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.

 

Factories of empire

The Prose Factory by D J Taylor (Random House 2015)

The Great British Dream Factory by Dominic Sandbrook (Penguin 2015)

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‘No one over the age of 40 – no one at any rate old enough to have experienced a literary world made up entirely of books, newspapers and reference libraries – can roam the world of the blogosphere and the online symposium without thinking that there is too much of everything – too many books, too much criticism of them, too many reviews, too many opinions, too many reading groups, too many book clubs, so many literary prizes that any vaguely competent novel comes garlanded with two or three endorsements from the judging committees, that we are drowning in a sea of data where an instant reaction is always liable to crowd out mature reflection, where anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s and the fact that the distinguished man of letters in the Wall Street Journal thinks McCarthy’s The Road is a work of genius is of no interest at all to the Amazon reviewer who awards a single star for a “lack of bite”.’

Well, there is definitely too much of that sentence, but you can see what he’s getting at.

It comes towards the end of D J Taylor’s The Prose Factory, which covers the history of English literary affairs and business from 1918 through to roughly present day.

It is full of ideas about writing, the business of writing,  and by that I mean both the often neglected financial side, and also what writers were really concerned with, as opposed to what they said they were concerned with.

There is a great section on the rise of what was known as “the middle article” – light essays on literature or culture more generally  in newspapers  from roughly the 1920s onwards.

Such articles were still  common in British newspapers when I became a junkie in the mid-1980s – or at least the broadsheets such as the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Observer and the Sunday Times.

The ‘middle article’ became the vehicle for maintaining liberal values just as, in the political sphere, the liberal tradition became threatened.  Essayists as diverse as GK Chesterton or AG Gardner or JB Priestley kept this tradition  going –  a tradition which included the attitudes of universality tolerance and diversity of subject matter.

One essayist is described by Taylor, delightfully, as reviewing James Joyce’s Ulysses from ‘the angle of one who suspects that Ulysses has merit but can’t quite see it himself’.

This got me thinking  about the blogosphere because… Well of course it did. Back  when blogs became a thing,  about a dozen years or so ago,  I likened them to the old 18th and 19th-century pamphleteers:  partisan,  often puerile,  and occasionally very personal.

There has, in the past few years, developed a sort of second wave of blogs in New Zealand (and no doubt elsewhere) which is less concerned with politics and more with wider issues.

There is still a highly political element,  but it manages – a fair amount of the time, anyway –  to avoid the juvenile and extremely boring ‘Ya Boo Lefties! ‘Ya Boo Righties!’ face pulling behaviour which became synonymous with blogging for a long time.

I think this “middle article”  style seems not a bad description of the second wave.

Taylor is good  – very good in fact, if very  acerbic –  about the sheer snobbery of many writers,  with  those espousing radical politics being the most snobbish of the lot.

The chapter on the 1930s  – “The Pink Decade”   points out that champions of working class amongst the intelligentsia seldom admitted actual members of the working class to their salons and that when they tried things seldom turned out well.  There is a heartbreaking anecdote of Sid Chaplin,  one of the few working-class writers,who was published being invited to George Orwell’s house and making it as far as the doorway before fleeing in terror.

He also has the occasional go at the more anti-intellectual tradition of English letters,  but points out that even this,  once upon a time,  could draw on a background of shared cultural and intellectual heritage.

The mid-20th Century  battleground between ‘modernists and traditionalists, of highbrows and lowbrows,  of middle-class reactionaries, as Orwell once put it, thanking God they were not born brainy…’ was real enough,  but, as he says, even conservative critics of T S Elliot’s ‘The Wasteland’  could pick up the classical allusions. That isn’t so now.

There is the ongoing problem of funding literature:  ‘put an entity charged with expanding public take-up of literature in the hands of a bureaucrat, and the literature itself is all too easily lost sight of. Put it in the hands of other writers and the first casualty is likely to be a grasp of practical reality.’

There is, perhaps naturally, quite a bit on two writers who have written a lot about writers: the two friends who were often mistaken for each other, Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge.

