Monday, August 6, 2018

Something New


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

“EDGELAND and other poems” by David Eggleton (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50); “POUKAHANGATUS” by Tayi Tibble (Victoria University Press, $NZ20)

As I noted when I reviewed his expansive TheConch Trumpet three-plus years ago (March 2015) David Eggleton can be very careful about the way he organises a poetry collection. The Conch Trumpet was organised as a sort of chronology of New Zealand’s physical and cultural evolution.

 Decorated with line drawings by James Robinson, Eggleton’s new collection Edgeland is also carefully organised. Its 61 poems are arranged in five section, the first three of which refer to geographical locations  - “Tamaki Makaurau” (Auckland); then Eggleton’s home base “Murihiku” (Otago); then “Spidermoon”, being mainly poems set in Australia. The fourth and fifth sections move somewhere else. Poems under the heading “Scale” are mainly jocular and satirical comments on literature and popular culture; while the final section “Legend”, still with a satirical touch, is sometimes more personal in mood and feeling – not quite confessional but heading in that direction. Eggleton works more often in public statement that in private revelation.

Taking a closer look, in the “Tamaki Makaurau” section, some poems are almost rhapsodic obsevations of nature and society as seen around the great city of Auckland – vignettes of views of the gulf, of the Asian and Polynesian culture of South Auckland, even perhaps a sense of wonder in the early fencibles [pensioned soldiers] as they arrived in the nineteenth century. “The Floral Clock” has a melancholy tone. But as he views Auckland, Eggleton often adopts a satirical or commentarian voice. The title poem “Edgeland” is essentially a swipe at Auckland’s perceived rapaciousness and materialsm (“land sharks”, “real estate agents” “shoebox storerooms of apartment blocks”).  The poem “Maunga” presents Auckland’s volcanoes as they once were; but its companion poem “The Sleepers” laments how many volcanic cones have been flattened or shifted as European settlement expanded (“Villages were brought closer to Queen Street, / and each other, by dynamited volcanic rubble / crushed from a base layer of basalt chips over / a sub-base of aggregate – all topped with tarseal.”).

In the “Tamaki Makaurau” section, Eggleton is very aware of Maori culture, Maori belief systems and names. Ironically, in the “Murihiku” (Otago) section, the Maori references almost disappear. As an Aucklander, I am reminded of that tired old joke that a Dunedinite once told me – that Dunedin’s Maori Hill is so called because once, a Maori was actually seen there. What is consistent, however, is Eggleton’s concern with landscape and especially with ecology (not as insistently as his fellow-South Island poet Richard Reeve, but insistently nevertheless). While “Tuhawaiki: The Caitlins” is almost sheer delight in the coast and its people, “Spinners” comments on the impact of wind turbines on Otago’s wilderness.

            As for the Australian-set section “Spidermoon”, the emphasis is on heat, heat, heat as it is so often experienced by New Zealanders who venture across the ditch.

The poems “New Year’s Day at Byron Bay”, “Moreton Bay” and “Spidermoon” are the harsh-sun-struck tourist’s view of Aussie beaches and their culture and sapping heat. “Melbournia”, a somewhat ironical view of the city, is again, the heat, the heat, the heat. There is a series of six loose sonnets in this section, which were apparently written as responses to specific art-works. Their meaning I find somewhat opaque – but that is often the case with things written about art which one has not seen or experienced.

In the section called “Scale”, Eggleton loosens up even more than he usually does and enjoys himself taking the piss. He plays literary games. From its very title, I realised that “Moa in the Matukituki Valley” was a cut-and-paste of poetic quotations from others – a cento – but I’m bemused that the end-note concerning this does not acknowledge all the many poets who are plundered. “The Smoking Typewriter” is an ironical reworking of William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger” and celebrity chefs and some pop culture get a once-over in “Jamie Olver’s TV Dinner”. Yet “Obelisk” is a little more sombre - a poem of nature mutating while monuments moulder.

The title poem of the “Legend” section is, in effect, a “progress of poesy” piece. There are personal poems, but the first three are written in the third-person, perhaps to create a distancing effect. One of the collection’s best poems is “The Great Wave”, an image of Fiji which is a major part of Eggleton’s background. As for “Orbit of the Corpse Flower”, at first glance it is a loose fantasmagoria of Dunedin, certainly sensuous and vivid – but then we notice its discreet references to Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Marcel Proust et al. Even when he is being demotic, Eggleton shows he can mix it with High Culture.

Are you getting tired of this plodding review now? Yes, so am I. I have so far given you what I would call a bibliographer’s review – a mere cataloguing of what the collection contains. Time for a little thought and judgement.

First, David Eggleton is not only a prolific and fertile poet, but he is also a very inventive and ingenious one. While his voice is usually and very distinctively his own, he is capable of literary ventriloquism. One of the tenderest and most delicate poems in this collection is “Distant Ophir” written in the first-person, but, as I read it,  from its John Masefield title on, it is clearly a dramatic monologue rather than a confession. It is the wistful view of a Pakeha pioneer woman, whose hopes for New Zealand have been formed from a very English perspective and whose imagination has been shaped by English literature. This perspective is treated with sympathy, even if it is shown to be unsustainable.  In a totally different key, but just as unexpected, is “Escapologist” a sheer fun poem about Houdini exposing a fraudulent medium. I can imagine this holding a classroom of schoolkids rapt.

Second, part of Eggleton’s talent is his ability to fire out brilliant individual lines and images. I relish in the poem “King Tide, Northside” the image of pohutukawa that “cliff-hang like trapeze artists”. From the poem “Day Swimmers”, there is the sight, at once gorgeous and daunting, that “burgeoning meringues of cumulus will darken, / rococo cream puffs dunked in thunderheads”. Then there’s that vivid observation that  “Rusty prayer wheels of seagulls turn” from the poem “Southern Embroidery”. So I could witter on for a few more paragraphs with many other specimens, but that will do.

Third is a little more problematic. I read “The Wilder Years”, a general satire on – or possibly rant at – all of New Zealand’s tawdry self-esteem. I read “Methusalem”, a rhapsody in its panorama of one sort of Auckland experience. I read “Poem for Ben Brown”, essentially an ironical chant; likewise “The Age of the Anthrocene”. And in all cases I think these poems would work a lot better if we heard them from a living voice rather than reading them cold off the page. “Mission Creep”, with its quick and almost Skeltonic rhyming couplets, is closest of the bunch to the rhythms and structure of rap. Add to this the many poems in Edgeland that rely on repetition of either key words or grammatical structures. “Thirty Days of Night” is a “list” poem where the word “night” is repeated insistently to produce a series of vivid images. “This Gubberment, Bro, This Gubberment” aims for satire but hits it, after a list, only in the last line “The lunatics have taken over the asylum-seekers”. “The People-Smuggler’s Beard” and “Identity Parade” are also “list” poems, as are “Heat” and “Mullum Rain” both of which work in part by insistently repeating and redefining the key words “heat” and “rain”. In all these cases, I would have enjoyed them more had I heard the performance poet live.

Any hesitations over this collection? A small, philosophical one, and not related solely to David Eggleton. Some poems, such as “Two Takes on the Waitakere Ranges”, present and lament a presumed pristine nature that had been despoiled and shattered by material “progress”, the building of a city, the spread of suburbs etc. Fine. We all feel some sorrow for the loss of an imagined pristine…. But then we also enjoy the benefits of what has replaced it. I suppose what I’m saying is kin to my reservations about Thoreau. It is wonderful to lament what came before human habitation – especially human habitation en masse -  but some lamentations too easily become a contempt for our fellow human beings who live [just as we do] in suburbs and cities. That lovely old stone cottage stands where a might totara once stood. So did that pa.

Enough. Enough. Edgeland is a very fine collection.

Impertinent and totally egotistical footnote: In the poem “Maunga”, concerning Auckland’s volcanoes, David Eggleton makes a slightly dismissive reference to the pine that once stood on the summit of Maungakiekie, or One Tree Hill. We can have different perspectives on the same things. This poem is not a “reply” to “Maunga”, because I wrote it about seven years ago, but did not include it in either of my two collections so far. Here ‘tis:


All childhood, seen through a picture window,

beyond the Panmure Basin and railway,

beyond suburbs, she was an umbrella

to a spike, arm to an upright, shelterer

of birds too distant to see, disrupter

of neat verticals, a swaying wind trap.

To us, sunset was her special time, when

she melted into the unviewable,

a twig in the blinding gold,  or was crowned

by rays from heaven through dramatic clouds.

That was when the birds flew past us to her,

the named One Tree, their day’s end destination.

She grew from the hill and was shaped by wind,

graceful beside the stark stone phallus, part

of the scene like clouds, sheep, birds or sunset.

Permanent as God. And now she’s gone, cut

for show, executed as an alien,

the hill reshaped to baldness and a pencil.

This is not your country, says the chainsaw.

You have no right to see, think, dream, be here.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

            Poukahangatus, the debut volume of 23-year-old poet Tayi Tibble.

I  think I get it as soon as I look at Xoe Hall’s colourful and loud cover. A Maori chick with really big eyes and really straight long hair and a cut-fringe, lying in a bath like a porn star, hiding her boobs but showing her thigh, with a bottle of vodka on one side and a porn magazine on the other and her hair ending in snakes like Medusa’s. And there’s the name Poukahangatus above her hear, spelled out in snakes and obviously a riff on Pocahontas.

So I get it, even before I read the title poem “Poukahangatus”, which has some of the imagery depicted on the cover. This is going to be a sassy collection about cultural appropriation and attempts of non-European women to conform to European ideas of good looks and hair straightening and the shoving aside of culture and in general the culturally-confusing mess it can be to be a young Maori woman in the city and in the country and partying and sometimes having to deal with elders, not to mention the hell of high-school.

And thus it is – at least in part.

Many of the pieces in Poukahangatus are prose poems and some are closer to rap, like “LBD”, which is nearest to the heart of the book’s meaning with its opening “there is a dark-skinned darkness in me / I wear it like a little black dress / Gucci / velvet-pressed….” Race and culture as fashion statement? There’s a slice of self-consciouness here, perhaps of trying too hard, as there is in the poem  “Identity Politics”. As for clubbing , there’s a serving of young hip cynicism, as when “I Wear Aviators to the Club” tells us “Every relationship leaves behind a sticky residue, hard to wash away without chemical help.” The poet talks tough (or maybe tougher than she is) in  “Red-Blooded Males” and “wtn boys”.

But here’s the problem. I am talking about a lifestyle and a perspective quite a few compass points away from my own, and therefore hard to relate to. For me, at any rate, the best poems were the understated ones. Oddly enough, they are the ones that seem to relate to childhood or schooldays. “Our Nan Lets Us Smoke Inside” is poignant because it deals with death in such a matter-of-fact way. Death is almost black farce in “Nobody in the Water”. Its obviously a city kid’s reaction to a country situation in “Tangi In the King Country”; and “Shame” conveys effectively moments of being intimidated or embarrassed before elders, tutors and teachers. “Vampires Versus Werewolves” boils down to the discovery that high school can be a sexual battleground. And “Scabbing”, in its rough way, is almost nostalgic for the way heart-throbs felt when you were still 12.

For the second time in this posting, I have to say that much of the contents of Poukahangatus might work better in live performance than on the page. All that rappy rhythm. All that prosey story-telling. All that bump and grind.

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.

“THE ILLUSTRIOUS HOUSE OF RAMIRES” by Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz (first published in 1900; English translation by Ann Stevens published 1968; later translation by Margaret Jull Costa)

In my long-term project of reading my way through the novels of the famed Portuguese author Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz (1845-1900), I have so far read and written comments on this blog about, CousinBazilio, The Relic and The City and the Mountains. Often compared with nineteenth century French masters of prose such as Balzac, Flaubert, Zola or even Joris-Karl Huysmans, Eca de Queiroz was essentially a satirist - ironical, anti-clerical, urbane and more than a little cynical. He has much in common with Zola in terms of his preoccupations, but he has one virtue which Zola conspicuously lacked – a sense of humour.

Although specifically set in the Portugal of his time, Eca de Queiroz’s novels address matters that can still resonate with us – seduction and adultery in Cousin Bazilio; religiosity in The Relic; or the opposing attractions of city-living and country-living in The City and the Mountains. However, for the non-Portuguese – and especially for the non-19th century Portuguese – it is much harder to relate to The Illustrious House of Ramires because it so specifically addresses historical matters of that particular country at that particular time. Put simply, The Illustrious House of Ramires concerns the historical decay of Portugal, the increasing redundancy of its old aristocracy, and the growing pains of what might one day turn into a democracy.

From the beginning, we know that the novel’s title is ironical. The famed house of Ramires may once have been illustrious, but it is now on its uppers. Goncalo Mendes Ramires is the distant descendant of medieval and pre-medieval warriors, conquerors, crusaders and king-makers. But – a bachelor with, as yet, no offspring – he could well be the last of the line. Often referred to – with varying intensities of irony – simply as “The Nobleman”, he lives on what remains of the family estate in the north of Portugal near Coimbra (which is where Eca de Queiroz came from). Looming over his domicile is a dark Tower, which rapidly takes on symbolic value as a sign of his family’s daunting past. Goncalo Mendes Ramires wants to be a power in the land. By this stage, in the late nineteenth century, Portugal is officially a constitutional monarchy and there is a parliament, although its power is very limited and (franchise being for the few) the political parties there are little more than squabbling factions of the upper classes.

Nevertheless Goncalo sets his heart on being a parliamentary deputy.

But how to achieve this goal?

First he has to make a name for himself. Goncalo is a partisan of the “Regenerators” who see themselves as being in opposition to the “Historical Party”. One of his friends among the “Regenerators”, Antonio (“Tito”) Vilalobos, suggests he write, for a “Regenerator” periodical, an historical novella in the manner of Sir Walter Scott, concerning Portugal’s heroic past. His literary fame should thus launch him into parliament. Goncalo sets about scribbling diligently but, having little imagination, he plagiarises most of his plot from a botched, unpublished epic poem written by his late uncle Duarte. As The Illustrious House of Ramires proceeds, we are given large chunks of Goncalo’s resulting tale of knights and conquerors and heroism in battle. So we have the chief thread of overt irony in the novel. This is the contrast between ancient aristocracy as Goncalo conceives it, and the genuinely threadbare nature of aristocracy as played out in Goncalo’s everyday life. The comparison with Cervantes’ hero Don Quixote (a man bewitched by knightly tales) is obvious.

