Monday, 24 December 2018

Tigress of tango

Gisela in motion
Two days before Xmas, and I descended into a dark and musty dance studio in Newton. A humid day, with rain falling outside in Myers Park. This subterranean venture was a Xmas present to myself - an expensive tango lesson with international performers ... Ariel and Gisela from Buenos Aries.

My last lesson from an international dancer was a couple of years before in Berlin, with the lovely Laura, an expatriate Italian. Although I have been dancing tango for many years, the Auckland tango ecosystem is sheltered and small, and stars - and teachers - of this calibre are rare visitors. At a mere $160 for an hour lesson, I leaped at the chance.

Tango embodies all the delights and anguish of man-woman relationships in highly concentrated form. Although lead by the man, the intention is to showcase a woman's grace and panache. And leave her feeling emotionally and physically satisfied. Sound familiar? Yes - tango is often described as the vertical expression of horizontal desire.

Gisela enveloped me - a total stranger - in a very Latin embrace. Vivid, animated and charismatic, she charmed me immediately despite my mounting terror. She nestled her head into my neck and demanded I hug her close. She was clad in a very large grey cardigan.

'John!' she said. 'When we met I can tell you are a nice person! But now, I feel nothing.' She frowned. 'You are a many miles away! Give me some warmth!'

Here was a sensual woman with glistening hair and animated brown eyes, demanding I avidly embrace her in front of her - equally frowning - and statuesque partner.

Gisela and Ariel - sensuality and panache
Fighting decades of Anglo Saxon emotional reserve, I opened my heart, and stepped out into the basico, or basic eight steps, in which the man brings the woman to a cross on the fifth step. Years of experience evaporated, and I stumbled along like a man sleep-walking through a bog. Never had I felt so incompetent on the tango floor.

When they asked what I wanted to focus on during the lesson, I said: 'Please strip my technique right down to basics. What am I doing right. What am I doing wrong.'

Well, it turned out that I was doing just about everything wrong.

'You are moving your arms like a mad conductor,' said Ariel. 'Keep them still. You must maintain the frame of your embrace intact.' And then there was my walk, 'Like a little penguin,' chortled Gisela, rolling her eyes in mirth. No-one had described my gait as penguin-like before. Somehow, coming from Gisela, I wasn't offended.

Next we tried the backward ochos, one of the first steps a tanguero learns. It seems my weight was in the wrong place, and I was both failing to maintain my axis and to turn the woman with my torso. By now my brain was writhing with rapid-fire Latinate instructions and I begged for respite. 'Is so much wrong?' I cried despairingly. They both smiled and laughed, 'Of course,' they said. 'We always have to start again. Before you break the rules, you have to learn them. You must do the simple things right.'

It was my turn to laugh - this was a line my writing students hear several times a week, and is true of any art form. I was getting the same lesson in humility that my own students were obliged to absorb. And continual lessons in humility are what life seems to be all about ...

I thought back over my life of professional successes, and how frequently they seemed to be followed by abject and sometimes humiliating failures. We seemed destined to go on aspiring to the greatest heights, and spectacularly falling short.

At the end of the hour I was humming with energy. Both Ariel and Gisela clasped me in a fond embrace ... they were flying back to Buenos Aires is a few hours. Their charm was palpable, like a thousand watt light bulb. I felt immensely privileged to have been their student. To connect with such talent, such excellence, is galvanising.

As I left, I found myself skipping down the street - backwards ...

"Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows; by being defeated decisively by constantly greater things."                                                    Rainer Maria Rilke: 1875-1926

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

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Autumn of the Patriarchs

Death threats, erotic whippings, far from ordinary scenes  ... eminent historian Michael King interviews PEN President and poet Kevin Ireland on writer politics in 1990. Why did Lieutenant-Commander Alistair Paterson, poet, threaten to kill the National President? Why did C.K. Stead, Professor of Literature want to beat up Creative Hub director Cranna? Was it over a woman? Was it the London flat affair? Hear the full recording here. Below, John Cranna offers a lightly fictionalised version ...

When he was sober, which wasn't that often, the National President-In-Waiting had some chilling news for me. We were hunched over the bar at Wellington airport, waiting for our flight north.

'Old Baldy would like to take out Young Baldy. Or to put it another way: Stead wants you dead,' he said.
Emeritus Professor C.K. Stead. Assassin in waiting? 
'Onomatopoeia,' I said.

'Assonance,' he replied.

He was a poet, I was a fiction writer. He knew about these things.

'Does he have a preferred method of dispatch?' I asked.

