Monday, May 31, 2010

Headline of the month

Queen $15m short each year
I know the feeling.

Unintended consequences

The Welsh biographer and essayist Byron Rogers, reviewing The Cigarette Book by Fletcher Watkins and Chris Harrald in the Spectator, says of the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces that:
a quarter of the Irish couples who now get together do so after meeting each other while smoking out of doors.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

One is not amused

In the Listener with today’s cover date (not online – bizarrely, the publisher expects us to pay for content. Honestly, some people) Joanne Black interviews Christopher Hitchens. It’s all good, as always with Hitchens, but Black says that at boarding school:
his Fifeshire accent was knocked out of him, and one guesses, he also picked up the affectation of saying “one” when meaning “I” or “you”.
Which is nonsense. New Zealandy nonsense, chippy nonsense, totally nonsensical nonsense. Nonsense on stilts.

“One” is not an alternative to “I” or “you”. It has a quite distinct meaning as an impersonal pronoun and can often be very handy. You perhaps never use it but I do. One’s meaning can be clearer that way.

Of the two gold-standard guides to how we use our language, Eric Partridge in Usage and Abusage is sound on this, of course, but Fowler’s Modern English Usage, as updated by Robert Burchfield in 1996 (the book’s predecessor, The King’s English, is a free download here), is even clearer:
The use of one to mean ‘any person’, ‘I’ or ‘me’ is often regarded as an affectation, although English does not always have a ready alternative. It is probably true to say that the more one is associated with ‘I’ or ‘me’, the greater the affectation: This performance commanded attention; at times . . . it brought one’s blood to a boil – Chicago Tribune, 1988. When it genuinely means ‘any person’ (including only incidentally the speaker), it seems a good deal more natural: You must realize that there are risks that one doesn’t take – Nadine Gordimer, 1987.
Partridge allows that:
In friendly or familiar speech and in familiar writing, the you mode is permissible and often preferable . . . [But in] formal speeches and addresses, as in formal and literary writing, the one mode is preferable.
Clarity rules, I reckon. There simply are times when “one” trumps “you” and “I”. If it makes you sound like the Queen, it is wrong. If it makes your meaning clear, it is right.

Fun facts: Eric Partridge was born on a farm in the Waimata Valley, near Gisborne. Robert Burchfield was born in Wanganui. Two of the 20th century’s greatest lexicographers were New Zealanders. They were cool with “one”. We should be too.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Stoned again

The Rolling Stones have re-released their wonderful 1972 album Exile on Main Street with 10 “bonus” (i.e. crap) tracks. Tomorrow, it says here, it will be #1 in the UK album charts. No, I don’t understand how this works either but I assume that the charts are just as rigged today as they were in the 60s. Here is what the chart looks like on 29 May (today is 28 May):

To celebrate (i.e. advertise) the launch there have been many interviews with the performers, or at least Jagger, Richards and Watts. (Neither Wyman nor Taylor that I have seen.) It is amusing how differently they pretend to recall the recording sessions and how authentic the “bonus” tracks are (possibly not very, i.e. they may be more bogus than bonus). But this is good from Jagger, talking to the BBC:
Well, it’s all changed in the last couple of years. We’ve gone through a period where everyone downloaded everything for nothing and we’ve gone into a grey period it’s much easier to pay for things – assuming you’ve got any money.

Are you quite relaxed about it?
I am quite relaxed about it. But, you know, it is a massive change and it does alter the fact that people don’t make as much money out of records.
But I have a take on that - people only made money out of records for a very, very small time. When The Rolling Stones started out, we didn’t make any money out of records because record companies wouldn’t pay you! They didn’t pay anyone!
Then, there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone.
So if you look at the history of recorded music from 1900 to now, there was a 25 year period where artists did very well, but the rest of the time they didn’t.

What about the future. Are you going to get back together and write more music?
I think that would be a very good idea. I’ve been writing quite a lot of music.

Is Keith keen to get the guitar out?
I’m sure he is. And I’ll be seeing him next week, so I’m sure we’ll get together and start doing that.
I hope they don’t. Have you seen Martin Scorsese’s 2008 concert film Shine a Light? I lasted five minutes. Tragic. They are too old. Please stop them.

What I’m reading

No Fretful Sleeper by Paul Millar, the biography of Bill Pearson who is perhaps not so famous now but his 1963 novel Coal Flat was a very big deal at the time (the full text is here at the NZ electronic Text Centre), as was his 1952 essay “Fretful Sleepers”. He was an exceptionally nice man – Elizabeth Smither notes on the back cover that “he was very solicitous about umbrellas” – and was unusually pro-Maori for a Pakeha of his generation; his life and career seem to have been blighted by his homosexuality, or rather by his generation’s attitudes to gayness.

Millar recounts in some detail how Pearson could not get an erection with a woman. He tried in Italy during the war but with female prostitutes it just wouldn’t work. Then he was transferred back to Egypt with the NZ Army. In Cairo one night he wandered into the back streets and was propositioned by an Arab boy. Taken into the boy’s Cairo den, an erection happened. More followed. The boy had straightened him out, as it were.

Bernard Brown’s comment on this story: “Obviously that was just what Bill needed. A Cairo-practor.”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Happy birthday, Peggy Lee

Born Norma Egstrom on 26 May 1920, Peggy Lee who died in 2002 was perhaps the best white jazz singer ever. She was beautiful and wrote songs too. (She wrote the lyrics for “Don’t Smoke in Bed”, covered by KD Lang.)

