John Clarke/Fred Dagg.

The late, great John Clarke/Fred Dagg on the meaning of life. An excerpt therefrom.


“Of course, in the 20th century, we have produced a fair array of theories about what life’s actually about and probably the existentialists take the buttered confection for getting closest to thinking they had it all worked out. They used to hang about in the Paris area, which is in what we used to call Gaul, and talk about how terrible life was and how they didn’t know if they’d really get to the weekend. They reckoned life was a pretty dreadful business and was filled with a thing called ennui.

“Now, ennui is a terrible thing, and seems to have roughly the same effect as terminal boredom. Ennui actually is a French word meaning Henry. And the story goes that once you get a touch of the Henry’s, it’s all downhill and the only way to relive the symptoms is to whip down the harbour and pull a wave over your bonce and call it a day.”

The full piece is here. 

Rest in Peace. Reports through from Sydney this morning he’s died, aged 68.

Clarke was the closest New Zealand has come to a genuine comic genius. An original, one who, mostly, based his humour on the way New Zealanders talk rather than by just adapting a sketch from Monty Python or Stan Freberg or the Frost Report to local conditions.
He first appeared to a wider audience on Country Calendar in the mid-1970s, just as the country’s economic reliance on pastoral products and the Brits was being pulverised.

He was a breath of fresh air, in so many ways: mostly because of how he talked.

It was very buttoned down Kiwi, but with an ornate side to it: “It’s a wee bit horrendous, this towngoing,” a diffident Dagg mutters in a voice over as he is seen parking his Landrover in Wellington’s Harris Street.

He laughed at the way we talked, but it was a laughter without jeers.

Clarke had the true comic’s gift of being able to show what was funny about New Zealanders but in a way which, somehow, celebrated rather than sneered at it.

There was always a sense of heart, a generosity of spirit, as he laughed – or rather, as he showed us what was funny.




Murray Ball

Murray Ball, RIP. Got a huge collection of Footrot Flats books. You didn’t have to have grown up on a farm to have got the humour of them, but by crikey it helped.

IMG_3274One of my favourites: just a one frame shot of Wal and Cooch, cleaning out either the shed or a pigsty, in the pouring rain. Wal is looking particularly grim and determined, and an air of resigned misery hangs over the entire picture.

Dog is looking out at the viewer, and is saying, ‘Well, it was either this or do the accounts.’

Ball was a junior All Black and perhaps could have gone further but, having spent some formative years in South Africa was particularly vehemently opposed to apartheid. I recall a story of his being on one of the early protests against the 1981 tour – it may even have been the Hamilton riot – and being appalled when fellow protestors starting pulling down the fence to the ground.

When a tour to South Africa was planned in 1985, he withdrew Dog from being the All Black mascot, in an open letter to the Rugby Union.

I clipped it and its selotaped on the inside of one of the collections of Footrot Flat cartoons [see pic]. It captured the turmoil a lot of us felt about rugby contacts with apartheid, at the time: his drawing of Dog taking off his black and white scarf and walking away in sorrow was eloquent and sad and so, so bang on.

Happier was the film of the cartoons strip the following year: it brilliantly caught the entire New Zealand farming world at a time it was changing forever.

Saw the film at Mission Bay cinema: it was thrilling to see something so New Zild on the screen, so recognisable; hilarious in bits and I remember even shedding a tear at one point.

RIP, Murray.

Nu Zillun

While taking a vaguely nationalistic bent and watching “Coast – New Zealand” on the Teev, this evening – and in particular listening to the way  Scottish born presenter Neil Oliver says “New Zealand” I found myself recalling a theory  expounded by an old English teacher from my school days.
He reckoned the way New Zealanders pronounce the name of the country – “Nu Zillun” – was derived from Peter Fraser, Prime Minister 1940-49.

Nu Zillun prime minister, 1940-49
Fraser was born in Scotland. This teacher – himself of Scottish heritage and a pillar of the local Presbyterian Church – had a theory Fraser’s diction was picked up and copied by New Zealanders.

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Fraser was the wartime Prime Minister and that first Labour government was an extremely enthusiastic user of the publicity techniques of the time which included radio and of course newsreels.

It was the first government in New Zealand’s history to use such publicity mechanisms in quite such an aggressive way.

My old teacher’s theory came back to me this evening as I watched the Scottish presenterof “Coast: New Zealand” talk about the country and yes, pronounce it ‘Nu Zillun’.

Odd facts

Odd facts learned over the break.

