Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sentence of the day

From Chad Taylor:
My revising self consistently underestimates my writing self.
This stuff is always interesting from any writer but Chad’s post “Many happy returns” on the mechanics of how he writes is a cracker.

Speaking of happy returns, today is my birthday and I’ll watch a Richard and Linda Thompson DVD if I want to. I treated myself to this not-really-that-expensive box set of three CDs plus DVD, all of live performances. The DVD is fantastic and has a sharper version of the clip below of them from 1981, just before they split acrimoniously, performing Richard’s great song “The Dimming of the Day”, beautifully sung by Linda. 

All teenage entrants to those ghastly TV talent quests should be made to watch this so they might understand that seven notes per syllable is not necessary. One note imbued with feeling will do nicely.   

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Phil Goff, career politician

In yesterday’s Herald, the second part of Claire Trevett’s examination of Phil Goff’s career includes this revelation from 1984, when Labour under Lange had defeated National under Muldoon:
Goff  remembers the first Cabinet meeting, when Treasury showed the new Government the nation’s books.
“I remember just having that sinking feeling: there’s no way on God’s earth with this situation that we’re going to be able to be re-elected.”
One wouldn’t mind if his sinking feeling had been “there’s no way on God’s earth with this situation that the country can survive” or “we’re all fucked” or similar. But no, his first thought was of how this would affect his party’s electoral chances.

Politicians really are different from the rest of us. It’s all about power.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Auckland Star in memoriam

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the last issue of the Auckland Star. At least I think it is. The ever-unreliable Wikipedia says the final issue was on 16 August 1991 but the possibly equally unreliable Facebook page of former Auckland Star journalists says it was 20 August. Let’s go for the 20th.

The dying days were extensively documented at the time in Metro and nowhere since that I know of. Is there a history anywhere of the paper and/or its brief rival the Sun?

I used to read the Star every day from February 1971, when I moved to Auckland, until its closure. It was a great newspaper, with Pat Booth running investigative features (Mr Asia, Arthur Allan Thomas etc) over weeks or months, however long it took. Warwick Roger wrote a full page every Saturday – he was the first reporter I’d come across whose byline indicated a must-read; and there were many other good writers in sports, business, you name it.

I worked there for three months as a sub-editor and feature-page designer in, I think, early 1987. Jim Tucker was editor, and Jenny Wheeler was editor of the Sunday Star with a staff of practically zero. It was an early-morning start so I would walk in half-asleep from Newmarket and get to the subs’ bench at 8:00 and open my eyes to see Carol Hirschfeld opposite giving me her dazzling smile. It was a very nice way to wake up.

Also there were Warren Berryman, Donna Chisholm, Paul Ellis, Eric Young and let’s not forget the racing sub, Julie Christie. She too has done quite well since then.

Pop song lyric of the day

In the song “Mason on the Boundary” a cricketer daydreams:
Mason’s gone to Zanzibar
Underneath his Panama
Out on the boundary.
Fading in the evening sun
Hopelessly Panglossian
Out on the boundary.
“Hopelessly Panglossian”. That’s a Voltaire reference, that is. You don’t get that with Oasis, or even Radiohead.

The song is from the delightful The Duckworth Lewis Method. It’s a sort of concept album about cricket, by the brilliant Neil Hannon from the Divine Comedy and another Irish chap, Thomas Walsh of Pugwash. Big fun.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Naming rights

In my class at primary school there were five Michaels, three Craigs, at least two Davids and two Stephens. How I envied Trieste, who lived at the Maungatapu pa. 

Things are different today, as Mick Jagger once sagely observed. On the front page of today’s issue of our excellent local paper, the Cambridge Edition, the names of winners of the Waipa Youth Awards 1911 include a Jarrod, a Jayden, a Mikayla, a Shaani and a Zay.  

Jeremy Clarke in his Low Life column in the Spectator writes:
Grandson number two was delivered by caesarean section last week. Nine pounds. A boy. Clynton. He was plain Clinton to start with, but one of their more sophisticated friends suggested the alternative spelling and the suggestion was taken up. Of course the older relatives are either horrified or derisive. Ridiculous, they say, all these silly new children’s names. The world’s gone mad. What’s wrong with a good old traditional English name, like Arthur or George?
I’ve been pointing these reactionary spirits in the direction of our parish magazine. In the latest issue a correspondent listed some of the Christian names recorded in the Baptism register between 1836 and 1900. Hocaday, anyone? Or how about Mullis, Limbrey, Carwithin or Vavasour? Girls’ names included Asenath, Andromach, Keturah, Thirza, Cotton and Gratitude. Beside all those, Clynton sounds almost staid. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fisking North & South on NZ novels part IV

