Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mark Amery on Maurice Gee

The 28th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1996 issue.  

The intro read:
Maurice Gee’s new novel Loving Ways explores the territory around Nelson and between members of a fractured family. Once more, there’s a murder – but he denies being fascinated by violence. “All that fuss over The Fat Man was nonsense,” he tells Mark Amery.
“It’s the only thing I can do well,” says Maurice Gee, about writing fiction. “I like the exploration of setting rudimentary people in motion, seeing them grow round, seeing them progress through a story, inter­relating, and then bringing it all to some satisfactory conclusion. That’s a voyage of discovery for the reader as he reads. It is equally so for the writer as he writes – and it’s hard work, and sometimes painful.”
That telling of a good story may be the basic element behind the success of Gee’s writing, but when you’ve written as many novels as he has (12 adult novels and another eight for children), readers will always try to find another way to track the movement between the stories.
With readers of Gee, it’s often location. His new novel, Loving Ways, sees him return to the Nelson region, the location for two previous novels, Prowlers and The Burning Boy, after another two (Crime Story and Going West) took us to Auckland and Wellington.
The pages of Loving Ways reveal the Nelson region as an area Gee dearly loves. The story sweeps from a pottery at one end of Golden Bay to an orchard on the Tasman Bluffs at the other, and then over the Takaha Hill to Nelson. Bringing together two middle-aged brothers and a sister who have the same father (a dying Nelson orchardist) but different mothers, it charts the personal territory between them and, in doing so, the geographical as well.
Gee, his wife Margareta and their family lived in Nelson for 13 years. In 1989 they moved to Wellington, Gee taking a writing fellowship at Victoria University and Margareta a job at the National Library.
In 1993 they made a return trip. “It was that trip,” he says, “revisiting numbers of old friends in Nelson, then going over the hill and stopping on the way at an orchard above the bluffs [where Margareta had worked] and then visiting some friends who had a pottery in Parapara – all these things came together, everything was suddenly alive for me again, and I very much wanted to base a novel in that setting.”
While the seeds of Loving Ways lie in Gee’s love of this landscape – it even ends on his favourite beach, Wharariki, in Golden Bay – the novel is rarely directly descriptive of the scenery. “It is very much a landscape book,” he says, “but I don’t do the landscape. I just let it happen – I don’t try to describe it. I allow the landscape to grow around the people, and the interaction between the two is the natural one we experience in any location we happen to live in.”
The switches in location between books that readers notice are probably not all that important to Gee. He shows more eagerness to set new challenges for himself with every work, be it the research involved, a few new technical challenges or a different approach. “I quite enjoy making things hard for myself,” he admits. “That’s why, for example, in Loving Ways you’ll find in the middle of the third person narrative a section written as an interior monologue. I found that the narrative was running along in a very headlong way, and this was a way of stopping it running too headlong.
“I was rereading Ulysses at the time and I thought, why not try an interior monologue? I’ve never tried that, it’s going to be hard, can I do it? It slows the story down and gives it suddenly a new focus, and then allows you to get back into the narrative progression of the rest of the story.
“You don’t have problems like that writing children’s books,” he says. “But in a sense it’s still a challenge for me, it’s making things hard because I’ve got to concentrate very closely on the narrative pace, just getting on with the story. I can’t allow myself any indulgences.”
In Loving Ways Gee also keeps up his and our interest by moving from character to character in the third person, which he felt appropriate for a book where he wanted to bring three members of a family back together after a long time. This common narrative device, he says, allowed him to move freely between the three people, rather than lumping them into one action.
“It throws the time scheme out a little bit in the second part. I have to go back in time at one point, which I hope hasn’t made it too confusing.”
While Gee became interested in seeing how he could bring this family back together – how it fitted with their expectations, and what sort of chemistry was between them – that wasn’t clear when he set about writing. The act of writing for him continues to be a voyage of discovery.
“I wasn’t aware of all of this when I started. It developed as I wrote. I wasn’t, for example, aware that May and Alan [the daughter and one of the sons] were going to get on so well. It simply happened.”
Loving Ways ends in a violent act – a murder. It’s something Gee is under­standably defensive about, considering the heated debate last year over the violence in his Aim Children’s Book of the Year Award winner The Fat Man.
“Dorothy Butler recently said that I at some point said I was fascinated by violence. If she says that I said that – well, I suppose I did – but the point I’d like to make is that I’m not interested in the act of violence. I’m more interested in the cause of the act of violence and in the consequences. That’s what interests me as material for fiction.
“This novel may end in an act of violence, but I wouldn’t say it’s pessimistic. This is a fairly optimistic novel in that a number of people come through having won small victories.”
Gee has recently reread The Fat Man. He is currently working on a film script of it, and says he still feels “a little sore” about the attacks that were made on the book.
“All that fuss over The Fat Man was nonsense, really. I’ve had an enormous amount of letters from children about it and none of them complained. Their response was very positive. I still see it as a good story and that’s how the children who write to me saw it.
“Some people like Dorothy Butler saw it as something else, but I’m not going to let that stop me from writing children’s fiction. I may go on and write a bit more after this one. I see Dorothy Butler at this point as St Peter at the gates of New Zealand children’s literature. And perhaps I’ll slip past her with a book at some stage!”
With Loving Ways released this month, Gee is already halfway through his next book. “In a sense the novel we are talking about now is a dead one for me. I don’t mean it’s dead between the covers, but for me it’s finished and gone. It’s a year since I worked on it.
“The ‘live’ one has the working title, and I’m sure it will be the final title, of Live Bodies, which I tell you in the hope that you’ll print it in Quote Unquote so no one else will run away with it!”

