Poetry appreciation on the  Twitter 

This collection of poetry seems to be catching quite a bit of attention. I can’t think why.

The title itself is a bit of a non-sequitur and shows, perhaps, that poets might not be the most logical of thinkers.

Books and lists

Lists of things are all the rage. They help sell news…I was going to say newspapers, but hell, I mean clicks.

In 2000 years, perhaps, New Zealand will have one of these. It must be preserved.
You know the kind of thing.  What’s hot, What’s not” or ” 
Five Things You Absolutely Must Do Before Ennui Overtakes Your Entire Life and You Might Just As Well Lie Down On A Skillet And Wait for Them to Slide You into the Crematorium“.Well okay:  none are quite as explicit as that. But it’s very much what they seem to be getting at.

And then there is the whole ” 100 Record Albums You Must Have in Your Collection if You Are to Be Taken Remotely Seriously” or “ 100 Books You Should Be Able to At Least Reel off the Conversational Equivalent of Coles Notes About”.

These sorts of lists are a bit more forgivable.

A bit.

There is still, unfortunately, more than a whiff of ostentatious taste-setting for the plebs about them.

Which is one reason – but not the only reason – why I really like the Spin Off’s 100 great New Zealand non-fiction books list posted this week.

It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It has been compiled by a group of people, with a joint byline of Group Think – itself a neat little dig at other lists like this.

And certainly some of the books listed show more than a small whiff of  Braunias-esqe mischievousness.

Some are genuinely good.I got into a neat little online discussion on Twitter – which is possible to do, sometimes – over books which should be included and came up with a few which they missed.

This is the other aspect of such lists which can be a bit naff ,  so I’m venturing forth on this a bit carefully.

It’s  the whole “I can’t believe you’ve missed out **** *********!!” thing.

Accusations of “glaring omissions” are common over lists like this. I’m not going to glare at any omissions, nor even eye-roll at them (although I did over some of the books included. The Passionless People? Really??)

But lists like this should not take on the form or tone of ex cathedra pronouncements from some cultural pontiffs. (yes, the authors of this list  claim it is “definitive”, but it is clear from the context that they do so with tongues firmly in their cheeks).

The approach of the list makers, in this case anyway, seems to be very much in the area of “here are some books we have come up with – what do you think?”

This is a conversation starter, not a Final Word.

The compilers manage to do this with a combination of some very good books recommended, often some quite obscure ones, and often some not obscure ones which, to my own slight chagrin, I’ve not got around to reading.

That is the other, perhaps most useful, purpose of  of lists like this: memory joggers.

There are at least two books on this list which I greeted with a “oh yeah, haven’t got round to that one yet”.

One final point: New Zealand seems to have reached a point in our history where non-fiction books are streaming onto our  bookshelves (and, yes, onto our kindles and iPads as well) in a flood.

The New Zealand non-fiction section in Unity Books is spreading, and is stacked wide as well is high. There is a thirst for New Zealand history right now – history,  and analysis of that history

If you want to skip the next bit and go on to my – quite short – list, feel free to do so. I’m about to go into Old Fart Mode.

When I was growing up, there were few books on New Zealand history – and in particular very few on New Zealand political history.

And about half the books on news on political history were written by John A Lee, or it least it seemed that way. There were no books on the history of non-Labour governments and almost none on non-Labour politicians.

There were a couple of pamphlet-sized booklets on political history –  some particularly short but good ones on the interwar period – and there may have been a biography of Richard John Seddon.

That was kind of about it.

There were local histories,  which tended to gloss over some of the more awkward, not to say bloody aspects of New Zealand’s history, in particular with reference to any events between roughly 1845 and 1872.

The flood of books about New Zealand history in recent years has, I believe, only begun to slake the thirst New Zealanders have for all this.

Aspects of national identity and knowledge of our history is becoming more important, more emotionally important, to New Zealanders in today’s world because today’s world is so globalised.

Living in this environment means an awareness of what makes us specifically us becomes more important.  It is not about nationalism (or racism either come to that) although it can be warped into those poison-soaked channels by the unscrupulous and the stupid  if care is not taken.