In the comments to Fisking North & South on NZ novels part III, a new commenter here, “Max”, posted a long, thoughtful critique. Most readers may be over this issue but I’ve lifted it up here to the front page because not everyone reads the comments and because Max deserves a response, however belated. (Sorry, Max, I am writing a book. Happily for us all it is not a novel.) Max wrote:
While, absent some actual figures on how an average (or even most) New Zealand fiction - as distinct from the top 10 - sell, Stephen can’t prove his point, the pithier point seemed to me to be: - as we probably all knew already, New Zealand fiction is a slight proportion of overall bookbuying (from these figures, 4% of New Zealand-published (see p 32) and so just under 1% of total book sales (see p 31)) - which does not, incidentally, compare well to the 25% share for fiction of all book sales (p 17); - of the top 10 (for the first half of 2011), 4 were also bestsellers for 2010 and at least 2 (Mr Pip and The 10pm question) were bestsellers in 2009; and -from these figures (see pp 30-32), there look to have been something like 25,000 NZ fiction sales in 24 weeks and (from p 35) something like 10,000 of those were of the top 10; so - it’s hard not to get the impression that not only is hardly anyone reading New Zealand fiction (and far fewer than are reading fiction generally), but even that number is substantially dependent on a small number of comparatively highly successful books that sell well and keeping selling and, in turn, on a still smaller number of highly successful authors; and so -it is quite possible that N&S are right in saying that most NZ books sell so few copies; and - it’s also quite possible that the broader N&S theme - that public funds are being spent on numbers of new books that almost no-one then reads - is correct too; and - and, perhaps reinforcing that point, New Zealand fiction marked a decline in sales against the previous year, even though overall book sales improved (p 32). It’s no embarrassment, Stephen, to take the position that these books should be funded because, even if unread (or unreadable), they are culturally crucial. But the suggestion that, well, somehow, most NZ fiction is selling even remotely well (as some sort of justification for that funding) just isn’t borne out. To be outsold by Stieg Larsson is unfortunate; to have the top ten fiction books almost outsold by Paul Henry’s bit of drivel (which didn’t even go on sale until part way through the period surveyed) indicates a profound and worsening disconnection between the authors/funders and so forth and anyone who actually stumps up their own cash to read the results.
I can’t tell if Max has read the North & South article to which all my posts on this have been a response. It makes a difference if a) he/she did and accepts its arguments, or b) he/she didn’t and is just going by my account of it. In what follows I’m assuming b).

1. “absent some actual figures on how an average (or even most) New Zealand fiction - as distinct from the top 10 – sell”
a. An average is the least informative of statistics. Even if it were useful it would be impossible to get. It would be the total number of novels published divided by number of copies sold. There are many fiction titles self-published or printed through (can’t remember the polite term) a vanity press, and these probably sell in the dozens at most – but no one knows because they are not stocked by the major chains so they don’t show up in the Nielsen stats. They are invisible. In short, we cannot know the average.
b. The top 10 and the PDF I linked to give all the “actual figures” that those of us outside the book trade have data for, so this all we can talk about.

2. “so it is quite possible that N&S are right in saying that most NZ books sell so few copies”
a. No it isn’t. Certainly some books sell so few – but alarm bells go off at the publisher’s if they do and authors get dumped. Sales at this level may be normal for author-funded publishing but that’s not what N&S was on about.
b. The claim that “most” sell 300 copies is unsupported by any evidence other than second-hand gossip. Which, call me old-fashioned, isn’t evidence. It wasn’t when I was a journalist and I don’t believe that standards have fallen so far. North & South is not a Murdoch publication.

3. “it’s also quite possible that the broader N&S theme – that public funds are being spent on numbers of new books that almost no-one then reads – is correct too”
a. Yes it’s possible but where is the evidence? Which books have been publicly funded and which haven’t? Which ones have sold and which haven’t? Do the funded ones sell markedly less than the unfunded ones? If I was a journalist and getting paid I’d look this up – all grants are public information and searchable at Creative NZ’s website. It would be interesting to know, for sure. But N&S did not investigate this.
b. N&S didn’t consider the different sorts of funding – some writers get public money directly as a writing grant from Creative NZ; some publishers get public money (via a bulk grant,often for poetry) to lower the retail price to a commercially acceptable price point, which is in a way a subsidy to the reader. There is a lot of private funding too, via trusts like the Sargeson, Michael King, Foxton fellowship etc. There is a problem for both public and private funders (I’m involved with both so see this up close) with opportunity cost, where people don’t deliver so have taken money that someone more productive might have delivered on, but that’s another story. Again, N&S did not investigate this

