Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cap o' Rushes

On my sister's shelves in Christchurch is a collection of
books she saved from our childhood in Masterton: the
Junior Classics, 10 volumes published for "The Young
Folks' Shelf of Books" by P F Collier & Son Corporation
of America. Looking through them again, I see how
influential they were on my imagination in the 1950s.
What I hadn't realized then is that they were published
in 1938 and still bore the stamp of the Victorian era on
them: further proof that the cultural world in which my
generation grew up, from the late 40s to the early 60s,
was still essentially the prewar world of the 1930s and
earlier, unmodified even by knowledge of the Holocaust
and the atom bomb. Notwithstanding the advent of
rock'n'roll in the late 50s, real postwar social change did
not hit us in New Zealand till the mid-60s. Meanwhile,
there were books like these, respectable enterprises
produced for the edification and improvement of young
minds, containing traditional stories gathered from all
around the world. They're very much the kind that were
hawked, like encyclopedias, from door to door in those
days: in fact, that's probably how my parents acquired
them, perhaps even before I and my siblings were born.

If I look in volume 1 (Fairy Tales and Fables) I recognize
again long-forgotten tales like "Cap o' Rushes," "Tom Tit
Tot," "One Eye, Two Eyes, Three Eyes" and even
obscurer Irish ones like "Hudden and Dudden and Donald
O'Neary," as well as "Rapunzel," "Blue Beard" and the
usual suspects. Some are illustrated with drawings of
shrunken witches and manikins that come straight out of
medieval European mythology. That figure of the little
black manikin, embodiment of evil, looking now like an
early draft of H R Giger's alien, is a peculiarly resonant
one: Giger undoubtedly drew on it for inspiration. Even
the word "manikin" still has an ugly power.

The other volumes introduced me to Norse mythology,
Greek heroes, extracts from great books ("Tom Sawyer
Whitewashes the Fence") and stories like "The Gold Bug"
by Edgar Allan Poe among other things. They drew on all
cultures and literatures. Solid, heavy, thick with print and
formidably bound, there they stand shoulder to shoulder
on the shelf, still in good shape after 70 years, during just
a few of which they would have been in active use. Even
then I think we had a sense that they were somewhat old-
fashioned, like the wind-up gramophone in the hall, but
the Junior Classics did their job for me anyway, opening
up my imagination at least a crack and whetting a lifelong
appetite for knowledge. I'm glad they're still around, like
favourite aunts.


Helen Clark and John Key have done themselves no favours
by refusing, apparently in unison, to appear in televised
debates with any party leaders except each other. Gross.
Who the fuck do they think they are? They're our elected
representatives, not our born-to-rule sovereigns. Faced
with this ultimatum, the two main channels reacted
differently, TV1 saying it would go ahead anyway with a
debate involving the other leaders and TV3 opting for no
group debate at all. As I said on Radio New Zealand
National a couple of hours ago, TV1's was the better call,
given the circumstances, but maybe Lynn Freeman was
right in suggesting that the two networks could have jointly
told Clark and Key to get lost, ie, no show with the other
leaders, then no show at all. Even if it had had the remotest
chance of succeeding, however, it would have been a
dangerously political move for the media to make, trying to
dictate terms like that; but what they could do, as indeed
could all other media, is stop giving all our politicians such
an easy ride. I'm still waiting to see some really hard,
prolonged interview questioning of Clark, Key et al that
doesn't let them off the hook of whatever policy point or
promise they're squirming on.

Most New Zealand journalists, myself included, are far too
polite and accommodating towards politicians. Sean
Plunket is a rare exception. For all his abrasiveness, or
rather, because of it, if he really is leaving Radio New
Zealand then he should be given his own TV interview show.
That might spice things up.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Southern exposure

Some observations on Christchurch. The city centre, that
is to say Cathedral Square and the streets immediately
around it, appears to have been taken over almost entirely
by shops and eating places aimed at attracting Asian
tourists. Fair enough, if that's where the money is, but the
city centre seems to completely lack local character now.
We looked in vain for sightings of the indigenous long black,
ubiquitous in Wellington but driven, apparently, from
Christchurch's streets by sushi outlets, internet cafes and
bland predators like Starbucks and Muffin Break. On the
other hand, the estuaries down Bexley and Ferrymead way
are rich with bird life thanks to an enlightened policy of
creating wetland reserves for the likes of godwits, pied
oyster-catchers and the redoubtable scaup, a once-rare
duck now enjoying a population boom. Alas, the Ferrymead
foreshore has had a giant apartment block dumped on it,
and the hills of nearby suburbs like Sumner and Redcliffs
have been desecrated by some of the worst architecture it
has been my misfortune to ever drive past. On fabulous
sites overlooking the ocean people with more money than
aesthetic sense have built ghastly blocky houses with all the
charm and none of the functionality of concrete bunkers.
Bearing absolutely no relation to the landscape they inhabit
(or rather, infest), these hideous objects stand only as
memorials to the poverty of architectural imagination in
our time. I hope the pied oyster-catchers poop on them.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Under fire

