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. 

 

‘Gonna make it after all…’

Husker Du. Mary Tyler Moore Theme. Thrashed a lot, very ironically, back in 1985. Seems less ironic now.

Rest in piece, Mary. Wasn’t till I got to journalism school in 1982 I realised many of the newsroom types in the MTM Show were everywhere. Not just the Marys, but the Ted Baxters & the Lou Grants.

Thought for the Day – from good ol’ Hunter S.

‘The main problem in any democracy is that crowd-pleasers are generally brainless swine who can go out on a stage & whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy—then go back to the office & sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece.’

– Hunter S Thompson.

Thought for the day – Mencken on books 

‘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”.

img_0172

The US Presidential elections…what would Mencken say?

‘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. 

Well, quite. 

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.

Blog catch up…Polls and media myths

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 7.43.08 PM

The latest Roy Morgan burst upon a breathless nation at the end of the week, showing National jumped 10% in support compared to the last poll, taking the party’s rating to 53%.

I’ll be writing more about this in my paid writing on Monday morning – suffice it to say, the Roy Morgan poll is notorious for its volatility in much the same way the Pacific Ocean is notorious for reasonably high degree of dampness.

The Young Nats are circulating a poster on social media triumphantly proclaiming the 53% rating.

I suppose youth must have its fling, and all that, but over at Home Paddock, Ele Ludemann, whose loyalty to the National Party is long and unquestionable, has some wise words in her post ‘A Snap In Time’. Don’t get too carried away here, is the essence of the message.

Ele’s blog to me epitomises some of the best aspects of New Zealand conservatism – low key, based on instinct rather than abstract ideology, essentially liberal in an open-minded rather than prescriptive way, and with a basic decency.

And as with many of the wiser people I’ve known, what is significant is often what is not said, or left out rather than what is made explicit.

Oh, and politics is not treated as the be all and end all of life.

Elsewhere on the blog front….Danyl at Dimpost asks the source of the tale, recounted occasionally in columns by babyboomers perusing the New Zealand culture, of a small provincial newspaper editorial booming ‘once again, we warn the Kaiser…’.

Or, in some versions,  the Tsar.

The tale is usually, locally, associated with the Grey River Argus, a West Coast paper which was at one time a Labour Party organ. I first heard this tale on the Wellington Polytechnic journalism course in 1982, from one of the tutors.

At the time I took it as one of the legends of The Profession: as I grew older and more sceptical I wondered a bit more about its accuracy. I’ve heard it applied to both the pre-World War One build up, and aimed at Germany, as well as the Russian Scare of the 1880s.

It seems it is a regular legend about the pretensions of provincial, Victorian/Edwardian newspapers, around the English-speaking world.

A lot of the informal tales of The Profession are like that.

One involved when explorer Vivian Fuchs was in New Zealand, for Sir Edmund Hilary’s expedition to Antartica.

According to the legend, a  sub-editor at the Christchurch Star was being let go, and his final front page, which featured a story about Fuchs, was headlined, ‘Fuchs Off To Antartica’  – only with a strategic and obvious misspelling of the explorer’s surname.

The error was spotted, according to the story, as the presses rolled, leading to a ‘STOP THE PRESSES’ moment and all papers hurriedly burned and a new edition quickly put together.

Great story – and one which has been told in other English speaking countries, about other newspapers.  Apocryphal tales told by journalists over a drinks or five are without borders.

Besides, what I do know about my fellow scribes, and survivors of the era when there were real print rooms, is that if any such edition had been printed, someone would have illicitly saved a copy.

Yes, even with the threat of being fired if you did so.

Come on. Why wouldn’t you?  It’d be a great story.

My favourite legend of journalism…well, one of them… is from the era British Fleet Street.

The story goes one of the dailies – probably the Telegraph, although the Times is possible – realised, as print time approached, the regular editorial writer was away and the job had not been assigned to anyone else.

A senior journalist was given the task and bundled into one of the small side offices with a bottle of whisky,  a topic and a deadline.

Right on the dot someone realised he hadn’t filed: a quick check found him, slumped over his typewriter, the tide having gone down considerably in the bottle and a magisterial “Notwithstanding….” the only word produced.

And while I usually raise a dubious eyebrow at many tales from The Profession, I choose to believe this one.

 

 

 

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.

Sorted

Journalists are known and celebrated for both our organisational ability and numeracy skills.
Mostly, we’re known and celebrated for not having them.
This is an infuriating generalisation, of course But,  (a) like most generalisations it has more than a grain of truth and (b) journalists, as a group, are really in no position to grizzle about other people making generalisations about us.
OK, this is a start….

 

In my own case, I’m a journo with an ongoing interest in economic and related matters, which assumes* at least a bit of mathematical ability. I’ve also been freelancing for 16 years, as of this week.

It seems to suggest a bit of organisational nous.

Other journos have commented on my organisational ability and my ability with maths. This is a bit like being complimented by Vladimir Putin for your ability to get on with the neighbours.

My Better Half, who is Dutch, is inclined to collapse in hysterical laughter when I tell her other journos think I’m good at this stuff.

…and this isn’t a finish

According to family legend, my younger sister (then aged 10) had to put my school lunch together when I was in the 7th form because otherwise I’d have forgotten it.

I have no personal memory of this, but of course to the rest of my family that proves the point. When I point out I actually have a very good memory, they say things like “yeah – for political stuff, and historical dates and things like that. But what did you have for breakfast, and where are your car keys right now?”

Both unfair, trick questions, in my book.

The reason I’m writing this is I began a re-organisation of the home office over the Easter break and I am still suffering.

So this is an example of that most important sub-genre of blog posts: the Procrastination Post.

I reckon these account for around half the stuff written in social media, and that is being generous.

Normal service will be resumed once I’ve worked out just what normal is.

*Please note: this word is chosen with great care. 

25 Days In November

Will be spending much of the next four weeks writing about the election, along with covering whatever form the global economy’s ongoing impersonation of a hormonal emotionally incontinent 14-year-old takes this particular cycle.

Oh, and tax.  There’s bound to be some tax stuff in there. Yummy yummy tax.

The twitter feed is probably the best short form way to keep up with things, as the entire news industry is now being twatted.

I may not be making much sense by the end of the month. Wibble.