4. “the suggestion that, well, somehow, most NZ fiction is selling even remotely well (as some sort of justification for that funding) just isn’t borne out.”
a. There are many novels that sell in pitiful quantities but there are loads that have sold way more than 10,000 copies. For example, Anne Maria Nicholson’s Weeping Waters, published in May 2007, was on the best-seller list for months and is still available in my nearest Whitcoulls. It had no public or private funding at all – which is probably true of all NZ crime fiction, chick-lit and romance. Some authors even invest their own money in getting a manuscript assessment (disclosure: I do this work) which can cost many hundreds of dollars. From what I see there are more writers backing themselves like this than there are recipients of public funding.
b. I can’t find a source quickly but when I was writing about this stuff for Metro 20 years ago a successful first novel in NZ would sell the same number of copies as a successful first novel in the UK – 3000 or so. Recently I saw some comparative data (can’t remember the source) and they were about the same. It seems that our numbers are very respectable by international standards. This is a Very Good Thing, something to be celebrated, and not what any reader would have taken away from the N&S article.

5. “To be outsold by Stieg Larsson is unfortunate; to have the top ten fiction books almost outsold by Paul Henry’s bit of drivel (which didn’t even go on sale until part way through the period surveyed) indicates a profound and worsening disconnection between the authors/funders and so forth and anyone who actually stumps up their own cash to read the results.”
a. I can’t see being outsold by Larsson or Henry as unfortunate. The Larsson books aren’t very good, imho, but they obviously work as entertainment, just as Dan Brown’s do. I have no idea about the Henry book and complacently assume it’s rubbish. But rubbish always outsells quality whether in books, movies or music. James Hurman in this week’s Sunday Star-Times (not online) points out that Radiohead’s OK Computer, widely regarded as one of the Best Albums Ever!, if not the Best Album Ever!, has sold 4 million copies worldwide. Backstreet Boys’ debut album sold 32 million. Crap wins. It was ever thus, and ever shall be.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Snow job

Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland, Feilding – it’s snowing all over. Even here in Cambridge there was snow at the children’s school mid-morning.

Best comment of the day, from a Cantabrian friend who works in a Very Important Place in Wellington:
It’s snowing here, all the North Islanders are outside playing, all the South Islanders are at their desks!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sentence of the day

Paul Little in the HoS, on the Adidas All Black shirt rumpus:
It’s just a jumper, no one’s forcing you to buy it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Fisking North & South on NZ novels part III

On 17 July at the Booksellers NZ conference Ka Meechan, Managing Director – Asia Pacific of Nielsen Book Data, gave a presentation full of hard data about book sales in New Zealand. Booksellers NZ has kindly made a free downloadable PDF of it available here.

It’s all interesting and useful material, though the PDF suffers a little from not having the inimitable Ka doing the voice-over. Still, page 35 will be of interest to readers who have followed my questioning of North & South’s claim that “Most New Zealand fiction sells a mere 300 copies”.

In the first 24 weeks of 2011 – from 1 January to 18 June – these were the 10 best-selling NZ fiction titles and this is how many copies each sold (sorry, dunno how to align the columns): 

1. Hand Me Down World, Lloyd Jones            1955
2. The Conductor, Sarah Quigley                     1617
3. As the Earth Turns Silver, Alison Wong        960
4. Hokitika Town, Charlotte Randall                  839
5. The Larnachs, Owen Marshall                       807
6. Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones                                 807
7. La Rochelle’s Road, Tanya Moir                    804
8. Wulf, Hamish Clayton                                     681
9. The Hut Builder, Laurence Fearnley               675
10. The 10pm Question, Kate de Goldi              669

Mister Pip was published in 2006, The 10pm Question in 2008, As the Earth Turns Silver in 2009, Hand Me Down World and The Hut Builder in 2010. They have all probably sold a few copies before. Truckloads, in some cases. The Hut Builder will inevitably sell loads more in the next six months because it won the fiction prize in this year’s NZ Post Book Awards.

Of the five books on the list published this year, Wulf was published on 31 January, Hokitika Town on 28 February, La Rochelle’s Road on 1 April, The Conductor on 6 May and The Larnachs on 3 June.

So in 16 days The Larnachs sold 807 copies and in 44 days The Conductor sold 1617 copies. La Rochelle’s Road sold 804 copies in 79 days. Wulf and Hokitika Town have sold a bit slower so far but you can bet there is word of mouth building for them both.

I’m pretty sure that Nielsen Book Data’s figures don’t include library sales. Those won’t be huge but from my experience of my own books should be at least a hundred, maybe two hundred, for most of these. It all adds up.

