Saturday, January 31, 2009

The bounders

It was Dean Inge, I believe, who once said that he could
not forgive Hamlet for his caddish behaviour to Ophelia.
It may be a long time, if ever, before we New Zealanders
will be able to forgive the European Union for its caddish
behaviour in reintroducing subsidies for dairy exports.
This is plain bad form. Was it in vain that New Zealand
set a shining moral example to the world by stripping
itself of all subsidies in the 1980s and standing pure and
proud in the global marketplace, uncontaminated by (ugh)
state assistance or (yecch) market distortions? Have we
not fought the good fight at trade talks for the past 25
years precisely so that less enlightened nations might
learn from us and see the error of their ways? Roger
Douglas must be a shattered man today. Let our thoughts
be with him. That in this hour of global crisis the nations
of Europe should stoop so low as to try to protect their
national economies and their people’s livelihoods…words
fail me. Protectionism stalks the streets again and none
dare sleep safely in their beds. But wait! Even as we blog,
plucky trade minister Tim Groser is in Davos trying to
bring the world's financial leaders to their senses. There is
hope yet that our children and our children’s children may
grow up competitive, clean and free from the taint of (yuck)
subsidies, nasty little things that they are. The subsidies,
that is.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Heart of Clarkness

The price of writing a book about the political life of
Helen Clark is that I am spending most of my time
these days living in the last 40 years, from the time
she began university in 1968 to the day she lost power
and resigned as Labour leader in 2008. Summer’s
lease hath all too short a something or other and I’m
spending it in 1985 and 1993 and other years of
historical significance. Ah well. A grateful nation will
thank me one day. Mercifully I have the music of
David Kilgour and Devendra Banhart to keep me
company. Thanks, guys.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Andrew Mason

The 1980s was probably the Listener’s last golden age. At
the end of that decade it shrank to its present size, and
then it was sold to Wilson & Horton and ceased to be a
subsidiary of state broadcasting; now it’s just one of many
horses in Tony O’Reilly’s global media stable and, given
the current state of his finances, it’ll probably be flicked on
to a new owner soon. But the 80s… the magazine lost its
monopoly on advance TV program information in 1982
and inexorably the circulation, which had averaged a
freakish 380,000 for a while, began to slide. Even so, for
most of the rest of the 80s it was around 250,000; and
what you can’t get over, looking back at old copies, is how
big the magazine was—A3 size, no less. Everything in it was
literally writ large; photos and cartoons seem enormous by
today's standards. There’s a prodigality about it that
probably reflects only too well the big-spending ethos of the
era. Trace Hodgson’s stunning political cartoons splatter
the pages like graffiti daubed on the nation’s wall.

There was a great flowering of feature-writing too, with
writers like Murray McLaughlin, Sue McTagget, Bruce
Ansley, Helen Paske and Gordon Campbell given seemingly
unlimited room to move. But the true glory of the magazine
then was the Books section, which under, first, Vincent
O’Sullivan and then Andrew Mason attained an authority
unmatched before or since. In the late 80s, as the front of
the magazine began to lose shape, the Books pages kept
theirs—and that was entirely due to Andrew, whose literary
judgment and exquisite editing eye gave the book reviews
unimpeachable integrity. They were never showy or flashy;
the layouts were models of restraint. The sole merit of the
reviews lay in their content, which Andrew had supervised
down to the last comma. I remember his precisely
pencilled subediting marks on the copy that went to the
printer (no screens then). They showed absolute attention
to every line of every review—the editing often so deftly
done that the writer didn’t even realise how much had been
scalpelled out. Sick copy was healed in Andrew’s hands.

He was a man in whom reticence spoke volumes. He edited,
severely, his own emotions. Yet he was no pale aesthete; I
remember him coming back to the office from the Thorndon
Pool at lunchtimes, sleek as a seal, togs and towel rolled up
under his arm. I remember his fostering of Maori literature
and history, and the way he supported Bub Bridger’s poetry
and gave her her chance in the Listener. I remember hearing
in later years how he had bought Bub a house to live in on
the West Coast. I’ve been remembering these things, as
others will have been, because of Andrew's death two weeks
ago. He was only 58. About 150 of us gathered at Turnbull
House in Wellington last Friday to celebrate his life. I heard
there what I hadn’t known, that he’d supported other
writers too, out of his own pocket; and that he left money to
set up a fund for young writers. Typically, he insisted it be
named after his father, but his brother Tim has quite rightly
overridden that. Andrew was so self-effacing that he didn’t
want any kind of occasion after his death, but I’m glad that
wish was overridden as well.