Bradbury I’ve only recently started reading although I’ve certainly been aware of him for some years – Taylor heralds as a kind of chronicler of the strange death, not so much of Liberal England as of the less definable, and much more important, set of broad liberal ideas and attitudes. Bradbury is, he says,

Bradbury is, he says

‘an elegist for an ethical code in severe danger of being swamped, a dazzling intellectual high wire act or even – to lower the bar a bit – is top-notch slapstick comedian in the Kingsley Amis mould. His real achievement, you suspect, rests on his ability to show just how formidable a force the old-style liberal humanists can be – even here in a wind and ground down world, somewhere in that endlessly contested space between the end of the Cartesian project and the beginning of the World Wide Web.’

Bradbury’s compatriot and friend David Lodge has a slightly different approach and has a lovely line about how Lodge

‘clearly isn’t averse to dressing up in the glad rags of literary theory, but on this, and other, evidence he wouldn’t want to wear it next to his skin.’

And that brings us to the issue of literary theory which haunted the study of English when I was at university in the late 80s and which was one of the main reasons I steered clear of an English major.  I figured if I was going to do political theory I would rather have the real thing.

And here we go full circle, back to the snobbery of the Bloomsbury-ites and their fellow modernists. There is a thorough and by no means one-sided discussion of critic John Carey and his attack on modernism, post-modernism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and literary theory generally, and Taylor does conclude that all too often 20th century literature has acted for minorities and elites to the exclusion of a large potential of readers of ordinary intelligent people who have developed, over the years, thoroughly understandable dislike of ‘culture’ and the ‘cultured’.

‘The “literary novel” … would sell far more copies and attract far more attention beyond newspaper books pages if it didn’t habitually come served with a light sauce of snootiness – if in fact, it didn’t refer to itself as a literary novel in the first place.’

 

 


Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role — that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength — this role is about played out. 

 

So spoke former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the early 1960s. Acheson  was of course discussing foreign policy, and the comments came at the time the British government was edging towards joining what was then called the European Economic Community and which we now know as a European Union.

And of course we also now though British voters opted to leave Europe last month,  even if we –  and they – still don’t quite know what that vote means.

Acheson  almost  definitely did not have in mind the kind of role Dominic Sambrook outlines in The Great British Dream Factory.

That role  is as a kind of middlebrow entertainer to the world.  Books, true,  play a sizeable part  in this role.

 

 

Sandbrook is though  more enamoured of film, television, and music –  a chapter on the country house is more interested in the film and television examples  than the literary ones.

Brideshead Revisited  certainly features,  but Sandbrook is more interested in the 1981  television series than  the original Evelyn Waugh novel (not one of Waugh’s best efforts, in my view, but still).  While P G Wodehouse and Agatha Christie get a look in,  it is the global phenomenon of Downton Abbey which really generates Sandbrook’s  enthusiasm.

Spies –  he seemed rather taken with James Bond –  and science fiction such as The Prisoner and Doctor Who  are also  star products of his Dream Factory production line.

While I’m sympathetic to Sandbrook’s  rejection of some of the overrated cultural icons it covers, he tries a little too hard and too self-consciously to  be a kind of middlebrow, plain-man iconoclast (he rates Elton John over David Bowie, to take one example).

 

His book  lacks Taylor’s  elegance and above all Taylor’s penetrating wit.  While Taylor’s study –  admittedly with a slightly narrower focus –  is  surefootedly deft,  deep,  and occasionally droll,  there is a sense of  clumsiness,  over striving for  effect,  in Sandbrook’s work.

Both are worth a read. But Taylor’s is the one I will read again.

‘Mindfulness’ and a bleeping liberty

British comedian David Mitchell,  in one of his online rants, gets stuck into the whole problem of “mindfulness” and “living in the moment” which I gather has taken over from liver cleansing diets as a fashionable nostrum to make folk feel a little less uncomfortable in the world in which we, somewhat bafflingly, find ourselves.

The problem, he points out, is that you can’t actually do it. 

By the time you stopped to work out whether you are living in the moment or not living in the moment, you no longer are living in that moment. 

You’re either living in the moment when you’ve stopped to check whether you are, in fact, living in that moment, or you are living in another moment anyway.

