Pogues. For St Pat’s Day

Pogues, for St Patrick’s Day.  As I may have written in the past, I don’t have a drop of Irish ancestry, but there’s sometthing which stirs the blood in this tune.

It’s a song shot through with emotion about the Irish diaspora, fleeing both poverty and a theocratic culture.

The mix of grief and rage is something the Irish do well, for good as well as bad reasons.

This is a live version – a bit rough (c’mon, its the Pogues), with Joe Strummer and Kirstie McColl.

‘Gonna make it after all…’

Husker Du. Mary Tyler Moore Theme. Thrashed a lot, very ironically, back in 1985. Seems less ironic now.

Rest in piece, Mary. Wasn’t till I got to journalism school in 1982 I realised many of the newsroom types in the MTM Show were everywhere. Not just the Marys, but the Ted Baxters & the Lou Grants.

Bob Dylan – the Nobel of Rhymney

Bob Dylan gets a Nobel. For literature, just in case you were thinking it’s for economics or anything.

Hmm.

I’m in the rather large camp which believes St Zimmy’s songs were best done by other people. I don’t like his singing much – his style, especially in his better-known songs from the ’60s, is very sneering, very off-putting.

And like others, I’m sure, I’ve heard too many bad buskers hooting ‘how does it FEEL???’ too many times not to feel a certain weariness.

I’ve only ever owned one Dylan album – Blood on the Tracks, which became the soundtrack for one of the numerous, not particularly happy, road trips I did around the North Island back in the ’80s.

It is, to be fair, pretty good, and ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ is one of the great ‘Track One, Side One’ songs of all time.

More recently, I downloaded a few of the mono mixes of some of his famous songs from the mid-60s.

Yeah, they’re good. But Dylan is a bit like the Beatles. We’ve been saturated in adulation for the “genius” of these “icons” for so long the colour and flavour has kind of leached out of them. It’s kind of difficult to tell if they’re really that good any more. Besides, I’m of an age group that grew up after they were already towering eminences, great cultural gods. The urge to lay about these icons with a hammer is never far away – or at least, to point out these Emperors might not have been naked but they did have many of the less personally admirable aspects of emperors down the ages.

And the Nobel? For literature? Dylan’s influence is huge but it’s musical rather than literary. It doesn’t feel right, somehow.

Dylan himself once said the band who did his songs best was Manfred Mann. The Dylan Disciples – of whom there are many- have always maintained this was one of the Bobsters’s great jokes.

Good one.

And finally: William Shatner does Mr Tamborine Man. As only Bill S & his singing hairpiece can.

‘And another thing, I’ve been wondering laayte-lee’ ….

Ok, finishing the weekend with another Aussie outfit – the Hoodoo Gurus from 1987. Great year.

Introduced by Suzi Quatro wearing the most awesome mullet of all time.

Superb, surging powerpop/rock, this number.

‘Oh where oh where can my scene be….?’

‘Shouting out across an empty station…’ Don Walker, Jimmy Barnes, and Cold Chisel

Shots by Don Walker (Penguin) 2010
 Well some of us are driven to ambition
Some of us are trapped behind the wheel
Some of us will break away,
Build a marble yesterday
And live for every moment we can steal
Conversations, 
Conversations
Shouting out across an empty station...

‘Conversations’,   the opening track of Cold Chisel’s second album, Breakfast at Sweethearts, is the sort of song which critics call ‘full tilt’, but it isn’t so much full-tilt as almost overbalancing itself with its own speed. Fast and frantic, it captures the band’s own desperate ambition.

Not so long back, interviewing the man who wrote it and most of Cold Chisel’s songs, keyboard player Don Walker, Kim Hill suggested that people had a lot of fun to his songs, but they’re mostly quite sad songs.

Walker sounded somewhat nonplussed.

“I might have to go and have a look at meself”, was his response.

