‘An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it makes a better soup.’
– H L Mencken.
‘An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it makes a better soup.’
– H L Mencken.
“It’s a wee bit on the horrendous side, is this town-going.” – John Clarke/Fred Dagg
The late, and very much missed, John Clarke. For his birthday.
Contains Harris Street, just outside where the library is now, and bits of Victoria Street in that vicinity. Filmed in roughly 1976: it looked much the same when I moved to Wellers in 1982.
Ray Davies wrote this when he was 21. His producer apparently said it was the kind of thing a 40-year-old would write.
Personally, I was about one year old when the original came out, at the end of 1965, but when I was discovering the Kinks in the late 1970s, this was on a live album.
It’s a somewhat rocked up, stadium version, it has more bounce than the original recording, but retains the same knowing, warily ironic lyrics. I fell in love with the Kinks around this time, even though they were well past their best. It was difficult to get hold of out-of-print albums in New Zealand then, but I managed, after a few years, to scour enough second-hand bins to put together a collection.
I loved them because they were so damn different to anything else going on – even though you could hear their influence in a lot of the music of the time.
Ray Davies visited Buck House last month and arose Sir Ray.
Davies sang like an old man, well before he was one. The run of recordings from roughly mid-1966 to mid-1969, although spread around several different albums, some nominally formed around “concepts”, plus a splattering of magnificent if often neglected singles, is like a unified body of work.
A body of work completely out of sync with its times: amid the spectacular multicolour of psychedelia and the self-conscious, self-dramatising youth revolution of the late 1960s, Ray Davies penned a series of monochrome songs about the world that was being lost.
“Dead End Street”, a single at the end of 1966, could probably began this body of work, although there were glimpses in some of the tracks on the ‘Face To Face’ album earlier in the year.
“Dead End Street” is more reminiscent of the 1930s than the 1960s: Davies’ vocal begins, pinched and cold, like an unemployed man huddling into a cold army surplus overcoat for warmth.
‘There’s a crack up in the ceiling
And the kitchen sink is leaking …’
The rhythm is a march: there are horns, like a northern brass band, and it calls to mind mental pictures of the Jarrow March of 1936 rather than the psychedelic “happenings” of 1966.
The video is silly, but one thing it has in common with the song is it is in black and white.
Davies’ songs from this era all sounded monochrome: they were like Ealing, or Boulton Brothers, films set to music.
‘Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, flowing into the night?’
Including, of course, the masterpiece: Waterloo Sunset. A big part of the appeal of the song is the loneliness of its narrator (‘every day I look at the world from my window’) and the imagery of the detached, solitary observer viewing the bustling crowd and the dirty old river, rolling, flowing into the night, sticks in the mind.
There’s both a distance and a clarity and a detail in what Davies is singing about – again, the imagery is monochrome, and his brother Dave’s guitar matches the mood perfectly.
And if words, and playing is gritty and monochrome, the ethereal backing vocals float away, above the busy urban scene, like Philip Larkin gazing through his High Windows, nowhere and endless.
This body of work culminated in two albums, ‘The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society’ and ‘Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire’ – the latter from a tv play by Julian Temple which was, in the end, never made.
Davies has since redone it, with a choir – there’s a live version here. It works, pretty much.
Davies said once, somewhere, that Waterloo Sunset is him at his best, and he himself as not as good as Waterloo Sunset. I recently read Johnny Rogan’s recent biography of him, ‘Complicated Life’ and this is certainly a piece of that good old English understatement. While not exactly a hatchet job, Rogan – whose earlier book on the Kinks was subtitled ‘A Mental Institution’ – does not exactly go out of his way to hide his subject’s flaws.
But it’s always the way, isn’t it? Brilliant creativity – and Davies’ influence can be heard on musos as diverse as David Bowie, the Who, the Smiths, Ian Dury, and even our own Split Enz – often goes hand in hand with a certain personal rebarbativeness of character. “A miserable little bleeder” one of his uncles dubbed him when he was a child, and there’s no doubt Davies, from childhood, was suffering from some form of undiagnosed mental illness.
