Murray Ball, RIP. Got a huge collection of Footrot Flats books. You didn’t have to have grown up on a farm to have got the humour of them, but by crikey it helped.
One of my favourites: just a one frame shot of Wal and Cooch, cleaning out either the shed or a pigsty, in the pouring rain. Wal is looking particularly grim and determined, and an air of resigned misery hangs over the entire picture.
Dog is looking out at the viewer, and is saying, ‘Well, it was either this or do the accounts.’
Ball was a junior All Black and perhaps could have gone further but, having spent some formative years in South Africa was particularly vehemently opposed to apartheid. I recall a story of his being on one of the early protests against the 1981 tour – it may even have been the Hamilton riot – and being appalled when fellow protestors starting pulling down the fence to the ground.
When a tour to South Africa was planned in 1985, he withdrew Dog from being the All Black mascot, in an open letter to the Rugby Union.
I clipped it and its selotaped on the inside of one of the collections of Footrot Flat cartoons [see pic]. It captured the turmoil a lot of us felt about rugby contacts with apartheid, at the time: his drawing of Dog taking off his black and white scarf and walking away in sorrow was eloquent and sad and so, so bang on.
Happier was the film of the cartoons strip the following year: it brilliantly caught the entire New Zealand farming world at a time it was changing forever.
Saw the film at Mission Bay cinema: it was thrilling to see something so New Zild on the screen, so recognisable; hilarious in bits and I remember even shedding a tear at one point.
The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood Jonathan Cape 2015
“I find that my memory is always yeasting up, turning one-minute moments into loafing, 10 minute reveries.” – James Wood
Which is not a bad thing to do over the summer break, all things, somewhat leisurely, considered.
Especially if the yeast is also the stuff contained in a nice lager. Cheers, everyone.
This review has in fact been sitting in the draft folder for nearly a year* – in a completely unplanned way, I seemed to have a lot of books about books, and they were all damn good, often better than the books they were about.
The main post at the time was this, involving Clive James, amongst others.
Wood is similarly analytical and, like James, in a determinedly non-theoretical style. He might though, in fact, refute the “analytical” tag: a lot of the criticism he most likes is ‘not especially analytical but is really a kind of passionate reader description’.
That rang a ding of appreciative recognition with me: the basic question of ‘what’s it like?‘ can be over analysed, and certainly over-theorisied.
It is, he says, ‘a way of writing through books, not just about them…. One has the great privilege of performing it in the same medium one is describing:
‘When Coleridge writes of Swift that he “had the soul of revelation but dwelling in a dry place”, or when Henry James says that Balzac became so devoted to his work that he became a kind of “Benedictine of the actual”; when Pritchard laments that Ford Maddox Ford never fell into that “determined stupor” out of which great artistic work comes – these writers are producing images that are qualitatively indistinguishable from the metaphors and similes in the so-called “creative” work.
‘They are speaking to literature in its own language.’
He muses that our life stories have no shape or more accurately nothing but its presence until ‘it has its ending; and then suddenly the whole trajectory is visible’.
Julian Barnes has similar thoughts in some of his recent writing, prompted in his case by a funeral, and it takes the old brain down some channels of thought which move away from literature and onto religion, or at least questions of a ‘what’s it all mean??????!!’ nature.
There is, Woods says, a struggle within a novel between present and past, instance and form, free will and determinism, secular expansion and religious contraction.
‘Authorial omniscience has such a fraught history: the anxiety is partly a theological one and has the unresolved nature of the theological argument. The novel seems foreverrunable to decide whether it wants to revel in omniscience or apologise for it, foreground or foreclose it. Should the novelist intervene and interrupt or withdraw into impersonality and frigid indifference?’
The most important part of the book is the middle part entitled Serious Noticing , beginning with comments on the Chekhov story called “The Kiss” which focuses on just that, at length, and the different perspective two parties had on that kiss. Wood expands into writing about noticing: Chekhov, he says, ‘appears to notice everything’.
Details in ‘The Kiss’ represent a point in that story where “form is outlived, cancelled, evaded.
‘I think of details as nothing less than bits of life sticking out of the frieze of form, imploring us to touch them.’
* A lot of these posts are first drafted at odd hours, when trying to get back to sleep after dealing with various family health things. There’s about 120 odd half/three-quarters written drafts in the folder. I suppose everyone needs a hobby.
A favourite spot, over the past summer, has been the hills above Makara. The bottom left-hand corner of the North Island, the area is wild, open, and glorious. The daughter loves it there, I’m pretty fond of it myself.
There’s a high tensile toughness, as it looks out at the world. The plant life is not tall – under constant pressure from howling seaward winds, it sticks close to the ground, even though the ground itself is not the most fertile you would find. It’s scrabbly, rocky, and gives up its nutrients grudgingly.
Remnants of how New Zealand faced past threats are there: concrete gun emplacements built at the start of World War Two glower out at the sea.
To the north, you can see Mana & Kapiti Islands. Wheel your view around to the south-west and there’s the South Island. You’ll often see at least one of the Cook Strait ferries, possibly more than one.
‘Silver blue, the sea like sheets on a bed At the edge of the world a ferry boat crawls away like a snail…’
…as Don McGlashan wrote in the great Mutton Birds song, ‘Along the Boundary’. I don’t think the song is actually about this spot – I remember McGlashan saying, somewhere, it was about a specific place and memory, but I suspect that place is on the other side of the strait.
But anyway. It’s off an album which came out in 1995, around the time I moved to Wellington. It’s always had a special place in my heart and I think of this particular song almost every time I go up to this place.
It’s about a child climbing a tree, and struggling to keep up with a bigger child – a friend or, more likely, a sibling or a cousin – who is ‘much older’.
The song tells of a child discovering he/she could keep up with the ‘much older’ person.
‘You never thought I could get such a long way up, but I looked straight ahead…’
And there’s the evocative memory…
‘I feel the branches move around me I see the thistles along the boundary Up along the boundary…’
And, from up there, the child’s feeling of, if not omnipotence, then certainly strength and potential:
‘I move patches of wind round the bay of glass I move shadows of clouds over the grass I’m at the controls, there isn’t a shelf or a rock on the beach That I couldn’t reach…
The sun pulls the hills the way the tide pulls on the sea Waves and waves of grass are breaking, rolling over to me And the sky’s like a wheel Like a wheel…’
It’s sheer poetry. McGlashan’s one of our best songwriters: he is certainly our best at evoking the New Zealand space – both headspace and physical space.
He’s kind of a rock muso version of Maurice Gee.
Today the threats those concrete blockhouses were built to face are gone. Behind them, the flat area dug out to house soldiers’ barracks is partly overgrown with lupins.
Sheep may safely graze there. Children play noisily and happily in the old buildings once built by khaki-clad soldiers in deadly, fear-filled earnestness of an overwhelming threat.
Just over the hills, the Makara wind farms whirl, while under them, a stream of mountain bikers, all sweaty and multicoloured exuberance, whirl their pedals in a kind of mock tribute.
So: here’s the Mutton Birds, doing ‘Along The Boundary’, live. Bit rough, but its still a great song.
This ‘relaxation’ thing…its quite neat, isn’t it? Must remember to try it again sometime.
Napier has an establishment called the ‘Allergy Free Cafe’ – don’t get me wrong, it does good coffee, but I can’t help but think ‘surely, that depends what you’re allergic to’
Next door is the ‘Fat Latte Cafe’ which has to be a deliberate, firm, extended digit, to its neighbour. It’s also a lot more relaxed. The bods in the allergy free cafe all look uptight and very ill.
Oh, and the Fat Latte has a fantastic lambs fry and bacon.
Strongly recommend ‘The Ottoman Endgame’ (Sean McMeekin, Penguin, 2015) for a host of reasons.
One – or rather, two, ‘cos they’re separate and they’re both important – is the historical context it lends to today. One of those contexts is the strategic one provided to New Zealand’s enduring Anzac legacy.
McMeekin provides a detailed and thoughtful analysis of just what the hell they were doing there, and also sets out what he sees as the biggest strategic blunder of the campaign – the option of landing in the part of the Ottoman Empire then called Alexandretta, now called İskenderun, was considered and rejected.
What attracted me to this book – apart from a few highly appreciative reviews from elsewhere – was a doco I saw last year on the Ottoman-Turkish winter battle in December 1914, which saw the Turks send an army over the mountains at the start of the winter, with most of the casualties coming from frostbite (a lot of the troops didn’t even have boots). They still gave the Russians a fright: a plan for a much more ambitious, and never attempted, invasion caused a Russian panic which led them to ask the Brits and the French for some sort of attack on the southern Turkish side.
Hence, Gallipoli. The Russians were supposed to coordinate with the Gallipoli campaign, but they didn’t: they were more than happy to see the British, especially, batter themselves senseless in a stalemate and in any case the last thing they wanted was a British army in Constantinople, given the historic rivalry between the two powers in the entire region from Greece across to India.
The other insight is of course into today’s wars in the Middle East. McMeekin lays to rest a few myths around the “Sykes-Picot Agreement”, the perpetuation of which has a lot to do with the popularity of the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. It was really the Sakarov-Sykes-Picot agreement and was reached in 1916 with Russia calling the shots because Britain and France had had their backsides kicked by the Ottomans at Gallipoli and Basra.
The Ottomans were supposed to be backward and useless – “the sick man of Europe” and all that, but here they were beating the crap out of the Allies.
So Russia got the lion’s – or the bear’s – share of the Sakharov-Sykes-Picot agreement which carved up the Ottoman Empire. Trouble was, in 1917 the Russians had a revolution, then another one, and it was all off. The Brits and the French redrew the agreement.
There was quite a bit of squabbling with the new Turkish regime, post-war – well, one of McMeekin’s points is it might have been “post-war” the way we usually think of it but it wasn’t post war for the Turks and nor was it, really for the Brits and the French, at least in the Middle East.
But then, I suppose, since when has it ever been “post-war” in the Middle East? Not for a wee while, anyway.
Anyway, highly recommended. It’s an excellent, clear and readable history, as clear as any history can be of this fractured and fissiparous region.
I pitched camp..well, when I say ‘camp’ I mean I rented a farmhouse..in a valley in the Hawkes Bay, all the better to write a lot. It didn’t have decent internet connection, which for about 30 seconds I was worried about before concluding it was exactly what was needed. Wrote in the mornings, when I’m brighter anyway and before the sun got over the hills and turned the cottage into a broiler house. Then went walking in the afternoon.
Got a little more than 14,000 words done, probably at least a third of which I’ll dump as being not up to scratch, but its certainly a base to work off.
‘It was, after all, Greeks who pioneered the writing of history as what it has so largely remained, an exercise in political ironics—an intelligible story of how men’s actions produce results other than those they intended.’ – J G A Pocock
Pocock was a New Zealander. Not born here, but brought up here and the first ever head of the Canterbury University political science department.
I don’t normally link to Wikipedia, but just this once: there’s more on him here.
I came across this line in a book on the Kennedys, but it seems apt right now. Sadly and worryingly apt.
‘The main problem in any democracy is that crowd-pleasers are generally brainless swine who can go out on a stage & whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy—then go back to the office & sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece.’