Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Nigel Cox on Maurice Gee

The 36th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the July 1993 issue. (At least I think it’s the 36th – the count went awry some posts back.) The portrait is by Becky Nunes.

 The intro read:
Maurice Gee is once again a contender for the Wattie awards, with his 20th book, Going West. He talks to Nigel Cox about writing, readers and the way our critics keep measuring his novels against the massive success of Plumb.
If you didn’t know him as a writer, on meeting Maurice Gee it’d be hard to place him. A rugby coach, maybe, with­out the paunch or the heartiness. A successful carpenter. A printer? Yes, a craftsman of some sort. But Gee is one of a tiny cluster of our writers for whom greatness seems possible and he appears to be on the brink of international recognition. His recent novel, Going West, had the English reviewers juggling superlatives.
It’s been a long, tough climb to this altitude. Gee started writing when he was 17 and wrote five or six chapters of a novel that “was supposed to make war impossible for all time”. He published stories in literary magazines, and then in 1962 Hutchinson in London brought out his first novel, The Big Season.
Over the next 10 years he produced three more novels, each better than the last, supporting himself by working as a teacher, librarian and postal worker. But time to write was snatched from the minutes left after everything else had been attended to. In late 1975 Gee and his family moved to Nelson, and by 1976 he was saying in an interview, “I have now reached the stage where I’m determined that I’m not going to stop writing for the rest of my life.”
It was in Nelson, committed to writing fulltime, that he was finally able to turn his attention to some material he’d been saving. His grandfather, James Chapple, had been imprisoned for sedition during World War I, and Gee adapted and developed his life to make the novel Plumb, which won the James Tait Black prize for the best novel published in Britain that year, as well as the Wattie and the New Zealand Book Award for fiction.
Prowlers, published in 1987, is Gee’s favourite among his novels (“I liked that nasty old bugger, Sir Noel”), but Plumb still occupies his thoughts: “I sometimes play the game of wondering what my grandfather would think of George Plumb. I don’t really think he’d be terribly pleased, not because he’d think it’s a misrepresentation of his life, but because I think he would have disapproved very much of modem fiction.”
The great success of Plumb seems almost to have become a problem for Gee. In New Zealand, readers and, especially, reviewers, can’t see past it. Judith Medlicott on the National Programme said Plumb was “terrific”, but that Going West had “some major flaws”, was “a bit turgid”. Phil Coogan in the New Zealand Herald said that “... the narrative shifts which seem more self-consciously clever than useful, the frequent discourse on the nature of writing and language, and the slow pace, combined to disappoint me.” Tall-poppy time?
Other New Zealand reviewers have seen the novel’s achievements more clearly, but it was with a sense of speaking to a prophet perhaps not quite fully honoured that I
began this interview.