Difficult to tell if he was being serious. He sounded serious, certainly, but Walker has that dry Aussie humour which can be taking the piss when it is sounding most serious.

It is a brand of humour which often serves as a guard, especially when confronted with that kind of sharp personal insight Hill delivered during the exchange.

I found myself recalling that interview as Hill interviewed Jimmy Barnes, the lead singer of that band, Cold Chisel, last weekend.

Barnes’ memoir has just come out and it’s a lot about surviving what was basically an abusive childhood and adult alcoholism.

Barnes writes in that autobiography that despite their very different backgrounds, that it was as if Walker had read his mail.

Walker wrote most of Chisel’s songs, and I’ve thought for a long time that those songs – certainly his most famous ones, the ones he did with Cold Chisel, are about having a good time while you’re having a lousy time.

Back when they were in their heyday, I can remember having one of those intense conversations about music which you often have at that age, and distinguishing between the two big Aussie bands of the day, Australian Crawl and Cold Chisel.

Aussie Crawl were about pure hedonism, having a good time: Cold Chisel was about having a good time even though you’re having a lousy time, I vaguely remember proclaiming, probably while waving my arms around and just before falling off my chair.

This is kind of a definition of soul music (the having a good time while having a bad time thing, I mean: not so much the waving arms around/falling off chair thing), I think: if you listen to classic soul, by which I mostly mean the Stax-Volt Memphis brand but also the best Motown stuff, it is about dancing while feeling lousy about your life.

There’s a whole lot of socio-economic and political reasons for that aspect of soul music, most of which should be fairly obvious to anyone with who knows a bit about history and retains a bit of empathy.

It applies, perhaps less politically than in the music made by American blacks,  to other rock music: the Who’s Pete Townshend, when his band was trying to pretend to be Mods, suggested the Mod ethos not so much about solving young people’s problems as allowing them to dance all over those problems. (although dancing to the Who’s music, is, I think, a bit problematic).

Walker’s memoir, ‘Shots’ only seldom alludes to influences such as this. His own early influences were jazz and country, while Cold Chisel has been more associated with pub/hard rock.

That said, there are enough jazz and country, as well as blues, influences, on Chisel, especially their earlier work.

This number – which closed their first album – shows singer Jimmy Barnes wasn’t just a shrieker: it is a song of summer regret and has a torch-like, almost jazzy flavour:

Lovers see the world through an old red wine

All the sounds of the blues, well

They just disappear

With a light like yours beside me

It’s been an old, old, red wine year.’

Soul, definitely: Chisel’s second vocalist, guitar player Ian Moss, consciously modelled his singing style on Sam Cooke and although Moss isn’t as good as that (unless your name is Al Green or Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles you’re not even gonna come in the same league) you can hear the influence. (Moss used to sing Charles’ ‘Georgia’ at Chisel concerts and he carries it off respectably).

Walker’s ‘Shots’ is, as he has said himself, not so much a memoir as a highly impressionistic travelogue of his time before and after, as well as during, Cold Chisel’s heyday from 1978-93.

It reaches a climax, and a crisis, at the time Chisel release their breakthrough album, East. The opening track from that, like ‘Conversations’ has a desperate headlong rush to it, especially when played live.

Lyrically,  ‘Standing on the Outside’  is more linear than ‘Conversations’ – it has a similar mood to the earlier track and both were used to open concerts, but it tells a story as well. This live clip is from their final concert, and it shows them going out at their peak.

They’re playing their hearts, and guts, out here:

 

‘I wonder if other lives have a fulcrum, a few days or weeks that gather everything from decades before and fire it though into a trajectory pre-drawn for decades after…’

 

Walker ponders in ‘Shots’, referring to this period.

Just after East was recorded, and just before it was released, two friends of the band were killed in a road accident: one knocked out when it went into a tree and the other, conscious but struggling and insisting they get his mate out first when the vehicle caught fire and they both died.

