On Writing Hit Songs
Four Winds Press, $14.95,
Biography of a Local Palate
Four Winds Press, $14.95,
Under the Influence
Four Winds Press, $14.95,
Reviewing three books at once presents a dilemma. Should you treat each one separately? Or should you stretch for comparisons and try to give the review a sense of unity? The problem is compounded in the present case because all three books belong to a series and have been published together. Perhaps there is some intended or perceived relationship between them. Maybe we should compare them to what has gone before. Perhaps the whole series is a kind of meta-essay conceived in the mind of the general editor, Lloyd Jones.
This last idea is not entirely ridiculous. In the introduction to his 1994 Penguin edition of Orwell’s essays, Bernard Crick suggests that the genre is characterised by an informality and flexibility that leaves “the reader in some uncertainty about what is going to be said next … it will seem personal not objective, will give a sense of listening to an extended conversation by an odd but interesting individual”. Well, Jones might be described as an odd but interesting individual, a good conversationalist, a person with an original take on life and literature, and the development of this series certainly displays the meandering succession of small surprises that Crick is talking about. One of its features has been a gradual extension of the range of contributors beyond the usual literary suspects. The second set of authors included a basketballer. This, the third set, consists of a muso, a foodie and a poet. By placing such variety in a standard and, therefore, formal framework, Jones is surely developing a theme, telling us we ought to view our literature in broader terms than we usually do.
Of course, there is more to a good essay than an interesting topic and an entertaining cluster of associations. The conversation of an odd but interesting individual does not necessarily leave you with a feeling of satisfaction. Simon Morris’ On Writing Hit Songs is a case in point. It begins with reflections on the recent history of rock and roll from the Leiber-Stoller collaboration that brought us the early Elvis hits to the Beatles arrival in America to New Zealand rock in the of 60s and 70s. The story is entertaining and informative, laced with a nice sense of humour and a sharp intelligence, and it links the state of the music with the state of the nation. Here is Morris on Split Enz:
That was their mark of distinction – they worked miles too hard. They were so anxious to pass muster with the big boys overseas that they overtook them – too many lyrics, too many weird bits, too many strange keyboard solos. It was us captured in aspic – nervous, self-conscious, over-achieving, with an absolute phobia of anything simple.
Morris writes with a kind of syncopated wit that offers fresh insight while it entertains. Halfway through, however, something goes wrong: “So with this in mind, let us begin to write a hit song.” What follows is a gradual loss of energy, a series of maxims (you don’t need great lyrics, you don’t need great rhymes, you do need a tune, you do need a memorable title) that finally gets repetitious. The musicological observations become fewer and fewer until, in the end, the odd but interesting individual has become a bit of a bore.
Eight thousand words is an unforgiving length. Freewheeling wit might be enough to keep you going through a newspaper column or a book review but out beyond 2,000 or 3,000 words the writing needs some structure to sustain it. A good essay, it seems to me, comes from the ability to shape the material of non-fiction into a narrative form. One way to do this is to begin with a ready-made story based in the lives of real people.
David Burton’s Biography of a Local Palate works on three levels. First, it traces Burton’s own origins as a gourmet, beginning with his grandfather, a colonel in the Salvation Army, and moving on to his father, who founded a successful catering business and set up the first coffee bar in Nelson. Burton trained as a sociologist but was soon drawn back into the world of cooking, working as chef and then moving on to become an internationally known food writer. Alongside this story, which spans 70 years, we get a history of New Zealand cuisine from the pies and cakes and home-cured bacon of the colonial kitchen to the fusion cooking of the 1990s, with a great many side dishes along the way. The main interest, though, is Burton’s obvious relish for his subject. His style has the occasional infelicity, and he lacks Morris’ wit, but neither of these subdues a growing sense of the enjoyment to be found in food. This feeling comes from the lists of dishes with which the text is peppered and the way in which each list evokes so accurately not only the cuisine but also the lifestyle that it represents. Thus, we have the colonial era:
The Christmas ham would be boiled outside, in a copper over a fire. Brawns and sausages were also made at home; fruit was preserved in season; jams were made with excess fruit, mushroom ketchup with the autumnal glut of mushrooms. On Southland farms, Bluff oysters were bought in 60 dozen sacks and shucked by hand, and even fish and chips took on a flavourful turn, fried as they were in the beef dripping saved from roasts and kept in the meat safe in cans.
When Lloyd Jones published Morris alongside Burton, he may have done it with the sense that these two pieces went together, more or less. Food and rock music? Two odd but interesting individuals who know their subject? Why not? The relationship is loose but there’s a kind of resonance. With the third essay in this group, there is a sense of something more deliberate. Burton’s essay and Bill Manhire’s Under the Influence might have been designed as companion pieces. Burton tells the story of a writer, his father and the joy of cooking. Manhire, by contrast, gives us a writer, his father and the curse of drinking. Where Burton’s exuberance for his subject seems a celebration of his father’s life and an acknowledgement of a son’s debt, Manhire is restrained to a point that becomes almost painful.
Like Burton, Manhire tells the story of his family. His father was a publican, moving about from hotel to hotel across Southland and Otago. The essay begins with his parents’ marriage in the 1940s and ends in 1974 with his father’s funeral. Along the way Manhire comments on the history of the liquor business – six o’clock closing and after-hours drinking, the destruction of the fine interiors of the old establishments and the development of beer barns. He describes the atmosphere of the pub, the drunkenness, which might seem either a “shameful hubbub” or “a wonderful uproar, a thundering male exuberance”; and he touches on the difficulties of his relationship with his alcoholic father.
Much of the essay is a beautiful evocation of a New Zealand childhood, accompanied by reflections on the nature of memory:
The past seems empty until you turn and stare at it. I find myself short of sequence and narrative – the and then of my own life defeats me – but the clutter of moments is everywhere. I am on top of a ladder on a back road, out for the day with the Post and Telegraph crew; they are staying at the pub and putting in new phone lines all over South Otago; the porcelain things on the poles are called cups. I am fishing in the Pomahaka River, or watching an eel someone has caught slither off across a paddock. I am being a lead dog, walking along a dusty road somewhere up the Kuriwao Gorge; behind me there is a flock of sheep and the yapping of real dogs; this is not entirely dignified, yet how amazing that you can just walk quietly in the sun and all the sheep will follow!
This is the work of a very good writer: the simple flow of the words, the acuteness of the observation and the little, suggestive flutters of connotation that resonate with other parts of the story, like the cups on the telephone lines, the slithering of the escaping eel, the quiet obedience of the sheep. Under the Influence is as fine a piece of prose as you could wish to read.
I am tempted now into qualification, to suggest that there is something missing, but there is nothing missing. It is just that the essay resonates with what is not said and, indeed, the way that it is not said. What is lacking (and its absence is a surprise rather than a fault) is Manhire’s mischief; the sparkle in the eye, the wry grin that you find in his poetry as well as in his talk and his public utterance. Instead, the ironies have a strange, sad quality: the remark, a throwaway line, that because for a period the family was living in a proper house, they must have been a proper family; the parenthesis, on the following page, that “it is not a good thing to be a year younger than your classmates: I was out of my depth for ever”; an echoing comment a few pages later from a Jehovah’s Witness schoolfriend that although she “would be saved and live in Paradise on Earth …. I was doomed forever.” The tone is light and self-mocking but there is something more behind it.
To my mind, the key passage in the essay is this:
At night he would sit on the end of my bed and drunkenly confide that everything he had ever done was “for you kids and your mother”. A soft self pity was on his breath like whiskey. Then he would stumble off to his own bed as if he had solved something.
There is bitterness here and an unforgiving judgement but these are the reactions of the adult looking back. Beyond them one feels the need of both the father and the child and the utter impossibility of either of them being satisfied. The tragedy remains in the background, a hidden source of the other resonances, and it infuses the essay’s title with an ambiguity that is both suggestive and disarming in its reticence.
Chris Else is a partner in TFS Literary Agency and Assessment Service. His fourth novel will be published by Random House this year.