There are many great clips on YouTube: what I like about this one is that the bass player is Max Bennett, who is all over Frank Zappa’s 1969 jazz-rock classic Hot Rats, and plays on my ringtone “Willie the Pimp” from that album.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Happy birthday, Rosanne Cash

Born on 24 May, 1955, she is 55 today. She recorded her first album in 1978, in Germany. I have no idea why, certainly not because of the Johnny Cash and/or Carter Family connection, but I bought it at the time – vinyl! – and loved it, and have bought every album of hers since. She was a wild child then and is now a country elder, but through it all she has had the voice. Always great songs and great musicians – the production hasn’t always dated well, but the music has.

Here she is in 1981 with “I Don’t Know Why” from the album Seven Year Ache.

And here she is a year or so ago with her dad’s “I Still Miss Someone” with a brief intro of her talking about it. And you think your family is complicated.

It is also Bob Dylan’s birthday. Born in 1941, he is 69 today. Some of his fans are nuts.

What I’m reading

Matt Nolan calls for a proper Green party, not a watermelon. Money quote:
We need a Green party that actually concentrates on environmental issues.
David Thompson muses on eco-feminism. Money quote he quotes from Feministing:
What if we say no to reproduction? Reproduction is the basis of the institutions of marriage and family, and those two provide the moorings to the structure of gender and sexual oppression... So it makes sense to say that if the world has to change, reproduction has to go. Of course there is an ecological responsibility to reduce the human population, or even end it.
Thompson adds:
Which makes one Guardian reader’s suggestion – “stop using cling film” – look somewhat unambitious.
The Australian reviews Unnerved: The New Zealand Project, a show of contemporary NZ art at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane. Money quote:
Oddly, the exhibition made me want to know more about art in NZ, but only because it can't all be as dreary as this. Perhaps someone who isn't a curator of contemporary art could put together a valuable survey of what is going on in NZ today, beyond the bounds of official art.
Rick Gekoski, an unexpected (at least to me) star of the recent Auckland Readers’ and Writers’ Festival, is interviewed too briefly in the Australian about e-books. Money quote:
There are already too many books. If half of them die, that's good.
An ad for bacon syrup, one of the most disgusting-sounding food products ever. Money quote:
Torani Bacon syrup adds savory bacon flavor to cocktails, lattes, sauces and more.
Mick Hartley reports on performance artist Marina Abramovic’s MOMA show The Artist is Present. Money quote:
Much of it involves people holding positions while staring at each other, or staring off into space. Many are naked, like the poor lady who was stuck there lying beneath a skeleton as though engaged in missionary-position coitus: not perhaps how she saw her career developing when she first took up with the art crowd.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Sentence of the day

If not of the week, month or year. From today’s PopBitch:
I named all my baboons Donald, and the friendly ones would jump on my shoulders and shit down my back.
Isn’t that splendid? The context is a long-running PopBitch question: who would win in a fight, a badger or a baboon? David Cameron ducked it, but not Noam Chomsky, Stephen Fry, Paul Weller, Alain de Botton or Alastair Campbell.

The full quote is:
I can help in the baboon vs badger debate, having been bitten several times in the course of being a lab technician by baboons, I can tell you it is like slamming your fingers in a car door really hard!

Another thing to take into consideration is that baboons are stronger than a 6ft+ man in the upper body. They also throw good punches and were always undoing my quarantine trousers.

I named all my baboons Donald, and the friendly ones would jump on my shoulders and shit down my back.

So. . . the baboon would piss on the badger. And then eat it.
Call me shallow, call me Ishmael, but I love PopBitch.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

John Freeman on Shrinking the World

There are many sensible ways to prepare for chairing a session at the Auckland Writers’ and Readers’ Festival with a big-name international author whom you have never met. Staying up drinking until 1 a.m. on Saturday night with him and a bunch of other writers and publishers, and then going upstairs to write your introduction and some questions for your joint Sunday afternoon session – which by now is only 12 hours away – is not one of them.

My session is with John Freeman, new editor of the literary magazine Granta and author of Shrinking the World: the 4000-year story of how email came to rule our lives.

I have done similar events with big stars many times before – one-on-ones with Ian Rankin and Harlan Coben, panel sessions with Sarah Dunant, Mark Billingham, Jeffrey Deaver and others. So I am calm. It’s just that one likes to have the format established beforehand – what will the mix be between reading, interview and audience questions?

One also likes to have a sense of the author, if only by email. The internet tells me that John Freeman is an American, 35, literary, bright and thoughtful. This could mean he is earnest, a bore. Can he talk? Not all authors can. Does he have a sense of humour? Not all authors do.

But Freeman has not replied to my emails. For the first time I haven’t a clue what the talent is like. So I am not calm at all. To be honest, I have the shakes. I have lunch with Kevin Ireland on Friday: he says, “I have never seen you like this,” and pours me a bottle of Coleraine, which helps a bit.

So I attend John Freeman’s earlier sessions at the festival. The first is on Saturday morning with Ben Naparstek of Oz mag The Monthly and Fergus Barrowman of VUP. Fergus is, as always, enviably relaxed and fluent; Naparstek is 23 and hence not so interesting but I am pleased that he says he wants to make his magazine less predictable. I loved it in its first two years when it was unpredictable and not doctrinaire but then – perhaps because Robert Manne took over – it got boring.

Anyway, I am watching John Freeman for clues. He is asked a question. His answer, the first words he utters at the festival: “I’d be a fucking moron if I did.”

Right, I think, we’re OK. Later, I meet him at the swell party he throws in the hotel bar and discover that not only does he say fuck but also he drinks, smokes and has a sense of humour. YES! He is one of us.

