Monday, September 27, 2010

My wife is a genius

She is still in Uzbekistan and will be for another two weeks. She has been to Tashkent and Samarkand, tonight will be in Bukhara and then goes to Khiva.

So not only has she missed all the end-of-term activities for our two children – there was the Monday morning poetry recital by 20 finalists (our eight-year-old was robbed), the two-hour Monday evening sports awards (ditto) and the one-hour Tuesday evening performance by the five- and six-year-olds, at which our six-year-old was invisible because she is tiny and they all performed on the floor, not the stage. Many of us are not terribly interested in other people’s children, but at these events you get a lot of other people’s children. And let’s not  get started on the “ladies a plate” aspect. Laddies a plate, in my case.

Then there is the awkward transition in child-timing – morning, afternoon and evening – that happens every year with the shift to Daylight Saving. Yep, she has missed that too.

All the mothers I talk to here think that she has managed this brilliantly. Can’t argue.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sentence of the day

Lloyd Evans in the Spectator, reviewing the play Deathtrap by Ira Levin at the Noel Coward Theatre:
I sat there watching them smugly, feeling rather like the 17th-century pope who used to link 100 monks together with a copper wire and observe as a huge charge of static electricity was passed through them.
How wonderful to be that 17th-century pope. They didn’t have Sky back then, did they, nor NZ’s Next Top Model so they had to make their own fun.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

When one’s wife is in Uzbekistan

One doesn’t want to receive a txt beginning, “Have just arrived in Majorca.”

The flight was supposed to be direct from Kuala Lumpur to Tashkent. Perhaps Majorca is a suburb of Tashkent, in the way that Paris has a Metro station called Stalingrad (I have been there and do not recommend it as a destination). Or perhaps, despite what the itinerary says, she is travelling from Malaysia to Central Asia via the Mediterranean.

I don’t know. It is possible. She moves in mysterious ways.

When is an architect not an architect?

From the Waikato Times (not online but the Herald story is):

A Coromandel real estate agent has been found guilty of falsely adver­tising a house as being designed by an architect. But Robert Mosen of Richardsons Real Estate, operating in the Coro­mandel, has escaped further pun­ishment after the Real Estate Agents Authority found the offence was at the lower end of the scale.
The authority’s complaints’ as­sessment committee said the adver­tisement could have misled prospec­tive buyers and resulted in an inflated price.
“The general public when dealing with real estate agents has the right to expect that the information they present is true and accurate,” com­mittee chairman Stuart Rose said.
There was a general perception that houses designed by architects were well designed and were of a higher than average quality, Mr Rose said. “These houses command a pre­mium price in the market place be­cause of these factors.”
A complaint was brought against Mr Mosen after a man emailed him asking who the architect was. After finding out the designer was not a registered architect the man made a complaint to the auth­ority which Mr Mosen defended.
“I maintain that nowhere have I misrepresented the property and (I) acted in good faith when placing this advertisement,” Mr Mosen told the committee.
“I maintain that the building was designed by an architect, and I quote Webster’s Concise English Dictionary, ‘a person who designs buildings and supervises [their] erection.”
The committee believed the of­fence was at the lower end of the scale and issued no further punish­ment apart from its guilty finding.

 The Registered Architects Act 2005 (you can download a PDF of it here) states:
 7 Protection of titles registered architect and architect
(1) No person, other than a registered architect, may use in connection with his or her business, trade, employment, calling, or profession—
(a) the title ‘ ‘registered architect’ ’; or
(b) any words, initials, or abbreviations of that title that are intended to cause, or that may reasonably cause, any person to believe that the person using those words, initials, or abbreviations is a registered architect.
(2) No person who designs buildings, prepares plans and specifications for buildings, or supervises the construction of buildings may use the title ‘ ‘architect’ ’ unless he or she is a registered architect. [. . . ]
(4) A person who contravenes subsection (1) or subsection (2) commits an offence, and is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding $10,000.
So it doesn’t matter what the dictionary says – if the building was not designed by a registered architect, then you can’t say it was designed by an architect. It comes as a surprise that not only Mr Mosen, a licensed real estate agent, but also the Real Estate AgentAuthority, a Crown entity, seem unaware of this.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Today’s reading

Ally has a confession to make. Yes, another one.

Eric Crampton criticises recent media coverage of Bjorn Lomborg and extols the benefits to New Zealand of green R&D.

Joe Hildebrand frets about euthanasia (“I’ve seen the way my mother looks at me”).

This seems not to be a joke: there is a fragrance you can buy if you want to smell like a library (not a school library, obviously):
In the Library is a warm blend of English Novel, Russian & Moroccan Leather Bindings, Worn Cloth and a hint of Wood Polish. The main note in this scent was copied from one of my favorite novels originally published in 1927.  I happened to find a signed first edition in pristine condition many years ago in London.  I was more than a little excited because there were only ever a hundred of these in the first place.  It had a marvelous warm woody slightly sweet smell and I set about immediately to bottle it.

Jane Austen’s manuscripts online.

Here are five arguments  for e-publishing, but Scott Adams has a somewhat different view.

Finally, Matthew Dentith on the conspiracy theories about the Christchurch earthquake. These guys (and gals – let’s not forget Clare Swinney) sure have a problem with teleology.

