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:

Friday, December 12, 2014

Luck At Last Road: the proof

On 4 November I posted Crime wave in Cambridge #2, the police report from the 29 October issue of our local paper, Cambridge Edition. It included this item:
Wednesday, October 22
Police attended a domestic incident in Luck at Last Road.

Some unkind people suggested that I had made this up, that there could not possibly be a road of that name.

In 1989 Eris Parker researched the district’s street and road names for the Cambridge Museum. Her report on roads L to G is here and has this to say:  
One story goes that in 1907 two locals, in sheer desperation to get this road, went to Wellington with their case. The telegram eventually came back, ‘Luck at Last’.
But this is the story as told by Will Hicks – ‘Mr G S Day, Mr E Nickle and my father Mr J T Hicks were early settlers along what is now Luck at Last Road All the timber for the houses etc, was carted across country, creeks etc having to be forded. At the opening of the High Level Bridge between Leamington and Cambridge, by the then Prime Minister (sic), Mr Day and my father were able to meet him and put their case, which he said was a very deserving one. Shortly afterwards work began on the road and after waiting for five years these settlers had a road. Next, the Matamata County asked for a suggestion for a name. My Mother put forward the name Luck at Last and it was accepted.’

A picture is worth a thousand words, so here is a photo of the street sign I took last month, with Maungatautari in the background. If you enlarge the image, you will see that Luck At Last is a No Exit road. Make of that what you will. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Do not lie to the librarian

Via Florida bookperson Erin Mitchell, the rules in force at the Hyde Institute library, Barnet Vale, Hertfordshire, in 1930:
Enter the library if their faces are offensively dirty.
Fall asleep on the tables.
Eat their lunches whilst reading papers, books, &c.
Smoke in the building.
Leave their business cards behind.
Make themselves a nuisance.
Kick or damage the furniture.
Tell lies to the librarian.
Enter when they are in an inebriated condition.
If they have small-pox.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The AUP Anthology of NZ Literature #9

This has been a long series since my first post reviewing the book in December 2012 somewhat negatively (quote unquote: of a line in the introduction I wrote, “That is the stupidest sentence I have read all year”). The previous entry was in March 2013 celebrating its big win in the awards for the Most Beautiful Book Australia and New Zealand.

On 4 December Pamela Gordon, a trustee of the Janet Frame estate, posted on the Slightly Framous blog explaining at length why there was nothing from Frame in the book – which was one of my criticisms of it, along with the absence of other major writers such as Vincent O’Sullivan and Alan Duff in an anthology of New Zealand literature that had room for material from the Yates Gardening Guide and the  Edmonds Cookbook.

Her post is in response to a paper by the book’s co-editor Jane Stafford in the latest issue of the Journal of New Zealand Literature about why Frame’s work was missing. Stafford’s paper is here (billed as a $19 download but it’s easy to sign up and read it online for free). It is a spirited defence of the anthologists’ actions and well worth reading. Best bit about difficult living authors: “And old scores and a long memory were a factor in at least one case.” I bet.

Pamela has adifferent story to tell. She writes:
Quite apart from their desires for the rest of their project, the editors of the AUP anthology had constructed a flawed and unbalanced de facto ‘canon’ of Frame’s work, that we the estate knew from our wider experience of non-academic publishing was likely to be extracted from much of the rest of the anthology, especially internationally, where Frame is one of the few New Zealand literary names known, and where reprints of her work can command market prices. The publisher was seeking international digital rights along with carte blanche for the formulation of subsets of material from within the anthology for unstated purposes and within undeclared contexts. We could not allow this inadequate Frame corpus of over 12,000 words, weighted heavily towards her early career, to represent Frame’s output over her entire career. At that stage our concern was not with the major flaw at the heart of the AUP Anthology, later identified by numerous critics: that the book which claimed on its cover to offer the best New Zealand writing (‘our guide to what’s worth reading – and why’), was in fact not selected with the ‘best’ work in mind, but rather selected because they were the best pieces to showcase [the editors’ view of] New Zealand’s sociological and historical makeup. Our concern was as it should be (by definition) for a responsible literary estate, to agree on an appropriate and high quality and representative range of Frame’s best work. We did attempt to be generous and flexible but this was not appreciated. The editors did not seem to want Frame in all her glory – they wanted her as a muted and submissive wallpaper ‘to add lustre’ to the new generation (consisting largely of staff and alumni from their own university) – but not to challenge or outshine it. […]
A knowledgeable and sensitive editor would have been aware of these historical (and still valid) issues but Stafford and Williams didn’t know or care about the deficiencies of the Frame canon they had gathered together to present to the international literary and educational community as a representation of what was ‘worth reading’ of her work. They seemed to expect the authors and estates at the other end of their own decisions to quietly sign their assent without demur: ‘the overwhelming majority of authors and estates responded positively and in a business-like manner – that is, they signed the permissions form and returned it promptly.’ Although there was quite an outcry after publication when some authors and copyright holders regretted the eccentric context their work had been set within, and several of them have privately contacted the Frame trustees to praise our stand and to say that if they had known the agenda of the anthology (or in some cases, if they had not already ceded their authority to some publisher who rubber-stamped the excerpt without even notifying the author or estate), they too would have withheld permission.

