Friday, July 30, 2010

Unintended consequences and carbon emissions

The Glasgow Herald reports:
A report by Transport Scotland, the £2 billion organisation responsible for rail and trunk roads, found that travel-related carbon dioxide emissions by staff had increased by 3% over two years, despite its goal of an 8% decrease.

It blamed a sharp increase in flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow to London to attend meetings for producing an extra CO² in staff business travel in the two years to November 2008.
Monitor: Raedwald

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chris Carter sentence of the evening

Mr Carter said that he was glad people knew it was him who sent the letter.
So why didn’t he sign it?

Tosser.

In praise of: Iain Sharp

This is probably of no interest to anyone but me and Iain Sharp, but someone at a US social media site called StumbleUpon has recommended Iain’s article on James K Baxter from the August 1994 issue of the magazine, republished on the blog here.

I don’t know what the recommendation says because to see it I would have to sign up to StumbleUpon and frankly Facebook is bad enough. If any reader has signed up and can tell me, I’d be grateful.

Anyway, as a result hits on the blog have gone through the roof. Not very far through the roof, which is close to the ground, but still noticeably. It got 284 unique visitors and 471 page views on Tuesday, and 342 unique visitors and 383 page views on Wednesday and it looks as if it will do something similar today. Readership is building gradually over time but 200 visitors is a good result – so 342 is awesome.

The really nice thing is that the piece has been recommended to a whole new overseas audience – who are in Kent, Washington; Boulder, Colorado; Saint Paul, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; San Antonio, Texas; and a whole bunch of other song-related places. Plus Melbourne.

They read it too – three or four minutes minimum, anyway. Sometimes much more, never less. And some of them stay to look at articles from the magazine on other New Zealand authors such as Alan Duff, CK Stead, Frank Sargeson, Chad Taylor and so on.

Which was the whole point of starting the blog. As the six-year-old would say, “Yay.”

Sentence of the day

Also included were university textbooks for his daughter, pornographic videos for his son, plastic surgery for his wife, a burial plot for his mother, prostitutes for his employees, and, for him, a $100,000 American-flag belt buckle encrusted with rubies, sapphires and diamonds.
The full story is here.

Monitor: Marginal Revolution

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Quote of the day

In this Guardian story which begins “Students and academics at Oxford are angry that their university has accepted more than £3m from a foundation established by a founder of the controversial oil trading company Trafigura”:
Adam Bouyamourn, a second-year politics, philosophy and economics student at Worcester College, said: “Surely it is socially, if not globally, irresponsible to provide this tacit endorsement of Trafigura’s business practices?”
Tim Worstall comments:
Cash the cheque and use it to educate people. It’s the education that counts, not where the money came from. . . For example, a philosophy student should know that the correct answer to any question which begins “surely” is “no”. An economics student should know that the source of funding is irrelevant, it’s the use to which it will be put that is important. And a politics student should already know that posturing, while being the very essence of politics, does require not checking the dentures of gift horses too closely.
Monitor: Penny Wise

Cows, the prequel

I was in Auckland today for a meeting with Very Important People from publishing. On the way home, alerted by HomePaddock to the start of the season’s lambing and calving, I was looking out for the new-borns. And somewhere between Taupiri and Gordonton I passed a paddock with a calf that must have been born just minutes before. It was tiny, hunched on the ground, glistening wet and still with placenta-type stuff around it. The mother was standing close by, watching her. (And yes, she was a Friesian.)

I have never seen anything like it. If I could have stopped to observe a while and take a photo, I would have. But I was on a mission – I had to be at the daughter’s netball practice by 4 p.m. So, sorry, no cow photo this time.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The 2010 NZ Post Book Awards

Guy Somerset’s story in the 3 July issue of the Listener on this year’s NZ Post Book Awards, what used to be the Montana Book Awards, is now online here. It’s all about me, which is great, but I wonder if the Stratford Theory of Numbers kicks in:
adult fiction accounted for only 6.1% of New Zealand-published books sold last year, compared with non-fiction’s 70.9%, according to Nielsen BookScan.
I thought that 6.1% seemed low as a proportion of “New Zealand-published books sold last year” so, ever-sceptical about numbers in print, I asked Guy for his sources. He supplied them and I’m sure he won’t mind me sharing them with you. I can’t reproduce here the table from Nielsen BookScan as it won’t copy over from the email and it would take me half an hour to build a bloggable table, but what it says in the first row is that “share of total NZ market” in “NZ-published (all categories)” books is 18.8% by volume. Well, that puts all us NZ authors in our place.

In the second row, we learn that NZ-published fiction is 6.1% “share of NZ-published” and 5% “share of total fiction market”. Well, that puts all us NZ fiction authors in our place.

In the third row we learn that NZ-published non-fiction is 70.9% “share of NZ-published” and 34.7% “share of non-fiction market”. Which is good news for us NZ non-fiction authors. But.

But these data include children’s books – not just Margaret Mahy and Lynley Dodd but readers and textbooks – so what do they say about adult books? There may be a clue in the PDF from Nielsen BookScan which Guy passed on. I can’t hack the diagrams from it – as if I would. Honestly, copyright! – but what they say, diagrammatically, is that the split of the three major subject categories in the New Zealand retail book market as a percentage of all book sales is:

Non-fiction: 36%
Children’s: 39%
Fiction: 25%

Which sounds right. Children’s the biggest, non-fiction the second biggest and fiction the smallest but not small.

Whatever. Guy’s interpretation is probably right as it stands but may be misleading as it may conflate the adults’ and children’s markets. He admits to being confused, and so do I. But the point is – or I think it is – that non-fiction is about 50% more of the market than fiction. That is, we buy twice as many adult non-fiction books as we do adult fiction, and it seems this is as true of NZ books as it is of international ones. Which may go some way to justifying the new regime in the NZ book awards of having more non-fiction than fiction titles short-listed.

I can’t get into a discussion about this until 28 August, the day after the book awards are announced and I am off the leash, but you can.

Monitor: IIML Twitter

UPDATE: I’ve done quite a bit of research on this with publishers and booksellers, even market researchers, and Guy’s figures are right. I thought they would be, because he is good (he comments below), but I was not certain how to interpret them. That 6.1% is absolutely accurate, so in my view the correct interpretation is to be very depressed about the market for New Zealand fiction.

More on this later.

Cows, the sequel

Quote Unquote’s greatest hit: after the front page, currently the most visited page is this, the one about cows. Hey, let’s give the readers what they want. Here are some more cows. Not Friesians this time – I don’t know what breed they are because after Friesians and Jerseys I have pretty much exhausted my bovine repertoire. However, these ones are black/brown and they dance. The film-maker comments:
No cows were harmed during the making of this video, though their future prospects probably aren’t as optimistic.

Carroll du Chateau on Alan Duff

The 17th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the May 1994 issue.