There’s a good recent interview with him in the New Statesman here, where he discusses hipsters and Pete Townshend, amongst other things.
He’s clearly an awkward bugger, somewhat at odds with life. But that kind of goes with the territory, it seems.
‘Of all the many turning points and crucial stages – from primitive ape-like creature through to the sophisticated and marginally less primitive ape-like creature that you see about you at zoos and football matches – the most curious development of all is that of the human brain.
‘The human brain has got man into a lot more trouble than has previously been supposed and unless we come up with some way of putting the brain out of commission or obviating some of the more ludicrous effects of the brain, then I don’t think life’s going to get any better.’
The late, great John Clarke/Fred Dagg on the meaning of life. An excerpt therefrom.
“Of course, in the 20th century, we have produced a fair array of theories about what life’s actually about and probably the existentialists take the buttered confection for getting closest to thinking they had it all worked out. They used to hang about in the Paris area, which is in what we used to call Gaul, and talk about how terrible life was and how they didn’t know if they’d really get to the weekend. They reckoned life was a pretty dreadful business and was filled with a thing called ennui.
“Now, ennui is a terrible thing, and seems to have roughly the same effect as terminal boredom. Ennui actually is a French word meaning Henry. And the story goes that once you get a touch of the Henry’s, it’s all downhill and the only way to relive the symptoms is to whip down the harbour and pull a wave over your bonce and call it a day.”
The full piece is here.
Rest in Peace. Reports through from Sydney this morning he’s died, aged 68.
Clarke was the closest New Zealand has come to a genuine comic genius. An original, one who, mostly, based his humour on the way New Zealanders talk rather than by just adapting a sketch from Monty Python or Stan Freberg or the Frost Report to local conditions.
He first appeared to a wider audience on Country Calendar in the mid-1970s, just as the country’s economic reliance on pastoral products and the Brits was being pulverised.
He was a breath of fresh air, in so many ways: mostly because of how he talked.
It was very buttoned down Kiwi, but with an ornate side to it: “It’s a wee bit horrendous, this towngoing,” a diffident Dagg mutters in a voice over as he is seen parking his Landrover in Wellington’s Harris Street.
He laughed at the way we talked, but it was a laughter without jeers.
Clarke had the true comic’s gift of being able to show what was funny about New Zealanders but in a way which, somehow, celebrated rather than sneered at it.
There was always a sense of heart, a generosity of spirit, as he laughed – or rather, as he showed us what was funny.
Murray Ball, RIP. Got a huge collection of Footrot Flats books. You didn’t have to have grown up on a farm to have got the humour of them, but by crikey it helped.
One of my favourites: just a one frame shot of Wal and Cooch, cleaning out either the shed or a pigsty, in the pouring rain. Wal is looking particularly grim and determined, and an air of resigned misery hangs over the entire picture.
Dog is looking out at the viewer, and is saying, ‘Well, it was either this or do the accounts.’
Ball was a junior All Black and perhaps could have gone further but, having spent some formative years in South Africa was particularly vehemently opposed to apartheid. I recall a story of his being on one of the early protests against the 1981 tour – it may even have been the Hamilton riot – and being appalled when fellow protestors starting pulling down the fence to the ground.
When a tour to South Africa was planned in 1985, he withdrew Dog from being the All Black mascot, in an open letter to the Rugby Union.
I clipped it and its selotaped on the inside of one of the collections of Footrot Flat cartoons [see pic]. It captured the turmoil a lot of us felt about rugby contacts with apartheid, at the time: his drawing of Dog taking off his black and white scarf and walking away in sorrow was eloquent and sad and so, so bang on.
Happier was the film of the cartoons strip the following year: it brilliantly caught the entire New Zealand farming world at a time it was changing forever.
Saw the film at Mission Bay cinema: it was thrilling to see something so New Zild on the screen, so recognisable; hilarious in bits and I remember even shedding a tear at one point.
‘There are people who read too much: the bibliobibuli. I know some who are constantly drunk on books, as other men are drunk on whiskey or religion. They wander through this most diverting and stimulating of worlds in a haze, seeing nothing and hearing nothing.’
H L Mencken.
To which I can only say, ‘Cheers’. Though I’d query the “too much”.
‘My microphone is broken. She broke it. Her and Obama. They took it to Kenya and they broke it.’
I hope there is some mute village Mencken finding his or her journalistic voice in the United States this horrendous election year. It calls for some Menckenesque scorn, although I suspect he would see, in Donald Trump, all his reservations about providing the vote to people he would regard as a sub normal intelligence – i.e. about half the human race – made flesh.
Mencken – H L Mencken, to use the byline he wrote under, from his Baltimore office, for much of the first half of the 20th century – had a fine line in scorn and invective and for the follies of political life.
His scorn wasn’t just for the polticians themselves – it was more for the people who voted for them, for all the wrong reasons. There was often more than a tinge of contempt, unfortunately, in his attitudes to those less intelligent than himself – a rather large group.
He was though, ahead of his time in some matters. It’s interesting to ponder what he would make of Donald Trump’s progress to head the party of Abraham Lincoln.
‘A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in’, he once wrote.
And Mencken was quite sympathetic to women’s fight for equality, writing that ‘women always excel men in that sort of wisdom which comes from experience. To be a woman is in itself a terrible experience.’
His scepticism – and his message that scepticism was a right and good thing, especially when applied to both those who hold formal political power and those who adopt the less accountable,but often more intrusive, power of moral certitude.
‘A Socialist who goes to jail for his opinions seems to me a much finer man than the judge who sends him there, though I disagree with all the ideas of the Socialist and agree with some of those of the judge. But though he is fine, the Socialist is nevertheless foolish, for he suffers for what is untrue. If I knew what was true, I’d probably be willing to sweat and strive for it, and maybe even to die for it to the tune of bugle-blasts. But so far I have not found it.’
..is a sentiment I find myself endorsing, with a small dose of scepticism (there are some things I feel are true, but in the main they belong to the private sphere).
‘The kind of man who wants the government to adopt and enforce his ideas is always the kind of man whose ideas are idiotic,’ is another of Mencken’s aphorisms.
‘The worst government is the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.’
I suspect Mencken would add a rider to that today. Trump is a cynic – but a cynic without any tempering influence of empathy.
The effective cynic in fact has bags of empathy for other human beings – cynicism requires insight, a knowledge of, and instinct for, other humans, and that requires empathy. Trump seems to lack any of this.
Add to that the legions of religious fanatics who have, out of a combination of opportunism, convenience, venality and sheer stupidity, hitched their wagon to the Trump circus wagon, and you have potentially the worst of all governments in the making.
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.
Disraeli: Or, The Two Lives, by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013
Edmund Burke: the first conservative by Jesse Norman Basic Books, 2013
“The Left are natural dreamers, and so they have a ready supply of heroes,” write Douglas Hurd and Edward Young in their biography of Benjamin Disraeli.
I don’t have political heroes: the whole concept seems a bit naff to me.
But of the political heroes I don’t have, these two come top of the list. In my early 20s, in a dusty second-hand book store upstairs in Auckland’s Elliott Street, I found an old 19th Century poster etching of Disraeli. Had it on my bedroom wall for years, when flatmates had Whitney Houston, Morrissey, or Michael Jackson posters.
I’d read essays on the guy, he sounded interesting. And witty.
Burke, I discovered in a first year politics paper – Auckland University’s great ‘Law, Property and Individualism’ course on political philosophy from Plato through to Mill.
Andrew Sharp is still the best university lecturer I ever had, on any subject, I think. Lucid and clear, with an engaging informal approach – he never wasted a word in his lectures, yet he still usually explained things three times, at least for his stage one class.
