A reading wrap up…

Life During Waugh-Time

‘What is a “canty day”, Dennis?’
‘I’ve never troubled to ask. Something like hogmanay, I expect.’
‘What is that?’
‘People being sick on the pavement in Glasgow.’

Not a bad quote to start the New Year with.

It’s from Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. I’m gradually catching up on some novel reading – very gradually. It has not been a good time for relaxed reading.

But anyway, reading takes you out of the day to day issues, and the not-so-day to day issues. I haven’t read as much as I would have liked this last year, which worries me less than the fact I haven’t written as much as I would have written.

Anyway, here’s some of the best.

Waugh’s ‘Loved One’ – a black tale about pet cemeteries in Los Angeles – isn’t his best. Better, much better, is Put Out More Flags, which I also read this year and which is one of the funniest novels I’ve read for years.

Almost every page has a gleeful gem. It’s set (and written) in the depths of World War Two, and features a bunch of over-privileged bright and artistic but useless young things suddenly faced with having to become useful in the face of Hitler.

As is often the case with Waugh’s better novels, it stems from his own deep, and often justified, self-loathing.

Which doesn’t matter. It is funny, and well-written funny.  One of the useless young things muses that he could claim to be a conscientious objector ‘but I’ve made such a thing of being someone without a conscience it would be a denial of everything I stood for if I said I have a conscience’.

He then ponders that, if he hasn’t got a conscience, why should remind saying that he does?

The main protagonist, Basil Seal, tries to calm his terrified girlfriend that she shouldn’t be afraid of the air raids given her artistic ambitions: an air raid, he tells her, is  ‘just the thing for a surrealist – it will give you plenty of compositions – limbs and things lying about it on places, you know’.

There’s a hilarious sequence of events around the publisher recruited by the Ministry for Information who brings with him a couple of statues to furnish his office and  – even better – with which to annoy and sorely vex the other bureaucrats.
It leads to a memo headed Furniture, supplementary to official requirements, undesirable aspects of.
He seems back a memo headed ‘Art, objects d’ , conducive of spiritual repose, absence of in the quarters of advisory staff.’
He gets or rather another memo is the circulated headed “flowers, framed photographs and other minor ornaments, massive marble and mahogany, decorative features of, distinction between.”

And so on.

The sequence is so hilariously strange – remember it is set when Britain Stood Alone, the blitz and all that – that it probably actually happened.

It’s a good read. Every page is a joy.

Carry On Up the Aro Valley

‘I’m sorry Steve..I don’t know anything about Gorgon except their name. But in Greek mythology, Gorgon symbolises primal darkness. Mystery. Devouring sexuality. These values speak to my community’s everyday values.’

‘I stand for all those things too,’ Steve pleaded. ‘And I also stand for balanced budgets and sensible solutions.’

We should have more elections like the one in Danyl McLauchlan’s latest novel, the second in his Aro Valley series, Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley.

Perhaps with the character of Steve leading a putative Blue-Green party. He seems perfect for it.

I enjoyed the first of the Aro Valley books: this one is better, more laugh out loud moments. The atmosphere is better realised – strange and at times quite cinematic.

There is a genre I’ve heard called Happy Gothic and while I’m not really sure what that actually might be but I suspect this fits the bill. Well, maybe not happy. The main characters, Steve and Danyl, are hapless and bewildered creatures, acutely conscious of their own intelligence and also acutely conscious of their inability to do anything particularly useful.

Aro Valley is, as it is in the first book, a portal to another world, full of uptight characters, at odds with the world who have found a haven of sorts in the alternative inner-city Wellington suburb. Oh, and whose perceptions may have been affected by various substances.

There are chunks which cry out for cinematic treatment – if Sir Peter Jackson wants to capture his home city’s more idiosyncratic aspects, and also make a good comedy, he ought to start by looking at this book as a basis for it. (And it would take a film-maker of Jackson’s skills to capture the book’s otherworldliness).  The sequence with characters trying to dodge a dog by running around Aro Valley under a bathtub alone is one I found difficult to read without picturing on the screen.

The trick of writing upright here

The work of another Wellington writer, Ashleigh Young’s ‘Can You Tolerate This?’ came trailing such an aura of acclaim I was a bit wary. Not dismissive, exactly. I’d seen her be interviewed by Toby Manhire at LitCrawl, and she was clearly someone to be taken seriously – quiet and thoughtful and seemingly a bit bemused by all the fuss.