The intro read:
The film of his first novel, Once Were Warriors, is released this month; his latest novel, State Ward, is a bestseller. You’d think he’d be a happy man. Carroll du Chateau talks to Alan Duff.
AGGRO CULTURE
Alan Duff is on his guard. Last time his name appeared in Quote Unquote (“Considering Alan Duff’ by Nigel Cox, August) he thinks he was shafted. This time he’s not taking any chances. “I’m not talking about family, nothing,” he says in a slightly menacing, defensive growl. He’s medium-sized with a stocky strong frame and slightly hunched shoulders. The kind of guy, like Jake Heke the antihero of Once Were Warriors, who can look after himself in a fight.
“I’ve a message to people,” he begins. “But it’s to all people. You’ll recall that the guy in One Night Out Stealing, Jude McColl, was a white guy. And he was a rapist. So why do people never, ever say, you’ve also got a message for Pakeha people. Charles Dickens had a message, didn’t he? It was anti-poverty. I’m anti-poverty of spirit.”
By anyone’s standards Duff is a difficult interview. Of the 21 questions I’ve prepared he’ll only answer about half because he considers he’s been given a hard time by the press. Partly he’s right. There have been times when he’s been needlessly savaged. But on the other hand Duff can be so thin-skinned he considers even intellectual discussion of his work as attack.
Already his light brown shirt, worn with blue jeans and leather brogues, is blotched with sweat after a run-in with a politically correct teacher at Northcote College down the road. (“That guy hijacked the entire meeting – we didn’t talk about Warriors – nothing. I said to him, ‘Mr Coogan, I’m telling you, right now, to your face, you hijacked that.’”)
Things like this happen to Duff all the time. Coogan, it turns out, is the same Phil Coogan who reviewed State Ward in the Herald and said Duff wrote it to pay his daughter’s private school fees. He appears to be strongly opposed to Duff’s political stance and although on sabbatical from his job as Northcote College’s head of English, made a special trip back from Gisborne to attend Duff’s speech to a seventh-form English class.
Half an hour later, Duff is ready to fight another round. But he’s jumpy. Every time he settles down and relaxes he’ll sight an imaginary trick in the question and up go the hackles. It’s a response of a man who’s lived most of his life attacking – or waiting to be attacked. However, he’s confident too. Between retorts he pats the dog, surveys the garden, talks about the curse of his ever-threatening waistline.
He settles into the sofa, shoulders hunched, mouth set and begins to yawn: “I only had two hours’ sleep last night.” When he’s away from his home in Hawkes Bay, Duff’s schedule is punishing. Last night was a session with Bob Jones (“he drove me to the airport”). Today there was Northcote College to be followed by an after-dinner speech at the Poenamo Tavern in Northcote. Tomorrow night is dinner with Douglas Myers.
But despite the rich white friends, Duff, a child who observed the spiritual poverty of lives like those featured in Once Were Warriors close-up, is no Uncle Tom. More likely the new friends whose names he drops so casually into the conversation are a by-product of his raw drive to do three things. One, write so brilliantly the literary fraternity will take him seriously. Two, push both Maori and Pakeha liberals into shaming Maoris into taking responsibility for their own actions and own families. Three, make sure his six children, from the eldest boy who is studying law at Victoria in Wellington to the two youngest girls from his second marriage, get all the help (excellent education, help with homework, attention) so many Maori kids are denied.
For all his reticence it’s important to place Alan Duff, the writer, in his landscape – both literary and personal. Both his grandfather and grandmother were writers: “Grandad was the first editor of the Listener, editor of the Christchurch Press and wrote a couple of books.” His grandmother also wrote a novel and was a patron of Janet Frame’s: “In one book of Janet Frame’s there’s a photo of my grandmother, Jess Whitworth, with Janet.”
Duff’s own much-loved father, Gowan, who died two-and-a-half years ago, was a Pakeha research scientist. His mother, Kuia Hinau, a Maori woman. Although he won’t say much about either of them except to fiercely defend his father (“My father was wonderful – just a wonderful father – all my books are dedicated to him and always will be”), the dedication of Maori: The Crisis and the Challenge reads: “To my mother ‘Kuia’ Hinau, for her fearless individuality, her fire.”
Duff also had four brothers and one sister, Josie. One Night Out Stealing is dedicated to Josie and her husband Dee Walker. Kevin, his oldest brother, died in a car crash at 24. Nick, two years older than Alan, is a successful financial consultant: “Nick and his wife Pam have been a great influence on me – they’re wonderful parents, a good couple.”
So what sort of an upbringing did Duff have – the white middle-class life of a Pakeha scientist’s kids, or one filled with pubs, boozing, fighting and the marae? The answer is a bit of both. He was born at Ohinemutu just out of Rotorua and as a little boy dived for pennies at Whakarewarewa with his cuzzies. By 13 he was a state ward; a couple of years later he was in borstal from which he emerged “lost and confused” at 16. But at the same time, he had the background, the guts and the drive to pull himself back on track.
First he got a job as a sheet-metal worker: “That’s how I learned the work ethic, from my first boss.” Three years later he was working for himself and, at 20, was hooked on literature. “Nick gave me Gerard Manly Hopkins,” he remembers. From there he moved onto Faulkner, Doctorow, Selby, Steinbeck, Hemingway (“The English don’t do much for me”). And soon he was writing seriously himself.
“I’ve been having regular attempts at trying to get published since I was 28,” he says. “And I didn’t get published till I was 40 so it was a reasonably long apprenticeship.”
What made him carry on? “I don’t know why, I’m just driven,” he says. “I am, of course, a very competitive type. I want the world. . . But there’s a little bit of talent required too, eh?” he smiles.
By anyone’s standards, Alan Duff is one of the most successful writers in the country. Once Were Warriors was on the Booksellers New Zealand bestseller list 28 times and is thought to have sold some 30,000 copies. One Night Out Stealing made the list 12 times. Then there’s Maori: The Crisis And The Challenge, which sold out almost in days, and his latest, State Ward, which topped the bestseller list in March and, he says, sold 7000 copies before it was even published: “I think I’ve sold between 70 and 80,000 books including non-fiction. I’d like to add another nought on that.”
There’s also the bread-and-butter of his weekly column syndicated to 10 newspapers, the movie of Once Were Warriors which opens this month, the idyllic Hawkes Bay lifestyle most New Zealanders can only dream about, the dinners with millionaires, the speeches all over the country.
But still Duff is not satisfied. “I’d like to say that Maori: The Crisis And The Challenge is compulsory study at the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua,” he says, his eyes flashing. “Nigel Cox and Ranginui Walker are not the only opinions out there, despite holding themselves up as self-appointed oracles.”
Although he’s very different from Warriors’ Jake Heke – particularly in his attitudes to women, to whom he behaves with genuine respect and even deference – you can’t help wondering if what Duff wants is the kind of respect that Jake craves. Something much more primitive – and unattainable: “Jake’s bent elbow on the outer door with the sleeve rolled high to remind any might-bes and likelies what they were up against in terms of sheer muscle. . .”