These days writers often have to be able to read from their work, to give performances. Is that a bad thing?
Not a bad thing. What I’ve discovered is that I enjoy it. I’ve found I can actually throw myself into a reading. I went to Toronto, for the Harbourfront Festival a couple of years ago – you get invited over, they take you to Niagara Falls and put you in a hotel, and show you the hospitality room that has every sort of booze you can imagine. In return for this, in the week there, you’re asked to read for half an hour.
I had a great time with the reading, more than any I’ve given, really threw myself into it. Did the voices, things like that. I get keyed up. After that performance in Toronto, one of the women administrators said, “As soon as you started reading, I thought, Good God, he’s been at drama school” – because I was reading a passage from Prowlers, doing the old man, and the voice was ancient, trembly. But I had to disillusion her. I said, “No, I was just so bloody nervous.”
In 1979 you described yourself as “the least known of the New Zealand novelists”. Has becoming better known produced any problems for you as a writer?
None. I think I still have a very low profile, compared with someone like say Alan Duff, or Janet Frame. I’m still fairly anonymous, I pass incognito in lots of places... But I don’t think a lot of people know of me. I guess I’ve got a steady readership, but if you asked me to put a face to them, describe them, I don’t know who the hell they are.
I’ve got no complaints about my readership. If I want more readers I’ll try a more popular sort of novel. And in fact I have tried to write a popular novel and it didn’t work – it only got to about three chapters. I got disgusted a few years ago about the small amount of money that I was writing for. I said to myself, I will sit down and I will write a big sex-and-violence bestseller for international consumption, and I wrote three chapters of this thing and I began to feel... degraded. Because so many of those things turn on violence towards women, and I found that that’s what I was doing – it was part of the recipe. And after a while I thought, God, I don’t want to do this any more. So I stopped. That was the major reason.
The other reason was that I didn’t think it was working. You can’t write even that sort of novel according to a recipe. I’m sure that the people who write them, Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon, people like that,
Maurice Gee: “The reviewer is a reader who gets one vote just like every other reader.”
believe in the bloody things. I mean, hasn’t Sheldon said that God gave him this great gift? Not that when I write I have an audience in mind. I write a “literary” sort of novel, but I don’t do it deliberately, I do it because that’s the thing I do. When I’m putting the words onto the page I have absolutely no one in mind. There’s only one thing directing me and that’s story. It’s only afterwards that you begin to think, Who’s this for, and how are they going to receive it?
Do you have an image of the story as you’re working? Is it a rope in front of you that you’re being pulled along?
No, no, I don’t think so. I’ve often got an idea of where I’m going to – that’s kind of a peak at the end – and there’s one or two peaks along the way that you work towards but, to pursue the metaphor, the flat areas between those peaks are as strange to me as they possibly could be. A reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen and I don’t.
So, in the beginning, it’s all very arbitrary. You make certain selections, of names, places, ages, and you get three or four pages down. But then that arbitrary thing stops, for me, because what you’ve got on paper begins to generate things out of itself. And then it becomes a kind of a struggle, to hold what I think of as being my story against what the story wants to be, the two things pull in different ways, and you steer a course down the middle.
The London Sunday Times review of Going West said that you are one of the finest writers at work in the English-speaking world. How do you react to that?
With astonishment. I wonder how these people make these judgments. I’m not objecting to it, because everybody’s interested in praise, and that has been immensely useful as a quote. I mean, it’s the sort of thing that you’d pay someone to write about you, because it’s quotable on the back of your next book and it doesn’t do you any harm at all. But then you have to sit down and look at it closely and say,
“What does it mean?” And it means nothing. It’s nice to have it said about you, but how does this man know this? So in the end it becomes one person’s opinion, the re­viewer is a reader who gets one vote just like every other reader, and this one [he laughs] voted the right way.
On the other hand, you don’t seem the kind of writer who’s completely oblivious to the reactions to your books.
No, I’m not. I read reviews with a great deal of interest. They make me very, very angry at times, especially those that expose themselves – you know from the internal evidence of their own review they haven’t read your bloody book. Sometimes it seems so arbitrary.
I’ll give you an example: two English reviews of Meg came out in the same week. One finished by saying, “There is not an ounce of gusto in it” – that was a woman called Angela Huth. And then a guy called Martin Seymour-Smith said, “It’s full to the brim with a Joyce Caryian gusto”. What can you say?
There seems to be an attitude when approaching your work, in this country at least, that your best book, Plumb, is already behind you. Are you haunted by Plumb?
No, I’m not. I’m pleased by Plumb, I don’t want people to forget it, I want them to carry on reading the thing, but I wish they wouldn’t try everything that I write against it. That’s a little annoying, because I think I’m going on and changing all the time, and to have a kind of a static pole standing in the middle of the ground back there and being tied to that pole, it’s annoying. Plumb really doesn’t have anything to say about Going West that I can see.
You’ve written a number of books in which elderly narrators look back over their lives. It’s produced wonderful results for you, but I can’t help wondering if what is yielded by this kind of book might have become over-familiar to your readers.
I think that’s fair comment. Most of them have been reflective novels, people looking back and gathering significant parts of their past. Trying to make sense, coming to a stance in relation to their past, to find out how they should carry on in the future.
But it’s for that reason that in my next novel, Crime Story, I deliberately decided to break out of that and write a novel of contemporary New Zealand, set in 1992, occupying five months of time, with the characters resolutely not looking backward – well, they do a little bit [laughs]. There are various public events which have their parallels in the “real world” out there, so it’s a novel that looks much more at the way New Zealand is now. Not because I’ve felt any real lack of anything in the earlier novels, but simply because I wanted to see if I could write a different sort of novel.
The Burning Boy was an attempt to do that, too. I didn’t enjoy it as much as writing the backward-looking novel which covers a large slice of time. That allows me to play around with time, and put thing against thing, to balance and carpenter in the way that the other sort of novel doesn’t – I find that’s what I enjoy doing most.
How do you react to the suggestion that there’s been more refinement than development in your recent work?
Well, I’ve got to rule out of discussion the one that no one’s read yet, Crime Story, that may develop in certain ways. Yes. I think that’s probably fair. I think there was a big leap forward between Games Of Choice and Plumb, there was definitely development there. I’d say since Plumb it probably hasn’t developed in any significant way. I don’t mean that I’ve been writing and re-writing the same novel – I’ve been shifting ground, but not in any artistic sense. I’ve never sort of experimented or gone beyond the for­mat, if you like, that I found for Plumb.
You said in 1976, “If I could write thrillers as well as Raymond Chandler does, I’d be perfectly happy to write a thriller.” It’s ob­vious now that you can write as well as Chandler, and your new title is Crime Story.
It’s not a thriller. I still have that ambition – perhaps the next adult novel will be one. I’d very much like to go into that area, but I don’t know what sort of thriller it would be. I guess I did a sort of thriller in In My Father’s Den. It’s something I’d like to try again 20 years later and see whether I can do better than that, although that’s a little novel that still satisfies me.
You said recently, “I think I’ve got 10 good years of writing left.”
I was 60 then. If I get to 70 with my mind alive enough to continue writing fiction, I’ll be happy. But I’d like to still produce three or four novels if I can.
How close are you now to what you had in your mind’s eye when you began as a writer?
I don’t know what I had in my mind’s eye. Probably something very unreal, like inventing a fictional world rather like the world of Charles Dickens, who was my road into the writing of fiction.
I almost consciously started writing fiction because I’d enjoyed being in Dickens’ fictional world so much. I wanted to try and create one of my own. When I got going, the other strong strand in my life was a didactic one, one which came from my grandfather. That was the one that over­powered the fictional, the character thing, when I first started writing. But I soon abandoned that and saw that what was alive in what I was doing were the people, rather than the ideas.
I don’t know. I don’t think that what I’ve done could have been anything I could have begun to imagine.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What one is reading

