Thursday, September 18, 2014

More like the dull snap of a raw carrot

Sometimes I get to read pre-publication copies of books. These things are given to booksellers to read, and they pass them on to customers they think have a clue about the particular genre, to get feedback for the retailer and the publisher/distributor.

Yesterday I finished one by a mega-selling household name US crime writer I gave up on many years ago. I was reluctant to take it but was assured by the bookseller that it was a return to form.

These pre-publication copies are edited but not proofread so one isn’t allowed to quote from them. Fair enough. But I’m going to without identifying the novel or novelist. Mr Discretion!

Best thing for me: the scene of the crime is a lovely, tiny town in Massachusetts that I have spent time in. Worst thing: the writing. 

Here is the opening paragraph:
Copper flashes like shards of aventurine glass on top of the old brick wall behind our house. I envision ancient pastel stucco workshops with red tile roofs along the Rio dei Vetrai canal, and fiery furnaces and blowpipes as maestros shape molten glass on marvers. Careful not to spill, I carry two espressos sweetened with agave nectar.

Here are some more quotes, in no particular order:
Not much to worry about. The nearest neighbour’s about ten acres away. 
“Not to mention once manner has been established and then I overrule it, that doesn’t always set well either,” I replied. 
Their collective mood is electrically charged, glimmers of upset flashing, and their aggression rumbles from a deep place, threatening to explode like a bomb going off. 
Hand-painted signs advertise homegrown produce The Garden State is famous for, and I swallow hard. I feel choked up with emotions I didn’t expect. If only life were different. I’d like to pick out sweet corn, tomatoes, herbs and apples. I long to smell their freshness and feel their potential. Instead what’s around me is like a noxious fog. 
I end the call and say to [X] “I feel as if we’re in the middle of some nightmarish nexus.” 
It’s not up to [X] to disavow him of his assumption that [Y] is still working the [Z] case or maybe any case. 
I snap on a lamp and imagine distant gunfire. Not an explosive noise or a sharp crack but more like the dull snap of a raw carrot, a celery stalk, a green pepper I break in my bare hands. 

Earlier the narrator had ripped up basil leaves “with my bare hands”.

So here is Delta Goodrem live in Sydney with “Bare Hands”:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How to write an obituary

English newspapers have the best obituaries. Best of them all, weeks after week, are the ones in the Economist. Why? Because Ann Wroe, their anonymous (all Economist articles are unsigned) obituarist who unfailingly catches the character of the recently departed. In the 13 September edition she wrote a brilliant one on Joan Rivers. Quote unquote: 
Her sad-ass critics said she kept crossing the line, and all the more as she got older. She’d say, What line? She’d made a career out of loudly mentioning really unmentionable things—right from the 1960s, when you couldn’t say “abortion” on TV, especially if you were female, and so she said “She had 14 appendectomies.” No one else dared even squeak about these things. But by talking about them you could take control and laugh at life, even when it truly hurt. “Lighten the fuck up!” she would shout to her audiences. “These are jokes.”

And here is an interview with Ann Wroe about her process. Quote unquote: 
The subject of the week’s obituary is decided on Monday, and it must be written and polished by Tuesday. This 36-hour window is a marathon attempt to consume as much information as possible. “I just sort of feed it all in. Make a huge great collage in my mind. And then it compresses down terribly: there must be millions of words in there and it just comes down to a thousand.”
 Often, Wroe is stepping inside the mind of someone who was utterly obsessive about something, and briefly, their passion must become of great importance to her as well. “There was one man I wrote about who was a carpenter, and he specialized in making drawers. It’s quite difficult to get drawers to go in and out smoothly, and you can understand how that could become an obsession. So I had to learn how to make them as well, and find out which woods were best. I had to be just as enthusiastic about how to do it as he was. [...] 
Wroe insists on only reading source material by her subject. “I never go to any books written by anybody else. I go to the words on the paper, their diaries. I think it’s the only way to do it, because that’s the voice that has disappeared.”

Amazing. So here is the late Warren Zevon in 1980 with “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”:

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Suffragette City


In breaking pedestrian-crossing news, Wellington City Council announces:
Wellington has a new character to replace the ‘green man’. Kate Sheppard will now signal when it’s safe to cross the road.