1. In 1974 the new Chinese Embassy –  allowed in to the country after Norman Kirk’s government recognised China 18 months previously – was being built and couldn’t get the electricity cable it needed. The Ambassador wrote formally to Finance Minister Bill Rowling asking if he could help them.  Rowling checked with Government Stores and wrote back saying no: there was a shortage everywhere and they’d have to wait their turn.

2. The company once known as Silvios Recycled Records – back in the 80s the hippest grooviest Second Hand Rekkid Store in Wellington – later traded as Wellington Menopause Clinic.

3. Lashings of Ginger Beer is the name of a radical lesbian separatist burlesque collective.

4. Until the early 1800s people were buried in church yards and it is only since around that time the practice of municipal cemeteries has become widespread. This is why there are so few churchyards with cemeteries in New Zealand – they post-date the change in approach.

5. OK, I already knew this, but it was kind of made more stark: New Zealand governments never used cuts to interest rates to stimulate the economy in downturns prior to the 1990s. They couldn’t, simply because interest rates were already kept artificially by whoever was finance minister. There was no scope to do so. Muldoon, of course, tried to regulate finance company rates downwards in the early 1980s, but that kind of backfired on everyone.

6. There is a Wanganui-based horticulturist named Good Boy which produces the most delicious boysenberries and blueberries I have ever tasted.

7. Historians working on the Soviet desk for the British secret service developed a ‘Esau-Jacob’ theory of Russian despots. The smooth bald leaders were modernisers, while the hairy ones tended to be Slavophile reactionaries. Theory may have broken down a bit with Putin.

8. Danny John-Jules, the actor who played Cat on sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf,  also sang backing vocals for David Bowie at one point in his career. Here he is, as Cat, making suggestions. 

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.

Kiwi Music Month day 24…..Split Enz – Sweet Dreams (1976)

…my favourite Split Enz song, by far. Back from the Phil Judd era. There’s about five different tunes in this song, the lyrics are all over the show but seem to reflect undergraduate studies in existentialism…

Love the chorus. ‘Sweet Dreams, every once in a while….’

Kiwi Music Month Day 13: The Warratahs – St Peters Rendevous

Warning: the technical quality of this is pretty rough. But its an amazing song.

Came out in ’88, or around then. Full of emotion: mourning for the old NZ which was dying, bankrupt, and which becomes a metaphor for the mute mutual love and angry incomprehension between dying father and a rebellious son.

Karaoke: The Debate Rages

There’s been a heated debate over on Sir Insolent’s blog about the true value of karaoke.

Perhaps significantly, the debate started from a post about the National Party. There is a close, and somewhat baffling, affinity between the Nats and karaoke.

I think it goes back to the early 1990s when Ruth Richardson was filmed belting out “I am Woman” somewhere. I don’t know why this affinity is there but it is a deep and complex one. I’ve been to a few National Party dos at Parliament and there is always a karaoke machine in the corner, and it is not only aging gallery hacks belting out “Beds Are Burning” who end up using it.

My hunch is that if this link between the Nats and karaoke were explained we would all understand a great deal more about the New Zealand political scene of the early 21st Century.

The last function I went to had one senior MP who has to remain nameless wailing out an ancient 1950s song and NEVER AT ANY POINT HITTING A RIGHT NOTE. Not only that, but he successfully maintained his air of smiling smugness throughout the performance. It was hilarious in a horrifying sort of way. I shall never forget it.

My own experience of karaoke is limited but fun. The first criteria of a successfull karaoke performance is, of course, drunkenness. The second rule is the song must be awful. But they need to be GOOD bad songs.

It is my dream to find a karaoke machine which has the great ol’ coutnry song about the Girl Wearing Nothing But a Smile and A Towel on the Picture in the Billboard in the Field Near the Big Ol’ Highway. It is a classic of its kind.

I also want to find “Sink the Bismark”.

The last karaoke I managed – with a bunch of old school mates at a Chinese restaurant in Papakura – went off like a bomb, although our choice of songs was not wise. There were too many which required singing in higher register than we could manage. Vocal chords were in threads by the end of the night.

Mind you, the re-written lyrics went down well. The only one I can remember now is a revamped version of the BEE GEes “Staying Alive” which began ‘Well you can tell by the way I use my walk, that the operation didn’t work…’

The debate raging on this over whether karaoke should be shunned because it is all a bit naff, or because it is the “epitome of coolness” seems to miss the point.

Of course it’s naff. It’s MEANT to be that way. It’s the musical equivalent of Oldies Rugby: the chance for those well past it who once dreamed of being Mick Jagger or Colin Meads to indulge those dreams one more time before going home to the mortgage.