Monday, March 31, 2008

Not here either

This just in: once again, the master escaper Bob Dylan
has eluded capture. Not that Todd Haynes, writer and
director of the new film I’m Not There, necessarily set
out to catch Dylan; but over the course of two hours
and 15 minutes’ screen time we might have hoped for
some news of his whereabouts. Or at least, hey, a fresh
insight or two. No such luck. Basically, this is a hobby
film—Haynes playing with his toy Dylan set, amusing
himself by cutting and pasting bits of the Bobster's
“many lives” (yawn). He’s got a lot of nerve foisting
the result on movie audiences, but then, no one forced
us to go, and Cate Blanchett’s riff on mid-60s Dylan is
(almost) worth the ticket price. Oh, and the songs are
pretty good.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Friendly fire

The news, reported in John Drinnan’s media column in
the Business Herald, that APN News & Media is
launching a giveaway monthly publication aimed at aging
baby-boomers merely confirms what this former APN
employee has suspected for a long time, namely, that
APN has very little interest in putting resources into the
Listener, which it also owns. The Listener’s natural
territory is aging baby-boomers but rather than invest in
building it up, APN chooses to start what in effect will be
a rival publication sure to eat into the Listener’s main
demographic. On all the evidence so far, APN has never
had any clear idea about what it should do with the
Listener, least of all promote it and resource it properly,
so is letting it quietly wither away. Which is a bitter shame,
considering what the magazine has been and still could be.

Carbon emotions

Researching an interview with Vicki Buck, the former
mayor of Christchurch who's into green business
ventures these days, I came across something she said
in 1991. As an innovative form of taxation, it could be
a very useful source of government revenue.

"I think negative people should be taxed," said Buck.
"They require an enormous amount of your energy."

Certainly, as the planet warms, any enlightened
government will sooner or later want to think about
the carbon emissions given off by depression,
negativity, stored-up grievances and plain old
grumpiness. As well as using the car less, and
cutting out plastic bags, we should all be cultivating
sunnier dispositions. It makes economic and
environmental as well as emotional sense.

Vicki herself is a living advertisement for positive
energy. I can see why the people of Christchurch
took her to their hearts. The interview was
punctuated by waves of laughter, often at her own
expense. She could be a big hit if she went into
national politics; only, her ebullience would probably
be crushed over time. In my experience, politics is a
chemical process for draining the life juices out of
human beings and replacing them with pod people.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Life is a near-death experience

The dead come on with us. In God’s home movie
of the cemetery, the visitors and the dead—indeed,
the vegetation—are indistinguishable. Each has a
different way of moving but from a distance you
would never know it. All are in transition.

Hence more than a hundred years I spent
In my feat of change from a coffin-thrall
To a dancer in green as leaves on a wall...

—Thomas Hardy,
“Voices from Things Growing in a Churchyard”

Hardy explores the same theme in such remarkable
poems as “Transformations” (“Portion of this yew/
Is a man my grandsire knew”) and “Heredity,”
which is really a late-Victorian take on DNA.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Going nowhere

Because years are numbered consecutively, it is very
hard not to believe in linear progress. Yet nothing in
nature supports such a belief. We grow and change,
certainly, but only to diminish and die. This is as true
of a star as it is of an ant. The theme of the cosmos is
not progress but renewal—the same thing renewed
over and over again in microscopically differing forms.
Nothing is going anywhere. Everything is always here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Among the millions of words written about the Electoral
Finance Act, I’m not sure anyone has summed it up
better than Norm Drexel, of Halswell, who has written a
letter to the editor of the Christchurch Press (March 24)
telling John Boscawen, of the ‘Freedom of Speech Trust,’
that the act threatens not freedom of speech but freedom
of paid speech. Under the act, says Norm, Boscawen can

...write letters or newspaper articles, blog, phone talkback
radio, hold meetings, organize demonstrations, canvass,
poll and travel the country to address crowds without the
Electoral Commission lifting an eyebrow.

What he can’t do is spend money for TV, radio, newspaper

advertising, leaflets, etc, to influence votes without
fulfilling formal requirements that tell the public who is
paying for it. He can’t spend unlimited money even then.

That means that the size of his wallet can’t be used as a

substitute for the strength of his arguments.

There you have it. Quote that, next time someone chews
your ear about this supposedly fascist legislation.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Three cities

Christchurch is a patterned carpet laid on the Earth,
all its corners neatly squared off. Wellington's a
crumpled rug. Auckland? Seagrass matting.

Friday, March 21, 2008


T E Hulme said romanticism was “spilled religion.”
Similarly, Rebecca West (I think) once observed
that the romantic way of thinking started exactly
when the religious way of thinking stopped—so
maybe all our modern “love” feelings are merely
misplaced spiritual impulses. Maybe the entire
throbbing engine of modern materialism is a
misplaced spiritual impulse. Discuss “misplaced.”

John Carey, in What Good Are the Arts?, locates
the shift more specifically, when he writes: “With
the Enlightenment, and the invention of aesthetics
in the 18th century, the idea that works of art
improve their recipients morally, emotionally and
spiritually became part of Western intellectual
orthodoxy…this development coincided with a
decline in religious belief among the educated. It
represented a transfer of spiritual values from the
sacred sphere to the secular. Art galleries came to
resemble temples…”

Don't we know it. You virtually have to light a candle
and murmur three Hail Marys in those places before
you dare to look at the actual art.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Tunnel vision

Am I alone in finding the proposal to build two motorway
tunnels under West Auckland at a cost of nearly $2 billion
to be absolutely, lunatically, freakingly insane? I’m sure
I’m not; but the lack of public outcry at this criminally
stupid project is worrying. It suggests that most of us
fondly imagine that somehow we can go on using our cars
as if nothing will change. Newsflash: it’s changing already.
Even the chief executive of Shell Oil has acknowledged
that after 2015 supplies of easy-to-access oil and gas will
no longer keep up with demand. When are our transport
planners going to get their heads around the reality? They
are carrying on as if there were literally no tomorrow. Do
they really think traffic is going to go on increasing
exponentially through 2020, 2030 and beyond?

All new road extensions and developments should be
stopped now and the money poured into public transport
and the reduction of carbon emissions. Road-building is,
like, so 20th-century. The long love affair with the private
car is over. Get used to it.

Let us pray

In the 19th century the English poet and critic Matthew
Arnold predicted that more and more people would
turn to poetry to "interpret life for us, to console us, to
sustain us." Without poetry, reckoned Arnold,
"our science will appear incomplete; and most of what
now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be
replaced by poetry.”

For poetry, read mass media entertainment—music,
television, films, the internet—and you could say that,
as far as the early 21st century is concerned, Arnold was
right on the button. But what consoles and sustains us
above all is the life stories of the rich, famous and
powerful constructed, narrated and constantly
embellished by the media. These are our sagas, our epic
poems; fame is the new religion and, like it or not, we
are all worshippers in the First Church of Celebrity.

Monday, March 17, 2008


Anyone who has ever watched the Melbourne Cup run
at the Flemington racecourse knows that the home
straight is exceptionally long—at 1200 metres, or six
furlongs, one of the longest in horse-racing anywhere.
It seems to go on forever as the horses keep pounding
along it. You can’t believe that the winning post is
taking so long to arrive. It’s a true test of stayers: no
horse can be sure of having won till it crosses the line,
such is the toll taken on the field in that straight.

Right now, in March, the New Zealand general election
scheduled for no later than November this year seems
to me like the finish line at Flemington. The major
parties may feel they have entered the home straight
already, after starting the year in campaign mode, but
there’s a long, long way to go yet. For that reason, if no
other, the National Party's apparently commanding
opinion poll lead is illusory. This extended campaign
will, I think, go all the way down to the wire; and as far
as leadership goes, all the evidence so far suggests that
Helen Clark is more of a stayer than John Key.

Key strikes me as a leader who has yet to find his level—
yet to find, that is to say, the public persona with which
he feels most comfortable and consistent. He seems to
be trying various personas on at the moment; and none
quite works. Clark learnt a long time ago to be one thing
and to be it consistently. Sure, it has brought her the
reputation of being dour and humourless, but it has won
her three elections. One of her predecessors, Bill Rowling,
lost three elections, not least because he never seemed to
be one thing or the other.

It helps, of course, that Clark has a political philosophy
she believes in and tries to abides by, notwithstanding the
inevitable compromises any politician must make. With
Key, it's hard to discern exactly what his abiding principles
are; if he has any, he certainly hasn’t been in a hurry to
show the rest of us. Such opacity can be a strength in the
short run but a weakness in the long run. Here ends the
horse-racing metaphor.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Late news

The mystic and the artist both want to get directly in
touch with God. The difference is that the artist
wants to tell the world about it afterwards. Art is
degraded mysticism. It is not the thing itself but the
description; not the event but the report. Art is late
news of God.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


It seems a strange and fabulous thing to me that the
Formica Corporation of America should now be owned
by the New Zealand company Fletcher Building. This
wonderment at a prosaic commercial arrangement
almost certainly reflects the fact that I grew up in a
sheltered time (the 1950s) when Formica was one of
those substances or products, like Technicolor or 45 rpm
records, bestowed on New Zealand by the great world
beyond—products, clearly, of a technologically superior
civilization. All that was modern and most advanced
came from over the seas; or so it seemed to a child of
that time in a provincial New Zealand town. The idea that
an American corporation could be owned by a New
Zealand company was virtually inconceivable: the world
just didn’t work that way.

For a laminated surfacing material, Formica has had
ubiquitous success: so much so that in common usage it
often loses its capital letter. As with tarmac or velcro, the
brand-name has come to define the type of product.

Thanks to a quick Wikipedia check, I learn that the name
was derived by its inventors (in 1912) from the words
“for mica,” the mineral previously used in laminates.
How obvious that now seems; yet I never saw it before.
There you go. It also took years before it dawned on me
how the Beatles got their name.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The last poem

All poetry tends towards silence. The last poem ever
written will say nothing at all.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


To walk through a large hospital, as I did at Wellington
Hospital today, is to feel, concentrated in one place, the
powerful gravitational pull of illness and death. How
easy it would be—you think—to allow yourself to get
sick and be sucked into this warm humming machine of
treatment and medication. Something wants to look
after us here, bigtime.

The hospital is one big building site right now. A small
city of pristine tower blocks has arisen to accommodate
those of us who may at some point in our lives be
afflicted by mortality. The main building that for many
years fronted Riddiford St has been torn down, of
course, but deep in the heart of the building site you
will see a strange sight: the old pillared façade of that
building standing alone and unsupported, awaiting,
no doubt, relocation to some inappropriate spot.

The curious and ugly practice of retaining old façades in
front of new buildings that have nothing architecturally
in common with them is called in New York, which also
suffers from it, "façadicide."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Words for lost

Sometimes, as we wade through sludgy tides of words,
and jargon chokes us like ropes of seaweed, a phrase
will throw us a line. Here's one. A tramper who got lost
in the bush is described in the news today as having
been "geographically embarrassed." For this felicitous
epithet, thank you, police search controller Sergeant
Noel Bigwood.