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Female communication

In our house recently, a discussion about our eight-year-old and her best friend:
Q: What is the age difference between X and Y?
A: Six months.
Q: Older or younger?
A: Older.
Q: X or Y?
A: Y.
I pointed out to A that she could have answered Q’s first question with “Y is six months older than X,” but apparently that missed the point about female communication which is to keep talking.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Competitive gardening: the sequel

Competitive gardening is an idiotic concept, but has that ever stopped anyone from playing cricket?

Way back in October I responded uncharacteristically competitively* to an uncharacteristically boastful post by Danyl at Dim-Post about the vegetables he had just planted (tomatoes and – no, just tomatoes) with a list of what I had just planted – tomatoes, potatoes, broad beans, chillies, lettuce and spring onions. I didn’t mention the celery, leeks and cavolo nero as that might have looked like showing off.

For Christmas dinner we had new potatoes, lettuce, rocket, raspberries and a bunch of other stuff from the garden like lemons and lime juice. (Plus South Island salmon via LaughyKate and a pile of beef via our friend Tommy at Wholly Cow. Thanks, Kate and Tommy!)

Above: Jersey Bennes, from today’s bandicooting, plus the first haul of garlic. There would have been raspberries in shot but we ate all the ripe ones. There could have been celery, leeks, herbs etc in shot too but they are too boring. Screw ’em. Food miles: zero. Are they organic? Yes, because I am far too lazy to spray. Plus they are carbon-based life-forms.

In other garden news: Black Krim and cherry tomatoes are on their way, and we will soon have enough basil to make pesto. But to cheer Danyl up, all the coriander bolted. 

* For true, I am deeply uncompetitive which is one reason I was so rubbish at running a business. Here, from my Christmas present to myself, 27b/6 blogger David Thorne’s The Internet is a Playground which is the funniest book I have ever read, is Thorne on competitiveness:
I am possibly the least competitive person I know and am in fact the current national loser in the ‘Who is Least Competitive Championships’ where trying to win will make you lose. Trying to lose makes you win which makes you lose. Not trying at all makes you lose which makes you win which makes you lose.
Trying to figure that out made my head hurt, but in a good way. A bit like Christmas dinner with my in-laws.

Hell is other people

Christmas Eve: 18 adults here + 19 children.
Christmas Day: 6 adults + LaughyKate + 4 children.
Boxing Day: 4 adults + LaughyKate + 2 children.
Yesterday: 2 adults + LaughyKate + 2 children.
Today: 2 adults + 2 children.
Heading in the right direction, if you ask me.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Xmas is a four-letter word

But as we say here in New Zild, have a good one.

Letter of the month

A man writes to the Cleveland Stadium expressing concern at people attending games there who make paper darts out of the programmes: this, he says, poses a clear risk to other patrons. The response of the stadium’s lawyer is an all-time classic of the genre.

Monitor: Tim Worstall

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Down on the farm

A week ago I observed that here in the Waikato we needed rain, and lots of it. In the comments, Cactus Kate took issue with my reasoning:
Good farmers have stores of feed for such events, there’s a record payout and if it doesn’t rain in the Waikato estimate are a 5% drop in production.
Hmm. Cactus is a farmer’s daughter so maybe she knows more about this than me, a mere farmer’s grandson. But let’s hear from a real farmer, shall we? Lyn Webster writes the excellent “Pig Tits and Parsley Sauce” column in the Taranaki Daily News and explains here why this year good farmers don’t have stores of feed for such events, and why despite the recent rain they are still worried:
Normally in November we expect grass growth (which is governed by sunshine and moisture) to exceed cow demand. That means more grass grows on the farm than the cows can eat and that is when we shut paddocks up and grow a surplus. [. . .]
This season milk production took a kick in the guts with over a month of solid rain in September, which was tough on the cows. We made it through that and started looking for paddocks to lock up for silage. Fast rounds were necessary to fully feed the cows and when it didn’t rain for 10 days, then 20, alarm bells started to ring. [. . .]
As soon as it rains the dry matter in the grass drops and the base of the pasture (if there is any base left) starts to rot, so the feed immediately available to the cows is less palatable than the dry stuff. This ‘rot down’ is unavoidable but usually happens in the autumn. We manage it by feeding supplements which we usually make in November . . . oh, that’s right, we didn’t make any this season.
In other rain-related news, here is beautiful Randy Crawford lip-synching beautifully to Tony Joe White’s ballad “Rainy Night in Georgia”, from her 1981 album Secret Combination. I met her once and she really did look like that:

