Wednesday, December 31, 2008

And counting

In Buddhist tradition—my advisers tell me—at the year’s
turn it is traditional for temple bells to peal 108 times;
with each peal people are supposed to let go of their
negative feelings, one by one, till all are gone and the
new year can be begun afresh.

Your assignment today is to list the 108 negative feelings.
Have fun, and a happy new year.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Recycled lint

Great to see an interview with Leonard Cohen in the
latest Listener: that’s not an easy get. The interview is
credited to Clive Simmons, a name not known to me,
though Google tells me he’s a ‘controversial’
Australian journalist. It seems that Simmons has sold
the same article elsewhere in the world, which is fair
enough, but my particular interest lies in its
penultimate paragraph, which, quoting Cohen, reads:

“We are very large beings wheeling through
existence,” he says, “and we aren’t even
shaped the way we appear. You catch the
lint of another’s being on your wheel, and
they do the same. You get tangled up
inextricably, and although we don’t often
know what to do with it, love is the only
redeeming possibility for human beings.”

Hm. The interview, by its own account, was done at the
Glastonbury Festival in Britain in June, and it’s mostly
Cohen looking back over his life and music at 74. The
above paragraph follows reference to his former
manager (and lover) Kelly Lynch, who allegedly
swindled Cohen out of $16 million; and the paragraph
is preceded by the words ‘Surprisingly, though, he is not
bitter about her perfidy,’ so a reader would reasonably
conclude—indeed, could do no other than conclude—
that Cohen’s remarks (‘We are very large beings etc’)
were made during the Glastonbury interview six
months ago.

Not so—not unless Cohen has a freakish ability to repeat
virtually word for word something he said 30 years ago. I
have here a clipping from a Rolling Stone interview with
Leonard Cohen under the publication date of January 26,
1978. Part of it goes:

We are very large beings wheeling through
existence, who aren’t even shaped the way
we appear. You catch the lint of another’s
being on your wheel. And she does the same,
and you get tangled up inextricably.

Now I don’t have the part of that article showing the
writer's name. It might well have been Simmons; he says
in the Listener that he has interviewed Cohen twice before.
If it’s not, then he’s in big trouble. But even if it is him both
times, he’s guilty of uplifting some words from a 1978
interview and transplanting them into a 2008 interview as
if they’d been said then. Which is misrepresentation in my

I hope I'm wrong; but I fear I'm not. And the trouble with
just a few lines or even one fact in an article being wrong
or false, is that you then start to suspect the veracity of the
rest. Come in, Clive, and reassure us.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Backing into 2009

In 1990 the incoming National government wasted no time
in getting rid of laws like the Pay Equity Act and the Labour
Relations Act. Within a year or so it rolled back most of the
late Labour government’s progressive social legislation.
Now, in 2008, the incoming National government has also
wasted no time in repealing a different set of laws. This
time they’re rolling back the green agenda. Or, to put it
another way, they’re giving the fingers to global warming,
resource depletion and all that namby-pamby nonsense
about saving the planet.

It is perfectly valid, actually, to ask what planet John Key
and his colleagues are on, because all the evidence so far is
that it’s not Planet Earth. They're talking up roading at the
expense of rail. They've ridiculed out of existence a more
(literally) enlightened approach to light-bulb use. They’ve
dispensed with the previous government’s requirement,
nugatory as it was, for petrol to contain at least a splash of
biofuel. They're allowing again the building of coal- and gas-
fired power stations. They've put the Emissions Trading
Scheme on ice.

Of course the argument is that we’re in the middle of an
economic crisis (how convenient) and that people’s incomes
and immediate fiscal welfare must come first. Fireman, save
that job! Can they not get it through their skulls that, if not
confronted now, the much more significant eco-crisis we’re
in will cost everyone far much more in the long run?
Goodness knows, the Clark government was scarcely an
environmental role model, but it looks positively deep
green compared with the Tories' business-friendly blue.

My heart sinks when I hear John Key boast that economic
growth is his 'No 1, No 2 and No 3 priority'. The Speech
from the Throne, which outlined the new government's
program was, as Rod Oram said in his Sunday Star-Times
column, a speech for 'a time and conditions that no longer
exist.' Brilliant. New Zealand has just elected a government
facing backwards. So we blunder into 2009, not greenly, as
it were, but bluely and Brownlee.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Shivering again

Hearing music by Fauré on the radio I’m irresistibly and
painfully reminded of the time when I sat in a cold
Invercargill church on a Sunday afternoon many years ago
and listened to a live performance of Fauré’s Requiem
while in a state of what can only be described as sin. The
music, so sacred, so holy, went through me like a knife. It
spoke of a state of moral being from which I had all too
grossly fallen. Oh, and I was shivering again. Music rebukes
us like that, cuts into the gut, tears up time and shreds it in
your face. I remember once a few years ago, out of the blue,
hearing a song I’d completely and utterly forgotten from my
youth, ‘Safe in My Garden’ by the Mamas and the Papas, and
bursting into tears, because it took me straight back to 1968
and the absurd agony of being young and alive and romantic
in that year. It still moves me, that extraordinarily prescient
song by John Phillips that signalled, even in its own time,
the necessary death of youthful idealism. Only, I didn’t see
it then. He did.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Long ago and Fleur away

Came across that early poem 'Ngauranga Gorge Hill' by
Fleur Adcock the other day, the one in which she recalls
the gorge road in the days before the motorway was
built, and what a 'glorious and terrible' thing it was
to freewheel down it on your bike. Imagine doing that
today! No, don't.

Heart in my pedals, down I would roar
towards the sea; I’d go straight into it
if I didn’t brake.

That sent me back to Big Weather, the anthology of
Wellington poems published in 2000 by Mallinson
Rendel and still selling well, I read recently. To my
surprise, 'Ngauranga Gorge Hill' is not in it. I guess
it's not all that good a poem; it may also have
disqualified itself from what is essentially a celebratory
anthology by concluding, of Wellington, 'I think it was
a barren place.' Dunno. But the image of young Fleur
hurtling headlong down the old gorge road lingers.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

They don't mingle like that any more

It wasn’t till I researched 1968 for my book on Helen
Clark that I remembered what a cutting-edge figure the
Duke of Edinburgh was back then. We all know that
those were the high hippie days of free love and free
spirits but I’d forgotten about free mingling, at which
the Duke excelled. When he visited Auckland in 1968
the New Zealand Herald led the paper with this huge
front-page headline: DUKE MINGLES FREELY WITH
. Awesome. And
when he landed at Auckland airport, in a twin-engine
Andover of the Queen’s Flight, the Herald was right
there, in the finest journalistic tradition of eyewitness
reportage: ‘As the aircraft taxied to a halt by the
welcoming party the Duke could be seen at the controls
wearing dark glasses and an earphone headset.
Wearing a single-breasted brown suit, he stepped
briskly from the aircraft into the bright sunlight to be
welcomed by the Prime Minister, Mr Holyoake.’