Unlike North & South’s claim that “Most New Zealand fiction sells a mere 300 copies”.

Country matters

On Monday afternoon I drove to school to collect the children. A minute away from home there was a paddock full of ewes and new-born lambs. There were also Friesians, alpacas, Shetland ponies, pigs, donkeys and the occasional horse en route, but they are always there. The lambs were new, and gambolling.

Children collected, I drove back. A minute away from school, which is opposite a milking shed, we saw a cow giving birth with the farmer squatting behind her to deliver the calf.

On Tuesday morning I dropped the children off at school. There was a pair of ducks (“a pair of duck”, real rural people say) calmly waddling along the path, oblivious to the cars and children.

We didn’t get this sort of thing when we lived in Mount Eden.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Indexer of the year

The Diary column in the 6 August issue of the Spectator is by Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins. He writes:
To my publishers to check the index of a forthcoming book on English history. I was always told, do your own index, but in this case I had no time and learned my lesson. The indexer decided, Wiki-style, to assume everyone with the same name is the same person. Hence a certain John Smith was credited with founding Jamestown, Virginia, and leading the Labour party. Better still was the entry for ‘Ridley, Nick, member of Thatcher cabinet, page xxx, burned at the stake, page xxx’.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

What I’m reading

Brian Edwards gives TVNZ a serve for its treatment of reporter Kate Lynch over the story Close Up ran that was plagiarised from ABC:
Anyone who knows anything about how a magazine programme like Close Up is put together will tell you the idea that a story could be filmed, let alone put to air, without its content and treatment having first been discussed with the programme’s producer, is utterly preposterous. Equally preposterous is the idea that a producer would put to air an item they had not already seen and approved. If Lynch did indeed “act alone”, then her producer should have been demoted with her or possibly fired. [. . . ]
What this entire debacle reveals is an appalling lack of oversight at all levels in the organisation. Lynch may have made an error of judgement, but against a background where her employer and her immediate superiors considered what she had done was something she and they were ‘perfectly entitled to do’. And no one, either in management or in the Close Up office, expressed any reservation to her, either before or immediately after the item went to air. TVNZ’s handling of this affair, from go to wo, has been an absolute scandal. And only Lynch has paid the price.
Rauparaha examines the Greens’ policy for helping the poor and asks:
is the best plan really to:
    • raise marginal tax rates on them,
    • give them cheaper bachelor’s degrees,
    • increase the barriers to entering the workforce at the minimum wage; and
    • increase the cost of rental properties?
    Eric Crampton takes Labour MP Jacinda Ardern to task for playing “silly buggers with the stats” on youth unemployment.

    At the splendidly strange Ever So Strange, there is a photo of a crucifix toad which I won’t post here because it is too repellent. The intro to the text says:
    A wise man once called for a reclassification of the Australian fauna into: i) dangerous ii) odd iii) sheep.
    Like so many other Australians, the crucifix toad comes under category ii).

      Friday, August 5, 2011

      Hill & Knowlton is evil: the sequel

      The story so far: Clare Curran, Labour MP for Dunedin South and former PR professional, blogged on the connection between John Key and the evil global PR firm Hill & Knowlton who 21 years ago were responsible for the first Iraq war (I paraphrase). I pointed out that not only is H&K’s reach global but so is that of its parent company WPP, which controls 20 media-type firms in Auckland and six in Wellington, at least one of which has several large public-type clients, and said:
      I just hope that none of WPP’s companies has ever had Labour as a client. That would be awkward.
      Since then, some of the people who have commented on Ms Curran’s post have shown that they are at least as well-informed as she is, perhaps even more so. One links to this Hansard page which records Jim Anderton, Minister of Fisheries in the last Labour government, saying on 30 March 2007 that his Ministry had paid H&K  $6,638 (exclusive of GST) in the year to 30 June 2003.

      Another commenter links to this speech by Charles Chauvel on 11 October 2007 in which he celebrated the sterling qualities of the Ombudsmen at the time, including:
      Beverley Wakem, a former chief executive of Radio New Zealand, a former president of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, a former executive chair of Hill and Knowlton (New Zealand) Ltd. . .
      Yet another gives more detail on Wakem’s  – and hence H&K’s – close connections with Labour:
      Beverley Wakem was appointed Ombudsman on 1 March 2005 and Chief Ombudsman on 23 April 2008 by the Labour Government under Helen Clark. Previously she was reappointed to the Higher Salaries Commission in 2001 and again in 2004 by PM Clark’s government. Ms Wakem’s background is in broadcasting, public relations and consulting. From 1996 to 1997, Ms Wakem was Executive Chairman of Hill & Knowlton New Zealand.
      Say what? All of this happened on Helen Clark’s watch? Surely, every bit as much as John Key, she must have been aware of H&K’s sinister,  war-mongering past.

