Sunday, January 25, 2015

What I’m reading #123

More precisely, what I have been reading. I get a week every January when we are en famille in Tutukaka and I can read for pleasure: during the rest of the year I can’t read books while I am editing or assessing manuscripts. Or, occasionally, writing them.

You wait ages for a novel about a South Island vet and then two come along at once. Laurence Fearnley’s Reach and Owen Marshall’s Carnival Sky are by two of my favourite writers. Too many great passages in both to quote unquote: both novels are, if you ask me, their authors’ best yet. Totally recommended. A friend has recently moved to England to be one of the Queen’s vets: I will send him copies of both.

I finished John Eliot Gardiner’s Music in the Castle of Heaven about Johann Sebastian Bach and Phil Gifford’s Loose Amongst the Legends about New Zealand sporty types. Gardiner’s book is the weightier tome and stellar, but Phil’s is much better written and much funnier.

Don Felder wrote the music for “Hotel California” and both the guitar solos which are what made the song famous. His memoir Heaven or Hell is about what it is like growing up dirt-poor in Gainseville, Florida and then becoming a member of the Eagles with all the sex, drugs and money that involved – which was a lot. It’s a great yarn and of interest even to non-Eagles fans (most of us) because it shows a) what it’s like to be in a mega-successful rock band which is corrupted by sex, drugs and especially money and b) what colossal shits Don Henley and Glenn Frey are. Even “loveable goofball” Joe Walsh comes out of it badly: he was just as mercenary as the others. Bah.

Over New Year at Onemana in the Coromandel I read Paul Cleave’s Blood Men, a dark crime novel set in pre-quake Christchurch, TS Eliot’s Selected Poems which just happened to be in the guest bedroom along with the collected Agatha Christie short stories featuring Hercule Poirot, which were much more fun, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The skinny: opening scene was brilliant, closing scene was brilliant, dragged a bit in the middle. This was the Norton edition which at the back had some comments from critics, e.g. Leonard Woolf:
The first thing which must be said of Melville is that he writes the most execrable English. Take a sentence like the following: “That certain sultanism of his brain, which had otherwise in a good degree remained unmanifested; through those forms that sultanism became incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship.” This is a thoroughly bad sentence, and its badness is quite pointless, and there are thousands like it in “Mardi” and “Moby Dick”. (The use of the semi-colon in this sentence is worth noting; it is characteristic of Melville, who bespatters his sentences with semi-colons without regard to meaning or convention.) His second great vice is rant or rhetoric. When he wants to say that a sailor looked angrily at the mate, he describes him as “stabbing him in the eye with the unflinching poinard of this glance.” I cannot see the slightest point in this kind of bombast, and, when it raves on for page after page, I almost pitch the book into the waste-paper basket and swear that I will not read another line, however many people vouch for the author’s genius.  

Ian Rankin speaks for all novelists on Twitter:
I’m at that bit* in my new book where I’ve no idea what’s going on or what I’m doing.
*from around page 30 to page 250

Christopher Caldwell in the Spectator writes:
I was talking the other day to a young woman who knows a lot about the history of rock. We shared an enthusiasm for Bob Dylan’s later work — especially Blood on the Tracks (1975). As we talked, it occurred to me that Dylan recorded this ‘late’ effort 40 years ago, only 13 years into his career. So why do we treat it as belonging more to our time than, say, his folk ballads from the early 1960s? Some baby-boomer journalist must have decided around 1970 that something Dylan did in 1965 or 1966 — maybe his switch to electric instruments or his motorcycle accident — marked a critical break in history.
We stupidly accept this view of things: Dylan is now in his sixth decade as a symbol of American youth. But time does keep moving on. Blood on the Tracks is now closer to the reign of George V (1910–1936) than to our day. For that matter, Dylan’s eponymous first album (1962) is closer to the reign of Edward VII (1901–10) than to us. [. . .]
For some reason music always sounds newer than it is, and this is not true just of baby boom music. You might think Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ (1984) is edgy and subversive if you danced to it back in the day, but it now stands at the some chronological distance from Patti Page’s ‘How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?’ (1953) as from the stuff kids are listening to today. The Sex Pistols’ first concert (1975) is closer in time to Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony (1936) than to us, and Rachmaninoff wrote much of his music in the 19th century.