Today’s viewing: REM’s “Losing My Religion”, as performed by a man with Tourette Syndrome which, as he describes it, is clearly a horrible affliction, just exhausting. So this clip shouldn’t be funny. . . but it is. “That was just a fucking dream” etc.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The subjunctive in country music

To be precise, the past subjunctive. Here is John Prine’s song “If She Were You” from his 1986 album German Afternoons:

Well, every time I try to love another
I never know exactly what to do.
I’d like to tell her just how much I want her
And I could find the way if she were you.
Her eyes may shine for me and not another,
Her lonely arms reach out to hold me too.
She wants to take your place and be my lover
And I could make her mine if she were you.
I never knew how much I cared about you
Till your memory made me a lovesick fool.
When she speaks to me, I hear your sweet voice calling.
When I close my eyes, your face comes into view.
I remember how it hurt when I was falling
And I could fall again if she were you.

Next week: litotes and synecdoche in the work of Dolly Parton.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble!

To Auckland yesterday for very convivial drinks with two bloggers – Fundy Post and Laughy Kate – and two former NZBC bloggers. Then this morning, after breakfast with Paul Millar, author of the excellent Bill Pearson biography No Fretful Sleeper, a meeting with the publisher of my (possible) next book. The 15th, I think it would be, but who’s counting.

I’m keen to do it, but every time a new book is suggested, I think of Mr Bennet (above) in Pride and Prejudice:
Mary’s powers were by no means fitted for such a display; her voice was weak, and her manner affected.—Elizabeth was in agonies. She looked at Jane, to see how she bore it; but Jane was very composedly talking to Bingley. She looked at his two sisters, and saw them making signs of derision at each other, and at Darcy, who continued however impenetrably grave. She looked at her father to entreat his interference, lest Mary should be singing all night. He took the hint, and when Mary had finished her second song, said aloud,
“That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.'”

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sentence of the day

Dim-Post has reservations – OK, is appalled by – the sweeping powers granted to Gerry Brownlee under the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010, and explains why.

Comment #7 says, “Solution to problems: leave. Seriously, why the fuck would you stay in NZ?”

Comment #8 is Danyl’s reply: 
All my stuff is here.  

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Local body count

It’s local-body election time. Curb your enthusiasm. Dim-Post reports of the Wellington local body candidates that current mayor Kerry Prendergast:
is coy about her record of relaxing earthquake regulations and demolishing historic buildings to construct more inner city apartments.
In Hamilton, incumbent Bob Simcock is running on his record too. This consists of encouraging all retailers to abandon the CBD for the faraway The Base; gaily decorating long stretches of Victoria and Collingwood Streets with colourful “For Lease” signs; and wasting millions on applying lipstick to the pig that is Garden Place. 

(I was in the city this morning, first to visit the art gallery for this year’s Bold Horizon National Contemporary Art Award; and second to be blinded by science – literally. Three hours later I can see OK but still have a Mrkusich imprinted on each retina. If you have a copy of last year’s beautiful book on Mrkusich from AUP, as everyone should, the one I am wearing is plate 59, Painting Dark III, 1974. Though sometimes it’s plate 70, Monochrome Orange, 1979.)

Meanwhile, Aucklanders are being entertained by Bonnie Banks et al. Those with long memories will recall Sir Dove-Myer Robinson standing on a chair to prove his fitness for the mayoral office (maybe 1980, when he was 79). That’s Robbie pictured above, walking to work, proving that Auckland’s local-body politicians have always been mad.

Fundy Post is backing Mike Lee:
I once left a welcoming speech he was giving at a Labour Party conference in Takapuna, walked the length of Hurstmere Road and back, returned to the Bruce Mason Centre and found he was still talking.
But none of the above, not even North Shore’s Andrew Williams nor Christchurch’s Jim Anderton, is a match for this guy. His name is Phil Davidson and he is the Republican candidate for treasurer in Stark County, Ohio. The Atlantic calls his performance “undoubtedly the least impressive stump speech in America’s 234 year history”. Who knows. But it is a lulu.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Why people like John Key

Philip Matthews reports in The Press (presumably – I can’t find it online but it was in tonight’s Waikato Times) on how social-media reporting of the Christchurch earthquake beat the MSM:

Even the prime minister got news of the quake by text message, from his sister in Sumner.
The day after the quake, John Key appeared on TV1’s Q + A programme and said:
“The first word [of the text] actually rhymed with ‘truck’ but I won’t bother saying it on TV, and then the rest of it carried on from there. When I rang her on the phone, she said it wasn’t like those earthquakes we had when we were kids and the glass rattled off the end  of the dining room table. This was a major.”
The interviewer, Paul Holmes, went on: “So the word that rhymed with truck gave you an idea of the seriousness of this earthquake that was happening in Christchurch?”
Key: “Well, she doesn’t normally text me at 4.41 in the morning.”
What a totally natural New Zealandy voice. I can’t imagine any of his predecessors, on either side of the great divide, ever doing that.

Iain Sharp on Bill Manhire

The 22nd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the April 1996 issue. The coverline was “Bill Manhire: Victoria’s Secret”.

The intro read:
At last month’s Writers And Readers Week in Wellington, Bill Manhire launched three new books: My Sunshine, new poems; Sheet Music, early poems, long unavailable; and Songs O f My Life, his collected short fiction. This must be a record – as must the success of so many students of his famous writing course at Victoria University. He has influenced at least one generation of New Zealand writers through his wit, fondness for surprise, ambivalent attitude to academia and above all, as long-time fan Iain Sharp reports, his devastating cool.

