Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What I’m Reading #125

Nick Cohen reviews for the Spectator Oliver Kamm’s new book Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage, whose title says it all. Quote unquote:
You may regret that disinterested can now mean uninterested as well as impartial, although if you make a fuss you will betray your ignorance that in the 17th century disinterested meant uninterested too. You may want to ban people from starting sentences with ‘hopefully’ — although no pedant has explained why it is not also wrong to start sentences with ‘thankfully’ — but you will be fighting a losing battle against a living language, which is always changing. Your ‘rules’ will be no more than incoherent prejudices.

What I’m reading #124 quoted Arrant Pedantry having a crack at Grammarly. So here is Arrant Pedantry having a crack at Correctica, which claimed that “online grammar errors have increased by 148% in nine years”. It includes a detailed analysis of the stats, not necessarily to Correctica’s advantage. Quote unquote:
So in sum, the study is completely bogus, and it’s obviously nothing more than an attempt to sell yet another grammar-checking service. Is it important to check your writing for errors? Sure. Can Correctica help you do that? I have no idea. But I do know that this study doesn’t show an epidemic of grammar errors as it claims to.

Susie Boyt in the Financial Times offers the Henry James guide to parenting, inspired by his novel The Awkward Age. Quote unquote:
Parental anxiety is rife with good reason. We live in an age in which, when a teenage girl chats to a boy at a party, it is fairly normal for that young man to suggest the next day that she sends him a picture of herself and that picture is not meant to feature clothes. What is the best defence against that sort of carry-on? What would the Master have to say?

I have never seen anything like this before and, like Halley’s Comet, will almost certainly never see it again: an arts blog taking ecomomics seriously. The post is headed “Art People: Learn Economics, I Beseech You”. Good luck with that. Quote unquote:
Economics is a deep topic but the core concepts are within easy intellectual reach. If you can’t explain how prices are determined then you have no business complaining about neoliberalism.

Hugo Rifkind in Tatler advises posh people on how to swear. He is a Scot so knows about swearing. Quote unquote:
As every writer knows, a profanity written has a kick many times that of one merely said. The same is true of one said in an accent that ought to know better. If, say, Bob Geldof told you he’d got a fucking puncture, you’d only be thinking about his tyres. If the Duke of Edinburgh did, he’d sound so cross that you'd wonder if he’d had the driver shot. [. . .]
It’s all about deliberation. The words are important, so you need to know precisely what they mean. When David Cameron said the word ‘twat’ on the radio, he sounded foolish not because he had sworn, but because he clearly didn’t realise it meant vagina. You need to be on top of this stuff. ‘Arse’ isn’t swearing any more. Your arse is just your arse. ‘Shit’ remains a bit sweary, but has mainly become a perfectly routine term for either ‘not good’ or actual faeces. If you want to keep it properly rude, add the Celtic e and make it ‘shite’. ‘Shite’ remains a great word. ‘Fucked’ means broken, or otherwise damaged. That is all. Even if something is broken as a result of actual sex (a bed, say), this is mere coincidence; there are no such connotations.

A female friend of mine did once break a bed in this manner – while house-sitting, which was a bit embarrassing. But I digress.

What the musicians who performed at Woodstock got paid. Jimi Hendrix the most, obviously: $18,000. Melanie got as much as Santana ($750). The Incredible String Band ($2250) got nearly as much as the Grateful Dead ($2500) and heaps more than Joe Cocker ($1375), but all of them much less than Ten Years After (3250). Quote unquote:
Though these were the purported prices agreed upon by the artists’ agents and the show’s promoters, there is some speculation that a few of the artists were never paid in full.

I spent about 20 years playing in various rock bands and I find this very hard to believe. Snort.

So here are Sly and the Family Stone ($7000) at Woodstock with “Higher and Higher”:

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Farm art

From the old jokes home:

Q: What is the difference between a buffalo and a bison?

A: A buffalo is a large hairy mammal, millions of which used to range over the American prairie. A bison is what Australians wash their hands in.

So here is a buffalo:

 A painted buffalo, from the International Buffalo Bodypainting competition held in Jiangcheng, China last year. Quote unquote:
Each buffalo in the competition was painted by 3-7 artists, with the cash prize for the most beautiful example a sizable 100,000 yuan ($16,042). Some of the competitors are from other countries such as Laos, Vietnam, New Zealand, Finland and Germany. This year, at the end of the harvest themed festival, a group of schoolchildren took home the big prize.

