Thursday, August 30, 2012

Adventures in the book trade #3

In What I’m reading #56, posted on 29 April, and again in What I’m reading #77, posted on 25 August,  I complained that Booksellers NZ’s lists of Premier Bestsellers was misleading because it was inaccurate and out of date, and harmful because journalists used it as a source of (mis)information. Some of my books qualified for bronze and one for silver but they weren’t listed – not that I cared as they were all out of print, but it was an indicator that all was not well. And I knew of many other books that had also scored the requisite sales but were not listed. It was a well-intentioned programme but just didn’t work. Today Booksellers NZ announced:
Following discussions within the trade, Booksellers NZ has decided to discontinue the Premier Bestsellers programme.
This programme was established some years ago to provide publishers with the opportunity of being able to “sticker” books that had attained certain levels in sales as recorded by the respective publishers.
To be awarded Premier Bestseller status, a book needed to have sold certain number of copies, and publishers needed to apply for the status and pay an accreditation fee.
The programme has not proved popular in recent years with only two or three publishers applying each year.
“Aside from the loss of interest by the majority of publishers, the programme has also become widely misunderstood,” said Lincoln Gould, CEO of Booksellers NZ.
The list of books awarded bronze, silver, gold or platinum status had, until yesterday, been on the Booksellers NZ website.
“Media often refer to the premier listings as a definitive list of the New Zealand books that have sold the most over the years. As a result, there has been concern expressed that many bestselling authors have been left off the list.
“However, the list only contains those books which publishers have applied for,” said Lincoln.
Good. I can’t claim the credit – the people at Booksellers knew there was a problem – but it’s still a win.

