Monday, July 10, 2017

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.


“THE ONES WHO KEEP QUIET” by David Howard (Otago University Press, $NZ25); “AMBIENT TERROR” by Victor Billot (Limetone Singularity Media, Dunedin $NZ19:99)

I approach a new colletion of poems by David Howard with something like excitement. Back in August 2012, I had the privilege of reviewing David Howard’s In-Complete Poems for Landfall Review on Line. That large collection was the poet’s complete poems up to that date. The poet (who at the time was 53) called it “in-complete” because he knew full well that a poet’s works are “complete” only when the poet is dead. I noted the consistency of many of Howard’s preoccupations – sex, cultural dislocation and religious enquiry – from poetry he wrote in his twenties to poems he was writing in middle age. While there was a certain opaqueness to the poet’s earlier work, there was in his more mature poems intellectual robustness, wide cultural reference and what is for some poets now a lost art – the sheer craftsmanship of rhythm, rhyme and stanzaic form. Particularly I praised Howard’s ability to write long poems that cohered as ongoing argument and observation.

How many poets now can really write long-form poems, as opposed to the “concept albums” (short poems arranged around a theme) that sometimes seem to dominate the poetry market?

All Howard’s skills are on display in his latest volume The Ones Who Keep Quiet. The blurb helpfully reminds us that “the ones who keep quiet” are the dead, but we would soon infer this from the collection’s contents. ALL the longer poems in this collection are, in effect, dialogues with the dead. All are portraits or reveries of either the dead or of the worldviews of past ages. Death hangs over them. God flashes through them in small shards, not fully revealed but piquing the quest of the spiritual (but undecided) poet. It is quite clear that David Howard has spent many years working on this collection – through a Burns Fellowship and three other residencies, including one in Prague. It should also be clear that the poet knows the full irony of his chosen title. The dead may keep quiet in a literal sense, but they still shape us, buzz in our minds and memories and force us to see the roots of our culture.

Let’s look at this volume’s longer poems in order of appearance.

The Ones Who Keep Quiet opens with the12 pages of “The Ghost of James Williamson”. It is a ruminative poem split in two. The first part is the monologue of the 19th century trader and businessman James Williamson himself. The second part is a monologue of….who? Or what? The ghost of Williamson or the poet? For the second part references the present age and the art exhibition for which this poem was written. There is here once again a long wrestle with God – does he or does he not exist or is he our plaything? And what of the afterlife and the fate of the dead? The very last line of this sequence is bathetic – perhaps intentionally so. Perhaps the narrator is an unreliable narrator. But there is the sure and certain weight of the past and the awareness that a maker of this country (even if a flawed one like Williamson) is in part the maker of us and of our environment. As always, this poet is a determined craftsman, forming the whole of “The Ghost of James Williamson” out of six-line stanzas with the rhyming scheme abc-cba

Though it is shorter, the poem “The Speak House” (ten pages) is built on a larger scale. Dense with literary and historical alusions [there are four pages explaining them at the end of the volume] “The Speak House” situates itself in the two last two hours of Robert Louis Stevenson’s consciousness as he faces his relatively youthful death in Samoa. Stevenson remembers, regrets, fears, exults – there are here the smells and sights of the Pacific island, but also those of Stevenson’s unco dour childhood in Edinburgh. There is much reflection on the inadequacy [or deadening effects] of words (as there is in “The Ghost of James Williamson”). There is a strong sense of God, but of God as shattered into different creeds and in the impact of Europeans upon the Pacific. This is a remarkably rich and evocative poem as its rolls from one reflection to another through its five-lined stanzas.

I am in two minds about “The Mica Pavilion” a  12 page poetic drama. It is moonlit and it has echoes of Orpheus and Eurydice. In 19th century Otago, as the (Chinese) moon goddess directs them and the (Maori) goddess of death confronts them, a Chinese miner woos a Maori woman against her father’s wishes. As in “The Speak House”, there is a sense of the fuidity and cultural formation of God; and the different conceptions of heaven and hell that are seen when diverse cultures meet. But is the poem in the end guilty of chinoiserie? Is this a European fantasy of two alien cultures? Read it and decide.

I feel a curious connection with the seven pages of Howard’s “Prague Casebook”. This is a poem about  the New Zealand academic (suspected by some of being a spy) Ian Milner, who spent some of the Cold War years in what was then Communist Prague. In my own first collection The Little Enemy (2011), I wrote a poem about Milner called “The Student of Prague”. I interpreted the man as a self-justifying ideologue who knew he had taken a wrong turn but was too proud to admit it. I think Howard’s interpretation of Milner in “Prague Casebook” is rather more forgiving than mine; but even so, the first section of Milner’s sickbed reveries comes through as the sophistry of one who hides behind tautology and musings on the power of language – but beween two musings by Milner, Howard sandwiches some of the unpleasant realities of the Communist state wherein Milner chose to live. Frankly, I think Howard is taking Milner down in a rather more subtle way than I did. Again I note the craftsmanlike care with which Howard presents Milner’s thought in 4-line stanzas of crossed rhymes.

The last of the five long poems that make up the bulk of this collection is the eighteen pages of “Because Love is Something Left”, about the nineteenth century naturalist and taxidermist Andreas Reishek in New Zealand. Most impressive is the central  section of this sequence entitled “apostrophe”, again written in abc-cba rhymed stanzas, expanding on the central image of a taxidermist as one who seeks perfection by trying to stop time and flux.

I would warn readers of any of these poems that David Howard’s work has to be read slowly and carefully. His poems are not “raves”. They are carefully structured and make demands upon the reader’s cultural capital. How easily can you recognise all those literary and historic allusions?

I would fail to present a clear view of The Ones Who Keep Quiet if I did not note that, while five long poems dominate the volume, there are many shorter lyrics.

“The World of Letters” is like an acount of the insufficiency of words to capture (or replicate) lived experience. “The Vanishing Line” is in effect a series of aphorisms, such as  “each perception is private, essential, isolating / like a poem.”  Or “A love song is a child climbing a tree / for the first, the perfect time / until the missed foothold.” “Family Secrets” presents a jaundiced view of (nuclear) family life forty or fifty years ago; and in the second of its three sections uses very unnerving imagery related to [but not explicit about] sex and reproduction. These are three shorter poems that stood out to me.

I grant that there are here some very personal poems that are opaque for the unintitiated – meaning for those who are not au fait with intimate details of the poet’s life – such as “The Impossibility of Strawberries” and “Being Prepared”. In many there is a recall of childhood and the sense of “instant eternity”, in that the recalled and preserved moment is the only possible eternity and the finality of death looms. You will note this tendency in  the pattern poem “Venture My Word”, where “I thought / the known world / at my disposal / … / it disposes of me / and you, the reader / we both go west / with the sun, another / /symbol of the centre / where every thing / made sense for one day.”

This is an intellectually challenging collection by a master poet who knows exactly what he is about.

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As I have noted before on this blog, if I review two collections of poetry one after the other in the same post, I am not implying a comparison between the two volumes. It is simply that both have come to my attention at about the same time. I can note, however, that Victor Billot is a very different sort of poet from David Howard. Committed politically to left-wing and working class causes (he has for years worked in a clerical capacity for a trade union), Billot in his collection Ambient Terror practises poetry as provocation, as direct social, political and historical commentary, as satire and as protest. This is not the poetry of dense cultural and literary allusion (like David Howard’s).

And that is the last comparison between these two volumes that I wish to make.

If I were at a poetry evening in a pub or city bar, I think I would enjoy listening to Victor Billot reading his poetry. The alcohol, the cameraderie, the desire that is always there to like what one is listening to, would all make me enjoy his angry diatribes against life’s and society’s injustices. Victor Billot presents poems of global ecological disaster (“Ocean of Tentacles”, “The Earth From Space”).  He writes an angry protest poem on the death of a young Vietnamese crew member on a non-unionised rust-bucket Korean fishing vessel (“48 14.5S, 168 18.76’ E”). In “The Prince of Darkness Attends a Work and Income Interview” he creates a nice piece of satire mocking the tone of such interviews. The long poem “Meat City” (apparently written twenty years ago) is a fun specimen of bohemian or old “Beat” blank verse, taking down the city of Auckland from a worm’s eye view. Billot also gets some mileage out of wistful descriptive poems like “Port Chalmers” and “Polar Flight”.

As performance pieces I think these would be great.

But here’s my problem (and, dare I say it, the problem of most performance poetry). Once you see such poems in cold print on the page, they often fall apart. Their populist rhetoric, their tricks and their political appeals lack nuance or (in many cases) craft.

Experienced from the page, an anti-Donald Trump poem (the “pussy grabber in chief”) called “Beast of the Hour” tells us “The old it is dying, the new cannot be born, / and shadows stalk through this night before dawn.” Oh dear! These lines sound like a socialist chant from c.1910. Rhyme requires great skill, but in “Heat Death of the Universe” or “2016, the Unauthorised Biography” or “The Walking Dead”, the rhyming couplets come too close to sheer doggerel. The same is true of “Trans Pacific Express” and “FVEY” (about the “five eyes” spy system). They would probably get cheers at a poetry slam or rap competition, but witty they ain’t. “New Year’s Eve 2015” is a great rant about bad media and New Zealand going down the gurgler, but it is already dated in its very perishable topical references. When I read “Brexit” I am basically reading a rant which tells us the poet doesn’t like the smelly English working class; and there are a number of “poor lonesome me” poems like “Christmas Rain”.

I would like to make it absolutely clear that I do not disagree with Victor Billot’s politics or his desire to satirise some things. But no matter how much I sympathise with his rave against electronic and social media “The Oversharing Economy”, the poem itself remains a rave.

I guess I’m experiencing Ambient Terror in the wrong medium. Perhaps I should go to more pub readings to get into the spirit of this sort of thing.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“MAX GATE” by Damien Wilkins (first published 2013)

            I have followed with great interest and enjoyment the writing career of Damien Wilkins (born 1963) almost since his first fiction was published. There is always something a little wistful in Wilkins’ books – and a degree of self-awareness and reflection rarer among New Zealand novelists than you might think. Wilkins’ frequent handing of family relationships – especially between parents and their adult children – is subtle and well-observed. There is also that precious quality of respect for his readers. Wilkins trusts us to join the dots and never tries to grab our attention with gratuitous shock.

