Wednesday, December 31, 2008

And counting

In Buddhist tradition—my advisers tell me—at the year’s
turn it is traditional for temple bells to peal 108 times;
with each peal people are supposed to let go of their
negative feelings, one by one, till all are gone and the
new year can be begun afresh.

Your assignment today is to list the 108 negative feelings.
Have fun, and a happy new year.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Recycled lint

Great to see an interview with Leonard Cohen in the
latest Listener: that’s not an easy get. The interview is
credited to Clive Simmons, a name not known to me,
though Google tells me he’s a ‘controversial’
Australian journalist. It seems that Simmons has sold
the same article elsewhere in the world, which is fair
enough, but my particular interest lies in its
penultimate paragraph, which, quoting Cohen, reads:

“We are very large beings wheeling through
existence,” he says, “and we aren’t even
shaped the way we appear. You catch the
lint of another’s being on your wheel, and
they do the same. You get tangled up
inextricably, and although we don’t often
know what to do with it, love is the only
redeeming possibility for human beings.”

Hm. The interview, by its own account, was done at the
Glastonbury Festival in Britain in June, and it’s mostly
Cohen looking back over his life and music at 74. The
above paragraph follows reference to his former
manager (and lover) Kelly Lynch, who allegedly
swindled Cohen out of $16 million; and the paragraph
is preceded by the words ‘Surprisingly, though, he is not
bitter about her perfidy,’ so a reader would reasonably
conclude—indeed, could do no other than conclude—
that Cohen’s remarks (‘We are very large beings etc’)
were made during the Glastonbury interview six
months ago.

Not so—not unless Cohen has a freakish ability to repeat
virtually word for word something he said 30 years ago. I
have here a clipping from a Rolling Stone interview with
Leonard Cohen under the publication date of January 26,
1978. Part of it goes:

We are very large beings wheeling through
existence, who aren’t even shaped the way
we appear. You catch the lint of another’s
being on your wheel. And she does the same,
and you get tangled up inextricably.

Now I don’t have the part of that article showing the
writer's name. It might well have been Simmons; he says
in the Listener that he has interviewed Cohen twice before.
If it’s not, then he’s in big trouble. But even if it is him both
times, he’s guilty of uplifting some words from a 1978
interview and transplanting them into a 2008 interview as
if they’d been said then. Which is misrepresentation in my

I hope I'm wrong; but I fear I'm not. And the trouble with
just a few lines or even one fact in an article being wrong
or false, is that you then start to suspect the veracity of the
rest. Come in, Clive, and reassure us.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Backing into 2009

In 1990 the incoming National government wasted no time
in getting rid of laws like the Pay Equity Act and the Labour
Relations Act. Within a year or so it rolled back most of the
late Labour government’s progressive social legislation.
Now, in 2008, the incoming National government has also
wasted no time in repealing a different set of laws. This
time they’re rolling back the green agenda. Or, to put it
another way, they’re giving the fingers to global warming,
resource depletion and all that namby-pamby nonsense
about saving the planet.

It is perfectly valid, actually, to ask what planet John Key
and his colleagues are on, because all the evidence so far is
that it’s not Planet Earth. They're talking up roading at the
expense of rail. They've ridiculed out of existence a more
(literally) enlightened approach to light-bulb use. They’ve
dispensed with the previous government’s requirement,
nugatory as it was, for petrol to contain at least a splash of
biofuel. They're allowing again the building of coal- and gas-
fired power stations. They've put the Emissions Trading
Scheme on ice.

Of course the argument is that we’re in the middle of an
economic crisis (how convenient) and that people’s incomes
and immediate fiscal welfare must come first. Fireman, save
that job! Can they not get it through their skulls that, if not
confronted now, the much more significant eco-crisis we’re
in will cost everyone far much more in the long run?
Goodness knows, the Clark government was scarcely an
environmental role model, but it looks positively deep
green compared with the Tories' business-friendly blue.

