Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Today is Tuesday. This crayfish was caught on Monday morning off Tairua by our neighbour who a year ago reckoned that he’d got his fishing costs down to “about $1000 a kilo”.

He had been diving on Sunday and seen his biggest cray ever but didn’t manage to snare it. Happily for us, yesterday he got some smaller ones – including this one which weighs 800g and measures, as you can see, about 10 inches or 25cm. 

It was cooked last night by his wife. She brought it over this afternoon as a thank-you for my minding their letterbox and garden (i.e. nicking their vegetables) over the long weekend. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall go and eat it.

So here is Robert Cray:

There goes the morning

A parcel arrives, by airmail, all the way from England. I tear open the wrapping to reveal a magnificent hardback book, Inside Private Eye: the first 50 years by Adam Macqueen, signed by him as well as by the Eye’s long-serving not-quite-founding editor, Richard Ingrams, and his successor, current editor Ian Hislop. It is arranged in A-Z format as a scrapbook with many photos and cartoons alongside witty accounts of all the magazine’s contributors over the years as well as their targets, libel cases and other causes for celebration. It is designed for dipping into, and it is brilliant. 

Under B, for example, we get “BLUNT, Anthony, extremely displeased to be outed as spy”; under O, “OFFENSIVE, Most, items published in Private Eye”; under R, “REGRETS, Few had by Eds”.

I am pleased to see Arkell v Pressdram covered in full, as it was an inspiration to us at Metro in the late 80s. This was the case of alleged libel where the Eye’s reply to a letter from Arkell’s solicitor ended:
We note that Mr Arkell’s attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you could inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off.
Yours etc.
So far – I really must get back to writing my own book – this is my favourite: 
WIKIPEDIA, Rules of, changed thanks to Eye
In 2008, “Street of Shame” carried a story about the collaborative and notoriously inaccurate online encyclopaedia site Wikipedia, to which a saboteur had added various made-up details about a Cypriot football team (“a small but loyal group of fans are lovingly called ‘the Zany Ones’ – they like to wear hats made from discarded shoes”) only to find them reproduced in a match report in the Daily Mirror when the team played Manchester City.
The Eye noted that “brilliantly, by the rules of Wikipedia – which relies on ‘verifiability – whether readers are able to check that material added has already been published by a reliable third party source’ such as ‘mainstream newspapers’ – this is now officially true”.
Within a week, after a solemn exchange of emails between Wikipedia administrators and the Eye hack who wrote the story (me) the website’s guidelines had been amended. “To avoid this indirect self-referencing, editors should ensure that material from news organisations is not the only existing source outside of Wikipedia.”
This put an end to Wikipedia relying on newspapers for facts. It has certainly not stopped newspapers from relying on Wikipedia for facts.

Monday, January 30, 2012

What I’m reading

Surrender by Donna Malane. Liking it.

Mitt Romney’s tax return explained in comment #17. Two words: corporate tax.  

“Eco-friendly labels are becoming more ubiquitous, but they may be misleading.” You don’t say.

Matt Nolan praises labour market globalisation.

Robust reporting: Tainui news for Waikato readers (via Maui Street).

Home Paddock talks sense about the sale of the Crafar farms, which Cactus Kate rightly refers to as the Westpac farms.

In the February issue of Word (February issue, not online: they’re not silly) English folksinger June Tabor reveals that thanks to Dan Lepard’s 2004 book The Handmade Loaf she is a champion breadmaker:
I once won Best Homebaked Loaf at the Ludlow Food Festival!
Here she is with guitarist Martin Simpson performing Richard Thompson’s “Strange Affair”:

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Show me the money

The Herald interviews (not online; page B15 in the Arts section) Anthony McCarten about his new novel, In the Absence of Heroes:
Best-known for co-writing the 1987 hit stage play Ladies’ Night with Stephen Stratford, McCarten directed his first film, Via Satellite, in 1999, the same year that his debut novel, Spinners, was published.
I’m still waiting for my royalties.


Online now.

Friday, January 27, 2012

How to write a book

This is how I do it. I am not sure which are the most important elements: the research material on all that A4 paper; the CDs of major interviews; the hard copies of what has been previously published on the topic; the brightly coloured versions of Post-It notes; the classic yellow Post-It notes; the glass of water; the glass of wine; or the stack of cookbooks in the distance.

At least I don’t have to make stuff up. Glad I’m not a novelist:

Of meat, cancer, adultery and statistics

More confirmation of the Stratford Theory of Numbers from the BBC which reports:
A link between eating processed meat, such as bacon or sausages, and pancreatic cancer has been suggested by researchers in Sweden.
They said eating an extra 50g of processed meat, approximately one sausage, every day would increase a person's risk by 19%.
Pancreatic cancer is very nasty but the lifetime risk for men is one in 77 or 1.3%. So for the one-a-day sausage-eating community the risk would seem to be 19% more than that, or 1.5%. Hmm. If you ate just one or two sausages a week it might be 1.35%. Change of lifestyle indicated? No, me either.

