Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Nigel Cox on C.K. Stead: the prologue

I do like books that have me in the index: I have as many entries in the index to Bill Manhire’s Doubtful Sounds as do Beryl Bainbridge and Pablo Picasso, and twice as many as Witi Ihimaera and Barry Humphries. I know it’s wanky to care but still, as Abba put it: I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.

In C.K. Stead’s Book Self I am indexed because of references to my April 1990 article in Metro “Blaspheming Against the Pieties: why the literati hate C.K. Stead”. Stead says on p369 that he doesn’t have a copy of it and can’t remember the content, but he clearly assumes it was negative. I don’t have a copy (who keeps their ancient clippings?) and can’t remember the content either, but I do remember that it was essentially positive. Metro was very much on his side in the cultural debates of the time.

However, Stead does concede that my December 1990 cover story about political correctness (the cover pic showed Jennifer Ward-Lealand in a Greenpeace T-shirt wagging her finger sternly at the viewer: phwoar, frankly, and maybe this is why he still has a copy of this issue):
defended me against “politically correct liberals” whom [Stratford] describes as “the New Conservatives” and who had decided, he says, that I was “an incorrigible reactionary”.
He quotes a bit more of me in support of him, and then writes:
In fact if the earlier Stratford article was bad from my point of view (and I can’t be sure that it was) there was one that was much worse in a magazine he edited in the early 1990s. This was by Nigel Cox in Quote Unquote (both – author and magazine – now deceased) in which Cox more or less wrote my literary obituary, suggesting that since leaving the university my poetry had dried up, my novels were “forgettable”, and that, apart from causing upset by continuing to voice illiberal opinions, there was nothing left for me as a writer but “the dying of the light”.
This article by Nigel Cox is “Leading with his Chin” which I published in Quote Unquote the magazine in July 1994 when Nigel was 43 and Karl was 62 (see below). Obviously Nigel’s article was much less pro-Stead than my Metro article, and I didn’t really agree with his assessment, but it would have been a boring magazine if I had imposed my views on every contributor. The magazine folded in 1997, and Nigel died of cancer in 2006.

Fast-forward to 2010:
The 77-year-old CK Stead, New Zealand’s finest living writer, has won The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award.
Good for him, and we must all rejoice when a New Zealand writer wins an international prize, especially one worth ₤25,000. However, the story is about a younger writer who publishes an article hurtfully critical of an older writer. Some years later, the younger writer gets cancer and dies, while the older writer thrives. And then there is some funny business between the older writer and the widow.

There is an Italian proverb to the effect that revenge is a dish best eaten cold. This is extremely cold. Kelvin cold.

Well, see for yourselves. Nigel’s piece is reprinted below; Karl’s story is on the Times website here.

Nigel Cox on C.K. Stead

The ninth in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is a July 1994 article by novelist Nigel Cox on novelist, critic and poet C.K. Stead.

It was pretty negative about Stead’s status in New Zealand literature at the time: it certainly doesn’t describe the Stead of 2010, who has since then published several more novels and poetry collections and won various awards including the Montana for his collected verse: he has had, by any standard, a stellar career since then, let alone what he had achieved before.

So the article is very much one man’s view from 16 years ago – but it is worth posting because:
a) the whole idea of starting this blog was to make material from the magazine available online;
b) it is always of interest to read a novelist on a fellow novelist;
c) Stead refers to the article in his 2008 essay collection Book Self, as does Judith Dell Panny in her 2009 literary biography of him, Plume of Bees; and
d) it is so clearly the grit in the oyster that produced the short story “Last Season’s Man”, which won the £25,000 Sunday Times Short Story Award. See the next post for details.

UPDATE: I forgot to include the intro to the article. I can’t remember whether I wrote it, or Nigel did, or we collaborated. Probably the latter:
CK Stead’s All Visitors Ashore is one of the most popular New Zealand novels, but nothing he’s done since has quite lived up to it. His real passion seems to have gone into fighting – and even provoking – several very public battles. Clever, talented and witty, hs has somehow ended up on the fringe of the literary world. It’s his loss – but our loss too. Nigel Cox considers Stead’s deliberately controversial career.