Here is my, small,  number of additions to the Spinoff list:


  1.  His Way by Barry Gustafson –  I’ve written about this before, here, and won’t add much.  It’s the best New Zealand   political biography I’ve read and the companion volume, Gustafson’s biography of Keith Holyoake, is almost as good.
  2. 1981 by Geoff Chapple –   A protester/journalist-eye view  of the 1981 Springbok tour. Partial,  highly partial –  but then, given the fierce and bitter divisions of the Tour I don’t think anybody could write about it dispassionately. Not at the time certainly. Chapple  glosses over – but does not totally ignore – the propensity for some more fanatical protesters to engage in vandalism and behaviour which could easily have seriously endangered other people. The self-righteousness of the time is caught, and so is the atmosphere of violence.  It was a bitter, ugly period  and this book manages to reflect that while also informing.
  3. The Unauthorised Version by Ian F Grant –  Again, I’ve written about this in the past, here, so I won’t expand too much. Effectively it’s a history of New Zealand told through cartoons drawn during that history, and with some good explanatory chapters. I often give this to newcomers as a primer  on New Zealand  history up to the 1980s. And not jokingly either.  It is a very good, entertaining summary.
  4. New Zealand the Way I Want It by Bob Jones –  written as a response to the National Party 1975 election slogan: “New Zealand the way you want it” this is Bob Jones’ – now Sir Bob – best written work I think.  Again, Old Fart Alert here –  but in the 1970s everyone was so  polite and Jones’ bluntness and exuberant, don’t give a damn commentaries on New Zealand public  life had roughly the same impact as a gale force  Wellington southerly would have on a stiflingly  humid Auckland food hall.
  5. Food for Flatters by Michael Volkering – when I started flatting every flat had this, usually in the third drawer down the kitchen where the  house accounts were kept. It started with teaching you how to boil an egg –   and some of us didn’t move on from that page for some time – before moving on to more complicated things such as curried sausages.
  6. Economic Management By the New Zealand Treasury 1984 –  This was written back in the day when briefings to the incoming government actually meant something. This was more meaningful than most. As a giveaway, the first hundred copies came with a set of brown trousers and bicycle clips.
  7. Mark of the Lion By Kenneth Sanford –  the story of Charles Upham,  who won the Victoria Cross twice (one of only three people to do so, and the only one who wasn’t a medical orderly). Utterly mind blowing, this book.  At one point during one of the battles during the retreat to El Alamein, he was so peppered  with small wounds and blood from shrapnel some of his own people did not recognise him. And some of the wounds were from his own hand grenades because he tended to get so close to the enemy before throwing them.







One of the great things happening in New Zealand right now….

One of the great things happening in New Zealand right now is the deepening of our history: new works which go beyond the ‘good guys/bad guys’ approach of a lot of earlier works. Life is more complex than that. http://mauistreet.blogspot.com/2015/08/book-review-man-of-secrets-private-life.html?spref=tw

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.

Maurice Gee: ‘an obsessive interesting private place from which one can view the world’

The furniture of a writer’s mind isn’t necessarily interesting, it’s the way he arranges it that has the interest’ Gee told an interviewer in 1990*.
The comment highlights a bit of a problem with this, the first full-length biography of the bloke generally regarded – rightly, I believe – as New Zealand’s best novelist.

A lot of writers don’t do much other than write.  Yes, you get the odd self dramatising type who, say, get involved in public political protests, or set up communes in largely inaccessible parts of provincial New Zealand rivers, or, to move further afield, go shooting big game or get involved in wars.

Or, of course, they get involved in wars with other writers, engaging in the kind of enervating and bitter feuds which are – or should be – more characteristic of catty and claustrophobic boarding schools than of groups of people whose lives are, supposedly, dedicated to the mind and to literature.

Such life stories – usually with a truckload of sexual infidelity and self-medication of various kinds – often make for lively stories, even if, after a while, a certain sameness of the narrative can creep in.

Other writers write. 

Err…that’s kind of about it. 

They circle what is going on, watching and noticing, and then go away and let the yeast of their imagination work on what they have observed.

Gee is an exemplary case. There are plenty of references quoted by Barrowman of people wondering where the darkness and violence of his novels comes from, as Gee himself is so self effacing, relaxed, and, in a reserved sort of way, friendly.

Gee himself not-so-obliquely refers to this in one of my personal favourites of his books, Ellie and the Shadowman: Ellie is living with a writer who, she muses, ‘was clever with twisted motives – surprising, really considering how much he needed to have explained in real life’.

But that, though, is also how writers’ minds often work. Writing is a process by which they work things out.  A corollary of this is things can remain less clear to them if they have not written about them. 

