Friday, May 21, 2010

The good news

A state house in South Auckland. Fish and chips for
dinner. Again. The phone has been cut and the power has
gone out because the family can’t afford to pay the bills.
By candlelight a woman gasps for life: the end is near, as
a bronchial condition brought on by years of living in a
damp underheated house takes its toll. She was supposed
to be getting home help but the district health board
stopped funding that service. Suddenly the sound of a car
pulling up in the driveway. It’s young Malo, just home from
an (unsuccessful) job interview on the other side of town.
He rushes in. ‘Mother,’ he cries. ‘The news—it’s just come
through—the tax cuts in the Budget. People earning
$70,000 or more are going to do really well out of it! Many
of them will get hundreds of dollars more a week!’
Exhausted by the fight for every breath, the dying woman
somehow musters the strength to give a grateful smile.
‘Thank God,’ she murmurs. ‘Thank God for that. And the
business community, the corporate investors? Please tell
me they will suffer no more.” Malo’s grief-torn face is, for
a moment, lit up by a tremendous smile. ‘It’s all right,
mother,’ he says softly. ‘Company tax has been reduced to
28%.’ The sick woman struggles to rise from her bed.
She’s clearly excited beyond her ability to contain it. ‘But
that’s…but that’s—‘ ‘Yes, mother,’ replies Malo. He's
almost crying now. ‘Yes. That’s even lower than Australia’s
company tax rate.’ She sinks back into her pillows. Her
strength is almost gone. ‘And John Key? That nice Mr Key?
Tell me he’ll be all
right.’ She feels her son’s hand on her
brow. ‘You need worry no more, mother,’ he says proudly.
‘Thanks to the tax cuts, John Key and people like him will
get $350 more a week.’ She gropes for his hand, squeezes
it with her last ounce of strength. She can die happy now.
There is peace, and justice, and goodness in the world. The
rasp of breath grows fainter. Malo weeps helplessly. The
candle flickers, and goes out.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mean to say

The older I get (and I am now 63), the less art works its
its magic on me. Is this typical for a sixtysomething or
is it just me? The poets, the writers, the musicians I
once worshipped now seem more like people with
problematic personal lives, who, unable to cope with
reality, found solace in invented worlds. Gorgeous,
enchanting, brilliantly embroidered worlds, but
artificial nonetheless. Well, that’s what art is, isn’t it?
Artificial. And fair enough too. In the great cosmic
wash-up quadrillions of years from now, it may be that
art will be all that the universe remembers us by—that,
and certain inexplicable acts of kindness. I hope human
beings will go on getting as much out of art as I have in
my life—and still do, but with a growing jadedness.
Why, I find myself wondering as I try to embark on a
new novel, would anyone go to the trouble of creating
this fantastically elaborated fictional world? Have they
failed so soon, I muse out loud as I toss the book aside
halfway through page 10, to cope with reality? Even a
phrase in a non-fiction book can try my churlish
patience, such as this from Country Driving: Three
Journeys Across a Changing China by Peter Hessler.
In Beijing, he writes as early as page two, it was a ‘gray,
muggy morning, the sky draped over the city like a
shroud of wet silk.’ Once, I would probably have thought
this a fine turn of phrase, and, indeed, would have
written one just like it myself. Now, like Bertie Wooster
bewildered by Types of Ethical Theory, a book foisted on
him by a ghastly girl called Florence, I can only respond
helplessly, ‘Well—I mean to say—what?’

Friday, May 7, 2010

Bulldogs and berets

Memorable ad placements of our time: on page 75 of the
March issue of the American monthly magazine Harper’s,
politely and unobtrusively placed in a column of small ads
for, among other things, European berets, English
bulldogs and a CD of romantic piano music, we find this:

Poisoned environment.
Toxic Landscape. Ecotourism Fraud.

I’m impressed that they should care so much—even a four-
ad in Harper’s would appear to cost about $US100—but
also dismayed that 'they' (these anti-1080 campaigners)
should be so fanatical about their cause that they are
prepared to condemn the whole of New Zealand to the
rest of the world on the basis of it. Whether it will deter
well-heeled Harper’s readers from holidaying in New
Zealand is anyone’s guess. Probably, given the hazards of
modern travel, ranging from volcanic ash to passengers
strapped with explosives, a little possum poison isn't
going to be the No 1 disincentive for leaving home.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Confession of a tragic New Zealander

Even more baffling is why some tragic New Zealanders
are passionate followers of English teams despite
having no parochial connections to them, but that’s
another story.—Karl du Fresne blog

In early adolescence, probably when I was about 13 or 14,
and at my sexual and intellectual peak, I began taking a
keen interest in the English football league, and would
check the results weekly, as fascinated by the names of
the clubs, I fancy, as I was by racehorses’ names (about
which I have written elsewhere). Those were the days
when the results—all of them, all four divisions, as there
were then—were not just published in the papers but
read out on radio. Burnley 1, Huddersfield 2; Nottingham
Forest 0, Sheffield Wednesday 0—that sort of thing, on
and on for a good few minutes, chanted sonorously, like
a litany, by a newsreader just after the news at (if I
remember rightly) 8 or 9 o’clock on Sunday morning.
For reasons unfathomable to this day but possibly simply
because I liked the look of the word, I adopted Chelsea as
my favourite team and, alas, they have stayed that way in
my affections ever since, through decades of vicissitude
and disappointment, leavened only by the occasional
triumph, eg, the FA Cup in 1970. Unlike my old colleague
Steve Braunias I’m not a particularly enthusiastic fan of
soccer, much preferring to watch rugby—though I once
lived quite close to the Stamford Bridge ground in London
I never went to see a game there—but to this day my eye
still strays to the English football results to see how
Chelsea are doing. In recent years, of course, they have
become a super-club, always near the top of the league
and winning trophies regularly. The fact that they have
done so by spending squillions of pounds on buying star
footballers from other countries, to the extent that the
current team can scarcely contain a single player born in
London, let alone Chelsea, has not weakened my
kneejerk reaction to the word Chelsea, nor will it cloud
my satisfaction when, this coming weekend, Chelsea
wallop Wigan Athletic at Stamford Bridge to win the
premier league for 2009-10. Such is the enduring power
of words, certain of which can cast a lifelong spell on us.