Waikato Times columnist Joshua Drummond recently painted an entire cow named Daisy in public for the Hamilton Arts Festival – here is a video of him in action. Quote unquote: 
Some people get really weird when they come across someone doing art in public. I reckon the artist becomes part of the exhibit and thus kind of invisible, or not quite human. Germans have been the main source of strangeness. “Moo! Perhaps it comes alive!” yelled one from right behind me. Another one bailed me up and railed at me at length about the themes and meanings of the painting. I told him what I tell everyone: I just like birds.

So here is the illustrated cow:

Friday, March 20, 2015

Waikato Times letter of the week #56

This is from the 19 March edition.
Standards slipping
If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything – a quote that says it all in today’s advertising conscience driven world.
Why are standards slipping and solicitors so busy with contracts in the modern lifestyle? But not any more – contracts have replaced the norm of individual integrity. Integrity seems to have slipped in the professional world and its contract this and witnessed that. Integrity seems to be an ethic of the past.
I’m beginning to wonder what the future holds for us.
Maybe, just maybe, if we emphasised it in the schools as a way of living there, and that personal ethics stand for something and define the person, they will be setting a standard for the future.
Too much bad publicity of some schools lowers the expectations and ethics start to slip.

As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Waikato Times letter of the week #55

This is from the 9 March edition.
Less greed needed
Egalitarian England and the UK – a land of gradually decaying palaces, manor houses, grand estates, castles and cathedrals, once the evidence of Empire prostitution and raping of the far-flung colonies, now a costly drain on heritage trusts and funds somehow drained from taxes. The once employed factory workers, many now obsolete as a result of mechanisation, are now credit card serfs and slaves created by designed education and conditioned to honour money and living/existing to crave for wealth. The Establishment, still living in some fantasy dream, re-engineer conflicts with the sure knowledge that, if sucessful, arms sales will reap them billions of dollars. Clone-like Western nations are aping the UK, with the US outshining its aged parent. Less greed and a more even spread of resources would go a long way to removal of our terrorist fears and would see Isis evolve to become a nation that is accepted.

As always, spelling, punctuation and grammar are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

What I’m Reading #124

The first of a five-part series, A Polite Hatred, on growing anti-semitism in the UK is an interview with novelist Howard Jacobson. Quote unquote:
Eventually, in his forties, he learned to “stop keeping shtum” and start writing about his own world. His subject matter changed, but his sentences still reveal his classical training. “I like an elegant sentence,” he says. “My sentences have assimilated.” Unusually for a prize-winning novelist Jacobson’s books are comic, but he bridles at any suggestion that this makes them less important. “Jews tell the best jokes,” he once said, “because they know that life isn’t funny.”

Heather Mac Donald writes in City Journal about “Queering agriculture”. Yes, it’s a thing. Quote unquote:
Another day in academia, another twist in the bizarre world of identity studies. The Center for the Study of Sexual Culture at the University of California, Berkeley, is presenting a talk next week on “Queering Agriculture,” dedicated to the proposition that “it is absolutely crucial queer and transgender studies begin to deal more seriously with the subject of agriculture.”
Queer theory has taken over student life on many campuses. Now that gay identity has been thoroughly institutionalized, declaring oneself “trans*,” “genderqueer,” “pangender,” or any of the other rapidly multiplying alternative sexes has become the last frontier of self-engrossed agitation available to students. But apart from the odoriferous leavings of female ginko trees, the “problem” of gender and plants did not seem to be a pressing one, making the application of queer theory to agriculture an innovation that even the most dogged observers of identity studies might not have seen coming. The talk’s presenter, a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at the University of Maryland, will allegedly show that “the growing popularity of sustainable food is laden with anthroheterocentric assumptions of the ‘good life’ coupled with idealized images and ideas of the American farm, and gender, radicalized and normative standards of health, family, and nation.”

I can’t see this taking off at Lincoln University.
Monitor: David Thompson

Arrant Pedantry has a crack at grammar-checking website Grammarly with the blogpost “Fifty Shades of Bad Grammar Advice”. Hurrah! At last. Quote unquote:
A few weeks ago, the folks at the grammar-checking website Grammarly wrote a piece about supposed grammar mistakes in Fifty Shades of Grey. Despite being a runaway hit, the book has frequently been criticized for its terrible prose, and Grammarly apparently saw an opportunity to fix some of the book’s problems (and probably sell its grammar-checking services along the way).
The first problem, of course, is that most of the errors Grammarly identified have nothing to do with grammar. The second is that most of their edits not only fail to fix the clunky prose but actually make it worse.
Mark Allen already took Grammarly to task in a post on the Copyediting blog, saying that their edits “lack restraint”, that “the list is full of style choices and non-errors”, and that “it fails to make a case for the value of proofreading, and, by association, . . . reflects poorly on the craft of copyediting.” I agreed and thought at the time that nothing more needed to be said.
But then Grammarly decided to go even further. In this infographic, they claim to have found “similar gaffes” in the works of authors ranging from Nicholas Sparks to Shakespeare.
Do read on and see how they improve Shakespeare and others. Good comments, too, including this:
As any thoughtful writer or editor knows, “grammatical writing” is not the same as “good writing,” and vice versa.


Vanity Fair celebrates the 50th anniversary of the movie of The Sound of Music by interviewing its stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer in execrable prose. Quote unquote:
The incurably handsome, subtly grieving, widowered Captain von Trapp was always the heartthrob in the movie, never Rolf, the twerpy teenage messenger boy.

Incurably handsome? Subtly grieving? Widowered?

Fun fact I learned from the 60s pop-star memoir I am editing: the man who played the twangsome guitar lead on the James Bond theme, recorded in 1962 for Dr No, was Vic Flick. It is his real name, and it is perfect. Quote unquote:
Flick performed the legendary Bond theme on what he refers to as a “big, blonde f-hole Clifford Essex Paragon Cello-Bodied guitar, fitted with a DeAmond Volume Pedal into a Vox 15-Watt Amplifier.”

Anne Bauer in Salon tells it like is for most authors: they have a wife/ husband/partner with a proper job, and most authors (here she is talking about the US) pretend otherwise. Quote unquote:
In my opinion, we do an enormous “let them eat cake” disservice to our community when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed.

Monitor: Chad Taylor

What to buy for the person who has everything:
The Korg CLIPHIT is a new electric drum kit that’s great for practice or relaxed playing. Simply attach the clips to any object – a magazine, a desk or almost anything – instantly transforming it into a snare, hi-hat or cymbal. If you prefer something a bit more traditional you can also attach these clips to practice pads using them to play drums or any of the programmed EFX sounds that include things like dog sounds, cat or hand clapping.

Monitor: The Week

Jon Michaud, co-head librarian at the New Yorker, tells at Emdashes how starting in November 1968 the New Yorker secretly serialised the first chapter of Ulysses, from “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead” to “homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship.” Quote unquote:
In 1970, New Yorker editor Gardner Botsford explained to Time magazine that he began the serialization of Ulysses because he got bored writing the same straight capsule reviews week after week. Asked about reader response to the serialization, Botsford observed, “Many are delighted they can identify the excerpts, but others think we are trying to communicate with the Russian herring fleet in code.”

Elsewhere, Ulysses Reader is serialising the entire novel on Twitter. If you go on Twitter as seldom as I do, you read it backwards. Which works surprisingly well because they are such great lines and it’s still funny – but not all is gold. For example:
he growled in a hoarsened rasping voice as he hewed again vigorously at the loaf:

But it’s worth it for:
Outside them and through them ran raddled sheep bleating their fear.

Followed by:
whisking their tails slowly on their clotted bony croups.

And then:
A divided drove of branded cattle passed the windows, lowing, slouching by on padded hoofs,

And, much later:
holding out calm hands, knelt in grief, pointing. Fragments of shapes, hewn. In white silence: appealing.

How good a fragment is that?

The Economist reviews Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup by sports economist – really – Andrew Zimbalist and concludes that the economic benefits to the host city are, at most, zero. Probably much, much less. Quote unquote:
To justify this spending, proponents of hosting often argue that these infrastructure projects will provide continuing benefits long after the events end. Such claims are almost offensively misleading. Mr Zimbalist offers a whirlwind tour of the “white elephants” that litter host cities following the Olympics or World Cup: in Athens a volleyball stadium inhabited by squatters and a softball park overgrown with trees; in Beijing a weed-infested cycling racetrack; in Brazil a football pitch with 40,000 seats now used by a second-division team that draws around 1,500 fans a match. All of these structures cost millions of dollars a year to maintain, making the games’ costs their enduring “legacy”.
Finally, Stephenson Billings asks the burning question:
Are Militant Atheists Using Chemtrails to Poison the Angels in Heaven?

I can answer that: no.

So here is PP Arnold in June 1967 – she was 20 – with “Angel of the Morning”:

Monday, March 2, 2015

Denis Edwards on David Marr

The 77th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1995 issue.

The intro read:
David Marr wrote the acclaimed biography of Patrick White, and recently published his selection of White’s letters. Denis Edwards talks to him about writing, leading the life you should, and the great, gaunt ghost hovering over his own.
Looking back, it isn’t that difficult to see how and why David Marr became a writer. It’s easy to see why he became anything except a lawyer. He’d graduated in law and had started work as an articled clerk at one of Sydney’s most prestigious law firms. It was a job dozens, even hundreds, of graduates would have killed to get. Not long after he got there, Marr was initiated into the legal profession’s great secret: that while the law can be fabulously lucrative and judges can come to enjoy near-limitless power, as often as not legal work is mind-bendingly boring.
Marr was having this truth hammered into him. Because he had shown promise, he was rewarded with a move up to “more interesting work”. This turned out to be processing Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise agreements. The thought of a lifetime of this made him shudder.
If that thought didn’t kill any interest in the law, there was his office, which had a view out over Sydney Harbour and its ever-changing tableau of ferries, yachts, cargo ships – all of it the lure of a real and interesting life out there somewhere.
Behind all this was a niggling call to writing. The signs were there, stop-start fumblings of various writing projects. None got far, but the thought remained. “Back then you could reasonably describe me as extremely restless,” he says. “It didn’t take me long to make up my mind about the law.”
He could see senior lawyers in the firm hitting their mid-40s and wondering whether they had spent their lives misspending their talents and suddenly, brutally, becoming aware they were running out of time for other things. These people were not comfortable to be around, particularly when their doubts were being publicly and intensely expressed.
The final note in writing’s siren song to Marr was a journey of his own, ending with his decision that he was homosexual. This was the final grace note. Marr farewelled the world of gown and wig and was off. He wonders how he lasted as long in the law as he did.
From there he went into journalism. “I don’t write fiction because I can’t invent. I don’t think in terms of inventive characters and stories. What interests me is to work out why things happen. That’s journalism. I am fascinated by character. I have an unshakeable belief that we are shaped by our character. Of course, other things shape our world as well, money and weather and so on. But it is ultimately the character of our leaders which determine so much of what happens to and around us.”
If Marr’s journalism was being described in sports terms, it would be as a dream run. He got and kept the cream of Australia’s feature writing jobs, first on the Bulletin and later at the now-defunct National Times. Marr and the crusading National Times were a nice match. He went from staff writer to editor, from being fired to being rehired as a staff writer again.
“It was perfect for me, because I was never trained as a daily journalist and thus never got into the habit of always writing short stories and always looking to cut. We would have a long time to research and write our stories, and then we’d have about 10,000 words to tell the story. It was a very, very good place to work.
“I used to go around interviewing all these high-profile people and corporate crooks, who were often the same, and quickly learned that if they rang up and said, ‘It was a good story,’ it meant you had probably missed something.”
In 1985 Marr moved on to something that we can only dimly remember over here, a government-funded and commercials-free television network. He worked on the ABC’s Four Corners current affairs programme, where his high point was reporting a story which led to a Royal Commission, which in turn ended the recurring phenomenon of Aboriginal prisoners dying in the cells of rural police stations.
Marr knew he had hit the target when the West Australian police mounted an exceptionally vigorous defence against sharp allegations that they were killing the Aboriginal people. They sued the ABC, which stood firm. The police case wouldn’t get into court. Instead, it petered out. Both sides paid their own costs and went home. A win for the ABC.
Marr’s books came from his journalism. First were a biography of ex-Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick and then a long look at the Australian security services, especially through the exceptional, and sometimes farcical, Royal Commission into the links between David Combe, a former Labor Party official, and Valeri Ivanov, a Soviet diplomat and spy. It was 1983 and Marr had won few friends in Bob Hawke’s brand-new Labor government.
Those two books have been outshone by his jewel, his definitive, and massive, biography of Patrick White, the only Australian to win a Nobel Prize for literature. It runs to 644 pages, with notes and bibliographies on top. The book won numerous awards, including the NSW Premier’s Award and Age Book of the Year, and was a bestseller.
White had been on the very edge of Marr’s childhood, although they didn’t meet until Marr was an adult and discussing doing a biography. “My parents met him. My father did not like him, although my mother did. Dad found him awkward personally and didn’t like the work. When Voss appeared, my father read half the first page and threw it across the room, saying, ‘This man is mad.’
“We have had the usual crop of small errors surface, but nothing serious, which was very pleasing for a book of that size, and when, especially early in White’s life, there were few records as guides to when he had been at various places.”
Those considering tackling a biography of a complex personality, especially someone who lived a long life, might consider Marr’s comment: “I thought it might take two years. It took six.” Then, the biography written, he pressed on with the collection of White’s letters. “I expected that to take four months. It took four years.”
Yes, he has other projects sitting out there waiting. No, he doesn’t want to talk about them, at least not at this stage. “I think it would be interesting to look at the life of a simpler person. I like that idea because it would be interesting to search deep in their lives for the drama.”
Lives are much on his mind these days, his own in particular. Marr is giving some thought to his own. He’s in his late 40s, having reached the same stage as those Sydney lawyers were in the days when he was slogging through his Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise agreements.
“Those people were thinking about, at their age, suddenly starting to lead the lives they should have led. I thought to myself I should lead the life I should, which was writing.” Now he’s wondering whether that’s what he’s been doing.
The interview changes direction. Marr becomes the interviewer and begins asking me about my life this far. He is a smoothly efficient interviewer, not surprising since he runs a daily arts programme on ABC Radio, a sort of Kim Hill restricted to the arts.
A recent guest was Alan Duff, a man Marr admires. “Does he stir things up here?” Yes he does. “I assume he finds himself getting support from the people he least needs it from, the rednecks?” Yes he does. Marr files this away. New Zealand writers lined up for an appearance on Marr’s show should perhaps prepare a position on writers and their role as spokespeople for this country’s fast-changing racial politics.
This interview took place a week after the street confrontation in Wanganui, the one in which it looked as if the City Council was going to call on the police to turf out the Maoris occupying Moutua Gardens. The pictures had been dramatic, and accordingly had been given generous play on television news across the Tasman. Marr is very keen on a reading of the likely direction of race relations here, particularly in light of the long promotion of New Zealand as a racial paradise.
Having drifted off down that interesting path, Marr is too experienced an interviewer not to return to the work at hand. He wants my highlights and gets them: Irish-Catholic upbringing, travel, sport, working in the emergency services, journalism, marriage, divorce and so on. Once in the driver’s seat Marr is frighteningly quick and incisive. It is a salutary lesson in what it is like to be on the receiving end of a probing interview. Then, the assessment.
“I am wondering now whether that is the life I should have lived. Yours is the life that I theoretically envy but could never live myself. You see, I just don’t know whether sitting writing was everything I could have done.”
While I breathe a silent sigh of relief at having got off this easily, Marr moves on. How one should conduct one’s life is subject matter he has been over before. It also brings the conversation back to Patrick White, the great, gaunt ghost hovering over Marr’s life. “Patrick told me that is why writers write. They do it because the lives they lead at their desk are always much more interesting than the lives they lead away from it.
“My breaking away has been an extremely bourgeois version of a personal revolution, and I wonder whether I have really broken away at all.” This internal debate, one doubtless shared by other writers, of both fiction and nonfiction, is as yet unresolved.
Marr is casting around and giving a working definition of indecisiveness, but only in this area. He is very clear about other matters. He is keen for a list of things to see in Auckland. He has a single afternoon and wants to get off the beaten track. Forget Kelly Tarlton’s and Victoria Park Market. He’s interested in windows into New Zealand’s soul.
He’s already picked up a feeling of optimism in the air here, unlike his previous visit when recession hung in the air and when the national mood occasionally soared upwards to being able to be described as gloomy.
He gets a list I hope will be quirky enough, a grim Once Were Warriors street in Otara, the architectural mishmash of St John’s Park and the twee villa-land of St Mary’s Bay. Add Karekare beach, so he can see where The Piano was shot, and it seems to cover the range.
The drive from Ponsonby to his Parnell motel takes him through the Domain. “My God, what’s that?” It’s the Museum. “What an absolutely vile building! I have been in Northern Ireland and seen Stormont, their Parliament and it’s just like that. It’s horrible.”
I quickly decide not to take Marr anywhere near the Britomart area, where the City Council wants to skittle a row of attractive old buildings for another round of mirror glass. Marr likes the old and established. It’s his background.
“My parents were very generous and very enthusiastic about getting us all into sensible trades. Fortunately one of my sisters is still practising as a doctor. She is the best return on investment for my parents, because the rest of us are doing other things.”