Mitchell mentions this as a paradox,  but an ancillary issue to the main problem with”mindfullness”.

I’m not sure what he thought the main problem was – I must have been thinking of something else at the time – but, personally, I think it’s the whole problem with it. That and the faddy aspect,  I suppose.

Clifford Stoll, one of the pioneers of the Internet, recalls being on a flight sometime in the late 1990s and talking to the woman in the next seat. An elderly lady, of some shrewdness, she asked what he did for a job. When he told her she looked at him sharply, and said “ah – you’re in the artificial urgency business.”

I was recalling this, ar some point during the holiday break, when one of the alarms set up on my mobile devices went off.

Now, these are needed when you are as chronically forgetful as I am. As I’ve written before, I’ve found these sorts of tools invaluable.

But….

The world is now full of bleeps.

Everywhere you go there is something bleeping at you. Our cars bleep at us. Our fridges bleep at us. We now read much more on mobile devices so now even our bloody books bleep at us.

We are surrounded by things which make us jump, demanding we stop what we’re doing and pay attention.

Now.

Urgently.

It’s no wonder pharmaceutical companies which specialise in anti anxiety potions are such a good option to invest one’s savings.  Those companies,  and the firms which make the devices which do the bleeping, of course.

It’s become, gradually, an incursion on our freedom, a bleeping Liberty, if you like.

And we didn’t have to be compelled into it, we’ve embraced it with enthusiasm, stroked the iPhones and iPads lovingly, and accepted the changed terms and conditions without having read them.

Now, I love this connected world as much as anyone with a – admittedly sporadic – blog, a Twitter account, a Facebook page. And of course I actually work in the media.

Which is to say, I love it a lot.

But I’m picking a looming backlash. The ‘mindfulness’ fad is a symptom  of this backlash. It might be a wrongheaded one, if only because human beings are almost never fully ‘mindful’ or ‘in the moment’, if only because part of being human involves that self consciousness and duality written about by the ancients to Descartes and beyond.

But that’s whole other topic.

 

For now: off grid for a week.

Maybe a bit mindfully, mostly a bit walk-fully and write-fully.

 

 

 

Tweet Surrender

I’ve tended to steer clear of full blown arguments on the Twitter.

Initially skeptical about the whole medium- the name is silly, and 140 characters? what can you possibly say in that? – there’s an addictive aspect to it which I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on.

I treat it like a mix of – for professional reasons – a kind of informal wire service, notifying me of what is going on, especially economically and politically, as well as being a casual passing conversation.

It is, now I write it down like that, an odd mix.

NZ comedian Michelle A’Court recently described it as like being at a party: you can dip into or out of conversations as you like, move on when you find them boring or offensive or you spot something more interesting.

Oh, and there’s often someone starting a fight somewhere.

I’ve tended to steer clear of those. Firstly, my own rule for online arguments (which I know I haven’t always stuck to) is take whatever you would say to someone face to face, and try to tone it down by around 15% or so.

Face to face, a smile, a lift of the eyebrow, or just the tone of voice, can soften words which, on the screen, look stark and harsh.

Also, some people are just arseholes behind a keyboard.

The other reason is sheer time management. A ruthless application of the LTS Rule is necessary when dealing with social media.

There is this addictive, compelling quality to online arguments. It isn’t just Twitter – it happens on Facebook, it used to happen on usenet. The bullshit is still bullshit, it just goes by different names.

Not all participants get sucked into it, but those who do tend to make Robert Maxwell look like a piker when it comes to going overboard.

To adapt a Douglas Adams concept, Twitter becomes a kind of Total Lack Of Perspective Vortex and otherwise intelligent and charming people completely lose it.

There’s been a recent meltdown on the NZ Twitterzone: if you don’t know about it, don’t worry – the details are very boring and in any case there will probably be another one along shortly.

The dignified, as Paul Weller once warbled, don’t even enter into the game.

If you want to know, though, feel free to search “twitterarti”.

Go ahead. Block yourself out.