‘Why that should have been the end of anything I do not know, maybe it just coincided with other things, but the end it was’, Walker wrote, years later, in the notes to the ‘Teenage Love” album. The final couple of years – including that farewell concert, the opening of which is that above clip, was, he wrote, a ‘long slow ugly vicious death… like clubbing a dearly beloved while they cling to your leg.’

It is a strange, jaundiced and in some ways odd read. Walker has a rare gift for a phrase: ‘someone whose dreams have strangled their common sense…’ he describes the funder of a concert in some bush backwater; ‘like trying to fuck through a tennis racquet’ sums up a particularly bad gig; young female concertgoers from the posh Victorian squattocracy, ‘rich girls who want to play out their hatred of any plans at all from anywhere up the ancestral chain’; or, visiting old haunts, ‘It’s like visiting your baby playground after you’ve sold your soul’.

There’s a cynicism, perhaps – a lyrical cynicism, certainly, but cynicism it is. Is Walker trying too hard here, perhaps? There’s what seems to be a deliberate, emotional guardedness, something which comes through in that response to Kim Hill’s question.

There’s a bizarre traveling the Aussie outback fantasy involving escaped Laundromat washing machines going rogue, roaming the badlands,  breeding and ‘sometimes ending a decoy out on the highway in ambush, if you stop they kidnap you off  and just wash the fuck out of you…’

The book is a neat, if offbeat, read. He comes at his subject – that subject being his own life, mostly – obliquely and from a skew-whiff angle. There’s a longer interview with him on ABC Radio here…

 

 

 

 

Mash ups – 1980

‘Mash ups’ or dubbing different souonds onto existing film footage have become all the rage since Youtube became popular.

But they’re not new, really.

This was done by Not the Nine O’Clock News, circa 1980, with a speech by Northern Ireland protestant leader Ian Paisley, the sounds of Northern Irish band Thin Lizzy, and – for reasons which are not clear – a bit of footage from Rod Stewart’s band of the time.

Book reviews: Burke, Disraeli, and thoughts on their lessons for New Zealand 

Disraeli: Or, The Two Lives, by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013

Edmund Burke: the first conservative by Jesse Norman Basic Books, 2013

The Left are natural dreamers, and so they have a ready supply of heroes,” write Douglas Hurd and Edward Young in their biography of Benjamin Disraeli.

I don’t have political heroes: the whole concept seems a bit naff to me.

But of the political heroes I don’t have, these two come top of the list. In my early 20s, in a dusty second-hand book store upstairs in Auckland’s Elliott Street, I found an old 19th Century poster etching of Disraeli. Had it on my bedroom wall for years, when flatmates had Whitney Houston, Morrissey, or Michael Jackson posters.

I’d read essays on the guy, he sounded interesting. And witty.

Burke, I discovered in a first year politics paper – Auckland University’s great ‘Law, Property and Individualism’ course on political philosophy from Plato through to Mill.

Andrew Sharp is still the best university lecturer I ever had, on any subject, I think. Lucid and clear, with an engaging informal approach – he never wasted a word in his lectures, yet he still usually explained things three times, at least for his stage one class.

I’d heard of Burke, but knew nothing about him apart from a few quotes (the one about society being a contract a contract by the living with both the dead and those yet to be born, and the one about a member of Parliament owing electors his judgement not his obedience).

On about the third tutorial, essay topics were being assigned and the tutor – a great teacher who sadly is no longer with us – told me “Do Burke, Rob. You’d love him.”

And she was right.

This was the mid-1980s and politics in New Zealand was awash with ideological debate…actually, that’s not quite correct. The Labour Party, in government, was awash with ideological debate. ideological and factional debate (the two are often hard to distinguish from each other), that is.

By the end of the decade the Labour Party was the only party with clubs on campus – but there were three of them*.

