Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Something New

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

 “STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM – AUNG SAN SUU KYI” Jesper Bengtsson (Harper-Collins,  Fourth Estate, $39:99)

Now aged 66, Aung San Suu Kyi has become a modern symbol of embattled democracy, and for good reason. Since her return to Burma in 1988, she has been the focus of the pro-democracy movements which oppose the ruling Burmese military junta. She has spent years under house arrest in her home near Rangoon – from 1989 to 1995 and again from 2003 to 2010. The military would love her to just leave the country and stop being the centre of international media attention. But she has had to set aside a family life with her husband and two sons in her determination to stay.

In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Aung San Suu Kyi advocates an open society infused with Buddhist values. In such political philosophy as she has expressed, she clearly wants to avoid the accusation – so dear to the junta – that she is simply an agent of “Western values”.

She is pro-democracy, but also anti-colonial and anti-violence.

She cites Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King as inspirations. The international media readily take up the comparisons. At the same time, she is aware of how much Burma is a collection of different ethnicities, often at war with one another. The country’s corrosive drug trade (opium, heroin) has been supported by the junta for its revenue. The warlords who run the trade are a powerful lobby. The democracy movement is not always cohesive, and sometimes the junta is successful in appealing to a xenophobic streak in the population. Because of her Western education (University of Oxford) and her marriage, they regularly refer to her as a ‘foreigner”.

Perhaps Buddhism could be what would hold a fragile future Burmese democracy together? At least it seemed so in the “saffron revolution” of 2007 in which Buddhist monks were to the fore in demonstrating against the military regime.
For somebody who knows little about Burma (like me), Jesper Bengtsson’s biography of Aung San Suu Kyi provides an excellent primer. I’ll say at once that this is not a book for scholars. It is directed at a wide popular readership. There are no footnotes, no index and only a limited bibliography.

Jesper Bengtsson is a Swedish journalist, and one of the founders of “Reporters Without Borders”, a liberal-left outfit that covers international affairs. He first wrote Struggle for Freedom in Swedish (the Swedish edition appeared last year) and then appears to have also produced this English version. No translator is credited.

Obviously Bengtsson speaks English fluently as many of his sources are interviews he conducted, in English, with people in Burma, Britain and the USA. At the same time there are a few moments when specifically Swedish concerns come through. One of the best is in the chapter where Bengtsson takes to task Western powers which claim to support Burmese democracy but which have been happy to sell arms to the Burmese junta. Bengtsson flings a dart at Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme for signing off such an arms deal.

I admit there are moments when Aung San Suu Kyi  seemed, in Bengtsson’s account, altogether too saintly. Were there no tensions, tears and raised voices in the family in the long periods when she was separated from her English husband Michael Aris and their two sons Kim and Alexander? Why does her elder brother hate her so much, to the point of joining the junta in their criticisms of her? Has she never ever lost her cool, even in private? But these questions could reflect the ingrained cynic in me. Aung San Suu Kyi could well be every bit as good as Bengtsson paints her, and the way he reports her reaction to her husband’s death by cancer is very moving.

Besides, the book does not gloss the mixed heritage of Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, the Burmese independence leader Aung San who, for a time, collaborated with the Japanese in the Second World War. He believed that the Japanese would drive out the British and allow Burmese self-rule. The Japanese did the former, but not the latter, so Aung San changed sides and helped drive the Japanese out. He was killed by an assassin when his daughter was aged 2. Although Aung San remains a Burmese national hero, there’s much ambiguity about the historical judgement of him. Bengtsson captures it well, and he is equally open about the element of privilege in Aung San Suu Kyi’s upbringing.

In the end, history will judge the importance of Aung San Suu Kyi. She may be somebody who really did shame a junta into relinquishing power. Or she may be somebody whose importance was more symbolic than practical. Establishing a democracy is a complex matter, and even one very good advocate cannot overcome all the problems of a country like Burma.

Whatever the long terms verdict, however, Struggle For Freedom is a good starting place to understand how that country functions, and who its most controversial citizen is.

Footnote: The country is called Burma throughout this book. Bengtsson makes a point of noting that the alternative name “Myanmar” has been promoted by the military junta and has never been accepted by the mass of the population.

Second Footnote: Aung San Suu Kyi delivered two of this year’s BBC Reith Lectures. Her first lecture, on political freedom, was broadcast on Radio New Zealand National on Sunday 24 July. You can hear her two talks on the BBC website at “BBC Radio 4 Programmes - The Reith Lectures”

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "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 five or more years ago.

 “I SHALL BEAR WITNESS: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1933-41”  and “TO THE BITTER END: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1942-45” (English translations by Martin Chalmers originally published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, beginning in 1998)

The account of one democrat opposing political tyranny, as reported in this week’s “Something New”, has forcefully reminded me of another.

In 1998 I was given for review the English-language translation of the first volume of Victor Klemperer’s diaries. I was soon spellbound and, when the later volumes came out, I made sure I read them too.

Klemperer was a German Jew who managed to survive all twelve years of Nazi rule because, at first, the Nazis were reluctant to deal with him.

Jewish by descent but Protestant by religion, he was married to an “Aryan” non-Jewish wife, he had been a front-line soldier in the German Army in the First World War  and he was a distinguished academic – a professor specialising in French literature.

The Nazis stripped him of his civil rights only gradually. In 1935 he was dismissed from his university post, but only later was he forced to wear the yellow star. He was not summoned for deportation (to a death camp) until very late in the war. Fortunately for him, the Allied air-forces came to his rescue. When his hometown of Dresden was razed in the notorious fire-bombing, Klemperer managed to “lose” his identity papers and yellow star, mingled with refugees fleeing westward before the advancing Red Army, and was finally liberated by American forces in Bavaria.

He had survived.

Because of the way I’ve summarized his life here, you might think his two war diaries are memorable as a chronicle of that survival. In a way they are. Day by day, Klemperer records desperate strategies of survival. But there is much more to the diaries than that.

They really show a humane, patriotic old-style German intellectual constantly shocked and affronted that his country had been taken over by thugs. There are many entries in which he wonders when “the real Germany” – meaning the Germany of liberal humanists like himself – will show itself. There are many entries in which he refuses to believe the Nazis represent the nation.

There are also passages that surprise us by revealing how difficult it can be to make neat moral judgements on people in the past.

In their distress, as Klemperer records it, he and his wife sometimes had great kindness shown to them by ordinary Germans, including some minor Nazi Party officials.

We are used to scorning those Germans who, after 1945, claimed not to have known what the Nazis’ genocidal plans really were. In diary entries from well before the war, Klemperer shows how the Nazis’ intentions were clear to anyone who wanted to heed them. And yet, in entries during the war, he himself still does not believe that mass-murder is happening. When the Nazis start rounding up Jews, he wonders how well they will be treated when they are “resettled in the East”.

After 1945, we can only conclude, there really were at least some Germans who were being truthful when they pleaded ignorance.

Klemperer died in 1960. He chose to live the last years of his life in old East (Communist) Germany, where he conformed to Communist rule, lived the life of one of the state’s privileged intellectuals and again survived. A third volume of his diaries deals with these years and has been published under the title The Lesser Evil. This is essentially what Klemperer believed East Germany to be, as opposed to West Germany. In his private observations he clearly thought both halves of Germany were still infected with the continuing spirit of totalitarian rule.

Since the reunification of Germany, our knowledge of the oppressive nature of Communist rule might make us doubt some of Klemperer’s judgements on his later life. But they in no way blunt what has now become the common critical view. It says that Klemperer’s diaries are among the great published diaries, up there with Mme de Stael, with Boswell, and with Anne Frank.

They show us that opposition to tyranny can take many forms. One of the most effective is patient, close observation of the way things really are from day to day. When the daily truth of everyday life is told simply, it will always expose a tyranny as a fraud.

Footnote: I Shall Bear Witness has also been published under the title I Will Bear Witness.

Something Thoughtful

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

Not too long ago, I stumbled upon what I think is one correct answer to a question that has long interested me.

Why has there recently been an upsurge in the genre of “fantasy” for adults?

I’d better define my terms a little.

By “recently” I mean in the last sixty years or so – since J.R.R.Tolkien published the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 1950s, and especially since hippies and the old “counter-culture” adopted Tolkien as one of their own in the 1960s.

As for “fantasy”, I’ll be really specific.

In all popular genres, there’s an element of “fantasy”, in the sense of unlikely events with a big wish-fulfilment element. The detective always cracks the case in whodunits. The ending is happy-ever-after in Mills and Boon and “chick lit”. The international super-spy saves the world and beds the beautiful women in the spy thriller.

All pure fantasy in the general sense of the word.

Nor am I using “fantasy” to mean just any fictional alternative reality. There’s a difference between old-fashioned hardcore science-fiction and the type of fantasy I’m pinning down here. SF looked, with either awe or fear, to futuristic possibilities. It revelled in technology, though I do admit that some forms of SF (especially those involving bug-eyed monsters) showed that the borders between genres were porous. They came close to being new-style “fantasy”.

Unlike hardcore SF, what is now commonly understood by the term “fantasy” is decidedly retro. It turns away from modern technology. It situates itself in the realm of magic, spells, curses, amulets, dark forces, ancestral doom, quests, clans, kingdoms, wizards, dragons and other fantastic beasts. It usually has a sort of cod medieval setting – nothing like the real Middle Ages, of course, but vaguely like the world of traditional fairy tales and with all the Christianity of the Middle Ages removed. Bits and pieces of old European mythologies are liberally plundered.

Think the passé game Dungeons and Dragons – one outcrop of the “fantasy” boom – and you get the milieu I mean.

I admit that my relationship with this “fantasy” genre is fraught. It doesn’t greatly appeal to me and I tend to avoid it. I read The Hobbit with delight as a child, and have re-read it a number of times to my children. I first got around to The Lord of the Rings only as an adult when I read it out loud as a long-running bedtime story for the kids (it took about two months to get through it). I enjoyed it too, but only as an extended bedtime story – not as something to feed the adult soul.

Since Tolkien, however, the genre has boomed.  There are now innumerable multi-volumed fantasy series, often called something pompous with “Chronicles” or “Saga” in the title. As a reviewer I have had to read some of them, and have noted that their “adult” component is usually confined to the explicit sex and violence, not to any subtlety of character or style. If they are fairy-tales by inspiration, some of them are X-rated fairy-tales. The dialogue is often as fake-medieval and Hollywood-ish as the settings.

My observation is that “fantasy” of this order appeals particularly to young adults – those between teenager-dom and about 40. They are the same people who will lap up, along with an even younger audience, all the Harry Potter films and books, turning many ostensibly juvenile narratives into kidult hits.

So having nailed down what I mean by “fantasy” , I return to my original question.

Why has this genre boomed in recent years?

One answer I’ve  often heard is that it’s a general revolt from the complexities, the technology and the impersonality of the modern world, like the hippie movement that put the kick into Tolkien. As such it is more escapism that a real critique of the modern – a daydream world where people interact personally in villages or Hobbitons or just within the citadel walls; where there is no messy democracy or mass society and issues are settled face-to-face by the individual king, knight or champion and his levies; and where we can feast in the thane’s hall in the company of heroes. As for the dragons and fantasy beasts, their appeal has been greatly enhanced by recent computer-generated film special effects. Written “fantasy” has come to have a symbiotic relationship with the stuff that’s put on screen.  (I won’t go into the obvious paradox that the image has been perfected by the selfsame complex technology that “fantasy” rejects).

Then – especially when Tolkien is invoked – there’s the familiar theory that “fantasy” represents a quest for simpler, firmer and absolute values in a world where everything has been relativised. Our world is (officially) pluralist and encompasses many creeds, beliefs and ideologies. It’s postmodern and tolerant. But which creed is the right one? Which one do we rally around? How attractive, then, to retreat into a world where Good and Evil are absolutes and are represented by characters who are either unbelievably good or unbelievably evil, and readily recognized as such. As in fairy tales. No messy and brain-perplexing choices to be made.

I think there is merit in both these theories – nostalgic anti-modernism and a yearning for clear values -  but I think I now have another answer.

I recently spent a semester at the University of Waikato teaching a course entitled “War and Society” to a large class of first-year students. It was a survey course, built on the theme that the way wars are waged tells us much about the societies that wage them.

I marched through the processes by which Western armies, over two hundred years,  massified, professionalised and industrialised – in other words, got bigger, got better organised and became armed with progressively more and more lethal weapons. From soldiers on horseback biffing each other in knightly charges, we moved to piles of corpses slaughtered by machine-guns, bombs and long range artillery in two world wars. From “cabinet wars”, where interested 18th century civilians could watch from neighbouring hillsides as armies fought it out, we moved to “total wars”, where 20th century civilians were in the front lines, their towns and cities smashed. ( For the record, fewer than one quarter of the dead in the Second World War were military personnel.)

War, I suggest, became more and more destructive and impersonal, until we reached the long nuclear stand-off where rival superpowers never did push the button, because they knew that to do so really would destroy everything. It was precisely at that historical Cold War moment that Tolkien was writing.

The Cold War is over, and we are now going through another cycle in the evolution of warfare – no longer warfare between states but postmodernist warfare, war on terror, peacekeeping missions among rival groups in unstable states. But the lethal long-range weapons are still there, not to mention the saturation news coverage telling us that, even if there is always a place for individual heroism, it is not individual warriors who decide the outcome of conflicts, but complex international negotiation.

Now in such a world, isn’t it delightful to pretend that none of this has happened? “Fantasy” allows its devotees to make-believe that war is still personal, chivalric and decided by acts of individual battlefield heroism. And it doesn’t involve complex technology even if it does involve magic. Much easier to insert yourself among the slings and arrows and dragon’s breath of fantasy, than to consider what it would really be like riding a Humvee with enraged civilians throwing stones at you and the news media ready to pounce on your every move. Much nicer to think of the well-wielded sword solving problems than the impersonal anti-personnel device.

“Is war really so essential to fantasy?’ you ask.

To which I reply: “Have you ever heard of a fantasy novel that is not essentially built on violence?”

Don’t they all build-up to a whang-dang Armageddon-like confrontation between the Forces of Light and the Forces of Darkness, decided by guys on horse-back or friendly-dragon-back? Very well, I concede there are some slightly more peaceable fantasies, like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders series. But even they assume the norms of chivalric combat.

So here’s my theory – an adjunct to other theories rather than a denial of them.

The “fantasy” genre is the nostalgia for clean, personal war, where the issues are neat and uncontested.   

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Something New

“THE SETTLER’S PLOT – How Stories Take Place in New Zealand” Alex Calder (Auckland University Press, $45:99)

A good book of essays is one that you want to argue with. This is one of those truisms that I’ll probably repeat often and often on this blog.
If you nod your head in agreement with everything a book of essays says, chances are (a.) that you are half-asleep; or (b.) that the book is not challenging you enough.
I’m saying this very carefully at the outset because I think Alex Calder’s is a book of outstandingly good socio-literary essays. I loved it. And the proof is that I really want to shake my fist and argue with some of the essays.
Let’s clear the ground and say what it’s about.
I can spot good postmodernist punning as well as the next reader, and there are puns in both the title and the sub-title. It’s The Settler’s Plot where “plot” means equally “piece of land” and “fictitious intrigue” in all senses of the word “intrigue”. And in the sub-title, How Stories Take Place in New Zealand, the phrase “take place” means “are enacted” as it usually does. But it also means how stories “take” (that is, “understand”) the “place” in which they are set. You take my meaning?
So this is a book of essays about how a sense of place is reflected in works by New Zealand writers and how it informs those works, consciously or unconsciously.
Keen eyes will note that the cover illustration links the multiple meanings. It’s an idealised diagram-map of Takapuna on Auckland’s North Shore, drawn for a real-estate firm one hundred years ago, and prominently featuring the road where Frank Sargeson later lived.
These essays walk the ground between literary study and diagnosis of society. They are case studies of specific novels, stories, poems and other writings, analysing them for what they reveal about each writer’s reaction to New Zealand land and its ownership, and how this reflects more generally the mentality of New Zealanders. The essays were written over a number of years and some of them have appeared, in different form, in academic journals.
After a more general essay on the whole question of “belonging” in New Zealand, Alex Calder divides his essays into three sections. “Landing”  deals with the nineteenth century and early Pakeha writings. “Settling” considers the whole twentieth century march from breaking in farm-land to taking suburbia almost for granted. “Looming”, however, concerns the continuing pull of “overseas” for New Zealand writers, and the unavoidable fact that even the most grounded New Zealanders have mental furnishings partly built thousands of miles away. Calder is well beyond the “nationalist” views of NZ critics in the 1940s and 1950s. But divided cultural loyalties are an ongoing part of our literary story. If the essential question for writers in Britain is “What have we come to?”, in New Zealand the question still is “Who are we?” As Calder fully understands, the question isn’t answered by glibly saying that we’re all postcolonial now.
There is so much to like in this collection that I can offer only a few hints.
I like the way Calder clearly respects the nineteenth century writers he analyses, even as he dissects their meaning. There may be many cultural misreadings in the way Augustus Earle reported Maori cannibalism, or F.E.Maning described Maori spirit divination. But, fully aware that all encounters with a new culture are fraught with misunderstandings, Calder doesn’t assume Earle and Maning were imperceptive dopes, or less capable of factual recall than later interpreters of the same phenomena. I think he’s particularly subtle in the way he deals with the early twentieth century novelist William Satchell. He knows that on one level Satchell’s ‘historical’ novel of inter-racial conflict, The Greenstone Door, is an appalling piece of mystification and sentimentality. But through all that, he can discern the real and difficult strategies Satchell had to adopt to come to terms with the New Zealand he knew.
The essay on Guthrie-Smith’s classic of natural history, Tutira, is remarkable for the way Calder teases out national themes from Guthrie-Smith’s specific observations. The one about the progress of suburbia in literary consciousness focuses mainly on Maurice Gee. It notes that a progressive sense of belonging has taken place at a time when urban New Zealand society has become more fragmented. It ends with the killer punch-line “the characters in Going West do belong in their suburbs, but their suburb is starting to look like a gated community.
When Calder deals with New Zealand writers over whom the foreign world “looms”  he is courageous to point out the purple prose blemishes  of Robin Hyde’s work, even as he praises her Starkie books and her probing of male mentalities. He is acute about the unexamined relationship of Wild West mythology to John Mulgan’s Man Alone.            
So, having babbled on enthusiastically like this, what about those arguments that I mentioned at the beginning of this blog?
I know critical fashion has almost de-canonised him, but I’m a little uneasy at the way James K. Baxter is so quickly swatted aside in some essays, like an unwelcome horse-fly. Apart from references to the poetry of the novelist Janet Frame, the only poet who is considered at length here is Allen Curnow. Personally, I would put quite a different construction on the Curnow poem-cycle that Calder analyses, and the political situation that informed it.
As for his analysis of Frank Sargeson’s Memoirs of a Peon as the representation of a New Zealand bohemia, I would argue more strenuously that bohemia is really the safety-valve of suburbia and is economically always dependent on it. There’s nothing more suburban than being a bohemian. This is why, for me, the smell of the fake lingers over much of Sargeson’s work. And his representations of suburbia are at least as stereotypical as those by Baxter which Calder swats away.
But you see what I’m doing here? I’m rebuking Calder for not writing the book that I would have written – and for not producing a comprehensive account of all New Zealand literature, which this book never set out to be.
Pretty dumb things to do for such a good book. But then you do have to argue.

Something Old

 “MAORILAND – New Zealand Literature 1872-1914” Jane Stafford and Mark Williams (Victoria University Press 2006)

Reading and commenting on this week’s “Something New” took me back to a book I had the immense pleasure of reading and commenting upon exactly five years ago. Like Alex Calder’s fruitful essays, Jane Stafford’s and Mark Williams’ Maoriland, a study of pre-First World War New Zealand literature, is an excellent example of New Zealand literary revisionism.
Perspectives are always changing. The process of re-evaluating the literature of the past is never-ending. But in the last twenty years or so there has been such a major change in the way critics look at earlier New Zealand literature that we are unlikely to go back to what was once the critical orthodoxy.
This orthodoxy was the “nationalist” notion that New Zealand didn’t really have a literature to speak of until the 1930s and the Great Depression, when people like  A.R.D.Fairburn, Denis Glover, Allen Curnow, Frank Sargeson, John Mulgan and “Robin Hyde” began to speak realistically of the country they were actually living in. Before that, said the “nationalist” orthodoxy, there were only prettified colonial imitations of British literature. The only writer worth speaking of, Katherine Mansfield, escaped from New Zealand and made her literary career elsewhere.
By a careful (but very accessible) sifting of the evidence, Stafford and Williams show that this simply is not the case. In examining the New Zealand-based writing that was done in the forty-odd years up to before the First World War, they show that there really was a literary community on these islands, trying hard to come to terms with their environment, not always doing so well, but at least as alert to New Zealand realities as the generations that have followed.           
The joint authors consider the likes of Alfred Domett, who wrote awful poetry but intelligent prose; the Australian sojourner in New Zealand Henry Lawson; the greatly underrated Blanche Baughan; Katherine Mansfield before she upped stakes; Jessie Mackay; and especially that very complex man William Satchell (who is also considered in Alex Calder’s essays). In each case, the authors show somebody who knew that the assumptions of Mother Britain didn’t always fit a country where Pakeha had to somehow accommodate themselves to the very different culture of Maori.
Stafford and Williams do not whitewash the New Zealand literature of the age they are considering. They are aware of its sentimental excesses and its assumptions that we can’t help seeing as hopelessly dated. Their very title “Maoriland” refers to a defunct conception of this country. But they are an excellent antidote to anyone who thinks New Zealand literature sprang out of nowhere in the 1930s. And they implicitly remind us that any age’s worldview is provisional only. If we laugh at the assumptions of 1911, it is only because we do not have the wit to realize that one day somebody will laugh at the assumptions of 2011.
I emphasize, this scholarly book is very accessible. Stafford and Williams advance their thesis with lively and enjoyable quotations from the works they are discussing, and they are mercifully free of oppressive lit.crit jargon.
A book to enlarge your understanding of your country.

Helpful hint: Go to your search engine, type in the words “Nicholas Reid – Listener” and you will be taken to the file of my contributions to the New Zealand Listener. Scroll through it and you will find my more detailed consideration of Maoriland from the issue of 8 July 2006.

Something Thoughtful

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


It happened in the family car well over a decade ago. In the back seat were two of my school-age kids. We were stopped by some  traffic-lights which seemed to stay red for far too long, as if their sequencing system wasn’t functioning. Youngsters became impatient.
“These lights must be gay,” came a voice from the back seat.
“Pardon?” I said
“You know – gay,” said the young voice
“No, I don’t know,” I said, but I had the feeling that actually I did.
After a little more investigation it became clear what “gay” meant in common playground parlance. It meant “broken, malfunctioning, second-rate, of little worth, kaput, not right, not what it should be”.
Especially when dealing with kids, it’s wise not to encourage something by making a big issue of it – so I let the matter drop and assumed that this was one of those faddish playground usages that fade in a season or two.
But apparently I was wrong.
Earlier this week, I read news of a schoolteacher who wants to forbid the term “gay”, in the sense I first heard over a decade ago, from playground use. Clearly the usage has become firmly lodged now, and was not just a passing fad. The teacher’s argument is that it reflects and enforces homophobic attitudes and the belief that gays are inferior.
He may have a point.
It’s hard to believe that, years ago, some young schoolkids would first have begun to use the term as they do if they had not been cued, probably by adults, to the idea that gays are odd, malfunctioning, not as they should be etc. etc.
And yet in another way, the schoolteacher is profoundly wrong.
The usage has taken on a life of its own. Not only do schoolkids use it unselfconsciously but in many cases (as I’m sure was the case with my own kids) without any sexual connotations at all.
This points to one of those ironies that only time can reveal.
The origins and provenance of the term “gay” to mean homosexual are very much disputed. Like so many words with sexual connotations, it had an in-group or underground use for a long time before it became widely used by the general public. One source I read said that the very first mainstream use of the word with something like the current sexual connotation was in the 1937 Hollywood movie Bringing Up Baby where, in some farcical situation, the lead character played by Cary Grant had to put on women’s clothes. When challenged, he  declared “I just came over all gay!”
Even so, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that “gay” in the sense of homosexual became a widespread and mainstream usage.
When it did, there were outraged letters to the press from old codgers decrying the use and lamenting that “we” could no longer use the word in the older general sense of bright, colourful, happy and cheerful. People now snickered at the titles of old movies like Let Us Be Gay and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. They snickered particularly at the old song that began “A Bachelor Gay Am I”. Vigorous and ageing heterosexual men would no longer be called “gay old dogs” –  not that they had been for many decades.” An ice-cream brand called Gaytime was no longer seen (though, to be strictly accurate, one Australian company does still market Golden Gaytime ice cream).
In the 1970s, the answer the old codgers were given by linguists was a simple one. Language is a living thing, language is always changing and the language had changed. The new term had become mainstream and there was no point protesting. Popular usage is not something that can be regulated. Get used to it.
“Gay” meaning homosexual found its way into the dictionaries, the usage was canonised and (apparently) made unassailable.
The linguists were right, of course. In the long run, common usage cannot be regulated, and people who wave about dictionaries or grammar texts to stop a usage dead in its tracks are fighting a losing battle. For example, how often have I been told that strictly speaking “sophisticated” means “corrupted” rather than “worldly, aware and informed”, and that I need only check a dictionary to see this is so. But the point is, we don’t speak strictly. We speak colloquially, and in the end it is the colloquial that becomes the norm. “Sophisticated” means worldly, aware and informed. Get used to it.
Language changes from below. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have allowed uneducated slobs four centuries ago to start ignoring the difference between the second-person singular (thou, thee, thy, thine) and the second-person plural (you, ye, your and yours) to the point where the original second-person singular dropped out of the language altogether.
So, when schoolkids use “gay” to mean inferior, broken, not right etc., shouldn’t we just say popular usage has changed and get used to it, the way people did when the word “gay” underwent its last metamorphosis?
The answer is – yes and no.
Yes if we admit that the living nature of colloquial language means it can’t, in the long run, be regulated. Attempts to suppress the usage will give it the very cachet that kids value as something profoundly irritating to adults.
No if we are going to be consistent and say we do not sanction playground usage of other offensive terms – “four-letter” words, racial slurs etc. So we should ban the term and force the kids to conform.
Which of course, they will.
To our faces.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Something New

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

“IN THE SEA THERE ARE CROCODILES” Fabio Geda [Howard Curtis trans.] (David Fickling Books / Random House $29:99 ISBN 978 0 857 56008 7

This translation from the Italian carries the subtitle “The true story of Enaiatollah Akbari”. An adolescent Afghani refugee, Enaiatollah took five years to travel from Afghanistan to Italy, where he now lives, by way of Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Greece. The oblique title refers to some of the fabled dangers of the journey.
It begins when Enaiatollah Akbari is ten years old. In his village, the Taliban discourage formal education in the belief that the revealed word of Allah is enough for anyone. The two schoolteachers disagree, and refuse to close down their school. The Taliban murder them in the village square, in front of all their pupils. The school is dispersed.
At this point Enaiatollah’s mother decides, sensibly enough, that exile from Afghanistan is the only way to find a decent life. But when she disappears near the Pakistan border, the boy is left on his own. He has to make his own way to somewhere where a bearded elder will not smash his soup bowl because the particular soup he is enjoying happens to be contrary to religious dietary regulations.
Much that follows is quite harrowing – a world of people-smugglers moving desperate kids from country to country, in return for what amounts to slave labour. With other refugees, Enaiatollah gets bloodied feet as he walks hundreds of miles across mountains into Iran. He is one of the illegal immigrants crammed into the false bottom of a truck to get into Turkey. He later makes it across the sea from Greece to Italy in an inflatable rubber dinghy. Between these events there are scenes of undocumented foreigners, including Enaiatollah, being used as dirt-cheap labour on building sites in Athens as it prepares for the 2004 Olympics. Moments of kindness compete with moments of cruelty as displaced youngsters cross many language zones, sometimes helped, sometimes exploited, and often finding themselves mixing with refugees from many countries.
When Enaiatollah was 21, and had learnt to speak Italian fairly fluently, Italian journalist Fabio Geda recorded  his young life in a series of long interviews. He then recast them as a continuous first-person narrative with, every so often, some explanatory words of dialogue between interviewer and interviewee. It reads as smoothly and engagingly as a simple episodic novel.
At this point, perhaps I should mention that this short and straightforward book is largely intended for the teenage market. Despite everything, it has an optimistic ring, partly from our foreknowledge that Enaiatollah finally attained his goal of reaching a country where he would be treated decently – at least once he was over the hurdle of proving to the Italian authorities that he was a genuine refugee. It could be seen as the familiar genre of “triumph over adversity”. I can imagine clued-up teachers giving it to classes as a good, engaging reader illustrating modern affairs.
But I don’t mean to demean the book in noting this. I read it with as much attention and interest as I read good books for adults. I always consider that one benchmark in judging books for adolescents. 
Enaiatollah’s voice is practical, canny without being nasty, focused on his goal, and thoroughly sympathetic. And what’s wrong with celebrating that sort of voice, after all?

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "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 five or more years ago.

 “COLONEL JACK”  Daniel Defoe (first published 1722)

As you can see from the heading above, “Something Old” can mean “a venerable and antique classic”, and this is one of those weeks when I will make it mean just that.
Why should I choose to commend a book nearly 300 years old? Daniel Defoe’s Colonel Jack first appeared in 1722, in the same year that the inspired hack published both Moll Flanders and his fictitious (but convincing) Journal of the Plague Year. This was just three years after his Robinson Crusoe
As in so many early 18th century productions, the title page tells you explicitly what you’re in for. Title pages then were something like modern blurbs.
It runs in full as follows: “The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honorable Col. Jacque commonly call’d Col. Jack, who was Born a Gentleman, put ‘Prentice to a Pick-Pocket, was Six-and-Twenty years a Thief, and then Kidnapp’d to Virginia, married four Wives, and five of them prov’d Whores; went into the Wars, behav’d bravely, got Preferment, was made Colonel of a Regiment, came over, and fled with the Chevalier, and is now abroad compleating a Life of Wonders, and resolves to dye a General.” 
Complete with original spelling and liberal use of capital letters (and dodgy mathematics about the number of Jack’s wives) this is indeed how the title page reads. And in case you were wondering, “the Chevalier” refers to the Jacobite Stuart claimant to the British throne, “the Old Pretender”, who had attempted to wrest it from those German Hanoverian usurpers just a few years before, in 1715. If Jack “came over” with the Chevalier, it means he was part of the 1715 Jacobite uprising. 
But it’s not an obscure antiquarian point that makes me commend this book to you. Having just read this week’s “Something New”, I’m forcibly impressed with the idea that the first-person episodic story of young Enaiatollah Akbari is in a sturdy tradition that goes back at least as far as Defoe.
The modern young Afghani’s story is factual whereas Defoe’s stories were fiction (although Robinson Crusoe did borrow details from the life of the real castaway Alexander Selkirk). Even so, there is that personal confessional style and that loose plotlessness where one damned thing follows another (as in real life), and that driving energy that leads to some form of personal triumph or vindication.
No wonder literary historians have so often placed Defoe in the context of “early capitalism”. He had a basic vision of personal effort and ingenuity overcoming obstacles and perhaps leading to wealth, fame or happiness. Robinson Crusoe converts the desert island to his own uses. Moll Flanders is a whore and a thief who ends up happily married. And, as you can see from the title page, Jack at least attains to some sort of respectability after criminal beginnings. 
Of course to modern readers there are details in Defoe’s world-view that are profoundly disturbing. Europeans subduing the world by their own efforts also meant Europeans subduing other non-European people. So roll on slavery, empire and colonialism. Just as Crusoe places his foot on Man Friday’s head, and claims him as a chattel, so is Jack involved in becoming the master of slaves in Virginia. Much academic ink has been spilt in recent times reminding us of the evil of this – and fair enough too. But I still read these early novels with pleasure, partly because of their frank openness about motives and assumptions, even in matters as questionable as these. In that way, they are an un-airbrushed snapshot of a past world.
I could rabbit on with much more about Defoe, especially his habit of scattering dates through his novels, with never a thought for consistent chronology. One wit once added up all the times a protagonist in a Defoe novel made such statements as “I spent ten years working in London” and “I was for nine years a soldier of the line” and so forth. The wit’s conclusion was that if all these statements were true, Defoe’s hero would have to have been about three hundred years old by the novel’s close. As has often been remarked, Defoe has many of the characteristics of an accomplished liar. who could engage the attention and keeps things moving without too much concern for accuracy. But he does engage the attention. 
There is one overwhelming question on which I must close – why do I choose Colonel Jack in preference to the much-better-known Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders?
Partly it’s my delight in the specific details of a forgotten world – those details of Jack, as a child, warming his feet at night in the cinders of a workshop’s fire; or Jack as a soldier in old royal Europe.
Partly it’s the greater sympathy I feel for this character – Jack is a bit of a rogue, but not as much of a criminal as Moll Flanders at her worst. Jack does some sober moralising and reflecting, but never becomes as sententious as Robinson Crusoe does.
More than anything, though, it’s the unfamiliarity of the tale. Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders are characters known to people who have never actually read the books in which they figure. They have become icons or clichés. With Colonel Jack there is the joy of discovery. I hope I have passed a little of that on.

Note on editions: Like many of Defoe’s works, Colonel Jack has been published in many editions in recent years. The best one I’ve come across is still the one that sits on my shelf – the Oxford University Press one in its “Oxford English Novels” series, with scholarly introduction and notes by Samuel Holt Monk. It was first published in this edition in 1965 and has been reprinted many times since.

Something Thoughtful

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

Alas, it has bothered me long and it still bothers me. Depending on my mood it angers me, or I laugh at it. But it is still a major problem.
Why is critical language, as used by members of tertiary English Departments in refereed academic journals, so impenetrable? Why does it appear to be written in a code that is accessible only to the initiated?
I am not being a total barbarian when I make this complaint. I know that specialisations require a specialised vocabulary. I do not expect to understand an academic paper in Medicine or Cognitive Neuroscience or Astrophysics, because these are all fields which I have never studied and in which I have no expertise. I also appreciate that, just occasionally, academic criticism will have to use words not in common currency. When analysing the provenance, structure, prose or poetic style, imagery or vocabulary of a work of literature, there will inevitably be a few words that necessitate resort to the dictionary. I understand this fully. But the coded in-group language of academic literary publications has become a positive plague. This I say as I ostentatiously wave about my two Masters degrees and my Doctorate in humanities fields, refer to a career as reader, critic and reviewer of literature, and once again affirm that I am neither philistine nor barbarian. 
Of course I have sour suspicions about the situation. Could it be, I wonder, that an element of mystification is at work when young Eng Lit. postdoc puts finger to word-processor to grind out an article?  A Mandarin vocabulary is employed to establish boundaries – to give the illusion that something is being discussed which only experts in the field can understand. Or perhaps to reassure postdoc that he/she really is a professional.
I further suspect that Postmodernism, Poststructuralism and other highly perishable influences have had a profoundly negative effect. Those seeking to earn research points, by writing in publish-or-perish academic literary periodicals, are encouraged to produce a prose overladen with subordinate and concessive clauses, qualification and reference. Perhaps this is the outcome of systems of thought that do not believe in quality or merit, that reduce all things to data, and that therefore have to thrash around justifying themselves. But I will not go too far in developing this suspicion, or I will be accused of being an out-of-touch Old Fart as well as a philistine. Somebody who doesn’t know the norms of current lit crit discourse. 
Let me make it clear that, after much unpleasant straining and grunting, I can usually make out what young impenetrably-prosing academic critic is driving at (often enough it is something quite limited and hardly worth saying). Let me also make it clear that advanced literary criticism does not have to be like this.
Within the last couple of years I have read with pleasure and enlightenment volumes of literary essays by David Lodge (Consciousness and the Novel), C.K.Stead (Book-Self), J.M.Coetzee (Inner Workings) and others. I have not agreed with every word they write, but I have noted (a.) that they all discuss and analyse literature at a high level of sophistication; and (b.) that I can understand what they are saying without straining through their verbiage. In other words, no exclusive Mandarin vocabulary is employed. Point (c.) might also be all three of these critics are distinguished novelists and/or poets in their own right, know their craft from the inside and have less need to assert their importance or to mystify their readers. And a final point (d.) could add that the average contributor to refereed journals is likely to be less experienced than such big names – in other words, more immature and less capable of good prose.
The heretic in me asserts that, on the whole, literary criticism does not require an exclusive “professional” vocabulary. There need be little in it that the intelligent, literate adult reader (in other words, me) cannot readily understand. But this view really is a modern heresy. It has been labelled the “Bookman” approach and solemnly anathemised in learned journal and conference paper by Dr Verdant Foucault Green. Us dumb yokels just don’t seem to understand that academic lit crit isn’t meant to be understood.

Footnote – You will note that in the above, I have not quoted one specific example of the thing I am attacking. This really is lousy critical practice. In mitigation I plead (a.) that I have no desire to pillory a few individuals for what is a general malaise; and (b.) I do not want Dr Verdant Foucault Green, in any of his or her incarnations, to waste time penning an unreadable riposte.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Something New

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

“A SIMPLE NULLITY? – The Wi Parata case in New Zealand law and history” David V.Williams (Auckland University Press $49:99 ) ISBN978 1 86940 484 0

According to popular legend, in 1877 New Zealand’s Chief Justice, James Prendergast, delivered a “notorious” judgement in a case involving Maori land ownership.  The litigant, Wi Parata, was attempting to overturn Anglican Church possession of the Whitireia block of land and have it returned to the Ngati Toa. But, says the legend, the Chief Justice ignored the litigant’s pleas, turned down his claim, and in the process declared the Treaty of Waitangi to be a “simple nullity”.
Quoted out of context, the phrase “a simple nullity” has repeatedly been condemned in recent times. It is seen as evidence of  Pakeha legal insensitivity to Maori customary title, as shoving aside the nation’s founding document and as opening the way for even more confiscations of Maori land than had already taken place.
David V.Williams is both a Professor of Law and an ordained Anglican priest, as well as a full supporter of current Waitangi Tribunal processes. He is in no way attempting to return to old insensitivities, but he is concerned with historical accuracy.
In this judicious and carefully-argued book, he shows how most of the popular legend about the Wi Parata case is wrong. Among other things, the oft-quoted judgement wasn’t the work of the Chief Justice, but of the assisting judge, Christopher Richmond. More importantly, the case did not merely involve a Maori litigant and a church trust. Government interests hoped to wrest the disputed block out of church ownership and into government ownership. Had the judgement gone the other way, the Whitireia block would not have returned to Ngati Toa ownership.
Is this, then, merely the study of an obscure case of law?
Not at all.
The more he considers the details, the more Williams is able to show how wrongly the modern imagination has judged issues of  Maori land ownership and the law in the 19th century. With plenty of supporting evidence, he offers the view that, in terms of 19th century law, the “simple nullity” judgement was the correct one. The Treaty of Waitangi did not then have the legal force that it has only recently acquired. As he says in his introduction “aboriginal title as common law and the central role given to the Treaty in New Zealand law is an invention of the 1980s. A good invention – but an invention nevertheless.
These are not the words of a man who wants to turn the clock back, but a man who wants to help us understand how the past really happened.
Double Bravo for that.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "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 five or more years ago. 

“HISTORIES OF THE HANGED” David Anderson (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005)

I’ve got my historian’s hat on in this week’s posting and we’re talking about injustices from the colonial past. So it’s appropriate to recommend a book that appeared six years ago, but still contains material that will come as a shocking surprise to some people.

David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged is not a fun book. It’s a deeply serious and depressing one. Subtitled “Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya” it is a meticulously-documented account of the measures taken by British colonial authorities to suppress the so-called “Mau Mau” uprising in the 1950s.

Popular movies and novels of the 1950s presented the Kikuyu “Mau Mau” as barbaric primitives who spent their time attacking remote farms and massacring white farming families. The reality was quite different. A little over 200 whites (soldiers and civilians) died in the period of uprising, whereas nearly 20,000 Africans were killed by British and colonial troops and police.

To make matters worse, it is quite clear that the British tactic was to arm anti-Mau Mau Africans and encourage divide-and-rule civil war. The inevitable result was massacre and counter-massacre between different African factions.

Then there was the hideous fact that torture was liberally used on suspects by British colonial police. David Anderson gives the details, examines de-classified material from the archives of Britain’s old Colonial Office, and interviews survivors.

None of this makes for pretty or comforting reading. It might even seem perverse of me to recommend this as a book worth hunting out.

So what’s my point?

Basically to affirm that really good and accessible historical studies – like this one and like David Williams’ A Simple Nullity? – are the best possible defence against those myths that anaesthetise us against the reality of the past.

One common myth among English-speaking people is the idea that the British Empire imploded peacefully, in contrast with the violent collapse of the French and Dutch Empires in their prolonged wars in Algeria, Vietnam and Indonesia. Histories of the Hanged reminds us that the British Empire also resorted to dirty tactics when the world wasn’t watching too closely.