Kate De Goldi on Owen Marshall

The 56th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the November 1993 issue. The portrait is by Bruce Foster. The intro read:
Crop circles, the Bermuda triangle, the mind of David Lange – these are the recognised mysteries of our time. Yet an even greater mystery is Owen Marshall’s persistent lack of fame. He’s one of the world’s greatest living short-story writers, yet he’s hardly a household name even here in New Zealand. Kate Flannery [the writing name De Goldi was using then] visited him at home in Timaru.
The first time I met and talked to Owen Marshall I noted with great satisfaction how his farewell words brought us seam­lessly back to the topic of conversation we had begun with a couple of hours earlier. I can’t remember the subject matter now, but at the time I thought, ah, tidiness, completion, he’s good at endings just as a short­-story writer should be.
Six years on, as I return to his Timaru home, I find the inadequacy, the cuteness, of that earlier summary a trifle embarrassing. In the interim I’ve read all Marshall’s published fiction and am acutely aware that its depth and complexity goes beyond mere endings. I have some hesitantly framed questions to put in regard to this impressive body of work  - seven volumes in 14 years. Also, rumour has it that Owen Marshall has written a novel and, from the master of the short form, this is something of a surprise departure.
Aside from his tertiary education and two stints as writing Fellow at Canterbury and Otago Universities, Marshall has lived in New Zealand provincial towns for most of his 51 years. He describes himself firmly as a provincial or regional writer. Born in Te Kuiti, he grew up in Wanganui, Blenheim and Timaru and has chosen to spend his adult life in Oamaru and Timaru. It is the sharply rendered social terrain of the New Zealand small town against which many of his fictions unfold. As we sit beside his open fire I ask him about his choice of small­-town life.
“In part it is a reflection of my early personal history, but I like a semi-rural lifestyle,  I think I operate best within it, I think I understand best the New Zealand life of small towns, of the rural hinterland.”
He likes the outdoor life, dislikes crowds and a lot of noise. But there are other less obvious differences which for him separate urban and semi-rural New Zealand. “I think it is primarily a matter of values and stance. Occasionally people from the larger centres have said that my work is dealing with a New Zealand of 30 or 40 years back – which makes me smile a little. Sometimes it is – deliberately, as when I’m writing about my own boyhood – but at other times it’s in fact talking about what is operating here and now in heartland New Zealand.
“What is New Zealand life in Auckland now is not the New Zealand life for Tuatapere, for Oamaru, for Methven. There’s a bit of a sociological timewarp operating and I think city people are inclined to forget that. The pace of change in those places is very different and even the nature of the change is distinct.”
Out of the singular rhythms and preoccupations of small-town New Zealand Marshall has crafted some of our literature’s modem classics. A sub-group of these, the boyhood stories, have now been collected in a new volume, The Ace Of Diamonds Gang And Other Stories, soon to be released by John McIndoe. The stories are drawn mostly from Marshall’s earlier volumes: “I think when I started writing I tended to exploit my own experience more than I do now, though I was never a closely autobiographical writer. I think writers are attracted by the freshness and insightfulness and vividness of childhood recollection and find it quite galvanising.”
These stories are vintage Marshall. It is recognisably, though not exclusively, a male world; the youthful protagonists, generally pre-adolescent and pubescent boys, collide with and try to make sense of the peculiar logic of adult affairs, though just as often it is the bitter realities of childhood that provide the “fairly harsh learning curve of youth” – as Marshall puts it.
A recurring preoccupation in the stories is the opposition between the clear-sighted young observer, with uncorrupted imagination, and the obtuse adult world, obsessed with the pragmatic. All his stories, in fact, deal in some way with this notion of division: between the artist and the materialistic world, the outsider and the community, the emotionally estranged husband and wife. Are the child with the honest eye and the artist aligned?
“Yes, I do think so. If you like, it’s doing a little redress of the balance of the artistic or imaginative view. It’s part of my nature, so it tends to come through in my writing. I think that our society is very materialistic and often the way the imagination is expressed in people’s lives is undervalued in society. I tend to be interested in how people succour the imagination, how they maintain their magnificent or trivial obsessions. I’m not suggesting that we should disdain conventional aspects of success. I just think we have to bolster other aspects of life – the inner life if you like, the internal passions, as opposed to the external ones.”
Nourishing and sustaining the inner life has of course been an article of faith throughout Marshall’s own writing life. He has lived that philosophy through 30 years of teaching, fitting writing into the bits in between work, family and community life – a struggle, he points out, experienced by most New Zealand writers. Ultimately he has made room for his writing by pulling back on other aspects of his life: sport and socialising, and teaching ambitions. “I have fewer friends now than probably 15 or 20 years ago.”
And his ambition, his desire to write, grew with a degree of success. “I didn’t write a tremendous amount before the first stories were accepted, because I had a lot of other things in my life, but my motivation and commitment increased when I began to master a few of the skills and to place some of my work.”
The careful juggling act which describes Marshall’s writing life, is in many ways expressive of the man – at least, as he appears to the observer, clear-eyed or otherwise. He is a measured man, as precise in his conversation as he is in his stories. He is reflective and controlled – just as well, I think, since the many interruptions to his writing might well have driven a less patient person up the wall.
“It may be a disappointing thing for people to hear, but generally I can pack up my work mentally and walk away from it. I enjoy what I’m doing, but I can usually switch off. Sometimes I’ll do it by going and having a game of squash or a walk. I’m still observing, the copywriter’s still there, but I’m not agonising all day about how I’m going to carry on tomorrow.”
Similarly, he says that his characters don’t haunt him. “I’ve been intrigued, reading in biographies of writers, that their characters have inhabited them. They’ve almost had a demonic possession, and I’ve always been rather wistful that my characters haven’t had such a presence, such a life of their own.”
This seems thoroughly consistent with the relaxed, congenial man, who has de­scribed himself, elsewhere, as a “rather placid person: and a temperamental optimist. But what of the cruel eye that can so cleverly convey, for example, the greed of an elderly man’s solicitous, expectant daughters: “sitting together like well­-scrubbed pink pigs, and showing their hocks as they crossed their legs. . . their por­cine eyes made significant appraisal of Mr Poose’s health.”
“The corrosive eye of the writer,” says Marshall, laughing.
Do the divided worlds of his stories re­flect his own personality? “Grahame Greene said there was a splinter of ice at the heart of every writer and I think the writer has to keep the corrosive eye in check to some extent, because we’re part of the community that we comment on. Often the satire and the malice directed at a character in the story is actually the writer’s awareness of his or her own frailty and vices.
“I think the Swiftian disgust with life can be in the end an overly destructive thing. You need tolerance and wit and compassion, don’t you. I mean, I’ve lead a public sort of life in many ways, as an army officer and a teacher, and an administrator in various bodies, and I can operate there reasonably tactfully, I hope. I’m not a reclusive writer, yet the corrosive eye is there.”
Was his decision to use a pseudonym a conscious attempt to divide his public com­munity life and his private writing life? “Marshall is in fact my second name, and my mother’s maiden name. She died when I was very young, so I thought it was quite nice to take her name. Looking back I think it was mainly that I wanted to separate my writing aspirations from my professional life. I think I was shy and perhaps even embarrassed in case I was no good at it.
“To show you how sensitive I was, I remember that I sent a manuscript off and notification of receipt came back on a card with no envelope and the name Owen Mar­shall clearly visible. I remember being very angry indeed that it had come through the postal services in that way. I didn’t want people to know.”
These days people are well aware that Owen Marshall is in fact O.M. Jones; he says he feels no great dichotomy in terms of the names. Though we are all various people within ourselves, he says, it is not a case for him of double personae, two Owens pulling him in different directions.
Perhaps it is the very steadiness of his personality, the careful integration of his two lives that has facilitated such a constant flow of stories over the 16 years since the publication of his first, “Descent From The Flugelhorn” (he has kept the manuscript copy of that story, written in green biro). The stories have ranged widely, too, in terms of technique. The Ace Of Diamonds Gang has collected some of what may be described as his more “realist” stories – it is this work which has earned him the tag, “Sargeson’s heir”. Marshall is flattered by the comparison and says he admires Sargeson’s legacy, but points out that in fact he has experimented with a variety of narrative voices and structures.
“I’ve enjoyed writing some post-modern stories, some surrealism, narrative scripts. Some of my stories are pure exercises in metafiction. I do use a lot of the devices of the realist – I’m a very visual writer – but basically I see myself as an impressionist, though whether other people do. . . Labels are inadequate, aren’t they?”
Given his pre-eminence in the short-­story form, his assured hand with that moment of epiphany which the short story exemplifies, it may seem curious that he has turned to the novel. And Marshall himself, following the rejection of his first two novels 20 or so years ago, assessed his vision and the episodic quality of his work as being more suited to the compressed nature of the shorter form. Typically, he is sanguine about the possible critical reaction to his novel, which is now completed and awaiting a publisher’s decision.
“I’m not one to worry. I do have a slight sense that some people are waiting for me to step out of line. Some have been saying, try the novel, and some may well have been preparing the cudgel, but if you put your work out for publication you take what you get. I always said I wasn’t going to be bullied into trying another novel and I would only do it when I felt I had the subject – which I did last year. That coincided with being Burns Fellow, so I took the plunge and did almost all of the draft at Otago.”
The episodic quality is still there, he says. The novel has no chapters, for instance; its structure is fairly fluid. Though he never shows his work to others while it is in progress, he is quite happy to talk about the novel now that it is written. “It’s called Prometheus K and it’s set a little way in the future. It’s superficially to do with politics, but in reality has a lot more to do with the verities of the relationship of the internal and the external and the present and future with the past.”
Divisions again? But he is noncommittal.
Naturally, the move from short story to novel involved a different way of working. “In some ways it was easier – though I hesitate to say this since it may be a flop. But I didn’t always have to come up with something new. Each day I could come to my desk and know what I was doing. Of course, to some extent a cumulative anxiety built up as to whether it was going to come together, but at least I could see in advance what I was working towards.”
He hasn’t abandoned the short story. He is currently writing fulltime, working on short fiction and toying with the idea of a radio play. “I suppose what I’m really doing is waiting to see whether the novel has worked. I don’t want to commit myself to another novel until I see it has worked.”
The caution is characteristic of the man and understandable in New Zealand’s writing climate, where a commitment to a lengthy work may mean years without guaranteed income. Perhaps his needs are not so great now that his daughters Andrea and Belinda are launched on their own working lives, but he is aware that writing fiction will never sustain a sufficient living for himself and his wife Jacquie.
It’s a long way from the romantic notion of the writer in the garret, but then he has never understood, he says, why working in a garret should be any more conducive to good writing than working in an accountant’s town house.
“I think you need a breadth of experience, don’t you? You need to have been alone, to have brooded, but you also need to have been successful, convivial. And then it’s often stepping forth from what you have. We don’t all have to have sailed around South America before the mast to write an adventure story. There’s Janet Frame’s experience – a limited one in many ways. But because of the genius of the woman, immensely powerful material flows out from that experience.”
It’s the balanced kind of assessment I’ve come to expect from him over several hours of talking. But remembering the merciless eye of his stories, the bleak worlds conjured, the absolute awareness conveyed of human venality, I search around for the key to his seeming duality: the calm, organised, suburban man who is also the writer with the punishing pen. The epigraph to The Lynx Hunter? I ask: “One’s real life is often the life one does not lead.”
“I love that,” he says. “I thought that a very, very significant and interesting comment. I think it certainly applies to me and to a lot of people whose real concerns in life are internal rather than external. The life of the mind, if you like. They may spend most of their time wiping babies bottoms or making shortbread, but what really concerns them is their painting or their novel. That’s what defines them.
“I have a growing sense of the fallibility of the real – there are wonderful sights and textures and colours, and it all seems marvellously concrete on the one hand, and yet, what a miasma it is – it is really con­cerned with our imaginative conception of it. It’s something I love about Janet Frame’s writing: there’s this wonderfully realised exterior and yet a sense of strange things welling up beneath it.”
It occurs to me as I drive home that the same could be said of Marshall’s own writ­ing, and as usual, he found the words first. I’ll borrow his other words about Frame (and her words too), for my own ending: it is the genius of the man that takes us beyond his deceptively simple, almost opaque exterior to his real life, the life of the writer in the room two inches behind the eyes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Adventures in the book trade #2

Laurence Fearnley, one of my favourite novelists, is on tour to Wellington and Palmerston North. I’m not sure of the format but both evenings involve her giving a reading and the audience hoovering up “drinks and nibbles”. Laurence lives in Dunedin so is rarely sighted in the North Island – she is the real deal so don’t miss her if you can get to either event.

