Monday, 15 October 2018

A drunk in a wheelchair is never a pretty sight ...

... and cartoonist John Callahan made an uglier sight than most. Prone to rocketing around the suburbs of his home town, abusing social workers and passers by, he found redemption in acerbic cartoons that were very black, and chokingly funny.

Oddly enough, Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the benighted Callahan in a brilliant new movie, 'Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot' has also had his struggles with alcohol and was also almost killed in an auto wreck of his own making.

In real life, Callahan's drinking accelerated after the accident that crippled him, until a miraculous vision of his mother appeared at his bedside and told him to sort his shit.

Next stop, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the most hilarious (and touching) scenes in this movie are set in the home of his wealthy hippie sponsor, who guides Callahan along the perilous road to sobriety.

We could all do with a stretch in AA - not necessarily for substance abuse, but because of the ruthlessly sane philosophy it propagates. Self-pity and self-serving whinging are very much off the agenda, and the heart of the AA philosophy is an invocation to the alcoholic to take complete responsibility for his life.

After pouring out his woes, and receiving scant sympathy from the group, Callahan abuses an obese young woman for her heartlessness: 'How can you know what I'm going through?' he whines.

'Actually,' she says, 'I have cancer of the heart.'

It's a salutary moment: 'If you keep on with this poor me shit,' she goes on, 'You'll end up saying 'poor me another glass'.'

As the scales (more or less) fall from Callahan's bloodshot eyes, he embarks on a series of chaotic adventures - botched sexual encounters, spectacular humiliations, no-win gambits - all of which are executed with a kind of manic zeal that leaves you laughing and crying by turns.

And what art!

His cartoons, published widely throughout the USA, at first glance appear to mock the plight of the disabled, the marginal, the despised, but in fact are unerringly accurate about the patronising way minority groups are treated.

In another cartoon, a large and threatening perimeter fence, topped with barbed wire, is sign-posted: WARNING, AREA PATROLLED BY LESBIANS.

What offended Callahan most, and what Gus Van Sant's movie clearly depicts, is the way marginal or minority groups are handled with social awkwardness and embarassment, but rarely treated with the brusque equality and respect he craved.

Callahan's cartoons teeter on the brink of the repugnant, and it's this very high-wire act that makes them so compelling. He would delight in publishing the (copious) hate mail he received ... and it is precisely this mischievous iconoclasm that makes him such a riveting figure.

Now dead, after a mishandled operation for his bed sores (something he would have cartooned with glee), Callahan's story is an unmissable look at a truly gifted artist with a fanatic's heart ... a man who rushed in to zestfully occupy the zone that angels fear to tread.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Helpless seal pup blues

Hiking from Whatipu to Karekare this weekend, one of the wilder and more isolated parts of the Tasman Coast, during which I never see another soul on the seven kilometre beach, I came across a lone seal pup, marooned a hundred metres above the surf line. Unschooled as I am in seal wrangling, I started a conversation with Nathan (instantly coined), asked him where the hell his mother was - the kind of thing that happens when you spend time alone in the wilderness. Frankly there wasn't much response ... just a bit of wriggling, whimpering and when I came too close, rearing up on his hind flippers and barking at me.

At this time of year, seals give birth on remote parts of the coast, and leave their pups to rest on the sand, and to warm up, as the Tasman is still pretty cold. However there was no sign of life for kilometres in either direction, and I assumed his mother must be out at sea, cruising the coast for mackerel and kahawai to feed the little tike.

Flies had started to settle on his eyes, which didn't seem like a great thing, and I briefly considered carrying him back to the water, as he was incapable of moving more than a metre or two in any direction.

Such a picture of helplessness! And so far from anywhere.

The New Zealand fur seal was ruthlessly hunted in the 19th century (sealing was one of our first major industries) and almost wiped out ... a few colonies survived in the south of the South Island and on off-shore islands.

Since these beautiful animals became protected, their population has rebounded, they have spread north again, so that there is now a seal colony on Oaia Island just off Muriwai Beach, a little further north of where I found Nathan. If he was from the Oaia Island colony, he was a long way from home for such a tiny creature.

The stretch of water at Oaia Island was the site of the fatal great white shark attack on Muriwai film-maker Adam Strange several summers ago, and it is likely that the explosion in seal numbers has caused the huge great white shark community at Stewart Island to send emissaries north up to the coast.

Aucklanders' favourite West Coast swimming spots at Piha, Muriwai and Karekare may be a little riskier than they used to be in the summers to come. However this seems a small price to pay to have these frisky creatures frequenting our beaches again.

As for Nathan, I figured the sooner I left the area, the sooner his mother could revisit with whatever sustenance he needed. But the sight of his tiny body covered in flies stayed with me for days afterwards.