Recent reading included Panic on a Plate: how society developed an eating disorder by Rob Lyons (Societas, 2011). In the chapter “A smorgasbord of panics”, Lyons debunks the “five a day” fruit and veg policy – a UK professor of food policy (I am not making this up) explains that five was chosen because “it was considered a nice round sum” – then discusses the suggested link between meat-eating and cancer (here is a condensed version) and points out the flimsiness of the evidence:
The studies in question suggest that the people who eat the most processed and red meat have an increased risk of somewhere between 15 per cent and 45 per cent. But given the crude nature of these studies – often based on a questionnaire of a whole variety of different eat­ing and other personal habits in the first week of the study followed by checks on disease status some years later – there is room for all sorts of confounding factors to creep in. Are the kinds of people who eat a lot of processed meat dif­ferent in other ways, too, like being poorer?
That’s why the US National Cancer Institute declared in 1994 that “in epidemiological research, [increases in risk of less than 100 per cent] are considered small and are usually difficult to interpret. Such increases may be due to chance, statistical bias, or the effects of confounding factors that are sometimes not evident”. In other words, if a particular factor does not at least double the risk of a particular disease or condition occurring, treat that result with a pinch of salt. The link between lung cancer and active smoking, for example, is unambiguous, with increases in risk more in the order of 2000 per cent, not 15 per cent. In such circumstances, correla­tion seems a good indication of causation. The red/pro­cessed meat link to cancer is nothing like as strong.
That figure of a 100% increase in risk being the threshold for concern is worth remembering. Speaking of statistical bollocks, the good Oil linked to a superb demolition of that spectacularly stupid story in the NZ Herald based on a press release from an infidelity website – that’s right, you can go online to find someone with whom you can cheat on your spouse/partner. It was headlined “Infidelity: it’s a right-wing, meat-eaters’ thing” and claimed that “If your partner supports National, has a PC, drinks Coke, eats meat, has a tattoo, smokes and is a Christian, be warned – they could be a cheater.”

Over at the excellent StatsChat, statistician Thomas Lumley pulls this apart under the title “Unfaithful to the data, too”:
The proportion of National supporters in the election was 47%, among website members it’s 33%, so National supporters are substantially less likely to be members of the website than supporters of other parties. The proportion identifying as Christian among website members is very similar to the proportion in the 2006 census. 79% of website users are on PC (vs Mac). Again that’s a lower proportion of PCs than in the population of NZ computers (the Herald said 10% were Macs in July 2010, and for Aus+NZ combined, IDC now says 15%) but one explanation is that Macs have more of the home market than the business market.  More members drinking Coke vs Pepsi is also not surprising — I couldn’t find population figures, but Coke dominates the NZ cola market.
The story doesn’t say, but we can also be pretty confident that the website members are more likely to be Pakeha than Maori, more likely to be accountants than statisticians, and more likely to have a pet cat than a pet camel.
Cactus Kate has boldly gone where I wouldn’t and checked the cheaters’ website out. To no one’s surprise what she found a) was repulsive and b) confirms that New Zealanders have but one degree of separation.

So here is Dean Martin (because he was a member of the Rat Pack) with Hank Williams’s “Your Cheating Heart”:

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Brand New Zealand

My dear wife – especially dear just now because she has taken the children off to the Manawatu and Wairarapa for the next few days so that I can write a book, or at least get a good start on it as it is due in two weeks – passed on this from Straight Furrow (not online): the owners of a Gisborne lifestyle block sell their organic avocados and mandarins at the local farmers’ market under the label “Quite Tasty”.

“Quite Tasty”. Has there ever been a more quintessentially understated New Zealandy brand name?

Speaking of farmers’ markets, we were in Auckland last weekend so checked out the Grey Lynn version which is down Richmond Road from a café called JAFA and in a hall (unlike our local which is up the road from a café called Rata and outdoors in a park with trees). There was a chap there selling Over The Moon cheese from Putaruru: it is excellent cheese but hardly local which I thought was the whole point of farmers’ markets. Still, the Grey Lynn Community Centre is a very nice hall which is why I published it in Architecture NZ when I was editor a year or 12 ago. 

Sentence of the day

“I’m in the profession that feels with empathy and compassion and intuition.”
Geoffrey Rush, Aussie of the Year. Self-regarding, moi?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Recommended reading

Chris Bourke on banjos and Peter Bland. More on Peter here at the TLS.

A virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. When I went to the Vatican I couldn’t face the crowds: this will do me. A suggestion: turn the music up LOUD.

The drugs don’t work But maybe.. .  Good to see David Hume quoted; very intelligent/informed comments about trial and error.

Beware the Dorothy.

Rebonds A, by Iannis Xenakis. Hyper-drumming.

The early music pioneer Gustav Leonhardt has died.

Put Chad Taylor and Jonathon King together and what do you get? City Lights. Fantastic in both senses.  

