Tuesday, June 30, 2009

W Geology

A couple of useful comments posted on my Austerlitz blog.
Giovanni takes issue with my saying that in this book W G
Sebald wants us to understand one thing above all: that the
entire human race, in a sense, died in the Holocaust
between 1933 and 1945. Giovanni says he tends to recoil

when Europeans or descendants of Europeans
make the Holocaust humanity's crime, as if the
Chinese or the Indians or the Maori had
anything whatsoever to do with it and with the
logic that produced it...

I see how it was people who did it, so it did
redefine what being a person can mean. But
making it a cosmic crime as opposed to a
historically and culturally specific event can
actually impair its understanding.

It’s a fair point, and it leads directly to asking yourself if
the German people were uniquely iniquitous in human
history at that time or if no man is an island etc. I don’t
necessarily disagree with Giovanni—I was just trying to
represent the author’s position—but it seems to me that
Sebald’s saying or suggesting that most of us on this
planet have yet to come fully to terms with what these
particular members of our species did 70 years ago; that
none of us can go forward from there until all of us have
grasped it; and that his lifework was to keep reminding us
of it.

Tim Upperton cites Lavinia Greenlaw’s remark that Sebald
displayed a 'connoisseurial approach towards the idea of
ruin' that she finds disturbing, and says he can see exactly
what she means. So can I. Reading a Sebald book is like
spending the day in an overgrown graveyard contemplating
faded epitaphs and then going home to leaf through your
grandmother's photograph album while feeling vaguely ill.
But in a world where ideas of progress and newness are
constantly talked up, and the wheel keeps being reinvented,
personally I could do with a lot more ruination. In our rush
to the future we seem to have left too much past unlived.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Knot and wave

There seems to be no end to the flow of books about the
Second World War and Nazi Germany in particular. Nor
should there be. We’ll be unpicking that knot for a long
time to come yet. Even previously unknown works
written around that time are still coming to light, to an
English-speaking readership anyway.

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada is a compulsively
readable novel—I know, I've just read the final 350 pages
of it in one go—by someone who was clearly a compulsive
writer. Clearly a writer, actually. ‘From the minute I sit
down and write the first line,' I have seen him quoted as
saying, ‘I am lost, a compelling force is in command.
That force dictates just how and how much I must write,
whether I want to or not, even if it makes me ill.’

The extraordinary history of this 500-page book is that
Fallada wrote it in 24 days in 1946 and died the following
year before it was published in his native Germany.
Extraordinary, because it has taken till now for an English
translation—a wonderful one, by Michael Hofmann—to
appear. Based on a true story, as they say, it’s about a
humble working-class couple in Berlin during the war who
decide to make their own personal protest against Hitler
by dropping inflammatory postcards ('German people
wake up!') in public places where passers-by will see them
and, hopefully, pick them up.

Without preaching, moralizing or trying to ram home a
‘message’ Fallada paints an unforgettable picture of the
corruption of German society under the Nazis, and how
very difficult it was to do anything out of line with state
orthodoxy, so suffocatingly insidious was the network of
informers and party bootlickers, and so terrible were the
consequences of deviation, however minor. As some Nazi
functionary remarks in the book, thinking was not
required of the German people—Hitler would do that for

There are many books, of course, that find the ordinary
German people in the 1930s and 40s totally complicit in
what Hitler and the Nazis did. I don't know. I do know
that few of us would have the courage to stand up for our
beliefs if oppressed by real state terror—the kind that
would drag you from your bed in the middle of the night
and take you away, never to be seen again. The Germans
themselves haven't stopped contemplating the possibility
of its recurring. Check out a new German film, The Wave.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Streets of Tehran

Foolish though it may seem, I tend to be instinctively
sceptical about religions in which men have all the
power. No matter what the theological justifications,
any religion whose decision-making forums and prayer
meetings are wall-to-wall male strikes me straight away
as problematic. I am sure that Islam, for instance, has
many redeeming factors, but so long as it shuts women
out of political power, it is, to borrow a phrase from the
scriptures, deeply fucked.

Having said that, I’m wary of simplifying the current
political conflict in Iran. It would suit most of us in ‘the
West’ very nicely if this played out as a battle between
the forces of good and evil, of oppression and liberty,
of preachy old men in robes against hip kids in jeans
with cellphones. I suspect it’s a lot more complex than
that. For one thing, it would suit the capitalist agenda
of the United States extremely well if the Islamic state
of Iran was replaced by a more Westernized model
welcoming to foreign investment. For another thing,
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is hugely popular
among the working classes and poorer people of Iran.
For another thing, his chief rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi,
is not exactly a crusader in shining armour but the
creature of sophisticated vested interests keen on
wresting power from the uncouth upstart Mahmadinejad.

We in the relatively atheistic West tend to underestimate
the significance of religion as a political factor. We also
tend to sympathize a lot more readily with people who
look and seemingly act like us—hence the media’s
identification with the street protesters in Tehran.
Personally I’d be happy to see Iran’s whole superstructure
of ayatollahs and ‘guardians’ toppled and replaced with
something genuinely democratic; and I don’t doubt that
some unsavoury things are being done in Ahmadinejad’s
name. But we need to remember that through our media
(including technologies like Twitter) we are getting only a
partial picture. The full picture, were we able to grasp it, is
more likely one of a nation evolving no differently and no
less turbulently than did, say, England in the 17th century
or France in the 18th; insofar as we qualify as intelligent
observers, we would do well not to automatically identify
with Cromwell or Robespierre.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Austerlitz. To read this book is to understand that the
author wants you to know one thing above all: that the
entire human race, in a sense, died in what we call for
convenience’s sake the Holocaust between 1933 and
1945, and that until we fully absorb, understand and
act on what happened—which may take centuries, if it
can be done at all—then we will live only a shadow life
at best. One of the characters in Austerlitz, Vêra,
survives the Second World War in Prague, because she
was not a Jew, but she bears witness to what happened
to those who were Jewish, particularly Austerlitz’s
mother Agáta, who is taken away to Theresienstadt,
and after that the years

raced by, seeming in retrospect like a single
leaden day. She…did what was necessary to
maintain herself, but almost all her feelings
had been extinguished, and she had not truly
breathed since that time. Only in the books
written in earlier times did she sometimes
think she found some faint idea of what it
might be like to be alive.

W G Sebald, the author of Austerlitz, writes the kind of
books that might have been written in earlier times—
or perhaps in an unlived time running parallel to our
own. Slow, meditative, elliptical, dense with closely
observed detail, part fiction, part documentary, devoid
of plot in the usual sense, they are not so much books
as acts of memory: long discursive epitaphs on Europe’s
moral self-destruction. Sebald, a German himself, born
in Bavaria in the dying days of the war but resident in
eastern England for the last 35 years of his life, chose in
middle age to make a literary career out of bearing
witness to that degradation and insisting, through the
remorseless memorializing of his prose, that it not be
forgotten. Ever. If, regarding the Holocaust, you would
like to think for one milli-second, ‘Oh we’re over that
now, that’s all in the past, we’ve moved on,’ then read
Sebald. The principal books—novels, technically, but in a
category of their own—in the order he wrote them are
Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mock duck

A regular dish on the family table when I was growing up
in the 1950s was something called mock duck—at least,
that’s what my mother called it; I was never sure if that
wasn’t just her own name for it. It presented as a kind of
meat loaf that we always found tasty and filling. I may
have been aware even then that it didn’t actually have
any meat in it. Of this I can now be certain, having just
come across an Aunt Daisy recipe from 1948 for it; it
seems to have been popular post-war (and possibly in
earlier times of shortage, like the Great Depression) as a
way of filling the belly when real meat was unavailable.
For some years after the Second World War, many foods
in New Zealand were rationed: you were allotted a limited
number of coupons to buy them. Not that New Zealand
per se was short of food for its own population but we
were sending as much as we could to Britain, some of it in
the form of food parcels. The general feeling was that the
blitzed and bombed-out Brits needed it more than we did.
Anyway, mock duck, according to the Aunt Daisy version
anyway, appears to have consisted essentially of a vast
quantity of lentils, with an egg and a few stale breadcrumbs
thrown in. If that's the way Mum made it, I'm astonished;
I had no idea that lentils even existed in the 1950s. I don't
think I knowingly met my first lentil till at least 1974. Had
lentils publicly declared their presence in Masterton in the
50s they would have been as suspect as bean sprouts or
bok choi and would almost certainly have been detained
for questioning by the authorities or even incarcerated in
a lentil asylum. Even now, I have mixed feelings about
lentils: the thought that I may have consumed them in bulk
during my formative years is disquieting. Was mock duck,
in fact, a Communist plot? That would explain a lot.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Crims in crates

The Government's crime-crackdown campaign took another
step forward today when Corrections Minister Judith
Collins announced that from now on, the problem of
overcrowded prisons would be solved by putting prisoners
in sow crates.

Describing the crates as 'spartan but humane and clean,'
Ms Collins said that the Government was not in the
business of molly-coddling offenders and that many of them
already had far too much room to move in.

She had personally visited a maximum-security cell, she
said, and had been able to swing a cat in it. Why prisoners
were allowed to have cats in the first place was a mystery to
her, but one thing was clear: punishment regimes were far
too lax.

Moreover, if allowed to mingle with other prisoners for
meals or recreation, there was a high risk of them harming
each other, especially if pregnant, weaning or suffering from
swine flu.

Tests show, said the minister, that a basic sow crate is an
effective form of maximizing prison efficiency, with minimal
throughput costs and plenty of bars to chew on, while
providing a major incentive for rehabilitation.

Asked if a prisoner in a sow crate would not get cramped
and stiff, especially while serving a 10-year sentence, Ms
Collins said she often felt cramped sitting in her seat in
Parliament but nothing in life was achieved without

She reinforced her argument by citing the memorable
words of former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld,
who, when asked to sign a document authorizing
Guantanamo Bay guards to keep prisoners standing for
four hours at a time, commented that he was on his feet at
least eight hours a day so why stop at four?

Friday, June 19, 2009


The appointment of Peter Jackson to head a review of the
Film Commission is inspired. Good call, arts minister. In
the same adventurous spirit, the following appointments
also suggest themselves:

Bill English to head a review of John Key’s leadership.
Richard Worth to review the risks of too much texting.
Molly Melhuish to review the electricity industry.
David Benson-Pope to review the state of NZ tennis.
David Cohen to head a review of Morning Report.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to review MPs’ expenses claims.
Winston Peters to review Owen Glenn’s business interests.
C K Stead to head a review of Vincent O’Sullivan.
Vincent O’Sullivan to head a review of C K Stead.
Graham Henry to head a review of Graham Henry.
God to review the state of NZ cricket.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bin it

I can understand why Sue Bradford wants people to get out
and vote yes to the upcoming referendum, and why she’s
disappointed that neither John Key nor Phil Goff intends to
vote at all. She even says that it’s a copout by Goff, who
should, like Key, be giving a lead. Naturally she fears that
an overwhelming ‘no’ vote, even if the Government doesn’t
act on it, will be seen by the pro-smacking lobby as national
endorsement of their cause and used to further promote it.
I can’t agree with her, however. The referendum question
‘Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a
criminal offence in New Zealand?’ is so loaded, so freighted,
such an insult to the intelligence, that to address it at all is
to allow oneself to be co-opted into a political charade. The
best thing is to ignore it and not vote. The more of us who
abstain, the less meaningful the referendum becomes—if it
could be said to have any meaning in the first place. Total
abstention by everyone who wants an end to smacking or
any other form of ‘reasonable force’ will make a mockery of
the result. The real copout would be to join the charade.

And if you still think that nonetheless it would be the
responsible thing to vote, just try applying your mental
faculties to the question and actually trying to answer it
with intelligence and integrity. It can’t be done. The Thumb
says: bin the ballot paper.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The way we war

It seems now that anyone who ever fought in a war is a
hero; the mere fact of having been exposed to enemy fire
is qualification enough. I don’t mean by this to sneer at
those who served this country in wartime, especially as I
am one of the lucky ones who have never been called on
to do so, but I rather think that the men themselves
would reject the label. They know—those who returned—
that war is an utter lottery in which luck, courage, fear
and blind stupidity are all intermingled. The guy who got
the VC for charging a machine-gun nest singlehanded
might well have been been a bit nuts. The real ‘heroes’
might well have been the ones who kept their heads down
and survived. War, as the film Three Kings reminds us
(saw it again the other night), is a sordid mess strewn with
impossible choices and moral dilemmas indistinguishable
from varieties of excrement. The media-hyped emphasis
on ‘heroes’ dishonours the reality of war for the sake of
gratifying some atavistic need to believe that shit smells
sweet; to live with the true stink of it, apparently, is
intolerable to us.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Light mare on Elm St


Our property correspondent reports: The influx of
several hundred Kaimanawa horses into the home-
ownership market is almost certain to put fresh
pressure on building construction targets and drive up
fixed mortgage interest rates in the medium-to-long-term.
On the other hoof, it will boost sales at the upper end of the
market. Real-estate agents report that the Kaimanawa
horses have bid keenly at auctions for properties in the
$400,000–$500,000 bracket, provided the properties
in question have good indoor-outdoor flow, very big decks
and plenty of space for the kids to canter in. Economists
describe the outlook as stable.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Pond and beyond

Yawn. Sigh. This blaring front-page headline in today’s
New Zealand Herald has the one virtue of inducing instant
drowsiness in the reader, and let’s face it, there’s nothing
like a nice nap now and then. After I woke up I looked again
at the headline and the taut phrase ‘Who cares?’ rose
unbidden to my lips. When stories like this float to the
surface of the politico-media pond, around which many
frogs croak, they feed an unpleasant strain of salacious
faux-prudery that, apparently, has the great Kiwi public
thirsting for every last detail. I wonder. Sure, there’s a story
here, of sorts, but it’s hardly the kind deserving of giant
headlines and finger-wagging columns and editorials.
Actually, it’s the kind of story journalists seize on in lieu of
revelations that would really matter about the government
of the day. Unable, except rarely, and then only if you’re
Nicky Hager, does anyone break through the public-
relations defences surrounding any government and dig up
real political dirt. Not in this country anyway. So by way of
overcompensation far too much is usually made of the
misdemeanours and peccadilloes of individual MPs and
ministers. Researching my Helen Clark biography, going
back through old newspapers, I became aware of how often
the media fasten triumphantly on minister A’s drunk-
driving, MP B’s slipshod accounting or whatever. Such
stories are invariably nine-day wonders with little relevance
to the real business of politics and governing, except insofar
as the media can convince people that they are somehow
symbolic of endemic moral squalor. Well, okay, but the
home life of Richard Worth is not my idea of compelling
investigative journalism, nor could it ever be a yardstick by
which to even remotely judge the current government.
We here at Thumbcorp say to the media: get a grip, guys.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The great unread

The shortlist of five novels for this year’s Montana fiction
award. Yes. I find that in the course of the past few
months I tried to read four of these books and got no
further than the second chapter at most. They just weren’t
interesting enough or well enough written to make me
want to read on. This is either

(a) an appalling indictment of my lack of literary judgment
(b) an appalling indictment of my lack of literary stamina
(c) a telling reflection on the state of NZ literature

The envelope, please. And the winner is: (b). Memo to self:
must try harder.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The tennis players

I knew them all once, knew them well,
The tennis players whose names tell
Of a golden time on splendid courts,
Knew their flashing display of shots,
Their style, their strength, their mercurial pace
Between the net and the baseline.
Yes, I knew them, the great and the good,
In the days before
Titanium racquets supplanted wood.—
And what you wore was white on white;
It was an almost holy sight
As if angels descending to the court
Had taken up this earthly sport
And striven awhile in the sun
At Roland-Garros and Wimbledon.
No more.

There was greatness in the game then.
In flapping white flannels the men
—Ah, the men—they rivalled the women,
In those days, for beauty and grace,
Adept at either drop-shot or ace,
As crowds poured in, a holiday jam,
Hurrying there by horse-drawn tram
To marvel at
The dapper stroke-makers,
Ferocious point-takers,
The serve-and-volley merchants,
Ballboys scampering like urchins
As Hoad volleyed back to Rosewall
And Rosewall came to the net with a cross-court
Passing shot,

Retrieved, unbelievably, by Hoad
From whose racquet the ball would explode
Down the line, scattering seabirds
And leaving spectators lost for words
When the mercurial Rosewall,
Incredibly, chased down the ball
And conjured out of nowhere a lob
That touched the sky for
A moment—I remember,
I remember Drobny and Mulloy,
Ashley Cooper, no more than a boy,
Segura, Trabert, Maria Bueno
And Althea Gibson, I still say no
Player has risen to equal them.
That passing shot was a gem,
That lob to die for.

Who, now, in the same breath
Can we begin to speak of?
The rot set in with Kafelnikov.
There are many Spaniards now,
Many Spaniards, even Swiss,
And Argentinian exhibitionists.
I cannot go there,
Cannot bear to hear again
The chock and thwock of racket on ball,
The graceful women, the gallant men
Have gone from the court, all
Are gone, now, under the grandstand,
Leaving only the last umpire’s call
Fading, falling God knows where
And vanishing into the air.

I dreamt last night of Spaniards,
I dreamt of a rose on a wall...
I dreamt of a ball skimming over the net,
Or, lobbed, about to land
In the shadow of the grandstand -
But just inside the line,
Perfectly placed to win the point
And take the set.

The rest I forget.