LaughyKate contemplates patricide.

A cook book called Meals to Die For. It’s not what you think.

Follow the money: the economics of publishing books in New Zealand, by Jillian Ewart for Booksellers NZ.

Shock horror: Vanda Symon’s next crime novel is not set in the South Island. Craig Sisterson investigates.

How to get intoxicated on words. No alarms, no surprises: it’s a Russian thing.

Faryal Bhatti, a student at the Sir Syed Girls High School in Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF) colony Havelian, erroneously misspelt a word in an Urdu exam while answering a question on a poem written in praise of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). The word in question was ‘laanat’ instead of ‘naat’ – an easy error for a child to make, as the written versions of the words are similar.
According to the school administration and religious leaders who took great exception to the hapless student’s mistake, the error is ‘serious’ enough to fall within the realm of blasphemy, Saturday.
On Thursday, Faryal’s Urdu teacher was collecting the answer sheets from her students when she noticed the apparently offensive word on her pupil’s sheet. The teacher, Fareeda Bibi, reportedly summoned the Christian girl, scolded her and beat her. [ . . .]
Asked whether the incident still fell within the realm of blasphemy and whether Faryal deserved expulsion when she had misspelt the word unintentionally, Khateeb said that although he was unclear about the intentions of the girl, the word she had used was sacrilegious.
 Paul Litterick celebrates the live experience of the RWC (am I allowed to use that acronym?) on Auckland’s vibrant waterfront:
You arrive. You pass through corridors of barriers. Your bags are checked by people in flouro to ensure you are not carrying any unauthorised item such as a gun or a Steinlager. A woman hands you a leaflet. It is too dark to read the leaflet. You buy cholesterol products from the pie carts and you stand in front of the big screen. If you are feeling adventurous you sit on the concrete. It is dark, apart from the security lights, which give a gulag archipelago tone to the evening. It is cold.
 Danyl McLauchlan returns to satire. Yay:
The National Party will introduce a new bill this week that will update section 171 of the the Crimes Act. As with the changes to the laws around covert police video surveillance, the Prime Minister insists that the bill be passed under urgency and apply retrospectively.
The bill updates the manslaughter section of the Crimes Act of 1961, in which the current definition of ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder’ will be redefined to exempt senior public servants who accidentally asphyxiate sex-workers at departmental parties. [. . . ]
Police Association President Greg O’Connor supports the new bill, and in addition he has called for police to be armed with savage timber wolves and the power to flog anyone who looks them in the eye.
Coming attractions: Nigel Cox on Maurice Gee from the July 1993 issue of Quote Unquote the magazine. Also something on seduction. Warning: may contain French people.