The question is, does Karl Stead know better than the rest of us? Stead’s tone suggests he does. Pronouncing on everything from the appointment of Albert Wendt to a chair in the English department at the University of Auckland to the correct attitude to the Treaty of Waitangi, Stead sounds as though he’s flinging bolts of lightning so that the dim masses below may better find their way through the darkness.
Though lately a change in his tone may be detected. The passionate cry of I’m innocent! has begun to fork the lightning – or is it Stead’s tongue that is forked?
Certainly the latter was the opinion of those who sought to clarify his role in the purchase of the writers’ flat in Bloomsbury. Stead’s decision to act without consultation, and his bland announcement that, naturally, he had put his own name forward for a term in the flat, enraged, and quickly divided, the writing community.
In hindsight it’s hard to see that anyone behaved wisely in this affair – which seems to be a common element in any incident in which Stead is involved. There’s something about the man that instantly makes everyone go ballistic.
It wasn’t always this way. The voice which comes through, for example, in his provocative 1979 piece subtitled “Modern And Modernism In Recent New Zealand Poetry” is thoughtful, relaxed, and, as so often the case with Stead, wonderfully clever.
The actual title is the brilliant From Wystan to Carlos: “I had in mind that Allen Curnow had called his first-born Wystan; and that Ian Wedde, about 35 years later, had called his first-born Carlos. And though I haven’t enquired and don’t know whether either of them was actually naming a child after a poet, Curnow in 1939 can’t have been unaware that Auden’s first name was Wystan, any more than Wedde can have forgotten that William Carlos Williams’ middle name was Carlos.” What follows lives up to that witty beginning, being generous, learned and perceptive, seemingly unconcerned about anything but what’s interesting about poetry.
This same intelligence and learning made Stead’s The New Poetic, published in 1964, “a late classic of Imagist criticism”. In 1960 Allen Curnow, including three of his poems in the Penguin Book Of New Zealand Verse, said Stead had “one of the two or three distinct voices among the young New Zealand poets”.
There was a time when his name carried implications of clarity, learning and wit. Students who were in his English classes recall not only his passion for literature but that he was kind and friendly. Then gradually a change came and it seems to have begun about the time of the publication of his second novel, All Visitors Ashore, in 1984.
Stead was at that point a liberal to be counted on. His 1971 novel Smith’s Dream was widely read as an attack on what Muldoon might stretch to unless resisted. By the early 80s he’d shaved off the big beard which had made him look like a 60s campus radical, but photos from the time show him gleefully occupying the pitch with other anti-Tour protesters at Rugby Park, Hamilton in 1981.
By 1983 he was telling Landfall, “My own political obsessions can be pretty unrelenting. The Vietnam War got into my blood and into my dreams. . . More recently there was the Springbok tour. That got me off my chair and even showed me the inside of a cell for the first time in my life.”
These were at that point politically correct attitudes to have – even though PC wasn’t established as a term then. Readers loved All Visitors Ashore and it rightly received wonderful reviews, but Stead did have to defend himself against the charge that he’d cruelly satirised Janet Frame in his portrait of the character Cecilia Skyways, busy writing her abjectly titled Memoirs Of A Railway Siding. Frame declared herself to be unharmed and said she liked the novel, so no damage appeared to have been done. But the I’m innocent! tone in Stead’s voice had been heard – and not for the last time.
Soon after, Stead wrote in the Canadian magazine Ariel that the bone people asked for “imaginative complicity” in “extreme violence against a child” and said in a discussion on radio that Keri Hulme’s Maori was “boned up”.
He took it upon himself to say that instead of old boys, in New Zealand we now had “good boys”, and that poet Ian Wedde was one for including Maori and women poets who weren’t up to scratch in his and Harvey McQueen’s 1985 version of The Penguin Book Of New Zealand Poetry.
Andrew Mason, then literary editor of the Listener, was a good boy too, for organising soft reviews of books by women and dual reviews, one by a Maori and one by a Pakeha, of books with bicultural content. The good boy concept hasn’t died – Stead awarded the tag to Michael King recently for saying that New Zealand had learned consensus decision-making from Maori.
During this period his output as a poet began to dwindle. His first book of poems, Whether the Will is Free, appeared in 1962; his eighth, Between, in 1988. Since then only the commissioned Voices, written to commemorate the 1990 sesquicentennial (and widely uncelebrated) has appeared. Once he was a poet automatically included among those who counted. Is this still true?
And yet poetry has always mattered to Stead. Damien Wilkins, in a devastating critique of The End of the Century at the End of the World entitled “The Self-Loathing Of A Stead Novel” (New Zealand Books, December 1992) argues that, for Stead, “to poetry’s angel, prose is the necessary donkey. . . Look at how much envy this novel displays for poetry.”
And in the Landfall interview Stead himself says that “a novelist has to be a bit stolid and come back every day the same person. I find that very difficult. . . my sense of myself from probably about the age of 13. . . centred on writing. . . and I would say since that time the poetry has really been the centre of my intellectual life.” But apart from one recent and very small poem, Stead seems to have stopped publishing in this form.
And also to have stopped criticising it. These days he criticises society, via his short-lived but high-impact column in Metro or, more recently, novels. Since he took early retirement in 1986 to devote himself to his writing, Stead has concentrated on fiction, producing the dreary Sister Hollywood, the empty The End of the Century at the End of the World and now The Singing Whakapapa.