My heart sinks when I hear John Key boast that economic
growth is his 'No 1, No 2 and No 3 priority'. The Speech
from the Throne, which outlined the new government's
program was, as Rod Oram said in his Sunday Star-Times
column, a speech for 'a time and conditions that no longer
exist.' Brilliant. New Zealand has just elected a government
facing backwards. So we blunder into 2009, not greenly, as
it were, but bluely and Brownlee.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Shivering again

Hearing music by Fauré on the radio I’m irresistibly and
painfully reminded of the time when I sat in a cold
Invercargill church on a Sunday afternoon many years ago
and listened to a live performance of Fauré’s Requiem
while in a state of what can only be described as sin. The
music, so sacred, so holy, went through me like a knife. It
spoke of a state of moral being from which I had all too
grossly fallen. Oh, and I was shivering again. Music rebukes
us like that, cuts into the gut, tears up time and shreds it in
your face. I remember once a few years ago, out of the blue,
hearing a song I’d completely and utterly forgotten from my
youth, ‘Safe in My Garden’ by the Mamas and the Papas, and
bursting into tears, because it took me straight back to 1968
and the absurd agony of being young and alive and romantic
in that year. It still moves me, that extraordinarily prescient
song by John Phillips that signalled, even in its own time,
the necessary death of youthful idealism. Only, I didn’t see
it then. He did.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Long ago and Fleur away

Came across that early poem 'Ngauranga Gorge Hill' by
Fleur Adcock the other day, the one in which she recalls
the gorge road in the days before the motorway was
built, and what a 'glorious and terrible' thing it was
to freewheel down it on your bike. Imagine doing that
today! No, don't.

Heart in my pedals, down I would roar
towards the sea; I’d go straight into it
if I didn’t brake.

That sent me back to Big Weather, the anthology of
Wellington poems published in 2000 by Mallinson
Rendel and still selling well, I read recently. To my
surprise, 'Ngauranga Gorge Hill' is not in it. I guess
it's not all that good a poem; it may also have
disqualified itself from what is essentially a celebratory
anthology by concluding, of Wellington, 'I think it was
a barren place.' Dunno. But the image of young Fleur
hurtling headlong down the old gorge road lingers.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

They don't mingle like that any more

It wasn’t till I researched 1968 for my book on Helen
Clark that I remembered what a cutting-edge figure the
Duke of Edinburgh was back then. We all know that
those were the high hippie days of free love and free
spirits but I’d forgotten about free mingling, at which
the Duke excelled. When he visited Auckland in 1968
the New Zealand Herald led the paper with this huge
front-page headline: DUKE MINGLES FREELY WITH
. Awesome. And
when he landed at Auckland airport, in a twin-engine
Andover of the Queen’s Flight, the Herald was right
there, in the finest journalistic tradition of eyewitness
reportage: ‘As the aircraft taxied to a halt by the
welcoming party the Duke could be seen at the controls
wearing dark glasses and an earphone headset.
Wearing a single-breasted brown suit, he stepped
briskly from the aircraft into the bright sunlight to be
welcomed by the Prime Minister, Mr Holyoake.’

Brown, brisk, bright. Sigh. There was poetry in the press
in those days. It is not all, I fear, that has changed for
the better.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Biggles works it out


—news item

Air Sergeant Biggles was worried. He took a cigarette
and tapped it thoughtfully on the table. ‘Look here,
Ginger,’ he said. ‘Noticed anything strange about Algae

Ginger Hebblethwaite stretched his long limbs and smiled

‘Can’t say I have, old chap. What’s the problem?’

‘No problem,’ muttered Biggles reflectively. ‘It’s just
that he doesn’t quite seem himself these days.’

Ginger cocked an eyebrow. ‘Come to think of it,’ he
said, ‘the fellow does look a bit green about the gills.’

‘Precisely,’ responded Biggles, flicking ash into Ginger's
lap. ‘I’m wondering if he’s up to the next op. It could be
dicey work.’

‘You may be right,’ mused Ginger. ‘But—

The door flew open and there was Algae, still with that
merry gleam in his eye that the Hun had learned to fear,
still with the same rakish tilt to his moustache, but

‘I say, you chaps—‘ he began, then faltered. Some organic
change was taking place in him. He seemed to be
dissolving. Biggles shot a sharp look at Ginger. Both men
leapt to their feet, but too late. Suddenly, all that
remained of Algae was a puddle of green slime.

‘This is no time for party tricks!’ rapped Ginger, but
Biggles silenced him with a stern gesture.

'No, wait!' he ejaculated. 'Waste not, want not! There
could be a use for Algae yet. If we could just harness the
potential energy here...'

Biggles' mind was working fast. Already, in his
imagination, the Bigglesworth Bioflow Corporation was
becoming a reality. Ginger looked at Biggles admiringly.
He had to hand it to him. And he did. It was very slimy,
though, and he washed his hands thoroughly afterwards.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Silver beet among the gold

My father in the war: a volunteer, he sailed for England
as a 22nd Battalion warrant officer shortly after his
wedding on St Patrick's Day, 1940. The battalion spent
some months stationed in Kent before being sent to
Greece to stem the advancing German tide. That didn't
last long. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner,
mostly in the NCO camp (Stalag 383) at Hohenfels,
Bavaria. He hardly talked about the war at all to us
children. All the evidence we have indicates that it
changed him for the worse. The difference between his
loving letters to my mother early in the war, and the
black-tempered father we knew, testifies to that.

A rare reference to the war: once, at lunchtime, when I
was complaining about having to eat silver beet (a
perfectly reasonable objection, one might think), he
rounded on me and roared out something to the effect
that, in prison camp, they’d have been glad just to
scrabble for stalks from the dirt and I’d better eat up and
be thankful for what I had.

I think Keith Ovenden may have it right when, in his
biography of Dan Davin, describing the terrible things
men experienced in war, the blood and the gore and the
pain, he goes on to say:

This, surely, was the true terror of war, and it could
only be broached as a topic of domestic conversation,
if at all, by reformulation into something else. From
this sprang the habit of camouflaging ugly truths that,
even if expressed, were otherwise unlikely to be
understood...their presence, whether distorted in the
recollection, or suppressed into tormented silence,
was corrosive. They ate away at a soldier’s sense of
moral connection with others, promoting a degree of
alienation that is easy to underestimate.

The American poet Louis Simpson has also written: 'To a
foot-soldier, war is almost entirely physical. That is why
some men, when they think about war, fall silent.
Language seems to falsify physical life and to betray those
who have experienced it absolutely—the dead.'

Davin himself, in a very good short story called 'Not
Substantial Things,' poignantly describes the moment when
when he realized that the war was going to end and that he
and his mates would live on:

The fact was that chaps like me had got older without
noticing it. We’d never give anything again what we’d
given the Div. We’d never bring the same energy to
anything that we’d brought to things like the
break-through at Minqar Qaim or the assault on
Cassino. And we’d never be able to make friends again
the same way or drink and laugh and die the same way.
We’d used up what we had and we’d spend the rest of
our lives looking over our shoulders.

And not at their wives and children.

Tellingly, Davin adds this observation: once the
excitement of war was gone, 'A man’d soon have to start up
again all the old fights within himself that used to go on in
the days when there was no danger to his skin.'

Denis Glover, coming home from the war, sank into gloom
at the first sight of New Zealand from the ship. It was like
returning to jail, he said.

Michael Cunningham in The Hours on how it was after the
war: 'So many of these men are not quite what they were
(no one likes to talk about it); so many women live
uncomplainingly with the quirks and silences, the fits of
depression, the drinking.'

What did my father do immediately after the war? It seems
that, like many New Zealand soldiers, he spent several
months in England waiting to be shipped back home. There
is some suggestion that he spent at least part of that time in
hospital. He returned to New Zealand in July or August
1945 and, before long, my mother conceived me. During the
war I was inconceivable.

All day long he was fighting for you,
And he didn’t even know your name.

—Phil Collins song lyric

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Leader of the pack

Helen Clark may not have been everybody’s cup of tea but
she was always ahead of the pack.
—Reg Dempster, Albany; letter to editor,
NZ Herald 4.12.08

There we have it, I think; as astute and succinct a summing
up of Clark’s political ascendancy as you could wish for.
Thanks, Reg, whoever you are. A year into researching my
biography of Clark (to be published by Penguin next
August) I retain my original impulse, which was the wish to
honour a remarkable woman whose accomplishments
deserve to be recorded—and analysed. Forgive me the trite
observation, but I am not sure we shall see her like again in
a hurry. Already one observes a mediocritization of politics
under John Key and National; a narrowness, a pinched
quality. Clark has been an extraordinary leader in more
ways than one, and I hope to reflect that in my book. Which
isn't to say it'll be a whitewash or a hagiography; that would
be to dishonour her. It was strange to see her not on the
front bench on TV at the opening of Parliament yesterday;
the sooner she ups and goes to Geneva or New York or
whatever illustrious global posting awaits her, the better,
because she is too big for this Parliament and even this
country now.

Speaking of packs, Clark was once asked in a music quiz,
'If you absolutely had to walk on stage to a classic rock tune,
what would it be?’ She replied: ‘Leader of the Pack.’

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Advice for living (a selection)

Never make friends with your hairdresser.
If in doubt, form a chain of buckets.
Stand well clear of the doors.
Relicense your karma by July 1.
Change leaders at regular intervals.
Work in the dark.
Fail better.
Speak the word only.
To thine own selves be true.
Wear odd socks on alternate Wednesdays.
Look back harder.
Habituate yourself to the vast.
Adopt a measured tone.
Hear yourself without sympathy.
Distrust thoughts thought while travelling.
Do keep up.
Never have enough: enough is always too much.

And remember, even the wise know more than you do.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The sun also sucks

I have been trying, and I mean that most sincerely, to read
some old literary classics; but have had to give up on both
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway and The Secret
Agent by Joseph Conrad. In a word, they are too mannered;
too, not to put too fine a point on it, literary. Having been
bookish from an alarmingly early age I never thought I’d
find myself saying this, but fiction doesn’t cut it for me like
it used to. And, as these examples show, I don’t mean just
the new stuff coming out; the classics can weary me too.
The inevitable conclusion is that, as one gets older (I am 62)
one has less patience with these artificial worlds created for
us by novelists. They have to be bloody good to get us past
the first few pages, otherwise you think, 'Why bother? Why
enter this elaborately constructed imaginary place at all,
while time ticks on?' (Possibly one is haunted, whether one
knows it or not, by the memory of all the bad fiction you’ve
slogged your way through in earlier years.)

Having said all that, I wouldn’t like to be without the
satisfaction that a really good novel can bring. As blogged
here, this year I’ve greatly enjoyed Sea of Poppies by
Amitav Ghosh and The Blue by Mary McCallum; Kate
Grenville’s The Lieutenant is rich and absorbing too. And as
for classics, I read The Great Gatsby again, for the fourth
time in my life, and still found it the closest thing to a
perfect book I know. So all is not lost. Maybe I’ve just been
exposed to a fraction too much fiction.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Fish for dinner

From The Forest of Fear, a book I read as a boy about
the tropical forests of South America, this single image
remains: a horse halfway across a piranha-infested river,
rearing up in terror, the flesh already stripped to the bone,
the original fast food.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Seen the Peters-beaters, anyone?

So, where are the Peters-beaters now? Memory can play
tricks, of course, but I could have sworn from the intensive
media coverage for most of the past year that the issues
raised by the manner in which New Zealand First was
funded, and by the extent of Winston Peters's knowledge
of it, were of major significance for our democracy. Even
after Peters was cleared of just about every allegation made
against him, the Dominion Post was still insisting that
serious questions remain unanswered. Seems nobody cares
about that now. Since the election, and NZ First's demise,
not a squeak from the journalists who pursued Peters so
relentlessly for months on end and threw everything,
including the Kitchin sink, at him. Strange. It's scarcely
credible that this sudden silence has anything to do with
Peters being voted out of Parliament, and therefore no
longer being a threat to the electoral chances of the
National Party, so what are we to assume? Guess I just
haven't thought about it hard enough. Must put my
thinking cap on again.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Spider-Man speaks

In her Health column in the latest Listener, a magazine
with which I have had some slight association, Linley
Boniface cites a 2004 report in the New Zealand
Medical Journal thus:

Widespread public concern about white-tailed
spiders in New Zealand appears to have started
in 1991, when Denis Welch, political writer for
the widely read NZ Listener, was unable to
produce his regular column because of an
alleged white-tailed spider bite.

Enough already with the "alleged." I was bitten all right,
and the spider must have died in the biting, because we
found its corpse later and had it identified by an
arachnologist from the National Museum as a lampona
or Australian white-tailed. It happened at home on a
Saturday afternoon, but it was not till I'd gone in to
Parliament for a Jim Bolger press conference and was
waiting on the ninth floor of the Beehive that I felt my
elbow starting to throb. By the time I was driving home
it had got so painful that I diverted to the hospital and
got myself dosed with anti-histamines at a&e. Even so,
I was flattened for four days, feeling very ill all over, not
just in the elbow, which swelled to the size of a golf ball.
So be on your guard, children, for the beastly lampona:
you'll know it by its long narrow body, the pale stripe
across its back and its slow way of moving over a wall.
Once bitten, twice shy.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Hands down

I’m glad to see someone—Playmarket director Mark Amery
in a letter to the Listener—reminding us that the dramatic
potential exploited by Anthony McCarten in his movie
Show of Hands was first perceived not by him, as articles
about the film imply, but by Deborah Tucker and Stephen
Bain nearly 15 years ago. Inspired by a Lower Hutt car-yard
competition, in which whoever kept their hand longest on a
Honda City Turbo won it, these two talented thesps
produced the play City of Hands, which ran at Bats Theatre
in 1994 and was described by the Listener’s Wellington
theatre critic at the time, some rooster called Welch, as
having been done “stunningly well.” I’ve read several
interviews with McCarten about the genesis of his film, and
in only one of them does he even glancingly refer to this
production. Bad form, Anthony. You’re a good writer
yourself, and, on the evidence of Show of Hands, a skilled
film director, but credit where credit’s due. Ironically,
towards the end of the film I noticed that fine actress Dra
McKay as a crowd extra; she was the star of the original
play. Show of Hands, by the way, though beautifully and
even lovingly made, ultimately fails as a film because
McCarten loads it with too much moral freight. The point
of the original, and the reason it succeeded so well, was
that the competition brought low-income earners together
in a weird kind of solidarity at a time when benefits were
being slashed and times were tough. It was an economic
parable—not a love story, or at least not the kind McCarten
tries to make it. Five out of 10.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Cold water

As for about the 17,00th time in my life I filled the kettle
this morning in order to make a pot of tea, I was
suddenly troubled by this thought: What if my lifelong
practice of filling the kettle with cold water, as
instructed by my mother when I was still on the breast,
was not in fact a wise and sensible thing to do, as my
mother firmly believed, on the grounds that the
cold-water tap was less likely to have germs in it, but the
consequence of both her and I having been sucked in by
a cunningly disseminated myth, put about by the electric
power companies of the day as part of a master-plan to
ensure that, with kettles taking longer to boil, more
power would be used and company profits would thus be
all the greater? On such flimsy and deceptive edifices the
habits of a lifetime may well be built. Musing on the
follies of the ages, I drank my tea in a more reflective
spirit than usual.