Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween reading

Darragh McManus in the Guardian has chosen a list of books for Halloween, claiming that:
one of the best ways to spend 31 October is by curling up with a creepy book, in a room lit by candles, with stiff drink and loaded revolver close at hand. Just in case.
He has chosen books that :
are eerie, horrifying or disturbing in unusual and different ways.
The list is:
Manual by Daren King
The Return of the Player by Michael Tolkin
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino
High-Rise by JG Ballard
The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
The Vanished Man by Jeffery Deaver
Shirker by Chad Taylor

McManus says of Shirker:
Set in New Zealand, this tale of one man cheating death is one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read. Beautiful artful prose, a great, twisting noir story, and a seriously spooky, sexy atmosphere. You’ll feel all sorts of chills running along your spine.
I am not familiar with the work of King and Tolkin but clearly with the other authors whose work I am familiar with – Greene, Ballard, Atwood, Calvino, DeLillo and Deaver – Chad is in very, very good company.

Friday, October 21, 2011

One night in Bangkok

Tomorrow I fly to Bangkok for a night and a day. Brilliant timing, as ever.

I was so looking forward to lunch and dinner there. Perhaps the devastating floods will divert us to Kuala Lumpur, which would be fine as I love Malaysian food almost as much as I love Thai, but with my luck it will be Seoul.

Then it’s on to Zurich and Slovenia for four days of meetings and speeches, and loads of hearty dishes of meat, cabbage, and potatoes. Ljubljana, the capital city, has a population of 270,000 which is somewhere between Hamilton and Wellington, and it has three orchestras. A river runs through it, and  66 bridges cross the river. Here in Cambridge we have two bridges and no orchestra. Hamilton has six bridges and no orchestra.

The one bright spot is that there is a late-night place in Ljubjlana that sells horse burgers. I have eaten crocodile and kangaroo – I have even cooked kangaroo – but I have never eaten horse. Not yet, anyway.

So, no blogging for a week. Until then, here is something for the weekend from the Divine Comedy:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tim Wilson on sports writing

The 38th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is again from the August 1993 issue. The illustrations are by Chris Mousdale. I’ve had to reconfigure the text design slightly for clarity but the content is the same as the print version.

The intro read:
Sports writing in New Zealand causes a very similar reaction to sport itself – discuss it seriously and the fur may fly. A national disgrace, says one. Not really all that scruffy, another thinks. Doesn’t exist at all, according to someone else. With a little more effort and independence of thought, it’s agreed that our sports writers could do better. But, wondered Tim Wilson, could they do any worse? And if so, would anyone notice?
Over two weeks I scanned the sports pages of 20 New Zealand daily newspapers, from the reed-slim Oamaru Mail to the lumbering New Zealand Herald. I discovered games of two halves; games in which a win was a win. I witnessed huge men making big kicks; pitches invaded by articulated lorries and minis; disasters of biblical proportion. I heard the snap of tendons and the scream of metaphors being treated, well, unsportingly. Thumbs black with newsprint, I returned clutching five clippings that I thought weren’t especially good.
Actually, I thought some of them stank. But because I didn’t want to go out on a limb I obscured the writer’s names and organs, and sent the clip­pings to people who might. All is now revealed, gentle reader, as our judges discuss sports writing in general, and give their picks on the florid, the bad and the lazy.

1. Heart-stopping victory for talented Massey
Massey wrote, in letters of gold, one of their proudest results on their battle flag when they defeated Takapuna, 18-14, in the North Harbour club rugby championship on Saturday, keeping Massey as the only unbeaten side in the competition. They also wrote, in letters jittery enough to suggest approaching cardiac arrest, another chapter or two in their own special book – “How to Play Heart-in-the-Mouth Rugby” with the subtitle “Winning Footy in the Valium Valley”.
D.J. Cameron, New Zealand Herald, 14 June.

Lloyd Jones: “Death by metaphoric strangulation.” 

Wellington writer Lloyd Jones is a gadfly. According to him no sports writing is done in New Zealand. Be­sides the occasional profile in magazines, sports reporting is what we get. Most of it is pretty good, he says, but all of it misses the point: “Treating the game on its own turns it into an abstraction. That’s crazy. Obviously sport has the capacity to move the population but you never hear about that. There’s no sense of excitement or what’s at stake. Is anything at stake?”
At stake, perhaps, is the job of every hack in the country. But isn’t part of sport’s appeal its abstraction, that it is something idealised like, say, ballet with a winner? He disagrees.
“You couldn’t really say that ballet has tentacles reaching right through every section of society the way sport does. Sport actually organises society. It’s a Victorian or Edwardian idea that the rules of the sports field teach you the rules of life. . . teamwork, how to slot in, language. Look at sporting language: ‘level playing fields’, ‘playing the man and not the ball’. They’re examples of how sport is bigger than what happens at the park.”
But don’t the writers write to the level of the fans? “Sports fans here are pretty well informed. I think they would appreciate a greater sense of journey being brought to describing sports events. They don’t start at two o’clock at kick-off. They start days beforehand.”

2. Waitakere too classy for Ngaruawahia
Soccer was both a winner and a loser at Centennial Park, Ngaruawahia, yesterday. Competition favourite Waitakere City bundled DB Draught Ngaruawahia out of the Chatham Cup with a classy 5-0 win. But to the irritation of Waitakere officials, their vintage showing was all but snubbed in the Ngaruawahia clubrooms afterwards, as delayed telecast of the rugby league test took centre stage.
Bruce Holloway, Waikato Times, 21 June.

Phil Gifford: “Soccer the winner and the loser? It’s a classic, two cliches for the price of one.” 