Brown, brisk, bright. Sigh. There was poetry in the press
in those days. It is not all, I fear, that has changed for
the better.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Biggles works it out


—news item

Air Sergeant Biggles was worried. He took a cigarette
and tapped it thoughtfully on the table. ‘Look here,
Ginger,’ he said. ‘Noticed anything strange about Algae

Ginger Hebblethwaite stretched his long limbs and smiled

‘Can’t say I have, old chap. What’s the problem?’

‘No problem,’ muttered Biggles reflectively. ‘It’s just
that he doesn’t quite seem himself these days.’

Ginger cocked an eyebrow. ‘Come to think of it,’ he
said, ‘the fellow does look a bit green about the gills.’

‘Precisely,’ responded Biggles, flicking ash into Ginger's
lap. ‘I’m wondering if he’s up to the next op. It could be
dicey work.’

‘You may be right,’ mused Ginger. ‘But—

The door flew open and there was Algae, still with that
merry gleam in his eye that the Hun had learned to fear,
still with the same rakish tilt to his moustache, but

‘I say, you chaps—‘ he began, then faltered. Some organic
change was taking place in him. He seemed to be
dissolving. Biggles shot a sharp look at Ginger. Both men
leapt to their feet, but too late. Suddenly, all that
remained of Algae was a puddle of green slime.

‘This is no time for party tricks!’ rapped Ginger, but
Biggles silenced him with a stern gesture.

'No, wait!' he ejaculated. 'Waste not, want not! There
could be a use for Algae yet. If we could just harness the
potential energy here...'

Biggles' mind was working fast. Already, in his
imagination, the Bigglesworth Bioflow Corporation was
becoming a reality. Ginger looked at Biggles admiringly.
He had to hand it to him. And he did. It was very slimy,
though, and he washed his hands thoroughly afterwards.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Silver beet among the gold

My father in the war: a volunteer, he sailed for England
as a 22nd Battalion warrant officer shortly after his
wedding on St Patrick's Day, 1940. The battalion spent
some months stationed in Kent before being sent to
Greece to stem the advancing German tide. That didn't
last long. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner,
mostly in the NCO camp (Stalag 383) at Hohenfels,
Bavaria. He hardly talked about the war at all to us
children. All the evidence we have indicates that it
changed him for the worse. The difference between his
loving letters to my mother early in the war, and the
black-tempered father we knew, testifies to that.

A rare reference to the war: once, at lunchtime, when I
was complaining about having to eat silver beet (a
perfectly reasonable objection, one might think), he
rounded on me and roared out something to the effect
that, in prison camp, they’d have been glad just to
scrabble for stalks from the dirt and I’d better eat up and
be thankful for what I had.

I think Keith Ovenden may have it right when, in his
biography of Dan Davin, describing the terrible things
men experienced in war, the blood and the gore and the
pain, he goes on to say:

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.

The American poet Louis Simpson has also written: 'To a
foot-soldier, war is almost entirely physical. That is why
some men, when they think about war, fall silent.
Language seems to falsify physical life and to betray those
who have experienced it absolutely—the dead.'

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

Denis Glover, coming home from the war, sank into gloom
at the first sight of New Zealand from the ship. It was like
returning to jail, he said.

Michael Cunningham in The Hours on how it was after the
war: 'So many of these men are not quite what they were
(no one likes to talk about it); so many women live
uncomplainingly with the quirks and silences, the fits of
depression, the drinking.'

What did my father do immediately after the war? It seems
that, like many New Zealand soldiers, he spent several
months in England waiting to be shipped back home. There
is some suggestion that he spent at least part of that time in
hospital. He returned to New Zealand in July or August
1945 and, before long, my mother conceived me. During the
war I was inconceivable.

All day long he was fighting for you,
And he didn’t even know your name.

—Phil Collins song lyric

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Leader of the pack

Helen Clark may not have been everybody’s cup of tea but
she was always ahead of the pack.
—Reg Dempster, Albany; letter to editor,
NZ Herald 4.12.08

There we have it, I think; as astute and succinct a summing
up of Clark’s political ascendancy as you could wish for.
Thanks, Reg, whoever you are. A year into researching my
biography of Clark (to be published by Penguin next
August) I retain my original impulse, which was the wish to
honour a remarkable woman whose accomplishments
deserve to be recorded—and analysed. Forgive me the trite
observation, but I am not sure we shall see her like again in
a hurry. Already one observes a mediocritization of politics
under John Key and National; a narrowness, a pinched
quality. Clark has been an extraordinary leader in more
ways than one, and I hope to reflect that in my book. Which
isn't to say it'll be a whitewash or a hagiography; that would
be to dishonour her. It was strange to see her not on the
front bench on TV at the opening of Parliament yesterday;
the sooner she ups and goes to Geneva or New York or
whatever illustrious global posting awaits her, the better,
because she is too big for this Parliament and even this
country now.

Speaking of packs, Clark was once asked in a music quiz,
'If you absolutely had to walk on stage to a classic rock tune,
what would it be?’ She replied: ‘Leader of the Pack.’

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Advice for living (a selection)

Never make friends with your hairdresser.
If in doubt, form a chain of buckets.
Stand well clear of the doors.
Relicense your karma by July 1.
Change leaders at regular intervals.
Work in the dark.
Fail better.
Speak the word only.
To thine own selves be true.
Wear odd socks on alternate Wednesdays.
Look back harder.
Habituate yourself to the vast.
Adopt a measured tone.
Hear yourself without sympathy.
Distrust thoughts thought while travelling.
Do keep up.
Never have enough: enough is always too much.

And remember, even the wise know more than you do.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The sun also sucks

I have been trying, and I mean that most sincerely, to read
some old literary classics; but have had to give up on both
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway and The Secret
Agent by Joseph Conrad. In a word, they are too mannered;
too, not to put too fine a point on it, literary. Having been
bookish from an alarmingly early age I never thought I’d
find myself saying this, but fiction doesn’t cut it for me like
it used to. And, as these examples show, I don’t mean just
the new stuff coming out; the classics can weary me too.
The inevitable conclusion is that, as one gets older (I am 62)
one has less patience with these artificial worlds created for
us by novelists. They have to be bloody good to get us past
the first few pages, otherwise you think, 'Why bother? Why
enter this elaborately constructed imaginary place at all,
while time ticks on?' (Possibly one is haunted, whether one
knows it or not, by the memory of all the bad fiction you’ve
slogged your way through in earlier years.)

Having said all that, I wouldn’t like to be without the
satisfaction that a really good novel can bring. As blogged
here, this year I’ve greatly enjoyed Sea of Poppies by
Amitav Ghosh and The Blue by Mary McCallum; Kate
Grenville’s The Lieutenant is rich and absorbing too. And as
for classics, I read The Great Gatsby again, for the fourth
time in my life, and still found it the closest thing to a
perfect book I know. So all is not lost. Maybe I’ve just been
exposed to a fraction too much fiction.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Fish for dinner

From The Forest of Fear, a book I read as a boy about
the tropical forests of South America, this single image
remains: a horse halfway across a piranha-infested river,
rearing up in terror, the flesh already stripped to the bone,
the original fast food.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Seen the Peters-beaters, anyone?

So, where are the Peters-beaters now? Memory can play
tricks, of course, but I could have sworn from the intensive
media coverage for most of the past year that the issues
raised by the manner in which New Zealand First was
funded, and by the extent of Winston Peters's knowledge
of it, were of major significance for our democracy. Even
after Peters was cleared of just about every allegation made
against him, the Dominion Post was still insisting that
serious questions remain unanswered. Seems nobody cares
about that now. Since the election, and NZ First's demise,
not a squeak from the journalists who pursued Peters so
relentlessly for months on end and threw everything,
including the Kitchin sink, at him. Strange. It's scarcely
credible that this sudden silence has anything to do with
Peters being voted out of Parliament, and therefore no
longer being a threat to the electoral chances of the
National Party, so what are we to assume? Guess I just
haven't thought about it hard enough. Must put my
thinking cap on again.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Spider-Man speaks

In her Health column in the latest Listener, a magazine
with which I have had some slight association, Linley
Boniface cites a 2004 report in the New Zealand
Medical Journal thus:

Widespread public concern about white-tailed
spiders in New Zealand appears to have started
in 1991, when Denis Welch, political writer for
the widely read NZ Listener, was unable to
produce his regular column because of an
alleged white-tailed spider bite.

Enough already with the "alleged." I was bitten all right,
and the spider must have died in the biting, because we
found its corpse later and had it identified by an
arachnologist from the National Museum as a lampona
or Australian white-tailed. It happened at home on a
Saturday afternoon, but it was not till I'd gone in to
Parliament for a Jim Bolger press conference and was
waiting on the ninth floor of the Beehive that I felt my
elbow starting to throb. By the time I was driving home
it had got so painful that I diverted to the hospital and
got myself dosed with anti-histamines at a&e. Even so,
I was flattened for four days, feeling very ill all over, not
just in the elbow, which swelled to the size of a golf ball.
So be on your guard, children, for the beastly lampona:
you'll know it by its long narrow body, the pale stripe
across its back and its slow way of moving over a wall.
Once bitten, twice shy.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Hands down

I’m glad to see someone—Playmarket director Mark Amery
in a letter to the Listener—reminding us that the dramatic
potential exploited by Anthony McCarten in his movie
Show of Hands was first perceived not by him, as articles
about the film imply, but by Deborah Tucker and Stephen
Bain nearly 15 years ago. Inspired by a Lower Hutt car-yard
competition, in which whoever kept their hand longest on a
Honda City Turbo won it, these two talented thesps
produced the play City of Hands, which ran at Bats Theatre
in 1994 and was described by the Listener’s Wellington
theatre critic at the time, some rooster called Welch, as
having been done “stunningly well.” I’ve read several
interviews with McCarten about the genesis of his film, and
in only one of them does he even glancingly refer to this
production. Bad form, Anthony. You’re a good writer
yourself, and, on the evidence of Show of Hands, a skilled
film director, but credit where credit’s due. Ironically,
towards the end of the film I noticed that fine actress Dra
McKay as a crowd extra; she was the star of the original
play. Show of Hands, by the way, though beautifully and
even lovingly made, ultimately fails as a film because
McCarten loads it with too much moral freight. The point
of the original, and the reason it succeeded so well, was
that the competition brought low-income earners together
in a weird kind of solidarity at a time when benefits were
being slashed and times were tough. It was an economic
parable—not a love story, or at least not the kind McCarten
tries to make it. Five out of 10.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Cold water

As for about the 17,00th time in my life I filled the kettle
this morning in order to make a pot of tea, I was
suddenly troubled by this thought: What if my lifelong
practice of filling the kettle with cold water, as
instructed by my mother when I was still on the breast,
was not in fact a wise and sensible thing to do, as my
mother firmly believed, on the grounds that the
cold-water tap was less likely to have germs in it, but the
consequence of both her and I having been sucked in by
a cunningly disseminated myth, put about by the electric
power companies of the day as part of a master-plan to
ensure that, with kettles taking longer to boil, more
power would be used and company profits would thus be
all the greater? On such flimsy and deceptive edifices the
habits of a lifetime may well be built. Musing on the
follies of the ages, I drank my tea in a more reflective
spirit than usual.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

War in peace

Seeing Vera Drake again on television tonight, I'm
reminded of what a very good film it is. Quite apart from
its intrinsic dramatic value, it captures convincingly the
reduced quality of life in postwar Britain. Well, it looks
convincing to me. And how semi-militarized society
remained: this was true of New Zealand too. Public life
up to the 1960s was so orderly—all those hats—because
the habits of war stayed strong in peacetime. For at
least 15 years after 1945, New Zealand carried on as if it
were still at war: only now the enemy was ourselves.
Marching in step was the thing, with polished buttons.
The average suburban home was an armed encampment,
the maternity hospital a barracks. Babies were fed to
order; mothers presented arms on command. We never
went so far, though, as the regimented fun routines of
British holiday camps. We had the hi but missed the ho.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The cupboard

Along the living-room wall opposite the fireplace was
a very large cupboard with tall matchlined doors and
a little snibby catch. In this cupboard, which had about
it a whiff of the 1920s and 30s, were rows of long
shelves on which were dumped household detritus:
bolts of cloth, balls of string, hot-water bottles, towels,
linen, old magazines, newspapers, discarded tools and
toys. Scissors. Sewing kits. I cannot begin to tell you
how this cupboard comes into my mind. It had, and has,
an undiminished quality of being. To call it inanimate
would be an insult: it knew stuff that we didn’t know, its
interior had a palpable presence in which was embodied
the knowledge of every item that had passed in and out
of those doors and rested on those shelves. The doors,
which reached almost to the ceiling, watched everything
that went on in the room. They stood tall guarding us,
watching over us, keeping their counsel but ever-patient,
ever-wise. I felt them at all times to be a comfort.

Not for one second did I imagine that through the back of
the cupboard lay a magical land. The cupboard itself was
world enough.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

On the border

"It takes so little, so infinitely little," writes Milan
Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,
"for a person to cross the border beyond which
everything loses meaning: love, convictions, faith,
history. Human life—and herein lies its secret—
takes place in the immediate proximity of that
border, even in direct contact with it; it is not
miles away, but a fraction of an inch."