But I do not relax. At 1 a.m. (when a second whisky seems a good idea, I know I have had enough) I go upstairs and write my introduction for our session and a dozen questions and fall asleep about 2.30 a.m.

At 8.15 a.m. my mobile rings. The ringtone is invigorating, the opening bars of Frank Zappa’s “Willie the Pimp”: my wife is downstairs, having flown in after last night’s dairy industry awards in Rotorua.

Showtime. 2.30 p.m. Once one is on-stage the nerves drop away and one is in the moment. So despite the fiddly nature of the microphone headsets, John and I chat away like two relaxed people. Yeah, right. But it’s like sincerity – if you can fake that, you can fake anything.

What strikes me is that the book is promoted as being about email but it isn’t. Most of it is a history of communications with much fascinating detail, e.g, how newspapers went daily only after the invention of the telegraph, which enabled instant reporting from overseas. The last chapter has a 10-step programme for managing your email addiction – it is all useful and sensible stuff, though I wonder now if this was the publisher’s idea because the penultimate chapter, “Manifesto for a Slow Communication Movement”, is the main deal.

I read out a short passage from this chapter which I hope John won’t mind me using here:
We will die, that is certain; and everyone we have ever loved and cared about will die, too, sometimes – heartbreakingly – before us. Being someone else, travelling the world, making new friends gives us a temporary reprieve from this knowledge, which is spared most of the animal kingdom. Busyness numbs the pain of this awareness, but it can never totally submerge it. Given that our days are limited, our hours precious, we have to decide what we want to do, what we want to say, what and who we care about, and how we allocate our time to these things within the limits that do not and cannot change. In short, we need to slow down.
John is not interested in talking about how to manage your inbox but he is very interested in talking about this slow communication, along the lines of the Slow Food movement, and how face-to-face contact, or just a phone call, is vastly better than Facebook. The book is really about how we should live.

It is great getting him to talk about this deeper stuff, just as Rick Gekoski talks about death and philosophy in his session afterwards.

Later, I wish I had remembered this quote from Dr Johnson, that “a book should teach us to enjoy life or to endure it”. Shrinking the World is presented as the latter type of book but I think it is the former.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Cambridge Edition letter of the month

Today’s issue of our local weekly, the Cambridge Edition, has this heartfelt plea (not online):
To the person who stole our beloved pet sheep from our property on [insert address two streets away from mine] on Saturday night or early Sunday morning, can we please have him back.

Monty was like a member of our family. He used to come inside and watch TV with us and we miss him so much. If anybody knows anything about Monty’s disappearance, please could they contact us. We will give a reward for information leading to Monty’s return.
Yes, we would all like to have our pet sheep inside with us while we watch TV. As a family.

I wonder what his favourite programme was. Country Calendar, perhaps. Probably nothing from the Food Channel. Any suggestions?

PS the picture above is from this deeply weird story in – you guessed! – the Daily Mail.

Al Gore, design maven

The Huffington Post reports:
Al and Tipper Gore have picked up a $8.875M luxury getaway in Montecito, CA; a swanky zip code that has attracted big name residents like Oprah Winfrey, Steve Martin, and Kirk Douglas. Records show that the approximately 6,500 sq. foot home boasts 6 bedrooms, 9 bathrooms, a large pool house, 6 fireplaces, wood framed french doors, and carved stone detailing throughout. Check out the slideshow and see what you think: tacky or tasteful.
The photos aren’t very clear in the slideshow – they are much better at the source of the story, The Real Estalker. One comment there suggests that this is not in fact the Gores’ new residence, but no one at the Gore-friendly Huffington Post thinks so. And they would know.

But what strikes me is not the arguable hypocrisy (six fireplaces) but the lamentable taste, inside and out. Vulgar, or what?

If I had $US 8.875 million I could do a lot better than this. I’d choose one of my architect friends – Jane Aimer, Patrick Clifford, Marshall Cook, David Mitchell and Julie Stout, or Malcolm Walker – to design me something for a fraction of that, and get my wife to decorate it. And it would so not be in Montecito.

Swallowing a dead rat

James Jeffrey, Strewth columnist for the Australian, writes in this week’s Spectator Diary that he attended a swimsuit parade at Rosemount Australian Fashion Week in Sydney and became depressed at the sight of so many “malnourished creatures with dead expressions” on the catwalk:
I eventually leave, dispirited but filled with an urge to nourish something, anything, so I go home, thaw the biggest rat in my freezer (under the ice cream, next to the peas), and feed my python. This is not a euphemism.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Karl Popper at the Auckland Writers’ Festival

On Friday I drive to Auckland for the 2010 Auckland Writers’ and Readers’ Festival where I am to perform. On arrival at the venue I meet Denis Dutton of Arts & Letters Daily and Canterbury University’s philosophy department. We spend a pleasant half-hour talking about philosophy of science, specifically the great Karl Popper who was at Canterbury from 1937 to, I think, 1946 and wrote The Open Society and its Enemies there. We also talk briefly about Paul Feyerabend, who taught philosophy of science at Auckland University in 1972: I attended his lectures and was impressed not just by him – he was a wonderful, invigorating man who must have changed many more lives and minds than just mine – but also by the way he scored the most beautiful student in the room within about five seconds.

I say to Denis, “I had no idea there was such a thing as a philosophy groupie.”

He says, possibly wistfully, possibly not, “We don’t get a lot of that at Canterbury.”

Just before I leave I attend Rick Gekoski’s session on Sunday afternoon. He gives good anecdote but, as he tells me later, does not want to be boxed in to telling anecdotes, which is what he is famous for. He does that, but spends a while talking about death, Wittgenstein and – in a pleasing symmetry – Karl Popper. He is good on Wittgenstein and gives the best brief and accurate account of Popper’s concept of falsification as being central to the scientific enterprise I have ever heard. It is a fabulous performance that takes its audience seriously and is both the funniest and deepest session I have seen in all my years of attending the festival.