“I guess I’ve been running a sort of a campaign, which Lloyd has now joined, of trying to write seriously about sport, which doesn’t mean pretentiously or in any wanky way, but just to write well about sport,” Roger Robinson muses. Once he worked as an athletics reporter for the Christchurch Star. Now he lectures students at Victoria University on the subject of English. Speaking to him, I feel the years fall away. I am being taught. “Obviously there have been some decent sports writers. Alex Veysey has been very good, and people like Roy Williams have always been very able journalists. Where we’ve been short is feature pieces and books. Do you know my book?”
Er, no.
“It’s a book on running called Heroes and Sparrows. That’s been well received, as I hoped it would be, in a whole range of reader groups, right through from just sports people through to literary people. And that was the whole idea, to write something which wasn’t just sports reporting but had a philosophical and especially literary dimension to it.”
Robinson describes a cultural dislocation: local writers glaring down their biros at sport. “They are anti-snobbish about everything else; but the one thing they’ve just dumped on and sneered at is sport.”

3. The view from the embankment
It was a game of two halves – both were full of errors and boring, but the second had a nice touch at the end. Saturday’s first test between the British Lions and the All Blacks at Lancaster Park was lifeless. The only thing which made the game absorbing – but still not exciting – was the closeness of the scores. Ironically, a skydiving display before the game gave every indication that the goal kickers would struggle. It’s now history that 33 of the 38 points scored were from penalty goals. Two of the skydivers made it on to the field while a third landed in the dead ball area after coming perilously close to decapitating several spectators.
Angus Morrison, Southland Times, 14 June.

Brian Turner: “An empty piece.” 

Secure proper writers, then, and you will have sports writing proper? Phil Gifford isn’t so sure. “You know Lloyd’s book?” he asks.
This time I do. Jones edited a selection of his kind of sports writing, Into The Field Of Play – how successfully depends on whom you talk to. “Without being specific,” offers Gifford, “there was some stuff in there that I found to be incredibly turgid and extremely boring.”
One opinion holds that those who really knew sport (through participation, for example) produced tauter, better pieces than the wheezing literati. Only those who play may know. True enough, perhaps, in the case of Jones’ book, but it’s a notion with nasty implications. Had Sophocles, for example, adopted it while writing Oedipus Rex, how well would he have treated his Mum and Dad?
The spin is vaguely similar when Gifford dismisses critics of sports reportage. That bad writing comes from the newspapers is an idea common among people who don’t write for newspapers. “When you’re working for newspapers there’s obviously not the time to perfect style. You’ve got to get the bloody story in.”
He’s right. Jones and Robinson have worked on newspapers. Neither disparages them. Gifford toiled at the Auckland Star and the Herald for 15 years. All three men have written for magazines such as Metro, North & South and the Listener, and enjoyed the luxury of increased time and space.

4. Tawhai turns up trumps
As I watched Horouta come from 9-0 down to beat a side tipped to be among the front runners, I couldn’t help thinking of a car event between an articulated truck and a bunch of souped-up minis. The truck (Ngatapa) had power and height up front and a lively back division, capable of causing concern. Unfortunately for the Green and White supporters, their side played as though they were running on reserve and without a driver.
John Hill, Gisborne Herald, 21 June.

Brian Turner: “It’s gloriously full of . . . Well, we’ve got supergas and comprehensive displays, revelling in and all the rest of it. Anyway, there was quite a bit of information there.” 

Brian Turner, poet, sometime sports writer and one-time national hockey rep, is not as tolerant as Gifford. The apology that tight deadlines cause sloppy copy makes him impatient. “Those same constraints surely apply to the larger papers overseas. In the States and Britain, for instance, you can read any section of the paper and get high-quality comments, nice phrasing and sentence construction. There has been some improvement in the sports area over here, but not nearly enough.”
Turner says what he thinks. He wishes sports journalists would too. Perhaps journalists are cowardly. Well, clubs, administrators and codes can also be prickly. The Herald came very close to being banned from the dressing rooms of the national league side during the Australian tour. Their crime? Not saying nice things about the lads. In the end the paper wasn’t banned. Coverage grew more, shall we say, sensitive. “Superkiwis Turn on a Stunner”, the Herald enthused after the first test draw.
As you might expect from a hockey player and cyclist, Turner grumbles about ditheistic coverage: rugby in winter, cricket in summer. Often the style is just as unremitting. “The language is littered with allusions to war and combat. You’re less likely to find a comment on grace or poise or the aesthetics of something. You’re also less likely to find human emotions other than the extreme ones. I get pissed off with continual talk of pride. Pride, power and glory. There’s no range of comment. There’s not enough irony, not enough cynicism, not enough humour and not enough pathos.”

5. Muscled minnows
When the North Harbour Rugby Union was born the knockers on the southern shores of the Auckland Harbour Bridge predicted the first division clubs, North Shore, Takapuna, Northcote and East Coast Bays, would thrive.
The minnows, it was said . . . would, in the face of cricket score losses, slowly curl up and die. The small fry, however, were made of stern stuff. Pride, giant-sized hearts and club spirit were winning ingredients. Now, into the ninth season of Harbour rugby, the one-time min­nows, developed into fully fledged man-eaters, are respected by all.
J.A. Gasparich, New Zealand Herald, 19 June.

Lloyd Jones: “The problem with a metaphor like this is that once you step into it, you’ve got to step into it up to your neck.”

