Monday, December 16, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE PAPER NAUTILUS” by Mchael Jackson (Otago University Press, $NZ35); “RETURN TO RUGBY LAND” by David Scott (published by Bay Owl Press, Columbo); “PACIFIC – AN OCEAN OF WONDERS” by Philip Hatfield (Bateman Books, $NZ96:99)
I made clear in my posting Oedipus inVarious Guises that I am not a great fan of the work of Jean Cocteau; but in his 1960 film Le Testament d’Orphee Cocteau scores a palpable hit with the best joke he ever devised. A young couple are dancing together, each draped over the other’s shoulder; but changes of camera angle show that each is scribbling away on a pad, making notes on their experience even as it happens. “Intellectuals in love,” remarks a third person. Exactly so. The urge to verbalise and trap with words every experience, and the urge to over-analyse such powerful things as love and loss, are common sins among intellectuals. And they may be part of what irks me in Michael Jackson’s The Paper Nautilus.
As I’ve done occasionally before, I’m going to begin with a conclusion. I enjoyed reading The Paper Nautilus, admired the clarity of [most of] Jackson’s prose, and found more than a few enlivening anecdotes and reminiscences en route. But I also found some of Jackson’s underlying assumptions questionable and, given that a great part of the book is straight autobiography, found muted versions of self-justification throughout… which may, of course, be inevitable in the genre of autobiography. So I have a kind of love-hate relationship with this book – at one and the same time interested by it, finding some ideas provocative, but also irritated. You may conclude that therefore it must a good book because it is thought-provoking, and that might be your own conclusion if you read it.
Born in 1940, so now approaching his 80th year, New Zealand-born, US-resident Michael Jackson, academic, anthropologist, poet, and writer of fiction and non-fiction, is here summing up key events in his life. Subtitled “A Trilogy”, the book is in three parts. Jackson’s declared theme is loss, a fitting theme for a man of his years. In my usual cloth-eared, flat-footed, bibliographic way, I offer you first a summary.
Part One, titled “Theme and Variation” is largely in the genre of essay. One might at first take the theme of loss to refer to the traumatic sense of loss when a loved one dies. This does figure largely in the book; but “loss” also takes in the loss of the past itself, not only in the sense of enfeebled memory that old age brings, but also in the sense that we cannot ever fully recreate or re-live the past. And then there is the past that happened before any of us were born. As Jackson says: “Do we not breathe the same air that our forebears did? Don’t the muted voices of the past echo in the voices we hear today?” (p.16)
There is something a little watery and unfocused in this first section of The Paper Nautilus. Jackson moves from topic to topic and from example to example, sometimes only tenuously connected with one another. So we have a sort of cornucopia – or pot-pourri – of things theoretically related to the topic of memory. The long-ago small-town experiences of his grandfather are displayed. We hear of tribal rituals in Sierra Leone, in which the dead are treated as if they were still alive. We have pages on Iris Wilkinson (“Robin Hyde”) and the loss of her child. A survivor of the Holocaust speaks of those who now live only in memory. But there is also the loss of expectations. For thirteen pages (pp.39-52), Jackson recounts meeting in New Mexico, many years since he last knew him, the once-flamboyant Aaron Friesen, who, in 1950s New Zealand, had cut a dash among the literary figures of the day and was regarded as a potential literary heavyweight. Friesen has become a grumpy, unfulfilled old man, with a patient wife who still believes he is a great writer. But she is deluded. Jackson says that on being asked to find a publisher for some of Friesen’s work, he discovered : “The poems were all in need of revision. Most were so mediocre and maudlin that not even historical curiosity could justify their publication.” (p.49) In itself, this is not an uncommon story. It is often the fate of the “big noise” on campus, or among bohemians, whose spark goes out very quickly once it is discovered that he is all show and really has nothing to say. A lost expectation.
Part Two, entitled “Significant Others” is more fully in the genre of autobiography. Jackson writes in detail about his own bohemian life in Wellington in the early 1960s and how the place strikes him when he visits it many years later. But this segues into the story of his bohemian friend Leon Donnelly, who had the makings of a Classicist, who won a scholarship to Oxford, but who turned his back on it all, basically bumming out in Athens, dabbling in painting, dabbling in [Greek] politics, and finally settling in Rangitikei for an aimless life fuelled by whisky and marijuana. Without its being directly spelled out, this too seems a story of lost potential or lost possibilites.
Jackson moves on to matters more directly concerning his own life story.
For a while he works with the homeless. For a while he works in Africa. He does an MA in psychology but gradually moves into anthropology. But the most important thing is meeting and marrying his first wife Emma. In some ways it is a turbulent marriage. The love is intense, but they wedded in the first place because both had won doctoral scholarships to Cambridge and apparently, for the purposes of accommodation, it was more convenient to be a married couple. They had a daughter and – a little awkwardly and causing some stress – Jackson went with wife and daughter to Sierra Leone to do anthropological research. What takes over this story, however, is Emma’s long suffering of cancer, the various palliatives or cures they sought, and eventually her death. This is the central loss in The Paper Nautilus and, I surmise, the key event that set Jackson writing this book in the first place. Coping with this loss sometimes has Jackson trying to reconstruct the past, reconnect with people who knew his wife, and otherwise defeat the verdict of death. And there is always the fear that he is losing the very memory of his wife.
Part Three, entitled “Constant in the Darkness”, shifts into the genre of fiction. Jackson reworks the stories he has already told in the form of a novella. The justification for writing this third, fictionalised, part comes from an idea of Paul Auster which Jackson summarises with approval: “that every person comprises several selves and that fiction writers flesh out some of these inner personae in their work, as well as events that might have come to pass had they taken a different road in life.” (p.160) So we get what might now be called a “mash-up” of what Jackson has already told us in Part Two. In the fictitious characters of Sam, Harriet and Zoe we have the same motif of a man who has one daughter and whose wife dies. But Jackson draws into the lifeline of these people things that, in real life, happened to others. For example to Sam, in part a fictitious version of Jackson himself, is attributed the story told in Part Two of a man who sold his house when his wife died, but who later wanted to buy it back as it contained so many memories of his wife. There is also a fictitious artist called Max who seems to have attributes of both Leon Donnelly and Aaron Friesen; and there is a woman called Rachel whose field of study is autobiographical memory. Each fictional character combines aspects of a number of real people.
To put it simply, I am not sure that this mash-up really works, or that it adds anything to what we have already been told. It may be argued that the whole book is an exercise in showing how the essential idea of loss can be conveyed in three different genres. But my own instinct says that if Jackson wanted to write a fictitious account of people and ideas that intrigue him, then he should have attempted a novel with more complex and developed characters, rather than this somewhat schematic novella.
Thus for my flat bibliographic account of The Paper Nautilus. But what are my real discontents with it?
First, a prejudice of mine. I am middle-class, but I am not happy in the company of middle-class or academic bohemians. By this I mean people who see themselves as being an exception to the rest of the middle-class, more perceptive than those other middle-class yobs and therefore superior to them. The Paper Nautilus is replete with globe-trotting bohemian bourgeois, even the dishevilled and bum-like ones, who are always capable of coming up with an apt literary quotation in the conversations they have, or who can cite a work of art. And boy, do they loathe the mass of society without noticing what they have in common with others. Take this example - when pondering on his relationship with Leon Donnelly, Jackson muses “Was it simply habit that bound us together? Or a similar loneliness, born of a shared love for the same landscapes but a common estrangement from the settler culture that had imposed itself on the land and never come to terms with it?” (p.142 – emphasis added). When I read this, I felt like shouting “But you’re part of the settler culture yourself, sunshine, and you’re as much involved in imposing yourself on the land as anyone else.”
There are also moments when Jackson mentions something in passing without really analysing it. Speaking of Lansana Suma, at one time an anthropology colleague in Sierra Leone, he notes: “… he railed against the privileges of expatriate whites and their sordid adulteries, and cursed anthropology, which he regarded as the bastard child of slavery, along with colonialism and the extractive economies that were destroying his country’s future.” (p.130) Apparently Lansana Suma moved out of academe and into promoting Islam. Jackson attributes Lansana’s angst to the force history itself. Having only a layman’s idea of what academic anthropology is, I’m in no position to condemn it as “the bastard child of slavery”, but I have often wondered how much it in fact imposes upon other peoples categories devised largely by Europeans. More to the point, I can sympathise with Lansana’s railing against “the privileges of expatriate whites and their sordid adulteries ”, especially when he is up against whites who casually mention sleeping with African prostitutes. But Jackson seems not to see it this way.
In another area of my discontent, I wonder if, in Part Two, Jackson is really showing raw honesty, or theatrical display, when he reproduces letters he exchanged with his wife early in their marriage? They reveal very intimate things and were obviously written, on both sides, in a state of high emotion. Is he honouring his late wife’s memory in sharing with the world a particular letter from Emma? It says “you also know about my nymphomania between that parting [from another lover] and meeting you. I even slept with my best friend’s husband.” (p.100) It might be therapeutic for him to recall and deal with all these things, but it is in no way enlightening for his readers.
Somewhere in the same ballpark, I make it clear that I sympathise with a man who has felt the extremest form of joy when he first met his wife, and who suffered the deepest and most traumatic forms of misery and despair when he wife died after prolonged illness. Any devoted husband would howl with anguish. But Jackson is writing many years after the event, and the style in which he writes is overwrought and theatrical – a dream of passion, an enforced ceremony – as if we are being invited to admire the depth of his feelings.
Of his first meeting with his wife, he writes: “But then I met Emma, and for the first time in my life everything became clear. Emma was my caryatid, the column that held me up, a figure that filled my heart with such love and longing that when we were apart , I felt as though my soul had suffered a partial eclipse.” (p.93)
Of her death from cancer he writes: “Knowing that she was dead and could not be perturbed by anything I did or said, the most dreadful cries of lamentation burst from my throat, cries of agony that would reverberate for years, despite the poetry wrung from my soul like blood from a stone.” (p.147)
“Catyatid”? “Lamentation”? “Reverberate”? THEN, I am sure these reactions were sincere and heartfelt. NOW the language is artificial and self-consciously “literary” and the actor is on stage in full make-up, trying to recreate what he once felt.
Part Three is avowedly fiction, but is nevertheless a reflection on autobiographical events. On the death of his wife Harriet, the fictitious Sam is reported as thinking thus: “Within days he realises that he possesses only fragments and will never be able to compose a meaningful mosaic with them. He agonises over whether he knew her at all, and whether loving someone, living with them from day to day, is a matter of not knowing but of something beyond our conceptual grasp – like the genius of Django Reinhardt with his two paralysed fingers, Bach’s counterpoint, or simply the inertial force of habit.” (p.190 emphasis added). Okay, it is clear that we cannot hold in our memories all there is to remember about somebody we loved. Indeed, the reflection is obvious to the point of banality. It is banally obvious, too, that nobody can know everything there is to know – such as every single thought – even about somebody with whom we live intimately. But to extrapolate from this that “he [never] knew her at all” or that living with and loving somebody “is a matter of not knowing” is a way of avoiding the real situation of (genuine) love and marriage. To use an unfashionable word, faith – and trust – have to come into it. I do not and cannot know everything there is to know about my wife – but I know her, in our everyday life, better than anybody else does or can. We shape each other. We are not asocial, autonomous individuals. Being two autonomous individuals appears to be Jackson’s conception of marriage.
Which very thought brings me back to the “intellectuals in love” tale at the head of this review. To over-think love and loss, to break them down into discrete parts, is to destroy them and give a special place to one’s own feelings. The ego struts.
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Born and raised in New Zealand, David Scott has lived elsewhere for the last fifty years, and is currently resident in Sri Lanka. In 2011, he came back to New Zealand to follow the Rugby World Cup over the eight weeks of September and October. A Sri Lankan newspaper had commissioned him to file stories on each match. That year, the All Blacks won the cup, as they did in the next RWC contest. Return to Rugby Land, which chronicles Scott’s 2011 visit, was first published as an e-book in 2015 and only now appears in (printed) book form.
Any rugby-centred book I receive is likely to provoke me into giving the history of my complete and lifelong non-engagement with the game; but I will refain from doing that here. I already explained my attitude towards rugby in my review, on this blog, of Desmond Wood’s New ZealandRugby Country, back in 2017.
Return to Rugby Land gives accounts of each match in italics, and does indeed have whole sections dealing with the nature of rugby and its impact on New Zealand society. As Desmond Wood did, David Scott takes time to analyse the origins of rugby as an English public school invention, and to de-mythologise the idea that in New Zealand the game first flourished among rugged farmers. In fact, quite early in its New Zealand history, the game was played mainly by townies and urban professionals with middle-class aspirations. Scott also analyses such matters as the significance of the All Blacks’ pre-game haka, and how rugby reflects racial and class attitudes in New Zealand, and what role women have (or have not) played in the game.
Sometimes Return to Rugby Land gives the impression that Scott is walking on an intellectual tightrope. He clearly likes the game itself and is a connoisseur of tactics and skill as displayed by teams and individual rugby-players. There is no national chauvinism in his reports on matches and no “boosting” of the All Blacks. But as a middle-class intellectual, Scott understands there is a thuggish and yahoo aspect to much of rugby fandom; and partly in response to this, there is a snobbish disdain for the game among many middle-class intellectuals. Until very recently, there had been in New Zealand a lack of serious commentary on the game’s cultural impact. Of this, Scott says:
“Is this neglect a reflection of an intellectual disdain for the masses’ culture? Do they think cultural cringe is solved by delving into the uneven output of art and literature while ignoring the great passion for sports?... Is a lady in a Blue Bulls helmet belting out an aria per se more refined than Vivian Richards or Dan Carter in their pomp?” (p.75)
So here is the voice of a man with mixed feelings. I think I can, as a non-rugby-follower, identify with this. In 1981 I joined marches and demos against the New Zealand tour of the Springboks, who still represented an apartheid-ruled South Africa. But my righteousness (or self-righteousness) was accompanied by a twinge of conscience. Wasn’t I in fact also enjoying myself by striking a blow against those yobs and slobs who liked rugby? Would I have protested against a tour by an opera company from a totalitarian state, as opposed to a tour by a rugby team? Snobby old middle-class intellectual me…
Having noted all this, I have to point out that rugby itself is only one part of Return to Rugby Land. The book’s subtitle is “Expatriate Reflections on the Rugby World Cup 2011, Sport, Society and New Zealand” and most of the text is concerned with Scott’s re-engagement with the country he had left so long before. Sometimes this takes the form of harmless travelogue, and descriptions of places Scott grew up in (Oamaru, Blenheim), with mildly nostalgic (or satirical) notes on how things have changed. He looks at Palmerston North more-or-less benignly, knows we are better drivers than Sri Lankans, and observes the poverty of the Far North.
More often, however, Scott is concerned with social, historical and political commentary. His views are very left-wing. He is anti-monarchy (fair enough – I’m with him on that one, though it doesn’t keep me awake at night). He wants to distinguish himself from the milder middle-class left-wing (thus playing another tightrope game) and he describes the New Zealand Listener as “the local journal of what-is-good-for-you” (p.20). Every so often he endorses, or is at odds with, the views of his brother-in-law the historian Jamie Belich.
Some of his historical comments are spot-on. He is right to demolish the idea that New Zealand never had its own equivalent of the old White Australia policy, noting: “New Zealand managed to keep a whites-only immigration policy longer than Australia, masked only by myths of harmonious race relations and letting Pacific islanders in to do unskilled work.” (p.47) His pages on Maori-Pakeha relations are very accusatory of Pakeha colonisation and exploitation of Maori (but then, which serious writer isn’t now?). But he also backs away from the more extreme Maori nationalism that would deny Pakeha true membership of this country (see especially pp.129-137).
At one point, he ventures to tell us that nationalism is actually a nasty capitalist plot, devised to divide the struggling masses. Thinking of how Communist Han Chinese deal with Tibetans and non-Han Muslims; and thinking of the current Hindu Supremacist Baratiya Janata government of India, with its profoundly racist ideology; I am very sceptical of Scott’s claim. Nationalism and racism have been around since before capitalism existed, and (if we are unlucky) could well be around after capitalism has gone. The notion that capitalism is always behind extreme nationalism comes from the days when Communists saw themselves as “internationalists” and thought, naïvely, that the workers of the world would inevitably unite.
While Scott’s interpretations can be interesting and provocative, they often have the glibness of a Marxist undergraduate who hasn’t bothered to revise or critique his views since student days. Apparently what New Zealand needs is an anti-capitalist revolution (see especially pp. 172-177). Ho-hum.
Given that it is based on observations from 2011, and that it was written by 2015, parts of Return to Rugby Land now look a little dated. Scott is shocked at the prices now being asked for baches. Regrettably, we have lived with inflated house-prices for so long now that we are no longer shocked. Contemporary with the time he is reporting is the Rena running aground on the Astrolabe Reef – an event that is now receding into the depths of our memory. When Scott comments on New Zealand’s involvement in overseas wars, he mentions in passing New Zealand’s commitment to an international force in Afghanistan. If he were writing now, he would surely have mentioned Nicky Hager’s book about New Zealand actions in Afghanistan, Hit and Run, and the controversy that has surrounded it. He takes a crack at the notion that “boomers” should be targeted for “intergenerational theft”, saying this is a “diversionary tactic” to make us not see the evil capitalist machinations that have divided us; and that “it fits in neatly with the aspiration to cut back superannuation costs”. (p.214) I wonder what he would think of Green MP Chloe Swarbrick’s recent inane taunt “Okay, boomer” and the kerfuffle that came from it? So I could go on, noting many other instances where this book is not quite of this moment.
Despite everything, though, Return to Rugby Land does say many cogent and perceptive things about New Zealand and is much more than “the book of the tour”. It is written well in a brisk and informed – if highly opinionated - style and worth the reading.
NB The New Zealand retail price of Return to Rugby Land is $NZ24; but the author informs me that it is best to order it at www.pererahussein.com. or to get the e-book version at www.lightwoodbooks.com.
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Philip J. Hatfield’s Pacific – An Ocean of Wonders is a very handsome , broad-paged hardback which gives me the same sort of aesthetic delight that I enjoyed when reading John McCrystal’s Singing the Trail. Images are as important as text here, and the images Hatfield has collated are outstanding. My only quibble is with the title. The words “an ocean of wonders” will immediately raise in most readers the expectation that this will be about the greatest ocean’s natural wonders – fish-life, whale-life, bird-life, coral reefs and atolls, the ocean’s vastness, the living things that can be found in the deepest marine trenches, wind patterns and tsunamis; and the lives and customs and art-works of the indigenous peoples who live on the edges of, or on the islands of, the Pacific.
But this is not what Pacific – An Ocean of Wonders is at all about. Refreshingly, it does include those indigenous peoples who lived and live on the continental shores of the Pacific, from the Aleutians to the Pacific shores of North and South America, Australia and Asia. Too many books about the Pacific assume that only islanders surrounded by ocean are to be considered as peoples of the Pacific.. But, after in Part One (“An Ocean of Peoples”) briefly mentioning the ancient settlement of the Pacific by Austronesians and others, this book turns to its real subject, which is the exploration of, and engagement in, the Pacific by Europeans, Americans, Chinese, Japanese and other colonisers.
So Part One tells us about the Chinese entry into the Pacific under the Ming dynasty, then the incursion of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English and others, their rivalries, their hunger for resources, piracy, licensed privateers and so forth.
Part Two (“Empire of Islands”) concerns the age of more systematic exploration by Europeans – the voyages of Laperouse, Bougainville, Cook and others. Then the ongoing mystery (to Europeans) of the forbidden islands of Japan, and Western entry there in the mid-19th century; the age of whaling; the tightening of British imperialism with its Opium Wars with China; Darwin’s voyage and conclusions about evolution; the period when it was sometimes feared that the Pacific had become the “American Lake”, and America took over Hawaii; the practice of “blackbirding”; and the Russo-Japanese War.