Of her eight novels, the second, Room, was shortlisted for the Montana NZ Book Awards in 2001 and Edwin and Matilda, the sixth, was runner-up in the 2008 Montana Book Awards. The eighth, The Hut Builder, won the fiction category at the 2011 NZ Post Book Awards. No prizes for the third, Delphine’s Run, or the fourth, Butler’s Ringlet, but they are both astonishingly good. As with Lloyd Jones, each novel is quite unlike its predecessors – you never know what to expect, other than something wonderful.

The Wellington event is on Thursday 13 September at 6pm in the Theatre Laboratory (Wallace Street, Entrance A) of Massey University. The Palmerston North event is at 6.30pm on Friday 14 September at Palmerston North City Library.

Next week, on  Thursday 6 September, the Copyright Licensing awards will be announced. Two writers, chosen from 72 applicants, will each receive $35,000 for a non-fiction project.
The five finalists for 2012 are:
David  Veart: Hello Boys and Girls
Geoff  Chapple: Terrain: North Island
Hazel Petrie:  Into the Darkness
Michael  Corballis: The Wandering Mind
Vincent O’Malley: The Waikato War 1863-64

The awards are funded by CLNZ’s Culture Fund. Two research grants of $3500 will also be awarded: the winners have already been announced and are Kelly Ana Morey for a literary novella about Phar Lap and David McGill for a biographical exploration of his great-grandfather who became the mayor of Auckland.

CLNZ says that last year’s winners of the $35,000 awards are well underway with their projects. Malcolm McKinnon reports that his The 1930s Depression in New Zealand is progressing as planned and should be published sometime in 2013. Melissa Williams’ Te Rarawa in the City: Maori urban migrations from North Hokianga to Auckland, 1930-1970 is “going very well” , she says, though “community consultation has been a little more time consuming than I expected”. No surprise there.

Since the first award winners were announced in 2001, nine books have been published and three more are well on the way, among them Steve Braunias’s New Zealand: The Biography which is due in bookshops any day now. Let’s hope his novel follows soon after.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Is there anybody in there, ah-ah?

Recently I have been listening in the car to the Bee Gees and Pink Floyd when the Concert Programme announcers got too annoying, which is often, so here is a mash-up: Scissors Sisters live at Glastonbury in 2010 performing the latter’s “Comfortably Numb” in the style of the former’s “Staying Alive”:

What I’d really like to see/hear  is a mash-up of a Bee Gees song in the style of Pink Floyd. A man can dream.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Metro “quite good” shock

Alerted to the fact that Paul Litterick has a book review in the September issue of Metro, which is reason enough to buy a copy, I went into the village this morning and duly bought the new issue. It is quite good.

Paul’s review of Jim Flynn’s preposterous new book Fate and Philosophy, from the hitherto reliable Awa Press, is brilliant – the review of the year if not the decade. Seriously. It is vicious but fair, attacking the book not the author. Flynn gets off lightly – if I had reviewed it I would have been much nastier and said that the idea that some guy from Otago’s Pol Studs department had anything to offer on philosophy was risible. I thought his The Torchlight List was arrogant, but this is breathtakingly so. As Paul says:
This is a book about life’s great questions. [. . .] These questions have bothered philosophers for centuries but, happily, Professor Flynn has answered them all to his own satisfaction.
The review proceeds to demolish the book, and skewer Flynn’s self-satisfaction, in the kind of writing that we want from Metro: informed, opinionated, amusing. And what makes it such a great review is that is describes the book properly, giving us enough information so that we can judge for ourselves whether the criticism is fair. 

Elsewhere in the magazine is Waikato Times columnist Joshua Drummond on why he loves living in Hamilton, and pieces by David Slack, Steve Braunias, Charlotte Grimshaw, Jesse Mulligan and Donna Chisholm, among others. That’s quite a line-up. Also two pages of wisdom from Michael Horton, former publisher of the NZ Herald, on the future of our newspapers and why the Herald’s change of format may not be enough to save it. I don’t like everything in the magazine but that’s a good thing – I am not the target market. But I am impressed. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

What I’m reading #77

In the comments to What I’m Reading #76, in which I criticised a story in the Sunday Star-Times claiming that people don’t read New Zealand authors, Anonymous writes:
I suppose a) I will be the 100th person to post this link, and/or b) you are already aware of the link, but here is Pia White’s thesis towards a Master of Information Studies:
I have yet to read it, so can make no comment on the strength of the statistics, but I find strange (I may be missing the obvious) is that Ms White called for volunteers to fulfil her questionnaire in May, 2012 ( and the thesis was submitted in June 2012.
I have a MSc (Auck) and by golly, it took me more than a month to collate, analysis, and write up my data. Perhaps I was doing it wrong.
The Herald’s call for volunteers said:
Finally, we have had a request from Victoria University masters student Pia White who is looking for adults aged 16 and over to complete an anonymous 10 to 15 minute survey about their reading preferences and attitudes. The survey can be found at: (please copy and paste to your browser). Participants have the chance to win a $50 Booksellers book token.
Ms White’s thesis thanks booksellers and libraries for circulating her call for volunteers so it wasn’t just Herald readers. But I think we may assume that the respondents were not randomised in any way, were not filtered at all in that clever way statisticians have of making sure that survey respondents reflect the general population. There were 557 participants but only 497 completed the questionnaire (which is no longer available online).

This is not to criticise Ms White, but the SST piece based on her paper is not journalism. As Anonymous #2 said in a later comment :
It was a half-baked, melodramatic article. The reporter quoted English professor Mark William from Victoria University but utterly failed to connect the fact that Ms. White’s research came out of the same university. It also completely misrepresented and overhyped the findings (I’ve had a quick read of the paper) – she doesn’t claim in any way that her survey is ‘representative’ of all NZers and acknowledges the limitations imposed by timeframes and sampling techniques etc. [. . .] 
The reporter was so focused on sensationalising a single point that she failed to give the research due context: it is simply a very small scale exploratory piece which could provide grounding for more rigorous research. And we could hardly expect reporters to focus on (or even mention) such findings as the vast majority of respondents believing NZ fiction was on par with (or even better than!) overseas fiction in terms of quality and originality, now could we?
The story also says that “Only four Kiwi novels have made it to platinum bestseller level” – without explaining what that means or even considering that the list, drawn up by Booksellers NZ, might be out-of date (which it is). 

While we’re on the subject, the list of New Zealand fiction bestsellers that Booksellers NZ publishes each week, and which is the basis for all journalistic comment on sales of New Zealand fiction, is seriously flawed. For example, Emily Perkins’ novel The Forrests does not appear on that list, even though it has been selling by the pallet-load, because it was published in England. It’s the same for Nicky Pellegrino, whose sales figures dwarf anything that has made it to #1 on that list, because she too is published overseas. They are both New Zealand authors, and it is ridiculous and deeply misleading that they are not counted in these lists.

