Light, intelligent, witty reading: ‘Dear Committee Members’ by Julie Schumacker

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacker Doubleday 2014

“I’m glad we have different last names” was the reaction of Julie Schumacker’s  husband when he read the first draft of this book.

The prudent chap was no doubt worried about the hostages to fortune in this neat, funny novel of decaying campus life. I think Schumacker and her husband are both American academics, and the characterisation of Jay Fitger, a cynical and verbosely angry English professor in a decaying Midwest university is not flattering.


I don’t know if letters of recommendation (LOR) are a thing in New Zealand academia  – I kind of hope the Kiwi informality means people just pick up a phone.

Or, more likely, work out who they know in common  – ‘cos there’s bound to be a few people – and call them.

Anyway, this is a short but very funny novel, made up mostly of letters of recommendation, or letters and emails about letters of recommendation.

“Epistolatory Novels” have been around since the start of the novel as an art form – Ol’ Sam Richardson kicked the genre off around about the time of the War of Jenkins’ Ear. They’re a good way to do comedy: they can reveal so much character. They also give the smart alecky folks who read campus novels a chance to smirk knowingly.

Which is what happens here – but as the book goes on the sardonic distance between the reader and Fitger gradually closes. He isn’t just a generator Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 10.06.32 amof witty, knowing and disconsolate lines.

Fitger is bored and frustrated, mostly: his own career as a novelist has fizzled and his marriage has busted up after having an affair: unfortunately both his ex and the woman he had the disastrous affair with are now people he needs to beg for professional and personal favours, and many of these letters show him doing just that.

His department, English, has had its funding frozen if not shrunk and much of the time he is fighting a rearguard action, and petty turf and status wars, against more favoured faculties (Economics, which has inherited some of English’’s resources, is a particular enemy.

Yes, as well as being an epistolatory novel, it is also one of that more recent genre, the comic campus novel, something which is more of an English than an American speciality, and there is something of a middle aged, disappointed and jaded trans-Atlantic ‘Lucky Jim’ about Fitger.

Much of the time he is trying to stave off boredom and a crippling sense of futility: a former pupil seeking preferment at a supermarket is recommended as a writer who had submitted a story

about an inebriated man who tumbles into a café and surfaces form an alcoholic stupor to find that a tentacled monster –  a sort of fanged and copiously salivating octopus, if memory serves – is gnawing through the flesh of his lower legs, the monster’s spittle burbling ever closer to the victim’s groin….
Whether punctuality and an enthusiasm for flesh-eating cephalopods are the main attributes of the ideal Wexler employee I have no idea, but Mr Leszczynski is an affable young man, reliable in his habits, and reasonably bright.
You might start him off in produce, rather than seafood or meats.”

Attempts to recommend the department’s surly IT “help” desk staffer for a job grow in intensity, and I think we’ve all dealt with the type who” clearly suffers under the burden of our collective ignorance. Mr Napp demonstrates  all the winsome ebullience one expects these days from a young person inclined to socialise with machines rather than human beings….whatever I can do to assist in your – or any other firms – hiring of Mr Napp I will accomplish with resolution and zeal.”

Those excerpts give the book’s flavour…but as the story develops Fitger shows his heart – well, some of it – in highly guarded fashion.

It’s well worth a read.

Recommended, in fact.

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.

Terry Pratchett, writing, and God

There’s a feeling that I think is only possible to get when you are a child and discover books: it’s a kind of fizz: you want to read everything that’s in print before it evaporates before your eyes.


