Tuesday, April 29, 2014

So, farewell then, NZ Post Book Awards

NZ Post has been sponsor of the children’s book awards since 1997 and of the grown-up book awards since 2010. It has been an exemplary sponsor – but this will be the last year.

Or so my bookseller friends tell me. No one whom I know knows for sure, but this is the word in the book trade. Odd that it hasn’t been reported anywhere, at least that I have seen.

If it is true – and it would be understandable given the sunset-industry state of NZ Post’s core business – I wonder where on earth the book trade will find another corporate sponsor that will see a benefit to its business in aligning itself with the dwindling number of booksellers, publishers and readers. Bah.

So here is Elvis Costello (and the least enthusiastic backing singers you’ll ever see) with “Every Day I Write the Book” from his 1983 album Punch the Clock:

It’s tough enjoying a cappuccino at Starbucks

Economist letter of the month, from the 26 April issue:
One important side-effect of smaller office space in London (“Pressed suits”, April 5th) is that it is now impossible to visit a Starbucks anywhere in the city without being surrounded by sales meetings, job interviews and project updates. It’s tough trying to enjoy a cappuccino when you are bombarded by projects going down in flames or job applicants striking out.

I would imagine it’s tough trying to enjoy any sort of coffee at a Starbucks even when the place is empty. As the bumper sticker says, “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks”.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Country matters #5

How many of us, if we are really honest, can hand-on-heart say that they have had lunch in Pirongia? Well, I did today.

I was invited to join William Chen, New Zealand’s greatest ever magazine designer and a former colleague of mine at Metro, and Peter Shaw, art/architecture writer and curator and a former colleague of ours at Metro, for lunch at Peter’s house near Pirongia. It is only a 30-minute drive, I like my old friends and was curious about the Shaw house, as it will be known in future architecture histories. It was the last house designed by Jim Hackshaw, a member of the massively influential Group Architects, and it is wonderful.

Peter took us to the Pirongia market which is, frankly, a pale shadow of the one in Cambridge but it means well. The gingerbread men were sharply priced and, my children report, taste awesome. 

Then we drove halfway up Mt Pirongia which is a spectacular exploded volcano and affords a spectacular view north to Hamilton and beyond (Bombays and Coromandel), east to Maungatautari and southish to decent peaks I’d never heard of. I said that from the bird sanctuary on Maungatautari one can see Taupo. Peter trumped this with the fact that from their house they can see Ruapehu glowing pink in the sunset. 

Peter had promised curried-egg sandwiches for lunch, and he did not fail us. I was apprehensive – this didn’t sound like food to me – but it was good. William cannot help himself in these matters and so photographed the dish from several angles, then took the plate to another table with better lighting and arranged three elegant bowls around them and photographed them again (as seen above). Once an art director, always an art director.

Like me, Peter has to go to Auckland for work occasionally and, like me, he hates it and can’t wait to get home. So lunch conversation was largely about that – until William and I got onto magazine and book publishing gossip. Peter had a view of the industry too. So that took a while.

Next we went to visit the hens so William could collect the eggs. William is the most fastidious, urban, non-livestock-friendly person I know but the chickens were amenable. Then there were feijoas to harvest and, later, eggplants, carrots (two varieties) and chillies (two varieties) from the magnificent vegetable garden, so William and I returned to our respective homes well laden with provisions.  

Country life is good.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Kate and Will in Cambridge

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge came to Cambridge the other weekend. To the chagrin of the three republicans in our village, there was a massive turnout, as seen above (photographer: Sarah Fraser). People came from Tauranga, Te Awamutu and yes, even from Tirau.  According to our excellent local paper, the Cambridge Edition, there were 18,000 people in the streets and another 2000 at the Avantidrome, a nearby cycling arena. For a town of maybe 17,000 that’s quite a turnout, considering how many people were  sitting quietly, unroyally, unflagwavingly at home. People like me.

The night before the royal visit we were in the racecourse bar with friends. The wives were saying how beautiful the Duchess was. The female children agreed. The husbands were silent.

A wife asked,  “Don’t you think she’s beautiful?”

A husband said, “Seems nice but no, not really.”

Consternation among the  wives, but the husbands were adamant: we were not interested in being part of the crowd clamouring for a glimpse of the Duchess. Couldn’t see the point.

And then another husband (possibly me) said: “If it was her sister…” At which all the husbands whimpered, “Oh god yes.”

What was interesting was that the women could not see the appeal to the blokes of Pippa Middleton – they were really baffled by the fact that every male vote was in her favour, from the nephew of 16 to the elderly uncle of 60.

Which brings us to the Spectator of 19 April, which asks “Which Commonwealth countries have received the most senior royal visits since 1952?” The list puts Canada at #1, Australia at #2 and New Zealand at #3.  Cyprus languishes at the bottom of the table, behind even Fiji. Well played, Cyprus.

So here is Frank Zappa with “Blessed Relief” from his 1972 album The Grand Wazoo:

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What I’m reading #117

Vincent O’Sullivan, whose new collection of short stories, The Families, is out next month, blogs occasionally in his capacity as Poet Laureate. Part of the job is to promote NZ poetry and poets so this time his guest is Diana Bridges (if you haven’t read her, do – she is wonderful) who writes about Geoffrey Hill and gives a poem of her own in response to his difficult work, and also talks about Chinese poetry. Plus sound and vision of her reading.  

Amazingly, an interview with the 50s/60s satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer. Yes, still with us. If you don’t know “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, “The Masochism Tango” or his withering variations on “Clementine” (about the horrors of folk music), they are all, or mostly, on YouTube. If you can imagine a maths lecturer Randy Newman, only even more acerbic, that’s him. Quote unquote:
“All of these songs were part of a huge scientific project to which I have devoted my entire life,” Lehrer said. “Namely, the attempt to prolong adolescence beyond all previous limits.”

Speaking of prolonging adolescence, the concept album is back, as is prog rock. Jethro Tull’s leader and chief flautist Ian Anderson has a new album that went straight in the UK Top Ten. It is a three-act musical history of Britain, apparently. Take that, Pharrell Williams.

Speaking of whom, you might have heard of the Happy British Muslims who made a vid of happy British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy”, to show how inclusive and normal the Muslims of England are. It’s really nice. But not every Muslim in England was happy about it. So someone made a halal version of it, which is somewhat less inclusive. Guess what sort of person was, er, cut from the clip. Mick Hartley has the story and vids.

New York chef Amanda Cohen on chefs and PR. Quote unquote:
Snobbery is replacing knowledge. Bits of PR have been repeated, picked up, re-used, and recycled so many times that diners, chefs, and reporters are starting to think they’re true. I'm constantly being asked where I “source” my produce. What does that even mean? I get my vegetables from the exact same place almost every other chef in the city gets them: in a box, off a truck.

Ever alert to bovine threats, David Thompson warns us of dangerous cows:
The plane was flying over the Irish Sea when a fire alarm sounded from where the 390 cows were being kept, reports the Sunday People. After the plane landed, technicians inspected the plane, but found no evidence of any smoke. Instead, they concluded that the alarm was set off by the cows.

As David says, “If they learn how to make fire, we’re buggered.” And as always at his blog, the comments are smart and amusing.

NBR journalist Rob Hosking reviews a biography of Harold Macmillan and a collection of literary essays by James Wood. Quote unquote:
On Orwell, though, he rightly identifies the real terror at the heart of 1984: it is not the torture room or the rats, but the “abolition of interiority”. A society in which we have no interior world in and of ourselves – no privacy, in other words – is the truest and most subtle of tyrannies. This is true totalitarianism. Never was a sex scene so important to a novel than in 1984 – no, not even in D H Laurence’s florid offerings.The thought-provoking aspect of this insight for today's reader, though is this: the social media whirl now means many of us are in the process of voluntarily abandoning the sacredness of this interiority, and what does this mean for our own psychological and spiritual wellbeing? Wood doesn't explore this thought, but it is one which sent this reader, anyway, down a few mental byways I am yet to feel I can report back on.

A long and lavishly illustrated interview with author/illustrator Petr Horáček. He is Czech, lives in Worcester and is a very nice man – some years ago my wife wrote him a fan letter because our children (and we) loved his books so much, and he wrote a lovely letter back and enclosed a drawing. Quote unquote:
Board books are something I’m quite proud of. You hardly ever hear about authors who illustrate board books. In fact, you hardly see good board books in the shops. Board books are thought to be something too small to be taken seriously. People think that board books are for babies; therefore, it doesn’t matter what you show them, as long there are some pictures. It’s rubbish, of course, and it makes me very cross when I hear that bookshops don’t want to keep board books, because they take too much space on the shelves and make little profit.I take my board books seriously. A board book is often a child’s very first contact with visual art and literature.Children may not have as many experiences as adults, but it doesn’t mean that they are stupid. They definitely deserve more than just a squeaky washable book with an image of a flower and dolphin.

Peter Wells on being edited. When I am an author I enjoy the process, especially when it’s Jane Parkin. As an editor I’m OK – three Top Ten bestsellers last year, and several before – but she is awesome. Anyway, quote unquote:
The lovely simplicity of a finished book is a mask over the many decisions taken, as well as the false roads and dead-ends left behind. The writer’s style is the glue that holds it all together.
The writer’s style is the thing that makes it all seem ‘of a piece’.But behind any book is a kind of invisible architecture, or equation which the reader cunningly assembles in his or her own head. This equation has to add up. Yet it is made of many different things – it can’t be simply spelled out in a sentence – otherwise why bother writing a many-sentenced book?But a good editor has a key role. It is identifying and then clarifying this hidden equation, buried under a mountain of words, a highway of clauses, a continent of full stops, commas and dashes.At times this is relatively easy and clear.At other times, there is a lot of work involved.

More editing with Emma Donoghue who had two editors in different countries working on two different editions of her novel Frog Music. Quote unquote:
I often tell friends how different film is than the publishing world, because in film, these people have to invest so much money in every scene that it gives them the right to boss the writer around. In the publishing world, it seems as if what you want is my best book, and you want to have me get there, but you’re not going to tell me what to do. So I’ve never felt bullied within the editorial relationship.

This is how I work when editing a novel:

Monday, April 14, 2014

QUQ: a progress report

When I started this blog the intention was to put online material from Quote Unquote the magazine (1993-97) because, as Rob O’Neill, a contributor to the magazine, observed over lunch at Squid Row in December 2008, “If it’s not online, it doesn’t exist.”

Although he is a Fairfax journalist, Rob is not always wrong. I realised that all the interviews with New Zealand authors and other NZ literature-related material that Quote Unquote and its contributors had spent so much time on would be invisible to today’s students who think that Google is a research tool. So the next week Quote Unquote the blog was born.

The posts which are not from the magazine have been just a way of keeping the thing alive until the next blast from a past issue (and to amuse my friends). The main thing was to make available whatever was in the archives that might be of use to students and other interested parties. But I was never sure that schools were using it the way I had intended. Until late last month.

In one day there were more than 30 hits from a South Island school – not sure if it’s a single school, possibly from a content aggregator – on this post from 30 August 2012 of Kate de Goldi’s interview with Owen Marshall in the November 1993 issue. There have been other visits to the blog over the years from schools, and private queries to me from students who had been directed to me by their teachers, but never such a concentrated burst on one post.

Thirty-plus hits a day since then and 463 in total so far don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy blogosphere but are a big number at QUQ. Last week there were dozens more hits from schools on that post, and still they come. Good. It’s also good to see that students are interested in Owen, Kate or both. (Owen has a new novel, Carnival Sky,  out on 2 May. Just saying.)

Other recent visitors to QUQ have been sent by Google because they were looking for:
1. allen curnow skeleton great moa
2. shonagh koea
3. judith baragwanath
4. oscar kightley profile
5. topless strippers
6. guitarist dressed like zorro
7. 18th century philosopher chamfort.

The first five search items are indisputably New Zealand culture. I have no recollection of the sixth – it is possibly something about Gore or Taihape. The seventh is frankly French. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

So here is French singer Francoise Hardy singing “Suzanne” with French musicians and French people in the audience:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Magazine publishing sentence of the week

From the Economist’s obituary of Khushwant Singh, who died on 20 March aged 99. In the 1970s he was editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India:
Over his nine-year tenure circulation soared from 60,000 to almost 400,000, more then the publisher could cope with; he was therefore fired, and circulation collapsed.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Uneaten whales

This week’s Economist has a report on the International Court of Justice’s ruling that Japan’s “scientific” whaling is commercial whaling in disguise.  Quote unquote:
Over 5000 tonnes now sits unsold in deep freezes.

I wonder how many whales that represents.   

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Poem of the week: E.J. Thribb on the internet

Private Eye’s perennial youthful house poet E.J. Thribb (17½) celebrates the WWW’s 25th birthday with this poem in the 31 March issue:

Lines on the birthday of the internet
Congratulations to
The World Wide Web

It is your 25th
Anniversary today.
Or so I read on
Wikipedia, so it
Probably isn’t true.

I would have
Double-checked in
A book bought on
The High Street,
But thanks to
You, that’s
Not possible.

                        E.J. Thribb
(73½, according to Wikipedia)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Topless Maori dancers

In case you aren’t a regular reader of the Daily Express, an English newspaper, here is a headline from today’s edition:
Maori dancers asked to cover up to not embarrass the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge

The intro says:
Topless Maori dancers have been ordered to cover up so they do not embarrass the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their tour of Australia and New Zealand.

The story follows:
Male dancers wearing grass skirts have also been told to wear pants which goes against their ancient traditions.
Kate, William and baby George fly out this weekend for the three-week tour Down Under.
Tomorrow, when they arrive in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, they will be greeted with a Maori powhiri, a ceremonial welcome with the topless dancers.
Maori expert Tredegar Hall said: “For important occasions like this the women go topless. It’s tradition but because this is a big occasion they’ll cover up out of respect so they don’t embarrass Kate and William. Usually the men do not wear anything under the piupiu, the flax skirts, but because of the high-profile guests they’ll wear black undies to welcome them.” 
Kate, 32, and William, 31, are especially sensitive about the issue because Kate was devastated after being photographed sunbathing topless during a holiday in the South of France two years ago. 
They were staying at a chateau in Provence belonging to William’s cousin Viscount Linley. 
The couple will be greeted with the dances and a Maori ceremony in which they have to pick up a leaf, one of a minefield of customs they must negotiate.
According to tradition, if they pick the leaf up in the wrong way it could be deemed an act of war, with an international fall-out. 
They will also be offered traditional food including a native bird, the kereru, which is on the verge of extinction. 
Prince William is a keen conservationist who has campaigned to save the rhino and other endangered animals. 
The bird and other meats or sweet potato are cooked in hot ashes in a hole dug in the ground which is covered with a lid to function as an oven.
“They cook beef, pork and chicken, and kereru if they are lucky. It is a native bird that is nearly extinct because the possums and rats go for them,” said 25-year-old Mr Hall, a New Zealand-born leader of the haka. 
“The kereru is an endangered species. They will have to warn William if he’s having that.”
The titi, a sea bird from New Zealand, will also be on the menu along with local watercress called puha, fried bread balls and rewana, a Maori bread.
Kate and William have been learning the hongi nose-press greeting for when they meet the Maoris, another protocol the royal couple have to get right. 
The visitor and host press noses, then breathe in. Experts warn that if they do not perform it properly and step back too quickly, it is seen as a snub. 
“It’s a bit of a minefield,” admitted Mr Hall. 
“This is a sign of a warm welcome. Kate and William will do it at formal welcomes. It’s quite fun but if you pull away too soon it would be pretty rude.”

“Maori expert Tredegar Hall” is possibly the Tredegar Hall whose LinkedIn profile says he is an “Immigration Officer at New Zealand Immigration” in London. Previous positions were at the Tuwharetoa Maori Trust Board, Waikato Regional Council and Te Arawa Fisheries. So he is a Maori and is clearly having a laugh at the gullible English. The empire strikes back, etc.

Not counting the topless women and underpants-less men, how many deliberate mistakes can you spot?

Monitor: Buddy Mikaere

Thursday, April 3, 2014

What I’m reading #116

The Daily Telegraph interviews linguist Geoffrey Pullum about grammar Nazis. Quote unquote:
The trouble is, most of these rules are wrong. “I’ve never seen a book so bad on my subject,” says Pullum of Gwynne’s Grammar. “It’s the familiar old nonsense, modified through 200 years of rubbish, from teachers who didn’t quite understand it to students who understood it less.” Split infinitives, for instance, have been commonly used for hundreds of years. Another myth is that the word “none” is always singular (so you can’t say “none of them are coming to the party”, you have to say “none of them is coming to the party”), even though it’s been used since the 1640s and the plural version was the more common form for 300 years. There’s a similar ruling against using “they” to refer to a single thing. “That would mean that you’re not allowed to say ‘nobody seems to think the rules apply to them’,” Pullum says. None of these are uneducated mistakes or modern slang: as Pullum points out, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen use singular “they”. But still, a certain kind of person insists that it’s bad English.

Music to my ears. The Mozart clarinet concerto, say. Or a Haydn string quartet.

A Los Angeles Times editorial on copyright in the 21st century. Quote unquote:
It's appropriate that content owners bear the responsibility for enforcing their copyrights; after all, they're the only ones who know for sure whether an upload was authorized. But the notice-and-takedown system isn't much help against foreign sites that ignore takedown notices or neuter them by rapidly re-posting pirated files. One potential answer is for search services (e.g., Google) and copyright owners to find a way to allow the rapid removal of an extremely large number of links to sites that are offshore piracy hotbeds, cutting off much of their traffic. The challenge is to ramp up the takedowns without overwhelming sites with notices or removing links that aren't infringing.

Drama title of the year so far: a new play by Rodrigo Garcia called I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole.    

Spectator editor Fraser Nelson writes in praise of sub-editors, specifically his magazine’s brilliant Peter Robins. Quote unquote:
I’ve worked for newspapers that have unwisely cut back on sub-editing. It seems to work, at first, because there is no immediate cliff-edge drop in quality. But the rot accumulates. Errors creep in that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier. Sloppy writing goes unchecked, flabby ideas go unchallenged. And even then, the newspapers don’t suffer immediate penalty – readers who have been with the same title for years put up with a lot, before giving up on it. But when they do, the reputation for quality is hard to win back. The management respond to falling revenues with even more cuts, which send even more readers into despair. This is what I call the cycle of doom.

Which brings us to John Drinnan, the New Zealand Herald’s media writer. Here he is on Wednesday reviewing Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report:  
Guyon Espiner and Susie Ferguson breathed fresh air into the new Morning Report today.They added some long lost assertiveness to New Zealand's only public radio breakfast show.The format for the Radio New Zealand show has only been tweaked.But the return of an assertive interview style is a blessed relief and may bring back lapsed every-day listeners like myself .With the lead story there are signs of a fundamental rethink of news values at the state broadcaster with the lead story.The story Peter Jackson's jet being chartered for the MH370 search – which was sort of interesting.But Morning Report seemed more enthusiastic than myself that it was the biggest story of the day.In the two pillars of news stories – important and interesting – to me it was fifth story interesting.It was a self generated story based on a tip given to an RNZ reporter and so unlike RNZ you can see why they used it so strongly.

No sub-editors were harmed in the production of that story. But a few hyphens were.

Danyl McLauchlan at the Dim-Post on the relative popularity of PM John Key and Opposition leader David Cunliffe, with graphs. Quote unquote:
Key has been running the country for almost six years and seems pretty good at it and Cunliffe is this guy you’ve never heard of who wants Key’s job, but the very first thing you heard about him is that he had some kinda dodgy secret trust and wasn’t straight-up about his first policy launch. It’s a bit like having an old friend and a total stranger dressed in a pirate costume both turn up at your house and ask to borrow your car. Who are you going to give the keys to?

David Thompson brings us the good news from academe:
Skidmore College, ranked as one of the nation’s most expensive private colleges in the country, is now officially offering a course on Miley Cyrus: “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus: Race, Class, Gender, and Media.” The 2014 summer course will be taught by assistant visiting professor of sociology Carolyn Chernoff. “I am interested in cities, arts, and social change, particularly on the level of social interaction and the production of ‘community,’” Chernoff’s professional bio reads on the school’s website. “I investigate the role of culture in reproducing and transforming social inequality, and research conflict around diversity and difference.”

Speaking of diversity and difference, if not Miley Cyrus, here is the cover of tomorrow’s Listener, starring my friend Deborah McKinlay and her brilliant novel That Part Was True. Hasn’t she done well! 

Books I shall not read #1

A Brief History of Whistling by John Lucas and Allan Chatburn, published by Five Leaves Press: ₤9.99, 196pp.

It is reviewed in the Spectator here; the Nottingham Post has much more. At least the book doesn’t come with a CD.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Yeah, nah: coasters of the month

I bought these in Cambridge last week, from my friend Carrie’s craft gallery. They were made in Raglan and are the most New Zealandy coasters ever. We all say “Yeah, nah” even if we think we don’t.

But I thought there was something missing.  “Yeah nah” has been adopted by some right-wing bloggers to depict Labour leader David Cunliffe as making inconsistent statements.  So these two represent the Labour Party. But I want balance. I need a coaster to represent the National Party.

So when I bumped into Carrie outside her other shop, Wholly Cow which sells meat from her and her husband Tommy’s farm, I commissioned another one. It will say “Look”. As in the full John Key prime ministerial “Look, yeah, nah.”