The book won a global literary prize, forget the name of it, but it was huge and came with a sizable cheque.

The book really is that good. It’s a collection of thoughtful essays which sort of circle their themes and build over the course of the book. The writing is a delight – it is the opposite of what I call Ham Writing, which constantly calls attention to itself. But, from the memories of growing up in a central North Island town, to descriptions of yoga and chiropractic therapy (the title comes from a piece on the latter) it is writing which draws you in.

There is also something distinctively Kiwi about it. It is not just something explicit like Young’s description of getting messages from her brother, on his great OE:

‘In a way these emails reassured me that the world outside of New Zealand was still just the wor.d. It wasn’t automatically special by virtue of being far away. People had jobs and ate meals and got drunk and fell in love out there. Live continued there just as it did here, only wth different rhythms and weathers. This simple fact felt like a revelation to me.’

As has been for a lot of us. But it is more in Young’s way of sort of sidling up to her subjects and themes which seems very unassumingly of these shores, something that would have been grown and developed in these slender islands. You can be very identifiably Kiwi without having to rave about the All Blacks or don a swandri or call everyone ‘yous jokers’ and Young very much is.

Scott the one-off

Tom Scott was an early hero of mine. I’d decided, more by ruling out what I did not want to do, to aim for journalism by the end of my school years. And I was interested in politics, and current affairs, generally.

Scott was in trouble for being a journalist at the time: he’d been kicked out of Muldoon’s press conferences, mostly, from what I could make out, for writing the kind of things I had a tendency to blurt out in class in the general direction of my teachers.

Journalism would do,  I figured, until I worked out what I really wanted to do.

Scott did not just write – and draw – about politics. He also wrote about what it was like to cover politics. His columns in the Listener – which I used to devour in the school library – were full of colour about being in the Press Gallery. It sounded fun, if a little hair raising at times.

His memoir, Drawn Out, contains a few excerpts from his columns from the time – I haven’t checked back, simply because I don’t need to. Many of them are burned on the mental memory disc.

It has a lot about his awkward upbringing, his strange and tense, angry and sad relationship with his dad, who dubbed him ‘Egghead’.

In fact, Scott senior is perhaps the greatest comic character in the book, and perhaps in Scott’s life. One way – perhaps the best way – to cope with a father figure like this is to turn him into a comic character, and you can certainly see Scott doing this.

When Muldoon kicked Scott out of that press conference in 1980, Scott’s dad personally wrote to Muldoon. ‘Egghead had it coming!’ he cackled.

Scott muses that, after receiving this letter, Muldoon was not as hostile as he had been in the past, and that perhaps the old bugger was a bit more sympathetic.

Drawn Out is also a reminder that Scott’s one-off nature is that he can write as well as he can draw. Again, not in an ostentatiously, Ham Writing, sort of way.

But in a way that tells a story, tells it well and tells it memorably. His memoir is a joy to read, even if at times the life has not been a joy to live.


‘Totally written off, but there’s laughter at chaos…’

Which is a line from one of the Verlaines’ magnificent early songs. Roger Shepherd’s ‘In Love With These Times’ borrows its title from another of the first wave of Flying Nun bands, this time from the Clean. (it was also used for a Flying Nun compilation in the late 1980s).

It might seem an unusually cheerful title for a book about Flying Nun – after all, wasn’t the label’s stable notorious for bleakly gloomy music, jangly ennui and, to quote yet another lyric, ‘a depressing sense of the heretofore’?

Also, bands out of that stable rarely wrote or sang about being in love with anything. Whatever ‘Tally Ho!’ or ‘Frantic Drift’ or  ‘Doomsday’ might have been about, it wasn’t about being in love. (Well, Doomsday, maybe. )

Shepherd’s title though is apt because it is about ‘those times’.  He captures the atmosphere of late 1970s and 1980s New Zealand rather well, or at least how it was for a lot of younger New Zealanders.  New Zealand was by that time the Orphan of Empire, adrift in the south seas and living off what had been built between 50 to 100 years before and staring at a gradual decline.

The feeling – as noted above, alluded to by Ashleigh Young – that what actually mattered was happening elsewhere was even stronger then than it is now.

Flying Nun bands, at least the first wave, came mostly out of Dunedin for several reasons, and only one was because of that town’s notorious scarfie culture.