I suspect author Terry Pratchett, somehow, kept this kind of fizz in his heart when
he wrote. It’s an excerpt from his recent collection of non-fiction, A Slip of the Keyboard.
 Pratchett seems to have maintained within himself how it felt to be a child – a knowing, clear-eyed child, for all that. In another piece in the same collection he writes of his first visit to a department store, at the age of around five: “I remember it in colours so bright that I’m surprised the light doesn’t shine out my ears.”
We lose one of the funniest, deep, thoughtful and above all humane authors of our time.
It is rare to get those qualities all together. Often funny is not humane or particularly deep. Deep and humane is often a bit po-faced. 
But with Pratchett, you can get shrewd and often sharp insights into the human condition, next to bad puns or references to old-and-sometimes-a-bit-dirty jokes. 
He was, proudly, a ‘fantasy’ writer – the only one, personally, I’ve ever bothered with (Tolkien, who inspired him originally, left me cold).
But he could be very sharp about such literary distinctions. ‘Magical realism’ he says in one of the pieces collected in A Slip of the Keyboard is a  term ‘invented by critics to describe fantasy fiction written by people they were at university with.’ 
And he makes what should be – but isn’t – the fairly obvious point that all fiction is fantasy.
‘What Agatha Christie wrote was fantasy. What Tom Clancy writes is fantasy. What Jilly Cooper writes is fantasy – at least, I hope for her sake it is.’
The problem many have had with him is not so much that he is a fantasy writer, he suggested: ‘as a genre fantasy has become quite respectable in recent years. At least it can demonstrably make lots and lots and lots of money, which passes for respectable these days. But I’m a humorous writer too and humour is a real problem.’
That problem is people – well, the kind of people who tend to sit in literary judgment – can  be a bit overly straight-laced and frightened of not being taken seriously, so they confuse humour with not-being-serious. 
The problem is we think the opposite of funny is serious. It is not. As GK Chesterton pointed out, the opposite of funny is not funny, and the opposite of serious isn’t serious….
Humour has its uses. Laughter can get through the keyhole when seriousness is still hammering on the door. New ideas can ride in on the back of a joke, old ideas can be given an added edge.
This isn’t the only time he cites Chesterton: to those who deride his books as escapism, or worse, and bad for children,  Pratchett returns to Chesterton’s insight into a child’s world. 
The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragon can be killed.
 And since Chesterton’s time, Pratchett notes darkly, we have learned many of the dragons are in our own heads. 
Pratchett’s Discworld novels are set on a world that is ‘a world and a mirror of worlds’ –  and sometimes the mirror, as is the nature of mirrors,  shows things we would rather not be shown.
There is evil: Carcer, the villain in Night Watch, is pure gleeful psychopathy (and what a great name for a villain  – evocative of cancer and something coldly, viciously knife-edged).
There are torturers in several books: it is part of Pratchett’s clear-eyed, unsentimental look into human nature that their workplace has coffee mugs with ‘you don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps’ etched around them. 
There is – whisper this – the death penalty – Carcer is hanged, in the end, and in a sidebar to one of the Lancre witch novels, the villagers hang a child killer after the deeply, fearsomely moral witch Granny Weatherwax delivers the judgment ‘finish it with hemp’.
But when the villagers pronounce  ‘justice was done’ she wheels on them for their smugness, telling them to go home and pray to whatever gods they believe in it is never done to them. 
Ah, yes. Gods. There are plenty of these in Pratchett’s Discworld – many are rather common, living it up in their celestial realm known as Dunmanifestin’. There is the ‘Oh God’ of Hangovers, and various gods which are vaguely Scandinavian, or at least north European, turn up in several books, generally not really knowing what is going on. 
Gods are mostly, in Pratchett’s Discworld, bumbling and careless of the people who worship them. This is, again, an example of both Pratchett’s wisdom, humour, and humanity.
Perhaps the most explicitly theologically focused of the Discworld series, Small Gods, contains a desert to where gods who are no longer worshiped are banished. The more true believers a god has, the greater the creature they can manifest themselves as.
The great god Om, who supposedly has an entire, viciously theocratic state of Omnia worshipping him, manifests himself only to discover instead of some fearsome beast he is a rather slow, one-eyed tortoise. 
Only one, decent and earnest but rather thick monk, named Brutha,  genuinely believes: everyone else just believes in the terror which will come their way if they are suspected of heresy. 

And then there is neighbouring city state of  Ephebe, which is like a parody of our vaguely received ideas about Ancient Greece: the place is full of philosophers leaping out of baths or arguing in pubs. 

The greatest of these philosophers is Didactylos, who lives in a barrel (both the name and the residence are neat historical jokes) and who describes his philosophy as

 a mixture of three famous schools—the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans—and summed up all three of them in his famous phrase, “You can’t trust any bugger further than you can throw him, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so let’s have a drink. Mine’s a double, if you’re buying.”

