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. 

 

Take me to the January Sun in Cuba…. Maw-hawll-aul….

Pegasus
Vellichor: the Second Hand Book Store vibe, this one from Pegasus Books.

There is a thing I call the Cuban Meander: start anywhere in Wellington’s Cuba St quarter and wander around, dropping into any shops or cafes which take your fancy.

Or stare at the Bucket Fountain and wonder if it is taking kitsch a bit too far.

The Cuban Meander was something I started doing, in true exploratory and unfocussed form, in 1982: The Southern Cross, just off the top of Cuba in Abel Smith St, was the unofficial Wellington Polytech pub and it used to be the place to meet in the evenings for the journalism course I was on.

Technically I shouldn’t have been there at all: the drinking age was still 20 and I was, at the start of the year, a very green and young looking 17.

The pub owner was blessed with some admirable and commercially astute powers of tactical myopia when it came to pouring beers for people for patrons whose faces were apparently held together by acne. The age issue only came up when his hand was forced or he simply wanted to get rid of someone.

Mind you, one member of the journalism course did rather force the issue when he applied for a part time job behind the bar there: you had to be 20 to work in a pub as well and he assured the owner he was of age despite looking about 15.
All went well for a week or so until they were discussing rugby: the lad was discussing his own abilities on the pitch and the owner asked him what level he played at.

“Oh, the under-19s…” began the soon-to-be ex-barman.

Anyway, it used to be my practice to have a beer or two on Thursday or Friday nights and then weave down Cuba St, popping in to the second hand book and rekkid stores as I went.

Few are still there: Slow Boat was, from memory, about two doors up from where it is now but it was much more gloomy and crammed, and certainly far less well organised. Pretty sure it had had different owners then.

The Ferrit Book store was – again, from memory – about where Olive Cafe now is.

I don’t know if Pegasus Books was in Cuba St then or not. I have an idea it may have been way down the bottom, over the road from James Smiths.

Anyway, they have survived.

Cuba Street is the place for things that survive, often against the odds and certainly against whatever the current trend is doing.

I’m hardly an ‘alternative’ type of character but I love these places: they are needed because any society needs its diversity, not as a slogan or a badge of moral superiority as that term tends to be used these days, but as a simple unaffected reality.

And as for my favourite type of shop – the secondhand book shop – they are havens and laid back, non-authoritarian schools. Second hand book shops will, I believe, be the last repositories of civilisation.

Anyway. Here’s Dragon. Cuba St

Thought for the day – on Home

‘We are needy creatures, and our greatest need is for home—the place where we are, where we find protection and love. We achieve this home through representations of our own belonging, not alone but in conjunction with others. All our attempts to make our surroundings look right—through decorating, arranging, creating—are attempts to extend a welcome to ourselves and to those whom we love.”

-Roger Scruton.

‘Meanwhile, back….’

Been a year of anniversaries, hasn’t it?

As an aside, the first modern centenary, according to a thing I read on the weekend in the TLS, was 400 years ago, 1617 – the 100th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. It marked the occasion when Martin Luther popped down to the local Mitre 10 and got a hammer & some nails, all the better to affix his wee note on the problem with Catholicism to the door of the local kirk.

We just, for New Zild political nerds, had the 30th Anniversary of the fourth Labour government’s December 1987 economic package. It was this which finally split that government, eventaully, with the ripping noise being the main political sound effect for the next 12 months.

More recently there was the 100th anniversaries of the Russian Revolution – the October, Bolshevik one, that is – and the Battle of Paschendale.

January 2017 was 50 years since Rob Muldoon first became finance minister, and didn’t that end well?

Musically, 1967 was a biggie.

I’m going to focus on music now, simply because I’m sitting in a hospital waiting room so screw having a look at anything serious.

Earlier in the year it was 50 years since the Beatles released their Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

Someone coming to the matter, cold, would be left with the impression this was one of the greatest cultural event since the last greatest cultural event which got the baby boomers all excited.