Finally I read Under Fire by Henri Barbusse, a book I’ve
been meaning to read for years. It puts everything else
I’ve ever read about the First World War in the shade,
with the possible exception of The Great War and
Modern Memory by Paul Fussell. As a documentary
description of life in the trenches it must surely be
unmatched. As a novel it is less satisfactory, though there
may be a better translation than the one I read. But many
of the set-piece scenes will stand forever as an indictment
of the madness of war as it is actually experienced by men
in the front lines. Which after a while, on the Western
Front, ceased to resemble anything like lines and became
charnel-houses of mud and blood and broken bodies. The
Second World War seems like a good clean fight in

Of course it wasn’t; and perhaps not enough allowance has
ever been made for the insidious after-effects of both world
wars on the societies from which the soldiers came and to
which the survivors returned. I think Keith Ovenden may
have it right when, in his biography of Dan Davin,
describing the terrible things men experienced in war, he
writes: “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.”

In this regard, some illuminating remarks were made
earlier this year by Dr Hone Kaa, an Anglican minister, in
seeking reasons for the high rate of domestic violence
among Maori. Recalling his own childhood at Rangitukia
on the East Coast, Kaa, now 67, said: "Much of the violence
that the children of Rangitukia suffered was perpetrated on
them by men who after three or four years overseas had
known only how to kill or be killed."

Davin himself, in a very good short story called “Not
Substantial Things,” poignantly describes the moment
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.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

All parade, no rain

Down on Lambton Quay by chance around 1pm today,
I wondered why so many people were clustered on the
pavement opposite. Had a building been evacuated?
Then I remembered that the capital's victorious rugby
team was about to parade through the city with the
newly acquired Ranfurly Shield. What was the score
again? Oh yes. Wellington 27. Auckland 0. I was there
at Athletic Park that day in 1982 when Wellington last
had the shield and lost it to Canterbury: I can still recall
the sinking feeling as Canterbury second-five Wayne
Smith slid through a gap in the defence to score in the
south-east corner and seal the win for the southerners.
So the shield's return after a mere third of a lifetime is
indeed cause for rejoicing. Appropriately, today was
a blowy old Wellington day, with overcast skies and a
hint of rain that never came, but an astonishing number
of people—30,000, I've just heard on the news—lined
the streets for the parade. Joining them, I felt a rush of
pleasure that such a seemingly old-fashioned ritual as a
Ranfurly Shield parade still had the power to pull the
crowds, even in this era of globalized, professionalized
sport and instant mass media coverage. And there was
the mighty log of wood itself—surprisingly small—gliding
past on a trailer crowded with hairy Wellington players.
Signed, shield and delivered, it's ours. O happy day.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Obviously Wall St

Further to my last blog, I see this from former London
mayor Ken Livingstone in a recent Guardian survey of
left-wing reaction to Wall St’s latest crisis:

As a system for the distribution and exchange of
goods, you can't beat the market. But the mistake
a lot of politicians have made is to think that
because the market was good at that, it could be
good at everything: it could train workers, create
infrastructure, protect the environment, regulate
itself. Quite obviously, it can't.

Which says, in much more everyday language, exactly
what Habermas and Gorz are saying.

In the same survey Caroline Lucas, a Green member of
the European Parliament, says the way forward is a Green
New Deal. Google this term and you’ll find a bunch of
bold ideas being put forward by a British group of which
Lucas is a member. The aim is to work with the "green
economic shift," not against it, by building a new alliance
between environmentalists, industry, agriculture and
unions that will "put the interests of the real economy
ahead of those of footloose finance." Works for me. Can
we have one of those in New Zealand, please?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Hopes and spheres

Capitalism, says Jurgen Habermas, "promotes a pattern
of rationalization such that cognitive-instrumental
rationality penetrates beyond the economy and state
into other spheres of life and there enjoys a pre-eminence
at the expense of moral-practical and aesthetic-practical

You'd better believe it. Habermas calls this process the
"colonization of the lifeworld."

In the view of Andre Gorz, it's this domination by economic
rationality that defines capitalism—not the existence per se
of an economic sphere governed by the logic of profitability
and competition. "It is the abolition of that domination, not
the abolition of capital and the market," writes Gorz,
"which will mark our passing beyond capitalism...a society
becomes socialist when the social relations shaped by the
economic rationality of capital come to occupy only a
subordinate place in relation to non-quantifiable values and
goals, and, in consequence, in the life of society and in each
person’s life, economically rational work is merely one
activity among others of equal importance.”