I cannot retrieve easily the newspaper reviews I wrote of Wilkins’ Nineteen Widows Under Ash (2000) and one of his most expansive and satisfying novels Somebody Loves Us All (2009). You can, however, find on this blog reviews of his most recent novels Dad Art (2016)  and Lifting (2017). Then there was his more satirical work, being a rare venture into the “historical “ novel, Max Gate. Unaltered from its first appearance, I reproduce here the review of Max Gate which I wrote for

Landfall Review-on-Line in March 2014.

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            The sub-genre of novels about Great Writers seems to be a growing one, but it is sometimes troubling. I find that such novels are always arguing a case about the Great Writer in question, and are implicitly asking readers to accept that case as authentic. Compare, for example, David Lodge’s Author!Author! (Henry James as likeable old buffer who wants a quiet life) with Colm Toibin’s The Master (Henry James as tragic proto-gay figure). Or look at C.K.Stead’s Mansfield and see what the guy wants KM to represent.

            Novels about Great Writers also force reviewers to ask what their own views on the Great Writer are.

            So what do I think of Thomas Hardy, given that he is (almost) at the centre of Damien Wilkins’ Max Gate? I remember once, to my shame, forcing Year 13 schoolboys, in two successive years, to study The Mayor of Casterbridge with me. I remember galloping through Tess of the D’Urbervilles and (much later) Jude the Obscure ahead of seeing movie versions of them (because I wanted to be able to write knowledgeable reviews of the movies). And I remember, purely for pleasure, reading The Return of the Native and some of Hardy’s short stories. But in all of them, I found plots which twisted characters towards tragic endings as artificially, and with as many improbable coincidences, as romance writers twist characters towards happy endings. There are genuine tragedians who build tragedy from character, and then there are writers who love to wallow in gloom for its own sake, like angry adolescents. Hardy, I concluded, was one of the latter. A pessimistic, gloomy old bugger who badly wanted God but could only see a big hole in the universe.

And yet what lush descriptions! What delightful melodrama! What woven (if improbable) plots! What memorable characters! What bucolic quaintness and customs and dialect! I liked him and deplored him in equal measure.

The laddish posing of Nick Hornby annoys me, but I find myself agreeing with Hornby’s view of Thomas Hardy, which he vented while reviewing Claire Tomalin’s biography of the man in 2010 [you’ll find it reprinted in the collection of Hornby’s Believer pieces called Stuff I’ve Been Reading, 2013]:

 “Hardy’s prose is best consumed when you’re young, and your endless craving for misery is left unsatisfied by a diet of The Smiths and incessant parental misunderstanding. When I was seventeen, the scene in ‘Jude the Obscure’ where Jude’s children hang themselves ‘becos they are too meny’ provided much needed confirmation that adult life was going to be thrillingly, unimaginably, deliciously awful. Now I have too meny children myself, however, the appeal seems to have gone. I’m glad I have read Hardy’s novels and equally glad that I can go through the rest of my life without having to deal with his particular and peculiar gloom again.”

A bit glib, maybe, but that’s approximately where I stand with Hardy too.

Okay, then, having squandered a third of this review not talking about the novel on hand, I have to ask - what’s the “case” Damien Wilkins makes about Thomas Hardy in Max Gate?

Basically, Wilkins sees Hardy as self-absorbed, touchy about his public reputation and massively insensitive to the people around him. The dog Wessex and country bunny rabbits move his heart more than people do. He is an extreme version of the writer who is too consumed by his own fictions to be genuinely altruistic or charitable. And yet a Great Writer, withal. Perhaps enduring such egotism and conceit is the price we have to pay for Great Writers.

Plot: it’s 1928 and Thomas Hardy is on his deathbed at Max Gate, his Devon home. Literary bigwigs and vultures are gathering to see what they can pick up from his estate. Prominent among them is J.M.Barrie. The reporter from the local rag is also there, pumping one of the maidservants for information and hoping to get a scoop when the Great Man dies, so that he might build up his own career. Yes, it’s ironical that scribblers try to puff their own reputations in the humble world of local journalism as much as in the august world of literature.

Effectively head of the house is Hardy’s second wife, Florence, the secretary who married him shortly after his first wife, Emma, died. Florence is a sad and bitter woman. A degree of sexual frustration is involved (Florence is nearly 40 years younger than Hardy). More galling, however, is the fact that the octogenarian writer insists on writing love poems about his first wife and makes no acknowledgement of Florence at all in any of his work. If she hoped for some reflected literary glory in marrying him, Florence isn’t getting any. Worse, old Hardy dictates his autobiography to her in the third person, on the pretence that she is actually writing it. The aim is to protect his posthumous reputation by having his version trump any other biographies that might appear. His reputation comes before his commitment to his wife.

While this is the essential situation, it’s not the method.

Wilkins (whose end-note gives us the biographical sources he has plundered diligently) chooses to tell the story in the first-person as seen by the junior house servant Nellie Titterington. There are some variations in the narrative voice (Nellie sometimes goes inexplicably omniscient), but essentially it means there’s a strong tinge of that Voltairean “No man is a hero to his manservant” approach. Mr and Mrs Hardy are seen in the context of their domestic routines and trivialities.

So, if Hardy is almost the centre of the novel, Nellie is really the centre. And some of her judgements can be tart. “I knew he was great, a great writer that is. Definitely he wasn’t a great man,” she says of Hardy. And on the same page (p.46), speaking of Florence Hardy with her crush on the sickly J.M.Barrie, she characterises her as “married to a corpse and swooning over a bronchial eunuch.”

There is, however, a strong awareness of the class situation. Hardy wrote mainly about the peasantry and a country way of life that was well on the way to extinction even as he wrote. In his old age, he was seen as having recorded a dead world. But the domestic realities he took for granted were also dying ones – and they included being waited on by servants. As Nellie remarks, “The days of Service are coming to an end – we know it – but we must all pretend this is not the case, just as we must pretend there’s a chance Thomas Hardy will, any day now, sit up in his bed and feel better.” (p.23) Much later, the class gulf is underlined when her narrative tells us that the mistress of the house confides a very personal anecdote to her on the assumption that it will remain secret “because I was nothing.” (p.139) Servants don’t count.

The novel is bisected by the death of Thomas Hardy. Personally, I found the latter half more sympathetic because, having hitherto been seen mainly from the outside by Nellie Titterington, Florence Hardy is allowed to speak more freely in her own voice and we get a more nuanced portrait of her. Certainly she is angry, bitter, enamoured of J.M.Barrie in a foolish way and haughty to her servants. But we are also allowed to become more intimately acquainted with the long provocation she has suffered. And oddly, while she still resents her husband’s fixation on his first wife, Emma, she is able to see that in many respects Hardy treated Emma as offhandedly as he has treated her.

All of which brings me to one overwhelmingly question. Did Damien Wilkins expect us to read this novel in a spirit of sorrow or in a spirit of laughter? I confess that I laughed frequently, and I think I was meant to. The complicated scramblings over Hardy’s funeral are both funny and grotesque. The literati want him to have a state funeral in Westminster Abbey. The locals want to stick with his wish to be buried in the village churchyard. The “compromise” that was reached strikes me as a perfectly reasonable one. There may be some people who think it was barbarous, but then I know how Catherine of Siena’s body was treated when she died, and I think the treatment of Hardy’s body was just as civilised.

In case I haven’t made it plain, I found this an absorbing, agreeable and entertaining novel, enjoyed Wilkins’ way with the regional words and am pleased to see that he can deflate pomposity with a plain tale.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Eh bien, mes amis, as you might know from earlier postings, I am very fond of the city of Paris, based partly on vague childhood memories of a visit there, but more potently based on three recent visits there with my wife (a fourth is in the offing as I write).

As you may also be aware, I am fond of jazz.

Put these two delights together, and I have over the years taken quite an interest in French jazz. My taste for this music was partly fed by a series of CDs that were marketed a few years ago under the title Jazz in Paris. As the generic blurb for the series correctly said, France was jazz’s “second home”. Outside the United States, there is no other country that has so consistently produced leading musicians in the genre and had such a large fan base for it. The Jazz in Paris series consisted of re-pressings of jazz performances recorded in Paris between the 1930s and the 1970s. Many of them were of American jazz people performing in Paris (Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Don Byas, Mary-Lou Williams, Miles Davis etc.), but even more were of French and Belgian performers. For a number of years, my search for CDs in this series was as earnest as my search for second-hand books then was. Riffling through the neglected jazz sections at the back of music stores, I eventually collected 74 CDs in a series which (the last time I looked) consisted of 100, but it may have expanded since I gave up the collecting.

Anyway, the series fed my already-existing taste for Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli and Le Hot Club of France; and for Henry Crolla, the guitarist who came after Django and (often on electric guitar) sounded like a softer and more sentimental version of Django; and for Jean-Luc Ponty, perhaps (sorry Stephane) the greatest of all jazz violinists; and for the great Belgian saxophonist Barney Wilen, especially on his wonderful Jazz sur Seine album..

Now you may understand how this taste stimulated my romanticised image of jazz life in Paris. I had in my head a chic black-and-white 1960s nouvelle vague film image of the Parisian jazz scene. We are in some fashionable, but very cool, club in, say, St Germain des Pres. It’s on the Left Bank, so the club is crowded with hip students from the Sorbonne (girls pony-tailed and skirted; guys all smoking and trying to look as cool as Belmondo in open-necked shirts). And there is this really cool jazz going on. Ponty or Crolla or Wilen or maybe one of the visiting Americans. We’re all very serioius about our jazz, but we also dance to it and discuss it and love it for the music’s sake.

Okay – there’s my mental image of jazz in Paris.

Now for the reality.