Happiness is . . .

. . . editing the new novel by one of my favourite crime writers.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Country life highlight of the day

Marty dropped his daughter off to play with Seven while he gets his boat in the river for a couple of hours.

He said, “Do you eat fish?”

I said, “Yes. What do you catch?”

He said, “Rainbow trout, sometimes brown but they’re not such good eating. If we get some rainbows, would you like one?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “Smoked?”

I like it here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

I will survive

John Key says that “as long as Asian demand for Kiwi goods holds up” New Zealand will survive any global financial meltdown.

Cue Gloria Gaynor:

The courier always knocks twice

A package arrives! It is addressed to me. This is unusual, because I do not do TradeMe, unlike some other people in this household whom I could mention but had better not because anything for a quiet life.

I rip it open with my bare hands. This is how we do things in the country.

Inside are my travel documents. Yay. Normally I travel to Hamilton or Tauranga, or to Te Awamutu if I am lucky. Sometimes I travel to Auckland (boo) or Wellington (double boo). But this time I am going overseas to speak at an international conference. No, really. I am to speak on a subject I know next to nothing about but that doesn’t stop anyone else so why should it stop me?

My destinations are Bangkok, Zurich and Ljulbljana. Three new cities for me, and in fact three new countries. Guess which cuisine I am looking forward to most: Thai, Swiss or Slovenian?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Julian Assange unauthorised

The Guardian reports that Canongate:
will publish on Thursday the “unauthorised first draft” of his autobiography without his consent, months after the WikiLeaks founder withdrew from a million-pound contract for his memoirs.
In a dramatic move, Canongate has defied Assange’s wishes and secretly printed thousands of copies of Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography, with the book being shipped amid strict security to booksellers in preparation for imminent release. The enormous security operation was put in place by the publishers, according to a source, to stop the author blocking publication.
Assange signed a high-profile deal, reportedly worth a total of £930,000, with the Edinburgh-based publisher and the US firm Alfred A Knopf in December. The manuscript was subsequently sold in more than 35 countries. Assange said at the time that he believed the book would become “one of the unifying documents of our generation”.
[. . . ] He formally withdrew from his contract on 7 June and since then the Australian and his publisher have been locked in a bitter dispute over the contract and his £500,000 advance, which he has not returned. Assange, requiring funds for his legal fight against extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault, had placed the advance in escrow, meaning that his former legal team have first claim on any assets.
Assange is not happy. He says:
The events surrounding [the book’s] unauthorised publication by Canongate are not about freedom of information. They are about old-fashioned opportunism and duplicity – screwing people over to make a buck.
Isn’t it appalling – publishing documents that someone doesn’t want other people to read. I wonder where Canongate got that idea from.

Rural wisdom

Urban sophisticates like to portray us country dwellers as ignoramuses who, among our other failings, don’t “get” climate change.

This is nonsense. It’s people closest to the land who have the best appreciation of the changing climate. In this week’s Cambridge Edition, we hear from local sheep farmer Edward Dinger, “who regularly monitors weather patterns”:
Mr Dinger said typically June July and August were cold months and then gradually it started getting warmer.
Fred Dagg couldn’t have put it better.

Don Brash sentence of the day

From a curious interview by Tom Fitzsimons, wherein Brash talks about his food preferences:
If I’m feeling very adventurous, I eat Subway.
That must be one of the saddest stories ever told.

Cactus Kate has also read this curious interview, which inspired her to write a love poem. Bless.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mike Tindall busted at the Emmys

We’ve all seen the photos of English rugby player Mike Tindall with his face in the bosom of a woman not his wife. This was in Queenstown, a few days ago:

Remarkably, for a top sportsman on tour, he seems to have been able to take time off to attend the Emmys:


Monday, September 19, 2011

It’s not plagiarism, it’s repurposing

Kenneth Goldsmith, who teaches writing at the University of Pennsylvania and has just published Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age with Columbia University Press,  writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education on how in the digital age it is better to steal than to invent.