It’s Chinese New Year, introducing the year of the dragon. So here is Dragon with “Still in Love with You”:

Happy birthday, Neil Diamond

Neil Diamond was born on 24 January 1941. He wrote the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer”, Lulu’s “The Boat that I Row” and Deep Purple’s “Kentucky Woman”. Respect. He did all right as a solo artist too. Legend has it that (insert incredible percentage of your choice, starting at 80) of New Zealand homes had a copy of his 1972 live album Hot August Night. Here he is performing “I Am, I Said” in 1971.

Sample lyric:
“I am,” I said
 To no one there
 And no one heard at all
 Not even the chair
And here he is performing “Holly Holy”, maybe the best Jewish gospel song ever before Leonard Cohen got the idea:

Monitor: Home Paddock

Correction of the week

From the Economist, 21 January issue, page 82:
Clarification  In our review of “Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography” (“Leaker’s Leak”, October 1st 2011), we said that Swedish prosecutors wished to question Mr Assange “in two cases of rape”. In fact, Mr Assange is accused of one offence of rape, two offences of sexual molestation and one offence of unlawful coercion. We are happy to make this clear.
Happy? They sound ecstatic.

According to the Guardian, in its first week the book sold 644 copies in the UK. Canongate, its publisher, had paid Assange an advance of £412,000.  

Monday, January 23, 2012

Nina Nola on Yvonne du Fresne

The 45th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the October 1996 issue: the portrait is by Jo Heller. The intro read:
Nina Nola talks to bicultural novelist Yvonne du Fresne about alternative notions of “home”.
I sat in the cable car on a piercingly bright Wellington winter morning with my dossier on Yvonne du Fresne clutched between sweaty palms: will I remember which side of her family is Danish, which French Huguenot? Will I confuse her novels? How does a Dalmatian New Zealand doctoral researcher encounter a writer like du Fresne, whose prose creates such a pervasive sense of Scandinavia?
As I step out of the car, notes and camera bundled under one arm, I see a figure making uncertainly toward me. I am surprised to see du Fresne – it has to be her, peering at me over large, red-framed sunglasses – looking so un-Danish in a white sweatshirt, blue skirt and slip-ons. She could have been any European New Zealander out on a Sunday walk around the rose gardens, sprightly and, I was surprised to note, rather small.
Her short fair hair blew wildly as we walked to her car and then she smiled, her eyes crinkled up and slanted like almonds, as the eyes of Danes have a habit of doing when they are happy (I had learned this from her fiction), and yes, here was more of the Dane I had expected to meet.
Driving over the hills from Kelburn we descended into an increasingly barren, wild landscape. Yvonne was disappointed not to find the resident geese waiting to welcome me to her Makara, but a few corners ahead there they were, sunning themselves on the banks of the stream.
Suddenly all echoes of Hans Anderson disintegrated into the spilling-out mouth of the sea that gaped at the coast of forbidding Makara Beach. We turned up the last driveway to Yvonne’s beach house, perched on the hill, just as I had always imagined it. I could see through the glass doors that the simple cottage was small and cosy, full of hygge (comfort, warmth, food and welcome – everything a Danish home should offer a visitor). Geraniums in pots crowded around the entrance, and a fine-nosed collie was barking excitedly. She was called “Lalla” in Motherland – though she is Olivia by pedigree – and Lalla she remained throughout our afternoon.
We walked through the cottage to Yvonne’s studio, divan lining the back wall, a comfortable writing chair facing the sea. The cover mock-up of Yvonne’s latest novel lay in front of me, a bold play of a rich yellow field, blue sky, a windmill idling in the distance with the title Motherland suspended across the terrain. The image spoke of Denmark, but the title poses the question: which country is the homeland of Astrid, a New Zealand-born woman about to turn 50 and fall in love with a Danish journalist with whom she experiences the country and culture of her parents?
It is based on the author’s experience of trying not to be different in conformist New Zealand, and it made me wonder how the pen that produced the Astrid stories in the immensely popular Farvel and its follow-up The Growing of Astrid Westergaard could develop the portraits of the two or three intolerant New Zealanders, among the many who embrace cultural diversity, in Astrid’s adult world.
A pair of malevolent characters, in flashback, molest little Astrid as she proudly, and innocently, wears Danish national costume. The bright and flamboyant clothes are a marker of cultural difference, and incite violence in these men, much as the homespun jumper covered with bidibids and smelling of shearing sheds, worn by Bill at the Danish education conference, humorously invites the reader’s recognition of what New Zealand culture stands for in the popular imagination. To Astrid, the jumper is home – or one of them, at least.
Du Fresne started writing stories based largely on English models, butt captivated Robin Dudding, then editor of Islands, with stories that were to become part of the Farvel and The Growing collections. Commissioned for radio, each story was written in the weekends, after du Fresne had finished her school work. Their success encouraged her to harness her Danish voice and develop her portraits of growing up in the Manawatu in the 30s and 40s.
With confidence and acclaim, she felt impelled to address the other side of her heritage, her paternal French Huguenot side. The Book Of Ester and Frederique explore the lives of the heroines of the titles, contemporary Ester Capelier, and 19th-century Frederique D’Albret who, with the remnants of her family, flees Catholic persecution in Europe and hides on the Manawatu plains. Both novels, like the short stories, are set in the Manawatu, with an intertwining of imported and Maori spirituality, but centre on a European past.
This affinity of the Danes with Maoris has irked reviewers, who are uncomfortable with what they see as du Fresne’s too-easy affiliation of European coloniser with the colonised. Du Fresne’s explanation that the Danes are very sensitive to aboriginal people is particularly relevant to the fellow-feeling developed through her characters Astrid, Ester and Frederique, and Maoris, towards the land. She felt an echo of this intense, respectful and symbiotic relationship on her visit to Denmark while on a writing scholarship: “I felt really a part of the landscape. This countryside was where my families, and my larger ‘national’ family lived and worked. My past was all around me, skin and bone and spirit.”
This recognition of what it is to be a Dane punctuates Motherland with acute and sometimes poignant observations. Astrid is surrounded by people who look and behave as she does, and at last she’s one of a large group; she even realises there is a peculiarly Danish type of hair and a way of wearing it, as she sees herself reassuringly mirrored in Danish women.
The puzzle of Astrid’s life in New Zealand is also completed as she fits into the mould of her lover Kristian. Bone to bone the couple lock into a seemingly perfect physical match, while their words play in and out of a weave of English and Danish: “My cheekbones and chin. His own mouth: lower lip full, at rest; upper lip thin and mobile all the better to speak Danish. Fading blond hair with the same grey patches as mine and the same cowlick and thinness. I knew exactly how he walked, ate, moved his hands, curled up in sleep. I was him and he was me. After such a long absence it gave me a light-headed feeling and huge relief. My mind couldn’t grasp how the pattern of our shared genes had formed again and again over one hundred and five years, twelve thousand miles apart, and not changed.”
Throughout Du Fresne’s fiction there is acknowledgement of other pasts, of alternative notions of “home” that challenge the Eurocentric norm of Pakeha New Zealand. Only the Dalmatian New Zealander Amelia Batistich before her has written of the contemporary impact of two cultures outside the Maori/Pakeha dynamic. Like Batistich, du Fresne pushes the limits of what a New Zealander writes.
With her sixth book, du Fresne’s prose is as sparse and potent as ever. Her distinctive style shines – as do her eyes when I hand her the gift I have brought. The delight with which she savours unwrapping the bottle of lavender that I had helped my grandfather harvest in Croatia, and the way she enjoys the aroma that escapes, reminds me of my own thrill at every word on a du Fresne page. I am reminded also of Maurice Gee’s comment on her writing: “Everything is tasted, heard, seen, smelt. Many writers operate on about one sense, your landscape is absolutely delicious.” Q