Andrew’s the finest editor I’ve ever known. After leaving the
Listener he edited many books, most notably, perhaps,
Judith Binney’s Redemption Songs and Michael King’s
Penguin History
of New Zealand, but it's his time on the
that naturally stays with me. He was a troubled
soul then; what a joy it was to see his happiness flower over
the past 10 or 11 years, ever since he met Lukacs, the man
who was to become his partner till death did them part.
Such was the love between these two that it's hard to
believe that Andrew's life has come to a full stop; I prefer to
think the story of it will go on being written in the hearts of
those who knew him.With, of course, judicious placement
of the semi-colon.

Monday, January 19, 2009

No punch without show

Seeing a film last night called My Brother Is an Only
, I was once again struck, if that’s the appropriate
word, by the movie convention that physical violence
is easily and swiftly recovered from. In this case a
young man was beaten and kicked by several others;
we saw the boots going in, the fists flailing. Yet apart
from a little blood at the corner of his mouth he walked
away apparently unharmed. Later, in another scene, he
was punched so hard around the midriff by a much
bigger, stronger man that it was impossible to believe
several ribs hadn’t been broken. We heard the gasps
and cries of pain as each blow landed; I could almost
feel them myself. Yet a minute later the beaten-up guy
was running full tilt down the road, not even clutching
his side. Call me naïve, but while movies these days go
to great lengths to simulate acts of violence realistically,
they skate over the consequences in a dangerously
misleading way. Dangerous, because the unintended
effect is to trivialize violence, even legitimize it. If you
or I were beaten like characters in films often are, we’d
have broken bones, broken teeth, shattered faces, at
the very least we’d be sore and creaking for days
afterwards. Maybe in fantasy films like The Matrix we
can suspend belief in the absurdly excessive violence
that by rights ought to reduce Keanu Reeves and Hugo
Weaving to a pulp several times over, but My Brother
Is an Only Child
is a straight film, a realistic drama:
watching such films, you’re expected to take everything
else as real, so how come the violence is exempt?

Over time, this soft-pedalling of the effect of brutal
physical violence insidiously conveys the idea that such
assaults don't really hurt that much and can easily be
gotten over. All I can say is: don't try this at home.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Cars in their eyes

To see Wellingtonians still making the case for the
Transmission Gully route at a time when the need
to reduce carbon emissions should be overriding all
other considerations is a bit like watching people
squabbling over deckchairs as the Titanic sinks.
Anyone even toying with the idea of letting this
proposed superhighway go ahead needs their head
read. Yet still its supporters bleat, claiming that
Wellington and the nation must have the new road
at all costs—otherwise (quel horreur!) it might take
seven minutes longer to drive north or south by the
existing coastal route. Get a life, guys. The ubiquity
of car travel, as we know it, is already history; you
may have cars in your eyes but those of us in the real
world don’t: we see that the golden age of the private
car has peaked, and the only credible demand now is
for transport alternatives—none of which involve
four-lane highways and single individuals chewing up
space and speed in tonnes of steel and chrome.

Astonishingly, even the Dominion Post has finally
recognized reality and pronounced the Gully route dead,
though (of course) purely for economic reasons. Which,
though they may not know it or care to acknowledge it,
are one and the same as environmental reasons.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Word of warning

Like Lionel Shriver, I too have misgivings about the
constant use in the media of the phrase ‘women and
children’ in descriptions of war. As Shriver says, ‘Is
there anything more acceptable about killing men?’
That, after all, is the implication of the gender
distinction. It also carries the connotation of women
being babyish and helpless, like the children with whom
the phrase associates them. Shriver warns that you
don’t want to go too far down this track: it is, ultimately,
anti-feminist. Distinguish civilians from military, sure;
but stop giving women value only in terms of their
defencelessness and supposedly unstained virtue.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Suddenly...nothing happened

The power of the world's financial markets is great. The
range and depth of the economic forces that govern our
lives are mighty indeed. The movement of vast sums of
capital around the globe 24/7 is seemingly unstoppable.
Yet there is a power greater than all of these: the New
Zealand summer holidays. In November and December
the gathering global financial crisis—agreed by serious
commentators to be the worst the world has known—
—was supposedly bearing down on us all with such
speed and force that urgent countervailing action was
deemed an absolute priority by the incoming National-
led government. Mysteriously, however, the need for
urgent action expired on Christmas Eve and everything's
been on hold for the past three weeks while the nation's
leaders take a break. Well-deserved, no doubt, but when
your house is on fire, is that the time for sunning
yourself on the patio? Dozing off on the deck?