Whatipu to Karekare beach - 7 km of wilderness                                           Photo: John Cranna

Thursday, 13 September 2018

When Prime Ministers drink with poets ...

Heads of State aren't known for hanging out in bars with writers, so when Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi, revealed to me quietly at the recent Creative Hub Trust Launch that he had spent a bit of time in Wellington's St George Hotel with the legendary James K Baxter in the 1960s, I was taken aback. Baxter was a revolutionary force in New Zealand literature, and many of his views have permeated our culture. Writers of radically different cultures are often drawn together, and Baxter was known for his spiritual connection to Polynesian ways. Tupua was Samoa's Head of State for ten years until last year, and got to know the poet, a notorious drinker, when he was a student at Victoria University.

Tuiatua Tupua - Samoa's former Head of State

Baxter, our most charismatic and radical poet, went on to establish the commune of Jerusalem on the Whanganui River, where he forged strong links with local iwi, railed against social inequality and injustice in the Pig Island Letters, before alcoholism killed him at the age of 46.

Tupua, a tall, elegant figure now aged 81, had flown in from Samoa to grace the launch of our Creative Hub Charity. One aim of the Trust is to create scholarships for Maori and Pasifika writers, and Tuiatua Tupua has published three books of his own.

With the number of Samoans living in New Zealand almost equaling the population of Samoa itself, the preservation of Samoan cultural identity in Aotearoa is pressing: new generations of Samoan writers, such as Selina Tusitala Marsh are staking out their own vivid hybrid identity - and we were thrilled to have Selina, NZ's Poet Laureate, execute her galvanising verses at the launch.

Selina - Warrior Poet Princess
Selina is a statuesque figure, with the charisma and verve of a warrior princess ... a warrior of the word, and her hypnotic incantation lifted the night and challenged us all with its invocation to write as though the world is about to end.

Also present was Al Wendt, perhaps the best-known of all Samoan writers, renowned for his humility ... so much so that he declined to speak his own poetry on the night, despite several attempts to get him to do so.

To me, the most delightful moment of the evening was the opening karakia, delivered by singer Soulsista Aotearoa, which chilled and thrilled us in equal measure with its force and beauty.

Her website says: "With lyrics that bleed truth and a voice that reflects the name, Soulsista represents a modern culture of New Zealanders influenced by traditional funk and soul. Based on Waiheke Island, Soulsista is of Maori descent ... Ngāti Rangitihi & Te Arawa Ngāti Porou, & Ngāpuhi. Kai Tahu & Te Ati Awa. She looks to the environment to provide inspiration, as well as ... Bob Marley, Jill Scott, Sade, Ben Harper."

Soulsista - on song
Creative New Zealand chief Stephen Wainwright delivered part of his speech in Maori to the gathering, which also included Brian Morris of Huia Books, the country's premier Maori and Pasifika publisher; some of our successful graduates (including the publishing collective Eunoia Books); a number of their tutors, and a variety of others from Auckland's humming literary world.

When I spoke, I lamented the death of many great Auckland publishers in recent years - and the pressing need to partner with Creative NZ to create fresh new publishing outlets for the rising talent in the literary gene pool of Tamaki Makaurau.

The future of writing in Aotearoa will be the story of the creative cross-fertilisation of many cultures - the great adventure of Western literature colliding with the epic story-telling and voyaging traditions of Polynesia. History teaches us that the most propitious periods in literature have been at the points when the tectonic plates of culture collide. It is a truly thrilling future in prospect ... and we hope, here at the Creative Hub, to play a small part in conjuring it into existence.

You can read Tuitua Tupua's speech for the launch of our Trust here

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Our Brilliant Friends - Life Under the Volcano

Lenu is serious, bookish, nerdy ... and Lila something of a femme fatale, even at the age of 18. Lila 'has eyes like a bird of prey' and embarks on a mission to bed the most eligible man in their impoverished Neapolitan neighbourhood - with ruthless success. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante has been a run away best-seller, and this is the first book in her series set in Naples.

The two girls in HBO's rendition of My Brilliant Friend
Lila is both fascinating and repellent … in her superficiality and glamour she is like a minor refugee from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita,  also set in the 1960s, and she seems to be a rare creature quite well adapted to the harsh Neapolitan post-war world, with its working class kids striving for success, wanting to ‘marry well’ … obsessed by status, by clan honour and by family loyalties.

The novel was also a reminder – to me – of how much more socially adept women are than men … how extraordinarily calibrated they are, at least in this world, to status, alliances, secrets, slights, desperate hidden loves.

In some ways My Brilliant Friend is reminiscent of Marquez’s classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its feuding families, passionate Latin grudge-bearing, and doomed romances … but Marquez focuses on the poetic grandeur rather than the status feuds of these sprawling families wrecked by machismo, so his book feels much more profound.

