Thursday, March 27, 2014

Facebook comment of the month

Katherine Rosen, a student at Harvard, posts on Facebook:
Two assignments from a magazine journalism class last year (which counted for 3/4 of the final grade): a Q&A and a personal essay. I chose two exceptional subjects to interview, both authors in England. After multiple revisions and endless emails in to the wee hours of the night, our professor told us to cut our Q&A’s by half. The Q&A was a visual feast prior to being chopped, or so I thought. I read Strunk and White as an undergrad, and know to drop all adjectives and adverbs. Yet I still struggle with this. Any thoughts?
Ever generous, Francis Wheen replies:
Elmore Leonard’s fourth rule of good writing: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…he admonished gravely.” Note, however, that he doesn’t say “Never use an adverb”. When I was running the New Statesman weekend competition, more than 30 years ago, Graham Greene wrote in to complain that one of our prize-winning entries in a competition for Greene parodies included an adverb. He challenged us to find an adverb in any of his books: it was a point of honour with him never to use them.* But why? It’s like a cook boasting that she/he never uses thyme. Presumably (sic) Greene disapproved of John Keats, who had his knight-at-arms “alone and palely loitering”; and, even more, of James Joyce, who included in Ulysses one of the loveliest adverbs ever minted: “The ghost walks, professor MacHugh murmured softly, biscuitfully to the dusty windowpane.” And here is the last paragraph of Joyce’s The Dead: “Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Would it be better without those adverbial grace notes? I’d say not.
[*Ha! “Never” is itself an adverb – though, like “seldom”, it disguises itself by not ending in “-ly”. This was a good enough disguise to fool Graham Greene. Apparently.]

Take that, Twitter!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Happy birthday, Aretha Franklin

Born in 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee, the Queen of Soul is 72 today.

Here she is live on Soul Train in 1973, performing “Rock Steady” from 1972’s Young, Gifted and Black, her fifth gold album. I’m not sure how live this is, actually – the vocals look and sound it, but we can’t see the band who sure sound like Cornell Dupree (guitar), Chuck Rainey (bass) and Bernard Purdie (drums) and the Memphis Horns (horns, obv.), not to mention Donny Hathaway (organ) and Dr John (percussion)  who played on the album track. Whatever, it is imperishably glorious. Every home should have a copy of this album and 1970’s Spirit in the Dark. The later albums are, to say the least, patchy but anything on Atlantic is worth buying and the Arista albums have their moments, especially the first two. You don't need me to tell you how good the gospel albums are. After that, you're on your own. But always, that voice: 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Alain de Botton, cod philosopher

I wish people wouldn’t call Alain de Botton a philosopher. I wish he wouldn’t call himself one. He isn’t. He has never had an academic post, has never published an article on a philosophical topic in a scholarly journal. He is a populariser – which is a very good thing to be, so I can’t understand why he makes a larger claim for himself and why the media unthinkingly repeat it. Philosophy is very hard work, so I’m all for amateurs taking an interest and popularising but really this is, in legal terms, “passing off”.

His newish website,  The Philosopher’s Mail, is intended to be a thinking person’s equivalent of the Daily Mail Online, he says here in a Spectator article whose intro says, “Media moguls aren’t philosophers. So it’s time for philosophers to become media moguls.” So, again the claim that de Botton is a philosopher. Quote unquote:
The website looks similar to the Daily Mail one, many of the stories are similar but the content is radically different. The goal of the Philosophers’ Mail is to prove a genuinely popular and populist news outlet which at the same time is alive to traditional philosophical virtues. For too long, philosophers (like serious news-people) have been happy merely to be wise and right. This has offered them huge professional satisfaction but it has not influenced the course of society. The average work of philosophy currently reaches 300 people. Hence the challenge that explains the birth of the Philosophers’ Mail, which is rooted in the popular interests, sensibilities and inclinations of the day — but tries to read and caption the news with an eye to traditional central philosophical concerns; for compassion, truth, justice, complexity, calm, empathy and wisdom.

On his personal website he says of Philosopher’s Mail:
Updated daily, with articles written by a team of philosophers, the site gives current celebrity news and global affairs stories a philosophical analysis, so they become opportunities to think about and understand ourselves in a new way.

A team of philosophers! Awesome. But there are no philosophers among the contributors whose bios I checked – they are journalists, life coaches, psychologists (i.e. people with a BA in psychology) and so on. Not your actual members of philosophy departments, but the usual run of arts graduates who infest the media.