This latest novel, as elegantly phrased as ever, nevertheless does nothing to dispel Wilkins’ assertion that “Stead is almost chronically bored the moment he starts writing a scene”. I predict it will quietly slip below the surface, as its two predecessors have done, and receive neither resounding applause nor stir up the kind of rage its provocative title seems to hope for.
But if his recent fiction hasn’t brought him the attention he’s been used to, his editing of the Faber Book of Contemporary South Pacific Stories seemed for several months to be all the literati had to talk about. The story of how Keri Hulme, Witi Ihimaera, Albert Wendt and Patricia Grace accepted inclusion and then withdrew has been told in astonishing detail. These withdrawals, along with refusals from Vincent O’Sullivan and Hone Tuwhare, who is said to have had a financial disagreement, made the steamer on the book’s cover seem something like a ghost ship. Later came the astonishing suggestion that Keri Hulme could edit an improved edition which would include 10 additional Polynesian writers including the “refuseniks”.
It’s the difficulties over this book which seem finally to have drawn a change in tone from Stead. At its launch during Writers And Readers Week, he was preceded at the microphone by Faber’s editor, the novelist Robert McCrum, who opened proceedings by seeming to apologise for the book and to the missing authors. This was clearly unsettling for Stead, who for the first time in anyone’s memory spoke hesitantly. He managed to get in a couple of well-aimed blows at Faber, suggesting they had been less than courageous, and defended the book. Then to everyone’s astonishment he suggested that perhaps he “was out of touch with New Zealand”.
The description of him is the one most frequently applied by his detractors. Surely if Stead now accepts that it is accurate, then his stance in the last five years must be called into question. How can he know better than us if he’s out of touch with us?
Stead might argue that we’ve lost the straight way, that he speaks for common sense when party lines and pious “correctness” have led us up the garden path, but recently his voice has seemed not so much to be pitched above the fray as determined to be in the bloody thick of it.
He has great skill at personalising his battles, so that as you agree with him you are repelled by his method of argument. Did he, for example, have to slice Lauris Edmond’s poem “The Lecture” into such small pieces to “prove” that women’s poetry must be subjected to the same critical standards as men’s? It was a way of making his point, sure, but a cruel way.
As a critic, Stead is merciless, and at times this can be very valuable. His demolition in the London Review Of Books of David Malouf’s novel Remembering Babylon was clear-sighted and accurate. But often there is a sense, as there was with the Edmond demolition, that Stead had a score to settle. It’s this quality, that both the man and the ball are being played, that makes you reluctant to cede him the high moral ground he insists is his.
A danger with taking the high moral ground is that you have to stay up on it, always a problem over a long career. Included in his attack on the Wedde-McQueen anthology was a point about why he had declined to edit it himself: “I think I refused for the same reason I had in the late 1960s declined to do the Oxford anthology which was later done by Vincent O’Sullivan. I wanted to be sure that if poems of mine were represented they were there because someone else thought they should be” – not a principle he applied to himself in editing the Faber anthology, which includes his story “A Short History Of New Zealand”.
And sometimes his “honesty” seems misplaced, as, for instance, his comments in the recent Oxford Companion To 20th Century Poetry about Robin Dudding’s management of Landfall. In a book destined for the world literary audience, did he really have to say Dudding was “a talented but saurian editor whose ability was not meeting deadlines or keeping to schedules”? This seems a gratuitous dig, an irrelevancy – especially when, said specifically of Dudding’s time at Landfall, it’s not even true.
The superannuation from his early retirement, combined with regular if modest royalty payments (according to industry sources, End Of The Century sold only about 500 copies, which may be one reason his new novel has a local rather than a British publisher) and the fees he gets for providing items like the Education Forum’s response to the proposed English syllabus, should mean that as a writer he’s ideally placed: financially comfortable, with a lifetime of reading and experiments behind him, ready to produce the mature writings which will permanently secure his reputation. But his post-retirement output has in the main been three forgettable novels. And recently he seems isolated, not just from everyone else in the local writing community, but from his country. Can he have come so far, to find that he has nothing worth saying? Or that no one wants to hear from him?
To be fair, it is fatal in the New Zealand of the 90s to speak as Stead does, and pathetic that the price of speaking this way is that you are shouted down, then marginalised. Stead is brave, and what he has to say frequently offers a valuable if merciless challenge to the “right-thinking”. But you can’t help asking: why does he persist? Is it that without the forum that the university gave him, he seeks attention? A flyer for a recent poetry reading had him calling himself a “controversialist”. Surely that’s a very minor role for someone of his talents?
Stead is only 62, and he’ll be around for a good while yet, but it’s sad to catch a sense that despite the rage there is a dying of the light, or at least a movement from a bang to something surprisingly close to a whimper. In his most recent poem, comparing himself to Sylvia Plath, he describes himself as an aging poet “of modest reputation” and concludes with the line, “Living is an art. He does it as well as he can.”
But we can’t accept this. He is prematurely resigned. Surely there is lightning yet to come?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Andrew Williams, leaky mayor