Excellent. Away with you, Green Man. I will miss you even though you reminded me of one of Kingley Amis’s best novels.

So here are the Red Hot Chilli Peppers with “Suffragette City”:


Monitor: Peter Grace. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Rory Sutherland on e-cigarettes

The Wiki Man column in the Spectator of 30 August begins:
I was waiting on an office forecourt recently puffing on an e-cigarette when a security guard came out. ‘You can’t smoke here,’ he shouted. 
‘I’m not, actually,’ I replied. 
He went to consult his superior. A few minutes later he reappeared. 
‘You can’t use e-cigarettes here either.’ 
‘Why not?’ 
‘Because you are projecting the image of smoking.’ 
‘What, insouciance?’

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK or, in his words, “Fat bloke at Ogilvy. He tweets here.

Friday, September 5, 2014

In praise of: Peter McLeavey


This morning a courier delivered a package from Booksellers NZ. It contained a signed copy of the NZ Post Book Awards’ book of the year, Jill Trevelyan’s biography of Peter McLeavey, published by Te Papa Press. I won it in a competition on Twitter.  Result!

I was keen to read the book because a) obviously it is good,  b) it covers a part of NZ culture that interests me, c) I admire Peter very much and d) I also like him because he was very kind to me in my year of hell when I lived in Wellington, 1979-80. I spent a lot of time in his gallery. It was an education.

Also, I was curious to see if the book included my favourite painting of Peter. Sadly, it doesn’t. So here it is: 


This is Peter McLeavey as a Nun (1986) by Mary McIntyre, which appears on page 72 of Robin Woodward’s monograph Mary McIntyre: Painter (Whitespace, 2010).

I first saw it at RKS Gallery in Auckland in an exhibition of Mary’s portraits – from memory the Sylvia Siddell portrait, The Post-Modern Birthday Cake (1987) was there; I can’t swear to it but probably Dick Scott in a Shower of Parts (1985) was too. None of these three subjects was entirely thrilled with how they were depicted in these large paintings. (Much later Mary painted me. I got off very lightly.)

Keith Stewart quoted Mary in this Quote Unquote profile: 
“Peter McLeavey didn’t like what I did of him, but then he didn’t pose for me. I decided I would do a portrait of him because I could see that I could do it. I get this feeling that grabs me, an epiphenomenon, and I know. It’s sort of a sense of power, and once I get it I know that if I pursue the feeling I will do a painting the way I want to. 
“I got that with Peter McLeavey. I decided that I was going to paint him because he is such a distinctive person, and I saw quite a bit of him. I followed him around, looking at him, and he knew I had it in mind. He said to me, ‘I hope you are not going to paint my portrait.’ Then I saw him at a party in this nun’s outfit, and he was marvellous. Totally marvellous. He just looked like tough old Mother McSomething-or-other who had taught you at school and cracked you over the knuckles with her stick. A nun from my childhood. My god, he was like it. And of course he was brought up a Catholic. 
“I put the convent in the Rimutaka Hills in Wellington in the background, and Terry Snow’s daughter when she was little. She posed for us and pulled this face, which was perfect. So I put her in. And I gave him this apple for his role. He was the pre-eminent dealer in New Zealand at the time. He still is. He’s a very fine dealer. So I gave him the apple.”

Peter was brilliant at matching a client with a piece they would love and might just about be able to afford. I am still kicking myself for not buying the small Mrkusich work on paper he tried to sell me. It was beautiful – I can still see it – but was more than a month’s salary from my miserable job at the Listener. I could have done it, just about, but chickened out. Idiot.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Like a horse etherised upon a table

For research purposes I spent the morning at the Cambridge Equine Hospital. Take it from me, you ain’t seen nothing until you have seen an anaesthetised horse stretched out in an operating theatre with tubes coming and going everywhere, undergoing arthroscopic surgery on its hock.

Fun fact: the first thing a horse wants to do on waking up after surgery is to eat, and eat right now.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Apolitical blues

It’s a funny thing but every three years in early spring (for overseas readers: election time) my thoughts turn to this Little Feat song and I have it on high-rotate. 