Dunedin was where that first wave of New Zealand prosperity grew first and grew strongest – refrigeration of lamb from the port, destined for the Old Country, back in the late 19th Century. By the time Shepherd’s book starts, the sheep’s back was breaking, and only kept in traction by subsidies.

A feeling of past boom, impending decline, if not catastrophe, hung over the country’s prospects, and in Dunedin, surrounded by buildings and institutions built for a long-faded boom, allied with that city’s much commented Scot Presbyterian legacy, did the rest.

Without making it all that explicit, the early chapters of Shepherd’s memoir carries the vibe of the time. And, of course, without necessarily setting out on a mission to do so, he and his label managed to push back against that sense of inevitable decline.

When bands like REM and the Smiths started appearing in the mid-1980s, you could listen to them and go, Oh, yeah, that’s the sort of thing that’s been coming out of Flying Nun since 1981.

By then, of course, the label was moving on and up.

Shepherd records – without excessive self dramatisation – his own battles, with alcohol, with recalcitrant bands and with the industry one might be tempted to call Big Rock.

Anyway, worth a read. It’s not just about the bands or the music. It’s a slice of New Zealand history, and an important one.


Postscript: As you can see from the photo, there were some other books as well. And, by the way, others not in the photo. But I’m tired. Maybe another day. 


City of a thousand….meh

Spent much of the week in Auckland. It is always a bit weird going back there: I lived there for 10 years and the fingerprints of memory are still grimily splattered around the place.

Mostly the inner west and south: Of the 11 years in the Sprawl I lived most of the time in a run of flats in an arc from Western Springs, through to Kingsland/Sandringham and across to Royal Oak.

It bucketed down on the Saturday and I was having flashbacks to long aimless Auckland weekends, the feeling you often get in your 20s, life hasn’t really started yet and there’s all sorts things, a lot of them undefined, you need to do but for various reasons can’t yet.

This was pre-property boom Auckland: arrived in 1985 just as the sharemarket frenzy was taking off and even though the first two years saw me working for business magazines all that stuff struck me as being a bit inflated.  In retrospect it was a bit weird, being exposed to that mirror glass world and then going home to crappy, un-gentrified villas, passing round the cider or the Baileys (or a cheap home made substitute) and listening to Flying Nun bands and the Smiths.

I have a theory – and its a long way from being original – that some people are born to be a certain age. There’s an assumption that someone’s prime is in their 20s or so – its there in that word “prime” – but that’s utter balderdash.

I wasn’t all that good at being young. Nothing particularly horrendous happened: it was just a bit meh.

Some of us are rather good at being middle aged. I probably got the knack of this when I was about 15, in fact. It’s been a long wait.

The only big birthday I’ve celebrated as an adult was when I turned 30 because it felt like I was leaving all that crap behind and as it turned out I was right. Left Auckland a year later.

It is a very different city now. In 1985, for all the surface froth, there was a sense of subsidence. A legacy of the Muldoon-era orphan-of-British-Empire vibe, perhaps.

It was a lot more mono-cultural and becoming more so in the central city: in 1986 I chucked in full time journalism and became a postie (it paid more) and was delivering mail in the Ponsonby area.

Again, major dissonance: gentrification was under way at the top end of places like Norfolk, Summer and Anglesea streets. There would be BMWs parked outside, I’d be delivering mail which included listed company annual reports and Labour Party membership newsletters to houses which, in the weekend, always seemed to have the soundtrack from The Big Chill blaring out of expensive stereos.

At the bottom of those streets were still the last of the Pacific Island immigrant families, slowly being forced out. Sometimes I’d be taking in registered letters: they were damp and horrible houses and often the registered letters would obviously be from debt collectors or landlords.

Now, of course, those houses are worth more than a million bucks.

Anyway, the music from that era still resonates. The attached clip is a mournful Celtic-type number from a Flying Nun band who may have done other songs but I never heard them.

This though, “Actifed Blues” is a lovely, sad number. [Warning: clip contains the Kiwi Bacon Factory, a lot of trains, a phone box at Auckland Uni, and more trains. ]

While I’m doing the Kiwi Music Month thing… the Chills at the Gluey, 1990

One of my favourite lyrics of any NZ song. Captures something of the great Kiwi OE, without being too overt about it.

Sitting in a foriegn setting,

Bands in backgrounds always play

Their phoney lonely cacaphony,

It didnt have to be this way

Some place alone,

And noone known,

So far from home here.