The conservative side of politics was somewhat confused. National had gone down this weird route under Sir Robert Muldoon and was still trying to recover. Roger Douglas had implemented many of the policies National’s more ideologically inclined  – never a very large group – had long wanted to carry out. The rest of National, meanwhile, was spitting with rage and pain, as Rogernomics went through the farming sector and the country’s protected industries like a runaway bulldozer through a Crown Lynn surplus china goods shop.

It was a difficult time. And if you were trying to get a ‘fix’ on your own political outlook, as I was, it was tricky.  I clearly wasn’t a socialist of any kind. There was the emotionally attractive but intellectual  double-blind alley  of simplistic and unrealistic nostalgia offered by Sir Robert Muldoon’s dwindling  followers and the larger and louder New Labour backers of Jim Anderton.

The need for many of the Rogernomic reforms was clear. What was also clear was the collateral damage they were causing.

Burke’s wariness about simplistic, theoretically  driven reforms imposed on a society without due respect and attention to that society’s traditions and values made a lot of sense – intellectually and emotionally. Together with Disraeli’s wit and often wispy rhetoric, they make an appealing package for conservatives, even today.

Disraeli and Burke are conservatives – subtle and profound ones. Both were in fact outsiders of the society in which they found themselves: Burke was Irish, and even though he was Protestant Irish it lent him a certain distance (his mother was catholic).

Disraeli was a novelist, a dandy,  with a suspiciously raffish background and a Jewish heritage,  who somehow got the Conservative Party of the 19th Century, populated with lords and landowners, squires and soldiers, clergymen and churchgoers, to accept him as leader.

It is the sheer, preposterous unlikeliness of Disraeli which makes up a big part of his appeal. He defies almost every stereotype with which we associate the words ‘conservative’ and ‘Victorian’.

 He was, to quote Ian Gilmour, a former Conservative MP and editor of the Spectator, one of  ‘the few Tory leaders who has been able to bring warmth to Conservatives and to add to its basic common sense a degree of romance, generosity and excitement.’

And they were both, of course, writers. Burke was not a particularly successful politician, although he did attain moderate ministerial rank: Disraeli was  a spectacularly successful politician – in the end. He suffered decades of failure, and he was to muse, when he finally got the prime ministership, that he had got it too late.

But he was also, as Hurd and Young show in their biography, ‘always a novelist even when writing no novels at all’.

“Time and again Disraeli uses imagination to make politics interesting. His most powerful strength was the creative energy with which he transformed Victorian politics. The public were fascinated by his speeches in the Commons. As Lord Curzon later put it: ‘the jewelled phrase, the exquisite epigram, the stinging sneer. He was like a conjurer on a platform whose audience with open mouth awaited the next trick.'”

That, rather than winning elections or running governments, is his real legacy and achievement, although he was pretty good at those more prosaic things too. Someone called it ‘the politics of drains’ – Disraeli’s governments, particularly his 1874-80 one, did quite a lot of this. (The other two were short-lived affairs).

Most of all, he was able to make an imaginative, empathetic leap and realise the rising middle classes, and in particularly a sizable chunk of the increasingly unrestful working classes, would happily vote conservative.

No one else seems to have thought so at the time. There was a fear of what ‘the mob’ would do if they were given any sort of power.

But he taught his party, and his lesson for conservatives remains.

There was, for example, a public argument between  with Lord Cranborne, then a newspaper editor but later, when he inherited his family title of Lord Salisbury, to himself lead the Conservatives – about extending the right to vote beyond the aristocracy and landowners to other people. 

Disraeli was prepared to extend the right to vote to more working class men (votes for women was, at the time, only advocated by the real radicals) than was the Liberal Party of the time.  Although supposedly the more ‘progressive’ the Liberals were  worried about whether those voters were quite up to it.

Shouldn’t they just be content to be guided by the wiser and better beings, (of whom the Liberal Party of the day, naturally, considered themselves the prime examples)?

Disraeli cut through all that cant and hypocrisy, all that snobbery masquerading as concern.

As I’ve written in the National Business Review recently , (paywalled) it was something emulated by successful conservative leaders around the world – including in New Zealand.