And just for good luck here is David Ruffin, who brought rain to the Waikato last week. I posted on Wednesday a clip of him with the Temptations singing “I Wish It Would Rain” and lo, it did rain the following Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Here’s hoping he can do it again:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy birthday, Frank Zappa

He would be 70 today if he was still with us (he died on 4 December 1993). To mark the occasion, tonight at 10 p.m. on Concert FM James Gardner discusses the nearly 20 official albums the Zappa Trust has released since his death.

The Internet has enabled other people to release many more unofficial albums – some that were vinyl bootlegs and some that are new to the, ahem, catalogue. Zappa hated this stuff being available, but do we? No, we do not. There is a ton of live stuff and a good place to start is Music Is The Best.

Among its many offerings, Kreega Bondola is a revered bootleg in excellent sound with the excellent 1984 touring band: FZ, Ike Willis and Ray White on guitar/vocals, Scott Thunes on bass, Alan Zavod and Bobby Martin on keyboards/vocals and – nominative determinism! -  Chad Wackerman on drums. It is a complete concert performance by one of his best bands so is essential for any fan. (Unfortunately it also has a brief spoken interlude where FZ says something colossally, stupidly and nastily sexist. But that is what the Skip button is for.)

Other recordings there are Stairway to Berlin, the fabulous 1988 band in OK sound; Magic Fingers, widdly guitar solos; Rudi-Sedlmayerhalle, Munich is a 1979 concert in OK sound; 19 may 88 Grenoble is great – pretty much anything from 1988 is worth hearing, and this has “Stairway to Heaven” with a full horn section replicating the Jimmy Page guitar solo); a performance at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival (hideous); a sparkling set from 1974 in Philadelphia that must have been taken from the soundboard. . . there is loads to download. If you’re not worried about copyright, that is. Obviously I would never.

Prime time

Fun fact: 2011 is a prime number. 

Prime numbers are surprisingly common: 1951 was a prime-number year and so were 1973, 1979, 1987, 1993, 1997, 1999 and 2003. Coming up – or as Paul at Fundy Post most certainly would not say, going forward – are 2017, 2027, 2029, 2039 and 2053.

And here is Lew Pryme in the 1966 NZ movie Don’t Let It Get You:

NZ Herald headline of the day

Close calls in air skyrocketing
I’ve never heard of “air skyrocketing” before. Is it something like air guitar?

Friday, December 17, 2010

What I’m reading

The always amusing Ally of Today is My Birthday and also, confusingly, TV3, selects the worst pop lyrics of 2010. Idiocy and pop music get along so well, and always have. Always will. As we know from Spinal Tap, it is a fine line between clever and stupid.

Which country is this?:
X is one of the most economically free countries in the world, and has for some time been among the smallest governments in the developed world, with low levels of tax and spending. Last year, according to the OECD’s Economic Outlook, X was the Thatcherite’s number one performer, with not only the lowest level of government spending of all developed countries but also the lowest level of taxes of all developed countries equal with South Korea).
Clue: it is very big and very close. The source is here and a discussion is here.

Mick Hartley has a fabulous photo of Titan and Rhea, Saturn’s largest and second-largest moons, with links to more astropix. I didn’t know that Titan is bigger than Mercury. Or – I have just looked this up elsewhere – that Pluto, the former planet, is smaller than seven of the solar system’s moons, including our own.
Paul Litterick at the Fundy Post weighs in on the proposed demolition of some pretty houses in Turua Street, St Heliers Bay, Auckland. He talks sense, as he often does, but what struck me in the Herald’s reportingwas not just the lazy acceptance that these houses are Art Deco but that this was cited in all seriousness as a reason to keep the houses:
For one St Heliers resident [. . .] the houses have more of a sentimental attachment – both her sisters were born in number 12. Her parents and sisters lived there for six years after it was just built in 1935.
“I love those houses. I’m very attached to them, probably a little more than everyone else because of my connection to them. My sisters and I always fantasised and said if any one of us won Lotto one day, we'd buy all three houses and live next to each other in them.”
I like these houses too, but is someone’s sisters having been born in one of them an argument for their preservation?

Karl du Fresne comments on the ructions in Tainui and reminds us of some recent political history involving Tuku Morgan that I, for one, had forgotten.

Finally, some drama: Shakespeare as she was spoke. This performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is in OP (original pronunciation) which is more American-sounding than English, as any reader of Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue would expect.