Cactus Kate tries to defend North Shore mayor Andrew Williams, but come on.

The three best things about this whole incident are:

1. Pete George’s comment on Kiwiblog:
At this time of supercityification in particular North Shore needs strong credible leadership. Williams hasn’t even learnt to delegate tree irrigation.
2. The first two words of paragraph five in the Sunday Star-Guardian front-page story:
By chance, the Star-Times observed Williams drinking barside at Takapuna’s GPK bar and restaurant around 10pm on Thursday.
“By chance…” In a story by Jonathan Marshall, former professional paparazzo?

3. It gives me an excuse show this photo of Andrew Williams shaving Rodney Hide’s head on 3 February 2009. Not Photoshop: it is reality photography.

Deforestation and dogs

We all know that deforestation is a problem for, like, the planet, but who knew it was a problem for dogs?

Country life

On my way back from a brief – they are always brief – visit to Hamilton this morning I was startled by a pheasant rising from the low right-hand side of State Highway 1 flying at a 45-degree angle to reach the top of the high trees on the left.

A couple of hundred metres further along, a harrier hawk sat at the side of the road, less than a metre back from the white line, pecking at a road-kill possum. Cars and trucks were whizzing by at 100 kph: it observed them calmly but didn’t budge from its lunch.

We didn’t get a lot of that when we lived in Auckland, half-way down Dominion Road.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Last night in Ponsonby

“I’m not playing,” I say. “I haven’t done that since I was 12, in Rodney Barnett’s garage.”

“Me either,” says Rebekah.

“I’m in,” says Rob, Director-General of NZBC. He’s always in.

“I’m in,” says Mark of NZBC.

“Me too,” says Laughy Kate, annoyingly. “Come on, Quotey, we need four. Pleeez,” she wheedles.

I reflect that she is letting me stay over in her spare room after a hard day’s meetings, instead of driving home through the night.

“Oh all right then,” I say graciously.

“Are you a bit out of your comfort zone here?” asks Rebekah solicitously.

“No, I have been to a gang headquarters, and also Hamilton,” I say. “It’s just that this is such a clean, well-lighted place. It feels wrong.”

We are in a pool hall on Ponsonby Road after a couple of drinks at the Long Room. There is clean, non-smelly carpet on the floor, nobody is smoking and all the patrons (apart from me, Rob and Mark) are young and attractive. They also still have their teeth, and there is no fighting. The modern pool hall is not like the old-school pool hall.

Play commences. Mark and Kate win. This is because Mark is really quite good.

We have a second game. Mark and Kate win again. This is because Rob sinks the white directly behind the black after I had set us up for a win by potting three in a row. There’s no helping some people.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Data mining

The Herald reports:
The Government is accusing critics of its proposals to mine conservation land of “ignoring the facts” as it deals with the latest fallout from Monday's announcement.

After fending off opposition parties and environmentalists, it now has to deal with an article in the influential Economist magazine deriding New Zealand's “100 per cent pure” marketing brand.
No it doesn’t. If you take the trouble of reading the magazine, as I do, you will find that there is no such article. There is, instead, a post on one of its the website’s blogs.

Either the journalists at the Herald are idle and incompetent, or they believe that a blogger is as authoritative as an article in the MSM.

I don’t know. What do you think?

Saddest story of the year. . . so far

If you're an avid online gamer chances are you sign onto, say, Xbox Live most nights and jump into a game of Modern Warfare or Gears of War with either your friends or some random players. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say the majority of gamers you encounter are dudes, and probably immature dudes at that. What if you could pay a bit of cash to play Modern Warfare with an attractive girl? Or maybe relax with a casual game of checkers while you video chat with said female? A new social service launching tomorrow, March 23, called GameCrush ( is hoping there are gamers out there willing to pay for the opportunity to play with girls.

[. . .] After a session you can rate your PlayDate on her hotness, gaming skill, and flirtiness. The highest-rated girls will receive preferred placement on the site. GameCrush is assembling a team of its most highly regarded PlayDates called JaneCrush, which would be positioned similar to Ubisoft's Fragdolls in that members of JaneCrush will generate content for the site like blogs and editorials. GameCrush wants to turn its most popular girls into gaming stars.
More on this tragedy here.

Monitor: Marginal Revolution

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Metrocentrism at Radio NZ

On Concert FM this morning the announcer introduced the weather report by saying, “It’s not good, I’m afraid” and then informing us that there would be steady rain all day in Northland and the Waikato.

I wonder if the people at 155 The Terrace in Wellington ever read their local paper, which yesterday reported:
Dairy farmers in Northland are struggling to feed their cows as drought evaporates daily milk production in the region by nearly 30 per cent compared with last season – and their neighbours in Waikato can't help as they also head for a big daily production tumble through lack of rain.

Dairy processor Fonterra, which collects more than 90 per cent of the country's milk, said Northland production was down around 29 per cent daily, and Waikato herds were producing 6.5 per cent less milk a day.
So rain is bloody good news.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nick Cave on mining in New Zealand

Home Paddock has a good roundup of blogs strangely sympathetic to the idea of mining an area, about the size of your average farm, that is currently part of the conservation estate and thus sacred. Yes, I know, shock horror and heaven forbid.

But, as so often, I wonder: what would my role model Nick Cave recommend?

For the egotist who has everything

What a brilliant idea:
Personalised Classic Books take five classics and let you rename six central characters. The plot remains the same, the only thing that changes is that it’s you hunting vampires in the darkest depths of Transylvania, or your friends setting out along the yellow brick road while you chase them on a broom stick.