It is not hard to find out these things if you sit down and talk with a publisher, as I did yesterday. They all have the BookScan weekly reports on their computers so can look up the lifetime sales of any title. I learned a lot – much of it surprising, some of it depressing. Most booksellers, I think, can do this too. So any decent journalist should be able to cultivate a source in the industry and get not only data but also context. What I’m seeing is stories either based on a press release or written after firing off questions by email (e.g. the North & South article I fisked last year: I asked some of those quoted in it and they confirmed that was the method used). It is a useless approach – the only way to get the real story is to talk face-to-face with people who will correct your initial misunderstandings and will, in answer to a follow-up question, tell you the important stuff that you hadn’t thought, or known enough, to ask about.

So what I am reading is Flat Earth News by Guardian journalist Nick Davies. Published in 2008 by Vintage, it is an excellent account of why modern journalism is rubbish. Random House is the distributor here and has a few copies still in stock. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A publishing joke

From novelist Joseph Connolly in this week’s Spectator Diary:
Q. How many publishers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Three – one to do the screwing, the other two to hold the author down.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What I’m reading #76

Today is our 14th wedding anniversary and also Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 84th birthday. Coincidence? To mark the occasion Birmingham Opera is staging the first performance of his opera Mittwoch aus Licht. It’s an extraordinary work, magnificently mad – it’s the one with helicopters, and here is a review of the choral first movement. Alexis Petridis attended rehearsals of the whole thing. Quote unquote:
The musicians, too, seem to be bearing it all with good grace. I say as much to Vick, who is watching proceedings, as he expects at least some of the audience to, recumbent on the floor. He nods, then reconsiders. “I don’t think Bruce on the trumpet’s very happy about it,” he says. He has a point: swaying gently a few feet from the ground, Bruce on the trumpet is wearing the kind of rictus grin that conveys abject terror.
Some say that social media is the magic bullet for self-published authors of e-books. Ewan Morrison disagrees, forcefully. Quote unquote:
Let’s look at the stats. If we take Margulies and Penn seriously, how much time does this leave for actually writing? Most self-epublished authors hold down a day job, so let’s give them three hours a day, after work, for author activities. That’s 1,095 hours a year. Reduce this to 20% (since you have to spend 80% of your time covertly self-promoting online), and you get 219 writing hours a year, which works out as 18 12-hour days to write a book.
Some say that Noam Chomsky is a deep thinker, an oracle and a miracle. (Via David Thompson) Benjamin Kerstein disagrees, forcefully. Quote unquote:
Third, he is essentially the last totalitarian. Despite his claims otherwise, he's more or less the last survivor of a group of intellectuals who thought systemic political violence and totalitarian control were essentially good things. He babbles about human rights all the time, but when you look at the regimes and groups he's supported, it’s a very bloody list indeed.
Not reading but watching: A.D. Miller of the Economist, and author of Snowdrops, gives his views on the Pussy Riot case and what it says about free speech in Russia.

Rational optimist Matt Ridley says the world is not going to end soon. Good. He also explains why. Quote unquote:
Just as policy can make the climate crisis worse—mandating biofuels has not only encouraged rain forest destruction, releasing carbon, but driven millions into poverty and hunger—technology can make it better. If plant breeders boost rice yields, then people may get richer and afford better protection against extreme weather. If nuclear engineers make fusion (or thorium fission) cost-effective, then carbon emissions may suddenly fall. If gas replaces coal because of horizontal drilling, then carbon emissions may rise more slowly. Humanity is a fast-moving target. We will combat our ecological threats in the future by innovating to meet them as they arise, not through the mass fear stoked by worst-case scenarios.
Another stupid story (just as stupid as this one), this time in the Sunday Star-Times, claiming that New Zealanders don’t buy or read New Zealand books. The second sentence tells us:
Pia White had more than 500 readers fill out a survey questioning their reading tastes and views about New Zealand literature.
What the online version doesn’t give is the intro in the print version:
Why don’t Kiwis read New Zealand fiction? That’s the question Victoria University student Pia White posed in a research paper for her masters degree.
Degree in what? Did the paper get a pass? What exactly is its status? How did the journalist come to know about it? How were the “more than 500 readers” selected? Is that enough for a useful result? What were the survey questions? Bah humbug.

Finally, my colleague Paula Browning of Copyright Licensing NZ has an op-ed piece in the Herald about the effect of digital piracy on local authors. Quote unquote:
What the law really needs is a damn good editor armed with a heavy blue pencil. If our copyright law could be written half as well as the books by our Kiwi authors, we would have a law that reflects modern commercial reality and provides a welcome boost to an important industry.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Adventures in the NZ book trade

I spent yesterday in Wellington being a consultant in an hour-long meeting. It took a whole day to get there and back, flights from Hamilton being intermittent. This was for the book trade so of course it was a whole day of being unpaid. But it was well worth it: before the meeting I got to meet my lovely niece and her lovely baby daughter at Maranui; have a long lunch with an old friend at Nikau; have a long chat with Tilly at Unity Books; and afterwards overhear my publisher tell another of his authors that he had read my new manuscript and thought it “quite good”, which is an academic publisher’s version of “awesome”. And then my publisher bought drinks.  It was just like the good old days.

In other news: the Winn-Manson Menton Trust is calling for applications by 21 September from established and mid-career New Zealand writers for the 2013 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship. There are strings attached – you have to live in Menton in the south of France for at least six months and work in the Villa Isola Bella where Katherine Mansfield lived and wrote towards the end of her life, and it pays a measly $75,000. Yes, $75,000 for six months. But if that appeals and you don’t find the money on offer insulting – or if you do but can swallow your pride – get in touch with Marlene LeCren of Creative New Zealand and she’ll tell you how to apply.

The grumpy publisher Kevin Chapman, president of the NZ book publishers’ association PANZ, has a more cheerful message about New Zealand’s role as the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Country of Honour in this letter dated 17 August:  
Dear Colleagues
The Guest of Honour programme has moved from planning to implementation of the major stage, so I thought I should update you.
Over the period between mid-July and early November, we will take part in over 300 events, in over 50 cities and towns across seven European nations (primarily Germany, but also Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, UK, France and Italy).
We are working in partnership with 110 organisations, including 12 literary festivals, 10 Literaturehauses, 34 publishers, museums, bookshops, etc.
A group of 67 New Zealand authors will present their work, and over 80 author visits to Germany will have been organised by the Guest of Honour team. The programme for the Pavilion at the fair is complete and has been very well received by our colleagues at the fair.
New Zealand books in translation will be the focus of up to 600 German bookstores through a window display competition.
Translations published or confirmed for publication since the beginning of GOH, and through to 2013, are now at 90.
Much of the programme team are now based in Germany until after the fair, and the New Zealand-based PANZ staff are now working on detail such as individual schedules for each of the 67 authors still to travel.
We are on the cusp of delivering one of the greatest promotions New Zealand writing has ever seen.
Thank you for your support.
Kevin Chapman
Watch this space for more good news from publishers and more moaning from authors.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

These charming men: Barry Humphries and Joe Orton

To Auckland last night for the last night of Barry Humphries’ season, and probably the last night of Barry Humphries in Auckland. 