And yet, John Cheever says in his journals, "The
most wonderful thing about life seems to be that
we hardly tap our potential for self-destruction.
We may desire it, it may be what we dream of, but
we are dissuaded by a beam of light, a change in
the wind."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Key's moment

I find it hard to see John Key flushed and grinning like a
schoolboy at realizing his boyhood dream and not smile
too. Other people’s happiness can be contagious, and he
is so manifestly happy at getting the job of Prime
Minister. Good luck to him. So far, 10 days on from the
election, he has not put a foot wrong; he seems to be
putting into practice exactly what he planned to do,
namely, govern as inclusively as he can; and he has
clearly learnt a thing or two from Helen Clark, who pretty
much laid down the template for political management
under MMP. I have no illusions about the direction in
which a National-led government will take New Zealand
(see previous blog) but it would be churlish to deny Key
his moment and not to wish him well.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nia and Jhia

I’m sure John Key and the members of his new government
would be shocked to be told that, before they even take
office, they’re already condemning several infants and young
children to violent deaths at the hands of family members.
Yet when a government comes to power emphasizing above
all the importance of economic growth, business efficiency
and increased profit, it is making its priorities very clear. It
betrays itself constantly as an administration beholden to
numbers, not human beings; monetary values, not moral
ones. Defenders of that kind of politics will say "Yes, but
greater economic prosperity equals higher living standards
equals happier people equals less stress and strain equals
less domestic abuse and violence." That might just possibly
be true if Keysian economics delivered equal benefits to all;
but we know from experience (just look at the recent reigns
of Bush, Blair and Howard) that centre-right governments
inevitably favour those at the richer end of the scale, leaving
those at the other end on the same old roundabout of
poverty, unemployment and welfare dependency—the very
conditions in which domestic violence is likelier to occur.
What John Key and friends have to understand is that the
true price of unlimited economic growth—or rather, of a
political commitment to that chimera—is invariably paid by
children, women and those less able to protect themselves.
The chain of causation may not be easy to see, especially
from behind the mirror glass of a 25th-floor boardroom,
but it can be traced. This is an argument not against some
people making more money than others but against some
people making obscenely more money than others, and
against money being the measure of all things. The most
passionate pledges one hears from Key and co are along
the lines of getting New Zealand back into the top half of
the OECD rankings or matching Australia's productivity or
removing restrictions on commercial development. Yet on
the day of the general election the New Zealand Herald ran
a story revealing that violent assault has become the main
cause of facial surgery in this country. Eighteen years ago,
road accidents accounted for 33 percent of such operations;
that figure is now just seven percent, while the percentage
attributable to violent assaults has risen from 31 to 42. It
would be a tremendous thing—we can dream, can't we—if
all the combined energies of a new administration could be
brought to bear on stopping the torture, murder and sexual
and physical abuse of children and women in New Zealand,
in the same way that a really dedicated campaign has
succeeded in bringing the road toll down by more than half
and saving thousands of lives. In the names of Nia Glassie
and Jhia Te Tua, and all those who have suffered and
continue to suffer and die brutally, needlessly like them,
I call on John Key and his new government to make this
their supreme goal.

"A world must be overturned, but every tear that flows and
might have been staunched is an accusation; and a man
hurrying to a great deed who knocks down a child out of
unfeeling carelessness commits a crime."—Rosa Luxemburg

Monday, November 17, 2008

No nook unshot

Amitav Ghosh’s new novel, Sea of Poppies, is a wonderful
read. Since being lucky enough to have the opportunity of
interviewing Ghosh (rhymes with “bush," by the way) a
few years ago, I have pounced eagerly on any books of his.
Like Mister Pip, this one was on the final shortlist of six
for this year’s Booker Prize, so The Gathering, which beat
them both, must be a remarkably fine piece of work. Sea
of Poppies
weaves together the stories of several people in
19th-century India in such a dashing Dickensian way as to
leave you hungry for more—which, I’m glad to say, will
come, as it's the first of a planned trilogy. It also plays as a
savage though never heavy-handed satire on the British
Raj, embellished by the colourful use of Anglo-Hindi, an
almost forgotten patois that Ghosh has swotted up. You
have to work it out for yourself as you go along but the
context usually provides clues enough: a rootie in the
chola, for instance, can only be a bun in the oven. There
is also delight in coming across that totally forgotten
word “nook-shotten,” celebrated by Cyril Connolly 70
years ago in The Unquiet Grave and, before that,
probably used only by Shakespeare (in Henry V).
Applied to a coastline, it means much indented with
inlets and bays. Astute readers of this blog will
undoubtedly find a way of dropping it into conversation
before long, especially if planning a trip to Fiordland.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Gidday, mate

Something wants to destroy me. It comes in the night and
sits on my chest. Heavy. Stifling. Oppressive. But it has no
power itself to kill me; its job is to raise the idea, put it on
the agenda, so to speak. At three in the morning it can do
a pretty good job of convincing me of the uselessness of
existence. Which is dirty work, but I guess someone’s got
to do it. No doubt we each have our own version of this
charming character. Doris Lessing calls it the self-hater; or
it might be said to be our death, which, as Maeterlinck says,
comes into the world with us when we are born and goes
with us everywhere. Maybe, instead of fearing it, I should
make friends with it. Gidday, mate.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

From Westland Row

Forty years ago today I arrived in Dublin, set on seeing
Ireland as part of my OE but with no other aim in life
unless it was to write poetry. I had come across the
Irish Sea by ferry from Wales overnight, and caught a
train from the port of Dun Laoghaire. It was 8 o'clock
on a Sunday morning when I stepped out of Westland
Row station and into a dank dark Dublin. It seemed to
me then like a medieval city. I was quite alone, perhaps
as alone as I have ever been in my life. I knew just one
person there, and when I had walked to Stephen’s
Green, and found him gone from the address given,
I was even more alone. I'd been counting on him to pay
back some money he owed me.

Not sure what to do, I wandered through the deserted
streets to the sound of church bells proclaiming mass.
Here and there, a black-shawled woman hastened along
the pavement to prayer. I must have walked back to the
station, looking like easy prey for hustlers, because a
man approached me and recommended a bed-and-
breakfast place where I might stay. I did so, spending
money I could not afford while trying to find my lost
and hopefully well-funded friend. This I did by hanging
around the gates of Trinity College, where he was a
student, waiting for him to turn up. After three days, I
think, he did; he had little to spare himself, but possibly
feeling responsible for this indigent Kiwi who had
turned up out of the blue, he put me up in his rooms at
Trinity for a few nights.

