Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Guitar players

Luke Hurley, well known in music circles around the country, and one of my former customers (from the time I ran O C Books) wrote on Facebook that one of his songs, Sound, features in the opening of The Insatiable Moon - which premieres in the middle of next month.

He (no mean guitarist himself, as his Sound video shows) also put some videos on Facebook: this one appealed in particular. Just goes to show that it's possible to play an instrument in more than one way - and it's probably easier on the wrist as well, as you don't have to twist it while playing.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

One last piece from Thomas Lynch

And one final extract from Thomas Lynch's The Undertaking. I could include more, but....the book's got to go back to the library.

I often think about this schizophrenia, how we are drawn to the dead and yet abhor them, how grief places them on pedestals and buries them in graves or burns the evidence, how we love and hate them all at once; how the same dead man is both saint and sonovabitch, how the dead are frightening but our dead are dear. I think funerals and graveyards seek to mend these fences and bridge these gaps - between our fears and fond feelings, between the sickness and the sadness it variously awakens in us, between the weeping and dancing we are driven to at the the news of someone's dying. The man who said that any man's death diminishes me was talking about the knowledge at the corner of every obit that it was not me and some day will be. Thus graveyards are a way of keeping the dead handy but removed, dear but a little distant, gone but not forgotten.

Page 133.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The backstories of baddies

There's been a good deal of concern over the years of the effects of violence in movies, on TV, and more recently, of video games, on young people, particularly young men. I was reminded of this while reading a brief overview of Tom Cruise's Knight and Day, where the 'the trigger-happy hero mows down just about everyone he meets.'

While I agree that the violence itself - the shooting down of random, faceless people is unhealthy - I think that something more is an issue. The issue is that the people who get mowed down aren't important because they don't have real lives, especially real lives beyond the story they're seen in.

When did you last come across an action movie or TV show where a baddie was actually connected to other real people? You might say that's not the point: they're the baddies; they're only there to act as fodder for the hero to dispose of.

But the problem is that young people can easily think the same way about real people in their lives: they're only 'extras' in the young person's life, therefore they don't count, because they don't have meaning beyond that.

I may be oversensitive, but I often think, when seeing a movie in which various bodyguards, security men, innocent bystanders are wiped off the face of the map, or innumerable cars (presumably with real drivers inside them) are blown up or tossed over the sides of cliffs and so on, that each of these people means something to someone else. Even the worst of the baddies has a family. They may not have much connection with their family, but they haven't sprung up out of nothing.

The scriptwriters may give that impression because it suits them not to think about it. What is it actually saying to the young people who watch the movies?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Peter Bregman, iPad and addiction

I've quoted Peter Bregman's articles before - mostly on the Mission Resource blog that I also write. I like his self-deprecating humour, and his good sense. I'm not going to quote him this time, just tell you that you need to read the article entitled, 'Why I returned my iPad'.

Why do I think you need to read it? Because in it he tells us what the value of returning the iPad was as opposed to keeping it. He doesn't say there's anything wrong with the iPad itself, but there was something wrong with

Substitute 'iPad' for any one of a hundred other addictive things, and you get the idea.

By the way, his use of 'boredom' might be questioned, and is questioned by some of those who comment. A better word might be found....

And some of the very negative comments show that there's a need for this way of thinking. They're far more vicious than anything else I've seen on the Harvard Business site

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Working to the script

It's not easy to drag in a comment about a stainless steel drum when you're intending to write about actors and playwrights and the theatre. Though if I go to a different kind of theatre - that is, the one in a hospital where operations are done - I can find a connection: there you'll find dressing drums and stainless steel kidney trays, and yikes! catheter trays. Please don't remind me.

A short while ago I came across an unusual interview with actress Laura Linney. Each question had been posed by an email correspondent to the New York Times.

Someone asked: How does being the daughter of a playwright impact how you approach a stage role, if at all? and Linney responded:

Oh yes, it certainly has influenced the way I read a play, or any script for that matter. I am very aware that playwrights, particularly good ones, have an intention for everything they write. Language and punctuation is used specifically, and most of the time actors can find wonderful clues about character in the rhythm and cadence of the language used.

I tend to approach everything with story first. Every choice I make I hope will feed the story and flesh out the narrative.

It's an interesting response; there are some actors who don't seem to find the original script that important, and substitute words of their own - or worse, there are directors who encourage them to do so.

In their book, Notes on Directing, Hauser and Reich note in their 25th point: Director Lloyd Richards said that if you [the director] continually find yourself itching to make changes in a script, consider whether you should give up directing and take up playwriting.

I've just been reading another book on the theatre - Talking Theatre, by Richard Eyre. It's a series of interviews with about fifty famous playwrights, directors, designers, actors, and others. More than once the comment is made in relation to Samuel Beckett's plays that even the punctuation mattered - if there were three commas at a certain spot in the dialogue, it meant a longer pause needed to be taken. Beckett's writing was so precise the actors could rely on it to work if they followed the instructions to the letter.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

100 Best Books - another list

The Guardian has just published a list of the 100 best books of all time. These were voted on by a group of noted writers from 54 countries. The vote was organised by the Norwegian book clubs. I've read some, heard about a lot of the others, and never heard of a few more. Am I likely to get through the ones I haven't read before I step off this large round ball? Who knows? You'll find a tick beside the ones I have read.

Chinua Achebe, Nigeria, (b. 1930), Things Fall Apart √
Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark, (1805-1875), Fairy Tales and Stories
Jane Austen, England, (1775-1817), Pride and Prejudice √
Honore de Balzac, France, (1799-1850), Old Goriot
Samuel Beckett, Ireland, (1906-1989), Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, √ The Unnamable
Giovanni Boccaccio, Italy, (1313-1375), Decameron
Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina, (1899-1986), Collected Fictions
Emily Bronte, England, (1818-1848), Wuthering Heights √
Albert Camus, France, (1913-1960), The Stranger √
Paul Celan, Romania/France, (1920-1970), Poems.
Louis-Ferdinand Celine, France, (1894-1961), Journey to the End of the Night
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Spain, (1547-1616), Don Quixote
Geoffrey Chaucer, England, (1340-1400), Canterbury Tales
Anton P Chekhov, Russia, (1860-1904), Selected Stories
Joseph Conrad, England,(1857-1924), Nostromo
Dante Alighieri, Italy, (1265-1321), The Divine Comedy √
Charles Dickens, England, (1812-1870), Great Expectations √
Denis Diderot, France, (1713-1784), Jacques the Fatalist and His Master
Alfred Doblin, Germany, (1878-1957), Berlin Alexanderplatz
Fyodor M Dostoyevsky, Russia, (1821-1881), Crime and Punishment √; The Idiot; The Possessed; The Brothers Karamazov √
George Eliot, England, (1819-1880), Middlemarch √
Ralph Ellison, United States, (1914-1994), Invisible Man
Euripides, Greece, (c 480-406 BC), Medea
William Faulkner, United States, (1897-1962), Absalom, Absalom; The Sound and the Fury √
Gustave Flaubert, France, (1821-1880), Madame Bovary; A Sentimental Education
Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain, (1898-1936), Gypsy Ballads
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Colombia, (b. 1928), One Hundred Years of Solitude √; Love in the Time of Cholera
Gilgamesh, Mesopotamia (c 1800 BC).
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany, (1749-1832), Faust
Nikolai Gogol, Russia, (1809-1852), Dead Souls
Gunter Grass, Germany, (b.1927), The Tin Drum
Joao Guimaraes Rosa, Brazil, (1880-1967), The Devil to Pay in the Backlands
Knut Hamsun, Norway, (1859-1952), Hunger.
Ernest Hemingway, United States, (1899-1961), The Old Man and the Sea
Homer, Greece, (c 700 BC), The Iliad and The Odyssey
Henrik Ibsen, Norway (1828-1906), A Doll's House
The Book of Job, Israel. (600-400 BC). √
James Joyce, Ireland, (1882-1941), Ulysses
Franz Kafka, Bohemia, (1883-1924), The Complete Stories; The Trial; The Castle Bohemia
Kalidasa, India, (c. 400), The Recognition of Sakuntala
Yasunari Kawabata, Japan, (1899-1972), The Sound of the Mountain
Nikos Kazantzakis, Greece, (1883-1957), Zorba the Greek √
DH Lawrence, England, (1885-1930), Sons and Lovers √
Halldor K Laxness, Iceland, (1902-1998), Independent People
Giacomo Leopardi, Italy, (1798-1837), Complete Poems
Doris Lessing, England, (b.1919), The Golden Notebook
Astrid Lindgren, Sweden, (1907-2002), Pippi Longstocking
Lu Xun, China, (1881-1936), Diary of a Madman and Other Stories
Mahabharata, India, (c 500 BC).
Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt, (b. 1911), Children of Gebelawi
Thomas Mann, Germany, (1875-1955), Buddenbrook; The Magic Mountain
Herman Melville, United States, (1819-1891), Moby Dick read a good deal of (!)
Michel de Montaigne, France, (1533-1592), Essays.
Elsa Morante, Italy, (1918-1985), History
Toni Morrison, United States, (b. 1931), Beloved
Shikibu Murasaki, Japan, (N/A), The Tale of Genji Genji
Robert Musil, Austria, (1880-1942), The Man Without Qualities
Vladimir Nabokov, Russia/United States, (1899-1977), Lolita
Njaals Saga, Iceland, (c 1300).
George Orwell, England, (1903-1950), 1984 √
Ovid, Italy, (c 43 BC), Metamorphoses
Fernando Pessoa, Portugal, (1888-1935), The Book of Disquiet
Edgar Allan Poe, United States, (1809-1849), The Complete Tales
Marcel Proust, France, (1871-1922), Remembrance of Things Past
Francois Rabelais, France, (1495-1553), Gargantua and Pantagruel
Juan Rulfo, Mexico, (1918-1986), Pedro Paramo
Jalal ad-din Rumi, Afghanistan, (1207-1273), Mathnawi
Salman Rushdie, India/Britain, (b. 1947), Midnight's Children
Sheikh Musharrif ud-din Sadi, Iran, (c 1200-1292), The Orchard
Tayeb Salih, Sudan, (b. 1929), Season of Migration to the North
Jose Saramago, Portugal, (b. 1922), Blindness
William Shakespeare, England, (1564-1616), Hamlet; King Lear; Othello √√√
Sophocles, Greece, (496-406 BC), Oedipus the King
Stendhal, France, (1783-1842), The Red and the Black
Laurence Sterne, Ireland, (1713-1768), The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy
Italo Svevo, Italy, (1861-1928), Confessions of Zeno
Jonathan Swift, Ireland, (1667-1745), Gulliver's Travels
Leo Tolstoy, Russia, (1828-1910), War and Peace; Anna Karenina; The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
Thousand and One Nights, India/Iran/Iraq/Egypt, (700-1500).
Mark Twain, United States, (1835-1910), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Valmiki, India, (c 300 BC), Ramayana
Virgil, Italy, (70-19 BC), The Aeneid
Walt Whitman, United States, (1819-1892), Leaves of Grass
Virginia Woolf, England, (1882-1941), Mrs. Dalloway; To the Lighthouse
Marguerite Yourcenar, France, (1903-1987), Memoirs of Hadrian

Some I've started (War and Peace at least twice) and never completed. Greatest books or not, some of them haven't appealed to me! I think Don Quixote comes into the list of 'started', as does Love in a Time of Cholera, Huckleberry Finn, Gulliver's Travels. I may have finished The Canterbury Tales, but if I did it's so long ago I can't remember.

At least this list doesn't contain any of the latest trendy books - such as tend to turn up in other lists promoted by large bookshops...

Being right/wrong

This seemed interesting:

"The more scientists understand about cognitive functioning, the more it becomes clear that our capacity to make mistakes is utterly inextricable from what makes the human brain so swift, adaptable, and intelligent. Rather than treating errors like the bedbugs of the intellect — an appalling and embarrassing nuisance we try to pretend out of existence — we need to recognize that human fallibility is part and parcel of human brilliance.
Neuroscientists increasingly think that inductive reasoning undergirds virtually all of human cognition. Humans use inductive reasoning to learn language, organize the world into meaningful categories, and grasp the relationship between cause and effect. Thanks to inductive reasoning, we are able to form nearly instantaneous beliefs and take action accordingly. However, Schulz writes, 'The distinctive thing about inductive reasoning is that it generates conclusions that aren't necessarily true. They are, instead, probabilistically true — which means they are possibly false.'
Schulz recommends that we respond to the mistakes (or putative mistakes) of those around us with empathy and generosity and demand that our business and political leaders acknowledge and redress their errors rather than ignoring or denying them. 'Once we recognize that we do not err out of laziness, stupidity, or evil intent, we can liberate ourselves from the impossible burden of trying to be permanently right. We can take seriously the proposition that we could be in error, without deeming ourselves idiotic or unworthy.'"

It comes from Hugh Pickens, and was part of an excerpt in last week's Boston Globe from Kathryn Schulz' book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. The whole article is worth reading....all five pages of it.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Waititi [Taika Waititi, director of the movie, Boy] has been described as “worryingly” multi-talented. “Ha! I’m going to burn out? I think my friends are worried that I’m going to have a meltdown.” He has worried about this himself. “I used to be freaked out about being interested in so many things. I always thought, when I was in my youth, that I’d have to choose one thing and just stick with it and try and be good at that,” he says. “But there are so many creative ideas that come into your head that don’t necessarily suit a painting. They could be a story or a film. They could just be a cake. If you have lots of different mediums at your disposal, ways of expressing yourself – the more the merrier, I think.”

The quote above comes from an article in the NZ Listener, written by Diana Wichtel. The article is entitled 'Our Boy in Hollywood.'

Which reminds me that I haven't mentioned the movie, Boy, in this blog as yet. My wife and I went to see this a few weeks back, and I was pleasantly surprised. Not sure what I was expecting, but I had a note in the back of my mind that some reviewer hadn't been too impressed with it. Foolish reviewer. This is a marvellous movie that manages to be both funny and serious at the same time - often within the same shot.

Futhermore it's wonderfully cast: James Rolleston (he of the completely Pakeha name) plays the Maori boy of the title, a bit of a runt at that awful age (he's around eleven) where girls have suddenly become interesting. Unfortunately he has not a clue as to what to say to the one he's smitten with, and comes out with some adult rubbish that naturally puts her right off. But if Boy is clueless in this area, he's smart in other ways: he runs the household while his grandmother is away at a funeral - apart from his six-year-old brother, there's a girl cousin and a couple of little kids who don't seem to belong to anyone in particular. And when his father turns up after a jail term, Boy, initially under the delusion that his father is as special as he claims, soon discovers that he's no more than a boy himself - a man who's never really grown up in any way apart from physically. Boy tackles this problem with gumption and mana. And manages to get his father to begin to face some of what's wrong with him.

That makes it sound like a serious movie; underneath, it is. On the surface, it's full of delights, has subtle humour (and outrageous humour), and not a few quirky surprises in the storytelling. Equally it has spiritual depth (different to that of The Whale Rider but equally valid, and a moral viewpoint.

Apart from Rolleston, the other joy in this movie is Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu, who plays Boy's younger brother. He gives a performance as honest and alive as any you'll see on the screen this year. No doubt, like many child actors, in part he was just living the role. Nevertheless, not every child actor manages to convey their inner self so readily. Waititi plays the father himself, and is exuberant, foolish, extravagant, outrageous, endearing, violent and pathetic by turns. As annoying as the character is, Waititi still allows us to empathise with some of his difficulties.

The movie is shot through with a wonderful New Zealand feel - it could be nowhere else in the world.

In relation to that, I watched a video of Bridge to Terabithia recently. Who in their right mind thought that a New Zealand school could possibly look like an American one? Yet that's just one of the many peculiarities of this odd movie. The houses the characters live in are American in style, but the countryside around is decidedly New Zealand. The cars drive on the American side of the road, but it's a New Zealand road. The school bus is a cousin to the school bus in Forrest Gump, but it's full of New Zealand children, as is the classroom. A strange movie.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The 39 Steps

I watched Hitchcock's The 39 Steps again a couple of nights ago. It was even better than I remembered, full of typical Hitchcock moments - comedy in the midst of suspense - and beautifully cast.

I watched it in part to check it against the play, The 39 Steps, which the Fortune Theatre here in Dunedin has just presented. Supposedly this stage version uses every bit of dialogue in the movie's script. Perhaps the Wikipedia description is closer to the truth:

The play's concept calls for the entirety of the 1935 adventure film
The 39 Steps to be performed nearly verbatim onstage, but with a cast of four. One actor plays the hero, Richard Hannay, an actress plays the three women whom he has romantic entanglements with, and two other actors play every other character in the show: heroes, villains, men, women, children and even the occasional inanimate object. This often requires lighting fast quick changes and occasionally for them to play multiple characters at once. Thus the film's serious spy story is played mainly for laughs, and the script is full of allusions to (and puns on the titles of) other Alfred Hitchcock films, including Rear Window, Psycho and North by Northwest.

Note the use of the words, 'nearly verbatim.' The movie has more dialogue overall, mainly because there are several crowd scenes. What the play does is take the scenes where there are fewer characters, for the most part, and hang its 'played mainly for laughs' production on this. It also adds occasional lines. Furthermore it takes the lines from the original script and overdoes them to such a degree that every line is milked for any possibility of a laugh. You have to see the thing to understand how this can be done, but, in general, it is done. Furthermore lines are elasticated hugely in order to fill them with all manner of business. The result is a two-hour play extended out from a ninety-minute movie.

It wasn't just the Fortune production that was done like this; this is the norm for all productions - UK, Broadway, wherever.

Now don't get me wrong - for the most part I enjoyed the play, but (there's always a 'but' with me) many of the laughs are the result of a nudge, nudge, wink, wink approach. In other words, the audience is constantly pushed to see the humour, however weak it may be. And by the second act I was beginning to tire of this overdone approach to comedy. Comedy doesn't need to be drummed up; is something is funny the audience will laugh. There was plenty of rapid change stuff that was funny in itself; there were lots of daft ideas that were visually funny, and there were even some subtle moments.

Hitchcock set out to make a comedy thriller - it's typical of the British thrillers, for the most part, made at a time when Hitch was in his prime. And it's a precurser to the likes of North by Northwest, made during Hitch's American period. Hence the movie has Robert Donat (as Richard Hannay) and Madeleine Carroll handcuffed to each other for a chunk of the movie; this creates all manner of humorous moments. And there are several excellent characters who are simply funny in themselves (compared to John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft, who have the most tense scene in the movie, and play it straight). Even Lucie Mannheim, as the spy who appears early in the story, has several charmingly funny lines.

So there was plenty of humour in the story to start with. The stage version is never content with any of this; it dredges humour out of everything, which leaves the piece with no breathing space, and nothing in the way of a suspense.

However, on top of all this, the Fortune theatre production had Patrick Davies as one of the two actors who play nearly every part between them (except the three main women's roles). Davies is a brilliantly physical actor. There's one moment where he does something straight out of the ministry of silly walks - a movement that would cripple most people in two minutes. But as the play goes on, Davies almost seems to take over. His Scots hotelkeeper's wife was a shrill noise, like someone in need of a colon cleanse - the lines were invariably lost under the shrieking. His softly spoken political speaker mouthed absolutely nothing for about two solid minutes - some people, including a couple of my friends, found this hysterically funny. I just wanted him to get on with the play and stop hogging the limelight. And when he's playing the Professor at the end of the play, and is shot, he becomes a marionette, quite unable to lie down and die. I found this embarrassing, to be honest. It unbalanced the play.

All this griping aside, the play had huge energy, the cast likewise, and again and again it showed how it's possible on a stage with almost no scenery, to conjure up all manner of places, rooms and situations. (Incidentally, the Fortune production actually had a cast of six: two women doubled as stage crew and played a few tiny roles. Yet Wikipedia says the cast consists of just four actors.)

Two small, lightweight soccer nations....

I care only marginally more about the soccer World Cup than I do about the rugby World Cup (bring on the Composers' World Cup, I say!), but I have to laugh at this comment from Stuart Dye in the NZ Herald. In his list of eight off-field highlights from the opening week of the World Cup, he includes the following:

The Wall Street Journal's pre-match analysis of the All Whites:

"Does anyone in South Africa really want to go see 22 white, unknown players from a couple of small, lightweight soccer nations on a Tuesday afternoon in Rustenberg - a small town best known for its platinum mine and Sun City casinos? The New Zealand - Slovakia looking like this World Cup's biggest dud."

Slovenia has 4.5 million new fans for its upcoming game against the US.

I haven't been able to trace the origin of this quote, but let's hope the author is eating his hat by now. And just remind me....the USA - a great soccer nation, non?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Life connected to Death

One more quote from Thomas Lynch, in The Undertaking, page 29. I watch my generation labour to give their teenagers and young adults some 'family values' between courses of pizza and maybe Gladstone had it right. I think my father did. They understood that the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; that mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions - only those who do it well and those who don't. And if death is regarded as an embarrassment or an inconvenience, if the dead are regarded as a nuisance from whom we seek a hurried riddance, then life and the living are in for like treatment: McFunerals, McFamilies, McMarriage, McValues.

It's just a shell

There's this 'just a shell' theory of how we ought to relate to dead bodies. You hear a lot of it from young clergy, old family friends, well-intentioned in-laws - folks who are unsettled by the fresh grief of others. You hear it when you bring a mother and a father in for the first sight of their dead daughter, killed in a car wreck or left out to rot by some mannish violence. It is proffered as comfort in the teeth of what is a comfortless situation, consolation to the inconsolable. Right between the inhale and exhale of the bonecracking sob such hurts produce, some frightened and well-meaning ignoramus is bound to give out with, 'It's OK, that's not her, it's just a shell."

I once saw an Episcopalian deacon nearly decked by the swift slap of the mother of a teenager, dead of leukemia, to whom he'd tendered this counsel. 'I'll tell you when it's "just a shell",' the woman said, 'for now and until I tell you otherwise, she's my daughter.'

She was asserting the longstanding right of the living to declare the dead dead. Just as we declare the living alive through baptisms, lovers in love by nuptials, funerals are the way we close the gap between the death that happens and the death that matters. It's how we assign meaning to our little remarkable histories.

Page 23, The Undertaking - life studies in the dismal trade, by Thomas Lynch.


I've been reading a book on death and dying lately, The Undertaking. It's by Thomas Lynch; he's both an undertaker and a poet. The book looks at death in detail, and from a number of intriguing angles. I'm going to copy a few extracts from the book into this blog soon, since not only can Mr Lynch write very stylishly, he has a lot of good things to say about his topic.

Why read about death? Well, as you get older, and find you've outlived more and more people, you know that somewhere along the line, there's more than a distinct possibility that you will join them at some point. So it's useful to think about it a bit more seriously.

When you're young, you think death is so far in the future that it's not worth thinking about, or else that death is an impossibility. It could never happen to me. I suspect that more than a few young suicides think that killing themselves isn't actually a real thing; they'll wake up in the morning and carry on with their lives like they have for the last 16-20 years.

We all think like that, in a way. Unless there are definite and even disturbing signs otherwise, we all climb out of bed in the morning not in the least surprised that we have another day up our sleeves. But lurking in the back of our minds - our 65-year-old minds, anyway - is the knowledge that like it or not, we ain't gonna be here forever. It's scary, strange, uninviting, and hard to grasp. 'Death pulls towards acute dimensions' says Les Murray in one of his poems, by which I take it he means that death sharpens the mind considerably in regard to the things of this world - all that stuff we're so familiar with.

Check out the next post for an extract from Lynch.

Photo courtesy of

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Pickwick Papers

A couple of days ago I finished re-reading Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers. I think I last read it when I was in my late teens or early twenties, so very little of it remained in my head, except the odd and irrelevant stories that Dickens dots throughout the book. They're usually told by some character who has nothing much to do with the rest of the book, and who is invited by the other characters at that point to get on and tell a story. Few of these stories have any tonal connection with the book as a whole, and I can only assume they were put in to fill up space when Dickens was writing the novel in its original serial form.

The book has virtually no plot, and initially is little more than a series of episodes. However, gradually some form of over-arching story takes over, and gives the thing some (minimal) structure. The novel begins with Pickwick, a man on in years, retired from business and very well off, heading off on a adventures just for the sake of writing them up. And initially there's a narrator who gives the pretence of picking up Pickwick's adventures from his notebooks. This idea gets abandoned somewhere along the line.

Pickwick sets out with three younger men - Winkle, Snodgrass and Tupman. These three are virtually indistinguisable from each other, although something is made of Winkle's propensity to fall in love with any woman he meets. But they all suffer from Dickens' inability to make characters out of his young heroes and heroines - the young women in the story are equally indistinguisable, all being beautiful, delightful, charming and so forth, but totally lacking in personality.

But this hardly matters when put beside the people who do come alive in the story. Jingle, the 'villain' of the piece, initially, eventually almost comes to a sticky end; though we don't have great sympathy for him. However, his manservant, Job Trotter, becomes increasingly interesting as the story progresses, and is a reflection of the most vital character in the story: Sam Weller, who, along with his father, has most of the best scenes in the novel. Sam takes a while to arrive, but once he does the book never looks back. The later scenes with him and his father, a man gifted in his ability to mangle the English language almost beyond recognition, are the height of comedy.

Pickwick himself is a bit of an enigma: seen as the 'wise head' in many parts of the story, he's actually a total innocent, a cherub unfamiliar with the ways of the world. Much is made of his rotundity, and is inability to move quickly enough to get himself out of some situations (Sam usually has to hoist him along), but his rotundity is nothing compared to that of the 'Fat Boy' whose obesity causes him to drop off to sleep without blinking an eye - even while knocking continually on a door. Obviously neither of them have read up on the latest diet pill reviews.

The way in which Sam Weller becomes utterly loyal to Pickwick, his master, is almost a foreign thing to us these days. That someone should be employed yet virtually live no life of his own is a concept we barely understand. Job Trotter acts in a similar way to Jingle, with far less reason to do so.

And the other thing which is perhaps foreign - in some measure - is the constant drinking that goes on throughout the book. Pickwick is no late starter in the drinking sessions, but he's regularly accompanied by his three proteges, as well as a host of other men (and sometimes women) in drinking sessions that frequently put them all to sleep. And the two medical students - characters who are among the more unpleasant in the book - are basically alcoholics. Their antics are amusing, yet verge on the frightening.

There are two things that make this book stand out for me. Firstly there's the superb command of language - Dickens was only 24 when he began the book - and secondly, there is the wondrous array of minor characters. This book is loaded to the gunnels with them. Some get no more than a sentence, and yet still come alive. Others have several pages given to them, or are scattered at random moments throughout the book, and retain their individuality in extraordinary measure. Admittedly Dickens had a genius in this regard, but walking into the world of The Pickwick Papers is not like coming into the world of a novice writer. The major skills in which Dickens would be pre-eminent are there fully formed even at this early stage. Furthermore, his descriptive abilities are almost equally fully formed. In later books he uses this aspect of his gift in a much deeper way, so that description is not there just for entertainment but carries metaphor and theme and much more. Nevertheless, if Dickens had never developed beyond this point in terms of his writing style, he would still be regarded as one of the world's great novelists.

On the dark side

In yesterday's Otago Daily Times, James Dignan wrote:

There is a darkness within the Kiwi creative psyche which manifests in Gothic, magic realism and surrealist art. In cinematography, it has been well summarised as the "cinema of unease".

In the pictorial arts, it pervades the work of artists from Siddall and Pankhurst to Smillie and de Soto.

Since he's writing about an art exhibition (Seraphine Pick's) he doesn't follow this point through in the other arts. Nevertheless it's strongly seen in NZ writing, to the point where much NZ writing seems dour and gloomy and miserable. However, while it's true that there's a great deal of NZ writing that's gloomy, it's equally true that there is a good deal that's not. Why don't we hear more about that? Why does NZ literary criticism seem to focus on the dark side?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Writing about music - well or badly

A few weeks back a young composer friend of mine, Ryan Youens, mentioned the strange things music critics say about modern music. It's as if they're trying to be elliptic because there's really nothing real to say about the subject in hand. Here are a few quotes from the article Ryan alluded to:
Chris Watson's about nothing ... really was, as his pieces are, replete with incident, four players charting ingenious textures on either side of an searching cadenza for Lardelli's brilliant guitar.
When I first read that, I thought it meant Chris Watson's piece really was about nothing. It pays not to give your music titles that can be just a tad too ambiguous. Here's another example:
Alex Wolken's the body linguistic may seem a complex, spidery affair on paper, but in performance the four players made it all lucid. Did "plan and place collide", as Wolken's programme note suggested they would? Perhaps, yet the miracle was that, for all the fluttering and swooping, one never felt the lack of a structural anchor.
Now, that could mean anything. It could mean 'I loved the piece', 'I hated the piece', 'I had no idea what it was about and wished I was home stroking the cat in front of a roaring fire', or, 'The piece wended its way into my soul in such a fashion that I was discombobulated for the next 24 hours.'
It wasn't surprising to find these reviews were written by William Dart, in the NZ Herald. I know for a fact that William Dart is an extremely intelligent musicologist - and perhaps performer (I've never come across him in the latter capacity.) He presents a program on Radio NZ Concert every weekend - Sunday nights, if I remember rightly - in which he plays a host of alternative music (not so much 'serious' - closer to 'pop') and again and again regales us with lengthy introductions in which he tells us of the wonders we're about to hear. Again and again I listen in vain for these wonders when the music actually plays. Where he gets all this extraordinary stuff from, I have no idea.
Anyway, somewhat apropos of all that, I received an email out of the blue the other day from a PR company in New York. Ariel Publicity & Cyber PR is a New York-based digital firm that connects artists to blogs, podcasts, Internet radio stations and social media sites. How they do this is by presenting a digital publicity campaign that gets artists prominently featured on blogs, podcasts, and Internet radio worldwide, and supercharges their Facebook, Twitter, and other social media profiles. They work to increase the artists' overall online exposure and lay a virtual cornerstone upon which to build their future success. I'm quoting, as you can tell.
In this instance they were promoting to me (and no doubt hundreds of other bloggers) a couple called Shelley and Cal. You can watch their video of a song called, Maybe, either on MySpace, or You Tube.
How does all this connect to the way I started this post? Well, while the blurb written about Shelley & Cal isn't quite in the William Dart league, it's still, to me, not saying anything much. It follows in the footsteps of so much verbiage about music, particularly Christian rock, which is the scene S&C partly inhabit. Stuff such as:
Every so often we're fortunate enough to be exposed to music that somehow creeps into our hearts and minds, and moves even deeper into our souls and spirits to touch and change.
"MAYBE" ....speaks to the hopes and yearnings of the human heart and the questioning we all go through."
Don't get me wrong, Maybe is easy on the ear and....I don't know what else. I don't hear the words of this kind of music easily; if there's a video I'm more likely to be trying to read the video than listen to the words. (But, as is so often the case with music videos, it's full of random stuff that doesn't really say much.) I'll have to give it another earful and see if I can see what it's really all about. The video is plain confusing - which may be the way videos are meant to be these days!


The use of jargon can be very off-putting for someone who isn't in the know. Sometimes it seems that it's used just to keep people at a distance, those who aren't in the 'club' as it were. Scientists are very strong on jargon, though I suspect it's often because they forget that while they understand the stuff, many people don't. Hence the frequent confusion that arises when scientists present something in a paper and a media person tries to interpret it. 'Research studies show....' pronounces the media person, and proceeds to present an entirely garbled version of what the studies actually did show.

All this by way of a long introduction to seeing a website in which I barely understood what was being offered at all. I came to it via this link 'sell merchant account' and when I checked the page out was greeted with the following piece of in-house jargon: .... pays 30% of ongoing recurring revenue from all sources of income from credit and debit card processing, and Authorize.Net gateway fees, including revenue from chargebacks, returns and monthly fees! This is the most rewarding reseller program available.

I've read this a few times now, and obviously it means something, but for the life of me I'm not sure what. The next paragraph isn't much help: ...has the flexibility to offer both "Interchange-Plus" pricing for your established high margin merchants, and "Two Tier Billing" for your new clients, thereby increasing retention and profitability. Strengthen your relationships with your clients with our outstanding customer support.

Plainly I need to check Wikipedia out to discover what 'chargebacks', 'gateway fees', 'interchange-plus' and the like all mean. Because there's so much jargon in these paragraphs, there's nothing left to allow you to figure out the meaning unaided.

As a child I would skip over words I didn't understand, because frequently you'd get the general drift if you kept reading. Consequently there are still some words that mean nothing to me: pejorative is one particular example. Even though it was explained to me recently, in context, it still hasn't stuck! I'm going to have to make some real effort with it, obviously.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010


This video is actually an advertisement, though it's not obvious - as with so many ads - that it's an ad until near the end.

It has a nice humour to it.

It was made for Gautrain, a modern rapid rail and bus service for Gauteng in South Africa, which opened its doors on June 8. The new service is being promoted with “Wind”, a commercial directed by Keith Rose from Velocity Films. [Thanks to Duncan Macleod for alerting me to it. Duncan has a blog where he focuses on innovative advertising.]

Every three seconds? A little bit of hyperbole?

The world is awash with e-books and their ilk. It's reported that Steve Jobs (not him personally, but him as a kind of entity) is selling an iPad every three seconds. I find that just a little incredible as a stat, but I've been surprised by stats before. Let's see what that actually means in real terms.

There are 86400 seconds in a day. Divided by three, that says that Steve is selling 28,800 iPads a day. Really? In a week, he'll be selling 201,600. In a thirty-day month, he'd be selling, 864,000 of the things, if my calculations are right. That's ten times the number of seconds in a day. An interesting bit of number play.

I suppose that's possible. And I suppose it's possible that Jobs and co can churn out that many from their production line, wherever that is, and that teenagers in need of acne treatment and saga generation people in need of new dentures can both discover the joys and wonders of the iPad idol. (Sorry, did I say 'idol'? Surely not.)

Seth Godin, from whom I got the stat about the three seconds, is obviously a fan of the Kindle, and has written a post suggesting ways in which it might forge ahead of its competitor. And of course the Kobo has just arrived on the NZ market, from Whitcoulls, of all people. (Perhaps the most innovative thing they've got involved with in along time.) Check out their site or check out Whitcoulls ebooks selection. I can't say the prices impress me much; I think I thought they'd be rather cheaper than they are. SuperFreakonomics, for instance, is showing at NZ$29.95. You might as well buy the book.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Children's Musical

Back in the days when I was still thinking acne treatments might be of some value to me, a friend and I began to write a musical. We were still in Secondary School, and we knew no one else who'd written a musical.

It never got past the first half of the first scene, though I remember it did have a song that began, 'It is raining in Siam' and went on to bring New Zealand into it somehow, a name that proved remarkably difficult to rhyme with.

The only thing surviving from that attempt at collaboration is a song called Wishful Thinking, which I wrote both the lyrics and music for (so obviously the collaborative aspect didn't go far). It was written without knowing where it would fit in the musical or who would sing it. In spite of the fact that this song was written way back before I left school and before I knew how to write an accompaniment to it, it has survived in my memory, and I can sing it to this day. Not that anyone wants to hear it.

Some years later - I think it was after I'd conducted a children's 'opera' for a local entrepreneurial young producer (he'd only been out of school himself for a couple of years perhaps) - I hit on the idea of writing a children's opera. In a great burst of creative energy, I wrote both the libretto and music as I went along and completed some twenty minutes or more of the piece.

And that's where things stopped. For more than thirty years. When I first bought the Sibelius music program (sometime early this century) I had another burst of creative energy, and transcribed onto the computer most of the music I'd ever written, including those twenty plus minutes of the children's opera. What's more, I orchestrated it as well. And again things languished.

I kept wanting to complete the thing, and wrote another whole scene, and orchestrated that as well. And then....well you know the story by now. This year, having seen 'children's opera' come up again and again in a my list of projects, I decided to help myself get this thing off the ground.

I asked a friend to act as collaborator on the piece. She's been involved in all the Narnia productions (with one exception, I think) not only as an actor, but has also assisted in the script writing and pre-production work. As well as making props, often from scratch. She has an innate good sense of what works on stage and what doesn't, and more than that, she is very concerned that the structure and the plotting of the thing makes good sense.

I'd gone into this process with the idea that what I'd written would be our starting point and I'd just 'finish things off.' Nope. We've gone back to square one and recreated it from the beginning. There are elements of the original story: much of the opening is still along the same lines except that it's been developed more broadly; only four of the characters remain the same - the rest have either been dropped or altered; new characters have been introduced as well as new approaches to the way the story functions. The entire script has been rewritten, and the idea I had initially of it being a composed-through piece (that is, there's music and singing throughout) has been laid aside in favour of a more accommodating music, singing and dialogue approach. One scene I've just written has no singing in it at all, although there'll be some music underpinning it.

And last night I came very close to finishing the first draft of the script. It was my goal to finish it this weekend, and I will. We've already hammered out changes and re-thinks of many of the earlier scenes, but there's still a good deal of work to be done on refining the script itself. And then comes the music, of course. I wrote some music the other day for the chorus to sing at the beginining of the third act, and I know what I'm going to do for opening music (about a minute's worth before the curtain first goes up) - and I may even be able to salvage or re-use other odd bits. But essentially the thing is a re-write.

I'd hope to get it produced next year. Time will tell. In the meantime, things have made great progress in the last few months.

Photo taken by my wife of me writing music the hard way.

Orwell and the pain of writing.

George Orwell wrote: "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness."

[While ill] he kept working on the book, [then called, The Last Man in Europe] even after in 1947 he was confined to his bed and diagnosed with tuberculosis. He wrote from bed, and by longhand when his typewriter was taken away from him in the hospital. He went through an intense drug treatment in the hopes of curing his TB, which caused him mouth blisters, throat ulcers that made it hard to swallow, rashes, and flaking skin, and his hair and nails fell out. He was losing weight, had fevers, and his right arm had to be put in a cast, but he kept writing with his left. Under pressure from his publisher, he finally finished the book by the end of the year, and had to retype the messy manuscript himself.

He decided to change the title — from The Last Man in Europe to Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was published in June of 1949. It was a huge success — the critics loved it, and it sold well. But his health got even worse, and by September he was back in the hospital. In January of 1950, just seven months after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, Orwell died at the age of 46.

Adapted from The Writer's Almanac, a daily ezine containing a poem and some literary history. The above comes from the edition published on June 6, 2010.

Friday, June 04, 2010


Jurgen Wolff has recently forwarded an email relating to his reading of Dan S. Kennedy's book, "No B.S. Business Success in the New Economy.' While it's a 'Business' book, it has some important things to say to writers and other artists too (as Jurgen pointed out).

"Every successful achievement begins with decision. Most unsuccessful lives are conspicuously absent of decision." [Yup, can agree with that. If you don't decide you will get on with a particular project, it won't happen.]

"You have to reject the entire idea of limited choices. Limitations, rules, industry norms—these are for other people, but not for you. Reject any idea that removes any option from your table."
[Interesting thought: not sure how it works out for me, but worth considering.]

"To succeed as an entrepreneur requires decision and determination—total, unwavering commitment…you have to develop and embrace attitudes, habits, and behaviours that are markedly different from those of most of the people you’ve known."

"To succeed as an entrepreneur, you must set aside your neediness for acceptance from others. Immunity to criticism is a “secret” shared by all the highly successful entrepreneurs that I know." [Oh....this is SO true. The need for acceptance, particularly from fellow artists, is something I constantly think I need. ]

"You have to set aside your “book of excuses” once and for all." [Yup!]

"THE characteristic that tends to distinguish the winners from the losers is the relentless conversion of problems to opportunities, negatives to positives." [Yup again!]

Colm Toibin

The name, Colm Toibin, meant nothing to me until a few moments ago, when I came across a video of him answering a few questions in his own quirky way in a video interview shot at the Auckland Writers and Readers' Festival (should that be Writers' and Readers' Festival?). Of course, Colm Toibin will have never heard of me either - though perhaps with greater reason.

Anyway, here's the video - as always it may be better just to double-click and watch it properly on You Tube.

I love the way his face crinkles up; I love the way he continues to smile while commenting on his childhood - 'awful, miserable'; I love the way the way he answers the question on the things he's thinking about just now - none of which are Big and Important.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Kobo video review

I've been away from blogging for a few days while I was up in the North Island (variously in Auckland and Matamata), so there hasn't been much happening here. However, just came across Martin Taylor's video review of the Kobo, the e-book reader just put out by Whitcoulls (perhaps Whitcoulls' most innovative action in a long time!)

Here's the video. As you'll see, the Kobo is a basic unit, but it does the job and is effective in its task. I actually need one?