In between Denis and Rick, I have my own hour-long session with Granta editor John Freeman about his book Shrinking the World. That story will have to wait for the next post.

Patrick Evans, the glamour years

The latest newsletter from the International Institute of Modern Letters (14 May) reports:
VUP is about to announce the forthcoming publication of a new novel, his first in 21 years, by Patrick Evans, Professor of English at Canterbury University. We understand that there is a clause in Evans’s contract confirming his long-held belief that all VUP authors, especially IIML graduates, have to pass a beauty test when their manuscript is accepted. Apparently the wording runs something like this:

19. The author shall undergo, at the author’s own expense, a standard makeover, comprising a physical training programme with a licensed instructor, a new wardrobe purchased from approved fashion retailers, hair extensions, and any other measures which in the publisher’s opinion are necessary.

The word is that, like so many before him, the desperate author has signed his contract. We recommend that all suggestions for Professor Evans’s improvement programme be sent directly to Professor Ken Strongman who, as Pro-Vice Chancellor (Arts) at the University of Canterbury, ‘granted me the leave and funding that enabled completion of this project’.
I had forgotten about Evans’s Listener article on NZ lit’s “spectacular babies” and, more specifically, its spectacular babes. It is, perhaps unintentionally, a hoot.

Critter of the month

Behold, Nephrurus amyae, better known as the rough knob-tailed gecko.

Obviously, it is Australian.

Monday, May 17, 2010

I am podcast, hear me roar

VUP publisher Fergus Barrowman, Taranaki Daily News reviewer Abbie Jury and I were on Nine to Noon this morning with Lynn Freeman talking about the recent rash of plagiarism in New Zealand books; the podcast is here.

I hadn’t heard any of the discussion before I got my first question so I’m not sure how much sense I made, but the other two were just fine. And also bear in mind that Fergus and I were, possibly still are, a bit shell-shocked after performing at the Auckland Writers’ and Readers’ Festival at the weekend. The party on Saturday night that lasted till 2 a.m. didn’t help either.

I’ll try to do a post-festival post later.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

What I’m reading

Chad Taylor on how to write a novel. Trust me, but especially trust him, it’s harder than it looks. As perhaps this shows.

Eric Crampton at Offsetting Behaviour has a doozy on copyright.

The Fundy Post has been blogging a bit about architecture: now he fails to swell with civic pride.

BK Drinkwater has a new job which seems to preclude much blogging, but here he covers the intersection between maths and politics, i.e. the fairness of voting systems. FPP isn’t fair. Well, who knew? Money quote in the Tim Gowers paper he cites:
Now a commonplace in probabilistic combinatorics is that the binomial distribution is highly concentrated about its mean.
Oh, go on, it’s easy enough to follow and you’ll probably like the conclusion.

Andrea Donderi ponders the middle ground between “Fuck you” and “Welcome” here. There is a further discussion here, elaborating the distinction between Ask culture and Guess culture.

Sentence of the day

It defeats the whole purpose of an elephant, but in such an awesome way.
You so want to read the rest of this. You may do so here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dead ducks deluxe

The only good thing to come out of me having to go to Auckland this weekend for the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival is . . .

Well, no, there are a few good things. I get to have lunch on Friday with Kevin Ireland and Bernard Brown. Later that night, or maybe Saturday, I get to air-kiss the Listener lovelies Sarah Sandley (publisher) and Pamela Stirling (editor). I also get to go to an exclusive party with William Dalrymple, Rick Gegoski, Thomas Keneally, David Levithan, Yiyun Li, Lionel Shriver, Sarah Thornton and Colm Toibin plus a couple of locals. Yes, I know. Why me?

The host of the party is John Freeman, the editor of Granta. John and I are to do a one-hour session on Sunday about his excellent book Shrinking the World about how email is ruining our lives. Amusingly, or possibly ironically (what would Alanis say?), he does not respond to my emails attempting to find out how he would like the session to go. I’d quite like to know how I am supposed to spend an hour on stage with a total stranger. Ian Rankin wasn’t like this. Nor were Sarah Dunant, Jeffrey Deaver, Harlan Coben or Mark Billingham. It’s a good thing I’m a musician and used to busking it. So, no pressure.

Anyway, apart from that the only good thing to come out of me having to go to Auckland this weekend for the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival is that, because my wife is away too, her parents are coming up from Feilding to look after the children. And because it is duck-shooting season they will bring a duck. A dead duck. A cleaned and gutted dead duck, fortunately.

I have no idea what to do with a dead duck – I have cooked all sorts of strange things including kangaroo, but never a duck – but on Sunday night I will fire up the last barbie of the year and deal to it. An orange up its bum and whack it on the grill? All suggestions are welcome, especially if your name is Lauraine, Ray or Annabel.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Elvis lives!

Unfortunately the story in today’s Waikato Times does not quite live up to the billboard.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Peter Bland on Bill Manhire

The 12th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is an April 1996 review by Peter Bland of Bill Manhire’s retrospective collection Sheet Music: Poems 1967-1982 and new collection My Sunshine.

These are Manhire’s before-and-after volumes, everything that leads up to Milky Way Bar (1991) and the new work since. It’s been difficult to get hold of Manhire’s previous collections – particularly Good Looks (1982) and Zoetropes (1984), which contain much of the best of the earlier work – so this new amalgamation of his first five books is nicely judged. The title Sheet Music gives a clue on how to read him (the poem as musical score as much as, and probably more, than dramatised speech).