If the city seemed medieval, this ancient university was
like something out of the Dark Ages. It was very, very old;
very, very cold. I huddled shivering in my friend's rooms
while he went to classes; looking for something to read, I
came across a paperback: The Magus, by John Fowles.
I had never heard of it. I started to read. I read for nine
hours straight, got some sleep, then finished it in four
more hours. It set my imagination on fire. I almost
physically devoured that book—for once in my life, the
cliche was true. I was absolutely ripe for this novel that
seemed to peel back the layers of life, mystery by
mystery, until...another mystery was revealed. It was
written, Fowles has said, for people like I was then:
callow young men with heads full of poetry and inflated
ideas about themselves. I shall always be grateful to it,
though. The life-wisdom it taught me and the imagery it
implanted in me have never gone away.

No doubt everyone has a book or perhaps a film that did
something like that for them when they were young.
The Magus
was mine.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Meet the new boss

Power has passed from Labour to National as seamlessly as
a Piri Weepu pass to Dan Carter. No fumbles, no falls. Are
we surprised? Are we transfigured? Are we transformed?
No, because in a sense Labour still won the election. Helen
Clark’s final victory was to force National to fight on
Labour's ground—such has been her and Michael Cullen’s
success in moving government back towards the centre and
away from the right-wing adventure playground of the
1990s and 1980s. John Key denied jokingly on television
that he was Clark’s boyfriend, but as Steve Braunias
observes in a superb piece for the Sunday Star-Times, it’s
hard to tell. In order to get elected, Key has had to become a
more voter-friendly version of Clark. He certainly judged
correctly that there was no future in trying to be a voter-
friendly version of Don Brash, if such a beast is conceivable.

On the other hand, it is perfectly arguable that the main
reason Labour held power for nine years was its retention
of the financial reforms instigated by Roger Douglas and
supported enthusiastically by the right ever since. In short,
the difference between the two main parties is not so great:
they are almost identical, in fact, as far as the economic
fundamentals are concerned. Power has merely shifted
from one faction of Party New Zealand to another. And, as
entrepreneur Selwyn Pellett told Tim Hunter of the Sunday
Star-Times, the faction that has just taken over is a “tired
old party. Apart from John Key, what’s behind it is 1990s
thinking—and the world’s moved on.”

Sure has. New Zealand voters have made a timid, cautious
choice at this election. This may provide short-term
comfort but beyond that, it fails to address the ecological
credit crunch, a crisis far more urgent than the one putting
the global financial markets in a spin. Appallingly,
ecology barely got mentioned by any party except the
Greens during the campaign. Beyond the bubble of petty
politicking and ostrich economics, it was as if the Earth’s
atmosphere didn’t exist. The campaign was virtually a
planet-free zone.

And now we have Key lustily singing “What the world needs
now is economic growth.” Yeah right. Like it needs a hole in
the ozone layer.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

All in the same vote

Across the road from where I live, on this sunny Saturday
in Wellington, there’s an orange sign with an arrow that
says VOTING. In my romantic not to say sentimental way
I find this deeply reassuring. As is the busy hall where the
the voting is taking place, with people—metamorphosed
for the day into citizens—on all sides doing their
democratic business. For this one day in three years we
can at least allow ourselves the happy delusion that what
we as ordinary people do has some consequence in the
greater world; that we can make a difference, however
fleeting. It’s a sentimental view because (a) sluggards like
like me need to do more than tick a piece of paper once
every three years if we want to make a genuine democratic
difference and (b) elections leave fundamentally
unchallenged the institutions that shape and direct
societies like ours. Still, I won’t say no to a vote. Across
the road I go, tra-la, tra-la. The sky is blue, the sun is
yellow, the leaves on the trees are green.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Yes but

It’s impossible to overestimate the symbolic value
of Barack Obama’s election to the US presidency,
particularly to African-Americans. Joy is utterly
justified. The positive impact of his victory will
resonate in a multitude of ways for years to come.
For America, and probably for the rest of us on
this planet, this is a turn for the better.


Let’s not get too carried away here. What really will
change? The United States has only changed leaders,
not the fundamentals of its economic system, nor its
gargantuan military-industrial complex, and the
chances of an Obama administration making a
profound difference to either are not great. As some
charismatic liberal-left leaders do, Obama will put a
nicer face on capitalism till the next right-wing
warmonger comes along. He will do good,
undoubtedly; that wouldn’t be hard after the harm
done by George W Bush. But the revolutionary
change that many of his his ecstatic followers seem
to think will happen won’t.

It feels mean saying that at such an historic moment,
but expecting the Earth of him is not doing Obama
any favours. Nothing but the most rigorous realism
will serve him well now.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Oh yes, the people. Them

I see Mike Moore banging on again in yesterday’s Dominion
Post about the iniquities of MMP. I laughed outright when he
said that, when coalitions were being negotiated after an
MMP election,“squalid and sordid deals” are reached. Like
they never were within major parties under the first-past-
the-post system? Come on. Pull the other one, Mike. This
harking back to a supposed golden age of democracy when
parties were able to govern purely and wholesomely is
wearing thin. Politics is all about deal-making: Moore
knows that better than anyone. The difference with MMP is
that the deals are much more out in the open instead of
being hidden away inside parties, which then present the
results of these "squalid and sordid" transactions as if the
party were gloriously united.

As for first-past-the-post, the virtues of one party governing
alone, untrammelled, regardless of whether it gets a
majority of the vote, are apparent only to members of
Labour and National, who stand to gain most by such a
system. The rest of us see clearly that whatever
combination of coalition partners an MMP election delivers
by way of a government, that's because the people voted it
that way. And, pathetic though it may be, some of us still
cling to the idea that democracy is fundamentally about the
expression of the people’s will, not what’s convenient for
party A or party B.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Day of the Dead

In Mexico today it's the annual Day of the Dead, when
people celebrate the lives of family members and friends
who have died. According to my advisers, there is still
some kick to the ancient belief that the souls of the dead
return on November 1 (All Saints’ Day) and November 2
(the Day of The Dead) to receive offerings from the living.
So, in the hope they'll come to your home, you lay out
food and drink, light candles etc, and aim to show them
a good time before they head back whence they came.
Imagine the dead and the living exchanging memories.
The nearest we have to that in New Zealand culture is the
school reunion.

Friday, October 31, 2008

A week out

A week out from the election, the fact that we can even talk
talk about the possibility of a Labour-led government being
elected is a tribute to the nerve, desperation and sheer
ratlike cunning with which Helen Clark and her Labour
Party colleagues have fought to retain power. Though
distasteful at times, it has been quite refreshing to see them
having to go for it like this. In a perverse sort of way it
seems more honest. At least it has got Clark off her pedestal
and onto the pavements again. She is even acknowledging
now that up until recently it had been impossible to ignore
the fact that voters wanted a change of government; but in
her view the global credit crisis has got people thinking
again. Well, she would say that, wouldn't she; but the first
part of that (reported) statement is quite an admission for
the PM to make. In fact, I think it's a first.

By all odds National should still win this election and take
power, even if only propped up by Rodney Hide and Peter
Dunne; but you just can’t rule out Labour squeaking back,
along with some combination of the Greens, the Maori
Party and maybe New Zealand First. Suggestions that such
a result might somehow be undemocratic if Labour wins
fewer votes than National betray a misunderstanding of
how MMP works; they indicate, in fact, how persistent the
“two major parties” mentality still is, as if only Labour or
National had the God-given right to rule this nation till the
end of time. MMP is not about making it easier for a “major
party” to govern; it’s about authentically reflecting the will
of the people, as the first-past-the-post system hardly ever
did. A three-, four- or five-party coalition is just as valid an
expression of that will as any. One reason alone for not
voting National, actually, is their transparent willingness to
tamper with or even abolish MMP. We’ve got this baby this
far; let’s not deny it the chance to grow up and reach

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Who whom?

David Farrar on Kiwiblog has come up with a rather sad list
of 85 things he reckons the Greens would ban. This is his
attempt to paint the Greens as “the ultimate nanny state
party.” For instance, he says, they would ban smacking,
factory farming, coal-mining, nuclear power and fizzy
drinks from schools. Such rhetoric is useful for filling
blogspace because it requires no original thought, just the
closing of one eye and the shutting down of half the brain.
If you want to talk bans, it would be just as valid to say that
the political right, among whom Farrar is proud to count
himself, would ban the minimum wage from going up, ban
Kiwibank from being a true people’s bank, ban freedom of
choice for workers in favour of freedom of choice for
currency speculators, ban students from critical thinking,
ban whatever gets in the way of the sacred right to make
private gain at public expense. The list is endless. There’s
one ban I would like to see, though, and that’s a ban on the
inane phrase “nanny state.” Fact is, the “free market,” with
its insidious ideology and its economic power, puts far more
restraints on the way we live than any state or government
ever does.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hand over fingers

It would be amusing if it weren’t so bloody serious to
observe the governments of the world faffing about
and flapping their hands over “solutions” to the
“global crisis.” One can only view with the deepest
cynicism the cloudy bluster of politicians who now
undertake to "fix" the problem with "strong" action.
(Barack Obama is no better than the others in this
respect; to make a real difference, once in the White
House, he would have to promote an economic
revolution.) The fact is that by a series of considered
decisions from the 1970s on, these same governments
deliberately fostered the conditions in which capital
markets could run free from virtually all restraint. The
borders of nation-states melted away as sharebrokers,
investment bankers and currency speculators pretty
much did what they liked, especially when
computerization lent wings to their transactions. Nor,
at the global level, was there ever a regulatory body
such as commodity trade has with the WTO, however
ineffectual it might be. You could say it was a licence to
print money but hey, not even a licence was required.
Now we (viz, the vast majority of the world’s population
who are not market players) must all bear the negative
consequences of a speculative bubble that we never
shared or even saw the benefits of.

New Zealand signed up to all this, of course, in the 1980s,
so can hardly complain now. Maybe we had no choice in
certain matters, eg, unpegging the dollar, given the way
the US and Britain were moving in those days; but we
could have done a lot more to protect our national
economy and the people who make it work. Imposing GST
on financial transactions above a certain limit, for instance.
But no, the “markets” were not to be trammelled in any
way; they were supposed to be our saviours, ensuring that
by means of “the invisible hand” everything would work out
fairly in the end. Well, we can see the invisible hand now:
and it turns out, all along, to have been giving us the fingers.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Remember, you are only form

Some figurative paintings by Toss Woollaston on a wall.
I like these. A self-portrait from 1976; Edith at the piano;
a young man called Jeremy Classen on a rocky slope.
The human figures are so blended with their environment
that you can’t tell where they end and it starts. This art
tells us the physical truth about ourselves, namely, that
the matter of which we are made varies only in form—and
even then by not much—from all other matter. The same
spirit animates all. There is in fact no such thing as "the
environment” supposedly existing apart from us human
beings. We are as much a part of it as the leaves on the
trees or the worms in the soil. Even to speak of “nature”
betrays a modern urban consciousness.

In Woollaston’s painting Edith and the piano are one; the
man is the mountainside is the man. The artist himself is
the world.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Still reasoning thing

“In a sense, I am a moralist, insofar as I believe that one
of the meanings of human existence—the source of
human freedom—is never to accept anything as
definitive, untouchable, obvious or immobile.”
—Michel Foucault, 1980

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.
But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted
deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing
puts forth the moulding of its features from behind the
unreasoning mask.”
—Ahab to Ishmael in Moby-Dick.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Thrush hour

At 5 o’clock this morning a bird somewhere nearby sends
out a single piping call over and over, like radio time pips.
The other day, from my car window I heard a musical
phrase, five evenly spaced notes, the fifth falling away.
What birds these are I don’t know. Frankly I can scarcely
tell one from the other. Sparrow, blackbird, thrush, tui,
fantail…sure; after that, however, my ornithological
awareness rating is low. But I seem to have grown more
sensitized to birdsong, because I hear it clearly and often
now, often above the roar of the traffic. (Then again, if you
train yourself, walking down a city shopping street like
Lambton Quay, you can isolate the clopping, clacking,
shuffling sound of thousands of human footfalls
ceaselessly hitting the pavement; and sometimes,
especially as dusk comes on in winter, the birds make a
tremendous noise in the trees on the Quay as they sort out
their roosts for the night.) Whatever the street, though, I’ll
be walking along and suddenly my attention will be caught
and held by some mighty outpouring of song and I’ll look
up and there’s one of the little fuckers chirping his tiny
heart out on the top of a lamp-post as if the continuance of
the universe depended on it.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

—“The Darkling Thrush,” Thomas Hardy, December 31, 1900

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What Forster foresaw

I'm glad to see the New Zealand Book Council drawing
attention in its latest e-newsletter to E M Forster's short
story "The Machine Stops." Written in 1909, and unlike
anything else Forster ever wrote, it's a remarkably
prescient vision of the future as imagined by a great
writer 100 years ago. He got it far more right
than Wells or Verne ever did. "The Machine Stops" can
be found in Forster's Collected Short Stories and also in
its entirety here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Thin soup

The deep structure of news reporting requires certain
narrative loops to be regularly, repetitively completed.
This is particularly true of election campaigns, which,
in a way that is highly satisfactory to the media, have a
clear beginning, middle and end, and can be easily
reduced to their baldest, most obvious form: the
contest, the race, the fight. The metaphors are
irresistible when you don't have the time, resources or
incentives to think harder and report deeper.