 Hogfather, a kind of satire on Christmas, climaxes in an exchange about why beings such as the Hogfather,   Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, gods and demons, have been invented by humans.
It is significant who the question is asked of: Death. 
It is one of Pratchett’s best jokes-that-is-more-than-a-joke that Death – who talks in a VOICE OF DOOM LIKE THIS – is one of the most sympathetic characters in the entire series: he has a huge, if puzzled and often inept, care and concern for humanity.
I don’t think Pratchett ever said so anywhere, but I’m convinced Death represents Pratchett’s own view in his novels.
It is the culminating joke on the more overtly intellectual critics who annoyed Pratchett so much: not do much a post modern Death of the Author, more a case of Death as the author.

Sensible Susan, Death’s granddaughter, wants to know why people need such beings: Death’s reply shows he has learned a few things in the course of his work.

The exchange makes explicit what is implicit in much of Pratchett’s work and  is worth quoting in full.
HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. 

AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”


MY POINT EXACTLY.

The A Slip of the Keyboard collection, mostly of unpublished articles and lectures, also has a magnificent short piece on ‘The God Moment’ written after some British newspaper suggested he had found God. 
“I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is empirical evidence that they exist.’
Pratchett has though always refused to join the ‘religion is the cause of most of the wars/torture/etc.’ school of thought. 
While not believing in ‘big beards in the sky’ he was brought up in a traditional Church of England home, ‘which is to say that while churchgoing did not figure in my family’s plans for the Sabbath, practically all the ten commandments were obeyed by instinct and a general air of reason, kindness and decency prevailed
…possibly because of this, I’ve never disliked religion. I think it has some purpose in our evolution. I don’t have much truck with the ‘religion is the cause of most of our wars’ school of thought, because in fact that’s manifestly done by mad, manipulative and power hungry men who cloak their ambition in God.

But he wrote of recent moments of feelings of transcendence, of ‘the memory of a voice in my head, and it told me that everything was okay and things were happening as they should. For a moment, the world had felt at peace.

Where did that come from?
Me, actually – the part of all of us that, in my cause caused me to stop and listen in awe the first time I heard Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alum…’
‘When the universe opens up and shows us something, and in that instant we get just a sense of an order greater than Heaven and, as yet, beyond the grasp of Hawking.
 It doesn’t require worship but I think rewards, intelligence, observation and enquiring minds.
I don’t think I’ve found God but I may have seen where gods come from.

Second hand bookstores – an appreciation and a requiem

Learned that Quilters, one of Wellington’s venerable second hand bookstores, is to close. It will still operate online but only sell New Zealand books.

Quilters used to be on Lambton Quay, not far from Parliament. It was a great place to pop into at lunchtime: the only drawback was I seldom left without spending anything from $ 30-50 and so I used to limit my visits to one per quarter, with an extra one around Christmas time. More recently it moved to Ghuznee St, and has been part of a semi-official second hand book quarter (see pic).

 Two or three years back, when I’d been ordered off work by some rather over-bearing medical bods, I spent a day ambling around this quarter.

Bliss. I swear it was a lifesaver.  

Secondhand bookstores are a cornerstone of civilisation, in my, err, book.


I actually dream about second hand bookshops. No exaggeration. Sometimes they are stores I have known: more frequently they are some sort of combination of every second hand book shop I have ever known, plus an idealisation of what one would be like.


I like to think of this as a kind of premonition of a heavenly afterlife – especially the one which also comes with a well-stocked shelf of single malts.
It certainly beats the hell out of any other theories of the afterlife I’ve heard about. 
The best second hand bookstores are organised, so you can find what you are after – but not too organised. An air of amiable, intelligent dishevelment should always be part of the mix.

They are a dwindling breed, sadly. Those allergic to personal, self indulgent reminiscing and nostalgia should probably stop reading now and go and start an argument on the Twitter or something…

When I left home in ’82 and came to Wellington one of the things which grabbed me straight away was Wellington’s magnificent, rich and shambolic gumbo of second hand book stores. Most were in or around Cuba St: there were a couple where Olive Café is now; one upstairs at Silvio’s record store; a very messy one on the corner of Cuba and Ghuznee which was hardly ever open; and one on the corner of Victoria St just opposite where the library is now. I think it’s a place where you can buy honey, or new age health remedies crystals, or clothes or something equally unnecessary now.