And boy, it shows. The site is full of stuff like The Philosopher’s Guide to Calm, which is not philosophy but soothing psychobabble. It is also a crock. For example, it says:
The French 18th-century philosopher Chamfort wisely observed: ‘A person should swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more revolting in the day ahead.’  

First, Sabastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort (1741-1794) was not a philosopher. He was a handsome, entertaining “writer and conversationalist”. Second, where and when did he say this? There is no source given at Philosopher’s Mail, and the quote does not appear at  this website which has four pages of quotes from Chamfort, all sourced. So I suspect it is a sham Chamfort.

The article “Environmentalist in secret sex tryst with Jeremy Clarkson” is illustrated by photos of Clarkson and, bafflingly, Christine Lagarde, with no quote from either, and nothing to do with Clarkson’s private life, or Ms Lagarde’s, with or without environmentalists; “Cameron Diaz investigates the origins of happiness” is illustrated by a photo of Ms Diaz engaged in topless chest-splashing and several other shots of her in a bikini, with no quote from Ms Diaz herself. And then this, about Kristen Stewart’s socks. Oh, and this article – I am not saying it is the worst – is about Shane Warne as philosopher. None of the articles has a byline – I am not surprised – and none involves an interview. So this is not journalism and it certainly isn’t philosophy. So what is it?

Perhaps it is simply a promotional device. Currently the front page has a banner ad for de Botton’s new book, The News: a user’s manual. Local reviewer/blogger Nicholas Reid  has a good go at it on Reid’s Reader. Quote unquote:
…one expects an analysis of the news media, an attempt to fathom how they work, what their economic bases are, what they do to attract their mass audience and how one can profitably de-construct them. In other words, a methodical critique. But alas, this is not what de Botton offers. Instead this volume is a collection of “life lessons” in which de Botton wants us to reflect on how the news can be used for self improvement and solace, regardless of its defects as commodity or intellectual matter. It does sound like a weekend “life skills” seminar, doesn’t it?

John Crace’s Digested Read in the Guardian offers a 600-word condensed version of the book (and even at the Guardian de Botton is billed as “writer and philosopher”). Quote unquote:
What are we to make of economics? Not much. So let's move on to celebrity. It’s become fashionable among my dinner companions to dismiss celebrity culture, but in so doing they let the illiterate determine the celebrity agenda. The broadsheet newspapers should be doing more to promote celebrities from whom we can learn and improve ourselves. Men such as St Gengulphus of Burgundy, the patron saint of difficult marriages.

As always the comments on Crace’s piece are excellent. Some take it seriously. Some say that de Botton’s writing is sixth-form; some disagree. So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say it’s seventh-form. And bloody good marketing.

The Spectator Blog had, spookily, run an attack on de Botton’s latest book Art as Therapy a few days ago (thanks to eagle-eyed Paul Litterick for the link) in which art critic Fisun Güner makes some of the same points but much more elegantly. Quote unquote:
He’s a businessman and a writer whose pop-psych, mind-body-spirit essays make Paulo Coelho look like Dostoevsky. He’s also a writer who thinks Plato was the original self-help guru, for it was the Greek philosopher’s big idea, according to a bizarre Alain tweet – which he subsequently deleted because it was too dumb even for his own timeline – that the wise should be rewarded with fame and elevated status because even the clever need to feel wanted. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sentence of the day

Joshua Drummond on his portrait (above) of Michael Laws, former mayor of Whanganui, titled Horrible Painting of Michael Laws, which he – Josh, not Michael – has listed on TradeMe where bidding has reached $455:
His face has basically paid for the cake for my upcoming wedding, so I am indebted to him in a way.

The comments at TradeMe and Josh’s replies are very amusing.

Bidding has reached $535. The auction closes at 9.21pm on Saturday 22 March.

Bidding has reached $565. How high will it go? Tension mounts. The whole world is watching.

Monday, March 17, 2014

What I’m reading #115

Tyler Cowen on a Dutch idea to do an iTunes for journalism. Good luck with that. Quote unquote from the comments:
The whole iTunes analogy sounds great, but it doesn’t really hold up. We replay music. We don’t reread most articles.

Composer Alma Kelliher has created a soundscape for riverrun, a stage adaptation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Quote unquote:
If you get too bogged down in the academic side of it, you forget that half the time Joyce was having a laugh or being filthy.

Owen Marshall on his poetry. Quote unquote:
In the end you write as you can rather than as you wish. 

