Monday, September 24, 2012

Something New

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

“ELEMENTAL – Central Otago Poems” by Brian Turner (Godwit – Random House $NZ39:99)
“FROM MANOA TO A PONSONBY GARDEN’ by Albert Wendt (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99)
“NOTES ON THE MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM” by Hugh Major (Papawai Press, $NZ 29:99)

            Two books of poetry and one book of philosophical reflection make up this week’s Something New.

            Not all of Brian Turner’s Elemental is new. Divided into four sections according to the elements – Earth, Fire, Water, Air – Elemental comprises about 100 poems which Turner has selected from his writings over the last forty years. All the poems concern Central Otago, the poet’s heartland. This handsome hardback book (complete with ribbon bookmark) presents the poems together with Gilbert van Reenen’s colour photographs of rivers, tussock, mountains, clouds, snow, sheep, hawks, huts, country cemeteries and those tawny, tawny Central Otago hills. In other words, all those things the poems describe – although not the human animal. Save for one distant shot of a man by a river, the only human being to appear in any of the photographs is the shot of Brian Turner himself that follows Turner’s Foreword. In effect, the photographs direct us to the idea that this is an uninhabited land.

            Is it wise to print descriptive poems alongside photographs like this? I’m not sure. In one sense, the photographs are so striking that they hog our attention and detract from the impact of the poems. Part of our imaginative work is done for us.

            But they are beautiful photographs.
            I drag myself away from them and read the text.

            Turner’s Foreword is an affirmation of his identification with the Otago country and an expression of conservationist concerns.

            His poems are Central Otago. There is concern for the land. The land is compared with pieces of classical music. Laconic farmers are unsure about this arty writing stuff, but respect a man who chops his own wood. Sometimes Turner is nostalgic for childhood in the same country that he now looks at with adult eyes. Signs of human habitation seem to signal the feebleness and superficiality of the human grasp on the land. At first I found myself comparing Turner’s poem Abandoned Homestead with James K.Baxter’s similarly-themed Otago poem The Fallen House. But whereas Baxter’s poem becomes a reflection on the implacability of Time, Turner’s is starker with its closing image of dusk and “the mountains turning black”.

            Turner is at his best with the direct, unadorned observation, and with the pithy aphorism, as in the four lines of his Deserts, For Instance, which go:

The loveliest places of all
are those that look as if
there’s nothing there
to those still learning to look.

            More awkward (or perhaps less well-digested) are the instances of overt philosophising, such as the closing lines of West Over the Maniototo. In poetry as in prose it is better to show than to tell (and it is better to tell than to preach). I do wonder, too, if the rhyming jingle Matakanui was written in a spirit of parody (of old newspaper verse?).

            I remind myself, however, that if there are some stumbles, there are plenty of soars.

            Take the gem What the Wind Knows :

I don’t know
  what the wind
knows of me

  but I would
love to know
  what the wind

   that I don’t

            Bravo to that.

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

            In many respects Albert Wendt’s From Manoa to a Ponsonby Garden is very different from Brian Turner’s Elemental. This is not an anthology of forty years. work, but a new collection divided, logically enough, into two sections. The first, Manoa, is a loose gathering of poems dealing with Pacific and other locations. The second, A Ponsonby Garden, taking up about two thirds of the volume, is a sequence of 40 numbered poems tracing the seasons and changes and family life near and in a Ponsonby garden in Auckland.

            Yet Turner and Wendt have more in common than might at first appear. They are both, after all, intensely interested in the impact of place and landscape on the human psyche.

            The Manoa section opens with a reflection on a mountain in Hawaii, wondering about its “incendiary genealogy” and comparing it with other mountains in the Pacific (including Taranaki)  as they affect human beings. Wendt hits his stride in the poem Mauli, which in effect defines the life force as a series of tastes and sense impressions; and is a copious outpouring of memorable details – a great poem to rant out loud. Would it be pretentious to call this a distant descendant of Baudelaire’s Correspondances, with its system of correlating sense impressions with mental states? Wendt keeps it up with a poem on the scents and shape of a woman. The style is declarative, confessional and free-form, with lines spreading prolixly across the page.

            This can, however, clunk into the ethos of a loose blog. The poem With Hone in Las Vegas irritated me. It may end rather piously with a piece of Pasifika mysticism about the undervalued rights of Nevada’s tangata whenua. But until that point it is really a piece of rationalised tourism. (So what are Albert and Hone doing in Las Vegas in the first place if not to be wide-eyed tourists, for all the predictable criticisms of that eminently avoidable place?).

            I like the evocativeness of the first part of this volume – the sights, sounds and smells that Wendt gets us to suck up – but I miss the controlling form to go with the attitudinising.

            For this reason I found the second section A Ponsonby Garden agreeably astringent. Here Wendt has worked hard at form. The 40 numbered poems are really sonnet-approximates. At any rate, most of them have about 14 lines. This forces a certain focus and precision upon the statements they make as Wendt charts the seasons and changes in this one Auckland location, beginning with the “summer Sunday” that “moves in slow motion”.

            There are the hunts and attempted bird-killings of Manoa the pet cat. And watching football on TV. And jubilation at Obama’s election. And bodily pain, especially after an operation on the knee. And memories of Hawaii. And laments for people who have just died (Terry Sturm, Alistair Campbell etc.). And the horror of hearing about, and trying to memorialise properly, a lethal tsunami in the Pacific. And the wife’s getting a hip replacement. And awareness of ageing as young people begin solicitously to call you “dear”. And lots of joys and celebrations too, in cooking and meals and flowers and watching an adult son grow.

            These poems certainly have focus and are engaging. The weak side is that the poorer ones can simply become unpoetic observation or even journalism (the poem on death of Martyn Sanderson reads like a few sentences from a prose obit.).
            There is still real life here, however, and a vibrancy that is sometimes missing in Brian Turner’s sparse Otago landscapes.

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

            Hugh Major’s Notes on the Mysterium Tremendum is a book of philosophical and idealistic reflection, illustrated with the author’s own art works.

            It has a number of essential themes, one of the most important of which is expressed in the introduction:

            “Our knowledge of the world is far exceeded by our ignorance of it, and this is what creates the very human need to dream, wonder and speculate. The closer we look at ourselves and our interconnection with the natural world, the more amazement and joy can be extracted from it.” (Pg. 3)

            Hugh Major wants to encourage that sense of amazement and joy, but finds some obtuse enemies standing in his path. Not the least is the stubborn human ego, which separates itself from the totality of reality and hence reduces everything else to mere physical objects:

            “The ubiquitous mindset…. takes physical objects as the only permanent reality, nature as a stockpile of resources and other people as separate  entities further divided by nationality, culture and creed. The individual still reigns supreme and material acquisitions are still the gauge of value…” (Pg.12)

            The delusions of the ego are encouraged by those secular rationalists who refuse to see anything beyond the purely material and who do not admit that their rationality itself depends upon an act of faith:

            “Secular rationalists who proclaim that scientific method relies on facts and not faith need to consider that their theories are formulated with the faith and confidence that they will eventually be proved correct. The evidence may not be found in their lifetimes, and in the case of nuclear physics, may never be observable, so their belief is founded on faith rather than empirical proof.” (Pg.23)

            At one point, Major asks whether the world is an illusion (the completely solipsistic view) and suggests that if we had certainty about everything there would be no fruitful mystery. He posits two contrasting world views – the materialist view, which leads to a sense of disconnectedness from the universe; and the sense of oneness with something greater than oneself. Although Plato is not invoked often, the outlook is essentially Platonic, which is why I began this review by using the word “idealistic” in its strictly correct sense. What can be seen physically is not the totality of reality, but the particularity of an underlying structure.

            Major’s approach leads him to attack empirical “naïve reality”, to note that creative imagination is in fact part of the scientific enterprise, and to suggest that the observer is always an actor in what is observed. He notes the impact of quantum mechanics:

            “As science is a study focused on the observable world, a branch of that knowledge which challenges the role of the observer has been hard to incorporate, shifting the explanatory basis of science from empirical facts to consciousness. It has been hard to incorporate a theory that has turned common sense upside down, denying the existence of a physical world separate from our observation of it.” (Pg.55)

            If I were (rather unfairly) to attempt to put Hugh Major’s thoughts into a nutshell, they would run thus: We should be more aware that the ego is deceptive; that we are intrinsically part of something much greater than ourselves; that that something is both interconnected and infused with consciousness. In other words, we should be aware that that the universe has mind.

            Notes on the Mysterium Tremendum is not a book of random jottings, but has been carefully organized into sections reflecting different aspects of Major’s core ideas. These include sections on the intricacy of animals, on the power of words and of art and on the mystery of death.

            For all its organization, I found it easier to take in the individual observations rather than the connecting thesis, or to follow the way one thing leads the author to another. Consideration of the minute delicacy of organs in the human body leads him to reflect on bees and then on cats and then on our relationship with other animals, including the wonderful tale of Kalihari bushmen being able to live in “truce” with lions so that they did not encroach on each other’s hunting grounds as they seek the same prey.

            When he considers the great mystery of death, he recounts a near-death experience he had when he nearly drowned as a boy.

            Naturally, there are dangers in this sort of book – the possibility that it could descend into flakiness or New Age dottiness. Kind words for Gnostic conceptions (Pg.60) or for astrology (Pg.62) do worry me. But Major generally keeps an even keel in his investigations, and shows early on how fully aware he is that some of the vocabulary he uses can easily be perverted. He says in his introduction:

             “In an investigation of experience, it is unfortunate that adjectives such as authentic, organic and holistic have become vulnerable to over-use, as buzz-words relating to lifestyle and the new spirituality.” (Pg.2)

            It is a brave thing to set out a personal philosophy in this way but Major succeeds by both his clear verbal imagery and the illustrations that form part of his argument.

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.

        “LE VENTRE DE PARIS” (“THE BELLY OF PARIS”) by Emile Zola (first published 1873)

            In this week’s “Something New” I have, among other things, been looking at the work of poets who are interested in a sense of place and who evoke it by a piling-on of physical detail. It occurs to me that there are some novels in which a sense of specific place is more decisive and central than characterisation, plot and those other things that we tend to make our focus in novels. One such novel is Emile Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris. The title means literally The Belly of Paris – and the novel was finally translated into English under this title only recently. Earlier translations bore the more questionable titles The Fat and the Thin (which relates to a fable of wealth and poverty that one character tells in the novel) and Savage Paris.

            The most interesting thing about the novel is its vivid depiction of Les Halles, old Paris’s central food markets.

            I must say a word about my relationship with Emile Zola (1840-1902). Years ago I read his Therese Raquin, Germinal and La Bete Humaine (which I still think is his most powerful work). But I didn’t begin to read my way systematically through his 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series until about six years ago. I happened then to have a short-term lectureship in History at Otago and I fell into conversation with (as far as I know) New Zealand’s sole academic expert on Zola, resident at that university. I tried to convert her to the One True Church of Balzac, but she talked up Zola so I decided to give him a proper trial. I determined to do it the hard way by reading Les Rougon-Macquart in sequence and in the original French. Tackling them at the rate of about two a year, I’m still only halfway through the series.

            With my usual crude judgemental-ism, I’ll jump in and give an opinion on Zola. No matter how detailed his social documentation may be, his social philosophy is bunkum. A determinist and essentially a pessimist, he has a mechanistic view of human beings as little more than instincts and social conditioning. This is implicit in the whole theory of Naturalism. His parade of psychotics, alcoholics, thugs, whores, ineffectual dreamers and political schemers makes no room for altruism (it’s hard to find that quality in many of his characters) and little room for real intellect. Though he may have been a supporter of the democratic French republic, he comes close to saying that the mass of its human material is ordure. (The novels were written during the Third French Republic but are all set earlier, in dictatorial Napoleon III’s non-democratic Second Empire – however, the point still stands). Zola is a zoologist looking down on maimed human animals. His strident anti-clericalism is tiresome propaganda, his plots are often resolved by wild melodrama, the psychology of his characters is crude and his most consistent tone is sustained contempt.

            And yet – damn and blast the fellow – he is very readable. Indeed far more readable than many more self-consciously ‘literary’ novelists. Wincing at his simplifications, I still find myself reading his works with interest, dragged along by his crowded plots and his detailed physical descriptions and his sense of specific time and place, until the mood is sated and I wait another six months before taking up another in the series. I also salute a man who had such energy as a writer and who was producing some of his most mature works when he was still in his thirties.

            Le Ventre de Paris is the third of Les Rougon-Macquart and is far from the best or best-known. (La Curee, L’Assommoir, Nana, Germinal and La Bete Humaine tend to be the ones that are most often singled out for praise, or are turned into movies.)

            Though it is crowded with incidental characters, its plot is simplicity itself. Florent is a political dissident – a republican opponent of Napoleon III - who has managed to escape from Devil’s Island and return illegally to Paris. The artist Claude Lantier (more-or-less the novel’s only sympathetic character) looks after him and directs him to the charcuterie (grill) run by Florent’s half-brother Quenu and Quenu’s very petite bourgeoise wife Lisa. The two of them offer Florent a share of their inheritance and try to coax him into becoming part of the business. Florent, however, has no desire to join the bourgeoisie and takes a job as an inspector of fresh fish in the markets, Les Halles.

            Not a very muscular sort of chap, Florent gets teased mercilessly by some of Les Halles’ rougher traders -   the young fish-seller called “la Normande”, the nosey woman Mademoiselle Saget and others. Zola follows his typical Naturalist method by telling us exactly what the trade of each is and what it entails. One element of the plot has Florent idealistically offering basic tuition to a young illiterate guttersnipe. Another concerns the roving foundlings Marjolin and Cadine who know all the secret passages and by-ways and hidey-holes of Les Halles. 

            But alone in his room at night, Florent still dreams of revolutionary glory and writes of his sufferings at the hands of the regime. Zola defines his plans for revolution dismissively as “cette conception a la fois enfantine et scientifique” (“this idea at once childish and scientific”). Florent joins a republican discussion group conducted in a bistro. Here loud-mouthed plotters, who seem to be mainly hot air, draw up elaborate and unrealisable plans to curse the emperor, overthrow the government, etc. etc.

            Florent’s life falls apart, however, when rumours of his revolutionism start circulating around Les Halles. His sister-in-law Lisa is shocked to discover red revolutionary banners and brassards in Florent’s room. Concerned for her comfortable lower-middle-class life, and not wishing to be condemned by association with a dissident, Lisa persuades herself that she is doing the right thing by going to the police prefect and informing on Florent and his revolutionary group. The silly woman is shocked to discover (even if we aren’t) that the imperial police have been following Florent’s every move since he returned to France. They already have a thick file of denunciations of him, written by all Lisa’s neighbours and supposed friends. In the typical Zola universe – so much for neighbourly solidarity!

            In the upshot Florent and about twenty others (some innocent of any politics) are put on trial as the government claims to have discovered a huge conspiracy. Florent is once again transported. But, as Zola tells it, after a brief uproar Les Halles goes back to its “fat” smug life. There is no proletarian nobility here. There is no lower-middle-class nobility. The sympathetic Claude Lantier feels a wave of disgust. The final words of the novel are his angry cry “Quels gredins que les honnetes gens!”, which could be fairly translated as “What bastards law-abiding people are!

            As read by Zola, Les Halles is a massive symbol of the flourishing lower-middle-class and their proletarian employees who themselves are the “belly” of Paris as they make themselves comfortable and consume without any thought for ideals, betterment of their fellows or social improvement. Zola essentially sees them as the willing material on which dictatorships are built. The attitude they implicitly express is “I am comfortable, so why should I worry about politics and other people’s sufferings?”. And yet, as in Zola’s other overtly political novels, the spirit of the democratic opposition isn’t particularly admirable either. Florent, the chief representative of republicanism, is an impractical dreamer. The subversive people he associates with are poseurs who run away at the first threat. “La Belle Normande”, who seems at one stage likely to join Florent’s opposition to dictatorship, is easily bought off with a married life of material comfort.

            Read in these terms, then, this is another Zolaesque demonstration of the greed, self-interest and depravity of human animals.

            And yet in another sense, this is a complete misrepresentation of Le Ventre de Paris. For the fact is, its feeble wisp of plot (impractical revolutionary comes to Les Halles, observes it, and then is shopped back to deportation) is as much the pretext for long and elaborate descriptions as it is the pretext for social commentary.

            Take the opening chapter. It chronicles Florent’s return to Paris, but most of it is taken up with a presentation of the markets as they wake up before dawn and set up for business selling fruit, vegetables, flowers and meat. When, in a later chapter, we get to the charcuterie, its work and its materials and its sights and sounds are meticulously chronicled – the making of black-pudding, the hissing of pans of fat and lard, the particular cuts of meat that are being prepared. Of course Zola being Zola, he can’t help overlaying this with a certain sordor. To an inquisitive child,  Florent tells the tale of his escape from Devil’s Island at the very time that Quenu is engaged in making black pudding. So the images of blood dripping into a pan are counter-pointed with images of bodies ripped up and savaged by sharks, a shipwrecked man having his guts eaten out by crabs and so forth. Carnivorous man, in Zola’s telling, is at one with nature red in tooth and claw. Once Florent is an inspector of fresh fish in the markets, every fish on display is described for us, as are the methods of sale by auction, the hooks upon which some wares hang, the (pre-refrigeration) methods used to keep food fresh. The wanderings of the two free-ranging ragamuffins Marjolin and Cadine in Les Halles allow descriptions of the architecture of the markets, the hiding places they find, the workers there and the foodstuffs.

            So dominant is physical description in this novel (even more dominant than the description of railways in La Bete Humaine; even more dominant than the descriptions of Paris being ripped up and rebuilt in La Curee) that Zola sometimes emerges as the last thing one would expect him to be – a poet. There is an odd sort of lyricism in the piling on of physical detail and yet more physical detail. It is like a dizzying materialist poem. This is the position Robert Jouanny takes in the introduction to the (French-language) Flammarion edition of the novel (1971) in which he gives a detailed account of Zola’s meticulous research methods and then notes with amusement that most contemporary critics tired of the novel’s sordid descriptiveness. ( The decadent “Satanic Catholic” Barbey d’Aurevilly complained “aujourd’hui on nous donne de la charcuterie, demain ce sera de la vidange” – “today we’re given a grill; tomorrow we’ll get the contents of a night cart”).

            For all the negative things I’ve said about Zola, I give him the benefit of the doubt for this particular novel.

            Forgive me both for my word-processor’s lack of French accents, and for not providing translations (I’ve read this one only in the original), but Zola’s opening judgement on Les Halles sets up his moral perspective:

 “…. elles apparurent comme une machine moderne, hors de toute mesure, quelque machine a vapeur, quelque chaudiere destinee a la digestion d’un people, gigantesque ventre de metal, boulonne, rive, fait de bois, de verre et de fonte, d’une elegance et d’une puissance de moteur mecanique, fonctionnant la, avec la chaleur du chauffage, l’etourdissement, le branle furieux des roues.” (Chapter One).

            Florent’s judgment underlines this perspective:

 “Les Halles geantes, les nourritures debordantes et fortes, avaient hate la crise. Elles lui semblaient la bete saitsfaite et digerant, Paris entripaille, cuvant sa graisse, appuyant sourdement l’Empire. Elles mettaient autour de lui des gorges enormes, des reins monstrueux, des faces rondes, comme de continuels arguments contre sa maigeur de martyr, son visage jaune de mecontent. C’etait le ventre boutiquier, le ventre de l’honnetete moyenne, se ballonnant, heureux, luisant au soleil, trouvant que tout allait pour la mieux, que jamais les gens de moeurs paisibles n’avaient engraisse si bellement.”(Chapter Three)

            I hope some good English translations get the flavour of this.

            Le Ventre de Paris is a novel in which place itself is characterised and arrests our attention far more than plot or the psychological development of characters do. For all the Zolaesque sordor, the profusion of detail is oddly lyrical, even if Zola cannot help being disgusted. It conveys sounds, smells and sights the way a good poem does.

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.


            Two weeks back I made my personal bid for old fart status by taking to task idiots who do not know the difference between “on your part” and “on your behalf”, illiterates who use “impact” as a transitive verb, and cliché-mongers who write “passion” and “passionate about” when they really mean “interest” and “interested in”. As I wrote at the time, over-concern about the niceties of usage is often a sign of having too much time on one’s hands, and can often afflict the elderly or the under-employed. [Look up “Passionate Impacts on Your Behalf” on the index to the right.]

            Yet concern for language is in essence a concern for meaning. If there are no complainants about usage, then the world becomes even more prey than it already is to platitudes, clichés and words without meaning.

            So my complaints continue, but this time about two deadly phrases, one of which is still in full flight, the other of which seems now mercifully moribund.

            I will illustrate both these horrors with personal anecdotes.

            First anecdote. Quite some time back, earning extra income when I was researching and writing a commissioned book, I signed on with an agency as a relief teacher in intermediate and secondary schools. For whatever reason, I found that (though a secondary teacher by training) I was more often required in intermediate schools.

            One day, I was summoned to a South Auckland intermediate school and put in charge of a class of lively (that is of course a euphemism) and predominantly Polynesian 12-year-olds.

            The schedule I was given said they had to spend some time reading a book, and some time writing a story.

            They spent most of their time hallooing (that’s another euphemism), running around the class, the boys giving one another vigorous shoulder-punches and so on.

            I clapped my hands, shouted, and finally managed to get them to sit quietly in a circle on the floor around me.

            I wanted to give them some idea of the importance of reading and writing.

            I read them a story.

            They seemed to enjoy it.

            Then I asked “What are some of the things we will need if we want to grow up and get a good job?

            I was hoping some little girl or boy would say that we need to work hard and that we need to get on well with people, and that of course it’s good to know how to read and write well.

            Instead one little girl, her face innocent as an angel, said earnestly  “You’ve got to follow your dream”.

            I felt like crying.

            I didn’t, of course, because teachers have in-built tear-inhibitors in such circumstances. But it was a near-run thing.

            “Follow your dream”.

            I was devastated that this piece of Hollywood-ese had percolated down to malleable little school-children, who had doubtless been told it in a social studies or values or guidance class, so confidently did the little girl say it as if it were a well-learnt lesson.

            What can we unpack from this dreadful phrase?

            Yes, it is good to have interests and ambitions and some focus about where you are going in life. But the term “dream” suggests that things come easily – that you’ve only got to wish for them and they are your’s. For impressionable kids “dream” also means Hollywood-esque, fashion magazine-ist, gossip column-ian “glamour”. Follow your dream and be a super-model, rock star, sports hero. And, of course, the personal and individual “dream” is a narcissistic thing. My daydreams have nothing to do with how I get on with, relate to, or do good for others. “Follow your dream” is an invitation to separate yourself from the herd and massage your ego.

            Also, for kids who have not worked at acquiring any skills, it’s an invitation to disappointment. Follow your dream, don’t work at acquiring any skills, and see your horizons shrink.

            I know that “follow your dream” is meant to emphasize individuality, and the uniqueness of each person’s tastes and ambitions. But the phrase is used in contexts which really emphasize the uniformity of media-formed tastes.

            It is anti-social. It is profoundly misleading. It morally corrupts children. Could we please ban it?

            Second anecdote, this one of the overheard-in-a-waiting-room variety.

            Within earshot of me, two men are talking. They are discussing their kids. One of them is, I deduce, divorced or separated. He tells the other that he has custody of his son every second weekend. But, he says, it is “quality time”, because he always takes his son on a special outing to the zoo or the amusement park or some such.

            Now I admit I don’t get het up any longer about this particular evasive piece of cant. I think “quality time” has done its dash, is no longer used as commonly as it was a few years ago, and is readily understood to be somewhat dishonest.

            For what it’s worth, however, I will spell out what is wrong with the phrase and why it is dying a well-merited death.

            In all our relationships with people we know (family and children, friends, colleagues etc.) there will be some times when we are more engaged than others. “Special” times when we really discuss a problem with a colleague, really show an interest in the kids’ hobbies, really help a friend get through difficulties. Okay – you could call them “quality time” if you wished.

            But the trouble with the phrase is its suggestions than you can build a real relationship only on those moments of heightened engagement. Ignore your friends, family, children and colleagues nearly all week, don’t be there for the ongoing jostle and interaction of quotidian, routine, non-“special” life, and then make up for it all with a few hours of “quality time”.

            To be an effective parent, you have to be there for the boring stuff too, preferably living in the same house with your offspring, but at least available at most times. You have to know how they talk at dinner time or whenever you see them regularly; who their friends are; what they like doing day-to-day. No – you don’t distrust them and watch them like hawks 24/7. You give them space and time to go off and get out of your way and enjoy not being in your presence. But you are still available and there at need.

            Sorry, I’ve gone all ranty and am beginning to sound like a right-thinking guide to parenting.

            But then (having admittedly never researched its origins) I do suspect the concept of “quality time” was invented so that that dad in the waiting room could feel good about seeing his son for just three or four hours once a fortnight.

            Comments welcome if you wish to disagree.