Sunday, November 22, 2009

Chicken scoop for the soul

As I said on radio a few weeks ago, No Right Turn is in
my view the best individual blogger, pound for pound,
blog for blog, in New Zealand, at least as far as politics
and current affairs are concerned. His ability to
analyse policy and legislation and comment helpfully
and perceptively on them, often within hours of their
announcement, is second to none. But I must take
issue with him when he chastises New Zealand Herald
political editor Audrey Young, as he has just done, for
blogging about a stray chicken in Parliament Grounds.
Has the man no poetry in his soul? The symbolism of
this lone bird—nicknamed Tegel by security guards—
running free in the shrubbery outside the nation's
most prominent battery farm is enormous. It was let
loose a few days ago, apparently, along with several
others by someone whom Young describes as an 'idiot
protester'; the others have been caught but not the
plucky Tegel. Long may he/she roam! In fact, some
lines of relevant poetry have just occurred to me by
accident, so I'll inadvertently drop them in here:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse squawks of unpremeditated art.

No Right Turn, who seems unusually choleric in his
anti-chicken blog, condemning 'this trivial bullshit' and
demanding 'real journalism' from Young, also needs to
remember that doing a blog as well as being a full-time
political reporter for a newspaper or TV channel ain't
easy, and if a subject—however paltry—presents itself,
you'll tend to go with it. Especially, as in this case, when
you have a scoop. With the exception of Fairfax's
Colin Espiner, whose blog has become so popular that
he could hardly not keep it up, and is no doubt allowed
time specifically to do so, most Press Gallery journos
required by their editors to blog have struggled to
maintain a regular output. Guyon Espiner hasn't
blogged for seven weeks, nor Duncan Garner for a
month; it had been three weeks between blogs for
Young herself before inspiration happily struck her in
the form of this remarkable case, which is, I venture to
think, unique in the annals of Parliament. Almost as
remarkable, the fearless Young, not hitherto known for
her prowess with the camera, got an exclusive picture
of Tegel in full prowl across the parliamentary lawn.
When one thinks of the headless chooks running
around inside the House, let us be grateful that one
with its head still on is running around outside.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Indirect lighting

The time has come to commend the novels of Penelope
Fitzgerald. The Blue Flower is one of the most exquisite
short novels I know, and The Beginning of Spring, which
I’ve just finished, is almost in the same class. Fitzgerald and
Shirley Hazzard stand apart from other late-20th-century
novelists, in my view, in their supreme ability to withhold
and under-explain, rather than gush and overwrite. They
let motives be revealed gradually or indirectly through the
actions of the characters, so their narratives are lit
obliquely—from the side, as it were, rather than from
overhead. Even major plot developments aren’t signalled
by flashing signs; the reader comes across them almost by
accident. The true forebear of Fitzgerald and Hazzard is E M
Forster, who once said ‘Only what is seen sideways sinks
deep.’ It is true; only in very rare moments, perhaps two or
three times in a lifetime, do we grasp a great truth by
looking straight at it. Life is casual, rather than causal, more
happens by hazard than we care to acknowledge, and while
novelists by definition impose some kind of predetermined
story on their situations and characters, only the very best
of them successfully refrain from getting in front of the
story and blocking the picture, like some kid at a cricket
ground jumping up and down in front of the television
camera as it pans the crowd.

The other great virtue of this kind of fiction-writing is that
it flatters the reader’s intelligence, which works for me
anyway. Again, I commend the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Give the money back, Witi

As a writer of fiction (one published novel), poetry and
non-fiction (one published biography, hundreds of
magazine articles and columns), I cannot conceive of a
situation in which I would knowingly publish passages
of other people's work as if they were my own. I simply
cannot. The writer knows what's his and what isn't. All
of us writers appropriate other people's phrases and
ideas but we either acknowledge the source or cloak it
by paraphrase. Nothing Witi Ihimaera has said since
the plagiarism in his latest novel was revealed has
adequately explained how he came to do what he did.
And I agree with people like Karl Stead and John
Reynolds that it's not a trivial offence, nor one that can
somehow be magicked away by post-modern musings
along the lines that 'nothing is original' and 'everyone
does it' and 'most of that stuff was out of copyright
anyway.' The fact is, he practised a deception on his
readers. For that reason alone, the Arts Foundation's
decision to go ahead and give him an award of $50,000
at this time is a colossal misjudgment that discredits
New Zealand literature, undermines the integrity of the
awards and makes a mockery of the standards to which
university students are supposed to aspire. The best
thing Witi could do now, not least for his own reputation,
is give the money back.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Penny Lane

Hearing 'Penny Lane' on the radio just now, I was taken
back to London in 1967 and the release of the single, this
on one side, 'Strawberry Fields Forever' on the other.
Even then, I think, we knew it was the beginning of the
end for the Beatles; both songs had an autumnal quality;
they signalled goodbye to the Liverpool out of which John
Lennon and Paul McCartney had come, while at the same
time attaining a level of maturity and sophistication in
song-making beyond which they could hardly hope to go.
All that came after was, in a sense, pastiche and parody,
right down to 'Let It Be' and 'Octopus's Garden'. In fact,
I'd agree with those who think that Revolver was the
Beatles' apotheosis; but if that album was the signature,
then the 'Penny Lane'/'Strawberry Fields' single was the
paraph, the farewell flourish underneath. What terrific
songs they both are, one so McCartney, the other so
Lennon, both extraordinary evocations of childhood, one
drawing on the music-hall tradition of past years, the
other pointing towards a more complex, layered kind of
music: call that single a 20th-century cultural hinge, as
indeed the Beatles themselves were. For three or four
unforgettable years in the 60s they made the door swing
both ways.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Is that clear