Milky Way Bar
was, for my money, the best single collection of New Zealand poetry since Curnow’s An Incorrigible Music back in 1979 (another title that puts the emphasis on the poem as a spoken score). In Sheet Music we can follow Manhire pulling back from the lyric in close-up (mostly love poems) into an increasingly canny, fictional approach. The early poems have a Chinese quality, opaque and nicely turned, with a feeling for direct statement such as one finds in the Americans James Wright and Robert Bly:
When we touch,
forests enter our bodies.

The dark wind shakes the branch.
The dark branch shakes the wind.
Manhire writes (somewhere) that he hasn’t been interested in the Americans since about 1972, but he comes away from them with a liking for a looser, more flexible line and a feeling for pauses almost as good as Pinter’s. I suspect too, from re-reading some of his reviews, that he gets more from a close reading of earlier New Zealand modernists than most of us would have the patience and/or insight to uncover.

As a New Zealander he’s someone who lives “at the edge of the universe,/ like everyone else” without getting particularly het-up about it. The New Zealandness of his writing is witty and indisputable, but he doesn’t carry it around like a weight on his back, a curse on his ancestry, or as an elitist excuse for exhibiting particular spiritual values. New Zealand is where he belongs but his “whole pleasure is in the inconspicuous... the important thing!”

As he quotes from Sterne at the beginning of My Sunshine, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine. . . they are the life, the soul of reading.” And in the notes to Sheet Music, he writes that “these poems are strategies for discovery. They seem more and more to be fictions, elaborated out of the truth of this or that situation.” He has a light touch (a lovely speed of intellect) that unloads its discoveries with a sort of elegant surprise:
Highest, driest, coldest, windiest
continent, doubling its size in winter:
Emily’s gone to Antarctica.

All that red hair on the ice!
A number of younger (and talented) Wellington poets have tried to copy Manhire’s little emotional shifts but, mostly, they end up looking fey, coy or deprived of subject. Manhire’s own strategies are always earthed in “concept”, i.e. Antarctica (as in Hoosh), Hirohito (we all know something about him), Isabella (and about her), An Amazing Week in New Zealand (Billy Graham and NZ in the 50s).

The variations, often autobiographical, he plays on such themes have led Manhire to successfully develop the longer poem – something you have to do if you’re going to stay in the game, increasingly surrounded by “poetic” prose-writers and magic realists.

In My Sunshine this development is Manhire’s major achievement. He seemed, until Hirohito, a minor master of the shorter lyric, someone who could polish-up direct statement until it shone. He still can, but now they’re the jewels cunningly set within more discursive explorations, as in this (from Isabella Notes): “A snuff-coloured moth/ an angelfish, a bear,/ grapes, red bay, a children’s game.”

Or, from Hoosh (in My Sunshine), this Antarctican banquet: “pony mixed with penguin/ mixed with whale, seal/ rissoles and the stewed paws/ of huskies.” Peter Greenaway, eat your heart out!

There’s just enough narrative left in these longer poems to make the story interesting, while the facts are cunningly mixed in with what he knows we know about the mythologies of each occasion so that, increasingly, these longer poems work on several levels, playfully leaving the reader with plenty to do.

Manhire’s poems are about. . . “samples and traces/ stuff from the core / to take home and question / and even then perhaps / not quite be sure.”

New Zealand poets are not supposed to be this elegant, funny or outward-looking! Political correctness, an earnest social conscience and/or a penchant for public ranting are surely more the order of the day. This is scandalously entertaining stuff, beautifully crafted, often moving in its autobiographical and family recollections.

The VRWC in Wellington

I am invited to a Friday meeting of the VRWC in Wellington. It is a personal invitation, exclusive to me and the handful of others who read Kiwiblog. I take with me two of my fellow judges of the NZ Post Book Awards, as we have finished today’s meeting to decide the fate of all other New Zealand authors this year.

The big flat screen on the wall of the Malthouse in Courtenay Place shows live BBC coverage of the UK election. So exciting: David Farrar is blogging live. There is an absolute hush so that we do not disturb The Master.

Actually, no. At 2 p.m. the Malthouse is packed and raucous. (I know I have asked this before, but does anyone still work in Wellington?) A reporter from Radio NZ is desperately trying to find English people to comment. There are a few but they are all too shoutingly drunk to make sense. I am not sure but I think that my fellow judges, both distinguished authors, are quietly appalled at the spectacle.

I introduce myself to David Farrar, who graciously pretends to know who I am. We have a mutual friend, one of the Hollow Men. I say, “Our mutual friend [insert name of Hollow Man] will be here soon!” Farrar nods and turns back to his laptop. Who says men can’t multi-task? The guy can watch TV, follow news websites, blog, drink responsibly and be interviewed by Radio NZ all at once.

We watch the humiliation of Gordon Brown, the smarminess of David Cameron, the “I am not either of them” appeal of Nick Clegg.

My friend [insert name of Hollow Man] arrives. We watch the massive humiliation of both Gordon Brown and, surprisingly, Nick Clegg, and the humbling of David Cameron. We all cheer or groan as the results come in. Everyone in the room is passionate about politics – I am inside the beltway! This is the life!