Cut to mid-2015. We take our second adult trip to Paris. We seek out and book ahead for a performance in an up-market jazz club and restaurant on the Right Bank (in the Marais district) “Au Duc des Lombards”. We get a table near the front thanks to an officious waiter who clearly expected a tip (but didn’t get it). The star performer is the Brazilian jazz chanteuse Catia Werneck, fronting a tight trio of jazz musicians. I note her huge smile, her crinkly, semi-ringleted hair waving all over the place and her long periods of dancing and shaking her seductive hips while the trio are riffing or taking great improvised solos. We know her banter with the French pianist, Vincent Bidal, is well-rehearsed and carefully timed, but the whole performance (she singing only in her native Portuguese) is infectiously joyful. We buy her CD after the show, which she signs for us. Actually we agree afterwards that Vincent Bidal was the real star of the show, and my wife (a trained music teacher) has some negative things to say about Werneck’s voice; but we are satisfied, as we cross back to the Left Bank over the Pont Neuf with a bright crescent moon on the horizon, that it was a good jazz evening. Even if we are uneasily aware that at a restaurant-club like that, the music is now really a pastime for the rich (Merdre! The price of that bottle of Chablis I bought to make the evening buzz!). We are a long way from pony-tailed and smoking Sorbonne students intellectualising in black-and-white.

Cut to December 2016.

Our third night in the City of Lights and we are a bit headachey and tired after a day trudging around the Musee de Cluny and the Pantheon and much of the Latin Quarter. But we once again make our way across to the Marais to a jazz date which we have again booked ahead. This is in the Sunset-Sunside Jazz Club, and we just have to climb down its narrow stairs to know we are in something like the stereotypical image of a Parisian jazz club. It is a cave (i.e.cellar), with whitewashed brick walls and arched brick ceiling – and mercifully free of any other English-speakers. This is a place for local jazz enthusiasts.

The performers are the Toumai Septet – a line-up of seven youngish men (median age about 30, I’d guess), mainly French but two or three apparently of Algerian or other North African heritage. Their music is an interesting fusion of European jazz and North African rhythms. On the left of the stage, an electric guitaist  whose instrument provided sophisticated commentary on the exotic rhythm. On the right, an expert player of the conga drum, whose beat really dominated the direction in which the music was heading. At the back,  a conventional drum-kit, whose percussionist only occasionally intervened, especially on sizzle cymbals. Also a bass player, whose steady rhythm was no rival for the conga drum. But out front the heart of the group – a line-up including a trombonist (who at one stage took up and played a conch shell); a trumpeter who doubled as MC (and who sometimes played cornet instead); and a lanky, smiliing saxophonist (who sometimes lay down his big instrument and took up a tenor sax).

This was very good jazz, but it was composed jazz (at the beginning of some pieces, the front-stage trio read off music sheets as they established the main lines of the piece and before the improv began). It was exotic. It was fusion. It was the sort of jazz that didn’t exist when the 1960s played out. We swung along and tapped our feet and only began to droop into sleep towards the end as our day of much walking caught up with us. And we did not even mind the only vocal intervention, which was a Frenchwoman singing (badly) one English-language lyric.

Were it not for the clear modernity of the music, this evening would have fulfilled my dream image of the vibrant (and very warm) cave as the paradigm of Parisian jazz.

But not all Parisian jazz (so-called) is good jazz.

A few nights later it was Saturday night and we were at a loose end. The chap at the desk of our hotel helped us to find a jazz club that was playing on the Left Bank. The night was chilly (remember, it was December) but we decided to walk it. We walked down past the Place St Michel with its golden statue of the warrior angel. We turned right into the Rue du Petit Pont which in turn becomes the Rue St Jacques, and we walked up, up, up the long hill past the Sorbonne, past the Pantheon, until we were deep into bohemian land. Frankly, though non-gentrified and a little grimy, the uppermost reaches of the Rue St Jacques we were now in looked like a movie-set depicting student Paris.

And so at last we found the Café Universel (267 Rue St Jacques). The night was chilly, but when we opened the door into this little boite, we were almost knocked over by the blast of heat, infused with body odour, as fierce as the summer noonday sun. My glasses at once fogged up and all the windows were covered in condensation. Thus for a poorly-ventilated small café on a winter’s night.

The place was packed. There was a tiny stage upon which were a trio (clarinet, string-bass, electric guitar). They were fronted by a chanteuse, dirty-blonde, in her mid-30s I would guess. She began her set. “Zaire Raiting Zongs of Larve bart not furr mai”, “Larve mai orr laive mai”, “Wai Donchu Do Rait” (at a horribly slow tempo as if she didn’t understand the words.)

She was so bad. I am not (well, hardly…) making fun of her French accent, but of the fact that she had no place on the stage. If I were a novelist, I would at this point make up a back-story about a girl picked up by a jazz group when she was in her early 20s and was young and sexy enough to be an attraction for that alone; but who was now past the cute stage and really not up to performing. She simply could not hit the high notes, her voice was feeble, and she ended each song not with a bang but with a breathless gasp.