I really didnt choose to leave you,

To tear myself away so long,

To travel and unravel all the fabric we’d sewn,

So now somethings wrong,

And the world we used to know has gone,

Some place alone,

And noone known,

So far from home here.

Years of awkward confrontation,

I’d like to set your mind at ease,

I’m stuck here in these muddled ages,

I find the words won’t please.

Where could we dwell

Within our past alive and well?

Escape from all thats hard to bear

To where the child as you were creeps near

Without fear?

Scary things arent always clear

To hide in fiction and nostalgia

Can be eerie too

You cannot drive and steer rearview.

Someplace alone,

And noone known,

So far from home, here.

Kiwi Music Month 3 songs for final day – 3 – The Clean: Anything Could Happen


Ahh… One of those ‘moment’ songs. Straight out of school, straight out of the country, to Wellington Polytech journalism course. Walking down Devon St to Polytech and hearing this coming out of one of the student flats and thinking, that’s just how I feel….

Kiwi Music day 28 – Straitjacket Fits – Down in Splendour (1990)


Oh Ok, another one from what I call my Burning Train Years.

It’s a great song although I have no idea what it is supposed to be about and the pictures don’t really help.

Shimmering, atmospheric jangly and slightly melancholy stuff. I’m a sucker for it.

Kiwi Music day 15…The Able Tasmans – Hold Me 1


Bit late today…this is from one of my favourite NZ albums ever, the Able Tasmans’ ‘Hey Spinner!’

Lyrically I have to say I think this is a bit weak. But I love the joyous cascading waterfall of keyboards, drums, and violin.

The Able Tasmans weren’t in many ways a typical Flying Nun band: their sound is, I think, very like the early Split Enz.

A mix of keyboard-led melodies and slight dorkiness. Its a very Kiwi thing, I think.

Flying Nun Rave [or pure self indulgence….]

There’s a bit of a Flying Nun rave up over on Public Address: John Campbell does a beaut rave up here and Russell Brown adds to it here ….all I can do is add my own perspective….

It was 1982. Musically, things were not good. There are still people who wake up, screaming and sweating, the words “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you blow my mind, hey Mickey!!” forever gouged into their brains.

I was a rather naive country boy in the big city – Wellington – at Polytech. Spinning up the dial on my very basic Sony tranny, and heard this lovely, deep echoing twanging guitar and a flat, bored Kiwi drawl…

“Aaanny thing could happen, and it could be right now…” I had discovered student radio, Flying Nun, and a whole new take on life. The Clean’s Boodle Boodle Boodle
was fairly quickly added to the record collection.

Sometime later that year the Dunedin Double EP came out and I got hooked on the Chills, particularly ‘Kaleidoscope World’
I have this theory that one of the things a truly great pop song should have is a certain dumbness about the lyrics. The Chills might have been pushing this a little far with the couplet “It gets real cold so we turn on the heater/Things are great and that makes it neater” but it is still a great piece of jangly pop.

The Chills were to produce two songs which bring a lump to my throat – ‘Rolling Moon’ is the first, singing the chorus of this (I challenge anyone to sing along to the verses) on a tramping trip up at Lake Angelus, in Nelson Lakes, back in 1990, as the sun went down and the air chilled…
“We got feverish sweat
Aching bones
Please O god don’t take us home”…

The other, much later – 1995 – one is “Come Home”, with its simple, if naive, plea to expat New Zealanders to do just that. I had too many friends overseas by that point not to feel a lurch. Martin Phillipps is good at songs on the Kiwi overseas theme – another favourite, ‘Part Past, Part Fiction’, has a chorus which is like a haiku postcard from a homesick New Zealander:

“Some place alone,
And no-one known,

So far from home here.”

[Yeah, I know its not technically a haiku. But it could be. ]

And of course, they did ‘Pink Frost’. I love that skidding bass…it always put me in mind of the Maori myth that, after they die, souls fly up the country and out at Spirits Bay in Northland. It sounded to me, when I first heard it, like lost souls zooming northward over the New Zealand landscape. I may have been less than sober at the time.
The Verlaines…Death and the Maiden’ of course, but then the EP, ’10 O’Clock in the Afternoon’. Came out when I was living in Tauranga, and hating it. In my memory it is full of people in boat shoes and those Choose Life t-shirts drinking Steinlager… The thing about Tauranga, which was apparent even then, was that it really really wanted to be Auckland – well, to be precise, the North Shore. anyway, there was a subversive at the downtown record store who used to whip off the usual Springsteen/Alison Moyet/Wham tracks and throw on REM, the Smiths, Billy Bragg…and Nun Bands. It was where I first heard the “10 O’Clock in the Afternoon” EP, during a lunchbreak…

Somewhere about the same time, or earlier, I’m getting a flashback of lying on the floor at a friend’s place somewhere in Auckland one afternoon, listening to the Dunedin Double EP and being blown away by ‘Crisis After Crisis’....
… those magnificent chords as the band crashed and ripped its way into “Well if I get drunk well that’s all right….”

DoubleHappys. There’s a great line in a song called ‘Theme from Lounge Bar’ by non-Flying Nun but very Kiwi outfit Front Lawn…the line says something about “Just then a chord change/Makes the blood change direction in her veins” …
‘Others’ Way’ has a whole heap of chord changes like that….there are at least three, maybe four guitar tracks overlaid here, one of them doing that durr-durr durr-durr police siren thing. Angst-torn, appropriately semi-articulate lyrics:

Yeah, well now,
Ok I’m now screaming from the inside
Is it really going to help me?
But you…
That’s the only place that I could screammmmm
At youuuuuu…”

And a great sort of dual guitar solo in the middle.

Shayne Carter did this sort of thing so well…Equal to ‘Others’ Way’ is the Straitjacket Fits’ ‘Dialling a Prayer’. If existential crises could play the guitar and sing – well, OK, howl – this is what they would sound like. It’s all about tension, this song, from the edgy scratching of the opening chords, and the turmoil of the rhythm when the bass and drums kick in: then the opening lyrics,” Well you wind me up, just to let me go-ow..” … bloody perfect. This song is all being wound up and let go, and its there in the guitars as they build up to that despairing chorus, and as Carter hits the words of the song’s title the backing vocals howl and reel back, falling, like a tormented soul tumbling backwards and downwards into a bottomless, pitiless black hole…And that middle bridge and the whirling, violent guitars fighting themselves is pure King Lear on the Blasted Heath….

I got a bit carried away there.

(The Chills, of course, had a much better approach to existential crises:

I tried to find my real self
Maybe on the Top Shelf….

The Bats…always much better live than on record. I had their first two EPs, sort of lost them after that – although ‘Courage’, from 1993 , captured their live sound better than anything else I’ve heard.

Able Tasmans: their original EP, ‘Tired Sun’ had ‘Snow White Chook‘ as well as the very silly Nelson the Cat.. the album, in 1987, ‘A Cuppa Tea and a Lie Down’ had the glorious ‘Sour Queen’ a song which at the time seemed to sum up very well someone I knew; daffy numbers such as ‘Evil barbecue’ and that silly cowboy song, and the slightly odd ‘Little Hearts’…

I saw the Able Tassies live, many times, in Auckland. Marvellous. Just a FUN band, and I don’t mean that in a dumb way, although there weren’t too worried about seeming a bit dorky. The album “Hey Spinner’ is probably their highlight – great harmonies on ‘Michael Fay’ (yes please carry my bones/to a place I can call home…’); the joyous, cascading waterfall of ‘Hold Me‘…and ‘Grey Lynn’, irresistible, reminds me of walking across Grey Lynn park off Williamson Ave after some exam…they’ve got, unlike a lot of these songs, a happy vibe.

Damn. I just used the word ‘vibe’. Oh well.

JPSE – passing a bottle of Baileys around the flat lounge one wet Auckland afternoon in 1986, with ‘I Like Rain’ on the stereo…

More obscurities…the first thing I ever heard from the Headless Chickens, a thing called ‘Throwback’, sparse, desolate and menacing… Mainly Spaniards’ only release, a single called ‘That’s what Friends Are For’, with its chorus of

“We will go out and get drunk together
And get depressed together

That’s what your friends are for…”

All these tracks are redolent of a time of grotty, peeled-paint flats with bamboo blinds in the bedrooms, tilted floors, bald carpets and the odd carpet tack you could catch your bare feet on if you weren’t careful; the month’s Capitol Cinema poster on the kitchen wall, possibly somewhere near the flat duty roster…..

Life has been better since then, but the music hasn’t been as good.