Topiary of the day

From Mick Hartley, this photo of an elephant hedge snapped in Stroud Green in north London (halfway between Finsbury Park and Crouch End):

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I wish it would rain

Here in the Waikato we are in a drought. Lawns are dying all over the place and I fear for my Jersey Bennes and my recently planted Black Homburg grapes. 

Slightly more seriously, this affects everyone in New Zealand because the Waikato is the main part of the NZ dairy industry which is the main part of NZ’s exports which are what pays for our imports. Pineapples, cars, rice, iPods, bananas, flat-screen TVs – the only reason we can buy them is because of the dairy industry. So if it doesn’t rain in the Waikato, we are all, frankly, fucked.

At times like this one turns to David Ruffin and the Temptations:

Friday: It has been hosing down, on and off, all day. Excellent result. Thanks, David and the Tempts!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pansy Wong’s journey

To nobody’s great surprise, Pansy Wong, National MP for Botany, has announced her resignation:
It is also time for me to turn a new page in my life’s journey to focus on personal and family priorities.
Reflecting on the past year, as one fruitlessly does about this time, I think my main achievement has been that I have never once uttered the word “journey”.

Monitor: Home Paddock

Monday, December 13, 2010

What I’m reading

Yes, I know. I still haven’t revealed the secret connection between Bill Manhire and Dr Feelgood. But like Christmas, it is coming. Meanwhile…

The frontiers ofscienceWarning: may contain batshit.

Speaking of batshit, Paul at Fundy Post has a long quote from Paul Holmes on Wikileaks. David Thompson rounds up some non-batshit austere views on Julian Assange, while Tim Blair regrettably takes the opportunity to mock our accent: Wukilix. Fush in a barrel, mate.

Edward Docx in the Guardian laments the popularity of popular fiction:
On my way back to London the other day, I was clawing my way toward the buffet car when I noticed with a shock that more or less the entire train carriage was reading… novels. This cheered me up immensely: partly because I have begun to fear that we are living in some kind of Cowellian nightmare, and partly because I make a good part of my living writing them. [. . .]
My cheer modulated into something, well, less cheerful (but still quite cheerful) when I realised that they were all, in fact, reading the same book. Yes, you’ve guessed it: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo who Played With Fire and who, some time later we are lead [sic – this is the Guardian, remember] to believe, Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. In the next three carriages it was the same story – men, women, toddlers. [. . .] And when, finally, I arrived at the buffet car, I was greeted with a sigh and a how-dare-you raise of the eyebrows. Why? Because in order to effectively conjure my cup of lactescent silt into existence, the barrista [sic – yes, still the Guardian] in question would have to put down his… Stieg Larsson.
In terms of sales, 2010 has been the year of the Larsson. Again. His three books have been the three bestselling fiction titles on Amazon UK. Along with Dan Brown, he has conquered the world. 
Perhaps. But he hasn’t conquered New Zealand, I’m pleased to say. The biggest-selling book in New Zealand in 2010 is The Free Range Cook by Annabel Langbein. Quality will out. 

Anti-catholicism in Britain’s arts establishment has had an effect on Scotland’s leading composer, James MacMillan. Talk about unintended consequences: the former fierce socialist now votes Conservative. No more profiles in the Guardian for him, then.

Tim Newman, who works in the oil industry, compares and contrasts the UK and US approaches to a leak at an oil well. And last night he attended the MTV Africa Music Awards in Lagos, where he lives. It seems to have been a missed opportunity. 

Two new words to me thanks to the University of Ohio: “sexecology” and “eco-erotic”.

And a Christmas gift for you: thanks to the University of Michigan you can download legally and for free the complete organ works by J.S. Bach, performed by James Kibble.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

You swearing at me?

From Stuff, my source of choice for important breaking news:
The latest contestant to be booted out of Survivor: Nicaragua, Alina Wilson, vents about the villain of the show Naonka and being called a ‘dirt squirrel’.
A dirt squirrel, huh? I have been called worse things. Nepi Solomon, author of at least one huge international bestseller (under another name) and the 1994 novel Jubilee (later a movie), tried to bust up me and a girlfriend by telling her father that I was a “serial datist”. I still don’t know what that means, though at this distance from the single life it sounds kind of fun. 

Anyway, more insults beckon. BoingBoing has this but Reddit is the Ur-source. You choose. Many are far too filthy to be repeated in a family blog such as this, but here are some samples:
I really like this Greek/cypriot phrase which basically means you’re really overcomplicating something:
Εκαμεs τον μουτσιον επιστήμη
You made masturbation a science
[A comment] In French we say “You’re sodomizing flies”.
[Another comment]: The Dutch phrase for giving too much attention to insignificant details is “ant fucking”. I guess the French have us beat on that one.
Most of the Finnish ones are too filthy but:
Also, something can be “juosten kustu”. It means that something is done half-assed, but it translates roughly like something is like someone tried to pee while running.
And this:
Also, “pilkunnussija”, meaning “a comma fucker”. Used about someone who corrects little or meaningless things.
Da bog ti kuca bila na CNN.
It’s Serbian for “may your house be live on CNN”. It may seem like a compliment, but consider what usually gets Serbian houses on American/International television. :(
There is lots, lots more. The Hindi stuff is great. I had Indian friends at university and OMG their insults were astoundingly rude. Nick Cave would blush.