At some point, you can bet, the gloves will come off. A
debate will take place at which a knockout blow could
occur. But the knockout blow isn't delivered. It never
is, actually. What would it look like if it was? No matter.
The stale imagery, into which the mind can slide with
minimal brain strain, does the job. At any given time
someone has to be on the back foot and someone must
have the upper hand. At some point there will be a stark
contrast between two parties or politicians—but, lo,
they will then be singing from the same songsheet.
Someone else will play the get-tough-on-crime card...

We have an impoverished language for this kind of
reporting and commentary, and as George Orwell said
in "Politics and the English Language," the more
slovenly the language, the lazier and vaguer the thinking.

In the information society there is only one
news story permanently running—an endless
pseudo-event cooked up according to an
invariable recipe and operating on a basis of
financial viability. It’s just that the corpses
floating in this soup come from different
places at different times of the year.—Victor Pelevin

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Happy campers


—headline, Dominion Post, 17.10.08

Time is a choice. We choose time: the pace, feel, shape,
length and location of it. It could be a room, a road, a
stage, a step, a presence, made from what we remember
of the past and what we imagine of the future. Time is
memory and imagination; there is, literally, no time like
the present.

"To be conscious is not to be in time."—Eliot

Yet I am haunted by the impression that time is passing...
I shape my day, each day, to satisfy this ghost.

You could say for instance that 53 years have passed
since, at the age of eight, I was sent to the Otaki health
camp for three months—because apparently I was too
small for my age and needed building up. Certainly I was
something of a runt, nearly always the smallest boy in
the class till my mid-teens. The ethos then was that
children needed lots of fresh air and sunshine and dairy
products and as little as possible skulking around inside
reading books and stuff. Having thoughts. I remember
faintly the dining-hall and dormitory at Otaki, and some
incident in the classroom in which we were taught
(normal school lessons continued). It was winter; we used
to be taken for walks down through the pines to the beach,
but I can't recall whether or not we swam. I do recall
lashings of tripe and cod liver oil, administered daily.
Ironically, shortly after coming home, having put on weight
if not height, I was assailed by a wave of headaches so
excruciating that I had to go into hospital for observation.
These have not recurred since.

“Life is a busy, happy business at a Health Camp.”
—advertisement, Listener, 24.9.54

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Will there be a worldwide financial crash? This question
was asked more than a year ago by Brian Easton in his
Listener Economy column
. He spelt out the whole chain
reaction that in his view must inevitably occur sooner or
later in international financial markets—and indeed it
has happened just as he said it would. It was a very
prescient column. Easton also wrote: “As far as can be
judged, our financial system is sound, and can bear
significant pressure from the world economy.” If that’s
right, then in my view Finance Minister Michael Cullen
should get a big chunk of the credit for keeping New
Zealand relatively stable.

Also able to see what was coming, with an unswerving
eye, was Bryan Gould, whose 2006 book The Democracy
laid out the whole grisly scenario. “We are,”he
wrote then, “a heartbeat away from a global crash.”

Should we pay more heed to voices like these? I think so.
They are still speaking—Easton in his Listener columns
and on his website, Gould in his new book Rescuing the
New Zealand Economy

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Drive, they said

Hearing the Greens on Checkpoint wrestling with the
vagaries of the Auckland transport system, if system it
can be called, I'm reminded of a blown opportunity
right up there with IBM turning away Bill Gates and
Decca saying no to the Beatles. In his memoir
A Lifetime in Politics
, former Labour MP Warren Freer
recalls that in the early 1960s the Auckland City Council
agreed to an inner-city underground rail system
connecting the northern and southern suburban lines.
Good grief. Was it so? “Mayor Dove Myer Robinson
even got to the stage of being photographed operating
a pneumatic drill where the work would be commenced.
Goosman put a finish to that! The Auckland motorway
system was born…”

Stan Goosman, the Minister of Works at the time, was,
Freer notes, a successful roading contractor whose
“natural leanings were towards development of roads and
motorways rather than rail.” The National government
also stopped—in its tracks, as it were—the Nelson railway
project started by its Labour predecessor. Drive, they said.

Your call

Between parent and child the messages pass invisibly
back and forth, like electrical impulses along a wire.
Not all of them are clear or even comprehensible;
many go completely unheard—at the time. But they
all register in the tangled circuitry of the heart and
may be reactivated years later by memory, chance or
circumstance. No communication is ever expunged.
The blow struck in 1955 or the word said in 1982 still
vibrates in time, like the echo from the formation of
the universe.

Diderot believed that everything we have ever seen,
known, heard or experienced—right down to a tint of
light or the look of grains of sand on a beach—continues
to exist within us. We retain these things in our minds
but fail to remember them.

Then one day the phone rings; and the call is for you.

Monday, October 13, 2008


I’d have thought John Key was on shaky ground in touting
his credentials for governing New Zealand by boasting, as
he did yesterday in his campaign launch speech, “I’ve
actually worked in the world of finance and business.
Helen Clark hasn’t. I’ve actually picked up a struggling
business and made it grow. Helen Clark never has. And
I’ve actually got stuck into a business, trimmed its sails,
and delivered some profits to its shareholders.”

Right. Wait a minute. Doesn’t Key come out of the same
right-wing camp that has insisted for the past 25 years
that it’s a mistake to give executive control of social
institutions and government departments to people
who actually know something about the work being
done in those places? That’s why, consistently since 1984,
we’ve seen accountants being appointed to run places like
hospitals and Treasury wonks to take charge of ministries
like Education. By the same token, Key would be the last
person qualified to run an economy, especially as the
particular business he was in—investment banking—is all
about maximizing profit pretty much regardless of other
considerations, and doubly especially given the current
crisis, which has been visited on us by the colossal
mismanagement of, you guessed it, investment bankers.

Key’s long speech, it should be noted, contains not a single
reference to the environment, global warming, climate
change, peak oil or anything of that nature (this nature,
our nature); even the centre-right's favourite weasel-word,
"sustainable," fails to get a look-in. His 11 "commitments"
are so bereft of ecological awareness that they amount to
giving a drowning man money instead of a lifeline. So much
for the future. Oh well, it’s only a planet we're talking about.

