Monday, September 14, 2020

Something New

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

“IN THE TIME OF THE MANAROANS” by Miro Bilbrough (Victoria University of Wellington Press,  $NZ40) “YELLOW MOON – E Marama Rengarenga: Selected Poems” by Mary Maringikura Campbell (Headworx, $NZ25); “THE LIFERS” by Michael Steven (Otago University Press, $NZ27.50)

            Now in her fifties, Miro Bilbrough is, the blurb tells me, an expatriate Kiwi settled in Australia, where she is a respected film-maker and artist. But her adolescence in the 1970s was a New Zealand one. This memoir replays it vividly.
            Her parents had split up. She had been farmed out to a grandmother who was of the extreme left but who was severely puritanical in her attitudes. Life with her in Wellington is told with ironic gusto, but as she reached adolescence, young Miro chose to shift in with her father and her little sister. They lived in a remote, low-tech shack of a house near the Wakamarina River in the north of the South Island. Father’s views were anti-materialist, and “alternative-lifestyle”, but not as alternative as the “Manaroans”.  Bilbrough doesn’t like the word “hippy”. It seems to her a little demeaning and she struggles against it, but eventually she gives in as she can find no suitable synonym. So hippies the Manaroans were. They often dropped in on father and daughters to drink, philosophise, smoke pot and sleep. They lived at the end of a long, winding, unsealed road, at Manaroa near a remote bay in the Marlborough Sounds. Father joined their commune.
Miro spent some time boarding in Nelson and attending high-school, but when school was done with, she joined too. Living in a caravan which she painted herself, she became a Manaroan. It didn’t last too long. She eventually developed her artistic talents, did illustrations that were accepted by the government bulletin for schools, and shifted back to Wellington to study at a visual design school, having made it out of adolescence and into young adulthood.
As always, such a bland synopsis does not give you any of the flavour of this book. Told throughout in the present tense, it is not a linear narrative, but a set of moments in the author’s younger life. Bilbrough observes people, observes rituals  and mores of “straight” (i.e. “square”) suburban schoolmates, rebellious and unsettled teenagers like herself, flatmates, fellow-students and, of course, the hippies. She is alert to nuances of schoolgirl and hippie-girl behaviour, rivalries, games of teenage one-up-manship and especially how clothes and words were always for display, always designed to make a statement of some sort.
Only a woman writer could or would be able to describe clothes and make-up as precisely as Bilbrough does, always using these descriptions to socially “place” people in terms of fashion. Take this example, typical of many, where she is describing a children’s illustrator “With a bouffant that adds quarter her diminutive height again, Cleopatra eyeliner, an amount of facial powder that quotes the Elizabethans, and a waist fiercely accented by belted full skirts and overhanging stalactites of lace, [she] is an illustration herself. That the bouffant appears slept in only adds value.” (pp.132-133)
Throughout, the most attractive feature of this memoir is Bilbrough’s use of language, her ability to sum up mood and the era in a phrase or a few sentences. I’ve encountered few expressions of formless teenage angst better than this : “Adolescence had hit my mood centres and transformed me into an unruly devastation of discontents pining for, I don’t know.” (p.22) After describing the hair of two young men, she relates it to youth fashions of the 1970s: “It is the early seventies; hair is unusually significant and, besides, both teenagers know that politics are performative. They delight in being routinely mistaken for girls by adoring old ladies and less adoringly, train conductors.” (p.36) She produces this killer sentence on the cluelessness of the commune when, on hearing of the death of somebody they knew, they don’t know how to respond: “In the absence of anything to be done, we don’t know how to do it.” (p.229) I won’t call her prose poetic, but she has a great way with phrasing. Here she is, as a young teenager, trying to ignore a type of cake-treat she doesn’t like on display in a shop window: “I never purchase one of these sugary installations, but I am aware of their presence, like a failure of desire.” (p.55)
Bilbrough does account fully for the hippy experience, with its occasional nudism, seasonal work to keep the commune going, bland vegetarian food, being stoned, eating (and getting sick on) cannabis cookies, and long periods of boredom. There were also times of rebelliously wishing for more of the mod cons and junk food available in town (see, for example, pp.153 ff.) .
More than anything, though, the young Miro yearns for a partner, which translates into early, fumbling adolescent sexual experience. After some pubescent wanking (her word), there are the under-age loss of virginity, brief sexual encounters, dating disasters in her high-school days and being groped in various ways in the commune. All of this sounds singularly joyless. At one stage she says she was diagnosed by a doctor as having “vaginismus”, a tension in the muscles around her vagina which did not allow for easy sexual intercourse. In fact, nothing in her sexual life sounds particularly happy, but only the unfulfilled desire of a young woman who is a little lost and doesn’t yet really know how to negotiate the world. Even when she makes it to Wellington and says she found her first true love, it ends in two pregnancies and two abortions.
There is also something particulaly repellent about sex in the hippy context. Of Sylvie, a more experienced woman in the scene, Bilbrough writes: “She has recognised that the sexual revolution and its hippy offshoot, the myth of free love without acknowledgement of emotional need and commitment, serves its male proponents first and foremost.” (p.72) This idea is enhanced later when she speaks of socialising “Manaroans” : “Amidst the swirl of the group, people hold themselves aloof, even when disappearing off together for the night. Dedicated to keeping the sexual possible alive, this cagey, obscurely low-commitment style of conducting affairs does not admit of emotional need.” (p.94) Related to this we later hear of “the relative absence of boys my own age with whom to negotiate sex in conditions of relative equality; the opportunism of older hippy men. I wouldn’t know how to begin to describe these murky transactions.” (pp.160-161)
Apart from sex, there is also the fact that many people pass through young Miro’s life without ever staying long enough to become friends. As she says “In this culture of comings and goings, the sheer number of people I become acquainted with is wildly inverse to the number I retain. This perpetual gaining and shedding leaves a powerful imprint. I am situationally agile… My observational eye has been piqued. There is anxiety, too.” (p.145) She certainly keeps her “observational eye” as her sharp character-sketches of people show, sometimes proving inadvertently how judgemental of others the adolescent eye can be. And this may possibly be the memoir’s greatest weakness. Often it resolves into a series of vignettes or pen-portraits of people who passed through and who, in the end, blur into one another.
For all the alternative lifestyle that she and others embraced at least for a time, Bilbrough finally finally quits what she calls “the whole malnourished hippy trip” (p.239). In her closing words, after presenting us with a gallery of old photographs of some of the dramatis personae, Bilbrough gives a kind of apologia for how she feels now about her youthful experience. It is not quite a refutation of her younger self and her way of looking at the world. Indeed it asserts how necessary it all was to her growing up, and she makes a half-hearted attempt to present the old Manaroan community as pioneers in Greenness and care for the environment. But underneath it all I sense a certain defensiveness – as if she wants to admit that maybe the square and settled life would have been better for her adolescent self, but she can’t quite bring herself to say so.
Possibly others will read this conclusion differently.

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Sometimes I think editors and publishers lay too much of a burden on poets whom they are promoting. I certainly think this as I look at the foreword and publisher’s note that precede the poems by Mary Maringikura Campbell Yellow Moon - E Marama Rengarenga. Apirana Taylor’s Foreword says “The blood of poets flows in Maringikura’s veins”. Mark Pirie’s Note tells us she is “a daughter of two of New Zealand’s most well known poets and writers Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and Meg Campbell”. Doesn’t this raise unfair expectations, and imply somehow that the poet has simply inherited her gifts? Surely she deserves to be be judged on her own terms and by her own skills?
This objection having been stated, I make it clear that I enjoyed much of Yellow Moon - E Marama Rengarenga. The first half of this collection consists of new and uncollected poems; the second half reprints an earlier collection called Maringi, which was first published in 2015. Mary Maringikura Campbell’s poems are usually very short, as much statements as poems. Most are written in the confessional first person and many in direct address. She enjoys creating simple vignettes, as in the following complete poem, “Small town”:
Bends in the road
a small town
north of Pukerua Bay
A full moon
Bright as a torch
in your face
My parents sleep
outside my window
A giant gull disappears
mid air
nothing is as it seems
Similar charm is presented in “Ra – The Sun”, a childlike snapshot of the sun going to bed in the sea. Campbell sometimes adopts the tone of a suppliant praying to traditional gods and sometimes drops down to earth and refers to men who were unsatisfactory partners.  There are moments of self-affirmation that are a little glib, such as  “A Better Fit” which reads in toto :
I am stronger
I have layers
I am a better fit
My life is as it should be
I found my feet
not far from my toes
At last
I belong
More than anything, however, the poet is concerned with family, ancestry, children and grandchildren. As far as I can make it out “Teresia” lament for a dead sister and “Most Revered” endows a coconut tree with the motherly power of being able to nurture her. “Parents” seems to berate her parents for underestimating her, although “How We loved” suggests the opposite. There are invocations of the gods and of visions as in “Signs”, dedicated to a grandchild. Some poems I really wanted to like for their sentiment, but found them falling into bathos. “Imagine” tells us to honour as a goddess an ordinary woman struggling to bring up her children, a view I would happily endorse. But the language goes commonplace and editorial:  A mother of five kids / and the rest/ doing her best to feed and clothe / to love and hold, to protect / what she has.”
Despite such losses of quality, Mary Maringikura Campbell has the skill to fill “Going to Town” and “Foxy Boxes” with internal rhymes halfway to being rap. Like many poems in the book, they might work best declaimed at a live poetry reading.

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A completely different and far more complex world is presented in Michael Steven’s The Lifers. This is Steven’s second collection of poetry (on this blog there is a brief notice of his first collection Walking to Jutland Street) and it is impressive.
When I first grappled with the title of this collection, I thought it would deal exclusively with criminality, given that “lifers” usually designates people who are jailed for life. My mistaken interpretation seemed to hold good in the first few poems.
The collection opens in Auckland in 1996, with a drug-dealer at a casino snorting cocaine and then selling bags of crystal meth to construction workers and others coming onto their daily shift. Next comes the account of an armed robbery - a security van is ambushed and robbed of its money outside a bank in the Auckland suburb of Penrose, followed by the robbers’ getaway. Then we cut to an older-style crim with a vignette of Ron Jorgensen, notorious for the Bassett Road murders in the 1960s,  now semi-retired from the criminal life and painting to pass the time. And elsewhere there is the violent piece “Strains: Big Bud” about a skull-cracking mugging in a prison yard. Criminality and drugs come into a number of other poems, too.
But it gradually becomes apparent that “lifers” refers to those who live life-long in New Zealand (like a sentence?), or to those who simply grapple with what life itself is. Yes, there is “A Brief History of Treason” referencing Cain and Abel and suggesting inherent violence in human beings. Yes, there is the brilliantly dark panoramic poem “The Old Town”, long, evocative and in many parts, being a series of night-time vignettes, set (presumably) in some European city – perhaps Prague, given that Kafka is referenced. Here night creatures of the mythical past meld into addicts getting their fixes and others simply lost in the darkness.
But there is also “Dropped Pin: Woodhouse Forest, Muriwai”, which is almost the idyll of a Kiwi hermit. And there is “Dropped Pin: Three Lamps, Ponsonby” on a disoriented woman finding temporary peace in a chapel. And there is “Yellow Plums”, recalling a not-entirely-satisfactory visit to the grave of James K. Baxter. “At Eastern Southland” is another panoramic poem, building a vision of a of a chill corner of New Zealand. In a couple of poems Steven references the impact of electronically produced music, and laments a vanished quality of life in Dunedin. I am not suggesting that these are poems of rejoicing. But I am suggesting that their survey a quality of life goes far beyond criminality. The sequence of four poems “Reading to my Son” credibly connects the raising of a child with the whole of literary history and religion.
As you will be aware by now, one of my abiding sins is to synopsise a work without paying sufficient attention to its style. On this, just a few simple statements: Michael Steven is a master craftsman. In The Lifers he moves from prose poems to the eight loose sonnets that make up the sequence “Leviathan” to free verse to the disciplined stanzaic forms of “At Eastern Southland”. His eye for detail is acute and he is fertile in imagery – so fertile that I will not start quoting him or I might go on a bit. His view of life in New Zealand and elsewhere might be chilly and dark, with just a few rays peeping through the storm clouds, but those rays are there. This is not the work of a pessimist, but of a realist. An arresting collection.

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 INHERITORS” by William Golding (first published in 1955)

There must be a certain amount of frustration for a writer whose career produced eleven novels (really fourteen, if you realize one “novel” is a trilogy), a number of short stories, and some plays – and who yet remains best known for his first published novel. This was the fate of William Golding (1911-1993), who was (for the little that it’s worth) knighted for his literary achievements, but who more importantly won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. Mention his name and most people know he wrote Lord of the Flies (published in 1954). Given that it’s often set as a school text, and given that it’s twice been filmed and once turned into a stage-play, it is certain that Lord of the Flies has been read more often than all Golding’s other works combined. This is a pity because – especially in the first half of his writing career - Golding wrote a number of resonant novels, all of them (like Lord of the Flies) having the inspiration and structure of a moral fable or allegory – Pincher Martin, Free Fall, The Spire and The Pyramid among them.

In a Guardian article some years after her father’s death, Golding’s daughter wrote that the one of his own works Golding most treasured was his second novel, The Inheritors, published the year after Lord of the Flies. Like the preceding work, it dealt with the inherent moral flaws of human beings, not caused by environment but embedded in our very nature. (This theme, as I pointed out in another posting, was also dealt with years earlier in Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica.) Christians would call it Original Sin, and in many respects The Inheritors is Golding’s version of the Garden of Eden and the Fall.

The tale is set in distant prehistoric times. An earlier, and apparently gentler, version of human beings find themselves confronting the “new people” whom they have never encountered before and who will eventually supplant them. All commentators on The Inheritors readily identify these two groups as, respectively, Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens Sapiens, or us. This seems reasonable to me, so I will refer to the main characters in the novel as Neanderthals, and therefore the story must be set about 40,000 years ago, which is the time when, for a thousand years or so, Neanderthals in Europe interacted with our more direct ancestors, who are “the inheritors”.

The Inheritors follows a “family” of Neanderthals - the younger adult male Lok; his female partner Fa; the young girl Liku; the older male Ha; the older female Nil, who has recently given birth and is still lactating; and the very old male Mal, who is more-or-less the visionary of the group. We might as once grasp that that, if “old” Nil is lactating, then she can’t be all that old by our standards, pointing to the obvious fact that our distant ancestors probably lived relatively short lives. As for the visionary nature of old Mal, he sees “pictures” in his mind, which seem to be memories as much a prophecies. Golding often refers to the adults in this group seeing “pictures” and conveying them to one another. This has led some commentators to assume Golding is suggesting that these Neanderthals communicate by a form of mental telepathy, but I’m not convinced of this. I think, rather, that Golding’s reference to “pictures” assumes that these Neanderthals have very limited vocabulary in their speech, and no abstract words. Their “pictures” simply mean their thoughts, which they can articulate only in terms of literal images. It is an important moment, well into the novel, when one character conceives of the abstract concept “like”. In Golding’s vision, lacking abstract vocabulary may well be a moral adavantage for the Neanderthals in that they relate more directly with their physical environment than they would if they were hemmed in by abstract concepts.

It is the male Lok who is the novel’s protagonist – the character through whose eyes (although the novel is written in the third person) we see events. Yet the group’s simple religion is matriarchal. As old Mal explains it in Chapter 2: “There was the great Oa. She brought forth the earth from her belly. She gave suck. The earth brought forth woman and the woman brought forth the first man out of her belly.” A doll-like fetish of this Earth Mother Goddess is carried around by young Liku. It is also clear that, although the male Lok is the novel’s focus, the female Fa is cleverer than he is, sees more “pictures” than he does (i.e. has more thoughts) and in a way takes charge of him. When an existential threat to them is detected midway through the novel: “She became very solemn and there was the great Oa, not seen but sensed like a cloud around her. Lok felt himself diminish. He clasped his twig with both hands nervously and looked away….Fa spoke… ‘Do what I say; ‘Fa do this.’ I will say: ‘Lok do this’. I have many pictures.” (Chapter 6) Indeed it is Fa who devises an important plan which, at a crucial point, Lok ruins by disobeying her.

This Neanderthal “family” cares for one other and remembers anybody in the group who has died. When Ha has apparently died: “The feeling that Ha was still present by his many evidences grew so strong in Lok that it overwhelmed him.” (Chapter 4). When old Mal dies (“Oa has taken him into her belly.”) he is buried with a simple stone over him to mark the place – a basic sort of ritual ceremony.

The Neanderthals have some limited skills. They can keep warm in the overhang where they live by controlling fire. But, as depicted by Golding, they have no more advanced technology, and they are afraid of water, even if they live near a booming waterfall. It is a great shock to them early in the book when the log, over which they walk to cross a shallow stream, is no longer there and some of them actually have to enter the water.

Perhaps most significant in Golding’s depiction of Neanderthals, they are basically pacifistic, not aggressive - gatherers but not hunters. They have no weapons. They eat berries and grubs and wild honey, but eat meat only if it has already been killed by other creatures. In Chapter 3 Lok knows it is “very bad” to do so, but he and his group nevertheless eat the remains of a doe which has been killed by a “cat” (presumably something like a sabre-toothed tiger).

The arc of the story has the Neanderthals gradually becoming aware that other, very different, human creatures live in their neighbourhood, and gradually realising that these “new people” can be lethal. It is through the eyes of the Neanderthals  - especially Lok – that we see this. So Golding has set himself the task of reproducing the mentality and patterns of thought of a different species from ourselves. One point is obvious. Like most other mammals, these Neanderthals have a far more acute sense of smell than we do. Smell is one of their key means of gathering information. It is through smell that Lok first realises there are alien, unidentified strangers (“a smell without a picture”) in his vicinity:

He began to use his nose consciously, crouching sideways and sniffing at the rock. The smells were very complex and his nose did not seem to be clever. He knew why that was and lowered himself head downward till he felt the water with his lips. He drank then cleared out his mouth. … He stood for a while over the monstrous booming of the fall and attended to his nose. The scents were a pattern in space and time. Here, by his shoulder, was the freshest scent of Nil’s hand on the rock. Below it was a company of smells, smells of people as they passed this way yesterday, smells of sweat and milk and the sour smell of Mal in his pain… Each smell was accompanied by a picture more vivid than memory, a sort of living but qualified presence, so that now Ha was alive again. He settled the picture of Ha in his head, intending to keep it there so that he would not forget…. …There was something else. It was not noticeable when all the people were considered together, but sort and eliminate them and it remained, a smell without a picture. Now that he noticed, it was heavy by the corner. Someone had stood there, his hand on the rock…”  (Chapter 4)

But, for both Golding and his readers, there is difficulty in trying to see things as a Neanderthal might. Quite apart from the fact that we are in the world of speculation (we have abolutely no way of knowing how Neanderthals really thought or understood), there is the fact that we have to work out what exactly the Neanderthal is interpreting – or misinterpreting.

Here, for example, is the episode where Lok first sees, full-on, the face of one of the “new people” and does not understand what bow-and-arrow are:

The bushes twitched again. Lok steadied by the tree and gazed. A head and a chest faced him, half-hidden. There were white bone things behind the leaves and hair. The man had white bone things above his eyes and under the mouth so that his face was longer than a face should be. The man turned sideways in the bushes and looked at Lok along his shoulder. A stick rose upright and there was a lump of bone in the middle. Lok peered at the stick and the lump of bone and the small eyes in the bone things over the face. Suddenly Lok understood that the man was holding the stick out to him but neither he nor Lok could reach across the river. He would have laughed if it were not for the echo of screaming in his head. The stick began to grow shorter at both ends. Then it shot out to full length again. The dead tree by Lok’s ear acquired a voice. “Clop!” His ears twitched and he turned to the tree. By his face there had grown a twig: a twig that smelt of other, and of goose, and of the bitter berries that Lok’s stomach told him he must not eat…” (Chapter 5)

Lok does not connect the “twig” with the bow, does not understand that he has just been shot at, and he continues with this unawarenss in a later scene:

He looked towards the island, saw the bushes move, then one of the twigs came twirling across the river and vanished beyond him in the forest. He had a confused idea that someone was trying to give him a present. He would have smiled across at the bone-faced man but no one was visible there…” (Chapter 6)

As readers, we simlarly have to work out that, from a distance, Lok sees the “new people” performing religious ceremonies with a shaman dressed in the skin of a deer; drinking some sort of (presumably fermented) drink – a primitve wine maybe – which intoxicates them and makes them behave wildly; drinking from wineskins; and using dug-out canoes which Lok sees merely as “logs”. We are even aware that the “new people” fight among themselves. Even if he senses danger, Lok sees but does not understand.  He identifies one of the “new people” as Tuami, because he has heard that name shouted out. But, as he watches Tuami and a woman copulating, he does not understand what they are doing:

The two people beneath the tree were making noises fiercely as though they were quarrelling. In particular the woman had begun to hoot like an owl and Lok could hear Tuami gasping like a man who fights with an animal and does not think he will win. He looked down and saw that Tuami was not only lying with the fat woman but eating her as well for there was black blood running from the lobe of her ear.” (Chapter 9)

Dare I say that I read this as one of the less convincing pieces of Neanderthal misperception in the novel? Obviously Neanderthals must have copulated themselves. But perhaps Golding’s implication is that Neanderthals did it “doggie style” as most mammals do, and without much love play. So this is the first time Lok has seen face-to-face copulation.

I will not give a detailed account of how the story develops. It is enough to say that the male Ha is probably killed by the “new people”, Liku is kidnapped and enslaved by them, and Lok and Fa fail in their attempts to rescue her. The Neanderthal family is broken up. Lok and Fa are all that remain and they flee. So the hunting, killing, weapon-carrying “new people” (i.e. us) triumph and the peaceable Garden of Eden ceases to exist as its Adam and Eve are expelled.

In the last chapter-and-a-half, however, the novel’s viewpoint changes. Suddenly we see things as the “new man” Tuami does, and he thinks in the language of Homo Sapiens Sapiens. The “logs” are now called “canoes”, the “leaves” that drive them are called “paddles” and the Neanderthals are seen as primitive and scary – indeed as “devils”. It is clear that the “new people” were as afraid of the Neanderthals as the Neanderthals were of them. The difference is that the “new people” know how to kill (and make intoxicating drinks). But there is a little compensation. Just because he likes to, Tuami  carves patterns on the handle of his bone knife. As well as having greater consciousness and self-consciousness than the human forms that preceded us, we have art and creativity to offset our innate violence and destructiveness. It is also worth noting that, as the “new people” abduct, carry away and seem to cherish an infant Neanderthal, Golding is possibly suggesting that Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens Sapiens later interbred – a theory which (I understand) had now been proven by DNA research. So we each carry at least a little of Neanderthal within us.

How do I rate this novel?

Like others of Golding’s novels, it is essentially an allegory, or, more precisely a “myth” – an explanation of why we are the morally-flawed creatures that we are. We have been this way since our greater intelligence taught us to hunt and kill and destroy our more peaceable evolutionary cousins.

But there are problems with this scheme. Golding was in part reacting against the stereotype of Neanderthals as violent, primitive, cave-dwelling brutes. Indeed, as epigram to The Inheritors, he uses ironically a quotation from H. G. Wells depicting Neanderthals in just such unflattering terms. In the process, however, Golding has over-compensated and created something like the counter-cliché of the “noble savage”. His Neanderthals are not quite credible because, being a modern human being, Golding is forced to present them as more “sapiens” than they probably were, or at least to have them express themselves in ways which, for all his attempts to make it alien to us, sound suspiciously modern.

Something external to the novel also now damages our suspension of disbelief. In the 60-plus years since the novel was written, the best scientific research suggests that Neanderthals were hunters, and were at least as aggressive among their own kind as Homo Sapiens Sapiens has been. This effectively destroys the image of Neanderthals as peaceable gatherers only. It also seems likely that Neanderthals were unafraid of crossing wide bodies of water.

In a way, this puts The Inheritors in the category of wishful thinking. Golding, correct though he may be about the innate moral flaw in our nature, is in literary line of descent with those who have created human-origin myths that suit their world view. In Leviathan, in the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes said that we were violent, self-interested beasts in our most natural form, and therefore we needed a strong ruling authority to tame and control us. In direct contrast Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the 18th century, in his De l’Inegalite Parmi Les Hommes, said that in our natural state we were wonderful loving and cooperative beings, but that the invention of private property made us competitive and violent.  Then there are those feminist tracts (Herstory etc.) which tell us that we were cooperative and peaceable when we worshipped female gods, but then the horrible Patriarchy came along and spoiled everything.

Though Golding, son of an atheist father, was a non-denominational Christian, his myth is closest to Rousseau’s. And he seems to have fallen into the same trap as Jane Goodall, who for years believed that her beloved chimpanzees were peaceful; but who then discovered that they waged war on their own kind. When she discovered this, she said “This was a dark time for me - I thought they were like us, only better”. (See the footnote to my posting Meeting Our Relatives.) Golding wants to believe that Neanderthals were like us, only better. It’s a beguiling myth.

In spite of the objections I raise here, The Inheritors is still a forceful attempt to suggest what is innately wrong with us – a concept which is vigorously denied by utopians and those who would like to believe that all our moral flaws can be eliminated by a little social tweaking.

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.

Once upon a time, and it seems a long time ago now, there used to be a British television show broadcast just before the six o’clock news, around the time dinner was being prepared. It was called Masterchef and it was a modest show. Research (i.e. Wikipedia) tells me that, as originally designed, it ran from 1990 to 2001. Its format was simple. Two English chaps, both experienced chefs, would host aspiring chefs and get them to prepare meals which they would then judge. If I remember rightly, at the end of the show an aspirant either got dismissed or won a contract to chef in a real restaurant. Or maybe this happened only at the end of the season – frankly I can’t remember all the details.
What I do remember, however, is that it was a simple show in a simple studio setting - a little competitive, of course, but with both of the adjudicators relatively polite to the contestants. Even more vividly, I recall that this early Masterchef was sometimes a boost to my morale. As it played when I was (sometimes) preparing the evening meal, I would be dashing between the kitchen and the television to see how the skills of the aspiring chefs compared with my own skills.
Let me make it clear that my cooking abilities are very limited. As my wife and family are always ready to tell me, I have at most three or four simple recipes to produce a meal. But at least it is an edible meal. And this was what heartened me about the original Masterchef. The aspirant chefs were, by and large, devising meals that could be eaten at the domestic dinner table. They were not aiming for cordon bleu all the time, although haute cuisine sometimes came into it; and the ingredients they were using tended to be very accessible ones. I soon picked up that, for all my limited skills (and for all my wife’s much greater skills), what we were eating at home was just as nutritious, and almost as presentable, as anything the aspirant masterchefs came up with.
Masterchef was “rebooted” in 2005 and became the monstrous and redundant thing it now is – a hyped-up show with a logo, sometimes involving celebrity chefs and celebrity aspirants, with dramatic music, competitions held in a large hall with the camera swooping dramatically down and about the benches where teams of competitors are harassed by hectoring adjudicators, false suspense built into the idea of who will win, and generally resonant of a Las Vegas show rather than your home kitchen. It’s no longer screened here at about dinner time and I haven’t bothered watching it for years.
But I have still kept the simple lesson that the original Masterchef taught me. As food worth eating, what is served in a restaurant is no better for you, and probably no more nutritious and no more palatable, than what you are easily able to prepare at home, even if you are a mediocre cook like me.
So why do we ever go to restaurants at all?
We may have heard of some fabulous recipe served in a particular establishment. Indeed we may be real connoisseurs who, without faking it, are able to identify what culinary techniques were used in preparing the food we are eating, and how that food compares with the work of other chefs. But the great majority of us are not such connoisseurs. As often as not, going to a restaurant is more a matter of socialising than getting a meal. We might enjoy the company and conversation. We might enjoy being served. We might enjoy not having to prepare a meal ourselves. We might enjoy the milieu. I’ve sometimes heard people argue in terms of aesthetics, that is, we might enjoy how the food looks when it is served to us. But only rarely are we there because we actually need a meal. We are there for an “occasion”, not for sustenance.
There’s another problem that occurs to me. I once heard a vigneron expounding on wines and how they are enjoyed. But, he added as a warning, often people admire and claim to have savoured a certain wine in the setting of a restaurant or on a happy occasion when they are holidaying. But when they buy exactly the same wine from a vintner and drink it at home, they sometimes complain that it doesn’t taste so good, or that perhaps they have bought the one bottle that was somehow “off”.
The reality is that it was the setting (restaurant or holiday) that made them enjoy that particular wine in the first place because they were already enjoying the occasion. The intrinsic qualities of the wine itself had little to do with it.
Thus too, I think, with restaurant meals. Not being a puritan, I’m happy to enjoy a meal in a restaurant with friends, but not while claiming a false connoisseurship over the bill of fare. And Lord save me from those asses who confuse dining out with Culture and imagine they are showing their sophistication while pretending to assess thoughtfully the wine or the filet mignon.
Always remember, you are paying for what can essentially be done at home, and at a fraction the cost.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Something New

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

“MARTI FRIEDLANDER: PORTRAITS OF THE ARTISTS” by Leonard Bell (Auckland University Press,  $NZ75)

            There is something impertinent and presumptuous in using words to describe art works. In their various ways, art works speak for themselves, even if what they are saying will be interpreted differently by each viewer. This is such an obvious truism that I’m sure Leonard Bell won’t be offended if I say the photographs themselves are the chief attraction of Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists. But the texts that Bell provides are a great supplement to them. Leonard Bell has been an art historian at the University of Auckland for most of the last 50 years. He has published prolifically, including an earlier book about Marti Friedlander (1928-2016), and he is immersed deeply in the visual arts of New Zealand, including photography.

            Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists is a capacious hardback, 336 large pages long, which reproduces portrait photographs Friedlander took, mostly between the 1960s and 1980s, of New Zealand artists – painters, potters, sculptors, creative writers, film-makers and historians. 124 such creative people are listed in the publisher’s flyer. The images are reproduced with meticulous clarity; and on the page facing each image, Leonard Bell gives an account of who the artist was, whether she or he has continued to be well-known or has faded from the collective memory, and the circumstances in which Marti Friedlander took the photograph. Bell also notes that most of these photographs have never before been included in a book, although one or two of them were included in small publications.

Just as important, Bell, who selected the images, provides a long and detailed essay by way of introduction, which he calls “Contexts”. The main thrust of this essay is to tell us what sort of person Friedlander was, and what sort of arts scene existed in New Zealand at the time she was producing her portraits.

Friedlander [nee Gordon] was the daughter of a Russian-Jewish couple who abandoned her and her sister to an orphanage when they were very young. She was a native of London’s East End, and trained as a photographer in London in the 1940s, but remained an amateur, supporting herself with other jobs. She arrived in New Zealand with her husband in 1958. Only then did she begin to study as a portraitist, and in 1959 her first New Zealand portrait was publshed in Landfall. It was a cropped version of the portrait of the young (28-year-old) Maurice Gee, found in its uncropped form at p.69. It was only in 1963 that Friedlander turned professional.

Much of her time was spent on commissions for magazines and on theatre-publicity photographs. She never worked from a studio, photographed people in their own environments, and used “available” or “natural” light as opposed to the battery of lights found in most photographers’ studios. Objects and art-works seen in the homes of her subjects were one way in which she caught the subject’s character and interests. Once well-established, she often chose her own subjects. Leonard Bell compares her with dedicated photo-portraitists of the 19th century, such as the Parisian “Nadar” because, like “Nadar”, she recorded the most important artists of her adopted country. Also, in photographs over the years, she was able to give “visual biographies” of how people changed. (p.31) Bell says her approach was “relational”. She directed her subjects and, says Bell, in contrast to other peoples’ camera-facing studio portraits “Friedlander’s portraits… aim to picture their subjects’ ‘true’ rather than ‘put-on’ or acted face.” (p.54)

Bell also gives in his introduction an interpretation of New Zealand in the 1950s and early 1960s as a monocultural, philstine, artistic wasteland. The arts were looked on with suspicion. Hence he sees Friedlander as the chronicler of an artistic culture that was beginning to flourish with, as the years moved on, more involvement of women and more awareness of Maori culture.  He lists many artists who were just emerging in the 1960s and 1970s. If some of those Friedlander photographed are now forgotten, they were nevertheless part of the buzz and excitement of that time, and they earn their place in this portrait gallery. Yet, sadly and rather ironically, Bell’s much shorter “Epilogue” tells us that, in the age of neoliberalism, the arts are now once again being down-graded and both music and art departments in high schools and universities are being ruthlessly cut-back or de-funded. The wheel turns on.

Moving from the text to the reproduced photographs themselves, I have to be sparing as I cannot possibly comment on all the many images found here.

 One nods one’s head at some of the people we expect to find here – such as James K. Baxter, wearing an uncharacterisitically florid shirt, looking either angsty or simply wary (at p.87). There are three portraits of Friedlander’s sometime friend Karl Stead.; and fully seven pages of Ralph Hotere, who also features on the front cover. Also, Leonard Bell is happy to point out which of Friedlander’s subjects was or is a personal friend of his, such as the fellow-art critic and art historian Francis Pound, or the artist Gretchen Albrecht (who appears on the back cover). I have to note that Bell also has a penchant for quoting Baudelaire.

Among the forgotten artists displayed here are Keith Patterson, Phil Slight, Suzanne Goldberg, Ted Kindleysides and others, but then it is the portrait that matters. Besides which, the bearers of obcure reputation sometimes make the best photographs. Among the forgotten, one is almost inclined to add Rei Hamon, who was once a best-seller of books reproducing his work, but who is now very much out of favour. Look at the careful positioning of the little-known potter Mary Hardwick-Smith, neatly placed by Friedlander in her creative environment (p.91). Similarly, look at Jeff Macklin (p.103), who was an extremely handsome guy, but ephemeral to New Zealand art.

The overwhelming majority of photographs are, naturally, in black-and-white. The few colour photographs are almost startling when they appear. Note (pp.28-29) the bold contrasts in the black-and-white photograph of Doris Lusk and less sharp, but warmer, contrasts in the coloured photograph of Toss Woollaston on the facing page. In both cases the light comes from the left and the shadows are on the right, and both painters are in relaxed, non-dramatic poses, with the contrasts giving depth to the image. One of the most unadorned photographs in the book (at p.289) is Friedlander’s coloured portrait of fellow photographer Ans Westra, staring candidly at the lens with perhaps mild amusement. Interestingly, the other image which most suggests unselfconciousness and ease in front of a camera is the black-and-white shot of another image-maker, film director Gaylene Preston (p.295).

Friedlander’s situating artists against their work is amply on display. The portrait of Rita Angus (p.67), photographed in 1969, has her standing next to a self-portrait she had painted some years earlier – the photographed woman and the painted woman have the same pursed lips and budding cheeks, but the look in the photographed woman’s eyes is more amused and ironical than the wider-eyed look of the painted woman. (The other images of Rita Angus, at pp.163-165, verify her essential good humour.) It is interesting to compare the portraits of Rita Angus with those of another prominent artist Robin White, who appears both assertive and unassuming in her no-nonsense, folded-arms pose (p.132) and, like Rita Angus, is set against one of her own self-portraits, which was clearly influenced by Rita Angus’s clear-lined modernism. Potter and ceramicist Warren Tippett, at p.125, looks quizzically at his own creations, but with the camera stationed in such a position that his pots look larger than he does. Environment conquers artist. (Incidentally, the bearded Tippett projects a completely different persona in other photographs of him, at pp.126-127, where he is beardless.)

It is possible that some photo-portraits reveal more than the sitters might have expected. I can only look at the portrait of Pat and Gil Hanly (p.50) and think “They are husband and wife, but what a contrast between these people!” Pat looks a little quizzical but Gil has a real smile suggesting a degree of moderate scepticism about this whole business of being photographed. The same holds true in the images of the Hanlys presented at pp.149-151. At the same time, I love the way some sitters bite back at the camera. On p.75 there is a lovely, cocky shot of sculptor Antony Stones, in cardy and specs, looking unimpressed at the camera as he smokes a fag. The artist who is most relaxed, and hardly caring what the photographer records, is the old-school painter Bill Sutton (p.255) who, sitting comfortably, looks at the camera with mild amusement.

It is a perilous thing to assume that one photograph really can sum up a personality. Perhaps the most anxious face is that of sculptor Greer Twiss (p.153). But this image does nor summarise the man, as the following two pages show him with a completely different expression and apparently in a very different mood. The images of painter Michael Illingworth (pp.200-203) show how different the same person can appear in different settings and occasions, yet the downturned lips always suggest a certain melancholy.

And, of course, different eyes can interpret photographs in very different ways. I can only conjure up the word “wistful”  when I look at the portrait of the then-young historian Judith Binney, photographed in 1970 (p.167). Binney also looks very wary of the world… but of course I could be completely misinterpreting the image, and I certainly know that there is nothing wistful about the scholarly and severely-factual histories that Binney went on to write. Leonard Bell tells us that the image of Louise Henderson (p.172) projects “the sense of an intense, strong person”. Perhaps. But (knowing nothing about Louise Henderson’s life or personality), all I see in the photograph is a slightly grumpy person smoking a cigarette. The elderly historian and essayist Eric McCormick has his index finger to his lips (p.207). Does this mean that he is requesting silence, or that he is secretive and keeping a secret or that he is simply pensive? Who knows? And naturally there are some people whose faces defy interpretation. You have no chance of decoding the forceful face of Milan Mrkusich as seen at pp.272-273.

How much is movement a factor in making still photographs? There are photographs of potters, painters and writers in motion and not holding a pose – but sometimes it is uncertain whether the subject of the photograph is in motion or not. On p.253, is Shirley Gruar about to push herself up from an armchair? Or had the camera’s quick shutter frozen her in mid-movement?

There are times when I would challenge Bell’s view that Friedlander’s portraits “aim to picture their subjects’ ‘true’ rather than ‘put-on’ or acted face.” Or, at any rate, I would challenge the view that she always achieved this aim. The double page spread (pp.10-11) of Neil and Brian (“Tim”) Finn looking into the distance against a cloudly sky really shows the brothers quite self-consciously striking an “iconic” pose. At p.107, there is an excellent photograph, taken in 1967, of the historian and polemicist Dick Scott. He stares through his specs into the distance beyond the photographer, with notebook and pen in hand, in front of a house at Parihaka, all of which neatly establishes his status as journalist and his historical interests. But (judge for yourself) is the expression on his face mildly amused? This is a very self-consciously posed photograph. Friedlander’s photos (pp.214-219) of Tony Fomison (taken in 1978) seem not to have overcome her objection that he was simply playing the role of being an artist.

And, before I conclude, here is a miscellany of unrelated oddities. The now-forgotten minor playwright Alexander Guyan (p.14) ,photographed in 1965, could be a dead ringer for the young James K. Baxter, with his gauntness and his prominent ears The 36-year-old Michael Morrissey (as he was when photographed in 1978) looks very ill at ease, despite the relatively calm pose he has adopted. (p.209) Perhaps intended as a glamour shot for a magazine, the portrait of Kiri Te Kanawa (p.279), wrapped in a fur coat and standing on a beach, is incongruous in so many ways. The opera singer’s blank stare, aimed directly at the camera, seems to confirm Marti Friedlander’s comment that she was a “cold fish”. And dare I say in this context, that even allowing for Marti Friedlander’s undoubted artistry, there are a (very) few photographs that, at least to me, seem little more than jobbing snaps? I instance the image of poet Alan Brunton (p.282) waving his left hand while holding in his right hand the script from which he is apparently reading.

But that is as much carping as I can make.

Friedlander, when on form, was a great photo artist. For sheer artful composition, I will instance one portrait, which is also one of the quietest and least provocative in the gallery. This is (at p.182) the portrait of the artist Lois McIvor who is on the right-hand side of the frame, her head slightly lowered, her expression of quiet expectation, a cigarette in her hand at the bottom of the frame. But the left-hand side of the frame is one of her art works. The curved line of part of her painting is so situated that it appears to be springing from her head – like a thought. You might miss this image if you are hunting for better-known arts people, but it is one of the best in a great collection.