Here is the great John Prine with a song from his 1988 album German Afternoons, “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian”.

William Shatner tweets

Actually, he doesn’t. His people do. Here he is interviewed by Reuters:
Q: Do you tweet?
A: Oh yes, I’m quite active in it. I don’t know how to technically do it but I have some young people who do it for me. I try to be little informative, but mostly I try to instigate.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Incredible Hulk tweets

I know it’s a bit weird to use a blog to announce that I am using another form of social media but having signed up to Facebook last year solely to keep track of my nephew in Russia, his wife, his child and his band, I decided to try it properly, just to see how it works, so have been poking people. Hey, I’ve got 21 friends already!  

At least I’ve met them all, which is more than you can say about your internet “friends”. It’s been mildly interesting watching the process – currently Kelly Ana Morey, one of my favourite NZ novelists, and PaulLitterick, one of my favourite NZ architectural historians, are having a conversation and I think, oh get a room. Is this what Facebook is all about? 

In other social media news, if you didn’t know this already, there are many Twitter accounts purporting to be from the Incredible Hulk. For example:







Paragraph of the day

Sometimes when I am in meetings, I imagine I am a robot programmed not to realise I am a robot and if the code word ‘quantifiable’ is mentioned, I will explode. I never do though. Other times I imagine I am a small Indian girl collecting water for my village in brightly painted clay pots.
I do not know who David Thorne is or even if he exists, but his blog is so amusing that I have bought his book as a Christmas present for myself:

I always do this to ensure that I get at least one present I actually want. It should arrive next week and I promise not to start reading until Boxing Day.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A free book from Granta

Here, courtesy of John Freeman whom I had the pleasure of sharing a stage with at this year’s Auckland Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, is a free download – this month only – of epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani’s 2008 book The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS.

Despite the flip title, it is a serious book: the Economist review is here.

The free file is an e-book. I don’t have an e-book reader but downloaded this add-on for Firefox so I can read the epub format in that browser. And now so can you. 

Monitor: Tim Worstall

Tim Wilson on Shonagh Koea

The 27th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the July 1993 issue, and from memory was one of the stories that won Tim Wilson the inaugural Commonwealth Writers Prize. The portrait of Shonagh Koea is by Marcus Williams.