No force on Earth, it seems, can withstand the irresistible
inertia of the Kiwi summer hols. Unless (but surely not)
the whole crisis isn't really that much of a crisis after all?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Uunk works for me

It’s a curious thing that, for all the adaptability of
the English language, no word has yet emerged
to describe the sound of a car door closing. You
don’t in fact close a car door; you don’t shut it;
maybe you slam it, but not always, and in any
case room or house doors are generally slammed,
not vehicular ones. That sound we all know so
well, so distinctive that we recognize it instantly
when we hear it…what would you call it? A thluck?
A skwrnch? An uunk? Suggestions, please.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

For and for

At first sight the Foreign Minister’s statement that the
Government will not take sides in the Israel-Palestine
conflict is open to derision. It echoes Walter Nash’s
infamous statement about the 1951 waterfront dispute,
namely, that the Labour Party was neither for nor
against the workers. At the same time it's very hard—I
would venture to say impossible—not to feel anguished
sympathy with the people of Gaza, as the fire of war
rains down on them. I find it too simplistic, however,
to side with those demanding a unilateral withdrawal
by Israel. I agree, in fact, with Foreign Minister Murray
McCully when he says it’s pointless arguing over what’s
a proportionate or disproportionate response; and I
note that the Labour Party’s view, as expressed by Phil
Goff and Helen Clark, is essentially the same as the
Government’s. If you believe, as I do, that both Israelis
and Palestinians have the right to their own nation
states, side by side, then the only thing worth arguing
about is how to get them both to the negotiating table
as fast as possible. But so long as Hamas is pledged to
destroy the state of Israel, that is going to be very
difficult. I can see why Israel wants to smash Hamas: it
may be brutal but it makes sense from their point of
view. And the fact that of all the Arab nations only Iran
and Syria unequivocally support Hamas suggests that
even in the Islamic sphere Hamas is too extreme for most.

Over the years of Middle East conflict my sympathies
have always tended to be with the Palestinians but I am
beginning to think that Hamas is not the way but the
stumbling block to their salvation—just as extreme
Zionism is to the Israeli cause. Green MP Keith Locke
says McCully has to do more 'than a general call on both
sides to cease fire.' I disagree. That's the best thing we can
do right now.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Apology to Clive Simmons

A couple of blogs ago I raised concerns about some words
said by Leonard Cohen in an interview published in the
January 3 Listener. They were so similar—the first 27 were
identical—to words said by Cohen in a 1978 Rolling Stone
interview that I wondered aloud about their provenance.
Guy Somerset, arts & books editor of the Listener, has
phoned me this morning to say that the writer, Clive
Simmons, has assured him that the words in question were
indeed said by Cohen to him during their interview last
year: I accept that assurance and apologize unreservedly to
Clive for any offence he might have taken at what I wrote
and any imputation thereby arising. I was wrong. Cohen
does indeed have, as I found it hard to believe, the 'freakish
ability to repeat virtually word for word something he said
30 years ago.’ Guess I should have realized that singers
live by remembering all their words. Sorry, Clive.

Top tables

As the recession deepens, and gloom tightens its grip on
the world, my thoughts have been turning to the question
of top tables at wedding receptions. I wonder if they have
had their day. It is a singular fact that those unfortunates
parked at the top table—namely, the bride, groom, best
man and bridesmaids—are isolated from the conviviality
at all the other tables, and also, being lined up in a row
rather than seated round a table facing each other, have
only the person next to them to talk to. Which soon palls.
The bride and groom, for instance, well aware that they
have just embarked on a lifetime of having to talk to each
other, can’t see why they should have to do it now, when
all their friends and relations are merrily chatting a few
feet away. Tiring of being perched up there like pigeons
on a branch, before long the top-tablers descend from
their elevated position and start roaming the reception
room in search of good company. In my experience, the
reception is usually barely half an hour old before the top
table has been completely vacated. To make the
obligatory speeches they have to return to the top table,
and once that's done they're off again.

Here at, the general view is that the
wedding party should be seated down on the floor, in the
middle of all the other tables, so that people can come and
go from them, rather than the other way round, and they
may justly be the centre of attention. Let them stand up
and speak from where they sit. The inertia of tradition
has, I fear, kept this top-table business in place for far too
long, to the detriment of post-nuptial pleasure, social
progress and the public good.