Goncalo imagines himself to be a lordly person living according to old chivalric codes. Obligingly, one of his companions flatters him by writing, and progressively elaborating, a fado about how illustrious the Ramires lineage is, as if he is Goncalo’s court bard or troubadour. Goncalo indulges in public displays of showy courtesy, to prove to the world that he knows what noblesse oblige is. Why, he once even allows an injured commoner to ride to a doctor on his mule – in the sight of gazing villagers, mind. And of course Goncalo believes it is his duty to protect the honour of his sister “Grachina”, who is married to a chap called Jose Barrolo. This is especially the case because Grachina does not yet have any children and is possibly the only means by which the Ramires line might be perpetuated. Goncalo has heard vague rumours about threats to Grachina’s virtue. He reflects: “ All that could help her was her pride, a certain religious respect for the name of Ramires, the fear of a small, prying and gossiping community. Her salvation lay in abandoning the town and retiring to the seclusion of one of Barrolo’s estates…. With its beautiful wood, the mossy walls of the convent, and the surrounding village to occupy her in her role of the grand chateleine…” (Chapter 4) The threat to Grachina comes from a popular local politician called Andre Cavaleiro whom Goncalo despises because he has authority but comes from a lower class than “The Nobleman”, seems to be a notorious seducer and belongs to the “Historical Party” whom Goncalo’s “Regenerators” oppose.

But, given these aristocratic habits of thought, we see Goncalo successively betraying nearly all of them. The would-be lordly Goncalo sells out his own political party, joins the “Historical Party” and allies himself to the seducer Cavaleiro once he sees his personal political advancement lying in that direction. In the process he places his sister Gachina in a compromising situation. He has been contemptuous of a wealthy woman, Dona Ana Lucena, because she is of lowly birth (a butcher’s daughter) – but once she is widowed he seriously considers marrying her for her cash. Sometimes he treats his real social inferiors appallingly. He mercilessly beats, with a bullwhip, a hunter whom he suspects of looking at him the wrong way, then tells his social companions that he was heroically resisting an attempted ambush. They, of course, inflate the tale to one of great courage, and it actually increases Goncalo’s popularity among electors. Most pitifully, he mistreats his tenant Jose Casco. The peasant strikes a deal with The Nobleman to rent some of his land at a reasonable price. But when Goncalo gets a better offer, he welches on the deal and cuts the peasant off. Angrily, Jose Casco confronts him about this lack of honour. Goncalo accuses the peasant of assault and Jose Casco is dragged off to jail, leaving his family destitute.

You can see by now how Goncalo Mendes Ramires does not live up to the aristocratic ideal. And yet, oddly, he never entirely loses our sympathy and is in some ways a comic and pathetic character. Eca de Queiroz’s irony is never simple. For one thing, Goncalo genuinely feels remorse over the way he injured the powerless Jose Casco, especially when the man’s wife and sick children come begging to have Casco released from jail. Goncalo obliges as soon as he can, and even takes great care of the peasant’s sick children. He is as embarrassed as we are when the mistreated Casco returns from jail and thanks The Nobleman profusely for his generosity; but at least Goncalo has, for once, shown that he really can be the noblesse that obliges. Goncalo also achieves a degree of intellectual redemption as he comes to realize that the chivalric fiction he is writing is probably literary trash, no matter how much sycophantic friends may praise him for it. He reflects: “Perhaps they were merely hollow puppets, enclosed in borrowed armour, inhabiting unrealistic camps and castles, without a word or gesture relating them to bygone days!” (Chapter 9) Possibly the past was really more brutal than literary romances pretend, and perhaps aristocratic courtesy was really a fiction even in its heyday. By novel’s end, through turns of the plot upon which I will not elaborate, Goncalo even reflects that his attempt to climb the greasy pole of politics was really worthless. We already know how fraudulent “democracy” is, in a country where so few people can vote and patronage is paramount. At one point Senhor Barrolo explains what he will do to get Goncalo elected: “Anything you want… Votes, money, all you want!... You just say! I’ll go along to Murtosa, there’ll be a feast and a barrel of wine tapped, and the whole parish offering their votes amid the fireworks…”  (Chapter 6) Allowing for this, Goncalo ultimately understands that his role as parliamentary deputy will merely be to act as puppet for more powerful people.

In what sense does this time-and-place-specific novel still speak to us? In the novella Goncalo is writing, there is the matter of Quixotism – the seductive daydream in which we mistake an imagined, exalted past for reality. In this respect, The Illustrious House of Ramires could be seen as a subtle commentary on self-delusion and self-deceit. A minor aristocrat imagines he is a great philanthropist and potentially a great power in the land. In fact, he will never be either because his caste no longer has anything to offer. Even he understands this at the end.

There are many very fine self-contained comic vignettes in this novel (I told you Eca de Queiroz had a sense of humour). My favourite is the one where a mixed bourgeois and aristocratic drinking-party suddenly have to dive for cover when two notorious prudes and gossips come calling. Eca de Queiroz was always good at delineating the small-minded, gossipy, bitchy, back-biting nature of little Portuguese towns, inhabited by underemployed people with much time on their hands.

Conceding all this, though, I still found The Illustrious House of Ramires a “clogged” novel, with too many topical references and a far less fluent narrative line than the other novels of the same author which I have considered. The final chapter in particular is a let-down. It is one of those “four-years-afterwards” chapters, in which the later destinies of the main characters are hastily summarised. Worse, the very last page spells out the novelist’s intention to make Goncalo himself a symbol for modern Portugal as he saw it – self-contradictory; obsessed with a glorious past that might never have existed; too concerned with dignity and petty matters of social precedence; failing to realise that it is no longer a “Great Power” in the world; and far too hesitant in its dealing with other nations.

The Illustrious House of Ramires first appeared in serial form in 1897-99, but was never fully revised by Eca de Queiroz before it came out in book form, in the year of the author’s death. Another writer was called in to smooth out the last chapter, and it shows. Apparently the novel was written at a time when Portugal had suffered another national humiliation. Britain had thwarted Portugal’s attempt to join its two large colonies (later known as Angola and Mozambique) so that there would be a large Portuguese “empire” stretching east-west across the African continent. Once again, Portugal was shown not to have the clout of a “Great Power”. While this historical background is interesting, it does not lift The Illustrious House of Ramires above the status of an interesting historical artefact.

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.


My wife and I recently enjoyed three films in the Auckland International Film Festival. There was an excellent Colombian drama called Birds of Passage which, with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, showed an indigenous tribe degenerating into gangsterism and bloodshed as it got involved in the drug trade servicing North America. There was Lucky, a sad and funny valedictory film for the actor Harry Dean Stanton, concerning old age and the inevitability of death. And there was a stately and long documentary called Ex Libris, on the working and complexity of the New York Public Library.

When I say we enjoyed these three films, I do not mean that we saw other films in the festival which we did not enjoy. I mean that these three films, all of which we enjoyed, were the only films we saw in the festival.

As I’ve noted before on this blog, I was for thirty years (1974-2004) a film reviewer for various publications and other media outlets. In every one of those thirty years, when the film festival came around, I was a very busy boy. In the festival fortnight, I would see a total of about thirty films. It helped that in those days, as a reviewer, I was given complimentary tickets and didn’t have to pay anything.  It also helped that I had a real purpose in seeing so many. It was well known that a sizeable number of the films playing in the festival would come back for longer seasons in the art houses. Therefore, scribbling away making notes in the dark, and watching thirty or so movies in the festival fortnight, I was in effect providing myself with ammunition for two or three months worth of film reviews.

But I realised there was a flaw in this procedure even as I welcomed it. To watch so many films in such a short time was to be sated by them – to lose the capacity to really savour them. I remember one painful Saturday when I was scheduled to watch five feature films in a row, beginning in the morning and ending late at night. I got through the first three films alright, but was wilting and beginning to get a mild headache at the end of the third. I forced myself to watch the fourth, but when it ended, I staggered out of the Civic Theatre onto Queen Street tired, grumpy and headache-y. I gave away my ticket for the fifth film to a lucky punter who was lining up to buy a ticket, and I headed home to bed.

Allow me to note that at this time I was holding down a full-time job during the week, so most of the thirty films I saw in the festival fortnight were crammed into evenings and weekends.

Now while I was following this routine with regard to the film festival, I would every so often meet one of those tiresome people whose chief purpose in life would be to boast about how many films they had seen. One was a very sad case – the eccentric son of a rich man, he had very poor communication skills but was notorious for going into the ticket-office before the festival began, booking the best possible seat for nearly everything offering, and spending the whole fortnight glued to the screen. To the best of my knowledge, he had nothing to do with reviewing, critiquing or studying film. He was simply a film addict. It gives me no pleasure at all to record that he eventually committed suicide. Another was a school-teacher, not quite addicted to film, but almost so. Loudly he would tell me that he was seeing forty or fifty festival films, as if this was a mark of great distinction. Biting my tongue, I would refrain from expressing my view that little would really be retained from a such an excessive cine-banquet.

Let me – old film-reviewer that I am – express another view at this point. As I’ve already noted (see the post AnxietyAbout Books) I think there are far too many people who confuse the concept of virtue with the civilised habit of reading. Certainly it is a good thing to read much and widely, but of itself, this does not make one morally superior. Likewise, I do not believe there is anything of itself virtuous about watching films – or appreciating any other art form, for that matter. Yet the subtext of the film addicts I have known was that sheer quantity of consumption was a measure of one’s appreciation of cinema and hence of one’s superiority.

Not only do I see this as a foolish belief, but I add my unfashionable view that watching films is essentially a passive pastime.

When one reads a book, one’s intellectual faculties are engaged and one’s imagination has to be in gear to translate the words on the page into images and concepts. Such is not the case in cinema – basically, the work of imagining has been done for you. At this point I am sure somebody will shriek “elitist” and will tell me that to fully understand a film you have to know how to “read” it. Having done quite a bit of analysis of film in my time, I am fully aware of the concept of “reading” a film and all the skills that it requires. Even so, “reading” a worthwhile film requires far less intellectual and imaginative engagement than reading a book does.

I add this to my view that there is nothing particularly clever, insightful or worthwhile in watching too many films in a limited amount of time.

Since I ceased to be a film-reviewer, I have watched films far more selectively and rarely, and I have not missed press-previews or overcrowded festival schedules.

Quantity of films seen be hanged. For real connoisseurship of cinema, less is probably more.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Something New


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

“THE WORLD’S DIN” by Peter Hoar (Otago University Press, $NZ45); “NIUE AND THE GREAT WAR” by Margaret Pointer (Otago University Press, $NZ39:95)

I’ll reverse my usual procedure. Most often, I take a long time to reach the point, but this time I’ll begin with a verdict. I found Peter Hoar’s The World’s Din to be an absorbing, entertaining and refreshingly informative book. I have a few very minor qubbles with it, but not so many as to compromise this verdict.

Subtitled “Listening to Records, Radio and Films in New Zealand 1880-1940”, The World’s Din focuses on how New Zealanders reacted to the first sixty years of recorded sound. As Hoar remarks robustly in his Preface: “The real shock of the sonic new happened between 1877 and the late 1930s” (p.8) Furthermore: “The iPod is not a revolution in itself; it is a refinement of the technology that captured, stored and replayed sounds which was developed… during the late decades of the nneteenth century.” (pp.8-9) What this suggests, correctly, is that for all the improvements and refinements of recording technology in the last half-century or so, nothing has equalled in its effect the impact of the earliest sound recording. Between c.1880 and c.1940, the recording of sound changed New Zealanders’ lives in far more fundamental ways than any subsequent advances in sonic technology have done.

Introducing a second theme, Hoar agrees with Peter Gibbons that to really understand New Zealand culture, we have to consider “the World’s place in New Zealand” rather than just “New Zealand’s place in the World”. Histories have been written of the development of a recording industry and a film industry in New Zealand, usually with the assumption that these things were of great cultural significance to New Zealanders. But the reality is that, from the 1880s onward, most recorded music and recorded voices heard by New Zealanders came from elsewhere, and had a hugely greater impact than the local product. Like it or not, an American (and to a much lesser extent, British) soundscape became part of what New Zealanders were and still are.

In what he calls his “Overture”, Hoar shows how resistant intellectuals in Europe and elsewhere (Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno etc.) have been to the concept of recorded sound, which they saw as demeaning or diminishing the “aura” of live performance. This introduces the book’s third theme – the way intellectuals and opinion-makers in New Zealand, too, were often at odds with the general public in matters of taste when it came to recorded sound. The reality, as Hoar sees it, was that recorded sound made it possible to “domesticate” performances (i.e. bring them into the home). Gramophones and radio displaced the piano as the centre of a family’s musical entrtainment. Recordings also meant that musical performances became portable and could be heard in many different venues so that, even by the 1930s and long before transistor radios were invented, portable record players could be taken on outings and picnics, while the same music could be heard at home on the radio and in picture theatres when musical films were being shown.

The World’s Din is divided into three parts

Part One – “Records” - deals in five chapters with the way recordings became an accepted part of life in New Zealand. First there were the fragile cylinders of the 1880s and 1890s, then the switch to shellac discs in the 1900s. By the 1920s, mechanical recording was displaced by electric recording with resultant greater fidelity to the sounds that were being recorded. The domestic equipment for listening to records changed from very fragile mechanisms; to phonographs with their bulky boxes and unsightly, protruding, over-large horns; and finally to cabinets, fitting in more discreetly with traditional living-room furniture. And all the while the methods used to sell recorded sound changed. The earliest phonographs were sold as a marvel of science and later as a tool for education. Hoar sees a dichotomy between what the mass audience wanted to listen to (ragtime, jazz, popular songs) and what educational authorities thought they should be listening to, with educationists concerned that people be encouraged to listen to the “right” music.

Among other things, Hoar lays stress on how recordings meant that people tended to be less passive and still as they listened to recorded music – in other words, they ceased to behave as they had done in live concerts and recitals. They became more active, repeatedly listening to recordings of popular music at home so that they could rehearse the steps and thus seem less inept when they first attempted to dance to the same tunes in a dance-hall. Of course, once electric recording became the norm, there was the new sort of intimate, close-to-the-microphone singing known as crooning, which completely changed the way popular singers delivered live performances.

Part Two comprises four chapters on radio. In New Zealand, it was “wireless telegraphy” until the 1920s. It was mainly in morse code and it was heard via headphones. “Wireless telegraphy” was seen as a government monopoly for official and military communications and for shipping news. Hence there was strict control of who could own or make transmitters or receivers. All civilian transmitting and listening was forbidden during the First World War when military signalling became the sole use of radio. There was a network of (code-sending) government radio transmitters from Kaitaia to Invercargill. It was of military significance that when New Zealand troops took over Samoa in late 1914, they captured the big German transmitter in Apia. During the war, there was much training of radio operators by the armed forces. Many of those so trained later became involved in public radio broadcasting. By 1922, with the war safely over, regulations were relaxed and many amateurs were transmitting on crystal or valve sets. By that date, there were radio stations in all of what were then the four main centres (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin), doing regular broadcasts of music and spoken word, but only for a very limited number of hours each day.

This book does not dwell on the organizational side of radio, and how the tax-subsidised YA stations co-existed with the private “B” stations, which were not allowed to carry advertising until a major reorganization in mid-1930s allowed for fully commercial stations. Instead, Hoar is concerned with the way radio changed patterns of domestic life. The most obvious fact is that, unlike the recordings which preceded them, radio created a mass audience listening simultaneously to the same sounds. Hence radio created a sort of imaginary, or “mythic”, community. With New Zealand’s total population a mere one-and-a-half million c.1930, radio licences grew from c.30,000 in late 1920s to over 200,000 by the mid-1930s. In other words, nearly every home had a radio. Inevitably, there was an ongoing debate in the press about whether the chief purpose of radio should be entertainment, or Reithian cultural uplift on the BBC model. Hoar gives an account of the first attempt by the broadcasting authority to survey tastes in the early 1930s. The survey showed that more people wanted entertainment (recorded American and British music) rather than cultural uplift. Hoar also gives an account of some of the radio personalities who became as familiar as household words (such as Maud Basham, known as “Aunt Daisy”), of the anxiety over sports broadcasts undercutting actual attendance at sports events, and of the great influence of children’s programmes.

And so finally to the three chapters which make up the final part, concerning film. Wittily but truly, Hoar remarks that “It is a cliché to write that it is a cliché that silent film was never silent.” (p.156) He devotes a chapter to the early, not often successful, attempts to synchronise sound with silent moving images, usually by playing phonograph recordings as films were screened. In the 1890s and early 1900s, when films were most often part of a vaudeville show, this was also the era of the live performer singing or reciting to the moving images. Then in the 1910s, after movies ceased be part of a vaudeville show, and especially once dedicated cinemas were built, live sound-effects and reciters were displaced by cinema orchestras or cinema pianists. By this stage, most films told stories rather than simply showing the marvel of moving pictures; so appropriate moods had to be encouraged by the accompanying live music. Of course there are anecdotes here about the travails of cinema pianists trying to keep up with the changing moods suggested by rapidly changing sequences in films.

When the talkies reached New Zealand after 1929, different technologies presented themselves, but the cumbersome system of film-synchronised-with-disc rapidly disappeared in favour of sound-on-film – the soundtrack – which could always be relied on to synchronise image and sound. It was immediately clear that in New Zealand, American films were far more popular with the mass audience than films from any other source. Of course this raised fears about the “purity” of spoken English as New Zealand moviegoers picked up American idioms and some pronunciations from the Hollywood films they preferred. At first the New Zealand government imposed a quota on exhibitors, whereby 20% of the films they showed had to be British. But this met with resistance from the mass audience and the quota system was dropped. At this point I have to note that Hoar fails to mention the quota system at that time in Britain itself, which also forced British exhibitors to show a high percentage of British-made films. The notorious result was the “quota quickies”, cheaply-made British films of inferior quality, churned out solely to meet the government’s quota. It was probably these sorts of films that New Zealanders were rejecting.

I said at the beginning of this review that I had a few minor quibbles about this book. Here they are.

Sometimes I think Hoar is a little too hard on those educationists who organised music appreciation programmes for schools, consisting mainly of classical music (Beethoven et al.) and hearty patriotic songs. Hoar tends to see this as little more than an elitist attempt to belittle popular taste. Personally, I see something heroic in dedicated groups gathering around a gramophone in some small culturally-starved New Zealand town in the 1920s, to discuss the music of Elgar or Schumann as conveyed, 4-minute side by 4-minute side, on breakable old 78rpms.

Again, Hoar is very judgmental of international recording companies in the 1920s who recorded and marketed music by Maori performers as a way of currying favour with New Zealanders. Hoar comments:  “This was not philanthropy or ethnomusicology, it was a quite ruthless commercial strategy designed to maximise market reach and corporate profits.” (p.83) In other words, as chronicled by Hoar, such recordings were a commercialisation and bastardisation of real Maori music. But isn’t this criticism like the elitism which Hoar elsewhere condemns? After all, weren’t popular and non-traditional songs, sung by Maori performers, the equivalent of popular and non-classical music of the sort Hoar elsewhere champions? On top of which, when have recording companies not indulged in “ruthless commercial strategies designed to maximise market reach and corporate profits”?  I won’t labour the point further, except to note that the Maori performers who are most esteemed now, and most listened-to, do not work in traditional styles, but in genres borrowed from elsewhere (pop, rock, hip-hop, rap etc. etc. etc.). Maybe in 2118, somebody will comment on the cultural inappropriateness of this.

To conclude with a more trivial quibble – I’m surprised that Hoar doesn’t say more about the strange popularity of wrestling in New Zealand in the 1930s, as conveyed by radio.

That is enough of my quibbles, however. This is a delightful, well-written and enlightening book – a pleasure to read.