The intro read:
Last year Shonagh Koea produced a best-selling novel, Staying Home and Being Rotten. This month, there’s a new short story collection with an equally odd title, Fifteen Rubies by Candlelight. “You never get any better,” she tells Tim Wilson. ”You just have more equilibrium about being worse.”
For the last hour I’ve been dying to ask Shonagh Koea, author of some very polite, ornate and nasty tales, a slightly nasty question. Beside me stands a large antique clock, broadcasting the demise of each successive half-hour. Time is running out.
I fix my bravest stare on the writer. One well-informed guesser estimates that her last novel, Staying Home and Being Rotten, sold between 6000 and 7000 copies, which for a local book is very good. A new collec­tion of short stories, Fifteen Rubies by Can­dlelight, is out this month. She writes and lives formidably. She has excommunicated two friends for making racist remarks. One chance, you feel, is all you get.
“This is my last question,” I stammer. “I have to ask it. . .” Her irises are like the points of two pins.
“Oh,” she sighs. “It’s not that old chestnut about me being Henry Blofeld’s secret bride, is it?”
“Yes,” I squeak.
She laughs loudly and unguardedly, the second or third time she has done so today. “That’s an old one,” she says, gently reproving.
So Blofeld wasn’t the model for the swin­ish James in Staying Home and Being Rotten?
“No. Not at all. . . I’ve never seen him in the flesh. I’ve watched his ads for barbecues, but they’re not on now. I have never been in the same room with him, or the same building. I have never been to a cricket match. I don’t even know how you play cricket. That story’s been around for years.”
Four years, in fact. When Koea attended the 1989 Wellington International Festival of the Arts to read and perform, it seemed that everyone she knew had mysterious, more pressing engagements or, worse simply ignored her. “I had thought, oh well, I’ll be able to have lunch with so-and-so and dinner with so-and-so,” she recalls. “But everyone was in a hurry.”
All was revealed at a cocktail part final day of the festival. “Andrew Mason [then literary editor of the Listener] shook my hand gravely and said he wished to congratulate me on my marriage. And I said, ‘What marriage?”’ Her  “what” resounds like a cannon volley.
Prior to Koea’s arrival in Wellington someone had told her friends that she had wed cricket commentator Henry Blofeld and would be preoccupied with her new husband. The timing was perfect. Blofeld was in Wellington that week, accompanied, word had it, by a new bride. No, he wasn’t saying who she was. “It actually caused me a lot of damage. Some people never spoke to me again, because they thought he was so awful and they didn’t know how I could marry him,” says Koea. “It was a beautiful bit of mischief.”
But whose mischief?
Michael Gifkins, she says. Gifkins, a literary impresario (he writes, edits and is an agent and publishing consultant), once represented Koea.
No, it wasn’t my mischief, says Gifkins. His version is more akin to that of the butter knife than the knife-edge of malice. He didn’t spread anything around. He simply passed it on. “She’s a great fan of cricket. She talked to me about meeting someone nice at the cricket who was something to do with the English team, who had a beautiful voice and who had similar tastes in food. Then Henry Blofeld announced that he was get­ting married. I honestly don’t remember whether someone said, ‘Oh God, I wonder if Shonagh’s marrying him,’ or whether I put two and two together.”
How spiky. How elegant. How very like a Shonagh Koea story transpiring in a parallel universe. Much of what Koea writes is informed by this general rule: individuals can, whether intentionally or not, behave in a beastly fashion towards each other. Men are often oppressive, rendering the women around them mortified and helpless. Don’t expect any fashionable moral spicing. The combatants on this battlefield are adults and quite beyond innocence. It doesn’t sound nice does it?
Koea agrees. She isn’t sure that she really likes some of the things the stories in her new book are about.
About? Doesn’t she mean the way they were written?
“No,” she answers firmly, “I mean what they are about.” She supplies the example of “Your Father, The Bird”. In this tale a widow and her son walk through their home town at dusk, taking turns at carrying a heavy package. The package’s contents turn out to be the cremated remains of her husband and his father. “It was very horrible to write that,” Koea shudders. “I felt quite ill.”
“I felt quite ill” is the sort of shrieking judgment you’d expect from a prim maiden aunt, not the person who wrote the story.
The reaction shows exactly where Koea’s affinities lie: courtesy, tact and decorum; virtues prized by the upper ranks.
Twenty-five years of Koea’s life were spent in New Plymouth. With her husband George, a Maori journalist who edited the local paper and was 20 years her senior, she dwelled in a two-storey house on a hill. I say dwelled, because that is what one does in two-storey houses on hills in such towns.
He died suddenly in 1987, while in the garden. Three years later she moved to Auckland. Her home now is a cottage perched on a hillside. It is named “Grandiflora”. Her first novel, published in 1989, was titled The Grandiflora Tree. In it the protagonist’s husband expires un­der one such tree, while raking leaves. Her New Plymouth house was also called “Grandiflora”.