Intertextuality isn’t new, but. . .  Well, see for yourself. You couldn’t make this up, and if Goldsmith had his way, you wouldn’t – you’d nick it and “repurpose” it.
For the past several years, I’ve taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania called “Uncreative Writing.” In it, students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing. Not surprisingly, they thrive. Suddenly what they’ve surreptitiously become expert at is brought out into the open and explored in a safe environment, reframed in terms of responsibility instead of recklessness.
We retype documents and transcribe audio clips. We make small changes to Wikipedia pages (changing an “a” to “an” or inserting an extra space between words). We hold classes in chat rooms, and entire semesters are spent exclusively in Second Life. Each semester, for their final paper, I have them purchase a term paper from an online paper mill and sign their name to it, surely the most forbidden action in all of academia. Students then must get up and present the paper to the class as if they wrote it themselves, defending it from attacks by the other students. What paper did they choose? Is it possible to defend something you didn’t write? Something, perhaps, you don’t agree with? Convince us.
Monitor: Mark Broatch

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Jimi Hendrix i.m.

When I was a schoolboy I bought the 45 (younger readers: this was a small, circular vinyl object like an LP that had been through the washing machine too many times) of his song “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”, from the Electric Ladyland album. It still sounds amazing, and here he is on 4 January 1969 performing it live on the Lulu Show.

This is an historical artefact not just because it is Hendrix being awesome but because it is a reminder of how much better TV was in those days. The Lulu Show was mainstream Mum & Dad telly – and it often showed ugly blokes playing what Mum & Dad would have thought was ugly music. The equally mainstream Julie Felix Show featured people like the Incredible String Band.

I can’t think what a modern equivalent might be: Graeme Norton featuring Mogwai? Suggestions welcome in the comments.

On New Year’s Eve 1969 Hendrix played at the Fillmore East with his new all-black band, the Band of Gypsys. The live album that resulted is an embarrassment of riches but maybe the best thing is “Machine Gun”, his protest against the Vietnam War:

And on 18 September 1970 he died, aged 27. He’d be 69 this November. Imagine. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

George Clooney and me

I go to the Cambridge Farmers’ Market to be photographed with my daughters Seven and Nine (and their mother). The photographer has come all the way from Tauranga over the rugged Kaimais, which speaks volumes about her commitment.

She snaps away at me, Seven and Nine (and their mother) with Peter the cheese maker, Gillian the lime lady, Carrie the steak lady and Jonathan the chorizo king. 

She is very nice but I don’t quite grasp why she is photographing me for Little Treasures. Something about “rural dads who look a lot like George Clooney”, I assume.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bagehot on Johann Hari

Bagehot, the Economist’s columnist on UK affairs, has posted on the magazine’s website a brilliant denunciation of Johann Hari, the Independent  columnist who was caught nicking stuff from books and passing them off as his own work in interviews with the famous. It’s not just that it was stealing, but there was a violation of the writer/reader trust – when reading an interview, we trust that the words spoken by the subject were spoken during the interview.
Hari’s first response, on his website back in June, is here. (More links to early coverage here. ) It’s a bit different from his apology in the Independent yesterday.

Bagehot rips that apology to shreds. Hari’s main line of defence is that he didn’t go to journalism school, so didn’t know that what he did was wrong. Bagehot nails that – he didn’t go to journalism school either. Nor did I, but we both know that what Hari did was wrong. 

Do read the piece – it is not only a stinging denunciation of one person’s malpractice but also a passionate argument in defence of journalistic standards. Two quotes:
This is what baffles me about those colleagues leaping to Mr Hari’s defence. It is as if they imagine conducting an interview is mostly an act of stenography: you find someone interesting, ask them things, and then write down what they say. It is not stenography. Perhaps 80% of the knack of interviewing involves the ability to get people to open up and say striking things. When a subject is bored, or tired, or hostile your job is to charm or provoke them. It can be hard work. Surprisingly often, it can feel like (non-sexual) flirtation.
That last sentence is, surprisingly often, true. And this:
I once knew a correspondent with the amazing gift of diving into a Chinese crowd and coming out, 30 seconds later, with the perfect quote, despite pretty limited Mandarin. I never had the heart to say: great quote, now tell me how you say that in Chinese.

