Opening a vein, Paul Thomas

Down Boy
Joe Bennett
Hazard Press, $20.00,
ISBN 1877393258

Hillsides: The Best of David Hill
Mallinson Rendel, $25.00,
ISBN 0958262608

The American sportswriter Red Smith, who produced a daily column for 22 consecutive years, reckoned being a columnist was easy: “I just sit down at the typewriter, open a vein, and bleed.”

There speaks the voice of experience – Smith’s journalistic career bridged the gap between the 1929 Wall Street Crash and 1987’s Black Monday stock market meltdown. The consensus is otherwise: writing a column can’t be widely seen as a form of suffering since so many people want to do it. It’s said that everyone thinks they’ve got a novel in them; that seems unlikely but there are certainly plenty of people itching to have their 800-word say on the issues of the day.

This is partly because, as Clint Eastwood put it in one of the Dirty Harry movies, “Opinions are like assholes; everybody’s got one.” Given that most of us attach considerable weight to our opinions, who wouldn’t want to be paid to sound off on any subject that takes our fancy? It’s like being at a dinner party where the other guests can’t argue back.

Leaving aside the specialists, there are almost as many types of columns as there are columnists.  However, a few broad categories can be identified. The most common is the straightforward opinion column in which the writer expresses a view on matters of public, or at least media, interest. Opinion columns fall into various sub-categories: the ideological (Chris Trotter on the Left and Michael Bassett on the Right, for example), the Olympian, the satiric, the whimsical, and the fatuous (in which history, reality and human nature are ignored in favour of pious sentiments).

For a time the domestic column was all the rage.  It now seems to be on the wane, perhaps because of a predisposition to tweeness combined with society’s reluctance to take house-husbands seriously and the fact that other people’s children are seldom a source of fascination. The curmudgeonly column (whose authors are almost all male and middle-aged) is the new growth area which raises the faint possibility than men are once again venturing beyond the sports section.

The fantasy column, a mix of comic invention and satire, is, sadly, all but defunct. Perhaps the most famous example was the “By the Way” column written by Beachcomber (J B Morton) which ran in the Daily Express for 50 years and featured a memorable cast of characters such as Mr Justice Cocklecarrot and the 12 red-bearded dwarves.  Spike Milligan openly acknowledged Morton’s influence on the Goon Show.

Less celebrated but arguably more influential was Michael Wharton’s “Way of the World” column in the Daily Telegraph, written under the pseudonym Peter Simple. Wharton, a reactionary as opposed to a conservative in that he wanted to turn the clock back rather than preserve the status quo, loathed the liberal consensus that emerged in the 1960s and the forces that have since been lumped under the heading of political correctness. His inspired mockery of progressive opinion and the modernist movement via such characters as the absurdly pretentious writer Julian Birdbath and Marylou Ogreburg, the feminist performance artist from Dissentville, California, was admired by the likes of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis and exercised an obvious influence on the satiric magazine Private Eye.

There was a pleasing symmetry in the fact that, following Wharton’s retirement, the column was taken over by Waugh’s son Auberon, a prime mover in shifting the Eye away from its left-wing origins to a position difficult to pinpoint on the political spectrum in that it was, simultaneously, anti-progressive, anti-American, anti-trade union, anti-big business and, most virulently of all, anti media-driven celebrity culture. It’s a measure of how far we’ve come that in 1977 Wharton could satirise the fanaticism of the health bureaucracy by having Dr Llewellyn Goth-Jones, Director of Community Medicine for the mythical and godforsaken borough of Stretchford, demand that all cigarette packets carry the warning “Smoking Kills”.

New Zealand’s best-known columnist (a three-time winner of the Columnist of the Year award), transplanted Englishman and committed smoker Joe Bennett shares Wharton’s hatred of anti-smoking zealots and various other features of contemporary society. While only occasionally a fantasist, Bennett can be roughly placed in the Beachcomber/Peter Simple tradition in that he is both comically inventive and a sceptic of the instinctive, “small c” conservative persuasion.

Where Bennett differs is that his little self-contained world is real: a hillside above Lyttelton which he shares with his dogs, his goats, his chickens and itinerant wildlife such as swallows and hedgehogs. As the title suggests, dogs have a lofty status in this world; indeed, Bennett often comes across as something of a recluse who prefers dogs to people and one occasionally picks up an echo of Saki’s deep yet unsentimental attachment to the natural world.

Bennett is a deft and amusing writer although from time to time the P G Wodehouse influence gets out of hand:

Not a single commentator has dared to speak, to challenge the old girls’ network.  Perhaps the commentators think it is more than their life is worth.  Well, my life is worth little and I am happy for it to become worth less.  There are greater causes than personal worth.  I shall speak.  If bad things come of it, let them come.  Let them rain down on my head.  Let my skull be dented by insults.  I don’t have long to go now.  Let my prone form be trodden to ribbons by stiletto heels from Andrea Biani.  I shall be heard.

 

Bullseyes include health scares and Peter Jackson worship. Anyone who invests emotion in their national team will savour his account of sitting up till four in the morning to watch England win the Ashes. A piece on the media’s relish for natural disasters and its inevitable corollary compassion fatigue has a bite that’s all too rare in our newspapers:

Another flood in Bangladesh? Who cares? Lots of little heads bobbing around the Ganges Delta like so many corks, where’s the fun in that?… . What drives you and me back in Safetyville is the hope of seeing a reporter picked up by the twister live on camera and found three weeks later on a roof in Wisconsin, microphone in hand and vulture at the ribcage.

 

The back-cover blurb boldly promises us that “Inside these covers are the best 35,000 words you’ll read this year.” That wasn’t true in my case, and I hope won’t be in yours. I suspect Bennett would share that hope.

David Hill is one of the few New Zealand writers who are sufficiently versatile to make a “Best Of” collection a meaningful exercise. His stock-in-trade as a columnist is wry observation. When stuck for a subject, he joins a club, hence columns on taking up archery, Japanese, massage, amateur dramatics and group walking.

Sturdy as these columns are, the undoubted highlights of this collection are fictional. As one would expect of a former teacher, he writes all-too-convincingly about the classroom battleground; as one would hope of a children’s author, he writes affectingly and with insight about children.

An accomplished travel writer, Hill is perhaps at his best when he combines travel and fiction, placing his diffident Kiwis in an unnatural habitat. “Just Cruising” begins as a heavy-handed send-up of the Ugly American but moves slyly and smoothly into a cautionary tale about the dangers of guiltily over-compensating for laughing at others behind their backs, while “Word Games” is a precise and harrowing portrayal of a writer’s casual humiliation at the hands of a New York publisher.

 

Paul Thomas writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald.

 

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