There is, of course, the release of yet another rerelease/reissue/remastering of the album, this one is ‘super deluxe’ one in which you can hear Ringo scratching himself in both mono and stereo.

As someone who was only a month or so off my third birthday, I have to say Sgt Pepper didn’t make a great deal of impact on me at the time.

I can remember Penny Lane on the radio, earlier that year. It was, I now gather, originally intended for the album, as was the other side of that single, Strawberry Fields Forever, but they wanted a single and, as was the custom with British bands, it was released separately.

I think both are better than anything actually on the album, with the possible exception of A Day In The Life. Years later, as a teenager taking an interest in music and being more than a little disgruntled with what was on the radio at the time, I asked for the album for Christmas. It was, after all, supposed to be the greatest album of all time, according to the musical books I’d read.

It was…interesting, certainly. Great swirling depths on some tracks, especially ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’. Some of it was a bit naff. It was ok, and interesting – certainly more so than the disco (and worse) on the radio in the late’70s.

But ‘Penny Lane’ is a song I still associate with childhood summer: to me, those high exuberant trumpets sound like the sun on the skin feels. Dad had made a sandpit for us at the start of the summer and I remember playing with this great little red tractor in it; the sound of the old radiogram coming through the window, the kind of deep, wooden mahogany tones which are unique to the sort of cabinet those old devices came housed in.

I’m sure being mixed in mono had something to do with it, for audiophiles, and probably being played on vinyl also had an effect.

But I’ve never heard music with quite the same warm rich tones since. This is probably partly nostalgia but hey, its Christmas.

It is a bit weird, looking at the video clip the Beatles did at the time, because it is so clearly the dead of northern hemisphere winter and it is a song which to me beams the laid-back heat of a New Zealand summer.

Other music from that year – and it must have been a time I was starting to notice what was on the radio – was Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe.

This was very much to my taste, because it mentioned ‘my brother was out baling hay’. I loved the machinery brought in for making hay on the farm, especially the baler. There should be more songs which mentioned baling hay, I remember thinking at the time. The rest of the song seemed a bit pointless.

The double-edged nature of Christmas

Christmas is always bittersweet.

Ostensibly a festival which gives hope to all human beings, tidings of comfort and joy, all that, it’s never been that kind of happy-clappy thing it appears on the surface.

Partly it is because the double-edged nature is built into the festival, into its myths. The best example perhaps is in three wise men who brought the gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. The gift of gold appears straightforward enough: frankincense is more ambivalent and myrrh is an embalming ointment. It prefigures the crucifixion, suffering and the fact this child will be tortured to death.

The most memorable carols are often ineffably sad: ‘Silent Night’ is incredibly melancholy, and as a child, for years, I would avoid it.  Partly because I associated it with an episode of ‘Lassie’ in which Lassie had gone missing and Little Timmy had to sing it in the town choir. I must have been about four when I saw that.

That double-edged nature of the festival carries into the secular songs associated with Christmas, often in bizarre ways.

One of the most popular modern Christmas songs, the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, is a duet between two people at the end of every tether they could have reached the limit of: in a drunk tank, insulting each other with foul epithets (‘you scumbag, you maggot’ ‘you cheap lousy faggot’ etc) and yet managing to be somehow uplifting at the same time.

A more bizarre one is the loved and hated Snoopy’s Christmas: a childish celebration of a mythical duel above World War One’s western front between the lovable cartoon dog Snoopy and the real-life, somewhat cold and probably psychologically disturbed Manfred von Richthofen. Who was, after all, the greatest fighter ace of the First World War, whose specialty was sneaking up behind reconnaissance machines and setting them on fire – and then, if they, as they usually did, fell on his side of the lines, scouring the wreckage for souvenirs amid the bodies.

It is a deeply weird song.

Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly wrote one of the great Christmas songs, about a bloke phoning his family home from prison at Christmas. ‘How To Make Gravy’ is a song which builds and builds, emotionally: I wrote a bit more about it here a few years back. 

Christmas can be a jarring time: it is supposed to be about home, not just about physical home but also the feeling of being with someone you are meant to belong with.