I’d heard of Burke, but knew nothing about him apart from a few quotes (the one about society being a contract a contract by the living with both the dead and those yet to be born, and the one about a member of Parliament owing electors his judgement not his obedience).
On about the third tutorial, essay topics were being assigned and the tutor – a great teacher who sadly is no longer with us – told me “Do Burke, Rob. You’d love him.”
And she was right.
This was the mid-1980s and politics in New Zealand was awash with ideological debate…actually, that’s not quite correct. The Labour Party, in government, was awash with ideological debate. ideological and factional debate (the two are often hard to distinguish from each other), that is.
By the end of the decade the Labour Party was the only party with clubs on campus – but there were three of them*.
The conservative side of politics was somewhat confused. National had gone down this weird route under Sir Robert Muldoon and was still trying to recover. Roger Douglas had implemented many of the policies National’s more ideologically inclined – never a very large group – had long wanted to carry out. The rest of National, meanwhile, was spitting with rage and pain, as Rogernomics went through the farming sector and the country’s protected industries like a runaway bulldozer through a Crown Lynn surplus china goods shop.
It was a difficult time. And if you were trying to get a ‘fix’ on your own political outlook, as I was, it was tricky. I clearly wasn’t a socialist of any kind. There was the emotionally attractive but intellectual double-blind alley of simplistic and unrealistic nostalgia offered by Sir Robert Muldoon’s dwindling followers and the larger and louder New Labour backers of Jim Anderton.
The need for many of the Rogernomic reforms was clear. What was also clear was the collateral damage they were causing.
Burke’s wariness about simplistic, theoretically driven reforms imposed on a society without due respect and attention to that society’s traditions and values made a lot of sense – intellectually and emotionally. Together with Disraeli’s wit and often wispy rhetoric, they make an appealing package for conservatives, even today.
Disraeli and Burke are conservatives – subtle and profound ones. Both were in fact outsiders of the society in which they found themselves: Burke was Irish, and even though he was Protestant Irish it lent him a certain distance (his mother was catholic).
And they were both, of course, writers. Burke was not a particularly successful politician, although he did attain moderate ministerial rank: Disraeli was a spectacularly successful politician – in the end. He suffered decades of failure, and he was to muse, when he finally got the prime ministership, that he had got it too late.
But he was also, as Hurd and Young show in their biography, ‘always a novelist even when writing no novels at all’.
“Time and again Disraeli uses imagination to make politics interesting. His most powerful strength was the creative energy with which he transformed Victorian politics. The public were fascinated by his speeches in the Commons. As Lord Curzon later put it: ‘the jewelled phrase, the exquisite epigram, the stinging sneer. He was like a conjurer on a platform whose audience with open mouth awaited the next trick.'”
That, rather than winning elections or running governments, is his real legacy and achievement, although he was pretty good at those more prosaic things too. Someone called it ‘the politics of drains’ – Disraeli’s governments, particularly his 1874-80 one, did quite a lot of this. (The other two were short-lived affairs).
Most of all, he was able to make an imaginative, empathetic leap and realise the rising middle classes, and in particularly a sizable chunk of the increasingly unrestful working classes, would happily vote conservative.
No one else seems to have thought so at the time. There was a fear of what ‘the mob’ would do if they were given any sort of power.
But he taught his party, and his lesson for conservatives remains.
There was, for example, a public argument between with Lord Cranborne, then a newspaper editor but later, when he inherited his family title of Lord Salisbury, to himself lead the Conservatives – about extending the right to vote beyond the aristocracy and landowners to other people.
Disraeli was prepared to extend the right to vote to more working class men (votes for women was, at the time, only advocated by the real radicals) than was the Liberal Party of the time. Although supposedly the more ‘progressive’ the Liberals were worried about whether those voters were quite up to it.
Shouldn’t they just be content to be guided by the wiser and better beings, (of whom the Liberal Party of the day, naturally, considered themselves the prime examples)?
