Mental health, walking, putting one foot in front of the other metaphorically and literally, etc…

‪#‎mhawnz‬ It’s been Mental Health Awareness…umm. Well… its been going for more than a week but I’m not sure it’s lasting a full month.

Lake Benmore
Lake Benmore

There was a challenge, with the hashtag ‪#‎mhawnz, where you posted a different type of photo from the outdoors every day to mark the period.

The idea is, from what I can gather, to highlight the general benefits of getting out into nature.

I seem to know a lot of people going through mental health issues at the moment.  And – in what now seems like a different life – I was, for five years, a volunteer on Youthline’s crisis line, which gave me a bit of insight into all this.

Personally? I’m not unacquainted with the black dog sniffing around the room at 3am, or waking with what I call the Boulder of Dread on my chest.

Anyone, I’ve learned, can hit overload. It’s not something I dwell on or go on about. I can hyper-intellectualise this by saying self-dramatisation is one of the ills of our age – and that is true, I think.

The other,  probably more important reason is that I’m just, culturally and emotionally,  a bit of an uptight Presbyterian about these things.

I’m okay with that, by the way. I love and accept my attitude problem.

Omarama Bridge
Snow, Omarama Bridge

Anyway, I started doing the photo challenge and then got sidetracked by combination of work and a viral chest infection.

But here’s two pics from the McKenzie area – Lake Benmore, from June a few years back, and just up the road at Omarama, snowing, last year.

More generally, I’ve written about how walking is kind of beaut,  last year.

The old mental appetite is certainly stimulated – and fed – by books, as well as by conversations, chats over coffee,  shouting matches over the Shiraz, gesticulating over the Glenmorangie.

But it is digested by walking.  This is about balance, and the interaction between walking, thinking and feeling.

The full piece, which is a review of a really great book called ‘A Philosophy of Walking’ by Frederic Gros, is here.


Apt, with Labour Weekend looming. Did some of my first tramping trips on Labour Weekends as a kid, back in the 1970s.

It rained, usually.

Nothing so ambitious this weekend, just wombling around the Wellington hills. But I’m kind of happy with that.

So gloriously different: Do Not Adjust Your Set

Scene: A field. An unmistakable historic figure from 200 years ago stands, alone and glowering, in his French uniform, his arm tucked in characteristic pose. 

A stentorian voiceover demands, rhetorically: ‘Why did Napoleon keep his hand inside his waistcoat?’

Napoleon pulls his hand out. His trousers fall down. 

This was one of the earliest things I can remember laughing like a drain at for several hours afterwards.  It is stuck in my mind for that reason and also because it was the first time I realised how you pronounced ‘Napoleon’. 

 I had read the word – probably in Look and Learn magazines –  but had no idea how to pronounce it.

Napoleon was, I think, played by either David Jason or Terry Jones.  The sketch  was from  Do Not Adjust Your Set, a tv series made in Britain in the late 1960s by several people who went on to form of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

It is best described as a kind of children’s version of Monty Python, although it pre-dates that series.

It was shown in New Zealand in the early 1970s –  I think 1972.

And I loved it.  The combination of eccentricity,  humour,  and historical references like the one above was just magical.

It was just so gloriously different. 

It’s been on my mind at the moment because I threw together an iTunes music playlist for a road trip last month labelled “Brits” which included the obvious ones such as the Kinks and Madness and Ian Dury and the Jam and the Smiths…and then, for light relief, the Bonzos.

Vivian Stanshall was…well, an alcoholic nutter, and probably rather awkward to be around. A brilliant eccentric, though.

The Bonzos only had one hit – I’m the Urban Spaceman – and the B side was this lovely piece.

I first heard this on a jukebox in an Auckland cafe, sometime in the mid-eighties, and lay on the floor under the table laughing uncontrollably.

 

 

Recommendations – Wheen and Birmingham

This is the latest post in my self-imposed Recommendation Rule. The Recommendation Rule states that if I recommend a book to someone I then have to do a blog post about it.

The first one was The Strange Death of Liberal England, written up here.

This latest one is going to be a particularly efficient post for two reasons. One is because I’m going to cover more than one recommendation.

The second is that it covers two books I am always recommending to people.

They don’t have a lot in common otherwise.

So, chances are I won’t have to do another one of these recommendation posts for a while.

(That said, there is a bit of a backlog building up. Memo to self: stop talking to people about books.

……Yeah, like that will happen.)

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World By Francis Wheen (Fourth Estate) 2004.

For all those po-faced and pompous dullards who have been intoning ‘post-truth politics’over the past few months as if they have discovered something new, Wheen was there more than a decade ago. And he was less inclined to assume that this sort of thing belonged only to one side of politics.

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He is also funny and intelligent. This is a truly great book:  most of it hasn’t dated (apart from the cover-photo: today those people would be holding smart phones) and its bracing, excoriating scorn for the delusions of our age is a literary tonic.

Even the index in this book is funny E.g. “Philip, Prince: enjoys flying saucer review, 136; praised by extra-terrestrials, 137 – 8”.

Or,

 “Merton, Robert: says markets are not too volatile, 272, loses fortune because of market volatility, 273.”

“Blair, Tony: … Claims descent from Abraham, 165; explores Third Way, 226; likes chocolate cake recipe, 51…”. 

And so forth.

Wheen has a – mostly – sure eye for the follies of our age, along with the ability to write about them with a caustic if occasionally unfair wit.

But underneath the wit is a moral seriousness.

‘Even intellectuals who respect enlightenment values often seem reluctant to defend them publicly, fearful of being identified as “imperialists” or worse. The sleep of reason brings forth monsters, and the past two decades have produced monsters galore. Some are manifestly sinister, others seem nearly comical… Cumulatively however, the proliferation of obscurantist bunkum and the assault on reason are a menace to civilisation, especially as many of the new irrationalists harkt back to some imaginary pre-industrial or even pre-agrarian Golden age.’

Wheen begins in what he sees as the fateful year of 1979, with the ascension of both the Ayatollah Khomeini and Margaret Thatcher.

I think he’s a little hard on Thatcher, to be honest, even though she was never my kind of conservative (too ideological and too humourless). And most of his policy points skewer phase one of monetarism, which was ditched around 1981 because, ironically enough, the only way to restrict the money supply to the degree required would have involved the kind of fortress economy approach to capital controls more suitable to an extremely socialist economy.

He does also take some well-aimed potshots at Ronald Reagan’s rather fiscally careless enactment of supply-side economics.

And then he moves on to the whole New Age movement, the bizarre blend of all that hippy childishness and pomposity which was carefully and lucratively folded into the self-help and the management guru movement and industry.

The most important chapter I think is ‘The Demolition Merchants of Reality’ – on the rise of post-modernism, post-structuralism and all that.  Derrida, Foucault, and their addled disciples get a thorough and highly deserved going over.

‘Although much post-modernism made no sense, it is nonsense with a purpose: by using quasi scientific terminology the po-mo theologians intended to explode the “objectivity” of science itself. The fact they knew nothing about mathematics, physics or chemistry was no obstacle.’

He has much fun with Luce Irigaray who attacked Einstein’s E=MC2 as being a ‘sexed equation’ as it privileged the speed of light over other less masculine speeds and suggested the reason science is not unable to arrive at a successful model for turbulence was because it viewed the concept of fluid as being feminine.

He also quotes Barbara Ehrenreich as asking, rhetorically, whether it matters if ‘some French guy’ wants to think of his penis as the square root of minus one: she answers her own question by pointing out it doesn’t matter much, really – except that on US campuses, ‘such utterances were routinely passed off as example of boldly “transgressive” left-wing thought’.

Wheen, as a former editor of Marxism Today and a socialist himself,  identifies this kind of frivolous academic obscurantism as being fatal to the Left.

This is Wheen’s main point, I think, and it is a neat paradox that he uses humour, aggressively and effectively, to make it.

You will find few people so tediously serious as the kind of folk who come up with that type of “boldly transgressive” notion outlined above.

Yet this over-earnest self-righteousness is a carapace over something essentially frivolous, childish and irresponsible.

Wheen does the opposite. He uses humour to make a serious, grown up and responsible case for facing things as they are, rather than taking refuge in mumbo jumbo of various kinds.