The writer appears at the cot­tage door and waves me down a hallway lined with paintings to the kitchen/dining room. Later Koea will proclaim that she is “vividly unattractive”. She’s nothing of the sort. She has cheekbones like tangerines. I’ve yet to see a bad photograph of her.
A brown fur is draped across her shoulders. She apologises for any offence I might take because of this and then gives me coffee. An antique tin is opened, revealing biscuits as large as fists. The cottage seems to resound with memories.
Her books lead you to wonder if some of these are not quite fond. She came from a poor and unhappy family. What does she miss about New Plymouth? She misses the sea and her garden there. That’s all.
“I’ve often wondered, I hope you don’t mind me asking, does it worry you that the boys took after their father’s colouring?” asks one of her characters. The next sentence runs, “Isolation seemed a less exhausting alternative to such laboured tact.” George Koea’s death must have been a devastating blow.
“Burdened with remembrance” is Koea’s diagnosis of the inhabitants of her stories. Mood rather than plot galvanises her writing. What moods? “Sometimes you sit in places and you look around and you feel almost sick because it all seems very nice, but you’ve got nothing in common with anybody. Nothing applies.
“You get that awful feeling of almost homesickness, like when you’re a child. Ashes in your mouth. An awful sense of nameless desolation. You might remember some small incident where you felt deeply unhappy, when if you’d fallen down dead you wouldn’t give a damn.”
Style is something Koea does give a damn about. Her likes and dislikes are pronounced. Black pudding and tripe put her off. White wines are preferable, dry of course. Antiques invite what she calls “my orphan complex”. If they are broken and need some care, so much the better. Overly structured clothes make her dismissive. The importance of things, of silks, good food and artifacts is curious.
“I know how silly they are. They don’t really mean that you’re any better or worse, but I think sometimes that it’s a form of mental and physical discipline to cling not so much to correctness as niceties.”
Niceties, again. The discipline of finding something she likes is attractive to her. Why? “That’s what I know. That’s what I think myself. You choose.”
Koea has always written. As a child she put her thoughts down on paper because “people didn’t used to be much interested in what you thought and I used to think
things”. Aged eight she won two guineas in a competition run by the Woman’s Weekly for a piece declaring that at Christmas she had been given a white donkey with a red saddle which she rode in the paddock behind her house. There was no donkey or saddle, and, in suburban Hastings, no paddock.
The money went on a red-and-white striped dress with a Peter Pan collar, a play dress. “Other little girls had clothes to play in. I didn’t,” she remembers. “I was a funny correct little girl.”
When she left school, Koea became a reporter. She married. Writing fiction kept her amused during her 20s and she produced two novels. They provoked encour­aging noises from Reed, though not publication. In her late 20s, she grew disenchanted and ceased writing altogether. Ideas for stories still came. “I have this, what I call a tick-tock, inside my head. I’ll see something or hear something and it will kind of echo in my head.”
To silence it she would sit and beat her head with her fists. If that failed, or if she was particularly upset, she would walk down the hill to the library and stand amid the stacks of books. “I would think, ‘What could one possibly add to that? What did it matter?’ How stupid it was to fret that one couldn’t do that.”
Ten years after the decision to stop, she wrote a story and sent it to the most notable literary contest in the country at the time, the Air New Zealand short story competition. “I’d been down to the library and done the cure before I wrote it. It’s just like burning yourself on an old burn. The scar tissue is so thick you don’t feel it. I thought I’d burn myself one more time. I’d fail one more time and I’d laugh, and I wouldn’t care at all, and I would see that it all meant nothing. And it was a disaster, because I won the competition.”
At the prize-giving luncheon she overheard someone say she was merely a housewife from New Plymouth and wouldn’t be heard from again. Koea went home, cried and wrote two stories for the Listener, on the premise that at least one might be accepted. Both were. Nowadays editors ask her for contributions.
Other changes have accompanied success. The six or seven revisions she used to submit her work to have contracted to three or four. “You never get any better,” she says. “You just have more equilibrium about being worse.”
Her short stories are now written to greater length than the 3500 words the Listener liked when it published fiction. The paragraphs in Fifteen Rubies by Candlelight are meatier than her first collection. Exchanges of dialogue sound more realistic. Her characters too seem not quite as overwhelmed by the world. Reading some of her earlier work often made you wonder, are men this barbarically shallow, are women really so passive?
The answer of course is no. Refreshingly, those sometimes dowdy widows and boorish males who populated her work are starting to mix it up a bit.
Meanwhile, in the so-called real world, ghastly behaviour continues. But, as in her books, humour helps to deaden its worst effects. She tells of one occasion when she and another novelist were invited to a dinner party. Most of the guests were doctors or lawyers and they sat in the dining room. The two writers, however, were hustled off to a small room at the end of the house. From time to time other guests would appear, but after making strained conversation they would always leave.
Finally Koea and her friend confronted the host and hostess in the dining room. Dinner had been and gone. Shortly there­after, they too left.
Koea considered the evening for a few days and reached a conclusion. She always writes thank-you notes after dinner parties. This was no exception. “I said that I had found it most puzzling that I had been put in another room for the party, but it had been extremely informative because I had enjoyed watching the other guests and their proprietorial gestures towards each other.
“It was my pet hate,” she reflects. “I like to be left out, but I hate to be left out.”

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Waikato Times letter of the day

I’m sorry, it has been a while since I have blogged a Waikato Times letter to the editor – nothing since 19 August, which is shameful, but in my defence I have been distracted. Here at last is another, and once more it is from T.G. Brown of Te Kauwhata:
Regarding climate change on Earth, currently we have the sceptics, the don’t knows and carbon voodooists.
Those with Christian or biblical knowledge are aware of another “salvage of mankind” into a pagan based economic and political globalist new order.
The United Nations, European Union, United States President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have spoken of it.
What better catchphrase to unite mankind and “save” the planet than a world carbon voodooist cult?
Both Lord Stern and Al Gore would have been treasured by Hitler’s Goebbels for propaganda. Most of our New Zealand politicians have become astute members of this cult.
For connoisseurs of Godwin’s Law, Mike Godwin himself discusses it here.

All the news that fits

Aussie petrolhead and Daily Telegraph blogger Tim Blair points out that the New York Times didn’t publish Climategate emails because, it said: 
The documents appear to have been acquired illegally and contain all manner of private information and statements that were never intended for the public eye, so they won’t be posted here.
And that the New York Times published the recent set of WikiLeaks documents because, it said: 
[. . .] the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match.
Blair adds that the WikiLeaks documents, just like the Climategate emails, “were acquired illegally and contain all manner of private information and statements never intended for the public eye”. He doesn’t seem to understand that the two cases are completely different. Because, because, er, well, they just are, OK? 

And here is Radiohead (Montreux Jazz Festival 2003, Jonny Greenwood on glockenspiel).