Duff’s problem is that he wants to be taken more seriously as a writer, but his message gets in the way. It’s all too easy to overlook the painstaking effort and the brilliant technique that lets the narrative slide so effortlessly from the head of one character to another in Once Were Warriors.
“It’s always been the literature [that’s most important],” he says. “The message is almost incidental. I didn’t want to make a political message in Warriors, I just wanted to get published. The subject matter can only be what I know, and I didn’t go to university so how could I write about that sort of thing? The book is literature, literature, literature – period!”
The critics, for their part, complain that Duff can’t stop sermonising, even in his novels. And that his message is too heavy-handed. Duff explains his side of the argument in Maori: The Crisis And The Challenge: “They [the critics] were unsure because – amongst other, lesser reasons – they had been fed a diet of Maori as an oppressed race, a tragically misunderstood race of a colonised people; they had been saturated with media, with educative political correctness that the Maori could essentially do no wrong since he had been grossly wronged in the first place by the whites. A message of one-sided guilt, one-sided culpability, a message that was hammered and hammered from every angle, everywhere you went. Unsure, these white middle-class book reviewers because they had a belief they wanted to maintain of the Maori being a bit on the rough and tough side, sure, but still nice people.”
Maybe his second stumbling block is that because his books are so aggressive, chilling and relentlessly written, readers cannot help but be outraged. They also cannot separate the man from the writer. Listen to Once Were Warriors: “the parties raged all over Pine Block they raged, man. And people, every man and woman jack ofem, they were thinking this must be life because it is life, you know? But not yet, something not quite equating. Ah, but who gives a fuck? Drink up and be happy. And if you wanna fight go to it bro. Might even join you if it looks good. . . And the wives screaming, or taking their beatings in pain-grunting silence. Or the sexual without feeling. Or hatingim for it.”
The film version of Once Were Warriors will probably only exacerbate this problem. Translated onto the screen, the story of Jake Heke, wife Beth, family and whanau, achieves a brutality and solid-wall sordidness that will stun audiences up and down the country. And despite the fact that it wasn’t written by Duff and moves substantially away from his storyline, he will no doubt get the blame if it ignites another round in the anti-Maori backlash.

Even when he moves to the softer, child’s voice of State Ward, Duff still can’t win with the critics. “Then Mr Dekka handed Charlie folded pyjamas which had, to Charlie’s astonishment, a pair of slippers on top. . . The feel so unfamiliar and nice he almost forgot what had brought him to change in the first place. He just stood there turning, twisting his body this way and that to get the tingle of fluffiness and warmth against his skin; the aroma of cleanliness, nice-scented washing stuff still lingering on the blue-striped garments. Ahhh.”
Says Duff resignedly, “Those pyjamas’d cost what it costs to go to the pub and buy four jugs.”
lain Sharp reviewed the book in the Sunday Star-Times under a headline that snarled “Duff hammers his bullying short sermon”: “Written last year to be broadcast on National Radio, it reads like a very hasty job. . . a sloppy, predictable and disappointing book.”
Has success and criticism damaged Duff, the writer? Maybe. Since One Night Out Stealing, his career has had several major setbacks. His third novel, Dreamboat Dad, was rejected by Tandem Press, publisher of his first two novels – a slap in the face for any writer, let alone one as sensitive as Duff. Even though the publication date had been set, galleys ordered, probably even the author tour booked, the book couldn’t be salvaged.
“Realising it wasn’t good enough was awful. But, you know, even Michael Jones has an off-day,” Duff smiles ruefully. “If you chance your arm a bit – you try things and they don’t come off. So you’ve spent a year doing nothing and that’s how it goes.”
And what’s happened to the third novel now? Has he hawked it around other publishers? Is he attempting a rewrite? That’s not the Alan Duff style. “Do artists try and repaint their paintings or just throw them away and start another one?”
Then there was the knock-back of Riwia Brown being hired to take over the film script for Warriors. “I accept that doing books and scripts wouldn’t be the same. Now someone else has done the script and good luck to them. I gave them the springboard for the original screenplay. . .”
He acknowledges that there is a real difficulty in writing the internal voices of the book into a movie. “You can’t do it. They don’t do it.” And how does he feel about that now? “I accept the realities of the world.”
Duff is also stung by some of the criticism. When his name came up during a panel on Maori writing at last year’s Writers’ Week in Dunedin, someone – a Pakeha, naturally – shouted, “He’s not a real Maori.”
“I think it’s so pathetic. It doesn’t bother me,” says the clearly bothered Duff. “If I said to them, ‘Unless you sell over 10,000 copies of every book you’re not a real writer’, how would they feel?”
Later, with a great deal of pride, he explains that for the TV documentary on Maori: The Crisis And The Challenge, he’s going to be filmed on the marae speaking Maori. That, as he says, will surprise a few people.
So what about a little acclaim for the pugnacious Maori battler who has hauled himself from the wrong side of the tracks to do two things that no other New Zealanders have had the courage, talent or sheer determination to carry off?
First, Duff has exposed the Maori crisis and the challenge from the inside. Second, he is making a living – a good living at that – from writing books, not an easy thing to do. “I now know why the best novelists are feted the world over – it’s hard,” he says. “For Warriors I wrote a lot of drafts. How did I survive? I lived with my wife. I make good money because I’m good at it and that drive goes into the work. I’m a tremendous worker physically.”
So what’s next for Alan Duff? “I’ve decided to get into scripts for a while, but I may have another novel up my sleeve in the immediate future,” he says. “Then there’s probably a sequel coming up for State Ward. I’ve got a fantastic storyline. Once Were Warriors is coming out in May with the University of Hawaii Press.
“I want to be a success and I’ve always wanted to be a success far beyond these shores with my literature.”
And what’s his ambition? “To be a great novelist. If I measure up.”

Sentence of the day

“Oh, you can’t go through seminary and come out believing in God!”
That’s from Preachers Who Are Not Believers, a fascinating paper in the journal Evolutionary Psychology by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola. The abstract begins:
There are systemic features of contemporary Christianity that create an almost invisible class of non-believing clergy, ensnared in their ministries by a web of obligations, constraints, comforts, and community. Exemplars from five Protestant denominations, Southern Baptist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Christ, were found and confidentially interviewed at length about their lives, religious education and indoctrination, aspirations, problems and ways of coping. The in-depth, qualitative interviews formed the basis for profiles of all five, together with general observations about their predicaments and how they got into them.
You can download the PDF here – it is the last item listed in Issue 1, 2010. There is a discussion about its implications at the Washington Post here: participants include big names such as Julia Neuberger, Richard Dawkins, John Shelby Spong, Deepak Chopra.

Monitor: Penny Wise via Marginal Revolution

Monday, July 26, 2010

Food police

The Los Angeles Times reports:
With no warning one weekday morning, investigators entered an organic grocery with a search warrant and ordered the hemp-clad workers to put down their buckets of mashed coconut cream and to step away from the nuts.

Then, guns drawn, four officers fanned out across Rawesome Foods in Venice. Skirting past the arugula and peering under crates of zucchini, they found the raid's target inside a walk-in refrigerator: unmarked jugs of raw milk.

“I still can’t believe they took our yogurt,” said Rawesome volunteer Sea J. Jones, a few days after the raid. “There’s a medical marijuana shop a couple miles away, and they’re raiding us because we’re selling raw dairy products?”
The full story is here. There is even some of the shop’s surveillance video showing the police with guns drawn and aimed at the staff.

Monitor: Tim Blair

Sentence of the day

At the neighbours’ last night we were talking fishing. One of the keenest – he takes his boat out to the Aldermans – was asked how the season was going.