Thanks to ANZ economist Cameron Bagrie, interviewed on
Morning Report the other day, we now know what needs to
be done to make New Zealand productive and prosperous.
Asked by Geoff Robinson for an ‘idiot’s guide to the
economy,’ the redoubtable Bagrie tore into the subject like
a shark leaping for bait. In essence, this is what he said
(edited, but all his own words):

We need to step back and look at the big picture, because
there’s an underlying weakness in the tax base and not a
lot of money left in the kitty. According to fiscal
projections we need to get used to a new normal as we
come to the long end of the curve. There is no free lunch
here. There has to be a process of fiscal consolidation. The
economy is a soup-bowl, a saucer or a bathtub with a few
waves sloshing along the bottom. If we look like going
back to the old normal, the stick’s going to have to come
out and the Reserve Bank’s got to knock that on the head.
Yes, there is positive momentum but going forward it’s
not a robust recovery as we turn the corner. The ball’s not
going to go over the fence every time. There’s a behavioural
aspect to the economy that’s going to be the big driver.

Good to get that clear.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Must see

Wow. The program for next year’s international arts
festival in Wellington has just been announced, and I can
hardly wait to order my tickets. Top of my must-see list is
the celebrated French poet/acrobat Philippe Sacré-Bleu,
who balances on a wheelbarrow while reciting Rimbaud,
but put me down, too, for the Royal Canadian Mounted
Police Brass Band’s dazzling tribute (with searchlights) to
the music of Leonard Cohen—God, if that doesn’t fill the
Westpac stadium I don’t know what will—and Hamlet on
skateboards by the cult Danish duo Elsie & Nore.

Nor could I bear to miss the world-renowned Hungarian
gypsy ensemble with their dancing kittens and the
critically acclaimed German theatre production of Janet
Frame’s Owls Do Cry, or Die Owlen Gehen Boo-hoo-hoo.
And I just couldn’t look myself in the eye if I failed to get
along to the breathtaking midnight waterfront
performance by Siegfried and the Grinning Skulls, which
should still leave time for the cutting-edge Cuban/Italian
dance troupe Pasta La Vista and their flaming spaghetti
routine. Oh, and then there’s the cult Danish duo (a
different one) whose Jemaines of the Day pays oblique
tribute to Flight of the Conchords and Dave Dobbyn.

And I haven’t even mentioned writers’ and readers’ week!
But just quickly, I’ve put a circle around the panel debate
between the challenging British thinker Gordon Brown-
Blair, the Bedouin-American novelist Britney Sands
whose books have taken Algeria by storm, Bill Manhire
and the controversial Swedish blogger Oskar Nominee.

Above all, let me plead with all intending festivalgoers not
to miss the avant-garde theatre ensemble from Belarus: in
the course of their three-hour production no one utters a
word—in fact, no actors appear on the stage at all. Part of
the charm of the work, apparently, is that for the audience
it remains an open question as to whether the ensemble
has even arrived in the country. This is precisely why we
need international festivals, because local artists just can’t
afford to put on work of that scale and depth. Book now!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

On looking into a selection of Sassoon's verse

The first half—up to and including 1915—is all starlight
and roses and misty dreams; like he wrote these poems
with a daffodil wilting in his hand, yearning vaguely
towards the horizon. This is the work of an effete young
man with too much money and time on his hands. It's
watery stuff that runs through the mind and leaves no
mark. Bapaume and Carnoy are yet to come.

The second half—mud; then blood; then mud and blood
and spattered brains and God knows what else. Reality
has risen up and kicked this man in the guts. There in
the trenches, among the sodden mangled dead, Sassoon
is shocked into writing what's in front of him, not what's
far away and over the moon. And, through him, we see
what it all came to—the posturings of Empire, the pomp
and strut of statesmanship, the glittering brilliance of the
Viennese court, the old men's political games—all that
came down to stinking boots and rotting corpses and the
intestines of the man next to you spilling into your lap.
In Sassoon's verse the long 19th century quivers and
dies, and the 20th century arrives like a grinning skull,
accompanied by a scamper of rats.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Concert night

It is some time since I went to an orchestral concert,
so going to one last night was like being exposed
afresh to a foreign culture. For a start, we noted with
interest that, as soon as the doors of the auditorium
closed just on 8pm, there was a mass migration from
the cheap seats into the unoccupied more expensive
ones. Swept along by an irresistible tide, we too joined
this great movement of peoples, seeking, as humans
have always done, to improve our lot in life. Then
came another surprise: the conductor of the NZSO
turned out to be a rubicund Finn with a startling
resemblance to Father Christmas. Unfortunately, he
had but one gift to give: one of his own symphonies
(he has composed 230 of the things), which went on
for some time in such a discordant way that I was
reminded of the anonymous lines sent to the Boston
Herald in 1924 after a Stravinsky concert:

Who wrote this fiendish Rite of Spring?
What right had he to write the thing,
Against our helpless ears to fling
Its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bang, bing?

Luckily the rest of the concert consisted of Sibelius’s
stirring Karelia Suite, a surge of Wagner suggestive of
political incorrectness and—what I was there for—
Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, sung by Norwegian
soprano Solveig Kringelborn. Overshadowed, possibly,
by the frabjous Finn, whose massive back and flowing
white mane were a constant distraction, she seemed to
retreat modestly from the challenge of singing Strauss
rather than go boldly towards it. Why she had to stand
several metres back from the microphone was never
clear to me, though I'm sure there's a valid acoustic
explanation. Never mind: nothing could detract from the
overall beauty of the music, by which, I felt, the NZSO
players were wonderfully inspired. Though I may not go
to many of their concerts, I'm happy to see a portion of
my tax payments keep them in business. And yes, it's
true: no recording in the world can beat the thrill of
hearing great music played live.