This particular meltdown was a bit more meta: it was triggered by a story by a journalist who wrote a piece a month or so back about the ‘Twitterarti’ – a piece which caused some deep resentments amongst folk who spend a lot of time on the medium. Somehow  – I have no idea how, I haven’t analysed it closely and I have no intention of doing so – it mutated into a row over gender politics and it all went horribly wrong.

The only observation I’d make is that if you’re taking any criticism of Twitter interactions as a personal attack, then perhaps you’re wrapping up way too much of your identity and self-worth in the medium.

As for arguments online generally: they work fine on less emotional topics. I’ve had some great, and often quite fiery, discussions over monetary policy and the like in various forums*.

Get into something with more emotional hot-buttons  – and anything relating to gender issues is guaranteed to have plenty of those – and it is Meltdown Ahoy. Any discussion is just not going to end well.

It is bad enough discussing such issues in real life. On the line?  Hoo Boy.

It does get like the piece quoted above about arguments online: the T-Rex-With-An-Erection mix of surreal fury.

There’s another aspect of online discussions which makes these things worse.

To return to Michelle A’Court’s analogy of a party, someone having a casual discussion at a social gathering can make a verbal statement, be challenged: the matter can be discussed and people are perhaps more inclined to modify their initial position.

Online, any initial position is written down. there’s something less movable about a written statement than a verbal one.

This is particularly so because there is always someone going “but you said […..fill in slightly loose or flippant or ill-thought comment here].”

Avoid, mostly. As written here a week or so back about the Rugby World Cup over-kill: perspective is all.

Anyway, here’s the Jam, for those who have picked up on the allusions to their final single during this post.

  • No, you get a life.

Marvellous-ish years, seething energies, and the trick of blogging upright

There is an elephant in the room – this computer,
an evolutionary change happening in our lifetime,
reducing our customs to fossils and converting
our children to new formats. As the Digital Age
powers on, I look wistfully at my books,
pen and notepad, and see that language is mutating.
Now the Web is a field of seething energies,
ready to extend and pool consciousness, is this
the transformation of the world to a unified virtual mind
or merely another noisy playground and marketplace?…

That is Roger Horrocks on the effect of the digital world on books, writing, literature, culture – and, ultimately, identity. The full piece is here and it’s well worth a read.

He doesn’t come to any conclusions – sensibly, I think. We’re in the middle of a revolution right now – and for once the word ‘revolution’ is not hyperbole – and it isn’t at all clear what the outcome will be.

Horrocks isn’t sure whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. Personally, I’m tentatively optimistic.

New Zealand has always had a very “thin” cultural scene – it is a function of our small size and distance from everywhere else. The internet has broken that down and will no doubt break it down further.

My optimism lies in Horrocks comments about the ‘field of seething energies, ready to extend and pool consciousness.’

It is in the process of wrenching our notoriously parochial cultural scene out of its small-town-ness: it is also breaking down hierarchies and – dare one say it? – the ivory towers of universities.

Technology is breaking down both distance and walls and this has only just begun, I believe. It makes our small size less telling, provides easy access to a more global perspective and ideas and, obviously, helps ideas get around.

History is also deepening. The passage of time itself is helping, of course. But there is, I’ve noticed, a real hunger to talk, argue and occasionally throw things about New Zealand’s history, amongst the generation coming through.

As for the choice Horrocks outlines in the last line quoted above: I don’t think its a choice. It’s both.

The trick is going to be making sure the extension and pooling of consciousness happens along with the noise.

To Blog or not to blog

I started blogging back in the middle of the last decade when my Better Half was quite unwell and it became a surrogate social life.
Its become somewhat moribund the last couple of years as other things have taken over, but it is 10 years old this month and a decade is kind of a put up or shut up point.

Having pondered the matter for a while, I’m doing the WordPress migration. So here it is.

Do not expect frequent posts. I usually do something on the weekend, but not every weekend.

It’s a hobby. I’m not going to make the mistake of thinking of it as anything much more than that, even though it is, obviously, a hobby which dovetails very closely with other interests and with work.

For those who read it all eight of you – you may have noticed I tend to do less politics these days.