He replied that it was all good:
“I reckon I’ve got it down to about $1000 a kilo.”

Friday, July 23, 2010

Happy birthday, Susan Graham



The great American mezzo was born on this day in 1960. Everything she does is worth hearing, and she covers an extraordinary range of styles – she is as good in Ives (her Grammy-winning recital with Pierre-Laurent Aimard is stunning) as she is in Handel and Mozart. Here she is in “Parto, parto” from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito in 2006. Elsewhere on YouTube she does Gershwin proud.

Sentence of the day

I would say the couch’s innocence has been taken if nothing else.
That is from Josh the a screenwriter at I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing. The whole thing is here – it is a very long post but is very, very funny.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

What I’m reading

It’s My Birthday objects to management-speak, especially verbising. (See her #7.)

If I may verbise, NZ Wine Blogger has been neologising. Pick of the bunch:
Precrastination – doing today what you were going to put off till tomorrow.
He also has a list of prequels, i.e. the name of the movie before the one that made it: Evening Cowboy, Boogie Afternoons, Conceiving Arizona, The Undergraduate.

You get the idea. My contributions:
The Building Site at Pooh Corner

Muriel’s Pregnancy Test
Richard Cooke in the Age observes that you can’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia. Who knew?:
Crackpottery is to Wikipedia what self-interest is to capitalism - a human failing that, yolked in the right way, can turn ill into benefit for all. Before Wikipedia, what would we get from a film nerd or a punctuation nazi? A video store with a snooty manager, maybe, or a few nutty, typed letters to newspapers, if we were lucky. Now we can have lovingly written articles on Quentin Tarantino or the semicolon from people who don't get any loving. For the first time in history, history is being written by the losers.
And an excellent piece about drowning. Many years ago when I was 10 or 11 I nearly drowned in the Waimapu stream between Greerton and Oropi, outside Tauranga, and this brought it all back. I really wouldn’t recommend the experience. Greerton and Oropi, obviously, but especially the near-drowning.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lauraine Jacobs on restaurant reviews

One of my favourite foodies is the wonderful Lauraine Jacobs, current President of the NZ Guild of Food Writers and (according to Charlie Trotter, who should know) “high priestess of the international food and wine scene”. She writes on her blog:
Canvas editor, Greg Dixon, added a note to last weekend’s restaurant review of the very good Engine Room in Northcote. He was furious that owner Natalia Schamroth has refused to allow the NZ Herald’s photographer in to shoot her food, and said that would be the last ever review of that restaurant in Canvas. Natalia’s reason for refusal in her own words was, “I just wanted a guarantee that the facts were correct and that I was not cooperating (by allowing a photo) with an article that may have been damaging to our reputation.” Now that may seem precious of her, and it well may be, but Natalia has been bitten before by incompetent reviewers who have visited her restaurant. They have written incorrect facts, and shown their ignorance of cooking techniques and food products.
But wait, there’s more:
Currently the restaurant reviews around the country in many newspapers and magazines are often substandard, egotistical and incompetent. It would seem in almost all publications that it is a job that is handed out to the staff as a perk. The main requirement of the reviewer would appear to be an ability to write entertainingly, eat copiously and file copy by deadline. What writer is going to refuse the opportunity to take the company credit card and eat out with one or two friends? It’s an easy and cheap way for a newspaper or magazine to fulfil the need for restaurant writing as their staff writers are on salary, or may even do the job for a mere pittance as it is such “fun.”
All too true. Not of the Post-Dominion, which has David Burton, and there must be other exceptions out there but, in general, true.

But then, this:
It’s likely that these people do not know their beurre blanc from their hollandaise, don’t know the difference between quatre épices and five spice, or confuse crème brulée with crème caramel. To be a restaurant critic, there should be several requirements. First and foremost a thorough knowledge of food, cooking and technique. Culinary training is a pre-requisite, as is an understanding of how a restaurant works. If you think the pass is when someone comes on to you, or what the All Blacks try to do when they’re on the field, you’ll never be a good reviewer.
Now that’s all very well in Cuisine, but Lauraine – do you really believe that Canvas should reveal to its readers that there is more to food than chicken nuggets and instant mashed potato, that their lives thus far have been stunted by not knowing the difference between quatre épices and five spice, that some restaurants aren’t all that good and others really are worth the money?

Think of the gloom and despondency this will cause and the chaos when Canvas readers start eating proper food and perhaps even trying to make it at home. It will be impossible to get a table at Meredith’s. And imagine the crush at Zarbo on Saturday morning.

Lauraine, have you thought this through? Is it wise? Is it kind?

Monitor: The Goodwood School Old Girls’ Association

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

More murder in Moaville

Graeme Lay writes a postscript to his 1995 story reprinted below:

During the ensuing years, I’ve kept a close watch on what happens in Inglewood. I’ve even been back to the town recently, for a family wedding. When driving into Inglewood from New Plymouth, I was startled to see a sign on a side-road that read: “Home killing, 3 km”. It made me shudder.

And although Christchurch seems now to have overtaken Inglewood as New Zealand’s capital of unusually gruesome murders, much smaller Inglewood is still making its unique contribution.

Two homicides in particular in recent years caught my attention. The first case involved a middle-aged woman who had befriended an elderly male Inglewood pensioner. They entered into what is politely called a “relationship”. Then one day, with the motive of theft, the woman killed the old man. What struck me, after she struck him, was the murder weapon she employed. It was an iron. Not an object made of iron, as you would expect, but a steam iron, the type which is used for taking the creases out of shirts and other garments. Having reversed the usual use of this household implement by putting many creases into her victim’s head, she then stuffed his body into the boot of her car and went about writing cheques drawn against his account with reckless abandon. The body was found, and the woman tried and convicted, the presiding judge commenting on the calculated callousness of her offending.

The second case involved a young Inglewood woman who was also in a “relationship”. The couple had a two-year-old daughter. After the woman accused her partner of sexually violating the child, she verbally abused him, jumped into the family car and prepared to drive off in the direction of New Plymouth. He, after remonstrating with her over the accusation, flung himself onto the bonnet of the vehicle in an attempt to stop her. But she sped off, with him hanging on for grim death. Which ensued, after she had driven with him in that position for no less than 13 kilometres, he all the while crying out for her to stop. Finally hurled from the vehicle, the young man died of his injuries. It was subsequently established that their child had not been sexually violated. She was convicted of murder.

And so life, or in this case death, goes on in rural Taranaki in its singular way.

There may be other cases which I have missed. There were, earlier. After the first article was published in Quote Unquote, I was contacted by a man who used to be the constable in Inglewood. He upbraided me for my story. Not, as I first assumed, because he was trying to protect the reputation of the town where he had worked for some years. No, but because there had been several other Inglewood murders which I had not mentioned in the story.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sentence of the day

Cameron Bennett “leaves” TVNZ, and the official line is:
His departure arises from format changes to the Sunday programme, which, TVNZ said, provided him with a natural opening to assess his personal priorities.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sentence of the day

Which is why it is possible to give a woman an orgasm by jiggling her toes in the right way.
From comment #79 in a good – i.e. mostly amusing and informed – discussion of homeopathy at Crooked Timber, sparked off by this recent XKCD cartoon (sorry, can’t remember how to hotlink these properly – as always, go to the original and hover your mouse over it for the other joke):

And:
It also raises the interesting question of why homeopathic true believers are not prepared to put their money where their mouth is [. . .] and use homeopathic contraceptives.
There is also some very funny stuff on Martinis and homeopathy, especially the one about Winston Churchill.

