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. 

 

Thought for the day – Mencken on books 

‘There are people who read too much: the bibliobibuli. I know some who are constantly drunk on books, as other men are drunk on whiskey or religion. They wander through this most diverting and stimulating of worlds in a haze, seeing nothing and hearing nothing.’
H L Mencken.

To which I can only say, ‘Cheers’. Though I’d query the “too much”.

img_0172

The US Presidential elections…what would Mencken say?

‘My microphone is broken. She broke it. Her and Obama. They took it to Kenya and they broke it.’

I hope there is some mute village Mencken finding his or her journalistic voice in the United States this horrendous election year. It calls for some Menckenesque scorn, although I suspect he would see, in Donald Trump, all his reservations about providing the vote to people he would regard as a sub normal intelligence – i.e. about half the human race – made flesh.

Mencken – H L Mencken, to use the byline he wrote under, from his Baltimore office, for much of the first half of the 20th century – had a fine line in scorn and invective and for the follies of political life.

His scorn wasn’t just for the polticians themselves – it was more for the people who voted for them, for all the wrong reasons. There was often more than a tinge of contempt, unfortunately, in his attitudes to those less intelligent than himself – a rather large group. 

He was though, ahead of his time in some matters. It’s interesting to ponder what he would make of Donald Trump’s progress to head the party of Abraham Lincoln. 

‘A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in’, he once wrote. 

Well, quite. 

And Mencken was quite sympathetic to women’s fight for equality,  writing that ‘women always excel men in that sort of wisdom which comes from experience. To be a woman is in itself a terrible experience.’

His scepticism – and his message that scepticism was a right and good thing, especially when applied to both those who hold formal political power and those who adopt the less accountable,but often more intrusive, power of moral certitude.

‘A Socialist who goes to jail for his opinions seems to me a much finer man than the judge who sends him there, though I disagree with all the ideas of the Socialist and agree with some of those of the judge. But though he is fine, the Socialist is nevertheless foolish, for he suffers for what is untrue. If I knew what was true, I’d probably be willing to sweat and strive for it, and maybe even to die for it to the tune of bugle-blasts. But so far I have not found it.’

..is a sentiment I find myself endorsing, with a small dose of scepticism (there are some things I feel are true,  but in the main they belong to the private sphere).

‘The kind of man who wants the government to adopt and enforce his ideas is always the kind of man whose ideas are idiotic,’ is another of Mencken’s aphorisms.

 ‘The worst government is the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.’

I suspect Mencken would add a rider to that today. Trump is a cynic – but a cynic without any tempering influence of empathy. 

The effective cynic in fact has bags of empathy for other human beings – cynicism requires insight, a knowledge of, and instinct for, other humans, and that requires empathy.  Trump seems to lack any of this. 

Add to that the legions of religious fanatics who have, out of  a combination  of opportunism, convenience, venality and sheer stupidity, hitched their wagon to the Trump circus wagon, and you have potentially the worst of all governments in the making.

Book Recommendations – The Strange Death of Liberal England

The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield
strange death

 

 

‘Along that row of distinguished and original faces there would pass from time to time, as lightly as a shadow upon the waters, an alarming, an alien, spirit. It invaded and effaced the dignified construction of Mr Asquith’s features, it crept about the corners of Mr Lloyd George’s eyes, with imponderable fingers it ruined that noble forehead which was Mr Winston Churchill’s, it reduced the hatchet lines of Mr McKenna’s face to the lesser proportions of a ladylike paper-knife.. a spirit dangerous and indefinite, animula vagula blandula, the Spirit of Whimsy, which only afflicts Englishmen in their weakness.’

 

I have been thinking of this book a lot lately and I’ve recommended it to several people.  It was one of those “formative books” – a book one reads as an impressionable age and has a powerful influence on the outlook.

I’m a firm believer that styles and methods of thought are more important – much more important in fact – than the actual content of those thoughts. Habits of mind are often unconscious, stem from a mix of influences and innate character, and serve to form thoughts and beliefs.

So although, in the case of this book, I didn’t agree with everything in it at the time, and probably do so even less now, Dangerfield’s  attitude to the world of public affairs, and those who conduct it, had, now I re-read it, quite an effect.

I can even remember where and when I bought it – shortly after moving to Auckland in 1985, at the David Thomas second-hand bookshop in Lorne St, which was part of a small oasis of slightly disheveled civilisation in the downtown CBD at the time. There were four along the O’Connell-High-Lorne St zone at the time – Rare Books, Jasons, and Bloomsbury, as well as this one. Five, if you count the library.