It was a wonderful show and it was lovely to see him resurrecting Sandy Stone whom I don’t think he has performed for years – when he came on stage in his dressing gown, obscured by clouds of smoke, I thought, “What is Steve Braunias doing up there?” Les Patterson’s gay Catholic priest brother was new to me; some of the jokes were old but still funny; Les’s spitting was as impressive and disgusting as ever. The all-singing, all-dancing backing quartet of two hot guys and two hot gals, the Condiments, were terrific too, as were the terrified audience members dragged up on stage. I was sitting on the end of the fourth row from the front and feeling vulnerable until then. 

It wasn’t quite a greatest hits, but partly. The standing ovation after Dame Edna and the Condiments finished their set and tossed the gladioli was well deserved. And then Humphries stepped forward briefly as himself, doffing his hat in the manner of Leonard Cohen, and speaking beautifully. All in all, as Sandy Stone would say, it was a nice night’s entertainment. Peter Craven began his review (not online) of the Australian leg of the tour for the Spectator with:
He has dominated the nation and the world like no other comedian, like no other actor in any medium. How extraordinary it is that some luvvie-ish boy from Melbourne Grammar in the mid-Fifties could take the crumpled suburban idioms of his native Melbourne and turn them into a thing of magic and mayhem so that Edna became an avenging deity of Australian femininity (as black and berserk as a land of misogyny and matriarchy could muster) and Sandy Stone could bleat his mute little circumlocutions and clichés like the voice of a nominal maleness nothing in his society would uphold.  
So – not that they have anything in common apart from savage satire and the alter ego of an Edna – here is playwright Joe Orton in April 1967, interviewed by Eamonn Andrews about his prank of defacing library books: he was sentenced to six months in jail.   Asked about it, he says, “I had a marvellous time in prison.” And yes, the blonde is the wonderful Eva Gabor.  

You can see some of the defaced covers here. Four months later, on 9 August, Orton’s boyfriend Kenneth Halliwell battered him to death with nine hammer blows to the head. Orton was 34. Much, much more about him here.

Monitor: The Age of Uncertainty

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A grumpy publisher writes

This item appeared in last week’s email newsletter of the NZ Society of Authors. Kevin Chapman, president of the NZ book publishers’ association PANZ, had requested a right of reply to the two items on the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Country of Honour programme published in the latest issue of the NZSA’s magazine New Zealand Author. That is not online as far as I can see but it’s clear enough from his comments what he is complaining about:
1. The criteria for selection of writers for the programme were approved by a Reference Group that included authors (including a NZSA representative), publishers, Creative NZ, NZ Book Council, Copyright Licensing, and a literature festival expert. The criteria has been misquoted repeatedly. Nobody has been made part of the programme unless they meet the criteria. These criteria, very importantly, are being promoted by the book fair to other Guest of Honour programmes as a sterling example of how criteria should be structured.
2. The criteria were designed to sell more rights into the foreign language markets and sell more NZ-authored books specifically to the German public. They were designed to get greatest long-term author and publisher benefit from the substantial moneys expended by the government and the industry. This is already succeeding in 2012 and titles signed for 2013 publication are growing already. We will exceed substantially every target we agreed with the government.
3. Our opening press conference last October featured Witi Ihimaera , and I spoke at length about what was special about NZ writing and books.
4. Books and authors are the centre-piece of our programme. The vast majority of events under our programme are writers. The largest part of the performance budget is around writers. We will have delivered over 80 author visits to Germany to book fairs, literary festivals, and publisher-run author tours. Incidentally, we were only funded for 52.
5. The cultural programme that seems to be such an issue is actually required of every country undertaking Guest of Honour. It is part of the contract with the book fair.
6. Tourism has had very little involvement with the programme and has had no impact on the author programme. The chefs and “NZ is Cooking” event that seems to be a problem is not a NZ invention, but was inspired by the very successful “Iceland is Cooking” event last year. Oh, and cookbooks are books.
What seems to get repeatedly lost is that the GOH programme is not an opportunity to put a bunch of writers into Frankfurt for five days in October. It is an invitation to showcase a country’s cultural goods, in the whole of Germany, for much of the year. That is what we are doing. The book fair staff we deal with are mystified by these criticisms.
Do I sound grumpy? Yes I am. The repeating of groundless information does not make it valid. Some of us have spent some years working on a very special task, that of putting NZ books and authors at the centre of a national showcase in Germany. It is very close to reaching its high-point, and is delivering exactly what our hosts have hoped for, so I think we will now return to that task.
Yours sincerely
Kevin Chapman
Good for him.

Shock Resignation Shakes NZ’s Literary Scene

I have no idea what this is about or who these people are, but Scoop has a news report by Steve Whitehouse that begins:
New Zealand’s world of books is reeling today after the manager of the national literary team announced he was stepping down after the failure of any of the squad to make the Booker Prize long list.
Read on.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Elliott Carter is 103

As mentioned before, my favourite living American composer, Elliott Carter, is 103. James Tarmy of Bloomberg News interviewed him in June. Extracts:
Tarmy: What was your favorite restaurant?
Carter: La Cote Basque, now sadly closed. I took Igor Stravinsky and his wife there. We got a table in the middle of the room, speaking French, and a man came in, and said in rather good French, “will the maestro please give me an autograph?” Stravinsky said “Certainly not.”
His wife did a great deal of talking in Russian and finally he agreed, but took forever to write out his name. The man waited and waited and by this point the whole room was watching.
Finally Stravinsky was done and the man thanked him and walked away. We asked Stravinsky if he knew who he was and he said, “Certainly, I see him on television all the time.” The man was Frank Sinatra.
Before there was Iggy Pop there was Iggy Stravinsky. Anyone who was rude to Sinatra is fine by me. Later:
Tarmy: Can you attribute your longevity to anything?
Carter: I have no idea. I do a little bit of exercise every morning, and now I read in the paper that exercise for older people is bad for the harp – for the heart, not the harp, I mean. The harp is bad enough.
If I live to 103 I hope I will still be as sharp as that and cracking jokes. 

