Thursday, October 17, 2019

Asking for food

There is plenty of evidence of the way the business mentality has permeated every level of society since the recrudescence of market liberalism 35 years ago. You only need to think of how citizens in need of help from their government, their state, their country, are now routinely described as customers, clients or consumers. Business-speak has infiltrated ordinary language in many other ways, not least through the tendency to define everything in terms of price or market value, or of increase and decrease, as if everything from the sale of cabbages to complex emotional conditions could be ascribed a numerical rating. But it can be more subtle than that. Every time I hear of a rise in ‘demand’ for food parcels from places like city missions I wonder if those using the term realize the extent to which even something like hungry people’s need for food has been expressed as if it were a market transaction.

Asking for food is demeaning and time consuming and so should be viewed as an act of last resort.’ That’s Susan St John in a recent Newsroom post, and she’s absolutely right. If you’re a well-fed comfortable middle-class person reading this, imagine having to go and ask for food from a city mission and it shouldn’t be hard to grasp how deeply humiliating it might feel; it is, as Susan says, something you would only do as a last resort. In effect, it’s a public admission of private failure, even if the failure is not your fault. Yet her comment follows a sentence in which she says, I am sure unwittingly, that food banks around the country ‘report higher demand.’ The image conveyed, as it is in a hundred news reports using the same phrase, is of people stepping up decisively and demanding, insisting as of right, that food be handed over to them; the sense is of some pressure being applied, as if the citadels of the well-off were being stormed by the ungrateful masses. The word of course comes from the concept of ‘supply and demand,’ but how grotesque that it should be applied to this kind of situation. I have never queued for food at a foodbank or city mission but I cannot believe that the people doing so are demanding parcels; asking, yes, hoping, waiting, even expecting, but not demanding.

The last thing I want to do is criticize Susan St John, who has done far more for this country than I ever have; I just cite the example to show how deeply market-speak has penetrated into everyday discourse, even when, if you stop to think about it, its use in that context is so inappropriate as to be obscene. In a very narrow sense you might argue that food parcels are supplied as a result of ‘demand’ but if we free our minds from the stifling grip of such thinking, we might allow ourselves to believe that some things can be given and received out of nothing more natural or unquantifiable than human kindness and human need.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Real thing

I am a hopeless political prophet, and you can just about bet that with any prediction I make, the opposite will come true; nor am I familiar with all the new faces in Parliament. But having just watched Kiritapu Allen's maiden speech in the House, I would venture to say that one day she will be a great leader, probably of the Labour Party, perhaps of Aotearoa.
You know the real thing when you see it.

Monday, July 10, 2017

In the street where you live

In her ‘erotic thriller’ In the Cut, published in 1995, Susanna Moore has her heroine (a New York creative writing teacher fascinated by shifts in language) observe that people used to say (for example) ‘I live in Smith St’ and now they say ‘I live on Smith St’; and that a friend from the Midwest pronounces route as rout, which suggests that route pronounced root was still commonplace even in New York as late as the 1990s. Now all one hears out of America is route rhyming with out; and the usage has begun to take hold in New Zealand too, influenced no doubt by the use of router in the wireless sense. No one, even in New Zealand, would pronounce it rooter. And I can’t help but notice that the on usage regarding streets is taking over here too.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Hold the ladder steady

Who creates? Who decides? For convenience’s sake we attribute work to individuals (‘It needs but a man and and a candle to make a play,’ said Arthur Miller) but no one ever acts completely alone. ‘Writing about the Giotto frescoes in the Scrovegni chapel just outside Padua,' says Richard Hoggart with patent scorn in The Way We Live Now, 'one author suggests that the credit for these masterpieces…should be shared between the artist, his assistants and the man who held the ladder.’ 

On the other hand, here's William McCahon, looking back in 2002 on the years since his father’s death in 1987: ‘We were never expected to have a voice or even to be seen as having a valid claim to McCahon as intellectual property. But increasingly, I think we, the family, have the pre-emptive claim because we in a sense were sacrificed to this work and are part-authors of it.’

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Too late

Harold Bloom speaks of ‘aftering’—the gnawing thought that we have always, somehow, arrived after the event. The artist is there for the event all right; but the memory of it flies even as he writes it down or tries to make art out of it. In that sense, as T S Eliot says, every poem is an epitaph; not the living message but the words etched on the gravestone of whatever passed, and passed on. 

Some of our gravestones are very beautiful.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Even I

Genesis, chapter 6, verse 17: having given Noah extraordinarily explicit instructions about how to build an ark, God (in the King James version) says ‘behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth.’  

Even I? With this burst of false modesty, is God implying that the human beings he created might have doubted his powers? It sounds like a sort of ‘So you thought I couldn’t do it, eh? Well, I’ll show you what I’m capable of’ remark. Or is he suggesting that there is some greater power whom he, though junior, can easily match? Did he, in fact, have someone above him whom he worshipped and longed to emulate? Someone who’d created him, as he created us? 

Who, in short, was God’s God?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


Growing up in the 1950s, I remember how my mother, coming home from somewhere where she’d been out, would go into the bedroom and get unchanged. That phrase has fallen out of use now but if you’d changed to go out, then it made sense to say that, when you came in again, you got unchanged. It seems to me now a metaphor for the times. The default was ‘unchanged.’ That was the norm then.