Farvel and Other Stories (VUP, 1980)
Du Fresne’s reputation was firmly established by this first book (the title translates as “Farewell”), which Bill Manhire’s introduction likens to a tapestry, with her language a needle “flashing in and out of linen”.
This is an obvious place to start to get to know Astrid, her family and the community she describes from the outside as an observer beside her Far, Mor and Bedstemoder, and from the inside as a schoolchild trying desperately to be a good member of the British Empire.
Astrid is a spy setting out to discover the world for herself, and the new world for her family. Stories such as “The Messengers” underscore the collection with a sense of the vital importance of the first-generation children: Astrid must “find the message” of the new land for herself and her people so that they may escape the migrant’s fate of drifting psychically anchorless.
“The Looters” is a popular favourite as it humorously parades the ability of Astrid’s family to mimic the English, both the language and the culture, around them.
The stories are all brief, simply constructed, and linked for the original Radio New Zealand broadcast format. This lends them continuity and promotes a picture of a community and Astrid’s vital place within it.

The Book Of Ester (1982, out of print)
Astrid makes way for Ester Capelier, Danish becomes Danish-French Huguenot and the wholesome symbiosis of childhood in the Manawatu disintegrates into a widow’s sense of not belonging in New Zealand any more. The elements are simple enough, but du Fresne’s alternative mythmaking is complex and potent.
Her strongest work to date on the ethnic theme, Ester comes with a preface linking du Fresne’s previously explored Danish heritage with the stories of the French Huguenot: “They were still trying to fit in with the Danes, let alone the New Zealanders!”
An introduction helps to make sense of exiled Calvinist Protestants escaping persecution across Europe, and journeying through Ester’s grieving mind. Only by reconciling herself to the plight of her ancestors, and a 17th-century namesake in particular, can present-day Ester pick up the pieces of her shattered life.
This book has been called the classic study of working through grief, but you don’t have to be bereaved to relish the intricate web of alternative mythmaking at which du Fresne excels.

The Growing of Astrid Westergaard and Other Stories (1985, out of print)
This book returns to Astrid and her family, friends Cherry Taylor and Anna Friis, and continues the semi-autobiographical storytelling of Farvel. Astrid’s exuberance is as infectious as ever, her wide-eyed appreciation of her Danish heritage and endless thirst for experience undaunted by restrictive schooling.
This collection is divided into three sections: 11 stories exploring Astrid’s negotiation of her position as a schoolgirl between the wars in the Danish farming community of the Manawatu; three final bleak tales of adult women disappointed and despondent, bereft of the comfort family provides childhood, adding a darker note to the world of Astrid’s perpetual optimism; and a single bridging story which gives the collection its title.
This account of Astrid’s “growing” marks a pivotal step in the child’s perception of her place as a Danish New Zealander. Equipped with a multicultural sensitivity, Astrid is able to embrace “our country”. The growing of Astrid Westergaard has indeed begun.

Frederique (Penguin, 1987)
Don’t be put off by the cover! Do read the novels chronologically: even if Frederique D’Albret hails from the last century, she is introduced in Ester’s readings on the Reformation and so seems familiar. This book is hard to get into, but the richness of myth and memory make the text increasingly rewarding as you read on, even if you don’t buy into the apparently supernatural mystery of psychic links central to the plot.
The romantic ending is a total surprise, but that is probably giving away too much – this poetic, evocatively textured historical fiction legitimises other threads of myths to be woven into the story of colonial New Zealand. Not a costume drama, more a testament to the migrant experience.

The Bear From the North (Women’s Press, 1989)
No new stories, but a British publishing coup for du Fresne. The subtitle “Tales From A New Zealand Childhood” is a telling addition, introducing the Danish perspective to an international concept of what it is to be a New Zealander.

Yvonne du Fresne’s cousin Karl du Fresne blogged recently his fine article about her and the importance of knowing one’s family history, first published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard on 4 January, 2012.

Friday, January 20, 2012


For their dining music last night daughters Seven and Nine requested, not for the first time, “Cities” by the Moody Blues. It’s not one of the band’s greatest hits, merely the B-side to the hit single “Nights in White Satin” which was released on 10 November 1967. I have always liked the song but am baffled as to why the children do. They have even invented their own gestures to accompany the lines “Up above, all around, in the sky, underground, this is what I have found” – you can imagine.  

Looking through the booklet of the Moody Blues box-set Time Traveller, I was struck by the band’s work rate:
Days of Future Passed, November 1967.
In Search of the Lost Chord, July 1968.
On the Threshold of a Dream, April 1969.
To Our Children’s Children’s Children, November 1969.
A Question of Balance, August 1970.
Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, July 1971.
There were more to come but those are the albums their reputation rests on – six adventurous and wildly successful albums in a shade under four years. At the time, the advances in style from album to album were astonishing, especially the first three. Compare and contrast the work rate and musical development with today’s slackers. These guys were working.

To get an idea of how far they had come, here is the first incarnation of the band when they were a hot teenage rocking combo serving up standard UK R&B. Singer/guitarist Denny Laine went on to work with Paul McCartney in Wings. Here they are with “I’ll Go Crazy” from 1966:

This is Mike Pinder singing his “Really Haven’t Got the Time”, a May 1967 B-side. It is possibly the most sexist song ever before “Free Bird”. Still great, though. Pinder went on to be the spiritual one in the band – by July 1968 on ISotLC he was chanting “Om”, and he eventually moved to California to make dismal New Age music. What a long strange trip it’s been:

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Happy birthday, Cary Grant

Born as Archibald Leach on 18 January 1904 in England, died as Cary Grant on 29 November 1986 in America. He shared a house with Randolph Scott and married five times (Dyan Cannon was #4) so was perhaps the George Clooney of his generation. 

Here he is in one of my favourite films, His Girl Friday (1940) with Rosalind Russell (the director was Howard Hawks, script by Charles Lederer from the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur). The overlapping dialogue predates Robert Altman by a few years. Sample quote:
“You had to marry me and spoil everything.”

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Denis Edwards on writing for the movies