This version is a performance in London in 1977 with Mick Taylor, the former Rolling Stone, guesting. Playing slide guitar on-stage with Lowell George he doesn’t seem in the least intimidated. Respect.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Wittgenstein, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

While the rest of the country, at least that part of it that pays attention to politics, has today been tweeting  about Judith Collin’s resignation from Cabinet, Paul Litterick and I have been on Facebook discussing the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Paul linked to this article by his (LW’s, not PL’s) biographer Ray Monk, about Wittgenstein’s views on scientism. Quote unquote: 
Scientism takes many forms. In the humanities, it takes the form of pretending that philosophy, literature, history, music and art can be studied as if they were sciences, with “researchers” compelled to spell out their “methodologies”—a pretence which has led to huge quantities of bad academic writing, characterised by bogus theorising, spurious specialisation and the development of pseudo-technical vocabularies. Wittgenstein would have looked upon these developments and wept.

Quite. And then to cheer himself up he would have gone to the movies. Wittgenstein was a fan of Westerns: 
In the two years whilst living in the Argentinian architectural work which was his family home, it was mainly the American Western movie star Tom Mix who made an impact on him. Once the place of a true craftsman’s discovery, the typical light-hearted American Western offered him enough material to share the wild, wild experiences of real men: the cowboys.

So here is “Cowboy Movie” from David Crosby’s 1971 album If I Could Only Remember My Name. It tells the story of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s implosion. Spoiler alert: it involves a woman. Key line: “They each wanted that Indian girl for their own”. I have been within a metre or so of the woman in question and am not surprised she caused problems for the men.  Decoding the lyrics: Fat Albert is Crosby, Eli is Stills, the Dynamiter is Nash and young Billy is Young.

Crosby performs the song live with the latter-day Allman Brothers Band, along with Graham Nash and  the Grateful Dead’s bassist Phil Lesh, both of whom played on the original recording. Weird combo, but it works. Three drummers! Warren Haynes is the guitarist channelling Jerry Garcia who played on the original (did I mention it’s a great album? Basically the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Crosby multi-layering his vocals) and Derek Trucks is the kid guitarist who does a brief but brilliant solo.

It is not a stellar video but the performance is. I like the fact that the band don’t really know the song and so Nash has to be band-leader and show them where the stops and starts are. This is real live music without a net.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Mark Broatch on culture


The 74th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is by Mark Broatch is his Pop Vox column from the March 1996 issue. The occasion is his appointment as the Listener’s new books and arts editor, replacing Guy Somerset.

“Mark who?” I hear you ask. “Where does he come from? Is he sound?”

Perhaps I can help here. In the 90s when he was an IT journalist he contributed to Quote Unquote as book reviewer and columnist. Later he was at the Sunday Star-Times for five years, as Culture editor among other roles, and has been with the Listener for many years on and off, as chief sub-editor, then deputy editor and more recently, since new owner Bauer downsized it, writing freelance articles. He lives in Auckland.

Apart from journalism: in 2002 he and I co-wrote Get the Net: the Internet and email made easy for New Zealanders (Hodder Moa Beckett); in 2009 he published here and overseas In a Word: the essential tool for finding the perfect word (New Holland), and in 2011 he shared the Buddle Findlay Sargeson fellowship. He is, I think, the first published author to be appointed books editor of the Listener since Vincent O’Sullivan.