It may sound complicated, but getting yourself inside one of the classics is as easy as filling in a form online [. . .] Once everything’s been filled in and you’ve decided who out of your friends and family deserves to be in your book you’ll be sent a first edition personalised novel to keep on your shelf forever. Choose between Alice in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, Dracula, Pride and Prejudice, Wind In The Willows, Treasure Island or Romeo and Juliet.
So I could be Mr D’Arcy in Pride and Prejudice (though sadly not in the BBC adaptation with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet). That would work, with my wife as Elizabeth and Laughy Kate as the annoying kid sister Lydia. Then again, I could be Toad in Wind in the Willows. All this for a mere ₤20 plus P&P.

I guess they use a Gutenberg or Google Books text plus a Print on Demand machine, and the original books have to be out of copyright. You couldn’t do it here with The Bone People or Plumb, then, but The Scarecrow can’t be far off.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Happy birthday, Beverley Knight

She was born in Wolverhampton on 22 March 1973 and this is “Black Butta” from her 2007 album Music City Soul, the best new soul album I’ve heard in at least the last decade. It’s as close to classic Aretha Franklin and Al Green as we’re going to get in the age of the hemidemisemiquaver diva.

The performance is from Later with Jools Holland, presumably about the time the album came out.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Hotness in Cambridge

Last night I gave the local brother-in-law a habanero chilli from the garden, one of the first of the crop. (That isn’t them above, but is what they look like.) I hadn’t used one yet. I did today, for lunch, in a salsa made from other stuff from the garden. Yikes. I knew that habaneros were hotter than the usual cayennes or jalepenos, and even bird’s eyes which I grew last year, so I used only one instead of the recommended four. The result was plenty hot enough.

And then I thought, uh-oh, I didn’t warn the brother-in-law.

He texted tonight that it was astoundingly hot going in, and he feared for the consequences at the other end in the morning.

So I looked up habaneros in the excellent New Zealand Chili Handbook by Garry Sommerville of Kaitaia Fire. He says that the cayenne pepper, which is what you get fresh in the supermarket, has a Scoville rating of 30-50,000. A habanero can go up to 350,000.

Oops. Sorry, bro.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Around the NZ blogs

At 3pm on Tuesday, Poneke was shouting at his keyboard. Warning: contains swearing, and lots of it.

LaughyKate is possibly in line for a job at the Skanky HoS. (In our house we call it “the Skank” for short.)

There’s nothing new on NZBC – it’s all repeats.

Home Paddock has a good round-up of informed comment on dirty dairying and the importance of the clean-up.

NZ Wine Blogger enthuses about this year’s grape harvest in Auckland.

The Fundy Post points us to a superb piece by Victoria Coren on the Oscars.

Finally, Today is My Birthday had better not try this in my garden.

The Neil Gaiman fan club

Neil Gaiman was a huge hit at the Wellington festival recently. One fan was so excited that he got Gaiman to autograph his arm instead of a book. He then went out got the autograph made permanent in the form of a tattoo, and returned to the signing two hours later to show Gaiman. Now that’s what I call commitment.

My source swears that this is a true story, but then my source is a senior journalist at the Sunday Star-Guardian, so who knows.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The joy of children

The eight-year-old’s first words to me today at about 7 a.m. when she woke up as I was raising the blinds in her bedroom:
Could you go away please? I want some time on my own.

Paragraph of the week

There is a short pause whilst we accept the fact that saying ‘ok’ resolutely before doing a difficult job does not really affect the difficultness of the job at all. Meanwhile the chickens look on suspiciously.
The full story is here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How to save several hours

Here’s how I’m going to do it – by not reading Don DeLillo’s new novel Point Omega. Justin Cartwright reviews it in the Spectator of 6 March. He opens with what seems the best thing he can say about it:
This is a very short book with large type.
He outlines the subject, characters and plot, in the usual way, and then:
The story switches to the Californian desert, where a retired government adviser, Richard Elster, whose task was to think out of the box on the nature of war for his employers — generally pretty keen on it — is purifying himself in the extreme remoteness. There are some striking similarities to Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions as a young man arrives to try to inveigle Elster into giving him a long, free-form film interview on what he really knows about Iraq. An insurmountable problem with the novel now becomes apparent: Elster, for all his advance billing as a great mind, seems to talk absolutely incoherent rubbish. Here is a sample:

“I’m telling you . . . Something’s coming. But isn’t this what we want? Isn’t this the burden of consciousness? We’re the mind and heart that matter has become. This is what drives us now.”

There’s lots more of the same.
I think I can safely skip that one, then.

Headline of the month

In the Economist of 13 March, on a story (not online yet) about the international success of Scandinavian crime fiction:
Inspector Norse

Monday, March 15, 2010

MIT makes a maths joke

Greg Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard University, blogs (Sunday there in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Monday here in Cambridge, New Zealand) that:
MIT releases its undergraduate admission decisions at 1:59 pm today. (That is, at 3.14159).
Monitor: Tim Worstall

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Happy birthday, Georg Philip Telemann

Born on 14 March 1681, 329 years ago, Telemann was a friend of Handel and a contemporary of Bach and Vivaldi. Those were the days.

Most of what we hear of his music nowadays seems lightweight compared to Bach and Handel, but he was a bigger deal than Bach at the time and, as is the way of these things, he may well have a higher reputation in the future than he does now.