Paragraph of the week

Commenting on a Dominion Post report that police are looking for a 21-year-old Wairarapa man called Customline Ford, Karl du Fresne writes:
My guess is that he has ties to the Mongrel Mob. I remember reading many years ago that in Mob culture, the V8 Ford is revered as a modern-day version of the waka, or Maori war canoe. Customline (a model that Ford USA brought out in the mid-50s, and which my father once drove) would be an inspired fit for someone born into a Mob family with the auspicious surname of Ford. Admittedly it’s a bit of a mouthful, but it could be conveniently abbreviated to Cuzzy. Perfect.
Karl also blogs despairingly about Kim Hill’s recent interview with former Australiam PM John Howard. A longer, more detailed and even tougher version appears in the current issue of the Australian Spectator.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Rob O’Neill on Rosie Scott

The 26th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the August 1996 issue. The photo of Rosie Scott is by Rob O’Neill.

The intro read:
Treasured more in her adopted Australia than at home in New Zealand, Rosie Scott talks to Rob O’Neill.
In the Northern Hemisphere the term mid-Atlantic is used to describe cul­tural crossovers and cross-feeding between the US and Britain. I don’t know if the term mid-Tasman has been coined before, but it seems an apt one for Rosie Scott and her writing.
After success in playwriting and a book of poetry, Scott really broke onto the literary scene in 1988 with a tremendously successful first novel, Glory Days, since published in the US and the UK. She is now based in Sydney, where her latest novel, Movie Dreams, was shortlisted for numerous awards alongside novels by Tim Winton and Booker-winner Peter Carey. “The Australian literary community took me on straight away,” she says. “I found them very welcoming and it’s been good for my writing process because I feel quite treasured.”
She occupies an enviable position for a New Zealand writer, having easy access to the much larger Australian readership (and Australian literary awards). But she feels that this is something that all New Zealand writers should have and regrets the lack of interchange or even interest between the two countries. “We’ve got this country of three million with fabulous writers and they’re nowhere in Australian bookshops,” she says. “Things have improved, but it’s still a terrible shame. It’s actually a cultural impoverishment.”
Scott’s critical reception in the land of her birth, however, has not been as rosy as in her adopted home. Though her books have generally been well reviewed here, there is, she says, “an odd group of rather catty reviewers, especially in Auckland, who are quite malicious in their reviews, often for personal reasons. They feel they are failures or haven’t written books, and they’re particularly threatened, I suspect, by women writers. But it makes me uncomfortable. I hate dealing with malice.”
It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that local reviewers may have been motivated by malice, but to my mind Scott’s work has been of varying quality. Glory Days and Movie Dreams are considerable achievements, but in between there has been more doubtful work – particularly the preachy Feral City, one of the rare books I couldn’t force myself to finish.
Scott’s interest in and concern for society’s underdogs is evident in her writing and, in person, her fervency comes to the fore. “I am very political,” she insists. “My writing is fuelled by me as a totality, but also by my political feelings. It’s a delightful reversal that I’ve become more radical as I’ve gotten older. I get so enraged by the kind of social injustice I feel.”
Scott regrets society’s loss of social conscience, “repressed by partisan media owned by people like [Kerry] Packer”. She regrets, too, the “unfortunate feeling among a lot of young people that it’s all too much. Their values are swept over by the idea that money is the bottom line and that’s all that’s worth talking about. I think there is such a thing as political fiction. It’s not propaganda – that would be the worst thing.”
In her writing she hopes for “the sense of possibility, and of the courage of people put into these impossible situations”. Her writing is, in part, a way to address the social imbalances she feels so strongly about. “I like to talk about the kind of things nobody else talks about and a lot of people would avoid,” she says.
This tendency is very much to the fore in Movie Dreams, where Scott set herself a task of tremendous technical difficulty, that of telling the story from the point of view of a dislocated and alienated teenage boy. Adan was her most difficult character – she discarded a quarter of a million words during the writing of the novel. “It would have been much easier for me to do a teenage girl, but somehow Adan just settled in there straight away. It was very difficult to do and I was very pessimistic, but it’s been beyond my wildest dreams. It was technique that saved me.”
The novel has many of the qualities of a mythic journey. It is a coming-of-age story, with Adan leaving the securities of home far behind and venturing out into a world unforgiving of his youth and relative naivety. There is also a timeless quality about it, evoked through the isolation, either physical or moral, of the characters or through the constant theme of drug use.
For Scott, teenagers are a mystery and Movie Dreams was in some way an attempt to solve that mystery. “I started to realise they were living in quite a different world. They are a real sub-culture, a tribe, and some of the things they said made no sense to me. I thought I’d like to go into this world. They are dealing with things that are too dangerous or too ugly for them to deal with.”
Another theme in Scott’s writing, is sex. “New Zealand writing has never been very passionate,” she says. “There’s a real dislike of passion – it’s not real literature. You have to be angst-ridden and live in this sterile environment, and there’s no such thing as sex or exuberance.”
Movie Dreams has been optioned for film and a script is currently being written, but Scott downplays her own work in the film industry, describing herself as a script editor. Currently she is researching and is looking forward to going bush with her film-maker husband in search of the Last Chance mica mine, somewhere in the desert around Alice Springs, where he was brought up. “We may well die up there of snake bite. . .”