I remember Patti Page’s “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” from my toddler years. Silly song but sexy voice, my toddler self thought: I was an early adopter of heterosexuality. As soon as I heard the first bar of Groove Armada’s 1998 song “At the River” I knew who and what they were sampling: Patti Page’s 1957 hit “Old Cape Cod”. What a voice. All together now:
If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air
Quaint little villages here and there

Thursday, January 22, 2015

In which I grow a beard

My 2015 beard-growing initiative has not been in homage to celebrity beard Francis Wheen, 2013’s Real Organic Santa of the Year, whose birthday we celebrate today, just the standard New Zealand male on holiday can’t be arsed shaving. (Note to readers overseas: New Zealand shuts down from Christmas to the end of January. Nobody works. Nothing gets done. If we are not lolling about on our superyachts we are surfing. Because summer. Which is intensely irritating for those of us who do have to work because freelance = no holiday pay.)

Usually at this time I go a week without shaving but this year I have extended the run. Mainly – no, entirely – to annoy the children, who hate it. As do I. OMG it is itchy. Also, I dislike beards on principle: I want to see a person’s face, not a hairy burqa. OTOH several writer friends have them: Chris Else, Brian Turner, Danyl McLauchlan. Even CK Stead had one years ago. (My nephew Simon who lives in Russia has one. How old do you think that makes me feel, having a nephew with a beard? At least he’s not a hipster.)

Back to my beard: I let it develop wondering how it would develop, hoping for the full Randall Jarrell, my greatest literary hero (pictured above), but I have ended up somewhere between local publishers Fergus Barrowman and Paul Little. Nothing wrong with either of them but neither of them is Randall. And, sadly, it turns out, nor am I.

So the beard will go when the children really can’t stand it any more. Or when high-school starts and I have to meet teachers and present as a normal person, whichever comes first. Until then, here are ZZ Top live in August 2014 with “Rough Boy”: bearded Billy Gibbons on guitar, bearded Dusty Hill on bass and beardless Frank Beard on drums. And beardless guest Jeff Beck:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mary McIntyre photobombs Rob Muldoon

This morning I took the children to the Waikato Museum to see the Ralph Hotere/Bill Culbert show, which they loved, and also Pictures at an Exhibition. They recognised from what is on our walls works by Gretchen Albrecht, James Ross, Nigel Brown, Mary McIntyre and Pat Hanly. What surprised me was that I knew/was friends with/had dealings with 18 of the artists shown. Including Mary, who I now realise was a pioneer of photobombing.  

We’ve all seen Benedict Cumberbatch photobombing U2 at the Oscars in March 2014:

Here is Mary in 1984 – thirty years earlier! – photobombing New Zealand’s then-Prime Minister in her painting Mickey Mouse and Robert Muldoon. That’s her as the avenging angel. This painting was based on a photo from the NZ Herald in which Muldoon stood next to Mickey Mouse at Auckland Airport and held a jar of jellybeans: something to do with Ronald Reagan, from memory. It hangs opposite our front door so is the first thing any visitor to our house sees: 

Spectator letter of the month

From the 10 January issue:
Bowled out
Sir: The recent correspondence on the subject of the fatal cricket accident which in 1751 prevented Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, from succeeding his father George II as king in 1760, has failed to mention that this was the first known instance in cricket history of play stopping reign.
Tim Rice
London SW13

Yes, this is from that Tim Rice.

Monday, December 29, 2014

What I’m reading #122

Emile Yusupoff asks, in Scotland’s student newspaper The Journal, “Could Russell Brand’s ‘Revolution’ be satirical?” Quote unquote:
Perhaps Brand honestly believes that his ‘revolution’ is a legitimate and sane political program. Perhaps he also genuinely sees a link between New Age pseudo-spiritual babble and leftist politics (beyond the crank magnet effect). Maybe he thinks there are alternative mechanisms for the allocation of scarce resources to the price system and ‘bloody graph[s]’.
He may genuinely think that central planning and decentralised power are compatible. Maybe he simply does not understand what abolishing all debt would entail. Perhaps he really does have ‘doubts’ about 9/11 based on fanatical anti-Americanism and media paranoia. He may even genuinely think that Cuba is a paragon for human rights. And perhaps he really is so self-deluded that he cannot see his foray into politics for what it really is.