Now to pick the prize specimen of lousy sports writing. The result? Not exactly a knockout. Robinson asked to be excused – he was going overseas. Jones and Turner hold similar views on how sport should be written about, yet both selected different’ pieces. “Muscled Minnows” turned Turner’s stomach, while Jones found that D.J. Cameron’s Herald piece on “Heart­-stopping Massey” caused his own heart to miss a beat.
Both agreed that Waikato Times writer Bruce Holloway’s tale in which soccer was the winner and the loser had merit. “It tells a bit of a story,” Turner said, while Jones enjoyed the “self-conscious use of cliche” at the beginning.
Gifford spoiled everything. He didn’t believe that particular cliche was self-conscious, nor did he believe the collection of extracts was especially execrable, merely mediocre. Top three for him were the first three. The remaining two didn’t strike him either way.
Winning teams, as the cliche goes, are those which put the most points on the board. Accordingly, we made a decision based on points. The envelope, please.
How apt that the winning worst piece included references to writing; writing on battle flags, writing chapters, writing autobiographies, writing arias for rugby operas. D.J. Cameron of the New Zealand Herald, take a bow.
This is unfortunate, because Cameron has written some fine pieces on cricket. The moral then? Even the best can have a very bad day indeed.

Herald heading of the week

Giant corrugated cock up for auction
How the sub-editors must have chortled. But it is good to see a cock called a cock not a rooster, which is a dainty American version invented to avoid possibly unsettling imagery, like their “tidbit” for “titbit”. 

In other cock/rooster news, this.

Sentence of the day

The Pyongyang Times reports on a recent visit by Kim Jong Il to to the renovated Tudan Duck Farm:
That day he enjoyed an art performance given by the members of the art squad of the Pyongyang Poultry Guidance Bureau in the newly-built house of culture of the farm.
We can only guess.

Monitor: Mick Hartley

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Harrison Birtwistle

The greatest living composer accepts the Gramophone award for best contemporary album of 2010, Night’s Black Bird. It is fantastic (you can download it here) and Birtwistle is typically blunt (he’s from Lancashire) in what he says about the relative importance of composer and performer:

 In other contemporary classical news, Concert FM is replaying its series on Wellington composer Ross Harris on Tuesday nights. I’ve been a fan since I first heard his music in the 70s, and I’ve been privileged to hear some not-yet-released recordings of his latest compositions, some of them settings of lyrics by Vincent O’Sullivan. It’s all magnificent music – don’t miss it.

Nigel Cox on Alan Duff

The 37th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the August 1993 issue (which, mortifyingly, was labelled July 1993 on the cover) and was requested by Steve Braunias. The illustration is by Georgia Hibberdine.