Monitor: Tim Worstall

Graeme Lay on Inglewood

The 16th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the May 1995 issue.

The intro read:
When writer David Hill lived in the small Taranaki town of Inglewood, he depicted it as Moaville, a charming community of goodhearted rustics living in pastoral bliss. In fact, it’s the murder capital of New Zealand, notable not just for the quantity of its killings but also for their bizarre quality. Graeme Lay rattles the skeletons in Inglewood’s closet.
MURDER IN MOAVILLE
The Australian Nobel laureate Patrick White, who had family connections with New Zealand, also had an abiding fascination with our murders. Homicides here were frequently so bizarre, White observed from the time of his first visit, that whenever he read of an unusual killing carried out in Australia he would describe it as “a very New Zealandy murder”. Bludgeonings, butcherings, stranglings, decapitations, poisonings, burnings: it seemed to him that we had much more than our share of weird slayings.
Patrick White would have loved Inglewood.
Inglewood (population 2000) is a small town on the northern flanks of Mount Taranaki, between New Plymouth and Stratford, on State Highway 3. It is surrounded by dairy and pig-farming properties, and the proximity of the mountain means that it rains there a great deal. Inglewood appears at first glance to be no different from any other small New Zealand town: verandahed shops, a railway line, cenotaph – except that State Highway 3 takes a pronounced kink right in the centre of the town.
Inglewood began in the 1880s when a group of northern English immigrants hacked a clearing out of the bush. They were joined in their endeavour by a group of settlers from central Europe. Even today, surnames ending in “itski”, “dunski” and “newski” are common.
At first the place was called Moa Town, but this was later changed to Inglewood, meaning corner (ingle) in the bush. That’s how the kink came about, I suppose. Anyway, Inglewood may well have remained unknown were it not for a strange conjunction of literary and forensic events.
During the 1980s an Inglewood writer, David Hill, wrote a weekly newspaper column based on the town, which he called Moaville. In it, readers invariably learned that Moaville was a town where dwelt as fine a collection of real dags and well-intentioned rustics as you’d find anywhere outside Baccyspit, West Virginia.
Moaville folks, according to Hill, were a jesting, community-spirited lot who could turn their hands to anything. They practised their pastoralism merrily, when they met in the main street they swapped pleasantries about their milch cows or their porkers, they played rugby in the mud or they ran small retail enterprises – all activities which were sources of wholesome, homespun satisfaction.
Moaville, aka Inglewood, was in short, one of the great repositories of peasant wisdom, a wisdom packaged and marketed as Moaville Magic.
What bothered me about all this was that it didn’t square at all with the Inglewood I remembered or had read about in other sections of the newspaper, namely the court report pages.
I grew up on the other side of the mountain, then known as Egmont. Inglewood was distant territory and I can recall going there only once, to watch a school friend run a steeplechase against Peter Snell. I thought it a dull little town: it had no beach, no surf, and it was hard to catch snapper there. If the distance between the locals’ eyes was not very wide, then that was true of the province as a whole, not just Inglewood. So, nothing much would ever happen there, I thought. How wrong I was.
Some years later a news story caught my attention. A schoolboy at Inglewood High had taken exception to something his headmaster had done. The boy went home, got his father’s rifle, went back to the school, into the headmaster’s office and, in the vernacular of violence, “blew him away”. The case – the lad was convicted – astonished me. I had often wanted to shoot my headmaster, as have I suppose many people, but only in Inglewood had someone actually done it.
In the ensuing years, several other murders have occurred in Inglewood, characterised by bloodcurdling originality. One was carried out by a recidivist who had previously been detained “at Her Majesty’s Pleasure”, in that quaintly memorable phrase, for sexually violating and stabbing his young sister, just along State Highway 3 in New Plymouth. He was 14 at the time. After Her Majesty’s pleasure was gratified and the young man was released, he moved to Inglewood. There he sliced open the throats of two of his friends with a butcher’s knife. He is currently detained in the Lake Alice mental institution.
There he may run into other Inglewoodites, like the arsonist who incinerated a mother and her young child, or the members of an Inglewood church who last year bashed their 12-year-old son’s brains out with a concrete block, to rid the boy of the devil. The arsonist was convicted, but the Bible-bashers were found not guilty of their son’s murder on the grounds that they were insane. “We’re very pleased with the verdict,” declared an Inglewood relative of the couple after the trial.
That kink in Highway 3 is a remarkably apt metaphor for the district it passes through.

Concerned to put what was essentially a casual observation onto an empirical footing, I contacted a research officer with the New Zealand Police. She produced figures which were very interesting. Since 1981 there have been seven murders in Inglewood, including two double-headers (the arsonist and the throat-slasher) but not including the teenage headmaster-killer, who slew before 1981. This rate – seven murders for 2000 people in 14 years – gives an equivalent rate for Inglewood of 25 murders per 100,000 people in one year. The rate for the whole of New Zealand for the same period was 2.1 murders per 100,000 people in one year.
These murderous facts reminded me more than anything else of the fiction of the late Ronald Hugh Morrieson, who lived up the line a way from Inglewood, in Hawera, and who mined the rich seam of Taranaki gothic more effectively than any other writer.
All this shows that there is something pretty swampy in the psyche of Taranaki generally, and in Inglewood especially, and that David Hill, in retailing his long series of small, cute truths about the town, had clearly missed a larger and much more sinister one.
Taranaki again became the object of literary attention with the 1988 publication of a novel called Rainshadow, written by Michael Jackson. No, not Elvis Presley’s moonwalking son-in-law, but an anthropologist, poet and novelist. When I read in Rainshadow’s blurb that this Michael Jackson “spent his childhood and youth in Inglewood, Taranaki”, I knew there was trouble ahead, and so it proved.
Rainshadow is the story of Nicholas Day, a boy who grows up in a town called Moabite. The boy is brought up by his grandparents, is told a little about his father but nothing of his mother. It is not a happy upbringing: on one occasion Nicholas falls into a shitpit on a farm, on another he pokes his penis into the soil (on an ancient pa site) and seeds the dirt.
At the end it’s revealed that the dark Day family secret is that his mother was Taranaki tangata whenua, New Zealand literature’s equivalent of the strawberry birthmark.
Then, late last year, there was a report from Inglewood of an offence which, if proven, will go down in the dark annals – or anals – of New Zealand criminology as one of the blackest of them all. No one died, but perhaps it would have been better if the complainant had, for his alleged fate was, as the saying goes, far worse than death.
I refer to the alleged sexual violation of a bridegroom-to-be, by another man in Inglewood, on the alleged victim’s aptly described stag night. These were not ordinary young men either, but members of a local rugby team. The case makes those old jokes about screwing the scrum and the last man down take on a fresh and hideous significance.
This case, together with the abnormally high rate of depraved slayings, has assured Inglewood its place in myth as the psychopath centre of New Zealand.
There are many tragic aspects to all this, but perhaps the saddest of all is that when the case of the stag-night revel comes to trial, Patrick White won’t be there to savour it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Sentence of the day

An anonymous comment over at Cactus Kate’s responding to her post about encountering Gilda Kirkpatrick:
I remember the first time I saw her – a floating cloud of sparkly and shiny densely packed bling, like a jewellery display stand in a 2 dollar shop.