Read on. The links are good, particularly the crank-magnet one.

Worcester is embroiled in its biggest fight since Cromwell and Prince Rupert squared off in 1642 and, after winning, the Roundheads dealt to the still-lovely cathedral. Quote unquote:
A farcical row over a cardboard cut-out of Ed Miliband is going on behind the scenes at County Hall – amid claims it’s been “taken hostage”.
Your Worcester News can reveal how Worcestershire County Council is embroiled in a stand-off over a life-sized cut-out of the Labour Party leader which has mysteriously vanished.
 One year ago the Labour group bought it off the internet and located it inside the party’s secure room inside County Hall.
Two weeks ago it disappeared, despite only a handful of staff and Labour councillors having access to the room. […] It is now being hidden at a mystery location and Cllr McDonald told him he was "not prepared to negotiate with hostage takers’ over getting the cut-out back.
“I told him I've got British blood in my veins and I'm not prepared to negotiate with hostage takers. Nobody has a right to tell us what we can and can’t have in our own room, we aren’t breaking any laws by having a life-sized Ed Miliband in there.”

Makes me proud to be not British. Read on.

Adam Ragusea on why Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” sounds like a classic. Chords, basically. Well, yeah. Quote unquote:
The song also includes what I consider the most Christmassy chord of all—a minor subdominant, or “iv,” chord with an added 6, under the words “underneath the Christmas tree,” among other places. (You might also analyse it as a half-diminished “ii” 7th chord, but either interpretation seems accurate.)
The same chord is found, in a different key and inversion, in Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”—on the line “children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow,” specifically under the word listen, among other spots. In both songs the chord comes immediately after a major subdominant chord, giving the effect of a “bright” major subdominant that you might say “sighs” or “melts” into a “dark” minor subdominant spiked with a “spicy” extra tone (the added 6), before the songs settle back into their tonic, or “home,” chords.
David Hepworth on legendary pop groups expressed as pie charts: Beatles, Bee Gees and the Smiths. Thought experiment: try this with Blur, Oasis, Radiohead…

This graphic at Lapham’s Quarterly shows the first known usage of the filthiest words in English. “Fart”, 1250. “”Swiving”, c1300 (a great favourite of John Barth, that). “Frigging”, 1708. “Nookie”, 1930. And many more much ruder ones than are printable here.

Hardly anybody in New Zealand is interested in Australia’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, which are similar to but different from our own PM’s Awards for Literature: theirs are for specific books whereas ours are for lifetime achievement – and theirs are even more political. This year the Oz Prime Minister took an interest and altered the result to make Richard Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North a co-winner with the judges’ sole choice, Steven Carroll’s A World of Other People. Les Murray, one of the judges (and greatest living English-language poet, if you ask me: here is a long piece by Michael Hofmann in support) isn’t happy and says, “I feel like I have been treated like a fool.” Stephen Romei reports in the Australian:
Murray emphasised that a majority of the five judges not only decided against recommending Flanagan’s novel, but also “rejected” it. “We dismissed the Tasmanian fellow,’’ he said. “It is a pretentious, stupid book.’’
Murray said a clear majority thought Carroll’s book was the best of the five contenders, but the chairwoman of the panel, publisher Louise Adler, pushed strongly for Flanagan. The other three judges were poets Jamie Grant and Robert Gray and film-maker Margie Bryant.
He said the decision was not put to a formal vote because it was obvious that Ms Adler was outnumbered, and so Carroll became the unanimous recommendation.
 Murray, widely considered Australian’s best chance for a second Nobel Prize in Literature, said if he had been at the awards dinner in Melbourne on Monday night, he would have publicly denounced the decision. “The literary scene is such a nest of vipers,’’ he said.

Martin Shaw weighs in at the Guardian; here is Susan Wyndham at the Sydney Morning Herald; more background from Romei here.