Nostalgic and discursive footnote, which is only marginally related to the book under review: I have for a long time been interested in the impact of recorded sound upon the way we think (see my posting from about four years ago Vita Longa Technologia Brevis) and have often enjoyed listening to recordings from the earlier part of the twentieth century. My late mother was born in 1912, and therefore was a teenager in Auckland in the later 1920s. [For the record, I am the youngest in a large family and was born when my mother was nearly 40 years old – so I’m not as old as her birth-date might make me sound.] She had a very good recall of the things she enjoyed when she was young. Among much else, she remembered the time in the late 1920s when guitar-strumming Italian-American Nick Lucas was the idol of her set. So of course I got a big burst of second-hand nostalgia when Peter Hoar began his “Overture” by showing how he enjoyed hearing Nick Lucas’s 1929 hit “Tiptoe Thru’ the Tulips” on various formats. Might I add that one can find easily on Youtube a clip of Lucas performing this in the early talkie Gold Diggers of Broadway. Indeed, one can easily find many things on Youtube. When Peter Hoar mentioned how the Croatian-Maori jazzman Epi Shalfoon made a promotional short talkie for his band in Rotorua in 1930, I immediately rushed to my computer and watched that very short on Youtube.

My mother also recalled – as Hoar does – how often the musical selections played by pianists for silent films were inappropriate to what was being shown on screen. She recalled watching the original King of Kings, a silent movie about the life of Christ, and at the crucifixion scene the pit pianist was playing “Fur Elise”, which was presumably the only “serious” classical music he knew. Further to silent-cinema pianists, the talented Birkenhead pianist Ted Lanigan (“Teddy” to his family) mentioned by Hoar on Page 179, was my wife’s grandfather. My wife tells me that even in later years, Teddy refused to have a radio in his house as he believed it killed conversation and destroyed live home performance.

A final memory of my own. When I was a young film-reviewer, a much older film-reviewer told me that, back in the 1930s, his New Zealand-born father gave up watching talking films because he simply could not understand American accents. Of course we are now more fully-attuned to English-language accents other than our own. But perhaps it was not only cultural snobbery that made some New Zealanders wary of American talkies in the period Peter Hoar covers.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Two-and-a-half years ago, I reviewed on this blog historian Margaret Pointer’s Niue 1774-1974 subtitled “200 Years of Contact and Change” (in doing so, I inadvertently used as an illustration a photo of Rarotonga, which caused comment from some readers). Pointer lived on Niue for much of the 1990s, when her husband was New Zealand high Commissioner there, and she has maintained strong contacts with the island ever since. In 2000 she wrote Tagi Tote e Loto Haaku: My Heart is Crying a Little, an account of Niue’s unhappy involvement in the First World War. Niue and the Great War is an expansion of that earlier book, drawing on much added new research and illustrated with many more archival photographs and reproductions.

As Niue and the Great War explains, missionaries who came to Niue in the nineteenth century were all from the London Missionary Society, so there was an homogeneity of protestant religion on the island and as much loyalty to the Briish Empire as was possible for a Polynesian people.

In 1914, the total population of the island was 4000. Recruiting for the war was encouraged by the Niuean parson Uea, who was happy to serve as chaplain. Recruiting on Niue was also encouraged by the prominent New Zealand Maori leader Maui Pomare. As a member of the New Zealand government, Maui Pomare was humiliated that so few of the Waikato Maori wanted to enlist when war broke out, as Waikato people still had fresh memories of war in New Zealand and the confiscation of their land. Pomare therefore saw Niueans as potential members of a combined Maori regiment.

In the event, about 150 Niueans were recruited, and they were brought to Narrow Neck on Auckland’s North Shore for basic training. Almost at once there were problems. Very few of the recruited Niueans spoke English, none had military experience and few had even worn shoes. Nevertheless, they became part  of the 3rd. Maori reinforcements and sailed off for Egypt in February 1916. Then the biggest problem hit. Coming from an isolated Pacific island, quarantined by nature from the wider world, Niueans has little resistance to common ailments to which Euopeans (and, by this stage, New Zealand Maori) were immune. In Egypt, a disproportionately large number of them fell ill with measles, pulmonary conditions and especially dysentery, which they feared. Trained strictly as a non-combatant, trench-digging pioneer force, 60 Niueans were sent to the Western Front in France, but they were very susceptible to pneumonia. They were withdrawn after only a couple of months and were sent back to New Zealand, after first being transferred to Hornchurch in England.

Many of them still spoke very little English, and they took comfort only from an elderly missionary’s wife who spoke their language. In military circles there was some controversy over why they were not stationed in Egypt, where the climate was more congenial to them; but on the whole it was seen as a humane move to return them to New Zealand, and thence to Niue. As Margaret Pointer notes, a few other Niueans enlisted separately from those in the pioneer corps. A couple even saw combat. One served at Gallipoli and one died of wounds after Passchendaele. By the end of the war, 24 of the total of 160 who had served were dead. Unlike Samoa, Niue [partly because of its isolation and the difficulty ships had anchoring there] was spared the influenza epidemic that swept the world. But the diseases contracted by the Niuean recruits were long remembered with horror on the island.

Essentially Niue and the Great War is a sad little footnote to the huge world conflict, and a reminder of the ways old empires regarded their subject peoples.

Margaret Pointer’s purpose has much to do with factual accounting. After her main text, she includes lists naming every single Niuean who served in the First World War, giving rank, serial number and village of origin. Obviously part of the book’s aim is to be a memorial. It is also generously illustrated with archival photographs, which tell at least half the story.