So yes, he’s sound. Here he is in 1996 on the perennial vexed question of how we fund our culture.
State of the Art 
As I swanned around Paris over the Christmas break, attending concerts and frequenting as many museums in a week as one might carpark buildings at home, I couldn’t fail to appreciate that, whatever else the French might do badly, they certainly know how to do culture. Sure, they spend fabulous sums on it every day out of suffering taxpayers’ pockets. And, sure, there are artistic faux pas best forgotten. But the successes are spectacular. 
And they are enjoyed by everyone. There seems no firm line between popular and high culture. Anyone who has been to Paris knows that the depth of its culture – from its remarkable monuments and galleries to its parks and cafes – is wow-material. 
As if you hadn’t already noticed, this column is intended to swing round popular culture, those aspects of our social and artistic life in which we, the great unwashed, the people-meter button-pushers, bathe ourselves – as compared to the eau-de-cologne of high culture we dab behind our ears. Isn’t that the difference? 
Well, perhaps vive la difference. But the French might also say, what difference does it make? Because cultural life at the fag-end of the 20th century is such a melange of aesthetic interchange, cross-dressing and lost luggage, parting the waters like that might not, in the end, be very useful. 
Popular culture, like post-modernism and political responsibility, is indefinable. Oh sure, we all have ideas about what it means: the Top 40, Shortland Street, Jackie Collins. . . Some would say, in a John Banks voice, that it’s not even culture at all. The term has certainly been tarnished a little by its political cousin “populist”. All we can really say is that it’s recognisable as cultural or artistic activity aimed at a broad audience. But even that’s not quite right, since pockets of popular culture – say, performance art or jungle rap – are highly esoteric in their aims and pretty narrow in appeal. 
If high culture is art, music, film and performance that is enjoyed by an elite few with the time and wealth to devote to its appreciation, what makes it so different from model-aeroplane racing or body piercing? How did the concept arise? 
Certainly, it has to do with social attitudes and class links; history, development and longevity of the art form; and patterns of associated behaviour. It’s to do with aesthetic values. It’s also to do with money. 
Royal and private patronage of the arts over the centuries was provided for the aristocrats’ own aesthetic appreciation and peer-to-peer exultation, but their results were also performed and exhibited before the masses. Classical music, opera and Shakespeare’s plays were enjoyed in their day by very mixed audiences. Verdi’s and Rossini’s arias were whistled in the streets. 
Modern capitalism saw the rise of a commercial culture which was willing to support the arts for a financial return. A new kind of culture arose in response from which both art and business benefited. The old culture got left behind to fend for itself. 
Today, of course, most people enjoy many types of culture, at different times, for different reasons. Much popular culture is now inextricably linked with commerce through forms of advertising, and is thus usually cheap enough for the masses, while most forms of high culture are funded by state grants, licence fees, corporate sponsorship or high ticket prices. 
We may believe that events like Opera in The Park are reversing the separation of cultures, but perhaps corporate sponsorship has simply replaced the patronage of the aristocracy, allowing 300,000 middle-class Aucklanders to get a dose of culture from companies selling mass-market products. And if not sponsors, then lottery money to replace ever-dwindling government (ie taxpayer or ratepayer) support. 
Perhaps this is genuinely democratic art in that it funds itself and appeals to a broad audience. On the other hand, if an art form, say opera, is slowly regaining its former position as a truly popular art form, couldn’t state support be justified to help it get on its feet? For a while, perhaps, but not indefinitely. 
On a third hand, are some forms of art which are regarded as an essential component of our culture, but can’t support themselves commercially, ever worth keeping alive? 
The question of state funding of art has always been a minefield of criticism, because it involves cultural commissars deciding what constitutes art and who misses out. Everyone becomes an art critic. 
Creative New Zealand (formerly the Arts Council) was criticised in February’s North  and South for handing out money to various projects, ranging from the Royal New Zealand Ballet ($1.63 million) and Auckland Philharmonia ($995,000) to Quote Unquote ($20,000) and Tangata Records ($10,000). 
Culture Minister Doug Graham defended board members by saying they were good people. I’m sure they are, but they are also easy targets. Because New Zealand has such a small population, such niggardly (in comparison to many other countries) state funding of the arts, and the consequent relentless commercial pressures on artistic activity, means that audiences miss out on quality. 
Quantity is not choice. Quality is what should strive for in whatever type of culture we fund through our taxes. 
It doesn’t matter if an opera is soap or seria, as long as it’s good. We shouldn’t fund bad anything, however high or low is on our personal cultural scale. But the good deserves whatever support we can give. Then we might, once again, show the French a thing or two. 

Best line of the 2014 NZ Post Book Awards


It came from Vincent O’Sullivan, of course – winner of the poetry award last night for Us, then.

VUP’s Twitter feed reports that Kim Hill said to him today at the winner’s event, referring to the fact that he is not only a poet but also a dramatist, novelist, short-story writer, biographer, librettist and Mansfield scholar:  “There's no form you don't write.”

He replied, “Well, I don't write cheques very often.”