The intro read:
With a record three books in the top 10, Alan Duff is possibly our best-known writer. But is he famous for his fiction or because his public statements inflame the liberals and delight the rednecks? Nigel Cox looks at why both public and media have become fascinated with the man and his work.
Alan Duff keeps his image on a short leash. When Rosemary McLeod in­cluded his every use of the four-letter favourite in a North & South profile Duff quickly pointed out that McLeod “herself is a liberal user of the word” but that she’d edited all hers out. This is Duff at his best, appealing successfully to “common sense”, swapping subtlety for hard-headedness, getting more exposure in the process. But in the same letter he threatens libel action against publisher Bob Ross for saying that Duff’s contribution to the editing of Once Were Warriors was, “if you touch one f—ing word of my f—ing book I’ll come and punch your f—ing head in”.
At the time of that first publication, Duff, a complete unknown, was happy to have himself presented as anything that might interest readers. The Bad Mouth From The Bad Side, fine. The Thunder From Under. Mr Duffya Up. But that was then. These days he wants to be less crosscut. Smiles in his author photos. Describes himself as “an award-winning novelist with soon an international audience”. Tells us that his daughters go to Woodford House.
But he’s vociferous in distancing himself from the literati. “MBs” (Mediocre Bores) is how he characterises the writers who, he says, “have taken over literature in this country”. His attack on this group is probably not without its shrewdness, since he recognises that having only those who read literature as your audience is no way to make a living. The time-honoured difficulty of making a living with a pen has had Duff putting words on paper at a phenomenal rate; at a guess, 300,000 words in print in three years. And people are reading him: in the latest best-seller list he has an unprecedented three of the top four.
He’s always described as one of our most successful authors, so let’s tot up what these three might have earned him. Once Were Warriors: 5000 copies at a standard 10 per cent royalty and 22,000 at 15% (the rate goes up as you sell more copies) would come to $75,500. One Night Out Stealing: 12,000 copies on a slightly better royalty is $42,000 – plus 2000 of each in Australia at an export royalty, $5500. Maori: The Crisis And The Challenge: 8000 copies at, say, 15% comes to $24,000. Add to that second prize in the Wattie, $10,000; sharing the Sargeson fellowship, $6250; the PEN Best First Book prize, $1000; the film rights to Once Were Warriors, $40,000 (a guess – North & South said $20,000, but from my own experience in selling the rights to a much less successful novel that seems too low) . . . the grand total must be around $204,000.
When you add to that what he’s getting from his Evening Post column, “syndicated from Southland to Northland”, and the bits and pieces (the Author’s Fund, stories for radio, $250 per episode of The Ralston Group) you can see that this is one author who’s not starving in a garret.
But Duff doesn’t want to starve. He claims Maori people don’t strive for success, and that they should look to him as a role model. And perhaps this is where Duff’s difficulties begin. Making an example of yourself usually involves keeping a low profile – after all, none of us emerges from intense scrutiny quite so sweet-smelling. But Duff needs exposure and lots of it if his books are to keep selling at a level high enough to provide him with a living. He insists in the introduction to Maori: The Crisis And The Challenge that he wrote it “because I care”, and we should take him at his word, but reading it it’s impossible to avoid the sense of a shrewd performer with at least one eye on his audience. Of course there’s nothing wrong with pleasing the crowd – but which crowd? The rednecks?
It’s a question frequently asked about his work. Anyone who is prepared to say – let’s be fair, brave enough to say – that kaumatua aren’t sufficiently well-read to lead their people, or that the Maori lack a work ethic, or that Maori crime has no historical or sociological justification, is bound to be back-slapped by bigots. Duff should be accorded the respect due to those who say publicly what is being muttered in private, and it’s hard to disagree when he argues that education is the key to success in the modern world. But the reviewers were right when they called it “a lengthy pamphlet”, “at times little more than a rehash of racist, rednecked attitudes”, “extremism and invective dressed up as social analysis”.
Lesley Max in June’s Quote Unquote also called it “important”, but I can’t agree that anything as sloppily written as Maori can be accurate enough to really count. Gears crash as another sentence grinds its way up a molehill, big subjects go flashing past like hoardings, but there’s no centre line that the argument is following. Elegance of expression doesn’t interest Duff – he’s in too much of a hurry to throw another punch. But elegance makes arguments convincing, since it brings discipline.
That’s Duff’s biggest problem as a writer and as a cultural phenomenon: he can’t afford to pause and think. He has to pro­duce. Here’s an extract from the only piece he’s produced specifically for international consumption, on what artist-writers like himself are doing:
“That capturement of moment or tone or hue, or all of that; to put a finger, an articulated finger on It, this wonderful, awful instinctive understanding of ourselves, our (mere) dusk speck in the universal scheme of things whatever the hell things might be; to call up and on the background of the trillion voices gone before us but echoing, still, in our genes; to be and do one’s part in the continuum of compoundment, so that when the Time comes, as it shall, it must come, then we are at the same Oneness with Nothing as we were with the Great nothingness of Beginning—”. Sic, every dismal word of it.
But Duff can write well and when he does it’s definitely the business. By far the best chapter of Maori is where he abandons rhetoric and uses a fictional voice to get inside the head of a Maori loser:
“Monday, or Tuesday if we were lucky, we were juss about eating the weetbix box cos there was no food in the house. Every week the same story on Monday or Tuesday. As for Wednesday. Man, I can’t even talk about it, how starving we were on a Wednesday and then still the all day Thursday of waiting til the old man came home with his pay so mum could go and get us something to eat. At school, eyin up the Pakehas’ lunches, bullying the weak ones for a samwidge. Couldn’t help it, though: we were starving.”
Critics have rightly praised the energy and invention he brings to catching the inner voices of his inarticulate mouthpieces. But all too often mouthpieces is what they are, rather than real characters who are alive and speak for themselves. One Night Out Stealing’s Sonny, who stays home to listen to opera while mooning over a photo he’s stolen, simply isn’t believable: “Aspect, see. It’s to do with aspects, is life. But it needs someone, or something of your raising to point out the aspects, the diversity of them, what they can do to you that years and years of incarceration don’t and can’t, and yet so many of them in here could be awakened to emselves by just this very experience.”
“Unfortunately, Duff has trouble stifling an intrusive editorial voice,” said reviewer Iain Sharp. And though the book is graced by well-caught demotic, its gutter-licking characters often seem to have stepped from the television screen rather than life. When they’re busy with a rape or a fight or a robbery the book is vividly alive, but as soon as the action slows, the internal processes Duff insists on minutely detailing feel invented rather than authentic.
Which is strange, since Duff’s potted biographies suggest that unlike most authors, who are a clean-fingernailed bunch, he should know what really passes through the heads of these lowlifes. The problem is, while he was writing this book Duff had his mind not on his characters but his message.
Messages are fatal to fiction, but they’re very good for sales – people who can’t read very well love to have a book’s meaning hit them over the head – and thus Duff is trapped. He has things to say, yes, and at times an original and exciting voice, but if he can’t make the one rise of its own accord from the other he simply pastes it in.
The critics notice and call him a rough writer. Duff calls the critics MBs, refuses to submit to the disciplines of his craft – and meanwhile the redneck and new-right audiences wait to mate him with their other house writer, Ayn Rand. Duff’s contention that his people are themselves responsible for their over-representation in the crime and unemployment statistics gives great comfort to those who believe with Henry Ford that “history is bunk”.
But to those Maoris (and the Pakehas who support them) arguing that during colonisation New Zealand saw injustices which can only be redressed with public money, Duff needs to be brought into line or closed down altogether, as quickly as possible. Thus Ranginui Walker (a kaumatua you could scarcely suggest is ill-read) says, “To the Maori, Duff is irrelevant.”
Common sense suggests that in fact Duff is highly relevant to any debate about the country’s responsibility to its indigenous people, simply because he is being heard and widely discussed. For example, in the week I was writing this, apart from his domination of the bestsellers list, he was interviewed by both Lindsay Perigo and Kim Hill, and had his radio play State Ward on Hill’s programme, which also ran a review of his new book. Planet announced that he’d be profiled in their next issue. Walker devoted his entire Metro column to denouncing him, Ernie Leonard denounced him on Marae, Dr John Barrington gave an academic response to Duff’s views on education in the Evening Post, there were at least three reports of progress on the film version of Once Were Warriors, and rumours that both TV1 and TV3 were preparing documentaries on him.
The media love Duff. But is this because he’s a good writer – not an attribute they’ve traditionally been much interested in – or because they’ve found a Maori who will say things that would be considered racist coming from a Pakeha?
As we all know, the media always win. No matter what results from their transmissions, they just pocket the advertising revenue and move on. So where does that leave Duff? The electronic media tend to reduce debate to sound bites and there’s a sense that Duff, especially as a writer of fiction, has bought enormous sales for his books at the price of being reduced in this way. When his first and best book, Once Were Warriors, appeared in 1990 it contained some interesting ambiguities. Its huge audience was swept on an energetically imag­ined vernacular into the lives of poor Maoris living in despair and waste in a fictionalised suburb of Rotorua. They were taken inside Jake’s fists, believed in what powered them, believed in the existence of Pine Block and the despair of the Heke family. And at the end of the novel readers were left to consider its content for themselves – the book was widely discussed.
At first many Pakeha liberals claimed Duff as a powerful new voice who would bring them fresh insights into the Maori world. But in his promotional appearances Duff couldn’t resist explaining the novel, spelling out what he insisted was its message – that Maoris are themselves responsible for their condition – to any who might have missed it. Its possible meanings reduced, Once Were Warriors became less interesting as fiction.
At that point perceptions about the book seemed to change. At the same time as bookshop staff were being asked for “that book that puts the boot into the Maoris”, in some quarters Duff was being disowned. It’s a process reminiscent of the incident in the 1960s when Ans Westra’s photographs of poor, rural Maoris were collected by School Publications under the title Washday At The Pa. There was an outcry and the booklet was withdrawn, because its pictures were said to show the indigenous population in a poor light.
Duff has also been accused of hanging out the dirty washing. The damage he’s doing can be measured by the invective he attracts. Derek Fox says he is “a non-entity to Maori”. Walker describes him as “a cultural renegade not worthy of being dignified by public comment”.
The struggle to control “presentation” of any given social group has produced the most tiresome and yet the most vital debate of the decade. It’s an area where opinion gets reduced to slogan at the second salvo, especially if the debate is in public. One accusation fired at Duff is that he refuses to come on a marae where his critics can formally confront him away from the prowling media. Duff ripostes in his column by offering to come to the Marae of his choice – Ernie Leonard’s television programme: “I’ll come on your medium, just to be fair (and compassionate) and let’s do some debat­ing.” It’s hard to imagine the results providing anything but delight for rednecks.
In the same column Duff also claims that he doesn’t attack the Maori world for money. “I can make far more from writing novels with not a single Maori character in them,” he says, which must be a hope rather than a fact, since nothing he has published so far could be described that way. Nor does it seem likely to be true of Dreamboat Dad, his third novel, due in November. According to his publishers’ catalogue it’s about Henry Te Amo who lives “in the multicultural thermal ‘wonderland’ village of Waiwera”.
But Duff has talked about such books, about novels set entirely in Europe (“When I break beyond Australia with my literature, I might just sit down and write about London”) so often that it’s clear he has his sights set on a bigger market – and on critics who have less to lose if he succeeds. It’s an exciting prospect, since he’s a writer who is at his most interesting when he forgets his audience and concentrates on his characters.
The break-out has already begun. Once Were Warriors and One Night Out Stealing are to be published in the US by the University of Hawaii Press. Maybe, like Richard Nixon, we soon won’t have Alan Duff to kick around any more.
Which would be a pity. As one Maori acquaintance puts it, “We need people like him, otherwise we’d be invisible. It’s like with Atareta Poananga – once people have had their shout, you wish they’d shut up – but they start everything off.”
Not that it’s time for Duff to shut up. But maybe it’s time for him to concentrate on his fiction.

Coming soon:
From the same issue: Tim Wilson on sportswriting, Elizabeth Knox interviewing Marilyn Duckworth, and Dennis McEldowney on Maurice Shadbolt. This issue also had Bob Harvey on “being a man” and Keith Stewart on Laurence Aberhart, plus Elizabeth Smither, Stephanie Johnson, Judith Binney, Barbara Else, Marion McLeod, Bill Manhire, Graeme Lay, Kevin Ireland and Graham Billing. It’s not my place to say so, but if it was I would say that’s not a bad line-up.

What I’m reading: The Look of Love edition

Further to this post on the Boston Herald’s treatment of Occupy Boston, which took it every bit as seriously as it deserved, here is the New York Times on Occupy Wall Street: James C. McKinley Jr critiques the soundtrack. Everyone’s a critic.

As is economist Matt Nolan, who rips into the Occupy movement here. Money quote:
These people aren’t interested in the poor, they are interested in themselves – either that or they haven’t thought about the issue, which is pretty slack when you are going to go out and protest about it.
If we want to help the real poor we need to open borders, and make a concerted effort to help increase capital and opportunities in foreign countries – rather than just focusing on ourselves.
When I here people complain that they are the “99%” do they realise that only the top 1% of people in India have a living standard greater than the bottom decile of people in the US?  Do they even care about the sheer number of people born without any opportunity to live the sort of privileged life we get.
Seriously, when I hear the complaints from these people, this is what I hear in my head:
“We want cheaper coffees and iPhones for ourselves, and people with lots of money should buy them for us.”
Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee’s husband David Walker knows how to lunch:
If there are any trends to be detected in his claims for the year, it is that the further to the Left the guest was, the better the hospitality tended to be.
 A couple of journalism jokes from FaceBook’s group for Kiwi Journalists Association (no apostrophe, which is Jim Tuckers fault, but even so it’s still worth joining for anyone who is or was in the media):
First they came for the apostrophes, and I said nothing.
Then they came for the other punctuation marks and I still said nothing.
Then they came 4 all the decent grammar & speling & i roflmao lol
and this quoted from Overheard in the Newsroom:
Young editor: “Oh, my god, I just got a letter to the editor that employed semicolons. I’m so HAPPY.”
Veteran reporter: “That has no place in journalism.”
Editor: “Happiness or semicolons?”
An optometrist tells us how to deliver a come-hither glance. It’s the look of love, and this is Dusty Springfield giving a masterclass:

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Seduction and Bernard-Henri Levy

A fascinating review by Molly Guinness in the Spectator of La Séduction by Elaine Sciolino, a former New York Times journalist, who considers that:
The tools of the seducer — anticipation, promise, allure — are powerful engines in French history and politics, culture and style, food and foreign policy, literature and manners.
Sciolino interviews chefs, diplomats, gardeners and even engineers. And then. . . sex:
The singer and actress Arielle Dombasle comes out with unsettling, darkling knowledge: seduction is war, nudity is a violent thing, do not be naked in front of your husband or he will not buy you lunch.
I’m sure that is good advice. Ms Dombasle, who is a singer, dancer and actor, probably knows a thing or three about seduction. Guinness continues:
Sciolino has an engaging tone, and is happy to shrug in incomprehension rather than breathlessly accept whatever the husky voices are telling her — Dombasle, she says, was just too sexy for her.
I wonder if Ms Dombasle’s advice “do not be naked in front of your husband or he will not buy you lunch” tells us something about the home life of Bernard-Henri Lévy – the man routinely described by Anglophone journalists as “France’s leading philosopher” and by Esquire as 2007’s Best-Dressed Pseudo-Intellectual – for Lévy is Ms Dombasle’s husband.

Even Sciolino describes Lévy as a philosopher. But he isn’t. He has a degree in philosophy. Not the same thing at all. In the 70s he taught an undergraduate course in epistemology at the University of Strasbourg, and also taught at the ENS. He has published no papers in academic journals that I can find (corrections welcome). So he is not a philosopher. But why do the Guardian, Observer et al call him a philosopher?

I guess because it makes him sound like a deep thinker. Lévy is a campaigning journalist and author. Nothing wrong with that. He has bravely gone to places I wouldn’t – Pakistan, for example. He has argued well for some uncomfortable positions – broadly pro-Israel and anti-Serbia, gung-ho for bombing Libya – and one has to support anyone prominent adopting an uncomfortable position. He is not reliably left-wing and is not a knee-jerk contrarian like Christopher Hitchens. So good for him.

And he is good talent on TV chat shows. In France, public intellectuals do appear on chat shows. As Laurence Sterne put it in the opening sentence of his 1768 novel A Sentimental Journey:
They order, said I, this matter better in France.
But OMG when Lévy is wrong he is spectacularly, Frenchly, wrong. He defended Dominique Strauss-Kahn against the recent rape charge on the grounds that his friend of 20 years:
bears no resemblance to this monster, this caveman, this insatiable and malevolent beast now being described nearly everywhere. Charming, seductive, yes, certainly; a friend to women and, first of all, to his own woman, naturally, but this brutal and violent individual, this wild animal, this primate, obviously no, it’s absurd.
In his book On War in Philosophy he attacked Immanuel Kant, an actual philosopher, as “raving mad” and a “fake”:
To support his claims, he cites a certain Jean-Baptiste Botul, whom he describes as a post-War authority on Kant.
But the chorus of approval turned to laughter after a journalist from Le Nouvel Observateur pointed out that Mr Botul does not exist: he is a fictional character created by a contemporary satirical journalist, Frédéric Pagès.
And his book American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, based on a series of articles in the Atlantic, is merde and was demolished by Garrison Keillor in the New York Times. I read those articles each issue as they were published and thought: if we had been handed copy like this at the Listener or Metro, and even Quote Unquote, we would have handed it back. It was deeply shallow.

The great thing about being a French intellectual and “philosopher” is that you can talk bollocks and be admired for it. But somehow I feel that it is a shame that he never sees his wife naked: 

Peggy Lee, Frank Zappa and Joni Mitchell
Yes, an unusual combination. Sadly, it never happened but jazz is like New Zealand – there are only ever two degrees of separation between people, and often only one. 

Here is the great Peggy Lee – was there ever a better white jazz singer? – with her version of “Fever”, first recorded by Little Willie John who killed a man in 1964 and died in jail in 1968.

I love this version because it’s her, but also because the bass player is Max Bennett who played on every track on Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats except “Peaches en Regalia”. I made a ringtone from that album’s “Willie the Pimp” so when my mobile rings, it’s Max Bennett calling.

The drummer on half that album was John Guerin who went on to live with Joni Mitchell. Did I mention that jazz is like New Zealand in its degrees of separation? 

Who says Americans don’t do irony?

The Boston Herald reports on Occupy Boston by describing the clothes – and hats, especially the hats – worn by the Occupiers, and displays them in a photo gallery. It’s almost like a fashion parade. For example:
Ashley Clements, 27, of Jamaica Plain, wears a knit cap she got on a meditation retreat, and a necklace with a ginko leaf from an antique store at Occupy Boston’s tent city, Sunday.

Reckon there’s a subtext?

(The photo by Angela Rowlings is copyright, so you didn’t see it here.)

Monitor: Tim Blair

Ozzy Osbourne on drugs and adultery

Mr Osbourne writes the diary in this week’s Spectator and observes:
I gave up heroin during the last recession: it made me throw up so much. I thought it was a terrible waste of beer.
He explains why his marriage has lasted so long:
All I can say is that I’m still very much in love with Sharon. It’s no more complicated than that – I just am. Having said that, when you’ve been on a 40-year-long bender, your memory tends to suffer, so cheating isn’t a practical option. It’s all very well when a natural-born con man decides to play a few away-games. If I tried it, I’d forever be in the wrong house at the wrong time, calling some poor woman by the wrong name.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The higher idiocy

I’ve often thought that there are some forms of stupidity that are available only to the very intelligent. Sometimes you read or hear a really brainy person saying something colossally dumb that wouldn’t occur to a lesser mortal. There is no word for this concept in English but possibly the Germans have a very long one.

Martin Amis – you guessed! – says in this transcript of his session at last week’s Hay Festival in Mexico: 
I always used to think that there’s only one flaw with Pride and Prejudice, and that is the absence of a 30-page sex scene between Elizabeth and Darcy.
As Bertrand Russell said, “This is one of those views which are so absolutely absurd that only very learned men could possibly adopt them.”

Friday, October 14, 2011

Waikato Times letter of the week

From the 13 October edition:
Not milking it
Graeme Bluett’s letter (October 8), “Not Adding Up”, regarding the prices of milk and colby cheese, got me thinking about comparisons.
A flat white coffee I recently purchased used 350 ml of milk. Price of coffee – $4.30. Cost of milk content – 67c. Balance of cost of coffee – $3.63.
Quite obviously, the farmers growing the coffee beans overseas are ripping the job off as well, or are there other people in the gap between the producer-processor and the consumer?
The average consumption of milk in New Zealand is 90 litres per person per year, or $180 per person – the equivalent of 42 coffees, less than one a week.
Are priorities a factor?
I am not a dairy farmer, but let’s get off the backs of a sector in our nation which earns a very large portion of our export income, because all the overseas debt we have cannot be repaid by the internal income “merry-go­-round” called GDP!
Te Kauwhata
This wins not just for the heroic amount of milk but also for the matching amount of non sequiturs. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Better book titles

Speaking of better book titles, as we were, Mark Juddery writes in the Australian edition of the Spectator that in May he went to a preview of the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark with his friend E. Nina Rothe:
Writing about this production for the Huffington Post, she was kind enough to plug my book Overrated: The Most Overhyped Things in History, by stating that she saw this production with ‘Overrated author Mark Juddery’. I should remember to call my next book Brilliant, or at least Totally Cool.
My next book will be titled Awesome.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Blog comment of the day

Home Paddock replies on her own blog:
you saw my stag and raised an elephant – you win.
Go on – you want to read the rest.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What I’m reading

Craig Sisterson offers a tiki tour of NZ crime writers, from Northland to Otago.

A very funny exchange at the Bloggess, who takes an austere view of PR people pitching rubbish to her.

Beetles, beer and sex: just say no.

Matt Nolan offers a Greek fact of the day:
If Greece had a dollar for each time they were blamed for the global financial crisis, they’d be able to pay their bills.
He comments:
Although, if they could pay their bills there wouldn’t be a crisis. Then they wouldn’t be blamed for it. Then they wouldn’t be able to pay their bills.
A list of 265 NZ books – current, backlist and out-of-print – which have been digitised in Round One of the Great NZ E-Books project, jointly funded by Copyright Licensing Limited (CLL) and Creative New Zealand. And here is a PDF of the 160 extra titles which were digitised in Round Two. So that’s 425 e-books to kickstart a digital publishing industry here, though publishers have been working on digitising new titles for some time. From here on the project will be run by Digital Publishing NZ, which like CLL is jointly owned  by the NZ Publishers Association and the NZ Society of Authors. Disclosure: I was on the committee that selected the titles, but don’t blame me if your book wasn’t chosen and your enemy’s was.

Speaking of such things. Better Book Titles suggests alternatives for many famous books. Three favourites, because you’re worth it: The Satanic Purses for Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, Hate-Fucking and Architecture for Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and this for Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex:

Mother, do you think they'll like this song?

Xan Rice reports for the Atlantic from the rebels’ side in Libya’s Misurata:
Many men have psyched themselves up for war by listening to rock and roll or heavy metal. But how many have sung Pink Floyd’s “Mother” within earshot of the enemy in the dead of night? “When it got really quiet, we’d play guitar and sing ‘Mother, do you think they’ll drop the bomb?’” said Abdulfatah Shaka, 22, his rocket-propelled-grenade launcher at his side. “The snipers would get furious and start shooting everywhere.”
I don’t blame them. I’ve never liked that song, either.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Happy birthday, Kevin Godley and Neil Hannon

Yesterday in New Zealand but today in England where they live, Kevin Godley (born 7 October 1945) is 66 and Neil Hannon (born 7 October 1970) is 41.  

Godley is truly a godly pop god. It was his idea to make 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” sung by a heavenly choir. He is the singer on too many 10cc songs to mention but we all remember Godley and Creme’s “Cry” video. I reckon he is the most soulful white singer ever but it’s hard to prove it via YouTube. “Art School Canteen”, if you can find it, is the real deal. “Wedding Bells” is a wonderful Motown pastiche though that clip has bad sound but features Lol Creme, a stellar singer too, as the best man. This is just stills to illustrate the studio version but has much better sound and you get Godley’s “Ooh yeah” opening line that is pure Smokey Robinson. Honestly, if you trawl through the YouTube clips of Godley & Creme you’ll find singing treasure.

If I lived in London, I would so be here on 13 October.

As for Neil Hannon – he is the Divine Comedy whom I discovered via the Duckworth-Lewis Method And then I discovered his solo/band albums released on the Pirate Bay label. They are all excellent and every time I see a hard copy I buy one: I recommend Slow Boat Records in Wellington.

Smart pop music is a good thing. This song always makes me smile.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Particle physics humour

It is often said that there are only five jokes. Probably true – most jokes are a variation on a theme. I have written, or rather compiled, two joke books. This was in the year that our first child was born and I was the sole income earner, so I wrote five books. Don’t talk to me about inspiration and waiting for the muse.

To compile these I trawled through the internet and other joke books, eliminated (for the adult book) most of the sexist and all of the racist ones, basically chose what amused me or I thought might amuse others, and rewrote them all to make them New Zealandy.

In each book I inserted one joke I had made up but at this distance – nearly 10 years – I am not certain which are mine. I’m pretty sure about the one in the Penguin for adults but have no clue about the Puffin for children. (You have no idea how hard it was promoting these: one radio interviewer in the deep south said that actually he had a bit of a reputation as a raconteur and joke-teller. My Popperian prediction: anyone who prides himself on his joke-telling has no sense of humour. And so it proved. He asked me about my theory of humour. And he wasn’t even German. But I digress.) 

The other day I saw a joke that was new and could never have been thought up before Cern announced  its amazing possible result. There are many jokes about the neutrino result and its implications for Einstein’s theory of relativity but this one is the most sophisticated, and is possibly the most sophisticated joke ever: 
The barman says, “We don’t serve neutrinos in here.” A neutrino walks into a bar.
Best bit from that Guardian report:
Subir Sarkar, head of particle theory at Oxford University, said: “If this is proved to be true it would be a massive, massive event. It is something nobody was expecting.
“The constancy of the speed of light essentially underpins our understanding of space and time and causality, which is the fact that cause comes before effect.”
The key point underlying causality is that the laws of physics as we know them dictate that information cannot be communicated faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, added Sarkar.
“Cause cannot come after effect and that is absolutely fundamental to our construction of the physical universe. If we do not have causality, we are buggered.”
I bet it’s a measurement or interpretation error, but the devout Popperian part of me hopes it’s true and that all physics has just been up-ended. Capitalism is not the only area that works by creative destruction.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Fisking North & South part V

Actually it’s Part VI because Part I was on 14 July, Part II was on 20 July, Part III was on 11 August and Part IV was on 16 August, but in between there was this one on 22 July. But who’s counting?

For new readers, there was a story in the August issue of North & South, a respectable national monthly magazine, which asserted that:
Most New Zealand fiction sells a mere 300 copies
This is untrue. Untrue on stilts. The assertion particularly annoyed me because it was unsourced and because people trust North & South, hence my blogging about it at some length since.

Breaking news: here are some more data points, courtesy of Kelly Ana Morey who reports that her first novel Bloom has sold 53 copies in the last six months, which she rightly says is “ not too shabby for an eight-year-old NZ novel”. (For what it’s worth, Bloom is one of my favourite NZ novels. Disclosure: I edited it. Second disclosure: editing a book does not mean that one likes it. I liked it as a reader.) 

Kelly is right that 53 copies in six months, eight years after publication, is not too shabby. She tells me that the initial 3000-copy print run sold out which would have been years ago so these recent sales are POD (print on demand), which the clever people at Penguin can do. We can all extrapolate from these figures to what the total sales might be so far. 

She says that her second novel Grace is Gone also sold out its 3000-copy print run. (Third disclosure: I edited this, and it is also one of my favourite NZ novels.)

Her third novel, On an Island, which I read in manuscript for the publisher and liked a lot but didn’t edit, sold 2000 copies. She describes this as “tanked”. I think the publisher would too.

Stop me if I am repeating myself, but this “most New Zealand fiction sells a mere 300 copies” is bullshit.

A mostly unrelated footnote:
I have been building a website for the Frank Sargeson Trust, for which I used to be a trustee, so I have been reading a lot of material by and about FS. I was astonished to learn that his book A Man and His Wife, published in 1940, was a best-seller and reprinted twice in the next four years. Total sales figures are unknown – even Michael King couldn’t find them for his biography of Sargeson – but the third print run was for 3000 copies.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cognitive dissonance in the Sunday Star-Times

The lead story in the business section of the SST on 2 October was headlined “Wattie’s sees red over imports”. The import of the article was that low-cost Italian imported tomatoes are bad:
An investigation is under way into allegations by Heinz Wattie’s that Italian preserved tomatoes have been dumped on the market here, causing “material injury” to the New Zealand food industry. [ . . . ]
The company, which sells tomatoes under the Oak and Wattie’s brands, says the alleged dumping has had a big impact on its business, although local growers are yet to feel the effects.
Then, bafflingly:
New Zealand growers and packers are not the only businesses affected.
Confused? Try this: the story was illustrated by this photo of a stack of 30 cans of Wattie’s tinned tomatoes. 

It may be hard to see here from this home-made scan (click on the image to see it bigger), but the word below “Pick of the Crop” and above “tomatoes” on every can is . . . “Italian”.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A rural idyll

To the children’s primary school for Agricultural Day. I counted a dozen or so young goats, 15 calves (mostly Friesians but there was the odd Jersey and even a Simmenthal-Charolais cross, very exotic) and about 20 lambs. 

It was quite the rural idyll. In the next paddock two horses were running up and down just because they could, the birds in the trees were singing, not too many children were sobbing, Seven had excelled at sand-tray-making, Nine’s friend Grace won the supreme award for her handsome calf Frank, and all was well with the world.

I gazed again at the lambs and was overcome with a very strong feeling of . . . hunger. In the spring this man’s fancy lightly turns to mint sauce.