A little something for the weekend

Oh, to be in England – just for Saturday and Sunday – for this special promotion:
Don’t miss The Daily Telegraph on Saturday, July 17 and The Sunday Telegraph on July 18 to claim two free award-winning, foreign language films. Postage required.
Saturday’s free DVD is Like Water for Chocolate, 1992, based on the novel by Laura Esquivel: it won every Ariel award (the Mexican equivalent of the Oscars) possible.

Sunday’s free DVD is Vittorio de Sica’s 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves which, as Roger Ebert says, is “routinely voted one of the greatest films of all time”.

What a splendid idea. I wonder if it will catch on here. What classic DVDs do you think the Sunday Star-Times would offer us? I’m saying Pink Panther 2, because everyone loves Steve Martin, plus he is brainy because he writes books.

And what would the skanky HoS offer? I’m thinking Chevy Chase. Of all the riches in the Chevy Chase catalogue, I reckon the Skank would go for Caddyshack II, because the original Caddyshack was a big hit and this. . . would be cheaper.

What I’m reading

Matt Nolan thinks both sides are wrong in the tertiary funding debate.

Matthew Dentith has discovered I Write Like, a site that analyses your writing style. It said that he writes like Oscar Wilde. I tried it and it said I write like David Foster Wallace. So I tried again with a different sample. The verdict: Stephen King. I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

The Fundy Post (who writes like James Joyce) has a view – of course he has – on the Queen’s Wharf sheds. (Speaking of architectural historians, if you get the Arts Channel don’t miss Gavin Stamp’s Orient Express series in which he travels 2000 miles across Europe following the route of the old Orient Express. He used to write for the Spectator and Private Eye, and talks brilliantly. It is on Thursdays at 9.15 p.m., possibly other days/times too.)

MacDoctor has a good go at anti-obesity campaigners. Sample quote:
Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time a government has found a non-functional solution to a dubious problem that is constructed almost entirely of conjecture and guesswork, would it?
Karl du Fresne has been investigating the consequences of the previous government’s decision to make employers pay intellectually disabled workers the legal minimum wage – and he doesn’t like what he sees. Sample quote:
How come IHC, an organisation supposedly committed to the wellbeing of the intellectually disabled, was party to a law change that seems to have greatly disadvantaged many of the very people it purports to help?
And NZ Wine Blogger announces that he is certified and committed. Sample quote:
If you collapse near me I’m good for about three minutes of CPR – then you're on your own.

On the road with Ozzy Osbourne

In the week’s Spectator, the Diary is written by the Prince of Darkness himself. He claims that his new album, Scream, has “gone into the Top Ten of the album charts in seven different countries this week. Not bad for a 61-year-old with five grandkids, eh?”

He says he no longer takes drugs apart from the medicinal kind, and is more or less vegetarian But:
Even though I’ve given up the booze, I can still find ways to terrorise the people of England. For example, this is my first summer in the UK since passing my driving test — it took me 19 attempts — and I’ve bought one of those new Audi R8s to celebrate. Well, the car I actually ordered won’t be ready till August, so they’ve lent me this ‘metal grey’ demonstrator to blast around in while the other one gets shipped over from the factory. I hope they’re not expecting to get it back in one piece. Having said that, I’m a much better driver than I used to be — mainly ’cos I ain’t on a lethal combination of mind-altering drugs 24 hours a day any more. I remember on one occasion in the 1970s, around the time my old band Black Sabbath was just taking off, I tried to calm my nerves before one of my many driving tests by taking a fistful of sedatives then smoking my way through half a brick of Afghan hash. It relaxed me, all right: when I stopped at the first red light, I nodded off. By the time I finally woke up, a little red-faced bloke from the DVLA was whacking me over the head with his clipboard and shouting, ‘FAIL!’

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sentence of the day

From Intuitive Music, in a story about the long friendship between Yes singer Jon Anderson and the band’s on-off keyboard player Rick Wakeman:
In August 1971, Yes decided to fire their keyboardist Tony Kaye after he missed the first studio sessions for “The Yes Album” when he stayed longer in New York, at the end of the band’s US tour, apparently because he was in a hotel room with Deborah Harry.
Well, you would, wouldn’t you.

Happy birthday, Harrison Birtwistle

Photo by Hanya Chala/Arena PAL

Harrison Birtwistle, the greatest living English composer, is 76 today. Born in Accrington, Lancashire in 1934, he has written nine operas and a large number of orchestral and chamber works, most of them recalling the energy and violence of Varèse or the Stravinsky of The Rite of Spring, along with the latter composer’s brilliant orchestration. As Composition Today puts it:
The raw and visceral music of Harrison Birtwistle often sounds as if it has sprung into being from a point before or beyond the modern world, evoking elemental human or natural forces, whether the stylized violence of Greek tragedy, the elemental cycles of the natural world or the destructive march of time itself.
Yes, he’s that good.

Here’s a clip from his 2008 opera The Minotaur, with John Tomlinson as the Minotaur, Christine Rice as Ariadne and Johan Reuter as Theseus, with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Antonio Pappano. It is available on an Opus Arts DVD, reviewed here, which you can get from Marbecks. It is fantastic.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The new Metro

Everyone’s a critic, aren’t they. A friend in Wellington writes:
A cover story about your kids is to Metro what an old Beatles photograph is to Mojo.
Heh.

We make our own fun in the Waikato

We also make our own driver’s licences:
Two teens have been busted in what police call a sophisticated forgery ring in Waikato. Senior Sergeant Greg Dunn, of Hamilton, said two 17-year-old boys had been arrested after police uncovered the counterfeit operation, which had allegedly produced about 60 fake driver’s licences. Further arrests are likely.

Dunn said Waikato police had not before encountered such sophisticated forgery. “Aside from an array of computers, laminators, scanners and printers the group had imported dies, papers and a specialist stamp that replicated the New Zealand Government watermark on the licences.

“They then produced what we estimate to be about 60 drivers licences which they allegedly on-sold, to recoup the cost of their equipment, to associates for prices varying between $30-$60. [. . . ]

Dunn invited anyone who had one of the fake licences to surrender them to police.
Apparently young people were using the licences to buy cigarettes and alcohol.

Julia Gillard and East Timor

The Sydney Daily Telegraph’s Joe Hildebrand reports:
SYDNEY, July 10, 2010—Prime Minister Julia Gillard has today unveiled a landmark policy package in which all of Australia’s problems are exported to East Timor.

Under the scheme—hailed by ALP strategists as a key circuitbreaker—asylum seekers, people smugglers and the Hells Angels will be sent to Dili for processing.

