Cock-a-doodle-do Jane Westaway

Roosters I Have Known
Steve Braunias
Awa Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780958275057

When my kids were small, we kept a bantam rooster called Mr Wingspan. The name was meant to be ironic, but what Mr Wingspan lacked in stature he more than made up for in the social sphere of our backyard. He flew shrieking at bare human legs, and always got first go at the rubbish bucket, ahead of his harem of hens. The rest of his time he dedicated to general preening, strutting and crowing designed to remind us all how important he was.

And so to Steve Braunias’ new book. Given the popular and critical success of How to Watch a Bird, it’s not surprising Awa Press should want another from him. But what we have in Roosters I Have Known, in the neat little format Awa does so well, is not another bird book but the interviews that every week for seven months of 2007 filled a half-page or so of The Sunday Star Times.

The gender- and value-neutral “rooster” of the title was pinched from early interviewee Chester Burrows MP, but it heralds a veritable dawn chorus of cock-a-doodle-doing, by no means all of it from the columnist’s subjects. We begin with Ruth Richardson, and proceed via (in his own words) interviewees’ honks (Helen Clark), vacuous chatter (John Key), incessant complaining (Louise Nicholas) and doomed hoping (Dick Hubbard), past John Tamihere, Cindy Kiro, Anita McNaught and Colin Meads, to “a likeable twit from Shortland Street” and a Christmas message from Anglican priest Glyn Cardy.

Braunias’ brief was to target “people in the news”, phenomena that are by definition ephemeral. Sure, there’s a pleasurable frisson of scorn to be had from a tv host’s boast that – like Mr Wingspan – he always wanted to be “important”. But by and large, this chorus of crowing – even from those still considered newsworthy a year on – is dispiriting, its cumulative effect akin to leafing through a file of yellowing clippings, now so irrelevant that we wonder why we bothered.

Braunias claims many of his subjects talked rubbish, “said so many boring and devious and stupid things”. The implication seems to be that if they’re dull and dim-witted on the page, it’s their own fault. Which is probably half true. But a further reason these roosters fail to fascinate is that Braunias never set out to let them. His job was not to get to know anyone, but to perform as “Steve Braunias”, a brand he has established over the last decade or so – a distinctive, clever-clogs voice, irreverent to the point of rude, and sometimes well past it, an apparent loose cannon in the rule-bound game of New Zealand journalism. Why else did the SST run his interviews on a high-visibility back page, under the “Steve Braunias Interview” rubric? Why else does his publisher head up the book’s accompanying press release, “Is there anyone left to offend?”

And given this brand, there’s not much you can reproach Braunias with that he doesn’t gaily confess to in his introduction. But at least he has a clearer idea of his book’s value than whoever claims in the blurb that it’s “a startling survey of the national psyche”. In fact, it’s a less than encouraging insight into the dictates of popular journalism.

Bragging about the slap-happy methodology that had him over-taping each previous week’s interview rather than preserving it against claims of libel and distortion as journalists usually do, his subjects’ words were, he says, “destined for oblivion”. Yes, but not just because their tapes were wiped. Overwhelmingly – because this is what the brand demands – these pieces are about him. He admits his well-worn anti-cappuccino creed drove Julie Dalzell off the page. But in fact “Steve Braunias” is everywhere in evidence, to the extent that it can make him a poor writer.

No need to tell us this actor is a ninny; there’s an ill-concealed disdain for the reader here – trust us to work it out for ourselves. And, in the Louise Nicholas interview, which took place in the house of journalist Phil Kitchin, why add that bit about mistaking Kitchin’s son singing in the shower for someone yelling in pain, except to remind us “Steve Braunias” is here and he’s funny, dammit?

More pervasive than these lapses, and finally, immensely boring, is the permanently installed “Steve Braunias” voice he was paid to display: the crow that permeates every paragraph, unvarying, constantly calling for our attention. It all brings to mind that Bette Midler line from some awful film or other: “That’s enough of me. Now, what do you think of me?”

But what of his subjects? Were they victims who naively offered their necks for his noose? Or publicity seekers who deserved everything they got? Here’s a stern Janet Malcolm on the subject:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse …. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

(The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990).

 

Which surprisingly, and probably to his chagrin, elevates Braunias to the ranks of the seemly. Malcolm comes to her conclusion, though, by way of a journalist/subject relationship that would be the equivalent of Kitchin getting alongside Nicholas for however long it took to get his story, then, just before publication, deciding she was lying and saying so in print. What’s going on in Roosters is nothing like so weighty, and if preying on his interviewees’ vanity was a sin, it wasn’t a very big one.

A greater sin is waste. I’m happy for Braunias to be a star. He’s gratifyingly brighter, more talented and less decorative than the usual run of such beasts. But all this hip cynicism is too shallow, too tedious, and too damned easy. Its continued practice is in danger of sabotaging his considerable skills, which are crying out to be stretched, not confined. I suspect readers loved How to Watch a Bird because he put his talent to the service of what he – Braunias, rather than “Braunias” – cares about, rather than what he does not. Let’s have less of the rooster we know so well. Next time, let’s see him out of his own back-yard, taking a risk.

 

Jane Westaway is co-editor of  New Zealand Books

 

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Posted in Essays, Non-fiction and Review
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