Remember this when the headlines scream NIGHTMARE ON

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Rich irony

Looking through an old Listener, as I now and then do,
I find Bill Ralston’s interview of Katherine Rich in the
issue of July 14, 2007. Someone (it was probably me;
I was deputy editor then) has put this intro on it:

National Party leader John Key acknowledges that the
women’s vote is crucial to winning the next election—
and outspoken MP Katherine Rich is the linchpin.

Hm. Rich of course announced six months later that she
was pulling out of politics and wouldn’t be standing at
the coming election—thereby still hangs a tale—leaving
National’s parliamentary line-up looking even more male
than it already was. There are actually 13 women in
National’s current caucus of 47, but you wouldn’t know it,
because most of them are ranked lower than 30th, and
hold only minor or associate spokespersonships: you
hardly ever hear from them, except when one (think Kate
Wilkinson a few weeks ago) says something out of line
and is swiftly shut down. The highest-ranked is Judith
Collins (social welfare spokesperson) but it seems highly
unlikely that the only other woman in National’s top 10,
the almost invisible education spokesperson Anne Tolley,
will become education minister: it’s a fair bet that, if
National wins the election, the only women in a John Key
cabinet will be Collins and Georgina Te Heu Heu.

Whatever the election result, the proportion of women in
the National caucus is likely to remain at about a quarter;
but where it counts, at the top, and in the Cabinet room,
the boys will still be very much in control. Just how crucial
was that women's vote again?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Into kilter

I’ve long admired the work done by Jon Morgan, who writes
about agricultural issues for the Dominion Post—and two
days ago he produced yet another useful, informative piece,
this time about the soaring cost of fertilizer. He chose his
opening words carelessly, however, when he wrote:

The seemingly limitless needs of India and China
are throwing the world economy out of kilter.
The most damaging effect is on world food supply.

Hallo? Sorry to be picky, Jon, but the efforts of the Chinese
and Indian peoples to raise their incomes and living
standards to somewhere even remotely near ours is
damaging? Throwing the world out of kilter? Enough
already with the Eurocentrism. In the big picture, things are
more likely being put into kilter. The world wasn’t made
just for us in the “West.”

Saturday, September 13, 2008

ETS tu, Brute?

I disagree entirely with Karl du Fresne who, in his latest blog,
more or less says the Emissions Trading Scheme is a ghastly
mistake that we’ll all suffer from, but I do agree with him
when he says that the media have mostly put the ETS in the
too-hard basket and been far more comfortable giving yards
of space to the Peters/Glenn saga. Karl is a nice guy—I met
him on The Terrace the other day and, as old Listener
colleagues, we had lunch—but it’s disappointing to see him
side with Phil O'Reilly of Business New Zealand (another
sadly misguided soul) in seeing the ETS purely from a short-
term economic point of view and not as the first step on a
long road to ecological realpolitik. The scheme is
undoubtedly a pathetic gesture, like waving a teaspoon at a
tsunami, but just to get something politically and
legislatively in place is a triumph of sorts, in the teeth of
business sector resistance.

Someone reminded me the other day that when Roger
Douglas and Treasury were driving through their reforms in
the 1980s the big argument was that there had to be pain if
you wanted gain. Curiously, it seems that when it comes to
the twin challenges of global warming and peak oil, we’re
not supposed to feel any pain but somehow pussyfoot
around pretending that things aren’t as serious as they
actually are. Even Karl seems to think that global warming
isn’t really such an issue. Jeez, mate. I know what it’s like
living in Masterton—I spent 18 years of my life there—but
you don’t have to be that divorced from reality.

Friday, September 12, 2008

One day, two songs

Congratulations to OpShop for winning the APRA Silver
Scroll award for song of the year: "One Day" is a good
song all right. But shouldn't Jim Steinman get some of the
credit? He wrote "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" for Meatloaf
and every time I hear the opening line of "One Day" I hear
the same tune as "Two Out of Three." Isn't there some rule
about copyright being breached if five notes in a row are

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A real novel

I’m astonished to see The Secret Scripture by Sebastian
Barry on the shortlist of six for this year’s Man Booker
Prize. I read it a week ago and found it a tedious slog,
fearfully overwritten and self-consciously arty. It also
contains the lamest twist I’ve come across in a novel
for a long time. Since then I’ve read The Blue by Mary
McCallum, which is a much better novel—a real novel,
not a thin idea tricked out as one—and far more
deserving of prize contention. Set in the whaling
community around Tory Channel in 1938, The Blue is
subtly written and psychologically perceptive;
McCallum has a terrific feel for location and character
and how the former can mould the latter. So powerful
is the sense of human isolation in a remote
environment—a sense reinforced by the savage war
against nature that the whale hunting represents—that
once or twice I almost felt I was reading the Woman
equivalent of Man Alone. But Lilian, the central
character, is alone not in the bush but in a much darker
place—her own private life. McCallum’s book also has a
twist but you never see this one coming. It’s a very
impressive first novel.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Nanny to the rescue

Don'cha just love the bold buccaneering world of free
enterprise? Business hucksters are constantly talking
up the virtues of unfettered competition and minimal
state regulation, but when things go pear-shaped, as
they have done this year with America’s two biggest
mortgage lenders, suddenly it’s Nanny State to the
rescue and no complaints. Thus, as the New York Times
puts it today, "the country that prides itself on being the
beacon of free enterprise finds itself with a financial
system that needs government money to finance the
most important asset most Americans will ever own."
Should we be surprised? No.

It’s also the business sector that, for all its alleged risk-
taking and entrepreneurialism, never stops bleating
about the need for predictability and certainty in the way
markets operate. They seem to require, indeed demand,
a sense of security not often vouchsafed the workers who
make their profits possible. I’m not being anti-business
here, just anti-hypocrisy; and one of the most hypocritical
notions in capitalism is that private enterprise is “free”—
or, for that matter, private. The public purse subsidizes
them one and all.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Like life itself

The Edge of Heaven, which I saw last night, is a totally
satisfying film—so much so that I was sorry to see the
closing credits roll. I would have been happy for it not
to end but to go on hour after hour, like life itself. The
director, Fatih Akin, has the supreme artist’s gift of
knowing what to leave out, what not to say and when to
let events make their own point without underlining or
overemphasizing them. The pace of the film is utterly
unforced. Comparisons have already been made with
Crash and Babel, other films that explore the
ramifications of chance and coincidence by gradually
showing how interwoven the lives of apparently
unconnected characters are; but, as Anthony Lane
writes in his New Yorker review, The Edge of Heaven is
not so much about crossed paths as “paths that almost
cross but don’t, and the tragedy of the near-miss.” One
or two of the near-misses shown would break your heart,
it’s true; but these play out, ultimately, as ineluctable
reality rather than avoidable tragedy, and are balanced,
anyway, by moments of unexpected redemption—as if
life has a way of self-correcting in the long run. It doesn’t
necessarily, of course, but great art can be wonderfully
consoling like that.

For a man of 35, Akin shows an astonishing maturity in
his handling of themes of age, grief and loss. Head On, his
last film, was very powerful too, in a more in-your-face
way. The Edge of Heaven is more in-your-heart: it moved
mine anyway.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


Owen Glenn is coming to New Zealand! Be still, my beating
heart! With what joy this news will be received by
struggling families, laid-off workers, truant kids, crime
victims, investors who’ve had their savings wiped out! Quite
rightly, the imminent return of the expatriate billionaire, as
we have come affectionately to know him, is the main
headline in all news bulletins today. The importance of it
cannot be overstated. If Parliament’s privileges committee
can get things sorted out with Glenn, this country will once
again be on the road to prosperity, and the threat of global
warming will, in my view, fade away almost overnight.
Thank God we’ve got our priorities right at last.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Tiger pants

I spent an absorbing two hours this afternoon in 1968,
scrolling through the New Zealand Herald files for June
and July of that year. These news reports caught my eye.
from the Auckland School Committees Association,
backing claims by principals and PTAs. CHILD ‘RIOTERS’
—a demonstration by 50
children aged between eight and 11, who, protesting at
the proposed closure of Mt Eden Model Country School,
said they were imitating events in Paris. TIGER PANTS
—Cabinet decides to end the long
tradition of ministers being required to change into
striped “tiger” pants for their weekly meeting with the
—thousands of demonstrators disrupted
the opening of Parliament for the year (on June 26) by
chanting and waving placards like “No Omega bases,”
"Scrap Seato” and “Alfred E Neuman for Prime Minister.”
There was also a report about a stipendiary magistrate
being acquitted of peeping-tom charges, notwithstanding
testimony that he'd been seen peering into neighbours'
windows at night. Notable also, apart from the number of
ads showing women exclaiming rapturously about
vacuum-cleaners and soap-powders, was the absence of
hysterical nationalism in matters of sport. Achievements
overseas by Kiwi sportsmen and women were treated in
a low-key way. As indeed was New Zealand's place in the
world generally. There was more analysis of British
politics than there was of our own.

Monday, September 1, 2008


A poem for spring.

Spring, when the doors are rehung
and visitors come; Spring, when
the sensational trials of plant
and bird are headlined again
ridiculous warmth
Spring, the trickle the hose
the ripening stem
and the once and forever rose

Spring O most treacherous
treacly with sap
breaking and entering
through the catflap
The most expected surprise
the least culpable crime
first, and most fruitful, offender
every time