Nice and handy, too, to the Dominos and Just Desserts cafes.

Enough nostalgia.

‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ is one of the few books I’d nominate for genuine classic status. It tells a great story – the kind of collective mental breakdown which swept over the British [ok, mostly English, and David Lloyd George] classes in the four years before the outbreak of World War One.

It is superbly written, generally with a dry ironic touch, but underneath this cool carapace some heated moral indignation bubbles and it occasionally bursts through.

It was about the breakup of a consensus, of assumptions about how their country – and, given the size of the British Empire of the time, the world  – ought to be governed. The future of Ireland, Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” and the House of Lords’ self-defeating obduracy, votes for women, and the rise of the Labour Party dominate and served to break up that consensus.

As Dangerfield put it,

‘Whatever his political convictions may have been, the  Englishman of the ‘7os and ‘8os was something of a liberal  at heart. He believed in freedom, free trade, progress, and  the Seventh Commandment. He also believed in Reform. He was strongly in favour of peace – that is to say, he liked his wars to be fought at a distance, and, if possible, in the  name of God. In fact, he bore his Liberalism with that air of respectable and passionate idiosyncrasy which is said to be typical of his nation, and was certainly typical of Mr Gladstone and the novels of Charles Dickens.’

And he shows how widespread this worldview was, usually with a neat and deftly humorous touch, starting one section with,

‘In 1903, when Joseph Chamberlain, who had proved how insubstantial were party differences by being a Unitarian, a Radical, and a Conservative at one and the same time…’

It is character sketches like this which really make the book dance, because they are not just sketches of individual characters, they are used to show the spirit of the age. Here is Dangerfield on Arthur Balfour, the Conservative Party leader between 1902 and 1911: for Balfour, he writes,

 

‘…politics was little more than a serious game. He played it with the faintly supercilious finesse which belongs to a bachelor of breeding, and with a bitterly polite sarcasm which was quite his own. He had entered Parliament originally from that mixture of duty and idleness which made an English politician of the old school :in other words, because he could neither fight, preach, nor plead.  …He had become one of the more eminent of English philosophers at a time when English philosophy was at a low ebbb…

‘In his youth he had been known as ” pretty Fanny ” and indeed in those far days he looked rather like an attenuated gazelle. But with advancing age his face came more and more to resemble an engaging, even a handsome, skull : it carried into drawing-rooms and debates a special property of hollow mockery, its eternal memento mori which, since Mr Balfour was always affable and lively, gave him an air of mystery and even of enchantment.’

Any writer who can come up with the phrase ‘attenuated gazelle’ is someone I have to tip my hat in homage to.

Here he is on  Liberal prime minister Henry Asquith:

‘..ingenious but not subtle, he could improvise quite brilliantly on somebody else’s theme. He was moderately imperialist, moderately progressive, moderately

humorous, and, being the most fastidious of Liberal politicians, only moderately evasive. If he can be accused of excess it was in the matter of his personal standards, which were extremely high.’

My own copy of the book fell apart several years ago, I’ve since got ahold of some online excerpts and have ordered a new one from Abebooks.

It is, as those excerpts quoted above show, a joy to read if you have love history and good writing and possess a sense of humour.

It is also – because it was written in the 1930s – great to read a thoughtful book which considers Winston Churchill as just another politician, albeit a particularly colourful one, before the public monument he became post-World War Two.

Local parallels? I frequently found myself pondering this book during Helen Clark’s prime ministership. It seemed to me then quite possible we were looking at an endgame for the New Zealand Labour Party and its world view, mostly because of the inherently defensive approach to almost all policy issues.

Oh, and because Clark and Cullen at times reminded me of the Asquith-Lloyd George combination, albeit without Cullen wanting the top job.

But Clark’s cool rationality had a whiff of Asquith, and Cullen definitely had a touch of the Lloyd George at times, especially in his way with the wittily destructive phrase.

The travails which have befallen Labour since then have confirmed those thoughts from a decade ago.

And we may, now, be seeing a wider, world wide break up, with the rise of Trump-ism in the United States and the sentiment of ressentiment which that appeals to taking other forms elsewhere.

But more on that in my real job.

For now, fellow well-written-history-buffs: this book is a true classic.

That rare combination: a thought-provoking joy to read.