At the beginning of 1975, without really fancying my chances, I applied for a year-long tutoring job in the English Department at Victoria University. To my surprise, I was accepted. However, as the day drew nearer for me to leave my home in Auckland and fly to Wellington, my exultation gave way to the fear that I would soon be exposed as a fraud. The household I came from was far from intellectual. I grew up reading comics, chuck­ling at Get Smart and the Beverly Hillbillies and playing air guitar to songs by the Who and the Kinks.
Never having set foot before in a university staffroom, I had no idea what academics talked about when they were alone together. In my callow ignorance, I imagined that they spent their spare time discussing the finer points of one another’s publications. “Ah, Wilkinson, dear chap,” I pictured some gouty old pundit calling out cheerily to a companion, “if you have a moment, I’d like to query the allusion to anal retentiveness in the third paragraph of your paper on Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’.”
In fact, as I soon discovered, nothing could be further from the truth. Academics generally read one another’s work only when their career advancement depends on it. In the staffroom, they prefer, like everybody else, to gossip about the previous night’s television, fluctuations in the weather and the alleged sexual peculiarities of colleagues who are out of earshot.
But in January 1975 I did not know this. Afraid of being identified immediately as an ill-informed lout, I began to read everything I could lay my hands on written by members of the Vic English Department, including the poetry of a young specialist in Icelandic literature named Bill Manhire.
By this time Bill had published two books. Because I’ve always enjoyed eccentricity, the quirkiness of the first of them, Malady (Amphedesma Press, 1970), delighted me. A meditation, I guess, on the vicissitudes of romantic love, the volume consists almost entirely of the repeated words “malady” and “melody”, arranged in different configurations by Bill and his friend, the Dunedin-based painter Ralph Hotere. On the final page two further words are introduced: “my lady”.
Although it contains a couple of hand-written poems as well as five drawings by Hotere (including a mystifying, globe-shaped “portrait” of Manhire, recently reproduced on the cover of Landfall 191), the second book, The Elaboration (Square & Circle, 1972), is a more orthodox production, gathering together 18 of Bill’s spare but eloquent early efforts.
In the late 60s and early 70s, young New Zealand poets generally insisted on their right to express themselves freely. Enamoured of their own voices and fuelled by an enthusiasm for such long-winded, oracular American bards as Ezra Pound, Charles Olsen and Allen Ginsberg, local writers like David Mitchell, Ian Wedde and Alan Brunton tended to warble on at exuberant length. Bill worked in the opposite direction.
Pared down to the essentials, his enigmatic little poems conjured up whole worlds in a few syllables. Since I’m a rather slow reader who bores easily, I’ve always appreciated Bill’s economy.
If the language in The Elaboration is often whimsical, surreal and mysterious, the book is also full of astute observations about the difficulties of courtship and other everyday joys and disappointments. Cursed myself with an obstinate nature, I particularly admire the way that the title poem describes how a quarrel between lovers is prolonged through pride:
I make fists at the air
and long to weaken
ah, to visit you
is the plain thing,
and I shall not come to it.

Impressed as I was by Malady and The Elaboration, what really confirmed me as a Manhire fan was the selection of Bill’s work which appeared in Ten Modern New Zealand Poets (Longman Paul, 1974). Bill is represented in this anthology (edited by two former high-school teachers, Harvey McQueen and Lois Cox) by 18 poems: seven from The Elaboration, four that would later be part of How To Take Off Your Clothes At The Picnic (Wai-te-ata Press, 1977), one which turned up, years later, in Good Looks (Auckland University Press, 1982), three that were included in The Old Man’s Example (a limited edition of early poems – just 150 copies printed – which Bill circulated quietly among his friends and acquaintances in 1990) and three (“Growth”, “Gull” and “Threnody”) which have not been embraced, so far, in any of the collected volumes.
More than two decades later, I still think the Longman Paul selection is an excellent introduction to Bill’s characteristic techniques and concerns. His fondness for bringing cliched phrases comically back to life through weird juxtapositions can be seen in such poems as “The Pickpocket” and “The Cinema”. His irreverent humour is evident in a couple of spoofs of English grammar lessons: “Declining The Naked Horse” and “Pavilion” (“We sung, we sang./ I have forgot it.”). Again and again he mixes flights of fantasy with reflections on universal themes (grief, aging, the problems of sustaining adult love).
I pored over the Longman Paul selection repeatedly on my flight to Wellington in 1975. I wanted to know more about Bill than the brief biographical sketch told me. Other young New Zealand poets of the period were noticeably keen on being photographed and interviewed. Many of them liked nothing better in the world than to declaim their works aloud in pubs, coffee bars and student quadrangles. But Bill seemed to shy clear of such vulgar forms of publicity. I had no idea what he looked like.
Embarrassing as it now is to admit, when I first met him I was startled to discover that he was not, as I had imagined, a Maori. Pakeha New Zealanders like myself were appallingly ignorant about the Maori language in the early 70s. It wasn’t uncommon back then to hear pale-skinned students pronounce Hone Tuwhare’s surname as “To where?” – as if they were selling tickets in a railway station.
Aware of Manhire’s friendship and collaboration with Hotere, some of us got things the wrong way round. Believing Ralph was the European one, we thought his rather strange surname should be pronounced “Hot ear” or perhaps “Hot air”. Assuming Bill belonged to the tangata whenua, we stretched out his surname to three syllables: man-hi-re to rhyme with weary, query and theory.
In spite of its idiocy, this was a common enough fallacy in 1975 for Virginia Goldblatt, one of Bill’s colleagues in the English Department, always to refer to him, with a malign smirk, as “the famous Maori poet”.
When I brought up this matter recently during the session I chaired with Bill as part of the Wellington Arts Festival, he patiently explained his name to the audience. Manhire is apparently of Cornish origin. It’s a variant of “menhir”, which means “a tall, upright, monumental stone”. Fans of Goscinny and Uderzo’s famous comic strip might recall that Asterix’s burly companion Obelix often totes a menhir on his back.
Over coffee with Bill after the session, my irrepressible old friend Michael O’Leary suggested an alternative explanation. Michael was convinced that a name like Manhire must have some connection with male prostitution. Bill made no comment.