'Strangulation, suffocation, electrification. I don't think he's bothered.'

'I know that one,' I said. 'The French have a term for it. Rime couee.'

'Yes. Very good. End rhyme. God knows why Stead came clean on this. The aggressor professor became a confessor,' he said.

Why an eminent professor of literature at Auckland University, and internationally lauded poet would want me maimed or dead was puzzling. I had just published my first book, a collection of short stories. I was something of a literary nobody, who had just been elected Chair of the Auckland branch of PEN aka The Society of Authors.

'And Alistair Paterson wants to kill me,' Kevin Ireland went on lugubriously.

'Lieutenant-Commander Alistair Paterson, Royal New Zealand Navy? The man who turned up to our meeting the other night in full ceremonial dress to recite his poetry. With a sword?' I asked.

He nodded. 'Yes. Have you seen the photo on his first poetry collection? He's holding an antique firearm. I'm taking the threat very seriously.'

'Why do these people want us dead?' I asked.

Kevin Ireland shook his head. 'Because we're changing things. It's the Autumn of the Patriarchs. They don't have long to live, and they can see it.'

We had just finished a harrowing four hour meeting of the writers' national executive (PEN) in the bowels of the National Library in Wellington, which Kevin likened to a meeting of the Central Presidium of the Soviet Union. In the chair was another rogue academic, a Professor of Russian Literature oddly enough, who had ruled the meeting with a bull-whip, and given us all thoughts of the Gulag.

Lnt-Commander Paterson (rtd). Poet & pugilist.
'What is it about these academics,' said Ireland thoughtfully. 'They all seem so unhinged.'

I pondered that one.

'But Alistair isn't an academic. He was in the Royal NZ Navy.'

'Another total institution,' said Ireland. 'Into which light rarely penetrates.'

'Yes,' I said. 'Those nematode worms that live in caves underground. They don't develop eyes of course. They're stuck there for life, so they get about by rubbing against things. They have a great sense of smell, however. Outside the caves they would be completely lost. But they're amazingly effective in their niche.'

Ireland nodded again. 'That's it. Niche-dwellers. The sooner we can get them out of our organisation the better.'

As it happened, left to his own devices, the chief nematode and Emeritus Professor got himself out of the organisation with amazing speed. That summer, operating under clandestine instructions from the Minister of Culture, and without telling any other writers on the national executive, Professor C.K. Stead flew to London and purchased a very expensive flat in Bloomsbury, in which he briefly installed himself, before advising New Zealand authors of his triumphal act.

Kevin Ireland. President. Extreme poet. Bibulant.
The short-coming in this admirable scheme was that he had written scathing reviews of the work of many of his peers, particularly a cadre of senior Wellington women writers, including Fiona Kidman and Lauris Edmond, and had shown regal contempt for the emerging Maori and Pasifika writers who were beginning to flourish at that time.

Stead, in short, had zero credit rating with his peers. Actually, his credit rating was lower than a nematode's tummy.

The result, from Wellington, was instantaneous. How dare the eminent professor make this purchase at the seat of Empire without consultation? How dare he ignore the many pohutukawa-ringed inlets on our own fair coastline that would make far more suitable retreats? This was cultural cringe of the most abject kind!!

Marshaling their impressive media resources, the Wellington matriarchs issued a stinging press release, dissociated themselves from this reckless act of colonial obeisance, and causing the Minister to have to answer some very tricky questions in Cabinet. The Minister, Michael Basset, was appalled, decided in the quiet of his own heart to exact long-term revenge on writers for his humiliation, and promptly sold the flat. The nation's journalists, always a little envious of their literary siblings, covered the debacle lavishly, and with smirking schadenfreude.

Michael King: Pacifier. Giant.
A little later, I chaired the meeting of Auckland PEN where the white-faced Stead was called to account.

He sat at one end of the room, ringed by the giants of the literary scene - Michael King, Maurice Shadbolt, Kevin Ireland, Dick Scott. Even journalist Sandra Coney, scourge of the patriarchs, was hovering in one corner, her notepad at the ready.

It was like Mount Rushmore made flesh. Granitic profiles abounded. Also present, so far as I could discern it, were the ghosts of Bloomsbury-dwelling Katherine Mansfield, Frank Sargeson, and John A. Lee. The court went into session.

'Um. Welcome, Karl,' I said. 'Now that Pandora's Box in Wellington is open, and the demons have been released, I wonder whether you would like to say anything?'

'Could we discuss this matter without resorting to dire literary cliche?' he said, fixing me with his ireful brows.

'Ok,' I said. 'I'll keep it simple. You've fucked things up. It's hard to imagine a more stupid act. You've infuriated the Minister of Arts and Culture, who will undoubtedly exact a terrible revenge on literature funding for decades to come. And through one act of hubris, you've created a lurid media carnival that has touched every writer in the country. I also understand from our President, that you have threatened to maim or kill me. Are there any other plans you'd care to share with us?' (Actually I only said one or two of those things.)

Mount Rushmore. Noble, granitic faces.
There was a deep quiet in the room. Stead looked surprised. No one had called him to account before. This was outside the domain of recognised natural phenomena. Beyond the academic cave system, into which no light penetrated, there were strange events that he barely comprehended.

Michael King coughed, in the tactful way that only he could. The country's pre-eminent historian spoke: 'I do think you have some explaining to do Karl,' he said. Michael's gentle, reedy, voice on that fateful evening still haunts me to this day. He had the capacity to settle any gathering of writers with his soulful, conciliatory manner. A couple of years later he was killed in a fiery car crash with his wife on the road from Coromandel, ending the dream of writer unity forever.

I could see Karl looking at Alistair Paterson in the corner, splendid once again in full naval dress regalia, complete with ceremonial sword. I could see Stead's eye alight on the weapon.

I thought to myself, 'Hari-kari, or murder?'

Sensing Stead's interest, Paterson quickly moved his hand to the hilt of the sword, securing it in its scabbard.

Dick Scott. Defender of the Chair.
I saw Dick Scott, who had witnessed his share of mayhem, and whose account of the invasion of Parihaka Ask That Mountain, had changed our view of our own history, edging around the room, to cut off a possible sally for the sword of the Lieutenant-Commander. I had tipped him off to intervene in the event of imminent violence. He was a friend, and I knew HE didn't want me dead.

Stead began his defense. 'Only the churlish would decline this opportunity,' he said, polishing his glasses furiously. 'How often does a Government offer writers a flat in a world centre of literature? We've chewed the hand of the Minister and shot ourselves spectacularly in the foot.'

'Mixed metaphor,' I shouted, and Stead visibly winced. This talk of fire-arms caused me to glance at the Lieutenant-Commander again. Dick Scott was hovering at his elbow.

The National President-In-Waiting got to his feet. Kevin Ireland was a tall man, with a deliberate, statesmanlike manner. Again, amazingly, he was sober.

'Baldy,' he said. 'Your pukeko have come home to roost. If you hadn't shafted Lauris and Fiona so often in the pages of the nation's review journals, you callous and calculating old c*** ...'

Lauris Edmond. Poet. Spear-carrier of the Matriarchs.
'Consonance!' I cried out from the Chair.

'Sub-case of consonance,' corrected Ireland, turning to me. 'Alliteration.'

He went on:  'If you hadn't riled every second writer in the land with your heartless, sulfuric reviews, you might have got away with it. As it is, by proceeding with this mad undercover scheme you have turned everyone against this organisation.'

The heads on Mount Rushmore all nodded sagely. It was like a mountain range springing to life. Stead looked around him desperately for allies. Paterson's jaw was jutting. Would the Navy intervene?

'Look Karl,' said the Lieutenant-Commander, his eyes smouldering orbs behind his tinted spectacles, 'Why didn't you take the time to get some dirt on Lauris and Fiona - extra-marital affairs, illicit bond-trading, off-shore accounts? You would have been in a safer position. To rile them in this way without leverage, without having something over them was, frankly ... ' the Lieutenant-Commander shook his head, sorrowfully, 'Negligent.'

I looked around the gathering. There was tacit consent. To enrage other writers so blatantly, without having some means of keeping them silent - blackmail - legal leverage - shockingly personal kompromat, as the Soviets called it ... was the height of foolishness. How could Stead, who was renowned for his cunning, wily ways, have made such a miscalculation? It was truly baffling.

Historian Dick Scott was holding his station: standing so close to the Lieutenant-Commander that I began to relax. Scott was a veteran of numerous bitter trade union struggles. It was unlikely the ceremonial sword, commandeered by an infuriated author would be used to assassinate the Branch Chair (me) or the National President (Kevin Ireland) despite the flurry of violent threats that was wracking the literary community that month.

I cleared my throat. I felt a little giddy. I stood up and spread my arms, feeling briefly like the statue of the Redeemer Christ overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro.

'Perhaps this is an opportunity to heal some wounds,' I said.

I extended a hand to journalist Geoff Chapple on my left (he was about to conjure up a national pathway Te Araroa out of nothing and knew a thing or two about bringing a nation together) and to the tiny piano virtuoso and poet Denys Trussell on my right. Denys had a huge white beard and always wore a panama hat.

I faced Mount Rushmore. I bowed respectfully, avoiding Stead's eye.

'I would like us all to sing Kumbaya,' I said, and in a sudden moment of inspiration, 'But in Maori.'

I saw Michael King perk up. As a champion of the mana whenua, this bi-cultural gambit was right up his alley. And then I realised, with a sickening feeling, that he and I were the only two people in the room of forty-odd writers, who knew any Maori. (I had learned the tongue during three tumultuous years living in the head-quarters of Nga Tama Toa, the Maori Black Panther movement.)

But it was too late to pull back. As Branch Chair I had made my gambit, and to retreat now would signal a major loss of authority.

I struck out on the first few lines, in what I hoped would be a rich baritone voice, but which went soprano with apprehension. I was hanging onto Chapple on my left and Trussell on my right with a grim, claw-like grip. I saw them both wince with pain. Michael King came in behind me, in a deep, husky bass. The other writers in the room, taken by surprise, gripped the hands of those next to them, their eyes clouded with panic, their mono-linguality horribly revealed to themselves and to the others present.

Stead took this opportunity to bolt for the door.

I still remember him cannoning into the frame, so desperate to escape from the onslaught of a Stone Age Language Without a Written Literary Tradition. He put both hands to his ears, trying to block out the sound of the song, as Michael King and I began to ramp up our volume to compensate for our mute colleagues. With his hands to his ears, he couldn't open the door and fell against it repeatedly, in the end, collapsing in a heap.

'For God's sake someone let him out,' cried Kevin Ireland, and stumbled over to the door, which gave onto Stead's home patch, the English Department at Auckland University.

At the end of this grotesque recitation, there was sporadic applause. Sweat was running down Michael King's face. Dick Scott looked like a man frozen in time, still hovering by Paterson's sword. Maurice Shadbolt had disappeared in a cloud of fine blue smoke from his pipe, utterly baffled by proceedings. One of only a handful of women in the room, Sandra Coney was hunched in the corner, trying to stay away from this effluorescence of testosterone. Trussell held his panama hat against his chest, like a man at a funeral.

'Autumn of the Patriarchs.' Our President-In-Waiting's fateful words came to mind, the words that had been uttered with such prescience so many months before in the bar at Wellington airport as, refugees from the Professor of Russian Literature and alleged KGB admirer, we waited to fly north. I looked at the tweed jackets, the naval dress uniforms, the florid, avuncular faces and redolent pipes. The half-drunk glasses of horrific cabernet sauvignon. Only Shadbolt's shoes were visible now, such was the incredible volume of blue smoke surrounding him.

How had it come to this? An era was coming to an end; an era of jackets with leather elbow patches; elegant volumes of verse printed on embossed cartridge paper; web off-set presses and fanatical literary duels. I felt torn. In a way, I had helped bring it about: "The crisis consists of the fact that the old order is dying and the new order is not yet born. In the interregnum, a variety of morbid symptoms occurs." Antonio Gramsci's famous quote from his Prison Notebooks pounded in my ears.

Although they had not yet disappeared, I felt an intense nostalgia for the craggy monumentalism of these titans; their sheer Mount Rushmore-ness. It was my very respect, which they sensed, that had helped propel me to leadership. They had put their trust in me, as a young upstart with only a couple of books of fiction to my name. And then I had betrayed them, by helping usher in the new feminised world order. Within a decade, these Olympians were in wheelchairs, their pipes and tweed jackets hocked off to Opportunity Shops for Breast Cancer Fundraising, their slim volumes of arcane verse and dusty novels of men anguishing alone in the bush, relegated to the Deep Stack in libraries, below ground water level.

Michael King and I looked at each other, squinting through the atmospheric blue haze of Shadbolt's effluvium. We knew we were the Trojan Horses in the room ... 'A variety of morbid symptoms ... '

Men can read each other. We know who our enemy is. A hundred thousand years of evolution has trained us to identify our foe.

The room was in consternation. A schism had opened up. I glanced across at Sandra Coney. She looked down at her notebook, and then up at me. There was a glint of triumph in her eye. She knew which way the tide was running. She had seen the future of literature in this country, and indeed across the Western World. The colossi were being toppled. The Monstrous Regiment of Women was on the march and a thousand novels of unshackled domesticity, of omnipotent oestrogen beckoned. The future was fecundity.

Testosterone, at least in its Steadian manifestation, was toast.

Author's note: This is an extract from an upcoming novel, Palsy of the Patriarchs

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.