Part Three (“Islands in a Globalised World”) simply follows the same sort of historical events into the 20th and 21st centuries – Japan in the 1st and 2nd World Wars; the problem of Taiwan, still claimed by mainland China; nuclear testing in the ocean; and only a very little on indigeous peoples and the lives before the book discusses huge pollution of the ocean, and the rising tides that are threatening some island states.
So this is decidedly not a book devoted to natural “wonders” but to recent history and very much to a Western perspective. Taken as such, its text and images make a wonderful art gallery, which, for me, made reading it (and looking at its illustrations) an exercise in wool-gathering. Those wonderful Japanese prints (reproduced on pp.21-23), made in about 1803, of a Japanese whale hunt. All those fantastical maps and charts, drawn by early European explorers, which were based as much on guess and wishful thinking as on observation. The rarely-seen landscapes of Hawaii that William Wade Ellis made from his voyage with Captain Cook. And more than I will list.
Target audience? The browser. And perhaps those looking for a good present.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“EMPIRE OF ILLUSION” by Chris Hedges (first published 2009); “REVUE DES DEUX MONDES” (issue of December 2016 / January 2017); “LETTRE OUVERTE AUX FUTURS ILLETTRES” by Paul Guth (first published 1980).
I was going through a fund-raising book-sale at the local high school when my eye was caught by the subtitle of Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion, and I snapped the book up. The subtitle read The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. “At last”, I thought, “a book that points out how much public discourse has been corrupted and cheapened by the dominance of television and the internet.” I looked forward to a book detailing how news has been reduced to soundbites and staged events; political debate has become wholly personalised and trivialised; anything higher than purely functional literacy has declined in all developed countries; and there is a rage, even among supposed intellectuals, to ridicule, cheapen or scoff at canonical classics for their lack of cultural relevance.
That would have been my kind of book.
But actually, that was not what Hedges’ book delivered, much as I did end up agreeing with some of the points Hedges made. Hedges is, among other things, an ordained Presbyterian Minister, but he is also very much on the radical left – or at least that part of the radical left that can maintain itself in the comfort of academe.
Basically, Empire of Illusion is a diatribe against the corporatisation of America, the use of the mass media as a distraction rather than a force for education and enlightenment, and the loss of real democracy. America, in Hedges’ view, is a culture in deep decline. Reading his book, I was aware that it was written a decade ago, some of its topical references are already a little faded, and the presidency Hedges sometimes takes on, for colluding with big corporations, is the Obama presidency. In his final pages Hedges suggests that America is ripe for a fascism-tinged demagogue who will feed dreams to the disempowered American working-class, once they realise how badly they have been ripped off. My guess is that if he were writing this book now, Hedges would have much to say about Donald Trump.
In his first chapter, Hedges looks at the (then) popularity of the World Wrestling Federation. For working class males, the WWF is a marker of their frustration – they are, Hedges theorises, invited to get vicarious revenge on the possessing classes by means of the (staged and faked) rivalries of the wrestlers. From this, Hedges segues rather uneasily into the decline of real literacy in America. A linguistic analysis of speeches by successive US presidents shows that the age-level required to understand presidential oratory has declined steeply over the last 150 years. So those frustrated and disempowered working class men no longer have the linguistic abilities or conceptual skills to understand what disempowers them – and their leaders increasingly speak to them in baby-talk.
In his second chapter (necessarily a revolting one to read), Hedges looks at the massive American pornography industry, which has become increasingly based on male fantasies of violence directed against women. Pornography was always built on male dreams of dominance, but what is now “mainstream” is sadism and dehumanisation. In this, Hedges reads alienation and a perversion of the search for love. (And perhaps also reveals that he was writing before such phenomena as the #Me Too movement.)
Most cogent to the theme of literacy is the third chapter, in which Hedges speaks of the corporatisation of American universities. All of them – and perhaps especially the prestigious Ivy League ones (Harvard, Yale, Princeton etc.) – are now the recipients of huge grants from corporations. Result? The universities dance to the corporations’ tune. Business studies are privileged and the humanities (literature, languages, history) are squeezed out. In most leading American universities now, fewer than 8% of students opt for humanities. Those who take business studies are trained to be good corporation people and not to question the existing economic system.
Saddest chapter in some ways is the fourth one, called “The Illusion of Happiness” in which Hedges considers the “positive psychology” movement, whereby underpaid workers are persuaded that they are part of a “team” and are “associates” of their employers. In the absence of labour unions, this cult provides the illusion of solidarity while trying to keep workers quiescent.
Hedges rounds off with a very generalised chapter on the nationalist illusion which seeks to persuade Americans that their country is a great power when its infrastructure is crumbling, it is deeply in debt and its economy is increasingly dependent on unpayable loans. It is here that he predicts the rise of demagogues before he finishes with an unconvincing peroration on the essential decency of human nature.
Given that the book is subtitled The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, I am surprised at two major omissions from Hedges’ diatribe.
In his third chapter, when he considers the corporatisation of universities, Hedges takes a brief swipe at the impenetrable goobledegook which now passes for discourse in some humanities departments. This he diagnoses as a code designed to protect a power elite. Yet he nowhere mentions the scourge of postmodernism, which, more than anything else in humanities departments, has reduced intellectual discourse to a sterile linguistic game and has stripped such discourse of any moral content. As Hedges is big on lamenting the lack of morality in public life, it is odd that he has not noted a movement which denies any concepts of right and wrong. I looked carefully, but I am sure that the word “postmodernism” appears nowhere in this text. And I saw no analysis of the weakening of the humanities themselves as students more often took modish courses such a Communication Studies, Film Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies etc rather than the study of canonical literature.
Most howlingly obvious, of course, is Hedges’ failure to mention Hollywood and its propaganda machine. (When I use the term “Hollywood” I mean the whole film-and-TV nexus.) Surely any book which purports to take on “illusion” in America has to take on this major entertainment-and-distraction force. I think there is a political reason for this. On a few occasions, Hedges notes that both Democrat and Republican parties are corporatised, beholden to powerful lobbyists and have lost the essential concept of real public service. But his deepest ire is saved for the Right. It would therefore be deeply embarrassing for him to discuss Hollywood, which essentially votes Democrat and pushes propaganda issues that the Right eschew.
Without any consideration of postmodernism and Hollywood, any book aspiring to chronicle “the end of literacy and the triumph of spectacle” in the USA is severely defective. Empire of Illusion has many interesting and illuminating anecdotes, but does ultimately become a rave disconnected from any theoretical anchor.
After reading this book, I went on line to find reviews of it. They divide evenly between those who accept Hedges’ argument uncritically (the type who give “Five Star” ratings in those thumbnail “reviews” that follow publicity blurbs); and those who point out the severe defects in Hedges’ analysis. Many note Hedges’ tendency to recycle – and quote in detail – the arguments of similar Jeremiads. The more astute decried Hedges for assuming (falsely) that there was once a golden age of liberal discourse in the USA. The reality is that there never was any such thing – and the proportion of the population that read or discussed “seriously” was always about the same size that it now is... but the decline of more-than-functional literacy in what were once the "reading classes" is still a reality.
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So Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion was not quite the book I was looking for. It does not tackle the general loss of more-than-functional literacy. By chance, I found something nearer the mark in two French publications.
Is there a crisis of literacy in the Western world? Many people think so. Never before have more people been functionally literate in the Western world, but the habit of reading and studying in detail, as a matter of course, challenging books or literary classics is dying, regardless of the number of book clubs there are.
In France in January 2017, I bought a copy of the Revue des Deux Mondes to read on a railway journey. The Revue des Deux Mondes, a book-sized monthly magazine, is one of France’s longest-established literary and cultural publications, founded the best part of two hundred years ago (in 1829 to be precise). Its current politics could best be described as centrist – pro-European, pro-Republic, anti-populist, but also wary of the extreme left - although its chief mission is a cultural one, and this involves a long defence of French literary culture. To make a very loose comparison, the type of French people who read the Revue des Deux Mondes (or Le Figaro Litteraire) would be the same sort of literati who would read the Times Lit.Sup. or the New York Review of Books in English-speaking countries. The issue I picked up was devoted to a reassessment of Alexis de Tocqueville, which is very appropriate for this magazine on two counts: first, because de Tocqueville was one of the magazine’s most distinguished contributors in the mid-19th century; and second, because de Tocqueville’s defending democracy, while also providing a reasoned critique of democracy’s flaws, is the general stance that the current Revue des Deux Mondes still maintains.
But what does this have to do with a crisis of literacy? Well my attention was immediately taken by what opened the issue of the Revue des Deux Mondes that I bought. It was a 14-page-long interview with the centrist politician (and former Minister of Education) Francois Bayrou. He begins by saying that he has always been an avid reader and goes on at some length to condemn what he sees as the dumbing-down of current French lycee (high school) education in the humanities. He is appalled that “un gouvernement dit de gauche” (“a so-called leftist government”) has “supprime les humanites classiques en France” (“suppressed the classic humanities in France”). He points to the removal of Latin and Greek from any high-school syllabus, arguing that these studies have been condemned as “elitist”. The reality, he says, is that knowledge of true Classical literature was the backbone of the French literary tradition, a means of learning structure, order, clarity and reason in writing. He points to figures in French literature and politics, in no way reactionaries, who benefitted from, and praised, such a Classical humanities education: Leon Blum, Jean Jaures, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, many humanists etc. He also says that the state high-school he attended as an adolescent took in pupils from all social classes, was in no way elitist, and encouraged in all students the ability to think and write well by having instruction in the Classical humanities.
This may sound like a very specialised (and French) concern where literacy is concerned. But it is part of the current trend - certainly prevalent in New Zealand schools – to turn students away from really demanding books, or books that do not have an immediate “relevance”. Apart from worthy adolescent fare (usually American – The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird etc.), how many schools now never introduce pupils to genuinely canonical works? As a high-school teacher of English for thirty years, I was sometimes able to get senior pupils to study the likes of Great Expectations, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Vanity Fair, Sons and Lovers and Dubliners – but most often I was surrounded by teachers who thought we should always study only shorter and snappier stuff so as not to alienate pupils from reading itself. I myself also often taught the shorter and snappier stuff, but I doubt that this approach ever really encouraged young minds to look for anything more challenging.
The second French text on looming cultural illiteracy, which I bought on an earlier trip to Paris, was Paul Guth’s Lettre ouverte aux futurs illettres (Open Letter to Future Illiterate Ages). I will make it clear at once that this text, published in 1980, takes a more conservative and nationalist view of the looming threat of illiteracy than does Francois Bayrou’s interview in the Revue des Deux Mondes. You might be alarmed that at one point the author quotes with approval a statement by Jean-Marie Le Pen. Nevertheless, the book is not extremist and it makes many good points.
Paul Guth (1910-1997) was a well-known French humourist, columnist, sometime novelist, and frequent recipient of awards from the Academie Francaise who had also been a high-school teacher for many years. His approach is made clear in the book’s blurb: “En les privant de l’etude des classiques, du latin, de l’histoire de France, des ennemis de la liberte s’efforcent de defranciser les jeunes Francais. Par un veritable lavage de cerveau, ils les amputent de la memoire collective, sans laquelle une nation ne peut subsister.” (“By not allowing them to study the classics, Latin, and the history of France, the enemies of freedom force young French people to become less French. By real brain-washing, they cut them off from our collective memory, without which a nation cannot endure.”) As you can see, this complaint has as much to do with national identity as with the loss of literacy itself.
Lettre ouverte aux futurs illettres is organised as a series of ten (long) letters addressed to “Jacques”, a fictitious young student who is idealistic, but alienated from the school system and unsure how worthwhile his studies are anyway. Guth begins by saying he resembles many students he met in his teaching career.
In his ten letters, Guth condemns the current lack of patriotism; the politicisation of teaching and the syllabus; the displacement, in the popular mind, of classic texts by TV shows; and the exclusion of Latin from the syllabus.
Two chapters are longer than the others.
One of these is called “Le Laxi”, which is apparently a French term for excessive inclusiveness, whereby any old tripe is held up by teachers as if it were a text worthy of study, as opposed to canonical literature. In this chapter Guth says basically what part of the Francois Bayrou interview says – that very left-wing leaders like Leon Blum in the 1930s were also certain that canonical literature was essential.
The other longest chapter condemns the newly prescribed teaching of French history, which removes all colour from history and makes it a series of dull and loaded sociological statements. What Guth is arguing for here is a return to “narrative” history, which is far more memorable to young minds and which provides a solid chronological basis on which to build further, more scholarly, studies in history.
Having read my summary, you are probably now ready to condemn the late Paul Guth as a reactionary nationalist, out of touch with modern pedagogy. But my own conclusion would be that he is more aware of what really interests students than many who think they have found better ways to teach literature and history.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
ON THE END OF “NEW ZEALAND BOOKS”
Like most of New Zealand’s literary community, I was saddened by the defunding and demise of New Zealand Books. Like many other commentators, I was also puzzled that Creative New Zealand withdrew funding without giving a reason. Was it decided that New Zealand Books had too few subscribers, or did not make some sort of profit? I don’t know. A petition was launched to save it but, at time of writing, it has attracted signatures only in the hundreds. Could this indicate lack of concern for the quarterly? Again I don’t know. I heard both the co-editor Harry Ricketts and the pop-satirist Steve Braunias give, in different interviews on Radio New Zealand, their views on the end of New Zealand Books, but neither was able to explain exactly why it was de-funded. Ricketts also wrote a satirical poem about the de-funding.
I subscribed to New Zealand Books from its very beginning in 1991, so I have read it regularly for all its 28 years and I still have the whole archive in hard copy. Beginning in 1994, I was also an occasional contributor. Checking the publication’s on-line archive, I see that I made 30 contributions over 25 years, so a little more than one a year. Three or four of these were poems, but the rest were the type of detailed book reviews that were the raison d’etre of New Zealand Books. It aspired to be the New Zealand equivalent of the Times Lit.Sup. or the London Review of Books, although it was only in the last few issues that it attempted to rebrand itself as the New Zealand Review of Books.
The long-form review or critique is indispensible for what claims to be a literary culture. Some New Zealand publications are good at publicising books and producing pithy short-form reviews – particularly the New Zealand Listener. But as I know, being a regular contributor to the Listener, the average book review there is only 500 words, unlike the 1500 or 2000 or even (very occasionally) 3000-word reviews in New Zealand Books. Without New Zealand Books, and apart from a handful of academic journals that are read only by other academics, the only place New Zealand’s general readers will now regularly find long-form reviews is in Landfall and its necessary adjunt Landfall-Review-on-Line. And perhaps on the blog you are now reading. A few other platforms (like The Spinoff) occasionally have long-form reviews of books, as does the somewhat eclectic Pantograph Punch, but book-reviewing is not their focus. You will note that all but one of these surviving practioners of long-form reviews are on-line, and not on paper.
New Zealand Books wasn’t perfect. I can’t think of a publication that is. Of course contributors were paid very little – you had to want to write detailed reviews, but you certainly wouldn’t make a living doing so. Once – and once only – I was rapped over the knuckles by the editor for filing a tongue-in-cheek review as my way of expressing contempt for a very bad collection of short stories. And I remember that nearly four years ago, my good friend Iain Sharp wrote a (justifiable) article for The Spinoff entitled “Why are so many New Zealand book reviewers so gutless?”calling out the culture of strained politeness in local reviewing. He was aware that, New Zealand being a small literary community, many reviewers were unwilling to pass forthright judgements on writers who might well be their colleagues or people they would meet in social gatherings. I should have been flattered that Sharp wrote: “The only local blogger I know of who posts book reviews online with any frequency or any attempt at honesty is my revered friend Nicholas Reid … I marvel at his masochism.” Unfortunately this comment aroused a storm of angry on-line comments from people who didn’t like my honest reviews which, perforce, must sometimes be negative ones. One publicist labelled me “ultra-toxic” and others joined in to denounce my wickedness. Writing honest reviews does not always win friends.
However, on the whole Sharp did give a clean bill of health to New Zealand Books for its detailed reviews, carping only that there seemed to be a “preponderance of professors”. Well, yes, there did often seem to be an awful lot of academics on the reviewing roster, such as it was.
For all these garbled comments of mine, the loss of New Zealand Books is still a great blow. It is at least possible that it will be revived some day. I hope so. I will otherwise miss the pleasure of turning real pages to read detailed and informed reviews of New Zealand books, even if I don’t always agree with conclusions reached.
Monday, December 2, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“STRONG WORDS – The Best of the Landfall Essay Competition” Edited by Emma Neale (Otago University Press, $NZ35); “CATCH AND KILL” by Ronan Farrow (Little-Brown / Hachette, $NZ 37:99); “MY PENGUIN YEAR” by Lindsay McCrae (Hodder and Stoughton / Hachette, $NZ34:99)
What is an essay? When we were in the first years of secondary school, an essay was a little narrative of personal experience, in the notorious “What I Did in My Holidays” mould: so basically a first-person story. Call it confessional. Then in the senior years of secondary school, an essay was meant to argue a case like a lawyer, on such topics as “Was King Lear the author of his own misfortunes?”, to be written with a neat introduction, a neat final paragraph drawing a conclusion, and in between these, five or six paragraphs, each making a point, each beginning with a “topic sentence”, and each using evidence, usually in the form of quotations from the text. Call it forensic.
But as soon as we were free of school, and free of undergraduate essays on Eng. Lit., we discovered essays that were neither confessional nor forensic, though some were. Essays could move in many directions, and didn’t have any firm template. Personal experience, sure. Arguing a case, sure. But also reflecting or reconstructing the past; or trying to get a handle on personal relationships; or venting dyspeptic or euphoric feelings; or imagining a possible society; or God wot. Trying to define what an essay is, the best I can come up with is “a, usually short, piece of non-fiction prose, reflecting personal experience, personal convictions or personal interpretations of the world.” Clumsy, but at least comprehensive.
The difficulty of defining an essay is reflected in Emma Neale’s Introduction to Strong Words - The Best of the Landfall Essay Competition. She quotes with approval Virginia Woolf’s statement that whatever it deals with, anything “from the immortality of the soul to the rheumatism in your left shoulder”, an essay “is primarily an expression of personal opinion.” Having quoted this, Neale herself describes the essay form as “protean”.
As judge of the Landfall Essay Competition in 2018, Neale had the unenviable task of reading her way through the 90 essays submitted, and choosing three winners – 1st, 2nd and 3rd place. But she knew that many which were not so awarded were also interesting, intelligent and engaging pieces of work. Hence this anthology, which gives us fully 21 of the essays that were submitted, with the three winning essays as the opening items in the book.
On the very rare occasions when I have been called on to judge writing like this, I know (once the real duds are set aside) that there is a final wrench when winners have to be decided on. There is always that nagging thought that you might have made the wrong decision, or that you are not honouring work which other experienced judges might have considered the best. As I read Strong Words, I found a few essays which I might have given the top spots instead of the three winners, but this is not to denigrate anything in this anthology. In their own very different ways, each essay is engaging in the real sense of the word – involving the reader by getting and holding the reader’s attention.
Of the three winning essays, Alice Miller’s “The Great Ending” is a lively reconstruction of how it felt, at the time, to be in New Zealand at the end of the First World War. Its sense of immediacy strips away later interpretations we may have imposed upon that time. But Susan Wardell’s “Shining Through the Skull” and Sam Keenan’s “Bad Girls” are both in the more confessional mode. Wardell deals with having been misled in the most personal and embarrassing way. Keenan deals with the brutal death of a teenage friend. Both are inevitably led to reflect on the way young women are seen in a defective world.
As I read the other eighteen essays, I found some that had a similar intention to the three winners. Louise Slocombe’s “The Thorndon Esplanade”, for example, essays the same effect as Alice Miller’s “The Great Ending”. It attempts to reconstruct a vanished past – though in Slocombe’s case, the past is part of the Wellington of Katherine Mansfield.
Just as essays are idiosyncratic, so is the reader’s response. I was attracted by some essays here simply because I shared experiences with the authors. Why was I so interested in Bryan Walpert’s “One Eye Open”, his painful account of having Bell’s Palsy? Because it’s an affliction I had never heard of, until I was rushed to hospital two years ago, and found myself lying on a gurney with two doctors standing over me and making preliminary diagnoses. They speculated that I might have Bell’s Palsy, and described it as something that has the apparent symptoms of a stroke, but isn’t one. As it happened, I was suffering from Miller-Fisher Syndrome, which had me on my back in hospital for a month, and then about three months recuperating at home. But at least I’d learnt what Bell’s Palsy was!
Why was I attracted to Jocelyn Prasad’s essay “Uncut Cloth”? Because she has written a charming reflection on saris (or “sarees” as she writes it). Married to a man of Indian parentage, my eldest daughter has adopted the sari as wear for formal occasions, and we have heard many tales like those Prasad tells of the complexities of donning a sari correctly.
Cait Kneller gives a fragmentary, mildly surreal, sketch of (the North Shore Auckland suburb of) Glenfield, which is the suburb in the next valley from where I live; and Kneller apparently went to the same secondary school as my three youngest daughters. And oddly enough Kirstten Ure’s essay “Puriri Moth”, wherein she sees the ephemeral life of the “adult” moth as an image of loss, rang bells for me. I regularly guide tourists around the bird-sanctuary island Tiritiri Matangi and stop to examine a stately puriri tree and discuss the puriri moth’s life-cycle to explain the black blotches that they leave on the trunk.
You see, there are personal as well as literary reasons for being interested in an essay.
The most directly confessional essays in this collection are Toby Buck’s “Aquae Populus” giving a wry view of the habitues of a small community sauna; John Allison’s “The Way it Is”, a sketch about being old; and P.J.Stanley’s very sad “Anatomy of Belief”, about being cut off by her father when she ceased to be a Scientologist. The essay that comes closest to being poetry is Madeleine Child’s “Loess”, with its evocation of the windy heights of Otago as experienced by her father.
There are what amount to polemics in this collection, but none of them are strident. There is nothing that is overtly political, and even versions given of the battle of the sexes are muted.
Those essays that are closest to (good) polemic are by Mikaela Nyman and Jane Blaikie. In “Language Means Belonging” the Swedish-speaking, Finnish-born New Zealander Mikaela Nyman weaves in much personal experience of minority languages, their uniqueness and ultimate untranslatability, before arguing strongly for their conservation, especially in promoting the teaching of Maori. Jane Blaikie’s “Mrs Wakefield Unknown” concerns the caddish, deceitful Edward Gibbon Wakefield and his opportunistic scheme to kidnap and marry a rich young heiress. Much of this story is already familiar to a wide readership, but Blaikie emphasises the fate of the young woman, largely disregarded by history. From this she segues, not too convincingly, into an argument that Wakefield’s name should be expunged from all public places.
In line with the general “linguistic turn” that much philosophy (and poetry) has taken in the last half century, language itself is the essence of two essays: Building on her own experience of suffering, Tracey Slaughter, in “Notes on a Scale of Silence”, elaborates on the idea that language is simply inadequate to convey the sense of pain. She quotes many sources to reinforce her insights here (I am surprised that, among others, she didn’t quote Robert Graves’ “The Cool Web”), though her ending, asserting the need to write about the experience of pain, somehow compromises her premise. And in an odd way Tim Upperton’s “A Lifted Stone” also turns on the matter of language itself. He first plays variations on the unknowability of other creatures; then on the unknowability of other people; and ends up considering the limits of language in connecting with the world. Somewhere in the same ballpark - language and its impact on the world – is Fiona Clark’s “Off By Heart”, on the therapeutic power of poetry.
So here I am once again name-checking just about every item in a collection and being careful not to make glib or dismissive comments. But I do admit misgivings about, and a disconnection from, some selections. Derek Schulz’s “Not a Maori Name” seems to me to examine too minutely (i.e. over-think) the texts he quotes as he considers the meaning of a story, written about New Zealand, by an author (Penelope Fitzgerald) who had never been here. Justine Whitfield’s reflection on the sense of touch, “The Klimt Bubbles” is a bit nebulous and unnecessarily circumlocutious in some of its expression. The essay that first excited me, but ended up baffling me, was Jessica Maclean’s “Strange Harbours”. Articulate and replete with erudite, sophisticated vocabulary, “Strange Harbours” seems to be calling for some sort of radical re-alignment of New Zealand spirituality with a mix of Maori and Christian references and theologies. But it becomes a rant, shooting off in all directions. I tried very hard to find a crowning coherence here, but was foiled.
And the positive conclusion to this essay of my own? The real stunner in Strong Words is Becky Manawatu’s “#Mothersday”. It is so powerful because its memoir of family tragedies is written in a deadpan, sometimes almost ironical style: un-demonstrative and with no self-pity, and therefore convincing us more fully of the traumas being reported.
One little footnote to this brief assessment of varied and interesting essays: For the record, of the 21 essays, 16 are by women and only 5 by men. I won’t complain about gender bias or some such. I’m sure that Emma Neale isn’t the type of judge who would make selections by any such criterion – so this means nothing more than that more women submitted essays. This does, of course, reflect a big cultural turn-around. Once upon a time, anthlologies of essays tended to be all-male affairs. (To check this, I pull off my shelf a copy of W.E.Williams’ Pelican Original A Book of English Essays dating from the 1950s, and find that the 25 authors represented are all blokes.) But the dominance of women writer does seem to have one effect – there’s much quoting of Virginia Woolf in many of these Strong Words.
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Very clumsily I move from a New Zealand book to two books from elsewhere. First, Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill.
You have to wait until over three-quarters of the way through this 400-page book (page 347 to be precise) before you discover what exactly the title Catch and Kill means, although the idea behind it has appeared often enough. “Catch and kill” is a phrase used by the grubbier and more dishonest news outlets. They buy, as an exclusive, a story that has been filed, but do not ever publish it and find ways of gagging the author, who is prevented from publishing elsewhere. Usually this means that the news outlet has been either threatened or bribed by some powerful person to bury the story, because it contains negative things about them.
Ronan Farrow (who, for what it’s worth, is the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen) is the dogged journalist who bit by bit, in 2017, uncovered the whole Harvey Weinstein mess. The powerful Hollywood producer had for decades sexually harrassed, violated and blackmailed women – especially actressses who appeared in the films of his company Miramax. The blackmail meant threats (often carried out) to ruin the women’s careers if they ever reported what he had done, or if they refused his (sometimes violent) advances. Farrow gives all the details relating to the many women who trusted him enough to go on the record and be interviewed. There were dozens of them, and most of them had indeed had their careers destroyed by Weinstein and his confederates.
As a film reviewer for many years before 2004, I remember seeing some actresses (Mira Sorvino, for example) making a big splash in a couple of films, seeming on the verge of a major career, and then suddenly disappearing from the screen. At the time I thought this was just standard Hollywood ruthlessness – it chews ‘em up and spits ‘em out – but now I understand what was really going on for some of them.
And yet while this whole horrible scandal is properly detailed for us, it is not the major focus of Farrow’s book. Farrow is really concerned with how his attempts to get his story published were constantly blocked by the higher executives of the TV network that employed him, NBC. This is not so much a book about Weinstein’s crimes as a book about how Weinstein was able to twist influential people’s arms and keep his sordid affairs unreported.
There was a paper trail of “non-disclosure” agreements whereby aggrieved women could be threatened by the law if they made public what had happened to them. America’s sleaziest publication, the National Enquirer, not only kept “kill” files of stories they had never published, but was complicit in publishing negative stories about many of Weinstein’s victims, the better to damage their credibility. In this they were helped by the Black Cube company of “private investigators” who had been hired by Weinstein and his lawyers, who spied on people, dug up as much dirt as they possibly could on Weinstein’s accusers, and tried to infiltrate Farrow’s investigation.
Farrow was repeatedly prevented from presenting his findings on NBC, so he finally went elsewhere and got the story published in The New Yorker.
Farrow is, of course, on the side of the angels and the detail given here is necessary. Yet I admit I did not like this book as much as I wanted to, for all its worthiness. It is not just the (inevitable) breathless, journalistic style, but it is a matter of its sheer length. Names are named, as they should be in a legal submission, but in such profusion that it is easy to forget which informant, which executive or which lawyer is being referred to at any given time. To be blunt, Catch and Kill would have been punchier, and could have said as much, at half the lengtth.
Just a few closing remarks: Hillary Clinton is mentioned three or four times, usually in a negative context. It is not simply because Harvey Weinstein was a prime donor to her campaign for the presidency, but because she had clearly heard of his repeated crimes long before the story broke, but chose not to distance herself from him.
There is also the obvious, but daunting thought, that the Harvey Weinstein story is neither unique nor new in the history of Hollywood. Once upon a time the “casting couch” was both a joke and standard operational procedure. All that is happening now is that it is being challenged. Look, for example, at the story of Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures in the 1940s and 1950s, and see that Weinstein is no aberration.
Very briefly, Farrow refers to Jeffrey Epstein, who is the current best-known villain in stories of sexual abuse – so much so, in fact, that the Weinstein story is beginning to pass out of the collective consciousness. Sad but true - but don’t worry. Other scandals of sexual abuse will doubtless obliterate thoughts of Jeffrey Epstein, and we will forget the days when the jolly exploits of Prince “Randy Andy” were as much a joke as the “casting couch.”
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I enjoyed Lindsay McCrae’s My Penguin Year more than Catch and Kill, probably because of its subject matter. It’s equally journalistic in style, but written by a man with real enthusiasm and therefore conveying some of the excitement that he himself must have experienced.
As a schoolboy in the north of England, says Lindsay McCrae, he was fascinated by wildlife and was a compulsive photographer of animals. Over many months he photographed the lives and habits of badgers, and submitted some of his work to producers of wildlife documentaries. He was readily accepted as an emerging talent. So, avoiding university and formal tertiary education, he went straight from school to a position with the BBC’s wildlife department. He gradually became a skilled cameraman.
He was addicted to David Attenborough’s Planet Earth series and, he says, as soon as he saw emperor penguins in a sequence of one of Attenborough’s documentaries, he knew that he wanted to see them for himself. His dream job turned up. He was commissioned to stay in the Antarctic for eleven months, observing and filming emperor penguins to record their entire life cycle. One problem – he had just married and his wife was pregnant; so there was a wrench in parting; but off he went to a German base in the Antarctic, where he shared his eleven months with German colleagues, he himself being kitted out with German equipment.
One major strain of My Penguin Year has to do with the difficulties of shooting the desired footage. Before the emperor penguins came back from their months at sea, McCrae had to wait through weeks of endless, and often sleepless, Antarctic daylight. The penguins marched onto the ice in late March, in the Antarctic autumn. Extreme temperatures had effects on even the most advanced cameras; weather (such as long autumn and winter storms) made much filming impossible. There are two months (62 days) when the sun is always beneath the horizon, and sometimes there is complete darkness although, as this book’s many illustrations show, interesting shots can be recorded in the bright moonlight. McCrae wanted to create intimate images of the emperor penguins’ lives, but there was the difficulty of getting at close quarters with them. He tells stories of his perilous climb down from the ice shelf, where his base was, to the sheet of sea ice, where penguins gathered and mated.
In the midst of this tale, there are the family moments. His son was born when most of his mission was completed. McCrae tried to be in daily contact with his wife and son, and he recorded for his son his readings of all the Beatrix Potter stories.
But in the end, the most engaging element of this book is his interaction with the emperor penguins themselves, and his verbal record of their life cycle.
It begins with courtship rituals when the males and females come ashore.
Even before the females are impregnated, the males practise how to incubate eggs by holding balls of ice on their feet and under their feathery bellies. McCrae found it difficult to film the most intimate detail – the actual laying of the eggs. Transferring the eggs from female to male is a delicate process. If the male is too slow in getting the egg safely to the top of his feet, the egg could quickly be frozen on the ice.
As soon as the transfer is done, the females head out to sea to fish and live for some months, fattening themselves up while the males exclusively do the incubation of the eggs. They brood for about 64 days during the winter months. Even in good weather, the temperature is usually minus 40 degrees Celsius. For mutual warmth, there is the well-organised and tight tribal huddle of the males until the chicks break out of their eggs. By the time the plump and now well-fed females return, the males, having not fed for two months, are emaciated and near starvation, and now it is their turn to go out to sea and fatten up.
Not too surprisingly, McCrae finds that emperor penguins suffer a high infant mortality rate. He tells many sad tales of observing eggs mishandled in the transfer from female to male, or prematurely cracked open, or frozen on the ice. Some penguins are trapped in a deep gully where, as a last resort, they have to abandon their chicks before they themselves freeze to death. Nature is prodigal, the mass production of offspring is the obvious strategy to ensure the survival of a species, and such deaths are to be expected. Still, for the individual, nature is cruel.
There are no frills to the style of My Penguin Year. It is good journalism, an easy read, informative, and well illustrated, as well as having the human factor. Can’t ask more of it really.