Bill often makes no comment. He seems to have learned early in life the wisdom of saying nothing rather than speaking nonsense or losing his temper in a way he might later regret. He doesn’t dodge important issues. He’s quite capable of voicing firm, even harsh, judgments. But he takes care what he says, not only in his poetry but also in his private conversation.
It’s a quality I’ve envied in him since 1975. I’ve always had an unfortunate tendency to blurt out big, bold, stupid opinions which I’m later forced to recant once sanity returns. I’ve been known to yell idiocies like “I hate John Milton! He can’t write poetry for shit!”
Sometimes, too, I go on talking when I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. I made many blunders during my year at Victoria. In one tutorial I got the 18th-century poet and lexicographer Samuel Johnson hopelessly confused with the 17th-century playwright Ben Jonson. Bill would never make a fool of himself in this way. If momentarily puzzled, he pauses; he doesn’t bluff or pretend to knowledge he doesn’t possess. Like the hero of Bob Dylan’s song “John Wesley Harding”, Bill “was never known to make a foolish move”.
He has always been blessed with a kind of unshakeable cool that has nothing to do with wearing the right accoutrements: tight trousers, a leather jacket or fancy sunglasses. These things can be removed or fall suddenly out of fashion, but Bill’s poise is inalienable.
There were many occasions in 1975 when I fled downtown after spectacular botch-ups during my tutorials to console myself with cakes and sticky buns in the Pioneer Coffee Lounge. Gazing sad-eyed down on Willis Street, my cheeks smeared with icing, I would say to myself, “God, I wish I could be cool like Bill Manhire.”
There’s a world of difference, however, between being cool and being cold. Although he collects books on Antarctica, teaches Icelandic and fills his poems with images of snow and ice, Bill is by no means a frosty character. Although I can’t complain of ill treatment from any member of the Vic English Department in 1975, some of the more senior staff, like James Bertram, had seen too many young punks like me come and go to be bothered taxing their already overloaded brains with the fruitless effort of remembering our names. Bill was different.
Admittedly, he was only 28 in 1975, whereas Bertram was 64, but he could still have sneeringly dismissed us junior tutors, had he wanted to, from the far side of a great abyss, because he had permanent tenure whereas we were just passing through on our way to oblivion. Instead, he knew all our names, pronounced them correctly and never made O’Leary-like quips about their possible derivations. He often asked us how we were coping and he proved the genuineness of his concern by occasionally offering to swap tutorials with us to lighten our load.
Bill’s manner is undemonstrative. If you expect him to pour himself all over you like honey on toast, you’ve come to the wrong address. But in his own quiet way he’s a generous man.
Bill’s parents were publicans in various Southland and Otago taverns. I’ve always thought, if he tired of academia, Bill would make a splendid publican himself. Everyone would be given a fair chance in his establishment. Troublemakers would be dealt with firmly, but Bill would enjoy trading gossip with the regulars.
In 1975, the head of the Vic English Department was Professor Don McKenzie, one of the world’s leading authorities on the history of printed books. As a teaching tool, Don ran a printing shop (the Wai-te-ata Press) according to 17th-century principles. Because I pretended to be interested in such matters too, he invited me to join his Monday night classes.
The project we worked on was hand-printing a new collection of Bill’s poems. I can still remember the satisfied grin on Bill’s face when he popped into my office one day to tell me he had just thought of a title: How To Take Off Your Clothes At The Picnic. I can claim a letter-by-letter intimacy with some of the poems in that book, because I helped set up the pieces of type from which they originally printed.
I wasn’t very accomplished at this task, however. I suspect that the notorious misprint which transforms a phrase in the poem “Leaving Home” from “nodding in the wind” to “nodding in the wine” might have been one of my butterfingered slips. There were plenty of others, but Don McKenzie’s eagle eye generally spotted them before permanent damage was done.
Some of the poems in Picnic, as we usually referred to it in Don’s printing class, baffle me as much today as they did 21 years ago. What on earth is “Turtle” about, for instance? But there are many others that I have loved for their cheeky risk-taking since I first read them in manuscript. “The Procedure”, for instance, opens like this:

I spend a lot of time on
the lavatory because my
food is determined never
to leave me.