This is a tricky area. As a literary trustee you have a duty to maximise the writer’s exposure to as wide an audience as possible; at the same time you have to preserve their reputation without suppressing the truth. It’s a balancing act. When I was on the Frank Sargeson Trust someone asked permission to publish some terrrible early poems by Sargeson that would have seen him mocked (not just for the line about “gay brown squirrels” in a London park): we said no. Scholars can still see them but not general readers.

In the present case it’s even trickier: the difference of opinion was about the selection of published work. The Frame Trust thought that the anthologists’ selection – which would come with all the authority of Auckland University Press – would present a skewed view of her work not just to New Zealand students but also to overseas readers. So, no.

Reading both Stafford and Gordon is fascinating. I know which side I’m on.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

My latest book #2

To Wellington yesterday for the launch of my new book, New Zealand’s Gift to the World: the Family Group Conference. The latest Listener (6 December issue) has five pages on it, which is nice. There was a great speech from Judge Andrew Becroft, the principal Youth Court judge. There was a great speech from Judge Carolyn Henwood, whose idea the book was and who has driven the project. (And by driven, I mean driven. No, DRIVEN.) There was a great speech from the deputy Prime Minister, Bill English, who launched the book.

He knows much more about the youth justice system than I expected. He was funny – which is not easy with this grim subject – but also serious and a classic liberal in his comments about the coercive power of the state and how damaging it can be to vulnerable youth. One of his points was that the various state institutions who are involved don’t talk to each other: they tick the boxes of their own processes but this does not help the child. These are difficult, damaged kids. New Zealand is good at diverting the salvageable ones early, so those who get a family group conference are the hardest nuts. He argued for an approach that would be child-centred rather than form-filling. Basically, he gave a major rark-up to the bureaucrats.

The venue was the Icon Room at Te Papa with about 200 guests. There were judges, cops in uniform, Youth Aid workers, social workers, FGC co-ordinators, people from ministries of certain things… I didn’t know any of them apart from Judges Henwood and Becroft, so stood at the back with my very pregnant niece, present as my support whanau; the book’s editor, Jane Parkin; designer Katrina Duncan; photographer Nigel Gardiner; and my friend Paul Diamond who (along with Jennifer George of the Trust) did many of the interviews which were the raw material for the book. None of them apart from Paul knew anyone else in the room either. We huddled.

It was a great launch – top food, lashings of wine and, for my pregnant niece, water – with a strong emphasis on what a team effort it was. Four years in the making. The most collaborative book project I have ever worked on: not surprising, as it is one of the most Maori. Totally the most New Zealandy, because the FGC concept came from the revered Judge Mick Brown whom I met 25 or so years ago over dinner at Phil Gifford’s with Buck Shelford. We joke about New Zealand’s two degrees of separation, but it is real. At the launch I thought also of Neil Finn’s line “Seven worlds collide”. So here he is with “Distant Sun”:

Sunday, November 30, 2014


For those of you without Latin numeracy, L = 50. A friend of mine turns 50 today. He went to art school.

So here are Godley & Creme with “Art School Canteen” from their 1978 album L:

Thursday, November 27, 2014

My latest book

Crosson Clarke Carnachan was launched last Wednesday at Bath Street Gallery in Auckland. There has been coverage of it here and here, but neither article credits the book’s designer, Diana Curtis, who really should have got top billing over the editor (me).

We started work on it in April 2008, expecting to publish in 2009, but you know how architects are with deadlines.