It expands on an initial proposal for an immigration detention centre there and continues Australia’s proud tradition of shafting East Timor wherever possible. [. . . ]

Ms Gillard said she had consulted extensively about the plan. “I have spoken to the President of East Timor, the Prime Minister of East Timor, the Deputy Prime Minister of East Timor and the Foreign Minister of East Timor about having asylum seekers processed in no particular country,’’ she said.

Ms Gillard said she had also spoken to the Prime Minister of New Zealand who offered in principle support for both countries dumping their political problems on a third. At the resulting tri-lateral talks East Timor lost the vote, 2-1.

Asked his response to the plan, East Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta suggested the Prime Minister may not have considered the differences between the two countries.

“What we have here is no money, crumbling infrastructure and a deeply unstable Government dictated to by tribal rule. Then on the other hand you have East Timor.’’
Read the whole thing here.

As if his life wasn’t hard enough

This isn’t really nominative determinism, just an unfortunate abbreviation in a caption over at Kiwiblog, in a nice item showcasing the Science as Art exhibition in Dunedin:
I love the colours in this photo by Ass Prof Grant Butt, titled “Step Ladder”
There are some great photos – do have a look at the slideshow of the winners here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Waikato Times letter of the week

From the 12 July edition:
Sex and Woods
Tiger Woods has lost focus in his game since he stopped having regular sex (Waikato Times, July 6).
I remember watching a sporting show on TV which was about another high profile sportsman who was doing really well. This was Michael Schumacher, the Formula One racing driver. What gave him focus and made him so good?
Regular sex. Regular sex can help prevent prostate cancer. A South African doctor told me this. (Abridged)
S GOLLOP
Cambridge
Let’s see. Tiger Woods’ wife left him so he is not having regular sex. Right. He would so be having lonely nights.

Michael Schumacher was better than other racing drivers because he got it regular. And the others didn’t?

But the best bit about this letter is the editorial note: (Abridged). I always wonder with these letters to the Waikato Times what was in the abridged material that was so much nuttier than what was published. And were the letters written in green ink, or purple?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Laughy Kate is unwell

There is something ailing my favourite Kates.

First, Cactus Kate was unwell.

And now Laughy Kate is too.

There must be something going around in Auckland.

I have to go there tomorrow for the launch of Kevin Ireland’s new novel Daisy Chains. I do hope I don’t catch whatever it is that has afflicted the Kates.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I feel such a failure

On Thursday night the six-year-old daughter who is keen on ballet is happily watching a DVD of Stravinsky’s Firebird. (Royal Ballet, Mikhail Fokine’s original choreography from 1910, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; coupled with Les Noces in the original choreography of Bronislava Nijinska, sister of the more famous Vaslav Nijinsky who choreographed The Rite of Spring. Call me old-fashioned but I prefer to see ballet in the original, having endured too many “fresh interpretations”; and let us not get started on “director’s opera”. Anyway, it is a great DVD and Les Noces is a real palate-cleanser of a ballet and piece of music: four pianos with percussion. How austere is that?)

Where was I? Right, the six-year-old is watching Stravinsky. She is joined towards the end by the eight-year-old who has no interest in ballet at all, thank God.

When the performance finishes, the eight-year-old asks, “Daddy, can we watch that again?”

I don’t punch the air – I am too old for that – but I do think, gotcha! Good dance and good music. Result!

But then, this: on Friday night the six-year-old is in one room listening to Paul Weller and the eight-year-old is in another room watching a Hi-5 DVD.

Paul Weller. Hi-5. I feel such a failure.

Friday, July 9, 2010

What I’m reading

Not this, that’s for sure. No, for fiction it’s Kevin Ireland’s new novel Daisy Chain which I am to launch in Auckland on Monday. It is always polite to read the book beforehand.

Elsewhere, Chad Taylor asks:
Why do you have to be a moron to read a book?
Home Paddock has solved the vexed (for Aucklanders, anyway) question of what to do about Party Central for the rugby world cup. Her solution would annoy both Murray McCully and the Herald’s Brian Rudman, so is well worth supporting.

It seems that knitting is all the rage with women these days, but even the Fundy Post is taking an interest in woollen garments for chaps.

And now for the letter of the month, from Jeff McClintock of Hatfields Beach to PC World:
Much as I enjoy PC World, I’m pretty disappointed with Geoff Palmer’s continuing pro-piracy stance. He claims widespread file-stealing somehow benefits the victims. As a small Kiwi software developer my sales fell 72% the same month “crackers” released my software for free.

I have decided to selflessly test Geoff’s assertion. Each month I’ll be scanning your magazine, converting it to PDF, and uploading to thepiratebay.org. I urge all your readers to “help” PC World by downloading future issues for free. Any objection I’ll dismiss as “the same old bunkum pumped out by self-interested parties”.

Answering to the language

A recent CD review on Stuff:
Almost a year after a messy break-up, Oasis have released Time Flies... 1994-2009 – a final hurrah by one of the most iconic bands in music history.
Iconic? Most iconic? Music history?

Yes, I know, complaining about how young people today misuse the English language is the first step on the slippery slope of becoming Gordon McLauchlan or Garth George, but this really has to stop.

If Oasis with their slim repertoire of rip-offs of the Beatles and other 60s bands (Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, indeed), their stupidity (the misquote in that album title is but one wee sample) and the vacuousness of their lyrics (“Faster than a speeding cannonball” – do you know how fast that is, Noel? It is not very fast at all) can be called “iconic”, how would one describe the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Small Faces etc whose songs Oasis recycled with ever-diminishing returns? And how would one describe Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Talking Heads, Nirvana – you know, the ones who actually moved rock music along a bit?

Mind you, I forgive Noel Gallagher almost all of the above for his brilliant remark about his perma-angry brother Liam, “He’s like a man with a fork in a world of soup.” I do hope he thought of that all by himself.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Denis Edwards on Mike Riddell

The 15th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the final issue, #44, March 1997. The book under discussion, Mike Riddell’s The Insatiable Moon, has been made into a movie which has its premiere on 17 July at the NZ International Film Festival in Auckland. Other showings at other places, other times: details (and Riddell’s blog telling the history of the film) here. It stars Rawiri Paratene, Sara Wiseman and Ian Mune, with Greg Johnson, Bruce Phillips, Ray Woolf, Linn Lorkin and Luke Hurley.

The intro read:
A raunchy novel featuring the Second Coming in a Ponsonby halfway house full of psych patients. The author? You’d expect someone grungy and body-pierced. What you get is Michael Riddell. Denis Edwards talks to a Baptist minister with a past.
MIKE THE BAPTIST
Wanting to take a reality check on religion in the secular 90s? Michael Riddell’s The Insatiable Moon is a good place to start. The news is promising. Religion as described by Riddell is robust, raunchy, cynical, worldly-wise, amoral, rough as a rugby scrum and thick with self-doubt, sex, anxiety and confusion. This is how it all must have been back when Jesus Christ was around; long before everyone looked away and found, when they turned back, that religion had gone all precious.