The other double-edged thing about Christmas is it is poignant because you remember previous, happier Christmases with loved ones who aren’t around anymore.

Or who might be there this time but are under a cloud of some sort or other which throws into question whether they will be there next year.

That brings me to another great, non-seasonal Paul Kelly song – Deeper Water, a song following a young boy being taken swimming by his dad, to feeling out of his depth as he grows up and life’s experiences, both joyous and sorrowful, threaten to overwhelm him.

‘The clock moves around 

The child is a joy

But death doesn’t care just who it destroys

The woman gets sick 

Thins down to the bone

She says “where I’m going next,

I’m going alone….”‘

Like I say, it’s not a Christmas song in the least. But it cuts to the heart of the joys and sorrows of life in the same way Christmas can.

Setting the religion aside for those who want to take it literally, I think the great power of Christmas is, in fact, this double-edged nature.

It seems we humans need to mark these apparently incompatible things together, somehow: both joy and sorrow, grief and celebration, silly toy cartoon characters and disturbed real-life sociopaths, alcoholic abusive degradation and  uplift and hope; and, yes, a figure who has come to give hope to all humans who is publicly humiliated and tortured to death.

It is a reminder that we are all these things and that all these things – at some metaphorical level anyway –  are part of our lives.

That joy and suffering are at the core of human experience.

And that both lie at the heart of this strange thing we call love.

‘Listen now to the wind, babe: listen now to the rain….’

I wandered down along the river last night
Call me romantic? I say I couldn’t sleep
Until the first-light struck me down,,,

I remember Jimmy Barnes coming to New Zealand in the early 1990s – I think he might have appeared on Telethon or something similar.

And hearing a few folk who had met him, backstage, who had expected him to be this wild arrogant Ocker rocker…and who came back somewhat blown away. He was, yes, a wild Ocker rocker, but he hadn’t been the arrogant prick they’d expected. In fact, they’d come away gushing at how much they’d liked the guy.

He was interviewed by Wallace Chapman on NatRad, here.

The best Cold Chisel songs…well, ok, *some* of the best Cold Chisel songs..featured dual vocals by Ian Moss and Jimmy Barnes.

This was particularly so live.

This is perhaps not as well known as some of their bigger hits, but it is a great blues, off of their first album, and it was a live staple, and great crowd pleaser, for much of their career.

Ian Moss’s caramel smooth vocals are followed by a guitar solo which is as fluid and mellow as a Miles Davis muted trumpet piece.

According to band legend, this song served a major commercial purpose when played live: Barnes, who, as well as the main lead singer was also the band’s enforcer, didn’t have to be onstage for the first five minutes.

So it was when he went and collected the money the band was owed from the promoter, with his fists if necessary.

Just so long as he made it back to stage in time to add his sandpaper-voice soul to the song’s climax.

More well known was this one…Bow River.

One week, two weeks, maybe even more
A-pissing all my money up against the damn wall..

This version of Bow River is, to my mind, better than the studio version on ‘Circus Animals’, the album – Chisel’s best, for my money – it came off.

And that is not to knock the studio version, either. It’s pretty good.

But the live version takes flight higher.

It is, mostly, a bloody fantastic band playing their heart and guts and balls out. And it was recorded when they were breaking up, at one of their farewell concerts in Sydney at the end of 1983.

It is one of my few personal regrets  – I have things I am remorseful about, as should everyone who has a conscience, but I think regrets are usually pointless and I try to avoid them.

But…one of those few regrets is missing them on the New Zealand leg of their farewell tour. I was, at the time, sitting in Whakatane with concussion, having written off my first car.

Pranging into a Holden, as it turned out. Colliding with the Aussies in a different way, I guess.

 

 

Thought for the day – on gamers

‘What’s we decided to do with this game was to go for the non- psychopathic part of the market. And that was a little hubristic because it really isn’t a non- psychopathic part of the market’

– Douglas Adams, recalling when he got involved with making a computer game