Monday, September 27, 2010


The following gem appeared in my email inbox recently, sent by a fluffy old bat called Agatha. (It’s alright, she’s a sort of friend of a friend, and she can look after herself.)

If writers of internet blogs
Would keep those blogs updated
Their loyal reading public
Might not feel so frustrated
Or provoked to silly banter
Like this one.
(Signed) A. Ranter

I laughed, and was going to scrunch it up, virtually speaking. But a fan letter – or a fan poem – is not to be sneezed at. (Random thought: why should anyone sneeze at anything?) People sometimes leave comments on blogs, but to go to the trouble of composing a poem is to go the extra mile.

But is it a poem or a pome? Poems come in all grades, from lyric to doggerel, verse or worse. Pomes are something else. The word was coined by accident, a typo during the process of editing a manuscript, but soon came to be applied to a poem that is not quite right, when it is over-written or sentimental, when it stutters or strikes the wrong note, or simply doesn’t measure up. Pomes are pretentious, coy or clich├ęd. They make you wrinkle the brow, click the tongue.

Poems can only be pomes if they are trying to be poems (are you getting confused?). Agatha’s, of course, was not trying to do any such thing. It was just a bit of fun.

Friday, September 24, 2010


So many men, so many opinions, sighed the old Roman poet Terence - and he had never imagined Twitter, Facebook or talk-back radio.

Night-time radio is the refuge and the consolation of the sleepless in Seattle or almost anywhere else on Earth. My preference is for Radio New Zealand National, but after eleven p.m. they play far too much music. And the trouble with music selected for an audience with a wide range of tastes is that most of it is not to anyone's taste. I turn to talk-back radio until either it sends me to sleep or the BBC World Service kicks in at midnight on Plains FM and I can switch over.

Talk-back is people having their say. It is mostly harmless enough. Callers may be inarticulate, and their thoughts awkwardly expressed. but it is a forum for those who an ex-host once described as lost, lonely, loony or liquored - and awake. They have "a rage for saying something, when there's nothing to be said" as Dr Johnson remarked in his wise old way.

By eleven p.m. a few have clearly been on the sauce for a while. Others have been asleep, but woken to hear the tail-end of the discussion and want to add their two cents' worth. Some don't listen at all but want to talk. People um, you know, like and yeah their way through half-sentences that meander hopelessly until they peter out. To paraphrase P. J. O'Rourke, one thing talk-back can't seem to accomplish is communicate, because everybody's talking too much to pay attention to what anyone else is saying.

Night-time talk-back radio is not notable for information or wit - two qualities that Stephen Leacock said ordinary people dislike in conversation. Articulate and well-informed callers are rare, but I remember one night when the topic was Israel and Palestine. One woman had recently lived on the West Bank for two years and knew first-hand about the situation there. The host had never been near the place but had read a bit and knew which side he was on. Another caller had strong opinions on the subject but admitted she never watched the news or read newspapers. Guess which two people congratulated each other on knowing best about the tensions on the West Bank and poured scorn on the third after she had been summarily cut off?

Public opinion is a messy thing - fickle, sweeping, amorphous and based on attitudes, mis-information and sentiment. But anybody, these days, can express an opinion on talk-back radio. Or for that matter in a blog.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Our television is pathetic. It is pathetic because it has been commercialised to death.

I'm grumpy because the mute button on the TV remote has stopped working. I can't turn off the trash. And most of what is on our screens is trash, not just the advertisements but what surrounds them. That is because in commercially driven television the advertisers influence what we see. Our news, current affairs and political messages are dominated by press releases, celebrity culture, news trivia and heart-string tugging. Good business but bad journalism.

It is bad for business - i.e. too expensive - to provide quality material. What we get is cheap rather than good. What we get is not driven by public demand but by the suppliers of information and merchandise. What we get is not what we ask for but what the advertisers ask for. Hands up those who want more reality television. The old Roman satirist Juvenal wrote that "the people long eagerly for just two things - bread and circuses". In television terms that means programmes with sex, violence and lots of excitable noise, which advertisers believe to be the quickest ways to catch and hold the attention of an audience. Maybe so, and that's fine - within reason. However, if all we get is cheap programming we eventually develop a taste for it, just as we do for too much sugar and salt.

If we got what most of us really want, there would be better quality television and no advertisements. But this is not Utopia and it is not that simple.

Commercial interests do not want a public that thinks, debates, questions and makes up its own mind. They want a public that consumes. Nor do they worry about quality. They are profit driven and are happily dumbing us down. We all whine about what's on the telly, but that doesn't change anything. We should be deeply and loudly resenting the assumption that we are morons.

The market rules, private enterprise wins. Let the market decide, they say. If the people don't like the messages, they won't listen or watch and we won't be able to sell any advertising. I suggest that they walk a very fine line sometimes. People already hate the advertising, and more and more people are turning off the trash that helps to push it.

In a healthy democracy, what the people demand, the people get. My mute button may not work, but the off button does. Thank goodness for DVDs. And books.

Friday, September 10, 2010


The other day a younger man confessed that he wouldn't want to drive around in my car. It wasn't cool, and he rather wished that he didn't feel like that about the car, but admitted that he liked cool cars.

There is nothing wrong with my car. True, it is old and boxy, and doesn't have a quivering boom-box. Or mag wheels. The air-con doesn't work any more. It doesn't have a bossy GPS or an on-board computer. It has most of the essentials though: wheels, windscreen, an engine, the everyday wires and tubes and other stuff under the whatsit - the bonnet. The ignition key is just a regular old key - it doesn't tweet and make the lights go on and off. The car usually allows me to drive it from A to B, it doesn't care whether I clean it or not, and I ask nothing else of it.

It's just a car, dammit, not a life-style statement. Why does this bother some people but not me? Some people have a sense of coolness or un-coolness and I don't. I don't even understand how it might matter. There isn't even consensus about it anyway - just watch Jeremy Clarkson and his crowd on "Top Gear". They squabble endlessly about the coolness or otherwise of cars and never reach an agreement.

It's not just cars either, it's clothes and colours and words and furniture and mobile phones and even plants. Even I know that it is un-cool to have an avocado bathroom suite, or a stupid frill around the bed base, or pittosporums and iceberg roses in the garden. But we've stopped laughing at men who used to wear flared trousers because they have come back but are called something else and they are now cool. I think - I can't keep up. I wanted to buy curtains a few months ago but left the shop in despair because all the colours were gloomy greys and muddy greens and bronzy browns - so cool but oh so dull and depressing.

So, my car is un-cool. And I don't care. But at least I don't have fluffy dice dangling over the dash or a garfield stuck on the window. So last century.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


On the morning of Saturday, 4th September, 2010, when the Christchurch (New Zealand) earthquake struck, my family, without power, water or phone but otherwise unscathed, turned up at my house with breakfast and a shovel. Ten minutes later there was a large hole in my garden.

Without power or water we are, these days, almost helpless. Nothing that we are accustomed to using works. And when it comes to emergencies, our needs become very simple indeed. A loo, a toilet, a little girls'/boys' room, a W.C., a bog or a latrine - call it what you will - comes near the top of the list. I had no water but I now had a hole in the garden - an emergency latrine.

There is much coyness about toilets. In Australia during world war II my mother rented a cottage from a woman who apologised because the toilet was inside instead of outside as, apparently, she thought proper. In England there was a discreet shed at the bottom of the garden in many old properties, and potties under beds for during the night. Yes, the thought is quease-inducing for us, accustomed as we now are to mod. cons.

Parents of young children know all about holding out a desperate, urgent child who has to go now behind a handy bush - and know too about the warm splashing over an unfortunately placed foot that is all too often a result. What does a desperate, urgent adult do in these circumstances?

In New Zealand the old long-drop has something going for it. Well, darn it, we had a post-hole borer once but I've lost track of it. It would have been useful on Saturday. There's always an old bucket lying around, but some of us (I shall put this as delicately as possible) are way past being able to squat that far down without an unseemly scramble, with the added possibility of accidents, back up again. Stand the bucket on something sturdy? Hmmm - perhaps not - a bit wobbly.

May I introduce the wonderfully named thunder-box? I am reasonably familiar with this contraption, which we used when we were children in Teheran. Think of a large strong wooden box with a hinged lid. The lid had a suitable hole in the middle. Strategically placed underneath stood a large bucket. Beside the wooden box was another bucket containing sand and a small spade. The procedure for making use of this simple and essential piece of furniture - and it was furniture rather than a fitting - will be obvious.

Thought for today, as the aftershocks continue to shake the house sixty hours after the first roar, crack and rumble: it wouldn't be so difficult to construct a thunder-box for future emergencies.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I'm with that great writer and philosopher Voltaire, who declared that work banishes the three great evils of boredom, vice and poverty. Especially boredom. Never mind the lucrative, fancy-sounding but boring jobs, just leave me the perilous and satisfying ones. All the jobs I've really enjoyed, and stayed in longest, have been busy, stressful, unpredictable, full of variety, crisis-ridden, exhilarating and challenging. Bookselling for example.

Anyone looking for a cosy little job should look somewhere other than a bookshop. There might be an air of quiet busy-ness, and outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that bookselling is a genteel trade, that no one gets their hands dirty, that the most strenuous part of the day might be wafting a feather duster over the shelves. Ha.

It is not a soft option. It takes stamina, an ability to hold a colossal amount of information in your head, and the constitution of a stevedore. The art of balancing leaning towers of books on each arm while running up and down stairs is in the job description. Multi-tasking was probably invented in a bookshop. Everyone, except possibly the packer, is expected to be able to step into any job if necessary.

Books are heavy and do not arrange themselves neatly on the shelves. They come literally by the truck-load and unpacking them is hard, dusty work. A proper bookseller's eyes light up at the whump of huge sacks thudding onto the loading dock. Booksellers are identified instantly by the tough rubber bands - essential tools of the trade, for snapping around bundles of books - on each wrist instead of bling.

They are greedy readers, and Solomons of bookish wisdom. They are expected to know all the answers, or at least how to find out. Catalogues are practically bedtime reading so that customers are given good advice. For example grandparents, invariably beaming with pride because their toddling grandchildren are streets ahead of the pack when it comes to reading, are congratulated and guided towards The Cat in the Hat. People who have seen a book advertised but can't remember the title or the author must be pressed a little further until the problem is solved. Proper booksellers know that "Doctor Zhivago" does not belong in the medical section.

Wobblies are optional but in my experience rather frequent. We used to say that if you could last a week, you were at least on the way to becoming a proper bookseller. They tend to be articulate, opinionated and given to meaningful discussions in the tea-room or, in emergencies in one place I worked, in a cupboard under the stairs with the brooms, dusters and cardboard boxes. I remember some monumental scenes with people who couldn't control their tempers. One Irish girl, in her first week, didn't appreciate being asked to dust the shelves. "I'm not a skivvy!" she screamed, and there was a very public row - no question of retreating to the cupboard first - and she stomped out, never to return.

As a bookseller I don't remember ever being bored. As Noel Coward observed, work was much more fun than fun.