It is published by the NZ Architectural Publications Trust as part of a series of architectural monographs. Diana designed and I edited earlier volumes on Pete Bossley, Jasmax and a few others. They are quite good.

Have I mentioned that my next book will be launched on Monday at Te Papa by the deputy Prime Minister before an expected audience of 200? 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wintec Press Club: Pam Corkery edition

The Wintec Press Club meets for lunch three times a year in Hamilton: guests are the students of the Wintec journalism course, important media types from the Waikato and Auckland, politicians and famous sporty types. And me. The host is Steve Braunias, Editor in Residence on the course. This time the guest speaker was Pam Corkery.

The Duncan Garner edition from May is here. When Rachel Glucina was the guest speaker in August I was laid low by flu, so roped in Joshua Drummond to report. This time I was up for it. I could face Pam Corkery. Met her years ago at a mutual friend’s funeral and liked her. On the other hand, there had recently been the Internet Mana party, which was mad.

At my table were Sarah Daniell, editor of Your Weekend; David Seymour, ACT MP for Epsom, and David Bennett, National MP for Hamilton East, both of them proper MPs, none of your list rubbish; Jonathan MacKenzie editor of the Waikato Times; and two Wintec journalism students, Erin Majurey and Rich Garratt, both of whom were terrific company and were serious about journalism. Hah. They’ll learn.

In his introductory speech Steve Braunias gave a good and well-deserved kicking to the idea that there was a long-ago golden age of New Zealand journalism: in his view the golden age is arguably now, in part because the recent crops of Wintec students have been so good.

He also made several sales pitches for his new self-published book Madmen: inside the weirdest election campaign ever, which was on sale at the back of the room (“$20, Eftpos available, cash also”). It’s a nice object: small format; brilliant cover image courtesy of Joshua Drummond; and only 116 pages. So I bought a copy and one of these days I’ll get around to reading it.

Just before she was due on stage Corkery disappeared with Sarah Daniell for a crafty fag. I knew this: Braunias didn’t. A kinder person than me would have told him. He launched into his introduction but had to stop when he realised that Pam had left the building. He improvised – brilliantly, I have to say – for about 10 minutes until she deigned to take the stage. He said of her that she was “a legend, a marvel and I dig the way her mind works”.

Corkery instantly launched into a 40-minute whinge about how beastly the media had been to her during the recent election campaign, when she was press secretary or something for Internet Party leader Laila Harre. This seemed a bit rich coming from someone who is both a former journalist and a former MP, so knows exactly how this game is played. She didn’t make a lot of sense and had nothing constructive to offer by way of advice to the students. But she was very entertaining.

She talked about “puffed-up-little-shitgate”. She talked about her time working on a tabloid in Oz: “Funniest story about two twins burnt to death in a campervan I’ve ever heard.” She talked about television news: “TV One’s news is silence coloured in.”

She gave a very good impression of Russell Brown, “85 years old”, and delivered the line “Russell Brown, man of the people” as witheringly as anything said by Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey. At one point David Seymour gamely heckled: she responded with vigour.

Political reporter Tova O’Brien from 3 News was a recurring theme. I had never heard of her but Corkery certainly had. She said she txted O’Brien during the campaign: “If you can’t be honest, try lying less.”

Selected Pamquotes from my notes:
“We feast like vultures on road accidents.”
“Barry Soper, leave the field now.”
“Woodward and Bernstein, roll over in your fucking graves.”
“I don’t want to invoke Gandhi but I’m going to.”
To Labour MP Phil Twyford: “The Labour Party’s fucked. They should go condo – just sublet.”

At question time David Slack got Corkery talking about alcoholism. During her lengthy reply Braunias, at her side, ostentatiously drank a Heineken then interrupted: “Pam raises an interesting point when she refers to wallpaper.” I hadn’t noticed that she had referred to wallpaper because I had stopped listening, but Braunias went on to extol the virtues of the Ferrybank’s new wallpaper before thanking Corkery. It was a masterclass in how to close down a speaker who has begun to bore.

Earlier, in between plugs for his new book, Madmen: inside the weirdest election campaign ever (“$20, Eftpos available, cash also”), Braunias announced the winners of the annual Wintec Press Club awards. Because this is a blog of record, here they are.

