text by Jim Hopkins, photos by Julie Riley
S.Nag: Hullo. Sam here.
B.Loke: Gidday, mate. Brucey here. How about coming down to the pub to watch the footie on the big screen?
S.Nag: Sorry, Bruce. I’m struggling to write a review, and I need to get it finished so I can go out to brunch tomorrow morning with Diane.
B.Loke: Gee, Sam. You always were a piker. Fancy giving up a night with the boys to go off to some poncy joint with the ladies. Anyway, you’re a smart cookie – you can usually knock off reviews with a flick of your fanny. What’s the problem – been on the piss, have you mate?
S.Nag: The problem is that they asked me for 1500 words. The book is so lightweight that it doesn’t deserve that length. I’m struggling.
B.Loke: 1500 words – that’s a lot. I suppose it’s for one of those poofter intellectual rags like New Zealand Books. Choose your company better, mate. What’s the book?
S.Nag: It’s Mates, the new one by Jim Hopkins and Julie Riley.
B.Loke: Now we’re talking. My kids gave it to me for father’s day – actually I think the missus probably bought it – but the kids gave it to me, all nicely wrapped up in paper with rugby balls all over it. I can’t say I read it from cover to cover.
S.Nag: Lucky bugger – I have.
B.Loke: I thought it was a beauty. Cracker photos, loved the cover – with Mike King and mate cracking a pint – though I thought they might have given him a local drop like Lion Brown instead of Heineken. I bet it’s a great read.
S.Nag: Well, Jim Hopkins has a good phrase now and then, and can be quite funny at times. But by the end I found it dead boring. Every story the same length – exactly one page. We learn where the mates met, how they spend their weekends together, and how they would crawl over splintered glass for one another. There’s a formula at work.
B.Loke: Yep – one page of text and a nice big photo – just about right for us Kiwi blokes. You’ve got to admit that fellow Jim Hopkins is a real dag. All his books are classics. That one on Blokes and Sheds was the duck’s nut, and the next one – I think it was about inventions – almost as good. He gets to the very heart of who we are. Mateship’s what made this country great.
S.Nag: Bulls***. That book on sheds wasn’t even dinkum Kiwi – it was a rip-off from an Aussie one. As for mates being the heart of Kiwiland, that ignores half the human species here; and it’s a complete anachronism. The reason these books are popular is that the old order is under threat. Big cities, sophisticated urban culture, immigrants from the Pacific and Asia – and small-town New Zealand’s on the defensive. This is a reactionary cry from the South. How many Indian dairy-owners or Chinese computer-progammers, or even inner-city lawyers or ballet dancers, are there in the book? – not to mention gay men. We couldn’t have poofters, could we? What we get are Barry Crump heroes – deer cullers and possum-pluckers. A third of the mates in the book are sporting mates. It begins with Sean Fitzpatrick and mate, and ends with Todd Blackadder and mate. How predictable can you get? That’s not who we are in 2001.
B.Loke: Well, there’s the voice of the latte set, if ever I heard it. What I like about Jim Hopkins is that he gives the finger to the arty-farty literati. He’s not afraid to speak up for us Kiwi blokes. I’m sick and tired of being told that Kiwi men are drug-dealers and wife-beaters and repressed boozers. As Jim Hopkins says, he’s “reinventing blokes”. It’s about time. First, we had those uppity women attacking us, and then some traitor blokes like that fellow Jock Phillips started ratting on us, and it’s been downhill ever since. Now sheilas have all the top jobs in the country, the A-Bs keep losing, and us Kiwi males feel like a doomed species. It’s great to have someone stand up for ordinary blokes.
S.Nag: “Ordinary blokes” – rubbish. The majority of people in the book are not ordinary blokes. They’re household names. There are All Black captains, and classy sportsmen like Daniel Vettori and Rob Waddell; there are politicians like Mark Blumsky and Rodney Hide; and entertainers like Tom Scott and Howard Morrison. The tragedy is that instead of exploring what makes these people different and interesting, Hopkins turns them all into ordinary Kiwi blokes. He demeans unusual people. Even an artist like Grahame Sydney is brought down to earth, and we find Sydney being quoted approvingly when he says, “Even the blokes you were at school with know you’re ordinary.” Grahame Sydney is not ordinary – he’s an extraordinary artist and that’s what needs explanation and exploration.
