Going Jest

Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley by Danyl McLauchlan (VUP)

A friend – himself a novelist with four published works notched up on the Macbook – mused a year or two back about the dearth of comic novels in New Zealand literature.
It is not a new lament. The lack of humour has often been commented on, and on this issue it is difficult to go past one of the most magnificent philippics ever written on the state of local literature, with particular reference to its inward looking sombreness, penned by Quiet Earth author and academic Craig Harrison in the New Outlook.
Some of Harrisons polemic was the shriek of agony from a soul who, in a moment of negligent folly, had agreed to judge a short story competition.
This is not the sort of thing most people look back on without some stabbing regrets, but the experience seems to have seared Harrison.
There were 125 entries, he reported, and the overall impression left was “life in New Zealand constituted of an uninterrupted parabola of misery…a notable feature of many stories was the retribution meted out to characters who momentarily gave way to happiness: sexual, aesthetic or social. They were nearly all killed on the next page.”
That, and a general attitude from the countrys literary community that sees `”artists'” as special, sensitive souls tormented almost to madness by the angst of living in a nihilistic universe populated by morons (i.e. people who cant understand their poetry).
Harrisons essay, though, rises to a serious conclusion of its own, urging the need for writing that captures “vigorous, resilient, witty, defiant and even triumphant feats of the imagination…. as well as entertaining, or suggesting means of confronting and coping with (rather than despairing of) the problems of existence, especially in an age increasingly devoid of traditional and religious consolations.  It means we are being deprived of something important in the truest sense.
I thought of this essay admittedly more than 20 years old now when Radio New Zealand interviewer Kim Hill asked author Danyl MacLauchlan if he was going to do a serious book. 
There was more than a hint, in the question, of well this humour thing is all very well, but when are you going to do something worthwhile? 
Humour intelligent humour is a serious business. It is not all cheap yuk-yuks. Unfortunately too much of what passes for laughs tends to be produced by the intellectual and moral 10 year olds of radios whacky morning breakfast crews. Either that, or superannuated Pommie immigrants who have somehow convinced people of their wit despite being about as subtle and funny as a claw hammer.
It doesnt need to have an overt point either. Perhaps it is a legacy of the A Week Of It tv show of the late 1970s and the spin off McPhail & Gadsby series; maybe it is simply a function of New Zealands historical statism, but there is a tendency to see satire through an almost exclusively political lens.
Humour doesnt have to have a pointand nor does satire, except to throw the light of laughter on human foibles and more generally on the human condition. Politics is a subset of this human condition but only one of them, and certainly not the most important.
What it needs, most of all, is an antic spirit, illuminated by intelligence and not only a sense of the ridiculous, but a positive, exuberant enjoyment of that ridiculousness.
So, does Unspeakable Secrets deliver?
If any part of New Zealand were to be treated as a strange separate world, with overtones of access to an alternative universe, then – with the possible exception of the Auckland property market – Wellingtons Aro Valley would have to be it.
The main character is named after the author and McLauchlan has stated this follows the practice of several well known literary lions. 
However,  instead of making his namesake an all powerful hero, admired by men and irresistible to women, the Danyl character spends most of his time running around Aro Valley with no trousers on due to accidents and not due to excessive bedroom action.
It is a nice postmodern touch: the Debagging, rather than the Death, of the Author.
The essential hopelessness of Danyl and friend Steve is established early on: in the opening scene a frail old man beats up Danyl while Steve refuses to help (“I’m a scholar…I can only observe.”)  and they engage in those quasi-academic discussions of the terminally over-educated deadbeats (“Let’s see your medical doctors do that. Theyre just shills for the Enlightenment.” “I like the Enlightenment. I like living after it.”)
Steve is, by the way, a magnificent comic creation: deep in discussion around the emerging mystery of what actually is going on in Aro Valley, he muses they need to “Take a look a the big picture here. Start with the basics. First we need to ask ourselves, what is the greatest mystery in all of human history? A mystery so vast and yet so obvious few even know it exists?”
Ah, yes. Some of us have flatted with people like Steve.
The emerging mystery, around the comically menacing figure of The Campbell Walker, keeps 
reader engaged enough in the plot line and the mystery to pull the book along.
There is a tendency for some of the battier characters to talk in expository style, in the way people never do in real life but often do in very bad novels. 
Apparently one of McLaughlans inspirations is the work of Dan Brown and I think this might be the Dan Brown stuff some reviewers have referred to: I have to confess I am not a close student of the Brown oeuvre and will have to defer to superior knowledge in this area.
Other influences are plain: the character of Danyl is in the fine tradition of hapless naïf heroes which run from Voltaires Candide through Waughs Paul Pennyfeather and Pratchetts Rincewind,
while the mysterious building in which The Campbell Walker is preparing..what, exactly?…for humankind reminded me of something out of Scooby Doo.

There are probably other influences, in-jokes and references which passed me by. In fact, Im fairly sure of it.

But that doesnt matter. The trick and it is a difficult one is to sprinkling those sort of nuggets through a book but making sure the book works even if readers do not get them.
And Unspeakable Secrets succeeds brilliantly at this.
More please. And dont get too serious.

Link hilarity.