And then common sense asserts itself. We are in Wellington. This is not the life. This is not the life at all. My fellow judges and I make our excuses and go to the airport where, in the Wild At Heart lounge, we watch the Sky News coverage (much more entertaining than the BBC’s) in peace, comfort and a modicum of style.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The UK election

PopBitch writes:
This Cleggmania thing is all very well, but we remember when the Liberals had a properly newsworthy leader. Back in the 1970s Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe was accused of trying to have his secret gay lover, Norman Scott, assassinated. While Scott was out walking his Great Dane, Rinka, someone fired a shot at him, but the bullet missed and hit the dog. Thorpe was acquitted of conspiracy to murder.
Ah yes, those were the days. My friend Clara’s uncle Alexander Chancellor’s friend Auberon Waugh (I have the Private Eye/Spitting Image portrait of him hanging on my office wall, thanks to Chris Slane) stood against Thorpe in 1979 on the Dog-Lovers’ Party ticket.

Waugh wrote a book about Thorpe, The Last Word. I lent it to a friend 30 years ago and have not seen it since. I’d quite like to have it back. And also Waugh’s 1969 heart-rending account (with Suzanne Cronje) of the Nigerian civil war, Biafra, Britain’s Shame. The moral: never lend a book, and especially not two to the same person.


After the eruption at Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano in Iceland that few of us had heard of before and none of us can pronounce, there has been some good media coverage of our chances of meeting magma. The chances are higher than we would like, really. Especially if you live in Iceland, but also here in New Zealand.

The excellent Paul Gorman, one of the few New Zealand journalists to have a science background, writes about the likelihood of Taupo erupting again in today’s Your Weekend magazine which comes with the Waikato Times and, I assume, the Press and Dom-Post. (It is not online but it is well worth buying a Fairfax Saturday paper for. Excellent graphics, too.)

As he says, the Taupo eruption in about 180 AD, which ejected 120 cu km of material, was the fifth biggest eruption of the last million years. The Oruanui eruption in about 24,500 BC, which created the lake, was the second biggest and ejected 1170 cu km of material. (To put this in perspective, the famous Krakatoa eruption of 1883 ejected 25 cu km of material; Mount St Helens in 1980 ejected 1.2 cu km; Ruapehu in 2007 ejected 0.001 cu km.) The third biggest eruption, says Gorman, was Whakamaru in 252,000 BC which ejected 1100 cu km, but I can’t find much online about it apart from this and this.

Anyway, the money quote in today’s story is from volcanologist Gill Jolly:
If we had something the size of the [180 AD] Taupo or the Oruanui eruption [24,500 BC, and the world’s second-largest in the last million years], I wouldn’t want to be this side of Auckland really.
I am so glad we have friends in Ngunguru we can flee to.

Last week in the Guardian, Simon Winchester, author of Krakatoa, had this to say:
There is perhaps no better recent example of the havoc that a big eruption can cause than that which followed the explosive destruction of Mt Toba, in northern Sumatra, some 72,000 years ago (which, in geological time, is very recent indeed). [. . .] On the widely used volcanic explosivity index (VEI), Toba is thought to have been an eight – meaning that in the unusually flamboyant official language of vulcanology it was a super-plinian type eruption with mega-colossal characteristics (Eyjafjallajökull is by contrast listed as a strombolian type, with its characteristic regarded as merely gentle, and having a probable VEI rating of just two). [. . .]

But others of the 47 known VEI-8 volcanoes are more alarmingly recent. Taupo in New Zealand erupted with mega-colossal force some 22,500 years ago. The newer of the great eruptions that helped form the mountains of today’s Yellowstone national park in Wyoming took place just 640,000 years ago, and all the current signs – from such phenomena as the rhythmic slow rising and falling of the bed of the Yellowstone river, as if some giant creature is breathing far below – suggest another eruption is coming soon. When it does, it will be an American Armageddon: all of the north and west of the continent, from Vancouver to Oklahoma City, will be rendered uninhabitable, buried under scores of feet of ash. (I mentioned this once in a talk to a group of lunching ladies in Kansas City, soothing their apparent disquiet by adding that by “soon” I was speaking in geologic time, and that meant about 250,000 years, by which time all humankind would be extinct. A woman in the front row exploded with a choleric and incredulous rage: “What?” she said. “Even Americans will be extinct?”)

Sentence of the week

Christopher Hitchens in a Vanity Fair excerpt from Hitch 22: A Memoir, on his friendship with Martin Amis:
My looks by then had in any case declined to the point where only women would go to bed with me.
The photo above is captioned (left to right): Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton, and Martin Amis at Sacré-Coeur, in Paris, 1979.

Two thoughts:

1. Hitchens has eaten more pies over the years than Amis. As has Fenton.

2. Stupidly I had never realised, despite reading many of his books, that Fenton was gay. In this photo the shoulder placement and shoe position say it all. D’oh.

Monitor: Penny Wise

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Weirdest NZ blogpost ever

I am looking forward to this party, mainly because it’s in Wellington.
Mind you, she does live in Christchurch.

The full story is here.

UPDATE: Rob Hosking points out in the comments below that this blogpost has been deleted. Baffling – it wasn’t any ruder than any of her others. Never mind – the whole blog is funny, so just go to the new post. Sample quote:
1. Tactfully
2. Cruelly
3. Naked and duct taped.

Felicity Ferret

Here at Quote Unquote we take a keen interest in gossip columns, even the non-literary ones. Cactus Kate alerts us to the dismal state of Metro’s once-splendid Felicity Ferret.

Disclosure: not only did I work for Metro but I also contributed material to the Ferret from about 1987 to 1993 when Judith Baragwanath, the wittiest woman in New Zealand (my idea of heaven is to be seated at dinner between her and Karyn Hay, with Hilary Barry opposite), was writing most of it. Sometimes Judith’s column was short; sometimes we’d sold too many ads so had an extra page or two to fill. James Allan and I were drafted in to help: we could never get the real Judith tone but we did get close, and after all this time it’s sometimes hard to tell the genuine from the fake. Though I bet Judith could.