You might find – I certainly did – the earlier part of this book drags more than a bit. I am not sure, but I suspect because this is the first full length study of Gee’s work worthy of the phrase – it is a  ‘life and work’ as it says in the title – Barrowman really shoves in every detail of Gee’s life she can find.If he goes to visit someone Barrowman almost feels obliged to include the bus route.
Gee’s novels are such a chronicle of mid 20th Century New Zealand life, it only seems right that a book about him includes as much detail about that life and culture as possible.

It is also, I suppose, to help future readers and researchers: so much has changed since the short-back and-sides, mono-cultural world the era will need a lot of explaining to the next generation or two of New Zealanders. It is just at, at times, it seems a bit of overkill.

That said, if you are a Gee fan, persist. Things pick up as the book goes on. Barrowman appears to have read everything ever written about Gee and weighed it up. It is an important task: so many small literary publications of the 1950s-1970s only lasted for a few editions before being lost and she has unearthed many gems.

There is poet Russell Harley reviewing Gee in the mid-1970s, after Games of Choice and In My Fathers Den: Harley criticised the naturalism and unnatural restraint in New Zealand fiction (with the exception of Janet Frame) but stressed Gee – and Sargeson – transcend this.

There is,  wrote Harley ‘a sort of bulging of the surface of Gee’s tailored prose’. Sargeson has this but for different reasons – ‘a hidden sexual charge’ whereas Gee has an ‘obsessive interesting private place from which one can view, voyeuristically, the world’ as well as a ‘sense that he can reach something numinous and atavistic when he deals imaginatively with place’.

While both ‘numinous’ and ‘atavistic’ are two words which normally set my bullshit detector off, I think Harley nails something important about Gee’s work in those comments.

The sense of place is often commented on in Gee’s books – his descriptions of Auckland, especially west Auckland, Wellington and Nelson have captured those cities better than anyone else I can think of.

Then there is that ‘private place from which one can view, voyeuristically, the world’ Harley refers to.

Gee’s breakthrough novel, Plumb, certainly did this – ‘whatever you “think” of Plumb himself, the bugger steps right out of the book and takes root somewhere in your imagination,’ Bill Manhire comments in a letter quoted by Barrowman.

 ‘There aren’t  many novels where that happens – the portrait living beyond the frame.’

Personally, ‘Plumb’ isn’t my favourite Gee, by a long chalk, but when first read it, I sat up until 1am, reading it in one sitting**. That character draws you in.

Which is what Gee’s characters tend to do.

With most authors who write from the perspective of a character, there is still a sense of the author looking at that character from a distance.

Gee, somehow, gets closer. I’m not expert enough to detect how he does this, but you get a sense of how that character sees the world. This is how you learn about that character. 

Towards the end of this work, Barrowman quotes CK Stead calling Gee a ‘moralist’ who judges his characters. Gee didn’t object to the comment – in fact he made a reference to it at the start of his next novel.

Gee, Stead wrote, judges his characters and ‘when his ‘writing falls a notch or two below its best it is usually because moralism has triumphed at the expense of representation’

There is certainly a pervasive moral sense to Gee’s novels: an over-arching, unbudgeable and sometimes stern division between right and wrong – or perhaps it is more accurate to say a sense of moral failure and moral non-failure. Doing things right might be a bit much to expect.

But the thing about Gee’s best work is his characters judge themselves, without losing their sense of being characters distinct from their creator.

A good biography of an author should do two things. The most obvious is to send you back to the author’s works. Personally I’ve read the Plumb trilogy many times, and ‘Going West’ – my personal favourite – even more. But it is time for a re-read of ‘Live Bodies’ , ‘The Scornful Moon’ and ‘Blindsight’, I think. Gee’s works always repay a visit. 

The other thing a book like this has to do is give a better understanding of the writer’s works, and here Barrowman has plenty,  not only commentary and reviews from the past but also from the man himself.

Gee often uses carpentry as a metaphor for what he does – his father worked in the trade – and at one point he is quoted as stressing the need to be sure of each word, partly how they fit together – but also so, in telling the story, making sure they

‘quiver and shimmer, reverberate a little…I like to think of myself as saying exactly what I mean, but having some ability to make it seem a little more.’

They do. They certainly do.

* quoted by Rachel Barrowman at p350-351.

** I had the same experience with ‘Going West’. I can’t think of any other New Zealand book I’ve done this with – well, no fiction works anyway.