Picnic is packed with impudent references to the English Department syllabus. Although he has said in interviews that he considers it a privilege to be able to spend his life reading books and talking about them, Bill has always been ambivalent about his position in the academic world. He loathes pomp and pretension. He can’t stand reductive kinds of literary criticism that rob poems, plays and novels of their mystery and ambiguity.
In his own lectures, Bill offers a few shrewd observations, but there’s never any suggestion that his way of reading a text is the only possible way. His lack of arrogance, combined with his wit, humanity and unquestionable talent, is one of the reasons his students regard him with unusual affection.
When I was young, I wanted to write poems that sounded just like Bill’s: enigmatic, poised, deeply ironic, simultaneously lyrical and subversive. I never came within cooee of success. I was too clunky, too careless, too excitable and, above all, too damned obvious. Still, I kept plugging away at this hopeless endeavour throughout the 70s.
It wasn’t just Bill’s poems I envied either, but the whole enchilada. For a long while, I simply wanted to be Bill Manhire. This psychological condition is not unique. Many others have subsequently been afflicted by the same malady. In private conversations as well as published interviews, Bill has consistently deplored the notion of producing replicas of himself. He argues instead for diversity, flexibility, surprise.
All the same, his voice is both pervasive and persuasive. I’m willing to bet that all the people who have passed through the creative writing course he has run since the early 80s (including such strong-willed luminaries as Barbara Anderson, Jenny Bornholdt, Elizabeth Knox and Emily Perkins) have had to struggle at some point against the desire to emulate the old man’s example.

Frank Sinatra and Luciano Pavarotti

Frank says, ‘Luciano, I have a technical question for you. When you’re singin’ really loud and you wanna get soft right away, what do you do?’ 
‘That’s easy,’ Luciano said, ‘you shutta your mouth.’

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rain stopped play

Planting out of the vegetable/herb seedlings – pak choi, spring onions, coriander and dill, plus leeks and celery for soffrito, since you ask (the soffrito is mainly used to get more vegetables into the children via pasta sauce than they would otherwise willingly consume. Grated carrot works too when all is submerged beneath a can of tomatoes. My record is six vegetables incognito) – was interrupted by rain. So here is some more current reading:

Unusual legal defence of the year in the Waikato Times:
Roper was also a caring parent who, if not for recent legislative changes [my italics], would not have appeared in court, Mr Venter said.
Excellent NZ author Tim Jones interviews excellent NZ author Chris Bell.

Career advice from Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert.

With Apple it’s not just about design, it’s also devilishly clever pricing:
Apple often sells each gadget in a pricing series, such as the new iPod Touch’s $229, $299, and $399 price points for different storage capacities. You may gladly spend $229 to get a hot media player, thinking it’s a deal compared with the highest-priced version and not blink that you could instead buy an iPhone 4 at the lower price of $199 with more features.
Those fun-loving Belgians:
It always strikes me that the younger, and the more babe-like, a lawyer is, the more difficult the device becomes.
Ealing comedy:
“The ambassador is a lovely chap, very friendly,” said a man living next door. He claimed that people in the neighbourhood were untroubled by having in their midst the outpost of a nation notorious for slave labour camps and weapons of mass destruction.
“We co-operate over rubbish collection,” he disclosed, before glancing around nervously and retreating indoors.
A woman living opposite added that there were never any demonstrations, let alone suspicious spy-like activities to get the net curtains twitching.
“It is a bit of a strange place for the North Koreans to be,” she said. “But then they are North Koreans. You would expect them to be a bit strange.”
Michel Houellebecq channels Witi Ihimaera:
Houellebecq, la possibilité d’un plagiat
UPDATE: Houellebecq vs.Wikipedia (via IIML Twitter).

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sentence of the day

The idea, apparently, is to reconfigure the universities on a corporate model—not, however, the democratic model used by Google and other corporations that are flourishing now, but the older one of the 1950s, which did wonders for such British industries as shipbuilding and car manufacturing.
The full story, about the threat to the Warburg Library, is here.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Graeme Lay on Robert Louis Stevenson

The 21st in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January 1996 issue.

The intro read:
Graeme Lay visits Vailima, Robert Louis Stevenson’s home in Samoa.