This shift by academic humanists and social scientists towards such ways of thinking betray the ‘progressive’ heritage, he argues.

His star witness is Alan Sokal, who pointed out it would be impossible to combat bogus ideas if all notions of truth and falsity are no longer valid.

Sokal came up with one of the great hoaxes of the last 25 years of the 20th century when, in 1996, he contributed to academic journal Social Text a paper entitled “Transgressing The Boundaries: Toward A Transformative Hermeneutics Of Quantum Gravity”

It was entirely comprised of post-modern mumbo-jumbo and meant nothing.

The editors of academic journal Social Text who, as Wheen acidly notes, ‘must have noticed the supposedly imaginary external world from time to time, not least when the sun rises every morning’ read it with some enthusiasm and published it with acclaim.

When he revealed the hoax, he was vilified because it was felt he had betrayed his own side by showing the post-modern emperor was wandering around the nudd.

Social Text’s editors accused him of exposing them to ridicule from conservatives, which, in any point-missing championships, would be through to the finals without dropping a set.

From there, Wheen travels via the Princess Diana cult, the fraudulence of Al Gore, fundamentalist religion of all kinds, and the “Third Way” of Tony Blair and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

You do not have to read any of these academics or politicians or management gurus to read this book: their ideas are, unfortunately, embedded in the lymph nodes of our time.

But Wheen writes better than any of them, and he writes for the intelligent non-academic reader.

It is a great read. No one will read it without disagreeing, probably very strongly, with some of Wheen’s points.

It will make you laugh, it will make you annoyed,  but most of all it will make you think.

And you can’t ask anything more of any book.

The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco by John Birmingham (Duffy and Snelgrove) 1997.

‘Aristotle said if you hold your farts in you die. I’m not sure where he said that but some big university guy told me so it’s probably true. Kind of wished I’d kept it to myself though. Our place wasn’t worth living in after word got around and I had to take a long and eventful road trip t to get away from it.’

That’s the opening paragraph. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Picked this one up at Wellington airport, many years ago, before a flight to London. Got some funny looks on the LA leg of the flight as I kept collapsing in hysterical laugther.

Really. It is that good.

Okay, the humour is Aussie, blokey, and will be highly offensive to a lot of people. It contains sex, drugs, gambling, and Pauline Hanson.

There are jokes at the expense of goths, vegans, lesbians, the Queensland police force, Social Security bureaucrats, real estate agents, and people who voted for Pauline Hanson.

But it is an uproarious tale, one which accumulates in an incendiary finale which reminded me of Spike Milligan’s ‘Puckoon’ novel.

The book is a kind of sequel to Birmingham’s more well-known ‘He Died With a Falafel in His Hand’ and features a number of the same characters and/or contributors to that earlier book.

For the uninitiated, “Falafel” is that book many of us who spent formative years in flatting situations (‘share housing’ to use the Aussie term) have muttered about doing: writing a book about some of the strange people and stranger behaviour of those people.

Birmingham actually did it, in the mid-1990s, and it became a play and a film. It was though a series of episodes and vignettes.

‘Tasmanian Babes’ has a plotline, with heroes, villains, and jeopardy.

And comic relief. Bundles of it. It is very much a book to read if you need to cheer yourself up.

Clever Basterds: another reason to be cheerful

Ian Dury’s birthday.
Early 80s, there were two albums of Ian Dury and the Blockheads  which got thrashed to death and beyond, at least in the circles in which I was, somewhat unstealdy, inclined to move. 

One was New Boots and Panties, the debut album which came out – from memory – sometime in 1978. 

The other was Juke Box Dury, a compilation album of singles, both A and B sides. This was one of those B-sides.  

Dury and the Blockheads were one of the last bands to regularly produce singles which did not appear on albums. This was something done by British bands, going back to the sixties, but most dropped the practice in the ’70s, especially if they had ambitions to conquer the US market. This did not mean singles were not taken from albums, it is just that a number of singles woudl be released in between albums. 

By the early ’80s only a few bands were doing this on any regular basis- the Jam, Dury, and….um. The Beat, I think, did a couple of non-album singles (the fantastic ‘Too Nice To Talk To’ was one). The Pretenders intially did ‘Talk of the Town’ as an inter-album single but it later appeared on their second album. DExys Midnight Runners initially did ‘Plan B’ as an inter-album, one off single, though they did re-record it (with a very different lineup) for their second album ‘Too Rye Aye’.

