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 Radio, Records 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.

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 GREAT WALL OF CHINA AND OTHER PIECES” by Franz Kafka (a selection of Kafka’s stories, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir and first published in 1933)

As I have remarked before on this blog (look up the postings on Metamorphosis and The Trial), I long ago came to the conclusion that Franz Kafka  (1883-1924) was better in shorter fiction than he was in his novels, which tend to be repetitive and ill-formed. Obviously their unfinished status at the time Kafka died has something to do with this. But the bright eye of nighmarish satire works best in the concentrated form of the short story.
There’s a problem with the provenance of Kafka’s works, related both to how Max Brod rescued them from oblivion and how they have been presented to us piecemeal over the years.
Kafka was first made available to English-speakers by the huband-and-wife translators Edwin and Willa Muir.
As well as translating all three of Kafa’s longer novels, the Muirs, in the 1930s, twice presented readers with selections of Kafka’s shorter pieces. One such selection was called In the Penal Colony, and consisted of all the shorter pieces that had been published in Kafka’s lifetime. This included a translation of Die Verwandlung, which the Muirs, the first translators of the tale, called The Transformation. Only later did other translators call it Metamorphosis, and subsequent editions of the Muirs’ own translation adopted this title too.
The other volume consisted of shorter pieces that were not published in Kafka’s lifetime – some of them incomplete. This collection the Muirs called The Great Wall of China and Other Pieces. I stick to my view that Metamorphosis is the greatest piece of writing Kafka ever produced. But I found much to attract me to the Great Wall of China volume, if only because of the oddly cheerful tone of the first selection.
            “Investigations of a Dog” is certainly the most whimsical long story by Kafka that I have read – almost a light-hearted parody of his more serious tone, as if he could no longer take these questions as seriously as he once did, because he now knew they admitted of no clear or simple answer. In the first person, an old dog recounts his earnest explorations of the nature of the world and of dogdom when he was young. He was scandalised by the sight of dogs dancing to music on their hind legs – and hence exposing obscenely their sexual organs. He is confused by “floating dogs” who live their days on cushions far above the heads of dogs and only ocasionally come down to the level of other dogs. He becomes obsessed with the question of where food comes from, as it seems simply to drop from the sky. So he experiments with starving and not taking food, and hence has the mystical experience that occupies the last page of the story. The story’s irony works in a number of ways: (i) The narrator dog nowhere acknowledges or seems aware of the existence of human beings [who presumably provide the food, train dancing circus dogs and carry about on cushions pampered pug-dogs etc.] This coud be a parody of human beings’ lack of awareness of God; or (ii)The dogs use of “incantations” (i.e, howling) to get their food, and their attempts at a “science” of food, could be a parody of human religion and attempts to explain the universe by rational science. Either way, the narrator dog’s existential bafflement both mirrors and echoes our own.
“The Burrow” is again told in the first-person, but this time, somewhat unnervingly, it is hard to tell if the narrator is human or not – probably human, as there is mention of doors in the construction of his labyrinthine burrow; but there is also mention of waking and feeling the taste of a rat he has killed, like a feral cat or some such. Be all this as it may, the tale as such is simply an account of his burrow and his feelings towards it – its construction; his care to keep its entrances and exits concealed; how he cannot resist feeding off his hidden store of food; where he sleeps; how safe he feels. He contemplates having a companion to serve as watchman, but gives up the idea as being too dangerous. Then gradually he becomes obsessed with small noises he can hear everywhere and continuously through his burrow Are they the souds of a powerful and unseen enemy trying to overcome him?
The impact of reading this story is the impact of hearing the confessions of a paranoid and obsessive mind, centred on finding an impregnable “safe space” and unable to engage with the world. There is also that notion of an unseen and invisible power at work – again, perhaps, one of Kafka’s ambiguous approaches to God.
Says the narrator: “It is comparatively easy to trust anyone if you are supervising him or at least can supervise him; perhaps it is even possible to trust someone at a distance; but completely to trust someone outside the burrow when you are inside the burrow, that is a different world, that, it seems to me, is impossible.” ”
According to Edwin Muir’s introduction, “The Burrow” was written very near the end of Kafka’s life and is almost complete. However it seems that the planned ending was going to have the “invisible enemy” appear, which would have changed the story’s tone considerably.
“The Great Wall of China” is a perfect sketch, told by a Chinese – an account of the wall’s construction in discrete sections and hence its method of controlling and separating the workforce. But then there is a reflection on why the wall is being built – clearly it is not to keep out the northern invaders as they would be swallowed up in the vast land anyway. Obviously its real purpose is an eternal condition exceeding the designs of any emperor… there follows the fable [which Kafka wrote separately]  of how long it would take a message from the emperor to reach any countryman. This means that in fact most Chinese don’t know who the current emperor is [“Long-dead emperors are sat on the throne in our villages, and one that only lives in song recently had a proclamation of his read out by the priest before the altar.”] This leads to Kafka’s clearest – and in fact profoundly conservative – political statement when the narrator condones Chinese villages who live “a life that is subject to no contemporary law, and attends only to the exhortations and warnings that come to us from olden times.” Political topicalities are less important than eternal verities. [However, reading a political commentary on Kafka, I discover that this tale can – or should – be read ironically as a condemnation of those who ignore the present.]
“The Giant Mole”, more clearly than the above, is incomplete. It is apparenty a satire on either science or literary production. The narrator tells of a village schoolmaster who gains brief notoriety for writing a pamphlet on a giant mole he has seen. The narrator, who has not seen the mole, writes his own pamphlet on it. It is ignored or ridiculed. The narrator withdraws his work from circulation. The [very incomplete] story might be about people who write on things sight unseen; or about literary rivalries, in the schoolmaster’s resentment of the narrator’s pamphlet, and the narrator’s residual guilt for writing it At one point the narrator tells the schoolmaster “Often as we listen to some learned discussion we may be under the impression that it is about your discovery, when it is about something quite different, and the next time, we think it is about something else, and not about your discovery at all, it may be about that and that alone.”
The rest of the Muirs’ volume is made up of much shorter pieces – most of them ironical fables of less than one page in length – and then two separate groups of aphorisms. Those gathered under the heading “He” seem to be notes Kafka made to himself in the year 1920. They are more about personal maladjustments than about philosophical questions. Rather more interesting are the aphorisms grouped under the heading “Reflections on Sin, Pain, Hope and the True Way”, which seem to date from 1917-19 and include the following excellent observations.
[38] “Only our concept of Time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgement by that name; in reality it is a summary court perpetually in session.”
[50] “In the fight between you and the world, back the world.”
[54] “There are questions which we could never get over if we were not delivered from them by the operation of nature.”
I do not think this is the most essential volumes of Kafka’s work, but it is a collection which often shows his less haunted side, even if the power of a malign force sometimes peeps through.

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.


 Here is one of those statements that can knock you sideways, if you are of a reflective cast of mind. It will force you to come to grips with the reality of how little we know of history.
Recently I was reading my way through The Fall of the West, a bulky tome by the English historian Adrian Goldsworthy, published in 2009 and bearing the subtitle “The Slow Death of the Roman Superpower”. In some ways, drawing upon recent archaeology and historiography that was not available in the 18th century, The Fall of the West is like a rewriting of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Goldsworthy has just been considering the argument, popular among some recent historians, that Roman power was not declining in the third century AD because we have evidence that there was still much wealth in the Roman Empire. Therefore, goes this particular argument, the fragmentary tales we have of destructive Roman civil wars at this time must be exaggerated, because the economy was apparently not disrupted.
Goldsworthy drops his bombshell has he responds to this argument thus:
It is worth bearing in mind that if we had the same amount of evidence for the twentieth century as we have for the third, then we would not have any real idea of the scale of the Great Depression or the impact of two world wars. For instance, Japan’s and Germany’s growing prosperity would doubtless be seen as inexorable and unbroken in the course of the century. Any talk in literary fragments of the devastation caused by war would doubtless be dismissed as wild exaggeration. It is clear that there were many very wealthy people in the Roman world at the opening of the fourth century. This does not necessarily mean very much – after all, some people remained rich and prosperous throughout the Great Depression. There are no figures to tell us whether the number of wealthy individuals was smaller in the fourth century compared with the second. There were the very poor in both periods, and those at every stage in between, but again we know nothing of numbers and proportions in the overall population.”  (Chapter 7, Adrian Goldsworthy The Fall of the West)
I have added the emphasis here, because it is the underlined parts that really knocked me back.
Think about it for a moment. Rome was a literate civilisation. Much of its great literature survives (and of course much of it has vanished). Rome has left many monumental and archaeological remains across Europe, most of which can now be dated with reasonable accuracy. It also had many historians and chroniclers whose works we still have. About some aspects of Roman history a good historian can write with reasonable confidence – indeed with far more confidence than anybody can write about pre-literate societies or more ancient civilisations. But EVEN SO, with all those resources at the historian’s command, there are still vast areas of Roman history that we simply cannot know, for the Roman Empire was not a documented society in the way modern societies are. Statistics as such did not really exist.
I am fixing here upon the phrases “if we had the same amount of evidence for the twentieth century as we have for the third” and “there are no figures to tell us…
This is one of those paragraphs that makes me see the very uncertainty of what we regard as history.
Four years ago on this blog, I reviewed the journalist Frances Mossiker’s The Queen’s Necklace, a careful account of a royal scandal that preceded the French Revolution. Mossiker built her book by putting together and commenting upon contrasting and often contradictory contemporary reports of the scandal, nearly all written by people who had their personal axes to grind.  As I said at the time, when I first read Mossiker’s book, it  forced me to see how the same events could be reported and interpreted in completely different ways by different witnesses.” It opened an abyss under me – the knowledge that there is often no solid ground to stand on when it comes to narratives of history.
Adrian Goldsworthy’s remark about the lack of documentary evidence, and the fragmentary nature of resources, opens that abyss again.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Something New


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

“CHARLES BRASCH  - JOURNALS 1958-1973” Selected with an Introduction and Notes by Peter Simpson (Otago University Press, $NZ59:95); “BIG WEATHER – Poems of Wellington” Selected by Gregory O’Brien and Louise St John (Vintage – Penguin – Random House $NZ30) ; “PEOPLE FROM THE PIT STAND UP” by Sam Duckor Jones (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

In reviewing the third volume of Charles Brasch’s journals, covering the years from 1958 to his death in 1973, I find myself having to say some of the same things I said when reviewing the first two volumes (find comment on them via this link Charles Brasch Journals 1938-1957). Volume Three, selected and edited by Peter Simpson, is in the same hardback format as its two companion volumes and weighs in at nearly 700 pages. There are 34 pages of chronology preceding Simpson’s introduction and, before the index at the back, nearly 50 pages of very useful Dramatis Personae, giving notes on all the people who are most frequently mentioned.

Once again, Simpson’s extensive Introduction orients us accurately to what is to follow so, shamelessly, I shall summarise it.

Charles Brasch was only 63 when died but he was already worrying about his impending end when he was still just out of his forties. This may have had much to do with his unsettled sense that he had made no satisfactory lasting union with anybody, and time was drawing on. At the age of 49, he fell in love with Andrew Packard, a talented marine biologist in his 20s, who had an Oxford background. Brasch was attracted in part by Packard’s Englishness. But like Harry Scott, Brasch’s earlier object of desire, Packard was heterosexual, and soon disappeared to a life of research in Italy, leaving Brasch to think wistfully of him. They met amicably much later and Brasch wrote a cycle of poems about him (“In Your Presence”) in his collection Ambulando. Meanwhile Harry Scott died, his wife Margaret was widowed with three children, and – extraordinarily - Brasch considered becoming Margaret’s lover. More extraordinarily still, Margaret Scott accepted his advances and they were lovers for some time until the sexual attraction wore off. There is the implication that Brasch’s loving her was some sort of substitute for loving Harry. [Incidentally Margaret Scott – who had a hand in producing the first volume of Brasch’s journals - died in 2014, which presumably makes it easier to now make public these intimate details.]

It is possible that Brasch was sexually active after his affair with Margaret Scott was over, but it is clear that he never again felt the sort of love for one man that he had experienced with Harry Scott and Andrew Packard. He did have a strong friendship with the neurotic and mentally unstable Russian Jew Nicholas Zissermann and his mother “Moli” (Hilde), but the friendship was a tubulent one. The son was a talented poet and translator, but he had frequent outbursts of rage and he abused his mother.

Outside these intimate connections, Brasch was acquainted, via Landfall, with nearly all the literati then living in New Zealand. Simpson chronicles Brasch’s various views on New Zealand writers – which, in the privacy of his journal, could be harsh and tender by turns. The relationship with Andrew Packard seems to have kick-started his stalled poetry-writing again, so that he produced two collections in the 1960s Ambulando (1964) and Not Far Off (1969), with its title referring to death. Brasch planned and wrote much of a long poem about himself, Andrew Packard and the Scotts. It was called “Birds of Passage”; but Brasch seems never to have finished it and it is now lost. Peter Simpson remarks: “Intimate emotional engagement with another – in a word, being in love – was for CB the greatest spur to fresh composition, as he discovered yet again when to his surprise he became sexually involved with Margaret Scott some eighteen months after Harry’s death.” (p.74)

Outside literature, Brasch’s main interest was appreciating (and collecting) paintings. He admired Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon for their earlier rather than later productions. Doris Lusk and Rita Angus were more his thing, but he at least tried hard to like the abstract art of others. The Frances Hodgkins Fellowship for artists depended in part on his patronage, just as did the Burns Fellowship for writers.

With regard to Landfall, Brasch was growing weary of the task of being editor. There was increasing criticism of the quasi-academic tone of the publication, with the likes of Louis Johnson and Wellingtonians saying it was too harsh on young talent and too pone to farm out reviewing to junior university lecturers. Brash seriously considered giving up as editor in 1961, and began agonising over who should replace him. Mac Jackson and Vincent O’Sullivan were considered. Brasch stayed on until 1966, when Robin Dudding was chosen.  (The always-malicious Frank Sargeson described Dudding to Brasch as “a nice fellow but only just not illiterate.”) Brasch deliberately left Dudding alone as Dudding set about editing Landfall, knowing that he couldn’t play the periodical’s eminence grise.  But, like others, he felt he had to do something when Dudding was fired from the publication in 1972. Hence, in his last two years, Brasch and others supported Dudding’s periodical Islands, when Landfall, post-Dudding, seemed to be losing its way.  [NB For more information on this, see Adam Dudding’s book My Father’s Island, reviewed on this blog in October 2016].

After a painful and prolonged illness, Charles Brasch died in 1973 of Hodgkin’s disease (cancer of the lymphatic system).

Thus much for Peter Simpson’s detailed and informative introduction.

In making my own coments on this journal, I begin with the obvious statement that between 1958 and 1973, New Zealand was in some ways a very different country from New Zealand now. It is extraordinary that, as we are reminded in Brasch’s entry for 1 September 1959, the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (precursor of New Zealand on Air) would allow no mention of the “No Maoris, No Tour” protests that were attempting to stop a racially-selected All Blacks team from touring South Africa. That sort of censorship of a major news story would now be regarded as both reprehensible and ridiculous. We should also note that a journal is a journal – it is filled with contradictions and changes of opinion, because, written day by day, it tends to judge things in the short term. We cannot reasonably expect Brasch’s opinions to be firm and unchanging. All reasonable people change their views on things over time. We should also be prepared for discreet bitcheries, as a private diary is the place where they can be expressed.

My own general impressions of how things move in these journals goes something like this:

Already in 1958, Brasch is death-haunted. The funerals of old friends and acquaintances begin to pile up, even though he is only in middle age. He is already working on his memoirs, provisionally called  Finestra (he would eventually call them Indirections). Landfall is already beginning to worry him, as in the entry for 3 August 1958 where is is furious at Louis Johnson for criticising the periodical.

In 1959 there is much angst about the death of Harry Scott and the status of his widow. As he did for nearly all his life, Brasch sniffs around the fringes of religion, and, while never being attracted to it himself, takes a serious interest in Catholicism - not just by associating with the converts James K. Baxter and Bill Oliver, but by reading Teilhard de Chardin and discussing things with his close friend Deirdre Airey (a doctor who was the Catholic-convert daughter of the left-wing professor Willis Airey).

1962 sees Brasch working with Ruth Dallas to put together the anthology Landfall Country. He also makes an extensive trip to Europe and to a literary conference in Australia. In England, he finds Benjamin Britten’s opera Albert Herring artificial; and the “satire” in the revue Beyond the Fringe phoney and forced. He also encounters the pale and weak expatriate New Zealand novelist James Courage, who died the following year.  By 1963 there is much glad-handing with young male academics from Auckland, some of whom Brasch sees as promising literary lights. (Alas, most of them became merely older academics.) In 1963 there are many pages of notes towards his autobiography and in 1964 there is a trip to India; and in Otago many mountains are viewed and many hikes taken. There is another trip to Europe and England; and by 1969 and 1970 an increasing number of entries on art. Brasch is intensely interested in the works of Brent Wong, Michael Smither, Colin McCahon and Ralph Hotere, although he never wholeheartedly endorses the work of any of them. There are now far more thoughts now on death and on the writing of Indirections. In June 1972,  he is both bemused and amused by the younger male poets at a poetry festival in Rotterdam. Death is creeping in. There are many entries on his slow and sometimes painful physical decline.

On 2 January 1973 he writes: “Has this pain come to stay? Does it mean to take up permanent residence in my back, chest, stomach? Sometimes I think so, & prepare to domesticate it, try to live with it. As if I had no choice. And indeed what choice has one? This is not a matter of free will. But I resist.”

By Easter Sunday (22 April) 1973 He is writing: “every day is the same, the utter weariness of this heavy, dull ache that reduces me to an animal; I can only drag one foot after the other about the house. And the nights get worse & longer…”

But he keeps slogging away at literary work. In the very last entry in the journal (6 May 1973), he says he has written “seven or eight little poems since turning on the light this morning”. He died a fortnight later.

Thus for my own very general impressions of these 700 pages.

There are some particular features that stand out for me. First, there are Brasch’s reactions to specific people and how those reactions change. To give one example: in 1964, Brasch initiated a strong friendship with Moli Zissermann and her disorderly son Nicholas. One gets the impression that Moli was a strong-willed person with a strong personality, and the little boy in Brasch tends to tag along without challenging her assertive statements about literature and writers. But his views of Nicholas Zissermann swing as wildly as Nicholas Zissermann’s own manic moods. On 10 August 1966, Brasch can write “Nicholas is a vampire, sucking the life out of his family.” Whereas on 5 May 1970 he writes “It is Nicholas Zissermann’s presence that makes Otago a university.”

I am also struck by the general absence of comments on world or New Zealand politics. There are some exceptions. On I January 1965, Brasch meets Rewi Alley, who makes a generally good impression on him. However “much that he says is persuasive. But his sources of information are clearly limited; & whereas we don’t believe everything we read in the press & hear on the air, he seems to believe everything he reads & hears in China & nothing that he hears & reads outside…. What he said about Tibet & about India was ludicrously one-sided, but we listened politely and did not take him up.” In the main, though, we find very little on politics and world affairs, even in the turbulent year 1968. Is this a matter of how the journals have been edited, or is it proof of how much of a detached aesthete Brasch was?

            What will be most important for many readers (correction – what is most important for me) is the evidence of Brasch’s literary tastes, usually expressed in pithy and brief comments where he reacts to books he has just read.

In the privacy of his diary he can say many frank things about fellow-New Zealand writers which he would not make public. From 1958 to 1972, he expresses many and varied opinions about James K Baxter, which, if read one after the other, would seem very self-contradictory. He is increasingly alienated from the work of Allen Curnow and irked by its obscurity. On 17 March 1958 he writes: “I used to admire Allen Curnow for his ability, when he worked for so long on the Press, to keep journalism & literature distinct & allow no trace of the former to infect  his poetry or critical prose. Now I wonder if the increasing difficulty of his poetry is not due in part to the effort to keep all journalism out of it, so that he has made it as different & as pure as possible, to the extent even of banishing prose meaning from it entirely.”

On 12 February 1961, Brasch writes that Curnow’s Introduction to his new Penguin Anthology of New Zealand Poetry “is the wrong kind of introduction; it explains & over-explains…. It is Allen preaching again; the gospel according to A.C.”

He tends to be even more dismissive of New Zealand writers of prose whom he thinks do not measure up. In 1958, he is offhandedly disparaging about Ian Cross’s The God Boy. Bruce Mason’s The Pohutukawa Tree he damns with faint praise in an entry for 31 March 1963: “The play is a crude and stagey one, yet it says something worth hearing, & says it effectively in its melodramatic way.” On 1 June 1963 he is of two minds about Bill Pearson’s Coal Flat. He opines that it is “the most interesting NZ novel yet written, the richest in content” but then adds “it fails to sustain its promise” in the second half. [To which I can only add “Quite!”.] On 26 June 1966, he calls Ngaio Marsh’s autobiography Black Beech and Honey Dewa sad empty book because at bottom it has nothing to say.

Of one author in particular, he is consistently negative. On 6 November 1959, he reacts badly to Maurice Shadbolt’s short stories The New Zealanders and says “M.S. is not an artist, but a very clever literary journalist.” Over five years later (17 April 1965), he reads and, in part, enjoys Shadbolt’s novel Among the Cinders while noting “But some of it is dreadfully pasteboard, some scenes designed for Hollywood, and there are pages that try to out-Crump Crump.” [Perhaps Brasch was fortunate not to live to see the woefully limp New Zealand movie that was made from this novel in the 1980s.] And six years after that (24 March 1971), he reads Shadbolt’s This Summer’s Dolphin seeing it as “very competent; but conceived as a job, an advertiser’s assignment. It has good passages… but these are offset by the vulgar commonplace of other parts, which are a journalist’s ‘story’.”

I quote these passages on Shadbolt simply because I take malicious delight in agreeing with them.

When it comes to established authors from outside New Zealand, Brasch has both his enthusiasms and his dislikes. In 1958 he thinks J.D.Salinger might be the salvation of American literature (nope – he wasn’t)  and he loves Dr Zhivago (although later, on 21 April 1959, he says it is not as good as War and Peace). On 8 January 1959 he notes the death of Edwin Muir and says he respects him more than any other modern poet. “I haven’t felt nearer to any other modern writer; nor have I felt greater respect for any other…” On the other hand, on 22 May and 4 June 1972, he finds Harold Pinter’s play The Caretakerempty & boring” and Tom Stoppard’s play Jumperspretentious kitsch”. (He might have been right about the latter).

In 1961 it is surprising to find him getting on well with Patrick White when White makes a brief visit to New Zealand  - after all, you can see his damning comments on White’s work in Volume 2 of these journals (see entry for 3 February 1957) where he dispaprages White’s The Tree of Man. Brasch goes back on the attack on 27 January 1965 where he declares White’s novel Vossis not a good book; Patrick White although very talented is a bad writer. Does he write such books because he is using his talent, or because he is driven? If the first, he’s a bad man; if the second, he is mad.”

I snickered in agreement with Brasch’s remarks (3 February 1965) on the first part of Jean-Paul Sartre’s autobiography Words: “so tiresomely clever a piece of word-spinning, so self-satisfied for all the self-disgust of its self-absorption (‘I loathe my childhood’), so cold, with a kind of calculatingness in its attitude towards other people, mother & grandfather & relatives.” But Brasch does say the book gets better in its second part.

I also roared my approval when, coming late to the novels of Henry James, Brasch declares on 20 March 1961 that “I feel sure of nothing in [James’] The Ambassadors except my ‘sense of moving in a maze of mystic, closed allusions’ (as Strether feels in chapter XV). After struggling through the first hundred pages I was caught up here and there but also exasperated again & again.” I say I approve of this statement because, as an Honours student, I hated trying to struggle through the wilful obscurities, evasions and convoluted syntax of Late Period James (“James the Old Pretender” - see my comments on various more readable novels by the chap at this link Henry James). The Ambassadors was the very novel that drove me to such exasperation that I threw it aside without finishing it.

So you see, like a true critic, I have cherry-picked these literary glosses of Brasch simply because I agree with them and think that often (but not always) Brasch showed fine sense in his reading.

But alas, I now have to come to the offputtingly Mandarin side of Charles Brasch (or “patrician hauteur” as I called it when reviewing Volumes 1 and 2). Brasch seems generally to be antagonistic to the popular art of film. He is not a complete cinephobe. On 17 March 1967, and unusually for him, he is quite positive about the the film version of Dr Zhivago and he later goes to see it a second time. But (3 April 1963) he objects to seeing opera on film because he argues that it should be seen on stage (which may be fine and dandy if you have a “private income” and are able to scuttle off to La Scala or Covent Garden to see your opera). He rips apart Peter Ustinov’s quite serviceable film version of Billy Budd (18 January 1964). On the other hand, he may have a point when he characterises Antonioni’s La Notte as “a pretentious, empty, long-winded film, very boring” (1 February 1964).

            Musical classics do not always meet his very refined standards, as when he remarks (12 October 1970): “I can’t like Brahms, except rarely. Most of his music has a deeply unaesthetic, unmusical quality that repels me – non-music in a non-style; at times coarsely literal & flat-footed.” As for the audiences for musical classics – well dearie me, some of them are simply not of his class. On 4 September 1967, after a concert performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, he observes “Tremendous enthusiasm at the end, epecially from the Promenaders, some of it uncritical perhaps…”

The patrician side of him is most painfully in evidence when (28 March 1965)  he visits relatives and writes: “They are open & spontaneous, they have no airs & graces; I am repelled by the rough slangy speech they use invariably – June & the children even more noticeably than Uncle Reg; June never says ‘yes’, always ‘yeop’ or ‘yeo’ (one syllable); Uncle Reg never talks about his ‘friends’, always about his ‘pals’ ”. I have this mental image of Charles Brasch raising a lorgnette to his eyes and glaring reprovingly at these inferior specimens.

I could find many other instances where the hoi-polloi are rebuked for their lack of refinement. Yet if I tar Brasch as sometimes effete, over-refined and ill at ease among the mass of his fellow countrypeople, I have to applaud the times when he recognises bullshit for what it is. Consider this, from 25 March 1966, where Brasch reacts to a pretentious radio review of a book by a minor poet:

“[The reviewer] spoke what I can only call jargon; his subject seemed to be something quite esoteric, which I could not recognise as poetry; he did not sound pretentious exactly because clearly he wasn’t posing, but it was as if poetry was some fanciful game having nothing to do with life, feeling, passion, one’s understanding of the world & men: a parlour game. When I could understand him, he seemed to be talking nonsense, to be reading into [the] poems both technical skill & meaning which are simply not there…” To this forthright and doubtless accurate comment, I can only add that Brasch was lucky not to live on into the 1980s and 1990s, the age of High Baroque Post-Modernist Criticism, a verbal barricade designed to repel all but a handful of initiated academics from ever reading or enjoying literature.

In the end what is the essential personality that I find revealed in these journals? Even when writing only to himself, Brasch often strives after gravitas, as in this volume’s very opening entry (5 January 1958): “There is no original state of things. No pristine purity from which all change is for the worse. All things have momentary stability, but if observed for long enough they can be seen changing; their nature is to change: change is of their nature. I’ve always found it hard to understand & accept this; always longed for a supposed or imagined stability & perfection.”

Or is this sort of entry really written for himself?

When I read the following entry (28 March 1959) I ask - ‘For whom is it really written?’ It sounds like a soliloquy for an unwritten play, or perhaps notes towards a poem. The writer is dramatising himself for display:

How long & empty the evenings as I sit & read & fight off the drowsiness that besets me, gazing now & then at my two photographs side by side: Andrew has his eyes on me, Harry & Margaret look just to one side. Ghostly – I sit & wait & listen for a photograph to come to life; for his step outside, his voice, then he – How long can I bear it? For life, I suppose; since it is life while it lasts.”

The same note is struck in this entry from 22 September 1961: “Since I have always doubted my own identity, my real existence, perhaps the fierce hunger that bursts out in me from time to time for fame as a poet, the craving to be remembered, may spring not solely from mere egoism but from a need to prove to myself & other people the fact that I do really exist – or did exist once. A poor substitute for life itself, truly.”

I doubt not Brasch’s sincerity, but there is a painful self-consciousness here, an over-analysis of self which slips into idle and vague philosophical speculation. It would be cruel to dismiss it as the writings of one who has much time on his hands, but it does seem to reflect the thwarted romantic in Brasch, the man who was not only shy of people but who never made a lasting and satidfactory relationship with somebody he loved. Penning these things for posterity is his substitute for really relating to live human beings.

Where I find myself liking Brasch most is on the simplest level – as one who had a strong aesthetic response to nature, ultimately Wordsworthian in inspiration. From beginning to end in this volume we find him apostrophising the night sky, as in

(17 January 1960) “A mild half-clouded night, the moon drifting through the cloud, Orion above & a few other stars” etc. Or, nine years later, as in (20 July 1969) “A circle of pale haze round the horned quarter-moon, which is lying on its back, a little tilted, more than a halfway down the west. Venus swims in attendance just outside the circle, which dims her. Other stars are pale too; not very many. Will men really land on the moon this night? I must hope so, now they have got so near.”

            As an Aucklander, I admit my personal bias in liking this side of Brasch. After all, it leads him, as a Dunedinite, to make the following most generous assessment of Auckland (8 August 1960); “How Auckland invites one to relax, to expand, to flow outwards & lose oneself in the Gulf, among the vaporous islands, in the great skies. There are no supporting disciplining forms here; Rangitoto magnificently relaxed, is the only great presence. I love the ease & expansiveness of the place, the diffused whitish light, the blue of water & sky, the voluptuous pure clouds, rich trees & their rich shade.” I also concur with his remark (16 December 1970) as he is driven by Deirdre Airey and observes of landscape just out of Auckland:  “the motorway south through country that I always find surprisingly more English than any other part of NZ” Yes – I’ve often had the same notion when it hit places like Pokeno and Pukekohe and see them resembling nothing so much as the original landscape illustrations out of The Hobbit.

            I conclude this overlong and opinionated review (Oy mate! – Show me one review that isn’t opinionated!) by congratulating Peter Simpson for having, like Kit Smart, “determined, dared and done” this formdable task of editing and annotating.

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

I enjoyed reading my way through the new edition of the anthology Big Weather. Gregory O’Brien originally edited the selection with Louise St John (who died in 2009). It was first published in 2000 and expanded in 2010. The brief introduction is regrettably a little gushy, telling us that poetry now thrives in Wellington because of the wonderful Victoria University writing programme and book shops etc, although it fails to note the obvious ongoing fact that Wellington has per capita more literati because it is the centre of government, and hence has more civil servants, bureaucrats, heads of companies and other consumers of high culture than other national centres. In other words, it’s Bourgeoisie Central.

Okay, I’m an Aucklander so I’m being a little snarky here, folks, but it is the truth.

Enough of these fightin’ words. The poems are the thing and this is a really enjoyable collection. Taking a (micro) geographical approach, the anthology has five sections, titled Central City; Harbour and Sea; Suburbs; Parks, Bush and Beyond; and [new to this edition] a final section of poems written in the early 21st century. Other than in this last section, the poems are not in chronological order. Surely the oldest poem in the book must be the Aussie Henry Lawson’s “The Windy Hills o’ Wellington”, from the 1890s. Another real oldie would be Katherine Mansfield’s prose fantasia “Vignette”, though it’s pushing it to class this as a poem.

As I’ve said before on this blog, for me the most iconic Wellington poem, included in this collection, remains Baxter’s “Wellington”, dating from the 1950s, with its last line about the “radio masts’ huge harp of the wind’s grief.” As an Aucklander, I always think of this when I drive into the city of Wellington. As an Aucklander, I should also note that I spent a year living in Wellington and enjoyed the experience, although of course Wellington is not a true city, but a collection of discrete villages hidden in hills.

From whatever generation they arise, a great number of poems here emphasise the wind and the hills and the shut-in-ness of Wellington, but on the whole, the older ones exalt and Wordsworthise (David McKee Wright, Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan, even Louis Johnson in his “Song of the Hutt Valley”) while the more recent ones are more socially conscious and either get down to the seedy side of life or comment ironically on domestic and city situations. Very good to read poems from the generation of Kirsten McDougall and Airini Beautrais (the woman who wrote the best collection of poetry to be published in New Zealand last year, Flow) and good to see the tradition of honouring place in verse still being followed.

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

This is an idiosyncrasy of mine, but I think it is valid. If a poet expresses an admiration for Frank O’Hara, then I am immediately on my guard. Call it prejudice if you like, but the American Frank O’Hara has become the patron saint of the slap-it-all-down-in-any-order-so-long-as-it-fills-the-page boys. Coming at the fag end of the Beat era (1950s-60s), his was the Beat aesthetic of “first thought, best thought” pushed to banality. No wonder a plethora of pub poets follow in his wobbly footsteps, ‘cos it’s so easy to do the disjointed diary stuff.

Sam Duckor Jones’ People From the Pit Stand Up begins with an epigraph from Frank O’Hara. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. The blurb describes this debut collection as  “wonderfully fresh, funny, dishevilled” (the last term has validity), and according to one pre-reviewer it is “gorgeous and contrary”.

Um, “contrary” to what?

We are told that Sam Duckor Jones is a sculptor and his metier is certainly reflected in his verse. The long (25-page) sequence “Blood Work” concerns, in part, the making a ceramic man which seems halfway between the Golem and Frankenstein’s monster, but is also an object of desire; so the sequence has heavy homoerotic undertones. Art. Embrace. Kneading. Desire for love from an invented image of oneself. Yet, as a sequence, it is hopelessly fragmented. At best some interesting imagery can be retrieved, but the form is simply confusing and incoherent in the real sense of the word. It does not cohere together. 

Various shorter poems deal with Auckland and sculpture and the male sex. We plunge deeper into the oily pool of sexual confusion in a two-part poem called “How Female-Admirer Dream Narratives Run Rampant Through the Gay Collective Unconsciousness” and in various poems we enter the milieu of  “hand jobs” and  “late night hook-ups” and gay references from a guy who apparently has a preference for rough trade.

But what is “contrary” here? If the term denotes satire or dissatisfaction with society, all I see is the dreaded sneer, as in the title sequence “People From the Pit Stand Up” with its first section’s closing line “People do live here & have full & active lives” (at which we are all meant to snigger) and later in the same sequence “There’s a flash cheese shop in this town         So between getting pissed & stealing shit try a           truffle oil brie.” Yes folks, getting pissed and stealing shit makes us the brave bohemians.

You will notice in the line I have quoted the arbitrary – and essentially meaningless – breaks between words, frequently found in this volume with such lines as  “tomb           stones      ar         rive     in           south     er    ly     sets.” The breaks do not in any way correspond to how anyone would read these lines or any individual word therein. They have nothing to do with pauses for breath. What purpose do they therefore serve? If Sam Duckor Jones is a visual artist (sculptor – and there are some line drawings by him in the text), then I suppose the argument would be that this is poetry as a visual medium, in this case visualising separate tombstones, but      it      all     t       oo           otf      en        se         ems     a      g                     ag             to       p            ad      out      the     te                             xt.          

Might I add that my comments reflect no animosity to the poet, whom I do not know, nor to the life he apparently leads. There is even the possibility that some people will respond favourably to this volume. I am a very broad-minded person after all.