Every time I have a beer in Western Samoa I think of Robert Louis Stevenson. The local lager, Vailima, is named after the Scottish writer’s estate in Samoa, and Samoa being a hot country and frequently a very hot country, it’s important to keep up a high fluid intake. Vailima. But I had extra cause to think of RLS while on a recent sojourn there. I was writing a book about the place, and all lager aside, even a century after his death, RLS still can’t be ignored. His aitu – his spirit – is alive and well and living there.
Robert Louis Stevenson (b 1850) never knew good health, but it did not stop him doing what he wanted to do: write, travel, marry Fanny Osbourne, an American divorcee 10 years older than himself, find a tropical home. The son and grandson of lighthouse builders from Edinburgh, RLS was already one of the world’s best-known authors when he brought Fanny and her children to Samoa to live. A tuberculosis sufferer, RLS needed the islands’ balmy clime to ease his suffering and prolong what he well knew would be a brief life. As a young man he had written:
I should like to rise and go
Where the golden apples grow;
Where below another sky
Parrot islands anchored lie.
RLS, Fanny and family had sailed in a chartered schooner through the Pacific in search of the ideal island refuge: Hawaii, the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Tahiti. He found them all lovely, but settled on Samoa. Why Samoa? That global know-all and ego-tourist, Paul Theroux, claims with customary cynicism that it was merely because the postal service was more reliable. In Samoa the mail-boat came regularly, via Auckland or Sydney. As a serialised novelist who depended on episodic publication to provide a necessary income, RLS needed those mail-boats.
They arrived in 1889, nine months after a terrible cyclone had destroyed several German and United States warships anchored in Apia Harbour: 146 men perished. Only the British battleship Calliope was saved. While the Germans and Americans didn’t want to lose face by weighing anchor, the British captain did what every capable skipper knows must be done when a cyclone strikes: get back out to sea. The carcasses of the Olger, Adler, Vandalia, Trenton and Nipsic still littered the reef and beach when Stevenson and his entourage sailed into Apia.
They found an archipelago in political turmoil. The three Great Powers, the USA, Germany and Britain, were desperate to gain ascendancy, then annex the islands for their own purposes. The three contending powers have been described as “like three large dogs snarling over a very small bone”. The analogy is only half suitable. The dogs were indeed large and certainly snarling, but the Samoa Islands were more like pieces of prime fillet steak.
There were 13 of them altogether, three – Tutuila, Upolu and Savaii – large. All were fertile and ripe for plantation purposes. Copra and palm oil, found there in abundance, were in great demand in Europe. Apia on Upolu and Pago Pago on Tutuila had fine harbours, the latter perfect for a coaling station to supply naval battleships in mid-ocean.
RLS was quickly apprised of this situation by a man who was to become his soul-mate, one HJ Moors. Moors was a roguish American who had jumped ship in 1875 with a bag of onions and a chest of cloth and with these slender commodities set up a trading store on Savaii. He then moved to Apia, married a local beauty and became a gunrunner for one of the pretenders to the non-existent throne of all Samoa. Moors had read all of RLS’s books and indeed was something of a writer himself, and so he was on the beach when RLS stepped ashore.
Moors made the arrangements for the purchase of the land on which Vailima was built. He selected 300 acres on the flanks of Mount Vaea, a few hundred feet above the sea, where it was cooler. The area was covered in tropical rainforest filled with wild pigeons and other birds, including the lovely blue-crowned lory, which the Samoans called the sega. The writer had indeed found the “parrot islands” of his youthful fantasies.
On the land he and Fanny built the grandest house in the South Pacific islands and named it Vailima after the crystalline rivers which tumbled down the mountainside. Vailima means “five rivers”. The Samoans, many of whom could now read and write through missionary influence, were fully aware of Stevenson’s mana and enormously proud that he had selected them to live among. RLS was also extremely popular with them. He not only had an engaging and generous disposition towards everyone, but he read the Samoan political situation astutely.
In the early 1890s the Samoans as well as the Europeans were engaged in a bitter power struggle. There had never been a single ruler of all the islands, but the Great Powers were determined that there should be one, and one of their preference so they could then pull the puppet’s strings and get their own way. The two contenders for Samoan kingship were Mata’afa and Laupepa. Moors supplied Mata’afa with firearms to fight Laupepa, who was elderly and dispirited. Stevenson also recognised that the locally popular Mata’afa was more up to the job and rallied behind him. This was appreciated by the Samoans but not the European Pooh-Bates in Apia, who were doing all they could to aid Laupepa.
On the eve of one battle between Mata’afa and Laupepa, in 1893, Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, his stepson, rode down from Vailima to view the preparations for hostilities. These he later described in vivid detail in his work Footnote To History. It is an unsentimental account: for example, although he greatly respected the Samoans, he abhorred their custom of degrading their foes by decapitating the vanquished and giving the heads to their leader.
Back up on the hill at Vailima, life continued gaily. Stevenson’s health had improved markedly. He was still frail but did not let this prevent him from horse-riding, dancing, beachcombing, kava drinking or smoking. Especially smoking. He smoked constantly from the time he woke until he turned his lantern out at night. He and Fanny entertained lavishly. The house was the largest maota (chief’s house) in all the islands. RLS had a Samoan household staff whom he dressed in lavalavas of Royal Stuart tartan, though whether these included sporrans of coconut shell is not known.
There was also a very Samoan aspect to RLS and Fanny’s household which the locals were not slow to appreciate. They brought their extended family to live with them, Fanny’s two children, Lloyd and Belle, and later Stevenson’s Scots cousin Graham Balfour and RLS’s pious old Presbyterian Mum. It was a clan gathering, a Scots aiga, and the civil war down on the plains below must also have put RLS in mind of the highland clans he romantically admired.
In the evenings the household sang, dined, partied and welcomed everyone except the sour consuls from Germany, the US and Britain. War parties, their faces blackened, would ride up and drop in for some kava, food and political discussion. RLS led a seigniorial existence, but everyone liked him. He was hospitable, generous and courageous. He wrote in the mornings, sitting up in bed, fearing that another haemorrhage would strike before he completed his magnum opus, the novel Weir Of Hermiston. Later in the day he would walk in the nearby forest, listen to birdsongs and no doubt contemplate his life and work.
The Samoans weren’t so sure about Fanny. Of Dutch descent, she had a dark complexion and an enigmatic half-smile which confused them. The Samoans called her Aolele, or Flying Cloud, because of her changeable expression, but she ran the large household efficiently and nursed her husband with great tenderness.
Mata’afa lost the war of 1893, was banished to Micronesia and the chiefs who were his supporters were jailed. RLS took them food, kava and tobacco. When they were released they enlarged the muddy track from Apia to Vailima, in appreciation of his patronage. It was named The Road Of Loving Hearts. When the road was opened RLS made a moving speech - oratory was another of his Samoan-type skills – in which he entreated the Samoans to use their country wisely, to care for its lands and forests, otherwise “others will”. It was a prophetic warning.
Less than a year later, on December 3 1894, while apparently still in better health, RLS died from an aneurism. Weir Of Hermiston was unfinished. The same chiefs who had built the Road Of Loving Hearts cut a path up Mount Vaea and his body was carried by young warriors to a clearing, where he was buried. Later the remains of his Fanny were buried beside him, a tricky piece of interment.
In 1900 the Terrible Trio got their way when, in an arrangement of breathtaking brazenness, Germany annexed the western islands, the US took the eastern group and Britain cried off in exchange for taking over the external affairs of Tonga. The Western Samoans were not to rule themselves again for 62 years.