The 44th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1997 issue. The intro read:
You could write something along the lines of Die Hard, Terminator or Waterworld. But if you want your movie to be made, think low-budget. One location, two actors, no children, no pets. Your script adviser: Denis Edwards.
Sitting down to write your film script and hoping it will sweep you from Grey Lynn or the Aro Valley to a life of having to decide whether or not you want to get out of your Malibu pool? Then it’s worth making a start on learning the rules for writing a low-budget feature film, because unless you happen to be Peter Jackson, the chances are you won’t be writ­ing anything else.
There is nothing wrong or sinful or embarrassing about this. Low-budget films can be massive successes. Once Were Warriors, Truly Madly Deeply, Strictly Ballroom, Sex, Lies and Videotapes and Dead Man Walking were all low- or comparatively low-budget films. All of them made a lot of money, with the latter two winning at Cannes or on Oscar night.
What they had in common was that they were about people and their relationships. Not a massive “boom boom” action sequence or a “blow them away” set of special effects in any of them.
That left the burden falling on the writers’ talent and knowledge of the craft, the Hero’s Journey, the three-act structure, dramatic throughlines and, above all, an understanding of people and the ways they interact.
Dead Man Walking is a textbook example of low-budget film writing. It has only a few locations, and only one big outdoors scene, going into the woods for the rape/ murder scene. Outside that is a series of increasingly tense and gripping interactions between the characters.
It would be interesting to see which lingers in a filmgoer’s memory, that moment of terrible quiet when Susan Sarandon began her siege on Sean Penn’s last layer of denial, or the biggest action sequence ever filmed. Bet on the former.
To thrill and excite an audience, or even get the movie made, on a minuscule budget, means both knowing and applying the rules.

General Rules
1. Drama is better than comedy. Drama is slightly more bullet-proof against miscasting, unimaginative directors, dull photography, or even less than brilliant writing. Because expectations are higher – that we will be made to laugh – comedy is much more exposed.
2. Contemporary drama is better than a period piece. It is easier to get the details right, and it can be done without all those animals. See #10 below.
3. Limit the number of lead players. Daily players are much cheaper. Less is more.
4. One location beats two, or three or 10 locations. Less is more.
5. Exteriors are better than interiors. They save on lighting. Actually this one tends to apply to places like India or Southern California, where they know they are going to have reliable light. So, in New Zealand’s unpredictable climate, interior is probably the way to go.
6. If there’s going to be location shooting, choose locations to suit cameras rather than sound. Sound can be dubbed in later.
7. Scenes with no talking are better than scenes with a lot of dialogue. Less is more.
8. Talking about a bank robbery is much better than staging a bank robbery. Quentin Tarantino did it in Reservoir Dogs. Less is more.
9. Two principals are always better than three. Having three means having to move the camera around too much, adding to shooting time. Shooting time is money. Less is more.
10. Adults are always preferable to children, who are preferable, but only just, to animals.
11. If there’s a place to really go over the top and to hell with everything, it is in story ideas. This is the one place where more is better.
Just in case anyone happened to miss the core point in all this – less really, really is more.

The Producer’s Questions
The producer is the person who takes the most meetings, scares up the money, hires the people and says “no” a lot, often on a cellphone.
Producers have rules of their own for deciding whether a script begins moving from the pile on their desk to development, shooting and finally decisions as to whether it even gets released.
1. Do I like the characters and the story in the script (because I’m going to be stuck with it for a long time)?
2. Are the writer, director and actors up to the work?
3. Can the writer do rewrites, or quickly re­target the movie? That happened with Once Were Warriors, when the focus of the story was shifted from the husband to the wife.
4. Is this a project which could be got going quickly if money suddenly came available? Implication: writers shouldn’t even think of setting a low-budget movie in another country.

The Director’s Questions
This is the person who moves the actors around and generally has a vision as to how the movie will be when he or she says “cut” for the final time. Directors tend to get most credit when the film is a hit, and but will generously allow the writer a place in the limelight if the film fails.
1. Will there be time for rehearsals to try to get everyone involved thoroughly, understanding how they fit into the story, preventing delays and confusion while actors struggle with their motivation and at the same time 35 crew stand around waiting for something to happen?
2. Has a good part of the budget been set aside for the exciting and visual stuff?
3. Do I like the story enough to be dealing with things going wrong on the set and the constant reminders about budgets and the need to get everything done to a precise timetable?
4. Will the writer be able to step in quickly and help out if a rewrite is needed?

The Great Truth All Writers Should Understand
Writers rewrite. The need for this is finally over when the film appears on the screen in a commercial cinema.

The Difference Between Film and Television
Time was when television was indoors and movies were outdoors. Television, with its hi-tech gear, has caught up. The most obvious distinction nowadays is length. Movies have got a lot, lot longer, to the point where it is rare to get out of one without going through the two-hour barrier.

Warning Signs for Writers
1. “You are OK about an occasional tweaking of a scene here and there, aren’t you?” 2. “You have a lot to gain by getting your name on the credits of a movie, don’t you?” This is freely translated as “You are ready to crawl over broken glass to get a career break and we know it. This means we can get away without paying you very much and we don’t have to give you profit participation and can ensure you a slow death by rewrite.”
3. “You are the really creative person here. Just write whatever you feel flowing out. Don’t you worry yourself about the budget. We’ll sort all that out later. What we want is for you to get it all down on paper, and not to deny us any riches.”
Writers hearing this have just heard the introduction to that feared oration, the Producer’s Speech of Wounded Reproach. It is a variation on this: “Oh dear, dear. We [mean­ing the writer working alone] will have to do a lot of work. All those locations are going to have to go. So are all those vehicles, child actors, horses and five of the seven leads.
“Let’s start thinking about those special effects. Oh, and that old mansion in the Hokianga? I’m afraid it’s gone. We’re pulling everything back to Mt Roskill. I’ve done a contra on a house there. And we’ve only got 18 days’ shooting instead of 31, so we might have to have a little look at a couple of those story threads.
“But hey, the basics of the script are great.”

The Writer’s Survival Kit
1. Be such a good writer that no one would dream of changing a word of your script. The money for the Cracker series was raised on the quality of Jimmy McGovern’s scripts, and they were shot as is. In the US, Elaine May, Robert Towne and William Goldman are kept on $100,000-a-week retainers to bandage wounded scripts and to ensure their employers get first look at any original material they might choose to write. New Zealand writers seldom need to trouble them­selves with how they would feel about being in the McGovern, May, Towne, Goldman situation.
2. Understand that the writing of a film script is less art than the preparation of a blueprint for an industrial process. Blueprints get changed. Your script will be changed. It is better for your psychological well-being if you get control of the process by, figuratively speaking, dropping your trousers and assuming the position before someone else does it for you. Putting it another way, be prepared to do rewrites.
3. Make sure you are part of the process right from the beginning, and if possible stay in the loop.
The latter, the writer being part of the collaborative effort, is the key to success in low-­budget film scripts. There isn’t the time or the money to explore alternatives. One producer describes his job as making sure that everyone is working on the same picture. This avoids having one person viewing the material as a comedy while another sees it as having considerable potential for a remake of Silence of the Lambs.
This has happened. So has success, fame and money. Good luck.

Thanks to Michael Brindley and his “Writing The Low-Budget Feature” workshop, the New Zealand Writers Guild and Jonathan Dowling of Zee Films.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

What I’m reading

The title of Kevin Ireland’s latest book must be ironic: by my count Dreamy Days & Nothing Done (published this month by Steele Roberts) is his 19th collection of poems and there have also been six novels, two memoirs and a collection of short stories. 

It is a happy book. As Paul Simon nearly sang, he is still writing crazy love poems after all these years.

So here are Ray Charles and Van Morrison:

Friday, January 13, 2012

A.K. Grant on jokes

The 43rd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the November 1996 issue: A.K Grant reviews The Penguin Book of New Zealand Jokes, edited by John Barnett and Lesley Kaiser. [Disclaimer: in 1998 I compiled/wrote The JAFA Joke Book, in 2000 The NZ Sports Joke Book, and in 2002 The New Penguin Joke Book and The Puffin New Zealand Joke Book, all for Penguin. It’s harder than it looks.]

John Barnett and Lesley Kaiser “initiate” books and undertake “projects”. Their associate, Brian Schaab (“Shabby”) has been in the police for 28 years, apparently collecting jokes during that time (not while on duty, I trust), enjoys sport and lives in Napier with his wife Jude. Nothing to complain about there. But the book itself should be investigated under the Commerce and Fair Trading Acts.
Most of the jokes included are “a catchment”. There is nothing to relate them to New Zealand apart from the fact that they have at some time or other been told here. At page 12 of their lengthy and extremely boring introduction, Barnett and Kaiser ask themselves, “What does this book say about New Zealand?” The answer is, almost nothing, because most of the jokes are international: the only New Zealand aspect to them is that they have been included in a book misleadingly entitled The Penguin Book Of New Zealand Jokes. A more accurate title would have been The New Zealand Book Of Jokes Assembled For Penguin.
Barnett and Kaiser, in their humour-free, risibility-challenged introduction, make some odd claims. They say, at page 16, “Jokes have particularly flourished in the 20th century, the years since the Second World War having seen their ascendancy”. This would have come as news to the wits associated with the New Yorker in the 20s and 30s or, for that matter, to the Earl of Rochester or Lord Byron.
They say at page 19 that “Jokes are mainly told by men”. This would come as news to the large numbers of women who make excellent jokes about their partners’ inadequacies as lovers.
On page 18 we are told, “Jokes exist within an oral culture, and, though we can present them, as herein, in written form, they’re reliant for success upon delivery, upon the teller of the joke. That is to say, a joke is not just content, but content that’s given life by telling. . .”
Now if that is true, and it would certainly seem to apply to much of the material included in this work, then what is the point of writing these jokes down at all, since without the mitigating and alleviating enhancement of the teller’s personality and style the joke appears, on the printed page, flat, lifeless, often obscene and, worst of all, unfunny? No doubt Penguin will point to vast sales of this book as proof that there is a market for works of this kind. Nevertheless the statement just quoted seems equivalent to a claim in a preface to a cookbook that most of the recipes aren’t very tasty. Which may be correct, but it seems a bit odd to point it out.
More psychobabble on page 20: “There is an element of liberation in the associated physical release of telling a joke that also applies to the hearing of it, that also applies to the sharing of it.” I have given this statement considerable thought, but I still can’t work out what it means. It seems to imply that telling a joke is a bit like having an ejaculation. If that is what the authors mean, they should say so.
If all they mean is that it is fun to tell a joke and fun to listen to one, then they should say that. Particularly as there are all kinds of reasons other than for physical release why jokes are told: to make yourself seem interesting, to fill an awkward gap in a conversation, to make sense of the universe.
And how about this for serious impenetrability: “In jokes the contradictions and tensions of our time and place are deconstructed as they are acknowledged, at the same time as our view of the social word is destabilised, the seriousness of this enterprise being undermined by the laughter that’s produced.”
Anybody who can write a sentence like that wouldn’t recognise a joke if it was rolled very thinly and shoved up their nose. Jokes are innocent, airy little things. They don’t deserve to be jumped up and down on with hobnailed boots like that.
Actually I withdraw that last remark. The best line I ever read about jokes came from a sacked BBC scriptwriter: “Jokes are evil, nasty and subversive. That’s why people like them.” That’s all that needs to be said about jokes.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The end of civilisation

Waterstone’s is dropping its apostrophe. Truly, these are the end times.  

The UK bookshop chain is owned by the Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut, who bought it from HMV (of which he owns 6%) for £53 million in May last year. At the time, the Daily Telegraph reported that he “has strong links to the Kremlin”. Fancy that.

Hounding Pippa Middleton

The headline on Stuff today:
Pippa hounded by photographers
The story:
The picture editor of Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper says he sees up to 400 photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge’s sister, Pippa Middleton, cross his desk every day.
Paul Silva says the younger sister of the former Kate Middleton typically has eight or nine photographers camped outside her door and estimated that they produce between “300 to 400 pictures” of her daily.
Silva was answering questions at the Leveson Inquiry, a judge-led investigation into the ethics of Britain’s media.
The inquiry was set up in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal centred on Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and has heard from celebrities who say they were hounded by paparazzi.
Silva said that he saw no need to constantly run photographs of Pippa Middleton.
The illustrations:
Two photographs of Pippa Middleton in case we have forgotten what she looks like – a close-up of her smiling wearing a denim jacket and sunglasses, and a long-shot from the rear of her at the royal wedding.

The comments from readers: 
So far, 17 out of 23 are about her bottom and/or general hotness. Precisely two get Mr Silva’s point.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

An ethical tree

The Guardian has a feature on Christmas presents called What did Santa bring?, interviewing eight mothers and their children about the big day in. Here is mother Matilda Lee:
Being ethical informs my whole worldview. I’m an editor at the Ecologist, I’ve written a book on ethical fashion, we have homemade decorations, buy an ethical tree, eat locally sourced, organic food. When the children were little, it was easy to buy them green gifts, but now Dimitri’s six, it’s more difficult. He watches TV, he sees adverts, all his friends talk about what they’re getting for Christmas. He wants stuff.
This year, as well as a stocking full of arts and crafts and a satsuma, and an adopted snow leopard from WWF, I’m afraid he got a Nintendo DS. I am troubled by how it was made, by whom, and what’s going to happen to it when, inevitably, he finds it uninteresting. Also, I worry about the impact it’ll have on him. We get him outside as much as possible, and the last thing he needs is something to keep him inside focused on a screen.
We’re in the years when our kids are into the idea of presents under the tree. When Dimitri’s older, I’d like to buy him a day out for Christmas. There’s a place near us that does cooking classes – he’d love that. If we lived in a like-minded community where everyone bought ethically, it would be perfect, but, for now, I don’t think it would be healthy for him to be very different from his peers.
Monitor: Rod Liddle

Sentence of the day

In the 31 December issue of the Spectator, David Crane reviews Lisbon: war in the shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945 by Neill Lochery, and describes the wartime atmosphere of Portugal’s capital under the dictator Salazar:
It is a city obsessed with fears that never materialise, with kidnaps that never happen and plots that come to nothing; a city of Allied and Axis spies and their informers, feeding on false information in an endless and largely futile cycle of bribery, blackmail, rumour and counter-rumour: a city, in short, so morally bankrupt that even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor do not seem out of place.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What we did on our holidays

Eat. Read. Friends. Drink. Walk. Horses. Piggery. Where we stayed there were quail, tuis, pheasants, yellowheads, gannets, oystercatchers and a bunch of other things with wings.

Seen on State Highway 1 between Wellsford and Te Hana: a stationwagon on the side of the road with a large sign advertising FRIED BREĀD. That is the best macron ever.

Tutukaka was lovely as always – we had a great view over the harbour – but every day I said, Stephen Sondheimishly, “And where are the dolphins? There ought to be dolphins. Well, maybe next year.”

So here is Fred Neil in 1966 singing “Dolphins”. What a song, and what a voice:

One night we went to have dinner with our friends Lindsay and Linda who live on Mount Tiger, thereby providing a moderately terrifying drive home on a long and winding road in the rain and dark. So here is Eno in 1974 with “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy”:

We like Northland, but it’s good to be home.

Do not adjust your set

Back from holiday – normal service resumes shortly.