Two magnificent sideswipes in one sentence 

‘ You come to him like Bill Grundy to Siouxsie Sioux and the Sex Pistols: “Say something outrageous”. Meades does his best, though, alas, what once seemed outrageous now sounds merely presidential.’ 

Ian Samson, reviewing Jonathan Meades’ latest book in the TLS. 

Love the way he jabbed both tangental references in there. 

Thoughts on the week, from elsewhere….

 

‘ The essay form is a tricky one to handle. It is not as though you have a story to tell. Anyone will listen to a story. What you are doing is just grabbing the reader by the slack of his coat and babbling to him, and all the time his probably dying to get away and go about his business.’

PG Wodehouse

That’s from the introduction to  a collection of Wodehouse’s more obscure articles initially written for magazines.  Picked up the collection ‘Louder and Funnier’   a few months back and dipping into it late at night  the past  couple of weeks.

It’s good to have a chuckle at Wodehouse’s  essentially good-natured but still quite acute wit before pulling the shades down and attempting eight hours of the restorative.

Someone else pointed out once – oh, go and have a look on the Googe for it, it’s bound to be online somewhere – that Woodhouse’s  writings inhabit a prelapsarian world.

That exaggerates things a little bit,  but not much. If there is a snake in this garden of Eden, it is either an aunt or an income tax inspector.

If there is a snake in this garden of Eden, it is either an aunt or an income tax inspector.

To the more fallen, real  world:  the election of Donald Trump.

Is he a Hitler on the rise?  that analogy  has been used so often, since the 1940s,  about every political leader the speaker or writer does not like,  it is now meaningless.

Actually, that is not quite true: it usually means the person making the claim is intellectually bereft of argument.

Back in the days, pre-internet, pre-Godwin’s Rule,  there was an informal rule amongst adjudicators in Auckland University’s Debating Society that any debater who compared opponents’ case to Nazi Germany/Hitler automatically lsot 10 points.

Is he a Berlusconi with nukes?  Maybe.

There is a clatter and a howl, a maelstrom of reaction to Trump’s election, and much of it seems to insist on only one overriding reason for his win.

It’s the sexism!

No, it’s the smug liberaliness!

It’s the poverty!

It’s the bloody media!

It’s that if Trump was a bad candidate, Hillary was worse!

It’s the FBI director!

It’s the Brexit!

It’s chemtrails!

The thing is, this US  election trashes so many previous presumptions  about what is supposed to work in politics, and is driven by many many factors –  probably almost all of the above (and I might even be willing to considering chemtrails before dismissing them completely out of hand)  that any instant wisdom doesn’t seem particularly wise.

Any one of the dozen or so scandals, gaffes, call them what you will, involving Donald Trump would have sunk any previous candidate, let alone all of those events together.

But they made him stronger.  Working out why  is going to take some time. Because it seems a candidate whose lack of almost any characteristic of human decency gathered momentum the more people saw of that side.

And really, we don’t really know what this guy is going to do because  it doesn’t seem as though he believed a lot of what he was saying himself.

I think we can only conclude two things for certain right now: one is his election upends so many previous presumptions about how politics works that a major re-think is needed.

The second, about Trump himself, is that he represents primarily an exaltation of power and celebrity that is highly unhealthy and dangerous in any democracy, let alone the world’s largest one.

This isn’t even about ‘left’ or ‘right’ – well, its not for me, anyway. I distrust untrammeled power, and even more, I distrust the worship of power, irrespective of who is wielding it.

I keep thinking of Ulysses’ great speech in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida

Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

Finally, the death of Leonard Cohen. Not a huge fan, but so many folk whose insight and taste I respect are fans I have to pause and note the event.

A particularly good piece comes from my good friend David Cohen, who has a lovely appreciation on Radio New Zealand site here.

I was struck, when reading Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly’s autobiography a few years back (reviewed here, btw) how much Kelly revered Cohen.

Kelly toured with Cohen, opening for the older singer, and although himself far too old for hero-worship sounds almost awestruck by Cohen’s approach.  and Kelly’s observations of the older singer, when opening for him on a tour.

Kelly marveled at Cohen’s attention to detail – attention paid not just for its own sake, but because it was an essential means for paying  respect to the people who came to see and hear him.

‘At the age of 74, at an age when some performers are merely phoning it in, he attended every sound check, which lasted usually between an hour in 90 minutes, and then backed it up each night with an intense three hour show.

Leonard’s performance was studied, gestural. …The devotion coming at him from the audience, the release of the pent-up hunger created by the years of absence, were matched, and more, by his devotion in turn to them. He served his audience sacramentally, given proper weight to his words and actions as he offered up his song prayers, everything in due order like stations of the cross. You know he meant it when he says, “Thank-you for keeping my songs alive”. He was paying everyone battle for, and respect.