After having his policy attacked by Cranborne., Disraeli commented that the ‘article was written by a very clever man who has made a very great mistake’ and going on to explain that conservatism did not oppose all change:
‘In a progressive country change is constant and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs the laws and traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.’
That returns us to the comment about the Left being ‘natural dreamers’. This takes many forms, and it is particularly pertinent in New Zealand at the moment, with our Labour Party talking about ‘dreams’ in almost every pronouncement.
One of my own, personal, rules of politics is whenever any politician, of any stripe, starts talking about “dreams” what you are about to hear is usually undiluted bilgewater.
 George Orwell put it differently – in a prosperous country, he once said, radical politics is usually a form of make-believe. I’ll return to this one another day – it opens up a whole area to explore about the nature of ideology and left-wing politics and the type of mindset which is attracted to both.
Disraeli, the authors of this latest biography conclude, ‘did not simply outwit his opponents. He also persuaded the vast majority of his supporters that this was actually a direction in which they wanted to go’.
They  quote Walter Bagehot’s  deliciously apt metaphor that Disraeli guided the Conservative Party as the mahout guides the elephant, light in strength but knowing all the party’s habits and ways.
 In New Zealand?  The lessons are there for conservatives here, but they are not about copying or aping what British counterparts have done. The key part of Disraeli’s approach (and, even more so, Burke’s, and I will come to this below) is about ‘the manners, the customs the laws and traditions of a people’.

 

New Zealanders are not Brits. We have our own manners, customs, laws and traditions. Along with an emerging sense of our own history as something distinct and something our own, and these are  becoming stronger and more confident by the year.

I plan…and here I use the word ‘plan’ somewhat loosely.. to write more on this.

There have been several books on Disraeli – the ‘authoritative’ one is by Robert Blake. It is thorough, reasonably but not excessively  adulatory, and just a little bit dull. Hurd and Young capture Disraeli’s essence – or his importance, anyway –  in a much shorter and more readable book. They are sceptical, occasionally with some astringency, about Disraeli’s more shameless exploits (and there were more than a few of those, one of which – the elevating of imperialism to an explicit, crowd-pleasing political policy, produced a lot of long-term harm).

So I’m not starry-eyed about him. Admirable and fascinating in many ways, there was a streak of frivolity which occasionally tipped into something darker.

As for the second book under review:  Burke’s approach was summarised best in his line that

‘Circumstance  (which with some gentlemen passes for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.’

He follows from Aristotle’s emphasis on human beings as social and political animals, but stresses that the important part of this is the institutions and customs a society evolves for itself   over time. These institutions, customs and norms ‘become a repository of shared knowledge and inherited wisdom.’

His rejection of abstract reasoning can – and often is – reduced to caricature, sometimes by Burke himself. A querulous query to the Sheriffs of Bristol, a bunch of lads who sound like a barrel of laughs, is cited as the essence of anti-intellectualism:

What is the use of discussion a man’s abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them…I shall always advise to call in the of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics.’

Burke does not, in fact, dismiss philosophy or metaphysics quite as comprehensively and certainly not as unthinkingly as that quote suggests: instead one of his great themes is that ‘universal principles themselves are never sufficient in themselves to guide practical deliberation’.

Burke was not trying to create a philosophical system, but, Norman argues, he has

‘a rich and distinctive world view of his own….Each[social order] is sui generis, a largely incremental and historically continuing human achievement…Any practical or theoretical reflection on such a human artifact – and this applies to any institution, large or small, peoples and nations as much as words or ideas – must therefore begin with history and experience.

‘Far from choking off individual energy and aspiration…it makes social and economic advancement possible. It is a colossal collective achievement which must be treated with respect by all would-be reformers.’

Amongst these institutions is the market, which at the time Burke was writing was becoming more studied, most famously by Adam Smith. Smith once commented that ‘Burke is the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us.’