My point is that I know how hard it is to write this stuff. Judith spent ages drafting and re-drafting; so did James and I. One wouldn’t call it art, but it is certainly craft.

Fast-forward to the April 2010 issue, which I bought but only because I’m in it (all of p122, now you’re asking). I didn’t read the Ferret column then but have now. The first par has a fuck in it. Later there is another fuck and the phrase “the audience came in their pants” in an item about William Dart not clapping very much at a concert. William is a very nice man, but does anyone care about how much he claps at a concert?

The latest column, which I read in the supermarket today, has three fucks on one page, two of them in the same item, as seen on Cactus’s post (click on the image and maybe get your browser to zoom in a bit). We all like the occasional fuck, but there is a time and a place, yes? Call me old-fashioned, but if you have to swear a lot you’re probably as funny as Mike King, i.e. not.

Apart from the vocabulary issues, there is a bafflingly gay-porn item about a Colin Mathura-Jeffree-flavoured ice-cream.

Metro has changed in lots of good ways since I was there – step forward, former editor Nicola Legat – but the Ferret now is just weird. Worse, it isn’t funny. Fine to change the tone – absolutely right to do so – but why keep the name? It’s like passing off New Coke as the real thing.

Cactus Kate reckons that the column is now written by the entity she dubs Wendyttle, i.e. Wendyl Nissen and Paul Little. It seems unlikely – wouldn’t it be better? Most of the items are taken from radio/TV/newspapers, and those that aren’t are about the media. Whoever is writing this stuff doesn’t get out much, or as much as Judith, James and I used to.

Also, he or she is too old. The target demographic might have changed but it used to be 36. In the April column there are references to Bo Derek, Bert Potter and Michal McKay. In the May issue there’s Angela D’Audney, PG Wodehouse, Errol Flynn and the 1966 BBC TV drama Cathy Come Home. Who under 50 or even 60 will get these references?

I say it isn’t Paul Little writing this, it’s Garth George, moonlighting from the Herald.

UPDATE: For those curious to know what she looks like, Cactus Kate has posted a photo of herself. Rather fetching, I must say.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What I’m reading

David Thompson explains why “an estimated 98% of humanities scholarship goes uncited or unread” with a superb example.

More evidence for the Stratford Theory of Numbers is here. (Except that my theory is about journalists, and I don’t know of any journalist who would know their P value from their elbow.)

Chad Taylor
likes Iron Man 2; Deborah Ross doesn’t.

The Fundy Post has a go at corporate bollocks-speak.

And as always Allie at Today is My Birthday! is funny.

Actually what I’m really reading is, tonight, Helen Palmer’s 1961 classic A Fish Our of Water to my children, plus John Freeman’s excellent Shrinking the World (I’m chairing a session with him at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival next week, so I have to read it twice – no hardship, honest) and also the entire shortlist – all 16 titles – for the 2010 NZ Post Book Awards. In a matter of days we five judges will be making our selections of the winners in the four categories: general non-fiction, illustrated non-fiction, fiction and poetry. We will be locked in a small room in Wellington until we have finished. It could take five minutes; it could take five hours.

Either way I will need a large drink afterwards. And then, quite possibly, another one.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Chad Taylor in 1995

The 11th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is a May 1995 interview with novelist Chad Taylor by Denis Edwards. The photo is by Kendal Simich.

Chad Taylor is living the dream of everyone who decided they were going to write fiction. His work is getting published, almost as fast as it flows from his word processor. By mid-year three books by him will have appeared in the last two years. First was a novel, Heaven. Then there was a novella, Pack Of Lies. A short-story collection, The Man Who Wasn’t Feeling Himself, is due out this month.

That’s success with a capital S. He is set on more of the same, having taken care to cut away everything which could interfere with the writing process. He works as a graphic designer at the Auckland City Art Gallery. “I sit in front of a computer all day, working with Pagemaker and stuff.” If he could afford it that would go too, in favour of writing fiction all day

Being interviewed takes time and energy which could be better used on writing. He is reluctant when a profile is suggested. Backing and filling over suitable times and places takes place. Finally the meeting is set for about the only time it can work.

It isn’t perfect. Taylor is a bit worried. He is going to be talking to a journalist, into a tape recorder and having his words written down, and it’ll be happening at the low point of his day, six in the evening on a Thursday. He isn’t worried about the Thursday part. It’s the six in the evening that’s the worry. That’s when the 30-year-old Taylor tends to be in a “lull period when I’m not really ready for anything. That’s usually when I get a bit of rest.”

He looks as if he could do with it. He looks tired and pale. But after a small pizza and a Steinlager at a small parlour not far from his home near the spectacular mosque dominating the stretch of Balmoral Road between Dominion and Sandringham Road, his blood sugar begins picking up. By the time the interview ends, about three quarters of an hour later, his guarded defensiveness has lightened and he’s becoming more amiable.

His “lull” is after he finishes his job at the gallery. Later, probably around 9.30pm, he starts writing, either on his next novel – he is 60,000 words in and expects to double it before starting aggressive editing – or one of the two film scripts he is moving through the booby-trap littered process of scene breakdown, development and endless drafts. One is a version of Heaven. Midnight Films bought the rights and hired him to do the script; he’s at the second draft stage.

That’s good news for Taylor. It’s a sign he has the skill and talent to stay on the project. Film-making is famed as the toughest area for writers: if his first draft had missed the target, someone else would have picked up the ball for the second draft – if indeed it had gone ahead at all.