We responded to much of this with suppressed laughter. I pondered for a while on the awkwardness of chanteuses who have to stand centre-stage for long periods when they are not singing, bobbing their heads and pretending to have a good time while the combo plays on behind them. Our breaking point came when Mademoiselle Talentless launched into “Oo, Oo, Oo, Ai Wanna be Laik Yoo-o-o” and sang it as if it were a jazz lyric of the utmost seriousness.

After just six songs, we were out the door walking briskly back down to the Seine, howling with laughter at the abomination we had just experienced.

Ah me. There is good jazz in Paris, but it isn’t the type of jazz as was. And the fact that jazz occurs in Paris doesn’t necessarily make it good jazz.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“NEW ZEALAND RUGBY COUNTRY – How the Game Shaped Our Nation” by Desmond Wood (Bateman, $NZ39:99)

Any reviewer tackling a book on a specialist topic has to declare an interest – so before I get on to Desmond Wood’s New Zealand Rugby Country, here is the interest I declare. Despite being a male New Zealander of the baby boomer generation; despite going to an all-male (Marist Brothers) secondary school in which there was a strong rugby culture; and despite having spent most of my teaching years in all-male schools where rugby was played, I have never played rugby. In fact (and this shocks many Kiwi men when I confess it), I have never in my life even watched a complete rugby game. At best I’ve seen little clips of games on TV before I’ve switched channels or left the room.

I’ve seen a lot of real football (“soccer”) games, because two of my sons played that game (as did some of my daughters in their younger years) and I sometimes went with them to national matches against touring sides. And (though I never saw him in this capacity on the field), one of my sons reported with amusement that when he was attending an English university, he was dragooned into playing rugby because it was assumed that, as a New Zealander, he must be an expert in the game.

Of course I have read quite a bit about rugby when I have read New Zealand history, because it is unavoidable when the country’s culture and social structure are discussed. I also remember that when I was quite a bit younger, one of my elder brothers (an army officer who did play rugby) bought me as a Christmas present the former rugby-player Chris Laidlaw’s funny and iconoclastic 1974 book about rugby Mud in Your Eye, which I recall as containing much rude nose-thumbing at the conservatism of the game and of the men who administered it. I enjoyed it, but I think it is the only book completely dedicated to rugby that I have ever read.

All this lengthy prologue is by way of saying that I am absolutely no expert on rugby and therefore cannot judge Desmond Wood’s commentary on the game iteself in New Zealand Rugby Country. But I can judge how much it really tells us “how the game shaped our nation” as the subtitle says.

Of which more later.

Desmond Wood, lawyer and sports historian, tells us in his Preface (as well as giving acknowledgements) that he is taking up James Belich’s challenge to write about rugby from a “social history perspective.” (p.5) He is not writing a systematic history of teams, players and tours. His Prologue proceeds into an heroic account of New Zealand winning against the French in the Rugby World Cup final of 2011. He then declares: “The story of how a small nation at the foot of the globe is able to achieve and maintain its status at the summit of an international sport is an integral part of the story of this country. It is descriptive of its society and the aspirations of the people who have made it what it is.” (p.10)

This raises the expectation that this book will consider the impact of rugby on New Zealand society at large. At first this expectation appears to be met as Wood, in his Introduction, links the game to the New Zealand “classlessness” that transformed what had been a “gentlemanly” game, born in English public schools, into a game for the masses. His first chapter (“Beginnings”) sees New Zealand’s 19th century adoption of the game as reflecting the social aspirations of a flood of middle-class settlers in the late nineteenth century (1850s-1880s). Rugby first built its strength in New Zealand towns and cities, where the middle-class lived and where the most enduring clubs were founded (small town and country clubs tended to be more ephemeral). There was a big boost to the foundation of clubs in the 1880s, the era of  Vogelism, assisted immigration and big public works programmes on the back of loans from London. Provincial unions had coalesced into the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) by 1892.

When Wood launches into rugby’s glory years in New Zealand (Chapter 2 – “Rugby’s Warm Embrace”) up to about the middle of the twentieth century, most of the class-aware commentary disappears. This long chapter concerns itself especially with tours of New Zealand by overseas teams and overseas tours by New Zealand teams. From the 1880s onwards there were tours of New Zealand by club teams (not national representatives) from Australia and elsewhere, and in 1903 there was the first New Zealand rep. team touring overseas. The black jersey with the silver fern (originally accompanied by white knickerbockers) was already adopted by 1890s for the national team, and once black shorts replaced the white knickerbockers, the team was already referred to informally as “All Blacks” before the term was used in print by an English provincial newspaper during the team’s 1905 tour of Britain.

According to Desmond Wood, the two most influential tours by the All Blacks in the early 20th century were in 1905 and 1924. In the 1905 tour the All Blacks won 34 out of 35 matches against British sides. On the whole, says Wood, the British were surprised as they had expected the raw colonials to be easily defeated. However, there was much hostile comment in the British press on the aggressiveness and “illegality” of much of the New Zealanders’ play. This became the enduring British image of the All Blacks – the rough colonials who had subverted the public school game by turning it into rough-house. On the other hand, Wood also notes the fact that the British were equally surprised by the innovative tactics and the All Blacks’ well-drilled playing. It seemed to come as a surprise that the colonial team had been so well coached. (When I read this section of Wood’s book, I couldn’t help remembering that old satirical song by Flanders and Swann about how the English dislike foreign sports teams because “they practice beforehand and spoil all the fun”.) Incidentally, to his great credit, Wood hastily sweeps aside all the inane and inflated commentary that has been written about the disallowed try in the 1905 match against Wales (p.47), the only match that the touring team lost.