I was on the panel for the NZ Prime Minister’s Awards a couple of times. One year I was really shocked when it became clear that the numero uno of Creative NZ was not only present at the judgement meeting but was free to express his views and that we three appointed judges were expected to take his views seriously and count them as an extra vote. I liked him: smart guy, good reader but frankly, if you are not on the panel, shut up. Creative NZ is much better managed now.

I had heard from economist friends about Deirdre McCloskey’s essay on Thomas Picketty’s Capital, the economics equivalent of Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time: massively bought, massively unread. Here is James Zuccollo at TVHE with a good skinny and link to McCloskey. If interested in Picketty, it is a stellar critique.      

And now for something completely different: rock guitarists with giant slugs. For example, Bruce Springsteen:

Would you like fries with that?

A sculptural pun is never a good idea. Stuff reports:
A giant golden chicken wing sculpture, installed at Massey University’s Albany campus, cost $90,000.
Unveiled this week, The Golden Promise sculpture was designed by established Auckland artist Reuben Paterson.
A Massey University spokesman said the $90,000 cost covered fabrication, construction, concept, installation, an artist's fee, travel, delivery and resource consent fees. “We wanted to commemorate the 50th anniversary and leave a legacy for future students and staff.”
Paterson said the golden wing symbolised protection and nurturing offered by the university to students at the campus, which was previously the site of chicken farming.
“This work especially refers to – and celebrates – the development of the university from its beginnings as an agricultural college, into what it has aspired to become over the course of its own history – and just as the university has transformed and grown over this time, so too has the pastoral land on which it is located at Albany.”
Albany Students’ Association president Andre Budel said reaction had been “mixed”.

Waikato University is built on a former dairy farm, which is why in the 1960s the student cafetaria was known as The Cowshed. Let’s hope WaikUni does not follow the trail that Massey has blazed.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Rodney Hide on speed

Rodney Hide, who is a mathy kind of guy, writes in today’s Herald on Sunday about the police’s great new idea about how to enforce the speed limit:
Overtaking on the road safely and within the law is now all but impossible.
The speed limit on the open road is 100km/h. The police are applying zero tolerance. You can now be ticketed at 101km/h. The speed limit for heavy vehicles and cars pulling caravans, boats or trailers is 90km/h.
Do the maths. In good driving conditions we are advised to apply the “two-second rule”. At 90km/h that’s 50m. So you pull out 50m behind a truck and trailer, the truck and trailer is 20m long and you pull in once safely 50m past. You have to make 120m to pass safely.
If the truck is doing 90km/h and you stick to 100km/h it takes 43 seconds to gain that 120m.
At 100km/h you will have travelled 1.2km. You must allow for a car coming towards you at 100km/h. To pass safely you need 2.4km of clear road.
That doesn’t happen often.

Cameron Slater comments:
I was dreadful at algebra at school, still am.
I could never see any point to it, especially with the stupid questions like “if train A travels at 90km/h and train B travels at 100km/h and train A leaves station C and train b leaves station D at the same time will they both reach station e at the same time” or some other crap like that.
My answer, which turned out to be wrong every time, was “Check the timetable”.
I digress…Rodney Hide has shown proper use of algebra in slamming the Police’s stupid insistence on zero tolerance of exceeding the speed limit.

So here are Godley and Creme with “The Problem” from their 1981 album Ismism, one of the few songs I know that are about maths:

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Sinister New Zealanders

For the Wall Street Journal, Hugo Rifkind previews 2015. An extract from the July entry:
In other Hollywood news, some critics bemoan the lingering fallout from the Sony hacking fiasco, with fearful executives now ruling out villains from any nation with the ability and inclination to intercept corporate email. Sinister New Zealanders and Costa Ricans begin appearing as the bad guys in most big-budget action films.

Good news for Cliff Curtis and Temuera Morrison.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

In praise of: David Cohen

If the quality of a book can be measured by the number of turned-down page corners in my copy marking quotable quotes, David Cohen’s Greatest Hits (Makaro Press) is a very good book indeed.

He interviews novelist Paul Auster for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Auster says of creative writing programmes:
“I don’t know if sitting in a class with other writers is the healthiest thing.”