Burke did not actually write much on economic matters, or at least did not have much published, but some works assembled after his death and labeled Thoughts and Detail on Scarcity cover the area and Norman points out, rightly I think, that neither Burke nor Smith was really what we would call a full-blown free trader: that Burke ‘sees markets and other institutions as operating  within, drawing from and contributing to a broader moral community.’

Markets need to be respected because they reflect people’s myriad individual choices. They are not the product of some idealogue scribbling out a theoretical construct of society – their strength is they evolved out of humans doing what comes naturally.

They work best when the signals they send about people’s preferences is subject to as little interference as possible.  But they also are just one custom and tradition. They need to work within the customs and mores of that broader community –  – in New Zealand’s case, within our ideas and assumptions about ourselves, about what makes us distinctive as a people. This is, I think, – becoming more important in how our own politics is framed.

That, though, touches on my paid work, and for now it is the weekend. More on that, in another forum.

For now, I’d recommend both these books for anyone of a conservative frame of mind – and anyone who wants to understand some of the more important and subtle, but less understood, currents of the conservative tradition.

* I am going by memory here. No doubt someone will be able to dig out the records or minutes from some tedious and lengthy meetings of trainee 20 year old polticians which show there were only two. Or five. Good luck to you, whoever you are.

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.

 

Books and lists

Lists of things are all the rage. They help sell news…I was going to say newspapers, but hell, I mean clicks.

In 2000 years, perhaps, New Zealand will have one of these. It must be preserved.
You know the kind of thing.  What’s hot, What’s not” or ” 
Five Things You Absolutely Must Do Before Ennui Overtakes Your Entire Life and You Might Just As Well Lie Down On A Skillet And Wait for Them to Slide You into the Crematorium“.Well okay:  none are quite as explicit as that. But it’s very much what they seem to be getting at.

And then there is the whole ” 100 Record Albums You Must Have in Your Collection if You Are to Be Taken Remotely Seriously” or “ 100 Books You Should Be Able to At Least Reel off the Conversational Equivalent of Coles Notes About”.

These sorts of lists are a bit more forgivable.

A bit.

There is still, unfortunately, more than a whiff of ostentatious taste-setting for the plebs about them.

Which is one reason – but not the only reason – why I really like the Spin Off’s 100 great New Zealand non-fiction books list posted this week.

It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It has been compiled by a group of people, with a joint byline of Group Think – itself a neat little dig at other lists like this.

And certainly some of the books listed show more than a small whiff of  Braunias-esqe mischievousness.

Some are genuinely good.I got into a neat little online discussion on Twitter – which is possible to do, sometimes – over books which should be included and came up with a few which they missed.

This is the other aspect of such lists which can be a bit naff ,  so I’m venturing forth on this a bit carefully.

It’s  the whole “I can’t believe you’ve missed out **** *********!!” thing.

Accusations of “glaring omissions” are common over lists like this. I’m not going to glare at any omissions, nor even eye-roll at them (although I did over some of the books included. The Passionless People? Really??)

But lists like this should not take on the form or tone of ex cathedra pronouncements from some cultural pontiffs. (yes, the authors of this list  claim it is “definitive”, but it is clear from the context that they do so with tongues firmly in their cheeks).

The approach of the list makers, in this case anyway, seems to be very much in the area of “here are some books we have come up with – what do you think?”

This is a conversation starter, not a Final Word.

The compilers manage to do this with a combination of some very good books recommended, often some quite obscure ones, and often some not obscure ones which, to my own slight chagrin, I’ve not got around to reading.

That is the other, perhaps most useful, purpose of  of lists like this: memory joggers.

There are at least two books on this list which I greeted with a “oh yeah, haven’t got round to that one yet”.

One final point: New Zealand seems to have reached a point in our history where non-fiction books are streaming onto our  bookshelves (and, yes, onto our kindles and iPads as well) in a flood.