Happy birthday, Paul

I am a great lover of the popular song, and have no
preconceptions about what qualifies as a great one.
Cole Porter’s “Every Time You Say Goodbye” is an
exquisitely made song; you wouldn’t call “Knowing Me,
Knowing You” by Abba exquisite exactly, but on its own
terms it’s a tremendous song too. So is “Wuthering
Heights” by Kate Bush, though she never came near to
doing another like it. For exquisite you could also go to
Paul Simon’s “René and Georgette Magritte With Their
Dog After the War,” which is near perfect as dammit.
I love the sheer craft that goes into the making of these
songs and the way they touch universal emotions with
their particular combinations of music and lyric. "Safe
in My Garden" by the Mamas & the Papas moves me to
tears. Nick Cave's "Into My Arms," Rodgers & Hart's
"Where or When" as sung by Lena Horne...I could go on.
I won't. We all have our favourites. So I thank the
makers of those songs, who have given me such pleasure
and even joy, not to mention emotional guidance, over
the years. From "The Boxer" to "Born at the Right Time,"
from "My Little Town" to "Graceland," Paul Simon is
unquestionably one of them. Happy birthday, Paul.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Shrink big

Amid the raging tumult of the election campaign, it may
have been possible to miss the significance of the
announcement by Kapiti Coast District Council that the
status of the proposed Western Link Road has been
reduced from “highway” to “local road.” At the moment,
the only way to drive north from Paraparaumu Beach to
Waikanae is State Highway 1, which means that the
thousands of people living between the highway and the
coast have to cover much more distance than the crow
would if it flew. The Western Link Road, much nearer
the coast, would have made the journey more direct.

I was living on the Kapiti Coast when this project was
initially mooted; at that stage, a few years ago, it was
going to be a four-lane highway with major intersections.
The term "super-highway" gained some currency. A few
weeks ago, however, the council knocked two lanes off
that concept and now they're cutting right back on feeder
lanes and hormone-fed intersections. According to some
council panjandrum, quoted in the Dominion Post,
reducing the number of lanes at intersections will reduce
the road's environmental footprint, "making it more of a
local road than a highway." Let me quote further:

The council commissioned Common Ground
Studio, of Auckland, to come up with a more
environmentally friendly, lower-impact design
that preserved landscape features such as large
dunes, rather than bulldozing through them.

Glory be. Could the blinding reality of Peak Oil finally be
becoming perceivable at municipal level? We are going to
see a lot more of this from now on: fewer new roads, and
less grandiose ones if they get built at all. You don't have
to be an environmentalist to get your mind round this, just
an economist—though truth to tell, the two jobs are one
and the same. Kapiti councillor Peter Daniel has got the
hang of it anyway. "We are facing hard economic times,"
he says. "If we do not think small, I do not think we will get

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A good word

Anticipate is a lovely word with a precise and very useful
meaning, one that no other word supplies. It means to
successfully guess or figure out what’s going to happen
and to act accordingly. A rugby player who anticipates a
pass by a member of the other team is one who correctly
picks which way the pass will go and intercepts it or in
some way negates its intended effect. Many years ago,
however, anticipate began to be used in the sense of
expect, and now it’s commonly used that way,
particularly by politicians who think a long word sounds
more important than a short one. Thus John Key in
today’s New Zealand Herald, commenting on the state
of the nation’s accounts, as disclosed by Treasury:

We had anticipated they would be bad, but they
were a bit worse than we had anticipated.

If the word is correctly used, then it's impossible for
something to be worse than you anticipated. Expected,
yes. Expected would have done the job perfectly well. If
you must cut taxes, John, then cut back on the syllables
too. And help conserve a good word while you're at it.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Nice cushion

Of all political issues, “law and order” is the slipperiest
banana in the bunch. Short of a genuine terrorist
threat, it is far and away the easiest issue to whip up
fear and loathing about, and that goes both for
politicians and the media. Actually it is not even an
"issue" separable from society as a whole but seizing
on it and hyping it up is the first resort of the under-
stimulated news editor and the overblown politician.
I issue them both a challenge: try and debate these
complex matters without once using the words “law
and order” and see where it gets you. The phrase has
lost all genuine meaning, so you won’t miss it,
believe me. But not having to fall back on it, like a
soft cushion, might just make your thinking learn to
stand on its own two feet.

Friday, October 3, 2008


Every 12 years, as a rule, a New Zealand general election
coincides with an American presidential election. The
last two times it has happened, the latter scarcely
impacted on the former, mainly because the presidential
campaigns were one-horse races. Nixon was a shoo-in in
1972 and Clinton equally so against Bob Dole in 1996
(there was no clash in 1984, because of the snap election
here in July that year). In any case, the electronic media
were far less pervasive then; and besides, the presidential
contest is all over by the first Tuesday in November,
whereas New Zealand’s elections tend not to be held till
later in the month, leaving at least a couple of weeks for
an unovershadowed campaign. Not this time; the two
countries’ elections are only four days apart, and the
shadow of the Obama/McCain contest looms so large that
it’s making the Clark/Key tussle seem even more
insignificant than it actually is (in global terms). The
financial crisis only deepens the shadow; Tom Scott sums
it up well in today’s Dominion Post with a cartoon
showing Clark and Key saying grumpily to Wall St, “Do
you mind—we’re trying to run an election down here.”

Most elections are decided by swing voters, many of whom
make up their minds pretty late, so we can say with some
certainty that America’s choice on November 4 will be a big
influence on New Zealand’s choice on November 8. In that
sense a win for John McCain would, ironically, be good
news for Helen Clark, suggesting that in times of economic
upheaval you should stick with the known and the safe, of
whatever political stripe. Some New Zealand voters may
already have reached that conclusion, especially given the
National Party’s vagueness about its economic policy. For
that reason, clearly, the Nats have indicated that they’ll
announce the details of their proposed tax cuts earlier than
intended, ahead of the official campaign launch on October
12. The Wall St crisis and the “global credit crunch” have
put them in a tricky spot, however: how can they fund their
lavish promises without being improvident at the very time
when governments ought to be being fiscally conservative?

John Key reassures us that the economy is fundamentally in
good enough shape to allow such tax cuts to proceed, but
that argument cuts both ways too: by advancing it, he’s only
validating the Labour Government’s economic

Equally ironically, an Obama win would favour Key. But
either way, as the respective campaigns proceed, New
Zealand interest in the US election is tending to swamp
domestic issues: as I write, the airwaves and the internet
are alive with talk about the Biden/Palin vice-presidential
debate. It’s hard to imagine a Michael Cullen/Bill English
debate arousing such fascination; in fact, such a debate is
not even scheduled to take place. The whole election
campaign is dribbling along in an inconsequential way.
Genuine policy debate is virtually invisible; we get stirred
up only by personalities and peccadilloes. The truth is,
fellow Kiwis, we’re barely interesting to ourselves. Or
maybe we know, deep down, that what happens in
Washington is far more likely to influence our economic
and social well-being than what happens in Wellington.
Therefore, with such tiny power as we have, pen poised
over the ballot paper six Saturdays from now, we might
want to consider the extent to which we wish to encourage
or discourage the kind of mentality that has made Wall St
a byword for greed and hubris. Vote locally, think globally.

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.