He interviews photographer Marti Friedlander for Jerusalem Report. She explains why there are so few portraits of her:
“I don’t want to be photographed by someone lacking my ability,” she says, dragging thoughtfully on a cigarette. “I want to be in control.”
He remembers David Lange for the National Business Review. They met on Waiheke:
He squinted back at me. “We haven’t met before?” I told him we hadn’t and it was true. Still, our professional paths had certainly crossed: in the winter of 1990, while he was still the country’s attorney-general and I was fairly new to journalism, Mr Lange had taken a defamation action against me.

That defamation action was for $650,000, which is nothing: when I was at Metro, about the same time, an art dealer sued me for $1 million.

He describes the climate of Canterbury for the New York Times:
They call it the nor’wester, whose first warm breath quickly turns into a hot dry wind that sweeps through the mountains, moving across the level land, finally losing itself in the billowing fog that sometimes rises to meet it above the Pacific Ocean. It starts in the northern sky, bending the heavens into a vast arch, creating little clouds that hover above like so many fuzzy white marbles. Visibility becomes crystalline; the colours of the earth appear to change. Then the clouds begin to bounce, flickering their way east.

He reports on what it is like to be at home with an autistic child when an earthquake strikes for Family Care:
In the ensuing chaos it became apparent that only one of us was coping at all well. It wasn’t the boy’s gibbering lunatic of a father. Eliot, for his part, remained as serene as a picnic. If anything, as the long, ghostly minutes began, and the first of the evening’s aftershocks rattled the windows, that nonverbal serenity only seemed to intensify. [. . .] Peace finally reigned. And this: an unencumbered interlude of mutuality, a free-flowing time between father and son – between the supposed carer and the one being cared for – a lesson in life’s goodness made all the sharper for the inversion of the usual roles amid a natural crisis. Talk about a surprise.
He interviews record reviewer Robert Christgau for the Guardian:
Lou Reed once had this to say about the man often held to be America’s most intellectually rigorous rock writer: “How do you think it feels,” barked the singer in the middle of a particularly rowdy 1978 New York performance, “working for a fucking year, and you get a B-plus from an asshole in the Village Voice?” [. . . ] “Creating and criticising are different things,’ says Christgau with a shrug. ‘It’s never been my experience that artists of any sort understand what criticism is about. [. . .] Hey, if you put a price on it, I can put a grade on it. If you’re out in public, so am I. And if you do not accept that then you’re in the wrong business.”  
He interviews singer John Rowles for North & South and reviews a performance at Hamilton’s Founders Theatre:
To be sure, there’s sexiness in his style, but only in the most harmless kind of way. Rowles on stage is no more dangerous than Bambi with testosterone, a bass-baritone virginally fluted.

He interviews Waikato University’s vice-chancellor Bryan Gould for the Independent on Sunday:
Were these bizarre daily turns motivated by exhibitionism or by an admirable indifference to notions of political propriety? Perhaps, one idly speculates, he did it to make room for a glittering brain that has been celebrated by many commentators, not least himself.

He reviews Holmes by Paul Homes for NBR:
“All my life,” Holmes admits in his eponymous offering, “I rebelled against the repressed, grey-suited, public servant New Zealand. I rebelled against a New Zealand of restraint, of fear of colour and openness and flourish.” It is good this paragraph appears early on in this distinctly stodgy load of tripe, for it should save any unwary readers the trouble of chewing any further to taste the writer’s general literary flavour: semi-gothic solemnity, spurious authority, facile observation, and sentences that twitch and quiver like mating cockroaches.

Mating cockroaches! I have never seen this event, and hope I never will, but Cohen must have seen it and been deeply impressed because 10 or so pages later, in a review for Idealog of Paul Henry’s Outraged, after a passing reference to constipated stoats, we get this:
The work brims with insecure diction and spurious dignity as the author belabours his prejudices, and his sentences bump and grind like mating cockroaches.

I’ll take his word for that.

It’s a good book. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

What I’m reading #121

At Tuesday Poem Helen McKinlay interviews Poet Laureate Vincent O’Sullivan. Quote unquote:
New Zealanders, for all our self-flattery about being independent and the rest of it, can be pretty timid souls, and to say anything too directly can rattle our assumptions about ourselves. We don’t like being uncomfortable, we don’t like being thrown into responsibility, hence a soothing political blandness, as we well know, immediately appeals to us. What I was getting at in that poem is that if we sign away our conceptions of good and evil, this can lead to a fairly colourless or deluding life. It doesn’t mean one has to embrace absolutes, but it does mean deciding where one’s boundaries reside. I dislike our easy ‘middle of the road’ sloppiness about certain issues because taking a considered stand isn’t always ‘nice’ or agreeable.