I watched him and thought, that’s a way to be, that’s a way to act, there is a road to travel.

To walk in gravity and lightness, to be serious but not take yourself seriously, to pay attention, to know that you shall reap what you sow.’

I have added emphasis on that last sentence. It applies to us all, in any walk of life. It is precisely the opposite of a worship of power, or of any of the lazy and damaging abstractions which lead to abuse of our own strengths in our own daily lives.

It is an observation is founded in respect, mutual and deep, and an essential generosity of spirit.

Factories of empire

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

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

img_7365

 

‘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.

Reading – and how to do it wrong

IMG_7195Sometimes  you hear – or in this case, read –  something and just want to holler NO NO NO NO NO!

You want to take someone politely but firmly by the elbow,

or maybe their STUPID BLOODY THROAT,

take them gently to one side, sit them down, and talk gently to them about how they may have got things wrong or rather

HAVE MISSED THE ENTIRE BLOODY POINT.

In this case,  two things I have read over the past 48 hours which made me want to either give someone some kind words of advice

OR SLAP THEM AROUND THE BLOODY EARS.

And it is about reading.

The first was yet another one of those awful ‘One Thousand And One Books You Must Read Before They Haul You Off To the Undertakers And Start Making With the Formaldehyde’ lists.

I hate these, mostly because they are so damn bossy, and they have at their  root the notion that there is a class of books which are ‘essential’ to make you better as a person.

To which I politely beg to differ. Oh, and

BOLLOCKS TO THAT.

There needs, I think, to be lists of Books It Is OK To Hurl At The Wall Even If Your Cultured Friends Think This Makes You A Less Worthy Person.

I think I can claim to be a reasonably well-read sort of bloke, but a core part of my world view – in all spheres of life, and certainly those relating to personal taste –  is Each To Their Own.

I don’t, for example, think the fact I’ve never really “got” Jane Austen, despite having a reasonably determined crack at Pride and Prejudice back in my Uni days, makes me any less bloody cultured than those who do.

But if it rings your bell, go for your life.

The second thing which caused a bit of a spurt in the blood pressure department was something I saw on GoodReads yesterday which invited people to list the number of books they would like to read this year, as some sort of challenge.

And, again, NO NO NO.

Both these online missives make a similar mistake – even if this second one compounds that mistake with others.

Reading should never be a box-ticking exercise – in any way, shape or form.

Firstly, it is ok to not like books other many people think are great.

In fact, I think it is essential to not like books many other people think are great. It shows an independent mind, something any intelligent reader should possess and use with vigour, enthusiasm, and the occasional cry of THIS IS A LOAD OF ARSE.

And the books you do like, the ones that you will want to re-read later and will, each time you do, discover and delight in something you missed last time, will reflect – and possibly influence –  a mix of your own personality, your own circumstances, your own experiences of life and your own outlook on that life.

This will be a matter of quality, not quantity.

And above all, relax.

Book reading  – and yesterday, as noted earlier, was World Book Day – is not a syllabus nor an obstacle course.

It is one of life’s joys.

Don’t let anyone take that away. 

Book Recommendations – The Strange Death of Liberal England

The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield
strange death

 

 

‘Along that row of distinguished and original faces there would pass from time to time, as lightly as a shadow upon the waters, an alarming, an alien, spirit. It invaded and effaced the dignified construction of Mr Asquith’s features, it crept about the corners of Mr Lloyd George’s eyes, with imponderable fingers it ruined that noble forehead which was Mr Winston Churchill’s, it reduced the hatchet lines of Mr McKenna’s face to the lesser proportions of a ladylike paper-knife.. a spirit dangerous and indefinite, animula vagula blandula, the Spirit of Whimsy, which only afflicts Englishmen in their weakness.’

 

I have been thinking of this book a lot lately and I’ve recommended it to several people.  It was one of those “formative books” – a book one reads as an impressionable age and has a powerful influence on the outlook.

I’m a firm believer that styles and methods of thought are more important – much more important in fact – than the actual content of those thoughts. Habits of mind are often unconscious, stem from a mix of influences and innate character, and serve to form thoughts and beliefs.

So although, in the case of this book, I didn’t agree with everything in it at the time, and probably do so even less now, Dangerfield’s  attitude to the world of public affairs, and those who conduct it, had, now I re-read it, quite an effect.

I can even remember where and when I bought it – shortly after moving to Auckland in 1985, at the David Thomas second-hand bookshop in Lorne St, which was part of a small oasis of slightly disheveled civilisation in the downtown CBD at the time. There were four along the O’Connell-High-Lorne St zone at the time – Rare Books, Jasons, and Bloomsbury, as well as this one. Five, if you count the library.