Obituary of the month: the Daily Telegraph on Sir Thomas Chitty, who published novels as Thomas Hinde. His first literary success was in a New Statesman competition to write the first 150 words of an imaginary Graham Greene novel. Chitty won, ahead of Greene who came 2nd, 3rd and 4th. He sounds fun. Quote unquote on his marriage to Antonia White’s daughter Susan Hopkinson:
He had proposed on the Big Dipper at Battersea Park funfair – where he was working as brakeman on one of the cars and Susan was tending the park’s llamas.

Neil Hannon of the poptastic Divine Comedy has moved on from his successful musical based on Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (fun fact: Ransome married Trotsky’s secretary and played chess with Lenin) to composing a piece for the Royal Festival Hall’s restored organ. His inspiration was his father, an Anglican cleric in Ireland who now has Alzheimer’s. The piece has turned into an oratorio called To Our Fathers in Distress and will premiere on 22 March. Quote unquote:
Going to church, for me, was a bittersweet experience. I was suspicious from an early age about the necessity of religion, and thoroughly bored by the "having to go" aspect. Yet there is so much about going to church that I remember fondly. My father's sermons were full of warmth and common sense, and never over-long; his stage technique was flawless, and a valuable early lesson in how to put an audience at their ease. And the music! Well, anyone who knows my stuff and has a passing knowledge of Anglican hymns and anthems can see the overlap.

Oilman Tim Newman, who has lived in Russia, has a view on how to sort out the Russians over Ukraine. Quote unquote:
The EU is going about this in the entirely wrong way.  Rather than announce publicly and in advance that certain people from Russia are not welcome in the EU, they should just do what the Russians do and demand ridiculous piles of obscure documents, translated, notarised, apostled, and attested in original plus three certified copies to be submitted along with a visa application and a hefty fee before dismissing half of it as unnecessary, demanding a whole pile more, and then refusing the visa without explanation and directing all inquiries to a visa processing centre with an automated telephone system.Not only would this be infinitely more frustrating for the people concerned (who would never be sure if they were on the blacklist or just being subjected to the normal process), but the EU would not have to go to any additional expense or effort to implement such a system: they could just hand it all over to the French, who are masters at this sort of thing, and tell them to carry on as normal.

So here is Pierre Boulez, the greatest living French composer (he turns 89 later this month), talking about contemporary music.  The interviewer asks, “How would you respond to those who say that contemporary music is a minority taste, reserved for an elite?” Quote unquote from Boulez’s reply:
Well, of course there is an elite. But the elite should be as large as possible.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Lorde Almighty

If you missed Jono and Ben at Ten last night, you missed this, their musical Lorde Almighty starring Rose Matafeo as Lorde. Brilliant, and very sound on copyright.  Joel Little calls it “scarily accurate”, and he should know:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Waikato Times letter of the week #47

From the 7 March edition of the Waikato Times, a complaint that the movie Noah, starring Russell Crowe, is not historically accurate:
Not the real thing
This month, Hollywood will release a film about Noah from the Bible. Enthusiastic Bible-believers should be warned, however, that this film is more fictional story than an accurate telling of the true history of Noah and the ark. The website: has listed several troubling corruptions of the original biblical account.
Actor Russell Crowe portrays Noah as an almost maniacal creature-worshipping ruthless man instead of the blameless, upright patriarch of the Bible. The number and identity of the people that boarded the ark is important, and the movie gets this wrong. The “Noah” film makes a mockery of the actual animals in the ark, cramming all manner of species on board, unlike the actual fewer “kinds” of animals. Big-budget cinematography may make for an eye-dazzling theatre experience, but don’t expect the true history to be respected.

The web article the writer refers to is here and ends its list of alleged inaccuracies with this:
12. After the Flood Noah becomes so distant from his family that he lives in a cave, getting drunk by the beach.

Poor Russell Crowe, typecast again.

Monday, March 10, 2014

How to spot a dodgy publisher

This cautionary tale is a long story, but may be useful for writers.

A friend of a friend in Auckland wrote a chick-lit novel, went on the internet and searched for publishers who would accept unsolicited manuscripts. Guess what? There are many such publishers out there, and they all say they are keen to hear from unknown writers. One in Hongkong seemed good so she sent them the manuscript. They said they liked it and early last year offered her a contract. She was thrilled, and told our mutual friend. He knew that I had spent 20 years advising writers on contracts for the NZ Society of Authors so knew a bit about dodgy publishing practices and had seen many rip-off contracts, so he suggested that she ask me to have a look at hers.

It took me less than a minute to see that the publisher was crooked but four hours to do internet research and properly annotate the PDF of the contract so she could see exactly what was wrong.

This is an edited version of what I emailed her:
The skinny: this outfit is really crooked.They say they attend the US Book Expo and Frankfurt Book Fair – but they are not on the list of exhibitors at BookExpo America, and they were not at Frankfurt this year.They do not have a street address on their letterhead or website – any firm that operates only by email is 99% likely to be dodgy.I looked at some of their books and they seem unedited: they are listed at Smashwords so have a look at this one, All the Cardinal’s Men. They didn’t even bother to put the apostrophe in the title on the cover. Another book uses straight rather than curly quote marks all through; this one has a mix of both. They all look wretched. I’d say this text is what the writer delivered – unedited and unproofed. Unprofessional.As for [UK agent found on the internet], their books are better designed and edited and the firm looks kosher enough – at least it has a physical address – but I do advise great caution when dealing with a publisher and editor whom you won’t and can’t meet. In that situation you are powerless when something goes wrong.

When I was doing this stuff for NZSA, there were two publishers in Wellington like this who caused our members a lot of grief – they both had a PO Box and email but no physical address. The first sign of a crook.

The publisher went on:
SUBMISSION: The Author is well-educated, but writing inexperienced. The work, in first person is extremely well handled. The structure is unusual, the storyline coherent – she appears to almost live the saga. First person is frowned upon in the marketplace but is the epitome of storytelling. It is also the most difficult to achieve. The work requires restructuring in a number of minor, and one major area. There are small sections of reworking, and a few paras redundant to the storyline, however the submission is professional and the story good, particularly given the lack of chapter structure. The MS has been read by a senior editor and a 18yo intern with the expected different reactions, however both liked the story and found it well-considered. The storyline is age appropriate and emotive issues are well handled.

So, some flattery but a suggestion it needs more work. And the publisher can help with that, for a fee:
ASSESSMENT SUMMARY: The full assessment runs to three pages in file.

The assessment is not provided to the writer.
The MS is closely plotted however the first person prose has both negatives and positives. I ultimately became fond of the style but marketing potential may suffer - a basic four stars. Tightening in places is required, and I liked most of the impact of the opening pages. As the assessors stated, there is a requirement for a careful copy-edit overall and a line-edit in some minor areas where the writing becomes lazy. Overall it is not publication ready but can be with some effort. I recommend we offer publication on the basis that we put it to controlled external edit and minor restructuring as necessary at the authors cost, in order to bring it to publication-ready status.

So, more expense for the writer.
To bring the Manuscript to a publication-ready level acceptable to the Publisher, the cost will require the Author to contribute a sum of $US900 on a Pay-as-we-Produce basis as under.
Under our Pay-as-we-Produce policy, the sum would be payable on the following timetable:
 • On acceptance $US150
 • January 15, 2013 $US250
 • February 15, 2013 $US250
 • March 15, 2013 $US250

Yes, that’s right, the author pays the publisher. Now this is fine when dealing with a reputable publisher – many name authors have funded the publishing of their own books. But the authors I know who have done it have dealt face to face with the publisher, knew their track record and knew where they lived. Under this deal the author pays for the editing but wait, there’s more:
The publication of a title requires a range of services to be provided by the Publisher:
• Editing and revisions to the manuscript in line with the edit assessment with copy and line-editing to be provided by the Publisher as necessary. MS work to be made available to the Author from time to time and the Authors views are to be taken into account at all times during the preparation process.

Meaningless. There is more about design, ebooks and stuff like that. Nothing remotely resembling what a contract from Random House or HarperCollins would include. And then:
The Author is expected to purchase at cost a quantity of books for local promotion as later described.

So the author must buy their own books. As for ebooks, the publisher promises to:
 • Promote both editions through industry standard publications, book fairs and promotions  including the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs, and Book Expo in US.
 • Promote to other areas such as the US and Euro Library markets.
 • Promote and distribute commercial runs to bookstores and other outlets in sufficient quantity to maintain adequate distribution at the discretion of the Publisher.

Lies. This also sounds awesome but is lies:
 • Establish worldwide marketing outlets for both Print and eBooks including Amazon US,
 UK, Europe, India, Japan & Italy; Barnes & Noble; iBookstores; Borders, WE Smith,
 ABE; Target; Wal-Mart, Google Books, Dymocks and other Hong Kong, Australian, USA,
 Canada and United Kingdom physical and internet distributors and catalogues. More
 than 25,000 US and UK retail outlets buy stock through catalogues. The title will be introduced to expanding English-language markets in China and other parts of Asia and
 South America.
 • Promote both editions through industry standard publications, book fairs and promotions  including the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs, and Book Expo in US.
 • Promote to other areas such as the US and Euro Library markets.
 • Promote and distribute commercial runs to bookstores and other outlets in sufficient
 quantity to maintain adequate distribution at the discretion of the Publisher.

This publisher doesn’t go to Frankfurt, doesn’t go to London and doesn’t go to Book Expo. Last month I attended the Taipei International Book Exhibition, the Asian equivalent of the Frankfurt Book Fair. This publisher was not an exhibitor there either. Taipei is about an hour away from Hongkong.

Then follow clause after clause of nonsense about rights and royalties – there won’t be any royalties. Because the publisher will take the writer’s money and not even try to sell the book. Oh, and does this inspire confidence?:
We invoice and accept payments only through Paypal, requiring you to open a free PayPal account to facilitate both payments and future receipts. We normally try to minimise exchange costs by billing in local currency equivalents. Royalties and other income when disbursed will be paid into this account. We can assist in opening an account, if needed.

Do Random House, HarperCollins, AUP, VUP etc pay via PayPal? No.

All first-time authors are eager to see their words in print – an eagerness the crooks trade on. As above, I’ve spent 20+ years dealing with distressed authors ripped off by outfits like this. Usually the books get printed at least  - but not edited, not proofread, not designed. The worst example was a nonagenarian I knew from Tauranga, a lovely man who wrote his life story and was devastated by how shoddy the production was from one of the Wellington address-free outfits.

So: beware the internet. If anyone is interested in seeing this annotated contract in full I’ll do an version in Word, taking out anything that may identify the writer. Email me at [first name].[surname] at

Friday, March 7, 2014

What I’m reading #114

If the word “you” can be both singular and plural, why can’t “they”? The Economist’s Johnson on this thorny subject with, as always, literate and often amusing comments. Quote unquote:
There are some instances where it unequivocally correct, grammatically speaking, to use “they” as a singular pronoun. For example, the indefinite pronouns, which are grammatically singular (“somebody is”/”everyone has”/”nobody does” etc.) require the use of “they” in tag questions and the like. For example:
Everybody knows what to do, don’t they?
Nobody wants this, do they?
Whenever I meet anyone who thinks travel is a waste of time, I want to ask them why.
A: Someone from head office wants to speak to you.
B: Tell them they'll have to wait; I'm busy.
No native speaker, unless labouring under a very prescriptive notion of style, would ever say the following:
Everybody knows what to do, doesn’t he?
Nobody wants this, does he or she?
Whenever I meet anyone who thinks travel is a waste of time, I want to ask him or her why.
A: Someone from head office wants to speak to you.
B: Tell him or her he or she will have to wait.

At the Spectator, Nick Cohen, a man of the left, has a go at Noam Chomsky on Ukraine. Quote unquote:
The people of the Ukraine may not have much to be grateful for, but they should be glad that they do not have the support of the relativist left. Its principles are pliable. Its morality is parochial. For believers trapped in its ever-shifting ideology, it is not enough that a stranger is a victim of oppression; they must be the victim of the right sort of oppression.
Are creative writing courses worth it? Hanif Kureishi in the Guardian says no, they are a “waste of time” and novelist Lucy Ellman describes teaching creative writing (which she used to do) as “the biggest con-job in academia”. For the defence: poet Tim Clare in a blog post titled Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Not If Your Teacher’s A Prick. Quote unquote:
Listen. Authors have a massive vested interest in pretending that writing a novel is some nebulous, mystical process only available to the anointed few. That it is mysterious and unteachable.Bollocks. Story is teachable. Style is teachable. Tone is teachable. Theme is teachable.I have been taught these things. I have taught them.If you can’t figure out ways to transmit this knowledge, then before you pronounce creative writing tuition useless and the system from which you draw your salary a pyramid scheme, allow me to introduce you to my friend Mr Occam and his miraculous razor.Could it be that the problem is you?
Everyone knows that the online edition of the Daily Mail is the most-viewed news website in the world. This is probably not true, just like everything else everyone knows, but it is often cited as the way to go for print media. PopBitch has crunched the numbers – doing that old-fashioned thing of looking at the ratecard, counting the ads and working out the income and then the costs – and wonders if it makes money. Quote unquote:
Totting up all of the ad opportunities they have per page, if they were true to their ratecard, they'd be clearing a billion pounds in annual revenue easily.But they aren't. Their announced annual revenue is £41 million - just 4% of what they reckon they could (and should) be earning for the space they offer. So what's going wrong?
Read on for the answer.

Fremony at the library: Kevin Mills at Brave New Malden brings us a 1979 clipping from the Peterborough Standard which Private Eye brought to a wider audience. It is hard to decipher the text even when you click on the pic for a bigger version but I promise it is worth it:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The private life of the long-beaked echidna

From an Economist column on how to set a value on biodiversity in the interests of conservation:
Zaglossus Attenboroughi, a species of long-beaked echidna named after the British naturalist Sir David Attenborough, lives in the Cyclops Mountains in the Indonesian province of Papua. It has many unusual attributes, both social and physical. It is a solitary creature: it meets its own kind only once a year, to mate. The male has a four-headed penis; the offspring (known as a puggle) hatches from an egg and lives in its mother’s pouch until its growing spines make it an uncongenial companion. It is greatly valued by locals—not, unfortunately, for its evolutionary quirks, but as a snack traditionally shared when tribal rivalries have been set aside. From its point of view, peace breaks out inconveniently often among the tribespeople of the Cyclops Mountains, and its grasp on existence is consequently tenuous. On the basis of reported sightings by locals and a few observations of the holes it makes when nosing around for earthworms, it is reckoned still to be around, but nobody is quite sure.
So here is the Meridian Arts Ensemble in Timosoara in 2007 performing a brass quintet arrangement of “Echidna’s Arf”:

For the more conventional rock-band arrangement of the tune, try this. Well, I say conventional…

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Waikato Times letter of the week #46

From the 4 March edition of the Waikato Times:
Second warning shot
With the recent “Supercell” tornadoes damaging various areas in the Canterbury region, but without anyone sustaining serious injury or death, it would appear that a second warning shot has been “fired” across the nation’s bow, in similar style to the first one in reference to the Christchurch earthquakes!
We need to take action, or at least start discussing a strategy that will negate the ultra-liberality, or even repeal most of the gross perversions in recent legislation, laid on us by our Parliament in their eagerness to obtain votes from anyone, at any price!
As it was with the Christchurch quakes, so it will be with the “supercell” tornadoes – we could lose many children, as we let them go “Over the Rainbow” in our blindness to the inherent danger in this nation!
Yes, the “Abomination of Desolation” is imminent!
So here is Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole performing “Over the Rainbow” to his own ukulele accompaniment:

Monday, March 3, 2014

Happy birthday: Bizet’s Carmen

Home Paddock reminds us that this is the 139th anniversary of the first performance of Bizet’s opera Carmen. Bless you, YouTube: there is a complete performance here of Carlos Kleiber conducting it in the Vienna 1978 production by Zeffirelli, with Elena Obraztsova as Carmen, Placido Domingo as Don Jose, and Isobel Buchanan as Micaela; James Levine conducting it at the Met here with Waltrud Meier as Carmen, Domingo again as Don Jose, and Angela Gheorghiu as Micaela (fantastically irritating introduction but worth ploughing through it); the 2010 Vienna production with Andris Nelsons conducting here with Nadia Krasteva as Carmen, Massimo Giordano as Don Jose and – starry! – Anna Netrebko as Micaela; and more. 

We are not supposed to do this but it is possible to save YouTube clips to your hard drive for later viewing. Just saying.

So here is Elina Garanca singing the Habanera (probably at the Met in 2010). All together now: “Love is a wild bird that no one can tame…”:

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Janet Tyler on Sheridan Keith and Zoology

The 71st in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is by Janet Tyler and is from the September 1995 issue. It is an interview with Sheridan Keith on the occasion of the publication of her third book and first novel, Zoology, which went on to win the 1996 Montana Book Award for Fiction. 

The intro read:
Janet Tyler talks to Sheridan Keith about her first novel Zoology, sexual choices and our animal natures.
Sheridan Keith wanted to call her first novel The Palest Blue You Could Ever Imagine but the publishers, Penguin, wanted to stick with Zoology – a zappy title which should market well. “Stick with” because it’s the name of her short story in Animal Passions from which the novel developed.
The subsidiary characters in that short story began playing on Keith’s mind – what sort of lives, existences had they had? “They wanted to get into the action, so I started to write about them and their lives.”
While Stephen, star of the short story, takes centre-stage again in the novel, the secondary characters, the women in his life who revolve around him in his frustrated, sexually-jaded mind, claim a life of their own. His first wife left him without explanation; his second he discarded mercilessly; and Alexa, the young flamboyantly dressed student (co-star of the short story), he plays with in a half-hearted attempt at reclaiming something of his own uncertain flesh.
Keith could easily have drawn Stephen as a pathetic parody of a fumbling older man lost in his middle-age spread. However it is a sympathetic portrait of Stephen that she has written. “I’m fond of Stephen,” Keith says, speaking in her slow, decisive way, carefully weighing every word
before releasing it. “I can understand how feels. And I can also understand how Alexa feels – she’s really quite baffled by the fact that he’s not really interested in her – after all, she’s young, she’s beautiful, what man wouldn’t be interested in her? Of course, the fact that he’s cool makes her all the keener, and I think young women are attracted to older men, especially powerful older men. They have a sort of aura about them, I think, that is very             attractive to young women. And young men are        terribly uncouth. In general I think young men are really loathsome.”
Keith pauses with a smile. “I shouldn’t say that because I’ve got two beautiful young sons.”
That Stephen at times appears somewhat bewildered with the turn of events involving the women in his life is not surprising given the author’s philosophy about such things. Keith believes that much of our sexual life happens in a way we don’t understand. As much as we pretend we know what’s going on, and pretend we’re making decisions and taking choices – that’s just it, we’re pretending, we really don’t have a clue – we’re ruled by a process taking place at our subconscious or irrational level, a process over which Keith suggests we have little control. Free will? A paradox we face. “We have to believe in free will. We’ve got no choice” is an Isaac Bashevis Singer quote which Keith feels sums up the situation.
Says Keith, leaning back in her chair towards the garden outside her sunroom window, exuding presence and a careful kind of wisdom, “We seem to be programmed to believe in free will, and yet if that’s a programme, how can it be free? I wonder just how many of our decisions are really free in the sense that we choose to make them, or do we just rationalise what we want to after the event?”
Given this interest in science, and evolution and the way humans fit into that structure, Zoology is an apt title for Keith’s first novel. She explains that the different agendas of the men and women characters in Zoology are only natural – in that “men and women are geared for different sorts of biological situations”. So despite our proclaimed superiority over all other species, to Keith we are very much part of the basic animal kingdom During the writing of Zoology she went to the Auckland Zoo several times, not something she would normally do. The zoo is where Stephen first met Alexa.
“Zoos are fascinating moral dilemmas. This idea of entrapping animals for our visual pleasure is one of course that is under a lot of scrutiny at the moment. But at the same time they do give you something quite special. They provide some sort of commentary on our own existence. And animals do relate to us, there’s no doubt about it. They look at us and we suddenly see ourselves as animals when we go to the zoo.”
Zoology took about three years to write – beginning from the conception of the short story. Three years is an arbitrary figure, though. Keith says that in some ways, writing the novel took her whole life – all her experiences, all her thoughts, and all her memories. “This is the first novel I’ve written so I didn’t actually know if I could write it or not. I wrote it not knowing what was going to happen, what the story was about, how it was going to develop. I just allowed myself to see, just to write what came, and to see where it went. Initially it went all over the place and I just let it happen. Then surprisingly I discovered that all these pieces did come together in a magical way and certain small miracles happened – you’re living your life at the same time and things happen to you in your life and suddenly you understand how you can fit them in and how that can make a whole out of the pieces you had.”
She describes the writing of a novel as like setting up a big magnet, drawing bits to it. “Then
when you get to the end of the writing, all the bits are there. Some bits come earlier than others, and they don’t necessarily follow a time sequence, so there are some bits missing, but you’ve just got to have faith they’ll turn up.”
Keith says she’s a slow writer, writing a single sentence two to three times, and then reading it aloud just to make sure she’s happy with it. Zoology in some places took five drafts to write. Keith worked to a stringent routine to write it – getting up at 7am every morning, throwing a jersey over her night-clothes, and heading straight for her laptop. She would write for a four-hour intensely concentrated burst, stop for breakfast, and then do “other things” for the rest of the day.
In the middle of writing Zoology, Keith went to England for six weeks on a hunt for antiques (she has recently opened up an antique shop at the front of her house on Auckland’s North Shore). Although she did no actual writing there, the form the novel was to take became clear – to use the Greek tragic form, start at the end and recapitulate.
Knowing that Stephen was going to die, she realised that was the only way she would be able to write the novel – she had to kill him off in the beginning before anyone became attached to him. “I couldn’t bear writing and having him die in the last chapter.” And in England she wrote the opening sequence over and over again in her mind.
Zoology is Keith’s third book. First books, no matter what they are, are always a “terribly powerful thing”, she says. Her first, Shallow Are The Smiles At The Supermarket, a collection of short stories, was short-listed for best first book in the Commonwealth Writers Prize. As important as that book is to her, she recognises that her novel will get “some sort of position that is different from those short-story collections”.
Her excitement with the novel, hiding beneath her calm and dignified exterior, comes more from having created the object itself, her own book, than from her words inside. “I do love books as objects quite beyond and apart from anything they say inside. The whole concept of a book, I think, is probably the most wonderful product that humanity has devised.”
She remembers as a child coming up against books as objects on the floor – big books with heavy covers and no pictures on the front so you didn’t know which way to open them. “There was this quite extraordinary learning process of how to open the book, and I can remember being shouted at that if I picked it up by the cover I would break the binding.”
There is no question on which way to open Zoology – the picture on the front makes it obvious. She is proud of the cover – a photograph of a young woman, naked with a butterfly on her breast. The photograph wraps around the spine to reveal Keith herself sitting in the background.
“It was my idea for the photograph to go around, but it was [photographer] Deborah Smith’s idea that I should be sitting at the back. I think that’s a brilliant idea because the whole thing about post-modem writing is that the author is actually there in the text, and this echoes that idea – rather than just a little inset placed on top of the cover.”
She describes the photographic session in the Auckland Museum, early one morning to avoid the model being subjected to any peeping, as a “mind-blowing experience”.
Keith has an interest in photography herself. She has written articles for Art New Zealand and London Magazine on various photographers, had one exhibition of her own photographs, and, in the 70s, opened the Snaps photography gallery. She is fascinated by image-making. “Photography crosses over with my writing. A lot of my writing is very visual and some of my characters are photographers. In a way, writing enables me to be a photographer. I can use a character who becomes a photographer and I can send that person out to take photographs I would like to take.
“I think a lot of writing’s like that. You have a set of characters who are probably aspects of yourself that you would like to be and you send them out to do things that you haven’t got time to do.”
Such as inventing. Keith likes inventing strange things but thinks it far too complicated to have to go through the rigmarole of manufacturing and patents, so from time to time she has a character invent something – and thrills at getting the invention out in the world without actually having to do it herself.
Keith was born in Wellington to a mother whom she describes as creative, strong, and well ahead of her time. “She introduced an enormous amount of culture into our lives. She was into everything – art, music, painting – so I had a very rich cultural childhood in a quite different way from most New Zealand children.”
At school, in Hataitai and later at Marsden, she was a bright but lonely child who was baffled at why she didn’t make friends easily. “I used to try and do what I was supposed to do and they just would not include me. So in the end I reached the point where 1 thought, well, stuff them. I just did my own thing and I think possibly I became quite an observer because of that.”
University at Victoria in Wellington was a combination of English and zoology. She could never decide whether to do arts or sciences, so she did both – despite conflicting timetables and a zoology professor who made a “terrible fuss” over her bizarre mix of subjects. Again she felt something of a misfit.
At 22 she went to London – it was an “amazing” feeling to get away from home, from New Zealand, and from “all that small-minded stuff that New Zealand was like in those days”. London
was quite a different scene with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Mary Quant hype: “It was incredible. My feet didn’t touch the ground.”
Says Keith, “I always had this idea I was going to be a writer, but I didn’t know what to write about then – I couldn’t be open about my experiences at that time. I felt very vulnerable. The letters I used to write home to my parents were just the most superficial letters that didn’t say anything real, and yet at the same time I had this funny idea that I was going to be a writer.”
When she eventually moved back to New Zealand, she began working for Art New Zealand – initially to help them get advertising. She got to know various artists, and managed to get an interview with Colin McCahon – who at that stage was shying away from interviews,
“Surprisingly he agreed to talk to me, so I did the interview, wrote it up and sent it to the Listener. The Listener didn’t know who the hell I was but they certainly knew who Colin McCahon was and they printed it. That was the first thing I ever had published.”

Her first published story, after first being rejected by a New Zealand publisher, was accepted within a week by an English publisher who, from her name, thought Sheridan Keith was a man. She wrote more short stories and was shortlisted in the Reed Fiction Award for 1991’s Shallow Are The Smiles At The Supermarket. Animal Passions followed in 1992. And now, after the excitement of completing her first novel Zoology and having five copies proudly displayed on her bookshelf, Keith is in a “creative pause”.