Taylor has been getting those sorts of thumbs-up signals since 1989. He’d done a lot of journalism, writing for a swatch of magazines like Rip It Up, Shake and Cha Cha. It paid his way through Auckland University, from which he emerged with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and part of a BA. Then one day he put eight stories into an envelope and posted them off to publisher Brick Row. Four connected. He did as writers do, and immediately began pounding out more stories. That got him what writers get, a drawerful of rejection letters.

Those have stopped, or if they are still coming he’s getting more acceptances than “Thank you for letting us see this but we regret. . .”, as he has been in almost every short-story collection of recent times. And that has brought the media. So far Taylor has done interviews for a dairy-counterful of magazines and newspapers.

The Herald was keen to find out if his first name is really Chad (it is), or whether it was something he acquired along the way. Once he wound up clutching the microphone to help a technology-challenged reporter capture the Taylor thoughts.

“If I had my way I wouldn’t do these things, but you have to. It is easily the best way to promote your book. Once this one is out there won’t be anything coming out for a while, and I can go back to getting on with the writing again.”

Before he drops out of sight he is braced for a fuss over the new book. It has a lot of explicit sex, delivered in a coolly clinical prose. Are we talking personal experience here? He’ll put his hand up for the coolly clinical part. “I tend to be very efficient.”

What about all that sex? “Not necessarily. I think that if you are a writer of fiction you go out and make it up. I don’t use people I know as models for my characters for the same reason. If you are going to write fiction you might as well make them up. Besides, it makes you stretch as a writer.”

He might be both stretching and working hard as a writer. Don’t look for him to be doing either in the writing whanau. This is a self-contained man, one who sails his own boat and who intends to keep it that way. “I probably don’t hang out at the right places and stuff. I don’t bother with writers’ societies and things, because what do you talk about? You are either writing or you aren’t. If you are, then you get on with it.

“I think there is this fantasy that people think there is somewhere they belong. That’s why they go along to writers’ groups. I don’t think there is anywhere where you belong. There is just you, and that’s it. So you have to get on with things the way they are. For me that means writing.

“Besides, those people aren’t there when I start writing at night. And they aren’t there at two in the morning and you are looking at what you’ve done and you think ‘Hey, that’s pretty good.’ There is just you. That’s how it is.”

That was just one of several references he makes to his keeping complete control of the work, and of the loneliness being part of the life needed to produce it. “Yes, when it comes to my writing I am a control junkie. I tend to take the view that if someone wants to edit my fiction they might be better off going and writing their own book.”

And the loneliness? “I’m not in a relationship, which makes it a bit of a monastic life at the moment. I’m not into sports or anything. In fact I can never understand why people play them. Writing’s the main thing.

“I have never sorted out whether you write because you are isolated, or whether you make yourself isolated so you have the time and space to write. I think because you end up on your own a lot, people think you are naturally isolated.”

That theme, the outsider and the isolated, goes back a long way for Taylor. He is from Manurewa, which by any measure is hardly Writing Central. He remains an outsider, living in Balmoral, far from the Auckland suburbs where the locals have got used to wading through writers en route to a cafe table: Ponsonby, Mount Eden, Devonport.

Parts of Manurewa could easily have been the set for Once Were Warriors. “I lived there until I went off to university. I’d quite happily walk through central Auckland at night, but there is no way I’d go through Manurewa on foot. No way.”

Manurewa also has a large middle-class section. Taylor is from this end of the Manurewa spectrum, although he isn’t keen to discuss this, and so ends any “working-class lad from South Auckland hell rising the literary ladder” story angles. He has a brother and sister. His parents saved to make it possible for him to bypass the local secondary schools and catch the bus north to Otahuhu, to Kings College. He “hated school”. That’s as much biographical stuff as is on offer.

There is at least one good memory of Manurewa: “It had a brilliant picture theatre and I used to love to go there. They’d have a western in the morning and something like Godzilla in the afternoon and then a Hitchcock movie.”

He quickly sorted out, even from the age of seven or so, that films had a script, that there was a construction and that the people on screen weren’t making it up as they went along. “Later on I found out what everyone else did, the director, photography and editing and so on. Except the producer. I never knew what they did. I still don’t.”

He has learned enough to have a script made into a short movie, Chris Graves’ Funny Little Guy – and he stays in film mode when writing fiction. “I try to approach whatever I am doing as if it were a movie. I am always asking myself whether I can shift the angles, the points of view, so I can see things from a different angle. I think it works.”

Films are about as close as Taylor gets to admitting influences. He seems to have none in particular and everyone in general. For instance, one of the books he is reading, for recreation, is Dracula, the Bram Stoker original. “That story is amazing. It just races along, right from the start. I’d forgotten how good it is.”

It’s getting on time to go. It’s 7pm, or close to it. Taylor is going back to his writing, to what sounds like an extraordinarily lonely life, one where everything is being bet on a single roll of the dice: success as a writer. “I think that’s what you have to do, make time for writing. I still don’t know where I get the time, but I do, so that’s all right. People have been pretty good. No one has really attacked me in a review or anything. I guess that’ll happen one day, but so far it’s been fine.”

With that he is off round the corner, towards home, and more writing.

UPDATE: Fifteen years later, Chad responds.

A new literary genre

My wife has invented a new literary genre – or at least a new name for a familiar one.

We had a friend from Auckland to stay for the weekend – I think he was hoping that I would take him duck shooting, as Saturday was the start of the season, but this year I’m not going.

He is a books person and was trying to describe a new book he had for review. “It isn’t chick lit,” he said, “more for women readers who are a bit older than that. They would read Paullina Simons, Nicholas Sparks, Jenny Pattrick. You know.”

My wife said, “You mean, chook lit?”