In passing, Wood makes it clear that commercialism impinged on the “amateur” game from very early in its story. Even before the First World War, some Rugby Union players deserted to “the other game” Rugby League when they knew they could be paid better. (p.64) Wood goes on to chronicle the introduction of the Ranfurly Shield for inter-provincial matches in 1902, the soldier’s teams in the First and Second World Wars, and the unbeaten All Blacks team which toured Britain in 1924.

In the midst of this, however, there are two big questions which Wood chooses to tackle. (1.) Did the game encourage a dated stereotype of (rural and farming) New Zealand maleness? And (2.) Did the game encourage violence?

With regard to (1.) Wood takes a number of pages (pp.75-82) stridently refuting Jock Phillips’ thesis in his book A Man’s Country? that rugby players represented the farming, pioneering side of New Zealand and its attendant hardy virtues. Wood shows that the great majority of New Zealand reps. were city boys and other townies, often from professions. Strictly speaking, Wood is correct, but to me his answer somehow misses the point. Even if the majority of best-known reps. were townies, the image of the game that was promoted among the general public was still a retro one of the rural “hard man”. Remember, until very recently, you saw TV ads of farmer Colin Meads planting fence posts. You did not see TV ads of All Blacks going about their townie business. It is only very recently indeed that we have begun to see campaigns starring sensitive new-breed All Blacks preaching against domestic violence or promoting consideration for sufferers of depression.

With regards to (2.), on-field violence and biffo, Wood remarks correctly that “… the single most influential factor limiting the incidence of violence in the sport appears to have been the advent of television.” (p.85) His own account tells us that, until the age of action replays (often slow-mo ), where a huge viewing audience could see foul play in detail, most appeals from the NZRFU and elsewhere to limit violence fell on deaf ears. To me it does seem a little facile for Wood to sign off this chapter with Tana Umaga’s flip reply to an Aussie referee; “We are not playing tiddlywinks here, mate. This is a contact sport.” (p.86).

Much to my surprise, the longest single chapter in the book (65 pages) is the third one, which chronicles the way the New Zealand game became mired in controversy and almost broke under the strain. It is called “The Unravelling – South Africa and Why It Mattered”.

As early as 1919, South African rugby officials signalling that they did not want any Maori or other “natives” in visiting New Zealand sides. The Springboks in the 1920s were “disgusted” when they were required to play a Maori team. When there was a 1928 tour of South Africa by the All Blacks, the NZRFU excluded three Maori players, including George Nepia (a famous player known even to totally non-rugby people like this reviewer). By 1936, Maori groups lobbied to have no Maori competition matches against Springboks because they objected to the (white) South Africans’ attitudes. But even after the Second World War, and as full apartheid was implemented on South Africa, the NZRFU continued to acquiesce in the South African Rugby Board’s (SARB’s) request that there be no Maori in touring sides. So Maori were excluded from tours to South Africa in 1949 and 1960.

But attitudes in New Zealand were changing towards South Africa, after the 1956 Springbok tour where there was the clearest bitter rivalry between the two national teams. By 1960, there were the  “No Maoris, No Tour” protests when the NZRFU sent off another team of all white All Blacks to South Africa. There followed a decade in which the SARB promised it would accept Maori players in touring New Zealand teams (the “honorary white” status was mooted), but they still did not do so. By the 1970s, the issue was clearly no longer one about the inclusion of Maori players. The issue was whether there should be New Zealand sporting contacts with South Africa at all,  as the apartheid regime was being boycotted in sport by most of the world. Increasingly the issue divided the country and there was more pressure for the government to intervene and no longer allow the NZRFU to make decisions on tours.

Came 1981. When he made a final broadcast appeal to the NZRFU, who were on the point of accepting a Springbok tour of New Zealand, prime minister Robert Muldoon’s words seemed opposed to the tour, but his final appeal to the NZRFU really gave a clear indication that there would be no government intervention. The 1981 tour went ahead with huge protests and much civil disruption. Desmond Wood makes it clear that by in effect allowing the tour to go ahead, the main aim of Muldoon was to secure the support of marginal and mainly rural seats in a forthcomng general election. (Showing, pace Wood’s earlier argument, that the strongest appeal of the game was still with a rural heartland.) Really the 1981 debacle ended naivete about the national implications of sporting contacts. By the late 1980s apartheid was collapsing and that effectively ended the controversy as we moved into the era of apology.

Desmond Wood says “A game for which New Zealanders were widely admired was hampered by less admirable qualities, like self-interest and closed minds…. [the 1981 tour] exposed far from desirable qualities in a nation and a people who thought they were better than that.” (p.150) He also notes that 75 years of rugby competitions with South Africa “required a forgetting, a discounting, of what it really meant to be a New Zealander.” (p.151)

I assume that the length Wood devotes to this issue is intended to show us how momentous rugby was in the way the national consciousness was shaped. But does this really show “how the game shaped our nation”? Surely it was largely a reaction against the game, and against its attendant culture, that in this case did the shaping.