      The questions arise: what did she know, and when did she know it?

      What I’m reading

      When poets fall out: the UK Poetry Society passed a vote of no confidence in its board of trustees, who had already offered to resign. Afterwards, one trustee said:
      I feel I will be well shot of it. Quite a lot of poets seem to be rather bloody unbalanced.”
      I’m not sure how widely this has been reported: the finalists for the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, which will be presented on 21 August at the Christchurch Arts Festival, are (in alphabetical order):
       Blood Men by Paul Cleave (Random House)
      Captured by Neil Cross (Simon & Schuster)
      Hunting Blind by Paddy Richardson (Penguin)
      Slaughter Falls by Alix Bosco (Penguin)

      Easter Island revisited: it was the rats whodunnit.

      More evidence for the Stratford Theory of Numbers from Matt Nolan, who grumbles about the misuse of statistics in a Herald story about wages and inflation, while Rauparaha analyses claims made about how much money you can save by cycling rather than owning a car, and concludes:
      It seems more likely that these numbers just make cycle commuters feel even more smug and self-satisfied about their present choices.
      Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, has a pulse. It also has geysers of ice.

      And tomorrow after netball I shall be reading the new Lee Child novel, The Affair, which won’t be published here until 1 October but I can’t wait that long.

      Wednesday, August 3, 2011

      Hill & Knowlton is evil

      I did not know this before, but I know this now from a blogpost by Clare Curran, Labour MP for Dunedin South, at Red Alert. Before becoming an MP she ran a business, which is unusual for a Labour MP. It was a PR agency, Inzight Communications, and she ran it from 2003 to 2008, winning a PRINZ award in 2006. Before that she worked in a Sydney PR agency, 2001-2. So she knows the industry at an international level. Yesterday she posted this:
      Spinning it with John
      Posted by Clare Curran on August 2nd, 2011
      The public relations firm paid $10,000 to broker John Key’s appearance on the Letterman Show was Hill & Knowlton, the PR firm that became notorious for its involvement in the Kuwaiti embassy’s lobbying of congress to provoke a military response to the Iraq invasion back in 1991.
      This involved creating an artificial scandal over Iraq troops murdering Kuwaiti babies in incubators, using the Kuwaiti ambassador’s family as stooges claiming to have witnessed these atrocities.
      Congress bought it, and Hill & Knowlton was rewarded handsomely for their assistance in facilitating a military response.
      Even Crosby Textor looks tame compared with these guys.
      Clearly this is an unacceptable connection between our Prime Minister and a global (i.e. evil) PR company whose former client we must all disapprove of. I am shocked, shocked – as are many of those who have commented on Curran’s post, some of them entertainingly.

      But I wonder if Curran realises that the conspiracy is even darker and deeper than she suspects. Hill & Knowlton is huge – it even has a branch in Morocco – but it is a small cog in the vast global (i.e. evil) machine that is WPP.

      WPP controls 20 companies in Auckland – well, you’d expect that of sleazy Auckland – but it also controls six companies in virtuous Wellington, PR agencies, ad agencies, pollsters and the like. I can reveal their names: Designworks, MEC, Milward Brown (Colmar Brunton), Ogilvy & Mather, PPR and Y&R.

      Curran possibly knows some people who work for these companies but hadn’t realised that, just like John Key, they are tainted by their connection with allegations made 21 years ago that some Iraqi soldiers behaved badly in Kuwait and that as a result of H&K’s work (spoiler alert: not everybody believes this) the US invaded Kuwait which was obviously a bad thing as it removed Saddam Hussein from his neighbour’s property. (If you can stand to read the comments, one says that Saddam Hussein’s “biggest mistake is that he started serving Iraqi interests more than US interests” – which would seem an unusual interpretation of what serving Iraqi interests might entail. Especially if you were, say, a Kurd from Halabja.)

      Even I am implicated. Yes, I have taken Hill & Knowlton’s shilling and hence am implicated in the nastiness in Kuwait 21 years ago (i.e. the removal of the Iraqis, rather than what the Iraqis did). H&K is the lead PR agency for Emirates, in whose lovely business class I flew to Dubai last year to write a story for the Listener. The trip was arranged by one of H&K’s local affiliates.

      But it gets even worse. Y&R’s clients include the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Te Papa, the Met Service and the NZSO.

      Truly, none of us is innocent.

      I just hope that none of WPP’s companies has ever had Labour as a client. That would be awkward.