Jeanette Tyrell of Sage PR put up a prize of $500 for the student who showed the most initiative. The finalists were Genie Johns, Rich Garratt, Manpreet Farrar, Brooke Bath and the winner was Erin Majurey: “She has probably broken the Wintec record for most stories published as a student journalist in one year, and many of the stories depended on her fantastic way with people and her determination to get them to talk openly and candidly.”

The Wintec Press Club best friend award went to David Slack, who apparently says nice things about the club on the radio.

The finalists for the Best Writer in NZ Award were Jeremy Wells of Radio Hauraki, for his Mike Hosking parodies; Emily Simpson, Metro magazine; Deborah Hill-Cone, NZ Herald; Matt Bowen, Waikato Times. The winner was Aimie Cronin: “Aimie’s feature work at the Waikato Times is constantly exhilarating. She’s an expressive and emotional writer who shown particular sensitivity in revealing Hamilton’s underclass. Last week’s feature about a disgraceful state housing project was a brittle masterpiece.”

Finally, Best Sentence of the Year by a Wintec journalism student: “A good sentence is a joy forever,” said Braunias, “a moment when language achieves a momentary state of grace. And the $500 cash prize means it qualifies, in a dollar per word ratio, as the richest literary prize in New Zealand and perhaps the world.” Which is probably true.

The finalists were Mereana Austin, Dave Nicoll and Manpreet Farrar: Don Rowe won with the opening line for a story about his experience in a flotation tank: “At eight words long that works out at a sweet $65 a word.” Braunias is a journalist so, as predicted by the Stratford Theory of Numbers, that amount is wrong. Then he said, I’m going to read out the entire opening paragraph because every sentence in it is audacious
Alone in the dark I left my body. It was a directionless exit. More of an expansion in all directions. Perhaps influenced by having just read a copy of the Bhagavad Gita (forced upon me by a young Hare Krishna in downtown Hamilton), I recognised an immense, blue-skinned being which materialised before me as some hybrid Hindu deity, a kind of Shiva/Krishna mashup. As in the story of Krishna, the deity opened its mouth and revealed the contents as the entire universe. . . I was halfway through my second experience in a floatation tank and I was thoroughly impressed.

Yes. For once I agree with Braunias: this may well be a golden age of journalism. Certainly, whenever I see Aimie Cronin’s or Matt Bowen’s byline in the Waikato Times I read the story, whatever its subject.

One of the pleasures of the Wintec Press Club is catching up with old and new friends from journalism. This time there were Diana Wichtel, Donna Chisholm, Bruce Ansley, Karyn Scherer. . . As I left the last meeting of the Wintec Press Club for 2014, I spied across the room the familiar figure of Steve Braunias’s mentor Jumbo Trudgeon, veteran parliamentary hack, who plays such a poignant role in the penultimate chapter, pp 101-109, of Madmen: inside the weirdest election campaign ever (“$20, Eftpos available, cash also”). 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Let’s twerk like it’s 1971

Leon Russell and friends in 1971 on PBS performing “Honky Tonk Woman”. We used to see stuff like this on TV then – recorded live and loose and weird, which you could do with real musicians:

The old black guy sitting down with a baby on his lap is Furry Lewis (best known now as the subject of the Joni Mitchell song). Carl Radle on bass, Kathi McDonald (white) and Claudia Lennear (black) on backing vocals, Jim Horn on sax and Emily on – well, if that’s not twerking avant la lettre I don’t know what is.

Claudia Lennear featured in the Joe Cocker tour movie Mad Dogs and Englishmen and the more recent one about backing singers, 20 Feet from Stardom. Here she is again from the same show.

Monitor: David Hepworth

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Sentence of the day #5

From “How to Talk to Famous Authors” by Francis Plug at Booknotes today:
That’s why you’ll often see a famous author immediately reach for a glass of wine when a member of the public approaches.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Paragraph of the week

From Keith Gessen’s December Vanity Fair article “The War of the Words”, about the battle between online retailer Amazon and print publisher Hachette, and the battle’s ramifications for authors, publishers, self-publishers, booksellers and readers:
He took me over to his window, which looked out over Seattle’s downtown. Due largely to Amazon’s expansion, Seattle is one of the fastest-growing cities in America. The size of the self-publishing program alone within Amazon is already so large that, because the company does not reveal any sales figures about self-publishing, some believe that statistics about book publishing in general can no longer be trusted. Some huge and growing part of the market is simply unaccounted for. Berman pointed at the dozens of yellow and red construction cranes that rose in spikes above Seattle all the way to the water. He made sure I was looking and said, “That’s all Amazon.”

So here are the Band with “It Makes No Difference”. That’s Rick Danko singing the lines “Cause just like the gambler says, read ’em and weep.” Also, “Stampeding cattle, they rattle the walls.” I hope these are not metaphors for our industry.

Friday, November 14, 2014

James Allan on being a first-time author

The 75th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the September 1996 issue and is by James Macky, the artist formerly known as James Allan. It is about his experience as a first-time author with Growing Up Gay. James was the first out gay journalist in New Zealand, and is one of the bravest people I know. He is also one of the wittiest. Cover portrait by John McDermott.

The intro read:
Sensitive new-author guy James Allan tells how the response to his first book has made him a nicer, more caring person – but a more competitive one.

Having spent the past 13 years churning out a wide variety of feature stories, travel pieces, gossip columns, restaurant, book and movie reviews for Metro, the Listener, Fashion Quarterly and other magazines too numerous to mention – including the fine literary organ you’re holding in your hands – I was taken completely by surprise at the professional and emotional upheaval that accompanied the publication by Godwit Press of my first book, Growing Up Gay, in January.

As anyone in the print media will tell you, it’s rare for a writer to get any feedback from the public. Appear on television for five seconds and you’ll be recognised in coffee bars for the rest of your life. Write a newspaper column every day for a decade and, at the end of it, you’ll be able to drop into your local Cheers and discover that nobody knows your name.

True story: a joumalist sweats blood writing a searing, insightful, outrageous feature story. “When this is published,” he or she boasts, “there’ll be either a tumultuous furore or a frenzied imbroglio. Preferably both!”

Sadly, when the piece appears, it fails to elicit the slightest response. The awful truth is that people who stuff letters into bottles and then cast them onto the high seas are more likely to have their words acknowledged than are print journalists.

But, as I happily discovered, book authors are treated entirely differently. No longer just one of many names on a crowded masthead, a book author stands alone and recognisable. People who read your book are eager to share their censure and praise, however faint and damning, with you, The Author.

But authors don’t just depend upon the kindness of strangers for feedback. I was absolutely astonished, when my book was published, to receive congratulatory cards, letters and phone calls from old friends and relations who’d never been moved to compliment me on anything I’d written previously.

For a writer more used to the completion of his work being rewarded by an editor’s grudging, “I guess it’ll have to do,” all this attention can be overwhelming. I became practically unhinged at the launch party Godwit threw to celebrate my book. It was a marvellous egotistical occasion when I, the writer, held centre stage. At all the magazine parties I’ve been to, it’s always the publisher, the editor, the advertisers and the marketing manager who get all the attention. Writers are way down at the bottom of the pecking order, alongside the layout artists, the receptionist and the cleaners.

Having launched the book, the next big hurdle for every author is reading the reviews. Having complained for years about never getting professional or private feedback, one realises the sharp truth behind Truman Capote’s prickly comment, which he erroneously attributed to St Therese, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” I can imagine no more demoralising a moment than one spent reading or listening to a critic skilfully sketch your lack of talent, skill and intelligence. Is it helpful, I wonder, to have someone go on national radio and point out your many errors of grammar, spelling, fact and taste?

Fortunately for me, I was not slowly turned until crisp on a literary rotisserie. My book received wonderful reviews in the New Zealand Herald, Evening Post, Metro, North & South, Listener, Sunday Star-Times and Daily Telegraph. Only the Waikato Times, in what was still a very decent review, was less than gushing.

The Times’ slightly negative response brought home to me another hitherto unnoticed authorial trait: the great protective love we feel for our work and the unhappiness that strikes every fibre of our very being when our book is less than adored. In general I’ve found journalists to be less proprietorial about their writing.

Becoming aware of the relationship between authors and their books not only made me, a fellow author, a more sensitive and caring person, but it also brought about another “first” in my freelance career – I actually turned down a paying job! A glamorous and pleasurable one to boot.

I was thrilled when Heather Church, Kim Hill’s producer, asked me to review Peter Hawes’ latest book, Leaping With Unicorns. Then I read it. I returned the book, explaining that I didn’t think I should review it because I didn’t enjoy Hawes’ work. Its humour didn’t tickle my funnybone, and I was irritated rather than charmed by his constant word play.