The chamber music is always engaging and tuneful, though it seldom seems more than that. That’s all we hear now, so perhaps there are some unknown big beasts of choral or orchestral pieces that would change our view. Who knew much of Bach between his death and Mendelssohn’s 1829 performance of the St Matthew Passion? Or much of Mahler between his death and Visconti’s Death in Venice, which so memorably made use of the Adagio of the Fifth Symphony?

Here is a quartet in G for flute, oboe, violin and cello, performed by members of the Belgian baroque ensemble Il Gardellino:

Monitor: Simon Patterson

Sign o’ the Times

Now we can all contribute to Wellington’s vibrant signage by suggesting an alternative to the proposed Wellywood sign – which fortunately would seem to be a non-starter because it breaches a US trademark. Who would have thought?

The clever graphics people at Skull and Bones (perhaps with a nudge from their clever marketing people) have built a tool that enables us all to have a go. That’s mine above. There is a gallery of other suggestions, some NSFW, here.

Monitor: The Fundy Post

Four legs good, two legs bad

In this case, very bad. The official caption from the Korean Central News Agency North Korea’s state-run (and only) news agency reads:
Kim Jong-il inspects the October 7 Pig Farm under Korean People’s Army Unit 534 at undisclosed place in North Korea. Photo released on January 16, 2010.
This is at the Big Picture, which has many other images of the Dear Leader inspecting factories and such.

Via Mick Hartley who gives more info about life in North Korea here and here. If you are at all interested in the subject, he is a must-read.

Friday, March 12, 2010

In praise of Jenny Morris

Jenny Morris performs tonight at the Wellington festival. She has come a long way, baby, since being born in Tokoroa. Her 1980 performance of “Tears” with the Crocodiles was stunning (you can see the vid here). The next year the band moved to Australia, eventually split and, going solo, she went on to become a big star there, selling loads of records and winning awards. And this year she received the Order of Australia.

Although she has edited this out of her official bios, always saying that her first band was the all-female Wide Mouthed Frogs in Wellington in 1978, in fact her first band was How’s Your Father in Auckland in 1976. I know this because I was in the band too. Ohmigod that was 34 years ago.

That’s her and me above at rehearsals in Newmarket, Auckland in 1976. The band were regulars at the Globe Tavern: Jenny and I would open as a duo for a few songs, me backing her on semi-acoustic guitar, and then the full band could come on and PLAY VERY LOUD. We were a rough pub-rock band, really, but she was amazing: she could do sweet ballads and then belt out the blues. Plus, in Cactus Kate’s formulation, she was quite hot for a chick her age (20):

That is Jenny on tour in the Kamo Hotel in, I suppose, early 1977, with our hotshot lead guitarist Co Tipping in the background. I have a cassette of one of the nights we played there and despite the terrible racket behind her anyone hearing it would pick that she would one day be a star. All of us who were in the band then will be thrilled that she is.


The Dim-Post has been on occasion scathing about “lazy bloggers” who just put up YouTube clips, as I did below.

Some people even sink so low as to post photos of the day’s vegetable harvest, like the one above: those are Agria potatoes at the back, then some bok choy (a bit munted because it’s actually from a couple of days ago), cayenne chillies from last year’s seed (because I am quite good at this) and a purple capsicum. No tomatoes today (Roma, Black Krim), and the raspberries all went at breakfast.

I wonder what scathing comment Dim-Post would make about that. Let’s have a look.

I want a gnu

In the spirit of the “Scuse me while I kiss this guy” reading of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”, here is a reading of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”. I think it improves on the original:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hitler on Wellywood

This is the funniest Hitler clip I have seen – and it’s dead right about that stupid Wellywood sign proposed for Wellington airport:

Monitor: Dim-Post

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Joe Cocker

Many of us have wondered over the years what on earth Joe Cocker was doing with his hands while he sang. Now we know.

An informed comment by TheCanadaSam on this great clip (embedding is disabled: I’ll embed it later if I remember) of him singing “Delta Lady” on the TV show This is Tom Jones some time in the late 60s, early 70s:
He’s playing left-handed “air bass guitar” – note his right hand is fretting the notes and his left hand fingers are down – plucking the strings as a bass player does. You can check it out in “Woodstock” as well.
He’s right. Cocker is playing the bass part, left-handed. It all makes sense now.

Well, more sense than before.

Children, in those days prime-time television was like this. Famous people performed live with other famous people – other clips from the show on YouTube (and the DVD) show Jones duetting with Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and more.

On the other hand, we didn’t have reality TV, celebrity castaways or f***ing celebrity f***ing chefs, so it wasn’t all roses.

Monitor: Chris Bourke

Carl Hiaasen, reporter

Fans of Florida crime writer Carl Hiaasen – and isn’t that all of us? – might occasionally think that his novels exaggerate the eccentric, not to say deranged, nature of the citizens of the Sunshine State. Not a bit of it:
Florida Highway Patrol troopers say a two-vehicle crash Tuesday at Mile Marker 21 on Cudjoe Key was caused by a 37-year-old woman driver who was shaving her bikini area while her ex-husband took the wheel from the passenger seat.