So here is Nicholas Daniel with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under David Robertson in the 2008 BBC Proms performing the first half or so of Carter’s oboe concerto written in 1986-7 when he was a mere 78 or so. Still spiky after all these years:

What I’m reading #75

That Neil Heywood murder in China: there will be books on this and its ramifications. Talk about secrets and lies. Here is the Economist on it, and here the Daily Telegraph. Shockingly, it is not until the sixth paragraph that the Telegraph tells us which school Heywood attended (Harrow, since you ask); the Guardian is even sloppier, waiting until the 10th par. And here is Hong Kong resident (and Quote Unquote reader) Ulaca on the subject:
When senior PRC mandarins murmur about the need to retain the Chinese politico-judicial “system” (such as it is) and eschew the Western tripartite approach involving separation of powers among an executive, a legislature and a judiciary, who but the most naïve among us does not understand that what they are advocating is merely the continuation of a rotten status quo in which positions of power, wealth and importance are guaranteed for them and their offspring?
Is philosophy literature? Jim Holt says yes. He would, wouldn’t he, because he has a new book out, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story:
 The result is an eclectic mix of theology, cutting-edge science (of the cosmological and particle-physics variety) and extremely abstract philosophising, rendered (mostly) accessible by Mr Holt’s facility with analogies and clear, witty language. Some of the arguments he traces are familiar, from various attempts to prove the logical necessity of the existence of god to speculations among more adventurous physicists that the universe got its start as a kind of lucky quantum burp. But there are some odd and less familiar shores, too, such as an attempt to tie existence to an alleged necessity for goodness. There is also the argument that the universe exists because there are many more ways to exist than there are not to exist—and so existence is more probable.
More on Fifty Shades of Grey – it is a weird phenomenon but as Grumpy Old Bookman reminds us, there was a precedent set not so long ago. In France, naturellement.

When intellectuals come out fighting: James Zuccollo, an economist at NZIER, blogs at TVHE on a spat between Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, authors of Why Nations Fail, and Jared Diamond who reviewed it for the New York Review of Books. Their letter in reply is, ah, robust – as is Diamond’s response. JZ provides all the links you need.

The full report from the judges of the 2012 NZ Post book awards is available as a PDF from Booksellers NZ.

Philip Matthews reviews Beasts of the Southern Wild. Capsule:
You could call this magical realism in the wreckage of civilisation or something, but you could also call it a missed opportunity – minus any post-Katrina politics, you sense that the film is closer to a form of exotic tourism in poverty fetishism or even that most odious of movie clichés, the magical negro for white festival audiences.
Personally I can’t wait for the new Bourne and Bond.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Hats off to Hataitai

The results of the 2012 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which entrants are asked to “compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels” have been announced. The winner is Cathy Bryant of Manchester with:
As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting.
There are various genre categories – adventure, children’s literature, fantasy and so on – and the winner of the historical fiction section is Leslie Craven of Hataitai with this:
The “clunk” of the guillotine blade’s release reminded Marie Antoinette, quite briefly, of the sound of the wooden leg of her favourite manservant as he not-quite-silently crossed the polished floors of Versailles to bring her another tray of petit fours.
As always there are gems among the also-rans, for example this from Rebecca Oas of Atlanta, Georgia:
Ronald left this world as he entered it: on a frigid winter night, amid frantic screams and blood-soaked linens, while relatives stood nearby and muttered furious promises to find and punish the man responsible.
And this from Howard Eugene Whitright of Seal Beach, California in the crime section:
The blood seeped out of the body like bad peach juice from a peach that had been left on one side so long the bottom became rotten while it still looked fine on the top but had started to attract fruit flies, and this had the same effect, but with regular flies, that is not say there weren’t some fruit flies around because, after all, this was Miami.
Monitor: Steve “Money Shot” Whitehouse
A week later, Stuff catches up and interviews Leslie Craven. Sadly, he says that he has “no desire to expand the paragraph to a full novel”.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Denis Edwards on judging book awards

The 55th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the November 1994 issue. The illustration was by Anna Crichton; the intro read:
The best way to lose friends and influence people is to judge a competition or an award. Denis Edwards talks to some recent judges – who all asked to remain anonymous – about the pressures they faced.
There’s a convention in journalism that the writer should interview lots of people, get a range of points of view and open up the mysteries of the issue for you, the reader. By the end of the article you are supposed to have the subjects’ knowledge and opinions laid before you, so you’ll know everything, and can make up your own mind.
When this works it is wonderful. The writer has a glow of fulfilment at a job well done and the readers get their minds opened to an issue and all its shades of meaning.
Trouble is, it doesn’t always work like that. People know their pearls of wisdom are going to be written down and will appear in print, preserved for posterity.
There’s a reason for all this preamble. The subject we are talking about here is the judging of literary contests. Now, this has provoked anger in the past, no doubt about it. But it’s also a subject on which people can become circumspect.
You don’t, for instance, get many people going as public as Vikram Seth’s English publisher who looked over the Booker Prize shortlist, saw A Suitable Boy wasn’t on it and called the Booker jury a “pack of wankers”.
New Zealand lends itself to this. Everything here is on a small scale, and everyone knows everyone else, or at least knows where to find them, making it virtually impossible to avoid a lively quote upsetting someone you’ll eventually find yourself sitting beside at a literary do. Mix in the prob­ability that today’s judges are tomorrow’s contestants and, the concept of revenge being alive and well, it’s a bloody miracle anyone is prepared to say anything about anything ever.
Judge A has seen this in action, and sounds a clear warning about underachieving, and possibly jealous, writers becoming judges. Think of the horror erupting if he’d gone on the record and named names. Boutros Boutros-Ghali wouldn’t have been able to get troops here quickly enough.
Judge B, a veteran of judging, laments an apparent love of revenge among our writers, editors and publishers, pointing out that Australians seem to have a much healthier and more mature attitude to these things: “They have a blow up or a dispute then there is an explosion, sometimes even stand-up fight. And that’s that. Things get going again. Here things seem to fester and simmer away forever.
“Being a judge gives you tremendous power, at least for awhile. When you’ve got someone driven by jealousy you’ve got trouble, with yesterday’s men trying to keep tomorrow’s talent from getting ahead of them too quickly.”
Brisk stuff this. Little wonder no one was prepared to put it on the record, to be caned with it in times to come.
Everyone agrees about one thing: they get plenty of opportunity. Blame New Zealand’s size for this. Because it’s small, there is a shallow pool of suitable people for the work, which as all again agree, is onerous.
This creates a pattern: judge once or twice and then duck out of sight for a few years, to be smoked out once more by a call to do your bit. Reasons for accepting include preventing someone seen as grossly unfair taking control of everything, or giving one’s own agenda another outing, or simply a sense of noblesse oblige.
Being asked can be flattering. Then there’s the gratitude, the profile piece in the local paper, the little zing of having arrived; of having washed up far enough on the literary beach to be seen as worthy of assessing everyone else’s efforts. Sadly, some judges’ qualifications for this are not always high. In other countries, decades of either teaching writing, or a shelf-full of one’s own tomes are a prerequisite, but here a book of short stories or a book of poems – even a handful of book reviews – will sometimes do.
This, the flattery part, does not last. For some, the afterglow lives only for as long as it takes to bore all their friends with the news. It is quickly replaced by the chain gang part, with the judges dragging themselves to the letterbox and trudging back to the study to end up with another couple of hundred manuscripts to wade through.
This is lesson one. Judging is hard work. Judge C estimated that he read over 200 short stories through once, and then a shortlist of about 20 several times. “It wrecked Christmas that year. I had to read all this stuff and most of it was awful. All these people were labouring away, and basically they were producing shit. That’s a bit harsh and it’s a bit sad but that’s how it is. If reading it all doesn’t take the edge off your Christmas I don’t know what would.”
Judge D, judging a similar competition, reported being deeply saddened by the entries. “Here were all these scripts done on typewriters and computers and things, and they’d had to learn to work them and all the rest of it. All that effort, money and equipment was out there somewhere, and so little of worth was getting on the page,” she said. “I found that really upsetting, because it all seemed such a waste. It really did.”
All agreed the toughest part about being a solo judge was just that, being alone. It took strength not to cave in and find something readable that resembled one’s own
work, and toss the prize in that direction.
It’s tempting, after the hundreds of entries have been whittled down to 20 and then to four or five or so. Exhaustion has long been a factor by now. That, plus uncertainty as to what is truly good or merely good, causes confusion and doubt, which is why the familiar looks the safest port, and the prize goes to the nearest clone of yourself.
Knowing this is useful for those taking the cynical view towards entering competitions, and intending to write something aimed specifically at the judge. It shouldn’t, but it might just work. Judge C points out that Owen Marshall is judging the lucrative Sunday Star-Times competition: “If I were entering I would be inclined to set the story strongly in New Zealand and salt it with the values of the east coast of the South Island.”
On the other hand, someone’s inability to do that is no reason not to enter. “Competitions are lotteries, pure and simple. I don’t see them as a pointer to whether someone has real writing talent or not. As often as not the winner comes right out of left field, from someone who has one brilliant story in them, and you never hear from them again.”
There are exceptions. Marshall is a regular finalist in writing competitions, proof of his skill and versatility. Though, as Judge C says, “He can do that, but I don’t think there are very many more like him out there.”