Two cyclones, Ofa and Val, assaulted Samoa in 1991 and 1992, causing grievous bodily harm to the islands. Vailima, by now the official residence of the Western Samoa Head of State, was also badly knocked about. Enter, in 1993, a group of Mormon businessmen from Utah. They buy the house from the government for a token sum and plan its refurbishment as a literary museum. They also plan to build a cable-car up the slopes of Mount Vaea, to scoop up tourists from Aggie Grey’s and the Tusitala and whisk them up to RLS’s tomb.
Protests are aired at such tackiness and the cable-car scheme is dropped, but radical renovations to Vailima go ahead and are completed by December, 1994, the centenary of RLS’s death and the occasion of much memory-raising. Professional Scotspersons from all over the world make the climb up Mount Vaea and hear “Requiem” read in highland cadences by Scottish actors John Shedden and John Cairney.
July 21, 1995. 1 get out of the jeep and walk across the expanse of sloping lawn in front of the house. It is a very hot morning and Mount Vaea casts no shadow yet across the treeless lawn. The building is almost unrecognisable from the last time I saw it: enlarged, balconied, bracketed, painted cream. Above the front door is a large sign: VILLA VAILIMA. Why villa? For the Mormons to ensure that it wasn’t mistaken for a lager advertisement?
Inside there is the great wainscotted hall, with bare, polished floor boards. There is a long dining table and an open staircase to the house’s upper level. There is a bronze of Tusitala on another table and a portrait in oils hangs from the wall beside his huge iron safe, which the Samoans always eyed apprehensively because they were convinced that therein lived the Bottle Imp. The room is grand, tasteful, imposing. Around the walls hang many framed photographs of the Stevenson aiga. The author with his good mate, Moors, with another friend, King Kalakaua of Hawaii, with prominent matai, with Fanny, Lloyd, Belle and mother Maggie.
In all the photos it is RLS my eyes are drawn to. His frame is wasted but he is elegantly dressed and his gaze is fresh, youthful, penetrating. I’m struck too by his extraordinary facial resemblance to another island-domiciled South Pacific fictioneer, Mike Johnson of Waiheke, and I wonder if by any chance they are related.
The photos also reveal that today’s Vailima is as the German rulers enlarged it, to accommodate their man, Dr Wilhelm Solf, from 1900 to 1914. In the latter year fearless New Zealand soldiers stepped ashore in Apia and seized the colony without a shot being fired. (When they climbed Mount Vaea, though, and were about to destroy the highly strategic radio station, they discovered it had been booby-trapped). RLS’s Vailima was smaller and less ostentatious than that of Dr Solf, the Fuehrer of Western Samoa.
Upstairs there are the family bedrooms and the study where RSL worked. Mount Vaea and the forest where Saumaia, the forest goddess, lived are just a manuscript’s toss away. How often his mind must have dwelt on his own mortality as he lay in bed dictating notes to Fanny. Even as he worked on the plot of Weir Of Hermiston he knew that up there on the mountain another plot awaited him. There are also bookcases filled with his and other works, period furniture, firearms and sundry memorabilia.
I take another look around the lovely hall, then wander into the souvenir shop next door. It’s full of highly overpriced books, pictures and other tourist souvenirs. I come away with a Tusitala teatowel which is so kitsch I can’t resist it.
Everyone knows RLS’s poem and epitaph “Requiem”, but it has a middle verse which is not on the tomb or the gatepost of the Road Of Loving Hearts. The missing verse reads:
Here may the winds about me blow;
Here the clouds may come and go;
Here shall be rest for evermo,
And the heart for aye shall be still
I hope his heart is still. Later that day, with the sun turning Apia Harbour a crimson hue, I stand on the sea wall with beer in hand. Just as “Requiem” is an affecting poem, Vailima is an excellent lager. I raise my glass in the direction of Mount Vaea. Thank you, for Jim Hawkins, Blind Pew and Long John Silver. For David Balfour, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and all the others who will forever seethe in my memory. Ia Manuia, Tusitala!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

In praise of: Richard Thompson

It was my birthday recently so my wife and my parents chipped in to buy me the Richard ThompsonSongbook – a three-volume compendium of chords, lyrics and tunings for all my hero’s songs (at least all those before his new album Dream Attic). Chords I can generally work out by ear, also lyrics. Tunings less so. The non-standard ones are mostly dropped D, but then he will use a capo on perhaps the fourth fret in open C tuning. You try using a standard-tuning guitar to figure that stuff out. I used to know how to play loads of Joni Mitchell songs in open tuning  (all of the For the Roses album, among others) but that doesn’t help my ears any more.

None of this helps with the hot electric guitar solo side of things. (Thompson is a really, really hot electric guitar soloist.) I mentioned this to Distractions, aka Chris Bourke, who responded with a link to a guitar tablature site with correct fingerings for, among other songs,  the great “Shoot Out the Lights”. Chris doesn’t even play guitar, so it is really irritating that he knows more about this than I do. But now I can play it. Sort of.

Here is Richard Thompson himself performing ”Shoot Out the Lights” in December 2009. There are many other versions on YouTube: they are all good but this is probably the best. If you watch it and wonder, “Who is the prat in the hat?”, the prat in the hat is Elvis Costello.

Required reading

Justin Bieber and modern culture.
How to buy lightbulbs in Russia.
Cassini photos from Saturn.
“Eating food from a long way off is often the single best thing you can do for the environment, as counterintuitive as that sounds”
Did modernism failMorton Feldman?
Some people really hatePierre Boulez and his music. (Morton Feldman, for one.)
The glory that is Greece.
Toby Young thinks that book launches are useless.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Flick the little fire engine

Ally of Today is My Birthday! reports that she is going to marry Flick: 
I have crafted an analogy: if ambulances are the boyfriend who is nice but far too serious and insists on discussing philosophy all the time, and police cars are the boyfriend who is cool but a little too scary to show to your parents, then fire engines are the boyfriend who will walk your dog on the beach and bring you fish and chips.
  So here is Sam Neill (narrating, not actually him singing):

Monday, September 6, 2010

George Clooney doesn’t have this problem

The nice people at Booksellers NZ have asked which photo of me out of three taken at the NZ Post Book Awards last Friday I would prefer to be used in a newsletter about the event. Each  shows me on stage in my tux, delivering a speech to 400 of the great and good from the book trade.

One photo makes me look fat. One makes me look stupid. One makes me look terrified.

I’m going for terrified.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

What I am really reading

I have just been loaned an advance copy of the new Lee Child novel Worth Dying For

There goes Sunday.

UPDATE: Brilliant as ever. I read it in a sitting. (A lying, really, supine on the sofa. Well, it was Father’s Day.) More humour than usual, but all the expected unexpected plot twists so it is gripping throughout. But the explanation for how Reacher survived the final scene of 61 Hours is basically that he is awesome (practically “with one bound he was free”), which isn’t really good enough. And I’m not sure about the ending – his behaviour seemed way out of character. It will be very interesting to see what the reviews say come publication in October.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Morton Feldman

The great American composer died on this day in 1987, aged 61. His music is slower (the second string quartet lasts for five hours or more) and quieter than anyone’s, and all of it that I’ve heard is beautiful. When they come to make the film of his life, I nominate Jemaine Clement for the title role.

There is a great story about him arguing in New York with his teacher Stefan Wolpe, a Marxist, who thought that Feldman’s music was too esoteric. Wolpe gestured at the window of his second-floor studio at Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue and said, “What about the man in the street?” He and Feldman looked down and there, crossing the street, was Jackson Pollock.

Here is the IRCAM biography; here is a1992 article from ex tempore: A Journal of Compositional and Theoretical Research in Music; here is a conversation between Feldman and the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis; and here is Feldman on Wolpe. 

Feldman was a deeply serious man and a very funny guy. This is part of his orchestral piece Rothko Chapel:

What I am reading

Cactus Kate on Allan Hubbard and South Canterbury Finance, with documentation. Wouldn’t it be nice if newspaper journalists could and would do this sort of thing. 

BBC Dimensions – it “takes important places, events and things, and overlays them onto a map of where you are.” Addictive – it shows things actual size, so you can see that the moon is the size of Australia.

BK Drinkwater is going long on helium.

Babbage in the Economist builds a better password for your computer.

Tane Thomson, perhaps New Zealand’s most under-rated poet, has a new poem, “The Moderately Hungry Maggot”, on Twitter. (Scroll down a bit.)

UPDATE: Cactus Kate has an absolutely justified vanity post here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Luxury in Taupiri

Taupiri, if you don’t recall it, is on State Highway beside the Waikato River on a bend in the road 10 kilometres south of Huntly before Ngaruawahia. The small mountain there is the burial place of King Tawhiao, Billy T James and Dame Te Atairangikaahu. It is a small town, population 4-500.

Monday’s Waikato Times reported on the feverish excitement in Taupiri about the forthcoming elections for the community board:
The Taupiri Community Board has attracted just two nominations for October’s elections – Elva Gouk and Fred Hansen – with none of the six sitting members seeking re-election.
And that’s prompted several senior Waikato district councillors to call for the board to be disbanded.
“Taupiri has made it abundantly clear it is not interested in having a community board,” said councillor Rod Wise at last week’s council meeting.
“Taupiri Community Board is a luxury that can be handled another way. We should take it up with the Local Government Commission.”
Mr Wise said it was a very small urban community with a hall committee, a recreational reserve dominated by rural people and a rugby ground which was privately owned.
“It would make better sense having a Taupiri appointment to the Ngaruawahia Community Board,” Councillor Moera Solomon said.
“The lack of business at their meetings has concerned me for quite a while,” she said. “It only takes a few minutes to have a meeting. It is a struggle to have a worthwhile discussion about anything.”
 Unfair. The minutes show that meetings can take up to an hour and a half.