Saturday, February 28, 2009

Rain in the trees

‘I always have the feeling that nature—the air, leaves,
rain—sees and understands everything, and wants to
help—wants to help very much indeed, but cannot.’
—Andrei Sinyavsky, A Voice from the Chorus

‘I can’t help feeling that the trees want to tell us
something tonight,’ said Bessie suddenly. ‘I always
feel that they are whispering secrets to one another—
but tonight I feel that they want to tell them to us!’
—Enid Blyton, The Enchanted Wood

‘Nature has a language of which human language is
but a faint and distorting echo.’—Walter Benjamin

‘All our so-called consciousness is a more or less
fantastic commentary on an unknown text, one
which is perhaps unknowable but yet felt.’—Nietzsche

‘It is even possible that there exists between things
and ourselves a sort of sympathy or subliminal
communion which makes us experience the trials
and emotions of matter that has reached the limits
of its existence.’—Maeterlinck

The language of nature is God. The unknown text is
God. The subliminal communion is God.

Enid Blyton is God.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Once were madmen

Mad Men is one of the most impressive television series I
have ever seen. Certainly I can think of nothing better to
have come out of America. It deserves all the praise piled
on it. The scripts are outstanding, the casting faultless, the
acting superb. Above all, of course, it shows with painful
realism, and without abusing the advantage of hindsight,
what the 20th century was like in middle-class Western
society before the rise of feminism in the late 1960s. Not
that women have achieved full equality with men by any
means yet, but the sexism then was so blatant, so egregious
and all the more shocking—to us now—because so matter-
of-fact. It explains a great deal about the way we are now,
and how far we still have to go before the conventional male
sense of superiority is eradicated. Men should look at the
subject matter of this series not as an historic curiosity, a
photograph album of the past, but as a mirror in which, if
they have any self-honesty, they will see themselves and
their attitudes towards women reflected. We may not like
what we see; but then, the series is called Mad Men.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

If not now, when?

As if it wasn’t bad enough that politicians all over are
using the worldwide recession as an excuse not to push
ahead with green agendas—you know, wacky ideas like
building no new roads and making economies truly
sustainable—we now have US Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton soft-pedalling on human rights issues for the
same reason. Now’s not the time to press China on
issues like Tibet, she says; such matters can’t be allowed
to ‘interfere with the global economic crisis.’ Yes. Well,
it’s only silly old human rights after all. All those being
persecuted or held without trial in China will understand
perfectly that the needs of Wall St and global currency
speculators come before theirs. Get the money right first
and all else will follow: democracy, justice, equality of
opportunity—that’s how it goes, isn’t it?

Conspiracy theorists might almost be tempted to observe
how conveniently the financial crisis allows politicians to
put aside girly issues like human rights and climate
change while they get on with the real man’s work of
making more money go round. They have it both ways.
When there’s no great economic urgency, they put off the
hard ecological decisions, as most governments have
been doing for the past 40 years; and when there is great
economic urgency they put them off then, too. Neat.

Yet in my experience, if governments really want to do
something and drive it through and embed it in the system
for generations to come, they can, they will—and they do.
Think Rogernomics. The green agenda awaits, dare I say it,
its Roger Douglas or Margaret Thatcher—I mean, someone
with that kind of drive and determination. But nicer, of
course; much, much nicer.

In the meantime, new energy minister Gerry Brownlee calls
the Clark government’s energy strategy (90 percent of
electricity from renewable resources by 2025) idealistic and
ideologically driven, and commits National instead to the
overriding goal of maximizing economic growth. In the year
2009, that is bizarre, dangerous, sad and stupid all in one.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Nightmare on Groser St

In an ideal world, trade would be perfectly free, that is
to say, commodities would compete for buyers in an
open market on their own merits, and governments
would not interfere in order to promote one or another
product, or gain special advantage. That has never
happened in the world’s history, nor is it likely to, so
long as there are discrete states with borders and their
own national cultures. Every now and then, two nations,
or a group of nations, will set up a so-called free-trade
agreement and trumpet its virtues; but the trade is never
truly free—not even in the market sense, let alone the
moral one.

New Zealand set a bold example to the world by removing
virtually all import tariffs and export subsidies in the
1980s but, despite many exhortations from gallant little
Aotearoa, no other country has followed suit; and the
prospect of the idea catching on is even more remote, now
that economic recession is setting in all around the world.
Quite naturally, in such circumstances, countries seek to
look after their own even more than they usually do: the
general idea is to save your own industries if you can,
protect your own workers’ jobs. ‘This,’ according to New
Zealand’s new trade minister, Tim Groser, ‘is a very
dangerous situation.’

Groser regards any form of protectionism as the devil’s
work; export subsidies, to him, are the ‘most reviled trade
instrument’ Fighting protectionism, he told Brian Fallow
of the New Zealand Herald, is like being in the front lines
of trench warfare. Fallow himself calls the EU’s move to
reinstate dairy subsidies ‘another menacing sign of the
times’. And fellow Herald columnist Fran O’Sullivan goes
all Groserly too with these heartfelt words: ‘Those nations,
like New Zealand, which have gone through the hard yards
of making their agricultural sectors efficient, deserve to be
able to harvest the competitive advantages they have

The only rational response to this remarkable statement is:
‘Diddums!’ It’s a hard old world, Fran: we don’t ‘deserve’ to
harvest anything. We have to keep earning everything we
get. But my point in quoting alarmist comments by Groser,
Fallow and O’Sullivan (and indeed Federated Farmers
president Don Nicolson, who reckons protectionism and
subsidies 'represent commerce's version of crack cocaine')
is to say, basically, ‘Settle down, guys. Stop demonizing
protectionism as if it were tantamount to child molestation
or drug addiction. Take a deep breath, and adapt or die.'
And don’t tell me that New Zealand is subsidy-free: the
entire economy is predicated on capital being subsidized at
the expense of labour.

Monday, February 23, 2009


Sleep won’t come. And won’t come. It’s like this: you’ve
opened the door to it, as to an expected guest, and it’s
standing there on the doorstep looking straight at you;
but it just won’t come in. You’ve stood aside to let it
through, you’ve invited it into the house of
consciousness—that shack—but it won’t take the one
step over the threshold necessary to bless you with
oblivion. You wind up eyeballing each other for the
longest time. You actually get to know sleep pretty well
that way: all those creases around its eyes, for instance,
and the implacable smile. You can even guess (like
you’ve got all night to speculate) what it’s thinking. It’s
thinking…about…something else entirely.

4am. Sleep is a foreign country; they do things differently
there. The bastards.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

I'm with him

So Joaquin Phoenix is being mocked for a ‘shambolic’
appearance on David Letterman’s show; the media are
already calling him a ‘celebrity train-wreck’ and treating
him as some sort of bizarre eccentric because he seemed
profoundly disinterested in Letterman’s questions, gave
monosyllabic answers and—quelle horreur!—stuck gum
to the host’s desk. Phoenix has apparently given up the
movies for a career in hip-hop, hence the beard and dark
glasses he currently affects. My sympathies are entirely
with him. In fact, I suspect he knows exactly what he’s
doing. Film stars are expected to spend their lives
behaving like tame poodles for TV shows and magazines,
saying the same things over and over again for the sake
of people who really don't give a fuck about them; it's
great to see someone not giving a fuck in return. Go, Jo.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Trot off

Influenced deeply by my father's love of betting on
horses, I have always had a soft spot for horse-racing
and still run an eye over the racing results in the paper
every day, even though I rarely bet and always lose
when I do. I've certainly been aware of the racing
industry's struggle to survive in recent times, and
when I do go to the races I'm always shocked by how
few runners there are in each field. Maybe the sport
will eventually die out, but I hope not. What I do find
hard to handle, though, is the trend towards meetings
that combine both galloping and trotting races. I can
see why smaller clubs, desperate to attract patronage,
should think this a good idea; but it's tantamount to
playing jazz at a country music festival or offering
beer at a wine-tasting. To those of us who like the
gallops, that sulky stuff has zilch appeal. Opposable
Thumb says: jockeys are jockeys, drivers are drivers,
and never the twain should meet.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Reading Dracula again, as one does in times of fiscal
stress, I discover that, beside his many other talents,
the Count was a horse-whisperer of no mean ability.
I'm not sure many people know that. Early on in the
book, as the hapless Jonathan Harker is borne
through the Carpathian mountains to the Count's
castle, the howling of wolves in the night causes the
carriage horses to rear in fright. Stepping down,
Harker writes in his journal, the black-hatted driver
(whom we soon know to be Dracula himself) 'petted
and soothed them, and whispered something in their
ears...with extraordinary effect, for under his caresses
they became quite manageable again.' Well done,
that man. Much of the action of the book actually
takes place not in Transylvania but the Yorkshire
seaside town of Whitby; in that regard, I draw New
Zealanders' attention to the singular fact that the two
most celebrated historical figures in Whitby to this day
are Dracula and Captain Cook.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fun times