Partly –  a very big part, in fact –  it is too much like the day job. When the blog started, I was still doing mostly weekly print work. The work work which was online tended to be business, finance, superannuation and insurance stories. Since around 2008 the online political work has taken off.

But theres a bigger, more important reason.
Blogging in the New Zealand context has come to be associated almost exclusively with politics. 

For a whole lot of reasons Ive never liked that and, more recently, its come to bug the hell out of me.

It annoyed me a lot, last year, when there were a few feature articles about the New Zealand blogosphere and it focused almost totally on the political ones. 

This was well before what people had been writing on blogs became – for the media around and about two thirds of the political class anyway – the story of the election campaign.

There are plenty of other things to write about, argue about, even get quite angry or excited about. And to me the most interesting stuff going on in the blogosphere wasn’t – and still isn’t – the particularly inane high school gang/sporting team level of “debate” (and here I use the word “debate” ironically if not totally and utterly wrongly) which goes on.

There are many different types of bores in the world but one of the worst type is those who think their political views are the most interesting thing about themselves instead of – usually – one of the least interesting.
Which does not mean one cannot have an intelligent,interesting debate about politics on the blogs.
My word, one certainly can. And the blogs I have always enjoyed often have a political aspect, and are frequently written by people with strong political views.

But they keep politics in its place. Where it should be. 

There are a number of specialist blogs adding much to the country’s conversation – on books and on economics, to take two examples not totally at random. 

I’ll write more on this, somewhere else, some other time. 


Blog Off

I started this blog back last year for a number of vague reasons…partly as a bit of light relief from what was going on elsewhere at the time.

I’m putting it into hibernation now. The main reasons are there is too much going on elsewhere I have to deal with. Blogs, if they are to work, need regular updates, and I’m just not able to do that at present.

So rather than do this in a half-pie fashion, I’ve decided to blog off – for a bit, anyway. It is possible I’ll do a relaunch at a later date, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Who knows who…

The big CO started this: which bloggers know each other in non-cyberspace? She asks: Who knows who the most? (which I think was the name of a song by the Exponents).

I don’t seem to know all that many. David Farrar, of course, whose blog is a magnet and who manages to maintain a genial presence and firm political views (a rare combination) at Kiwiblog.

David was in Shipleys’ office when I started in the Gallery.

Two of the boys at NZBC – Rob O’Neill and Mark Broatch – were at IDG when I was writing for Computerworld in the mid-1990s, as was sometime contributor to the site, Andrea Malcolm. Of the bunch of very helpful people there she stands out. Soemthing I shall always be grateful for.

Russell Brown of Public Address was another IDG-er, although he came on after I schemed my way out of Auckland and down to the Wellington office and I had much less to do with him.

David Young, of Dog Biting men, of course, cotnributes a coloumn to NBR, but I first met him when he was a press sec for Act. He went on to do PR for the BRT. David is one of those guys who you just know is noticing a hell of a lot more than he lets on.

And last, but certainly not least, Francis Till. Another NBR contributor, it was Francis who first introduced me to the concept of blogging. My reaction at the time, I have to confess was “Eh? Where’s the payoff??”

I still wonder that sometimes.

Blogs and State Servants

The State Services Commission has a view on blogs in its annual report.

It is not too keen on public servants having anything much to do with them.

The existing principles of the Public Service Code of Conduct still apply in this very modern medium and State servants should still be very careful that they do not bring the Public Service into disrepute through their private activities.

In some online forums, there have been various allegations, or personal slurs, made against senior public servants. As for other media, just because an allegation has been made it should not be assumed that it has a solid foundation. It would be regrettable if this new medium gave unjustified currency to baseless accusations. On occasion the entries in some weblogs have amounted to political personal attacks on public servants. It has long been accepted that such attacks ought not to occur in Parliament, or in other forums, because public servants adopt a self-restraining convention of avoiding public response and cannot defend themselves. The web is no different.

The public, and State servants, can be assured that, as State Services Commissioner, I will have a role in investigating any potential online breaches of the Public Service Code of Conduct that are brought to my attention.”</blockquote>

It looks as though, from the way this is worded, the commission is warning against public servants responding on blogs when senior public servants are attacked on blogs.

Interesting…