This is getting close to the heart of competitions: winning the things. Someone has to. Well, actually that’s not quite true. The judge could decide there is no worthy winner, say so and let it go at that. Doing that means learning the precise meaning of the expression “in your face”, as explana­tions are sought, sometimes bluntly, from disappointed entrants. Taking the “no-winner” route is something best left for judges with the reassurance of an international airline ticket in their pocket and a taxi waiting to take them to the airport immediately after they make the announcement.
The in-your-face factor is also seen after a winner is named. Feminist fury rained down on journalism lecturer and commentator Brian Priestley’s head when he decided to give a feature-writing award to someone other than Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle, authors of the Metro article, “The Unfortunate Experiment At National Women’s”. Priestley, it appears, has not offered himself as a judge since.
There are tales of judges doing more than just nod in the right direction of political correctness. There have been harsh words over attempts to steer prizes towards women and Maoris because the judges are women or Maoris. Judges have been reminded that some big names are among the entrants and their fame should be acknowledged with placings and prizes. In recent years, publishers have been known to remind judges of the importance of their books, and how much it would mean to them to be a winner this year.
However, take heart. Despite all these attempts at manipulation, the judges I spoke to all shared one thing. They tried to be fair. This wasn’t easy, as they all discovered – and quickly. Each responded to the pressure by doing their best to weed out the bad writing and reward the good.
All agreed that short-story competitions are definitely not a place to experiment with new forms. Strong stories, with power, insight and emotion are the way to go. All that roaming the further reaches of post-modernism will get you is the deconstruction of your chances of scoring a cheque.
Oh, and don’t copy other people’s work. It’s far too easy to spot. As one judge said, “Judging was a voyage of discovery for me, in that I discovered why my work gets published and sells. It is original, not like anyone else’s, and I think people like its uniqueness. I was looking for the same thing in other people’s work and it was disappointing to find so little of it in the entries. The ones who did were the winners. It was as simple as that.”

Friday, August 10, 2012

What I’m reading #74

There will be more material from Quote Unquote the magazine, I promise, as soon as I finish editing these two books and reporting on these five manuscripts. In the meantime:

Matt Nolan, an economist, rips into the Herald over its article that started with: “Economists have proven it’s cheaper to let Maori children die than spend money to provide equitable health treatment.” I saw that and didn’t read the story because from that first sentence it was obviously wrong, stupid, deranged or perhaps all three. Matt did read it and is righteously angry:
I would normally ignore the nonsensical ramblings of a journalist on issues they don’t understand, but they had to go and attack “economists”.  We get this crap all the time, the very fact we are willing to discuss and mention trade-offs makes people who can’t be bothered thinking convinced that we cause the trade-off.  By daring to say that increasing the provision of healthcare costs money, the journalist has decided to give the impression that the economist at Auckland University (who was working in conjunction with people from other disciplines) is immoral.
Personally, I think writing articles piled with misinformation based on an unwillingness or inability to read a university press release has a larger degree of “immorality” than an economist discussing trade-offs.
Speaking of nonsensical ramblings, here is Marc Hinton opining about Valerie Adams winning silver:
Because if something “blocked” Adams from her pursuit of gold, and it was something that shouldn’t have, the public have a right to know. Also, what “broke” her? Again, answers will be sought.
A right to know? No. There is much better – and much more sympathetic – comment here. And, earlier, here, from the same eyewitness about what a hard and lonely life it is without a team.

In bed with Robert Fripp, well almost. He hasn’t given an interview for seven years but he did speak recently to the Financial Times. He never was a conventional rock god.

Degrees of discrimination (via David Thompson):
Psychologists Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers, based at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, surveyed a roughly representative sample of academics and scholars in social psychology and found that “In decisions ranging from paper reviews to hiring, many social and personality psychologists admit that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues.” This finding surprised the researchers. The survey questions “were so blatant that I thought we’d get a much lower rate of agreement,” Mr Inbar said. “Usually you have to be pretty tricky to get people to say they’d discriminate against minorities.”
One question, according to the researchers, “asked whether, in choosing between two equally qualified job candidates for one job opening, they would be inclined to vote for the more liberal candidate (i.e., over the conservative).” More than a third of the respondents said they would discriminate against the conservative candidate. One respondent wrote in that if department members “could figure out who was a conservative, they would be sure not to hire them.” […] Generally speaking, the more liberal the respondent, the more willingness to discriminate and, paradoxically, the higher the assumption that conservatives do not face a hostile climate in the academy.
Left is right, right is wrong. What’s the problem here?

Finally, country singer Randy Travis makes the news again, but not in a good way. The February incident was bad enough, but this is plain weird. It’s one thing to be a fan of George Jones but there is no need to emulate his nuttiness. I can’t understand how someone rich and famous could end up in that state. Don’t they have friends, minders? It’s not as though he had the pressure Amy Winehouse was under. Except, and I am guessing but this is a common guess, it must be hard being gay in Nashville – maybe even harder than in Hollywood.

Anyway, I am a big fan and have been since his first official album Storms of Life from 1986. No Holdin’ Back from 1989 was great too and this is its cover:

I hope he gets well soon. Here he is with his 1989 remake of Brook Benton’s 1959 hit “It’s Just a Matter of Time”. That low E-flat he hits on “go home” and “I know” is pretty special. All together now, “Bom-bom-bom-bom”:

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Paragraph of the day

Paul Casserly in the Herald on Paul Henry and schadenfreude:
You might think that when someone is as self-saucing as Henry it’s almost our duty to enjoy his comeuppance. You might be right. Hang on I’ll just check, yep, all good. You can’t say he hasn’t enjoyed the pain of others – it’s pretty much his entire shtick. Some say he is also good at laughing at himself, although his main skill seems to be his ability to laugh at himself laughing at someone else – like a genetically engineered hybrid of Beavis, Butthead and Prince Philip.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Country life #4

Very late last night – me dozing off to the Economist, my wife dozing off to her novel – we heard a cow mooing, mooing for ages and we knew from which paddock. Bit odd at that hour, I thought. Could a dog or worse be involved? Should I – ?