“Your detectives are a fine body of men, working hard to keep the public safe from satanists, diamond thieves and nutters armed with hammers. I salute them. 
But what hideous neckties they all wear! …Is it any wonder that the streets of London are full of glue sniffers, if this is the example the police set?” 
The genial lunatic atChase Me Ladies, I’m in the Cavalry  appears to be back.

Banana surprise

Stephen Stratford reminds us it is the always slightly disturbing Barry Humphries’ birthday today.

Here he is with Deborah Harry.  The duet at the end is …something.  I would like to have seen them do ‘Picture This’ but I suspect even Harry would have trouble hitting the notes in the chorus on that one these days.

Dame Edna and Debbie Harry

NZ Book month -05 and 06: Fred Dagg and Tom Scott

There is no way I’m going to meet this challenge Ele has set unless I cut a few corners. Been out of town the last couple of days and going to be out of town for a week from next Thursday.

So… I’m going to do two books a day for the next few days.

Kicking off with a couple of humorous tomes.

First up: Tom Scott’s ‘Ten Years’ Inside’, a collection he put out in 1984 after 10 years cartooning and writing in the Press Gallery for the Listener. The cartoon I’ve attached is from that collection – and it is a useful reminder, to those who have rather canonised David Lange since that time, that Lange was very equivocal about Labour’s anti-nuclear stance until he realised how popular it made him.

John Clarke’s collection ‘A Dagg at My Table’ is my number six entry for NZ Book month. Its a collection of his work, some of which is from after he hopped across the ditch to Australia.

Two examples will more than suffice, I feel.

Firstly, here he is on duck shooting:

You hide yourself away in a herbaceous border somewhere so you can’t be seen by anyone at all under any circumstances except from the air, by something like, say, for argument’s sake, a duck…

The important thing at about this state is the decoy. You have to give the duck the impression that you are actually yourself, personally, another duck.

There are two main methods of achieving duckhood. The first method is to fire the shotgun. This will break your shoulder off and bold both your arms neatly around your back in the manner made famous by wings. You fall backwards into the water and you will look and feel distinctly duck-escent.

The other thing to do, of course, is to sound like a duck, and for this there is a time-honoured device. You take a large bottle of whisky, remove the cap and suck on it very hard, drawing the liquid up into the body and making exactly the same noise ducks make when they’re having a few.

Of course in a twinkling of the first person you’ll see ducks swooping about all over the place. And snakes. And, in the fullness of time, elephants on bicycles.

And his analysis of real estate advertising is a classic:

‘Owner transferred reluctantly instructs us to sell’ means the house is for sale.

‘Genuine reason for selling’ means the house is for sale.

‘Rarely can we offer’ means the house is for sale.

‘Superbly presented delightful charmer’ doesn’t mean anything really, but it’s probably still for sale.

‘Most attractive immaculate home of character in prime dress-circle position’ means that the thing that’s for sale is a house.

‘Unusual design with interesting and solidly built stairs’ means that the stairs are in the wrong place.

‘Huge spacious generous lounge commands this well serviced executive residence’ means the rest of the house is a rabbit-warren with rooms like cupboards.

‘Magnificent well-proportioned large convenient block with exquisite garden’ means there’s no view, but one of the trees had a flower on it the day we were up there.

‘Privacy, taste, charm, space, freedom, quiet, away from it all location in much sought-after cul-de-sac situation’ means that it’s not only built down a hole, it’s built at the very far end of the hole.

‘A must for all you artists, sculptors and potters’ means that only a lunatic would consider living in it.

‘2/3 bedrooms with possible in-law accommodation’ means it’s got two bedrooms and a tool shed.

‘Great buy, ring early for this one, inspection a must, priced to sell, new listing, see this one now, all offers considered, good value, be quick, inspection by appointment, view today, this one can’t last, sole agents, today’s best buy’ means the house is for sale.

And if ever you see ‘investment opportunity’ turn away very quickly and have a go at the crossword.

From Emma Jayne Cranston’s Reference Book

From a book what I read on the weekend…..

OLIVIER, Sir Lawrence

Thirty years on, there’s still a kind of kinship that separates those who saw Larry’s Oedipus from those who didn’t…Will anyone who was there ever forget Larry’s ear-splitting scream of anguish which all but took the roof off the New Theatre?  I once asked Larry where he’d discovered that terrible noise.  It was the cry of a bull moose caught by the knackers in a trap, he told me, a ghastly high-pitched wail of agony he’d first heard when hunting in Canada as a young man. 

Larry gives each word of a part a unique rasp of danger which is his and his alone, and yet – and this is the really extraordinary thing about him – when he’s sitting quietly on the train to Brighton, if it wasn’t for his enormous false nose, his stage makeup and his habit of suddenly bellowing like a bull moose caught by the knackers, he could be mistaken for any other commuter on his way home after a hard day as the office.


Spike Milligan’s birthday


He did a lot of dross, and he appears to have been..well, mad.

But he was brilliant, for all his erraticism. The Goons were his crowning achievement, as were the first five volumes of his war memoirs.

This film, the Great McGonagall, which he wrote and stared in, bombed badly at the time.  But I have a certain fondness for its sheer weirdness.