Most of the rest of New Zealand Rugby Country is less contentious.  Half of the chapter called “Race and Demographics” is a long consideration of Maori “native” teams and their players and the respect they gained. There are only a few pages on the increasing input of Pacific Islanders (Michael Jones etc.) There is a tentative awareness at the end of this chapter that the growing population of Asian (mainly Chinese and Indian) New Zealanders are largely uninterested in rugby, and this will doubtless lead in due course to fewer spectators of the game.

The chapter called “Changing Society – Changing Game” promises some insight on how rugby affects society at large, but it is mainly about how society at large affects rugby. Wood discusses women as spectators and enthusiastic supporters of the game and the fact that there was the occasional women’s rugby team. But women’s rugby as a sport got going on a national level only in the 1990s. The NZRFU took the women’s game under its wing in 1992, and in 1998 the name Black Ferns was adopted. As defensive as he was in documenting the urban basis of the game, Desmond Wood at pains to point out (pp.182-185) the number of university-educated women who like the game and its strength in Auckland. (Nearly 18,000 New Zealand women were playing rugby by 2014).

The “changing game” also includes the development of Sevens and its Olympic status, and the foundation of the Rugby World Cup in 1987, after a period in which interest in the game had been steadily waning. Says Wood:  “in the lead-up to the tournament, New Zealanders’ enthusiam for rugby football had ebbed away during a very difficult period.” (p.195) Touch rugby became a sport in its own right, but it mainly overlaps with Rugby Union and has the same players. The impact of the “alternative” code Rugby League – less of a “gentleman’s” game in origin and often operating in semi-professionalism – was never a threat to Rugby Union in terms of dominance, but it has sometimes been a “protest” outlet when Rugby Union has been seen as too staid and slow-moving.

When he discusses rugby as a media phenomenon, Wood notes that it was born in an age of mass-circulation newspapers; sustained by radio (he has separate passages on the radio commentators Winston McCarthy and Murray Deaker); then faced the possibility of television, except that the NZRFU for years did not allow live broadcasts of games. Finally came the era of pay TV and dedicated sports channels.

It is Wood’s final chapter, “Commercialism and Globalisation” which seems to me to miss most opprtunities to comment on the game’s current impact on New Zealand society. Wood admits the hard fact that club and provincial rugby have declined in the face of television and the fact that communities are no longer organised around activities like organised sport. The Ranfurly Shield has become a secondary contest compared with professionalised (and televised) rugby franchises. “Provincial rugby appears to have become much like club rugby. It was once representative of the pride of the province. It has appeared to decline in the face of other competitions and other interests. It is rare to hear of a sponsor or a group expressing an interest in provincial rugby.” (p.227)

In the section on First XV rugby in boys’ secondary schools, Wood mentions the in-group of “prestige” schools that run the championships, but only briefly and politely touches on scholarships etc. to attract promising players. (pp.232-236) What I understand is widespread concern about the “poaching” of promising players from one school by another is never discussed. Finally, we come to the professionalisation and the abandonment of anything like amateurism in our supposedly representative national team. (Wood fingers the Aussie media magnates Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch for leading the way in the TV-driven professionalisation of the sport.) We now live in an era where there is a  “foreign legion” of New Zealanders who contract to play for overseas teams; rugby agents to secure terms for them; and big money changing hands. Wood’s closing pages gamely appropriate from soccer the term “the beautiful game” and apply it to rugby, though I leave it to other to decide whether he has really made his case.

To end where I began – as a self-confessed non-rugby man, I found much that is interesting in Wood’s account of the game’s history in New Zealand, and I see that the author has made use of much solid research and a very extensive bibliography. But I do not believe Wood has really proven that this shows “how the game shaped the nation”. Parts of it tell us how the nation shaped the game (middle-class aspirations in its foundation; eventual revulsion against South African racism etc.). Too many opportunities are lost to tell us about the game’s status in New Zealand society as a whole. In the whole book there is no reference to how rugby is doing vis-à-vis “soccer” in schools, when it is clear that the numbers playing real football are still growing and the nature of the sporting community is changing. Three times Wood mentions the All Blacks’ ritual pre-match haka. But there is no discussion of concerns about the implicit violence and aggressiveness of this, especially the disgusting “throat-slitting” gesture in the dance’s most recent incarnation. (Please don’t let any nitwit try to tell me that this universally recognisable gesture represents “the breath of life”.) Most egregiously, there is no mention of how New Zealand rugby has been depicted in novels, movies and other dramatisations, from Maurice Gee’s The Big Game in the early 1960s to Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament and beyond. Foreskin’s Lament is widely regarded as a seminal play representing a completely different attitude to what was once the “national” game. (The only mention of McGee is the listing of his book on Richie McCaw in the bibliography.)

In the end, then, this conscientious book is more about the game than the nation, and reinforces my view that the former does not represent (or “shape”) the latter.