My wife, who is not only a mother but also a farmer’s daughter, said “Calving.”

We didn’t get this in Mount Eden.

Who says Chinese don’t do irony?

The Economist reports, in an article on Apple’s success in China and, as ever with China, IP:
Apple has arguably helped to modernise Chinese attitudes towards enterprise and design. Chinese shoppers are eager not only to own its products but also to learn about the man behind the company; sales of a biography of Steve Jobs have been huge. Apple may even have helped nudge the Chinese government towards stricter protection of intellectual property—though pirated copies of the Jobs biography were available within days of the original, and at a fraction of the price.

Monday, August 6, 2012

In praise of: the Troggs

On 6 August 1966 the Troggs topped the US charts with their single “Wild Thing”. In the 70s I was in a band whose female singer insisted on performing it: a gay thing, possibly. Much as I liked the Troggs – as did Iggy Pop, the Buzzcocks and the Ramones, among others – playing this song always embarrassed me until I thought, if it’s good enough for Jimi Hendrix…

Here, sound-only, are the Troggs arguing in the studio about how best to record a new song called “Tranquillity”. They were from Andover in Hampshire, most of them, and had truly rural accents. And OMFG they could swear. A sample:
It’s your fuckin’ wife, that’s the problem, you can’t do the solo because of your fuckin’ wife.
The tape circulated widely among musicians and is one of the inspirations for Spinal Tap. Here is a transcript, and here are the Troggs miming “Wild Thing” in 1966, down the Tube for some reason:

And here is Jimi Hendrix live at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, with his version. It’s not how we played it:

Losing and writing

Losers can be winners. We’re talking “incentive compatibility constraints”. An economist explains, with reference to Olympic badminton:
I don’t really understand the moral outrage over this.  
Douglas Coupland, who knows a thing or two about writing, offers some practical advice. Money quote for Steve Whitehouse:
There’s no way to erase your high school teacher’s grammar voice in your head — or your lit prof’s voice. This is good because grammar is important. But the moment you follow any rules they gave you about content, you’re lost. You and only you decide what the content is that you’re going to write. Channeling a long gone prof’s elitism or quirks is crippling.

Friday, August 3, 2012

What I’m reading #73

Imperator Fish on Hamilton’s bid for the 2024 Olympics. Don’t kid yourself, it’s gonna happen. Money quote:
Granting Hamilton Olympic hosting rights makes sense, because Hamiltonians love their sport. Boxing and other fighting disciplines are well catered for in Hamilton, with impromptu fights breaking out every few minutes in the city streets on a Friday or Saturday night.  Street racing is a favourite pastime, as is the sport of throwing bottles as passers-by.
But rugby is the real passion in these parts.  Most Chiefs games are at least half-full, and if we schedule Olympic events in the Waikato Stadium immediately after big rugby matches, we believe a good number of the crowd will stay to watch.
The Economist on plastic surgery by country. Money quote:
There are seven times more buttock operations in Brazil than the top-25 country average, and five times more vaginal rejuvenations. In Greece, penis enlargements are performed ten times more often than the average.
Dark matter is out there somewhere, possibly, it is alleged that some say. Maybe so. Or maybe so not. Hard to tell. Could go either way, as Stuff reports:
The coming decade will be the decade of dark matter, some scientists say, as efforts to detect the mysterious stuff will either pay off or rule out the most promising hypothesis about what it is. However, astronomers may have already detected signs of dark matter in the heart of our own Milky Way galaxy, a pair of astrophysicists now say.
Chris Barton in the Herald is good, isn’t he. Here he is on Paul Goldsmith’s new book about Alan Gibbs.

Paul Litterick on the state of England today.

Lacan’s hairdresser from 1965 to 1976 speaks. Money quote:
He was never one to wait in the salon, he never wanted to wait. I would arrange everything, because every day I did 30 clients and so when he had the appointment I knew I had to arrange everything. And then one time he came and I couldn’t arrange everything. I had four clients and so he goes up to have his shampoo and his blue rinse, and he says to me ‘What time will you see me’, and I told him I’m not free so you have to wait a bit, go and sit down. Anyway he had a pink bib on, and the blue rinse was going down on it, and he was annoyed, and then he got up and then went out and went home, with the blue rinse still on and the pink bib. The owner of Carita told me that he’d gone home with all of the blue rinse on him, and she told me that I have to go and to see him at home. So, I had to go to his house. She was very furious, and she was the one who insisted that I follow him to his house and cut his hair. So I went there and he was in his bathroom, sitting there waiting, and he told me ‘I like Greek people’. So then I cut his hair, and then I when I was finished I took the tip of hundred francs and I said to him ‘Now Doctor Lacan I don’t any more want to cut your hair anymore.’
Ally of Today is my Birthday! is back and has been looking at 50 Shades of Grey discussed here previously. Inspired, she has invented an Erotic Fiction Plot Generator. Go on, you know you want to. There are many parodies and jokes about the books – 50 Shades of Grey Power, 50 Shades of Grey Lynn etc – but not yet, as far as I know, 50 Shades of Steve Gray. It is only a matter of time. And I would like a percentage, please.

Stephen Franks on Maori Language Week is very sound on the ghastly and pointless macron but is also interesting on how purity may be self-defeating:
This view of language as property was blessed by some of our judges in a silly period, but more recently the own goal nature of that attitude was typified for me by the witless reaction to the intended use by LEGO of Maori names. If there had been a genuine interest in the promotion of the language for communication, it would have been welcomed as a great way to get kids familiar with the vowel usages and familiar with the tones. Instead it was treated as infringement of a proprietary secret knowledge. Language thrives when it is used, when it is comfortable and conveys the same meaning to speaker and hearer.  When the pretended guardians of the health of the language threatened LEGO into abandoning the plan, I knew that it was probably doomed. Those who want it kept pure to function as the property of an elect, their ID or passport, will never promote it as a genuine open medium of communication.
Good to see Mike Heron becoming the new Solicitor-General. Multi-talented guy – he was a big influence on Led Zeppelin from his years with the Incredible String Band, seen here at the Fillmore West in 1969 playing “Dust be Diamonds”. And, below, here they are in 1973 with Heron’s epic “Ithkos”. Mad, but in a good way. That’s Heron playing the harmonium, talking, and – rather shocking for a rock/folk/hippie musician – writing notes down on paper. Clearly from the rehearsal the rest of the band hate it and the other ISB guy, Robin Williamson, gets very Alan Partridge passive-aggressive. Boring for anyone who has never been in a band and horrible for anyone who doesn’t love the ISB but for those of us who were and do, here it is: