Monday, November 27, 2023

Something New



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

ROOT LEAF FLOWER FRUIT – a verse novel” by Bill Nelson ( Te Herenga Waka University Press, $NZ30);  HOOF” by Kerrin P. Sharpe (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $NZ25); “GREEN RAIN” by Alastair Clarke (Ugly Hill Press, $NZ30); "A LONG ROAD TRIP HOME" by John Allison (Cold Hub Press, $NZ26)

Many New Zealand poets have written about life in farming country, sometimes lyrically, sometimes critically, and occasionally brilliantly, as in Janet Newman’s UnseasonedCampaigner (reviewed on this blog). But few have tried to depict the rural life as seen by a townie when circumstances send him outside his urban comfort zone. Bill Nelson’s Root Leaf Flower Fruit has the audacity to do this – to intertwine the rural and the urban psyches. Divided into four sections, Root Leaf Flower Fruit is the length of a short novel and is a combination of verse and prose. Indeed in the last of its four sections, “Fruit”,  prose almost completely takes over.

The narrator, who speaks in verse, has been damaged in a cycle accident. His grandmother, who has suffered a series of strokes, has had to leave the rural home she used to occupy somewhere south of Auckland. In a nursing home, she is angry, aggressive in some ways, and occasionally shouting very scatological things. She needs a lot of care. Despite his abiding twinges from his accident, the narrator takes it upon himself to tidy up and look after his grandmother’s house and fields in preparation for their being sold by auction. He is leaving wife, children and home as he heads for the farm.

The first section, ROOT, sets up the situation. The narrator has been psychologically damaged by his accident. He has a sort of brain-fog as when he says “The world is different but I can’t say / in what way, like someone moved all the furniture / and now I’m tiptoeing around, expecting / to crack my shins on a coffee table.” (p.12) As he cogitates on the damage that he has suffered, his wandering memories take him back to how his childhood was in a rural area which was becoming a suburb where “…like background noise, the grumbling of the families / who had been here for years, in every house, / at every chance meeting on the corner / or down by the dairy, walking the dog on the beach, / rage, assumption, the assumption of rage, everyone / becoming a foreigner, an intruder, before their eyes.”  (p.18) He has memories of doing scientific research in Australia as he attempted to complete a  doctorate. He has memories of his wheelchair-ridden and verbally abusive grandmother. He has things thrown at him by local yahoos when he’s trying to exercise… but he becomes attracted to watching nature and seeing plants grow as a source of mental therapy: “Oh, the bounty! With just a little effort for me in spring / and a water every few days, food would grow before my eyes. / Seeds into seedlings, seedlings into plants, plants into shrubs, / flowers, fruit, beans, nuts, tubers. Within a few months / I could watch the wonder of nature take over, leave me / to cheer it on from the sidelines.” (p.32) ROOT of course means the beginning of things, the essence of things, and this is the beginning of the narrator’s mental transformation. But at first it reveals a certain naivete as he has an idealised view of what rural work involves. Toil lies ahead.

The LEAF section is the beginning of something fruitful. The narrator has misgivings about leaving his wife Lakita and children as he begins to look after the rural property. But in the rural house he discovers his grandmother’s diary – prose written, years earlier, in the third person even if it is personal and confessional. And this is where extensive prose sections begin to take over. Reading her words, the narrator becomes more aware of the very different life and era in which his grandmother once lived. He can remember visiting her when he was a child but “mostly I remember her from photos, / lean arms, collared sleeveless blouses, / looking straight into the camera” (p.49) He makes good resolves to clean up the house and property to make them saleable…. But after his first efforts he admits:  I’ve barely dented the list, the farm / is nowhere near tidy, and next week an agent, a valuation, / but it’ll have to do. I’ll do what little I can / between now and then and it’ll have to do. / I pull out a large pigweed, careful to grab it low / and pinch out the roots, but the stem snaps near the surface / and I throw it on the pile. I turn round and see the hedge / choked in pink flowers and heart-shaped leaves…. Morning glory… almost impossible to be rid of…” (p.54) Curating a farm is hard work after all. At first he can’t even get the tractor going, although he manages to do so after much effort. But there is his grandmother’s diary to read… of a farm-hand trying to violate her; of her husband being absent; of her hardship and marital stress; of her later retreat to Birkenhead on Auckland’s North Shore and her isolation there. She remembers when exporting avocado was all the rage until the bottom of the market fell out… and her attempts to be fully vegetarian, hoping to have her farm certified as totally organic. The narrator also finds her collection of hats and some of her clothes. He begins to play with them, even wearing them for a lark as if he’s really taking her place. But still he works hard at farming, admiring some of his field work but aware that the weather will have its say: “I shut off the Kubota engine, slide the earmuffs / up to my temples and take another look behind me. / In a few days the agents and potential buyers / will arrive to inspect the farm. / and on display, the soil, turned, broken, / still rich and dark red, although at this time of year / a little pale and dry. But it’s done, and the rain is coming. / I’ve seen it on the news, over the Tasman. / The timing couldn’t be better. I wish / the sky would open up right now, right here / like in the movies, without warning, my hair and dress / stuck flat to my body, and me squinting into the heavens. / Bit it’s never like that. In real life the cloud has been / thickening all day, slowly, predictably. / The rain is supposed to continue for days, the kind / that only a farmer can love, or an unfunded physicist / wanting to do some reading and plug a few leaks / before he has to go home.” (pp.60-61)… but the rains wash away much of his effort to tidy the farm, what with mud pools and fence posts toppled.

FLOWER leads to some sort of achievement. The narrator remembers his lung collapsing and the medical help he required. Hardship had to be overcome. Grandmother’s diary also chronicles hardship when crop dusting [aerial top-dressing] planes threaten to ruin her effort to get her farm certified as totally organic. The narrator takes on the idea of being like his grandmother. He has a vision of his grandmother playing the small house’s parlour organ. On top if this, he says: “My thoughts disappear as I plough the top field. / I try to conjure up my grandmother / performing the same task, nearly unfurling / the rows, efficient, precise. And I realise / I only knew her as an adult, an elderly adult even. / Those earlier years, like crooked lines, a meandering / creek bed. When I’m finished, the field is a mess, / not a straight line anywhere. The earth ripped open / in large chunks, the field crisscrossed by tread lines.” (p.73) Now various potential buyers turn up to face an auction. Oddly, though, it is at this point that the narrator, now more attuned to rural life,  feels annoyed to think that the farm might be developed as just another suburb, or a series of retirement villages.

FRUIT And what is the outcome of all this - the fruit? Could it simply be experience? Most of this last section is [though written in the third person] a long monologue, its only punctuation being commas and semi-colons every so often. It can’t help making me think of Molly Bloom, although the circumstances are very different. It is the thoughts of the old lady, the grandmother, on her own initiative leaving her nursing home, taking a long walk around parts of Auckland’s North Shore (Glenfield, Birkenhead, Onewa Road) and then collapsing on the roadside. Is this the moment of her death… or does her fall connect her definitively with Mother Earth? I believe this can be read either way. And the old woman’s self-willed final walk is in some ways heroic. A very ambiguous ending has the narrator heading back to his family.

Putting this whole saga together I see a deliberate linking of the urban with the rural; an awareness of a changing environment as towns expand and eat up the fruitful soil; but also the endurance of land and a respect for those who work it. Different generations (grandmother, narrator) are very alien to each other in some ways but very similar in others. But there is a sense of eternity in the turns of the seasons – root, leaf, flower, fruit. Some remarks in the closing “Acknowledgements” suggest that some of this verse-prose tale is based on the poet’s own experience, including the results of a major fall. Root Leaf Flower Fruit is a formidable piece of work and, in tone, very different from the satirical and sometimes comical poems found seven years ago in Bill Nelson’s earlier collection Memorandum of Understanding (reviewed on this blog).

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            In contrast with Bill Nelson’s persuasive and detailed narrative, Kerrin P. Sharpe, in her fifth collection, writes poetry that is mainly pithy and brief – an assortment of various positions and landscapes rather than a saga. Kerrin P. Sharpe’s Hoof divides its 47 poems into three sections. Each section begins with the image of a train, a real train – though of course a train can also be connected with trains of thought. And in our trains of thought, do our thoughts not wander hither and thither? They certainly do in this collection. Sharpe addresses many different situations, many different ideas. Yet, in each of the three sections there does emerge a dominant theme.

The “train” metaphor is ignited by the delightful opening [and title] poem “Hoof” where “The train with the chest / of a horse and the traction / of old intelligence / turns from the power stations / and cooling towers / and heads for the trees. / Through his mane of rain / and nostril smoke / float poems of blocked arteries, / quadruple bypasses.” [I really wish I could quote in full this enticing opening poem, which manages at once to depict a real train and the manoeuvres of the human brain.] Once we are all aboard, we are taken through a blackbird becoming literary; a reference to Ted Hughes; the poem “more horse than castle” where her view of horses overtakes her visit to Dunedin’s Lanarch Castle; and the poem “ the weight of moonlight” which continues the horse imagery. Let’s say that the dominant idea in this first section is horses. But  Sharpe has other interests, including nightmares. A poem concerns a retired air pilot having a dream of falling into the sea. I do so hope that somebody anthologises one of her best poems “the trumpet player”, which is both an elegy and a tribute for a [real] trumpet player and his father. It is beautifully crafted as is the following poem “on a night angry enough” with its vivid take on the wild sea near Hokitika and summoning up images of those who once toiled there. Some of Sharpe’s poems suggest an Irish Catholic background with its rituals and memories [the poems “sister”, “who” “instead angels” etc.]

The second section, while dealing with many and various things, is dominated by the sea. But it begins in a different key. The opening poem “sometimes she walks” is a delicate descriptive poem with a specifically Chinese depiction; but it is hard to decode how much of it is related to a personal situation. It is more-or-less confessional without quite being so. Two poems note events in her husband’s childhood in South Africa. There are various fantasies and a poem in which William Blake arises and seems to master the sea. Of the poems connected with the sea, I like best the pithiest ones, such as the witty poem “sculpture”, which is a dream of a statue taking on life. I quote it in full: “Two whale flukes / lit at night / escape their stone world, / pretend they live / somewhere else. / Leap like islands, / sing deep slow songs – where are / their babies? / Early morning they’re / back on the plinth, / breathless salty-dry, / so warm they wake / all of us.” There follows other sea-affiliated poems such as “the sea takes a wife”, not to mention verse concerning weddings and funerals, which are sometimes .             

It is the third section, however, which sticks most steadfastly to a particular theme. She begins in the Arctic Circle, moves through many poems to Antarctica, and then deals with the shadow of climate change. First comes “sinew & snow” which places us in deepest snowbound Russia. Still in the Arctic, with suggestions of catastrophic climate change and the melting of ice, there follow “never”, “instead of travelling north”, “a road falling away”, “blue” and “from letters to Johanna” in the same very northern climes. Then she flips the globe and presents a series of poems set in Antarctica. The poem “map ice show” begins “Antarctica – a bold footprint / on a picture atlas, / so magnetic nothing moves. / The huts like nests. / The scientific research / is close-lipped. / Deep marine life fears no ill, / ice is trapped in sculptures, / never to rise or drown”… but the poem goes on to suggest that chemicals and human interventions are degrading submarine life.  Then there is “the sorrows of ice” a sequence of five poems related to Ernest Shackleton and early exploration of the Antarctic. Her whole collection finishes with a real flourish – her longest poem in this collection “te hau o te atua / the breath of heaven” – her most detailed descriptive poem about Otamahua, also known as Quail Island, a small island in Lyttelton Harbour, which was used by both Shackleton and Scott as a place to train huskies. The wind blows over the island, those glory days of exploration are long gone, there is a sense of chilly desolation, even if the dead can be honoured. Things pass, things change… and not always for the better.

In praise of Sharpe’s work, I have to say that she ranges through many ideas of interest, she expresses herself in a pithy but understandable way, she is astute at conjuring up fantastic images [fantastic in the original sense of the word] and even while she is dealing with serious matters, she knows how to be funny. A great gift.

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            The blurb the publishers of Green Rain sent me tells me that Alastair Clarke returned to New Zealand after living for many years in Britain; and he settled in Wairarapa. He is advanced in years. It is clear in much of his poetry that he revels in returning to the New Zealand environment as the greater part of his poetry collection is concerned with New Zealand landscapes, seascapes, places and settlements, as if he is re-embracing – and seeing with a fresh eye – the country he originally came from. As is now the custom with most poetry collections, he divides his many [short] poems in separate sections.

The first section is called “Dance” and the poem “A Different Dark” gives the reader the poet’s sense of alienness in settling once again in New Zealand, thus :“Driving through is reading a geology primer. / It is here our forebears came hoping, ship-worn, walking-wondering / through bush, to cross ranges under a different dark, / an unfamiliar sun.” He equates his return with the country’s first [Pakeha] settlers. There is much reference to coming into Wairarapa by train, as if piercing a new land. But some of Clarke’s allusions are clearly inspired by older literature, as in the poem “From Cold” where “…our vision disorders, like / the awkward completions in myth. / We reach out to touch meaning. / Like man on a wire we want balance. / I think of Mulgan’s outsider, / his single obsession breaching / community; of how we shun / wild to come in from the cold…” Looking at the hills and mountains that separate Wairarapa from the rest of the North Island, he recalls visiting Tararuas.

“Churning”, the second section, moves away from terra firma and into vignettes of the sea, the sea shore, creeks – a different landscape [or seascape] from the mountain barrier leading into Wairarapa. The poem “Churning” charts “how waves fall / from sea’s body / there is no clear / agreement in the spilling / we see or drawing back / in this division in things / in this grabbing together / of particles / each wave thumping / negating swamping reason / in perpetual undertow…”. Again harking back of older literature, there are references elsewhere to Curnow’s verse. Some poems, like “Scripting”,   refer back to his sojourn in Australia. The poem “Viewing” embraces the Romantic idea that the beauty of nature uplifts us, as does the poem “Evening, Waikanae”

Having dealt with land and sea, oddly enough the third part, called “Seeing”, deals with clouds, with philosophical thoughts squeezed out of the seen environment, and with the mountains of the North Island’s Central plateau where great mountains loom, as in “High Country” with  : “These volcanic extrusions / scarring the high plateau, these / (it is mid-winter) under snow. / Passing through is passing through / a geology primer - / the road descending now to Taupo’s / solipsism – its lonely vacancy. / Here we answer to mountains - /  Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu, / Tongariro – to powers ungraspable.” The mountains belong to the clouds, confirmed in a poem about driving the Desert Road.

We are presented with animals and human activity in the fourth section called “Hedging”, such as brown rabbits lurking on the roadside and the poem “To the Animals”.  And related to this are the actions of human beings. The poem “From the Rural” deals with different ways of raising crops and making gardens – the natural way or slathering the earth with chemicals; while the poem “Hedging” is literally about “This ordinary / suburban ritual: that growth must / be tamed.”

As for the fifth and final section, “Crossing”, it’s a bit of a potpourri, for having dealt with Wairarapa, the sea, clouds and mountains and animals and human activities, we are presented with a variety of interests. Some are primarily about people arriving in New Zealand in earlier times, such as “Scots” in the nineteenth century, travelling in steerage class and trying to escape poverty. There are also poems about art work and an awareness of how the country has changed in the poet’s lifetime, as in his view of the Auckland suburb “Ponsonby” where “Ponsonby once was workmen. Then / grunge. Glitter’s now Go. Now Audis / and Porsches casual the strip.” He describes a visit to Rotorua and speculates on Covid 19 and foreign affairs, with satirical poems about Putin and Trump, ending with a “Letter from America”

As you may be aware, I have quoted here only a small number of Clarke’s poems, but having read them all I think I can take the measure of the man’s achievement. Clarke is very capable in presenting a scene, but sometimes he attaches philosophical concepts to scenes. They come across as a little strained. Indeed his approach often feels somewhat old-fashioned – not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with being old-fashioned, but seeing nature as a force that uplifts us really does come from an earlier era. Despite these misgivings, I enjoyed reading Green Rain and think it could speak to a mature audience.  

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John Allison is also a mature man who is aware that life is irreparably connected with death. After all, his opening poem "How to Go On" is a laconic, almost stoic, account of a brush with cancer. Some of his poems in A Long Road Trip Home are elegiac in tone as in his poem "Southland Elegy" with its presentation of bleakness; or again with the implied elegy connected to children's bedtime stories in the poem "Lupus in fabula". "The send-off" is literally about a funeral and the distorted ways the deceased is remembered. And "What is lost" is certainly about ageing. But Allison cannot be pigeon-holed as a man of withering regrets. He can also gear himself to childlike joy, as in "Singing the Blues" and "How to Sing Sunlight". The fact is, this poet is more aligned to presenting philosophical ideas and social contact than with lamenting loss.

Consider his take on a degraded environment in his "Letter to Tony Beyer" where on the shore-scape he is "stepping in amongst the wrack / of last night's storm - a dead shag / tangled in a shredded web of fishing net / a knoutted condom / and a blue bottle-top / so much brighter than it needs to be." Consider "Father's axe, grandfather's machete", a complex reflection on the beauty of what can be destructive or lethal - an awareness that there are more ways than one of masculine thinking. Though it is on a completely different topic, "A faux-naturalist considers a ginko" has a similar idea - in this case the poet sees something that is externally very beautiful but that is capable of being very destructive. Sometimes things can at once delight and appal us. Phenomena are ambiguous.

Allison is at his best when he is writing discursive poems, divided into sequences. "Cedars of Lebanon" is a five-part sequence not only evoking Biblical times but once again wedding it with memories of father's skill with wood. The best word I can conjure up to suggest its impact is "stately". "Karst mountain journey" in five parts is partly a delicate sequence about a trip to Chinese countryside, but bearing an idea of the suppression of ancient antiquities and poetry. 

 Most impressive, though, is "Another Direction" - really in seven parts but not numbered that way: The title refers to one of this country's best-known poems, Allen Curnow's Landfall in Unknown Seas which begins "Simply by sailing in a new direction / you could enlarge the world". Allison refutes this at once beginning his own sequence with "Landfall brought its tribulations, ask those already here. / With the centrttifugal force of colonial ambition / flung out across limiitess possibilities of time and space." The idea that colonisation and "discovery" were destructive for Maori is acknowledged, but most of the sequence deals with the mundanity, boredom and perhaps philistine-ism of the unhappy Pakeha farmer. This is not the promised land and yet the farmer is intrigued by it even if he is not of it.... nevertheless, now speaking in his own voice, the poet says "When I turn away from the city lights / something warm and wild comes up behind me / taps me on the shoulder, and without a fuss / slips under my skin into those ridges..." The land is still alluring. We Pakeha may not be indigenous, but we are still intrigued with it.

There is in this collection one "rogue" poem which I can't easily categorise: "It can be lost just when you notice it" is a neat presentation of how human awareness often prevents us from being able to simply sink into un-self-consciousness. We cannot mould into an environment and lust live in the moment, as other animals can. Consciousness often deprives us of joy. (dare I say, in its idea, it's almost akin to Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale"). It is a poem worthy of reading again and again.

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.  

DEFINITIVE JUDGEMENT ON GEORGE ORWELL (no  contradictions accepted) 


In the last six “Something Old” postings in this blog,  I have covered all of George Orwell’s book-length works of fiction and non-fiction, namely the novels Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying [which I reviewed years before the others]  and Coming Up for Air, giving a reason why I made only passing comments on his most famous fictions Animal Farm and 1984; and I covered his non-fiction Down and Out inParis and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia.

I had read most of these works years ago, including many of his essays. But I read them all again for a particular reason. I had just reviewed on this blog Anna Funder’s book Wifedom which set out to tell us that Orwell was a dreadful man in his private life, a sex fiend, misogynistic and exploitative of his first wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy. Anna Funder had done much detailed research and she made it clear that she admired most of Orwell’s writing, but her book still seemed to me to be mainly an attempt at taking Orwell down. In the end, I thought that, while she said many truthful things, her arguments were flawed for two reasons: (a.) because we should not judge books by the biography of the author; rather, we should judge a book by the words on the page; and  (b.) my deeply-held belief that most genuinely creative people tend to be egotistical or self-obsessed anyway. Novelists mostly want quiet and no interruptions and [at least the males among them] often expect their wives or partners to do all the dull housework, cooking, child care etc. while they get on with their writing. Even if this was the attitude Orwell adopted, and even if it would now be abhorred, Orwell was acting as male writers of his era tended to do as a matter of course. He lived in his own times. I’m also wary of Funder’s idea that it took Eileen O’Shaughnessy to ignite Orwell’s writing – remember, Orwell was already an established, professional novelist who had had much published before Eileen came into his life. Orwell was hard-working and diligent in his output in the 1930s (four novels and three works of non-fiction). But later sickness – his worsening tuberculosis - and other commitments such as organising talks on the BBC meant that only two books -  one novella, one full-length novel - were produced in the 1940s, although it was in the 1940s that he produced many of his best influential pamphlets and essays.

In one sense, Orwell has been victimised by some of his greatest fans. Orwell called out totalitarianism and especially Communism in Animal Farm and 1984. These became his most-read works. In the Cold War they were used as ideological weapons against the Soviet Union, with American interests (including the CIA) putting money into making film versions of the two books (one live-action starring Edmond O’Brien as Winston Smith, and one a feature-length cartoon – both made in England). Just as terms such as “Kafkaesque” or “Shavian” were often used to characterise an author’s whole output, so people began to use the term  “Orwellian” to suggest nightmare-ish oppressive regimes, typified by Communism, as if this was the only key Orwell ever played. All this ignored Orwell’s other interests and, of course, many of his admirers, especially in America, ignored the fact that Orwell remained a Socialist to the end of his days. It was Communism he was attacking, not Socialism.

As I read it, there are many contradictions in Orwell and his work. His experience in Burma did make him fervently anti-colonialist, seeing the building of empires as an exploitative racket promoted by people who worked to impoverish indigenous peoples by taking valuable minerals, oil, rubber, wood - indeed anything monetarily valuable – and all this under the hypocritical pretence of bringing “civilisation”. Yet many of his attitudes were, inevitably, very English. He always writes as if other countries will flourish if only they adopt English mores, and spends much time lauding English yeomen, English traditions, a good cup of tea or pint of beer and a good smoke. Very blokey. When he came to write two influential pamphlets during the Second World War - The Lion and the Unicorn and  The English People – he promoted a welfare state and a levelling of the classes as much as possible. Very commendable, but still taking the English way as the template for the world. Yet before I get too snooty about this, it is interesting that Britain’s former colonies (India and Pakistan and many African states, not to mention Pacific nations), once given independence still embraced the British parliamentary system as their own.

Apart from his inevitably English outlook, it has to be noted that Orwell cradled many prejudices. Despite his respect for the Spaniards and Catalans he met in the Spanish Civil War, he was always ready to belittle or ridicule Americans, Catholics and more-or-less the French. You might remember, too, his rant in The Road to Wigan Pier where he damns “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-manic, Quaker, ‘Nature cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England” as if all these categories could be equated. And he often sneered at “pansy poets”, meaning homosexuals. In this he was targeting the likes of W. H. Auden whom he once described as “a sort of gutless Kipling”. It is good to know, however, that he later got on well with Auden.

It has often been noted that Orwell, in his works, was always very alert to, and disgusted by, dirt, slovenliness, slime and general filth. When he mixed with the working classes he was often appalled by the low standards of hygiene they had to live with. This was in the context of his calling for better housing. There is the notorious passage (The Road to Wigan Pier again) in which he is disgusted to have touched something slimy (actually a wad of tobacco spat out by a miner) in the darkness of a coal mine. This has been ridiculed by those who say it really shows how bourgeois, fastidious and unused to proletarian ways Orwell was. I reply, of course, that you too would probably have flinched if your hand touched something slimy in the dark – including you, comrade. Nevertheless, one often gets the impression that while Orwell sincerely wanted to ally himself with the working-class, and often admired working-class strength and domestic behaviour, his middle-class feelings were still built on such concepts as decency, cleanliness, duty, order and hygiene. In effect, while he damned the wealthy, the plutocrats, the cranks and the conservatives, there was  kind of dichotomy in his sympathies – an internal struggle in which his middle-class habits were in tension with his working-class sympathies.

Much more could be said of Orwell’s flawed attitudes, but what of the literary qualities of his work? Orwell was very aware of how language can easily be misused. His essay Politics and the English Language is a classic on the subject of language, noting (a.) how gobbledegook can be used to mislead people for propaganda purposes; and (b.) how simplicity in language is a virtue, but over-simplifying can lead to diminished quality in language. Such over-simplification leads to the abomination of “Newspeak” in 1984.  Likewise another essay The Prevention of Literature criticised not only outright censorship, but also the way influential groups can close down writers who are not favoured or who express unpopular ideas. (A distant foreshadowing of “woke” and “cancel culture” perhaps?)

All of Orwell’s novels are in some ways polemical (and his non-fiction is certainly polemical.). Burmese Days condemns colonialism. A Clergyman’s Daughter has a go at many things - a fading Anglican church, the nastiness of cheap private schools, exploitation of workers in the hop fields and poverty in London. Keep the Aspidistra Flying targets both pretentious literary people and the advertising industry. Coming Up For Air laments both the decay of English countryside and the growing militarism that is preceding a coming war. And of course you already know how polemic Animal Farm and 1984 are. Orwell always has a “message” clearly spelt out. I also find it interesting that every one of his novels ends with defeat for the main character. John Florey commits suicide in Burmese Days. Dorothy Hare, after all her wild journeys, goes back to doing good works in her father’s parish in A Clergyman’s Daughter. Gordon Comstock gives up the arty-literary life he took to, and returns to the advertising agency he had escaped in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. George Bowling is completely disillusioned by his journey to his childhood town and returns to his nagging wife in Coming Up For Air. And you all know that the animals in Animal Farm are stuck with their horrible regime, while at the end of 1984, Winston Smith truly loves Big Brother.

I am bemused by the way Orwell leaves his protagonists in defeat. Does this mean that he was basically a pessimist? Or was he simply always facing the reality that most people have to get on with their lives, happy endings are rare, and there is not one great revolution coming along fix things? I have noticed that, while Hollywood cranks out happy endings in frivolous movies, it is especially in totalitarian countries that earnest films have happy endings, usually concluding with the state and its ideology neatly fixing things. (Over the years, I have been able to see some Stalinist Russian films that were made to this formula.)  While Orwell wanted to improve the world, he was not a Utopian and was fully aware that making things better was going to be a long, hard struggle.

A difficulty in all Orwell’s novels is that, from Burmese Days to 1984, his narrative always hinges on just one main person. His novels are never told in the first-person but they might as well be. In this respect, Orwell’s novels are very like most of the novels of H. G. Wells [look him up in the index at right ]. It is well-known that Orwell liked books written in the Edwardian era (it is an Edwardian society George Bowling is futilely seeking in Coming Up For Air ) and he admired much of Wells’ earlier work. What it means, though, is we are getting one [usually male] character’s perspective. There is a real single-mindedness in Orwell’s work with an inability to step inside the minds of characters other than the protagonist. Hence a degree of flatness.

It is easier to categorise  Orwell’s non-fiction. In descriptions of places and people he is often a master, but two of his non-fictions are very poorly organised.  Down and Out in Paris and London and  The Road to Wigan Pier are both made of two incompatible halves. Down and Out in Paris and London appears to have been patched together to pad out a book that was regarded by his publisher as too short. The Road to Wigan Pier yields some of the best reportage Orwell ever wrote, but the second half is a rambling, often vague essay about socialism and types of people. It’s a mess and his publisher hated it. Only Homage to Catalonia stands up well as a unified and perfectly purposeful narrative. I regret that Orwell did not have the opportunity to write more in the same vein.

How do I sum up Orwell? He is certainly very readable, but his work does not amount to a great classic. It is very, very interesting to read about the times and places he depicts. He enlightens us on the era in which he lived. I do not believe he was a prophet as some of his most fervent admirers suggest; but he was absolutely right to call out a totalitarian idea which gullible people in the democracies had embraced. In the end, his work is most interesting not as literature but as history. Which, for all his flat characters, means he is still important.

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Here’s an odd little appendage related to Orwell which I’d like to bring to your attention. Sitting on my shelves, near books by or about Orwell, is a short little novel by David Caute called Dr. Orwell & Mr. Blair. It was first published in 1994. Born in 1936 and now an old man, David Caute, as well as being an academic, is a prolific novelist and writer of non-fiction. His political beliefs tend to lean to the Left (for two years he was literary editor for the New Statesman) but I was once told angrily by an ideologue that Caute was a traitor to the Left. I take this to mean that Caute does not belong to the Extreme Left. Some years back I read Caute’s non-fiction book The Fellow Travellers, which dealt with the many people in the West who never formally became Communists but who acted as promoters of Communism in various subtle and unsubtle ways. A very good book which I might enlighten you about sometime.

But to get back to Orwell. Dr Orwell & Mr. Blair is a kind of fantasia related to Orwell, and the author closes the book with the disclaimer that “The events described in Dr Orwell & Mr. Blair are entirely fictitious. None of it ever happened.”

Here’s how the plot runs. Things are going badly for Manor Farm. It increasingly looks derelict. Speculators are closing in, hoping to make a bargain by buying and then sprucing up the farm. Mr. Jones the farmer has had a blazing row with his wife after she’s suspected of him canoodling with a Land Girl (it’s wartime). Farmer and wife leave the farm and go their different ways. But left behind is their bewildered young son Alex Jones, who tries, in a primitive way, to keep the farm going.

Enters a guy called Eric but who sometimes calls himself George. Eric (or George), obviously a sick man with all his coughing, befriends young Alex and tells him a lot of stories, as well as making some suggestions about how a farm could be run. Eric (or George) is very much an admirer of the English farmer or yeoman, but Eric (or George) can also tell quite brutal stories about the life he has lived. He also admires some of the livestock on the farm such as the horse Boxer and the pigs Napoleon and Squealer and one which he eventually calls Snowball and…

Okay, okay. I’ll stop being cute and say the obvious. This is a fictitious account of how George Orwell was inspired to write Animal Farm. It has a subplot of  “Fred” (the publisher Frederic Warburg) trying, but failing, to catch up with Orwell and get him to sign a commission to produce a new book. Of course this short novel is crammed with quotations from Orwell’s published works and maybe there will be a sort of snobbery among some readers about identifying which quotation comes from which book by Orwell. Young Alex grows up to be a mature teenager (going first through a bratty delinquent stage) and after years have gone by he is able to visit the novelist when he is dying. Orwell bequeaths Alex a sort of sequel to Animal Farm which leaves the animals in a very different position from the one they were left in, in the original Animal Farm.

I’m not quite sure what David Caute was trying to say in this short novel (not short enough to be a novella) and in the end I can only see it as a piece of whimsy. As for the title Dr Orwell & Mr. Blair , I wildly suggest the Eric and George represent two different sides of Orwell – the patient man who mentors the farm boy and the combative polemicist who was often involved in quarrels. That’s the best I can do. 


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.  

                                                     WORST OF THE DYING YEAR.   

Last posting I gave you a cheery farewell to 2023 called Best of the Dying Year, wherein I listed the things I most enjoyed in the past twelve months. But given that I’m an incorrigible misanthrope and sad sack, you didn’t really expect me to end on a positive note did you?   So here are some of the things that made the year irritating, annoying, and sometimes tragic.

Irritating: Watching on Netflix the story of an unhappy, comely but none-too-bright young woman who had a hard time with her husband because he had clearly been bonking another woman when he should have occupied the unhappy young woman’s bed. Anyway, the marriage broke up and she sought solace with another man and it seemed to go smoothly until she died in a car crash and a lot of people got upset and thought she was some sort of saint and… oh hang on a minute. I wondered why her husband was so weird. He suffered from an awful disease, namely being part of a Firm that called itself The Royal Family and he was the Prince of Wales, not that the Welsh had asked for one. Anyway he later became King when his mum died and that meant he was now the Governor of the Church of England so his extracurricular activities could be discreetly forgotten, but Netflix didn’t get up to that. As always, what a bin of tosh. The Crown, like every other attempt to dramatize real events, had to make up the dialogue, especially when it came to private conversations which nobody had recorded. In other words, the dialogue had to be the invention of the scriptwriters. Fair enough. That’s what all “based-on-a-true-story” plays or films always do. But having Dead Di addressing, in ghostly form, the people who had wronged or misunderstood her, the show went O.T.T. and disbelief was not suspended. Will The Crown get up to the later events in the lives of the notorious Windsor Gang? It would be interesting to see how they could deal with Andy and his 20-million-pound pay-off, but somehow I don’t think we’ll ever see that.

Annoying: [Sorry, but only New Zealanders will get this one] Will the stapled-together coalition of three separate political parties make for a stable government? It’d be a miracle if it did. There’s at least one party’s leader who has a track record of upsetting things and alienating erstwhile allies. [“NO. NO. THAT’S NOT TRUE. NO. I NEVER SAID THAT. YOU’RE MISQUOTING ME. LOOK SON, GO BACK TO JOURNALIST SCHOOL. I WAS DEALING WITH THESE MATTERS BEFORE YOU WERE BORN. DON’T MAKE THINGS UP. ANY MORE QUESTIONS?’] Quite apart from that, it’s clear that on many issues the three parties are pulling in three different directions…. Yet dare I say (being a heretic) how annoying it has also been to experience the sobbing and wailing of some people when Jacinda Ardern decided to step down from being prime minister? She’d said she was exhausted and her “tank was empty”. Oh the grief! Oh the tears! But for God’s sake she was making a reasonable decision. Beside which, she was after all just a politician. They do come and go and they never perform miracles.

Tragic: And how trivial all the above are when compared with the things that really upset the world. The never-ending war in Ukraine… and the disgust of seeing Ukraine’s allies delicately creeping away because they expected a war to be over with quickly, the way they are in the movies. The war (for war it is) between Israel and Palestine. Who is in the right and who is in the wrong? Both? Neither? Hamas fired first in a terrorist raid and Israel has (at time of my writing this) retaliated at least four-times over, basically smashing Gaza City to smithereens. Woe to the innocent non-combatants who are being punished. There is as yet no sight of a permanent cease-fire, only some temporary truces. I know that Jews and Arabs are both Semitic peoples but the term “anti-Semitic” has come to mean “Anti-Jewish”. I do not believe that it is “anti-Semitic” to criticise the actions of the state of Israel, but it is clear (in huge pro-Palestinian protests in both England and the U. S. A.) that for many the war is an excuse for stepping up the anti-Semitism. This is a fearful sight to see and hear. Will the tension between Israel and Palestine ever be solved? Hard to see any end to it.

Happy New Year. If you can face it.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Something New

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

CONTINUOUS FERMENT – A History of Beer and Brewing in New Zealand” by Greg Ryan (Auckland University Press, $NZ65); “BLOODALCOHOL – Ten Tales” by Michael Botur  (Next Chapter Press, $NZ40:75 paperback; also available in hardback)           


 There’s the strong possibility that New Zealand has been formed by beer as much as by wars, natural disasters, politics and racial differences. For well over two hundred years, beer has been one of the mainstays of New Zealand. In his lavishly-illustrated and scrupulously researched book Continuous Ferment, Greg Ryan makes this case convincingly. The title is a punning joke. In the 1950s, New Zealand was introduced to a new method of brewing beer known as “continuous fermentation”. But quite clearly Continuous Ferment refers to the way that the sale and consumption of beer has often courted controversy, and not just in the era when a large proportion of New Zealanders were calling for the prohibition of all alcoholic beverages. Greg Ryan has a prologue is which he reminds us of the essential ingredients for producing beer – clean water, grain [barley or other cereals], hops and yeast. He notes in his introduction that too often historians of beer in New Zealand have over-emphasised the era of prohibitionists and have overlooked the nature of brewing, style of production, tastes, and different types of beer produced in different parts of New Zealand. So his book proceeds to look at all these things, and not only the controversial ones.

In his opening chapters Ryan reminds us that beer has been with the human race for many thousands of years. For centuries in Europe, beer was considered an essential food, healthy and a necessity for any family. The first beer brewed in New Zealand was produced in Dusky Sound, in 1773, by members of Captain Cook’s crew, and was much appreciated by the captain. In England there was already a plethora of laws related to the licencing of public houses and when the first pakeha began to settle in New Zealand, most beer was imported here from Sydney. From the 1820s to the 1840s, Kororareka (Russell) was understood as the brawling, drinking centre of the consumption of alcohol by whalers and soldiers. But Ryan judiciously notes: “Accounts of alcoholic excess were numerous, although one always has to remember that most of them were written by those, such as missionaries, with a vested interest in emphasising depravity in the hope that it would prompt more British intervention in New Zealand.” (p. 11) Also, episodes of drunken brawling were mainly related to spirits (whisky, gin, brandy), not to honest beer. Ryan notes that some missionaries brewed their own home beer. The first official legislation related to alcohol came in 1841, with the Prohibition of Distillation Ordinance, intended to shut down the local stills that had been set up. In future, spirits could only be imported, not locally concocted. Beer was not the culprit, spirits were. In 1847 there was a Sale of Spirits to Natives Ordinance, banning the sale of spirits to Maori. Later, harsher laws closed down all distilleries. And the first Temperance Society targeted only spirits, not beer.  

Meanwhile, by the mid-1840s, licences began to be given to publicans, though only a very few women became publicans. By 1850, most beer was still imported, but there were eleven breweries in the North Island and four in the South Island. With the Otago goldrush in the 1860s, the statistics changed and there were more breweries in the South than in the North. By 1860 there were 47 breweries in New Zealand. But as Greg Ryan says: “Most breweries were small operations managed by the brewer and perhaps one or two employees.” (p.29) Even so, a few breweries were the origins of some labels that are still with us, such as Speights. In the 1850s, Thomas Hancock and John Scholes set up their Captain Cook Brewery, which remained a landmark in Auckland for well over a hundred years. Yet by 1871, when there were 69 breweries in New Zealand, over 90% of beer consumed was still imported from Australia and Britain, showing how small and local most breweries then were. And while Otago’s goldrush had attracted many brewers, most of them closed shop once the gold fields were worked out. It was at this time that Louis Ehrenfield and (later) the Davis family became prominent by establishing permanent industrial-style breweries. It was only in the mid-19th century that scientists determined that yeast was a living organism and its role in brewing was more precisely handled. Breweries and publicans faced many problems, not only from difficulties in licencing and supply, but in the frequency with which [wooden] pubs were burnt down and in the difficulty of getting non-contaminated pure water. There were controversies about the adulteration of beer, the difficulty in obtaining hops and the use of sugar in the brewing. Nevertheless, the 1870s was when brewers enhanced their status by inaugurating competitions. Says Greg Ryan: “By the end of the 1870s every brewery of significance, and some others besides, was adorning its advertisements with references to prizes of one sort of another , and hotels were similarly keen to stress to patrons that they had prize-winning beer on tap.” (p.76)

Successive governments attempted to tax beer and finally imposed duty. It was in the 1880s that prohibitionist sentiments began to grow in New Zealand, and by the 1890s eminent parliamentarians were either promoting prohibition (such as Robert Stout) or loudly opposing it (such as “King Dick” Richard Seddon). It was Seddon who managed to make a law that said three-fifths of any electorate had to vote for prohibition before an area could go “dry” (that is, ban the sale of liquor). Prohibitionists were required to win 60% of the vote in a national referendum before alcoholic drinks could be outlawed.

By the 1890s, there was a rapid decline in the number of breweries to New Zealand. There were 102 in 1891; 85 in 1896; and only 56 in 1911. More breweries were becoming centralised and industrialised, putting an end to the many (almost) “cottage industry” small breweries – although Greg Ryan does note that in some rural areas there was great local loyalty to the smaller local brewers. Increasingly hotels and pubs became “tied” to one of the brands of the bigger breweries  - that is, giving customer only beer of one brand. In this era too, there was the growth of trade unions becoming part of the story of beer. In Wellington there was formed a Brewers, Bottlers, Bottle Washers and Aerated Water Employees Union. It joined the “Red Fed” Federation of Labour. In 1909, the president of the union was Michael Joseph Savage, a man who worked in a brewery and who much later became prime minister.

If there was a sort of revolution in the way breweries were run, there was another revolution in the making. Throughout the nineteenth century there had, in New Zealand, been only three types of beer available – ale, porter and stout. But in the early 1900s, lager was introduced. Says Ryan: “Perhaps the most significant embrace of European brewing science and expertise, if not apparent until sometime later, was the development of New Zealand’s first lager brewery under the guidance of a German, F. Metzler, and a Swiss, Conrad Breutsch, which opened in 1900.” (p.116) Ale still dominated, but over the years lager (made to German and Swiss formulas) became the most consumed variety of beer in New Zealand. At the same time, most hops ceased to be imported, but were now largely grown in Nelson.

As Greg Ryan says at the beginning of Chapter 6, “In many respects, the first two decades of the twentieth century were the most critical in the history of beer and brewing in New Zealand. The industry was fighting for survival as support for prohibition swelled. The anti-liquor vote peaked at 55.8 per cent in 1911, nearing the 60 per cent threshold needed for success. Prohibition nearly won in December 1919, when only a simple majority was required to turn New Zealand dry. While the conventional portrayal of this period is of a tide of prohibition that nearly succeeded, it is equally valid to ask why some people voted against it. The brewers in particular deployed a range of strategies to boost their own standing with the public and put obstacles in the way of the prohibition campaign… [yet] during the dramatic upheaval of the Great War, [the liquor industry ] was forced to make concessions in the licencing laws.” (p.122) Appealing to “efficiency” in time of war, law was passed making it illegal for a pub to stay open after 6 p.m. (Though in many rural areas this was ignored until the 1940s.) Six o’clock closing persisted until 1967. There was an increase in the number of “dry” districts and 141 hotels were shut down, even though prohibitionists still had to win three-fifths of the vote in a local area. This shows that there was obviously a majority of New Zealanders who favoured either temperance or prohibition. A degree of sectarianism came into this. On the whole, Anglicans and Catholics opposed prohibition, while Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists promoted it. [This is of course a generalisation – there were a few Anglicans and Catholics who supported prohibition, such as the Catholic Bishop of Auckland Henry William Cleary.]

At this time, too, there were what would now be seen as extremely paternalistic – to wit, laws restricting the sale of liquor to Maori. And after the First World War was over, pubs were closed down for many months because of the so-called “Spanish ‘flu” pandemic. When, in 1919, there was a general referendum on alcohol, the Prohibitionists lost. It has often been suggested that this was because soldiers returning from the war tipped the balance against Prohibition. Ryan argues otherwise, saying that it had more to do with different approaches now being taken by anti-prohibitionists. Although there was still a large proportion of New Zealanders who favoured Prohibition, their numbers began to dwindle in the 1920s, partly because the American experiment in Prohibition was working out so badly.  Even so, for decades general elections always included on ballots an option to vote for Continuance [leaving things as they were], Public Ownership [nationalising the whole booze industry] or Prohibition. As fewer and fewer people voted for Prohibition, this option became a farce until it was abolished in 1988, much to the chagrin of the “Alliance” which still promoted the lost cause.

The 1920s to the 1940s were the time of mergers of breweries, competition between breweries, and the world depression.  In 1923, ten breweries combined in Wellington as New Zealand Breweries (NZB – much later becoming Lion Breweries), which meant that rather than having “tied” hotels, many different brands under NZB could be consumed in the same pub. On the West Coast of the South Island, brewers combined as Westland Breweries Ltd. In Auckland, Dominion Breweries (DB) was set up in 1931 by William Coutts and Henry Kelliher, and by the mid-1940s, DB produced 40% of Auckland’s beer. It was in the 1940s that some journalists and pundits (such as John A. Lee) said that the ruling Labour Party was corrupt because it did secret deals with brewers to stay in power. (In his enjoyable, but often inaccurate, book Grog’s Own Country, Conrad Bollinger made the same accusation.)

During the Second World War, there were no additional severe laws about opening hours, and canteens selling beer were provided to the armed forces. However, beer was made weaker, having less alcoholic kick to it. Greg Ryan says that the notorious “six o’clock swill”, where men drank themselves silly in the one hour they had to drink after leaving work, did not begin when six o’clock closing began. Rather, it began in the Second World War when men had to drink more and more of the new weak beer before they reached an alcoholic kick. ‘Twas weakened beer that made men stagger out of pubs and vomit on the pavements. Thankfully, after the war was over, beer was restored to its more potent strength… but men had acquired the habit of drinking too much anyway and the “six o’clock swill” continued. In 1949, there was a referendum about closing hours, but most New Zealanders still voted for six o’clock closing.

In the 1950s there were many closures or take-overs of breweries, and New Zealand was gradually facing a duopoly of DB and NZB (Red Lion). In that same decade, Morton Coutts pioneered the use of continuous fermentation, which meant that more beer could be produced more quickly. By 1960, 85% of New Zealand beer was the product of  continuous fermentation. Not that this necessarily enhanced the nature of the product. Overseas visitors were very critical of barn-like pubs and the men standing up at the bar rather than being seated in a civilised way when they gulped down their swill. They also criticised the ridiculous opening hours and the feeble quality of most New Zealand beer.

Only in the early 1960s did things improve. Prime minister Walter Nash’s 1958 so-called “Black Budget”, which increased the price of beer and cigarettes, had created a backlash, leading eventually to 10 o’clock closing being brought in the 1967. Barmaids, who had been banished from pubs decades earlier, were once again allowed to serve in pubs [See on this blog Susan Upton’s engrossing Wanted: A Beautiful Barmaid for the history of bermaids in
New Zealand.] In 1961, after much lobbying, restaurants were at last allowed to serve liquor with meals. Brewers and publicans tried to smarten up their image. DB attempted to market a new brand of lager called Lucky Lager, but it did not catch on and the label was soon dropped.  A lager was marketed as Steineker, but the name had to be withdrawn when the long-established Dutch brewery Heineken objected that it sounded too much like their name; and the New Zealand beer had to be marketed as Steinlager. Pubs added entertainment, usually in the form of music which became the norm but which was not appreciated by all drinkers. The 1960s was when beer was first sold in cans was well as in bottles. With the dominance of DB and Lion, there were still complaints about the lack of beer diversity. The fact was, however, that the proportion of New Zealand beer-drinkers was falling. New Zealand had long been the 5th largest beer-drinking country per capita in the world . By the 1990s it was only the 10th largest beer-drinking country per capita in the world. The fact was that other types of alcoholic beverages were on the rise, wine in particular. Vineyards were being established in Blenheim, Hawkes Bay, Nelson and other sites. Soon wine became, and stayed, the liquor of choice for dinner parties, family celebrations, wedding receptions and other occasions. Generations were becoming aware of the grades, types and vintages of wine. Beer was, however, still the most commonly consumed drink.

Time moved on. By the 1980s, licenced restaurants were allowed to stay open late into the night. By 1990, beer cans could be sold in supermarkets and the drinking age was lowered to 18. There was the growing popularity of “craft beers”, brewed by very small breweries and inspired by European and British niche beers. Even so, among beer-drinkers those who drink craft beers are very much the minority. Greg Ryan comments: “New Zealand followed the global trend to small breweries from the 1980s and had nearly 60 by the turn of the century. In very broad terms these developments can be seen as part of the global ‘artisan’ movement reacting against corporate capitalism generally and neo-liberal upheaval in particular. Everything from the slow food movement to farmers’ markets to promoting local produce and traditions in bread, cheese, chocolate and olive oil, among many others, emphasised ‘authentic’ alternatives to the homogeneity of industrial mass production.”  (p.288)

By this stage, there are many objections to the way mainstream beer (DB and Lion) is marketed. Beer advertisements are still very macho and often regarded as sexist with their depictions of a men’s-only world and all those images of Rugby players and All Black stars. There are also, in the 1990s and early 2000s, many worries about teenagers getting drunk in public spaces and causing general rowdyism. Ryan closes discussing new rates of taxation levied out of beer and in his epilogue he suggests, depressingly, that the world-wide degeneration of the quality of fresh water may create a huge challenge for brewers. Yet he is sure some form of beer with endure.

It would be unfair not to applaud, along with Ryan’s polished text, the many illustrations, sometimes straight portraiture, sometimes showing the workings of breweries, sometimes satirical, sometimes partisan in their wowser-versus-boozer phase, sometimes even idyllic. They bring to life older eras.

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Growing ultimately out of gothic novels and grand guignol, horror stories are very much an acquired taste, but they do have a large audience. Michael Botur should know. He has so far written seven collections of short stories, mostly dealing with the bizarre and the horrific, as well as two novels. His latest production is Bloodalcohol – Ten Tales. You are fairly warned what you are in for by the front-cover image, a young woman happily splattered in blood. All ten stories of Bloodalcohol are set in quite specific New Zealand locations, ranging from Christchurch, through Auckland and up to the far North. Characters who are drawn into horror are New Zealand types – delinquent school children, ambitious wealthy back-to-nature-ists, people who take too many drugs, holidaying rovers etc. But nearly all face the unexpected and are eventually horrified, destroyed or [in one story at least] capable of dealing with eerie menace. Some of Botur’s tales take some time to come to the boil while we wait for the Hammer Horror denouement. But there’s no shame in this. After all, it was Bram Stoker who, in his novel Dracula, took an age to introduce his dark anti-hero, knowing full well that long anticipation leads to anxious reader tension.  Botur knows this too.

            So what of the specific stories? It’s never my task to give away unexpected endings, which would spoil each story. But here is roughly what Bloodalcohol contains. The title story “Bloodalcohol” has a South Island journey as told by a sort of pimp (a very hip young woman) for an elder man who is hungry for blood. A vampire forsooth. Three stories – “Butterfly Tongue”, “Lossboys” and “Influencer” – have people plagued by malign ghosts, in all cases the ghosts being destructive teenagers. In “The Beast Released” a man and a young boy go into the deep New Zealand bush to see where a plane crashed, and something happens more horrific that we expect. In “Luke’s Lesson” a boy goes crazy and runs berserk after imbibing the most fundamentalist version of Christianity. Some stories do not involve the occult or supernatural. As I read them “Weeks in the Woolshed” simply shows us how nasty human beings can be to one another; “Racing Hearts” is a matter of horror created by over-indulgence in illicit drugs; and, although it certainly has its creepy moments, “Starving” is the least like a horror story in its tale of an over-ambitious performer on the Auckland scene who makes his mark in very questionable ways. In Botur’s most polished story, “We Created a Country”, wherein wealthy fools try to make their version of a desirable place in rural Northland, the main characters are not destroyed by fantastic creatures but by nature itself – and a very real animal.

            What particularly interests me in Botur’s prose is his use of ambiguity. In some stories we are not sure if the horror tale deals with “real” events, or is a delusion created in the narrator’s head. This is particularly true of “Butterfly Tongue” which is told by an angst-filled, angry teenaged girl. Is this unreliable narration or does she meet a real final monstrosity? In “Lossboys”, the destructive adolescent ghosts might just as well be delusions conjured up by a mother after her young son dies. But it is still unnerving. It’s a little like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw where we can either believe that two children are demonically possessed OR that the whole tale reflects the neuroses of the nanny who is supposedly shielding them as well as telling the tale.

            I like Botur’s style and enjoyed most of his stories, especially the nuanced ones. But be aware, as I said at the beginning of this brief review, horror stories are an acquired taste. Like blood.