The New Zealand non-fiction section in Unity Books is spreading, and is stacked wide as well is high. There is a thirst for New Zealand history right now – history,  and analysis of that history

If you want to skip the next bit and go on to my – quite short – list, feel free to do so. I’m about to go into Old Fart Mode.

When I was growing up, there were few books on New Zealand history – and in particular very few on New Zealand political history.

And about half the books on news on political history were written by John A Lee, or it least it seemed that way. There were no books on the history of non-Labour governments and almost none on non-Labour politicians.

There were a couple of pamphlet-sized booklets on political history –  some particularly short but good ones on the interwar period – and there may have been a biography of Richard John Seddon.

That was kind of about it.

There were local histories,  which tended to gloss over some of the more awkward, not to say bloody aspects of New Zealand’s history, in particular with reference to any events between roughly 1845 and 1872.

The flood of books about New Zealand history in recent years has, I believe, only begun to slake the thirst New Zealanders have for all this.

Aspects of national identity and knowledge of our history is becoming more important, more emotionally important, to New Zealanders in today’s world because today’s world is so globalised.

Living in this environment means an awareness of what makes us specifically us becomes more important.  It is not about nationalism (or racism either come to that) although it can be warped into those poison-soaked channels by the unscrupulous and the stupid  if care is not taken.

So.

Anyway.

Here is my, small,  number of additions to the Spinoff list:

 

  1.  His Way by Barry Gustafson –  I’ve written about this before, here, and won’t add much.  It’s the best New Zealand   political biography I’ve read and the companion volume, Gustafson’s biography of Keith Holyoake, is almost as good.
  2. 1981 by Geoff Chapple –   A protester/journalist-eye view  of the 1981 Springbok tour. Partial,  highly partial –  but then, given the fierce and bitter divisions of the Tour I don’t think anybody could write about it dispassionately. Not at the time certainly. Chapple  glosses over – but does not totally ignore – the propensity for some more fanatical protesters to engage in vandalism and behaviour which could easily have seriously endangered other people. The self-righteousness of the time is caught, and so is the atmosphere of violence.  It was a bitter, ugly period  and this book manages to reflect that while also informing.
  3. The Unauthorised Version by Ian F Grant –  Again, I’ve written about this in the past, here, so I won’t expand too much. Effectively it’s a history of New Zealand told through cartoons drawn during that history, and with some good explanatory chapters. I often give this to newcomers as a primer  on New Zealand  history up to the 1980s. And not jokingly either.  It is a very good, entertaining summary.
  4. New Zealand the Way I Want It by Bob Jones –  written as a response to the National Party 1975 election slogan: “New Zealand the way you want it” this is Bob Jones’ – now Sir Bob – best written work I think.  Again, Old Fart Alert here –  but in the 1970s everyone was so  polite and Jones’ bluntness and exuberant, don’t give a damn commentaries on New Zealand public  life had roughly the same impact as a gale force  Wellington southerly would have on a stiflingly  humid Auckland food hall.
  5. Food for Flatters by Michael Volkering – when I started flatting every flat had this, usually in the third drawer down the kitchen where the  house accounts were kept. It started with teaching you how to boil an egg –   and some of us didn’t move on from that page for some time – before moving on to more complicated things such as curried sausages.
  6. Economic Management By the New Zealand Treasury 1984 –  This was written back in the day when briefings to the incoming government actually meant something. This was more meaningful than most. As a giveaway, the first hundred copies came with a set of brown trousers and bicycle clips.
  7. Mark of the Lion By Kenneth Sanford –  the story of Charles Upham,  who won the Victoria Cross twice (one of only three people to do so, and the only one who wasn’t a medical orderly). Utterly mind blowing, this book.  At one point during one of the battles during the retreat to El Alamein, he was so peppered  with small wounds and blood from shrapnel some of his own people did not recognise him. And some of the wounds were from his own hand grenades because he tended to get so close to the enemy before throwing them.