“She said she was meeting her boyfriend in Key West and wanted to be ready for the visit,” Trooper Gary Dunick said. “If I wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have believed it. About 10 years ago I stopped a guy in the exact same spot ... who had three or four syringes sticking out of his arm. It was just surreal and I thought, ‘Nothing will ever beat this.’ Well, this takes it.”
As former Floridan Michael Munger, professor of political science and economics at Duke University, says:
There are many things I like about the story. But the best parts, for my money, are that she was getting her ex-husband to drive from the passenger seat. While she sat in the driver’s seat (why?), shaving her tingly bits. To be “ready” for her boyfriend. With a suspended license. In an illegal car.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Ian McEwan, calamatist

The distinguished author (The Child in Time, On Chesil Beach, Atonement: we don’t talk any more about his 1978 debut novel The Cement Garden which was possibly just a wee bit plagiarised from, sorry, inspired by Julian Gloag’s 1966 novel Our Mother’s House: I had read the latter and when I read the former I thought, hang on a minute, mate. . .) says, apropos his new novel Solar which is about climate change:
I am quite tempted sometimes to be a calamatist. There is something intellectually delicious about all that super-pessimism.
The publisher says, unexpectedly, of the book:
It shows a fresh side to Ian McEwan’s work, that he’s a comic writer of genius.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Happy birthday, David Gilmour

Born on 6 March 1946, David Gilmour is 64 today, depending on your time zone. He started out as a male model (you can see why here and, frankly, above) and ended up as one of the great guitar heroes. There are several survivors from the 60s still playing, but I can’t think of any still extending their range apart from him and Jeff Beck. His music is more conservative than Beck’s but technically his playing is every bit as magical. He also seems to be a very good chap, as you’ll find online: loads of philanthropy, and when the Live 8 concert led to a big spike in sales of Pink Floyd CDs he said, “I will not profit from the concert. This is money that should be used to save lives.”

Here he is at about 60 in a New York studio performing Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”. He wrote the music, Roger Waters wrote the words. What a combination they were. The two guitar solos – the first is over the D major section, the second over the B minor – always appear on lists of the greatest guitar solos ever. Those lists are stupid but that doesn’t detract from how good these solos are. They look and sound simple – even I can bash my way through them – but no one else has Gilmour’s touch or feel.

It is really hard to play over music as slow as this, and I can’t think of another guitarist who is so happy down the bottom end of the neck where, as with the slow tempo, it is harder to play. Also, we can all copy this but the trick is to invent it. We can all plagiarise, but can we all write?

Men behaving badly

In breaking news from the cutting edge of scientific research, or at least the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science:
Men become hopeless show-offs at the sight of a beautiful women, scientists have proved.
Honestly, who knew?
Researchers found they take greater risks in order to impress and as a result become more accident prone.

They show that just looking at an attractive woman makes them more likely to indulge in “physical risk-taking” which ends in embarrassing failure or even injury.
Fascinating. Do go on:
The change in behaviour is triggered by a surge in the male hormone testosterone which makes men “throw caution to the wind”, according to psychologists at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

They made the finding after studying young male skateboarders.
Ah, so we’re talking about Australians.

Monitor: Mark Broatch

Friday, March 5, 2010

Grahame Sydney in North Dakota

This is Abandoned Garage on Highway No. 2. Western North Dakota photographed by Russell Lee in October 1937 for the Farm Security Administration. There is a really big version at Shorpy.

Apart from the Texaco sign I’d swear that was a Grahame Sydney painting of Central Otago but he tells me – hey, investigative journalist-type blogging! – that he hasn’t seen the image before and isn’t really familiar with the FSA collection. So I guess it’s nature imitating art again, or art imitating nature imitating art, with a time-travel twist. Pre-figurative art, perhaps.

Russell Lee was on the staff of the FSA with Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans and others, documenting the plight of farmers, sharecroppers and others during the Depression. There is a collection of his images here and more information on him here.

Monitor: Mick Hartley

Twitter ye not

As Frankie Howerd would have said. But I did Twitter. Or, rather, I tweeted, to enter Unity Books’ 21st birthday competition – and won a $200 book voucher. Of course, I have to spend it all at Unity Books which means going up to bloody Auckland again, but still. Mustn’t be churlish.

While I’m in boasting mode, the NZ Portrait Gallery tell me they want to put me, or rather a painting of me by Mary McIntyre, in an exhibition in April, and Paddy Richardson’s crime novel Hunting Blind is top of the NZ bestseller list this week. This is the second novel I’ve worked on that has got to #1, and even though the credit is all Paddy’s it’s still a thrill.

So it has been a good week all round. Excuse me while I nip out and buy a Lotto ticket.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Maori king threatens abdication

Or possibly not. Strangely, the initial report from the Waikato Times does not seem to be carried on Stuff or the Herald’s website – I suppose that stories about Maoris in the provinces don’t generate enough click-through on the ads. Remember the stories last year about ructions in Ngai Tahu’s governance? Got any idea what’s happening now? No, me either and I used to work for them as a cultural advisor. This stuff does not rate.

The report opened:
The Maori King has threatened to abdicate his title if tribal members do not fall back into line.
(For overseas readers, the Maori king is not a king in the traditional sense, but a more-or-less hereditary leader of a group of tribes – we call them iwi – though by no means all of them. It’s regional and hellishly complicated: it’s Tainui central plus a bunch more in the middle of the North Island. Mostly. As always, you don’t want to go to Wikipedia for information: this is a good place to start. Te Kauhanganui is the iwi’s parliament.)

Falling back into line would seem to require tribal members to behave along the lines of Bob Geldof’s celebrated (if apocryphal) demand during LiveAid: “Give us your fooking money!”:
[. . . ] during his speech the king blasted Kauhanganui members for questioning his use of tribal funds, which he called “his money”, and the appointment of John “Barna” Heremia and Taitimu Maipi as the directors of the company which receives money from the tribe to operate his office.

The company, Ururangi Ltd, receives an annual budget of $1.2 million for the office and the appointments had been criticised after it was revealed that Mr Heremia and Mr Maipi were the two men at the helm of a Huntly kura kaupapa singled out by the auditor-general for making $400,000 in undeclared payments to its principal.

Mr Heremia is the principal of the school and Mr Maipi is the chairman of the board of trustees.

One of the sources said King Tuheitia spoke for about 20 minutes and it was clear that he was frustrated and angry.

“He wants control of his office without any question. He blames Te Kauhanganui for the issues that have been raised and he is embarrassed by Te Kauhanganui and just wants to do it his way.

“He wants it all to stop and basically said that if this doesn't happen he would step down from being the paramount chief of this tribe and the Maori king.”

[. . .] Another source said King Tuheitia also demanded that the tribe put a stop to attacks on the executive board, Te Arataura.

“He called it his board and said that the tribe was to stop their attacks on his board.”

The source said he believed, though, that the board should be working on behalf of the tribe.

The board has been criticised by some tribal members following its decision to incur significant legal fees defending a claim of unfair dismissal by chief executive Hemi Rau, approval of a $100,000 success fee paid to each negotiator of the Waikato River claim and a continuing rise in the cost of governance.
That was in Tuesday’s paper. Today, the front-page story says:
The Maori King, Tuheitia Paki, didn’t use the word “abdicate” in his speech to the Waikato-Tainui tribe’s parliament Te Kauhanganui on Sunday, according to a spokesman for his office. [. . .] King Tuheitia did not use those words, nor would he ever use such language.

Many tens of thousands of people witnessed the king's coronation at Turangawaewae following the passing of his mother, Te Arikinui Te Ataiirangikaahu, in 2006.

The crowning was a sacred ceremony that had followed the debate and ultimate selection by tribal leaders from throughout the country. The head of Kingitanga is not a title that can, nor would ever be abdicated irrespective of any tribal issues.”
OK, he won’t abdicate. But the updated story has no mention of the money issue so presumably King Tuheitia’s office doesn’t dispute the earlier story about huge payments to the men running his office.

I wouldn’t mind and would happily leave Tainui to handle or mishandle their Treaty settlement money as they choose – isn’t that the whole point of the process? – but really, this sense of the Big Men’s entitlement is a bit African. Drive around the district and see how people live on the edges of Huntly. It’s not Northland, but it is a world away from that of the Big Men.

The chair of the Tainui board, Tukuroirangi Morgan, may well be a better man now but will always be remembered for his $89 underpants.

Sean Connery: the Borat years

He must so regret Zardoz.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Happy birthday, Thomas Adès

The English composer Thomas Adès is 39 today. He must get sick of being called the new Britten, but that is the easiest comparison: young, gifted and gay, he is, as Britten was, a fine conductor, an accomplished concert pianist and a hugely productive composer.

What’s more, almost all his music has been recorded by a major label (EMI, bless them) and is performed all over the world. His opera Powder Her Face which is based on the true story of the notorious Duchess of Argyll – this obituary from the Daily Telegraph (“a completely promiscuous woman”) is a classic of the genre – has even been performed in Queensland.

Here is the opening scene: it is a kind of tango but is very much not safe for work. Unless your office is cool with a man dressed as a duchess singing loudly about fellatio. My office is, but then I work from home.

Randall Jarrell’s beard

So there I was on Saturday night in Auckland at the Unity Books 21st birthday party, truly an occasion for celebration. It wasn’t huge – everyone there was a genuine and long-term friend of the shop – so after the (very good, and not just because they were brief) speeches there was lots of catching up with old friends and even some young ones.

And then Randall Jarrell, the great American poet and critic (Robert Lowell called him “the most heartbreaking English poet of his generation”) and one of my all-time literary heroes, came over to say hello. Well, obviously it wasn’t him because he died in October 1965, but it was definitely his beard. It quite threw me for a second.

And then I realised that behind the beard was VUP publisher Fergus Barrowman. I guess if anyone in New Zealand is entitled to wear Randall Jarrell’s beard, it’s Fergus.