B.Loke: Bollocks. When you say “extraordinary”, you actually mean “privileged” – highly paid urban wankers who think they’re above the rest of us. And in fact you are wrong. There are some very unusual mates in the book. There are those two tattooists, and that intellectually-handicapped fellow from Christchurch.
S.Nag: I don’t remember that one. But it’s no use looking it up – because another of the things which annoyed me about the book was that not only is there no index or table of contents, there aren’t even any page numbers.
B.Loke: You are a stuck-up brainhead, aren’t you? You’re too chicken to answer the point – which is that the Kiwi bloke is a much-abused type, and it’s time his virtues were recognised.
S.Nag: So what are these virtues?
B.Loke: For starters, there’s loyalty. Without any hysterics or theatricals, the bloke is there when it counts.
S.Nag: I am not so sure about that. There are some mates who are simply too lazy to ring you up when you are sick or it’s your birthday; and there are others – like you of course – who never forget. But I honestly think it’s hard to go past the loyalty and support of a woman in a crisis. Think of the wives of criminals who stick by their men when all others desert them. As for the strong silent bit, that’s half the problem. Silent communication is often inadequate communication. It is surely much more effective if people talk directly and explicitly about the important things of life. Too often, Kiwi men find it too uncomfortable to do so.
B.Loke: Well, don’t come onto me with this rubbish about blokes being emotionally repressed. It’s good to see Jim Hopkins have a go at that one.
S.Nag: Fair enough – men do have powerful emotions. My point is that too often their emotions are expressed in indirect ways – anger through swearing or punching; affection through teasing and even physical play-fights; distress redirected into drinking. What I found interesting in the book was how often men see their mateship as in a sense a reversion to childhood. Damian Moran puts it well: “Mike’s part of a special niche in my life, mucking around, being eighteen to fifteen again on the beach. Guys always need to regress back to that level now and again, you know, wrestle, throw sand and ankle tap each other. It’s fun being on the beach and playing with the boats and hanging out with your mates.” Isn’t it about time men started to relate to each
other as adults and not grown-up kids?
B.Loke: Don’t be so flamin’ precious. Mateship is time out – a few laughs, a good tease, some down-to-earth lingo.
S.Nag: Okay, I do enjoy the lingo and the laughs. But I suspect that colourful language is frequently a cover for communicating emotions which would be embarrassing to talk about directly. It is also interesting how few of the mates in the book are friends pure and simple. There has to be an outside occasion, a shared activity, which provides them with an opportunity to meet. Often it is sport, almost as often it’s pottering around with old forms of transport – cars or boats or vintage planes. It’s as if some men cannot confront openly their dependence on friends – they need an excuse to meet which will not reveal their own vulnerability.
B.Loke: You’ve become a real old pansy, Sam. You seem to think that because women like to go over the top in spilling their emotions, us blokes need to do so too. Stone the crows, mate. Stick up for your own kind.
S.Nag: In fact, we don’t really know much about how women do relate to women, let alone women to men. And this is another thing I find frustrating about the book. It isolates the relationship of mates from other kinds of relationship. We need to know how mateship compares with sisterhood or marriage or sibling relationships. More significantly, we can only judge mateship in the context of someone’s full life. Mates doesn’t give us the full life. How far do men have good mates because their relationship with their spouse is rotten, or their work environment is stressful and unpleasant? How far do people’s enjoyments with their mates depend upon wives looking after the children? How far do the boozy good times with the mates precede the drunken beatings when the bloke gets home? Jim Hopkins never goes outside the sacred circle to explore the context.
B.Loke: Well, Sam, you wouldn’t be much cop down at the pub, would you? You’d better stay at home with the missus and vent your spleen on your review. Enjoy your brunch, Sam.
S.Nag: Hang on a minute, mate. Don’t get serious. Diane’s just said she’s going out to the netball with her friends. I’m a free man – and that darned review will just have to wait. I couldn’t miss a night out with the boys now, could I? Seeya down at the pub in half an hour.
Jock Phillips is leader of the Heritage Group in the Department of Internal Affairs and author of A Man’s Country? The Image of the Pakeha Male: A History (1987; 1996).