Nice and handy, too, to the Dominos and Just Desserts cafes.

Enough nostalgia.

‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ is one of the few books I’d nominate for genuine classic status. It tells a great story – the kind of collective mental breakdown which swept over the British [ok, mostly English, and David Lloyd George] classes in the four years before the outbreak of World War One.

It is superbly written, generally with a dry ironic touch, but underneath this cool carapace some heated moral indignation bubbles and it occasionally bursts through.

It was about the breakup of a consensus, of assumptions about how their country – and, given the size of the British Empire of the time, the world  – ought to be governed. The future of Ireland, Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” and the House of Lords’ self-defeating obduracy, votes for women, and the rise of the Labour Party dominate and served to break up that consensus.

As Dangerfield put it,

‘Whatever his political convictions may have been, the  Englishman of the ‘7os and ‘8os was something of a liberal  at heart. He believed in freedom, free trade, progress, and  the Seventh Commandment. He also believed in Reform. He was strongly in favour of peace – that is to say, he liked his wars to be fought at a distance, and, if possible, in the  name of God. In fact, he bore his Liberalism with that air of respectable and passionate idiosyncrasy which is said to be typical of his nation, and was certainly typical of Mr Gladstone and the novels of Charles Dickens.’

And he shows how widespread this worldview was, usually with a neat and deftly humorous touch, starting one section with,

‘In 1903, when Joseph Chamberlain, who had proved how insubstantial were party differences by being a Unitarian, a Radical, and a Conservative at one and the same time…’

It is character sketches like this which really make the book dance, because they are not just sketches of individual characters, they are used to show the spirit of the age. Here is Dangerfield on Arthur Balfour, the Conservative Party leader between 1902 and 1911: for Balfour, he writes,

 

‘…politics was little more than a serious game. He played it with the faintly supercilious finesse which belongs to a bachelor of breeding, and with a bitterly polite sarcasm which was quite his own. He had entered Parliament originally from that mixture of duty and idleness which made an English politician of the old school :in other words, because he could neither fight, preach, nor plead.  …He had become one of the more eminent of English philosophers at a time when English philosophy was at a low ebbb…

‘In his youth he had been known as ” pretty Fanny ” and indeed in those far days he looked rather like an attenuated gazelle. But with advancing age his face came more and more to resemble an engaging, even a handsome, skull : it carried into drawing-rooms and debates a special property of hollow mockery, its eternal memento mori which, since Mr Balfour was always affable and lively, gave him an air of mystery and even of enchantment.’

Any writer who can come up with the phrase ‘attenuated gazelle’ is someone I have to tip my hat in homage to.

Here he is on  Liberal prime minister Henry Asquith:

‘..ingenious but not subtle, he could improvise quite brilliantly on somebody else’s theme. He was moderately imperialist, moderately progressive, moderately

humorous, and, being the most fastidious of Liberal politicians, only moderately evasive. If he can be accused of excess it was in the matter of his personal standards, which were extremely high.’

My own copy of the book fell apart several years ago, I’ve since got ahold of some online excerpts and have ordered a new one from Abebooks.

It is, as those excerpts quoted above show, a joy to read if you have love history and good writing and possess a sense of humour.

It is also – because it was written in the 1930s – great to read a thoughtful book which considers Winston Churchill as just another politician, albeit a particularly colourful one, before the public monument he became post-World War Two.

Local parallels? I frequently found myself pondering this book during Helen Clark’s prime ministership. It seemed to me then quite possible we were looking at an endgame for the New Zealand Labour Party and its world view, mostly because of the inherently defensive approach to almost all policy issues.

Oh, and because Clark and Cullen at times reminded me of the Asquith-Lloyd George combination, albeit without Cullen wanting the top job.

But Clark’s cool rationality had a whiff of Asquith, and Cullen definitely had a touch of the Lloyd George at times, especially in his way with the wittily destructive phrase.

The travails which have befallen Labour since then have confirmed those thoughts from a decade ago.

And we may, now, be seeing a wider, world wide break up, with the rise of Trump-ism in the United States and the sentiment of ressentiment which that appeals to taking other forms elsewhere.

But more on that in my real job.

For now, fellow well-written-history-buffs: this book is a true classic.

That rare combination: a thought-provoking joy to read.

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.

Second hand bookstores – an appreciation and a requiem

Learned that Quilters, one of Wellington’s venerable second hand bookstores, is to close. It will still operate online but only sell New Zealand books.

Quilters used to be on Lambton Quay, not far from Parliament. It was a great place to pop into at lunchtime: the only drawback was I seldom left without spending anything from $ 30-50 and so I used to limit my visits to one per quarter, with an extra one around Christmas time. More recently it moved to Ghuznee St, and has been part of a semi-official second hand book quarter (see pic).

