Books and words

It was National Poetry Day today. I don’t have anything to contribute, sadly, not this year anyway.

‘Output Gaps’, my epic, Beowulf-influenced verse covering New Zealand’s post-World War Two economic travails and search for meaning,  is still at a very adumbral phase of development.

 

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Queuing in the drizzle, Wellington Second hand book fair, 2014.
Stephen Stratford’s always wry, witty and thinky Quote/Unquote reprinted a 1996 piece on Jenny Bornholdt. I don’t think I’ve read any of her stuff but people whose taste I respect rekkin she’s good.

Elsewhere…the New Zild poet going over a storm right now, Hera Lindsay Bird, was asked to summarise the history of poetry and tweeted about it.

It made me laugh, genuinely, out loud. Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 4.39.27 PM

Lindsay Bird is welcome for many reasons, one is she uses the word ‘fuck’ a lot and the other being she refuses to be po-faced about poetry.

Given New Zild’s literary scene has been dominated by people bemoaning the country’s dour, puritan culture and being even more dour and puritan about culture, her approach is a gust of fresh irreverence. I hope she maintains it.

I’m probably missing a whole lot of points here. I usually do, about poetry.

Over at Dim-Post, Danyl McLauchlan is marking poetry day by discussing Scottish bard William McGonagall, generally regarded as the worst poet of all time.

There’s a lot of competition for that title: it’s a bit like the Australian Worst Loser Championship.

Spike Milligan did a failed film about him, The Great McGonagall, back in the 1970s. Milligan played McGonagall and Max Miller, as seen here:

The entire film was made in an old Victorian-era theatre Milligan was trying to refurbish and the idea was to raise money for that project. The film spluttered to an end because he had another of his breakdowns, according to one history I’ve read.

It is a shambles, but it’s a weird, compelling shambles. It’s the closest I think Milligan ever got to capturing his bizarre worldview on film:  a mix of tatty music hall, Victoriana (Peter Sellers plays Queen Victoria), bad jokes, and a mocking nostalgia, or a nostalgic mocking, of the British Empire.

The bit with Valentine Dyall as Alfred Lord Tennyson is wonderfully bizarre.

Finally, swearing.

Emma Hart, at Public Address, has a post on the joys of swearing, and like Hera Lindsay Bird, I think it’s fair to say she’s broadly in favour of the activity.

The only thing I’d add is a profound and heartfelt defence of the word ‘arse’  which I feel we are at risk of losing to the awful, anaemic ‘ass’.

In all the talk – most of it pernicious nonsense – about the generational divide in recent times (aside: I wrote about it in NBR recently, if you have a sub,  its here) there is one very large generational gapopening  up and that is the use of  the rather wet ‘ass’ vs. the magnificent ‘ARSE’.

New Zealanders under the age of roughly 35 are using ‘ass’ much more where in the past the word ‘arse’ would have been used.

Honestly, what is wrong with you young people?! 

‘Ass’ is a prissy Americanism. It’s not a swear word, its what a swear word wants to be when it grows up, and only then if mummy and daddy say it is ok.

‘Arse’ is a word you can roar in exasperation, fury, or exuberance.  It needs to be preserved.

A Society for the Preservation of Arse is called for, I think.

And finally, on the subject of words and books: tomorrow is the Downtown Community Ministry Second Hand Book Fair in Wellington.

I expect that, as in previous years, it will involve queuing in the rain. And this is what makes me a Wellingtonian, I think.

A city where people queue in the rain for second-hand books is my kind of city.

 

Oh no, prime minister 

‘An editor isn’t like a general commanding an army; he’s just the ringmaster of a circus. I mean I can book the acts, but I can’t tell the acrobats which way to jump.’

Antony Jay, who created the superb BBC comedy ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister’ series has died.

 

A lot of folk – including, according legend, then-British Prime Minister Margeret Thatcher, regarded it as a documentary. When it started being shown on TV in New Zealand I was at polytech and boarding with the family of a top New Zealand public servant. I don’t think he ever called it a documentary (and he had worked in the British civil service before coming here) but it was about the only programme he watched and I was left with the distinct impression it struck a very strong chord.

‘Open government, Prime Minister. Freedom of information. We should always tell the press freely and frankly anything that they could easily find out some other way.’

 

It was also a reminder, in its way, of a more robust political culture than New Zealand has. Many of the episodes were based on either current events or on real previous events recorded in various boat-rocking memoirs by former ministers or by officials.

This excerpt is taken from an episode based on the Westland row which saw Michael Heseltine walk out of Thatcher’s cabinet. Sir Humphrey’s speech at the end is magnificent.

New Zealand doesn’t have much of that. In recent times, Ruth Richardson’s autobiography came closest. Simon Carr’s ‘The Dark Art of Politics’ had some insights into working for Jim Bolger and then for the Act Party in the mid-1990s but there was a sense he could have told much, much more.

This episode, about memoirs of a former PM, could have been about almost any former UK minister, probably from the Harold Wilson governments as those administrations unleashed a library of bilious memoirs.

It’s also brilliantly played, especially by Eddington.

 

Horrible Thing

For some reason, Nero and the Velvet Underground were connected. My brother and his partner were renting a house in Sandringham from RBNZ governor Graeme Wheeler, who arrived to fixed the roof just as they were starting to have a party.  

That was just when I was asleep. Dreams get more vivid when I have migraines. I haven’t had one for years but on Friday went down with a beaut.

They also lead to forgetfulness – took the daughter walking at Makara, not only failed to lock the car but left one of the doors wide open.

There were also blotchy little elves on the edge of my vision, who frolic and dance and are happy and I hate the little bastards.

Every noise jars, I can taste colours and noises have a colour and is like a bayonet in the right side of the brain.

I can read books and the paper word. In fact, it helps take my mind off the aforementioned metaphorical bayonet which seems to be protruding from my right temple.

 

Companions – for Book Day

August 9 is Book Day in the United States. Scanning the companionnews bulletins beaming out of that strange and excitable outlier*  from the rest of the English-speaking world, it’s difficult not to conclude that a quiet sit down with a long book for a week or two would do American citizenry a power of good.

New Zealand doesn’t have a Book Day. We probably should. We have days for lots of things, including public holidays for provinces which haven’t existed since 1876, and for the birthday of a monarch on a day which isn’t actually her birthday.

We should be able to manage a Stay In Bed & Read Day –  sometime around mid-winter, say.

Or – for Wellingtonians, anyway – whatever day the Downtown Community Ministry Bookfair is held. This is like a festival of second-hand books, and people queue in the rain for it (yes, seriously. In how many other cities in New Zealand do people queue in the rain for second-hand books?? ).

A few months back I stumbled across a bunch of Companion Library books at a second-hand bookstore in Petone. I don’t know the history to the Companion Library series, but I know it was a cheap way to get ahold of some of the great classics.

They were available on some sort of hire purchase plan, I think.  They were via mail order, and you got one every couple of months or something similar.  There was no actual ‘front’ and ‘back’ to each volume – each volume had two books, and you flipped them over and read in from each end.

They were cheap – all the books were well out of copyright, and I bet even for their cheapness someone was making a packet out of them. The first one my folks got for us was Alice in Wonderland, and I can’t for the life of me remember what was on the other side of that volume.

Had a huge effect – I had vivid dreams anyway, and here was a tale about a very vivid dream.

The volumes I read most often was the one which had Grimms Fairy Tales on one side and Hans Christian Anderson’s Tales on the other. Wore that one out. More vivid dream fodder, of course, with more than a touch of menace. And in the case of the Hans Christian Anderson stories, menace with moralism.

Aesop’s Fables was also a fave – and I notice now, looking back, that like the Grimms/Andersons volume, it was short stories. The thing I remember most about the Aesop’s Fables was discovering the origin of a few phrases (‘Oh, so *that’s* where “sour grapes” and “dog in a manger” comes from!’).

I presume the Companion Library has long since been discontinued. You can get all these on Kindles now. Probably for free or as close as makes no difference.

Anyway, Happy Book Day, wherever you are, and Happy Reading, on any day and any device.

 

*included especially for Steve Braunias

 

 

 

 

‘Something undefined’ – Lydia Davis

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis (Farrar Straus& Giroux) 2014

I mentioned Lydia Davis in a review of a collection of James Wood’s book reviews a couple of years back – I’d never heard of Davis, which is perhaps not surprising because my knowledge of fiction writers these days is pretty scant.

Trying, slowly, to rectify that, because as I put it in that earlier piece, the ‘rich, slow joy’ of reading is something I miss,  and I forget I miss it until I remember to actually do it.

This is a collection of short stories, jottings, dreams and almost-jokes. Of the latter, one,  ‘Negative Emotions’, had me chuckling with delight for ages after reading it.

There is often a tone of self-doubt – a knowing, ironic self-doubt, but it is a knowingness and irony which is not there for a smart-alecky effect. There is always a clear emotion behind such pieces, a sense Davis is taking the reader into her confidence rather than keeping us at bay.

One story, headed, ‘Not Interested’, begins

‘I’m simply not interested in reading this book. I was not interested in reading the last one I tried, either I’m less and less interested in reading any of the books I have, though they are reasonably good, I suppose.’

The way that sentence tails off into ‘I suppose’ is a nice touch.

Or:

‘Life is too serious to me to go on writing… Writing is too often about people who can’t manage. Now I have become one of those people. I am one of those people. What should I do, instead of writing that people who can’t manage, is just quick writing and then to manage. And pay more attention to life itself.’

There is a dream – Davis’s pieces are often fragments of dreams – called “The Party” which is incredibly descriptive: like a fast crane-shot on film which she describes arriving at the party somewhere unknown but vaguely familiar  with ‘a curving driveway  by lanterns among the trees… Under a lofty floodlit stone windmill.’ She described walking across gravel past ‘noisy fountains’ and entering the windmill going down stairwells rather than up,  visiting ‘a vast circular room, it’s raftered ceiling lost in darkness’… the centre of which the room is “a giant carousel motionless and crossed by powerful beams of light: white horses, four abreast, are harnessed to open carriages that rock back and forth on their bases; a ship with two figureheads rises high out of static green waves.’

Davis is very good on writing which really does make you see what she is describing: its a marvellous, rare and difficult art to pull off.

Sounds as well as pictures feature: there is a piece on onomatopoeia of a sort called ‘The Language of Things in the House’ – the washing machine and spin cycle goes ‘Pakistani, Pakistani’;,  the wooden spoon in the plastic bolstering the pancake goes ‘what the hell, what the hell’;  an iron burner rattling on its metal tray goes ‘Bonanza’; a pot in the sink with water running in it goes ‘a profound respect’;  rubber flip-flops (that’s jandals, to we New Zealanders) on the wooden floor goes ‘Echt’.

And there is a central sad story called The Seals which seems part memoir,  part something else:  something undefined.

On the strength of this,  my first reading of Davis’s work, I would say ‘something undefined’ applies to much of it. Fascinating.

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