Commenting on my last blog, Old Geezer writes:

You must have been at a different Athletic Park
from me. Crowds in the 50s, 60s and 70s were
quite capable of singing, drinking, joking,
shouting and lobbing pies at the ref... The
difference is that rugby was always a winter
game and the southerly roared through Athletic
Park in winter, whereas the newfangled sevens
are held in summer, and costumes are possible.
Wellington was never as grim as journos like to

Fair point, OG. I did tarnish the dahlia somewhat,
purely for the sake of figurative contrast, you
understand. Kiwis did have fun in their own
cramped way in those days...but it was pretty blokey
stuff all the same. The great thing about the sevens
is the way they've brought women back to watch
rugby, not least, I suspect, because there's more
running than rucking, more ballet than biffo in this
version of the game.

Still, when I read something like this...

I meandered down the street, looking for
something to eat. Everything was shut.
Lambton Quay on this weekday winter
evening was a windy desolation; the only
sign of life was a sheet of the Evening Post
flying along in the icy southerly. does remind me of what Wellington used to
be like 40-50 years ago. That's a passage from
Philip Temple's about-to-be-published memoir
Chance Is a Fine Thing, describing Wellington in
1957. Sound familiar, anyone?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Don't stop the carnival

All day long, a bizarre cavalcade of strangely dressed
people has passed my window, making their way down
the Aro Valley and on into the city, bound for the
rugby sevens tournament in Wellington’s stadium.
Some are dressed as cavemen, some appear to be
wearing only fig-leaves, others have outfitted
themselves in cardboard boxes. All are in groups with
themed apparel ranging from the egregious to the
outrageous; many clutch in their hands the cans of
refreshment distinctive to their kind. A carnival mood
prevails. The circus, you might say, is in town.

The original sevens tournaments didn’t inspire this
sort of carry-on—what has happened over the past few
years to bring out such a strain of exhibitionism in
Young People Today? It suggests that we Kiwis are not
the stodgy plodders that some say we are; that inside
each of us beats the heart of a jester who needs only the
safety of crowds to start capering in cap and bells and
behaving madly. Thank God for it, I say. It calls to mind
the medieval European custom of having one day in the
year when the usual social order was mocked and
caricatured, and the Lord of Misrule or the Abbot of
Unreason presided over various forms of bacchanalia.
This ancient impulse, dormant in New Zealand breasts
for far too long, has been released by the Spirit of the

One needs to think only of the old Athletic Park days,
when grim-faced legions in coats and sou’westers
sullenly endured the on-field savagery for 40 minutes
before grimly queueing for hot dogs and then—those that
hadn’t succumbed to hypothermia by this point—grimly
enduring another 40 minutes with only the occasional
grunt to signify approbation or restlessness—one needs,
I say, to only think of such days to feel that this sentence
has gone on for far too long, and if there was a point to
it, alas, I've forgotten. Go the sevens.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

What if?

Now here’s a tough one. We see on the news the dreadful
stories of young men who could kill a three-year-old child
by the most casually brutal treatment, and a 15-year-old
who could batter a girl, a stranger, a backpacking tourist, to
death with a baseball bat. It sickens you to the core. Do you:

(a) join the chorus of lock-'em-up let's-get-tough law-and-
order, comfortable with identifying these young men as
rotten apples in society’s barrel, guys who’re just bad to the
bone and need to be punished accordingly; or

(b) give some thought to the kind of society that produces
such crimes, in the same way that a society might produce
graduate students or steel flanges, and think about how that
can be changed. This is no ‘We are all guilty’ liberal hand-
wringing but a considered attempt to make connections
between the apparently good intentions of the majority and
and the bad stuff that happens to the minority. Could it be,
could we dare to think, that the values we hold dear have
some part to play in the incidence of child abuse, drug use
and violent crime?

Surely not, I hear you exclaim: most of us abide by
standards of decency far removed from the lives led by
child abusers and baseball-bat killers. But what if these
terrible crimes occur not despite society's approved
standards (which include, indeed exalt, the pursuit of
individual gain and the accumulation of wealth and power)
but because of them? Discuss quietly among yourselves.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


There is still the impression, blogs Colin Espiner, that
Australia is taking the economic crisis a little more
seriously than we are. Actually, Colin, the entire rest
of the world is taking it more seriously than we are.
But that's what you get, I guess, when you put a
money-changer in charge of the temple. There's
already ample evidence that John Key and colleagues,
with the possible exception of Bill English and Nick
Smith, don't actually get government; they don't do
government; it's just something you have, like a spare
car in the garage that you sometimes take out for a spin,
or a garden that might need attention now and then.
'Think I'll do a spot of governing today, darling; call
the Uridashis and tell them we'll be over later.'

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Damn thing

Andreas Whittam Smith, writing in the British newspaper
the Independent (of which he was the founding editor),
commends to us the words of Franklin D Roosevelt,
uttered in 1933 after he’d been sworn in as US President.
Faced with the worst economic depression anyone had
ever known, Roosevelt condemned those he called the
money-changers, saying, 'Stripped of the lure of profit by
which to induce our people to follow their false leadership,
they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for
restored confidence. They know only the rules of a
generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when
there is no vision the people perish.' Boy, does that sound
familiar. FDR continued: 'The money changers have fled
from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We
may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The
measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we
apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.'

Well, thanks, Frank. You were right on the button there.
As Whittam Smith adds, 'Today many would say "Amen"
to that.' And Roosevelt’s New Deal certainly got the US
economy back on its feet in the 1930s (though what really
launched it into the stratosphere for the next 50 years was
the Second World War). There’s just one problem. The
money-changers never went away. Heedless, it seems, of
the President's words, they were soon back in their high
seats at Casino Globale, with consequences we have seen
all too plainly in recent years. No ‘ancient truths’ were ever
restored to the temple.

Now we have Barack Obama using rhetoric similar to
Roosevelt's in the face of the worst depression since the
1930s and, you can bet, it’ll have the same effect: lots of
fine talk in the short term about fairness and decency, some
ameliorative measures, restoration of something
resembling prosperity—enough anyway to pacify people’s
fears—and then business as usual among the financiers and
currency speculators.

Amid all the consultations and exhortations, we're still
waiting for even one Western leader to announce that tough
new regulations will be introduced to control the money
markets and bring them to heel. Until that happens (and
that's the least of what needs to be done), all the
Rooseveltian rhetoric in the world doesn't mean a damn

Monday, February 2, 2009

Foggy days

I have been reading again, as one does in times of
economic insecurity, the stories of Sherlock Holmes
and Dr Watson. From these immortal tales of foggy
days in London town and dark doings in country
houses one obtains a completely unfounded but
nonetheless immensely comforting sense of life as
something stable and verifiable, as predictable and
reliable as the trains timetabled in Bradshaw. What
though the plots seem ever more creaky, each time
we come to them? For ‘The Speckled Band’ one can
forgives Conan Doyle every absurd deduction and
improbable supposition. This time round, reading
The Adventures for the fifth or sixth time, I couldn’t
help but notice the frequency with which Sir Arthur
referred to ‘a woman’s instinct’ or sometimes 'a
woman's quick instinct'—an elusive substance that
even Holmes himself lacked, but one that clearly set
the female of the species apart, in those late
Victorian days. Women, it seems, lacked the power
to reason as men did; logic was beyond them; but,
besides the supreme qualities of being decorative,
submissive and devoted to the males in their lives,
they did have this instinct thing going for them. By
some weird magic, incredible as it may seem, they
knew stuff before men did! I may be wrong but I
think this was Conan Doyle’s way of crediting them
with some intelligence. Thus the dawn of feminism
at 221b Baker St.