Do Cry, Toby Withers travels by ship to England. He has grown into an even more pathetic misfit since the death of his mother and the change of location helps him not at all. His fellow passengers on the voyage include Zoe Bryce, a suicidal ex-schoolteacher who is desperate for any kind of amorous attention, and Pat Keenan, a dull, repressed, authority-worshipping Irish bus driver. A great title, but it’s hard to imagine anyone picking this one as their favourite among Frame’s books.

Weird, shadowy, ambiguous and less directly autobiographical than any of her preceding works, Frame’s fourth novel was denounced by one early reviewer as “unreadable in the worst sense” and hailed by another as “likely a work of genius”. Possibly both verdicts are correct and it’s an unreadable work of genius. Young Erlene Glace refuses to talk to anyone but her imaginary companion, Uncle Blackbeetle. Her mother, Vera, frets about both Erlene’s silence and the loss of her own senses. Meanwhile, Vera’s estranged husband Edward retreats ever deeper into his two obsessions: genealogy and toy soldiers. The final chapter depicts Vera as a mute, long-term patient in a mental asylum. Has all of the foregoing just been a figment of her disordered imagination? Do her husband and daughter exist? As well as leaving the reader with these brainteasers, the ending also hints at a nuclear apocalypse.

Frame continues in a very strange vein with a series of dream-like, disquieting parables and fairy tales which feature talking tigers, sheep, gooseberry bushes, garden gates and so forth. In the superb title story, which takes up half the volume and thus qualifies as a novella, a newly formed snowman discusses the world around him with an ice crystal on a neighbouring window sill. The snowman foolishly believes in his own immortality, although he is gradually melting and death, at one time or another, has touched the families in the surrounding houses. The ice crystal is known as the Perpetual Snowflake, but its perpetuity may be doubted. It seems, in any case, to be the distilled essence of a previous snowman.

Written concurrently with Snowman, Snowman, the more realistic Reservoir stories cover much the same territory as The Lagoon, but Frame’s skills as a storyteller have improved since her first volume. Once again the shadow of darkness falls on hitherto innocent lives, but Frame now knows how to imply a sense of menace or loss without resorting to melodrama or heavy symbolism.

Begun in England and completed after her return to New Zealand in November 1963, Frame’s fifth novel is a bold attempt to expand her range which doesn’t quite come off. The setting is Little Burgelstatham (literally, “a burial place for the heathen”), an ancient village in East Suffolk to which electricity and the overflow of London’s population are making their debuts. The narrative flits, rather unsatisfyingly, from villager to villager, but the focal points are Muriel Baldry (a social climber fatally obsessed with the huge chandelier she has inherited) and four members of the Maude family. Russell Maude is a boring old dentist who works with outmoded equipment and collects stamps in his spare time. His brother, Aisley, is a tubercular retired clergyman who dreams of emulating Saint Cuthbert, although he has largely lost his faith. Russell’s wife, Greta, devotes most of her energy to the control of garden pests. Her son, Alwyn, “adapts” to the horrible 20th century by seducing Greta and casually murdering an itinerant Italian labourer.

Perhaps suspecting that her talents are ill-suited to coping with a cast of thousands (or even tens), in her next novel (generally considered her strongest since Faces In The Water) Frame explored the psyche of a single neurotic character. Middle-aged Malfred Signal, an art teacher in the small South Island town of Matuatangi, retires early to nurse her sick mother. When her mother dies, Malfred settles in a bach on a Waiheke-like island near Auckland. Isolated during a storm and terrified by the fear of a prowler, she gradually loses her tenuous grip on reality. Made into a sombre film by Vincent Ward in 1979.

The title is confusing, for this volume is actually a selection from both Snowman, Snowman: Fables And Fantasies and The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches. Those were American publications; this is the New Zealand version. It’s not a bad collection, but the absence of the long title story from Snowman, Snowman is a real loss.

Frame seems always to have written verse. Some of her childhood efforts appeared in the junior section of the Oamaru Mail. The Pocket Mirror gathers together 170 of her poems in no particular order. It contains squibs, fizzlers, nonsense poems and free-verse jottings, as well as more finished and profound musings, as if she simply emptied out her bottom drawer and let her publisher grab the lot. The casual approach conceals Frame’s true stature as a poet. There are
enough gems in this lucky dip to make it one of the most rewarding volumes of New Zealand poetry in the l960s.

Walking home from work one evening, Godfrey Rainbird, the British-born employee of a Dunedin tourist agency, is hit and apparently killed by a passing car. The funeral arrangements are made and Godfrey’s sister is summoned from England. Then Godfrey suddenly opens his eyes in the mortuary and emerges from his coma. His resurrection is an embarrassment to everyone around him. He’s fired from his job because his boss thinks it unwise for Dunedin to be represented by a reanimated corpse. This Lazarus fable could have made a wonderful short story, but stretched to 200 pages it’s a bit thin and lifeless. Known in the United States by the off-putting title Yellow Flowers In The Antipodean Room
Frame’s only attempt to date at a children’s book is a tough read for anyone under the age of puberty, but adult fans who haven’t tried it yet are in for a pleasant surprise. Mona Minim is a young female ant. On the brink of adulthood, she’s obliged to embark on two journeys. First she must leave the underground colony where she was raised and venture into the wider world. Then she must go on a mission to rescue friends trapped in a glass by a human child. There are obvious connections with other Frame stories concerning rites of passage, but she’s in an unusually relaxed mood here and she makes some good jokes. In her schooldays Mona studies “Sociology, Monarchy, Scent-Cone Care, Duties of Public and Private Stomachs”. Robin Jacques’ elegant and witty drawings are an added treat.

Divided into three parts, the longest of Frame’s novels examines the appalling treatment of the sick in body and mind over a period of more than a century, extending from World War I to the 21st century. The hero of the first section, Tom Livingstone (another significant name), returns from the Great War with gas in his lungs, shrapnel in his back, a wrecked mind and an obsessive love of Ciss Everest, the pretty nurse who helped him recover from his wounds. Decades later, when he rediscovers the former nurse dying of cancer in an English hospice, the discrepancy between the real Ciss and his romantic illusion is so vast that he feels compelled to murder her. Part Two focuses on the deaths of Leonard Livingstone (Tom’s derelict brother) and Colin Torrance (Tom’s grandson – another love-crazed killer). The final section is set in a bleak future where misfits are executed and used as sources of food, soap and leather. Autistic Milly Galbraith, who lives next to the old Livingstone property in Dunedin is scheduled to be exterminated on her 26th birthday. Overwrought, fragmentary and sometimes absurd, Intensive Care is still a hypnotic novel.

The mind games here are reminiscent of Scented Gardens For The Blind. Turnlung, an aged New Zealand writer of doubtful sanity, journeys to New York, where he meets Talbot Edelman, a young Jewish doctor who specialises in death studies. Edelman’s researches include the systematic mutilation of his pet dog. The two men form a brief sexual attachment. Visiting Central Park Zoo together, they see a baby buffalo, a symbol of America’s once healthy past in sharp contrast to the decadent present. Possibly Edelman is a figure entirely invented by Turnlung. Or vice versa. Certainly not for all tastes, this nightmarish novel fascinates some readers and makes others want to rush to the bathroom.

A woman of many aliases (not unlike her creator), Mavis Halleton, the narrator of Frame’s 10th novel, has tended to do things in pairs. She’s been married twice, given birth to two children, written two books, lived in two countries (the United States and New Zealand) and enjoyed success in two artistic careers (writer and ventriloquist). In rather rambling fashion, she tells us about her marriages, her travels, her travails. The novel is distinguished less by its plot than by its shafts of satirical wit. Near the beginning, Mavis describes the home of American friends as “full of likenesses, of replicas, prints of paintings, prints of prints, genuine originals and genuine imitation originals, imitation sculptures and twin original sculptures”. One of the main themes is the lack of authenticity in the modern world, whether you live in Auckland or California, Maryland or the Maniatoto (a plain in Otago).

The first volume of Frame’s autobiography deals with her childhood and sometimes painful adolescence in Oamaru. It ends with her heading off to Dunedin to become a trainee teacher.  Her recall is extraordinary. She seems to remember every poem she was taught when young, every song she heard, every rebuke that humiliated her and every mispronunciation as she slowly acquired her gift of language. In recent years, because of its lucidity, candour and friendly tone, Frame’s autobiography has become much more popular with readers than the difficult novels of the 1960s and 70s. Jane Campion’s generally faithful 1991 screen adaptation also won Frame new followers.

Ten years on, this is still the best selection of Frame’s short stories. “Snowman, Snowman” is included, as well as hitherto uncollected gems like “The Bath” and “Insulation”. For newcomers to Frame’s fiction, this is an excellent place to start.

The second volume of Frame’s autobiography covers the period from 1943 to 1955, the loneliest and most miserable years of her life, but also the formative years for her career as a writer. Traumatised first by her failure as a teacher and then by the drowning of her beloved sister Isabel at Picton, she became a voluntary mental patient. She spent almost all of her 20s in hospital. Her stories won her some admirers, however, including fellow writer Frank Sargeson, who let her work in the army hut at the back of his small cottage in Takapuna. The volume ends with Frame’s departure overseas on a literary grant.

In the concluding volume of her autobiography, Frame describes her arrival in Europe as a wide-eyed colonial, her first sexual experience (at the age of 32) on the Spanish island of Ibiza, her miscarriage, the revelation that she was falsely diagnosed as a schizophrenic and the period of intense creative activity in London which followed this discovery. Perhaps the trilogy will eventually be extended to a quartet, but so far the autobiography ends with Frame’s return to New Zealand after the death of her father in 1963.

Weary, no doubt, of the straightforward manner of her memoirs, Frame returns in her 11th novel to bamboozlingly opaque symbolism. Mattina Brecon, a wealthy middle-aged American, visits the North Island town of Puamahara (which closely resembles Levin, where Frame lived in the mid-80s). Mattina is lured by the local Maori legend of the Memory Flower, but the town is actually under the influence of the Gravity Star, a cosmic force which overturns all ordinary notions of time and distance. The residents of Puamahara are so absorbed in their material possessions, however, that they remain unaware of the approaching cataclysm until it is too late. The sole exception is Dinny Wheatstone, who is described as “an impostor novelist” and is probably Frame’s ironic self-portrait. As with many writers of science fiction, Frame’s grasp of science is a little shaky, but the real trouble with this strange book is the flatness and remoteness of all the characters. It’s like squinting at unappealing strangers through the fog.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Waikato Times letter of the week #69

From the edition of Monday 4 July. As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times, including the missing words and intermittent use of hyphens for dashes. You have no idea how carefully (and incredulously) I proofread these things.
Keep calm, carry on
Politically, the Western world as we know it is akin to Mother Earth when she gets overheated and the pressure within builds to breaking point and manifests itself as earthquakes and eruptions.
We have Britain – well, at least England, showing its distaste of losing its once closely guarded privilege to self-determination and has thrown off the shackles of “colonialism” to reinstate its sovereignty. As in its past, it will not come without pain, but that is the price.
We have, it is rumoured, the population of other countries within the EU regime of domination looking to show their parliamentarians that they too want Poland for the Polish, France for the French, Sweden for the Swedish and more. We see in the United States an awakening of the people to find that there is a rampaging bull charging from the left field and crashing through the fence of establishment, in so doing refreshing the minds of people, like a cold shower after a long slumber.
We see Australian political scene with its double dissolution and tightly fought election. Showing the cultural trait of “if it ain’t working, tear it down and rebuild it.” We see the British Labour Party with the Parliamentary caucus demonstrating that they are out of tune with rank and file membership - sound familiar?
And what happens to Mother Earth?
She settles down with the shape somewhat changed and a new future dawns for all. Maybe a new order.
And that is why Britain or at least England will come through the turmoil by “Keeping Calm and Carrying On”.
Tony Kirby
Some unkind readers – John Baker and Sarah Sandley – have queried whether this letter is genuine and not a fictional construct of mine. So here is a snap of the newspaper page, which gives you as a bonus a letter from former WaikTimes letter of the week contributors T John Marshall and Frank Bailey replying to T John’s letter earlier this week. Something about socialism, so in both cases tl;dnr.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Elizabeth Smither on saints

The 87th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is again from the January/February 1994 issue. The seven-page feature “I Get a Kick Out of This” was a collection of brief pieces by Brian Turner, Jacqueline Fahey, Owen Marshall, Barbara Else, Colin Hogg, Iain Sharp, Nigel Cox, Mary-Louise Brown, Brian Boyd and others – booksellers, painters, publishers, journalists – writing about more cheerful stuff than most books magazines did at the time: motorbikes, daughters, dogs, poker, haircuts, guitars, ice cream, roses, science, shoes and more. The intro read:
There’s more to life than books. . . For a start, there’s chocolate. Here are another 20 of life’s extraordinary pleasures.
 So far we have had Barbara Else on romance, aka lust  and Tim Wilson on press-ups. Today: poet, novelist and short-story writer Elizabeth Smither.

November 1, November 2, or particularly the midnight between, when All Saints crosses into All Souls, has always been my favourite time of year. What a lovely gradation it is: All Saints, All Souls – then it might be All Dogs, All Cats.

It seems a boundless kind of festival, incorporating the saints, like Teresa of Avila, who didn’t decay and had bits lopped off by the faithful, and others who dashed straight to ashes or dust (which reminds me of an all-time favourite bit of verse by an lndian babu on the death of Queen Victoria: “Dust to Dust and Ashes to Ashes/Into the tomb the great Queen dashes”).

What, I wonder, happened to those of Teresan tendencies who were never dug up to see? Are there unacknowledged saints underneath the sod crying out “Me too!”? Our own Katherine Mansfield, when disinterred, was found to be remarkably well-preserved. A saint of the short story?

My friend Margo, who begins her letters with a saint’s feast day, has caused a retaliatory search on my part through saints’ calendars. Our salutations, in the attempt to outdo one another, resemble missiles.

Waiting in my armoury are Caspar del Bufalo, Telesphorus, Theodosius the Cenobiarch, Fursey and Nicolas von Flue. And who were Edith of Polesworth and Edith of Tamworth, the Seven Sleepers, Ethelburga of Faremoutiers-en-Brie who sounds like a cheese? Up my sleeve are St Bee, St Winebald and Elizabeth Bichier des Ages. No matter what the date, there will be a name to send like a flaming arrow pitched at a turret.

Saints are nothing if not individual. Who can forget Teresa Avila’s table manners, her railing at the heavens when her barge sank, her laughter at the Inquisition’s cart? Others altered their DNA structures by sublime patience: St Therese of Lisieux washing snotty handkerchiefs next to a nun with halitosis. Choose, they seem to say, be what you like and don’t care.

Just recently I looked up St Polycarp. At 86 he was burnt to death, but the flames behaved abnormally, “making a sort of arch, like a ship’s sail filled with wind so he looked not like burning flesh but like bread in the oven”. To get rid of this image they had to stab him as well.

And in London at Westminster Cathedral there was the feretory of St John Southworth, the body buried and dug up and stuffed like a horsehair sofa. But his feet were encased in little red socks. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. A size three shoe, I think. Such feet, little saint.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Tim Wilson on press-ups

The 86th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January/February 1994 issue. The seven-page feature “I Get a Kick Out of This” was a collection of brief pieces by Brian Turner, Jacqueline Fahey, Owen Marshall, Elizabeth Smither, Barbara Else, Colin Hogg, Iain Sharp, Nigel Cox, Mary-Louise Brown, Brian Boyd and others – booksellers, painters, publishers, journalists – writing about more cheerful stuff than most books magazines did at the time: motorbikes, daughters, dogs, poker, haircuts, guitars, ice cream, roses, science, shoes and more. The intro read:
There’s more to life than books. . . For a start, there’s chocolate. Here are another 20 of life’s extraordinary pleasures.
Yesterday was Barbara Else on romance, aka lust. Today: Tim Wilson, who is now a novelist and TV star.

Twice each week after night has fallen I retreat to my bedroom, draw the blinds and spread-eagle myself on the floor. I check my shadow to ensure my spine is perfectly straight. Then like the Big Bad Wolf I huff and I puff. The house does not fall down. Instead, I descend and rise above the carpet. I am doing my press-ups.

Don’t get me wrong. A press-up is not my idea of a thrill. That I complete 160 of them each week must be the result of something – personal vanity, I suspect. Yet the value of these physical jerks is almost nil. Some men are built like brick outhouses; I am built like a corridor and I rest too much between exercises to get that endorphin rush which fitness junkies live for.

My rush comes when I take a break at number 60, and I am at the mirror, T-shirt discarded. Suddenly I appear fuller. Swollen with excited blood, my upper body looks like someone else’s, and I move close enough to the mirror to crop out my face – that too is pumped up. I preen and strut. I affect poses stolen from the inhabitants of aftershave commercials.

Inevitably, boredom overtakes me, so I hunch. Thrusting my stomach out obscenely, I conduct salacious experiments with my image. I permit my ruddied face to enter the glass. Do I look a fright!

You may think my little ritual strange, or that I have let you in on it perversely. Probably. But I have discovered a pleasure denied those who choose to exercise publicly. For a true narcissist, the only thing more rewarding than making yourself look good is making yourself look worse.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Barbara Else on romance

The 85th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January/February 1994 issue. The seven-page feature “I Get a Kick Out of This” was a collection of brief pieces by Brian Turner, Jacqueline Fahey, Owen Marshall, Elizabeth Smither, Colin Hogg, Iain Sharp, Nigel Cox, Mary-Louise Brown, Brian Boyd and others – booksellers, painters, publishers, journalists – writing about more cheerful stuff than most books magazines did at the time: motorbikes, daughters, dogs, poker, haircuts, guitars, ice cream, roses, science, shoes and more. 

The intro read:
There’s more to life than books. . . For a start, there’s chocolate. Here are another 20 of life’s extraordinary pleasures.
First up: Barbara Else.

Just as a poultice brings a boil to a head, the pleasures of romance give intense focus to your very being. In the first flood of a romance, everything in your day – and night – is connected to A Meaningful Other. Someone else concentrates profoundly on you, and you focus unwaveringly on that other person. The only other time that’s likely to have happened in your life is when you’re a newborn at the start of a feed. No wonder we yearn for the experience in later years. The anticipation of being close to AMO makes every cell in your body full to bursting with excitement and energy. I’m speaking of mutual romance, of course, not the miserable unrequited kind.

But what about the side-effects of this condition? Have you realised that being in love is a highly cost-effective and efficient state? The mental benefits are huge. Romance is so relaxing. Topics of conversation are all there, ready-made, and never pall. “What did you think, when you first saw me?” and “How long before you knew I was The One ?” And you can always rely on the repetitive two-word standby: “You’re wonderful.” “You’re wonderful!”

Then think of the physical benefits. Happiness makes you move with exuberance and bounce. When you’re in love you automatically stand taller and hold your stomach in. What a saving on gym fees. Even your skin improves: you can ditch the half-used pot of Natural Glow and rely on the inner one.

And never underestimate the importance of that crucial but often overlooked element in romance – lust. Candlelight and soft music, wide eyes and gentle smiles are only part of the package. Romance is, after all, a delectable combination of sentiment and desire. Once the lust aspect begins to be fulfilled, weight loss is a certainty. Orgasm and chocolate have the same effect on the brain, so you don’t need the Cadbury’s Flake so often. And all that prone and supine exercise! Even the middle-aged can recapture the sinuosity of youth. Forty-plus joints readily assume remarkable postures, horizontal, vertical and all the angles in between.

What an astonishingly positive state it is – romance even makes the other person smell delicious to you, no matter how sweaty they’ve got.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Nigel Cox on Alan Preston and Unity Books

The 84th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January/February 1994 issue. The intro read:
Nigel Cox pays tribute to the quietly legendary Wellington bookseller Alan Preston.
Keeping the books
“After 10 years I did a tot-up and worked out I’d put 10,000 unpaid hours into the bookshop,” says Alan Preston, founder of Unity Books. Not that he’s complaining: “The shop’s been my marriage, really. But you don’t go into bookselling to get rich.”
We talk in the sunroom of his book-lined house in Eastbourne. It has a spectacular view of Ward Island, back-dropped by Wellington Harbour, but glancing around you get the sense that perhaps in this house most of the looking is done inward – into the books, many of them with neat slips marking particular pages. Lao Tzu, Spinoza, Emerson... and a little cluster of Wodehouses. Down on a lower shelf a printed card carries Thoreau’s advice about not worrying about keeping pace with others, because perhaps you “hear a different drummer”, which seems appropriate for a man whose bookshop seems always to have gone its own way.
A most successful way it’s been too – after 26 years, Unity Books is something of an institution among good readers. But back in 1967, with such capital as he had augmented by a few thousand dollars borrowed from relatives, the future was anything but assured: “On our first day we took $19.70!”
That first shop was in the Empire Building in Wellington’s Willis Street and will be recalled by those with long memories as long, awkward and skinny – “only four feet wide at the narrowest point”, he chuckles. His face fills with pleasure as he recalls the excitement of that time, when he embarked on what was to be his life’s work.
The launch of his own bookshop was something that, in hindsight, Preston had been preparing himself for since the beginning: “As a little kid visiting my grandmother’s place in Newtown, I’d be on the back of the settee, ordering the books on the bookcase, putting them round this way, that way, little private categories.”
Reading was always a big interest, second perhaps only to sport. He trained as an accountant, entering the book trade in 1954 via the accounts department of Gordon & Gotch. After stints at Whitcombe & Tombs, South’s Book Depot and the book trade’s old curiosity shop, Ferguson and Osborne, he felt impelled to hang out a shingle of his own.
From the first he had very definite ideas about what his shop would stock. “On the first floor at South’s there’d been art books, old Collins Classics, and more serious, rather more valuable books, but very few people came up there and found them – these good books weren’t being presented, I felt, to those who would be interested in them.”
Not that all this high-mindedness precluded a nose for business. “I’ve always said, perhaps cheekily, that I was trading in the holes that Whitcoulls left,” he says, grinning. Big holes, they must have been, and filled with eager readers. Unity grew quickly from the day it opened, and Preston was soon able to pay back the money he’d borrowed. At which point his relatives said, “Look, it’s working, you’re loving it, we’re loving it too: have the money.”
The book world’s gain has been the sports world’s loss. From 1955 to 1963 Preston played Plunket Shield cricket for Wellington and was twice included in the North Island team. He also played in tests for New Zealand against Australia at soccer. “In 1956 there was the possibility of sending a New Zealand soccer team to the Melbourne Olympics,” he says, “but in those days soccer was the poor relation – we couldn’t afford to go.” The same fate befell a proposed trip by the 1957 national team to South-East Asia.
The interest in books has proved to be almost all-consuming. Preston, who could never be described as conversation-reluctant, will be remembered by many of his customers for the thousands of hours spent in intense discussion about the ideas thrown up by the new titles. During the 1970s, completing an arts degree at Victoria University, he took a paper on New Zealand fiction so that he might better understand this growing aspect of his business. He became involved in the mechanics of the trade – when Denis Glover said he was having trouble distributing the books his Catspaw Press was producing, Preston agreed to act as wholesaler. Glover’s correspondence occasionally arrived on the back of labels he’d soaked from vodka bottles.
These days, with quarter of a century behind him and two shops to preside over (Unity opened in Auckland in 1989), Preston’s dedication to bookselling is as total as his involvement. “Recently, outside the Auckland shop,” he says, “I heard a couple of guys in business suits, mid-30s, and one was saying, ‘I can’t go past this shop. I have to go in there.’ And when I hear comments like that, I think, yes, it’s all been worth it.”
Not that we imagine he ever doubted.

Jo McColl’s obituary of Alan, who died in 2004, is here.

Waikato Times letter of the week #68

From the edition of Monday 27 June. As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times. Including the use of hyphens for dashes.
Bennett prediction
I read my paper from cover to cover - both sections - and when something gets to me, I start writing letters. Joe Bennett’s article about dusting off the old crystal ball in Wednesday’s paper (June 22) put my brain in overdrive and made me want to reply to him, so here goes.  
Joe, don’t wipe all the dust off yet! Anything can happen in this weird, wonderful world we live in. I am referring to your article about the hooked-nosed, left-handed Semite who kept evaporating. How can we be sure the marines dumped the right body in the ocean? He could have had a twin brother who decided to change the Al Qaeda name to Isis!
Now, your other prophecy about the 44th president of the United States: the brave - oops, I mean the Bent Racist Vain Egotistical man who may have started to soil himself when he thought he may have a chance of making it to the White House and not knowing what he was going to do when the real deal became apparent and the realty TV show was over so then decided to call it a day and sack the campaign manager backs down on some of the more serious stuff that he made jokes of and soon will throw in the towel before the election to save face in a defeat that would make his hair stand on end and perhaps disappear to the Trump Tower and hide away till the dust settles back on your crystal ball, Joe!
Ann Ridley

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Malcolm Walker on vodka

The 83rd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January/February 1994 issue: Malcolm Walker’s Drink column on vodka. Malcolm has been mentioned here before, in connection with his cartooning. He is also a very good architect. I was present at this vodka tasting but do not remember much about it.

I was first introduced to vodka as a one-shot drink when it came with blinis and caviar at the great, departed Flamingos restaurant. Oily, pungent, cold, and deeply alcoholic it was perfect with the caviar, sour cream and yeasty pancakes. Marvellous.

Every drink has its traditions. Vodka’s are particularly savage. Scandinavian custom is for the host to toast, individually, each guest. A large dinner party is an distinct health hazard for the host. The Russians at the Yalta conference toasted the other Allies at every opportunity with vodka and soon had them under the table. Vodka can be a good negotiating tool – particularly as the Russians were drinking water.

The simplest of the spirits, vodka is in essence ethyl alcohol distilled from a variety of bases, commonly grains or whey (not usually potatoes as commonly supposed) and diluted with water to around 40 per cent alcohol. From there differences are made by the base it is fermented from and the techniques of distillation and filtration. The trick of the brand is to avoid stripping too much of what little character the liquor had to begin with. The most common claim on the labels is “Purity”.

Vodka is bought mainly as a mixer. Being pure, it’s ideal. Also, there are flavoured vodkas on the market: citrus and chilli are two available here. (I have friends who make their own by macerating the fruit in the bottle.) So, here we are with a drink that aspires to be colourless, odourless, tasteless and puts you on your ear faster than anything else on the market. Perfect for a comparative tasting! We got the style right – none of this top-of-the-bar stuff. The bottle should be straight from the freezer (alcohol won’t freeze) and poured into chilled glasses.

First up: Stolichnaya (Stoli to converts), grain fermented and bottled in good old Mother Russia. As the frost formed on the bottle we got down to it. A heavy, oily quality, solid and a bit rough with a serious alcohol hit, and a sharp and aromatic nose. There was a bit of debate about where the alcohol bit in – somewhere between the back of the throat and the upper thorax.

Next up, Moskovskya, with a similar label but this time bright green (remember that hint after you’ve had a few). “More potatoes” was the first reaction. Obviously from the same stable as Stoli (in fact, from the same factory), it’s a fuller and more volatile drink. A real wake-up call.

The Poles claim they invented vodka in the 11th century. It seems the Russians didn’t pick it up until the early 1800s, so these guys should have got it right by now. The only Polish vodka we could get was a lightly flavoured one, Zubrowka, which features the “herb beloved by the European bison”. The bottle even contained a stem of the plant. Well, what can you say? Betterthan the worms the Mexicans give you.
The drink had a definite bouquet of hay. And a definite taste of, well, hay. Closely followed by the now familiar grunty blast of Eastern-bloc alcohol, and a broader after-taste than the initial flavour would suggest. Like the Russians, the Zubrowka is pretty hairy-chested, but less volatile.
The Eastern European vodkas have been under pressure to make a cleaner, blander vodka to suit the international market. This may explain the difference between the Stoli and the Moskovskya. Zubrowka, l’d guess, is still pretty true to its original properties.

For those who like their fun a bit cleaner we cracked a bottle of Finlandia. Much sniffing for a bouquet. Opinions varied from “none” to “vodka”. Only your chemist could tell. As for taste, it’s much sweeter but with less flavour. Not much here except alcohol and water is my guess. Very thoroughly filtered, as you’d expect from a Scandinavian. I’m bound to say it had a good Finnish.

Absolut from Sweden, a grain alcohol, is a more volatile version of Finlandia. Obviously a high-tech drink too, compared with the more muscular Easterners, but with a bit more flavour – although exactly what is hard to pin down. It hits smoothly and is very easy to drink. You could do a lot of damage with this, the most stylish of the vodkas we sampled.

Time for a good local drink: Smirnoff Blue, made under licence in New Zealand, and another high-tech grain vodka. What I like about it is that it has a 45.2 per cent alcohol content. All the others are around 40 per cent. Not surprisingly, it’s “hotter” and has a different taste, possibly because of the base. Still, it’s smooth, closer to the Finlandia than the Absolut. Nothing wrong with it.

The manufacturers are at pains to point out how much the drink is filtered. Even so, it’s markedly different from the others. One of the panel, with a longer history of vodka drinking than the rest, suggested that it was “right”, more what she was used to. The New Zealand vodka style – didn’t know we had one, did you?

So that’s vodka, the stuff a Russian tank crew recently swapped their tank for (two cases is the going rate, apparently). If you’re mixing it’s doubtful that the brand will matter much. For shot drinking, though, check the list, match the brand to your personality and go to it. Vodka, the drinking person’s drink.

I’ve avoided mixers but I can’t resist a recipe. Vodkababs. This is from my favourite cookbook, That Was Simply Delicious But I Couldn’t Eat Another Mouthful: take a supermarket sponge cake, cut into cubes, thread onto kebab skewers, soak in vodka, roll in hundreds and thousands, set alight and serve. I haven’t actually tried it but I’m sure it will be a delight. As I said, anything goes with vodka. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

In praise of: NZ crime fiction’s new name

Craig Sisterson, bless him, is a tireless advocate of Kiwi Krime. Obviously there has to be a better collective name for crime novels written by New Zealanders. He said on the Ngaio Marsh Book Awards’ Facebook page that Scottish crime fiction was called Tartan Noir  and Irish crime fiction was called Emerald Noir, so what should we call New Zealand crime fiction? “Greenstone Noir? Pauashell Noir? Flax Noir? Kauri Noir?”

The Book Council’s Stephanie Soper came up with Yeah, Noir. Which is brilliant, and definitive. Yeah Noir it is.

So here are my favourite coasters, bought in Cambridge, made in Raglan. Ethically sourced! Tomorrow I shall try to commission the maker to make one that says “Noir”.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Behind the scenes at Euro 16

Daily Mail and GQ sportswriter Martin Samuel is in Paris for Euro 16 and this is his Notebook for the Spectator. The matches are being played in France:
In the few days I’ve spent in Paris, I’d say the terror alert level is fluctuating between a little antsy, really quite nervous and eye-twitching, hair-tearing, run for your lives woo-woo.
It is not just the threat from ISIS et al – there are other security concerns:
The fear is that opposition spies will somehow learn England’s secrets.
And so, he says, a 9ft tarpaulin has gone up around England’s training base in Chantilly:
They’re clearly hoping opposition narks failed to notice John Stones’s last six months at Everton, Chris Smalling’s performance in the FA Cup final, or whatever the hell it was England’s forwards were up to against Portugal.
Graham Taylor was another security-conscious England manager. In  1993, playing a World Cup qualifier in Oslo, he became convinced that the team co-ordinator provided by the Norwegian FA was a spy. On the eve of the game, Taylor switched training locations and, distracting the poor chap with a fake telephone call, instructed the coach driver to depart without him. England then trained at a military sports centre, watched only by local wildlife and the chief sports correspondent of Norway’s biggest-selling newspaper, VG, whose house happened to back on to the ground. Photographs, and every last detail of the secret training session, duly appeared on its front page the next day.
England lost 2-0.
So here are Godley and Creme with “This Sporting Life” from their second album, 1978’s L: