Thursday, April 29, 2010

I’ve got mail

A postcard arrives. It is for me, which is exciting.

Recently my wife turned 35 (at least that’s what we tell the children), one child turned eight and the other turned six. There have been many parcels and cards for all three – loads and loads of parcels and cards for everyone, every day. But not one for me. Nothing for me but bills. Until today – when a postcard arrives.

It is addressed, somewhat peremptorily, to STRATFORD in upper case, the street address in title case, CAMBRIDGE in upper case again. There is no signature. Curious.

The picture on the other side is the one above: a small boy dressed up as a cowboy. Curious.

I have no interest in cowboys, or in small boys for that matter. Why would anyone send me a picture of one dressed in this fashion? I can’t help wishing that the small boy in the photo had a dog with him, as all small boys should, because then it would be a cowboy dog.

But wait – there is a caption. It reads: “C K Stead, c1939”. So this is a promotional postcard for CK’s new book, South-West of Eden: A Memoir, 1932-1956. Curiouser.

And there is a hand-written message. It reads:
Sleep with one eye open when you slumber
Every little sound just might be thunder
Thunder from the barrel of his gun.
Curiouser and curiouser. Research (i.e. Google) reveals that these lines are from the fifth verse of a Bob Dylan song, Billy 4, on his soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. I have never heard this song and have no idea what any of this means or who this postcard is from. Could it be from K of Henderson? Could it be from a mysterious international beauty – Swedish, Russian, Tuareg, who knows? – intent on luring me from my rural fastness? Could it be. . .? My mind races with possibilities.

When my wife comes home from work I show her the postcard. She says, in that deflating way wives have, “That’s from Peter.”

Nominative determinism #5

The Press reports:
The Canterbury District Health Board’s community alcohol and drug service clinical head, David Stoner, said more young people were becoming addicted to opiates.
Monitor: Dim-Post

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In praise of: Thelonious Monk

This is the late great Melodious Thunk in Oslo, 1966, with Charlie Rouse on sax and possibly Larry Gales on bass and Ben Riley on drums, in a 10-minute version of “Blue Monk”. It is not a second too long.

I saw him play solo that year or thereabouts. In Tauranga. In the Tauranga Girls’ College hall. Impossible to imagine anything like that happening now.

My father had to attend the concert because he was on the school’s board of governors. I have no idea why he took me along (I was 13 or so) but I’m glad he did. It changed my life. Well, imagine what it was like in Tauranga in 1966 seeing the greatest pianist and composer in jazz not compromising an inch. I’d never heard anything like it, and never have since.

Plus he was black. Really black. New Zealand was a more homogeneous place then (i.e. more boring). I grew up seeing ancient kuia with mokos and being beaten up in the playground by Yvonne Toitoi from the Oropi pa, so there was always a sense of cultural diversity – but Monk was something else. I have always wondered what he made of us, and who looked after him. There is no mention of the visit in Leslie Gourse’s excellent biography Straight, No Chaser.

Monk played in Auckland and after the concert there was a party in St George’s Bay Road. Thanks to the sailors present, jazz cigarettes were smoked. Monk played some pieces by Ravel and Debussy and then some duets with David Galbraith, a concert pianist who lived across the road. Maybe the duets were what he played with Galbraith – I wasn’t there, obviously: this is what I recall my friend Bernard Brown telling me about the evening. It had the same effect on him as the Tauranga concert did on me: we still talk about it, 40-plus years later.

I wonder what concerts I could take my children to in New Zealand in 2010 that would be as life-changing. Wilco, yes. Not John Mayer, that’s for sure.

Cilla Black and Marc Bolan

This was what light entertainment television was like in 1973, Cilla Black duetting with Marc Bolan of T Rex on “Life’s a Gas” from his brilliant – yes, yes it is – album Electric Warrior:

Monitor: Holly Johnson in Mojo

In praise of: Debbie Reynolds

The American actress Debbie Reynolds is best known to those under 50 as the mother of Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia. However, those over 50 remember her starring in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) with Gene Kelly, The Tender Trap (1955) with Frank Sinatra, The Pleasure of His Company (1961) with Fred Astaire and How the West Was Won (1962) with James Stewart. More recently she was in The Bodyguard (1992) with Kevin Costner, but you can’t win them all.

She is currently touring England with her cabaret act Alive and Fabulous in which she sings, dances and reminisces. When the Spectator asked her if she had any plans for retiring, she replied:
I don’t see why I should. I always had great legs and great tits and they haven’t fallen – yet – so why stop?
What a gal. Debbie Reynolds is 78.

Monday, April 26, 2010

What I’m reading

The Fundy Post on a certain recent volcanic erupto-event:
For those of us living in Better Britain, the volcano crisis may be a blessing. If the erupting continues, these ghastly people – toffs and chavs alike – may be unable to get here for the Rugby World Cup. So, ladies and gentlemen, charge your glasses and be upstanding; for the toast is to – Valhalla.
Chad Taylor on the future of the book in the digital age:
In less than two years, I'll probably be creating and selling my own ebooks via this blog and my author site, or via some similar online mechanism. The notion is empowering but more than a little melancholy. Writing is already a lonely business: when the publishing model changes, it will become even lonelier.
If I get a free hour or three I’d like to comment on that: you are welcome to start the debate here or at Chad’s place.

Karl du Fresne on a Wairarapa house party:
Several in the audience drew comparisons with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and the analogy was apt. Not only was the lineup similar but the repertoire too; in fact some of the warmest applause was for Chambers’ rendition of the Gillian Welch song Elvis Presley Blues. Like Welch and Rawlings these two had the ability, with just two instruments, to keep their audience engaged – entranced is not too strong a word – for the better part of two hours; long enough to just about exhaust their repertoire.
I would so be there for that. And I have been to that house, which is quietly spectacular, as is the New Zealand way.

Today is My Birthday starts out on on reality TV but:
I’ve gotten sidetracked by bad tattoos. Like this one. . . And this chick who I guess just really hates doggy-style.
You so want to see this.

Dim-Post on vegetables:
The merits and drawbacks of removing GST on ‘health foods’ are interesting enough, but even more is the mystery of the spring onions that cost $3.00 at my local supermarket and $0.50 at the farmers market two minutes walk from the supermarket.
The mystery is, why not grow them? FFS, if I can do it. . . But yes, farmers’ markets are ace. From the Cambridge one we get fruit and vegetables we don’t have in the garden plus fish, meat, cheese and loads of complicated things we could make at home – e.g. lime and ginger cordial – but can’t be arsed to.

In overseas news, London-based Mick Hartley on the reaction to the Foreign Office’s internal memo making light of His Popiness:
After all the paedophile scandals, finally the various assorted clergy can return to doing what they do best: aggrieved pomposity.
He is also the place to go to for updates from North Korea and Sudan or general news about Islam as a religion of peace and kindness to women.

Friday, April 23, 2010

In praise of: Mary McIntyre

I was in Wellington to attend the opening of my friend Mary McIntyre’s new exhibition at the NZ Portrait Gallery, in Shed 11 on the waterfront. If you live in Wellington, or are visiting it between now and 18 July, don’t miss it.

Curated by Richard Wolfe (that’s him above with the artist and her Minotaur at Maungarei), it is Mary’s first retrospective and I think her biggest show ever. Called Head 2 Head, it is a joint show with Martin Ball who is a realist artist working often on a very large scale. Mary’s paintings vary widely in scale, from roundels just 80 mm in diameter to large oils 1.5 metres wide. They vary just as much in their degree of realism: often there are surreal elements or bizarre juxtapositions. There is a sharp eye and a keen brain at work here, and a formidable technique.

Next month will see the launch of the book Mary McIntyre: Painter by art historian Robin Woodward of Auckland University, which has been designed by Jacinda Torrance. I’ve seen and read the page proofs: it will be a beautiful book and the text is illuminating throughout. Everyone involved in both exhibition and book has done Mary proud.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Does anyone still work in Wellington?

I flew to the capital yesterday to meet a friend at 5.30 p.m. at Queens Wharf. I was about 40 minutes early. I asked myself, what would my father-in-law do? (He is my role model in situations like this.)

So within minutes I was sitting in Dockside with a glass of Neudorf chardonnay. The place was buzzing. Four men in late middle age were at the bar, clearly all well on the way and all talking bollocks (sample quote: “The Morioris got here first and then the Maoris came along and ate them all”). There was a large party of large, red-faced men down the other end who had clearly lunched extremely well and were ordering more bottles of wine. There were three or four smaller but otherwise similar groups. Probably thirty or so people in all, pissing up large on a Wednesday afternoon during office hours. It was like Marbles restaurant in Kelburn in 1985, or the Marble Bar in Cable Car Lane in 1986 (as described in my book The Dirty Decade: New Zealand in the 80s).

Twice this year I’ve been to Wellington for meetings that start at 9 a.m. I’m always early (flights from Hamilton are awkward), the office doesn’t open until 9 so I go to a nearby café to wait. It is always busy: almost all inside and outside tables are occupied by professional-looking types since we are in the heart of the business district. But at 9 a.m. I am the only person to get up and walk purposefully away – the others stay on chatting, drinking coffee, texting and, if outside, smoking.

I don’t know. I suppose it’s all right but it’s not what I’m used to.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Helter Skelter

I have spent the last three days editing a book on-screen, not quite 24/7 but it feels like it. And it wasn’t the manuscript, it was a PDF of the designer’s version. Talk about sub-optimal.

As Ringo or John Lennon (even Ian MacDonald in his magisterial Revolution in the Head is uncertain) screamed at the end of recording “Helter Skelter” for the White Album, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” Except in my case it’s blisters on my eyeballs.

So, apologies in advance for probably no posting and no responses to comments for a day or so.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

CK Stead, Nigel Cox and Private Eye

For years Bill Manhire was able to boast – not that he would have – that, as the oration conferring on him his honorary degree of Doctor of Literature from Otago University in 2005, put it, he was:
the only New Zealand poet ever to figure in Private Eye.
No longer.

As the whole world knows now, or at least that portion of it that reads the Sunday Star-Times, the latest issue of Private Eye has an item in its Books & Bookmen column about the CK Stead/Nigel Cox story already featured here, here, here and here. In the SST Stead cheerfully – and rightly, I reckon – takes the view that all publicity is good publicity:
He also said that featuring in Private Eye was like having his 15 minutes of fame at age 77.
I get my own 15 minutes of fame when Stead describes me as “in an essence, a literary wannabe; he is essentially a literary gossip columnist.” He dismisses Keri Hulme’s criticism on this blog of his short story “Last Season’s Man”:
“people should start attending to Keri Hulme again when she is a writer again. She is not a writer at the moment, she gave up a long time ago, and when she starts again she will earn attention.”
I don’t know about this: she’s either worth attending to or she isn’t, and I can’t see why it would have much to do with her recent publishing history. And as the SST says, Stead himself called her “a major writer” as recently as 2007.

The Eye column isn’t available online as its publisher, Lord Gnome has the same sensible attitude as Rupert Murdoch: it is silly to give content away. You’ll have to buy the dead-tree magazine unless you are one of the many in New Zealand who have received PDFs of the page in their email inbox: I don’t know the source of these, but boy have they gone viral. I won’t quote from the story as it is all copyright but the SST piece (not online) quotes enough to give the flavour of it: more sour than sweet, basically.

UPDATE: the latest Sunday Star-Times story is now online here.

UPDATE 2: Jolisa Gracewood, the literary detective who uncovered the plagiarism in Witi Ihimaera’s novel The Trowenna Sea, weighs in here. It’s all good but the last par is outstanding.

UPDATE 3: You’d think there was nothing more to say about all this, but Guy Somerset has lots in the Listener published yesterday, cover date 1 May: the article will be online here from 22 May. It opens with Stead’s reaction to Janet Frame’s 1963 short story “The Triumph of Poetry” (which Fergus Barrowman refers to in a comment here). Stead thought the main character was based on him and took strong exception at the time. He still does: he said in 2008’s Bookself that the story gave “gratuitous insult and offence to Kay and me” and says in his forthcoming memoirs that it was “so blackly targeted it felt like a malediction”.

I wonder what Alanis Morissette would say.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The butterfly effect

You wouldn’t think that volcanic activity in Iceland could screw up things for my mate Hamish here in the Waikato, and for the entire New Zealand book trade, but that’s what has happened. The Herald reports:
A delegation of New Zealanders to the London Book Fair next week have been scattered and stranded all over the globe with volcanic ash continuing to disrupt flights across Europe. All airports in Britain were shut down and others in France, the Netherlands, Nordic countries and others closed in an unprecedented, massive no-fly zone imposed after a volcanic eruption in Iceland.
Already 1500 Air New Zealand passengers have been affected, with one flight diverted to Frankfurt and another stuck in Los Angeles. Flights out of London have been cancelled. . .
“It’s chaos,” said Hamish Wright, from Cambridge’s Wrights Bookshop. “It’s a complete state of flux at the moment. Who knows whether I’m getting there.”
Mr Wright is meant to leave Sunday night from Auckland – but the volcanic cloud may not be cleared by then, and even if it is, the backlog of flights would mean continuing disruptions for days.
Many in the industry left last night on flights to London via Hong Kong and Los Angeles, stop over points where their Air New Zealand planes are still stranded and may have to turn back, Mr Wright said.
Still, they probably won’t be short of reading material while they wait at their various airports. Don’t they all have Kindles or something?

Iain Sharp on James K Baxter

The 10th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is an August 1994 article by Iain Sharp on his antipathy towards the poetry and person of the revered sage of Jerusalem. Money quote: “sanctimonious bastard”.

I don’t recall where we got the photo from: if using it here breaches anyone’s copyright, please let me know.

A couple of months ago the Listener published a guide to the best of everything in the country – books, beer, movies, restaurants, recipes, racehorses, buildings, gardens and so forth. I was asked to contribute a list of the 10 best New Zealand poems. The assignment struck me as simultaneously impossible and irresistible. Since notions of what constitutes a good poem vary so widely, I decided to be blatantly subjective and just pick a few of my personal favourites.
All the same, I was prey to two warring impulses. On the one hand, I wanted my list to be unhackneyed, challenging, even a bit eccentric. On the other, I didn’t want to be dismissed with a snort by literary types as an out-and-out loony. It seemed wise to make some concessions to popular opinion. Thus I found myself thinking, “Mmm, I’d better toss in something by Baxter.”
All my life, people have been telling me that James Keir Baxter’s poetry is the best so far produced by a New Zealander. In fact, the psalms of praise started before I was born (1953) because Baxter had the rare fortune to be extolled by powerful critics almost as soon as he began to publish.
The first issue of Landfall, which appeared in March 1947, contained no fiction and just seven poems – four by Allen Curnow and three by Baxter, who was only 20 at the time. Landfall’s fastidious editor, Charles Brasch, clearly believed that these were the two creative talents which mattered most. Some folk (including, I suspect, Allen Curnow) still share Brasch’s conviction.
Reviewing Baxter’s second volume, Blow Wind Of Fruitfulness, for the Press back in July 1948, Curnow, who’s not normally given to superlatives, proclaimed the youthful James K “without doubt the most original poet writing in this country and its sheerest poet by nature”. I think that review helped set up a polarity which has persisted to this day. Curnow is seen as a top-notch artificer – a brainy fellow who arrives at excellence through impeccable craft and tireless revision. Baxter, however, is regarded as a “natural” – a bard with the gift of the gab from whom eloquence flowed as naturally as honey from a hive.
When he was a young man in the 1950s, CK Stead was very much a Curnow supporter, but towards the end of the 60s he swung around and became, at least for a few years, one of Baxter’s leading trumpeters. “The beauty of these poems is subtle; even, for all the rough candour of the voice, delicate,” he wrote of The Jerusalem Sonnets in the Autumn 1973 issue of Islands. Stead was the first of many New Zealand poets to compose sonnets of his own in the form pioneered by Baxter (seven unrhymed couplets, with a very loose rhythm, although usually there are five stressed syllables in each line).
“When James K Baxter died suddenly at the age of 46 in October 1972, New Zealand lost its best known and most significant poet,” Charles Doyle announced at the beginning of his book-length study of Baxter’s work, published four years after the poet’s demise. Baxter’s notoriety is a historical fact; his haggard, bewhiskered and generally miserable face was much filmed and photographed during his Jerusalem years and his doleful pulpit voice was much broadcast. It’s the very high valuation placed on his poetry that I question.

Intent on locating something for my list, I browsed through the Baxter offerings in the Penguin, Oxford and Caxton anthologies and blew the cobwebs off the individual volumes which had sat unread on my bookshelves since I was a university student 20-odd years ago. I rediscovered some grand lines, but these were greatly outnumbered by grandiose lines. I was drawn more to the supposedly minor poems, like “A Dentist’s Window”, “The Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works” and the children’s poems in The Tree House (the Inessential Baxter, one might say) than to the acknowledged “masterpieces”, such as “The Bay”, “Elegy For An Unknown Soldier”, “Wild Bees”, “Poem in the Matukituki Valley” and The Jerusalem Sonnets.
Baxter started penning verse when he was seven and published his first book, Beyond The Palisade, when he was 18. Already by that time he had read the major English poets and learned to mimic their general timbre. Even as a teenager, he could hold a hi-faluting tone without stammering. But in his early work, instead of observing with fresh eyes, he seems always to be striving to recall what his bardic ancestors would have said in a similar situation.
What’s more, everything is cranked up to a melodramatic pitch. Right from the start, Baxter never missed a chance to present himself as a suffering man of sorrows. And, like other antipodean writers of the period, he was determined to prove to the literary world at large that he was not just a hick from the sticks, by parading his classical learning at every opportunity. Thus, it’s entirely typical of the early Baxter to exclaim while smoking out wild bees from a rotten cabbage tree:
O it was Carthage under the Roman torches,
Or loud with flames and falling timber, Troy!
To which I can only retort, “Aw, for Gawd’s sake, get off your high horse, Jimmy! “ To be fair, unlike many poets, he later recognised his youthful defects. “The problem for me in the 40s and 50s was to get rid of the mere echo language in my poems, the twists of phrase (and so of thought also) that belonged by right to Hardy or Yeats or Dylan Thomas or Louis MacNeice,” he said in 1965 in the autobiographical blurb that accompanied his contribution to the anthology, Recent Poetry In New Zealand.
Although Baxter’s language eventually became loose enough to incorporate 60s slang, he never lost his fondness for melodrama, self-promotion and oracular utterances. What bothers me most about the poems from Baxter’s later period, however, is their Us and Them quality. On one side of a great chasm are Baxter and his disciples. Creative hipsters with the chutzpah to have sinned on a colossal scale, they are now saved and on intimate terms with God. Meanwhile, on the other side, benighted materialists pursue their narrow, soul-destroying routines. “Love is not valued much in Pig Island,” declares Baxter, but there’s not much love shown in any of his writings for ordinary New Zealand citizens.
The Baxter poem I finally settled on for my Listener compilation was “High Country Weather”:
Alone we are born
And die alone.
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow-mountain shine.
Upon the upland road

Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.
It was short and famous and I quite liked the Oriental favour. Those gilt-edged clouds reminded me uneasily of the kitsch manifestations of God’s presence in Cecil B DeMille’s biblical epics. Nor did I care for the eye-rhyme in the second stanza. I kept wanting to turn stranger into something like banger – or anger, perhaps, into danger. I thought the insistence on the isolated nature of the human spirit was exaggerated. “But the angst is always overdone in Baxter,” I reasoned. “At least he’s wishing everyone an easier journey, although it’s uphill all the way.”
When I was discussing my choices with my friend Joy MacKenzie, however, she said there were other Baxter poems she liked better. Joy has three sons. She pointed out, quite rightly, that we’re not born alone. Our mothers are present at the time. In most cases, so are doctors and midwives. And while some people have the misfortune to die alone and putrefy undetected, Baxter wasn’t one of them. Feeling queasy after a visit to the doctor in Birkdale, Auckland, he staggered into the house of kindly strangers and got them to phone his friend Jean Tuwhare, who arrived before Baxter succumbed.
“Ah, the hell with it,” I suddenly thought. “I’m sick of Baxter’s histrionic presentation of himself as a sacred pariah. Since he was so determined to be an outcast, why don’t I cast him out? Yeah, I’m going to kick him off my list altogether.”

As soon as I made this decision, I was suffused with a delicious feeling of revenge, because the truth is I’ve been nursing a grudge against Baxter for decades. It goes back to the way he looked at me, or the way I imagined he looked at me, when I was still in my teens. Let me explain.
When the first newspaper accounts of Baxter’s Jerusalem commune appeared in 1969, I was 16 and in the sixth form. I was the envy of my classmates because I had a little motorbike, a Honda 90. My friend Eugene had a Suzuki 120. We would sometimes go on expeditions together in the weekends. In particular, we liked to visit a shaggy old character who lived in a hut in the Karangahake Gorge. We always referred to him as a hermit, but, God knows, he was sociable enough, making cups of billy tea for anyone who called on him and boring them with a long discourse on his sole treasure, a small lump of gold ore. We imagined that Baxter would be pretty much like the “hermit”, only a more entertaining talker. “Let’s ride down to Jerusalem and check out James K,” we kept telling each other throughout our sixth-form year. I think Eugene was also lured by the promise of nude frolics with hippie girls in the Wanganui River.
Jerusalem is a long way from Auckland, particularly on a Honda 90, so the proposed trip never happened. Eugene left school, went to Sydney, got into some strange company and had his head blown off one night by a shotgun at point-blank range while he slept. I went on to university. Baxter hung around the campus all the time in the early 70s. He would come to make converts, bludge money off staff members he knew and castigate the more serious-minded students for being budding bourgeoisie.
The first time I saw him, my jaw hit the ground. After all my eager talk with Eugene, the reality was such a disappointment. I was expecting warmth, wit, spontaneity, aroha. Instead I was confronted with a cagey, self-conscious, manipulative ham actor. At the end of his glum tirade against Mammon, the government of the day, universities, squares, puritans and so forth, I was unlucky enough to be subjected to the Baxter hug, as were all the other young folk within easy grabbing range. It was a hard, cold embrace, and there was an element of one-upmanship in it. Baxter made you feel as if he was Saint Francis and you were a leper. Unless you were prepared to accept him as your personal saviour, he didn’t really want to know you.
Baxter died on October 22, 1972. Consequently this year’s big Baxter conference in Dunedin puzzles me. If it’s intended to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his birth, it’s two years too early. If it’s supposed to mark the 20th anniversary of his death, it’s two years too late.
About a week before he died, I encountered him as I was coming out of a particularly tough maths exam. He was walking barefoot up Symonds Street, holding a Moses-like wooden staff in one hand and ostentatiously counting the beads on his rosary with the other. He was a very slow counter. Mathematics was clearly even less his subject than it was mine. He paused to glower balefully at my too-short haircut and the shirt that had been ironed nicely for me by my mother. These were enough in his eyes to identify me as a bourgeois. Repressed. A pharisee, a philistine, an unreformed Pig Islander. In short, the enemy.
He gave me a look that was full of pity, contempt and reproach. I glared right back at the sanctimonious bastard. I wanted to snatch his staff away from him and beat the bejasus out of him with it. I still reproach myself for failing to do so. If I had dispatched Baxter to meet his Maker a week early, we would all have been spared “Ode to Auckland”, his last and worst poem:
Auckland even when I am well stoned
On a tab of LSD or on Indian grass
You still look to me like an elephant’s arsehole
Surrounded with blue-black haemorrhoids.
etc, etc.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

In defence of CK Stead

Mea culpa. I had quite forgotten to look at the letters to the editor after the Nigel Cox article on CK Stead (July 1994) reprinted below. I will try in future to post the letters along with the articles: these are part of the literary record too.

In the September 1994 issue, the one with Ginette McDonald on the cover, we had two letters responding to Cox’s article, the first from Jenny Jones who I think was secretary of the NZ Society of Authors at the time, and the second from my dear departed friend Andrew Mason. As I wrote in my obit, “He could be spiky, even vitriolic. This was amusing if you were on his side but very much not if not. (I’ve been on both.)”
Four pages devoted to CK Stead in your July issue, but never a word from the man himself – and even the graphic was a recycled cartoon. Nigel Cox’s piece contained unsourced assertions, personal judgments and dubious predictions, none made available for comment by the subject. This is the stuff of columns, not journalism - what’s wrong with interviews?
Jenny Jones

A Good Grappling
I am enjoying Nigel Cox’s attempts to grapple with New Zealand’s recent literary history – a worthwhile if thankless task. I do wish, though, you would encourage him not only to get his facts right but to put them in context. In his piece on the rise and fall of CK Stead (July), Cox writes: “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.”

In fact, Stead’s charge was much more serious: that I exercised a deliberate bias in choosing reviewers. He wrote: “Andrew Mason... insists that books by women be sympathetically reviewed by women, books by Maoris be sympathetically reviewed by Maoris, while books by Pakeha males can be reviewed by anyone at all, no holds barred.”

The charge was malicious and clearly defamatory. It was also nonsense, as I pointed out at the time, noting for example that the most recent review Stead (a Pakeha male) had done for the Listener was at his request and reviewed two novels by women, one sympathetically and the other unsympathetically, and that the Listener’s most recent review of a book by a Maori woman – surely Stead’s ultimate test case – was not especially sympathetic or unsympathetic and happened to be by another Pakeha male.

Cox mentions none of this. If he is going to raise such matters, I believe he has a duty properly to inform himself – and your readers – of the events he purports to describe, instead of relying on his (obviously faulty) memory. Five minutes in a library would have given him what he should have known he needed.
Andrew Mason

Russell Brown channels Noel Coward

Russell Brown:
Truth be known, I never watched breakfast TV even when I was on it.
Noel Coward: Television is for appearing on – not for looking at.

For once I’m down with Russell and Noel. I used to do morning TV – book reviews on Good Morning. It was great – I got paid, spent half an hour in the green room with the hilarious Steve Gray, sometimes got to say hi to the lovely Annabel Langbein, met loads of even more famous people who were guests on the show, did three minutes of live telly and then went back to my day job as editor of Architecture New Zealand. (I still don’t know if they never noticed I was gone, or preferred it that way.) But I reckon I spent more time then on TV than I did watching it.

The only difficult moment was in 2002 when I was to review Owen Marshall’s new short-story collection When Gravity Snaps. I am a huge fan of Owen’s. I had read the book carefully, preparing some lines that would make me look intelligent, maybe even sensitive. On the day, during the ad break before my slot while I was being wired for sound – you get two minutes, max – I noticed the books set out on the table for me to pick up and present to camera while I was talking about them. Two I had read and prepared for: the other was Owen’s new anthology of work by other people, Essential New Zealand Short Stories. I had never heard of it, never seen it before. The publisher had sent the wrong Owen Marshall book in.

Yes, I did say “Fuck,” quietly. But on live TV the job is to not get tripped up by trivial things such as never having seen the book you are about to review, live, in real time in what by now was 30 seconds. You certainly don’t let on to the director or the presenter that there is a problem. They have enough to deal with.

Reader, I did it. It helped that I had read almost all the stories in the book – Owen is a great anthologist – so I skimmed the contents page and winged it. I reviewed, live on TV, a book I had not only not read but had never seen before.

I think I got away with it, but I was sweating a bit by the end.

FIGJAM for a day.

Blogpost heading of the day

Child molesters forgive Beatles

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Apology of the day

Many of my emails begin with the words “Apologies for the delay in responding” or variations thereon – I have a lot of different projects on, it’s just me here until the children come home, general uselessness, yada yada.

I don’t often get an email back along similar lines, but this morning in my inbox was this from a potential client overseas who has a manuscript he wants me to assess:
Thanks for the response – my delay this time, I have been underwater for the past couple of days.
There’s not a lot you can say to that.

Sentence of the day

“We are using other sounds such as gunfire, the noise of the vehicles and birds to link up our programmes and news,” said Abdulahi Yasin Jama, Tusmo radio’s head of the programmes.
The full story is here.

Monitor: Mick Hartley

Country life

People say to me, “Stephen, you are such an urban sophisticate – why do you live in the country now?”

Here is one reason: this photo by Arthur KH Ng at Flickr via MetService. It really is like that around here:

BREAKING NEWS: soon to appear here from the Quote Unquote archives, Iain Sharp on his grudge against James K. Baxter.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Eighteen with a bullet

It’s hard to know how the New Zealand blogs rank these days. I don’t have a competitive bone in my body (well, maybe my stapes) but I was pleased when Tumeke published his rankings for December and this blog had cracked the top 50 – if you call coming 50th cracking it.

But Tumeke seems to have stopped – there have been no updates since. Into the breach steps Open Parachute: his ranking is not scientific either as lots of blogs aren’t there – no Cactus Kate and no Public Address, for a start – but as far as I know this is the only current measure. And Quote Unquote is – ta dah! – #16. That won’t last. This recent spike is entirely due to traffic from the Sunday Star-Guardian story the other day – god bless the MSM – but I’ll enjoy it while it does.

So here is Pete Wingfield with his 1975 hit “Eighteen with a Bullet”. Eighteen is not sixteen but, as we musicians say, it’s close enough for jazz:

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Nominative determinism #4

This evening I was caught and ticketed for doing 94 kph in an 80 kph zone. The officer who, quite rightly, apprehended me was called Jack Driver. He was never going to be a doctor, lawyer or plumber, was he.

The reason I was speeding was that I was running late – children, work, yada yada – and keen to get to my wife’s work in time for the Great Pumpkin weigh-in. There had been a competition among the staff, who are mostly farmers and scientists, to grow the biggest Cucurbita: many found it a challenge as they had only, or mostly, male flowers. There was much low-key but bitter discussion of the difficulties of hand-fertilising the female flowers with a pastry brush or similar. Here in the country, I reflected, we make our own fun.

At the end of the day the winner was 251 kilos and I was $80 lighter.

If you have ever met a Jack Russell terrier, you’ll have an idea of how big this particular Great Pumpkin below is. Tragically it was scratched before the race – the roosters got to it before the grower could stop them. The winners were much, much bigger.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Italy versus Cambridge

Via Marginal Revolution, this photo of a road sign, “Attenzione Prostitute” and the associated story about Italian culture:

And via Quote Unquote, this photo of a road sign and the associated story about New Zealand culture:

I am driving back from dropping the eight-year-old at a birthday party up in the hills towards Scotsmans Valley this afternoon and notice a sign, “Stock Crossing”, which strikes me as an emblem of how life here in the Waikato differs from life in Italy. I pull over, stop the car and start snapping with my mobile device thing. The farmer – imagine a Maori version of Gary McCormick – rolls up on his tractor and says, “What you doing, mate?” His tone of voice is not very matey.

I say guiltily, “Just photographing this road sign,” wondering if he has copyright issues, even though it looked at first glance like an official NZTA sign.

“You one of those lifestyle blockers who keep complaining?” he asks, with a bit of an edge to his voice.

“No,” I say. “It’s just that – ” and I launch into a garbled story about how in this town in Italy there is a sign that seems to warn of prostitutes crossing, and here outside Cambridge there is one that warns about cows crossing, and how it might make an amusing. . . I tail off as it occurs to me that this does not sound very convincing.

“So, why do the lifestyle blockers complain?” I ask, sympathetically. He is a lot bigger than me. “Isn’t life hard enough?”

“Tell me about it,” he says and vents for a few minutes about lifestyle-blockers who live in the country but haven’t a clue about farming. These people have issues, I gather, about how he leaves the sign up even when the stock are not, in fact, crossing. I decide that I won’t tell him that the eight-year-old is around the corner on a lifestyle block.

We return to the subject of the Treviso sign about hookers crossing, possibly. “We don’t get a lot of this in Cambridge,” I say.

“Tell me about it,” he says.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Murder in my heart for the judge

After the long Easter weekend chilling in the warmth of Waihi Beach, it’s back into reading for the NZ Post Book Awards, the glittering prize formerly known as the Montanas. The shortlist of 16 (chosen from 160+ entries) has already been chosen and will be announced on 22 June. The job now of us five judges is to re-read the finalists and prepare for the meeting when we decide the winners – I can’t tell you where and when, obviously, but it will be in a secret location somewhere, someday before the big announcement on 27 August.

It is hard work for us, but good work: the discussions are stimulating; at this stage all the books under discussion are fantastic (as are many of the books no longer under discussion); the other judges are experts in their fields and knowledgeable in several others; each of us can be persuasive and get the others to reconsider their judgements; and, as one of us said, amazed, after the first meeting “Everyone listens.”

As I re-read the books in the four categories – poetry, fiction, general non-fiction and illustrated non-fiction – one song keeps going through my mind. It is by Moby Grape, a band that is now largely forgotten but was a big deal in San Francisco in the late 60s. “Omaha”, “8:05”, “Changes”, “I Am Not Willing”, “Truly Fine Citizen” are probably the best-known. But the one that keeps going through my mind is “Murder in My Heart for the Judge” from their 1968 album Wow/Grape Jam.

There are few clips of Moby Grape performing live and none that I can find of this song. But here is – I don’t know what one calls these things, a visualisation? Anyway, someone with a lot of time on his hands has put some moving images to the original recording.

Play it loud.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The last post

Dave Hillier asks in the comments below:
Stephen, you have published this [Nigel Cox on C.K. Stead] before – I remember reading it here some time last year but it vanished after a day or so. What happened?
Several other people have asked about this over the last few months. The answer is too long to go in the comments, so here goes:

In October last year, after several hours of scanning, OCRing, proof-reading and so on, I posted on this blog Nigel Cox’s article on C.K. Stead from the July 1994 issue of Quote Unquote the magazine, having first sought and received the consent of his literary executors. I’m not sure that legally I needed to – copyright in commissioned magazine articles generally belongs to the magazine, which to all intents and purposes is now me; on the other hand, the article was Nigel’s idea, so that makes it a grey area; and on the third hand it matters to me that the lit. execs are happy.

Next day, I received an email asking me to unpost it. This wasn’t from CK Stead himself but from one of the lit. execs who had heard from him that he was not happy about it. This is how things are done in the literary world – don’t go direct, but apply pressure to someone vulnerable who can apply the pressure where you want it.

Now, Karl and I have had a cordial relationship for quarter of a century – I have always enjoyed his company and he has always been civility itself towards me. But I guess he knew that in my years at Metro I developed a pretty robust attitude, so that if he had asked me directly to delete the post I would have used the celebrated Arkell defence, devised by Private Eye. (At Metro we did do that once, I think in reply to Michael Reid QC.)

Anyway, I took the post down, not wishing to cause any distress to the lit. execs or, indeed, to upset Karl unnecessarily.

When the lit. execs told him I had deleted it, he replied, “Well I wasn’t angling for this.” So I could have put it back up, but other things intervened and I didn’t get around to it.

That’s how things remained until the Sunday Times reported on 28 March that:
The 77-year-old CK Stead, New Zealand’s finest living writer, has won The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award.
And then I read the story, “Last Season’s Man”, which is clearly based on the Cox article and Stead’s reaction to it at the time. Obviously the elderly author in the story is not literally Karl, any more than the younger writer is literally Nigel. But you’d be hard put to slide a piece of tissue paper between them.

And now, 16 years later, Stead has scored ₤25,000 for his act of revenge.

UPDATE: Anthony Hubbard at the Sunday Star-Guardian covers the story here.

Easter Bobby

The distinguished author and Bobnut Richard Wolfe reminds me that it is Easter this weekend (I was only dimly aware, having been up to here in bookstuff) with this quote from His Bobness:
When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez
And it’s Eastertime too
And your gravity fails
And negativity don’t pull you through . . .
So here is Bob Dylan live in Chicago in 1999 with a lovely, loping, relaxed performance of the song those lines come from, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, which was on the 1967 album Highway 61 Revisited.

Happy Eastering.