One of the Poet Laureate’s job requirements is to blog. Vincent generously invites guests to share the space. The latest guest is Emma Neale with four unpublished poems. Quote unquote:
These seem to me the kind of poems that begin with readers but end with partners, in their take on how things are, and how we talk of them. This is poetry in that ancient tradition of ‘speaking for us all’, of making scenes and events that we find are about ourselves all the time, even when they may at first move so confidently in that Rilkean dimension of ‘beauty and terror’. Good poems to end one year, and to begin another.

For anyone who ever wanted to punch Steve Braunias in the head, someone beat you to it in the Alhambra of blessed memory. Quote unquote:
His punch was fast and hard. I got a black eye. I thought it best to wear dark glasses the next day when I was a guest on Kim Hill’s radio show. “I don’t want listeners to see,” I explained.

An open letter to Russell Brand, about his recent megaphonic protest outside the Royal Bank of Scotland, from Jo Reeves who lives in Northern Ireland but works in the City. Quote unquote:
You turned up and weren’t allowed in. Big wow. You know what would have happened if a rabid capitalist had just turned up unannounced? They wouldn’t have been allowed in either. You know what I have in my pocket? A security pass. Unauthorised people aren’t allowed in. Obviously. That’s not a global conspiracy, Russell; it’s basic security. Breweries have security too, and that’s not because they’re conspiring to steal beer from the poor. And security really matters: banks are simply crawling with highly sensitive information. Letting you in because you’re a celebrity and You Demand Answers could in fact see the bank hauled in front of the FCA. That would be a scandal. Turning you away is not. I’m sorry, Russell, but it’s just not.
Your response to my complaint that a multimillionaire was causing my lunch to get cold was... well, frankly, it was to completely miss the point, choosing to talk about your millions instead of addressing the real issue, namely my fucking lunch.

Tina Shaw on how she self-published her terrific novel The Children’s Pond, which was, I think, the first self-published novel to make the NZ top ten bestsellers list. It debuted at #4. Quote unquote: 
These days, self-publishing has become almost respectable. I say ‘almost’ because there is still a wee stigma involved in publishing your own work. And I think that has actually come about because many self-published projects are not great on quality. So it’s understandable that Creative New Zealand is hesitant to fund such projects – even though it would be enormously helpful to the diversity of New Zealand literature if they did so. Funding for such projects would go some way to raising the level of independent publishing in general.

Brian Clearkin in Landfall Online reviews the second novel in Graeme Lay’s Captain Cook trilogy, James Cook’s New World. It is a model review: thoughtful, thorough and true to the book. Quote unquote:
Bernard Cornwell has set the bar at an Olympian height in the field of historical novels, and on first impression Graeme Lay’s work seems a little low-key in comparison. I would prefer to see this as an observation rather than a criticism, since readers will soon find themselves subtly drawn into Cook’s world as the newly promoted captain sets out to make his second historic and lasting contribution to cartography and exploration.
 Almost two and a half centuries later our concept of unexplored and uncharted portions of the globe is limited to a few undersea trenches. Even the moon is relatively familiar territory. Lay transports us back into Cook’s world where fact and fiction intertwine assisted by scientific ignorance coupled with earlier explorers’ exaggeration and imprecise navigation. Lay also captures Cook’s personal situation as an outsider amongst the scions of privilege who rule and control his world. His portrayal of the naturalist James Banks as a lascivious womanising rake is a colourful departure from that noble gentleman’s generally held public image – but quite plausible given the recorded activities of many of his peers.

Finally, Maurice Shadbolt’s Voices of Gallipoli has been translated into Chinese and now into Turkish. “Hats off to David Ling!” as my Gallipoli veteran grandfather would say. I have seen the Taiwan-published Chinese-language edition, which is the one in the middle of the photo below, and it is lovely: