Monday, February 24, 2014

Something New

 We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
 “CREATURE COMFORTS – NEW ZEALANDERS AND THEIR PETS” by Nancy Swarbrick (Otago University Press, $NZ55); “ECOSANCTUARIES – Communities building a future for New Zealand’s threatened ecologies” by Diane Campbell-Hunt and Colin Campbell-Hunt (Otago University Press, $NZ40)

I have before me two new New Zealand books, both of which concern animals, or at least non-human life in this country, but each of which is quite different in tone and intent from the other. Nancy Swarbrick’s Creature Comforts will probably have the effect of making you purr contentedly and come over all cuddly and protective. Diane and Colin Campbell-Hunt’s Ecosanctuaries will probably make you think long and hard, in a practical way, about the protection of indigenous species. The authors of both books love animals but the books are different as chalk and cheese. Contrast the amiable popular history with the rigorous thesis (or textbook).  In their own very different ways, they are both very revealing.

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The cuddly one first.

I do not hesitate to say that Nancy Swarbrick’s Creature Comforts is both bedside book and coffee-table book. It is bedside book because many of its chapters consist of anecdotes and stories about New Zealand pets, which would perhaps be better consumed one at a time rather than read at a couple of sittings the way I read them. Subtitled “An illustrated history”, it is coffee-table book because a great part of its appeal comes from the many and varied illustrations spread throughout the 240-odd pages of text, before the detailed index and references. However, I’m aware that to call a book a coffee-table book can be somewhat demeaning. Nancy Swarbrick is an historian who has put much solid research into this book, and she is not merely a purveyor of sentimental animal tales. Creature Comforts tells much about the way New Zealanders have related to animals not only in domestic situations but in the workplace, and some of the things it says are surprising.
In her introduction, Swarbrick notes that New Zealand now has a higher rate of pet ownership than comparable countries such as Australia, the USA or the UK. There are 4.4 million people in New Zealand. There are 5 million pets. And yet there is a paradox here, which she also smartly notes and which becomes one of the major themes of her book:
The existence of a thriving pet culture alongside a deeply pragmatic approach to other animals is a paradox that cannot be simply explained. In a further complication, animals that are usually killed and eaten, or targeted as pests, can also be pets.” (p.10)
Witness, much later in the book, the photograph of the little New Zealand boy with his pet possum, or all the details on farm children whose pet calf or lamb will later be unceremoniously trundled off to the freezing works.
Naturally, Swarbrick begins with a chapter on Maori attitudes to animals, both before and after the Pakeha invasion. There was a tradition of Maori keeping kuri dogs, and birds such as the tui, as pets. Long before missionaries arrived in the early nineteenth century, cats and dogs proliferated, having first been left here by sealers and whalers. Both species were liked (and eaten) by Maori. By the mid-nineteenth century, the real kuri dogs were virtually extinct, having interbred with more robust European dogs or having been exterminated as pests by Pakeha farmers. Maori – who had once treated the kuri dog as both pet and delicacy to be eaten – now had a taste for pork rather than kuri flesh and no longer considered kuri as taonga. Swarbrick conveys the absolute delight and surprise (p.23) of Maori at their first sight of horses. She also shows the persistence of the very different attitudes of the two races towards animals in her account of the “Dog Tax Rebellion” of 1898.
When she moves on to early Pakeha settlers in her second chapter, Swarbrick tells us how domesticated and farm animals suffered all the horrors of seasickness on the long voyage out, just as the human beings did. As an alleurophile, I was delighted to hear of the honoured place of cats among pioneer settlers, for their ability to rid homes of mice and of the brazen European rats. But cats’ hunting ability also brought that problem about which Gareth Morgan is now propagandizing. Swarbrick quotes the pioneer Adela Stewart:
One day…. our cat brought in a quail, which I took from it, plucked and myself ate, giving it a bit of mutton in exchange. This became a common practice with succeeding generations of cats.” (p.49)
Perhaps it was no loss for puss to kill an introduced species of bird; but it became a very grave problem once puss became one of the reasons some indigenous birds were threatened with extinction.
It is clear that Pakeha quite soon developed the habit of keeping animals for no other reason than aesthetic delight. Apparently the country’s first “pet shop” opened in Wellington in 1868 – a general store selling goldfish and canaries. It was the fashion for wealthy individuals to keep their own menageries, the most egregious example being Sir George Grey with his collections of wallabies and monkeys and the like on Kawau Island. The Victorian temper was such that it was also commonplace for pet-owners to grieve over dead pets and provide funerals for them (as Queen Victoria had for some beloved dogs). Taxidermists throve on the trade of stuffing deceased animals for display in the home parlour.
Outside the domestic scene, though, there was the phenomenon of lonely men in remote country places seeing their beast as both workmate and companion. (Chapter Three, “Man’s Best Friend”). Dogs and horses were the most likely workmate-companions, walking the roads with “Shiner” Slattery and warming musterers at night, but the cat became the beast that gave the isolated hut a sense of civilization. And made it rat-free. The old paradox creeps in, though. Some of the hardy men who petted Dobbin and Rover and Puss also attended mice-fights and dogfights and cockfights, even though these contests quickly became illegal. And when Thomas Brunner and his Maori companions ran out of food on one long trek, they didn’t hesitate to eat their dog (p.76).
Once the first pioneering period was over, there came what Swarbrick calls (Chapter 4) “The Fancy” – that is, those amateurs who stressed over the breeding and pedigree of poultry and pigeons and cats and dogs, and who entered them into shows and competitions and dog-trials. Catteries and kennel clubs arose. Acutely (p.85), Swarbrick notes the class feeling that was often involved in “the fancy”. Fanciers had the sense that they themselves were a superior and more cultured breed of animal lover.
With the rise of the SPCA (Chapter Five) there were strenuous attempts not only to stamp out cruelty to animals, but also to train children in the appropriate care of animals. The early SPCA attempted to emulate the temperance movement (with its children enrolled in “Bands of Hope”) by getting children enrolled in “Bands of Mercy” inculcating kindness to animals. Of course the connection of children and animals leads into a chapter on New Zealand calf-club days, and agricultural show competitions for pet lambs. Says Swarbrick:
Calling a calf Milkyway or a lamb Roast or a chicken Kentucky was a light-hearted way for children to acknowledge their pets’ probable destiny”. (p.148)
As she moves through the 20th century Swarbrick focuses on animals used in war by the New Zealand army or as “mascots” by businesses, and on police dogs and the controversies they have aroused when they have got out of control (pp.162ff, Chapter Seven); on the control of animals that have become pests, such as dangerous breeds of dog (Chapter Eight); on individual animals that have become “local legends” such as Mackenzie’s dog, Pelorous Jack, Opo, and Hector the cockatoo (Chapter Eight); and finally on anti-vivisection campaigns, and the rise in animals rights.
The materials of this book are so various (and so anecdotal) that they have seduced me into writing this rather scrappy summary in place of a real review.
Time to ‘fess up and tell you the things I really enjoyed in Creature Comforts. Certainly the illustrations, of which I have two favourites. On Page 63 there is the single most terrifying image in the book – a drawing Charles Heaphy did of himself climbing up a sheer cliff by means of a rotting ladder made of rata vines, while his poor dog is being hoisted up on a flimsy flax rope. And on Page 127 there is the affecting photograph of volunteers feeding stray dogs that had been “orphaned” by the Murchison earthquake of 1929. Funny that a non-doggy-person like me should find these images so touching, but there you are. I was also fascinated by Swarbrick’s account of the way the introduction of German Shepherds (“Alsatians”) into New Zealand in the 1920s led to a campaign for them to be banned as a vicious breed. It sounded like the later campaign to have pit bulls banned, although there was good reason for the banning in the latter case.
I was surprised to discover (p.178) that right up to the 1950s, the SPCA itself advised pet owners on how to dispose of unwanted kindles and litters in ways that would now be considered unacceptably cruel (e.g. suffocating them in a sealed biscuit tin). I am unsentimental enough, however, to find very funny the story (pp.55-56) of how an old blind dog, excellent at ratting, accidentally killed and ate its owners’ beloved per guinea pig. And, of course, as an alleurophile, I am delighted to discover that in New Zealand cat ownership far exceeds dog ownership. About half of New Zealand households have a cat, while only about a third have a dog.

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Now we turn to the more earnest book.

Diane Campbell-Hunt and Colin Campbell-Hunt’s Ecosanctuaries has a sad and very touching backstory. In Wellington, the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, which was opened in 1999 (and later renamed “Zealandia”), was the first attempt to create an absolutely pest-free sanctuary for indigenous species on the New Zealand mainlands. It has a sturdy pest-exclusion fence.
By 2005, there were 18 such fenced sanctuaries on the New Zealand mainlands.
In that year the botanist Diane Campbell-Hunt began work on a thesis consisting of case studies of six such sanctuaries. The six were Karori (Wellington), Maungatautari (near Hamilton), Tawharanui (north of Auckland), Rotokare (near New Plymouth), Bushy Park (near Wanganui) and Orokunui (near Dunedin and the only one in the study on the South Island). By close observation and extensive interviews with those who undertook to set up and maintain such ecosanctuaries, Diane Campbell-Hunt wanted to examine the different governance models and how effective they were. How much were the ecosancturies run by government grants or dependent on a landowner’s initiative or maintained by voluntary community effort? Which model appeared to be the most effective? Interestingly, five of the six ecosanctuaries studied were citizen-led projects. (p.55)
Tragically, Diane died in a tramping accident in 2008 before her thesis was completed.
Some years later her husband Colin Campbell-Hunt, a business studies academic, decided to take up and complete his late wife’s work, both as a tribute to Diane and as work worth doing in its own right. Ecosanctuaries incorporates Diane’s original material and the original interview data she undertook before 2008, but with updating of information, organization and supplementary material provided by her husband’s additional research.
Especially in its opening three chapters (collectively called the book’s “prologue”) this can be quite a technical book, complete with graphs and diagrams comparing funding models and reminding us what a very formidable and expensive task it is to set up exclusive sanctuaries, as in the statement that:
Exclusion fencing is an ambitious approach to ecosystem protection and restoration because of the high establishment costs and the need for long term commitment to fence maintenance, repair and eventual replacement. Fenced sanctuaries also require vigilant monitoring to detect pest reinvasions, and the capacity to respond rapidly and effectively when they occur”. (p.51)
After the book’s methodology is established, however, Ecosanctuaries divides into three parts, each of which considers how sustainable some aspect of the ecosanctuary enterprise is. Is the ecology that is being protected capable of being sustained? Is community support sustainable? Are ecosanctuaries sustainable as economic enterprises? (How important are tourists’ and visitors’ contributions?) And how sustainable is the relationship with DOC and government?
I admit that I found much of this dry reading, but not impenetrable. Though the language is formal and thesis-like, it is jargon-free. It is also enlivened by the forthright comments of Diane’s (and Colin’s) interview subjects, especially in the sections that follow the “prologue”.
It is a good and conscientious book most likely to be used as a “handbook” for those interested in flora and fauna conservation.

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 five or more years ago. 

“CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY” by W.Somerset Maugham (first published 1939)

            As you may already know from this blog, the historian in me likes sometimes to read yesterday’s bestsellers, not because they have any particular literary worth, but because they reveal how people once liked to be entertained and, by extension, what their values were. By its very nature, the defunct bestseller once appealed to a very large audience. Often it tells us more about what that large audience thought than the enduring classic from the same era does. [For examples of this blog’s excursions into defunct bestsellers, look up on the index John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, George du Maurier’s Trilby and Stephen McKenna’s Sonia.]
            For much of his long and prolific life W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was a most respectable bestseller. He was particularly the bestseller among middlebrows with pretensions, who mistook him for an intellectual. His acerbic attitude towards the relations of the sexes could be very witty (more in his plays, like The Letter and The Constant Wife, than in his novels) and was taken to be daring in a “man of the world” sort of way  – although his strong strain of misogyny now looks rather different when we are aware of Maugham’s homosexuality.
            I’d be an ungrateful swine if I didn’t admit to enjoying a lot of Maugham’s anecdote-ish short stories, some of which are very funny; but I never read any of his novels without a strong sense of disappointment. Yes, there’s all this observation and period detail and interesting information. But in the end, the author’s outlook is a most complacent one and there are frequent tricks to flatter his reading public and not upset them too much.
            I take as my example Christmas Holiday (1939), although I could as well have taken earlier numbers I’ve read like Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence, which operate in the much same way.
Here’s the plot.
Charley Mason, a 23-year-old Englishman from an affluent family, is given money by his father to take a holiday in Paris and sow his wild oats over Christmas.
In Paris on his own for a week, he socializes with his cynical journalist friend Simon, whom he knew at Cambridge. Simon has plans to change the world, and fancies himself as some sort of commissar once England turns Communist. Simon takes Charley to a high-class brothel where he meets the Russian émigrée prostitute Lydia. Charley takes Lydia to midnight mass in a Russian Orthodox church, for the sake of the music.
Lydia tells Charley the story of her life. Her narration (to which Simon sometimes adds details) takes up much of the novel. She married the charming young Frenchman Robert Berger, who turned out to have an unhealthily close relationship with his mother. Incest is suggested. Robert also turned out to be an habitual gambler who fed his habit by being a car-thief. Robert eventually murdered a bookie and was sentenced to imprisonment in a French penal colony in South America.
Lydia tells Charley that she is working in a brothel to consciously degrade herself and somehow to atone for her husband’s sins and for her failure to redeem her husband, even though she no longer believes in God.
She still loves her husband.
But in a tete-a-tete with Charley, Simon says that Lydia is actually working as a prostitute to raise money to pay criminals help her husband to escape.
Which version is true?
It is left ambiguous.
Despite Lydia’s profession, Charley never once sleeps with her, although he shares her room for some days. And then, having heard all her story, he travels back to the bosom of his family in England.
Maugham wants us to believe that, in meeting these louche characters in a milieu totally different from his English middle-class one, Charley has had a major experience, has had his eyes opened to the world, and has been profoundly changed, so that he now sees his old comfortable life as unreal.
The last words of the novel are “…the bottom had fallen out of his world”.
And frankly, I don’t believe it for one moment.
As far as I am concerned, in five minutes after the novel’s ending, Charley will be comfortably smoking his pipe, curling his toes in his slippers before the evening fire, reading another “daring” novel by somebody like W. Somerset Maugham, and rejoicing that he isn’t one of those dreadful foreigners across the Channel. There is no sense that he has really changed in any way. He has simply observed and heard and gone back home.
This novel (published a few months before the Second World War) repeatedly declares itself to be a dated tale for middlebrows who thought they were getting high culture. The first forty pages satirise Charley’s philistine family (well we don’t want to be like them, do we?) without in any way challenging the economic basis of their position, and there is detachable guide-book-level talk on art when Charley and Lydia visit the Louvre, and equally detachable – and Fascist-sounding  - ravings about the Russian Revolution and the masses from the cynical journalist Simon. Then there’s the “daring” stuff. The brothel. The soupcon of incest between Robert Berger and his over-possessive mother. The further soupcon of homosexuality between Robert and the man he murders. The matter-of-fact way in which Charley’s father assumes that Charley will have picked up the clap in Paris and recommends a good doctor.
But nobody changes – we get self-contained gossip (in monotonous, declarative sentences) with absolutely no character development and with Charley’s prejudices intact to the end. This man is not going to change. He has merely had his class’s prejudices confirmed.
That, I suppose, really is the trick of the middlebrow bestseller – give ‘em enough to think they are getting something daring and perhaps sordid; throw is a dash of safe and certifiable culture; but don’t in any way threaten ‘em. Leave ‘em safely with their slippers and pipe.
I have read rather strained comments on this novel, which attempt to interpret it as an allegory of England unprepared for the world war that was about to descend. The naïve Englishman encounters the harsh realities of an angry Europe that is about to explode. More intriguingly, I have found on-line a review of the novel, which Evelyn Waugh wrote when Christmas Holiday first came out. Very generously, Waugh praises Maugham’s craftsmanship and says younger writer could learn much from Maugham’s pared-back prose. But he does call the ending bathetic, and notes that Charley has learnt nothing about the big, wide, alien world that he couldn’t have understood with just a few moments honest reflection.
Quite right, Mr Waugh.
Curious footnote: I do sometimes wonder why old Hollywood, in the days of the Hayes

Code, ever bothered buying the rights to books, which it knew censorship would not allow it to film in anything like their original form. But they kept trying, perhaps because it was still an age in which moviegoers would be drawn by the author’s name on the marquee. Anyway, five years after Christmas Holiday was published, Hollywood filmed it, with Robert Siodmak as director. As a teenager I saw the sombre 1944 movie on TV and I recently renewed my acquaintance with it on Youtube. It looks great – a studio noir with excellent cinematography and all the enticing artifice of lights and shadows. But the script? Oh dear. The story is transferred to the USA and mainly situated in New Orleans. The naïve young man, who listens to the prostitute’s story, is now a nice young army lieutenant. The prostitute is turned into a chaste “bar hostess” who sings. She’s played by Deanna Durbin, whose studio was trying to move her out of musicals and into more mature roles. Anyway, she gets to sing twice and she remains pure and good and the tragic victim of her husband’s badness. The ne’er-do-well husband is played by the young Gene Kelly. Yes, he’s charming, but not in the cunning way the novel suggests. Frankly, Kelly looks far too wholesome and callow to be the novel’s murderer. Of course any suggestions of incest and homosexuality have gone (well, Gale Sondergard as the mother is rather possessive) and there’s an ending to spell out the morals that crime doesn’t pay and that redemption is possible. Little to do with the novel in short. But in an odd sort of way, and given Hollywood’s conventions at the time, I didn’t think it was too bad. The doomed romantic tone is potent. For what it’s worth, Deanna Durbin later said it was the only real film she had been in, which goes to show how tired she must have been with being the winsome singing teenager.
Apparently it was a reasonable box-office success. I do wonder, however, how many punters saw the title Christmas Holiday and the names Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly on the posters and thought they were in for a cheerful song-and-dance fest. Oh dear again.

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.


            Leo hates me.
            When he was very small I let him come into the house, because I thought it was cute that he should present himself fearlessly at the back door and just march in.
But he quickly became a nuisance, hiding in the children’s toy boxes and refusing to get out of them when coaxed. Stealing Artemis’s food while she stood back, with a puzzled expression on her face, wondering what was going on. Begging for attention and then scratching me when I stroked him. So, to drive him away, I was deliberately cruel to him. I chased him around the living room, shouting and flicking a tea towel at him and stamping my feet until he was as scared as he could be and started mewing piteously. I then opened the back door and let him shoot out, under the fence and back to the next-door neighbour’s place where he belonged.
Now he hates me and he has never dared to saunter back into our house.
That was my intention.
Leo is now fully-grown and quite mature. He’s lived next door for over a decade. It took the neighbours a long time to get him neutered, and for some years we could hear him going about his ginger-tabby-tomcat business at night in quite an aggressive manner. Now he lacks cojones and is getting old, he spends more time sitting passively in the sun, watching the world with the inbuilt cynicism of a creature who thinks he’s a little lion and the Lord of Creation. I have noticed, however, that he can still be aggressive to our Artemis, should he meet her at the fence-line. But he hardly ever comes onto our property now, which is also the way I want it.
Seeing Leo sometimes causes me to be mildly sadistic. Our en-suite loo is on the second storey, looking right over the fence and onto the neighbour’s back doorstep where Leo frequently sits. Should I see him dozing there when I have occasion to be in the loo, I sometimes do a very convincing and loud tomcat growl and meouw, and have the pleasure of watching him pricking up his ears and looking around in alarm to see if some rival for his territory is in view.
We had our Artemis spayed when she was a kitten, and as far as I know she has never had any mating instincts. Occasionally we hear a scuffle and a screeching catfight when unknown young males wander through the property and get the wrong idea about her. I go outside and shoo the other cat way. Artemis then dashes inside in panic, body-fur and tail-fur puffed up, and watches anxiously out the window until she is sure that the intruding monster has gone. Then, being a cat and knowing that her servant has given her no more than her due, she yawns and curls up and goes to sleep without so much as a ‘thank you’.
Artemis is a nondescript old tabby, a mongrel-moggy now getting rather fat and picky about her food. In the evening we give her real chopped-up meat, to which she has no objection. But we’ve started buying fancy little tins of cat-food for her breakfast, because she began to turn up her nose at the biscuits she used to eat at dawn. Indeed she would every so often regurgitate the biscuits onto the kitchen floor to show her displeasure. Then, for variety’s sake, she would sometimes sniff her own regurgitation and eat it again.
She is a cat.
I am trying not to anthropomorphise too much, but it is very hard when you have a familiar pet. Being a cat, Artemis would, I know, readily desert us if she were made a better offer of free accommodation and free food. Being a cat, she probably sees me as little more than a source of food and a source of warmth whenever, at night, she wants to commandeer my lap as I sit in the armchair in my study and attempt to read a book. A real nuisance she is too, either sitting down on the book and preventing me from reading; or sitting on the arm of the chair and asking me to worship her by tickling her chin and the erogenous zones beneath her ears. Does she have a racial memory of being worshipped as a goddess in Egypt? Whenever Artemis behaves like this, I start wondering about how much she needs the affection and affirmation of another creature. I also wonder how much we have distorted the lives of cats (and other animals) by making them live without others of their kind. If my thoughts go really weird, I imagine I am a de-sexed human being, living without other human beings but in the company of much bigger, more intelligent creatures than me who sometimes feed me.
But I am getting anthropomorphic here, aren’t I? The fact is that a domestic cat is living a social life totally unlike the one for which nature and evolution designed her. And the further fact is that, if Artemis’s intrusion into my reading is too annoying, I simply push her off the armchair and onto the floor.
Still, I imagine Artemis is my companion, really liking me when she butts her head against me and purrs, even if she is just asking for food. As I work at this word-processor in the afternoon, I sometimes hear strange groaning sounds. Then I realize it is just Artemis snoring in one of her favourite hiding places, behind the armchair. At such moments I imagine I am Saint Jerome, this is my cave or cell and she is my lion companion.
And I do think I have some real evidence of her affection.
If it is sunny, one of my favourite reading places is in the back yard, on a bench, under the shade of a tree right next to the fence. It is on the opposite side of the property from the fence behind which Leo lives. As I sit there reading, it is not unusual for Artemis to wander around the corner of the house and then, seeing me, to bound over, perch on the bench next to me, and fall asleep there. I have the impression that she really is choosing my company in the great outdoors.
The bench under the tree brings me to another cat. If Artemis does not appear as I sit there, Ava often does. Ava has almost the same nondescript tabby pelt as Artemis, though a little lighter in colour. Ava is a much leaner and younger beast than Artemis. With the grace of a dancer or young athlete, she will walk across the back yard, look at me without fear, and even come almost within arm’s reach. But she will not let me touch or stroke her. She is so beautiful that I feel privileged to be in her company. Artemis, however, has other ideas. If Artemis spots Ava on her territory there is an angry growling contest, which sometimes escalates into a screeching catfight. Then, out of loyalty to Artemis, I have to shoo Ava away, much as it grieves me to see her lovely form skulking off back to the people who think they own her. They are our next-door neighbours on the opposite side of our property from the owners of Leo.
So here there are three neighbours living next door to one another on the same side of the street. Ava, Artemis and Leo.
Across the road, there lives a lady who does not like cats, as they often poo in her well-maintained garden. Even so, when a cat was recently clipped by a passing car, and crawled under her house to die, she and her husband were sorry for the poor thing and called me over to identify the carcass. For a moment I thought it was Ava, but I was relieved to discover it wasn’t. The cat was totally unknown to any of us, so we never could notify its owners. The following day, as the husband prepared to bury it, I was crude enough in spirit to be almost amused that rigor mortis had frozen it into an angry cat statue.
The incident took me back quite a few years, to when our last cat was skittled and at once killed by a car. He was a placid, neutered ginger tabby called Weasley (after the ginger-headed boy in the “Harry Potter” stories, which our children were reading at the time). The speeding car threw Weasley onto the grass verge, where he was first found, hours later, by our neighbour  - the one with whom Leo now lives. He brought Weasley’s carcass back to us reverently and patted me on the shoulder to console me for my loss. Our youngest children bawled as they all took turns stroking Weasley’s pelt before we held a funeral for him in the front yard, under the tree near the road. I felt like bawling too, but was stupid enough to think I had to set a good example, so I kept a stiff upper lip.
So what do all my anecdotes of cats prove?
Yes, I am an alleurophile, and that can sometimes lead me to remember cats when I can’t remember people. We are friends with our neighbours who own Leo, and we are friends with the people across the road who do not like cats but – oh dear! – I keep forgetting the name of the neighbours who live with Ava, even if we have been living next to them for years. Make of that what you will.
I have kept one pet cat or another for most of my life (always a maximum of one cat at a time, mind). I restrain myself from telling tales of Willy (the first cat my parents let me own); Walter Sox; Mum Cat; the beautiful and brainless long-haired Miranda; Rosy (black-and-white with white paws and a domino mask and the most intelligent cat I have ever owned); ginger Tybalt, who deserted us for an old lady who fed him better; and the much-loved George or “Georgie Bucket” (this being our small children’s corruption of “Georgie Puss-Cat”).
I think I keep sentimentality in check. I know a cat is a cat is a cat, they are ungrateful beasts, and they do not really return our affection. I am fully on the side of my son-in-law when once, having just had a long and fatiguing journey, he shoved a sleeping cat off an available armchair so that he could sit down, much to the horror of the cat’s over-protective owner. I, too, place a cat’s needs much lower than a human being’s needs. For me, one of the attractions of cats is that they do not care for us and give every indication of being quite independent (even if it is the food we give them which keeps them alive). They live the lives we would live if we did not have a single scruple – hunting, sleeping, eating and, if their equipment hasn’t been removed, rutting. I believe dog-owners and dog-lovers are far more prone to see their pets as their companions or equals, because dogs are so much more biddable. (Or servile, as I would prefer to put it.) Over the years, I have made the acquaintance of many dogs and have even come to like some of them. But you would never find a cat doing something as stupid as howling over its owner’s grave. Cats do not have owners. And you would not find many cat-owners foolish enough to imagine that their pet was a substitute child, which is a delusion I have observed in some dog-owners.
Independent and not giving a toss, cats are to be admired for their beauty and their
cheek, and I do not feel I am being sentimental in joining Dr Johnson and Cardinal Richelieu and Christopher Smart and especially Charles Baudelaire in so admiring them. They are nonhuman beasts with whom I am pleased to share the universe.
I end on a topical note. Despite my great love for cats, I can see some merit in Gareth Morgan’s anti-cat campaign in the interests of preserving native fauna and especially native birds. When I was very young, my mother taught a couple of good lessons about animals. One was that, while it was a good thing to swat annoying flies, it was a very bad thing to harm bees, even if they did sting, because bees were useful creatures who made honey. More than once, I can remember my mother carefully ushering out of the house any stray bees which might have flown in. Her other lesson, particularly important for a cat-lover like me, was that cats were to be discouraged from killing birds. Rosy, my most-intelligent-ever cat, would bring her kills to the kitchen door for our approval. If she brought in her mouth a mouse (or, on two occasions, a rat), she was patted and stroked and told she was a good cat, at which reward she would purr loudly. But on those rarer occasions when Rosy was carrying a dead bird, my mother would stamp her foot in exasperation, hiss at the cat and tell me that killing birds was wrong. The problem was, of course, that no such admirable sentiments were going to alter the cat’s predatory nature. That still remains the problem.
I’m at a loss with this one. Gareth Morgan now talks of a campaign to keep cats off “private property”. How can this possibly be done? Am I to be encouraged to prosecute the owners of Ava when (to my delight) she strolls into my back yard? Or will I be prosecuted on the rare occasions when Artemis goes roving? For this to be workable cats, as well as being belled, would have to be kept inside permanently, and I think this would be very cruel to most cats even if I know a few who are already kept all day in city apartments. Personally, I would rather not have a cat than be its jailer.
The campaign needs to be sited down a bit. Prosecution of the owners of cats which enter native reserves, of course. Stronger protection of such native reserves. Compulsory neutering of cats which have already had one litter (but NOT neutering of all cats, which is simply a formula for banning completely all pet cats from the land). But talk of banning cats from “private property”? I think not. This is simply an attempt to enlist knee-jerk sentiment about the sanctity of private property on the side of an otherwise worthwhile campaign.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Something New

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

“CHANGING TIMES – NEW ZEALAND SINCE 1945” by Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow (Auckland University Press, $NZ45)

            I will reverse my usual habit and begin by passing judgment on a book before I get down to analysing it. If you are a casual visitor to this blog, this will save you time, as it is one of my abiding sins to waffle on a bit before I get to the point about some books.
Despite its dull title (“Changing Times?” Times are always changing), Jenny Carlyon’s and Diana Morrow’s survey of the last 70-odd years of New Zealand history, is a comprehensive, sober, detailed, well-researched and accessible book. Its 410 pages of text are followed by 100 pages of bibliography, endnotes and index. It has six sections of varied and interesting archival photographs. The authors’ opinions are balanced and fair and are backed up with statistical details. This is not a work for scholars so much as for the general public, as the frequent use of quotations from newspapers and popular magazines will confirm. Nevertheless, its standards are high and the authors have researched widely and judiciously. I would be happy to put this book in the hands of anybody who wants to know what has been going on in New Zealand in the last six or seven decades.
There now. That is my honest overall impression of this bulky volume, which I dawdled through happily over a couple of weeks. If Auckland University Press wish to quote from the preceding paragraph for publicity purposes, they are most welcome to do so.
 Now for some of those problems which always nag at me when I read general broad-scope histories like this one.
Unless their work is to become mere chronicle, historians have to have some controlling ideas when they set out to examine fifty-plus years in a nation’s life. Often those ideas are teleological – all the past is pressed into the service of explaining why the present is as it is. The past is perceived as being more about its (present) outcomes than about what it meant to people at the time. When it comes to this teleological approach, there are currently two very potent ideas about New Zealand. I would prefer to call them our myths.
Myth Number One: New Zealand before the 1960s was a narrow-minded, conformist, monocultural, puritanical society; an offshore farm for Britain afraid of differences, condescending towards Maori, suspicious of foreign cultures, and fixated on rugby, racing, beer, royal tours and the knitting patterns in the Woman’s Weekly. The government controlled too much and censorship was tight. Read your Sargeson. Read Bill Pearson’s Fretful Sleepers. But then along came the Maori Renaissance, and along came respect for the Treaty, and along came feminism and gay lib and 10 o’clock closing and weekend shopping and an independent nuke-free foreign policy and Polynesian and Asian immigrants and multi-channel TV and the internet and a liberalized market economy free of the old controls. So we’re now a vibrant, open, multicultural, gender-equitable, creative society. Hooray for us.
Myth Number Two: New Zealand used to be an egalitarian society, which believed in a fair go for the ordinary joker and sheila. There was no significant unemployment. The welfare state was accepted across the political spectrum. Education and health were free and there were few major political upsets (apart from that little business about the wharves in 1951). People were happy and felt secure. But along came neo-liberalism with the 4th Labour Government and its Rogernomics and a new sort of greedy, grasping individualism was born. Gone was security. Gone was egalitarianism. Instead, we entered a state of widespread unemployment, a widening gap between the rich and the poor, the failure of any major political party to speak up for working people and a crass materialism. The old consensus was broken, communities were destroyed and society was atomized. Woe for us.
Both myths have evidence to support them. Both can be validated. Put them together and you have the contradictory paradox that history so often is. Mixed causes, mixed results and outcomes that often cancel one another out.
I simplify somewhat, but these are the two myths (“discourses” if you’re in the business of pleasing academics) that dominate current debate about recent New Zealand history and certainly dominate “broad-scope” history books. Look at Jamie Belich’s double-decker history Making Peoples (1996) and Paradise Reforged (2001) and you basically get qualified approval for Myth Number One. Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand (2003) is somewhere in the same ball-park. New Zealand becomes more assertively itself and look how it now glows! (I will not sully this blog by taking Paul Moon’s cherry-picked New Zealand in the Twentieth Century [2011] seriously as a history book.) By contrast, an angry polemic like the left-wing journalist Chris Trotter’s No Left Turn (2007) endorses most vigorously Myth Number Two. [Look it up on this blog’s index].
So where do Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow stand in relation to these two myths? Of course they have to acknowledge both of them, and they do chronicle how divisive the whole neo-liberal “reform” era was. They are drawn to say:
New Zealand has become a more socially divided country with greater extremes of poverty and wealth. As individualism has grown, so too have conflict, division and social and economic inequality.” (p.343)
Even so, this 70-odd-year history is made more in the triumphalist mould of celebrating the way New Zealand society has changed. Chapters 5 to 9 have a largely ra-ra tone as they work through New Zealand’s more independent foreign policy, the growth of outspoken protest and the lessening of censorship, changed sexual morality and the role of women and so on. The technique is more-or-less chronological, but with individual chapters organised around a particular theme.
ALL broad-scope histories that I know become more cautious in their statements the nearer they approach the present time. It is much harder to categorise and generalise about the present than it is about the past. (This should, of course, remind us that most of the generalisations we make about the past are simplifications missing out much nuance.) Wisely, Carlyon and Morrow choose to fade out on a chapter, “A Plaited Rope”, concerning patterns of immigration to New Zealand in recent decades and the huge impact this has had on the country’s ethnic composition. (Auckland is now about 20% Asian – the country as a whole is now 9% Asian). Such a chapter can rely more on hard statistical data than a chapter on political trends would, and is therefore more likely to contain durable statements. They then proceed to a somewhat disappointing coda (“The ‘Earthly Paradise’ Transformed”) which tries to draw conclusions from the whole history they have controlled, but ends lamely with the cliché of quoting Allen Curnow’s line about “Something different, / Something nobody counted on.”
So much for the book’s mythology.
Now for an awkward fact about all broad-scope histories, including Changing Times. Whether your thing is trade unions or patterns of lesbian relationships or architecture or international diplomacy, if you have a good knowledge of some specialized area of history you will always feel that the broad-scope book treats it superficially. Even in 2014, with the growing “No Religion” response in the census, the majority of New Zealanders still declare adherence to some form of religion. Yet Changing Times – in common with most general histories of New Zealand – skips over this one with hardly a mention. There’s a very general statement about the churches on Page 158 with reference to Lloyd Geering’s trial for heresy by the Presbyterian Church. Thereafter references to the churches are made only in relation to whether they did or did not support various secular causes. So much for the inner spiritual life of New Zealanders. Surprisingly, too, the references to literature and the arts are rather cursory. Whenever they are mentioned, it is a quick once-over-lightly which looks as if it has been cribbed from literary textbooks rather than from the authors’ own reading of the literature in question. Even more surprising, we get very little about how the mass media (especially television) changed New Zealanders’ lives. In fine, the authors are very good on politics and “issues” and material facts of life in New Zealand, but are rather shakier on how New Zealanders have thought and created.
Or am I simply, and perhaps over-emphatically, saying that one book cannot be expected to cover everything?
I am amused by the odd slip (Betty Friedan apparently wrote a book called The Feminist Mystique, according to Page 213) and by the odd outbreak of primness (on Page 166, the author’s quote only the bowdlerized version of a provocative statement made by the young Tim Shadbolt). I think there are some paradoxes the authors could have examined more closely – such as the way anti-Vietnam War protests were at once “anti-American”, yet very closely modeled on American protests, showing the pervasiveness of the new dominant culture. I would also challenge some specific statements, such as the remark on Page 110 (in the context of a “nationalist” school of New Zealand architecture) that “The need to emphasise a separate identity diminished as that identity grew increasingly secure”. Really? How secure is New Zealand’s “national” identity even now, when the making of an expensive, derivative and purely Hollywood-esque cycle of fantasy films is regarded as some sort of national achievement?
But what a cur I would be if I did not also salute the author’s shrewdness over a number of matters.
In New Zealand as in America and elsewhere, youth pop culture became… commercialised and conformist in its non-conformity.” (p.156)
“[Bill Sutch] had several le Carre-esque rendezvous with a Russian diplomat in unlikely locations.” (p.181)
Many Maori perceived multiculturalism as a means of sidestepping their special status as tangata whenua under the banner of unified racial diversity.” (p.261)
“[David Lange’s] personal identification with the anti-nuclear cause… helped to ease his government’s monetarist path.” (p.291)
Might I also add that the two women who wrote this book are remarkably even-handed (in Chapter 7) about the way the New Zealand “women’s movement” self-destructed in its split between reformists and radical-lesbian separatists? There is no glossing of the fact that the movement involved as much vituperation and nasty invective as any oppressive phallocentric patriarchal bunch of chauvinists has ever displayed. The authors are also to be commended for pinpointing the 1967 amendment to the Maori Affairs Act as the moment when Maori radicalism really took off.
I have my own myths about New Zealand just as you have yours. I’m old enough to remember most of the decades that this book covers, and of course I see many things in a perspective different from the retrospective one offered in this book. (I still laugh wryly over how the 4th Labour government conned much of the electorate into believing they were merely “corporatising” government-owned enterprises when in fact they were preparing to privatise them and flog them off.) I also experience the common Schadenfreude that history books provide of realizing how moth-eaten and tawdry many passionately-held positions really were.
I quarrel with bits of Changing Times, but it’s still a handy overview, well-documented and worth reading.

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 five or more years ago. 

Notable New Zealand playwright and critic Dean Parker generously agreed to contribute a “Something Old” to this blog, and here it is.

“ THE TOWERS OF TREBIZOND” by Rose Macaulay (first published 1956) Reviewed by DEAN PARKER

I had a request from Nicholas Reid that I might want to supply a guest review for SOMETHING OLD. I said, sure, but never did anything about it and felt a bit guilty. Anyway, over the summer my partner passed me a book she’d picked up from the library and which she’d found hugely entertaining.
This was The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1956 and which seems to be known the world over though not (to my shame) to me. I took it with me as I motored about the Waitaki Valley after Christmas in a party of three, one of whom was a Dot.
Wikipedia says it’s “partly autobiographical”, which make one’s eyes pop since it’s such an outrageous depiction of Brits in the East keeping up appearances.
I also read that a central character Dorothea (Dot) ffoulkes-Corbett is “eccentric”. Again, this is eye-popping stuff; what about the others?
The novel tells of the imperious adventures in Turkey of a group of English travellers, the narrator, the narrator’s Aunt Dot, and their High Church clergyman friend Fr. Chantry-Pigg.
Aunt Dot and Fr Chantry-Pigg are amongst the Turks with a desperate purpose: to convert them to Anglicanism. Aunt Dot’s quest has the added worthy incentive that such a conversion would free Muslim women from bondage and Fr Chantry-Pigg is also on a quest of all things Byzantine, brooding and wrecked byzantine churches; forlorn, lonely and ravished, apostate ghosts.”
The party, on camels, make various odd acquaintances and keep bumping into a Billy Graham Crusade and a BBC Radio folk music recording unit whose batty presences make their own venture to bring Turkey under the spiritual rule of the Archbishop of Canterbury seem perfectly normal.
In a stunning turn of plot, Aunt Dot and Fr Chantry-Pigg slip out of Turkey and disappear behind the Iron Curtain into Armenia and the USSR. The intrepid narrator is left behind to look after Aunt Dot’s camel.
This is the mid-fifties, immediate post-Burgess & Maclean and the popular press has a field day with the disappearance: “They have been seen. Everywhere in Russia they have been seen. In the Caucasus, in Tiflis, in Siberia, in Stalingrad and Moscow, in the Crimea. They have been in cafes with Burgess and Maclean…” (The latter pair are later described as “vexed” that British football teams are being beaten by “the Dynamos”.)
Through all this runs the narrator’s moving tale of being totally in love with a married man whom she eventually and blissfully joins—so briefly.
The style is an absolute joy. Impressions are given of briskness and yet so often and so fabulously great sentences magisterially declare themselves and roll on like a Royal Carriage heading to Westminster, one generalisation and assumption after another until reaching a conclusion that the reader dare not contest.
Every scene is not only described in detail but emphatic views are made of it—and of the oddest assortment of beings. The Hittites are “full of gloom and menace”, Martha & Mary’s Mary is “rather selfish, I thought”.
It’s a joy to read and honestly it is best summed up by its famous (I read again on Wikipedia) opening sentence: “‘Take my camel, dear’, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”