There is little precious about Michael Riddell. Though he is a man of religion, he has been, lived or seen and done most of the above. He is a bright, energetic man, barefoot and pigtailed, and at the time of this interview he was in his last two weeks as a lecturer at the Carey Baptist College. His moving on, combined with the imminent arrival of his book, has been the subject of much media interest.

“No,” he says, “I didn’t get sacked because I wrote the book.” But he had a very good idea that the novel might be difficult for the Baptists to embrace as their own. Among other things, it has a long and minutely detailed sex scene. The protagonists are a man who may or may not be the second son of God, and an Auckland woman. It takes place in a seamy Herne Bay motel. In the background angels watch the action, approving every move and gasp.

There is a minister of religion (not in the sex scene) who also drops a fraction short of being the strong, towering and courageous role model your Baptist College likes to feel will leave its halls to conquer a godless world. ”I knew the book might not be the sort of work the College would want to be associated with. I took a copy of the page proofs to the Head, and after a discussion he agreed, so I resigned. That’s it. There’s no real anger or anything and we are getting along fine. I’m just working it out until I go, on March 1.”

The Insatiable Moon is set in Auckland’s twilight world, among a group of psychiatric survivors in a Herne Bay boarding house under threat from most sides. Riddell has both the boarding-house and the inner-city ambience and rituals exactly right; after being there, seeing it and living to write about it.

He hails from working-class Porirua, moving on to Christchurch and university. Things did not go well. He lasted just two terms in his first year and one in the second. Then it was off on a raucous OE. There were spells in communes, London crash pads, a Moroccan jail and assorted adventures in Australia and New Zealand. “I was an acid-head, dropping lots of LSD and doing quite a lot of dope as well.”

Salvation came after six years, not long after he crossed into his early 20s. He had met Rosemary, now an Auckland lawyer, in London. Love and romance flowered. Marriage followed. So did religion. “My conversion wasn’t one of your flashes of light and burning-bush experiences. It wouldn’t have worked, not with me. I’d had better, much better, drug flashes than anything religion could do.”

Instead, it came to him out of a long series of discussions with other drug users. “It was gradual, nothing too dramatic, but when I did convert that was it.”
Thankful he was still alive and with Rosemary, rather than in an English prison or a North African morgue, he touched down in Ponsonby. In 1985 he became the minister at the Ponsonby Baptist. “It was more of a mixed community back then, not like it is these days. We had a housing action group going too, and there was a lot of what I saw and heard there which became background for the book.”

His time at Ponsonby Baptist church became part of his education as a writer: “I had to come up with something interesting to say each week. It meant I had to become a storyteller and that meant becoming a writer.” Before that, there had been freelance journalism – while living in Switzerland he wrote a column for the long-departed New Outlook.

Though Riddell has a spirited look in his eye, and dealing with drugs is a day-by-day slog – just as no one can ever say they have absolutely shaken off cigarette smoking – he has been through enough to be confident he will not be falling back. “The kids are old enough to be playing up now. I’ve got enough to do keeping an eye on them.”

Prime literary influence? This is easy. A picture of James K Baxter is on his office wall and a copy of Frank McKay’s Life Of James K Baxter is lying near the desk. “I sometimes feel a bit like Baxter, in never quite knowing where I’m supposed to be. I exchanged letters with Frank McKay about coming and talking to him about Baxter. Sadly, he died before we could meet.”

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Barry Humphries on Marilyn Monroe

In the Spectator Diary of the 3 July issue, Barry Humphries writes:
When Arthur Miller shook my hand I could only think that this was the hand that had once cupped the breasts of Marilyn Monroe. I visited Jersey yesterday to see a small Marilyn Monroe exhibition in the Jersey Museum. It was part of a private collection assembled by a colourful local ratbag. The depredations of time had de-eroticised these famous garments, though some of the songs lisped by Marilyn were playing in the background. Alas, few of her fans know that they were mostly mimed by the actress and actually sung by Marni Nixon and Gloria Woods.
I don’t know about Gloria Woods but that isn’t right about Marni Nixon, who inserted the high notes Monroe couldn’t reach in “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – sounds to me as though the whole introduction and maybe a few notes at the end are Nixon not Monroe, whose voice is appealing but very different. But the main part of the song is definitely Monroe:



I did know that Nixon sang Deborah Kerr’s songs in The King and I, Audrey Hepburn’s in My Fair Lady and Natalie Wood’s in West Side Story. I used to have a great LP of her singing songs by Charles Ives; she also recorded Webern, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Copland and Boulez. What an extraordinary career.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Friday, July 2, 2010

Trio

This morning I planted three trees. Prunus ukon, since you ask – sounds like a fruit noodle, but is in fact a flowering cherry. Each tree is about 2.5 metres high and will grow a whole lot more.

They arrived “bare-rooted”, which isn’t as exciting as it sounds, and meant they had to go in the ground RIGHT NOW.

Was it easy doing all that planting single-handed, especially the staking with sledgehammer and subsequent stapling of webbing restraints to the stakes? In the rain?

No. No, it wasn’t.

Am I awesome?

Yes. Yes, I am.

The sods have been carefully replaced around the base of each tree. When I started digging them out this morning my wife said in some surprise, “You know what you’re doing!”

“Yes,” I muttered.

Later, our landscape designer friend (another mother from primary school) delivered the trees and saw the sods carefully piled by the planting holes and said in some surprise, “You know what you’re doing!”

“Yes,” I purred.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mahler fact of the day

R&B singer Beyoncé Knowles is composer Gustav Mahler’s eighth cousin four times removed.

So says Norman Lebrecht in his new book Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World.

This may explain cougars

The following is the abstract for a paper titled “Reproduction Expediting: sexual motivations, fantasies, and the ticking biological clock”, by Judith Easton, Jaime Confer, Cari Goetz and David Buss, to be published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences:
Abstract: Beginning in their late twenties, women face the unique adaptive problem of declining fertility eventually terminating at menopause. We hypothesize women have evolved a reproduction expediting psychological adaptation designed to capitalize on their remaining fertility. The present study tested predictions based on this hypothesis—these women will experience increased sexual motivations and sexual behaviors compared to women not facing a similar fertility decline. Results from college and community samples (N = 827) indicated women with declining fertility think more about sex, have more frequent and intense sexual fantasies, are more willing to engage in sexual intercourse, and report actually engaging in sexual intercourse more frequently than women of other age groups. These findings suggest women’s “biological clock” may function to shift psychological motivations and actual behaviors to facilitate utilizing remaining fertility.
UPDATE: Other as-yet-unpublished papers in the queue:
“I just cannot control myself: The Dark Triad and self-control”
“The dark side of love: Love styles and the Dark Triad”
“Neuroticism, stress, and coping in the context of an anagram-solving task”
“Rumination and depressive symptoms: Evidence for the moderating role of hope”
“Male faces and bodies: Evidence of a condition-dependent ornament of quality”
“Sex differences in perceptions of benefits and costs of mate poaching”
“Prejudice-relevant correlates of humor temperaments and humor styles”
“Disgust: A predictor of social conservatism and prejudicial attitudes toward homosexuals”
“I feel unique, therefore I am: The development and preliminary validation of the personal sense of uniqueness (PSU) scale”
I may have to take out a subscription.

Monitor: Tim Worstall