 Two or three years back, when I’d been ordered off work by some rather over-bearing medical bods, I spent a day ambling around this quarter.

Bliss. I swear it was a lifesaver.  

Secondhand bookstores are a cornerstone of civilisation, in my, err, book.


I actually dream about second hand bookshops. No exaggeration. Sometimes they are stores I have known: more frequently they are some sort of combination of every second hand book shop I have ever known, plus an idealisation of what one would be like.


I like to think of this as a kind of premonition of a heavenly afterlife – especially the one which also comes with a well-stocked shelf of single malts.
It certainly beats the hell out of any other theories of the afterlife I’ve heard about. 
The best second hand bookstores are organised, so you can find what you are after – but not too organised. An air of amiable, intelligent dishevelment should always be part of the mix.

They are a dwindling breed, sadly. Those allergic to personal, self indulgent reminiscing and nostalgia should probably stop reading now and go and start an argument on the Twitter or something…

When I left home in ’82 and came to Wellington one of the things which grabbed me straight away was Wellington’s magnificent, rich and shambolic gumbo of second hand book stores. Most were in or around Cuba St: there were a couple where Olive Café is now; one upstairs at Silvio’s record store; a very messy one on the corner of Cuba and Ghuznee which was hardly ever open; and one on the corner of Victoria St just opposite where the library is now. I think it’s a place where you can buy honey, or new age health remedies crystals, or clothes or something equally unnecessary now.

Auckland used to have some great second hand book stores and there are still some good ones: the Hard to Find, in Onehunga, comes tops. The one in Devonport whose name I can never recall is also pretty good: I’ve picked up some very good hard cover first editions of novels there. The only thing I have against it is it is a bit too clean, tidy and well-lit and aired – very North Shore, perhaps, but I’m always expecting it to suddenly fill with people wearing boatshoes, drinking Steinlager and talking about property prices.

When I moved to Auckland in 1985 there was a good one at the top of Victoria St, about where the Sky City Tower is now, alongside Revival Records, which was one of the better second hand record stores in town.

I won’t review them: Simon Grigg has done a far better job here and in any case he’s a kind of hip and groovy chap who can do that sort of thing: I’m in no way hip or groovy, more sort of wonky ankle and slightly pock-marked.

Bloomsbury Books was one I used to spend a lot of time in: it had two things every decent, civilised second hand book store should have – a couple of comfortable armchairs and what was – for 1985 – decent coffee. It was at the end of Lorne St, a couple of doors along from Wellesley St. Last time I went past a sushi bar was there.

O tempura, O mores.

There was also a great one upstairs in Elliot St: I remember walking out of there with a batch of books on political history and a 19th Century print of Disraeli, who is the only politician whose picture I’ve ever had on my wall (unless you count a wall chart of world leaders which came with a Look and Learn magazine when I was about seven).

All these good stores were choosy. They probably had a few copies of ‘I’m OK You’re OK’, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ and ‘Colin Meads All Black’ because in those days every second hand book store had to have a few of these. I think there was a charter or something.
Jasons, which is one of the few to have survived,had quite a number of these. Situated as it was in High St, in the back of Simple Cottage and just down the hill from Auckland Uni it also had a batch of more highbrow stuff. Bought my first copy of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France there, and also picked up out of print two volume set of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, which was quite a score at the time.

Most second hand stores I recall were, and are, run by genial and intelligent, if often rather shy folk: not at all like the  proprietor in best television depiction of a second hand book store, Bernard Black.
‘Black Books’ is magnificent and it gets the ambience of a second hand store almost right. In its cast of Dylan Moran, Bill Bailey and Tamsin Grigg it has three of the funniest performers of the past 20 years (and in Grigg, one of the finest actors).

But Bernard is nothing like any second hand proprietor I’ve ever met. Manny, the Bill Bailey character, is more in line with most staff I’ve dealt with – except he’s a bit dim. The ones I’ve known might have been a bit unworldly, but in a highly intelligent way.

In Wellington these days the biggest second hand book shop is Arty Bees, on Manners St. Arty Bees used to be on Courtenay Place, a few doors down from the Paramount Theatre and a dash across the road from the Embassy and also at least two theatres.

There used to be a number of second hand book stores on Courtenay Place in those days. Arty Bees survived by being smart and hard working: instead of shutting at the end of the day, as all the others used to, it would stay open and get the theatre traffic.

Most evenings  – especially the wet or cold ones – it would be full of people killing time between their café dinner and the start of whatever film or show they were going to see. They thrived.

And I hope they continue to do so.

As I say, these stores are oases of civilisation. Yes, one can get these books online.

But browsing had a pre-computer meaning, a more full and rich meaning than that involving clicking a mouse or swiping a touch-screen.

 It would be a shame to lose that.