NOTE: These are all fantastic numbers.

I think Madness also did some inter-album singles but I can’t recall what they were right now.

Anyway, Dury. Brilliant lyricist, by all accounts a pain in the arse to deal with. The Blockheads were an amazing band – their rhygthm section was one of the bestand tightest   around and when they were first heard in the US people could not beleive they were (mostly) white. 

Dury had a hard life – handcapped from youth due to polio, he used to lean on the mic stand for support (Johnny Rotton/Lydon, of the Sex Pistols, saw him doing this and copied the stance even though Lydon’s sole handicap, appart from his attitude, was his teeth).

He was put in a home at one point, and abused ( he sang about it in ‘Dance of the Crackpots’, which starts as a joke and then turns into something much more painful and harrowing).

And he couldn’t keep his trousers on. He seems to have been sexual catnip, to the point of self destruction: there’s a tale in a biogrpahy of him where the bnad was taken to dinner by the head of their record company’s entire European division. They were poised to make it big on the conttinent, but Dury copped off witht he wife of the head of the record company during the dinner. And that was the end of their chances in Europe.

Dury also wrote plays, appeared in films, and was an all-round brilliant bloke. His lyrics are often hilarious and rarely not clever. But he tended, like a lot of birtlalin bods, to self-sabotage. 

New Year’s Eve: ‘Here’s to what the future brings…’

I only started celebrating New Years when I left home: it was a bit of a culture shock to find the rest of the world made such a big deal of it.

Back home, New Years was – weather permitting –in the middle of haymaking. Staying up to midnight to see the year in was the worst possible indulgence, if you had to get up in the morning to milk cows and then spend much of the day in the hay paddock.

So the first few New Years away from home kind of made up for it. They’re a bit of a blur.

Some were memorable: a three day-er in Whakatane, with a 21st on December 30 (happily, a Friday) spilling over into a New Year’s party at the same venue the following afternoon/evening/night/morning/ and then New Years Day on Ohope Beach.

Or a toast to the New Year on Mt St John in Auckland, a few years later: or stopping half way across Mangere Bridge at midnight having just picked up a friend from the airport.

Others were spent in tents in places like the Kaimanawas, and one memorable one in a cave on the edge of the Beansburn River, watching the rain come down, the river raise, and – further up, the snowline come further down the pass.

There was an exhausted, altitude sickness one in Kathmandu in Nepal, in the late ‘90s.

The last one I saw in was the Millennium, from the top of Mt Victoria.

A couple of years later, having done the Heaphy Trail and torn an Achilles tendon, I was with a bunch of fellow trampers at the Last Resort in Karamea, awaiting the midnight hour.

Pretty stuffed. A couple of games of pool had come and gone. The proprietor had excitedly promised us, when we checked in, “something special!” for New Years and when we asked us what it was he proclaimed “JELLY WRESTLERS!”

He looked a bit shocked when we just stared blankly black.

I was on about the third or fourth beer, and it was starting to taste soapy – a personal warning indicator light.

Checked the watch. It was 11:15pm.

O to hell with this – I’ve seen in enough New Years, I thought, and limped off to the bunkhouse.

In that spirit, I don’t think I’ll be seeing 2016 in at midnight. Unless either the daughter or the neighbours get me up, in which case, there might be a certain lack of the seasonal spirit.

I may commit sarcasm.

But, in the spirit of the New Year, here’s the Kinks, with probably their last really decent single.

I love the vocal – as Ray Davies starts with,

Here’s wishing you the bluest sky,
And hoping something better comes tomorrow.

he sounds like a drunken uncle rising unsteadily to his feet and beginning New Year’s (or maybe a 21st ) speech.

So here’s to everyone who had a crap year and is planning on a better 2016. There’s plenty I know like that.
And for everyone else, too: here’s to better things.

 

I know you’ve got a lot of good things happening up ahead,
The past is gone, it’s all been said.
So here’s to what the future brings,
I know tomorrow you’ll find better things…

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.