Auckland used to have some great second hand book stores and there are still some good ones: the Hard to Find, in Onehunga, comes tops. The one in Devonport whose name I can never recall is also pretty good: I’ve picked up some very good hard cover first editions of novels there. The only thing I have against it is it is a bit too clean, tidy and well-lit and aired – very North Shore, perhaps, but I’m always expecting it to suddenly fill with people wearing boatshoes, drinking Steinlager and talking about property prices.

When I moved to Auckland in 1985 there was a good one at the top of Victoria St, about where the Sky City Tower is now, alongside Revival Records, which was one of the better second hand record stores in town.

I won’t review them: Simon Grigg has done a far better job here and in any case he’s a kind of hip and groovy chap who can do that sort of thing: I’m in no way hip or groovy, more sort of wonky ankle and slightly pock-marked.

Bloomsbury Books was one I used to spend a lot of time in: it had two things every decent, civilised second hand book store should have – a couple of comfortable armchairs and what was – for 1985 – decent coffee. It was at the end of Lorne St, a couple of doors along from Wellesley St. Last time I went past a sushi bar was there.

O tempura, O mores.

There was also a great one upstairs in Elliot St: I remember walking out of there with a batch of books on political history and a 19th Century print of Disraeli, who is the only politician whose picture I’ve ever had on my wall (unless you count a wall chart of world leaders which came with a Look and Learn magazine when I was about seven).

All these good stores were choosy. They probably had a few copies of ‘I’m OK You’re OK’, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ and ‘Colin Meads All Black’ because in those days every second hand book store had to have a few of these. I think there was a charter or something.
Jasons, which is one of the few to have survived,had quite a number of these. Situated as it was in High St, in the back of Simple Cottage and just down the hill from Auckland Uni it also had a batch of more highbrow stuff. Bought my first copy of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France there, and also picked up out of print two volume set of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, which was quite a score at the time.

Most second hand stores I recall were, and are, run by genial and intelligent, if often rather shy folk: not at all like the  proprietor in best television depiction of a second hand book store, Bernard Black.
‘Black Books’ is magnificent and it gets the ambience of a second hand store almost right. In its cast of Dylan Moran, Bill Bailey and Tamsin Grigg it has three of the funniest performers of the past 20 years (and in Grigg, one of the finest actors).

But Bernard is nothing like any second hand proprietor I’ve ever met. Manny, the Bill Bailey character, is more in line with most staff I’ve dealt with – except he’s a bit dim. The ones I’ve known might have been a bit unworldly, but in a highly intelligent way.

In Wellington these days the biggest second hand book shop is Arty Bees, on Manners St. Arty Bees used to be on Courtenay Place, a few doors down from the Paramount Theatre and a dash across the road from the Embassy and also at least two theatres.

There used to be a number of second hand book stores on Courtenay Place in those days. Arty Bees survived by being smart and hard working: instead of shutting at the end of the day, as all the others used to, it would stay open and get the theatre traffic.

Most evenings  – especially the wet or cold ones – it would be full of people killing time between their café dinner and the start of whatever film or show they were going to see. They thrived.

And I hope they continue to do so.

As I say, these stores are oases of civilisation. Yes, one can get these books online.

But browsing had a pre-computer meaning, a more full and rich meaning than that involving clicking a mouse or swiping a touch-screen.

 It would be a shame to lose that.

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Discovered, online, a deeply fascinating piece of correspondence between two great writers of the homicidal, genocidal Midnight of the 20th Century – Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. Waugh wrote to praise ‘1984’ but also to raise a few objections:

Winston’s rebellion was false. His ‘Brotherhood’ (whether real or imaginary) was simply another gang like the Party. And it was false, to me, that the form of his revolt should simply be fucking in the style of Lady Chatterley – finding reality through a sort of mystical union with the Proles in the sexual act….The Brotherhood which can confound the Party is one of love – not adultery in Berkshire, still less throwing vitriol in children’s faces.

And men who love a crucified God need never think of torture as all-powerful.

 The two writers had much which divided them, but more in common than was perhaps obvious. Both magnificent stylists with the English language, both more than a little at odds with the age in which they found themselves living.

Both, in their different ways, affronted idealists.

And both with a definite, conscious, contrivance about their public personae: Malcolm Muggeridge (another magnificent stylist with more than a touch of sham about him) once wrote of Waugh visiting Orwell as Orwell was dying and commented about “the bogus country gentleman gossiping with the equally bogus proletarian”.

Waugh – the social climbing middle class boy who half aped, half sent-up  (hmm…..perhaps three quarters aped, a quarter sent up) the upper English classes, was heading in a different direction to Orwell, who under his real name of Eric Blair attended Eton and was more of a social submariner.

It seems odd to find the two corresponded at all. But, apart from being superb writers, they were both men who recoiled from the ghastliness of their age

They recoiled, though, in different directions.

Waugh took refuge in a kind of obscurantist, throwback Toryism (he didn’t vote because he said he would not presume to advise his sovereign on her choice of advisers) and became a Catholic, it seems, mostly as a bid to seek a world not just outside the 20th Century but before the Reformation. 

We’ve all heard of the phrase ‘more Catholic than the Pope’  – Waugh was more Catholic than the previous 20 popes.

Orwell, whose  discovery of a cynically murderous power urge behind the idealistic platitudes of his ideological comrades when fighting in the Spanish Civil War, led to his rejection of his earlier communism. He was not, though,  going to head off into the kind of imaginary world Waugh inhabited. He was too much of a realist for that, and in any case, unlike Waugh, he was a journalist rather than a novelist. 

But he ended up in a kind of no-man’s-land, of the kind which, usually, can only see a rescue from either religion, drink, or the madhouse. It is intriguing to ponder where Orwell would have ended up if tuberculosis had not taken him aged only 46.

‘Long ago, life was clean, sex was bad and obscene….’

Today’ is Queen Victoria’s birthday. “Victorian” has become an epithet, mostly because of that Bloomsbury poseur Lytton Strachey, but it was a much more complex era than it is given credit for.

The modern writer with the best take on the era is A N Wilson: not only with his popular history ‘The Victorians’ but more importantly, I think, his brilliant and thought provoking ‘God’s Funeral‘ which tracks the gradual loss of conventional faith over that era – and the grief which accompanied it.

I don’t have anything particularly thought provoking or insightful to say, at least not this morning, except that if you have an interest in religion, feel you cannot accept many of the more literal and simplistic canons of Christianity, but feel a need to believe and a hunger for some sort of intelligent, sceptical but not scornful conversation about Christianity (oh, and you value good writing) ‘God’s Funeral’ is a must.

Even if he is, I feel, rather hard on Matthew Arnold.

Anyway, that’s my burst of in depth stuff for now. Here’s the Kinks.

Books: Political history; the rich, slow joy of reading

 
An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines, (HarperCollins, 2013)
 
The Fun Stuff by James Wood (Jonathan Cape, 2013)
Writers, poets and philosophers, who have had a fair old lash at defining happiness down the millennia, have never quite come up with a term which captures the gleeful up-kick of emotion one experiences when one unexpectedly discovers a mislaid book voucher.
I found myself musing this, a month or so back, in the midst of a tidying-up frenzy, I stumbled across a book voucher from a birthday (or perhaps even last Christmas).

The old ticker did a metaphorical mini air punch, leaped around prancing “IN YOUR FACE, FISCAL RESTRAINT!” and generally carried on like an All Black who’s just scored a match winning try at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney.

These two books have nothing else in common other than their common voucher-driven purchase,  unless you count the fact I read them, and they’re both, in their very different ways, excellent reads.



Dead Sea Fruit
First up is Rupert Davenport-Hines’ effort, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Profumo Affair.
Briefly, for those who need a potted summary: John Profumo was British Minister for War (that is, the Army) in the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan. Profumo was a compulsive playboy, with a string of affairs, abortions, and similar behind him when he had a brief fling with Christine Keeler, a young model, after a function at Lord Astor’s Cliveden House.
Unfortunately another guest at Cliveden around the time, also pursuing Keeler, was a Soviet Embassy “attaché” (read: “spy”), Eugene Ivanov. The whole thing got rather messy in fairly short order and the government found itself tottering. Although it is not true to say (as many still do) that the affair led to the end of Macmillan’s government, the handling of the whole mucky business did rather hasten Macmillan’s departure.
Davenport-Hines’s authorial history has been building up to this book:  it is perhaps not such a big move from works entitled Markets and Bagmen, Speculators and Patriots: Essays in Business Biography, or Business in the Age of Depression and War  to  Sex, Death and Punishment: Attitudes To Sex & Sexuality In Britain Since The Renaissance  or The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History Of Narcotics.
He has also written a lengthy history of the Macmillan family, but although the clan produced one of the world’s more prominent publishing firms, that book work necessarily was dominated by the family member who became prime minister of what was then still called Great Britain.
Like a blimpish Prospero with a hint of melancholy, Macmillan still ranks as one of the more fascinating and complex characters to occupy 10 Downing Street.
 
“Power? It’s like a Dead Sea fruit. When you get it, there’s nothing there,” was one of Macmillan’s darker asides. “Events, dear boy, events,” is the aphorism most quoted these days – a response to an over-earnest question about what had most determined his decisions as prime minister (his interlocutor had hoped for some elucidation of principle or philosophy).

You have to cherish a politician who, in the course of a live political broadcast, could elegantly draw attention to the ghastly falsity of the whole charade:  The camera’s hot, probing eye, these monstrous machines and their attendants – a kind of twentieth century torture chamber, that’s what it is. But I must try to forget about that, and imagine that you are sitting here in the room with me,” Macmillan told viewers during one such broadcast, a year or so prior to Profumo. 
In this age of the sound bite, of chicken McNugget politics, can you imagine any political leader today making such a comment? 

He told one staff member on one occasion that it was important not to have too sharp a distinction between what is serious and what is frivolous. This ability to see the humorous side, and draw attention to it, when other more limited personalities would not have dared, assuming they even had the ability to perceive such subtleties – he beautifully punctured Khrushchev’s famous shoe-pounding rant at the United Nations, at the height of Cold War tensions, with a drawling “I wonder if we may have a translation?”- was just one part of this intriguing, multilayered personality. 
 

One journalist from the time suggested Macmillan was haunted by ghosts: from the 1930s, when as a backbench MP for the desperately depressed northern town of Stockton on Tees, he had been in permanent rebellion against his party. Macmillans published John Maynard Keynes and Macmillan was one of the first politicians to take up Keynsian economics. 

 
Unfortunately, as prime minister he pioneered the kind of short term ‘bastardised Keynsianism’ which, when followed and bulked up by Labour successor Harold Wilson, led Britain to the verge of economic collapse. 
 
There were also ghosts from two world wars: Macmillan, along with many contemporaries from Oxford, volunteered when World War One broke out and trooped off before finishing his degree (he was “sent down by the Kaiser”, he claimed years later, when asked about his academic career). Macmillan was badly wounded several times, and few of his contemporaries survived. 
By the time the Profumo scandal rolled around he had presided over seven years of unparalleled prosperity and, in an unguarded moment, gave that era its slogan when he warned – and it was a warning – that most Britons had “never had it so good”.
The comment – in its context, a statement that the good times might turn out to be built on a build up of inflation and debt rather than solid economic performance – was hung around his neck for the rest of his life. When the Profumo business erupted, accompanied by a swag of rumours of other salacious goings on in high places it quickly became “you’ve never had it so often.”
He had, of course, plenty of enemies by then. Macmillan was made Conservative leader following the Suez Crisis to some degree because he looked the part, almost to the point of caricature – a moustached former Guards officer who had fought in the First World War and been seriously wounded: the drawling accent, the deliberately-cultivated old fashioned air; the general appearance of a crumbling façade of an old Edwardian building.
This came to hurt him, in the end, particularly when the satire boom took off at the same time as the Profumo Affair. In the kind of savage, multi-layered joke Macmillan himself would probably have enjoyed under different circumstances, what the satirists missed was that part of Macmillan’s persona was always an element of caricature.
There is a theory the reason Macmillan handled the Profumo business so badly was because adultery was a touchy subject with him. His own wife, Dorothy, had been involved in a 35-odd year affair with a Parliamentary colleague, Bob Boothby, and the only reason the marriage endured was Macmillan refused to grant her a divorce. The affair was widely known amongst the political classes and British upper crust generally and had, according to one source, even led Macmillan to a suicide attempt in the early 1930s.
Yet Davenport-Hines suggests there is little evidence Macmillan shied away from the issue of adultery – in fact, by the time he became prime minister he liked to affect a worldly wise attitude to the subject, at least as long as it involved other people. It is perhaps more likely those around him thought he would be highly sensitive to the issue and therefore were nervous about telling him of the rumours swirling around not only Profumo but other ministers as well. One of the perils of power is people anticipate what will, or will not, please the boss, and can often make some dangerous assumptions.
A more likely factor was simply fatigue: Macmillan had been prime minister for seven years, a senior minister for seven years on the trot before that. Besides, he was, after all, approaching 70.
His Conservative rival, Rab Butler, in a comment not quoted by Davenport-Hines but in several histories of that government, best summed it up: as tumult of scandal grew and Macmillan looked more and more out of touch and incompetent, Butler observed to a journalist that “Harold could have handled all this with his little finger five years ago. But when you get to the end of a regime, nothing goes right.”
The true villains of the scandal, for Davenport-Hines, are not Profumo (although he engages in some neat puncturing of the “redemption through good works” pat story which accompanied the remainder of Profumo’s life); nor “the Establishment”, nor good time girls Christine Keeler or Mandy Rice-Davies: rather, the real villain is the British press, especially tabloids News of the World and the Daily Mirror.
Certainly they were out to get Macmillan and his government: the previous year two journalists had been imprisoned for not revealing their sources over a largely bogus spy scandal.
Davenport-Hines outlines the skulduggery and mendacity of a group of media owners – the Mirror Group being the main one – who not only were out for revenge but who were determined to damage Macmillan’s government because they wanted Labour’s Harold Wilson as prime minister. It is not an edifying tale, and he traces much of the malignity, hypocrisy and outright corruption of the British press   – about which we have learned much in recent years – to this period.
 
Savour Fare
Rather more elevated in tone is literary critic James Wood’s ‘The Fun Stuff’. It starts, not with books, but with an introduction about Who drummer Keith Moon, who died in 1978 after overdosing on drugs he was taking to combat alcoholism.
Why? Moon was his first artistic hero, it seems, and “Keith Moon-style drumming is a lucky combination of the artful and the artless…. There is no time out in his drumming, because there is no time in. it is all fun stuff… So alive and free is this drumming that one tends to emphasise its exuberance at the expense of its complexity.”

 And he notes that, on two of the Who’s most famous tracks, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and “Behind Blue Eyes”

“You can hear him do something that was instinctive, probably, but which is hardly ever attempted in ordinary rock drumming: breaking for a fill, Moon fails to stop at the obvious end of the musical phrase and continues…over the line and into the start of the next phrase. 

“In poetry, this failure to stop at the end of the line, the challenge to metrical closure, this desire to get more in is called enjambment. Moon is the drummer of enjambment. 

“For me, this playing is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.”
That description – especially that last sentence – sent me back to my copy of Who’s Next. It captures, perfectly in prose, Moon’s style.
Wood has the great critic’s knack of sending you back to the originals, even when – perhaps, especially when – you think he’s being a bit fatheaded. Despite writing an entire book about laughter and literature (The Irresponsible Self) he sometimes doesn’t seem to quite get humour. Or rather, some of the material he finds funny seems strange. In a comment on a Lydia Davis short story ‘Wife in One Country’ he quotes “wife one’ talking briefing with “wife two and then imagining a future “wife three’ who would have to protect her husband “not only from raging wife one but also from troublesome wife two” and Wood adds that as elsewhere in Davis’s work “comedy always lines the sadness, a necessarily durable cloth”. While I love that image and phrase, I’m not so sure I see the comedy in what he is quoting.
But that is the one of the other thing about Wood: as well as making you want to hunt down what he is writing about (and I had never heard of Lydia Davis before, but I shall be checking out her works the next time I’m in Unity Books) he has a marvellous feel for language. 
In an era when most of us skim read almost everything and in which it is all too easy to flitter over the words even when reading for pleasure, Wood has the knack of making you slow down, savour the language, and enjoy the moment.
One example: discussing Alan Hollinghurst’s work, he quotes a passage on someone watching a tennis match on television with the window open on a summer’s day and hearing on occasion “the sonic wallows of planes distancing in slow gusts above” –
Wood makes you stop and savour that passage:  “Again, the power comes from nouns and adjectives placed in unusual combinations – the paradox of ‘slow gusts’ …and the almost onomatopoeic ‘sonic wallow’ which slow the sentence down.”
And goes on to put Hollinghurst in the English writing tradition – Shakespeare, Keats, Hardy, Larkin, but notes that “when a writer has an ear as good as Hollinghurst, the danger is a lush antiquarianism…ripening the sentences to bursting.”
But then criticises Hollinghurst for becoming too fixated on the style of Henry James; giving examples of several phrases Wood thinks reveal insufficient anxiety of influence (a set of stairs give way to the “confidential creak of oak” on the landing: another character makes “a low disparaging murmur”; someone else says something “with an air of monetary concession” and sex is described as “the unimagined and vaguely dreaded thing”.)
Personally, I love all these, with the possible exception of the last one  – sex might or might not be many things, but “unimagined” seems unlikely to be one of them. 

But for there’s a nice little joke here for those who recall Henry James’ last words are reputed to have been, “here it is, then, the distinguished thing!”

Elsewhere, Wood gently skewers Ian McEwan and puts his finger on one thing which I’d never articulated but which irks me about the Booker winner: he withholds too much in order to keep the reader wondering just what is going on and what the surprise will be: this sustains the reader’s

“narrative hunger, but surely at a cost. His addition to secrecy has a way of cheaply playing us…. if narrative secrets of this kind – narrative improbabilities – always become in the end, narrative predictabilities, then such novels will find it much harder to dramatise meaningfully the impact of contingency on ordinary lives.”

That was, for me, one of those moments when the brain goes ‘Zzing!’ 
VS Naipaul “the public snob, the grand bastard” gets a look in: so does Orwell, (who I revere) – upbraided, rightly I think, for a certain warped snobbery: ex-Etonian Eric Blair is more interested in tearing down his former aristocratic and upper middle class contemporaries than in uplifting the poor.
On Orwell, though, he rightly identifies the real terror at the heart of 1984: it is not the torture room or the rats, but the “abolition of interiority”. A society in which we have no interior world in and of ourselves – no privacy, in other words – is the truest and most subtle of tyrannies. This is true totalitarianism. Never was a sex scene so important to a novel than in 1984 – no, not even in D H Laurence’s florid offerings.
The thought-provoking aspect of this insight for today’s reader, though is this: the social media whirl now means many of us are in the process of voluntarily abandoning the sacredness of this interiority, and what does this mean for our own psychological and spiritual wellbeing? Wood doesn’t explore this thought, but it is one which sent this reader, anyway, down a few mental byways I am yet to feel I can report back on. 
The Fun Stuff also looks at Tolstoy, Geoff Dyer, Paul Auster (about whom Wood verges on the brutal)…. 

It is a great collection to dip into, and to remind yourself, even when you are muttering “Oh, bollocks!” about some of Wood’s conclusions, about the rich, slow joy of reading.

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?
Yep.
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.

In moody rucks…

In honour of tonight’s    last weekend’s test. Programmed blogger to automatically put it up on Saturday: for some reason it didn’t take.

Wallace Stevens, modernist poet.  Excerpt from  The Comedian as the Letter C:

How greatly had he grown in his demesne, This auditor of insects!
He that saw 
The stride of vanishing autumn in a park 
By way of decorous melancholy; he 
That wrote his couplet yearly to the spring, 
As dissertation of profound delight,
 Stopping, on voyage, in a land of snakes, 
Found his vicissitudes had much enlarged 
His apprehension, made him intricate 
In moody rucks, and difficult and strange 
In all desires, his destitution’s mark. 
He was in this as other freemen are, 
Sonorous nutshells rattling inwardly. 

 What better description of a ref’s whistle than ‘sonorous nutshells rattling inwardly’??