Disraeli cut through all that cant and hypocrisy, all that snobbery masquerading as concern.
As I’ve written in the National Business Review recently , (paywalled) it was something emulated by successful conservative leaders around the world – including in New Zealand.
‘In a progressive country change is constant and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs the laws and traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.’
New Zealanders are not Brits. We have our own manners, customs, laws and traditions. Along with an emerging sense of our own history as something distinct and something our own, and these are becoming stronger and more confident by the year.
I plan…and here I use the word ‘plan’ somewhat loosely.. to write more on this.
There have been several books on Disraeli – the ‘authoritative’ one is by Robert Blake. It is thorough, reasonably but not excessively adulatory, and just a little bit dull. Hurd and Young capture Disraeli’s essence – or his importance, anyway – in a much shorter and more readable book. They are sceptical, occasionally with some astringency, about Disraeli’s more shameless exploits (and there were more than a few of those, one of which – the elevating of imperialism to an explicit, crowd-pleasing political policy, produced a lot of long-term harm).
So I’m not starry-eyed about him. Admirable and fascinating in many ways, there was a streak of frivolity which occasionally tipped into something darker.
As for the second book under review: Burke’s approach was summarised best in his line that
‘Circumstance (which with some gentlemen passes for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.’
He follows from Aristotle’s emphasis on human beings as social and political animals, but stresses that the important part of this is the institutions and customs a society evolves for itself over time. These institutions, customs and norms ‘become a repository of shared knowledge and inherited wisdom.’
His rejection of abstract reasoning can – and often is – reduced to caricature, sometimes by Burke himself. A querulous query to the Sheriffs of Bristol, a bunch of lads who sound like a barrel of laughs, is cited as the essence of anti-intellectualism:
‘What is the use of discussion a man’s abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them…I shall always advise to call in the of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics.’
Burke does not, in fact, dismiss philosophy or metaphysics quite as comprehensively and certainly not as unthinkingly as that quote suggests: instead one of his great themes is that ‘universal principles themselves are never sufficient in themselves to guide practical deliberation’.
Burke was not trying to create a philosophical system, but, Norman argues, he has
‘a rich and distinctive world view of his own….Each[social order] is sui generis, a largely incremental and historically continuing human achievement…Any practical or theoretical reflection on such a human artifact – and this applies to any institution, large or small, peoples and nations as much as words or ideas – must therefore begin with history and experience.
‘Far from choking off individual energy and aspiration…it makes social and economic advancement possible. It is a colossal collective achievement which must be treated with respect by all would-be reformers.’
Amongst these institutions is the market, which at the time Burke was writing was becoming more studied, most famously by Adam Smith. Smith once commented that ‘Burke is the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us.’
Burke did not actually write much on economic matters, or at least did not have much published, but some works assembled after his death and labeled Thoughts and Detail on Scarcity cover the area and Norman points out, rightly I think, that neither Burke nor Smith was really what we would call a full-blown free trader: that Burke ‘sees markets and other institutions as operating within, drawing from and contributing to a broader moral community.’
Markets need to be respected because they reflect people’s myriad individual choices. They are not the product of some idealogue scribbling out a theoretical construct of society – their strength is they evolved out of humans doing what comes naturally.
They work best when the signals they send about people’s preferences is subject to as little interference as possible. But they also are just one custom and tradition. They need to work within the customs and mores of that broader community – – in New Zealand’s case, within our ideas and assumptions about ourselves, about what makes us distinctive as a people. This is, I think, – becoming more important in how our own politics is framed.
That, though, touches on my paid work, and for now it is the weekend. More on that, in another forum.
For now, I’d recommend both these books for anyone of a conservative frame of mind – and anyone who wants to understand some of the more important and subtle, but less understood, currents of the conservative tradition.
* I am going by memory here. No doubt someone will be able to dig out the records or minutes from some tedious and lengthy meetings of trainee 20 year old polticians which show there were only two. Or five. Good luck to you, whoever you are.