“I don’t want to upset Mr Hawes,” I said. “I know how upset I’d be to hear someone slag off my book to Kim, and can’t inflict similar pain on another.”

“I’m not sure what to do,” said Ms Church. “No one’s ever sent a book back before.”

She encouraged me to review the book anyway, despite my great reluctance to do so. “An honest reviewer must tell the truth,” she said, adding, “Don’t back out on me now. I’ve got June all planned, and if you drop out it’ll throw my schedule out totally.”

In the end, integrity and sympathy intact, I told Kim and her listeners that, although I wasn’t too keen on Leapfrog, I was sure there were certain readers who would simply love it.

Being a sensitive new-age new-author type of guy, however, hasn’t lessened the competitive streak that comes with publication. Suddenly, it’s not enough to be published. You also want to sell more copies than Barbara Taylor Bradford and Jeffrey Archer combined. My biggest thrill was going into the Auckland Public Library, looking my file up on their computer, and discovering that the Auckland libraries bought 16 copies of Growing Up Gay. I now constantly check up on other local authors to see if the library buys as many copies of their latest. If I’ve outsold them (a rare event) I’m ecstatic for the next few days.

The only sad note in this whole happy affair is that Growing Up Gay has yet to appear on any bestseller list. The question everyone asks you, once your book is out, is “How well are you selling?” You have no idea. The publishers send you a statement every six or 12 months telling you the number of copies sold. I’d been told that trying to get any information about sales between statements is pretty difficult.

Peta Mathias, the ravishing Titian-haired author of Fete Accompli, told me she’d go into her publishers and try strangling them to see if she could squeeze out any information, to no avail.

My only consolation on the bestseller front was the recent publication of Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s The Rich, a book which seemed to be largely made up of quotes from other writers. Ollie Newland, the former high-flying property magnate, strongly upbraided Eldred-Grigg in his Herald review for having taken everyone else’s words – and not their best ones, either – and tossing them together for his own purposes.

In The Rich, Eldred-Grigg quotes extensively from several Metro writers, including me. He never asked permission, or even told us in advance, that he was using our work to flesh out his book. “Pretty shabby behaviour, not to ask us first,” said one Metro colleague.

Initially I thought little of the fact that Eldred-Grigg hadn’t contacted me before using my words in his book. However, after receiving a very polite letter from Bronwen Nicholson, publisher at Addison Wesley Longman, asking for permission for use an extract of my work in a new textbook and offering to pay for it, brought home to me how impolite Eldred-Grigg had been.

Still, looking on the bright side, “All’s well that end’s well.” I have the consolation that The Rich leapt straight into the bestseller list, so I feel that I at least made it, if only by proxy. There is a small corner of the bestseller list that is forever mine.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

In praise of: Stacy Gregg

Yesterday afternoon I took Miss Ten and Miss Twelve to Te Awamutu to see Stacy Gregg who was doing a book signing. They are big fans of her pony novels.

Miss Ten was mortified when she and her sister got to the front of queue and Stacy smiled at them, said, “Hello,” then noticed me standing to the side, squealed “Stephen!”, leaped to her feet and smothered me in hugs and kisses. I didn’t mind – this sort of thing doesn't happen often enough, if you ask me, especially in bookshops – but Miss Ten did. (In front of everybody! How gross! etc)

Stacy inscribed her latest novel, The Island of Lost Horses, “To [Miss Ten], whose dad gave me my start as a professional writer!” Which is true – it was in 1988 or 89, when I was deputy editor at Metro and commissioned pieces from her most months. (She talks briefly about those early days in this very good Viva interview last month, with kind words about me and James Allan, 
and very good advice for aspiring journalists/writers.) Stacy would have become successful anyway – it was blindingly obvious she would, because talent and work ethic – but it is very satisfying to have my children discover for themselves and become admirers of a writer I like a lot and helped a bit early on.

Just before we left, Stacy explained to the daughters that the way to persuade me to buy them a pony each is for them to ask me several times a day, every day. The drive back from Te Awamutu takes 20 minutes. Guess what we talked about. Thanks, Stacy.

So here is Te Awamutu’s Neil Finn with Crowded House, live in 1987, with “Mean to Me” from their debut album. All together now: 
She came all the way from America
She had a blind date with destiny
And the sound of Te Awamutu
Had a truly sacred ring