I have stayed in these working class areas of Naples, and this novel is a compelling glimpse of the desperation of that supremely dysfunctional city in the shadow of the volcano Vesuvius.

Those of us who like Lenu were readers and good at school, often had a friend like Lila … someone shrewd, glamorous, cunning, but unwilling to turn those native gifts into academic success.

Working class, or with parents who had no particular professional ambitions for their child, such a person helped burnish our more mundane lives – and such people are attracted to bright nerds because of our seriousness, professional aspirations, more expansive ambitions.

Perhaps this story is the tale of the working class suburbs of great European cities more generally: Kings Cross, London, where I spent ten years in my 20s and 30s was notable for its wars between clans, beatings between family members … feuds that could only be settled with shocking savagery. The Cockneys and Neapolitans have quite a bit in common – spontaneous, affectionate, quick to anger – prone to settle grudges with breath-taking violence.

Lenu on children ...

But what holds this massively best-selling book together is the narrator Lenu’s intelligence … she is prodigiously attuned to social nuance … an astute and wily observer … she is also the nerd made good and something of a Cindarella ... and that has its appeals.

In our atomised, alienated urban centres, My Brilliant Friend creates a nostalgia for cities that used once to be collections of fiercely loyal neighbourhoods – urban hamlets – where everyone knew everyone else’s business, and gossip was king.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Romancing a pig-farmer

Perhaps it was the resonance of my own parents' romance (they met in the Indian ocean on a ship leaving war-torn Europe); perhaps it was reminder of the price of heroism under fascist occupation; perhaps it was the ability of literature to keep alive empathy for the outsider in times of hatred and intolerance - but I loved the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a new film by director Mike Newell.

It's 1946 and Times of London columnist Juliet is reeling from the death of her parents in the Blitz. She's engaged to a wealthy American officer. She travels to the Channel Island of Guernsey to cover an eccentric literary society who have resisted the German occupation, but whose antics are shrouded in mystery ...
Love in war-torn Guernsey

There, she befriends a rugged Guernsey pig farmer, Dawsey, who is fostering a girl whose mother was taken to the Nazi concentration camps. Her crime? Helping the slave labourers of the German Todt Organisation. 

Dawsey is a haunted, loving step-father, and the backbone of the literary society. He is a complex man and has befriended a compassionate Wehrmacht doctor during the occupation. This doctor is the father of his step-child, so there is a Gordian knot of loyalties at the heart of the film, that defies cheap stereotyping.
The batty little literary group recite passages from Charles Lamb's book, Tales from Shakespeare and other literary works during the long nights of the occupation, and fashion pies from potato peel and other modest ingredients.

The strength of the movie lies not in the fairly predictable love story between Dawsey and Juliet, but in its clear-eyed look at the collaboration and betrayal that lay at the heart of many countries occupied by the Nazis in WW II. (Think the trial of Klaus Barbie - the Butcher of Lyon, in 1987 - and its impact on France.)

Love stories set against a backdrop of war (Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms; Michael Curtiz's movie Casablanca) have their own special pungency; the stakes are so much higher; the loyalties profoundly torn - the betrayals that much more hideous. There are aspects of the movie that are undoubtedly twee ... a strong whiff of sentimentality at times (Guardian and Observer reviewers note its affection for Northanger Abbey-style costume drama conventions) but this doesn't detract from the moving portrayal of an island torn apart by the arrival of brutal interlopers.

The Nazi occupation of Guernsey
I came out of the cinema thinking how WW II was a catastrophic blow to the shared integrity of European culture - the notion that we Europeans are united in a common vocabulary of values, music, literature - and moral sensibility.

The savagery and inhumanity that blossomed so quickly on the Continent in my parents' lifetime, is a reminder that the crust of European culture and values is only skin deep, and the forces of racism and militarism can erupt at any time.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

"Will no-one rid me of this troublesome dissident?" The Skripal case

In T.S. Eliot's great verse drama, Murder in the Cathedral, four knights come to the church of dissident Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and cut him to pieces with swords.

The play, based on the historic murder, is set in the 12th century, and the knights are freelancers, spurred on by the ambiguous words of their irritated king, Henry II, namely ...'Will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest?'

It's possible the Skripal poisoning case was a rogue or ‘false flag’ affair… either by freelance elements in the FSB (the Russian secret security apparatus), or by some oligarch who wanted Skripal dead … and was acting, like the four knights, in the possibly mistaken view that such an assassination would ingratiate said oligarch to Putin.

No party drug
If so, given the massive sanctions against Russia announced this week, the freezing of Putin’s overseas accounts (his oligarch proxies hold his money abroad), said oligarch’s days are numbered, because the FSB will now find and eliminate him.

I even think that there is a possibility that the Skripal attack was a CIA / FBI set-up to frame Russia, given the reluctance by Trump to implement sanctions against Russia, and Trump’s open contempt for the FBI / CIA / American intelligence services. ‘OK, if Trump won’t sanction Russia for making fools of us, see if he can ignore this geopolitical storm’.

These are Machiavellian theories, but with some credibility given the Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction fiasco. The CIA have done stranger things, and they may be the only folk outside Russia capable of deploying the nerve agent Novichok effectively.

However, I still put these theories at a probability of no more than about 25%. Maximum.

The historic record; the use of a Soviet era nerve agent; the oft-stated hatred by Putin of ‘traitors’ … the policy of assassination of political opponents within Russia by Putin’s goons, including prominent critical journalists … the assassination of Litvinenko in London with polonium in 2006; all create a compelling circumstantial case for Putin being the culprit.

Case not proven (yet) on publicly available evidence, but extremely strong.

Friday, 30 March 2018

So I'm on my way to hospital, and I'm starting to laugh ...

I've had serious diarrhea for six days, and I'm doubled up in my seat, but not from the impact of my malady. I'm on the remote Tongan island of 'Eua and it's 30 degrees and 90% humidity. My ambulance driver, the lovely Seini, is weaving her way through the potholes on the road, with a majesty that seems to come naturally to 'Euan women. We're in a broken-down transit van with no windows, and mangled upholstery.

Tongan king's palace
My blood pressure is plunging through dehydration, but my spirits are rapidly rising.

On the local radio station, there is an item about the reception, in Moscow, of the new comic movie 'The Death of Stalin'. The Duma is outraged, and an international incident is in the offing.

The Kremlin accuses the UK writer / director Iannucci, of 'driving a wedge between the Russian people.' Yes, that's right, a nervy, Scottish comedy writer is threatening the very stability of the Motherland. He is unquestionably 'an enemy of the state'.

The officials at the premier in Moscow have walked out. As if relations between Russia and the West aren't at a low enough ebb anyway, after the election-hacking scandal, this new insult to the Motherland has not gone down well.

Sexy beast
I am laughing for several reasons. Firstly, according to the US intelligence services, the Russians generated ingenious fictions on a massive scale to scupper Clinton's campaign against Trump. Now the Russians have had their own defenses breached by a low-flying Scottish comedian. Next, the woman news reader, in a beautiful thick Tongan accent, is giving every last detail of the outraged Russian response.

I keep thinking: Why is this news on a remote Tongan island?

I'm also laughing with mad pleasure that someone has had the chutzpah to write a comedy about the death of the greatest tyrant the world has ever known. (Many Russians still revere him, and venerate his memory.)

I thought of the hilarious and terrifying play 'Master Class' by David Pownall, about a meeting between Stalin, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev, in which Stalin advises these geniuses on how to adjust their music to Soviet ideals. He sits at their piano and bashes out a couple of tunes. Unless they conform, they may be executed.

At the time of his death, Stalin was surrounded by various other tyrants - the police chief Beria, Molotov, Khrushchev ... all of whom were struggling for power. The events in this new film are based on the factual, farcical events that attended his sudden demise, with a bit of poetic license thrown in. (Fact: Stalin's cronies were too terrified to touch his corpse, so he lay in a puddle of his own urine, untouched for many hours.)

But I'm really laughing because I suddenly get the local interest.

The Tongans know a bit about capricious autocrats.

A line of Tongan kings have plundered the country's wealth and helped keep much of the population in poverty. The extent of this corruption is extraordinary (see link at bottom of this post). Beside the potholed track my ambulance is taking, people live in rusty corrugated iron shacks with dirt floors, frequented by wandering pigs.

In 2006, riots in Tonga's capital killed eight people, and struck a chill into the elite. In response, the king began to tamper with his feudal structure a little, and some 'commoners' were admitted to parliament.

King Tupou IV plus court jester Bogdonoff
Recent Tongan kings have been involved in a variety of scandals; including the employment of a court jester who ran off with the nation's super fund; the selling of Tongan passports to the highest bidders (including the Philippino dictator Marcos), and an expensive scheme to turn seawater into diesel. Yes, that's water into diesel. Forbes Magazine ranked Tonga as the third most corrupt nation on earth. The current king, hailed as a reformer, recently sacked the entire government, only to have those pesky commoners re-elect the same government.

The people who suffer, as always, are the ordinary folk.

And as the Guardian bureau chief in Moscow for four years, Luke Harding, shows in his brilliant recent book 'Collusion - How Russia helped Trump Win the White House', these are the very people who in Russia, will continue to suffer as their masters plunder the wealth of the nation.

For these kleptocrats, oligarchs and Kremlin apparatchiks to have flounced out of Ionucci's movie, is ... well, kind of funny. Even if you have serious diarrhea.

Postscript: For an account by journalist Michael J Field of some of the most bizarre incidents of royal corruption in Tonga click here