Damning bok choy with faint praise

In today’s Waikato Times, gardening writer Abbie Jury says, accurately, of bok choy (aka pak choi) that:
There is a lot to be said for a quick-maturing green vegetable which grows all year round and is not silver beet.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

My favourite dictionary

Dot Wordsworth, the Spectator’s “Mind Your Language” columnist, reviews the 12th edition of the Chambers Dictionary in the 3 September issue. She kicks off caustically:
Chambers (the apostrophe having being discarded in 1972, the year after decimal currency came in) has developed a queasy notion that it appeals to ‘Word Lovers’. ‘At Chambers, words are our passion,’ it declares, unafraid of cliché:
Our awareness that our love of language is matched by that of our users also motivated an exquisite new  supplement, The Word Lover’s Miscellany, which truly celebrates words and the word lover’s dictionary.
I can hardly believe those sentences were written by a lexicographer.
Yes, the concept of “word lover” is gruesome. But then:
There’s not much wrong that I can see with the dictionary itself. (I have not read every word.) From a single-volume dictionary most people want spelling and meanings, and these seem to be in order. Initials and proper names are included, but not place-names or personal names: so London pride but not London. (The single-volume Oxford Dictionary of English gives London, with population, and Longfellow, with dates.)  There is no tiresome lecturing on usage and acceptability. Nigger is marked ‘offensive’, like fuck. Fuckwit is included but not the historical windfucker (which even the prissy first edition of the OED got in). It would have made a nice highlighted item for Word Lovers, would it not? [ . . .]
A memory from my girlhood is of the Roman numerals and non-Roman alphabets at the back, and they are retained. The planets are given too, with their perihelia and aphelia given in AU, the meanings of which appear within. Pluto has fashionably been banished from their number — no longer one for the Word Lovers.
I sometimes have to use Oxford or, shudder, an American dictionary, but my main working dictionary is the 1981 reprint of the 1972 edition of Chambers. I have always found the lists at the back of Greek and Russian alphabets, Roman numerals, conversion tables (e.g. acres to hectares, gallons to litres), SI metric units and mathematical units wonderfully useful. The planet information is new – if you’re wondering what perihelia and aphelia might be, they are the points at which a planet is closest to and furthest from the sun. I can’t imagine why I would look that up in a dictionary – but still, nice to have.

It is time I upgraded to something more modern, but my 30-year-old copy, battered and broken as it is, has served me well. I have always loved it because it is the best for phrases, which is useful for headline writers and sub-editors in general, and because of this one definition:  
charity begins at home, usually an excuse for not allowing it to get abroad.
A dictionary that does maths and has an attitude and a sense of humour is my kind of dictionary.

Monday, September 12, 2011

What I’m reading

LaughyKate has a better ringtone than I do. 

David Thompson on the left-wing physics of, and I am not making this up, passive over-eating.

Martin Amis says that Philip Larkin isn’t a poet’s poet, he’s a novelist’s poet. Warning: may contain Andrew Marvell and Northrop Frye.

Jane Rogers – do read her, she’s great – on why novelists need publishers, no matter how tiny.

Bill Manhire on cream torpedoes. Not as rude as it sounds.

Francis Wheen, who owes me lunch at the Coach and Horses, reviews Charlie Campbell’s Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People for the Literary Review and begins:
Who could resist a book with such a subtitle? ‘I can see why they’ve asked you to review it,’ my other half said. She is a saintly figure who seldom if ever apportions blame, whereas my instinct when misfortune befalls me – lost socks, slipped discs, curdled mayonnaise – is to ask which blithering idiot was responsible, since it certainly wasn’t me.
Denis Welch, biographer of Helen Clark, considers Labour’s current leader and begins:
The nation’s eyes were on the Southern Ocean today when Labour leader Phil Goff was given back his freedom and released into the sea.
Thousands of New Zealanders have taken this plucky little chap to their hearts since he was found stranded at the top of the Labour Party.
Bewildered and lost, he kept making flapping motions that—scientists say—were a desperate attempt to get people’s attention.
Finally, I found this yesterday while working  on a website for the Frank Sargeson Trust. It is Perfectly Frank: the life of a New Zealand Writer, a 1998 TV documentary written and directed by Bruce Sheridan and produced by William Grieve and Bruce Morrison. The whole thing is about an hour long and it is fantastic. This is the first of five segments, about eight minutes long: 


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Apocalypse soon

Holly Thorne offers sensible advice on coping with the Big Day:
When shopping for food, choose small supermarkets and avoid big box stores such as Wal-Mart. Stopping to exit the vehicle before entering the shop provides an easy target so it is better to enter through the front window without slowing down. Given enough speed, this will also take care of anyone already on the premises within your immediate trajectory.  This is not the time to argue over Cheddar or Camembert, grab the fucking cheese. Load the vehicle and leave within thirty seconds.
You’ve probably already guessed that Holly Thorne is the American wife of Aussie super-snark David Thorne of 27b/6.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Chris Carter in Afghanistan

In her Politics column in this week’s Listener (17 September issue), Jane Clifton discusses the UN’s curious appointment of former Te Atatu MP Chris Carter to a big job in Afghanistan:
This certainly is the land of opportunity. From what other country could you launch a new career as a United Nations anti-corruption czar off a nationally recognised domestic track record of troughing and treachery?
Possibly it was the troughing and treachery that qualified him for the job. He’ll fit right in. Takes one to know one, poacher/gamekeeper sort of thing.

There is the small matter of him not speaking any of the languages. Still, looking on the bright side, Jane observes that:
[…] given his past work rate, he can be relied on not to throw his weight around, so he can be trusted not to make the situation worse.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Waikato Times is a-changing

The  Waikato Times, whose first edition was published on 2 May 1872, became a morning paper on Monday. It has also gone mad.

On Saturday it ran a terrific section on the history of the paper so far, with various old and not-so-old hands reminiscing, with particular reference to stellar staffers such as Michael King and also the brilliant Philip Harkness, one of the greats of New Zealand journalism, who took over as managing director in 1961 at the age of 28 and turned the paper into one of the best in New Zealand. Some of us thought it  was the best. It fearlessly took on local-body and national politicians. It took on Muldoon. In 2011 it’s no big deal to editorialise against the government, but back then it was very brave.

Philip was a great talent-spotter – Michael King, Judy McGregor, Warwick Roger, David Beatson, Richard Long and many more. In this section there’s a great photo of a youthful and beardless Michael King at Poukawa holding a pair of moa leg-bones. Unfortunately none of this material is online, which is a shame. I suppose that Fairfax regards it as merely local history but it isn’t  – it is social and journalism history of national importance.

As to madness, the #2 story on yesterday’s front page was about a man selling pig carcasses in Hamilton West door-to-door for charity, taking people’s money and – guess what? – not delivering the dead pigs. The heading was:
Alleged cheap-pork scammer now faces roasting
Yes, you know what to expect from the story. It begins:
A door-to-door pork peddler has been arrested for telling porkies. The man was selling meat but failed to bring home the bacon and now faces a grilling from police.
 The man, aged in his 50s, was arrested on Monday afternoon and charged with fraud after being caught taking payment from a potential victim. The arrest follows publicity from the Waikato Times about the porcine prank.
 Nawton resident Gerry O’Neill contacted the Waikato Times after he paid $150 to a man who claimed to be selling meat for charity. The meat was never delivered. Following the article, the Times received emails and calls from embarrassed Hamilton West residents who put their trotters up and admitted to being taken in by the porkies. 
Oh dear. It’s all a bit hammy.

Today’s front-page #2 was about a gang member caught doing something illegal. Specifically, owning a snake. The headline was:
Man gets more jail time, but his snake is hiss-tory
I fear we are in for a run of animal-related puns at breakfast. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How to write

I had forgotten this story but Simon Hoggart in his Television column in this week’s Spectator (3 September issue – will be online next week) reminds us about Raymond Chandler’s technique for writing a novel:
Chandler used to slice A4 sheets of paper into four, horizontally, allowing him to type roughly 25 double-spaced words before changing the sheet. If he hadn’t introduced a new character, a plot development or a brilliant turn of phrase, he’d rip it out and start again.
YouTube has a four-part set of clips of a half-hour interview Ian Fleming did with Chandler in 1958 for the BBC’s Third Programme, on the topic of English and American thrillers. Chandler was 66, Fleming 50. It is possible that both had had a drink or three beforehand. It starts here:

According to Frank McShane, who wrote The Life of Raymond Chandler and was editor of the Selected Letters (both excellent books), this is the only recording in existence of Chandler’s voice. He is as funny as you’d hope – he talked as well as he wrote. Seven months later he was dead.

The weird thing is that Fleming sounds exactly like Peter Cook parodying a certain sort of Englishman.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Triumph of the day

Today I:

a) edited a quarter of a fantasy novel; and
b) shot four goals on the netball courts at the children’s primary school. The seven-year-old shot 16 but she was going for the low hoop.

Guess which was the more satisfying.