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.